Friday, December 30, 2005

Phil for President

This morning I breakfasted at Waffle House and sat at the counter next to Phil. Phil was talking with Catrina, a Waffle House waitress, about the fact that the US government is sending millions of dollars to Mexico to stem the tide of illegals coming into this country, and how they are using the money to fund drug smuggling instead.

“It’s Bush’s fault,” Phil told Cartina. “If he weren’t so obsessed with Eye-rak he’d realize the real threat is from Meh-hee-ko,” (Phil sounded like Dale Gribble on King of the Hill).

“Yeah Buddy,” Catrina said.

“Damn straight,” Phil said. “You know what I’d do if I was president? I’d pull our troops in Eye-rak back to the Kurds where they love us and let them Mooslems just fight it out amongst themselves. Then I’d send ‘em back in to pick up the pieces. It wouldn’t take that many, and I’d move the rest to the border with Meh-hee-ko.”

“Why don’t you run, Hun?” Catrina said.

“I could to,” Phil said. “Do better ‘n those bastards in Washington. I could come up with a 10-point plan like ol’ Newt did and win the whole country.”

“Five-points is better,” Catrina said. “We can remember five, Hun, but ten is too many.”

“OK, five, then. Let’s see. First, war on terrorism. Well, it ain’t a war on terrorism it’s a war on global Islamo-Fascism. This is a big war that is going to cost losts of lives and run for a long long time. I’d be honest with the people about this.

“Second, I’d institute a draft. Can’t call it that, a-course. Service America I’d call it. Every kid, boy and girl, serves for three years from 18 to 21. They can go into the military, or work as teacher’s aides, or some such thing. Get rid of racism and classism with Service America. They’d earn college tuition for their service plus basic pay.

“Third, education. Forget prayer in school and Intelligent Design in science class. There are certain things a kid’s got to know to be a good and productive American: reading, writing, math, civics, personal economics, basic biology and health, computers, maybe some other stuff. I’d put together a task force of teachers and business people to figure it out. You want your kid to become a Christian in school then send him to a Christian school. Public schools should be for raising Americans.”

“What about Ten Commandments?” Catrina said.

“Makes no sense to me the hoopla about that,” Phil said. “Only four of ‘em are real laws: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t adulterate, don’t covet. And the penalties for all four is death. Does that make sense? I say put something more practical on the wall.”

“And abortion?” Catrina said, “You can’t run without talkin’ about abortion.”

“I would. I would say that this is between a woman and her family and her doctor and her God, and not her president. I don’t think the government should stick its nose in other people’s private lives. Goes for gays too. Leave ‘em alone.”

“Let ‘em marry?” Catrina said.

“Come on, Catrina, you are takin’ me off track. Here: the government should stop marryin’ people altogether. Got nothing to do with the government. Protect the powerless from being exploited and that is that.

“OK, back to my points. What’s next? Oh yeah, number four, Social Security and taxes. Social Security was supposed to be a safety net for the poor. I’d set it up so that anybody makin’ over $50 thousand wouldn’t get Social Security, though everybody would have to put into it. And the amount you get would only bring you up to $50,000 a year. If you can’t live on that you’re a fool. And I’d do a flat tax. Ten percent and no loopholes. The government would have to live with that. Balanced budget and reduce the debt by freezing and then cutting spending.

“Last thing, OK, health care. Simple, offer the rest of the country what senators get in Washington. That’s it. That’s my platform. What do ya think?”

“I’m sorry, Hun,” Catrina said. “I missed most of the last part; the guy in corner there said his coffee was cold. But I’m sure it was good stuff. I’d vote for ya, Hun.”

Actually, Catrina, so would I.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why I Am Not A Christian

Living in the heart of the Bible Belt I am often asked why I am not a Christian. The answer is simple: I don’t believe in the essential doctrines of Christianity. What are these doctrines? According to Christian Research Journal there are fourteen:

(1) Human depravity, (2) Christ’s virgin birth, (3) Christ’s sinlessness, (4) Christ’s deity, (5) Christ’s humanity, (6) God’s unity, (7) God’s triunity, (8) The necessity of God’s grace, (9) The necessity of faith, (10) Christ’s atoning death, (11) Christ’s bodily resurrection, (12) Christ’s bodily ascension, (13) Christ’s present high priestly service, (14) Christ’s second coming, final judgment, and reign.

Let me briefly respond to each one.

HUMAN DEPRAVITY. I believe that people are the image and likeness of God. I believe that God embraces and transcends all opposites including good and evil (see Isaiah 45:7), and that on a lesser scale we do as well. We have an inclination for evil and an inclination for good. We must learn to embrace, harness, and transcend them both.

CHRIST’S VIRGIN BIRTH. Virgins don’t have babies. The notion of Virgin Birth is based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14: “A young woman shall give birth…”

CHRIST’S SINLESSNESS. If Christ has no evil inclination he is not like me at all and thus cannot speak to my real spiritual struggle.

CHRIST’S DEITY. If all reality is God, as I believe, then Jesus, too, is God. But no more so than you and me.

CHRIST’S HUMANITY. If Jesus is born without an inclination for evil then he isn’t human. You can’t have it both ways.

GOD’S UNITY. God is not one rather than two; God is nondual. There is nothing other than God. If there were then God would be limited, and a limited god is not God.

GOD’S TRIUNITY. Just as H2O can manifest as liquid, solid, and gas so God can manifest as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But why stop at three? God also manifests as Mother, Daughter, Nature, Light, Dark, Good, Evil, humans, animals, plants, etc.

THE NECESSITY OF GOD’S GRACE. I agree that awakening to the Reality of God in, with, and as all things is an act of grace. I just cannot believe that God’s grace is limited to those who believe any specific doctrine. God’s grace is free. Either you accept it or not, but it is available to all.

THE NECESSITY OF FAITH. God desires no allegiance to doctrine or creed. God desires nothing, God is everything. Faith is an abstraction, reality is what matters.

CHRIST’S ATONING DEATH. Sin is rooted in ignorance. If we know that we are God manifest we naturally treat one another with kindness and respect. As history so clearly proves, the death of Jesus didn’t make us any less ignorant or sinful.

CHRIST’S BODILY RESURRECTION. Bodies don’t matter after death. Bodily resurrection, even if true, is irrelevant.

CHRIST’S BODILY ASCENSION. Where did he go? Up to Heaven? There is no “up” or “down” in the universe, only “in” and “out” of various gravitational fields. Heaven is not a place one goes, but a realization of God’s nonduality to which one awakes.

CHRIST’S PRESENT HIGH PRIEST SERVICE. I do not believe in priesthoods of any kind. We are all God; none are more God than others.

CHRIST’S SECOND COMING, FINAL JUDGMENT, AND REIGN. While I admit to longing for a time of universal peace, justice, and love, the return of Christ as it is told to me is a time of violence, torment, and death for billions of people on this planet. I’ll pass.

So that’s it. I am not a Christian because I cannot believe what Christians believe. But then I have the same problem with Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Gotta A Second?

It’s December 28, 2005 and in the low sixties here in Middle Tennessee. Global warming; ain’t no two ways about it. But, to tell you the truth, I am no longer worried about global warming. I’m worried about global slowing.

Scientists have known about this since 1972, and have been keeping us in the dark by adding leap seconds, twenty-two of them to date, to the atomic clock. But moving the second hand on the dial won’t change the fact that the earth’s rotation is slowing down.

Do you get that?!? Do you know what will happen if the earth slows to a crawl?!? Do you know what that will do to life on this planet?!? Do you?!?

I don’t. But I know it is going to be bad. You don’t have to believe in dinosaurs or melting ice caps to figure out that if the earth stops rotating half of us are going to be stuck in perpetual daylight. It will never get dark. Forget Nick at Night. Forget Elvira Mistress of the Dark. Forget Nightline. (Already did? OK, but remember Ted Koppel.)

