Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Self, Candy, and Being Present for Halloween

Tomorrow evening is Halloween. I plan to dress up as my self. Not my true Self, there is no costume for that; and not my polished persona, there is little that is scary about that. No, I plan to dress up as my ordinary self: my ego.

What will this look like? The Tasmanian Devil on steroids: a tornado of conflicting thoughts and feelings that change so fast that no one, not even me, can make sense of it.

I will fly up to a neighbor’s door, bang loudly, and when the door is opened scream, “Trick or treat, no wait, treat, treat, treat! No! Tricks just tricks. Gimme candy. And a new Prius and an iMac. Gimme something really cool, but even if you do I won’t care about it two minutes later so you better have something even more cool to give me after that. Oh, forget it. I don’t deserve anything anyway. Just keep your crappy candy. What I really need is a hug and a pat on the head. Good boy. Yeah, say, ‘Good boy,’ that would be nice. But what the hell do you know about me anyway? You don’t know me, so don’t pat my head or kick my butt. And don’t think I won’t kick yours. Who cares about you anyway? Unless you have candy. Gimme candy. And what about that car…”

Long before I finish all this I am certain my neighbor has called 911 or taken a shot at me himself, after all I noticed he subscribes to Guns and Gardens, a new magazine about life in the South (no, I’m not kidding). I don’t blame him. Meeting me would be terrifying, to me as well as to you. But I don’t know you, so I will focus on me.

I hate meeting me. I’m so messy. I try hard not to meet me by staying so busy that there just isn’t time. Yet I do bump into myself once in a while, coming and going; always on the fly or on the run. Never on the sit, which is the one place I really need to schedule the meeting.

So maybe that is what I will do this Halloween. Rather than run next door as me, I might just sit on my meditation cushions and spend some time with me. Which reminds me of a story Roshi Norm Fisher tells about Zen Master Ryon (I’m not certain of the spelling).

The master would call out loud to himself saying, “Rayon!” “Yes, master, here I am!” Rayon would reply. “Pay attention!” “Yes, master, I will.”

This is a good story and an even better practice. Call it Hinneni (Hebrew for Here I Am) practice. This is the way to meet myself: “Rami!” “Yes, rabbi, hinneni, I’m here!” “Pay attention! Don’t get wrapped up in the drama! Do justly! Love mercy! Walk humbly!” “Yes, rabbi, I will.”

My plan now is to sit on my cushions, and call to myself. And then I’ll walk next door and get that candy from my neighbor.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Spirit, Nature, and Story

[Here is a summary of a short talk I gave as part of an environmentalism conference called Spirit and Nature in September of ’07.]

Judaism loves the earth. In the Bible it, along with all creation, is judged “tov” and “tov meod”: good and very good. In the Psalms we are told that God’s glory permeates creation. In the Wisdom literature we are told to learn from the animals even the ant (Proverbs 6:6). In Jewish mysticism ancient, medieval, and modern creation is God manifest. So Judaism loves the earth. Jews, on the other hand, are something else.

Like every other people, most Jews are driven by fear, greed, alienation, and scarcity consciousness. Like almost every other person on this planet we suffer from the delusion of separateness, dualism, and The Other. The people who teach us “Love your neighbor” have lived in fear of their neighbors for two thousand years. “The people who teach us “Love the stranger” are themselves estranged and afraid. This wasn’t our doing, but it is our reality. It is our psyche wound that we have yet to name, let alone heal.

I know this sounds harsh, but it is necessary if we are to avoid the vapid romanticism that so often permeates meetings such as this one. Don’t romanticize religion or tradition, for all its good there is a concomitant evil. Don’t romanticize indigenous peoples, pretending that they somehow escape the human predicament. This demeans them and is a subtle form of racism. Don’t romanticize nature. She is both wondrous and terrifying. Global warming is not a threat to the earth but to humanity. Gaia will take care of herself and remove four billion of us in the process. This is not going to be pretty.

When we stop romanticizing the earth we will stop demonizing humanity. People are as natural to this planet as the earthworm. Yes, the herd must be thinned, but we still matter. On this planet we are one of the ways, perhaps even the only way, that Gaia gets to see herself and say, “Wow!”

The problem with humanity is that fewer and fewer of us still know how to say, “Wow!” We have lost the capacity to wonder, to stand in awe. We have lost the ability to tremble before infinite manifest in the finite.

To reclaim our capacity to wonder and tremble, we need to regain our capacity to tell stories.

