Saturday, July 31, 2010

A perfect place to build.

A few years after its founding, Brandeis University dedicated three
modern inter-denominational chapels circling a common pool.  Designed by the architects responsible
for New York’s Lincoln Center, they were the first of their kind built on a US
college campus.  While striking,
more than anything else these chapels made a statement.  Not merely was this fledgling non-sectarian
Jewish sponsored university open to all; it was welcoming to and nurturing of diverse
religious expression.  The chapels quickly
became a tourist attraction and during several summers of my undergraduate
years there I led visitors through them, highlighting the architecture of each
but mostly explaining the powerful message embodied in the diversified whole.  Knowing the philosophy of Brandeis’
founders and early faculty, I have no doubt at all that, had the institution
been started today, there would have been four structures around that pool — a
synagogue, two churches and a mosque.

It was with this in mind that I was dismayed to read
that a major Jewish organization has lent its voice in opposition to building
an Islamic center two blocks from the Trade Center (when will they stop calling
it ground zero).  There was of course particular irony in
the fact that this opposition comes from the group called The Anti-Defamation
League.  More disturbing, and a sign of our times, is that
representatives of my people, victims of blanket character
assassination (and worse) throughout the ages, could engage, spoken or
implied, in similar assassination themselves.  The destruction of the Twin Towers, something I witnessed as
a horrified New Yorker in 2001, was not carried out by Islam, but by a group of
terrorists who happened to be Moslems.

Impeding the building of a mosque in downtown Manhattan doesn’t only unfairly
demonize one particular religion; it threatens the very core of our
democracy.  Freedom of religious
expression is not a selective or optional concept, nor is it something we can
uphold at one time and not at another.   Some will argue that they don’t oppose a mosque per
se, but only it’s proximity. 
Well would ten blocks be too close, would fifteen?  Forgetting how ridiculous the idea of too close is in as crowded a city as
New York, it’s unlikely that Mr. Foxman of the ADL and his organization would
oppose building a synagogue or church two blocks from the site.  They argue that building a mosque there
would be disturbing to families of those killed in the attack.  Does that mean that similar families
who lost loved ones in Oklahoma City would object to building a church two
blocks from the Murrah Building site because terrorist Timothy McVeigh was a
Christian?  What an absurd analogy you
might say, but is it any more absurd than preventing the building of a mosque
in downtown New York because the terrorists who destroyed buildings there
happened to be Moslems?

The opposition to the proposed Islamic center is in itself troubling,
but more so the larger context. 
Somehow with our obsession about terrorists and specifically Islamist
terrorists, we have lost sight of who we are and of the principles upon which
this democracy was founded.  Add to
that the ongoing debate about immigration that has more to do with ethnicity
than security and the not so subtle racism raising its ugly head across America
in the era of Obama and you have real trouble.  If we continue down this path everyone — you and I included
— will pay a huge price.

When Brandies University built those three chapels around a peaceful
pool, they were making a statement about who and what we are.  Building an Islamic center close to
where a group of terrorists besmirched their faith as much as they destroyed
innocent lives would do no less.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

And on it goes.

It’s troubling that almost two years after Bush and Chaney left office, and nine after Robertson and Falwell made their astounding assessment of the Trade
Center bombing, the hard right continues to control the conversation, both
political and religious.  More so,
in my view, is that those we call liberal and moderate acquiesce, sometimes
playing the role of enabler.  Consider
the despicable and unforgivable race-tinged exploitation of Shirley Sherrod,
and the rush to unjust judgment by President Obama and the NAACP, both of whom
should have known better.  To be
sure, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart
grabbed a snippet of text that distorted and miscast Sherrod’s long and
thoughtful speech, but ultimately the consequential damage was done not by him,
but by respected progressive leaders all too willing, it would seem, to take
prisoners without asking questions. 
What was it that FDR said about fear?  Well more than Islamist terrorists have instilled in us the
kind of fear that, if unchecked, is bound to help us destroy ourselves.

And perhaps it was the same phenomenon that drove the Archbishop of
Canterbury Rowan Williams, leader of the Anglican Church, to seek a cynical and
hypocritical compromise with principal in the ongoing saga of female bishops.  In a new twist on the charade of don’t ask, don’t tell, he and his
colleagues essentially proposed
that those who did not want to recognize her legitimacy could bypass their duly
appointed local female bishop and look instead to a so-called nominated bishop who, working in
parallel, would derive his power and authority directly from them.  In other words, transform that impertinent
woman usurper into an impotent potted-palm.  The proposal, just as had that Sherrod rush to judgment,
blew up in his face, deservedly undermining Williams’ own leadership.

