Friday, September 28, 2012

Bibi is not my leader. Israel is not my country.

Last week on Meet the Press, host David Gregory called Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu  “the leader of the Jewish people.” At that very moment I was flying back from New Delhi where I told my audience at a world peace conference that we Jews didn’t have a leader. Who is right: Mr. Gregory or me?

I think I am. We Jews don’t have a pope or an ayatollah. We can’t even settle on one Chief Rabbi in Israel. Even when we did have one leader, Moses, we revolted! Had I lived then, I would have sided (and died) with Korah and the elders of the people who demanded a more open system of governance over Moses’ one man (him) one vote (his) leadership style.

But what would it mean if Bibi were the leader of the Jewish people? After all he got that job by being elected Israel’s Prime Minister, and most Jews, not being Israelis, are not allowed to vote in Israeli elections. Would we American Jews be forced to adhere to his policies? And what would happen if Israelis voted in a liberal PM? Would we suddenly have to change our values and follow the new PM’s dictates?

Israel is a sovereign state seeking to govern through a mixture of Jewish, democratic, and socialist values. Doing so is a real challenge as these values are often in conflict with one another. It is all the more difficult when we try to define these values and discover (at least on the Jewish side) that we can’t even agree as to what they might be. I admire them for what they are trying to do, but I am not one of them.

I’m not an Israeli; I’m an American. I’m not an Israeli by choice, and I choose to stay in the United States because I believe the United States is the freer and more liberal country, and my loyalty to freedom and liberalism trumps my loyalty to Israel. I support Israel insofar as she lives up to my values (which of course I claim are the authentic Jewish values), and disagree with her when she follows some other value system (which of course claims to be the authentic Jewish values, but which of course cannot be authentic as they disagree with my values which are, as I just stated, the authentic Jewish values). If the United States becomes a Christian Nation as many if not most of my neighbors hope, I will change my mind and move. Maybe to Israel, but, given the state of Israeli politics and policies, more likely to Canada.

Whenever I say something like this I am attacked by American Jews who make the same choice I do but hate to admit it. If Bibi is your leader, if you are going to let him tell you how to vote in the American presidential election, move to Israel and vote for his political heir instead. If you think Israel is superior to the United States, become an Israeli and make it the best it can be. But if you chose to remain an American, do so proudly and vote for your choice of presidents, not Bibi’s. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why Vote?

I just read that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed today not to raise taxes on the rich even if President Obama wins in November. So why vote? If the system is rigged against the 99%; if the GOP is blatantly in the pocket of the mega–wealthy and devoted to their betterment and not the welfare of the country as a whole, why vote? 

First, let me say that the United States is a plutonomy, a country of, by, and for the wealthy. It has been this way for decades, and both political parties are guilty of doing the bidding of the oligarchs. I have no more faith in the Democrats than I do in the Republicans when it comes to freeing the system to promote the middle class or see to actually help lift the poor out of poverty. 

Second, I am a values voter. Since my pocketbook doesn't really matter to either party, and the economy will tank regardless of which group of oligarchs owns the politicians in power, I tend to focus on values issues: civil rights for all Americans regardless of gender, sexual preference, race, etc. being chief among them. A Republican president will tilt the Supreme Court even further to the right, making it more difficult for America to live up to the call to freedom at its heart. 

The GOP values weapons more than women. I don't. The GOP values ignorance over reason, and faith over science. I don't. The GOP fears Islam. I fear extremists of all stripes. So I will vote Democratic not because I think the Dems will lead this country to greatness, but because I think they will take longer to lead it to its doom.

Dumb and Deader

 According to a recent study, the life expectancy of white men without high school diplomas has dropped by four years since 1990. I planned to take this fact to a number of sooner to be dead uneducated white men and get their responses, but I was busy, so I simply responded for them:

“It’s a wash as far as I’m concerned. Hell, I woulda spent those four extra years in high school anyway, so what’s the loss?”

“I’m goin’ to be with Jesus when I die, and if skippin’ high school gets me there sooner, well I’m all for it.”

“I guess that means I oughta take Social Security at 62 ‘cause I might not make it four more years to 65.”

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mrs. Jesus

What is it with these Coptic Christians? Last week one them started a murderous global protest with his asinine and offensive “movie” about the Prophet Mohammad (PUH), and now Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King has translated a Coptic Christian text that has Jesus referring to his wife.

According to Dr. King, the text says, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife.’” The text is in Coptic, a language I can’t read, but when I look at the Coptic text I think it says, “Jesus said to them, “Take my wife—please!’” This is followed by the Coptic symbol for a drum roll and cymbal crash.

