Guides to Living

It has been close to a year since I posted on this blog. Today one of my fellow Curmudgeons sent an essay which I want to share. It is a neat summary of ways to make life better for each of us.

Nine Evidence-Based Guidelines for a ‘Good Life’

I also recommend Gary Gunderson’s book “Leading Causes of Life” which does the same at greater length.

I also recommend a book I read on my mother’s recommendation at least half a century ago. “You Are Not The Target” by Laura Archera Huxley (wife of Aldous) which contains 33 recipes for living.

Waskow Giving Thanks

Art Waskow and I go back a very long way. In many ways he is more like me than any other leader in the Jewish peace movement. That goes back to our teacher Reb Zalman who saw the links between spirituality and Tikkun Olam.

This week’s blog at his Shalom Center is worth reading as a commentary on over half a century of activism and how we are far from done.

While you are at the Shalom Center, please look around the site.

A Prayer for Voting

Behold, I am intending through my vote | my prayer today
to seek peace for this country, as it is written (Jer. 29:7):
“Seek the peace of the city where I cause you to roam
and pray for her to YHVH (Adonai/God), for in her peace you all will
have peace.”
May it be Your will, YHVH, that votes be counted faithfully,
and may You count my vote as if I had fulfilled this verse with all my power.
May You give a listening heart to whomever we elect today
and may it be good in Your eyes to raise for us a good government
to bring justice and peace to all living in this land
and all the world, and to Jerusalem
and to honor the image of God in all humanity and in Creation,
for rulership is Yours.
Just as I have participated in elections,
so may I merit to do good works and to repair the world through all my efforts,
and through the act of…[fill in your pledge]…which I pledge to do today
on behalf of all living creatures, in remembrance of the covenant of
Noah’s waters
to protect and to not destroy the earth and her plenitude.
May You give to all the peoples of this country the strength and the will
to pursue righteousness and to seek peace as a unified force
in order to cause to flourish throughout the world good life and peace,
and fulfill for us the verse: “May the pleasure of Adonai our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands for us; make the work of our hands
endure.” (Ps. 90:17)



[NOTE TO MY READERS:  This is a chapter from a book that I never got published.  I think it is a response to the legal doctrine of Originalism.  What authority do foundational documents have and how are these documents part of making decisions in today’s world?]





At one time the Jewish calendar did not come ready-made from funeral directors and kosher butchers.  The 150-year calendar did not exist.  In fact, the calendar was proclaimed from month to month.  The moon takes about twenty-nine and a half days to orbit the earth and the ancient rabbis were well aware of this fact.  Instead of pre-determining that this month would be 29 days and that one would last 30 days the new month was proclaimed by the President of the Sanhedrin based on sightings of the new moon.  The most likely reason for traditional Jews observing two days of the festivals is that the proclamation in Jerusalem or Yavneh might arrive in distant communities too late to determine the holiday.


One year the President of the Sanhedrin, Rabban Gamaiel, announces that a certain day was the first day of Tishri and was, therefore, Rosh HaShanah.  Rabbi Joshua (who we have already met) however, believed that the testimony of the witnesses was wrong and that Rosh HaShanah was actually later.  When Rabban Gamaliel heard about this, he ordered that Rabbi Joshua appear before him on the day that Rabbi Joshua said would be Yom Kippur with staff in hand and money in his pocket, something no religious Jew would do if it were actually Yom Kippur.  Rabbi Joshua as very distressed.  He was sure that he was right and that the President was wrong.


Rabbi Akiva went to talk with Rabbi Joshua and said that whatever Rabban Gameliel did was right by definition. The Torah says, “These are the feasts of the LORD, the holy convocations which YOU shall proclaim.”  (Lev. 23:4)  Ever since God told Moses in Egypt, “This month shall mark FOR YOU the beginning of months” (Ex. 12:2) that calendar was in the hands of human courts.   Right or wrong, the court determined what the calendar would be.


Rabbi Joshua then went to confer with his colleague Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinos, whose opinion had been the basis of Rabbi Joshua’s dissent and told him the whole story.  Rabbi Dosa said to him, “If we question the decision of the court of Rabban Gamaliel, then we will have to question the decision of every court all the way back to Moses.  Every court in its day is as authoritative as that of Moses was in his day.”  Rabbi Joshua then went to Rabban Gamaliel on day which, according to his own calculation, should have been Yom Kippur.  Rabbban Gamaliel greeted him with a kiss and called him, “my master and my student – my teacher in knowledge and my student in your fulfillment of my words.”


This story illustrates a basic principle of Jewish law, but also raises some difficult problems which still perplex us today.  On the one hand, we learn that the authority of the rabbis of our day is decisive.  On the other hand, it is a basic principle of Jewish law that the older an authority is, that is, the closer an authority is in generations to Mount Sinai, the more authoritative the opinion.  The opinions of more recent generations in the Talmud always defer to those of earlier generations; and the earliest rabbinic generations


defer to the decisions of the pre-rabbinic Sanhedrin’s and even more to opinions which are found in scripture with the Torah being the absolute source of authority which may not be contradicted.


