Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

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!

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Every year on Tisha B’Av I write a little essay here. This year I’m not sure what to say. The Ninth day of Av is traditionally the day that we mourn the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Since we Reform Jews don’t want the temple cult to come back we have, in recent years, used the day to mourn all of the tragedy of the Jewish people. Every year I think that the Jewish people and the state of Israel are so far better off then we once were. Every year that dream seems to be unfulfilled, or shattered, or at least kicked in the balls a bit. This year is no exception. But, instead of telling you all the reasons why we have a long, long way to go, I will just sum it up with one example. Today an Israeli Olympic athlete beat an Egyptian athlete in a Judo match in Rio. The Egyptian would not only not shake hands but even refused to bow to the Israeli. When an Israeli can’t even get the courtesy of a bow that is mandatory by international Judo rules, let alone a handshake, at an event founded on good sportsmanship between countries, just because of his nationality, the Jewish people have plenty still to mourn. That’s all I have to say.

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!

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.

In 1988, 60 headstones were overturned in the Jewish cemetery in the Alsatian city of Sarre-Union. In 2001, the same holy resting place had 54 graves vandalized. Yesterday, once again, a place supposedly of peace was desecrated. From what I have heard, Sarre-Union cemetery consists of about 400 graves and, this time, around 200 of them (!!!) were violated,” Not only is the is the 3rd time in 27 years, but it is the worst attack yet.

According to Bernard Cazeneuve, the Minister of the Interior: “The country will not tolerate this new injury which goes against the values that all French people share”… “Every effort will be made to identify, question and bring to justice the person or persons responsible for this ignominious act.” Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Tweeted that the attack is “a vile, anti-Semitic act, an insult to the memory” of the dead.”

Well, no shit M. Cazeneuve et M. Valis! This is indeed a vile act. The question, though, is: What is France going to do to stop it? It really does not seem much.

As a huge Francophile, who loves your country, your art, your music, your food, and your culture I want to say this to my French friends:

Nous ne sommes pas votre problème!!! Laissez nos tombes en paix!  L’antisémitisme français doit arrêter maintenant!

I’m sorry that my French sucks but you get the point. I won’t post the photos that have bounced around the media because I won’t share the crime of the swastika here. But, suffice it to say, French troubles are not the fault of the Jews. Leave us in peace.

Recently I’ve been reading a book called “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus” by Professor Suzannah Heschel, the daughter of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory. The book is about Geiger’s intellectual quest to bring proper understanding of ancient Jewish texts to the study of the historical Jesus.

Geiger’s work is particularly important in light of the very biased and blatantly antisemitic Christian scholarship that was going on in the 19th century. Therein, Jews were always depicted in a negative light, as is often done, thanks to PAUL, Not Jesus, in the New Testament. Geiger’s work proposed that, contrary to what is shown in the Gospels, Jesus was the product of the Pharisees traditions of religious innovation. To Geiger, Jesus was, not only NOT at odds with the Pharisees, he was, himself, a member of that very tradition. 19th-century New Testament historiography was fundamentally based on the work of the people who had no knowledge, or very limited correct knowledge, of the Talmud or the real teachings and writings of either the Pharisees or the Sadducees.

Many Christian scholars hated Geiger’s work. In fact, some of the most important Jewish scholars of that time also were at odds with Geiger. Personally I like Geiger’s work and it has forced an interesting thought to pop into my head.

In my tradition we have a book which we commonly refer to either as the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh. Typically, that book is also referred to by Christians as the Old Testament. I have come to believe that, while the words on the page may be the same words, the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are not the same book.

It has occurred to me that the Bible is more like a temporal hologram than it is like a fixed narrative. Looking at it from one direction it seems to be the mythological narrative of my Jewish people. But, looked at from another angle it is an entirely different book. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a closed ended narrative. To my Christian friends it is simply an anticipatory narrative trying prophesying that which is explained in the New Testament.

I happen to enjoy studying the Bible with a combination of people from different religious traditions. But I have come to realize that my Christian friends perspective on the words, and the interpretation thereof, is so vastly divergent from our Jewish reading of the text that we really are not even studying the same book.

