Friday, January 30, 2009

Does the Pope Hate the Jews?

Is it me, or does Pope Benedict have it in for Jews? I’ll let you decide. Here are the facts as I choose to understand them:

1. When he was a kid the Pope belonged to Hitler Youth. According to my research he even won a merit badge for selling more yellow stars to Jews then any other Nazi kid. True he threatened to have them shot if they didn’t buy his stars, but, hey, the kid’s got moxie.

2. The Pope defends the sainthood of Pope Pius XII who Jews believe could have done more to stop the Nazi genocide against Jews. To his credit Pope Pius did consider withholding communion from Adolph Hitler until he found out Hitler was pro-life. He settled instead for writing his opposition to the mass murder of six million Jews in his diary which the Vatican refuses to release to the public—a girl deserves her privacy.

3. The Pope brought back the old Latin mass in which Catholics pray for the conversion of Jews. Jews by the way never pray for the conversion of Catholics. The last thing we need is more overweight men wearing satin beanies. I'm told by Vatican sources that in the underside of their skull caps is printed "Barry Horowitz' Bar Mitzvah."

4. The Pope has welcomed a noted Holocaust denier back into the fold of Catholic Bishops. This anti-Semitic Bishop, Richard Williamson, believes that the Nazis never ran gas chambers and at the most murdered 300,000 Jews and not the 6,000,000,000 as most nonNazi Catholics believe. Further he believes these Jews died in a bratwurst-eating contest held by Hitler in honor of the Jewish holy day of Purim. Gas killed them but it was internal and gastronomic, and not piped in to gas chambers. And, speaking of chambers, Bishop Williamson denial of same has nothing to do with the fact that he hates Jews (after all we killed his God, who wouldn’t hate us?), and everything to do with his being British.

When Brits speak of chambers they are referring to the chambers of Parliament. When he says the Nazis had no gas chambers he is referring to the fact that the Nazis did not have a British style of government where gaseous politicians fill chambers with idle yelling and odd gutter sounds.

As regards the Bishop’s insistence that the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis is 1/2000th of the number recognized by all scholars who are neither Nazis nor Iranians, the fact is Bishop Williamson suffers from a rare numerological disorder that causes him to see everything as 1/2000th the size of what it really is. This is something he was born with and he probably has no idea he suffers from this disorder.

A recent diagnostic test performed on the Bishop proves this. Vatican scientists had Bishop Williamson count 2000 wafers used in the Catholic Mass. He counted all two thousand but when asked how many there were he reported the total as just one. He counted them several times and each time insisted that there was only one wafer. You can actually check this out for yourself: There are 600,000 members of the Bishop Williamson’s Society of Saint Pius X (no relation to Malcolm). Write Bishop Williamson a letter, and ask him how many members he has, and he will insist it is 300. He can’t help himself; there is something wrong with his brain.

So, is Pope Benedict anti-Jew? No, I don’t think so. He is just pro-Catholic. Asking the Pope to care about Jews and the feelings of Jews and the future of anti-Semitism is like asking the CEO of Coke to care about the success of Pepsi. Its all about market share and competition. Of course people get hurt, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and if by “few” you mean six million and if by “eggs” you mean Jews, well it’s still an omelet and that’s what matters.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Praise the Lord and Pass the Satire

I watched Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office on a giant image projected on a wall. It was the third day of a weeklong interspiritual retreat sponsored by the Spiritual Paths Institute, and the room was filled with seekers from every major religious tradition.

We sat in silence as the camera managed to capture the full visage of the soon-to-be 44th President of the United States. He was tall, slender, draped in a wool coat reaching well below his knees. It was an awe-inspiring picture. Then from the back of the room in a voice so clear, shocked, and surprised as to call us out of our hushed reverie someone called out, “My God! He’s black!”

