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Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Preacher, author Diana Butler Bass closes interfaith season with stories of resilience

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Diana Butler Bass closes the 2021 Interfaith Lecture Series with her talk, “Get Up and Go On — Together,” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Sifan Hassan began her first heat in the 1,500-meter race at the Tokyo Olympics with a tumble. The Ethiopian-born Dutch runner was expected to win the gold medal for the entire event, and within a moment of her first race was on the ground.

She got up, and she ran for her life. Breezing past racer after racer, she overtook the lead, and won the race. That night, she earned gold in the 5,000 meter final. She eventually won gold in the 10,000 meter, too, and bronze in the 1,500. 

“For a woman who fell in her first race,” said Diana Butler Bass, who told this story to open the final Interfaith Lecture Series of the 2021 season.

Bass, an author, speaker and preacher, presented her lecture, titled “Get Up and Go On — Together,” at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 25 in the Amphitheater, bringing more heat to an end-of-summer heat wave. It was also the final Interfaith Lecture for Week Nine, themed “Resilience.”

Bass’ most recent book is Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence, and she’s won awards for several of her other 10 books, including Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks and Grounded: Finding God in the World.

She often thinks of stories like Hassan’s when she thinks of the word resilience — unbelievable stories of achievement, stories against the odds. But, she admitted, there are other versions of resilience, too.

“Resilience isn’t just grit and athletic superiority and making the best of a terrible situation, of bouncing back to win the gold medal,” she said. 

One different image comes from “The Trough,” a poem by Judy Brown. In it, a person is caught in ocean waves. They know if they fight against the current, they will strain themselves and certainly drown. But, if they conserve energy and let the flow take them, it will take them to another place on land.

“That is resilience, as well,” she said. “It’s a different kind than pulling yourself up and running on and displaying grit. In this poem, you’re employing knowledge, you understand the situation you are in and you know that if you fight you’re not going to make it. So, getting out of this situation means going with the flow until everything changes.”

In another image, Bass revisited one of her favorite stories, from Luke Chapter 4 in the New Testament. Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry and is invited to read a scroll to a synagogue on the sabbath. 

“He gets up, and he reads the wonderful words about how the captives are being set free, that liberation is coming to the oppressed, and then as he finishes it he sits down and says, ‘Today, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ ” Bass said.

Jesus’ neighbors didn’t appreciate this, she said. A violent mob threatened to throw him off a cliff at the edge of town. Anyone who doesn’t know the story might wonder how Jesus will survive this situation, she said. 

“The text simply says, ‘Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way,’ ” she said. “He left!” 

Some people might argue that he is Jesus and worked a miracle to part the crowd, like Moses parting the Red Sea, she said. But Bass believes he simply walked away.

“It shows this idea of leaving when you’re rejected or when there is a threat,” she said.

A few chapters later, in Luke Chapter 9, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out and spread the same news he shared in the synagogue. If people were not receptive, Jesus told them to “shake the dust off of your feet as you leave town,” Bass said. 

Knowing you can’t win, are in an unchangeable situation, are not welcome and that you could be hurt, and opting to leave is a form of resilience, she said. 

Bass’ March 2021 book, Freeing Jesus, is a memoir of her own experience with Jesus and of spiritual resilience, she said. Chapter 5 of the book is one she never wanted to write. Bass was in her early 30s and said she had taken the wrong path in life. 

“As a young woman, I was afraid of chaos and disorder, and I so wanted to be accepted, and I so wanted to please all the male authorities around me that I embraced an incredibly rigid, conservative form of neo-Calvinism,” she said.

She described herself as judgmental, certain she was always right and righteous, and easily condemned others. 

“I found myself becoming the sort of person you wouldn’t want to be around,” she said.

Eventually, she realized what she was doing, but she had no idea how to stop walking down that path. 

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “Except, it became increasingly clear that I needed to turn around and go the other way.”

Turning around is an incredibly difficult experience, she said, full of admitting her wrongs over and over again. At 32 years old, she was newly divorced and unemployed — released from her first academic job at an evangelical college. It was Thanksgiving, and Bass was alone, as she was also distant from her parents. She sat down on the concrete floor of her garage-turned-apartment, and she cried.

“I had no company,” she said. “No feast. No table to share. No one who would care if I died.”

Then, she heard a voice, from John 14:31. 

Diana Butler Bass closes the 2021 Interfaith Lecture Series with her talk, “Get Up and Go On — Together,” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“I will not leave you orphaned,” she read. “I am coming to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid. Rise up. Let us be on our way.”

Bass’ resilience speaks to reaching an end, admitting mistakes, and starting over from scratch, she said. She presented these examples because she thinks people have too narrow a definition for the word “resilience.”

“I hope they’ve invited you into thinking about your own stories of resilience, because there isn’t really a single definition of resilience,” she said. “There is not only one way of resilience.”

Bass is more concerned with answering the question: Which path of resilience is called for at any given time? Two spiritual practices can help answer it, she said. 

The first practice is discernment, or the capacity to understand the moment one is in, she said. 

Quakers, she said, have group practices where they try to answer where they are right now.

“Discernment gives us that ability to be able to read the moments of our lives, and if we read the moments of our lives then perhaps we can figure out which path of resilience is best,” she said. “You might need others to help you there.”

The second practice is wisdom, something that people may not see as a practice but something that people acquire through age and experience, she said. 

“Wisdom emerges from bringing other moments to bear on the current moment,” she said. “Wisdom entails knowing the answer to this question: Where have I been?”

Wisdom can also answer which moments of life contributed to understanding one’s self and one’s community, she said.

Referencing Colum McCann’s Interfaith Lecture on Tuesday, Bass said these questions are about knowing one’s story. 

“Our lives are resilience,” she said. “Our capacity to know which path of recovery to take is dependent upon the stories we have already written.”

She then shared a few stories.

First was a personal story of an 18-year-old she met at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, one of Bass’ favorite places to visit in the summer — along with Chautauqua. 

The woman ran into Bass outside of the green room. She was shaking, holding a copy of Bass’ book A People’s History of Christianity, and she asked Bass to sign it. 

Bass happily agreed, and asked her where was from.

“She was from a town of 300 people in the very buckle of the Bible belt,” Bass said.

The woman saved every cent she made from her after-school job so she could take a bus halfway across the country to this festival. It was the first time she ever left her town, a place where everyone believes the exact same way — questions are forbidden, Bass said.

“She said, ‘I had to see if you were real,’ ” Bass said. “I assured her I was very real. I asked her what she was going to do, and she said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just go back home. But it won’t be the same.’ ”

Bass remembers this story every time she thinks of complaining about her church. She remembers that woman who sacrificed her savings to ask about her own faith. 

“That is heroism of the everyday,” she said. “That is resilience that doesn’t make it on the evening news.”

Everyone has a personal story of resilience, ranging from illness to surviving genuine threats, she said. Each one creates a life of resilience and the capacity for one to practice wisdom, she said, and when one faces a tough task again, they can call on that wisdom.

Bass then turned to history, specifically the Spanish influenza pandemic a century ago. Her husband’s grandparents were young with two children when they all were infected. Both of their children died, Bass said. 

When the flu receded in the early 1920s, they grieved over the loss of half their family. They agreed, however, to try again, not knowing if the same disease might return and steal from them once more. 

Among the new family was her husband’s mother. If her parents never tried again, Bass’ husband would have never been born, she said, nor Bass’ own daughter. 

“That’s what history does for us — it gives a sense of wisdom and resilience where we can look back and say, ‘Yes, that was horrible, and look at what happened as a result of it,’ ” she said. 

Both well-known history and personal history show humans’ resilience, she said.

Faith stories, too, demonstrate resilience, she said. She referenced Hagar going into the desert with her son, trusting God would help them find something; Israel wandering in the wilderness; and several stories of people in exile fearing everything was at an end, for examples.

“Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions are stories about resilience, except we usually don’t call them that. We usually call them faith,” she said. “We can talk about resilience in medical terms and in terms of spiritual practice, in terms of storytelling and all kinds of terms that make sense in our secular world. But ultimately, it leads us back to the simplest and most profound thing: resilience.”

Resilience makes Bass think of two words: hope and love. She said her husband’s grandparents are a story of hope.

“Hope separates itself from resilience just a little bit by saying, ‘You’re not going to get back what you had, but there’s still a possibility of joy, of life, of true change, of overcoming what brought you to this place in the very beginning.’ ” 

Resilience also teaches people to love themselves in the same way God loves people, she said. 

“Resilience involves loving others,” she said. “To be able to reach out and pull others up when they can’t get up for themselves, to be there to listen and hopefully have someone who will listen when we need those ears, when we need that community to say, ‘Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.’ ”

It also can allow people to spread enough compassion so nobody has to suffer the same thing again, she said. 

“That’s the best I can help you with this week,” she said. “As Chautauqua comes to an end for this year — this terribly, truly awful year — the end of it is faith, hope and love abide. And the greatest of these is love.”

Author McCann discusses storytelling as ‘ultimate act of resilience’

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Colum McCann, author of Apeirogon and co-founder of Narrative 4, delivers his lecture “Resilience: The Life You Find in Your Stories …” Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Albert Einstein wrote Sigmund Freud a letter in the summer of 1932 regarding humans’ lust for hatred. 

“Do you think it would be possible to guide the psychological development of man so it can become resistant to the psychosis of hate and destruction, thereby delivering civilization from the menace of war?” he wrote. 

Colum McCann, reading the letter to his Amphitheater crowd, responded with, “Gulp.”

At this moment in time, both Einstein and Freud felt they had a moral responsibility to speak out about the impending doom of the world, said McCann, a National Book Award-winning fiction author. 

Freud responded with an admission that people didn’t really like the things he told them, and he didn’t think it was possible for humanity to rid itself of aggressive tendencies, McCann said. 

Freud did have an idea, though.

“The desire to end war is not impossible,” Freud wrote. “Anything that creates emotional ties between human beings will inevitably counteract war. What should be sought should be a community of feeling and a methodology of the instincts.”

So began McCann’s Interfaith Lecture 1 p.m. Aug. 24 in the Amp. The lecture, titled “Resilience: The Life You Find in Your Stories,” the second of three Interfaith Lectures themed “Resilience.” 

McCann is a cofounder of Narrative 4, which he described as a global nonprofit that uses storytelling to create empathy and compassion among young people around the world. He believes stories and storytelling is one thing that, as Freud said, can create a community of feeling.

Colum McCann, author of Apeirogon and co-founder of Narrative 4, delivers his lecture “Resilience: The Life You Find in Your Stories …” Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

In one example, Narrative 4 gathered high school students from two seemingly complete different worlds. 

One high school represented the south Bronx. McCann said it was one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. They met with students in eastern Kentucky, near Hazard in Floyd County. 

“In the Bronx, you have a school that’s mostly Black and/or immigrant,” he said. “It’s mostly blue. It’s almost exclusively urban. In Kentucky, you have mostly white and/or Cherokee, mostly considered to be red and definitely mostly rural. These young people seem to us sometimes, and certainly to themselves at first, to be very distant from one another. In fact, they were often scared to be seen together and to meet one another.”

All the students met in rural Appalachia — the hollers, as kids from the Bronx would learn to say. Once they began sharing stories with each other, they realized they weren’t so entirely different.

“The fear faded, their imaginations expanded, and they began to see the world in an altogether different way,” McCann said.

One pair of students was a young woman who wore a hijab from the Bronx and a young man who owned a pickup truck, carrying in the back a rifle and a Confederate flag flying in the wind. The two looked at each other, unsure of how to ever understand one another, McCann said. 

Then, they begin to talk. The woman, under her hijab, had AirPods and was listening to the same music the man liked. She then learned that he carries a rifle because his family is poor, so he occasionally hunted rabbits — she didn’t realize that white people could be poor. 

“Suddenly, all these things start coming together,” McCann said. 

The groups talked about the opioid crisis, the suicide epidemic and discovered love, relationships, family, hatred, violence, sacrifice and more, he said. They did not, McCann emphasized, talk about facts, figures or political parties. 

“The exchange highlighted what stories can possibly do,” he said. “The world gets nuanced with stories. It gets complicated. It gets muddied — beautifully muddied. Sometimes even incomprehensible. And sometimes, that incomprehensibility becomes part of the joy.”

Narrative 4 pushed the students to turn their newfound empathy into action. McCann said the organization believes stories aren’t enough if no action is taken afterward. 

Looking back at the time of Einstein and Freud, when both men lived in exile from Nazi-controlled Germany, McCann said it’s sometimes easy to think the world hasn’t changed at all.

He pointed to wars and humanitarian crises around the world, from Afghanistan to North Korea, from Sudan to Catalonia, from Syria to Pakistan. 

“With this reality of constant war, constant dislocation and this moral homelessness that we seem to have allowed ourselves to be sunken into, we have to ask: Can story have any effect at all?” he said. 

In a world that is in flux, full of rapid evolutions, people like to think they are listening to each other, McCann said. He questioned if people really were, though. 

“So much of the time it seems — not in (Chautauqua) — but maybe if you go home, so much of the time it seems we’re coming indoors,” he said. “We’re closing curtains, locking down the GPS systems in our imagination.”

Stories increasingly sound like whining, or have borders, he said. People feel they need to win an argument and be correct, he said, especially in the last couple years because of politics.

“Our empathetic possibility is being walled off,” he said. “We’ve become so atomized and so small that our lack of affection for others is sometimes astounding.”

Cynical people, he said, believe the world is a dark and dreary place, but others can show understanding to that perspective, but present something new. 

McCann humbly argued that Einstein might have missed the notion that storytelling would be the change he proposed nearly 90 years ago. 

To explain, McCann brought in a little bit of science with the principle of emergence. This principle essentially means that a multitude of any living beings are stronger together than one single living being. For example, he said one bird is beautiful, six work great together, but 600,000 birds flocking over South America have extraordinary intelligence.

When discussing the principle of emergence and emergent storytelling, he means building stories from the ground up. 

“So, not only the story of you, but the other person, too,” he said. “I’m not talking about ‘other’ in a vague ‘otherizing’ sense which can get you in trouble at universities, rightly, these days. The other can be your husband, wife, person across town, person across continents, indeed. Keep that in mind when talking about telling your story, but telling the story of someone else.”

He also said that groups of people can possess either great intelligence or stupidity and violence. 

Stories upon stories can exhibit the principle of emergence, he said. 

“In this fractious day and age, the sharing of our stories might be the only thing within our resilience that can manage to save us,” he said.

When people do begin this process, they must listen and engage with those they don’t even know or like, he said. 

“It begins in our own backyards and then spreads outwards,” he said. “Even the wounded bird that doesn’t get to the front of the queue gets carried along.”

Colum McCann, author of Apeirogon and co-founder of Narrative 4, delivers his lecture “Resilience: The Life You Find in Your Stories …” Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Students from the Bronx and Kentucky shared this experience by retelling each other’s stories, he said. A student from the Bronx would become a student from Kentucky, and vice versa.

“We didn’t demand from these young people that their stories would win any argument,” he said. “We didn’t demand that they would be didactic. We didn’t demand they would say the South did this or the north did this or slavery caused that. They didn’t want to talk about that. They wanted to talk about personal things. From that, the change rose from the ground up.”

When a principal from the Bronx died of COVID-19 last summer, the Kentucky students feared it was the one they met. It wasn’t, but they still wrote a letter to the impacted school. 

McCann reported that the Kentucky teacher said this program transformed the school, and the Bronx principal said there were higher levels of attendance and graduation and lower level of conflict in her school.

Resilience is found in our lives and rediscovered in other people’s stories, he said. It’s rediscovered a third time in recounting others’ stories and quadruply in listening to the stories of others. 

“Stories are the ultimate act of resilience,” he said. “Resilience means to be able to withstand and/or to recover quickly. Resilience means to say I have existed, and I still exist.”

People do not need to be reduced to simplicity as political parties and the media do, he said. Instead, he said people need messy engagement. 

“We need to go to the furthest point we thought we could go, and then take five steps eastward, then take another 10 steps westward, redward, blueward,” he said. 

Doing so can save democracy, the United States, and the world, he said. 

He then turned to his recent book, Apeirogon, and the book’s main characters, based on real people: Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, Jew and graphic artist, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, Muslim, former prisoner and activist.

Both men lost a daughter due to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and both found connection through that loss. McCann was touched by their story. The book’s title means a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.

“You can be a part of the shape; exist in the finite and also exist in the infinite,” he said. “We all matter.”

Apeirogon is divided into 1,001 fragments, a nod to One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, he said. He closed his lecture reading from the 1,001st in his book. 

In it, he describes the two men going to meet each other and people from all over the world going to listen on a chilly, foggy day in late October. 

“(They were going) to listen to the stories of Bassam and Rami and to find, within their stories, another story, a song of songs, discovering themselves,” he read. “You and me in the stone tiled chapel where we sit for hours, eager, hopeless, buoyed, confused, cynical, complicit, silent, our memories imploding, our synapses skipping in the gathering dark, remembering while listening to all of those stories that are yet to be told.”

Tree of Life Rabbi Hazzan Myers opens week with story of congregation’s resiliency following trauma of mass shooting

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, rabbi and cantor at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, delivers his lecture “A Ticket to Ride: The Roller Coaster of Resilience” on Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Fr. O’Connor was a beloved priest with the exception of his poor oratorical skills, said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers. 

At the end of one summer, he went to a two-week retreat in order to better his skills. At the very first sermon, a well-known priest said he had spent the best years of his life in the arms of another woman, drawing stunned faces and gasps from the crowd.

He then said it was his mother, drawing a laugh, and O’Connor knew he needed to remember that joke. 

When he returned to his church, he opened with the same joke, except he had forgotten the punch line. As seconds ticked, the crowd’s collective jaw stayed on the floor as O’Connor blurted out, “But I can’t remember who she was!” 

Myers said O’Connor never preached again, and that he was not resilient. 

This was how Myers opened Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “Resilience.” His lecture, titled “A Ticket to Ride: The Roller Coaster of Resilience,” at 1 p.m. Aug. 23 in the Amphitheater, was the first of three Interfaith Lectures in this final week of the season.

From that story, Myers turned to acknowledge that over the summer, he’s noticed two books related to trauma and resiliency have hit the New York Times Book Review’s top 10. 

“Apparently, it’s a big subject now,” he said. “But what is trauma? And what is resiliency? If there is anyone in the United States who has experienced both, I’m certainly one of the people.”

Before explaining further, Myers emphasized that he was not a mental health professional, and that his observations are from what he’s learned from professionals and those who have experienced both trauma and resiliency. He acknowledged that everyone experiences trauma at some point in life. Some traumas are minor, like breaking a bone. If one breaks a bone again later in life, they are more equipped to deal with it because they’ve gathered experience and tools to deal with it. He also compared it to a COVID-19 inoculation — it prepares the body for fighting the virus, he said.