At our core we humans are story–telling animals. It is through story that we make sense of our lives, our world, and ourselves. But our stories have grown stale, and for many, and here I would says Jews suffer greatly, insular. We need a new story of creation that honors what we know from science and provides meaning to human existence. We need a story that spans billions of years rather than six days. We need a story that makes explicit what Genesis leaves implicit: all is God. We need a story that establishes a new tribe, the tribe of the living. Unless and until we humans can tell a new and healing story, all our efforts to live in harmony with Gaia will fail.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Insult Voter

I am used to reading about Values Voters, Security Moms, and the dozen or so other sub-groupings of Americans who may vote in the 2008 presidential race. Today I would like to add another group to the list: the Insult Voter. The Insult Voter is a Christian Conservative who bashes a candidate’s religion while supporting his or her politics. The best example of an Insult Voter is Bob Jones III of Bob Jones University.

Jones said that while he is “completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism,” he is endorsing the former Massachusetts Governor candidacy. His logic? “What’s the alternative, Hillary’s lack of religion or an erroneous religion?” In other words, better to back a conservative who believes in a lie then a liberal who does not.

Logic aside, some in the press are dumping on Mitt for not defending his faith and rejecting the endorsement. But this isn’t fair. Most people who support Governor Romney now, and most of those who will vote for him in the primaries agree with Bob Jones III that Mormonism is a false religion. They aren’t voting for Mitt because he’s a Mormon, they are voting for him because he is, at least at the moment, pro-God, pro-Guns, pro-Life, and anti-Gay. They’d vote for the Anti-Christ if his politics were red enough, and the Rapture didn’t take them first.

Yet some claim that Mitt’s failure to defend his faith is a sign that he stands for nothing but winning. True he did seem willing to lean “blue” to become the governor of Massablusetts, and now he is leaning red to become president, but every candidate is doing that to one degree or another. Candidates essentially buy votes by backing policies that serve constituencies rather than the nation as a whole. And they stay in power by selling influence to wealthy special interests. So Governor Romney isn’t doing anything unusual here. In fact being able to make a deal with Bob Jones might suggest that Mitt has the capacity to broker agreements with America’s enemies, something our current Crusader in Chief cannot do.

But I think Mitt Romney ignored Bob Jones’ insults for a different reason. Mitt knows that as a good Mormon man he may someday become a god ruling over his own planet. At that point he can take his revenge on anyone he damn well pleases. In the meantime there is the New Hampshire primary to worry about.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dinesh D'Souza, A Response

In his essay “A Christian Foundation” (USA Today, October 22, 2007) Dinesh D’Souza argues, “Christianity has shaped the core institutions and values of the USA and the West. Christianity is responsible even for secular institutions such as democracy and science. It has fostered in our civilization values such as respect for human dignity, human rights, and human equality that even secular people cherish.”

While not wrong, Mr. D’Souza’s statement is meaningless. The West was overwhelmingly Christian, so of course the heroes of the Western democracy and science were Christian, but so too were the despots and madmen. Substitute “white men” for “Christianity” in his argument and, while still true, its silliness becomes even clearer. The fact that people of European Christian heritage brought us democracy and science does not mean that Christianity supported either.
For example, Roman Catholicism, and the Anglican and Lutheran churches supported the divine right of kings, not democracy; and Calvinist churches sought only to limit the king’s power not end it. And while it is true that the Puritans sought to escape the Anglican theocracy of Britain, they did not extend freedom of thought or worship to those who disagreed with them, and set up their own theocracies in America.
Regarding science Mr. D’Souza says, “The greatest scientists of the West…were Christians,” and lists Copernicus and Galileo to prove his point. Again this is meaningless! Copernicus feared death at the hands of the Inquisition if he published his theory that the earth orbits the sun. And when his “Revolution of the Celestial Spheres” was published after his death, the Church put it on its Index of Prohibited Books. And Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his findings because they went against church doctrine, and then spent that last years of his life under house arrest. While Christian scientists struggled on in search of truth, they did so without the blessing of Christianity.
D’Souza then turns to the self-evident notion that “all men are created equal.” This, D’Souza claims, was only self-evident in Christian countries where “[e]very life has a worth no greater and no lesser than any other.” Ask Jews in Christian Europe if they were of equal worth. Ask Native Americans. Ask Africans slaves. Ask Indians. Ask women.

To prove the superiority of Christian civilization D’Souza then says, “Greek and Roman culture was built on slavery” implying that Christian culture was not. Talk about denial! Not only was America built on slavery; the overwhelmingly Christian South went to war because it was certain it could not survive without it. Yes, many devote Christians were passionate abolitionists, but Christian slaveholders were equally devote, and both justified their positions by citing their Christian values.

According to Mr. D’Souza, since Americans were (and are) overwhelmingly Christian, all things American are rooted in Christianity. Following this line of reasoning we could argue that Christianity is also responsible for slavery, the Civil War, the KKK, genocide against Native Americans, and racism. This wouldn’t be wrong, but it would be totally misleading.

I sympathize with Mr. D’Souza’s desire to defend his faith, but to do so in such an intellectually disingenuous manner does more harm than good.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Is Peace Possible?

