Friday, December 31, 2010

Mashiach is Coming! Mashiach is Coming!

Great news, the Messiah, aka Mashiah ben David, may arrive as early as next week!

According to Jewish tradition, if Jews celebrate the Sabbath two weeks in a row, the messiah will come. Thanks to Christianity, we just might pull this off.

The first Shabbat was last Saturday, Christmas Day. Most Jews took the day off. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day. Again we will be home. That is two Sabbaths in a row!

Of course these may not count because many of us went out for Chinese food on Christmas, and will watch the bowl games on television tomorrow, but who knows, maybe God isn’t Orthodox.

OK, I admit that God is most likely Orthodox, and less likely to send the Messiah just because we Jews have a couple of Saturdays off from work, but it does raise a question worth pondering: How would you change your life if the Messiah did in fact arrive? What would you do differently?

Share these with us, please. And then ask yourself another question: If the changes you’d make are good ones, why wait? Why not just make the changes now? For all we know that is really what God is waiting for.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Close Schools for Christmas? Yes. Close them for Shemini Atzeret? No.

I’m reading Stephen Prothero’s essay in USA TODAY (December 20, 2010) promoting the closing of pubic schools for religious holy days. Dr. Prothero (whose work I admire and use in my courses) notes that public schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holy days, and urges us to add Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Wiccan holy days as well. I disagree.

First of all, our kids need more school days not less.

Second, the only Christian holy day we close schools for is Christmas (more on that below). Easter, arguably the most holy day of the Christian calendar is not a federal holiday, and if some schools close for Good Friday they do so for the same reason some schools close for Rosh HaShanah: demographics.

Third, public schools don’t close for the Jewish holy days. Some schools designate Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as “teacher work days” because so many of their teachers are Jewish and will take those days off anyway. And they do so only if these holy days fall on school days. And they only close one day for Rosh HaShanah not the two days most Jews observe. So public schools aren’t really closing for the Jewish holy days, they are closing because it is impractical to stay open.

Fourth, public schools are supposed to be secular, and secular schools should not close for religious holy days any more than Catholic schools should close for Hindu holy days. If there are Hindu kids enrolled in the Catholic school, they may choose not to attend class in honor of Diwali, for example, but the school itself need not close.

Fifth, whose holy days would we honor and whose would we ignore? If we are truly inclusive schools wouldn’t open at all.

Which brings me to Christmas. Public Schools do close for Christmas. Is that fair? Yes. Doesn’t that violate church/state separation? No. We are a country with a deeply Christian history and as such we honor the birthday of Jesus the way we honor the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these birthdays are federal holidays because America would not be America with them.

Making Christmas a federal holiday is more of a threat to the holiness of Christmas than it is to the Constitution. According to the same issue of USA TODAY, “Many [people] skip the holiday’s religious side.” While 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas only 74% say Christmas is “primarily” a religious holy day, only 47% go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, and only 28% tell or read the biblical story of Jesus birth. Sadly for Christians, Christmas is going the way of many other federal holidays: just another day for tacky car ads and excessive shopping.

For me Christmas is a time to honor the most famous rabbi of all time, and I will do that in traditional Jewish fashion: I will argue with everything he had to say.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tea Party Principles

I am so excited about the Tea Party folks coming into Congress in a few weeks. I like when people of principle actually stand up for what they believe in. True, I don’t share their beliefs, but I respect people who say what they mean and do what they say.

My favorite Tea Party guy is Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation. He is so honest. For example, he wants to limit voting rights to property owners only. This is as American as counting slaves as ¾ human. But it makes some sense. Just look at how renters treat the houses they live in: they trash them because they don’t own them. Of course if we aren’t careful, the only people who will allowed to vote in this country will be the Communist Chinese.

I also like what he has to say about Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). Mr. Phillips wants him removed from Congress because “he is the only Muslim member of Congress.” This makes sense to me, too. As the only Muslim in Congress, Rep. Ellison must be alienated. Alienated Muslims become radicalized Muslims, and radicalized Muslims use Second Amendment solutions to address their grievances.

But Second Amendment solutions are part of the Tea Party rhetoric, so maybe I have it wrong. Maybe he wants to remove Mr. Ellison from Congress not because he is the only MUSLIM, but because he is the ONLY Muslim. He is concerned that the Congressman is lonely. Nice call: let’s have Muslim members of Congress only when there are enough of them to have a Muslim-American Caucus.

