Sagan, baby, SAGAN!

SAGAN1I’ve been on a Carl Sagan binge this weekend. I want to say a bit about his quote in this photo, and one of his books. 🙂

The book I’m reading is based on a series of lectures on natural theology that Sagan was invited to give at the University of Glasgow in 1985. It’s called The Varieties of Scientific Experience, deliberately evoking the famous 1902 work by the psychologist, William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. The lectures were edited by the TV producer of Sagan’s most famous show, Cosmos – the producer who also co-wrote the show and married Sagan in 1981, Ann Druyan.

For those too young to remember Sagan’s distinctive way of speaking, voila:

So, what I’m loving so far about the beginning of this book is Ann Druyan’s Introduction. Here are a couple quotes from her:

“[Sagan] took the idea of God so seriously that it had to pass the most rigorous standards of scrutiny. . . . For Carl, Darwin’s insight that life evolved over the eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it also afforded a deeper, more satisfying spiritual experience.” (p. x)

“The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good skeptic.” (p. xi) Continue reading “Sagan, baby, SAGAN!”

The Blessings of Diversity within the Jewish Community

This is a d’var (sermon) I gave 11 years ago at my first High Holy Days at the congregation I served for 8 years.

Yom Kippur Sermon 2003 / 5764 – Rabbi Maurice Harris

I would like to begin by saying thank you so very much to everyone in this community for welcoming Melissa and me so warmly. Our first weeks here have been wonderful, and we have quickly realized how fortunate we are to be a part of Temple Beth Israel and part of the Eugene community. We especially feel blessed to have made our way to a place that offers such joyful prayer and music, as well as such rich Torah study and conversation. One of the things that drew us to this congregation was our sense that it was a Jewishly diverse place — a place where we would find many varieties of Jewish life and practice interwoven into a single congregation. We have found that here and we love it.

A rabbi I admire very much, Margaret Holub, teaches that building community is great spiritual work. Committing to be part of a community, approaching differences with appreciation and conflicts with love is at times not easy, but the rewards are great. I feel blessed to be part of a congregation that takes this holy work so seriously and that can teach me so much.

Temple Beth Israel is one of the most Jewishly diverse congregations I’ve ever been a part of, and this ties directly into what I’d like to talk about tonight. The people who make up this congregation come from many different backgrounds, embrace a wide range of religious approaches and practices of Judaism, and include Jews — and many non-Jews — who contribute a wide range of talents and ideas to this community. It is this kind of diversity — the astonishing diversity that is internal to the Jewish community — that I think can be one of our people’s greatest strengths when it is embraced with care and faith by all of us. However, despite its potential blessings, our diversity also causes many Jewish leaders to worry about our future. Let me say a little more about what I mean.who is wise

It has become a cliché to say that the diversity of the United States is what gives it its strength. But you don’t often hear Jews celebrating the growing diversity of the Jewish people. True, sometimes we marvel at the many different countries, languages, and cultures that Jews have lived in, but by and large you don’t hear American and Israeli Jewish leaders saying that what Judaism really needs right now is more divergent opinions, more diverse families, and a greater variety of religious practices. Rather, there is a great fear of how diverse we have become, and on an institutional level Jewish leadership has often responded by establishing organizations or programs that are intended to function like fences – holding back the threat of an imagined great migration of Judaism into a thousand different directions, never to be whole again. The prospect of Jewish religious schisms or of mass assimilation haunt many of our leaders. Continue reading “The Blessings of Diversity within the Jewish Community”

Gut Feelings as Probabilities

From Sabermetrics to Nate Silver, the past decade has become the decade of probabilities as headlines. Serious baseball fans don’t just study the box scores in the paper anymore – they turn to Fangraphs and other websites to see how their analysts have projected probabilities of everything from a team making the post-season to winning the World Series. Each baseball site has its own proprietary analytical formula, which gets tweaked after each season to try to adjust for whatever the difference turned out to be between their projections and the final actual results.

And of course, Nate Silver, who got his start doing probabilities and projections on sports stats, applied the concepts to political polls and created a model that provided probabilities projections for the ’08 and ’12 national elections. Silver’s model’s projections the night before both elections was stunningly close to the actual results.

