Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sex, Lies, and Suicide Bombers

I ate a late breakfast at Waffle House this morning— cheese omelet with a side order of grits. Whenever I eat at Waffle House I sit in the corner booth and read USA Today. This morning I found it hard to concentrate. A couple of guys in the booth next to mine were having a fascinating discussion on religion and terrorism. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop…

One guy whose tan work shirt had the name “Fred” printed on a patch stitched over a frayed breast pocket said, “Look I’m not losin’ my faith or nothin’, but ya gotta admit sex with seventy virgins is not a bad deal. Seriously, I can see why Mooslems [that is how he pronounced Moslems] turn to this suicide-bombing thing. Seventy virgins, damn!”

“That’s bull, man. They don’t get no virgins. God sends ‘em to hell.”

“No way, man. Virgins. I heard it on the radio, and my pastor told me its true.”

“True that some terrorist gets seventy virgins from God for killin’ people?”

“True that they believe so. I ain’t saying it's true. It ain’t. But if I believed it was true, damn ya gotta give it some thought.”

Now that he mentioned it, I was giving it some thought. I should have kept my thoughts to myself, but I didn’t:

“How do you know God sends them to hell?” I said to the guy sitting across from Fred. “How do you know God doesn’t give them the 70 virgins?”

For a second, I worried that my neighbors would be annoyed with me for butting into their conversation, but they didn’t seem to mind a bit.

“Look,” not-Fred said, “they don’t even believe in God, they believe in Aylah [Allah], and Aylah ain’t God.”

“Actually, Allah is the Arabic word for God. Allah and God are the same thing.”

“No way, man,” Fred said, “God don’t have nothin’ to do with no virgins.”

“Well, that ain’t exactly true,” not-Fred said. “I mean God has a kid with the Virgin Mary. You know, Jesus.”

“OK. God has one virgin and keeps her for hisself, but he ain’t about to give seventy virgins to you jus’ because you blow yerself up in a hotel or something.”

“But you don’t really know that,” I said. “You don’t believe it, but you don’t know for certain. And since you don’t know for certain, you have to entertain the possibility that God does reward those who kill in God’s Name. God kills lots of people in the Bible, and when Jesus comes back he is going to kill thousands maybe millions more. You can’t say that God doesn’t condone killing. It is just that we want God to kill people we want killed. God is like our hit man.”

“Yeah,” Fred said. “God is like Tony Soprano.”

“No way, you jerk,” not-Fred said, “Tony Soprano’s Catholic.”

“Look,” I said, “God kills people God doesn’t like; Allah kills people Allah doesn’t like. God rewards his killers and Allah rewards his killers. What’s the difference?”

“First of all,” not-Fred said, “Aylah— Ahh-laah— ain’t God. He’s Satan. He lies. God don’t lie. Aylah says God never had a Son, but we know that ain’t so. Jesus is God’s Son. So I don’t doubt that this lyin’ Aylah tells people that he will give them seventy virgins if they kill some Christians. I only said God— the real God— don’t reward nobody with virgins.”

“Why not?”

“’Cause Jesus was a virgin and God don’t want us foolin’ around like that. Are you just stupid or what?”

“Maybe stupid,” I said, “but God rewards martyrs in Christianity and Judaism, why not in Islam? All I’m saying is that it is arbitrary to say God rewards our martyrs and not their martyrs. And it is presumptuous of us to say that if God wants to reward His Moslem martyrs with seventy virgins He is not allowed to do so.”

“Man, you are crazy. And I think you’re bullshittin’ me.”

“I am not trying to be obnoxious,” I said. “I’m genuinely curious. If your pastor told you that God wanted you to kill some Moslems and promised you sex with seventy virgins if you did it, wouldn’t you at least be tempted.”

Before his friend had a chance to reply, Fred got up, slapped not-Fred on the shoulder and said, “We gotta go, man.” As he stood to leave, not-Fred turned to me and said, “I’ll tell you what, virgins, seventy or seventy thousand, don’t appeal to me at all. You ever had sex with a virgin? It is too much work. Now, if God offered me seventy whores, then I might be tempted. I don’t want to break in seventy virgins. I want women who know what they’re doing.”

Then he laughed. Then not-Fred laughed. Then I laughed. But only on the outside.

Monday, November 28, 2005

With Friends Like This

Ah, Jews and our books. Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, called a “prominent Jewish messianist” by the Jewish internet news service ynet, and leader in that faction of CHaBaD Lubavitch Hassidism that believes its deceased rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, is the messiah, has written a new tome calling for religious Jews to view the State of Israel as an “administrative body, like the British government who controlled Israel before the country’s establishment.”

