Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tis the Season to be Brutal

Jdimytai Damour died for our sins this Christmas as 2000 bargain crazed shoppers shattered the glass sliding-doors at the Green Acres Mall Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY., and trampled the Wal-Mart employee to death.

Now some may find ironic the story of a man trampled to death by shoppers so eager to buy gifts for their loved ones that they would mindlessly kill a man whose only crime was trying to help them do so. Irony, however, requires that things turn out opposite to what one expects, and the death of Mr. Damour is exactly what one should expect as Americans replace the baby in the manger with the bargain at the mall.

In a culture that has turned the birth of God into a celebration of consumerist excess, the death of Mr. Damour is nothing but a holy sacrifice at the temple of America’s true religion: shopping. We shop to provide our lives with meaning, and shopping like every other religion the west has invented demands its deaths on the alter of faith.

According to one shopper’s report in the Associated Press, when people were told to leave the store because an employee had been killed, they refused, yelling: “I’ve been here since yesterday morning.” They simply kept on shopping. Well, of course. What else do you do in the temple of consumption if not consume? Indeed, had they left the store empty handed Mr. Damour’s death would have been in vain. He died because there is nothing we honor more than a sale, not even a human life.

While Mr. Damour was the only person to die on Black Friday, he was not the only person injured at that Wal-Mart. A pregnant woman was battered by the crowd as well. Here, irony does apply, as pro-life Christians are more than happy to kill a baby to get a bargain.

We will soon hear wild-eyed talk show pundits screaming about the War on Christmas, but their opposition to all things Constitutional misses the real war on Christmas waged not by Jews, Muslims, atheists, and secularists, but by Christians themselves whose religion has been highjacked by consumerism.

I admit to going out on Black Friday to see the spectacle, and to rent a video. The parking lot at the shopping center in my oh so Christian town were filled with angry people circling for an empty space like vultures waiting for a man to die. Once inside the store, the anger on the faces of the shoppers was palpable. There was a frenzy that I found truly frightening, and I left after only a few minutes sans video.

I am sorry Mr. Damour died. I am sorry for him, his family, for us, for America, for Christianity, and for Jesus who warned us that following him would lead to death, but who never imagined a man being martyred for a highly discounted bit of Chinese junk.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fight.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks to You #22

Today is Thanksgiving, and I was narcissistic enough to go on line to see if anyone read my Thanksgiving blog from yesterday, and if my number of readers had changed. And, lo and behold, my readership has jumped from 21 to 22 people. Amazing! Number-wise that isn't much, put percentage-wise it is much more impressive. Just how much more impressive I can't say having grown up in a country that ranks 25th out of 29 in a survey of math competency among leading nations of the world.

So let me thank you #22 for joining with us. I won't keep doing this personal thank you thing, but it is Thanksgiving so I thought I would say something. Let me apologize in advance to #23 (I am nothing if not hopeful). It isn't that I don't feel grateful that you signed on, it is just that I refuse to admit it publicly.

I am curious, though, as to why most of my Fellow Travelers refuse to put their photographs on line. Are you afraid to be openly associated with this blog? Is this a blow against the invasion of privacy that comes with the Internet age? Or are you stalking me and don't want me to recognize you?

I only mention this last option because I have thought about devoting a wall of my office to pictures of those who follow my blog. I thought I would set it up like the ones you see on the television show "Criminal Minds" when the FBI team breaks into the house of a serial killer and finds his walls plastered with the faces of his victims. This way if I ever commit a crime that warrants (yes, pun intended) breaking into my house, the police will have something to talk about.

Not that you have anything to worry about. Whenever I hear the word "serial killer" I immediately think of "cereal killer" and begin to fantasize about bowls of Sugar Pops and cold milk. I'm old enough to remember when they were called "Sugar Corn Pops." I suspect there is no more corn in the pops, corn being put to better use as ethanol, and, honestly, I don't care. It is the sugar that I crave not the corn. But it is sad that millions of people are starving for corn while my car gets to eat all the corn it wants. Too bad third world countries haven't figured out how to make corn-free Sugar Pops.

Which reminds me that there is one more thing for me to be thankful for today: dentists who manage to salvage my teeth as I continue to assault them with pops of pure sugar.

Have a sweet Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I am feeling a bit pressured to offer a blog on the things for which I am thankful this year. There are, of course, the usual suspects: the kids who invented "Hit a Jew Day", the fundamentalists who refuse to admit that the rocks they throw at liberals are older than creation as they understand it from the Bible, the Jews who support the kosher industry assuming that God is more worried about our allegiance to Bronze Age technologies of animal slaughter than modern age concerns with justice and the health and safety of slaughterhouse workers. Where would I be without these people to write about?

I am also thankful for Henry (Hank) Paulson who is destroying any hope of my surviving old age with financial dignity. I used to worry about my financial future, but now I no longer have to. I have none. Whatever money I had hoped to have has now gone to bailout people making millions of dollars in bonuses every year. I pity them having to worry about where to vacation this year, and how to invest their taxpayer trillions. Only people with money to lose have to worry about the stock market. Having lost all mine, I can relax and enjoy my poverty in peace.

And then there is Exxon who bought the patent for GM's original and incredibly wonderful electric car battery that powered the EV-1 electric car which Exxon refuses to allow into production making it all the more certain that GM will collapse just a little sooner than the polar ice caps. I am really thankful to them for that.

And I am thankful for all those Mormons who scared Californians straight, making it unconstitutional for gays and lesbians to marry. I know in the short run this hurts lots of people, but since 50% of all marriages end in divorce anyway, half the couples the Mormons hurt will be spared the horrors of divorce, and that is something to be thankful for.