I’m not sure why Christians hate the idea that Jesus was married. Is it the thought of Jesus having sex? I’m sure He could do it the way His Dad did with Mary, though that was technically adultery, since Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time. At least Jesus would be having sex with His own wife and not someone else’s.

Does this text prove that Jesus was married? Not at all. First of all it was written centuries after Jesus’ death. Second, Jesus references His mom in the Gospels; if He had a wife don’t you think He would have mentioned her as well? The closest we get to any New Testament hint that Jesus was married is the story of the wedding feast at Cana where the servants complain to Jesus’ mother that they are running out of wine. If Mary was a just a guest at the wedding, why bother her with this? If she was more than a guest….

There are three possibilities: 1) Mary was the party planner for the event; 2) Mary was the manager of the hotel that catered the event; or 3) Mary was the mother of the groom, i.e. Jesus. This last would explain why she told the servants to speak to Jesus about the wine problem. But it could also mean that Mary ran the hotel and Jesus was the maƮtre de. So there is nothing conclusive here.

Anyway, I now expect Christians to be rioting in the streets over the insult to their God. In fact, if I were the Egyptian Ambassador in DC, I would demand extra protection for my embassy in case American Christians attack the Embassy, holding the Egyptian government responsible for this Egyptian Coptic text.

If they do attack the embassy please don’t forget to assume that all Christians are ignorant puppets manipulated by their religious leaders into doing inane and vicious acts of violence. If they don’t attack the embassy please don’t forget to assume that all Christians have abandoned their love of Christ. I myself take the Coptic Christian who made the anti-Muslim film as proof that all Christians hate Muslims and make bad movies. The Left Behind films provide additional evidence for this thesis. After all, what other conclusion can you draw?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What I Want for My Grandchildren

I received an interesting questionnaire while I was away in India. I’m sharing my responses with you here as an invitation for you to share your own with us as well. The questionnaire was meant for Jews, so adapt the as necessary.

What do you want your grandchildren to know about their being Jewish?

First, they should know they belong to a four thousand year old civilization that has shaped the western world through such amazing people as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Freud, Marx, and Einstein. They should also know that in addition these men there were at least as many women whose names are lost in the amnesia that was (is) patriarchy.

Second, they should know that Judaism (along with all other religious civilizations) is the creation of human beings seeking answers to the perennial questions of human existence: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How should I live? and Why? And because this is so, it is prone to both error and prejudice, and capable of self–correction. As heirs to this civilization it is their right and obligation to live what is true, continually correct what is false, and move the entire enterprise ever truth–ward.

Third, while all religions are of human origin, each has something of value to offer to both its followers and the rest of humanity. In the case of Judaism what we bring to the world is a passion for justice (linked inexorably to compassion), an almost preternatural love of learning, and a refusal to abandon the task of godliness (cultivating compassion and justice personally and globally) even in the face of godlessness. That is to say no matter how cruel life gets, Jews never despair of hope or abandon the work of redemption.

What do you want to pass on to your grandchildren from Judaism?

What I want my grandchildren to inherit is the Jewish capacity to express hope and faith through argument and doubt. I want them to question not as a tactic for dismantling authority and excusing self–indulgence, but as a strategy for personal and planetary liberation from the limitations of biases passing themselves off as truths.

What I want my grandchildren to inherit is the rabbinic pedagogy of elu v’elu (Elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayyim/These opinions and those opinions, although contradictory, are both the words of the living God). This is the capacity to hold conflicting and even contradictory ideas at the same time, and to use the cognitive dissonance that arises from this to further their creativity in service to justice and compassion.

Since this pedagogy is not learned in the abstract, but is absorbed into the psyche through the traditional study of Jewish tests, a third thing I want my grandchildren to inherit is a love for the Jewish literary corpus from Torah to Talmud to Zohar to Tanya to Dylan to Cohen to whomever is the Leonard Cohen of their the time.

How important is it that your grandchildren believe in the Jewish God and Torah?

I’m not interested in belief, but in wisdom: what we can discern when we humans investigate our world (inner and outer) through reason, imagination, art, science, spirituality, etc. I’m not interested in a Jewish God, but in God as God actually is. And believing in Torah means nothing, while living the principles of Torah matters greatly, but even then there are problems.

