Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Which is More Valuable: A Fetus or a Jew?

In the contest over which is more valuable, a fetus or a Jew, the results are in and the fetus wins hands down.

Just as Catholic Bishops across the United States clamp down on Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to choose abortion (which as different from supporting abortion as supporting a Nazi’s right to march is from supporting Nazism), the Vatican brings Pope Pius XII (twelve) one (I) step closer to sainthood.

This fun loving Pope, dubbed The Holocaust Pope, was recently declared a person of “heroic virtue.” Let’s see how the Vatican defines heroic virtue.

First, Pius XII knew early on that Hitler planned to murder every Jew he could find. Heroically, the Pope remained silent. Second, as more than one thousand Jews were taken from the Roman Ghetto within sight of the Pope’s apartments in the Vatican to die in Auschwitz, our hero did nothing. Third, at the close of the war when some senior Catholic Church officials ran the “rat line” that scurried Nazis like Adolf Eichmann out of Germany and into Latin America, the Pope acted virtuously and did nothing.

But then again, Jews aren’t fetuses. Which may be why our heroic Pope Pius XII never even threatened to withhold communion from Hitler or German Catholics and Catholic Nazis if they participated in the slaughter of Jews. “Eat a Jew on Sunday, kill a Jew throughout the week” may have been his motto.

So the Church will soon have a saint whose only claim to fame is that he heroically and virtuously did nothing while 6,000,000 Jews were slaughtered under his nose.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all Pope Benedict who is pushing the sainthood of Pius XII belonged to Hitler Youth, and recently welcomed the return of Bishop Richard Williamson who is notorious for his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

But maybe Pope Benedict knows something we do not. After all the Vatican refuses to open its archives to allow independent scholars access to the records relating to Pope Pius XII, so maybe there is something in those records that proves he was both heroic and virtuous. But, if there was such evidence, you would think the Church would stop keeping it secret.

Until we know better, we Jews must be reminded that the Church, for all its insistence to the contrary, is not now and has never been a friend to the Jews. This is in no way a blanket condemnation of Catholics. Many risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, but they did so independently of Pius XII, who, if he had his way, would have preferred them to be heroic and virtuous, following his lead and remaining silent and inactive, and allow themselves and thousands more like them to be slaughtered. Ah, what a saint!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Interfaith Amigos & the Future of Interfaith Dialogue

[Disclaimers: A) I am a friend of Rabbi Ted Falcon, one of the Interfaith Amigos. B) I spend most of my time and energy engaged in interfaith dialogue.]

I’m listening to an On Point interview with the three Interfaith Amigos: Rabbi Ted Falcon, Sheikh Jamal Rahman, and Pastor Don Mackenzie. Great guys, all. Intelligent, warm, and filled with hope. Question after question is answered with care, calm, and a liberalism that, after a while, I find more than annoying.

As the interview goes on I learn that all the hate-filled, xenophobic, misogynist, and triumphalist aspects of these three Abrahamic faiths are either anachronisms to be abandoned, or particularist expressions of universal truths. In other words, to take but one example, when Christianity claims that Jesus is the sole means to salvation we are to understand this as addressed to Christians only, and not claiming that Jews and Muslims must come to God through Christ. Or when Jews claim to be God’s Chosen People we are told that God chooses everyone for something, and hence the chosenness of the Jews does not exclude the fact that others are also God’s chosen.

This kind of liberal niceness is totally disingenuous. If Christian claims are only true for Christians, then they aren’t really true. And if God chooses everyone, then God really chooses no one which undermines the entirety of classical Judaism, to say nothing of contemporary Jewish claims to Israel as the Promised Land.

In other words, the Three Interfaith Amigos are amigos not because they have learned to transcend their differences, but because they have no differences. The religions these three clergymen represent are so liberal as to be almost interchangeable.

Once you abandon the exclusivist claims of each of the Abrahamic religions, you have to ask yourself why you would choose to maintain loyalty to one or another among them? The answer cannot be that one is true, while the others are false. They are all saying the same thing in different ways, so the only attractor is that you prefer one flavor of faith to another. Can it be that simple? Am I Jewish because I prefer it to Christianity the way I prefer mint chocolate chip ice cream to plain chocolate chip ice cream? And if that is all it is, is it so shocking and novel that I can have friends who prefer another flavor, and even can befriend those lactose intolerant types who refuse to eat ice cream at all? Is this worthy of special praise and an hour with Tom Ashbrook on NPR?

I am neither surprised nor impressed that Ted, Jamal, and Don get along, and agree on essentials. I expect no less from well-educated, liberal, middle class Americans. The fact that they call the exclusivist claims of their traditions “untruths” rather than hard truths suggests that the only way for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to become friends is to deny as false the claims most central to each faith.

Where does this leave interfaith dialogue?

This is not an academic question for me. I work with teachers from many traditions, and we, too, get along and agree, and we do so by negating the core of our respective faiths and upholding a liberal universalism instead. We begin with the modernist assumption that there is Truth and that all religions point to the same Truth, and interpret our respective religions in light of this. But, with the exception of Hinduism which actually says this (Truth is one, different people call it by different names), this assumption does not come from our respective religions. It comes from liberal, democratic capitalism that reduces everything to a matter of taste.

So what am I left with? Questions mostly.

