Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sermon

I was invited to give the Easter sermon at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It was my first time preaching on a Christian High Holy Day, and I really struggled with what to say. Here is the text of the sermon I gave:

The transformative power of faith is not rooted in outward signs and historical facts, but in inner awakenings and literary narratives. Only in our day has the human imagination become so degraded as to reduce truth to fact, and myth to falsehood. Only in our day does story pale before history.

The life of Jesus of Nazareth is history. The Virgin Birth narrative is a story that tells us something history cannot: That this Jesus is something new in the world. The death of Jesus of Nazareth at the hands of Rome is history. The Passion is a story that reveals the meaning of that fact: that love and compassion can triumph over fear and terror.

But can the same be said of the Resurrection? Is there history here or just story? And does it matter?

For many Christians history must trump story. If the Resurrection is not as real and as historically verifiable as the Crucifixion then the central proof of Jesus as Christ is denied, and the edifice that rests upon that proof collapses. Without the Resurrection, Jesus is not Christ but prophet; not the Son of God but the Son of Mary; not the Savior of the world but the reformer of the Jews.

I am not a Christian, but a Jew, and as a Jew one might think I would prefer the Prophet to the Christ. Better a dead reformer than a mythic redeemer. But I am not willing to give up the resurrection so easily. I have been to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. I have seen where Jesus was laid, and where Mary Magdalene discovered him gone. I have stood in that tomb and felt its emptiness, and in that emptiness its power. I have spent moments alone in that place, and I have heard the cry, “He is risen!” and I have understood it to mean that you and I can rise as well. I have felt the presence of the man, and have been touched by the power of the myth.

While the Gospels differ in detail, here is basic plot. Jesus dies on the cross on Friday. Joseph of Arimathea has him taken down before the Sabbath, and placed in his tomb. Mary Magdalene, perhaps accompanied by Salome and Mary the mother of Jesus, visits the tomb on Sunday and finds the stone removed from its face and the tomb itself empty.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke an angel or angels appear to the women telling them that Jesus has risen from the dead and is not here. As Luke’s angel tells them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In all three synoptic texts the women are told to tell what they have experienced to the other apostles. And in all three they race out of the tomb in fear. In Mark, the oldest gospel, they are too afraid to tell anyone what they saw, and the Mark ends his gospel with the story unresolved. In Matthew and Luke they do tell the others, though according to Luke only Peter believed them and went to see for himself.

John’s story is somewhat different. In his gospel Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb, and finding the stone removed, races off to tell Simon Peter. Peter and the Beloved Disciple race off to the tomb with Mary trailing behind them. The Beloved Disciple out races Peter, but Peter is the first to enter the tomb. The tomb was empty; they saw nothing.

When Mary Magdalene caught up with them she peered into the tomb from outside and saw two angels in the tomb; angels to which the men were blind. Then she turned from the angels and saw Jesus standing by her. She mistook him for a gardener, and asked if he had taken the body of Jesus. The gardener said, “Mary!” and at once she saw him for who he was, Jesus. And Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

If this is history, then there is nothing for us to do but worship Jesus as Christ and Lord. But if it is myth, if it is a story told that with each hearing we might move closer to Truth, then we have to ask not “what happened,” but “what does the story mean?”

For reasons of tribe, training, and temperament I cannot reduce this myth to history. It is to me myth, and myth eternally unfolding. So I have to ask, what does it mean?

First, what does it mean that Mary and not the men saw the angels and Jesus? Second, what does it mean that Jesus was first seen by Mary as a gardener and only when he speaks her name as her Teacher? Third, what is the meaning of the question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And fourth, what does it mean that Jesus was resurrected bodily and not just in the spirit?

You may have other questions to ask of this myth; indeed I hope you do, and that you ask them. But these are my questions at this hearing.

Why do the women see what the men cannot? Because the nature of the Divine as we experience it is essentially feminine. The embodied God is the Mother God; the universe is God’s body; matter is Mater/Mother. The myth is telling us that if you are to encounter Life you must open to your feminine consciousness, that aspect of your self that resonates to the Whole, that deepest knowing that knows itself to be a part of and never apart from the reality of Life.

Why does Mary see Jesus as a gardener? Because the gardener tills the soil and removes the weeds. This is the task of humanity revealed in Genesis. Jesus the Gardener reminds us to break up the hard packed soil of our lives, to let in the spirit that our body, like God’s body, the universe itself, might bring forth great beauty. But when he calls her name, when he enters into the intimacy of I and Thou, she knows him to be more that the Gardener, he is her teacher; the one who shows her how to care for her own garden.