But my favorite principle of Mr. Phillips is his dream to abolish the United Methodist Church, or, as he calls it, “the first Church of Karl Marx.” Last Friday he wrote on his Tea Party Nation blog that the United Methodist Church’s support of the Dream Act makes it an enemy of America. “If you hate America,” he wrote, “you have a great future in the Methodist Church.” (Read his blog at

Yes, the end of democracy and the Methodist Church. It is going to be a great two years.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What I Want for Christmas

I don’t celebrate Christmas, and I don’t believe in Santa Claus, so Christmas presents are usually out of the question for me. But this year I am making an exception. I still won’t celebrate Christmas and I still can’t bring myself to believe in Saint Nick, but I’m hoping for a Christmas present all the same.

What I want for Christmas is a big foam #1 Finger. You know, the big yellow foam glove people wear and wave at sporting events to say their team is number one even if it isn’t.

My team is the good ol’ US of A. And we are number uno. We have the best education system on the planet, and the best health care in the world. These affirmations have nothing to do with the facts, of course, but that is why I want the big finger. The lower we fall in the rankings, the louder we should chant “We’re number one,” and the bigger the finger we should wave while doing so.

According to the most recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment which measures the knowledge base and reading skills of 15-year-olds around the world, the United States ranks 14th out of 34. “We’re number 1(4)! We’re number 1(4)!” Now I have to wonder why we are even paying attention to a study that can’t even spell the word “program” properly, but still the number is the number, and we need to celebrate our mediocrity with flair. So how about that finger, Santa?

Similarly, in a study of health care systems conducted by the World Health Organization [by the way if you are a doctor working for the World Health Organization, can you call yourself Dr. Who? How cool is that!], the United States ranks #37 out of 190, just behind Dominica and Costa Rica, and just ahead of Slovenia and Cuba, but way ahead of Burundi (take THAT, Burundi!). If you add the digits of 37 together you get 3+7 which equals 10, and if you add those digits together you get 1+0 which equals 1, so, you guessed it! “We’re #1!”

You can see where this is going. On all matters except military spending the USA is falling behind. The only thing we are really number one at is our capacity to kill people. Now don’t sneer. We can move from #37 to #35 in health care just by bombing the hell out of Costa Rica and Dominica, so all our bombs might come in handy. But I am not ready to go to war with Cyprus (#24), and I don’t even know where Andorra (#4) is, so I can’t even pretend to bomb them (though I think we killed their life-giving Tree of Souls in the Avatar movie, which may have been the government’s way of preparing us for a real attack in the not so distant future).

Anyway, I’m not ready to go to war with Andorra or Costa Rica, so let’s not consider that. And I’m not ready to raise taxes on anyone, let alone the rich, to improve our educational system. And I don’t want the federal government to run expensive death panels when Arizona is running their own death panels at a fraction of the cost, so let’s not consider true single-payer health care reform. Nope, I want to leave things pretty much the way they are this Christmas, which is why I need the big finger.

If we are going to settle for being Mediocristan the least we can do is pretend we aren’t. We are number one in that. So, Santa, how about giving me the finger this year?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Save the Frogmen

This morning I heard Rush Limbaugh attack those who are attacking McDonald’s Happy Meals. The issue as he put is that the Nanny State is coming to the rescue of parents who cannot stare down their kids who demand that they not go to the local vegan health food diner and scarf down Happy Meals instead. And why do the kids want the Happy Meals? Because of the toys inside the box. It is wrong for a corporation to go after kids whether it is with tobacco or fat/sugar/salt, but don’t attack the toys.

When I was a kid McDonalds was a drive-in, and there were no Happy Meals. The equivalent product back then was the cereal box with a toy in it. I loved getting those toys. I would stick my hand into the box, crushing the cereal inside to find the coveted prize. Or I would open the box upside down hoping that the toy was at the bottom. Or I would pour the entire box out on the counter and watch the prize spill out in a cascade of Frosted Flakes (They’re Gggggggggggggggggreat). These are some of my best childhood memories.

I loved the frogmen. They were little plastic divers with one fin-clad foot and one foot that was a tiny thimble with a cap. Put baking soda into the thimble, replace the cap and drop the frogman into a sink or bath tub filled with water. As the baking soda reacted with the water the frogman would dive and resurface over and over again. How cool is that? So cool in fact, that I still have one of the frogmen.

