Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who We Are

I watched President Obama commit us to endless war last night, and it made me sick. Speaking of the obligation of America to intervene in Libya Mr. Obama said, “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.”

Is he kidding? A betrayal of who we are? We betray who we are so often that I suspect it isn’t really who we are. We lied our way into the Mexican War, we lied our way into Vietnam, we lied our way into Iraq, we stand idly by while our allies in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain go after their protestors, we turned a blind eye to to Rwanda genocide, we refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, and are turning a blind eye right now to the Ivory Coast.

We are not the knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of oppressed peoples around the globe. We are a military/financial empire that pursues its interests and gets into bed with anyone who will give us what we want, regardless of what they do to their own people.

I’m not saying we are wrong to intervene in Libya. I don’t know. I suspect it will end badly because it almost always ends badly. But let’s not pretend we are doing this as part of some obligation to humanity. The hypocrisy in this speech was so overwhelming that I was shocked the President got through the speech with a straight face.

The Bush Doctrine said that we could attack anyone we decided was threatening us. The Obama Doctrine says we can attack anyone we decide threatening their own people. That just about covers the entire globe. We can now go to war with anyone we want, anywhere we want, anytime we want. We are now on a permanent and global war footing.

This is not what I voted for when I voted for President Obama in 2008. If I wanted permanent war I would have voted for Senator McCain. It seems that it no longer matters which party wins: the wars just go on forever.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

God's Plan

“I’m a firm believer in God’s plan.” The woman standing by my booth in City Café is repeating this sentence like a mantra. She is talking to my waitress, and relating a medical condition that is bringing her much pain and suffering. Every two or three sentences she pauses and recites, “I’m a firm believer in God’s plan.”

It is easy to challenge this mantra. It is easy to say that this woman’s obsessive repetition of the phrase suggests a desperate wish to believe. But as my waitress affirms the truth of her belief, she relaxes a bit, and just weeps.

Does God have a plan for her life? This depends on how you define “God.” For this woman God is a being larger and more powerful than humans but not so different from them. God has thoughts and feelings; God has a plan, and it is always for the good. Even when it hurts.

For me, God is reality. Does reality have a plan? Not the way this woman thinks. For me God’s plan is simply to be God: to manifest all possibility, and, I believe, to manifest beings with the capability of knowing reality as God. In other words, God is the process of Self-expression and God-realization.

I am a believer no less than the woman in the restaurant. But my belief would not provide the comfort that this woman seeks. So when my waitress turns to me and asks, “What do you think, Rabbi? Does God have a plan for her life?” I replied, “Of course, and I’m glad you (speaking directly to the woman) are aware of this.”

“But what is His plan,” the waitress asks. “What does God want of her?”

“The same thing God want’s of all of us: to love one another, to come to each other’s aid, to allow our suffering to crack our hearts wide open so that the more we suffer the more we love; the more we hurt the less hurt we cause; the more we trust God the less we judge one another. I can’t tell you why God has taken your life in this direction, but I can assure you that God has only one goal in mind: to make you a greater vehicle for love.”

The women stared at me for a moment, then the suffering woman cried, hugged the waitress, mouthed a silent “thank you” to me, and left the café. Did I believe what I said? Does it matter?

What do you believe? What would you have said?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jewish Apathy? Who Cares?

Haaretz.com has an interesting article entitled “Why liberal Judaism is in free fall” (www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/jerusalem-babylon-why-liberal-judaism-is-in-free-fall-1.344102)

The gist of the essay is that apathy is killing liberal Judaism. Maybe, but why? Most rabbis I talk with seem to think it is a cosmetic problem: more Hebrew, more hand-clapping and singing, a newer version of the siddur (prayer book), and the next thing you know Liberal Jews are as enthusiastic as the Satmar Hasidim. I doubt it.

Liberal Jews are like voters in an off year election: most of them don’t turn out (and by “them” I mean “us” and by “us” I mean me). The problem is that for liberal Jews it is always an off year election. Give them a reason to show up, however, and they might.

