Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Which is More Valuable: A Fetus or a Jew?

In the contest over which is more valuable, a fetus or a Jew, the results are in and the fetus wins hands down.

Just as Catholic Bishops across the United States clamp down on Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to choose abortion (which as different from supporting abortion as supporting a Nazi’s right to march is from supporting Nazism), the Vatican brings Pope Pius XII (twelve) one (I) step closer to sainthood.

This fun loving Pope, dubbed The Holocaust Pope, was recently declared a person of “heroic virtue.” Let’s see how the Vatican defines heroic virtue.

First, Pius XII knew early on that Hitler planned to murder every Jew he could find. Heroically, the Pope remained silent. Second, as more than one thousand Jews were taken from the Roman Ghetto within sight of the Pope’s apartments in the Vatican to die in Auschwitz, our hero did nothing. Third, at the close of the war when some senior Catholic Church officials ran the “rat line” that scurried Nazis like Adolf Eichmann out of Germany and into Latin America, the Pope acted virtuously and did nothing.

But then again, Jews aren’t fetuses. Which may be why our heroic Pope Pius XII never even threatened to withhold communion from Hitler or German Catholics and Catholic Nazis if they participated in the slaughter of Jews. “Eat a Jew on Sunday, kill a Jew throughout the week” may have been his motto.

So the Church will soon have a saint whose only claim to fame is that he heroically and virtuously did nothing while 6,000,000 Jews were slaughtered under his nose.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all Pope Benedict who is pushing the sainthood of Pius XII belonged to Hitler Youth, and recently welcomed the return of Bishop Richard Williamson who is notorious for his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

But maybe Pope Benedict knows something we do not. After all the Vatican refuses to open its archives to allow independent scholars access to the records relating to Pope Pius XII, so maybe there is something in those records that proves he was both heroic and virtuous. But, if there was such evidence, you would think the Church would stop keeping it secret.

Until we know better, we Jews must be reminded that the Church, for all its insistence to the contrary, is not now and has never been a friend to the Jews. This is in no way a blanket condemnation of Catholics. Many risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, but they did so independently of Pius XII, who, if he had his way, would have preferred them to be heroic and virtuous, following his lead and remaining silent and inactive, and allow themselves and thousands more like them to be slaughtered. Ah, what a saint!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Interfaith Amigos & the Future of Interfaith Dialogue

[Disclaimers: A) I am a friend of Rabbi Ted Falcon, one of the Interfaith Amigos. B) I spend most of my time and energy engaged in interfaith dialogue.]

I’m listening to an On Point interview with the three Interfaith Amigos: Rabbi Ted Falcon, Sheikh Jamal Rahman, and Pastor Don Mackenzie. Great guys, all. Intelligent, warm, and filled with hope. Question after question is answered with care, calm, and a liberalism that, after a while, I find more than annoying.

As the interview goes on I learn that all the hate-filled, xenophobic, misogynist, and triumphalist aspects of these three Abrahamic faiths are either anachronisms to be abandoned, or particularist expressions of universal truths. In other words, to take but one example, when Christianity claims that Jesus is the sole means to salvation we are to understand this as addressed to Christians only, and not claiming that Jews and Muslims must come to God through Christ. Or when Jews claim to be God’s Chosen People we are told that God chooses everyone for something, and hence the chosenness of the Jews does not exclude the fact that others are also God’s chosen.

This kind of liberal niceness is totally disingenuous. If Christian claims are only true for Christians, then they aren’t really true. And if God chooses everyone, then God really chooses no one which undermines the entirety of classical Judaism, to say nothing of contemporary Jewish claims to Israel as the Promised Land.

In other words, the Three Interfaith Amigos are amigos not because they have learned to transcend their differences, but because they have no differences. The religions these three clergymen represent are so liberal as to be almost interchangeable.

Once you abandon the exclusivist claims of each of the Abrahamic religions, you have to ask yourself why you would choose to maintain loyalty to one or another among them? The answer cannot be that one is true, while the others are false. They are all saying the same thing in different ways, so the only attractor is that you prefer one flavor of faith to another. Can it be that simple? Am I Jewish because I prefer it to Christianity the way I prefer mint chocolate chip ice cream to plain chocolate chip ice cream? And if that is all it is, is it so shocking and novel that I can have friends who prefer another flavor, and even can befriend those lactose intolerant types who refuse to eat ice cream at all? Is this worthy of special praise and an hour with Tom Ashbrook on NPR?

I am neither surprised nor impressed that Ted, Jamal, and Don get along, and agree on essentials. I expect no less from well-educated, liberal, middle class Americans. The fact that they call the exclusivist claims of their traditions “untruths” rather than hard truths suggests that the only way for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to become friends is to deny as false the claims most central to each faith.

Where does this leave interfaith dialogue?

This is not an academic question for me. I work with teachers from many traditions, and we, too, get along and agree, and we do so by negating the core of our respective faiths and upholding a liberal universalism instead. We begin with the modernist assumption that there is Truth and that all religions point to the same Truth, and interpret our respective religions in light of this. But, with the exception of Hinduism which actually says this (Truth is one, different people call it by different names), this assumption does not come from our respective religions. It comes from liberal, democratic capitalism that reduces everything to a matter of taste.

So what am I left with? Questions mostly.

Is true interfaith dialogue happening among liberals, or must we wait for fundamentalists to take one another on around the table? Does it matter that liberals of different tribes can get along? Are liberal religionists clinging to outmoded faith labels when in fact they (we) are all liberal humanists? Is there a way to admit, honor, and use one’s historical identity without abandoning universalism or watering down that identity?

I don’t have answers to these and similar questions. If you do, please share them with me. And if the three Interfaith Amigos read this blog, please help me understand. My own spiritual path depends on it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Plan for the Scan: Entrepreneurial Opportunities for the Quick

The actions of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian terrorist who tried to take down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bound for Detroit, have created a renewed call for extreme screening measures at airports around the world. In the United States this means full body X-ray screening.

There will be no dearth of blogs and essays about this man, his faith, and the madness of religion, but I want to speak about something new: the entrepreneurial opportunities provided us by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Because of him travelers in the US (and elsewhere) will be subject to full body X-ray scans which, as we have seen in test after test, produces a near naked image of the person being scanned. Which is where the entrepreneur comes in.

Think of it this way: if you look like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt you probably don’t mind having hundreds of strangers know that. But if you look like me, the full body scan broadcasts to America that I am one of the many overweight slobs whose flab spills over the sides of the airplane’s all too narrow coach seats. Well, I, and millions like me, don’t want to be seen that way; so I, and millions like me, will be searching for products that will make us look slim, trim, and sexy for the full body scan voyeurs.

If you start producing these products now, you can get ahead of the curve.

Start with diets like The Full Body Scan Diet: “Loose 21 Pounds when you buy your ticket 21 days in advance“. Or Diet Before You Fly It, or The Scan Plan, or any number of quick loss schemes that you can sell to frantic travelers.

And don’t forget exercise. Ticket and Train, for example, would be a franchise operation combining travel agents and exercise trainers. You would go to the Ticket and Train center, buy your ticket and be assigned a trainer who will help you get in shape for the scan. Prices would vary depending on the lead-time before your flight.

Then there are scanner friendly travel clothes. I can imagine a lead lined clothing line that would shape your scan so that you looked hot even if you’re not. Or a line of fat controlling clothing that would push your fat in various directions to make you look sexier. You might consider a line of underwear that revealed clever messages when scanned by X-rays.

There is no end of products and services you can design for the new scan-conscious traveler. And you have Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to thank for it. And, if you do come up with an idea, why not talk to Umar’s dad, a prominent Nigerian banker, for help with financing. He might be able to put you in touch with a Nigerian widow who just won the lottery and needs your help to cash in. If you send her some money, she might invest some of her millions in your new scan-scam.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar or How I learned to hate the White and love the Blue

OK, OK, I surrender! I hate the white race. I hate humankind. I hate corporations. And I want desperately to be blue-ish! After two hours and forty-two minutes of three dimensional humanity bashing I am ready to do all I can to push carbon emissions into the 500s and hasten the death of this awful species called homo sapiens sapiens.

As you may have guessed I spent Christmas Eve watching James Cameron’s blockbuster hit, Avatar. I don’t do movie reviews, but this is such a cultural phenomenon (at least on NPR) that I feel obligated to say something about it. So let me say this: a trite, predictable 380 million dollar remake of Dune? You have got to be kidding me.

Of course the 3-D was fun and perfectly understated. And I loved wearing the 3-d glasses that made the entire audience look like we were contestants in a Buddy Holly look-a-like contest. And the world of Pandora was visually stunning. And the time flew by entertainingly. And if the acting wasn’t so stiff and the script so lame, the special effects might have been enough to get my vote for Best Picture of Christmas Eve, but the moral was so obvious, the plot so derivative, and the manipulation of my emotions so heavy-handed that in the end I felt neither elated nor satisfied, but rather pissed off and cheated.

I get it: We humans have, as the film says, “killed our mother.” And, left to our own devices we may well, as the movie says, strip our planet of “green.” And certainly our history right up to this moment is one of genocide, slavery, and planet-wide degradation in the name of profit, power, and the gods that serve them. But does that justify mashing together Dune, Dances With Wolves, Wall-E, The Last Samurai, and Starship Troopers into what has to be the most over used “plot” of the last fifty years? I don’t think so.

One sign that Avatar failed to totally capture my imagination, were the questions that kept running through my mind as I was watching the film. For example:

Why call the world Pandora? I assume it refers to the Greek myth, but why? In the myth Pandora is given a jar (pithos, not a box) in which are stuffed all the woes of humankind. Pandora is told not to open the jar, but her curiosity gets the better of her and she does open it releasing all evil on humankind. What does this have to do with either the planet or the movie? Planet Pandora doesn’t contain evil. And the Blues of Pandora, the Na’vi (which is bluish, I mean Jewish, for “prophet”), don’t appear curious about anything. They have no science or medicine. Given that only two of them seemed to have aged past what I estimate in human years to be 19, most Na’vi die very young.

