Sunday, July 25, 2010


I’ve been thinking about anthropology a lot lately, ever since my 17 year old daughter decided that this is the discipline that interests her the most. Rebecca’s greatest fascination is formally known as “biological anthropology,” which is a fancy way of saying that she wishes to study the OTHER primates and the great apes in particular. Personally, I love monkeys and apes, and wish Rebecca all the success in the world in pursuing that passion, but my primary anthropological interest involves the study of human beings. In that regard, this past week was quite a fertile one.

I spent this week, as I have for the previous three years, at the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, or SUUSI. My ostensible “role” at SUUSI is to teach the philosophy of Spinoza, the 17th century sage who came to develop a perspective on theological-political issues that largely harmonizes with the central teachings of the modern UU movement. But whether I’m teaching about Spinoza or simply hanging out, my real job at SUUSI is to serve as a student. For a non-UU, and especially someone with a great interest in religion, SUUSI is an amazing classroom. Here we have a community of roughly 1,000 people who come from churches in which there is essentially NO communal prayer, NO Scripture, and for most of the members, not even a God. Still, the facts cannot be denied: despite all that non-religion, these are some of the kindest, warmest, most thoughtful people you’ll meet.

Don’t get me wrong – when I’m attending one of the SUUSI “worship” services, I find myself missing some of the very things that keep me coming back to my own synagogue. As a Jew, I feel compelled to join together with others and express our love for a common beloved known as “God.” In fact, as a Jew who is interfaith-oriented, the men and women with whom I enjoy joining in prayer could be Jews, Christians, Muslims, or come from an Eastern tradition – as long as they’re human, I’m satisfied. Notably, however, when I’m at SUUSI, prayer or worship as I know it is altogether absent. Moreover, while at SUUSI, I also get frustrated by the fact that the same Scriptural stories that I find so emotionally compelling fail to generate the same degree of interest among the UU adults. Apparently, their children are similarly not being steeped in Scripture, and they are taught to elevate the status of all of our species’ masterpieces such that our finest secular works are viewed as equally holy as the Torah, New Testament, Qur’an, or the Vedas. It’s certainly not the way I was raised, and it’s not the way I raised my children. The ape lover – and her sister the Jewish Studies major – were taught that there is something uniquely sacred about the books that their ancestors have revered and studied, over century after century, to explicate the distinctions between right from wrong, good from bad, and sacred from mundane.

And yet, from what I can see, the parade of horribles that is supposed to flow from raising Scripture-less children is nowhere to be found in the UU community – or at least it is not to be found at SUUSI. People in this community appear to go out of their way to be kind and empathetic – to practice, and not merely preach, the same ethic that Rabbi Hillel used to summarize the whole of Judaism while standing on one foot. This isn’t to say that these UUs refuse to argue with each other, or that they are equally tolerant of all things. Racism and homophobia, for example, are treated within this community as simply intolerable. But even when it comes to the UU’s ideological opponents, there seems to be an effort to show compassion for the “other” that I do not find equaled by my fellow Peoples of the Book. Given all the time I’ve heard preachers, particularly Christian preachers, say that we “need” the Bible in order to treat one another civilly and ethically, spending time at SUUSI shoots that argument straight to Hell. We might WANT God and religion, we might feel incredibly inspired by them, and we might even feel that the love of God is the foundation of meaning in our life … but do we NEED God and Scripture in order to live ethical lives? Each year, in anthropology class, I learn very clearly that the answer to that question is an unequivocal No!

When I reflect on my week at SUUSI, it makes me wish one thing above all else: that every person in the world could spend one week every year in a retreat sponsored by a religious or spiritual community OTHER than the one in which he or she is affiliated. (This would apply also to those who are unaffiliated with any organization – they would get to choose among any community.) Think of how much unity, understanding and compassion this would bring. I can only shake my head in disgust at the realization that such a seemingly obvious and wholesome idea would be so impossible to implement in the modern world. What does that say about the state of our species?

And speaking of the state of our species, when I got home from my retreat at SUUSI, I was disgusted to see that the United States Senate gave up on the notion of meaningful climate-change legislation. Effectively, the message that is coming from Capitol Hill is that the threat allegedly posed by greenhouse gasses is a hoax, and we don’t have to worry about the global warming, increased storm severity, or other ecological outgrowths of such a “threat.” There’s no other way to interpret Congress’s inaction; if they thought the threat was real but ignored it, they are guilty of the most rank abdication of their duties to the American people – present and future.