But maybe there is no reason. Maybe there is nothing (short of pogroms in their neighborhoods) that will bring liberal Jews to shul. If, as is true of most liberal Jews, you don’t believe that the Jews are God’s Chosen obligated to the 613 Commandments and central to the salvation of the planet and her peoples, it is hard to drag your butt to shul on Saturday to wade through hundreds of pages of mostly meaningless and often repetitive liturgy.

And yet Judaism and Jewish culture are hardly moribund. I attended a fabulous Havdallah service in St. Louis featuring the Hasidic-jazz fusion of my friend Rabbi James Goodman; the Jewish music scene in New York and LA is thriving; Jewish art, literature, and poetry are alive and well. Maybe it is just corporate religion that is on life-support.

Maybe we need to create events rather than communities. Maybe communities cannot be artificially erected and funded through dues. Maybe the old model of “If you build it (the synagogue) they will come (and pay off the mortgage) no longer works. Maybe Judaism has to happen differently. Maybe. I'm only asking questions here. And I know I'll hear from some shul-lovers who say everything is fine. Maybe it is.

I’d love to hear examples of where Judaism is working for you. Please share them in the comments section.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Happy Purim

There are many intriguing aspects to Purim, the Jewish holy day celebrating the salvation of the Jews of Persia through the daring of Queen Esther. First there is the fact that intermarriage is central to the story: if Jewish Esther had not married the Gentile King the Jews would have died. Second, there is the fact that God plays no role in the story: it is Esther who saves her people, not God. Third, there is the tradition of allowing cross-dressing and the skewing of rabbis as part of the holy day fun. Fourth there is the custom of giving gifts and tzedakah (charity). And fifth there is the tradition of getting so drunk on Purim that you can no longer tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman, i.e. Good and Evil. Couple these with the fact that the entire story is fictional and based on the Babylonian Gods Ishtar (Esther) and Marduk (Mordecai) you have a deeply compelling tale of existential spirituality.

Unfortunately too many Jews think of Purim, which falls on March 19-20 this year, as a kids’ holy day—sans the alcohol. In the interest of full disclosure, I have never gotten drunk. I don’t even like Rum Raisin ice cream, so getting beyond good and evil with the help of alcohol falls outside my experience. And yet…

The relationship of good and evil is central to much of my thinking. I believe in both, and see each as a necessary corollary of the other. Just as you cannot have front without back, so you cannot have good without evil. They go together. Good and evil are part of the binary dynamic of the phenomenal world, the world that you and I experience moment to moment. So what might it mean to go beyond these?

That would be a wonderful discussion for adults to have during Purim. Raising the level of our holy days in this way would capture the imagination and intellect of adult Jews and help bring about a revival of Judaism. Using Purim each year to discuss the state of moral discourse and to explore ever more deeply the nature of good and evil would help return Judaism to relevancy in the lives of many Jews for whom it is largely inconsequential.

So whatever else you do this Purim, make some time to talk with friends about good and evil. And for those Jews seeking to blur the divide between Mordecai and Haman, remember: Jews don’t let Jews drive drunk.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Unchain Their Hearts

Today is the Fast of Esther, commemorating Queen Esther’s call to her fellow Jews to fast on her behalf as she prepares to risk her life to save theirs. It is also International Chained Woman Day referring to those Jewish women (agunot) who are chained to husbands who either refuse to give them a divorce or who are missing (in battle or otherwise) but cannot be proven dead, and who are therefore married to the missing for the rest of their lives. (Women have no right to divorce in Judaism but do have the right to refuse a divorce their husbands may desire, so that men, too, can be chained.)

Many Orthodox rabbis work with women’s groups to find a way out of this nonsense, but estimates put the number of chained of women in the thousands.

Does this sound right to you? Does it make any sense to maintain a Bronze Age marriage bond that enslaves spouses to one another? Isn’t this just the kind of madness with which people who worry about Sharia are concerned?

Here in Tennessee I have spoken with many Jews who are worried about Sharia (Islamic law), and unconcerned about halacha (Jewish law). Why? Either because they believe halacha comes from God, or they have abandoned halachic observance, and choose to live their lives as modern rather than Bronze Age Jews.

