Judaism

Nun Better

I wrote the following piece for the blog BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich, and I’ve already gotten myself into trouble over it. I’ll reprint the article, and then the dialogue that followed.


Yesterday, the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—with over 1,500 members, they’re the largest and probably the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the country—because they have challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” (This last was mainly over their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010—that is, the big health care overhaul that everyone has been arguing about for years—because they supported it and a bunch of bishops opposed it for political and religious reasons.)

The group was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, but of course this was during the period of significant church reform that led to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Another group of Catholic nuns—Network, a social justice lobby—was also reprimanded by the Vatican for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage. I know a number of these nuns, and worked with them on several issues in the past; I would agree with the Vatican’s assessment that they are indeed passionate about poverty and economic injustice, though while they may not have made public statements about abortion and gay marriage, in private many of them are less than happy about the Vatican’s heavy-handed suppression of social justice issues.

Certainly health care reform was one of those issues, since they feel that poor people will always receive the dregs when it comes to health care. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said, “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad. We haven’t violated any teaching; we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

So the Vatican appointed an archbishop and two other bishops to “reform” LCWR: they have five years to revise LCWR’s statutes, approve every speaker at the group’s public programs, and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. The trio of bishops will also review LCWR’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes—a particularly dangerous nonprofit because it gives its members financial and legal resources.

You may recall that Pope Benedict XVI was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition) back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but long after he was a member of the Hitler Youth and the Luftwaffenhelfer. (I’m sorry if that sounds like an ad hominem attack on the pope. If anyone would like to discuss his doctrinal positions instead of his personal history, I’d be happy to do that, too.)

In 2009, when the Vatican’s investigation of the LCWR was being conducted, the New York Times ran a story that suggested it was indeed a doctrinal inquisition:

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force,” said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet.”

One last tidbit: while the Vatican was investigating the LCWR, it was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public. I’m thinking the nuns’ observations from 2009 will prove prophetic.


Timothy, who writes the Catholic Bibles blog, commented:

I am not sure where to begin in assessing your post. You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country. On the issue of health care reform, I am sure you are aware that the Catholic Church has been for comprehensive health care coverage since the early 20th century. A short glimse of these document, all only within the last 20 years makes this very evident: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/. This is of course a social justice issue, but one the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death. Of course the Church is also opposed to the death penalty and the protection of illegal immigrants, both which are social justice issues, and ones more often promoted by the ‘left.’

The Church has done visitations over the past few years to religious sisters. But also religious brothers, seminaries, and dioceses. I work at a Catholic high school, and representatives from the dioces visit us every year. So, this is nothing odd or extraordinary.

Finally, your comment about Pope Benedict is unnecessary and an unjust attack on the man. All German boys of his age were enrolled in the Hitler Youth at that time, there was no getting around it. The Ratzinger’s were known to be anti-Nazi . His father was a police officer in a small Bavarian town, who opposed Nazi rallies. So, I find you comments on this issue to be unfortunate.


My reply:

You say that healthcare reform is an issue which “the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death.” This implies that organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church should be allowed to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of their employees, who may not even be Catholics themselves, much less Catholics who adhere to official Catholic doctrine. If an employee (perhaps a gentile employee) of an Orthodox Jewish organization had to go on food stamps, would it be right for their shul to block their access to non-kosher foods?

As for the pope’s past: Ratzinger joined the Hitler-Jugend in 1941, three years after the terrible Kristallnacht brought the horrors of Nazism to general public awareness. While you are correct that it was compulsory for young people to join, both Joseph Ratzinger and his brother Georg have said that “resistance was impossible” at the time and that it’s not surprising or morally culpable that they also “went along.” This is insulting to the many who risked their lives to resist the Nazi regime, both in organized cells and on an individual basis. In fact, there are many examples of those who refused service in the Hitler Youth for a variety of reasons. Many of Ratzinger’s age joined young people’s resistance groups like the Edelweiss Pirates, or the Swing Kids, or the Helmut Hubener group, or the White Rose (though this group didn’t officially form until 1942). Yes, the Ratzinger family did object to the Nazis and as a consequence were forced to move four times—they did not passively and quietly accept what was going on, as many other families did—but whatever the family did, it doesn’t appear to have been enough to warrant being detained and questioned by the Gestapo.

But as I said above, I am happy to discuss the pope’s current doctrines and statements, and leave aside all further references to his past.

You write, “You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country.” I realize that today’s Catholic Church hierarchy values adherence to current teachings above all else, and that the bishops are the ones to crack the whip. Never mind the fact that the Second Vatican Council promised an open and dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world! Since the 1980s, Rome has retreated from those reforms. More to the point, the bishops are clearly at odds with most practicing Catholics today. Liberal Catholics the world over hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.

Nuns are placed in a particularly difficult position. On the one hand, they are expected to obey the rules of their order, which in turn likely includes obedience to the Holy See. On the other hand, they are the ones in the trenches, on the streets, in direct service to the poor and disenfranchised, working with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They must obey their own consciences and the urgings of the Holy Spirit. And frankly, the Holy Spirit trumps the pope.