At this moment Mary and Jesus become the lovers of the Song of Songs. He calls her to his garden and she calls him to hers. At this moment Mary, and each of us if we are listening deeply enough to this myth, realizes that we are each a garden, we are each alive and teeming with life, and that our garden is part of a greater flowering, a greater teeming, the garden of life that is the universe itself.

Jesus calls us to tend our garden, and in so doing to tend the Garden that is Life. How? By not seeking the living among the dead. Yes, I am mixing gospels here, but that is not a problem if we are dealing with myth.

We all seek meaning in the tomb of the dead. We all seek revelation, wisdom, and knowledge in the past. We are obsessed with the known, the conditioned, the fixed, and the frozen. But life lived in the moment is unknown, unconditioned, unfixed, and fluid. The living is not in the past or in the future, but only in the now. When Jesus calls Mary’s name he is calling her out of the tomb of the past and into the garden of the present.

Yet the present itself is quickly made past, if held on to. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says to us. That would be another trap. It is not me that matters, but what I teach that matters. This is why she calls him “Rabbouni,” rabbi, teacher, rather that “Adonai,” Lord. He does not asked to be worshipped, but heeded. To worship Jesus is to fix God in time and form, and to miss the greater truth that you are God in your time and form.

What does Jesus ask that we must heed? Many things to be sure, but in the context of Easter one stands out: “Take up your cross and follow me!” Why the cross? Because the way to realization requires the death of the ego, the mind obsessed with tombs, the mind that seeks the living among the dead. And follow him where? Not to Golgotha, but beyond it to the resurrection. Jesus is saying, take up the discipline of love and justice, let the ego that fears both be slain on the cross of service, and then body and soul will rise up, out of the tomb of the past into the eternally renewing present that is the Truth you seek.

And finally, what does it mean that Jesus is resurrected bodily and not just in the spirit? This is the mythic affirmation of the holiness of the physical. How ironic that in a religion that comes to despise the flesh and see in it the root of so much evil, the story of Jesus affirms just the opposite. The body is risen, the body is precious, the body is holy. The Word made flesh is not holier than the flesh that carries it. This is the timeless Jewish affirmation of the Original Blessing of Genesis— It is good!— free from the tomb of original sin in which the Church Fathers will soon encase it.

What else would we expect from a Teacher who loved to eat, drink, and walk? What else could we expect from a Teacher who welcomed women to his table? What else could we expect from a Teacher whose commissioned act of remembrance honors body and blood?

The Risen Jesus challenges us to raise the body, to honor the senses, to celebrate the sensual. The Risen Jesus reveals the world as God’s body: alive, awake, intelligent, and aware. The Risen Jesus puts the lie to those to would separate body and mind, and mind and spirit, and reduce the human drama to mindless claymation or disembodied figments of imaginative delusion.

Easter, tied as it is to the northern hemisphere in which the story unfolds, comes at the beginning of spring, and is the mythic sister to the earth’s own resurrection. Just as God’s body bursts forth in fragrance, color, and delight. So should our bodies do likewise. Where you have taken refuge in despair, you need to hear Jesus call your name. Where your eyes are focused on the tomb, you need to hear Jesus call your name. Where you are trapped in the unfulfilled expectations of the past, you need to hear Jesus call your name.

And when you do you will know that Easter is not history, but myth; not a story of what was, but a revelation of what is, if you would only cease to seek the living among the dead.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

Jesus died for our sins today. I feel bad about that. If anyone should suffer for what I did it should be me. Not that I’m volunteering, mind you. But I still feel bad. I guess I shouldn’t though. Since I’m not a Christian I don’t think his death helps me out at all. I will have to pay for my own sins.

I wonder if my sins will keep me out of heaven. I hope so. Heaven sounds so very boring. If you are a Christian you get to sing the same hymn to God for all eternity. If you are a Jew Heaven is studying Torah with God for all eternity. If you are a Muslim Heaven is sex for all eternity. Honestly, none of these sounds like much fun after the first day or two. Hell might be more interesting. Fire one day; pitchfork in the butt the next day; at least there’s a little variety.

Sixty-five percent of all Americans think they are going to Heaven. Only half a percent think they are going to Hell. This was based on a telephone survey so I imagine the 35% not included in these numbers were too busy sinning to answer the phone.

And what is a sin anyway? In must religions murder is a sin. In some, so is dancing. Murdering someone while dancing might be doubly sinful; and murdering someone while dancing and then lying about it is even worse. Some pastors say sin is egoism, so Ayn Rand is really suffering. Others say sin is going against God’s will. The problem here is knowing what God’s will is. It often includes not dancing.

