Monday, December 31, 2007

Keeping God on the Horizon

I received an interesting question via email today: “Dear Rabbi, Is it possible to keep God on my horizon?”

What is a horizon? A horizon is that point beyond which one cannot see. The horizon doesn’t contain anything. It isn’t a thing in and of itself. It is that place where things disappear into the unseen.

Some people want to draw near to the horizon, but this makes no sense. As you move toward the horizon the horizon retreats.

Some people want to move in the direction of the horizon, but this too makes no sense. The horizon exists in all directs: turn in any direction and see as far as you can see and where your seeing ends is your horizon.

Keeping God on your horizon, therefore, means keeping God just beyond your sight, just passed what you know and can know.

The horizon is not the unknown itself, however. The horizon is the point of unknowing. The unknown itself has content. You discover this content when you come to know what was hitherto unknown. Today I don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow, but I will know what did happen to me tomorrow when (and if) I look back on tomorrow from the perspective of the day after tomorrow. Yet even as I look back my horizon is still in front of me, unchanged. Or, better, constantly changing.

So maybe the horizon is a good metaphor for God: God is the point of unknowing. No, the word “point” is misleading. The horizon is not a point in the sense of destination that can be reached. As I said, it is constantly retreating, forever moving. So there is no “point” but a pointing. The horizon is a pointing of unknowing. Grammar aside, does this work? Is God a pointing beyond the known?

All definitions of God have their limitations, but for the moment this one sounds pretty enticing. I like the idea that God is a pointing rather than a point, a doing rather than a being. I like the fact that God is not limited to the unknown, for that again seems to make God a thing, but is simply the pointing toward unknowing.

Of course this does make God somewhat transcendent rather than immanent. God is “out there” rather than “in here” or “right here,” but perhaps I am being too literal with the word horizon. Certainly there is a pointing to an inner as well as outer unknowing.

Anyway, to answer the email: Can you keep God on the horizon? No. Whatever is “on the horizon” isn’t. The horizon is that just beyond what is. Perhaps this is what Torah means when it calls God Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I am what I am becoming; I am just beyond what you know and see.

Happy New Year to all of you!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Student Interview, Part 4 of 4: Judaism at Its Best


Yes. I am a teacher of Torah, broadly defined as Jewish wisdom from Moses to Isaiah to Ecclesiastes to Jesus to the Baal Shem Tov to Kafka. Jewish wisdom is my primary language for articulating and sharing the universal truths I find meaningful and transformative. While I may draw from the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism to explicate a text from the Bible, it is the Bible rather than the Buddha that occupies me primarily. If it were the other way around I might call myself a Buddhist rather than a Jew, and I certainly would not call myself a rabbi.


Jesus was a great prophet, rabbi, and sage of Jewish wisdom. To call oneself a Jew and discard his teaching is to ignore a very important piece of Jewish wisdom.


At its best, Judaism is a living, open system of transformative spiritual practice concerned with teshuvah and tikkun, return and repair. Teshuvah is turning inward and discovering the ocean as the Face wearing the mask of the wave. Tikkun is turning outward and engaging life from this perspective of nonduality.

Another name for inward turning is Tikkun HaNefesh, repairing the soul, revealing the wholeness that the isolated ego denies. The outward turning is called Tikkun HaOlam, repairing the world with justice, compassion, and peace. I love the word “tikkun,” repair or heal. When we heal we make whole; when we re-pair we put the seemingly separate parts of the world back together again, or, more accurately, we discover that they were never apart. So Judaism as tikkun, as turning, is ultimately a dance of nondual realization.


All the rules, laws, and customs should be in service to tikkun. If a tradition helps you turn and heal, inwardly and outwardly, then do it. If it doesn’t, don’t do it. But the only way to know if a mitzvah or practice aids your turning is to try it out.


Judaism today seems too self-focused to me. It is as if the point of Judaism is to be Jewish rather than to practice teshuvah and tikkun, returning to God and repairing the world with godliness.


Judaism has a unique capacity to help people live with paradox and ambiguity, the hallmarks of postmodern civilization. That is one of the things I love best about it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Student Interview, Part 3: The Soul


No. There is no individual soul anymore than there is an individual you. There is only God, the One Thing that is everything.


Heaven and hell are states of mind right here and now.

If you imagine you are apart from God, in competition with everyone and everything; if you believe that life is a zero-sum game and your gain must come at the expense of others; if you believe that God is judging you and preparing eternal torments for you or someone else, then you are in hell already. The opposite of this is heaven.

As far as what happens when you die, there is no you in the absolute sense, so nothing happens. What happens when you awake from a dream? Can you say that the “dream you” is dead? What happens when a wave folds back into the ocean? Yes its form is gone but was it only that? Or was it always the ocean and it is still the ocean?

As the body dies the illusion of the separate self fades and you know yourself to be what you always were: God.


Judaism is my tribe, my culture. It influences the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the languages I speak, the books I read and the way I read them. I am proud to be a Jew and would not choose to be anything else.


It is a mistake to imagine there is such a thing as a fixed Judaism. There is the Judaism of Moses, the Judaism of the Prophets, the Judaism of the Priests, the Rabbis, the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, the Secularists. Judaism isn’t fixed. It is a living system that changes as the people who shape it change. I draw from all of these forms, but I am not limited by any of them. I take what speaks to me, and practice what awakens me.


In my own way, yes. Kosher means aligning all my consuming with the wellbeing of person and planet. Shabbat means standing apart from the addiction to work and learning to play. I do both as best I can.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Student Interview, Part 2: Role of Religion


It came to me rather than me coming to it. I have been involved in contemplative practice for over forty years. From the very first months of meditation practice this understanding of God became a felt reality to me. The years have only confirmed and deepened it.