Perhaps, in the spirit of charity we should assume that the politicians who fought the energy bill, while arguably ignorant, at least were pure in their motives. Still, they must explain one very stubborn fact: the vast majority of scientists seem to think that the threat from greenhouse gasses is real and will ultimately be devastating unless substantial steps are taken to address this threat. Anthropologically, what would it say about our 21st century civilization if our politicians could simply ignore the teachings of science? And what would it say about us as a society that we could elect these kinds of politicians? Indeed, if we don’t feel tied to the teachings of science about … matters of science … what would that say about our commitment to the voice of reason generally?

At SUUSI, I was not focusing solely on the environment, but I did ask myself plenty of questions about our society’s level of commitment to the voice of reason. After all, I was surrounded by the members of one of the few communities that proclaims that commitment to be central to their path in life – meaning that they must follow reason’s teachings wherever and whenever they lead, unencumbered by loyalties to Scriptures, ancestors, traditions, or other Sacred Cows. Little did I know that when I got back from SUUSI, I would be hit in the face with yet another tragic example of how our society invariably ignores the voice of reason whenever it conflicts with that other much louder, and yet coarser, voice that speaks from the standpoint of short-term economic temptations.

In this case, the environment found itself mano a mano with the corporations that generate money from the geometric increases of greenhouse gasses. With the recent help of the Supreme Court, those corporations are poised to wield more and more power when it comes to our politicians. So really, in the battle we’re describing, mother nature doesn’t have much a chance.

Anthropologically, it would appear that our society – and, indeed, the critical mass of our species – is determined to grow the size of our economic pie by all means necessary. And if one of those means is by ignoring ecological disasters until the threat they pose is noticed by more than just scientists but rather by millions upon millions of widows, widowers, and orphans, so be it. Anthropology isn’t always enjoyable to study, but sometimes even its tragic teachings are too obvious for the disciple of reason to doubt.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Some people enjoy dreaming about taking a week off to gamble and see shows … and maybe engage in a professional-caliber fornication. So sooner or later, they head to Vegas. Others enjoy fantasizing about going back in time to high school, only this time they can hit a curve ball. So they head off to one of those camps run by ex-big leaguers, where for one week, they can don their favorite team’s uniforms and pretend that they’re in a pennant race. Me? I’ve got my own fantasies, my own dreams. I imagine being part of a species where most people have stopped confusing religious myths for realities, but aren’t willing to give up thirsting for spirituality or showing respect for ancient traditions. So I plan on spending next week the same way I spent this time last summer and the two summers before that: teaching workshops on the philosophy of Spinoza at the Unitarian-Universalist Summer Institute.

Truth be told, I’m not sure how much respect the UUs have for ancient traditions. But they’ve sure stopped confusing religious myths for realities, and most seem unwilling to give up the thirst for spirituality. Ask anyone at Fantasy Baseball Camp: not only ain’t two out of three “bad,” but if you hit that often enough, you’ll make the Hall of Fame.

When I’ve not been imagining a world with more Spinozists than Fundamentalists, I’ve been dreaming about some other things. I will offer a few examples. But my dreams aren’t what’s most important, yours are. When you’ve finished my list, please take a minute to reflect on your own dreams and then take even more time plotting how to make those dreams come true.

1. I dream about getting my news from media outlets that are more interested in informing people than in shocking them. Just reflect on some of the events of the last several weeks, and all the ups and downs we’ve been reading about with respect to national security or environmental issues. Have you noticed that bad news gets reported over and over again, but good news is treated with but a yawn? Can you think of anything more insane than that? It’s as if the media moguls are trying not only to depress us but also to torture us. In fact, however, much of what they’re trying to do is identify what sells and give it to us. So the problem here isn’t just the media, it’s us – apparently, we’d rather obsess about what’s awful than what’s beautiful.

So I dream that some day, people will be as riveted by stories about humanitarians and philosophers as by stories about rape or murder. And that whether or not people are most likely to stay tuned when horrible news is being reported, journalists decide what to report based strictly on what they view as significant from a long-run as well as a short-run perspective.

2. I dream that the play about Spinoza (David Ives’ “New Jerusalem”) that is now getting such rave reviews in Washington, D.C., can find a playhouse outside of DC or New York with the guts to perform it. And I dream that another masterful playwright will craft a script about another great thinker … and that this time, it will actually make it to Broadway.

3. I dream that the Miami Heat will NOT win an NBA Championship with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. I don’t like the idea that a group of superstars in the prime of their careers can get together during an off-season, join hands, and instantly become the favorite to win the next year’s title. In a league of roughly 30 teams, when you put together three of the best ten players, including two of the top three or four, why shouldn’t you win? What would winning even prove?

