Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Suggestion for Simchat Torah

Tomorrow, October 1st, is Simchat Torah the day we Jews rejoice with Torah, having finished one complete reading of the text and beginning a new one. I would like to invite you all—Jews and Gentiles—to do something quite radical this Simchat Torah: commit yourself to actually reading the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) all the way through by next Simchat Torah.

Beginning with the Shabbos Bereshit, which happens to be October 2nd, I urge you to follow the traditional schedule of Torah reading. Don’t read the text with commentary. Avoid all gloss, whether scholarly or mystical. Just read the text (albeit in translation) and see what it says.

“But wait,” you might be thinking to yourself, “this isn’t radical at all. In fact it’s what Jews are supposed to do.” So let me add the radical part. As you read the text I want you to highlight those passages that you really believe in, or that teach you something about life that you find true and compelling. For example, you may not take the story of the creation of Adam’s consort literally, but you may find the teaching “it is not good for humans to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) quite compelling. So highlight that line.

By next Simchat Torah (October 21, 2011) you will have completed your reading, and can look back at your highlighted Torah and see just what meaning this book has for you.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Talk Me Out of This, Please

Can someone help me understand why I should care about Israel? Can someone help me understand why I should still be a Jew?

I’m reading, the Israeli newspaper’s website, about the recommendation of the Jerusalem police to press charges against Anat Hoffman, leader of Women at the Wall, for refusing to relinquish the Torah she was carrying at the Western Wall, the holiest wall in the Jewish world.

In 2002 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that women are forbidden to read aloud from the Torah at the Wall. Ms. Hoffman was not reading the Scroll only carrying it, but that, according to Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi in charge of the Wall, was a provocation.

“I am not interested in having a halakhic or an ideological discussion, but the Western Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people. We have to make every effort to make every Jew feel at home here,” the rabbi said. I assume by “every Jew” he meant every Orthodox Jew, and by “the entire Jewish people” he meant the entirety of those Jewish people with penises given by God and clipped by man. And yet I have one of those penises, and I was accosted at the Wall as well. Years ago I led a prayer service of women and men (no Torah) in the plaza far from but in full view of the Western Wall and we were accosted by Orthodox men. We huddled more tightly together and continued our service as they pushed and shouted. And we were outside the office prayer space of the Wall!

When this kind of thing happens in Iran I am happy I am not Iranian. When it happens in Saudi Arabia I am happy I am not a Saudi. When Islam falls deeper and deeper into the mores of the 7th century even as it seeks the weaponry of the 21st century, I am glad I am not a Muslim. And yet Israel and Judaism seem to be doing the same thing. No wonder I am having more and more trouble being a Jew!

Sure we have liberal denominations, but they have no power. What does it mean when a liberal rabbi who would not even be recognized as a rabbi in Israel (and if he or she is a convert to Judaism perhaps not even as a Jew) stands up during the High Holy Days to defend Israel? To me this sounds more and more like Stockholm Syndrome.

Enough! If Israel wants to oppress its women by silencing them at the Wall and forcing them to sit in the back of “Orthodox” buses, and Israeli women want to go along with that, fine, but leave me out of it. If Israelis want to be held hostage to Orthodoxy and medieval mores, that is their business, but don’t ask me to care, and don’t ask me to donate money to support it.

I am opposed to dragging any country into the 21st Century against its will whether it be Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel or even (as I fear the November elections will show) the United States.

I hate feeling this way. Please, someone, talk me out of it!

Monday, September 27, 2010

I'm Insane

I had no delusions about Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. I wrote several weeks ago that if the parties wanted peace they could have it in hours not days, weeks, or months. Nor did I expect Israel to extend the moratorium on settlements that expired on September 26. But against all that I knew, believed, and expected, I still hoped for a different outcome. By definition, then, I’m insane.

What I don’t understand is why Palestinian President Abbas didn’t immediately walk out of the talks. He may be a greater statesman than I gave him credit for; he may be jockeying for some other political reason. I have no idea. But I can tell you this, if I had been him, I would have walked.

If Israel won’t freeze settlements to promote peace talks, then what hope is there for peace? If they can’t wait out the year of negotiations, what hope is there that there will be any negotiation?

