Archive for the ‘Because I love Judaism I can never be a pure rationalist’ Category

Over 300 people are now dead. Twenty-seven are children. Why?

A group of truly evil people seem to think that Sufism is heretical. This must be because a branch of a great religion that focuses on peace and joy is anathema to fundamentalist ideology. After all, when did you ever see a dervish with an assault rifle? A dervish with a suicide belt? A dervish with anything but ecstasy? Clearly, no matter how “Godly” these perverse fools think there precious brand of nutcase Islam is, joy isn’t part of their God’s plan.

I find this especially appalling because, in my personal theology, and my broader religious community, JOY is exactly the purpose of living! Any religion whose theology mandates the killing of another person is not a religion of MY God. Not only that, killing a Sufi of all things could not be anything but an act of evil.

Paramahansa Yogananda once said “If you only knew how much God loved you, you would die of joy“. OK… he wasn’t Jewish but there are a lot in our community for whom that must resonate. I know that Jesus would say the same and I’ll bet the Prophet Muhammad would too, if only the crazy people would stop murdering others and would LISTEN. In fact, I’d propose that every major religion would agree. I’d also propose that every major religion has some segment of believers who let dogma trump that message.

What we have seen this week is yet another senseless MURDER of 300 precious members of our species. That is yet another bastardization of irrational dogma in the name of religion. Worse, it even twists the word religion to make that just another cover for hate.

So, to you who would kill 300 praying Sufis, I want you to know that I hate you too. The difference between you and me is that I’d never kill you for that. You see, I recognize that even you are precious members of the human family. Even you have been given the blessing of life no matter how you distort the image of God within you. You are stupid but you are sentient; and killing sentient beings because they aren’t like you is never acceptable. Not even with evil people like you.

So, this Thanksgiving I am grateful for joy. I am grateful to live. I am grateful for the love and friendship I share. I am grateful that the violent fanatics are a tiny subset of Muslims. And… yes… in memory of those men, women, and children you brutally murdered…

I am grateful that there is a branch of Islam devoted to joy.

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By the time that we American Jews begin our commemoration of the Shoah, the first round of the 2017 French Presidential election will be over.

That is significant.

At the very moment that we are praying that the horror of the Holocaust will never again befall our people, the moment when we hear from the few remaining survivors of the Nazi death camps, it’s likely that Marine Le Pen – the daughter of an avowed anti-Semite who is the farthest of the French far right – will receive sufficient public support to make it to the final round.

The French racist hyper-Nationalism which puts Ms. Le Pen into this position is not unique.

As we pray that such a horror will never befall our people again, many of us pray that such atrocities will never befall ANYONE again. But, as we do so, our American President is hell bent on beginning to build a wall on our southern border before he reaches his 100th day in office. Our American President sends congratulatory messages to dictators who’s people stupidly grant their leader additional powers. Our American President was elected on the specific promise to turn away refugees just like our country disgracefully did to European refugees who’s return trip sent them right into the National Socialist gas chambers.

But it does not end with Le Pen and Trump.

Throughout Europe there is a rising tide of Antisemitism. Around the world, Antisemitism is weakly disguised as anti-Zionism. America is immersed in Islamophobia. Radical Islam perpetuates the myth that even Muslims have insurmountable divisions that can only be solved through mass murder. The UK would rather leave the European Union than to embrace diversity. And an insane child is leading North Korea toward World War III.

In other words, every year I quote Robert Nozick and every year I come closer to believing his statement that the Holocaust may have demonstrated that our species is indeed unworthy of survival. I can’t bring myself to embrace that, though, and here’s why:

I believe that humans are no more than the latest round of primates. I believe that we are not really all that special. But, I also believe that we have been given, by God or by chance (who knows?), the unique capacity to reason and, as far as we know, a uniquely sophisticated linguistic ability. Together this is a powerful toolkit. With it, we have the ability to change our destiny.

We can use those tools to accelerate our demise as Kim Jong Un is want to do. But we could also delay it by thousands of generations, perhaps even permanently change its course. But to do the latter takes the courage to fight the forces of hatred, misogyny, xenophobia, and fear-mongering through which everything “other” becomes a tool for evil dictatorial “leaders” to take control of our societies. To turn toward good we need only use our reason and our communicative capacity to help enough others to realize that we can, indeed we must, turn away from evil.

