Friday, November 30, 2007

ADHD of the Soul

Sufis use the analogy of a walnut when explaining the interdependence of esoteric and exoteric religion. The inner (esoteric) and universal core of all religion is the meat of the nut. The outer (exoteric) organized structure of rules and creeds is the shell. The shell is absolutely necessary to the development and protection of the meat. Yet to eat the walnut you have to crack its shell. The key is knowing when and how to do the cracking.

Some people crack it too soon, before the meat is ready to be eaten. What they find is a glimpse of universal truth, but one that is unripe and inedible. Some people crack it too late, after the meat has rotted. What they find is equally inedible and lacking even a glimpse of truth. There are others who believe you can grow the meat without a shell, and still others who insist there is no meat and worship only the shell. Both are misguided.

I am often associated with the meat-without-a-shell camp. This is due to my extreme liberalism (bordering on anarchy) when it comes to religious laws and precepts. I am allergic to religious rules. Even getting near such rules makes me antsy, hyper, and rebellious. I suffer from ADHD (Anti Dogma Hyperspiritual Disorder), the inability to follow religious disciplines for any significant length of time fuelled by a compulsion to experience God as the sole reality.

Its not that I don’t want to sit through a prayer service, it is only that the words of the prayers don’t make sense to me and I begin to argue with them. It isn’t that I don’t want to believe, it is that I get claustrophobic when confined to fixed beliefs. Yet I do understand the need for a shell, even as I feel compelled to crack it as soon as I am confronted with one.

Sometimes I crack them too early; and sometimes, though very rarely, I crack them too late. But I can’t help cracking them. And every once in a while I crack them just in time, and find the wonderful meat of truth at the heart of the nut and nuttiness of religion.

How do I crack the shell of religion? There are, no doubt innumerable ways, but the one I find most useful is recitation of a Divine Name or phrase. Called nama-japa in Hinduism, nembutsu in Buddhism, dhikr in Islam, gerushin in Judaism, and ceaseless prayer in Christianity, the recitation of a Name is the simplest method I know to crack the shell of religion and get at the meat of spirituality.

All you do is find a Name (or Names) that speaks to you (I use several but began my practice with HaRachaman, the Compassionate One) and repeat it silently all day long. Of course there are times when you forget to say it, but when you notice you have stopped, just start again. No harm, no foul. In time, and it may be a long time, you will discover that God’s presence is palpable to you, and that the Name you are reciting is your name and the name of everything else as well. Then you are ready to crack the shell and eat the meat, but by then you will discover the shell is already cracked for you, and you are no longer hungry.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Lord's Preyers

I am a not a fan of organized religion. In fact my rule of thumb is, “The more organized a religion is, the less trustworthy and the more dangerous it is.” Why? Because organization requires power, and power creates elites, and power hungry elites have only one concern: securing more power. Here is just one example.

Following the pedophile priest scandal, the Church leadership promised a “zero tolerance” attitude toward priests who prey on kids. Yet the Conference of Catholic Bishops has just installed Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as its new president. The good Cardinal is known for protecting pedophile priests, claiming that it is wrong to make “permanent pariahs” of these servants of God.

Can a pedophile priest really be a servant of God? Can a priest who believes in God, presumably a God who does not himself approve of pedophilia, engage in such horrific behavior? If the fear of eternal damnation isn’t enough to keep you from raping children, then what good is a just God anyway? It seems more plausible to me that priests who rape children are not really men of faith. There is no group called Pedophiles for Christ. If you give in to such evil I suspect your faith in God is wanting. So, please Cardinal, lets stop calling these people “servants of God.” (Unless, of course the god we are talking about is Moloch.)

And it gets worse. Despite his supposed zero-tolerance stance, Cardinal George hired a convicted pedophile as a liturgical consultant in 2003, and Or ignored evidence brought by the mother of a molested 8 year-old allowing the boy’s molester to continue teaching and coaching, and ultimately to rape another boy for which he was finally arrested. Poor old servant of God. But perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps I don’t understand what is really at stake here.

The Cardinal’s Bishop, Thomas J. Paprocki, recently gave a sermon in which he declared that those victims of priestly rape who demand justice from the Church are waging war against the Holy Sea, and placing the church “under attack.” And who is behind this pernicious attack on the Church? According to Bishop Paprocki “the principle force behind these attacks in none other than the devil.”

The victims of the Church are minions of Satan! But if this is true, and I have no way to prove it isn’t, when the Church settles with these devil spawn and pays them millions and millions of dollars, isn’t the Church essentially funding the work of the Devil? Can the Church and Satan be in cahoots? Do they really need each other so badly as to make their bond so blatant? Do they really think we are so stupid not to notice?

My God, where is Dan Brown when you need him?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Don't Bogart My Birth

Officially the government of Communist China rejects reincarnation as superstition. Just as officially they want to make sure that they get to control the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama so as to further their domination of Tibet and the destruction of Tibetan culture. While the Chinese government is convinced that reincarnation is a fiction, it is a fiction believed in by millions of people, and therefore carries tremendous political weight. Who ever the next Dalai Lama is, and they have no doubt there will be one, it would be in the best interest of the Communist Chinese if he were more red than maroon.

Lots of people believe in reincarnation. Hindus do, Buddhists do, New Agers do, and kabbalistic-leaning Jews do as well. What do they know that the Communist Chinese do not? Or, conversely, what does the Chinese government know that the Chinese people do not?

To find out I went to the source, my local Chinese restaurant. I spoke with Lin Tai (not his real name, which he was more than happy to give me, but which I was incapable of pronouncing or spelling), who has run the restaurant since coming to this country to build the railroad. Yes, I know that was well over a century ago, and, no, Lin Tai isn’t that old, but he is the reincarnation of a Chinese worker on the railroad. Or at least I assume that to be the case, since how else do Chinese people maintain their numbers here in America?

