Friday, December 30, 2011

Declare This: the Manhattan Declaration

I’m a few years behind on this, but I just learned of and read the 2009 Manhattan Declaration on Christianity published by a group of Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christians ( Here are its three essential affirmations:

In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.

Do these three affirmations make sense? Not to me.  
First, if we accept Point One (which I do) and affirm that all people have the same inherent right to equal dignity and life, how can we then deny marriage to gay people, which is the intent of Point Two?
Second, again accepting Point One, if a mother and her unborn child have equal rights to life how can we affirm that the baby’s right to life trumps the mother’s right to life in those cases where the birth of the unborn will mean the death of the already born?
Third, if we are going to affirm in Point Two that God “ordained” marriage between a man and woman, don't we also have to affirm that God seems to have “ordained” concubinage, polygamy, and the forced marriage (legalized rape) of women captured in battle (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) as well? Either the authors of the Declaration don’t know their Bible, or they don’t want us to know it.
Fourth, Point Three says that religious liberty is “grounded in the character of God.” Really? Are Yahweh and Christ all about the rights of people to worship as they choose? Yahweh insists that we have no other gods but him, kills Jews who choose to follow other Gods, and is always willing to slaughter the priests and followers of Baal. And Christ says “no one comes to the Father except through me.” Where’s the religious liberty in that?  If the Declaration’s declarers want to affirm religious freedom and liberty for all, I’m with them, but hanging this on Yahweh and Christ is a stretch.
I have no problem with people affirming their faith and their right to practice it. But please don’t pretend that in so doing you are protecting the rights of others to do the same. The Manhattan Declaration is simply a demand that society not intrude on the signers' right to practice their faith as they choose. This is fine with me as long as their right to choose one way doesn't rob others of the right to choose differently. People should be free to practice their religion as they see fit as long as they don't harm others in the process. 
I am a fan of declarations, even one's I don't like. So I invite you to share your own declarations with me. Let's see what the state of belief is as we enter 2012.
Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Two Questions About Christmas

Two people emailed me this morning with questions about Christmas. I thought I'd share both their questions and my answers with you here.

I’m Jewish, my girlfriend is Christian. This Saturday we will be lighting Hanukkah candles and celebrating Christmas, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the latter. Can you give me a Jewish way into Christmas?

This Saturday night is a Jewish trifecta: Motzei Shabbat (the transition from the Sabbath to the work week celebrated with the lighting of the Havdalah candle, the light of discernment), the fifth night of Hanukkah (celebrating the liberation of the Jews from religious, military, and political oppression), and the birthday of Jesus, the most famous Jew who ever lived. Most Jews will ignore the first, celebrate the second, and sit uncomfortably with the third while ordering Kung Po Chicken at their local Chinese restaurant.

Let me offer an alternative (no, not Thai food, something more spiritual.)

Shabbat honors the divine origins of creation (Exodus 31:15-17), and the divine imperative for liberation (Deuteronomy 5:15). Hanukkah celebrates the chutzpah of hope that liberation requires, and that allowed the Maccabees to tackle and defeat the overwhelming military might of the Syrians. And the birth of Jesus reminds us that ours is a faith rooted in the eternal hope that some day global justice, peace, and freedom will reign on earth.

As you light your Shabbat candles Friday evening, recall God as the source of creation, and commit yourself to godliness as the means to liberation. As you light your Havdalah candle Saturday night, commit to acting in a way that frees both self and others during the coming week. As you light your Hanukkah candles, vow to cultivate the chutzpah of hope that liberation requires. And as you honor the birth of the baby Jesus take hope in how one little Jewish kid (with the backing of Saul of Tarsus, a great Jewish publicist) can grow up to change the world.

I’m Jewish and I love Jesus. Not as a God or as Christ, but as a daring Jewish rabbi and prophet who took on the exploitative powers of Jerusalem and Rome. I want to honor his birth in a way that isn’t Christian but isn’t hokey either (no birthday cake with his face on it). Any suggestions?

For me, Christmas is about the birth of a Jewish boy born to a Jewish mother who is anointed by the Jewish God to liberate the Jewish people, and through that liberation to free the entire world from empire, economic and social injustice, and war, thus ushering in the messianic age promised by the Jewish prophets.

This has nothing to do with “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” (John 3:16, NRSV). That is Christianity, the religion about Jesus, and I am not a Christian. I am a Jew who follows the religion of Jesus: Love God and Love Your Neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; and Matthew 22:37-39). I would add Love the Stranger as well, but he didn’t task me (Deuteronomy 10:19). Jesus is Jewish, his teaching is Jewish, and his promise of a just world free from tyranny and fear is Jewish. So I have no problem honoring his birth.

