Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What Makes Us Unique

My friend Hal gave me a copy of “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert. I’m only on page 3, but I already feel compelled to comment.

Gilbert speaks of The Sentence; that one line on which so many of us live or die: “The human being is the only animal that…”

Gilbert says humans are the only beings that think about the future. I don’t know if that is true, but, true or not, there are other ways to complete this sentence that I find more compelling: The human being is the only animal that… pays for sex; packs things with Styrofoam peanuts; and bothers to complete the sentence: The human being is the only animal that….

But these answers, while wildly clever, don’t mean much. Thinking a bit more deeply, I would say the human being is the only animal that imagines God cares about what he or she believes God cares about. We are the only animals that worry about heresy, blasphemy, and making sure that Passover matzah is baked no longer than 18 minutes.

Now you might argue that I am missing the point, and that we humans are the only animals that care about Truth. But I don’t think truth is what we care about. What we care about is belief. What you believe may be totally insane, but you will fight to the death (preferably someone else’s) insisting otherwise.

Most likely the insanity belongs to those who believe other than you do. For example, it is insane to think that a bit of dry cracker becomes the body of Christ, but it makes total sense that the sun stood still at midday to allow Joshua enough time to finish his military conquests. Or, it is ludicrous to think that God kept feeding lines to Mohammed in a cave, but the quintessence of reason to believe that He dictated a few lines to Moses on a mountaintop.

I am not saying that one person’s belief is another person’s heresy. I am saying that when it comes to religious belief people are nuts. And we like it that way.

Take the Buddha. He comes to a very simple insight: life driven by unquenchable desire is painful, so stop living that way. That is a very clear, testable truth. And then his followers spend innumerable hours decorating it with wild stories about cobras, demons and virgins over whose existence we can argue incessantly.

So here is another ending for Gilbert’s sentence: The human being is the only animal that prefers fantasy to reality.

Now it is your turn: The human being is the only animal that…

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Name Game

A couple of days ago I commented on changes to the American Catholic liturgy. Today I read that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is considering some drastic changes of its own.

The church’s national assembly voted to “receive” (one step short of approving) a more gender-inclusive reference to the Trinity. No, not Natalie, Martie, and Emily, they are the Dixie Chicks. In addition to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (nee Ghost) the Trinity may soon make a liturgical debut as Mother, Child, and Womb” or “Rock, Redeemer, and Friend” or “Lover, Beloved, and Love.”

The goal of the changes is to remove the misnomer that God— King of Kings, Lord of Lord, and Man of War—is male. Not a bad goal as goals go, but to say that these changes “do not alter the church’s theological position,” as the church claims, is to say you are not taking these changes very seriously.

If God the Father is now God the Mother, just how did Mother impregnate Mary with Child? And if She did, what does this say about homosexuality in the church? God is now a lesbian, so how can we say lesbianism is an abomination? Gay men are still out, of course, because it is man on man sex that really freaks the Church Fathers out. Women on women, well lets just say boys will be boys unless they are gay in which case they are abominations.

But could a Lesbian God really hate gay men? I doubt it. So I imagine that soon after the return of the Mother we will find a way to welcome gay men as well.

I for one am happy about this. I am a bit less comfortable with the Holy Womb.

A womb is a uterus, a hollow muscular organ located in the pelvic cavity of female mammals. True, I believe that God manifests as all things, so this hollow muscular organ is also God, but do I really want to pray to it? When people say they are moved by the Holy Spirit, am I to imagine they are being squeezed by an invisible uterus? And if we are trying to make our religious language gender-inclusive, did it ever occur to people that only women have wombs?

For a moment I thought the way out would be the Lover, Beloved, Love trinity. But lovers need not be spouses and spouses need not be lovers, so now God is supporting love outside of marriage which makes everyone not living in Massachusetts very nervous.

So what to do? Opt for the liturgy of the unformed Quaker service: silence. Just sit in God’s presence and know that whatever images come to mind regarding God are neither real nor accurate.

As Lao Tzu has been trying to teach us for thousands of years: the God that can be named is not the eternal God.

Monday, June 19, 2006

A Shameless Plug

My friend Rich called last night and urged me to let my readers now that I have recently published a new book with Skylight Press. The book is called the Sacred Art of Lovingkindness. It should be in most bookstores by now, and can be ordered from either Skylight or Amazon.

If you are readers of my books, I would like to ask a favor. If you can make the time, please go on Amazon.com and write comments in the review section. Of course I am assuming you would right positive reviews. If you didn't like the book no need to write a review.


A Shift in the Making?

Just when I was packing to move to Canada, or Amsterdam, or Israel (notice the order), I read that the Southern Baptist Convention elected the Rev. Frank Page as the group's president at its meeting in Greensboro, N.C., and Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is elected to lead the Episcopal Church USA. While too very different persons of faith, they share a broader vision that shifts (in the case of the Baptists) and maintains (in the case of the Episcopalians) the direction of these two denominations toward the left.