Think about it: A Jewish soul couldn’t reincarnate as Chinese because of the pork in their diet. A European soul wouldn’t feel comfortable in a Chinese body, and an African or African American would find the color confusion overwhelming. So only Chinese people reincarnate as Chinese. Since most Chinese people came to the United States to build the railroad (I don’t know this for a fact, but it could be true), all subsequent Chinese must be reincarnations of the original builders.

This, of course, raises issues of pensions. Can a reincarnated soul continue receiving pension checks from a previous life? To find out I went to the source, my local train depot. There I spoke with Billy Bob Wayne John Horton (not his real name either, but only because I think I got the order of his names wrong). Billy Bob was a Christian who belonged to the nondenominational Church of the Blood Drenched Way and was not a believer in reincarnation. Nor did he believe that Chinese people had anything to do with his railroad, having himself worked for the railroad for over thirty years and never once meeting a Chinese coworker. When I asked him about pensions for reincarnated people he sniffed and went to the men’s room to pee. I waited awhile, but I suspect he had been drinking a lot of Mountain Dew and wasn’t coming out anytime soon, so I went back to Lin Tai and the Chinese restaurant.

Lin Tai was out, but I spoke to Francis Xavier Thomas Aquinas (this was his name) who delivered food for Lin Tai. Francis Xavier was a Catholic and didn’t have any idea as to what I was talking about. But he did say that if the Chinese tried to control the rebirth of the Dalai Lama, the President of the United States could bomb them. “And that’s why I’m voting for Cheney in the next election.” Made sense to me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


First it was cartoons and now it is teddy bears. Where will it end?

Britain’s Telegraph reported today that Gillian Gibbons, a first grade teacher at Unity High School, a British International school in Sudan, has been arrested by the Sudanese authorities for defaming Islam. What was her crime? She allowed her class to name their teddy bear mascot Mohammed.

Now I know that most people are going to rise up and cry out against the madness that is Islam, but I am not one of them. Can you imagine a class naming its mascot Christ? Of course not. It would never even occur to people to do that. Of course if you lived in a Spanish speaking community where Jesus is a common first name, you might name your bear Jesus. But certainly that can’t apply to Islam. I mean how many Muslim men are named Mohammed?

I personally know six Muslim men and not one of them is named Mohammed, so, based on my albeit unscientific but nevertheless personally compelling survey, no Muslim men are named Mohammed so the parallel with Jesus (pronounced Hay-Suse in Spanish or Hey Yous in Brooklyn) doesn’t apply.

It is true that one might choose to name a bear Moses and Jews would not find that upsetting, but imagine Jews naming a bear YHVH? The mere fact that I wrote YHVH is a sacrilege, for which YHVH or the followers of YHVH will certainly condemn me. Then again Mohammed isn’t Allah, and the kids didn’t choose to name their bear Allah, so maybe the analogy doesn’t apply. Yet the mascot issue is as much a Jewish concern as it is an Islamic one.

Thousands of years ago the Israelites voted to name their mascot, the Golden Calf, God. When the real God, YHVH (oops, did it again!) heard about it he sent Moses to straighten them out. Thousands of people were killed for the offense of naming their cow God. In light of that act of religious justice, imprisoning and whipping Ms. Gibbons is an act of judicial leniency.

As a Jew who has learned the lesson of the Golden Calf, I am sympathetic to the Sudanese in this case. If the Jews could mistake their mascot for God, letting kids name their teddy bear Mohammed only invites confusion. In time some of them will inevitably mistake the teddy bear for the Prophet, PBH, and once that happens all hell will break loose.

So to Ms. Gibbons I say, “Damn you, woman, knoweth thou not better than to leadeth thy children into blasphemy?”

And to the Sudanese I say, “While you are whipping Ms. Gibbons for blasphemy, take a moment to test that bear for lead poisoning. It was probably made in China. You can never be too careful when it comes to our kids.”

Saudi Back Lash

You can tell a lot a person by the company they keep. Can the same be said of countries?

I am proud to be a citizen of the United States. Sure I hate our foreign policy, and, yes, I think Dick Cheney and the president have gutted the US Constitution, and I admit that we are an oligarchy run by corporations who care not a whit for human rights or environmental sustainability, but we are still the country that brings you the Kindle.

[If you don’t know what that is, look it up. It is number two on my Christmas list. To discover what is Number one keep reading. And while it is true that I do not celebrate Christmas, I will do so if anyone sends me either the number one or number two items on my list.]

You can see just how far we have fallen from the fact that our government lacks the guts to decry what passes for justice in the homeland of Islam. (At least we are on the books decrying the illegal settlements and expansion of settlements sanctioned by the homeland of Judaism, even if we don’t do anything about it.) I am, of course, talking about the vicious justice system of Saudi Arabia that has sentenced a nineteen-year-old victim of gang rape to six months in prison and 200 lashes with a whip. This was an adjustment of her original sentence of only ninety lashes, the increase being ordered to dissuade her from continuing to appeal her sentence. Her crime? Being alone with a man that was not a relative.

Can it be that our fear of terrorism is so great that we will stay mute in the face of any injustice as long as the perpetrators claim to be on our side? Can it be that we are so cowed by our oil addiction that evildoers can count on us to see no evil unless it isn’t leveled at us? Yes, it can be.

We have to do something, and we can’t wait for the government to do it for us. So here is my sugestion: stop driving your car.

I saw an ad in a magazine today for a Vespa scooter.

[Yes, that’s my Number One! And no, I can’t afford one. And yes, I will add Christmas to by list of must observe holidays if someone sends me one. Yellow would be nice.]

It costs $3500 dollars and gets 70 miles per gallon. What if we all bought Vespas and, basing my numbers on my own 2001 Saturn coupe that gets about 25mpg, cut our consumption of gas by 60%?

I know some people worry about driving a scooter for fear of getting hit by an SUV, but if we all drove them that danger disappears. We could leave one lane for cars and trucks, and the rest for scooters. No more traffic snarls. Commutes would be a breeze. And we would help break the country’s addiction to oil that forces us to kiss the ass of these barbarians who whip women and call it justice. Next thing you know they will be excusing water boarding.

