Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm a Rabbi Because...

“Aren’t you awfully cynical to be a rabbi?”

The question came from a fellow in a Torah class I was teaching in Nashville.

“You say religion is all about power. How cynical is that? I would think a rabbi would have something far more positive to say about religion in general, and certainly about Judaism in particular. Perhaps you shouldn’t be a rabbi any longer.”

It’s true: you would think that. Who wouldn’t think that? Rabbis are supposed to say things like: The Jews are God’s Chosen People; The Torah is God’s one true revelation; Israel is the Promised Land. I, on the other hand, can’t help but see such statements as marketing propaganda.

If you’re going to imagine a god who chooses people, it isn’t surprising that you imagine this god choosing you. If you’re going to imagine a god who reveals truth in a book, it isn’t surprising that you would imagine this book is your book. And if you’re going to imagine a god who dabbles in real estate, it isn’t surprising that you would imagine that your land is in fact the Promised Land.

What would be surprising—and perhaps far more convincing—would be if the Jews thought God chose someone else, wrote something else, and lived somewhere else.

And what about my notion that religious institutions are all about power? Can they be about anything else? By and large, religions are patriarchal hierarchies that demand do whatever it is that the clergy’s god wants. And what their god wants most of all is for them to do what the clergy say.

I’m not saying that religions cannot and do not do good in the world; they can and they do. I am only saying that doing good is not why they were created. Is this cynicism or honesty? I think it is the latter. So should being honest drive me out of the rabbinate? Not just yet.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are iconoclasts, shattering the past against the sharp rocks of creative imagination.

I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are heirs to the prophets and their passion for justice, and not the priests and their obsession with ritual and purity.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are meaning–makers.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis reinvent the past as a means of creating the future.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are willing to kill the old gods and invent the new gods by rewriting the old stories to make them new stories.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are willing to speak truth to power, even when that power holds their financial future in its hands.

True, we are not always at our best. But many of us are, and the rest can always hope.
So I will continue to do what I think rabbis are supposed to do: teach truth as best we can regardless of where is leads us.

Friday, June 17, 2011

From Birkenstocks to Burkhas

I hate the idea of enslaving women to the mores and power of men. I want women to make their own choices regarding every aspect of their lives, and I will defend to the death of someone younger, poorer, and less able to avoid being sent to die in one of our seemingly endless imperialist wars than I, their right to do so.

But what do I do when they choose badly? It is one thing, for example, to hate the burka when it is imposed on women by men, and another thing to hate it when women freely choose to wear it. No, I’m not talking about Muslim women. I have my doubts that Saudi women are any more free regarding the clothes they wear then they are regarding the cars they drive.

I am talking about Jewish women. I learned from Miriam Shaviv’s column in the April 29th issue of the Forward that there is a small movement of ultra–Orthodox women in Israel who have taken to wearing the burka as a sign of modesty. Their men are not asking them to do this, let alone forcing them. Indeed, in 2005 a rabbinic court granted a divorce to one man married to a burka wearing wife on the grounds that any Jewish women who took modesty that far suffered from a “serious mental disturbance.”

The burkah babes are followers of Bruria Keren, a convicted child abuser who wears ten layers of clothing whenever she leaves her home. They argue that their fashion choice is a statement of modesty and choice. Ms. Shaviv disagrees seeing it instead as the logical extension of the male imposition of modesty on women. She sights the fact that ultra–Orthodox women must wear high necklines, thick colored stockings, long sleeves, and wigs, and that they are being asked to wear rubber soled shoes so as not to disturb men when they walk by. It is a small step from Birkenstocks to burkhas.

Maybe so. But since most Jewish women choose not to wear burkhas, I can’t help but think that those who do are doing so of their own free will.

So while I would like to use the burkha as a sign of women’s oppression in some Islamic societies, I cannot do so when it comes to some Jewish ones. Given this double standard, perhaps I should stop using it as a sign of anything.

I would love to hear from you about this. Are burkahs always a sign of oppression? What about male imposed modesty laws in general? What about restaurants demanding that patrons wear shirts and shoes when entering (exposing one’s genitals and butt is still OK)? Maybe we should all just go nude as sign of our freedom? I hope some of you agree with that. I hope most of you don’t.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Voting of the Damned: Why I Like Gov. Rick Perry for President

Despite Herman Cain’s and Michelle Bachmann’s strong performances last night at the GOP Presidential Debates, if he runs for president, Texas Governor Rick Perry has my vote.

I voted for hope and change in the last presidential election, and, as Dr. Phil (the only doctor my insurance company will pay for) says, “How's that working for ya?”

