Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tradition or Truth

Last weekend I was teaching in upstate New York. During one of our shared meals, a woman with a deep love for Orthodox Judaism challenged me regarding my revisions of Jewish prayer. I had commented earlier that I could not pray from a conventional siddur (prayer book), whether Reform, Orthodox, or anything in between. The language was dualistic, xenophobic, misogynist, and filled with threats of violence against those who stray from the revealed path of Torah and mitzvoth (commandments). I have been writing liturgy for decades, and I strive to create texts that avoid all of these things.

“But what about tradition?” she asked. Well, what about it? Here was a woman who wanted nothing to do with traditional views of women, Jewish or otherwise. She wasn’t about to let traditional views of African Americans go unchallenged. She didn’t feel at all compelled to uphold traditional views about the origin of life or the evolution of species. So why, when it comes to Jewish tradition, was she willing, even eager, to perpetuate behaviors build on ideas that she no longer believed in?

Did she believe that God created the world? Did she believe that God chose the Jews? Did she believe that God’s sole revelation to the world was Torah? Did she believe that God ordained animal sacrifice, or cared if she had a scoop of ice cream a few hours after having a bologna sandwich? No, she did not. But she felt we should pretend these things mattered so as to maintain our coherence as a people.

I understand the argument. I just reject it. What does it mean to base a community on untruths? Judaism survived for thousands of years not simply because people ate in a certain way and prayed in a certain way, but because they believed, deeply and honestly, that God wanted them to do those things. Today there are millions of Jews who still believe that and their communities are thriving. But for those of us who don’t believe that way, our traditionalism is hollow and forced.

I am not opposed to tradition. I am simply in favor of truth. And when I have to choose between the two, I choose for the latter. I don’t think that precludes me from being a Jew. In fact, I would argued that choosing truth over tradition is exactly what being a Jew was meant to be.

Abraham was the world’s first iconoclast, the first freethinker, and the first to break out of the prison of tradition and to strive only for truth. He should be the hallmark of what it is to be a Jew. God calls Abraham to radical freedom; tradition calls us to avoid it.

This is the nature of religion. It begins with the radicalism if a founder whose vision is so fresh, so daring as to frighten the establishment to death (or, sometimes, to murder). Then, with the death of the founder, the original message is turned over to the bureaucrats who replace freedom to conformity, and the immediacy of God with a remembrance of things past. Abraham was not about the past. If we are to honor his memory we must take up his quest: putting Truth before tradition and holding nothing sacred but God.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Putting God First

I have been a rabbi for almost 25 years, and not once in all that time did I feel fully at home in the role. I didn't quite know why until a respected colleague of mine said, "The difference between you and me, Rami, is that for you, God is a-priori and Torah is secondary; for me, Torah is a-priori and God is secondary."

Wow! That was it; I put God first. I had not realized it before because I could not imagine anyone putting God second. Yet that is exactly what conventional religion does. Conventional religion uses God, while I pray to be used by God. Conventional religion reduces God to theology-- mistaking the menu for the meal-- and then spoon feeds this holy pablum to a God-starved public. We become full but never filled.

Conventional religion is antithetical to God. Religion seeks control; God is uncontrollable. Religion establishes hierarchies; God creates holarchies. Religion celebrates an elect: the chosen, the saved, the twice-born; God embraces all without distinction. Religion relies on power; God promotes justice. Religion fosters guilt; God cherishes compassion. Religion rewards conformity; God invites creativity. Religion works for continuity; God revels in originality. It may well be that the chief function of religion is keep God at bay and the experience of God rare and suspect.

To me, religion at its best is a powerful preserver of the great teachings of humanity's God-realized saints, sages, and mystics, but the normative role of conventional religion is to scare the shit out of us for failing to live up to rules set forth by religious authorities. I cannot help but see the average religious enterprise as an elaborate con: the Great Wizard of Oz desperately trying to keep Toto from pulling down the Curtain of Religious Authority and revealing the frightened little man cowering behind it.

To bolster his position that Torah not God should be central to Judaism, my colleague quoted a rabbinic proverb to the effect that it is better to forget God and keep the Law than vice versa. I prefer the Torah's own insight: "You shall have no other gods before Me," (Exodus 20;3). Putting Torah before God is idolatry. Why would the ancient rabbis put Torah before God? Because the Torah they promoted promoted them: "Moses received Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly" (Pirke Avot 1:1), the Pharisees to which all rabbis are heir.

According to the Pharisees, what was transmited to Moses at Sinai was not the Written Torah only but a secret Oral Torah that only the rabbis know. This revisionist history of revelation totally ignores the 1000-year reign of the Levites, the chief rivals to rabbinic power, and has no authority outside the people who invented it. The Written Torah says nothing of a second or Oral Law, and vests all power in the hands of the Levites and their leaders, the descendents of Aaron. Since the Pharisees couldn't make the Torah say what it does not say, they simply wrote a new Torah, the Mishnah, and claimed it was equal to the Five Books of Moses.