[OK, I admit it. I don’t give a damn about Saudi justice, I was just using it as an excuse to shill for a Vespa. Or a Kindle. Or both. Come on, people, it’s Christmas time: be generous!]

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Reviving the Real War on Christmas

I am originally from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, home to Bunker Hill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickenson, and Mary Baker Eddy. I am proud son of Massachusetts, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I am anti-Christmas.

No, I am not anti-Jesus, anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, or anti-shopping. I am simply pro-Massachusetts, and the great Christian values it brought to this country.

In 1645 Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren took over jolly old England. Deciding that anything jolly was probably of the Devil, they vowed to rid England of such decadent conceits as Christmas. Cromwell and Company banned Christmas and any festivities having to do with it. Not to be bested by their colleagues across the pond, Massachusetts Puritans criminalized Christmas (take that, Bill O’Reilly!), and, in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts passed the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law:

“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”

The law was repealed in 1681, but I would like to reinstate it. Why? First of all it reflects the true Christian values on which our nation was founded. Second it isn’t limited to Christmas; the phrase “or the like” would spell the end of Hanukkah and Kwanza as well, so it isn’t in anyway discriminatory. Third, it would take the madness and meanness out of the last two months of the year.

There is nothing so hateful as a Christian mob whipped into frenzy by some sales scam linked to the birth of a Jew (unless, of course, it is a Christian mob whipped up into an even greater frenzy over the murder of said Jew). The only thing remotely religious about watching shoppers trample one another to get into a store in order to buy to one sanely priced item on the store’s shelves is that it reminds us of Joseph and the very pregnant Mary trying (unsuccessfully) to elbow their way into a Jerusalem inn at the same of year.

Even though the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law was repealed in 1681, our founders must have seen some value in banishing Christmas seeing as Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution, and Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

Anyway, I think a country whose original illegal aliens were Puritans who hated Christmas, and whose descendents believe that a return to Christian values would be a good thing, cannot but benefit from outlawing Christmas once again. It will take us a while to get the country back on its Christian track, but in the meantime, if you insist upon celebrating Christmas and thus disrespecting this great country, you should fine yourself five shillings (which in today’s fallen dollar is equal to about 89 cents).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shoppito Ergo Sum

You know America is doomed when Thanksgiving Day—the actual day, rather than the traditional day after—is now touted as the ultimate shopping day for Christmas. We can’t even take one day out of the year for reflection and thanksgiving. All we have left as a people is shopping: Shoppito ergo sum, as Descartes might have put it, I shop therefore I am.

That is what shopping has become in this country, an act of ontological significance. I know I matter because I own tons of stuff. We are so devoid of anything remotely spiritual that debt has replaced faith as the ultimate benchmark of maturity. Our new prayer is “Our Father Who art in Heaven hallowed by Thy Name… Add to our debts as we add to the debts of those who are indebted to us…”

This is madness, and it must stop. Now.

So I am begging you not to go shopping on Thanksgiving Day. Say no to the people who think we are the real turkeys. Stay home. Or, if you can’t resist, don’t go to the mall. Or if the mall is too enticing, don’t go to the bookstore or the record store or to the Apple Computer store. Or if that is too much to ask, just stay away from the religion section of the first, the classic rock section of the second, and the iMac section of the third. Or if that is too hard, just pretend you don’t recognize me when you pass me in the aisles at these places.

Can you imagine? Getting away from the stress and hassle of having to entertain family and spending the day among the glitz and glamour of perfect strangers—heaven! I’m serious. What is the fun of having friends and relatives come over to your house, grind turkey and cranberry sauce into your freshly washed carpets, bore the hell out of you “catching up” (if I wanted to know how you are doing I would have called you since last Thanksgiving), and then scarf down huge quantities of food and drink only to rush home a couple of hours later to suffer the consequences?

I prefer Christmas to Thanksgiving. Why? Because it isn’t my holy day. I don’t have to bother with a tree and tinsel that turns up for months afterward. I don’t have to buy stuff that nobody wants for people I don’t really care about. I don’t have to alter my black and white wardrobe and wear red and green, or pretend to believe that a Jewish mother would allow herself to give birth in a manger: “Joseph you find us a room in a five-star hotel or I swear when this baby is born he will damn you to hel!” Yep, Christmas is my favorite holy day, right up there with Ramadan when I don’t have to fast, and Kwanza when I don’t have to pretend to be African.

But Thanksgiving is a secular American holy day—all the more secular for having the malls open on the day itself—and I am a secular American. This is my day. Dammit!

But now I have an excuse for skipping the family festivities: I have to go shopping. After all if I don’t get to the store on the first day there is little chance that what I want will no be there on the second day.

So enjoy Thanksgiving, America. Just stop calling it Thanksgiving. Call it what it is: National Turkey Day and be clear who the real turnkeys are.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Join My Tribe

True genius knows how to turn lead into gold, or at least lemons into lemonade. I am not a true genius, but every once in a while I stumble upon an idea that is just too good to pass up. My latest breakthrough came from the Kaweah Indian Nation, a fake Native American tribe that has been selling tribal memberships to illegal aliens for $400 per membership. The tribal elders promised that members would get Social Security numbers and become US citizens.

While the Kaweah were declared fraudulent in 1984, and while a current lawsuit prohibits them from continuing their membership drive, I love the idea and wish to apply it to my own tribe, the Jews.

Our numbers are small and shrinking. We need members and current rates of conversion aren’t even making a dent in our rate of decline. Even when counting as Jews only people recognized as Jews by the Reform Jewish establishment we are still a dying tribe. So why not sell memberships? After all it is much easier to market a $400 membership than it is to market the current cost of male membership: circumcision. And, unlike severed foreskins, the cash collected can be used to promote Jewish projects.