So Rush is right but for the wrong reason. Those who would stop corporations from putting toys in their products are robbing our kids of their childhoods. Let our kids have their toys, and if we must do something let’s insist that our food is healthier. Why not put toys with veggie burger meals?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Right Thing to Do

I’m listening to conservative talk radio this morning, and I have to admit that I agree with everything the host is saying regarding taxes. He, like me, looks to the administration of John F. Kennedy for guidance when it comes to taxes. He must have repeated his call to follow JFK’s lead in this matter at least a dozen times in less than five minutes. And I agree!

President Kennedy said, “An economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget—just as it will never produce enough jobs or profits." He was right then, and he is right today. So, along with my conservative colleagues across America, I say let’s go back to the solid fiscal polices of 1965.

I’m urging Congress to say no to the Obama tax plan, and pass a tax plan that mirrors that of JFK instead. By 1965 President Kennedy imposed a top tax rate for individuals of 70%, and a top corporate rate of 48%. He also signed a bill providing a 10% tax credit for business purchases of new machinery. And the economy boomed. If it worked for JFK, it should work for us. Right?

So let’s be clear: If you want to free America from a crippling tax scheme stop coddling the American people, and do what JFK did: set the top tax rate for individuals at 70% and for corporations as 48%. It is the right and right wing thing to do.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Just in Time for Christmas

Thousands of Iraqi Christians are fleeing to the north from Baghdad and Mosul to escape Muslim attacks against them. Of the approximately 100,000 Christians who once lived in Mosul, only 5,000 remain. Of course Iraqi Muslim fanatics are equal opportunity haters, so they continue to bloody one another along the Sunni Shia divide, but it makes me wonder: what are our women and men dying for again? Are we sacrificing American lives so Iraqis have the freedom to murder one another? Is this what we mean when we say, “the surge worked”?

The longer we stay in Iraq the more convinced I am that President Bush was correct: Iraq did and does have weapons of mass destruction. They are the Iraqi people themselves.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tea for Jew

Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Republican Joe Straus is in trouble. Tea Party conservatives, led by John Cook, want to push him out of the Speaker’s position. Speaker Straus’ sin? He’s a Jew.

“I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office,” Mr. Cook said. So Straus has got to go.

Now I don’t considered myself an expert on Texas, Texas politics, or even the Jews of Texas. To be honest, the only Jew I associate with Texas is Kinky Freedman, though now that I think about it, the name of his band, the Texas Jew Boys, suggests Kinky isn’t the only Jew in the Lone Star State. But why do these God-fearing Tea Bag Republicans have to ditch one of the Chosen? Because Speaker Straus’ rabbi is somehow associated with Planned Parenthood. Guilt by association. This gives us a glimpse into the America we can expect as the Tea Party completes its takeover of the GOP and the country.

The simple fact is, when the going gets tough, the tough get going… after the Jews, and Muslim Americans and illegal immigrants and…

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Update to Friday's Post

I just learned of Rabbis Against Racism and their effort to confront the rabbis I wrote about last Friday. Here is there petition. If you are rabbi, please sign it. If you know a rabbi please send it to her or him. To sign the petition on line, go to

לא תטה משפט גר . . . וזכרת כי עבד היית במצרים
Do not pervert the rights of the stranger . . . and remember that you were once a slave in Egypt (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

To our rabbinic colleagues in Israel,

We, rabbis serving in congregations and communities across the world, are turning to you for your assistance and leadership at a time of crisis. The recent halakhic ruling from community rabbis in Israel that forbids leasing apartments to non-Jews has caused great shock and pain to our communities. The attempt to root discriminatory policies based on religion or ethnicity in Torah is a painful distortion of our tradition. Am Yisrael knows the sting of discrimination, and we still bear the scars of hatred. When those who represent the official rabbinic leadership of the State of Israel express such positions, we are distressed by this Chillul HaShem, desecration of God’s name.

This degradation of the Torah threatens both Israel and our communities. We struggle to maintain a strong, loving relationship between Jews outside of Israel and the Jewish state. Every day, that challenge grows more difficult. Many of our congregants love Israel and want nothing more than the safety and security of the Jewish homeland, but for a growing number of Jews in America this relationship to Israel cannot be assumed.

Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel. They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing. Further, these attacks on the principles of our prophets, which form the basis of Israel’s law and society, provide justification for anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment across the world.