I daresay a goodly number of this “ecclesiastical work force” will continue to stand against oppression, even at the threat of excommunication.

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Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Politics, Social Justice, Theology | 5 Comments

“The Jewish Indiana Jones”

Note: I originally wrote this essay for the blog “BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich“—a place to discuss the Bible, other Literature, and its Translation—but I thought some Dreamtime readers might appreciate it as well.

* * * * * * *

Decorated initial The New York Jewish Week posted a remarkable story this week. I wish I had heard the story earlier—before the rabbi’s claims had been exposed. It’s nearly as much fun as Morton Smith’s discovery (or, as his debunkers would say, his creation) of a lost fragment from Mark’s gospel buried in a previously unknown letter from Clement of Alexandria. But what I find most thrilling is that I used to shop in the rabbi’s store in Wheaton, Maryland, and spoke with him frequently. He was a really nice guy.

Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones” who turned out to be a Jewish Walter Mitty, has pleaded guilty to fraud.

Youlus’ accounts of remarkable tales of rescuing Holocaust-era Torah scrolls were contradicted by historical evidence, witness accounts, and records showing that he simply passed off used Torahs sold by local dealers who made no claims as to the scrolls’ provenance.

“I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct,” said Youlus, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court on Thursday.

In court, the 50-year-old Baltimore resident admitted to having defrauded more than 50 victims, misappropriating some of the donations and secretly depositing them into the bank account of his Wheaton store, called the Jewish Bookstore. Youlus defrauded his charity, Save A Torah, Inc. and its donors of $862,000, according to prosecutors.

“Menachem Youlus concocted an elaborate tale of dramatic Torah rescues undertaken by a latter day movie hero that exploited the profound emotions attached to one of the most painful chapters in world history — the Holocaust — in order to make a profit. Today’s guilty plea is a fitting conclusion to his story and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud,” Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Thursday.

A January 31, 2010, Washington Post investigative report brought to light questions about Youlus’ claims.
Shortly after the Washington Post story ran, MenachemRosensaft wrote a fascinating commentary on the case. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He wrote:

Some years ago, there was Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a purportedly autobiographical account of his years as a Jewish orphan during the Holocaust but who actually is a Swiss-born Christian clarinetist. Then there was the case of Herman Rosenblat whose heartwarming tale of a little girl tossing him an apple every day for seven months across the electrified barbed wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp turned out to be a hoax….

In 2007, on the website of Save a Torah, his 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, Youlus claimed to have found and restored “Torah scrolls hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust” which he then “resettled” in more than 50 Jewish communities throughout the world. On a promotional video featured on the same website, he said that “we’ve done over 500 today.” And in a recent Washington Post interview, Youlus boasted of having rescued not 50 or 500 but 1,100 such Torah scrolls.

Youlus also gave his Torah scrolls dramatic histories. Two were allegedly found buried in a “Gestapo body bag” in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He supposedly discovered one under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a “rescue” that is described on his website’s video alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945. Youlus claims that he dug up yet another Torah scroll in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, and reunited it with four missing panels that Jews from Oswiecim had taken into the camp and had entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who eventually gave them to Youlus.

If even one of these stories seems fantastic, improbable, even incredible, the odds that any one person could have found all four of these Torah scrolls and brought them surreptitiously to the United States are, conservatively speaking, astronomical. As has been said repeatedly in connection with Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, if something sounds too good to be true, it most probably is….

It is bad enough when unscrupulous individuals rip off their marks, as it were, with variations of the proverbial Nigerian e-mail scam in which the recipient is promised part of a multi-million dollar fortune in exchange for a relatively minor up-front investment….A fake Holocaust memoir or a Torah scroll purportedly rescued from the ruins of World War II Europe is altogether different. Preying on the emotions of people overwhelmed by the memory of tragedy in order to make a buck is contemptible.

Rosensaft’s entire column is worth reading, but of note is his conclusion:

One of Youlus’s defenders argues that exposing his deception “may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth.” That is utter bunk.

Truth is absolute. The Holocaust was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Its victims, including the hundreds of thousands of destroyed and desecrated Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious artifacts, deserve nothing less than the dignity of authentic memory.

While I certainly don’t disagree, I wonder about the whole question of religious myths that are believed as being literal. While the mythic stories have great power and truth, they are rarely if ever true in an historic sense. Yet millions of believers of all faiths cling to them as if they were facts. It gives them comfort and meaning. Many times I’ve heard people say that if it were proven that Mary was not a literal virgin, or that Jesus did not literally rise from the dead corporeally, or that Moses did not receive the stone tablets and the Book of the Covenant from God on Sinai in the way Exodus recounts it, that their faith would not be able to stand.

