An open letter to Dr. Talaat Afifi, Egyptian minister of religion


Dear Dr. Afifi,

Many of us involved in global contacts between leaders of the world's major religions seek to understand the new Egyptian government views about non-Muslims. Last week, Mohammed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, gave the world a sample of his. In remarks published both in Egypt's official newspaper, Al-Ahram, and on the Brotherhood website, Badie launched this anti-Semitic call for Jihad: “Jews have increased the corruption in the world, and … shed the blood of Muslims … Muslims must realize that restoring the sanctuaries and protecting honor and blood from the hands of Jews will not happen through the parlors of the United Nations, or through negotiations. The Zionists only know the way of force.”

We then searched online to learn more about attitudes of those in government about Christians, Jews and Hindus. Our search led to you, Dr. Afifi.

We found you on your government's official website, your photograph (under Ministry of Religious Endowments) and contact information providing your website as www.awkaf.org. We learned there that you also head the Faculty of Preaching at Al-Azhar, the venerable first among universities in Egypt, dating back over a thousand years. This means that you are uniquely suited to speak to our inquiries. You represent not only the government of Egypt, but also its theological brain trust.

Back in 1995, a Simon Wiesenthal Center delegation had the honor of visiting the then Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. During our meeting we expressed our growing alarm over suicide bombings in the Middle East. While no one expected any major breakthroughs, we remember how we were received cordially and respectfully and that we returned that respect. The Grand Mufti did respond favorably upon our request for him to dialogue with Israel's Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and they did indeed meet eventually in Alexandria.

Frankly, Dr. Afifi, we are trying to figure out what has changed in the last two decades. Sheikh Tantawi spoke the language of diplomacy, but we find little respect or diplomacy on your website.

Under the heading “Non-Muslims,” in a document entitled “Islam and others (sic) monotheistic Religions,” we find open contempt, denigration and mockery of Christianity and Judaism — all the while praising Islam for its universality and fairness.

The essay states, “only Islam possesses an authentic scriptures (sic).” It claims that the other monotheistic religions can only lay claim to corrupted texts and translations, and even what they do have they cannot accurately understand because “the languages of the former revelations to the Jews and Christians have long been dead. Today nobody can speak those languages.” Apparently the people of Greece and Israel are unaware they are speaking dead languages.

Islam is praised for its universality while finding fault with Christianity. “The acceptance of secularism on principle virtually negates Christianity's claim to universality … Christianity's propagation of the doctrine of the Trinity and the vicarious atonement of mankind's sins by Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) nullifies all its moral values.” Is this an example of tolerance?

As for other faiths, it offers the following: “If Muslims cannot regard Judaism or Christianity on a plane of equality with Islam, the non-Muslim will wonder what kind of treatment Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, agnostics and atheists can expect to receive under Muslim rule?” “Only God can give His faith to whom He will, the Muslim regards every non-Muslim as a potential Muslim. For this reason, he is commanded to be fair and just even to those non-Muslims who are his confirmed enemies.”

A far cry from “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Do some “enemies” merit fairness only because they remain potential converts, but not because all humans are created in the image of G-d?

Dr. Afifi, are these your views and the government you serve?

Recently, Egypt's new President, Mohamed Morsi told the United Nations General Assembly, “Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed…”

We respectfully suggest that you and your government spare the world any more lectures about religious insults — until you acknowledge and deal with your own.

This essay was co-authored with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director of Interfaith Affairs.

Warrior pose: The battle for 21st century yoga


If you thought that yoga was all about peace and love, think again. The vitriolic fight that has erupted within the world of this ancient meditation system gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Warrior Pose.”

The co-founder of the American Hindu Association, a relatively small organization, has been complaining that people should become more aware of yoga’s Hindu roots. The association has mounted a Take Back Yoga campaign in New York, and has publicly lamented the fact that there weren’t trademark lawyers in place when modern yoga was being developed in India.

For a nonviolent religion, it’s ironic that the Hindu group’s leader, Aseem Shukla, should write an article as provocative as “The Theft of Yoga.” It first appeared in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog and led to a vicious online debate with modern guru Deepak Chopra, whose mind-body healing headquarters is right here in sunny Southern California.

