Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Debating With God

Jack White, of Whites Stripes, is quoted in the August issue of Paste magazine saying, “I’m not looking for so–in–so’s opinion, not even my own. I just want to know what the truth is. I mean that’s what I’m looking for. In my opinion there is no way God looks at things from 14 different angles. I see God as knowing only one truth, and that’s it. Everyone can sit around and have their manly and earthly opinions about things, but I doubt there’s much debate going on in heaven.”

Putting aside the most obvious: Jack’s opinion that having opinions is a waste of time is a bit self-defeating, let’s state the next most obvious: Jack White is so not Jewish.

Jewish heaven is a never–ending debate about truth. What makes it different from Jewish life on earth is that in heaven you get to debate with God. The Jewish ideal, as I mentioned a few blogs ago, is, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim Chayyim: all opinions seriously offered in service to truth, no matter how contradictory, are the words of the living God. We Jews cannot imagine a God so small as to have only one truth.

I am not saying that with God everything goes, but that with God everything goes–with. Not that good and evil don’t matter, but that good and evil need one another; each goes–with the other just as front goes–with back, up goes–with down, in goes–with out, convex goes–with concave, right goes–with wrong, and Homer goes–with Marge. (Yes, I just saw the Simpsons movie with my son, Aaron. Excellent.)

God is beyond our knowing. The word itself may simply be a placeholder for that reality we can intimate but never really articulate. But the mind of God, mochin d’gadlut, spacious mind, is not other than your mind, used properly. When you can hold conflicting truths in your mind at the same time; when you can live with and within paradox without reducing it all to one truth; when you can be at home with not–knowing and see all opinions as nothing but opinion, then you are operating from spacious mind and getting a tiny glimpse of God’s mind.

Judaism is good at getting into the mind of God. This is what I most love about Judaism: not the rules, rites, and religion, but the mindset that is at home with paradox. No, not just at home with it, in love with it. The classical model of Jewish learning (Jews don’t say “study” which implies a fixed body of knowledge to be internalized, but “learning” implying an unending process of discovery) is called hevruta or partnered–learning. You sit with a text and a partner and debate multiple meanings of what you are reading. The task of the partner is to never let the other come to final conclusion. There is always more learning to discover. So you debate. And when you run out of things to debate and think you have found THE answer, the rabbi comes over, pulls the rug out from under you both, and sets you on another voyage of discovery.

So while I like Jack White’s music, I am not moved by his theology. God is bored with answers. God loves questions.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Last God Standing

Michael Gerson in a recent issue of the Washington Post argued that without God we humans are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, and without fear of God’s wrath we would have no motivation to choose the former over the latter. I agree:

Without God I would have no idea that it is wrong to eat shrimp, have a woman testify in court, see a woman’s face, let homosexuals marry, mix linen and wool in my clothes, or have a glass of milk along with a hamburger. Similarly, without God I would no idea it was right to slaughter followers of other faiths, kill witches, heretics, and wayward sons, and set ravenous she¬–bears loose to tear apart forty–two boys who taunt prophets in the vicinity of ravenous she¬–bears (look it up: 2Kings 2:24).

God is a source of morality. The problem is that there are so many gods and so many books purporting to be the Word of God that it is impossible for us to determine which god is God and which book is God’s Book. If you try to find common ground among gods and books you end up with the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others that which you would not want others to do unto you” to quote Rabbi Hillel, or “Do unto others what you would want others to do unto you” to quote Jesus who was obviously not paying close attention when he learned the earlier teaching of Hillel in Hebrew school.

While this is good advice, it didn’t come from God, unless of course Jesus is God and then it did come from God, but since a version of the Golden Rule exists in all cultures and seems to be indigenous to all peoples, it is hard to argue that without God human’s are incapable of ethical thinking or action.

If you still insist there is no morality without God, you then have the burden of deciding which god is God. Krishna allows things that YHVH condemns. Allah condemns things that Jesus’ Dad allows. Jesus’ “But I say unto you” statements overrule what YHVH said unto us. When slaveholders sited the Bible to justify owning other human beings they were drawing on God’s morality. When abolitionists decried such horror they made the same moral claim. The point is God is not so much the source of morality but the excuse. We call moral what we want to do, and then imagine a god who will back us up.

The only solution is to discover which god is God. In the previous blog (War on Krishna) I suggested we let the Senate vote on this, but that was silly; the only way to really know which god is God is to let them all battle it out in a global winner–take–all interfaith jihad. We see every day how very bloody this can be, so let me suggest a variation. Let each religion field its best warrior, and let them have at one another in a televised no–holds–barred battle to the death smack down I would call Last God Standing.

Give this some thought. I would be interested in hearing your picks as the best fighter in each faith. Oh, no fair converting someone to fight on your team.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The War on Krishna

It is always wise to start your legislative day with prayer, even if it is to a false god.

Recently the US Senate invited a Hindu clergyman, Rajan Zed, to offer the opening prayer on the Senate floor. As Rev. Zed began his invocation of “the Deity Supreme,” he was interrupted by followers of the Supreme Deity, Jesus Christ.

Three members of the Christian group Operation Save America/Operation Rescue, were taken away in handcuffs after shouting “This is an abomination!” and “No lord but Jesus Christ!” in an attempt to silence Zed and protect America from idolatry.

According to the July 27th issue of The Week, Operation Save America/Operation Rescue denounced Zed for “placing the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the one true god, Jesus Christ. This would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers.”

