Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Believing is Seeing

Dutch scientists compared Dutch Calvinists and atheists to see if belief influences the way one literally sees the world. The hypothesis is that since Calvinists tend to divide society into separate spheres of authority and responsibility, Calvinists would tend to see things as discrete bits and have difficulty seeing the big picture. According to January’s Scientific American, Calvinists did score slightly but significantly lower than atheists in this regard. Scientists are now planning to test the theory on peoples of other faiths. To help with their preparations I have devised the following set of tests:

1. Since Jews tend to notice subtle and not so subtle Jewish subtexts in news articles, we could test to see if they recognize the letters J-E-W more readily than people of other faith groups. The test would present Jews and Gentiles with “Word-Jumbles” with the word “Jew” hidden in various configurations throughout the puzzle. The expectation is that Jews would find those configurations faster than nonJews.

2. Since Christians are more prone than other people to seeing images of Jesus and Mary in foodstuffs, we could test to see if their ability to read the patterns of pepperoni in cheese pizzas exceeds that of nonChristians. The test would consist of presenting the same number of pepperoni pizzas to Christians and nonChristians and ask them to read what they can in the pattern. The expectation is that Christians would see Jesus and Mary where others would not.

3. Since Muslims are forbidden to make images of Muhammad (and Allah refuses to imprint the Prophet’s face on any food items), we could test to see if Muslims capacity for facial recognition is less than that of Christians, especially when looking for faces in pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and other cheese items. The test would consist of presenting a variety of cheese-based foods to Muslims and Christians to see what happens. The expectation is that Muslims would eat the food while some of the Christians would turn them into shrines or sell them on e-bay.

4. Since Buddhists do not believe in any separate self, and see all things are aspects of the one thing, we could test to see if their preference for the forest makes it more difficult for them to see the trees. The test would place an equal number of Buddhists and nonBuddhists in a forest and ask them to count the trees. The expectation is that most Buddhists would not count past the number one.

5. Since Hindus believe that “Truth is one, but different people call it by different names” (Rig Veda), we could test to see if they have difficulty seeing the difference between religions. The test would consist of presenting Hindus with the sacred symbols of the world’s religions and see if they are moved by them all. The expectation is that, with the exception of Hindu extremists who would react negatively to the symbol for Islam, Hindus would respond equally to all religious symbols.

I am sure I could come up with many more ways to study the impact of belief on seeing, but a dozen fresh pizzas were just delivered to my house and I have to go check for images of God.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

No Peace, Revisited

Last Sunday I wrote, “There will be no peace between Israel and Palestine, at least not until one side annihilates the other.” Now watch the news: somebody reads my blog.

I have no love for Hamas, and wouldn’t mind seeing all terrorists of every stripe suddenly raptured to wherever terrorists get raptured to, but I doubt Israel believes in the rapture, and if they think this new military venture in Gaza is going to promote either security or peace or the coming of the Messiah, they are insane.

Forget who's right and who's wrong. Forget that Israel is trying to get away with whatever it can while Bush/Cheney are still in power. Forget that now everyone running for Prime Minister in Israel looks tough or terror, and can plead her/his case to the Israeli right-wing. Forget that no other nation in the world would sit still while a neighbor lobs rockets and mortars into its cities on a daily basis. Forget that Hamas has sworn to annihilate Israel. Forget moral equivalency, in fact forget morality altogether. Nobody on either side of this conflict really gives a damn about any of this. The people who fire rockets into Israel or order bombs dropped on Gaza don’t care about morality, they just want to win. But there is no winning.

Hamas cannot destroy Israel. Israel cannot destroy Hamas. Even the US would turn on Israel if she attempted the genocide the Palestinians fear, and though I am not sure who would come to the aid of Israel if genocide was once again perpetrated against the Jews, Israel would choose the Masada Option and blow the whole region to nuclear hell with her last breath. Everyone knows this, so nobody is going to take things that far. Instead they will continue this cycle of kill and over-kill until everyone who can has moved out of the region, and those who are left are too weak to throw whatever they have left to throw at one another anymore.

I feel so angry, frustrated, and powerless. Sure I can yell and scream and send money to promote peace, but that seems so abstract, so removed from the human pain and suffering that is the Palestinian-Israeli Tragedy (stop calling it a conflict; conflicts end, this never does). I need to do something more.

Our local newspaper published an article about a Palestinian family here in the ‘Boro. The husband’s mother and sisters live in Gaza, and he worries for their lives. So do I. So I called him. His phone was disconnected. I called our local mosque, but they weren’t answering. I emailed the sheikh of the mosque asking to meet with him, to pass on my prayers to the family, and to join with me to hold a prayer vigil for peace on New Year’s Eve. I haven’t yet heard back.

2009 is going to open with bloodshed. Death and violence continues to define us as a species. The Creationists are right: we humans don't evolve; we haven’t changed since Cain murdered Abel. War is our passion. Death is our obsession. We learn nothing from the past.

Do something different this year. Reach out to the Other with an open hand rather than a clenched fist. Offer dialogue rather than diatribe, bonding rather than bombing. Try something, anything to bridge the gaps between us. It may not save our species but at least you can say to the apes that will inherit the earth that you tried.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gort, Klaatu barada nikto

What have they done to my movie? Well, not my movie, but my favorite movie: The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Klaatu, the humanoid emissary sent to Earth to warn us against weaponizing space with nuclear weapons lest the other planets in the universe unleash the power of their giant robot police force (represented by Gort) to destroy us, arrived on Earth the same year I did: 1951. Klaatu arrived in a breast shaped spaceship, which also proved to be his life support system. When I arrived I latched on to another breast shaped life support system. Klaatu came to warn the planet, I came to help warm it. The links between us go on and on, even if I can’t think of any more.

And now Klaatu is coming back in a 2008 remake of this, the greatest movie of all time. But it is not a remake, but a make over. Not only are the actors different—Keanu Reeves rather than Michael Rennie plays me, I mean Klaatu—but the plot has been changed. In the 1950’s Klaatu came to save the planet and the humans. This time he comes to save the planet from the humans. Shades of Al Gore! In fact I think it is Al Gore who plays Gort in the remake of the movie. Who else would substitute fear of global warming for the fear of global nuking in the new version of the film?

But this isn’t all. In the original, Klaatu visits the Lincoln Memorial to gain some insight into the nature of humanity. He sees us at our best, he sees our potential. In the remake Klaatu goes to a McDonald’s and sees us at our fattest. What has happened to us? Have we really replaced Of the people, by the people, and for the people with “Two all beef patties, special sauce, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun?” Have we truly fallen from With malice toward none; with charity for all to “Would you like fries with that”?

O the humanity!

And what of you, dear Gort? Once played magnificently by a 7’7” doorman from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (Lock Martin), you are now reduced to a CGI replica. Who is going to be frightened into doing good by a cartoon?

But my deepest complaint about the new film is its replacing of nuclear horror with global disaster. They are not equivalent. Even if we humans warm the planet and drown our species, life itself will not disappear. Evolution will continue, and in time apes will learn to talk and eventually capture the past president of the NRA after he accidentally lands in earth’s post human future. But if we ignite the planet in a nuclear war all life will die. If we humans choose suicide it is none of Klaatu’s concern. But if we take the entire planet with us, then, maybe, he has a point. But the concern of original Klaatu was not with our planet, or us but with the evil we might spread beyond our world by weaponizing space. Klaatu was prepared to kill all humanity to save the cosmos. To do so just to save the spotted owl seems a bit too extreme.

I could probably go on and on about The Day the Earth Stood Still, but I have to watch my favorite soap—As the World Turns.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

No Peace

There will be no peace between Israel and Palestine, at least not until one side annihilates the other. War is the answer because war is what people want. If the majority of Israelis and Palestinians wanted peace they would have it by now. They don’t have it because they don’t want it. What they want is to win, and to win they need war.