Is true interfaith dialogue happening among liberals, or must we wait for fundamentalists to take one another on around the table? Does it matter that liberals of different tribes can get along? Are liberal religionists clinging to outmoded faith labels when in fact they (we) are all liberal humanists? Is there a way to admit, honor, and use one’s historical identity without abandoning universalism or watering down that identity?

I don’t have answers to these and similar questions. If you do, please share them with me. And if the three Interfaith Amigos read this blog, please help me understand. My own spiritual path depends on it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Plan for the Scan: Entrepreneurial Opportunities for the Quick

The actions of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian terrorist who tried to take down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bound for Detroit, have created a renewed call for extreme screening measures at airports around the world. In the United States this means full body X-ray screening.

There will be no dearth of blogs and essays about this man, his faith, and the madness of religion, but I want to speak about something new: the entrepreneurial opportunities provided us by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Because of him travelers in the US (and elsewhere) will be subject to full body X-ray scans which, as we have seen in test after test, produces a near naked image of the person being scanned. Which is where the entrepreneur comes in.

Think of it this way: if you look like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt you probably don’t mind having hundreds of strangers know that. But if you look like me, the full body scan broadcasts to America that I am one of the many overweight slobs whose flab spills over the sides of the airplane’s all too narrow coach seats. Well, I, and millions like me, don’t want to be seen that way; so I, and millions like me, will be searching for products that will make us look slim, trim, and sexy for the full body scan voyeurs.

If you start producing these products now, you can get ahead of the curve.

Start with diets like The Full Body Scan Diet: “Loose 21 Pounds when you buy your ticket 21 days in advance“. Or Diet Before You Fly It, or The Scan Plan, or any number of quick loss schemes that you can sell to frantic travelers.

And don’t forget exercise. Ticket and Train, for example, would be a franchise operation combining travel agents and exercise trainers. You would go to the Ticket and Train center, buy your ticket and be assigned a trainer who will help you get in shape for the scan. Prices would vary depending on the lead-time before your flight.

Then there are scanner friendly travel clothes. I can imagine a lead lined clothing line that would shape your scan so that you looked hot even if you’re not. Or a line of fat controlling clothing that would push your fat in various directions to make you look sexier. You might consider a line of underwear that revealed clever messages when scanned by X-rays.

There is no end of products and services you can design for the new scan-conscious traveler. And you have Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to thank for it. And, if you do come up with an idea, why not talk to Umar’s dad, a prominent Nigerian banker, for help with financing. He might be able to put you in touch with a Nigerian widow who just won the lottery and needs your help to cash in. If you send her some money, she might invest some of her millions in your new scan-scam.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar or How I learned to hate the White and love the Blue

OK, OK, I surrender! I hate the white race. I hate humankind. I hate corporations. And I want desperately to be blue-ish! After two hours and forty-two minutes of three dimensional humanity bashing I am ready to do all I can to push carbon emissions into the 500s and hasten the death of this awful species called homo sapiens sapiens.

As you may have guessed I spent Christmas Eve watching James Cameron’s blockbuster hit, Avatar. I don’t do movie reviews, but this is such a cultural phenomenon (at least on NPR) that I feel obligated to say something about it. So let me say this: a trite, predictable 380 million dollar remake of Dune? You have got to be kidding me.

Of course the 3-D was fun and perfectly understated. And I loved wearing the 3-d glasses that made the entire audience look like we were contestants in a Buddy Holly look-a-like contest. And the world of Pandora was visually stunning. And the time flew by entertainingly. And if the acting wasn’t so stiff and the script so lame, the special effects might have been enough to get my vote for Best Picture of Christmas Eve, but the moral was so obvious, the plot so derivative, and the manipulation of my emotions so heavy-handed that in the end I felt neither elated nor satisfied, but rather pissed off and cheated.

I get it: We humans have, as the film says, “killed our mother.” And, left to our own devices we may well, as the movie says, strip our planet of “green.” And certainly our history right up to this moment is one of genocide, slavery, and planet-wide degradation in the name of profit, power, and the gods that serve them. But does that justify mashing together Dune, Dances With Wolves, Wall-E, The Last Samurai, and Starship Troopers into what has to be the most over used “plot” of the last fifty years? I don’t think so.

One sign that Avatar failed to totally capture my imagination, were the questions that kept running through my mind as I was watching the film. For example:

Why call the world Pandora? I assume it refers to the Greek myth, but why? In the myth Pandora is given a jar (pithos, not a box) in which are stuffed all the woes of humankind. Pandora is told not to open the jar, but her curiosity gets the better of her and she does open it releasing all evil on humankind. What does this have to do with either the planet or the movie? Planet Pandora doesn’t contain evil. And the Blues of Pandora, the Na’vi (which is bluish, I mean Jewish, for “prophet”), don’t appear curious about anything. They have no science or medicine. Given that only two of them seemed to have aged past what I estimate in human years to be 19, most Na’vi die very young.

Perhaps the planet is called Pandora because at the bottom of Pandora’s jar lies hope. Except that the movie offers no hope— not for the earthlings who go home empty¬–handed or for the Na’vi who will eventually be slaughtered when the earthlings return better armed. And make no mistake about it, they/we will return. And not simply because there is more money to be made in sequels, but because when it comes to killing indigenous species in order to extract rocks from the ground, we are Number One.

