Monday, December 31, 2007

Keeping God on the Horizon

I received an interesting question via email today: “Dear Rabbi, Is it possible to keep God on my horizon?”

What is a horizon? A horizon is that point beyond which one cannot see. The horizon doesn’t contain anything. It isn’t a thing in and of itself. It is that place where things disappear into the unseen.

Some people want to draw near to the horizon, but this makes no sense. As you move toward the horizon the horizon retreats.

Some people want to move in the direction of the horizon, but this too makes no sense. The horizon exists in all directs: turn in any direction and see as far as you can see and where your seeing ends is your horizon.

Keeping God on your horizon, therefore, means keeping God just beyond your sight, just passed what you know and can know.

The horizon is not the unknown itself, however. The horizon is the point of unknowing. The unknown itself has content. You discover this content when you come to know what was hitherto unknown. Today I don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow, but I will know what did happen to me tomorrow when (and if) I look back on tomorrow from the perspective of the day after tomorrow. Yet even as I look back my horizon is still in front of me, unchanged. Or, better, constantly changing.

So maybe the horizon is a good metaphor for God: God is the point of unknowing. No, the word “point” is misleading. The horizon is not a point in the sense of destination that can be reached. As I said, it is constantly retreating, forever moving. So there is no “point” but a pointing. The horizon is a pointing of unknowing. Grammar aside, does this work? Is God a pointing beyond the known?

All definitions of God have their limitations, but for the moment this one sounds pretty enticing. I like the idea that God is a pointing rather than a point, a doing rather than a being. I like the fact that God is not limited to the unknown, for that again seems to make God a thing, but is simply the pointing toward unknowing.

Of course this does make God somewhat transcendent rather than immanent. God is “out there” rather than “in here” or “right here,” but perhaps I am being too literal with the word horizon. Certainly there is a pointing to an inner as well as outer unknowing.

Anyway, to answer the email: Can you keep God on the horizon? No. Whatever is “on the horizon” isn’t. The horizon is that just beyond what is. Perhaps this is what Torah means when it calls God Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I am what I am becoming; I am just beyond what you know and see.

Happy New Year to all of you!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Student Interview, Part 4 of 4: Judaism at Its Best


Yes. I am a teacher of Torah, broadly defined as Jewish wisdom from Moses to Isaiah to Ecclesiastes to Jesus to the Baal Shem Tov to Kafka. Jewish wisdom is my primary language for articulating and sharing the universal truths I find meaningful and transformative. While I may draw from the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism to explicate a text from the Bible, it is the Bible rather than the Buddha that occupies me primarily. If it were the other way around I might call myself a Buddhist rather than a Jew, and I certainly would not call myself a rabbi.


Jesus was a great prophet, rabbi, and sage of Jewish wisdom. To call oneself a Jew and discard his teaching is to ignore a very important piece of Jewish wisdom.


At its best, Judaism is a living, open system of transformative spiritual practice concerned with teshuvah and tikkun, return and repair. Teshuvah is turning inward and discovering the ocean as the Face wearing the mask of the wave. Tikkun is turning outward and engaging life from this perspective of nonduality.

Another name for inward turning is Tikkun HaNefesh, repairing the soul, revealing the wholeness that the isolated ego denies. The outward turning is called Tikkun HaOlam, repairing the world with justice, compassion, and peace. I love the word “tikkun,” repair or heal. When we heal we make whole; when we re-pair we put the seemingly separate parts of the world back together again, or, more accurately, we discover that they were never apart. So Judaism as tikkun, as turning, is ultimately a dance of nondual realization.


All the rules, laws, and customs should be in service to tikkun. If a tradition helps you turn and heal, inwardly and outwardly, then do it. If it doesn’t, don’t do it. But the only way to know if a mitzvah or practice aids your turning is to try it out.


Judaism today seems too self-focused to me. It is as if the point of Judaism is to be Jewish rather than to practice teshuvah and tikkun, returning to God and repairing the world with godliness.


Judaism has a unique capacity to help people live with paradox and ambiguity, the hallmarks of postmodern civilization. That is one of the things I love best about it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Student Interview, Part 3: The Soul


No. There is no individual soul anymore than there is an individual you. There is only God, the One Thing that is everything.


Heaven and hell are states of mind right here and now.

If you imagine you are apart from God, in competition with everyone and everything; if you believe that life is a zero-sum game and your gain must come at the expense of others; if you believe that God is judging you and preparing eternal torments for you or someone else, then you are in hell already. The opposite of this is heaven.

As far as what happens when you die, there is no you in the absolute sense, so nothing happens. What happens when you awake from a dream? Can you say that the “dream you” is dead? What happens when a wave folds back into the ocean? Yes its form is gone but was it only that? Or was it always the ocean and it is still the ocean?

As the body dies the illusion of the separate self fades and you know yourself to be what you always were: God.


Judaism is my tribe, my culture. It influences the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the languages I speak, the books I read and the way I read them. I am proud to be a Jew and would not choose to be anything else.


It is a mistake to imagine there is such a thing as a fixed Judaism. There is the Judaism of Moses, the Judaism of the Prophets, the Judaism of the Priests, the Rabbis, the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, the Secularists. Judaism isn’t fixed. It is a living system that changes as the people who shape it change. I draw from all of these forms, but I am not limited by any of them. I take what speaks to me, and practice what awakens me.


In my own way, yes. Kosher means aligning all my consuming with the wellbeing of person and planet. Shabbat means standing apart from the addiction to work and learning to play. I do both as best I can.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Student Interview, Part 2: Role of Religion


It came to me rather than me coming to it. I have been involved in contemplative practice for over forty years. From the very first months of meditation practice this understanding of God became a felt reality to me. The years have only confirmed and deepened it.


Each day I walk, chant, sit in silence, study and write.


Nothing. There is nothing to get, because nothing is lacking. It is simply a way of remembering the truth that all is God, and that I can be in the world in a godly manner.


Very little. I learned these practices from mystics whose lives, teachings, and spiritual technologies were preserved by religious organizations, so I am grateful to religion for that, but my spiritual life has little to do with organized religion.


I wouldn’t say that. But I am leery of it. To the extent that organized religion preserves the wisdom of the mystics and how to investigate truth for yourself, it is valuable. To extent that it does good work in the world, promoting peace and justice, it is laudable. To the extent that it helps those in search of community and comfort find these, it is valuable. But when religions shun reality by denying and hiding from science; when they promote fear through superstitious notions about gender, sexual orientation, and sin that are degrading to humankind, when they sanctify evil and cruelty and ignorance and oppression in the name of this or that god, then religion is anathema.


Of course there is. While religious leaders use religion to tame the laity, the laity use religion to tame God.


Religion is magic. If we humans do “X” God will do “Y.” If we sing the right hymns, hold the right beliefs, worship the right image, marry the right people, and surrender to the right leaders then God will not beat the crap out of us here and in the hereafter.

The problem is that all religions say this, and it is impossible to form any objective criteria for determining which religion is right. There are only two ways to say one religion is true and another is false. Either you simply make that claim based on nothing but faith and wishful thinking, or you murder all the followers of the other religions and use their deaths to prove the impotence of their god.


Sure: Give up magical thinking. Give up trying to tame God. But this means people will have to face the fact that life, from the human perspective, is often tragic and cruel, and that bad things happen to good people for no reason whatsoever. People want life to make sense, so they imagine there is an All Mighty God in charge of things and that they can manipulate this god into doing what they want: heal this one, damn that one.

God isn’t your friend or your butler. God is reality and reality is both caring and cruel. What religion says is that you can have the one and escape the latter. What spiritual practice teaches is how to engage them both with compassion and humility. That is why I focus on practice rather than religion.


Not necessarily. We should respect and use religion for what it is: a repository of spiritual practices, insights, and ethics that we can test out for ourselves. Nothing should be taken on faith. Belief is irrelevant. Investigation into Truth is what matters. So people should study all religions, and test those teachings and technologies that speak to them. I love to chant. Chanting opens the “wave” me to the “oceanic” me. I chant texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I don’t care that on the level of organized religion these faiths are incompatible. I only care that chanting these texts opens me to the nondual reality of God in, with, and as all things.


People need community. In the context of religion I would like to see religious communities rooted in contemplative practice. People would gather to sit in silence, chant, study, and talk about issues of ultimate concern. There would be no dogma, doctrine, or fixed format. It would be a meeting place of seekers, a forum for contemplation and conversation. People would support one another by being present to one another. My ideal religious community would blend the best of Quaker Meeting, Twelve-Step Meeting, a Jewish study center, and African American gospel choir, all within a universalist framework that drew from the wisdom of science and spirituality.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Student Interview, Part 1: Believing in God

[This is Part I of an interview I gave to a student doing a paper on religion. IT is printed here with his permission.]


It all depends on what you mean when you use the words “you,” “believe,” and “God.”

If by “you” you mean an independent autonomous egoic self separate from the universe, then I have a problem. To have a sense of “I” I (and I here I knowingly and humbly enter into the paradox of language), have to ignore most of what I really am.

Think of it this way: Imagine my lungs were self-conscious. Would they say of themselves, “We are Rami”? No, they would realize that they are part of a larger system of heart, stomach, skin, muscles, bone, etc. What can be said of my lungs can be said of this larger system as well. Why point to my body and say “This is Rami” when that body is totally dependent on the larger system of the planet? And it goes on: the planet needs the sun and solar system, and the solar system needs the galaxy, and the galaxy needs the universe, etc. It is arbitrary and misleading to point to my body and say this is me, when in fact the entire universe is necessary for me to exist. There is only one “I” and that is the whole itself.


“Belief” is too weak a word. I don’t believe I have a sister, I know I have a sister. We believe in things we do not know. Belief is a kind of wishing. When it comes to God I have no beliefs. I know God, and hence I know God exists.


