Saturday, September 24, 2011

Interfaith and Abrahamic Faith

I got an interesting email from an NGO promoting interfaith efforts around the United States. As founder and director of Wisdom House, an interfaith center in Nashville, I am all for such efforts. What I found interesting, however, was the opening line of the promo:

“Religious diversity is an essential value in many faiths, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism.”


The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there is only one true faith, and the Jews have it. If biblical Jews had any interest in other religions it was to destroy them, and while rabbinic Judaism lacked the power to continue in that vein, and with some amazing Medieval Jewish-Sufi exceptions, I don’t see where the rabbis were all that eager to claim equality with other religions. 

Jesus in the New Testament doesn’t sound like a universalist to me: “I am the way and the truth and the life, No one comes to the Father except through me,” (John 14:6). And the Catholic Church’s extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation) doesn’t sound all that welcoming of interfaith.

And while the Qur’an does say “Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other,” (The Qur'an , 49:13), Islam still argues that the Qur’an is the only uncorrupted revelation from God, and Judaism and Christianity are less than perfect faiths.

So are interfaith efforts really part of mainstream Abrahamic thinking? I don’t think so.  If religious diversity were really an essential value in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, why would we need an NGO to promote it?

Let’s be honest: no religion is all that interested in any other religion, and authentic interfaith dialogue, dialogue that could lift us out of our respective boxes and into a more universalist frame of mind and heart, is revolutionary and subversive work. Which is why it is so desperately needed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jewish Fall Holy Days

We Jews are in the early weeks of our fall holy day period. There are three parts to this season that are of spiritual interest: Selichot, Yamim Noraim, and Sukkot.

The month of Elul is the final month of the Jewish liturgical calendar, and is devoted to the practice of selichot, seeking forgiveness. While Jews do teach about the importance of forgiving others, our primary focus is on asking others to forgive us.

When we ask forgiveness we humble ourselves, and when we humble ourselves over the hurts we have caused others, we are more willing to forgive the hurts others have caused us. Throughout the month of Elul and even more intensely during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe from Rosh haShanah to Yom Kippur) we approach family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and others with whom we interact and say, “If I have hurt you in any way knowingly or unknowingly, advertantly or inadvertently, I ask your forgiveness.”

What if the other person refuses to forgive us? We must ask again. How many times must we ask? While Jesus said we must ask 490 times (7 x 70, Matthew 18:22), our rabbis capped it at three. If after sincerely asking forgiveness three times the other still refuses, God will forgive you, and the matter, at least as far as you are concerned is settled.

Rosh haShanah, the first of the Days of Awe, is the anniversary of creation, and our time to honor God, the Source of Creation. (This year Rosh haShanah begins at sundown on September 28th) For me God is the Source and Substance of all reality, and Rosh haShanah is the time when I remember that all life is a unique yet temporary manifestation of God the way each ray of sunlight is a unique and temporary manifestation of the sun. I use Rosh haShanah as a time to realign my life with creation so that my living is in service to all life.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (At-One-ment, October 7th at sundown) is the culmination of all this effort. We have made peace with our neighbor, peace with nature, and now it is time to make peace with God.

For me, making peace with God is about remembering that God isn’t about salvation or damnation, reward or punishment. God is about reality for God is reality. I make peace with God by realizing that life is wild, unpredictable, often horrifying, and yet always hopeful. I remind myself to not expect things to be other than they are, and to be thankful for all that they are. With this act of radical acceptance comes radical forgiveness, and, for me, this is what Yom Kippur is all about.

A few days after Yom Kippur we celebrate Sukkot (October 12 at sundown), our holy week celebrating the fall harvest. We build and dwell in flimsy booths (sukkah/sukkot, plural) to remind ourselves of our nomadic origins, our wanderings in Sinai, our sheltering of both harvesters and harvest during the autumn ingathering, and the fragility of life. We decorate our sukkot with fruit, give thanks for the earth’s bounty in a ceremony of waving lulav (a palm front bound with myrtle and willow branches) and etrog (fruit of a citron tree), study the Book of Ecclesiastes, and share meals with friends during the week.

The harvest decorations remind us of the power of fertility even in the midst of fragility. Eating with friends reminds us that friendship is best way to navigate the chaos of life. And studying Ecclesiastes links all of this to a way of life: eating and drinking in moderation, finding meaningful work, and cultivating strong friendships.