They may have a point. If living in a religiously free country means that all gods are created equal, how are we to know which gods are worthy of prayer, and which are not? The Senate seems to be saying, “We don’t care which god you worship as long as you worship some god,” reminiscent of the national campaign in the fifties encouraging people to worship in “the church or synagogue of your choice.” No one seemed to care which church you attended, or if you preferred synagogue to church, they just felt more comfortable knowing that you spent some part of each week in some kind of Judeo–Christian house of prayer.

The problem is that if all gods are equal, no god is God. The Bible certainly rejects any idea of a level playing field for gods. Even if you argue that in the early books of the Bible God exists among other lesser gods, you have to admit that God is superior to them, and wherever possible smashes them to bits and slaughters those who worship them. And it is certainly true in the Bible that whenever someone tries to bring another god into the Temple of God things get pretty violent; so why bring these lesser gods into the Senate of the United States?

If the Senators really don’t care which god they pray to, then their prayers are hypocritical and should be ended. But I think they are sincere, so my suggestion is this: the Senate should suspend their official prayer until they first decide which god is God at which time they can resume their prayers and limit them to that god. A simple up or down vote should suffice.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Real KKK

I don’t think you’ll believe this. I don’t blame you. I’m having a hard time believing it myself.

I’m sitting at the coffee house of our local bookstore waiting for an NPR download to finish. To keep from going mad from the slow pace of the download, I’m reading the local newspaper. There is an article about the Southern Poverty Law Center suing the second largest chapter of the KKK in the US over a brutal beating members inflicted on a sixteen year-old boy in Kentucky.

I think I blurted out something like, “Damn, these guys just won’t quit.” A fellow sitting behind me and I imagine reading over my shoulder said, “The KKK started here in Tennessee, you know. They meant well, though I guess they turned bad after a while, but the real KKK is even worse.”

Let me give you some advice. When someone starts to talk about the Ku Klux Klan you should smile and move away. Good advice. I wish I had taken it. Instead I said, “What’s the real KKK?”

“Kikes, Koons, and Katholics,” the man said. And then he smiled and moved away adding, “And don’t you forget it.”

I won’t. I can’t. I don’t want to. It is vitally important that we don’t forget there are people out there (in here; next door) who live off of hate.

I want to believe that people are good; that education will solve all our problems, and that someday all religions will embrace. I want to believe these things, but I can’t. People easily rationalize the greatest evil; even the most educated people can believe insanity and act wickedly—look at the terrorist doctors for the latest example; and, as the Pope has just made so clear, religions will never embrace as long as religious leaders are invested in winning the war for God’s all too limited love.

Is there something that will stop the madness? Yes, I think there is. It is learning how to question your most cherished beliefs and the authority that enforces them. So let me add a fourth and fifth K to the mix: Kafka and Krishnamurti. These are two great modern masters of wisdom. Each in his own way points to the madness that passes for sanity in our world. Each in his own way points beyond it. If you haven’t read these two geniuses, please do so. If you have read them, reread them. I know of know better way to cleanse the mind of the smugness of self-delusion.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Interview 4 of 4

[The following is the fourth part of a four-part interview I gave to a student in partial fulfillment of a class assignment.]

Q: We are talking about the Mother and your experience of God as the Divine Feminine. You recently returned from teaching in Chartres, France where the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres is dedicated to the worship of Mary, the Mother of God. Was this moving to you?

R: Absolutely. Mary, Kali, Durga, Kwannon, Chochma, Sophia these are all faces of the Divine Feminine, and while God or Reality includes and transcends the feminine, and is beyond conceptualization, it is this Feminine Face of Reality that I find most moving and comforting at this time in my life.

Q: The Mother is all loving…

R: She is all consuming in her love. That is to say that she is not comforting in any conventional sense. Her love is searing, it burns away all theology, all religion, all isms and leaves you in the radical not–knowing that is Her fierce grace. To draw near to the Mother is to be stripped of all your hiding places and left as Job is left in his encounter with God, that is in a state of radical amazement, a state of wondrous and transcendently joyous silence.

Q: It sounds like a kind of escape from the world. Is it?

R: It can be. You can draw near the Mother and make camp. But if you dare to go further, if you dare to be consumed in Her love you are sent back to the world to transform it with justice, compassion, love, and humility. The flipside of the Mother’s embrace is the Father’s prophetic push back into the world. It is not either/or, but both/and. If you truly love God you cannot help but love the world, and want to heal it. Mysticism and prophetic action go together, or they don’t go at all.

Q: And this is how you see yourself? As a mystical prophet?

R: Oh goodness no. I talk about this stuff. I leave the real work to people like Andrew Harvey, Michael Lerner, and Jim Wallis.

Q: And you are satisfied with that?

R: It is who I am. Being satisfied or dissatisfied is irrelevant.

Q: OK. Just one final question. Are you hopeful of the future?

R: The national anthem of my tribe is HaTikva, The Hope. Hope is the DNA of the Jewish psyche. Hope is rooted in the deep insight that the world is an open system and not subject to the Law of Entropy. This is what Torah is saying when it reveals God’s Name as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, “I will be what I will be.” God is unfixed, unformed, unconditioned, always surprising itself. I believe that life is evolving toward the ultimate surprise: the realization that we are God. This is not a linear evolution from A to B to Z. This is a gyre of development with Life forever circling back in on itself only to spiral out in wider and higher and more inclusive levels of engagement. When we spiral out things look wonderful. When we spiral back they look bleak. But neither wonder nor despair is the whole of the matter. The process includes and transcends them both. So, yes, I am hopeful; hopeful that creation and destruction, birth and death, peace and war, good and evil are all dancing in service to One Who is at heart pure surprise.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Interview 3 of 4

[The following is the third part of a four-part interview I gave to a student in partial fulfillment of a class assignment.]

