Archive for May, 2013

Why can’t I own a Canadian?

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 14 2012.)

Reading: “Open Letter to Dr. Laura”

Laura Schlessinger is an American talk radio host who goes by the name “Dr. Laura”.  She’s most well known for responding to callers’ requests for advice, doing so from a socially conservative perspective.  Indeed, the stated purpose of her radio program is to “preach, teach and nag about morals, values, ethics and personal responsibility.”  As such, Schlessinger responded to a caller, around the time the state of Vermont legalized “civil unions” in 2000, by re-stating her often-aired opinion that homosexuality is “a biological error”, backing herself up with a reference to the Bible.  It’s not clear who wrote the tongue-in-cheek “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” that appeared around that time, but it quickly became one of the most frequently shared e-mails and was even adapted for one episode of the television show “The West Wing”.

You can read the full text on  The letter begins:

“Dear Dr. Laura,

“Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law.  I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.  When someone tries to defend homosexuality, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination.  End of debate.  I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them.”

A later part of the letter reads as follows:

“Leviticus 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations.  A friend of mine says that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians.  Can you clarify?  Why can’t I own a Canadian?”

Sermon: “Why Can’t I Own a Canadian?”

I’d like to start my sermon today with a question.  How many commandments are there?

If you answered “ten”, you’re probably thinking of the Ten Commandments, as given to Moses on Mount Sinai, according to the Book of Exodus.  Though, according to the great Jewish scholar Mel Brooks, there were fifteen up until one of the tablets slipped out of Moses’ arms.

If you answered “two”, you’re probably thinking of the New Testament, and Jesus’ response to a question as to the most important part of Jewish law.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said: “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  And the second commandment is, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”

And if you answered six-hundred-and-thirteen, you’re probably a rabbi.  That’s because twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (aka Maimonides) scoured the Torah and came up with a list of 613 commandments or mitzvot.  Each mitzvah might be positive — saying something someone must do — or negative — saying something they must not do, while some apply only to men or only to women or only apply at certain times or in certain places.  Many of the 613 mitzvot cannot be observed, in fact, given the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.

Now according to Maimonides’ list, over two-hundred-and-fifty of these mitzvot come from the Leviticus.  That’s more than any other book of the Torah, though Deuteronomy comes close, so obviously Leviticus is a particularly important book for understanding the Jewish law.  During the first two centuries of the Common Era, in fact, Leviticus was known in Hebrew as Torat Kohanim, which means the Law-book of the Priests.  The priests were descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother, and were of the tribe of Levi, hence the name by which we know the book, Leviticus being Greek for “relating to the Levites”.

While Leviticus is the third of the five books of the Torah, it is not a narrative like Genesis and Exodus.  It is set, though, during the forty years when the tribes of Israel wandered between Egypt and Canaan, when the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a portable tent known as the Tabernacle, though the same instructions continued to apply once the Ark was installed in the Jerusalem Temple by Solomon.

Those instructions fill the twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus and divide into sections, addressing such matters as: how the people are to bring offerings of different types and how the priests are to handle them; how priests are consecrated, starting with Aaron; how the dietary laws of kashrut are to be followed; how the people are to restore ritual cleanliness following conditions such as disease; how Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is to be observed; how certain transgressions are to be punished; and how the Israelites are to maintain themselves as a holy people.  The underlying theme that runs throughout the book is that the world was created “very good” and, though it has fallen through sin, it still has the potential for being returned to its original state through the faithful enactment of ritual.

With so many very specific instructions prescribing or prohibiting so many different behaviors — ranging widely from food and sex to disease and economics — it’s perhaps not surprising that Leviticus is the most blatantly cherry-picked book of the Hebrew Bible.  The “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” provides a good demonstration of this.

Leviticus tattoo

“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” Lev. 19:28

In fact, Leviticus 18:22 is probably the most cherry-picked verse of the Bible.  Weirdly enough it’s also a not uncommon tattoo, even though Leviticus 19:28 expressly forbids tattoos.  (It’s number 72 on Maimonides’ list.)

There’s also the fact that Leviticus 18:22 (number 157, according to Maimonides) appears to ban only homosexual activity between men.  Like a lot of the Torah, it’s addressed to men, commanding them “not to lie with a male as with a woman”.  Lesbianism, by contrast, is only indirectly forbidden through Leviticus 18:3, which prohibits following the customs of Egypt and Canaan, but that one didn’t make it onto Maimonides’ list, for some reason.

Now many Orthodox Jews, I am given to understand, strive to follow the 613 mitzvot, at least those that can still be followed in twenty-first century America rather than Iron Age Israel.  I witnessed this a little over a decade ago when I took a course on the “Fundamentals of Jewish Thought and Practice” at a local Chabad House, a center for study, worship and outreach run by Hasidic Jews, and the rabbi did indeed talk about the 613 mitzvot and the ways in which they are observed in some detail.  Indeed, a mitzvah to learn the Torah is number 22 on Maimonides’ list; another to honor those who know the Torah and teach it is number 23.

