Friday, March 30, 2007

Making the Cut

Yes, I know, I didn’t make the list of the Fifty Most Influential Rabbis in the US. I’m as shocked as you are. I went on where the list was published and read it over and over again. I wasn’t on it.

Am I hurt? Disappointed? Disheartened? I might be if any of my friends made the list, but since they didn’t make the cut either I can ignore the whole thing. But I’ll tell you what really makes me feel better: I’m number 51. If the list had been a bit longer, even one rabbi longer, I would have made it. How do I know? I can’t imagine it any other way.

After all my poems appear in thousands of prayer books around the country. My books are studied in synagogues, colleges, and private homes throughout the English-speaking world. My seminars and classes max out, and I am in demand not only among Jewish groups but among a growing number of churches as well. How could I not be # 51?

True, when I called Michael Lynton, Chairman of Sony Pictures who is one of the three Jews who created the list, to confirm my status I was told that Mr. Lynton was unavailable. But when I called back for the twelfth time I was diverted to a voice mail message that said, “If this is Rabbi Rami please press #51.” When I did so I was disconnected from Sony, but the command to press 51 cannot be an accident.

So what will I do with my newfound fame? First I want to find out who was #52. This guy is a real loser. I mean it is one thing to be just one out, but two… please! I made my own list of who is below me. I won’t share it with you here because I don’t want to shame those who are on it, but between you and me, this is the more important list. I don’t really care who is better than me. I’m humble enough to admit that Rabbi Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, deserves to be higher than me on the list. It just makes me feel good to know that Rabbi Moshe Gross, director of Jamba Jews, an organization supporting Israeli citrus growers, is below me.

Second, I want to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times thanking Lynton and his friends for recognizing me as number fifty-one. I think this act of gratitude will not only please the makers of the list and influence them to bump me up a notch in their next list, it will also help increase my book sales and seminar attendance.

The problem is I can’t afford the ad. So I am turning to you, loyal readers, to help out. No, I’m not going ask you for money to purchase this ad. That will take too long. Rather I am asking you to take a black bold-point Sharpie to your local newsstand and write the following on page two of the Times: Thanks for Making Rabbi Rami #51. If it turns out that defacing the Times is illegal, and you are caught doing this, I will deny ever having said this. This blog will self-destruct in less time than it takes you to forget the fact that Hier is higher than me on the stupid list about which no one in his or her right mind cares about anyway. Stupid list. Stupid, stupid, stupid list.

I appreciate your help. Thanks.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What Makes You Happy?

What makes you happy? It is an ordinary enough question, but the setting in which it was asked of me was anything but. I was walking in the Murfreesboro cemetery as I often do early in the morning, chanting and talking with God. Usually I am alone with the dead, but this morning there was an elderly man who’d come to place plastic flowers at the grave of his wife.

I nodded as I walked by, and that’s when the question was posed, “What makes you happy?” He smiled as he said it, and that was all he said before returning his attention to the grave and the memories he had of the woman he’d married.

I stopped and turned toward him thinking he wanted to talk, but he waved me on without lifting his head and said, “Just think about it.” So I did.

As I meandered among the graves, some dating from before the Civil War, or as we call it here, the War Between the States, I asked myself the question, “What makes me happy?” I didn’t agonize over an answer; I just walked and repeated the question until the answer simply appeared to me.

Six things make me happy: freedom, solitude, companionship, service, learning, and a space to call my own.

Freedom means freedom from the rigors of an 80-hour work week, and freedom to pursue my own bliss. Solitude means hours alone each day to think, meditate, and write without having to talk or smile or pretend I am interested in things that bore me. Companionship means being able to share ideas and intimate moments (physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual) with someone I trust implicitly. Service means doing something that benefits others, either one person or many persons, either through an act of kindness or through an act of brilliance. Learning means having access to great books and ideas, creative people and their passions. And a space to call my own means having a place that I can organize to suit my needs and decorate to reflect my interests.

