Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fat and Fatter but Not Yet the Fattest

I feel a lot thinner today. Not that I've lost any weight, but I read in this morning's newspaper that Tennessee is tied with Alabama for the second fattest nation in the country. Whoo-hoo! Mississippians are still fatter, but not by much. The cool thing about being a citizen of Tennesseehowmuchyoucaneat is that you have to be really obese to feel fat at all. I mean your fellow citizens are at least as fat as you are, and most of them more so. The trick to feel thin is to stay in-state.

Which leads me to my new business idea: The Tennessee State Diet. You can eat all the butter-soaked grits and lard-flavored pork products you want. There is no calorie counting or measuring or portioning. All you have to do is move to Tennessee. I plan to partner with the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and realtors across the state to promote people moving here. And I will work with fast food franchisees to create special welcome meals for people who make the move.

Once you move here all you have to do is walk (Walk! Who am I kidding. Drive, don't walk.) around and notice how much fatter most people are than you. Sure you're fat, too, but after awhile you start to feel thin. It's all relative. When I look at guys who wear size 32 jeans I feel really fat in my size 36 jeans. But when I see that most guys around here are wearing size 44 and above, I feel thin. Or, even better, when I see guys with 44 inch waists wearing size 32 inch pants with 12 inches of stomach hanging over their belts, I feel both thin and fit. So thin and fit that I just might drop by Burger King and Dairy Queen, our town's culinary royalty, for a snack.

Of course for the diet to work, you have to stay in-state. My frequent business trips to LA where everyone is starving her/himself to get into the movies will have to stop. And there is always the chance that I will eat so much that I will start to match or exceed the obese around me. But I have a solution for that--move to Mississippi.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Mosque of Sorrow

Murfreesboro has become an epicenter for Islamophobia. This allows us to see close up just what kind of thinking goes into turning people against one another. The following is taken from a letter to the editor in today’s The Daily News Journal.

“When making decisions,” the author of this letter tells us, “we all have been taught to make decisions based on facts.” The implication is that there is nothing emotional or biased in her thinking. Her remarks are logical and hence in her mind irrefutable.

She begins with a fact: “911 did happen.” True, but the only way 9/11 would be relevant to the building of a new mosque in the Boro is if she could link M’boro Muslims to Al Qaeda. She can’t. The invocation of 9/11 is all about emotion, not fact.

“It is a fact how Muslim men treat their wives.” First, this is not a meaningful sentence, let alone a fact. It cannot be proven or disproven because it doesn’t say anything. It is as meaningless as “how Christian men treat their wives.” OK, how? Some Christian men honor their wives, others beat the crap out of them. The same can be said of Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular men as well. If she wants us to believe that all married Muslim men in the Boro mistreat their wives, then say so and back it up with facts. She can’t because they don’t.

“It is a fact how Muslims are hostile toward anyone who is not a Muslim.” This is a better statement. It can be proven or disproven. If any of you who are not Muslims have a Muslim friend, you have just disproven her point. Of course there are some Muslims who despise nonMuslims and will have nothing to do with them, just as there are some Christians who feel the same way about Jews. Should I condemn all Christians because of the anti-Semites among them?

“We all know about their training centers.” True, but so what? We all know about Christian militias as well, but are we to assume all churches are militia camps?

“Do you think if we were in their country they would allow us to build a Baptist Church?” What is “their country”? Many of the people I know from the mosque were born in America, and most if not all of the rest are American citizens. The Imam’s kids are Texans, and Texas is, at least for the moment, still part of the United States of America. Yes, the chances of getting a permit to build a Baptist church in Saudi Arabia are nil, but since when do we Americans look to the Saudis for our moral standards?

Her solution? Let the people vote. Not all the people of course, only “[t]he people that have worked hard to build Murfreesboro for what it is today should have a right to deny this Islamic Center.” Poor grammar aside (Tennessee public education ranks 42nd in the nation), the author of this letter wants to limit voting rights only to those who will deny Muslims a place to worship in Murfreesboro! In other words the only people who can vote are those who will vote her way! Which makes her closing sentence all the more poignant: “Have we forgotten what America was built on?”

I think she has. And, sadly, she is not alone.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Open House, Open Hearts

I attended the open house at the Murfreesboro mosque last evening. There was, as so many in this town have been saying, a level of intolerance that I had not anticipated. But, unlike what so many are saying, it was gluten intolerance rather than religious intolerance. And it was my intolerance, not theirs. They served this fabulous buffet and everything had flour in it! As the only yarmulke wearing visitor I took this as an act of anti-Jewish feeling, but I suspect I was being a bit over sensitive.

