Sunday, September 30, 2007


I am an avid listener to radio podcasts such as Speaking of Faith and Interfaith Voices. I learn a great deal from their interviews with religious leaders, theologians, and scientists with a deep interest in spirituality. Yet, I wish they would broaden their scope.

It is comforting to have Krista Tippett interview a Moslem cleric who insists that terror done in the name of Allah perverts Islam, which is really a religion of peace. Yet it is also less than satisfying. What would she say to a believer in terror as a legitimate tactic against the Great Satan?

I enjoy listening to her speak with a scholar of Judaism who reminds me of how deep the stories of Exodus are, yet I long for her to confront an ultra–orthodox Jew who thinks that woman are unclean and Gentiles lack higher souls.

Why should we assume that the liberal end of the religious spectrum is truer than the ultra¬–conservative end?

I am on my way to a conference on religion and the environment. Speaker after speaker will step up the podium to recite some version of “My religion loves the earth.” Do I really need to pollute the atmosphere with jet fuel to hear this? Do I really learn anything from “we love the earth” pabulum? [So why am I going? Because these are my friends and I love them and wish to be supportive. And, besides, American Airlines was flying to LAX with or without me.]

I want to talk with a scholar who says, “The earth is ours to exploit as we wish.” At least then I would have something to talk about.

Interfaith gatherings are too nice. Even when we really think the other person is going to hell for his or her beliefs, we refrain from saying so. If religion was really as kind and enlightened as interfaith conferences make them sound, the world would be a much better place for all living things.

I am beginning to suspect that religious liberals like myself are cowards. We shill for our respective faiths rather than confront them. I only hope someone on the panel will speak the whole truth and model an honest assessment of their religion and how it is lived. I can assure you it won’t be me.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A New Jew

I met a young woman the other day who had only that afternoon found out she was Jewish. Adopted at birth, she had recently discovered her birth mother was Jewish. Knowing nothing about Judaism or Jewishness, she was startled to learn that having a Jewish mother makes one a Jew as well. Her shock was only compounded when she mentioned this to a friend and was accosted by an eavesdropper who said, “Oh, you don’t want to be a Jew, they’re going to hell!”

Imagine discovering you are a Jew one moment and that you are going to hell because of it the next moment. Many Jews experience Jew-hatred, and many more encounter popular ignorance about what it is to be a Jew, but most Jews have a few years of positive Jewish experience before the downside of being Jewish is dropped on them. This woman had none of that:

“Hey, guess what? I’m Jewish!”

“Yeah? Well, guess what? You’re going to hell!”

I asked her what she thought of all of this, and she really didn’t know what to make of it. Her adapted mother was an atheist and raised her without religion. She didn’t know what it means to be a Jew, and couldn’t fathom someone going to hell at all. Being chosen by God and damned by the God-fearing all in the same breath was just beyond her grasp.

I offered to be a resource if she wished to explore her newly discovered heritage, and then we parted company. I don’t know if I will ever see her again, but I am certain her story will stick with me.

Given where I live, prejudice against Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and Catholics (unless they are pro-life and sitting on the US Supreme Court) is as indigenous as love of June and Johnny, Dolly, and Elvis. What bothers me is not that some stranger believes Jews are going to hell, but that he jumped on this young woman without giving her a moment to get to know her birth culture.

So please, all you Jew haters out there, if you have to scare Jews with hell at least wait until they know a little bit about Judaism first. Print up cards with your name and phone number on them and hand them out to Jews saying, “When you are ready to escape from the fires of eternal damnation for being a Jew, call me.” Or wear a button that says: “Ask me about Jews and Damnation” or design one with a picture of the Devil in the Uncle Sam pose saying, “Jew! I want you!” I promise when we need you we will find you.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


[In response to my post entitled “Atheology” several people wrote me asking that I elaborate a bit on my own beliefs regarding God. You can read my theological speculations in my books, especially “Minyan” and “The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness,” so I took a slightly different approach here.]

I believe in the god of my own imagination. I suspect you do too.

My god is infinitely patient, merciful, and forgiving. Not because I am these things, but because I need these things. I don’t need a god who is dunning, angry and ready to pour out his wrath every time I fail to live up to my ideals. I have enough people like this in my life already. So I imagine a god who gives me what I need: not money, health, or happiness, but forgiveness, grace, and hope.

I don’t mistake my god for God, I just assume that I can’t really know anything about that God. When it comes to theology I am a Taoist: the tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao. If you can know the will of God, it isn’t God’s will you are knowing but your own.

That’s why I enjoy talking with people about God. The more they tell me about the god they believe in the more they reveal about themselves. If your god is angry all the time, chances are you are afraid most of the time. If your god is into inflicting eternal torture on those who believe differently than you, my guess is you are a powerless person who dreams of being the bully for a change.

I am toying with the idea of starting a new school of therapy. Call it theotherapy. You tell me about god and what god does and needs and wants from you, and I will tell you all about yourself and how you can heal.