Q: You said there are four levels of biblical understanding: literal, allegorical, imaginative, and mystical. You also said you prefer the imaginative because like an inkblot it mirrors your deeper self. Correct?

R: Yes, like an ink blot, a dream, Tarot cards, universal myths and archetypes. Right.

Q: What is your sense of the mystical level, Sod?

R: Where Drash, the imaginative level, is all about you, Sod is all about the other. Where Drash takes you into yourself, Sod takes you into God and hence the world, which is God manifest.

The revelations of Sod come in two ways. First there is the notion of kabbalah, literally “receiving;” you receive the secret interpretations and understandings of the Torah from your rebbe or spiritual master. This can be very deep and valuable material, but because it is already known and passed down from rebbe to student it is just a more subtle kind of black fire.

The second quality of revelation under the Sod category comes when your imagination is so freely, wildly at play in Drash that something totally unexpected comes through. This is true white fire, unknown to you, something radically new. This is why I like Drash the best: only in the wild play of Drash can the even wilder revelations of Sod be discovered.

Q: Can you give an example?

R: No. Anything I can offer would then be subtle black fire. What I can tell you is that my own experiences with the Sod dimension are prophetic not in the sense of telling the future, but in the biblical sense of calling me to engage the world more justly and kindly.

Q: Let’s change subjects. You often talk about God as Mother. Do you really believe that God is a woman?

R: No. Any language applied to God must be metaphoric. God is what is. God includes and transcends all reality, so God manifests as men and women, as well as dogs and elephants, but is not reducible to anything in particular.

Yet my experience of God is undeniably feminine. When the ancient rabbis spoke of hearing the word of God they used the term Bat Kol, the Daughter’s Voice. When they spoke of sensing the spirit of God around and within them they used the term Shekhinah, a feminine noun. When the author of Proverbs described the first moments of creation he said that Chochma, a feminine noun meaning Wisdom, was the first of God’s manifestations. My experience is the same as theirs. When I hear God speak, the voice is female, when I sense God’s presence it is feminine, when I see God manifest as the world is it as the Mother.

Q: I always thought Judaism was totally masculine and patriarchal, but you are saying there is something feminine and matriarchal to it as well?

R: Yes. While the power structure of Judaism the religion is historically patriarchal, the tribal wisdom is historically matriarchal. While the men defined what Jews did, it was the mother, the women, who defined who a Jew was.

On a deeper level, I believe there is a sense of Reality as Mother in the Wisdom teachings of Judaism found in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Ben Sirach to name a few, and it is to these books that I am drawn most powerfully. To go back to an earlier question, I would say that while I am unabashedly a Jew and proud member of the Jewish tribe and people, my religion is Wisdom in all Her forms: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, etc.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Interview 2 of 4

[The following is the second part of a four-part interview I gave to a student in partial fulfillment of a class assignment.]

Q: Can you tell me just what it is you do believe?

R: I believe that there is only one reality— call it God, Yah, Allah, Tao, Brahman, Great Spirit, Mother/Father, etc— that manifests as the infinite diversity of the universe. I believe that experiencing the One calls us to engage life justly, compassionately, humbly, and with utmost respect. I believe that the extent to which the world’s religions contain helpful means for translating these principles into action they should be honored. I believe that the extent to which these very same religions preach dualism, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, violence, homophobia, etc. they should be rejected. If I have a creed, it is this: Love God (Reality, Life) with all your heart, with every breath, with all your being and becoming; and Love your neighbor and the stranger as yourself.

Q: Which is basically what Jesus taught.

R: I added the “stranger” part, but you can’t get much more Jewish that Jesus.

Q: How so?

R: Jesus was a Jew who adapted the teachings of his people for his time. Jesus did just what I am doing, and I often look to his example for guidance.

Q: Doesn’t that make you a Christian?

R: Not at all. A Christian is one who makes a god of Jesus. For me he is a great sage, rabbi, and prophet, but not a god. When allowed to read the words of Jesus as they come down to us with the awareness of first century Jewish life under brutal Roman occupation, Jesus is clearly a son of his people, and a lover of God, neighbor, and stranger.

Q: I read that you take the Bible seriously but not literally. What does that mean?

R: I believe that the heart of the Bible is myth, and that myth is among the most powerful tools we humans have for excavating the deepest layers of consciousness where the awareness of the nonduality of God is felt most strongly. A literal reading of the Bible robs it of its mythic depth and reduces it to nonsense. While you cannot ignore the literal layer of the text— Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush not at Wal-Mart— sticking to the literal level alone has for centuries been a sign of illiteracy among Jews.

Q: I was taught that the literal reading is the only true reading.

R: This is another difference between us. The ancient rabbis taught that there are four levels to the Bible: Peshat, the literal, Remez, the allegorical, Drash, the imaginative, and Sod, the mystical. When you learn to engage with the Torah on all four levels you enter PaRDeS, the first letter of each of the four levels of literacy, which is the Hebrew word for Paradise.

Q: So the study of text is for you a spiritual practice? Which of the four levels do you find most enlightening?

R: Study is a spiritual practice if you learn to operate on all four layers. The Drash level is the one that most intrigues me. Drash is the interpretive level of reading where the imagination in the reader spins new stories from the old. The rabbis taught that the Torah is written in black fire, the fixed letters, on white fire, the spaces around and between letters and words. You have to learn how to read both. You read the black fire by seeing what is printed on the page; you read the white fire by seeing what is hidden in your own imagination.

