Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gimme That Old Time Justice

Ameneh Bahrami was a 24 year-old electronics student in Iran when 19 year-old Majid Movahedi through acid in her face and burned out left eye. It seems that Majid was pissed that Ameneh just wasn’t that into him.

Majid was arrested and convicted, and, in accordance with Iranian law, it is up to Ameneh to determine his sentence. She was given two choices: she could ask for financial compensation or she could demand an eye for an eye. To her credit, Ameneh chose the latter. Not only will Majid be blinded in his left eye, but his right eye too will be burned out, as ten drops of sulfuric acid will be applied to both his eyes.

Now that is what I call justice. The Hebrew Bible also calls for an eye for an eye, and while the rabbis insisted that Jews interpret this financially, it is clear to me that God was an Iranian. It makes perfect sense.

Imagine someone commits armed robbery by breaking into a convenience store, shooting and killing the store clerk, and making off with $75 and a package of Slim Jims. If the punishment is 15 years in a cell with three meals a day, exercise privileges, and color TV, the guy is probably better off in jail than on the street. So for him it is win-win. But if the punishment is having to fork over $75, work in a Slim Jim plant until he has actually made a Slim Jim, and then get shot in the face, that’s justice.

Sure it may be cruel, and I am not in favor of cruelty. So, I’d let him slide on having to make the Slim Jim. But isn’t it more satisfying to know this asshole is dead than imagine him watching Law & Order in HD and laughing his head off?

There is something very satisfying about this. Think of the AIG people. Taking away their bonuses is nothing. Let’s strip them of everything they own just the way they did millions of Americans. And Bernie Madoff in jail? What a waste. Make him work off the billions he scammed by being a greeter at Wal-Mart.

The true genius here isn’t the punishment, however, but who gets to determine it. In Iran the victim rather than the judge determines the fate of the wicked. I think we should establish this rule in the United States as well. Let the victim set the sentence. Or, if the victim is dead, the victim’s next of kin. Or, to be even fairer, people could write into their will just who they designate as their avenger. I’d choose the meanest SOB on the planet. In fact I can see a whole new industry emerging for psychopaths. Ala the television show Dexter where a serial killer limits his kills to other serial killers, people with killer tendencies would be employed to kill criminals at the behest of their victims. This would keep these psychopaths employed, out of jail, and sated on evildoers rather than stalking the rest of us. Another win-win.

I know some of you think I am kidding, but I’m not. And to prove it I’m going to pretend to incorporate an imaginary company called True Avengers. Our mission is to determine and carry out the punishment of those convicted of harming you or those you love. For an annual retainer of $10,000 True Avengers will go after your enemies and exact vengeance on your behalf. All you have to do is tell us who they are, where they live or work, what they did, and provide proof of their conviction, and we will take care of the rest. True Avengers even hires incarcerated individuals so that if your guy goes to jail before we get him on the street, we will still get him behind bars.

When it comes to justice those Iranians may have something to teach us. I say we ought to learn it quick and apply it soon.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Intend This

Anyone who has watched What the Bleep Do We Know knows that water can be transformed by having people pray over it. Anyone who has read more deeply in this phenomenon knows that it is bogus. Nevertheless an entire industry has emerged to vibrationally transform your food and empty your wallet. It is called the intentional foods industry. Their intention is, of course, to make money. [In the interest of full disclosure, it is an intention I share.]

One California company, H2Om, sells bottled water infused with good blessings. According to their website the water is transformed by altering its vibrational frequencies. Here are some of the ways this is done:

1. Each bottle is imprinted with the Sanskrit word OM, plus words like “perfect health,” “gratitude,” and “love” written in various languages.
2. The color of each bottle corresponds to a specific charka, and
3. The water is exposed to frequencies generated by music and sounds of “crystal bowls, Acoustic Piano, Spoken Word, Ancient Healing Scales and more.” [I suspect the more refers to the mocking laughter of the workers who are making these sounds.]

You the consumer become part of the transformation process by being urged to “Think it while you drink it.”® That is to think good thoughts as you drink this good water.

To be honest, I want to believe. Not only do I want to believe that I can transform food and drink by thinking good thoughts and playing Bach, but I want to believe that millions of people are willing to pay premium prices in a recession to buy the food I have transformed,

Because I believe I have created an after-market intentional food transformation company called Eat, Love, Buy (www.eatlovebuy.bul). What I do is purchase products from the grocery store and subject them to good vibrations. I then resell said items at $10 over retail (plus 8.95 S&H) to you, the believing consumer. Here are just a few the products I have to offer:

1. Ex-Lax tablets with the word “Flow” printed on the box with a Sharpie.
2. Apples of various kinds with the word “Wisdom” printed on them with a Sharpie.
3. Corn chips with the word “Amaizeing” printed on the bag with a Sharpie.
4. Various brands of cigarettes with the word “Life” printed on each pack with a Sharpie.

Notice the extensive use of the Sharpie. This is essential to the process, for the letters S-H-A-R-P-I-E also spell Share Pi, Pie Rash, and Harpies which in turn can be reconfigured to spell Sharpie. This is clearly indicative of something and for most of my customers being indicative of anything is usually convincing enough.

Of course you may have no use for laxatives, apples, corn chips, or cigarettes, so I also offer a personal transformation service. If you purchase the products you already use and send them to me, I will write on them with a Sharpie and return them to you for the value-added price of $10 plus $8.95 shipping and handling.

I know what you are thinking.

You are thinking that all you really need to do is buy your own Sharpie and write your own words on your own already purchased products. And you can do this. Just send me $10 plus $8.95 shipping and handling for having given you the idea.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Who Are You Really?