Of course there are my family and friends. I am very thankful for them. But, for the most part (but not all parts) they are too much like me to be all that interesting. If I want to be impressed by people like me I would do better to be impressed by me. Why settle for a good imitation?

And I am thankful for you Toto readers. All twenty-one of you, at last count. All twenty-one of you; twenty-one among the countless millions who surf the web everyday reading all kinds of things but not my blog. Yes it is humbling to know that my readership is no larger than a large order of donuts, and being humble is good. So I am thankful for you, the twenty-one of you, not one of whom actually pays to read this blog, but even if you did given that there are only twenty-one of you it would still not be worth my while to write it, so thanks for letting me do something purely altruistic with my life. Here's a personal thank you to each of you: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Wow, twenty-one thank yous, and I have only been writing this blog for four years. Just think there may be forty-two of you by the time Sarah Palin runs for president in 2012.

Which reminds me to be thankful to the ancient Mayans who have given me something beside my fame to worry about. Their calendar runs out in 2012 and that may spell the end of life as we know it. Too bad the Mayans didn't live long enough to see themselves destroyed. No, wait, they did. I guess this is Mayan revenge.

But most of all I am thankful for the unnamed fellow in Barnes and Nobel bookstore who is most certainly coming down with bronchitis. First I am thankful to him for sharing his germs with me as we stood in the Bible section of the store. I imagine he thought that if I breathe in just a bit of his illness my body will build up an immunity to the full blown disaster that is boiling inside his lungs. But mostly I am thankful that his coughing was perfectly timed to match and mask a small gas leak from which I myself was suffering. Though, now that I think about it, this may not have been a coincidence at all. Perhaps he didn't have bronchitis, but was coughing in respond to my enthusiastic bursts of methane. Honestly, I didn't think of this until just now. I owe him an apology rather than a vote of thanks. Well, that isn't going to happen, so let me just say that I am all the more grateful to him for not saying anything to me directly.

So much to be thankful for this year. How about you?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Oh Me of Little Faith" or "Leggo My Ego"

I have no idea how many people read this blog. And, since I write TOTO as much for myself as I do for any potential reader, I have not been too concerned with numbers. But has just released a new feature called "Followers" that allows you to add your profile to this blog so that we can become more of a community. Four people signed up before I even knew you could do so. So, as you may have noticed, I have added the feature to the blog.

It is a risk for me and my ego in that while I write for myself and I really don't care how many people read this blog I am really lying when I say this and in fact care deeply, perhaps even desperately, and will be crushed if you don't sign on as a Fellow Traveler. Crushed, I say!

So please feed my ego and let me know you are out there.

Thanks and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Old Time Religion

Did you know that early Church fathers like Origen and Clement of Alexandria believed in universal salvation, the idea that God’s love was infinite and all good people got saved? Of course this idea was declared heresy by the Church in 553 CE, but still…

Did you know that Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers of the United States, was an old timey religion guy who said, “A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth.” Sure much of American Christianity has gone in the opposite direction, but still…

Did you know that 1500 years after Origen that old time religion of universal love still rankles people? Well it does. The idea that God loves everyone is just too much for many who worship the God of Love.

People like their religion to be exclusive. They like knowing that no matter what you do— no matter how good, kind, just, and loving you are— if you don’t believe the way they believe you are screwed for all eternity. Praise God!

This means that a serial killer who accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior will go to heaven while His Holiness the Dalai Lama will burn in hell. This means that Nazis who continued to go to church and take communion are in Heaven while their Jewish victims are in God’s own Auschwitz.

And the Church claims that universal love is a heresy!

As outrageous as this is, my real problem isn’t with what others believe, but my own lack of belief. I want to believe that God is an exclusivist who burns people in hell forever if they do not believe as I believe. I want to believe that God torments and tortures those I despise or with whom I just disagree theologically. Then at least I would have the satisfaction of knowing that when these souls die they will come before God, and God will tell them they are going to hell because they disagreed with me. That will wipe that self-righteous grin off their smug faces.

Such a belief would be so personally comforting. If I believed this way I couldn’t wait to get to heaven and turn on the hell-cam to watch all these fools burnings and writhing and being prodded and poked in every orifice by all kinds of demons. That is reality TV I want to believe in.

The problem is I don’t believe any of this. And this really irks me.

I have no way to take revenge against false prophets who promote a brutal and violent god. I want God to do to them what they want God to do to me. I want to believe just what they believe except in reverse. I want to be just like them except the opposite of them in that they burn and not me. But no one cares what I want, least of all God. And these people continue to preach hate in the name of hope, and greed in the name of grace, and madness in the name of monotheism. And I just go on ranting onomatopoetically until it’s time for lunch.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Blood Red States

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate crime-monitoring group, says there have been hundreds of death threats and racial slurs hurled at the First Family-elect and those who supported them. According to Mr. Potok this mostly happens in my neck of the woods.

In North Carolina, four students at UNC wrote anti-Obama comments including: “Let's shoot that (N-word) in the head.” Mr. Obama has received more threats than any other president-elect in US history.

According to a local official in Rexburg, Idaho, second and third-grade students on a city school bus chanted “assassinate Obama.” Where do you think they learned to do that?

And it was two Tennessee geniuses who were arrested for plotting to kill African American students and then make a run on the president-elect with a shotgun.

Of course evil isn’t limited to the South. Customers at a general store in Standish, Maine were placing $1 bets on when the president-elect would be assassinated. A sign inside the Oak Hill General Store read: "Osama Obama Shotgun Pool." "Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count," it said. At the bottom of the marker board was written, "Let's hope someone wins." Clearly these folks had been talking to the second-graders in Idaho.