Honestly, I can’t believe that Jesus died for dancing. But then I don’t think Jesus died for your sins, at all. He died because of the sins of Rome and those Jews who collaborated with Rome. Jesus died because he spoke truth to power. But the only person who will die for your sins is you.

I find the idea that someone has to die for my sins repugnant. I don’t want a cow to die for my sins either, so I am not into the whole Temple thing. I don’t eat cows (I’m not a carnavore), and I don’t eat Jesus (I’m not a Catholic); and no one should suffer because of me (though I know many who do). And I can’t believe in a god who needs sacrifice.

The sacrificial underpinning of Judaism and Christianity reflects an ancient mindset that I hope I have long since abandoned. The only way God can control His anger is to have us kill His Son? Does that make sense to anyone? Of course it makes sense to millions of people, but not to me. If this is what God is about, I’ll take atheism anytime.

Today is the day one of the greatest Jews, one of the greatest humans, of all time was murdered for preaching love, justice, and freedom, and for breaking down the walls we use to create and separate “us” and “them.” We should all mourn his death, and honor his life and teaching. Today is a good day to read the Gospel of Thomas. Find out what this man died for, and then ask yourself, “If I were alive then, whose side would I be on?”

Happy Purim

Today is Purim when we Jews recall the story of Esther saving our people from genocide at the hands of Haman and his puppet king. Historically there was no Persian Haman, though there is one today. Today’s Iran was Persia, and its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Haman. Who is our Esther today? Condoleezza Rice?

What I love about the story of Purim is the absence of God. If Esther didn’t have the courage to confront the King and see to the defense of her people, the Jews would have been massacred. God wouldn’t have lifted a finger.

Self-power, not God’s power is the affirmation at the heart of Purim. First there is Mordecai saving the life of the king by revealing a plot against him. God had nothing to do with this. It was just the right thing to do. Then there is Esther daring to affirm her Jewishness and demand that the King choose between his fear of her people and his love of her. Very cool. And then there is the Jews, newly armed at the command of the king, who, when confronted by the Persian hordes seeking their death, slaughter tens of thousands of their enemies instead. Heroism, daring, courage, and slaughter, and not a god in sight.

In Israel this week Senator John McCain, following the off-hand comment of his friend Senator Joe Leberman, spoke of Purim as the Jewish Halloween. True we dress up in costume on Purim just like people do on Halloween, but we don’t get candy, or celebrate the dead. We get prune filled dry-as-dust cookies and celebrate the living who made lots of other people dead.

Don’t get me wrong. I love hamantashen, and the only two Persians I care about are Zarathustra and Rumi. And I couldn’t give a gregor’s spin for Haman, his sons, and any of those murderous Persians who wanted to slaughter the Jews and were slaughtered by them instead. Slaughter away, Yids!

It’s just that it would nice to have a holy day that had no dead people in it. Next month we have Passover where thousands of Egyptians die for the sins of their Pharaoh. Then we have the Omer period when thousands of Jews died from a plague. Then there’s Shavuot when thousands of Jews die because of the Golden Calf. Then comes Tisha b’Av and the bloody fall of Jerusalem and the Temple (though cows may celebrate the destruction of the Temple, Jew mourn it). At Rosh HaShanah we have to read about Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael to what looks like certain death, and almost murdering Isaac himself. Yom Kippur has no dead people in it, but we worry about being sealed in the Book of Death ourselves. Then comes Hanukkah and all the people who died in that war.

That leaves us Shabbat, Tu b’Av (Jewish Saint Valentine’s Day sans the saint, the massacre, and the valentines) Tu b’Shvat (New Years of the Trees) and Sukkot (Jewish Thanksgiving without the Indians, maize, and small pox). As far as I know no deaths are associated with these holy days. You start to wonder if there isn’t some fascination of religion with death. Hmmm.

Happy Purim!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bringing the Gospel to a Buddhist Near You

I’m flipping through the pages of this month’s Christianity Today (yes, I get the magazine, but only for the pictures), and I am caught by a lovely photograph of a Buddhist monk. I don’t fully realize it is a monk until I have flipped to the next page, and then the thought hits me, “What is that photo doing in this magazine?”

I flip back and gaze with respect at what appears to be a Southeast Asian Buddhist elder sitting on a rattan bench and holding a twisted black wooden walking stick. Then my eyes scan to the bottom of the narrow photo to read: “There are more than 6,000 people groups in the world still waiting to hear the Gospel. Our purpose is clear: Reach every last one of them. Want to join us?”