Of course some of us will end up in perpetual night. That isn’t so bad. Prime time television all day, late late late late night comedy shows that can run on for months, sleeping in for eternity. But maybe not. Maybe it means that everyone will have to work the nightshift. That can’t be good.

So it doesn’t matter which side of the globe you are on, global slowing is bad. And you can’t fix it by adjusting clocks or driving hybrid cars. The first just masks the problem; the second has nothing to do with it at all and I have no idea why I even mention it except to say that I may be more agitated than I thought I was and I am grasping at straws.

But why would God make a world that slows down? “There was evening, there was morning, a first day—“ Genesis, remember? Why would God lie to us? Why would he set the world a-spinnin’ only to let it run down like a, like a— oh my God!— like a watch!

The Deists were right! God is a cosmic watchmaker who wound our world up and left us to fend for ourselves while it winds down. So that’s it, then. Short of having Superman fly around the earth at super speed (clock-wise this time) and get things back to normal, what are we to do? I have wracked my brain over this and I can’t think of a single thing.

So here’s the straight dope: The earth rotates at about 1000 miles per hour, that’s 2.77777778 miles a second. There are 31,556,926 seconds in a year. So the earth will stop rotating in 11,687,750 years. That’s barely enough time for most of us to pay off our school loans! This is the end.

This New Year’s Eve we will count down from 23:59:59 to 23:59:60 to 00:00:00. That middle step is a sop to our fears. We can change the clock but we can’t stop the slowing. We are doomed. Happy one second closer to oblivion new year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The War on New Year

Just when I thought I could take a break from the Christmas Culture War I am hit by a new wave of religious bias: “Happy New Year.”

Every Wal-Mart greeter, “Happy New Year.” Every Kroger cashier, “Happy New Year.” Every postal worker, “Happy New Year.” Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year. But whose new year is it? I’m a Jew. My New Year is Rosh HaShanah in the fall. Wishing me Happy New Year now either means you are very late or incredibly early. Either way it is insulting.

I walked into my Wal-Mart Super Store this morning and the elderly greeter wished me a Happy New Year. I just couldn’t let it go by.

“Do you know whose New Year falls on January 1st?” I said angrily. “Do you have any idea how you are being manipulated into denigrating America and American values? Do you?” She didn’t, so I told her. “It is the Shinto New Year, Shogatsu. Are you Shinto? Do I look Japanese? No. So stop foisting Shogatsu on me. I for one will not shop at Wal-Mart during this Shinto season for this very reason.”

I walked out without buying a thing; I urge you to do the same. And not just at Wal-Mart, but also at any store that is trying to trick you into celebrating Shogatsu.

Of course you may be thinking that January 1st is also the secular new year, but this is a scam. Calling January 1st “New Year’s Day” is a slap in the face to every believing Christian no less so than saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The really special thing about January 1st is that it is the anniversary of Jesus’ circumcision.

Jewish boys (and Jesus was Jewish because his mother was Jewish, though the religion of his Father is in doubt) are circumsized eight days from their birthday. Count eight days from December 25th and you get January 1st. So again Christians are being robbed of their religion in this country, and we who are not Christian are forced to celebrate a holy day that is not ours (unless, of course you are Shinto in which case, “Happy Shogatsu). Outrageous. If I want to celebrate a circumcision I’ll celebrate my own (May 3rd for those who want to send gifts).

We have got to put the foreskin back in New Year’s. How should Christians celebrate Jesus Circumcision Day? The same way we Jews celebrate circumcision: with parties, gifts, white fish, and, to make it uniquely Christian, the ceremonial cutting off of the tip of the Christmas Tree.

So, I am taking stand, and I am asking you to join with me. No more “Happy New Year.” This country was founded on religious freedom and I can’t stand to see it weakened by godless Darwinians who hide the true spirit of the holy day behind the hoopla of a dropping a giant ball (looking suspiciously like the yellow Happy Face at Wal-Mart) on Times Square. No more. Happy Shogatsu!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Sticker Shock

I learn more from people who disagree with me than I do from those who agree with me. My last post talked about what I learned from supporters of Intelligent Design and their philosophy of Teach the Controversy. Today I want to borrow from them again and talk about the power of stickers.

Many school boards are being pressured by ID proponents to place warning stickers on biology textbooks that read, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." A brilliant idea, and one I wish to borrow and adapt for my own needs.

I would like to propose printing up stickers to place on Bibles that read: "This book contains material on God. God is a matter of faith, not fact. The faith promoted in this book is only one of many possibilities. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Can you imagine the impact such stickers would have on would-be Bible readers. I am not saying the Bible is wrong, only that there are a few billion people on the planet who disagree with it. Teach the controversy.

Designing and printing stickers on your computer is not difficult. My only question is whether or not placing stickers on Bibles (and other holy books for that matter) is legal. If you want to test this out, you might try sticking them on Bibles in churches, synagogues, bookstores, and hotel rooms. Think of it as a public service. If you do get arrested, let me know. While I won’t send any money to your defense fund, I might blog about it.

Teach the Controversy

While I am not a supporter of Intelligent Design I find their pedagogy compelling. Their argument is beautifully articulated in three words: Teach the controversy. ID may or may not be true (OK, let me honest, it isn’t true), but the controversy it creates is. We owe it to our children to teach them all sides of an issue. So, regardless of its scientific merit, teachers should teach the controversy.

I find this argument convincing, and would like to see it applied to all areas of education, public and parochial. For example, there is as much history behind Holocaust Denial as there is science behind Intelligent Design. I think our history teachers should teach the controversy over whether or not the Holocaust ever happened.

Similarly, there are many people who believe that slavery was good for the Africans brought over to this country. Compare the lifestyles of most African Americans today to that of their contemporaries in Africa. Had their ancestors not been slaves African Americans would not be where they are today. So, slavery was a good thing. Teach the controversy.

And then there is the controversy over the Civil War. The struggle had nothing to do with freeing enslaved human beings and everything to do with states’ rights to treat people any way they damn well pleased. Teach the controversy.

Homosexuality, oral sex, condom distribution in classrooms, clean needle programs, and abortion are all controversial issues. Rather than takes sides, our schools should teach the controversy.

And why stop at public schools? I think churches should teach the controversy over God and atheism. After all evolution is at least a theory while God is only a belief. There are alternatives to God and alternative gods to any religion’s position. Christians should be taught the controversy and given a chance to switch to Islam or Hinduism or Wicca.

There certainly is a controversy between Judaism and Evangelical Christianity over whom God loves the best. The Jews still claim to be the Chosen while Southern Baptists (to cite but one example) believe God has switched allegiance to them. We cannot know for certain who is right? Teach the controversy.

There is no end to keeping an open mind. It is certainly preferable to nurturing an empty one. At least I think so. Teach the controversy.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

Let’s talk dreidel. Dreidels have fascinated me since I was a kid. I think it is the simple fact of not knowing which face comes up that intrigues me. Not knowing is at the heart of spirituality. Only when we don’t know are we open to the possibility of true knowing.

Playing dreidel on Hanukkah is a way of adding a deeper dimension to the holiday week. Here’s how: As you prepare for the first night of Hanukkah think of eight questions the speak to the direction and quality of your life. They may be private such as “Where am I most blocked in my life?” or relational such as “How might I deepen my connection with Ploni ben/bat Ploni (so-and-so)?”

Be careful how you phrase your questions. Don’t ask empty questions such as “Is there a God?” Ask instead: “How can I know there is a God?” Action oriented questions will send you on a path, and walking that path is your present to yourself this Hanukkah.

Each night of Hanukkah, as you light the candle for that night, focus on one of your eight questions. Then, after the candle is lighted, spin the dreidel and discover what it has to teach you regarding your question.

