Jews and Judaism

Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

OK, readers, it’s pop quiz time. My question: What do the following political players have in common; Franklin Graham, George Soros and the Koch brothers?

Did I hear you mumble “nothing,” other than gender and the aforementioned political-player designations?

Not a bad guess. But not the answer I’m looking for at the moment.

The commonality I have in mind is that they all serve as public boogeyman — names to be tossed around to convey a suitcase of despised qualities that need not be unpacked for opponents skilled in the art of in-group rhetoric.

Those on the left tend to think of Graham and the Kochs as despicable actors poisoning the political well with hypocritical religious justifications (Graham) or by employing their vast wealth to back libertarian, hyper pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulatory agendas (the Kochs).

Those on the right tend to view Soros as an atheist billionaire, internationalist busy-body set on destroying what they view as rightful national norms for the sake of unrealistic democratic (note that’s with a small “d”) fantasies. In America, many conservatives see him as a fierce enemy of the religious liberty side of the First Amendment.

If you paid close attention to the soul-numbing Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation fight you may know that, unlike Graham and the Kochs, Soros’ name popped up at the tail end of that scorched-earth display political bloodletting — which is why I bring him up now. (President Donald Trump, as he has before, first mentioned Soros; Sen. Chuck Grassley disparaged Soros when asked about Trump’s comment.)

But first.

My point here is not to convince you of the rightness or wrongness of Soros or the others mentioned above. Frankly, I have strong disagreements with them all. Besides, love them or hate them, I’m guessing your minds are already pretty well made up about what level of heaven or hell they’re headed for come judgement day. So what chance at changing minds do I really have anyway?

Also, they're all entitled, under current American law, to throw their weight around in accordance with their viewpoints — again, whether you or I like it or not.

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German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

Return with me now to 1965, when as a newly minted journalist I read a story in The New York Times that so thoroughly impressed me that I still recall its emotional impact.

This now-legendary piece by John McCandlish Phillips was about a New York Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi, Daniel Burros, who unbeknownst to his cronies, was actually a Jew, despite his hate-filled public ranting against Jews and Israel.

The legendary reporter dug deeper and deeper In his interviews and research, until his shocking discovery. Burros threatened to kill Phillips, then committed suicide after his true identity was unmasked.

Why am I bringing this up now? Stay with me, please. I’ll explain below. There’s a paywall to read Phillips’ original piece, now a pdf document. Click here to access it. Also, I should note that GetReligion is housed at the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York.

When Phillips died in 2013 — long after he left The Times, and journalism, to start a small Pentecostal Christian outreach ministry in Manhattan that still exists — his Times’ obit referred to his story as “one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history.” The obit also called Phillips “a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist.”

The article’s quality and the splash it made are certainly part of why Phillip’s story has stayed with me. But here’s another reason.

As a Jew, it seemed unfathomable to me back then that someone raised, as was I, in New York in the mid-20th century — when Jewish communal bonds were much stronger than they are today — could think and act like Burros, who at the time was just six or so years older than I was.

So why have I brought up Phillips’s story?

Because of recent stories out of Germany linking that nation’s Jewish community with rightwing, Nazi-sympathizing politics.

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A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Do the Old and New Testaments belong together?

(Commenting from a stance critical toward Christians, Norman adds that ignorance of history underlies their “comfortable view that the Bible is one and that there is no problem between the Old and New Testaments.”)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This classic and complex theme is erupting anew thanks to a U.S. Protestant megachurch pastor cited below. Also, churches have long faced strife over the authority and interpretation of the Old Testament due to the now-disputed teaching (that was carried over into the New Testament) against homosexual relations.

In this “Religion Q & A” item (your new postings via the Website always welcome!!), Norman accurately calls attention to some history. The status of the Old Testament became a pressing issue the church needed to decide in the 2nd Century A.D. Marcion of Pontus, among others, drew a radical distinction between what he saw as the problematic Yahweh of the Old Testament versus the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ in writings that were to form the New Testament.