My idea has the added bonus of bringing people into a real tribe. The downside is that being a Jew in America is not the same as being an American Jew, and we could not promise social security numbers and citizenship. At least not in this country. But what about Israel?

The Law of Return states that any Jew can become an automatic citizen of Israel. And Israel will help settle them and teach them Hebrew. Getting illegal aliens to convert to Judaism and then shipping them off to Israel would solve two problems. First it would increase the size of the Jewish nation. Second it would provide a workable answer to the question, What do we do with the millions of illegal aliens already in the US?

So my idea is this: First we set up registration tables on the Mexican side of the US border. We can spare people the dangerous trek into the US and fly them to Tel Aviv from Mexico City. This will stop the tide of new illegal immigrants into the United States. Second, in cities across the country we advertise Jewish tribal memberships for $400 (with discounts for families). Some of the money we collect will be used to pay rabbis to perform mass conversions. They will convert the illegal aliens to Judaism and give them a card stating that they are now members of the tribe. At that point they can A) move to Israel, or B) stay in the US and claim the US government’s refusal to give them citizenship is an act of anti-Semitism.

This seems like a win-win proposition to me. I think it could even be done on line. People could convert by pledging allegiance to God, Torah, and Israel, pay using a credit card, and then book a flight to the homeland on Orbitz or Expedia.

I plan to offer my idea to each of the presidential candidates. I’ll let you know which if any choose to use it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nine Questions About God

[Here are my answers to an email I received asking me about God.]

Thanks for asking what it is I mean when I use the word “God.” God has been at the center of my life since I was sixteen years old. Meditating on the shore of a lake in Cape Cod the while visiting a friend during summer vacation “Rami” died. What happened during that time—however long or short a time that was—is unknown to me, for the “me” that could know was dead. All I know is that when “I” returned I did so in a state of ecstatic joy, aware of the absolute nonduality of all things as the One Thing. I have never doubted the reality of what happened that day, and I have had similar experiences since then. It is my experience that shapes my thinking about God.

Here are brief answers to your questions.

1. Did God create the universe? No. The universe is to God as a wave is to the ocean. While God is greater than the universe, God is not separate from the universe. I do not believe in a Creator God or in an Intelligent Designer, for both imply separation. I believe that the design itself is intelligent, that the universe is a living process seeking self-awareness. We humans are a way the universe awakens to its true nature as God.

2. Did God write the Bible? No. All scriptures are human creations reflecting the biases and moral limitations of the people who wrote them. Yet there are strands of truth in every scripture reflecting a level of human awakening that transcends the limitations of time and tribe and speaks to the universal truth of God and godliness. These teachings are worthy of serious contemplation and study.

3. Do you pray to God? Yes and no. My spiritual life centers on mediation, both walking and sitting. When I walk and chant the Hebrew Names of God I find myself in dialogue with God, whom I experience as Shekhinah, the Divine Mother. When I sit in silence there are moments when “I” dissolve and only God is present.

4. If God is all, is God both good and evil? Yes. God contains evil as well as good. Good and evil go together like convex and concave. You cannot have one without the other. God is the One in whom there is no other.

5. If God is evil as well as good what is the point of worshiping God? I don’t worship God; I seek to realize God in and as all reality. When I awaken to God I realize my own capacity for good and evil. When I see all things as God I have compassion for everything, and act with an open heart even towards those with whom I am struggling.

6. What is the point of religion? At its best religion serves as the collective memory of God realization. We tell stories of saviors, sages, and saints and remind ourselves that God realization is possible. We see how they embraced the world with justice and compassion, and seek to do likewise. We learn the tools of awakening that they used, and wake up ourselves. At its worse religion is a grand and often violent delusion rooted in fear. Unfortunately religion is rarely at its best.

7. Do we need religion? Yes, but only at its best. We need storytellers who can remind us of the best of which we are capable. We need masters of contemplative practice who can teach us how to use the tools of God realization. And we need a community of seekers with whom to share the path and the struggle to walk it.

8. Are all religions true? All religions are true when they speak to the nonduality of God and the universality of justice and compassion. All religions are false when they claim to being the exclusive carriers of God’s love and truth. Religions are like languages. No language is right or wrong, true or false. Yet each brings a valuable and unique understanding of life from which all people can benefit. The more languages you know the more nuanced your understanding. Our goal should not be to find the right religion, but to learn from all of them.

9. Is Jesus the son of God? Yes. And so are you. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” he is like a wave realizing its relationship with the ocean. Jesus was a God-realized human being. He is not to be worshipped, but imitated. What the world needs is fewer Christians and more Christs.


I like silence. The Illinois Legislature does too, and passed a law that would mandate a moment of silence at the start of every public school day. A federal judge, however, has ordered the Illinois State Board of Education to put a stop to the practice. Why, you ask? I, too, was curious.

At first I thought it was because the name of the state included the word “noise” (the “E” is silent, so they dropped it to save ink on their official documents). It makes no sense to have a moment of silence in the IlliNOISE public schools. On the contrary, they should start their day with noise, maybe a joyous “Halleluyah!” or “Om Nama Shivaya.”

No, that would violate the separation of church and state since both shouts speak of gods (Yah and Shiva, respectively), which, as it turns out, is what’s wrong with a mandatory moment of silence as well.

Leading the attack on mandatory silence is Rob Sherman, atheist provocateur. The godless Mr. Sherman has a daughter who is a freshman in an Illinois high school, and dad worries that forcing her to be quite violates her First Amendment rights.

He is right, of course, and that saddens me. I would love to see each school day begin with thirty minutes of contemplative silence, not the fifteen seconds Illinois is talking about. It would have to be optional, of course. I would even go so far as to teach kids different ways to use that silence such as contemplative reading and meditation (prayer they should learn outside of school).

And I wouldn’t stop with schools. I would like to see meditative silence at the start of everyone’s day. If nothing else, just sit and breathe. Or do what I do every morning and repeat the phrase, “Has it been thirty minutes yet? Has it been thirty minutes yet?”