The room was filled--crammed really--with members of the Muslim community and nonMuslim well-wishers. There was no talk of terrorism, though I was personally terrorized by this little old man from Syria who singled me out as The Jew, and who had to come over, grab my arm, and regale me with stories of his youth in Syria and his Jewish mentors. He would not let go. And he insisted I eat something. The bastard! I tried to explain I had celiac disease, but he didn't care (or maybe he didn't have a clue what I was saying). He just insisted that I eat with him. He was going to be personally insulted if I refused. Damn these Arabs and their hospitality! I lied and told him I had already eaten, but it didn't matter. So I ate. Just a spoonful of hummus. He must have thought that a strange choice with all the other fabulous items on the table, but he was satisfied. He let me go.

There are old men like this in every group. Last week I was speaking about the conflict over the mosque in Murfreesboro at a Unitarian Church in Nashville. After the service an equally old man came over to talk to me. He wanted me to understand that all the problems in Murfreesboro, indeed all the problems in the world, were the fault of Zionists. He had read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he told me, and knew what was what with Jews. I told him he sounded like a Nazi, and he proudly told me that Hitler was right. He was serious. I'd met this man at this church before. A died in the swastika Nazi anti-Semite at a Unitarian Church. Talk about odd. But at least he didn't try to feed me. He likes his Jews starved and gassed.

The reporter from our local newspaper was at the mosque last night as well. He informed me that I had misquoted him. You might remember my suggestion that he visit area churches, mosques, etc. to see what is being preached vis-a-vis hate and fear. I said he declined. My bad. What he said was it isn't up to him what he covers. He is assigned stories. So I want to apologize to him. (I am deliberately not naming him, so as to not get him into trouble. Though we only have one daily paper and one religion editor. So, sorry, Doug.)

I spoke with the imam for a short while. I had met him before. I lovely Egyptian man who was himself terrorized. No, not by the Muslim Brotherhood, but by his little daughter who desperately wanted to help but wasn't tall enough to see over the top of the buffet table.

Look, I'm not naive. There are evil people in the world, and many if not most of them mask their evil in the name of God and religion. I am certain that there were people in that room last night who wanted me and all Jews dead or converted. Some of them Muslim, some of them Christian. I understand that there are Islamic movements that are evil, just as there are Jewish and Christian movements that are evil. My position is simply this: if you want to know what your neighbor believes, talk with her/him, don't defame and yell at her/him. If people are truly spreading lies and evil, oppose them. But if they aren't, leave them alone. So far all I am hearing is generic anti-Muslim half truths and hate speech. We need open dialogue. Let those who fear Islam speak openly, respectfully, and in a public forum with leaders of the Islamic community so that we the people can decide for ourselves. Let's hear the facts not the slander.

You can catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar. Unless of course that honey is in baklava and the other person is gluten intolerant.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Fair Weather Activist

This morning I discovered I am a fair-weather activist. Last night a peace vigil against the hate being spewed by some Murfreesboro Christians against all Murfreesboro Muslims was held at the town square. I planned to attend. I really did. There is little that is more important that standing up for religious freedom. I mean as a professor of Comparative Religion my entire life is devoted to educating young people in the intricacies of religious systems in hopes of making them knowledgeable and respectful citizens of a religious diverse country dedicated to freedom of assembly, speech, and religion. Then it started to rain.

I thought, “Geez, do I want to get wet for the cause of religious freedom? Nah.” In my defense, it was a big storm. Thunder and lightening and everything. This was the kind of storm that Doc Emmet Brown could have used to power his time traveling DeLorean in “Back to the Future.” This was the kind of storm you could use to tap electricity if Ben Franklin hadn’t already done that. So not wanting to get wet was a serious matter.

It never occurred to me that the vigil would be moved indoors.

The group gathered in the courthouse and sang, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” My own version is “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with them.” So sad.

All the more sad as the voices of fear become ever more powerful in my neighborhood. Republican Congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik says the Islamic Center planned for Murfreesboro is “designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee. “ If by moral and political foundation she means the hate filled rhetoric that passes for political discourse at the Republican sponsored Tea Party rallies I have attended, then I hope she is right.

Lori Roberts, a local citizen, said she is against the Islamic Center because she “heard these comments they are looking at making this a national Muslim center. It would make Muslims from all over the world and country come into Murfreesboro to go to meetings at the center.” This center, she said, will be a “threat to this country.”

She’s right. There is nothing more threatening to America than people having meetings. That is why the Constitution condemns the right of free assembly. Doesn’t it?

The scary thing is that Ms. Roberts doesn’t know this is true. She simply heard comments. Comments from people who hate Muslims and fear Islam. Ignorance is rampant in this town, and with it fear, and from that hate.