Perhaps the planet is called Pandora because at the bottom of Pandora’s jar lies hope. Except that the movie offers no hope— not for the earthlings who go home empty¬–handed or for the Na’vi who will eventually be slaughtered when the earthlings return better armed. And make no mistake about it, they/we will return. And not simply because there is more money to be made in sequels, but because when it comes to killing indigenous species in order to extract rocks from the ground, we are Number One.

And speaking of rocks, did I hear correctly that what the humans are willing to commit genocide over is a rock called unobtainium? Unobtainium? Are you kidding me? Is the best we can get for 380 mil is a writer who rips off Rock and Bullwinkle’s star mineral, upsidaisium?

And why are all the Na’vi anorexic? Didn’t anyone overeat on this planet? After eating one Giant Jumbo Large bag o’ popcorn (sans butter, I’m in OA) during the ads and previews leading up to the movie, and working diligently on a second bag (I paid for that free refill, damn it, and I am going to get my money’s worth), it was clear to me that the blue people of Pandora had no room for fat people like me.

And what were the tails for? Was there no evolution on this planet? At first I thought they needed the tail to plug into the giant beasts they rode, but then it seemed they could jack the dragon with their hair, so why the tail? They didn’t use it for climbing, swinging from trees, holding weapons, or anything useful. I would expect it to have fallen off eons ago.

And, if the Na’vi are so peace loving, why is their sole technology focused on weaponry? They knew how to make poison, but not medicine; bows and arrows but nothing else. They knew how to hunt and kill, but not how to farm and heal. What does that say about them?

And then there is the racism and sexism. The bad guys were almost exclusively white and male, and came in two flavors: corporate murderer (short, scrawny, and heartless) and military murderer (huge, muscular, and heartless). The only person of color (other than blue) in the film with any kind of part to play was the female Han Solo stand-in who at the height of the initial slaughter of the Na’vi had a change of heart and joined the other side. The only other person of color I noticed was a black guy yelling his desire to slaughter blues as Colonel Quaritch whipped up his troops for war. The morality of this film was clearly Blue and White. Pick your side.

In the end the good guys won, and the remnants of the white, oh, sorry, human race, return to their green-less dead mother planet without their unobtainium (Oh, now I get it, the rock was unobtainable! Talk about foreshadowing!). Are we supposed to think that this is the end of the story? Are the rock-hungry earthlings so weakened and ashamed as to go home for good? Are we to imagine that peace between White and Blue is possible? Talk about unobtainium! Corporate warmongers do not take “no” for an answer. They will return, and when they do they will do so with a huge armada of deathstars rather than one stupid command ship that lacks proper shielding.

True, given the fact that Na’vi seem to die so young, the capitalist armada may not return in Jordo Schell’s life time (Get it? He’s just a shell), but it will return. After all, when it comes to doing battle with beings armed with wooden sticks dipped in poison (they hadn’t even invented the arrow head; no rocks on Pandora other than upsidaisyum?) we humans know how to kick some tail.

And this is what bugged me most of all: there is no way out of war and genocide and corporate greed and human hatred of all species blue and nonhuman. No one learns anything on either side of the conflict. And the people who could possibly help both sides learn are either dead (Dr. Grace Augustine—can these names get any more obvious?) or permanently blue (Jordo Schell). At least in the Star Trek version of this plot (“The Devil in the Dark,” Original Series, aired on 3/9/67), Mr. Spock manages to broker a deal that allows the white heartless miners and their evil corporate overlords (can there be corporate overlords in a society without money where anyone can replicate anything they want for free?) to get their precious rocks without murdering all the Horta in the process. If the Na’vi can’t mind meld like Spock, couldn’t they at least hair-jack the bad guys in the ass and help them learn the value of blue:

“I am a Blue. Hath not a Blue eyes? Hath not a Blue hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? … If you prick us, do we not bleed? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

But nothing like this happens in Avatar. On the contrary, the bad guys go back to earth with years of homeward bound space travel during which to perfect their story about this evil, hostile, and human-hating species on Pandora that mindlessly murdered all our brave mercenaries and miners who only wanted a few stones that the evil Na'vi didn't even care about. When they get home they will rally what is left of our greenless mother-killing species, and fly back to Pandora to take our revenge in Avatar 2: The Return of the White Meanies (please note clever Beatles reference).

But I am not totally without hope. Things may get better in Avatar 3: Dead, White, and Blue when Pandora is a mining colony and the Na’vi have opened casinos, legalized prostitution (“You’ve never had tail, until you’ve had blue tail”), turned the Tree of Souls into a theme park, and have found myriad other ways to profit off of the White Man’s obsession with sex, gambling, and mindless entertainment. In fact they will have improved their lifestyle and diet sufficiently to allow themselves to live long enough to die of cancer.

So, what’s the bottom-line? Yes, Avatar was fun to watch, and the special effects were wonderful. But was it worth the 380 million dollars James Cameron spent on it, and the $10.20 that I tossed in to help him recoup his expenses? Doubt it. Is it the movie of the decade? No. Will it change movie making forever? Maybe, but who cares? Will it change anything else? No. In the end it is just a screed against capitalism offering no redemption, and promising only endless slaughter. And, given the state of our planet at the moment, it may well be prophetic—Na’vi, get it?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Two Christmas Jews

Tomorrow is Christmas. Two Jews very dear to my heart were born on Christmas day. The first was Jesus Christ, the second my grandfather, Moe Cohen. These two men had much in common.

To begin with they were both Jews, born of Jewish mothers. Second, neither was born with the last names Christ or Cohen. Jesus was called Christ by his followers, and my grandfather was called Cohen by the guy who stamped his papers at Ellis Island. Third, neither of them was born on December 25th. Jesus’ followers chose that date to co-opt the Roman festival Saturnalia that ended on the 23rd or 25th of December. My grandfather didn’t know his birthday, and chose December 25th when asked for date of birth by the guy who gave him the name “Cohen” at Ellis Island. Fourth, Jesus was a carpenter, and my grandfather worked with wood in his garage. Fifth, each of these men had crosses to bear: Jesus’ cross was the wood of crucifixion, my grandfather’s cross was, I suspect, my grandmother.

That is where the parallels between these two Jews end. I love them both, and I think it is sad that there are so few people who will remember the latter tomorrow. I don’t think my grandfather would be interested in having people go to church on his birthday, or giving one another presents. I think he would have preferred us to stay home, read the paper, and smoke a good cigar. I plan to do just that, sans cigar. And I will think of him, and call his daughter who happens also to be my mother, and that will have to do.

Thinking of Moe fills me with gratitude. He was a warm and loving grandfather whose two favorite phrases were, “What are you doing?” and “What are you doing it for?” These are questions I continue to ask. Jesus, too, is famous for his questions, most notably, “Who do they say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”

All four of these questions are koans, questions demanding existential responses that reveal one’s true nature in the moment. What am I doing? Most of the time I have no idea. And for what purpose? This, too, is a mystery to me. As for Who do they say I am? the answer today is clear: The only begotten Son of God. But the question Who do you say I am? is the more revealing. For me the answer is, a fully God-realized sage offering me a way to become the same.

Tonight I will think about these two Jews. Tomorrow I will dedicate my walking meditation to them both, and use their questions as part of my meditation practice. I invite you to do the same.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Joining My Enemies

The good people of the “God Hates Fags” movement have expanded their hate-filled rhetoric to include Jews. The Westboro Baptist Church, famous for its hatred of gays, and picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers, is now picketing synagogues with signs that read, “God Hates Israel,” “The Jews Killed Jesus,” and “God Hates Jews.”

How do we respond to these people? Some Jewish leaders suggest we ignore them. Others suggest that we fight them. I suggest we join them.

If ever these folks come to Murfreesboro, my plan is to rally the ten Jews of my town and join with the Westboro Baptists picketing against us. Seriously. I’m planning to print huge signs that read, “Killing Messiahs; It’s What We Do,” “God Hates Israel; God Loves Ahmadinejad,” “God Hates Jews, God Loves Hitler,” “God Hates Jews, That’s Why He Let His Son Die.”

My signs would dwarf the puny handheld signs of the Baptists. True, my sarcasm would be lost on the Baptists of Westboro, but I am not trying to change their minds at all. You can’t change these people. You can’t shame them. And you can’t kill them. So join them.

(I am hoping there is another option. I just can’t think of it. Please help me out.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Proverbs

For the past few days the phrase “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” has been bandied about as if it were the heart of great policy making. The context is usually health care reform: “True, the bill isn’t what we progressives wanted, but let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s pass this bill and make it better over time.”

That may be a wise strategy, but the phrase “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” bothers me.

First of all, why assume that the bill is good? What if the bill is bad? What if it is, as it appears to be, a handout to the insurance companies, forcing 30 to 40 million Americans to buy private health insurance without controlling prices or cost. What if it will up the cost to the elderly, and, because the price of health care insurance is so high and getting higher, burden future generations with greater and greater deficits needed to subsidize those who cannot afford the exorbitant prices insurances companies will charge?

If these are indeed facts, then the bill isn’t good, and the phrase “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” doesn’t apply. On the contrary, maybe the appropriate proverb is this: “Don’t let the worse be the enemy of the bad.” This seems to be what the Republicans are espousing: Yes, health care is bad, but this bill only makes matters worse.

I’m not saying that is true, only that that is what I am hearing from Republicans.