Each day I walk, chant, sit in silence, study and write.


Nothing. There is nothing to get, because nothing is lacking. It is simply a way of remembering the truth that all is God, and that I can be in the world in a godly manner.


Very little. I learned these practices from mystics whose lives, teachings, and spiritual technologies were preserved by religious organizations, so I am grateful to religion for that, but my spiritual life has little to do with organized religion.


I wouldn’t say that. But I am leery of it. To the extent that organized religion preserves the wisdom of the mystics and how to investigate truth for yourself, it is valuable. To extent that it does good work in the world, promoting peace and justice, it is laudable. To the extent that it helps those in search of community and comfort find these, it is valuable. But when religions shun reality by denying and hiding from science; when they promote fear through superstitious notions about gender, sexual orientation, and sin that are degrading to humankind, when they sanctify evil and cruelty and ignorance and oppression in the name of this or that god, then religion is anathema.


Of course there is. While religious leaders use religion to tame the laity, the laity use religion to tame God.


Religion is magic. If we humans do “X” God will do “Y.” If we sing the right hymns, hold the right beliefs, worship the right image, marry the right people, and surrender to the right leaders then God will not beat the crap out of us here and in the hereafter.

The problem is that all religions say this, and it is impossible to form any objective criteria for determining which religion is right. There are only two ways to say one religion is true and another is false. Either you simply make that claim based on nothing but faith and wishful thinking, or you murder all the followers of the other religions and use their deaths to prove the impotence of their god.


Sure: Give up magical thinking. Give up trying to tame God. But this means people will have to face the fact that life, from the human perspective, is often tragic and cruel, and that bad things happen to good people for no reason whatsoever. People want life to make sense, so they imagine there is an All Mighty God in charge of things and that they can manipulate this god into doing what they want: heal this one, damn that one.

God isn’t your friend or your butler. God is reality and reality is both caring and cruel. What religion says is that you can have the one and escape the latter. What spiritual practice teaches is how to engage them both with compassion and humility. That is why I focus on practice rather than religion.


Not necessarily. We should respect and use religion for what it is: a repository of spiritual practices, insights, and ethics that we can test out for ourselves. Nothing should be taken on faith. Belief is irrelevant. Investigation into Truth is what matters. So people should study all religions, and test those teachings and technologies that speak to them. I love to chant. Chanting opens the “wave” me to the “oceanic” me. I chant texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I don’t care that on the level of organized religion these faiths are incompatible. I only care that chanting these texts opens me to the nondual reality of God in, with, and as all things.


People need community. In the context of religion I would like to see religious communities rooted in contemplative practice. People would gather to sit in silence, chant, study, and talk about issues of ultimate concern. There would be no dogma, doctrine, or fixed format. It would be a meeting place of seekers, a forum for contemplation and conversation. People would support one another by being present to one another. My ideal religious community would blend the best of Quaker Meeting, Twelve-Step Meeting, a Jewish study center, and African American gospel choir, all within a universalist framework that drew from the wisdom of science and spirituality.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Student Interview, Part 1: Believing in God

[This is Part I of an interview I gave to a student doing a paper on religion. IT is printed here with his permission.]


It all depends on what you mean when you use the words “you,” “believe,” and “God.”

If by “you” you mean an independent autonomous egoic self separate from the universe, then I have a problem. To have a sense of “I” I (and I here I knowingly and humbly enter into the paradox of language), have to ignore most of what I really am.

Think of it this way: Imagine my lungs were self-conscious. Would they say of themselves, “We are Rami”? No, they would realize that they are part of a larger system of heart, stomach, skin, muscles, bone, etc. What can be said of my lungs can be said of this larger system as well. Why point to my body and say “This is Rami” when that body is totally dependent on the larger system of the planet? And it goes on: the planet needs the sun and solar system, and the solar system needs the galaxy, and the galaxy needs the universe, etc. It is arbitrary and misleading to point to my body and say this is me, when in fact the entire universe is necessary for me to exist. There is only one “I” and that is the whole itself.


“Belief” is too weak a word. I don’t believe I have a sister, I know I have a sister. We believe in things we do not know. Belief is a kind of wishing. When it comes to God I have no beliefs. I know God, and hence I know God exists.


I am not troubled by the word, I simply want to be understood when I use it. God to me is, as the Torah says, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” (Exodus 3:14) the I AM that is all being and becoming. God is the water than embraces both ocean and the wave. God is the nondual Reality that embraces and transcends the duality of absolute and relative, I and Thou, front and back, good and evil. There is nothing that is other than God. Nothing that is apart from God.


No. As I said, belief is wishing. I don’t wish for God, I know God as a wave, if it were capable of knowing, might come to know itself as the ocean, and both itself and the ocean as water. I know I am God. I know you are God. The extent to which you know yourself and all life to be God is the extent you know yourself and all life to be worthy of and capable of love, justice, and compassion.


I want to ground ethics in something other than the temporary and delusional “I”. I worry when something is good only because I say it is good, or because the state says it is good, or because some religion says it is good. All three of these sources are driven by power and greed. I don’t want goodness defined by what serves the power that defines it.

When I know God, I experience the interconnectedness of all things, the interdependence of all things, and I find myself becoming more compassionate, empathic, and just. I root my ethics in this. My welfare depends on the welfare of the whole.


