Jerusalem crisis: Jews keep offering secret, generic prayers on holy Temple Mount

Jerusalem crisis: Jews keep offering secret, generic prayers on holy Temple Mount

Let me state my journalistic prejudice right up front.

If I am covering an event, in any faith, that centers on worship then I think it is relevant to quote some of the words being said by the worshipers. More often than not, in my experience, there are references in the worship texts themselves that are linked to the theme or event that has made this particular worship service newsworthy.

Does this make sense? If a worship rite followed a great tragedy, what were the prayers said in mourning? Were scripture readings chosen that offered some kind of commentary on the event? Using quotes from these texts can serve as a way to pull readers into the story.

I would argue that this principle would certainly apply if the worship itself is considered controversial. And what if the prayers are controversial or even -- imagine this -- illegal?

This brings me to a recent USA Today story -- focusing on the most controversial piece of land in the world's most controversial city -- that left me shaking my head. Here is how the story opens:

JERUSALEM -- In a move that could further inflame recent Palestinian violence, Jewish activists are defying Israeli law by secretly praying at a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.
On a recent Sunday at the hilltop complex known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, dozens of religious Jews shoved ahead of a line of tourists. While being closely monitored at the site by security guards, who questioned anyone suspected of engaging in prayer, a number of visitors from a group of about 15 mumbled prayers quietly as they pretended to speak on their cellphones and cupped their hands over their mouths. They recited the prayers from memory, as they had been instructed to leave behind their prayer books before entering.

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CNN on 'fundies,' ordinary believers, evangelicals or, heck, somebody out there in voting booths

CNN on 'fundies,' ordinary believers, evangelicals or, heck, somebody out there in voting booths

The politics team at CNN recently produced a major story about religion and politics, one so long and so serious in intent that a loyal GetReligion reader wrote me a note saying that he was confused and thought this had been produced by Al-Jazeera English.

The story is about the Religious Right, which means that by unwritten journalistic law it should have fit into one of two pre-White House race templates. If you have followed coverage of religion and politics at all, you have seen these two templates many times.

No. 1 argues that the power of the Religious Right is fading (because America is growing more diverse and tolerant), which will create major problems for the Republican Party.

Template No. 2 argues that the power of the Religious Right is as strong as ever (the dangerous quest for theocracy lives on), which will create major problems for the Republican Party.

You can see the basic approach in this long, long report by scanning the epic double-decker headline:

Fear and voting on the Christian right
A wedding chapel went out of business because its evangelical owners refused to host a same-sex wedding celebration. Conservative Christians are on edge -- and they could sway the presidential election.

Clearly the goal in this story was to tell the story of some soldiers on the front lines in the First Amendment wars, offering the wedding-chapel owners tons of space in which to offer their views. Some GetReligion readers were impressed with that. Others, however, were troubled for reasons that we'll get to in a moment. Pay attention for the fine details here in the overture:

They called her a bigot, a homophobe, even a racist, which was strange, because the two gay men were white and so was Betty Odgaard. The angry people on the Internet told Betty she would die soon, that her death would be good for America, and then she would probably go to hell.
Betty had other ideas about her final destination, but she agreed it was time to go. "Take me home," she prayed, without effect. Revenue kept declining. Two years passed. One night this summer, just after the Görtz Haus wedding chapel closed forever, she and her husband sat in the basement and thought about the choices they'd made in the name of God.

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Wait! Did The New York Times just argue that voluntary religious associations are dangerous?

Wait! Did The New York Times just argue that voluntary religious associations are dangerous?

So the New York Times has produced another story in its Beware the Fine Print series and it's must reading for those concerned about church-state issues.

This one -- "In Religious Arbitration, Scripture Is the Rule of Law" -- does a great job of warning American citizens to be careful before voluntarily signing on the dotted line to do business (or working for) companies and institutions that write "Christian arbitration" clauses into their contracts.

What, that's not the point of the story at all. Sorry about that.

Truth be told, I'm having trouble figuring out the bottom line in this long and ambitious story. Clearly citizens have a right to join voluntary associations. Right? And clearly citizens who sign legal contracts -- of their own free will -- should be expected to honor them. Right? This is true even if these citizens change their minds about the doctrines and commitments that they voluntarily agreed to honor at the time they signed on the bottom line. 

I mean, a legal contract is a contract. I think the Times team, in this story, shows that these kinds of voluntary association contracts -- whether among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Scientologists or perhaps even New York Times employees -- can be abused. It's a good thing to warn people to be more careful about fine print. But is that what this story is about? I don't think so. It appears that the Times editors think that putting faith elements in these kinds of voluntary contracts is uniquely evil and dangerous. Really?