The church declared Marcion a heretic and consolidated for all time that the Old Testament is part of its Bible alongside the New Testament books, authoritative Scripture for Christians as well as Jews.

Norman further observes that influential 20th Century liberal Protestant thinkers in Germany such as Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann echoed Marcion by downplaying the spiritual worth of the Old Testament. He says they “unknowingly contributed to the rise” of the so-called German Christians with their “non- and anti-Jewish” version of the faith. This movement pretty much gained control over Protestantism and accommodated the blatantly anti-Semitic Nazi rulers. Theologians like “neo-orthodox” titan Karl Barth courageously defied this unbiblical heresy in the great Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934).

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Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

“Who gets to define a nation?,” journalist Anne Applebaum asks in a piece she wrote for the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. “And who, therefore, gets to rule a nation?

For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled — but why should they ever be?”

Newspaper, magazine and broadcast reports attempting to explain the moves toward nationalist-tinged political populism in a host of European nations, and certainly the United States as well, have become a journalistic staple, which makes sense given the subject’s importance.

Here’s one recent example worth reading produced by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat  that looks at the issue in light of the recent Swedish national election. His focus is whether the political center can continue to hold, and for how long?

So why single out this magazine essay by Applebaum, who is also a columnist for The Washington Post?

Because it’s a good example of how a writer’s deep personal experience of living within a culture for many years can produce an understanding that’s difficult to find in copy produced by the average correspondent who, at best, spends a few years in a region before moving on to a new assignment.

Granted, the American-born Applebaum has the advantage of being married to a Polish politician and writer. She herself has become a dual citizen of the U.S. and Poland, and is raising her children in Poland.

As a Jew, however, she retains her outsider status in Polish society. It's from this vantage point that she conveys how Poland’s shift toward right-wing populism has impacted the nation, and her. (Her piece is one of several published by The Atlantic grouped together under the ominous rubric, “Is Democracy Dying?”)

If it is dying, at least in the short run, she argues that in large measure it’s due to the sweeping demographic changes in Europe triggered by the large number of Muslim refugees and immigrants fleeing war, poverty and general chaos in Syria, Iraq, North Africa and elsewhere who have moved there.

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Clerical sex abuse is not just a Catholic problem. I know this from personal experience

Clerical sex abuse is not just a Catholic problem. I know this from personal experience

As a goodly number of sentient beings are by now surely aware, the Roman Catholic Church is mired in yet another near-global, clerical sex-abuse and institutional cover-up meltdown. How it unfolds will undoubtedly alter the church’s future trajectory. Whether that will be for better or worse remains to be seen.

But this post is not primarily about the Catholic hierarchy’s serious and pervasive failings. Rather, it's my attempt to remind readers that such failings are far more about the human condition than any particular faith group.

I know this because, though I am not Catholic, I was also a victim of clerical sexual abuse.

In my case, it happened when I was about 11 in the basement of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the New York City borough of Queens, where I grew up.

This was the synagogue that my parents trusted to provide me with a grounding in religious Judaism. Instead, the trauma of my experience distanced me from the faith — actually, all faiths — for decades to come.

I never told my parents about any of this, out of shame and fear, so they went to their graves ignorant of what happened. All they knew was that I refused to ever return to that synagogue, not even for my needed Bar Mitzvah lessons. (Both the lessons and the actual Bar Mitzvah took place elsewhere.)

Synagogue clerical sex was most likely one of my earliest experiences of adult hypocrisy — not counting what I experienced in my own family, of course. Who knows? Perhaps it was the trauma that led me to become a journalist.

Because if adult hypocrisy angers you, where better to uncover it than in the arenas of human endeavor — politics, the so-called justice system, the business world, and as I now know, institutional religion and even journalism — that one continually encounters as a reporter?

I'd say working as a journalist is a damn good way to learn about the world as it truly is, warts and all.

