Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ten "Too Jewish" Questions

I write an advice column for Spirituality & Health magazine, and I’m always on the lookout for questions that I can use as part of the column. Sometimes the questions I receive are too Jewish and don’t make it into the column. Here are ten of these “too Jewish” questions and my answers to them.

1. Is YHVH God? No. YHVH is one particular Jewish understanding of God, but God cannot be limited to particulars. For me, God is the Source and Substance of all reality; God is what is. The Hebrew YHVH, a future imperfect form of the Hebrew verb “to be,” suggests that God is the is’ing of reality. This comes close to my understanding, so I use the term. But I know that my understanding is still not a full understanding. The Tao that can be named, as Lao Tzu says, is not the Eternal Tao.

2. Are Jews God’s Chosen People, and is Israel God’s promised land? No. While Judaism holds tight to these claims, I cannot. To me notions such as chosenness, promised lands, saved and damned, true believer and the infidel are nonsensical and dangerous. God, as I understand God, chooses no one and promises nothing. God is what is; nothing more and nothing less.

3. Is Torah God’s revelation to the Jews? No. God doesn’t reveal or conceal anything. Torah is an amalgamation of stories, laws, teachings, and codes of behavior written by numerous individuals over centuries, and reflecting Bronze and Iron Age views of the world. While cloaked in history, most books of the Bible were written long after the events they claim to relate, and are more apt to speak to the people and the times in which they were written than to us.

4. Should we design our lives around the teachings of Torah and Talmud? Certainly traditionally minded Jews would say so, but I do not. While there are timeless teachings in both Torah and Talmud, and I value these along with other sources of ancient wisdom, most of what I find there is largely irrelevant to my life. On the other hand, if you want to be a traditionally observant Jew you have to accommodate yourself to Jewish tradition as spelled out in Torah and Talmud, as well as other sources of rabbinic law.

5. Are the teachings of the rabbis extensions of Torah? No. The earliest collection of rabbinic teachings, the Mishnah, is totally independent of Torah, and makes no attempt to link itself to Torah. The rabbis claim to embody a new Torah, the Oral Torah, which they say was given to Moses on Sinai and passed down separately from the Written Torah. While the Written Torah was given to the Priests, the Oral Torah was given to the rabbis. Is there any evidence for this? No. The rabbis invented their own Torah to legitimize what is in essence a religious coup in Jewish life.

6. Where does rabbinic authority come from? From the laypeople who choose to follow rabbis in general and specific rabbis in particular. While rabbis claim to be heirs to the Oral Torah given to Moses on Sinai, the fact is they invented this Torah as a means of legitimizing their movement. This is nothing new. This is how all religions operate. Do you imagine the Buddha spoke all the sutras attributed to him? Some were written hundreds of years after his death. People who need authority figures find ones they like and legitimize them. This is why Jews will shift allegiance from rabbi to rabbi and synagogue to synagogue in order to find a rabbi who speaks “truth,” that is a rabbi who agrees with them. The same is true of Christians who continually change churches or start new versions of Protestantism. They all claim to be revealing the Truth, when in fact they are only promoting their own opinions.

7. What is the most important element of Jewish life? Shabbat? Kosher? Passover? While all of these are important, the most important to me is Torah. Jews are a people whose identity is rooted in story. Notice I say “story” rather than “history.” There is scant evidence that the story of the Jews from Abraham through Joshua is historical. But that doesn’t bother me. I am not interested in history, but in story. We are the stories we tell. So if archeologists are correct and the Exodus never happened, it doesn’t bother me a bit. The story is what moves me (both positively and negatively); it is the story that matters. So if we were to lose everything but Torah (that is everything but our story and the freedom to continually interpret and add to it which is the Way of Torah) we would still survive.

8. Is the State of Israel central to Jewish life? Yes, but for all the wrong reasons. Israel has become the secular god of the Jews. Jews who have no interest in Jewish texts, teachings, or traditions link their identity as Jews to the Jewish State. This is unfortunate because Israel cannot live up to the spiritual genius of Judaism, and too often falls prey to its worst elements. Judaism is a mythos, a laboratory for meaning-making, Israel is a logos, a program for politics. As scholar Karen Armstrong repeated proves, when logos takes the place of mythos violence almost always erupts. When the state becomes god, it is the devil who rules. This is not to say Israel is irrelevant, only that Jews shouldn’t ask Israel to be other than it is: a political entity willing to do whatever is necessary to survive.