No. God is not a thing that can be just or unjust, good or evil. God is Reality, and Reality can be both just and unjust, both loving and cruel. But these are human concepts. Nature is neither good or evil, it is just what it is. We humans call things good and evil depending on whether or not they serve our interests. What I am saying is that when I see myself and all beings are part of the nondual Reality I call God, I see the wisdom of engaging life with love, compassion, empathy, and justice toward all beings.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


I’m sitting in Expresso Joe’s, our local internet café. A week or so ago a short essay of mine on Hanukkah appeared in the Murfreesboro Post (you can read it in Toto under “Chanukkah and Chutzpah”). I overheard a middle aged man talking about it, and introduced myself as the author. After a few minutes of small talk, he asked me, “Is there any idea you Jews are afraid to tackle?”

The question took me aback. I asked him what he meant. He said, “I don’t know, it just seems to me that Jews are into ideas. I mean I went to school in the Northeast and I knew lots of Jews, and none of them agreed on anything Jewish. One guy was very traditional, and some of the others were atheists. But they were all proud to be Jews. I mean my church is all upset with this new Golden Compass movie as if the film is going to rob us and our kids of our faith. We look like wimps. Like we are afraid of ideas, especially ideas that don’t support our notion of what is right and true. I don’t see that among Jews and wondered what you thought about this.”

“Well.” I said, “I can’t speak for all Jews but I get what you are saying. It points to what it is to be a Jew. While we call ourselves Jews after Judea, from which we hale, the Torah never uses that term. The Torah calls us Israel, and it is Israel that speaks to your point.

“Israel means to ‘wrestle with God and man and to survive.’ That is what we Jews do: we wrestle. It doesn’t matter if we are wrestling with theology, literature, physics, mathematics, art, whatever. We just don’t feel comfortable accepting the status quo. We like to dig deeper. We like to challenge ideas and be challenged by them. We like to test our beliefs. God is always testing Abraham; it is the Jewish way. We don’t feel comfortable if we are not struggling with some ideal or goal. And we don’t have to be right, either. It is just as much fun for us to discover we are wrong about something as it is to find out we are right about something. It is the finding out that matters to us.

“This is why we don’t just read the Bible, we investigate it. The Hebrew word for this is ‘drash,’ literally ‘to investigate,’ and what we find when we investigate is called ‘midrash.’ Each week when we read the assigned biblical text our reading is followed by a drash. We study all the investigations of the ancient and contemporary rabbis, and then launch into investigations of our own. It is the process of drash that keeps the Torah alive for us.”

“Yeah,” the man said, “that is what I like about you people. You investigate. Talking with Jews is always an adventure. You like to entertain multiple opinions at the same time. For the fun of it, I think.”

“I think so too,” I said. When he left I was feeling so excited about being a Jew. No, about being Yisrael. Jew is passive; Yisrael is active. Jew is a noun; Yisrael is a verb. I was born a Jew, and I choose to be Yisrael.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Kvetch About The Creche

As I take my five-mile walk each morning I find myself contemplating the various crèches I see around town. Most of them are pretty tacky, but that’s OK. Spiritual kitsch is one the things I like best about religion.

I love the meaning of the crèche. Jesus, the King of the Jews and Son of God, coming to challenge Herod and Caesar, the other King of the Jews and Son of God, being born in such humble circumstances suggests to me that great transformations begin in humble circumstances. Christmas gives us a clear choice: whom will you follow God or Caesar? I know that the history of the whole thing is doubtful, but Christmas isn’t really about history, it’s about hope. (Hope the feeling, not Hope, Arkansas birthplace of Christian Leader and perhaps soon to be Protestant and Chief Mike Huckabee.)

Anyway, as I walk around town studying the various crèches on people’s lawns, I have come to obsess about the Three Wise Men. I don’t know if this is unique to Murfreesboro or to Tennessee in general, but in every crèche I’ve seen, the Three Wise Man are pygmies.

The problem is that crèches are not made to scale. Mary and Joseph are giants, and barely fit in the manger. Yet no matter how big his parents are, the baby Jesus is huge in comparison. There is no way, baring an act of God (which of course is possible), that that baby could come out of that woman. And did you ever notice that Mary has already lost the weight gained during her pregnancy? Another miracle!

Yet what really surprises me is the Wise Men. As I said, they are no bigger than baby Jesus, yet they are supposed to be grown men. And then there is the color issue: the Three Wise and Very Short Men are always black or brown, while Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are always white.

This makes no sense. Jews in the time of Jesus were brown. Even if God is white, Jesus would still be half brown on his mother’s side. Jews are only white in cultures that are predominately white. This is because of the food, not because of intermarriage, since intermarriage is only a recent phenomenon: Chinese Jews look Chinese because they eat Chinese food, not because their parents married Chinese people and had Jewish-Chinese babies. [Though this does not explain why American Jews look white rather than Chinese given the amount of Chinese food we eat.]

Anyway, why are the Wise Men so small? First they could be pygmies, though you would think one of the Gospel writers would have mentioned this. Or maybe the crèche designers were white and they didn’t like the idea of brown Wise Men in the first place, so they did what they could to down play the Three by making them tiny. Who knows? Anyway, I would like to encourage future crèche makes out there to work on the scale of things. And let’s darken up the skin of the Holy Family, while you’re at it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fear and Loathing in the Bardo

I thrive on deadlines. I have deadlines for the classes I teach at Middle Tennessee State University, for the columns I write for Spirituality & Health Magazine (in print and on-line), for the essays and seasonal booklets I write for the Scarritt-Bennett Center, and for the books I contract to write. I need these deadlines to keep me motivated and on track. Without them I would spend most of my time thinking of what to say rather than actually saying anything.

But there is one deadline that is a killer for me: New Year’s. New Year’s is the day lots of people use to measure how far along they are in their life journeys, and to judge the quality of that journey as well. But for me New Year’s is the day I start new diets.