Israel has given the Palestinians clear moral authority in this instance (something they often lack), and they should have taken full advantage of it. I would have walked out, gone home, and announced the unilateral creation of a Palestinian State on January 1, 2011. Against all advice to the contrary, this is what Israel did in May of 1948. They declared themselves a nation and then took up arms to defend it. This is what I would do today if I were President of Palestine. I would tell my people that we have a right to a homeland and we are no longer going to cede that right to anyone. We will live or die as free Palestinians.

But that’s me. President Abbas seems to be waiting. But waiting for what? For Israel? For America? For Europe? For the Arab League? Nobody really cares about the fate of Palestine. Honestly, if not for Christian guilt over the near genocide of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the ecstasy of tens of millions of Christians over End Times Prophecy and the successful conclusion of that genocide, no one would care about the fate of Israel either.

I hope against hope that something will change; that peace will break out all around the region and my own ignorance about politics and the Middle East will be proved so glaring that I will have to abandon this blog. I do hope to be so very wrong. But then again I’m insane.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Does Israel Have a Right to Exist?

As Israel and Palestine continue their peace talks, I find myself thinking about two questions. The first is, “Does Israel have a right to exist?” My answer is “yes.” The second is, “Why does Israel have a right to exist?” Here things get more murky.

There is a tendency among some to delegitimize the State of Israel. According to the Reut Institute of Tel-Aviv, deligitimization “exhibits blatant double standards, singles out Israel, denies its right to exist as the embodiment of the self-determination of the Jewish people, or demonizes the state.”

What do you make of linking Israel’s right to exist to its being “the embodiment of the self-determination of the Jewish people?” If statehood depends on self-determination, should any people hungry for self-determination get a state? Many of us believe the Palestinians have a right to self-determination and a state, but what about the Navaho, the Cherokee, the Basque people, or the Kurds? Should Spain and Iraq consider a two-state solution?

Or is talk of self-determination a distraction from the simple fact that might makes rights? A state has a right to exist commensurate with its ability to secure and defend its chosen borders. In 1948 Israel’s UN backed right to exist would have disappeared within days if not hours had she not been able to resist the invasion of Arab troops. Rights come from the barrel of a gun (or from a barrel of oil as in the case of some states). Even if you imagine that God determines the fate of peoples and states, the only way we know what God desires and which states God favors is to see which people is left standing after the dust of war settles.

Whether we opt for sociology or theology it always comes down to guns. The only reason an independent Canada exists is because the fledgling US lacked the power to conquer it. The only reason the South Western states are a part of the US is because the US did have the power to take them from Mexico. Israel has a right to exist as long as she can defend herself successfully against those who would conquer her. I am not comfortable with this notion, but I don’t see any other way to justify the existence of any state.

So what do you think? Where does a state’s right to exist come from? Is a state’s right to exist the same as a people’s right to exist? How does your answer to these questions impact your thinking about American foreign policy, and Israeli policy toward Palestine, America, and Iran?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Converting Jews

“Where are you going when you die?” asked a well-meaning Christian hoping to engage me in a conversation about Jesus and my personal salvation. “Where am I going when I die?” I parroted, “Florida.” It was the not the answer he expected. “I’m Jewish,” I added as if to explain my answer. He didn’t get it.

Clearly this fellow hadn’t read the USA TODAY article, “How to sell Christianity? Ask an atheist” (Monday, June 28, 2010). According to the article Christians are turning to atheists for advice on speaking to nonChristians about Christ. Cool. In fact, cooler than cool—it gives me an idea. I am now announcing to any would-be evangelist to Jews that I am available to consult on how best to convert Jews to Christianity. It will cost you, of course, but what is a saved soul worth these days? You gotta spend money to save souls.

But let me offer some free advice to whet your appetite for my services.

First, while believing Jews are closest in their world view to believing Christians, essentially differing on only a couple of issues: diet, which day is the Sabbath, and is Jesus the only begotten Son of God who died for our sins, don’t bother trying to convert believing Jews. They can match you chapter and verse in the “Old Testament,” and reject the “New Testament” out of hand. If you’re not careful, they might convert you to Judaism.