The ad is for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. At first, given the photo, I thought the Southeastern in the school’s name referred to Asia, but the school is actually in Texas. Anyway, the question is compelling.

Do I want to bring the Gospel to these 6,000 people groups? Before I answer, let me be clear: I don’t really know what a “people group” is, which is a bit depressing since there seem to be 6000 of them, but putting that aside, I do admit that I would like to bring the Gospel to this Buddhist monk.

Why? Because he might give me fresh new insight into the Gospel that my more conventional Christian friends cannot offer.

I assume that great spiritual teachers like Jesus speak a universal and timeless truth, and do so in the cultural currency of their day. This means that while it is vital to our understanding of Jesus that we place him in the context of first-century Roman occupied Jewish Palestine, limiting Jesus’ message to first-century Roman occupied Jewish Palestine alone makes it impossible for us to hear his larger message for all humanity. [For those interested in hearing this message I suggest reading the following authors: Marcus Borg, John Spong, John Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Matthew Fox, and Cynthia Bourgeault.]

Chances are this Buddhist monk is not up on the latest historical Jesus scholarship, so that when we bring the Gospel to him he will respond to Jesus’ message from his Buddhist training and wisdom. I suspect that in doing so he will reveal layers of meaning and insight that might otherwise go undetected.

So I want to thank Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for inviting me to bring the Gospel to this monk and the other members of his particular people group. I only hope that when we do, we will have the grace, wisdom, and humility to listen to what he thinks it means.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

American Religious Landscape

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released its “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. I was very excited about this and read what I could of it on line. Odd thing was it had nothing to with landscape. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are forest religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are desert religions. So I was surprised that a study of religious landscape told me lots about how many people belonged to these religions, but did not locate them in their appropriate landscapes. Jews in Miami, for example, makes no sense. There is no desert in Miami.

Geography aside, what the survey does show is that Americans change religions constantly, and that “unbelief” is on the rise. Unbelief is not a term I normally use; so let me explain that unbelievers are people who believe that what other people believe is simply unbelievable. That makes Jews unbelievers with regard to Catholics, for example; and Catholics unbelievers with regard to Hindus. No wonder it is a growing category. Everybody is an unbeliever when it comes to some one who believes other than they do. So I don’t know how much we can learn from that statistic. Here some others:

1. There are as many “secular unaffiliated” Americans as Methodist Americans. 2. There are more “religious yet unaffiliated” Americans than Lutheran Americans. 3. In Oregon there are almost as many people with no religion as there are Evangelicals.

What can we make of this? Is religion on its way out?

I don’t think religion is dying, but some major brands are tanking. For example 2 out of 3 people who say they grew up Jehovah’s Witness, have left that faith. The number of Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans are down. And there are almost as many atheists as Jews in the United States (but that may be because so many Jews are atheists).

So what does this say about the future of religion in America? Will we soon change our Pledge to “One Nation Under Whomever”? I doubt it. What the survey is saying is that as in other fields of marketing, brands die and brand loyalty is fickle, and that religious labels mean less and less to more and more Americans.

I think the survey is encouraging. It says that American’s are experimenting with different religions, and putting the freedom to think for themselves ahead of the obligation to believe what they are told. It says that we can judge faiths based on our personal needs rather than God’s commands. It says that we can change faiths the way we change toothpaste. And that can only lead to fresher breath and a whiter smile. It’s the American way.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rabbinic Dozen Part Two

1. You didn’t go into the rabbinate to make money; you went into the rabbinate to serve your people. This is fine. Just don’t mistake serving others for being exploited by them.

2. Somewhere in the back of the mind of each congregant is an image of the ideal rabbi sewn together from mostly false and inflated memories of rabbis they have known in the past. This fictional rabbi is your real competition. You can’t win. Don’t try. Be yourself.

3. Lao Tzu taught that the emperor who governs best is the one who makes it appear that he governs not at all. This is fine if you are the emperor, especially one backed up by a large and well equipped army. But if you are an unarmed rabbi it behooves you to take credit where credit is due.

4. Keep track of your accomplishments. This will come in handy when your board begins to wonder aloud why they pay you so much for doing so little. It also comes in handy when you begin to wonder aloud whether or not you have achieved anything with your life.

5. Don’t assume that just because you were with so-and-so when she died that her family will be appreciative and supportive of you for long. After all, she died didn’t she?

6. You are your own worst enemy, and can sabotage yourself in lots of ways. Here are just some of them: First, you can dominate your community to the point where they are rendered impotent. Second, you can allow the community to dominate you to the point where you are rendered impotent. Third, you can believe your own BS. Fourth, you can believe the awful things some people say about you. Fifth, you can think yourself superior to your congregants. Sixth, you can think yourself inferior to your congregants.