Writing this down now I realize I could add a few more things like money, food, clothing and the other items on the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but these are necessities; not having them would make life difficult, but having them doesn’t make me happy. I used to have lots of money, I have and eat more than enough food, and I have all the clothes I want, let alone wear, and I used to have much more. Not to mention a three-bedroom ranch house, state-of-the-art stereo equipment, five guitars, and a Porsche— but I wasn’t happy with all those things. I just had them. I am happy now. More happy than I have been in a long time; maybe forever.

As I doubled back through the cemetery I noticed the man was gone. His question remains, however, so I will pass it on to you. What makes you happy? Think about it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


[This is a summary of a recent talk I gave at a church in Michigan]

When was the last time you were surprised at church? When was the last time you walked through these doors and had no idea what to expect? For most of us it has been a very long time. Religion fears surprise, which is very sad, for God is all about surprise.

Moses asks God’s Name at the Burning Bush. God says, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” which most English Bibles mistakenly translate as “I am what I am.” “Ehyeh” means “I will be” not “I am.” God says to Moses, “You cannot know My Name. Something named is fixed, static, unchanging. I am none of these. I will be whatever I will be and there is no way to know Me in advance. All you can do is meet Me in the moment.”

You cannot know God because knowing is in the past while God is in the present. You cannot name God because names are fixed and God is fluid. You cannot worship God because worship is aimed at the known while God is unknown. Religion isn’t about God but about an idea of God fixed in your mind, conditioned by creed, and managed by theologians, while God, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” is wild, free, and unconditioned. You know god-the-idea in the church and the classroom. You meet God-the-reality in the wilderness and the whirlwind.

Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples are the opposite of the wilderness. They are tame places where idols are polished but where God is rarely present. This is not the church’s fault. The church is what you make it, and you don’t want to be surprised. Jacob said, “God is in this place and I didn’t know it.” Why didn’t he know it? Because he was trapped in what he did know, and what he did know left no room for God.

Religion is the opposite of Unknowing. Religion is all about knowing, of taking refuge in fixed ideas and the armies of believers that uphold and enforce them. Religion documents the I Am and freezes it into the What Was leaving is distracted from the I Will Be that is the true God.

If you want to meet God in this place you must make it a wild place, a place of surprise.

If you want to meet God in this place you must enter with your mind empty of idols and ideas, and open to what will be.

If you want to meet God in this place you must abandon who you imagine you are and see what you come to be.

If you want to meet God in this place you must drop all you know, enter naked and see what is rather than what was.

How do you do this? If there were a “how” the result would not be surprise, but just another preprogrammed idea. There is no how. There is no mechanism or method for realizing God or being surprised. There is just you, here and now in the wildness of your life. When you are just with that surprise is all there is.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Who's Your Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

Statism is my enemy, fascism is my enemy, regardless which religion fascists choose to hide behind. Any group that seeks to subsume the individual beneath the state, and uses lies, violence, propaganda, and censorship to do so is my enemy. Any movement that seeks to shut down the individual’s right to choose her own way in life is my enemy. And Islam has no monopoly on this.

I am for the freedom of the individual to choose for him or herself how best to be in the world. While there are limits to individual freedom (one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins), and hence we must learn to negotiate with one another to maximize the freedom of all, I am opposed to any system that seeks to reduce the individual to a pawn in a game controlled by politicians or clerics. America is not safe from fascists, but the threat may be as much from those who claim to be fascism’s enemies then those these anti-fascists claim to fight.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Keeping Pace

I am reading the Letters to the Editor section of Tuesday’s USA TODAY dealing with General Peter Pace’s remark that homosexuality is immoral (March 20, 2007). I disagree with General Pace’s assessment of homosexuality, but that is not the subject of this essay. Rather I want to comment on the comments in the Letters section.

Steve Friedberg of Lititz, Pa. writes, “Christian scholars have argued that morality comes from outside of mankind. Otherwise you end up with whole societies that condone immoral acts, such as those in Nazi Germany or the pre-Civil War South.”

