Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sukkot 5770

This Friday evening is the start of the weeklong Sukkot celebration. On the surface this is Judaism’s version of Thanksgiving, but it is so much more. Here are some interesting insights into the holy day.

1. According to tradition, Sukkot will be the only holy day celebrated in the Messianic Age.

2. While we are told that the sukkah represents the tents in which our ancestors dwelt while wandering in the Sinai, this is clearly nonsense. We dwelt in tents, not booths, and if Sukkot were really a reminder of Sinai we would spend the week in tents. The sukkah is in fact reminiscent of the temporary shelters used during the autumn harvest in which both harvest and harvesters took shelter.

3. The sukkah must be flimsy, temporary, and open to the elements. Why? Because the sukkah teaches us that there is no shelter from the storms of life. There is nothing we can build that will protect us from life’s catastrophes. Coming as it does on the heels of Yom Kippur and the notion that we have been written into the Book of Life, Sukkot is a huge slap of awakening. Being inscribed into the Book of Life has nothing to do with avoiding danger, sorrow, suffering, or death. Rather it means that whatever this year brings, you cannot escape it, and you are challenged to spend your time l’chayyim: promoting life, enjoying life’s gifts, and giving thanks for them.

4. The book of Leviticus tells us: “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). This is the lulav that, together with the etrog (citron), we wave in all directions as an act of symbolic magic. The lulav represents the masculine energies of the universe. The etrog represents the feminine energies of the universe. We hold them together and symbolically seek to unify masculine and feminine within ourselves and among ourselves in a hieros gamos, a divine marriage of opposites. This is an affirmation of the unity of all opposites in, with, and as God, the source and substance of all reality.

5. The text we study during Sukkot is Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), one of the most challenging books of the Bible. Kohelet places doubt above faith, or rather it places doubt at the heart of true faith, and challenges us to live rightly without the crutch of imagining that we are thereby earning some reward. There is no reward. We do right because it is right. Kohelet teaches us how to live in a world of uncertainty. If Sukkot is the holy day of messianic times, Kohelet is the Torah of those times. The messianic age is not one in which all questioning stops and answers are provided, but the time when the deepest questioning begins and no answers are given. That is to say, when we live without knowing, we live with true faith, a faith that transcends mere belief.

6. Among the traditions of Sukkot is ushpizin inviting our ancestors into the Sukkah. Couple this with the practice of inviting friends to eat together in the sukkah and you begin to realize that the message of both Sukkot and Ecclesiastes is that friendship is the key to living well in a world of uncertainty. (See Ecclesiastes 4:12, the threefold cord of friendship).

Sukkot is a powerful holy day period. Don’t let the week go by without honoring it in some way. At the very least read Ecclesiastes. And, if you will pardon a moment of rank self-promotion, you might enjoy reading my version of the text called the Way of Solomon.

Hag Sameach Sukkot,

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Four Questions Christians Ask About Judaism

I’ve been speaking at a lot of churches lately, and I noticed the same four questions being asked: “Are Jews a race?” “Are the Pharisees evil?” “Did the Jews kill Jesus?” “Why do the Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah?” Let me share my brief responses to each.

Are the Jews a race? No. We are a people, like the Cherokee or the Sioux. Jews come in all races and many nationalities. What ties us together is not genes but memes, a story that we delight in retelling and reinventing without end. Just as a person can marry into a Native American tribe or be adopted by one, so people can marry into the Jewish people and convert to our way of life.

The corollary question to “Are Jews a race” is “Is Judaism a religion?” The answer is yes and no. There are a variety of religions called Judaism: biblical Judaism, Priestly Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, which itself comes in many forms—Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Humanistic, and Secular Judaism. But most Jews are not religious, choosing to affirm their identity as Jews through Judaism as a culture. While religion permeates the culture, providing us with distinctive celebrations, feasts, fasts, and foods, the culture is larger than the religion leading ultimately to a way of thinking about reality that is rooted in fierce questioning, doubt, argument, and a love of paradox. One is not born with these traits, but learns them to the extent that one is actively engaged in Jewish culture.

Are the Pharisees evil? No. Many Christians use the term Pharisee to represent all that is self-righteous, hateful, narrow minded, course, and cruel. This has to do with the anti-Jewish polemic of the New Testament and the Jew hatred of later Christian leaders. The Pharisees were in fact the liberals of their day (536 BCE -70 CE) who sought to transform biblical Judaism into something more open and dynamic. Hillel was among the greatest of the Pharisees, and it was he who taught that the whole of Torah is summed up in the teaching, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Christians who continue to use the word “Pharisee” to represent those forces and frames of mind antithetical to the supposedly love-filled way of Jesus and his contemporary followers are perpetuating Jew-hatred and should stop doing so immediately.

Did the Jews Kills Jesus? No. The Romans killed Jesus. Did some Jews collaborate with Rome in this matter? Yes. The office of the High Priest was bought and sold by the Romans which meant the High Priest was owned by Rome. Anything or anyone that might upset the status quo had to be stopped. So it isn’t difficult to imagine that some Jews saw Jesus as a threat to them and perhaps to the Jewish people as a whole. But the actions of a few should not be blamed on the many. Jesus was Jewish, his followers were Jewish, the crowds that gathered to listen to him preach and that welcomed him into Jerusalem on what is today called Palm Sunday were Jewish. The fact that John’s Gospel blames the Jews as a people for the death of Jesus speaks to the need of the early Church to placate Rome, and has little historical validity vis a vis the Jews.