I follow national politics more closely than does me good (I get super anxious and neurotic about things in a way that isn’t really helping anyone or anything). I am someone who tends to form strong gut feelings about political trends, but I don’t think I have an accurate sense of how often my gut turns out to be right. Regardless of whether I have a very intuitive gut or whether I’m just proven right some of the time and tend to remember those times but not the others, I am, in the end, stuck with my gut feelings.

But something I’ve never done before is express my gut feelings in terms of probabilities. Previously, I’ve just said, “I think so-and-so’s going to win,” and then say why. But I’ve never said, “I think right now so-and-so has a 75% likelihood of winning,” so I thought I’d take a shot at doing that now. I’ll quantify my gut feeling probabilities as UGPs – unscientific gut-feeling probability.

Here goes nothing! Continue reading “Gut Feelings as Probabilities”

Cardinals at the 3/4 mark of the season

My previous post on the Cardinals delved into my discomfort with the strong, visible culture of conservative evangelical Christianity (and some of the attendant politics) on the Redbirds’ team. Tonight I just want to riff a bit on the Cards, who continue to have the #1 ESPN Power Ranking for the 13th consecutive week, and who continue to have the best record in the MLB by quite a wide margin. As of their victory tonight over the Diamondbacks, they’re 81-45, with a .643 winning percentage. To put that in perspective, if they finished the season with that winning percentage, their record would be 104 – 58.

So, the thing is, they’re a team without a superstar, and in many ways they look like a team that may just be over-performing, which certainly happens some years to every team. All season long, their hitting has been anywhere from anemic to average, and their pitching – both starting and relief – has been incredibly stingy with runs allowed. They’ve allowed 374 runs over 126 games, tops in MLB. The next best team, the Pirates, have allowed 453, and there are several contending teams bunched up in the 450s after the Buccos. That’s an unusually big gap between #1 and #2 on a team stat like that. Looking at Team ERA we see the same separation:

cards 1 Continue reading “Cardinals at the 3/4 mark of the season”

D’var Torah: Ki Teitzei פרשת כי־תצא

This is a sermon I offered about 5 years ago on the upcoming Torah portion. As I re-read it, there are a few places where it sounds a bit too precious for my current taste, but I can live with that… Here it is:

*     *     *

We continue this week making our way through the final book of the Torah, Dvarim in Hebrew, or Deuteronomy. Our parashah [weekly Torah reading] is called Ki Teitzei, and in it Moses continues to review and present the laws, statutes, and regulations that b’nai yisrael, the Children of Israel, are to observe when they enter the Promised Land without him.

Ki Teitzei may be most famous for being the Torah portion that tradition says contains more commandments, or mitzvot, than any other. There are over 70 laws covering a wide range of topics and scenarios:  property laws, burial of the dead, laws governing warfare, the humane treatment of animals, and what parents are to do if their son becomes a drunken and obnoxious no-goodnik. The parashah also addresses fair labor practices, the rights of the first born, our obligations towards the property of other people, safety requirements for roofs and balconies, slavery, sex, money, divorce, and kidnapping – and this was all before pay-per-view. Our parashah emphasizes respect and provision for the poor, the orphan and the widow, and insists that merchants in the marketplace use honest weights and measures. With such a wide range of rules and regulations, Ki Teitzei is almost a mini-Torah of its own, a little blueprint for how to establish a righteous and compassionate society.

I’d like to focus tonight on just one of those mitzvot – the one we find in chapter 22, verses 6 and 7. It goes like this: If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.

Continue reading “D’var Torah: Ki Teitzei פרשת כי־תצא”

Hymns to an Unknown God

About a decade ago I found Sam Keen’s book, Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life at a thrift store, and read it with great appreciation. It probably gets pigeon-holed under “New Age” and therefore, for some people, not taken too seriously. But whatever categories it does or doesn’t belong in, I love the book and have found it really, really helpful. More to come on this soon.

keen sam

Okay, I’m finally getting to writing about Keen’s book a bit.

I’m just going to share some of my favorite quotes from the book.