Who are you really? Not the self you imagine yourself to be when you look in a mirror. Not the self your parents, bosses, co-workers, teachers, spouses, partners, children, and friends say you are; but your true self. The self we are when no one is looking, even yourself. Who is that?

You have never ever seen yourself. You can’t see yourself because the self you are looking at isn’t the self that’s looking, and it is the self that’s looking that is the real self. You can no more see yourself then you can smell your own nose or hear your own ears.

So, who are you really? You have no idea. Which is a good thing, since all ideas about who you are turn out to be just whom you aren’t.

A lot of people try to find the true self by looking inward. OK, but all you will find there is what you found when you looked outward—more ideas. You can’t look inward to find yourself because the self that is looking inward is the self that you are, and it cannot see itself looking inward or outward because it is itself.

Dizzy yet?

Think of the classic figure/ground puzzle; that simple black and white drawing that sometimes looks like a vase and other times looks like the profiles of two people facing one another. When you see the vase, you don’t see the people. When you see the people, you don’t see the vase. But what is the figure when you aren’t looking at it at all? Is it a vase? Or is it two people facing one another?

Some people will insist it is both, but this makes no sense to me. It is never both. It is always one thing or the other; the vase cancels out the people and the people cancel out the vase. And neither is real unless you are looking at it.

I think the figure itself is nothing you and I can grasp. And it will remain nothing until you look at it and make it something rather than something else.

What is true of the figure is true of you as well. When you look you see one self or another. But the one who is looking is no self at all. Your true self is no self. Your true self is formless, nameless, birthless, and deathless. It just is and has always been and will always be. It’s you, but you aren’t really it. Why? Because as soon as you talk about it or look at it, the you who is talking and looking is not the object talked about or looked at.

If you want to know who you really are, ask yourself this: Who is asking “Who am I?” If you have an answer you have missed the point. Ask again and again and again until you simply realize the vast nothing that is the field in which all things happen. That’s you. Or at least it was until I said it was.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ladies in Waiting

I can’t imagine joining a religious organization that treated me as a second-class citizen, and yet tens of millions of women do just that. A new report by the Pew Research Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that women are far more religious and religiously active then men, and yet three of the four largest Christian churches in the United States, the Catholics, Southern Baptists, and Mormons, prohibit women from becoming clergy. So paranoid is the Southern Baptist Convention that last September they removed all copies of Gospel Today magazine from the racks of their LifeWay bookstores because the magazine featured a cover story on women clergy.

Why do women stick with these religions? I can only think of two reasons. Either they really don’t care about gender equality in the clergy, or they accept on faith that this is the way God intends things to be. And maybe it is.

According to the Catholic and Southern Baptist hierarchies, had Jesus wanted women to be clergy he would have had at least one woman among his twelve apostles. I know this will startle some of you, but I think they are right.

Jesus broke so many cultural taboos that one is hard pressed to argue that the traditions he adhered to were chosen lightly. If Jesus had wanted to have women apostles he would have had them. Yes, I know about Mary Magdalena, and I am more than willing to accept her as a close confidant of Jesus, but he doesn’t count her among the Twelve. So I think these churches are correct to outlaw women clergy and thereby remain faithful to the traditions of Jesus. I only wish they would be more scrupulous about it.

For example, all of the Apostles were Jews. Jesus had no Christian Apostles, so neither should the church have Christian clergy. This could open a whole new career path for Jewish men, and I am all for it.

Similarly, Jesus preferred fishermen for apostles, and so the church should require that clergy learn to fish. All of Jesus’ apostles ate raw corn, so this too ought to be a requirement for clerical positions. To the man, the Twelve were incapable of staying awake with Jesus or standing by his side when he was arrested, beaten, and crucified, so cowardliness ought to be another criteria for clergy. All apostles wore sandals, so shoe wearers have no place at the altars of the church. And they wore robes, so pant-wearing men are also out. None of the Twelve brushed their teeth, took baths on a daily basis, used toilet paper (or toilets for that matter), or vaccinated themselves against any communicable diseases. Not one apostle read the New Testament or observed Christmas or Easter, so these practices should be off limits to clergy as well.

I could go on, but I suspect the point is made. If we are going to appoint clergy based on the choices Jesus made in choosing his apostles we must restrict ourselves to Jewish fishermen with bad breath and itchy anuses. Maybe if the churches were more traditional in this way more men would get involved. I’m sure fewer women would.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa recently and reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to condoms. He has been getting a lot of flack for this, but I have no problem with his position. True, according to the UN, there are approximately 22 million people in sub-Saharan African infected with HIV, and 75% of all AIDS related deaths in 2007 happened in sub-Saharan Africa, and condom use is one of the few proven ways to avoid HIV, but this isn’t the Pope’s fault. He didn’t make up the idea that God hates condoms. It’s in the Bible, “Thou shalt not cover thy member in latex, nor sheathe thy member in plastic, nor shalt thou do anything to prohibit thy member from sending sperm into egg and thus depriving the Lord thy God with more members.”

The Pope is very clear, “You can’t resolve it [AIDS] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.” I know lots of people take issue with this, but I think the Pope is correct.

Think about this for a moment, just distributing condoms does nothing. People have to put them on human penises prior to said penises entering orifices in other human bodies. So the Pope’s assertion that distribution without use is meaningless is true. But what about the Pope’s claim that distribution actually increases AIDS? Here, too, I think he is correct.

