My Leap of Faith

My leap of faith (first published in the Hamilton Jewish News), Summer, 2016

There is an argument to be made that certain points in life require a leap of faith. Some would say a leap in to faith in yourself, others argue that we require faith in the good intentions of others and finally for some there is the notion that we must give ourselves up to a higher power and leap in to the mystery. I understand that mystery to be an essential element of our journey together. Living, as we do in a rational age we often shrink from mystery. At times we relegate it to the realm of the fairy tale, in the pejorative sense.

I was once invited to a dinner being held by a publisher friend at a swank restaurant in the bowels of the financial district of Toronto. The Guest of Honour was the atheist writer Richard Dawkins. He was touring to promote his bestseller The God Delusion. I was seated beside Mr. Dawkins. He had taken a leap of faith. His belief was that science was truth and religion was a fairy tale that only the infantilized could appreciate. I asked him what made him believe that science was truth. He looked at me with what can only be described as a look of pity and proceeded to explain that the laws of nature were immutable. That religion had done nothing but turn us on each other and that the sooner we rid ourselves of this irrational nonsense the sooner we would save ourselves from this delusional and frankly feeble mindset.

I asked him why he believed science was truth if science itself is constantly being reshaped by new discoveries, new thinking and never before discovered possibilities.

To me science is how we attempt to articulate God. God is the eternal creative force that gives birth to the cosmos through a cycle of creation, transformation, death and rebirth. God is unknowable and worthy of our humility. Dr. Dawkins, it seemed to me, would be loath to bend his knee to God or the waiter serving our table for that matter. He, I think, saw the mystery as a puzzle. A Rubik’s Cube that some of us can figure out and others, the simpler of us, cannot. That dinner was many years ago and I was in a different place in my life. Since then I have left broadcasting, created and accepted new opportunities, and soon will be an ordained spiritual director. All have required a leap of faith.

I speak occasionally of my leap role model, Nachshon. He is part of the Exodus story. Moses brings the people to the shores of the Red Sea. Pharaoh has hardened his heart and has given chase. He will slaughter the Israelites rather than set them free. As Moses prays and the people panic Nachshon enters the sea, and here the question becomes, was he pushed or did he walk in to the water. I like to think that the answer is irrelevant. Sometimes our leap is self-propelled and sometimes we need a little nudge. So be it. What happens next is what to me embodies the ruach, the courage, the spirit that can bring meaning and deep intention to our journey. Nachshon walks in to the water, up to his knees, he does not falter; up to his hips, he carries on, next his chest and as Moses prays/begs God to save his people his inner voice says turn and see what Nachshon has done. By then Nachshon is almost completely submerged and Moses calls for the people to follow. The Red Sea parts inside of us when we make ourselves available to the truth that this life is not rehearsal. That we have a Pharaoh deep inside us, a Mitzrayim that is the tight space that makes our lives seem small. We must choose our liberation, make ourselves available to the ever present wonder of creation and, as a recent guest to our Shabbat table said, come to the realization that we are all just walking each other home.

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Moving…but the New Sabbath Project Remains Universal

Thrilled to be starting (ever slowly) our New Sabbath Project in Hamilton — our home of the last year and a bit. Here’s a bit more about it in the Toronto Star.

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Can YOU say the “G” word?

I guess you could say I’m Religious.

I was just re-reading a little book that American author and public intellectual Chris Hedges wrote a while back called I Don’t Believe in Atheists. It is a brilliant and passionate refutation of absolutism regardless of it’s ideological underpinnings. Now on the face of it that would seem obvious but when applied to the arrogant musings of folks like British Scientist Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens it provides a healthy inoculation against those that claim that their total rejection of religious faith is somehow superior to the reductivist and cartoonish image that they claim all religious pursuit represents.

Hedges is relentless in his critiques and brings an admirable lack of ‘need for affection’ and careerism to the task that holds so many of us back from articulating a much needed and clear eyed analysis of what a world without non-rational modalities looks like. Many times I have found that saying that I am ‘religious’ has placed me across the divide. If one is religious they must be an extreme anti-intellectual at worst or naïve and misled for those who see themselves as ‘understanding’ of my condition.

