Friday, August 21, 2009

Off Line until next week

I am teaching in Aspen, CO. all next week, and may not be able to post from there. Talk with you all when I get back.


There were a number of interesting articles in this past Monday’s USA TODAY (August 17, 2009). Here are three of them:

Lutherans Consider Same–Sex Clergy.

Aren’t all clergy same–sex? Do you know any clergy people who are more than one sex?

Mormons are Less Mans?

It is the responsibility of every Mormon male to go on a mission and bring the word of the Angel Maroni to the peoples of the earth. Good for them! But whether or not you think as Glenn Beck does that President Obama hates white people (which is only fair since Kanye West told us that President Bush hates black people), the Obama administration certainly has a Mormon problem.

It seems that they have decided not to count Mormons on missions outside the United States in the next US census. According to the Census Bureau there is no way to accurately count the reported (by me) two hundred million Mormon missionaries serving overseas. According to officials in Utah, not counting missionaries has and could again cost Utah its fair share of seats in the US House of Representatives.

Why would Obama do this to the Mormons? Could it have anything to do with the fact that until fairly recently taught that all black people were cursed? Or that it used to be easier for a dead Jew to be baptized as a Mormon (a practice the Mormon church insists it has ceased to perform, though my dead bubbe keeps knocking on my door with copies of the Book of Mormon in her hand) than for a live black man to join? Could it? Huh? It’s payback time, Joseph Smith! Deal with it!

Hello, My Name is Armageddon

I was watching GPS with Fareed Zakaria this past Sunday as he interviewed the Israeli Ambassador to the United States. When asked about Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons (shh, no one is supposed to know they have them, though the secret is revealed to every Jewish kid who becomes bat or bar mitzvah), he insisted that Israel would not be the first country to “introduce” nukes into the Middle East.

Asked what he meant given the fact that everyone knows Israel has a couple of hundred nukes (Fareed is a Muslim, but as a kid he attended lots of b’nai mitzvah parties and must have heard this from some loose-lipped Jewish kid), the ambassador kept repeating the word “introduce, introduce” as if Fareed didn’t understand the word.

Maybe he doesn’t. What the ambassador was saying that Israel has never introduced anyone to its missiles. Like, you know, “Mr. President this is our friend Nuke and his two hundred or so brothers and sisters.” No, Israel is one rude country, and its nukes just sit in a corner ignored by almost everyone. Except the Iranians. I think the Ayatollah went to a bar mitzvah or two himself.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What's Next

[The following questions came from a graduate student researching middle–aged clergy. The questions thoughtful, and I share my answers with you if only to get those of you who are my age (58) and older to think about how you might answer similar questions.]

What were your goals when you first graduated seminary, and how close have you come to reaching them? I had one goal when I graduated Hebrew Union College in 1981, and that was to create a Judaism in which I felt comfortable. That meant shifting from dualism (God as supernatural Other) to panentheism (God as all reality), which in turn required revisioning liturgy, holy days, and Torah to reflect that nondual theology.

I created my own synagogue to carry out my vision and achieve my goal, and stayed with that shul for twenty years. I would say the experiment was a success in that a thriving community arose around the ideas I was teaching. I have published these ideas in two books, Minyan and Open Secrets, published in 1997 and 2004, respectively.

How did mid–life impact your career, and how do you feel about it? My mid–life shift came around my fiftieth birthday in 2001. By then I had taken my synagogue work as far as I could, and I needed to do something else. I wanted to be free from communal obligations and limitations. I didn’t want to represent anything or anyone other than myself. So I left my shul and focused on my writing and speaking.

Writing has been my passion since seventh grade. I have published about fourteen books, written numerous essays and poems that have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, write a spiritual advice column for Spirituality & Health magazine, and have even had some of my short verse published as greeting cards. My writing has won several awards, and allowed me to reach thousands of people through both my books and articles, and the retreats and workshops I give based on them. So I would say the last decade has been very good to me.

What are your current goals and interests? How do plan to spend the second half of your life? Let me start with the second question. I think it is a mistake to divide one’s life in halves. Given that three of my grandparents were long–lived, and that both my parents are alive and well in their mid–eighties, I expect that, barring anything unforeseen, I will live into my eighties. That means I am not in the second half of my life, but in the final third. [Notice I have no problem with dividing life into sections, I just think three is better than two. Hindus prefer four to three, and that deserves some consideration as well.]