And so, as we approach Yom haShoah 2017, my hope is that all of my coreligionists will use our commemoration of the past to rededicate ourselves to the realization that the past can and will repeat itself if we are not each individually a force for change.

I am the grandson of Russian immigrants. My father’s parents came to America in the very early 20th century. They were Jewish and the main reason they came was to escape and Antisemitism. 

Grandma and grandpa came from a place where, as a minority, they were hated – to a place whose founding principles were equality and liberty – well, at least for white folk. All that they, and others like them,  wanted was a chance to make a life not mired in hatred. Grandpa’s first way of earning a living was to own gumball machines.

So, I give a danm about others partly because I am just rwo generations removed from immigrants; immigrants who embraced America’s dream –  and I am proud of that. 

The American dream is eroding now; eroding at an unprecidented rate; leaving in it’s wake both sadness and disdain for anyone who’s not a gun-toting rich white Christian. Most horrific is that this is happening in a part of the world where every gun-toting rich white Christian is an immigrant! 

What has this to do with Passover? Easy. 

On Passover one of the greatest mitzvot is to welcome strangers into your home. This is because, just like the gun-toting rich white Christians were in America, we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We embrace “strangers” because we WERE strangers. Not only that, if we let liberty continue to erode, we could become them once again. 

It happened in Russia. It happened in Germany. If you think it won’t happen in America the I beg you to open your eyes and polish up your critical thinking skills. Because… it is.

On Passover especially, we don’t build wall; we open doors. We don’t exclude strangers; we embrace them. We don’t detest diversity; we embrace it. 

This must happen for everyone, every day. Only then will we open the door and will Elijah stay for longer than just a swig of bad wine. Only then will Eliahu ha navi hearld the messianic age. Or, for we who do not believe in all the theology, only then will people stop treating each other like shit and embrace dignity and love.
This Passover I urge you to RESIST hate and embrace all humanity. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan “Mr. Trump, tear down (the plans for) this wall”.

Hag Pesach Someach!

It seems that, each year, the usurpation of every single Christmas Carol for the purpose of selling more stuff bothers me more.  Maybe this year I’m just a bit extra grumpy from the steroids I’m taking after my brain radiation. Or, maybe I’m just in one of my moods. But, this year, I’m getting pretty tired of Christmas advertising.

After all my years of questioning religious dogma you may be surprised that I say this but:

my religious Christian friends are right when they say “Jesus is the reason for the season”. 

We can extend that into my Jewish context  by remembering that the rededication of the 2nd temple after having our culture threatened by much greater military force is the reason for Hanukkah. We should even remember that the pagan roots of seasonal traditions like Christmas Trees are really about the solstice and the timing of our fragile planet’s Gaia-esque lifecycle. Even my athiest and agnostic friends can relate to celebrating another year of living on a funky little blue planet that is so full of unceasing wonder, and so unlikely to have borne us. The main thing, to me, is that in the darkness of winter we can celebrate our faiths and our vision of a world healed and renewed.

It is no secret that I don’t believe what my Christian friends believe. I don’t focus my life on eschatology, I focus it on what I know I can affect by working for this life, not a next one. If you guys are right and there is some place called “Heaven” please put in a good word for me because I think I’m a good guy and do good work for the world. In the meantime the extent of the eschatological Steve Bilow is limited to leaving a decent place for those who will follow me, to live. If I don’t clean up my Karma and I have to reincarnate without being promoted to Mavatar Bilow for another 1000 lives. so be it.

That said, here is my message to my Christian pals.

What I think and believe should be entirely irrelevant to you. It is what you believe that is important. Furthermore, if you respect me and I respect you then we will always be able to learn from each other, to understand the unknown better, and to love each other more. So, let’s just do that and continue healing the universe together.

Please at least consider this:

If you think that you have a belief system that will improve the world without disrespecting others, murdering people, or infringing on other people’s freedoms and liberties, pursue it with gusto. Just stay open to the high likelihood they we Jews, most Muslims, the Hindus, Buddhists, Shintos, Unitarians, Mormons, athiests, Jains, agnostics, Taoists, and others also have the same goals. I may call dogma “irrational” but I’ll apologize right now it that offends you. All I ask in return is an equal amount of respect.