Why did the people accept this obvious fabrication? Because the Levites' agrarian Torah was becoming less and less relevant to the needs of an increasingly urban civilization. Mishnah became Torah because it met the needs of the people. Rabbis replaced Priests as the prefered authority because only rabbis had access to the new urban Torah. The scholar-elite created the Mishnah and the Mishnah protected the scholar-elite. And so it went for 2000 years.

Just as the shift from farm to city spelled the end of the Levites (the Romans only hastened the inevitable), so the shift from tribalism to globalism may spell the end of rabbis. The Torah of the rabbis has only one goal: the perpetuation of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism has only one goal: the perpetuation of the Jewish community as a separate people. The god of the Levites was obsessed with purity and sacrifice. The god of the rabbis is obsessed with identity and conformity. The God of the universe cares about none of this. And that is why good rabbis must put Torah first and God second.

The new globalist reality brings with it a new spiritual sensitivity, what Wayne Teasdale calls interspirituality. Those of us touched by this insight realize that we are heir to the entirety of human religious insight and teaching and need not allow the accident of birth to restrict us to just one. The hyphenated identities of Ju-Bu, Hin-Jew, Su-Ju will soon rival the standard denominational labels that currently dominate Jewish life. Rabbis who cannot positively address the new interspirituality will become more and more irrelevant to the lives of those they seek to lead. Those who put Torah first and God second will not disappear, they simply won't matter to the majority of spiritually seeking Jews.

I am a Jew. I love Torah and find much wisdom in her and her commentators. And though I learn from teachers from all the world's religions, when I seek a language to articulate my understanding of reality I choose Jewish language. But my first loyalty is not to the language of my faith, but to the Reality toward which my faith points: to God, the Source and Substance of all Being and Becoming.

I am not anti-religion, and certainly not anti-Judaism. I am anti-idolatry. I place God before everything else. What happens when I do? I am reduced to silence and a grace-filled not-knowing that precludes certainty, security, and religious hubris. When I put God first, I have to put myself, my tribe, my ideas, and my desires second. My role model here is Abraham.

Abraham put God first. In doing so he left behind everything he knew: his family, his tribe, his culture, his gods (Genesis 12:1). But he replaced this abandoned past with a hoped-for future (Genesis 12:2). He would, through his son, become a father of a nation and a blessing to the world (Genesis 21:13). His future became his idol. So God reminded him: If you put Me first, there is no refuge in past or future. God commands Abraham to kill his son (Genesis 22:2), which means to free himself from the idol of the future.

Free from past and future, Abraham becomes the quintessential spiritual warrior engaging the world with courage, justice, compassion, and hospitality. Tradition tells us [and in so doing reveals its true purpose: preserving the stories and teachings of the awakened ones] that unlike the custom of his time which was to keep three of the four sides of one's tent closed, Abraham opened all four sides of his tent to welcome people from wherever they came. This is what it is to put God first. To be free of the past, free of the future, and radically open to the present moment and all it brings.

If Judaism is to fulfill it truest mission to awaken Jews to the presence of God, it must put God first. If our rabbis are to lead us to this awakening they must model themselves after Abraham: freeing themselves of past and future and embracing the present with God-filled wonder. If, however, they are trained to be curators of the past rather than conduits to the present, then they, like the Levites before them, will fade into irrelevance.

My hope is that we make a home in the rabbinate for God-first Jews so that in time they can stand among us and point through Torah, and not simply to Torah, revealing the One who is a-priori to it all.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Gandhi's List

I am an avid reader of Sojourner's magazine, a liberal Christian publication edited by Jim Wallis. Sojourner's takes seriously Mahatma Gandhi's list of the seven things that can destroy civilization. It is a powerful and sussinct statement and one we should all consider. Here is the list:

Knowledge without Character; Science without Humanity; Wealth without Work; Commerce without Conscience; Politics without Principles; Pleasure without Conscience; Worship with Self–Sacrifice.

Here is my take on each.

Knowledge without Character. Knowledge is power and the currency of power, but knowledge itself is value neutral. Unless we value and teach our children to value such core decencies as honesty, compassion, justice, and self reliance all the knowledge in the world won’t save us from ourselves.

Science without Humanity. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we ought to do it. Science need not be in the service of humanity— there is an important place for pure research— but science ought not to be at the expense of humanity. We need an on–going dialogue between ordinary people and scientists. We need to understand what they are working on and what the implications of that work might be for humankind. We need to understand where science may be taking us and decide if, in fact, we want to go there.

Wealth without Work. Wealth has replaced work as the foundational value in our country. We want to be wealthy rather than get wealthy. There is nothing wrong with wealth, but there is something absolutely crucial about work. Work is central to human nature. Work builds character. We need to work, to be productive, to be useful, to add value to life through our lives. Wealth should not be the goal of work, but a by–product of working well. We need to teach our children the value of work; we tend to teach them only the value of wealth.