The four letters of the dreidel: nun, gimmel, hay, and shin stand for Nais gadol hayah sham/A great miracle happened there. The “there” is Jerusalem. If you buy a dreidel in Israel the shin is replaced by a peh for po, “here;” a great miracle happened here.

The four letters also stand for the four dimensions of human experience: body, heart, mind, and soul or Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. Understanding the dreidel in this way allows you to use it as a tool for self inquiry.

For example, let’s say you ask “How can I deepen my relationship with my beloved?” You spin the dreidel and up comes the letter nun, Assiyah/Body. More physical intimacy is the answer. How that plays out in your life is up to you, but at least you have a direction.

Or the letter gimmel comes up suggesting you need to be more romantic or more open about your feelings. Or the letter hay comes up urging you to engage more with your mind, listen more deeply, talk more openly, or maybe take a class together. Or the letter shin comes up and you begin to think about how you and your beloved can deepen your spiritual connection by adding more ritual and contemplative practice to your lives.

The dreidel provides the direction for inquiry, not the details of what to do. That is up to you. So think about the questions that matter to you, empty your mind of knowing, and let the spinning dreidel open new directions for the new season.

Happy Hanukkah.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

ID is Religion! Duh.

The verdict is in: Intelligent Design (ID) is religion. U.S. District Judge John Jones made that ruling this week after hours of careful study and testimony relating to the attempt by the Dover, PA school board (since voted out of office) to push for the teaching of ID alongside natural selection in Dover science classes.

Good for Judge Jones! Intelligent Design holds that aspects of life are so complex as to preclude their emergence from natural selection, and must come from an intelligent designer. Trying to avoid the label “religious,” ID supporters claim not to know who or what this designer might be.

Let me help them out. Either the designer is God as mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam assert, or it is an alien race from another universe that seeded this planet with complex beings. If the former, ID is religion. If the later it is science fiction. In either case, ID does not belong in the science classroom.

As I write this an email commentary by David Klinghoffer on the same subject has just arrived. I found his essay so troubling that I have to comment on it as well.

Klinghoffer says, “If ID is bogus because many of its theorists have religious beliefs to which the controversial critique of Darwinism lends supports, then what should we say about Darwinism itself?”

This is nonsense. The problem with Intelligent Design is not the religious beliefs of its supporters, but its lack of scientific credibility. What makes science science is its methodology. The scientific method posits ideas and then tests their veracity. An idea that cannot be tested may be true, but it is not science. You cannot argue with ID. You cannot prove or disprove the notion that there is a Designer behind creation. This does not mean there is no Designer, only that positing one is not science and does not belong in science class.

Klinghoffer: “[C]riticizing Darwin’s theory in biology class is unconstitutional.”

This is insulting. Challenging and defeating current scientific theories is at the heart of science and makes scientists who do so famous. Criticizing Darwin is in no way unconstitutional. What is unconstitutional is teaching religion as science, which is what ID tries to do.

Klinghoffer: “One may choose Darwin or one may choose God.”

Thank you, David; you just made Judge Jones’ case for him. The judge said that ID is a theological position rather than a scientific one. The aim of proponents of ID is to introduce God into the science curriculum. While ID supporters deny this, Klinghoffer has the guts to admit it: it is a matter of Darwin versus God. But which God?

If the ID people simply posit a generic god who designed creation and then left it to its own devices, they are Deists, a popular 18th century position held by most of our Founding Fathers, but no longer in vogue today. If they posit a god who comes with a revealed book, an ethical system, and an afterlife of reward and punishment, then we are mired in theological debate and not scientific study.

Since most ID supporters are Evangelical Christians, and most of them believe that God dooms all nonbelievers to eternal damnation in the fiery pits of hell, I imagine that the Intelligent Designer they have in mind is in fact the God they believe in. If so Jews, other Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all other left-behind-types may want to take issue with ID not on scientific grounds but on religious ones.

The point is simply this: ID is religion and has no place in the science classroom. Does that make science and God incompatible? Only if you want it to.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Reclaiming Jesus as a God-Intoxicated Jewish Mystic

I am on my way back to Nashville from Elat Chayyim, the Jewish retreat center in upstate New York. As often happens when I teach, I bring to Judaism insights and parallel teachings from other traditions. The sayings of Rabbi Jesus play a growing role in my work. As a Jew speaking to Jews, Jesus’ teachings can relate better to Jewish audiences than similar teachings coming from eastern religions.

This integration of Jesus the Jew into my teaching (as opposed to Jesus the Christ of whom I know nothing) is often a shock to my students. Rarely do rabbis use Jesus to teach to the heart of Judaism. Yet, following the initial shock, there is a sense of relief and gratitude as well. So many Jews are curious about and ignorant of the Jewish Jesus. They have a sense that they could learn much from him, but the guilt that often accompanies that awareness is usually enough to squelch it. But when they listen to a rabbi use Jesus’ wisdom and insight to excavate the deeper realms of Jewish thought they come to me to confess their own interest and request that I do more.

I have tried to find a venue for teaching the wisdom of Jesus to Jewish audiences, but to date I have had no luck. While there are several centers eager to hear about the Jewish Jesus these are not centers of Jewish learning, nor do they attract a lot of Jewish learners.

Yet there is both a growing hunger and a pressing need for this teaching among Jews. The hunger comes from the fact that Jesus spoke to the heart of Judaism: Love of God and neighbor, and opened the table fellowship of the rabbis to all comers. Unlike many Christians who see him as the second Adam, I see Jesus as the second Abraham opening his tent to all who wish to share in the divine feast and learn about the One who manifests the many. As much of mainstream Judaism takes a turn toward tradition, with form once again trumping substance, the simplicity and depth of Jesus’ wisdom brings a welcome balance.

The need has to do with the resurgence of right-wing conservative evangelical Christianity. As Jesus and his message become the captives of the very tribalism he preached against, the intensity of evangelizing Jews will increase. For Jews, the best defense against Jesus the Christ is Jesus the Jew. Ignorance of Jesus is not defense against Christianity. On the contrary, ignorance of Jesus and his teaching leaves the Jew open to interpretations of Christ that can be confusing, misleading, and most seductive.

As we move deeper into the Christmas season, a time when so many Jews feel awkward and even alienated, it is my hope that Jewish leaders will reach out to this prodigal son and make room for Jesus among our most respected prophets and sages. The confluence of Christmas and Hanukkah could be a catalyst for reclaiming Jesus as a God-intoxicated Jewish mystic. This would be a great gift to the Jewish people (and others), and herald a deepening of Jewish wisdom.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Rapture Today

Right now I am sitting my sister’s home in Massachusetts watching as a blizzard dumps two feet of snow on her back porch. It isn’t even winter yet. So much for global warming.

I am not convinced that all the natural disasters our planet has suffered of late has anything to do with the liberal plot of global warming. I think it is all about the coming End Times. To check this out I went to the authority on End Times timing: The Rapture Index (

The Rapture is when God takes all the truly holy people up to heaven¸— naked! — leaving the rest of us to suffer terrifying natural disasters and a war with the Antichrist. Even if we survive these (notice how I include myself among the Left Behind, evidencing a deep humility which— God, are you reading this? — should get me off-planet before the rest of you losers suffer ungodly, well, no, quite godly tortures at the hand of, well, God.

Did I mention that those who are raptured get to go to heaven naked? Just another reason to make sure you diet and exercise religiously.

Anyway, the Rapture Index looks at 45 key signs and determines how close to the End we are. This morning the Index stood at 155. In 2002 the Index reached an all time high of 179, so we may not be in too much trouble; and while I cannot find the magic number that signifies the actual Rapture, I am told that anything in excess of 145 is considered “fasten your seatbelt time.”