Second, don’t waste your breath on secular Jews. They don’t believe in a supernatural god, don’t think in terms of sin and salvation, have no worries regarding heaven and hell, and are no more inclined to believe Jesus is the Son of YHVH than Apollo is the Son of Zeus. They believe people wrote the Bible and did so to support their own beliefs, so when Jesus says he is the way, the truth and the life, this is not convincing. What else would John have him say? Quoting this passage and asking, “Is Jesus lying or insane” you might find yourself facing the answer, “He is neither. He is a figment of John’s imagination, which is why the Jesus imagined by Matthew, Mark, and Luke never says this.”

This leaves you with middle of the road Jews who believe enough supernatural stuff to allow God to have a Son, and who might be worried about going to Florida (or parts further south) when they die. I won’t reveal the secret to converting these Jews here. That is why you have to hire me as a consultant, but I will say that I am not opposed to converting Jews. If a Jew in search of religious certainty can find it in Christianity, who am I to say “no”? If a Jew finds Judaism meaningless, but finds meaning in Jesus, go for it. Who knows? Maybe Jesus is God. Should I deny this Jew eternal life because I reject it myself?

The fact is I don’t believe in any of this, so if you are going to believe in something supernatural all I care about is whether or not it will make you more or less just and kind. Which is how Christians should go about converting people: by demonstrating that Christianity, and their brand of Christianity in particular, is the religion that makes people the most just and kind. If you can make that case, and back it up with facts not Bible quotes, then you have something serious to offer. Just don’t offer it to me. I’ve got my heart set on Florida.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sharia Anyone?

Many people in my town worry about living under Sharia, Muslim law. Personally, I don’t want to live under Sharia or any other religious system be it Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. When I make this point, most people claim there is no such thing as Christian law. Not so.

The on–going battle over embryonic stem cell research, for example, is a religious battle over the imposition of Christian law. Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research do so on the grounds that embryos are human beings, but this is religious doctrine not scientific fact. From the Christian perspective human life begins at conception, but from the Jewish perspective it doesn’t start until 40 days after conception. The embryo has no moral claim. On the contrary, the moral claim falls to those humans who may benefit from the research. Hence prohibition on embryonic stem cell research is the imposition of Christian law over Jewish law.

A similar argument can be made regarding abortion to save the life of a mother. Those most vocal in their willingness to let mothers die are those who have a religious stake in the unborn baby. The mother had a chance to accept Jesus as the Christ; the baby has not. Without that baptism the baby is damned. This is the unstated theology behind much of the abortion debate both when it comes to the saving the life of the mother, and when it comes to outlawing abortions for women who have been the victims of rape and incest. If your religion doesn’t posit ensoulment at the moment of conception, however, there is no moral imperative to the government forcing a woman to bear a child.

The Jewish position is that the mother’s life trumps that of the unborn. The baby cannot take care of itself, whereas the mother may have other children to care for, as well as a spouse, partner, siblings, or parents who will all suffer without her continued life and support. The mother’s moral claim to life is greater than that of the unborn, and if we must choose between them the mother’s life takes precedence.

I would not argue that Muslims cannot live under Sharia, just as I do not argue that Jews cannot live under Halachah (Jewish law). And just as there are Jewish courts to which Jews can turn if they choose not to engage the secular legal system on certain matters, so I would support Sharia courts operating under the same limitations. And of course I would urge those Christians who wish to do likewise to do so. One should be free to live according to one’s religious code assuming that code does no harm to those who do not choose it. But one is not free to impose that code on others.

I like freedom and wish that everyone did. But more and more what I see in the United States are people who love freedom only for themselves, and have no problem imposing their mores on others via courts and legislatures. Freedom is something America stands for, but fewer and fewer Americans are willing to defend.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Questions for People of Faith

With all the demands for Muslims to answer questions about their faith, I thought it might be helpful to develop six simple questions one can ask of all peoples of faith:

1. Do you think your faith is the one true faith, or do you believe that there are many paths to Truth?

2. If your faith has a Holy Book, what makes it holy? How do you know your book is true? Are the Holy Books of other religions as holy as your own? If not, why not?

3. As a person of faith, what is your obligation to all the other peoples in the world?

4. When they die, what happens to those who do not accept your faith?

5. When your theology disagrees with scientific fact and proven theory (theory as understood in scientific circles not everyday speech), do you adapt to science, or insist science adapt to your theology?