Resiliency then comes from one’s ability to cope with trauma, he said. 

Myers himself experienced trauma and resiliency in a high-profile, severe way. On Oct. 27, 2018, when a shooter killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Myers was leading the Shabbat services. 

“It will soon be three years since the massacre, and I continue to shake my head in disbelief at the continuous events that revolve around me, with me and through me,” he said. 

He’s managed to get through survivor’s guilt, counseling the families, and the onslaught of world media through the support of his family, friends, congregation and mental health professionals, he said. 

“I see no stigma about that,” he said. “As I recognized early on, this was too traumatic for me to manage alone. If you have a heart problem, you see a cardiologist. If you have a skin problem, you see a dermatologist. If you suffer trauma, you see a mental health professional.”

As everyone suffers trauma, so too is everyone resilient, he said. He pulled out a large rubber band to demonstrate.

“My stretching this rubber band is exactly what trauma is — to stretch beyond the norm,” he said. “We revert back to what we were before the stretch, which is resilience. Place this rubber band in the freezer for several hours, and then try to stretch it. It will not stretch far, if at all. In fact, it might break.”

Typically, the rubber band can stretch and return, which is resilience, he said. When it’s frozen, or one doesn’t have the right skills or tools to handle the trauma, defrosting is necessary, which may be seeking out professional help.

Prior experiences can help cope with trauma, but sometimes not, he said. Sometimes, the rubber band snaps. 

“I’m grateful that up until now my rubber band has not snapped,” he said. “It has certainly been stretched farther than I thought possible. And, sometimes, it takes a while for it to resume its original shape.”

Some days are great until a sensory input sends it tumbling, he said. For him, it can be another mass shooting, but of the 411 mass shootings in the United States this year, as of July 31, not every single one retraumatized him, he said. 

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, rabbi and cantor at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, delivers his lecture “A Ticket to Ride: The Roller Coaster of Resilience” on Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

“Sometimes, one can,” he said. “I do not watch the news of a mass shooting as the activity brings me back to Oct. 27, 2018, and it can be draining to relive that day over and over.”

When he learns of a mass shooting, it can take his rubber band several hours to return to its normal shape, he said, but he credits this quick restorative period to his mental health professionals and tools he’s acquired — though he cautioned that what works for him may not work for others.

“Part of my resilience is the determination that I will not permit the shooter at Tree of Life to claim another victim,” he said. 

Instead, since that day, he’s been on a new mission to remove hate speech from society, he said.

A couple weeks after the Tree of Life shooting, Myers was set to give a speech in front of a huge crowd, which included celebrities. He had no idea what to say even as he walked up on the stage, so he prayed for what to say. 

In his speech, he noted how everyone was taught of four-letter words that were obscenities, and he said “hate” should be added to the list. 

“When people use this word, ultimately their language is emotional and leads to violent actions, such as a massacre in my synagogue,” he said. “If you just don’t like something, then say, ‘I don’t like it!’ ”

He understands that this act will not solve the country’s or world’s problems, but hopes it is a start. 

“Part of resilience is post-traumatic growth,” he said. “The growth of new shoots from the tree that was severely damaged on Oct. 27; the ability to discover hidden skills and abilities that created a newer version of the previous me.”

Myers said people have much more in common than divisions, as leaders of all faiths and organizations helped him post-Oct. 27, although he had only moved to Pittsburgh a few months prior. 

Trauma can appear at unwelcome and unexpected times, he said, and resilience has taught him how to let trauma know it is unwelcome. No matter how many times it’s kicked away, it will crawl back again, he said. 

The shooting and resilience, in some ways, helped Myers prepare for this pandemic, he said. As the Tree of Life synagogue was no longer a prayerful place, he said, citing the prophet Ezekiel, congregants moved to another nearby synagogue. 

“We were a displaced congregation, and despite how warmly we were welcome, everyone desperately wanted to go to their home synagogue, which we could not do,” he said. 

Then, when the risk of COVID-19 forced everyone online, everyone was displaced again. He reaffirmed to his congregation that they had existed since 1864, and the Jewish community was over 4,000 years old.

Part of resilience is post-traumatic growth. The growth of new shoots from the tree that was severely damaged on Oct. 27; the ability to discover hidden skills and abilities that created a newer version of the previous me.

—Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers
Rabbi And Cantor,
Tree Of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh

“Judaism is not about a location,” he said. “It is about what is in your heart that binds us together.”

In his livestreams, he could see his congregants, but he noticed an erupting line of hearts shooting up from the bottom of the screen. They lined up perfectly with the candles behind him, he said. 

“I had to take a breath and pause and utter a ‘Thank you, God,’ for God’s divine guidance,” he said. “It was at that moment I knew that, together, we would get through our second displacement, for I saw my congregation’s resiliency right there on the computer screen.”

Either one will find resiliency or it will find someone, he said. Psalms helped show him resiliency in the days following Oct. 27 when, for the first time in his life, Myers lost his prayer voice. 

He was at another school where his wife teaches, and as they stood to recite prayers, Myers couldn’t find words to say out loud. He cried to God for help, and God’s answer was Psalms, he said. 

Myers read through all 150 later that day, and Psalm 121 stood out to him, which shows a recognition that God is the one who can provide help, and one who trusts in God can trust he will be protected. 

He’s recited this poem in Hebrew every morning since then. 

“It gives me hope and confidence for the day,” he said. 

Soon, Myers included Psalms into the conclusion of Friday evening services, initially using Psalm 27, which he recites at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and in the middle of Sukkot. He read its final two verses to the Amp.

“Yet I have faith that I should truly see God’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in God; be strong, take courage and hope in God,” he read.

He recognized these psalms, written by King David 3,000 years ago, hold eternal power against trauma. 

“For me, King David’s resilience has become my resilience,” he said. “His words encourage me that even during difficult times, I can endure. I can move past it, and I do. And the thing about resilience is once you’ve experienced it, you are poised for further moments of resilience.”

Myers does have days where he cannot fight against trauma, he said. 

On April 27, 2019, one person was killed in a synagogue shooting in a San Diego suburb. 

“I did not have the words to describe my response at that moment, as I do not have the words to describe my response right now,” he said. “But to say it was bad was a severe understatement. My wife quickly turned off the TV, and suffice to say, I was an inconsolable wreck for the remainder of the evening.”

He thanked God there was only one person killed, as he knew there could have been more, he said. The shooter in San Diego was inspired by the Pittsburgh shooter, and Myers had no way of comprehending that. 

“Fortunately, with time and care, I worked my way through it and moved forward,” he said. “I share this with you because there will be times in our lives when we are just not very resilient, and to reassure you that it is OK. … The most important lesson is to identify the trauma and to get the proper help for it.”

He’s not had another experience like that yet, but he knows it is possible. Myers surprises himself with his own resiliency, but said everyone has the same ability.

“It is in our DNA; evolving over time to face the challenges of being a human in a world that sometimes lacks humanity,” he said. “The fact that you are seated here today asserts your resilience, for a pandemic can most certainly challenge your resilience.”

Myers wasn’t sure why God wanted him in Pittsburgh after spending his life on the east coast, but now, he said, he understands. 

“I truly believe that God wanted me in Pittsburgh to help my community pick up the pieces afterwards,” he said. “God did not call the shooter to Tree of Life. The shooter made that decision on his own. I chose to stay. Sometimes, my wife will ask me why I answered the call. I answered the call because when God calls, you don’t send God to voicemail.”

When Tree of Life reopens, it will be a model of resilience to the world, he said. 

“Our resilience will help other communities to find their own resilience, because that is what it means to be a member of the human race,” he said. 

Resilience opens a new version of ourselves, he said. He read a quote from Bram Stoker’s Dracula that referenced humans’ resiliency and that trauma can be removed by any way, including death.

Myers said death was more exaggerated than he preferred, but agreed that removing trauma through resilience is part of humans’ DNA, and that people come away with hope and enjoyment. As a person experiences this over and over, they grow in confidence, he said.

“Success breeds success,” he said. “Resilience breeds more resilience.”

He closed with a critique on the celebration of life. When someone is born, there are celebrations, but that is not as common with death. Although he believes people should continue to celebrate births, people should celebrate deaths to a higher extent. He compared it to a ship at sea, where humans face storms and stiff waters, in addition to calm waters and sunny skies. When a ship returns from sea, it should be celebrated more than when it departed because it survived the journey. 

“As grand as our birth is, our pending end should be even grander — because we made the sacred journey, and that should be celebrated,” he said. “And we did so because we are resilient.”

To close series, Fuller Theological’s Murphy attempts to answer ‘Are we our souls?’

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Nancey Murphy, senior professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater to close the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Words from different times and places can mean something entirely different, and the word “soul” varies more than most, said Nancey Murphy at the top of her Interfaith Lecture on Wednesday in the Amphitheater. 

Closing Week Eight’s theme, “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery,” Murphy also opened with an edit to her title in order not to sound too self-assured, she said. She instead called her lecture “Are We Our Souls?: Multi-Aspect Monism in Christian Thought.”

Murphy, a senior professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, wanted to focus on the ideas of the soul and Spirit — this word is capitalized when Christians make a distinction of the third person of the holy trinity. 

In the first section of her lecture, Murphy wanted to focus on radically different conceptual schemes, she said. 

She began with philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s examination of Greek art in the Homeric period, which she said was called Archaic. 

“If you’ve seen Archaic Greek or Egyptian or other ancient pottery artworks and so forth, you’re liable to see a profile with the nose sticking out to one side … but the eyes have been moved around to the side of the face,” she said. 

With Homeric literature, Feyerabend summarized Greeks as having lived in a world of paratactic aggregates, which Murphy said is when the elements of such an aggregate are all given equal importance. 

“There is no hierarchy,” she said. “No part is presented as benign, subordinate to or determined by others.” 

A list of Homeric dialogue defined the word psuche, or soul, she said. 

“It’s used to speak of what is risked in battle or what is lost in death,” she said. “This hardly fits with the description of the session of being of another dimension beyond the physical plane.”

She then turned to classic Greek scholarship, which she described as far removed from the Archaic period as possible. 

“For Plato, there is another dimension or realm above this physical one, the realm of Forms,” she said, emphasizing the capitalization of Form to indicate it shouldn’t be taken in a contemporary sense. “Forms were of a much higher degree of reality than earthly things.”

Murphy described earthly things as imperfect copies of transcendent Forms, and the soul is held captive within the body. 

When analyzing between the classical and Archaic worldview, she said it was important to remember to combine such ideas in the same framework, and her accounts of these two world views was too short. 

Nancey Murphy, senior professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater to close the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

She then turned to the question: Are we souls? 

“My main aim is to present an alternative to Christian theology to body-soul dualism,” she said. 

Although she said new findings and neuroscience provided motivation for studying monism versus dualism, she wanted to give evidence that the Christian Bible does not teach dualism.

“Those who think Christians are only questioning dualism now because of neuroscience are unaware of the fact that the dualism physicalism issue is already more than a century old in Christian Biblical studies and church history,” she said.

The 1997 book Death of Death (Resurrection and immortality in Jewish Thought), by Neil Gillman, argues the only part of human nature which fits the Jewish understanding of life and relationship to God is a physicalist account, Murphy said. 

This account is aligned with an emphasis on bodily resurrection in the afterlife, not immortality of the soul, Murphy said.

“He points out that the ancient concept of the soul was not a concept of an immaterial thing,” she said. 

Nephesh, the Hebrew word for soul, is not restricted to the physical space one’s body fills, she said. 

“When God is effectively speaking through a prophet, God is literally present through that prophet,” she said. 

She said human souls can be similarly present in others when they are having an effect.

“I am who I am because of my relationships to others,” she said.

Until recently, Murphy believed humans were complex bodies that developed capacities over time, such as language, abstract concepts, reasoning techniques, emotion and so on. 

But, the Apostle Paul notes that it is only one aspect of our being, she said.

Nearly all translations of Genesis 2:7, which Ori Soltes highlighted in Monday’s Interfaith Lecture, say that God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils, and several interpretations are that God breathed in his immortal form, she said. 

Nancey Murphy, senior professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater to close the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The word soma, or body, she identified as one aspect of us and that it might be better understood as an embodiment. Humans see it as a physical embodiment because our environment is physical, she said.

“What embodiment in the next eon after the resurrection is the truly ineffable issue we’re dealing with in this series,” she said. 

Early Christians had two options of what happens at death, she said. The Hebrew book of Daniel made body resurrection a possibility and several centuries of Greek influences made an immortal soul leaving the body another, she said. 

Murphy contended that embodiment might be whatever form fits the new character of the new eon. 

“One of my favorite images of the next life is that of a wedding banquet,” she said. “We can imagine the reunion of extended families and friends conversing over a meal, but we can’t get into the biology of how the food is processed after it’s eaten.”

The accounts of the resurrected Jesus are full of inconsistencies. Paul spoke of an appearance of light and a voice, while the Gospel said Jesus was identifiable and appeared like a normal body, she said. 

“I believe that a description of the resurrected person is not literally possible,” she said. “Our language is all built on and meant for describing this physical eon.”

Although what happens in another eon is indescribable, she said we can know resurrection is about moral character.

“We are not saved out of this world, but as a part of it,” she said. “That is, it leads us to expect the entire cosmos will be transformed or recreated in the same way we expect humans to be.”

Using Bruce Greyson’s Interfaith Lecture on Tuesday, Murphy wanted to see if descriptions of near-death experiences provided a glimpse of a resurrection. 

One aspect was faster thinking, which she said might be a sample of the human brain working faster in a new dimension, while it works slowly in this one. 

Nancey Murphy, senior professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater to close the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Another was a life review where one can see all the good they did in the world, she said. Perhaps one could see a good thing they did for someone led that person to do good for five more people, something they couldn’t know before death, she said. 

There’s the common element of time not existing, and Murphy said earthly time can’t be coordinated with eternal or godly time. 

Emotional changes regarding peace and concern for others sounds like words from the prophet Isaiah, she said. 

Murphy wondered if scenes of people meeting in beautiful meadows during near-death experiences mean the whole cosmos was not transformed. Greyson did note in his lecture, though, that a problem with researching near-death experiences is people often speak in metaphors because what they saw and experienced is indescribable and are often flattened memories. 

She also raised the question of a waiting period between the time each person dies and the end of the world, noting it was a highly contentious issue during the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther originated the idea of a soul sleep, where people would be unconscious between death and the resurrection, eliminating the idea of a cruel purgatory, she said. Calvinists and the Catholic Church discussed a conscious wakefulness between death and the general resurrection, she said. 

Another tradition that Murphy aligns with is the radical reformation, or anabaptist. She said they had an aspective account of how Biblical anthropological terms would be used, sufficient arguments against the New Testament teaching body-soul dualism, and beliefs in a concept of soul sleep. 

“It felt as though I had started on a journey, made my long way around, then finally came home,” she said.

What happens when we die? Near-death-experience expert Greyson shares 50 years of research

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Bruce Greyson, author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

There can’t be anything beyond the physical world. That’s what Bruce Greyson believed growing up in a scientific, materialistic household and into young adulthood. 

As he began psychiatric training, patients told him stories about when they nearly died, which he tried to treat with respect, but assumed could not be real. 

Then more people told him similar stories. And more. By 1975, his colleague, Raymond Moody, wrote Life After Life, a book that coined the term “near-death experience.” Greyson felt inclined as a scientist to study and research these experiences. 

Fifty years later, Greyson has published his findings in his book After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, also the title of his Interfaith Lecture on Tuesday in the Amphitheater, part of Week Eight’s theme “The Human Soul: An Ineffable Mystery.” 

“I’ve come to appreciate over the decades how important these experiences are to the experiencers themselves, and to scientists, and to all of us,” said Greyson, who is a professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Several problems exist in studying near-death experiences, he said. First is a biased sample, in that Greyson and other researchers relied on experiencers coming forward on their own. 

“We heard blissful accounts of surviving death and joining deceased loved ones in the afterworld,” he said. “So we assumed these blissful experiences were all there was until years later. We started interviewing everybody in the hospital with a close brush with death, and we started hearing other stories that weren’t the same. Some weren’t very blissful. Others were downright unpleasant.”

Another issue was that people didn’t have the words to describe what happened, he said. Greyson and other researchers then insisted they try metaphors. Some people described long, dark enclosed structures they traveled through to get to the other side, he said. In the West, people might call that a tunnel, while those in the East described a well or a cave.

A third problem is many people are reluctant to discuss their near-death experience, he said. Either people will be afraid of ridicule, being labeled mentally ill, or simply misunderstood. Sometimes they feel it is too sacred or personal to speak of aloud. The next problem was distinguishing these experiences between reality and fantasy.

“We have accounts now from all over the world from different cultures, as well as the Judeo-Christian culture and Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim countries; we have accounts going back from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt which are essentially the same experience,” he said.

Regardless of religion, culture or time period, people report the same thing, Greyson said. 

“I’ve gotten lots of accounts from atheists who said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but there he was,’ ” he said.

Memories of near-death experiences, unlike other memories, remain stable throughout time. Greyson has asked some people to tell the experience again, 30 or 40 years after their first report, and the stories do not change, he said. 

“Most near-death experiencers say this experience they had was realer than real,” he said, “that what happened in this other realm or dimension was more real than talking to me right now.”

One scale that measured near-death experiences with memories of dreams, fantasies or things people thought were going to happen but didn’t, demonstrated that these experiences are often more real than memories of real events, he said. Greyson then highlighted some of the common features of near-death experiences. 

One is a consistent change in thought processes, he said. People report thinking faster and clearer than ever, no sense of time, a sudden sense of complete understanding, and a review of their entire lives, he said. Sometimes they even see life literally from other people’s perspectives. 

Greyson described a 30-year-old man named Tom whose chest was crushed when the truck he was working underneath fell on him. While recalling his entire life, he remembered being a teenager when a drunk man ran out in front of his truck.

Bruce Greyson, author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Tom was infuriated with the man and rolled down his window to let him know. The drunk man came over and slapped Tom across the face, and Tom got out and beat the man. In his near-death experience, Tom recalled this from the point-of-view of the drunken man. 

“He felt his nose getting bloodied, he felt his teeth going through his lower lip, he felt the humiliation of being beaten up by a teenager,” Greyson said.

Near-death experiences also involve a consistent change in feeling and emotions, he said, including an overwhelming sense of peace, well-being, joy, cosmic unity and being one with everything. They report a feeling of unconditional love from a being of light, which Greyson said they often call a divine being. Additionally, there are paranormal features. People see colors and hear sounds they never experienced on earth, including hearing things going on far away and visions of the future.