This is a challenging season for Jews both logistically and spiritually. There is lots to do, and much to ponder. And while the doing may be for Jews, the pondering is a good idea for everyone.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jews for Krishna

The fall issue of Reform Judaism magazine contains a passionate, even angry, attack on Jesus, Krishna, and John Lennon’s “Imagine” by Dr. Ze’ev Maghen of Bar-Ilan University. The essay is adapted from his book John Lennon and the Jews. I looked the book up on Amazon and it supposed to be an emotionalist appeal to Jews to love Judaism. I didn’t feel the love.

 In the essay, Dr. Maghen writes about meeting Israeli Hare Krishnas at Los Angeles Airport (LAX). After a few moments comparing notes about life in Israel, he wants to know why these Jews have dropped Torah for Gita. They explain that their new religion is better than their own religion, which drives Dr. Maghen crazy. The Krishnas reply in kind, and yet another opportunity for real meeting and dialogue is lost in the haze of emotionalism. Somehow this leads him to John Lennon.

 Dr. Maghen doesn’t want to imagine there’s no hell…nothing to kill or die for…no countries …no religion, etc. Me, I am more Lennon than Lubavitch. In fact I’m more Lennon than Lennon—I don’t have to imagine there’s no heaven or hell, I know there’s no heaven or hell; I think religion and politics are human inventions, and heaven and hell are just carrot and stick used to keep people in the fold. While I would be willing to die to save lives, and can imagine myself killing someone to protect lives, killing and dying for abstractions like religion doesn’t appeal to me at all.

True, I find the idea of “living for today” shallow, preferring to live in the moment rather than for the moment, all-in-all I like Lennon’s song. Anyway, Hare Krishnas don’t agree with Lennon either, so what’s the fuss all about?

My real problem with Dr. Maghen: He writes, "I passionately believe we ought to subordinate head to heart and rationality to emotionalism" (p. 213); "So far from being a function of logical or pragmatic thinking, Jewishness today is both a product and a producer of passion” (p. 248); and “love is a better motivation than Truth" (p.261). I believe just the opposite, and prefer head to heart, reason to emotion, logic to passion, and Truth to love. People who don’t often scare the crap out of me.

Here’s my advice to Dr. Maghen: The next time you meet Jews who have left Judaism talk with them don’t yell at them. Ask them why they left? Ask them what they found in their new faith that they couldn’t find in their old faith? Share in a passionate but nonjudgmental way why Judaism works for you. We can learn much from those who leave the faith.

And here’s my advice to Jewish Hare Krishna’s: stay away from LAX.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Future Looks Bright

The Palestinian Authority is pushing the United Nations to declare Palestine an independent state in 2011 the way it did for Israel in 1948. They have further announced through their ambassador to the UN, Maen Areikat, that this new state will be Judenrein, literally, clean of all Jews. The last leader of a state speak this way regarding Jews was Adolph Hitler.

Not surprisingly Israel is resisting this effort, and counting on the United States to veto what is most likely an inevitable General Assembly endorsement of an independent Jew-Free Palestinian State. This is, in my view, the exact opposite of what should be done. Here is my suggestion:

First, rather than resist the declaration, Israel should announce that if the UN decrees an independent State of Palestine, Israel will the first state to recognize it. Once established, Israel will then demand that the new state negotiate borders with Israel. Lots of neighboring countries have border disputes that are settled amicably. Take India and Pakistan for example.

Second Israel should agree with Ambassador Areikat about Palestine being Jew-free. As the ambassador implied, if Palestine has even one Jew the Palestinian people will be unable to define themselves. The same is true of Israel. As Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the General Assembly just over a year ago, “A final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has to be based on a program of exchange of territory and populations.” Lots of neighboring countries have amicable population exchanges. Take India and Pakistan for example.

Finally, Israel should make it clear that as a sovereign state Palestine is now responsible for the acts of terror its citizen commit against Israel. Rocket attacks from Gaza, for example, must now be considered an act of war. Just as the United States held the Taliban responsible for the acts of Al-Quaeda and used that as justification for conquering Afghanistan and establishing its own pro-US government, Israel will have every right under international law to do the same once Hama resumes rocket attacks on Israel after the declaration of an independent State of Palestine.