Titled “Between Light and Darkness” the book is the latest in a series of moves to deligitimize the government of Israel and call for the coming of the restored Davidic Kingdom. The impetus for such calls is the recent withdrawal of Israelis from Gaza under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Of course the call is made not to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but to God. Unfortunately for Rabbi Wolpe, God doesn’t seem to be listening:

“So many prayers were said from the bottom of the heart in last year [sic], in a bid to prevent the eviction and destruction [in Gaza]. The heart must wonder, why did God do this to this land? How is it possible that such a wicked man like the prime minister was able to jump over so many political hurdles, until he achieved his goal, the crime of withdrawal?”

OK, so let’s wonder. Why would God ignore the prayers of His most faithful? Hmmmm. I can think of only two reasons: 1) There is no God and so these prayers were a waste of time; 2) There is a God but He favors Sharon and withdrawal over Wolpe and occupation. Neither of these reasons would suit Rabbi Wolpe, and lucky for him he came up with an alternative:

“It is we that gave him the power. We determined that him, his state and his government are the beginning of our salvation. We blessed him before an open bible every Saturday. With such power, it is no wonder that the false messiah storms forward without stopping, while taking his devotees and the rest of the Israeli people down to the abyss with him.”

Sounds about right to me. While the faithful didn’t have enough power to convince God to stop Sharon, they did have enough power to prevent God from stopping him. Anyway, Wolpe’s book calls for the cessation of prayers in support of Israel and her welfare. That ought to do it.

Actually, while I supported the withdrawal from Gaza and look forward to the establishment of Middle East peace when Jesus, the Mahdi, and Rebbe Schneerson arrive together to beat the crap out their rabid followers, I am in favor of Wolpe’s call for the cessation of the Prayer for the Welfare of Israel. Anything that shortens our prayer services has my support.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hiding Behind Homophobia

For a thousand years it was neither illegal nor uncommon for Catholic priests to be married. What brought celibacy to the fore was the concern that as the church became more wealthy, the offspring of clergy would demand inheritance rights. Celibacy had nothing to do with a higher state of spiritual purity, and everything to do with a higher state of financial power.

I am not criticizing the church for this change in policy— organized religion has always been more about power than piety— I am simply noting this by way of introduction to the latest Vatican document dealing with priestly sexuality. This document, leaked to the press and due to be officially released on December 6th, states that homosexual men will no longer be accepted to the priesthood unless they can prove they have been celibate for at least three years (how does one prove that?), and will promise to teach the official Church doctrine that homosexual sex is always wrong.

The document, which has been in the works for over thirty years, does not ban homosexual priests from the priesthood, and there is no overt attempt to seek out gay priests and seminarians and remove them from the priesthood. In fact the document will probably have little or no effect on the priesthood at all, except to remind gay priests that they might want to check out Episcopalianism when they get a chance.

What interests me here is the timing of the document. The church has been working on this since 1974. I don’t understand why it took them so long. It isn’t as if they church actually debated whether or not homosexuality was a sin. God ruled on this thousands of years ago, and while it is true that liberal Jews have overruled the Almost Almighty in this case, it only took them a couple of years to do so.

I suspect that the release of this document is meant to show the faithful and the world that the Church is finally taking action against priestly pedophilia. It has taken them a lot longer than 30 years to get around to this, and now that they have someone ought to tell them that they are going after the wrong guys.

While anti-gay web sites cite bogus data to link homosexuality with pedophilia, scientifically credible empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. I am not claiming that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children, only that they are no more likely to do so than heterosexual men. Weeding out gay priests will have no real impact on priestly pedophilia.

It is not the fault of the Catholic Church that some— a tiny minority— of its clergy molest children. The Church’s sin was in hiding their pedophiles, protecting them, in effect enabling them, and allowing them to continue to spread their evil from parish to parish. The sin is as much on the heads of the bishops who protected the pedophiles and endangered the public as it is on the pedophiles themselves.

Just as the Church’s rule of celibacy was a smokescreen to protect the power of its ruling elite, so the Church’s latest effort to weed out gays from the priesthood in order to cleanse itself of pedophiles is a smokescreen to protect the ruling elite from the charge that they protect priests who molest children. If the Church were serious about pedophilia it would stop wasting time on gays and work more closely with the psychiatric, psychological, and legal communities to create better ways to identify, arrest, and prosecute pedophile seminarians and priests.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Real Tragedy of American Jewish Life

In “A Tragedy of Our Time: Why most American Jews as so irreligious and anti-religious” (Moment Magazine, December 2005) Dennis Prager offers a wise and cogent explanation for the nonJewishness of most American Jews.