I usually realize I am fifty pounds overweight around December 15th. I check back and realize that I had made a commitment to lose those pounds last January, and berate myself for not keeping my promise to myself. It isn’t the only promise I have broken this year, but it is the only one that hangs over my belt. Then I rededicate myself to losing the weight by this time next year. Which leaves me with about two weeks in the bardo.

The bardo is what Tibetan Buddhists call the state between your last life and your next. In the Tibetan tradition you are to spend your forty days in the bardo trying to get enlightened. My version of the bardo is slightly different. In my understanding the bardo is a karma and calorie free zone between diets. Here is how I figure it:

Since I failed to keep to the diet I committed to last January 1st, and since I am going to start a new diet this coming January Ist, I might as well use the two weeks between now and then to enjoy everything I had been eating without enjoyment. I mean what is the point of sticking to the old diet—I already failed at that one. And you cannot start a new diet in January if you start eating as if you were already on that diet in December. Right? So I might as well eat whatever the hell I want to eat and not worry about.

And besides, I know that the easiest weight to lose is the most recent weight you have gained, so in order to kick-start my new diet, it would behoove me to gain a few pounds now so I can quickly drop them then, and thus give myself the psychological boost I will need to erase the extra weight I am carrying right now.

This makes sense to me, and probably to every other compulsive overeater and food addict out there reading this. If it doesn’t make sense to you, mazal tov! If you feel compelled to write me and try to help me lose some weight, please don’t. Take yourself out for ice cream instead.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jews for Christmas

I watched the news last Sunday evening and saw a segment on a neighborhood in Los Angeles famous for its over-the-top Christmas lights. The reporter spoke with a few neighbors about lights, and one suggested that the reporter check out another house on the street: the Grossmans. Yes, they are Jewish, but so was the neighbor who made recommendation. In fact everyone interviewed for this segment was Jewish!

OK, so I was going to write a scathing attack on Jews who love Christmas, but then I realized I love Christmas, too. I love the lights, the trees, the faux spirit of peace on earth and good will to men, women, and the transgendered. I love people fighting over parking spaces at the mall, and even the occasional trampling of a shopper by a herd of other shoppers does little to dampen my Christmas spirit. Who am I to tell other people how to celebrate their holy days?

I don’t celebrate Christmas, myself. I don’t have a tree or decorate my house, and, to be honest, I don’t even pretend to care about other people at this time of year. No, what I really like about Christmas is the story.

The Virgin Birth (it is called that because Mary was a virgin, and not because Richard Branson was the father) is a great symbol. It’s like Sarah giving birth at age 90, or Lao Tzu spending 60 years in his mother’s womb. What these myths are saying is that something new is coming, something unexpected, something that will change everything forever. And in the case of Christmas, that something is the coming of a helpless baby (unless of course you read the ancient Infancy Gospel of Thomas and discover that Jesus was one holy terror as a toddler) who will grow into a Jewish prophet who confronts Jerusalem and Rome with a message of divine justice and compassion.

Sure if you take it literally the Christmas story is bad history and worse biology, but reading the Bible literally robs it of its transformative message. Read as myth rather than fact, the story is one of great hope, and hope, as well as Jesus, is quintessentially Jewish. After all Jews are the people whose team anthem is HaTikvah, The Hope.

I think Jews should honor Christmas. Not the way Christians do, but the way we might honor the birth of any great rebbe: with texts and study, and prayers at his tomb (except that he seems to have left it unexpectedly). Read Crossan and Borg’s “The First Christmas” and discuss it with friends over Chinese food on Christmas Eve. We should honor his death as well. From now on I’m going to light a yahrzeit candle and say Kaddish for Jesus on Good Friday. (And, if you haven’t already, read Crossan and Borg’s “The Last Week” as well.)

Sure I know there are Jews shouting at me for suggesting this, but I can’t hear them over the Manheim Steamroller music blaring over the sound system at the coffeehouse where I am writing. Anyway, I don’t care. Jesus is the most famous Jew who ever lived. We ought to reclaim him as a favorite son, and not worry about Christians who proclaim him as God’s only one.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Peeing Jesus

I stopped drinking bottled water a few months ago, but now I am having second thoughts. I just learned of a new bottled water designed to bring me closer to God. I checked out one website selling this stuff and read about Formula J. The “J” is for Jesus.

According to the website, “We all need to believe in God, and we all need to believe in ourselves in order to accomplish positive thinking, which leads to positive result. It is up to us to make our day go either good or bad and we bring our luck to ourselves, so why not pray, drink purified water more often to stay healthier and more fit, and have God with us throughout the day? You can have it all with Spiritual Water.”

OK, let’s assume that English isn’t their first language, and forgive them their grammatical sins. And let’s assume they really don’t give a damn about theology and are just spouting this gibberish to sell me water from a bottle with the head of a thorn-crowned Christ printed on it, and therefore forgive them for their garbled spiritual message. With all this assuming and forgiving, the question remains: Do I need to drink this stuff? I just might.

Again the website, “Do you need Jesus in your life? Do you want to have Jesus with you thru the day? Grab a cold Formula J Spiritual Water bottle, read the prayer, believe in God, believe in yourself and the sky’s the limit…” Let’s go into this slowly.

Do I need Jesus in my life? It couldn’t hurt. Unless of course he is following me around asking, “Who do you say I am? Who do you say I am? I know you are but what am I?” That, I think, would be very annoying.

Do I want to have Jesus with me throughout the day? This seems like the same question, but on the off chance it isn’t, I would answer, “yes.” I think having Jesus with me throughout the day would be a good thing. First, it would cut down on my grocery bills seeing as how he can feed thousands with a couple fish and a five loaves of bread. Second, if I got injured or even died he could fix that without asking if I have health insurance. And third, he might nag me into being a nicer person now and then.

