‘Remember Now Your Creator’ – The Challenging Dichotomy of Faith and Reason

Last night, at my school’s back-to-school-night for parents, I delivered my “senior sermon.” Each senior at Milken writes and delivers a sermon at some point during his or her final year at the school. Here is mine, on the challenge of balancing faith and reason at a religiously affiliated high school:

Last week, I took the SAT in Portland, Oregon. My family was visiting relatives for Rosh Hashana, and the test happened to be that weekend. So that Sunday I went to the only place in Portland that offers the SAT to people who are shomer Shabbat: a school for Seventh Day Adventists.

The test happened to be in a science classroom. In one corner I noticed a diorama of a DNA strand. In another was a stack of copies of the periodic table. And then I looked at the bulletin board: Several pictures of wildlife. A few snapshots of plants. And there, in middle of the board, in the middle of the science classroom: a painting of Jesus himself, and four words: “REMEMBER NOW YOUR CREATOR.”

Remember your creator? There I was, in a high school science classroom, about to take the world’s preeminent test of logic and reason. And all I could focus on was: remember your creator.

And through four hours of really difficult questions, I couldn’t get this one out of my mind: what’s Jesus doing on the wall of a science classroom? But the truth is, really, that question isn’t so different from the ones that Milken students grapple with every day. One moment we’re sitting, talking about Martin Buber and Rabbi Akiba in Jewish Thought class, and the next moment we’re in Physics, studying Newton’s First Law of Motion.

On this very campus, every day, we live with this challenging dichotomy: are reason and religion mutually exclusive? And what does one have to do with the other? Is that quotation on the walls of the science classroom in Portland that different from a mezuzah on the doorway of our chemistry lab, or even my orthodontist’s office? I’ve found three distinct answers from three distinct sources. One from the Jewish tradition, one from the era in which we live, and one from Cedars Sinai.

First, an answer from the Talmud. There’s a famous story: The rabbis were trying to decide if a particular oven was ritually pure (a debate I’m sure goes on in all of your households). All the rabbis agreed that the oven wasn’t pure – all except for one rabbi – Rabbi Eliezer. He was positive that his view was correct. Rabbi Eliezer kept offering proof by bringing about various supernatural phenomena. Still, the other rabbis weren’t convinced. Finally, a voice from the heavens resounded through the chamber and said: “Rabbi Eliezer is correct.” But the majority was outraged. Another rabbi looked up from where the voice was coming from and shouted: “It’s not for heaven to decide!” And the voice of God answered back: “My sons have defeated me.” Meaning that the rabbis were right: Just as we have faith in God, God has faith in us – to use the intellect God gave us.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his most recent book Why Faith Matters, puts it eloquently. He writes that “faith honors those who discover truth. For people of faith to turn their back on truth, whatever its source, is a reaction of fear, not an assertion of faith.” In other words: True faith sees the hand of God in the capacity for human discovery.

But that doesn’t mean that we rely only on our own intellect. Our belief in an almighty God, a God who created the universe, a God who spoke and the world appeared – a belief in that God grounds us. A belief, or even an acknowledgement of a force beyond forces – beyond the human intellect, beyond MD’s, beyond even iPads – is a blanket of humility over our pervasive human arrogance. And that acknowledgment alone carries with it another humbling truth: we are limited.

But often we can forget that humility. And that’s where I found my second answer. Almost exactly a month ago, we marked the tenth anniversary of a calamity executed by people who were convinced they were doing God’s work. Fundamentalists are people who have profound faith that’s unchecked by reason. Religion that’s deprived of the voice of modernity, that’s stuck in antiquity, breeds arrogance. It breeds the people who demand that you must agree theologically, that you must see eye to eye – And it’s not just in other religions; we sometimes see it in Judaism, too – a stringency that defies reason. As someone who reads and writes about the news, I hear almost daily about the damage wrought – whether in Israel or here in California – by those who use faith as a rationale to carry out a radicalized approach. Our faith needs to be accompanied by reason and progress – which leads me to the third – and perhaps most powerful – place where I saw faith and reason interact.