I am a huge Prager fan. Even when I disagree with his conclusions, I am always enriched by the quality of his thinking. Dennis lists five reasons for the tragedy:

1. Our inability to find Orthodox Judaism compelling;
2. Our experience with religion-based anti-Semitism makes us wary of religion;
3. Our university education leads us to be skeptical of religious claims;
4. Our sense that only Orthodoxy offers an alternative to secularism (see Reason 1);
5. Our history of suffering makes us distrust God.

I have no argument with Dennis, but I would like to add a sixth reason: mainstream Judaism makes no sense. Judaism rests on three pillars: God, Torah, and Israel, and I can’t accept any of them as mainstream Judaism offers them to me.

1. I love God. I experience God daily in, with, and as all reality. But the god of mainstream Judaism— the god who blesses and curses, who rewards and punishes, who is locked into a manic-depressive cycle of creation and destruction— is alien to me.
2. I love Torah. I study Torah every day and find Her a constant source of wisdom, but I cannot imagine that God wrote Torah. People wrote it. Different people at different times with different agendas. The author of “love your neighbor as yourself” is not the author of “pick up a stick on a Saturday and you will be stoned to death.” The author of the first was in touch with godliness, the author of the second was not. If being a religious Jews means pretending that God wrote both, then I cannot be a religious Jew.
3. I love Israel, the people, the place, and the spiritual ideal of Yisra-El, God-wrestler. But I cannot accept that we are chosen, or that God chooses one people or one strip of land over the rest. Most Judaisms (Reconstructionism being the lone exception) still tout this primitive nationalism and ignore the real power and value of becoming Yisra-El. I don’t think the world needs a chosen people, but it can certainly benefit from a few more God-wrestlers.

The real reason most American Jews are irreligious is that they have outgrown mainstream Judaism. These very irreligious Jews are often deeply spiritual, with a great longing for God, Wisdom, and Community. They just can’t find it in conventional notions of God, Torah, and Israel. What American Jews need is a 21st century Judaism one that offers a nondual contemplative theology that helps us experience God in, with, and as all reality; a post-modern Torah that teaches us how to recover timeless myth and wisdom from the language of the past; and a post-tribal Israel that leads us beyond religious jingoism to real community rooted in bio-regional diversity and planetary unity.

The real tragedy of American Jewry is that we 21st century Jews are only offered an 18th century Judaism. Nothing will change until that does.

To Tree or Not To Tree: God Answers the Question

Living in the Bible Belt has its advantages. People are always caring about my soul. Perfect strangers think nothing about taking time out of their busy day to help me come to Jesus. Of course some are less polite than others. Once around Easter I was stopped by a very worried man who saw me eating a round Tostitos corn chip. Noticing the Star of David I wear around my neck, and fearful that I was desecrating the Host (the consecrated wafer that for Catholics becomes the actual Body of Christ), he demanded to test the corn chip. “It’s corn,” I said calmly. “The Host must be made of wheat.” “Let me see it anyway,” he insisted. I gave it to him. “OK,” he said, “can’t be too careful with you people.”

Can’t be too careful with people like him either. I now eat Tostitos in private, taking care in public to eat only triangle-shaped Doritos. While it is true that in some cultures this shape represents the vagina, here in Tennessee it is only a corn chip.

I mention this only to say how pleased I am as Christmas approaches that I can be of service to my Christian neighbors, and warn them of the danger of erecting Christmas Trees in direct violation of God’s will. Actually I had no idea that God opposed Christmas Trees, but I was listening to one of our local talk shows and a caller came on to enlighten his fellow Christians of their pagan foolishness. He cited chapter and verse in the Bible to prove his point. The show’s host got an English Bible and confirmed the man’s citation. When I got home I did the same in the Hebrew:

Thus says The LORD: Do not learn from the way of the nations; do not be frightened by the signs of the heavens, though the nations are frightened by them. For the practices of the nations are foolish; [for one takes] a tree he has cut down from the forest, fashioned by an artisan with an adze, embellishes it with silver and gold, fastens it with nails and with hammers so that it does not come apart… (Jeremiah 10:1-5).

Taking the commandment to love my neighbor as myself, I plan to print this passage on cards with a Christmas Tree marked with a slash indicating NO CHRISTMAS TREES, and place them in mailboxes around my town. I thought about adding my name and address to the cards so that my neighbors could thank me for my thoughtfulness, but I realize this is verging on the sin of spiritual pride, so I am opting for anonymity. I am risking exposure here so as to invite you to make cards of your own and save your neighbor the embarrassment of having to explain to God why they ignored His warning.