This can explain why Jewish and Christian political views are often so vastly different. It also explains why evangelical Christianity is so often explicitly against everything that I and my tradition hold to be dear and sacred.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean that neither of our religious traditions should try to understand the other from within its own context, Rather, we should try to understand each other’s tradition from the context in which the OTHER resides. In other words, Christians must learn to respect Jews, and Jews must learn to respect Christians, knowing that they do not really have the same book as a foundation. Indeed, we have the same words. But looking at the book from the standpoint of a hologram, where the same object can look completely different from different angles, we have to realize that we really don’t have a common book. We have a common history, and we have common foundations. But intellectually we don’t really have a common Bible.

Here is my opinion on how we should approach this issue.

Every once in a while, Christians should walk around to the other side of the Bible and try to view it from our angle. We then, should walk to their side of the Bible and see what the book looks like from that side of the hologram. Most importantly we need to remember that, although the words on the page are the same, our interpretations are so vastly different that we shouldn’t be trying to fit each other into the mold of our religion.

The words might be the same, the stories might be the same, but the fact is that our foundational narrative is not the same. As long as we continue to pretend that it is, neither of our religions will properly value the other; neither will give the other the level of respect we each deserve.

So, my recommendation is that we view the Hebrew Bible as a hologram; as you move from one side to the other the image completely changes. Let’s just respect that.

On this day in Jewish history, this day in 586 BCE,  the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) of the ancient Jews was destroyed. Our Orthodox and many Conservative coreligionists believe that, on this day, the Jewish world was draped in darkness. On this day, they believe, it became impossible to comprehend our daily opportunity to rise above the physical realm and to make all life a spiritual experience. The Orthodox tell me that after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, it became far more difficult to experience God in our everyday lives. We Reform Jews don’t believe that. We believe that we carry on the tradition of the Pharisees in adapting our spiritual practice to the the times. We don’t mourn the Temple. But that does not mean we have a shortage of things over which to weep!

In the 21st century we do not long for the daily sacrifices of the temple cult. Much as Spinoza adapted to the Enlightenment, we have replaced our longing with a Religious experience that borrows from the Zeitgeist of Post-modernity. This is not necessarily good in my view, because the Postmodern embodies much I dislike. In fact, I refuse to be called “a postmodern” because it associates one with the irrationality of the likes of Derrida and the post-structuralists. Yet, if you think about it, our method of Torah study now has much in common with Gademer’s notions as described in “Truth and Method”; so, it’s fair to say we are Postmodernly influenced. But, my point is simply that we don’t blindly hold on to the past. We grow. We believe that revelation is a daily occurrence if you just look deeply for it.

Still, the result of Jerusalem’s destruction can be seen throughout history and into modern times. Not only do we often feel distant from the divine but we are still regularly attacked by fanatics who have an obscene conception of a God who they think likes death. Violence against us, not just by fanatic Muslims and neo-Nazis, but even among crazed irrational crowds who would storm a French Synagogue or hold banners depicting us drinking blood in a place like Seattle, is still viewed as a viable tactic.

Amid this, now increasing, antisemitism we Jews can not abandon our people and our culture. The first and second Temples are long gone; but what we call pintele yid (the Jewish spark within our people) must live on. My Orthodox friends may tell me that our Covenant insures that it will never die. I think differently. Anything can die – and will die – if not maintained and cultivated. I believe that only through our action can that Jewish spark remain. We must look at the Crusades, the centuries of ghettoization and marginalization,  the ashes of the Shoah, the persecution of the Russian Jews, and even the past month’s dead Israeli soldiers and, within them,  find the fragments of our culture upon which to build. We must never give up. Yet, I must add my view that the life of the spark is not just maintained because of some Brit with God; it is we humans and our commitment to responsible action, that is the only way to keep the”pintele” afire.

As we mourn the destruction of Tisha B’Av, my wish is that every Jew will stand with pride against those who hate us. My bigger wish is that each one of us will commit ourselves to taking personal responsibility for building a brighter spark from the ashes of the ever existing, ever unwarranted, hatred we see perpetrated against us.