Thursday, August 31, 2006


Today is the first day of the month of Elul, the final month of the Hebrew year. Traditionally Elul is devoted to forgiveness. We arise each morning and, with the exception of Shabbat, we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, calling ourselves to attend to reality and forgive both self and other for maintaining the illusion that we are self and other.

At the heart of the notion of forgiveness is the idea that we can be hurt, and that somehow we can end this hurt by forgiving the one who hurt us. This may be true, but if it is I have no idea how to do it. When I think about someone who has hurt me I naturally think about the hurt that was done and, rather than let it go, replay it a few times just to maintain the negativity I feel toward the doer.

Every time we tell the story of being hurt, we maintain the story of the hurter and the hurtee, looking for sympathy for the latter (us) and anger toward the former. So one way to forgive is to stop telling and retelling the story.

This is not the same as forgetting. Every time I try to forget something I have to remember what it is I wish to forget which undermines the whole notion of forgetting in the first place. So forget forgetting, and simply catch yourself whenever you are retelling your tale of woe, and say, “Whoa! I don’t have to waste my time with this again.” And stop telling the story.

But there is more to forgiveness than silence. In addition to not retelling the drama, you have to understand the true nature of the actors.

If someone accidently steps on your toe you are in physical pain, but the pain passes, and because you realize there was no intent to cause harm, no lasting suffering accrues. It is otherwise if you imagine that the person stepping on your toe is doing so on purpose. Then all kinds of secondary emotions arise: anger, revenge, fear, etc. But what if no one intentionally sets out to hurt you?

I think that most of the people who hurt me do so mindlessly. They are not concerned with me, and do what they do in pursuit of what they desire. I am just collateral damage. When I remember this, the hurt I feel passes like a that of a stepped-on toe. Of course there are rare cases when someone is out to get you, but even then if I look closely I discover that they are imprisoned in a mindset that makes their actions almost uncontrollable. They are prisoners of their passions and act as one possessed. And what is true of the other is true of you and me as well.

Knowing this is the key to living without lingering emotional baggage. Elul is a month for putting down the baggage of suffering. To help with this I have written and will gladly share my Elul journal. Email me and I will send it to you as a Word doc.

Hopeful Anniversary

Something is terribly wrong in this country, and there is no more clear example of it than Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s comment that critics of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq are morally confused, and modern-day versions of Nazi appeasers.

The very fact that the administration has to go to such extremes to demean their political opponents tells us how frightened and fearful they are. What we need is honest argument on what is happening in the world and how best to address it, and what we are offered is rhetoric of the most dangerous kind.

I am not morally confused. The war in Iraq was wrong from the beginning. Not that war is always wrong, it isn’t. But this war was and is illegal, immoral, and damaging to the United States and freedom worldwide. And to be told that saying so makes me somehow un-American makes plain that many of our leaders have no idea of what America is.

America is rooted in law and not as President Bush seems to believe on the whims of chief executive. Bush sees himself as above the law. He is playing king, and there are few is any behaviors that are less American than that.

Torah is clear on the danger of kings. God’s plan for Israel was to be a loose confederation of tribes without a king. We were ruled by judges whose authroity rested in their ability to do justly. Today judges are pawns in the hands of politicians who long for authoritarian rulers who are kings in all but name. Read your Bible: When Israel insisted on having a king they were told they were violating God’s will, and things went badly for them for centuries.

It is time for us to speak truth to power. To stand up for America and what is American.
This September 11th is the anniversary not only the horror of the Twin Towers, but the hope of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement. Founded on September 11, 1906, satyagraha (soul force) sought to provide a third way between acquiescing to violence and becoming violent ourselves. This September 11th we must honor our murdered dead by reclaiming what is best about us as Americans.

On the campus of MTSU I plan to host a dialogue on Nonviolence in an Age of Global Terror. We will draw from Gandhi and explore if and how his teachings can guide us today. I am using material from a group out of New York. I know this isn’t much, but it is something. I cannot look myself in the mirror if I remain silent. I urge you to visit the website of the satyagraha anniversary people in NY and do something this 9/11 to make a difference. Their url is

I am hurt, outraged, and frightened by what Rumsfeld has been saying this week. I refuse to be silenced by him. I believe that we are at war, but that it must be fought with greater wisdom, compassion, and finesse than this administration is capable of using. Don’t let this anniversary of horror pass without at least trying to give voice to the sound of hope.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Whose Your Enemy?