The problem is that a tradition, any tradition, needs both sides of the equation in order to be a living tradition.  There has to be a transcendent basis for the tradition – an origin which says that the tradition has a basis beyond human argument.  On the other hand that tradition must be interpreted in order to meet the practical needs of each generation as new situations arise.  Without the first, the tradition had no reason to exist beyond the generation that initiated it.  Without the second, it would disappear because it will have ceased to be relevant.


Martin Buber illustrates this idea beautifully with a Hasidic teaching.  In a little book of Hasidic sayings called The Ten Rungs, the first teaching in the first “Rung” is as follows:  Why do we say in our prayers “our God AND God of our ancestors?”  This seems redundant since we worship the same God worshipped by our ancestors.  Why do we use both phrases?  “Our God” is the God we believe in because of our own faith and our own experience.  “God of our ancestors” refers to the God we believe in because of the tradition which has been handed down to us.  Experiences which bring us to belief in God when we abrogated by other experiences (see the previous chapter), so we need to be able to fall back on the religious tradition we have because it is tradition.  Tradition by itself, however, is not enough because it does not include any personal experiences.  We need both.


The history of every religion begins with a revelation made to one person in one generation.  That initial revelation, usually preserved in a scripture, is the continuing basis for that religion.  In later generations, some will rise and will claim either to receive a new revelation or to teach a return to the original revelation.  Every religion needs to respond to changing times and circumstances if it is to survive, but cannot afford to be constantly challenged by new claims to transcendent truths.  Every branch of Judaism claims to be the authentic heir to the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Every Christian church claims to be the true church.  Every Islamic sect claims to be the true bearer of the teachings of the Prophet.  Moreover, Christianity claims to be the true Israel and Islam claims to he the true heir to Abraham.


How does Judaism meet this challenge?  Our tradition teaches that the Torah existed before Creation and was actually the blue-print for Creation.  When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, he went up into Heaven and met the challenges of one host of angels after another until he arrived at the Throne of Glory.  Under the Throne of Glory was the Torah which was given to him over the protests of the angels.  They wanted the Torah to stay in Heaven, but God reminded them that they did not need teachings concerning eating and conducting business and so forth because angels do none of these things.  The Torah was for humanity’s needs.


Moses brought the Torah down from Sinai and gave it to the people.  What did the people hear?  The Torah says it was only the Ten Commandments.  Some rabbis taught that it was only the first two or even the first of the commandments or perhaps only the first words, anokhi (I).  It was a Hasidic teacher who said that all that the people heard was the sound of the first letter; but the first letter is an alef whose sound is that opening of the throat –the beginning of sound in which all words are possible.  Tradition says that Moses did not bring down just the written Torah, but the Oral Torah which includes all of the teachings and decisions that would grow out of Torah.


Did the Torah received by Moses then include instructions for a Jewish astronaut observing Shabbat on the Moon?  Did Moses receive information on the law concerning test-tube babies and insider stock trading?  There is a tradition that before he died Moses asked whether future generations would learn the same Torah he had taught the people.  God took Moses through time to the classroom of Rabbi Akiva almost a millennium and a half after the death of Moses.  Rabi Akiva taught a lesson on the crowns which appear on certain letters in the Torah and Moses did not understand anything Akiva was saying.  “Where did his teaching come from,” Moses asked God?  Then Rabi Akiva announced, “and this is Torah which Moses received at Sinai.”  Even though he could not understand what was taught as Torah after so many generations, he understood that what he had taught contained the potential for teachings that would still be understood after so much time.


The process of interpretation of Torah begins already in the Torah.  When the case of the daughters of Zelopahad arose, Moses himself already had to modify the law.  Inheritance was to be only through sons, but Zelophhad had only daughters and, therefore, Moses had to correct the law to allow for inheritance by daughters.  Ezekiel the prophet was of priestly family and may even have witnessed the destruction of the First Temple.  In his vision of a rebuilt temple he described rules and rituals that did not exist in the time of the First Temple.  Later authorities were so disturbed by this that they tried to exclude parts of the writings of Ezekiel from the Biblical canon.  Others said that his vision referred to the Third Temple, which will be built by the Messiah, and not to the Second Temple which was built in the generations following Ezekiel.  When the Second Temple was built, it was decreed that prophecy was no more.  Even the voice from Heaven, which was heard by the Sanhedrin to support Rabbi Eliezer against Rabbi Joshua (see above page), was ignored.  “It is not in Heaven.”


Hillel taught that in deciding the law one had to go to the people to see what their needs are.  He is famous for his taqqanot, corrections in the law.  The most famous of these, the prozbul, is a good illustration of the taqqanah.  The Torah teaches that all debts are to be forgiven in the Sabbatical year (Deut. 15:1-2).  This was fine while we were an agrarian people among whom debt was incurred only in times of trouble.  By Hillel’s time, however, we are more urban and Jews were engaged in trade.  Debts were undertaken as a means of expanding one’s business or for increased participation in trade.  To forgive all debts every seven years would have effectively barred Jews from many business activities.  Hillel therefore taught that a debt could be turned over to a court to be


collected by the court for the creditor eve after the Sabbatical year.  In this way the Torah was kept, but a loop-hole had been created so that a Jew would not have to decide between earning a living and keeping the Torah.