Here is the prayer I am to recite: “O my Jesus, forgive us of our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy. Amen.” Now all I have to do is believe in God and myself and the sky’s the limit. But shouldn’t I believe in God before I recite the prayer? And if I have to believe in myself aren’t I making myself into a god? And what does “the sky’s the limit” mean? Is heaven in the sky or beyond it? And if it is beyond it, and the sky is the limit, how do I get to heaven? Or if we aren’t talking about heaven, why bother drinking Jesus water at all?

But none of this is what keeps me from drinking Formula J. While I like the idea of having Christ within me, I am troubled about having to pee Him out. I remember Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. Called Piss Christ, the photograph got Serrano in lots of trouble. Wouldn’t peeing Jesus be even worse? Or maybe I could take a photo of a crucifix in a bottle of urine generated by drinking lots of bottles of Formula J? Would that be sacred or sacrilegious?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Real War On Christmas Revisited

Welcome once again to the battle over holiday greetings. While I understand why some people are upset when other people don’t wish them a Merry Christmas, and why some others are upset when they do, I find the whole thing very sad. And worse: it distracts us from the all too real war on Christians and Christianity.

Christian bookseller Shi Weihan was abducted by the Communist Chinese on November 28, 2007, and has been imprisoned in an unknown location ever since. His crime? Establishing and failing to register his “house church.” Mr. Shi is one of thousands of Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims arrested every year in China. China is just one battleground in the real war against Christmas, and if American Christians really want to “take up the cross” and follow Jesus, they should stop allowing themselves to get sidetracked by faux culture warriors on Fox News, and start boycotting Chinese manufactured toys this Christmas.

Communist China is officially atheist. While it does allow certain religions to operate in the country, it does so under strict governmental control. People who wish to prosper politically or militarily in China know better than to profess any religious belief or belong to any religious organization.

Why is the Chinese government so afraid of religion? The Chinese aren’t paranoid. They know that religion is one of the most effective ways to resist the tyranny of the state (unless of course the religion is the state). Look at the powerful role Roman Catholicism played in the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you think Ronald Reagan and Charlie Wilson did this without the aid of the Pope, you don’t know your history.

It is ironic that freedom seekers in China turn to religion, while their counterparts in the United States turn away from it. Why is that? Let me speculate:

Christians are a threat to China for the same reason that Jesus and his Jewish followers were a threat to Rome: they insisted on the holiness of each human person, and demanded justice and freedom in the name of that holiness and the One in whom it is grounded. Whether or not you believe in God, you can see how this prophetic ethic would threaten the oligarchies of both Rome and China. It is the same power that Jefferson drew upon to affirm the inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are rooted in something greater than the state, and in today’s China, ancient Rome, and 18th Century England there was nothing greater than the state.

In the US where this ethic has been secularized and affirmed (even if only in theory), religion preoccupies itself with whining about holiday greetings and creationism. But in China where there are no inalienable rights, religion gets to do what it does best: speak truth to power, and confront empire with the cry for prophetic justice.

This Christmas season it would behoove all of us to shift our focus from the petty to the prophetic. Free Tibet! Free Mr. Shi! And Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is It True?

One of the best ways to destroy someone’s credibility is to associate her or him with people and ideas most other people find negative, evil, or just plain wrong. And the best way to do this without getting called on it is to frame your allegation in the form of a question. For example, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

This is the question self-proclaimed Christian Leader and Republican Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee asked in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine. He didn’t ask this of America’s Favorite Mormon, Mitt Romney, or of anyone knowledgeable of Mormon beliefs. He just tossed it out into the ether. It was a rhetorical gambit and wasn’t meant to be answered. Just asking the question links Mormons and Romney with Satan, and that out to be enough to knock him out the race for president of this one nation under God.

The answer to Huckabee’s question, by the way, is “yes.” Mormons believe all beings were originally spirit beings. You and me and Jesus and Satan are all children of God, and hence spiritual brothers and sisters. So, according to Mormon belief, Mike Huckabee and Satan are brothers as well. That relationship is beginning to show.

Governor Huckabee's ties to Satan aside, his use of rhetorical questions is a brilliant strategy, and one I imagine will catch on among other candidates as well. All you have to do is ask a poisonous question and let the power of the press repeat it so often that people will make the link regardless of the actual answer.

Here are a few sets of questions I would like to ask of our Christian Leader:

1. Is it true that denying evolution negates almost everything we know about biology, geology, physics, astronomy, and science in general? And if that is true, is it true that this anti-science attitude will reduce the United States to a third world country by the middle of the 21st Century?

2. Is it true that Christian Fundamentalists look forward to the slaughter of millions of Jews during the battle of Armageddon so that only 144,000 Jews remain to witness the return of Jesus? And if that is true, is it true then that a president who believes this is in fact looking forward to the day when millions of American citizens are annihilated?

3. Is it true that Governor Huckabee claims his campaign success is the work of God? And if it is true, and if he fails to become the Republican nominee, does that mean that God has forsaken him?

While the answers to these questions are “yes,” “probably,” “yes,” “yes,” “yes” and “who the hell knows,” the answers are secondary to getting the questions out to the press and the people. So I am asking you to do just that. Just memorize these questions and drop them into your ordinary conversation. Don’t wait for an answer. Don’t get into any genuine dialogue. Just drop the question and change the topic. By the way, is it true that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion reveals a secret Jewish cabal running the world? Gotta run, by.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Favorite Mormon*

I think Mitt Romney is good for America.

First, he is damned handsome. After almost eight-years of smirk and sneer, I want a President and Vice President you can look into a camera and lie to me with a smile that is comforting rather than dismissive. Second, he dresses well; really well. I don’t know if he shops at Men’s Warehouse, but I guarantee he likes the way he looks. Third, he believes in a lot of weird things; weird even by US standards where Jesus is more apt to appear in a cheese sandwich for sale on e-Bay then in church.

