Thursday, April 28, 2011

God and Human Bondage

As we gear up to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War the issue of slavery is once again a hot topic in my neighborhood. Was the Confederacy all about slavery or was it all about state’s rights? It was about both: the slave holding states were concerned that they would lose their rights to own slaves.

This is not simply my opinion. As a loyal, albeit transplanted southerner, I take as my touchstone the immortal words of Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, who, in a March 21, 1861 speech in Savanna, GA contrasted North and South and said the following:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth… [Those who oppose slavery are] attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal. In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.”

Not only was slavery the cornerstone of the Confederacy, the hope was that it would spread throughout the world as a hallmark of civilized and enlightened society. Who are we to disagree with Vice President Stephens? How dare we dismiss or twist his words to suit modern liberal sensibilities? Even pretending that we succeeded from the North for any reason other than slavery is to give to the North the moral high ground. We had to lie to our brave soldiers and tell them they were defending their homeland against Yankee aggression, for if we told them the truth, if we admitted that we were sending them to be slaughtered to protect the rights of the wealthy few to own slaves as a means of maintaining their wealth and power, they would not have gone bravely to their deaths. We had to lie to our soldiers; but let us not lie to ourselves.

As we commemorate, and in some circles celebrate, the formation of the Confederate States of America, let us not whitewash the principle for which so many hundreds of thousands of brave and loyal Southerners died. Let us not take the cowardly route and hide behind the notion that this was a war over states rights, but let us make it clear that the right we demanded was the right to enslave and own Negroes.

You may or may not agree with God’s great truth of white superiority and His great principle of slavery upon which the Confederacy was founded, but do not defame our heritage by pretending that we went to war for anything less than God and human bondage.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Empty Tomb

Today is Easter Sunday, and I am going to preach at a local church. My plan is to share my new understanding of Good Friday with them (see the previous post, “A New View of Good Friday”) and then reinterpret Easter in light of it.

Good Friday, in my new reading, is the day God dies for His sins—the sin of creating a world filled with unnecessary suffering and where evil is perpetrated in His Name. God dies so that we cannot kill in His Name anymore.

On Easter we find the tomb of God empty. To me the tomb is for Christians what the Holy of Holies is for Jews, and the Ka’aba is for Muslims: an empty space speaking to the ineffability of God. In the Abrahamic religions God cannot be imaged, so of course their sacred space should be empty of images.

If God dies for His sins, the sins He commits by sanctioning evil in His Name, the only way He can express this is to step beyond Names and Naming—to become something that humans cannot use or manipulate to their own ends: the Tao that cannot be named.

The problem with Christianity is that Christians just can’t do away with images. So Jesus appears after the Resurrection. And even when he ascends to Heaven He promises to return—and this time as anything but the Prince of Peace. The Second Coming, the ultimate reinstitution of the Image of God is going to be the ultimate slaughter of those who worship a different Image of God. The Second Coming undoes Good Friday and makes a mockery of Easter Sunday. With the theology of the Second Coming God learns a harsh lesson: people want to slaughter one another, and if God Himself won’t condone it anymore, they will invent a new God who will.

The hate-filled blood spattered Jesus of Revelation is the hope of those who cannot follow God and atone for their sins. The God of Good Friday is sorry. The God of Easter Sunday is free. The God of the Second Coming is psycho.

So, if you buy my new reading of Good Friday and kill the Gods of hate at whose altars we humans have worshipped for millennia, and if you buy my new reading of Easter where the tomb is empty as a sign that we are free of Gods made in our own image and designed to sanction our own madness, what shall you do with this day?

My suggestion is simple: look deeply into your self, your family, your community, your nation, your faith, and free yourself of any image that sanctions evil, even and especially if it does so in the Name of God. If you wish to believe in God, fine, but believe in the God who is empty.