These are just a few examples of the madness that is sweeping white America. It will, I suspect, only get worse. I fear for Mr. Obama’s life and the life of his family. I fear for the soul of my country. What at first looked like a moment of historical transformation of the Union may well spell the rebirth of the Confederacy and the KKK.

If you find a run on white sheets in your local Wal-Mart, it might be time to move to Canada.


I was listening to a radio interview with Anne Rice that focused on her return to Catholicism. Ms. Rice, as you most likely know, is the author of Interview with a Vampire and other vampire books. Lately she has shifted her literary attention to writing historical novels about the life of Jesus, and her newest book is a memoir of her return to faith.

I have no feelings pro or con regarding Anne Rice’s books, but there was something she said in the interview that I found profoundly saddening. I can’t quote her verbatim, but if I heard her correctly she said that she came to a place in her intellectual life where she realized that she will never have the answers to her questions, but that as long as she believed God had the answers she could stop asking the questions.

I can’t imagine a life without questions. A life of answers is dull. A life without questions is dead. The irony of the world’s second most famous author of vampire stories succumbing to questionless and hence lifeless theology was lost on Ms. Rice and her interviewer. But not on me.

Life is all about asking questions. Answers are secondary. They are temporary. But only as long as we continue to ask questions.

Can you imagine what the world would be like if no one questioned the status quo? Questioning feeds the soul, triggers the imagination, and reinvents the world.

There is a billboard not too far from where I live that reads, “Jesus is the Answer.” How sad. How wrong! Jesus is not the answer; Jesus is the question. God is the question. When I was in rabbinical school some of my fellow students refused to write the name of God in English, using G-D rather than GOD. [I found this annoying and began to write my name R-MI, earning the nickname R-Dash]. My friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow often writes the word GOD as G!D to emphasis the wonder of God. I would like to suggest we write the word GOD as G?D to remind ourselves time and again that G?D is about questing and questioning.

So many people fear questions. In one of my university classes I asked my students to explain their beliefs. After a few had done so, I asked, “But what if you’re wrong?” One student immediately responded, “But what if we’re right?” “OK, I said. What if you are right? That still means that most of the others who have spoken are wrong. Can you be so certain about your position as to condemn your classmates to eternal damnation for holding a different position?” Frighteningly, the answer is “yes,” though the student herself was silent.

Answers are fine when taken as tentative and open to questioning, but it is the questioning that matters. It is the questioning that frees us from the tyranny of truth. What we need is an educational system, both secular and religious, that celebrates questioning. I doubt we will ever get one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama, Collectivist

They tried Muslim, terrorist, fellow traveler, socialist, communist, liberal but nothing struck the cord of fear Conservatives had hoped would send Americans rushing to the McCain camp.

This morning Rush Limbaugh admitted defeat in the label wars, and suggested the best way to combat “Obamaism” was to pit authentic Conservative Principles against actual Obama policies. For a moment I rejoiced. This is what we should be doing: debating ideas not defaming persons. For a moment I toyed with the idea of calling Rush’s show and congratulating him for rising above the Hannity/O’Reilly fear mongering. But the moment passed, and so did Rush’s commitment to four years of label-free debate.

No sooner did he say this that he tossed out his newest label: collectivist. President-elect Obama is a collectivist and his policies amount to collectivism. But what is collectivism?

According to an essay posted on Wikipedia “collectivism refers to any philosophy or system that sees any kind of group (such as a class, nation, race, society, state, etc) as more important than the individual”. Sounds like “country first” if you ask me.

The problem with collectivism is that the group that it is concerned with is always the group in power, not the people as a whole. Republicans were collectivists in that they put the needs of the rich above those of the poor. Liberals may be collectivist in the opposite direction. But the only bulwark against collectivism isn’t Republicanism but Libertarianism. Only the libertarian holds the individual sacred. Praise Ron Paul! Hail Ayn Rand!

But Rush isn’t a libertarian; he is a Republican Collectivist defending only those individuals in his group. Collectivism is just another buzzword designed to scare us into four more years of fear.

There is no hope for intelligent conversation in this country any more. We don’t have the education for it. All we want, and therefore all we get, are labels, half-truths, and angry spin and counter-spin designed to raise fears and thereby money for whatever exploitative group is scaring us the most.

I’m not going to agree with everything President Obama does. To be honest, I am not going to know enough about most of what he does to have an informed opinion. Should we bail out the American auto companies? I don’t know. Part of me says, “No! They brought on their own problems, why should I have to pay to fix them?” And part of me says, “Yes, they are too big to let fail.” So I compromise saying, “Yes, bail them out if they give me a check so I can afford to go out and buy a Toyota Prius.”

I understand that the right wing is scared. All they have left if Sarah Palin. But the real problem with America isn’t collectivism, but the lack of intelligent debate and dialogue.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Moving to India

Last week I wrote that I was moving to Nebraska, but the Nebraska legislature is changing the law that made that feasible, so this week I am thinking about moving to India.

Jews have lived in India since the time of the Buddha, some 2500 years ago. While this link does nothing to explain the popularity of Buddhism among Jews (the Buddha lived in northern India, the Jews, of course, preferred to live in the south), it does make it all the more sad that the Jewish community in India is on the verge of collapse. Especially in Calcutta where the last remaining handful of Jews will be gone within a generation.

The reason for the demise of Jewry in India has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with Israel. The Jews of India went home. This should make me happy. Jews belong in Israel, right? I mean most Jews. Or at least every Jew but me, who finds the thought of living in a socialist theocracy almost as scary as living in a capitalist one.

