Category: Religion

Idiosyncratic Interconnections: Loshon haRa and New Orleans R&B (Episode 1)

Part of a new series, “Idiosyncratic Interconnections,” in which I unveil oddball connections betwixt two things that—most likely—only I, in my unusual mind, would notice… realizing a seemingly unrelated thing unexpectedly interconnects with another thing to explain, illuminate or give insight into the first thing. Each episode connects two things. Let me know if ya’ll like the series.

Idiosyncratic Interconnections

New Orleans R&B songs illustrating why Loshon HaRa, “tongue o’ evil,” and Rechilus (tale-bearing) is so bad

In September 2013 I last blogged on the subject of Loshon HaRa, complete with original cartoon-painting imagining the demonic forces that can escape your pie-hole via Loshon HaRa

Loshon HaRa is like libel, to willfully defame or dis someone, to talk smack outside of respectful norms. But unlike slander/libel, the truth is not your shield. Telling others “Suzie is a meth-whore” is Loshon HaRa even if she totally is, since you’ll never have the omniscient knowledge necessary to harshly judge another person, and relaying the dis to peers is assuming the role of judge and dropping the hammer / delivering a sentence of lost reputation. Not your place; keep it zipped. Unless telling it to someone (singular) could protect them.

poster from World War II

We all have our share of the yetzer HaRa (innate evil inclination, urge to destroy) and it can be difficult to hold your tongue. Certainly in the foibles and outright fails of your peers there is a ton of comedic value to leave holstered if one is circumspect in talking of others, plus the prospect that you will look cooler in contrast to the latest idiocy wrought by idiots is ever-tempting. Resist.

The biggest component to guarding your tongue is really mindset. A fidgety, itchy, dissatisfied mind is more likely to spread defamatory info than a chilled-out and content one. No one’s perfect, but following ANY rules of speech is next to impossible without a cultivated calmness of approach, deliberative and careful lips and larynx….

The verse “Do not go as a gossipmonger among your people” (Lev. 19:16) bans all forms of Loshon HaRa. However, the term “gossipmonger,” refers specifically to rechilus, “tale-bearing” or gossip that may sow the seeds of ill will or conflict between two or more others. Whereas directly derogatory info can cause others/the community to lose respect for the subject, rechilus can cause damage to relationships between the subject and his fellows, undermining the accord between another and a 3rd party.
“She thinks you’re dishonest, Chaim” being a classic rechilus example. Even if true, relaying the slight harms both the slighted (Chaim) and the slighter (the 3rd party who originated the negativity). It is wrong to help the initial slighter dis Chaim; they can wrong Chaim just fine without your help or complicity. Additionally, once the offense spreads, it can get a life of its own, pinball all over the community, go viral, damaging the social fabric. Like a computer virus or bug—0 where 1 ought to be—messin’ up the Kabbalistic code that animates the spiritual plane and sustains the constant earthy process of Creation™; put another way, “a disturbance in The Force.”     What began as something small can snowball, mutate… 48 hours and several “telephone game” manglings of 3rd-and-4th-party versions later, the FDNY is trying to talk Chaim down from the George Washington Bridge….

Though Sefer Shmiras haLoshon “way of speech/laws of the tongue book” is a Jewish thing, specifically Orthodox Judaism/yeshivah thang, plain from the sources I found, from Daily Sefer Chofetz Chaim and Jewish Heritage Foundation, both which require some knowledge of yeshivish terms to understand, there is nonetheless broader applicability….

People need more structure and discipline when it comes to speech, to minimize damage to the social fabric, so how can I make laws of the tongue more relatable…?
Well, most can relate to music. To wit…

Interconnection: Illustrative New Orleans R&B songs

New Orleans R&B is exemplified by Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Snooks Eaglin, Allen Toussaint… I think of it as a close relative of the piano blues and an important forefather of rock, but Fats Domino songs like Be My Guest with prominent walking bass-line on piano and skank on the uptick inadvertently created the ska/reggae sound, as well….

“Big Mouth,” written by Fats Domino & Dave Bartholomew…

News is out all over town
Big mouth
You standing over there
Like you don’t know what it’s all about

I guess you satisfied,
that you made me cry
big mouth…

Allen Toussaint is best known for songs he wrote for other performers, and Gossip Gossip was sung by Diamond Joe.  Now considered a rare soul track, the original Diamond Joe 45 is a mega rarity…

Gossip, gossip
can’t stop us
from gettin’ along
they don’t know we gotta
solid thing goin’ onnnnn

they get a charge
draggin’ other folks down…

Advance to next II: episode 2 | or II: episode 3

Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah

Originally written December the 5th, 2006, I’ve revised and re-named it to be part 2 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

Tananim Gedolim, in English, “Great Reptiles”

The Spiritual Can Illuminate The Scientific. The Scientific Can Illuminate The Spiritual.

There has been (and will continue to be) debate about evolution and the age of planet Earth.

Among Christians, especially the growing fundamentalist groups, creationism is often embraced, stating a literal 6 day creation of the Earth. Some Charedi Jews (i.e. ultra Orthodox) hold to the Earth being 5767 years old, though an important distinction should be noted: the “literal” reading—the idea that the text shouldn’t be interpreted as much as simply “read”—taught by many forms of fundamentalist Christianity, isn’t really possible within Judaism because we work with the original Hebrew of the Torah which, by definition, can only be interpreted into English, ancient Hebrew worldview converted into English thought and words. So even the more hardline factions that strictly hold to the 5700+ Hebrew calendar years timeframe for the Earth’s age (not meaning 5700+ years from Adam and the human spirit’s first run-publication, or something else) aren’t fundamentalist in the same way strict, sola scriptura literalists are, as they don’t insist that this is the only meaning within the passage.  Within Judaism it’s taken for granted that multiple meanings and explanations, even hidden mystical interpretations, exist on every page, with numerous wisdom and commentary texts relied upon to “bring down” (from Sinai) right interpretations, not the “one book, one meaning” mentality associated with the sola scriptura-thinking prevalent in Protestant versions of Christianity.