The Unitarian Universalists have a very beautiful saying. They say:

One light, many windows.

That was taught to me by one of my followers and it sums things up very well.

My own way of saying the same thing is to tell the story of the blind men and the elephant:

One blind man is near an elephant’s leg and thinks an elephant is like a tree. Another, is by his tail and thinks an elephant is like a snake. A third is by his trunk and thinks an elephant is a big garden hose. All are right based on their available data. 

Substitute the word “God” for “Elephant” and you can imagine us as each having limited knowledge of something we can’t see and about which we can never have more than speculative data.

I like the UU concept better.

And on the topic of respect:

I would say that every television or radio commercial that usurps your festive and holy music to sell a car, a toy, a movie, a diamond, a perfum, a bar of soap, an insurance policy, a debt restructuring plan, a condom, a plane ticket, a larger erection, a cure for COPD, a new job as a highly paid truck driver, an adjustable bed, a new vertical blind, an HDTV, a department store gift card, some nice new jeans, or anything else, is an affront to your beliefs. So, Christian friends, what you should really be offended by is the usurping of Christmas by commercialism. If you really want more for respect Christianity then don’t let it become a bacchanal of commercialism.

All that said, I’m off to work. Hopefully I’ll listen to some Christmas music on XM Radio. There I can contemplate love, joy, peace, God, holiness, truck driving, and perhaps a bit of erectile dysfunction. If the latter 2 outweigh the former 5, well, that’s why God invented audio books.

I wish all who celebrate Christmas a blessed Christmas Eve and a wonderful Christmas Day. Please fill it with the love and light, the care for the less fortunate, and the peaceful compassion that the Christ in which you believe would have it filled.

Merry Christmas!

Today I have every reason to be thankful for a wide array of wonderful doctors, technologies, friends, and, of course the blessing of being married to Patt Bilow.

If you are one of the regular readers of my blog then you know that I am among the least intellectually consistent people you will find. Although I don’t take the Bible literally, I am very active in my synagogue. Although I tend to be skeptical about most things spiritual, I spent many years as a disciple of Paramshansa Yogananda and the Self Realization Fellowship. Although I am really bad at it, I tend to be as much of a rationalist as my love for Judaism, my love of Kriya Yoga, and my love of all of the amazingly wonderful religious friends that I have in my life allows.

The whole point of writing this blog is that I do struggle with my rationalism in relationship to my interest in, and openness to accepting, other people’s viewpoints. This blog is all about my struggle and my skepticism. It’s intended to allow me to share my wavering thinking with all of you, in the hope that if even one of my posts helps someone else I will have done a good thing. So, once again, as I struggle with rationalism and religiosity, I wanted to talk about Thanksgiving and the ability to build a life of gratitude whether or not one is religious.

This year, I want to do this by sharing my personal set of gratitudes.

One of the most interesting things I’m grateful for is that someone invented a medical technology called MRI. What kind of guy would even think about hitting a human body with a magnetic pulse to get all your atoms to line up and then to image that body by measuring how long it takes them to go back to the way they were! The guy must be a genius. What completely blew me away though was to realize that the genius who invented this technique has almost diametrically opposite beliefs to mine.

You have seen me write here, several times before, that I typically don’t care much for beliefs in creationism or those who deny evolution. What blew me away was to find that Dr. Raymond Damadian the “father of MRI” converted to Born Again Christianity with Billy Graham in the 1950s. Now, if you think I have conflicting thoughts and feelings and views, this guy makes mine look like nothing.

I really don’t understand how a guy with this level of brilliance could be an advocate for creationism; even having written about it in his book. That said, he is clearly a genius, has done more for the medical profession than almost anyone, and has now done more for me than most other people in the world have done for me because, only through his invention, were they able to find my tumor.

One would expect that I would be a fan of a guy who started his college career as a violinist at Juilliard and ended it as one of the most important inventors of a medical device ever. But you certainly wouldn’t expect me to be that much of a fan of a creationist. So the first thing that I want to say is that I am thankful for this guy, and the second thing I have to say is that my respect for him shows once again that I should not make value judgments about a person because of their religious beliefs. I am thankful that I’ve had another opportunity to come to realize this. Dr. Damadian has given me two new things for my collection of gratitude.