Tomorrow night our local mosque is holding an open house in an attempt to answer people’s questions and quell their fears. I doubt it will help, though I do plan to attend. Even if it rains.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


I learned a new word today: perspicuity. It means clarity. Ah, the irony. Anyway, I learned the word in the context of a Protestant idea called “Perspicuity of Scripture.” This means that the meaning of the Bible is clear to the ordinary person and does not require any interpretive intermediary. The intermediary the Protestants have in mind is, of course, the Catholic Church, which argues that you cannot understand the Bible unless you read it through the filter of the Church.

While Catholics and Protestants will argue this as an “either/or” (either the Bible is perspicuous or inperspicuous), Jews will take it as “both/and,” the Bible is clear and in need of interpretation.

The Jewish view is simple: The Bible is the Word of God. God writes perspicuously, but what is perspicuous to God may be inperspicuous to humans. Hence the need to read and reread and interpret and reinterpret the perspicuous Word of God.

Now if I were God I’d make my Word truly perspicuous: See Eve. See Eve eat the fruit. Eat, Eve, eat. See Adam eat. Sin, Adam, sin. But even this clearly perspicuous text may be inperspicuous to some. After all, what does “sin” mean? And did it mean the same thing when I wrote it as it does when you read it? So even my perspicuous text may need interpretation.

The fact is you can’t escape interpretation. If the Word of God were really as perspicuous as Protestants claim, we wouldn’t have over 33,000 denominations of Protestant Christianity. The Catholic Church doesn’t have all these divisions because they admit the Bible is inperspicuous and given to many interpretations, which is why they invented the Inquisition to keep the number of interpretations down to one—their’s.

For my money, I prefer inperspicuousness to perspicuousness. The Bible is a nasty book in many ways, and if we can’t interpret it in ways that allow it to say what it perspicuously does not say we might find ourselves killing one another in the Name of God, and who would want to do that?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Melting Jesus

Can we make anything of an act of God that melts a statue of Jesus? Damn right we can!

Solid Rock Church in Monroe, OH, is famous for its 62’ statue of Jesus with his face and arms raised heavenward. Erected by the church’s founders, Lawrence and Darlene Bishop, at a cost of $250,000, the King of Kings statue (called by locals, “Touchdown Jesus”) was made of plastic foam and fiberglass over a steel frame. Lightening struck the statue last week, and when the flames subsided nothing was left but the frame.

Lightening strikes are of course an act of God, and have been since the time of Zeus. So we can’t help but ask ourselves why God would do such a thing? Wasn’t there a synagogue or mosque or Catholic Church He could have hit? Did He have to blast an evangelical church? And worse, did He have to melt a statue of His Son? What will the unbelievers think?

I can only speak for this unbeliever, and I think God has a wicked sense of humor. And yet is this destruction of the statue of Jesus all that new? I mean didn’t God permit the death of His actual Son in the flesh some 2000 years ago? He did. But then he resurrected Him three days later, so what’s the harm?

As Darlene Bishop said of the statue, “It will be back.” Was she expecting God to resurrect the statue after three days? I don’t know, but if so she was sorely disappointed. If the statue is coming back it will only do so if she and her husband raise another quarter of million dollars to rebuild it. But should they?

I think they should. They should rebuild the statue and then some. The old King of Kings only depicted Jesus from the sternum up. Why not a full body this time? Sixty-two feet? Hell, lets make it 186 feet! And while I think Lady Bishop is wise to say they will make it flame resistant this time, I think a lighting rod on top of Jesus’ head couldn’t hurt.

Why am I so in favor of this? Because I love religious kitsch. Really. The only problem I have with Islam, for example, is that you can’t make statues of Muhammad (PBUH). I want a Muhammad bobble-head doll to stand next to my Jesus bobble-head and my Moses with the Ten Commandments action figure. So, come on, Solid Rock Church, let’s get to rebuilding Touchdown Jesus. And maybe this time make Him out of solid rock.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


What can we do about religious violence and hatred? What can we do about clergy and laity who insist on spreading lies, hatred, and fear? These are not academic questions. Especially in my town. Especially this week.

There has been an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, TN for years. It was small, and stayed pretty much under the radar. Now things are different. The Center wants to build a 52,000 square foot community center and mosque. The county commission said yes, the people say no. Not all the people, of course. May be not even most of the people. But enough to make me fear not only for the welfare of my Muslim neighbors, and for any who support them and their right to freedom of religion.

The position of my Christian neighbors is simple: Muslims support Sharia (Islamic law), Sharia is globalist, Muslims want to rule the world, and the center in Murfreesboro will be a training camp for terrorists bent on turning Middle Tennessee into a Taliban stronghold like Afghanistan without the trillion dollars worth of minerals.