Why do Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah? The messianic ideal in Judaism is political: the messiah is a human being anointed by God (mashiach in Hebrew means anointed one) to free Israel from occupation, lead all Jews back to their homeland, and establish a just and compassionate state with the Temple at its heart. Jesus did not do of these things, and therefore isn’t the messiah as Jews define the term.

Christianity redefined the meaning of messiah in spiritual terms and placed Jesus’ kingdom outside this world, something that makes Jesus irrelevant to Jews. As the Son of God Jesus comes to redeem us from Original Sin, something Judaism knows nothing about. While it makes perfect sense for those who believe they have Original Sin to want to get rid of it, it is very hard to convince people who do not believe it to seek the cure to a disease they do not have.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts on Yom Kippur 5770

Yom Kippur, the Day of At-one-ment, is framed in an interesting metaphor. You are standing before the Gates of Righteousness. You are being judged. All your foibles are laid bare for you to see. You are humbled, perhaps ashamed, and you don’t know what to do. The Gates are open. Nothing stops you from entering. Yet you don’t move. You are frozen by your own sense of unworthiness. Then the Gates begin to close. Slowly and steadily until, as our liturgical day closes at sunset, we are reminded, “The Gates are closing. The Gates are closing. Enter! Enter now!”

Tradition tells us that we are to consider ourselves forgiven by God by the close of Yom Kippur, and that we can and have entered the Gates. But it isn’t that easy.

Yom Kippur is a fast day. We fast not to mortify the flesh (skipping breakfast and lunch is hardly a mortification), but to avoid the distractions of dining with others. This is a day for acute introspection not schmoozing with family and friends over a meal.

Our liturgical day begins at sundown with Kol Nidre, All Vows. This is the most famous prayer of Yom Kippur, and originated during the period of forced conversions to Catholicism. More an affirmation than a prayer, Kol Nidre says that any vow we took under duress (i.e. the vow to be a good Catholic and abandon Judaism) is null and void. Over time the origin of the prayer was largely forgotten, and Kol Nidre is now understood to absolve us of all hasty or thoughtless and unkept vows we may have made to ourselves and to God. The idea is to eliminate the need to focus on superfluous failures, and free ourselves to deal with the real errors we have committed.

The second most famous prayer of Yom Kippur is the Viddui, the confession. As a community we confess to twenty-two sins, listed alphabetically one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. We confess as a community for the community. While you may be guilty of none of these things, as a member of the community you bear responsibility for all of them.

And now the Gates are closing. If you have truly looked at the quality of your life and how you live it; if you have taken seriously the thirty days of selichot (forgiveness) preceding the High Holy Days and sought forgiveness from family, friends, neighbors, and others, the final moments of Yom Kippur are humbling” “Given all I have done wrong, how can I enter the Gates of Righteousness and be at one with God?”

Yet it is only this subtle narcissism that stands in your way. Only your sense that you are such a great sinner that even God cannot welcome you, keeps you from passing through the Gates. There is no guard. There is nothing stopping you but you. It is never humility that keeps you from entering, only hubris. Yom Kippur is designed to break your heart over the suffering you have caused others. If your heart is broken you have compassion for both self and others, and that is the key to entering the Gates. To be broken before God is to be embraced by God.

May your fast be meaningful this Yom Kippur. And may you be blessed with a broken heart.

Friday, September 25, 2009

God Knows

I’m on a flight from Nashville to Charlotte, NC. Two guys in the seats across from me are discussing matters of life and death.

“You die when Jesus say you die, man. Life ‘n death is up ta the Lord. When he calls you, you gots to answer.”

“And when is that?”

“Can’t say; don’t know; don’t care. All I do know is that it ain’t in my hands, so I don’ worry ‘bout it.”

“But you do take precautions, like wearing a seatbelt.”

“Never have, never will. The only time I click one o’them suckers is when the cops are close. Look, it don’t matter what you do—seatbelts or no seatbelts—when God wants you dead, you dead.”

Their conversation ended abruptly as the flight attendant ordered the man to buckle his seatbelt for take–off.

I love listening to talk like this. While I certainly have my own positions on matters like these, I really enjoy hearing what other people believe. Most of the time I just listen. This time I butted in.

“So you must be some risk taker, then,” I said.


“Sorry, guys, I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying about death. If your death is determined by God’s plan rather than your actions, it just stands to reason that you could do some wild stuff and not worry about it.”

“Like what?”

“Like jumping off a cliff or out of a airplane without a parachute. Or drinking poison. Or playing Russian Roulette. You’d live through all of this unless God wanted you dead at that moment, in which case even if you were sitting at home watching TV you would suddenly drop dead of a heart attack or something.”

“That’s stupid. Drinking poison’ll kill you.”