I like the idea of championships being earned by shrewd personnel moves and by superior on-the-court effort, particularly when the pressure is on and a worthy competitor is posing a legitimate challenge. I don’t like the idea of any one team being able to stockpile so much talent that the players don’t even have to play their best to win. It’s fine to see basketball teams with three or more superstars, but they shouldn’t all be in their primes. All-Star Teams are for All-Star Games, not to play in a league that’s supposed to be competitive.

4. I dream that we will soon get the hell out of Afghanistan. Or that someone who supports the continuation of this war could at least sound like THEY’RE convinced. I hear people try to defend this war, but they always sound like they’re speaking in slogans – like the way others used to defend the war in Vietnam. The country at large never really did appreciate that earlier war, and most of us don’t seem to get this one either (at least not after it has been going on for eight years). I guess as long as people aren’t being drafted or dying in Vietnam-like numbers, the clamoring to end the war will remain muted. So we can probably count on this dragging out for a bit longer, but I cannot imagine it will end well. Can you?

5. I dream that the people of Israel can soon put an end to the right-wing trend that seems to have infected that country during the past few years, and that they will embrace meaningful concessions to the Palestinian people, whose living conditions are frankly intolerable. It’s time for the Israelis and their supporters to realize that the Palestinians will not be brought to their knees and beg for a lopsided peace agreement. Nor should they. And I dream that the Palestinian people will form organizations that passionately proclaim their support not only for “two states” but for a “Jewish State” side by side with a “Palestinian State.” It’s time for the Palestinians and their supporters to respect the Jews’ claim to a portion of the Holy Land, and to stop preaching the mantra that, by rights, all of the land belongs to the Palestinians.

6. And finally, I dream that we all will quickly become as concerned about the long-term health of our environment as the short-term health of our economy. Something tells me that of all the dreams I mentioned, this one might actually be the most important. Except of course for the one about LeBron James.

Thursday, July 08, 2010


Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to leave the Beltway and move near a college town somewhere in the hinterland of the country, where my commute would be benign, the traffic would be almost non-existent, and my neighbors (to the extent I had any) would be more down-to-earth and spontaneous. Then, periodically, something happens to remind me of why I feel so tied to the Washington, D.C. area.

The latest reminder comes via our local Jewish playhouse – Theatre J. First of all, I don’t know how many American cities other than New York even have a Jewish playhouse. But I do know for a fact that D.C.’s Jewish theatre is the first one outside of New York to offer David Ives tremendous play, New Jerusalem. Actually, the full title of the play is much longer and gives a clear sense of what the play is about, at least on the surface: “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.” So yes, a well known and well respected playwright has written a tale about my favorite philosopher and how he was excommunicated by the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam when he was 23 years old – a fate that befell him because he refused to renounced his “heretical” philosophy.

It’s a subject we’ve all encountered before – the forces of religious Orthodoxy strike out against the solitary genius, who sees truths that they are afraid to acknowledge. Yet there is something particularly compelling about the episode of Spinoza, and it stems from the identity of the persecutors. This isn’t just another case of the Catholic Church enforcing the official faith. Modern Jews have for a while taken incredible pride at the idea that theirs is NOT a religion of dogma, but rather one of deeds. And for this reason, Spinoza, who was a law-abiding citizen who still kept some attachment to the rituals of the synagogue, should by rights have been treated as a good Jew. In reality, however, he was cursed and cast out, and the members of the Jewish community were forbidden from reading his work and even standing within six feet of his body. All of this happened because he dared to teach doctrines about God and humankind that threatened the security of a so-called “non-dogmatic,” intellectual people.

The story of Spinoza’s excommunication is most fascinating not because of what it reveals about Spinoza’s philosophy – which wasn’t fully developed until many years later – than by what it reveals about the hypocrisy and limitations of Judaism. I don’t mean to say that Judaism is inferior to the other great organized faiths but only that it claims to be something that it is not. What the story of Spinoza shows is that Jewish traditionalists, for all their passion for learning, simply cannot afford to open their minds too far. They are vested in a particular conception of God, a particular conception of the origins of the Torah, and a particular conception of what it means to have a human soul. This applies even to the rabbis who are able to think philosophically – when push comes to shove, they prefer “their truth” to “the” truth, even when they recognize a conflict between the two.

Typically, philosophy/science vs. faith dramas are presented in a historical context. This one is no different – Spinoza lived and died in the middle of the 17th century. But again, to think of this tale primarily in terms of its historical context is to miss its fundamental point. Stated simply, the SAME battle that Spinoza fought about God, immortality and scripture is being played out today in churches and universities all over the country and in much of the world. This isn’t like the Catholic Church forcing Galileo to recant his heliocentric views – which is of lesser interest to a world in which everyone, including the priests, is now a heliocentrist. Nor is this a simple case of a philosopher whose views are contrary to those of fundamentalist rabbis, priests and imams, but otherwise coincide with the views of the masses. Quite the contrary – even the so-called “liberal” clerics have striven to marginalize and trivialize Spinoza’s teachings, lest these teachings undermine the basis for perhaps the fundamental principle of Western religion, liberal and conservative: that the God we worship is the human ideal personified.