Then there is Governor Dean’s proverb, “Don’t let the bad be the enemy of the better.” He wants to scuttle the bill and push true reform through the inaptly named process of reconciliation. There is no reconciliation in the process of reconciliation. There is simply a majority imposing its will on the rest of the Congress. You know, majority rules. That used to mean something in America, the Electoral College aside.

If we went this route we wouldn’t have to kiss the butts of individual senators like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. Lieberman got what he wanted: he killed any threat to his overlords at the Connecticut-based insurance companies. Nelson managed to secure not only the life of the unborn, but free Medicaid for the poor of Nebraska who are or will be born, and will be forced onto Medicaid. He won because we are letting the minority (in this case one guy) be the enemy of the majority.

In the end I doubt we will get any real reform of health care, but we did get a few new proverbs, and that is something. Isn’t it?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Surviving Climate Change

I’ve been following the climate conference in Copenhagen this week, and have come to the following conclusion: we’re screwed. The planet isn’t doomed, of course, but human civilization as we know it is. And by “we” I mean middle class Americans. The homeless children of India living on garbage heaps probably won’t notice any major change in lifestyle.

Given the fact that no one with the power to improve the climate of planet earth actually wants to do so, you have to ask yourself one question: what can I do to survive? Here are my suggestions: 1. Move north; way north. 2. Buy guns; lots of guns. 3. Learn to love beef jerky. Of course we all can’t move north so you will have to do this secretly. I suggest painting the roof of your current home white to give your neighbors the impression that you are planning to stay and fight global warming. While they watch the paint dry, slip out the back and move north.

This solution isn’t perfect, however. Even if you are among the first to homestead what used to be the frozen tundra but which will soon have the climate of South Florida, others will not be far behind. And they may be better armed. The fact is only those with the cash to hire their own private armies will survive the coming disaster. Seriously. If I had the cash I would hire the mercenaries formally known as Blackwater and take over Sarah Palin’s house.

But there is another way out (besides of course actually changing the way we live). Astronomers have discovered a “super earth,” a planet with air and water orbiting a nearby red-dwarf star. True, using the term “red-dwarf” isn’t politically correct, but we can deal with that later. The planet, called GJ1214b, is uninhabited. I am sure of this because the name of the planet is GJ1214b, and no one who actually lived there would give it such a stupid name, so we can be pretty certain that no one lives there. Yet.

And that is my point. I’m moving to GJ1214b. The plant is about 247 trillion miles from my house in Tennessee, and that does present me with somewhat of a hurdle. But I am planning on talking to Richard Branson of Virgin about building a spaceship that will make the journey in less than 42 light-years. True I might not last the entire trip but perhaps my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great children might.

And there is also the problem that the atmosphere if GJ1214b can get as hot as 250F, but this is still cooler than what is going to happen to planet earth, at least if my math is right.

So, short term: hire an army and move north. Long term, build a space ship and colonize GJ1214b.

Ah, the audacity of hope.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Unto Death Do Us Part

Gal Ben-David, a 13-year-old Spanish boy died this past Sunday of a brain tumor. He was to be buried in the main section of Madrid’s Jewish Cemetery. Despite the fact that Gal lived as a Jew, and attended a Jewish day-school, it was the ruling of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that Mr. Ben-David was in fact not Jewish. Why? Because he converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative Movement, a denomination of Judaism that Rabbi Amar rejects as illegitimate.

This is not new or unusual in communities dominated by Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Amar is not being mean or acting in any way contrary to Jewish law. He is standing up for the one true Judaism as he perceives it—his. While I am saddened and embarrassed by the story, and while I feel great sympathy for the parents of Mr. Ben-David there is no blame to be assigned here.

Expecting Orthodox Jewish leaders to accept other Judaisms as equal to their own would be like expecting Southern Baptist leaders to accept the Pope, or Muslim leaders to welcome Baha’u’llah as a legitimate prophet of God, or Buddhists to worship Krishna. Religions have their limits and must play by their own rules. If this leaves a 13-year-old boy to be buried outside the main section of the Jewish cemetery, that is just part of the game.

So what should one do in this instance? My suggestion is simple enough—stop playing the game. Obviously when it comes to matters of identity and death Orthodox Judaism trumps Conservative Judaism at least in Spain. But who wants to play this game of “Who Is a Jew?” If someone tells me she is Jewish, I don’t question the matter. And if she dies right after telling me she is Jewish she can be buried in the Jewish cemetery if that was her wish or the wish of her family. Who cares? She’s dead!

I can see how, among the living, one might not want to pollute your neighborhood with someone of a different socio-economic, religious, racial, or ethnic group. We call that bigotry. It is part of human nature, and one of the reasons humans are so prone to following demagogues and committing genocides. But a dead body is going to decompose eventually, and dust is dust, so why freak out over who moves into the dead neighborhood? Are we afraid that it will lower the property values? Are we nervous that a liberal Jew or even a Gentile buried next to an Orthodox Jew might convince the latter to abandon the faith? It seems to me that death ought to be the great leveler. Death is death and grief is grief, and to pretend otherwise is to deny our humanity. Which is what religion so often does. Which is why I say, stop playing. Whenever your religion contradicts your humanity, reject the religion.

There should be only one criterion for being buried in a cemetery—you have to be dead. Maybe this is why Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” The living have yet to learn how.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How Do You Define What Is Good?

Can you be good without God? This question is once again making the rounds with the recent publication of Greg Epstein’s new book, Good Without God. As Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, Chaplain Epstein’s book is a thoughtful and positive assessment of the fact that of course people can be good without God.

To me this is the wrong question. To me the question is what is good and how do we know it is good? That is to say is something good because it is good (which begs the question “What is good?”) or is it good because God says it is good (which begs the question “Which God are we taking about?)?

The Jewish God said it was good to commit genocide against many of ancient Israel’s enemies, and continues to sanction violence against those inconvenient people who refuse to recognize God’s Chosen’s right to God’s Promised Land. The Christian God said it was good to slaughter Jews, burn witches, go on Crusades, and condemn differently believing persons to eternal torment in Hell. The Muslim God says it is good to murder those considered the enemies of Islam (even if they are fellow Muslims). So saying we need God to be good doesn’t tell us much about either God or goodness.

Of course you might say to yourself, “My God doesn’t sanction those things at all.” And that is my point. Your God might not, but another’s God might. Which God is the real God? Which good is the real good?

And being an atheist is no guarantee of goodness either. While I don’t know a single atheist who would kill or oppress in the name of God, there is no doubt that they can do so for other reasons.

The fact is, believing or not believing in this or that God is irrelevant to defining what is good. And the question of belief distracts us from the question, What is good?

If I had to point to a single text to define my sense of global goodness I would point to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I like this document not because it is divinely revealed (it isn’t), or because it is reasoned flawlessly, but because it agrees with my sense of right and wrong. When it comes down to it, I have to define good for myself.

This doesn’t make me happy. I would rather rely on God or at least on people smarter than me. But I can’t. Much of what God says in the world’s religions I find insane and immoral. The only time I find God on the right side of an issue is when God agrees with me. The same is true of what smart people say. I like what they say if what they say agrees with what I say; otherwise, I reject it.

Does it all come down to us as individuals? Is there nothing but our own opinion? How do you define what’s good?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Syncretism is on the Rise

Syncretism is on the rise. Or so says a new Pew Forum survey on Religion and Public Life released yesterday. According to USA TODAY, syncretism is the “mashing up of contradictory beliefs.” This is like a person taking some ideas from Judaism, and others from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the Existentialists, Science, the Matrix, Star Wars, and Star Trek, and mixing them all together to create a personal sense of wonder, meaning, and purpose.

Oh. That “person” would be me.

Religious leaders are not happy with mashing. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, said in the USA TODAY piece, “This is a failure of the pulpit as much as of the pew to be clear about what is and is not compatible with Christianity and belief in salvation only through Christ.”

I can imagine any number of clergy from any number of religions agreeing in principle with Dr. Mohler. Clergy work hard to define what is in and what is out of their respective religions, and syncretism undermines all that effort. What is worse it undermines the exclusivist theology behind it.

For most people salvation means getting your name on Heaven’s Guest List, and for exclusivists that list is restricted to people who believe as they believe. But it is hard to live in an open, democratic, pluralistic society and cling to the notion of exclusivist salvation. Like it or not, more and more people are adopting the Jewish view of salvation: all good people get to go to Heaven regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof. While Judaism may be vague about what Heaven is, and most Jews may be doubtful that it is at all, we all agree that good deeds rather than right belief is the key to entry.

But if that is true, then why stick to one understanding of God and religion at all? Why not learn about other faiths? Why not test out other practices? Why not customize your spiritual life the way you customize your Facebook page?

Once these questions are asked seriously, exclusivist religious claims fall away. If deeds not creeds is the way to God and salvation, and we can pretty much agree on what deeds are good and what deeds are evil (loving your neighbor—good; killing your neighbor—bad; the jury is still out on dancing, cheeseburgers, and zippers), why worry about creeds at all?

I love the emerging syncretism. I don’t see it as a mashing up of differences; I see it as an exploration of possibilities. True, around one fifth of Americans believe in astrology and the evil eye, but around the same number believes that a Kenyan is President of the United States.

I see syncretism as a first step in moving beyond religion toward spiritual practice. Eventually we will realize that God is unknowable, so creed is untenable. What matters is how compassionate and just we are. Those religious ideas and practices that enhance or capacity for compassion and justice will become part of our lives, regardless of the religion from which they come. And to that I say, Amen.

Monday, December 07, 2009

My Religion is Love

Judaism is about love or it doesn’t mean shit. It's that simple.

All the usual talk about tribal loyalty, cultural diversity, God, Torah, Promised Land, and Chosen People, is irrelevant if Judaism doesn’t make us more loving. Does it really matter if Jews marry Jews and raise Jewish kids if being Jewish is just about Jews marrying Jews and raising Jewish kids?