I need a god who is patient? I need to cultivate patience in my own life. I need a god of compassion? I need to become more compassionate myself. I need a god of forgiveness? I need to forgive myself and others. I also need a god who weighs around 155, lifts weights three times a week, and can stare down a bag of Doritos without eating any of them.

I hope theotherapy catches on. I can see myself as a theotherapist taking high paying clients, and freeing them from the gods they worship and helping them cultivate humility and compassion in the face of the True Unknown. I can envision starting a training program for religious studies majors who wish to become theotherapists, and publishing “The Mirror, a Journal of Theotherapy.” This could really have legs. At least it would give religion majors some way to earn a living.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I am an Atheologist

Mixed metaphor department update:

I am cursed with a literalist mind: I want my metaphors to make sense. The other day I participated in a worship service where we sang this refrain: God, unchanging and ever-flowing. Isn’t that a contradiction? How can something that is unchanging be ever-flowing? Unchanging means static, and flowing is, well flowing.

So which is it? Is God unchanging or is God ever-flowing. If we say God is unchanging then petitionary prayer is a waste of time. If God has decreed that so-and-so is to die of cancer, for example, praying for healing is really asking God to change his mind, something that an unchanging god cannot do.

Now I don’t think God can change his/her mind. God doesn’t have a mind. God is what is and what is is the way it is because it can be no other way at the moment it is anything at all. God is bound by God’s own nature. If the conditions are such that death is necessary, you will die. This is not because God wills it, but because God is it. God cannot be other than God.

Yet as I look around I see nothing that is static and fixed. Everything is wriggling, dancing, gyrating, and flowing. God is not unchanging at all. God is change. This is what the Torah tells us when it has God say that God is “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” (Exodus 3:14): I will be what I will be. God is unfixed and changing. God cannot be any one thing, for God is all things dancing into and out of existence.

Here’s the fun part: If God is change, then God is unchanging for change is constant. God is unchanging not in the sense of God being fixed and static for all eternity (Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover), but in the sense of Shiva/Shakti’s never-ending dancer.

Maybe this is what the refrain is trying to tell us. God is unchanging change, and being unchanging change God is fundamentally unknowable and unlabelable. You cannot classify or categorize something that is unfixed and flowing. You cannot have a theology about a God that won’t stand still for the portrait. And it is only when you drop all knowing about God (and certainly all your projections about “God’s will”) that you have any chance of meeting God at all.

So maybe the refrain is right. Maybe it is paradoxical because paradox is the only way we can point to the ceaseless changing that is God. I think the Hindu’s have the best phrase for this: Neti Neti, not this, not this. God is everything, but as soon as you point to one thing and say “This is God” you have stopped the flow that is God and so the thing to which you point (now reduced to an idea in your mind) is no longer God in any living way.

So it seems to me the atheists have it all wrong. You cannot be an atheist. How can you deny something that defies definition? What we should be are atheologists, people who refuse to reduce God to a god that we might worship or reject.

Think about it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's Your Banner

Each fall the campus of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) is host to a vicious anti–abortion campaign that links abortion to genocide and sets up huge posters graphically depicting murderous scenes of the Holocaust and other genocidal acts of human cruelty. The anti-abortion people themselves are quiet, well healed, and so narrow minded that I imagine one could pass their heads through the eye of a needle. Yet they don’t have to say anything; their photographs talk loudly, albeit falsely.

Sometimes pro-Choice advocates line up in the “protest the protest” section nearby and chant their disgust at the obscenity of linking abortion to genocide and woman who have abortions to Nazis and homicidal maniacs.

Both sides are fueled by anger, fear, and hatred. Neither is centered in anything remotely spiritual, though I imagine many on the anti side consider themselves so.

Compare this to a pro¬-democracy rally in Rangoon, Burma (now called Myanmar to avoid the obvious comparisons with the shave cream product) where hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns challenged the government to release the leader of the pro–democracy movement, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. The Buddhists marched under a huge yellow banner that read, “Love and kindness must win over everything.”

I don’t want to romanticize the Buddhists of Burma, nor do I claim to know what is in the hearts of every protester there. But I cannot imagine such a protest in the United States. Our banners are in-your-face attacks. It is a class of egos and wills, lacking any sense of compassion for the other side.

What does that say about us as a people? What does that say about our dominant religions and the moods they foster?

I mentioned this to one anti-abortion supporter who said it was like the Jews circling Jericho and blowing their trumpets until the walls fell. “That was a peaceful protest,” he said. I reminded him that as soon as the walls fell Joshua ordered his soldiers to slaughter the inhabitants of Jericho. “Yeah, well,” the man said and walked away.

It is hard to imagine a Buddhist monk or nun screaming into a television camera or making harsh if not obscene comments about those who disagree with them. Yet that is what passes for political and social debate in our country. I am trying to imagine Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh, or Bill O’Reilly, or Bill Maher and Al Franken for that matter, marching under a “Love and kindness must win over everything” banner.

