Friday, January 10, 2020

Remembering Mr. Lipton

As a boy I attended a Yeshiva (Jewish parochial school) in the Bronx.  We began the day with six hours of Hebrew subjects.  After lunch we had five hours of English subjects.  My 4th grade teacher for one of those English classes was Mr.  Lipton. 

He was tall, with red hair and a quiet way about him.  He struck me and my friends as a kind-hearted person who cared about his students.

Mr. Lipton introduced us to Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.  We would take out our books and Mr. Lipton would read to us from the books as we followed along.  He had a fetching voice which drew you into the story.  I remember being entranced by the books and I still remember them.

Then there was his guitar.  Mr. Lipton taught us to sing folk songs, some were Spanish tunes.  Here we were, 4th grade Yeshiva students and he opened our eyes to a wider world of which most of us were unaware. 

Part of being Jewish, we learned from Mr. Lipton, was not only loving and studying Jewish texts.  It was not just being immersed in Jewish questions.  It was Mr. Lipton’s legacy every weekday afternoon to remind us there was a larger world out there and we should be aware of it.  And most important he taught us to think and ask good questions.

To Mr. Lipton, thank you for being you.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Antisemitism, What Can I Say or Do

As a Jewish teacher, I feel I should say something about the recent rise in anti-semitic attacks, something helpful, something which would make sense out of such craziness, but I am not sure my words will make any difference.

History teaches us the persecution and killing of Jews will never stop.  We cannot change the world and we feel helpless.  But it is precisely because we feel helpless, we should do everything we can.

Wherever you live, you can say, “Not here, Not in my Town, Not in my place!!!”

You can stand up and speak out.  Do what you can do wherever you are.

Happy and sane New Year 2020,

Murray Haar

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Chanukah and Christmas After the Holocaust

The Holocaust, arguably, has been the most studied event in human history.  And yet, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, has anything changed?

I would say yes but not enough.  Many of us who have studied what happened in those days, are horrified by what happened and have discovered the capacity for evil inside human beings.  We have learned how an entire society can be overtaken with hatred and fear.  We have been forced to see the capacity of human beings to kill other human beings in large numbers.  And today we are compelled to see the ongoing “lethal obsession” with hatred of Jews.

Let’s be honest: Despite all the hoopla surrounding Christmas and Chanukah, the Holocaust was a time when the darkness overwhelmed the light.  The Holocaust years were a time when human evil defeated the divine purpose of redeeming the world.  And no amount of religious piety should diminish what happened during those days.

If we Jews and Christians keep on talking, teaching and exhorting about the Holocaust, it is because we refuse to believe that human beings cannot be human.  We refuse to believe hate and fear will have the final word.  We refuse.

This Chanukah and Christmas let us commit ourselves anew to remember those days, to teach them to our children, and to do everything we can to prevent the darkness from overcoming the light

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Wounded Memory

There is an old Jewish saying, “In memory lies redemption.”  In many ways this saying rings true.  But memory is not always redemptive.  Sometimes its wounds are old, lie within us and will not go away.  My parents survived the Holocaust, but their wounds accompanied them all their lives.  They wanted to forget but they could not forget. At night my father would scream out loud haunted by those days.

In a recent article in Christian Century, which I highly recommend, Shelly Rambo who teaches at the Boston University School of Theology wrote an important piece, “How Christian Theology and Practice are being shaped by trauma studies.”

In this article, Dr. Rambo is critical of theologies which glorify pain and suffering or use their existence as a way of explaining the will of God.  Her point is the wounds carried by the wounded are not so easily explained or wiped away by justifying theologies or theodicies.  Our job is not to do away with the wounds but to help people figure out how to live with them and through them.

In Jewish tradition we teach: Salvation does not come through suffering, evil or death.  To be saved from the power of sin, death and evil is to consciously and intentionally be honest about and defy these three.  Jews, Christians and Muslims each have their own way but not by theologically blessing the wounds, rather by facing the wounds caused by life and not submitting to their power. 

Friday, November 15, 2019

Can God Evolve?

We do not know much about the mysterious force at the heart of the universe we call God.   In the Book of Exodus, when Moses asks God his name, the Hebrew tells us the best but ambiguous translation is, “I will be what I will be.”