The passage that mentions “the great reptiles,” Bereishit (Genesis) 1.21, says the following:

21. And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that crawls, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged fowl, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good

The Hebrew words “tananim” (reptiles, serpents, Leviathan) and gelodim (great, plural) are translated here as “great sea monsters.” The term gelodim, the greats, is clear and unambiguous, “the greats” is frequently used by itself as a noun, especially to refer to the Talmudic greats, the great sages. Tananim is the area of difficulty. Most translations render “tananim gelodim” as great sea monsters, great serpents, or the Leviathan…the King James Version goes with “great whales.” The Leviathan is an ancient mythological sea monster, think Loch Ness Monster, a massive marine reptile described as a fire-breathing dragon in Job 41:
“18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.”

It’s unmistakable that tananim are giant reptiles or members of a terrifying reptiloid species of some kind. In modern Hebrew, “tananim” are crocodiles.

Rashi, the famous Torah commentator and rabbi from 11th century France, offers more insights into the tananim gelodim, which he sees as the Leviathan. Rashi is so foundational because he focuses on the basic meaning of the Hebrew words, the grammar, and decoding ancient idioms. He typically keeps it brief, not getting into hidden interpretations, but for the Leviathan he makes an exception, since the letters in tananim gelodim led to the midrash (retelling) cited. Rashi writes:

the sea monsters: The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Chaseroth V’Yetheroth, Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225].

Okay, come on… c’mon, we’re talking about ancient giant reptiloids that emerged before birds and mankind, and have to go extinct before humanity can begin their world, being too mean, too enormous, too terrible, to co-exist with humans.
The preponderance of the evidence indicates the tananim gedolim are dinosaurs.

I love dinosaurs. They did exist.

the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.
the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.
me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.
me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.

There are people who retcon history to erase the dinosaurs, or say dinosaurs coexisted with humans, or say that tananim gedolim being dinosaurs is Biblical proof that dino-human coexistence occurred. The Creation Museum in Kentucky has displays showing a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus in Eden, mankind (including human children) peacefully coexisting with predatory dinosaurs that somehow aren’t chasing and eating them, dinos saddled for riding… it’s crazy.

To assume that all Triassic fossils are 248-208 Million Years inaccurate
all Jurassic fossils are 208-144 Million Years inaccurate
and all Cretaceous fossils are 144-65 Million Years inaccurate is way too much for me to swallow.
We’ve proven that situations like The Lost World or The Flintstones didn’t happen.

In this actual exhibit at the Creation Museum (real, not photoshopped) a baby Tyrannosaurus eats plants in Eden, as a Jesus-looking figure (standing inside the T-Rex’s kill radius) looks on peacefully. The Tyrannosaurus‘ teeth, blades rather than the grinding molars characteristic of herbivorous dinos, may have made chewing leaves physically impossible.

It stretches credulity past the breaking point to think the dinosaurs (meaning “terrible lizards”), including Tyrannosaurus Rex, each tooth a scimitar-looking kill-blade, chilled with early homo sapiens, just kicked back and watched Eden flag football together with mankind like bros, and didn’t make a midnight snack out of the human race and end it forever. Velociraptors would see humanity as a feast, raptor-christmas!!!
Dinosaurs are called dinosaurs, “terrible lizards,” for a reason—not because they did a terrible job of lizard-ing—because they terrorize us, and can strike terr into the hearts of man, even in crumbly fossil form.  Listen to Rashi, gigantic dragon-like predators aren’t compatible with the world of man; “if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them.”

But of course, dinosaur fossils and an Earth that is demonstrably billions of years old doesn’t necessarily contradict the Torah. To insist on a literal six-day Creation is to have a shallow understanding of a Creation story that has infinite depth in each verse.  There’s much more to it.  There is so much more to Torah, so much more depth and color, so many layers and intricacies to the numerous interpretations and subtexts, not to mention the richness of the oral tradition (the aggadot, midrashim, etc.)
Dr. Gerald Schroeder makes a convincing case that the six days are six epochs, and brings down several Tanakh passages that substantiate that idea.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew and MIT-trained scientist who has made it his life’s work to teach that the Torah can offer enriching perspectives to verifiable science and visa versa. His lectures are the source of much of what I’m about to tell you.

What is a day? All sides can agree that day, by definition, is the time between sunrise and sunset. We know that since Torah tells us the sun wasn’t created until day 3, it can’t be referring to literal days (because a day requires a sun) so these 6 days refer to epochs of Creation. Psalm 90:4 says “a thousand years in Your sight are as but yesterday.”

The Jewish sages of the Middle Ages tell us the Earth is billions of years old, and they weren’t bending to science, because science didn’t even exist in their era. Nachmanides described all matter of the universe expanding from the size of a seed (the big bang) in the 13th century… scientific truth mirroring spiritual truth.

In Genesis, you see one beginning, not a cyclic universe. This has been shown by science, a big bang booting-up the universe and linear time.

