Season 2 - Episode 3: Interfaith Panel
Three professors from Pepperdine's Rick J Caruso School of Law, Professor Michael
Helfand, Dr. Sukhsimranjit Singh and Professor Tiffany Williams discuss Pepperdine's
Christian mission and spiritual experiences from their diverse faith traditions. They
share wisdom from their own experiences an Orthodox Jew, a Sikh, and a Christian.
Michael Helfand is a professor of law and Associate Dean for faculty and research. He's an expert on religious law and religious Liberty as well as a frequent author and lecturer.
Sukhsimranjit Singh is the managing Director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. Dr Singh travels all over the world speaking about dispute resolution.
Tiffany Williams is an Assistant Professor of legal research and writing. Professor Williams has extensive experience in law firms and as an administrative law judge and she is an ordained Christian minister and advocate for the global advancement of women and girls.
Sukhsimranjit: There's a different wisdom in belonging to the community that cares
and feels connected to a community, larger than one group, which is larger than one
Sara: Hello, my name is Sara Barton and I am the university chaplain at Pepperdine University. Welcome to Pepperdine Spiritual Life Podcast, a podcast about how people in our community along with our friends and guests are finding and joining God's good work in the world. Jesus said, "Seek and you shall find." I will be talking to people who are doing just that, so let's get started.
Sara: Today, we will engage in an inter-faith exploration of spiritual life. I'm happy to introduce and welcome three professors from the Rick J Caruso School of Law. Professor Michael Helfand is a professor of law and associate Dean for faculty and research. He's an expert on religious law and religious Liberty as well as a frequent author and lecturer. Welcome, Michael.
Michael: Thanks so much for having me.
Sara: I'm glad you're here. Next, we have Sukhsimranjit Singh. He's the managing director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. Dr Singh travels all over the world speaking about dispute resolution. If you haven't heard his Ted talk, I highly recommend. Welcome to the podcast.
Sukhsimranjit: Thank you madam. Good to be here.
Sara: We have Tiffany Williams, she's an assistant professor of legal research and writing. Professor Williams has extensive experience in law firms and as an administrative law judge and she is an ordained Christian minister and advocate for the global advancement of women and girls. Welcome.
Tiffany: Thank you.
Sara: It's great to have all of you. Every one of you here, welcome to the podcast and welcome to our home where we are recording the podcast today. I just want to begin with a question. Each one of you comes from a different religious tradition, so let's begin with your spiritual and faith life. What is your faith background and journey and just tell us a little something about how you incorporate it into your everyday life. Michael, if you would go first, tell us a little bit about your-
Michael: Tonight I'll draw the short story--
Sara: You draw the short story strong, go for it.
Michael: Okay, here we go. I am an Orthodox Jew, always have been, grew up that way and grew up on the East Coast. My father, both a rabbi and a professor, so I would say, both the academic stuff that I do these days is familiar to me from a young age and my spiritual life, my religious life is something that's always been very much a part of my day-to-day. I would say as an Orthodox Jew, when I think about how my faith and my religion is incorporated into my daily life, I think about the rituals that I have, that frame the day. You wake up in the morning, you head out to prayers, come home, before you eat something, you make a blessing. When you finish eating, you make a blessing, in the afternoon, there are prayers.
Michael: When I think a little bit about what my day looks like, I think it's punctuated by ritual and by design, meaning the design is that, I don't go too many minutes of the day without having to do something very concrete. I would say in that way, my life is, it's very religious, like almost unwitting. I'm just, "Something's happening, this is what you do." As a result, I feel like my day is always, no matter what I'm doing, particularly religious.
Sara: This is a Spiritual Life Podcast, so help us understand, are there moments when you would say, "Oh, what I just experience, felt... " People talk about the distinction between religion and spirituality. I don't know that it's necessarily as separate and apart as some people refer to it. When in your day do you feel something spiritual? Are there prayers that for some reason connect with you more than others?
Michael: It's funny, I talk a lot with my son about that. I have a 14-year old boy. "Oh, he's going to kill me." In any event, we chat a bit as you might expect with a 14-year old boy, especially given the heavy emphasis on ritual and the Jewish tradition. I think the core of a lot of our conversations is, my day is punctuated by religious conduct. I think you never know on any particular day what's going to speak to you more. The prayers are relatively lengthy and touch on a wide variety of needs, experiences and who knows what's going on in your head in a particular day? This passage speaks to you a little more today because who knows what's going on in the family or with a friend or something along those lines? There's no predicting it. I think the core intuition behind the way in which Orthodox Jewish life is ultimately religiously ritualized, the consistent conduct day in, day out is to account for that surprise. That's what moves you in any particular day. I guess you would say it depends how the spirit moves me.
Sara: I like that what you said about surprise because I do think that, in my experience, that's from the spirit. This surprise can come. Thank you for sharing. Tiffany, would you mind going next?