9. Since God is just and good, what did the Jews do to deserve the Holocaust? Nothing. The Jews were murdered for being Jews. No one “deserves” a Holocaust? The problem the Holocaust poses for believers in a just God is that this god is revealed to be anything but just. There are at least three responses to this discovery: 1) become an atheist; 2) defend god as God and blame the Jews; and 3) stop imagining a just God. Most Jews I suspect opted for #1, while traditional Judaism continues to focus on God, most Jews are no longer traditional. When they speak of God the word is often empty of anything but nostalgia for old ways of talking. Some Jews opt for #2 and continue the ancient argument that God punishes the Jews because we are not living up to God’s standards. I prefer #3, what I call the way of Job, who challenged the idea of a just God and discovered a God beyond good and evil, justice and injustice, who cannot be reduced to these human concepts. This is a minority position to say the least.

10. Who is your favorite rabbi? Me. I am the only rabbi who says exactly what I believe. If you asked me for rabbis other than myself that I admire, I would say the following: Hillel, Jesus, Shabbatai Tzvi, the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Ber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is Israel the Promised Land?

Is Israel the Promised Land? Yes, but only in the minds of those who say so.

This came up during a talk I gave recently where I said that I believed the whole world is holy, that life is God manifest in space and time, and that the notion of one slice of ground being holy while the rest was just dirt made no sense to me. I wasn’t speaking about Israel in particular, just about the idea of holy ground being a sociological phenomenon rather than a theological one.

One Jewish woman in the audience found this very upsetting, and asked why, when millions if not billions of people believe Israel to be the Promised Land and somehow more holy that the rest of the planet, I could so blithely (her word) dismiss the claim?

My response was a bit flippant. I asked her if she believed Mecca was the most holy city in the world, and she said she did not, and that Jerusalem was the most holy city. I then asked her why, since a billion Muslims believe Mecca trumps Jerusalem on the holiness scale, she so blithely (my word) dismissed their claim? Certainly on numbers alone, a billion Muslims versus twelve million Jews, one would have to go with Mecca.

She was not impressed with my math. I should have let the matter go, but there were still other people to offend, so I went on to say that Americans, too, have our marketing pitch that raises the United States above all other nations. We call it American exceptionalism, and it means that the United States is unlike any other nation in history, and that we are blessed by God and incapable of succumbing to the evils that have been the downfall of every empire up to ours. This refusal to accept America as just another nation with all the foibles that nationalism and empire entail allows us to blithely (yes I said “blithely” again) go about our business no matter how much evil we commit and damage we do without ever imaging we are doing evil or damage.

But I don’t subscribe to any of these claims. A nation is as good as the people who control it, and the policies they enforce, and the history of our empire doesn’t suggest that our political and corporate overlords are any more benign that others.

To her credit, the woman who started me off on this tangent challenged me. If it is all about self-identity, why are so many nonJews obsessed with the Jewish claim that Israel is the Promised Land?

The answer, I suggested, is simple: those who are caught up in this claim are Jews, Christians, and Moslems who believe in a god who privileges some at the expense of others, and who have a stake in the answer. Many Jews focus on the idea because it bolsters their claim to legitimacy in Israel; many Christians focus on it because the return of Jews to Israel proves God’s promises can be trusted, that they are being fulfilled in our day, and that this fulfillment heralds the massacre of all but a handful of Jews as prelude to the coming of Christ; and many Muslims focus on it in order to deny it in favor of their own claims just eh way Pepsi denies the claims of Coke. But the average Chinese person in China or Hindu in India probably doesn’t think about this at all, and may consider the entire contest insane.

Why do people need to be special, or to belong to the elite? Why can’t we simply admit that we are “all Bozos on this bus,” and do the best we can to see that we travel together with a modicum of respect and compassion for one another? Why do we have to be chosen or blessed or privileged by one god or another? Why do we have to argue over whom this god loves best? This, to me, is the real question we should be asking. And when we can answer it we might be able to put an end to our ranking and rancor, and move toward peace.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Role of the Rabbi

What is the rabbi’s role in modern America?

This was the big question Moment Magazine put to a panel of rabbis in its January/February issue. I love questions like this, and was genuinely excited to read the responses of my colleagues. That is, until I actually read them.

I was hoping to read something new, something bold, daring, and radical; something that spoke to the 21st century rather than the 19th; something that made me want to be Jewish or to learn what Judaism has to offer. What I found from most of them was the same old clichés about God, Torah and Israel.