One day, Al, a man in his mid-50s, had horrible chest pain, Greyson said. After rushing to the emergency room and being evaluated, Al was prepared by doctors for an emergency quadruple bypass surgery. During the operation, he remembered leaving his body and looking down at the room, seeing his open chest and the doctor flapping his arms like a bird. 

Greyson thought this was ridiculous and didn’t believe the claim, but Al insisted. Greyson called the surgeon. The surgeon admitted that while watching and supervising assistants, he keeps his hands up to his chest and points to things using his elbows so he won’t touch anything unsterilized.

People also often report seeing another realm or dimension, meeting a mystical being and deceased loved ones. Greyson said as a psychiatrist, he is more impressed with how people’s lives change after near-death experiences. 

“I make my living trying to help people change their lives,” he said. “It’s not easy. It takes a lot of hard work over a long period of time. Then, here’s this experience, which often takes seconds or a fraction of a second, which instantaneously seems to transform attitudes, beliefs or values.” 

People often report a decreased fear of death or no fear of death whatsoever after near-death experiences, Greyson said, frightening him that these people would become suicidal. He found out, though — by interviewing everyone in his hospital with a suicide attempt — those who reached a near-death experience were now less suicidal than those who didn’t. 

“They said they came back from their near-death experience with a sense that there’s a meaning and purpose to everything,” he said. 

This same revelation does not occur for those who get close to death but do not have a near-death experience, he said. Those people, instead, are much more afraid of losing their life. 

“If a patient has a heart attack and the doctor says, ‘I want you to stop smoking, give up fatty foods,’ the patient says, ‘OK, I don’t want to die,’ ” Greyson said. “If the doctor tells a near-death experiencer that if they don’t give that up they’re going to die, they say, ‘Yeah, so?’ ”

Near-death experiencers also report a decreased need for material possessions, power, prestige, fame and competition, he said, noting they still enjoy them, but are not addicted like many people. Greyson shared one study that showed highly significant changes in attitudes toward spirituality, attitudes toward death, quests for meaning and attitudes toward life. The same study showed, to a lesser extent, changes in concern for others, self-acceptance and concern for worldly goals. The only things that didn’t change were a sense of religiousness and concern for global and societal issues, he said.

An enhanced sense of spirituality is another common effect of near-death experiences. People may still enjoy going to church, he said, but they often report that the God in their near-death experience was much bigger and different than the God taught in church. 

With spirituality, people feel much more compassionate to others, seeing everyone as connected, he said, relating it back to the golden rule. 

Bruce Greyson, author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Tom, who beat up the drunk man, realized he was no different from him — they were connected. 

“He made (Tom) realize the golden rule is not just a guideline,” Greyson said. “It’s a law of nature.”

Scientists do try to measure spiritual growth, but Greyson qualified none as being that great. Yet one chart showed people who have a near-death experience show high spiritual growth compared to those who almost died but didn’t report a near-death experience. Neither group had a difference in spiritual decline. Better religious well-being, or one’s relationship to the divine, was shown as highly correlated to near-death experiences, while existential well-being, or relationships with people and things, was not significantly changed. With daily spiritual experiences, such as feeling touched by a sunset or beautiful music, people before near-death experiences or getting close to death were not much different. Afterward, those with near-death experiences reported much higher spiritual connections with these daily events, Greyson said.

A similar difference exists between the two groups with a change in spiritual and religious beliefs, he said.

An objective scale of compassionate love, another part of spirituality, showed a strong correlation with near-death experiences. Those who had experiences had changes in caring for others, accepting others and a willingness to sacrifice, he said. 

“The more depth there is to the experience, the more spiritual change you feel,” he said.

Near-death experiences also bring about changes in behavior, such as changing relationships or careers.. Take Joe, a policeman who had a near-death experience (not work-related). After he was resuscitated, he realized he couldn’t work a job where he might have to shoot someone. He left the police force, went back to school and became a high school teacher.

Sometimes, people are sad or angry when they return to life.

“They say, ‘This is a miserable place to live, I was great over there, I don’t want to be back here,’” Greyson said. “Some people have problems with other people’s reactions to them. They may feel they’re ridiculed or laughed at by other people, or alternatively they may feel like they’re put on a pedestal by other people.”

Greyson said people argue that near-death experiences are either physical or spiritual. He finds these philosophical questions pointless to his role as a scientist. 

In a study that involved brain scans of nuns praying to God, parts of the brain that lit up were interpreted differently. Neuroscientists believed it was the part of the brain that produced an image of God, while the nuns thought it was the part of the brain where God talked to them. 

“My viewpoint is you can’t have one without the other,” Greyson said. 

He then addressed how the mind and brain interact. He said it’s clear the brain produces thoughts — when intoxicated, it’s harder to think clearly.

“That doesn’t happen in near-death experiences — people whose thinking is clearer than ever and can form memories when brains are not capable of doing that,” he said. 

The brain acts as a filter for the mind, he said. One common analogy is trying to listen to every single one of the thousands of radio stations at once. It would be impossible to understand what’s going on, he said, but a radio tuner can single everything down to one radio station. The brain works the same, he said. 

Similarly, eyes do not see all of the electromagnetic spectrum, but only the wavelengths that humans need to see to survive, he said. The brain evolved to focus on thoughts needed to survive, he said.

“That raises the question: What is the mind?” he said. “As a scientist, I can tell you I have no idea.”

Humans have always sensed they have a soul, spirit or life force, he said, referencing Ori Soltes’ Monday lecture. 

“It’s something we have to believe in,” Greyson said. “Near-death experiencers would say it’s not a matter of belief — it’s experience.”

Greyson then discussed if humans survive bodily death. Al could leave his body when his brain wasn’t functioning, and many say they encountered deceased loved ones. Some debunkers say it’s wishful thinking. Greyson has a counterargument. 

Jack, a 25-year-old, was admitted to the hospital with severe pneumonia and repeated respiratory arrest, Greyson said. He was at the hospital for a week and was friendly with his primary nurse. She was leaving for a long weekend, and while she was gone, Jack had another arrest where he needed to be resuscitated. 

He had a near-death experience where he ran into the nurse on vacation. She told him to go back to his body, and to tell her parents she was sorry she wrecked the red MGB. Jack woke up and tried to tell another nurse this story, who walked out of the room immediately.

“Turned out, this young nurse had taken the weekend off to celebrate her 21st birthday,” Greyson said. “Her parents surprised her with the gift of a red MGB. She got excited, jumped in the car, took it for a drive, lost control and crashed into a telephone pole and died instantly.”

It was impossible for Jack to know she died, or how. But he met her in his near-death experience, which occurred after her death. Something was still alive and could communicate with Jack, Greyson said. In other stories, people encounter loved ones who died decades ago. 

Bruce Greyson, author of After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Greyson came back to the problem of metaphors. People cannot describe the warm being of light that radiates unconditional love, but Judeo-Christians may call it God, noting it’s not the God they learned. People from other religions would not use the term “God,” he said.

“Some people who reject the word ‘God’ still believe in some all-powering force or all-powering spirit that guides us all together,” he said.

Also true of the metaphor problem, he said, is the brain cannot process what happened. One person said their memory was flattened or simplified. 

“I believe this flattening happens because the human brain cannot understand a world so much more complex and possibly so alien,” he said. “When I read about people having seen streets of gold, it’s amusing, because that would be a flattened example of a complex visual reference.”

Greyson listed six things he wanted people to take away from his lecture. First is that near-death experiences are common — about 5% of people worldwide have had one. Second is that they are normal and not a sign of mental illness. Third is that profound aftereffects must be acknowledged and addressed. Fourth is that the mind can function independently of the brain, meaning fifth, the mind may function beyond death. 

Sixth, humans are all interconnected.

“Near-death experiencers, as Tom said, see this golden rule not as a rule we’re supposed to follow, but as a law of nature,” Greyson said. “Living in concert with it makes life much more meaningful and much more fulfilling.” 

Georgetown’s Soltes gives history of soul to open week

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Ori Z. Soltes, teaching professor at the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, delivers his lecture “What Are We? Three Early Visions and Versions of the Soul” Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Georgetown University theology, art history, philosophy and political history professor Ori Z. Soltes took the Amphitheater stage on Aug. 16 to discuss the soul, one of his many areas of expertise. 

Soltes, who has authored over 280 books, articles, exhibition catalogues and essay and served as Chautauqua theologian in 2007, opened Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Human Soul: An Ineffable Mystery,” with his lecture titled “What Are We? Three Early Visions and Versions of the Soul,” though he added a fourth vision. 

He reassured his audience, early and throughout, that the beginning of knowledge usually brings an awareness that one doesn’t know, which can be painful for some and invigorating for others. 

Egypt

Ancient Egyptians’ concept of the soul is complex, with seven different parts that have overlapping traits, Soltes said.

The most common of these is the ba, or personality, which is depicted in Egyptian art as a bird hovering over the body that then moves on after death, he said.

“It decides, you decide — it’s in part dependent on how you live your life whether you will remain forever and ever thereafter in this other spiritual reality,” he said. “Or, you may decide, it may decide, circumstances may decide you come back in a newly incarnate form.”

Ironically, pharaohs did not have the same options as ordinary Egyptians because the pharaoh was understood as a god incarnate, he said. When the pharaoh died, the ba went to the successor and so on. Ordinary Egyptians, rather, may not come back again and move on to the other realm, he said.

The ba comes from a heaven called nut, he said. 

“On the other side of many coffins, you have a depiction of nut as this kind of bluish, skyish being with four limbs in the four directions — east, west, north and south — and completely (covered) with myriad, myriad stars,” he said. 

These stars weren’t just little dots, but individual and distinct to represent souls, he said. 

“Likely, it is the individual souls who are the ancestral spirits of the one who is mummified within that coffin who is looking at eternity,” he said.

The ba is in union with the ka, which Soltes called the desire aspect of the soul and moral sensibility.

“It’s all animated by another aspect of the soul called khu, who I would render as divine spark,” he said. 

The ba can be thought of as the heart, while the khu as the mind, he said. There is also the khaibit, a shadow aspect of the soul that stays between the gate of life and death, which the ba must pass by in order to reach nut or go back and reincarnate, he said. 

When bodies were mummified in ancient Egypt, the lungs, stomach, intestines and liver were preserved in jars, but the heart was left inside the body, he said. 

“The heart is understood to be so intimately connected to the body that it can’t be extracted,” he said. “If you extract it from that mummified body, somehow something would be amiss in what happens to the ba, which is an aspect of the soul which has a body connection.”

Genesis

Genesis 2:7 – “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that He had done. The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Soltes opened his second section with reference to this passage. Prior to it, in Genesis 1:27, the creature, Adam, was said to be created in God’s image, he said. In Genesis 2:1, we know God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh — a number deeply important to the Egyptians, Soltes said. 

A difference exists — God is a singular being in Christianity, while Egypt’s story is much more complicated, he said.

The breath of life described in Genesis 2:7 is known as neshama in Hebrew, translating to soul or spirit. The ground, or earth, in Hebrew is called adamah, hence Adam. The Latin word for soul, anima, can be used to describe Adam as animated, or alive, he said. 

Later in the Bible, though, comes the word nephesh, another translation of soul that Soltes said is similar to the Egyptian ba. The Bible also laters mentions ruah, or wind, which Soltes said could imply the breath. 

The meaning of all this does not come from the Bible, but rather through interpretations of it, he said. 

“In the understanding that evolved into Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this breathing, this neshama, breathed into this cloud of earth is understood to be a soul, which is understood to be a bit of God in all of us,” he said. “That’s what these traditions understand the soul to be.”

If God is immortal and imperishable, then so too are humans who have God within them, Soltes said about these faiths.

Another important aspect of the soul to these traditions is free will, he said. In the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple, Soltes described it as God telling Adam, before Eve was created, not to eat the apple. Adam then incorrectly interpreted this to Eve, telling her not to touch the apple.

“How could they disobey God’s command unless they had free will?” asked Soltes. 

Free will was never considered in ancient Egypt, he said. 

Greeks

When Odysseus, in The Odyssey, is at the edge of reality, he is able to open a passage between the living and the dead, Soltes said. 

There, he is reunited with his deceased mother, and he tries to embrace her multiple times, unable to each time. 

Greeks’ understanding of the soul is that something remains that looks like someone is alive, but there is no substance, he said. 

Odysseus also meets Achilles, who he assumes must be having a great afterlife given all his praise during life. 

Ori Z. Soltes, teaching professor at the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, delivers his lecture “What Are We? Three Early Visions and Versions of the Soul” Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

“Achilles ruefully said, ‘I would rather be the poorest man on earth, a slave to someone (who) doesn’t own a stitch of property, than be king of all the underworld,’ ” Soltes said. “The Greek sense at that point of what it is that remains is something remaining in great discomfort. To have my bodily forms but not my bodily functions is a source of unhappiness.”

This perspective shifted with Socrates. Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety of the gods and corruption of the youth — essentially, he continuously asked questions that those in power were unable to answer, frustrating them, Soltes said.

Socrates was excited to die, though, because he believed the soul was immortal, Soltes said. Furthermore, he believed the soul was the better part of humans. 

This is completely opposite to The Odyssey, in which the ghost of Achilles wished he had lived a much longer life.

“Socrates can’t wait to be deprived of the body, which he finds an impediment to what his soul has been doing his whole life — to which we infer by soul he means something like mind — because he’s been inquiring through his whole life what is truth, what is virtue, what is justice, what is love, what is friendship, what is good,” Soltes said.

In death, Socrates believed he would no longer be impeded by physical barriers like food, drink, sleep, sex or going to the bathroom, Soltes said.

When Plato was alive several hundred years later, he used Socrates as a mechanism for getting at issues old and new, Soltes said. 

Three components of the soul are brought up here, from pure reason, or logos, to the opposite part of the soul, which is desire. In the middle is a component that deals with emotion and honor, he said.

“That middle state also mediates against doing crazy things that I have an appetite to do, or being robotic or being governed entirely by reason,” he said. “I think both Socrates and Plato very clearly understand that we are hardly a species governed by reason alone.”

Similar to these three components overlapping are the seven aspects that Egyptians believed in, though they are not the same, he said.

Greeks also believed that nobody was more powerful than fate. In The Iliad, Zeus, the most powerful Greek god, wants to save his son on the battlefield but knows that he cannot predict the outcome of his involvement, Soltes said. 

“Even Zeus has to desist from what he would like to do because of fate,” he said. “The soul, with its tripartite understanding, is understood to be devised of elements of what is predetermined and what I am free willed to make happen for myself.”

Hinduism and Buddhism

In Eastern beliefs, there is a large understanding of the Brahma, or the first god in the Hindu triumvirate, Soltes said. Some groups are more familiar with other gods in Hinduism than others, from Vishnu to Shiva to Krishna, he said. 

“If I am a Krishnite, I understand Krishna to be a constant avatar of being of Brahma, but I don’t disacknowledge all of the other manifestations,” he said. “It’s just they haven’t fully arrived as Krishna has.”

The text that describes that more succinctly is the Bhagavad Gita, or divine song, which he called a revealed text. In the Sanskrit language, this is Shruti, or that which is heard. 

Yet it’s found in Mahabharata, an epic poem that is not heard, but Smriti, or that which is remembered, he said. 

The content, he said, is a prince who has decided to go into battle to regain his throne, but then stops because he realized he was fighting against family, friends and neighbors, Soltes said. 

Krisha gives wisdom to the prince, essentially saying if he killed his cousin he would not kill the soul, but instead the body, Soltes said. 

“The truth is, the body is an illusion,” he said. “The body is what in Sanskrit is called maya. The reality of what is us is what’s called atman.”

The soul doesn’t die, but gets reincarnated in an ongoing cycle. If one does good things in one life, they will be reincarnated into a better life, and vice versa if one is bad, which is called karma

When one ends up in a condition of nirvana, or spiritual perfection, they are released, which is called moksha.

“It’s like a droplet of water that is subsumed back in the sea of being,” he said. “Once that happens, you no longer can see that droplet of water. When I achieve that condition of nirvana, I who achieves it ceases to be an I.”

Buddhism is partly built on Hinduism, he said, but the personified God, names and concepts are not involved. Consequently, Soltes said Buddhism, in a sense, is not a religion. 

“It’s not trying to tie me back to a God that is personified. … Buddha is not a God, it means enlightened,” he said. “But by having achieved enlightenment in the primary text of Buddhism, we understand he, in fact, transcends God.”

Buddha does not deny gods, but they are not where humans came from or are trying to return to; rather, it’s the sea of being, Soltes said.

What are we?

“We are what we as a species have come to believe ourselves to be, or perhaps what something other than ourselves has embedded in our consciousness,” Soltes said.

Humans have decided what we are over the course of our existence, based on egos, the brain, soul, heart, spirit, mind, God and gods. 

“We cannot know, but it’s also part of our human essence to keep on trying to know,” Soltes said. “I don’t know if that’s part of our soul or something else, but it’s certainly an ongoing process — sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.” 

‘New York Times’ opinion columnist Douthat describes modern day’s stagnant economy, path away from it

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat delivers his lecture “Secularism and Stagnation: How Our Economy Became Decadent” Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Going off ideas from the rest of the week, New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat began his lecture with the notion we are living in a time comparable to when Chautauqua was founded in the late-19th century. 

“This is an age of unfettered capitalism, a new Gilded Age in which robber barons get rich and build spaceships instead of libraries and summer cottages, inequality runs rampant, political parties are corrupted by money, journalism is corrupted by partisanship and the poor never get their fair share,” he said.

Except Douthat sees a big difference. 

“The Gilded Age was during an era of true dynamism — an era of radically increasing abundance and technological transformation that set the stage for reformers,” he said.

The current era, instead, is defined not by dynamism, but by deceleration and stagnation, Douthat said. 

Douthat explored this idea in his lecture “Secularism and Stagnation: How Our Economy Became Decadent,” the final Week Seven Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All” on Aug. 11 in the Amphitheater.

This deceleration began slightly before the moon landing, Douthat said. Since 1492, the global economy doubled in size every century, but it went down to a 2% annual growth by the 1960s, he said. 

“That breakpoint in the ‘60s had immediate economic consequences,” he said.

Douthat listed hourly wages peaking in the United States in the 1970s, household income growth slowing down and three recessions during the Nixon, Carter and Reagan presidencies. 

Lower taxes, deregulation, free trade, increased immigration and anti-inflation policies might be described as neoliberalism, Douthat said, or economic policies under Reagan, Bill Clinton and British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

The initial response seemed to work, Douthat said, as growth returned to about 4% annually by the late 1990s. Productivity growth, which he said is the best measure of technological change working and impacting the economy, boomed after the internet’s birth. 

Then, the dot-com bubble burst, he said.

“Thereafter, you had a long period carrying on toward the present day of weak recoveries, weak household income growth, declining productivity and far more workforce dropouts than before,” he said.