Love and kindness aren’t even on the agenda in America. Maybe they never were. I think we find such sentiments silly. We live in a world where money and power matter not love and kindness. I can’t help but wish it were otherwise.

Would I rather live in Myanmar? Not yet. But if the Buddhists have their way and love and kindness are the standards by which their society is run, we would be fools not to visit and see what we can learn.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Metaphor. Handle with Care.

I love metaphor and believe that metaphoric thinking is key to spiritual understanding. But metaphor can be misleading when the feeling the metaphor evokes trumps the wisdom it is meant to impart. Martin Buber’s metaphor “the eclipse of God” is a case in point.

Krista Tippett in her lovely and sometimes maddeningly frustrating book “Speaking of Faith,” uses Buber’s metaphor to introduce the idea that God has turned His Face away from humankind. This is metaphoric thinking at its worst. First of all, it isn’t at all what Buber meant. Secondly, it is theologically false.

An eclipse is not linked to the actions of that which is eclipsed. The sun does not turn away during a solar eclipse; the moon simply gets between us and the sun, and blocks our view. The sun is still shining; we just can’t see it. Buber didn’t mean that God has turned away from us, but that our ideas of god have blocked us from the living Presence of God. Even the word “God” is a block: “It is incumbent upon the human being to get rid also of the name Elohim [god], for it by necessity creates a relation based on an assumption of nearness” (Buber, Eclipse of God, 24).

God is not a being you can locate in or out of space/time. If God is in space/time, then God is no different from us. If God transcends space/time, God is irrelevant to us. For centuries theologians have tried to overcome the irrelevancy of a supernatural god by figuring out how a god who transcends space/time can interact with creatures bound by space/time. The whole enterprise, however, is silly, since the problem only exists in the minds of the people trying to solve it.

It is like a person who comes to you with a brown paper shopping bag and says, “I have a full size elephant in this bag. Can you tell me how I got it in there?” Now you can spend hours imagining all kinds of weird ways to get an elephant into a bag, or you can say, “You can’t have an elephant in that bag,” and walk on. When it comes to matters theological, I prefer to walk on.

It is we who say God is in or out of space/time. If the idea doesn’t make sense, stop saying it. Rather than trying to bridge a gap that we ourselves create, stop creating the gap in the first place.

God is not in space/time; space/time is in God. The reason we may feel eclipsed from God is that we have placed blinders over our eyes at noon, and then convinced ourselves that day has been eclipsed by night.

Of course if you really understand the reality of God in, with, and as all things, even the blinders are God, and you just take them off or leave them on as the mood moves you without imagining that either state effects your real relationship with God at all.

So please handle metaphors with care, making sure they speak truth rather than just evoke feelings.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Somebody Else

On my daily walk this morning an elderly man driving a slightly rusted white Corolla slowed down and pulled up beside me. I kept walking but turned my head smiling in his direction. He smiled back, waved a kind of apology, and said, “I thought you were somebody else.”

“I am somebody else,” I said, but my reply was drowned out by the car’s engine as the man picked speed and left.

“I am somebody else.” It’s true. I am somebody else than who he thought I was. I am somebody other than who he is. And, the more I thought about it, I am somebody other than who I think I am as well. I am somebody else.

The person I was when I went to bed last night isn’t the person I was when I awoke in the morning. The things that preoccupied yesterday’s me had largely fallen away by the time I awoke. And the distractions and dramas in which I awoke had faded by the time I went out to walk, and certainly by the time I returned home, once again as somebody else.

The only thing that ties “yesterday me” to “this morning me” and “right now me” is this story I am spinning about these many me’s. They are all characters in a narrative, and the only thing they have in common is the narrative. But still there must be a “real me,” after all who is telling this story? Isn’t “storytelling me” the real me?

When I go to investigate this I discover that “storytelling me” is simply another character in what is now a slightly more expansive tale that includes this story and the me who is telling it. And when I try to identify this new larger me I find only that it is subsumed into an even larger me, who is subsumed…. You get the point.

If I stop looking I can maintain the illusion that the last me to look is the real me. But this fiction can only be maintained by not looking. Yet as soon as I admit that I am not looking I am in fact looking at not looking and hence discovering yet another me. There is no end to “me” or to the stories told about “me.” And as for a storyteller behind the whole affair, I can’t find one.

So the old man in the Corolla was right: I am somebody else. In fact there seems to be nobody else but somebody else. Which of course leads to another story.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The New D List

After her controversial “Suck It, Jesus” acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards, Kathy Griffin is number one on a new “D” list, the list of the damned.

In her speech, Griffin said "a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus." I don’t think this is offensive. In fact, having seen her show, I would be saddened to learn that Jesus had anything to do with it. It sucks.

She went on to say that if Jesus had his way someone else would have won award. I can see how this remark is troubling to Christians. After all they believe that Jesus does get his way. So either Jesus secretly likes her show and wanted her to win, or he isn’t as powerful as some Christians would have us believe. Heresy either way.