Tiffany: Sure. As Michael was speaking, I was thinking how similar, not even knowing that before we sat down today, that our experiences really are. I too have a faith tradition that's passed on, so to speak, by my parents exposing me. My parents are pastors in New Jersey and I serve in ministry with them too even remotely. I'm a born again Christian and a follower of Christ. I think that in my day and my daily life, I really view my life and my life choices as really a sacrifice of service to the purpose for which I was created. I feel like I can't really separate out really my spiritual practice from everything in my day.
Tiffany: That has not always been where I've been in my spiritual walk, but I think as a point of spiritual maturity, I've gotten to the place where I'm really trying to walk in alignment with not just praying or reading scripture because it's what I grew up doing or what a Christian is supposed to do, but doing it because I see and feel the difference that it makes. I pray for my students as a part of my own prayer time. I pray about what I'm going to lecture about and the impact that it could make on students. I'm very open. You talked about surprise. I'm a very type A and regimented person, so surprise isn't always something that I'm looking forward to in the day.
Tiffany: The more spiritually mature I have become, the more I'm starting to embrace the element of surprise as part of my purpose in that, while I'm intentional about fulfilling my own spiritual responsibilities and being open to service to others, that surprise comes with just knowing that you have significance in this world and that it's going to show up not always in the big moments of now, overnight, you're a movie star.
Tiffany: You're going to possibly encounter someone on your way to work, at school, in the classroom. It has happened to me time and time again, even at Pepperdine, where I see the purpose of this day and why I was to do the things I was to do with the impact that it makes. I'm definitely at the point where I'm seeing how my spiritual life has come to the point where I'm more open to the surprises of the day and that becomes the richness of the day.
Sara: It is. You can see how if we're so caught up in our many things we're getting done, we miss out on a lot that God might have for us in a given day. Wow, that's great. Okay, Sukhsimranjit, let's hear from you.
Sukhsimranjit: I practice Sikh faith. Sikhism is relatively younger faith. Today, incidentally, happens to be the 550th birthday for one Alf, founder of Guru Nanak, so it's an auspicious day for Sikhs. It's a privilege to be here and talking to you all about faith and sharing my faith. Just to explain to you a little bit more about Sikhism, we believe in what is simple principles in life. Kirt Karna is hard work. Vand Ke Chakna is sharing. Naam Japna is meditating, so controlling your thoughts throughout the day, which is not very easy. It's what I'm learning as I grow older.
Sara: That's a theme here. Maturity in growing in our faith. Yeah.
Sukhsimranjit: Let's start back the journey of me growing up in the faith. I'd be honest, growing up in the faith was not easy. I was the only turban wearing person within India in the first law school I went to. Many people asked me, Why do I wear my turban? Who am I? Why do I look different or weird? And all the comments and criticisms and jokes you get along with it. It's been an interesting path since then. You have to either admit your faith and stay stronger or you have to quit the faith. Unfortunately, many Sikh men and women are quitting the faith because it's not easy to keep a turban on or cover your head all the time and have a beard, especially in the current atmosphere. I had to make a choice and you won't believe it. Most of my friends who belonged to my faith had quit the faith or wanting to leave the public personification of the faith.
Sukhsimranjit: I kept it going partly because of the strength my mom and dad gave me into this. My father, a president of a university in India, who always wore a turban and beard and still is a president after retirement and he has taught a lot to me. My grandfather, I had to mention his name, because he died fighting for his faith and his commitment to the country of India. He did not let his turban away. When British asked him that he must, he said, he, "Either I leave my life or I leave my faith." To cut the story short, he chose to stay committed to the faith. It is a part of me. Faith is part of me and I try to live everyday by revealing my identity, my turban, by looking very cool in it.
Sara: I like them in any colors they are.
Sukhsimranjit: Thank you. Being partially color blind is more fun.
Sukhsimranjit: Lastly, by trying to be honest and hardworking and those are very difficult standards to maintain and treating people fairly and equally. There's a lot to do on a daily basis and like my brother, Michael, we try to begin the day with a prayer and end up day with a prayer. The uniqueness is, we try to do in a group. As other faiths we try to end the day with a group prayer with your family.
Sara: Thank you for sharing that and reflecting a bit as I asked the others on spirituality. Do you see that as a spiritual experience or religious experience? How do you think of those two words or experiences?
Sukhsimranjit: That's a good question. I think, for me, it's, what Sikhism is unique in one way is, it makes us question everything. The very word, Sikh means learner. We are supposed to be on a path, either religious or spiritual. I would say a combination of both, where you constantly quiz, "Where do you fit in in the world? What can you contribute to make the world a better place?" Your status, you are supposed to stay humble throughout, so because you're learning. It's a constant question is, are you feeling spiritual in a day and what can you do to be more spiritual or help other people feel more spiritual?
Sara: Well, I'd like to hear each of you reflect a little bit just because all of us share this experience of Pepperdine. Just reflect a bit on what it's like to live out your faith at Pepperdine. What has been your experience so far? Tiffany, you're new, like a year. Right?