About one thousand years ago in Rhineland, Rabbenu Gershom, the great legal authority of his age, noted that there were certain deficiencies in the laws regarding women’s rights.  Men could divorce them without their consent and, theoretically at least, could even remarry without divorcing (while women could neither initiate divorce nor remarry without a divorce).  Rabbenu Gershom, therefore, decreed a taqqanah to the law which required the consent of a wife before a divorce could be final and also forbade a husband to remarry without a divorce being final (but women still could not initiate a divorce or remarry without a divorce – which we will come back to).  Although technically limited in scope, this decision is still considered binding on all Ashkenzi Jews, even today.


It seems apparent that Jewish tradition holds the Torah sacrosanct even while allowing for changes in how the laws are applied which seem to violate the plain sense of what is stated in the Torah.  This was true and there are many examples to prove it beyond those given here.  Why is it no longer true that traditional Jews are known for such dynamic and creative responses to modern problems in applying the law?  Why are there streams of Judaism with differences among themselves as to how to interpret the Torah and apply it to Jewish lives?


Two centuries ago the world was shaken by great revolutions which had a profound effect on Judaism.  The enlightenment suggested new ways of thinking, even new ways of thinking about religion.  The American and French Revolutions for the first time made large numbers of Diaspora Jews full citizens of secular states.  The founder of Habad Hasidism once commented that Napoleon (who exported the French Revolution all over Europe) was good for the Jews and bad for Judaism.  Jews would now have civil rights more or less equal to the rights of the majority.  However, Jews also had the right to simply drop out of Judaism into a secular society.  At one time a Jew had to become Christian to be accepted in the larger society.  Now a Jew simply had to agree to live by the same laws as everyone else and could remain a Jew.


Almost immediately Reform Judaism came into being.  Napoleon brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire in 1809, declaring an end to Jewish legal disabilities.  Already in 1808 a Jewish activist, Israel Jacobson, who was much influenced by Enlightenment thinking, began to organize the Reform movement in Judaism.  Even though reactionary forces tried to turn back the clock after Napoleon’s fall, Reform Judaism survived and flourished.  The idea of being a “German of the Mosaid religion” began to take hold.  By the 1830’s, there were Reform congregations all over Central Europe and the movement crossed the Atlantic with émigrés fleeing reactionary regimes and began to establish this new movement in the New World.


The Reform movement sought to create a form of Judaism which would meet the needs of Jews who would be actively involved in an emancipated society as equals.  Many


prayers were read in German and sermons likewise were preached in German (or whatever the local vernacular was as the movement spread).  Mixed choirs performed, the liturgy was shortened with most nationalistic and messianic references deleted.  Bar Mitzvah was replaced by Confirmation which included girls.  In these and in other ways, Judaism was reformed so as to make it appealing to Jews who wanted to blend in with the broader society and who did not want to seem to be too exotic.


Of course, the traditional rabbis did their best to quash this new development.  They had the sympathy of the authorities in many places and Reform congregations were sometimes closed by government decree.  However, Reform was an idea whose time had come and it would not disappear.  Then a German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsh, became a new kind of opponent to Reform  He taught that one could be an observant traditional Jew and a full participant in a modern emancipated society at the same time.  It would not be necessary to abandon tradition, only to distinguish between Torah tradition and customs which did not have the force of law but which had served to make traditional Jews seem alien.  Orthodox Judaism was born.


In America, the Reform movement became a broad umbrella under the creative leadership of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.  This important leader founded the first American Yeshivah, congregational organization, and rabbinic association which were respectively called Hebrew Union College, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  The term “Reform” appeared in none of these names for a reason – Wise hoped to include all varieties of interpretation of Judaism under one banner which would be American Judaism.  Unfortunately, there were very real divisions in American Jewry and when the banquet for the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College featured treyfe seafood on the menu (an obvious set-up by the radicals), the traditionalists left to create their own movement which became the Conservative movement.


The proliferation of movements in American Judaism did not stop there.  A Reform rabbi, Felix Adler, created the Society for Ethical Culture, which is intended to be the rational and ethical elements of Judaism, without any of Judaism’s ethnic or particularistic elements.  This movement is not considered part of Judaism.  A Conservative rabbi, Mordechai Kaplan founded Reconstructionalism which is a branch of Judaism that emphasizes community and Jewish civilization with a somewhat radical theology.  Since World War II, a number of Hasidic sects, including one effectively founded in America (the Bostoner), have tried to maintain the cultural and religious life they knew in Eastern Europe maintaining that only in this way will Judaism survive in America.  The Havurah, or fellowship movement, that arose out of the ideals of the late sixties and early seventies has, in effect, constituted itself as a movement.  There is even a Humanistic Judaism and “Jewish Science.”  All of these in one way or another are providing responses to the challenges of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation.  Within these movements, at least the larger ones, there are sharp divisions of opinion on how to solve the challenges of Jews living in an open but non-Jewish society.