Let's look at some passages to see what the Times folks are trying to say. Here's is how things start:

A few months before he took a toxic mix of drugs and died on a stranger’s couch, Nicklaus Ellison wrote a letter to his little sister.
He asked for Jolly Ranchers, Starburst and Silly Bandz bracelets, some of the treats permitted at the substance abuse program he attended in Florida. Then, almost as an aside, Mr. Ellison wrote about how the Christian-run program that was supposed to cure his drug and alcohol problem had instead “de-gayed” him.
“God makes all things new,” Mr. Ellison wrote in bright green ink. “The weirdest thing is how do I come out as straight after all this time?”
To his family and friends, Mr. Ellison’s professed identity change was just one of many clues that something had gone wrong at the program, Teen Challenge, where he had been sent by a judge as an alternative to jail.

In this case, everything hinges on the phrase "had been sent by a judge."

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Jerusalem violence: Associated Press pretty much blames Israel for it all

Jerusalem violence: Associated Press pretty much blames Israel for it all

It's Israel's fault. Again.

Jews can get shot, stabbed, stoned and run down in their own homeland, and what do you get for coverage? "Arab areas of Jerusalem blocked off in Israeli crackdown."

The Associated Press may call this one of their Big Story entries; but in telling the story of the latest Israeli roadblocks solely from the Arab point of view, AP runs a very one-sided story. It also pays little attention to a couple of religious "ghosts."

Several times, this article, has a sentence or two about the attacks on Jewish civilians that's gone on for a month thus far. It follows with two or more paragraphs on Israeli government actions that allegedly sparked the actions.

And who gets quoted? An Arab who resents the Israeli treatment, a representative of the Netanyahu government, and two Jews who scold the government for its land policies. Hardly what you'd call balanced treatment.

I don’t usually quote five paragraphs at a time, but the top of this story is telling in its setup:

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians in Jerusalem, more than a third of the city's population, have awoken to a new reality: Israeli troops are encircling Arab neighborhoods, blocking roads with concrete cubes the size of washing machines and ordering some of those leaving on foot to lift their shirts to show they are not carrying knives.
The unprecedented clampdown is meant to halt a rash of stabbings of Israelis. Many of the attacks were carried out by residents of east Jerusalem, the sector captured and annexed by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Palestinians as a future capital.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has portrayed the measures as temporary, in line with what his advisers say any police department in the U.S. or Europe would do to quell urban unrest. But some allege he is dividing Jerusalem, something Netanyahu has said he would never do.
Arab residents, who have long complained of discriminatory Israeli policies, say the latest closures are bringing them to a boiling point and lead to more violence.
"They want to humiliate us," said Taher Obeid, a 26-year-old janitor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He spoke over the din of car horns, as drivers stuck at one of the new checkpoints vented their anger.

Let's dissect this section. It starts with Israeli actions and Arab feelings, rather than the Arab actions that gave rise to the tough measures. The "rash of stabbings" is saved for the second paragraph, with the Arab viewpoint before and after that.

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Reciting the Shahadah: How would actual Tennessee parents describe their concerns?

Reciting the Shahadah: How would actual Tennessee parents describe their concerns?

If you follow the national news, you probably know that the state of Tennessee is involved in yet another battle over the role of Islam in the public square. There are some people here in my state who truly want to see Islam go away and who seem to think that the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty applies to some religious believers, but not others.

However, when one of these battles begins it is important for news consumers to ask a few basic questions about the coverage. Let's assume that we are talking about another battle about Islam and conservative forms of Christianity.

(1) Does the coverage assume that all of the people in each camp believe exactly the same things? Is there only one approach to Islam presented? Does the coverage assume that all evangelicals take the same approach to Islam?

(2) When reading about critics of Islam, are we reading their actual criticisms or only views that are being attributed to them by others? On the other side, are Muslims involved in the conflict allowed to describe their own beliefs in their own language?

In other words, are the journalists covering a debate or are they quoting the participants in the debate that fit a certain template of what the debate is about?

The current debate in Tennessee focuses on questions about what students in public schools should be taught about Islam and when they should be taught this material. Here is a typical description of what the fight is about, drawn from a new piece in The Tennessean. The lede focuses on a bill proposed by Republican Rep. Sheila Butt that would forbid the teaching of religious doctrine in Tennessee schools until the 10th grade.

Some parents complained after students were reportedly asked to write down "Allah is the only god" and memorize the five pillars of Islam. The complaints prompted statements from U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Butt and other conservative lawmakers blasting districts for possible indoctrination.

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What world religions practice cremation? Why do some reject it?

What world religions practice cremation? Why do some reject it?


What do various faiths say about cremation vs. burial of remains? I know in some places like the United Kingdom cremation has become very common, maybe even surpassing ground burial.


Cremation (high-temperature burning that turns a corpse into ashes and bone fragments) is indeed by far the majority practice in the United Kingdom today. It’s also on the upswing in the United States, where the National Funeral Directors Association posts these statistics: As recently as 2005, families chose cremation with 32.3 percent of deaths, rising to an estimated 48.5 percent for 2015 and a projected 71 percent by 2030.

One reason for the shift is cremation’s lower cost, currently a median $6,078 compared with $8,508 for burial (with vault). The NFDA says other reasons for cremation’s growing popularity are “environmental concerns, fewer religious prohibitions, and changing consumer preferences such as a desire for less ritualized funerals.”