Maybe these old notions are just fine. But I doubt it. Few Jews attend synagogue regularly, and fewer still study Torah or engage in Jewish contemplative practices. Rabbis still seem to be curators of a museum fewer and fewer Jews bother visiting; still willing to train up kids in a religion few will rarely grow into and most will grow out of.

Of course I’m jealous of the collegues that were asked, and hurt that I was not among them. But that is why I write this blog: to right the wrongs done to me by those who don’t even know I exist. If I had been asked to answer this question, I would have said the following:

• The role of the rabbi is to be a shaman—to offer people the tools for ecstasy, self-transcendence, and God-encounter, and a safe community in which to use them. (When I use the word “God” I mean the nondual source and substance of all Reality.)

• The role of the rabbi is to be a storyteller—to offer people a grand narrative that weaves together the best of Torah and contemporary science, a story that liberates people from the false gods and their corporate sponsors/creators that posit a zero–sum worldview, and pits people against one another and against the planet as a whole.

• The role of the rabbi is to be a prophet—to offer people a way to resist the idolatry of American life by adapting a counter-cultural Judaism rooted in ancient Hebrew iconoclasm—a god that cannot be named or imaged or marketed—and Hillel’s understanding of Judaism as compassion for others.

• The role of the rabbis is to be spiritual friend—to offer people a partner with whom to walk and share their quest for meaning and purpose without imagining that they (the rabbis) have found the answer.

• The role of the rabbi is to be an educator—to offer people both a Judaism of compassion and justice that celebrates tribe without devolving into tribalism, and a distinctly rabbinic pedagogy rooted in argument, doubt, and finely tuned questioning.

• The role of the rabbi is to be a liberator—to offer people a means of escape from the self-serving fetishes of contemporary Jewish life: Chosenness, Holocaust, and Israel, and toward a fresh understanding of tradition and mitzvot that is creative, liberating, and intrinsically compelling.

In short, the role of the rabbi is to be a spiritual revolutionary imagining the future, and not, as all too often is the case, corporate apologists for the past.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Serious Man

Last night I rented and watched the Coen Brother’s new movie, A Serious Man. While I have heard that some Jews found it offensive, I did not. I grew up in a similar environment, and knew all the characters first hand.

The movie is a parable of a parable, the original being Job, the story of a decent man plagued by God over a bet God has made with Satan. God wants to see if Job will abandon his faith if life turns against him. In the movie the Bet is whether or not physics professor Larry Gopnik (the movie’s Job) will accept a bribe and give a failing student a passing grade. The devil is Sy Ableman, who does all he can to destroy Larry’s family and career. It is interesting that the label “Serious Man” is bestowed by Rabbi Nachtner (your typical middle aged, middle-minded, mainstream pseudo-sage) on Sy rather than Larry. Mainstream clergy always mistake the devil for the able-man?

The deeper question asked by both Job and Larry is this: What is the nature of God? Neither book nor movie gives us a definitive answer. That isn’t their concern. Their concern is to strip away any ideas you may have about God, and see what happens next. In the film this is made clear by the recurring “Greek Corus” provided by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane and repeated by the reclusive sage, Rabbi Marshak: “When the truth is found to be lies; and all the joy within you dies…What then”

Rabbi Marshak and Grace Slick offer two different but complementary answers. For the Dark Sage (nacht means “night” in Yiddish and German), the answer (given to recent Bar Mitzvah Danny Gopnik) is “be a good boy.” Be a mentsch. This is the only mitzvah (obligation) Danny has to adhere to (bar). There is no truth, no lasting joy, there is just the madness of life. And how best to deal with it? Be a mentsch, be a decent human being.

Grace and Jefferson Airplane offer a slightly different answer: “When the truth is found to be lies; and all the joy within you dies… Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t need somebody love, wouldn’t you love somebody to love? You better find somebody to love.”

Decency and love, that is all there is. Will these somehow make life better? As the tornado of God moves closer to destroying the lives of our characters the answer is clearly “no.” There is no escaping the wildness of God and the amorality of creation.

Job (along with Ecclesiastes) is my favorite book of the Bible. Together, the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes strip away everything we think we know about God and life, leaving us no place to hide. Facing the awesome reality that is God evokes in me a sense of reverence, awe, fear, and respect (though not worship; God needs no worship).