Why do modern men and women voluntarily bind themselves to halacha and Sharia? The answer is that they believe this is what God wants of them. But this only begs the question: why believe in a god who demands this of you?

The answer to the craziness of religious laws isn’t legalized oppression of religious expression, but free men and women walking away from such craziness. As long as we in the United States maintain a country that protects both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, we don’t have to worry about either halacha or Sharia forcing us to live in ways most of us find repugnant. But this requires a knowledge of and support for the First Amendment that more and more Americans seem to be abandoning. The danger isn’t Muslim or Jewish orthodoxies, or even Christian fundamentalists who find freedom of religion a stumbling block to their version of a God fearing America. The danger is that we liberals will be out-maneuvered and lose the very rights that make the United States the exceptional experiment it is.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Real Mau Mau Revolution and What It Means for America

I am incensed over the current attacks on Governor Mike Huckabee by the left wing drive-by lame stream Islamo-terror media. Yes, the Governor misspoke when he said President Obama grew up in Kenya, but that does not mean the Governor was wrong when he said that President Obama, his father, and his grandfather have a very different understanding of the Mau Mau revolution than that of most Americans. They do, and it is time they admitted it. All three of them.

Governor Huckabee is a master of history. True, believing that the world is only six thousand years old makes this mastery a bit easier, but the Mau Mau revolution is quite recent, taking place here in the United States only 45 years ago. No, I am not talking about the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonialism. Why should American’s care about that? We never had to deal with British colonialism, and as far as I know we are all proud members of the British Commonwealth.

The true Mau Mau revolution, the one that should strike fear in the hearts of all patriotic Americans is The Del-Tino’s 1966 hit, Papa Ooh Mau Mau in which we find the revolutionary lyric: Oom-ooma-mau-mau, papa-ooma-mau-mau. Ooma-mau-mau, papa-ooma-mau-mau. Papa-a-mau-mau, papa-ooma-mau-mau ... (you put the Ooh Mau Mau.......)

Did you catch that? “You put the ohh Mau Mau?!?” Do you know what that means? Do you know where they are going to put it? [Here’s a hint: the Bible is against putting it where they are planning to put it!] Do you know what that implies for the future of America? Do you have any idea what the Governor is talking about, and how vital it must be to the salvation of this country because the Governor is talking about it?

Neither do I, but I trust that the Governor thinks he knows what he is talking about, and that is good enough for me. As long as he thinks he is thinking I don’t have to. Indeed, none of us has to, and that is what is so great about having a President Huckabee in the White House: no history, no science, and no Papa Ooh Mau Mau. God save the Queen!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Rabbis & God: A Call for Intimacy

Carol Ochs, a wonderful teacher and spiritual guide, wrote an article in the current issue of The Reform Jewish Quarterly entitled: “Fostering a Relationship between Rabbi and God.” I had high hopes for the essay, but was very disappointed.

First Dr. Ochs says, “If we are to deepen the formation of a religious life in others, we must nurture a growing intimacy with God in ourselves. Oddly, we have to put aside the first question we may ask—What do we mean by God?— so that we can overcome the distance required for analytical thought and enter the closeness aspired to by a lover.”

This doesn’t make sense to me. Do we want to be intimate with just anyone? Is our “lover” an unknown quantity? Is there no place for reason in relationships? If we don’t define God how do we know that with which we are becoming intimate is God? If we don’t define God how can we say to a Jew who takes Jesus or Krishna as her lover that she is outside Judaism, or should this no longer concern rabbis?

Dr. Ochs goes on to say that rabbis and rabbinical students need to “return to our own personal experience of the presence of God. In this way we can wrestle with the question, “How do we relate to God, who is now the center of our reality?”

If we do not know what is meant by God, how can we speak of the presence of God? And if we do not what God is, how can we say God is now the center of our reality? And how are we supposed to return to the presence of God in the first place?