Anyway, as they say in Wal-Mart, Have a Happy Holiday.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Religion and Science

At a recent news conference in early November, Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, defended Darwin’s theory of evolution over and against Intelligent Design. "The fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim," he said. The real message of Genesis is to teach us that "the universe didn't make itself and had a creator".

Yet isn’t this what the Intelligent Design people are saying? I think it is. The difference between the Vatican’s view and that of ID is that the Vatican holds that Darwin has revealed the means by which God created the universe, while the ID folks cannot abide the notion that God would allow random chance to determine creation’s outcome.

Should we find the Vatican’s position more enlightened than that of the Fundamentalists? I don’t.

Darwin didn’t deny the existence of a Creator God, he just rendered such a god irrelevant. While the Vatican is right that Creationism and ID are not science and have no place it the science curriculum, they are wrong in assuming that Darwinism and Genesis are compatible.

Genesis says, “In the beginning God…” Darwin does not need to posit God at all to make his theory work.

The only way we can reconcile scientific materialism, the notion that life emerged out of a series of random events, and religion, which holds that life has an intrinsic purpose and direction bestowed upon it by its creator, is to compartmentalize science and theology and never let them talk with one another.

I believe science and religion should be in constant dialogue. I believe that the extent to which religion and science disagree, one has to win in the end. For example, when Genesis tells us that the earth is suspended between two bodies of water, and science shows us that this is not so, religion must yield. When religion insists that Joshua stopped the sun to allow the Israelites to defeat their enemies, and science shows (1) that the sun doesn't circle the earth, but the earth circles the sun, and (2) that stopping the sun, or rather freezing the earth in its orbit, would destroy the entire planet, religion must yield.

Religionists worry that there is nowhere for them to stand against science. But that is because they use religion as science, mistaking the metaphors of religion for material facts. Religion deals with metaphor and myth, a reality science is incapable of exploring.

Religion isn’t science, it is poetry. Its genius and its value aren’t in physics, but in metaphysics. The threat to religion doesn’t come from science, but from those religionists who think it does. By reducing religion to a pseudo-science and pitting it against real science, these so-called defenders of faith only weaken faith; dumbing it down to literalist absurdities and robbing it of its true grace, grandeur and meaning.

I don’t worry that science will rob religion of its meaning; I worry that religion will strip itself of both meaning and mystery in the attempt to become science. Creationists and ID people aren’t defending religion against science, they are surrendering it to science.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Real War On Christmas

I haven’t finished all of my Halloween candy, let alone thought about dealing with the family logistics of Thanksgiving, and already the stores are blaring the saccharine sounds of Christmas. I can’t go into a drugstore to buy gum, a bookstore to look through the shelves, or a mall in search of a bargain without being bombarded with Christmas music. Not holiday music. Not seasonal music. And certainly not Hanukkah or Kwanza music. Christmas music.

In addition to the music, there is the ubiquitous Santas, Christmas trees, and red and green shiny wrap. And yet the news is filled with stories about the War on Christmas. Have I missed something?

I understand that Wal-Mart has instructed its employees to refrain from saying “Merry Christmas,” and to offer “Happy Holiday” greetings instead. As a Jew, this is supposed to make me feel more welcome in the store. It doesn’t.

First of all, is there a Waspier store than Wal-Mart? There is nothing ethnic about it at all. Unless you are shopping at the Wal-Mart in Beijing, the closest thing I find to ethnic food in Wal-Mart is a jar of salsa. I half expect Jerry Falwell and Martin Luther to greet me at the door with a forced “Welcome to Wal-Mart.”

Second, there are many years when Hanukkah falls so much earlier than Christmas that the only holidays that can be happy are Christmas and Kwanza, neither of which do I celebrate.

Third, what is wrong with people wishing one another Merry Christmas? December 25th is Christmas, whether I choose to celebrate it or not. What should a person say to me, “Have a nondescript Christmas”? Saying “Merry Christmas” is no different than saying “Have a nice weekend,” or “Have a good day.” Why shouldn’t I have a merry Christmas? After all I get the day off; I don’t have to deal with presents I don’t want or family I can’t stand; and people are generally on their best behavior, at least until mid-afternoon when the love of family starts to fray and people race off to the movies so they can sit in the dark and not talk to one another. There is nothing unmerry about it.

But don’t I feel alienated from my fellow Americans because I am a Jew and I don’t celebrate Christmas? Not at all. And if I did, I could do what many Jews do: get a tree, go into gift-debt, and suffer the family. Or, I could become a Christian. If I want Christmas that much, there is always that option.

