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July 26th, 2009
The Rabbi and the monkey: A tale of non-sectarianism

Freethought San Marcos: A column

It took a rabbi, a teacher, to teach San Marcos’s Evangelical Christians how to offer a non-sectarian invocation. While I remain convinced that the government should not promote religion in word or deed, I applaud the invocation given on July 21 by Rabbi Kerry Baker of Austin. Had he not been introduced as a rabbi, no one would have known anything about his religious views. His invocation is worth reading for all who missed it, and for those who would like to reflect on its meaning:

There is a parable in Robert Pirsig’s renowned book, “Zen and the Art of  Motorcycle Maintenance.”  In this book, the author explains a device called the South Indian Monkey Trap that was developed by native villagers to catch the small animals who would often wreck havoc on their camps.

The South Indian Monkey Trap involved a hollowed out coconut shell chained to a stick. Inside the coconut was placed a bit of rice visible to the monkey through a hole just large enough for the monkey’s hand, but too small for his fist to come out after he grabbed the rice.

Tantalized by the food, the monkey would reach into the coconut and become trapped. He was not able to see that it was his own fist that trapped him–his own desire for the rice.

If he were to let go of the rice, he could easily withdraw his hand, thereby retaining his freedom. But he valued the rice too much, preferring to remain stuck where he was easily captured by the villagers.

May we have insight in the council’s upcoming deliberations to know when human obstinacy, desire, passion, and need keep us chained rather than freeing us to pursue our best selves and our best interests.

And may we all have the strength to let go of the rice that is holding us back from listening to our better angels and supporting the community’s shared goals and values.

Take a moment to pray that the council’s working together may be meaningful and productive, and that the community’s agenda will meet with success for all of the constituents of the council.

Let us all say  “Amen.”

Rabbi Baker’s petition for help and support–his invocation–was based on a story with a moral, a parable. As with all parables, people will differ about its meaning.

It seems that we all have coconuts in which our clenched hand is stuck because we won’t open it and pull our hand out. We won’t let go of the rice we are clenching. It may be because we are too greedy to let go of the rice. It may be that we are trapped by our desires. It may be we are trapped by mental barriers that constrain our thoughts and actions. Some of us are trapped by our political beliefs, some by our religious beliefs, some by our acquisitiveness, some by our visions of progress.

Pirsig uses the South Indian Monkey Trap story to illustrate a concept he calls “value rigidity.”  Value rigidity is what happens when you believe in the value of something so strongly that you can no longer objectively question it. This is what happened to the monkey in the parable. As Pirsig explains, “The monkey’s value rigidity traps it when it reaches in. The rice cannot be revalued. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it.”

What value rigidity is at work on the city council?  One obvious example is the belief that giving economic incentives to businesses that want to locate in San Marcos is a good idea if the project is expensive enough. We have a lot of people in and around the city council who believe rigidly in this idea. But we are beginning to see some let go of the economic incentives rice, pull their hand out of the coconut, and search for better ways to spend public money. Citizens are beginning to call openly for using economic incentives to secure-living wage jobs, not minimum-wage jobs, in San Marcos.

Rabbi Baker has shown us that the city council does not have to hold on rigidly to the notion that Christian invocations are necessary for the city council to function properly. Indeed, the rigid idea that unless the invocation is a prayer to Jesus Christ and the Christian God, it will do no good, is being questioned. How many city council members are willing to give up their rigid beliefs that if they vote against promoting religion they will be unable to hold political office?  This belief is based on the rigid idea that the voters will not listen to principled positions, unless they agree with them.

I once told someone who spent months in jail for demonstrating against abortion that while I held different views, I respected his willingness to make a significant personal sacrifice for a sincerely held belief. Reasonable people will listen to reason even when they disagree. There are enough reasonable people in San Marcos to have wide-ranging, engaging, informed, and productive discussions about both economic development incentives and the propriety of having the government promote religion.

For some of our city council members, the rice in the coconut is their fear — their fear of the mayor, their fear of the Chamber of Commerce, their fear of rigid voters, their fear that they can’t adequately explain their positions.

It is time for city council members to recognize the rice in the coconut for whatever it may be and confront their value rigidity. Only by confronting it can it be overcome.

Rabbi Baker tried to teach us something with his invocation. We may each have learned something different, but all of us should have learned something worthwhile. That is the job of a teacher, a rabbi. I’m only sorry that some of our Christian ministers aren’t a bit more rabbinical in their approach to public life.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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2 thoughts on “The Rabbi and the monkey: A tale of non-sectarianism

  1. Lamar,
    Another terrific writing from you. THANK YOU!
    If you have a twin, may he please live in Kyle.

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