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Jewish Journal

Santeria seminary

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 8, 2008 | 10:09 am

Those who came to Oba Ernesto Pichardo’s fall semester course at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus expecting chicken heads, seashells and drum circles probably left disappointed.

The controversial, charismatic and enterprising Pichardo, a Yoruba priest and the country’s leading expert on Santeria, spent hours talking about the transatlantic slave trade, paraded in cultural anthropology professors and expected both Powerpoint presentations and 12-page research papers at semester’s end.

It was a different side of a man best known for having spent the last few decades fighting lawmakers and Santeria detractors. His most notorious tussle: with the city of Hialeah over sanctioning animal sacrifices in religious ceremonies. He won, earning the U.S. Supreme Court’s blessing.

He also won over his sixteen undergraduate students this year. The class included several religious studies majors, a Peruvian-American Broward school teacher, a 61-year-old auditor and a grandfather-grandson duo. Many of them came to get in touch with their Afro-Caribbean roots.

Four months ago he concluded FIU’s first three-credit Santeria class, with a grand prediction: ``You are making history here today.’‘

‘‘This is not some fringe movement,’’ Pichardo told his students. ``If you can get a Ph.D. in Judaism or Christianity, you should at least be able to take a course in Santeria.’‘

Santeria is not a religion I suspect many Americans are familiar with. The only place most people my age have probably even heard that word was on KROQ about 10 years ago. I don’t think the above article from the Miami Herald does much to explain the belief practices associated with it either. It’s roots lie in the Yoruba people of Nigeria, and the most controversial element is that of animal sacrifice. I find more interesting the Santeria understanding of God and of good and evil.

The Yoruba believe in a creator who is called Olofi (god). There is no specific belief in a devil since the Yoruba belief system is not a dualistic philosophy — good versus evil, God versus a devil. Instead the universe is seen as containing forces of expansion and forces of contraction. These forces interact in complex ways to create the universe. All things are seen to have positive aspects, or Iré, and negative aspects, or Ibi. Nothing is seen as completely good or completely evil but all things are seen as having different proportions of both. Similarly no action is seen as universally as wrong or right, but rather can only be judged with the context and circumstances in which it takes place.

I mentioned this summer that Santeria is a popular religion among Major League Baseball’s Latin American players, though few are willing to talk about it.

(Hat tip: GetReligion)

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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