Shmuel Herzfeld, a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC, was shopping at Youlus’s store when he saw a Torah scroll. Youlus told him that the Torah scroll had survived Auschwitz. Herzfeld asked Youlus if he could borrow the Torah scroll for use in his congregation one Shabbat, and Youlus agreed. When news of Youlus’s arrest broke, Herzfeld wrote, “That Shabbat in the presence of this Torah scroll I prayed with more intensity than ever before and I connected to the chanting of the Torah as I had never before connected. The very possibility that those emotional and intense feelings that I experienced can now be the result of manipulation and dishonesty overwhelms me with sadness.”

It was his faith, his emotional and spiritual attachment to a belief, that added such intensity to his prayers. Jesus frequently said, “It is your faith that has made you whole”—implying that the individual’s belief was the operative factor in the equation. So the question is, if what we believe is proven to be a lie, where does that leave whatever we have built on that faith?

A saying attributed to the Buddha may apply here: “All instruction is but a finger pointing at the moon. Those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond.” It doesn’t matter if the story is real or imagined; what matters is that we look not at the story, but at its meaning in our lives.

Unless, of course, you’re bilking people out of their money when you sell them the story!

Categories: Buddhism, Judaism, Psychology | 2 Comments

Wrestling with Christmas

The older I get, the more Christmas fills me with a terrible ambivalence. But please note: “ambivalent” doesn’t imply a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It means I’m of two opposite and conflicting minds.

As a child I was torn between childish greed, a certain delight even then in the decor, music, and “specialness” of the festivities, and a very Christian desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was a devout little thing. I was on our local Romper Room show with Miss Connie for a whole week, and I created something of a ruckus on Wednesday (which was always snack day on Romper Room) after the prayer over the milk and cookies. Miss Connie led us all in saying, “God is great, God is good,/ And we thank Him for our food.” In my household, the prayer didn’t stop there. It continued: “By His hands we all are fed,/ Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” So I continued. Loudly. After everyone else had stopped. And then, as the cameras rolled, I told her in the most disapproving tones that God didn’t hear her prayer because she didn’t end the prayer with “In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” I remember saying it at least three times — that God doesn’t hear any prayer that isn’t prayed in Jesus’ name — each time more stridently because I thought she was ignoring me. What she was doing was gesturing wildly to the cameraman to cut to commercial. Ah, the days of live television!

When we moved to the Virgin Islands, I experienced my first Christmas there in 90 degree heat. We put our white flocked tree with its pretty blue balls (this was the 1970s, after all) on the balcony where it would be visible both when we were in the living room and when we were on the patio below, but on Christmas morning the trade winds carried the tree over the balcony and into the swimming pool, its pretty blue balls bobbing around happily in the water. Those days, when I was in high school, Christmas became just “what we did” each year. Festive and fun, but without any deeper meaning.

When I got my first apartment after college with my friend Jim, Christmas changed again. I really did Christmas up right. An eight-foot-tall fresh white pine, painstakingly decorated. My father was ill at the time, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this would be his last Christmas with us. I gave him stocking stuffers filled with wind-up walking toys. I still remember the tears of joy and laughter in his eyes.

In the years that followed, I shared a home in Maryland with my mother, and we took similar pains to decorate well and tastefully. Jim would always come over on Christmas eve and watch TV with us, then I would go to my church for our festive 10 p.m. Christmas Eve celebration; Jim was always asleep on the couch by the time I got home. In the morning my brother Dale would join us in opening the stockings and gifts, then I would make a nice breakfast (usually eggs Benedict).

These were happy times, at least until I started suffering from depression — the chronic, crushing kind, a despair that is independent of circumstance. Because these bouts lasted for months at a time, I never knew if I’d be over it before the holidays or not. On several Christmases I remember going through the motions, putting on my characteristic happy face, when I would actually have preferred to be curled in a fetal position in the dark, weeping.

When I moved back to Florida from Vermont, and lived once again with Mom, we started recreating our Maryland Christmases, after a fashion. Jim would make a trip down once a year, and we would do the whole gift exchange thing and have a great time. But as Mom became ill, she could no longer shop, and couldn’t wrap gifts. Christmas became a burden. She wanted the house decorated, and even though it taxed her greatly, she always added some special touches. In the end, she just felt guilty over the whole thing. She didn’t want us to give her any gifts, and she just gave us money in return, hoping we’d get ourselves something we’d love.

The first Christmas after her death, I drove up to visit Jim in Virginia. Last year he came down here. This will be the first year in nearly a decade that we haven’t spent Christmas together. The only nod to Christmas in my house is my Charlie Brown tree. And it’s all right. Because I am decidedly ambivalent over Christmas.