And speaking of rocks, did I hear correctly that what the humans are willing to commit genocide over is a rock called unobtainium? Unobtainium? Are you kidding me? Is the best we can get for 380 mil is a writer who rips off Rock and Bullwinkle’s star mineral, upsidaisium?

And why are all the Na’vi anorexic? Didn’t anyone overeat on this planet? After eating one Giant Jumbo Large bag o’ popcorn (sans butter, I’m in OA) during the ads and previews leading up to the movie, and working diligently on a second bag (I paid for that free refill, damn it, and I am going to get my money’s worth), it was clear to me that the blue people of Pandora had no room for fat people like me.

And what were the tails for? Was there no evolution on this planet? At first I thought they needed the tail to plug into the giant beasts they rode, but then it seemed they could jack the dragon with their hair, so why the tail? They didn’t use it for climbing, swinging from trees, holding weapons, or anything useful. I would expect it to have fallen off eons ago.

And, if the Na’vi are so peace loving, why is their sole technology focused on weaponry? They knew how to make poison, but not medicine; bows and arrows but nothing else. They knew how to hunt and kill, but not how to farm and heal. What does that say about them?

And then there is the racism and sexism. The bad guys were almost exclusively white and male, and came in two flavors: corporate murderer (short, scrawny, and heartless) and military murderer (huge, muscular, and heartless). The only person of color (other than blue) in the film with any kind of part to play was the female Han Solo stand-in who at the height of the initial slaughter of the Na’vi had a change of heart and joined the other side. The only other person of color I noticed was a black guy yelling his desire to slaughter blues as Colonel Quaritch whipped up his troops for war. The morality of this film was clearly Blue and White. Pick your side.

In the end the good guys won, and the remnants of the white, oh, sorry, human race, return to their green-less dead mother planet without their unobtainium (Oh, now I get it, the rock was unobtainable! Talk about foreshadowing!). Are we supposed to think that this is the end of the story? Are the rock-hungry earthlings so weakened and ashamed as to go home for good? Are we to imagine that peace between White and Blue is possible? Talk about unobtainium! Corporate warmongers do not take “no” for an answer. They will return, and when they do they will do so with a huge armada of deathstars rather than one stupid command ship that lacks proper shielding.

True, given the fact that Na’vi seem to die so young, the capitalist armada may not return in Jordo Schell’s life time (Get it? He’s just a shell), but it will return. After all, when it comes to doing battle with beings armed with wooden sticks dipped in poison (they hadn’t even invented the arrow head; no rocks on Pandora other than upsidaisyum?) we humans know how to kick some tail.

And this is what bugged me most of all: there is no way out of war and genocide and corporate greed and human hatred of all species blue and nonhuman. No one learns anything on either side of the conflict. And the people who could possibly help both sides learn are either dead (Dr. Grace Augustine—can these names get any more obvious?) or permanently blue (Jordo Schell). At least in the Star Trek version of this plot (“The Devil in the Dark,” Original Series, aired on 3/9/67), Mr. Spock manages to broker a deal that allows the white heartless miners and their evil corporate overlords (can there be corporate overlords in a society without money where anyone can replicate anything they want for free?) to get their precious rocks without murdering all the Horta in the process. If the Na’vi can’t mind meld like Spock, couldn’t they at least hair-jack the bad guys in the ass and help them learn the value of blue:

“I am a Blue. Hath not a Blue eyes? Hath not a Blue hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? … If you prick us, do we not bleed? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

But nothing like this happens in Avatar. On the contrary, the bad guys go back to earth with years of homeward bound space travel during which to perfect their story about this evil, hostile, and human-hating species on Pandora that mindlessly murdered all our brave mercenaries and miners who only wanted a few stones that the evil Na'vi didn't even care about. When they get home they will rally what is left of our greenless mother-killing species, and fly back to Pandora to take our revenge in Avatar 2: The Return of the White Meanies (please note clever Beatles reference).

But I am not totally without hope. Things may get better in Avatar 3: Dead, White, and Blue when Pandora is a mining colony and the Na’vi have opened casinos, legalized prostitution (“You’ve never had tail, until you’ve had blue tail”), turned the Tree of Souls into a theme park, and have found myriad other ways to profit off of the White Man’s obsession with sex, gambling, and mindless entertainment. In fact they will have improved their lifestyle and diet sufficiently to allow themselves to live long enough to die of cancer.

So, what’s the bottom-line? Yes, Avatar was fun to watch, and the special effects were wonderful. But was it worth the 380 million dollars James Cameron spent on it, and the $10.20 that I tossed in to help him recoup his expenses? Doubt it. Is it the movie of the decade? No. Will it change movie making forever? Maybe, but who cares? Will it change anything else? No. In the end it is just a screed against capitalism offering no redemption, and promising only endless slaughter. And, given the state of our planet at the moment, it may well be prophetic—Na’vi, get it?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Two Christmas Jews

Tomorrow is Christmas. Two Jews very dear to my heart were born on Christmas day. The first was Jesus Christ, the second my grandfather, Moe Cohen. These two men had much in common.