Q: For example?

R: For example, after the near sacrifice of Isaac Abraham returns home alone; the Torah doesn’t say where Isaac goes. Abraham returning home is the black fire, the unwritten adventures of Isaac are the white fire. What happens to him? What is he thinking? What does he do? Let your imagination run with these kinds of questions and you will discover things about your self and life that the black fire cannot reveal.

Q: About myself? How does that work?

R: The Bible is myth, myth is a map of the deep levels of the human psyche. The Bible is about you. When you engage in the free flowing imaginative play that is Drash you will learn new ways to tell and understand your own story. To stick with our example of Abraham and Isaac, when you explore what Isaac does after escaping the murderous intent of his father you are bringing into consciousness your own unconscious insights into how to handle the potentially life threatening actions of your parents. Drash sees the Bible as a dream you dreamed the night before, and making midrash, imgagining new stories, is the dreamwork that reveals the deeper meanings and messages your unconscious mind is sending to your conscious mind. The Bible from the Drash perspective is, like a dream, all about you.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Interview 1 of 4

[The following is the first part of a four-part interview I gave to a student in partial fulfillment of a class assignment.]

Q: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Rabbi. I have followed your work off and on for years, and would like to talk with you about where you are spiritually.

R: You’re welcome.

Q: Great. In preparing for this interview I was told that you are ambivalent about your Jewish identity. Can you elaborate on that?

R: I am not at all ambivalent about being Jewish. It is one of the great joys of my life. What I struggle with is religion.

Q: But isn’t Judaism a religion?

R: Religion—formal, organized religion— is part of the complex of things that fall under the rubric of Judaism, but there are others things as well. Judaism is the way of life of a people, the tribe called Ivri or Apiru, Hebrew or the Boundary–Crossers.

At the heart of Judaism as religion is the notion that there is a Creator God who chose the Jews as His People, and Who gave them the one true revelation, the Written and Oral Torah, along with the Promised Land of Israel. I don’t believe any of this. God, for me, is not separate from creation, though God is greater than creation. God doesn’t choose people, write books, or engage in real estate deals. The religion of Judaism is simply a way to bolster the self–esteem of the Jewish people.

Q: Is that unique to Jews and Judaism?

R: Not at all. Every religion is created to advance the cause of those who invent it. I am neither surprised nor offended that Christianity reserves salvation for Christians, or that Islam believes that the Arabic Koran is the only uncorrupted revelation from God. Neither am I moved by these claims. I see formal or corporate religion as just another way we humans seek to get the better of one another. That’s why I’m not religious in the formal sense.

Q: In what sense are you religious?

R: The word religion comes from the Latin relegare, to connect. I am religious in the sense that I am connected to God as a wave is connected to the ocean. I value all teachings and practices, regardless of their religion of origin, that awaken people to the nonduality of God in, with, and as all things.

Q: But you are Jewish, right? I mean if I were to reject the core teachings of my Baptist faith or borrow ideas from some other faith, I wouldn’t be Baptist any more.

R: Right, and that is one of the primary differences between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity, in any its forms, is a set of ideas which you either accept or reject. Judaism is the way of life of a tribe into which one is born or by which one is adopted.

Q: Adopted? You mean converted?

R: Again the difference is crucial. You convert to Christianity when you swear loyalty to the Christian creed. But Judaism has no creed, and it is, in my opinion, misleading to speak of converting to Judaism as if there were some set of ideas to which one could swear allegiance. When you choose to become Jewish you are given a new name which always includes Bat or Ben Avraham v’Sarah: you literally become the daughter or son of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews. Becoming Jewish is a matter of being adopted by the tribe. It is the tribal aspect of Judaism that allows me to remain a Jew.

Q: I am not sure what you mean by that. Can you explain that some more?

R: Being Jewish for me is like being Native American. You are born into a tribe or you are adopted by that tribe as a member. It is the same with Jews. Just as Native Americans have their own languages, customs, foods, stories, etc. so do Jews. Just as some Native Americans believe that their customs were given to them by the Great Spirit, so some Jews believe that their customs were given to them by God. And just as many Native Americans can and do honor and live their customs without that belief, so many Jews do the same. I am one of these.

Q: For example?

R: I keep kosher, for example, not because God commands it, but because for thousands of years my people have struggled to find a way to hallow and elevate the human act of consumption. I believe that kashrut (kosher) challenges me to uplift all my consumption to the highest ethical and environmental standards I can muster. Similarly, I keep Shabbat [the Sabbath], not because God commands it, but because it is the way my tribe honors work and rest by setting aside one day a week for re–creation and deep play.

I find great value in wearing a tallit [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries], and in blowing the shofar [ram’s horn] as a reminder to wake up to the call for justice and compassion. I love to study Jewish books from the Bible to Kafka, and feel that these are deeply mine even as they speak to the world as a whole.

Q: Is there one thing you can tell me that makes the Jewish tribe unique?

R: To do that I would have to know a lot more about other tribes. But I can suggest one thing that may be unique, and that is the Jewish way of learning. Jews value questions over answers and at the heart of our pedagogy is the rabbinic teaching, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim Chayyim, which means that no matter how diverse people’s positions may be, they are all holy if their aim is to point us toward Truth. This means that Jews are at home with dialogue, argument, and paradox. We are an ancient people with a post–modern psyche. God is too great to be reduced to one truth. For us the opposite of a great truth is not a falsehood, but an equally great truth.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Death of a Prophet

I received a call this afternoon telling me that one of my most revered teachers, Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine of the Birmingham Temple in Bloomfield Hills, MI., was killed in a car crash in Morocco earlier today.