A few days ago I clicked on and watched a series of educational videos for Palestinian elementary schools produced by the Palestinian Authority. The purpose of these videos is clear: to train young Palestinian Muslims to hate and kill Jews.

In one Holocaust focused video Palestinian children are taught that the Nazis were really Jews, and their victims were really Palestinians. Such lies turn Palestinians into martyrs and murderers. The educational system run by the Palestinian Authority is designed to turn their children into killers and, along with many Muslim clerics around the globe, turn Islam into a cult of death.

Shahada, dying for Allah, seems to be the goal of Palestinian education. As one young Palestinian boy recites, “I have let my land drink my blood, and I have loved the way of Shahada.” The linking of land with Allah, and both with death is the Muslim equivalent of the Israeli Settler idolatry that replaces worship of God with worship of the land. But there is a difference, and the difference is crucial: the Israeli government is not producing the hate-filled speech of the Jewish terrorist, while Palestinian hate is produced and promoted by the Palestinian Authority.

Anyone who imagines soon-to-be President Obama is going to make peace between Israel and Palestine is fooling herself. The United States has spent untold millions on both sides of the conflict and nothing of substance has come of it. The illegal and immoral Israeli settlements remain and expand, and Palestinians bomb Israel from Gaza on a daily basis, raining death and destruction deeper and deeper into the country’s heartland. But there is a difference, and the difference is crucial: the Israeli government supports the settlements, while the Palestinian Authority does not officially sanction the bombing.

Funding the madness that is the Middle East doesn’t work. We have tried bringing the adults together, and that has failed. Maybe we should bring the children together instead. There are many such programs in Israel, all of them small and poorly funded. Maybe we should spend our money on these programs.

Maybe our best bet is to establish an American Academy for Truth and Reconciliation in Jerusalem— a free, educationally state-of-the-art middle and high school where, in addition to Arabic, Hebrew, English, science, math, and the humanities (including comparative religion and Jewish and Islamic Studies), Israeli and Palestinians can learn their history together, and where they can begin to forge the bonds of friendship and understanding that might let them create a new future that doesn’t replicate the fear, hate, and war that defines their parents. Pollyannaish, I know. Liberals like me always put our hope in education. That is why I admitted from the top: there will be no peace in the Middle East.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Memo to Obama

The January/February issue of Tikkun magazine, one of the most important journals of the spiritual left, features a series of "Memos to Obama" from a host of innovators, philosophers, and holy rascals including yours truly. I urge you to subscribe to Tikkun (and to Spirituality & Health magazine for which I write a spiritual advice column each issue). Subscriptions are what keep magazines afloat, and we need these two magazines to help us navigate the tough times ahead. To help motivate you to get Tikkun I am publishing my "Memo to Obama" here.

Dear President-elect Obama,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Of the many sacred texts that define us as a people and a nation these words by Thomas Jefferson are among the most precious. I wish to speak with you for a moment about happiness and its pursuit.

Aristotle understood happiness, what he called eudemonia, as a flourishing of life, a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. The key to eudemonia as I understand it is cultivating love, purpose, and meaning.

Happiness is a national concern calling us to establish laws, institutions, and communities honoring life’s diversity, individual liberty, and the pursuit of love, purpose and meaning.

Happiness is a moral concern and its pursuit fosters creativity, justice, compassion, generosity, fearlessness, and a desire to uplift both self and others.

Happiness is an economic concern liberating us from both poverty and enslavement to endless consumption. Happiness calls us to seek just enough wealth to be happy, and frees us from the lie that to be more we must have more.

Happiness is an international concern challenging us to lead the world not in how much stuff we consume or garbage we produce, but in our capacity to free our citizens to pursue love, purpose and meaning.

Happiness is a civic concern for people pursuing love, purpose, and meaning are unmoved by propaganda—commercial, political, and religious—designed to poison them and their communities with fear, self-loathing, lack, conformity, bigotry, and intolerance.

Happiness is a spiritual concern for people steeped in love, purpose, and meaning reject exclusivism, fear, exploitation, and hate, and resist religiously sanctioned violence, religiously sponsored ignorance, and the rants of clergy and pundits whose sense of compassion and justice is restricted to those who believe as they do.

Mr. President-elect, I believe we are entering a time of global apocalypse, literally an “unveiling” of the ignorance and hubris behind which we have hidden so long from our interdependence with and responsibility toward all life.

This unveiling will take many forms: economic collapse, environmental chaos, greater religious and ethnic violence, rising crime, and increased suicide and substance abuse. We will be knocked back on our heels, and then knocked down to our knees. The question is not if this will happen or even when— it is already happening. Our challenge is not how to avoid the apocalypse but how to navigate it with our humanity intact.

When last confronted with apocalyptic violence your predecessor urged us to go shopping; to stuff ourselves with goods that we might not notice that our goodness was being stolen from us by the very people we elected to protect it. This time you can offer us something else. Not a time to consume but a time to consider. Not a rush to get more, but a chance to reimagine what is enough. Not a fearful scramble to settle matters, but a thoughtful rethinking of what really matters. And in navigating this horror happiness can be your compass.

We are happiest when we are free from fear. We are happiest when we are free from usury and deceptive business practices. We are happiest when we are free from church and state meddling in our private lives. We are happiest when our scientists, scholars, and educators can pursue truth unfettered by theology. We are happiest when our concern for the unborn challenges us to think not only of the next nine months but the next nine generations. We are happiest when we have clean air to breathe, and clean water to drink. We are happiest when we have a solid roof over our heads, and safe food on your table. We are happiest when we have the opportunity for life-long learning. We are happiest when we take care of the least among us. We are happiest when our relationship with other species and the planet is based on respect, mutuality, and interdependence. We are happiest when we measure success by the quality of our lives, rather than the quantity of stuff that clutters them. We are happiest when we, as individuals and as a nation, make a positive difference in the world.

While no government can or should provide us with happiness, our government can and should free us to pursue it.

What I suggest, sir, is this: When weighing policy decisions ask yourself, “Will this enhance our capacity to cultivate love, purpose, and meaning? Is it in service to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?” If the answer is “yes,” then promote it. But if the answer is “no,” please, sir, resist it at all costs. This is the change we need.

Rabbi Rami

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Failed Revolution: Christmas 2008

There is no end to the horror and evil we humans can imagine for one another. Especially when motivated by religion.

I was listening to a Christian radio station yesterday and heard the pastor talk about the importance of Christmas. We celebrate Jesus’ birth, he said, because it made possible his death without which people are doomed to an eternity of torment beyond imagining.

His logic was as follows: God is infinite. If you sin against an infinite God your sin is infinite, and therefore your punishment is eternal. Since all of us are born sinful against God, we are born to eternal punishment. Jesus’ death is the ransom God demands in exchange for pardoning us and sparing us from eternal torment. Since Jesus is also infinite Jesus is the only being in the universe capable of infinite suffering, the suffering His Father demands. All we have to do is believe.

I believe we create God in our own image, after our own likeness. That doesn’t mean there is no God; it only means that theology tells us more about the theologian than about God. What does this theology tell us about this pastor and those who believe as he does? Let’s see:

His God is infinite. I have no problem with this. My own God, as Source and Substance of all reality, is also infinite. For me the infinitude of God means the universe is infinitely creative and capable of mutation, evolution, and surprise. For him the infinitude of God means that God’s anger is infinite, and His desire for revenge against those who sin against Him is without end. There is no compassion in God, nothing to temper His wrath. Who would worship such a God except a person equally filled with anger and lacking compassion?

His God is obsessed with sins He imagines are against Him. And any sin against God, given God’s infinitude, must itself be infinite, and hence deserving of eternal punishment. Who would worship a God obsessed with sin, except a person obsessed with sin? Who would worship a God whose self-esteem is so low that He imagines He can be sinned against except a person of low self-esteem who is himself obsessed with self?

His God is only pacified by death and suffering. Who would worship such a God except a person filled with homicidal rage?