Hedges deals with the need for non-rational ways of seeing and the rituals and traditions that can foster the nurturing of those elements of the human condition that lack scientific definition: Love, sorrow, beauty, evil et al. It is through religion that I encounter and am humbled by my imperfection; that I place in myself in an unimaginable and breathtaking universe. It is my weekly nod to my smallness and the rituals in which I partake bring me closer to the wonder and awe that people like Creation Spirituality founder Matthew Fox speak of.

Recently I had a friend over for one of our weekly Shabbat dinners. He is a good and kind man — an atheist and scientist. We sparred good naturedly about our differing beliefs as all around the table friends, new and old, gave blessings for the meal and reveled in each other’s company. The evening, as all of our New Sabbath Project Shabbats seem to be, was warm and meaningful. He argued that all can be explained through science and that we are responsible to each other to be moral and ethical, not to some magical being. Only after he left did it occur to me that science has given us so much but science could not have given us Shabbat. It is through the ritual and practice that religion obligates us to convene to show gratitude and to connect.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Chris Hedges and I Don’t Believe in Atheists: “Religion is our finite, flawed and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence-the struggle to acknowledge the
infinite-needs to be attributed to an external being called God…God
is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence… What are we? Why are we here? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? What does it all mean?”

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Devotional Music in a Post Modern World

It has been described in some literature as an Experience of Devotion – a PROCESS of generating an aesthetic feeling as opposed to creating musical “product” per se – as a way of connecting with the divine. A process that involves rhythm, repetition, music and gestures. But when many of us think about devotional songs in our society – we often think of musical songs, chants mantra, hymns, meditations. Church hymns often come to mind. In the west, devotional songs were founded in the Roman Catholic Church, Russan Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church and others. But we know that devotional songs have a rich and diverse history outside the church as well – though certainly the devotional songs from the church were and are important. In India, devotional songs in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Carnatic, Malayalam and many more languages were composed and sung by different singers. Sufi Devotional songs were also very famous in this part of Asia. In fact, Sufis in other parts of the world – continue this tradition in the face of persecution in some areas. On this week’s show on CIUT radio 89.5 FM we speak to a couple of musical artists who have both more recently begun journeys into devotional music, one of whom has brought his traditions with them from Morocco to help him through the often lonely and difficult journey as newcomers to Canada.

You’ll hear my conversation with Moroccan born Hassan Al Hadi. He has been in Canada for more than 15 years – playing Arab-fusion music as an oud and guitar player based out of Montreal and putting out several albums. But lesser known than music on the albums he’s put out is his devotional music. It’s a spiritual tradition he brought with him from his community and family near Marakkesh Morocco where they regularly engaged in the Sufi tradition of devotional songs and chanting. Al-Hadi finds great comfort in the devotional songs of his family and community from back at home.

You’ll also hear my conversation with the lead singer of the award winning, world music, fusion based band Jaffa Road. Aviva Chernick only more recently delved into devotional Jewish music. We talk to her about her experiences and her journey here in Canada.

Hope you’ll join us and write in to join the conversation at newsabbathproject@gmail.com. You can also join in under my name at Twitter or Facebook.

Be well and take care of each other.

If you miss the show on CIUT 89.5 Sunday at 2, you can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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Forcing Sabbatical on my Busy Busy Life

Various religious and spiritual scholars have written about the crisis of work, sabbatical of some sort and the spiritual disconnect brought about by our very busy lives. In one recent audio transcript found online people in contemporary society are compared to horses in a cavalry charge — moving forward so fast and just going through the motions, thus preventing them from thinking about the important things in life — including their enslavement to work. The idea is to make them so busy – that they can’t pause to think.

A part of this same audio file transcript reads “We become enslaved to the wrong path in life; we can’t even get our priorities straight; we can’t see the bigger picture”…and our spirits are low.

One way I think to free ourselves and reconnect to the things that matter is to literally force ourselves to stop doing what everyone else around us is doing, take a step back and think — but also to use that time to do something positive. Now I get that people stuck on that treadmill may say “Nice idea — but who’s got the time?” Getting off that treadmill takes tremendous courage and often lots of time — to say nothing of disposable income or a good savings.

Several years ago, American journalist Po Bronson wrote a book titled “What should I do with my life?” The book chronicled the experiences of a number of people who had either left a professional life they found unfulfilling or unsatisfying to pursue their passions. Think here for instance – a big city, high paid hot shot who decides that what he really wants is to become a chef and open a bakery. Or people, who due to circumstances like raising children , give up on their own professional dreams, only to pursue them later — somethings in their 60s, when their partners are ready to retire. Or others who have these powerful but rare spiritual “epiphanies” that come with forced sabbatical, silent retreat and meditation — quiet space and time to actually think.