[This is the text for a speech I plan to deliver this morning at Christ Community Church in Grand Haven, MI.]

Is peace possible? Not simply the absence of conflict, but true peace, the ability to engage life without anger, greed, jealousy, or hostility of any kind? Or are we doomed by our very nature to war, inner and outer?

I am not asking for an opinion or a conviction, but for an investigation. You may think one way or another, but your thinking is conditioned by your parents and peers, your religion and your politics. You may have been taught that peace is possible, and you may have spent your life cultivating it personally, professionally, and politically, but this doesn’t mean peace is really possible, only that you have been conditioned to think so. Or the opposite may be the case: you were taught that life is a zero-sum game; that if you are going to win others must lose; and that the only way to win is to grab all you can when you can regardless of the consequences.

I was taught the latter. I was taught that life is war, and I am warrior, albeit not a very effective one. My personality isn’t geared for war. I dislike conflict and shy away from it whenever possible. I would rather surrender my slice of pie than defend it. Of course there are limits; there are things for which I will rally, but I prize quiet and calm and being left alone too much to fight for much.

But quiet isn’t peace. The silence of guns and gangs isn’t peace. Being left alone isn’t peace. The battles continue in my own mind, and as long as there is war inside, there will be war outside.

So I am asking, can you be peace? I cannot answer this for you, I can only explore it for myself, and ask that you do the same. So lets look at this for a moment.

I am not peaceful now. I am even at this very moment a jumble of conflicting stories, drives, passions, longings, hungers, etc. To end this inner turmoil is only to add another conflict to the mix. It is bad enough that I am at war internally, now I must be at war with the fact that I am at war. I must declare war on my warring nature. I must defeat my desire to defeat. This is simply more of the same thing.

So, is peace possible? Not if I define peace as being other than I am. Yet if I simply accept what I am and act on it, that is not peace either. So I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t. A classic double bind.

Double binds are the gateway to transformation. The key is to learn to hold reality in a larger context, a bigger mind. Can I simply make room for war without identifying with it? Can I realize that anger, greed, jealously, hatred, fear, and the rest are a part of me, but not all of me? Can I allow them space without allowing them to define me?

This isn’t peace. This is freedom. Freedom allows me to engage the moment in a manner unscripted by my psychological, political, and religious conditioning. I can’t say in advance what this engagement will look life. There is only the truth of the moment. But coming from freedom rather than conditioning I suspect that compassion rather than conflict will be the norm.

Freedom isn’t won. That is another war. Freedom isn’t cultivated, or earned. That is more struggle. Freedom is here and now if you simply look at the reality within you. There is no awakening, or enlightenment, or salvation, or transformation. All these are trapped in linear time, and time implies change and change means conflict as you move from one way of being to another which you imagine is better.

Forget better and worse. Forget peace and conflict. Forget being other than you are. Simply see all that you are. The one who sees is free from what is seen. And that makes all the difference.

Is peace possible? No. Conflict is systemic to the human ego. Is freedom possible? Yes. There is something greater than the ego. And that something is the real you. Live from that.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Religious Litmus Test

For a nation that supposedly separates Church and State, it is both sad and ironic that we have a religious litmus test for those who wish to become President of the United States.

The test is an odd one, however. First you have to belong to a religion that doesn’t make most Americans nervous. At the moment that means Christianity and Judaism (Islam has made it into Congress, but it will take awhile to get beyond that). Belonging to Wicca or Santeria, for example, will probably keep you out of the Oval Office, for the foreseeable future.

Second you have to be willing to deny your faith in public: not deny that you are a believer, only deny that being a believer matters when it comes to being president: “While I have my personal beliefs, I seek to be president of all Americans, and will not foist my beliefs on others.” And with that we are all supposed to sigh with relief.

A president who can turn off his or her personal convictions for political gain, however, troubles me. If you really believe abortion is murder, then stand up, say so, and try to have it made illegal. I can respect that. But waffling on morality makes me nervous.

If we are going to have a religious litmus test let’s find out exactly what our presidential candidates believe. I would like to see presidential debate moderates ask the following questions:

“Is it true, Governor Romney, that as a Mormon you believe God has a wife?”

“Those of you who deny evolution in favor of creationism, just how old do you think the earth is?”

“Those of you professing the Christian faith, do you believe that non–Christian Americans are going to burn in hell for all eternity?”

“To those of you who profess to be Catholics, I would like to know how you are willing to risk your eternal soul and support American policies and laws the Catholic Church finds offensive?”

“Do you believe homosexuality is an abomination to God, and how do you feel about woman’s rights and their status within your respective churches?”