“Not if it isn’t your time to die. That’s what you said, isn’t it? You won’t die until God wants you to die. That’s why you don’t where a seatbelt. If you get in a crash you won’t die unless it’s your time to die, and then, seatbelt or no, you would die. So you could do all kinds of reckless things knowing it doesn’t matter.”

“Listen, Bud, we weren’t talkin’ to you, an’ now you jus’ talkin’ stupid.”

I’m not quite sure that is what the man said to me because I was on a roll and wasn’t listening to him. I just took a breath and kept on talking.

“Of course not dying isn’t the worse thing that could happen to you. I mean, it might not be your time to die, but you could go through your windshield in a crash and live out the remainder of your life as a vegetable. But that’s your choice, not God’s, right? Or does God call us to be vegetables also? Maybe he does. Maybe he determines everything that happens to you, so wearing or not wearing your seatbelt isn’t your choice at all, but God’s.”

“Listin, man, God loves you, that’s all I know. An’ if God makes you a vegetable then that’s how he loves you. It ain’t for you ta tell God how to love, is it? All I’m sayin’ is that its all in God’s hands, and not for us ta worry ‘bout. So why don’ you just sit back and buckle your little safety belt an’ let God git on wit it.”

This was my cue to shut up. Too bad I didn’t catch it.

“But what if its God’s will for me to get you to change your way of thinking and start wearing your seatbelt? What if I’m like the Prophet Elijah sent by God to talk to you and here you are telling me to shut up. Would tell the Prophet Elijah to shut up?”

“Are you the Prophet Elijah?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I admitted.

“Then shut the f@ck up!”

He had a point. Next time someone asks me if I’m the Prophet Elijah I’ve got to remember to just say “yes.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Nones Among Us

A major report on American Nones—those people who do not identify with any specific religion—was released today. Sponsored by Trinity College of Hartford, CT, the report reveals that Nones have blossomed over the past years. 15% of Americans identify themselves as Nones, and the number rises to 22% when we look specifically at 18 to 29 year olds. If this holds and the trend continues, Nones may well be 25% of the American population in two more decades.

What makes a None a None? For one thing 61% of Nones believe in evolution while only 38% of Americans in general do. 51% of Nones believe in God or a Higher Power, and slightly more than half of these believers understand God in a nonpersonal way, like the Force or the Tao. Less than 10% of Nones are atheists, but most tend to believe that whatever God is, God doesn’t fit into the neat packages of religion.

Politically Nones are interesting as well. 21% of Independents are Nones, as are 16% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans. This isn’t surprising. Especially when you consider than many Republicans are None Others—hoping to replace all religions with none other than their own.

Another finding that stands out in the report is that unlike every other religious group, there are more male Nones than female Nones. 19% of American men are Nones, while only 14% of American women are Nones. And within the None community there are 60 men Nones to every 40 women Nones.

In essence, Nones are the 21st Century version of the 18th Century Deist and Enlightenment traditions that founded this country. Like Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson, and Tom Paine Nones are committed to science and reason, and do not see these as opposed to faith.

So what are we to make of this report? I am encouraged by it. Nones are freethinkers, and God knows America needs more of these. Nones are curious and open–minded without being empty-headed. Nones are in favor of religious freedom, and because they are not limited to any one faith, will keep the country free from being controlled by any one faith. If they do become a quarter of the American population they may spark a whole new direction for American spirituality, drawing on the wisdom of all faiths while freeing themselves from the limitations of any one faith.

Is this good for Judaism? Probably not. Judaism survives as long as Jews find it worthy of surviving; that is as long as it continues to provide Jews with a compelling sense of meaning and purpose. However, since Jews make up a large segment of Nones, claiming Jewish cultural heritage without aligning with Judaism the religion, the future of Judaism as a religion may be in trouble. But then it is always in trouble.

How to respond? Rather than write off Jewish Nones, I’d create a Jewish Nonery, a school for Jewish Nones that focuses on culture, language, progressive/prophetic politics, and the genius of the biblical wisdom tradition that embraces doubt, argument, and ambiguity. Will anyone do this? I doubt it. Jewish funders are still looking to revive the past and haven’t a clue how to invent the future.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thank God for Global Warming!

Thank God for global warming! Seriously. Just yesterday I was a complete supporter of all things anti-greenhouse gases, but today I am a changed man. It turns out that if not for today’s greenhouse gases trapping heat and warming the earth, we would be about to enter another ice age.

Cute cartoon movies aside, a new Ice Age isn’t exactly a walk in Jurassic Park.

According to The New York Times (September 4, 2009) the journal Science is reporting that the earth was heading onto an “inevitable” Ice Age over the next few dozen millennia, but that global warming has put a stop to it. Holy crap!

Just think if we listened to Al Gore and actually stopped burning dead dinosaur goo in our cars and homes—the whole earth would be encased in ice in, what, 20 to 30 thousand years! Talk about caring for our children and our children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s, well you get the idea and I’ve lost count.