Since you ruled out my cake idea, let me suggest adding a candle to the Saturday night flames of Havdalah and Hanukkah. Just we light the Havdalah candle to kindle the light of discernment allowing us to choose wisely between actions that heal and actions that harm, and just as we light the Hanukkah candles to cultivate in ourselves the audacity of hope that emboldened the Maccabees to light the one day’s supply of oil when an eight day’s supply was necessary to rededicate the Temple, so let us light a candle in memory of the birth of Jesus, and commit ourselves to lighting the fires of justice and compassion wherever we can, whenever we can, and however we can.

Jesus’ birthday is for me a mixture of joy, sadness, and hope. Joy in that our people has never failed to raise up heroes even in the darkest of times; sadness in that all of them failed; and hope that some day yet another will arise and this time bring the messianic promise to fruition: that all people shall sit under their grapevines or fig trees with no one to make them afraid, (Micah 4:4).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A New Lowe In American Life

Does the cowardice of the Lowe’s Corporation in the face of a fringe Christian group’s opposition to the TLC reality show All-American Muslim matter? Yes. Television programs and advertising are a barometer of the American psyche, and this recent incident says we are sick and getting sicker.

Ten years ago on the TV show 24 Federal Agent Jack Bauer taught us that very Muslim was a jihadist. Today the complaint against All-American Muslim is that no Muslim is a jihadist. The jihadis have so cleverly integrated into American life that even Jack Bauer couldn’t find them. And if we aren’t careful the All-American Muslim will result in the All-Muslim America.

Is this simply all-American bigotry, or is there something to this?

Let’s be honest: Islam intends to conquer the world. But so does Christianity. This doesn’t mean that all forms of Islam and Christianity and all Muslims and Christians are intent on world domination, only that the theologies of both faiths hold out hope for a day when, to borrow from my own people, “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name will be the only name,” (Zechariah 14:9). The only difference between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on this point is whose name will be the one final name: Yahweh, Jesus, or Allah? This question of the dominant name has been enough to fuel wars for millennia. So when Bill Shakespeare asks, “What’s in a name?” the answer is millions of slaughtered human beings.

If you’re a patriotic American, an American committed to the secular ideals of our founding Masonic fathers (full disclosure: I'm a 32nd degree Mason), this is something to be feared. But who is doing the better job of taking over America, Christians or Muslims?

My money is on the Christians. Compare Jack Kennedy’s 1960 speech on religion where he declared “I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute” to that of Mitt Romney’s religion speech in 2007 where he tried to convince people that Mormons were Christians, too. And then compare both to the current crop of GOP presidential candidates who are bending over backwards to prove their Christian bone fides so that they can pass the totally unconstitutional religious test for public office that is now central to the Republican Party, and that in the next presidential election will be central to the Democratic Party as well.

America is in danger of becoming a theocracy, but it will be Franklin Graham and not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader of Iran) who leads it.

Lowe’s motto is “Never stop improving.” I wish they and we would take this to heart. There is still time, though not all that much time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Taking the Christ out of Christopher

Is Christopher Hitchens in hell? Hitchens, who died on December 15th of this year, is known mostly for his atheism (though there is so much more to him than this), and this question was emailed to me by several people in response to his passing.

To answer it I have to first define hell. Hell, for me, is a figment of the imaginations of people who delight in the torture of other people who believe differently than they do, and who lack the capacity to achieve this in this life. True, belief in hell can go hand in hand with people who do have the capacity to torture others in this life (the Inquisition and modern Iran are but two examples), but for most people in the United States today torture is limited to the government and God. Anyone else who tries it is liable to be arrested and jailed.

So is Christopher Hitchens in hell? Since hell is imaginary, and since many people will imagine hell will imagine him in it, one might say he is in hell. But to one like myself whose desire to kill people is limited to fantasy assassinations of people who do actual evil to actual beings, no, Christopher Hitchens isn’t in hell.

Of course he isn’t in heaven either. Both locales seem fictional to me. So where is he? Well, he has been doing a lot of cameo appearances on network and cable news shows, but basically I believe that when we die we return to the source from which we come. To use the Hindu ocean/wave analogy, the wave that was Christopher Hitchens has returned to the ocean that is all waves. The ocean continues waving, but never again at Christopher Hitchens.

What really interests me about hell isn’t who is in it, but the people who imagine others are in it. No one who believes in hell ever imagines that he or she is going to end up there. Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” I would say,  “Hell is for other people.”