6. Why do you believe what you believe about God, creation, humanity, and the afterlife?

Just to be fair, let me briefly answer my own questions:

1. I believe Truth cannot be reduced to any system of thought, though many systems of thought do glimpse a part of it.

2. A book is holy when a community considers it holy. All holy books derive from this sociological phenomenon, so all holy books are equally holy. This does not mean that any holy book or all holy books are true or equally true. Each may contain wise and beneficial teachings, but no book can contain absolute Truth.

3. All people are obligated to treat all life with compassion and respect.

4. I believe that as we die we become aware of a greater and all–inclusive level of reality in which all things exist. When we die we return to that.

5. I change my theology.

6. I would like to say I believe what I believe based on a combination of everyday experience, study, and experiences had during spiritual practice. And while this may be true, I also suspect that I have no idea why I believe what I believe. Not knowing why I believe as I do, and knowing that Truth cannot be reduced to belief, I am humbled. Humility is the sign of true spirituality. Arrogance and certainty are the sign of religious posturing.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Muslim Street

We have to stop Pastor Jones from burning the Qur’an or risk the anger of the Muslim street. We have to build a mosque near Ground Zero or risk the anger of the Muslim street. We have to expand the mosque in Murfreesboro or risk the anger of the Muslim Street. Well, Pastor Jones didn’t burn the Qur’an and Muslims in Afghanistan decided to take to the street and call for the death of America anyway. So, honestly, do I really want to live my life in fear of the Muslim Street? And which street is that exactly?

There are hundreds of Muslim Americans in Murfreesboro, and they understand that Pastor Jones has a constitutional right to burn the Qur’an, just as they understand that they have a constitutional right to build their mosque. As distasteful and as horrifying as the burning of a Qur’an is (and make no mistake it is distasteful and horrifying) my Muslim neighbors are not going to riot in Murfreesboro’s town square because of it.

Even if they were denied a permit to build their new Islamic Center, and even if it were clear to them that this denial was fuelled by bigotry and hate, even then they would not riot, burn churches, or commit acts of terror. They would be angry, and they might protest, march, and pursue their case all the way to the Supreme Court because that is their right as Americans. But they wouldn’t do what their coreligionists in Afghanistan are doing. Why? Because they are Americans.

The Muslims in Murfreesboro are not the Muslim Street, but they should be. What Islam needs is more American Muslims; Muslims who know how democracy works, who embrace religious freedom and the separation of church/mosque/synagogue and state, and who could by their own example bring those Muslims trapped in the middle ages into the 21st century.

So let’s stop worrying about the medieval Muslim Street and start supporting the American Muslim Street. If Muslims in Muslim countries want to riot, or stone adulterers, why is that our concern? Haven’t we learned anything from the Prime Directive? If Muslim mothers want to mutilate their daughter’s genitalia, so what? Jewish mothers mutilate the genitals of their sons, and we send gifts. Unless or until Muslims and Jews come after your genitals or those of people you love, leave them alone. And in the meantime, let’s start supporting the American Muslim Street.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Questions for Moderate Christians

An email from ACT of Middle Tennessee asks me to ask moderate Muslims some questions. Here is a sampling:

Where do you stand on these passages from the Koran?:

-- Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve. (8.55)
-- The unbelievers are your inveterate enemy. (4:101)
-- Mohammed is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another. (48:29).
-- The true believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. (4:76)

Where do you stand on these sayings of Muhammad?:

-- Allah's Apostle said, "You (i.e. Muslims) will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, 'O 'Abdullah (i.e. slave of Allah)! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him.' "
-- Mohammed said, "Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him."
-- Muhammad said: "Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war, …"

Where do you stand on the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which all 67 Moslem-majority countries have subscribed to, which makes Islam legally superior to all other religions; which makes all human rights subject to Sharia. Sharia law, of course, provides for the legal subordination of non-Moslems to Moslems and of women to men. It mandates death for apostates, blasphemers and homosexuals. It defines jihad as making war on non-Moslems.

These are good questions to ask moderate Muslims. Here are some questions I would like to ask of moderate Christians:

Where do you stand on this teaching of St. Paul:

“For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)

Regarding the status of women, where do you stand on these teachings of St. Paul:

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church… Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their husband in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-224)

Where do you stand on this teaching of Martin Luther:

Jews are “venomous beasts, vipers, disgusting scum, canders, devils incarnate. Their private houses must be destroyed and devastated, they could be lodged in stables. Let the magistrates burn their synagogues and let whatever escapes be covered with sand and mud. Let them force to work, and if this avails nothing, we will be compelled to expel them like dogs in order not to expose ourselves to incurring divine wrath and eternal damnation from the Jews and their lies” (On the Jews and their Lies).