So I’m doing my part, and trading in my fuel¬–efficient car for one of the newly placed on the marked clunkers the Ice–loving Obama administration stole form our garages. And I’m cranking up my air–conditioner and putting on a sweater. And I’m driving my car from the top of my driveway to the bottom to pick up the newspaper. And I’m even thinking of burning some old tires in the backyard and having a few friends over for a rubber chicken barbeque. I mean, I’m a patriot, and I love my children and my children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s…. and I will do whatever I can to keep the ice at bay. And you should, too!

What I don’t get is why the Times is still urging people to fight global warming. Even the scientists who discovered the push back of the Ice Age are urging us to fight global warming! What gives? Are they so in love with hockey that they want the whole planet to be one giant hockey rink? Or are they so heavily invested in skiwear that they would rather see Miami freeze than drown?

Dr. Overpeck (his real name, by the way), the author of the study, even calls the Ice Age an “opportunity.” And opportunity for what? To freeze to death? To let polar bears actually drink Coke at the company’s headquarters in Atlanta? What kind of opportunity is it he sees in the end of all life as we know it?

We’ve had 17 ice ages so far. Do you remember any of them? Did anyone alive then write a great novel about them? No. Why? Because they were too cold to hold a pen or tap a keyboard, that’s why! And then they were dead. Frozen to death before they could publish what would surely have been called, the Ice Mountain Cometh.

We’ve only got 30,000 years to prevent this catastrophe, so get with the program, people, and heat this planet up before it’s too late.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Going to Shul?

Rabbi Sid Schwartz concludes his essay on synagogue innovation (Forward, September 18, 2009) this way, “For too many Jews coming to shul on the holidays, the fare will be predictable and will not result in a return visit for another 12 months.” I know Rabbi Schwartz and hold him in high esteem, so I felt more than a twinge of guilt about my not even going to shul for the holy days.

Not that guilt is enough to change my mind. The thought of sitting through a painfully long liturgy reflecting a worldview I rejected decades ago, just keeps me frozen to my seat. Rabbi Schwartz says that we need to make the synagogue experience more compelling. Fair enough. But what would get me out of my house and into a synagogue?

I know what I am supposed to say: a short, well–crafted naturalist liturgy that draws on tradition while honoring science and avoiding supernaturalism; a service punctuated with minutes (rather than moments) of true silence inviting me to realize God rather than talk about God; an honest engagement with Torah that blends cutting edge Bible study (literary, historical, philosophical, etc.) with the mytho-poetic spirituality of scholars and mystics like Joseph Campbell; a sermon that sets out some challenging proposal, and which morphs into an open–ended and passionate discussion among the congregants; and music that is more than just entertaining and professional, but that uses chazanut (cantorial singing), Hebrew chanting, and Hasidic niggunim (melodies) to create opportunities for spiritual awakening and transformation.

That’s what I should say. And I wouldn’t be lying if I said it. But I might be thinking wishfully. The truth is, even if all this were offered, I still might stay home. I wonder if the reason Jews don’t go to shul is that they don’t want to; and that even if it was tailor–made for them, they still might not go.

I may have simply grown too selfish for shul; too fond of solitude to tolerate community; too comfortable with silence to tolerate words; too taken with my own ideas and those of the scholars I read and study to entertain the ideas of others. In short, I may be too full of myself to make room for others. I actually prefer davvenen (praying) alone.

I will get up at dawn tomorrow (Rosh haShanah morning) and walk for miles along the banks of Stones River. I will talk with God, and sing to Her. I will review and give thanks for the year just past, and free myself as best I can to welcome the year about to unfold. I will, Shabbos aside, do tashlich and symbolically toss all I needlessly cling to into the water, inviting freshness into my life. And then I will go home, shower, and study Torah the rest of the day. My minyan (prayer quorum) will be the trees of the forest, and among my rabbis will be Martin Buber and Baruch Spinoza. I will be alone with my books, my thoughts, and my life.

This isn’t very Jewish, I know. And some will think it very sad. But I will be quietly happy. True, if a few people, a minyan even, wanted to join me, I would enjoy that as well. But all the Jews I know will be in shul. Somebody must be doing something right.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

L'shanah Tovah

This Friday evening is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish “New Year” (Rosh/head, ha-shanah/the year). Despite its name, Rosh Hashanah actually falls on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, as ordained in the Torah (Leviticus 23:24). Talk about Jewish Standard Time!

Rabbinic tradition honors Rosh haShanah as the birthday of creation, and as such it is also the birthday of mortality. Not surprisingly then Rosh haShanah’s most distinctive piece of liturgy, Unetanah Tokef (“We proclaim”) focuses on the question “Who shall live and who shall die?” and proceeds with a litany of the ways people can and will die over the coming twelve months: fire, water, famine, etc.

Unetanah Tokef ends with these words: “But repentance, prayer, and charity, can stem the stern decree.” Most people praying the Unetanah Tokef imagine that on Rosh haShanah God writes your name into either the Book of Life or the Book of Death, and to get your name in the former you must apologize to God, beg God’s forgiveness, and offer God cash bribes. Ah, the horrors of folk religion.

The prayer itself is a list of ways people die. It purpose isn’t to scare you, but to get your attention: “Hey! This could be your last year on earth. How do you want to live it? Enslaved to old habits? Obsessed with trivialities? Self¬–absorbed and clinging? Or is this a time to turn, reflect, and let go?”