I am not troubled by the word, I simply want to be understood when I use it. God to me is, as the Torah says, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” (Exodus 3:14) the I AM that is all being and becoming. God is the water than embraces both ocean and the wave. God is the nondual Reality that embraces and transcends the duality of absolute and relative, I and Thou, front and back, good and evil. There is nothing that is other than God. Nothing that is apart from God.


No. As I said, belief is wishing. I don’t wish for God, I know God as a wave, if it were capable of knowing, might come to know itself as the ocean, and both itself and the ocean as water. I know I am God. I know you are God. The extent to which you know yourself and all life to be God is the extent you know yourself and all life to be worthy of and capable of love, justice, and compassion.


I want to ground ethics in something other than the temporary and delusional “I”. I worry when something is good only because I say it is good, or because the state says it is good, or because some religion says it is good. All three of these sources are driven by power and greed. I don’t want goodness defined by what serves the power that defines it.

When I know God, I experience the interconnectedness of all things, the interdependence of all things, and I find myself becoming more compassionate, empathic, and just. I root my ethics in this. My welfare depends on the welfare of the whole.


No. God is not a thing that can be just or unjust, good or evil. God is Reality, and Reality can be both just and unjust, both loving and cruel. But these are human concepts. Nature is neither good or evil, it is just what it is. We humans call things good and evil depending on whether or not they serve our interests. What I am saying is that when I see myself and all beings are part of the nondual Reality I call God, I see the wisdom of engaging life with love, compassion, empathy, and justice toward all beings.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


I’m sitting in Expresso Joe’s, our local internet café. A week or so ago a short essay of mine on Hanukkah appeared in the Murfreesboro Post (you can read it in Toto under “Chanukkah and Chutzpah”). I overheard a middle aged man talking about it, and introduced myself as the author. After a few minutes of small talk, he asked me, “Is there any idea you Jews are afraid to tackle?”

The question took me aback. I asked him what he meant. He said, “I don’t know, it just seems to me that Jews are into ideas. I mean I went to school in the Northeast and I knew lots of Jews, and none of them agreed on anything Jewish. One guy was very traditional, and some of the others were atheists. But they were all proud to be Jews. I mean my church is all upset with this new Golden Compass movie as if the film is going to rob us and our kids of our faith. We look like wimps. Like we are afraid of ideas, especially ideas that don’t support our notion of what is right and true. I don’t see that among Jews and wondered what you thought about this.”

“Well.” I said, “I can’t speak for all Jews but I get what you are saying. It points to what it is to be a Jew. While we call ourselves Jews after Judea, from which we hale, the Torah never uses that term. The Torah calls us Israel, and it is Israel that speaks to your point.

“Israel means to ‘wrestle with God and man and to survive.’ That is what we Jews do: we wrestle. It doesn’t matter if we are wrestling with theology, literature, physics, mathematics, art, whatever. We just don’t feel comfortable accepting the status quo. We like to dig deeper. We like to challenge ideas and be challenged by them. We like to test our beliefs. God is always testing Abraham; it is the Jewish way. We don’t feel comfortable if we are not struggling with some ideal or goal. And we don’t have to be right, either. It is just as much fun for us to discover we are wrong about something as it is to find out we are right about something. It is the finding out that matters to us.

“This is why we don’t just read the Bible, we investigate it. The Hebrew word for this is ‘drash,’ literally ‘to investigate,’ and what we find when we investigate is called ‘midrash.’ Each week when we read the assigned biblical text our reading is followed by a drash. We study all the investigations of the ancient and contemporary rabbis, and then launch into investigations of our own. It is the process of drash that keeps the Torah alive for us.”

“Yeah,” the man said, “that is what I like about you people. You investigate. Talking with Jews is always an adventure. You like to entertain multiple opinions at the same time. For the fun of it, I think.”

“I think so too,” I said. When he left I was feeling so excited about being a Jew. No, about being Yisrael. Jew is passive; Yisrael is active. Jew is a noun; Yisrael is a verb. I was born a Jew, and I choose to be Yisrael.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Kvetch About The Creche

As I take my five-mile walk each morning I find myself contemplating the various crèches I see around town. Most of them are pretty tacky, but that’s OK. Spiritual kitsch is one the things I like best about religion.

I love the meaning of the crèche. Jesus, the King of the Jews and Son of God, coming to challenge Herod and Caesar, the other King of the Jews and Son of God, being born in such humble circumstances suggests to me that great transformations begin in humble circumstances. Christmas gives us a clear choice: whom will you follow God or Caesar? I know that the history of the whole thing is doubtful, but Christmas isn’t really about history, it’s about hope. (Hope the feeling, not Hope, Arkansas birthplace of Christian Leader and perhaps soon to be Protestant and Chief Mike Huckabee.)

Anyway, as I walk around town studying the various crèches on people’s lawns, I have come to obsess about the Three Wise Men. I don’t know if this is unique to Murfreesboro or to Tennessee in general, but in every crèche I’ve seen, the Three Wise Man are pygmies.

The problem is that crèches are not made to scale. Mary and Joseph are giants, and barely fit in the manger. Yet no matter how big his parents are, the baby Jesus is huge in comparison. There is no way, baring an act of God (which of course is possible), that that baby could come out of that woman. And did you ever notice that Mary has already lost the weight gained during her pregnancy? Another miracle!

Yet what really surprises me is the Wise Men. As I said, they are no bigger than baby Jesus, yet they are supposed to be grown men. And then there is the color issue: the Three Wise and Very Short Men are always black or brown, while Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are always white.

This makes no sense. Jews in the time of Jesus were brown. Even if God is white, Jesus would still be half brown on his mother’s side. Jews are only white in cultures that are predominately white. This is because of the food, not because of intermarriage, since intermarriage is only a recent phenomenon: Chinese Jews look Chinese because they eat Chinese food, not because their parents married Chinese people and had Jewish-Chinese babies. [Though this does not explain why American Jews look white rather than Chinese given the amount of Chinese food we eat.]

Anyway, why are the Wise Men so small? First they could be pygmies, though you would think one of the Gospel writers would have mentioned this. Or maybe the crèche designers were white and they didn’t like the idea of brown Wise Men in the first place, so they did what they could to down play the Three by making them tiny. Who knows? Anyway, I would like to encourage future crèche makes out there to work on the scale of things. And let’s darken up the skin of the Holy Family, while you’re at it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fear and Loathing in the Bardo

I thrive on deadlines. I have deadlines for the classes I teach at Middle Tennessee State University, for the columns I write for Spirituality & Health Magazine (in print and on-line), for the essays and seasonal booklets I write for the Scarritt-Bennett Center, and for the books I contract to write. I need these deadlines to keep me motivated and on track. Without them I would spend most of my time thinking of what to say rather than actually saying anything.

But there is one deadline that is a killer for me: New Year’s. New Year’s is the day lots of people use to measure how far along they are in their life journeys, and to judge the quality of that journey as well. But for me New Year’s is the day I start new diets.

I usually realize I am fifty pounds overweight around December 15th. I check back and realize that I had made a commitment to lose those pounds last January, and berate myself for not keeping my promise to myself. It isn’t the only promise I have broken this year, but it is the only one that hangs over my belt. Then I rededicate myself to losing the weight by this time next year. Which leaves me with about two weeks in the bardo.

The bardo is what Tibetan Buddhists call the state between your last life and your next. In the Tibetan tradition you are to spend your forty days in the bardo trying to get enlightened. My version of the bardo is slightly different. In my understanding the bardo is a karma and calorie free zone between diets. Here is how I figure it:

Since I failed to keep to the diet I committed to last January 1st, and since I am going to start a new diet this coming January Ist, I might as well use the two weeks between now and then to enjoy everything I had been eating without enjoyment. I mean what is the point of sticking to the old diet—I already failed at that one. And you cannot start a new diet in January if you start eating as if you were already on that diet in December. Right? So I might as well eat whatever the hell I want to eat and not worry about.

And besides, I know that the easiest weight to lose is the most recent weight you have gained, so in order to kick-start my new diet, it would behoove me to gain a few pounds now so I can quickly drop them then, and thus give myself the psychological boost I will need to erase the extra weight I am carrying right now.

This makes sense to me, and probably to every other compulsive overeater and food addict out there reading this. If it doesn’t make sense to you, mazal tov! If you feel compelled to write me and try to help me lose some weight, please don’t. Take yourself out for ice cream instead.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jews for Christmas

I watched the news last Sunday evening and saw a segment on a neighborhood in Los Angeles famous for its over-the-top Christmas lights. The reporter spoke with a few neighbors about lights, and one suggested that the reporter check out another house on the street: the Grossmans. Yes, they are Jewish, but so was the neighbor who made recommendation. In fact everyone interviewed for this segment was Jewish!

OK, so I was going to write a scathing attack on Jews who love Christmas, but then I realized I love Christmas, too. I love the lights, the trees, the faux spirit of peace on earth and good will to men, women, and the transgendered. I love people fighting over parking spaces at the mall, and even the occasional trampling of a shopper by a herd of other shoppers does little to dampen my Christmas spirit. Who am I to tell other people how to celebrate their holy days?

I don’t celebrate Christmas, myself. I don’t have a tree or decorate my house, and, to be honest, I don’t even pretend to care about other people at this time of year. No, what I really like about Christmas is the story.

The Virgin Birth (it is called that because Mary was a virgin, and not because Richard Branson was the father) is a great symbol. It’s like Sarah giving birth at age 90, or Lao Tzu spending 60 years in his mother’s womb. What these myths are saying is that something new is coming, something unexpected, something that will change everything forever. And in the case of Christmas, that something is the coming of a helpless baby (unless of course you read the ancient Infancy Gospel of Thomas and discover that Jesus was one holy terror as a toddler) who will grow into a Jewish prophet who confronts Jerusalem and Rome with a message of divine justice and compassion.