Ms. Griffin then ended her remarks by holding her Emmy aloft shouting, “Suck it, Jesus! This award is my god now!” This is the statement that really seems offensive to many Christians. I will withhold judgment until I get through to Ms. Griffin or her staff, and find out what the “it” is Jesus is supposed to suck.

Some offended Christians are not waiting for clarification, and have taken out a full–page ad in USA TODAY called “Enough is Enough.” The ad asks people to “Stand up for Christ!” and sign a petition against bigotry.

Certainly a petition drive is better than calls for the death of Ms. Griffin, something that I imagine would have happened if she had dissed Mohammed rather than Jesus. But there is something about this particular petition that troubles me. Indeed, it makes me question whether the people behind the petition are really Christians, and what their true agenda is.
The petition says in part, “It is time for people of faith around the country to stand firm against religious slander, bias, and bigotry of all types including Christianity.”

Read this carefully and I think you will discover that the phrase “bigotry of all types including Christianity” means that Christianity is a type of bigotry! Now this is more offensive that anything Ms. Griffin has said. It sounds like something godless liberals would say, not something a God fearing Christian would promote. I have a call into Ann Coulter to ask about this, and until I hear back from her and Ms. Griffin, I am asking people to stand by Jesus, and not defame Christianity by signing this petition.

Enough is enough!

Is Atonement Possible?

Tonight is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and I am looking into the meaning of atonement. I am not concerned with the idea of atonement, its history, or its various definitions and uses. I want to know if, in fact, you and I can achieve atonement, and, if we can, how can we do so.

What is atonement? My Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the reconciliation of God and man through the death of Jesus Christ. Not much help there. In Hebrew the word atonement is kippur and carries connotations of ransom, koppair. We are held captive by our sins, and need to be freed from these.

In ancient times our ransom was paid in blood. Two he–goats were brought the High Priest on Yom Kippur. One was sacrificed to God as ransom for our sins, the other, called Azazel after the cliff over which it was to fall to its death was symbolically laden with the sins of the people and chased out into the wilderness (Leviticus 16: 6–22). With the fall of the Temple in 70 CE the rabbis put an end to vicarious atonement, and shifted emphasis from blood to contrition. Followers of Jesus stuck to the older Temple model and saw Jesus’ death as the final sacrifice. Vicarious atonement through death lingers in Judaism in the tradition of kapparot where hens (for women) and roosters (for men) are symbolically laden with your sins and then killed. The meat is given to the poor, who, I guess, are too hungry to think about the consequences of eating your sins.

Yet neither the death of Jesus, Azazel, or Big Bird, however, speaks to me. If someone has to die for my sins, it should be me.
I do find meaning, however, in the English word itself: atonement, at–one–ment— which I understand as unity with God the source and substance of all reality. Can we achieve at–one–ment? No. You cannot get what you already have: you are always and already one with God. Knowing this is humbling. Being humbled is liberating. Being liberated shifts your focus from achieving atonement to acting from it: doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly in, with, and as God.

So here is your homework (or shulwork) for Yom Kippur. Whenever you find yourself thinking about atonement, stop. Whenever you find yourself wrestling with matters of the spirit, indulging the desire to do theology and thus push What Is into the category of What May Be In The Future, stop. Stop worrying about your relationship with God, and start having godly relationships with the world.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jew Tree

I have been thinking a lot about the Jena Six lately. These are the six African American teens accused of beating up a white teen in Jena, La (pronounced JEEN-uh). Tensions reached the boiling point over a year ago when black students at Jena High (pronounced JEEN-uh Hi) asked to sit under a tree “claimed” by white kids. The day after the request three nooses were swung over the tree’s branches. Threatening blacks with lynching didn’t do much to build interracial harmony.

When talking with my own students about this incident I discovered there was a “black tree” on campus. Complete with a bench, this was the unofficial African American hangout. The irony of having a bench for “Blacks Only” was lost on my African American students. They simply wanted a place to feel at home.

I have no problem with this. People tend to congregate with other people they call “us,” and often feel awkward among those they call “them.” Certainly Jews (pronounced JOOS) should understand this. We are masters of “us” and “them” mentality, as well some of its greatest victims.

In my hometown, for example, the country club was Judenrine (German for “Free of Jews”), so the Jews built their own club. My little sister and her girl friends did the same thing when my friends and I built a Boys-Only Fort in the woods behind our house. So I wish African Americans and their tree all the best.

What does trouble me, however, is this: Where is the Jew tree? It turns out that there is no Jewish Tree on campus. This may not surprise you. Ever since the Garden of Eden the only tree that matters to Jews is Torah, which isn’t really a tree at all, but is called one by rabbis deliberately misreading Proverbs 3:18, “She is a Tree of Life to those who hold her close.” The Proverb is referring to Wisdom, God’s Daughter, but the rabbis imagine the reference is to Torah. True, Jews do love to plant trees on our New Year of the Tree (Tu b’Shevat) and there are whole forests of trees with little plaques bearing my name on them, but we prefer the metaphorical tree of Torah to the real thing probably because you can house it in an air-conditioned room rather than have to deal with actual weather.