That someone of course was me. For some reason I cannot abide seriousness for long. It isn’t that I see everything as a joke, but that I see a joke in everything. For some reason I put my faith in humor rather than history. I am not an atheist, but I find religion more silly than serious: Praise the Lord, and pass the satire.

To the credit of our students and the Spiritual Paths faculty, the room erupted in laughter at my comment. I don’t think it broke the mood, and I’d like to think it allowed the mood to deepen. I wish I could say that is why I said what I did, but it wasn’t. I said what I said because I thought it was funny. When the words entered my mind I laughed inwardly and just had to know if it worked as well when spoken aloud. It did. I was lucky. This time.

Sometimes the jokes are just so esoteric that only God laughs. Sometimes they are so stupid that only I laugh. I always laugh; sometimes at the joke, sometimes at the fact that joke fell flat.

It was hard to laugh these last eight years. Sneer yes; scoff of course, and satire you betcha. But authentic laughter, laughter that comes from a place of trust and hope rather than fear and anger has been in short supply. Authentic laughter is liberating, it breaks up fear the way Liquid Plumber unclogs a drain. It is impossible to control a people who insist upon the freedom to laugh, which is why dictators and politically empowered clerics are quick to ban humor especially when aimed at themselves.

If it were up to me we would add a cabinet post to the government called The Secretary of Spiritual Health and Humor Services whose job would be to promote comedians, cartoonists, and clowns to continually skewer the sacred cows of piety and politics, and to see that the nation never forgets how to laugh itself free of the madness that passes for truth no matter who in the Oval Office.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Knocking on Heaven's Door

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, says American Evangelical Christians are in the midst of a “theological crisis.” At best, the crisis represents a major failure in Evangelical education; at worst, Rev. Mohler said, it represents a “repudiation of the Gospel.”

Strong talk. So what is this monumental crisis that so threatens Christendom? It is the fact that 52% of American Christians believe that non-Christians can get into heaven when they die.

The numbers come from a Pew follow-up survey run to double check an earlier survey they ran a few months ago. Critics of the first survey said that the original finding that 70% of Americans believed people of different faiths could get into heaven argued that this couldn’t be true among Christians. The new survey proved them wrong.

74% of non-Hispanic Catholics believe Heaven is open to nonChristians, as do 70% of white mainline Protestants.

Still holding the line, or better barring the door, are African Americans and white evangelical Protestants. 60% of Black Christians believe that Heaven lacks an Affirmative Action program and promotes a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to people of faiths other than their own, and 66% of white evangelicals hold to the hope that Heaven is a restricted country club.

But that still leaves over a third of both groups who do have an open-door vision of Heaven, and that should be enough to worry any old school believer in Jesus as the only way to Heaven.

I sympathize with the old-schoolers. Letting nonbelievers into Heaven is like letting nonJews into the Chosen People’s Party. Well that isn’t going to happen. We didn’t put up with exile, expulsions, Inquisitions, pogroms, and genocide for nothing. We suffer because God loves us best! In fact that’s how we know He loves us best: He lets people beat the crap out of us! And if they don’t do it, then He does it Himself. What a God.

I’m not ready to accept this survey without asking a few questions first: Like where are all the Hispanics? Why survey only non-Hispanic Catholics and Protestants? Did they do this survey on Cinco de Mayo or something? And why are black people so eager to keep other people out of heaven? You’d think they’d feel awkward sitting in Heaven’s Diner under a sign that said No Jews or Hindus Allowed.

Anyway, I’m sorry more and more Christians are becoming more open-minded. If they start teaching that anyone who lives a righteous life has a place in Heaven there won’t be much to separate them from us Jews, and then they might put pressure on us to let them into our members only Chosen People’s club. It’s easy for Jews to discriminate against Christians when Christians discriminate against us, but if they change we might have to change as well, and then everyone will be Chosen and then there won’t be anything cool about it. When everyone can wear Dolce & Gabbana it just isn’t Dolce & Gabbana anymore.