Sure if you take it literally the Christmas story is bad history and worse biology, but reading the Bible literally robs it of its transformative message. Read as myth rather than fact, the story is one of great hope, and hope, as well as Jesus, is quintessentially Jewish. After all Jews are the people whose team anthem is HaTikvah, The Hope.

I think Jews should honor Christmas. Not the way Christians do, but the way we might honor the birth of any great rebbe: with texts and study, and prayers at his tomb (except that he seems to have left it unexpectedly). Read Crossan and Borg’s “The First Christmas” and discuss it with friends over Chinese food on Christmas Eve. We should honor his death as well. From now on I’m going to light a yahrzeit candle and say Kaddish for Jesus on Good Friday. (And, if you haven’t already, read Crossan and Borg’s “The Last Week” as well.)

Sure I know there are Jews shouting at me for suggesting this, but I can’t hear them over the Manheim Steamroller music blaring over the sound system at the coffeehouse where I am writing. Anyway, I don’t care. Jesus is the most famous Jew who ever lived. We ought to reclaim him as a favorite son, and not worry about Christians who proclaim him as God’s only one.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Peeing Jesus

I stopped drinking bottled water a few months ago, but now I am having second thoughts. I just learned of a new bottled water designed to bring me closer to God. I checked out one website selling this stuff and read about Formula J. The “J” is for Jesus.

According to the website, “We all need to believe in God, and we all need to believe in ourselves in order to accomplish positive thinking, which leads to positive result. It is up to us to make our day go either good or bad and we bring our luck to ourselves, so why not pray, drink purified water more often to stay healthier and more fit, and have God with us throughout the day? You can have it all with Spiritual Water.”

OK, let’s assume that English isn’t their first language, and forgive them their grammatical sins. And let’s assume they really don’t give a damn about theology and are just spouting this gibberish to sell me water from a bottle with the head of a thorn-crowned Christ printed on it, and therefore forgive them for their garbled spiritual message. With all this assuming and forgiving, the question remains: Do I need to drink this stuff? I just might.

Again the website, “Do you need Jesus in your life? Do you want to have Jesus with you thru the day? Grab a cold Formula J Spiritual Water bottle, read the prayer, believe in God, believe in yourself and the sky’s the limit…” Let’s go into this slowly.

Do I need Jesus in my life? It couldn’t hurt. Unless of course he is following me around asking, “Who do you say I am? Who do you say I am? I know you are but what am I?” That, I think, would be very annoying.

Do I want to have Jesus with me throughout the day? This seems like the same question, but on the off chance it isn’t, I would answer, “yes.” I think having Jesus with me throughout the day would be a good thing. First, it would cut down on my grocery bills seeing as how he can feed thousands with a couple fish and a five loaves of bread. Second, if I got injured or even died he could fix that without asking if I have health insurance. And third, he might nag me into being a nicer person now and then.

Here is the prayer I am to recite: “O my Jesus, forgive us of our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy. Amen.” Now all I have to do is believe in God and myself and the sky’s the limit. But shouldn’t I believe in God before I recite the prayer? And if I have to believe in myself aren’t I making myself into a god? And what does “the sky’s the limit” mean? Is heaven in the sky or beyond it? And if it is beyond it, and the sky is the limit, how do I get to heaven? Or if we aren’t talking about heaven, why bother drinking Jesus water at all?

But none of this is what keeps me from drinking Formula J. While I like the idea of having Christ within me, I am troubled about having to pee Him out. I remember Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. Called Piss Christ, the photograph got Serrano in lots of trouble. Wouldn’t peeing Jesus be even worse? Or maybe I could take a photo of a crucifix in a bottle of urine generated by drinking lots of bottles of Formula J? Would that be sacred or sacrilegious?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Real War On Christmas Revisited

Welcome once again to the battle over holiday greetings. While I understand why some people are upset when other people don’t wish them a Merry Christmas, and why some others are upset when they do, I find the whole thing very sad. And worse: it distracts us from the all too real war on Christians and Christianity.

Christian bookseller Shi Weihan was abducted by the Communist Chinese on November 28, 2007, and has been imprisoned in an unknown location ever since. His crime? Establishing and failing to register his “house church.” Mr. Shi is one of thousands of Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims arrested every year in China. China is just one battleground in the real war against Christmas, and if American Christians really want to “take up the cross” and follow Jesus, they should stop allowing themselves to get sidetracked by faux culture warriors on Fox News, and start boycotting Chinese manufactured toys this Christmas.

Communist China is officially atheist. While it does allow certain religions to operate in the country, it does so under strict governmental control. People who wish to prosper politically or militarily in China know better than to profess any religious belief or belong to any religious organization.

Why is the Chinese government so afraid of religion? The Chinese aren’t paranoid. They know that religion is one of the most effective ways to resist the tyranny of the state (unless of course the religion is the state). Look at the powerful role Roman Catholicism played in the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you think Ronald Reagan and Charlie Wilson did this without the aid of the Pope, you don’t know your history.

It is ironic that freedom seekers in China turn to religion, while their counterparts in the United States turn away from it. Why is that? Let me speculate:

Christians are a threat to China for the same reason that Jesus and his Jewish followers were a threat to Rome: they insisted on the holiness of each human person, and demanded justice and freedom in the name of that holiness and the One in whom it is grounded. Whether or not you believe in God, you can see how this prophetic ethic would threaten the oligarchies of both Rome and China. It is the same power that Jefferson drew upon to affirm the inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are rooted in something greater than the state, and in today’s China, ancient Rome, and 18th Century England there was nothing greater than the state.

In the US where this ethic has been secularized and affirmed (even if only in theory), religion preoccupies itself with whining about holiday greetings and creationism. But in China where there are no inalienable rights, religion gets to do what it does best: speak truth to power, and confront empire with the cry for prophetic justice.

This Christmas season it would behoove all of us to shift our focus from the petty to the prophetic. Free Tibet! Free Mr. Shi! And Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is It True?

One of the best ways to destroy someone’s credibility is to associate her or him with people and ideas most other people find negative, evil, or just plain wrong. And the best way to do this without getting called on it is to frame your allegation in the form of a question. For example, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

This is the question self-proclaimed Christian Leader and Republican Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee asked in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine. He didn’t ask this of America’s Favorite Mormon, Mitt Romney, or of anyone knowledgeable of Mormon beliefs. He just tossed it out into the ether. It was a rhetorical gambit and wasn’t meant to be answered. Just asking the question links Mormons and Romney with Satan, and that out to be enough to knock him out the race for president of this one nation under God.

The answer to Huckabee’s question, by the way, is “yes.” Mormons believe all beings were originally spirit beings. You and me and Jesus and Satan are all children of God, and hence spiritual brothers and sisters. So, according to Mormon belief, Mike Huckabee and Satan are brothers as well. That relationship is beginning to show.

Governor Huckabee's ties to Satan aside, his use of rhetorical questions is a brilliant strategy, and one I imagine will catch on among other candidates as well. All you have to do is ask a poisonous question and let the power of the press repeat it so often that people will make the link regardless of the actual answer.

Here are a few sets of questions I would like to ask of our Christian Leader:

1. Is it true that denying evolution negates almost everything we know about biology, geology, physics, astronomy, and science in general? And if that is true, is it true that this anti-science attitude will reduce the United States to a third world country by the middle of the 21st Century?

2. Is it true that Christian Fundamentalists look forward to the slaughter of millions of Jews during the battle of Armageddon so that only 144,000 Jews remain to witness the return of Jesus? And if that is true, is it true then that a president who believes this is in fact looking forward to the day when millions of American citizens are annihilated?

3. Is it true that Governor Huckabee claims his campaign success is the work of God? And if it is true, and if he fails to become the Republican nominee, does that mean that God has forsaken him?

While the answers to these questions are “yes,” “probably,” “yes,” “yes,” “yes” and “who the hell knows,” the answers are secondary to getting the questions out to the press and the people. So I am asking you to do just that. Just memorize these questions and drop them into your ordinary conversation. Don’t wait for an answer. Don’t get into any genuine dialogue. Just drop the question and change the topic. By the way, is it true that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion reveals a secret Jewish cabal running the world? Gotta run, by.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Favorite Mormon*

I think Mitt Romney is good for America.

First, he is damned handsome. After almost eight-years of smirk and sneer, I want a President and Vice President you can look into a camera and lie to me with a smile that is comforting rather than dismissive. Second, he dresses well; really well. I don’t know if he shops at Men’s Warehouse, but I guarantee he likes the way he looks. Third, he believes in a lot of weird things; weird even by US standards where Jesus is more apt to appear in a cheese sandwich for sale on e-Bay then in church.

Of course Mitt has a right to believe what he wants, and I am not challenging that right. I applaud it. I am happy not only that he believes what he believes but also that the rest of us are slowly learning more about what he believes. And the reason I like this is because it gives us the chance to realize how weird all our beliefs are.

Mitt believes that a fifteen year old New York boy, Joseph Smith Jr., was visited by God the Father and his Boy Elroy (no, I am not denigrating Christianity with what appears to be a reference to the Jettsons cartoon show which, by the way, was scientifically vapid and, with the exception of the micro-mini skirt, failed to make even one accurate prediction about the future (I want my flying car, damn it!), I am simply being incredibly erudite and assuming you know that “Elroy” means God the King, a title that is very fitting God’s Son, Jesus, who was crowned King of the Jews). Why is this a weird belief when millions and millions of people, Christians and Moslems alike, believe that a similarly aged Jewish girl named Miriam (which means Bitter Water, and for some reason was a popular girl’s name back then) had a similar visitation in ancient Palestine?