His God desires and demands eternal suffering from those who offend Him, but allows His Son to be ransomed on their behalf, but only if the suffering of the Son is eternal as well. Jesus’ suffering doesn’t end on the cross, this pastor explained, but continues for all eternity. It is only because Jesus himself is infinite that Jesus can withstand the suffering. Who would worship a God so lustful for pain except a psychopath addicted to inflicting it?

And then, as his sermon came to a close, this pastor, seemingly oblivious to the horror he just preached, wished us all a Merry Christmas. How horribly, horribly sad.

Today I honor the birth of one of the greatest Jews who ever lived. Today I will remind myself of a failed revolution in Jewish thought and living that sought to expand beyond the Jews the message of love and justice the Hebrew Prophets preached to the Jews. Today I will mourn the failure of that revolution, and yet even as I do, I will remind myself that as long as his memory and teaching can be recalled, his revolution can be rekindled.

God is not dead. Believers have just buried Him alive.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
The Jews were discussing, even Rabbi Kraus.
Their ideas were hung on the Torah with care,
with Mishnah, and Talmud, and Zohar to spare.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
But the adults kept arguing their faces churned red.
Was he real or historic, imagined or fake?
Was he God or a prophet or Mithra awake?

I tried to suggest we were on the wrong path,
That the message and myth transcended our wrath,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
We sprang from our texts to see what’s the matter.

Away to the window we flew with a crash,
Spilling candles and dreidels and even some trash.
The moon was bright like the eyes of a doll
Or a dollop of horseradish on a gefilte fish ball.

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a huge chariot and its flaming commander.
Riding that chariot was One still Unnamed
Who called to His angels engulfed all in flame:
“Now Rafael, now Gabriel, now Michael and Satan!
On Metatron, on Uriel, on Flanken and Leiben!”

I knew in a moment that He was the One
Who called out to Hagar and Sarah and sons.
He looked at us all and shook His great head,
“What? I can’t have a son? Nu? A daughter instead?”

Sure, sure, we said, You do what You do,
But not with a virgin, not even a Jew.
From Zeus we expect it, and may from Wotan,
But with You we are certain such things are verboten.

“What? Are you saying there’s something too great
For the One who created love, fear, and hate?
I do what I want and I want what I do
Even if it's to have kids with a virginal Jew.

“I’ll tell you a secret, and you can let them all in,
I’m not Jewish or Muslim or even Christian.
Though I lean toward the Buddha and Chaung Tzu his cousin,
I’m still just the One for whom names there’s a dozen.

“And when you're too certain you know who I am,
I do something wild and burst through you dam.

"Some oil shall burn not one day but eight,
And a baby in a manger shall preach against hate,
And an Arab in a cave shall receive My Word
Just as others have and will no matter the herd.

“That’s what this season is for after all:
A time to grow big while starting so small.
If these things don’t make your narrow minds spin,
There’s no hope for tomorrow you’ve lost out to sin.

“So kindle your candles and light up your trees,
Anything that brings you down to your knees.
For the hope of the season rests not in the story
But in your potential to manifest My glory.”

Then laying His finger to the side of His nose,
He gave us a nod and to heaven He rose!
And as He drove higher up into the sky
He turned in His seat to wave a good-bye.

And I heard Him exclaim ‘ere He flew out of sight,
“Happy Boxing Day to all, and to all a good-night!”

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What Are You Hoping For This Christmas?

“What are you hoping for this Christmas,” the young woman ringing up my book purchase asked me happily.

“A real Christian,” I said without pausing, thinking, or even looking up from the credit card slip I was signing.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“A real Christian,” I repeated. “You know someone who truly loves Jesus. Someone who teaches us that God is love and to be with God is to be loving; someone who isn’t afraid of other people’s sexuality; someone who isn’t afraid of other people’s religions; someone who knows that God’s house has many mansions, and that a day is coming when we won’t worship God in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, but in the spirit, in pure contentless awareness; someone who refuses to bow to injustice whether perpetrated by governments, religions, corporations, or ordinary individuals; someone who helps us see the beam in our own eye rather than the splinter in the eye of our neighbor.”

“Isn’t that Jesus,” she asked. “Aren’t you describing Jesus Christ? Are you saying you want Jesus for Christmas?”

“We don’t need Jesus. We had Jesus. We need Christians, true followers of Jesus of who think what he thought and do what he did.”

“You mean die for our sins?”

“No, I mean, live for our promise. Jesus showed us what we can be. We just never took him seriously. As soon as we could we turned his teaching inside out making believing in Christ rather than living like Jesus our central theme. Jesus came and taught us to love one another. Then we killed him. Then we killed his message in his name.”

“The Jews killed Jesus,” she said.

“Even if they did, and in fact they didn’t, they only killed him once, but we kill him every Sunday; every Sunday when we walk into church and pretend that Jesus died for our sins rather than lived for our promise. We are killing him, killing others, killing all hope that we can ever be the children God we were created to be. The first Christmas was the last Christmas. That first Christmas God sent us the gift of radical hope and a new way of living, and every year since we refuse to accept the gift, and instead worship the wrapping.”

The woman just stared at me for a moment, then noticing the line of shoppers behind me, she said hesitantly, “Next.”

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jewish Idolatry Breeds Jewish Terrorism

For decades the State of Israel has promoted illegal settlements on the land captured during the Six Day Way. For decades Jews around the world turned a blind eye to the idolatry of settler Judaism promoting worship of the Land rather than God. The worship of Israel is corrupting the very soul of our people, but we refuse to see it. Yet every once in a while some evil is perpetrated by Israeli Jews that just cannot go unnoticed.

This December’s pogroms perpetrated by Israeli terrorists against innocent Palestinians—burning farms, homes, cars, attacking Palestinians with stones and even bullets, defacing mosques with anti-Muslim graffiti, and desecrating Muslim graves with Stars of David—is proof that both Zionism and Judaism have failed in Israel. Judaism has fallen victim to the danger that threatens every religion: when the religious get guns, religions get violent.

Judaism, like Islam, is a warrior religion. Abraham, Moses, and Joshua, like Mohammed and the Caliphs that followed him were warlords whose God sanctioned their military efforts and promised ultimate victory. Nothing has changed. Of course the majority of Jews and Muslims eschew violence, but the violence done in their name continues unabated.

It is true that the Prime Minister of Israel was the one to call these Jewish acts of terror “pogroms,” and it is also true that the heads of many Jewish organizations decried them as well. I am proud of these leaders and applaud their willingness to come out and oppose the evil some Jews do in the name of Judaism. But this is not enough.

Israel must immediately cease to fund all religious and secular groups that promote violence in theory or practice. We have our Jewish version of jihadist madrasas in both Israel and the United States, and these should be publicly identified and defunded. We have the Jewish equivalent of the Taliban, and the State of Israel and every Jew who donates money to Israel subsidizes many of these Taliban-like movements, synagogues, and rabbis. This funding must cease.

There may never be peace in the Middle East, but we need not be implicated in funding violence. Federation money donated to Israel should be limited to specific humanitarian efforts and not be allowed to be used to free up other money to go to fund ultra-right-wing religious groups that preach hatred and/or participate in and sanction evil.

Jews around the world should demand that worship of the land be labeled for what it is: idolatry. We should insist that those who worship the land be called what they are: idolaters. We should immediately label those who perpetrate pogroms against Palestinians what they are: terrorists. We should demand that Israel free herself from the theocratic stranglehold of the Orthodox, end the occupation of the West Bank, and become a true secular democratic state with synagogue-state separation written into law.

What better time than Hanukkah to advance true freedom in Israel? What better time to decry the idolatry of land worship and rededicate ourselves to the highest ideas of justice, peace, and love? If not now, when?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hanukkah 2008, Part 3

Hanukkah is just three sundowns away and I promised to offer a positive reason for celebrating the holiday. If you’ve read the two prior installments you know that I’m not interested in Hanukkah as the Jewish War of Liberation, and I’m not happy with pitting Hanukkah against Christmas in the competition to win the hearts and minds of little Jewish girls and boys bombarded with Christmas pomp and piety. If these were my only choices, I’d drop the holiday altogether.