The problem of divorce, for example, has bee very much aggravated by the existence of marriage and divorce as civil institutions.  Marriage is easy.  If a Jewish couple lives together, they are, de facto, and therefore, de jure, married.  It does not matter who officiated or even if no one officiated.  Divorce, however, requires a specific legal procedure with an Orthodox court of rabbis.  Only about 10% of American Jews call themselves Orthodox.  The rest belong to other movements or to no movement.  Since the divorce rate for Jews approaches that for non-Jews in America and is, therefore, very high and since a great many divorcees remarry, a very serious problem arises.  If a Jewish woman marries, divorces, remarries and has children in the second marriage, if there was no religious divorce, the children of the second marriage are illegitimate, mamzerimMamzerim are not allowed to marry any Jew, except another mamzer or a convert to Judaism, and their children would also be mamzerim essentially forever.  This problem is so serious that the Talmud suggests (Kiddushin) intermarriage in his case.  If a male mamzer marries a non-Jewish woman, their children will not be Jewish and, therefore, not mamzerim.  These non-Jewish children can convert to Judaism and marry any Jew and the family line is saved.  There is no other remedy once the status of being a mamzer has been determined.


The Reform movement simply opted out of the entire situation by declaring long ago that civil divorce is accepted as binding.  The Conservative movement has included, after a good deal of controversy, a clause in the wedding contract that requires a couple to go to the Conservative rabbinical court in case of a civil divorce.  Orthodoxy has found no remedy.  Rav Moshe Feinstein, the most authoritative legal decisor of the twentieth century in America, decided that if the original ceremony had had a non-Orthodox rabbi as officiant, it was null and void as from the beginning.  Only kosher Orthodox weddings would require a get (religious divorce).  This decision, of course, raises other problems, but it does not solve all of the problems even for the Orthodox.  First of all, not all Orthodox rabbis accept Rav Feinstein’s decision.  Second, it is still only the man who can bring a divorce into a Jewish court.  If a man refuses or if he becomes incompetent or if he simply disappears, the wife is stuck, an Agunah (literally “chained”).  Some Jewish husbands even hold up civilly divorced wives for blackmail before they will grant a get.  The result is an unknown number of manzerim who may be in for a shock if they want to marry someone from a traditional family or if they want to marry in Israel.  These days Orthodox rabbis investigate the background of brides and grooms who come to them which also aggravates the problem.  Some Orthodox rabbis are offering legal devices to solve the problem, but none is widely accepted and none grants to women equal rights and protections.


Why is it that the Orthodox will not write a taqqanah to solve a problem of such great proportions?  Essentially, they maintain that there is no rabbi alive who has the authority to write a taqqanah that will be widely accepted.  The principle of the authority of a rabbinic court having authority in its own day has effectively been abandoned.  The scope of the problem is so overwhelming that most Orthodox authorities and many traditional Conservative authorities as well believe that to make accommodations to an open society in this way is to give in and to abandon the tradition to assimilation.



There are many other issues which lack solutions because of this quandary.  Intermarriage is widespread.  Should conversion to Judaism be made easier?  Should converts be actively sought as they once were but have not been for at least a millennium and a half?  Should children raised as Jews by Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers be accepted as Jews?  Can a common standard for conversion to Judaism be found?  These issues are hotly debated between the movements and even within the movements.  It seems vital to the future of Judaism that we regain a sense of balance between the demands of Sinai and demands of the world in which we live.  The restoration of the co-existence of these opposites is essential to the future of Judaism.





Extremism of All Kinds

The underlying problem here is that most people seem to want firm and pure responses to life’s questions and problems.  It is no surprise that youths (e.g., college students) hold to strong ideals.  They have not, most of them, encountered the challenges to safe beliefs and pure ideals.  Mark Twain is credited (probably falsely with the following quip.
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
All those complaints about behavior on campus, which have been around as long as there have been universities (around a millennium) and even before.  Some people never outgrow this immature need for certainty.  It comes out in their politics and their religion and in their cultural tastes and more.  That we are experiencing this political extremism is a sign of an ailment in our society and culture.  It is one that, for example, was warned of in the Federalist Papers.  Religious fundamentalists become zealots who are intolerant of any belief system but their own.  The same happens in politics.   People, in effect, stop thinking and seek their answers from a source.  The worst of these sources is when it is a single person.
This applies to all belief systems and all the important issues.  It is therefore found on both the left and the right.   Much of my work has been to get fellow rights and peace activists to be realistic and to figure out what is possible as well as what is desireable.  That blend of realism and idealism can come from the practice of critical thinking, which requires one to question even one’s own beliefs.  That is an important aspect of what our little group is all about.  We ought to be learning from each other even as we argue our own beliefs and opinions.