Mitt also believes that two years latter, Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni who told him the whereabouts of a hidden gospel inscribed on golden plates and authored by the prophet Mormon (Peace be upon him). Why is this weird when millions and millions of people believe that Mohammed was visited by the angel Gabriel and, over time, given a new revelation called the Qur’an? And let us not forget the half-dozen or so Jews who still believe God spoke to Moses out of a shrub? Isn’t that weird as well?

My point is that all religious beliefs are weird to people who do not hold them. I suspect that Mike Huckabee believes that the world was created in seven days less than ten thousand years ago thus denying everything we know about biology, physics, astronomy, geology, etc., and insuring that a Huckabee administration will guarantee America will soon become the most scientifically illiterate nation in the world. Isn’t that weird?

Mitt is good for America not despite the fact that he believes in the weird, but because he believes in it. We are the land of the free and home of the brave, and what is more brave than to believe in the weird? While I won’t vote for Mitt for president, I hope his Mormon faith is true and that someday he will be a god of his own planet. I guarantee the people on that planet will like the way they look.

*For those too young to get the allusion, and realize just how clever I am, google "My Favorite Martian."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Still Rabbi After All These Years

For the past year or so I have been thinking about dropping the title ‘rabbi.’ Using it seems to make claims about myself that are not really true. While I am proud and honored to be a Jew, and blessed to be Yisrael (see my blog entry, “Yisrael is a Verb”), when people hear I am a rabbi they assume a level of observance that I choose not to follow. I have changed my mind.

I was teaching in Tucson with my friend, mentor, and teacher Andrew Harvey. Our topic was Spiritual Activism or what we Jews call Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World. Andrew is a dynamic, dramatic, and passionate teacher. He launches into compelling sermons on what is wrong with the world and how to engage it. And while he adds readings to his talks (from Rumi and Teresa d’Avilla among others) he doesn’t teach those texts specifically.

As he and I co-taught for the weekend I realized that while I was no less passionate about the topic I found myself continually referring to and unpacking sacred texts, both Jewish and Christian. It wasn’t that I set out to do that. In fact, I was hoping that teaching with Andrew would push me away from texts and into sharing more of my life experience, which I feel is what makes Andrew’s teaching so powerful and compelling. Yet, try as I might, the text just kept coming back in.

During the various breaks between sessions I spoke with lots of people who complimented both of us on the work we were doing. But when they spoke to me about the material I was presenting they especially thanked me for revealing dimensions to ancient teachings and stories that they had not heard before and that they found incredibly meaningful.

I tend not to take compliments seriously. It may have to do with my bubbe (grandmother) who would spit three times and speak an incantation against the Evil Eye every time she said or heard something nice about someone. Nevertheless, it began to sink in that what the people liked about my work was the very thing that made me a rabbi: love of text.

In my case I love all kinds of texts, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, Taoist, etc. I love scripture and folklore, myth, and parable. And I love to investigate them to see what they have to say to me and the way I live, or ought to live. I tend to put my own spin on these texts, seeing everything through the nondual lens polished by my contemplative practice. And this, too, people found valuable.

So I no longer think about dropping the title ‘rabbi.’ Rabbi Rami still speaks to who I am and what I do, even if I do it so far out of the box that some wonder if it’s still Judaism.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mitt, Freedom, and Religion

I listened to Governor Mitt Romney’s talk on religion last Thursday. It was moving, at times stirring, and deeply disconcerting. What troubled me the most was the Governor’s notion that you cannot have freedom without religion or religion without freedom. This is patently false, and disenfranchises millions of Americans who do not have a formal religion.

Freedom implies that one is free to think, believe, and do what one will (within the obvious limits), but none of the Abrahamic religions allows this. Nowhere in sacred scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths are we told to think for ourselves, to free ourselves from the dictates of rabbis, priests, pastors, and imams. Religion is about obedience, not freedom. Look to Spinoza, Galileo, Salmon Rushdie, the evangelical Protestant war on science, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the intramural fighting among differing Christian sects in the original thirteen colonies, and the Danish cartoons of Mohammed and it is abundantly clear that religion is not interested in freedom.

As far as I know, only Buddhism says one should investigate reality for oneself and not believe something simply because it is said to be holy (Dhammapada), and I doubt Governor Romney was thinking of Buddhism when he made his claim that there is no freedom without religion.

Nor is the flip side of this notion—that there can be no religion without freedom—any more true. To cite but one example, look at Islam in Saudi Arabia. Certainly religion is strong there, but can we say the same for freedom? Religion needs power and the capacity to punish those who seek to free themselves from its power; it doesn’t need freedom or support freedom.

True, in the United States we have shown that religions flourish in a free society, but that was imposed by the Bill of Rights. It was not a religious ideal, but came from the secular realm that sought to protect America from theocracy and the horror of inter-religious warfare all too common in Europe.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights rooted in the Creator, he was trying to keep those rights out of the control of religion and politics. He knew what Governor Romney seems not to know: that freedom is the first thing to go when religion rules.

Freedom, not religion, is what makes the United States so important. Freedom not religion is what makes this country worth sacrificing for. Freedom not religion is the true faith of America. I may trust in God, but I do not trust anyone who claims to speak for God.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mitt's Secret

I am anticipating Governor Mitt Romney’s speech on religion this morning. I am disappointed that he has to give this speech. In a Republican field where not believing in evolution is a good thing, the fact that Governor Romney is a Mormon shouldn’t be such a big deal. Yet, disappointed or not, I am hopeful that he will reveal the one thing that I want to know about Mormonism: What’s up with the underwear?

I know that some people are concerned that Mormons believe God has a body made of flesh and bone. And that some Mormons believe God has a wife. And that if we are really really good we might evolve into gods with our own planets to muck around with. But these are no more weird than the ideas of any other religion. Governor Mike Huckabee believes that Jesus wants us all to carry concealed weapons so we can shoot the bad guys when we need to. That’s seems weird to me. But I thing Mike wears regular underwear, and that has got to count for something.

Anyway, back to Mitt’s unmentionables. All I know about the Mormon garment is that it represents the promises Mormons make to God. I have no idea if it is a shift, a shirt, a bikini brief, boxers or what. Come on, Mitt, clue us in.

I also know that Mormons are supposed to wear the garment next to their skin, which is why many Mormons wear it instead of secular underwear, but I have no idea what it is make of. Is it cotton, silk, wool, or what? I knew a Mormon named Glenn once and he had this odd scratching habit, so maybe it is wool.

Mormons aren’t the only ones with holy underwear, by the way. I used to wear a tallit katan, a small poncho-like thing that had the sacred fringes Jewish men are supposed to wear attached to the corners. And I knew a Baptist named Rachel who had underwear with “What would Jesus do” strategically printed on the front. (I met Rachel at a Laundromat and saw them in her cart. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

I tried to find out more about Mormon underwear. On one Mormon website they post the question, “Where do Mormon garments come from?” I assumed the answer would give me some history about the sacred underwear. Unfortunately the answer was “Garments are made at LDS church clothing centers.” Oh. Is it any wonder that people think Mormons are secretive about their faith?

The fact is I’m not voting for Governor Romney anyway, so I should care what kind of underwear he wears. So let’s hope he talks about something else this morning.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chanukah and Chutzpah

[As the Chief Rabbi of Murfreesboro, TN, I was asked by The Murfreesboro Post to write a short essay on Chanukah to help readers understand the holiday and the people who celebrate it. This is what I wrote:]

While it is common for countries and states to have their official birds and flowers, we Jews have our official attitude: chutzpah. Chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning “extreme self confidence.” Whether it is the chutzpah of Abraham arguing with God to spare Sodom, or the chutzpah of Job demanding that God appear before him to explain Himself, or the chutzpah of Jesus taking on the powers of Temple and Empire in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven, chutzpah is a powerful force shaping the mindset of the Jewish people and our religion. Chanukah is a celebration of chutzpah.

In 167 BCE the Seleucid King Antiochus IV outlawed the practice of Judaism. Mattathias, a Jewish priest from the town of Modi’in called for armed resistance, and his son Judah (called HaMaccabee, The Hammer, after his military prowess) led a bloody guerilla war against the Greco-Syrians.

After two years of fighting, Antiochus allowed the Jews to keep kosher and follow the laws of Torah, but did not free either the Temple in Jerusalem or the city itself. Many of Judah’s fighters claimed victory and went home, but Judah and his reduced forces continued to fight until he had reclaimed both the city and its Temple.

The fact that a small band of Jewish guerillas took on the might of the Greco-Syrian empire may seem chutpadik (chutzpah-like) enough, but there is more. To rededicate the Temple to God the Maccabee’s needed eight day’s worth of oil to burn in the menorah (candelabrum). They found only one day’s supply remaining. Logic would dictate that the victorious fighters wait a week until enough fresh oil could be prepared before lighting the menorah, but logic has nothing to do with chutzpah. Rather than wait they used what they had and dedicated the Temple anyway. Yet the single day’s oil lasted not only the expected one day, but the entire eight days.

It is important to note that Chanukah (dedication) doesn’t celebrate the chutzpah of war, but the chutzpah of faith; trusting in a power greater than ourselves, and acting for God even when failure seems inevitable. And it is equally important to remember that chutzpah doesn’t end with Chanukah. After all what is more chutzpahdik than a small band of Jews following their rabbi from Nazareth to take confront the oppression of Rome in Name of God?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Witness to Christ

As I was leaving the Opryland Hotel at the end of my volunteer shift at the 76th annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, an elderly man walking with his wife stopped me to ask why there were so many people wearing kippot (yarmulkes). Pointing to my kipah he said, “For a moment I thought I was in Israel.”