In fact, I’d work with the Israel Ministry of Tourism to bring all American Jews to Israel for the month of December (or, given how Christmas mania is going in this country, from Halloween through New Year’s Day). But there is an alternative: If we are going to keep Hanukkah on the scrolls, we have to reinvent it. Forget the military victory over Antiochus IV. Forget the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. The real story of the one-day’s worth of oil burning for eight days is a story of energy efficiency, and since the oil came from olives rather than long dead brontosaurs, Hanukkah is about bio-fuels as well.

When the Maccabees went to light the menorah they needed enough oil to burn for eight days, but had enough to burn for only one day. Tradition says they burned what they had, but that is stupid and wrong: “stupid” because if they only had enough to last one day and they needed enough to last eight days logic dictates that they should have waited until they pressed more oil; “wrong” because if they counted on God to take care of things, they were wrong to test God. God gets to test us; we don’t get to test God. Read the Bible: Abraham at least, Job if you really have the guts.

But the Maccabees weren’t stupid or wrong: they burned the oil because they knew it would burn longer than expected. How did they know? I don’t know, but I suspect they had invented a more efficient Menorah that could get eight npg (nights per gallon of oil) rather than the standard one npg. That’s an eight-fold increase! That’s what the Maccabees did, but they promoted the miracle story until they could patent their process and bring it to market. Since patent law wasn’t invented for thousands of years, they had to wait a long time.

Unfortunately they lost the designs for the Menorah when their buddies the Romans sacked the Temple a couple of hundred years later, made off with the only prototype, and used it as a grill for some glitzy eight horsepower chariot. All we have left is the story. For us Jews, however, stories are always enough, and it is time to make good on the true story of Hanukkah by making Hanukkah into an eight-day celebration of human ingenuity and entrepreneurism with regard to energy conservation, efficiency, and alternative fuels, a time for rededicating humanity to the quest for renewable sources of energy to light our menorahs and run our homes, factories, and chariots.

My suggestion is that world Jewry, in conjunction with the State of Israel and the International Mahjong Association create the H-Prize, or the CH-Prize if you can pronounce Hanukkah properly as Chanukah without getting phlegm on yourself. Each year we would offer eight prizes of one million dollars each (one prize given each night of Hanukkah along with a couple of chocolate coins and maybe a pair of socks) to that individual or team that has done to most to increase energy efficiency, invent new sources of energy, and green the planet.

Israel should take the lead in this by partnering with Warren Buffet (or Jimmy Buffet or Warren Beatty or whomever it is) and build giant wind-driven dreidels in the Negev (turn baby, turn!) that would produce enough energy to power the entire region with the exception of the illegal Jewish settlements in Palestine (they should be dismantled speedily in our day), and the homes of Palestinian terrorists (let their seventy-two virgins warm them up when they get to heaven after blowing themselves up at home because they didn’t have enough light to see they were putting the blue wire where the red wire goes).

Now this would be a Hanukkah worth celebrating! A Green Hanukkah where the miracle story of a single day’s oil lasting for eight days is a catalyst for creative thinking and innovation in oil conservation, fuel efficiency and alternative fuels development.

Nobody else has a holiday like this. It would show how alive and adaptable Judaism is. It would show how creative and relevant we Jews are. It would say to all those forest depleting and light polluting Christians, “See, we still matter. You may be hoping for the end of the earth, but we’re promoting her survival. You keep praying for Jesus to come back, and we’ll make sure we leave a light on for him.”

So that’s it. Let’s reinvent Hanukkah and make it a worldwide festival of energy entrepreneurism. Whatdaya say? Of course if you’ve already bought me a present for this year no need to return it. I’m not proud.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hanukkah 2008, Part 2

Yesterday I asked that you think of a good reason to celebrate Hanukkah this year. I came up with two that work for me. First, we need something to combat the allure of Christmas. Second, Hanukkah can morph into an eco-friendly holy day challenging us to do more with less. Today let’s look at Hanukkah as the alternative to Christmas.

Think about this: Is Hanukkah really the way you want Judaism to be remembered? If you had to hold one holy day up as really getting at the heart of Judaism would Hanukkah even cross your mind? I doubt it. Not when it has to compete with really fun holy days like Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av.

We like to think of Hanukkah as a war of liberation, and while we did get a few decades of self-rule out of defeating Antiochus IV, the Hasmonean dynasty led by the Maccabees was far from laudable. What good came out of the Maccabean revolt? Were the people any freer? Did we advance education or science or democracy? Sure we got a big statue to Zeus out the Temple, but most Greeks didn’t believe in the old guy anyway, and it gave the Jewish priests some place to hang their robes, so what’s the harm? And would the substitution of pig slaughtering for cow slaughtering have been such a big deal—to anyone but the pigs and cows, I mean?

Even the rabbis found Hanukkah troubling. That’s why they focus on the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. They wanted the people to think about something other than the military prowess of the Maccabees who brought the corrupt Hasmonean regime into power. Don’t put your faith in these warriors and their priests trust the God of the little lamp and the rabbis who play Paul Winchell to His Charlie McCarthy.

The truth is, once the Hasmoneans were betrayed by their Roman puppet masters Hanukkah was seen for what it was: a minor holiday, and if not for Christmas, Hanukkah would have gone the way of Tu b’Av. Don’t know what that is? My point exactly. And Tu b’Av is Jewish Valentine’s Day without the Saint and the Massacre. It’s even better than Valentine’s Day: on Tu b’Av even Charlie Brown gets a card, if not from the little red-haired girl at least from some liberal Protestant girl who thinks Linus is just too religious, believing as he does in both Jesus and the Great Pumpkin. If we Jews could forget a day like that how long do you think we would remember Hanukkah? Nope, Hanukkah would have disappeared along with the Hasmoneans if Christians hadn’t made such a big deal about Christmas. Where are the Puritans when you need them?

Oliver Cromwell, the original Grinch, and his Puritan followers abolished Christmas in 1645. Their objection? I think it was the incessant Christmas music in the lifts (what we Yanks call elevators). Charles II took the country back from the Puritans and restored the holy day, but the Puritans had already set up a new home base in America where from 1659 to 1681 Christmas was against the law in Boston. Can you imagine? Christmas was banned in Boston! Talk about a War on Christmas! Christmas wasn’t declared a Federal Holiday in the United States until 1870, and the tradition of trampling Wal-Mart employees to death didn’t come into vogue until years later. By the time it did, however, Christmas was already a huge deal, and, despite every effort of Chinese restaurant owners to make them feel special on Christmas, the Jews felt left out.

American Jews had only four options: 1) don’t celebrate the holy day; 2) celebrate the holy day; 3) celebrate Christmas’ older form by commemorating the birth of the Roman God Mithra; or 4) turn Hanukkah into the greatest thing since Shavuos. They chose the latter. That meant eight nights of extravagance: “Hey you goyyim, you only got one night? What kinda God is that? We got eight! Count ‘em: two, four, six, eight now you know God’s really great! And what gives with your God, anyway? A baby asleep in a manger? Man we got Judah the Hammer kickin’ ass and takin' Roman numerals. Your God doesn’t get to kill anybody. At least not until He comes back, and by then we’ve probably killed ourselves off anyway. But our God kills everybody. ‘Specially those Greek bastards. Christmas—feh!”

Of course all that bluster was a just a smoke screen. Inside we were dying. Sure we can buy more presents because we have more nights, but—come on!— nothing really beats Christmas for glitz and glamour. Can you imagine a Macy’s Day Hanukkah Parade in Jerusalem? Israel doesn’t even have a Macy’s! And if they did have a parade, who would march? A bunch of Hasidim? Imagine the commentary:

“Welcome back to the sixth day of the eight-day 192 hour-long Macy’s Hanukkah Parade, it sure is something, eh Zaftig?”