You are going to die. If not this year, maybe next year, or the year after that. So death isn’t your problem. Your problem is how to live until you die. Unetanah Tokef challenges us to live with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Teshuvah, weakly translated as “repentance” literally means “turning,” and is the act of turning from evil and doing good, turning from self to others, turning from fear to love, turning from self to God. Tefillah is prayer, and in Hebrew the act of praying (hitpallel) is reflexive: true prayer is seeing who you really are as the image and likeness of God and then acting accordingly. Acting accordingly means practicing tzedakah. Tzedakah, from tzedek, justice, is the act of uplifting the poor and enfranchising the disenfranchised. The highest form of tzedakah is seeing that people are gainfully employed and self–supporting. Tzedakah means earning your money honestly in a manner than does no harm, and using your money wisely in a manner that does great good.

So on this birthday of humanity, take a moment and remember your mortality, examine your life, and where necessary turn toward a deeper act of generosity.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Religious Freedom—Gotta Love It

The Tennessee legislature just passed a law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that prohibits the state from “substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion.” I had no idea the State of Tennessee was placing burdens on my free exercise of religion. In fact, given the First Amendment to the US Constitution, I didn’t think the state could restrict my freedom of religion. But I am sure my legislators know best.

This certainly seems to have been the case in the great state of Texas, which passed a similarly worded bill and now has to repeal city ordinances that prohibit animal sacrifice within city limits. And the Washington D.C. fire department, adhering to a similar law effecting them, was forced to allow firefighters to grow beards if their religions demanded it despite the fact that facial hair erupts in a giant ball of fire when a bearded firefighter gets too close to open flames.

But then Tennessee isn’t Texas or D.C. We’ve also just passed a law that allows us to carry guns almost anywhere we want. For some of us guns and God go together, so I can see why the legislature went for both bills. Lots of us down here believe that God obligates us to kill the infidel and nonbeliever, so you can see where this is going to lead: “I asked him to convert before I shot him, Judge. It ain’t my fault he refused. I’m just practicing my religion.”

Of course the mainstream religions will probably be satisfied with sacrificing animals in public and having the faces of a few firefighters burned off. But there are other believers who should take advantage of this law. Sun worshippers, for example, should demand that nude dining at outdoor cafes be allowed during sunny daylight hours. And pastafarian followers of the Giant Spaghetti Monster should demand the outlawing of pasta eating as an affront to their faith. And Hindus might do the same for meat eating. They might even let their cows free in town, making it a violation of their religious freedom to have them rounded up.

But the real fun is going to come when someone realizes they can invent a new religion to take advantage of the law. Any thoughts on how we could exploit this marvelous piece of legislation?

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Origin of Religion

A former student of mine sent me an interesting article from The Sunday Times of London (

The premise of the piece is that people are hardwired for religion, and that no matter how rational we get we will always create religions for ourselves.

Two reasons are given for this. One, religion offers evolutionary benefits: People with similar beliefs banded together more cohesively, and that added to their survivability. Skeptics were eaten by saber¬–toothed tigers.

The second reason for religion is that it stems from the magical thinking of early childhood. God is just an infinitely large and all–powerful Imaginary Friend, and Satan is just the monster under the bed. No matter how much we mature, this type of thinking remains with us. One interesting study cited in the article noted how “ardent atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their organs.”

Does this settle the matter, then? Is religion just a carry-over from our primitive past or a remnant of magical thinking common to little children? Jesus did say we were to be as little children, so maybe he was thinking along the lines of the second proposition, but I’m not so sure.

I think (which is another way of saying that I don’t really know) that the religious impulse arises from something a bit more sophisticated. At the heart of the religious impulse is a drive to answer key existential questions such as Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here?

The answers to these questions differ over time, among cultures, and between individuals. While I understand that I have the capacity for imaginary friends (in fact most of my friends seem imaginary to me, especially when I ask to borrow money), as I grow older these childhood friends no longer convincingly answer my questions.

In fact, the older I get, the less interested in answers I become. It is the questions that matter most. The answers we invent give rise to religions, and religions do their best to put an end to questions, but in the end religions change and die while the questions persist and compel us to think again.

We may never outgrow the need for community and imaginary friends, but both might become more sophisticated, ultimately pointing beyond themselves to the great “?” at the heart of human genius. The inevitable mistake religions make is to focus on selling us the answers they own, rather than inviting us more deeply into questions that own us.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberals

Norman Podhoretz new book Why Are Jews Liberals? tries to explain why American Jews continue to vote liberal Democratic when it is the Republican Party that best serves our economic interests and is most in line with our concerns for the safety and survival of Israel. This month’s issue of Commentary Magazine invites a number of writers to comment on the book in an attempt to broaden the conversation. Both the book and the commentaries are worth reading, and what follows is my reaction to both.