Religion, mainstream or new age, is all about hiding from the truth behind self-serving lies. If we do what pleases God, God will do what pleases us. Nonsense say Job, Ecclesiastes, and the brothers Coen. God is beyond anything we can imagine, and a true encounter with God leaves us naked and raw.

The question is what do you do after this encounter? Do you fold? Do you give into nihilism or narcissism? Do you become even more fundamentalist and militant? Or do you redouble your efforts at being a mentsch and finding someone to love?

A Serious Man opens with a quotes attributed to the 11th Century Rabbi, Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” With this it sets us up for the answer. Accepting with simplicity means accepting reality without hiding behind theories of reality. It means being open to the glory and madness of life without clinging to one or the other. It means being a mentsch and finding love. That is all there is. It is quite enough.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ah, Tolerance

Ah, yes, tolerance. According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) tolerance is “the ability to accept things one does not like or disagrees with.” According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center tolerance means that Palestinians should simply accept the desecration of a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem and allow the Center to build a branch of their—wait for it—Museum of Tolerance over the centuries-old graveyard.

The cemetery is Ma’man Allah, a graveyard for Palestinian dead for hundreds of years, fell into disrepair in 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled during the Israeli War of Independence. The museum, called the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem, was given the land by the City of Jerusalem in 2002.

The irony of this is palpable. A museum called the Center for Human Dignity built over a desecrated graveyard? Can it be that our fetishistic passion for the Shoah/Holocaust has so corrupted our sense of morality that we can build such a thing without shame? Can it be that as we fight to preserve the dignity of Jewish graves, we can trample on the dignity of Palestinian graves? Is there anything left of the Jewish soul, or have we sold it to the devil of jingoism and tribalism?

Imagine a Muslim peace group trying to build a center for peace over a Jewish graveyard. Even if they promised to move the bodies and rebury them (something the Center for Human Dignity plans to do), the Jewish world would be up in arms. But when we do it to Muslims we expect them to simply tolerate it.

Not everyone is silent, however. Rabbi David Schmidl of Atra Kadisha, an organization devoted to the defense of Jewish graves, has spoken out against the project, as have several other Jewish activists both secular and religious. But the Israeli courts have sided with the Center, and, to the best of my knowledge, the Jewish world is largely silent on this issue.

I do not dispute that Ma’man Allah is in Israel. I do not dispute Israel’s right to exist. Indeed it may even be legal for the city of Jerusalem to give graveyards of any religious group over to contractors to build whatever they please. I do not know Israeli law, and I do not pretend to dispute it. All I am saying is that any Jew worth the name should be appalled at Jewish desecration of another people’s cemetery. And that is what really frightens me. We are no longer Jews.

I grew up believing that Jews were called to serve justice and compassion; that our God was the power that liberates humanity from slavery, injustice, cruelty, and war; that any interpretation of Torah that did not promote justice and compassion was a false interpretation; and that the State of Israel was to be the place where the highest Jewish ideals could be forged into living principles.

This was the Judaism that spoke to me, that called me to the rabbinate; that sustained me and nourished me, and made me proud to be a Jew. Is this Judaism dead? Has it been sacrificed to the false god of tribalism? Have we Jews reverted to a vicious tribalism that excuses immorality in the name of god and the state this god supposedly sanctions?

I know that some of you will come to the defense of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and some will talk about Muslim desecration of Jewish cemeteries as if that made Jewish desecration of Muslim cemeteries OK. I understand this. It just saddens me that we allow ourselves to be defined by the lowest moral denominator when we used to be the people of the highest. If you cannot feel shame; at least feel the irony. As for me, I feel both.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Finnish First, Finnish Last

A Finnish atheist took Italy to court and won. Complaining that the Italian practice of hanging crucifixes in Italian classrooms violated her right to raise her child as an atheist, she convinced the European Court of Human Rights to order Italy to remove all crucifixes from government classrooms so as to not offend non-Catholics.

This is outrageous. Why is this woman incapable of raising her child as an atheist just because the majority culture believes otherwise? Unless there is a law making atheism illegal, she is free to teach her kid whatever she pleases. And why should non-Catholics be offended by Catholic symbols in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic?

But wait! What about America? We are overwhelmingly Christian. Should we not allow Christian symbols in our schools? First, we do. Second, we have the First Amendment, so we shouldn’t. But we do. Am I offended as a Jew? No. I am not offended by another’s faith. Am I worried as an American? Yes. Our government is to be religiously neutral. But I’m not going to go to war over a Christmas pageant in December. When the government links loyalty to a certain brand of Christian faith to success in government and to promotion in the Air Force, then I worry. We do that too. Time to fight. That is why I am on the board of the Interfaith Alliance of Tennessee, the state branch of a national organization that works tirelessly to make sure the US honors and abides by the First Amendment.