Let’s not be na├»ve. There are Muslims who wish to spread Islam around the world just as there are Christians who wish to spread Christianity around the world. Christianity and Islam are the only religions bent on global domination, and both have a long history of using warfare to do so. It isn’t surprising that these two faiths have been and continue to be at odds, and often at war. It may not be politically correct to say so, but without Christianity and Islam we wouldn’t be fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and (coming soon to a theater of war near you) Iran. You can argue that these wars are not religious, but remove religion from the equation and the wars cease to be fought at all.

So I understand why so many of my neighbors believe we are at war with Islam and that all Muslims are suspect. But what shall we do about it?

There are the obvious suggestions: The mosque could open its doors for “Learn About Islam” evenings. They did that. I could teach a multi-week class on Islam. I did that. Christian churches could invite Muslims to speak to their members about Islam. Some have done that. Education is necessary but clearly not sufficient.

So, when asked by the local newspaper for a suggestion I offered this: We should all begin attending each other’s worship services. Just go and sit and listen to what is being preached. And if and when they hear hate-preach, fear mongering, and calls for action that violate the Constitution or suggest violence, they should loudly stand up, denounce it in the Name of Whatever God they are praying to, and walk out. I urged the newspaper reporter to go to religious services throughout the city and report on what is being preached. Expose hate-preach if there is any. And if there isn’t any, tell us that as well.

The reporter declined. So that leaves matters in your hands. Visit churches, synagogues, and mosques regularly and listen carefully to what is being read, taught, and preached. Take a stand against evil when you find it, and let people know if you don’t. It is the least we can do.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pound of Flesh

“Pound of flesh.” It is an ugly phrase originating with Shakespeare in his 1596 play, Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish money lender, has made a deal with Antonio that allows Shylock to cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh if Antonio defaults on a loan he took from Shylock. Jews have been linked to Shylock every since.

Given the popularity of liposuction today, extracting a pound of flesh (or, if I could afford the procedure, 50 pounds) may not be such a big deal, but the phrase isn’t meant to be anything but ugly. And, whether intended or not, it carries with it more than a patina of anti-Semitism. So it shocked and bothered me this morning when I heard Savannah Guthrie, co-host of MSNBC’s morning news show “The Daily Rundown,” use the phrase in regard to the Congressional hearings features BP CEO Tony Hayward.

I am NOT implying that Ms. Guthrie is by any stretch of the imagination an anti-Semite. This may have been a Freudian slip based on the fact that Tony and Antonio are the same name, albeit in different languages. I am simply wondering what it means that this wicked phrase is so deeply ingrained in our language. Does it still conjure up pictures of Jews as Shylock?

I know this was NOT on Ms. Guthrie’s mind. In fact, I wonder if she even thought about the meaning or implication of the phrase. Did she really mean to cast Congress as Shylock? Is BP really Antonio who is being asked to do more than is just when President Obama demands BP pay for the disaster in the Gulf? Is BP the victim of this drama, as many see Antonio as the victim of Shylock in Shakespeare’s play?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, and would love to hear from you regarding them. Do you use the phrase? What do you understand it to mean?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bupkis mit Kuduchas

There are approximately 22,700 references to me on Google. That is 66 pages of links. Of course simply by googling one’s name one cannot be certain that all these references are to you. There could be other Rabbi Rami Shapiros on the Internet. So I checked, page after page. And it turns out that there are in fact 22,700 references to me on the Internet. Is that cool or what?

Answering that question will determine my worth as a human being. And answering requires an objective standard against with to measure my numbers. So I chose to measure myself against my father. I googled his name and came up with…wait for it…948,000 references. My dad has 41.76211453 more references than me on Google. Damn!

But wait a second, maybe all those references aren’t to my dad, but are just triggered by his name, Archie. As it turns out as long as my dad Archie isn’t a bigamist married to my mom, Sally and some broad named Veronica, then the actual number of Internet references to my father is…NONE! Ha! None, nada, zip, zero, notaonedo!

That means a lot to a Jewish boy in never ending competition with his dad. And I won. At least I think I won. There seems to be something called Archie’s Law that deals with the scale dependency of the effective matrix diffusion coefficient. I don’t know what this law is, but the words “scale” and “dependency” say it all: Yes, Dad, I got on the scale this morning and I am still fat. And, no, Dad, I still haven’t overcome my dependency on your approval.

So with 22,700 Google references to my dad’s zero Google references, why do I still feel inadequate? Maybe I should compare myself to someone else? How about Wayne Dyer? How many Google references does he have? One million, six hundred and sixty thousand! That is more than all the Archies combined!

