Wisdom Newsletter – From Scholar to Street

Elijah’s Leaders Reach out to the Community
And on this GIVING TUESDAY we ask for your support as we seek to move Elijah’s vision
(Read on to learn more)
From Scholar to Street

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In this newsletter:
1. Back from Salt Lake City
2. Sharing Religious Genius with the Sikh Community on Guru Nanak’s Birthday
3. Engaging Students in the Message of Religious Genius
4. Sharing Wisdom: What is Religious Genius

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1. Back from Salt Lake City
We are excited to share with you some of the recent news from Elijah. Just two weeks ago we held the seventh meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders in Salt Lake City. A major focus of the meeting was how to share the experience, friendship and unique precedent of friendship and sharing wisdom among world religious leaders with communities worldwide. This will inform our action plan following the Salt Lake City meeting, and we ask for you to partner with us and support us as we consider how to reach out to communities with Elijah’s message.

Our common reflections allowed us to articulate in brief what is the spirit of Elijah.
The spirit of Elijah is wisdom, inspiration, friendship and hope across religious traditions.

This is the spirit we seek to bring to our communities.
The Salt Lake City meeting allowed us to demonstrate this spirit in a variety of settings.

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2. Sharing Religious Genius with the Sikh Community on Guru Nanak’s Birthday

One of the most sacred festivals of Sikhism occurred during our session – Guru Nanak’s birthday. Guru Nanak is the first Sikh Guru and the founder of the Sikh religion. Our meeting titled “Religious Genius as a Source of Hope” considered how religious geniuses or luminaries can inspire across religious traditions. What a wonderful occasion to reflect on the inspirational role of religious luminaries, in light of the example of Guru Nanak!

Elijah leader Imam Muhammad Suheyl Umar presenting to Sikh Community

Elijah leader Imam Muhammad Suheyl Umar presenting to Sikh Community

Several presentations were made to the community, in English and in Punjabi, sharing our theory of Religious Genius, and sharing stories of Guru Nanak and what he means to Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. We recalled the meeting we held in Amritsar in 2007, with the Dalai Lama, and how well we were received then, and now, by the Sikh community. Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s presentation on Guru Nanak as religious genius met with profound echoes by ordinary men and women of the community, suggesting the power of “Religious Genius” to speak to religious communities. Concluding by sharing a song by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (whose death anniversary was being celebrated at the same time) allowed for a musical exchange of religious luminaries. Sukhbir Singh’s message highlighted how interreligious Guru Nanak himself was and how open the Sikh faith is to interreligious sharing, as it emerged to a large extent as an interreligious faith. Imam Suheyl Umar let the community know how deeply Guru Nanak is appreciated in a Muslim Punjabi context.

guru-nanak-photo-by-harbans-singh

Guru Nanak (photo by Harbans Singh)

Taking the message to the community allowed us to also enrich our own gathering with the values of community and its blessings. The warm reception, the colorful robes, the delicious langar (meal), the prayerful presence, the beautiful singing, all added a sense of reality, inspiration and friendship in concrete day to day terms. As we learned from our experience – it is not only the great ideas that are inspiring; it is the total lived reality of the community that provides inspiration. And perhaps no other community has institutionalized its mechanisms for friendship and sharing as the Sikh community, with its institution of Langar. Langar an important way of cementing friendships, showing respect and emphasizing the equality of all humans. (See on this also the forthcoming Sikh essay in the soon to be published Sharing Wisdom volume, in our Lexington Books series).

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3. Engaging Students in the Message of Religious Genius

Elijah leaders feel a need to reach out to the community at large and to students and youth in particular. We have held meetings for communities and for students at most of our meetings. This time, our engagement of students reached new heights. Utah Valley University hosted us for an extended program of sharing with their student interfaith body as well as with the public at large, regularly convened by the university for purposes of interfaith engagement. We tried a new method during this program. Rather than holding a panel of experts, we engaged in study circles with religious leaders and students and other participants. The results were outstanding in terms of the engagement of students, as well as in terms of satisfaction and joy this event brought to Elijah leaders. During a first round of the program, Elijah’s leaders and scholars learned texts together in intimate groups of 3 or 4 people. The topic of learning was selected to expose students to a religious tradition and ideas that would be far from their own experience (mostly Mormon or Christian). Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) is a contemporary Hindu Guru whose work has made her a candidate to be considered in the category of “Religious Genius.” A selection of her writings was compiled to allow students to discuss her ideas, both in the context of the Religions of India and in relation to their own beliefs and practices. Students resonated with many of her ideas and the discussions were vigorous and profound.

Elijah leaders engage with students at Utah Valley University

Elijah leaders engage with students at Utah Valley University

A second round of the program was conducted around tables of 12-15 people and Elijah leaders and scholars divided themselves between the tables. Once again, we chose text study as the best method of sharing wisdom. This time, it was a compilation of readings from different traditions on the theme of “Compassion and Service.” Included in the compilations were texts from the Christian, Hindu and Jewish traditions. Elijah leaders became teachers for their tables, exploring the texts that they selected for their particular group. Of course, the discussion extended beyond the texts themselves and allowed everyone participating to share something of their own religious life and attitude towards compassion and service. The very sight of such a diverse group as Elijah’s leaders, coming as one body and sharing a common message of respect for each person, respect for the sacred text and respect for diverse spiritual lives left a powerful impression. Students eager to learn were engaged by the person of members of religions they had not previously encountered and by the written legacy of religious luminaries of traditions they had never engaged. The result was transformative opening and the desire to advance further in learning. These are the very goals that Elijah seeks to instill in its community outreach efforts. We express our gratitude to authorities at Utah Valley University (from the President to teachers) who made this gathering possible. Elijah was delighted to express its gratitude to the University by offering several scholarships to it summer school program in Jerusalem. The move to deeper understanding will indeed advance.

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4. Sharing Wisdom: What is Religious Genius
by Alon Goshen-Gottstein

All religions recognize there are outstanding individuals, whose spiritual insight, presence and power by far surpass those of others. These individuals help create, define, drive, reform and inspire their traditions. To a large extent they are the models that provide the basis for emulation for others and they are the ideal of the tradition in its concrete manifestation, in the lives of humans.
Historically, most religions have tended to appreciate only those exceptional individuals who have contributed to their own traditions’ formation. While on the popular level there has often been some mix of cults, in seeking blessings from individuals who belong to other traditions, the fuller appreciation of special religious individuals has been limited to members of one’s own tradition.
The present essay seeks to consider these special individuals from a perspective that is broader than just the individual faith perspective. In part, this is informed by the recognition that in an interreligious age, we must be open to study and to be inspired by the finest models that other traditions can provide. Without such openness, we are missing out on true appreciation of what other religious traditions are and what they have to offer. From a different perspective, the study of such individuals is important because it allows us to approach them as part of the study of the meaning of the fullness of being human and of human potential. From this perspective we are invited to consider what such unique individuals are, how they function, and what they contribute to society, in a way that cuts across the different religious traditions, and draws on them all. Thus, both for purposes of our knowledge and understanding of what it means to be human and for purposes of advancing relations between religions in today’s world, the study of exceptional individuals in the field of religion holds great promise.

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