Then there are mitzvot 580 and 581 which prohibit adding anything to or removing anything from the Torah, so great care must be taken in writing a Torah scroll, something that every male must do according to number 82.  (If a mistake is made in writing the Hebrew name for G-d, for instance, the entire parchment cannot be used in a scroll but must be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  Number 7, after all, is the prohibition against profaning the holy name.)

Christians, however, do not benefit from such clarity as a list of concrete requirements and prohibitions.  On the one hand, there’s Jesus’ explicit statement of the two Great Commandments, but there are endless possibilities for debate over how to actually put them into practice.  On the other, and when it comes to the 613 mitzvot, Christian theology speaks of Jesus having fulfilled or satisfied the law — all of the laws — in large part because, as Paul and James explain in their letters, it’s impossible for humans to get them all perfectly right.  There’s a reason why Christians call the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament, and that’s precisely because the New Testament supercedes it.

Tony Warren of the Center for Biblical Theology, for instance, explains how, for Christians, Jesus fulfilled all of the laws.  For example, laws prohibiting labor on certain holy days — such as Yom Kippur (number 92) and the first and seventh days of Passover (numbers 97 and 99 respectively) — became spiritualized, in that Jesus himself became the true Sabbath in whom Christians can find their rest.  Warren similarly explains that Christians are freed from the dietary laws against eating non-kosher meat (as in numbers 180, 181 and 184) because, through God, Jesus made clean what had been unclean.  Warren makes his broader point, though, when he says that “the law isn’t a salad bar where we take what we want, and leave the rest.”

And that’s a point that another blogger, Evangelical Christian Scott Fillmer, tries to address, particularly when it comes to Leviticus, which he describes “one of those books that Christians tend to want to ignore, while those in the opposite camp tear it apart Hebrew letter by Hebrew letter.”  Fillmer provides five reasons why Christians should read Leviticus, the first of which is that it’s an easy target for anyone critical of Bible literalism.

“This is generally because they don’t understand the book in context any more than we do,” Fillmer explains, “but they can read the obvious to make stupid arguments like Christians still eat pork and wear polyester, therefore homosexuality is not a sin.”  That, of course, is precisely the point of the “Open Letter to Dr. Laura”, though Fillmer doesn’t mention it.  He goes on to try to explain why it’s okay to invoke Leviticus in some situations but not others, in other words why he’s not mis-using it as a sort of scriptural salad bar, by asking, rhetorically, “Why is it acceptable for Christians to get a tattoo, or eat pork, but not put adulterers to death?  Understanding this book in proper context shows exactly why some laws are historically customary for their culture and time, and why some are moral obligations that transcend time.”

The problem is, how do we distinguish between historical customs given a particular culture and “moral obligations that transcend time”?

We can so easily look back a few thousand years to a culture that was striving to set itself apart from its neighbors and recognize that a prohibition against planting two kinds of seed in the same field (number 234) makes some sort of sense in that context, but who knows whether any of the social practices that we in 2012 assume are universal moral standards will, in hundreds of years, be judged as barbarous?

Fillmer also notes, of course, that the Torah in general and Leviticus in particular, especially that part of it known as the Holiness Code, sets the stage for much of Christianity.  After all, the second of the Great Commandments — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” — comes from Leviticus 19:18, which is mitzvah number 13 on Maimonides’ list.  The problem is, when we get into such territory as bacon-wrapped shrimp and tattoos of other Torah verses, it’s all too easy to poke fun at the likes of Dr. Laura who do their own cherry-picking, particularly when they do it not out of humor, but to de-humanize a whole group of people.  One might also argue that calling someone’s sexual orientation “a biological error” violates the prohibition on slander, which is mitzvah number 19.

Another problem is that, beyond the usual complaints about pork and polyester, other Biblical laws have much, much bigger social implications were they actually to be followed.  I became interested in this whole topic, in fact, thanks to an article entitled “The Economics of Leviticus” by Doug Muder.  Muder is both a Unitarian Universalist and a prolific writer.  You may have read some of his articles in UU World and he also has a blog, The Weekly Sift, which provides his take on each week’s events, both those that make it into the major news publications and programs and those that don’t.  In addition to his religious liberalism, Muder is unashamedly politically liberal; he makes no claim to be unbiased, but he says he does try to be honest about his biases.

In any case, Muder wanted to take a look at the economic parts of Leviticus that don’t get as much air-time.  Leviticus “clearly denounces business practices that wring out every last dime of profit”, Muder argues, given the examples of the mitzvot against reaping a harvest to the very edges of the field (number 240) and to leave what has not been harvested for the poor to gather for themselves (number 239).  Or, more directly, there’s Leviticus 19:13, which commands that “you shall not keep the wages of a laborer until morning” (number 518), but how many of us get paid every two weeks or even once a month, in clear violation of Biblical law?

Then there’s Leviticus 19:33–34, which states: “When foreigners reside among you in your land, you shall not oppress them.  The foreigner residing among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”  One commentary calls this “the summit of Biblical ethics” and, as Muder points out, it doesn’t say anything about green cards.  This is a slightly expanded version of Exodus 20:21, which provides numbers 502 and 503 on Maimonides’ list.  More importantly it’s a key sentence in the Haggadah, which is the order of service for a Passover Seder.