Of course what happened in the Anglican General Synod some weeks ago
has to be seen in the context of the ongoing internal battle that began with
the elevation of Gene Robinson as bishop. 
Since that time, Williams and others have been exerting a huge effort aimed
at avoiding an irreparable schism — their objective to save the church.  The question one could fairly ask is to
what, beyond a lot of real estate and honorific titles, purpose?  Or more to the point, where does
conviction and moral behavior — keeping your word — come into these

Perhaps the Anglicans don’t see (as do their Roman brethren) the
ordination of women as a crime, certainly not on a par with pedophilia, but their
actions suggest that they don’t consider men and women serving in the same
positions with any equivalency.  Just
imagine bypassing a male bishop just because some in his flock don’t like the
fact that he wears pants and not a skirt. 
I am reminded of when women were reluctantly admitted to the all boys
club of the corporate boardroom. 
That happened under duress and the board chairmen who anointed them, patted themselves on the back as models of
enlightenment — full court press coverage.  There seemed to be two qualifications for female membership:
being (or representing) a significantly large stockholder or having zero
business credentials for the job.  Having them would have spelled trouble for the movers and shakers in the club.  So what we saw on those board lists
were the names (often the same name showing up across the board network) of academics,
so long as they weren’t from the business school.  Let them sit here, but God forbid, don’t let them make any
informed independent judgment.  No
doubt, we’ve made some progress since then, including a few female CEO’s, even
(which I guess is itself a sign of progress) poorly performing ones like Carly

What’s most bothersome about the Williams compromise is that it
demonstrates once again how clueless religious leaders can be relative to the
world around them.  They still
haven’t gotten it that tokenism no longer plays and that you can’t, based on
either gender or color, have different criteria for authority.  A bishop once appointed, it would seem,
is a bishop.  The attempted
Williams compromise only suggests that Anglicans haven’t ordained women or
elevated some to being bishop out of conviction, but only because the
combination of their more liberal membership pressure and a growing shortage of
male clergy across the board forced a viscerally unwilling hand.

Looking at this situation, along with those cited in my most recent
post, is it any wonder that a growing number of the faithful have become disillusioned with their individual churches,
not to mention with religion altogether?  If you can’t look to an unencumbered sense of moral behavior
and keeping one's word from those who claim to speak for God, what kind of
demands can you place on anyone else — ourselves included.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Woman trouble.

My father, who having spent four years preaching under the watch of
Gestapo agents could claim some expertise on the subject, always said,
“anti-Semitism is not a problem of Jews, but of anti-Semites.”  With that in mind, orthodox religions have
a big woman problem.   That
they do, was driven home this past week by three separate news events — the
Catholic Church’s new dictum
ostensibly dealing with its sex abuse scandal, the French Parliament decision
to ban Muslim facial covering in public and the arrest of a Jewish feminist
activist at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 

Breathtaking is the only word that comes to mind in learning that the
Vatican opted to link the crimes of predator priests and the ordination of
women in one document.  It is
breathtaking not only in its content — and the church quickly denied it was
suggesting equivalency — but in Rome’s continuing to be utterly tone deaf to
both criticism and to the realities and mores of the modern world.  One read on this is of an institution,
headed by an absolute monarch, which simply doesn’t give a damn what others
think or say about it.   The
Vatican arrogantly proclaims it solely possesses the supreme truth, effectively taking the law unto
itself while dissing everyone else, not the least civil authority.

Vatican dicta are not delivered without painstaking thought and
intention.  So, regardless of how
their spokesmen may deny any equivalency, there is no way to spin its painting the
attempted ordination of women as one of the church’s most grave crimes, along
with heresy, schism and pedophilia.  Don’t expect Rome to rescind even one
punctuation mark of that writing. 
The crafters and the Pope in whose name the document was issued said
what they meant and meant what they said. 