I am troubled by the end of the Indian Jewry because I love India, and have been enthralled with her culture and religious life since I was sixteen years old. I even visited India once as a visiting lecturer, and celebrated Tu b’Shvat (the New Year of the Trees) in a New Delhi synagogue. I find it terribly sad that a 2500 year old piece of Jewish history is ending. And all the more so when that very community could, along with a small Hindu-Catholic movement in the country, provide a bridge between eastern and middle-eastern thought.

Here is my fantasy. Jews in America and Israel who, like myself, love Judaism and India would raise the money to purchase at least one of the failing synagogues in India. Rabbis in America and Israel who, like myself, love Judaism and India would form a network and provide continuing rabbinic presence in the synagogue(s) we buy. We would turn these synagogues into centers for Hindu-Jewish learning and dialogue. We have so much in common (see the book Torah and Veda by Barbara Holdrege), and so much to learn from one another.

Our India synagogue would attract tourists and students. Slowly Jews would move into the neighborhood and set up small shops (Shiva and Shabbos: Your One Stop Shop for All Things HinJew, the New Delhi Deli, and ShaktiShekhina, a feminist bookstore devoted to the Divine Mother, etc.). Within a few years the community would be thriving. Of course few if any of us would be native Indians, but so what? At least a 2500 year old tradition would live on.

I foresee this growing into a large campus, a true Indian yeshiva where swamis and rabbis teach side by side, and Hillel, Chabad, and Campus Crusade for Krishna compete for members. OK, may that is a bit much, but there is so much possibility here.

So here is my offer. If someone wants to fly to India, talk to the people, make a business plan, raise the funds, buy the building, and do everything else that needs to be done to make this idea a reality, I will be happy to be the first rabbi to take the pulpit. Just call me when my house is built. And please don’t forget airconditioning. Shanti. Shalom.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Moving to Nebraska

I am moving to Nebraska.

I know this will come as a shock to many of you, and I admit it was a shock to me as well, but hard times and financial demands make the move a necessity.

I found out I was moving when my dad called to say that he was going to abandon me at a Nebraska hospital, and that I should consider doing the same with my son. Nebraska recently passed legislation that allows parents to abandon unwanted children at a hospital—no questions asked. The original idea was to protect the lives of newborns, but unlike other states with similar laws, the Nebraska law doesn’t place an age limit on the abandoned child. This huge oversight has made Nebraska the go-to state for parents who just cannot stand their teenagers anymore.

It has been forty years since I have been a teenager, and over fifty-seven years since I have been a newborn, but my parents can still drop me off in Nebraska. And that is what they plan to do.

“But wait,” I said when my dad called, “you and mom aren’t supporting me, why abandon me now?” His reasoning was flawless.

I am, he said referring to me, counting on making some serious bucks when my parents die, but the economy is stripping them of their resources and they expect to die broke. The guilt of this is forcing them to consider giving me money now while they still have some, but if they do that they won’t be able to live themselves. So to protect themselves from both guilt and poverty they have decided to abandon me to Nebraska.

This line of reasoning is so compelling that I plan to do the same with my son. And, because a car ride from Massachusetts to Nebraska is daunting to my eighty-something parents, I have offered to drive my son and myself to a Nebraska hospital and abandon both of us on its front steps.

What will happen to us? Well at first I expect the state of Nebraska will house and feed us, but the long term goal is get ourselves taken in by a foster family who will support us, or, if we are lucky, maybe even adopted by a wealthy family that will put us in their will. Of course if they take both my son and myself, and their finances aren’t as strong as I require, I can always abandon my son again—no questions asked.

Who says you can’t beat the recession? It’s a win-win for everyone. Everyone except the people of Nebraska, but, hey, they passed the law.

Beyond Trunk and Tail

I have been actively involved in interfaith dialogue for thirty years. During this time I have observed three kinds of interfaith conversations:

Serial Monologue where spokespersons from each faith represented on the panel speak of their respective with no reference to others on the panel.

We Are One where spokespersons from each faith gloss over any areas of differences and conflict so that every religion sounds like every other religion.

Roll Up Our Sleeves where spokespersons from each faith focus on a shared moral, political, or social agenda and work together to achieve their common objectives.

There is something positive to be said for each of these, and I have been involved in all of them. But lately they bore me. What excites me is a far more risky kind of dialogue rooted in disagreement and conflict. I find that there is nothing to learn when we pretend that all religions agree. Learning comes from creative discord where thoughtful, committed, and compassionate people on opposing sides of an issue or idea struggle not agree but learn and grow from those very places where agreement is impossible.

My model for this is a reimagined version of the Hindu parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. You know the story: A group of blind men are asked to describe an elephant. One takes hold of the tale and imagines a long thin creature. Another grasps the trunk and speaks of much thicker animal. The person holding the legs describes another animal, and those holding the ears, the trunk, and the belly describe even more diverse “elephants”. Who is right? They are all right in part, but none is right in toto. What they have to accept is their partial truth and by exploring the experience of the others come to a greater truth about the true nature of the elephant.

Imagine an interfaith gathering where the speakers admitted from the start that they are all blind. What they come to offer is their piece of the puzzle. What they hope to glean are other pieces so that in time they may better understand the Truth that surpasses their partial understandings. They speak with authority and humility, knowing that what they know is true but the whole truth.

Conversations such as these would be heated at times, for it is difficult to imagine how the elephant’s tail and trunk can possible be part of the same creature. Differences will lead to disagreements, and argument, and honest struggling with on another. But how else can we learn?