The second description of Creation describes Adam not finding a mate among the animals. “And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field, but for man, he did not find a helpmate opposite him.” (Gen. 2:20) Obviously, Adam in sinless Eden is not a sheep molester. The Midrash explains among the “beasts of the field” were animals who looked and talked just like people! Prehistoric man! And since he couldn’t find a soul mate among Neanderthals, Hashem created the male and female soul. 5767 years isn’t the age of the Earth, but the time since the human soul was bestowed. 5767 in history mirrors what has been discovered by archeology as about the time organized civilization arose. I don’t think this is a coincidence; this is obviously an important break in human history.

Astronomy has shown that light exploded into the matter of suns, then suns exploded into chunks, element-rich planets which spawned life, i.e. we come from light beams. This is confirmed throughout Judaic thought, as we are called “beings of light.”

Spiritual truth can mirror scientific truth. There are countless examples of this. Another was how a Talmudist, going on kabbalistic teachings, deduced a major descending artery in the brain that was later confirmed to exist by science.

Both the scientific and the spiritual are very exciting to study, because they have the potential to expose and confirm the deepest, most visceral truths of our existence. Science should be embraced by the religious, and it’s very frustrating to see them bashing science. They align themselves with the same mentality of those who insisted the world was flat. Our global reality would be greatly improved by a new Renaissance or Islamic Golden Age that harnesses the best thinkers, undivided: theologians, scientists, anthropologists, everyone toward a goal of bettering the world of man, without heeding specialty boundaries and the counter-productive “thinking from silos” that’s so prevalent today.  Unity.  Unity would be great.

I recommend checking out Dr. Schroeder’s take on the dinosaurs and the translation of tananim.  Dr. Schroeder isn’t one of these “Answers in Genesis” types, he’s more a physicist who’s well-versed in Torah and takes you deeper. His explanations add richness to our understandings of the cosmos and Torah alike.  It’s good to seek out scientific truths, (“…the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” Deut. 29:29) and the exciting scientific discoveries ahead can only help us understand ourselves and all creation.


For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Part 1: The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature! (#1 most-visited page on, by far)

New news items related to my blog posts, November 2013

Updates on stories I’ve presented

As we say goodbye to November, here is a summary of November news items that add to, echo, or relate to, past posts from my blog.

1. Tea Partier fears about being in China’s debt

On November 11th, I published an essay on the blog: Beijing’s Marshall Plan for the U.S., about the weird China-U.S. economic relationship and the domestic uneasiness, tension, even rage, it’s causing, and how it’s driving Tea Party activism on the debt and deficit.

That day, video came out from Sarah Palin’s Nov. 9 speech at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, and her “this isn’t racist, but…it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master [China]” comment got lots of attention in the news cycle. Unfortunately, the “this isn’t racist, but” quip was like a flashing, neon sign “ATTACK RACISM HERE” and media took the bait: it was deliberate, jiujitsu messaging, suddenly the media is delivering a message about Palin and about the left to her specific audience without even knowing they’re doing it… diabolically clever. She is constantly doing backhanded ways of delivering red meat to her base via outrage-peddling news media, in this case Palin’s delivering the message “I hate the racism police too, I’m like you” with media doing the delivering for her. So, with the journalism guard dog pointlessly chasing a car, debating whether the word slavery is inappropriate (I’d say it is very inappropriate when being used for publicity-baiting but the concept of “debt slavery” merits legitimate discussion) and batting about different ahistorical viewpoints, the China part of the comment was lost in most media accounts.

This is the meat of the comment:

“Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China… when that money comes due – and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master.”

Here’s a video of the comment in context:

You can also watch/hear the video of Palin’s speech in its entirety.

This underlines the points I made about the anxiety around potential “debt peonage” to the PRC. The structural long-term debt isn’t the only issue, which liberals need to understand. Right now the left talks past the right and visa versa, ships passing in the night, liberals and liberal-ish budget wonks are saying that the deficit is on track to be a historically low 2% of GDP, when, for the Tea Partier grassroots, the real crux of the matter is being “beholden to the foreign master,” and whether we are beholden by $200 billion or $200 million is immaterial or, at least, the numerical specifics of the debt are not as important to many on the right as WHO we’re in debt to. The dependence on (economic and military rival) China raises very legit problems for “American exceptionalism.” It makes a paradigm shift that topples the U.S.-led unipolar economic and military order a real possibility for this generation of U.S. leaders down the road a decade or two, not just anxieties for the great-great-grandchildren.
An effective liberalism would address the fears of debt-slavery under a foreign jackboot head-on. I hope actual dialogue can happen instead of the continuous talking past each other, engaging on completely separate issues.

The 11 cultural “nations” of the United States: diversity (and devolution?)

The new book describing the 11 nations or socio-political cultures that rub up against each other in North America (Mobile should be categorized with “New France”) being frequently blogged about in November, brought to mind an essay I blogged in May 2010, one of my more vitriolic posts after the Affordable Care Act passed several months previously and the Tea Partier groundswell was peaking, a post chock-full of ranty disillusionment: Nick’s Essay on America’s Decline, with Big Solutions.
Given our system’s seeming inability to seriously address national problems, with the tepid, insurer-friendly ACA nearly impossible to pass as “too socialist,” I offered three “big solutions,” 1. strictly banning bribing candidates with “contributions” 2. Proportional Representation via STV (“Instant Runoff Voting”) 3. if all else fails, let states group themselves into federated republics with near-complete autonomy on domestic policies like super provinces (still within the United States) for each regional political culture. My concept is similar to devolution as done in Spain (Catalonia, to name one such region, is given broad powers to govern itself). Federal Republic of Central America should be noted as an example of what not to do.