A few years ago, a family friend was diagnosed with Leukemia. Some of you may have known Joel Shickman. He was a rabbinical student at the American Jewish University. And his situation would have justified complaining, crying, even grieving. But instead, Joel built a holy community.

We’d gather in his hospital room, a group of adults and a few kids, and put our arms around each other. And to the rhythm of Joel’s guitar, we’d sing. We’d sing the Beatles, and American Pie, and whatever anyone wanted to hear. We’d chant the prayer for healing and create harmonies that I’m pretty sure touched God’s own angels. And as I pounded on the drums and prayed and prayed, I watched the IV-tubes pump through Joel, the nurses coming in and out of the room, the heart monitor beeping – each one keeping Joel alive.

And when Joel left his wife and his three young sons, and met God at heaven’s gates, he also left what so many of us strive to build: a community uplifted by his faith, enlightened by God’s presence, blessed by the miracles of science, and humbled by its very real limitations. When science couldn’t keep Joel’s body alive, his faith, and God’s own presence in the hospital room kept his neshama alive, and raised ours.

On Wednesday night, we’ll begin the sukkot holiday – a period that implores us to reflect on life’s fragility. And during sukkot, we’ll read the Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, a book about the fleeting nature of life. And in that book, we’ll read this verse in hebrew: U’zechor et borecha. In English: “remember your creator.” The same verse from the wall of the science classroom in Portland.  And when we’re sitting in synagogue, or under the fragile canopy of the sukkah, that very verse should remind us of the potential of our intellects, of the greatness of the divine, and of our imperative to live our lives aware of and challenged by both.

Thank you.

Leaving God at the Door – Why Michele Bachmann Needs to Reaffirm Kennedy’s Promise

As featured on the Huffington Post:

With Elai Shine

First, she said it was a joke. Now, she’s saying it was a metaphor. One thing is clear: Michele Bachmann thinks that hurricanes happen because of welfare.

Last week, shortly after a strong earthquake shook the East Coast and Hurricane Irene left millions without power, Michele Bachmann spoke at a campaign rally. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” she said. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’…(He) know(s) government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

Those of us who were born during the Clinton years. We’ve never known a political landscape not shaped by religious influence and the impact of political guidelines brought on by the “Moral Majority.” In fact, for as long as we can remember, Church has often been mistaken for State (or vice-versa).

Two presidents, most notably, have had to pass a religion test during the campaigns that preceded their elections (albeit for disparate reasons): John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Before 1960, no Catholic had ever ascended to the country’s highest office. Accordingly, Kennedy was subjected to a nationwide loyalty oath of sorts. At rally after rally, press conference after press conference, reporters would ask him the same questions: Would his religion influence or impair his political judgement as president?

In Obama’s case, the questions were a bit different – and fueled more by steadfast intolerance than legitimate uncertainty. Was he a Muslim? Or was he a Christian? If he was a Muslim, did his presence in an Indonesian Madrassa during his early youth affect his current views on the American dream? And if he was a Christian, had he been indoctrinated by an “anti-American” preacher? The questions were sharp and pervasive.

Kennedy had to prove that he was the right flavor of Christian. (“Whatever issue may come before me as president,” he said in 1960, “I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”) Obama had to prove that he was Christian period. (“I’m a Christian by choice,” he’s said during his term in office.) Both had to prove that their faith in the country outweighed any other faiths they may have held. Both were held to a standard that defied and ignored any preordained ideas of an acceptable relationship between religion and policy in presidential duties. As a consequence, both gave into media pressures and testified publicly and unequivocally that their faith in God was an indication of that alone.

Michele Bachmann’s faith in God is an indication of her political mindset. She made clear last week that she thinks two episodes that have put FEMA on high alert are the Almighty’s mechanisms of conveying his disappointment with the current administration’s policies.

Had Kennedy ever stood before a rally and made a radical religious statement – or one that openly turned a blind eye to the religious impartiality that is meant to accompany a Commander in Chief – his campaign would have been over in a matter of hours. And still today (and into the next several months) if Barack Obama dares to use a term, or even makes use of “suspicious” body language, media outlets and demagogues on both sides of the political spectrum will call his actions into doubt, cast aspersions upon his allegiances, and openly question his fitness to lead.