This is an idea in the rough, and I have to do lots more thinking about it. But I invite you to think along with me. Imagine hosting a gathering called “Defining the Elephant: Searching for Truth Beyond Trunk and Tail” where we focus on where we differ, why we differ, and what our differences have to teach us about the nature of Reality.

Just a thought, but one I find very exciting.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pius? Maybe. Saintly? Not so much.

Should the Catholic Church declare Pope Pius XII a saint? His supporters say he was a quiet servant of God who worked behind the scenes to save his Church and what Jews he could from the horror of Nazism. His detractors see in his public silence regarding the Holocaust a sign of moral cowardice unbecoming a saint. The argument might be settled if the Church would, as it has promised, release the records of Pope Pius XII papacy for scholarly review. But once again the Church prefers silence and secrecy to bold transparency. One can only assume that they know what many suspect: Pope Pius XII was a moral coward.

I have no idea of Pope Pius XII is a saint. But if I were asked to vote for or against Pius XII, I would vote against. Here is why:

This week’s Torah portion contains the story of Abraham arguing with God for the salvation of Sodom, demanding that even the Judge of all the World do justly (Genesis 18:25). In Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary, he imagines God’s response to Abraham this way, “If there are still, in a state like Sodom, fifty righteous men who not only publicly live a moral and just life, but who even can stand up for morality, justice and humaneness” then God will spare the city. Righteous people must be righteous in public as well as in private if their righteousness is to be true and authentic. Pope Pius XII fails the public test of righteousness. He was not willing to risk all to save the innocent.

Just imagine how history might have turned out if the Pope and his Bishops threatened to deny communion and salvation through the Church to any Catholic who was either a Nazis or a Nazi sympathizer. Millions of lives could have been saved—not just Jews destined for the death camps, but such a call would have prevented Catholic Italy from allying itself with Hitler, caused the collapse of Nazism from within, and either prevented WWII all together or ended it much sooner.

This is in fact what American Bishops do all the time to politicians and voters who support abortion rights. Just this week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that any move to promote abortion rights would be considered “an attack on the Church.” Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann of St. Louis said, “Any one of us here would consider it a privilege to die tomorrow—die tomorrow—to bring about the end of abortion.”

Whether or not you agree with Bishop Hermann, his outspokenness and his willingness to be martyred for the unborn is an act of moral courage (yes, it would have been more courageous so say that he would be willing to die today rather than tomorrow since tomorrow never comes, but cut the guy some slack). Unless the Church wishes to argue that the life of the unborn zygote is more valuable that the lives of over eleven million Jews, Gypsies, Gays and Lesbians, and others sent to the Nazi death camps, it is clear that Pope Pius XII is not as righteous as Bishop Hermann.

If either of them deserves sainthood, it is Bishop Hermann, may he be worthy of consideration speedily in our day.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A New Voice for a New Time

Today is my last day in Aspen, CO. where I have been listening to and learning from some of my most important teachers: Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Sister Joan Chittister, Kabir and Camille Helminski, Cynthia Bourgeault. The purpose of our gathering is to articulate a new spiritual voice for the United States of America; a contemplative voice that speaks from a deep ecumenism pointing beyond the triumphalism of competing faiths to the simple wisdom of justice and compassion at the heart of all faiths.

I believe we are entering a time of global apocalypse (literally “unveiling”) when the masks behind which humanity hides from its interdependence with one another and with nature are being ripped away forcing to confront the greater unity of which we are a part.

This unveiling will take many forms: economic collapse, increased religious violence, rising crime, ecological disaster, etc. We will be knocked back on our heels, and then knocked down to our knees. The question is not if this will happen, but when. The challenge is how to avoid the apocalypse but how to survive it with our humanity intact.

We will be fed a diet of fear and violence leading to a state of perpetual war. We will be called to a false patriotism that strips us of our rights in the name of God, country, and security. Our religions will succumb to their most violent tendencies, unleashing evil in the name of good, and who damning all who oppose them to hell in both this world and the next. Any religious voice to the contrary, any voice promoting peace and reconciliation, will be thought weak and heretical. But it is in these heretical voices that our salvation lies.

This new voice will be soft, but neither weak nor cowardly. It will a bold, risk-taking voice that insists that love is our salvation, and that love applied means justice for all life.

The voice of fear will argue for a fixed pie, a world of limited resources, and the need to grab as much as we can as fast as we can, others be damned. The voice of love will speak of a renewable world where life is best served by doing less with less rather than more with more.

This new voice I hope is being shaped here. It is as yet a “still small voice,” a voice that asks us to examine not the symptoms of our suffering, but its cause. This is a voice that asks to remove the cause—greed, fear, anger, ignorance—rather than simply treat the symptom. This voice asks us to question our consumption, and argues that we are happiest when we are not burdened by the crushing weight of debt and the even more crushing lust that feeds it. This voice challenges us to be happy, and asks us to look deeply inward to see what truly makes us happy, and to live for that.

I have heard the first words of this new voice. I have no idea if, even if we succeed, anyone will listen, or, if they listen, they will be moved to act. But that is out of my hands. All I can do is cultivate it. And to this I pledge my efforts.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

I Belong

Earlier today I was asked, "Who are the Jews, anyway?" I gave what I hope was a meaningful answer, but the question stayed with me throughout the Sabbath. With the setting of the sun I sat down to say a bit more. This is what poured forth:

I belong to a tribal people whose fundamental passion, though oft betrayed, is for “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly” with the Divine (Micah 6:8).

I belong to a tribal people whose sense of mission is to be a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:2).