Easter is a holy day of hope, but let our hope not be in some coming horror. If we are to affirm hope, let us affirm hope in freedom, love, justice, and humility. Let us say, “The Lord is Risen and so is our Heart: risen beyond fear and hatred, beyond heaven and hell, beyond vindictive ideologies masquerading as Truth.” Anything less is just more of the same.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A New View of Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus. For Jews this was a time fraught with danger. As Christians poured into their churches to hear how the Jews murdered their God, they often poured out of their churches to murder Jews. This is less likely to happen today, though I had a fascinating conversation with a Catholic priest the other day who suggested the times they are a changin’.

It seems the Church is changing the phrase “Christ died for all” to “Christ died for many.” In other words He died only for those who believe in Him, everyone else is damned. The Jews being the consummate outsiders are not included in Christ’s salvific act of sacrifice, and this may, my friend said, lead to renewed anti-Semitism.

While I don’t expect my Catholic neighbors to engage in pogroms anytime soon, he does raise an interesting point: for whom did Christ die?

I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement: no one can pay for another’s sin. I believe in the Gospel According to Pottery Barn: you break it; you buy it. So let me suggest a radically new understanding of Good Friday: God didn’t die for our sins, God died for God’s sins.

God finally realized that He was responsible for the sins of the world. It was His rejection of Cain that led to the killing of Abel. It was He who murdered almost all life in the Flood. It was He who sanctioned genocide after genocide, and called for the slaughter of hundreds of millions of animals. After centuries of this madness, He was, as the Hebrew prophets revealed, sick of it. He just wanted people to be good to one another. But what could He do to make amends and get this message across?

God chose to become one of us to teach us the new Way: the way of love. No temples, no priests, no rabbis, just people loving one another. And then, to make amends for all the killing He had caused, He allowed Himself to be killed as well.

God died for His sins, not ours. And having died for His sins, God can no longer be used as an excuse for our sins. God changed when He died at the Cross. Unfortunately we did not. We kept to the old ways, the ways of worshipping gods who commend and command what would otherwise be thought of as evil. We made of God’s atoning cross a sword with which to continue the bloodstained madness of the now dead god.

So Good Friday must be reinterpreted. Good Friday is the day that God died for His sins that you and I might stop killing in His Name. Good Friday should be the day we stop fostering hate and hurt and murderous acts in His Name. It should be, but I doubt it will be.

I am a Kosher Pescatarian

I am a kosher pescatarian: I don’t eat animals and do eat those fish permitted by Jewish law. I say this for three reasons. First: I feel guilty about eating fish, and admitting it makes me feel less so; second, I feel self-righteous about not eating meat, and proclaiming it makes me feel more so; and third, to introduce my response to a newly proposed Dutch law requiring that all animals killed in Dutch slaughterhouses be stunned into unconsciousness before slaughtering. Jewish and Muslim law do not allow stunning, so this law will outlaw kosher and halal slaughtering in the Netherlands.

The bill is supported by right wing anti-immigrant parties who want to make the Netherlands inhospitable to Muslims (Jews are collateral damage) in coalition with animal rights activists who would like to end the slaughter altogether, but are happy for any measure they believe will alleviate animal suffering.

Kosher and halal slaughtering also seeks to minimize animal suffering, so why can’t secular and religious authorities work together to achieve a common goal? If stunning actually alleviates suffering, why not make it part of kosher and halal slaughtering? Why do we Jews expend untold amounts of energy and ingenuity to get around Sabbath laws we find annoying, and none at all when it comes to killing our fellow sentient beings? I suggest we have lost our moral compass, and have made a fetish of Iron Age technology.

This is the danger of all religions that look to the past not only for guidance (which is often helpful) but also for authority (which is often unhelpful and even wicked). When we allow ancient mores and technologies to trump those of our own time (unless it inconveniences us, in which case they are suddenly deemed irrelevant), we have trapped ourselves in a religion that may survive but cannot thrive.