I don’t get it. I’ve written at least as many books as Wayne. We are both members of National Public Television. We both do lots of public speaking. What has he got that I don’t, besides 1,637,300 more Google references?

Now I’m not saying 22,700 Google references is bupkis. I am grateful that I have made some mark on the digital world, but in a world where even “dog turd” has 135,000 references on Google, you have to wonder. Does my life matter even less than bupkis mit Kuduchas? (Google it!)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Does Obama Hate Jews?

Barack Hussein Obama hates Jews, and is more than willing to sacrifice us and Israel on the altar of improved relations with Muslim countries around the world. At least that is the impression I got after reading the June 2010 issue of Commentary Magazine.

The magazine features 31 responses to the notion that “American Jews are facing an unprecedented political challenge, and at a crucial moment, with the need to address the existential threat to Israel—and by extension to the future of the Jewish people as a whole—from a potentially nuclear Iran. How will American Jews handle this challenge?”

Not so well, as it turns out. Most of the essays in Commentary exhibit a clear distain for the majority of American Jews, most of whom the writers claim are liberal, secular, Democratic fools who have no real love of Judaism or Israel and who (therefore?) voted for Obama in 2008.

No point in arguing with this assessment. Besides, it might even be true. My question is this: what would be different if George W. Bush were suddenly back in control?

Would W reverse Obama’s ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza? Would he put a stop to Obama’s forced moratorium on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank or building apartments for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem? Would he undo Obama’s peace plan, and dismantle the Palestinian State Obama helped establish? But wait a minute: Obama didn’t do any of these things. In fact, he hasn’t done anything at all. So what is the challenge here?

It seems to me that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does just what he wants to do, regardless of what President Obama might want him to do. The only thing Obama has done is show the world just how powerless the US is when it comes to imposing its will on Israel (or Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Mexico, BP, etc). President Obama’s only “sin” is airing his disagreements with Israel in public. His actual policies seem to be an extension of the previous administration’s policies.

But what I really don’t understand after reading the June issue of Commentary is just what the Unites States should be doing. Should we go to war with Iran? Should we use Israel as a surrogate military and have her go to war with Iran? Do we have the military capacity for a third front in the forever war against political Islam (the new catch-phrase of the day)? Just what would the commentators in Commentary have us do that we are not doing?

I don’t see any real difference in the actual policies of Presidents Bush and Obama. The United States is still addicted to oil and debt, still run by the rich for the rich, and still caught up in the madness of empire building.

Can somebody help me out here?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Buddha's Bones

Lots of people think I am a Buddhist. No Buddhist would make that mistake, however. I used to consider myself a part of the Zen world, and I keep up my reading in Zen (which proves I am no longer part of the Zen world and never really was), and I admit that every few days, usually after reading some article about the inane behavior of my coreligionists, I think about becoming a Buddhist. I admire the religion’s rationality, its clarity, and its lack of superstition. And then I read today’s D’oh! (T’ao!)

It seems that when the Buddha was cremated some 2500 years ago he left behind “one skull bone, two scapulas, four teeth and 84,000 pearl–like sariras,” one of which is being unveiled for the first time in a thousand years in Qixia Temple in Jiangsu province’s capital Nanjing.

I know what you’re thinking: “Can I use Qixia as a word in Scrabble?” The answer is ‘no.’ That was what you were thinking. I was thinking, “what’s a sarira?” It turns out that a sarira is a crystalline structure formed when bone is cremated. According to some Buddhist traditions seeing a relic of the Buddha is like seeing the Buddha himself, and automatically creates happiness and virtue. If venerated, sariras can grow and multiply over time, so there is no need to worry about them being scarce.

This particular sarira at the Qixia (21 points) Temple will be unveiled tomorrow, which is why the Chinese government is talking about it today. This leaves me no time to fly to Nanjing to see it and become happy. That, I suspect, is what the ChiComs (Rush Limbaugh speak for Chinese Communists) want after all: to dangle happiness in front of my nose (7452 miles in front of my nose, to be exact) and then to deny me access to it. This just sounds like Mao, doesn’t it? Remember Mao? The guy who said, “Happiness comes from the barrel of a gun.” Or was that Snoopy? Anyway, I can’t get to Qixia Temple to see this bone ball of the Buddha and that just isn’t fair.

On the other hand it just doesn’t seem all that Buddhist to me,either. At least not the Buddhism I know; the Buddhism with all the Jewish psychologists in it.

On the other hand (I’m also into Hinduism, and we have gods with lots of hands), as an avid reader of all things Zen, I am fond of the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” Seeing a sarira is like meeting the Buddha, so if I did get to the Qixia Temple and I did see the sarira I’d have to kill it. But it is already dead, and has been for 2500 years. So how do I kill what is already dead?