Commerce without Conscience. There should be no human endeavor free of conscience and moral consequence. There are over 100 rules in the Torah dealing with commerce and only 24 dealing with kashrut. We have to reclaim the importance of right livelihood, insisting that earning a living not be at the expense of others or our higher selves. We must reclaim the link between business and holiness.

Politics without Principles. Contemporary politics is about power and privilege, not principle. We need a national discussion of core principles. We need to reclaim what it is America stands for and then measure the effectiveness of our politicians and their policies by how well they further those core principles. Some among us claim America is without such principles. They are terribly wrong. Read the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Not only are we not without principles, the principles we have are unique in the history of humankind and must not be entrusted to politicians.

Pleasure without Conscience. Too often we justify our actions by the good feelings they bring us rather than by the amount of good they do. Conscience is the gauge that tells us how well our actions approximate our ethical ideals. Conscience rooted in the shared suffering of life, and the interdependence of all things helps us shape our choices and the actions that flow from them in the service of others as well as ourselves.

Worship without Self–Sacrifice. Authentic religion has nothing to do with the feel–good private salvation preached over television and radio. Read the Torah. There is little talk of personal salvation and lots of concern with universal justice and compassion. Authentic religion is not about getting into heaven; it is about helping your neighbor here in hell. God doesn’t want your praise, God wants your deeds: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly. If religion doesn’t help you put others first its isn’t worthy of your time, your money, your respect, or your loyalty.

Gandhi’s list is a valuable guide. Measure your deeds against it. Weigh the policies of our politicians against it. Make your personal and political choices in accordance with it. In this way you can take a few powerful steps toward making the world a worthwhile place to live.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

High Court, High Tea, High Time

Nothing like a conservative Supreme Court to protect the rights of a hundred or so Christian spiritists whose brand of Christianity includes the drinking of hallucinogenic tea. The group, called O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, is a Brazilian based Christian sect with 130 members living in greater Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Justice Department sought to ban the sect’s use of hoasca, a tea made from a plant found only in the Amazon. The plant contains a mind-altering drug the US government bans as a controlled substance. Chief Justice John Roberts led the court in siding with the sect, arguing in part that the government’s acceptance of peyote use by hundreds of thousands of Native Americans makes their attempt to outlaw Christian tea mute.

Given that the Justice Department knows the peyote rule, why would they go after hoasca? I suggest that this is yet another example of the Administration’s war on Christianity. What’s next? A new temperance movement that will outlaw sacramental wine use by Catholics?

America is a Christian nation. We were founded by Christians, led by Christians, and most tax payers are Christians. And if they want to get high on Amazon tea, the government cannot and should not stop them.

Yet I can see the government’s concern. Peyote use among Native Americans is not a Christian practice. Christians cannot suddenly claim that peyote is central to anything having to do with their faith. So there is no way peyote will become normative. But O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal is Christian. What is to stop one Christian denomination from borrowing ideas from another? Nothing. What is to stop, say, Episcopalians from deciding that they have much to learn from their Brazilian brothers and sisters, and begin to use hoasca in their churches? Soon the entire Christian nation may be getting high on Sundays.

This is, I suspect, what the government is worried about. It is fine to be a Christian nation as long as we are not a O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal influenced Christian nation. But this is just plan anti-Christian bias. The government cannot dictate which brand of Christianity it will sanction.

So I applaud Chief Justice Roberts and his court. If I could, I would invite them all to Santa Fe for a cup of tea.

South Carolina or Bust

"Christian Exodus" is on to something. Led by Cory Burnell, the Christian Exodus movement works to transplant 2500 like-minded Christians to two South Carolina cities by September of 2006 in Phase One of its proposed take over of the state. True, only twenty families have made the move so far, and, also true, Burnell isn’t one of them, still, this is a cool idea.

Burnell chose South Carolina because it is already overwhelmingly in the Christian Conservative camp. A few well-placed Christian Exodus majorities could tip the state into a Christian theocracy that legislates Burnell’s Christian values such as no abortion, no pornography, no social security, no homosexuality, no public education, and no gun control. You can read the details of their values oriented politics by putting “Christian Constitutionalists” into your favorite search engine.

The idea isn’t at all far fetched. Christians moving to South Carolina to set up a holy land is no different than the Israelites moving into Canaan to set up the Promised Land. It worked for them, and it will work for Burnell’s group as well. In fact it harkens back to our colonial period where different colonies elevated one denomination of Christianity over the others, and parallels the Mormon domination of Utah. It is very American.

So in the spirit of American ecumenism, I would like to suggest that every faith make a move to the state of their choice. Of course smaller religions like Judaism or Buddhism should be realistic and choose smaller or less populated states. Jews may have a leg up in New York, though they may opt for a city-state, i.e., New York City, rather than the whole state of New York. Unitarians used to dominate Massachusetts, and still have their headquarters there, so they might just invite all their members to move back to the mother land. Christian Science also claims Boston as its home, so there may be a bit of a shooting war to determine who gets rights to the state. I would place my money on Christian Science. First they have the better newspaper, and second, they aren’t supposed to die.