Adam hates Christmas. I don’t think that’s stating his feelings too strongly. He has a decided antipathy not so much toward the holiday itself — people can celebrate whatever they damn well please, and more power to them — but toward the exhaustive and relentless way our society (not to mention the media) pushes it in our faces. This year I saw Christmas decorations on the shelves next to the Halloween decorations, and our local Walgreens was playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. For Jews (not to mention Muslims, Hindus, pagans, atheists, and other non-Christians), having grocery store clerks wishing you a Merry Christmas at every turn, or having Christmas music blasted from every loudspeaker in every restaurant and store, or having televisions broadcast nothing but Christmas dreck and artificially sappy shows with at least a tangential Christmas theme for nearly a month, is offensive in the extreme. I resent government and municipal bodies, which should be steadfastly secular and nonpartisan, celebrating the most Christian of holidays as if everyone in the world believed the same things. We don’t.

Every year I find myself wanting to pick fights with the Salvation Army bell-ringers: “Don’t you realize,” I want to shout, “that this organization you’re volunteering for actively discriminates against gays and lesbians? In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close all their soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City instead of following an ordinance requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners. Discriminating against gays was more important to them than helping the poor. On top of that, they refuse to give needy children any Harry Potter toys that have been donated because they’re ‘satanic.’ Is that the kind of ‘good’ you want to do in the world?” But I don’t shout. I drop in a Kettle Voucher, nod and give a tight little smile to the bell-ringer, and go about my shopping feeling rather Grinchlike.

One of the biggest reasons I am ambivalent is because Christmas is a fake. Jesus was not born on December 25, or anywhere near it. Assuming we’re using the gospels as our source material on the birth of Jesus, Luke clearly says the birth took place when shepherds were “living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.” This means Jesus’ birth took place in early spring, since it was only at lambing time that shepherds stood guard over their flocks in the field.

December 25, in the older Julian calendar, was the date on which the winter solstice usually fell. Romans celebrated it as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Many scholars believe the 4th century church selected the winter solstice as the celebration of Jesus’ birth to appropriate and co-opt a pagan holiday that already had a long history and huge fan base. Others, like S.E. Hijmans in his book Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, disagree: “It is cosmic symbolism [that] inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the winter solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the summer solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the ‘birthday’ of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jesus is not the reason for the season. The reason for the season is the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the ecliptic.

And the decidedly pagan winter solstice celebrations are the source for most of our hallowed Christmas traditions:

■   Gift-giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which took place from December 17th through the 23rd — in fact, Christmas gift-giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins. Christians point to the gifts the magi gave to the infant Jesus, but forget that the magoi were Zoroastrian astrologers. Seleucus II Callinicusis, king of Syria, offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Apollo in his temple at Miletus in 243 BCE; this was likely the precedent for the mention of these particular gifts in Matthew’s gospel.

■   The Christmas tree was first seen in northern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but winter solstice celebrations, especially in Europe, have always included the use of evergreen boughs as a symbol of life in the season of death, and as an adaptation of pagan tree worship.

■   Santa Claus. He may have been loosely based on St. Nicholas — Nikolaos of Myra, 4th century bishop of Myra, part of modern-day Turkey — but his feast day is December 6, and he really wasn’t much like our modern Santa or even like the more ancient Father Christmas, who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas but was neither a gift-bringer nor particularly associated with children. He has been identified with the old belief in Woden or Odin. And as we noted a few years ago, Santa was a shaman.

■   And then there’s the feasting. One reason the winter solstice was so important the world over was because communities were not certain of living through the winter — starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Wikipedia has a fascinating compilation of different winter solstice observances, from nearly every culture imaginable.

When someone asks me about my religious beliefs, I never have a great answer. At times I am a Christian, though certainly a theologically liberal one. But by the same token I often feel Jewish, or Buddhist, or Hindu, even though my adherence to any of those religious traditions is tangential at best. I am a postmodern shaman and most decidedly a syncretist. I am, depending on what day you ask me, an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, and occasionally even a monotheist. And I am generally a pagan, caught somewhere between Paganism and Neopaganism, though I don’t seem to find much in common with the neopagan community at large.

As at least a nominal Christian, I must wrestle with what Christmas means. I certainly believe in the mythos behind the story of Jesus’ birth. Countless gods and salvific figures had miraculous births, and many of them were born of a virgin (though of course the word ‘alma in the Hebrew prophecy upon which the story of Mary’s virgin birth is based described not a technical virgin all but simply a young woman). All the infancy stories of Jesus are mythic: the angelic annunciation, the slaughter of the innocents, shepherds as witnesses, magi traveling to do homage. I like feeling that I’m somehow part of one of the Great Myths of humankind.

My annoyance about the date of Jesus’ birth won’t change the fact that it’s been celebrated this way for sixteen centuries. And while I don’t hide my irritation at the way our society celebrates Christmas (last night someone on television said, “Christmas is about giving! It’s about friendship!!” as if that were the perfect summation of the symbolism of the holiday), this doesn’t seem to affect my need to sing Christmas carols for a few weeks every year — the ancient, modal ones that most people don’t sing or have never heard, the ones that evoke cold winters, or the eternal struggle of light against a pervasive darkness, or joyful dancing and revelry.