Tiffany: Not even a year.
Sara: Not even a year.
Tiffany: I just came to California and to Pepperdine this summer. I'm in my first semester teaching. It's like everything I've always envisioned, but never really was able to have. This is a dream for me, being able to intersect both my faith and my passion for the law as well and my passion for passing on the lessons that I've learned in a 20-year law career as well. I feel like it's just a privilege to be at a place that really embraces not just the Christian mission, but embraces an entire academic community of individuals, whether they are working here or are professors and educators or they're students, that you're free to bring your faith tradition and share that in the community as well. I think to be a strong believer in any faith, you have to be able to engage in what we're doing even right now in inter-faith discussions and be very proud about that.
Tiffany: I'm really honored to have the opportunity at Pepperdine, in the classroom and in even just office hour meetings with students to be able to engage them in the curiosity of, what does space and spirituality mean to you and your experience and how can it aid you in pursuing a career using the mighty tool of the law as well?
Sara: Do you find that students want to have those conversations? What is that like as a new professor to enter into that if you were somewhere before and it wasn't really maybe on the table?
Tiffany: Right. In my career, having been a judge, and working in law firms and in government, those are spaces where you're not really supposed to actually have those conversations. God always made room for me even in those spaces to have those conversations by just being a living example of my own faith so others would seek me out. There was many leaders in government and law firms that I would pray with and send scripture to and encourage. I found that pattern starting here at Pepperdine as well, being unsure sometimes about, "How vocal can I really be about my faith here? How engaged can I really be with students?"
Tiffany: I didn't even have to really ask that question long because I think just being who I am and being proud of who I am, other students have started to come and some who have no faith at all, some who have other faith traditions. I love that aspect of being able to engage with students right where they are, to get them to be curious about how their faith can empower them.
Sara: You and I were together at a women leadership gathering last week, which was great because it was about our work and about women and have faith at the same time.
Tiffany: Absolutely, it was wonderful.
Sara: Great opportunities like that.
Sara: Well, Michael, what about you? What is faith engagement like for you with your work at Pepperdine?
Michael: I think I'm pretty lucky on this one as many of us may be. My interest, my teaching, my writing, my lecturing, it's all my area of interest, I would call it is, law and religion. Meaning, I often joke, my area of expertise is when law and religion don't get along and I consider myself in a growth industry.
Sara: That's why you're writing at New York times, LA times. I'm always seeing these impressive articles and everything. You're sought after.
Michael: Yeah. One day, hopefully the world will get better and they'll put me out of business. In the interim, so when I did courses I teach, I get to teach the law and religion seminar, sometimes Jewish law in the law school. When I do research, I'm researching often questions of dispute resolution, how do you use religious values to motivate that in a manner that will be enforceable in court? When I go out on the road lecturing, so I'll go to law and religion conferences, will host the law and religion conference. I have the benefit of now being the interim director of our Nootbaar Institute for Law, Religion and Ethics.
Michael: All these things give me opportunities to think deeply about both religion, and how we support it, and what its values are, and how do we inculcate that in others and how do we learn from the tensions that come up when it doesn't get along with the state? How do we use the state in order to support what we're trying to do? All these things. I just feel like everything I do invariably touches on religious content. I'd say one other thing about it. Given that the central corpus for, I'd say, Jewish experience or Jewish engagement with God is ultimately through Jewish law, the study of Jewish law.
Michael: We seek inspiration in our ability to learn Jewish law, understand it, observe it, question it, think about its application. The fact that I get to think about questions of religion in a context of a law school is just completely natural to me. It's on a certain level, like what rabbinical school looks like, the idea that rabbinical school and law school in certain ways look very similar. Using a law school as an opportunity to be like almost like a lab for religious experience is very familiar and natural to me. There's no tension in that. In that way, I just feel like everything I get to do is quite religious in a wide range of ways that are both intellectually satisfying. They satisfy the spirit in a variety of ways and they make me feel like I'm using my religion to to do something I think ultimately is good.
Michael: One last thing. I'd say, one of the things I'm most grateful for at Pepperdine is the fact that this platform's also given me the opportunity to work with Jewish organizations outside the university to try to sort things through. When certain Jewish institutions, organizations, umbrella organizations are trying to figure out how we navigate these issues, the work I've gotten to do at Pepperdine means that I get to advise my faith community. I suspect with some other lawyers around the table, that's not an unfamiliar concept. I would say from a personal religious professional satisfaction, when you get to use what you've learned and developed in order to make your own faith community better, I'd say let's call that a really, really good day at the office.
Sara: That's great. This is a Christian university. What is your experience like not being a Christian and working at a Christian university? How has that been? You've been here how long? You've been quite a few years.
Michael: I've been here almost a decade and I haven't terminated my employment yet, which is surprising to most.
Sara: I'm not suggesting that.