Even though they don’t constitute a religion, gays and lesbians might want to go for there own state as well. Feminists might have a state so they could secure abortion rights. I mean there is no end to the possibilities here.

So this is what I suggest. Sit down and figure out what your core values are. Then check to see if there is a group that already supports them one hundred percent. If there is, join
it and push for state control somewhere. If there isn’t, create one, target a state, and get your friends to move there with you. This would be phase one of my plan.

Then once the country is divided into neat warring camps we can start phase two and begin to invade one another’s territory, kill one another’s clergy, and bomb one another’s places of worship. We could have riots and marches and murders—I mean it certainly looks like fun in Iraq— why not do that here? There is nothing better than living among people that are just like you. You don’t have to think or compromise or worry that someone might say something you don’t want your children to here. Go for it, Christian Exodus! South Carolina or Bust!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sit, Breathe, Wait, and Love: The Power of Meditation

Meditation isn’t Jewish; or Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Christian, either. Meditation is human, and human beings have been doing it for thousands of years. We label meditation by culture depending on its context, content, and aim.

When I studied Zen Buddhism, I was taught to sit, breathe, and count my breaths. My goal, despite my teacher’s admonitions to the contrary, was to achieve satori, the realization that all things are empty of permanence. When I studied Raja Yoga I was taught how to sit and breathe, and repeat a mantrum linked to my breathing. My goal was moksha, liberation from the illusion of separate self. When I practice Jewish meditation I sit and breathe, linking my breathing to a repetition of the Sh’ma. My aim is teshuvah and tikkun, returning to God and godliness.

There is nothing particularly Jewish or Buddhist about sitting and breathing, counting breaths, or repeating words. These are just things that humans do. Doing these things for long periods of time seems to alter human consciousness, bringing about a sense of awareness that embraces the dualism of I and Thou in a greater nonduality. Labeling these things according to culture, and calling this nonduality YHVH, Tao, God, Dharmakaya, Allah adds a certain gravitas, but in the end it is still just sitting and breathing.

My understanding of God is best articulated by Rabbi Moses Cordovero, a 16th century Safed kabbalist: “God is found in all things and all things are found in God, and there is nothing devoid of divinity... Everything is in God, and God is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing beside God.”

A good analogy for understanding Cordovero’s teaching is the relationship between ocean and wave. A wave is not other than the ocean, nor is it the entire ocean. A wave is the ocean manifest in time and place. God is the ocean; the myriad forms of creation are the waves. Creation is God manifest in time and space. You are not other than God; and though you are in no sense all of God, God is, in fact, all of you.

The extent to which you are aware of your True Self as God manifest in space/time is the extent to which you are open to a deeper tranquility underlying the surface storms of everyday living. The extent to which you are unaware of your True Self is the extent to which you are needlessly anxious and fearful, mistaking the storms of living for Life itself.

To understand how meditation works you have to know a bit about the structure of reality. The Jewish mystics, starting in the 16th century with Isaac Luria, speak of five worlds or dimensions of reality, each with its own soul or consciousness. Think of these worlds and souls as a Russian nesting doll where smaller dolls fit into larger dolls. The five worlds are Assiyah/Body, Yetzirah/Heart, Beriah/Mind, Atzilut/Soul, and Adam Kadmon/Spirit. Their corresponding levels of consciousness are: Nefesh/Instinct, Ruach/Emotion, Neshamah/Ego, Chayya/Transpersonal, and Yechidah/Nondual.

All five worlds and levels of consciousness are present in each of us at all times. We tend to focus on the self conscious Neshamah, however, and filter everything through it: my body, my feelings, my thoughts, my soul, etc. This is necessary but insufficient if we are to understand our True Self. Meditation is a means for shifting attention from Neshamah to the more inclusive transpersonal realms of Chayya and Yechidah. Or to be a bit more poetic: meditation moves our awareness from the ego’s I to God’s I AM, revealing that God is the One Who manifests the many. The Jewish mystics articulate this teaching by an interesting Hebrew play on words.

The word for “I” in Hebrew is "ani"; the word for No-thingness (one of the Names of God) is "ain". Both words are made up the same three Hebrew letters: aleph, yud, and nun. They differ only in the order of these letters. When the yud (the "i") is on the end of the word you have ani, I. When the yud is in the middle of the word you have ain, God. The yud stands for "yadah", awareness. When awareness is focused outside of yourself it creates a sense of ani. When awareness is focused inside yourself the ani empties and ain is present. Meditation is a way of shifting focus from ani to ain.

I teach a variety of meditation practices. Here I shall focus on just one: the contemplative recitation of the Sh’ma: Hear, O Israel, that which we call God is Oneness Itself.