Before preceding further, let me state that sharing my experience here is in no way meant to provide comfort to those many Catholics desperate for such institutional comfort. That’s for you to find, or to cease searching for, on your own.

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Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

U.S. religious categories were never as simple as indicated in “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” Will Herberg’s tripartite classic from 1956.

What kind of Jew? Protestants, ever complicated, have become ever moreso. Catholics, too, are more of a checkerboard these days. With the 1965 immigration law, Islam and Asian religions came to the fore. Recently, “nones” with no religious affiliation emerged as a major category.

Now the ubiquitous Pew Research Center is splicing and dicing its survey data to discern a new seven-party system,  what the title of its latest report calls “The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans By Religion.” That’s “the” typology, not merely “a” new concept, which seems presumptuous and yet intriguing.  

Journalists who saw news in this August 29 release have already written about it. But The Religion Guy recommends that beat specialists spend quality time reading or re-reading the full 98-page version (.pdf here), to provoke fresh thinking about the complex U.S. religious landscape.

Pew asked 16 questions and applied “cluster analysis” to sort Americans into the seven categories based upon broad religious attitudes and reported behavior across the traditional lines of formal membership or self-identification. Pew labels 40 percent of U.S. adults as “highly religious," sharing traditional belief in the God of the Bible and looking upon faith fondly, segmented into these three groups. 

(1) “Sunday Stalwarts” (17 percent of the Americans surveyed) -- These devout folks are weekly worshipers of whatever faith who mostly read the Bible daily, pray often, and consider religion their most important source of meaning and helpful for society. They’re also the most active in non-religious community causes and charities and – notably – lean Republican and are the most likely to vote in local elections.

(2) “God-and-Country Believers” (12 percent) -- This group stands out as the only one expressing majority approval for President Donald Trump’s performance.

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Intrigue about Bible given to Trump: Southern Baptist Convention president says he didn't sign it

Intrigue about Bible given to Trump: Southern Baptist Convention president says he didn't sign it

One of the interesting developments this week at that White House dinner for evangelical leaders was Paula White's presentation of a Bible to President Donald Trump.

White told the president that the Bible was signed by "over a hundred Christians."

Given that the state-like dinner included about 100 evangelical leaders, many took White's statement to mean that the people in the room had endorsed the message written in the Bible.

That message, according to a White House transcript: 

It says: “First Lady and President, you are in our prayers always.  Thank you for your courageous and bold stand for religious liberty, and for your timeless service to all Americans.  We appreciate the price that you have paid to walk in the high calling.  History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.”

But at least one prominent evangelical at the dinner — Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear — stressed that he didn't sign the Bible, as noted by Birmingham News religion writer Greg Garrison.

Greear's attendance at the dinner earlier drew criticism from religion writer Jonathan Merritt:

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For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.

The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.

The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added  years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.

The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.

Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.

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Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

The world is inundated with sad examples of persecuted religious, ethnic and racial minorities. Journalistically speaking, however, each case may be reduced to a “story,” each competing for press attention at a time when shrinking industry resources and an ominous uptick in American political chaos make grabbing international media coverage increasingly difficult.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses is one such religious minority. The Kremlin has come down on Russian members of the faith like a ton of bricks.

The situation, from time to time, gains some coverage from western media elites. That attention soon fades, however, which prompts the following question: Why do some persecuted minorities trigger persistent journalistic attention while others do not?

I’ll try to answer that question below. First, though, let’s get current on the plight of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.

This Los Angeles Times piece about their seeking refuge in neighboring Finland is a good place to start. Here’s a snippet from it:

In the 16 months since Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group on par with Islamic State, raids and arrests of the religion’s estimated 175,000 members in the country have increased rapidly. The ruling criminalized practicing the religion and ordered its 395 branches closed. Members face prosecution for doing missionary work, a fundamental part of the faith.

There are now an estimated 250 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum in Finland. They wait out their asylum applications in several refugee centers across the country, including the Joutseno refugee center outside Lappeenranta in southeastern Finland.

How has this impacted individual Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Read on.

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