For Jewish yoga enthusiasts, the debate raises long-simmering, uncomfortable questions about a practice they have long seen as healthful and spiritually uplifting but not religious.

If you look around almost any yoga studio in Los Angeles, you’ll find it is full of Jews. This reality first really struck me during a Sunday morning session at a studio in Santa Monica, where the teacher was leading people through a series of sun salutations and occasionally stopping for the traditional call-and-response kirtan chanting. He used phrases in various languages, but when he said “Shalom,” the room suddenly came alive. I looked around and realized that half of the people in the room were likely People of the Book. 

Despite the vast number of Jews getting comfortable in downward-facing dog, there is still a certain level of discomfort. We remember our early Hebrew teachers explaining the story where Abraham smashes his father’s idols, and we are genetically programmed to avoid bowing before statues. This raises a problem in the many yoga studios that are full of shiny Buddha, Ganesh and Shiva statues. Sanskrit chanting makes people a little more uncomfortable, and all of this makes it an easy target for some Orthodox authorities to classify yoga as forbidden.

Story continues after the jump.

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7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 21st

TV stars perform bonafide rock ‘n’ roll at a Ben Gurion Society

Keren’s Corner

It’s an old episode but a fairly new story. Last year, “Grey’s Anatomy” featured a plot line about the high risk of breast cancer among Jewish women. This year, Hadassah delves into the subject with an informative panel discussion about the episode, but more broadly, about this trend. “Can TV Be Good For Your Health? How One Show is Helping the Fight Against Breast Cancer” takes place on Tues., Oct. 24 at the University of Judaism.

Panelists include former “Grey’s” writer Mimi Schmir, cancer survivor and health advocate Selma Schimmel and genetic counselor Joyce Seldon. TV and film writer and director Linda Shayne moderates.

7 p.m. $25. University of Judasim, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. R.S.V.P., (310) 276-0036 or (818) 343-9316.

benefit this evening. Battle of the Network Stars Band features current and former TV actors, or “actors.” Bob Guiney aside, however, you’ll also catch James Denton of “Desperate Housewives,” Greg Grunberg of “Heroes,” Hugh Laurie of “House” and Brad Savage of … ummm … yeah, he falls into that “former” category. They rock it out for ya post cocktails, dinner and a silent auction.

7 p.m. $125 (tickets). Attendees must be current members of the Ben Gurion Society, which requires a minimum 2006 gift of $1,000 to The Jewish Federation Annual Campaign. Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 464-3219.

Sunday the 22nd

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Monday the 23rd

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Tuesday the 24th

The dazzling compositions of Miriam Wosk come to the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Wosk’s first solo museum exhibition, “Euphoria,” features three large-scale pieces. The crafty works, paintings embedded with a bevy of everything from pearls, to crystals to starfish, walk the line between excess and exactitude. They are on view through Nov. 25.

Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 586-6488.

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The ambitious Arpa Film Festival aims to forum “films exploring Diaspora, war, exile, genocide, multiculturalism and dual identity,” according to founder Sylvia Minassian. Two such films featured in this year’s fest (both documentaries) have Jewish perspectives. “Awake Zion” explores the relationship between reggae culture and Judaism, and “Young, Jewish and Left” focuses on radical Jewish communities.

Oct. 25-27. Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 663-1882.

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Thursday is looking up as UCLA Live welcomes Fes Festival of World Sacred Music to Royce Hall. “The Spirit of Fes: Paths to Hope” features world artists including early music singer Susan Hellauer from Anonymous 4, South Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam, Lebanese American percussionist Jamey Haddad and Moroccan Sufi ensemble Daqqa of Taroudant, performing Judaic, Christian, Muslim and Hindu sacred music.

$15-$45. 8 p.m. UCLA Royce Hall, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

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The uplift continues today with the opening of the film, “Conversations With God,” based on the 1996 book by Neale Donal Walsch. The movie stars Henry Czerny (“The Pink Panther”) and is produced and directed by “What Dreams May Come” producer Stephen Simon. The film tells Walsch’s true journey from homelessness to best-selling author and spiritual guru.