For Abbie Hoffman, in Loving Memory

As we leave peysakh, but before we leave the month of April, I'm taking this moment to remember the irrepressible Abbie Hoffman, one of my heroes, who died of his own hand on April 12, 1989. When I reviewed his book, Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, in Jewish Currents in January, 1981 (“Hoffman's ultimate antic,” I wrote, “is his sobriety, which is intense and personal and confirms the best hopes we may have had about 'the real Abbie'"), I was very happy to receive an approving letter from him, which we published in the March issue. Years later, when I heard of Abbie's death, I wrote the following poem, which was published in The Reconstructionist::

The Whole World Is Watching

At three a.m.
Jonah calls to me
from his disordered crib.
I scold him back to sleep,
then stand alone in the dark bathroom,
listening to the free splash of my pee
and thinking about "Steal this Urine Test."

The kitchen light
is like the guru's touch,
shooting sparks through my forehead.
I peel one of the ripening bananas
from Jonah's stockpile.
When our grandparents were introduced to these things
at Ellis Island
they didn't know to peel them first.
Not even the rabbis knew.

The sprig of forsythia above the sink
is becoming a green-leafed twig.
I wonder how many of my friends back in the city
understand how forsythia changes.
Until I got a dog
I didn't realize it myself,
only vaguely thought I was walking a different path
not seeing those yellow bushes anymore.
Then the dog led me to the same places each morning
and I saw what happens,
flowers passing into leaves.

The whole world is watching
as my forsythia turns green above the sink.
I am a greenhorn,
trying to learn the names of things:
forsythia yielding to lilac, lilac yielding to peony,
peony yielding to lily.
I am an immigrant from the Woodstock Nation,
throwing out my banana peel,
giving my soft belly a squeeze
and turning out the light.

Two hours remain
before Jonah will cry again
and I can lie with him beneath my blankets
until morning.


Jimmy Carter Made My Mother Rich!

The Forward this week ran a pretty nasty editorial condemning Jimmy Carter for meeting with Hamas and citing his presidency as “slightly ahead of Millard Fillmore but trailing Herbert Hoover."

I object!

The inflated interest rates during the Carter years that the Forward editorial whines about, rates that reached 20 percent at one point, actually turned the savings account and money-market funds of teachers, civil servants, cops, firefighters, social workers and other middle-class people into substantial nest-eggs and small estates for their children and grandchildren to inherit. Jimmy Carter, in short, actually made my mother rich for a few years! Wall Street hated those high interest rates, which drove the little people away from riskier stock investments, but for a lot of working people, especially retirees, Carter's term was a time of wealth redistribution that didn't hurt one bit.

Carter also introduced human rights concerns to American foreign policy after decades of realpolitik brutality on the part of the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and other centers of U.S. power. He established diplomatic relations with China, negotiated the Salt II nuclear arms treaty with the USSR, overcame rightwing fury to achieve the Panama Canal Treaty — and, of course, brokered the only modern peace deal between Israel and an Arab power, the Camp David Accords. To boot, he was the only presidential candidate in history to quote a Yiddish proverb (in his 1980 concession speech)! I'm not saying he was a great friend of the people, but the Forward's description — “he left Americans so soured on their government that the door was opened to a generation of rule by the far right” — is really misplaced.

Carter’s life-after-the-White House has included turning Habitat for Humanity into a household word and serving as an impartial international elections monitor. He is also a cofounder of The Elders, an impressive group of elderly international citizens dedicated to bringing moral suasion to bear on our planet’s most stubborn problems. (Jewish Currents was the first Jewish publication to editorialize about the Elders, in our September-October, 2007 issue.) Carter won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize as a honest broker of peace who acts consistently with his belief that dialogue is a cornerstone of peace-making. He is not alone in calculating that there can be no meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace established if Hamas is not party to it.

Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress, has reported on his conversations with Hamas leaders (in the New York Review of Books), who state that Hamas "is prepared to abide by a long-term hudna, or cease-fire, which would end all violence. . . . [C]omplete reciprocity must prevail, and Israel must end all attacks on Palestinians. If Israel agrees to the cease-fire, Hamas will take responsibility for preventing and punishing Palestinian violations, whether committed by Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Intifada, or its own people. Hamas understands that it cannot demand recognition as the legitimate government of Palestine if it is not prepared to enforce such a cease-fire, in the context of its responsibility for law and order."

Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, Israel's CIA, wrote the following (quoted by Siegman):

"Hamas constitutes about a fifth of Palestinian society. Because they are an active, engaged and aware group, they have more political weight. So anyone who thinks it's possible to ignore such a central element of Palestinian society is simply mistaken. . . . I think that in the end there will be no way around Hamas being a partner in the Palestinian government. I believe that if that happens there is a chance that it will be domesticated. Its destructive force will be reduced."

And Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote in the very latest NYRB: "Israel and the Palestinian Authority cannot make real progress on a peace agreement if they are determined to keep Hamas out. The Islamists can turn to violence, mount a campaign to deny backing to Abbas and any accord he favors, or prevent a credible referendum from being held in Gaza, which they control, and in the West Bank, where they retain considerable influence. As long as Hamas is shunned, as long as peace talks are intended to further marginalize it, Hamas will perceive an alliance between Abbas and Israel as a mortal threat and react accordingly."

There is nothing more idiotic, in my opinion, than the Bush administration's policy of refusing to talk with governments to which it is opposed. Carter is striving to help move the U.S. — and the Israeli government — beyond the politics of the playground, where Nah nah nah nah nah passes for diplomacy.

Yes, I read Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid when it was published, and I found it one-sided. Carter failed, in that book, to empathize with Israeli victims of terrorism and to describe the terrible impact that terrorism as a tool of struggle has had on the prospects of peace for both peoples. But the cold shoulder that the Jewish community has showed him ever since brings shame on us, not on him.


Mid-Day Philosophy: Science and Boundaries

I'm an old-fashioned leftist in that I'm a fan of science. I hate it when TIKKUN magazine blames half the world's ills on "scientism." I share in my parents' and my grandparents' humanistic sense of science as a Promethean, as opposed to Frankensteinish, enterprise. As I wrote in Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist:

"Our parents' scientist was a world citizen, a messenger of prosperity and household ease, a crusader for truth against superstition, and a conqueror of hunger, disease and fascism." By contrast, to my own generation of progressives, "the scientist appears to be a corporate citizen, an idolater tampering with the very forces of creation for petty purposes, an amoral technician, and, in anthropologist Loren Eiseley's words, an 'extreme reductionist . . . so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle . . .'"

Science has always represented, to me, the glory of humanism. Look at what we can do!

Two recent developments, however, have had me up in arms about the dangers of science unrestrained by anything but corporate managers and the military-industrial complex. The first was a New York Times discussion a week ago about atom-smashing, and whether it is conceivable or not that one of these experiments in subatomic physics might create a black hole in the laboratory that could suck us all to kingdom come. The article dealt with the "impending startup of the Large Hadron Collider” near Geneva, which "starts smashing protons together this summer . . . in hopes of grabbing a piece of the primordial fire, forces and particles that may have existed a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang."

The odds of a catastrophic outcome are a gazillion-to-one (or a bazillion to one or a foofatillion to one, depending on which physicist is estimating) — still, I was arrested by this article into thinking: Who gives them the right? ESPECIALLY since it seems to me that their research is so purely theoretical (string theory, etc.) that it will take decades to have practical application (teleportation, who knows what?) — and then the question arises, who determines the value of those practical applications? The General Electric Company? The Pentagon? There is a glaring lack of vital centers for discussion about the ethics of decision-making in our world, a glaring lack of discussion about not only what we can do but what we should do! Even scientists themselves — whose knowledge base is increasingly exclusive and privileged, and whose powers to manipulate reality seem increasingly magical to the rest of us — are in no position to claim a leadership role on questions about the social or ethical impact of their achievements. But without those kind of "vital centers" in our globalized world, decisions are left in the hands of corporate managers, politicians and others among whom the scoundrel quotient is terribly high!