I support voluntary prayer in school and did a lot of it myself (“Dear God, please make Ms. Jacobs sick today, I didn’t study for her Algebra II test.”). I support voluntary silence as well, and not just in the morning (it isn’t fair that teachers call on you for answers without your permission). Hell, if it were up to me I’d bring Thich Nhat Han into every school to teach kids how to walk the halls mindfully, and chew their lunch with full attention.

So I am asking the Illinois Legislature, its Governor, and its atheist provocateurs to work together to find a way to combat the “ill” of “nois(e)” and find a way to bring some silence to our mornings and some sanity to our lives.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Math of God, Follow-Up

Remember Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue’s prayer vigil to let God know Georgians are conserving water and should be rewarded with rain? Well it worked. Sort of.

While the storm clouds that formed during the vigil faded away, rain did fall the day after the vigil. This can’t be a coincidence. Sonny prayed for rain and God sent it. But the governor and chief shaman was quick to say, “We’re not gloating about it.” That’s good, because the one-inch of rain that fell in north Georgia and the half-inch that dampened Atlanta did nothing to ease the state’s crushing drought.

So, praying for rain works: ask and ye shall receive, but it doesn't work well enough to make a difference. What is God up to? According to the Governor it “was a great affirmation for what we asked for.” Really? I think it was an insult. God spits on Georgia and the Governor is happy. How sad. So on behalf of my Georgia neighbors let me say this the Almighty, "Quit fooling around, God! What we need is real rain; the kind of rain You sent to Tennessee’s Marion County that heavily damaged the roof of a Baptist church and sent three little kids to the hospital due to cuts they received from flying glass. Now that’s the rain we're taking about."

But wait, why would God send rain to Tennessee when Georgia is the state praying for it? And why would God use His rain to damage a Baptist church? Can it be that God hates Georgia and isn’t too fond of Baptists? The logic is inescapable.

Why would God hate Georgia? Following the logic of evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell I can only conclude that God hates Georgia because it is gay-friendly. After all GA is only one letter away from advertising itself as the GAY state. And Babptists? What does God have against them? Using the same logic is isn't hard to discover that God is pissed at Baptists because too many of their ministers are closet homosexuals.

So here is my suggestion. First, Governor Purdue should invite all Georgia’s gay and lesbian citizens to an all expense paid trip to Dollywood, the Dolly Parton theme park in Tennessee. While they are out of the state, he should then hold a second prayer vigil and let God know he has cleansed the state of homosexuals, thus allowing God to reward Georgia with real rain.

As for the Baptists, I suggest they build their churches with stronger roofs.

Of the Papal, Part Two

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has released its statement on “faithful citizenship” telling Catholic Americans that they may be endangering their eternal souls if they vote for a candidate who supports the “evils” of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, artificial contraception and racism.

According to the statement, “a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil.” Who would argue with this? I won’t vote for a candidate who favors intrinsic evil. But I might draw up a different list of evils. How about the evils of torture, corporate greed, environmental rape, war, and seeking to undermine the Constitution and override legitimate laws passed by Congress? If I had to rank my evils, I would place violation of the Constitution above using a condom. But then I’m not a Catholic bishop.

As the bishops hammered out their statement, Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, ND proposed an amendment warning Catholics of the danger of voting for evil. “Choosing intrinsic evil,” he said, “will have an impact on their salvation.” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, NY argued against Aquila worrying that the bishops should not link politics to salvation. This is nonsense: the statement itself does this implicitly.

For all their concern with pointing Catholics to the right political position, the bishops seem to offer Catholics a way out. The statement says a Catholic may not vote for a politician who supports intrinsic evil if, by so voting, “the voter’s intent is to support that position.” This is a huge loophole: as a good Catholic I can vote for a candidate who supports intrinsic evil as long as I am thinking of other policies the candidate supports that are not intrinsically evil. With a loophole this big I can’t see the point in issuing the statement is in the first place.

But what really bothers me is the Bishop’s definition of intrinsic evil. Being against abortion means you are in favor of mothers dying in childbirth. Being against euthanasia means you are in favor of bringing horribly diseased babies into the world to live out lives of brutal agony. Being against embryonic stem cell research means you are in favor of the suffering of all those who may be helped by such research. Being against artificial contraception means you are in favor of the spread of disease, AIDS, and the crushing burden of poverty that over population brings.

I realize I am overstating my case, but the lack of nuance in Catholic thinking regarding evil demands a stark response.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I, Apikoros

I am not a person who shuns labels. On the contrary, I find labels to be a helpful shorthand, and I am always on the lookout for better ones. This week I was given a new one that I especially cherish: apikoros.

I was speaking with an Orthodox Rabbi from Israel earlier this week, and as we shared our views on God, Torah, and Israel he calmly informed me that I was an apikoros, a heretic. I didn’t believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I didn’t believe the Torah was God’s word; I didn’t believe the mitzvot (commandments) were God’s law; and I didn’t believe the Jews are the Chosen People.

“Then what do you believe?” he asked.

“I believe that God is Reality, an ever flowing system of creative destruction that defies naming and theological certainty (Ehyeh asher Ehyeh as Exodus 3:14 puts it), and which, over time, births more and more inclusive levels of consciousness that eventually awaken to know all creation as God. I believe that Torah is a human creation reflecting the biases of its authors and interpreters, and should not replace reason as our ultimate guide for establishing a just and compassionate society. I believe mitzvot are folkways designed to maintain the integrity of the Jewish people, and should be voluntary and open to constant refinement so as to reflect the best insights of our people. I believe that the people Israel are a people like any other seeking meaning and purpose, and yet often trapped in jingoism and xenophobia. I believe that Zionism is a legitimate movement of national liberation which should work for the liberation of all peoples...”

“Apikoros!” he said, and walked away.