Rabbi Wine was the founder of Humanistic Judaism, an unabashedly atheistic brand of Jewish life that never hesitated to ask the hard questions and offer even harder answers. Whether or not you were convinced by the later, you could not, and indeed did not want to escape the former. Rabbi Wine spoke clearly. You knew where he stood so you could discover where you wished to stand. I do my best to imitate his courage and his clarity.

I found in Rabbi Wine a great teacher, mentor, and prophet. While we disagreed theologically, I was and continue to be indebted to him as a powerful force in shaping my own rabbinate.

A little over a year ago I was lucky enough to visit Rabbi Wine at his office in the Birmingham Temple. I went to thank him for being my rabbi. Now that he has died so unexpectedly, that visit is all the more precious to me. It is good to seek out your teachers and let them know how important they have been to you.

I am posting this to honor the man and his memory, and to offer my condolences to all those who mourn his untimely death.

Scared Sacred

We get the gods we deserve. And so I read with sadness an essay in my local newspaper:

“Regardless of your race, gender or social status, whether you believe in God or not, you are a sinner against God. That is bad news because God will judge you once your life on earth is done. Heaven and hell are real, and they are your only two options. Where does that leave you? Guilty, separated from God and going to hell to forever pay the penalty for your sin! Do you see your problem?” (Pastor Craig Grider, Murfreesboro Post 7.17.07).

Yes, I do. My problem, our problem, is that frightened and frightening men project their fears and fantasies onto the heavens to fashion monstrous gods who delight in eternal torture, and who use the threat of such torture to control the lives of millions. The god of this Pastor Grider speaks volumes—not about God, but about the good pastor.

Humans have long imagined gods who demand the blood of other humans. The call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac echoed this horror; the substitution of a ram put an end to it, at least among the Hebrews. Still unable to imagine a god sickened by blood and the stench of burning flesh, the ancient Hebrews at least limited their god’s addiction to the sacrifice of animals rather than humans; a step up if you were human, a step back if you were not.

A thousand years later the prophets heard a new call and discovered a new understanding of God. This God desired not sacrifice is not of the other, but of the self, the ego, the passions that can so easily poison both soul and society. This God demanded justice, compassion, and humility. This God did not seek to control through fear, but to convince through love.

Jesus, I believe, stood with these prophets and the rabbinic sages who came after them. The paradigm of sacrificing others, whether human or animal, did not suit him or reflect his experience of his Father. Yet those who made Jesus God reverted to the old ways, and resurrected a bloodthirsty deity whose wrath could be sated by eternal torment. Your only hope was the murder of the innocent Christ. God had to do what Abraham did not: kill his son. And with this murder and the theology that followed it, justice was replaced with wrath, compassion with cruelty, and humility with violent triumphalism.

Christianity, as this editorial understands it, is not a hopeful act of spiritual evolution (as I believe the actual teachings of Jesus to be), but rather a terrible act of spiritual devolution: returning us to a god addicted to blood. And if we do in fact get the gods we deserve, what does this theology say about us and the future of our planet?

Do you see the problem?

Friday, July 20, 2007


President Bush visited Nashville yesterday, and I had the privilege this morning of listening to one of my neighbors weigh in on the visit. Here is that conversation as best as I can recall it.

“Yessir, the President made sure we know he’s takin’ care of business with those Mooslims in Eyerack. I bet you there wasn’t a single Mooslim or Demoncrat in the audience.”


“Yessir, Demoncrat. That’s what they are. They are un-American traitors who side with Mooslims ‘n their god Moohamed against us ‘n our God Jesus. They are demons, pure and simple. Honestly I don’t know how we let Mooslims and Demoncrats even become Americans.”

“You mean you can’t be an American if you aren’t Christian and Republican?”

First of all, they is the same thing, Christian and Republican. Any so-called Christian who sides with Demoncrats is not really a Christian but an anti-Christian siding with the Antichrist Moohamed. Second of all when the Puritans came to this country they came for religious freedom.”

“Right, the freedom to worship as you wish.”

“Hell no! The freedom to be a true Christian which they were not allowed to be in England.”


“History has nothin’ to do with it. I’m talkin’ truth here. This here is a Christian country and there ain’t no room for Catholics or Mormans or Mooslims or…”


“Actually Jews is grandfathered in cuz they are related to Jesus and we Christians owe them all our best efforts to get them to stop worshippin’ Satan and come to Jesus.”

“So you think the President is doing a good job?”

“The President is a good man in a tight spot. He listens to Jesus and Jesus is tellin’ him to wage war against Mooslims and Demoncrats and that is what he is goin’ ta do. It is a Crusade, son, pure and simple.”

Unfortunately I couldn’t agree more.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


The email was simple, direct, and polite:

“Dear Rabbi, From what I can tell by reading your blog and website you don’t believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; you don’t believe the Jewish are God’s Chosen People; you don’t believe Israel is the Promised Land; and you don’t believe Torah is God’s revelation— so in what way are you a Jew, let alone a rabbi?”

Good questions, though not really difficult to answer.

Jews are a tribe into which one is born or by which one is adopted. When you become a Jew you receive a Hebrew name that literally links you to Abraham and Sarah, the founding father and mother of the tribe. Judaism is the religion of the tribe, but membership in the tribe is not contingent upon adherence to the religion, nor is the religion understood in the same way by all members of the tribe. I love belonging to a tribe. I have difficulties with religion.