To begin with they were both Jews, born of Jewish mothers. Second, neither was born with the last names Christ or Cohen. Jesus was called Christ by his followers, and my grandfather was called Cohen by the guy who stamped his papers at Ellis Island. Third, neither of them was born on December 25th. Jesus’ followers chose that date to co-opt the Roman festival Saturnalia that ended on the 23rd or 25th of December. My grandfather didn’t know his birthday, and chose December 25th when asked for date of birth by the guy who gave him the name “Cohen” at Ellis Island. Fourth, Jesus was a carpenter, and my grandfather worked with wood in his garage. Fifth, each of these men had crosses to bear: Jesus’ cross was the wood of crucifixion, my grandfather’s cross was, I suspect, my grandmother.

That is where the parallels between these two Jews end. I love them both, and I think it is sad that there are so few people who will remember the latter tomorrow. I don’t think my grandfather would be interested in having people go to church on his birthday, or giving one another presents. I think he would have preferred us to stay home, read the paper, and smoke a good cigar. I plan to do just that, sans cigar. And I will think of him, and call his daughter who happens also to be my mother, and that will have to do.

Thinking of Moe fills me with gratitude. He was a warm and loving grandfather whose two favorite phrases were, “What are you doing?” and “What are you doing it for?” These are questions I continue to ask. Jesus, too, is famous for his questions, most notably, “Who do they say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”

All four of these questions are koans, questions demanding existential responses that reveal one’s true nature in the moment. What am I doing? Most of the time I have no idea. And for what purpose? This, too, is a mystery to me. As for Who do they say I am? the answer today is clear: The only begotten Son of God. But the question Who do you say I am? is the more revealing. For me the answer is, a fully God-realized sage offering me a way to become the same.

Tonight I will think about these two Jews. Tomorrow I will dedicate my walking meditation to them both, and use their questions as part of my meditation practice. I invite you to do the same.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Joining My Enemies

The good people of the “God Hates Fags” movement have expanded their hate-filled rhetoric to include Jews. The Westboro Baptist Church, famous for its hatred of gays, and picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers, is now picketing synagogues with signs that read, “God Hates Israel,” “The Jews Killed Jesus,” and “God Hates Jews.”

How do we respond to these people? Some Jewish leaders suggest we ignore them. Others suggest that we fight them. I suggest we join them.

If ever these folks come to Murfreesboro, my plan is to rally the ten Jews of my town and join with the Westboro Baptists picketing against us. Seriously. I’m planning to print huge signs that read, “Killing Messiahs; It’s What We Do,” “God Hates Israel; God Loves Ahmadinejad,” “God Hates Jews, God Loves Hitler,” “God Hates Jews, That’s Why He Let His Son Die.”

My signs would dwarf the puny handheld signs of the Baptists. True, my sarcasm would be lost on the Baptists of Westboro, but I am not trying to change their minds at all. You can’t change these people. You can’t shame them. And you can’t kill them. So join them.

(I am hoping there is another option. I just can’t think of it. Please help me out.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Proverbs

For the past few days the phrase “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” has been bandied about as if it were the heart of great policy making. The context is usually health care reform: “True, the bill isn’t what we progressives wanted, but let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s pass this bill and make it better over time.”

That may be a wise strategy, but the phrase “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” bothers me.

First of all, why assume that the bill is good? What if the bill is bad? What if it is, as it appears to be, a handout to the insurance companies, forcing 30 to 40 million Americans to buy private health insurance without controlling prices or cost. What if it will up the cost to the elderly, and, because the price of health care insurance is so high and getting higher, burden future generations with greater and greater deficits needed to subsidize those who cannot afford the exorbitant prices insurances companies will charge?

If these are indeed facts, then the bill isn’t good, and the phrase “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” doesn’t apply. On the contrary, maybe the appropriate proverb is this: “Don’t let the worse be the enemy of the bad.” This seems to be what the Republicans are espousing: Yes, health care is bad, but this bill only makes matters worse.

I’m not saying that is true, only that that is what I am hearing from Republicans.

Then there is Governor Dean’s proverb, “Don’t let the bad be the enemy of the better.” He wants to scuttle the bill and push true reform through the inaptly named process of reconciliation. There is no reconciliation in the process of reconciliation. There is simply a majority imposing its will on the rest of the Congress. You know, majority rules. That used to mean something in America, the Electoral College aside.

If we went this route we wouldn’t have to kiss the butts of individual senators like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. Lieberman got what he wanted: he killed any threat to his overlords at the Connecticut-based insurance companies. Nelson managed to secure not only the life of the unborn, but free Medicaid for the poor of Nebraska who are or will be born, and will be forced onto Medicaid. He won because we are letting the minority (in this case one guy) be the enemy of the majority.

In the end I doubt we will get any real reform of health care, but we did get a few new proverbs, and that is something. Isn’t it?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Surviving Climate Change

I’ve been following the climate conference in Copenhagen this week, and have come to the following conclusion: we’re screwed. The planet isn’t doomed, of course, but human civilization as we know it is. And by “we” I mean middle class Americans. The homeless children of India living on garbage heaps probably won’t notice any major change in lifestyle.

Given the fact that no one with the power to improve the climate of planet earth actually wants to do so, you have to ask yourself one question: what can I do to survive? Here are my suggestions: 1. Move north; way north. 2. Buy guns; lots of guns. 3. Learn to love beef jerky. Of course we all can’t move north so you will have to do this secretly. I suggest painting the roof of your current home white to give your neighbors the impression that you are planning to stay and fight global warming. While they watch the paint dry, slip out the back and move north.