Mugwumps Redux

I remember in college studying political science and history that I thought countries whose political parties were bound by ideology was better than the chaos I saw in our parties. Each of the two of them had fairly broad ideological umbrellas.  Later I came to appreciate the value of diversity within parties.  Now I deeply miss those broad ideological umbrellas within each party.  Both of our major parties are bound by increasingly extreme versions of their ideologies.  Watching TV ads from South Carolina where GOP candidates are trying to outdo each other in right-wing extremism I feel our Republic is in danger of abandoning democracy.
And please don’t give me that nonsense about “we are a republic, not a democracy.”  All the term “republic” means is that we do not have a hereditary monarchy.  Every tyranny of every stripe calls itself a republic.  The term comes from Roman history.  When they overthrew the last of the seven kings who were the first rulers of Rome, they declared the new government “res publica,” which means law by the public.  So we are a republic just like the USSR, the GDR, the PRC, etc.  What distinguishes us from them is that we are a representative democracy.  The term “republic” only means that our government governs by common popular consent.  What those who say, “we are not a democracy but a republic are saying” is disturbing to me.  That seems to indicate real discomfort with the complexity and uncertainties, the messiness of democracy.  To me that represents a very real danger to our society as well as our system of government.  Plato was the first to explain how democracy gives way to tyranny.  We saw it in the artificial democracies imposed on much of Europe by Wilson and Versailles that almost all became fascist regimes between the world wars.  We are seeing a resurgence of this all over the world today and our President and his minions seems to favor those regimes over our traditional allies.
Both parties are in need of reformers and moderates.  I have said many times that this is the most credible way out of the current situation.  TR led the way at the start of the last century out of a very similar political and social malaise remembered as The Gilded Age (shiny on the surface and rotten beneath).  I think we are experiencing a second gildeed age and the political extremism we see is a symptom of that.  So is government by self-serving billionaires.
There are several efforts to get us out of this situation and No Labels is just one of them.  Public Citizen is another which has been around for a long time.
You may remember my essay about Mugwumps and why we should be Mugwumps.
These were mostly Republican political activists in the last quarter of the 19th century.  I’ll close with Mark Twain on partisanship as “normal insanity.”  (Do not mistake his comments on Islam as anything but how an ideological Christian sees another faith.  Twain hated all forms of bigotry, including that based on faith).  The introductory sentence is by Jonathan Haidt.

[In a 1907 essay title Christian Science, Mark Twain explains the normal psychology of group identity, and spins it into a plea for moral humility:]

“Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other, it will unriddle many riddles, it will make clear and simple many things which are involved in haunting and harassing difficulties and obscurities now…

“That is a simple rule, and easy to remember. When I, a thoughtful and unbiased Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. When a thoughtful and unbiased Mohammedan examines the Westminster Catechism, he knows that beyond any question I am spiritually insane. I cannot prove to him that he is insane, because you never can prove anything to a lunatic–for that is part of his insanity and the evidence of it. He cannot prove to me that I am insane, for my mind has the same defect that afflicts his. All democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the republicans and mugwumps know it. All the republicans are insane, but only the democrats and mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect; in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. When I look around me I am often troubled to see how many people are mad [gives long list]… This should move us to be charitable toward one anothers lunacies.”

The Most Important Biblical Verse


Being asked to preach at the Sunday morning closing service of an interfaith conference was, for me, a very great honor.  It was also a great challenge.  This was the ninth in a series of Interfaith Peace Conferences at the United Methodist Conference Center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.  Usually the preacher at this service has been a Christian guest speaker.  It would be my task to bring the conference to an inspiring close with thoughts people could take home with them.  I took that very seriously.

This series of conferences was the brainchild of Rev. Wright Spears, a pulpit minister who had done much for inter-racial and interfaith relations in his career.  The format involved bringing together religious figures from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to address a theme.  Having attended, planned, or lead many conferences in my career I can say that nothing I had ever been a part of was like these events.  We were able to bring leading experts from all over the world to speak at our conferences.  Perhaps it has been the beautiful setting of Lake Junaluska, but there was something very special about the spirit I felt there.

The theme of this conference was “Meeting The Other: Can We Talk?”  This idea of finding ways to help different kinds of people, people who believe different things, talk with and understand each other is on many people’s minds right now.  I know that there are many programs and projects around the country addressing this theme.

I have been involved with one such for decades – The Compassionate Listening Project.  Their motto is, “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.”

Together with a friend who is about 180 degrees from my political views I started a discussion group to facilitate dialogue among people who hold a variety of political and social beliefs.  We call ourselves the Curmudgeons.  I hold very strong views, but cannot regard myself as having a monopoly on right thinking.  I learn far more from people I disagree with than from people I agree with.

What was my sermon’s theme going to be?  We would have had three days of talking about dialogue among people of different faiths as well as social and political views.  Many of our regulars would be fairly described as liberal Christians, but at this conference we also had forty rural pastors from all over the country who decided to combine their annual meeting with ours.  That certainly increased the mix.

I asked myself, “What is the prerequisite for dialogue among different kinds of people?”  My answer was that we are all people.  We have our humanity in common.  Each of the three Abrahamic traditions shares that idea.  For several years I have been thinking, writing, and speaking about how I see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three faces of one faith, the faith of Abraham.  This is hardly novel.  Others have long pointed out that these three faiths have one common origin and one sense of tradition.  The New Testament relies on the truth of the Jewish scriptures and the truth of Islam likewise rests on the prophets who came before Mohammed from Adam to Jesus.