Fastening your seatbelts is not only good advice; it is the law. I heard on the radio that one American city disguised police officers as roadside panhandlers. When these fake bums walk up to your car to ask for money they are really checking to see if you are wearing your seatbelt. If you are, I guess they just take your change; if you are not, they fine you big time.

Anyway, panhandlers are not a sign the Rapture Index takes seriously, so it doesn’t matter. Poverty doesn’t matter to the Rapture Index because you don’t need money to be saved, and when you go to heaven you go naked; did I mention that already?

I know I seem to be obsessed with this, and I am. I think the Rapture is Victoria’s secret: God only saves the beautiful people. Did you know that GQ actually stands for God Qualified?

I could be wrong about this. Maybe God wants us naked to weed out any uncircumcised men. While I qualify in this second category, I won’t make the cut if the first counts even a little.

In either case it is just another example of the elitism that I find so offensive in religion. I don’t believe in a God Who welcomes only those who fit some narrow definition of OK. I don’t believe in a God Who condemns the vast majority of humanity to eternal damnation. I don’t believe— whoa, I just noticed that Index is up a point. Snowstorm or no snowstorm I’ve got to get to the gym. Fasten your seatbelts!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Religion: What Is It Good For?

Not long ago I sat on an inter-faith clergy panel discussing the topic: “Religion: What is it Good For?” Seeing as this was a college campus panel, and sensing the resonance to Edwin Starr’s 1970’s musical hit WAR! I was tempted to limit my remarks to “Religion, what is it good for, absolutely nothing!” But I knew this wasn’t exactly true, so I struggled to come up with something equally catchy but more accurate.

When it was my turn to speak I still had not come up with anything, and was as surprised as my audience to hear myself say, “At its worst, religion is the way we keep God and godliness from impinging on our quest for power and control. At its best religion is a map, though not the only map, to becoming a saint, a bodhisattva, a mensch.

“At the heart of religion is the promise that we can become like God, or for those religions that don’t use the term ‘God’ the promise is that we can reclaim and live from our original nature which is intrinsically capable of loving-kindness. The extent to which a religion provides you with a roadmap for personal holiness— acting justly, kindly, and humbly to borrow from the prophet Micah— and assists you in following it, its value is inestimable. The extent to which a religion focuses not on loving-kindness but on partisan bickering and internal battles over dogma and creed it is, in my opinion, useless.”

I would like to report that my remarks were so well received that the entire evening was spent sharing ways in which the various religions represented went about promoting loving-kindness, but I would be lying if I did so. My words were met with a deep and embarrassing silence, and, thanks to the skill of our moderator, we quickly turned to matters of doctrinal differences and got into a cheap debate on who was going where after they died.

Despite my failure to sway the audience, I am still convinced that what I said was true. The only relevance religion has is tied up in its capacity to promote loving-kindness. A religion convinced of its doctrinal truth and purity, and yet one that is unconcerned with raising up followers who do good in the world, is irrelevant to the world. I would rather be wrong in my faith and right in my works, than the other way round.

I said something to that effect later in the discussion and was confronted by an angry Lutheran minister, “That is what you Jews always say. But the Lord is clear it is faith not works that gets you into heaven.”

A smattering of applause quickly gave way to an awkward silence reflecting the imperfect marriage of religious zealotry and political correctness.

I smiled and said, “And yet Jesus says, ‘By their fruits you shall know them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” [Matthew 7:20-21]. And while it is true that Judaism is more concerned with deeds than belief, the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk says, “The righteous shall live by faith,” [Habakkuk 2:4], so the dichotomy is somewhat false. My point is not to pit faith against works, or to claim that either will get you into heaven. My point is that a religion is of value to the world only to the extent that it helps us sow the seeds of loving-kindness in the world. Believe what you wish, just be a mensch and the world will benefit from your having been born into it.”

This was the second time I had used the word mensch that evening, and it suddenly dawned on me that my Bible Belt audience might not be familiar with the word. Thankfully someone interrupted and asked me for a definition. I said, “A mensch is a person who strives to love her neighbor as herself.”

I am convinced that menschlichkeit, the art of living as a mensch, is at the heart of all authentic religion and spirituality. A mensch may be a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Moslem, a Christian, a Jew, a pagan, a secular humanist, etc. What makes a person a mensch is not her religious label, but her focus on loving-kindness. The fact that people striving after menschlichkeit can share with one another different insights and practices derived from their respective traditions and which further the aim of menschlich (mensch-like) living is a plus. It is this plus that can make for fruitful dialogue among the world’s religions; a dialogue we need now more than ever.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I Think I'm Gay. Or Maybe Catholic.

In its frantic attempt to look like it is tackling the horror of pedophile priests, the Catholic Church is targeting homosexual priests and seminarians despite the fact that there is no scientific link between homosexuality and pedophilia.

In the past the Church made a distinction between the sinner and the sin, respecting the person as long as he did not engage in homosexual behavior. The demand for gay celibacy was fair, paralleling the same demand made upon heterosexual men aspiring to or already in the priesthood. The new Vatican policy, however, changes that, making being a homosexual rather than engaging in sexual activity the problem. The distinction between the sin and the sinner is lost.

According to the Vatican gay men are inherently incapable of sexual maturity; have problems with “psychic organization;” have “trouble relating to their fathers;” “are uncomfortable with their own identity; tend to isolate themselves; have difficulty in discussing sexual questions; view pornography on the Internet; demonstrate a deep sense of guilt; or often see themselves as victims.”

This comes from Andrew Sullivan’s essay in the 12/12/05 issue of Time Magazine. Sullivan makes it clear that there is “no serious psychological data” to verify the claims of the Vatican. I have no doubt that this is so, yet I cannot shake the possibility that the Church is right. And if they are, I am gay.

First, I don’t even know what sexual maturity is, but I suspect my laughing at the sexual innuendos on South Park and The Family Guy probably disqualifies me from having it. Second, my psyche doesn’t seem organized at all. My mind jumps around like a wild monkey even during meditation. Third, relating to my dad has never been easy, and ever since I gave up a six-figure income to focus on my writing, things have gotten worse. Fourth, I have no idea who I really am. My identify seems forever fluid and in flux. Fifth, I love to be alone. Sixth, unless I am relating a joke from South Park or The Family Guy— which once again proves my sexual immaturity— talking about sex is often awkward. And as far as guilt goes, I was born Jewish: guilt is a given.

According to the Vatican the only hope I have for not being gay is that I don’t watch Internet porn and I rarely if ever see myself as a victim. Yet the Vatican uses the word “or” in their document rather than “and” so any one of their criteria can disqualify me from the priesthood on the grounds that I am gay.

So I am having doubts about my sexual orientation. I have spoken to several gay friends about this but they aren’t Catholic, so maybe they don’t really get it. To know for sure, I plan to apply to a Catholic seminary and see if they out me. I’ll let you know how this goes.

Monday, December 05, 2005

On My Way To Hell

The man sitting next to me on a United Airlines flight to Denver was on a mission from God. A bumper sticker stuck to the side of his brief case said so. As we settled into our seats the flight attendant came on the overly loud loud speaker to remind us that, “If Denver is not your destination, now would be a good time to get off the aircraft.”

“I guess I should get off the plane then,” my neighbor said, making no move to do so.

I knew what was coming. Two years ago I attended a seminar on the art of evangelizing sponsored by a local Baptist church. There were about 25 people enrolled in the class, and the gist of what we learned was how to find openings in otherwise banal conversations that would allow us to shift the conversation toward the topic of salvation through Jesus Christ. Curious as to whether or not the man had heard the opening and was about to finesse it into a proselytizing moment, I said: “You’re not going to Denver, then?”

“Oh, Denver is on my way, but my final destination is heaven.”

There it was! Of course now I had to deal with the opening gambit. So, I smiled, maintained eye contact, and raised my eyebrows in feigned curiosity.