This solution isn’t perfect, however. Even if you are among the first to homestead what used to be the frozen tundra but which will soon have the climate of South Florida, others will not be far behind. And they may be better armed. The fact is only those with the cash to hire their own private armies will survive the coming disaster. Seriously. If I had the cash I would hire the mercenaries formally known as Blackwater and take over Sarah Palin’s house.

But there is another way out (besides of course actually changing the way we live). Astronomers have discovered a “super earth,” a planet with air and water orbiting a nearby red-dwarf star. True, using the term “red-dwarf” isn’t politically correct, but we can deal with that later. The planet, called GJ1214b, is uninhabited. I am sure of this because the name of the planet is GJ1214b, and no one who actually lived there would give it such a stupid name, so we can be pretty certain that no one lives there. Yet.

And that is my point. I’m moving to GJ1214b. The plant is about 247 trillion miles from my house in Tennessee, and that does present me with somewhat of a hurdle. But I am planning on talking to Richard Branson of Virgin about building a spaceship that will make the journey in less than 42 light-years. True I might not last the entire trip but perhaps my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great children might.

And there is also the problem that the atmosphere if GJ1214b can get as hot as 250F, but this is still cooler than what is going to happen to planet earth, at least if my math is right.

So, short term: hire an army and move north. Long term, build a space ship and colonize GJ1214b.

Ah, the audacity of hope.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Unto Death Do Us Part

Gal Ben-David, a 13-year-old Spanish boy died this past Sunday of a brain tumor. He was to be buried in the main section of Madrid’s Jewish Cemetery. Despite the fact that Gal lived as a Jew, and attended a Jewish day-school, it was the ruling of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that Mr. Ben-David was in fact not Jewish. Why? Because he converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative Movement, a denomination of Judaism that Rabbi Amar rejects as illegitimate.

This is not new or unusual in communities dominated by Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Amar is not being mean or acting in any way contrary to Jewish law. He is standing up for the one true Judaism as he perceives it—his. While I am saddened and embarrassed by the story, and while I feel great sympathy for the parents of Mr. Ben-David there is no blame to be assigned here.

Expecting Orthodox Jewish leaders to accept other Judaisms as equal to their own would be like expecting Southern Baptist leaders to accept the Pope, or Muslim leaders to welcome Baha’u’llah as a legitimate prophet of God, or Buddhists to worship Krishna. Religions have their limits and must play by their own rules. If this leaves a 13-year-old boy to be buried outside the main section of the Jewish cemetery, that is just part of the game.

So what should one do in this instance? My suggestion is simple enough—stop playing the game. Obviously when it comes to matters of identity and death Orthodox Judaism trumps Conservative Judaism at least in Spain. But who wants to play this game of “Who Is a Jew?” If someone tells me she is Jewish, I don’t question the matter. And if she dies right after telling me she is Jewish she can be buried in the Jewish cemetery if that was her wish or the wish of her family. Who cares? She’s dead!

I can see how, among the living, one might not want to pollute your neighborhood with someone of a different socio-economic, religious, racial, or ethnic group. We call that bigotry. It is part of human nature, and one of the reasons humans are so prone to following demagogues and committing genocides. But a dead body is going to decompose eventually, and dust is dust, so why freak out over who moves into the dead neighborhood? Are we afraid that it will lower the property values? Are we nervous that a liberal Jew or even a Gentile buried next to an Orthodox Jew might convince the latter to abandon the faith? It seems to me that death ought to be the great leveler. Death is death and grief is grief, and to pretend otherwise is to deny our humanity. Which is what religion so often does. Which is why I say, stop playing. Whenever your religion contradicts your humanity, reject the religion.

There should be only one criterion for being buried in a cemetery—you have to be dead. Maybe this is why Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” The living have yet to learn how.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How Do You Define What Is Good?

Can you be good without God? This question is once again making the rounds with the recent publication of Greg Epstein’s new book, Good Without God. As Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, Chaplain Epstein’s book is a thoughtful and positive assessment of the fact that of course people can be good without God.

To me this is the wrong question. To me the question is what is good and how do we know it is good? That is to say is something good because it is good (which begs the question “What is good?”) or is it good because God says it is good (which begs the question “Which God are we taking about?)?

The Jewish God said it was good to commit genocide against many of ancient Israel’s enemies, and continues to sanction violence against those inconvenient people who refuse to recognize God’s Chosen’s right to God’s Promised Land. The Christian God said it was good to slaughter Jews, burn witches, go on Crusades, and condemn differently believing persons to eternal torment in Hell. The Muslim God says it is good to murder those considered the enemies of Islam (even if they are fellow Muslims). So saying we need God to be good doesn’t tell us much about either God or goodness.

Of course you might say to yourself, “My God doesn’t sanction those things at all.” And that is my point. Your God might not, but another’s God might. Which God is the real God? Which good is the real good?

And being an atheist is no guarantee of goodness either. While I don’t know a single atheist who would kill or oppress in the name of God, there is no doubt that they can do so for other reasons.

The fact is, believing or not believing in this or that God is irrelevant to defining what is good. And the question of belief distracts us from the question, What is good?

