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Roger S. Gottlieb
Roger S. Gottlieb
Author: “Engaging Voices,” “A Greener Faith,” “A Spirituality of Resistance.”



Are Passover and Easter Just Celebrations of Violence?

Mar28

by: on March 28th, 2013 | 8 Comments »

Surrounded by the usual code words for these holidays – “freedom from slavery” for the first, “resurrection and new life” for the second – this question may seem at the least silly and at worst an exercise of blasphemous anti-religiosity.

Yet it is actually a serious question. Consider that while freeing the Jews all, yes all, the Egyptians’ first born – from that of the Pharaoh to the Pharaoh’s servants to the Pharaoh’s pet cat – had to die. And consider that Christianity seems to require the suffering and death of an innocent.

That is why some people not under the spell of scriptural sanctity have had critical thoughts. Even as authentic member of the club as Holocaust survivor and extensive commentator on Jewish tradition Elie Wiesel was deeply pained that the liberation of the Jews required the slaughter of innocent Egyptians. And Matthew Fox, originally a Catholic priest and now an Episcopal one, asks comparable questions about what he considers his faith’s over emphasis on sin and death and lack of appreciation of creation and love. Not to mention radical Christian feminists who challenge what they think of as patriarchy’s love affair with violence.

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About Death, II

Mar21

by: on March 21st, 2013 | 5 Comments »

My last blog ended by comparing our lives to a song, and with the reflection: But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.

I’ve been asked to expand on this thought. What are these ‘forces’? How are they larger and more creative and enduring?

We can start small. Walking my dog this morning through narrow, hilly neighborhood streets, I heard the brilliant “pyou pyou” of a cardinal standing on a tree limb about twenty feet over my head. The bird was only about seven inches long, probably weighed less than two ounces, with a small pointed beak surrounded by quarter inch of black, a tuft of feathers for a pointed crown, and a shockingly red breast and wings. “How does it do that,” I thought, “this tiny thing making a noise that can be heard for blocks? A call louder than the loudest whistle you ever heard from that friend in high school who could put two fingers in his mouth and bring forth a shriek that made people cover their ears and would stop cabs in the street.”

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Amour, Death, Song

Mar15

by: on March 15th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

That was the day of the white chrysanthemums, so magnificent I was almost fearful…And then, then you came to take my soul…
Rilke

For someone way beyond middle age Amour is, as we used to say, quite a trip. To those unfamiliar with this Oscar winning French film, it chronicles the illness, degeneration and death of an aging French piano teacher, who is cared for by her loving, stoic husband. The acting is superb, the writing spare and focused, the pacing almost in ‘real time’ as the camera lingers on the woman’s first stroke, being bathes by an attendant, the husband’s excruciating attempts to get her to eat some oatmeal. In the end the husband, overwhelmed with grief for his wife’s guttural cries of pain, her loss of even a shred of autonomy or dignity, and perhaps also his own exhaustion, frustration, and anger, takes matters into his own hands.

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What difference does it make if torture works?…and a few other questions…

Feb4

by: on February 4th, 2013 | Comments Off

What difference does it make if torture works? Is that all we need to know about it? Is it possible that we shouldn’t torture people even if it does work? By analogy: We could probably eliminate a good deal of the Taliban – at least for a while–if we carpet bombed regions they control. Once we were clear that it ‘works’ – why not do it? So what if we kill some innocent people. After all – the point is to accomplish what we set out to do. Therefore, if torturing a few people, or many people, gets us the information ‘we’ want, that’s all we need to know, right?

Disliking my admittedly extreme example, a person might object: “What if a suspect knows where a bomb is placed that might kill 100 people, wouldn’t it be o.k. to torture him?” To which I reply: “Since we are dealing in ‘what if’ – try this one: what if there is a terrorist bomb set to kill, let’s be bold, 5000 people. And suppose you know that the person who controlled the bomb is in a particular room. The only problem is that there are 10 other people in the room and you don’t know which is the terrorist. Well, do the math: why not torture them all until you find the right one? And suppose it’s not 10 people in the room, but a 100. You’ve still got a 50 to 1 ratio – so torture away, right? Even better: what if torturing an innocent person – say, the terrorist’s 6 year old daughter – would compel the terrorist to talk. Do the math again, surely we’d be justified in torturing the girl. And what if, as Dostoevsky asked, we could end all human misery and bring about a perfect utopia by torturing one innocent child – would we have the right not to do it?

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Zero Dark 30 made me cry, but it wasn’t the torture scenes…

Jan16

by: on January 16th, 2013 | 16 Comments »

It’s not that the torture scenes weren’t pretty bad. They were: the bruised face, haunted eyes, scarred skin, and gradual deterioration from arrogant jihadist to a helpless, broken body pleading for mercy. But that didn’t make me cry, for when such torture is not an instrument of sadism, as the process unfolding in the film clearly was not, it is simply an instrument of war. And war is hell. That’s just what it is. This I knew.

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Holiday Spirit Getting You Down? Try Holiday Spirituality Instead…

Dec5

by: on December 5th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Holiday spirituality involves making the simple but often incredibly difficult decision to meet life’s difficulties with self-awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, and love. (This is the position developed in my new book: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters - a book which not only answers all of life’s important questions, but has a really nice cover!).