“You know there is only one way to heaven, and that’s through faith in Jesus Christ. Are you saved? Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

So clumsy! He shouldn’t have hit me with a declarative statement like that. He should have engaged me a bit more in actual dialogue. Amateur.

“I wouldn’t presume to say I am saved,” I said. “In fact I suspect that those who are certain of their personal salvation are actually falling victim to the sin of spiritual pride. I leave salvation up to God. But I do agree there is only one way to heaven. I just don’t think faith in Jesus is it.”

Having taken the proselytizing class I knew I was pushing every spiritual hot button my seatmate had. He reached for his Bible and was, no doubt, about to quote from the Gospel According to John. I could feel him girdling his loins that he might defeat me in spiritual combat, but I wasn’t looking for a fight. I laid my hand on his for a moment and said softly, “Jesus says, ‘Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.’ That’s Matthew 3:36, right? Compassion is the way to heaven. To mistake the messenger for the message is like mistaking the menu for the meal. You will never taste the truth of what God’s offers. I don’t want to argue with you about Jesus, I want to walk with you on his path.”

This line from Matthew should be the hallmark of Christian teaching, just as it is the hallmark of Jesus’ message. The reason it isn’t is that you can’t build a religion around it. You don’t need priests, pastors, rabbis, gurus, imams, or any other clergy person to practice loving-kindness. You don’t need churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, altars, or sacrificial cults to practice loving-kindness. All you need is loving-kindness. This is what makes the way of loving-kindness so frightening to so many religious people.

Religion gives lip service to loving-kindness, but in the end the final arbiter of your fate is not kindness but loyalty to this or that tribe, denomination, ritual, creed, etc. And do not think I am talking only about western religion. The history of every religion is riddled with violence, sexism, jingoism, and xenophobia. No organized religion is free from violence, because violence is intrinsic to the nature of organized religion.

As long as there is a hierarchy to maintain, a power-elite to support, and a populace to control, the propensity for violence— physical, psychological, political— is always going to be present. But none of this pertains to the way of loving-kindness. There is no hierarchy, no privileged elite, no one to keep in line. There is only you and the world you encounter moment to moment. Will you engage this moment with kindness or with cruelty, with love or with fear, with generosity or scarcity, with a joyous heart or an embittered one? This is your choice and no one can make it for you. If you choose kindness, love, generosity, and joy then you will discover in that choice the Kingdom of God, nirvana, this-worldly salvation. If you choose cruelty, fear, scarcity, and bitterness then you will discover in that choice the hellish states of which so many religions speak. These are not ontological realities tucked away somewhere in space, these are psychological realities playing out in your own mind. Heaven and hell are both inside of you. It is your choice that determines just where you will reside.

"You are going to hell,” my seatmate said flatly after I had shared with him the thoughts I have just shared with you, his voice cracking just enough to let me know this is not the fate he would wish for me.

“I know," I said just as flatly, "but without loving-kindness we are in hell already.” Then I smiled, powered up my PowerBook, and quickly typed out the conversation you have just read.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Lion in Winter

I was leaving a Nashville synagogue after teaching an adult education class when one of my students stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Rabbi, my kids want to see the Narnia movie, but I am afraid it will make them Christian. Do you think it is OK for Jews to go to this movie?”

“Of course it is OK. It is a great story.”

“But isn’t it the story of Jesus?”

“Maybe,” I said, “and that is a great story also.”

The woman was stunned. “You like the Jesus story?” she said breathlessly.

“What’s not to like? A people oppressed; a young child raised to free them who grows up to give his life trying to do so. Danger, courage, sacrifice; this is stuff of all great literature.”

“But this is Christianity!”

“No, it isn’t. Christianity, especially as practiced in our neighborhood, is the belief that believing in Jesus as Christ, as messiah, is the only way to avoid eternal hell fire. You can believe, as I do, that Jesus was a great prophet, teacher, rabbi, and Jew, and still go to hell for all eternity. Narnia is going to turn you kids on to self-sacrificing lions, not Christ.”

“I don’t know, Rabbi. I still don’t want this movie to influence my kids.”

“It is your choice,” I said, “but you really can’t keep your kids away from Christian influence. Rather than isolate them, teach them about Jesus the Jew, be open about what Christianity teaches and how Judaism offers an older and, to my mind, more loving understanding of God, life, and how to live justly, compassionately, and humbly. Rather than worry about the culture influencing your kids to be Christians, try influencing them to be Jews.”

Friday, December 02, 2005

If It Looks Like a Tree and Sparkles Like a Tree...

I was teaching at the local library the other day, sitting next to a very stately evergreen tree decorated with twinkling white lights. I made some offhand comment about a rabbi teaching under a Christmas tree and one of the women in the class corrected me:

“Holiday Tree,” she said.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“It is called a Holiday Tree, not a Christmas Tree.”

“You’re kidding,” I said intending to say more, but she cut me off.

“I am not kidding, and it is wrong to call it a Christmas tree. Even here in the Bible Belt we are sensitive to the diversity of our population. Calling it a Christmas tree alienates people who aren’t Christian, people, I might add, such as yourself, Rabbi.”

I don’t understand the phrase “I might add.” It implies that she might not add, but since it is said in the context of actually adding it is misleading and redundant. I didn’t mention it seeing that it probably wasn’t germane, but I am sharing it with you so that you might not make a similar mistake yourself. I restricted my comments to the topic of the tree:

“What holiday is this Holiday Tree celebrating?” I asked her. “The Jews have a tree holiday called Tu b’Shevat that comes in a few of months. It celebrates the first stirrings of spring as the trees slowly come back to life. It is like Easter for trees: winter death giving way to spring resurrection. But we don’t cut them down or decorate them. We actually plant saplings. So if this Holiday Tree has to do with that, we are very premature and off-base.”

“Oh please,” the woman said, “I never heard of this Jewbishwat. It has nothing to do with that.”

“Is there another holiday in December, other than Christmas, that comes with tree decorating? Hanukkah has nothing to do with trees. Nor does Kwanza as far as I know. The Druids may have a tree worshipping holiday around the Winter Solstice, so are we changing the name to be more welcoming to Druids?”

I am certain that if this woman was capable of saying “You asshole” she would have said “You asshole!” In fact she may have said it silently to herself. I wouldn’t blame her. I was being an asshole. Instead she turned very red and said in a staccato voice that sounded like a computer a cheap 1950’s sci-fi movie, “It is a Christmas Tree, everyone knows it is a Christmas Tree, but saying it is a Christmas Tree is rude and offensive, so we call it a Holiday Tree which is much more inclusive and respectful.”

She is wrong on all counts, other than the point that call it what you like, this is a Christmas tree. Saying that the tree is a Christmas tree is not rude or offensive, anymore than calling a Hanukkah menorah a Hanukkah menorah rather than a holiday candlestick is rude and offensive. What is rude is denying the true nature of a thing. What is offensive is stripping the tree of its meaning in order to placate… whom? Is anyone offended by the fact that a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree? Do Christians celebrating Christianity offend anyone? If you are so offended then move to Teheran or the Meah Shaarim section of Jerusalem where Christians and Christmas are quite rare.

What is rude and offensive is thinking that non-Christians are so stupid as to believe that calling a Christmas Tree a Holiday Tree makes it any less a Christmas Tree or any more relevant to those of us who do not celebrate Christmas. It is a stupid and insulting act of political correctness that feeds the paranoia of those Christians who feel they are under siege in this country.

I love Christmas. I love the story (we Jews tell similar ones about Abraham and Moses), I love the music, I love watching shoppers trample one another over bargains (it reminds me of my youth shopping with my family at Filenes’s Basement). I love Christmas Trees. I love the lights, the ornaments, the smell of pine (or Pine-Sol, depending on the kind of tree it is). Unless you have to set them up and take them down yourself, Christmas Trees are a pure delight.