Click to enlarge the map!! In this vision of the future, South Carolina even secedes from the Southern Republic, because, hey, let her finally satiate the 200+ years of secession-hunger.

My map, instead of the 11 cultural nations, has seven federated republics and South Carolina. If nothing else, the essay takes on the serious difficulties with our federalist system directly, difficulties that too often get swept under the rug.

Note: I’m different from the Nick that wrote the “Big Solutions” essay almost three years ago. My views aren’t necessarily less vehement, I still dislike the ACA for what it doesn’t do, and I still think root-and-stem reforms and big constitutional questions should be foreground issues, I’m just more interested in understanding and dialogue than before, more keen to write things that further understanding of ideological opponents than to write diatribes like the one above. Though I still want to cry out against injustices, I feel an urge to love (and grok) thy enemy, and get a grayer, less absolute picture of reality. With that shift, I look back on the South (and Mobile in particular) with increasing fondness as I reflect on the good things that came with the bad.

Religious Literacy and Understanding

In the first weeks of November, The Atlantic‘s post Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God by Tara Isabella Burton was widely shared and blogged about, and I highly recommend it. Burton’s piece is the most powerful and succinct defense of studying theology I’ve seen to date, an excellent refutation of recent calls (from Richard Dawkins, et al) to deep-six theology departments in UK universities as he doubts theology offers “any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.” Burton nails it with the assertion that theology offers a unique “opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today.” This piece really re-enforces what I was saying in my 2010 essay Religious Literacy and Understanding, For Our Own Sake,
where I argued:

You can’t really form productive relationships with many every day folk in the U.S. (nor Mexico, South America and Africa) if you’re completely ignorant of Christianity, and, increasingly, its more charismatic groups, which are seeing explosive growth. Unless you can get where people are “coming from,” you won’t understand them, and the spiritual is a huge part of that. The spiritual will always become more a focus when material things fail, and they are failing on a massive scale unseen since the ’30s.

As the U.S. falls, others prosper. You can’t understand what is going on in China right now (their return to their once-familiar role as #1 global superpower) if you have no clue what Confucianism is, and the role it is playing in Chinese policy and politics.

You can’t understand how cultures across the globe are responding to the rapid changes happening, a revolution in technology and society and the economy unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution, without religious literacy.

click here to read the rest of the essay

In a world that is roughly 80% religious in some form, religious illiteracy isolates you. Burton’s article goes even deeper; if you only have time to read one link from this post, read her essay, especially if you’re in an academic field.

50th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination

November 22nd marked 50 years since President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. My 2008 blog post about Lee Harvey Oswald speaking at Spring Hill College in Mobile mere months before the assassination, explaining Soviet life to Jesuit scholastics gathered in the rotunda, may give you some new insights into this surreal story. I’ve added a recently published study of Oswald’s time in the USSR to give the post better backing.

Hello December,


Some Thoughts On The Power of Speech

Obviously I lean heavily on written communication, both in texting basic needs and writing long-form when ideas need room. Personally, I think the novel is best used when your/my/the author’s ideas about something large (our past, our future, technology, childhood, humanity, the soul, big stuff) are deep enough that you need an entire novel to explore them in proper detail. Length of a given novel should be tied to exploring its theme, I guess I’m saying, and the written word has a special magic, but…

…in a way text is lacking, as large amounts of information normally conveyed through tone, inflection and other nuances can be lost. Limiting oneself to text only, as the web often forces us to, is sort of the personal communication equivalent of converting music from vinyl to digital, you’re getting 101010 but you have lost information between 0-1, losing the sounds at 0.09 for example, missing lots of raw data that is in the analog recording… but much worse. While there are many valid arguments that digital gives both creator and listener more advantages than its downsides, and early adopters of digital recording (Frank Zappa for example) offer proof positive of that, losing verbal expression is an unambiguous net loss for both creator and listener.

Sarcasm and other subtle types of humor are very difficult to do without the nuances of speech, and easily can be misread as nonsensical or offensive… those who can make a comedy novel work, communicating humor clearly solely through text (Douglas Adams for example) have a special sort of genius that’s too often overlooked.

Speech is uniquely human, even more part of being alive than motion, animation. Through my college years I learned that my garbled speech made people uncomfortable, that people are naturally averse to sifting the signal from the noise and the time consumption implied. People are even more bothered by the differences in speech than the lack of animation. This is a major social obstacle for vent users, at least for those of us whose underlying condition is wrecking the vocal musculature on top of the respiratory failure (e.g. major problem if you’re vent-dependent because you’re compensating for a—known or unknown—neuromuscular disease, less of a problem if you’re on a ventilator due to spinal cord injury). For me, it meant I was limited to communicating with a handful of students who had a natural comprehension of “Nickenese” or the patience to learn, then limited to the times they were free and I was on campus.

There’s also something spiritual in the power of speech. A few months back I spoke with a Jesuit friend of mine who I hadn’t talked to since we were both Spring Hill students in like 2004. He still understood a solid 3/4 of what I said (over Skype and my non-functioning mic) despite the negative changes to my trach and vocal musculature since then, which I thought would be impossible (the good MacBook internal mic picking up when my headset mic inevitably fails does go a long way). This led me to theorize… that there must be some sort of spiritually-unique imprint in the voice, some sound beneath sound that can be recalled like we recall faces, and then climbed like a lifeline toward comprehension of the voice’s words. There’s definitely more to speech than the tangible.