If I had to point to a single text to define my sense of global goodness I would point to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I like this document not because it is divinely revealed (it isn’t), or because it is reasoned flawlessly, but because it agrees with my sense of right and wrong. When it comes down to it, I have to define good for myself.

This doesn’t make me happy. I would rather rely on God or at least on people smarter than me. But I can’t. Much of what God says in the world’s religions I find insane and immoral. The only time I find God on the right side of an issue is when God agrees with me. The same is true of what smart people say. I like what they say if what they say agrees with what I say; otherwise, I reject it.

Does it all come down to us as individuals? Is there nothing but our own opinion? How do you define what’s good?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Syncretism is on the Rise

Syncretism is on the rise. Or so says a new Pew Forum survey on Religion and Public Life released yesterday. According to USA TODAY, syncretism is the “mashing up of contradictory beliefs.” This is like a person taking some ideas from Judaism, and others from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the Existentialists, Science, the Matrix, Star Wars, and Star Trek, and mixing them all together to create a personal sense of wonder, meaning, and purpose.

Oh. That “person” would be me.

Religious leaders are not happy with mashing. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, said in the USA TODAY piece, “This is a failure of the pulpit as much as of the pew to be clear about what is and is not compatible with Christianity and belief in salvation only through Christ.”

I can imagine any number of clergy from any number of religions agreeing in principle with Dr. Mohler. Clergy work hard to define what is in and what is out of their respective religions, and syncretism undermines all that effort. What is worse it undermines the exclusivist theology behind it.

For most people salvation means getting your name on Heaven’s Guest List, and for exclusivists that list is restricted to people who believe as they believe. But it is hard to live in an open, democratic, pluralistic society and cling to the notion of exclusivist salvation. Like it or not, more and more people are adopting the Jewish view of salvation: all good people get to go to Heaven regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof. While Judaism may be vague about what Heaven is, and most Jews may be doubtful that it is at all, we all agree that good deeds rather than right belief is the key to entry.

But if that is true, then why stick to one understanding of God and religion at all? Why not learn about other faiths? Why not test out other practices? Why not customize your spiritual life the way you customize your Facebook page?

Once these questions are asked seriously, exclusivist religious claims fall away. If deeds not creeds is the way to God and salvation, and we can pretty much agree on what deeds are good and what deeds are evil (loving your neighbor—good; killing your neighbor—bad; the jury is still out on dancing, cheeseburgers, and zippers), why worry about creeds at all?

I love the emerging syncretism. I don’t see it as a mashing up of differences; I see it as an exploration of possibilities. True, around one fifth of Americans believe in astrology and the evil eye, but around the same number believes that a Kenyan is President of the United States.

I see syncretism as a first step in moving beyond religion toward spiritual practice. Eventually we will realize that God is unknowable, so creed is untenable. What matters is how compassionate and just we are. Those religious ideas and practices that enhance or capacity for compassion and justice will become part of our lives, regardless of the religion from which they come. And to that I say, Amen.

Monday, December 07, 2009

My Religion is Love

Judaism is about love or it doesn’t mean shit. It's that simple.

All the usual talk about tribal loyalty, cultural diversity, God, Torah, Promised Land, and Chosen People, is irrelevant if Judaism doesn’t make us more loving. Does it really matter if Jews marry Jews and raise Jewish kids if being Jewish is just about Jews marrying Jews and raising Jewish kids?

Judaism does matter, of course, but not in any self-referential way. Judaism matters for the only reason any religion matters: it makes us more loving. Or it should.

Here is my guiding principle for determining whether or not to engage in any specific Jewish practice: will it enhance my capacity to love? If it will, I should do it. If it won’t, I should move on to something that will.

Your answer to this question will differ from mine. The only agreement I am looking for is that love is what matters: love of God (Deuteronomy 6:5), love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), and love of stranger (Leviticus 19:26). How you define God, neighbor, and stranger is also up for discussion. Discussion is what we Jews are all about: argument, doubt, debate, wrestling. And if this argument is for the sake of heaven, that is for the sake of love, it is precious to me. If it is for the sake of tribe and brand, it is a waste of time to me.

Of course I will have to define love. Let me offer this as a tentative definition: love is the capacity to feel another’s pain without guilt, share in another’s joy without envy, and work with others to uplift the fallen, free the wrongly imprisoned, etc. If I need a slogan for my Judaism I would borrow the bumper sticker the Prophet Micah might have stuck on the rump of his donkey: "Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

You might object at this point, “Why bother coming up with Jewish ways of becoming more loving? Why not just be more loving? Why stick with Judaism?”

I suspect that in my case Judaism is so ingrained that I cannot walk away. I keep coming back to make it work for me the same way I keep coming back to Levis jeans after flirting with New Religion: I find them comforting.

With love as my criteria, I can now answer people who ask me, “How do you know your religion is true?” Truth isn’t the issue, love is. I don’t care if a religion is true; I care if it makes its adherents more loving.

My religion is love. My method is Judaism as I define it for myself. Won’t this weaken community if we each define Judaism for ourselves? Maybe, but who cares? My goal is love not branded community. If I am loving, I will find others who are the same. Love will be our bond, and we will welcome any brand that serves it.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Unstemming Stem Cell Research

After having slammed the Obama administration for its environmental, financial, and military policies, it is only fair that I celebrate the President’s administration when it does something right. Or, to be more blunt, when it does something with which I agree. So it was with great joy that I read that Francis Collins, Obama’s director of the National Institutes of Health, has approved federal funded research on thirteen new lines of stem cells. And, as Director Collins noted, this is only the beginning.

