Jews and Judaism

Eric Alterman celebrates Bruce Springsteen as 'Jew-ish' in The Atlantic

Eric Alterman celebrates Bruce Springsteen as 'Jew-ish' in The Atlantic

On occasion at GetReligion, an essay crosses the threshold that evokes no disappointment or sense of incompletion. Eric Alterman — who writes an always provocative column for The Nation on why the mass media are too corporate, too conformist, too conservative — takes a different turn in “Bruce Springsteen Is Jew-ish,” posted Oct. 1 at The Atlantic.

The hyphen in the headline is not a mistake but a wry concession: Alterman does not argue that Springsteen, a son of 20th-century Catholicism in America, is really a Jew. The point is that he is a cultural ally who draws from Jewish scripture and history. 

Alterman’s essay is adapted from “Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen” (Rutgers University Press), which also includes contributions by Martyn Joseph, Greil Marcus, Richard Russo and A.O. Scott.

This sort of writing may be familiar to journalists who take their faith and their rock music seriously. Back in the mid-1980s, I devoted a lot of time to landing an interview with a graduate student at DePaul University who was one of the first to observe Catholicism’s presence in Springsteen’s writing. A famous sociologist, novelist and priest — the Rev. Andrew Greeley — later wrote of Springsteen’s Catholic imagination, and the singer made his divided feelings about Catholicism more explicit in “Springsteen on Broadway.”

To his credit, Alterman acknowledges the uphill nature of his argument straight away:

Bruce Springsteen is the son of Catholic parents and grandparents. There is no ambiguity on this point. And yet, in much the same way that New York football fans have casually annexed the stadium across the river to root for what they like to pretend is their “home” team, some Jewish Springsteen fans are devoted to proving that New Jersey’s favorite Irish Italian son is, if not actually Jewish, nevertheless somehow Jew-ish. Perhaps you thought young Bruce was mostly singing about cars, girls, and getting the hell out of town before he switched gears to focus on the dignity of working folk, the broken promises of the American dream, and more cars and girls. But amid the empty factories, crowded barstools, and swimming holes that constitute the foundation of the Springsteen oeuvre, some detect a whiff of the Chosen.

What’s most refreshing in this piece by a pundit of the political left, writing about a musician of the political left, is the minimal degree of politics used when making this argument.

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Campaign 2020 question: Do Christians see a difference between cussing and profanity?

Campaign 2020 question: Do Christians see a difference between cussing and profanity?

THE QUESTION:

A four-letter topic raised by campaign 2020: What does Christianity teach about cussing?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The vulgar lingo associated with military barracks, so tiresome and over-used in movies, cable TV shows and pop music, is filtering into U.S. politics.

Several candidates this campaign have gone potty-mouth, but it’s a specialty of “Beto” O’Rourke. He dropped the f-bomb in his Texas Senate concession speech last November and promised to “keep it clean” when a perturbed voter complained, only to backslide. His staff has made this a proud trademark, selling $30 T-shirts that display the expletive. Muslim Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib then imitated T-shirt sales to broadcast her own four-syllable obscenity.  O’Rourke also remarked of Donald Trump, “Jesus Christ, of course he’s racist.”

Contra Tlaib, is there a sexist double standard at work? Indiana University’s Michael Adams, the author of “In Praise of Profanity,” thinks filth that may possibly give male candidates a populist appeal will count against female candidates.

O’Rourke emulates Mr. Trump himself, who boasted in 2016 that he never uses the f-word though videotapes tell a different story. Last February, the President reportedly hurled three f-bombs at the nation’s leading Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, during a White House meeting, and later apologized.

A la O’Rourke, the latest Trump hubbub involves the name of God. Most media coverage of a North Carolina rally focused on the President for not lamenting the crowd’s racially tinged “send her back” chants against Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Muslim immigrant. But some of the religious voters he relies upon were upset that he twice uttered “g–d—“ during that appearance. Soon after, he  uttered the same phrase in a talk to all House Republicans.

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#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

In a post last year, I described Emma Green’s piece for The Atlantic headlined “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead” as one of the best religion stories of 2018.

“It’s remarkable in a number of ways,” I wrote. “The strength of the idea and the implementation of it. The quality of the writing and the specific details contained therein. The depth of the religious knowledge and the ability to convey it in understandable prose.”

Green has established herself as one of the nation’s preeminent religion journalists, and it could be argued — especially after Saturday night — that she occupies that top spot all alone, especially in magazine work blending news reporting and commentary.

Here’s what I mean: At the Religion News Association’s annual awards banquet here in Las Vegas, Green got plenty of exercise walking back and forth from her seat to pick up first-place awards.

She won top honors in three categories: for the Supple Award for Excellence in Religion Feature Writing, for Excellence in Religion News Analysis and for Excellence in Magazine News Religion Reporting. A video of the awards banquet can be viewed online.