“Thanks God, Shayneh Punim, thanks be to God! And look at the colors!”

“Yes, the colors… black…”

“And white!”

“Oh yes, and white.”

“And here comes the giant Chabad Menorah.”

“This year’s entry is seventeen hundred stories tall, and is weighted down with four hundred Satmar Hasidim.”

“Yes, and on a sad note, despite all our prayers, last year’s Rebbe balloon, lost when a tether broke, has still not returned.”

“Sad, but maybe next year.”

“Yes, next year in Jerusalem.”

Can you really out do a Christmas tree with a Hanukkah (Hanukkah menorah)? Imagine the CNN coverage of the White House Lighting of the Menorah after the lighting of the National Christmas Tree:

“Thanks, Wolfe. It is a wonderful scene here on the front lawn of the White House. The First Lady is about to light the seventeen thousand foot spruce donated by state of Alaska. As you know, Wolfe, this specific tree was chosen because it was obscuring the governor’s view of Russia.”

“There are the lights! It is just gorgeous. I’m told you can see that tree shining from four hundred light years away.”

“That’s true, Wolfe. And now the First Lady is about to light the five-inch tall Hanukkah menorah donated by the Moishe Gross family of New York City in honor of their aunt Tanta Chenkeh who recently won the sisterhood Bingo at Temple Beth B’nai Zion Am Yisrael Chai in Atlantic City, New Jersey.”

“I can almost see it, Christiana.”

“Well, take my word for it, Wolfe, it is there. Somewhere. Somewhere in all that Christmas glitter and Christmas light. Back to you, Wolf.”

There is no comparison.

And the feelings don’t compare either. Christmas is the birthday of the Prince of Peace, Hanukkah is a war holiday. Christmas symbols are of lambs and camels, baby Jesus and Mary, perhaps the only Jewish woman who ever slept in a manger, let alone gave birth in one. Of course there is Joseph, long suffering Joseph, who is cuckolded by God. Can you imagine? Of course if you’re a Christian you do imagine it, but we Jews—no way. Give us Judah the Hammer over that nebbish any day. But the feelings of love and peace and good will toward men and women and boys and girls and peace on earth—man, that just isn’t Hanukkah. Open a Hanukkah card and it reads, “Death to the Hellenizers!”

And the food! Christmas ham, Christmas turkey, Christmas fruitcake… there is no end to the foods you can preface with the word “Christmas.” What do the Jews’ eat? Today we have latkes, potato pancakes, but in ancient Israel they never heard of potatoes. So they ate greasy balls of dough called sufganiot and a pasta dish named after Judah Maccabee called Macc ‘n Cheese.

Look, I’m not complaining. I’m proud to be a Jew, but I have to admit at this time of year, I just wish I had it in me to, well, you know… I’m not saying I want a Christmas tree or anything that obvious, but maybe, just this once, I could pretend I wasn’t Jewish and knock down a Wal-Mart greeter or two. Of course if they were Greeks I’d put a cap in their ass! Damn those Hellenizers!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hanukkah 2008, Part 1

Hanukkah begins this Sunday at sundown, and Jews around the world will celebrate the defeat of those Hellenizing Jews and the army of King Antiochus IV who desired to bring Jews into the second century BCE. I have lots of questions regarding the holiday.

For example, why would a Greek despot like Antiochus IV use Roman numerals in his name? And why did the Jewish traditionalists fear the naked games that the Greeks brought with them? Most Jews I know would be too embarrassed to be seen naked (having eaten too many latkes no doubt), so they aren’t going to participate in the games. Perhaps since the games featured naked men the sages were fearful of an outbreak of homosexuality.

And, what was so wrong with hellenization (“going Greek”), anyway? It can’t be the name; “Hellen” is a nice name, even if it does have one too many “L’s” in it. And it can’t be the food Greeks eat; who objects to a nice salad? Of course there is the possibility that if we ate more Greek salads we might slim down enough to enter the Greek games, but I think Jews are too addicted to brisket for that to be a serious concern.

Sure being forced to slaughter pigs to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem is a bit troubling, but is it really worse than slaughtering cows to YHVH? Tomato, tomahto: they’re both fictional characters with an endless craving for barbeque. Maybe it is the Greek’s politics that offends me? Let’s see.

The Greeks gave us democracy. They argued (with Plato and his dictator-loving mentor Socrates being notable exceptions) that humans are born with an innate capacity to reason sufficient, when educated, to allow people to govern themselves. The Greek polis (city-state) had no king. Even Sparta, the exception to this rule, limited the monarch’s role to commander of the army. Of course by the time of Antiochus IV kings were back in vogue, but the ideals of democracy were still at the heart of Greek philosophy (again Plato excepted). Could it be that Judaism isn’t too found of government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

While the Torah warns the people against the institution of kingship, once they do establish a king for themselves God seems to get behind the idea. King David, after all, is our archetype of the ideal ruler, and he came to power through violence. And when the Messiah comes he will not bring democracy with him, but will reestablish the Davidic Kingdom and the sacrificial worship in a rebuilt Temple that will make McDonald’s look like a PETA convention. And then there is the fact that God is called Melech haOlam, King of the Universe. No hope for a democracy there. So maybe what worried the Jewish anti-Hellenizers was the thought that the am haaretz, the hoi polloi as the Greeks would call them, the little people, Yosef the Plumber for example, would somehow gain power at the expense of the priestly aristocracy that ran Judaism? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the Hasmoneans, the ruling dynasty that Judah Maccabee helped establish (his name, by the way, means Judah the Hammer, a nick-name he may have earned while working as an enforcer for a loan shark in his hometown of Modi’in), quickly became the ancient Jewish equivalent of the Bush/Cheney administration.

Anyway, I often wonder which side of the Helleninzing line I would have been on in those days. If I believed then what I believe now, I think I would be a Jewish Stoic, a member of the Wisdom Schools that gave us Ecclesiastes and Job. These were radical sages who had no interest in kings or priests, who denied the facile theology of “do good, get good” that the God of the establishment promoted.

Why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t. But if you’re going to celebrate Hanukkah this year you have to ask yourself, “Why?” Are you really opposed to democracy? Do you really prefer kings to presidents? Are you really eager to cleanse the Temple so you can slaughter cows to YHVH?

More on this tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Keeping Abreast of the Virgin

The Mexican edition of Playboy Magazine sought to honor the Virgin Mary by placing her on the cover of their December issue dressed only in what looked like a white tallit (Jewish prayer shawl). I know what you're thinking: Where did Rami get a copy of the December issue of the Mexican edition of Playboy? Who says illegal immigrants aren't good for America? Anyway many Mexican Christians were offended, and, to tell you the truth, so was I. Jewish women in Mary’s day didn’t wear prayer shawls and I resent Playboy for in any way covering up the nude body of Maria Florencia Onori, the model who posed as Mary for the cover of the magazine.

To investigate more deeply into this sacrilege, I spent a few hours on line trying to find fully nude photographs of Ms. Onori. Unfortunately, I couldn't find even one; but I did find lots of nude paintings of the Virgin Mary herself. No not full frontal nudes, but beautiful paintings dating from the Renaissance. Almost all of these were of the Virgin nursing her Son. Interestingly enough, where Playboy hid the Mother’s left nipple behind the tallit, these earlier artists had no fear of displaying her breast (albeit her right breast) nipple and all. One authority (OK, me) suggested this was the actual origin of Jesus' teaching about cheeks: If they suckle on the right breast, turn the other breast also.

At first I thought these paintings merely captured a wardrobe malfunction ala Janet Jackson, but upon further research I discovered that the reason the Virgin was shown with an exposed breast was to highlight the fact that God, who, in the form of baby Jesus, was about to suckle that breast, had truly become flesh.