The first third of my life was devoted to earning the credentials that would allow me to do whatever it was I was going to do with the second third of my life. The second third was devoted to making my mark on the world these credentials opened to me. I did this by creating my synagogue, and writing books, music, liturgy—everything for which I am currently known. But the final third…. Hmmm.

Here is what I know so far:

1. I have no interest in going backwards. That is to say, I cannot foresee taking on any kind of communal responsibility. Nor do I wish to be a guru of any sort. I am a seeker, and have desire to either lead or follow.

2. While I imagine I will continue to write books, I question whether or not this is a backward move. Does the world need yet another book? Are books the right vehicle for reaching the twenty and thirty–somethings I hope to reach? The future isn’t the printed page, but the third screen—the pocket Internet platform we anachronistically call a phone. My fledgling efforts on YouTube along with my seemingly never ending Holy Rascals film project may be more indicative of my creative future than anything I have done in the past.

3. Judaism is no longer my primary focus. While I continue to study and teach about Judaism, I have long been drawn to more interfaith settings. Yet interfaith gatherings, even the larger spectacle–oriented events, are too often simplistic compare and contrast affairs that bore me. This is because I have been blessed with, and spoiled by, teachers who point toward a post-religious Interspirituality that honors one’s religion of origin even as it focuses on an unbounded quest for meaning rooted more in mythopoetics and scientific cosmology rather than in neo–tribal partisanship and pre–modern theologies.

4. This means I am searching for what’s next for me. I have made peace with being a Jew, but I refuse to let Judaism define me. I certainly don’t want to take on any other label. So where I go from here, I have no idea. Not–knowing isn’t a bad thing. It may be the blessing of the final third of life. And yet I admit to finding not–knowing anything but comforting. It isn’t that I am choosing not to know, it is that I have no choice but not to know.

So here is what I don’t know:

1. I don’t know if I will publish another book after the next two (The Angelic Way and Tanya: A Guide for Inbetweeners). And I don’t know if I care to.

2. I don’t know if I will make more short videos, though I hope to.

3. I don’t know if I will create a killer spiritual app for the iPhone or Blackberry, though I am working on it.

4. I don’t know if I will find a way a way to more deeply honor and engage with those teachers who have continued to shape my thinking since the 1960’s—Ramana Maharshi, Martin Buber, Alan Watts, and J. Krishnamurti—but I want to.

So, the bottom–line for me is this: I had goals and I achieved them. For that I am blessed and grateful. If I die today I can honestly say I did not live in vain. (Which is not to say I did not live vainly.) As for the rest—I just don’t know.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Parental Rights and Wrongs

What limits, if any, must be placed on a parent’s “right” to raise a child? I was in Portland, OR a couple of weeks ago working on my Holy Rascals film project. The local paper was abuzz with a jury’s verdict regarding Carl and Raylene Worthington who chose to heal their 15-month-old daughter, Ava, spirituality rather than medically. Ava died. Deadlocked for days, the jury finally acquitted the couple of all manslaughter charges, and found Carl Worthington guilty of a misdemeanor.

I don’t want to argue the verdict. I want to explore the idea behind it. Are parents allowed to suffer their children to bear the burden of the parent’s faith? Ava died not because of what she believed, but because of what her parents’ believed. Do parents have the right to do this?

And what about instilling your beliefs in your child as they mature? I taught my son that he is a Jew, and along with that identity comes serious obligations. He is a member of a tribe that is often hated and hunted. He is often associated with Israeli policies with which he has no connection and shares no love. Had I not told him that he was a Jew, would any of this be true?

What about parents who instill in their children the notion of Original Sin? My son doesn’t suffer from this particular spiritual disease, and has no need of the Cure: belief in Jesus as Christ. Are those who infect their children with sin doing the right thing? Are those who tell their children there is no such thing at fault?

I know children who were told from early on that the earth is only ten thousand years old and that humans coexisted with and even road on the backs of dinosaurs. Is this not a form of child abuse? Are these kids not handicapped in a world that is rooted in what former President George W. Bush dismissively called the “reality based community”? And if it is, it is any less insane than teaching your child that wrong beliefs (i.e. beliefs that mom and dad call wrong) send you to hell? Or that God gave a strip of land to the Jews and they have a right to divest it of those who lived in it for centuries?