I received a call this morning from a delightful evangelical Christian hoping to enlist me in a war against “our common enemy”— Islam. While I might ordinarily be inclined to respond to such calls by pretending to be my own answering machine, and thus avoid having to take the call at all, I opted instead to engage in a conversation about something that is very important to me: confronting the real enemy.

Islam is not my enemy. Nor is it yours. Yes, there are elements within Islam that are the enemies of freedom, and they, assuming you are in favor of freedom, are your enemy. But these elements exist in every religion, and labeling such people Islamofascists leads to the false conclusion that all of Islam as your enemy.

While I find the conclusion false, it was exactly the conclusion the caller expected me to make. Islam, because it denies the jingoistic chosenness of the Jews and the spiritual triumphalism of the Christians, must be against God who in fact chose the Jews and sent the world his only begotten son. When I suggested that the Koran and Islam offer a viable alternative to both Jewish and Christian interpretations of God’s will, I was met with the notion that the Koran, because it denies these claims, is by definition a false revelation coming from the Devil. I find such reasoning circular and meaningless.

Yet there is an enemy. The enemy is not Islamo-anything. The enemy is fascism in all its forms: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Secular.

Fascism technically began in Italy under Benito Mussolini and ruled that country from 1922 to 1943. Broadly understood fascism is an extreme authoritarian political ideology in which, according to Mussolini, “the state… governs and molds individual wills with laws and values of spiritual life… For the fascist, everything is within the state and… neither individuals or groups are outside the state… For fascism the state is an absolute, before which individuals or groups are only relative.” Or, to put it more succinctly in his original Italian: “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato/ Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

Statism is my enemy, fascism is my enemy, regardless which religion they choose to hide behind. Any group that seeks to subsume the individual beneath the state, and uses violence, propaganda, and censorship to suppress political and spiritual opposition is the enemy.

The caller was right: we need to band together and support the freedom of the individual to choose her way of life for herself, for only free people can withstand fascism. But that means that the enemy is any movement that seeks to shut down the individual’s right to choose, and the caller was not yet ready to admit that.

In John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience he is careful not to label the Bush regime as fascist, only authoritarian. I am not so sure. Fascism is alive and well in this country, and we must fight it here as well as elsewhere. Until we are ready to do that, when it comes to talk of the enemy, I will defer to Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Monday, August 21, 2006

What If Judaism Ruled The World?

I was recently invited to submit a short essay responding to the question: What If My Religion Ruled The World? Here is my essay:

The very question, What If My Religion Ruled The World, is a frightening one. Indeed, the fact that we could even entertain such a thought is scary to me. Theocracy is quite simply an authoritarian government leaning toward if not firmly in the grip of fascism. When God and government mix, it is always at the expense of human dignity, integrity, justice and compassion.

In the Torah God warns the people against having a king. He sees them as a “nation of priests,” and a “holy people.” (Exodus 19:6) who are to be ruled by judges not kings. Judges are concerned with justice, kings with power. In Samuel 10:19 God tells the people that by choosing to be lead by a king they have “rejected your God.” To be aligned with God is to be committed to justice, not power: “justice, and only justice you shall pursue,” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

The Torah is clear that when the people succumb to the quest for power they are capable of great evil— genocide and ethnic cleansing— and they do this evil in the name of God. What we see today is nothing new.

The heart of Judaism is found not in the doings of her kings or the pomp of her priests, but in the principles taught by her prophets. The prophets spoke out against the tyranny of the powerful and the exploitation of the powerless. The prophets offered a view of God very different from that of the ruling elite; a God who cared about the widow and the orphan, a God who is moved by acts of justice and compassion not ritual sacrifice and military might.

Even the rabbis do not live up to the prophetic ideal, focusing instead on adherence to their laws and customs, and insisting that these come not from themselves, but from God. The rabbis no less than their priestly rivals equate God with power and seek to claim both for themselves.

Yet, the question is asked, so let me speak to it more concretely. What if Judaism ruled the world? It is very Jewish to answer a question with a question, so would ask, Which Judaism? The Judaism of the prophets or the Judaism of the rabbis? And if the latter, is it the Judaism of the Orthodox or the Judaism of the liberals? Judaism has never been monolithic.

To keep things simple, let me focus on Orthodoxy. If we want to know what the world would look like if Orthodox Judaism ruled the world, we can look to see how they rule in modern day Israel. While still a democracy, and 90% secular, the private lives of Israeli Jews are ruled by the theocracy of the Orthodox establishment.