My method of presenting this idea would use sources from all three faiths as if they were one source, which, in my thinking, they are.  The result is the sermon that follows.  I do not preach from a written out text, but from notes.  In order to present this sermon here, I have gone back to my notes and made of them a readable (I hope) text.



One day Jesus was talking with some Pharisees[1] and one of them asked him a question.

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matt. 22:36-40)

Jesus’ answer was the Jewish answer and, what is more, the Pharisee answer to that question.  A century later a group of Rabbis was holding a similar discussion on the same question.  This was in the time of Rabbi Akiva, who usually gave the best and final answer, but not in this case.

Rabbi Akiva said the most important verse is, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. יי (Lev. 19:18).   But this time he colleague Ben Azzai bested him.  “Ben Azzai teaches: ‘This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.”, (Gen. 5:1) this principle is the most fundamental.  (Sifra on Leviticus 19:18)

If you ask most people who know scripture  which is the most important, the most fundamental verse in the Torah, they are very likely to say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” because it is the Torah’s version of The Golden Rule.  Why would a verse most people would pay little attention to top that?  Martin Buber noted that this verse could be correctly read, “You shall love your neighbor – he is like you.”  The lack of clarity in Hebrew makes TaNaKh difficult to translate, but that opens the way to multiple readings of the text.  Rabbinic tradition says that every word in the Torah has seventy meanings, which is a way of saying countless meanings.

Here are the two verses that together show the principle at work here.  This is the record of Adam’s line – When God created humankind, it was made in the likeness of God; male and female were they created. And, when they were created, [God] blessed them and called them Humankind. (Genesis 5:1-2)[2]  The basis for the Golden Rule, in whatever form, is that every human being is the same, an avatar of the divine.  We are all, every one of us, part of one family.

After Cain murdered his brother Abel, God asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” Of course we all remember Cain’s answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds, “What have you done?  Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10) The commentary on this found in the Talmud leads to a well-known principle of Jewish ethics that follows this idea of the unity of humanity.  The word translated as “blood” is actually in the plural form in the text.

For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: the bloods of your brother cry unto me: not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of thy brother, is said — i.e., his blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants.  For this reason was man created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul…, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul…, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.  Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my ancestor was greater than yours, …; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one of blessing: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings, the holy one of blessing, fashioned every person in the stamp op the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake. (SANH. 37a)

If we were all created the same in one mold or image, why is there so much diversity among human beings?  That Biblical story is familiar – The Tower of Babel.  After the Flood all of humanity was living in one place under one king.  They all spoke one language.  They got the idea of building a great tower to challenge Heaven.  God looked and said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they propose to do will be out of their reach.  Let us then go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5-7)  This text raises many intriguing questions, but for us it is the story of why humanity is so culturally diverse despite all being of one kind.[3]

Why would god do this?  Why divide humanity in a way that causes us not to understand each other?  Isn’t this the cause of wars, oppression, hatred, and injustice?  It seems that we were not ready for a united humanity and are required to go through thousands of years of conflict.  Does this make any sense at all?  We find a wonderful answer in two passages from the Koran.

We have revealed the Book to you (Muhammad) in all Truth. It confirms the (original) Bible and has the authority to preserve or abrogate what the Bible contains. Judge among them by what God has revealed to you and do not follow their desires instead of the Truth which has come to you. We have given a law and a way of life to each of you. Had God wanted, He could have made you into one nation, but He wanted to see who are the more pious ones among you. Compete with each other in righteousness. All of you will return to God who will tell you the truth in the matter of your differences.”  (5:48)

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you….(49:13)


Recently I reread one of Teilhard de Chardin’s books about his vision of a common human destiny.  He saw us as on an evolutionary path towards what he called The Omega Point.  This would be the culmination of Creation and, among other things, would bring all of humanity together as God intended.  Pope Benedict XVI explained this vision beautifully.

“And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history. Against the background of the modern evolutionary world view, Teilhard de Chardin depicted the cosmos as a process of ascent, a series of unions. From very simple beginnings the path leads to ever greater and more complex unities, in which multiplicity is not abolished but merged into a growing synthesis, leading to the “Noosphere” in which spirit and its understanding embrace the whole and are blended into a kind of living organism.”

Physics tells us that the universe is undergoing an inevitable process of increasing disorder in the universe called Entropy.  What de Chardin, who was a scientist as well as a priest, taught that human activity can reverse entropy itself.   “This will be the end and the fulfillment of the spirit of the Earth. The end of the world: the wholesale internal introversion upon itself of the noosphere, which has simultaneously reached the uttermost limit of its complexity and centrality. The end of the world: the overthrow of equilibrium [the Heat Death], detaching the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix, so that it will henceforth rest with all its weigh on God-Omega.”

Our teacher A. J. Heschel put it this way. “For whom does he plant who plants a tree?  For generations to come, for faces he has never seen.  Higher purposes are shrewdly disguised as ends of immediate usefulness.  It is as if divine cunning operated in human history, using our instincts as pretexts for the attainment of goals which are universally valid, a scheme to harness man’s lower forces in the service of higher ends.”