  • One, I am grateful for MRI.
  • Two, I am grateful for yet another lesson in religious tolerance.

I’m also indebted to the guys who invented Stereotactic Radiosurgery. Swedish neurosurgeon Lars Leksell first described it in a seminal paper in 1951. His work led to the Gamma Knife. But Dr. Barcia-Salorio in Madrid is the first guy to use something similar to what I just had done. He used a fixed cobalt device rotating around the patient’s head, not for tumors but for blood system malformations. Then Osvaldo Betti in Buenos Aires developed a machine, where you sit in a rotating chair and a linear accelerator (linac) moves in non-coplanar coronal arcs around the isocenter, which is the math wiz way of saying “the thingy ya wanna hit“. I layed on a flat bed which I think came from Federico Colombo in Vincenza who described a multiple non-coplanar arc concept that moved the linac around a couch in 1984. So, gratitude comes again. This time for:

  • Three, I’m grateful for the noble, honorable, ethical, life-affirming uses of radiation that stand in opposition to all the negative results of nuclear science.

But these folks are all people of the past. The present is full of blessings as well. My Neurosurgeon Dr. Burchiel, my Radiation Oncologist Dr. Kubicky, and their entire staffs are medical blessings of the present. The dosimitrist and medical physicist are mathematical blessings of the present. Even my overly expensive American medical insurance system is a blessing in its own way. These are gratitudes 4, 5, and 6

  • Four: I’m grateful that I live in a city where I can drive for 20 minutes to OHSU, a world-class teaching hospital with great doctors and a budget that allows them to own world-class instruments.
  • Five: I’m grateful that mathematics, medical science, and physics have merged in ways that can save, rather than destroy, lives.
  • Six: I’m grateful that I get to work for a company that gives me acceptable medical coverage, despite the costs.

But, clearly, the present has many more blessings than the doctors and scientists. More important than anything else is the people who I call friends and colleagues who have been so supportive:

  • Seven: I’m grateful for the myriad friends of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Unitarian Universalist,  and other traditions, who offered their prayers for me.
  • Eight: I’m grateful for my Objectivist, athiest, and other non-religious friends who offered such encouragement over the past few months.
  • Nine: I’m grateful to live in a community, here in Portland, that offers me the extraordinary friendships of people like Traci, Cindy and Tom, LeeAnn, Jon and Mair, Julie, Ann and Robin, Peter and Yukiko, Michele and David, Mike, and many, many more.
  • Ten: I’m grateful for WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter which have given me connections to my family, friends, and colleagues near and far; and which have allowed me to reconnect with my past in a profound way.
  • Eleven: I’m grateful for my own psychological makeup which gave me a sense of humor, the strength to be powerfully brave in the face of fear, the willingness to work through my feelings publicly, the ability to remain lighthearted amidst darkness, and the ability to turn everything into humor.
  • Twelve: More than anything, I’m grateful to have Patt Bilow by my side, no matter what.

These twelve gratitudes certainly have a spiritual component. Arguably, they may have a religious one. But, I think it’s fair to say that it is not necessary to have a specific view of God in order to maintain these 12 senses of gratitude. Certainly it does not require one to be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or atheist, or anything else. It doesn’t require one to meditate. It doesn’t require one to pray. It doesn’t require one to forsake anything. It doesn’t require one to embrace anything. At least, in all of those cases, it doesn’t require any particular religion or belief system.

All it really requires is to look around, to seek blessings in everything around you, to embrace yourself for who you are, to refuse to give into negativity  (which I am too oft prone to do), and to appreciate your life for what it is, what you can accomplish, and who is surrounding you to support you along the journey.

So this Thanksgiving I want to once again remind us that it is not necessary to have a specific Godhead in order to feel thanks. If you are religious, that is great.  But please don’t think that your religion, or any religion, or any individual believe system is the only path to grace. You don’t need anything supernatural or mystical to feel a sense of gratefulness and thanksgiving, you need only look around and appreciate.

Happy Thanksgiving!