This is not to single out the Roman Church for having a Medieval
approach to women, far from it. 
Abigail Pogrebin writes
in the July 19-26 issue of New York Magazine of Rabbi Avi Weiss of the orthodox
Riverdale Hebrew Institute who had the temerity to ordain a woman, though
even he didn’t dare give Sara Hurwitz the title rabbi.   The harsh reaction of his orthodox
colleagues and their followers may be summed up in what was reportedly said by one
of orthodox Judaism’s most revered legal scholars, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who
put the ordination of women in the category of…a [legal] tenet that literally suggests one should opt for death
before violating the law.
religions, two different theologies: reading from precisely the same sexist

Then there is the news from France where, if legislators have their
, Muslim women will no longer be able to walk the streets of Paris with
their faces masked by a veil.  The
vote in the 557 member lower house was 335 yes, one against and 221
abstentions.  The outcome, reflecting
the views of the larger society including the vast majority of French Muslims, was
portrayed as a blow for women’s rights and dignity.  Of course the issue at hand is more complicated and vote has
a darker side.  Banning the veil
may also be seen as a challenge to religious freedom.  As abhorrent as many of us feel the treatment of women may
be by orthodox Muslims, we have to be concerned about the unintended
consequences of such legislation, which is exactly why it may not pass French
or European Union constitutional muster. 
As to the still darker side, just as there was a mixing in the Vatican
dictum of two totally unrelated issues, here too there is an element, perhaps unspoken, of the racism that is rearing its ugly head all over Europe in the face
of rising Muslim populations.   Nothing seems simple, much less straight forward, in
the twenty-first century.

So it is with the saga of Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel
Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement in Israel.  I learned of Hoffman in an email from
my friend Rabbi John Friedman alerting all concerned to legislation (the Rotem
) pending in Israel that would cede absolute control in determining who
is a Jew to the ultra-orthodox thus undermining the status of non-orthodox and non-religious Jews
and their clergy.  That is a
separate and most disturbing issue to be left for another time.  As it happens, Hoffman is also chair of
a group called Women of the Wall that
seeks equal access and free religious practice at the Western Wall, considered
by religious Jews as the holiest of all sites.  Concurrently with (but seemingly unrelated to) her
lobbying efforts against the Rotem legislation, Hoffman was arrested by
Israeli police for carrying a Torah scroll and leading a group of singing women
in a zone near the wall forbidden to
them.  Women in a man’s place, surely one of those capital
crimes.  Orthodox Jews, Muslims and
Christians alike have a huge woman problem.

Perhaps the bottom line is not so much that the orthodox have an intrinsically,
albeit not universal, low opinion of women, but that they see feminism as
deeply threatening.  Pogrebin quotes Yeshiva dean Rabbi
Shai Held, There’s a tremendous amount of
anxiety among religious traditionalists that when you take one step toward
egalitarianism, the floodgates are open and everything that seemed self-evident
will no longer be.  Men go to work,
and women raise children.  If you
undermine that, you have lost your whole universe.
  Said in 2010, wow!  While Catholics employ nuns as supporting players, they too
see the elevation of women into a God-decreed man’s
as deeply threatening, just as orthodox Muslims fear that uncovering
the face (needless to say ordination) is a slippery slope leading to disaster.

The ordination issue may transcend a fear of religious dilution and
potential disintegration.  It
strikes as the heart of control and power.  The men who dominate all orthodox religious groups (and much
of everything else), understand that once leadership is open the majority in
the population their days of hegemony are numbered.  You know, once you put an Ms. in the State Department she
and her kind will never let go.  So
all of this is not merely a matter of ideological doctrine (the word of God)
but of the most basic and blatant politics.  It’s a power struggle in which men have consistently
overestimated themselves.  Time is
not on the side of the orthodox, nor of misbegotten faith.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Best days past.

There is a story we tell ourselves.  It has three parts. 
The first is that we are an
country.  There’s a
decent chance history will concur with that claim.  Second is the corollary to exceptionalism incorporated into
every politician’s script — we are the
greatest nation on the earth
.  That
one is more problematic.  To begin
with, it is the kind of puffery and self-aggrandizement that makes me squirm.  Perhaps being the greatest was a charming claim when made by the then Cassius
during his salad days, but applying it to a nation — any nation —
invites comparison.  Greatest is a
high bar and, while we may not all agree on the relevant and telling measures, there
are statistics aplenty that would suggest we fall short.  According to just one compilation of multiple
measures of the best nations we don’t even make the top ten.  We heard a lot in the healthcare debate
about our having the greatest medicine
in the world, but why then is it that we rank number 29 in life expectancy?  We are said to have the world’s greatest
universities and yet we only rank 9th in literacy.  Overall it is Sweden, Denmark and the
Netherlands (in that order) who can make the most credible claim to being the
greatest. They don’t.  Finally, we
have the standard crescendo of Presidential or would-be Presidential rhetoric; our best years are still ahead of us.  The first two — our being exceptional
or great — can be chalked up to hyperbole, but that prediction about the future
is substantive and it’s something we need to seriously consider.