The bulk of her essay is a series of interpretations of lines pulled from the Torah, lines she finds to be “touchstones” on her “unmarked journey to a maturing relationship with God.” Despite her claim to the contrary these texts not content free, and do in fact assume a theology, one that I suspect most Jews no longer hold.

For example: “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Clearly God is a self–conscious being who has intentions and who somehow controls our lives and does so for our own good. Most Jews don’t think this way, which is why organized Judaisms that promote this theology have less and less impact on Jews.

What Jews (and everyone else for that matter) need is a way to encounter reality at a level that transcends and transforms the narrow mind (mochin d’katnut) of self and selfishness, opens us to the spacious mind (mochin d’gadlut) of Self and selflessness, and awakens us to the truth that Alles iz Gott (all is God), understanding God as the intrinsically creative source and substance of all reality.

If I were the head of a rabbinical college I would offer students shamanic training where they learned the ecstatic kabbalistic visualizations of Abulafia, the ecstatic dancing and nigunnim (wordless melodies) of the Hasidim, the dream work of Solomon Almoni, the meditation techniques of Nachman of Breslov and Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and how to use these and other techniques to create services and life-transition events that had the potential to transform people.

Calling rabbis to God is great. But unless we give them the tools for meeting God—not the anthropomorphic god of the Bronze Age but the timeless God who is Reality itself—the call is going to fall on deaf ears.

Friday, March 04, 2011

God Slayer No More

I rather liked being a God–slayer, so Pope Benedict XVI’s admission in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, that the Jews are innocent of the execution of Jesus came as a bit of a downer. I used to feel like Buffy without having to learn all that karate.

Of course Christians have murdered millions of Jews over the past 2000 years under the guise of payback for our killing God, so it wasn’t always cool. But today Christians don’t get to kill Jews anymore, though millions still look forward to other people killing all but 144,000 of us before the Second Coming, so let’s not get too excited.

Anyway, if we Jews are innocent, can we sue for damages? Even if we could, no amount of money I got from the Church would make up for my no longer being a God slayer. Especially now, when we need God slayers more than ever.

So, my thanks to the Pope for his honesty. I will write and ask him for a check, and use the money to set up a training academy for the slaying of Gods through the creative and compassionate use of the human imagination. I think I'll call it Imagine. If the Pope doesn’t respond, I’ll try Yoko.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Will People of Good Will Stand Together Against Hate?

Democracy and responsibility are not the same thing. While I welcome, support, and encourage democratic movements among all peoples, I have to recognize that they may use their new freedoms to foster ideas that I find hateful and threatening. Case in point: the return to prominence in Egypt of Sheik Yusuf al–Qaradawi, an anti-Semitic preacher of hate.

In a 2009 television interview on Al Jazeera, the Sheik claimed that Hitler was sent by Allah as an act of “divine punishment” for the “corruption” that is the Jewish people, and he hoped that Muslims would carry on this work. In a separate interview, al–Qaradawi expressed his hope that before he died he would have the opportunity to go to the “land of jihad” and shoot Jews.

Sheik Yusuf al–Qaradawi is a major player in the Islamic revival, an advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood, a media star hosting “Sharia and Life” on Al Jazeera, and a symbol of Egyptian freedom who delivered the Tahrir Square sermon on February 18 to a million Muslims. I worry that the Arab principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” will encourage the emerging democratic leaders to double down on Jew-hatred and use anti–Israel sentiment to cement their positions of power.

What can we do about this? First, know it is coming. Second, talk to your Muslim friends and neighbors about it. Third, ask that your local Muslim leaders take the moral high ground in this, and preemptively speak out publically to their communities and to the media in general about the evils of Jew–hatred. If they are afraid, offer to stand with them. If they refuse, think seriously about standing against them.

Liberal Jews and rabbis have long been doing the same with regard to anti–Islamic feelings among Jews and others: at this very moment, I am working against the hate–filled Tennessee law seeking to outlaw Sharia and hence Islam in the state of Tennessee. Now it is time for our Muslim colleagues to do the same for us among their fellow Muslims.

Will they? I don’t know. Challenge them, and report what you find.