Advocates of cremation say it’s sanitary, makes better use of land particularly in cities, and the “cremains” can be portable if preserved in urns rather than scattered. Non-religious arguments on behalf of burial are continuation of tradition acceptable to all family members, and the permanent site always available to visit for reflection (though cremated ashes can also be preserved at one location such as a columbarium).

Turning to the religious aspect, cremation is customary in both Hinduism and Buddhism, religions that believe the dead person will be reborn into different human bodies or other species over countless lives. In the highly disputed suttee tradition, some Hindu widows would immolate themselves alive on a funeral pyre after their husbands’ bodies were burned up.

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It's already time for Christmas Wars! So, journalists, who you gonna call?

It's already time for Christmas Wars! So, journalists, who you gonna call?

Here they come again -- the Christmas Wars.

No, I am not talking about Fox News specials on whether cashiers in megastores should be forced by their employers to say "Happy Holidays" to customers instead of "Merry Christmas." We have to wait until Halloween for those stories to start up. I'm talking about actual church-state battles about religion in the tax-dollar defined territory in the public square.

Public schools are back in session, so it's time for people to start planning (cue: Theme from "Jaws") holiday concerts. This Elkhart Truth story -- "Concord Community Schools sued in federal court over live Nativity scene in high school's Christmas Spectacular play" -- has all the basics (which in this case is not automatically a compliment). Here's the lede:

DUNLAP -- Two national organizations Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the Concord Community Schools over a live Nativity scene that has been part of the high school’s Christmas Spectacular celebration for decades.

You can see the problem looming right there in the lede. It's that number -- two.

Anyone want to guess which two organizations we are talking about? I'll bet you can if you try.

The suit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the Christmas Spectacular -- which ends with a scriptural reading from the Bible as religious figures such as Mary, Joseph and the wise men act out the scene -- endorses religion in a manner that is illegal in a public school.
The complaint, filed on behalf of a Concord student and his father, asks the U.S. District Court to instruct school officials not to present the live Nativity scene in 2015 or  in the future. The complaint also seeks nominal damages of $1 and legal fees, as well as “other proper relief.”

Now, let me stress that the problem with this story is NOT that it quotes the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU.

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Los Angeles Times wades into latest SoCal thicket on campus political speech

Los Angeles Times wades into latest SoCal thicket on campus political speech

California has been one of flashpoints in political-correctness-on-campus controversies for many years. One that made it to the US Supreme Court was Christian Legal Society v. Hastings,  a 2009 case that ruled against a CLS chapter at the University of California/Hastings that required its leaders to live according to the chapter’s core religious beliefs. One of those beliefs was a prohibition against extramarital sex; a stricture that gay students found offensive, hence the lawsuit. We covered that here and here.

Another was a flap at UC Irvine where a group of Muslim student protesters in 2010 disrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador. Others objected to the punishment meted out to those students. And earlier this year, several student government leaders at UCLA questioned a Jewish student’s eligibility for a campus judicial panel on the grounds that she could not be expected to be impartial. Also this year, the UC Irvine student government voted to ban all flags – including the American flag – from a section of campus.

Thus, it wasn’t a big surprise to read the next salvo in this war in the Los Angeles Times:

On the eve of what is expected to be a contentious debate over a proposed new UC policy statement on bias and free speech, the head of the UC regents board defended what are called “principles against intolerance" on Wednesday.

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RNS feature on Yom Kippur misses the basics: What's the day about?

RNS feature on Yom Kippur misses the basics: What's the day about?

As Yom Kippur approaches on sundown tomorrow, the Religion News Service runs a heartfelt story on non-Jews who support the Jewish community.

A heartfelt story that’s nevertheless haunted by religious ghosts. But let's praise its merits first.

The article looks at a decade-old trend among Reform synagogues: calling non-Jewish congregants to the bima, or platform, for a formal blessing from the rabbi. It begins with the leader who started it, Rabbi Janet Marder of California.

Back in 2004, as RNS tells it, Marder called 100 people, mostly spouses of Jews, to the bima, then said:

“What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner.
“Most of all, we want to offer our deepest thanks to those of you who are parents, and who are raising your sons and daughters as Jews,” she continued. “In our generation, which saw one-third of the world’s Jewish population destroyed … every Jewish boy and girl is a gift to the Jewish future.”
The reaction to the blessing that followed — an outpouring of emotion and gratitude  — surprised Marder. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do,” she said. “I was not prepared for the way people were weeping.”

Journalistically, the story is a creative break from the usual Yom Kippur fare, which often takes the form of politics (this year, Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.) or food (tasty ways to follow the all-day fast).  The RNS article instead takes some well-known facts -- like the insularity of many synagogues and the percentage of Jews who marry outside the faith -- and tells what a group of temples are doing about it.

And rather than coast on assumptions or low-level reactions, RNS digs up data and interviews leaders like Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism:

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