7. Do not rely on your rabbinic salary to sustain you. Find another way to make money. It may be a hobby at first, but if the rabbinate doesn’t pan out, it can be turned into a business or marketable skill.

8. Synagogues are financial disasters. The only things that keep them going are the cash cows of Preschools and Bar/Bat Mitzvah training. This means that you have got to relate well to kids and their parents. The moment you seem too old and out of touch is the moment the board seeks to find a younger hipper rabbi who can keep the cash coming. If you don’t want to stay hip and cool, apply for a job at the Jewish nursing home.

9. You can’t stay hip forever. Keeping up with the latest tween fad is boring and demeaning. So eventually you will realize you are doomed. Quickly hire a young assistant rabbi; preferably someone who is still carded at bars. And keep your eyes on those nursing home jobs.

10. Don’t bother becoming balanced. No one is good at everything. Know what you are good at and do that. Outsource everything else. By the time you try to learn to do poorly what you really shouldn’t be doing at all, you will be facing an angry board and looking for a new job. Work your strengths, hire people to compensate for your weaknesses.

11. Don’t bother with contracts. If your congregation wants to fire you it will, regardless of your “life-time” contract. If you fight them there are at least half-a-dozen top-notch lawyers in your community who will gladly sue your ass for free. Why? Maybe you failed to visit them in the hospital. Maybe you failed to acknowledge them at a restaurant. Maybe they just hate rabbis. The point is you can’t afford to sue your synagogue. You will lose, and it looks bad on your resume. And don’t think your rabbinic union will protect you. Who do you think pays the salaries of your regional rabbis? Your contract isn’t worth the paper its printed on. Come to some simple agreement on salary and benefits, and hope to God your board doesn’t change its mind. Just remember: there is no security in this job.

12. Don’t take a sabbatical after age 55; your board may use the opportunity to fire you and hire someone younger. Similarly, don’t take a vacation after age 55; don’t skip a Shabbat after age 55; don’t sleep after age 55; don’t even take a nap! Whenever you are off synagogue property or unconscious you are vulnerable to a coup. Your board is worried that you will live long enough to become a very costly Rabbi Emeritus. They want you dead, or gone. It is illegal to fire you just because you are old, so they have to invent some scandal. There are plenty of people who are willing to bring you down. If your synagogue suddenly announces an Iron Man competition and your board insists that you to compete in it—look for a new job, fast.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Rabbinic Dozen: Part One

I have been a rabbi for more than a quarter century. In that time I have learned a few things about what makes a good rabbi; things that I believe could be of value to clergy people of all stripes. Unfortunately for you, I am keeping those for my memoir. Here are twelve ideas that won't make it into my book. Feel free to pass them on to your clergy friends and neighbors.

1. You are not an educator. There are people who go to graduate school for years to learn how to teach well. Maybe you took a course or two. Higher good teachers and let them teach.

2. You are not a therapist. There are people who go to graduate school for years to learn how to listen, diagnose, and guide people. Maybe you took a course or two. Find a few good psychologists and refer people to them.

3. You are not a CEO. There are people who go to graduate school for years to learn how to run an organization. Maybe you read 7 Habits for Highly Successful People. Hire a good executive director.

4. You are not a camp counselor. There are people in high school who do this for lots less money than you make. No matter how loudly you clap your hands during a song, you just can’t compete with the 17 year old from last summer. Don’t try.

5. You are not a social events coordinator. If the congregation wants to hold a bake sale, barn dance, or Jewish film festival, it is not your job to approve it, plan it, or run it. It is your job to bury a person who may die during it, but other than that, stay out of the way.

6. You are not a fund raiser or Israel Bonds salesperson. People spend years perfecting those skills. Hire a good fund raiser to raise money; you focus on how best to spend it.

7. You are a master of ceremonies. Unfortunately when it comes to most ceremonies, the caterer trumps you every time. That is why if the bride is running later and later, don’t bother telling the bride’s mother that you have somewhere else to be. Tell her that the caterer is worried that the chicken is going to over cook. She’ll have her daughter under the chuppah in ten minutes.

8. Religious services are theater; mostly bad theater. Take theater classes; especially improv. Learn how to think on your feet. Learn how to create meaning. Learn how to be a shaman.

9. Don’t relinquish the bima to the cantor. Don’t take on the role of High Priced Announcer of Pages. Only Vanna White gets paid big bucks for turning tiles, and it has nothing to do with her skill at tile turning. Find something meaningful to do during the service like teach.