So please, Christians, get some backbone and bar those pearly gates to the nonbeliever. And if Peter won’t keep the riffraff on the other side of the velvet rope maybe it’s time to promote Torquemada.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Unfettered Hope

I pride myself in being rational. I pride myself in being realistic. And sometimes I hide from hope behind a veil of fearful sarcasm and jaded wisdom. But not today.

Today I watched President Obama take the oath of office. Today I watched a church filled with little black kids watch as two other little black kids prepare to move into the White House. Today I heard the call of my president to be what Americans are supposed to be: just, bold, compassionate, strong, and forever laboring in the fields of freedom. Today I cried as the oath was taken and again as Aretha sang, and again as the National Anthem was sung.

Today is not a day for fear or sarcasm. Today is a day for unfettered hope. God will bless America and all the world.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Giddy Over Gideon

This is the 110th anniversary of the Gideons, “an interdenominational association of Christian business and professional men who are members of Protestant/evangelical churches. Our members are dedicated to saving the lost through personal witnessing and the distribution of God's Word in more than 180 countries around the world.” These are the people who put Bibles in millions of hotel rooms around the world. I am a huge fan.

First I love the Bible, or at least those few lines that I consider compelling. Second, I can’t recount the number of times when I needed to look up a biblical passage during one of my weekend Bible seminars only to find I had forgotten to pack my own Bible. No worries, mate. Just open a drawer in a hotel room and voila! A Gideon Bible! True it is a Protestant Bible and therefore lacks some of the cooler books found only in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, but it is better than nothing.

The idea for donating Bibles to hotels came to John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill (who, I think, was already famous for coining the phrase “What in Sam Hill is going on around here?”) in the last years of the 19th century. The two men met in the autumn of 1898 at the Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin where they were forced to share a room due to overcrowding. I have no idea why there was not enough room at the inn, but it could have been because the town was about to launch its two most success franchises: Bosco chocolate syrup and Boscobel Mexican restaurants. The latter eventually changed its name to Tacobel and its slogan from “North of the Border” to “South of the Border.”

Exactly how it happened I don’t know, but I suspect the two men sharing a hotel room feared what most men forced to share a hotel room with other men fear: uncontrollable homoerotic urges, and needed to find a Bible to save them from their fantasies. Not finding one and wishing to save other men who might someday find themselves in this situation, the two men decided that no hotel room should ever be without a Bible. I agree. I would just put a pack of condoms alongside the Holy Book as well. I’m pro-life.

In any case, they created the Gideon organization in 1899, and it wasn’t long before hotels around the world started stocking their rooms with Gideon Bibles. The rest, as they say, is pre-apocalyptic history. But the world has changed since 1899. Two men sharing a hotel room is no longer a frightening ordeal, and the Bible is no longer the only world scripture worthy of hotel rooms.

Two years ago I was hired by Scarritt-Bennett, a fabulous 130 bed Nashville retreat center, to write a world scripture with commentary that would be published in small quarterly pamphlets and placed in their rooms alongside the Bible. With the collapse of the economy, the project came to an end, but the need for a World Bible is more pressing then ever. What we need is an Ethical Scripture drawn from the World’s Religions, an anthology of 365 daily readings that could be produced cheaply and donated to hotels around the world. At first the Book would be written in English, but I envision translating the book into Gaelic as well. Unfortunately I can’t afford to hire myself for this project. If you know people who can, please put them in touch with me. If you don’t, start sending pairs of men to stay in hotel rooms together and see what comes up.

Monday, January 12, 2009

An Open Letter to My Muslim Neighbors

I had hoped to publish a version of this letter in our local newspaper, but that never happened. I tried contacting my local Islamic Center several times, but they have not returned either phone calls or emails. Still I would like someone to read this, so you are it.

An Open Letter to My Muslim Neighbors

My heart is broken over the tragedy of Gaza. With you I am sickened by the mounting death toll and the rising number of wounded. And as a Jew who loves Israel I am sourly troubled by the fate of both our peoples.

