Saturday, April 25, 2009


It happened again this week. I turned on cable news, and I heard the same argument about international issues that was being tossed about a couple of months ago regarding our domestic agenda. The argument continues to be voiced by so-called “conservative” commentators, though I can hardly believe that Americans can call themselves conservative and yet propound this idea. It strikes me as more suitable for a conservative from, say, the Republic of Venice than from the Republic of the United States of America.

The idea, stated simply, is that this is such a crucial moment in our nation’s history that we can’t afford to be distracted. On the domestic front, we need to think about one thing and one thing only (stimulating the economy). And on the international front, we need to think about one thing and one thing only (preventing terrorists and other evil doers from obtaining WMDs). Any effort to consider taking significant action on another topic is counterproductive, for it threatens to remove our intense focus from where it must be.

It’s ironic to hear conservatives make this argument after their favorite President, Ronald Reagan, attempted to reshape the agenda on numerous fronts. Why weren’t they complaining then? Well, you know the supposed answer: those weren’t such momentous times. It was “morning” in America under Reagan, whereas if we don’t watch out, it’s about to be midnight under Obama.

The other irony, which I alluded to above, is that conservatives love to talk about how “great” America is. Just as their so-called enemies chant “Allah Akbar,” conservatives respond with the English equivalent of “America Akbar.” Muslims have their notion of “Manifest Success,” and American conservatives have their notion of “Manifest Destiny.” Such parallels! But the funny thing is that Muslims at least mean it when they say God is great. Conservatives mouth the words that this is a truly “great” and vast Republic, but when you tell them that we are great enough to take on multiple issues at once … to address our world’s global warming problem, and our faltering health care system, and our embarrassing dalliance with torture … they increasingly won’t hear of it. It’s as if they lived in a little City-State, where a relatively small group of people needed to be involved in every meaningful decision.

Do the conservatives not realize that this is a nation of more than 300 million people with a gross domestic product of more than $38 billion each DAY? That ought to make us big enough to tackle more than one thing at a time, wouldn’t you think?

The latest opportunity for conservatives to whine about spreading ourselves too thin arose out of the torture debate. Predictably, Americans on the left wing of the political spectrum are calling for an investigation of who was behind the torture policies of the last Administration. They want to bring to justice anyone who broke the criminal law, and to sufficiently air the specifics of who, what, when, where and why, so that this nation never again gets involved with torture.

In response to the folks on the left who are calling for action against torture and its perpetrators, many arguments can be – and have been -- raised. Dick Cheney, for one, would claim that what most of us call “torture” has proven necessary to protect Americans from further terrorism. Others point out that if we were ultimately to criminalize aggressive foreign policies every time a new Administration wanted to change courses, we’d chill American Governments from ever taking the bold, proactive moves that are sometimes necessary to nip evil in the bud.

I have definite opinions on these issues, some of which can be gleaned from reading Moses the Heretic, where I touch on the topic in a fictional format. Unfortunately, as a Senior Trial Counsel with the United States Department of Justice, I do not think it would be responsible for me to opine on the topic in a public blog. I make a conscious effort to avoid any subject that is so closely linked to the work of the Department.

That said, I have no qualms responding to the troglodytes who maintain that we cannot afford to deal with this or any other “distraction” at a time when our economy is teetering on the brink and the Taliban is encroaching on Islamabad. Here’s my response: right now, in addition to working weekdays on Department of Justice litigation, I am preparing to: give an address tonight at a mosque on the subject of Abraham and Muslim/Jewish dialogue, lecture next week at a synagogue concerning Spinoza’s God, lead a Jewish retreat the following week dedicated to the principles of Uniqueness and Unity in Judaism, and write an essay on the philosophy of Santayana. That’s just me – not the entire Government of the United States of America, which the last time I checked has infinitely more resources to devote to multi-tasking.

Speaking of Santayana, it was he who famously coined the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, I can almost assure you that if we do not carefully examine what happened in the last eight years with respect to torture, we will definitely forget all about it. (Just like we seem to have forgotten the Vietnam War in time to start a new misadventure in Iraq.) Then, soon enough, we will repeat what we did.