Here is the gist of Mr. Podhoretz’ argument: Since the loss of our political independence thousands of years ago Jews have lived at the mercy of others, taking refuge in our religion and those political leaders and states that allowed us to live with a minimal amount of abuse. We did best in those societies moving toward universal values and personal freedom. Consequently we have sided with liberalism as that philosophy that best defended us from tyranny. Today, the argument goes, Judaism as a religion is mostly abandoned by Jews, and conservatives are far more likely than liberals to have the best interests of Jews in mind, especially when it comes to our economic standing and the survival of the State of Israel, yet most Jews continue to vote liberal Democratic. In short, we Jews are the only American interest group that votes against its own self–interest. Why?

Rabbi David Wolpe, one of the writers in Commentary, answers this question succinctly: Jews vote their self–conception rather than their self–interest. In other words, we still identify with the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised despite the fact that we are by and large wealthy, powerful, and claim a nuclear–armed homeland.

As Rabbi Wolpe says, “I suspect that until conservatism convinces most Jews that they have sympathy and a practical program for those who are real or putative outsiders, it will remain, among Jews at least, distinctly the minority movement.”

Michael Medved adds another element to the discussion I found valuable. According to Mr. Medved the reason why Jews don’t vote Republican is that at the core of American Jewish identity is a rejection of Christianity, especially the type of Christianity most readily associated with today’s Republican Party.

According to Medved, 75% of American Jews have never visited Israel, and most shun synagogue affiliation, let alone attendance. The only thing Jews have in common is that they aren’t Christian. And this is reflected in our voting patterns: We don’t vote for pro–Israel candidates, we vote against pro–Christian ones.

This is certainly understandable. While it is true that conservative Christian positions on abortion, homosexuality, and same–sex marriage are far closer to Torah-values than those positions held by liberals, it is also true that many of these same conservative Christians look forward to the day when all but 144,000 Jews are slaughtered in preparation for the return of the Prince of Peace. And even these few remaining Jews become Christians. So if we Jews have to choose between two evils, we choose the one that seems to most leave us and our Jewish identity alone.

Conservative columnist William Kristol comes to the following conclusion in his essay, “I’m going to stop worrying about American Jews. They’re not worth the headache. Either they’ll come to their sense or they won’t, and there’s not much I (or anyone else, I suspect) can do about it. So instead of focusing on the mishegas [craziness] of the American Jewish community, why not focus on the glories of Judaism?”

Mr. Kristol urges us to focus on Jewish education, Hebrew literacy, religious practice, examples of Jewish greatness, and the centrality of Israel.

Amen to that Reb William! But how is that different from what local synagogues and national Jewish organizations have been pushing for decades to no effect? Most American Jews don’t care about their history, their heroes, their religion, their homeland, or Hebrew. Yes we like to talk about our genius, but when we do we are more apt to speak about Woody Allen and Jon Stewart than Micah, Maimonides, or Martin Buber. So if we are going to give up on Jewish politics, we might as well give up on the rest of the agenda as well.

So where does this leave us? Honestly, I have no idea. There are lots of experiments in Jewish renewal going on in this country, and maybe some of them will catch on. And the fact that Jews aren’t lining up with what appears to me to be an ever more rightist and Christian Apocalyptic brand of Republicanism is not a sign of concern for me. But is there hope for something more creative than a change of sides? Your guess is as good as mine.

What I got from reading Podhoretz and Company is this: most American Jews are self-professed outsiders whose religion is justice as understood by the most liberal elements of western society, and we are willing to risk anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism if it means we can help bring true justice to the world. There may be something self-defeating in all of this, but also something heroic as well.

Bottom line for me is this: It seems that the conservatives Jews focus on the first half of Hillel’s famous teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” While liberal Jews focus on the second half, “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

What we need is a political stance that unites both sides of Hillel’s equation. And if not now, when?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor Day 09

Today is Labor Day. The holiday began in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1870s as part of unionization efforts by Canadian workers. (Full Disclosure: I went to grad school in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1970s with the intension of working for worker’s rights, but I was 100 years late. Story of my life.) Labor Day came to the US after workers were killed by US Marshals and US military deployed to break the Pullman Strike of 1894. Pretty radical stuff.

What troubles me about today’s Labor Day is not just the lack of focus on labor and the rights and workers, but the huge numbers of people who are out of work. Unemployment in Tennessee has topped 10%. Sure that is a far cry from Depression era numbers, but that is still a lot of people out of work. And out of work often means uninsured. Very scary.

I chose to forgo full–time employment eight years ago. I decided to take the plunge and see if I could earn a living from my writing and workshops. Lucky for me my wife works for the state and has insurance that covers the both of us. Otherwise, I too would be among the uninsured. But that was and is my choice. I don’t want a full–time job, and am grateful that I don’t have to find one. But I worry about those who want work and can’t find it. Especially when they fall under the sway of those fear mongers who actually convince them to turn against policies that might benefit them and people like them.

Yesterday, I received an email asking what advice I would give young college graduates this year. This is what I wrote, “Find a job, any job, to pay the bills, but don’t rely on others to keep you employed. While you are working at whatever you can find, figure out what it is you love to do and are good at (or can get good at), and create work for yourself that will keep you from being at the mercy of others. You can’t escape being part of the larger economy, but do your best not be a victim of it. Live as simply and as cheaply as you can. Don’t use credit or become enslaved to credit cards. Save every dollar you can. Talk to an expert about financial planning. Accept the fact that you are on your own. Nobody is going to take care of you. Take care of yourself—eat right, exercise, don’t do anything to damage your body, make friends, do what you love even if you to also work a job you hate. Create small communities of friends who pledge to take care of one another in times of illness or emergency. Meditate. Borrow from and rephrase the New Hampshire motto: Live free. Die well.”

