Rabbi Rami: Should I Pursue a PhD in Islamic Studies?

Rabbi Rami: Should I Pursue a PhD in Islamic Studies?

Marouan Idrissi Hamouki/Thinkstock

Rabbi Rami answers your spiritual questions.

I’m a Muslim pursuing a PhD in Islamic Studies. I know you did something similar with Judaism, and I wonder if you still think this is a valuable pursuit.

Rabbi Rami: Not only is it valuable, it may well be essential for both the flourishing of Islam and the world. Applying modern scholarship (literary criticism, textual criticism, philology, history, sociology, anthropology, etc.) to the study of the Bible allows Jews and Christians to deepen their understanding of the Bible, to liberate its perennial wisdom from its parochial biases, and to read this ancient text in new, creative, and meaningful ways. Applying the same disciplines to the Qur’an can do the same for Muslims. If you have sufficient passion and courage to carry out a scholarly and spiritual revolution in the Islamic world, this is the way to do it. I cannot imagine a worthier pursuit.

I think of myself as liberal, yet I have no tolerance for those who support the 2017 anti-LGBTQI Christian Manifesto called the Nashville Statement. What should I do?

First, stop equating “liberal” with “tolerant.” Liberals stand for things including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of and from religion, free markets, civil rights, gender equality, the dignity of all beings, sane and sustainable environmental policies, and secular government. Just as you wouldn’t tolerate cancer in your body, don’t tolerate illiberalism in your body politic. Yet temper your resistance with compassion: Don’t expect people devoted to fixed notions of gender, race, ethnicity, and so on, to welcome liberal ideals rooted in the fluidity of all such boundaries. You may not find common ground, but you must struggle to maintain our common humanity.

The War on Christmas is heating up again. Do I say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”? Is there any way to escape all of this?

Short of spending the holidays in Saudi Arabia, probably not, but you don’t have to participate in it. Spend Christmas reading Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and celebrating the birth of Christ (if you are Christian), the birth of the prophet Isa (if you are a Muslim), the birth of the Jewish revolutionary Rabbi Yeshua (if you are a Jew), the birth of an incarnation of Lord Shiva or Vishnu (if you are a Hindu), or the birth of a bodhisattva (if you are a Buddhist). As for which greeting to use, anyone who is upset by either has missed the deeper meaning of both: wishing one another a season of peace, compassion, and hope.

Our daughter refuses to have a bat mitzvah. She says Judaism is bunk and we are hypocrites. What should we do?

Celebrate! According to Jewish legend, when the patriarch Abraham was 13 his father put him in charge of selling idols made in the family’s pottery shop. Abraham smashed them instead. Furious, his father demanded an explanation. Abraham said the gods destroyed each other in a battle to determine who was the true God. Outraged, his father said, “You know these gods are nothing but clay. They can’t do anything!” Aha! Teenage spirituality is all about shattering idols and calling out hypocrisy. Listen to your daughter; see where you are worshipping idols; weed out hypocrisy; take pride in her ability to challenge you; and find comfort knowing that this may someday happen to her as well.

I’m spiritual but not religious. My dad says spirituality is like gasoline and organized religion is like a car: Without the car gasoline is useless. Your thoughts?

Your dad’s right: You need a car. But he’s wrong to imagine that religion is the only car available to you. Meditation, devotional prayer, chanting, dance, art, gardening, walking, studying, serving others are all very fine vehicles into which you can pour the fuel of spirituality. Organized religion is like an RV: You are expected to live in it. Spiritual practice is like an Uber: Once it takes you to your destination, you step out and leave it behind. Tell your dad you’re not interested in an RV, but you’re still getting where you need to go.

As I write this, powerful winds are shredding property and lives from Texas to Florida; terrible fires are devastating the Northwestern United States, and Kim Jong Un is making the earth quake with his hydrogen-fueled insanity. All I can think of is the prophet Elijah looking for God in wind, fire, and earthquakes and hearing the “still, small voice.” Where is the voice of God in all this?

The voice Elijah heard carried a question: “Why are you here?” (I Kings 19:13). This question is ours, as well: Why are we here? I believe we are here to promote the flourishing of life (Genesis 2:5), and “to be a blessing to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). Our task at this moment is to allow the winds, fires, and quaking to silence our ideological squabbles, our inane arguments, and our bellowing of “alternative facts” so that we might hear God’s question and respond to it with acts of love, compassion, and justice for all.

My church is split over preserving statues honoring our Confederate heritage. Both sides quote scripture. What do you suggest?

I suggest they stop quoting scripture, and quote Alexander Stephens instead. On March 21, 1861, Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, gave a speech in Savannah, Georgia, in which he laid out the purpose of the Confederacy: “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Rather than argue over what we think the Confederacy was about, deal with what the Confederate leaders said it was about: the superiority of white people and the inferiority of black people. If you’re going to split, split over this.

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