For example, if you hand out condoms to people who don’t know how to use them they will find other uses for them. For example, they will fill them with water and throw them at people. The water will soak those people’s clothes making their bodies all the more alluring which will result in more unprotected sex. Or they will pump them full of air and use them as bats. Fighting with these latex bats will lead to close physical contact that will lead to more sex. Or they will cut holes in the top and sides and wear them as clothes revealing even more of their bodies, which will lead to more sex.

When the Pope urges abstinence he is sharing a method that works for him and all of his co-workers. Or at least most of them. And if the people of sub-Saharan Africa, the Church’s fastest growing market, reject condom use, I wish them luck.

If it were up to me I’d mandate a new form of circumcision that replaced all foreskins with permanent condoms. These would function like those toilet cover machines in public restrooms that automatically drape the toilet seat in a fresh cover after each flush. The permanent condom machine would slip a fresh condom over the penis after each use of said penis for sex or urination. Couples wishing to have children could apply for the temporary removal of said condom machine after successfully completely courses in sex-ed, hygiene, and marriage and parenting skills. Oh, to be king. Or even pope.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Shhhh. It’s quiet. Too quiet. If this were an action adventure script now would be the time the bad guys would attack. But this isn’t a movie, it’s a moment of legalized silence in Texas public schools.

This week a federal appeals court upheld a 2003 Texas law mandating a moment of silence in its public schools. Students can pray, meditate, think (OK, who am I kidding?), or use the time any way they wish that doesn’t violate the silence.

To the surprise of many, I love this law. Mandating prayer is unconstitutional and I am opposed to it, but a moment of silence is different. Silence is a crucial aspect of life that is becoming more and more rare. To begin a school day with silence can begin a life-long appreciation of the art of being still, inside and out. Unfortunately just mandating a moment of silence won’t bring this about. But it might just entice some kids to explore this more deeply later in life.

Here is what I would like to see happen. 1. Texas upholds its moment of silence. 2. Student clubs are founded to learn how to most effectively use this moment of silence. 3. The students invite secular meditation teachers to speak to their club about the art of meditation. I stress secular to avoid church/state issues, but it may be possible to invite more spiritually based meditation teachers to the club. If it is, I would like to see that happen as well. 4. Students would learn the art of being still, explore what Dr. Herbert Benson calls the Relaxation Response and how to use it throughout the day to enhance their well-being and effectiveness. 5. These students would grow their appreciation of silence into a contemplative practice that would stay with them throughout their lives.

Will this happen? I doubt it. I imagine that the people who voted for silence weren’t particularly interested in silence. They were trying to create a place for prayer, most likely Christian prayer of the Southern Baptist variety, and figured that most kids would use the silence to pray. I think they are correct, and here are some of the prayers likely to be said at the beginning of the school day:

“Dear God, Please don’t let me fail my math test today. If You help me to pass I promise next time I will study.”

“Dear Jesus, Please don’t let anyone notice I’m wearing two different socks.”

“Dear Lord, please don’t let that bully beat me up again today.”

“Dear God, please don’t let my girlfriend be pregnant.”

“Dear God, it would be really great if You could send Jesus back to us before fourth period. There is no way I’m going to pass that math test. If You already planned to help me pass because of my earlier prayer, however, please disregard this current prayer. You can still send Jesus back to us today if You wish, though it would be great if You could give me a heads-up so I can have a few days to get ready. Amen.”


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When Religion is Obscene

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is famous for his 1964 “definition” of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” What is true of obscenity in the movies (Potter’s challenge) is also true in religion. Case in point: the ruling of the Catholic Church in Brazil, backed by the Vatican, to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a 9-year-old girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather and found to be pregnant with twins.

I know it when I see it: obscenity is forcing a 9-year-old to give birth; obscenity is ex-communicating (and hence in their minds condemning to Hell for all eternity) her mother and her doctors; obscenity is a religion of love made heartless by its own law.

Brazil is a strongly Catholic country, but the law allows for abortion in the case of rape, and the ruling of the Church raised the ire of many Brazilians including President Luiz Inaccio Lula da Siva. It raises mine as well, and I think it should raise the ire and outrage of any thoughtful, compassionate human being regardless of his or her theology. I know of course that it won’t, for so many of us have become legalists when it comes to abortion.

I find it painfully, sorrowfully, ironic that so many Christians whose God is a God of love, compassion, and forgiveness, and whose faith supposedly frees them from the letter of the law are so chained to the Church “law” prohibiting abortion that they cannot see the need for flexibility. Indeed, a Church that did not deny Communion to Adolf Hitler but will deny it to a mother whose concern for the welfare of her daughter (assuming of course she is not complicit in her daughter’s rape) trumps her loyalty to her church is a Church without a heart or a soul.

And make no mistake, it is loyalty to the church rather than fealty to God that is the issue here. The very same God that gave us the Vatican gave us rabbinic Judaism as well, and in the latter case abortion is allowed in certain circumstances. So to say we are violating God’s law when allowing for abortion in certain cases is pure arrogance, imposing a single theological stance on the world that does not want it or need it.

Those who worry about the souls of those unborn twins are denying the compassion of God. Can anyone imagine a loving God damning these unborn souls while forgiving their rapist father who most likely remains a “good Catholic”? Can anyone imagine a loving God condemning a loving mother for an act of love toward her daughter? Yes, they can! The so-called God of love that millions claim to worship is, in their hands, a screen behind which to proselytize heartlessness, injustice, and cruelty.

I am not speaking about abortion in general. I am talking about the obscenity of this case. There is room for honest and heartfelt debate on the larger issue of abortion, but there is no excuse for the heartless attack on the mother and doctor of this nine-year-old girl.