I belong to a tribal people for whom nature is God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3).

I belong to a tribal people for whom humanity is the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

I belong to a tribal people whose way is teshuvah and tikkun, forever returning to God and repairing the world with godliness.

I belong to a tribal people whose imaginal faculties are devoted to envisioning a world where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,” (Isaiah 2:4).

I belong to a tribal people whose primal call is to abandon the conditioning of the known, and to walk boldly into the unknown (Genesis 12:1).

I belong to a tribal people whose God does not defeat chaos, but calls order out from its midst (Genesis 1:2).

I belong to a tribal people whose God questions more than commands, speaking sometimes through the "sound of sheer silence" (I Kings 19:12-13), and sometimes through the awesome terror of the whirlwind (Job 38:1).

I belong to a tribal people whose commitment to justice demands that even God do justly (Genesis 18:25).

I belong to a tribal people committed to dialogue, even argument, for the sake of heaven— not to triumph over another but to transform oneself.

I belong to a tribal people who place their faith in doubt and the promise of doubt to free us from what is that we might glimpse what can be.

I belong to a tribal people whose spiritual ideal is Yisrael, the wounded godwrestler (Genesis 32:28), who walks at the pace of the nursing calves and children (Genesis 33:13).

I belong to a tribal people whose sacred books lack vowels and require the breath of the living to midwife the meaning of the words.

I belong to a tribal people whose revelation is fluid and unfixed, yielding fresh wisdom as we breathe today’s spirit into yesterday’s texts.

I belong to a tribal people whose dream of a homeland has thrust us into a crisis of power, challenging us to live our humility–birthed values in a hubris–drenched land.

I belong to a tribal people hated and feared, exiled and beaten, ghettoized and gassed, yet whose anthem is Hope (haTikvah), fiercely believing that one day “all shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid,” (Micah 4:4).

I belong to a tribal people whose values are holy, whose failings are many, and whose vision compels my loyalty, my love, and my on-going efforts to bring her gifts to the world.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

So Change Already

OK, so yesterday I was all "Give Barack a Chance," but that was then and this is now. So what has Barack Obama done for me lately? I mean he’s been President- Elect for two days now and I don’t see any difference. The economy is a mess, we are still fighting two wars, and my health insurance isn’t as good as Senator John McCain’s. So what gives? What is the point of electing the messiah as president if nothing really supernatural happens?

Here is what I voted for: an America free of injustice, racism, sexism, ageism, ismism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, poverty, homelessness, greed, and environmental exploitation.

Here’s what I got: an American still mired in injustice, racism, sexism, ageism, ismism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, poverty, homelessness, greed, and environmental exploitation.

On top of that United Airlines just charged me $15 to check my bag on the plane. They wouldn’t let me carry it on because it had liquids in it. Prune juice to be exact. Yes, I drink prune juice. Did you know that John Wayne was carrying fifty-plus pounds of compacted manure in his system when he died? Now you know. Drink prune juice. No, I don’t know this for a fact, but you can check it out for yourself and let me know if it is a fact. In the meantime fiction will serve me just fine.

So back to Barack, how long is it going to take for this guy to bring real change? I mean, he promised change, I voted for change, change won, so where’s the change?

Oh wait, back to United for a moment. I will have to pay another $15 to have United fly my bag back to Nashville for me because it turns out I brought too many cans of prune juice with me and there is no way I can drink all that prune juice and still do my job. Is this the America I voted for?

OK, back to Barack. But wait! Speaking of planes, what is the deal with Obama needing a plane to get from place to place anyway? I thought, once elected, he would start to use his superpowers and fly around the country on the wings of hope.

So I don’t get it, and I’m starting to lose hope. Yes we can? Well, when can we? If he doesn’t act soon, I’m going to start thinking seriously about Palin in 2012.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A New Day in America

I voted for Barack Obama, and I could not be happier that he won the 08 Presidential elections. I believe, naively but sincerely, that the United States may, under his leadership, regain her promise. I am unabashedly patriotic. I believe in American exceptionalism (which, by the way, does not mean we are exceptional in the sense of being the best, but that we are unique, a nation founded on principles rather than race or ethnicity), and I hold my country to a very high moral standard.

I see in Barack Obama a mixture of FDR and JFK, and if his initials didn’t refer to body odor, I would suggest we start referring to him as BO. But what moved me the most last night as I watched the election returns was the tears that African American reporters fought so hard to hold back.

You could hear their voices crack and their throats choke up. This was more than an election, more than a refutation of Reaganomics and Bush/Chaney excess; this was even more than the election of a black Democrat. This was an affirmation of the value of a people. This was white, Latino, Native, Jewish, and other Americans saying, “yes they can” to black folk. This was a turning point for America.

A turning point, not an arrival. Racism isn’t dead because a black man got elected president. But it is dying, and we can see it dying, and that should give us hope that we can be the people Abe Lincoln called us to be.

I don’t expect Barack Obama to work miracles. I do expect that most of his promises will be modified and some even set aside. But I trust him to do what is right; that is why I voted for him, and I can’t remember the last time I voted for a candidate because I trusted him. So my hopes are modest. Here are some of them:

My hope now is that John McCain returns to the Senate and makes his real voice heard and not the voice of the extreme right wing of his party that had taken control of his mouth for the past two years.

My hope now is that Governor Palin returns to Alaska, that Todd becomes head of the Alaska Freedom Party and that whole state succeeds from the Union so she will not run in 2012.

My hope now is that Kwanza will become part of the White House December Festival of Religions Whose Members Vote In Large Enough Numbers To Impact Future Elections.