Whoa! Wait a minute. This isn’t a ChiCom plot to rob me of happiness, this is a Zen koan to bring me to enlightenment. I love Buddhism after all!

Bottom line: if Buddhism is about enlightenment, cool. If it is about relics, and the power of bone to make me happy, then I guess I’ll just stick with Judaism and be miserable. Judaism has its own relics, anyway. Take my parents, for example. You know they never owned a stereo? Hell, they never owned a record player at all! Talk about growing up deprived! (Go head, talk about growing up deprived, I’ll wait. OK? Done? Great, now back to me.)

So I guess Buddhism is just a religion like all the rest. It got its good points, its bad points and it’s burnt up balls of Buddha bone. I think I’ll call my parents and wish them a good Shabbos.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What Does It Mean to be a Jew Today?

What does it mean to be a Jew today? What do Jews bring to the world? These are the questions asked of rabbis in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine. As I read the responses I found myself getting more and more frustrated. Something was bothering me about what the Independent, Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis had to say. Even the Conservative Rabbi, my parents’ rabbi, Amy Katz, whose essay spoke to me powerfully, left me wanting something. But what?

I realized what was missing when I read the comments of the Modern Orthodox, Sephardi, and Chabad rabbis—God. None of the other rabbis even mentioned God. Or, as in the case of the Reconstructionist rabbi who spoke of Jews as Yisrael, God-Wrestlers, God was reduced to nothing more than “today’s weightiest issues.” That’s what we Jews are about: wrestling with today’s weightiest issues. Its also what the Daily Show is about, and the Daily Show is more fun.

The problem with the liberals is that they offered us no mission, no meaning. The Humanist rabbi said that “being Jewish was about choice and personal discovery.” So is psychotherapy. The Renewal rabbi said, “being Jewish means being ourselves.” That is simply a nonsequitor. The Reform rabbi said, “to be Jewish is about understanding one’s place in the world.” Not even “the Jew’s place,” but simply “one’s place,” my place. Do I need religion for that? The Reconstructionist rabbi said, “we Jews, collectively, share a few things,” but so what? The guys at my gym share a few things too. At least Rabbi Amy wrote about our unique pedagogy rooted in argument and doubt, and embracing inconsistancy and paradox. But this is a means. What is the end? What is the point of being Jewish?

There was nothing in the remarks of the liberal rabbis that would make me want to be a Jew or even remain a Jew. Whereas the Sephardi rabbi spoke compellingly of “proclaiming a message of monotheism, rationality, justice and compassion to the entire world," or, as the Chabad rabbi put it, “A Jew is here for one reason alone: To change the world.”

Talk about tag lines! “Be a Jew. Change the world.” You want to get young Jews engaged in Judaism? You want to attract new people to the tribe? Let that be the mission of American Judaism!

Of course when I think of changing the world I think in terms of liberal democratic changes rooted in universalism, humanism, iconoclasm, feminism, global literacy, and social and ecological justice. But these values are not antithetical to Judaism. Indeed, it would be easy to articulate a Judaism and a body of Jewish practices rooted in these values that would indeed change the world.

Tag lines aside, however, I am too liberal to return to Orthodoxy. But if anyone wants to know why liberal Judaism is fading while Orthodoxy is thriving, just read this month’s Moment.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Thank You, Helen Thomas

Thank you, Helen Thomas. Your hate filled anti-Semitism was refreshingly candid, and allows those of us who support Israel (if not Israeli policy) an opportunity to be equally candid in return. Not only did Ms Thomas call for the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza, something lots of Jews and Israelis support, but she demanded that all Jews living in Israel go back to wherever they came from.

Where might that be? Helen’s history extends only back to the mid-twentieth century and is decided Eurocentric. She wants Israeli Jews to go back to Germany and Poland. She wants them to go back to the death camps. But what about the hundreds of thousands who came from Arab lands? And why stop with the 20th century? Go back far enough and the Jews came from the very land that Helen wants them to leave. They can’t go home, Helen, they are home.

Enter former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. In his attack on Helen Thomas’ remarks he linked Jews in Israel to African Americans in America. Should they go home too?

Bad analogy. African Americans came here as slaves not colonizers. It isn’t African Americans who should go home, but European Americans. And I imagine there are many Native Americans (though not necessarily those in the casino business) who would be happy to see them do just that.

Ari Fleischer didn’t link Jews settling in Palestine with Europeans settling the Americas because that analogy reveals an ugly truth: rights are only rights when you can defend them. If Palestinians have a right to all of Palestine (including the State of Israel), then Native Americans have the right to all of America. Did Native Americans have a right to live unmolested in the Americas? Yes they did, but only until the Europeans could massacre them at will. Did the Palestinians living in Palestine have a right to live there unmolested? Yes they did, but only as long as they and their allies could defend that right successfully.