Michelle Bachmann – in the company of other right-wing presidential contenders like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – has created an illusion: Some of the necessary drawbacks of government, she presumes, can be solved by the infusion of religion. That principle enraptures and exhilarates her ever-growing base. Almost 80 percent of the country is Christian. Bachmann suggests that such a populace can unite under the banner of Christianity.

But Bachmann’s logic is flawed. No denomination of Christianity can boast more than 30 percent of the American population. Baptists approach around 26 percent and Catholics 23 percent. These denominations certainly don’t agree on everything, and typically clash on key issues – particularly those of social significance. While those who support her delight when she implies that there should be a divine hand in life on Pennsylvania Avenue, Christianity itself shouldn’t be a political force.

Often, the unique will and prerogative of the individual mixes with what should be populist civics. No politician comes to power without some preconceived notions or personal biases. People act in their self interest and seek to advance the causes that resonate with them. That’s just how the world works.

For that reason, it isn’t problematic that politicians have religious beliefs; it is the fervor with which those on the Right allow those beliefs to sway their political judgement that is troublesome.

Bachmann isn’t the first ambitious politician who has crossed the line in invoking religion. Our last President – a man of true faith – also exploited and abused publicly his relationship with the divine. “I am driven with a mission from God,” George W. Bush said in 2003, “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

Candidate after candidate on the Right – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin (they keep emerging) – claim that President Obama defies the Founding Fathers’ intentions by offering a solution for people who don’t have access to affordable health insurance. These candidates, who continually call on God and religion to justify their opinion on public policy, forget Thomas Jefferson’s guidelines – which have been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court – “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 

This same group of candidates and candidates-to-be are the driving force of several fabricated notions of conflict: war between Islam and the rest of the world; war between China and the American Dream; war between Obama and “family values.” What Michele Bachmann and her ilk fail to realize in the heat of hyperbole is that they are instigating another war altogether: the war between Church and State – and it is turning the main-stage of American politics into a circus.

Modern politics is shaped by a rapidly decreasing degree of religious impartiality. Forget  “joke” or “metaphor.” If John F. Kennedy had to prove that his religion would not conflict with his civic duty in 1960, Michele Bachmann has even more obligation to do so in our current political landscape.

Our contemporaries are the movers of the next generation. We will be voting for the first time in November 2012. We need each of the current crop of candidates to echo what President Kennedy told a cluster of cameras in 1960:

“Whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

A Witch Hunt – Islamophobia in America

Last week, the Pope surprised the world when he exonerated Jews for the killing of Jesus. It was a nice gesture, though he was a little bit late to the party. Jews have endured thousands of years of turmoil as direct and indirect results of that accusation. In the Pope’s book, he outlines his rationale: though some Jews were to blame for elements of Jesus’ demise, the world cannot hold all Jews accountable for the sins of a few. It’s a logical realization that should have been recognized long ago.

Over the past few days, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) has been on a quest with an unclear purpose. He and his GOP colleagues have begun to hold hearings to, in essence, uncover all the things that make it wrong to be a Muslim in the United States. King – once a staunch proponent of Muslim rights and opportunities worldwide – has declared that his views changed in the aftermath of September 11th when America’s Islamic community was “not responding the way they should have.” In short, Muslims didn’t measure up to the Peter King protocol.

Peter King is a Catholic. Accordingly, his sanctioned spiritual leader – the supreme representative of his system of belief – is the Pope. Anyone who knows anything about textual interpretation can deduce that Peter King is out of line with his leader’s rational principles.

But if King is not inclined to heed papal counsel, he need look no further than my high school classroom. Can an entire grade be suspended for the academic dishonesty of one student? Absolutely not. In that vein, neither can an entire ethnic people be held responsible for the barbarous actions of a few.

Benito Mussolini was a Catholic. He was also white. When was the last time you heard someone call the whites or the Catholics out on “not responding the way they should have” to Mussolini’s tyrannical rule? The people who bombed Pearl Harbor were Japanese. Did the United States government become unwarrantably suspicious of Japanese Americans? Yes, and many Japanese Americans were wrongfully locked up in internment camps for the remainder of the war. A group cannot be blindly held responsible for the actions of individuals.