Nature not withstanding, I took it upon myself to secure a Jewish Tree on campus. Our tree will be close to the library, and its Starbucks. After all what is the point of congregating under a tree if you can’t schmooze about books and share a little nosh?

The initial response to my proposal was positive, though I ran into trouble when I asked for a second tree across from the first. When asked why Jews needed two trees (if you know the joke, forgive me), I explained that given the fractious nature of Jewish culture we Jews needed one tree under which some of us would gather and another under which some of us would never gather. (If you don’t know the joke, ask a Jewish friend about the Jew stranded on a desert island. If you don’t have a Jewish friend, find a Jew Tree and make one.) My proposal is pending.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hell Yes!

Sometimes religion is just plain scary. Case in point: Robert Peterson’s article “The Darkside of Eternity: Hell as Eternal Conscious Punishment” in the current issue of Christian Research Journal. Peterson argues “the wicked will suffer the pains of hell forever.” The wicked, I assume, are those who don’t agree with Robert Peterson, and what Peterson imagines for us (I am not a believer, thank God) is that the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Love will keep us fully conscious as fire sears our every moment.

I had hoped that the author would feel bad about this, but he shows no more remorse than the god he worships. Instead he blithely cites chapter and verse to prove his point: Jesus condemning the unsaved to eternal damnation in Matthew 25:41, and making the case for eternal suffering in Mark 9:47-48. There are other citations, but the point is clear: “the sufferings of hell consist in everlasting conscious punishment.”

The god of unconditional love that some Christians proclaim is, at least according to this theory, a lie, and those who propagate this compassionate theology will pay dearly for all eternity. God’s love is conditional: you have to believe the party line (good luck in figuring out which is the right party, however), in order to receive it, and if you don’t this god condemns you to eternal conscious torture. Obviously Rev. Peterson’s god has never read the Geneva Convention. Or, if he has, he has no more respect for it then Alberto Gonzales. But at least Rev. Peterson is honest: his god is a sadist.

This is one reason I love being a Jew. While our god is more than willing to commit genocide in this world, he doesn’t carry his hatred over into the world to come. Better still, this is why I love being a descendant of Abraham who had the guts to challenge god over Sodom saying, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth, himself do justly?” Abraham offers a check to God’s power: justice and compassion. And it works. If Abraham had argued God down to one righteous person rather than ten the city would have been saved. He simply misjudged the depravity of the people. While he certainly had his faults (ask Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac), he was far superior to both Rev. Peterson and Rev Peterson’s god.

I believe we create gods in our own image. Rev. Peterson and the millions of Christians who believe as he does must be very angry, fearful people who are either too cowardly to challenge their god, or who delight in knowing that those who disagree with them are going to burn for that slight. Their god doesn’t scare me, but they do.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Changing American Jew, part 2

I came across a wonderful story by Edgar Allan Poe that speaks to yesterday’s post regarding emerging trends among American Jews. The story is called “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”

Three brothers who regularly fish the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Norway are caught in a hurricane. One brother ties himself to the mainmast to keep from being blown overboard, but the mast breaks and carries him into the sea where he drowns. As their ship is sucked into the vortex, the second brother notices that lighter objects caught in the vortex are pushed out to safety. He explains this to the third brother, ties himself to a barrel, and abandons ship. The third brother chooses not to follow, convinced that the ship will survive the whirlpool. As the barrel carrying the second brother is flung out of harms way, the ship is crushed and the third brother dies. When the surviving brother is rescued he explains how he survived but his rescuers don’t believe him.

We American Jews are these brothers, Judaism is our ship, and the maelstrom is reality. Staying on board dooms us. Only by grabbing a barrel and trusting the chaos can we hope to survive. Most of us prefer to stay on board, either lashed to the mast of tradition or clinging to one rail or another. Not all of us will disappear, but those who remain will be the Jewish equivalent of the Amish: quaint and irrelevant. Only those who grab a barrel and brave the storm will make it.

What is the barrel? Torah broadly defined as the Jewish literature from the Bible to Chabon. With our stories intact, we can do what we have always done: create new understandings from old texts that continue to speak our timeless truth: justice and compassion as the way to and the way of holiness.

Story is at the heart of identity. Tradition is the way we live the story, but when tradition comes to replace the story the sap is gone from the tree and the tree dies. But try to tell this to people and they think you are mad. They are attached to the form and cannot imagine surviving without it. Yet that is the genius of the Jew.

There is no one form that has defined us. We adapt. We create. But whatever we create is linked back to Torah, to our story. In the Bible alone we find a host of Judaisms: Abrahamic, Priestly, Prophetic, and a Judaism of Wisdom that is almost atheistic in its iconoclasm. Which one of these is THE true Judaism? None and all. And then there is rabbinic Judaism, and kabbalistic Judaism, and Yiddish secular Judaism, and the plethora of modern Judaisms. If any one of these had to encompass all Jews for all time, there would be no Jews or Judaism at all.