“Was that a good moment or bad moment?” I asked.

“Oh, good. I love Jews. You Jews gave us our Lord and Savior,” he said.

“And they killed him,” his wife said.

“That too,” he said.

“Actually the Romans killed him,” I said, “but whoever did it you must be glad they did.”

“What! Why on earth would we be glad you Jews killed Jesus?” his wife said.

“Actually the Romans killed him, and you should be glad because if Jesus didn’t die on the cross he wouldn’t have been resurrected and couldn’t return to save you.”

“No, sir,” the wife said. “The Jews didn’t have to kill him. That was an evil act.”

“Actually the Romans killed him, and evil or not, it was necessary to God’s plan. Don’t you believe the Bible: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only son so that anyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16)?”

“Of course we do,” the husband said.

“Who would believe in Jesus if he died of old age and had great grandchildren? He had to die on the cross to ransom you for your sins” I said.

“Yes,” the man said. “And that is why we love Jews. They will witness the return of Christ. Won’t you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”

“Oh, I will,” I said. “As soon as I witness him coming back.”

“But then it will be too late,” his wife said.

“On the contrary,” I said. “You need Jews to witness the return of Jesus. If I convert I will be a Christian and my witness won’t count. No, I will remain a Jew until the second coming. I’m doing you a favor. You should thank me.”

“Oh. Well, thank you,” the man said.

“You are welcome,” I said as I walked toward the exit. “It’s my pleasure.”

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Golden Compass Part Two: Faith in Fiction

Can fiction be a danger to faith? This is the implication of the growing furor over Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Material” trilogy and the film adaptation of the “The Golden Compass,” the first volume of that trilogy.

Most liberals scoff at this notion: If one’s faith can be shattered or even wounded by a novel then it was a pretty flimsy faith to begin with. True enough, but it misses a much more interesting point: One person’s fiction IS another person’s faith.

I am watching the You-Tube Republican debates on CNN and cannot help but think of Governor Mitt Romney’s faith in what the vast majority of his fellow Americans consider the fiction that is the Book of Mormon. Or of Governor Mike Huckabee’s faith in what most of the world’s peoples believe to be another great piece of fiction, the Gospels. And then there are the great narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the Bhagavad Gita.

So, please don’t scoff at faith when it feels threatened by fiction. Fiction is one of the most powerful tools humans have to explore and explicate the perennial concerns that haunt us: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? And Why? Fiction, far more than any other form of discourse, has the power to change minds.

Look at Sartre, Camus, Kafka, and Ayn Rand to name but four. Their stories carry their truths in ways no other vehicle can. Look at Jesus: Why did he tell stories instead of delivering theological lectures? Parables, story, myth are the timeless teaching tools of humanity. Whether these are spoken, printed, or enacted on stage, screen, or radio—is secondary; it is the story itself that matters.

So do Christians have a point when they worry about the power of “The Golden Compass” to make their children think outside the box of their religious tradition? Yes, they do. They know the power of story to transform lives, and they themselves are devoted to promoting their story over and against the stories of others in order to do just that. Of course they insist their fiction is fact and all other so-called facts are only fictions, but that is just the politics of piety. The truth is that story matters.

I celebrate the power of fiction to help us think. I am not afraid of fiction because I am not afraid of thinking. I want people to be free to entertain any idea they wish. I just want them educated in such a way as to empower them to do so rationally.

The best response to “The Golden Compass” isn’t to hide from it as so many Christian leaders are urging; this only says that their fiction is weaker than its fiction. Rather we all should use the film as a catalyst for deep conversations about the issues it raises. You don’t respond to story by blocking your ears, but by telling more powerful stories.

Golden Compass: The Whining

The December release of “The Golden Compass,” based on the first novel in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Material” trilogy, is drawing the ire of Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and atheists alike. The latter complain that the book’s anti-religious theme is muted in the film, while the former are upset because even this muted version is an insult to their faith. Shades of Sudanese teddy bears!

Actually I sympathize with groups complaining about movies. Year’s ago I started a campaign against “It’s a Wonderful Life” arguing that no real angel would ever be named Clarence. But there is a twist in the whining about “The Golden Compass” that makes this instance of movie madness all the more interesting. Where most authors and filmmakers deny any attack on religion, Philip Pullman admits his trilogy recasts the Fall from the Garden of Eden not as “the source of all woe and misery, as in the traditional Christian teaching, but as the beginning of true human freedom, something to be celebrated not lamented.” Amen!

We Jews wrote the story and we never called it the Fall. Eve is the Hebrew Prometheus stealing wisdom from God, and, if you follow the midrash (commentary) that says the serpent is the Messiah in disguise, this is exactly what God had in mind.

The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for childhood. God, like any good parent, wants her children to grow up and leave home. Since they aren’t prone to do that on their own, God baits them into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and places a cherub with a flaming sword to keep them from returning home after college.

God doesn’t want a pliant and fearful Adam but an argumentative and fearless Abraham (the Abraham of the Sodom story not the Abraham of the Isaac story). God wants rebels, freethinkers, and people who will stand up to him and, like Job, demand that he explain himself.

Christianity and Islam focus largely on the next life, and hence have strong cultures of martyrdom and death attached to them. Judaism has its martyrs but we created the Kol Nidre prayer to help erase the guilt of those Jews who chose to convert to Catholicism rather than die at the hand of the Inquisition. The rabbis taught that God gave us his commandments that we might live by them not die because of them. Heaven and Hell are footnotes in Judaism. It is this world and the transformation of this world through justice and compassion that is the focus of Judaism. Where Christians and Muslims worry about getting into heaven, Jews worry about making heaven here on earth. This was Jesus’ very Jewish message of the kingdom of God being within you and around you, as opposed to the obsession with the afterlife that overwhelms so many of his worshippers.

Jews are called Yisrael, Godwrestlers. We are expected to challenge, argue, and struggle with God and what it means to live godly lives. Yes there are wimps among us who don’t take up the challenge, and we too decry films we find anti-Semitic, but at our best we are Godwrestlers eager to test ourselves against God and smash the idols the pass for God in order to push both the human and the divine toward something greater. This is what it means to be a Jew, and this is why I am proud to be one.

Friday, November 30, 2007

ADHD of the Soul

Sufis use the analogy of a walnut when explaining the interdependence of esoteric and exoteric religion. The inner (esoteric) and universal core of all religion is the meat of the nut. The outer (exoteric) organized structure of rules and creeds is the shell. The shell is absolutely necessary to the development and protection of the meat. Yet to eat the walnut you have to crack its shell. The key is knowing when and how to do the cracking.

Some people crack it too soon, before the meat is ready to be eaten. What they find is a glimpse of universal truth, but one that is unripe and inedible. Some people crack it too late, after the meat has rotted. What they find is equally inedible and lacking even a glimpse of truth. There are others who believe you can grow the meat without a shell, and still others who insist there is no meat and worship only the shell. Both are misguided.

I am often associated with the meat-without-a-shell camp. This is due to my extreme liberalism (bordering on anarchy) when it comes to religious laws and precepts. I am allergic to religious rules. Even getting near such rules makes me antsy, hyper, and rebellious. I suffer from ADHD (Anti Dogma Hyperspiritual Disorder), the inability to follow religious disciplines for any significant length of time fuelled by a compulsion to experience God as the sole reality.

Its not that I don’t want to sit through a prayer service, it is only that the words of the prayers don’t make sense to me and I begin to argue with them. It isn’t that I don’t want to believe, it is that I get claustrophobic when confined to fixed beliefs. Yet I do understand the need for a shell, even as I feel compelled to crack it as soon as I am confronted with one.

Sometimes I crack them too early; and sometimes, though very rarely, I crack them too late. But I can’t help cracking them. And every once in a while I crack them just in time, and find the wonderful meat of truth at the heart of the nut and nuttiness of religion.

How do I crack the shell of religion? There are, no doubt innumerable ways, but the one I find most useful is recitation of a Divine Name or phrase. Called nama-japa in Hinduism, nembutsu in Buddhism, dhikr in Islam, gerushin in Judaism, and ceaseless prayer in Christianity, the recitation of a Name is the simplest method I know to crack the shell of religion and get at the meat of spirituality.

All you do is find a Name (or Names) that speaks to you (I use several but began my practice with HaRachaman, the Compassionate One) and repeat it silently all day long. Of course there are times when you forget to say it, but when you notice you have stopped, just start again. No harm, no foul. In time, and it may be a long time, you will discover that God’s presence is palpable to you, and that the Name you are reciting is your name and the name of everything else as well. Then you are ready to crack the shell and eat the meat, but by then you will discover the shell is already cracked for you, and you are no longer hungry.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Lord's Preyers

I am a not a fan of organized religion. In fact my rule of thumb is, “The more organized a religion is, the less trustworthy and the more dangerous it is.” Why? Because organization requires power, and power creates elites, and power hungry elites have only one concern: securing more power. Here is just one example.

Following the pedophile priest scandal, the Church leadership promised a “zero tolerance” attitude toward priests who prey on kids. Yet the Conference of Catholic Bishops has just installed Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as its new president. The good Cardinal is known for protecting pedophile priests, claiming that it is wrong to make “permanent pariahs” of these servants of God.

Can a pedophile priest really be a servant of God? Can a priest who believes in God, presumably a God who does not himself approve of pedophilia, engage in such horrific behavior? If the fear of eternal damnation isn’t enough to keep you from raping children, then what good is a just God anyway? It seems more plausible to me that priests who rape children are not really men of faith. There is no group called Pedophiles for Christ. If you give in to such evil I suspect your faith in God is wanting. So, please Cardinal, lets stop calling these people “servants of God.” (Unless, of course the god we are talking about is Moloch.)