I applaud the people of Brazil who stand up to the madness of a Church blinded to love. I wish there were more people with that kind of moxie willing to take on the obscenity of religious excess.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lama Lo

I believe, for no reason whatsoever, that I am the 24th incarnation of the Tibetan monk, Lama Lo. Since I have no proof of this, and therefor cannot make any money writing books or giving teachings as Lama Lo, I have written His Holiness the Dalai Lama asking that he recognize me as Lama Lo.

Lama Lo, also known as the Doatyng Lama was the founder of Hodayaknothat, a school within the Dalai Lama’s school of Nyingma Buddhism. I have heard nothing from His Holiness regarding my request for recognition. I am sure he is busy, but I am getting older and have seen many people my age pass away in the past few years, so I am afraid I am running out of time to cash in on my incarnation. So I have decided to improve my chances for recognition by appealing to the Communist Chinese for authorization.

The Chinese have sought to take control of the reincarnation of lamas to insure that future Living Buddhas are pro-Communist and will teach a modified version of the Four Noble Truths: Suffering, The Cause of Suffering, The Ending of Suffering, and the Eightfold Path to the Ending of Suffering by Pirating DVDs and Selling Substandard Products to Americans.

Traditionally toddlers competing for reincarnated lama status are shown a bunch of items that belonged to the lama in a previous life. Many of these items were lost on airline flights and were only returned to the lama by the airline after the lama has died. So the toddler is asked to identify lots of luggage.

If the toddler recognizes the deceased lama’s luggage or other items it is assumed that he is the reincarnation of that lama. The Chinese add an item to the mix to insure they get the lama they want. In addition to picking out the deceased lama’s suitcase, the toddler must also pick a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book hidden inside a plush stuffed Chinese dragon. If the toddler takes the dragon as well as the suitcase he is the lama the Chinese are looking for. The chosen lama is allowed to keep the luggage but not the dragon for fear that the toddler will choke on the dragon’s eyes or be poisoned by the lead in the paint used to decorate the dragon’s body.

I have assured the Chinese that I will choose the dragon, though I did admit that I have trouble recognizing the luggage I have bought in this life let alone a previous one. In addition I have explained to them that I am Jewish in this incarnation and that Jewish people have a fetish for Chinese food and Mahjong so they can rest assured that I will lead my followers to appreciate Chinese culture despite the brutality perpetrated on the Tibetans by the Chinese.

The Chinese government, too, has seen fit to ignore my plea for recognition as Lama Lo. A waitress at a local Tibetan restaurant said she would recognize me, but only in exchange for endorsing her restaurant as “Best in the Bardo.”

This, of course, gave me a great idea: a restaurant guide for the afterlife. I plan to sell it on itunes. Yes, there’s an app for that! Lama lo?*

*Lama lo is Hebrew for “why not,” but the coincidence is purely karmic.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jewish Nones

The new American Religious Identity Survey (see my post “Becoming a None,” March 8, 2009) reports that the number of Americans identifying as Jews has fallen from a mere 1.8% to a miniscule 1.2%. We are joining the ranks of the Nones, the Spiritual But Not Religious who find little value in organized Jewish religious life.

Those Jewish leaders concerned that the drop in numbers will translate into a drop in political influence will be quick to challenge the survey, arguing (correctly in my view) that many Jews continue to identify as Jews while not identifying with the religion of Judaism (so don’t count the Israel lobby out just yet). But this is beside the point of the survey.

As a rabbi myself these numbers are hardly comforting. Playing with the numbers, rounding up the high and rounding down the low, we could say that almost half of American Jews no longer see themselves as religiously Jewish. That is huge. And there is only one group to blame—us rabbis.

Of course you could blame God, arguing that if God had made the religion more attractive more people would identify with it, but this is a dodge. Most Jews don’t believe in the God of the their religion—the God that chose the Jews, dictated the Torah, restricted our diet, and threatened us with death for picking up sticks on a Saturday— which is why they feel comfortable abandoning that religion even as they stay members of the tribe for familial and cultural reasons.

Nope, it is rabbis who are to blame. Since the invention of rabbis by rabbis over two thousand years ago, rabbis have quietly reshaped Judaism in their own image, claiming that this is really what God intended all along. Change, not continuity, is at the heart of the rabbinic experiment, but over the past few decades religious change has been anything but progressive.

Sure we have opened our ranks to women and homosexuals, but this is a social change not a theological one. We still rise to praise the God Most Of Us Don’t Believe In. We still read responsively words that, when read in English, make no sense to most of us. We still read Torah and try to excuse the brutality it sanctions in the name of an Iron Age God of War. We still ask our congregants to engage in a moment of silence that lasts no longer than the time it takes for us to take a breath and say, “Now please turn to page…” We still promote a vicarious religiosity that seeks to find meaning in history rather than in the eternal present.

What we need is a 21st century Mordecai Kaplan. Someone who has the courage to reinvent Judaism for our time. We need a new theology, a new liturgy, a new understanding of Torah, a new reason for kashrut, Shabbat, and Shemini Atzeret. Calling on Jews to return to tradition is like asking us to abandon our cars for horse drawn carriages. It works for the Amish but not for the Jewish. We love our zippers and need a religion that speaks to people who are post-tribal, post-national, post-personal-God, and who have a hard time celebrating the murder of thousands of first-born Egyptians at Passover. Even my beloved Jewish Renewal movement has failed to stem the rising numbers of Jewish Nones.