The idea that there’s more to speech than immediately apparent isn’t new. One of the parts of the Jewish tradition that resonates the most with me is its concepts around the power of speech, the idea of speech creating forces

Demon escaping through your speech!  Pastel with oil brush background (Corel Painter). Created September 21st, 2013
Demon escaping through your speech! Pastel with oil brush background (Corel Painter). Created September 21st, 2013

in the spiritual world (which is synonymous with our world, but sort of an unseen 5th dimension). You say something good, good is perpetuated in the world. You say something bad, you’re creating an evil that can stick around in the world. It’s like unleashing a demon. One abusive phrase can follow someone for the rest of their lives. “Lashon haRa,” roughly translated as “the evil tongue,” is a major spiritual problem to be carefully avoided, to apologize for, to atone for.  I’m not even close to perfect on this, but I do try to stay aware of it.

Don’t take the power of speech for granted. For me verbal communication is more and more valuable because of its power and scarcity.  Like Helium-3 or something.


The Religion Century: Challenged By European Atheists? No.

In my post in September 2006, The Religion Century, I argue that now that the world is no longer bi-polar, the only pole left is the US, and in place of a conflict between nation-states, we have clashing cultures and ideologies.  Religious fervor, among Muslims, Christians and Jews, not to mention European paganism and the ancient religions of the East are increasing.  The Religion Century post was important for this blog, predicting a groundswell in spirituality, setting a tone and establishing my position as pro-religion, favoring religion as a positive force for community building, fulfillment, artistic expression and connecting to something larger than yourself.
But what’s that, my thesis about The Religion Century is being challenged?  People think this will be the non-religious century because Europeans are rapidly going atheist?
BBC News reports:

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

BBC News – Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says

Wait, not so fast, nothing here means “The Religion Century” won’t happen.

First, this study is flawed, basing itself on the concept of “utility,” that there was more self-interested utility in belonging to a religious community in the 19th century and their model shows that utility dropping more and more in the future.  The model fails because religion isn’t always (and should never be) about self-interest, rather about something larger than the self and self-interest.  But if social services across Europe collapse as predicted, that utility model turns upside down as the lower and middle classes suddenly have great self-interest in joining a helping religious community.

Secondly, yes, atheism is on the rise across European Christendom, but these countries also have low birth rates (see List of countries by birth rate, European states are at the bottom). This means that religious communities with really high birth rates (Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, other sects) within and without Europe will more than replace them, ultimately resulting in a big jump in religious populations.

Lastly, just because “traditional Christendom” as we’ve known it in Europe for the past 1,000 years will shockingly shrink doesn’t mean that other faiths won’t move in.  Nature abhors a vacuum, y’see, and religions are no different.  In Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland, you’ll see people turning to Islam, or Mormonism, or nonsense like Scientology, or New Age paganism or old-school paganism (with Europe going full-circle back to druidism and Norse beliefs) or something worse, who knows, but it’ll definitely be something. Human beings are hard-wired to seek out and connect with spirituality.

Though I understand the fear of Christianity waning in Europe, because when Europeans have let even a sliver of their leaders put weird Norse beliefs ahead of Christianity in the past, it has ended up like THIS, the worst thing ever.

The Religion Century, an upswing in religiosity as support structures we’ve relied on (especially government) are failing and changing more and more, will most definitely have its downsides, too, with intolerance and violence.  But just because religion has gone bad many, many times doesn’t mean it can’t be great. Just because an ice pick can kill, doesn’t mean it can’t create beautiful ice sculptures.

The Arab Spring, the revolutionary wave rippling across North Africa and the Middle East has, from its outset in Tunisia, been driven by Islamic arguments about dignity for all and about how proper Muslim rulers should try to measure up to the “righteously guided Caliphs” and respect human rights as seen in Islam. Though many have forgotten this, the first actions of the Egyptian uprising were about solidarity with Egyptian Christians following the brutal Alexandria church bombing that rocked Egypt seconds into New Year’s Day, and, famously on January 6th (Coptic Christmas) groups of demonstrators formed lines of “human shields” for churches during Christmas mass. Amid reports of the Mubarak regime‘s consistent discrimination against Christians and indifference to violence against them, revolutionary demands quickly grew. The rationale behind the Arab Spring is that the brutal dictators in the Arab world have broken Islamic law and should be removed. This is a dimension of The Religion Century that is amazingly positive.

The assertion often made by scholars and social scientists that religion wanes as affluence in a society increases is false–you only really see that correlation in the Western world. In Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, China, and many others, they have built more and more spiritual interest, congregations, houses of worship and religious learning institutions as their exponential increase in standard of living and disposable income has allowed it. More income among religious populations has meant more mosques and temples built, more clergy trained, more religious texts produced. In China (most striking because the PRC has enforced atheism until recently) the newly affluent are funding an explosion of Christianity, Buddhism, even traditional Chinese Taoism. Check out this fascinating NYT story China’s Taoism Revival.

I know that I open myself up to potential ridicule by posting such unabashed pro-religion views.  But I see people across the world living in despair, and more disconnected from each other in daily life than ever before. Americans work more and more hours than any other people on earth, go home alone, veg out on fake corporate food and culture, rinse and repeat. In this rat race culture, devoid of much meaning and largely disconnected from religious traditions, spirituality couldn’t be more important, and religion is key as an organizing force that I hope will foster more human connection, community building, artistic expression (see Religious Art} and fulfillment to a bleak, materialistic world.  We need it now more than ever.


Religious Literacy and Understanding, For Our Own Sake

You can’t really form productive relationships with many every day folk in the U.S. (nor Mexico, South America and Africa) if you’re completely ignorant of Christianity, and, increasingly, its more charismatic groups, which are seeing explosive growth. Unless you can *get* where people are “coming from,” you won’t understand them, and the spiritual is a huge part of that. The spiritual will always become more a focus when material things fail, and they are failing on a massive scale unseen since the ’30s.