When we go ballistic over every imagined slight to our beliefs, we make it all the more hard to muster outrage at and resistance to real threats to our religious liberties.

I am tired of people being offended. It offends me! Get over it. We live in the real world. If you don’t want your kid exposed to Italian society don’t move to Italy! If you don’t want your Jewish kid exposed to Christmas send them to yeshivah or home school them the way thousands of people do who are offended by science. But this is nonsense.

It is like dousing antibacterial spray over everything all the time. It actually weakens our capacity to deal with bacteria. Protecting our children from other people’s ideas only weakens their capacity to deal with other people’s ideas. In the end we will all fall victim to the some guy who just refuses to be silenced, and who has no compunction about silencing others. This degree of political correctness is political suicide.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Dance Instinct

Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct is well worth the read. Wade’s blend of biology and anthropology provides us with a solid understanding of the origin of religion and its impact on human society. When I read such books I am interested both in the past and future; I want to know not only where religion came from, but also where it might be going. Unfortunately, like most such books, Dr. Wade is strong on the former and weak on the latter. Nevertheless, he does provide us with ideas worth speculating about.

Religion arose 50,000 years ago among humans living in hunter-gatherer societies. Religion was the means by which people bonded together in cohesive communities, and the means for doing so were emotionally compelling blends of music, chant, and dance that lead some participants to fall into trance states where they believed they were communing with ancestors and gods. These communities were nonhierarchical and noncreedal. People weren’t seeking new insights, but fresh experiences of solidarity and, for some, transcendence.

This was human religion for about 35,000 years. With the shift from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural society things changes. Owning land was now essential to wealth and power, and religion began to speak to the need for expanding control over other peoples and their property. Religion grew politically and became central to a communities power structure. A priestly cast arose and religion was no longer open to everyone. Kings chosen by the gods or who were gods themselves demanded the loyalty of the people that had hitherto been given to the group as a whole. Rites were now tied to harvests and planting seasons.

With the rise of city states and early capitalism religion again shifted from temple sacrifices to creeds drawn from books controlled by a scholar class that determined what could be read and how what is read could be understood.

Resting religion on books becomes more and more difficult as people are encouraged to read and think for themselves. And postmodern deconstruction of the narratives that supply religion with their raison d’être may herald another shift in religion.

This is where The Faith Instinct ends. Though Dr. Wade offers us a closing chapter entitled “The Future of Religion,” he doesn’t offer much of practical value. Wade suggests that since music was/is such an integral part of prehistoric religion, we should look at our religions as we might a night at the opera, attending for the sheer joy of the music and pageantry.

This doesn’t work for me. If religion is nothing more than voyeurism, it is no longer compelling. I suggest we go back to Wade’s excavation of hunter-gatherer religions and draw upon the deepest spiritual impulses of humanity, creating new religious experiences around song and dance.

Notice I said new religious experiences and not new religions. While we humans continue to do the latter, it may be the former for which we truly hunger. Regardless of the religious label, imagine taking your place in the sacred circle and being invited into an hour or two of music, repetitive chant and rhythmic dance. This would give way to silent sitting for 30 minutes or so, followed by sharing tea and conversation.

No creed, no holy books, no special peoples, or promised lands, no professional clergy, no hierarchy of power, just a community created by shared song and dance supporting one another in surrendering to the magic of the medium.

Such a gathering would be a risk. You would never know what would happen. Trust would have to be absolute, as the community supports one another through whatever experience a person was having. The bond that would grow among the members of such a community would be powerful, and easily adapted to more practical concerns of seeing to one another’s welfare.

I have tasted something like this in Hindu and Kabbalistic kirtan, and Sufi zhikr. I have seen something like this in Christian Taize services and in the pre-dawn chanting of Psalms by Benedictine monks. I have participated in something like this in late-night Hebrew chanting in Hasidic communities in Jerusalem. But could we create a nondenominational community built on music, chant, and dance? Would you want to?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Two Wise Women

As my colleagues and I prepared for a few hours of interspiritual teaching and dialogue at Temple Emmanuel in Miami Beach this past Sunday, an elderly Jewish woman came up to speak to me personally.