Find a quiet place to sit (either on cushions or in a chair), and settle into a comfortable upright position. Rest your hands on your lap or legs, place your tongue lightly on the roof of your mouth, relax your jaw, and close your eyes. If you tend to fall asleep, keep your eyes partially open, your gaze unfocused and directed at the floor about three feet in front of you.

Slowly recite the Sh’ma to yourself, linking each word to your breath: Breathe in "Sh’ma", breathe out "Yisrael"; breathe in "Adonai", breathe out "Eloheinu"; breathe in "Adonai", breathe out "Echad". Do this until you feel yourself slip into a deep quiet. Then stop the recitation and just sit. Allow sensations, thoughts, and feelings to pass without attending to them. In time Neshamah will open to Chayya; ani will melt into ain; “I” will surrender to I AM. This is what King David meant when he sang "kalta nafshi", my self is obliterated [Psalm 84:30]. This what our kabbalists called "bittul she-me’ever le-ta’am va-daat", the ending of thought.

Do not imagine that the end of thought is the end of the matter, however. To fully realize God you must bring your awareness of ain to bear on the world of ani. When the ain returns to the ani you come back to the world filled with "ahavah rabba", a greater compassion for all living things and a commitment to "tikkun haolam", healing the world through justice and love. We do this by recognizing the unity of all things in, with, and as God, and then acting accordingly.

For me the true value of Judaism arises at this point in my practice. Having tapped into the ain and returned with this powerful sense of ahavah rabbah, what do I do? Judaism is what to do: the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism are proven vehicles for translating the feeling of love into acts of love.

I grew up with the acts devoid of the feeling. I was taught to do them out of respect for the dead not to be of service of the living. I was taught a Judaism of the past not one alive to the Living Presence. My meditation practice revealed the true purpose of Judaism to me.

There are meditation traditions in every religion. I urge you to explore them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Interfaith Dialogue

The questions below were asked during an interview on interfaith cooperation held on Tuesday, February 21, 2006. I thought you might enjoy reading some of what came out of it.


I can't say I feel very courageous when doing this kind of work. I don't allow history to color the reality of the moment. I don't feel threatened by Christianity, Islam or any faith. Each religion is a lens through which to view the infinite reality of the Divine. The more lenses I can look through the more I understand of God.


Spiritual courage is articulated in God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12:1. God challenges Abram to free himself from the conditioning of tribe, culture, faith, and parental influence, and to follow God alone. To live without conditioning-- that takes courage.


I hope not. There is no authenticity to the dialogue if participants are afraid to be themselves. I don’t want someone to compromise her faith. I want her to share it openly; with civility and compassion, but without compromise. I have been told many times in such dialogue that I am going to hell for what I believe, and I would be insulted if the speaker said otherwise. If the person tried to send me to hell or forcibly save me from it, then we are no longer in dialogue. Then it is a struggle of will. The struggle in authentic dialogue is internal. I struggle with my conditioning, seeking to free myself from it so that I might hear what is really being spoken rather than to hear an echo of my own prejudice.


I think there are three: curiosity, compassion for self and other, and humility. Curiosity in the sense that I genuinely want to know what the other believes, what his experiences are, and what faith is for her and how it informs her life. Compassion for the other in the sense that I recognize the other as the image and likeness of God; seeing in her or him something divine and worthy of love and respect. Compassion for self in that you do not have to fear your own doubts, questions, and uncertainty. Humility in the sense that I hold my beliefs lightly, knowing that I do not and cannot know the Absolute. Humility allows one to know that God is greater than any creed, dogma, doctrine, or religion. This allows us to listen to others with having to defend ourselves. For me at this stage of my walk with God faith is not about knowing but not-knowing. I do not trust what I know to be true, just comfortable. And while I find the presence of God to be comforting, I do not experience God as comfortable. God is unsettling (that is why the Jews wander so!), disconcerting— the whirlwind of Job that only becomes the Fragile Voice of Stillness after you have let the storm strip you of all your masks and hiding places.


Again, I am having a problem with both ideas. Why would I want to compromise what I believe? I want to be clear and strong in my belief, and yet know that it is only my belief. Humility, not-knowing is the key here. If I know I do not know, compromise is unnecessary. I don't want to bend my beliefs to fit with another's, I want to drop my beliefs and see if we glimpse what is true.


Here are two more: A deep grounding in one's own faith. A dialogue partner has to be so rooted in her faith that she does not become threatened by the faith of others or have to resort to violence to avoid having to open to another faith. And second: a willingness to be transformed by the dialogue. There is no true meeting between people if there is no possibility of transformation. If I cannot be changed by what you say, there is no need for me to hear you say it. Dialogue, if it is true dialogue and not simply serial monologues, requires a great deal of vulnerability on the part of the dialogue partners. If I am not willing to take the other seriously, then there is no dialogue. If I do take the other seriously, seeing them as the image and likeness of God, and hearing in their words pointers toward that Truth that transcends words, then I must be ready to be transformed, moved, changed. This takes create courage!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Jewish Jazz

I recently received an email from a high school student who was writing a paper on Judaism for a class in Comparative Religion. She was Catholic, and thought the best way to complete her assignment was collect a variety of responses to the question “What is Judaism?” from different rabbis. I made her list.