So where do we, you and I, fit into all of this?  Each of us is so small in the scheme of things.   It is essential that we go through our days encountering other people and recognizing them as being just like us, even though they are different.   Every single person is a living avatar of god – that is what it means that we are made in the divine image.  Some like to say, “we are in god’s hands.”  I see that differently, as did and do so many of the spiritually great people we try to learn from.  We are not in god’s hands – we are god’s hands.

In closing I want to share with you my favorite teaching on dialogue between people of differing opinions.  It comes from Rabbi Menachem-Mendel of Kotzk and was taught to me in this form by my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l).

If I am I because you are you


you are you because I am I


I am not I and you are not you


If I am I because I am I


you are you because you are you


I am I and you are you

[And we can talk.]

May each of us be able to see in our human encounters the face of God.



If anyone reading this wants to hear the original sermon from the conference, it is available at   My sermon begins an hour into the recording and nothing much happens for the first forty minutes or so.  However I do recommend listening to the music of the resident musical group on the recording.  They were very much the heart of our conference – Abraham Jam.  They are three accomplished singer-songwriters, one from each of the Abrahamic faiths.  You can find them on Youtube as well.  Also on Youtube there are major addresses from our last three conferences.

If anyone reading this would like to know about our next conference, which will take place on November 21-24, 2019 at Lake Junaluska.  The theme will be “Peace and The Arts”  There isn’t much posted on it yet, but go to for information.





[1] This is usually a misunderstood term.  The Pharisees had nothing to do with the Priests who ran the Temple in Jerusalem, but were actually their opponents.  During Jesus’ lifetime the Pharisee party was engaged in creating a form of Judaism that took much of Jewish practice from the Temple and put it in the hands of individual Jews.  They taught that Moses received an Oral Torah in addition to the written Torah (the five book of Moses) which had been handed down from one generation to the next and which they were in the process of writing down.  The arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees were all typical of Pharisaic arguments that actually continued for centuries after the destruction of the Temple and the rise of the Rabbinic Judaism which we still have today.  I believe Jesus himself was a Pharisee and these conversations and arguments were the conversations and arguments of colleagues, even when Jesus says, “you Pharisees…”

[2] The Torah translation I am using  is “The Contemporary Torah,” a gender-sensitive version published by JPS.

[3] I cannot resist the temptation of quoting my favorite comment on the story, which is by Franz Kafka.  He wrote, “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.”

Thanksgiving – Light and Dark

There has been an exchange on the Curmudgeons list about whether Thanksgiving should be regarded as a day of mourning and fasting as atonement for the genocide of Native Americans.  My own response comes from the gut as much as from the mind.  One who needs to never forget the Shoah (the proper Hebrew term for the Holocaust) should acknowledge the other genocides that have been attempted or accomplished.
I will not share here the exchange, which I regard as private communications (as private as anything on the Internet is anyway).  Here is most of my response to complaints about my position that I wrote today (Thanksgiving morning).  I start with the link to one of the offending articles explaining the call for making Thanksgiving a day of mourning.
Here is the relevant passage from it giving a bit of the real story.

“One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

“Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it’s also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.”

Since 1970 Native Americans have observed our Thanksgiving as a day of mourning.  They consider this day as the start of a pattern of genocidal behavior that continued for centuries and was followed in the 20th century by a campaign to destroy Native American culture and languages.  Meanwhile our popular culture ignores this history.  It took the Pine Ridge Reservation revolt and AIM (whose violence I was against) to wake up at least some Americans to this dark aspect of our national history.  Saying it is past time to remember it and seek atonement is a moral statement, not a political one.  It is being used for political purposes however.

There is a big difference between actual history and nationalist indoctrination, which is largely what the teaching of US history in our school system consists of.

We should know what kind of religion and society the Puritans lived in.  They were too narrow-minded even to tolerate other kinds of Christians.  They believed that God is eternally angry with even the most virtuous of us (see Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God” which is considered the beginning of American religious literature.  here is a site with quotes  These are the people who carried out the Salem witch trials.  They certainly did not respect the native peoples who allowed the survival of their first group.

Again – Having said all of that, I regard Thanksgiving as important, just not for the story of “the first Thanksgiving.”

Here is an excerpt from Kirkpatrick’s book posted on her web site.

Many famous figures walk these pages—Washington, who proclaimed our first Thanksgiving as a nation amid controversy about his Constitutional power to do so; Lincoln, who wanted to heal a divided nation sick of war when he called for all Americans—North and South—to mark a Thanksgiving Day; FDR, who set off a debate on state’s rights when he changed the traditional date of Thanksgiving.

At a time when this nation is more divided than ever with a POTUS who feeds on that division, we need Thanksgiving as much as we did when Lincoln first made it a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War.

The ability to give thanks is the only real source of happiness, because otherwise no one will ever be satiated enough to be happy.  Giving thanks to God, if you believe in God, is one of the best things about faith.  Being able to acknowledge the support we have from other people and also from society is part of that too.