Of course Mitt has a right to believe what he wants, and I am not challenging that right. I applaud it. I am happy not only that he believes what he believes but also that the rest of us are slowly learning more about what he believes. And the reason I like this is because it gives us the chance to realize how weird all our beliefs are.

Mitt believes that a fifteen year old New York boy, Joseph Smith Jr., was visited by God the Father and his Boy Elroy (no, I am not denigrating Christianity with what appears to be a reference to the Jettsons cartoon show which, by the way, was scientifically vapid and, with the exception of the micro-mini skirt, failed to make even one accurate prediction about the future (I want my flying car, damn it!), I am simply being incredibly erudite and assuming you know that “Elroy” means God the King, a title that is very fitting God’s Son, Jesus, who was crowned King of the Jews). Why is this a weird belief when millions and millions of people, Christians and Moslems alike, believe that a similarly aged Jewish girl named Miriam (which means Bitter Water, and for some reason was a popular girl’s name back then) had a similar visitation in ancient Palestine?

Mitt also believes that two years latter, Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni who told him the whereabouts of a hidden gospel inscribed on golden plates and authored by the prophet Mormon (Peace be upon him). Why is this weird when millions and millions of people believe that Mohammed was visited by the angel Gabriel and, over time, given a new revelation called the Qur’an? And let us not forget the half-dozen or so Jews who still believe God spoke to Moses out of a shrub? Isn’t that weird as well?

My point is that all religious beliefs are weird to people who do not hold them. I suspect that Mike Huckabee believes that the world was created in seven days less than ten thousand years ago thus denying everything we know about biology, physics, astronomy, geology, etc., and insuring that a Huckabee administration will guarantee America will soon become the most scientifically illiterate nation in the world. Isn’t that weird?

Mitt is good for America not despite the fact that he believes in the weird, but because he believes in it. We are the land of the free and home of the brave, and what is more brave than to believe in the weird? While I won’t vote for Mitt for president, I hope his Mormon faith is true and that someday he will be a god of his own planet. I guarantee the people on that planet will like the way they look.

*For those too young to get the allusion, and realize just how clever I am, google "My Favorite Martian."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Still Rabbi After All These Years

For the past year or so I have been thinking about dropping the title ‘rabbi.’ Using it seems to make claims about myself that are not really true. While I am proud and honored to be a Jew, and blessed to be Yisrael (see my blog entry, “Yisrael is a Verb”), when people hear I am a rabbi they assume a level of observance that I choose not to follow. I have changed my mind.

I was teaching in Tucson with my friend, mentor, and teacher Andrew Harvey. Our topic was Spiritual Activism or what we Jews call Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World. Andrew is a dynamic, dramatic, and passionate teacher. He launches into compelling sermons on what is wrong with the world and how to engage it. And while he adds readings to his talks (from Rumi and Teresa d’Avilla among others) he doesn’t teach those texts specifically.

As he and I co-taught for the weekend I realized that while I was no less passionate about the topic I found myself continually referring to and unpacking sacred texts, both Jewish and Christian. It wasn’t that I set out to do that. In fact, I was hoping that teaching with Andrew would push me away from texts and into sharing more of my life experience, which I feel is what makes Andrew’s teaching so powerful and compelling. Yet, try as I might, the text just kept coming back in.

During the various breaks between sessions I spoke with lots of people who complimented both of us on the work we were doing. But when they spoke to me about the material I was presenting they especially thanked me for revealing dimensions to ancient teachings and stories that they had not heard before and that they found incredibly meaningful.

I tend not to take compliments seriously. It may have to do with my bubbe (grandmother) who would spit three times and speak an incantation against the Evil Eye every time she said or heard something nice about someone. Nevertheless, it began to sink in that what the people liked about my work was the very thing that made me a rabbi: love of text.

In my case I love all kinds of texts, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, Taoist, etc. I love scripture and folklore, myth, and parable. And I love to investigate them to see what they have to say to me and the way I live, or ought to live. I tend to put my own spin on these texts, seeing everything through the nondual lens polished by my contemplative practice. And this, too, people found valuable.

So I no longer think about dropping the title ‘rabbi.’ Rabbi Rami still speaks to who I am and what I do, even if I do it so far out of the box that some wonder if it’s still Judaism.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mitt, Freedom, and Religion

I listened to Governor Mitt Romney’s talk on religion last Thursday. It was moving, at times stirring, and deeply disconcerting. What troubled me the most was the Governor’s notion that you cannot have freedom without religion or religion without freedom. This is patently false, and disenfranchises millions of Americans who do not have a formal religion.

Freedom implies that one is free to think, believe, and do what one will (within the obvious limits), but none of the Abrahamic religions allows this. Nowhere in sacred scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths are we told to think for ourselves, to free ourselves from the dictates of rabbis, priests, pastors, and imams. Religion is about obedience, not freedom. Look to Spinoza, Galileo, Salmon Rushdie, the evangelical Protestant war on science, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the intramural fighting among differing Christian sects in the original thirteen colonies, and the Danish cartoons of Mohammed and it is abundantly clear that religion is not interested in freedom.

As far as I know, only Buddhism says one should investigate reality for oneself and not believe something simply because it is said to be holy (Dhammapada), and I doubt Governor Romney was thinking of Buddhism when he made his claim that there is no freedom without religion.

Nor is the flip side of this notion—that there can be no religion without freedom—any more true. To cite but one example, look at Islam in Saudi Arabia. Certainly religion is strong there, but can we say the same for freedom? Religion needs power and the capacity to punish those who seek to free themselves from its power; it doesn’t need freedom or support freedom.