Judaism does matter, of course, but not in any self-referential way. Judaism matters for the only reason any religion matters: it makes us more loving. Or it should.

Here is my guiding principle for determining whether or not to engage in any specific Jewish practice: will it enhance my capacity to love? If it will, I should do it. If it won’t, I should move on to something that will.

Your answer to this question will differ from mine. The only agreement I am looking for is that love is what matters: love of God (Deuteronomy 6:5), love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), and love of stranger (Leviticus 19:26). How you define God, neighbor, and stranger is also up for discussion. Discussion is what we Jews are all about: argument, doubt, debate, wrestling. And if this argument is for the sake of heaven, that is for the sake of love, it is precious to me. If it is for the sake of tribe and brand, it is a waste of time to me.

Of course I will have to define love. Let me offer this as a tentative definition: love is the capacity to feel another’s pain without guilt, share in another’s joy without envy, and work with others to uplift the fallen, free the wrongly imprisoned, etc. If I need a slogan for my Judaism I would borrow the bumper sticker the Prophet Micah might have stuck on the rump of his donkey: "Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

You might object at this point, “Why bother coming up with Jewish ways of becoming more loving? Why not just be more loving? Why stick with Judaism?”

I suspect that in my case Judaism is so ingrained that I cannot walk away. I keep coming back to make it work for me the same way I keep coming back to Levis jeans after flirting with New Religion: I find them comforting.

With love as my criteria, I can now answer people who ask me, “How do you know your religion is true?” Truth isn’t the issue, love is. I don’t care if a religion is true; I care if it makes its adherents more loving.

My religion is love. My method is Judaism as I define it for myself. Won’t this weaken community if we each define Judaism for ourselves? Maybe, but who cares? My goal is love not branded community. If I am loving, I will find others who are the same. Love will be our bond, and we will welcome any brand that serves it.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Unstemming Stem Cell Research

After having slammed the Obama administration for its environmental, financial, and military policies, it is only fair that I celebrate the President’s administration when it does something right. Or, to be more blunt, when it does something with which I agree. So it was with great joy that I read that Francis Collins, Obama’s director of the National Institutes of Health, has approved federal funded research on thirteen new lines of stem cells. And, as Director Collins noted, this is only the beginning.

In August of 2001, then President George Bush limited research to the 21 stem cell lines already being studied. President Obama vowed to change this, and he has. The number of new lines may well grow into the hundreds, and the potential to radically cure disease is huge.

Resistance to embryonic stem cell research comes from those who imagine embryonic cells to be persons, and hence experimenting on them is immoral. President Obama has dealt with this issue by getting informed consent from stem cell donors. This is tricky. If an embryonic stem cell is somehow a person, can another person determine its fate in this way?

This is the anti-abortion argument: If a zygote (and later a fetus) is a person, what right does even the mother have to kill it? The answer, with the possible exception of saving the mother’s life, is none. The only way to counter this argument is to argue that a zygote or fetus is not a person, and the mother has the right to determine its fate just as she does to determine the fate of her heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.

The question is this, When does human life become a human person. When asked this question in a televised interview with Pastor Rick Warren, then candidate Obama avoided the question by saying the answer was “above his pay grade.” Of he was right. The emergence of personhood is a theological question, not a political one. Yet when religion (questing into the unknown) devolves into doctrine (adherence to the officially known), as it has in our day, religion becomes politicized.

Not surprisingly the U.S. Conference of Bishops opposes President Obama’s move to liberate science and medicine from the censorship of certain kinds of believers, but they are not opposed to all research, promoting the use of induced stem cells instead of embryonic stem cells. Under Obama and Dr. Collins both types of stem cells will be used, and the science will determine which is more valuable to humankind.

This is the kind of progressive action our country needs. And, in the not too long run, this is the kind of health care reform that will actually transform the wellness of human beings. Thank you Mr. President.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pay It Forward

Finally some good news from Iraq. News we can use. By “we” I mean Jews, and by “use” I mean apply to our own situation. What is this news? Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is paying couples to intermarry as a way of stemming sectarian violence in Iraq. Intermarrying couples are wed in a group ceremony. The government provides dresses for the brides, and suits for the grooms. Each couple receives a free night in an Iraqi hotel (something superior to the Iraqi version of Motel Six where the motto is, “We’ll keep the fuse lit for you”) plus a check for $2000 US. The Vice President’s hope is that these married couples will make love not war, and bring their extended families along with them. Personally I think this is a brilliant idea, and one we Jews can learn from.

Why not pay Israelis to marry Palestinians? Yes, I realize they are from different faiths, but most Israelis are secularists as are many Palestinians. We could pay for intermarriage between Israeli and Palestinian humanists. Sure it might cost a bit more than it does in Iraq, but what doesn’t? And, if the idea catches on, it will prove far cheaper to birth hybrid babies than it is to enforce ethnic purity.

Of course we could use Tariq al-Hashemi’s idea in reverse. We could pay Jews and Gentiles in the United States not to marry one another. This might be a bit more difficult to pull off. But we could offer a sign-up bonus for every Jew who marries another Jew. And then we could pay the couple to have or adopt babies. We could set a base level for birth and adoption, and then add a bonus for bar and bat mitzvah. And if these kids grow up to marry other Jews, not only will they receive the sign-up money, but their parents will get another cash gift for raising Jewish children who marry other Jews. To incentivize the system a bit more, parents whose children marry out will have to return their baby bonus money plus accrued interest. And to help prevent divorce we might also demand a similar repayment in the case of divorce.

How much cash, you might be wondering? I don’t know. The cost of the average suburban bar or bat mitzvah runs around $75,000, and that’s without Madonna singing about Kabbalah, so maybe we need to use that as our base. I imagine the total would be about $250,000 per child over the course of a lifetime. But I don’t really know, and will leave the specifics to the experts. All I’m saying is that you get what you pay for, so lets pay for what we want.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Night of Despair: My Response to President Obama's Speech on Afghanistan

I voted for Barack Obama. Happily. Hopefully. Maybe even desperately. I wanted change. I believed and continue to believe that the United States is on the wrong track morally, economically, politically, and spiritually. I believed and continue to believe that we are run by soulless corporations that feed us an endless round of distractions, scandals and crises that preoccupy us while we are bled dry. I was under no delusion that if Candidate Obama became President Obama he could change the very marrow of the nation, but I was hopeful that he would at least change the conversation. That hope has been on life support for months. Tonight it finally died.

I do not like the health care reform bill. It is a gift to the insurance companies, and does nothing to improve healthcare or reduce costs. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that it is a step in the right direction; that once something is on the books, future politicians can work to make it better.

I did not like the bailout of Wall St. It was a gift to the very people who crashed our economy. I would have used the money to keep people in their homes, to create a Green Jobs Corps similar to the conservation program FDR created during the Depression. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that without it things would have been much worse.

I do not like cap and trade as a means of saving the planet. It is a scam, and will do nothing to lower CO2 emissions. By the time it has any effect, if it has any effect, things will be far worse than then are now. If we want to stop global warming we have to do something bold. Read James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia, and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline for ideas that make sense to me. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that we are recognizing the problem.

I protested against the Iraq War, and hoped President Obama would end it. We are still there. When we leave, if we leave, Iraq will become a puppet of Iran, and our people will have died in vain. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that the president is winding things down.

I supported the taking down of the Taliban and going after Al Qaeda. We did that. According to our own government there are less than 100 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan. We won. When did we decide to rid the country of the Taliban? When did we decide that the Taliban are a coherent group that can be identified and defeated? No one has been able to create an Afghanistan in their image—not Alexander the Great, or the British, or the Soviets. Why do we think we can do so? Afghanistan is not a nation, but a jumble of competing tribes and warring groups. The Karzai government has no credibility, and neither do we.

I know Candidate Obama was pro-war in Afghanistan, but I was hopeful that President Obama took all this time discussing the Afghan War because he had a change of mind. Instead he took weeks to do what John McCain would have done in twenty seconds. Did I vote for a slower version of McCain? Is this change? Is this hope?
All this will do is convince our enemies that we are the Crusaders they imagine us to be. It will further solidify the Muslim world against us. It will not make us safer. To imagine that we can train Afghani forces to take on the Taliban is absurd. One out of every four Afghan police officers is AWOL. We will be in Afghanistan for years. And then we will do what we could do today: declare victory and leave behind a mess.

If we want to worry about Taliban and the security of the United States, the problem is in Pakistan. If we want to worry about nuclear armed madmen, the threat is in Pakistan and Iran. We have real enemies out there, but occupying Afghanistan for another five to ten years does nothing to stop them, and in fact will make things worse.

I am sick over the decision of my President. I feel angry and hopeless. Voting Republican in 2010 won’t help. And voting for third parties only allows me to feel self-righteous while charade of a two-party democracy continues to mask the fact that we are no longer a democracy but an oligarchy of the rich, for the rich, by the rich.

My only hope now is in a war tax and a draft. Demand that the American people pay for this madness now. Not just the wealthy, but everyone. Maybe if we feel the financial cost of war we might bring it to a close.

And reinstitute the draft. We don’t have enough volunteers to cover the wars in which we continue to engage, let alone the ones coming up (Pakistani Taliban and Iran), so we force our soldiers to go back over and over and over again. That is wrong militarily and morally. We need more soldiers. If these wars are good for America, then make all American’s fight them. No deferments for college. No way out for the wealthy. Every able-bodied young person must go.

The only reason these wars have gone on as long as they have is that most of us could avoid paying for them directly with our dollars and the lives of our children. With a tax and a draft we are all engaged in war, and most of us will resist.

Right now most of us are like me— confused, depressed, and passive. We content ourselves watching Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann. I fear Beck and love Olbermann, but neither is offering me a way out.