Maybe God is not some paternalistic stable entity sitting on a golden throne with a plan but a God who interacts with human beings constantly evolving to accomplish a particular purpose?  Humans have a certain measure of freedom.  They are constantly making decisions.  Perhaps God agrees or disagrees with these decisions.  Perhaps God is a spiritual energy force which keeps trying to influence our decision making.  Perhaps God is sometimes successful and sometimes not?

What if it’s all about physics?  What if the nature of nature and the nature of human nature is a constant interaction based on the principals of physics?  

It seems clear whatever power God possesses it is not being used to stop all the suffering and evil in the world.  Perhaps God’s commitment to human free will and to letting nature be nature means living on this planet has always been and will continue to be a precarious endeavor.

To paraphrase William James, philosophy is a peculiar stubborn obsession to think clearly.   Theology is a peculiar stubborn obsession to believe and speak honestly.  One of the things we can do to remain sane is to pursue these two obsessions with all we’ve got and hope for the best.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Is Anybody Driving the Bus?

We live in a time when increasing amounts of people are concluding there is no God.  More and more of my students are either agnostic or atheist in their religious affiliation.  When I first came to Augustana, most students were either Lutheran with a minority Roman Catholic.  Today, less than half are Lutheran, a quarter Roman Catholic and another quarter with little or no religious tradition.

What can we say about this phenomenon?   

The world is a chaotic place and each day the News media informs us of ongoing catastrophes and evil.  If your expectation is God is supposed to stop these terrible things from happening, then it makes sense to conclude that is no one in charge of driving the bus.  And the bus seems to be careening down the highway, no one at the wheel, with periodic crashes and tragedies.

When we say or pray the word God, what do we mean?  What image do we picture in our minds?  The image we possess determines our expectations or disappointments.  If we assume it is God’s job to keep the world orderly and civil, we will not be happy.

Some will argue God gave human beings “free will.”   Others speak of the mystery at the heart of the universe.  Some say there is a hidden plan or purpose which we cannot understand.

But the increasing numbers of atheists tells us the old defenses and explanations no longer work as well.  

Is anybody driving the bus?  Some say, they are convinced someone is there and God is real.  Others are equally convinced no one is there.  We will not know the truth until the day we die. 

Meanwhile, we ought not be frightened of the question.  Let’s admit we have never been sure of what is or is not there.  Is there anybody at the wheel?  

For people of faith this is nothing new.  We have always lived inside this tension.  We were always aware that faith is trusting without knowing for sure.  So it has been and so it will be.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Do Thinking and Religion Mix?

In all my years of teaching I have encouraged my students to think about and understand their religious faith and tradition.  I have urged, provoked, agitated and aggravated them buttressing my words with the quote from scripture, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind.”  

But there are times when I wonder if I am right.  The more I spend time thinking about parts of my own religious tradition, the more problematic that tradition becomes.  Many of us were brought up to think critically, to ask questions, to assume the authorities could be wrong.  But when we do this in the area of religion, it seems to create doubts, unbelief and abandonment of key parts of our religious tradition. Does thinking about religion work? Or does religion work best when we don’t ask too many questions?

I suppose it depends what we mean by the word, work.   If the goal of our thinking is to defend and support what our religion teaches, then, critical thinking can weaken what has been taught.  It raises questions about why we do what we do.  Did all this stuff come from God?  Or did people make it up and declare that it came from God? And is our tradition always right?

But, here’s the thing, religious traditions have always been mingled with puzzling mysteries, inconsistent stories, unreliable declarations, and allusive and elusive scriptures urging us to trust and act in particular ways. The easiest way to proceed is to bow our heads and believe, no critical thinking required.

But for many of us the old days of just believing without thinking are over.  Thinking and religion do mix if you think and trust that real and truthful religion is not frightened of questions and integrity. Maybe thinking does not support the most na├»ve faith but it does support and endorse the most honest faith.  

Having said all that, I remember being in India and asking a Hindu holy man, where he thinks the notion of reincarnation came from.  He looked at me with a wry smile and with a certain mellow wisdom in his voice, said, “That is a very Western question.  It will not bring you to the truth.”  For him reincarnation just is and that is all he needs to know.

So, are we Westerners asking the wrong questions?  If we want our religious faith and tradition to have integrity, what else can we do?  For us thinking and religion must and do mix whether such thinking bolsters our faith or not!