Many of you have raised your voices in the past, and have dedicated your lives to pursuing a just society in Israel. You have taught us that the discriminatory attitude expressed in that halakhic ruling does not reflect the belief of the majority of rabbis and Torah scholars or the people of Israel, and for that reason, we turn to you. For the sake of our people, our Torah, and Israel, we beseech you to take a strong public stand and oppose those who misrepresent our tradition.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Say what you mean; do what you say

Fifty state-employed rabbis in Israel have signed and circulated a petition urging Jews not to rent or sell land to nonJews, and saying that those who do should be cut off from their people.

Thankfully the action was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "This kind of speech should be banned in a Jewish and democratic state."

I am pleased that the Prime Minister is opposed to rabbinic sponsored racism, but his choice of words suggests he doesn't understand the nature of either a Jewish or a democratic state.

First of all these rabbis derived the decision from Jewish law. While their reading is controversial, it is the very nature of a Jewish state (as opposed to a state of Jews) to allow for just this kind of speech. If you don't want your country ruled by the mores of clerics and their pre-modern worldviews, don't set it up as a Jewish (or Islamic or Christian) state.

Second, this kind of inflammatory speech is absolutely protected in a democratic state. Freedom of speech is key to any truly democratic country, so banning opinions, even evil ones such as this, betrays the very promise of democracy.

So is Prime Minister Netanyahu anti-Jewish or anti-democracy? Of course not; he is simply speaking hyperbolically to mask his actions or lack thereof.

These rabbis whose opinions the PM says should be banned actually work for the state. While banning speech is wrong, punishing state employees who blatantly discriminate against citizens of the state is right, appropriate, and just. If the PM is serious he should fire these rabbis. Until he does it is just politics as usual in a country held hostage by clerics.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Christmas is a myth. Thank God.

On the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel atheists have posted a billboard featuring the three Magi approaching the manger. The text reads, “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason.” The sign saddens me.

“Myth” is not the same as “falsehood.” Myth is a narrative structure used to convey some of the deepest truths we humans can glean. Myths are not believed in but unpacked and lived.

The problem with contemporary religion is that it devalues myth and imagination, and seeks legitimacy in history and science. The power of Christmas is not that Matthew and Luke were historians (they can’t even agree between themselves), but that they were mythmakers. They used story, just as Jesus did, to convey a truth that science and history could not accommodate.

I am, of course, speaking as a nonChristian, but I say the same about the myths of every religion including my own. If I insist the Exodus is history I have to deal with a murderous God and a host of extraneous, harmful, and self-serving miracles. But if I accept it as myth I am dealing with the liberation of self from enslavement to power; the suffering is mine, the deaths are mine, and the liberation is mind. Myth is meant to lived rather than believed in; it is about the inner life not the political one.

The characters found in myths represent aspects of our own psyches. The Virgin Birth is neither a miracle nor a biological act of parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). It is a story about how something new and potentially redemptive comes into the world. As a myth Christmas speaks to all humans. As science and history it makes no sense at all.

If we reclaimed the power of myth, and understood its role in our lives, we could reclaim the world’s religions as keepers of myth and train clergy to be guides to myth who can help us live out the mythic and imaginal dimensions of our lives through acts of compassion and contemplative spiritual practice.

If I had the money I would post my own Magi billboards. But I would change the tagline from “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason” to “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate the Imagination.”

Thursday, December 02, 2010

No Hope

Just when I thought I could not get more depressed about the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine, I learn that the departments of education of both Israel and Palestine have banned a unique textbook designed by Israeli and Palestinian educators entitled “Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative.”

The book places the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the history of their homelands side by side, allowing children on both sides to learn how the other understands the history they take for granted. Of course both versions are controversial in the eyes of the other, but that is the point. There is no “true” history, there is only the narrative histories told by each side’s historians. And being able to see the reality the other sees is a huge step toward authentic dialogue and empathy.

Of course the leaders on both sides fear both empathy and dialogue, and so both have banned the book from public high school curriculums. How sad.

On the other hand it does show that the leadership of both sides are not really on opposite sides at all. They are on the same side: the side of fear and hatred that keeps them in power.

Just as the Israelites could not enter the Promised Land until almost all of the older generation passed away, peace may not come to the region until all those currently in power are pass away. The questions we must ask are these: how many generations of status quo leadership are left; and how many people must die before these leaders finally die?