Deceleration followed by stagnation happened across the developed world, from the United States to Europe to East Asia, Douthat said. Although levels of dynamism vary from country to country, and the United States still has more than other places, it’s not as much as the cliche of American exceptionalism, he said.

During the Carter presidency, which Douthat said was far from an ideal time in America’s economic history, 15% of businesses were founded in the administration’s last year. The rate today is around 8% and is lower still with the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. 

Moreover, the number of startups that failed in the first year increased from 20% to 30% in the last few decades, he said. The percentage of new firms overall is down by one-third, and successful corporations sit on their money or pass it back to shareholders, opting against funding for inventions and innovations.

“This isn’t really an age of robber barons exploiting workers, but building big corporations while they do it,” he said. “It’s an age of vanguard accounts for the upper class and hedge funds for the super-rich recirculating wealth, but not necessarily creating broad prosperity and dynamism.”

Today, Silicon Valley and companies like Amazon, Google and Apple can thrive while pricing out the middle and working class, while big factories in the Rust Belt relied on huge workforces, Douthat said. Big companies hire less than they once did, hindering the American quality of wanderlust, he said.

“There’s this idea that the modern word is full of churn and nobody stays put anymore, but, in fact, Americans move less now,” he said. “They no longer go west or east or north or south in search of opportunities. The rate at which people move between states has fallen since the ‘70s by more than half. Nor do Americans actually change jobs as much as they once did.”

Populist surges, right-wing revolts and left-wing socialist alternatives in America and Europe are political crises connected with the economy, Douthat said. Neoliberalism is commonly blamed as something that was beneficial in the late-20th century but is now harmful, he said.

Free trade hollowed out Western economies, low tax rates enabled the rich to keep more of their gains and antitrust policies became more focused on the benefits of consolidation to consumers, he said. 

With inflation, policies in the 1970s impacted the 2008 financial crisis, Douthat said, because economies didn’t spend enough money to pull themselves out of the recession sooner.

Similarly, a libertarian perspective is that a captured economy, including land use rules, zoning rules, occupational licensing, expanding property protections and corporate subsidies and tax breaks, has created a system that can simultaneously bring out the worst of socialism and capitalism, he said.

“Those stories are depressing, but also kind of encouraging because they imply there are solutions to stagnation,” Douthat said. 

Some of those solutions might include weakening monopolies, taxing the wealthy and cutting welfare and subsidies that flow to big corporations and the rich, he said. Perhaps ironically, both the Trump and Biden administrations have shifted from the economic consensus of the last 30 to 40 years, Douthat said.

“The Biden administration has kept a lot of the Trump administration’s tariffs and protectionist policies,” he said.

Some of the Trump-era policies did help achieve one of the best economies with relation to overall growth and wage growth for the working class in the last 20 years, Douthat said, while noting this was upended by the pandemic. 

Both administrations ran and are running with significantly high deficits, he said — which might be necessary, but is not creating organic innovations or job growth. 

“Certainly there is some kind of limit at some point,” he said. “When we hit that limit, we could go back to a ‘stagflation’ scenario, having made a pilgrimage back to 1975 without finding a way out.”

Douthat argued we are in a time of secular stagnation, with secular meaning a trend that isn’t cyclical. 

“It’s just stagnation that persists no matter what policymakers do over a long period of time,” he said. “There’s a good chance that is the story.”

He suspects the type of growth seen in the late 1800s will not be repeated, because innovations would be defensive against climate change. He described it as a payback for growth during the industrial revolution.

New innovations have been slow because of technological stagnation, too, he said. Although there are obvious marvels such as the iPhone and internet, there’s been less growth in areas like energy, transportation, agriculture and communication. 

“People worried that robots would take all of our jobs,” he said. “Actually, the problem is they aren’t taking our jobs.”

Sometimes it takes a big spark to reignite innovation, he said. Perhaps COVID-19 will be seen as the next great spark considering the rapid medical innovations seen, he said. 

There’s no guarantee that’s the truth, though, and there’s no promise stagnation will end, Douthat said. 

“A stratified economy where people are getting rich but not doing more innovative forms of entrepreneurship is more likely to want to freeze the economic order and resist creative destruction,” he said.

It’s also harder to refit infrastructure in an economy based on deficit spending, which he said is why self-driving cars are hard to invent — it also requires rebuilding an urban ecosystem fit for them.

One trend of the modern developed world that impacts the economy is fewer births, Douthat said. 

In order to replace one generation with another, a country must average 2.1 births per woman. Five years ago, the European Union averaged 1.6 births, Japan averaged 1.4, South Korea averaged 1.2, Singapore averaged 0.82, Canada averaged 1.6, Australia averaged 1.7, and the United States averaged 1.87.

America is most recently at 1.6 births since the pandemic began. 

Some explanations exist, he said, such as a lower infant mortality rate lowering the incentive for having as many children as possible, an information economy making children less valuable as household laborers and more expensive because of the price of education. 

Additionally, birth control has lowered the number of accidental pregnancies, the feminist movement created strong incentives to delay childbirth, more divorces meant fewer people were in relationships to have children and older people had more protection with welfare.

People do want more children, though — Douthat said the desired family size is around 2.5 children. 

“We should care about the fact that the desired family size and actual family size is so far apart because it suggests it isn’t just free people making free choices — but modern society is failing to supply the cultural, economic and religious foundation for people who want kids to do it,” he said.

Lower birth rates also lead to aging societies with fewer workers, slow GDP growth and leaves less room for dynamism, he said.

Regarding climate change, less dynamism and an older society means new innovations may only delay its worst effects, while a younger society could eliminate fossil fuels faster, Douthat said.

In the 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, author Thomas Piketty argued capitalism was leading to the success of the 1%, Douthat noted. Low population growth, Piketty argued, aids in their success because fewer children means fewer heirs to divide the wealth.

Lower birth rates and smaller families means people are spending more time alone, which may feel freeing between ages 18 to 35, but then people risk isolation into middle age and elderly years, Douthat said. 

“The advantage of living solo and the promise of independence becomes a curse,” he said.

The absence or delay of children leads to another absence or delay of grandchildren, removing purpose and optimism from people’s lives, he said.

When all of this began in the 1960s, so too began the modern wave of secularization, Douthat said, with increasingly weakened or nonexistent ties to religion being a part of society. There was also the idea that religion and science could go together, such as the case of Chautauqua’s founding. Religious ideas and moral values were separate from growth and innovation, he said, instead being a way to gentle capitalism.

That could still be true, he said, but perhaps religion can also be a source of creativity and dynamism. 

“Religious revival, in this sense, wouldn’t just be a way to tame inequalities associated with growth — it would be a way to generate more of that growth in the first place and tame inequalities that are more associated with stagnation,” he said. 

Douthat’s conservative friends focus on an unrealistic notion of everyone turning to traditionalist values, which creates a vision of those traditionalist people being converted for the purpose of secular producers and consumers, he said. 

Instead, Douthat wants to imagine a world where broad religious ideas — like God creating the universe and humans participating in God’s divine plan, to specific ideas of babies being good — can create a society of moral institutions that are concerned with social justice more than acquisition. 

“At a fundamental level as far apart as science and religion can go, both scientific and religious experiments proceed from a similar desire of knowing,” he said, adding they both seek to understand the universe’s secrets. 

He said this relationship between religion and science, between modern dynamism and ancient faith, can steer society away from stagnation.

“There can be a mysterious alchemy between different forms of human exploration,” he said. “I think nothing will be a surer sign that our age of stagnation is really ending than that kind of alchemy suddenly returning.”

Harvard’s Friedman traces history of modern economics, role religion plays

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Benjamin M. Friedman, William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard and author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

As it turns out, Chautauqua has a connection to an important part of economic history. The textbook Outlines of Economics, the bestselling economics textbook in the early 20th century, was originally published in 1889 as part of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. 

Benjamin M. Friedman wanted people to realize this connection to set the basis of looking back in time. In his Interfaith Lecture on Aug. 10 in the Amphitheater, Friedman explored a couple questions: Where did modern Western economics come from, and why did it emerge when, and where, it did? 

His lecture, “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism,” was the second of three Week Seven lectures themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All.”

Friedman knows a thing or two about the economy. He’s spent his entire career at Harvard University, entering his 50th year as a professor there this fall as the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy. He also earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. 

For Tuesday’s lecture, he drew from ideas in his latest book, also named Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

To begin to answer his questions, Friedman looked at the first fundamental welfare theorem, which is the idea that individuals acting in their own self-interest in a competitive market will better the lives of both themselves and others. 

“If you pause to think about it, this is a very fundamental and important insight into not just human behavior, but consequences of human behavior as organized by society,” Friedman said.

There are two presumptions about this theorem’s origin, he said, first pointing to Adam Smith’s 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. The second presumption is that Smith, David Hume and other figures of that era in economics, who essentially founded modern economics, were products of the Enlightenment. 

Friedman said the Enlightenment is often viewed as a movement away from a God-centered universe to secular humanism, and that none of this economic thinking had anything to do with religion. 

He does accept the first presumption, but rejects the second. 

“The entire path of modern economics, ever since Smith, has been powerfully influenced by trends of modern religious thinking,” Friedman said. “The originating impulse was a movement away from predestination Calvinism, which I will argue opened up the way for benign and optimistic views of human character and, importantly, a more expansive view of the possibilities of human agency.”

He noted, however, that Smith and Hume were not religious figures, or even proponents for religion. Friedman suspects, as it’s not confirmed, that Hume was an atheist, and there is no evidence that Smith was a religious believer but perhaps more aligned with 18th century Deism, like Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Instead, Friedman subscribes to Albert Einstein’s concept of a worldview, or that people’s time and place influences the way they think, he said. This concept simplifies the task of analyzing the world, he said. Einstein developed this concept with regard not just to physicists, but painters, poets and philosophers, for example.

Friedman highlighted philosophers because that is how Smith viewed himself — the word “economist” wasn’t yet created.

He also noted economist Joseph Schumpeter’s term “pre-analytic Vision.” 

The movement away from predestination Calvinism largely defined the time and place of Smith and Hume, Friedman said. 

This transition was stark. At the beginning of the 1700s, individuals were not trusted to correctly perceive their economic self-interest. If they did correctly perceive it, there was no option for acting on it and benefiting others, Friedman said. Therefore, acting in self-interest was seen as vicious, he said. 

By 1790, the year Smith died, it was assumed that individuals could correctly perceive self-interest when they were producers of goods or services, Friedman said. The same wasn’t quite true for consumers. Instead, Smith described their actions as “frivolous” and “stupid.”

When people did correctly perceive their self-interest in the economic sphere, under the right conditions like a competitive market, they would make decisions that benefited others. As a result, it was no longer seen as vicious to act on one’s own self-interest. 

Smith’s perspective was based on several predecessors, but Friedman argued Smith should still be the one getting the most credit because others had no awareness of the role of markets or competitive mechanism. 

The desire to improve oneself is inborn, Friedman said about Smith’s thought. Smith also wrote about the system of competitive markets generating prices and wages, and these set wages and prices are the product of bargaining so both the buyer and seller can achieve the best price.

“Our actions make others better off even though we don’t intend it,” Friedman said.

This notion is behind the phrase the “invisible hand,” he said. 

Benjamin M. Friedman, William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard and author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Smith has received tough treatment from economic conservatives since 1776, Friedman said. 

“Smith did not think of the competitive market mechanism as some kind of fragile hothouse flower that needed to be protected and defended from any threat whatsoever,” he said. “Instead, what impressed him was the incredible robustness and power of implication and of the combination of human drive and the way society is organized.”

For example, Smith was in favor of progressive income taxes and luxury taxes, Friedman said. 

“He wrote that people who rode around in luxury carriages ought to pay a special tax on them,” he said.

He thought the revenue should help the poor, and was also in favor of taxes on whiskey, distilleries and tighter regulations on banks and banking, Friedman said. 

Smith was enabled to come to these conclusions for several reasons. First, he was trained in an era of Newtonian ideas of systems and mechanism, Friedman said. Second, he was educated in stoic philosophy, or the natural harmony of the universe. Third, he lived in an increasingly commercialized society, and fourth, he was observant. 

But a key factor, Friedman said, was that Smith lived at the height of this transition away from predestination-oriented Calvinism.

There were many elements in this transition, he said, but focused on three for the purpose of economics. 

One was human nature, he said. John Calvin wrote that humans are unable to tell between good and evil, while post-Calvinists believe everyone is born with some inherent goodness, Friedman said.

Another was human destiny. Calvin believed humans had no ability to save themselves because their life and afterlife was determined before the world was created. During and after this transition, people began to believe humans’ choices and actions could save them.

Third was human purpose, which Calvin believed was in the glory of God. Later, people instead put more emphasis on human happiness.

“If it was not only possible that we could tell good from wrong and we could take actions that would matter in the spiritual realm, why couldn’t we take actions that make people better off in the earthly realm, as well?” Friedman said. “If the divine purpose for our being here is to make us happy, then why wouldn’t human institutions like markets and commerce be designed for that end?”

Religion played a much more important and central role in society in the days of Smith than now, Friedman said, such as all education institutions being tied to religious foundations. 

In addition, intellectual life was more integrated then versus now, he said. At Harvard and Yale, for instance, theologians and church historians are segregated from the main campus, he said. When Smith was professor at the University of Glasgow, everything was together. 

Also, religious debate was deadly during Smith’s lifetime. Several wars and conflicts, like the Thirty Years’ War, English Civil War and Highland Rebellion were extremely bloody, Friedman said.

“For all of these reasons, you could not help but pay attention to religious debate if you were living then,” he said. 

Religiously motivated economic thinking is still a part of the economy, he said. 

“Today, economics is still about human choices and their possibilities,” he said. “The first fundamental welfare theorem is still at the heart of our analytical apparatus. Smith’s and Hume’s more expansive and optimistic view of human agency remains ours, as well.”

This remains true despite less debate between people about the merits of predestination or non-predestination thinking, he said. He looked at this through a political lens.

“In states like Kentucky or Mississippi, the fraction of the population that relies on programs like food stamps, subsidized housing and supplemental income is much, much higher than other parts of the country,” he said. “Yet, these states also have populations that systematically vote for candidates that want to shrink or dismantle these programs.”

Political scientists solve this puzzle with two factors of democracy. One, the United States has an indirect representative democracy where people vote for candidates, not policies. Two, there are not enough political parties to give people choices from all the relevant policy combinations, Friedman said.

Friedman decided to look at how people align politically. If an individual favors economic policies that favor high-income people and support socially conservative policies, they would fit into the Republican Party, he said.

Benjamin M. Friedman, William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard and author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Conversely, those who favored policies that benefit low-income citizens and are in favor of socially liberal policies will fit in with the Democratic Party, he said. 

“What about people who would benefit from policies like food stamps, supplemental income and subsidized housing, but nonetheless don’t like abortion or same-sex marriage?” he said. 

Political scientists would answer that they care more about socially conservative policies, therefore falling in the Republican Party, he said. Friedman found in the 2016 election about one-third of the electorate was in this category. 

He decided to look at opinion surveys to see religion’s role.

In a poll that determined the share of the population preferring a smaller government providing fewer services, 51% of all Americans were in favor. Fifty-nine percent of mainline Protestants were in support, 64% of evangelical Protestants, too, as were 69% of traditionalist evangelicals.

Friedman said political scientists had no answer to that, but he thinks understanding the role of economics and religious thinking helps understand these origins. 

In another poll stating, “Government aid to the poor does more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met,” 50% of Americans agreed. Of mainline Protestants, 46%; evangelical Protestants, 38%; and traditionalist evangelicals, 33%.

In one more, he looked at support for estate taxes. Forty-four percent of Americans would prefer to abolish it, he said. This time, he compared the average income for various groups of Americans to their view on the estate tax. 

Republicans have higher incomes, on average, and are more likely to oppose an estate tax. Democrats have slightly lower incomes, on average, and are less likely to be opposed to an estate tax. Mainline Protestants have slightly higher-than-average incomes and are more opposed to an estate tax.

Evangelicals, however, have slightly lower average incomes but are more likely to oppose an estate tax. 

“My view is we simply cannot understand the current level of political impasse in the United States by ignoring the role of religious thinking,” he said.

Economics was a product of the Enlightenment, he said, but religious thinking is still central to its story.

“The role of religious thinking continues to be at work today, especially in America in our ongoing debate over economic policy,” he said. 

Benedictine Sister Chittister explains spirituality of work to open series on creating an economy that works for all

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Sr. Joan Chittister opens up the week of Interfaith Lectures with a talk on the spiritualities of work, money and philanthropy Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Before diving into her lecture Monday, Aug. 9 in the Amphitheater, Sr. Joan Chittister told a Hindu story of a holy one who sent disciples to a tailor to have a new shirt made for him. 

It would need to be ready in three weeks, and the disciples relayed that to the tailor, who said if God blessed them, then it would be ready that same week.

It wasn’t, but he said the same thing about it being ready next week, only to not have it done again. With only one week to spare, the disciples told their teacher, who told them, “Ask how long it will take to finish the shirt if he keeps God out of it?”

The tailor wanted God to do something about the shirt, Chittister said, but it’s the tailor who needed to do something. 

She also cited an old proverb: “Nothing we do changes the past, but everything we do changes the future.”

Chittister then opened the first of three Interfaith Lectures for Week Seven, themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All.” Her lecture, titled “To Exist: A Society Based on Money Needs a Population Based on Heart,” focused on the relationship between what she called spiritualities of work, money and philanthropy. 

These should be focused on before discussing profit, growth, development and security, she said. 

Chittister is an international lecturer, award-winning author and a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania. She’s been returning to Chautauqua for 35 years. 

She wanted to explore two questions: What is the Abrahamic theology of work on the soul, and does a spirituality of work, money or philanthropy exist — if so, does it even matter?

In one story, a rabbi explained to disciples that their ancestors created new ways of serving according to their character, and that each of us should devise a new service for others. 

“We are not being asked here to do more than we can,” Chittister said. “We are simply being asked to do something in our own time that has value. We are being asked to profit the world by our existence. We’re allowed to be unique, yes, but we are not permitted to be useless.”

The story of co-creation, she said, is the unwritten autobiography of every human, and it is the story of making the world a better place. 

“Life, you see, is not about traveling through,” she said. “Life is about doing something that lasts beyond us, something that will, eventually, at least, bring the world one step closer to the completion of God’s will for it.”

Work is essential to reaching this objective, she said. 

“God made the world, yes, but God did not complete it,” she said. “God left that to you and me.”

The Book of Ecclesiastes, she said, makes it clear there is a time for money, profit and development. In today’s culture, however, people work for money and not for a greater good. 