I no longer have a long list of people to shop for. I won’t be alone on Christmas day, but otherwise I won’t be celebrating much. I’ll listen to my lovely, relatively unknown carols, but I’ll turn off the TV when the Christmas specials come on. And in a couple of days, on the 21st, I’ll light a candle at 6:38 p.m., the moment the winter solstice occurs where I live. Ambivalence may not be a comfortable place to live, but it’s the best I can do for the time being.

Categories: Christianity, Depression, Earth-based Religions, Family, Holidays, Judaism, Spirituality | 7 Comments

Yahrtzeit

Marguerite Louise Russell Bachman Smith died one year ago today, ten days shy of her eighty-eighth birthday.

It was a decent day. I’m tired, but not emotionally exhausted. My brother Darryl came by today, and I gave him Mom’s jewelry to be parceled out between his wife, my brother Dale’s wife, and their various kids. Or sold, if they don’t find anything they want to wear, or anything of sentimental value they want to keep.

Yahrtzeit means “time of [one] year” in Yiddish, and refers to the anniversary of a loved one’s death. It is customary for Jews to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I learned today is literally the “Orphan’s Kaddish.” Lighting a yahrtzeit candle in memory of a loved one is a minhag, or custom, that is deeply ingrained in Jewish life to honor the memory and souls of the deceased.

I didn’t have a yahrtzeit candle to light, but I had some quiet time with Mom’s spirit, as I often do in the evenings. We used to watch many of the same TV programs together, and we knew each other’s reactions so well that as we watched, we’d glance over for the expected frown or listen for the laugh.

It’s been a year of being stuck, and of getting unstuck. Mourning, at least this time, is not at all what I expected. It was a full-body experience, not so much an emotional one (though there were certainly moments . . . ).

The strangest change, I think, has been in realizing the weight of Mom’s illness, how profoundly it limited her and how she hated being limited, how she struggled against it even as she was trying to let go. In her last year, I found myself reproving her for not struggling harder; now I see that she fought harder and struggled more bravely than I ever realized, and probably more than I ever could.

I love her and miss her, certainly, but most of all I admire her and thank her.

I think W.S. Merwin said it best in his brief poem, “Separation”:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Categories: Death, Family, Judaism | 9 Comments

Darn You, Theophrastus Aristotle

A friend and blogger—or, to be more specific, a blogger I admire who has become an online friend—has challenged me to participate in a meme called “Books that influenced my reading of the Bible.” As he writes in his post on the subject,

There is one of those memes going around in which people volunteer a list of books that influenced their readings of the Bible. The rules say that works are not limited to Biblical studies literature, but can include religious works or works of literature. The list is nominally set at 5 books, but that is obviously an arbitrary number, and I have more than 5 books to list here.

And then he tagged me. You heard me right: he tagged me. I am, of course, utterly powerless to refuse.

But I can at least refashion to rules to my own advantage. I’m going to broaden the category very slightly. Instead of books that influenced my reading of the Bible, I’m going to recast it as books that influenced my religious worldview and moved me away from seeing scripture as verbum Dei and more as a collection of documents that recorded groups’ and individuals’ encounters with the Great Mystery and their attempts to understand and interpret that interaction. (Boy, that was a long sentence!) Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Judaism | 8 Comments

Sitting Shiva

A friend was checking in with me today—how things were going in Mom’s absence. I told her I was behaving as if I were grieving or depressed, but wasn’t generally experiencing the associated emotions of grief. Doing laundry only when I have nothing left to wear. A kitchen in greater disarray than it has ever been. Plants dying. Mom’s beloved plants, and I can’t seem to make myself water them.

She said, “It sounds like you’re sitting shiva for her. You are telling yourself—telling the world—that No, life does not just ‘go on.’ Sometimes it stops. You’ve stopped. You’re even creating symbols of death all around you. You are sitting shiva.”

In Judaism, shiva is the week-long period of grief and mourning for the seven first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. Appropriately, the word shiva means “seven.”

When you sit shiva, everything stops. You don’t leave the house, you don’t wear shoes in the house, you don’t study the scriptures except for those dolorous books of Lamentations and Job, you don’t bathe for pleasure, or do laundry, or cook for yourself. You don’t have sex, you don’t conduct business, you don’t listen to music, or watch television, or go to the movies.

You cover the mirrors, too. This was originally in response to the belief that spirits could become trapped in mirrors. Today, the ancient practice is continued under the premise that mirrors encourage vanity, and shiva should be a time of inner reflection. I think it’s more so that you don’t have to see what you look like after you’ve been crying.

But just the realization that this goy boy has been sitting shiva for his mother—not seven days, but halfway through the seventh month now—seems to have empowered me considerably. I’m about to go put a load of dishes into the dishwasher and make dinner. And I’m going to water some plants out on the porch. It’s entirely possible they’re too far gone. I know I don’t have to keep them up for her sake or anything like that. I just think I’d like to help something live again, if I can.

