Friday, June 15, 2018

Everything Does Not Happen for a Reason

Whenever I teach my class dealing with God, suffering and Evil, I hear someone say, “A lot of terrible things happen in the world, but I believe everything happens for a reason and is part of the plan of God.”

At first, such comments sound religious and comforting. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.  Everything is determined through the inscrutable will of God.  You don’t have to think any more and it wouldn’t do you any good anyway because what God is doing is all a secret.  It’s a mystery.

 But if you do think about it, you will see these comments are insulting to God and our respective religions.  In our scriptures, there are many events which occur that are not the will of God.  In fact, God is pictured as quite surprised and upset at what people do. For example, Cain murders Abel.  God does not stop the killing and in fact, is shocked by it.  God does not say, “Don’t worry.  It’s all part of my plan.”  Throughout the scriptures, God is periodically depicted as angry and upset at what people do. 

And if it is true, that everything happens for a reason and is part of God’s will, it would mean God is a cosmic monster who commits all sorts of evil for the sake of some hidden master plan.  It would mean the Holocaust was the will of God; it would mean wars, earthquakes, tornadoes, cancers, heart attacks, everyday tragic accidents, suicides, senseless and undeserved suffering would all be happening for “a reason.”  Such actions would not be the work of a loving God.  It would be the work of a sadistic masochistic architect who kills millions of people for the sake of some grandiose mysterious plan.  This God should never be worshipped. 

But I ask myself, why is the notion that everything happens for a reason so popular?  Because it offers up comfort and declares a rhyme or reason that explains all the absurdity and craziness happening every day.  It makes us feel better if we can think all the absurdities of life as part of some cosmic quilt woven together even though we cannot understand the pattern. 

I get it.  The brain needs and creates patterns whether they are there or not.  But we do not have to capitulate to such ideas.  We know that accidents happen.  We know people carry within them generations of genetically determined diseases.  And we should know, if we depict everything happening as part of the Divine will, we will be teaching people to hate God. 

Near as I can tell, God created a universe in which chance and laws of nature control much of what happens.  We trust God is interacting with human decisions but obviously not in such a way as to stop suffering and evil, deserved or undeserved.  The notion, everything happens for a reason, is wishful thinking, a delusion, causing more and more people to become atheists.

Let’s be honest.  The world can be a dangerous place.  God’s activity in the world is problematic, mysterious and difficult to discern.  So, remember again Whitehead’s warning: “Seek simplicity but distrust it.”  If you are going to have faith, let it be an intelligent, honest and humble faith.  In that way we shall honor and not insult our God.

Friday, June 8, 2018

New York and Sioux Falls

It is often said by outsiders, “I love to visit New York but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  

I grew up in New York City.  I lived on Fulton Avenue and Gates Place near Moshulu Parkway in the Bronx.  But when I was eighteen, I left.   My brother has lived in the City all his life and I have visited him there many times since went away.

My wife and I visited New York this past weekend.  I saw and hugged my brother; we stayed in a comfortable hotel, ate at Barbuto, a Jonathan Waxman restaurant, went to a Broadway show, toured MOMA, made our way to Strand, a massive book store, had wonderful thin pizza many times, did some serious downtown walking, endured hectic cab and subway rides. 

 New York City, particularly the Times Square area, is an exciting, noisy, diverse, complicated, crowded, explosive, adventurous, crazy place.  While in New York we saw a five-hour parade on Fifth Avenue celebrating the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.   There were thousands of Jews marching in the street singing raucous Hebrew songs in support of the Jewish state.  It is fun to go back and experience the city.

But it is not home for me.  After leaving New York, the Air Force took me to the upper Midwest where I fell in love with the peacefulness and beauty of the place.  For a long time now, I have lived in Sioux Falls, content with its slower and saner pace of life.

As I sit here writing, I think of this small city as relatively quiet, safe, conservative, pretty with trees and an increasing beautiful downtown and of course, the namesake “Falls.”  Our restaurants are not as sophisticated as NYC, but we have wonderful bagels, fine Chinese food, and a growing diversity of eateries. We have several HY-Vees, the Sioux Falls Canaries, the Sioux Falls Storm and Augustana University. 