By “outside” Mr. Friedberg means religion. Unfortunately religions don’t agree among themselves as to what is and is not moral. Killing in the name of God, Christ, and Allah have been deemed moral and immoral depending on whose God is being cited. Killing for Christ is moral to many Christians while killing for Allah is not. This is simply a matter of personal preference not absolute morality.

Furthermore religions often disagree within themselves. Mr. Friedberg mentions immoral societies like the pre-Civil War south. The problem is that the pre-Civil War south was committed to slavery as a moral act. God commands it. Christian pastors in the south taught that enslaving blacks to Christian whites is the way Africans got God. The supporters of slavery quoted the Bible no less emphatically than their abolitionist opponents. So having a Bible to quote and a religion to follow is no guarantee of morality.

So where does morality come from? Let me know if you figure this out.

Herb Stark of Massapequa, NY also supports General Pace and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy saying, “As long as these folks [homosexuals] have volunteered for military service out of loyalty to this nation, then so be it. As long as their practices aren’t forced on other military personnel, I’m comfortable with that set up.”

Two things trouble me about Mr. Stark’s comments. First, what is the “it” to which his “so be” refers? Maybe he means as long as gays want to serve and die for their country then the military will have to let them do so? Second, his concern that homosexuals might foist their homosexuality on heterosexual military men and women is bizarre. While it is common in some circles for straight people to try and foist heterosexuality on gay people, I have never heard it go the other way. Gays and lesbians don’t want to redeem heterosexuals from the madness of inter-gender unions; they just want to be left alone.

The Letters disturb me because of the low level of discourse around important issues that they represent. Most likely this is always so, and I admit to being an elitist, but for the newspaper to give a forum to this kind of thinking just seems like pandering to the lowest common denominator. I can get that on Fox & Friends.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Quit Dicking Around

This week The Week (March 16, 2007) features an excerpt from Neal Pollack’s book Alternadad. In it his wife and mother battle over his newborn son Elijah’s foreskin. Neal’s mother wants it cut off as a sign of Neal’s loyalty to the Jewish people. Neal’s wife, who does not belong to that people, wants it left where God put it. Neal’s account of the matter shows how insipid and insane Jewish life has become for many Jews.

Responding to Neal’s concern for his wife’s wishes, his mother says, “You’re wife is immaterial here.” Not only is his mother heartless, she is totally wrong. Neal’s wife has everything to do with this. She isn’t Jewish, hence baby Elijah isn’t Jewish, hence his penis is none of Bubbe Pollack’s concern.

True, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaisms allow for patrilineal descent, meaning that a baby born to a Gentile mother and raised as a Jew can claim Jewishness through the father. But, as will be evident in a moment, the Pollacks case does not apply.

What really matters to Neal’s parents is not Judaism but emotionalism. Bubbe and Zayde Pollack threaten to disown baby Elijah (at which point I would have told them to fuck off and hung up the phone), but they themselves don’t practice Judaism seriously, their son had a wedding that was in his own words, “deliberately, almost absurdly secular,” and they never seek out a rabbi to help with this matter. The real issue here is this: Who does Neal love most, his wife or his mother? While this alone makes clear how Jewish Neal is, it has nothing to do with Judaism itself.

As any Jewish boy will tell you, mama always wins, and Neal in fact has his son circumcised. But if cutting off foreskins made a boy Jewish millions of Muslims men would be Jews! Circumcision only matters Jewishly in the context of a bris (Covenant), a religious ceremony. The Pollacks, however, don’t have a bris and opt for a medical procedure instead, leaving them with a Gentile baby without a foreskin! The fact that they never had a Bris shows that they have no intension of raising Elijah Jewishly. All they want to do is make mama happy. And it won’t stop here.

I sympathize with Neal, but he’s a wimp. He stood for nothing. Baby Elijah will continue to be a political football that Neal’s parents will use to control him and isolate his wife. Neal’s marriage is doomed. I’m serious.