And it gets worse. Despite his supposed zero-tolerance stance, Cardinal George hired a convicted pedophile as a liturgical consultant in 2003, and Or ignored evidence brought by the mother of a molested 8 year-old allowing the boy’s molester to continue teaching and coaching, and ultimately to rape another boy for which he was finally arrested. Poor old servant of God. But perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps I don’t understand what is really at stake here.

The Cardinal’s Bishop, Thomas J. Paprocki, recently gave a sermon in which he declared that those victims of priestly rape who demand justice from the Church are waging war against the Holy Sea, and placing the church “under attack.” And who is behind this pernicious attack on the Church? According to Bishop Paprocki “the principle force behind these attacks in none other than the devil.”

The victims of the Church are minions of Satan! But if this is true, and I have no way to prove it isn’t, when the Church settles with these devil spawn and pays them millions and millions of dollars, isn’t the Church essentially funding the work of the Devil? Can the Church and Satan be in cahoots? Do they really need each other so badly as to make their bond so blatant? Do they really think we are so stupid not to notice?

My God, where is Dan Brown when you need him?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Don't Bogart My Birth

Officially the government of Communist China rejects reincarnation as superstition. Just as officially they want to make sure that they get to control the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama so as to further their domination of Tibet and the destruction of Tibetan culture. While the Chinese government is convinced that reincarnation is a fiction, it is a fiction believed in by millions of people, and therefore carries tremendous political weight. Who ever the next Dalai Lama is, and they have no doubt there will be one, it would be in the best interest of the Communist Chinese if he were more red than maroon.

Lots of people believe in reincarnation. Hindus do, Buddhists do, New Agers do, and kabbalistic-leaning Jews do as well. What do they know that the Communist Chinese do not? Or, conversely, what does the Chinese government know that the Chinese people do not?

To find out I went to the source, my local Chinese restaurant. I spoke with Lin Tai (not his real name, which he was more than happy to give me, but which I was incapable of pronouncing or spelling), who has run the restaurant since coming to this country to build the railroad. Yes, I know that was well over a century ago, and, no, Lin Tai isn’t that old, but he is the reincarnation of a Chinese worker on the railroad. Or at least I assume that to be the case, since how else do Chinese people maintain their numbers here in America?

Think about it: A Jewish soul couldn’t reincarnate as Chinese because of the pork in their diet. A European soul wouldn’t feel comfortable in a Chinese body, and an African or African American would find the color confusion overwhelming. So only Chinese people reincarnate as Chinese. Since most Chinese people came to the United States to build the railroad (I don’t know this for a fact, but it could be true), all subsequent Chinese must be reincarnations of the original builders.

This, of course, raises issues of pensions. Can a reincarnated soul continue receiving pension checks from a previous life? To find out I went to the source, my local train depot. There I spoke with Billy Bob Wayne John Horton (not his real name either, but only because I think I got the order of his names wrong). Billy Bob was a Christian who belonged to the nondenominational Church of the Blood Drenched Way and was not a believer in reincarnation. Nor did he believe that Chinese people had anything to do with his railroad, having himself worked for the railroad for over thirty years and never once meeting a Chinese coworker. When I asked him about pensions for reincarnated people he sniffed and went to the men’s room to pee. I waited awhile, but I suspect he had been drinking a lot of Mountain Dew and wasn’t coming out anytime soon, so I went back to Lin Tai and the Chinese restaurant.

Lin Tai was out, but I spoke to Francis Xavier Thomas Aquinas (this was his name) who delivered food for Lin Tai. Francis Xavier was a Catholic and didn’t have any idea as to what I was talking about. But he did say that if the Chinese tried to control the rebirth of the Dalai Lama, the President of the United States could bomb them. “And that’s why I’m voting for Cheney in the next election.” Made sense to me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


First it was cartoons and now it is teddy bears. Where will it end?

Britain’s Telegraph reported today that Gillian Gibbons, a first grade teacher at Unity High School, a British International school in Sudan, has been arrested by the Sudanese authorities for defaming Islam. What was her crime? She allowed her class to name their teddy bear mascot Mohammed.

Now I know that most people are going to rise up and cry out against the madness that is Islam, but I am not one of them. Can you imagine a class naming its mascot Christ? Of course not. It would never even occur to people to do that. Of course if you lived in a Spanish speaking community where Jesus is a common first name, you might name your bear Jesus. But certainly that can’t apply to Islam. I mean how many Muslim men are named Mohammed?

I personally know six Muslim men and not one of them is named Mohammed, so, based on my albeit unscientific but nevertheless personally compelling survey, no Muslim men are named Mohammed so the parallel with Jesus (pronounced Hay-Suse in Spanish or Hey Yous in Brooklyn) doesn’t apply.

It is true that one might choose to name a bear Moses and Jews would not find that upsetting, but imagine Jews naming a bear YHVH? The mere fact that I wrote YHVH is a sacrilege, for which YHVH or the followers of YHVH will certainly condemn me. Then again Mohammed isn’t Allah, and the kids didn’t choose to name their bear Allah, so maybe the analogy doesn’t apply. Yet the mascot issue is as much a Jewish concern as it is an Islamic one.

Thousands of years ago the Israelites voted to name their mascot, the Golden Calf, God. When the real God, YHVH (oops, did it again!) heard about it he sent Moses to straighten them out. Thousands of people were killed for the offense of naming their cow God. In light of that act of religious justice, imprisoning and whipping Ms. Gibbons is an act of judicial leniency.

As a Jew who has learned the lesson of the Golden Calf, I am sympathetic to the Sudanese in this case. If the Jews could mistake their mascot for God, letting kids name their teddy bear Mohammed only invites confusion. In time some of them will inevitably mistake the teddy bear for the Prophet, PBH, and once that happens all hell will break loose.

So to Ms. Gibbons I say, “Damn you, woman, knoweth thou not better than to leadeth thy children into blasphemy?”

And to the Sudanese I say, “While you are whipping Ms. Gibbons for blasphemy, take a moment to test that bear for lead poisoning. It was probably made in China. You can never be too careful when it comes to our kids.”

Saudi Back Lash

You can tell a lot a person by the company they keep. Can the same be said of countries?

I am proud to be a citizen of the United States. Sure I hate our foreign policy, and, yes, I think Dick Cheney and the president have gutted the US Constitution, and I admit that we are an oligarchy run by corporations who care not a whit for human rights or environmental sustainability, but we are still the country that brings you the Kindle.

[If you don’t know what that is, look it up. It is number two on my Christmas list. To discover what is Number one keep reading. And while it is true that I do not celebrate Christmas, I will do so if anyone sends me either the number one or number two items on my list.]

You can see just how far we have fallen from the fact that our government lacks the guts to decry what passes for justice in the homeland of Islam. (At least we are on the books decrying the illegal settlements and expansion of settlements sanctioned by the homeland of Judaism, even if we don’t do anything about it.) I am, of course, talking about the vicious justice system of Saudi Arabia that has sentenced a nineteen-year-old victim of gang rape to six months in prison and 200 lashes with a whip. This was an adjustment of her original sentence of only ninety lashes, the increase being ordered to dissuade her from continuing to appeal her sentence. Her crime? Being alone with a man that was not a relative.

Can it be that our fear of terrorism is so great that we will stay mute in the face of any injustice as long as the perpetrators claim to be on our side? Can it be that we are so cowed by our oil addiction that evildoers can count on us to see no evil unless it isn’t leveled at us? Yes, it can be.

We have to do something, and we can’t wait for the government to do it for us. So here is my sugestion: stop driving your car.

I saw an ad in a magazine today for a Vespa scooter.

[Yes, that’s my Number One! And no, I can’t afford one. And yes, I will add Christmas to by list of must observe holidays if someone sends me one. Yellow would be nice.]

It costs $3500 dollars and gets 70 miles per gallon. What if we all bought Vespas and, basing my numbers on my own 2001 Saturn coupe that gets about 25mpg, cut our consumption of gas by 60%?

I know some people worry about driving a scooter for fear of getting hit by an SUV, but if we all drove them that danger disappears. We could leave one lane for cars and trucks, and the rest for scooters. No more traffic snarls. Commutes would be a breeze. And we would help break the country’s addiction to oil that forces us to kiss the ass of these barbarians who whip women and call it justice. Next thing you know they will be excusing water boarding.

[OK, I admit it. I don’t give a damn about Saudi justice, I was just using it as an excuse to shill for a Vespa. Or a Kindle. Or both. Come on, people, it’s Christmas time: be generous!]

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reviving the Real War on Christmas

I am originally from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, home to Bunker Hill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickenson, and Mary Baker Eddy. I am proud son of Massachusetts, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I am anti-Christmas.

No, I am not anti-Jesus, anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, or anti-shopping. I am simply pro-Massachusetts, and the great Christian values it brought to this country.

In 1645 Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren took over jolly old England. Deciding that anything jolly was probably of the Devil, they vowed to rid England of such decadent conceits as Christmas. Cromwell and Company banned Christmas and any festivities having to do with it. Not to be bested by their colleagues across the pond, Massachusetts Puritans criminalized Christmas (take that, Bill O’Reilly!), and, in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts passed the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law:

“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”

The law was repealed in 1681, but I would like to reinstate it. Why? First of all it reflects the true Christian values on which our nation was founded. Second it isn’t limited to Christmas; the phrase “or the like” would spell the end of Hanukkah and Kwanza as well, so it isn’t in anyway discriminatory. Third, it would take the madness and meanness out of the last two months of the year.

There is nothing so hateful as a Christian mob whipped into frenzy by some sales scam linked to the birth of a Jew (unless, of course, it is a Christian mob whipped up into an even greater frenzy over the murder of said Jew). The only thing remotely religious about watching shoppers trample one another to get into a store in order to buy to one sanely priced item on the store’s shelves is that it reminds us of Joseph and the very pregnant Mary trying (unsuccessfully) to elbow their way into a Jerusalem inn at the same of year.