The second alarm was sounded on the question of nuclear power, which is being debated within the Workmen's Circle as I write. Increasingly I hear from progressive-minded people that because of global warming, nuclear power must be considered a viable, clean-energy source. Rutgers professor Norman Levitt has written (in Prometheus Bedeviled) that nukes are opposed only because of "factors that go far beyond scientific skepticism," including its "mere association with nuclear weapons" and "a widespread feeling that atom splitting in its own right constitutes a primordial crime against the natural order." Yet my own earnest opposition to nuclear power is based far less on technophobia than on the half-life of plutonium and other nuclear fission byproducts, which persist in the environment for tens of thousands of years — an eternity, as far as human society is concerned.

Yes, the very fact that fission produces such powerful poisons gives me pause and makes my sense of taboo tingle — but even if I don't permit myself to make a metaphor out of "unnatural" plutonium, the idea that we, in the 21st century, shold feel entitled to do anything that will burden thousands of future generations with large amounts of poison seems morally unconscionable to me. However assured the arrogant scientist may be of his or her capacity to safeguard these substances technologically, the sheer span of time involved makes all predictions about the maintenance of that technology ridiculously hubristic. What knows what tens of thousands of years might produce in terms of war, political and environmental change, and social stability? At least, therefore, we should do EVERYTHING within our powers to reduce our energy consumption and find alternative ways to slow global warming before we resort to atom-splitting! No nukes as long as there are SUV's on the road!!

Does this make me religious? I certainly do think about the Biblical injunction about blessings and curses when I think about nuclear power — that we, like the Biblical God, should "extend kindness to the thousandth generation" while visiting "the iniquity of parents" only "upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 34: 7). Even as a staunch humanist and a fan of science, in other words, I do feel over the limits of where human beings should permit themselves to trespass when it comes to atom smashing.

By the way, for a really interesting discussion of the difference between building a golem and building a Frankenstein monster, I recommend Byron Sherwin's Golems Among Us. Fabulous and fascinating book, which I reviewed a couple of years back in Jewish Currents. I'll do some blogging about it in the near future.

Rootless No More

Our "Rootless Cosmopolitan" columnist, Rokhl Kafrissen, is now a bona fide employee of The Jewish Currents Universe, and you can click through to her fabulous new blog at our website. Rokhl has left a career in corporate law to do this (mental illness or a quest for authenticity? Only the future will tell). She will be blogging like crazy and also serving as our New York area organizer/events-goer/rrrrrepresentative. Yay for her (YIVO spelling: yey), and yay-yay-yay for us!!



My dear friend Esther Cohen alerted me yesterday that it was National Carry a Poem in Your Pocket Day. Here’s the poem I carried, by another dear friend, David Marell, called “Celebrate Meditation.” It’s from his book, Be Generous. May it put you into the mood for Passover if you’re not, and enhance your mood if you are.


Celebrate early
Celebrate often
There is plenty of sadness
There is plenty of disappointment

The Rolling Stones

Saw them at an IMAX theater tonight. Martin Scorsese is one hell of a concert filmmaker. His last concert film, Lightning in a Bottle, was outstanding, definitely worth a rental if you're a fan of the blues (the house band alone features Dr. John & Keb Mo') — and this Stones film is a terrific follow-up. The energy of the Stones, their masculinity/ femininity, Jagger's sharp professionalism, their astounding songwriting abiity (you realize how refreshing it can be when a singer like Jagger is hard to understand so the songs never get memorized, never become rote), their snaking guitar sounds (Keith Richards says of himself and Ronnie Woods: Neither of us are great guitarists but put together we're better than 10 others combined), the experience of Bill Clinton in the IMAX flesh (the concert is at the Beacon theater to benefit a Clinton charity) — it's all wonderful and fascinating. The Stones are not only the self-described "greatest rock and roll band in the world," they're also tremendously challenging to rightwing American culture — and they're consummate artists. Yahoo!