For all that, I remain fond of New York City, I still have my New York accent, maintain duel loyalty to the Twins and the Yankees, miss the fine Jewish delis, remember my times growing up there, and miss the Jewish presence. 

But, I will tell you something you may find surprising, being Jewish in Sioux Falls means being aware and conscious of being Jewish.  You can’t just blend in.  There are so few of us here that we have learned to care and pay attention to being Jewish. It matters!  So, I like to go back and remember New York, but I am home in Sioux Falls.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Jewish Neurosis

Being Jewish is neurotic.  It involves anxiety, worry and fear.   It is something you want to run away from and something you can’t help but embrace, all at the same time.  During all the years I spent inside the Christian Church, I was constantly reminded by Christians that I was different, I was Jewish.  People wanted to hear my story.  How had a Jew from New York wandered into the Christian Lutheran community of the upper Midwest?  And as I have said on many occasions, ‘the longer I hung around with Lutherans, the more Jewish I became.”

Having run away so far from my community, it took me many years to find my way back.  Now, I am home, and I wear a skullcap every day, I suspect, out of guilt but also to remind myself never to forget who I am.

Given my rather odd journey, I am compelled to reflect on what it means to be Jewish.  First, it means you are part of a tribe or community that has had a tumultuous, terrifying and tenacious history.  It is a community that has been dispersed throughout the world and yet prevails.  Despite the contested establishment of the State of Israel seventy years ago, Jews can be found in any city in the world.  Second, because of our history, we have painfully learned there are people who do not trust “Jews” and we know this distrust and hatred will not stop.  Thirdly, we can be outspoken and passionately care about justice and living as people of character.  It does not mean we are always right and it does not mean all Jews are wonderful human beings.  Like any community we have our share of outliers.  But, as a community, most of us care about living as a “mensch”, a person of character. 

Fourthly, whether we are religious or not, we are encircled by the power of the Torah, that set of divine instructions intended to teach us what it means to live well, and not in chaos.  The Torah, the word means teaching, while interpreted in a variety of ways, is the pedagogical center of Jewish life.  In the land of Israel today, where there are many staunchly religious, and many so called secular or non-religious Jews, every Friday night and Saturday, the Sabbath is celebrated throughout the country.  The Torah is the Jewish tree of life.

And fifth, the Jewish community is a community of questions.  Jews love to argue with each other about who is really Jewish.  They argue with God over his silence during those days.  Because they believe in God they must argue and question his ways.   And, they argue with the world over its silence when Jews are victimized.  I suspect these arguments will be ongoing and signal how important it is to know what it means to be a Jew.  And, as you might expect there are many ways to be Jewish and not everybody gets along.

Sixthly, for some Jews, God is at the center of their existence.  For some, God is a puzzle and for some God does not exist.  Know this: You do not have to believe in God to be Jewish.  And Jews do not think God is Jewish.  God is God.  And you do not have to be Jewish to be in relation with God.

Finally, and this seventh element is rooted in our history and fuels the neurosis:  most Jews are desperate to belong but determined to be different.  Trying to live within this difficult tension in whatever culture we reside, causes some Jews to get lost and wander far from their community. 

I am amazed and yet understand how I allowed myself to wander away from such a distinctive, odd, sometimes crazy, quirky, holy community.  As I look back on all those years, I knew I was Jewish all along and never really forgot.   It is good to be home again despite and because of the neuroses.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Why I'm Obsessed with Religious Questions

I came to study Religion after completing my University studies; I decided to attend a Lutheran Seminary where, among other things, I became aware of the questions faced by all religious people including me.

Certain other events also contributed to my pursuit of questions.

When I was boy, my parents sent me to a Jewish parochial school, a Yeshiva, which I attended for six years.  This was where I was taught, in Jewish tradition, the question is more important than the answer to the question.  The Rabbis at Yeshiva Zichron Moshe, Steinberg, Frost, Lipshitz, amd Eisenblaat taught me to wrestle with the text and to love the questions. For half the day (8-12) we studied Hebrew subjects and for the other half (1-5) English subjects.   I was a much better Hebrew than English student.