I no more feel alienated from America during Christmas then I do during Chinese New Year, Ramadan, or Gay Pride Day. On the contrary, I am blessed to live in a country that has room for such diversity.

So let me be clear, if anyone wants to wish me a Merry Christmas, please be my guest.

And yet I believe there a War on Christmas, just not the one everyone seems so upset about. I read John Gibson’s book of that title, and he had to search the backwaters of America to find his war. When New York bans the tree in Rockefeller Center, then we have a war. When the White House no longer lights a tree, then we have a war. If a couple of wackos in Plano, Texas over react to the separation of Church and Lone-Star State, that is a skirmish, not a war. Gibson's book seems to be part of a general trend among conservative Christians to convince themselves that they are under attack, when in fact they are victorious. The United States is 80-something percent Christian. Relax. You won. But you've been fighting the wrong war.

The real War on Christmas isn’t the silly argument over store greetings; it is the far more powerful and subversive use of Christmas to sell stuff. Look, if you want to give gifts on Christmas, give what the Three Wise Men gave: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. You can never have too much of the first, and you can always re-gift the other two next year. Other than that, stop shopping.

The real gift of Christmas comes from God. The gift is Jesus. Christmas is the affirmation that God cares, that there is hope in times of deep despair. It is the same message taught by Hanukkah. The real war on Christmas is the one waged with weapons of mass distraction, taking our minds off the message and onto the marketing. Wal-Mart is waging war on Christmas, but not by changing its greeting. That only allows it to wage war on Hanukkah and Kwanza as well. The war Wal-Mart and every other Christmas-abusing business is waging is the war against the meaning of Christmas. If the meaning of Christmas were shopping, churches would abandon midnight mass for midnight madness sales.

And the government is colluding with the markets (surprised?). The Supreme Court allows Christmas Trees, crèches, and Hanukkah menorahs on public property because it deems them historical symbols rather than religious ones. Are you kidding! Historically, the prophets ban Christmas-like trees (see Jeremiah 10:3-4). Historically, the manger scene probably never happened, and the 25th of December is not Jesus’ real birthday. Historically Hanukkah was a military victory that had nothing to do with the Festival of Lights the Hanukkah Menorah honors.

There is nothing historical about these symbols. They are symbols of faith, hope, love, and miracles. Their value to us is not historical but spiritual. When I see a manger scene do I remind myself that only Luke (2:7) tells this story, making it historically suspect? Do I wonder why we don’t have a scene depicting the slaughter of thousands of Jewish babies by Herod in his mad attempt to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:16)? No. I think of the promise of spiritual renewal that Jesus represents. When I see the Hanukkah Menorah do I think of military victories? No, I think of the promise of spiritual renewal that kindling lights in the middle of the winter’s dark represents.

The real war on Christmas is a war on the soul of every American, regardless of religion. If you are too small to welcome the message of renewal from wherever it comes, I feel sorry for you. If you are so weak as to cave to the commercials rather than reach out with love, I feel sorry for you. If you are too busy to see the real war and defeat the real enemy, I fear for us both.

Merry Christmas. And if you must succumb, my sweater size is XL.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

3 Degrees of Separation: Darwin in the News

This week’s Religion and Ethics Newsletter has two articles of interest. The first is about the 6-4 vote of the Kansas Board of Education changing the definition of science to allow for non-natural explanations and challenge Darwin's theory of evolution. Personally I love this. Growing up in a Darwin-only science class was boring.

I know that many people are worried that this change in definitions will force teachers to teach Intelligent Design and Creationism as science. That may be, but, if you have ever read any of the text books in support of these theories, you know they are just as boring as old man-ape Darwin. What excites me about the new definition is that it allows science class to take seriously far more interesting theories of creation, like the Chinese theory that Pan Gu took an ax and hacked his way out of the cosmic egg, and when he died he became wind, water, earth, and mountains. Now there is a theory of creation I can get behind.

Of course in Dover, PA, the Darwinistas sacked the school board that would have allowed our kids to learn about the theory of Pan Gu. Worse still the repercussions of this vote seem to have impacted the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes meeting in a special conference in Pittsburgh.

According to Religion and Ethics Newsletter, this meeting brings together “conservative Episcopalians from the U.S. Church and primates from Africa, South America and Asia.” Whoa! First of all I didn’t know they had primates in South America, but the real thing that worries me is that meeting with these primates seems to legitimize their claim to being the ancestors of us humans.

I rely on conservatives to make the distinction between us and primates. And now they are meeting with them as equals. I am not sure how to respond really.
Or maybe I am being too narrow-minded. After all if Episcopal conservatives can meet with primates from around the world, maybe the rest of us can learn to get along as well.