Much is made these days about the unease of the American people.  The rise of the Tea Party has been
ascribed to it as have the growing number of polls that cast doubt upon
government action and even trustworthiness.  The immediate causes of this unease and lack of trust may be
attributed to our seemly insoluble recession, never-ending war on terror and disappointment on both the right and left with
the recently passed healthcare bill as too much or too little.  That our dual icons of industry and
government have been largely flummoxed by the oil disaster in the Gulf only adds
to or confirms that point of view. 
Much as we tend to be caught up, often understandably, in the moment, I
think these current events are ultimately beside the point.

What really matters is the larger picture including the new context in
which we find ourselves in a still relatively new century.  This is a story that is not the inward
focused one we continue to repeat but the outward one that has produced our
current catch phrase, the new normal.   I hate the almost instant cliché
of it, but believe we had better begin to take its message and content
seriously.  Tom Friedman’s
perceptive signaling of a flattening of the world
is of course a major component of our future story.  So, too, are exploding demographics that are not merely
producing more mouths to feed with diminished resources, but are in the case of
America altering the makeup of our citizenry.  Hispanics are on the rise and White Protestant domination is
on the verge of a tipping point in decline.

Back in the 1960s President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty.  His vision was to address an age old
and seemly insoluble problem.  The
poor were a constant when he declared that war and, despite all his and others
good intentions, remain so.  In
fact, we (and to a large extent they) continue to have very low expectations of
the poor not merely taking their situation as a given, but as a never to be
altered state of being.  Rising out
of poverty is sadly still the rare exception not the rule.  Unemployment and underemployment are
embedded in their story.  So it’s
no wonder that the tale that has finally begun to command our attention is the
stagnant and indeed deteriorating condition of our bedrock middleclass.  We all know about their declining
incomes and, especially for those long dependent on manufacturing, an
increasing difficulty in find jobs, many of which may be gone for ever.  Our once resilient auto industry
remains on its knees and whatever recovery it experiences is unlikely to
constitute even a slim shadow of its past.  But the plight of the poor and the frustrations of the
middleclass may not be the most telling in reconsidering our story of the best
being yet to come.

For that we have to look to the more affluent segment of our society,
which is experiencing a vaporizing of the classic American dream.  A few days ago, the Times reported on the fortunes of
twenty-four year old college graduate Scott
who, like an untold number of his piers, has not been able to
find a job, certainly not one with any predictable upward mobiity.  It is equally the story of his World
War II veteran stockbroker grandfather and of his manufacturing executive
father who both stand firmly in his corner, but who somehow know that their
story of success may not be repeated in the next generation.  Now Scott, especially with this
publicity, may well land on his feet, but his situation should not be
discounted.  Just look around and
you’ll see it repeated, most likely very close to home.  In that light, it’s hard to mouth our
best years are still ahead and to do so with a straight face.

America is much like our once invincible auto industry.  We are no longer the only game in town
and some of the game we’ve played so well in the past is becoming less
relevant, certainly less proprietary. 
The world has changed and the environment has become substantially more
competitive.  While America is
unlikely to go down the tubes or even to lose its military supremacy any time
soon, our best days are likely behind us not ahead of us. 

Don’t get me wrong.  This
is not some warning of gloom and doom, a bear call on our national stock, but a
plea that we become more humble and more realistic about who we are and thus
who we will be.  The first step in
moving on is getting our head out of the sand.  That means ceasing to buy in so eagerly into a story that
has become myth, more fiction than fact. 
, the Harvard psychologist who has devoted much of his research to
human happiness contends that a key to our well-being is to come to terms with
our real situation — not our fantasy but our reality. With that accomplished,
the possibilities open up, especially optimizing our condition.  America’s best years are unlikely ahead
of us, and in terms of our individual and collective well-being that may not really
matter.  But we can’t even begin to
step into the future sure footed until we stop telling the old story and find a
new one, a true and substantive foundation upon which to build.


Monday, July 5, 2010

The righteous raid.

The 1989 pop movie Lethal Weapon 2 ends in a shootout between Argen
Rudd, a villainous apartheid South African consulate minister and LAPD sergeants
Murtaugh and Riggs.  After emptying
his gun into Riggs and still facing his armed partner, Rudd holds up his wallet
shouting, “diplomatic immunity!” “It's just been revoked,” retorts Murtaugh before
firing his fatal shot.