10. Don’t kibbitz while the cantor sings. Don’t read while the cantor sings. Don't clean your finger nails while the cantor sings. Don’t do anything other than look like you are moved by the cantor singing. Everyone suspects prayer is silly, but if you prove it to them by ignoring the cantor you might consider applying for a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart— soon!

11. Make yourself indispensable on the bima by adding something people can’t get anywhere else: spiritual wisdom and life-meaning. Watch lots of evangelical television; especially Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Say things that help people find meaning in the words they are reading and the life they are experiencing.

12. Most people don’t know why Jewish tradition matters. They just want to satisfy bubbe and zayde who were born in the old country. Today, of course, most bubbes and zaydes are called nana and papop and were born in New York or LA, and they too have no idea why Jewish tradition matters. You might think that this would be a great time for you to teach them about the importance of tradition, but it isn’t. They're all too worried about the caterer.

13. When it comes to weddings, more thought goes into picking the band than choosing the rabbi. Don’t compete. Accept your second-class status and do the best you can. Since most people expect the rabbi to be boring, it won’t take much to impress them. Carry business cards in case there are any rabbi-seekers in the audience. Given one to the caterer as well.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Not So Mahatma Gandhi

First off, let me say that I am a fan of Mahatma Gandhi (Mahatma is a title meaning Great Soul). My favorite movie next to “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is “Gandhi.” I have a huge portrait of the Mahatma in my office. I have many of his books on my shelves, and intend to read them. I believe that he was one of the spiritual geniuses of our time. And I believe he just never understood us Jews.

His letter to German Jews urging them to practice Satyagraha against the Nazis falls a bit flat. But it is nothing compared to the outrageous statement made by his grandson, Arun Gandhi, former president of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.

Mr. Gandhi posted an opinion on the Washington Post blog, On Faith, saying that Jews were “locked into the Holocaust experience,” and Jews and Israel are the “biggest players” in the “Culture of Violence that is eventually going to destroy humanity.”

Is he right? Yes and no. Yes, the Holocaust shapes the psyche of the modern Jew and does provide too many Jews with a pseudo-moral high ground from which to exploit others even as they claim to be exploited by them. And yes, there is a Culture of Violence that threatens to destroy humanity. But, no, Jews and Israel are not the biggest players, not by a long shot.

How about the United States in Iraq, China in Tibet, Russia in Chechnya, and the horrors of Darfur? All of these dwarf the violence done by Israel. I am not saying Israel and those Jews that support the culture of violence in Israel and elsewhere are innocent. They are not. But they are bit players compared to these others.

Is Arun Gandhi an anti-Semite? No. He is just a leftist, and leftists find everyone’s violence excusable except that of the Jews. For some reason Jews just loom on the leftist horizon in ways no other people does. This may be because so many leftists are Jews who feel so uncomfortable with Israel and Israeli military might that they have to exaggerate it in order to condemn it and thereby cleanse their souls from the taint of being associated with it.

For thousands of years Jews were the canary in the mine of human civilization. We were the victim par excellence, and we got used to that. We liked it. It made us feel innocent and morally superior. And then Israel turned that on its head. Suddenly we had guns and we were aiming them, and worse shooting them, at people with less power than us. Some people, Jews and Gentiles, cannot forgive Jews for abandoning their victim status. They hate us for no longer accepting being hated. They want us dead because we are no longer willing to lie down and die.

I wish Arun Gandhi could have freed himself of his Jewish blind spot. I wish he could have helped the Palestinians resist Israeli occupation the way his grandfather resisted British occupation. I wish we Jews could have engaged him in dialogue and helped him see us as human beings rather than symbols of oppression. I also wish somebody would pay me for writing this blog. I need to get over wishing for things.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bible Smart

Quick: name the ingredients in a Big Mac….. OK, got it? Now, just as quickly, name the The Ten Commandments. Oh, oh.

If you succeeded at the first, and failed at the second, you are in good company. According to a recent survey 80% of Americans know there are two all beef patties along with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on that sesame seed bun, while only 60% knew that “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the ingredients of God’s Big Ten. Only 34% knew that the Sabbath was on the list, and only 29% knew that God hates idols (along with homosexuals and shrimp, though these are not among the Big Ten).

Why are we so ignorant of the Bible? It isn’t because we don’t have access to it. The average American household owns four Bibles, and millions more are sold every year. The book is around, but people just don’t read it. If they did, millions of Americans would not have answered the question, “Who is Joan of Arc” with “The wife of Noah.” No kidding.