Give the increase in anti-Israel sentiments in newly democratic Egypt and other Arab countries, this declaration of war will no doubt bring about a full fledged Arab attack on Israel. Given the pro-Israel sentiment in the US, this will bring America into a war with all Arab states and, in all likelihood, Russia. At this point one of two things will happen. Either Jesus will return, or the resulting World War will bring the US economy out of recession. Clearly a win–win for most Americans.

Fighting the war assumes, of course, that the US can convince China to lend us the money we will need to fight the war. If they do we will win, and when we win we will find ourselves in control of vast oil-rich territories that we will then turn over to the Chinese to cover all current and future debt to that country for the next 200 years. This in turn will allow us to make the Bush tax cuts for the rich permanent. The future looks bright.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Can There Be Judaism Without Belief In God?

Can there be Judaism without belief in God? This was a question asked of a variety of Jewish thinkers in the September/October 2011 issue of Moment Magazine. Sadly, I was not among them. But that is what blogs are for. So, I ask myself, can there be Judaism without belief in God?

First, let me make clear what was not asked, namely, can there be Judaism without God? The issue here is belief in God and not the reality of God per se.

Since God is not the issue, the answer to this question depends on one’s definition of Judaism. Borrowing from my teacher Mordecai Kaplan, I define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jews—in other words Judaism is what Jews do and the stories we tell ourselves to explain why we do what we do. Defined this way, can there be Judaism without a belief in God? Absolutely, and we can see hints of this in those forms of Judaism where Land has replaced God, and others where Folk has replaced God.

The content of the civilization we call Judaism isn’t fixed or even self–evident. This is why there are so many brands of Judaism. The existence of “Judaism” only requires people willing to fill the meme “Judaism” with ideas that matter to them, demand that their ideas are somehow “Jewish,” and then spend their lives arguing in defense of them. This can even be done—and I am a prime example—when you know the entire enterprise is a literary creation fashioned and refashioned by thousands of Jews over millennia.

When I play the game Monopoly and put up hotels on the square marked “Marvin Gardens,” I don’t for a second believe that I own actual hotels on actual property called Marvin Gardens. It is the conceit of the game, and, since it is a game I enjoy playing, I suspend disbelief and play. When people stop enjoying Monopoly the game will fade away. The same is true of Judaism: As long as Jews want to play, Judaism will exist; and as long as Jews can reinvent the game so that we do want to play, Judaism will thrive. The danger today isn’t a lack of belief in God, but a lack of a Jews knowledgeable and daring enough to reinvent the game in their own image.

One might define a serious Jew—the kind of Jew we need to keep Judaism vibrant and alive—as a person who chooses to argue about, challenge, and reinvent the game of Judaism more than she or he chooses to argue about, challenge, and reinvent any other game, even if, like me, she knows the entire enterprise is make–believe. Serious Jews are a dwindling commodity.

So, Can there be Judaism without belief in God? Yes. Can there be Judaism without serious Jews? No.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Choosing Life

It is one thing to be pro-life and seek to protect the unborn, and it is another thing entirely to stand by and let a mother die. That is what doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix discovered when faced with the choice of saving a pregnant woman's life at the cost of her unborn child, or withholding surgery and letting the woman die.

The doctors at this Catholic hospital chose life—in this case the life of the mother. It is a horrible choice to have to make, and regardless of one's position on abortion, one should sympathize with those asked to make it. But Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix had no such sympathy, and stripped the hospital of its Catholic affiliation.

The hospital was not receiving money from the Diocese, so there is no financial loss, but St. Thomas will no longer be able to celebrate Mass, and can no longer display the Blessed Sacrament in its chapel.

I am not a Catholic, and maybe that alone should cause me to refrain from commenting on this issue, but even if it should, it won't. The reason for saving an unborn child over the mother of that child is theological: the mother has had the opportunity to accept Jesus and be saved, while the baby has not. In other words, the mother can die and go to heaven, but the baby cannot. Can it be that Bishop Olmsted believes that this deceased baby is locked out of heaven? Does he really believe that God's heart is narrowed by the Church's theological imaginings?

