Honestly. I thought we had handled the old non-Jewish Jew, humanist, probably agnostic, maybe atheist, cultural Judaism equation several weeks ago with Sen. Bernie Sanders.
You remember that, right? The whole affair reminded me of the infamous media brain freeze years ago when candidate Jimmy Carter started talking about being a "born again" Christian. As I wrote earlier in the primary season (which still isn't over, with everyone keeping an eye on the crucial FBI primary):
I understand that many journalists in New York City needed time to grasp the basics of evangelical Christianity. Hey, 40 years later lots of elite journalists are still wrestling with that.
However, is it really big news at The New York Times that there are million of people of Jewish heritage whose identity centers more on matters of culture than on the practice of the Jewish faith?
The main problem with the Times coverage back then was that it asked a pack of rabbis to explain who and what Sanders is, when it comes to religion, rather than asking other agnostic or atheist Jews to explain that -- statistically speaking -- they are in the heart of the Jewish community (and Democratic Party) mainstream.
Now, the Washington Post (the story also moved on Associated Press) has put out a feature about the campaign by Jamie Raskin to win Maryland's 8th Congressional district. And what's the hook for this story? That would be a bad headline in a major online "news" source, building on a bad public-relations piece from the Freethought Equality Fund, a humanist political action committee. As the Post piece put it:
“If successful in the general election, Raskin will be the only open nontheist serving in the U.S. Congress,” the email said. The Huffington Post quickly published an article headlined, “Congress Likely To Get Its Only Openly Atheist Member in November.”
The only problem? Raskin is Jewish.
“One hundred percent Jewish.” “Emphatically Jewish.” A member of Washington’s Temple Sinai and a father of three children who had bar and bat mitzvahs, Raskin says he has never told anyone is he an atheist.
Raskin, on the record, stresses that he doesn't answer the God question, when asked in a political context.
However, his active participation in a normal, liberal, Reform congregation makes him, in a way, more open about his Jewish roots than, well, Sanders. The assumption here, among the fundraisers on the secular left, is that anyone who bills himself or herself as a liberal thinker on church-state issues and openly flies the "humanist" -- small "h" in this case -- flag must be a nontheist, a term that some folks quickly equate with "atheist."
Meanwhile, back to the main issue here. This story includes some background material that opens with this amazing understatement:
Jews who identify strongly with Judaism but do not believe in God are not at all uncommon.
Well #DUH and all that. Come on folks, fire up a search engine and give your readers a dose of crucial information linked to this religion-meets-politics story. I mean, the Pew Research Center is only a click or two away and its most recent "Jewish essentials" package includes this statement (which I have quoted before):
What does it mean to be Jewish? There are few more fundamental and difficult questions for Jews -- indeed, figuring out one’s place within Judaism’s 3,000+ years of tradition, 620 commandments (plus a library’s worth of commentary), worldwide diaspora and multiple religious movements is itself key to many Jews’ self-identity.
Jews tend to be less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with fewer saying they attend religious services weekly, believe in God with absolute certainty, or that religion is very important in their lives. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that overall, about six-in-ten (62%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture, while just 15% say it’s mainly a matter of religion.
So what is the big story here? Statistically ordinary liberal Jewish Democrat runs for Congress? That's a shocker.
The Post story does do a fine job of letting Raskin speak for himself, especially on what he means when he uses "humanist" language.
Raskin says he gladly accepts the label “humanist” -- but clarifies that he views it as a philosophical marker, not a religious one.
“Humanist with a small ‘h,'” Raskin said, after the publicity of his supposed atheism. “Like Thomas Jefferson or Michelangelo or John Locke or any of the enlightenment thinkers.”
Humanists subscribe to a philosophy that emphasizes the power of human beings and rational thought. Though the term can refer to either non-theistic or God-centered communities, the American Humanist Association leaves the God part out.
It defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
So what is missing?
Once again, this story needed one or two more voices to help explain the modern Jewish identity question. Once again, it would have been good to have heard from a cultural Jew or even a Jewish atheist who explained the prominent role that nontheists play in modern American Jewish culture. Or how about this: Why not talk to a Jewish atheist and then an Orthodox Jew about the role of nontheists in modern Judaism?
Then again, Raskin hasn't answered the God question yet.
So what is the real lesson here? Maybe it is this: Don't write bold headlines based on PR fundraising materials?