Categories: Death, Healing, Judaism | 7 Comments

On the Feast of Stephen

The story of Christmas is the story of assimilation. Sorry to put it so nakedly, but it’s true. Wrapped up in this holiday, this holy day, is a whole history of cultural appropriation, identity theft, and synchretism. And there are no easy answers. It’s all so very messy.

December 25 was the date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere according to the old Julian calendar. In the Gregorian calendar currently in use, the solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd. Most ancient cultures held their biggest annual festivals at this time of year; if you take into account all winter festivals worldwide, the list of holidays is staggering.

The Church was pretty open about appropriating the winter solstice (or, more specifically, the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of Sol, the invincible sun god) as Jesus’ birthday. Jesus was almost certainly born in late March or early April, but if you want an instant celebration of a new concept, you simply glom onto an existing festival and add a new face to it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus is not “the reason for the season.” The reason for the season, as a friend recently pointed out, is the tilt in the earth’s axis, and humankind’s need to celebrate light and life on the darkest day of the year. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Classic civilizations, Earth-based Religions, Holidays, Judaism, Social Justice | 7 Comments

“This Store Burns Souls!”

Maybe the changing seasons are prompting people to cover up. Maybe the political climate is making everyone more conservative. Maybe folks are sick of seeing celebrities’ hoo-hoos exposed in the tabloids. Whatever, this whole modesty craze I wrote about a while back seems to be taking on international (and decidedly violent) proportions, as in this Associated Press story:

Jewish “Modesty Patrols” Sow Fear in Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — In Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where the rule of law sometimes takes a back seat to the rule of God, zealots are on a campaign to stamp out behavior they consider unchaste. They hurl stones at women for such “sins” as wearing a red blouse, and attack stores selling devices that can access the Internet.

In recent weeks, self-styled ”modesty patrols” have been accused of breaking into the apartment of a Jerusalem woman and beating her for allegedly consorting with men. They have torched a store that sells MP4 players, fearing devout Jews would use them to download pornography.

“These breaches of purity and modesty endanger our community,” said 38-year-old Elchanan Blau, defending the bearded, black-robed zealots. “If it takes fire to get them to stop, then so be it.” Continue reading

Categories: Judaism, Sex and Sexuality, Spirituality | 8 Comments

A Speaking Engagement!

If you’re going to be in the area this Sunday, July 13, feel free to drop by the Yogashakti Mission (a Hindu ashram devoted to the study and practice of yoga here in Palm Bay) from 9 to 10 a.m., where I’ve been asked to give a little talk on Jewish-Christian mysticism.

The folks there are warm and articulate, and interested in a wide variety of spiritual and intellectual pursuits. Adam spoke there recently on “Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft,” about the power and place of poetry and rhyme in ancient and modern culture, religion, and politics, and it was an excellent talk. I hope mine will be half as good.

The ashram is a little hard to find, or at least I thought it was. Here’s a map (click the “To Here” link to get turn-by-turn directions from your home), but note that all you’ll find at 3895 Hield Road is a small, unassuming mailbox with the words “Yoga Mission” on it. That’s the driveway. Turn right (north) and follow the winding road through the trees to the main building.

Hope to see you Sunday!

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Spirituality | 6 Comments

No Laughing Matter?

An acquaintance asks, “Why no laughs in the Bible? Didn’t they make the cut?” While one might argue that Jesus might have started his parables with “Did you hear the one about…?” or with a setup like “A Pharisee and a tax collector go into a temple…”, the fact remains that there aren’t many big jokes in the scriptures.

Bob Hostetler, the author of a number of Evangelical books, has written a page about humor in the Bible, but honestly, I think most of his examples are straining to make a point. I generally find the humor to be a bit more subtle and involve wordplay. Continue reading

Categories: Humor, Judaism | 5 Comments

Not an Apple

As much as I would like to say I’m a thoroughgoing pagan, albeit one with synchretist tendencies, there are certain times of the year when one religion wins out over another. For me, Yule, the winter solstice (at least in the northern hemisphere), is inextricably linked with Christmas. Not surprising, since the early Church deliberately chose the date of December 25 because many gods and goddesses of other religions in the region had their birthdays celebrated on that date, including Ishtar (the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, and war), Sol Invictus, and Mithras. No sense wasting a holiday that was already well established.

One reason I love Christmas/Yule so much is the music. Not the gooey sweet Christmas songs that you hear on the radio, but the cold, strange carols from the Middle Ages, or centuries-old folk songs. Each year I seem to get a new favorite. Last year it was the fifteenth-century carol “Adam Lay Ybounden” (sorry, Adamus!): Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Holidays, Judaism, Psychology, Spirituality | 4 Comments

Saying Kaddish

The Kaddish—that is, the so-called “Mourner’s Kaddish” that is recited for the dead in Jewish prayer services—was originally prayed by rabbis after their sermons as a sort of doxology. The prayer is in Aramaic, an offshoot of Hebrew that developed during the Diaspora and continued to be used for a dozen centuries.

My translation:

Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemai raba . . .