Where do you stand on the teaching of Pope Clement VIII (1536–1605):

"All the world suffers from the usury of the Jews, their monopolies and deceit. They have brought many unfortunate people into a state of poverty, especially the farmers, working class people and the very poor. Then, as now, Jews have to be reminded intermittently that they were enjoying rights in any country since they left Palestine and the Arabian desert, and subsequently their ethical and moral doctrines as well as their deeds rightly deserve to be exposed to criticism in whatever country they happen to live."

Where do you stand on the following affirmation of Christianity as the one true faith:

“Yes, Christianity is the one true religion. That may sound awfully dogmatic and narrow-minded, but the simple truth is that Christianity is the only true religion. Jesus said that He alone was the way to the Father (John 14:6), that He alone revealed the Father (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22). Christians do not go around saying Christianity is the only way because they are arrogant, narrow-minded, stupid, and judgmental. They do so because they believe what Jesus said." (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, CARM)

Where do you stand on the Pledge to the Christian Flag,

“I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.” Is liberty to be reserved for Christians alone?

These are all good questions. Let me know what answers you receive when you ask them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sacred Scripture?

[This is a lengthy post, but I urge you to read it through to the end.]

Last week I suggested one response to the burning of the Qur’an on 9/11 would be to read from the sacred scriptures of many faiths on that day. Happily I was not the only person calling for this, and I applaud those who organized and participated in these events. Having stood on the side of scripture reading, I would now like to ask what scriptures should be read, focusing specifically on the Hebrew Bible and Qur’an, though similar passages can be found in Christian sacred texts as well.

The easy route is to read what I call soft passages, readings that speak about love, justice, and respect. Here are just four examples:

"When they encounter empty talk or derision, they ignore it with quiet dignity... responding humbly even to foolish or aggressive words with the dignified salutation: Peace be unto you." (Qur’an 25:63-76) Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)

"Please encourage those who aspire to Islam to be gentle and selfless, to turn whole heartedly toward the Source of Being, and to call out to Allah Most Merciful every morning and evening, longing only to gaze directly into the Face of Love." (Qur’an 18:27-31) You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5) You shall love your neighbor as your self. (Leviticus 19:18) You shall love the stranger. (Leviticus 19:34)

"Whether rich or poor, all persons must receive equal justice, for Allah Most Merciful is equally present to all." (Qur’an 4:131-135) Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

"He is Allah, the Creator, the Originator, The Fashioner, to Him belong the most beautiful names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, do declare His praises and glory. And He is the Exalted in Might, The Wise. (Qur’an 59:24) [Islam speaks of 99 Names of Allah. Among them Ar-Rahmaan/The Compassionate, Ar-Raheem/The Mericiful, Al-Haleem/The Forbearing, Al-Wadood/ the Loving, Al-Ghafoor/The All Forgiving. Eternal, Eternal, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin... (Exodus 34:6-7)

* * *

But not all scripture is so benign. For example regarding those who lived in the Promised Land during the Israelite invasion the Bible says:

“They should be utterly destroyed, and should receive no mercy but be exterminated as the Eternal 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 Eternal 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).

And in the Qur’an we read:
Sura 9:5: "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."

Sura 9:29-31: "Fight those who believe not in God nor the last day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Prophet, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, (even if they are) of the people of the Book [Christians and Jews], until they pay the jizya [tribute] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. The Jews call Uzair [Ezra] a son of God, and the Christians call Christ the Son of God ... God's curse be on them."

Sura 5:36-38: "The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Prophet, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter, except for those who repent before they fall into your power. In that case, know that God is oft-forgiving, most merciful. O you who believe! Do your duty to God. Seek the means of approach unto Him, and strive with might and main in His cause, that you may prosper."

These texts are read over and over again. And while the Qur’an seems to be more merciful than Torah, offering peace to those who convert to Islam, one cannot but worry about the damage these readings do to the psyches of the listener? Would you want your children to be raised on these texts? When I was a congregational rabbi I refused to read these texts during Shabbat services, studying them only in adult history classes where we could examine them in context.