I get over one hundred emails daily. While most of these are from marketers following a computer cookie trail, many require thoughtful responses. More often than not, however, I tend to answer my email on automatic writing. Until I reread it before hitting “Send” I often don’t know just what it is that I have written. Someday I hope to discover that I have in this way channeled a new revelation from God. In the meantime I will content myself to be surprised now and again by my own words. Responding to this young woman was one of those times. This is the opening paragraph to my email:

Asking me “What is Judaism?” is like asking a fish “What is water?” Like water to the fish, Judaism is the transparent ether through which I move. It is the text and context of my life. It is that environment without which I cannot breathe.

I was stunned. Is that true? Without Judaism would I be a fish out of water? Something deep inside of me denied this. Something even deeper affirmed it. Judaism is the field in which I play. It is my chosen game. So what is this game?

Here is a tentative definition: Judaism is the ancient and on-going drash (interpretation) of the Jews on sacred text. In a sense this definition is circular. What makes a text sacred is that we bother to do drash on it. So one could ask which comes first the text or the drash? My sense is that they arise together. As soon as we create a text for ourselves we create variations on it. Judaism is jazz.

As in jazz there is a thematic constant from which one innovates. In Jewish Jazz one might say that this constant is Torah, but I suspect that is not exactly right. Torah is a drash on lived experience. Torah arose out of the Jewish people’s encounters with God, however they understood God at the time. Torah arose out of revelation, and since revelation cannot be fixed, for God is by definition unconditional and therefore unfixed, the constant is not Torah but God encounter.

Given the fact that there is no single definition for God in Jewish text we can say we have a contentless constant. But this, too, is not exactly true. While we cannot and need not define God we can say that a careful reading of Judaism would reveal that whatever God may be, our experience of God always reveals to us some level of nonduality. God breaks down barriers. Our historical experience of God as God has always been to engage us in the quest for unity through diversity.

Thus we can define Judaism as the ancient and on-going drash of the Jewish people on unity. We read ancient text, write new texts, and do midrash on both all in a never ending attempt to understand and apply unity in our time.

Judaism, then, is not a noun but a verb; not a product but a process. Product Judaism posits a fixed set of behaviors and says “This is Judaism.” Process Judaism, Judaism as jazz, says the thematic constant is unity and however the Jews play out that theme is Judaism. With this understanding we can detect a variety of jazz improvisations: biblical, prophetic, priestly, Pharisaic, Essene, Pauline, Kabbalistic, Hasidic, Marxist, Freudian, Einsteinian, and Friedanian, to name just a few. Whenever Jews push for unity we see Jewish jazz at play.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

God Dennett

In an essay entitled “The Harsh Light of Science: Why a Scientific Study of Religion is Necessary” published in this month’s SEED magazine, Daniel C. Dennett continues his screed against religion. The tone of the essay is smarmy, but the challenge is no less real.

“The ethos of science,” Dennett writes, “is that you pay a price for the authoritative confirmation of your favorite hypothesis, risking an authoritative refutation of it. Those who want to make claims about religion will have to live by the same rules: prove it or drop it. And if you set out to prove it and fail, you are obliged to tell us.”

He gleefully awaits the falsification of religious teachings, and demands, rightly I think, that if a teaching is disproved the organizations that promote it must admit that it is false.

I can understand that such a challenge is frightening to many people of faith, but that is because they mistake religion for science. The Bible (like all sacred texts) is a blend of the timeless (love your neighbor) and the time bound (slavery, oppression of women, homophobia, etc.). Having to defend these ancient beliefs against modern science and sensibility is silly, wastes an incredible amount of energy, makes a laughingstock of faith, and perverts the very essence of religion.

Religion, from the Latin “relegare,” means (as does the Sanskrit word “yoga”) “to bind.” Religion is a means for uniting the individual self with the Whole that I call God. Those who use religion to achieve power and wealth, justify their political agendas, and excuse horrors against other humans and the planet itself erode the true genius of religion.

Can science disprove the power of religion to awaken us to the union of part and Whole? On the contrary, science can show us how this awakening happens and can be generated. Science can show us what happens in deep contemplative prayer and meditation, that we might fine-tune our spiritual disciplines to make them more effective. Science can be in the service of religion when religion is allowed to be in the service of God and godliness.

Science can do many wonderful things, but it cannot provide people with hope, meaning, and life-purpose. Science can tell us the “how” of things but not the “why.” Science can free religion from having to be science, but it cannot replace religion with science.