Maybe we want to repeat Cheney’s policies on torture. Maybe we want never to repeat them, but also not to prosecute those who perpetrated them. I’ll leave those issues up to you to resolve. All I ask is that we consider them carefully and publicly, and acknowledge that the choices we make will help define our essence as a nation. Also, let’s please not insult our vast, populous republic by claiming that it’s not up to the task of taking on this matter at the same time as other pressing concerns. If you must level that insult, I suspect you’d be happier in a very tiny Republic where the government knows its limitations. Here in Obama’s America, we are thankfully much more ambitious.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


“[W]ar is the greatest excitement, the greatest adventure in human life. Just so, in little, football had been an outlet for instinct, and a mock war. The howling crowds were stirred vicariously by the same craving for rush and rivalry, and were exactly like the public in time of war, cheering each its own side.” George Santayana penned those words in 1936 in reference to Oliver Alden, the only fictional hero he ever created. Alden, the title character of Santayana’s philosophical novel, “The Last Puritan,” was a Harvard trained philosopher who happened to have a gift for carrying the football. Santayana was a Harvard professor of philosophy who happened to have a gift for literary expression. At a time when other eminent philosophers were explaining their thoughts in an increasingly obscure fashion about increasingly obscure topics, Santayana wrote about the great questions of philosophy with the utmost of clarity. He was a man of the people, and as such, couldn’t bear to write over anyone’s heads. Whether the topic was football, love, or God, if you could read the English language, you could understand what he was talking about.

This week, we have witnessed the career’s end of a modern-day Santayana. Like his predecessor, John Madden was a man of the people who, in his own way, could be called a philosopher. Like his predecessor, John Madden spoke without pretension and in a manner that was universally understandable. But unlike his predecessor, Madden didn’t concentrate his attention primarily on the “great questions.” His mind was devoted instead to that commonest of activities: enjoying professional football.

For Santayana, football was a “mock war,” … a “craving for rush and rivalry.” For Madden, NFL football remained exactly what it should be – a joyous dance, performed by men with the spirit of boys. Madden was himself an overgrown child who could never leave the playground. But those who observed him realized that he loved something even more than games: other people. It was that affection that made him such a motivational coach and endearing broadcaster. It is also that affection that is causing him to retire at the pinnacle of his profession in order to become a full-time grandfather. Rarely does any public figure say “I’m quitting to spend more time with my family” without eliciting skepticism. In Madden’s case, though, there’s not a football fan alive who doesn’t believe him.

Retiring at the top is old hat to Madden. In the 1970s, he had the highest winning percentage (76%) of any coach with at least 100 wins in the history of the National Football League. It’s a record that stands to this day – probably because nobody else is crazy enough to stand on such a pedestal and not want more. But Madden knew that there were more challenges ahead.

I loved Madden as a coach. In sports, his Raiders were the epitome of cool. They always led the league in penalties. They looked like the residents of Cell Block C. And they had an incredible knack for playing games that went down to the wire, only to win them in dramatic (and often unscrupulous) fashion. But this was just a game, right? So who cares if they figured out ways to bend the rules, such as by intentionally fumbling the ball into the end zone when passing or running with the pigskin proved to be impossible?

The thing I loved most about Coach Madden was the message he clearly gave to his troops: “The night before the game, go ahead and drink like a fish, blow a wad on poker, or sleep with the barmaid of your choice. During the game itself, I’ll expect you to look like hell. And I’ll expect you to make some stupid mistakes. But I’ll also expect you to show up ready to have fun, ready to fight like hell, and ready to win.” This attitude gave rise to the classic expression most often associated with Madden’s old boss, Al Davis: “Just Win, Baby.” Madden personified that attitude as much as anyone.

John Madden’s rag-tag unit won the Super Bowl in January 1977. Two years later, at the tender age of 42, he had retired from coaching, never to return. Then came Act Two.

I knew Madden would be a great announcer when I first heard him call a Raiders game. There was no hint of partisanship in his approach – no “black and silver” tint to his comments. He gave the other team every bit as much attention as the colorful franchise that employed him for over a decade. Madden, you see, knew that he had the dream job: he was being paid handsomely to watch a child’s game and talk about it to millions of listeners. He thoroughly understood his task: to make the game fun to watch for the rabid fan, simple to understand for the novice, and tolerable even to the fans of the losing team. That sounds easy enough, but few others had figured out how to pull it off.