Michael: But how some people have, I'm sure. In any event, the point is that, I'd say most of what I do around here is translating. I always joke. There are people who are translators. I suspect again, that we're all translators in certain contexts. For me, there's both a lot of me translating what a Christian university looks like to my community and there is a lot of like, what is my community? And translating that for the people here who wonder, who don't understand and want to understand what this is and how it works.
Michael: There's certainly a tremendous amount of translating that goes on between communities. My classes though, I would say we have a growing Jewish population at Pepperdine. This is a Christian university, no doubt, but I would say the population here is a religiously curious population. In that way-
Sara: I see that with students too, very curious.
Michael: It doesn't feel like you're swimming upstream because everyone's in the same project so to speak. Certainly, the law school that I have the opportunity to teach in day in, day out, that's what I see. That surprising, this is a university that has a Jewish studies Institute where we have opportunities to take people to Israel and run a lots of other projects and not surprisingly, there's lots of interests and this goes to, I would just say, an inherent religious curiosity that lives here and things that people want to explore and that's the environment ultimately I think that allows me to feel this sense of simultaneous religious and professional satisfaction.
Sara: Thank you. Sukhsimranjit, how do you feel about your faith and its engagement?
Sukhsimranjit: Well, first of all, I want to thank my colleague who is sitting on my left, Professor Helvin. He is responsible, partly too, for me being here. I heard-
Sara: I didn't know that.
Sukhsimranjit: I heard him speak-
Michael: I didn't know that either.
Sukhsimranjit: I heard him in a conference. We invited him to Willamette University in Oregon on a religious arbitration conference and he was one of the keynote speakers and he offered a speech. We had interaction and a couple of people asked him, "What is your view on Pepperdine?" I still remember vividly how happy he was speaking about Pepperdine, how proud he was to belong to a community, for which outsiders were questioning, "How dumb this institution, which is a religious space institution in a way, can be welcoming to other faiths?" Now having been here full-time three years and part-time about five years, I, in fact, boldly agree with Michael's viewpoints and I can see why he said what he said that day. He set on a very good example for me that now I go down the wall and I say the same thing, not because I copy him, which will not be a bad thing to do by the way, but that's because I believe in it and I experience it.
Sukhsimranjit: Living at Pepperdine is a wonderful joy. There is clearly correlation between Christian faith, the Jewish faith and Sikh faith. To me, learning about other faiths is a beautiful process, but also experiencing what they are about is a great process. Pepperdine, I think, believes in what they speak or preach if you may. They believe in community love, care, the NextGen generosity. For example, on any given day at Pepperdine Law, you will find food.
Sara: I've noticed that.
Sukhsimranjit: It's just, the community cares for each other. If there is some sad event or some sadness, we all connect. We start some meetings with prayers. There is a different kind of wisdom in belonging to a community that cares and feels connected to a community larger than one group, which is larger than one faith. It's been great.
Sara: Would you say that your faith was a part of your decision to study dispute resolution? How does that connect?
Sukhsimranjit: Absolutely. I think you are aware more of my myself than I am of my own upbringing, but I think the dispute resolution field itself, as many of you are already aware of talks or peacebuilding talks about resolving conflict amicably out of court. Other things we talk about, for example, is listening, empathy and understanding the other side. My faith, Sikhism, talks about each one of them. In addition, it talks about reconciliation, redemption and even forgiveness. As you can imagine, the faith clearly correlates or intersects with my field and it's a joy to be able to plant a seed here or there and talk about mediation, negotiation or dispute resolution, to other students and see them grow through the path because, just another comment, today than ever, I think our world needs more amicable dispute resolution.
Sukhsimranjit: We're all talking, but we're not listening. I think that this is the right time to listen to each other respectfully, listen to have a dialogue respectfully, try to understand why we are different. There's a beauty in being different. In short, yes, absolutely, dispute resolution connects to my faith and it's a joy to be able to be in this profession. Once I came to mediation field as a practitioner, as a professor, I could see why it makes me complete.
Sara: One of the descriptions in the Christian Bible for what we're supposed to be doing as Christian people is to be an ambassador of reconciliation. I've been feeling that call even more in my life because of what you're describing to be people who are about reconciliation. It's so needed in our world. I'm really grateful for the Straus Institute and it's a leading program in the world for reconciliation. Thanks for what you're doing there and how your faith is a part of it. Well, I wanted to ask you this question, what is a common misconception about your faith? We'll just go ahead and let you keep talking. What do you think is a misperception or something that people think about your faith that you like to help people understand better?
Sukhsimranjit: There is absolutely no misconception about Sikh people and who we are.
Sukhsimranjit: Ever. I've never faced any issues and none my brothers and sisters had an issue. That was obviously a joke. The first misconception, I've been learning more and more with my colleagues, my dear friends near and sitting on this table and those of you listening, I've been learning more how looks play a role in life, how we judge beauty by how we look, which is interesting because none of us grew up with a concept of beauty when we were children. Over the years through social nurturing, we all learn what is beautiful. What I've learned is, somehow, a guy who looks like me is not beautiful. Perhaps the other scarier thought is, he's actually radical. He's a person who could be dangerous, for example.