Those who cannot acknowledge how other people and society (including government when it functions as it should) are not going to be happy.  They will be afraid, sad, and angry.  This misreading of “Self-Reliance” (Emerson’s essay that we all probably read in high school).  I admire the local culture which is one of interdependence.  People mind their own business.  Most respect others.  Many stand ready to help when they are needed.  This is based on the idea that each of us is an independent being but we are all connected and we all rely on each other.  I think that is the best of America, where it exists (much less in places like NYC than here).

If some Americans see the dark side of our history as predominant, I think that is wrong.  I do not agree that Thanksgiving should be observed as a day of fasting (far from it).  On the other hand those who feel this way do not deserve to be condemned for taking a moral stance.  Either you believe that this is a free society which allows diversity of opinion, which is what Thanksgiving was made to celebrate, or you think we should all march in lock-step following our national mythos.  We condemn other societies for doing that (USSR, PRC, etc.)  We should guard against that temptation in our own.

Jewish history is a mix of dark and light.  Here’s how we regard our holidays in a well-known (among us anyway) quip.  “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Lat’s eat.”  Denial is wrong but so is wallowing in victimhood.

Eat with good appetite and give thanks to the thousands of working people who made the bounty on your table possible.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving.



Anti-Semitism and Reconciliation



A year ago I delivered a four-part series on the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville NC.  This summer they invited me back and I gave a three-lecture series on Anti-Semitism and Reconciliation.

The reason for speaking at a church on anti-Semitism was not to send anyone on a guilt trip.  I think that knowing something on the dark side of life is part of a defense against it.  As it happens that dark side has been showing up lately, especially at Charlottesville.  I think it is urgent that Jews and Christians know this history in order to avoid being submerged in it.

As I did last summer I am posting the series here in the form of the audio recordings of the lectures and the Power Point presentations that went with them.

The first lecture was on the origins of Christian anti-Semitism in the New Testament.

The second Lecture in the series started with the Early Church Fathers and surveyed sources up to Martin Luther.  Most of the quotations were anti-Jewish, but a few were positive about Jews and expressed opposition to harming Jews or even disliking them.

The subject of the third lecture is Jewish-Christian reconciliation in the 20th century.  Most of it is about Vatican II and the roles of Pope John XXIII and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Chicago Dyke March & The Jews

The rainbow flag is supposed to symbolize inclusiveness.  The origin of the rainbow as a symbol is God’s blessing for all of humanity after the Flood.  It sometimes happens that a march or other event celebrating one group or another disincludes some categories of people.  If I remember correctly a gay Jewish organization had trouble in the past being included in the Salute to Israel parade.  Banning tgroups based on religion or race is less common now.  Banning LGBTQs is less common now, thought still sometimes an issue.
However when there is a LGBTQ event that bars such a group, that strikes me as just wrong.  This happened recently in Chicago when the organizers of a lesbian event banned a rainbow flag with a Magen David on it (That is the six-pointed star which is a common Jewish symbol which also appears on the Israeli flag).  The organizers banned such a flag because they asserted it is Israeli and therefore a symbol of the oppression of Palestinians.  I have encountered this kind of thing before and always find it unreasonable and containing a whiff at least of anti-Semitism.
I have been an advocate for Palestinian rights and for their statehood since the early 70s, if not before.  I have been very public about it, despite that causing me some grief and probably costing me at least one job.  I am committed to that today.  I am also a Zionist because I support the idea of a Jewish state.  That puts me often in uncomfortable situations, but it also enables me to address audiences that support Israel and audiences that support the Palestinian cause with some credibility.
I carried out a Google search for articles on the issue and found one on The Electronic Intifada where, as expected, I found support for the ban.
Their site allows comments from readers.  I posted the following.  I hope it helps my readers understand the issues involved.
“For me this is a very complicated issue and I find your response to be limited.  I am a Zionist (leftist variety); I have advocated for Palestinian rights and have publicly criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians for over forty years (at some cost to myself and my career); I am an advocate for LGBTQ rights; I am from an old Chicago family; and, having grown up among Holocaust survivors I have a lifetime commitment to communication and co-operation among faiths including Islam.
I think I understand the objections of Palestinians and their supporters, but the fact remains, what I am reading smacks of old-fashioned anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel (based on deserved offense at Israeli policies and practices regaring Palestinians).  On the other hand this kind of protest only adds to the conflict and the problem.  It deepens the division.
The Lesbian community has important problems it faces and inserting this issue hurts them and their cause.  The same kind of thing happened at two of the UN conferences on women’s issues derailing the real purpose of those conferences.
What I believe will help is for a special group like “dykes” to use their common identity and situation as an opportunity for the people involved to talk and listen to each other.  Showing pride in being Jewish should not offend homosexuals.  In fact people of many identities – religious, ethnic, etc. – coming together and showing their diversity would be a source of strength for the movement.  This is what the rainbow is supposed to symbolize and I do not mean just the flag.
LGBTQ groups have been barred from showing their colors at marches celebrating identity.  For those under the rainbow banner to behave this way is kind of a betrayal of themselves.
My guess is that among Jewish dykes there is a range of political opinion and many will be in sympathy with the oppression of the Palestinian people.
The question is are you part of the problem or part of the solution?”