Early-Morning Philosophy

And here's what I've been saying to secularists, Ethical Cultural groups, and the like, when I speak to them about Waiting for God:

You know, the great triumph of capitalism, and perhaps its most surprising impact, has been how it has obliterated all obligatory community ties and made it possible — and even enjoyable, or at least tolerable — to be alone. For many people, community has been reduced to a purely voluntaristic activity that we can easily do without. Gordon S. Woods has called this "the radicalism of the American revolution," observing that from the very start in this country, the involuntary bonds of community that were once determined by class, gender, ethnic and caste status, religion, birth order, and so on, have been steadily supplanted by the advent of a freewheeling consumer culture in which money does the talking. Today, those powerful identities of class, race, religion and geography are more and more being replaced by a single identity, that of the consumer, who is offered incredible tools of self-sufficiency that privatize our lives and remove all sense of interdependency from our relationships. The problem is this: While we have very much been liberated from the oppressive bonds of involuntary community, we human beings cannot afford to stray too far from the awareness of interconnection or to get stuck too deeply in the illusion of independence and separateness without doing ourselves great harm. I say "illusion" because while both interconnection and separateness are REAL, interconnection is more real — or at least, more important to cultivate in our awareness if we are to preserve this world of ours.

"Interconnection" is not spiritual gobbledygook. Ecological science, genetics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry all testify to the shared origins of all matter and the ongoing symbiosis of all life systems. Human economies are certainly interdependent, and all activities that create sustenance and wealth, from invention to production to distribution, are deeply collective. Our very bodies are collectivities that include once-independent organisms such as mitochondria and still-independent bacteria of all kinds. And our capacity for love and mutual support — which is surely as powerful, on a day-to-day basis, as our capacity for war and domination — is further testament to the existential reality of our interconnectedness.

I define spirituality, in fact, as the emotional surge we feel when our apprehension of the reality of interconnection is enhanced — enhanced by singing together, talking together, loving together, whatever; the arc of interconnection is a broad arc, and the spirituality of interconnection is a wide-ranging experience. Still, it is my hope that such a secular, baseline definition of "spirituality" can help non-theists and atheists like myself perceive spirituality and spiritual practices as part of the tool kit for building a better world.

Many of us tend to dismiss all spiritual practice and all religious ritual as "opiates of the people," and we pride ourselves on not "needing" such opiates. If we belong to "religious" communities at all (such as Ethical Culture, or the local synagogue), we tend to treat our membership as less-than-important, less-than- compelling — as a pleasant diversion rather than as an important, and highly political, commitment. This is a pity, because in our alienation from God-concepts, in our alienation from "old-time religion," we have leadership capacity: We have no religious inertia or conservatism to overcome in ourselves, and so we can help lead religious communities into meaningful ritual, meaningful discussion, and genuine encounters with the “We” instead of the make-believe "You."

We need to shift our perception of spirituality: from a mere boutique version of the "opiate of the people" to a significant tool of social transformation. History has presented us with so many examples of hopeful political change being corrupted by power-hungry, paranoid or otherwise "unenlightened" or "unawakened" leaders that it should seem obvious that the creation of a more equitable, merciful and environmentally responsible social system requires not only the forceful reorganization of property ownership and power relations — the classic Marxist formula — but also the cultivation of compassion and higher consciousness in human beings. The maternal, loving, trusting sides of our nature need to be developed; the lustful, egotistical aspects of our nature need to be tamed and directed into socially constructive channels. Our perception of interconnection needs cultivation; our perception of separateness — which is so easy to access! — needs to be diminished and confined.

You want to overcome, say, police brutality? Well, the other day on NPR I heard a cop who had taken a four-day workshop with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk-poet. She described the heart-opening effect of that workshop, how it had transformed her policing, including her perception of those whom she arrests — and I thought about how some years ago, I would have sniffed and thought, "Reformism! Spiritual gobbledygook!" But instead, I thought, "Ah, yes. We need to train human beings to be more fully human."

And then I say, Nu, what do you think?


Late-Night Philosophy

Here's essentially what I've been saying to rabbis and congregations as I go around peddling my book, Waiting for God.

You seem to have no idea of how important you and your communities are in today's world — as centers where questions can be asked about what we, as human beings — with awesome, unprecedented power — should be doing. Not only what
we CAN do, but what we SHOULD do. And what is the should based on? What does the should reach for? Why don't we always follow the should? What conflicts exist between the collective should and the individual should? Who's leadership can we trust? How do we judge authority? And how do we think for ourselves? All of these can be defined as religious questions — or, at least, religious institutions are the spaces where conversations about these questions can flow most naturally (there's too much pass-fail static in the classroom, and too much commerce in the media).