“Now, we teach our children to get high-paying jobs, not jobs that soothe or heal a wounded world,” she said. “People work in our world so that they can do something other than work, and as soon as possible. People work at segmented tasks now in an assembly-line world. These segments, however, have no meaning to them.”

In the United States, people do work long hours — more than in other countries — but people are not living until they stop working, Chittister said. 

“So, as a society, we work primarily for the economy, not for human expression,” she said. “And, we certainly do not work to put our own mark on the world out of a sense of global responsibility.”

Society, she said, is run by people who can ignore social injustice and destroy the climate without any concern.

“Corporations we work for dump chemicals into streams, rivers, lakes and seas that are turning our water into poison, and they can do it without a quiver of sadness, let alone of conscience, but they’ll make great profits,” she said, adding it is at the cost of a future that they may kill.

Chittister highlighted a 1972 MIT study that predicted the beginning of society’s collapse by 2040 if carbon emissions were not immediately reduced by a significant margin. Big oil and gas companies spent millions of dollars to suppress and deny those findings, Chittister said.

It worked, she said, because the study was largely forgotten — few knew it in the Amp when she asked for a show of hands of those who knew.

The study’s researcher, Gaya Herrington, spent time last year going back to her 1972 study and comparing it to 2020 numbers. 

“Were they accurate? No,” Chittister said. “2020 is now the date of the beginning of the collapse of the entire climate and the standards of living of our society.”

Chittister called the narrative of big companies a lie and an attack on every generation, and she said she feared no remaining honest leadership. 

People might ask what their purpose in life is, then, and what are the profits of doing anything, she said. 

The world now needs a sense of economic conscience, she said, referring to the spiritualities of work, money and philanthropies. 

“Good work is really what connects us to the rest of the world,” she said.

But, the notion of individuals having whatever they can get turns greed into virtue, she said. People resent subsidized housing for people kicked out of the profit system, but don’t say much about tax exemptions for corporations.

“We forget that the God who will judge the poor on honesty will judge us on generosity,” she said. “Indeed, we export our jobs, but not our pension plans or our fair labor practices or our wage scales. In fact, we use the poor of other countries to provide labor at slave wages.”

One example she gave was Indian children working 70-hour weeks at 35 cents an hour to make toys played with by children in other countries.

“We say we’d like a better world, but we ourselves go on sustaining this one by our silence,” she said.

Previous generations worked for the good of the future, she said, while this one is leaving behind garbage in space, waterways and the halls of housing projects; feeding the rats, but not children. 

Industrialization set this into motion, but computerization hastened it, she said. 

“It’s robbed of us of a view of what we’re really doing in life and want to do in life,” she said. “Earlier ages never had it so bad. They at least could see their crops through from beginning to end. They lived off their own crops themselves. … They knew the effect of what they did or didn’t do.”

She then described four characteristics of a spirituality of work. First, it is creating a personal worldview. 

“When we sweep the street in front of the houses in the dirtiest city in the country, we’re bringing new order to the universe,” she said.

Second, this spirituality of work puts people in touch with their creativity, to a point where making a salad for dinner becomes a work of art, she said, or planting another evergreen tree becomes a contribution to the world’s health.

Third, it allows people to put their own stamp of approval on any development. 

Fourth, work touches everything around it, meaning everything one does impacts the world around them. 

“A spirituality of work immerses me in the development of the human community,” she said.

Work is a lifelong process of personal sanctification that saves the world for the benefit of other people, she said. 

A spirituality of work, she said, means there must be a spirituality of money. 

She told the story of a man who heard tiptoes behind him, realizing he was being stalked in his home. He confronted the robber and gave him a pure gold bowl, so that way he wouldn’t be woken in the middle of the night.

The robber was back the next day, and he was told there was nothing left to receive. The robber wanted to know, though, how one could give away the gold bowl at all. 

“That’s the kind of giving that explains the difference between charity and philanthropy,” Chittister said.

Philanthropy is one’s personal ability to create something for a better tomorrow, even if that person is not around to see it, she said. 

“The philanthropist is the giver, at any and every economic level, that sees what others do not see and believes in it enough to take a chance on it for all our sakes,” she said. 

It is built on four characteristics, she said. One includes the vision for success without the promise of personal profit. Another, she noted, is that philanthropy requires solutions that have never been considered to certain problems.

The vision of philanthropy demands an awareness of what needs to be done, too, she said, highlighting free arts programs for children put in one of the most drug-ridden, harsh areas of Erie. 

Philanthropy can even be reckless, she said. 

“We hear it at every cocktail party,” she said. “ ‘Who would put money into that program?’ ”

Philanthropists aren’t the people who question such programs, but push for them, she said. 

“Giving before other people even realize that there is something worth doing out there that is not being done is what distinguishes philanthropic vision from donations,” she said. 

Scripture claims without vision, people die, Chittister said. Life is about the theology of co-creation and finishing what God began. 

“You are the visionaries,” she said to the audience. “You are the only givers that we have to come to. You are the co-creators of a world badly in need of a new co-creation.” 

Without giving and growing, there won’t be room for churches, schools or neighborhoods to grow, she said. 

Righteous giving can be divided into four levels, as it was by the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Level one is realizing that giving is essential to keep ourselves out of selfishness, Chittister said.

Level two is giving indirectly, such as community collections. Level three is giving in a way so the recipient does not know the donor. Level four is giving enough to sustain others so that they can move away from their dependence on charity. 

“Charity only concentrates on meeting the needs of the day,” Chittister said. “Philanthropy provides a vision for tomorrow.”

The message of the week, Chittister said, is to never underestimate the power of the spirituality of work, money or philanthropy. Even if one is not religious, committing to good work is a deep connection to God, she said. 

Again addressing the audience, Chittister noted most attendees were older in age, but their work wasn’t done.

“You have a lot more to do,” she said. “And you get up and do it.”

She hopes that once there is a great shift toward philanthropy and meaningful work, people won’t have to sleep on the streets in the world’s richest country, and young people won’t have to go into massive debt just to get an education. 

“Everything we do changes the future,” she said.

Jose Arellano, Steve Avalos detail life in gangs, prison, finding purpose through Homeboy

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Fr. Greg Boyle was in Bolivia when he had an experience, one that prompted him to ask his church to place him in the poorest parish in Los Angeles. There, six gangs were at war with each other. 

He wanted to flip these people’s lives around. So he founded Homeboy Industries, an organization that 30 years later is now the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world, according to its website

At 1 p.m. Thursday, Jose Arellano and Steve Avalos, co-directors of case management and navigation at Homeboy Industries, shared their stories of life in prison and gangs, to their turnaround through Homeboy. Their lecture, “The Power of Empathy: Live It to Create it,” was the final installment of the Week Six Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

Arellano

Jose Arellano

As a kid, Arellano loved going to school. He did really well, too, and was placed in the Gifted and Talented Education Program. 

His home life was the polar opposite. 

Most of his family were involved in gangs all his life, including his mother and uncles, he said. When they partied all night and slept the next day, it was Arellano getting himself and his four younger siblings ready for school.

“That was my life experience growing up,” he said.

He had one older cousin who looked out for him, he said. When they were 11, they made a pact in his grandmother’s backyard.

“ ‘No matter what happens, you and me will never get jumped into the hood,’ ” he said. “He reached out his hand, and I shook his hand. I made that promise.”

The summer before junior high school, when Arellano was 12, his mom got addicted to methamphetamines. 

“We became more and more poor,” he said. “Lights were getting turned off; even the water got turned off.”

Arellano and his cousin would stay out until 1, 2 a.m., maybe later — nobody checked. That summer, though, his cousin broke their pact and joined a gang. 

“He didn’t consult me, he didn’t tell me he was considering it,” Arellano said. “From one moment to the next, he was a gang member. We never talked about it.”

So Arellano sought refuge at a nearby friend’s house, which was much more stable. He would stay so late, in a home with a mother, father and food, the mother would have to make him leave late at night.

One night, Arellano went and knocked on the door because he couldn’t stand being home. Someone came to the peephole, but didn’t open the door. He tried knocking on the window, and he was greeted by a living room light and TV, both switched off. Nobody who would let him in.

“I remember just feeling so broken and hopeless — and above everything, I felt hurt,” he said.

Back at home, a hub for gang members, he said a couple of them asked if he wanted to join. Before that night, he always had an excuse to refuse — school being one, playing the trumpet another. 

“I remember feeling so hurt — my mother is in the streets on meth, my cousin who protected me and is like a brother to me is now gangbanging, and this house that I frequent, they don’t want me there anymore,” he said. 

Arellano was out of excuses. He responded instantly.

“Yeah, I’ll get in tonight,” he told them.

They took him across the street, and they beat him. 

“They punched me, and when I fell they kicked me and they continuously beat on me,” he said. “After they beat on me, they embraced me and they hugged me and they told me things like, ‘I love you, I got you.’ ”

One of them went to get him some pants. They were three sizes too big for Arellano, but he wore them for a month straight, he said. He felt like someone was looking out for him.

Eight months later, the reality of gang life hit home. Arellano’s cousin, who made a pact they would never get involved with gangs at 11, was dead at 14, murdered with a 12-gauge shotgun.

“Life, for me, became real at that time,” Arellano said. “I felt like death was around every corner.”

He couldn’t talk about his devastation, though. He couldn’t talk about how he missed playing with toys with his cousin when they were hiding in their rooms from the gang, hiding that they weren’t yet grown. 

Arellano grew accustomed to it. He said he embraced the pattern of surviving day-to-day.

When he turned 15, Arellano went to juvenile hall for the first time for selling drugs. When he was 16, he went back, this time for two years. He saw how other moms would come and visit their children, and he began to resent his own mother.

“I just felt, ‘Damn, my mom doesn’t care about me,’ ” he said. “ ‘She doesn’t come to visit me.’ ”

He said staff during those years would come to his cell, take his underwear and throw it so he’d have to walk in front of everyone to get it. His early embarrassment turned into embracing the experience, one of many that he said shaped his self-perception during that period.

He got out, and went back in, at 18, staying until he was 22. He didn’t hit 23 before he was back again.

“I felt I had no reason to change, and I wasn’t going to change,” he said. “I accepted my fate. I was going to die like this.”

Arellano’s relationship with his mother became completely nonexistent, he said. He told people he didn’t even have a mom.

During Arellano’s last term in prison, his mom died as a result of her drug addiction. 

Locked in solitary confinement, Arellano looked at his small, square mirror. 

“I asked myself, ‘Who the hell are you, and how did you get here?’ ” he said to his fully-tattooed reflection. 

Arellano first heard of Boyle and his efforts while in prison, but he said it was hard to believe any stories told in the prison yard. Eventually, though, he got out, and stayed out. 

He was working odd jobs, driving across town to work four-hour shifts at various places while on high-control parole. His father-in-law told him about Homeboy Industries, so Arellano called and got an interview immediately.

It was four quick questions. First, the interviewer asked if Arellano had ever been locked up, then asked if he was even involved in a gang. Then he asked if he was on probation or parole.

“I’m like, ‘What kind of questions are these?’ ” he said, drawing a laugh from the audience. 

Finally, he asked if he had any tattoos. Something in Arellano told him to be honest the entire time.

“He said, ‘Alright we’ll give you a job,’ ” Arellano said, hands in the air met with a now echoing laugh across the Amp.

When he arrived and filled out paperwork, Arellano was incredibly off-put by all of the gang members he saw. He wanted no part of them.

One, who had the most tattoos Arellano had ever seen covering his head, arms and eyelids, approached him. Arellano’s heart was racing.

The man simply stuck out his hand, introduced himself, and asked Arellano if he wanted any water. 

“I remember thinking, ‘What is this place? Gang members offering you water?’ ” he said. 

These experiences continued. Arellano found a welcoming home.

He ended up finding his little brother, who was then 14, and took him in. He was extremely quiet, Arellano said, only really expressing himself physically and violently. With permission from Boyle, Arellano got his brother a part-time job and enrolled him in high school.

The two shared clothes, transferring attire each day. People noticed, and one day Boyle called them into his office. He handed them two Sears cards, and told them to go buy some new clothes.

Arellano was always taught, and thus taught his brother, to never accept anything from anyone because they would expect something in return. Similarly, the two were taught never to cry because it showed weakness, something that someone could use against them.

When they got to the car, Arellano turned to his brother, who was sobbing uncontrollably, he said.

“Why the eff do they care about us?” Arellano said about his brother’s response. 

He didn’t have the words then to tell him why, although he knew it was because he was deserving and because he mattered, Arellano said. This was when he knew he wanted to stay involved in Homeboy Industries — to give these experiences to others like him.

“It’s my honor to be able to continue to be there now in a leadership position, to help create experiences that help people see the truth about their lives,” he said. “That they’re exactly what God had in mind when God created them. That they’re worthy no matter what they’ve done or what they’ve been through.”

Avalos

Steve Avalos

Homeboy Industries was pitching itself in a contest where the winners would receive $1 million. 

Avalos was there, along with others from Homeboy and the community. While talking to another man, Avalos felt something was familiar. 

He asked if he was a judge, and the man said yes. He asked for his name, and it was confirmed.

“My heart dropped,” Avalos said. “I said, ‘I think you let out my father.’ ”

It was true. That same judge let Avalos’ father out of prison on compassionate release. After 34 years in prison, serving a life sentence, Avalos’ father was dying. The judge allowed him to go home.

His father was released one morning at 10 a.m. Twelve hours later, sitting on the couch with his wife, Avalos’ mother, he died.

Avalos thanked the judge for making the controversial decision. The judge asked how his brother was doing, and Avalos said great, he had just graduated from Yale University.

“He said, ‘No, the one with life in prison,’ ” Avalos said. 

He was asking about Avalos, not knowing he was speaking directly to him. Upon realization, the two hugged.

“The power of empathy is beyond what we can ever imagine,” Avalos said. 

Like Arellano, Avalos never saw himself joining a gang, despite his entire family being involved. 

“It’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, a lot of betrayal, a lot of violence,” Avalos said. “I didn’t want nothing to do with that.”

Before he was born, Avalos’ biological father was murdered. Soon after, so was his mom’s sister. At a barbeque one day, his uncle was shot eight times. He still doesn’t like parties.

Avalos would go to the baseball field so he could escape. 

“If I stayed on the baseball field, I didn’t have to be at the house,” he said. 

At home, Avalos’ family slept on the floor in case of drive-by shootings. The outside lights stayed on to see who was coming, and the inside lights stayed off so nobody could see inside, he said.

The summer Avalos was 11 years old, his older brother, who had joined a gang a couple years prior, was murdered at 15. 

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Maybe that’s just life,’ ” he said. “Maybe that’s just the way life is for some of us. I remember shaving my head and saying, ‘OK,’ and giving up and becoming a follower.”

Prison was normal for Avalos, because visitation was allowed five days a week. The only way he avoided visiting his stepfather was if he was playing baseball, he said. 

When he was 14, his mother gave him an ultimatum. He could leave the gang, or leave home. She couldn’t see it through any longer, he said.

“I don’t know if you’re going to be behind the gun or in front of the gun, but I’m not OK with it anymore,” she told him.

Avalos left home. Three years later, he was sentenced to life in prison.

“I had no empathy,” he said. “I had a warped way of thinking. I belonged in prison.”

He compared his emotions to being inside watching a storm with pouring rain and blustery winds.

“You can see it, and you know it’s cold, but you can’t feel it,” he said. “That’s the way my feelings felt. I could see what was going on with people, but I couldn’t feel it because I had so much pain inside of me.”

As it turned out, the man Avalos hated growing up and blamed for leaving them homeless and struggling, his stepfather, was the man who changed his life, he said. 

The two spent five years in a cell together. There, he asked why his mom could never show emotion, could never hug him. 

“He told me about her sister — how when she was decapitated, my mother had to clean her brains off the wall,” Avalos said. “And how her mother was an alcoholic. She didn’t know how to deal with her own pain. She didn’t know how to show affection.”

Without empathy, and having now experienced it many times throughout his life, Avalos said he wouldn’t be here today. 

At a hearing where Avalos had the chance to get out of prison, he was asked questions about his life and upbringing. He didn’t want to talk about it, and thought about asking to just try again in three years. But he talked, and he was told he wasn’t the child he once was. He was told he was going home.

Steve Avalos, at left, and Jose Arellano talk about their experience growing up in gang culture and finding strength through empathy at Homeboy Industries on Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Avalos was 34 then, having spent half of his life behind bars. He said Boyle was a blessing for him, and Homeboy Industries changed his life. There, Avalos began experiencing connections. For the first time in his life, he was laughing.

Now a leader at Homeboy like Arellano, Avalos recalled a man who spent as much of his life in jail as he had, except he’d also struggled with addiction. He cycled through a couple of programs with Homeboy, and he sat in front of Avalos trying to explain himself.

Avalos kept reassuring that he would be fine, but the man kept talking. This repeated several times, and Avalos got more frustrated. Then he realized the man was emotional. 

“I was looking at him with sympathy, not empathy,” he said. “What I realized was he already knew we had him. For the first time in his life, he was telling me his truth, but I wasn’t listening. I was only hearing.”

Instead, he said, empathy is about connection and allowing space to find that connection.

While in prison, one woman regularly visited his stepfather. Her own dad was jailed for 18 years and died when he was released. She vowed that she would become a lawyer and get Avalos’ stepfather out of prison. 

“She did the bar and failed every single time, and I was like, ‘This lady ain’t gonna be no lawyer,’ ” he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Seven years later, however, she passed. 