Bad guys are bad guys and there are limits to immunity.  So it would seem thought the Belgian
police when, to the outrage
of the Vatican
and subsequently of the
Pope himself
, they raided Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard’s palace on June
24th and (the next day) the home of his predecessor Cardinal Godfried
Danneels.  They seized computers,
financial records and investigative reports, reportedly even drilling holes in
a number of tombs so that cameras could search inside for incriminating
documents hidden there.  In the
process the police detained a group of bishops who happened to be attending a
meeting at the palace, preventing their communicating with the outside for the nearly
ten hours of the operation.  They
obviously did not want to be interrupted or to have their investigation
thwarted.  Insofar as criminal
investigations are concerned, there was nothing remarkable about what the
police did in Brussels.  It is even
fair to ask, why did it take law enforcement so long, and why haven’t similar
incursions taken place in other countries?

The Roman church’s record, relentlessly pursued of late by the NY
Times, is one of obfuscation, cover-ups, co-conspiracy and stonewalling
reflecting more the spirit of Watergate than the divine.  That includes acts of omission and
commission by Cardinal Joseph
, who had ultimate responsibility for policing abuse throughout
several decades before ascending the thrown of St. Peter.   Considering the record, the Church
has no reasonable expectation that law enforcement should either trust them or
respect its claimed “autonomy to conduct its own investigations”, nor at this
late date can one make a strong case that it should be protected by immunity.  Benedict may be outraged and may
bluster about the “deplorable methods” of Belgian police, but any objective
observer knows the Church essentially brought this on itself.

All these years after the first abuses came to light in the 1980s and
reached what may be considered a tipping point early in this century, new cases
and new countries continue to emerge. 
One has to wonder about the arrogance of a church that has treated these
high crimes like the lapses of a school child who, in being exposed, is sent to
the principal’s office and admonished without even informing his parents of the
wrong doing.  Had this happened
only once or in one place we might excuse it, but that is not the case.  Rome and its representatives across the
globe may see this as an internal in-family matter, but their position is
inconsistent with the way the rest of us, and indeed society, view sex abusers.

Thanks to Megan’s
, Americans not only incarcerate sex offenders, but also keep tabs on
them when they are released.  To
varying degree, their names and history is made available in every state and
searchable through the National
Sex Offenders Registry
.  While
that exposure has generated some civil liberties questions, it nonetheless
suggests how seriously we take this matter, an inexcusable offense for which
serving time seems insufficient.

No one could believe more strongly in the separation between church
and state than I, but to proclaim that sex abuse a solely religious matter to
be adjudicated by the Church — any church — is patently absurd.  Moreover, what is church and what is
state blurs somewhat in the eyes of the Catholic Church, which in its stance on
sex abuse has generally taken the position of a sovereign state.  In fact, that sovereignty applies only
to the Vatican, but it is one they extend opportunistically in contending that
prelates around the world should be considered its representatives and thus be
accorded virtual “diplomatic” status. 
I say opportunistically because they do so in claiming the rights of
adjudication for predator priests while holding themselves out as just plain
citizens when trying to force their ideology on others as we saw during the
healthcare debate.

None of these arguments or comments are new; most have been made or said
better by others.  So let me turn
to a somewhat different issue, the naked double standard that is applied to the
Church relative to society as a whole. 
Can you imagine the revelation of systematic and widespread sex abuse
and cover-up tolerated in or relative to any other institution public or
private?  How long do think the
chief executive of a major corporation, the leader of a non-profit or a politician
would last in similar circumstances? 
We essentially impeached a President in this country for consensual infidelity and both corporate
and organizational heads have rolled when the entities they led have gone
amuck.  In any other situation not
only would the offending abusers face justice so would anyone in the hierarchy
that either covered it up or conveniently averted their eyes.  Much of what the Church has done has
been in the name of protecting the institution, an argument that would never
fly anywhere else.

Religious institutions often hold themselves out as the source, not to
mention arbiter, of righteousness. 
They surely are quick to judge others.  In this instance righteousness seems to be on the other
side, with those offending cops who entered the inner sanctum.  Ornate vestments might hide the stains
on the clothing underneith, the sounds of incantations drown out the cries of
anguish of all those touched by this terrible crime — victims and often entire
families.  Infallibility may
protect a pope and his surrogates, but no carpet in the Vatican or anywhere
else is large enough to hide what’s been swept beneath its surface.  In the end ordinary believing
Catholics, including the many priests and nuns dedicated to their work and
service are being damaged, many disillusioned.   Some of us may
take issue with the doctrine of this or any other religious institution, but
this fall from righteousness is truly sad — tragic.  No one should rejoice in it.