Do parents’ have the right to teach children whatever they please? Does the child have no right to truth? If, when it comes to the physical welfare of a child, the government is apt to intervene and at least try to hold parents responsible for their child’s welfare, why not do so when it is the child’s intellectual welfare is at state as well?

Please share your thoughts on this.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ten Thoughts

I woke up this morning and these ten thoughts just gripped my fingers and controlled the keys. Here they are as raw and unedited as they came to me. Comments welcome.

Judaism is the invention of the Jew. Different Jews invent different Judaisms. There never was, nor will there ever be, just one Judaism.
• • •
The Jew is the invention of the Torah. Torah is the story of the Jews, and there are no Jews without this story. But Torah is also the invention of the Jew. Hence the Jews invented themselves.
• • •
The Jews invented God. Well, not GOD, but YHVH, their God. Different Jews, different Gods. Priestly Jews invented a spectacle¬–hungry God who loves priestly pomp and power. Prophetic Jews invented a righteous God who hates what the Priestly God loves, and demands justice and compassion instead. Rabbinic Jews invented a lawyer God who loves legal wrangling and obedience to rabbinic law. Secular Jews invented a doubting God who denied even Himself. Zionist Jews invented a realtor God who loved land more than law, especially now—Century 21 indeed!
• • •
All gods are as real as those who invent them, as powerful as those who profit from them, and as immortal as those who worship them.
• • •
Christian Jews invented a powerless God. Can you imagine YHVH hanging from a cross? The YHVH who terrorized the Egyptians and slaughtered their firstborn sons being captured, scourged, and crucified by Romans? Of course not. Jesus was the son of a powerless God worshipped by a powerless people who, since they couldn’t save their sons, invented a God who couldn’t save his either.
• • •
The God of Jesus eschews power, for Jesus had none. And the God of his followers eschewed power until they get some.
• • •
While the early Christians embraced death and their crucified God, elevating martyrdom to the greatest mitzvah, the Jews imagined new life into their old Warlord and went to war. But imagination wasn’t sufficient, and Rome won.
• • •
This should have been the end of the Jews, but it wasn’t. They imagined differently, and YHVH went from a God who rewards those he loves to a God who tests (read allows to be hounded, hunted, brutalized, tortured, and gassed) those he loves. The Jews imagined a Divine Batterer and loved him all the more for it. Jews imagined themselves as the Bride of YHVH, and made a religion out of Battered Wife Syndrome. Maybe that’s why we invented psychotherapy?!?
• • •
Today the questions are these: Will the battered become the batterers? Can the Jewish imagination invent a new Jew, a new Torah, a new God, a new future? Or are we too old, too tired, too tied to what was to imagine what might yet be?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Danger of Difference

Two weeks ago I attended an interfaith gathering in Portland, OR. The purpose of the gathering was to introduce people to the Parliament of the World’s Religions and encourage us to attend this year’s Parliament in Australia. It was a nice enough gathering with the usual collection of well-intentioned people peppered with a smattering of socially functional schizophrenics. One conversion I had with a member of the former group proved most interesting.

A sixty-something woman who has devoted the latter part of her life to promoting interfaith understanding told me that she was tired of gatherings such as this where we all put on our most polite faces, unpacked our most humble theological positions, and pretended that all religions are rooted in and pointing toward the same truth. “I would prefer,” she told me, “to speak about the differences among the world’s religions rather than their supposed similarities.”

I smiled, nodded in a noncommittal manner, and hoped the subject would pass. It didn’t. She pressed me for an opinion. I gave her one, unfortunately it was my own.

I don’t think people who come to interfaith gatherings are really interested in learning about other religions, but only in learning how other religions jibe with their own. Isn’t it wonderful: we all want to end poverty, homelessness, inequality, and fix the environment! But do we? Look at countries like Iran, Iraq, and Israel—countries that define themselves to one degree or another by religion. Are these nations paragons of environmental health? Have they eliminated poverty, homelessness, and inequality? Or look at the United States, ostensibly a secular state, yet one with a population that describes itself as overwhelmingly religious: are we exemplars of virtue?