I would find the answers to these questions very helpful in making my choice on Election Day. I would not vote for a president who refused to take science seriously. I would not vote for a president who thought I was going to be tormented in hell for all eternity. I would not vote for a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, or surrogate for the Pope. I would not vote for a person who simply accepted religious doctrine without thinking it through and questioning it and coming to her or his own conclusions. In short, I would not vote for a person so totally unlike myself as to make me feel threatened in my own country. But unless we ask these kinds of questions, we won’t know for whom we are voting until it is too late.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What's The Big Idea? Part Three: Anti Up

If you have read parts One and Two of my rant against the Big Idea contest sponsored by the Bronfman Foundation you know that I think the idea is well meaning and doomed. There is no Big Idea that will transform American Jewry because American Jews just don’t care about Judaism all that much. Sure it’s nice to know that we’re The Chosen, but if the Bid Idea is to get us to be more Jewish, it just isn’t going to happen.

But, once again, I seem to have blogged too soon, and I want to formally apologize to the Bronfmans and their Foundation for not thinking this through more carefully. I now believe that there is a Big Idea out there that can rekindle the Jewish passions and ethnic identity of American Jews. It’s called anti-Semitism.

Think about it. If the Greco-Syrians hadn’t demanded Jews bow down to their god we wouldn’t have had the Maccabean War. If American medical centers had hired Jewish doctors, we wouldn’t have so many Sinai Hospitals.

When the Southern Baptists declared that God doesn’t hear the prayer of Jews, we Jews went ballistic. The fact that most of us don’t pray or even believe in a God who listens to prayer, was irrelevant. The great Satan of Christian anti-Semitism had reared his ugly head, and we would rise to destroy him. Or at least get him to be quiet.

Similarly, the recent statement of the godly Ann Coulter that Jews need to be “perfected,” that is we need to become Christians, got us hot and bothered.

We may not know how to get Jews excited about Judaism, but we do know how to get them feeling Jewish: anti-Semitism works. The Big Idea that the Bronfman Foundation needs to fund, the one sure fire way to get Jews focused on their Jewishness is an all out revival of American anti-Semitism.

We don’t need a messiah, we need an anti-messiah. The Bronfman Foundation should secretly fund a charismatic Christian Rightist who will get America declared a Christian Nation, and set a Christian litmus test for political office holders. He or she will hold public burnings of the Talmud, and lobby Congress to outlaw circumcision, kosher food (I would add Chinese food as well just to be safe), and Seinfeld reruns.

Of course they would have to funnel money into Jewish organizations fighting this puppet madman so that Jews could rally and fight for their religion and ethnic pride. I am certain this would work. I am also certain nothing else can.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

AC-JC and the Perfected Jew

Ann Coulter, in a nationally televised interview, said Jews need perfecting. By “perfecting” she means that Jews need Jesus.

AC wants a nation devoted to JC. It would be more convenient and efficient, she said. Pluralism and freedom are messy. And messy is just what the terrorists want. So come on, Heebs, if you are really loyal Americans you will accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

Ann Coulter’s capacity to outrage is in direct proportion to her capacity to make money, so the fact that she said this doesn’t surprise me. I have no intension of picking a fight with her. In fact, I think she has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to gauge the heart of Christian America.

In an age when Christians complain that American Muslims don’t speak up when their coreligionists attack America (verbally and otherwise) it will be interesting to see which if any Christian leaders speak out against the anti-Semitic ravings of one of their own.

Judging from her mock surprise that Jews might be insulted by her notion that they need perfecting, I suspect few true-red Christian will find anything offensive in her comments. After all, as far as they are concerned only Christians are going to heaven, and Jews (along with everyone else outside their self-defined circle of the saved) are damned to hell for all eternity. So what’s to be shocked? We have heard this crap for two thousand years. We should be used to it by now.

But wait, this isn’t supposed to happen in America. George Washington promised us that America not was a Christian nation and would welcome Jews. Thomas Jefferson said there is a wall between church and state that would protect us from state sanctioned religious persecution. America is different.

But America may not be America any more. Driven more by fear than reason, blaming everything from 9/11 to Iraq on Jews and the Israeli Lobby, informed by a media obsessed with ratings, and mistaking decibels for dialogue, we are a people more and more willing to sacrifice our values to secure our vices. As we move closer to electing a new president we seem to be thoughtlessly condoning increased levels of homophobia, misogyny, and racism. We are afraid to stand up for what we used to stand for, and toss our civil rights aside for fear of being soft on terrorism.

Ann Coulter certainly isn’t soft on terrorism, and neither is her Jesus. The Jesus Ms. Coulter wants us Jews to accept is more about the Kingdom of Greed than the Kingdom of God. He is more about sanctioning war than preaching peace. He is a Christ of conformity who wants a nation of June and Ward Cleevers. He is a Jesus whose baptism is water boarding, and whose sacrament is swallowing our conscience.