It has been reported that when a fan on the street asked Madden who was going to win a game, he’d always reply that the fan’s team would win. Why? Because nobody really knows who’ll win a game, so he figured he might as well make the fan happy. That was Madden – he loved the players, he loved the fans, and he adored his sport. For him, it was a microcosm of life, and a source of many lessons. If you listen to him closely, you could hear many homespun words of wisdom, the kind we’ve all come to expect from a barber or a bartender. I could easily have seen John Madden in either of those jobs.

Do you want an example of Madden the Philosopher? The one that always comes to my mind dates back to the 1980s, when Madden had perhaps the highest Q-rating (i.e., the number that marketing companies used to measure a celebrity’s familiarity and appeal) in the United States. I was a first-year attorney working for the Federal Communications Commission, and had the job of serving as the “Keyworker” for my officer’s Combined Federal Charities campaign. At the beginning of the campaign, we had a meeting in which Keyworkers viewed a Madden-narrated video hyping the importance of giving to charity. Madden explained that “There are three types of people in the world. Those who make things happen. Those who watch things happen. And those whose never know what the hell is happening.” He urged us Keyworkers to join the ranks of the first group, and I took that as a call to arms. The video motivated me to go office-to-office, pleading with senior attorneys and economists to truly devote themselves to the campaign. Little did I know that, customarily, the job of Keyworker is taken as a perfunctory task consisting of dropping a brief note in people’s mailboxes explaining to them how and why they should make a donation. I must have looked like quite a childish fool to the people I pitched. Then again, I bet I raised a whole lot more money than the typical Keyworker. And that of course was Madden’s goal: Just Win, Baby!

Bertrand Russell once said of Spinoza that he was “The most noble and lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.” For me, Madden the Announcer will never be in the same league as Howard Cosell, and Madden the Coach will never be in the same league as Vince Lombardy. But damned if he wasn’t the most lovable Announcer AND the most lovable Coach that the game of football has known. He leaves his sport as recognizable as ever, for not only has he been announcing Super Bowls with regularity but his video game is the top selling sports video game in history. If you enjoy football, whether you’re eight, forty-eight, or eighty … you know the name of John Madden. And you’ve come to love him. Almost as much as he loves you.

Enjoy your retirement, big fellow. You’ve earned it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Last weekend, during the most recent meeting of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I recognized something about myself: few things bother me more than listening to people judge which forms of religious expression are authentic, and which are not. I could say the same about listening to people evaluate which conceptions of God are worthy of the term, and which are not. For some “men of God,” if you don’t conceive of your deity the way they do, you must be an atheist. Still, it is one thing to deny another person’s status as a believer in God; it’s a far greater offense to claim that a person who regularly goes to a place of worship isn’t even religious. Yet that is precisely what I heard last weekend. A Muslim friend, who began his statements by acknowledging that he doesn’t know much about Judaism, went on to declare that “Reform Judaism isn’t REAL Judaism.” I’m not a Reform Jew, but when I heard that statement (and other similarly dismissive) remarks about “progressive” approaches to Judaism), I began having doubts for the first time about whether a dialogue can be constructive.

Fortunately, I’ve since calmed down. Now I’m actually looking forward to the next dialogue more than ever. But that’s only because I’m now an interfaith Jew on a mission. I can’t wait for an opportunity to explain to my Muslim cousins that Judaism is something more than Islam-Lite. By that last term I’m referring to a statement made by a dear friend, but one whose theological views differ radically from my own, that because Muslims are required to pray to God more often each day than Jews (five versus three) and because Muslims are required to perform cleanliness rituals that Jews are not (such as removing shoes before entering holy places, a practice that dates back to the Book of Joshua but is not observed today by Jews), it follows that “Muslims are more Jewish than Jews.” That sounds like a joke, but given my friend’s view that the Torah is a “corrupted text” and the Qur’an is the literal word of God, I think he really meant it.

Truth be told, Judaism is hardly a more casual version of Islam. In fact, Judaism is an altogether different kind of animal than what many Muslims and Christians envision when they hear the word “religion.” Traditionally, Muslims and Christians view religions as systems of ritual practices grounded in various articles of faith. Yet Judaism decries the whole notion of articles of faith. And though we have plenty of rituals, we observe these rituals to greatly varying degrees depending upon the individual Jew. If there is one thing that unifies us – and I’m not talking about ethnicity, because many Jews are converts – it’s our commitment to certain VALUES. As one of these values is the pursuit of truth, some people’s Judaism has led them to question traditional teachings about God, and to ground their spirituality on a more humanistic plane. I can envision such a person deriving inspiration from Jewish sages and Jewish culture to struggle tirelessly for justice, march passionately for peace, learn tirelessly for learning’s sake, honor all their promises, avoid deception at all costs, and invariably treat others with kindness and warmth. To me, that person – regardless of how many rituals they observe – is a “religious Jew” in the deepest sense of the term. The idea that someone like that who also regularly attends Jewish services at a Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal synagogue is somehow not a “real” Jew … I’m sorry, but that attitude has always set me off.