My hope now is that whoever dressed Sarah Palin join the new First Lady’s staff and improve Michelle’s wardrobe.

My hope now is that the Obama girls (not THE Obama Girl) get a rescue dog rather than a pedigree pooch, and that they become spokesgirls for animal rescue.

My hope now is that Barack and Michelle continue to email me two or three times a day as they have since I first sent them money.

My hope now is that America will become America, and Joe the Plummer will just go away.

It is a new day in America. But you have the solar system to thank for that, not Barack Obama. So let’s keep our priorities straight. Barack is just one man, and, even though he is Hawaiian, he still isn’t Don Ho.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Judaism by the Numbers

Baylor University recently published the results of its extensive survey of American religious life. (See What Americans Really Believe, Baylor University Press, 2008.) The numbers speak for themselves.

Let’s start with some easy issues like heaven and the devil. Ninety-two percent of Conservative Protestants believe heaven “absolutely exists” as do 66% of liberal Protestants and 69% of Catholics. And Jews? Only 27% believe there is a heaven. Eighty-eight percent of Conservative Protestants believe Satan “absolutely exits” as do 52% of liberal Protestants and 52% of Catholics. And Jews? Only 8% believe in Satan.

This is not really surprising, though the fact that 27% of Jews believe in heaven was much higher than I would have guessed. Heaven and Hell are just not hot button issues for the vast majority of Jews.

Weekly attendance at religious services was pretty much what one might expect. Fifty-four percent of Conservative Protestants attend church one a week, along with 36% of Liberal Protestants and 41% of Catholics. Jews? Only 13%. Hey, if we don’t believe in heaven and hell why sit through hours of boring liturgy and vapid sermons?

How about talking up your team? Jews are a proud people, maybe we share our love of our religion as much as other Americans? Nope. While forty-four percent of Conservative Protestants, 19% of Liberal Protestants, and 22% of Catholics talk about their faith at least once a month, only 3% of Jews do so. I’m not talking about proselytizing, how about just a positive word every week or two?

OK, I admit that so far I could have predicted the spread without spending a dime on a real survey. But the next item did throw me. When asked if their religion is in “high tension” with prevailing secular attitudes toward pornography, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, living together outside of marriage, gambling, and wearing revealing clothing, 53% of Conservative Protestants, 13% of Liberal Protestants and 37% of Catholics saw their respective faiths as offering an alternative to the rampant obscenity that passes for culture in secular America. And Jews? 0%. Zero. Nada. Not one. That is sad.

No less sad is the Jews’ relationship with spiritual or religious experiences. While 64% of Conservative Protestants, 40% of Liberal and 40% of Catholics claim that they have had a religious or mystical experience. Only 9% of Jews make that claim.

And yet when the Baylor team asked Americans about New Age ideas such as alternative medicine, generic spiritual development, unity with nature, etc. fully 30% of Jews said they are investigating such things while only 8% of Conservative Protestants, 18% of Liberal Protestants, and 12% of Catholics were doing so.

What shall we make of these numbers? To me it says that Judaism is largely irrelevant to Jews. With only 9% finding spiritually moving experiences within the faith, and 30% looking for answers outside of it, Jewish spirituality is moribund at best. And the fact that not a single percent saw Judaism at odds with the greed and grunge that is at the heart of American secular culture says to me that Judaism has abandoned its prophetic heritage, the one aspect of Judaism that, to my mind, makes being Jewish worthwhile.

If Judaism isn’t offering Jews either an alternative culture or a deep spirituality, what is it offering?

Monday, November 03, 2008


Governor Sarah Palin is speaking in Florida. She is getting better and better at this. Her charisma is growing, and so is her following. I find her frightening. Her rallies are filled with scarred and hate-filled people whom she manipulates effortlessly. Their chants of “Drill, baby, drill” have the cadence of “Kill, baby, kill,” and I worry that it is becoming easier and easier to get them make that shift. We have seen how the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, with Ms. Palin as their standard bearer, has co-opted John McCain and turned the “maverick” into a puppet.

But she said something in that speech that was so hypocritical I just had to comment on it. Surrounded by her “Country First” banners and with crowds chanting “USA, USA, USA,” Governor Palin said, “You shouldn’t be asking what you can do for your government, you should be asking what your government should be doing for you.” The crowd went wild, and cheered so loudly that none among them heard the death knell of American democracy and the very country they claim to love.

Governor Palin rhetoric was an inverse paraphrase of JFK’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That is authentic “Country First.” What Governor Palin is espousing is not “country first,” but “Me First.” Her posters ought to read “aMErica FIRST.”

I find this very troubling. I want a just and moral government that makes real and meaningful demands of us and our children. I want the government to demand (and provide incentives for) 100-mpg automobiles. I want the government to demand (and provide incentives for) the greening of our homes, businesses, and office towers. I want the government to demand public service, with all high school graduates obligated to two years of public/military service in exchange for four years of public university tuition (or the equivalent of other educational training). I want the government to challenge us to be better than we are, more moral than we are, more environmentally sound than we are, more compassionate than we are. I want a government that helps us understand what it is to be an American; a government that doesn’t fight sex education but promotes civic education; a government that doesn’t deny science but promotes authentic science and scientific education; a government that stops pretending God is on its side, and is humble enough to worry whether it is on God’s side.

Sarah Palin wants the government in our bedrooms and out of our boardrooms. I think she has it exactly backwards. Sarah Palin wants the government to tell who we can marry, and when we can die; a government that scoffs as women’s health and that mandates that the life of a fetus is more important that the life of its mother. I want the government out of all these decisions. Let religion mandate these things and let people choose to be religious or not. Morality is not a tool of the government.