I am not sorry I voted for Barack Obama, but the hope he promised has turned to despair.

I hope he is right, and that I am wrong.

Insane Logic of Ma’ale Adumim

First I have to take a deep breath. I know that if I publish this blog I am going to receive the kind of angry mail I don’t want. But if I say nothing I will hate myself. So here goes…

The November 13th edition of the Forward contains a very troubling article: “Palestinian Workers Plan To Sue Settlement, Seek To Fall Under Israeli Law.” According to the article, Palestinian workers employed by the West Bank municipality of Ma’ale Adumim, a Jewish settlement just outside Jerusalem, are suing the city and insisting that they be hired according to Israeli law rather than Jordanian law. The difference is that while the Palestinians make more than minimum wage, their benefits package is below that of Israeli workers.

The issue is purely one of financial justice. The workers want more; the city wants to pay them less. But the wild thing is the logic Ma’ale Adumim employs. According to the city’s lawyer, Gilad Rogel, “Ma’ale Adumin is not under the jurisdiction of the State of Israel—it is a settlement in the occupied territories.” The city operates under Israeli law because Israelis live there, but with regard to Palestinians it can choose to operate under another legal system, in this case that of Jordan.

In other words, Ma’ale Adumin wants to claim it is part of Israel when it benefits them and part of Jordan when it doesn’t. It also wants to discriminate against Palestinian workers. And all because of money. Has Zionism been reduced to an economic scam? Has Jewish justice been reduced to cost effectiveness? Is this what Israelis risk their lives for every day?

Let me be clear: this isn’t a uniquely Jewish or Israeli issue. The theft of people’s homes by the municipality of New London, CT at the bequest of the Pfizer Corporation in 2005 only to have Pfizer leave the city in 2009 after reneging on its plans to build a research facility near the confiscated land is the same thing—a city government driven solely by dollars. My point is simply this: Israel isn’t any different than any other state. It can claim no moral high ground. It has no special status with God. It is, just like the rest of us, out for itself.

OK, I can accept this. But when I do, I have to ask myself why I should give a shit about just one more country driven to injustice by economic concerns? I am told over and again that Israel is different, and because it is different it is worthy of my love, trust, and financial support. But is it? I just can’t see it any more. I want to. But I don’t.

This isn’t a matter of moral equivalency. I’m not comparing Israel to Palestine or any other country. I’m just saying that if the West Bank can be used as a scam to exploit Palestinian workers, I don’t want to be a part of it.

The case is going before the Israeli Supreme Court. In a similar case in 2007 the court sided with Palestinian workers. Other cities have followed the High Court’s precedent, but Ma’ale Adumin is trying to find a loophole. If they do, and the Court sides with the city, the hole they find is going to be the grave of justice.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Texas Teacher Refuses to Give the Finger to the State

Pam McLaurin, a kindergarten teacher in Texas, believes digital fingerprints are the Mark of the Beast that the Book of Revelations warns us against. Hence her refusal to allow the Texas Education Agency to make a digital copy of her fingerprints, something required of all kindergarten teachers.

Is Ms. McLaurin right? Are digital fingerprints satanic. Maybe yes. Maybe no. I have no way to know.

To err on the side of caution, I will assume digital fingerprints are satanic, and the digital print is the Mark of the Beast. Now here is my problem: the digital fingerprint is simply a copy of the swirls on my very own fingers. So if there is the Mark of the Beast on the print, it must first be on my fingers. Now, that’s scary!

If Ms. McClaurin is right, and I cannot prove she is wrong, our fingers all bear the Satanic Seal. We have known for a long time that “idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” but now we know that our fingers themselves are satanic!

So what do we do?

First, give Ms. McLaurin a break. She has worked for the Texas school system for 20 years, and if she were going to do something satanic with those satanically sealed digits of hers, she would have done so already. If she won’t make a copy of prints, just ask her to wear gloves to none of her little charges have to be touched by the Beast.

Second, we ought to consider burning off our fingerprints. Who wants to carry around the Sign of the Beast on our fingers? (Toes, too? I don’t know.)

But maybe I am taking things too far. Maybe Ms. McLaurin isn’t claiming that all fingerprints are the Sign of the Beast, but only her fingerprints! If that is so, then she must be removed from the classroom, and all the children she has touched over the past two decades should be found and tested for blasphemous ideas and unholy behavior.

I only wish that Ms. McLaurin had the guts to admit twenty years ago that she bore the Mark of the Beast. I am certain the great state of Texas would not have hired her. So maybe she is in league with the Devil after all. Or maybe she is just a liberal like me, who extends the classic don’t ask don’t tell policy invented for homosexuals to that other oppressed minority: Satan’s minions. I just don’t know.

What do you think? Should Ms. McLaurin give Texas the finger or not?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

One Jew Speaks of Jesus

I got a standing ovation in church last Sunday when I spoke to over six hundred Anglicans gathered in Christ Church of Calgary, Canada, to hear me talk about Jesus.

I told them I love Jesus, and believe him to be one of the greatest sages who ever lived. I told them that Jesus was a Pharisee, as am I, and that they shouldn’t heed the propaganda of their Bible that paints us as legalists and hypocrites. We were in fact the liberals of our day, and Hillel’s branch of the movement, the branch to which Jesus may have belonged, was clearly quite progressive, defining the whole of the Torah as not doing unto others what you would not want others to do to you. Jesus’ positive restatement of Hillel’s negative expression of the Golden Rule suggests both that he sat in Hillel’s academy and my not have been all that attentive.

I shared with them how Jesus, when he said “Resist not evil,” was actually saying, “resist not evil in the old ways, but in a new way, my way;” a way of nonviolent confrontation with injustice that proclaimed and affirmed the dignity of the oppressed (in his day Jews), and made clear the immorality of the oppressor in a way that might just might trigger a change.

I told them how “if they strike you on the right cheek” reflected a Roman law allowing soldiers to backhand Jews as they might a mangy dog, and how “turning the other cheek” was an act of defiance, daring the soldier to strike you openhanded on the left cheek, a sign of anger among equals. I told them how Roman law allowed soldiers to force Jews to carry a soldier’s pack for up to one mile in an effect to reduce them to donkeys, and how “going the extra mile” asserted one’s humanity and forced the soldier into the absurd situation of having to refuse the kindness of a Jew who had now regained human status. I told them how the courts stripped people of the very clothes on their backs, and how “giving one’s tunic” was an act of standing naked before the court shaming the judges and encouraging resistance to their injustice.

I told them that while I did not believe Jesus to be the Christ, I did, following Martin Buber, believe him to be a Lamed Vavnik, one of the 36 hidden saints of every generation whose love for humanity keeps us from imploding under the weight of our own ignorance, arrogance, anger, fear, greed, and violence. I told them Jesus’ pleas to those he helped not to reveal him as a healer was his attempt to remain hidden, and that once outed he used his new status to directly confront Rome and those collaborating with Rome, a decision that he knew could only lead to death on the Roman cross.

I told them that belief in Jesus as Christ was fine, but, as Jesus had just said to them in the day’s reading from Matthew Chapter 25, it was care for the powerless that determined one’s future with God, and not belief in Jesus. I told them that true lovers of Jesus must do as he sought to do: establish the kingdom of godliness and resist the oppressors—military, political, religious, and corporate—that are today’s Rome.

And I thanked them for listening to one Jew speak with pride of another. And they gave me a standing ovation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What I Am Thankful For This Year

In his thoughtful essay, “What the Pilgrims really sought,” in USA TODAY (November 23, 2009), Michael Medved tells us what is at the heart of American religiosity: uncompromising Puritan theocracy.

While I am not a Puritan myself, I trace my origins to their American Mecca, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (my family hasn’t lived in Israel since the Neo-Assyrians conquered the place in 740 BCE), and feel an affinity with them. Yet even I have to admit that they were anything but religiously liberal. They tried to make their colony Judenfrei (free of Jews); beat, whipped, and hung Quakers; and burned witches at the stake; and until the 1960s forced retailers to close their stores on Sunday (they abandoned this practice when they realized the faithful were driving to Connecticut to shop). Religious tolerance went down hill from there, with other colonies establishing their own religions and taxing everyone to pay for them.

In fact, if not for the necessity to band together to kill the British in the name of independence, we would probably be about killing one another in the name of God.

Religion didn’t unite the colonists, it divided them. It was the abuse of Catholics by Protestants in the Continental Army that forced George Washington to demand religious tolerance. Freedom of Religion was imposed on the people of the United States not derived from them. In fact, as Mr. Medved shows, the intent of the First Amendment was to protect the right of states to establish their own religions by forcing the federal government to be religiously neutral.

My only quibble with Mr. Medved’s fine essay is his statement that Thanksgiving celebrates religious coexistence. I don’t see that at all.

The first Thanksgiving in Virginia in 1619 gave thanks to God for the people’s safe passage over the Atlantic. The more famous Pilgrim ceremony two years latter thanked God for a good harvest. There is no American holiday of religious coexistence. And I’m pretty sure we could never have one.

Religions coexist in the United States by default. The United States is a secular state not because its people want it that way, but because they are too religiously divided to impose on religion on the country as a whole. True, I believe that put to a vote, most Americans would amend the Constitution to affirm that we are a Christian nation, but as soon as we do so, we would split into warring camps to determine who is the true Christian and what is the true Christianity.

At that point the country will come to the brink of collapse, giving rise to a fundamentalist charismatic leader who will promise to save us by imposing a theocratic oligarchy on the nation that will preserve the two great powers in America: church and corporation.