It turns out that Playboy is far more in tune with current Vatican thinking about the breast of the Holy Mother than are the people of Mexico. According to the official newspaper of the Vatican (Officiali Newspapori Vaticani or something like that), the Vatican has called for the ending of a four centuries-long cover-up of the holy Breast and Nipple instigated by, at least in the Church’s view, prudish Protestants. Oddly enough The Breast and Nipple is a favorite pub of many Protestant Brits. (See how much you learn from this blog; too bad much of it is made up.)

It seems that with the emergence of Calvinism in the 16th century sex was considered a sin (or at least it was in the case of Calvin's parents), and showing the breast and nipple of the Mother of God was considered immodest and shameful. While never embracing Calvinism per se, many Catholics in France, Ireland, and northern Europe adopted the no-nipple philosophy of the Reformed Church, even as the Church in Rome resisted it. My own suspicion, though I have absolutely no evidence to prove it, is that Calvin’s mother breastfed him throughout his teenage years and always under the cover of a cloth. Since I also have no evidence to disprove my suspicion, I am sharing it with you here as if it were fact.

Anyway, the Church is moving toward a revival of a bare-breasted nursing Mary and I think the Catholics of Mexico ought to be grateful to Playboy for adhering to the Vatican’s desire. I know I am.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shoe Fly Don’t Bother Me

An Iraqi reporter attacked President Bush during a press conference in Baghdad. The reporter threw his shoes at the President’s head, crying out “This is a farewell kiss, you dog!” To Mr. Bush’s credit the President ducked and never lost his cool. He even managed to joke about the size of the attacking footwear. That’s why I voted for the guy. He knows his shoe sizes.

The reporter was arrested and now thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest the arrest and demand the reporter’s release, and, I imagine, the return of his shoes. Now this is change we can believe in. Under Saddam Hussein this could never have happened. First there would have been no press conferences, indeed there was no real press. Then, even if there was a conference, the people attending probably didn’t have shoes, or at least didn’t have a spare pair of shoes to throw. And even if they had shoes they probably didn’t have the strength to throw them because they had no food, all the country’s money being used to build weapons of mass destruction. Clearly Iraq has become a free nation and shoe throwing and rioting just prove the point.

Of course not everyone saw it this way. One right wing talk show host on my local radio station began a long rant about how ungrateful the Iraqi people are, and how quickly they have forgotten the brutality of the Hussein regime. He was coming dangerously close to calling for the removal of American soldiers from Iraq since the Iraqis seem to so enjoy defaming us and our mission.

I called the show (which if you’ve read my previous post, “God or Gore”, you know is my new hobby) to weigh in on this issue (isshoe?) When asked by the show’s call screener to outline the point I wanted to make on the radio I said that I felt the shoe tossing was proof of our victory in Iraq:

“This is why we went over there in the first place,” I said. “Saddam was a bad man, a bad guy, and an evildoer who oppressed his people terribly. But now the Iraqis can throw their shoes at the President of the United States and riot when arrested for doing so. This makes all our sacrifice worthwhile. We didn’t invade Iraq for the oil, or to prevent Saddam from breaking the dollar’s monopoly as the world’s petro-currency by opening the market to the Euro, or even to stop him from throwing big aluminum tubes at Israel. No we went there to make it possible for Iraqis to throw their shoes at the President of the United States. Mission accomplished…. Hello? Hello?”

He hung up. Again.

God or Gore: It's Your Choice

I have a new hobby: calling into my local talk radio station to agree with the right wing conspiracy nut hosting the show. So far I haven’t made it on the air, but this morning I thought I was getting close.

The topic was global warming. To prove that global warming was a lie, an attempt by evil left wing minions of Al Gore to destroy the economy of the United States, the host ran through the record breaking cold temperatures posted across the country this past weekend. I called the show to agree, and when the screener asked what I wanted to say I offered the following in my best Tennessee accent:

I just want to comment on this global warming scam and point out something that hasn’t been mentioned yet. You now I listen to the weather conspirators on the TV everyday and I have noticed that they always announce that they are going to tell us the weather but then they keep putting it off until later and later in the show. Well that is because they are afraid to tell the truth about the weather because they know that the truth doesn’t fit the fake facts of global warming. So they delay and delay and delay the weather forecast hoping that it will change and that things will get warmer, but in the end they have to tell us the truth because we can walk outside and see for ourselves that it is colder than ever. Even Fox News does this, which makes me wonder whose side they are really on, God’s or Gore’s.

It really comes down to that in the end. Either you believe God or you believe Gore, and I for one choose to believe God because God is the Creator of the weather and probably knows a whole lot more about it that Gore who isn’t even a weatherman on TV.

So this whole global warming thing is a scam. The globe isn’t getting warmer it is getting colder. So the warming thing is a lie, and, to tell you the truth, I’m not so sure about the globe part either. I mean I have seen the photos of the earth from outer space and the earth looks round but it still looks flat. I think the problem is that the ancient people thought the world was flat and square or rectangular when we know now it is flat and round like a DVD disk. And that is why, by the way, we had maps that were flat rather than globes which are round. The reason we got globes was because they take up less space that maps and so people wanted them but over time people forgot why they wanted them and began to imagine that they rather than maps were the more accurate representation of the earth when in fact they are wrong because they make up believe the earth is a ball when in fact it is a disk.

So the global warming people are scamming us twice, once with the warming and again with the globe thing and this what I want to talk about with… Hello? Hello?

Can you believe it? The screener hung up. It is a said thing when even right-wing radio can’t handle the truth. Oh well, I’ll try again tomorrow.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Old God. New Tricks.

In the Winter 2008 issue of Reform Judaism magazine Rabbi Jack H. Bloom, a Reform Rabbi and practicing psychotherapist, is interviewed regarding his personal theology.

The interview opens well with Rabbi Bloom challenging the unwillingness of Torah commentators to admit rather than gloss over the dark-side of God. His examples come from Numbers 15:32 where God has the Jews murder one of their own for the crime of gathering sticks on Shabbat, and Leviticus 23:29-30 where God threatens to “cut off” from the Chosen anyone who works on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Bloom goes on to blame our failure to admit God’s dark-side on our “pediatric view of divinity” that looks at God the way young children look at their parents. Little kids see mom and dad as Perfect Parents rather than as complex and flawed human beings. Similarly we excuse God’s dark-side in order to maintain our illusion of the perfect divine Parent, and hence “stay mired in a less mature, dysfunctional, and ultimately disappointing relationship with the Divine.”

As we seek a more mature relationship with God, Rabbi Bloom argues, we will also help God mature as well. Just as parents can learn from their children, so God can learn from us. In fact, Rabbi Bloom says, helping God mature is “an essential part of our [the Jewish people’s] covenantal relationship” with God.

Drawing upon his psychological training, Rabbi Bloom explains that God’s immaturity and violent nature are rooted in God’s low self-esteem. God wants to be loved, but rather than inviting our love by acting lovingly toward us, God demands it: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). God doesn’t understand the difference between love and obedience, and hence cannot mature into a Being capable of engaging in authentic relationship with humanity.

We humans, Rabbi Bloom says, must teach God what true relationship is by modeling it among ourselves. As God watches us live lovingly, God will learn how to do so Himself.

I assume Rabbi Bloom means for us to take him literally, and that Reform Judaism means for us to take his theology seriously. So here is a serious, albeit brief, response to Rabbi Bloom: AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGG!

And here is a no less serious albeit longer response:

Rabbi Bloom assumes that what we read about God in the Torah is true; that Torah actually reveals the nature of God. This is nonsense. Torah is a human document, and whatever its authors say about God tells us much about them and nothing about God, or even if there is a God. Being a psychologist as well as a Reform Rabbi I would have expected Rabbi Bloom to analyze the humans behind the Torah and not the God they imagine at the heart of it.

Here are a few questions worthy of serious psycho-spiritual exploration: Why did the ancient authors of Torah imagine such a violent God? Why did they place themselves in the role of both partner and victim with regard to this God? What does this say about our ancestors? What do we make of a people who imagine and worship a God suffering from low self-esteem? How does Torah’s image of a violent and self-loathing God shape the psyche of the Jewish people as we continue to raise our children with these stories and continue to read them uncritically ourselves?