Apikoros is Hebrew for Epicurus, the 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher who taught a secular, atheistic understanding of reality that placed reason and the pursuit of happiness at the center of human life. The ancient rabbis feared the influence of Epicureanism and used the term apikoros (apikorsim, plural) to mean “heretic” in the same way Ann Coulter uses the word “liberal” to mean “godless and un-American.” The rabbis even added a curse upon apikorsim to their liturgy: “may all the apikorsim be destroyed in an instant” (part of the 18th benediction of the Amidah).

I knew the meaning of the word, and was not hurt by being called an apikoros. On the contrary, I took a perverse pleasure in it. Famous Jewish apikorsim include the authors of Ecclesiastes and Job, Alisha ben Abuya, Hiwi al-Balkhi, Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, Herzl, Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, and Ben Gurion. These are all heroes of mine, and I am honored to be counted among them.

Indeed it seems to me that being an apikoros is exactly right for me. It is the Hebrew equivalent of a Holy Rascal, another label I value. In fact I’m thinking of creating a new denomination of Judaism: Apikorsut Judaism for the celebration of Jewish heretics and freethinking. I just have to figure our the dues structure and I’m in business.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Math of God

Praying for rain isn’t new, but when the Governor of Georgia does it on steps of the state Capitol it is news. Last Tuesday, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue and 250 of the faithful held a prayer vigil asking God to end the drought that is plaguing the state and much of the southeastern United States.

Governor Perdue felt that Georgians were being punished by God for their failure to conserve their water resources properly. “But we’re doing better,” the Governor said, “and once we began to do better, I thought it was time to acknowledge that to the Creator,” suggesting, of course that the all-knowing God isn’t so all-knowing.

I wasn’t there, but I imagine the Governor said something like this:

“Lord, this is Sonny. No not THAT Sonny, I suspect He’s busy with pre-Rapture planning. This is Sonny Perdue. No, not THAT Perdue, he is busy with his chickens. This is Sonny Perdue, Governor of the all too sunny state of Georgia. Yes, the Peach state. Well, we are going to be the peach pit state soon because we’ve used up all of our water and You are punishing us for that by not letting it rain. I just wanted You to know that we are conserving more these days. We have learned our lesson. So could You please let it rain… a lot… for a long time? Not Noah long, but long.”

Did it work? Well, almost. As Sonny and the 250 sang Amazing Grace storm clouds formed and floated toward the Capitol (I am not making this up). Unfortunately the clouds dissipated quickly and no rain fell. Why? While I can’t prove this, I suspect that the clouds failed because (and this, too, is true) just around the corner from the prayer meeting, 20 members of the Atlanta Freethought Society, a band of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and heretics, held a protest rally claiming the Governor was violating the First Amendment. I believe the heretics stopped the clouds from unleashing rain.

What do we learn from this? I think we learn something about the math of God. It takes 251 Georgians to get God to make a storm cloud and only 20 to get God to erase a storm cloud. The problem the Governor faces is not that Georgians failed to conserve water, or that God failed to notice when they began to do so, but that God favors atheists over theists almost 10 to 1. There is a drought in Georgia because there are too many freethinkers in Georgia.

What the governor should do is work with the Atlanta Freethought folks to identify, round up and bus out of state as many Georgia heretics as they can as soon as they can. With the heretics out of town, a second prayer vigil will certainly succeed. Then, as soon as enough rain has fallen, the Governor can invite the heretics back into the state to get the rain to stop.

If this works, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t, atheists around the country could form pay for service flood protection squads moving into areas with too much rain and thus getting the rain to stop. This would be a great way to raise funds for First Amendment legal battles. It seems like a win-win for everyone.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Of the Papal, By the Papal, For the Papal: Toward Theofascism

To what extent should religion influence your electoral vote? This is the question implicitly raised by the U.S. Catholic bishops in a soon to be released statement entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Being a “faithful citizen,” of course, means voting in line with the values of the Catholic Church, and not voting for pro-choice or pro-gay marriage candidates.

The statement has yet to be finalized, but Raymond Burke, the Archbishop of St. Louis who announced four years ago that he would not give communion to John Kerry because of his pro-choice views, has already stated that he would deny communion to Rudy Giuliani for the same reason.

This troubles me for two reasons. First, I think the decision to take communion should be between a parishioner and God. Second, if voting for a pro-life or pro-gay marriage candidate is thought to carry some eternal stigma with regard to one’s relationship with God, a conclusion that many Catholics will inevitably draw from the political meddling of their clergy, have the Bishops just pulled off a coup in America?

I have no problem with voters being influenced by their religion and conscience; on the contrary, I fear a country stripped of conscience. But I want people to think for themselves and not be placed under the thumb of a self-appointed ecclesiastical authority that imposes its morality with implicit threats of eternal damnation. That is theofascism, and fascisms of any type are a grave threat to democracy.

Theofascism is growing, and focusing only on its Islamic version allows us to ignore its influence in Israel and the United States.

As an American I am not troubled by the phrase “One nation under God,” but I am troubled by whose god the nation is under. Is it the god of greed worshipped by corporations, the god of endless consumerism worshipped by the average American, the god of war worshipped by many in the government, the god of who seems to be obsessed with gays, guns, and zygotes, or the god of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus who demands universal justice, kindness, and care for the least among us?

Personally, if I have to live in a country under God, I want that god to be the god of Bill W. who always appends the words “as you understand God” to his use of God in his Alcoholics Anonymous program. Theofascism cannot survive the pragmatic polytheism of Bill W., and that is why I support it.

The question we should ask our politicians isn’t, “Do you believe in God,” but “Which God do you believe in, and what are the ethical, moral, and political implications of that belief?” This is a question that feeds democracy and starves theofascism. Too bad no one dares ask it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Torah Free Future

I got a glimpse of the Jewish future this morning, and it is vibrant, caring, global, and Torah-free. I volunteered to work at the United Jewish Community’s 76th General Assembly where the leaders of Jewish Federations and other communal groups gather to learn how to improve their ability to meet the needs of the Jewish community worldwide.