We don’t need another survey telling us there is a maelstrom brewing; just stick your head out the window and you will see that is so. What we need is a barrel, some rope, and the guts to jump ship.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Changing American Jew, Part 1

A new study of American Jews points to the emergence of what authors Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman call a “privatized Judaism” rooted in “a more open notion of community, a more fluid conception of Jewish identity, and a more critical approach to peoplehood and belonging.” Not surprisingly, privatized Jews tend to be young (35 and under), intermarried, and less attached to Israel then their elders.

Jews love this kind of study. It feeds our paranoia that we are about to die out. We have been feeding this fear at least since the second century BCE when a study showed that young, cosmopolitan Jews were attracted to Greek philosophy and culture.

We aren’t dying; we are changing. Of course we may die out, but if we do it will be because we have become irrelevant, at which point our disappearance is deserved and not to be mourned. Irrelevance, not change, is the real challenge to Jewish life and survival.

Ask most Jews why they should be Jewish and they have no idea. Those that do most often speak of loyalty to parents, tribe, and culture; maybe even God and Torah. But rarely will someone say, “I am a Jew because the world needs Jews and the prophetic Jewish message of universal justice and compassion.” Yet it is this that really matters.

The Jewish mission is to promote Ethical Monotheism, the idea that One God gives rise to one world, one humanity, and one moral code: justice and compassion for all. At the heart of who we are is the prophetic call to do justly and love mercy. Where is the survey measuring that? As long as we measure Jewishness by love of Israel or synagogue attendance we will never address the core problem. Jews will love Israel when Israel becomes a light unto the nations, a beacon of justice and compassion. Jews will come together in community when the community does something worthy of their time and energy.

If Jewish youth are redefining community, identity, peoplehood, and belonging let’s fund a study that shows us what these new definitions are and where they may be going. Then let’s work with these new realities to create a compelling Judaism that can infuse the life of the emerging Jew with the prophetic call for justice and compassion and a Judaism that embodies it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Merry-Go-Round Mind

First I have to apologize to anyone who thinks I am a basher of Christianity, or anyone who feels that I focus on the dumbest elements of that faith. I don’t mean to do either. But I do tend to find myself talking to people who, when I report what they say to me, sound dumb. This is one of those conversations.

I stepped in my local bookstore to use the free Wi-Fi, and there is a Bible study group meeting at an adjoining table. Someone raised a question about the Koran, and asked why the Koran says that God did not impregnate Mary and father Jesus.

The Bible study leader said the Koran was wrong, and that it propagated this lie because it was the book of the devil, Allah.

I waited a moment to see if anyone in the group would challenge this, and when they did not I leaned over and spoke up.

“The Koran claims to be the direct Word of God— Allah being not a devil but the Arabic word for God. When Arabic speaking Christians pray in Arabic they pray to Allah. They are not Satanists, so why assume that Muslims are? And there is no way to prove that the Koran is not the Word of God.”

“You are so mistaken,” the teacher said, making room for me at his table. “The Bible says, for example, that Isaac was almost sacrificed by Abraham. The Koran says it was Ishmael. But we know that Ishmael had been banished, so he could not have been with Abraham on the mountain.”

“But the Koran does not say Ishmael was banished.”

“Proving that it is wrong. And there is the matter of God having Son. We know that Jesus is God’s Son through Mary. The Koran denies this. It is wrong.”

“But how do you know it is wrong.”

“Because the Bible tells me different.”

“But how do you know the Bible is true?”

“Because it is the Bible.”



What I saw is that this fellow’s reasoning goes in circles, and there is no way off the merry–go–round of his faith. I didn’t take the place at his table. I wonder if I should have.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


In his classic work, Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji, the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, claims there are 6,400,099,180 moments in a day. Now you could check out his math, assuming you could figure out what he meant by a “moment,” or you could simply be impressed that he has a number at all. I choose the later. I just find the number—6,400,099,180—compelling, and somehow comforting; it leaves plenty of time for mistakes.

A mistake is what it says it is: a missed opportunity to take advantage of a moment. Something is held out to me and I just don’t notice. It could be that what is offered is not something I would choose to grasp anyway, but I won’t know if I don’t pay attention. Unlike many games, the game of life requires you to be present in order to win.

I usually find myself reacting to moment 6,373,199,102 when moment 6,373,199,103 is being offered. I don’t realize I am living in the past until the past I am living in has long passed. There are some spiritual masters who tell me this is an error on my part, and that it keeps me from achieving enlightenment. But I don’t think so.

It seems to me that the “me” itself can only be a reaction to the past. “Me” and “I” are products of the past. The “I” I take myself to be at this moment (moment #4,273,100,736 but who’s counting?) is simply a reflection of the “I” I was in the last moment. And by the time I realize this I am already in the next moment dragging the past along with me.