So if inescapable Christmas music, endless JUST FOR TODAY GET IT NOW! sales, and long lists of gifts for everyone from your brother-in-law to your daughter’s day-care provider are getting you down, let’s see what these simple, quite traditional, but challenging spiritual virtues have to offer.

To start, let’s ask ourselves what is going on. Through meditation, reflection, self-examination, or just plain free associating at the keyboard, what might we find? Perhaps… Disappointment that your family doesn’t match the quirky-but-happy, deeply-caring but non-intrusive, rooted in tradition but open to difference ones on the greeting cards or the TV specials. Resentment that as a non-Christian you have to listen endlessly to all this holiday stuff? Bitterness that everyone else has (fill in the blank…a job, a lover, children, healthy children, a nice house…)? The religious revulsion that any serious Christian might feel at seeing the birth of the savior turned into consumerism and family get togethers shaped by an awful lot of drinking?

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Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Gratitude and (of all things) Politics

Nov28

by: on November 28th, 2012 | Comments Off

America’s annual consumerism orgasm is just passed. And if a little bit of post-sex let-down is to be expected, it may also be that some of us view the whole thing with negative feelings ranging from mild distaste to horror. People camping out on the sidewalk for days to buy a 54 inch flat screen, Wal-Mart customers coming to blows over a pair of shoes, families devoting hours to military style strategizing for the best way to hit the mall, a holiday defined by “thanks” and “giving” followed straightway by a veritable festival of desire, grasping, and I-me-mine. Endless environment damaging heavy metals, transportation, packaging and fossil fuels.

Even if the shopping is keyed around Christmas presents for others, what we have then are human relationships defined by things – and things, we should be clear, which are a long way from necessity. Virtually none of this is about food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or medicine for the chronically ill. Actually, it is generally about toys for those who already have several dozen, phones with a few more features, or somebody’s thirty-seventh sweater or forty-fifth pair of jeans. In my own case it is likely to be about yet another classical cd or mp3 player for a man who has far more than he needs already.

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Is there a Yoga of the Heart?

Nov14

by: on November 14th, 2012 | Comments Off

Yes, and it’s called prayer. And its power does not depend on faith in God or sacred texts, but on the passionate commitment of the person who prays. As Kierkegaard cautions: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

Prayers may be voiced in anguish or wrapped in silence, mumbled dutifully or constructed with care, put to melody or tears. They can be wordless, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched for justice with Martin Luther King “my feet were praying.” Or as the Hasidic Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz reportedly counsels, “When things are so bad you cannot even recite psalms just sit and hold whatever it is up to God in silence.”

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Hurricane Sandy: Time to stop digging?

Nov1

by: on November 1st, 2012 | 4 Comments »

“You don’t hit bottom,” says an old 12-step adage, “until you stop digging.” In other words: no bad experience, painful consequence, or downright awful time in and of itself will lead people to change. When we are thoughtless, reckless, destructively selfish, or blind to the effects of our actions on ourselves and others – and when all this leads in a Very Bad Direction, we can still hold on to the negative habits and damaging behavior. We can always close our eyes, turn our backs, and deny, deny, deny.

Hurricane Sandy – a mega, super, Franken storm – is a case in point. I would very much like it to be a cliché that such storms, predictable aspects of global climate change, are what our current use of fossil fuels is getting us; and that therefore our political, economic, technological, educational, and spiritual leaders are doing everything in their power to help us change our ways.

But the sad truth is that outside of the still comparatively limited environmental community, and the occasional policy nod towards “maybe doing something serious at some point,” our leaders are pretty much ignoring reality. Yes Bill McKibben and 350.org, the Sierra Club and the odd religious leader, are beating the band. A few minor politicians here and there are doing their best. The odd editorial in the Times or upset piece in a progressive magazine appears.

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Can There Be a Spiritual Response to Presidential Politics?

Oct24

by: on October 24th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

A tough question, this one. Certainly there are a number of responses which are not particularly spiritual, as tempting as they might be. For if we think of spirituality as the simple but extraordinarily difficult attempt to respond to life’s difficulties with mindfulness, equanimity, gratitude, compassion, and love, then the natural tendency towards revulsion at the lies, panic at the thought of the “other guy” winning, or contempt for the stupidity of the confused citizens who might vote against our candidate – well, such responses don’t really fit the bill.

Nor, sad to say, does the religious understanding of one candidate being absolutely closer to God’s commands than the other. And this is equally as true for conservatives as it is for liberals: for those who are sure that Romney will keep the faith for religious freedom, heterosexuality, fetus rights, and a strong military; as for voters who believe Obama serves the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount far better than any Republican could ever do.

What I’m looking for is a spiritual response that can coexist with very different political views; providing, of course, that the different political views don’t depend on outright group hatred, violent aggression, or brute selfishness. Given that condition, I believe it is possible for people of spiritual good will to disagree about (for example) tax policy, responses to conflicts in the Middle East, energy policy, and even abortion rights. (And I say this as someone with highly defined politics, views so far to the left I fall off the planet occasionally.) Such spirituality is compatible with organized religion, with no religion, with reverence for God, goddesses, spirits, nature, or simply life.

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