I am a Jew because my mother is a Jew. I am a rabbi because I met the requirements for ordination. I remain a Jew and consciously participate in the rituals and customs of my people because I find them meaningful. I remain a rabbi because I enjoy sharing what I find meaningful with others, both Jews and Gentiles.

True, my understanding of God differs from that of the mainstream. Where most speak of God as a transcendent Other, I experience God as the one and only reality that is both imminent and transcendent. True, I don’t believe Torah was written by God, but by people, and hence reflects both timeless truths and time–bound biases and falsehoods. True, where Judaism focuses primarily on Jews, I focus on primarily on humanity; and, true, where Judaism is primarily concerned with The Promises Land, I am primarily concerned with the planet as a whole; but the fact that I choose to link myself to a minority view among my people does not negate my being a legitimate part of that people.

So, while I understand why there are people who question my legitimacy as a Jew and a rabbi, my own sense of identity is clear: I am both.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

By Whose Authority?

Why do you believe what you believe? There can be but one answer: you believe what you do because you choose to believe it. You—not tradition, God, parents, or convention— are responsible for what you believe. So when a person says, “I believe in this or that because the Bible (or the Torah or the Talmud or the Rabbis or the Koran, etc) tells me so” they are lying.

Who decides that the Bible (or some other book) is true, holy, inerrant, etc? Tradition or church may tell you it is, but for every church arguing one position that are others arguing the opposite position. There is no objective way to decide which position is correct. So, when you make the decision to accept one and reject the other the only authority you rely on is yourself.

The same is true when you follow the dictates of the pope or your local rabbi. You invest these people with power and authority. You are the ultimate decider of what is true, but you deny this. Why? Because to admit it is to admit that you are relying on an idiot.

This is certainly true of me. By the authority invested in me by me I decide that God doesn’t have a Chosen People, doesn’t have a Son, doesn’t talk to Moses or Mohammed, and doesn’t send people to hell for not believing in what He doesn’t do in the first place. And I have no objective way of knowing that what I affirm is true. I just affirm it.

The situation would be the same if I affirmed belief in Chosen Peoples, Virgin Births, Sonship, or Koranic revelation. Just as I can’t prove these to be false, I cannot prove them to be true. So believing is just as absurd as not believing. If I believe I do so simply because I choose to do so.

Admitting this is difficult for people. They want to believe that someone or Someone is making the choice for them, so they imagine that someone or Someone has authority over them. But who does the imagining if not they themselves? Whatever you believe, you believe it simply on your own authority. You make the pope the pope; you make a book sacred; you make a rabbi a judge. When people stop investing Jesus with power, Jesus will die just as Mithra, Zeus, and thousands of gods before him died.

Is knowing this helpful? It is to me. Knowing that I decide what is true is humbling. It allows me the luxury of not clinging to any spiritual teaching as absolute or absolutely true. This is truly en–lightening in that it lightens my load.

Religion is such a burden. And when you realize that it is one that you invest with authority, you are free to put it down and pick it up as you wish, and that is truly liberating.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


There will never be peace in the Middle East. Not because of religious, political, or cultural differences. Not because inane leaders and insane policies. Not because or blood feuds and tribal madness. There will never be peace in the Middle East because the parents of the Middle East continue to teach their children to hate, to kill, and to die.

Armies can and do stop fighting: one wins, another loses, or both are exhausted of blood and treasure. Enemies can learn to cooperate. People we support today turn on us tomorrow, while those who shot at us yesterday collaborate with us today. So the faces of friend and foe change, but the fact of friends and foes does not.

The reason for this is simple: we teach our children to fear, to hate, to kill, and to die for our ideas and ideals. There is no more chilling example of this than the Palestinian television show featuring the late Farfur, the human–sized Mickey Mouse look alike that preached hatred of Israelis and Jews to Palestinian toddlers.

When the show made the headlines, the outcry against it forced its creators to make changes. They could have written a story in which Farfur undergoes a spiritual conversion, discovering that Allah loves all life and all people, and urging Palestinian kids to reach out to Israeli kids in a spirit of friendship and compassion. What they chose to do instead is end the series by having Farfur brutally beaten and stabbed to death by an Israeli agent right before the eyes of the show’s horrified child star and the thousands of kids watching at home. These kids may not remember the civil war in Gaza or Iraq, but they will never forget the murder of Farfur.

Blaming Jews for the murder of one’s hero is an ancient tactic with an excellent track record for fomenting hate and violence. Christianity wouldn’t be what it is today if its early propagandists hadn’t shifted blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. Passion plays, the early forerunner of Farfur, left their audiences calling for Jewish blood, and often stopping by Jewish homes to shed a pint or two.

Myth is mightier than reality, and the fear and hatred poisoning the hearts of Farfur’s creators has now done the same to Farfur’s viewers; which was, of course, the goal all along.

As long as there are Farfurs, and his creators are already planning a new character to take up the mouse’s mantle of hate for Jews and Israelis, and by extension Americans and Europeans, there will only be more bombings, more kidnappings, more murders, more madness.

The solution? I am not sure there is one, but sunlight helps. We must continue to shine the light of reason on the madness of Farfur and his ilk. We must make it clear that hatred is learned, and do what we can to stop those who teach it.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bravo For An Honest Pope

I love a blunt pope, so when Pope Benedict announced that Catholicism was the one true faith, that other Christianities are lacking, and that nonChristians are “gravely deficient” in the category of salvation, I applaud him.

I am tired of interfaith disingenuousness. Only one who is deliberately blind to the actual teachings of any religion thinks that every religion says the same thing, or that they all teach a universal salvation.