If Neal and his wife had come to me for advise I would have said this, “This is what you get for marrying spouses with living parents. You have only one hope. Sit down and work out your religion for yourselves. Become Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, or make up something that is satisfying to the two of you. Decide on what is important to you, not to your parents. Then teach that to your son. And if your parents don’t like it, threaten to keep Elijah from them. They will fold faster than you did.”

Now you know why I left the congregational world.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Back the Bunny

A Jewish woman in Walnut Creek, CA managed to rename the Easter Bunny the Spring Bunny in yet another attempt to keep America secular. I find this offensive and want to run an Open Letter to Jews in various metropolitan newspapers. If you want to help, place the following Letter in your local paper. Please do so at your own expense, and do not associate me with the letter in any way unless people like it in which case you can post my address and invite donations to be sent to my Back the Bunny campaign. Here is the letter:

To the Chosen People of [Name of Your City],

Easter is coming, and with it bonnets, bunnies, and lots of chocolate. True, in medieval Europe Easter came wrapped in fiery sermons inciting the followers of Jesus to plunder, rape, and murder thousands of Jews, but even Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rants on both street and screen failed to galvanize American Christians to return to the Christian values of their ancestors. Easter is no longer a day for hiding from our Christian neighbors, and praying they don’t burn our synagogues to the ground with us in them.

Yet there are some among us who insist on waging war on Easter. This is a bad idea. First, we haven’t the resources to run a two front war, and our winter campaign in the War on Christmas is only eight months away. Second, the attempt to take the Christ out of Christian is going to force us to take the Jew out of Jewish as well. We will be a nation of ian and ish, and where is the fun in that?

Instead of “Happy Hanukkah” Wal-Mart employees will have to say, “Happy Winter Fire Lighting.” Rosh HaShanah will become Fall New Year’s; Passover will be renamed Eating Tasteless Crackers Made Without Leaven Week; Shimeni Atzeret will become… What is Shimeni Atzeret, anyway?

America is not a Christian nation, but it is a nation of Christians. Let them have their resurrection bunnies. Don’t complain when they commit symbolic genocide against rabbits by eating their eggs. Don’t make fun of their hats. And above all don’t pretend to have found the bones of Jesus when everyone knows both he and Elijah were taken up bodily into heaven leaving no DNA behind.

Remember the teaching of the poet: “First they came for Jesus and I said nothing. Then they came for Buddha and I said nothing. Then they came for Krishna and I said nothing. Then they came for Mohammed and I said nothing. Then they came for Emmanuel Swedenborg and I said nothing. Then they came for Joseph Smith and I said nothing. Then they came for Mary Baker Eddy and I said nothing. Then they came for Anton LaFaye and I said nothing. Then they came for Elijah Mohammed, and I said nothing. Then they came for Bill W. and I said nothing. Then they came for me, but by then I was too old to care. Screw ‘em. And who are “they” anyway?”

So, my dear fellow Jews, get a grip and back the bunny. Sincerely,

(Your Name Here. Your Name, Not Mine. Just Yours. Right Here.)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Mooning Jesus

I know you're not going to believe this, and I don’t blame you. But I’m going to share it none the less.

I walked into Wal-Mart earler this week, and wandered to the back of the store to see what the prices were on new flat screen TVs. The televisions were on, of course, and every set was showing the horror of the tornado-ravaged areas of the country. Special emphasis was placed on the high school where so many students died.

One reported spoke about tornado preparedness measures the schools had practiced and the screen filled with kids on their knees with their heads pressed to the floor against the wall. This was, I guess, a protective posture. The sound was off so I can’t say for sure, but a fellow standing just behind didn’t see it that way at all:

“I’ll be damned!” he said. “They’re teachin’ our kids to pray like Muslims.” He actually pronounced the word closer to “mooslims.”

I thought he was joking, and so I turned to him and said, “Yeah, they are worried that their insurance companies won’t pay if it’s an act of God, so they are preparing to argue that it is the will of Allah and hence insurable by any American company.”