Why do I care so much about the chauvinism described above? Because I truly believe it has a stifling effect on religious expression. My view is that spirituality is much like music, art, dance or sports – we all have the capacity to benefit from these forms of expression, but they have to be introduced to us in just the right ways. Typically, that means that each individual needs to be able to choose when to enjoy them and how to enjoy them. As a child, I loved sports primarily because nobody told me precisely how to play them and I was allowed to do so at a relatively low level of competence without being criticized for my lack of skill. By contrast, until I went to college, I hated art from the day that a grade school art teacher pointed out my ineptitude.

All traditionally religious people claim to want others to enjoy the benefits of living a spiritual life, but when many of them witness the manifold ways that people express their religiosity, they feel free to judge the authenticity of the expression. Non-theistic churches like secular humanist or Unitarian-Universalist meeting halls are treated with ridicule by most of America’s “religious” communities. Similarly, Spinozists like myself who proclaim a belief in a God that is very different from the God of Scripture evoke the reaction that we’re really just atheists who are using the word “God” when we simply mean “nature.” To many “men of God,” only traditional manifestations of spirituality are worthy of the effort. God must be seen as omnipotent and omni-benevolent, or else He’s not God. And religion must be seen as defined by observance of traditional, Scripture-based ritual, or else it’s not religion. I could be wrong, but I think these reactions on behalf of traditionally religious people take their toll. I think they cause many non-traditional spirits to become enemies of religion, consumed by the resentment that inevitably flows from being constantly judged and put down.

“If music be the food of love, play on!” said Shakespeare. I would add that this applies equally to religion. If a Reform Jew derives meaning from her faith, let’s celebrate that. Why would anyone put that faith down? It’s as silly as a fan of Beethoven hearing Miles Davis and then yelling “that’s not REAL music, get that crap off my CD player.” Is it surprising that those whose faiths are attacked as irreligious would claim that “religion is bullshit” or that “we don’t need religion?”

No, you don’t need religion, any more than we need music. Or art. Or dance. Or sports. Or, for that matter, community. The list of wonderful things we can live without is a long one. But what do you say we discourage that sort of asceticism? If you see a little boy throwing a ball at a hoop, grab the rebound and play with him for a minute. If you see a girl drawing a painting, find the beauty in it and point it out. And if you see a person leaving church, smile at the fact that they’ve found a reason for going … regardless of the church’s name or denomination. Most importantly, if you feel compelled to evaluate which forms of religious expression are authentic and which are not, stay with that thought. Maybe the person who needs to leave their church is looking at you in the mirror.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Just a few weeks ago, the results were released of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The study, which included 54,461 adults, confirmed what anyone with half a brain could tell you: that the percentage of Americans with no religion is increasing dramatically. In 1990, that percentage was only eight. Today, it has increased to 15.

That might seem like a high number to you, but compared to overseas figures, it’s just a drop in the bucket. Allow me now to cite results from a study by Phil Zuckerman entitled "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns", and published in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). That study identifies the following as the percentage of people in various countries that identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or non-believers in God: Sweden – 46-85%, Denmark – 43-80%, Norway – 31-72%, Japan – 64-65%, Finland – 28-60%, France – 43-54%, S. Korea – 30-52%, Germany – 41-49%, Russia – 24-48%, Holland – 39-44%, Britain – 31-44%, Belgium – 42-43%, Israel – 15-37%. That wasn’t even the top 13. I was simply selecting examples of nations with high rates of atheism/agnosticism that also have relatively high rates of literacy. Leave aside for a moment the population of the United States, which is both relatively religious and relatively literate. Around the world, if you’re educated, you’re much, MUCH more likely to be atheist. And boy does that fact ever bring smugness to non-believers.