It is the Orthodox rabbinate who decides who is a Jew, who is a rabbi, and who can marry whom. It is the Orthodox establishment that denies women the right to initiate divorce, and ties widows who cannot prove their husbands are dead (perhaps they were lost in war, but no body was found, for example) to the dead by refusing to free them from their marriages. It is the Orthodox establishment that refuses to ordain women as rabbis, and disenfranchises any Judaism but their own.

It is easy to see what would happen if Judaism ruled the world: we would all step closer to living in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it is my belief that if they could get away with it, Orthodoxies of every religious type would shape the world into a Taliban-like state.

What the world today so desperately needs is not the power-focused teaching of religious elites, but the justice-focused radicalism of the prophets of all faiths. It is the prophets who speak for God and creation, and who can cross the boundaries established by clerics and kings, seeing all people as God’s people, and all beings as God’s Being.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

I Am Extinct

Today I found out I am extinct.

I was talking with a very nice man in his forties about the Bible. I mentioned that I taught Bible at Middle Tennessee State University, and he said joyfully, “Oh, you are a Christian!”

“No,” I said, “I am a Jew.” I expected some response, some well polished piece of evangelism designed to save my soul from eternal damnation for not believing in Jesus just the way this fellow did, but he simply stared at me. He had no idea what I just said.

“You, know,” I prompted him. “I’m Jewish. Like Jesus.” He continued to look at me without any expression at all. And then he said, “I didn’t know there were any Jewish.”

Now I am not a novice when it comes to ignorance about Jews, whether it comes from fellow Jews or Christians, but this is the first time I have actually encountered a person who had no idea that Jews still existed. After all who did he think ran Hollywood? And who would be slaughtered at the Second Coming? And who would be the 144,000 to finally accept Jesus as Christ at the End Times? This guy thought we were extinct. Wishful thinking? Not at all: Christians needed Jews to kill their god and continue to need them to recognize him when he comes back.

“Aren’t Jews Christians?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “We came before Christianity, about 4000 years ago. Jesus was a Jew, Christianity comes after Jesus.” I probably should have left this last part out, it only confused him more.

“Jesus is a Christian. His last name is Christ. That wouldn’t make sense if he weren’t a Christian.”

I know when I am licked. “You know you may be right,” I said. “It is like talking about King David. He must have been a king or we wouldn’t call him that. Or Mother Mary, she must be the Mother of God or we wouldn’t call her that. Or the Prophet Mohammed, he must have been God’s prophet or people wouldn’t call him that either.”

For a second I thought he caught my sarcasm. But then he said, “Yeah, like that.”

So there is hope. The key to interfaith dialogue is not seeking truth together, but not making a big deal out of each other’s ignorance.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Two Minds on the War

When it comes to talk of war I am of two minds. Here is what they sound like:

Mind One: First of all, we did not go into Iraq to free the Iraqi people, we went in to make sure that US oil companies would continue to dominate the oil market. This is an old-fashioned war of empire, and I am not necessarily adverse to it. As long as the United States insists on being an oil-based economy we must control the oil markets.

Mind Two: I agree, but I don’t want to minimize the religious element. It is not simply about empire and oil, it is about which god is the True God. Since biblical times there has been only one way to prove which god is the True God, and that is by killing the followers of the other gods. The only way out of this mess is to wake to the fact that all gods are created in the image of those who benefit from them. What we need is a spiritual revolution that no longer allows people to be manipulated by religion.

Mind One: I would welcome that revolution, but we also need to end our dependency on oil. As long as I want to drive and fly and keep my house, car, and office at 72 degrees regardless of the weather, I am consigning myself and my country to war until the last drop of oil is pumped out the ground and we are reduced to fighting over barren sands…

Mind Two: Which we would be all too eager to do if we imagine our god wants us to.

Mind One: Yes, we have to lay down not only our weapons, but our gods as well.

Mind Two: But churches and Hummers are here to stay, so if we want to end the war we must do something else. First, we must reinstitute the draft without any deferments. Until everyone is equally at risk of dying we will not have the political will to stop the rush to empire. Second, we must raise gasoline taxes to fund research and development of new oil independent technologies.

Mind One: Good luck with that! The fact is we are in the early stages of World War Four, a war for God and Oil that will last decades. We will draft tens of thousands of people, and we will make serving in the military a fast-track to American citizenship for thousands of people who wish to come here from other countries.

Mind Two: And I thought I was the pessimist. So I just want to say thank God for global warming. Maybe we will simply drown in melting ice caps and not have to wage war on behalf of middle eastern sky gods.

Mind One: Praise Neptune, Lord of the Sea!