I’m convinced these epiphanies or whatever you’re comfortable calling them are about more than just pursuing professional dreams. This is about a spiritual deficit where the individual reigns over community; where even the lowest paid — to saying nothing of the highest paid — jobs, want all of you — 110 percent — so there is nothing left for anything or anyone else. And then, hey, in case you’re tired, burnt out or stretched to your limit — the message is shut up and be grateful. There are 100 other people in line for the job.

On this week’s New Sabbath Project Radio Show on CIUT, we’re talking My Busy Busy Life. We’ll be speaking to two fantastic people – Molly Finlay and Richard Pietro of Citizen Bridge— who left big jobs and big careers in the search for meaning. Hope you’ll join us and write in to join the conversation at newsabbathproject@gmail.com. You can also join in under my name at Twitter or Facebook.

Be well and take care of each other.

If you miss the show Sunday at 2, you can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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Celebrity Worship and Sacrifice: Religion by Another Name

On this week’s New Sabbath Project Radio Show on CIUT, we’re talking Celebrity Worship and Sacrifice. Hope you’ll join us and write in to join the conversation.

Years ago I read a lovely book by Tom Robbins called another Roadside Attraction. In it Jesus comes back to us. Yes it’s true…the second coming happens. Thing is no one seems to take it very seriously. You see if I remember correctly, and this was ages ago for me, the only way that anyone could treat this ‘miracle’ was to turn it in to a shallow pop culture experience, a freak show. Jesus had to be reduced to the flavor of the month and as all flavours go so goes the lord. He is humiliated and disposed of, just like David Lee Roth, Paris Hilton, and countless political middleweights.

In Joseph Epstein’s writings on ‘Celebrity Culture’, he writes that fame is something one earns while celebrity is something one cultivates. In essence Jesus didn’t have a good publicist. He goes on to say that fame is based on achievement, celebrity on broadcasting that achievement.

Why have we evolved in to a state of celebrity worship over time? Are we filling the religious void by turning our eyes away from the transcendent and instead locking them on to the supermarket trashbloids at the check out counter?Tirdad Drakhshani itemizes our obsession with celebrity through the modern day, secular ‘relic’. A lock of Justin Beiber’s hair fetched 40,668 dollars on Ebay Britney Spears chewing gum-14,000. And this is my favourite — William Shatner’s kidney stone-that went for 25,000 dollars.

From relics we move to ritual sacrifice, Richard Pryor the famed comedian literally went up in flames. Heath Ledger died alone in his hotel room at the height of his fame, for that we gave him an Oscar. From sacrifice we have one last station of the cross as it were, redemption. John Travolta is much more interesting post-Saturday Night Fever when he fell put out a few dud’s and then promptly fell off the star-map. He revived his career with Quentin Tarantino’s help in Pulp Fiction. To Hear Tarantino tell it. He ‘remembered’ Travolta and thought he would make a great dancing ‘hit man’ for the film. He called Travolta up and they took a walk in L.A. To his amazement no one recognized the one time star. That just made Tarantino want him in the movie more. The film got made Travolta was back and making twenty million per flick-all was forgiven. I interviewed him around that time.

We were given literally three minutes each on the promotional junket
for a god-awful movie called The General’s Daughter. I decided to ignore the movie and ask him purely personal questions. My last one tickled him, I asked, “What effect has having millions of dollars in that last while had on your ability to form friendships. He leaned forward and said that this had been the hardest thing for him because so many had seemed
genuine and in the end they just stabbed him in the back but the that
the good news was that having been there in back he has always had a
small group of loved ones, disciples as it were, that were there for him
regardless. From rags to riches to rags to riches.

In the end his story is about redemption, and you and I, the little people, get to stand in judgment as we wait to cash out , will he be returned to the pantheon or will we toss him on to the scrap heap of broken dreams. Today we’ll dig around in the rubble of this notion of celebrity worship and why it means so much to us.

Be well and I look forward to hearing from you.

You can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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The New Sabbath Project Hits CIUT Airwaves – Sundays @2

New Sabbath Project on Radio – 89.5 FM Toronto
Listen at:
www.ciut.fm

A little while back Ken Stowar, the man who makes CIUT hum and of whom I’ve always been a fan, got in touch with me and asked me if I’d like to have a little corner of his radio station in which to putter around.