But I have a few suggestions for improving Bible literacy. First, someone should work with a big burger chain to produce a Bible-based kid’s meal. I wouldn’t be too strict about kosher beef, but no cheeseburgers in this box. And with the meal would come a Bible-themed toy: maybe a smoking Mount Sinai or an anatomically amended Adam and Eve.

I would also urge one of the big television networks to create a game show called Smarter Than a Fifth Grader in Sunday School in which players would test their Bible knowledge against fifth graders from various Bible-based religions. Or even better: How about a show called God Wants You To Be a Millionaire where contestants and a Prosperity Gospel pastor of their choice answer biblically themed questions such as “When Noah looked outside the floating ark, did he recognize any of the bloated corpses as his friends and neighbors?” Contestants and pastors would split the winnings, or they could pool their winnings and give it all to God in hopes of receiving even more money from God in the future. Just how they would get it to God would be worked out with the show’s sponsors.

Or maybe a Candid Camera-type show where people are tricked into violating a commandment and then get stoned by passers-by: “Hey, look! That guy just uncovered the nakedness of his father! Let’s get him!”

Or maybe a reality show called Carry That Cross where contestants are beaten almost senseless by once-famous television stars dressed up as Roman soldiers, and then challenged to see who can carry a cross up a fake Golgotha.

Or maybe American Idle where people compete to see who can do the least on a Sabbath.

My point is that if we want Americans to be more Bible-smart we have to get them where they live: on the couch in front of the tube eating a God is Happy with You Meal complete with a Pontius Pilate doll with hands that really wash.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Do You Yah Hu?

Here is the text of an actual email I received a few days ago:

Dear Rabbi Rami,

I believe God is real, and that He wants us to know Him, and that to help us know Him He places signs and wonders in the world. Recently I read that one of God’s names in Hebrew is Yah, and that the Hebrew word Hu means “he” or “him”. That got me thinking about the internet provider Yahoo. I am wondering if this is a sign. Actually, I am pretty sure it is a sign. Yahoo means Yah Hu, God is He. What do you think about this?

Now before you think this person is insane, let me say that I, too, noticed long ago that Yahoo was Hebrew for God is He. OK? Now you can think this person is insane. No wait, not yet. First type in “” in your search engine and notice that it takes you to Yahoo. Yahoo bought Yahhu. Coincidence? I think not. OK, now you can think this person is insane.

No, no, wait, not just yet. I can’t get over the fact that Yahoo bought “yahhu.” They knew that Yahoo was Yah Hu. They knew! Don’t forget that. Don’t ever forget that. OK, now you can… no, not yet. Do you get it? Yahoo knew! So ask yourself this: Where did the name Yahoo come from? Certainly it is an expletive one uses when riding a real or mechanical bull in a rodeo or a bar, but is this what the folks at Yahoo were thinking when they chose the name? After all they bought “yahhu.” They knew!

I thought about emailing Yahoo and asking them about this, but I figured that would take too much time, so let me say that I for one doubt the rodeo/bar theory and choose to believe that Yahoo is in fact a clever use of Yah Hu. But what I want to know now is whether Yahoo is mocking God or affirming God?

Again I could ask the company, but would I trust their answer even if they offered one? Probably not, so why bother asking? Instead, let’s speculate.

I choose to believe that Yahoo is affirming God, and that Yahoo is a sign from God. The company’s slogan, “Do you Yahoo?” becomes a very important question. If you do Yah Hu you affirm the presence of God on earth. If you don’t you ignore the presence of God on earth, which could cause you spend eternity unplugged in hell.

But if you do Yahoo/Yah Hu, you may also be affirming Jesus as God, for the Hu that is Him could be the Him that is Jesus. Should Jews and Muslims Yahoo if in fact Yahoo is Yah Hu and the Hu that is Yah is Jesus? Is Yahoo really a Christian front group? And if it is what is their theology? Are they Catholic? Orthodox? Calvinist? Dutch Reformed? Isn’t Yah also “yes” in German and Dutch? Couldn’t Yahoo be a Dutch Reformed triple play: Yah Hu, God is He and He is Jesus, and Yes, Jesus is God? Couldn’t it? Huh? Couldn’t it? So maybe my emailer was right and because you mocked him you are wrong and are now damned and going to hell for denying God by using Earthlink or some other devilish internet provider rather than the God chosen Yahoo which is a sign of God in our day. Amen! Selah! ….. Sorry, I got carried away. You can call him insane now.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

One Nation, Over Weight

I knew I belonged in America when I recently read that we are now the Fattest Nation on Earth. That doesn’t mean that our girth on the old Rand McNally is changing, but that we Americans are, by and large (yes, pun intended, I am too clever by half) the fattest people on earth.