Islamophobia takes an extreme perspective and applies it to one of the largest religious populations in the world. But the laws surrounding Islamic tradition – the customs that are practiced by billions worldwide – are no more rational than those of Kashrut (Judaism), or communion (Christianity). The Hajj is no less holy than the trip I took to Israel last summer. There are, of course, extremists in every facet of cultural life: The orthodox Jews in Meiah She’arim, Israel who would consider me – someone who eats ‘unkosher’ cheese – a sinner, the priests who rail against love that is different from their own, or the Farrakhans who marginalize Islam and thus give it a bad name. Radicalized Islam is a problem, no doubt. But radicalized anything is a problem.

It’s not naiveté that has led me to this conclusion; it’s simply the acknowledgement that we’re all humans – legitimate, thoughtful, and very, very flawed humans. Perhaps Rep. King would like to investigate the “radicalization” of the Catholic church, or the “radicalization” of the Republican party, or even the “radicalization” of the people who stand up in town hall meetings and blatantly suggest the killing of prominent public officials. Peter King is in no position to be accusing others of “not responding the way they should have.” There is an explicit double standard here – hypocrisy beyond hypocrisy, jingoism beyond jingoism.

The Pope is right: we must prosecute those who have committed a crime, but their sentence must not extend to those who are innocent. For that reason, Muslims in America must be treated as equals and – like all law-abiding citizens – must not be subjected to Peter King’s McCarthyist tirades.

When the Numbers Don’t Add Up – Why Man Shouldn’t Decide Woman’s Fate

Yesterday afternoon, the House of Representatives voted 240-185 to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “The time has come to respect the wishes of the majority of Americans who adamantly oppose using taxpayer dollars for abortions.”

Men have unwaveringly set history’s political agenda. In too many places, for too many years, on too many separate occasions, man’s superiority complex has superseded woman’s unshakable humility. Of course, there are exceptions. But in the grand scheme of things, men have suppressed or out-shouted the female voice.

In Biblical times, men set the rules. In literature, male authors set the scene. In the workforce, men set (and collected) the salaries. But a woman’s job in America shouldn’t be – and isn’t – to stand by and set the table; it’s to set the agenda.

Since Cantor brought up the topic, let’s discuss majorities. At the risk of detracting from the essence of the argument, I won’t even take into account outside social, religious, or political arguments. Simply consider the following.

Women make up the majority of this country, and men make up eighty-two percent of congressional representation. The majority of women who opt to abort their pregnancies are black and Hispanic, and eighty five percent of congress is white. The majority of women who choose abortions are are in their twenties and thirties, and the average age of a senator is sixty, and that of a congressman is fifty. The majority of women who choose abortions make low incomes and cannot afford the economic burden of another child, and the current salary of an average member of congress is $174,000 a year – out of the pockets of Mr. Cantor’s oh-so-coveted taxpayers. (Cantor himself nets a whopping $193,400 annually.)

Sound like a crowd who should be markedly narrowing women’s options,  deciding women’s fates, or determining the extent of women’s rights?

For a gang whose principle goal is to take issue with government involvement in the personal lives of ordinary citizens, these people are wading into dangerous waters. ‘Pro-Life’ politicians like Eric Cantor and Mike Pence drip with the kind of sanctimonious hypocrisy that is otherwise reserved for quixotic Disney villains.

Every woman in the world – and certainly in the freest nation on earth – has the God-given right to decide the fate of her own body, look out for the welfare of her own family, and make decisions that are influenced and exercised by her own free will. The decision simply does not belong to the Republican leadership – or any political party, for that matter. In actions like the one taken on the House floor yesterday, these men verge on territory that simply doesn’t belong to them – territory that belongs to the individual woman. And no one else.

Report Card – A Brief Response to SOTU


He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.

In the Eyes of the Left

He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.

From this perspective: B+

He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.

In the Eyes of the Right

Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.