True, in the United States we have shown that religions flourish in a free society, but that was imposed by the Bill of Rights. It was not a religious ideal, but came from the secular realm that sought to protect America from theocracy and the horror of inter-religious warfare all too common in Europe.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights rooted in the Creator, he was trying to keep those rights out of the control of religion and politics. He knew what Governor Romney seems not to know: that freedom is the first thing to go when religion rules.

Freedom, not religion, is what makes the United States so important. Freedom not religion is what makes this country worth sacrificing for. Freedom not religion is the true faith of America. I may trust in God, but I do not trust anyone who claims to speak for God.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mitt's Secret

I am anticipating Governor Mitt Romney’s speech on religion this morning. I am disappointed that he has to give this speech. In a Republican field where not believing in evolution is a good thing, the fact that Governor Romney is a Mormon shouldn’t be such a big deal. Yet, disappointed or not, I am hopeful that he will reveal the one thing that I want to know about Mormonism: What’s up with the underwear?

I know that some people are concerned that Mormons believe God has a body made of flesh and bone. And that some Mormons believe God has a wife. And that if we are really really good we might evolve into gods with our own planets to muck around with. But these are no more weird than the ideas of any other religion. Governor Mike Huckabee believes that Jesus wants us all to carry concealed weapons so we can shoot the bad guys when we need to. That’s seems weird to me. But I thing Mike wears regular underwear, and that has got to count for something.

Anyway, back to Mitt’s unmentionables. All I know about the Mormon garment is that it represents the promises Mormons make to God. I have no idea if it is a shift, a shirt, a bikini brief, boxers or what. Come on, Mitt, clue us in.

I also know that Mormons are supposed to wear the garment next to their skin, which is why many Mormons wear it instead of secular underwear, but I have no idea what it is make of. Is it cotton, silk, wool, or what? I knew a Mormon named Glenn once and he had this odd scratching habit, so maybe it is wool.

Mormons aren’t the only ones with holy underwear, by the way. I used to wear a tallit katan, a small poncho-like thing that had the sacred fringes Jewish men are supposed to wear attached to the corners. And I knew a Baptist named Rachel who had underwear with “What would Jesus do” strategically printed on the front. (I met Rachel at a Laundromat and saw them in her cart. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

I tried to find out more about Mormon underwear. On one Mormon website they post the question, “Where do Mormon garments come from?” I assumed the answer would give me some history about the sacred underwear. Unfortunately the answer was “Garments are made at LDS church clothing centers.” Oh. Is it any wonder that people think Mormons are secretive about their faith?

The fact is I’m not voting for Governor Romney anyway, so I should care what kind of underwear he wears. So let’s hope he talks about something else this morning.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chanukah and Chutzpah

[As the Chief Rabbi of Murfreesboro, TN, I was asked by The Murfreesboro Post to write a short essay on Chanukah to help readers understand the holiday and the people who celebrate it. This is what I wrote:]

While it is common for countries and states to have their official birds and flowers, we Jews have our official attitude: chutzpah. Chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning “extreme self confidence.” Whether it is the chutzpah of Abraham arguing with God to spare Sodom, or the chutzpah of Job demanding that God appear before him to explain Himself, or the chutzpah of Jesus taking on the powers of Temple and Empire in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven, chutzpah is a powerful force shaping the mindset of the Jewish people and our religion. Chanukah is a celebration of chutzpah.

In 167 BCE the Seleucid King Antiochus IV outlawed the practice of Judaism. Mattathias, a Jewish priest from the town of Modi’in called for armed resistance, and his son Judah (called HaMaccabee, The Hammer, after his military prowess) led a bloody guerilla war against the Greco-Syrians.

After two years of fighting, Antiochus allowed the Jews to keep kosher and follow the laws of Torah, but did not free either the Temple in Jerusalem or the city itself. Many of Judah’s fighters claimed victory and went home, but Judah and his reduced forces continued to fight until he had reclaimed both the city and its Temple.

The fact that a small band of Jewish guerillas took on the might of the Greco-Syrian empire may seem chutpadik (chutzpah-like) enough, but there is more. To rededicate the Temple to God the Maccabee’s needed eight day’s worth of oil to burn in the menorah (candelabrum). They found only one day’s supply remaining. Logic would dictate that the victorious fighters wait a week until enough fresh oil could be prepared before lighting the menorah, but logic has nothing to do with chutzpah. Rather than wait they used what they had and dedicated the Temple anyway. Yet the single day’s oil lasted not only the expected one day, but the entire eight days.

It is important to note that Chanukah (dedication) doesn’t celebrate the chutzpah of war, but the chutzpah of faith; trusting in a power greater than ourselves, and acting for God even when failure seems inevitable. And it is equally important to remember that chutzpah doesn’t end with Chanukah. After all what is more chutzpahdik than a small band of Jews following their rabbi from Nazareth to take confront the oppression of Rome in Name of God?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Witness to Christ

As I was leaving the Opryland Hotel at the end of my volunteer shift at the 76th annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, an elderly man walking with his wife stopped me to ask why there were so many people wearing kippot (yarmulkes). Pointing to my kipah he said, “For a moment I thought I was in Israel.”

“Was that a good moment or bad moment?” I asked.

“Oh, good. I love Jews. You Jews gave us our Lord and Savior,” he said.

“And they killed him,” his wife said.

“That too,” he said.

“Actually the Romans killed him,” I said, “but whoever did it you must be glad they did.”

“What! Why on earth would we be glad you Jews killed Jesus?” his wife said.

“Actually the Romans killed him, and you should be glad because if Jesus didn’t die on the cross he wouldn’t have been resurrected and couldn’t return to save you.”