I welcome the challenge to kosher and halal slaughtering. I urge rabbis and imams to find more compassionate ways to kill our fellow creatures, and challenge them to take the next step and proclaim the eating of meat contrary to the wills of Yah and Allah. Just don’t outlaw fish anytime soon; I’m having tuna for dinner.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tonight is the first night of Pesach, Passover. Jews around the world will gather to retell our founding story: how we were unjustly enslaved in Egypt and how God liberated us after crushing the Egyptians with unbelievable horrors. I just can’t get behind this story.

First of all we Jews were not innocent victims of the Egyptians. Read the closing chapters of Genesis to discover that Joseph and Pharaoh used the seven years of famine to strip the Egyptian people of everything they had: their land, their dignity, their freedoms. Only three groups thrived during this period: Pharaoh, his Priests, and the Hebrew people. I am not proud of this, nor can I herald Joseph as my hero.

So tonight before we get drunk on our innocence, let us atone for our guilt—for our having collaborated with Pharaoh at the expense of the Egyptian people—by seeing where we may be collaborating with evil today, and ending that collaboration during the week of Pesach.

Skip to the plagues. This was a war between YHVH and the Gods of Egypt. Each of the ten plagues is the defeat of an Egyptian God: from Hapi, God of the Nile; to Ra, God of the Sun; to Pharaoh, God on Earth. I love stories of Gods at War, but the collateral damage to the Egyptian people is untenable. The ancient rabbis knew this. That’s why they tell the story of God opposing the Hebrews’ celebration of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, and why they commanded us to diminish our cups of wine that we not drink to the suffering of others.

Our liberation cost the Egyptian people dearly. Let that sober us up, and more importantly let it shift our attention to others, such as the Palestinians, who continue to pay a heavy price for our freedom.

For me the real heroes of Pesach are the women. Passover is a women’s revolution against the madness of Pharaohs and Gods: the midwives Shifrah and Puah refuse to murder the Hebrew baby boys, Moses’ mother Yocheved saves her son from the soldiers sent to kill him, Pharaoh’s daughter defies her father and raises Moses as her own son in his own house, Moses sister Miriam brings Yocheved to nurse him establishing a silent conspiracy of Moses’ two mommies against the all-powerful Pharaoh, and Moses’ wife Zipporah saves her husband from a God gone mad who seeks to murder her husband even as he makes his way to Egypt to save the Hebrew people. Had any one of these women failed, the story would end in tragedy rather than triumph.

Let tonight be more than a celebration of an ancient liberation from evil. Let it be a time to admit to and liberate ourselves from our own collaboration with evil; a time to admit to and end the suffering we cause others; a time to challenge the power of gods— religious, economic, political— and to celebrate the power of the few to do justly regardless of the odds.

Chag sameach Pesach.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Is God Necessary for Morality?

Is God necessary for morality? The question came up in class the other day. It is a perennial question, though one that is essentially beside the point. Whether you believe God decides what is right and wrong, or you believe that people do so, you still have to choose a moral system. It isn’t as if God or people offer just one.

If you say God decides what is right and wrong you have to decide which god is God before you can follow the moral system of that God. Most people follow the gods of their parents, but is this really a sound enough basis on which to determine one’s morality?

If you take another track and look for the common moral themes among religions you might come up with a generic list of values that all gods seem to support, but no religion agrees as to how to apply these values, so you are again forced to choose. For example all religions support modesty regarding women, yet for some Jews this means married women should wear wigs, while for some Muslims it means women should cover both head and face. Who’s right? And what do we make of women who refuse to do either? Are they immodest?

I think the best we humans can do vis a vis morality is to follow the advice of Rabbi Hillel. Without any reference to God, he simply defined the entirety of Torah as not doing to others what you do not want others to do to you. If you don’t want to be judged, don’t judge. If you don’t want to be killed, don’t kill. If you don’t want others to burn your holy book or outlaw your religion, don’t do the same to others. If you don’t want someone to discriminate against you because of your race, color, creed, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, politics, etc., then don’t engage in discrimination on these grounds yourself.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better moral guide than this.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Judaism's Mission Statement

[I was asked recently to articulate why Judaism matters. Here is my reply:]