Not only did this guy not think I was funny, he didn’t think I was kidding.

“If God wanted our kids to die in a tornadah that’s his business and I’m not goin’ t’say anything about it. But if Allah did this, then I think we’s got to do something and do it soon.”

“I was just joking,” I said. “These kids weren’t praying they were ducking for cover.”

“Same thing as far as I’m concerned. Jesus is the only cover you need, and you can’t get to Jesus rolled up like a Mooslim. If they’re prayin’ they should be on their knees with their backs straight, chins up and eyes t’heaven.”

“Different religions have different prayer postures,” I said seemingly oblivious to the fact that I was in over my head. “I’m Jewish and…”

“Listen, son. There is only one God and one Jesus Christ and one way to pray before him. I don’t know about Jews, but I’ve seen Mooslims prayin’ before with their heads down and their butts up. I know what they’re doin’. Their god Allah is a desert god so they put their heads down on the groun’ t’be close t’him. OK, but why raise their butts? That is to insult Jesus and us Christians. They’re moonin’ God, boy, don’t you see that?”

“Well, I don’t think…”

“That’s your problem boy, that and bein’ a Jew. You can fix the one. Don’t know about th’other.” Then he walked away. He was wrong of course; I can’t seem to fix either one.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Marx Was Right

According to the January issue of Christianity Today, a recent study entitled “The Church vs. the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?” shows that church goers are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and less likely to attend church when statewide “blue laws” are abolished.

Blue laws make it illegal to open your business on Sundays and have been around since the founding of the original 13 colonies. Blue laws were in effect when I was growing up in Massachusetts in the 50’s and 60’s, and were repealed only when business people made it clear that the state was loosing tax revenue to neighboring Connecticut which had abolished blue laws and was open for business on Sundays. While some argue that blue laws fell because they violated church and state and forced non-Christians to rest on Sundays (I remember that The Crown Supermarket, the Jewish grocery, was open on Sunday in my hometown of Springfield, MA), it was economics not the constitution that killed the beast.

What is interesting about the study is not that it shows that when church has to compete with shopping, shopping wins, but that when Christians don’t go to church they turn to drugs and alcohol instead. Not all Christians, of course, but enough to make the fact a primary point of the study. Marx was right: religion is the opiate of the masses, and, given the chance, they prefer the real thing.

How to we get people back in the pews? If this study is any guide we have two choices. First, we could reinstitute blue laws and shut down all Sunday commerce except passing collection plates and church bingos. Just to be safe I would put people found not going to church in the stocks in public places. This too was popular in Massachusetts, though long before my time. If this sounds a bit harsh, churches could become more like malls, something many mega-churches are already doing. I would add bars and opium dens to the mix just to make sure all Christians feel called to come to church on Sunday.

If this works, and the aforementioned study suggests it will, mosques and synagogues might try the same thing. In Israel, of course, most Jewish businesses are forced to close on Saturday, which means that most Jews are shopping in Arab stores. I have only anecdotal evidence for this, but having recently returned from Israel, I did not get the sense that Jewish Israelis were flocking to synagogue. So maybe a bit of booze and hash would help.

The main point of the study however makes it clear that for many people religious observance is attractive only if the alternative is watching paint dry. Unless of course you are drinking and drugging while watching, in which case watching paint dry may be preferable to attending church.

I feel bad for all the good clergy who are loosing out to their parishioner’s preference for booze and drugs. They are doing their best but without legal sanctions they just can’t win. Thank God.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Thomas Jeffersonbergmanski

Is America ready for a Jewish president? The question came up at the last Presidential election when Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was running, but it turns out to be a moot point. America has already had a Jewish president: Thomas Jefferson.

The New York Times reported last Wednesday (February 28, 2007) that “researchers studying Jefferson’s Y chromosome have found it belongs to a lineage that is rare in Europe but common in the Middle East, raising the possibility that the third president of the United States had a Jewish ancestor many generations ago.”