I voted for peace, and we went from two wars to five (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen). I voted to curb extremist capitalism, and we only fed it. I voted for a new approach to empire and the environment and got more of the same. I voted for FDR and a new WPA and, well, you get the idea.

So this time around I’m voting for a man who offers me no hope and no change. At least that way I won’t be disappointed. Here is the Governor’s main selling point for me at the moment:

Governor Perry has called all governors to join him on August 6 for a day of prayer and fasting. This will be, he assures us, an "apolitical Christian prayer service" sponsored by the American Family Association. Right there he’s got me. A Christian only prayer service. That’s honest: America is a Christian Nation with Christian leaders following the Christian god. Of course Catholics, Jews and Muslims and other nonChristians can live here, but let’s not let them run the place. It gets better.

Governor Perry’s event has adopted the AFA's platform that, among other things, affirms the infallibility of the Bible (Science? Please, what has science ever done for us?); the centrality of Jesus Christ (There is only one god and JC is It, so enough of this ecumenical nonsense); and the eternal damnation of all nonbelievers. This last is the part I love the most.

Here’s is Governor Perry’s motto: “No hope (for salvation) unless you change (to my religion).” I admire a politician who is upfront and honest, and what is more upfront and honest then telling me that he expects me and everyone I love to burn in Hell for all eternity unless I convert to his religion?

Of course aligning himself with a god that will torment me forever in the next world suggests that President Perry won't care much about me in this world. I can hear him now, "Healthcare for Jews? They're going to burn in Hell anyway. Let 'em die." Nothing confusing there. Simple. Honest. Straightforward. What's not to like?

So, Governor, assuming you run, and you aren't raptured before Election Day, and I’m not burning in Hell on Election Day, and the GOP hasn’t yet figured out a way to keep Jews, Blacks, the elderly, the young, and the poor from voting at all, you've got my vote.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Westboro Church Coming to Nashville JCC

This Monday the good people of the Westboro Baptist Church are coming to the Nashville Jewish Community Center to sing these words to the tune of Hatikva, the Israeli National Anthem:

Christ is soon returning
to take you from this land

You won't obey Him
or do what he commands.
Wrath will soon pour on you,
for your awful sins

Your great affliction,
it will soon begin.

All the nations, on Israel will march.

You're not Zion, no hope in your heart.

You killed the Savior, for this sin you all must pay.

Those who fear God, come out from them - To Day.

Based on the last line, the intent of this hymn is to call Jews out of our ignorance and into the true faith as Westboro Baptists understand it. I don’t think it will work. Let’s take a closer look at the hymn to see why.

Christ is soon returning to take you from this land
 Actually no. If Christ returns he will take Christians from this land and lift them into Heaven. Jews he will leave behind to deal with later. Of course if the Jewish messiah comes he will take Jews from America and bring them to Israel. I’m looking forward to this seeing as I can’t afford to fly there on my own.

You won't obey Him or do what he commands. True. Most Jews just don’t take God and mitzvot all that seriously. We used to, but after two exiles, the Inquisition, innumerable pogroms, the Holocaust, and the endless wars against Israel we just got tired.

Wrath will soon pour on you, for your awful sins/Your great affliction, it will soon begin.
Yeah, this is pretty much our standard worldview as well.

All the nations, on Israel will march.
Yep, we’ve been saying that for centuries as well. As far as we’re concerned the Arab Spring just might turn out to be an Arab springboard for an all out war on Israel and world Jewry.

You're not Zion, no hope in your heart.
 This makes no sense. We are ZIONists, and HOPE is our anthem. It is the very tune they are singing.

You killed the Savior, for this sin you all must pay. While we might quibble that the Romans killed Jesus, certainly there were some Jews at the time who were down with that. But the fact is God isn’t punishing Jews for killing Jesus. God sends people to Hell for not accepting the right brand of Christianity and get the Get Out Of Hell Free Card that comes with it.

Those who fear God, come out from them - To Day. Most Jews are fairly agnostic on the God thing, and those who do fear God worry more about improperly killing a cow than illegally killing Jesus, so I doubt this is going to get the Westboro folks many converts.

All in all, then, the Westboro hymn is going to fall on deaf ears, and not simply because most of the Jews at the JCC at the time of the Westboro visit are old and deaf anyway. After you've survived the Nazis, a gaggle of Christians singing a silly song just isn't going to do much.