“No, sir,” the wife said. “The Jews didn’t have to kill him. That was an evil act.”

“Actually the Romans killed him, and evil or not, it was necessary to God’s plan. Don’t you believe the Bible: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only son so that anyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16)?”

“Of course we do,” the husband said.

“Who would believe in Jesus if he died of old age and had great grandchildren? He had to die on the cross to ransom you for your sins” I said.

“Yes,” the man said. “And that is why we love Jews. They will witness the return of Christ. Won’t you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”

“Oh, I will,” I said. “As soon as I witness him coming back.”

“But then it will be too late,” his wife said.

“On the contrary,” I said. “You need Jews to witness the return of Jesus. If I convert I will be a Christian and my witness won’t count. No, I will remain a Jew until the second coming. I’m doing you a favor. You should thank me.”

“Oh. Well, thank you,” the man said.

“You are welcome,” I said as I walked toward the exit. “It’s my pleasure.”

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Golden Compass Part Two: Faith in Fiction

Can fiction be a danger to faith? This is the implication of the growing furor over Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Material” trilogy and the film adaptation of the “The Golden Compass,” the first volume of that trilogy.

Most liberals scoff at this notion: If one’s faith can be shattered or even wounded by a novel then it was a pretty flimsy faith to begin with. True enough, but it misses a much more interesting point: One person’s fiction IS another person’s faith.

I am watching the You-Tube Republican debates on CNN and cannot help but think of Governor Mitt Romney’s faith in what the vast majority of his fellow Americans consider the fiction that is the Book of Mormon. Or of Governor Mike Huckabee’s faith in what most of the world’s peoples believe to be another great piece of fiction, the Gospels. And then there are the great narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the Bhagavad Gita.

So, please don’t scoff at faith when it feels threatened by fiction. Fiction is one of the most powerful tools humans have to explore and explicate the perennial concerns that haunt us: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? And Why? Fiction, far more than any other form of discourse, has the power to change minds.

Look at Sartre, Camus, Kafka, and Ayn Rand to name but four. Their stories carry their truths in ways no other vehicle can. Look at Jesus: Why did he tell stories instead of delivering theological lectures? Parables, story, myth are the timeless teaching tools of humanity. Whether these are spoken, printed, or enacted on stage, screen, or radio—is secondary; it is the story itself that matters.

So do Christians have a point when they worry about the power of “The Golden Compass” to make their children think outside the box of their religious tradition? Yes, they do. They know the power of story to transform lives, and they themselves are devoted to promoting their story over and against the stories of others in order to do just that. Of course they insist their fiction is fact and all other so-called facts are only fictions, but that is just the politics of piety. The truth is that story matters.

I celebrate the power of fiction to help us think. I am not afraid of fiction because I am not afraid of thinking. I want people to be free to entertain any idea they wish. I just want them educated in such a way as to empower them to do so rationally.

The best response to “The Golden Compass” isn’t to hide from it as so many Christian leaders are urging; this only says that their fiction is weaker than its fiction. Rather we all should use the film as a catalyst for deep conversations about the issues it raises. You don’t respond to story by blocking your ears, but by telling more powerful stories.

Golden Compass: The Whining

The December release of “The Golden Compass,” based on the first novel in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Material” trilogy, is drawing the ire of Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and atheists alike. The latter complain that the book’s anti-religious theme is muted in the film, while the former are upset because even this muted version is an insult to their faith. Shades of Sudanese teddy bears!

Actually I sympathize with groups complaining about movies. Year’s ago I started a campaign against “It’s a Wonderful Life” arguing that no real angel would ever be named Clarence. But there is a twist in the whining about “The Golden Compass” that makes this instance of movie madness all the more interesting. Where most authors and filmmakers deny any attack on religion, Philip Pullman admits his trilogy recasts the Fall from the Garden of Eden not as “the source of all woe and misery, as in the traditional Christian teaching, but as the beginning of true human freedom, something to be celebrated not lamented.” Amen!

We Jews wrote the story and we never called it the Fall. Eve is the Hebrew Prometheus stealing wisdom from God, and, if you follow the midrash (commentary) that says the serpent is the Messiah in disguise, this is exactly what God had in mind.

The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for childhood. God, like any good parent, wants her children to grow up and leave home. Since they aren’t prone to do that on their own, God baits them into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and places a cherub with a flaming sword to keep them from returning home after college.

God doesn’t want a pliant and fearful Adam but an argumentative and fearless Abraham (the Abraham of the Sodom story not the Abraham of the Isaac story). God wants rebels, freethinkers, and people who will stand up to him and, like Job, demand that he explain himself.

Christianity and Islam focus largely on the next life, and hence have strong cultures of martyrdom and death attached to them. Judaism has its martyrs but we created the Kol Nidre prayer to help erase the guilt of those Jews who chose to convert to Catholicism rather than die at the hand of the Inquisition. The rabbis taught that God gave us his commandments that we might live by them not die because of them. Heaven and Hell are footnotes in Judaism. It is this world and the transformation of this world through justice and compassion that is the focus of Judaism. Where Christians and Muslims worry about getting into heaven, Jews worry about making heaven here on earth. This was Jesus’ very Jewish message of the kingdom of God being within you and around you, as opposed to the obsession with the afterlife that overwhelms so many of his worshippers.

Jews are called Yisrael, Godwrestlers. We are expected to challenge, argue, and struggle with God and what it means to live godly lives. Yes there are wimps among us who don’t take up the challenge, and we too decry films we find anti-Semitic, but at our best we are Godwrestlers eager to test ourselves against God and smash the idols the pass for God in order to push both the human and the divine toward something greater. This is what it means to be a Jew, and this is why I am proud to be one.