More difficult still for those of us who are Jews are the passages in the Qur’an that justify Jew hatred as a sacred duty among Muslims:

“And thou wilt find them [the Jews] the greediest of mankind.... “(Sura 2:96)

“Evil is that for which they [the Jews] sell their souls....” (Sura 2:90)

“Taste ye [Jews] the punishment of burning.” Sura 3:18

"They [the Jews] are the heirs of Hell.... They will spare no pains to corrupt you. They desire nothing but your ruin. Their hatred is clear from what they say ... When evil befalls you they rejoice." (Sura 3:117-120)

“Because of the wrongdoing of the Jews.... And of their taking usury ... and of their devouring people's wealth by false pretenses. We have prepared for those of them who disbelieve a painful doom.” (Sura 4:160, 161)

“Allah hath cursed them [the Jews] for their disbelief.” (Sura 4:46)

“They [the Jews] will spare no pains to corrupt you. They desire nothing but your ruin. Their hatred is clear from what they say, but more violent is the hatred which their breasts conceal.” (Sura 3:117-120)

“The most vehement of mankind in hostility [are] the Jews and the idolaters.” (Sura 5:82)

“Allah fights against them [the Jews]. How perverse they are!” (Sura 9:30)

“They [the Jews] spread evil in the land ....” (Sura 5:62-66)

“[The Jews] knowingly perverted [the word of Allah], know of nothing except lies ... commit evil and become engrossed in sin.” (Sura 2:71-85)

* * *

My point in raising this issue is this: just because a book is held sacred, does not mean that everything in it is worthy of respect. On the contrary, there is much in the sacred texts of Jews, Christians, and Muslims that needs to be decried, and until it is, there is no true hope for reconciliation among these faiths.

It is not enough that rabbis, ministers, priests, and imams stand together in interfaith solidarity. It is not enough that they claim to pray to the same God (they don’t). It is not enough that they promote social justice. They must sit together and challenge the hatred that their scriptures promote. They must not hide behind the veil of interfaith respect and shrug their shoulders when they stand before their congregations and, intentionally or not, espouse hatred of the other.

It is not enough to say Islam is a religion of peace, or Judaism is a religion of justice, or Christianity is a religion of love when they all contain seeds of hate that must be uprooted and destroyed.

It is not an accident that Christians and Muslims have and in many cases continue to perpetuate Jew hatred; their sacred texts incite them to it. And unless their religious leaders defuse these texts, the hate will only grow. And the only reason there is no outcry from the Hittite Anti-Defamation League against the Jews is that we did to them what Christians and Muslims have as yet been unable to do to us: we slaughtered them all.

So, yes, let us read each other’s sacred scriptures. And as we do let us applaud the call for mercy, justice, love, and humility we find in them. But let us demand with no less a voice that the evil and hatred they contain be silenced that the flames of human arrogance, wickedness, and spiritual conceit not engulf all the earth.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is. Do you, Pastor Jones?

After a week of on again off again posturing about whether or not to burn copies of the Qur’an tomorrow, Pastor Terry Jones of Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL is once again praying to God about his plan. I believe Pastor Jones will do what his God tells him to do. I doubt, however that he is praying to my God.

My God is the Tao that can’t be named (Tao te Ching 1:1); the reality embracing all that was, is, and will ever be (Exodus 3:14); the reality in which I live, move, and have my being (Acts 17:28). My God is truth, and though different people call it by different names (Rig Veda) it transcends them all. My God is the one and only reality (la ilaha illa allah) from whom, through whom, and in whom all things, both good and evil, play out (Isaiah 45:7). Not everyone believes in my God.

My God has no wife, yet hundreds of millions of Mormons and Hindus cannot imagine God without one. My God has no son (though I am willing to concede a daughter, Proverbs 8:22), yet over a billion Christians cannot imagine God without one. My God chooses no people over any other, no land over any other, and long before the Internet seemed to certain that print was dead, yet countless peoples believe in God-given covenants, real estate, and holy books. My God doesn’t save or damn, though there are millions upon millions of people who find my God irrelevant for just this reason.