Now, don’t get too excited. Rev. Page and his Southern Baptists are not about to vote for gay marriage, something Bishop Schori supports, but the obsession of the religious right with bashing the liberal left may be waning.

Does this mean that the War on Christianity is over and the Civil War among Christians is underway? I doubt it. As American Jews know, feeling hated and oppressed is a great marketing tool. It is easier to raise money from followers who feel attacked, then from followers who feel victorious. So I doubt the War is over. But at least there may be a new front opening: more liberal (relative to the establishment) leaders are coming to the fore bringing the teachings of Jesus to bear on the issues that really mattered to him: poverty, injustice, exploitation of the common people by the religious and political elites, rather than abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research.

I for one am heartened by these two elections. What Christianity, Islam, and Judaism need is their how Dalai Lama. We are no where near this at the moment, but maybe we moved a bit in that direction this past week. Let’s hope so.

Making a Mess of Mass

Religious ritual is theater. Its power rests on its use of music, symbol, and liturgy to open the heart, mind, and soul of the worshipper to the presence of God. Mostly it is bad theater, primarily because the people in charge of worship refuse to treat it as theater. Case in point: the newly proposed changes to the American Catholic Mass.

In the new version the standard exchange between priest and people: “The Lord be with you”/”And also with you” will now be “The Lord be with you”/ “And with your spirit.” This is supposed to better reflect the Latin from which the English Mass comes. That may be. My Latin is limited to E Pluribus Unum and Biggus Dickus. But it is bad theater.

The repetition of “you” in the two phrases links the priest with the people. We could bless one another as equals. Now the people are asking that God be with the father’s spirit. But what about the rest of him? This splitting of body and spirit is both false and unfortunate. A church still reeling from child abuse scandals should know this most of all.

The second change deals with Communion. Prior to taking Communion Catholics used to say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” Now worshippers will say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” What were they thinking?

Taking the Body and Blood of Christ into oneself is the center of the Mass. This is a moment of integrating God and wo/man. No one is worthy of this, and thus it is a sign of God’s love that it is offered to you. But to shift from receiving God to having God under one’s roof misses the point completely. God isn’t entering under your roof; God is entering your mouth. Even if the liturgical writer was thinking of the roof of one’s mouth when he made this change (which I doubt), it is a terrible change.

I have been to many Communion services. I have seen the power of this intimate in-taking of God. It is moving and stirring. This new liturgy can only take away from that.

These changes reflect the error at the heart of organized religion. Rather than work to deepen our experience of God’s presence here and now, organized religion focuses on conforming to some historical experience there and then. These changes to the Catholic liturgy are just the latest example of how religion misses the mark.

True worship should have elements of continuity with the past, but should not simply imitate the past. Imitative worship cannot open us to God, unless the god it presents to us is also imitative. Indeed that may be the problem. Religion is all about the second-hand. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob rather than the God of you and this moment. Even if you add the matriarchs to the mix—Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—you are doing nothing to shift worship into the present.

When I go to a worship service I want to moved to let go of past and future and awaken to what is here and now: God manifest. I guess that is I why I rarely go to services.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Soylent Green is People (Chinese People)

Remember ice cream trucks? Where I grew up in Western Massachusetts the ice cream truck was a summer staple. Everyday, though we never new just when, we would hear the jingle as the gleaming white van made its way through the streets of our neighborhood. As the jingle got louder we knew the van was getting closer. We would practically mug our mothers for change, and then wait anxiously at the curb for the arrival of the truck.

The truck drove slowly down the street so as not to kill any potential customers. As it pulled up in front of us our eyes scanned the myriad signs plastered on the side of the truck announcing just what was inside the coolers that day. Popsicles, Push-Up Pops, Creamsicles, Fudge Bars, Ice Cream Sandwiches, the list seemed endless. And the guy dressed in white pants, shirt, and sailor-like paper hat was the master of ceremonies. He worked efficiently, never loosing his cool. I wanted to be that guy.

My cousin Bob actually drove an ice cream truck for a while. The envy of many of my friends, but his route was far from our neighborhood, so having a family member in the business did nothing to lower our personal ice cream expenses. He loved that job. I bet he would do it again, given the chance.

I read today that the Chinese have something similar. Or not so similar. The twist is that, in China, they are not selling ice cream, they are killing people. The Chinese van, which looks just like the ice cream trucks of my childhood, is a deathmobile that comes to your neighborhood to inject convicted criminals with lethal chemicals and then cart away the bodies in the back of the truck.