I hope to hear a lot of good Christians decrying Ann’s anti-Semitism. I won’t be surprised if I don’t. Sad, but not surprised.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What's The Big Idea? Part Two: Annointing a Secular Messiah

I have been giving more thought to the Bronfman Foundation’s contest to find the Big Idea that will transform American Judaism, and the more I think about it the more I pity the winner.

In effect the Foundation will anoint a secular messiah, set her or him on an academic throne for two years, and pay her to perfect the Big Idea. Can you imagine the stress this person will be under? The winning idea is supposed to change everything, to create a Judaism that will capture the imagination of millions of Jews, and it must be produced under the pressure of peer review, foundation watchdogs, and unrelenting media attention: “Have you got IT yet? Have we been transformed yet? Are we there yet? Huh, Mommy? Are we?”

And when it doesn’t work, and it won’t, what happens to our anointed one then?

Why won’t it work? Because we American Jews don’t want to be transformed. We like things just the way they are.

Think about it. If we wanted a more mystical Judaism, we could join CHaBaD Hasidism or Jewish Renewal. If we wanted a more secular Judaism we could join the Society for Humanistic Judaism. If we want a lot of tradition we have Orthodox Judaism, if we want less tradition we can try Conservative or Reform Judaisms. If we want to blend progressive humanist values with tradition we can become Reconstructionist Jews. And if we want Zionism we can make aliyah to Israel. There isn’t anything missing from our options. There is no Big Idea out there.

But even if there were such a Big Idea and a Bigger Brain to think it, it would never last the two years at Brandeis the Foundation is giving the winner to produce it. Why? Because we Jews are hyper-critical. We would pick the idea apart so viciously that the Thinker would have to rethink it so often that she would forget what the original idea was in the first place. Look at me: I am criticizing the very idea of a Big Idea. Just think what I will do to the poor sap who wins the Messiah contest? I will crucify him, and I promise you I won’t be alone.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What's The Big Idea?

Everybody loves a magic bullet; even people who should know better. The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation, one of the most innovative and generous Jewish philanthropies, is looking for the “killer app” that will transform Jewish life. The Foundation is offering a two-year gig at Brandeis and a six-figure salary to the person with the next Big Idea. I have no doubt they will find one, and no doubt it will fail.

The project is offered in the spirit of the 1929 effort by then Sears Roebuck and Company chairman Julius Rosenwald who offered $10,000 to the person who could best answer the question, “How can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life?” The winner was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, my teacher, hero, and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Is Bronfman looking for the next Kaplan? I hope so. MK was one of the most radical Jewish thinkers of all time, redefining “Who is a Jew” and “What is God” in drastically humanistic ways that did much to change Judaism over the ensuing decades. But the fact that few people today know who Kaplan is, and that the Reconstructionist movement itself is no longer Kaplanian or even neo-Kaplanian in its orientation suggests that no one person, no matter how brilliant, can trigger a real transformation of Jewish life.

It is not that Judaism lacks big ideas and geniuses to think them; it is that the day of the Big Idea for social transformation has passed. Even the Internet, the last great transformation trigger, was not one Big Idea of a many Big Ideas and many more little ones. The Internet birthed a continuing revolution, something Judaism needs but most likely cannot sustain. Indeed, the Bronfman idea of putting the Big Idea in a book and the Big Thinker at Brandeis will render both irrelevant a week after the New York Times prints its book review.

Judaism needs a drastic revolution akin to the rabbinic reinvention of Judaism following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. But it takes a disaster to trigger such a revolution, and Jews don’t take Judaism seriously enough to experience a disaster. The only disaster that would register in the minds of most Jews is an all out military attack on Israel’s survival, and that disaster would trigger a nuclear war that will make concerns about Jewish survival pale to insignificance.

The Bronfman Foundation shouldn’t be seeking to tap the wisdom of one Jew, but the wisdom of the Jewish crowd. My suggestion would be to create an on-line Jewish think-tank that invites Jews to solve their own problems without looking to a Big Thinker or any other authority figure.

It just so happens that I am working on this idea through www.simplyjewish.com (forthcoming). It will be a place where Jews are invited to solve the challenges of Jewish life not by finding one solution but by experimenting with many. I will write more about this when the site is up and running (which means when I get some serious money to build it, so don’t hold your breath). In the meantime, I’m praying that the Bronfman’s find another Mordecai Kaplan.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The End of Judeo-Christian

New times often require new language, and while I am not going to coin a term in this essay, I am going to suggest we retire one and replace it with another.

The term I wish to retire is “Judeo–Christian.” The term with which I want to replace it is “Abrahamic.”