“She was the one who got my father out on compassionate release, and she got me out of prison,” he said.  

~~~

Both Arellanos and Avalos closed with gratitude to Chautauqua. 

“There’s something I feel here in Chautauqua,” Arellanos said. “You guys make us feel like we’re a part of you, and that’s special, and that’s divine and that’s holy.”

Avalos said Chautauqua’s inclusivity with religions and people creates a safe space.

“When you’re in a safe place, you can find out the truth about who you truly are,” he said. “And when you begin there, everything in your life will begin to change.”

Pastor, police chief Rodriguez shares experiences with love, compassion, empathy

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Edgar Rodriguez — the Moville, Iowa, chief of police and lead pastor of the New Hope Church — speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

For several days, Edgar Rodriguez and his wife asked one of their sons to clean his room. On one particular day, his son wanted to go to a sleepover, so they struck a deal that if his room was clean, he could go.

Time came to leave, and his room was still unkempt. His chance was gone, and he was devastated. Not long after, his twin sister entered her parents’ bedroom in tears.

“I just hate that he can’t go to his sleepover,” she said. “Would it be OK if I helped him clean so he could go to his sleepover?”

They couldn’t say no to such an empathetic request, Rodriguez said. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 4, in the Amphitheater, Rodriguez presented his lecture, “Empathy: The Key for Human Survival,” part of Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

Rodriguez is both a pastor of New Hope Evangelical Church and a police chief in the small, rural community of Moville, Iowa. 

When he first became police chief, his first task was hiring a new officer and several reserve officers because the ones that were in the department were too by-the-book, he said.

“They didn’t really care about the impact they would make in any person’s life,” he said. “If a person committed a crime, the arrest would be made, no questions asked. If the person would want to try and offer an explanation, it was never — or seldom — heard. I decided to change that.”

One of the officers he hired had zero police or military experience — he was home-schooled and a musician at a church. But, like the other people hired, he cared about the community, Rodriguez said.

On Monday night, that officer called Rodriguez and told him he had taken funds from the church to assist a mother and son who didn’t have a place to stay, and he did so without first consulting with Rodriguez.

Rodriguez applauded him, and said that was exactly why he was hired. 

Oftentimes, Rodriguez is asked about his dual careers. People wonder how he can be both a pastor and a police officer, which he thinks comes from the idea that police officers are unloving or uncaring. 

“I’ve been trying to change the image of police officers since I began,” he said. “We are more than protectors from evil. We are peacemakers. We are compassionate men and women. We love to serve the public.”

To solve the world’s issue of a lack of empathy, people should look to their creator, he said. 

“There are many stories and examples of God’s word that expresses, demonstrates and teaches empathy,” he said. “We are all born with it, but we have been desensitized from it.”

One of those stories is in Mark 1:40-42, the story of a man asking Jesus for a miracle. Jesus tells him to “be clean,” both performing a physical miracle and a mental one. The man had never felt such compassion before, Rodriguez said.

“Words of compassion can heal the injuries of a broken heart,” Rodriguez said. “Never underestimate the power of your words.”

Rodriguez, who grew up on the United States-Mexico border, remembers wishing he lived in a different family because of his father’s alcoholism. 

His mother tried to get his father to go to church with them every Sunday and Wednesday, but he was powerless against alcohol, Rodriguez said. He didn’t understand why his mother stayed married to him. 

“For a long time, I was angry at God for deciding to give my mother, brother and I the life we were experiencing,” he said. “It wasn’t until I grew older and began to give my life to God that I began to understand what my mother was doing. Her faith in God gave her wisdom and strength to give my father a love that I didn’t understand.”

Rodriguez said Romans 5:8 shows God’s love for humans, even though they are sinners — which is the same love Rodriguez’s mother demonstrated.

“I remember my father desperately trying to quit his alcohol addiction and stop hurting his family,” he said. “I remember the pain I felt, the worry I experienced, hoping my father would come home sober.”

His mother always told him she stayed because that was her choice of marriage. That love stuck with Rodriguez. 

Later in life, Rodriguez visited Honduras on a mission trip. The country had just been battered by Hurricane Mitch, and he heard stories of family members washed away by mudslides and rivers. He expected this phenomenon to shake people’s faith.

It did the opposite, he said.

“God seemed to be their tower of strength to get through their pain,” he said.

In addition, Rodriguez realized he could empathize with their pain. 

“I felt that same pit in my stomach when I saw my father intoxicated,” he said. “I felt the same pain as I saw my mother cry because my father’s chaos would drain all of my family emotionally. I felt that same worry when I expected my father to arrive home like a tornado. I noticed more and more how I would feel empathy when I witnessed someone else distressed.”

Rodriguez’s childhood feeling of pain is what propelled his ability to empathize as an adult, he said. He thinks everyone is capable of feeling it, but needs to address it head on. 

When he came home from Honduras, he told his wife it was time to do more than simply go to church every week, and she had been feeling the same way. 

Edgar Rodriguez — the Moville, Iowa, chief of police and lead pastor of the New Hope Church — speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Rodriguez completely started his life over, switching from an architecture major at the University of Georgia to a major in theology and pastoral ministries at Vennard College, a now-closed nondenominational Christian college in University Park, Iowa.

After graduating, they moved to Portland, Oregon, where Rodriguez first became a pastor. In 2010, the couple moved to Moville to save a dying church, he said.

“My message to the small church was a message of empathy,” he said. “I communicated to them that unless we engaged our community with love and compassion, they wouldn’t care if we existed. So, we began the journey to change from a self-indulgent church to a mission-minded church who would notice people’s needs in our community.”

After some time, he met a major of the sheriff’s office at a neighboring town’s city council meeting. Rodriguez was there asking if his church could do midweek services in the town’s park. The sheriff approached him afterward and said he was impressed with Rodriguez’s work.

That sheriff began attending church, and eventually asked Rodriguez to be a chaplain at the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office. He accepted, and was now meeting with deputies, jailers and inmates at the county jail. 

“They would lock me in a little five-by-five concrete room with no windows and one entrance and one exit,” he said. “I would sit in front, across a little table, from (anyone from) petty thieves to murderers. I sat in front of gang members, domestic abusers, child abusers, and many more types of criminals.”

Their one commonality: Each took a wrong turn in life, he said. Most came from abusive homes, foster care or broken homes. 

“Most of them thought the path they chose was not one that they would ever choose, but it was what they felt was handed to them,” he said. “It was all they knew.”

Rodriguez saw his own life in many of theirs.

“I could see my father,” he said. “I could see my mother struggling to keep us together. I could identify myself with them. … I could have chosen drugs. I could have chosen alcohol or gangs. But the love of my mother — and other people who would show up in my life with encouraging words from time to time — kept me safe and present.”

The love and hope his mother had, and that he said he received from Jesus, allowed Rodriguez to pass on hope to inmates. He could help them think beyond their current state.

“I became their champion,” he said. “Sometimes, I believed in them more than they believed in themselves.” 

Rodriguez believed in them because he believed in his father to overcome his battle against alcohol — which he eventually did, giving in to Rodriguez’s mother’s church invitations. 

“He made a conscious decision to believe in God for the first time, and the power of God was with him,” Rodriguez said.

The jail could hardly keep Bibles on the shelf, and the sheriff asked Rodriguez if he would become a reserve deputy. Rodriguez accepted, and he soon realized after starting his service that he would encounter people he’d never meet at church. 

Moville eventually needed a new police officer, and the mayor and then-police chief asked Rodriguez to join.

“They told me the compassion I had for people was exactly what they wanted in the department,” he said. “So, it hit me that if I really wanted to help the broken and hurting, I needed to get involved and have a position that would make a difference in people’s lives.”

He did make a difference as a pastor, but as a police officer he got to help people actively losing control, he said.

“In essence, it put me with my father again,” he said. “Every time I encounter someone who made a bad choice, I see my father — and I feel a love for them that is unexplainable. I can see them past their present circumstance and exterior facade and see the person that never thought they would be in this predicament.”

On his first weekend on duty in Moville, Rodriguez was sent to pick up a woman with a warrant out for her arrest. It was a petty crime, and she just hadn’t gone to court, he said. When he arrived at her house, he didn’t want to arrest her. 

He saw, through the woman, his mother standing at the door. Rodriguez told her he would treat her with respect, asked if she needed to grab anything, and said that he would drive her to the jail but not handcuff her. 

On the half-hour drive to Sioux City, Rodriguez encouraged her, told her he would pray for her and would be there if she needed him for anything. It came up that he was a minister, and the woman attended his church that next Sunday. 

“She’s been walking into our church ever since,” he said. “She’s told me as many times as she can that I changed her life.”

In another story, from this year’s July 4, Rodriguez stopped a car that had a broken headlight. He expected to just give them a warning because most people don’t realize when a light goes out.

But, the driver didn’t want to follow orders. He got out of the vehicle and refused to get back inside. He told Rodriguez it wasn’t his car, that he was borrowing it, so Rodriguez had to check his ID. In the radio in his ear, dispatch asked if his radio was secured.

“When they say that, it’s not good,” Rodriguez said. 

The man had three warrants to his name — he was a dangerous gang member from Los Angeles. Three other deputies were on the way, but as usual in a rural community, they were all about a half-hour away.

“OK, well, hurry up,” he said.

The man became more and more jittery, and Rodriguez tried grabbing his wrist to handcuff him. Rodriguez lost grip, and the man took off running, prompting a chase. 

Rodriguez caught up, wrestled with the man and took out his taser gun. Before he could shoot, the man relented, and Rodriguez got him in handcuffs and to the back seat of his car.

“Then, I decided I needed to notice this individual,” he said. “There had to be more to the story.”

On the way to Sioux City, Rodriguez said he would help with the three warrants as much as possible, but the man had to be truthful with him. He asked him about his life and how he got here, which was similar to the other inmates Rodriguez met.

Rodriguez asked if he believed in a higher power, and the man said he used to but his prayers were never answered. 

Edgar Rodriguez — the Moville, Iowa, chief of police and lead pastor of the New Hope Church — speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

“God isn’t a genie,” Rodriguez told him. “God is someone who wants to have a relationship.” 

The man cried and prayed with Rodriguez and asked God back into his life, he said, and on a bridge near the jail, fireworks began going off.

“Of course, after I told him that after you pray you’re not going to see a big bang, all of a sudden ‘bang, bang, bang,’ ” Rodriguez said. 

They arrived at the county jail, and the man was able to pay off the petty warrant he had in Woodbury County. One warrant was in Los Angeles and the other was in a second Iowa County. The jail tried calling the other county, but it wouldn’t answer.

That never happened, Rodriguez said.

After several attempts and waiting for a call back, they had no choice but to release the man and wait for the other county to follow up.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You did it!’ ” Rodriguez said.

The jail workers knew exactly what he was talking about. They’d seen it before with Rodriguez.

To close his lecture, Rodriguez asked the audience a question.

“Is there anything you wouldn’t do to help you?” he said.

Empathy is the embodiment of what one would do for themselves, but instead for others, he said.

“Empathy is the way to people’s hearts,” he said. “It makes you see past their exterior and sometimes their tough cover. Empathy is noticing and understanding what a person is going through and then sharing their feelings.”

Pastor, author Brian McLaren shares road to empathy, urges others to open minds

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Brian McLaren delivers his Interfaith Lecture on “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Brian McLaren was miles down a remote fishing trail in Pennsylvania when he heard a call. A few, actually, each time becoming more clear the call was his name.

“If anyone had gone through that much trouble to find me way, way back in this remote valley, it had to be bad news,” he said. 

McLaren was a 34-year-old pastor at the time, in the early 1990s, on a retreat. He had been experiencing some doubt in his faith. On the two-mile uphill hike back to his car, he could only be sure of his fast-beating heart, and unsure of anything to come. 

When he returned to the retreat center, he called his wife. 

That morning, their 6-year-old son was looking pale, so she took him to their pediatrician. When the results from a blood draw came, the order was strict: Get him to the hospital within the hour.

McLaren immediately began driving five hours south to the hospital.

“All I could think of was my precious little boy,” he said. “How much I loved him. How I would gladly trade places with him. My heart was also broken for my wife, who was having to handle this alone. Truth be told, I was more than a little bit worried about myself. I was already struggling. I was worn down. I was grappling with a crisis of faith.”

Through several rounds of tears and prayers, McLaren arrived at his new reality, one of bone marrow, spinal infusions and five-year survival rates. His son, Trevor, had acute lymphocytic leukemia. 

For months, he and his wife traded places at the hospital — they had three other children and jobs — rarely seeing each other besides the tag-outs. One day, when he was home alone, finally with a chance to pause, McLaren read through a newsletter from an organization that supported parents of kids with cancer. 

On the second-to-last page was a list. On it, the names of children who had passed away in the previous month. Next to their names were their parents’ names. McLaren was struck.

“I began to feel my own pain,” he said, “the pain that in some ways I didn’t have time to feel in the rush of the previous months. I felt the threat that had crashed into my son’s life, and into my family’s life. … My pain joined with the pain and the grief of these other parents whose names were on that page.”

McLaren felt their pain as if it was his own. Indeed, it was his own pain, he said.

“It was as close as if there was this one huge ocean of pain out here, and I had just sailed down my river and entered into it,” he said. “Each of those names of a lost child was as dear to those parents on that page as Trevor was to me.”

He mourned each family’s loss of birthdays, graduations, weddings, careers and life, he said. His empathy was spreading uncontrollably, like the waves that spread from a rock that just splashed in water, he said. The experience, to him, was breathtaking and profound. 

“The feeling was pure,” he said. “So pure. I would even use the word ‘holy’ to describe it.”

McLaren read the poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” by Warsan Shire. Shire was born in Kenya and raised in England. In the poem, Shire writes of her aunt’s house set ablaze, and how she prayed for her two countries. One was thirsty, the other was on fire, and both needed water, she wrote. 

“later that night / i held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? / it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere,” Shire wrote. 

Brian McLaren delivers his Interfaith Lecture on “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

McLaren further described this experience and the importance of empathy in his Interfaith Lecture at 1 p.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. His lecture, “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” was the first of three Week Six lectures themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

Empathy is like a radar dish, McLaren said. It’s turned inward at birth, helping people understand when their diaper needs changed or when they’re hungry. As one grows up, the radar becomes more sensitive and begins focusing outside of oneself.

For some, it’s focused just on their nuclear family. For others, it may include an extended family, neighbors, members of the same race, political party or nation, he said. For others still, it detects the feelings of strangers, and even others are empathetic to other species. 

Psychologists analyze empathy in cognitive, or intellectual, dimensions and affective, or emotional, dimensions.

“Cognitively, empathy involves the ability to understand perspective, to understand that what is a win for you could be a loss for somebody else or vice versa,” McLaren said. “Empathy involves personal connection, the ability to feel something that another person feels, and it also involves personal distress — how hurt, motivated or incapacitated you are by someone else’s pain.”

Without distress, McLaren said, empathy will fade away from consciousness like static electricity. Too much distress, however, can paralyze a person. If someone on a crime scene faints at the sight of blood, they are another casualty, he said. 

“That’s why psychologists say healthy empathy means being able to imagine what life is like in someone else’s shoes, yet staying in your own shoes,” he said. “It means being touched by others’ pain, but not being hopelessly and helplessly absorbed into it.”

When someone can strike that balance, they can act constructively, creating a more sustainable and habitual pattern.

“It becomes a part of who you are,” he said.

McLaren battled doubt in his faith. His son battled leukemia. Both survived, but are forever changed. 

“He didn’t simply go back to being a normal kid,” McLaren said. “It turned him into a philosopher. It gave him a seriousness and a fire to live while he’s alive. Now, in his mid-30s, he’s never lost the ability to let his pain not divert him from the pain of others, but find a connection.”

McLaren understood the doubtful aspects of his religion, Christianity, deserved to be doubted, he said. He felt a moral obligation to challenge and improve it. 

“The pain of doubt sensitized me to the cries of the earth, and cries of the poor,” he said. “The cries of the suffering, the misunderstood and the forgotten. It let me hold an atlas on my lap and ask it where it was hurting, and pause and listen for a reply.”

This idea of doubt and deconstruction was apparent in the New Testament, in Matthew 5-7, McLaren said, but he never realized it. 

“(Jesus) advocated for taking the empathy that we naturally feel for people who are like us, and who like us, and extending that, without discrimination, to others,” McLaren said.

In this same passage, Jesus tells of the creator’s concern for flowers and birds, he said.

“God feels a pang of sorrow for every sparrow that falls from the sky,” he said. “God cherishes the beauty of a single wildflower that only blooms for one short afternoon.” 

McLaren said the country and world today lacks empathy.

“The future of empathy in our culture is not only in question,” he said. “It is in peril.”

Dictators, authoritarians and demagogues know to create hostility against a common enemy in order to build loyalty, even if the enemy doesn’t exist, McLaren said. 

“It’s the creation of fear and the invitation to join in enmity against a common enemy that turns a crowd into a mob ready to do anything for that leader,” he said. “In fact, a good definition of an enemy is a human being who has been dehumanized to the point where we feel justified in having no empathy at all.”

Cable news outlets, McLaren said, know that keeping people afraid and in fear boosts their ratings and increases profits. Corporate leaders and economists often believe empathy is a liability instead of an asset, he said. He read an August 2018 tweet from then-Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or ill, survive,” Netanyahu wrote. “The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”

Brian McLaren delivers his Interfaith Lecture on “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

McLaren agreed that strength is needed in the world.

“But strength without empathy can make you a real monster,” he said, drawing applause from the Amp crowd. “And a world run by competing monsters is not a world you want to bequeath to your grandchildren.”

In trying to figure out how to develop empathy before it’s too late, one might then question whose job it is to teach such empathy, McLaren said.

“Sadly, the answer is almost no one,” he said.

Politicians are too focused on short-term gains, and businesses prefer profits, he said. Educators might be a good choice, but no standardized test looks at empathy.

“If they did, some politicians would be shouting to defund the schools,” he said. 

McLaren believes the true point and highest contribution of religion is to create a culture of empathy, compassion and love. It will take a revolutionary strategy as detailed as the moonshot program in the 1960s, he said.  

Movements must begin somewhere, he said. He highlighted important figures such as Pope Francis, Bishop Michael Curry, the Institution’s Vice President of Religion Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, and Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture Series speaker Edgar Rodriguez.

“Yes, there are many religious leaders who are oblivious and are a part of the problem, but there are many who could become a part of the solution if they just hear our voices raised from today onward,” McLaren said. 

Empathy is at the heart of most religions, he said, but he understands that many faith communities will not change. 

“They’re never going to turn their radar dish further outside,” he said. “Here’s what I’d say about them: Let them be. Nobody can force them to change until they’re ready, and they’re not ready. I know this: Many of us are ready.”