I can only assume he does, but I can't. Our ideas about God: what God can and cannot do, and who God will and will not save, are just that—our ideas. God is always bigger than our ideas. Even God says so: "My thoughts are not your thoughts" (Isaiah:55:8).

What religion needs is a little humility, a commodity too few religions have. When forced to choose between saving the life of the unborn or saving the life of the unborn’s mother, let’s not pretend to know the will of God, but rather let’s open our hearts to the struggle of the living to make that decision. Sometimes the mother must take precedent over the baby, and sometimes the baby must take precedent over the mother. And sometimes it just isn't so clear.

So whatever choice is made, let us realize we are always choosing life, and have compassion rather than condemnation for those forced to make it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Christ Whisperers

Christ whisperers…. Christ whisperers…. Just let that phrase sink in a moment…. Christ whisperers. It has a powerful ring to it, doesn’t it? I think so. That is why I am going to start a new training program for those who are struggling to tame the wild evangelicals among us.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know I regularly run into evangelical Christians promoting their brand of Christianity. I love these people, and I’m fascinated by their faith and beliefs. And I want to return the favor of their fervor by freeing them from the fear-based religion that has ensnared them. But how?

Argument doesn’t work. Science doesn’t work. Reason doesn’t work. And, God knows, satire, sarcasm, and a smile that could melt the Great Wall of China doesn’t work either. What might? Christ whispering.

Fundamentalists of all types—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, humanist—are herd animals. They stay among those who believe as they do, venturing out only to recruit people to the herd. And when they do venture out they are a bit nervous. Suddenly they are bombarded by input that challenges their worldview. That’s why they come on so strong. They are afraid.

For example when someone tells me the earth is only 10,000 years old I have two choices. I can argue with them and insist that the earth is only 5771 years old (that is the Jewish view), or I can pick up a rock and show them something that is far older than 10,000 years. If I choose the former I am condemned to hell. If I hand them the latter they are apt to hurl it at my head. Neither option is helpful. Now there is a third: Christ whispering.

Put the proselytizing Christian at ease by inquiring more deeply into their faith. Don’t ask them why they believe as they do, but what benefit they find in it. How does their faith make them more loving, just, and kind? Ask them what they get from believing as they do. If they have had deeply moving faith experiences, ask them to share those with you. Take the position of a National Geographic reporter seeking to understand the natives of South Religioustan. Speak calmly. Softly. Whisper.

Whispering will draw them closer to you. A natural rapport will develop between you. They will relax, and respond positively to your welcoming tone and body language. Now subtly take out a pocket watch and swing it where it will catch their eye. As their eyes follow the watch back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, they will become a bit drowsy. As they begin to fall into a light trance suggest they read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Help them notice their eyes wanting to close. Invite them to close their eyes, and take a few moments to simply stand or sit comfortably. And when they do…run like hell!

If you would like to offer this training in your community, let me know. There is a small fee, and you will have to bring your own pocket watches.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Goodness and God

Is something good because God says it is good; or does God say something is good because it is good? The question as old as Plato, and as current as this morning.

If we argue that something is good because God says its good, then we have to accept as good genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18), slavery (Leviticus 25: 44-46), the stoning to death of non-virgin brides (Leviticus 20:10 & 13), and a host of other immoral acts made moral by God. And if we say that these good deeds are no longer good, but bad; no longer moral, but immoral, we will have to show where in the Bible (Jewish or Christian) God changes His mind. If we can’t, then you will have to admit that we are changing God’s mind, which may not be moral at all.

If on the other hand, we argue that God affirms what is already in and of itself good, then we would have to admit that God, at least when it comes to morality is irrelevant.

Morality is not a stationary target. Slavery was moral once, but no longer. Sexism was moral once but no longer. Anti-Semitism was moral once but—outside of some liberal colleges, universities, and not so liberal White Supremacist groups and madrasas, is no longer. And God had nothing to do with these changes. In fact there are some among the godly who insist that God still demands sexism despite the shift in secular thinking on the matter.

The interesting thing isn’t what God thinks but what people do. Atheists and believers act exactly the same when it comes to morality: each decides what is good and then looks for a rationale to back up their choice. Atheists may look to science, theists to God, but neither is willing to admit that they just made it up.

So you can be good without God and you can be good with God because in the end people can be good and bad and God really has nothing to do with it.