Yes, there are aspects of Christian culture that frighten me, both as an American and as a Jew. Yes, there are trends in this country that hint at a coming dark age and the rise of an American Theocracy. But calling a Christmas tree a Holiday tree is not going to change that. There are real religious battles to be fought, but this is not one of them.

Anyway, have a happy/merry ___________ [Please fill in the blank for yourself so as to feel I really care about you and your unique cultural and religious heritage.]

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sex, Lies, and Suicide Bombers

I ate a late breakfast at Waffle House this morning— cheese omelet with a side order of grits. Whenever I eat at Waffle House I sit in the corner booth and read USA Today. This morning I found it hard to concentrate. A couple of guys in the booth next to mine were having a fascinating discussion on religion and terrorism. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop…

One guy whose tan work shirt had the name “Fred” printed on a patch stitched over a frayed breast pocket said, “Look I’m not losin’ my faith or nothin’, but ya gotta admit sex with seventy virgins is not a bad deal. Seriously, I can see why Mooslems [that is how he pronounced Moslems] turn to this suicide-bombing thing. Seventy virgins, damn!”

“That’s bull, man. They don’t get no virgins. God sends ‘em to hell.”

“No way, man. Virgins. I heard it on the radio, and my pastor told me its true.”

“True that some terrorist gets seventy virgins from God for killin’ people?”

“True that they believe so. I ain’t saying it's true. It ain’t. But if I believed it was true, damn ya gotta give it some thought.”

Now that he mentioned it, I was giving it some thought. I should have kept my thoughts to myself, but I didn’t:

“How do you know God sends them to hell?” I said to the guy sitting across from Fred. “How do you know God doesn’t give them the 70 virgins?”

For a second, I worried that my neighbors would be annoyed with me for butting into their conversation, but they didn’t seem to mind a bit.

“Look,” not-Fred said, “they don’t even believe in God, they believe in Aylah [Allah], and Aylah ain’t God.”

“Actually, Allah is the Arabic word for God. Allah and God are the same thing.”

“No way, man,” Fred said, “God don’t have nothin’ to do with no virgins.”

“Well, that ain’t exactly true,” not-Fred said. “I mean God has a kid with the Virgin Mary. You know, Jesus.”

“OK. God has one virgin and keeps her for hisself, but he ain’t about to give seventy virgins to you jus’ because you blow yerself up in a hotel or something.”

“But you don’t really know that,” I said. “You don’t believe it, but you don’t know for certain. And since you don’t know for certain, you have to entertain the possibility that God does reward those who kill in God’s Name. God kills lots of people in the Bible, and when Jesus comes back he is going to kill thousands maybe millions more. You can’t say that God doesn’t condone killing. It is just that we want God to kill people we want killed. God is like our hit man.”

“Yeah,” Fred said. “God is like Tony Soprano.”

“No way, you jerk,” not-Fred said, “Tony Soprano’s Catholic.”

“Look,” I said, “God kills people God doesn’t like; Allah kills people Allah doesn’t like. God rewards his killers and Allah rewards his killers. What’s the difference?”

“First of all,” not-Fred said, “Aylah— Ahh-laah— ain’t God. He’s Satan. He lies. God don’t lie. Aylah says God never had a Son, but we know that ain’t so. Jesus is God’s Son. So I don’t doubt that this lyin’ Aylah tells people that he will give them seventy virgins if they kill some Christians. I only said God— the real God— don’t reward nobody with virgins.”

“Why not?”

“’Cause Jesus was a virgin and God don’t want us foolin’ around like that. Are you just stupid or what?”

“Maybe stupid,” I said, “but God rewards martyrs in Christianity and Judaism, why not in Islam? All I’m saying is that it is arbitrary to say God rewards our martyrs and not their martyrs. And it is presumptuous of us to say that if God wants to reward His Moslem martyrs with seventy virgins He is not allowed to do so.”

“Man, you are crazy. And I think you’re bullshittin’ me.”

“I am not trying to be obnoxious,” I said. “I’m genuinely curious. If your pastor told you that God wanted you to kill some Moslems and promised you sex with seventy virgins if you did it, wouldn’t you at least be tempted.”

Before his friend had a chance to reply, Fred got up, slapped not-Fred on the shoulder and said, “We gotta go, man.” As he stood to leave, not-Fred turned to me and said, “I’ll tell you what, virgins, seventy or seventy thousand, don’t appeal to me at all. You ever had sex with a virgin? It is too much work. Now, if God offered me seventy whores, then I might be tempted. I don’t want to break in seventy virgins. I want women who know what they’re doing.”

Then he laughed. Then not-Fred laughed. Then I laughed. But only on the outside.

Monday, November 28, 2005

With Friends Like This

Ah, Jews and our books. Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, called a “prominent Jewish messianist” by the Jewish internet news service ynet, and leader in that faction of CHaBaD Lubavitch Hassidism that believes its deceased rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, is the messiah, has written a new tome calling for religious Jews to view the State of Israel as an “administrative body, like the British government who controlled Israel before the country’s establishment.”

Titled “Between Light and Darkness” the book is the latest in a series of moves to deligitimize the government of Israel and call for the coming of the restored Davidic Kingdom. The impetus for such calls is the recent withdrawal of Israelis from Gaza under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Of course the call is made not to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but to God. Unfortunately for Rabbi Wolpe, God doesn’t seem to be listening:

“So many prayers were said from the bottom of the heart in last year [sic], in a bid to prevent the eviction and destruction [in Gaza]. The heart must wonder, why did God do this to this land? How is it possible that such a wicked man like the prime minister was able to jump over so many political hurdles, until he achieved his goal, the crime of withdrawal?”

OK, so let’s wonder. Why would God ignore the prayers of His most faithful? Hmmmm. I can think of only two reasons: 1) There is no God and so these prayers were a waste of time; 2) There is a God but He favors Sharon and withdrawal over Wolpe and occupation. Neither of these reasons would suit Rabbi Wolpe, and lucky for him he came up with an alternative:

“It is we that gave him the power. We determined that him, his state and his government are the beginning of our salvation. We blessed him before an open bible every Saturday. With such power, it is no wonder that the false messiah storms forward without stopping, while taking his devotees and the rest of the Israeli people down to the abyss with him.”

Sounds about right to me. While the faithful didn’t have enough power to convince God to stop Sharon, they did have enough power to prevent God from stopping him. Anyway, Wolpe’s book calls for the cessation of prayers in support of Israel and her welfare. That ought to do it.

Actually, while I supported the withdrawal from Gaza and look forward to the establishment of Middle East peace when Jesus, the Mahdi, and Rebbe Schneerson arrive together to beat the crap out their rabid followers, I am in favor of Wolpe’s call for the cessation of the Prayer for the Welfare of Israel. Anything that shortens our prayer services has my support.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hiding Behind Homophobia

For a thousand years it was neither illegal nor uncommon for Catholic priests to be married. What brought celibacy to the fore was the concern that as the church became more wealthy, the offspring of clergy would demand inheritance rights. Celibacy had nothing to do with a higher state of spiritual purity, and everything to do with a higher state of financial power.

I am not criticizing the church for this change in policy— organized religion has always been more about power than piety— I am simply noting this by way of introduction to the latest Vatican document dealing with priestly sexuality. This document, leaked to the press and due to be officially released on December 6th, states that homosexual men will no longer be accepted to the priesthood unless they can prove they have been celibate for at least three years (how does one prove that?), and will promise to teach the official Church doctrine that homosexual sex is always wrong.

The document, which has been in the works for over thirty years, does not ban homosexual priests from the priesthood, and there is no overt attempt to seek out gay priests and seminarians and remove them from the priesthood. In fact the document will probably have little or no effect on the priesthood at all, except to remind gay priests that they might want to check out Episcopalianism when they get a chance.