I recently participated in an interfaith panel on community building. As I listened to several wise and well–meaning Christian speakers share their thoughts on the matter I cringed every time they used the word “Judeo–Christian” to refer to the values Jews and Christians share. First of all, the values they cited were no less Buddhist and humanist than Jewish or Christian, and, second, the term Judeo-Christian is insulting to Jews and Muslims alike.

It is insulting to Jews because it makes Judaism an appendage of Christianity, something many Christians believe it to be, and something no Jew would accept. Judaism is a religion in its own right. It doesn’t need to be completed by Christianity any more than Christianity needs to be completed by Islam. So, if for no other reason, let’s retire the term because it is insulting to Judaism. But there is another reason.

The other reason is that it is time (actually it is long passed time) that Jews and Christians recognize that there are three civilizations with roots in the Hebrew Bible: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While there are clear differences among them, there are equally clear commonalities, and each traces its roots back to Abraham. By speaking of Judeo–Christian civilization we exclude Islam. By shifting to the term Abrahamic we widen the circle of inclusivity and speak more accurately. And, as we get more used to the term Abrahamic, I hope we will find ourselves encouraged to seek out basic knowledge about the three Abrahamic faiths and thereby find common ground on which to build true community.

But I want to urge caution when using the term as well, especially when it is used to define a set of values. Using the term “Abrahamic values” is not more helpful than Judeo–Christian values. For all his concern for hospitality and justice, Abraham also treated his consort and his sons in ways that would land him in prison today. And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have and in some cases continue to countenance behavior that most thinking people would find reprehensible and immoral. So when it comes to “Abrahamic values” we must spell out what we mean, and when we do so we shall discover we are talking about a far more universal value set than the term Abrahamic allows.

Language matters. Let us take care to use words that are as accurate and as clear as possible. It is time to retire “Judeo–Christian,” adopt “Abrahamic,” and find a new term for values all humans share.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Word Wars

This morning I had this civilized chat with a fellow at a local coffee house:

Him: “Are you going to watch the Republican debates on TV?”

Me: “I doubt it. So far all the debates have been too scripted.”

Him: “But we have to know who to vote for; who thinks like us.”

Me: “You are assuming that you and I think alike.”

Him: “Don’t you? I’m Pro-life, Pro-Guns, Pro-Marriage, and Pro-family. Aren’t you?”

Me: “Yes, I am all of those things, but I wonder if we mean the same things by them. For example: I am Pro-Life. That means that in many cases I favor the life of the mother over the life of the unborn. That means I promote sexual education and the use of birth control. That means I am concerned with environmental sustainability and the survival of species other than my own. That means I am concerned with poverty, and social justice, and global climate change.

And I am Pro-gun. I want to see guns in the hands of responsible people: the police and the military. I want to see that civilian gun owners are trained in the use of firearms and have a license to own them, and that no one but the military and police have access to military-like hardware.

And I am Pro-Marriage. I want to keep the government out of our private lives, and leave marriage up to religion. The state should provide civil unions, and in this there should be no discrimination between gay and straight. If a couple wants a religious marriage they should go to a clergyperson who will provide such a service for them.

And I am Pro-Family, all kinds of families, gay and straight. And…

Him: Whoa! This isn’t what those words mean. You’ve got it all backwards.

Me: That is what they mean to me. If they mean the opposite to you, you should say so. You should ay you are anti-moms, anti-nature, anti-law and order, anti-religion, and anti-family. I would respect that. I just hate it when you take my words and use them for the opposite ends.

Him: Look, we own those words. They mean what we say they mean. We own ‘em because we coined ‘em. We own ‘em because we are the majority and the majority gets to decide what words mean. And you should stop using these words that way.

From here things degenerated into “I know you are, but what am I.” Still, he was a nice guy.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Doomed If We Do; Doomed If We Don't

Let’s say, if only for argument’s sake, that there is a Creator God—self conscious, all–knowing, all–powerful, etc.—living somewhere outside of where and when, space and time. Let’s say, again if only for sake of argument, that this God created the world as the Hebrew Scriptures says He did: by sheer will in six days. Or, at the very least, let’s pretend that we are all believers in Intelligent Design admitting that the Bible may not be a science book, but that there is nonetheless a Wise and Intelligent Being beyond creation who initiated and shapes creation.

Given either position one must be ready to answer the question: To what end? Why did God create the heavens and the earth in such a manner as to have them end in total desolation?

There are currently three leading theories regarding the destiny of the universe: Accelerated Expansion, the Big Rip, and the Big Crunch.

Accelerated expansion argues that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate, and that in time, say 30 billion years from now give or take, everything will be so far away from everything else that you and I will die a dark, cold, death.

The Big Rip is no less appealing. As dark energy continues to strengthen over the next 30 billion years the universe, from atoms to galaxies, will suddenly be ripped apart like a size 34 pair of Dockers trying to hold a size 38 butt as it bends over to tie a shoelace.