She told me her name and identified herself as a survivor of eight Nazi concentration camps. In a well-rehearsed and brief presentation she told me how her mother chose to accompany her two baby sisters into the gas chambers rather than stay with her, the oldest of three daughters. She elaborated a bit more and then asked if she could be allowed to address the gathering.

This was a decision I was not empowered to make, and I suggested she talk to our host, Dr. Nathan Katz of Florida International University. I admit to being a bit worried about letting this woman and her painfully compelling story speak for fear she would shift our conversation from Interspirituality to the Holocaust.

Wiser hearts prevailed and she was given an opportunity to speak. She did so for only three minutes. In that time she laid out the horrors she had encountered and the only way she could survive—love. She said that as the Nazis broke her heart, all they released was love. She found in her terror a capacity to understand the terrors of others. It was the most eloquent affirmation of the power of the human spirit to triumph over tragedy I had ever heard.

Another woman survivor added her story as well, summarizing what she had learned about life from her grandmother, also murdered by the Nazis: “You are not defined by what you endure,” her grandmother told her, “but by what you give.”

With the high quality of the presenters from five of the world’s religions, there was a lot of wisdom shared that Sunday, but none so simple, true, and transformative as that of these two women who had endured an unimaginable hell only to manifest what it is to live God’s kingdom here on earth.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A Glassele Tay Party

This weekend the National Tea Party Convention is being held in Nashville, TN, just 25 miles from my home. I want to attend, but the $500+ admission fee is too steep. After giving most of our money to bail our Wall Street and Motown, I have no idea where these Tea Party folks are getting the cash to convene. So I can’t attend, but I want to be part of it anyway.

Let me admit up front that I am anti-tax, anti-health care, anti-war, and anti-government. Seriously, I don’t think we should pay any taxes at all. Everything should be on a pay-as-you-go policy. If you want education for your kids and are too lazy to teach them yourself at home, then hire people to do it. You don’t need a huge bureaucracy. Hire someone to teach your kids English, math, science, history, civics, and home economics (not just cooking, but really managing a home and a home-based entrepreneurial business). If you want to feel safe, hire body guards. Police are only good after a crime has been committed, but private security can shoot a mugger mid-mug. If you want healthcare hire a doctor. If you can’t afford healthcare then at least realize you are doing your species a service by dying young and ending a line of looser genes. Of course if would be best if people making less than $250,000 a year didn’t reproduce as well. While I am anti-government, if we are going to subsidize farmers to not grow crops, why not subsidize people making less than 250K a year to not reproduce?

I could go on, but you get the idea: the Tea Party is for me. But there is a problem: I’m Jewish. I’m not saying the Tea Party is anti-Semitic, but from what I can see the only use they have for Jews is either to blame living Jews for the financial meltdown or exploit dead Jews by linking healthcare to the Holocaust. So, sad to say, the Tea Party movement is more for poor white people and the rich white people who manipulate them, than it is for Jews. So what to do?

Growing up in Longmeadow, MA, we had a local country club that excluded Jews and African Americans. I don’t know what the latter did, but we Jews built a cooler club for ourselves; a place where we could exclude African Americans too, and thereby feel as American as those in the white club. Following this tradition, I plan to start my own Jewish Tea Party. No, I won’t exclude anyone, but I will focus on Jewish themes and concerns.

My movement is called the Glassele Tay Party (Yiddish for Glass of Tea; we Eastern European Jews drink tea out of glasses rather than mugs for some reason). Our platform is simple: If the government is for it, we are against it. This is even true if the government is for what we are for, and therefore is against itself. The Glassele Tay Party is flexible enough to be against what we used to be for if and when the government switches its position and is suddenly for what we used to be for. This will assure us perpetual rebel status, making us the darlings of MSNBC and Fox News depending upon which party is in power.

Our logo is a glass of tea with the tea bag in the glass and the string of the tea bag hanging out of the glass and the little paper on the end of the string bearing a Star of David and the words Glassele Tay Party in faux-Hebrew English letters.

Here are some of our slogans:

“There are lions in Africa, and Africans in Lyon.”

“End Socialized Medicine: Get Your Parents Off of Medicare.”

“End Socialism: Burn Your Social Security Card.”

“Take the US out the UN, and the UN out of Unafraid.”

“Drill Baby Drill—Eat Sugar and Support Your Local Dentist.”

“They THINK We’re Stupid. We KNOW We Are.”

“Fresh Underwear—Change We Can Understand.”