I love my country. I volunteered and served three years in the US Air Force. I even tried to reenlist during Desert Storm (too old, too fat, too bad). I vote with pride and trepidation, knowing that voting is a sacred act and fearing that there are many people in power who are trying to rob us of it. Like Governor Palin I now believer there are two Americas: the Real America and the Surreal. The Real America stands for freedom, opportunity, and enfranchisement of all her citizens. The Surreal America stands for theocracy, greed, fear, and Big Brother, and it does so in the name of the very values it hopes to suppress.

Vote your conscience this Tuesday. It is the only way we’ll know which America is winning.

Hit a Jew Day

I recently learned of a new Jewish holiday about which I knew absolutely nothing. It’s called “Hit a Jew Day.”

According to USA TODAY (October 24, 2008) a few students at a suburban St. Louis middle school created “Hit a Jew Day” the purpose of which was to show their superiority to and disdain for Jews, by hitting any Jews they could find.

I have mixed feelings about Hit a Jew Day. On the up side I am pleased there are Jews in St. Louis that one might hit. On the down side, I am saddened that students would actually want to hit them. On the up side again, I am pleased that American middle schoolers are creative enough to invent new holidays. On the down side, though, I am saddened to discover that Hallmark has not yet released a series of greeting cards for Hit a Jew Day.

On reflection, however, Hit a Jew Day isn’t all that new. It has it most ancient roots in the authentically Jewish holiday of Purim. According to the Book of Esther, Haman, the evil genius behind the Persian version of Hit a Jew Day, convinced his king to declare the 14th of the month of Adar as Kill a Jew Day when all good Persians could murder Jews without concern. Haman was thwarted by the brave Esther, who was a Jewess married to the king, but since Kill a Jew Day was already on everyone’s calendars the king felt he couldn’t disappoint his people by canceling it. So he created yet another holiday to be held on the same day. This holiday, which we might call Kill the Anti-Semites Day, allowed Jews to defend themselves on Kill a Jew Day. As if often the case in these kinds of biblical stories the Jews kill tens of thousands of their enemies.

I imagine the solid people of St. Louis, both Jews and Gentiles, are horrified by the anti-Semitism of these middle school Nazis, but I fear they will take things too far. Should these students should be arrested? Should they be expelled from school? Should they be waterboarded to see if they are part of a radical sleeper cell? Should they be forced to eat matzoh rather than bread for the week of Passover?

Given the historical precedent of Purim, let me suggest an alternative to this responses. The best way to handle Hit a Jew Day is to proclaim Hit Back on the Anti-Semites Day, allowing Jews to come arm themselves at school and to defend themselves against their Hit a Jew Day attackers. Celebrated correctly, Hit Back on the Anti-Semites Day would insure that Hit a Jew Day will fail to catch on. At least in St. Louis.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Breakin' the Commandments, Praisin' the Lord

Yesterday was Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath, and I spent the afternoon praisin Jesus. Amen. Praise Him!! Lord, Lord, Lord, Praise Him!!

I also spent it violatin the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, because the Rally for Jesus I attended that fine Sabbath afternoon was held on the steps of the Rutherford County Courthouse here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. God’s country, can I get an ‘amen’? Halleluyah Jesus!

So I guess you could say that I spent the Lord’s Day violating the First Commandment and the First Amendment, praise God, thank you, Jesus. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, and yet there I was raisin’ my hands and shoutin my praise to Jesus. Thou shalt not mix church and state, and yet there I was prayin and praisin and testifyin on the courthouse steps.

Oh, let me tell you, people, I was worried. I knew I was violatin the Commandments, and I suspected that God Almighty would be comin down from the heavens not to strip me naked and rapture me up, but to damn me to hell for turnin a deaf ear to His Word on Sinai.

Oh, and let me tell you, friends, I wasn’t blind to the federal laws I was breakin, no sir, and I fully expected the black helicopters of the liberal armies of that godless atheist Tom Jefferson to come swoopin down from the heavens to scoop me up and take me to Guantanomo where they take all the enemies of this great country.

But nothin happened. The good people of Murfreesboro, some a them God-fearin some a them Constitution lovin’ some a them both, just turned a deaf ear to our mighty decibels of love and a blind eye to our tramplin on the Bill of Rights. And so there we were, an army of God, six shepherds and ten sheep, a hollerin for Jesus and the salvation of Real America and the woman who would be our Queen. Oh what a sad day for God and His New Zion. With an army like this we couldn’t even blow down the walls of Jerico, let alone topple the fortress of the devil that is surroundin our great land.

Oh, I coulda been in a synagogue. Yes, I coulda prayed with my tribe. I coulda listened to cantors readin their liturgies and rabbis readin their notes, but there woulda been no joy in that, no yellin in that, no fun in that.

Nobody woulda started dancin with their feets just-a praying on the Courthouse cobblestones, tappin out their love of God. Nobody woulda fallen on their knees to thank God for gettin them through the day. Nobody woulda shouted out for God, or to encourage the preacher, “Preach it, Rabbi! Preach it!” Nobody woulda done nothin but sit and stand and read responsively and mumble Hebrew. Nobody woulda cried. And yet so many tears are needed. Nobody woulda come forth for God, yet there is so many achin for Him.

So I broke the Commandments and the Constitution and I prayed, “Dear God, spare my country from the madness of mindless faith; whether it be mindless faith in You or mindless faith in us or mindless faith in Liberals or mindless faith in Conservatives or mindless faith in science or mindless faith in mindless faith. Thank You Lord, thank You Lord. Amen!”