As the U.S. falls, others prosper. You can’t understand what is going on in China right now (their return to their once-familiar role as #1 global superpower) if you have no clue what Confucianism is, and the role it is playing in Chinese policy and politics.

You can’t understand how cultures across the globe are responding to the rapid changes happening, a revolution in technology and society and the economy unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution, without religious literacy.

The Islamic world and the dizzying variety of cultures within it (peoples from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula to the Indian subcontinent to China and Indonesia, each very different from the rest) are in transition too, and you can’t hope to understand what is emerging without educating yourself about Islam, its beauty and its diversity and its role in people’s lives.

a rudimentary map of the countries with significant Muslim populations
a rudimentary map of the countries with significant Muslim populations. This is what I mean by "the Islamic world."
photo by Saif Dahlah/AFP via Getty Images
PHOTO CREDIT: Saif Dahlah/AFP via Getty Images. Click the picture to go to the source, the NYT Lens blog's Pictures of the Day, August 20, 2010

Can anyone look at this photo of this Muslim girl praying to the ONE GOD, and not grasp in some way how beautiful Islam can be? There is no reason to think this girl is part of radicalism or terrorism. Only those who have closed their minds, part of the “Angry White Male” anti-tolerance, fearful, anti-intellectual fervor that’s re-emerging in force in America, would post negative comments about this beautiful photo. During times of economic anxiety, rejection of the foreign and retreat to the familiar is easy, and it spreads.

When I see deep religious ignorance, like foaming opposition to an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan because so many people can’t distinguish between the peaceful Sufis behind the Park51 project and the radical Wahabbis who support terrorism, I know we need to refocus on religious literacy and understanding.
We’ve got right-wing protesters waving signs based on fear and ignorance about Islam and rich liberals who are just as clueless about Islam as they are about Christianity; the woman that cleans their house more likely to know what Pentecostalism is than her “educated” bosses. And then there are countless hipsters and hippies with their “all religions are the same, different paths up the same mountain” crap, which ignores very meaningful differences and conflicts, and makes real religious literacy harder. All this should change.

Learn! Sufis are known for the whirling dervishes, not terror. To my knowledge, there’s never been a Sufi terrorist! It’s the splinter groups, usually radical elements of the Wahhabbi sect that want war with the West.

Wahhabism is the ultra-conservative revivalist brand of Islam that sprung up in the 18th century, rejecting traditional Sunni scholars and interpretation in favor of a new, extreme, purist form of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism brings us radical interpretations of Jihad, a focus on destruction of infidels, everybody but them seen as infidels, etc., ideas which were not widespread within Islam prior to Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab starting the Wahabbi movement, which has provided the foundation for radicalism (though it’s important to note that radical interpretations can be–and are–challenged on a textual basis, even within the movement). The radical splinter side of Wahhabism is the ideology of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hamas. Regular Wahabbism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia (in fact, Wahabbism is inseparable from Saudi history, from the first Saudi state (which came into being because of an alliance with al-Wahhab) onward… Note: today, most in this movement prefer the term Salafi/Salafism. The spread of radical Wahabbism hijacking Islam, a great and beautiful Abrahamic faith (some parts of the Koran are downright pacifist!), and how oil wealth has funded radical madrassahs that have caused problems from Yemen to Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent, is a really serious problem and should not be minimized.

But, my point is, media so often paints ALL Islam as crazed Wahhabi radicals likes al-Qaida, when, in reality, Islam reflects the incredible diversity of 1.5 BILLION people (read here about the many divisions in Islam). Americans can understand the nuanced and many differences within Christianity: Protestants and Catholics, Mormons and Baptists and Episcopalians, but most of us don’t understand the difference between Sunni Wahabbis and Sufis, or between Sunni Wahabbis and Shias.
Historians can easily argue that Wahhabism formed as a simpler, puritan alternative to the heavily mystical Sufism. Wahabbism is a fundamentalist response, like the “Restorationists” that sprung up from the “Second Great Awakening” in U.S. Christianity. Wahabbism is certainly (in style and content) in stark contrast to Sufism. A Wahabbi would look at the Sufi tradition of whirling dervishes and see pointlessness at best and heretical “innovation” at worst, because whirling like that isn’t in the Koran. Wahhabism rejects traditional scholars and leaders and hierarchy (akin to “the priesthood of all believers” in Protestant thought) because that may lead to “innovations” incongruous with their ultra-purist beliefs.
In diametric opposition, Shia Islam tends to emphasize scholarship, a hierarchy of Mullahs with a Grand Ayatollah (roughly analogous to the Pope) at the top, veneration of Saints, going to shrines, etc. Shia Islam is so different than Sunni, like Puritans vs. Catholics, it’s easy to understand why they’ve been in conflict for so many centuries. And Sufi mysticism is so different, you can see why Sufis are a persecuted minority in both the Sunni and Shia worlds (here is a spot-on op-ed about the precarious position of Sufis in today’s world: Muslims in the Middle). Islam isn’t a united force, and never was; it’s at war with itself in countless ways.
The diversity in Islam is real, and meaningful to understand anything going on in the world right now. But so often, media portrays Islam as one MONOLITHIC enemy. This is false, and pushes us to support stupid and disastrous decisions (like bombing and invading majority-Shia Iraq because we’re mad at al-Qaida, a Wahabbi Sunni splinter group).