Years later, when I was in the Air Force, on leave and trying to catch a flight from Germany to the U.S., I was put on an air transport which had only one seat left.  The rest of the plane contained coffins on their way from Vietnam, piled high, towering over me, almost right up to my seat.  We flew back together for seven hours.  I grew up on that flight and came to realize the terrible questions associated with war.

Most important was the Holocaust.  My parents rarely said much about those days.  Our apartment in the Bronx was a crazy place.  But as I grew up I realized I was the child of survivors.  And as I came to read the words of Elie Wiesel, imploring people to pray to God for the right questions, I was compelled to pursue questions about the character and nature of God, of human beings, of good and evil, of the Bible, of Judaism and Christianity, and the various religious traditions. 

The questions raised by Religion are vital:  What are we doing here on this planet?  How did we get here?  Is there any meaning to our existence?  From where did the material that came to be part of the Big Bang come from?  Is there a God and is that God involved in our world, which is to say, how does God work in human history?  What does God have to do with absurd suffering and evil, especially the Holocaust?  Is there an afterlife and if so what is it all about?  Why all this secrecy from God?  Why all the different world’s religions?  Why do some people hate and fear each other, while others do not? For good or for bad, Religion asks the big, mysterious, truthful, hard to get at, questions. And let’s be honest, the responses are usually tentative, limited and possibly wrong.

I have been lucky to have found a place that allows me to teach the questions which have haunted me all these years.  And I have been lucky to have found students willing to wrestle and slog through the difficult twists and turns encased within these questions. 

Btw, besides being haunted by the questions, I have come to love and be obsessed by them.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Jeremiah's Underwear

There is a funny and not so funny story about underwear in the 13th chapter of Book of Jeremiah.  After the Babylonian exile, God tells Jeremiah to go and buy some underwear, go down to the local river, and bury the underwear under some mud.  Now, if God tells you to go and bury your underwear, what do you do?  You go and bury your underwear!  The Biblical prophets used odd, vivid and concrete illustrations to get their points across.

After some time went by, God tells Jeremiah to go back to the river, retrieve your underwear, which he does, and behold, it was dirty.  God explains to Jeremiah, when Israel was young she was as close to God as a person is to his or her underwear. In those days she was faithful and clean.  But since then, Israel has been disobedient, she has become like this dirty underwear, gross and nothing to which you want to get close.

I love this story because it talks about how intimate God is with Israel.  In our time we are puzzled as to the whereabouts of God.  I get it.  I understand.  But in this story, God is closer to Israel than underwear.  Think of how close you are to your underwear right now.

God lives among the clean and dirty, the light and the darkness of our existences, in what is apparent and what is hidden, God is intimate with us, as close to us as our underwear.

But here is the surprising thing:  In this story, though distressed by Israel’s behavior, disappointed in their forgetfulness, God does not forsake them.  God accompanies Israel into exile.  God is pictured as being married to Israel and Israel is married to God. Their fates are inextricably woven together.  And God is present and intimate with them regardless of what they do.  Jews call this “hesed” or kindness.  Christians call it “grace” or unmerited love.  Either way this story of Jeremiah’s underwear tells us something about the character of God.  God is intimate with us regardless of the way we act. And, by the way, we are intimate with God despite the way God acts.   Exactly what this means and how it plays its way out in our history is, I grant, mysterious and puzzling, to say the least.

Jeremiah’s point in telling the story about underwear was to get Israel to repent, to change, to come back to her husband, who loves her unconditionally.   The word repent means to turn around and live your life differently.  Jeremiah and all the prophets, including Jesus, call on people to change at the root, to repent.

This weekend is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot or Weeks or Pentecost, that day when Jews remember and relive standing again at Sinai to receive God’s teaching on how to live life, the Torah.  The poetic instructions of Torah create a wedded intimacy between God and the Jewish people that can never be divided, not even by dirty underwear.