Sukhsimranjit: After 9/11 a lot of our Muslim brothers and sister went through a lot of trouble in America as we all know, because somehow the faith of those who did the killings belong to or had a connection with Islamic faith. In addition, a lot of Sikh brothers and sister also went through a lot. In fact, the very first person killed after 9/11 to my knowledge, I could be wrong, was Balbir Singh Sodi in Arizona who was just wearing his turban standing at his gas station and a guy came and shot him dead. What is the misconception? The misconception is that, not that I look like another religion, the misconception is that I am a dangerous person. I hate that misconception because everything that was taught to me from young age from my parents, my friends and my colleagues who are, for example, sitting on the table have been about peace-building, peacemaking.
Sukhsimranjit: I want to yell out loud, "I love peace. I will kill myself or die to save you, so don't think I'm here to kill you or be danger." It's fascinating. The moment I board a plane wearing a turban, I see the looks on people's face. The moment I am boarding the plane with my daughter in my hand, the looks change. It's a interesting life you live, as you choose to live. In fact, one of the reasons why I moved out of Oregon was this misconception. I was tired of fighting with people literally on the streets who will call out names or call me out as to who you are and go back to your country. After they said, "Go back to your country." I moved to LA.
Sara: Welcome to LA, in Malibu. We're glad you're here. We live on the same street, so I'm glad we're neighbors. That mean, that really does make me sad and I think it applies to so many ways that we judge people by exterior appearance. Thank you very much for sharing that. Tiffany, let me ask you that. What do you think is a misconception about your faith?
Tiffany: Similarly, as you were talking, I thought about the word threat. People may see and misperceive a threat. I think in the Christian faith, especially nowadays, there's this threat that can be felt, that because you have a conviction or an interpretation of biblical teaching or a particular lifestyle or things you don't do. I happen to not drink and indulge in alcohol and that was a conviction that was directly related to my faith walk and journey.
Tiffany: It's very interesting in professional settings how uncomfortable that makes people feel when they're drinking and you're not and they know that you're not drinking from some principle purpose. That's just a minor example. This concept of threat that your beliefs and your adherence to them, and the stronger your adherence is to them, is somehow a threat to others or that there is an intolerance that you have towards others because you may be firm or very clear in your faith. I feel like now I see a lot of evidence of a misconception that Christians are somehow threatening others that may just have different opinions or lifestyles or thought processes. That's very disappointing to me because I think if we really look critically at any religion, the tenants of your religion makes sense if you believe it and adhere to it. Right?
Tiffany: We would all really be in a situation of being challenged. But that doesn't make you a threat because you are unarmed.
Sara: The answer to that is not just for all of us to be lukewarm in a given faith.
Sara: It doesn't really solve anything for all of us just to water down or-
Tiffany: Exactly. I think these are times when you need to, as I told the law students, the first day of orientation, fan into flame the gift that God has given you. I think this is a time to burn hot in what you are about. I just think that there are misconceptions, unfortunately, for Christians that are trying to burn hot, what that means to other people.
Sara: Thank you. Okay. Michael, what's a common misconception about your faith?
Michael: I break them up into two kinds of categories, two things I want it to say. First is, there are lots of fun little light doctrinal ones. I remember I was once watching Jeopardy. No, no, Alex Tribec. Right. Okay, good. Just making sure. Fantastic. They once had the answer that's really a question, whatever you want to call that. It said, "This is the term for blessed by a rabbi." I remember sitting there looking at it, I'm like, "I've no idea. I've been Orthodox my whole life."
Sara: Your dad is a rabbi.
Michael: I know tons of rabbis, like thousands of rabbis. I didn't know they were making these covert blessings and there was a term for it and weirdly enough, Alex Tribec knows the word. None of the contestants knew it. They finally say, "Beep, beep." Then he says, "What is Kosher?" I'm like, "Nope, that's wrong." That happens to me a decent chunk of times. The word kosher actually refers to the content of food and whether or not it has certain impermissible foods in it. It's really more about a chain of evidence than it is any blessings. There are no blessings. Okay, fine, but whatever. So goes Jeopardy. You correct things here and there. Sometimes in the course of legal work you'll see in prisons people asking for things and wardens have no idea.
Michael: There's a decent chunk of time, Jewish individuals, leaders, organizations spend trying to explain to folks what is exactly going on here. Those aren't massively interesting, but they exist. Actually sometimes they're more like trivia and fun than anything else. I would say though, listening to Sukhsimranjit, especially, so first of all, we've talked about this before, that's the worst. I don't know what else, I don't know what else to say about that. I think about how my lived experience is. Oh, I don't want to say the opposite, but close to it. I get on a plane, nobody thinks a blessed thing about me. I'm like a non entity and walk on. I sit down and so much. Even though I'm obviously Jewish, when I walk around here, I've got my yarmulke on my head and everybody knows exactly what that is. No one thinks I'm the Pope or something. I'm a Jewish guy.