McLaren called on people to imagine Methodist or Catholic churches where participants were urged to feel the pain inflicted on them and that they inflicted on others. Or to imagine a synagogue, mosque or Southern Baptist gathering where participants were urged to feel a connection to strangers just as they would to their own family, because they, too, are someone’s family. 

He said to imagine congregations understanding compassion fatigue and the need for retreats, and to understand their inherited religious narratives can constrict empathy and increase hostility. 

There are a few steps to reaching such imaginations, he said. First is bringing together thought leaders and content creators to create resources, train trainers and network across religions, he said. 

“Build it from the grassroots,” he said. “Look for the green grass on both sides of every religious fence.”

He said to provide resources through all necessary means and to give encouragement to local leaders to innovate. Leaders should come together to share best practices within their religious groups and across religious groups, he said. 

“Expect strong opposition from gatekeepers,” he said. “Empathize even with them. But do not be intimidated. Use each criticism as an opportunity to clarify your message for those who are open.”

Lastly, he said to focus efforts on parents teaching children, so they will teach their peers and create youth leaders.

“If you take an atlas tonight, and hold it in your lap, and you run your fingers across the whole world, yes, everywhere you will hear cries of pain,” he said. “But, if you listen, you will also hear something else that’s everywhere.”

This sound will be the song of those opening their pain and empathy for the world, he said. 

“It might be today … you dare to open your heart to an empathy that is so big and so pure, that you might even call it holy,” he said. 

Israel-based comedian Benji Lovitt gives permission to laugh in toughest times

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Comedian Benji Lovitt delivers his lecture, “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

As he walked onto the Amphitheater stage Wednesday afternoon, comedian Benji Lovitt thanked everyone for coming to his first annual lecture at Chautauqua. He said the organizers didn’t know this would be an annual event, but he’s working it out.

Lovitt wanted to get to know his audience more, so he asked them to raise their hands to a series of questions, such as if this was also their first visit, or if they’re watching the Olympics.

“Finally, raise your hand if you’re carrying a large amount of cash as we speak. Keep those hands up, let me look,” he said.

Lovitt flew from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Chautauqua for his lecture “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” the final Interfaith Lecture Series of Week Five, themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle,” a week in partnership with the National Comedy Center.

When he told people he was coming to New York State, he realized how annoying it was for people to ignore every word after “York.” People asked him if he was going to Broadway.

“Not unless they moved it,” he said. “It’s off-off-off-Broadway. It’s so off, it’s back on.”

He noted a stark difference in the weather here compared to Israel, particularly when walking through Palestine Park.

“I gotta say, I think I like it more than the real one,” she said. “No humidity, no fighting; I might stick around.”

Lovitt also pointed out a ceramics class on the grounds costing $150. His lecture cost $15.

“What are they sculpting? Pyramids? That means you need 10 of me to get an equal value.”

But, he was happy to be in person after a year and half of Zoom events. 

“Stand-up by Zoom is awful. Communication is one way. I get no positive feedback. I’m lucky to see anyone smiling. Reminds me of my childhood,” he said. “My mom hates that joke.”

Complaining is a part of Jewish humor, he said. He told a joke of a Jewish woman in the hospital who told her doctor she wanted to be transferred. He asked if it was the food, she said it was delicious and that she couldn’t kvetch, the Yiddish word for complain. It wasn’t the room, nor the staff — she said both were great. The doctor asked her why she wanted to be transferred then.

“I can’t kvetch,” she said.

Lovitt said complaints, though, should never be about important things, just if it’s hot out or the line is long. It’s a way of coping and existing, he said. 

Comedy is a silly, foolish or witty way to deviate from the expected reality, and it can be insightful and enlightening, Lovitt said. 

“Most of all, comedy can be cathartic and therapeutic, releasing tension in a way that allows the joke teller and the audience to heal and draw power,” he said. 

Lovitt said people often ask him where he comes up with his material.

“I’ll tell you where I don’t get it from: happiness and success,” he said. “There’s nothing funny about that. Plus, I have neither.”

If everything has gone well for someone, then there can’t be anything to complain about, he said. Comedians talk about their partners’ nagging, bad cooking or pet peeves, not their perfect eggplant parmesan, he said. 

Lovitt referenced a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “Word Association,” starring Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. In it, the interviewer, Chase, is asking Pryor’s character for word associations, which turns into Black and white racial slurs coming from both men. The idea came from Paul Mooney, who had a poor relationship with Lorne Michaels and NBC executives.

“After all the BS I’ve been put through to get here, and the bleeping cross-examination Lorne subjects me to, I decided to do a job interview of my own,” Lovitt said, reading from a letter written by Mooney. The censorings were Lovitt’s edits. 

This humor demonstrates the ability to speak the truth in comedy and send a message, Lovitt said. 

Lovitt’s outsider perspective comes from living in Israel. He was born in Dallas, and had lived in other cities like Atlanta and New York City before deciding to make his international move. He’s been living there for the last 15 years.

Comedian Benji Lovitt delivers his lecture “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

His stand-up career became much more serious in Israel, he said. 

“First of all, performing in English as an expat makes you a big fish in a small pond, which is far less intimidating and dog-eat-dog than the clubs in New York City,” he said. “But, more than that, if a good comedian needs diversity and a little bit of suffering for comedic inspiration, I found myself sitting on a gold mine.”

Immigrating was the hardest thing Lovitt ever did, he said, because of the different language, cultural norms and social practices. However, it’s provided him with material for a lifetime, he said.

“Only in Israel does a business that’s closed on the Sabbath advertise being open 24/6,” he said. 

Israel as a country is 73 years old, he said, so there are plenty of issues with government, infrastructure and the economy, but if a comic could go back to 1849 and see the United States at the same age, he said there would be plenty to make fun of there.

When comedians start their careers, they will make material out of anything, Lovitt said. He used to discuss Taco Bell, sports commentators and the Backstreet Boys, but life in Israel matured his routine. 

“Only after my move did I really find my comedic voice and character,” he said. “The confused, wide-eyed and frustrated immigrant just trying to survive. It wasn’t hard to find this voice, and it wasn’t a character. This was my life.”

He realized he wasn’t alone, though. Other immigrants and tourists from English-speaking countries found comfort in Lovitt’s comedic takes, he said. 

“My fellow immigrants and I share a bond for sharing the same challenging journey,” he said. 

Lovitt himself found comfort in people’s positive feedback.

“A little humor goes a long way,” he said. “It reminds you that you’re not crazy, there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not alone.”

Lovitt said he connected with a larger audience during a severely unfunny period: war. In summer 2014, Israel and Hamas were engaged in what the Israeli government called Operation Protective Edge. It was a depressing period, Lovitt said, even though he had never served in an army nor had any relatives who did. 

“The most intense war I watched as a kid were the Celtics and Lakers,” he said. “And I’m not trying to be flippant here. That’s the language we use in America, especially in sports.”

Instead of sitting around and feeling guilty that he couldn’t emotionally relate on the same level as some, he decided to do what he did best: make jokes. He called this the most Jewish thing anyone could do.

“Now, anyone who knows anything about comedy knows that a good comedian does not punch down, like to make fun of victims or people with less power than you,” he said. “Making fun of deaths or suffering is wrong and bullying. But, making fun of yourself, the government or someone trying to hurt you, that’s fair game.”

During that summer, Lovitt posted hundreds of times on Facebook, mocking news headlines, sirens alerting people to run to bomb shelters, and more. 

“When the siren goes off, and you’re on the crapper, you might as well just laugh. #ProtectiveEdge #UnprotectedDump,” Lovitt said in one post. 

He shared another.

“Did CNN really run the headline ‘Ceasefire Holds Despite Fighting’? In other news, abstinence holds despite intercourse,” he had written.

He continued sharing more, highlighting that he was mocking the media, high cost of living, Israeli drivers and the bureaucracy — and not the average Palestinian, he said. 

Sometimes, on particularly hard news days, Lovitt said he stepped back from the computer and realized the timing would not be right. His friends reminded him that he wasn’t someone in a safe zone far away from the country making fun of the situation, but was literally running to bomb shelters.

Plus, Lovitt received uplifting responses from his readers.

“I even have my mom in the States following you now to help her realize that though this situation sucks, we must continue on with our lives the best we can,” read one response.

Comedian Benji Lovitt delivers his lecture “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

In another Lovitt shared, someone thanked him for the humor and for bringing lightness to heavy times.

“I know comics are supposed to go for the laughs, but when I got feedback like that, it affected me a lot more deeply,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is bigger than just a comedy show.’ ”

On one particularly violent day, 13 soldiers were killed in a military operation. Lovitt was the first act at a comedy fundraiser that night. He wasn’t immediately sure what to do, but he knew he couldn’t cancel the show, not that he had the decision to do so, he said.

“What I’ve learned from Israelis is, almost always, the show must go on,” he said. “If we cancel the show anytime anything awful happens, nobody would ever perform.”

Shootings, murders, crime and people not being able to afford insurance are daily events in America, he said, but its not a reason to cancel shows, concerts or sporting events. 

On a vacation in Ethiopia, Lovitt questioned many life decisions when he saw some of the levels of poverty there. One of his friends told him he couldn’t lose his mind trying to save everyone who needs saving.

“You just have to appreciate and thank God for what you have, and try to be the best human being you can be,” Lovitt’s friend said.

At the comedy fundraiser, Lovitt addressed the situation head on. Then, everyone moved on.

“It meant for 90 minutes, they put bad feelings to the side, engaged in self care and returned to their lives,” he said.

In this last year, Lovitt said America has learned to appreciate the ability to laugh to keep from crying. 

Nothing is funny about the millions of people who have died of COVID-19, he said, but happiness and laughter don’t need to disappear. From the pandemic’s onset, he said the internet was full of images, videos, jokes and content meant to make people smile and laugh. That humor — and vaccines — got us this far, he said.

Twice during this last year, two organizers who hired Lovitt told him to avoid pandemic-related jokes because people didn’t want to hear it.

“Those people did not understand comedy,” he said. 

On Monday night, Lewis Black talked about COVID-19 during his stand-up routine in the Amp. Lovitt said it would have been weird and disappointing if he didn’t. 

“It’s not about making light of something or being insensitive,” Lovitt said. “It’s about giving people hope.” 

Of course, Lovitt said, when dealing with sensitive subjects people may want to leave the jokes to professionals, or make 100% certain it’s a good and safe joke. Otherwise, it’s almost always OK to laugh.

“My friends, life is hard. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept it. We should never stop fighting injustice, defeating pandemics and trying to make the world a better place,” he said. “But, if we forget to laugh along the way, we may not make it to the other side.”

Comedian Leighann Lord brings stand-up to Interfaith Lecture Series

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Stand-up comedian and writer Leighann lord gives a morning lecture Tuesday July 27, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

All bets were off when Leighann Lord took the Amphitheater stage on Tuesday afternoon.

She opened first with a brag on the Institution, calling it the best adult summer camp she’s ever attended. She followed with a little brag on herself: Her audience was a little bigger than Lewis Black’s on Monday night, she said. But she likes Black.

“He’s so angry, he’s like an honorary Black woman,” she said. 

Lord loved that so many people brought their dogs to Chautauqua, and asked if the cats were at home fending for themselves. She recently adopted a cat, and said the people at the shelter tried to get her to take more, saying her cat had a girlfriend.

“That’s a hard ‘no,’ because I’m not going to be the only single person in my house. Let me be very clear, I’m his woman now,” she said.

Having always been a dog person, she was used to dogs’ willingness to give unconditional love.

“Cats teach you about consent,” she said.

Lord was just getting started with her Interfaith Series Lecture, but her lecture followed a stand-up comedy format. The act, “I’m Not Funny, I’m Brave,” was the second of three lectures themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle.”

Hailing from South Jamaica, Queens, Lord said people often get nervous when she tells people she’s from New York.

“They think I’m going to rob them or something,” she said. “So I do. I don’t want to disappoint. I’m such a people pleaser.”

Lord is an accomplished and well-traveled comedian, having performed in all 50 states.

“I can honestly say we don’t need all 50,” she said. 

She’s also performed internationally, including in England, where she said the pound was worth much more than the dollar. 

“So much so that I found a pound on the street, brought it back and bought a house,” she said. 

In reality, Lord did buy a house recently — an old one, which garnered understanding groans from the crowd. She went through a long list of maintenance issues. When her water heater broke, the plumber said there were birds in her chimney.

“They sound like freeloaders,” she told the plumber.

A chimney guy got rid of the birds, but found a crack in the chimney. He showed her pictures; she could not discern whether they were of the chimney or his colonoscopy. Later, a guy came to fix her roof and found squirrels. She called an exterminator, but it is illegal in New York to kill squirrels. Lord said it’s because they have a strong political lobby in Albany.

Instead, a man came, trapped the squirrels, and moved them across town. 

“Sounds sketchy, doesn’t it?” she said. “Because how do I know that some guy over there isn’t trapping squirrels and bringing them back over here? You can’t exactly go up to a squirrel and say, ‘Hey, you don’t look like you’re from around here,’ because that’s racist.”

Lord has been in and out of Home Depot, she said, including when she needed a new light bulb. She brought it to the store, but had to wait multiple shifts for the one and only Home Depot employee who knows where anything is arrived, which she said is the case at every Home Depot. He got her the right bulb, though.

But, it didn’t work. She called an electrician who told her the house’s entire electrical grid needed to be replaced.

“So, I’m dating the electrician ‘cause momma is all out of Bitcoin,” she said.

Lord moved on. She wanted to keep introducing herself. Turns out, she is the first person in her nuclear family to graduate from college, having attended UCLA — the University on the Corner of Lexington Avenue, she joked.

As an English major, Lord said it was a challenge to date online, because she is constantly proofreading, editing and sending in corrections. She can’t understand how one can be a man of his word if he can’t even spell the word. 

Originally, she went as a finance major, but she wasn’t good at math. No worries, she said, because a lot of people are not good at math. 

Recently, at the grocery store, her total was $8.58. She gave a $10 bill, then found 50 cents and handed it to the cashier, who was mortified. She had no idea how much change to give, she told Lord. Lord told her $10, because she’s not good at math.

Lord is thinking of going back to school, however. She said graduate school was a lot of fun for her.

“But I’m still uncomfortable telling people I went to Harvard, especially since I didn’t,” she said. “People get mad at affirmative action; not so much about affirmative imagination.”

College is too expensive nowadays, she said. Moreover, she doesn’t understand why there aren’t any sales, such as buying a bachelor’s degree and getting a doctorate for half price.

For a few years, Lord worked in a financial service’s communications department. She found out about layoffs before others, but couldn’t tell them, so she tried to hint to them not to buy a house.

“I worked with financial experts, people who used to say the housing crisis was caused by people who couldn’t pay their mortgage,” she said. “That’s like saying slavery was caused by people not running away fast enough.”

Lord is self-employed now, but a drawback to that is she can’t call in sick because she knows she’s lying, she said. 

Although she attended Catholic school, Lord isn’t Catholic now. She didn’t leave formally, she just unfriended them on Facebook, she said. She does think people should choose their religion based on their personality. Laid-back people should practice zen, nature lovers should be druids and those in a hurry should switch to Geico, she said.

“I thought about being a Buddhist, but then I read that Buddha left his wife and baby to seek enlightenment,” she said. “Wow. Buddha is a deadbeat dad. That’s why you don’t hear about the second coming of Buddha. He’d have to pay a lot of back child support.”

As a New Yorker, Lord said she is genuinely intrigued by the Jewish religion and culture, and thought about converting because she was dating a Jew. 

“But as a Black woman, I think I have all the oppression I can handle,” she said.

She thought of another possible religious conversion.

“Islam seems progressive and friendly for women,” she said, trailing off to another laugh from the audience. “I have trouble with cultures that think women should be covered up so as not to sexually tempt the men. Apparently, these men have no self-control. Honestly, if that’s the case, then maybe instead of covering the women, we should blindfold the men.”

The Amp echoed with cheering and applause.

Ultimately, Lord said she’s a humanist, but humans are a hard species to love for her. So maybe she’s more of a doggist, she said. 

Religion is admittedly hard to joke about because everyone believes something different, she said. For example, a friend of hers is convinced aliens built the pyramids because they said we have no real idea who built it. 

“I said, ‘Dude, I don’t know who put the shingles on the roof of my house. Doesn’t mean Klingons did it,’ ” Lord told her friend.

Looking at the week, Lord agreed with other speakers that people lately have been on edge and angry.

“Which is sad, because Black women, we were angry first,” she said. “We had a good 200- to 300-year start.” 

Lord is currently in therapy, and she said it was expensive. One guy wanted to charge her $150 an hour, and she said she could just talk to the voices in her head for free. 

“I do recommend therapy to self-help books,” she said. “I don’t think mental health should be do-it-yourself. The no. 1 killer in the U.S. right now is stress. The no. 2 killer is this dude on my block named Quan. Actually, it’s Killer Quan because, you know, Instagram.”

Stand-up comedian and writer Leighann lord gives a morning lecture Tuesday July 27, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Actually, Lord’s stress comes from watching too much Fox News and CNN — she watches both so she can be equally misinformed, she said. 

Her biggest issue with politics is that it shouldn’t matter how much money someone has, she said, but how attractive they look. 

“I didn’t vote for Obama because he’s Black, I voted for him because he’s cute,” she said. “I honestly think the president of the United States should be drop-dead gorgeous. If you’re going to screw up the country for four, possibly eight, years then you better be easy on the eyes.”

She does try to keep up with the news, but doesn’t understand much of what’s happening in China. 

“But, I don’t think we should piss off the people who sew our clothes, cook our food and make our toys,” she said.

Russia is confusing to her, too, because the U.S. and Russia went from World War II allies to the Cold War, Cuban missile crisis, six James Bond movies and “Rocky IV.”

“Some will remember in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia,” she said. “George Bush didn’t know what to do. He was calling up Jimmy Carter like, ‘You’re from Georgia, do something.’ ”

Lord moved on from politics to talk about health. She said she went to the doctor last week, and he told her no caffeine, no fatty foods and no alcohol. She told him, no copay. 

She acknowledged she had gained some weight, and she really wanted Botox and liposuction, but her budget called for self-acceptance. 

When shopping, she can’t believe that women’s sizes start at size 0. She wonder if a baby starts at negative 42. 

“You are not a size 0 if people can see you,” she said. 

Lord once had a bad case of fibroids, so much so she looked pregnant, she said. At dinner one night, she ordered a glass of merlot, and her waiter questioned her decision. She told him he was right and ordered a rum and Coke instead.

Lord did have surgery — she got a myomectomy. 

“So I guess I gentrified my uterus,” she said. “It’s very beautiful now.”

Lord said she is baffled that people try to tell women what to do with their bodies. 

“It just doesn’t add up,” she said. “One egg, 1 million sperm and I’m the problem?”

She wants people to be mothers if they want, but she said it’s hard with her 77- and 84-year-old children. Caregiving for her parents has been a true role reversal, she said.

“I took my mom to the dentist, and she’s dragging her feet and doesn’t want to get in the chair,” she said. “I heard myself say, ‘If you behave yourself, I’ll take you to the liquor store.’ ”

Aging is a funny thing to Lord. She said she is at an age where police officers are looking really young to her. She saw one cop who she thought was trick-or-treating. 

“I said, ‘Hey, little boy, want some candy?’ I got arrested,” she said.

Lord has realized the body doesn’t age all at once. 