The ARIS should be a call to rabbis to radically challenge the status quo we are paid to uphold. Few will. Even those of us who entered the rabbinate promising progressive change have been co=opted by a system that insists rearview mirrors are in fact windows open on the future. Rather we will see in the survey a call to return to tradition, a call to read more Hebrew so people won’t know they are spouting things they don’t believe, and a further emphasis on tikkun olam (world repair) rather than the far more painful work of tikkun hanefesh (soul repair) for which the growing number of Jewish nones so desperately hunger.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Becoming a None

Freedom of religion is fast becoming synonymous with religiously free. Findings from the 2008 American Religious Identity Survey reveal that the numbers of Americans who have opted out of any formal religious affiliation has almost doubled since 1990. Then the number of people marking “None” when asked about religious affiliation was 8%, today it is 15%.

This is a huge shift in the American religious landscape. Where are these newly minted Nones coming from? The data is suggestive: those Americans identifying as one kind of Christian or another has dropped 11%. Even Baptists have lost 4% of their membership. And Americans who no longer believe in a personal God now totals almost 1/3 of the population.

Is this something worth cheering about? It depends. If those self-proclaimed Nones are making their choice based on a serious study of religion and an equally serious quest for spiritual maturity and wisdom, then, yes, I am applauding. If, on the other hand, the Nones are simply bored with and untouched by all things religious and spiritual, then I am saddened. The survey interpreters suggest the latter is true. Religion is simply becoming more and more irrelevant to more and more Americans.

Almost 1/3 of Americans are simply numb to the soul. This is not only saddening, it is frightening. For me the soul is that aspect of human consciousness that realizes the interdependence of all life. It is that aspect of human consciousness that lifts the “I” into the “We” and gives rise to deep compassion for all life. In Judaism this is called Chayya or Life consciousness, what we might now call Cosmic Consciousness: the awareness that we are all one with and in the One. It is from the perspective of Chayya consciousness that we have the opportunity to slip into Yechida consciousness, that level of pure awareness where the realization that “we are one” shifts to reveal that the One is us.

I don’t mean to imply that 2/3 of Americans are soul-conscious, however. Far from it. Most of what passes for religion in America is simply a sacred tribalism worshipping a god of its own making who rewards those who sacrifice blood and treasure to him and his chosen leaders. And as long as this is so, the numbers of Nones will grow, as will the numbing of the soul that causes this.

Religion isn’t the enemy, but it isn’t the solution either. Reducing God to an “ism,” and insisting that those who reject that “ism” are damned isn’t going to resuscitate the soul. Religion in this form has no interest in or use for spirituality, the cultivation of universal justice, compassion, peace, courage, wisdom, and humility. The goal of religion as currently defined is simply to grow the ranks of its members, and the only tools they have are guilt, fear of damnation, and triumphalism over the damnation of those who choose a faith other than the that of the self-righteous and self-proclaimed triumphalists. Of course this is a generalization, and the varieties of religions make any such generalizations suspect. But numbers matter or we wouldn’t both with surveys that count people’s membership in this or that religion.

I will leave the religions to fend for themselves. It is the Nones that appeal to me. These people have freed themselves from religion but not necessarily for spirituality. They need to be offered a way to uncover the soul that honors their individuality, their freedom, and that doesn’t devolve into a mere feeding of the ego.

This may require a new kind of “affiliation” that offers deep community and disciplined spiritual training when needed, and individual autonomy and aloneness when that is needed.

I am not sure how this would work, but I am interested in hearing from you if you have any ideas. Here are some questions you might considered addressing the Comments section of Toto: If you are a None why are you a None? What are you looking for as a None? What would your life look like if you found it? How much community do you want and need?

PS: Since writing this post I have been introduced to www.sbnr.org. This is a website and “movement” for those 50 million Americans who are “spiritual but not religious.” It is just getting of the ground and I am assisting a bit. Check it out, and let us know how such an effort can be of help to you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Follower of Moses

Newsweek Magazine (Belief Watch March 16, 2009) reports on a growing trend among some Christians to drop the label Christian in favor of “A follower of Jesus.” “Christian” it seems is too loaded with right-wing rhetoric, homophobia, and Republican party politics to speak to millions of people who take comfort in the teachings of Jesus and, perhaps, find salvation through his death and resurrection.

I have no god in this hunt (get it, “god” is “dog” spelled backwards; no god in this hunt, no dog in… oh, forget it) so I have no problem with this change of labels. I was thinking, however, that it might apply to my situation as well. Maybe I should stop calling myself a Jew and start referring to myself as a follower of Moses.

Well. Maybe not Moses, but Hillel. Moses is too violent for my taste. Look at his response to the call for democratic reform by Korach and 250 of the leaders of the Israelites. Moses has God sanction first a plague that kills thousands of his opponents, and then sanction the murder of thousands more. Talk about collective punishment. And then, of course, there is the little matter of the genocide against the Hittites, Amorites, Jebusites, Termites, Websites, and any "ites" Moses convinces the Lord are bad for business. Moses is too violent, so I don’t want to be a follower of Moses.

Hillel is more to my liking. Maybe I should call myself a follower of Hillel. What I like about Hillel is that, thousands of years before it was de rigor, he managed to reduce the entire Torah to a tweet: “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.” I mean you could learn that Torah in seconds, and thus free up all those hours that your Jewish friends spend in Hebrew school.

I suspect, however, that Hillel may have a been a bit disingenuous with his Twitter Torah. After all given his definition how many of us would circumcise our sons?

Anyway, given the penchant of the the Jewish people for argument and diverse opinions, not all Jews would choose to be followers of Hillel. Some Jews might be followers of Shammai, Hillel’s personal Lex Luthor. Others would prefer to follow Moses or Aaron or even Korach.Now that I think of it I might might even disagree with myself and drop my FOH status for the more challenging FOEBA, follower of Elisha ben Abuyah, the great doubter of the Talmud whom the rabbis dubbed Acher, the Other.