The delegates I met were dedicated, passionate, and devoted to the survival of the Jewish people. We are in good hands. And yet I was troubled by the fact that not a single program was offered in personal spiritual development.

There is a growing national concensus that we need to link social change with inner transformation, yet not a single class or workshop was offered discussing the link between inner and outer change and how to nourish your soul as you go about feeding other people’s bodies. Judaism is as rich in tikkun hanefesh (repairing the soul) as it is in tikkun haolam (repairing the world), yet you wouldn’t know this from the programming at the GA.

But I an outsider to the Federation world, so maybe this is too “new agey.” But where was the chance to study Torah? I understand that the GA is a business conference, but I would think that people who are putting so much money into Jewish education would want to learn a bit at their global convention. Some of the money that was spent bringing in major speakers on politics and Israel could have been used to bring in at least one “A List” scholar. Or, if they wanted to go on the cheap— me!

Yes, there was a 12-Step meeting each morning, and davvenen (prayer) at the appropriate times each day, but most of the delegates were sober and secular, and probably skipped both the meetings and the davvenen. (Please don’t write complaining about the sober allusion. I know AA people are sober; I’m just addicted to alliteration.) I would have liked to see a workshop for delegates interested in learning Jewish contemplative practices such as meditation and chanting, and how to integrate these into their life of service.

I am not blaming anyone for this. It may be that such programming has been tried in the past and was found wanting. It may be that Jewish professionals focused on tikkun haolam are just not interested in tikkun hanefesh. I don’t know, but I worry about a Jewry that is all about the externals of politics and social action. We will survive, but will we thrive? And does a Jewry that is Judaism-free even matter?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Taking Science Seriously

I have been enthralled with science for decades. My 1981 rabbinic thesis, for example, focused on the impact of quantum theory on Jewish thought. It was a very short thesis. Last year I helped create the Mobius Center for Science and Spirituality, a partnership between my One River Foundation and Middle Tennessee State University. As part of Mobius I produced an undergraduate course called “The God of Science and the Science of God” that sought a new paradigm for dialogue between science and religion.

I take science seriously. I honor the scientific method, and do not dispute the truths it reveals. Where science disproves a religious claim, religion must change; hiding from truth behind the wall of scripture is cowardly, and ignoring astronomy, geology, cosmology, and biology in order to hold on to a specific theology is not an act of faith but of foolishness.

I also take religion seriously. Religion is a science in its own right, the science of human transcendence, transformation, and meaning. Where the astronomer uses a telescope and a biologist uses a microscope, the religionist uses poetry, myth, metaphor, and contemplative practice.

Science liberates us from magic. Religion liberates us from despair. And both liberate us from the narrow confines of ego, tribe, etc., to hold out new ways of seeing self and other that provides for a deep and compelling sense of awe and wonder. And then religion goes one step farther.

The step that religion takes that science cannot, is the step into meaning, justice and compassion. Science shows us how life works; religion shows us how best to live it. Science reveals the mind of God, religion reveals God’s heart.

I am of course speaking of religion and science at their best. There is bad science and bad religion. Both share a common trait: refusing to look beyond the biases of the scientist or theologian to see what is rather than what each wants there to be. Good science has reason to fear bad religion, and good religion has reason to fear bad science. But good science and good religion have nothing to fear from one another, for both point toward the ineffable mystery that manifests as reality is all its forms.

The more science I learn, and the more religion I study, the more deep my contemplation, and the more sacred the universe becomes. And the more sacred the universe becomes the more compelled I am to engage life with love. The God that emerges from good science and good religion is not a tribal warlord drooling over the chance to burn unbelievers in Hell, but an all–embracing nonduality delighting in infinite forms and levels of consciousness, surprising Itself now and again with a being that emerges, looks at the enormity of creation and says without the slightest hint of narcissism, “That’s me!”

I want to be that being. Sometimes I am. I wish the same for you as well.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Do Jews Matter?

[This is a summary of a talk I gave this past Friday at Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield, NJ.]

What would the world lose if Jews disappeared tomorrow?

A similar question was asked over two thousand years ago of the High Priest Shimon haTzadik who answered with Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, revelation, worship, and generosity (Avot 1:2). Many years later Rabban Shimon Gamliel responded to the same question with justice, truth, and peace (Avot 1:18).

Given that most Jews know little of Torah, rarely engage in worship, and are not noticeably more generous, just, honest, and peaceful than their neighbors, is there any reason Jews need survive? Of course Jews have a right to exist, but do we have a reason for existing? Do we matter any more?

I answer these questions with an equivocal “yes.” “Yes” because there are things we Jews bring to the world that no else does. And “equivocal” because these things may be fading away.

We Jews bring two things to the world that are desperately needed: a love of paradox and pluralism, and religious humanism. Each of these comes with its own Hebrew catchphrase, and it is through these that I will explore our gifts to the world.

The first is Elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayyim, this opinion and that opinion are both the words of the Living God. This comes from the Talmud where God declares that the mutually exclusive teachings of the competing rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai are both the words of the living God (Eruvin 13b). If you are not familiar with the Talmudic original, you probably know the street version: “Two Jews, three opinions.”

The Jewish mind is at home with paradox, and multiple and competing truths. We consider it a mark of true intelligence to be able to argue all sides of a case, and a sign of deep humility to grant your opponent’s rightness even as you argue passionately against it. No other civilization is rooted in Elu v’elu. The world needs this broad mindedness. It is the cure for fundamentalisms of all kinds.

Yet I worry that we are losing this trait. Traditional Jewish pedagogy rooted in passionate argument is being replaced by a gentile model of memorizing facts and mouthing well-worn truisms. We are teaching our children what it is to be a Jew rather than how it is. We are teaching content rather than attitude. We need both, but it is the latter that gives us our uniqueness.