Michael: The reality is, the people of the United States are terribly comfortable with Jews on one level, very much so. Pew Research Center every couple of years does this bizarro survey, one of my favorites. They go around asking people, "What is your favorite religion, your favorite religious school?
Sara: No, I didn't know. We did that.
Michael: Oh no, no. It's really good. It's really good. You should check this out. They asked them to do it on a feeling thermometer. Zero was very cold, 100 is very warm. Warm is positive in this context, zero is cold, is bad. They've done it twice now and each time, America's favorite religious group is Jews. We win every time. It's great. It's fantastic.
Sara: When you are in the minority by far.
Michael: Yeah. By the way, when they put Christians, those Catholics on, the Christian evangelicals, we win. We usually barely beat out the Catholics, which is interesting if you think about 19th century American treatment of Catholicism for another time. But yeah. On one level I say to myself, "What does that mean for an American Jewish community who doesn't have to often, in a serious way, explain misconceptions about it?" Now, I used to think that a little more, the rise of anti-semitism in the United States, 59% or 39% more attacks over the previous year, things that are going on now.
Michael: The comfort, certainly, isn't what it used to be and yet each time you see one of these surveys, American Jews are the most well-liked religious group. I always tell students of mine that means something very important. It means that American Jews have the ability, we're almost like a gateway religion. We have the ability to say things and do things on behalf of religion generally that a lot of other religious groups don't have the leeway to do because the word kosher is familiar even if Alex Tribec doesn't exactly know what it means. The terminology, the customs, these are things that people know about. The schools are closed around Los Angeles on some of the Jewish high holidays.
Michael: What an extraordinary thing. Who would have thought something like that. To me. That means a massive responsibility when you think about the lack of misconceptions on the American Jewish community. One of the sad things about it is, increasingly, the American Jewish community when it comes to these issues, has great credibility.
Michael: If you look at FBI statistics on hate crimes, you guys do this, it's terribly depressing. I don't recommend it, but when you look at religiously motivated hate crimes, so in a given year, it's usually 59% of them are committed against Jews. That means, as I like to say, we once again win. We beat all the religions together and more hate crimes are perpetrated against us than anybody else. It's sounds like you want to win, but it does mean that you have a religious community that's both targeted and well liked. That means to me that the American Jewish community, because of the lack of misconceptions, has great voice and, ultimately, what do you use your voice for? The voice ought to be used for in many ways, dealing with misconceptions that go beyond the Jewish community and trying to identify ways to make sure that what other religious minorities feel in the United States is alleviated and rectified with all due speed.
Sara: Thank you for sharing that. It's really insightful and helpful. I hadn't thought about the paradox, I guess that's there as you walk around and probably some of it too, depends where in America you are. I don't know if it's true in all parts of America. You're in Los Angeles and you grew up in New York.
Michael: That's right. I did spend a year. My wife is from Memphis, Tennessee.
Sara: Oh, that's right.
Michael: I did work in the federal courthouse in Tennessee. I, in keeping with Jewish law practice, have a garment that we called tzitzit. Oh, God, I'm not going to do a lousy job of translation. It often means, depending on your interpretation of the old Testament, I've got strings that come out of the sides of my pants and go neatly into my pockets. They don't have to go into the pockets. Okay, but move me on that.
Sara: I think it's interesting.
Michael: While I walked into the Federal Courthouse for the first time, there was another Jewish attorney there who told me that all the federal marshals wants to know who that guy is, who walked into the building with long jury strings in his pants. He had to explain to them this was an ancient Jewish custom and it's all good. I think you're right. There are probably some customs and practices that are less familiar depending on where you are, but I'd say this. With the growth of the internet and television and things like that, I haven't seen it, but I'm told there's a show, Orange Is the New Black, never had the pleasure, but there's evidently an episode about kosher and now everybody in the world knows about kosher. The reality is, I think in the information age, more and more people know about Judaism.
Sara: Well, my next question has a little bit of an introduction. Krister Stendhal was a New Testament scholar and Bishop of Stockholm for the Church of Sweden. He also served as professor at Harvard Divinity School and he gives some rules for inter-faith discussion. One of the rules is to leave room for what he calls Holy envy. By that he meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in another religious tradition or faith, elements you admire and wish might find greater scope in your own religious tradition or faith. Could you reflect on another faith besides your own that you're familiar with, that you admire or find that you have Holy envy for something in that religion? Sukhsimranjit, why don't you go first this time?
Sukhsimranjit: This is a good question and I wish the question had said you can relate to more than one faith, but, I will use the Liberty to-
Sara: Then if you pick one, they can't pick it. We'll make it harder for the next two.