In August of 2001, then President George Bush limited research to the 21 stem cell lines already being studied. President Obama vowed to change this, and he has. The number of new lines may well grow into the hundreds, and the potential to radically cure disease is huge.

Resistance to embryonic stem cell research comes from those who imagine embryonic cells to be persons, and hence experimenting on them is immoral. President Obama has dealt with this issue by getting informed consent from stem cell donors. This is tricky. If an embryonic stem cell is somehow a person, can another person determine its fate in this way?

This is the anti-abortion argument: If a zygote (and later a fetus) is a person, what right does even the mother have to kill it? The answer, with the possible exception of saving the mother’s life, is none. The only way to counter this argument is to argue that a zygote or fetus is not a person, and the mother has the right to determine its fate just as she does to determine the fate of her heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.

The question is this, When does human life become a human person. When asked this question in a televised interview with Pastor Rick Warren, then candidate Obama avoided the question by saying the answer was “above his pay grade.” Of he was right. The emergence of personhood is a theological question, not a political one. Yet when religion (questing into the unknown) devolves into doctrine (adherence to the officially known), as it has in our day, religion becomes politicized.

Not surprisingly the U.S. Conference of Bishops opposes President Obama’s move to liberate science and medicine from the censorship of certain kinds of believers, but they are not opposed to all research, promoting the use of induced stem cells instead of embryonic stem cells. Under Obama and Dr. Collins both types of stem cells will be used, and the science will determine which is more valuable to humankind.

This is the kind of progressive action our country needs. And, in the not too long run, this is the kind of health care reform that will actually transform the wellness of human beings. Thank you Mr. President.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pay It Forward

Finally some good news from Iraq. News we can use. By “we” I mean Jews, and by “use” I mean apply to our own situation. What is this news? Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is paying couples to intermarry as a way of stemming sectarian violence in Iraq. Intermarrying couples are wed in a group ceremony. The government provides dresses for the brides, and suits for the grooms. Each couple receives a free night in an Iraqi hotel (something superior to the Iraqi version of Motel Six where the motto is, “We’ll keep the fuse lit for you”) plus a check for $2000 US. The Vice President’s hope is that these married couples will make love not war, and bring their extended families along with them. Personally I think this is a brilliant idea, and one we Jews can learn from.

Why not pay Israelis to marry Palestinians? Yes, I realize they are from different faiths, but most Israelis are secularists as are many Palestinians. We could pay for intermarriage between Israeli and Palestinian humanists. Sure it might cost a bit more than it does in Iraq, but what doesn’t? And, if the idea catches on, it will prove far cheaper to birth hybrid babies than it is to enforce ethnic purity.

Of course we could use Tariq al-Hashemi’s idea in reverse. We could pay Jews and Gentiles in the United States not to marry one another. This might be a bit more difficult to pull off. But we could offer a sign-up bonus for every Jew who marries another Jew. And then we could pay the couple to have or adopt babies. We could set a base level for birth and adoption, and then add a bonus for bar and bat mitzvah. And if these kids grow up to marry other Jews, not only will they receive the sign-up money, but their parents will get another cash gift for raising Jewish children who marry other Jews. To incentivize the system a bit more, parents whose children marry out will have to return their baby bonus money plus accrued interest. And to help prevent divorce we might also demand a similar repayment in the case of divorce.

How much cash, you might be wondering? I don’t know. The cost of the average suburban bar or bat mitzvah runs around $75,000, and that’s without Madonna singing about Kabbalah, so maybe we need to use that as our base. I imagine the total would be about $250,000 per child over the course of a lifetime. But I don’t really know, and will leave the specifics to the experts. All I’m saying is that you get what you pay for, so lets pay for what we want.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Night of Despair: My Response to President Obama's Speech on Afghanistan

I voted for Barack Obama. Happily. Hopefully. Maybe even desperately. I wanted change. I believed and continue to believe that the United States is on the wrong track morally, economically, politically, and spiritually. I believed and continue to believe that we are run by soulless corporations that feed us an endless round of distractions, scandals and crises that preoccupy us while we are bled dry. I was under no delusion that if Candidate Obama became President Obama he could change the very marrow of the nation, but I was hopeful that he would at least change the conversation. That hope has been on life support for months. Tonight it finally died.

I do not like the health care reform bill. It is a gift to the insurance companies, and does nothing to improve healthcare or reduce costs. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that it is a step in the right direction; that once something is on the books, future politicians can work to make it better.

I did not like the bailout of Wall St. It was a gift to the very people who crashed our economy. I would have used the money to keep people in their homes, to create a Green Jobs Corps similar to the conservation program FDR created during the Depression. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that without it things would have been much worse.

I do not like cap and trade as a means of saving the planet. It is a scam, and will do nothing to lower CO2 emissions. By the time it has any effect, if it has any effect, things will be far worse than then are now. If we want to stop global warming we have to do something bold. Read James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia, and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline for ideas that make sense to me. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that we are recognizing the problem.

I protested against the Iraq War, and hoped President Obama would end it. We are still there. When we leave, if we leave, Iraq will become a puppet of Iran, and our people will have died in vain. But I could at least comfort myself with the notion that the president is winding things down.