Most worrying: the attitude I’m constantly hearing is ETERNAL WAR with all Islam, even super-peaceful Sufis. Too many blame ALL Islam for 9/11, somehow even Sufis are seen as connected to 9/11 even if they have been against Wahabbi interpretations of Islam since before America was founded; they can never escape! It really scares me when demagogues paint all 1.5 BILLION Muslims as enemies. Not only is that unjustified morally, it means more wars, it means we can forget our counterinsurgency strategy (which hinges on convincing Muslims we have no beef with their religion and winning hearts and minds), it means more hate; we’ll need to bring back the draft if we want war with over a billion people!

An economic and technological revolution is happening. The globalization train has left the station. Our success (hell, because of all our countless mistakes, OUR VERY SURVIVAL) as an independent nation-state will hinge on nation-building at home, which requires 1) unprecedented investment in infrastructure, education and R&D which requires 2) the absence of budget-crippling overseas conflicts which requires religious literacy and understanding and 3) welcoming the best and the brightest immigrants to our shores which requires religious literacy and understanding and 4) groundbreaking levels of diplomatic and economic cooperation with foreign powers, which requires religious literacy and understanding! 1-4 will determine whether America sinks or swims and each of these need a lack of cultural/religious animosity that keeps us divided and off-task, which, once again, requires religious literacy and understanding.

We have to have religious literacy and understanding to help us with the heavy lift ahead of us to rebuild our country. Religious literacy and understanding, FOR OUR OWN SAKE.

Every high school and college should be make mandatory reading Stephen Prothero‘s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t and
God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter
for a basic overview of the religions shaping our world. Or at least read some of the links in this post.

But, America needs more (much more) religious literacy and understanding. For our own sake.

Leviticus and Disability: My Take

Patrick A from PunkTorah asked me to comment on parsha Emor, and here’s what I came up with.

Everyone please turn to Leviticus 21, kthx. In this week’s parsha, Emor, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) tells us about some of the laws regulating kohanim (Temple priests).

After the admonition for kohanim to not have contact with corpses, parsha (portion) Emor goes on to list the various deformities and disabilities that would disqualify a kohen from performing his Temple duties. They include: blindness, mobility impairment, sunken nose, unibrow, broken or twisted limb, one limb disproportionate to the other, sores, and, of course, crushed testicles. If the Temple was excluding disabled priests, does that mean Judaism is discriminatory and ablist?

Josh over at parshablog says one possibility is that this is a concession to the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. DovBear suggests that this is just one of several “rules and requirements and presumptions that no longer fit anyone’s idea of morality” in Torah.

I don’t fully agree with either of these opinions. I think there’s nothing we can’t learn from, especially words of Torah (nothing is not relevant, and if you’re not able to find something to learn from in a chapter, you’re not looking hard enough).
What can we learn from this? Well, to me, ablism means blocking people with disabilities from doing things we can do, assuming we have nothing to contribute, and stifling our potential. It doesn’t mean I get an equal shot of playing shortstop for the Yankees. Maybe a disabled kohen can’t drag a bull up the ramp to the sacrificial altar. And we have to remember that Torah was recorded during a time where G-d was smiting people as an example that even minor infractions should not be committed with the Temple service. This was a lot more important than a Yankee game, and if you were reckless in the Temple, G-d would be reckless with us (i.e. smiting). In Torah, every tribe and every person has a role they’re born for, and that’s one lesson we can take away. And in this life of confusion, chaos and darkness, one who finds their purpose, their meaning, is fortunate indeed.

I’m not offended by the stringent requirements for Temple services. Disabled kohanim were only barred from leading Temple rituals. They were never stripped of their title, and were still allowed to eat from the holiest of sacrifices (they got all the benefits of their role). Some were even allowed to perform the priestly blessing (source).

the birkat kohanim (priests blessing)
This is how the birkat kohanim (priests’ blessing) was/is done traditionally, a kohanim-only group benediction, blessing the congregation with both hands, horizontally, to resemble the Hebrew letter “Shin.” Leonard Nimoy made the “Vulcan salute” identical to this, except one-handed. For more on this, Nimoy’s inspiration for the Vulcan salute, see this article on

And unlike illegitimate kohanim, disabled kohanim continued to keep all the benefits, and all the priestly laws. To suggest a physical defect is a spiritual defect (as this commenter did) is ablist and false.

The fact that disabled kohanim stay kohanim, and can’t be expelled, is fascinating to me, and I think we should learn from it.

Also in Leviticus, those with skin disease never have to pay for their affliction (free health care). The Torah makes sure that anyone in need is looked after and cared for. Kohanim were responsible for properly caring for and overseeing infection control for the community.

People with disabilities are never excluded or discriminated against in the Torah. Isaac‘s blindness certainly never diminished his authority as a Patriarch and leader.

In this 1638 oil painting by Govert Flinck, a blind and aged Isaac blesses Jacob to be the next leader of Israel
In this 1638 oil painting by Govert Flinck, a blind and aged Isaac blesses Jacob to be the next leader of Israel

I see Torah as proposing a semi-Utopian system, where everyone matters, everyone has a role, everyone has a portion, not the cruel dystopia many paint it as.


Here is the PunkTorah commentary on this blog. And check out the video:

And to see all the PunkTorah videos, go to the PunkTorah YouTube Channel.

The Essenes: A Historical Hoax?

Israeli scholar Rachel Elior has rocked the blogosphere with her allegation that The Essenes didn’t exist at all, and Josephus likely made them up to make Jews look tough to the Romans:

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.” She adds, “He was probably inspired by the Spartans. For the Romans, the Spartans were the highest ideal of human behavior, and Josephus wanted to portray Jews who were like the Spartans in their ideals and high virtue.”