Sukhsimranjit: I will say, allow me to speak about two faiths, those that're represented today if that's okay. My apologies. One is, let me start with Christian faith. The Bible talks about how you treat your neighbors. Right? And I feel it. The moment I arrived in my house, Sara, you are the first person to come to our house with your husband and offered us gifts. The next person was Tom, my colleague from Straus Institute. Then then I could go on and on. We had six people come over in two days and we've never had in our life, so many people come in two days and welcome us to a community. It was just a joy to belong to neighbors who are Christians because they literally practice what they like to talk about, how to treat your neighbors. I'll just say that, but it's summarizes the bigger theme I want to talk about that.
Sukhsimranjit: I want to learn more about it and spread the joy to other faiths, not just how we treat each other, but outside of our faith. Last thing I'll talk about briefly, is Jewish faith is, my first family that hosted me in US was a Jewish Ladho family, Jewish family from Missouri. I like talking about breaking stereotypes in life. Right? Because last question was a particular type as to how we look what Jewish brothers and sisters go through. It's unfortunate what people think what Christianity is. In some ways we need to break the stereotypes. In fact, I'll recommend a Ted talk by Adichie Chimamanda, Adichie from Nigeria in the danger of a single story.
Sukhsimranjit: I remember going up to my Jewish colleagues in 2006 and being this new found American coming over from India, I said, "Well, I've lived in the new house for a month and I must offer you some compensation because I've been learning Americans deal with money first. They both wanted to kick me out. They were so mad at me. They said, "How dare you. We had so much joy having you in our house and whatnot." Since that day I've made some amazing Jewish friends who're just very kind and generous and giving me their time wisdom, but also the best of food.
Sara: That's great and it was kosher.
Sukhsimranjit: I'm still waiting for Michael to have friends invitation to treat me to a lunch or so.
Sara: That's what has to come from the podcast. Okay. We won't let Michael talk yet. Tiffany.
Sukhsimranjit: Down it's okay. He hasn't annoyed from me.
Michael: I'm getting killed.
Tiffany: Well, following in your tradition, sukhsimranjit, I'm picking two. I will actually say something I admire from the Sikh faith based on what you even shared today and what I know of you and having been on a panel with you before. It's the same value that I'll share about the Jewish faith as well. Really the sense of family and community and I love how you said that it's a part of your tradition to end the day in prayer with family. I think that that's just such an important aspect of faith. If faith is drawing you away from your family or a sense of community, what faith is that? Right? I really admire that aspect of faith, family, and that's the foundation of who we are, our character and how we emote to others outside of the four walls of our home.
Tiffany: Similarly, being probably most familiar with the Jewish faith growing up, I certainly admire just the strength and resilience as well as just the adherence to a faith tradition no matter what the rest of the world is doing and what the rest of the world looks like and having such a strong sense of community as well. I certainly grew up with that envy of wishing I didn't sometimes have to, as a Christian, explain things so much and the world just accepting and knowing that this is what I do and why I do it without so much explanation. That's what I admire about both Sikh faith and the Jewish faith.
Sara: Okay, Michael. We'll let you talk now.
Michael: This is the rebuttal time and when you asked the question, I immediately thought of the following and really going back to what I said in the first part of our conversation. Certainly, Orthodox are rabbinic Jewish and tradition Jewish law is highly ritualized. They should be familiar to your Christian audience in terms of how it is we express our religious observance or religious engagement with the Almighty through very concrete practices that are detailed, highly regulated, entrenched, et cetera. To me that speaks, I have lawyer brain, so I completely get all this and it just flows very naturally for me. One of the great challenges is, and I think this would be familiar to anybody within the Jewish community, when you have a ritualized and regulated method of religious observes and practice, some of the things you were pressing on at the outset, how does the spirit piece of it work? Meaning, the spirit moves you and then you act.
Michael: Judaism takes the opposite approach. Very famously, this is the notion that your heart is pulled after practice as opposed to working things, vice versa. The question is though, how do you incorporate a subjectivity of spirit in that type of religious environment? I think here that's all no. Christianity takes in many ways, broadly speaking, super broadly speaking, the exact opposite approach in terms of how to do that. I think for each faith tradition, the question ultimately comes down to, everyone's picked a train, but you want to figure out how to get the benefits of the other incorporated into your framework.
Michael: That's something I think about all the time, especially if it's raising four kids and you're trying to explain to them, "Here's the ritual. Here's how we do it every day and you do it this way." "I said it yesterday, daddy." "Say it again today and again tomorrow and again tomorrow." And getting them to the point of realizing that there'll be opportunities for the spirit to move you because you had this ritualized form of observance, which is a hard thing to explain to young kids, although, like most of us, wisdom, you begin to see it increasingly later in life.
Michael: To me that's like the big question. The big question is, and I take this from both faith traditions represented at the table, the notion of subjectivity in spirit. That is the linchpin in many ways, how does that get built into a ritualized framework? That's something we learn from each other. We share a little bit of the intuitions from the other even while maintaining hard and fast to the frameworks of our respective tradition.
