09/07/2007 07:44 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Saints, Superstars, and Mother Teresa

Blame it on my Jewish upbringing, or my Buddhist studies, or my
innate skepticism -- I never revered Mother Teresa.

I often thought, "What's her schtick?" Psychologically, what is
driving her to spend her life among the impoverished, the sick, the
infirm, the dying; doling them out pitiful bowls of rice, praying over
them, and zealously converting them to her religion. (Sometimes, she even
performed secret baptisms on the dying.)

Let's be tough: over the half century that Teresa worked in Calcutta,
how many in that stricken population had their living conditions improved,
their health restored, or their lives saved? Teresa and her sisters may
have eased their lot and certainly prolonged it; they did not improve it.f

As the world is honoring the tenth anniversary of Teresa's passing,
and there is talk of canonization, her critics remember the downside: the
unsanitary and hazardous conditions in her numerous hospices; the
preference allegedly given to needy Christians; and her vehement
opposition to abortion, birth control and divorce. She simply said she
was doing God's work, and that suffering brought people closer to Jesus.

The publication of Teresa's letters is showing now how feeble her
faith actually was. And that just adds to the mystery of her actions.
Was she merely masochistic and delusional? Was she hoping to find her
elusive God, and salvation, through self-sacrifice? Was she blindly
following the moral dictums of her church? Or was she, like thousands of
missionaries before her, arrogantly and hypocritically imposing Christian
dogma on "the heathens"? -- keeping score of every soul she "saved".

Religion is a private affair. Or at best, a congregation of
like-minded people. When it becomes a proselytizing tool, and even worse,
an instrument of hate and persecution, it is no longer spiritual or divine
or holy.

Teresa certainly was not in the ranks of the Crusaders or the Spanish
conquistadors; she didn't use force or violence. But her altruism would
have been so much more credible if she had kept religion out of it. If
she had shown compassion not only for the human misery around her, but
also for the society and culture that spawned it. If, along with her
determination and charity, she had shown more respect and understanding of
the non-Christian world she inhabited.

In our own celebrity-crazed world, it's refreshing to have a
superstar who is not blonde, buxom and designer-bagged and shod. And it's
very tempting to make a saint out of a Good Samaritan. But let's remember
that Mother T. was a missionary above all, and she held out a bowl of rice
in one hand.....and a cross in the other.