Jews, for example, love to quote the Talmud, “One who saves a single life saves an entire world” to show Judaism’s moral superiority. The actual text, however, says this, “One who saves a single life among Israel is as one who has saved an entire world.” The rabbis concern was the saving of Jewish life in particular not human life in general.

What all religions have in common is this: each (with the exception of certain schools of Hinduism) promotes itself and its ruling elites as the one true faith.

Again, to stick with my own faith, Judaism admits to only one revelation from God: the Torah, and the Jews got it. True the so–called Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible as well, but the rabbis taught that God’s revelation includes not only the Written Bible found in the Oral Law (Mishna/Talmud) as well, and this is uniquely the possession of the Jews. Salvation, as even such a Jew as Paul of Tarsus admits, is from the Jews. True, good people of any stripe go to heaven in the Jewish worldview, but the prime real estate is limited to the Chosen Few.

My point is simple: the Pope didn’t say anything that other religions don’t also say. The only difference is that he said it in public. Bravo!

Now that the truth is out about Catholicism I invite the leaders of other faiths to come clean as well. Then people can choose which is the true faith among the contenders. Or, and this would be my hope, they would begin to see that all religion is invention and, while graciously allowing the Pope his private delusion, move beyond religion altogether. Then, who knows, maybe some of us will stumble upon God.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Slow Learner

I am a slow learner, especially when what I to learn concerns myself. Several years ago—closer to seven years ago— Sister Jose Hobday, a Native American Medicine Woman and Catholic nun, formally, if spontaneously, dubbed me a Holy Rascal. A few years later a Native American Medicine Man gave me the title Coyote Rebbe. What both of these wonderful and wise teachers were trying to tell me was that I am at heart a shaman and a trickster.

I have heard this before. Usually the frame is, “Your humor is so disarming, yet if I listen closely to what you said that made me laugh I realize that you just pulled the rug of faith out from under me.” You can get away with a lot if you make people laugh while you are doing it.

But there is more to being a Coyote Rebbe than being funny. You also have to know how to create ritual and sacred space and time, and help people enter into it. It is a rare skill, and one that too many people claim to master. Most ritual is tedious, self–conscious, and narcissistic: feeding the ego rather than slaying it. Good ritual is good theater. Great ritual is great fun.

Play lies at the heart of what I do; sacred play, holy play, but play nonetheless. This is what my Native American teachers were trying to tell me, and this is what finally sank in this week while I was teaching in Chartres, France.

It was a week of heady learning, that is learning that took place almost always in the head. I love intellectual talk, but I don’t take it all that seriously. What I do take seriously is chant, song, silence, storytelling, and imaginative readings of sacred text. These are the core of what I do, and doing them in Chartres was a powerful experience.

As the week unfolded I realized more and more strongly that my gift is not that of a scholar or deep thinker. My gift is that of a deep player. I can, almost unconsciously, create a safe and sacred space in which people can drop the maps they follow and spend a few minutes actually walking the landscape.

I share this with you not to pat myself on the back, but to help me remember what I learned this week. It has been a long time coming.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


In the past Judaism was the center of my being and the focus of my becoming. I had little interest in her traditions and customs, in the distinctly tribal aspects of the game, but I did have a great passion for the philosophy, mysticism, and magic of it. Today things have changed. It is the tribal aspects of Judaism that speak to me.

I practice kashrut (kosher) and Shabbat (the Sabbath), albeit in my own way, and I continue to tell Jewish stories and read Jewish texts, especially the Bible and the rabbis strange literary reinvention of it, but wrestling with the arcane notions of Jewish philosophy and mysticism, and making them fit what I know to be true, is tiresome to me. Philosophy and mysticism seem more and more to be obfuscations of reality, like covering a mirror with a painting of yourself rather than seeing yourself reflected as you really are.

I still get calls from people eager to talk about Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. And I can warm to the subject, but it is just a thing to talk about. Kabbalah is another linguistic pointer aiming at that to which you cannot point. You cannot point to God or Truth or Reality for you are God, Truth, and Reality. At best you can point to yourself but that is just silly. You are yourself, why point to it?

Yet I still enjoy talking and spinning lovely if not elegant systems of what Reality might be if Reality weren’t what it already is. It is a game I like playing the way I like playing chess, Go, and Scrabble. But, as with these games, its meaning is intrinsic. It matters only in the context of itself. This is not a criticism, just an observation.

More and more I return to Martin Buber’s dialogical Hebrew Humanism and Baruch Spinoza’s Third Way of Knowing (satori) as the heart of my Judaism. If I have intellectual Jewish roots, it is with these sages and their spiritual anarchy rather than Rabbi Akiva or Moses Maimonides and their halachic (legal) concerns.

It is ironic that just as I seem to be getting more and more invitations to talk the topics I am asked to address are no longer things that I really want to talk about. In fact I only want to talk about one thing: you— who you are, where you come from, where you are going, and why. And since you are God talking about you is talking about God. And since God is Reality talking about you and God is talking about Reality. What can be anything more compelling than that?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I am a Taoist

At heart I am a Taoist. I’ve known this since high school. Even as I tried to be Zen Buddhist I knew it was the Taoism behind it that really called to me. Of all the books I have written, and I have written too many, “The Wisdom of Solomon” is my favorite. It is my attempt to rewrite the Book of Ecclesiastes in Taoist terms as if King Solomon was a Hebrew Lao Tzu, which, I fantasize, he was.

There is madness to Taoism, especially the churchy and jade–eating mystical aspects of it, but the works of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are among the most powerful revelations humanity has ever known. If I could take only one book with me to a desert island it would be “Surviving Alone on a Desert Island for Dummies,” but if I could take a second book it would be the Tao te Ching. If I could take a third it would be the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu.