I have friends in Israel living under daily threat of Hamas bombings, and yet I do not pretend to know the fear and anger that may be tearing at your hearts as well. I have been to Israel many times, and I take great pride in her creativity and democracy. I have also visited Palestine and feel deep sorrow over the harsh conditions imposed by Israeli occupation. I love my people and celebrate her accomplishments, but that cannot blind me to the pain and suffering her policies cause.

There is anger, frustration, and hatred running so deep in the fabric of so many lives in the Middle East that it is easy to excuse one side and demonize the other. But to do so only perpetuates the madness into which so much of the Middle East is spiraling.

The horror of violence, the injustice of occupation, the wickedness of terror, and even the faintest promise of peace and reconciliation should motivate Jews and Muslims to reach out to one another, to come together to share our fears, our grief, our anger, and our hope, and to discover in this sharing a common humanity that can provide us with a foundation for cooperation.

As children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah Arabs and Jews are blood cousins, sharing a common call to justice. As Jews and Muslims we are spiritual cousins, sharing a common vision of Allah/Yah as The Merciful, and The Compassionate. Compassion is at the root of both our traditions because compassion is at the heart of God. Justice and compassion together are what Judaism and Islam are all about. It must be what we Jews and Muslims are about as well.

I am sending you this letter as a gesture of friendship. I extend open hands and not clenched fists. I ask that whatever insanity takes hold in the Middle East you and I maintain sanity; that whatever evil is perpetrated in the name of God you and I see such acts as blasphemy; that no matter what words are used to excuse injustice, violence, terror, and exploitation you and I will not be taken in by them and will continue to stand for justice; that no matter how hard hearts become, you and I will forever soften them with compassion.

The Prophet Moses (PBUH) taught, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Let us pursue it together.

Friday, January 09, 2009

So Help Me God

With all the challenges facing the nation as Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office I almost forgot the most important one of all—the oath of office itself! On January 20th Mr. Obama will take the oath and conclude it with these fateful words: “So help me God,” and with that the democracy in these somewhat United States crumbles.

Or at least that seems to be the concern of one group of atheists that is trying to have the phrase banned from the proceedings.

It is thought that George Washington added these four words to the oath in a moment of impromptu piety. Contemporary scholars argue that there is no eyewitness account of Washington saying this, and that the earliest eyewitness account of any president using this phrase is from the New York Time’s report on the 1881 inauguration of Chester Arthur. My own research into the matter suggests that Washington actually concluded his remarks with “Allah be praised”, but I think I found that on Al Jazeera, so you might want to corroborate it.

Anyway, I am all for the separation of church and state, and if saying “So help me God” is a problem let’s strike it from the proceedings. Besides, given the evils we have perpetrated on ourselves and others over the past eight years, it may be a bit presumptuous to ask God to do anything until we have proven ourselves to be on a new track.

But removing “So help me God” from the oath may not be enough to save the nation. The religious are a creative sort, and can often find hidden meanings and messages in texts. Even without “So help me God” they may still find God in the oath. To be safe, I suggest we strike the letters G, O, and D from the oath altogether, and in that way preclude anyone from finding God in it. Let the oath be amended to read as follows:

I slemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the ffice f President f the United States an will, t the best f my ability, preserve, prtect, and efen the Cnstitutin f the United States s help me.

This makes me feel safer, but it still might not be enough. After all “God” is generic and believers have their own favorite Gods such as El, YHVH, ALLAH, KRISHNA, BRAHMA, VISHNU, SHIVA, and KALI to name a few of the major Gods. So to be perfectly safe we should eliminate these letters as well. I say let’s amend the oath to read:

w tt w ftf xct t ffc f Pt f t t tt w, t t t f t, p, ptct, f t Ctt f t t tt p

While this would be more difficult for Mr. Obama to pronounce, it would shorten the ceremony some and allow more time for partying. And who would object to that?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Watch Out

If you are reading this—which of course you are because you are reading this—try not to look like you're reading it. Play it cool. Be nonchalant about it. Read on, but don’t let on that you’re reading on. Even if you are alone, be cool. You are never alone. And that is what I need to tell you.