Even though the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law was repealed in 1681, our founders must have seen some value in banishing Christmas seeing as Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution, and Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

Anyway, I think a country whose original illegal aliens were Puritans who hated Christmas, and whose descendents believe that a return to Christian values would be a good thing, cannot but benefit from outlawing Christmas once again. It will take us a while to get the country back on its Christian track, but in the meantime, if you insist upon celebrating Christmas and thus disrespecting this great country, you should fine yourself five shillings (which in today’s fallen dollar is equal to about 89 cents).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shoppito Ergo Sum

You know America is doomed when Thanksgiving Day—the actual day, rather than the traditional day after—is now touted as the ultimate shopping day for Christmas. We can’t even take one day out of the year for reflection and thanksgiving. All we have left as a people is shopping: Shoppito ergo sum, as Descartes might have put it, I shop therefore I am.

That is what shopping has become in this country, an act of ontological significance. I know I matter because I own tons of stuff. We are so devoid of anything remotely spiritual that debt has replaced faith as the ultimate benchmark of maturity. Our new prayer is “Our Father Who art in Heaven hallowed by Thy Name… Add to our debts as we add to the debts of those who are indebted to us…”

This is madness, and it must stop. Now.

So I am begging you not to go shopping on Thanksgiving Day. Say no to the people who think we are the real turkeys. Stay home. Or, if you can’t resist, don’t go to the mall. Or if the mall is too enticing, don’t go to the bookstore or the record store or to the Apple Computer store. Or if that is too much to ask, just stay away from the religion section of the first, the classic rock section of the second, and the iMac section of the third. Or if that is too hard, just pretend you don’t recognize me when you pass me in the aisles at these places.

Can you imagine? Getting away from the stress and hassle of having to entertain family and spending the day among the glitz and glamour of perfect strangers—heaven! I’m serious. What is the fun of having friends and relatives come over to your house, grind turkey and cranberry sauce into your freshly washed carpets, bore the hell out of you “catching up” (if I wanted to know how you are doing I would have called you since last Thanksgiving), and then scarf down huge quantities of food and drink only to rush home a couple of hours later to suffer the consequences?

I prefer Christmas to Thanksgiving. Why? Because it isn’t my holy day. I don’t have to bother with a tree and tinsel that turns up for months afterward. I don’t have to buy stuff that nobody wants for people I don’t really care about. I don’t have to alter my black and white wardrobe and wear red and green, or pretend to believe that a Jewish mother would allow herself to give birth in a manger: “Joseph you find us a room in a five-star hotel or I swear when this baby is born he will damn you to hel!” Yep, Christmas is my favorite holy day, right up there with Ramadan when I don’t have to fast, and Kwanza when I don’t have to pretend to be African.

But Thanksgiving is a secular American holy day—all the more secular for having the malls open on the day itself—and I am a secular American. This is my day. Dammit!

But now I have an excuse for skipping the family festivities: I have to go shopping. After all if I don’t get to the store on the first day there is little chance that what I want will no be there on the second day.

So enjoy Thanksgiving, America. Just stop calling it Thanksgiving. Call it what it is: National Turkey Day and be clear who the real turnkeys are.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Join My Tribe

True genius knows how to turn lead into gold, or at least lemons into lemonade. I am not a true genius, but every once in a while I stumble upon an idea that is just too good to pass up. My latest breakthrough came from the Kaweah Indian Nation, a fake Native American tribe that has been selling tribal memberships to illegal aliens for $400 per membership. The tribal elders promised that members would get Social Security numbers and become US citizens.

While the Kaweah were declared fraudulent in 1984, and while a current lawsuit prohibits them from continuing their membership drive, I love the idea and wish to apply it to my own tribe, the Jews.

Our numbers are small and shrinking. We need members and current rates of conversion aren’t even making a dent in our rate of decline. Even when counting as Jews only people recognized as Jews by the Reform Jewish establishment we are still a dying tribe. So why not sell memberships? After all it is much easier to market a $400 membership than it is to market the current cost of male membership: circumcision. And, unlike severed foreskins, the cash collected can be used to promote Jewish projects.

My idea has the added bonus of bringing people into a real tribe. The downside is that being a Jew in America is not the same as being an American Jew, and we could not promise social security numbers and citizenship. At least not in this country. But what about Israel?

The Law of Return states that any Jew can become an automatic citizen of Israel. And Israel will help settle them and teach them Hebrew. Getting illegal aliens to convert to Judaism and then shipping them off to Israel would solve two problems. First it would increase the size of the Jewish nation. Second it would provide a workable answer to the question, What do we do with the millions of illegal aliens already in the US?

So my idea is this: First we set up registration tables on the Mexican side of the US border. We can spare people the dangerous trek into the US and fly them to Tel Aviv from Mexico City. This will stop the tide of new illegal immigrants into the United States. Second, in cities across the country we advertise Jewish tribal memberships for $400 (with discounts for families). Some of the money we collect will be used to pay rabbis to perform mass conversions. They will convert the illegal aliens to Judaism and give them a card stating that they are now members of the tribe. At that point they can A) move to Israel, or B) stay in the US and claim the US government’s refusal to give them citizenship is an act of anti-Semitism.

This seems like a win-win proposition to me. I think it could even be done on line. People could convert by pledging allegiance to God, Torah, and Israel, pay using a credit card, and then book a flight to the homeland on Orbitz or Expedia.

I plan to offer my idea to each of the presidential candidates. I’ll let you know which if any choose to use it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nine Questions About God

[Here are my answers to an email I received asking me about God.]

Thanks for asking what it is I mean when I use the word “God.” God has been at the center of my life since I was sixteen years old. Meditating on the shore of a lake in Cape Cod the while visiting a friend during summer vacation “Rami” died. What happened during that time—however long or short a time that was—is unknown to me, for the “me” that could know was dead. All I know is that when “I” returned I did so in a state of ecstatic joy, aware of the absolute nonduality of all things as the One Thing. I have never doubted the reality of what happened that day, and I have had similar experiences since then. It is my experience that shapes my thinking about God.

Here are brief answers to your questions.

1. Did God create the universe? No. The universe is to God as a wave is to the ocean. While God is greater than the universe, God is not separate from the universe. I do not believe in a Creator God or in an Intelligent Designer, for both imply separation. I believe that the design itself is intelligent, that the universe is a living process seeking self-awareness. We humans are a way the universe awakens to its true nature as God.

2. Did God write the Bible? No. All scriptures are human creations reflecting the biases and moral limitations of the people who wrote them. Yet there are strands of truth in every scripture reflecting a level of human awakening that transcends the limitations of time and tribe and speaks to the universal truth of God and godliness. These teachings are worthy of serious contemplation and study.

3. Do you pray to God? Yes and no. My spiritual life centers on mediation, both walking and sitting. When I walk and chant the Hebrew Names of God I find myself in dialogue with God, whom I experience as Shekhinah, the Divine Mother. When I sit in silence there are moments when “I” dissolve and only God is present.

4. If God is all, is God both good and evil? Yes. God contains evil as well as good. Good and evil go together like convex and concave. You cannot have one without the other. God is the One in whom there is no other.

5. If God is evil as well as good what is the point of worshiping God? I don’t worship God; I seek to realize God in and as all reality. When I awaken to God I realize my own capacity for good and evil. When I see all things as God I have compassion for everything, and act with an open heart even towards those with whom I am struggling.

6. What is the point of religion? At its best religion serves as the collective memory of God realization. We tell stories of saviors, sages, and saints and remind ourselves that God realization is possible. We see how they embraced the world with justice and compassion, and seek to do likewise. We learn the tools of awakening that they used, and wake up ourselves. At its worse religion is a grand and often violent delusion rooted in fear. Unfortunately religion is rarely at its best.

7. Do we need religion? Yes, but only at its best. We need storytellers who can remind us of the best of which we are capable. We need masters of contemplative practice who can teach us how to use the tools of God realization. And we need a community of seekers with whom to share the path and the struggle to walk it.

8. Are all religions true? All religions are true when they speak to the nonduality of God and the universality of justice and compassion. All religions are false when they claim to being the exclusive carriers of God’s love and truth. Religions are like languages. No language is right or wrong, true or false. Yet each brings a valuable and unique understanding of life from which all people can benefit. The more languages you know the more nuanced your understanding. Our goal should not be to find the right religion, but to learn from all of them.

9. Is Jesus the son of God? Yes. And so are you. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” he is like a wave realizing its relationship with the ocean. Jesus was a God-realized human being. He is not to be worshipped, but imitated. What the world needs is fewer Christians and more Christs.


I like silence. The Illinois Legislature does too, and passed a law that would mandate a moment of silence at the start of every public school day. A federal judge, however, has ordered the Illinois State Board of Education to put a stop to the practice. Why, you ask? I, too, was curious.

At first I thought it was because the name of the state included the word “noise” (the “E” is silent, so they dropped it to save ink on their official documents). It makes no sense to have a moment of silence in the IlliNOISE public schools. On the contrary, they should start their day with noise, maybe a joyous “Halleluyah!” or “Om Nama Shivaya.”

No, that would violate the separation of church and state since both shouts speak of gods (Yah and Shiva, respectively), which, as it turns out, is what’s wrong with a mandatory moment of silence as well.

Leading the attack on mandatory silence is Rob Sherman, atheist provocateur. The godless Mr. Sherman has a daughter who is a freshman in an Illinois high school, and dad worries that forcing her to be quite violates her First Amendment rights.