So even on those subjects where we pretend to take a real interest, we actually do very little. If we were to open the can of worms called “difference” would that help? If Jew were honest and admitted that Judaism’s notion that Jews are God’s Chosen People elevates Jews above all others in the eyes of God, would that help interfaith cooperation? If Christians who believed that Jesus Christ is the only way, life, and truth affirmed that faith and admitted that this means all other religions are false, would our dialogue improve? If Buddhists really made it clear that there is no soul, would those whose religions depend on the existence of souls be any more inclined to carry on a conversation? Would it improve relations between Islam and Christianity if Muslim attendees at interfaith gatherings voiced the central Muslim idea that the very thought of God having a son is anathema?

Of course not. Interfaith dialogue as most people practice it is built on a foundation of voluntary silence: everyone agrees to remain silent about the beliefs they hold when those beliefs contradict those of other religions. I suspect that if real issues of belief were broached at most interfaith gatherings the dialogue would end immediately.

Most people I encounter at most interfaith gatherings want to believe that everyone else believes just what they believe only they use different words to say it. Given this premise, there really isn’t much dialogue going on at these gatherings at all.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Does Jonny Z Have Rights?

I don’t like to argue, though I do like to rant. When I found myself in a conversation on “Right to Life” issues the other day I did my best to avoid both. It went something like this:*

Him: “I’m pro-life.”

Me: “Me too.”

Him: “I believe that life begins at conception.”

Me: “Me too.”

Him: “I believe that all humans have rights.”

Me: “Me too.”

Him: “I am pro-family and I believe that children are happier being brought up by two loving parents than by one loving parent.”

Me: “Me too, though by this logic three loving parents would be even better, and four better still; and that one loving parent is better than ½ of a loving parent, or one loving parent and one abusive parent, or one loving parent and a Great Ape, or two Great Apes no matter how loving (Tarzan being the sole exception, his adopted mom being a loving Great Ape).”

This last response was a bit much, and by the look on the other fellow’s face I should have shut up. But I didn’t. God help me, I ranted:

Me: “While I agree with you on these issues, for the life of me I can’t see how these beliefs help me any when dealing with the cultural landmines of our times.

“Take our belief that a human zygote has rights. OK, what rights? Right to life. OK, what kind of life? Does it have a right to clean air, clean water? Maybe not, since zygotes don’t breathe or drink. How about the right to a decent education? No, zygotes have less consciousness than a turnip. How about the right to live in a healthy womb, and the right not to be poisoned by a mom who smokes, drinks, does drugs, breathes polluted air, and drinks unclean water? This seems basic to me, and yet mom has a right to smoke and drink, and has little control over the air she breathes and the water she drinks. So do little Jonny Zygote’s rights really matter?

“Having rights tells us very little. Jonny Zygote’s right to a smoke-free womb conflicts with Mommy’s right to smoke-filled lungs. How do we decide who wins?

“And what about the case where Jonny’s life will take mommy’s life? Why should his right to life trump her right to life? Shouldn’t the ‘last hired, first fired’ rule work in this situation, or does seniority have no meaning when it comes to the right to life?

“And what if mommy is mommy to others, and also cares for an aged and ailing grandma or grandpa? What if Jonny Z. has a birth defect that will wipe out his family’s finances? Does he have the right to rob his family of the finances they need to survive? Is it right that his need for medication and care trumps similar needs for grandma and grandpa? Or are you for socialized medicine as well as right to life?”

Him: “No socialized medicine is Communist and Canadian.”

Me: “Right, so we have to ration health care to those who can afford it, and Jonny Z hasn’t got a dime, so let’s take care of mom and her parents first. At least they’ve earned it.”

Him: “But we can’t just kill the unborn babies!”

Me: “But does that mean we have to let the unborn kill the long–ago born? Or what if Jonny Z’s condition will rob his two-year-old sister of healthcare she desperately needs? Is being two a crime? Does being unborn trump being born in every case? My point is that rights are irrelevant. When we talk about rights we have to talk about competing rights, and do you want the government deciding whose rights take precedence?”

Him: “No way. I want the government out of our lives altogether!”

Me: “Me too. So let’s just leave the government out of all moral decisions.”

Him: “Sounds good to me.”

Me: “So no more government interference with marriage, end-of-life issues, abortion, or any other matter that is really between a person and her conscience. I had no idea you were such a liberal. Must be tough living here in Middle Tennessee.”


Me: ☺

*This is based on an actual conversation, though it is recalled from memory.