My God is reality, and I love my God without reservation. Can you pray to reality? Of course. Does it do any good? It depends upon what you pray for. If you pray that the universe alter its course and overrule the laws of nature so that a loved one doesn’t die, you are probably going to be disappointed. But if you pray for the ability to navigate the horrors of life and loss with grace and compassion, you are tapping into a deep well of both that will allow you to do just that.

But Pastor Jones isn’t praying to my God. Perhaps he’s praying to the God of Leviticus who says to those not of the true faith, “I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars; I will heap your carcasses on the carcasses of your idols. I will abhor you” (Leviticus 26:30). Or perhaps he’s praying to the God of Numbers who says to those of the true faith, “you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:52). Or perhaps he is praying to the God of the jihadis, or the Crusaders. Burning books held sacred by others seems right up the alley of each of these Gods.

So if Pastor Jones’ God tells him to burn the Qur’an this Saturday don’t assume he isn’t talking with God. There are lots of Gods who love to hate, and Pastor Jones’ God may simply be one of these. Of course I wish Pastor Jones would pray to my God because my God doesn’t burn books, though She does urge you not to take them too seriously; but failing that I wish he would at least pray to my father’s God who says, “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). If your going to burn the Qur’an, Pastor, maybe you should wait until Monday.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

What To Do If You Don't Go To Shul?

Tonight is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of Judaism’s Ten Days of Awe that end at sundown on Yom Kippur. Millions of Jews will undoubtedly go to synagogue during this period. I won’t be one of them.

My reason for not going is simple: I find the experience unfulfilling. When I do participate in conventional Jewish prayer I find myself arguing with what I am reading. I don’t relate to the metaphor of God as father, king, and lord; I don’t believe that God is in control of my life; and I find the medieval worldview of the machzor (High Holy Day prayer book) incompatible with what I know to be true about life. So rather than sit and complain, I stay home.

I am not alone in this, and this post is for those Jews who choose to stay home for the Holy Days. What shall you do with your time? Let me share what I do with mine.

I will spend most of tomorrow morning walking in the woods by the creek near my home. I will chant and pray and talk with God, allowing that the Infinite All can manifest as a finite One with whom I can meet and dialogue. I will spend the afternoon studying Jewish texts: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job for these are the books that speak to me most powerfully. In the evening I will gather with my family to renew ourselves as a family, and to share our thoughts about where we are as a new year unfurls.

During the intervening days I will seek forgiveness, humbling myself until I flow like water into the low and narrow places within me that need watering that the seeds of holiness trapped there can expand and grow and shatter the narrows, and experience and share the spaciousness of love and forgiveness. And I will give tzedakah (monetary donations) to help those, both human and canine, whose lives are bleak and broken.

I will spend Yom Kippur: fasting, walking, praying, and studying. And I will do so alone. I have community in my life, but I find that this time of year is best met alone. That’s just me. But if I were a rabbi of a community, I would no longer ask them to dress in restrictive clothing, sit in a windowless room breathing stale air, and reading old books. I would invite them to wear lose clothes and comfortable shoes, and to walk with me beside still waters, to lay with be in green pastures, allowing the rustling trees to be our liturgy, and the chirping birds to be our cantors, and the babbling brook to be our rabbi teaching us to walk the watercourse way of humility, justice, and compassion.

So for all those who choose not to attend synagogue, know that you are not bad or disloyal or even alone. Honor the holy days in whatever way allows you to deepen your humanity. And may you in this way find blessing, sweetness, and peace this New Year.

L’shana tova

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Aiding and Abetting

This Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the horror of 9/11, Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL will burn copies of the Qur'an, the Muslim Holy Book. His actions demean Christianity, and aid and abet the cause of Islamic extremism. I have written about this previously, but now that it is almost upon us, I want to suggest how we might respond to it.

As part of your memorial observances of 9/11, whether alone, with friends and family, or more formally with a larger community, I ask that you read, not burn, passages from the world's sacred scriptures. Pick up a copy of the Portable World Bible, World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, The World's Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World's Religions, or God's Breath: Sacred Scriptures of the World, and create a global liturgy that speaks to the best within us.

I urge every synagogue to set aside time during Torah reading this Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, devoted to repentance, to read from the Qur'an, Gospels, Bhagavad Gita, and other sacred texts. I urge every mosque to do something similar on Friday, and every church to follow suit on Sunday.