“Don’t Throw Barney Frank Under the Bus; End Public Transportation.”

“I will not grab my ankles. In fact I haven’t seen anything beneath my belly in years.”

“Say No to Pork. Say Yes to Brisket.”

“Moses, Jesus, Paul, Groucho, Lenny, and Jon—the most trusted names in Jews.”

Of course it takes money to get something like this off the ground, and you can consider this blog post a fund raising letter. If everyone who reads this blog would send me $10, I could get this party rolling. If everyone sent me $100 I could start the party, fold the party, and retire, but let’s not think too big.

And if you can’t send money, maybe you know someone who could at least design the logo and send it to me as a jpeg. And maybe they know somebody who can send me money. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

What God Hates

Religion is never boring. At least not in the United States. Case in point: Evangelist John McGlone visited our campus yesterday to preach the true word of God: Hate. Standing across from the Student Union in an area cordoned off with police tape, Pastor John screeched at students to mend their ways.

Students in my American Spirituality class urged me to cancel class so we could go watch the spectacle. I compromised, sticking to my class schedule for the first hour and then going outside for the last 20 minutes. But it wasn’t playtime. Students were to observe and then prepare an answer to this question: Short of ignoring them all together, what is the most effective response to preachers like this? True, ignoring them may be the best response, but that’s no fun..

The first thing I noticed as I wandered around the crowd was John’s sign: “Warning! God hates greedy thieves, liars, drunks, fornicators, immoral women, homosexuals… “ You get the idea. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd to ask John about the sign. He was too busy yelling at some young fornicator, but I did talk to one of his assistants.

“What I want to know is why you put the qualifier ‘greedy’ in the sign. Are you saying God only hates greedy thieves and not all thieves? Is a greedy immoral woman a prostitute who over-charges? God’s problem is with keeping the cost of prostitution down rather than ending prostitution?” The man didn’t understand. He had no clue what a qualifying adjective was.

So one suggestion for John’s next visit is to recreate his sign emphasizing the word “greedy” and celebrating nongreedy homosexuals, thieves, prostitutes, and fornicators.

I noticed another student with a drum and urged him to strike up an African rhythm and I would try to get people to do a circle dance around Pastor John. But one drum was too soft, and I was too embarrassed to ask any co-ed to dance. Just like my student days. Next time I would suggest we bring lots of drums and dance ourselves into a near-immoral frenzy.

Several pastors from local churches were on hand trying to offer a less hateful view of Jesus by handing out lollipops. What, Jesus loves cavities? These people were so passive as to be totally ineffectual, but I liked the food idea. Man cannot live on hate alone.

What I would do is set up food stand with a huge signs that read, “God Hates Shrimp,” and “God Hates Pork,” referencing Leviticus and God’s dietary laws. The stands would give away little squares of Gefilte fish skewered on toothpicks, or maybe little Hebrew National kosher hotdogs wrapped in tiny buns.

Speaking of signs, I would also print up signs referring to other things that God hates: Amalek, Hittites, witches, rebellious sons, and the like. I would fill the quad with signs of God’s hate. True some people will prefer to focus on love, but that is so wimpy. Pastor John is on the right track. God hates as much if not more than God loves. To be fair I might add a few signs from the Book of Revelation and the Koran to my Hebrew Bible inspired hate speech.

And then, I would invite students and faculty to a discussion latter that afternoon focusing on the dangers of blindly quoting scripture, any scripture, and the need to uphold universal principles of compassion and justice that much of our sacred books decry.

I look forward to Tuesday when my students are going to share they ideas. If they actually do so, I’ll share them with you. But don’t hold your breath. I have been doing this job long enough to know that the chances are slim that listened closely enough or thought creatively enough. When it comes to defeating people like John McGlone, place your hope in apathy.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

It's Not My Job

It’s not my job. Saving the world, I mean. It just isn’t my job. My job is to write books and share ideas. That’s what I do. It is quite enough for me, taking up most of my time and leaving me with a quiet sense of satisfaction. But for so many who come to hear me share my ideas found in the books I write, it just isn’t enough.

Case in point: At the close of a program on Interspirituality in Miami Beach, Florida, one passionate gentleman demanded to know why we (my fellow religion teachers and myself) don’t lead the peoples of the world in a global effort to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the wrongly imprisoned, and become the next judges on American Idol. He may not have said this last one, but that’s what I remember hearing anyway.