According to Rabbi Bloom (and others) God creates the world because God wants to be loved. Prior to creation God is alone and lonely, and He seeks to remedy His situation by creating humans who will love and obey Him. And when we don’t do exactly what He wants us to do, He kicks us around until it is time for a nap. Yes, God is a four-year-old. But that was thousands of years ago. Hasn’t God grown up a bit by now? Hasn’t He learned anything from dealing with Jews lo these many years? Rabbi Bloom, by arguing that we humans must teach God how to “play nice” with his human friends, implies God has learned nothing. So what hope is there for us to teach God? If Abraham, Moses, Hillel, and Freud have failed, how are we going to succeed?

Given his reference to pediatric theology, I suspect Rabbi Bloom intends his theology for adults, but I don’t see how it can be so. On the surface it seems demeaning to adult thinking. It takes the Bible, or at least the Bible’s image of God, literally. I doubt most Reform Jews do. It assumes that God is an emotionally stunted Creator Who needs better role models. I don’t believe this, and don’t imagine many adults would buy it either.

So what can we do with Rabbi Bloom’s theology? We can turn it inside out, and argue that the authors of the Torah invented a God that reflected their own childhood experiences with dysfunctional and emotionally stunted fathers. We can argue that reading the Torah as the dreams a client might present in therapy tells us a lot about our ancestors. We can argue that, since their fantasies about their dysfunctional parents, now projected outward as a cosmically dysfunctional God, have shaped the Jewish psyche, we Jews still suffer from their childhood experiences. We can argue that the very fact that Jews continue to read the exploits of this dysfunctional Deity suggests that Judaism fosters a childlike mentality even in its adult members. We can argue that since we cannot admit to the madness of God and continue to blame ourselves for His anger and homicidal tendencies, insisting like the victim of abuse insists, that the Abuser is good and we are bad, that we suffer from a deep trauma at the heart of Judaism. It isn’t God that needs healing; it is we who believe in this God that need healing.

If this is true, we can then seek to heal ourselves. We can begin to analyze Jewish culture, family life, and religion as an example of abused children seeking to appease an unappeasable fantasy parent. And in so doing we might learn something about ourselves and take steps toward spiritual and cultural maturation.

Turning Rabbi Bloom’s theology inside out, might also be of value to our Christian cousins who, perhaps in rebellion against Our Father Who Art Quite Mad, imagined an all-loving God whose Son came to earth to free us from our failed efforts to earn God’s love.

The problem with Christianity, however, is that its early authors were themselves Jews who could not escape the trauma of biblical theology. And because of their Jewishness they abandoned the hope taught by the Son and retreated into the horror of the Father, and imagining an even more dysfunctional God than the Torah’s original.

Where the Torah’s God, after destroying almost all life with a flood, promises not to do so again, the God of the New Testament reneges on that promise and intends to destroy humanity once more. But the New Testament God can be bribed, and humanity can be ransomed. The cost? The death of God’s own Son. Whereas YHVH spared Abraham’s son on one hill, the New Testament God lets His own Son die horribly on another.

The Christian God is too Jewish to be the loving parent Christians want Him to be. And that is why, in the end, the Christian God of love condemns most of humanity to burn for all eternity in Hell, and sends the Prince of Peace to wage war against all those who, once again, refuse to obey the Lord with Low Self-Esteem.

If Rabbi Dr. Bloom had put the Jews on the couch rather than our divine fantasy, we might have learned something. If he had tried to heal us rather than our imagined Heavenly Father, we might turn to him for more insight. If he had argued that mainstream Jewish thinking about God that ignores the dark-side of God is analogous to an abused daughter blaming herself for the abusive actions of her father, then we could talk and maybe heal. But in fact all Rabbi Bloom did was to perpetuate the excuse and the abuse by blaming the victim: If only we would relate rightly with one another, Daddy would see what right relationship is and learn how to be the really really good Daddy we know He is. Please Daddy, we’re sorry. Please, give us another chance.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Thank God I'm Not Catholic

Thank God I'm not Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church upgraded its position on reproductive issues today, and as best as I can tell the intent of the revision was to make sure that Catholics continue to live in the Middle Ages when it comes to all things sexual. Judaism at least has its progressive heresies like Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionism, and Humanism, but all the Catholics have is the Pope.

The Church strengthened its on-going opposition to contraception, embryonic stem cell research, and abortion, and clarified its stand against in vitro fertilization. It also called “shameful and reprehensible” any attempt to make sure embryos that are implanted in a woman are free from genetic flaws or disease. I guess the reasoning was that if you are going to sin by using in vitro fertilization you should at least maximize your chances of having a sick child. Nothing like sin to add to your suffering.

Still, I admire the Church’s consistency when it comes to pro-life issues, but I thank God for not making me a Catholic. Imagine you are raped, and the sperm of your rapist has fertilized one of your eggs, and that fertilized egg is about to begin its 14 day journey down your fallopian tube to your womb. Without being implanted in the womb that fertilized egg has no chance of becoming a baby, and you won’t be forced to carry your rapist’s baby to term. But your religion refuses to allow you to take a pill that will prevent that implantation. Why? Because that fertilized egg is a person in the eyes of the Church.

Which makes me wonder… Since 70% of all fertilized eggs fail to implant in the womb, what happens to all these mini-humans? They haven’t been baptized, so I’m not certain they can go to heaven. Do they go to hell? That doesn’t seem fair. Do they go to purgatory? That, too, seems unkind. Limbo is out because the Church recently disavowed its earlier teaching that there ever was such a place. Wherever they go, it has got to be very crowded. Or maybe not. Are mini-human souls smaller than baby souls or fully adult souls?

The Church’s antipathy to in vitro fertilization was a bit surprising. Rather than finding a womb for the 500,000 frozen embryos (and their frozen souls), or allowing these mini-people to die and allowing their souls go to… wherever… the Church prefers to leave them in frozen neverneverland. Does this sound moral to you? It doesn’t to me. If the Church is worried about these souls, why leave them stuck in frozen eggs?

The Church insists that its position is not uniquely Catholic, but rather based on Natural Law and hence universal. The implication, of course, is that anyone with a different point of view (me, for example) isn’t only anti-Catholic but anti-human.

The fact is reproductive technology has outstripped the capacity of the Church, or any other religion locked into medieval theological positions, to make sense of it. What we need is fresh thinking to match the innovations of the technology. I pity the Catholic who feels coerced into living in the past. I worry that the Church has just moved itself closer to the point of total irrelevance in the lives of many Catholics. The more the Church clings to the past the more irrelevant it is to those wrestling with the present and the future.

Monday, December 08, 2008

I am not a Mystic

I’m not a mystic. A mystic is someone who seeks a direct unitive encounter with God, one who wants to get beyond discursive thought and experience the death of the self in the great sea of the soul. I admit to having had such experiences, or at least to suspecting I have had them since there is no “I” when the “having” occurs. But as amazing as such experiences can be I don’t place them at the heart of my life.

What I really value are great thoughts, questions, and ideas. I love ideas. I love thinking about ideas, arguing about ideas, comparing, contrasting, and creating ideas.

When I was a senior at Smith College my Zen master Sasaki Roshi visited our zendo for a sesshin, a meditation intensive. He had just come from a week at Spenser Abbey where Fr. Thomas Keating was the abbot. He mentioned that he loved the library at the abbey, and that what he loved the most about it is that it was empty. Lots of books, no monks.

I understood what he was saying: Zen is not about books but about direct transmission of wisdom from the mind of the master to the student. And I appreciate the truth of his insight. But I love libraries. I love walking among the stacks and discovering books I never heard of before. I love pulling them off the shelves and curling up in a chair to discover what surprises the book holds for me. And one book leads to another, and another and another and another.