Even if the Westboro folks were coming just to remind us that God hates Jews just as much as they believe God hats fags (see their website, they would still fail. We already know this about God and gays. After all when it comes to God killing Jews, and calling homosexuality an abomination, we wrote the Book.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Other Weiner Story, or, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, but My Foreskin Stayed with Me

A San Francisco initiative to outlaw circumcision for both girls and boys makes being Jewish in the city all the more challenging. I mean how can a Jew be a Jew without serving up one's penis to God? Yes, there seems to be the obvious exemption of fore skinning for girls, but women are exempted from many of the cooler aspects of traditional Jewish life like praying three times a day, wearing tefillin, and testifying in court?

You might think there will be a religious exemption to the San Francisco law based on the First Amendment, but this isn't always reliable. For example the government outlawed polygamy, and in 1944 the Supreme Court ruled that parents could martyr themselves on religious grounds but could not martyr their children as well.

If the intactivists (I didn't make that up) have their way, the Jews of Frisco will have to circumcise in secret or slip out of the city to have our penises whacked.

As always challenges such as these give rise to entrepreneurial ventures. I am exploring building a fleet of medical vans especially outfitted for ritual circumcisions. Called Cut 'n Run, these vans will whisk a Jewish family outside the San Francisco city limits where the van will park while the ritual circumcision is performed. The van will then return the family home where a catered meal and invited guests are awaiting them.

Of course the city will add Penis Patrols to their police departments to try and prevent my vans from making it out of the city, but I plan to paint cute dogs on the sides of my vans so that they look like dog grooming and exercise trucks, something no self respecting San Franciscan could oppose.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers

While it is common for some US Christians to complain about the Muslim war against Christianity, we rarely hear about the Christian war against Buddhism.

My friend Dr. Paul Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, reports of fundamentalist Korean Christians attacking Buddhist monasteries and shrines to conduct exorcisms of images of the Buddha, and marching around shrines claiming the land for Christ.

A bit of research revealed that this has been going on for decades as South Korea becomes more and more Christian, with the Korean government, police, and army coming under Christian rule and being used to destroy Buddhist shrines and conduct “heavy and violent” propaganda campaigns against Buddhism.

You can see photos of the destruction at

This is what we can expect in any country that falls under the control of fundamentalists of any faith. While it is vital that we distinguish between violent fundamentalism and saner liberal varieties of religion, it is important that we stand against fundamentalism.

As my Christian and Jewish friends demand that liberal Muslims speak out against their violent fundamentalist strains, we should be no less demanding of Jews and Christians regarding their own crazy cousins.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Dhimmis More

As the on-going war against Islam continues in Middle Tennessee, I was asked recently how I thought we ought to treat our Muslim neighbors. When my suggestion that we do unto others as we would want others to do unto us was dismissed as Socialism, I suggested we adopt a Tennessee version of the eighth century Pact of Umar.

Under the Pact of Umar Jews and Christians were dhimmis—protected subjects. Jews and Christians were guaranteed the right to practice their religions and to own property, though they were not allowed to build new churches or synagogues, or repair old ones. They were forbidden to hold public religious parades, or proselytize; they couldn’t strike a Muslim, bear arms, or ride horses, and they had to wear clothing that set them apart from the Muslim population. In time new rules were added and Jews and Christians were prevented from building homes taller than those of Muslims, from taking Muslim names, studying the Qur’an, selling alcohol, and serving in the government. And they had to pay a special tax so that they, along with Muslims who are taxed to support the community, would do the same.

So why not pass a bill that offered Muslims the same rights in Christian America as Christians had in Muslim lands? It really would solve a lot of problems here in the mid-state:

1.Allowing Muslims to practice Islam puts us in line with the 1st Amendment
2.Forbidding Muslims from building or repairing mosques ends the debate over mosques in TN
3.Forbidding parades and proselytizing (by Muslims but not of Muslims) would ease the fears of those who worry that Islam is taking over Tennessee
4.Forbidding Muslims from hitting Christians and bearing arms ends Islamic terrorism
5.Many Muslims already wear distinctive clothes, so making it mandatory is no big deal, and
6.Keeping Muslims out of government would ease any worries about Muslims using our democracy to impose their theocracy before we can use our democracy to impose our theocracy

I would make a few changes to the Pact of Umar, however. For example, no special taxes should be levied, as Muslim Americans pay the same tax as other Americans who lack the funds to lobby for and exploit exemptions that permit them to pay little or not taxes. I don’t care if Muslims ride horses, or sell alcohol. I would also permit them to name their kids Matthew, Mark, Luke, John if they want to, and build any size house they can afford, assuming there is no objection from any local mega-church groups. I would also allow Muslims to study the Bible as this might bring them closer to Christ.

So how about it? A Pact of Umar for Tennessee’s Muslims? Our Muslim citizens couldn’t complain about that—it was their idea. Let me know.