What I admire about Taoism is its simplicity. Where some religions are simplistic, this one is simply elegant. Life is not complicated but it is complex. Taoism speaks to the complexity without falling into the trap of making things complicated. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism love to complicate things: levels of consciousness, angels, demons, heavens, hells, saved, damned, chosen, rejected, miracles, etc. This is to say nothing of the rules. Religions love rules because it is the only way they can justify having rulers. You don’t need rabbis if you don’t follow rabbinic laws.

In the Gospel According to Matthew Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) yet Christianity in all its thousands of forms is anything but easy and light. At least Jesus had the good sense to challenge the heavy burden of the Judaism of his day. And when you remember that the word “yoke” comes from “yoga” it is even clearer what Jesus is saying. The Way is not complicated. It is doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

I am not calling for a new prophet to make Judaism easy and light. Jews seems to love things the way they are, hard and heavy. That way they have an excuse for not following it seriously. I am simply saying that true sages like Jesus and Lao Tzu just can’t take complicated systems of religion seriously. Neither can I.

I get up in the morning and I walk. Then I sit and breathe. Then I write. After a while I get tired and go out. I browse the bookstores, teach my classes, and do my best to minimize the damage I cause. Then I come home, yell with and sometimes at Lou Dobbs and Chris Matthews, read some more and go to sleep. Somewhere in there I talk with people I love, and eat, often more than I should. Nothing complicated about what I do, though it takes a great and divine complexity in order to do it.

Is what I do Jewish? Can it be labeled? Does it matter? Not to me.

Monday, July 02, 2007


A Jew living in the heart of the Bible Belt gets asked some pretty profound questions. I used to try and answer them fully, but I realized that no one really cared. The question was for the questioner to proselytize me. So I have learned to respond briefly and quickly, and to do so in a manner that leaves the questioner without a come back short of the obvious— “F You!”

Here are some of my favorite questions coupled with some of my favorite answers. I admit that sometimes I keep the answer to myself. It all depends upon how many tattoos or Confederate flags my interlocutor is sporting.

Q: Since you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, when he said he is the way, the truth, and the life, was he lying or just insane?
A: Why are these our only choices? I don’t think Jesus was lying or insane. I think he was speaking the truth, and that you have no idea what he really meant.

Q: Why did you Jews kill Jesus?
A: Any god that can be killed, should be killed.

Q: Why did you Jews kill Jesus?
A: Is Jesus dead? I thought he was the Son of God and alive in heaven waiting for the Rapture. When did you stop believing?

Q: Do you believe Mary was a virgin?
A: Of course. But that was before she married Joseph.

Q: Do you believe in Original Sin?
A: No, sin is imitative; there is nothing original about it.

Q: Do Jews have horns?
A: Yes, we call them shofars. They are made from antlers and we blow them to wake up to God’s call for justice and humility. That is what you meant, isn’t it?

Q: Don’t you worry about going to hell?
A: I do, actually, but try as I might I can’t bring myself to become a Muslim.

Q: Does it bother you that God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews?
A: No. I’m proud that God trusts us to figure things out for ourselves.

Q: Do your believe the body has a soul?
A: No, I believer the soul has a body.

Q: Are you a wiseass?
A: No, my ass is no wiser than yours.

Q: You know you Jews are going to burn in Hell forever, don’t you?
A: Sure, but we love warn climates.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

To Pray or to Read

I received and read with great anticipation the recent issue of The Reconstructionist, the house organ of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement with which I was affiliated for over twenty years. The issue’s theme, liturgy, is dear to me. I have written several prayerbooks and have had liturgical poems published in dozens of others.

The magazine was filled with interesting historical information, and I enjoyed reading it, but in the end I was disappointed. What I got out of it, and I am certain this is my fault and not what was intended, was this: liturgical language is so vague that we can read whatever we want into it, and hence need not go out of our way to change it.

I am all for metaphorical reading. I am all for twisting words so that they say things that the authors of those words not only didn’t mean to say, but could not even imagine saying. And yet I want something more. I don’t want to sit in synagogue and rewrite the liturgy in my head in order to feel at home. I want to read something that moves me without me having to move it first. I want something honest, clear, clean, and true.

On the other hand if Jesus (to take but one well known example) had taught us to pray thusly: “Our Father Who art a projection of our patriarchal mindset, hallowed by Thy Name. Your biases are my biases, Your prejudices are my prejudices, on earth as I pretend them to be in heaven…” I doubt people would have listened to him, despite (or rather because of) the honesty of his prayer.

I understand why rabbis want us to keep the old language. Saying what the ancients said maintains our connection to them. It is a tribal thing, and I am all for tribe. I am honored to belong to the Hebrew tribe, the Habiru, the boundary crossers. And I maintain my connection to my tribe through language, diet, myth, and legend. But when it comes to prayer I want something more. I want something that takes me out of my tribe, that allows me to stop the argument over meaning, and to see something new. I doubt words can do that. At least not for me.

I want a liturgy composed of few words, gentle rhythms, and deep silence. I want a liturgy that open me up to something greater than words. I want a liturgy that can be breathed rather than breathlessly raced through. God speaks to us in the small voice of stillness, and the chattering mind and its ever–gabbing tongue are the problem not the solution. A prayer book that runs into the hundreds of pages is a testament to a people seeking to drown out the Voice of God, not quiet the mind in order to hear it.

So I was disappointed. Perhaps I will have to publish a siddur of my own once again, and that is short, simple, and, I would hope, sweet. We’ll see.