So this Thursday when I sit down to eat, plan my strategy for avoiding death at the hands of Black Friday Christmas shoppers at Wal-Mart, and visit my Native American brothers and sisters offering to buy their land for beads and handing out a few disease-infected blankets, I will make time to thank God for being so confusing as to split humanity into an ever increasing number of competing religions and thereby making it almost impossible for any one of them to dominate the rest. Oh, and I will clean my rifle just in case I am wrong.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Religious Competition

Last Friday evening I spoke at a Reform synagogue in Calgary, Canada. Four hundred people turned out matching numbers only seen on Yom Kippur.

I was there to speak about love, but not two minutes into my talk I somehow triggered a woman in the crowed to suddenly cry out against the notion that religions are in competition with one another. I had said something to that effect, likening religious competition to that of other brand wars such as Coke vs. Pepsi. She didn’t like her faith being demoted to a brand.

Clearly I had touched a nerve, and whenever I do so I cannot help but touch it again. And again, and yet again until I have either killed the nerve or at least left the person raw and in pain. We learn best through suffering I tell myself.

Do you ever wonder, I said, why theologians from any given religion always end up proving the truths of their religion? Why is it that no Catholic theologian ever discovers that Islam is true? The answer to this is the same as the answer to the question why taste tests sponsored by Pepsi never reveal that people prefer Coke.

We Jews call ourselves God’s Chosen People for the same reason Coke calls itself the Real Thing. Who would stay loyal to a brand that called itself God’s Rejected People, or the Fake Thing? Catholics claim there is no salvation outside the Church even though the Jewishly brand loyal Jesus said that salvation comes from the Jews. But what else could they say?

Brands compete; religions are brands; ergo, religions compete. People who say they shouldn’t don’t understand the nature of religion.

I think competition is good. Nonviolent competition, that is. Sending brand loyalists on crusades and jihads is bad for business, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But other kinds of competition is good.

I suggest religions sponsor person-on-the-street surveys asking people which of the following views of heaven most appeals to them: Endless Bible study with God (the Jewish view); endless singing of the same song (the Christian view); or endless sex and feasting (the Muslim view)? While all of them sound like hell to me after a millennium or two, it would be fun to find out which one people prefer.

We could also ask English speaking people whether they preferred their religious services in Hebrew, Arabic, or English? We could also ask people which kind religion they preferred: one that allowed them to eat pork, one that outlawed pork but allowed cheeseburgers, or one that outlawed pork and cheeseburgers but allowed the eating of a cow’s tongue?

People make lots of money doing brand surveys, so maybe I will go into the religion brand survey business. I will need more examples of possible surveys, so think about this for a minute and share your survey ideas with me in the comments section of this blog, If any one hires me to do your survey I will let you know.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

E.T. versus J.C.

Gary Bates, head of the evangelical Christian organization Creation Ministries International, is worried about close encounters of the third kind. According to Mr. Bates, “E.T. life would actually make a mockery of the very reason Christ came to die for our sins.” *

Really? A mockery? I don’t think so at all.

First, God could choose to send Jesus to other planets as well as our own. Second, if that is too far fetched, why is it any less authentic for Christians to believe that beings on other planets must come to Christ through his missionaries than it is to believe that human beings in far flung lands on this planet should do so?

If there is conscious life on other worlds, it could very well be God’s plan for them to be evangelized and saved by missionaries from Earth.

You might argue, of course, that this would be unfair, since it may take thousands of years for Christians from Earth to make it to other worlds to bring the Good News, but this is no different than realizing that humans existed on earth for thousands of years prior to Jesus’ coming. True they couldn’t get into Heaven when they died, not having accepted Jesus as their as yet unborn Lord and Savior, but this is taken care of during the Harrowing of Hell on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when Jesus descended into Hell and liberated the righteous Jews who lived long before Jesus’ time. So time isn’t the issue. Accepting Jesus is.

If we do find intelligent life on other planets, or at least life as stupid as us, we will no doubt encounter new ideas about God and religion, but this should pose no threat to the faithful. There are plenty of alternatives to Christianity on this planet, and evangelicals like Mr. Bates have no trouble rejecting them. Why would other-worldly religions pose any more of a problem?

Come to think of it, Jews might have more of a problem with E.T. than Christians. We, after all, believe that we are God’s Chosen People. If there are other Chosen People on other planets that would be deflating. If there is a winner on each planet, and there are millions of planets, there are millions of winners, and that makes being Chosen somewhat less satisfying. So if anyone has to worry about E.T. it is the Jews.

I for one am not worried about extra terrestrial life. I assume it exists. With 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe, I have to assume other inhabitable worlds, and other peoples narcissistic enough to think God chooses and saves some, and rejects and damns others.

What worries me is having aliens from other worlds knocking on my door to bring me the Good News of their Gods. I mean how often do I have to hide under my desk and pretend no one is home?

*THE WEEK, November 20, 2009, page 14

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Confederate Jews

The photograph hit me like a hard right to the gut: Rabbis Wisnia and Appel, standing with two Jews dressed up as Confederate soldiers at the dedication of a memorial for Jewish Confederate war dead in Mississippi. The four of them are smiling for the camera as if they were breaking ground for a new Jewish preschool. But they weren’t. They were there to honor those Jews who died defending the Confederacy.

Sure, I know that there were Jewish slave owners. I know there were Jews who helped finance the Confederacy. I know there were Jews who fought for the South. And I know that here in the South where I live fighting for the Confederacy is a badge of honor. We have a statue to fallen Confederate soldiers outside the courthouse of my town. But I am not proud of this. I don’t have my picture taken in front of it.

Full disclosure: I am a Yankee. I am from Massachusetts and take great pride in that. Sure we burned witches and hung Quakers, but we were on the right side in the Civil War— watch the movie Glory. It would never occur to most Yankees to fly the Confederate flag, and those to whom this does occur also fly the Nazi flag, because both are about oppressing the Other, be they blacks or Jews.

But do we Jews have to celebrate our support of slavery? Sure, you can say the War of Northern Aggression was fought to defend the agrarian economy of the South, but that economy would have collapsed had slavery been abolished. No matter what else may have been involved, no matter how equivocal Lincoln may have been on the issue of slavery, the issue was slavery. And Jewish Confederate soldiers fought to uphold slavery. History is history. Let’s admit it, but not celebrate it.

“Stop smiling!” I yell at the rabbis in the photo. “At least look a bit troubled over the morality of what you’re doing!”

Honestly, I don’t know what I would do if, as the rabbi of a Confederate congregation, I was asked to dedicate a Jewish Confederate memorial. Maybe politics trumps morality here. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe I would have done my best at the dedication, and then quietly send a donation to the United Negro College Fund. Maybe I would have smiled for the camera, and hoped that no one notices.

But this photo is published in The Chronicle, a magazine of the Reform Movement. The section in which it appears is called “Alumni Changing the World.” Honoring those who died in defense of oppression is “changing the world?” And how ironic that this memorial is in Mississippi where Jewish Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner along with their African American co-worker James Chaney were murdered 1964. If we are going to honor Jews who died fighting in the South, I would focus on Goodman and Schwerner.

This isn’t an attack on rabbis Wisnia and Appel (neither of whom I know, and both of whom are probably fine and good people), nor on the editor who choose to run the photo (also unknown to me and most like a nice person). It isn’t an attack at all. Just a cry: isn’t anyone ashamed of anything any more?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Me 5.0

In the current issue of Kosmos (Fall/Winter 2009) Mark Gerzon offers a two-part exploration of global citizenship. Using the analogy of upgraded computer software, Mark identifies five iterations of citizenship:

Citizen 1.0— Worldview based on one’s self (egocentric).
Citizen 2.0— Worldview based on one’s group (ideocentric).
Citizen 3.0— Worldview based on one’s nation (sociocentric).
Citizen 4.0— Worldview based on multiple cultures (multicentric).
Citizen 5.0— Worldview based on the whole earth (geocentric).

While Mark’s metaphor may be original to him, the idea itself is not. Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics, for example, is a more complex and perhaps more complete version of Mark Gerzon’s citizenship idea,* but Mark’s has the distinct advantage of being easily articulated.

When I read his essay it clearly exposed my own inner struggle with the issue of backward compatibility. The more globally oriented I become, the more difficult it is for me to identify with this or that religion, ethnic group, or nationality.

At the corporate level, most religions operate at Citizen 2.0. The primary focus of the religion is who is in and who is out. Yes, there are other concerns such as justice and compassion, and there are progressive 5.0 thinkers within these religions whose focus is elsewhere, but the primary concern of corporate religion and corporate religious leaders is with market share and branding—who is in and who is out.

My question is this: as more and more of us become Citizen 5.0 what will happen to Religion 2.0? As I become more geocentric, can I maintain Zionism? As I recognize the blending of many spiritual teachings in my own life can I maintain Judaism as my singular religious identity?

For me the answer is clearly “no.” The more global I become the less exclusively anything I become. The more global I become the more I find myself articulating what I believe to be true using metaphors drawn from all the world’s religions. The more I live with Citizen 5.0 the more I experience Religion 5.0 and refuse to be limited to any one faith. My loyalty is to truth, and no religion has a monopoly on that. I draw from art, literature, philosophy, science, music, mysticism, myth, etc. to create a rich 5.0 tapestry of reality reflecting what I experience as real. And I no longer care where it comes from.

My guess is that Jews are at the forefront of Citizen 5.0. If Judaism is going to survive Jews 5.0 it will have to remake itself into Judaism 5.0. I am not sure it can. I am not sure it matters. But I am sure it matters to me. Ah the blessed unrest of inner turmoil.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Retreat

I will be on retreat in Alabama this week. There is no cell service or internet where I am going, so I cannot post to TOTO. I will be back in town Sunday night, and hope to update the blog on Monday. Have a great week.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Orthodoxy 192/Liberals 55

In his essay entitled “The Jewish Future in Black and White.” (The Forward, October 16, 2009) Uzi Silber reminds us of the inevitable take over of American Judaism by Orthodox Jews. It is simply a matter of numbers: for every 100 Orthodox Jews in their 50s today there are 192 children; while for every 100 nonOrthodox Jews in their 50s there are 55 children. Do the math. Eventually Orthodoxy wins.