This should be the relationship of science and religion: science should be taken very seriously by religion so that the teachings of religion never violate the truths of science. This would not erode the power of religion, but free religion to do what science cannot: promote a way of life that furthers universal justice, compassion, love, and peace. Religion without science has no head. Science without religion has no heart or soul.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Down with Danish

After watching Muslims sacking Danish embassies in today’s continuing cartoon wars, I decided an act of solidarity with needed, and I set out to demonstrate at our local Danish embassy. Unfortunately we don’t have a Danish embassy. I looked for a consulate, but we don’t have one of those either. In fact the closest I could get to anything Danish was the bakery at our local Kroger store.

I bought three Danish and stuck them on a wooden stick. I set the stick upright in the grass alongside Main Street. I planned to burn them as an act of protest.

Did you know that Danish don’t burn? I meant they can get really toasty and black if you hold a flame up to them, but they don’t actually catch fire like a rubber tire or flag. I didn’t know that. The bag that held the Danish burns, but I had tossed it away, and, besides, burning a bag that once held three Danish is not the same as burning the Danish themselves.

I went back to my house to double check in the phonebook to make sure there was no Danish government office in town, and when I came back I found a dog eating my Danish, even the slightly blackened one. It took the dog only a couple of minutes to finish the Danish and move on.

I went back to Kroger and asked them to stop selling Danish. They told me that Danish aren’t really made in Denmark, but I think they were lying. They did offer to take Muslix off the shelves but they weren’t sure that came from Denmark, either. I think they just wanted to get rid of a cereal that wasn’t selling because who wants to eat something that sounds like its main ingredient comes out of your nose?

Anyway, while I was reading the Muslix box to see if it comes from Denmark, some lady started screaming that she just bought a Danish that looked like the Prophet Mohammed.

I ran over to see it for myself, but some Christian guy grabbed it and ate it, and then held up a Pop Tart that he swore had the Shroud of Turin printed on it. He passed it around, but I didn’t see anything in it. It is a matter of faith, or maybe just Olympic fever.

Or maybe it was Allah’s way of telling me get a life. Yeah, maybe that.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Window Shopping in the Garden of Grace

I had breakfast with a saint yesterday. His name is Bo Lozoff. Bo is the author of several books, most notably “It’s a Meaningful Life. It Just Takes Practice,” and the co-founder with his wife, Sita, of the Humankindness Foundation, a contemplative outreach program for inmates in American prisons.

I have known Bo for decades, but we rarely have the opportunity to sit with one another. As we ate eggs and waffles (I had the first, Bo the second) in a local Waffle House (Murfreesboro is a three-Waffle House town), I listened to his experiences with a recent year of silence. This was not Bo’s first experience silence, but it seems to have been the most transformative. He emerged as a true servant of God.

A servant of God, as the early Jewish sages defined it, is one who has surrendered his or her will to God. God sets the agenda for your life; you are simply a vehicle for doing whatever it is God wants done. But how do you know what that is? How do you know it is God’s will you are following rather than a subtle whim of your own masquerading as divine?

On the one hand, you don’t; you can’t. And that is part of the process for it keeps you humble. You have to trust that whatever is given you to do comes from God. It sounds like a perfect scam for an ego looking to hoodwink itself and others. And yet as Bo described his life, I knew that in his case it was anything but. His service to God translates as service to others. This is what God wants: that we serve one another in our mutual quest for integrity, simplicity, justice, and compassion.

So, on the other hand, you can know when the will of God is calling you. If you are called to be of service to another’s God-realization— this is God calling. If you are called to serve yourself at another’s expense, or serve yourself through this seemingly selfless service to others, then it is ego and not God that is calling to you.

Later last evening, long after talking with Bo, I was browsing in the religion and spirituality sections of Nashville’s Borders Books and Music. So many books dealing with spiritual growth and divine service. But the vast majority—Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” being a notable exception— were thinly veiled cries of the ego pretending to be the Still Small Voice of God. These books equate your happiness with God’s will. God wants you to be wealthy, healthy, well-groomed, and tax-sheltered. This is what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the religion of most Americans. It is a feel good, get rich gospel that is in the service of the self not God. As I listened to Bo I heard the cost of discipleship, the stripping away of ego, the painful, frightening and yet ultimately liberating death of the false self as part of the birthing of the true self.

If you wish to serve God know that it will cost you “you.” It is a high price to pay, and there is no discount. I wish I could say I was ready to pay the price, but I am not. I am still window shopping in the Garden of Grace.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mystics and Monotheists

In his powerful book “Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, divides the religious world into two camps: mystics and monotheists. The former uphold a nondual, nonpersonal, and trans-religious Deity that unites all beings in, with, and as Itself. The latter affirm a singular and separate personal Deity who chooses, judges, rewards and punishes based on ethical precepts and correctness of faith. For the Pope, the latter is superior, for only the latter supports the idea of one true faith and one moral code that is central to the Pope’s Catholicism. As you might expect, I disagree.