And then there is the Big Crunch that argues that dark energy is not growing but fading, and gravity will eventually pull the universe back into the original point from which the Big Bang banged. Perhaps to bang again. Perhaps not.

These are our only options: death, death, or death. You choose. My question is why would God create a world that was doomed? Sure, 30 billion years is a long time, but only to those of us still young enough to enjoy it. What about your great, great, great… grandchild born just a few years from spread, rip, or crunch? What about her? Huh? Don’t you care about her? Doesn’t God care about her?

I guess not. The universe is doomed.

This is why I have decided to believe in the Rapture. It is not enough to get off the planet. The Chinese will eventually have colonies on Mars. We have to get out of the universe, and there is no other way to do this ‘cept the Rapture. According to Rapturists true believers in Jesus will be lifted up to heaven before the earth is destroyed by the Prince of Peace. While this will happen long before the 30 billion year lease on life is up, I am told that those who are raptured will escape the fate of creation.

So, Lord, take me now, or at least sometime in the next 29 plus billion years, ‘cause I certainly don’t want to be here at crunch time.

Friday, October 05, 2007

PC is BS

There are few things more absurd than political correctness. I am listening to an NPR pod cast dealing with religious radicalization of prisoners, both Christian and Muslim. The concern is that prisoners are recruited for terror–prone religious organization, and upon leaving prison, will turn to terrorism in the name of God. The show is interesting and the host and guest are well informed and intelligent.

Then the calls from listeners begin.

One caller says the entire concern is silly because everyone in America is radicalized. To prove his point he sights cheerleaders and their passion for their school’s sports teams. There is no difference between passion for your team and passion for your God and His Team, the caller says.

Had I been the host I would have jumped all over this caller. First, he is mistaking passion for radicalization. It is one thing to cheer your team on and chant for victory, it is another to plant bombs in the opposing team’s locker room. Second he is ignoring the fact that religion, not sports, is responsible for global terror.

What did the host do? He simply deflected the caller’s observation on to his guest, who did his best to justify it. Madness!

Several Muslim callers sought to defend Islam in the prisons, despite the fact that no one was attacking Islam. In the course of doing so, however, they latched on to all kinds of conspiracy theories to claim that so–called Islamic terrorists were in fact US government agents trying to stir up trouble among otherwise peace loving Wahabis.

What did the host do? Nothing. He didn’t ask for evidence to back up this claim, or challenge it in any way. This is worse than madness. This is complicity.

One caller even raised the question why the government might be concerned about Islam which was certainly a religion of peace. No one bothered to point out to the caller that at present the vast majority of active terrorists in the world are Muslims. It may well be that America’s fears of Islam are overblown, but they are in no way unfounded.

What bothers me is the willingness of intelligent people to allow stupidity to pass as legitimate opinion in order to stay politically correct.

When you hear BS call it BS regardless of PC mores. Otherwise there is no hope for intelligent dialogue or democracy. Terrorism won’t silence America, but politically correct cowardess might.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

It Pays Not To Sow

Heterosexual intercourse is simple: Insert Tab A into Slot B. Repeat. It is the simplicity of the thing that worries our government. Almost anyone of a certain age can do it, and almost any female of a certain age can become pregnant from doing it. Since the government believes that babies are best born to a couple that has everything in common except gender, they are eager to make sure that Tab and Slot do not meet until man and woman are wed. Hence the millions of federal dollars now being spent to spread abstinence among unmarried adults up to age 29.

Abstinence programs don’t work with younger kids for whom sex is a curiosity, so the government must be thinking that it will work better among twenty-somethings who may not be so curious given the fact that over 90% of them have already had sex.

I love abstinence programs. They are simple, neat, and totally within the control of the people choosing to practice them. The fact that few people choose to practice them is a drawback, but one that is due, so the pro–abstinence faithful tell me, more to human depravity than an error in policy.

The government is concerned about the fact that unwed mothers gave birth to 998.262 babies in 2004. They believe that the only way to effectively reduce this number is to
“just say no” to sex. They are right, of course. Condoms and pills might help but they are not as effective in stopping pregnancy as is avoiding intercourse. To date only one birth to a virgin is on record. So while not 100% fool proof, abstinence is much closer to being so than any other method we know.

To see if this program has a chance in hell of succeeding, I spoke with a variety of university students, most of whom are devote Christians. I did find some who planned to wait until marriage to have sex, and some who had married young in order to have sex, and some who decided that waiting was foolish and that a couple should be sexually compatible before deciding to get married. Most of the sexually active students I spoke with use birth control even if their churches frown on it. While in no way a scientific study, I am pretty confident that abstinence won’t work with the twenty-something crowd any more than it does with teenagers.