Does this matter? Not to me. Does that make me want to be an Orthodox Jew? Not at all. I’m too liberal, too pro-choice, too pro-GLBT, and too tolerant of Jews who like BLTs to be an Orthodox Jew. I won’t change. I don’t want to change. And if this means that Judaism goes the way of the Orthodox, it is fine with me.

More than fine, actually. When asked at a conference what I thought Judaism’s greatest gift to the non-Jewish world was, I said, “Jews.” I then went on to explain that Jews raised in traditional Torah study have a certain kind of mind, one that tolerates paradox, multiplicity of meanings, and doubt. Some of these Jews will apply that mindset outside the Jewish world and use it to enrich the larger world. I’m thinking of people like Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein, Derrida, and others. While none of them was an “orthodox” Jew, none of them would have been the revolutionary he was without “orthodoxy” in his background.

Liberal Jewish education, based on the western model of learning, lacks that penchant for paradox that traditional Jewish education promotes. Not that Orthodox Judaism is consciously iconoclastic or that Orthodox Jews deliberately raise iconoclastic kids, but that there is something about the pedagogy of Torah study that sharpens the minds of the well educated in a way that Western education does not. While liberal Judaism can produce good people, it probably can’t produce revolutionaries. And revolutionaries have been Judaism’s gift to the world for millennia.

So if we liberal Jews are opting out of the race to determine who is a Jew in the 22nd century, I’m not afraid. Just as Orthodoxy gave us radical liberationists in the 19th and 20th centuries, I am certain it will do the same in the 22nd.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Whatta MASA

MASA is a campaign designed to fight assimilation among American Jews. Sponsored by the Israel based Jewish Agency, MASA’s latest Israeli television ad sought to raise funds for its programs by placing photos of young American Jews on missing-person posters with the tag line, “over 50% of Jews abroad are assimilating.” The 50% of Jews abroad who had not assimilated complained and the ad was pulled.

Obviously assimilation of Jews into the broader culture is still a sensitive issue. But pulling ads that highlight it doesn’t really do much to stop it. In fact nothing really does much to stop it.

What does it mean to assimilate, anyway? Am I assimilated?

I try not to be. I have a beard, that’s Jewish. I wear Levi’s, their Jewish. I make a point of being able to pronounce the “ch” sound in Hebrew and Yiddish, and make fun of those Gentiles who can’t. I can spread my fingers in such a way as to offer the Priestly Blessing or say hello to Mr. Spock and wish him a “Live long and prosper.” And I get Jon Stewart’s Jewish jokes on the Daily Show. Is this good enough? How Jewish do I have to be?

On the other hand, I just bought the remastered Beatles collection, I read the latest Dan Brown novel (being a newly minted Master Mason myself, I wanted to see how we secretly rule the world), I like country and bluegrass music, and own a pair of cowboy boots. How goyish do I have to be?

I really don’t care about assimilation. If Jews want to be something else, that’s their right. Nor do I think that MASA’s program of schlepping young Jews to Israel to show them the Walls that define us (the Western Wall and the Separation Wall) is actually going to stem the tide of assimilation. If you want people to be Jewish, you have to make being Jewish matter.

Orthodox Judaism, for example, matters. It matters because it takes itself seriously, it believes what it says, it makes demands of its members. Unfortunately this is also why most Jews who are not Orthodox don’t choose to become Orthodox. To many Jews, Orthodox Judaism is a bit too Amish. I don’t want a religion that is afraid of zippers, or makes a fetish of Canaan.

How can we liberal Jews make Judaism matter? By reclaiming its roots as a radical counter-culture. By promoting Shabbat as a global play day, free from work and consumerism. By promoting kashrut (kosher) as a way of uplifting our consuming to the highest ethical and environmental standards (forget about separating milk and meat; promote vegetarianism instead). By promoting tzedakah as right livelihood: the just earning and use of finances. By excommunicating Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff. *

Judaism at its best, at its coolest, is in fact unassimilatable. It is counter-culture. It is all about argument, doubt, and imagination. It is all about everything that our conformist, consumerist society is not. Why not sell that to the kids?

Why not? Because most of the so-called unassimilated are really assimilated! Sure they refer to themselves as Jews, and maybe even attend synagogue once in a while, but they share the same values as the majority of Americans.

Assimilation is a nonissue. It is like dealing with a leaking bucket by adding more water at the top rather than plugging the leak at the bottom. The real issue is imagining and then teaching a Judaism that challenges people to be something other than the middlebrow, middle-class, middle-minded self-satisfied liberals who think watching MSNBC makes them superior to those who watch FOX News. I know these people. I am these people. Come on, MASA, don’t put my picture on a milk-carton, offer me a Judaism that matters.

* Did you ever notice that AbrAMOFF and MADOFF are made up of the same letters with the exception of the letter “d”? Is this a coincidence? I think not.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Jesus is from Mars. Mary is from Venus.

I have long had difficulty with the physics of Christianity, especially the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven after his resurrection. According to the Act of the Apostles, Jesus is taken up bodily into heaven forty days after his resurrection. The apostles were witnesses, so I have no doubt that this is true. (Would the Apostles lie?) But that doesn’t help me with the physics.

Given the fact that physical bodies cannot travel faster than the speed of light, Jesus, even after 2000 years of travelling in space, would still be well within the universe and nowhere near heaven (which, I assume, is beyond the universe.)

I once asked a Catholic priest to explain this to me, and he said that God can do whatever God wants. While always a good way to explain away things we can’t explain, it doesn’t satisfy me. Christianity makes a point that the resurrection is bodily, but what is the point of doing so if you are then going to deny the limits God placed on the body? So, with all due respect to the Church, I just can’t buy the idea that Jesus has made it to heaven just yet. And as it turns out, I’m right.

Not only is Jesus not in heaven, he is still in our solar system. In fact he has been spotted on Mars. NO, I’m not talking about Philip Jose Farmer’s 1979 science fiction novel, Jesus on Mars, I am talking about the real Jesus on the real Mars.

The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a picture of Jesus on Mars on August 3 of this year, and NASA published the photo in October. Look carefully and you will see the full body of a robed Jesus looking around the desolate Martian landscape saying, “Dad? Are we there yet?”

Actually I made up the “Are we there yet” thing, but there is no doubt that this is Jesus. So what is he doing on Mars? I asked a few true believers at the City CafĂ© the other morning and got the following responses:

“Its like the Shroud of Turin. Jesus stopped on Mars to leave this impression on the rock so that when we got to Mars we would know he had been there. This would bolster our faith.”

“He didn’t stop on Mars on his way to heaven, he is waiting on Mars before returning to earth.”

“This isn’t Jesus at all, but a trick by Barak Hussein Obama to mock our faith and promote Islamic socialism.”

I have a different view. I trust the Apostles and believe Jesus is in Heaven. I also believe in astrophysics. To reconcile the two I now believe the universe is flat and only a few miles thick. If this is true it would take only a few hours for Jesus to pass beyond the universe and enter Heaven.

Of course there are those skeptics who insist that the universe is wide, and who try to prove this by pointing to the fact that light coming to earth from distant galaxies is billions of years old, but that only shows how stupid some people can be. The billions of years old light astronomers see is coming from the length of the universe, not its depth. The universe is flat, thin, and LONG.

Why am I the only one who gets this?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

You Know You're Too Fat When...

You know you’re too fat when a TSA agent mistakes body bulk for bombs. I am too fat.

Last Sunday I’m flying from Dayton, OH to Atlanta, GA. I am travelling light—no computer, small carry-on, one checked bag that doesn’t go through the screening process with me.

I take off my shoes and jacket, and send them along with my phone and backpack through the X-ray machine. I walk through the metal detector. Usually I’m waved on through, but not this time. This time I’m pulled aside for a pat down. Sometimes this happens because of the system’s random check procedure, but not this time. This time it is because the TSA agent sees something suspicious about my person. Unfortunately, it is my person itself.

“Sorry, sir, but it looks a bit bulky under there,” the agent says to me politely, pointing vaguely to my sweater vest.

I am led to a side station, asked to spread my arms, and prepare to receive a pat down. The problem, the agent tells me, is that there is a roll, a bulge, under my sweater vest that seems suspicious to him. It could be a bomb belt. It could be a series of liquids that, when mixed, could bring down an aircraft. It could be pairs of shoes equipped with explosive devices. Or it could be that I’m fat.

Honestly, even knowing the years I would have to spend in prison if it were anything other than fat, for a moment I prayed to Allah that I was carrying a bomb. But Allah, like Jesus, doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews, and it turned out to be fat. As the agent’s well-trained hands ran themselves over my poorly toned mid-section it became clear to him and me that when given a choice between Taliban and marzipan, I would invariably align myself with the latter.

For a moment the agent was as embarrassed as I was. I felt sorry for him. I smiled and said, “I’m a loyal American, all about mom and apple pie. Mostly pie.” He smiled back. I smiled wider. He moved on to the next potential terrorist, I went to buy some Reese’s Cups.

To be fair, I am overweight. To be balanced, I have no idea how thick a bomb belt is, so maybe the agent was right to pat me down. But the humiliation was real nonetheless. To make matters worse, when I took my seat on the plane, and squeezed my broadening butt into the seat, the guy sitting next to me says, “I lost 109 pounds over the past year.” I swear to Adonai, Lord of Hostess, that’s what he said.

Of course I asked him how he lost all that weight, and he told me he ate nothing but steak and butter. As a Jew, I don’t mix meat and milk. As a vegetarian, I don’t eat steak. I’m doomed.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Weather or Not to Believe

When it comes to matters meteorological, I always check with the pious. That is how I know the sun orbits the earth, that hurricane Katrina was caused by homosexuality, and that global warming is caused by atheists.