Native Americans killed as many Europeans as they could. It just wasn’t enough to stop them from taking their land. Arabs killed as many Jews as they could, but it just wasn’t enough to stop them from establishing their state. Welcome to the real world. Just as it is foolish to demand that European Americans return to Europe, so it is foolish to demand that Israeli Jews return to the countries from which they came. But it is only foolish because the people making the demands lack the military might to enforce their demands. Chances are Native Americans will never have the power to through out the Europeans. The word is still out on the Palestinians.

The treatment of Native Americans and African Americans is the shadow side of American exceptionalism; the treatment of Palestinians is the shadow side of Zionism. How these peoples deal with their respective shadows will determine the moral quality of their respective civilizations. So far neither is doing very well.

As for Helen Thomas? She should go home to Lebanon and give her house to the Native Americans who lived their first.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Burger King Spirituality

CNN posted an essay by John Blake called, “Are there dangers in being ‘spiritual but not religious’? Mr. Blake seems to think so, and relies on Jesuit priest James Martin for support. Being SBNR, Fr. Martin says leads to complacency and self-centeredness. “If it’s just you and God in your room,” Father Martin says, “and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?” An odd thing for a Catholic priest to say, perhaps, given the Church’s rich tradition of monks and nuns in monastic cells, but a good question nonetheless. Here’s the answer:

The deeper your connection with God becomes, the greater your concern for the welfare of others. The closer you are to the Source of Life, the more compassion and concern you have for all that lives. Besides, if organized religion really wanted to end poverty it would have done so long ago. It seems to me that organized religion is more about pushing camels through needle eyes and getting rich men into heaven (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25), then about selling what we have and giving to the poor (Luke 12:33; 18:22; Acts 2:45). Jesus, anyone?

I’m not suggesting SBNR folks are saints, but neither are they any more selfish then their church going neighbors.

Borrowing from Huffington Post blogger BJ Gallagher, Mr. Blocks calls SBNR “Burger King Spirituality;” you know: have it your way. Fair enough, but is this any different than Jews choosing among the various brands of Judaism, or Protestants moving from church to church until they find one where the pastor says what they want to hear? Even Catholics have it their way by ignoring those teachings of the Church they find inconvenient or just plain wrong.

Gallagher goes on to praise Twelve-Step followers as the epitome of SBNR. I agree. As my book Recovery, the sacred art points out, the 12-Steps are a powerful spiritual practice free from religious politics and prejudice. And 12-Step meetings are wonderful examples of healing communities.

Mr. Block’s major complaint, again borrowing from Father Martin, is that SBNR people are lazy. We would rather sample many religions than devote ourselves to digging deeply into just one. Amen! Religions are like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. Each has a piece of the whole, but none has a true sense of the elephant itself. So, yes, if you want to climb deep up the elephant’s ass by all means do so, but just don’t imagine that you know what an elephant is just because you are an expert in its intestines.

The truth is that the truth is greater than anything any religion can imagine. Serious SBNR people explore the entirety of human religiosity, and even then we know that we cannot know. That is why we devote ourselves to spiritual practice rather than organizational conformity. Through meditation, prayer, chanting, etc. we seek to move beyond the ego to realize the One manifest as the many. The greater our experience of the One, the greater our love of the other. This is why Jesus urged us to follow two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. That’s the difference between religion and SBNR. The spiritual teacher tells us to love God, while organized religion tells us to love religion.

[To read Mr. Block’s posting, go to]

Friday, June 04, 2010

Tefillin and Teheran

Tefillin ("phylacteries") are two small black leather boxes housing four biblical passages that observant Jews wear during the weekday morning prayers. The commandment to wear tefillin is found in four places in the Torah: Ex. 13:1-10, 11-16; Deut. 6:4-9; 13-21. While there is no prohibition against women wearing tefillin, custom has long limited the practice to men. Today, however, more and more women choose to pray with tefillin as well. And with this shift in practice comes the predictable resistance to it.

Case in point: Noa Raz, a Conservative Jew living in Israel. Ms. Raz was attacked and beaten by a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish man at a bus stop in Beersheva. The man noticed the strap marks tefillin often leave in one’s arm. Outraged, the man grabbed Ms. Raz and beat her, all the while screaming, “Woman, abomination, desecration.”