“My taste buds are still tasting,” she said. “My colon is not a team player. My heart is still young. My knees walked to freedom with Harriet Tubman.”

She doesn’t like to share her age — she said it’s just another way for people to discriminate. One of her biggest fears is when she’s much older, she’ll be murdered and the people on the news will say her age. 

Lord said she is taping a Showtime special called “Funny Women of a Certain Age” next month, and she said she loves that women are 52% of the population but only make 85 cents to the dollar a man makes.

“That’s why I don’t feel bad about shoplifting,” she said.

Furthermore, she said, Black women only make 65 cents  — so if someone didn’t like a joke, they should realize she only wrote 65% of it, she said.

If time is money, she said, and she isn’t getting paid a full dollar, then her 12-hour shift should be reduced to eight; her 9 to 5 is now 9 to 2, and her weekend should start on Wednesday.

It was time to wrap up, and Lord wanted the audience to reflect on everything they just heard. Seriously, this time. The title of her talk mentions bravery, and she said there is bravery in coming on stage to talk about issues that, on the surface, are not funny.

“I joked about crime, gentrification, travel, education, money, homeownership, squirrels, higher education, affirmative action, employment, unemployment, the 2008 financial crisis, the three major religions with honorable mentions to Buddhism, humanism and atheism, stereotypes, mental health, politics, foreign policy, health insurance, women’s health, female body autonomy, caregiving, aging parents, ageism, gender and ethnic pay inequality with a possible solution,” she said. 

Ultimately, Lord talked about life. 

“I use my comedy to enlighten and entertain because I believe humor makes people happy,” she said. “Happiness gives us hope, and my hope is if we can laugh together, we can live together.” 

Former ‘Forum’ host, scholar Michael Krasny brings laughter, context to Jewish humor

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Michael Krasny, retired host of KQED’s “Forum” and author of Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, delivers his lecture “Jewish Humor: History, Culture and Identity” Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Michael Krasny has what he called a treasure trove of Jewish jokes, plenty of which stem from the common notion that Jewish humor comes from a place of suffering. He even opened his lecture, “Jewish Humor: History, Culture and Identity,” with one such quip.

“The idea that Jewish humor is masochistic? I’m so tired of hearing that, that I want to kill myself,” Krasny said, drawing his first of many laughs from the Amphitheater.

Krasny’s 1 p.m. lecture on Monday, July 26 was the first of three Interfaith Series Lectures for Week Five, themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle.” He is the author of Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means. 

Additionally, Krasny taught literature and the English language at several colleges, including San Francisco State University, Stanford University, the University of San Francisco and the University of California. For three decades, he was a radio host, most notably for KQED’s “Forum,” which he hosted from 1993 to his retirement this past February.

For his lecture, Krasny told plenty of Jewish jokes with the goal of getting his audience to understand their context and underlying meaning. 

One joke he hadn’t heard until he wrote his book, published in 2016, starts with a rabbi who sees a young, sad-looking man at his congregation. He approached the man to see what was wrong, to which the man replied that he was looking for a wife. He had found several online that he liked, but his mother didn’t approve of any of them.

The rabbi asks the man if he looked for someone with similar traits to his mother. Not having done so yet, the man takes the rabbi’s advice, only to return a few weeks later looking worse for wear. The rabbi asks what happened. 

“The man said, ‘I found someone online who is not only interested in the same things as my mother, but cooks the same things, too. She looks and sounds like my mother. I brought her home, and even my father couldn’t stand her,’ ” Krasny said. 

This joke, Krasny said, pokes at the heart of long-lasting marriage and the institution of marriage in Jewish values. 

Next, Krasny said a new perspective can form by looking at Ashkenazi and Yiddish origins. 

“There’s the joke about two Jews, that’s tragically not all that unusual, who are in front of a firing squad,” he said. “They’re standing there before the squad, which is about to ready, aim, fire, and one of the Jews said to the other, ‘Don’t we get a last wish to ask for a cigarette?’ The other said, ‘Be quiet, do you want to get us in trouble?’ ”

Krasny said this joke points at Jews’ fear of bringing wrath upon themselves. 

Following this joke, Krasny told one which he said metaphors Jewish assimilation in America. It started with a New York Jew, Frenchman and German traveling in the Amazon when they are captured by cannibals. 

Taken to the village, the leader comes out in a loincloth to tell the men they are to be killed and eaten by the village, but because they are humane, they allow the three to choose how they die, and their skin will be turned into canoes. 

The Frenchman chose a guillotine, and his head was chopped with a hatchet. The German chose a Luger, so the leader shot him with a gun. The New York Jew asked for a fork. The leader, confused, pulled one out, and the Jew took the fork. 

“He takes the fork and starts stabbing himself with it and says, ‘Here’s your effing canoe,’ ” Krasny said.

Krasny teased that he wasn’t sure if he should tell that joke because we live in a “woke time” and the term “cannibal” could offend cannibals. Comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have said publicly they don’t like to perform on college campuses anymore because their humor isn’t politically correct.

“It says a lot about humor that one has to be painfully conscious,” Krasny said. “When you go into Jewish humor, you find plenty of stereotypes about Jews themselves and about every group you can imagine. You can find a lot of misogyny.”

He gave three such jokes, one of which was about a Jewish man who wanted his body cremated, which goes against Jewish orthodoxy, Krasny said. 

“He wants to be cremated and his ashes put in Bloomingdale’s — so he’s certain his wife will visit him occasionally,” Krasny said. 

Krasny said that although the misogynistic jokes were off-putting, they reference how after Jewish people immigrated to the United States, they wanted to spoil their daughters.

“When you analyze Jewish humor, you realize a lot of it is about assimilation,” he said, “the idea (Jews) came here from real suffering and found humor and joy in a land that really granted them freedom they had never had.” 

Understanding assimilating in the U.S. means looking at three groups: the pious Jew, the conservative Jew and the reform Jew, Krasny said. 

One joke Krasny told illustrated the difference between each group through the word “Berakah,” which translates to “blessing.” In the joke, a young Jewish man goes to an orthodox synagogue to ask for a Berakah on his new Mercedes. The rabbi is horrified and tells him to go to a conservative rabbi down the street. 

The conservative rabbi doesn’t help him either, but points to a reform rabbi further down. The reform rabbi asks the man more about his Mercedes, such as what model, telling him that he has one, too. He then asks the man a question.

“By the way, what’s a Berakah?” the punchline went. 

When you analyze Jewish humor, you realize a lot of it is about assimilation — the idea (Jews) came here from real suffering and found humor and joy in a land that really granted them freedom they had never had.

—Michael Krasny
Former host, 
KQED’s “Forum”

Plenty of Jewish humor is self-deprecating, and Krasny said it is apparent that these jokes indicate some pain or loss. But, he said a lot of the humor can be celebrative, too. 

In one example, Krasny said an old Jewish man was sitting between two Texans on a flight to Dallas. One of the Texans said, “My name is Roger, I own 250,000 acres, 1,000 head of cattle and they call my place ‘Jolly Roger.’ ”

The other Texan said, “I’m John, I own 350,000 acres, I have 5,000 head of cattle and they call my place ‘Big John’s.’ ”

They asked the smaller Jewish man his name and what he owned. His name was Lenny Liebowitz, and he owned 300 acres and didn’t raise any animals. The perplexed Texans asked him what he called the place he owned.

“Downtown Dallas,” he said.

Krasny said it’s common for Jewish humor to lean into the ideas that all Jews are capitalist or that all Jews are communist, which reflects real life antisemitic thoughts. 

“It’s taking stereotype and antisemitism and turning that into a joke,” Krasny said.

Another trope of Jewish humor picks at the idea some think they are chosen to have the Torah, the Jewish holy text that also comprises the first five books of the Bible. Krasny said when he was a boy he was told he wasn’t even the first choice, wasn’t superior and the idea of chosenness is misappropriated. 

“Much of this humor is about loss, differentness, separateness,” he said. “It’s really about identity.”

Some of the old Yiddish in jokes brings back memories, Krasny said. One joke involved the word “mishigas,” meaning craziness. 

The joke centers on two Japanese men, and one tells the other that his wife is having an affair with a Jewish man. He decides to confront her.

“She says, ‘Who told you this mishigas?’ ” Krasny said.

Yiddish has its own cadence, Krasny said, making it humorous in context. 

“When we go back to these jokes, we realize they have much more meaning than we thought they did,” he said. “A lot of the jokes that became current in American Jewish culture were barrier-breaking, envelope-pushing jokes.”

He referenced one Woody Allen joke, but first noted that some people may not even want to hear Allen’s name anymore after the HBO documentary series “Allen v. Farrow,” detailing the allegations of abuse leveled by Allen’s ex-wife and adopted daughter.

The joke, poking at Jewish cheapness, goes, “I thought I read about metaphors with the Bible and the burning bush with the Red Sea parting, but then my Uncle Sasha picked up the check.”

Krasny said some people argue these jokes shouldn’t be told in mixed company, but he said it’s important to understand the larger context of these jokes. 

Michael Krasny, retired host of KQED’s “Forum” and author of Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, delivers his lecture “Jewish Humor: History, Culture and Identity” Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Some jokes are cross-cultural, in that the setup and punchline are the same but can be given a Jewish twist. Krasny gave an example of one that did not cross cultures. 

“This Jewish guy is getting knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and he has a yarmulke on his head, and there’s a line of men and she says ‘What makes this knight different from all the other knights?’ I don’t think that spreads out to different cultures,” he said.

He then gave examples of cross-cultural jokes. One of them involved a barber who wouldn’t take money from a person of God. He denies payment from a priest, who leaves him a crucifix and a note of thanks at the barbershop the next day. The same happens with a minister, who leaves a Bible with an inscription of gratitude the following day.

When the rabbi gets a haircut, and is told he doesn’t have to pay, the next day there are 12 rabbis at the barbershop. 

At a dinner with friends, Krasny said he heard the same joke, but it was a Frenchman, Englishman and Chinese man, and 12 Chinese showed up the next day.

In searching for the quintessential Jewish joke, Krasny found one from Harvard professor Ruth Wise about a German, Frenchman, Mexican and Jew who have made an arduous trek up a mountain. At the top, each are tired and thirsty.

The Mexican said he must drink tequila. The Frenchman said he must drink wine. The German said he must drink beer. The Jew said he must have diabetes.

“We complain a lot. We see problems when they shouldn’t be there, but nevertheless that’s who we are, and in some ways we own it,” Krasny said.

Krasny said laughter was necessary for a healthy life.

“We need laughter,” he said. “Laughter sustains us.”

Professor, archivist Gary Philip Zola shows Jews’ history, valuable contributions to America

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Jewish people have never had a better life than those who have lived in the United States, said Rabbi Gary Phillip Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

He argued this based on American Jewish exceptionalism, the concept that nowhere else at any point in time have Jews had more opportunity, equality or come closest to the ideals outlined in the founding of the U.S.

This notion differs from American exceptionalism, which is the claim that America is a special nation and inherently different from the rest of the world, and Zola contended that this notion has its upsides and downsides.

Zola sees the American Jewish experience as unique.

He described why Jewish life in America was different at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 21 in the Amphitheater. His lecture, “American Exceptionalism versus American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History,” was the last in the Interfaith Lecture Series for Week Four, themed “The Evolving Religious Narrative of America.”

Zola started with four points to prove his argument.

First, he said Jewish history in America began well before the United States became a country, when the first Jewish colony was formed in New Amsterdam in 1654. 

“There has been a continuous Jewish communal presence with synagogues since 1654,” Zola said.

Second, Jews actively participated in the fight for America’s independence, Zola said, serving as soldiers, partisans and patriots. 

“This is very unusual, that the Jewish community is rightfully entitled to say we helped birth the American nation,” Zola said.

Third, the U.S. Constitution asserts inalienable rights to all men. Without knowing the Constitutional Convention already decided on a separation between church and state, Zola said Jewish immigrant and Revolutionary War veteran Jonas Phillips wrote a letter encouraging it. 

“‘ The Israelites will think themselves happy to live under a government where all religious societies are on an equal footing. I solicit this favor for myself, my children and posterity, and for the benefit of all the Israelites through the 13 United States of America, ’” Zola read from Phillips’ letter. “He didn’t know the convention had made that decision, but it tells you what (American Jews) aspired for.”

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The fourth unique feature was the creation of an independent federal judiciary that gives more credibility to the Constitution, Zola said.

“I can show you the Constitution of the old Soviet Union, and if you read it you would think, ‘My God, this is really on par with the U.S. Constitution.’ But if you don’t have the right to prosecute, then you don’t have equal justice under the law,” he said.

As a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Zola said he teaches his students that they are both Jews and Americans.

“There is nothing about being an American that makes it impossible to be a good Jew, and there’s nothing about being a good Jew that makes it impossible to be an American,” he said. “That has been an idea to which we have clung from the very beginning of our community.”

He gave three examples to support this idea. 

The first point related to Phillips’ letter is the idea that Jewish citizens and Judaism are equal to all other religions according to U.S. law, Zola said.

“My second point,” Zola said, “is that Jews not only have the right but the duty to argue that Jews who are U.S. citizens and Jews around the world are entitled to the full protection of U.S. government law, and Jews have the right to advance and advocate for their cause just like all Americans.”

Zola’s third point is based on the Constitution’s distinction between majority rule and inalienable rights. 

“American Jewry has always displayed a heightened commitment to minority rights,” he said. “Jews have, from the beginning, been interested in minority rights for themselves and others.”

To summarize his argument to this point, Zola read from an 1827 newspaper. When Zola was pursuing his doctorate, he focused on the Jews of Charleston, South Carolina, and he stumbled upon a note in a newspaper signed with the last name Cohen. Zola recognized this as a Jewish name, and kept reading. 

In it, the writer demands an apology from a doctor who had insulted him, or else he shall be prepared to duel, Zola said. 

“The Constitution of the United States, and of my native State, give me and every citizen, of every religious denomination, equal rights and equal privileges. Members of the same community are valued only according to their conduct in life, and none but a bigot and a Coward, like Edward Chisolm (the doctor), would attempt to insult a whole nation,” Zola read from the paper. 

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Zola sees this as a great summary of his broader point.

“He speaks not only for the Jews, but of every citizen of every religious denomination,” Zola said. “The Jew has uniquely been positioned, because of the length with which we’ve been here, to be the advocate for bringing the nation closer and closer to its ideals.”

Looking at another letter, this one written by Jewish merchant Jacob Ezekiel, Zola focused on a historic moment in U.S. history. In 1841, one month after his inauguration, President William Henry Harrison died, and John Tyler became the first person to succeed the position through the vice presidency. 

In one of his first addresses to the nation, Tyler called on Americans to go to houses of worship and say prayers in sorrow for the fallen Harrison. Zola said in this address, Tyler said this was necessary because Americans are a Christian people. 

Ezekiel’s letter called Tyler out.

“I, as well as others, were somewhat surprised to find in the columns of our journals, in the age in which we live, that the chief magistrate of this union shall by official recommendation to the people of the U.S. address us as ‘a Christian people’ … no doubt forgetting that during the revolution of this country, blood of all denominations was shed for its freedom,” Zola read.

Zola noted that Ezekiel did not single out Jews, but defended all denominations in his letter to the president. 

Moving to the 20th century, Zola identified Charles Coughlin, who in the 1930s was a famous radio priest who decided Jews were socialists and communists, classifying them as un-American. 

“He became the boogeyman of the American Jew in the 1930s, a very difficult period for bigotry toward the Jews,” Zola said.

At a large gathering in Cleveland in 1936, depicted in a video shown by Zola in the Amp, Coughlin applauded attendees for gathering and appreciating that they as Christians believe in loving their neighbor as themselves, and he challenged every Jew to tell him that they do not believe that.

Coughlin’s ideas were challenged by Stephen S. Wise, who Zola called one of the most important and famous Jews in the 20th century. His congregation met in Carnegie Hall from 1910 to 1939, and some of his recordings from there are only housed at the American Jewish Archives, Zola said.

In a 1938 sermon, one meant for radio broadcast that Zola played for the Amp, Wise called Coughlinism the deadliest form of antisemitism in America, and that Coughlinism was another name for anti-democratic and anti-American.

“True, Coughlinism has not explicitly and frankly defended antisemitism or Nazism in Germany,” Wise said. “It would if it dared … For the Jew, Coughlinism is a regrettable phenomenon. For the Catholic Church, it is a disaster. But above all, it is America’s shame.”

Zola reminded the audience that in Jewish history, outside of its own nation-state, it was rare for them to be able to speak this way.

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Going back to his point of Jews and Judaism being protected under U.S. law anywhere in the world, Zola highlighted Jacob Schiff, one of the founders of the American Jewish Committee in 1906. This group sought the advancement of Jewish rights, Zola said.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews in Russia were subject to intensifying brutalization and riots against them. U.S. Jews attempted to abrogate an existing 1911 treaty by testifying before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. 

Several people testified, but Zola read from Schiff’s comments.

“If any of you who may happen to confess the Jewish faith, any American who was accidentally born of Jewish parentage, wants to go to the Far East today, and wants to take the shortest route possible … the Trans-Siberian Railway. When he comes to the Russian border he is told ‘No thoroughfare.’ Just think of what that means to an American,” Zola read. 

Schiff continued, comparing this situation to what would happen if Russians were stopped at the Panama Canal, which was set to be completed a few years later with U.S. help. 

“What a howl there would be on the part of the civilized world,” he read.

To Schiff and his committee’s satisfaction, the treaty was abrogated. 

Zola then went back to his point on minority rights granted through the Constitution. He focused on Richard Wright’s 1940 fictional book Native Son, where a Black man is on trial for the murder of a white woman; if he is convicted he will be sentenced to death. 

He is assigned a Jewish lawyer, who tells the man that no matter how noble an argument he puts forward, they were destined to lose to a jury, which is exactly what happened, Zola said. 

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In a 1940 sermon, Wise reviewed this book. 

“As I read Native Son, the word and the mind and the understanding and compassionate soul of the Jewish lawyer became to me at one and the same time symbol, rebuke, prophecy, challenge,” Wise wrote. “It’s a symbol of what the Jew should be and do in relation to other races that are oppressed and ground into the dust.”

Zola wanted the audience to focus on one line he later said that further illustrated Jews’ dedication to supporting all minority rights.

“I feel a double obligation to every oppressed race and to every wronged man on earth, for I am an American, and I am a Jew,” Wise wrote.

In another example, Zola mentioned Rabbi Milton Grafman, a Birmingham, Alabama, rabbi who, after the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that left four children dead, gave a sermon during Rosh Hashanah. 

During the sermon, which Zola emphasized being on a High Holy Day, Grafman was speaking to some people who only attended twice a year. He said he attended the funeral because he wanted to show his sorrow between all communities. 

Additionally, the person who spoke directly before Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was American Jewish Congress President Joachim Prinz, which Zola said embodied all of American Jewish exceptionalism. 

To close, Zola reflected on the first rabbi to speak at Chautauqua, Gustav Gottheil, who spoke on the grounds in 1891. Zola wanted people to make good on Gottheil’s prayer.

“I believe this Chautauqua is a very good foretaste of the things to come, and that the light of its influence will spread to the length and breadth of this land,” Gottheil said. “It may still be remembered that on this day … really commenced the grander day when all the walls of separation between the Hebrews and this good and great nation, upon whom I pray God may send that blessing.”

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