Great and holy is your great Name
in this world you created by your will!
May your true reign begin
in our lifetime,
in our days,
in the lives of all who Struggle—
swiftly—
soon!

Let your great Name be blessed
for all ages to come—
blessed, praised, glorified, exalted,
extolled, honored, lifted up, lauded
be the Name of the Holy One,
blessed be you,
far beyond all blessings
and hymns and praises and consolations
that are spoken in the world.

Let great peace descend on us from the heavens!
Let life be renewed for us and for all who Struggle!
You who make peace in the heavens,
make peace for us.

Make peace for all who Struggle.

As you can see, it’s not a prayer of mourning at all. It’s a mountain of praise. It’s thanksgiving and acceptance in the face of pain and death. It’s the rebellious act of clinging to life and shouting to the heavens in the face of despair and loss. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Judaism, Spirituality | 8 Comments

The Inclusive Bible

I am pleased to announce that The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, my single-volume biblenon-sexist translation of the Bible with a new scholarly commentary, has been published by Sheed & Ward and is now available from Amazon.com.

It is a completely new translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and koiné Greek into richly poetic, non-sexist, and non-classist modern English.

If you’re interested in reading a few pages of the translation and commentary, here is a PDF (320 KB) of The Twelve, the “minor prophets” or Trei Asar.

To say I am proud of this accomplishment is an extraordinary understatement. I hope you enjoy it.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Psychology, Social Justice, Spirituality | 16 Comments

Jewish Shamanism . . . on TV?

by Abe Novick, special to the (Baltimore) Jewish Times

It was cable TV that came out of the gate early this summer. While the networks were gearing up for the fall, it launched a number of new shows. One of them was “Saving Grace.”

While the term grace is usually thought of in a Christian context, the word is actually derived from the Hebrew Bible as chesed. Though “Saving Chesed” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, according to the show’s creator, “Saving Grace” is a show about a woman who talks to an angel.

Creator Nancy Miller explains that the angel, Earl, is non-denominational. “He speaks to Grace in the language she grew up in. Grace came from a Catholic family, so he speaks in the language that she would understand,” Ms. Miller said. “As we go on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to a Jewish guy, and speaks from that culture to him. Later on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to someone who is Muslim. So he speaks that language to him.”

In addition to the cable stations, the networks also are channeling the spiritual and confronting the eschatological. Continue reading

Categories: Judaism, Shamanism, Spirituality | 4 Comments

Ezekiel’s Wheels

“When I was thirty years old and living among the exiles by the Kebar River, on the fifth day of the fourth month, the heavens opened and I had visions of God.”

Thus opens the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel in the Bible.

Ezekiel has always fascinated me. Clearly, he’s fascinated others as well. A gifted writer and poet and dear friend, Adam Tritt, has written an excellent short story, “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” originally published in 2002 in the CrossTIME Science Fiction Anthology and soon to be released as an eBook from Smithcraft Press. His story, which was one of the winners of the Paul B. Duquette Memorial Short Science Fiction Contest, is about a Jewish eighth grade teacher . . . and Adam’s a Jewish eighth grade teacher . . . hmmm . . . who actually builds the wheels as Ezekiel describes them in his vision, with unexpected results.

The Talmud says, in one famous passage, “The story of creation should not be expounded before two persons, nor the chapter on the ezekial2.JPGChariot before even one, unless that person is a sage and already has an independent understanding of the matter.” This vision has stood as the central image of Jewish mysticism for a good twenty-one centuries; “merkabah mysticism” (which relates to the throne of God and the Chariot, or merkabah, that bears it) found its greatest voice during the Middle Ages and strongly influenced the development of the Kabbalah. Biblical scholars have long felt that this chapter is among the most difficult to translate in the entire Bible; the text abounds in obscurities and apparent confusion.

In re-reading my translation and its footnotes, I thought it might provoke some interesting discussion here, so here’s your Bible lesson for the day. Or month, or year.

The opening verses continue: “On the fifth day of the month—it was the fifth year of exile for Jehoiachin the ruler—the word of YHWH came to the priest Ezekiel ben-Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Kebar River. It was there that YHWH’s hand rested on me.” (The Kebar “River” was the Nari Kabari, or Great Canal, an irrigation canal that left the Euphrates above Babylon and flowed southeast before rejoining the Euphrates.)

“In my vision I saw a vast desert storm, a whirlwind coming down from the north—a huge cloud surrounded by a brilliant light, with fire flashing out of it. The center of the cloud—the center of the fire—looked like electricity.”

The Hebrew word here is hashmal, which is the modern Hebrew word for electricity. The ancient Hebrew word, however, may refer to an amber-colored, naturally occurring alloy of silver, gold, and copper called electrum, known for its high reflectability and electrical conductivity; or it could refer to amber, the resin gum of prehistoric pine trees, known from antiquity to have electrical properties when rubbed—indeed, the word “electricity” is derived from the elektron, the Greek word for amber.