There is no “I” or “me” in the present moment. That is why I don’t trust people who claim to live in the present. First of all everyone and everything lives in the present, there is no alternative. But the “I” that knows it is living at all is never in the present, but always in the past. Living is always in the present; the liver is always in the past (so are lungs, kidneys, and hearts).

What Dogen is saying (to me anyway) is that I have 6,400,099,180 chances to realize this every day. Of course “realizing” too is of the past, so what he is really saying is that I will experience 6,400,099,180 failures of realization every day. That’s a lot of failures. And in a culture that values success over failure it is very humbling. I like “humbling.”

I like the freedom that comes with being humbled, with knowing that failure is the norm. Of course failure, no less than success, is in the past, so maybe failure and success are both meaningless. Maybe realization and nonrealization are both insane goals. Maybe there are just moments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 6,400,099,180.

Does this bother you? It thrills me. Just moments—no point, no goal, no purpose, just moments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 6,400,099,180.

Monday, September 10, 2007

No Shul for Me this Rosh haShanah

I’m not going to Rosh haShanah services this week. Synagogue holds no fascination for me. Neither does the liturgy nor the babble of rabbis and pundits. Despite the fact— or perhaps because of it— that Rosh haShanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are the times when most Jews, even nonobservant Jews go to shul, I am staying home.

This will be the first time in over fifty years that I have not attended synagogue on the High Holy Days. I did not pursue a High Holy Day pulpit this year, and one did not pursue me. I knew that if I were to lead services other than those I myself would compose, I would be forced to pretend to beliefs I do not hold, or forced to mangle words in order to make them seem to say what I want them to say, rather than what they do say.

And what they do say is that there is a God “out there” somewhere who watches and judges and decides my fate. I haven’t believed this since I was a kid. There is no “out there” and judging and deciding require a human–like consciousness that God, as I understand God, just doesn’t have.

I have been told I should go to shul not for God but for community. But there is no real meeting with people at High Holy Days. It is too crowded, too formal. To sit in pews and read words that only antagonize me is not a catalyst for community. I would rather sit in silence and then speak intimately with others from the heart.

So I shall go on retreat for Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. I shall leave town and walk in the woods and make a sacred pilgrimage to the center of my being by walking a local labyrinth. And I will pray. I will pray as I always do: speaking directly to God without a fixed text; simply pouring my heart out to Her and having Her reflect my suffering and my joy back to me that I might better learn how to shoulder the burdens of my life and lessen the burden I place on other lives.

Yet I will pray one traditional piece of liturgy: “Who shall live? Who shall die?” This is the one liturgical insight that matters to me: who shall live and die and suffer and rejoice… We don’t know (though in a sense the answer is “me”). The prayer solves nothing, reveals nothing. It says that we cannot know today what will befall us tomorrow, but that we can live each day with repentance, prayer, and generosity. This is a New Year challenge that never grows old or stale or meaningless for me.

Another Rosh haShanah tradition I value is asking for forgiveness, so let me close with this: If I have hurt any of you this year, knowingly or unknowingly, advertantly or inadvertently, I ask your forgiveness. And if I have not caused you pain, just give me time.

L’Shana Tova

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Browning of a Terrorist

By the time you read this, Osama Bin Laden has released his new video. I saw an advance photo of him from the video, and I must say, “Osama, you look marvelous!”

Osama has colored his beard, and it has taken years off his face. He looks like a young terrorist again. His message is clear: “Cave living is good for you. It makes you younger. If you think worrying about the Americans is getting me, aging me— well think again.”

The more I thought about the new beard color, however, the more curious I became as to how he did this. Do you think he just walked into a Pakistani salon and said, “Salaam aleikem, Habibi, can you do something with this gray? It’s making me feel so, you know, 9/11. It’s been six years with the same look. Let’s get crazy! The gray has got to go.” I doubt it.

For one thing, the paparazzi would have been all over him. Photos of Osama sitting in the beauty parlor chair reading the latest issue Beneath the Burka (for the essays, of course) would have appeared worldwide in hours. So going to a salon is out of the question.

Maybe he just walked into his cave, mixed some hair dye he had ordered on–line, and reemerged a younger man. Yet this doesn’t make sense either. After all what would his fellow terrorists think?

“Have seen the O-man? He has gone so metrosexual!”

“You know, I was thinking the same thing. It’s like he’s thinking about dating again. Just between you and me I heard he really bombs in bed. Get it? Bombs in bed? I’d send that joke to The New Yorker if we didn’t hate that city so much.”

No, a shocking change from gray to brown would be too much for his people to bear. I think he would have had to do this gradually so as not to disturb his followers. My guess is that he planned this for months, and that the reason we haven’t seen him for so long is that he was slowly washing away the gray.

To be certain, however, I contacted a source in Pakistan, and asked about available hair color products. For safety’s sake he asked me to call him “Abdul” (his real name is Hassan). “Abdul” told me that you can’t buy most American hair products in the mountainous regions of Pakistan where Bin Laden is living.