From this perspective: D

He was partisan in one direction.


I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.

I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.

Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.


Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.

Election Guide

If you think that more minorities belong in jail, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’ve seen your share of nature and have come to terms with letting the rest of it go, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that no one else should benefit from your success, that you and your money are better off in the a secluded bubble of wealth, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe those who are different should be sent away, ostracized, or persecuted, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know which religion is best, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you think that not all Americans have the right to health insurance, if you think that only those who can afford it should have it, and that you are not somewhat responsible for the well being of your neighbor, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that the government doesn’t serve any critical function, or if you feel the deep desire to give up your compensation when you retire, if you have the concrete knowledge that you’ll never lose your job and you’ll never be in need of financial assistance–why bother having welfare?–vote Republican tomorrow.

If poor people are none of your concern and poverty–you’re sure–is a back burner issue, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to love, that the distinctions are clear, that the government should dictate to Americans who they can and can’t love, and  that feelings should be in the hands of Congress, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that corporations shouldn’t be held accountable for deeply destructive environmental policies and financial irresponsibility that has proven detrimental to millions, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re under the impression that the subprime mortgage crisis couldn’t have been  prevented by regulation and oversight, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you don’t believe in the American Dream and instead believe that those seeking it should be sent away en masse, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you know that we need more wars, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you believe that Texas oil billionaires need more money, that large companies should be able to fund major political campaigns, vote Republican tomorrow.

If you’re sure that old white men should make decisions about what does or doesn’t happen to bodies of young women, vote Republican tomorrow.

But if you’re interested in a future antithetical to the one just described, you may want to reconsider your vote. I cast my vote for the Democratic Party in 2010.

He Likes Soccer!

This past Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was being interviewed on Meet the Press. Responding to a poll showing that a growing percentage of the American populace believes that the president is a Muslim, McConnell asserted, “The president says he’s a Christian. I take him at his word.” Then, David Gregory, the host of the program, egged McConnell on, asking him where he thought rumors like this come from, thus prolonging the conversation about the president’s faith.

Just two days earlier, an Iowan RNC member named Kim Lehman tweeted the following, in response to a statement that defended the soundness of President Obama’s Christian faith:

“BTW he personally told the muslims that he IS a muslim.”

She was referring to the speech Obama had given in Cairo last year. Later, when she was asked about why she didn’t believe the fact-based indications that point to Obama’s Christian faith, Lehman said decisively, “He would have said Im a Christian and I’m from the Christian religion and we can work together. It didn’t appear to me he said Christianity was part of his religion.”

This is what the President said in his speech in Cairo to the international Muslim community:

“Now part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I’m a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims.”

My concern is not the ignorance of the RNC Committeewoman, nor is it the Right’s fervent creativity in generating one of the greatest pieces of political fiction in American history– although my view is that those would both be valid concerns.

My concern is the following: Millions of Americans, dozens of members of the House, and several United States senators– some of the most powerful and influential people in the country– are undeniably implying that there’s something wrong with being a Muslim; that there’s something fundamentally immoral or erroneous about being a member of the Islamic faith; believing and studying the Qur’an. And the media (people like David Gregory, among colleagues) nurtures that concept.

The president is not a Muslim. But what if he were? What then? Imagine that there was a movement to prove that Obama didn’t actually like to play basketball, and people went searching around for any tidbit of evidence– in or out of context– that Barack Obama had been lying to us, and that he actually liked playing soccer. That’s what this is.

What troubles me about this is not that they’re lying or spreading rumors– none of that is new or surprising. It’s their straightforward suggestion that being Muslim is somehow not okay. There is nothing wrong with being a Muslim, and the constant fixation on Obama’s faith is sickening. Imagine if there were massive protests, movements of people claiming that “the president is Jewish!” or during a future presidency, “the president is an Christian!” So what? In this country, there is supposedly a separation between church and state, yielding the following conclusion: Who cares if he believes in Allah or Jesus, Mohammad or Matthew, eats bacon or avoids it? Why does it affect you? It doesn’t. So please, mind your own business, and criticize other peoples’ political beliefs, not their religious ones.