As I understand him, the Pope worries that the ineffable nature of Reality as the mystics experience it cancels the truth claims of any given religion, removes the absolute power claimed for its rituals and religious hierarchy, and makes ethics a matter of personal choice rather than divine command. He is correct about the first two points, but wrong about the third.

Mystics do see all religions as symbol systems pointing toward a common and ultimately ineffable Reality. While different religions highlight different aspects of this Reality, no one religion can grasp it in its entirety. Hence when mystics of different faiths gather, cooperation rather than competition is the norm. In addition, mystics raise personal encounter with God over ritual, and tend to question the power and authority of priests and clerics of all sorts. Hence mystics are a threat to religious hierarchies and the systems that sustain them.

Nevertheless, mystics are not necessarily anti-religion, and most come from and operate within a formal religious system. What they are against is the triumphalism and one-upmanship that organized religions often display. Mystics know they are like the blind men and the elephant, each describing a small part of the infinite. Where they differ from mainstream organized religion is that they do not mistake their part for the whole, but dialogue with others to get a better sense of what is true.

Regarding ethics the mystics’ direct encounter with God translates into a universal code of ethics that transcends time and place. This code is best articulated by the prophet Micah: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Justice and compassion are universal and timeless principles that each generation must define and refine for itself, but it is not a matter of whim, but rather rooted in the very nature of God as they encounter God. Walking humbly with you God is more than a challenge to personal hubris, but addresses the tendency of organized religions to claim unique access to the truth and to deny the truths and damn the followers of other faiths. Walking humbly with “your” God means admitting that your idea of God is just that, your idea and not the absolute truth.

Both mystics and monotheists see the world rooted in the One God, the God the mystics would called Oneness Itself, and governed by both natural laws and moral imperatives. The issue of morals does not divide mystics from monotheists, but mystics and monotheists from scientists.

While all three communities experience the wonder of reality, only the monotheists and mystic find it exquisitely moral. Working in harmony with reality allows the scientist to uncover the physical structures of the universe and apply what is learned to enhancing our physical existence. Working in harmony with reality allows mystics and monotheists to uncover the moral structures of the universe and apply what is learned to enhancing our spiritual and cultural existence.

I appreciate Pope Benedict’s categories of mystic and monotheist, but I do not find them in opposition to one another. On the contrary, mystics are the explorers of the spirit whose discoveries should be the stuff from which monotheists fashion religious systems that lift us out of religious parochialism toward diverse celebrations of God’s unity and universal ethic. Add the category of scientist to the mix, and we may have the workings of a new field for deeply spiritual and scientifically rigorous exploration.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Cartoon Graveyard

The reprinting of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, first published by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last September, has sparked heated protest by Muslims who feel the cartoons are an insult to Islam, both for their inflammatory content, and because they defy the Muslim ban on depicting images of Mohammed in the first place.

I have seen most of the cartoons and find them largely infantile and moronic. But that is beside the point. Nor is the point that these cartoonists violate Muslim law— the cartoonists are not Muslims.

Nor is the point is freedom of speech and Islam’s inability to deal with it. The Book of Daniel was taken off the air in Nashville because of Christian pressure put on the local NBC affiliate. Catholics routinely threaten to boycott movies they find anti-Catholic, and Jews are not hesitant to attack films, such as Munich and The Passion of the Christ they find anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Every religious and ethnic group seeks to defend itself when it feels its honor is under attack.

What troubles me about these images of Mohammed is that they are simply the latest example of the human tendency to dehumanize those labeled “the enemy” in order to promote violence against them.

I am a fan of political cartoons, but there is a difference between caricaturing someone and demonizing him. The best study of this is Bill Jersey’s film, “Faces of the Enemy” featuring social commentator Sam Keen. Using material drawn from World War II, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and Islamic and Christian Fundamentalism, Keen shows how we blame, demonize, and dehumanize our enemies to justify killing them.

In most cases, people have to be primed for war. As the film says, they have to “think each other to death” first. And cartoons such some of those printed in the Jyllands-Posten are part of that process. They are no different than the anti-Semitic cartoons demonizing Jews that are rampant in Islamic countries. As long as “the other” isn’t human, we can excuse almost any action taken against them.

In the film, psychologists Robert Lifton and Steven Kull explain how war and the dehumanizing of enemies provide us with a sense of moral certainty in a time of moral ambiguity. As humanity becomes more global and cultural norms are challenged by those of other peoples, each group seeks to bolster its sense of what’s right and true by dehumanizing and warring against those who hold differing views. We can see this in the violent diatribes against Jews in many Islamic countries, those against homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, Christians, and illegal aliens in this country, and the hate speech that masquerades as radio and television talk shows. Hateful cartoons featuring Mohammed are just more of the same.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell holds out a ray of hope in the film, saying that these cartoons can act as a mirror reflecting our own dark side, and developing compassion for “the other.” We can only hope. In the meantime watch it this film.