But why choose only one person to follower? Religion could be like Twitter where you can follow as many people as you like. In fact I think we should create Twitter accounts for all the great sages of humanity. People could “follow” Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Buddha, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Krishna, Patanjali, the list is endless. Throughout the day these people would tweet from their published works. Since they wrote the books copyright wouldn’t be a problem. (Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, so don’t trust me on this.) All we would need is a group of dedicated volunteers to collect and post the teachings daily.

Anyway, I like the idea of naming the hero you follow. Let me know whom you would follow by posting them in the comments section of Toto. I think we could all learn something from that.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Real War on Christianity

There is always lots of talk in my neighborhood about the so-called War on Christianity that the liberal left wages in the United States. I understand why some people feel this way, but there is little evidence that Christianity or Christians are in any real danger in the US. The fate of Christians in Iraq, however, is another matter.

According to the U.S. State Department, Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities have experienced intense persecution by Iraqi Moslems since 2003. Religious leaders have been murdered, the faithful have been forced to abandon their homes and businesses, and churches have been bombed or otherwise destroyed. One half of Iraq’s Christian population (estimated to have been around 740,000 prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq) has fled the country in the past five years. According to USA TODAY (“An Exodus from Iraq,” June 30, 2008), Iraqi Christians are being told to “convert, leave, or die.”

Of course the Iraqi government isn’t sponsoring this evil, but they are doing little to stop it. And we are propping up the government.

Article 2 of the Iraqi Constitution supposedly protects religious freedom in the country, but the text also says “No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.” Just what it is that contradicts the established provisions of Islam is not spelled out, so nonMoslems and Moslems belonging to sects the government doesn’t like are all at risk. So much risk, that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom put Iraq on its watch list.

This is outrageous! Thousands of Americans have died and many more continue to die to establish a free Iraq, and yet America itself admits that the country it expects to be a beacon of democracy is a danger to its own citizens over freedom of religion. According to our government’s own statistics, religious minorities in Iraq were safer under Saddam than under today’s U.S. backed regime.

Why are Christians in America not screaming about this? Why aren’t they demanding their government protect Christians (at least Christians) in a country under our occupation? Interfaith organizations in the United States should be marching on Washington demanding the safety of religious minorities in Iraq. But we aren’t. And we won’t. Why? Because deep down we know there is no point.

We didn’t and don’t give a damn about Iraq or Iraqis or freedom or anything other than our ability to suck the country dry of its oil. We are a Christian nation only when saying so gets those who say it enough votes to get us to act as a nation of barbarians. Being a Christian in America has everything to do with culture wars and nothing to do with actual wars, even wars against Christians.

Obama can’t change this. Only we can change this, and we won’t. At least not as long as the price of gas matters more than the integrity of our souls.

God bless America.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dick Heads

I called my dad the other day trying to track down a relic of my past that I thought might have some value to me in the near future—my foreskin. This bit of penis, removed under penalty of law on my eighth day of life, meant nothing to me for the past 57 years, but after reading an article in the current issue of Search magazine I changed my mind.

The article, written by Peter Manseau, opened with an overview of some of the more famous Christians who have claimed to be in possession of Jesus’ foreskin. I admit that despite my teaching a class on the Historical Jesus at Middle Tennessee State University, it never occurred to me to concern myself with the Historical Foreskin. But, once you think about it, the desire to possess the foreskin of God is obvious.

The first to claim possession of what is officially called the Divine Prepuce was the Emperor Charlemagne sometime around the year 800. When I read this I didn’t know what a prepuce was. It turns out that Charlemagne was French and that prepuce is French for foreskin. I looked it up. It’s too bad that God didn’t speak French in Bible times. If he had told Abraham to cut off his prepuce and the prepuces of his son and servants, the Hebrew speaking Abraham would have had no idea what a prepuce was, and, after nodding politely to God, would have gone about his business, leaving foreskins where they belong.

Anyway, not to be outdone by the French, Saint Birgitta of Sweden claimed that she was given the Divine Prepuce by the Virgin Mary. One can only assume that the Holy Foreskin didn’t rise to heaven with the rest of Jesus. Of course this leaves me wondering why Mary kept the foreskin of her Son while my mother didn’t keep mine. But then my mother didn’t bronze my baby shoes either, so I guess she didn’t love me all that much.

As for how it is that both Charlemagne and Birgitta both managed to secure the prepuce of God, I am at a loss. Some might argue that Jesus had two penises, one for meat and one for milk, in keeping with the Jewish law against mixing the two. Others might claim that God’s penis would probably be miraculous (true, almost every man says this, but this is God after all), and could be in two places at once. I find this explanation more plausible since many men, being made in the image and likeness of God, fantasize about their penises being in two places at once as well. So maybe Charlemagne and Birgitta were both right to claim possession of the Divine Prepuce.

Over the centuries the number of claims to possessing the Divine Prepuce increased to the point where John Calvin, no fan of circumcised penises and those who had them, marveled at how very large God’s penis must be to have had a foreskin that so many throughout Christendom could possess at the same time.

All this got me to thinking: What would you do with the Divine Prepuce if you had it? eBay comes to mind certainly. In Italy Saint Catherine fantasized about wearing the Divine Prepuce as an engagement ring. I suppose after remembering her vow of celibacy she decided not to risk it.

Why does all this matter? Mr. Manseau uses the history of God’s foreskin as a lengthy introduction to his real topic the current British craze of having the foreskins of American babies processed to produce a Botox-like liquid that is injected into the face to remove wrinkles. Given the topic, Mr. Manseau’s title for his essay, What is Skin For? is incredibly bland. I would have called it British Dick Heads or some such thing.