The second gift of the Jews is captured in the phrase Lo baShamayyim he, it is not in heaven. The “it” here is mitzvot, the way of godliness. In Deuteronomy 30:11-14 Moses tells us that the way of mitzvah is “not in heaven, that you might excuse yourselves saying, ‘Who can ascend to heaven and get it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’... Rather it is very near to you— in your mouth and your heart— to do it.”

The way of godliness— the way of justice, mercy, and humility as the prophet Micah defined it— is inside you. Don’t look to heaven for answers to your life challenges, look within. Which brings us to the Talmud (Bava Meztia 59b ) where we find the rabbis debating the fitness of an oven.

All but Rabbi Eliezer said the oven was fine. Failing to persuade his colleagues with reason, Eliezer said, “If the halakha (law) is according to me, let that carob tree prove it.” And a nearby carob tree walked across the yard and replanted itself in the ground. But the rabbis said, “What does a carob tree know of the law?”

Eliezer than said, “If the halakha is according to me, let this brook prove it.” And a nearby stream suddenly flipped and flowed in the opposite direction. Again the rabbis replied, “What does a brook know of the law?”

Rabbi Eliezer then said, “If the halakha is according to me, may the walls of this House of Study prove it.” And the walls of the House of Study began to collapse inward upon the rabbis. Rabbi Joshua rose up and rebuked the walls saying, “When rabbis argue with one another on matters of halakha, what right have you to interfere?” Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua the walls ceased to bend inward; and out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer they did not straighten up.

Finally Rabbi Eliezer said, “If the halakha is according to me, may Heaven itself say so!” Just then a heavenly voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is right on every point!”

Again Rabbi Joshua rose up saying, “Lo baShamayyim he; it is not in heaven! The Torah is ours to decide according to the majority (Exodus 23:2); we do not pay attention to voices from heaven!”

Some time later, Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah and asked him what God had done when rebuked by Rabbi Joshua. Elijah smiled and said, “He laughed and laughed saying, ‘At last! My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me!’”

Defeating God by working out our own understanding of godliness is so alien to most people that they don’t know what to make of it, yet it is just this kind of religious humanism that the world needs; affirming the truth of God while insisting that we work out the details of godliness for ourselves.

Yet are we passing this trait on to our children? When we teach the law are we still open to majority rule or have we made a fetish of tradition? Do we teach a living Torah to be explored or a fixed torah to be imitated? The world around us is based on imitation, worshipping the idols of fashion and following the heavenly voices of loud-mouthed pundits. Were to we turn inward? Yet it is this turning that is so desperately needed. Are we teaching our children to turn or merely to follow?

Elu v’elu and lo baShamayyim he, a love of paradox and religious humanism, are what Jews bring to the table. Yet these are not passed down by blood, but by pedagogy. It is not so much what we learn but how we learn that makes us who we are. Of course we must study Hebrew, history, and sacred text, but if we do so in the manner of the gentiles, choosing fixed truths over the open-ended search for multi-layered and often paradoxical meaning, following external moral absolutes rather than internal ethical prompts, we sacrifice what is most unique and important about us.

In a world being ripped apart by absolutes—religious, political, and economic— we need the open-hearted pluralism of elu v’elu. In a world pushed to the brink of World War IV by men inflamed by heavenly voices, we need the religious humanism of lo baShammayim he. In a world that has forgotten the art of conversation, we need people in love with dialogue. We Jews used to be that people. We can be again.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Panties for Peace

Whenever I walk by a Victoria’s Secret store I feel sapped of male energy. Women’s underwear to me is what Kryptonite is to Superman. (The green kind, not the red.) I often suspect that this is the “secret” Victoria is keeping from us: women’s underwear is hazardous to men’s health.

For years I thought I was alone in this; in fact it was fear of having panties and bras thrown at me while on stage that prevented me from pursuing a career as a rock star. That and the fact that I suck at playing music, but mostly the panties.

Recently, however, I have discovered that I am not insane, only Burmese. It seems that the men of Myanmar (formerly Burma) believe that coming into contact with women’s underwear saps their strength. Damn straight! Of course I should make it clear that they are talking about women’s underwear sans women. I have no idea what the men of Myanmar experience when they see women wearing underwear. Personally I find women’s underwear with women in them far less frightening than women’s underwear without women in them. I suspect this is true of Myanmar men as well.

Anyway, now that the truth is out regarding the lethal power of panties and bras, a global network is forming to exploit it. People all over the world are shipping packages of panties and bras to Myanmar’s embassies hoping to topple the junta by sapping the strength of the men as then open the packages. This is like sending anthrax to congress people and newscasters, but trust me, women’s underwear is far easier to get.

Ordinarily I shy away from such violence, and given the fact that panties are dangerous to men I hesitate to suggest that men and women join in this effort for fear that men will suffer from handling the underwear, but the junta in Myanmar is evil and the Buddhist priests can’t defeat them alone. Especially since they, too, have no immunity against women’s underwear.

So, tossing caution to the wind, I am forming the Thongalese Liberation Front for the Liberation of Myanmar (TLFFTLOM), urging all my readers to join the “Panties for Peace” campaign and send women’s underwear to the Myanmar embassy nearest you.

Here are some slogans you might incorporate into your mailing: “Lift and Separate: Free the People of Myanmar!” “Thongs for the Memories: Don’t Forget Myanmar!” “Be BRAve!” “BRAvo Buddhists!” “Throw the Panty-loons Out!”

As the CEO of TLFFTLOM I am trying to contact the president of Victoria’s Secret to enlist the support of the company in making public service announcements showing Victoria Secret models taking off their underwear and throwing it at Myanmar embassy officials. But don’t wait for me. Approach your local Victoria’s Secret and speak to the manager about working with you to free the people of Myanmar.

[Warning to men. Do not handle women’s underwear without protection. I am pretty certain the power sapping capacity of the underwear cannot penetrate lead, so you might want to wear colored plastic gloves and aprons made in China.]