God is watching. No, seriously. God is watching. He is watching you all the time, no matter what you’re doing. The Guy never blinks, and never looks away. Creepy isn’t it? But don’t let on. You might piss Him off.

You see He demands that you love Him and your neighbor, but He wants this love to be genuine. Don’t love Him because He tells you to love Him. That’s not real love, that’s just following orders. So you have to love Him, but you have to love Him freely. The fact that you can’t link “have to” with “freely” is the really hard part of this. And that is why He is watching you.

Two psychologists at the University of British Columbia have proven that people behave nicer when they are being watched. This is true even if the eyes watching them aren’t real. They tacked a poster of a person over a charity jar and found that people donated three times as much money when the poster was up than when it wasn’t. Which proves that unless someone is watching or at least we feel like someone is watching we would be a lot worse than we are. And we are pretty bad as it is.

Maybe this is why people hang posters of their gods in their homes, or put god dolls around their rooms. Maybe this is why religions teach that God is watching us all the time. Do they know that unless we feel watched we would behave like wild murderous beasts? Do they know that we would be less apt to donate money to religious causes and institutions if we didn’t believe God was watching? I think they do.

But here’s my problem: I know God is looking, but I don’t know which God is looking. I know I’ve got to behave and to love God, but I can’t tell which God to love and obey.

I’m afraid that if I think it’s YHVH and it turns out to Allah, I’m screwed. Or if I think it’s the Catholic Jesus and it turns out to be the Southern Baptist Jesus, I’m doomed. I’m hoping it is the elephant headed God Ganesha because he seems so much more pleasant than the others, but who knows? I keep a stuffed Babar by my bed just in case.

Even if I did know which God was God, and then loved God because God told me to, then my love wouldn’t really be love at all, and I would still be doomed.

That’s why I don’t want God to see you reading this. Pretend you don’t know that God is watching, and pretend that your love is spontaneous and genuine and not just a ploy to avoid burning in Hell for all eternity. Oh, and pray that God is really really stupid so He won’t catch on. Oh, and pray that He doesn’t really hear your prayers so He won’t know you’re praying that He is really really stupid. OK. You can stop reading this, and hopefully no one noticed you ever did.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Where Would Darwin Davven?

Where Would Darwin Daven? This is the headline of an essay by Joshua Avedon in the Jewish Forward newspaper. I found the title intriguing; unfortunately it had nothing to do with the essay.

Avedon’s essay focused on a revival of the 1970’s Chavurah (Fellowship) movement, the Jewish equivalent to the house church movement among Christians. The demographics of both Jewish and Christian groups are similar: 20 and 30 somethings who find institutionalized religion boring and irrelevant. Avedon speaks of formal synagogues as suffering from “the kind of complacency and inbreeding typical of geographically isolated species,” and likens them to the blue-footed booby, a species of bird found on the Galapagos Islands; hence the headline’s reference to Darwin. His concern is with the survivability of the modern synagogue, and the future of Judaism, but he never tells us where Darwin would daven.

Of course Darwin wouldn’t daven anywhere, since davvenen (prayer) is a Jewish form of worship and Darwin was a Christian. But let’s not be so narrow. The real question is: Where can a scientifically sophisticated thinking Jew go to experience a liturgy that does not insult her intelligence?

With the exception of Humanistic Judaism, the liturgies of all other Jewish movements are variations on or direct extensions of ancient and medieval Jewish texts written by men whose understanding of the universe probably lags behind that of a modern well-educated eight year old. And even Humanistic Judaism, both the established movement and its refreshing reinvention by Rabbi Robert Barr and Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, OH (see focuses more on poetically couched psychological themes than hard science.