Judaism is going through a spiritual renaissance, but I worry that our quest for the mystical is at the cost of the intellectual. Jews want to chant and meditate, rather than learn how to creatively misread Torah in order to midwife new wisdom from ancient texts. And when they do study Torah they are apt to defend the text, and to accept simplistic answers rather than ask deep philosophical questions.

Even many rabbis have abandoned the deep learning at the heart of Jewish civilization. It is one thing to dumb Judaism down for their congregants (I am opposed to this as well), and quite another to assume that they themselves don’t have to learn more than the superficial Judaism they will inevitably be called to teach.

We need to focus our education not on holidays and liberal ethics and social action, but on the Jewish art of questioning and argument. We need to teach Torah at an adult level, challenging students to grow into the text rather than out of it. We need to reclaim the Jewish love of Jewish learning. We need to teach our students how to deconstruct the Torah with traditional tools for creative misreading, finding insights in the text that the authors themselves never imagined. Alongside the Jewish challenge, “justice, justice, you shall pursue” we need to add the equally Jewish imperative, “learning, learning, you shall pursue.”

Most religions are about answers. Judaism is about questions. We don’t seem to ask good questions any more, and I find that very troubling.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Proof is in the Body Count

According to the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism the United States will experience a biological or nuclear terrorist attack before the year 2013. Whoa! Did you hear that? An attack is coming. Not if, just when. And not any “when” but “soon”.

You might think that with this clear warning from the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism we will find a way to prevent this horror, but, since the Commission says the attack is inevitable, I think we might better use the time by getting a jumpstart on whom to blame when the terrorists do strike.

To get things going, let me identify the likely culprit. No, not crazy religious people, but atheists. Yep, you heard me—atheists: the people who don’t believe in any god will be responsible for the deaths of thousands at the hands of those who believe God sanctions the murders and rewards the murderers. Here’s why:

In 2002 the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security was ordered by the Kentucky state legislature to stress God’s role in homeland security. In 2006 the state was required to post a plaque affirming that the security of the state “cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon almighty God.” Just where they put this plaque I have no idea, but wherever it was it pissed off the atheists who are suing to have the plaque and the affirmation of God’s role in homeland security removed. Are they nuts? This is going to piss almighty God off big time. Allah is already angry with us (hence the inevitable terrorist attack), so the last thing we need is to have YHVH pissed off as well. But do these atheists care? Not one bit. Where is Torquemada when you need him?

My question is this: Will God be angry only with the state of Kentucky, or will the Almighty blame the entire country for this blasphemy? We will find out when the terrorists strike. If their attack is limited to Kentucky we will know God didn’t punish the innocent along with the guilty (this time). But if the attack hits the whole country we will know whom to blame—the atheists.

Of course this isn’t the only problem with the Kentucky law. Both the Kentucky legislature and the jihadists argue that God is on their side, so the Kentucky law is also a clear test of whose god is God. If the Kentucky law withstands the atheist legal challenge, and the US is still attacked as the Commission insists it will be, then we will know that Allah is God and YHVH is a pansy. If the law stands and the terrorists are foiled, then YHVH wins and Allah loses.

If, on the other hand, the Kentucky law falls to the infidels and the US is attacked, we still can’t be sure that YHVH is God, but we can be pretty sure that if YHVH is God He no longer loves us, and won’t love us until we purge our land of the atheist plague. If, on the other other hand, the Kentucky law falls and America is spared a terrorist attack, then we know the atheists are right and the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism is full of crap.

Of course the best scenario would be if the terrorists’ attack blows up in their own country and kills thousands of their own people. Then we would know that YHVH is God and Allah is a pansy.

Sure it’s too bad that the only way to know which god is God is by body count, but, hey, I didn’t invent these religions, I just take them seriously.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Deep Wisdom from Forrest Church

Forrest Church is a historian, essayist, author, and Unitarian Universalist minister. He is also dying. So am I of course, but in his case the end is imminent. He has cancer and his remaining time on earth is measured in months at best. To mark this passing he has written a new book entitled Love & Death in which he sorts out what matters. It is a fine and moving book, as Church is a fine and moving human being. I have been a fan of his for decades, ever since reading his book A Chosen Faith about his reasons for being a Unitarian Universalist.

I want to share with you one small section from Love & Death I found most intriguing.

Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.
We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means.

We are more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge.
God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.

Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death.
The one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.

The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.

Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Not every scholar of religion roots the origins of religion in the human capacity to envision death, but no one can argue that it is of central concern to almost every faith tradition. Mortality is the grain of sand in the oyster of human potential. If we lived forever we would accomplish nothing. It is because we know we will die that we are motivated to make something of our lives.

We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means. For me life doesn’t mean anything; life is meaning itself. There is no point to living; living is the point. Saying that life has meaning suggests that meaning is outside of life, that life is lived for some purpose beyond life itself. This may be true, but I don’t see it. For me the question death raises is not “what does life mean” but rather “how can I live my life meaningfully?”

We are more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge. Ignorance is far more interesting than knowledge. Knowledge can cause us to marvel, but ignorance brings us to wonder and awe. We need to root our faith more in ignorance, not-knowing, sheer wonder, and the humility such ignorance brings.

God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. True, “God” is not a proper noun but a generic one. But we do have plenty of names for God. I prefer two above all: YHVH, the Hebrew future imperfect form of the verb “to be,” and Ayn Sof, the Hebrew for “endless.” God is the eternal is-ing of life, forever unfolding creative possibility as well as dead ends. And while it is true that this God is present in each of us, I prefer to reverse the order and to say we, and all beings, are present in God.

Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death. Of this I have no doubt. Love arises from our sense of deep connection with all that is; the closer to nondual awakening we come the more we are filled with love. Death does not sever this connection—as the Song of Songs tells us, “Love is stronger than death.”

The one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die. I am not sure “give away” is the way I would put this, but I not only agree with the statement, I am humbled and maybe even a bit frightened by it. I don’t think I have love and can thereby give it away, but I can be a vehicle for love and manifest it for the benefit of others. It is here that I find myself shaken with doubt: have I lived a love-manifesting life? I doubt it.

The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. This is a brilliant turn of phrase. But can we really die for our own lives? Or do we simply die because of them? I usually think of dying for in terms of others. Would I die to save the life of another? I don’t know, and cannot know unless and until I am confronted with that choice. But can I see another dying for my life? Can I see someone else thinking that my life is worth saving even at the cost of her or his own? No, I can’t. And yet so many beings have and continue to die to keep me alive. I live at the cost of others, some sentient and some not. Am I worthy of their deaths? Do I even think in these terms? I have taken thousands of lives to maintain my own, but am I living in such a way as to be worthy of their sacrifice?

This is a new thought for me. One I cannot easily dismiss, and will not soon forget. It brought me to tears—literally—when I first encountered it. It threatens to do so even now.

I am not writing to solve the issues Dr. Church raises, but simply to raise them with you. And in so doing invite you, and hopefully entice you, to read his books and deepen your walk in life through his gentle wisdom .

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Text to Dream With, a Text to Live By

Today is the first day of December, the month in which our thoughts turn naturally turn to the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. As important as these holy days are to many of us, December is also the month in which the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document of great and grave importance to all of us.

Few Americans have ever heard of this document, let alone read it. It is only 1700 words, yet it sets forth a value system on which to build the just and compassionate civilization all religions say they desire.

This December 10th is the 60th anniversary of the document, and I would encourage you to read the Declaration as part of your holy preparations and maybe even celebrations. If you want a yardstick against which to measure the progress of humanity in achieving its own goals this is it.

You can find a copy of the Declaration on the website of the United Nations. I encourage you to visit the following url:
and take a few minutes to read this amazing statement. It is a glorious affirmation of what we humans can envision regardless of the things that divide us. After you have read it, please send the link to your friends and family. And then start a conversation with one another about what we can do as persons, as a people, and as a nation to help bring the vision articulated in this sacred text to fruition.