Sara: Mmm-hmm(affirmative). I will add one to this. Islam is not represented in our conversation at our table today, but I have been blessed to attend quite a few Iftar dinners during Ramadhan. I don't know if you've ever been, but the sense of community and family and the fasting together is something that I have learned from those experiences. Often in the Christian faith when we fast, it's individually and alone and it's much, much harder when you're doing it alone than when you're fasting in community. That's something that I've learned from even your colleague, Ahmed Taha. In his family is this sense of fasting together. I would say that is a Holy envy that I have found at times.
Sara: Well, one thing we're doing on this podcast is that, we often hear a short reading from scripture and we like to end with this reading and for this season, we chose Matthew 5, Matthew chapter 5 in the New Testament. I'll read and then ask you to reflect on what this passage might say to us at Pepperdine today.
Sara: It reads, "When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up to the mountain and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Does this passage have a message for us today at Pepperdine? And if so, what is it? Tiffany, would you like to go first?
Tiffany: I love this passage of scripture and I just love the juxtaposition in the scripture. It reminds me of, first of all, the ability to come to Christ as you are and how that relationship will turn everything around. He's a man for every season, for every circumstance in your life. I think if we encourage students to just remember that power of redemption, even in their academic journey. A bad grade, so to speak, is not the end of your life and career. Even if you graduate with disappointed hopes and dreams, there is still a trajectory, it's not the end of your story.
Tiffany: I find a lot of hope in this passage for us at Pepperdine, even as we have our ups and downs as a community, that there is hope of a brighter end and that God can turn everything around for His glory and for His good. It does. It's a very hopeful passage in that way.
Sara: Sukhsimranjit, what about you?
Sukhsimranjit: Thank you for reading Sara. It's a beautiful passage. I would say that commitment comes with sacrifice and we all know what that means. I hope all of us believe in some commitment. We know we need to also sacrifice to belong to that commitment. I think in every faith there's a mission, which is to sacrifice. Once, my colleague from Cardozo, Lela Love, and I wrote a small essay on generosity in different faiths and it was fascinating to us. We looked at Bahaism and Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. One thing we learned from that research, Lela and I, it's fascinating.
Sukhsimranjit: Almost every faith we looked at, talked exactly about how we all need to be generous, what we need to give. As you mentioned, my friend, [Maktaha 00:48:39] talks about how to be generous in terms of... Every month we were having a discussion and one day, my dean, Paul Curran, talks about generosity while he and I were discussing how to give to communities. My colleague, Michael Helvin, talks about generosity. I just mentioned Islam, Christianity and Judaism and I think Sikhism too. I think there is a higher path once we choose to give despite the grievance or difficult life it may bring. I choose that path. I think there is a higher call for it. I believe in beauty. I believe that ultimately human beings understand that we are beautiful, we understand we are different yet connected in some ways. On the short-term, temporarily, we are going through conflict in the world but, overall, people will understand that it's good to trust each other, believe in each other and respect each other's faiths.
Sara: Thank you.
Michael: Lots to say, but first, that stood out for me, not surprisingly, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God." The peacemaker notion is something that sits with me a lot, in particular, just given the area of interest that I've gravitated towards. It sounds like very similar to both Tiffany and Sukhsimranjit, of dispute resolution and not surprisingly having such a prominent place here at Pepperdine. I do a lot of work with religious organizations when it comes to resolving very challenging and difficult disputes and how that is one of the most important moments where we bring our religious values to the table.
Michael: There's an instinct when there are important things at stake, that everyone defaults to, "How do I generate an outcome that is best for me or my bottom line or whatever it is that are most basic needs? How do we use our values in the hardest moments to remind ourselves that those reflect on who we want to be both as people and as a community?" That's tough stuff. I do a lot of work with the rabbinical court back in New York. I'm the guy they call with weirdo questions like, "Something went wrong. We're not sure what this is, how it works." You see people at moments that are awful, awful, awful, the absolute worst. You often see them behind closed doors, that are by design protected by variety of confidentiality provisions or whatever it may be, and realizing that you need to message to people that that is when we really find out who we are.
Michael: To me that's the most important. It's something I try to model for the most important people in my life, my kids. I like my wife too, everybody, brags, but I don't have to model for her and she's gotten me covered on that. For my kids to try to explain to them that how we deal with challenging and difficult moments, that adults, they screw up, they do bad things and what does it mean to say that's the moment where I have to re-double my efforts to what I ultimately believe in. That's tough stuff, especially in the 21st century in the United States of America.
Sara: It's hardwork.
Michael: Onwards and upwards.
Sara: It's hard work. Well, I am so grateful to each of you for what you're doing at the school of law. When I think of peacemakers, I think of each of you, the work that you're doing and what you're teaching our students. Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for being here for the podcast today and I look forward to hearing even more about what you're doing in the school of law in years to come. Thanks so much.
Tiffany: Thank you.
Michael: Thank you.