Now, I love radio but my work these days goes in a mighty different direction — as Executive Advisor to the President of Sheridan College. The job in post-secondary education has captured my imagination and really energized me and I wasn’t sure if there was much I wanted to talk about with folks on the radio.

But then I let it rumble around inside me for a while and along with
my partner Cortney Pasternak we decided that there were some things worth airing as it were. You see we do something called The New Sabbath Project. It’s our way of building community — one meal at a time. We do it on Friday nights and we invite all kinds of people to join us. Some are old friends, some we barely know and others we’ve never met — they just contacted us through our site and because of articles they read and asked to join. Dinner is a feast and our guests are expected to bring some food and drink along with them.

We begin our sabbath / shabbat celebration by gathering round the wine and cheese, dip our bread into homemade Hummous and slowly draw the curtain on our workaday lives and enter the architecture in time that is the 7th day. Some who come are secular, some are not. It doesn’t matter. When we sit to eat we light the candles as is the tradition I come from and say the blessing over them. Then we ask everyone to say a blessing over anything they like. I’m always amazed at how heart-felt and moving the simplest of blessings can be. Some mention God, most don’t. I’ve always thought I should do a show called “God or whatever.”

Anyways, after the blessings we raise our glasses, bless the wine, toast each other and break bread, literally. You see the Moroccan tradition that I grew up in meant that you took the Challah — the Sabbath, sweet egg bread and tore pieces off, dipped them lightly in salt to remind us of the bitterness and proximity of all that can enslave us and then the host throws the bread across the table starting from the oldest participant down to the youngest.

I’ve gotten pretty accurate over the years although occasionally it does end up in someone’s glass of water. After that we eat and drink and talk. The amazing thing is after we have done our blessings there is an intimacy
that seems to bring out the best in us; the passion; the sincerity; the big talk and soft hearts. For six days we do and for one day we are allowed to just be — with each other. This is what the 7th day brings, if you let it.

On the inaugural New Sabbath Project radio show, we’ll talk about the Sabbath as a day of reflection, an act of courage and, for those committed to — gasp — unplugging — an act of political and environmental resistance. Next week who knows? You may try tossing some bread around yourselves.

You can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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Sharing Circle, Dinner Circle-Guest Blog on New Sabbath Project

“As Leonard Cohen says you must build a fence around the sacred if you want to protect and nurture it in your life. Our New Sabbath Project is a step in that direction.” — Ralph Benmergui

This was how recent social innovator and community builder Craig Carter-Edwards recently began his guest blog for the New Sabbath Project. He was quoting Ralph who was paraphrasing Leonard Cohen from an interview he did with Cohen many years ago. We thank Craig for his contribution and we urge you to read his blog by clicking on the link above, visit his site, then visit ours. Please retweet and repost. Let’s build community and spread the word.

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Stop the Excuses — Just do it!

A really nice woman I’d never met walked up to Ralph and I on the street in another part of the city today as we were out on a small outing with our children. She told us she had been reading our blog and the article written about the New Sabbath Project and wanted to start one in her own home. We hear this a fair bit – and quite frankly are always pleasantly surprised since we never know who’s reading the site.

So back to this woman — she wanted to start a New Sabbath Project herself but hadn’t done it yet. What we heard from her is not uncommon. There was a hesitation around how to actually get started. What did we cook? Simple or complex? Did we really have total strangers come into our home? Did we really do it every Friday? In other words — “this all sounds really overwhelming and more than I can probably manage.” The result? Instead of just doing it — even sometimes — many of us end up NOT doing it — at all.

Following that conversation I decided to revisit the blog written for our site by guest blogger and writer Luke Murphy.

Luke uses the laws of physics to describe the difficulty associated with just getting something like this started — he writes …“it takes more effort to start something moving than to keep it moving.” He continues by writing “So it is with anything we do: the hard part is overcoming the inertia of an object at rest, which means getting off the couch and committing to the job. Once you’ve defeated the fridge-sized fire-breathing lizard that is the Coefficient of Static Friction, his cousin, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction, will seem like a sleepy gecko on a hot day.”