I supported the taking down of the Taliban and going after Al Qaeda. We did that. According to our own government there are less than 100 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan. We won. When did we decide to rid the country of the Taliban? When did we decide that the Taliban are a coherent group that can be identified and defeated? No one has been able to create an Afghanistan in their image—not Alexander the Great, or the British, or the Soviets. Why do we think we can do so? Afghanistan is not a nation, but a jumble of competing tribes and warring groups. The Karzai government has no credibility, and neither do we.

I know Candidate Obama was pro-war in Afghanistan, but I was hopeful that President Obama took all this time discussing the Afghan War because he had a change of mind. Instead he took weeks to do what John McCain would have done in twenty seconds. Did I vote for a slower version of McCain? Is this change? Is this hope?
All this will do is convince our enemies that we are the Crusaders they imagine us to be. It will further solidify the Muslim world against us. It will not make us safer. To imagine that we can train Afghani forces to take on the Taliban is absurd. One out of every four Afghan police officers is AWOL. We will be in Afghanistan for years. And then we will do what we could do today: declare victory and leave behind a mess.

If we want to worry about Taliban and the security of the United States, the problem is in Pakistan. If we want to worry about nuclear armed madmen, the threat is in Pakistan and Iran. We have real enemies out there, but occupying Afghanistan for another five to ten years does nothing to stop them, and in fact will make things worse.

I am sick over the decision of my President. I feel angry and hopeless. Voting Republican in 2010 won’t help. And voting for third parties only allows me to feel self-righteous while charade of a two-party democracy continues to mask the fact that we are no longer a democracy but an oligarchy of the rich, for the rich, by the rich.

My only hope now is in a war tax and a draft. Demand that the American people pay for this madness now. Not just the wealthy, but everyone. Maybe if we feel the financial cost of war we might bring it to a close.

And reinstitute the draft. We don’t have enough volunteers to cover the wars in which we continue to engage, let alone the ones coming up (Pakistani Taliban and Iran), so we force our soldiers to go back over and over and over again. That is wrong militarily and morally. We need more soldiers. If these wars are good for America, then make all American’s fight them. No deferments for college. No way out for the wealthy. Every able-bodied young person must go.

The only reason these wars have gone on as long as they have is that most of us could avoid paying for them directly with our dollars and the lives of our children. With a tax and a draft we are all engaged in war, and most of us will resist.

Right now most of us are like me— confused, depressed, and passive. We content ourselves watching Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann. I fear Beck and love Olbermann, but neither is offering me a way out.

I am not sorry I voted for Barack Obama, but the hope he promised has turned to despair.

I hope he is right, and that I am wrong.

Insane Logic of Ma’ale Adumim

First I have to take a deep breath. I know that if I publish this blog I am going to receive the kind of angry mail I don’t want. But if I say nothing I will hate myself. So here goes…

The November 13th edition of the Forward contains a very troubling article: “Palestinian Workers Plan To Sue Settlement, Seek To Fall Under Israeli Law.” According to the article, Palestinian workers employed by the West Bank municipality of Ma’ale Adumim, a Jewish settlement just outside Jerusalem, are suing the city and insisting that they be hired according to Israeli law rather than Jordanian law. The difference is that while the Palestinians make more than minimum wage, their benefits package is below that of Israeli workers.

The issue is purely one of financial justice. The workers want more; the city wants to pay them less. But the wild thing is the logic Ma’ale Adumim employs. According to the city’s lawyer, Gilad Rogel, “Ma’ale Adumin is not under the jurisdiction of the State of Israel—it is a settlement in the occupied territories.” The city operates under Israeli law because Israelis live there, but with regard to Palestinians it can choose to operate under another legal system, in this case that of Jordan.

In other words, Ma’ale Adumin wants to claim it is part of Israel when it benefits them and part of Jordan when it doesn’t. It also wants to discriminate against Palestinian workers. And all because of money. Has Zionism been reduced to an economic scam? Has Jewish justice been reduced to cost effectiveness? Is this what Israelis risk their lives for every day?

Let me be clear: this isn’t a uniquely Jewish or Israeli issue. The theft of people’s homes by the municipality of New London, CT at the bequest of the Pfizer Corporation in 2005 only to have Pfizer leave the city in 2009 after reneging on its plans to build a research facility near the confiscated land is the same thing—a city government driven solely by dollars. My point is simply this: Israel isn’t any different than any other state. It can claim no moral high ground. It has no special status with God. It is, just like the rest of us, out for itself.

OK, I can accept this. But when I do, I have to ask myself why I should give a shit about just one more country driven to injustice by economic concerns? I am told over and again that Israel is different, and because it is different it is worthy of my love, trust, and financial support. But is it? I just can’t see it any more. I want to. But I don’t.

This isn’t a matter of moral equivalency. I’m not comparing Israel to Palestine or any other country. I’m just saying that if the West Bank can be used as a scam to exploit Palestinian workers, I don’t want to be a part of it.

The case is going before the Israeli Supreme Court. In a similar case in 2007 the court sided with Palestinian workers. Other cities have followed the High Court’s precedent, but Ma’ale Adumin is trying to find a loophole. If they do, and the Court sides with the city, the hole they find is going to be the grave of justice.