Critics of the idea say China uses the trucks to increase their harvest of body parts to sell on the black market. Not a bad idea. If we did this profits could offset the costs of trials, or be given to the families the criminals have harmed. In fact, we could harvest body parts from living criminals. We could offer a reduced sentence to criminals who would give up a lung or kidney or eye.

I am thinking about writing to the Chinese embassy to suggest that they could get more out of the vans if they let the drivers sell ice cream out of the back of the trucks. They already have coolers to keep the newly harvested organs fresh, so why not start the day with the coolers filled with ice cream. Rather than sitting around waiting for a criminal to kill, drivers could cruise neighborhoods and sell ice cream, stopping for an occasional lethal injection, and careful not to mix the deadly serum with the butterscotch topping.

I am not saying we should have deathmobiles, or that the Chinese should sell ice cream. It isn’t my place to tell other people what to do. It is just that if we did do it maybe my cousin could get a part-time job driving one of the trucks in my neighborhood so I could get a free hot fudge sundae now and then.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dear Rami

Dear Rami,

I just found your website (www.rabbirami.com) and read most of what you had posted there. It was very irritating. I know you say you are a rabbi but I am not sure. I think you should stop using the title rabbi. Then we won’t have to take you seriously anymore.


* * *

Dear X

You don’t have to take me seriously, but I worked hard to become a rabbi, and I have no intension of dropping the title.

In fact I love being a rabbi, just as I love being a Jew; though I admit to pushing the limits of both. And in the spirit of doing just that, let me share a couple of thoughts your email sparked in me.

A rabbi is a master of Torah, God’s revelation to Moses and through Moses to the world. The heart of that revelation is what I call the Jewish Creed:

Hear O Israel, YAH is our God, YAH is one. Love YAH with all your heart, with every breath, with all you have and are (Deuteronomy 6:4-5); and Love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) and the stranger (Leviticus 19:34) as yourself.

[I use the Name YAH (as in Hallelu-YAH, praise YAH) rather than Adonai/Lord to avoid the patriarchal and hierarchical dualism associated with the more classic LORD. The Hebrew is best understood as the verb TO BE. God is the is-ing of reality.]

A Jew is someone devoted to this Creed who continually strives to deepen her capacity to listen and love, and uses the tools Judaism offers as her primary means for doing so. A rabbi is someone whose life is devoted to facilitating this deepening in both others and him/herself.

Of course these are not standard definitions, but they work for me, and I thought I would share them with you. Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this. Feel free to ignore my thoughts if you wish.

Monday, June 12, 2006


“We report to a Higher Authority” is a very successful marketing slogan for kosher meat producer Hebrew National. It suggests that kosher products are holier and therefore healthier. That may be true for Hebrew National, and I have no evidence to the contrary. But it is not true of all companies who call themselves kosher.

AgriProcessors, a major kosher meat producer selling its products under the Aaron’s Best brand, has been under fire for mistreatment of animals since December of 2004 when an animal rights group shot video of the plant’s slaughtering processes. At the heart of kosher is the principle of “tzar baalei chayyim,” sparing animals from unnecessary suffering. Not so at AgriProcessors. Of course since meat eating itself is unnecessary, and God’s prescribed diet in Genesis is clearly meatless, one could (and I do) argue that true kosher is vegetarianism. But the suffering of the animal is not the only issue; of equal importance is the treatment of workers.

Exploiting laborers renders products, both food stuffs and other goods, treif, unfit for human consumption. A new study of AgriProcessors’ labor policies reveals that on this count too they are decidedly treif. Workers are often undocumented, underpaid, poorly trained, and overworked. (see the Forward, May 26, 2006).

“Aaron’s Best” is really what is best for Aaron, and seems to bear little resemblance to anything remotely holy. Yet religious Jews continue to buy their products. Why? Because law is God and God is law in so much of what passes for Judaism. But this is not Judaism; this is idolatry.

Judaism is not alone in making idols. Every religion offers up a lens (it is really a mirror, but that is for some other time) through which to view God and in time begins to worship that lens as if it were God. That people don’t see this amazes me. Religion is too often bullshit from a sacred cow (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

I take kosher very seriously. I think that doing your best to only consume items that do as little harm to animals, people, and the environment as possible is what kosher is all about. I am a kosher Jew, and while tuna, salmon, and halibut consider me a Nazi, cows and chickens think I am Gandhi. Mea culpa to the fish; my kosher is a work in progress.

The fact that a company that causes needless suffering to animals and workers can still be kosher simply reinforces my sense that orthodoxies of any sort are corrupt to the core.

What Judaism needs, what all religions need, is a prophetic voice standing in the marketplace of ideas and speaking truth to power. Jesus may have been the last Jew to do this for Judaism, and look what happened to him— they turned him into God! There is no better way to avoid the message then worshipping the messenger. How terribly sad for us all.