It is a small thing to honor the scriptures of religions not your own, but symbolically it speaks volumes.

The Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, in his play "Almansor" wrote about burning texts of the Qur'an by the Catholic Inquisition in Spain, saying, "Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people." This proved true of the Church. It proved true of the Nazis. Don't let it prove true of us as well.

Please use the comments section of this blog to share what you and your community has done in this regard. For myself, I will spend this Shabbat at an interfaith gathering here in Murfreesboro where I will present readings from the world's scriptures as part of my formal remarks.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Blocking the Mosque

How far away from you does a terrorist have to live before a terrorist is no longer a terrorist? This is a question opponents of the “Ground Zero mosque” have to ask themselves.

On This Week with Christiane Amanpour my friend Daisy Kahn, wife of Imam Faisal Rauf the man behind the mosque, was asked if she would consider moving the mosque to another location farther away from Ground Zero. She seemed to say that this is a possibility. As readers of this blog know, I am in favor of the mosque. The Islam taught by Imam Faisal is precisely the kind of Islam Muslims need if Islam is to become a meaningful part of postmodern life. This is the kind of imam all Americans should support. Instead he is being demonized.

According to his opponents Imam Faisal is a terrorist who seeks to impose Sharia on America and set up a terrorist training center next to Ground Zero. While false on all counts, if this were true it would be no less true and no less objectionable if the imam agreed to move the mosque a few blocks farther away. I don’t want a terrorist training camp of any stripe anywhere in Manhattan, or anywhere in the United States.

So what happens to the mosque’s opponents if the decision is made to move the mosque? Will Imam Faisal suddenly be the goodwill ambassador to Muslims worldwide that the Bush and Obama administrations say he is? Will his terrorist ties suddenly melt away?

If they do, then the hypocrisy of those making these false claims is clear: they will say anything, promote any lie, simply to manipulate the masses to their cause. Fair enough. That is what passes for politics in America today.

But I suspect matters won’t end with a move. The haters of Islam are well funded, and smell blood. They, like their forebears Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy are using fear of the other (for Coughlin it was Jews, for McCarthy it was Communists) to promote their own political agenda. They craved power, and would step on anyone they needed to in order to get it. The next location will be too close to a school, or a church, or a synagogue, or a strip club to fit in with the neighborhood. Those who seek power through fomenting hate will not allow a change in locale to rob them of their Golden Goose. As soon as people stop fearing Islam and hating Muslims, their game is over. So move or don’t move, the fear mongering will continue.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Can We Talk?

This week President Obama will take up the challenge of brokering a deal between Israel and Palestine. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are in Washington for the first round of what will no doubt be yet another endless series of talks.

I am in favor of talks, and I support a two state solution, but Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been talking peace for decades. Is there really anything left to talk about?

Is there any doubt that the boundaries between the two states will follow some variation of the Green Line? Is there any doubt that Jerusalem will be the capital of both states? Can it be that the Palestinians won’t insist on some version of the Right of Return? Are the Palestinians unaware that Israel wants them to unequivocally affirm her right to exist as a Jewish state? Will the United States not end up paying for most of what will pass as peace?

If they come to any agreement it will a variation of some older agreement they hashed out in the past and then declined to agree upon. Which leads me to ask, Why hold more talks at all?

I can imagine these guys sitting around a table saying, “Hey, remember when we tossed around this idea? That was a nonstarter, so forget that one. Oh, wait, here’s a thought from the 1980’s that might… naa, forget that one. Any of you guys have any new ideas to toss around? I mean we flew all the way to DC. If all we got is what we did in the past, we could have done this via email. How about we order out for falafel? Obama’s buying.”

Why not just sit down and agree to something? They could if they wanted to. But they don’t want to. Talking is a way of maintaining the status quo, and that seems to suit all sides just fine. What’s changed to make us think this time they can do it?

There will be peace between Israel and Palestine when both sides are convinced that they have no other choice. That may come only when Israelis and Palestinians get to the point where the death of one more of their children is just too high a price to pay for their intransigence. As long as they have kids they are willing to sacrifice and backers who are willing to foot the bill for them to do it, peace is impossible.

So Benyamin and Mahmoud come and talk, but don’t pretend either of you is listening. If you wanted peace you could have had it long ago. Please prove me wrong.