And instead you use your precious community time repeating rituals that bring comfort (for those who are comfortable with them) but little insight, certainly little new insight, about the should.

Why do you do that? Why do you go for the predictable instead of the creative and unpredictable? Especially when, in most liberal Jewish communities, there is really no God to serve, there is little belief in a commanding God whose commands are embodied in the Torah. Why do you spend time praising God, therefore, instead of encountering one another? Why do you address the You that is, in truth, a proxy for the We?

It is a strange thing: The tradition that we honor, Judaism, wisely saw human beings in a balanced way, as containing the possibility of goodness and also the possibility of negativity; the possibility of interconnection and the possibility of selfishness; the possibility of I-Thou and the possibility of I-It. The rabbis didn't just say,
Human beings are evil, tainted with sin, and they didn't just say, Human beings are good, made in the image of Goodness; they recognized that we are bundles of contrary instincts — but that even the selfishness can be channeled to be socially constructive with the right set of life rules! “We know that you're going to be selfish, we know that you're going to be driven by fear and greed — so we're going to make you say 100 blessings a day so that you can also remember, constantly, the interconnected reality of your life, the interconnection that brings you your good fortune, your survival.” But most modern Jews, including Jews in most modern congregations, have declared themselves, at least in their hearts, to be free of the "must" behind those 100 blessings, as free of most of the Jewish rules that were devised to channel us towards the social good. Yet we spend our time, when we're together, repeating the old rituals, the old prayers, as though we still were making use of that system in our lives! In fact, we should be spending our time discussing our own modern perceptions of human good and human evil, and defining our own rules to channel us towards the social good. Yes, those rules should be ripe with Jewish content — it's good content, some of that old stuff! — but first and foremost, we have to make the space to have the discussion. That means, DON'T take the Torah out of the ark every single Saturday! Reading from the Torah is not all that edifying! Why not take a globe out of the ark one week — pass the world around, let people hold and kiss that? Take a baby and pass her around, let people hold and kiss her. THAT'S Torah! And then talk about it!

We need to talk about our moral foundations, our knowledge about human genetics and human social nurture, about how who we are gives rise to our institutions and how our institutions shape who we are. About the possibility of transformation — and the impossibility of transformation. About how to stop war — really! About how to love the stranger — really! About mindfulness, about our mothers and our daughters, about genetic engineering and atom-splitting, about the reaches and limits of humanism . . .

We need to make our religions oh-so-worldly, in a world that is oh-so-troubled.

And then I say,
Nu, what do you think?


Forgive Me for Boasting . . .

A yummy review for my book, WAITING FOR GOD, in Library Journal.

See also http://www.jewishliteraryreview.com/post/2008/03/Review-Lawrence-Bush-Waiting-for-God.aspx

Leroy Hommerding - Library Journal

As editor of Jewish Currents magazine, Bush has a reputation for independent and unpretentious thought and dialog. Here, he continues that tradition, exploring factors that converted Woodstock-era nonbelievers into passionate spiritual seekers and aiming to surmise the psychological and cultural impact of the nuclear bomb, psychedelic drugs, environmental issues, and the synthesis of science and mysticism. In the book's second half, Bush probes the writings of Matthew Fox (liberal Christianity), Mordecai Kaplan (Jewish reconstructionism), and Starhawk (feminist aspects of Wicca), bringing a rational skepticism to each liberal thinker's perspective. Bush asks the right questions — of himself and of the reader — which leads to a deeper understanding of an individual's relationship with God. In the end, he senses an interconnection between life and God, one that continues to pose challenges for skeptics and humanists. Libraries carrying any of Bush's earlier titles (Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution) will definitely want to add this to their collections. Those having titles by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Christopher Hitchens will find it continues and extends these books' arguments. For both general readers of theology and more seasoned readers looking for a convenient grappling of the issues.


April 6-7, 1903: Kishinev

This is my song of sorrow for the victims of the Kishinev pogrom . . . and of the Wounded Knee massacre . . . and the killing wastelands of Darfur . . . Click on the image to enlarge it.