This explains a lot about the man. First his passion for books and writing, definitely a Jewish trait. Second, the purchase of Louisiana at far below retail prices. Third, his ambivalence towards slaves: hating it and participating in it at the same time. As an ancestor of Egyptian slaves, Jefferson would have a soft spot in his heart for the victims of American slavery. The fact that he had a black lover harkens back to Moses who married a black woman. Fourth, his founding of the Democratic Party, Jews are by and large liberals, and his invention of the “wall of separation between church and state,” who else but a Jew living in Christian American would come up with that idea? Fifth, his desire to build an American navy to take on the Arab pirates of the Barbary Coast who were capturing our ships and killing or enslaving our sailors. And finally his editing of the Gospels that recast Jesus as a Jewish prophet rather than a miracle working Son of God. So now we know.

I for one am pleased that Jefferson’s Jewish heritage is out in the open. I have always been a fan of his and resented the Unitarians for claiming him as one of their own. Of course lots of Jews belong to the Unitarian Church, so I have no problem with joint Unitarian and Jewish ownership of TJ.

I suggest is that we Jews really play up the Jewish Jefferson. We could make Jefferson’s yahrzeit (the anniversary of this death) a holiday: Yom Tom. We would read the Declaration of Independence and selections from his Gospel, and make a pilgrimage to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC. The fact that he died on the Fourth of July makes taking the day off that much easier.

I can’t think of what kind of food would be appropriate for Yom Tom, but I do think it would a good time to raise money for the United Negro College Fund. Jefferson created one of the first universities in the country, and left behind black children who couldn’t attend them. This might be a fitting act of teshuvah and tzedakah (repentance and justice).

So now that America has had a Jewish and a Catholic president, are we ready for a Mormon?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Camp Coyote

Ever wonder what it is like to illegally cross into the US from Mexico? You read about the hardships these people are willing to endure to mow our lawns and kill our chickens, but print can’t come close the hellish nature of the crossing itself. Enter EcoAlberto Park.

Founded by the Hnahnu, an indigenous Mexican tribe whose numbers are shrinking as members make their way illegally into the United States, the park features a simulated border crossing experience. For $18 per person (versus thousands charged by real coyotes) you can spend five hours trekking through mud and evading US Border Patrol officers played by local actors.

While some critics complain that the park is a training ground for would-be illegal immigrants, the Hnahnu established the camp to convince their people not to risk the trip to America. If crossing the border seems romantic to you, you can check it out for yourself at minimal and see just how difficult and dangerous it really is. After five hours at the fake border you will think twice before tackling the real border.

It’s probably too soon to know if the park is slowing the number of Hnahnu leaving for the US, but the idea itself is worth pursuing in other venues.

How about a park that simulates the war in Iraq? I would make it a requirement that before you are allowed to vote for a war of choice lawmakers are required to go through battlefield simulation. Similarly, I would encourage parents to send their kids to the program before letting them or encouraging them to enlist. While I think it is noble to serve your country by enlisting in the military (I did it), I also think that doing so without the foggiest idea of what you are getting yourself into is nuts.

Here’s another idea: How about a month-long program living as one of the working poor? People could spend four weeks working three jobs just to max out their credit cards and slip deeper into debt. This program would have the added benefit of supplying employers with cheap labor while the Hnahnu finish up at their training camp.

A program that renders participants homeless and penniless for a week (my friend and teacher Bernie Glassman Roshi runs these in New York City) should be required of every official of every city in the US.

Or, how about a program that let’s you live as a gay man in openly homophobic parts of America. I can also imagine camps simulating the life of prostitutes, drug addicts, and homophobic gay clergy.

In fact I bet you could make a program for almost every kind of American there is, and find out in most if not all of them that their lives suck. Does anyone really think Donald Trump is happy? And, once we see that life is suffering, we can turn off Oprah (OK, she does seem happy), Dr. Phil, and Maury and stop whining about our lives and feeding off the misery of other’s lives.