My colleagues were wise enough to smile, nod reassuringly, and look for a question more on topic. I, being less wise and not a little annoyed, took up the man’s challenge and gently and compassionately rammed my foot up his ass. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

“The very idea that six religion teachers can save the planet is symptomatic of why the planet needs saving. Sitting here and asking us to do what you should be doing is simply a way for you to self-righteously do nothing. You claim that there isn’t enough to food to feed the hungry? Nonsense. There’s enough food, but when we send it to countries that need it (countries other than our own where 14 million go hungry every day), we tend to filter it through warlords and racketeers who seem to be our friends but who actually use us to oppress their own people only adding to the hatred of us by those very people we want to help.

“If you want to fix the world why not start by ceasing to participate in the American Corporate War Machine and its quest for Empire? Why not stop voting for politicians who are in the pocket of Wall Street even as they bemoan the fate of Main Street? And even if you did stop the war machine and save the hundreds of billions we spend on war each year, do you really think we would spend it to help people? We didn’t help them before the war on terror and we won’t help them after the war on terror. Why? Because we don’t give a shit. Not all of us, but those of us that count; those of us who make policy, and those of us who vote for them. So don’t excuse your own complicity in the horror that is humanity by waiting for the six of us to save the world. Save it yourself, starting with yourself.”

A smattering of applause followed my outburst, and the man never spoke up again. At least this is my fantasy—that I silenced another pious blowhard who thinks the system that thrives on oppression could possibly bring an end to oppression. I love my job. I just wish people would let me do it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Beware the Gallon Sized Baggie

I should be home asleep in my bed. Instead I am sitting in the Dallas Airport waiting for a flight to Nashville. I had been in Florida to do a little teaching and to visit my parents. My dad turned 84 on February 1st, and my mom passed out two days earlier, fell, and broke three ribs.

I left my parent’s home, maneuvered my way down the parking lot that passes for a highway in South Florida, and flew west to Dallas to catch a plane that would fly me back east to Nashville. Gotta love the hub idea. My plane was delayed almost forty minutes. The cause of the delay was due to American Airlines’ policy of charging people $30 each way for checked baggage, thus incentivizing me and my fellow travelers to cram as much luggage into the overhead compartments as possible. This meant that storage space disappeared after the first 20 people got on board, leaving the next 100 passengers to wander up and down the aisle in a vain search for a place to park their bags for free. By the time we left Miami, arriving in Dallas in time to catch my connecting flight was a slim possibility.

Slim isn’t the same as none, however, and having received Gate Number and instructions on how to minimize the time racing to the gate, I ran off to catch my next flight. I got to Gate 22 in search of Gate 23, only to find there is no Gate 23. At Gate 27 a friendly American Airlines agent saw me coming (I was literally the only person in the terminal) and thought about holding the plane to Nashville for the two minutes it would take me to get from Gate 22 to Gate 27. Unfortunately for me I was looking for Gate 23. I turned back to Gate 22 to ask for help, and my friendly agent decided I have decided not to fly to Nashville after all. She closed the door and my flight departed without me.

Feeling sorry (guilty?) my friendly agent booked me into a hotel. I arrived at the hotel around 11PM and left again six hours later. Few Texans travel that early in the morning and I should have passed through security without having to wait in line. I was the line. And the line stalled.

As it turns out the people who booked my flight had used my Hebrew name, “Rami,” rather than my Christian Name, “Richard.” This didn’t upset the TSA as long as I was flying from Nashville to Miami, and from Miami to Dallas, but as soon as I had to fly from Dallas to Nashville some security threshold must have been crossed. “Richard” is a potential lionhearted king, “Rami” is a potential security risk, so the good people of TSA wouldn’t let me pass.

After speaking with a supervisor, however, and assessing the risk, I was allowed to go through bag check. Well, not through bag check exactly. It seems that while all my toiletries fell well within the “impossible to be used to bring down an aircraft” size, the clear plastic bag I used to haul them in was not. I had used a gallon-sized Ziplock bag, and that is enough to make me a card-carrying (“Rami” not “Richard”) member of Al Qaeda. I had to be quizzed and my bag unpacked and rescreened simply because of the size of my plastic bag.

I have yet to board the plane, and cannot predict what other adventures await me as I try to return to Music City. But I can be fairly certain that as long as airline agents are friendly, and TSA agents are focused on the size of our plastic baggies, we Americans have nothing to fear from terrorists. In fact the only things that scare me when I fly are friendly airline agents and baggie-obsessed TSA agents.