I have no idea if this is good advice or not. It just came out of me, and I was too busy to edit it. I’m curious as to what you would have said. I’m sure I will learn a lot. Happy Labor Day to you all.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Blaming the Jew$

Not only did I kill Jesus, and continue to mix the blood of Christian babies with my Passover matzah, now it seems that I am responsible for the collapse of the global economy.

A recent survey of Americans published in Boston Review finds that 65% of Americans think my fellow Jews and I are responsible for the Great Recession.

I know what you’re thinking (besides the thought, “He has no idea what I’m thinking,” see I told you I knew what you were thinking)—most of these people are Republicans. But no, only 18.4% of Republicans think this way, while 32% of Democrats do.

Democrats!?! Are you kidding me? But I voted for Obama! I cried at the Kennedy memorial (though mostly because the coverage pre-empted my regular programming). I am a liberal for God’s sake. Why blame me? I lost money, too. Can it really be I have to hang with Sarah Palin to keep from being hung by my fellow Democrats? Damn!

The study goes on and on, and I just couldn’t read it all. It was too scary. Bottom line: Americans are growing more and more angry, and more and more eager to blame someone for their problems, and since it is no longer kosher for anyone other than Glenn Beck to blame our problems on black people, guess whose top on America’s hit list? Yep, the Jews.

With the Catholic Church deciding it is once again time to convert the Jews (see my last blog entry), and the majority of Americans blaming Jews for the state of the economy, is it time for us Jews to consider moving on? It could be.

I’m not saying we need to pack up and run just yet, but I would definitely keep my eyes and ears open. We used to say “America is different,” and it may be. But Americans aren’t. People love scapegoats, and we Jews are no exception. In fact we invented the idea of the scapegoat. Look it up in the Bible. The only difference is we used real goats, not people.

But where would we run? Europe? Nope. Thirty-one per cent of Europeans blame the Jews for the economy, so forget Europe. Israel? Most Israelis blame Jews for their economy, but that is because they are mostly Jews, so maybe if we have to run somewhere that is where we will run. But I hate the idea of putting all Jews in one basket (as opposed to putting one Jew in one basket which is the story of Passover). Makes us too easy to blot out. So I’m thinking China. (I know last Friday I suggested we consider Amsterdam, and I am not abandoning the Netherlands, just hedging my bets.)

Why China? First, because I love the Tao te Ching. Second, because Jewish people love Chinese food. Third, because their economy isn’t as bad off as ours, so they aren’t blaming the Jews. Yet. If things go south I assume the Chinese people will suddenly discover that the ruling junta were all Jews in disguise. Scooby Dooby Jew!

Anyway, all I’m saying is that we have seen this before and it never turns out well for us. When will you know it is time to run? When it turns out that page 64,532 of the final healthcare reform bill has a paragraph that mandates the wearing of yellow Stars of David by all Jews. Then come the real death panels. Try to be packed by then.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Old/New Future of Catholic-Jewish Relations

In 1965 Vatican II began a long process toward Jewish–Catholic rapprochement that eventually produced the 2002 document on interfaith understanding called “Reflections on Covenant and Mission.” In this document the Church affirmed the Jewish mission in the world and the value of Judaism as a unique and authentic way to God.

Pretty radical stuff. Too radical it turns out, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has just published a new statement clarifying certain ambiguities in the 2002 document.

The 2002 paper said, “both the Church and the Jewish people abide in covenant with God;” and that both Catholicism and Judaism “have missions before God to undertake in the world,” and that the Jewish mission “must not be curtailed [by Catholics] seeking the conversion of the Jewish people.”

That seems pretty unambiguous to me, but, then, I’m not Catholic. To help ambiguity prone Catholics understand the meaning of the 2002 statement, the American Bishops clarified it by saying that the only way Jews can fulfill their mission is by converting to Catholicism. And, just in case you found that clarification a bit murky, they charged every Catholic to convert every Jew “in every generation.”

Wow! I guess the 2002 document really was ambiguous, since it seemed to say just the opposite!

Then there was the equally ambiguous notion from 2002 that interfaith dialogue was for the “sharing of gifts, devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner into baptism.” Clarifying that confusing statement, the Conference now tells us that it is the job of the Catholic dialogue partner to promote Catholicism and to invite her fellow partners in dialogue to follow Christ.

That really helps. I thought the earlier statement about being “devoid of any intention whatsoever” to convert the other person meant that Catholics were to be “devoid of any intention whatsoever” to convert the other person when in fact it meant that Catholics are obligated to convert the other person. I mean, talk about ambiguity!

