Friday, September 29, 2006

That Old Time Religion

It's the High Holy Day season once again. It's a time for reflection, repentance and renewal. I spent a terrific Rosh Hashanah weekend in Indianapolis with my mother and extended family. And I went to synagogue both mornings, which is a rare occurrence for me. And, as usual, the service got me asking a lot of questions.

The Reconstructionist synagogue in Indianapolis is a different kind of experience for me. I went to a Reconstructionist synagogue growing up in Montreal, but it was nothing like this one. Ours was a much smaller congregation, and we didn't have anything like an organist and choir. And although I've been to the temple in Indy before, I still get the feeling that either I'm in a church, or the organist and choir were on loan from one. I also brought up with my mother the irony of not being able to blow the shofar on the Sabbath, but an electric organ being permissible. It just goes to show that when it comes to traditions, people can be very selective indeed.

Now, I'm not at all what you'd call a traditionalist when it comes to religion. Personally, I think organized religion is unnecessary. I'm not anti-religion per se, but a lot of it just doesn't wash with me intellectually. I think spirituality is a good thing, but most Western religions require a kind of fabricated pathos that any God worth believing in would just laugh off. Also, Judaism and Catholicism both borrow much from the ancient Pagans in their reverence for objects and symbols. That's a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say that my connection to my Jewishness is based on history and common experience. Jews could rely on the bunker mentality we've developed over the years, as well as our values regarding work and family and community, and we'll survive just fine. But it was religion that kept us together in earlier times, and most of our traditions stem from that.

I think Reconstructionism is the best movement in Judaism in terms of marrying the ancient traditions with modern thinking. On the other hand, it is also full of paradoxes, because while the traditional liturgy is recited during services, much of that text does not reflect Reconstructionist thought. Reconstructionism doesn't strictly require belief in any deity. So a lot of the prayers, while paying homage to the Jewish religious experience over the centuries, really ring hollow. Furthermore, people sing out certain prayers, in full voice, while simultaneously rejecting these words intellectually. The best example for this time of year is the Unetaneh Tokef which says:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed...But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
Now, I'll bet that 90% of the people in the synagogue who recite those lines don't believe them. It is quite apparent to anybody who has lived in the real world that our spiritual actions have no bearing on our worldly fate for the coming year. Furthermore, I don't know that there is any kind of precedent documented in the Talmud of a single case where repentance, prayer and righteousness during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has caused somebody's fate to be changed before it was sealed.

Those lines I quoted above are the crux of the Unetaneh Tokef. But the stuff in between (where I put an ellipses) is almost Pythonesque. In Monty Python's Meaning Of Life there was a scene in the chapel of a boys' school where they recite the following prayer:

Oh Lord, please don't burn us/Don't grill or toast your flock/Don't put us on the barbecue/Or simmer us in stock/Don't braise or bake or boil us/Or stir-fry us in a wok/Oh please don't lightly poach us/Or baste us with hot fat/Don't fricassee or roast us/Or boil us in a vat/And please don't stick thy servants Lord/In a Rotiss-o-mat.

I really don't think that prayer is much more silly than these words from the Unetaneh Tokef:

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning

Okay, maybe that isn't quite as silly as Python. But do the people who recite these words really believe that repentance, prayer and righteousness will save them from strangulation or wild beast? Because I have a serious problem with anybody who does truly believe that. I believe anyone's motivation for being righteous should be righteousness itself, not the threat of what might happen to them in this life (or afterward, in the case of other religions). As for prayer, I have still never gotten a satisfactory answer about how we can be judged for our actions because we have free will, and yet can pray for God to intervene in other people's actions. And repentance, like righteousness, is a good thing, but it should be about how you improve yourself to better serve others rather than how it reflects on you at annual evaluation time.

If I am wrong about all this, then this might be my last blog entry. If so, then I apologize for my blasphemy. Otherwise, I'll see you again soon. And may we all have a peaceful and prosperous year.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years After

It is now the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the day that was to change the world. It united a nation, brought goodwill from all over the planet toward the wounded superpower, and awoke all of us to some of the worst evils that lurk while exposing us to some of the best mankind has to offer. It was a day etched in our memories forever, when political stripe was insignificant and the petty things in life seemed to matter not. We were all vulnerable, but thankful for what we had.

Political discourse in North America had become poisoned by 2001, largely due to the advent of the internet and 24 hour news channels providing a platform for the "punditocracy", not to mention talk radio. Bill Clinton had been a divisive figure, even while still garnering large job approval ratings. And the 2000 presidential election really pushed things over the edge. But following 9/11 there was a hope that people would be able to get over political pettiness and look out for each other just as the uniformed and civilian New Yorkers did on that day. Sadly, that hope only lasted about a month.

It didn't take long for George W. Bush to become the most polarizing leader in memory. While some of his opposition is extreme to say the least, most of the current climate can be blamed on nobody except the man who claimed to be "a uniter, not a divider." It is a sad reality that 9/11 itself is a political tool, and Bush has been the master craftsman. He has conflated 9/11 and the war or terror with Iraq and other questionable decisions ever since. From the first time he said "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists" he made it a policy to demonize all opposition that shared the same goals. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Donald Rumsfeld likened Iraq war critics to the appeasers of Nazi Germany. To the Bush crowd, "with us" doesn't mean wanting to defeat terrorists, but wanting to do it their way. And supporting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while the poorest fight the war. It's a non-customizable package deal.

Bush, of course, is not alone in playing the political game with 9/11. Take, for example, the ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11. Democrats and supporters of Bill Clinton are all up in arms over the film because a few scenes were fabricated and make that administration look bad - they've even gone so far as to suggest that ABC not even show this film, a la The Reagans being pulled from CBS a few years ago under Republican pressure. I think it's ridiculous. I am quite aware of the fact that the movie was written and produced by conservative filmmakers, and that it has a bit of a hostile slant toward Clinton and his people. But I do not believe in censorship of this kind. I seriously doubt that anybody's opinion would be swayed by a made for TV movie, even one as ambitious as this. I find it laughable that pundits on the Right have embraced a TV film as the be all and end all expose of the much hated Clinton administration. And I find it somewhat dismaying that much of the Left blogosphere has made an issue out of defending Bill Clinton, who was by no means a liberal president, even if that mattered. The whole argument seems to come down to either "Clinton was better than Bush" or "Bush was better than Clinton", or that somehow the attacks on 9/11 wouldn't have happened with the right one of them in charge at the right time.

Bullshit. Terrorism would not have been a high enough priority for anybody in office to stop 9/11, if indeed it could have been stopped. Believe me, I'm no fan of Bush and will argue against most anything he has done as president, but I'm not about to let Clinton off the hook or get into a food fight based on nothing but irrational hatred of either of them. The U.S., like other countries, has flawed national policies that are ingrained in the system irrespective of the elected leaders. Whether the Right wants to acknowledge it or not, many of these policies over the last century have contributed to the current pickle we are in. And whether the far Left wants to acknowledge it or not, you can't just try to undo every mistake from the past and downplay the realities of the present. The best way to honour those who sacrificed everything five years ago is for thinking people to discuss a sensible future.