When I ask people who believe in hell why they believe in hell, they blame it on God. If it were up to them, they tell me, everyone would find salvation and no one would go to hell to be tortured for all eternity, but it isn’t up to them; it’s a God thing. But all we know about God is what we imagine about God, so saying “it’s a God thing” is simply a way of not admitting our own complicity in hell and damnation.

There is something in the human psyche that delights in the torture of our enemies. Since there is also something in the human psyche that keeps most of us from actually doing so, we imagine a god and a hell where torture can happen without implicating us in it.

All I ask of those who believe Christopher Hitchens is burning in hell is that you say this with glee and not a faux sadness. If you believe in eternal torture at least have the courage of your fantasies, and rejoice when it happens.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

I Smell Millennial Spirit

Over the past few months I have visited a variety of synagogues and churches across the country. Each of them had one thing in common: a dearth of young people in attendance. Researchers Morley Winograd and Michael Hais are shedding some light on why this may be so in their new book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America.
According to the numbers, Millennials (people born between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s) are leaving religion behind in record numbers. Why? Because while 64% Millennials are absolutely certain God exists, 72% describe themselves as more spiritual than religious. Add to that number the fact that Millennials don’t use religion as a criteria for choosing their mates, and have no objection to inter-faith marriages, and you can see American clergy pulling their hair out in frustration. What can they do? Nothing. Organized religion is too tribal, too brand-dependent, and too small for spiritually oriented Millennials.
What we need are new forms of spiritual community anchored in shared questions rather than shared answers; communities with many different teachers; communities that invite people to celebrate holy days from many traditions all recast to reveal their universal messages rather than to promote their parochial pieties. These would be independent centers of spiritual exploration where the question of who’s in and who’s out—the question that still dominates conventional religions—is mute;  where children and adults can study the texts and teachings of the world’s great spiritual systems; where individuals and families can practice chanting, meditation, yoga and tai chi; where people of different backgrounds can gather to share their hopes, dreams, tragedies, life-cycle events, and quests for meaning.
Conventional religions can’t do this.  And at the moment I don’t see our interfaith seminaries doing this either. What we need is a training center for spiritual entrepreneurs where they earn a graduate level education in the texts, teachings, teachers, and techniques of the world's spiritual traditions; where they learn to work shamanically with the myths and rituals of the world's religions to tap and release the spiritual energies they contain; where they are taught how to create and manage communities financially as well as organizationally; and where they are then sent out into the world with financial subsidies that allow them the freedom to create new centers for spiritual study and community across the country and the world. There is a need. All we need now is the creative will to address it.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Email is Great

Email is so great.

Just this morning I opened my mail and found 85 messages waiting for me. Scanning the Subject Headings I learned that Michelle Obama wants to meet me. Seriously! She sent me two emails saying, and I quote, “Rami, I want to meet you.”

Now that is cool. But then I get an email from her husband (the President) who says that he’s going to be with Michelle when she meets me. She didn’t tell me that. I was all Herman Cain and everything, and now it turns out she wants to meet me only so that her husband can meet me. Why doesn’t he just ask me himself?

There was a sad email telling me that Occupy L.A. had ended, but I’m not surprised; after all, I left L.A. almost 10 years ago.

Then Arlene G. asked me, “Will YOU help transform the world?” I found the all-caps YOU very personal. She was obviously shouting to get my attention so that I knew she was talking to me and not some general “you.”

General Yu, by the way, also emailed me. It seems that he has come into some serious money in China but cannot get it out of the country without my help.

And there is Jeremy Bird who wants my opinion on something regarding Barack Obama. I emailed him back saying that Michelle and I were going out and that Barack was tagging along, and if the President wants my opinion on something he can ask me when we meet.

The Brooks Brothers (I can never remember their first names) wrote to ask me: “Can sheep really sing?” I think the answer is “no,” but suggested they check with Wikipedia before going public.

The strangest email I got was from my friend Michael L. who asked me to join the debate over circumcision and the future of the Occupy Movement. I had not heard of this debate, nor do I think it is necessary for Occupy people to be circumcised. So put me on the “con” side of that issue.

The most helpful email I got was from my friend Eddie Bauer who told me that “All sweaters up to 50% off. Anywhere I shop.” I actually printed this email out. I don’t shop at Eddie Bauer, but I will present it to the stores I do frequent and let them know that I’m eligible for a huge discount.

Anyway, I won’t bore you with all the mail I got this morning. I just hope your email is as worth reading as mine is.