So, when and if you wonder about the whereabouts of God, remember Jeremiah’s underwear! God may be closer to you than you think.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Why Do Some People Keep Hating Jews?

It’s been over seventy years since the Holocaust, the awful attempt by the Nazis to kill every living Jew.  Most people know something about the horrors of that time.  The event has been taught, studied, debated, analyzed and examined.  Most people know that hatred of Jews is irrational and dangerous.

Yet, today, in the year 2018, antisemitism and hatred of Jews has not disappeared.  It may not be something you personally experience from day to day, but it is real, and it is not going away. 

And I ask myself, why?  Some will say the problem is the State of Israel.  The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians may be the reason.  But, think about this: if tomorrow morning Israel were to disappear, would that stop some people from hating Jews?  Others say the problem is the long history of anti-Judaism inside Christianity and Christian scripture. But, If, tomorrow we could excise all the anti-Jewish texts in the Christian scriptures would that stop the hating?  Some say there is a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world by controlling the world economy, the banks and the media.  If, I could show you how untrue and ridiculous this conspiracy theory is, would that stop the hating?

I remember hearing Elie Wiesel speaking at Augustana, saying how in the 1950’s, just ten years after Auschwitz, he was convinced the Holocaust would be the end of people hating Jews.  A few years later he said, “Can you imagine how na├»ve we were to think such things?”

So, why does it go on from generation to generation to generation?   I suspect the answer is fear and ignorance.  Some people are frightened and come to believe there are unseen forces controlling what happens in the world.  And “the Jews” are the traditional group waiting to be accused.  Though the fear of Jews is rooted in ignorance, it is fueled by an irrational anxiety satisfied with conspiratorial theories.  It’s a matter of faith.  Some people believe what they want to believe.

What can we do?  We must keep on and keep on educating and hoping we can get through the perceptual screen which does not allow facts to enter.  There is no easy remedy.  People remain people and on and on it goes.

As for me, I am sad and astounded at the persistence and resilience of this hatred. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

American Culture in the Trump Era

I may be turning into an old curmudgeon, but it seems American culture is deteriorating in front of our eyes.

The center will no longer hold.  American culture has always been held together by an idea.  We have not been bound by our various ethnic identities, nor by our religious commitments, nor by our economic status, nor by our political views.  We unite around the idea that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”  Despite our differences we are supposed to respect and tolerate each other.  This idea is at the center. 

But does the center still cohere?  What if we are lost, no longer sure about our democracy, our religious faiths, our President, our government, our fellow citizens, our military strength, our liberties, our right to privacy, our place in the world, and the stunning value of being an American citizen? 

The culture seems bored out of its collective mind.  We are the richest land on the planet, yet many people seem depressed and running to get stoned in whatever way they can find.  When I say “stoned” I mean so many seem desperate to escape by whatever means are available, from TV with its myriad options upon options, Amazon, to HULU to Acorn to the great Netflix.  You could sit in front of the tube all day and still not watch everything “you have to see” to not fall behind.  We run to escape from the emptiness of life through all sorts of drugs legal and illegal, social media with its inexhaustible sites, the newest action video games, anything that will get us away from the next minute of having to face ourselves.

While a part of me thinks what I just wrote above is true, another voice in my head says, you are too close to the culture to really know what is going on.  This voice wants to argue, you are being catastrophic, pessimistic and cynical.  It may not be that bad or any worse than it’s ever been.  

This other voice lectures me.  American culture, our democracy, as always, is wrestling between liberty and order. We are unsure about the limits, and more precisely the moral limits, so we push and pull from either side.  Some are eager for more change.  Others think we have changed too much.  Many in the middle are confused.  The politicians seem lost, corrupt or cowardly.  Such times bring out the buffoons, the haters and extremists.  And the more unsure we get, the harder the struggle and animus between the sides.  This too shall pass.  

I answer, perhaps, but at what cost?

 So, which is correct?  The side that thinks our culture is deteriorating or the side that says this is what we do, and we will be better off for having walked through the mess?  I hope for the latter but fear the former.