Spinoza viewed that attitude as disrespectful to the true God – whose largely-elusive nature was his primary object of interest. Spinoza recognized that human beings are severely limited in what we can know about the world, or of God. But this much we can know: that if we were triangles, we would think of God as triangular, and if we were circles, we would think of God as circular, so it only stands to reason that since we are people, we think of God in the way we would ourselves like people to be if we had all the power in the world. Merciful, kind, loving, wise, compassionate … just call it “omni-excellent,” based on a human standard of excellence. And of course, if we were God, we would bestow on each member of our favorite species (homo sapiens) immortal souls, and we’d reward these souls for virtue and punish them for vice. You all know the drill. We’ve heard it ever since we were all children. And so did Spinoza. He simply couldn’t sit back and watch as human beings elevated themselves to idol status. Like all the great spiritual leaders, he felt the need to speak out against conventional wisdom in the name of truth.

To a large degree, Spinoza is the patron saint of modern secularism. His criticism of organized religion has become adopted and absorbed by millions upon millions of so-called non-believers. But the tragedy of this story is that because the clerics of his day and ours have done such a fine job of silencing him, they have prevented most people from seeing that Spinoza was anything but a non-believer. He was a devout lover of God. He simply re-defined that term so that we stopped fashioning it in our own image.

Spinoza’s disciples among the greatest thinkers of modern history are legion. Deleuze, Einstein, Santayana, Nietzsche, Heine, Hegel, Schelling, Herder, Goethe, Lessing. Paradoxically, though, his is one of those names pseudo-intellectuals love to drop at cocktail parties to show that they appreciate obscure dead sages. Recently, one of our local papers, the Washington Express, drummed in this point in its brief statement about Ives’ play. The blurb was entitled “Beloved Esoterica,” and it went as follows:

“Baruch de Spinoza? Who? Oh, be quiet: This is the nerdiest city ever. You probably read Spinoza in third grade. So, when we tell you that there’s a play about Spinoza (a 17th century philosopher, not that you didn’t know), you’ll probably jump up and down with joy. Right? Right?”

Sure it’s funny. Nerds are funny, even if you’re one of them. And when it comes to Spinoza, I’m definitely a nerd. But what isn’t funny is the gulf between our spiritual potential as human beings and the extent to which the leaders of organized religions are willing to keep us from realizing that potential, particularly when it comes to examining the ultimate questions of religious philosophy. And what also isn’t funny is how much we could develop that potential if only we could come to better grips with the teachings of Spinoza, rather than treating those teachings as not-so-beloved esoterica.

New Jerusalem will continue to be playing in Washington through July 25th. And on Thursday, July 18th, one week from today, I am privileged to be leading the discussion right after the play, based on my having coordinated the Washington Spinoza Society for nearly nine years.

So please, if you live in the DC area, come! It’s never too late to open your mind to what this capacious and courageous mind had to offer. It’s a message that’s perfectly suited to building a bridge between the secular and the spiritual, the atheist and the theist, and the heart and the mind. Moreover, this production is both well written and well acted. So call 1-800-494-8497 to order tickets. And if you don’t live in DC and can’t see the play, check out the Spinoza Society page on my website ( – and such essays as "Spinoza and Unitarian-Universalism" – to get a general overview of what this man taught.

If it was good enough for Einstein, I dare say it’s worthy of your time.

Friday, July 02, 2010


This weekend, your humble scribe will be on the road and unable to provide a lengthy blog. I'll be in Indianapolis, Indiana, a state that actually voted for Obama two years ago but is still recognized by Sarah Palin as part of the United States of America (as opposed to my Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., which Palin sees as some kind of alien territory filled with unpatriotic socialists).

Do I resent the idea peddled by certain politicians and talking heads that some parts of this country are more truly "American" than others? Your damned right I do.

Anyway, I want to wish each of you a Happy Independence Day this Sunday. Even if you are reading this from another country, presumably you still appreciate the values that reigned supreme in Independence Hall on July 4, 1776. If only we could find again the kind of folks who lined that building on that fateful day and sprinkle them throughout the leadership of Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and the other spots where people seem to have lost their way. Maybe even the U.S. should be included in that group. We all need another dose of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and company ... and no time too soon.

Take care, and have a blast on Sunday.