The Jewish mystical tradition found hashmal a powerful concept. A passage in the Talmud says that hashmal may be interpreted as “speech without sound” or “speaking silence,” or may be viewed as a sort of acronym for the phrase “living creatures speaking fire” in Hebrew. Another passage cites the story of a child “who was reading at the home of a teacher, and suddenly apprehended what hashmal was, whereupon a fire went forth from hashmal and consumed the child” as the reason some rabbis sought to conceal or suppress the book of Ezekiel.

Now things get really interesting. “Within the fire I saw what looked like four living creatures in human form. Each had four faces and four wings. Their legs stood together rigidly as if they had a single straight leg, the bottom of which was rounded like a single calf’s foot, and the legs gleamed like glowing bronze. They had human hands under their wings on all four sides. And all four figures had faces and wings, and the wings touched one another. They did not turn when they moved—each went straight ahead, any direction that it faced. Each of the four had a human face, a lion’s face to the right, a bull’s face to the left, and an eagle’s face—thus were their faces.”

If Ezekiel’s description of the living creatures seems confusing to us, it may be that the vision was confusing to him as well. Though the term “living creatures” is feminine in the Hebrew, Ezekiel frequently employs masculine suffixes and verb agreements; this may indicate the difficulty Ezekiel had in describing the creatures’ androgyny—or even what they looked like. They clearly resemble the terrifying and gigantic Assyrian or Akkadian kabiru or winged sphynxes (in Hebrew, cherubim) in many details: they usually had a human head or torso, the wings of an eagle, the forelegs of a lion, and the hindquarters of a bull.

The number four—four faces, four wings, four creatures—symbolizes the four directions, that is, the omnipresence of divinity in the world and nature. These four may represent the four main “tribes” of land creatures: humankind, birds, wild animals, and domestic animals.

“Their wings spread upward; two of their wings touched the wings on the figures on either side of it, and two of their wings covered their bodies. They moved straight ahead, any direction they faced; whichever way the wind blew, they went, without turning as they moved. In the midst of these living creatures was a fiery glow like burning coals, or like torches moving back and forth between them—it was a bright fire, and lightning flashed forth from it. The creatures sped to and fro like thunderbolts.” (This last phrase could be translated,“kept disappearing and reappearing like lightning flashes.”)

“As I looked at the living creatures, I saw four wheels on the ground, one beside each creature. The wheels glistened as if made of chrysolite. Each of the four identical wheels held a second wheel intersecting it at right angles, giving the wheel the ability to move in any of the four directions that the creatures faced without turning as it moved. The wheels were enormous, and they were terrifying because the rims were covered all over with eyes.

“When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures lifted from the ground, the wheels lifted. Wherever the wind moved, they would move, and the wheels moved as well, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the beings moved, the wheels moved; when they stopped, the wheels stopped. And when they rose from the ground, the wheels rose up as well, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”

In Hebrew, ruach means wind, spirit, or even breath; it is the animating and life-giving principle, the creative and healing activity of God that bridges the gap between the divine and the human; it is both kinetic energy and the spark of life.

“Over the heads of the living creatures was something like an expanse that glistened like a sheet of ice. Under this vault-like structure, their wings spread out toward one another, and each had a pair of wings covering its body. When the creatures moved, their wings made a noise like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Breasted God, like the din of a moving army, and a Voice came from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.”

What? “Breasted God”?? Yes, very possibly. The name El Shaddai is usually translated “the Almighty,” under the assumption that it derives either from the word shadad, which means “burly” or “powerful,” or from shadah, which means “mountain,” making the name mean “God of the mountains.” There is growing opinion from serious biblical scholars, however, that Shaddai may derive from the word shad, which means “breast”—thus El Shaddai may be a feminine image of God meaning “the Breasted God.” Then again, since mountains are frequently shaped like breasts, these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

“Above the vault over their heads there appeared what looked a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne sat a figure in the likeness of a human being. From the waist up, the figure looked like electricity, like metal glowing in a furnace; and from the waist down, it looked like fire surrounded by a brilliant light. The radiance was like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day. It looked like the appearance of the Glory of YHWH. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and heard a Voice speaking to me.”

An appropriate response indeed.

Most of the depictions of Ezekiel’s vision, at least in the contemporary era, are strongly UFO-centric, or else completely abstract. Before the twentieth century, artists like Raphael and William Blake emphasized clouds and a feeling of rapture. In 1973 the late Josef Blumrich, a NASA engineer who worked on the Saturn 5 rocket, the lunar lander, and Skylab, wrote a book called The Spaceships of Ezekiel. He felt that Ezekiel’s description of the Chariot of God as a spacecraft would fail under a rocket engineer’s rigorous examination, but said that it could be adapted into a practical design for a landing module launched from a mothership.

This explanation doesn’t thrill me. What I hear is in Ezekiel’s words is the experience of power and awe. The intersecting wheels don’t impress me as much as the terrifying eyes that covered their rims.

Reinterpret the vision as a dream. What do you see? What does it mean to you?

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Writing | 26 Comments

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