What interests me here is the timing of the document. The church has been working on this since 1974. I don’t understand why it took them so long. It isn’t as if they church actually debated whether or not homosexuality was a sin. God ruled on this thousands of years ago, and while it is true that liberal Jews have overruled the Almost Almighty in this case, it only took them a couple of years to do so.

I suspect that the release of this document is meant to show the faithful and the world that the Church is finally taking action against priestly pedophilia. It has taken them a lot longer than 30 years to get around to this, and now that they have someone ought to tell them that they are going after the wrong guys.

While anti-gay web sites cite bogus data to link homosexuality with pedophilia, scientifically credible empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. I am not claiming that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children, only that they are no more likely to do so than heterosexual men. Weeding out gay priests will have no real impact on priestly pedophilia.

It is not the fault of the Catholic Church that some— a tiny minority— of its clergy molest children. The Church’s sin was in hiding their pedophiles, protecting them, in effect enabling them, and allowing them to continue to spread their evil from parish to parish. The sin is as much on the heads of the bishops who protected the pedophiles and endangered the public as it is on the pedophiles themselves.

Just as the Church’s rule of celibacy was a smokescreen to protect the power of its ruling elite, so the Church’s latest effort to weed out gays from the priesthood in order to cleanse itself of pedophiles is a smokescreen to protect the ruling elite from the charge that they protect priests who molest children. If the Church were serious about pedophilia it would stop wasting time on gays and work more closely with the psychiatric, psychological, and legal communities to create better ways to identify, arrest, and prosecute pedophile seminarians and priests.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Real Tragedy of American Jewish Life

In “A Tragedy of Our Time: Why most American Jews as so irreligious and anti-religious” (Moment Magazine, December 2005) Dennis Prager offers a wise and cogent explanation for the nonJewishness of most American Jews.

I am a huge Prager fan. Even when I disagree with his conclusions, I am always enriched by the quality of his thinking. Dennis lists five reasons for the tragedy:

1. Our inability to find Orthodox Judaism compelling;
2. Our experience with religion-based anti-Semitism makes us wary of religion;
3. Our university education leads us to be skeptical of religious claims;
4. Our sense that only Orthodoxy offers an alternative to secularism (see Reason 1);
5. Our history of suffering makes us distrust God.

I have no argument with Dennis, but I would like to add a sixth reason: mainstream Judaism makes no sense. Judaism rests on three pillars: God, Torah, and Israel, and I can’t accept any of them as mainstream Judaism offers them to me.

1. I love God. I experience God daily in, with, and as all reality. But the god of mainstream Judaism— the god who blesses and curses, who rewards and punishes, who is locked into a manic-depressive cycle of creation and destruction— is alien to me.
2. I love Torah. I study Torah every day and find Her a constant source of wisdom, but I cannot imagine that God wrote Torah. People wrote it. Different people at different times with different agendas. The author of “love your neighbor as yourself” is not the author of “pick up a stick on a Saturday and you will be stoned to death.” The author of the first was in touch with godliness, the author of the second was not. If being a religious Jews means pretending that God wrote both, then I cannot be a religious Jew.
3. I love Israel, the people, the place, and the spiritual ideal of Yisra-El, God-wrestler. But I cannot accept that we are chosen, or that God chooses one people or one strip of land over the rest. Most Judaisms (Reconstructionism being the lone exception) still tout this primitive nationalism and ignore the real power and value of becoming Yisra-El. I don’t think the world needs a chosen people, but it can certainly benefit from a few more God-wrestlers.

The real reason most American Jews are irreligious is that they have outgrown mainstream Judaism. These very irreligious Jews are often deeply spiritual, with a great longing for God, Wisdom, and Community. They just can’t find it in conventional notions of God, Torah, and Israel. What American Jews need is a 21st century Judaism one that offers a nondual contemplative theology that helps us experience God in, with, and as all reality; a post-modern Torah that teaches us how to recover timeless myth and wisdom from the language of the past; and a post-tribal Israel that leads us beyond religious jingoism to real community rooted in bio-regional diversity and planetary unity.

The real tragedy of American Jewry is that we 21st century Jews are only offered an 18th century Judaism. Nothing will change until that does.

To Tree or Not To Tree: God Answers the Question

Living in the Bible Belt has its advantages. People are always caring about my soul. Perfect strangers think nothing about taking time out of their busy day to help me come to Jesus. Of course some are less polite than others. Once around Easter I was stopped by a very worried man who saw me eating a round Tostitos corn chip. Noticing the Star of David I wear around my neck, and fearful that I was desecrating the Host (the consecrated wafer that for Catholics becomes the actual Body of Christ), he demanded to test the corn chip. “It’s corn,” I said calmly. “The Host must be made of wheat.” “Let me see it anyway,” he insisted. I gave it to him. “OK,” he said, “can’t be too careful with you people.”

Can’t be too careful with people like him either. I now eat Tostitos in private, taking care in public to eat only triangle-shaped Doritos. While it is true that in some cultures this shape represents the vagina, here in Tennessee it is only a corn chip.

I mention this only to say how pleased I am as Christmas approaches that I can be of service to my Christian neighbors, and warn them of the danger of erecting Christmas Trees in direct violation of God’s will. Actually I had no idea that God opposed Christmas Trees, but I was listening to one of our local talk shows and a caller came on to enlighten his fellow Christians of their pagan foolishness. He cited chapter and verse in the Bible to prove his point. The show’s host got an English Bible and confirmed the man’s citation. When I got home I did the same in the Hebrew:

Thus says The LORD: Do not learn from the way of the nations; do not be frightened by the signs of the heavens, though the nations are frightened by them. For the practices of the nations are foolish; [for one takes] a tree he has cut down from the forest, fashioned by an artisan with an adze, embellishes it with silver and gold, fastens it with nails and with hammers so that it does not come apart… (Jeremiah 10:1-5).

Taking the commandment to love my neighbor as myself, I plan to print this passage on cards with a Christmas Tree marked with a slash indicating NO CHRISTMAS TREES, and place them in mailboxes around my town. I thought about adding my name and address to the cards so that my neighbors could thank me for my thoughtfulness, but I realize this is verging on the sin of spiritual pride, so I am opting for anonymity. I am risking exposure here so as to invite you to make cards of your own and save your neighbor the embarrassment of having to explain to God why they ignored His warning.

Anyway, as they say in Wal-Mart, Have a Happy Holiday.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Religion and Science

At a recent news conference in early November, Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, defended Darwin’s theory of evolution over and against Intelligent Design. "The fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim," he said. The real message of Genesis is to teach us that "the universe didn't make itself and had a creator".

Yet isn’t this what the Intelligent Design people are saying? I think it is. The difference between the Vatican’s view and that of ID is that the Vatican holds that Darwin has revealed the means by which God created the universe, while the ID folks cannot abide the notion that God would allow random chance to determine creation’s outcome.

Should we find the Vatican’s position more enlightened than that of the Fundamentalists? I don’t.

Darwin didn’t deny the existence of a Creator God, he just rendered such a god irrelevant. While the Vatican is right that Creationism and ID are not science and have no place it the science curriculum, they are wrong in assuming that Darwinism and Genesis are compatible.

Genesis says, “In the beginning God…” Darwin does not need to posit God at all to make his theory work.

The only way we can reconcile scientific materialism, the notion that life emerged out of a series of random events, and religion, which holds that life has an intrinsic purpose and direction bestowed upon it by its creator, is to compartmentalize science and theology and never let them talk with one another.