So let me say this: I want my grandchildren to know that the universe is a manifestation of a singular reality I call God and others call Brahman, Tao or Spirit. I want them to know that a deep understanding of God leads to an ethic rooted in compassion and justice for all the living. I want them to know that at its best Judaism articulates this understanding of God and godliness, and that Torah, at her best, translates this understanding into a way of life. I also want them to know that Judaism and Torah are often not at their best, and that part of what it is being a Jew is to make Judaism and Torah better.

How important is it to you that your grandchildren are Jewish?

It isn’t important to me that they are Jewish, I hope it will important to them that they are Jewish. I hope that they will come to see themselves as part of an ancient and on–going civilization devoted to teshuvah and tikkun, to returning (teshuvah) to their true nature as beings capable of discerning wisdom, and repairing (tikkun) an ever–breaking world with that wisdom.  

What mitzvot would you want your grandchildren to observe?

Mitzvot are the means by which we Jews engage in teshuvah and tikkun. To practice teshuvah we need time for quiet introspection and study, so Shabbat would be an essential mitzvah I hope my grandchildren would keep. To practice Tikkun I would want my grandchildren, each in her own way, to shape their lives around kashrut (ethical consumption), bal tashchit (protecting natural resources), gemilut chesed (engaging in acts of kindness), tzedakah (generosity), and limmud (study of Torah and other essential Jewish texts).

How important is it to you that your grandchildren are Zionists?

Zionism is a commitment to Jewish liberation with a free and democratic State of Israel at its center. I also believe that a Zionist should be committed to the liberation of all peoples, and when the freedom of one conflicts with the freedom of another, to be no less committed to justice for both. In this sense I very much care that my grandchildren are Zionists.

Last question: Why does it matter that your grandchildren are Jewish?

It doesn’t. What matters is that their grandchildren are Jewish. The Jewish passion is for a world perfected in justice and compassion, and this is a utopian goal toward which one must always strive even while knowing full well that it can never be achieved.

Jews, at our best, are catalysts for human freedom. Judaism at its best is a way of life that makes that freedom possible. This is why the world needs Jews and Judaism. This is why it is important to me that my great, great grandchildren are Jews.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Peace & Harmony vs Reality

I'm in India as part of a Peace & Harmony conference in honor of the 150th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda's birth. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I both spoke to the gathering of over 1500 (as well as dozens of others, but really who can remember?). Being in India promoting peace to the already peaceful people assembled, I was out of touch with the news. Today I managed to get Internet access and learned of the killings of the Americans in Lybia, and the wicked anti-Muslim film defaming the Prophet (PUH).

What is the point of a conference on Peace & Harmony when such evil is going on under our noses? At the very least we should have issued a statement about the film and the killings and the recent desecration of the Latrun Monastery by Israeli settler movement extremists. We should have marched or done something. Maybe no one knew. I didn't.

From what I am reading the film was made by a Coptic Christian posing as an Israeli Jew. This compounds the evil. The man is a coward, an Islamophobe, and a Jew hater. He must have known that his movie would inflame Muslims, and by claiming to be a Jew and an Israeli, he knowingly sought to aim that anger at Jews.

I was honored to have been invited to this amazing gathering in Delhi, but I am chagrined that we played while the world burned. Again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Death of My Teacher Bonia Shur

One of my dearest teachers died last Thursday. His name was Bonia Shur, and he was Director of Liturgical Arts at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Bonia and Ellis Rivkin were my gurus during my five years of rabbinical school. I met both of them in Jerusalem in 1976 when I was in my first year, and studied with them every year until I graduated in 1981.

Bonia was supposed to teach me Jewish music, and though I did sing in HUC’s Jerusalem choir, that never took. He composed the score for The Russians are Coming, wrote amazing Jewish compositions for the synagogue, and did his best to teach me to appreciate music. But what he really taught me was how to be myself. Bonia was unique. From his eyebrows that seemed to have a life of his own to his Zorba the Greek existentialism he challenged me to be myself in a professional setting that begged me to be someone else.

Bonia created an off-the-books course at HUC called Standing Naked on the Bima (altar). It was a blend of improvisational theater and spiritual teaching designed to teach us to read our congregations and speak to their needs. He taught us to speak truth to power, to take a prophetic approach to our rabbinic roles, and to find and articulate our most authentic selves. Only four students took the class. It was perhaps the most life–changing course I ever took.

Bonia and his equally dynamic and wonder wife, Fanchon, visited my congregation in Miami, Fl. several times. Each time I tried to empress him with the music I had written. Each time I failed. He loved me, but he knew my limitations when it came to musical composition.

I loved this man, and will be forever grateful to him for having taught me how to be the rabbi I became. I wouldn’t be me if not for him.