So where would Darwin daven? Probably nowhere. He, like me, would probably prefer a walk in the woods to responsive reading in an air-conditioned brick box. He, like me, would probably prefer the authentic sounds and sights of nature to secondhand references to them in books. He, like me, would probably prefer the mad ecstasy of nature to the orderly “joy” of choreographed religious services. He, like me, would probably prefer to sit under a tree by a babbling brook, and read short passages from Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, or Dickenson than plod through blank verse composed by a committee.

I don’t believe synagogues are the soon to be extinct boobies of Jewish life. What would life be without boobies? But I doubt that either conventional synagogues or the new chavurot will attract the Darwins among the Jews.

While synagogues experiment with form,trying to be more hip and entertaining, I wish we would also experiment with philosophy. I wish we would invent new understandings of God, Torah, and Israel rather than merely repeat or tweak the old ones. Where are the Bubers, Rosenzweigs, Heschels, Fromms, and Frankls of the 21st century? Why is it that all the great Jews who understood Darwin and the challenge of Darwinism had and have nothing to do with formal Judaism? It says something sad about us that we do not speak to these Yidden (Jews). It says something sad about us that we do not offer them a place in which to reinvent Judaism in tune with what is true rather than merely traditional.

I don’t care where Darwin would daven, but I would love to find the shul (synagogue) where Einstein would.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Top Ten Religion Stories 2008

The Religion Newswriters Association has posted its top ten religion stories for 2008: 1) Jeremiah Wright; 2) Obama woos evangelical vote; 3) Sarah Palin’s nomination for VP; 4) Gay marriage; 5) Pope Benedict XVI visits US; 6) Episcopal Church’s unity threatened by ordination of gay clergy; 7) religiously motivated terrorism; 8) China’s crackdown on Tibet; 9) financial crisis hits religious nonprofits; 10) religiously motivated violence continues in Iraq.

The list is solid, but as with any top ten list there are those stories left off. Here is my list of top ten religion stories of 2008 in their original headline form:

1) Man eats image of Jesus in grilled cheese sandwich; claims he is Christ.
2) Man stopped from burning witch sues under First Amendment.
3) Man receives Talking Hat from angel; hat refuses to speak.
4) Man claims Noah’s Ark is held in Area 51.
5) Crippled man cured at Lourdes hit by car while jaywalking.
6) Man draws mustachios on Shroud of Turin.
7) Man returns from dead, says he’s grateful.
8) Man channels John Keynes; seeks employment as economic advisor.
9) Man condemned by clergy for teaching God has a sense of humor.
10) Man in all these stories turns out to be same man.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year, New Project

Dear Toto Readers,

I tend to use special days such as this to review where I have been and rethink where I wish to go. I then use the day after special days like this to ignore that rethinking and return to my highly prized habits of yesteryear. Not that change is impossible. Change is inevitable. Control is impossible, at least for me. So last night I made my New Year Resolutions and this morning I broke them, or at least all but one of them.

The one I have not as yet shattered is my commitment to trying new on-line networking projects. So I have opened a Linked-in account, and started a Twitter series of, dare I say it, daily tweets. I am too old for this.

I have no idea what these tools are supposed to do for me, or how I can use them to feed my messiah complex, but I am inviting you to link with me on Linked-In and follow me on Twitter. The second is the more interesting: At least once each day I send out short (140 characters or less) proverbs of my own making called "Jaded Wisdom". If you want to see just how brilliant and brief I can be, log onto and sign up to get these faux pearls of genius.

In addition to my bald effort at self-promotion, I want to thank you all for reading and commenting on this blog. It is, as most blogs are, a labor of love and ego. Chances are I would write and publish it even if no one read it, but the fun of it is in knowing that you are reading it and hearing from those who choose to comment on it.

I hope 2009 is a constructive year for each of you.