When talking about sex, several male students used a farming metaphor: sowing one’s seed. That’s what triggered my own plan to lower the number of out–of–wedlock births. Just as the federal government pays farmers not to sow a variety of seeds, they could pay boys not to sow their seed. This would be a kind of reverse prostitution: you get paid not to have sex.

When I suggested this plan, a number of young men said they would abstain from sexual intercourse for an annual fee of $10,000. I don’t know how this stacks up against traditional farmers, but it seems reasonable. Of course the plan discriminates against women, but a similar discrimination exists among farmers as well. So share this with your government representatives as the election draws and let’s see what happens.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cherry Picking My Faith

I cherry pick my religion. I take what I like and leave the rest. Most Jews do this, so no one says anything, but few readily admit it. I admit it.

For example, I choose Abraham as my spiritual grandfather. My Abraham was an iconoclast who shattered the idols of his father and brothers. My Abraham was a visionary who intuited an ethical monotheism in a world that had never heard of such a thing. My Abraham put God on hold to rush off and feed three strangers who happened upon his camp [yes, they were angels but he didn’t know that]. My Abraham took up arms to rescue his nephew but did not maintain a standing militia afterward. My Abraham put God to the test demanding that justice and mercy trump divine wrath. My Abraham had no intension of killing Isaac and used the opportunity to see if God was just another bloodthirsty deity deserving only rejection. My Abraham continued to have contact with his first son and built the Ka’abah with him (see the Koran). I ignore the fact that Abraham pimped his wife (twice!), and sent his mistress and firstborn off to die in the wilderness.

For example, I redefine kosher as vegetarian and expand it to speak to consuming things in general challenging myself to limit my consumption in pursuit of simplicity and ecological sustainability.

For example, I redefine Shabbat as a day for deep play. This includes prayer, but allows for many more activities that tradition would continence.

So, in a sense, I am founding my own religion. The only difference between me and other founders of religions is that I do not market my faith as something others can follow. I don’t expect people to follow me. I don’t want people to follow me. I don’t even want to follow me.

What I do want is for people to recognize that they too cherry pick their faith. The reason there are so many versions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism is that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists cherry pick their religions. You don’t want to feel guilty for not practicing the 613 mitzvot? Become a Reform Jew. You don’t want to worry about what the Pope might say? Become a Protestant. You don’t want to deal with caste? Become a Buddhist. You don’t want to deal with Buddhism? Become a Zen Buddhist. There is always a way to make your religion more like you.

I encourage people to create their own religions. I ask only that they be honest about it. If we were honest the violence we use to mask the fact that we are making up our religions to suit ourselves would end, and religion might be more a provider of hope that horror.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Center for Seeking

“If you were to start another synagogue, what would you do?”

The question was emailed to me this week, and for a moment it captured my imagination. When the moment passed I realized I have no desire to lead a synagogue of any stripe. The purpose of a synagogue is to pass on the received wisdom and traditions of the Jewish people. It is an honorable goal and I am honored whenever I am asked to speak at such a place. Judaism, and those Jews who take Judaism seriously, have a gift to offer the world that can only be given by them. The prophetic legacy is the heart of Judaism as I understand it, and serious Jews (religious and secular) should be at its service always.

As a Jew I too seek to live out the prophetic call for justice, compassion, and humility, and support Jewish institutions that do the same. But as a human being I have no desire to limit my search for wisdom to “things Jewish.”

If I were to create something it would be a place for seeking rather than finding. It would be open to all people and all scriptures, both those coming to us from religion and those coming to us from art, music, literature, and science. It would have no fixed liturgy or holy days. Our meetings would blend silence and conversation. We might meet at night to lay out under the stars; or at dawn or dusk to sense the earth turning before the sun; or at the ocean or by a lake or river to learn the Tao of water that is at the heart of compassion and justice.

I used to think that finding trumped seeking, but I had it backwards. When seeking ends, what has been found rots. We should never rest on the known. What we seek is not a fixed thing to be found, but an unfolding mystery to be glimpsed. Seeking is dynamic, challenging, and rooted in questions and doubt rather than certainty and faith. Indeed, my faith is doubt, and my hope is in not knowing.

I would want a Center for Seeking that embraced doubt not as a hurdle to be overcome but as a gift to be cultivated and celebrated. My Center would be a salon for scientists, mystics, artists, writers, poets, musicians—holy rascals who are always willing to step beyond what we know. We would draw on human wisdom and experience. We would read Buddha and Blake, Ecclesiastes and Emerson, Job and Jesus, Paul and Patanjali, but we would not limit ourselves to any canon or to words alone. Math would matter alongside metaphor, and the Hubble Deep Space Field would remind us of the true holy land. We would have no creed but humility, no practice but kindness, no liturgy but wonder.

But we would have dues. You can’t have a center without dues. Well, now. This is something to ponder.