I could say more about this, but the Hnahnu guy I’m hiring to mow my lawn just arrived.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Poetic License (Plates)

Standing in line to renew my car registration I couldn’t help notice the dozen or more license plate choices offered to me. For an additional fee I could replace the standard license plate with one that advertises my passion for an array of causes from save the bares to save the fetuses. While I waited for my turn to register my car, I began to think of other plates the state might offer motorists. Here are a few of my suggestions:

“Chose Death.” This plate would feature unlocked seatbelts in a circle with a slash through it. Money would go to support safe driving programs in high schools.

“Choose Hate.” This plate would feature a swastika (the Nazi version not the Hindu one), a Confederate Flag, and a Flaming Cross. Money would go to groups that promote anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia.

“Choose Me.” This plate would have a clear plastic sleeve into which you can put a photograph of yourself. Funds would go to Narcissists of America.

“Choose Ignorance.” At the center of this plate is a large open book in a circle with a slash through it. This plate would support efforts to cut educational funding.

“Choose Peace” would feature a photo of Mahatma Gandhi. Money would go to peace education.

“Choose War” would compliment the Choose Peace plate and feature a mushroom cloud in the shape of a dollar sign. Funds raised from this plate would go to portable nuke research and development.

“Choose Sanity” with a genderless person sitting in meditation would be a good idea. Money would go to funding contemplative studies programs in local schools.

“Choose Something” would have no picture just text, and would support Americans In Support of Action. A balancing plate would read, “Choosing Nothing,” and would support the people who want to drop out of consumerist culture. Ironic, no?

“Choiceless,” featuring a portrait of J. Krishnamurti would be a hit with me. Money would support his foundation.

My final suggestion is an alternative to the standard Choose Life plate featuring a smiling baby. My design would feature a smiling young woman next to a blastocyst with the words YOU CHOOSE over them.

As always you are free to push any of these ideas in your state. And if you have ideas of your own please post them on the Blogger version of Toto.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

HPV and Daughters of Faith

I have been listening to the fears many people of faith have over vaccinating their daughters against HPV, the sexually transmitted virus that can, in some forms, lead to for cervical cancer. The basic argument is that giving girls this vaccine will make them more inclined to engage in out of wedlock sex. While I don’t find this argument especially compelling, what is interesting to me is the unstated assumption these people are making about their daughters.

Parents of faith are not arguing against giving the vaccine to secular kids who are, given their lack of faith and morals, humping like rabbits. That at least would make sense, however immoral withholding the vaccine might be. Rather they are arguing against vaccinating their daughters of faith.

The unavoidable implication of the faith position is that if not for the fear of STD and cervical cancer, their daughters would engage in immoral sexual behavior much like their hedonistic classmates and neighbors.

Parents of faith just don’t trust their kids. I don’t blame them; when it comes to hormones versus holiness, my money is on hormones. That is probably why we have fear-based religion in the first place. Where it not for sex and death much of religion is simply cruel and unusual punishment.

Of course I would not insist a parent protect a daughter against cancer. If you wish to take the risk of martyring your daughter for your faith, it is your right to do so. But there may be an unexpected consequence of this decision.

It is wrong to think that girls of faith are caste until marriage. Look at the abortion rates in the religious red states and you cannot help but draw the conclusion that religious kids are learning about more than Easter from their beloved bunnies. As with homosexuality, sexual promiscuity among the faithful is just as prevalent as it is among the secular, it is just ignored. Ignoring HPV, however, could lead to the daughters of faith being unable to bear children, or even survive their childbearing years.

Without daughters to have babies, the numbers of religious Americans will decline while the numbers of vaccinated secularists will increase—something most people of faith would find disconcerting.

Hmm, maybe I should have kept quite.

Short Takes

Let’s Be Frank

The House of Representatives is slated to take up a proposal to offer honorary citizenship to Anne Frank. How ironic!