This last comes from God’s chief meteorologist, Pope Benedict XVI, who said in a recent speech, “Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where His existence is denied? If the human creature's relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the ‘final authority,’ and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.”

This is harsh, but true. Without God we might become greedy and narcissistic. Without God you might walk around dressed in gold robes, wearing red Gucci loafers, wielding giant jewel encrusted silver staves, live in huge palaces filled with treasures and protected by a private army dressed in tights. Without God we might think we have a monopoly on truth, and feel empowered to lecture the world on the evils of condoms.

No, wait. That is what the Pope does and he has God. Wow! If this what the Pope does, just think of what people who don’t have God would do! No wonder the world is in such trouble.

So the answer is to get God. But, you might ask, what will getting God do to save the planet? It’s simple.

First you have to understand that there is only One God, and the Pope has him. So when the Pope says you should get God he isn’t suggesting that you get the god of your choice. He is talking about getting his God. And when you get his God, you get him. And when you get him you get to give him all your money. And when you give him all your money you have no money left over to be greedy. And when you have no money left over to be greedy you won’t be able to buy all those polluting devices. And if you can’t buy these polluting devices, the earth will stop warming and the planet will be saved. Until Jesus comes back and blows it all to Hell in the end anyway, but you won’t care because by then you will have abandoned the Pope for a Protestant Prosperity Preacher who will let you buy whatever the hell you want as long as you give a chunk of your income to his ministry, and who promises that Jesus will rapture you off the planet just before he destroys the place and the Pope along with it.

All of this is good news, though not to atheists. They still lack God, love carbon emissions, and are rapture-proof rather than rapture-ready. So I beg of you, my nonbelieving sisters and brothers, get thee to the Church on time to save our planet in time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Have You Seen This Missing Jew?

MASA is a campaign designed to fight assimilation among American Jews. Sponsored by the Israel based Jewish Agency, MASA’s latest Israeli television ad sought to raise funds for its programs by placing photos of young American Jews on missing-person posters with the tag line, “over 50% of Jews abroad are assimilating.” The 50% of Jews abroad who had not assimilated complained and the ad was pulled.

Obviously assimilation of Jews into the broader culture is still a sensitive issue. But pulling ads that highlight it doesn’t really do much to stop it. In fact nothing really does much to stop assimilation.

What does it mean to assimilate, anyway? Am I assimilated?

I try not to be. I have a beard, that’s Jewish. I wear Levi’s, their Jewish. I make a point of being able to pronounce the “ch” sound in Hebrew and Yiddish, and make fun of those Gentiles who can’t. I can spread my fingers in such a way as to offer the Priestly Blessing or say hello to Mr. Spock and wish him a “Live long and prosper.” And I get Jon Stewart’s Jewish jokes on the Daily Show. Is this good enough? How Jewish do I have to be?

On the other hand, I just bought the remastered Beatles collection, I read the latest Dan Brown novel (being a newly minted Master Mason myself, I wanted to see how we secretly rule the world), I like country and bluegrass music, and own a pair of cowboy boots. How goyish do I have to be?

I really don’t care about assimilation. If Jews want to be something else, that’s their right. Nor do I think that MASA’s program of schlepping young Jews to Israel to show them the Walls that define us (the Western Wall and the Separation Wall) is actually going to stem the tide of assimilation. If you want people to be Jewish, you have to make being Jewish matter.

Orthodox Judaism, for example, matters. It matters because it takes itself seriously, it believes what it says, it makes demands of its members. Unfortunately this is also why most Jews who are not Orthodox don’t choose to become Orthodox. To many Jews, Orthodox Judaism is a bit too Amish. I don’t want a Judaism that is afraid of zippers, or that makes a fetish of Canaan.

How can we liberal Jews make Judaism matter? By reclaiming its roots as a radical counter-culture. By promoting Shabbat as a global play day, free from work and consumerism. By promoting kashrut (kosher) as a way of uplifting our consuming to the highest ethical and environmental standards; forget about separating milk and meat, and promote vegetarianism instead. By promoting tzedakah as right livelihood: the just earning and use of finances. By excommunicating Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff.

Judaism at its best, at its coolest, is in fact unassimilatable. It is counter-culture. It is all about argument, doubt, and imagination. It is about everything that our conformist, consumerist society is not. Why not sell that to the kids?

Why not? Because most of the so-called unassimilated are really assimilated! Sure they refer to themselves as Jews, and maybe even attend synagogue once in a while, but they share the same values as the majority of Americans.

Assimilation is a nonissue. It is like dealing with a leaking bucket by adding more water rather than plugging the leak. The real challenge is imagining and then teaching a Judaism that challenges people to be something other than the middlebrow, middle-class, middle-mind self-satisfied liberals who think watching MSNBC makes them superior to those who watch FOX News. I know these people. I am these people. Come on, MASA, don’t put my picture on a milk-carton, offer me a Judaism that matters.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Courting Disaster

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed to protect the Constitution of the United States, seems to have a poor understanding of just what this Constitution says. In discussing the case of the cross erected as a war memorial on federal land in the Mojave Desert, Justice Scalia displayed a frightening sense of ignorance. When told that the cross is a Christian symbol and violates the First Amendment, Justice Scalia said that it was no such thing, adding, “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead.”

Either Justice Scalia is stupid, or he is completely blind to the existence of other religions. I hope it is the latter, but I fear it is the former. I can deal with a Justice who is in fact a Christian Triumphalist seeking to make America into a Christian nation. Eventually he will discover that Christianity isn't monolithic, and those Christians who will be marginalized in Scalia's America will fight back alongside others (religious and secular) to put an end (albeit temporary) to such theocratic insanity.

But if Justice Scalia is simply stupid; if he doesn't understand what a cross is or what the First Amendment stands for, then we have a problem. Why? Because then he represents the majority of Americans and there is little hope for change.

When told that the cross affirms one’s belief in Jesus as Christ, and that Jews, for one, never put the cross on their graves, the justice angrily snapped, “I think that is an outrageous conclusion.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed to protect the Constitution of the United States, seems to have a poor understanding of just what this Constitution says. In discussing the case of the cross erected as a war memorial on federal land in the Mojave Desert, Justice Scalia displayed a frightening sense of Christian triumphalism. When told that the cross is a Christian symbol and violates the First Amendment, Justice Scalia said that it was no such thing, adding, “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead.”

When told that the cross affirms one’s belief in Jesus as Christ, and that Jews, for one, never put the cross on their graves, the justice angrily snapped, “I think that is an outrageous conclusion.” Obviously Justice Scalia only visits Christian graveyards.

Justice Scalia is on record saying that he believes it is constitutional for the United States government to favor religion, and that the First Amendment does not affirm the government's neutrality toward religion.

Needless to say nonChristians are unhappy with a Supreme Court Justice who is ignorant regarding the First Amendment, but don’t image that all Christians are happy with Justice Scalia either. “America,” a Catholic weekly magazine, accused the justice of reducing the cross "to just a couple of pieces of lumber."

It scares me that a Supreme Court Justice is so ignorant of the First Amendment, one of the truly revolutionary documents in human history, and a foundation stone of American life. Why didn't this come up at his confirmation hearing? How did a man who is so ignorant of our founding principles get to be one of nine people responsible for securing them?

It's simple: he is anti abortion and wants to do away with Roe v. Wade. That is all it takes to be a Supreme Justice in America. You can know nothing else, but if you are anti abortion you're our guy.

Day by day, news story by news story, my faith in America fades. Let us hope that a wise Latina can bring some Constitutional knowledge to the court.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Black Tooth Down

Soupy Sales died yesterday. He was one of the greatest Jews who ever lived. Or, to be more specific, one of the greatest Jews who ever lived in Franklinton, North Carolina. There were five Jews in Franklinton: Mr. and Mrs. Milton Supman (pronounced “soup man”) and their three sons whom they nicknamed Hambone, Chickenbone, and Soupbone (honestly). Milt owned a dry goods store and sold sheets to members of the KKK (also honestly).

I watched the Soupy Sales Show religiously. He seemed to be a true anarchist. And he loved pie. What’s not to like? Plus he had his two dogs (puppets really) White Fang and Black Tooth, the meanest and nicest dogs in America, respectively. My favorite line of the show was “Black Tooth, don’t kiss.” I use it to this day. In fact I spend most days looking for a opportunity to say, “Black Tooth, don’t kiss.” When I finally find the right moment and utter these immortal words, I get a warn feeling inside and know my day is complete. I should probably live alone.

I learned how to dance from Soupy Sales. Soupy did this odd shuffle thing that I copied. It made me stand out on the dance floor. When I realized people were just staring at me, I would say, “Black Tooth, don’t kiss.” It was a non sequitur, but I could never think of anything else to say.

Some of you know this dance move, though unlike myself you may not performed it in the last day or two. As a tribute to and in memory of Soupy Sales I invite all of you who know this dance to dance together with me today at noon Eastern Time (11 Central, 10 Mountain, 9 Pacific).

Soupy Sales is famous for lots of things, not the least among them his on-air pitch to each of the children of America to send him a dollar. Eighty thousand dollars in Monopoly money flowed in. I like to think that it was Soup Sales, a Jew, who gave Evangelical preachers the idea to go on television and ask for money. It isn’t true, of course, but I like to think that.

I like to think a lot of things. Right now I like to think of Soupy Sales, the Greatest Jew of Franklinton, NC, being graciously welcomed into Heaven by God, and having Soupy pie the Almighty in the face. With God and Soupy laughing joyously, Black Tooth runs up and licks God’s face clean while Soupy himself says, “Black Tooth, don’t kiss!”

My day is complete.