Now HaShem said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. [As a consequence of your going] I will make of you a people vital to life, and I will bless you, and spread your reputation [as a people devoted to justice and compassion], so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse [those who follow the way of justice and compassion will be blessed with justice and compassion, those who do not will be cursed with injustice and cruelty]; and through you all the earth’s families [human and otherwise] shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, my rendering)

This is the mission statement of the Jewish people. The Hebrew translated here as “Go” is lech lecha, and literally means to walk to your self, implying both an external and an internal journey. To take this journey we are challenged to leave behind nationalism, tribalism, and family baggage. Judaism is not about conforming to the past, but about living God's command in the present. It isn't about fitting in, but about moving on.

Where we are to go, the “land” mentioned here, is not revealed. While some insist it is Israel, I suggest it is something more (which is not the same as saying it is something else): a state of mind. In either case, this is a journey based on radical trust. We will be shown our destination only when we arrive at it.

Our importance as a people depends on our taking this journey into the unknown. We are called to be the boundary–crossers (this may be the original meaning of Habiru/Hebrew); we are the ones who "boldly go where no one has gone before." But the purpose of the journey is not to become great, but to become a vehicle through which all of the earth’s families will be blessed. Our goal isn't to conquer or convert, but to bless and bring blessings to the entire world, every family of every species. We do this by embodying compassion: engaging the world justly, lovingly, and humbly (Micah 6:8).

When asked to articulate the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to another. This is the whole of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study it.” (Tractate Shabbat 32a).

I take Hillel literally. The entire Torah, the entirety of Judaism, is a guide to compassion when we read and live it as such. If your reading of Torah and/or your living of Judaism does not make you more just, loving, and humble then you are misreading Torah and not living Judaism.

This is why I am a Jew: At its best Judaism challenges me to drop the known and step into the unknown; to be a blessing and a vehicle for blessing so that all life benefits from my life; and to embody a specific level of consciousness that embraces the world with justice, love, and humility. True, Judaism is often not at its best, but I can find enough examples past and present to keep me loyal to the mission.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Kahn-ing the System

Safoorah Kahn is suing the Berkeley, Ill school board for religious discrimination. The Obama Justice Department is siding with her. Wrong call.

In August of 2008, after working as a math teacher for only none months, Ms. Kahn requested three weeks leave in December to go on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca each Muslim is to make at least once in her life, health and finances permitting. Ms. Kahn understood her religion to mandate going as soon as one can afford, a position that no religious authority supports. She petitioned for the time off, and the school board said no. Ms. Kahn then quit her job, went on the Hajj, and upon her return sued the school board for religious discrimination.

This is bullshit. I teach, and December is crunch time. Getting a substitute teacher to cover for Ms. Kahn would have been disruptive to the students. It ruins continuity, and if she was building toward some goal at the end of the semester, her leaving would have made achieving it next to impossible.

I can understand that people want to scam the system, and how religion—any religion—can be useful when doing so. What I don’t understand is why the Justice Department is supporting Ms. Kahn against the School Board. This isn’t religious discrimination. Ms. Kahn could have saved her hajj money, and worked out a agreement with her school so that she could go on the hajj in a year or two. This would have been respectful of her religion, her job, and her students.

It is wrong for someone to take a job, and then dodge the requirements of that job and seek to avoid the consequences by hiding behind bogus claims of religious discrimination. If an observant Jew takes a job that requires working on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), and doesn’t tell her employer before she is hired that she cannot work Saturdays, she has no right to take Saturdays off or to complain about religious discrimination. If your religion makes doing your job impossible, go find a different job.

In Buddhism there is the obligation of Right Livelihood. Buddhists are prohibited from doing jobs that cause suffering. I’m not saying that all Buddhists follow their religion, but those that do shouldn’t take jobs that violate it. We should use this as a principle for all peoples: don’t take a job you can’t or won’t do because of your religious convictions. If pharmacists can’t give birth control pills, or doctors can’t perform abortions to save the life of a mother—go teach math. I hear there is a job opening in Berkeley, Ill.