Ms. Raz got away, filed a complaint with the police, and wrote about her ordeal: “We live in a country where the strong dominate and where women are humiliated. As our society becomes more ultra-Orthodox, more extreme, these boundaries become clearer and more frightening. We can protest against the Haredim every day, but they are not the only guilty ones. They are Haredi; this is how they believe and they have the right to believe this way. It is the State that is also guilty of violence, for authorizing their every rampage; and we just carry on and keep quiet. If we don’t wake up to what is happening around us, we will very soon find ourselves living on the corner of Meah Shearim [an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem] and Tehran.”

She is right. And the problem isn’t restricted to Israel. While we focus our attention on global civilizational clashes, there are intra-civilizational clashes that are no less important. This clash is between religious extremists and religious moderates. True, you may find both to be steeped in ignorance and wish to see today’s gods go the way of Zeus and Thor, but that isn’t going to happen. If religion is to further rather than hinder human progress the ultra-Orthodox of every religion must be dethroned. There is still a sense among too many (even too many liberals) that being fanatical for your god is a good thing; that liberal religionists are weak willed and inauthentic; and that only the extremists are true to their faith. Liberals need to speak up more loudly; they need to affirm the legitimacy of their faith more powerfully; and challenge the haredi of every religion whenever their faith spills over into abuse. The alternative is to surrender faith to the fanatics and allow whatever good religion can do to get lost in the fog of fear that is the haredi mindset.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Mavi Marmara: A Turkish Love Boat?

The recent class between Israeli commandos and Muslim and other activists aboard the Turkish flagged ship the Mavi Marmara seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza and bring humanitarian aid to the over one million Gazans trapped in the madness of Hamas hatred and Israeli fear is yet another example of how painful and confusing the situation in the Middle East is.

Let me very clear: First, Israel has every right to exist, and any organization that seeks to undermine that right is an enemy not only of Israel and the Jewish people, but of all people devoted to justice anywhere.

Second, to be pro-Israel doesn’t require you to be anti-Palestinian, and to be pro-Palestinian doesn’t require you to be anti-Israel. Support of the two-state solution requires you to be in favor of the liberation and self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians. Only when both sides win, can either side win.

Third, while I understand the reason for the three-year-old Israeli blockade, I do not think it is effective. And allowing herself to be the face of oppression in the eyes of millions of Muslims in Gaza, Palestine, and around the Islamic world is just stupid. And while it is true that Israel does allow some aid to enter Gaza, it is also true that Israel is following a policy based on the erroneous idea that crushing the Gazan people economically will somehow cause them to rise up and crush Hamas politically. This will not work. It only hardens the loyalty of the people to their oppressors by allowing the oppressor to shift the blame for oppression to others. Gazans will only overturn Hamas when they see Hamas rather than Israel as their true oppressor. And neither Hamas nor the current Israeli government seems eager to let this happen.

Fourth, the purpose of the flotilla was to provoke confrontation. Israel told the flotilla leaders that it would allow the humanitarian aid to enter Gaza if the ships would come to an Israeli port for inspection. Israel wanted to be certain that the cargo going into Gaza was indeed humanitarian and not military. The flotilla leaders refused. Further, film from Al Jazeera provided by Act! for America shows pockets of activists chanting anti-Jewish rhetoric from the Koran, and the fact that the activists attacked Israelis with metal pipes, knives, and clubs, and tossed one soldier off the deck suggests that some were itching for a fight. There is no Gandhi on either side of the Muslim/Jewish divide, and no one should imagine that either side has a monopoly on hatred or violence or sainthood. The Israelis want heroes, the Muslims want martyrs. Nobody honors saints.

Fifth, Israel made a mistake in sending this particular commando unit to do this particular task. The unit had no experience with civilians, with riot control, or with diplomacy.

In short, the flotilla leaders got just what they wanted: worldwide anti-Israel propaganda. And they couldn’t have done it without the help of the Israelis themselves.

I have no hope for peace in the Middle East. I do not think we will see an end to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel/Palestine. I expect the conflict to expand. It is already in Pakistan and will soon be in Iran.

It is said that there can be no peace because there is no one with whom to make peace, but I do not believe that. There are people of good will on every side of this conflict who would rather send their children to college than to war, but their numbers are dwindling, and they have no political power in their respective countries. What is missing are politicians who can make peace.

My fear at the moment is that Israel will once again be demonized. It is just too easy to picture these “loving, good-hearted humanitarians” being brutalized by “violent, heartless Israeli soldiers.” That will be the story: demon Israel against the love boat of Islam.

There are some who will rush to defend Israel, but in so doing they will demonize the Muslims, adding to the heat even as they pretend to shed light.

The end game? War. War with Hamas, then war with Hezbollah, then war with Iran. The question people have to ask themselves is this: how many of our children are we willing to the feed to the god of war? The answer I suspect is “all of them.”