Anyway, the stuff sells for $1000 per bottle, and one bottle is only enough for one cheek’s worth of wrinkles. Now you see why I called my dad. A thousand dollars for my foreskin! Why I couldn’t get that for the whole penis here in the States.

Bottom line, however, my dad had no idea where my not-so-divine prepuce is. What a pity.

Well, it may be too late for me, but if you know anyone who is soon to sever the foreskin of a penis make sure to gain possession of it so that you can sell it to the Brits. Or, if that doesn't work, pretend it is the Divine Prepuce and find a rich French guy to sell it to. (Swedish saints are harder to come by.)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Resist Evil, Part Two

Is there any hope that Jews, Christians, and Muslims will free themselves from the insanity and hatred written into the heart and mouth of God in time to save civilization from centuries of religiously fueled conflict? I doubt it. I am persuaded by Samuel P. Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations.” Huntington argues that with the end of communism and the triumph of capitalism (though not democracy) the world is shifting from a clash of ideologies to a clash of cultures and religions. The liberal hope of a future where peace loving and freethinking individuals are the majority is vain. The history of humankind, ancient and recent, suggests that given the choice between free thought and group think, we most often choose the latter. Humanity isn’t evolving toward global peace, but devolving into tribal war.

This is not a new phenomenon. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), the great fifteenth century Muslim jurist and philosopher wrote: “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and [the obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force... The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense... Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.” (Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History (abridged), trans. Franz Rosenthal, Princeton: Princeton University, 1967, p. 183).

I think Ibn Khaldun is right about Islam and wrong about the other religions, at least the Abrahamic ones. All three Abrahamic faiths worship a god of war, and all three bear responsibility for the evil that threatens to engulf our planet. If this kind of hatred is to end the god who foments it must die. One way to do this is to admit the human origins of sacred texts.

I am not the first to say this (Spinoza predates me by centuries, and even some of the ancient rabbis hinted at it when they said Torah speaks in human language), nor am I alone in the rabbinate for saying it. But even those of us who do admit the human origin of the Torah (New Testament, Qur'an, etc.) tend to gloss over the madness in the books. Teaching these texts as political documents masquerading as sacred text provides us with the opportunity to identify the humanness of these texts and free ourselves and those we teach from the propaganda and hate contained in them. Teaching Torah et al as human creations allows us to examine these texts for wisdom without obligating ourselves to swallow and follow their teachings whole.

It was to further this effort to teach sacred text in humanistic terms that I wrote An Open Letter to Peoples of Faith. I wrote this several years ago hoping to start a campaign and get people to take it into their churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. I am fairly inept at campaigns, but the text of the Letter still speaks to the point I am making and to one way to end the madness that is God-sanctioned evil. So I am including it here in hopes that one of you might make wise use of it in service to truth, freedom, and peace:

WE BELIEVE God transcends theology; that no idea about God can adequately encompass the reality of God. WE BELIEVE that revelation is not given to a people, but through a people to the world. WE BELIEVE that the truth in each scripture is common to all scriptures, calling us toward justice, compassion, humility, dignity, respect, love for both person and planet, and the transcending of self through service to others.

WE RECOGNIZE that filtering divine revelation through human hands allows fear, greed, anger, ignorance, and violence to masquerade as truth. WE RECOGNIZE that most of the evil plaguing our world is rooted in this masquerade, and the violent image of god that comes from it.

WE COMMIT ourselves to ending this evil by rejecting religious violence and the false god who sanctions it. WE COMMIT ourselves to separating timeless truth from time bound bias in our respective scriptures; affirming the former and moving beyond the later. WE COMMIT ourselves to teaching the God of justice, compassion, love, and respect Who speaks to us through all scriptures, and Who calls us to free ourselves from fear, greed, anger, ignorance, and violence.

WE CALL upon peoples of every faith to liberate the wisdom of God from the xenophobia of tribe and ego, and to free religion from fear and violence by distinguishing the holy from the merely sacred. WE CALL upon peoples of every faith to share their wisdom with the world, to fearlessly speak out when their faith is kidnapped by evil, and to remind us all that there is no god but God, and that justice and compassion are the way of God for all time and for all people.

If we are to turn back from the brink of global apocalypse we must resist the call to endless war; we must resist the lure of ideologies and revelations that perpetrate evil in the name of God and country; we must resist those gods, religions, cultures, and individuals who claim hate is better than hope, and fear is better than love, and cruelty is better than justice, and terror is better than talk; we must resist the claims that evil done in the name of God is any less evil; and we must resist those who wish to engulf the entire world in a thermonuclear bonfire of theological vanities. Do you have the will to resist? The fate of humanity rests on your answer.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Resist Evil, Part One

Over the past few weeks I facilitated a conversation on Islam hosted by Congregation Micah of Nashville, Tennessee. With the help of two leading members of the Nashville Muslim community, we sought to grasp the central tenants of the faith, its commitment to justice and peace, its love of God and submission to God’s Will, and to wrestle with the harsh teachings of Qur’an regarding nonbelievers in general and Jews in particular. The question that haunted me was this: Why does God/Allah teach hate?

My answer is simple enough: God doesn’t teach hate because God didn’t dictate the Qur’an or any other book. I believe people write books, and people preach hate, and hate-filled people know that putting their own hate into the mouth of God is a powerful way of promoting their own agenda. This is what the authors of Torah did when trying to convince the Israelites to wage genocide against the peoples of Canaan. This is what Matthew, Luke, John, and Paul did when they taught the vileness of the Jew in an attempt to rally Gentiles to their new religion of the risen Christ. This is what Muhammad did when seeking to ally his forces against his enemies, including the Jews of Medina. It is my opinion that unless and until we root out human evil masquerading as divine will we cannot free ourselves from committing atrocities in the name of God.