Letters from Anne’s father, Otto, show how desperate he was to get his family to America. He, and thousands of others, were denied entry into America due to a combination of fear of German-born refugees, and homegrown anti-Semitism. Granting her citizenship now is somehow obscene. And, given the state of education in this country I can foresee students reading her Diary will and believing that she didn’t die at all, but made it safely to Long Island.

If we really want to do something to honor Anne Frank, why not pass a bill in her name that brings Iraqi war refugees into the US in numbers commensurate with the violence we unleashed in that country?

Century 21…. BCE!

Rabbi Pruzansky brought hundreds of Jewish families from New York and New Jersey together to explore buying homes in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. This is like Custer selling housing to whites on Indian reservations. Rabbi Pruzansky obviously finds the illegality of West Bank settlements irrelevant. “Peace is an illusion already,” the rabbi said in the New York Times (Monday, February 26, 2007). “We’re fulfilling a biblical commandment, God commanded us to settle the land of Israel. This is a very natural step.” Toward what? Armageddon?

Americans who buy housing on the West Bank don’t have to move there. They can rent their new homes to Israelis. That way the owner can have the nachas (joy) of having a home in the Promised Land without having to worry about a rocket attack taking out their living room. This reminds me of rich northern draftees hiring people to take their place in the Union Army during the Civil War. If you’re going to buy a house in Palestine I think you should be required to live among the Palestinians. I assure you that if Rabbi Pruzansky made this a requirement he would have few takers.

Korean Komics

“The final obstacle to success is always a fortress called Jews.” Though it sounds like a fortune cookie proverb, it is actually a caption of a comic strip showing a man climbing a hill topped by a wall plastered with a Star of David. The strip appears in a South Korean educational text called “Distant Countries and Neighboring Countries” designed to teach children about foreign lands. Needless to say Jews are angry, some Koreans are embarrassed, and the author, Lee-Won Bok, a college professor, is clueless.

Is Talk Cheap

Is talk cheap? I don’t think so. In fact, talk, real talk—open unscripted dialogue among people willing to engage in deep silence as well as impassioned speech— is among the most costly things we can do. The real cost of real talk is our sense of ideological security, and without this we are thrust into an existential angst that most of us avoid.

This insight came to me as I sat in a meeting for a group I helped found in Nashville. The original intent of the group was to foster four weeks of dialogue around faith and politics from a liberal perspective. I had expected this to lead to some type of concrete action. What I discovered, however, was that the real action that is needed is more talk.

There are lots of action-oriented groups doing things, but no one has the time to really think through and talk through why they are doing them. And when we do talk, our talk is scripted, pre-digested, and boundaried by political correctness and ideological dogma. Everyone is required to tow the party line. This is not the kind of talk I crave.

In our search for an issue about which to take action, someone suggested immigration. The real topic was illegal immigration but saying so was politically incorrect. The assumption was that people of authentic (read liberal) faith would embrace the immigrant under the principle of “love thy neighbor” even if thy neighbor is occupying the house next door illegally. While I support treating all humans with respect, I do not think that respect necessarily translates into open borders.

Another member of our board suggested that the real issue underlying immigration is racism. Mexicans are brown and that says it all. Such thinking implies that only white Americans worry about illegal immigration, and that is patently false, yet to say so is to risk real dialogue and that is too costly. And besides, we were too eager to find something to do.

But what we really need to do was talk. We need to challenge our assumptions and assertions. We need to hear differing opinions. We need to learn how to dialogue with one another; how to listen and speak with open hearts and minds. We need to cultivate the courage to question our own opinions. We need community forums where we can hear speakers on different sides of an issue, and then break into small circles of inquiry to dig more deeply into what the truth might be. What I want are what I call “circles of inquiry” where people gather for unscripted talk arising from mutual silence and not-knowing. I want a topic placed before us with the assumption that we don’t know the truth of the matter and have to actually look together and investigate.

I had hoped that this is what yesterday’s meeting would lead to: the formation of an on-going forum where talk was dangerous and welcome. I don’t think that will happen with this group, but I still think it needs to happen.