The New Sabbath Project is a community building exercise – simply by having people over for dinner — a few extras included of course that deepen the experience. I’ve had guests call it a salon and dialogue over dinner. It’s all accurate. Luke is right when he writes “putting on a dinner is one of those things like working out regularly…you know you ought to do it but today’s not ideal…Those excuses are the Coefficient of Static Friction sitting on your chest, his scaly haunches pressing you into the couch. Static Friction likes you to keep things theoretical, aspirational, potential – anything other than real. Static Friction cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, or met half way. He has to be pushed aside and flung into the dark corner where you lost the battery cover for the remote. His greatest fear is action…When you know you need to put on a dinner – not a theoretical some-day-we-must dinner, but a real event with real people – the best first step is to email or phone your first choice of guests and ask them.”

I am thrilled to report he and his amazing partner Isabella have indeed begun hosting larger dinners and I’m equally thrilled he calls on others to do the same when he writes “Host a dinner. Invite a combination of friends and newcomers. Ask the guests to bring some food: it’s less work and less cost for you and gives them something to take pride in. Repeat, whenever you can.”

Finally, Luke writes and we concur: “One odd characteristic of the Coefficient of Static Friction: he gets lighter the more often you fling him off your chest.”

If you’d like to know how you or someone you know could host one without completely stressing out, get in touch and/or check out the website.

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The New Sabbath Equation – Guest Blog by Luke Murphy

Not many laws of physics can improve your life. This one can:

The coefficient of static friction is greater than the coefficient of dynamic friction.*

What this means is: it takes more effort to start something moving than to keep it moving.

If you’re pushing a car, the heart attack will come during those first furious shoves while you’re trying to make it start rolling. At that stage, your enemy is the coefficient of static friction. As soon as the wheels are turning, you can amble down the street, pushing the car before you while calling out cheery greetings to passers by. Why? Because now you’re working against dynamic friction, a puny force by comparison.

So it is with anything we do: the hard part is overcoming the inertia of an object at rest, which means getting off the couch and committing to the job.Once you’ve defeated the fridge-sized fire-breathing lizard that is the Coefficient of Static Friction, his cousin, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction, will seem like a sleepy gecko on a hot day. Coefficient of Static Friction

The New Sabbath Project is about building community by having people over for dinner. Putting on a dinner is one of those things like working out regularly, reading Moby Dick, or writing the blog post that you’ve promised: you know you ought to do it but today’s not ideal, maybe when the weather improves, we don’t have enough plates, etc etc. Those excuses are the Coefficient of Static Friction sitting on your chest, his scaly haunches pressing you into the couch.

Static Friction likes you to keep things theoretical, aspirational, potential – anything other than real. Static Friction cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, or met half way. He has to be pushed aside and flung into the dark corner where you lost the battery cover for the remote. His greatest fear is action.

Any physical action will give you the strength to raise Static Friction’s leaden lizard loins from off your wheezing chest. When you know you need to put on a dinner – not a theoretical some-day-we-must dinner, but a real event with real people – the best first step is to email or phone your first choice of guests and ask them. At that point, you can’t go back on it without faking a medical emergency, family tragedy or house fire, all of which will demand more effort than simply putting on a dinner. Yes, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction – gecko-sized cousin of Static Friction, you recall – will nip at your heels and make hissing noises, but Dynamic Friction is, contrary to his name, lazy by nature and easy to ignore.

Host a dinner. Invite a combination of friends and newcomers. Ask the guests to bring some food: it’s less work and less cost for you and gives them something to take pride in. Repeat, whenever you can. Our heroic hosts Ralph and Cortney do this every week; you don’t have to.

And one odd characteristic of the Coefficient of Static Friction: he gets lighter the more often you fling him off your chest. That part is not explained by physics.
——————–
*It’s not actually a law, more of a rule of thumb. There are three laws related to friction, Amonton’s First and Second Laws and Coulomb’s Law. They state, more or less: (i) the heavier you are, the harder it is to get off the couch; (ii) it doesn’t matter whether you’re lying on the couch or have one buttock on the arm rest, you’re still stuck on the couch; and (iii) once you’ve got off the couch and started moving, it won’t get any harder (or easier) to keep moving.

Bio:
Luke Murphy is a freelance writer, filmmaker, animator and designer. Born in West Berlin and brought up in Ireland, he currently lives in Toronto and works on documentaries, screenplays, and fiction.
www.lukemurphy.net

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