Muder goes on to note, however, that the most radical part of Leviticus is chapter twenty-five and the institution of the Year of Jubilee: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.”  In the Year of Jubilee, slaves are to be freed (number 290) and debts are to be forgiven (number 285).  Property is also returned to its original owner (number 294) because land may not be sold in perpetuity (number 295): Leviticus 25:23 makes it quite clear that the land belongs to God, and as far as God is concerned, humans only live on the land as foreigners and tenants.  How’s that as a Biblical mandate for environmental stewardship?  It’s even spelled out as to how, should land be temporarily sold, the price should be proportional to the number of years until the Jubilee, since what is being sold isn’t really the land itself, but the number of harvests that land will produce.

In other words, as Muder puts it, “[t]he Bible does not support private ownership of the means of production”, one of the foundational ideas of our capitalist society.  So an absolute rejection of capitalism is right there in Leviticus, the same book used to argue, in similarly absolute terms, that homosexuality is sinful.  Muder concludes his article by noting that “[t]aking Leviticus 25 seriously would force a sweeping re-visioning of [our] economic system.  That would be a lot of work, and cause a certain amount of distress for the people who own property under our more free-trading definition.  Why go to all that trouble?  Unless you think this is the Word of God or something.”

What are Unitarian Universalists to make of all this?  Obviously I think we should make something of it, or I wouldn’t be standing here preaching about it.

Consider that there are self-identified Jewish UUs, such as those who have formed Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness, but they’re hardly the same as Orthodox Jews.  There are also self-identified Christian UUs, such as those who gather as the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, but they’re certainly not the same as Evangelical Christians.  Then there’s the fact that both Universalism and Unitarianism evolved, in parallel but separately, within and then out of Christianity, each of them becoming post-Christian until they were able to join to form Unitarian Universalism as a theologically diverse, spiritually inclusive and religiously progressive faith.  So we’re not likely to quote scripture to one another as if that’s all that needed to be said to end debate, and yet our hymn books are full of readings and hymns that are based on or even directly quote passages from the Bible.

So what is scripture to Unitarian Universalists?

During my first year in seminary I took a course as part of the Peace and Justice Program on the topic of “Talking about Homosexuality in Congregations”.  Many of the students were from various Christian denominations, so part of the course involved what scripture says about homosexuality, or at least what some people claim it says about it.  There were a number of Unitarian Universalists taking the course, so we needed to figure out, first of all, what our scripture was.  I came to the conclusion that scripture is some text — poetry or prose, written or oral — that speaks to our own truths in profoundly meaningful ways.  Scripture is like a mirror, in that we see the sacred in it only to the extent that the sacred is already in us.  A number of my fellow students, whether Christian or not, liked that way of thinking about it, which isn’t too surprising at a theological school that’s long been notorious for its liberalism, but I’ve continued to find it helpful when I try to understand the human impulse toward religion, too.

In this case it says to me that cherry-picking the Bible is a way of both hiding our own biases and avoiding our own authority.  It need not take much courage to point to a verse in Leviticus and say, “Look, God says that whatever you’re doing is wrong, and you can’t argue with God, so end of discussion.”  It takes more courage to own up to our own prejudices and to speak honestly on the basis of our own convictions.  Now if something speaks to us more poetically or uses words more effectively than we are able to do ourselves, then there’s nothing wrong with quoting it as an illustration of what we’re trying to say, but that’s in support of our own capacity for reason and judgment, not the other way around.  That’s why we can have a hymn book with a whole section of readings from the Bible, and at the same time trust that it’s not necessary to have a warning label on each copy about not using the hymnal to hit someone else over the head.

The message of the “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” comes across most strongly, then, when its unknown author asks the question: Why can’t I own a Canadian?  It’s a deliberately absurd question and it would be just as absurd to look to the Bible and only the Bible to answer it — and that, of course, is the point.  We could start a discussion of the Biblical position against slavery by considering Leviticus 25:42 (number 505 on Maimonides’ list) and then generalizing it via the second Great Commandment, but the Bible has just as easily been used to support slavery as to oppose it.  Rather, we are called to answer such questions on the basis of our own convictions, using our own reason and judgment: I believe that slavery is wrong, for instance, because my Unitarian belief is that we are all one human family and because my Universalist belief is that we are all children of the divine.  This, for me, is the foundation of Unitarian Universalist ethics, calling us to gather the courage of our convictions and to share love, hope, peace and joy with one another in equal measure.

So may it be.

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Why Checking In Matters


I see friends shaking hands, saying “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you.”
— “What a Wonderful World”

Before Allison and I moved to Virginia, we spent four years in Colorado where I studied at the Iliff School of Theology and worked in the University of Colorado School of Medicine.  Actually, we spent year three in New Mexico where I was a student minister at First Unitarian in Albuquerque.  That internship immersed me in congregational life in ways that I had never experienced as a layperson — and I was one of those Unitarian Universalists who was used to spending more evenings in programs and meetings at my congregation than I did at home! — as a result of which I developed new perspectives on many of the things we do as Unitarian Universalists.

For example, it felt strange to me, getting back to work and school…

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