He is right, of course, and that saddens me. I would love to see each school day begin with thirty minutes of contemplative silence, not the fifteen seconds Illinois is talking about. It would have to be optional, of course. I would even go so far as to teach kids different ways to use that silence such as contemplative reading and meditation (prayer they should learn outside of school).

And I wouldn’t stop with schools. I would like to see meditative silence at the start of everyone’s day. If nothing else, just sit and breathe. Or do what I do every morning and repeat the phrase, “Has it been thirty minutes yet? Has it been thirty minutes yet?”

I support voluntary prayer in school and did a lot of it myself (“Dear God, please make Ms. Jacobs sick today, I didn’t study for her Algebra II test.”). I support voluntary silence as well, and not just in the morning (it isn’t fair that teachers call on you for answers without your permission). Hell, if it were up to me I’d bring Thich Nhat Han into every school to teach kids how to walk the halls mindfully, and chew their lunch with full attention.

So I am asking the Illinois Legislature, its Governor, and its atheist provocateurs to work together to find a way to combat the “ill” of “nois(e)” and find a way to bring some silence to our mornings and some sanity to our lives.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Math of God, Follow-Up

Remember Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue’s prayer vigil to let God know Georgians are conserving water and should be rewarded with rain? Well it worked. Sort of.

While the storm clouds that formed during the vigil faded away, rain did fall the day after the vigil. This can’t be a coincidence. Sonny prayed for rain and God sent it. But the governor and chief shaman was quick to say, “We’re not gloating about it.” That’s good, because the one-inch of rain that fell in north Georgia and the half-inch that dampened Atlanta did nothing to ease the state’s crushing drought.

So, praying for rain works: ask and ye shall receive, but it doesn't work well enough to make a difference. What is God up to? According to the Governor it “was a great affirmation for what we asked for.” Really? I think it was an insult. God spits on Georgia and the Governor is happy. How sad. So on behalf of my Georgia neighbors let me say this the Almighty, "Quit fooling around, God! What we need is real rain; the kind of rain You sent to Tennessee’s Marion County that heavily damaged the roof of a Baptist church and sent three little kids to the hospital due to cuts they received from flying glass. Now that’s the rain we're taking about."

But wait, why would God send rain to Tennessee when Georgia is the state praying for it? And why would God use His rain to damage a Baptist church? Can it be that God hates Georgia and isn’t too fond of Baptists? The logic is inescapable.

Why would God hate Georgia? Following the logic of evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell I can only conclude that God hates Georgia because it is gay-friendly. After all GA is only one letter away from advertising itself as the GAY state. And Babptists? What does God have against them? Using the same logic is isn't hard to discover that God is pissed at Baptists because too many of their ministers are closet homosexuals.

So here is my suggestion. First, Governor Purdue should invite all Georgia’s gay and lesbian citizens to an all expense paid trip to Dollywood, the Dolly Parton theme park in Tennessee. While they are out of the state, he should then hold a second prayer vigil and let God know he has cleansed the state of homosexuals, thus allowing God to reward Georgia with real rain.

As for the Baptists, I suggest they build their churches with stronger roofs.

Of the Papal, Part Two

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has released its statement on “faithful citizenship” telling Catholic Americans that they may be endangering their eternal souls if they vote for a candidate who supports the “evils” of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, artificial contraception and racism.

According to the statement, “a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil.” Who would argue with this? I won’t vote for a candidate who favors intrinsic evil. But I might draw up a different list of evils. How about the evils of torture, corporate greed, environmental rape, war, and seeking to undermine the Constitution and override legitimate laws passed by Congress? If I had to rank my evils, I would place violation of the Constitution above using a condom. But then I’m not a Catholic bishop.

As the bishops hammered out their statement, Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, ND proposed an amendment warning Catholics of the danger of voting for evil. “Choosing intrinsic evil,” he said, “will have an impact on their salvation.” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, NY argued against Aquila worrying that the bishops should not link politics to salvation. This is nonsense: the statement itself does this implicitly.

For all their concern with pointing Catholics to the right political position, the bishops seem to offer Catholics a way out. The statement says a Catholic may not vote for a politician who supports intrinsic evil if, by so voting, “the voter’s intent is to support that position.” This is a huge loophole: as a good Catholic I can vote for a candidate who supports intrinsic evil as long as I am thinking of other policies the candidate supports that are not intrinsically evil. With a loophole this big I can’t see the point in issuing the statement is in the first place.

But what really bothers me is the Bishop’s definition of intrinsic evil. Being against abortion means you are in favor of mothers dying in childbirth. Being against euthanasia means you are in favor of bringing horribly diseased babies into the world to live out lives of brutal agony. Being against embryonic stem cell research means you are in favor of the suffering of all those who may be helped by such research. Being against artificial contraception means you are in favor of the spread of disease, AIDS, and the crushing burden of poverty that over population brings.

I realize I am overstating my case, but the lack of nuance in Catholic thinking regarding evil demands a stark response.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I, Apikoros

I am not a person who shuns labels. On the contrary, I find labels to be a helpful shorthand, and I am always on the lookout for better ones. This week I was given a new one that I especially cherish: apikoros.

I was speaking with an Orthodox Rabbi from Israel earlier this week, and as we shared our views on God, Torah, and Israel he calmly informed me that I was an apikoros, a heretic. I didn’t believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I didn’t believe the Torah was God’s word; I didn’t believe the mitzvot (commandments) were God’s law; and I didn’t believe the Jews are the Chosen People.

“Then what do you believe?” he asked.

“I believe that God is Reality, an ever flowing system of creative destruction that defies naming and theological certainty (Ehyeh asher Ehyeh as Exodus 3:14 puts it), and which, over time, births more and more inclusive levels of consciousness that eventually awaken to know all creation as God. I believe that Torah is a human creation reflecting the biases of its authors and interpreters, and should not replace reason as our ultimate guide for establishing a just and compassionate society. I believe mitzvot are folkways designed to maintain the integrity of the Jewish people, and should be voluntary and open to constant refinement so as to reflect the best insights of our people. I believe that the people Israel are a people like any other seeking meaning and purpose, and yet often trapped in jingoism and xenophobia. I believe that Zionism is a legitimate movement of national liberation which should work for the liberation of all peoples...”

“Apikoros!” he said, and walked away.

Apikoros is Hebrew for Epicurus, the 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher who taught a secular, atheistic understanding of reality that placed reason and the pursuit of happiness at the center of human life. The ancient rabbis feared the influence of Epicureanism and used the term apikoros (apikorsim, plural) to mean “heretic” in the same way Ann Coulter uses the word “liberal” to mean “godless and un-American.” The rabbis even added a curse upon apikorsim to their liturgy: “may all the apikorsim be destroyed in an instant” (part of the 18th benediction of the Amidah).

I knew the meaning of the word, and was not hurt by being called an apikoros. On the contrary, I took a perverse pleasure in it. Famous Jewish apikorsim include the authors of Ecclesiastes and Job, Alisha ben Abuya, Hiwi al-Balkhi, Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, Herzl, Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, and Ben Gurion. These are all heroes of mine, and I am honored to be counted among them.

Indeed it seems to me that being an apikoros is exactly right for me. It is the Hebrew equivalent of a Holy Rascal, another label I value. In fact I’m thinking of creating a new denomination of Judaism: Apikorsut Judaism for the celebration of Jewish heretics and freethinking. I just have to figure our the dues structure and I’m in business.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Math of God

Praying for rain isn’t new, but when the Governor of Georgia does it on steps of the state Capitol it is news. Last Tuesday, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue and 250 of the faithful held a prayer vigil asking God to end the drought that is plaguing the state and much of the southeastern United States.

Governor Perdue felt that Georgians were being punished by God for their failure to conserve their water resources properly. “But we’re doing better,” the Governor said, “and once we began to do better, I thought it was time to acknowledge that to the Creator,” suggesting, of course that the all-knowing God isn’t so all-knowing.

I wasn’t there, but I imagine the Governor said something like this:

“Lord, this is Sonny. No not THAT Sonny, I suspect He’s busy with pre-Rapture planning. This is Sonny Perdue. No, not THAT Perdue, he is busy with his chickens. This is Sonny Perdue, Governor of the all too sunny state of Georgia. Yes, the Peach state. Well, we are going to be the peach pit state soon because we’ve used up all of our water and You are punishing us for that by not letting it rain. I just wanted You to know that we are conserving more these days. We have learned our lesson. So could You please let it rain… a lot… for a long time? Not Noah long, but long.”

Did it work? Well, almost. As Sonny and the 250 sang Amazing Grace storm clouds formed and floated toward the Capitol (I am not making this up). Unfortunately the clouds dissipated quickly and no rain fell. Why? While I can’t prove this, I suspect that the clouds failed because (and this, too, is true) just around the corner from the prayer meeting, 20 members of the Atlanta Freethought Society, a band of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and heretics, held a protest rally claiming the Governor was violating the First Amendment. I believe the heretics stopped the clouds from unleashing rain.

What do we learn from this? I think we learn something about the math of God. It takes 251 Georgians to get God to make a storm cloud and only 20 to get God to erase a storm cloud. The problem the Governor faces is not that Georgians failed to conserve water, or that God failed to notice when they began to do so, but that God favors atheists over theists almost 10 to 1. There is a drought in Georgia because there are too many freethinkers in Georgia.

What the governor should do is work with the Atlanta Freethought folks to identify, round up and bus out of state as many Georgia heretics as they can as soon as they can. With the heretics out of town, a second prayer vigil will certainly succeed. Then, as soon as enough rain has fallen, the Governor can invite the heretics back into the state to get the rain to stop.

If this works, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t, atheists around the country could form pay for service flood protection squads moving into areas with too much rain and thus getting the rain to stop. This would be a great way to raise funds for First Amendment legal battles. It seems like a win-win for everyone.