For those of us who do not count ourselves with the non-believers, it’s high time that we consider the dwindling relevance of religion among the world’s educated people. What is it about the belief in God that seems so out of touch with modernity? Is it that the concept of a “Supreme Being” is antiquated? Or that the Theory of Evolution is grand enough to explain all things, great and small? I don’t buy either explanation. The idea of God stood the test of time for literally thousands of years, providing a sense of meaning, a sense of unity, a sense of joy, a sense of being grounded, that any scientific theory – ancient or modern – cannot.

So what is it then? Why is it that God is getting such a bad rap? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the idea that there exists a God who is eternal, infinite and ultimate and omnipresent. Rather, it’s the notion that, in order to “relate” to God, we have to turn Him into one of us: trapped in time, trapped in space, and knowable from “miracles” that to the modern mind are merely myths. In other words, if God is to serve all of our EMOTIONAL needs, we must make God into a human, all-too-human creation who has likes, dislikes, and has emotional needs of His own. And we have posited a God who doesn’t hesitate to “will” what satisfies those needs, even if it should conflict with the laws of nature/God as we know them.

If you ask many of the Jews in the West Bank settlements, God has willed that Jews control all of Judea and Sameria, for the Jews are the “chosen people.” If you ask many of the militant Muslims in the West Bank “occupied territories,” God has willed that Muslims seize back all the land they once possessed, for it is they who practice the only perfect religion, which is based on the only uncorrupted Scripture. And if you ask many of the Christians who live in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, it is only they and their fellow Christians who will occupy the Kingdom of Heaven – for everyone else, there is purgatory or worse.

To the modern mind, this sort of chauvinism is extremely dangerous. Surely, something must be held responsible, and who not God? To the modern atheist, it is the notion of God, above all else, that is at the heart of our problems. It is that notion that allegedly divides us into groups of fanatics and precludes us from working together in harmony.

Sorry, but I beg to disagree. I see nothing about the idea of the divine that needs to divide people. That idea arguably entails the belief in transcendence. But what does that have to do with killing people or stealing their land? There’s nothing about positing a Supreme Being that needs to make one group feel that they are closer to this Being than others. In fact, the more we focus on God – not what God has supposedly said to our ancestors, but the idea of divinity itself – the more we see a potential source of social UNITY.

Far from thinking that religious people focus too much on God, I’m increasingly convinced that they focus too little. Oh, they might say “Adonai” or “Allah,” but the being they’re referencing is anything but the ineffable, transcendent, omnipresent God revered by the great philosophers. Instead, most religious people focus on God as a character in the holy books – those are the books that purport to speak for God -- and turn Him into an actor on the world stage, an actor who is frequently as human as they come. That’s where we get the source of chauvinism. And resentment. And fanaticism. And yes, violence.

The holy books themselves are not the problem. Quite the contrary -- they are majestic, if read poetically, metaphorically, and as guideposts for moral virtue. But increasingly, we are living in a world where they are either read literally or disdainfully. Hence, the polarization.

As I contemplate my next Muslim-Jewish dialogue on Sunday, I can’t help but recall the previous one from last month. It was supposed to focus on the topic of how the idea of God can become a source of social unity. Curiously, though, few people wanted to stay on topic. For some of the Jews in the room, “God” is but a mythical being who isn’t worth talking about. For some of the Muslims, “God” is an author of a book (the Qur’an) that must be read as literal truth from start to finish … including the numerous portions about Hellfire. How, I ask, can we possibly find common ground between two such opposite poles?

I’ll tell you how – it’s all about listening to the sages, and reclaiming God as the Ineffable One. As long as we continue to speak for God based upon our Scriptures, the atheists and the fundamentalists will rule the day. But if we can resist the temptation to personalize God … if we can assume that God doesn’t act according to a human-like will or communicate with human prophets in clear language or visions … if we can agree with Spinoza that to compare God’s mind with our mind is like comparing the Constellation of the Dog with the animal that barks … if we can simply contemplate such words as divine unity, ultimacy, eternality, and infinity and associate those words with God, rather than such human emotions and faculties as love, will, patience, vengeance, or justice … then, perhaps, we can re-introduce into our lives a deity who is worthy of the name.

Let’s give it a try. The next time someone talks about God like they know all about Him because they read about Him in a book, just take a deep breath and contemplate the unity of Being, or the idea that we all reside inside of a single great Self. Something tells me those are not concepts that need to divide us … unless of course someone writes about them and tells you that only if you agree with what you read will your soul be saved. Therein lies the road to Hell if ever there were one.