Early descriptions of the Essenes by Greek and Roman historians has them numbering in the thousands, living communally (“The first kibbutz,” jokes Elior) and forsaking sex — which goes against the Judaic exhortation to “go forth and multiply.” Says Elior: “It doesn’t make sense that you have thousands of people living against the Jewish law and there’s no mention of them in any of the Jewish texts and sources of that period.”

Source: TIME: Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed

Her strongest proof here is the lack of evidence. The Talmud and other Jewish texts are voluminous beyond belief, and cover pretty much every detail imaginable, every law, every heresy against it that the sages knew of, yet a heretical sect as radical as The Essenes never merited a mention? No sages noticed The Essenes?

Elior’s case is far from air-tight, but personally I’ve always been suspicious of the Essene story too. It’s just so against the Jewish character, and, frankly, weird, for Jews to hide in caves waiting for the afterlife, and forgo sexual contact in a culture that puts such emphasis on marriage and mating. Jewish culture is a culture of shidduchim (matches) and the shadchan (matchmaker) and finding your b’sheret (soulmate). And the “are you married yet? why not? want to meet my daughter?” attitude comes through strongly, even in the earliest rabbinic sources.


Jewish Funeral For Liviu Librescu

In my last post, I covered the death of Professor Liviu Librescu in the VT Massacre. Librescu, who survived a Nazi slavery camp during the Holocaust, was given a Jewish funeral today in Brooklyn. Full story

He’ll be buried in Israel.

I was moved by these photos.

The casket of Liviu Librescu is carried through the street in Brooklyn, New York, Wednesday, April 18, 2007.

Praying and crying

American Idol(atry)

Serving the good, not false idols, is incredibly important

Idolatry. In Hebrew, avodah zora (strange service). The concept of idolatry is central in the Torah (Five books of Moses). Throughout the narrative, the Israelites often revert to idolatrous practices, the most famous of which is the sin of the Golden Calf. In that episode, Moses is gone a day longer than they expected, so some of the men declare him dead and “it’s party time!” They rip the earrings off the women and make a giant molten calf, then have an orgiastic festival in honor of the calf. When Moses comes back he is so disgusted he breaks the Tablets and starts smiting people. Throughout the Torah, idolatry is the greatest sin, the greatest challenge faced. In Deuteronomy, even though the generation of the Golden Calf had already died out, Moses tears into the congregation about their evil idolatry, just in case. It was that important to emphasize. Then throughout the prophets, it is page after page exhorting us to fight idolatry.

Some would say the notions of idolatry are obsolete, or are monuments to ancient intolerance. I’m arguing the opposite. I say idolatry is as prevalent as ever and the Torah prohibitions as relevant as ever.

It’s hard for me to tell you what idolatry is, to pin down exactly what is and what isn’t idolatry; it is a kind of nebulous spiritual issue. But like the Supreme Court famously ruled on pornography, you know it when you see it.

The biggest idol today is money, Mammon; and the biggest false religion is consumerism. Look no further than your TV to see this one.

In this insightful blog, Eastern Orthodox writer Terry Mattingly points out that people now take a sort of perverse communion at the mall:

About half the ads on television today make no sense whatsoever in a linear fashion in terms of having anything remotely to do with the product. They’re getting across an attitude, a mood. They’re asking, “Do you want to be the kind of person who uses this product?” One ad theorist has said that “they presume the product has a soul.” If you think as a sacramental Christian, people are taking communion at the mall. They are consuming the product, the soul of the product, to become the essence of the product. It’s a liturgical experience. They’re taking communion at the mall. They are what they eat, which is the essence of the ancient church’s definition of communion.

(photoshopped by me)

In a recent discussion of government programs for the poor and disabled on one of the disability Yahoo groups I’m in, I threw out “Do you serve G-d or serve Mammon?

Someone shot back, “I don’t serve any god.”

My challenge was misunderstood. I didn’t mean “do you believe a specific theology?” I’m not concerned with that, I don’t think you’re wrong if you have different theological assumptions than me; that’s not the point. My question was, “do you serve the greater good, something larger, or are you only out for yourself?”

It is incredibly important we serve something greater. There is an epidemic of selfishness rotting our national soul. We’ve now reached such a low that our government is proposing $32.7 billion dollars in rebates to the Walton family (Wal-Mart) while removing $28 billion from hospitals for the poor, and the media doesn’t even mention it anymore (obscene rant from another blogger about this here). We are sacrificing the sick and the weak on the altar of greed, and few even notice anymore. It is all corrupt. It is spiritual blackness.

Money is the central motivation to too many people; it’s the main object people idolize. Before they act, they put “what’s in it for me?” ahead of decency. To save a little money or little convenience, we will do horrible things, overlook great wrongs. I’ve seen too much of it.

We naturally have this urge to be idolaters, putting ourself and our petty nonsense ahead of the good (also known as G-d).

Judaism recognizes this, that idolatry is a part of our nature, and it seeks to put a strong yoke on Jews to do the right thing. We need it badly.

I think in these dark times, it is more important than ever to pursue righteousness, to pursue justice. Deut. 16:20 is important now more than ever before.

We aren’t just monkeys in flesh suits. Humans can rise to be far greater than the animals, or far worse than the animals.

Now is the time to elevate.

Don’t just plug into the iCalf and tune out all the service and justice we’re supposed to be accomplishing. Stay involved.

If it ain’t helping bring about the total spiritual and physical perfection of the world, I’m not into it.

G-d, the planet, the Torah and humanity are ONE.