At some point, RNA typically posts links to all the winners’ stories, but I don’t see that as I’m typing this. However, I believer hearing reference to Green’s extraordinary story that I mentioned above.

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Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

OK, I hope the boss man — GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly — will forgive me for a quick, shorter-than-normal post.

I’m in Las Vegas, either for the Vegas Dance Explosion or the Religion News Association annual conference. I’m trying to remember which one. Both are happening right now at the Westgate Resort and Casino.

So, I flipped a coin and ended up in a big ballroom for the RNA meeting.

But seriously, folks, what better place for a three-day gathering of the nation’s religion journalists than Sin City? Besides me, GetReligion’s Julia Duin is here.

A bunch of interesting and important religion issues are on the agenda for the three-day event. You can follow it all live via the #RNA2019 hashtag on Twitter. Also, the RNA is live-streaming sessions on its Facebook page.

The digital age is something else, allowing anyone with internet access to be a part of this week’s festivities.

Speaking of the digital age, Slate published a fascinating piece this week on “God’s Conversion Rate.” The focus is that “Churches are using targeted ads on social media to convert and recruit.” Now, that’s not exactly breaking news, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a specific story on it, so I enjoyed this one.

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Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

If you dig into the history of Duke University — formerly Trinity College — it’s hard to avoid its deep roots in the evangelical Methodist movement.

The key, today, is that Duke is a private university, one defined by research, basketball and modern doctrines linked to its powerful nonsectarian identity. You can still see a few Methodist ties that do not bind in the way the school’s trustees operate (click here for more on that).

However, it is educational — when considering Duke history — to follow the money.

The University has historic ties to the United Methodist Church. The institution was begun in 1838-39 when Methodist and Quaker families in northwest Randolph County united to transform Brown's Schoolhouse into Union Institute, thus providing permanent education for their children. A formal agreement with the Methodist Church was entered into in 1859 when the name of the school was changed to Trinity College. The motto, Eruditio et Religio, which is based on a Charles Wesley hymn, and the official seal, both of which are still in use today, were adopted in 1859. The name of Trinity College continues as the undergraduate college of the University.

The most significant development in the history of the school came with the adoption of Trinity College as the primary beneficiary of the philanthropy of the Duke family in 1889. This occurred in part because the college was an institution of the Methodist Church and Washington Duke practiced stewardship as taught by his church. 

So here is an interesting question linked to a current doctrinal dispute on the Duke campus.

Right up front, note this: Duke is a private university and, thus, its leaders have every right to define the doctrines and covenants that govern their campus. That’s true for liberal once-Christian schools as well as many traditional colleges and universities. The question for journalists and lawyers is whether Duke leaders are being consistent in the proclamation and application of their new doctrines.

This leads us to a recent Religion News Service article that ran with this headline: “Duke University’s student government rejects Young Life over LGBTQ policies.” The problem is that Young Life doesn’t have “policies” that are independent of 2,000 years of traditional Christian “doctrines” on marriage and sexuality.

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Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Back in my Rocky Mountain days, in the 1980s, I heard an Orthodox rabbi give a fascinating talk with a title that went something like this: “The quest for the kosher cheeseburger.”

His thesis: If the result of this quest is a cheeseburger — mixing meat with a milk product — then it’s not kosher. If you end up with something that is kosher, then it isn’t a real cheeseburger. So what’s the point?

The Orthodox rabbi was using the “kosher cheeseburger” as a symbol of the efforts that many Jews make to blur the line between assimilating into what can, at times, be a hostile culture and following the traditions of their ancient faith. Can modern Jewish believers create a golden cheeseburger and eat it, too?

This is an essentially spiritual question, but it’s a question that takes on a whole new meaning with the explosion of attention now being given to plant-based meat substitutes (note the blitz of ads for Burger King’s new Impossible Whooper).

The Washington Post business team recently covered this trend and did a fine job of digging into these religious questions, starting with the headline: “Shalt thou eat an Impossible Burger? Religious doctrine scrambles to catch up to new food technology.” It’s rare to see scripture in a business lede, but this one was right on point — focusing on on a symbolic food that is totally out of bounds in Jewish tradition.

You think a kosher cheeseburger is a wild idea? How about kosher shrimp?

Leviticus 11 contains a zoo’s worth of animals. The hyrax and the monitor lizard. The katydid is there, as is the gecko. And it ends: “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”

Dietary restrictions are woven into religious texts, the Old Testament and the New, the Koran, the Vedas and the Upanishads. Some are mercifully practical, as in the law of necessity in Islamic jurisprudence: “That which is necessary makes the forbidden permissible.”