Here are some of the teachings of the Qur’an regarding Jews:

The Jews wronged themselves (16:118) by losing faith (7:168) and breaking their covenant with God (5:13). The Jews kill their prophets (4:155; 2:91) and murdered Jesus (3:55; 4:157). The Jews ridiculed Muhammad (2:104; 4:46), and distort the truth (3:71; 4:46). Jews are envious (2:109), and heartless (2:74). They confound the truth (2:42), and deliberately pervert scripture (2:75). They are liars (2:78), and idol worshippers (2:53). Jews are deceived by their own lies (3:24), and try to lure Muslims away from Islam (3:99). Jews are blind and deaf to the truth (5:71), and what they have not forgotten they have perverted. Jews mislead the people (3:69), and cheat Gentiles without remorse (3:75). Muslims are warned against befriending Jews (5:51), and are warned never to forget that the Jews hate them (5:82). The Jews are the devil's minions (4:60) cursed by Allah, and they will be destroyed (4:47), and if they do not accept the true faith of Islam they will be turned into apes (2:65; 7:166) or pigs (5:60), and they will burn in hellfire (4:55, 5:29, 98:6, and 58:14-19).

As painful to Jews as these teachings may be, they are not new. If the Qur’an is God’s word, he is repeating himself. Listen to what the New Testament has to say about Jews:

Jews are “a brood of vipers” and “evil” (Matthew 12:34); they willingly take upon themselves and their children the blood of the murdered Christ (Matthew 27:25); Jews are Satan’s children, murderers and liars by nature (John 8:44-47), and they are “not of God” at all (John 8:47). Jews are stubborn, heartless and deaf to the truth, resisting the Holy Spirit from their very beginnings; and Jews persecute all prophets who foretold the coming of Christ who they have betrayed and murdered (Acts 7:51-53). Jews who reject Christ are members of Satan’s synagogue (Revelation 3:9). And Saint Paul in 1 Thessalonians (2:15-16) writes that Jews killed Jesus and previous prophets, persecute Christians in order to prevent them from bringing salvation to the Gentiles, and in this way have earned the wrath of God that is about to be heaped upon them.

Are these vile teachings of God found in the New Testament and the Qur’an simply artifacts of history meriting no concern? Or do they poison the very religions they birth? Listen to the teachings of Martin Luther, no less a man of God than Muhammad. Like Muhammad before him, Martin Luther imagined that his religious reformation would earn him the allegiance of the Jews, and, again like Muhammad, when that allegiance was not forthcoming, he turned on the Jews with a vengeance.

In his book On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) Luther writes that Jews who remain loyal to Judaism are “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth,” (On the Jews and Their Lies, 154, 167, 229, cited in Michael, Robert, Holy Hatred: Christianity, Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 111). The Jews are “full of the devil’s feces… in which they wallow like swine,” (ibid. p. 113). The synagogue he tells us is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut,” and he urges the burning of synagogues and Jewish schools, the destruction of Jewish prayer books, the silencing of rabbis, the razing of Jewish homes, and the confiscation of Jewish property and wealth. Jews should be shown no mercy, granted no legal protection, and should be forced into slave camps or permanently expelled. He even implies that murdering Jews should be tolerated and says that Christians “are at fault for not slaying them” (On the Jews and Their Lies, cited in Robert Michael ("Luther, Luther Scholars, and the Jews," Encounter 46 (Autumn 1985) No. 4:343-344).

Luther’s book was central to the Jew-hatred that defined Protestant Europe, and was proudly displayed by the Nazis during their Nuremberg rallies. It took over four centuries for the Lutheran Church to begin to formally question Luther’s anti-Semitism and distance itself from it. For example, in November 1998, on the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht and 455 years after the publication of On the Jews and Their Lies, the Lutheran Church of Bavaria issued this statement: “It is imperative for the Lutheran Church, which knows itself to be indebted to the work and tradition of Martin Luther, to take seriously also his anti-Jewish utterances, to acknowledge their theological function, and to reflect on their consequences. It has to distance itself from every [expression of] anti-Judaism in Lutheran theology” ("Christians and Jews: A Declaration of the Lutheran Church of Bavaria", November 24, 1998). Other Lutheran groups have made similar statements.

Do not imagine that God-sanctioned hate and genocide belongs to Christians and Muslims alone. Here are the words of Torah:

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their Gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 20:10-18; RSV)

Regarding those who lived in the Promised Land prior to the coming of the Israelites the Bible says:

They should be utterly destroyed, and should receive no mercy but be exterminated as the LORD commanded Moses (Joshua 11:20). Utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling (I Samuel 15:3). You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath and fire will consume them. You will destroy their offspring from the earth and their children from among the sons of men (Psalms 21:9-10 RSV).

And lest you think that this Jewish lust for blood ended with the Hebrew Bible listen to the great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides: “Moses bequeathed the 613 commandments only to Israel,” and “in a similar fashion Moses was commanded to enforce the seven commandments of Noah upon every human being— and whoever does not accept them, must be killed (Laws of Kings 8,10).

The madness so many attribute to Islam alone infects all three Abrahamic traditions. The only reason we Jews seem to have the moral high ground demanding justice from Christians and Muslims is that there are no Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites to bring charges against us. And if there were, and if they did, would we Jews be willing to deny the genocidal god we call Aveinu Malkeinu, our Father our King?

[I will post Part Two of this essay tomorrow.]