How bad is this going to get? Before his death last year at 90 years of age, Cardinal Avery Dulles, a major American Catholic theologian, declared the Jews’ covenant with God “obsolete,” and let my people know that there is no salvation outside the Church. And earlier this year Pope Benedict XVI welcomed back into the priestly fold Richard Williamson the formerly excommunicated Holocaust denier. And last year he reinstated the Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of all Jews. So it is safe to say that it isn’t safe anymore?

If this was 1492 and I lived in Catholic Spain under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, I would seriously think about moving to Amsterdam. But for now I’ll just avoid walking by a Catholic Church after Good Friday services. Still I think I’ll purchase a few open tickets to the Netherlands just in case. Spinoza, anyone?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Jewish Problem with Prayer

The August 28, 2009 edition of the Forward, one of the great Jewish newspapers, had two articles on new siddurim (prayer books) being published by both Jewish denominations and individual synagogues.

The lead article opens with the question, “What can a new Hebrew-English Siddur do to solve the problems of prayer for modern Jews?” I have read the article several times, and I am not sure it ever answers the question, though the editor’s headline suggests one: “Even a New Siddur Can’t Close ‘God Gap.’” If the headline means that the answer to the lead question is “no,” then I agree. But agreeing or disagreeing is irrelevant unless and until someone defines what the problem is Jews have with prayer.

The answer, I suppose, is the God Gap, but that presupposes we know what God is, and I doubt that is true. So let’s try this again:

Can a new siddur solve the problem of prayer for modern Jews? No. Why not? Because the “problem of prayer” is that most Jews don’t pray. Why not? Because most Jews don’t believe in a God that merits prayer.

There are only two reasons to pray to God. Either you are praising (and thanking) Him for something He did or didn’t do, or asking Him to do something you are afraid He doesn’t want to do. In either case you are assuming God is male, self-conscious, and volitional; a being who knows you and your situation, and who actually gives a damn about it. Most Jews just don’t think this way.

How do I know what most Jews think? Just look at the statistics of synagogue attendance. One statistic I read recently (sorry, I can’t remember the source) claimed that only 11% of American Jews attend synagogue on any given Shabbat. We can assume that some of these attendees aren’t there to pray, but are simply meeting a communal or cultural obligation, but even if all them were God–fearing men and women, that still leaves 89% of American Jews in the non–praying category.

I am one of the 89%. I find Shabbat services tedious, lifeless, emotionally and intellectually vapid, and, not surprisingly, boring. And it doesn’t matter what siddur is being used.

What would bring me to shul?

First, high quality music—not cantorial pomp or silly schlock rock from some long outgrown Jewish camp experience, but deeply moving Hebrew chanting and evocative even ecstatic Hasidic music ala Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. If you have never gone to services at the Carlebach shul in Manhattan, I suggest you do. Very moving.

Second, and this where even the Carlebach shul fails me, a liturgy that is brief and theologically compelling. No reading of the same prayers over and over. No warlord God who chooses the Jews and whacks our enemies. No ass–kissing, no thanking God for making the sunshine and keeping the stars to their orbits. No God who guarantees me success if I follow His rules. The universe is so much more grand, terrible, and awe–inspiring than Iron Age cosmology or medieval poetry can imagine. I want a liturgy that helps me feel the awesomeness of creation, and that can’t happen when we are sitting in a brick box reading out of a book. I want to pray outdoors at night under the stars, or, because I love to stay dry and avoid extremes of heat and cold, I would revamp every sanctuary to function as a planetarium. There is only one liturgy worth praying, and that is "Holy shit! This world is awesome!" Or, in the interest of the kids, I would settle for a full-bodied "Wow!"

Third, I want Torah study that is intellectually rigorous, historically accurate, and radically iconoclastic. I don’t want to discuss how Noah got all those animals on the ark; I want to discuss what kind of God drowns 99.999999999% of life on earth? I want to study the Akeida, the near–sacrifice of Isaac, in the context of child sacrifice among Jews and nonJews in biblical times. I want to read Torah as an educated adult.

Fourth, I want to experience something during services other than the urge to scream and run from the room. I want to feel awe and wonder. I want to sense my connectedness to Something Greater (call it God, Universe, Nature) that includes all beings and the cosmos as a whole. I don’t want to talk about God; I want to experience God.

And fifth, I want silence. Not a faux silent prayer that is mumbled aloud; not a half–moment of silence; not a silence filled with someone's guided meditation—actual silence. Just me and you breathing together.

No new prayer book is going to do this. And I say this as one whose liturgical poems appear in siddurim across the country and around the world. I have written several siddurim in my lifetime. I even toy with the idea of writing another, but what stops me is the knowledge that words are not our only problem. The setting is wrong. The tone is wrong. The theology is wrong. The politics are wrong. The expectation is wrong. We don't demand anything from our liturgy or our services. We expect to be bored and we are. It isn't just our rabbis and cantors fault, it is ours, the 89% of us who fail to go to shul regularly.

Yes, it is my fault that synagogue is vapid and boring. But it is too hard to change things. The people who do go like it the way it is, and I don't want to fight them. The people who lead services are proud of what they do, and I don't want to insult them. It is easier to simply stay home.

So this Shabbat I will do what I do on most Saturdays: walk in the woods, chant aloud, and allow myself to be surrendered to the reality of What Is that I call God. No book; never boring.