So, I’ve been sitting here in my backyard, sipping scotch, waiting for Shabbat to begin and pondering the interesting conflict we have this year between Shabbat and Tisha B’Av. You see, Shabbat is all about joy, yet Tisha B’Av is all about lamentation. On Shabbat we are not supposed to fast yet on Tisha B’Av we are mandated to fast. So, what do we do?

Not surprisingly, The rabbis have an answer to everything. Unlike most Shabbats, where it is a mitzvah to have sexual relations with your spouse, on this Shabbat you are not supposed to. You are also not supposed to read any parts of Torah on Saturday afternoon unless they are parts specifically permitted on Tisha B’Av. You’re supposed to do the Tisha B’Av stuff on Sunday. But, you’re not supposed to have a mournful separation meal before the fast that you begin on Saturday night.

I have a feeling that all of that means very little in the Reform Jewish movement. Still, it seems like you need to treat this Shabbat and Sunday in a special way.

Basically, one thing I think we can share is that Shabbat joy cannot be diminished. That is the number one holiday in the Jewish calendar. And, moving the mourning to Sunday is not an Earth-shattering proposition. So, that’s all you seem to really need to worry about.

But I have come up with one more thing that I think is important. We’re going to do our usual mourning by reading the book of Lamentations on Sunday. But one of the things we should focus on in the joy that we express during this Shabbat is the joy of knowing that after all the horrors we’ve been through and all the millennia when the Jews have been persecuted, expelled, tortured, hated, and murdered, we still exist! 

There has been plenty of evil in the world over thousands of years and there will continue to be evil over thousands more. But, despite the evil and despite the hatred, the Jewish people have continued to persevere even in the face of genocide and even in the face of the anti-Semitism that exists around the world today. 

If that’s not a reason for Sabbath joy then I don’t know what is.

Shabbat Shalom.

Every year, as Tisha B’Av arrives, I write about all the Jewish tragedies that supposedly occurred in this very day,

Tisha B’Av used to be a time to mourn the destruction of the first, and then second, temple. But, a big problem arose with Reform Judaism because, in our faith, we have no wish to return to the days of ritual sacrifice. We also don’t necessarily believe that there is an actual dude called “the Messiah” so we don’t have a reason to want the temple back.

We believe that, through our actions, we can improve the world to the extent that one day a Messianic age will arrive through our efforts. We need no savior, like Christians do; no singular prophet; and no special guy from the lineage of David. What we DO need it to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. Each individual is tasked with doing their own little part until one day the sum of those parts is great enough to affect a global culture of holiness, respect, and love.

What we also need is the courage to press on no matter the obstacles. THAT is why I care so much about Tisha B’Av. Irrespective of mourning the Temple, we can use this day to realize that our people have survived countless instances of cruelty and hatred and yet we have remained.

Think about it. In this week’s Torah portion, the first of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses begins the first of his three great “sermons”.  He reminds us, through a perspective that is much more mature in its deutero-retelling than in the original tellings earlier in Torah, of all the things we have been through. He also reminds us of our failures and our lack of courage and persistence. In a rather timely sort of annual occurrence, it is said that one of the things that happened on Tisha B’Av was the failure of the “spies” to come back from reconnoitering the promise land with confidence in our success. Moses not only reminds the people of their lack of faith and their unwillingness to persevere and enter the land but he takes personal responsibility for it by reminding them that G-d is angry with him as well.

What I’m saying here is that, in his well seasoned maturity, Moses takes responsibility even for the things that he himself did not do. The buck stops with Moses. From this we learn that we, as a society, must have the forbearance to take action AND that we, as individuals, must have the integrity to accept responsibility for making those actions work or not work.

So, on this Tisha B’Av I am not suggesting we neglect the temple. Nor am I suggesting that we ignore the crusades, the inquisition, the expulsion from Spain, the expulsion from Portugal, the weak will of 10 out of 12 biblical spies, the mass transport of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz, or anything else that has tragically befallen the Jews throughout history. Rather, I suggest that, as we mourn the myriad terrors, we use that memory to notice that we yet remain a people.

Remember that much of the reason we persist is that we never give up, never give in, never allow humiliation to trump fortitude, and never act with complacency in the hope that all will be fine with a new temple, a Davidic Messiah, a second-coming of Christ, or anything else.

Don’t wait for the end of days to take responsibility for doing your part to bring about the world you hope to someday have.

B’Shalom.