Vidal Sasson is not available because the Sassons are Jews. Clairol is prohibited be cause it has the letter “i,” “o,” and “l” in its name, which spells “oil” and links Clairol to the Saudi Royal Family which Bin Laden hates. According to “Abdul” Grecian Formula is Osama’s brand of choice. “You must remember that we Arabs were the ones who kept Greek philosophy alive. We love Aristotle, so anything Greek is cool with us.”

And with me. I just know the new color will make Osama stand out more clearly against the pale backdrop of the Pakistani hills. I just pray someone is looking.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The "G" Word

The Anti–Defamation League has broken with most Jewish organizations and has called the Turkish slaughter of Armenians what is was: a genocide. The Turks continue to deny their history, and have used their leverage with the United States and Israel to keep these nations quiet as well.

I understand why Jews and many Israelis are reluctant to use the “g” word. Turkey is very important to Israel on a number of fronts, and poking a stick in the eye of the Turks is bad for business and Israeli security.

I understand that Israel is not a nation of saints or a saintly nation. Zionism was about realpolitik, building a homeland for Jews not a homeland for Jewish ideals. Many of us in the Diaspora conflate the two, and demand that Israel be a holy nation, but this is not possible. Nations, like corporations, have only one obligation: to see to the best interests of their stakeholders. If allowing the denial of the Armenian holocaust to continue is the price of Turkish cooperation, then so be it.

But understanding a problem doesn’t help my nausea over the fact that we Jews, of all people, are willing to help a country turn a blind eye to its genocidal past.

I am na├»ve, I suppose, but I want Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora to stand for something other than tribal solidarity and survival. The world doesn’t need Jews in name only. The gifts of the Jews to humanity have little to do with our genetic code and DNA, and everything to do with our prophets and wisdom sages. From Abraham to Jesus we stood against the status quo. And yes, when we were the status quo we exploited our own as a nation like every other. But we continually rose above our baser instincts and realpolitik and called ourselves and the world to a universal justice, compassion, and humility that trumped and transcended tribal concerns.

I just can’t get over how Jews, with our oh so sanctimonious “Never Again,” can pretend that other people don’t suffer genocidal madness of homicidal regimes. We all know the Armenian Holocaust happened, but we are too timid to say so.

Rabbi Hillel said two thousand years ago: In a place where there are no heroes, be a hero. Bravo to the heroism of the ADL for their willingness to use the “G” word and allow the Armenians and their suffering its rightful place in history. How sad for the rest of our institutions, and the State that claims to speak for all Jews, that our fear is greater than our shame.

This is the season of asking others for forgiveness. It would be a powerful first step toward regaining our honor if our Jewish organizations and State asked the Armenian people to forgive our cowardice. By admitting we are cowards we might find the prophetic passion to be heroes once again.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mustard Seeds

Next week is Rosh haShanah. I brought this to the attention of my students at Middle Tennessee State University to tell them why we will have no class next Thursday. But then I tried to give them some insight into what Rosh haShanah is.

Of course we looked at the relevant Torah portions (this was in Bible class after all), but that told them little. And we explored the idea of forgiveness and devoting the month of Elul that leads up to Rosh haShanah to forgiveness, but that too didn’t get at the heart of the matter.

Then I told them about Reb Nachman and his pun on Rosh haShanah as seeing “rosh” as head and “shanah” as “shinui,” change. Rosh haShanah is a day to change your head.

Still blank stares. “Metanoia,” I said. This is what Jesus asks of you, “metanoia,” literally to change your mind, to change your head, to change you level of consciousness. This is what Jesus is asking you to do, and the Jews have a special season for doing it. Of course Jesus, being a Jew, knew this and tried to come up with metaphors that would speak to his understanding of what a changed head might be like.

He called living with a changed head the Kingdom of Heaven. You no longer thought with an earth–bound, selfish, egoic mind. You now though with a cosmic mind, seeing God in, with, and as all things. One metaphor for the Kingdom of Changed Heads is the mustard seed. This is a troubling metaphor.

My students told me that saying the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed is saying that it starts small and grows big. We need to plant the seed of change and God will nurture change within us. OK, except…

OK, except that the mustard seed was a weed that would choke off your garden, kill off other produce. It was a cancer. No one planted mustard seed except in highly controlled situations. It was dangerous. It killed the old, the counted on, the safe. And that is why it is a good metaphor.

Changing your head, thinking with a new mind, a new consciousness that goes beyond the egoic mind of last year, is not fun or comfortable. It means chocking off the old; killing off what you thought was in your best interest and seeing something new.

Rosh haShanah should be a mustard seed planted at the head of the year. It should bring about a changed head, a new heart and new spirit (Ezekiel 18:31). It should take over your life and kill off all that is old and not longer life-giving. Otherwise the only “new” in New Year is the number “8” in 5768.

L’shana Tovah, this year’s changes be for the good.