Now there are lots of studies like this that leave me cold. According to one report, for example, Americans eat seventeen tons of hot dogs per person per month. I may be off a bit on the actual number, but I’m certain it is close to that. I don’t eat meat at all, so someone is eating my tonnage, so this study really has no meaning for me. But the fact that “We the people” are now “We the fattest people” speaks directly to my heart. And maybe a few inches lower as well.

I’m fat. Obese even, if the new Body Mass Index numbers for calculating obesity released by the National American Body Mass Index Council for Calling People Obese are correct. Honestly that used to bother me, but now that I realize Americans as a whole are the fattest people on earth I feel a certain civic pride in my size.

After reading of our new status, I flipped on the television (OK, it was on), and sat down on the couch (OK, I was already sitting on the couch), and lifted the remote (OK, it is permanently strapped to my hand) and flipped (yes, flipped! I read that changing channels with your thumb 7000 times per day is the equivalent of walking to the fridge for a slice of cake, and exercise is good for you.) to find Dr. Sanjay Gupta or some other fit TV-MD aiming a camera at patriotic American bellies flopping mightily over their belts as they walk across an unidentified urban intersection.

This is supposed to shame me into hating my country and losing weight, and maybe it used to, but not any more. Look: America is slipping in our education standing, our economy is falling below that of Crudestan, and if it wasn’t for illegal aliens running across the border, no one would be running at all at all in this country, so we have to take pride in being Number One at something, even if it is being Number One in Fat.

So let’s celebrate! I’m thinking about designing and selling foam #1 fingers like those people wear at ball games. Mine would be a very pudgy orange foam hand holding a huge triple cheeseburger oozing with slightly lighter orange faux Russian dressing. I just have to decide where to put the #1 insignia, and I’m in business.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Words Clever and Clear

I spend a lot of my time praying. It is an occupational hazard, as I speak in churches and synagogues around the United States on a regular basis. And what I notice as I worship in these various settings is that they make me profoundly uncomfortable. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there are too many words in most prayer services. The second is that most of these words don't make sense.

I crave silence in my worship. I don't want to have to speed read through hundreds of pages of print as I am forced to do in most Jewish services, nor do I want to read prayers in iambic pentameter projected on a wall as I am forced to do in most Protestant services. I don't mind words, per se, but they should be few and far between. I want the words we do speak or chant in a worship service to arise out of and slip back into a greater silence that invites self-inquiry. Quaker services are good for me, especially when the Quakers themselves are silent. Buddhist meditation is good, also, though I now prefer theater seats with good back support to my well used zafu (meditation cushion). I can get talk anywhere. I want silence in my worship.

And there is the problem of meaning. If we are going to use words, let's at least use them carefully. When we fill a service with words we get addicted to the cleverness of our poems, and don’t bother to see if what we say makes sense or is even true. This drives me crazy. When the prayer asks God to bring us into the Light by sheltering us under the shadow of His Wings, I want to scream: "Which is it? Light or shadow? If you want the Light don't step into the shadow of His Wings, or if you want the shadow beware the Light."

My most recent example of vapid comes from page 157 of the new Reform Judaism siddur (prayer book). The text says that we worshippers are “eternally in Egypt.” What does that mean? Clearly, unless you are currently being held hostage in Cairo, the text is meant to be taken metaphorically. In Hebrew Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “from the narrow places,” so we can surmise that the authors of this prayer expect us to understand “Egypt” as places of bondage and entrapment. OK, I’m fine with that. But what does it mean to say that we are “eternally in Egypt”?

If we are eternally in Egypt we are doomed. There is no hope. No matter what we do, where we go with our lives, we are in Egypt. Egypt—slavery, bondage, addiction, etc.— is forever. Well, if that is so, why am I wasting time praying in the synagogue?

I have tried to make sense out of this three-word atrocity, but I can’t. If we replace “eternally” with “perpetually” or “continually” or “continuously” we are still left bereft of hope.

I doubt very much that this is what the authors of this prayer meant to say, but “eternally in Egypt” sounded so good, so moving, so clever that they just couldn’t question its meaning and implication.

My suggestion is that the next time you attend a worship service you should pay particular attention to what you are saying, and ask yourself if what you are reading makes sense, let alone if you personally believe it. If it does make sense, great. But if it doesn’t, take notes and send an email to the publisher and complain.

I want to be moved in a worship service, but I don’t want to be tricked. Clear words are preferable to clever ones. At least then I can decide if I believe what I am reading, rather than have to spend time trying to figure out what the prayer actually means.