I believe science and religion should be in constant dialogue. I believe that the extent to which religion and science disagree, one has to win in the end. For example, when Genesis tells us that the earth is suspended between two bodies of water, and science shows us that this is not so, religion must yield. When religion insists that Joshua stopped the sun to allow the Israelites to defeat their enemies, and science shows (1) that the sun doesn't circle the earth, but the earth circles the sun, and (2) that stopping the sun, or rather freezing the earth in its orbit, would destroy the entire planet, religion must yield.

Religionists worry that there is nowhere for them to stand against science. But that is because they use religion as science, mistaking the metaphors of religion for material facts. Religion deals with metaphor and myth, a reality science is incapable of exploring.

Religion isn’t science, it is poetry. Its genius and its value aren’t in physics, but in metaphysics. The threat to religion doesn’t come from science, but from those religionists who think it does. By reducing religion to a pseudo-science and pitting it against real science, these so-called defenders of faith only weaken faith; dumbing it down to literalist absurdities and robbing it of its true grace, grandeur and meaning.

I don’t worry that science will rob religion of its meaning; I worry that religion will strip itself of both meaning and mystery in the attempt to become science. Creationists and ID people aren’t defending religion against science, they are surrendering it to science.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Real War On Christmas

I haven’t finished all of my Halloween candy, let alone thought about dealing with the family logistics of Thanksgiving, and already the stores are blaring the saccharine sounds of Christmas. I can’t go into a drugstore to buy gum, a bookstore to look through the shelves, or a mall in search of a bargain without being bombarded with Christmas music. Not holiday music. Not seasonal music. And certainly not Hanukkah or Kwanza music. Christmas music.

In addition to the music, there is the ubiquitous Santas, Christmas trees, and red and green shiny wrap. And yet the news is filled with stories about the War on Christmas. Have I missed something?

I understand that Wal-Mart has instructed its employees to refrain from saying “Merry Christmas,” and to offer “Happy Holiday” greetings instead. As a Jew, this is supposed to make me feel more welcome in the store. It doesn’t.

First of all, is there a Waspier store than Wal-Mart? There is nothing ethnic about it at all. Unless you are shopping at the Wal-Mart in Beijing, the closest thing I find to ethnic food in Wal-Mart is a jar of salsa. I half expect Jerry Falwell and Martin Luther to greet me at the door with a forced “Welcome to Wal-Mart.”

Second, there are many years when Hanukkah falls so much earlier than Christmas that the only holidays that can be happy are Christmas and Kwanza, neither of which do I celebrate.

Third, what is wrong with people wishing one another Merry Christmas? December 25th is Christmas, whether I choose to celebrate it or not. What should a person say to me, “Have a nondescript Christmas”? Saying “Merry Christmas” is no different than saying “Have a nice weekend,” or “Have a good day.” Why shouldn’t I have a merry Christmas? After all I get the day off; I don’t have to deal with presents I don’t want or family I can’t stand; and people are generally on their best behavior, at least until mid-afternoon when the love of family starts to fray and people race off to the movies so they can sit in the dark and not talk to one another. There is nothing unmerry about it.

But don’t I feel alienated from my fellow Americans because I am a Jew and I don’t celebrate Christmas? Not at all. And if I did, I could do what many Jews do: get a tree, go into gift-debt, and suffer the family. Or, I could become a Christian. If I want Christmas that much, there is always that option.

I no more feel alienated from America during Christmas then I do during Chinese New Year, Ramadan, or Gay Pride Day. On the contrary, I am blessed to live in a country that has room for such diversity.

So let me be clear, if anyone wants to wish me a Merry Christmas, please be my guest.

And yet I believe there a War on Christmas, just not the one everyone seems so upset about. I read John Gibson’s book of that title, and he had to search the backwaters of America to find his war. When New York bans the tree in Rockefeller Center, then we have a war. When the White House no longer lights a tree, then we have a war. If a couple of wackos in Plano, Texas over react to the separation of Church and Lone-Star State, that is a skirmish, not a war. Gibson's book seems to be part of a general trend among conservative Christians to convince themselves that they are under attack, when in fact they are victorious. The United States is 80-something percent Christian. Relax. You won. But you've been fighting the wrong war.

The real War on Christmas isn’t the silly argument over store greetings; it is the far more powerful and subversive use of Christmas to sell stuff. Look, if you want to give gifts on Christmas, give what the Three Wise Men gave: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. You can never have too much of the first, and you can always re-gift the other two next year. Other than that, stop shopping.

The real gift of Christmas comes from God. The gift is Jesus. Christmas is the affirmation that God cares, that there is hope in times of deep despair. It is the same message taught by Hanukkah. The real war on Christmas is the one waged with weapons of mass distraction, taking our minds off the message and onto the marketing. Wal-Mart is waging war on Christmas, but not by changing its greeting. That only allows it to wage war on Hanukkah and Kwanza as well. The war Wal-Mart and every other Christmas-abusing business is waging is the war against the meaning of Christmas. If the meaning of Christmas were shopping, churches would abandon midnight mass for midnight madness sales.

And the government is colluding with the markets (surprised?). The Supreme Court allows Christmas Trees, crèches, and Hanukkah menorahs on public property because it deems them historical symbols rather than religious ones. Are you kidding! Historically, the prophets ban Christmas-like trees (see Jeremiah 10:3-4). Historically, the manger scene probably never happened, and the 25th of December is not Jesus’ real birthday. Historically Hanukkah was a military victory that had nothing to do with the Festival of Lights the Hanukkah Menorah honors.

There is nothing historical about these symbols. They are symbols of faith, hope, love, and miracles. Their value to us is not historical but spiritual. When I see a manger scene do I remind myself that only Luke (2:7) tells this story, making it historically suspect? Do I wonder why we don’t have a scene depicting the slaughter of thousands of Jewish babies by Herod in his mad attempt to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:16)? No. I think of the promise of spiritual renewal that Jesus represents. When I see the Hanukkah Menorah do I think of military victories? No, I think of the promise of spiritual renewal that kindling lights in the middle of the winter’s dark represents.

The real war on Christmas is a war on the soul of every American, regardless of religion. If you are too small to welcome the message of renewal from wherever it comes, I feel sorry for you. If you are so weak as to cave to the commercials rather than reach out with love, I feel sorry for you. If you are too busy to see the real war and defeat the real enemy, I fear for us both.

Merry Christmas. And if you must succumb, my sweater size is XL.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

3 Degrees of Separation: Darwin in the News

This week’s Religion and Ethics Newsletter has two articles of interest. The first is about the 6-4 vote of the Kansas Board of Education changing the definition of science to allow for non-natural explanations and challenge Darwin's theory of evolution. Personally I love this. Growing up in a Darwin-only science class was boring.

I know that many people are worried that this change in definitions will force teachers to teach Intelligent Design and Creationism as science. That may be, but, if you have ever read any of the text books in support of these theories, you know they are just as boring as old man-ape Darwin. What excites me about the new definition is that it allows science class to take seriously far more interesting theories of creation, like the Chinese theory that Pan Gu took an ax and hacked his way out of the cosmic egg, and when he died he became wind, water, earth, and mountains. Now there is a theory of creation I can get behind.

Of course in Dover, PA, the Darwinistas sacked the school board that would have allowed our kids to learn about the theory of Pan Gu. Worse still the repercussions of this vote seem to have impacted the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes meeting in a special conference in Pittsburgh.

According to Religion and Ethics Newsletter, this meeting brings together “conservative Episcopalians from the U.S. Church and primates from Africa, South America and Asia.” Whoa! First of all I didn’t know they had primates in South America, but the real thing that worries me is that meeting with these primates seems to legitimize their claim to being the ancestors of us humans.

I rely on conservatives to make the distinction between us and primates. And now they are meeting with them as equals. I am not sure how to respond really.
Or maybe I am being too narrow-minded. After all if Episcopal conservatives can meet with primates from around the world, maybe the rest of us can learn to get along as well.