Now, Tyson executives are seeking certification from various agencies declaring their plant-based shrimp both kosher and halal. The team at the Post business desk identified the religion ghost in that equation and produced this solid thesis statement:

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Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

I’m back — for which I apologize to those readers who hoped to be rid of me. What I will not apologize for is my good fortune to have, so far, outwitted the health-care industry. This despite what I consider some lamebrain screw ups by a few of its practitioners.

Not that I’m totally ungrateful. Medical surgeons possess extraordinary mechanical skills. Just like the best computer technicians and car mechanics. The problem is that health care has become way too specialized, leaving some practitioners unable to consider the patient as a unified field. Drug “A” may be great for gout, but how does it interact with statins? Can beta blockers negatively impact kidney function? You get the idea. Think holistically because your doctor may not. Ask questions. Do your own research.

But enough. Last I checked Get Religion was still about the business of journalism about religion. So consider this our segue.

The occasion for my return is a review of a new book on Christian Zionism that ran in the liberal American Jewish publication The Forward. For reasons beyond all sound judgement, some of the more anarchistic voices at GR thought I might want to offer an opinion. Clearly a setup, but how could I refuse?

The review in question ran under a challenging headline: “Why Everything You Think You Know About Christian Zionism Is Wrong,” and was penned by Rafael Magarik, an English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The book was produced by religion and foreign policy maven Daniel G. Hummel, who is associated with Upper House, which for lack of a better term I’ll call a sort of a Christian think tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hummel titled his book, “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, And U.S.-Israeli Relations.”

I have not read Hummel’s book, and I probably won’t (over the years I’ve read my fill on the subject, both pro and con). Nor, I’d wager, will most of those who already have a firm opinion about the intent, value or theological underpinnings of contemporary Christian Zionism.

Which is entirely the point of Magarik’s review — a verbal dart aimed at the vast majority of liberal Jews (in Israel and elsewhere), and equally liberal Christians, not to mention Muslims of all ideological stratums, who look upon Christian Zionists with utter political disdain.

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Tourism to Israel is up, and it's obviously because of President Trump, right? Well, let's talk about that ...

Tourism to Israel is up, and it's obviously because of President Trump, right? Well, let's talk about that ...

If you want an in-depth explanation of why “correlation does not imply causation,” you’ll need a more educated source than me.

But here’s what I will say about NPR’s weekend report linking evangelical support of President Trump with rising tourism numbers in Israel: Evidence to support that storyline seems a little squishy to me.

Or maybe a whole lot squishy. I’ll explain in a moment. But first, here’s how NPR sets the scene:

President Trump's evident desire to identify who's most "loyal" to Israel has a clear winner: U.S. evangelicals.

Not only do they outpace U.S. Jews in their support for policies that favor the Israeli government, but U.S. evangelicals have also become the fastest-growing sector of the Israeli tourism market. The developments may even be related.

"I'd say close to 100% of our travelers come back extremely pro-Israel in their political views," says Andy Cook, a pastor who leads evangelical tours of the Holy Land twice a year.

OK, that description of evangelicals as “the fastest-growing sector of the Israeli tourism market” certainly sounds authoritative. However, unless I missed it, NPR doesn’t provide any internet links or other hard data to back up that characterization.

Does actual data exist?

Or is that description attributable to a tourism official eager to tout evangelical travel to a reporter clearing wanting to make that connection?

Let’s read a little more:

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Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

While rehashing the Miftah-inspired — www.miftah.org — feud between U.S. Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and Israel, U.S. and international media should also be focusing on Israel’s September 17 elections. Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel (in 2014-16), sees a dangerous internal split perhaps unmatched since modern Israel was founded in 1948 – or even since the 1st Century.

Media without bureaus in Israel (and that’s most of them) should be planning coverage by in-house staffers or freelance experts before and/or after the vote. They will benefit from Bercovici’s opinion piece in the summer issue of Commentary magazine and Marcy Oster’s objective roundup on the tangled parties and pols for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel, of course, faces endless conflict with Palestinians. But there’s an increasingly troublesome internal struggle involving a minority of “ultra-Orthodox” Haredim (a term meaning those who “tremble” before God), currently 12 percent of the population and growing steadily. (They are distinct from the equally devout Hasidim and the less rigorist modern Orthodox.)

The conflict centers on exemption from the military draft for 130,000 Haredi men who study Torah and Talmud full-time. Bercovici, an attorney living in Tel Aviv, contends that the resulting burden on the national population is divisive, unfair and has become ‘financially and ethically unsustainable.”

Journalists must note: There is no way to escape the religious issues linked to these conflicts.

The system dates from a compromise by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who exempted the tiny band of 400 such students to soften resistance by the Orthodox who believed modern Israel should not be founded before the Messiah appeared (as depicted in Chaim Potok’s classic 1967 novel “The Chosen”).

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