Mind Two: Praise Neptune? No way! Praise Yam, the True Sea God.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sabbath (Ar)Rest

In a USA Today feature “A Call to Honor the Sabbath,” Henry Brinton, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia, offers a fine essay, but one that does what so many essays on biblical themes do: it ignores the truth.

When Pastor Brinton honors the Sabbath, which he does every Wednesday (he works on Sunday which is why he cannot honor the Sabbath on Sunday which makes no sense since God says the Sabbath is Saturday, see Exodus 20:8) he goes for a long run (as opposed to Sunday when many of his parisioners think he runs long).

I have no problem with Pastor Brinton running on Wednesday or running on and on on Sunday. What bothers me is that he thinks God’s commandment (number 4 for those of you who are counting) is so flexible. God is not saying, as this essay seems to suggest: Thou shalt taketh a day off from work that thou might beeth more productiveth during the rest of the week. God is saying that we should cease all work on the Seventh Day because God ceased working on the Seventh Day. When we rest on Saturday we do so in remembrance of God.

God says of the Sabbath what Jesus says of Communion, do this in remembrance of me. If we were as loose with the latter as with the former, we would find millions of Christians skipping the church’s dry wafers or scraps of bread, and heading to Burger King (of Kings) for a Whopper.

God’s Sabbath is not about being more productive or taking long runs. It is about doing nothing. This is what is so hard about it. Doing nothing means the ego is still for a day. And a still ego is no ego at all. “You” exist only in doing. Stop doing and “you” stop being. And when “you” stop being, God is realized (though by whom is unclear). Hence: “Be still and know I am God.”

But what I really don’t get is how people make light of the Sabbath (as opposed to making Sabbath lights) when the Bible so clearly does not. Remember this story: Some people found a guy picking up sticks on a Saturday and dragged him to Moses for punishment (Numbers 15:32). The assumption here is that it is wrong to pick up sticks but ok to drag a person around while you look for Moses. Anyway, Moses didn’t know what to do since God had not yet been confronted by a stick-picker, so he imprisons the man while he goes out to ask God how to handle the situation. God, who might have preferred to rest on the Sabbath, does not blast Moses for bothering him, and rules that the man should be stoned to death by all the people. This proves that while picking up sticks is a capital crime, picking up stones to kill a guy for stick-picking is not.

Here is my point: If we are going to use the Bible to make some point, let’s be honest and use all the Bible to make this point. So Pastor Brinton should have told us why the church feels it can change the Sabbath to Sunday and why he feels he can change it to Wednesday. And at least find a way to work around the stick-picking thing. Otherwise you might as well admit you are making the whole thing up and go for a long run on Wednesday pretending this is the Sabbath and God has so commanded thee.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Religion's Ills

I am reading a book called Orthodox Psychology, a fine exploration of Orthodox Christianity. The book makes the case that Christianity is not a religion but a healing science. In so doing it spills the beans on religion: religion is based not on health but on illness. Before any religion can offer you its cure, it must first infect you with its disease.

The disease for which Christianity is the cure is Original Sin. Original Sin refers not to the creativity of your sinning, but to the First Sin, Eve’s Sin, the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. So before Christianity even makes sense, you have to believe in Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden as historical fact, and the inheritance of sin as a metaphysical truth.

I love the story of Adam and Eve. I love the idea that Eve is willing to die for wisdom. She is the Hebrew Prometheus stealing the fire of wisdom from the god of the Garden. She is my role model. I only wish I had her courage. But I do not take the story as history. It is myth, not in the modern sense of falsehood, but in the premodern sense of metaphoric truth. The truth of the story is that wisdom costs you big time.

Christianity isn’t the only religion to sell us disease. They all do. The disease of Judaism and Islam is failing to live up to God’s commandments. The disease of Hinduism is mistaking illusion for reality. The disease of Buddhism is mistaking ignorance for truth, and thereby desiring permanence when none exists.

Now you may believe you have one or more of these diseases. I think I suffer from all of them, which is why I am open to all religions. But I only think this way because I was taught to think this way.

But what if none of these diseases is true? Then none of these religions will help. When someone tells you what religion they follow they are also telling you what disease they prefer.

I prefer to be healthy from the start. I prefer a faith not rooted in illness but in health. Is there such a faith? I don’t think so. But there are hints of this in every religion. To sight but one example, each morning observant Jews say, “God, the soul you place within me is pure.” This is the opposite of Original Sin. Your soul, your true self, is pure. Pure what? Pure Godhead!

So start with that. Whatever else you may do during the day to screw yourself up, remind yourself first thing each morning that your true self is pure, unstained, sinless, wise, and real. Build your faith and that, and see where it takes you.