“I don’t pray to some super-power to make things better. But I open myself to the power that infuses and informs all life and pray to be relieved of the bondage to myself.” (p. xviii)

“[Paul] Tillich was lecturing to us about the importance of understanding that all religious statements were symbolic. They are linguistic lace, allowing only a hint of the fabric of the mystery of being. No religion possesses any literal truth, he said, and warned us against the idolatry of religion. He advised us to look for the presence of the sacred in the everyday secular world.” (p. 2) Continue reading “Hymns to an Unknown God”

My Trouble with My Cardinals

I grew up in St. Louis and started going to Cardinals games around age 5. Usually I’d go with my father, sometimes with my grandfather. It was the 70s, the Cards had tons of hitting, but no pitching, and they finished 3rd or 4th every year. When I was 13, that mediocrity suddenly transformed into an exciting, speed and defense driven, small-ball-oriented team that won the World Series in 1982. While I was in high school, this team, managed by Whitey Herzog, was even further built for speed, and they won the NL pennant two more times, in ’85 and ’87, though they lost the WS each of those years.

My baseball heroes were Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Tommy Herr, Jack Clark, Bob Forsch, John Tudor, and Willie McGee, to name a few. OzzieBy the time I started college, the Cards were as deeply embedded in my sense of identity as anything else that had been a consistent force throughout my childhood. Whether I liked it or not, I was a die-hard fan, and I followed the team daily. I still do.

When the Cards won the NL pennant in 2004 (only to be swept in the WS by the miracle Red Sox of that year), my interest in the team was re-ignited. And since then it’s been a fun ride for Redbirds fans, no doubt. Between 2004 and 2014, St. Louis has won 4 NL pennants, 2 World Series, and has made the post-season almost every year. The Cards currently have the best record in all of baseball, by quite a margin, and they’re locks to be in the post-season once again.

Pretty much the one thing that could sour my child-like devotion to the Redbirds would be if, say, the star player of the team and the manager went to a huge Glenn Beck rally and gave speeches and received awards from him. Which is exactly what happened in August 2010.

Continue reading “My Trouble with My Cardinals”

What if those warning labels on cigarette cartons…

…which are much more clear and direct in other countries, by the way, also appeared on the teenage boys who go out on dates with our daughter?smoking kills

I’m imagining the guy showing up at our door, and around the mid-section of his shirt, there would be a rectangular box with a white background and bold black letters saying: Jerrod drives recklessly, or Anton Disrespects Women.

Just a thought.

D’var Torah: Shoftim (with guest appearance by the Alan Parsons Project!)

Note: As I begin and continue to build this blog, part of what I aim to do is create a bit of a personal archive. So I’ve been posting sermons I gave in years past, and I thought I’d look ahead to next Shabbat and post one I gave a few years back for parashat Shoftim (the Torah weekly reading known as “Shoftim” in Hebrew).

This week’s Torah portion is the 48th of the 54 parashiyot that make up the Torah. The end of the great story is in sight! Moses continues his farewell speeches to the Israelites as they prepare themselves for entry into the Promised Land.

shoftim verse

Judges and officers you shall make for yourself in all your gates, which the HOLY ONE your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with judgments of righteousness.

These are the opening words of the portion, and the Hebrew word shoftim – meaning ‘judges’ or ‘magistrates’ – makes up its main theme. Moses instructs the people, giving them guidelines for courts of law. Social ethics are laid out for people with political, religious, and economic power in society – monarchs, prophets, priests, and judges themselves. Impartiality and objectivity are mandated for judges, and bribes are strictly forbidden.

Continue reading “D’var Torah: Shoftim (with guest appearance by the Alan Parsons Project!)”

Revised Posting: The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento

cia trentoI have no way of knowing how accurate Joseph J. Trento’s 2001 book, The Secret History of the CIA, is, given the nature of the subject. However, I’ve been fascinated (and yes, horrified at times) by some of the historical figures dating back to WW2 that the author describes.

For example: Laventia Beria, head of the NKVD under Stalin, who apparently recruited and then dispatched the Soviet spy known as “Sasha” to infiltrate the Nazi military command during the war. Sasha succeeded in convincing a high-ranking Nazi general, Reinhard Gehlen, that he was a Russian anti-Communist who supported the German cause. Gehlen went on to position himself, near the war’s end, as a candidate for recruitment by the American intelligence community, and when the U.S. did recruit him and a bunch of other Nazi war criminals to join in the American spying effort against the Soviets, Gehlen brought Sasha with him. Sasha’s Soviet bosses then gave Sasha new orders to spy on the American spies, which he proceeded to do.

Trento also describes how people like Allen Dulles and Jim Angleton worked to build a Cold War American espionage network, and how the British double agent, Kim Philby, entered into Angleton’s life.

Continue reading “Revised Posting: The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento”