Jews and Judaism

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

I have followed the acidic soap operas (timeline here) surrounding Jeffrey Epstein for more than a decade. That may sound strange, but there’s a logical reason — I lived in West Palm Beach from 2001-2005 and taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University, right next to the mini-towers of Trump Plaza.

Yes, that was a long time ago, back when Donald Trump was embracing his good buddies Bill and Hillary Clinton and acting like a rather mainstream Democrat, in terms of moral and social issues. And it was impossible to read the news in the Sixth Borough of New York without bumping into the kingdom of Trump. That included, from time to time, the people being courted — socially speaking — by Epstein and Co.

Life behind the scenes? That, of course, is where everyone who cares about the details of this sordid affair has to dig into the essential “Perversion of Justice” series by Julie Brown of The Miami Herald. Download it into an iPad program of some kind, because you’ll have to read it in painful chunks.

So why bring this up here at GetReligion? To be blunt: I am waiting for some kind of religion shoe to drop, some angle linked to twisted religion or anti-religious convictions. In my experience, great evil almost always involves twisted religion or blunt, demonic rejection of what is good, beautiful and true.

In one recent story, I was struck by an Epstein statement — when he was a young prep-school teacher — that mentioned his use of “spiritual” activities with his students. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see the long lists of people who socialized with Epstein, did “business” with him or both. Some of those names — such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump — are already known.

Will the list contain hypocrites as well as libertines? Of course it will. We live in a sinful and fallen world.

A new Vanity Fair piece on this scandal notes that it’s hard to talk about the mysteries of Epstein’s fortune without getting into the moral dynamics inside his entourage and clients:

In the absence of much other information, the reigning theory on Wall Street currently is that Epstein’s activities with women and girls were central to the building of his fortune, and his relations with some of his investors essentially amounted to blackmail.

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Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

In the months since the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the attempt to tone down use of the word “Mormon,” I have heard two questions over and over from people outside the Latter-day Saint fold.

Yes, that sentence was somewhat long and awkward, for obvious reasons.

Question No. 1: What are they going to call The Choir.

Question No. 2: Why did Latter-day Saints leaders take this step, at this moment in time, to change their brand?

If you are interested in that first question, a long, long feature story in The New York Times — “ ‘Mormon’ No More: Faithful Reflect on Church’s Move to Scrap a Moniker” — has a fabulous anecdote that shows up at the very end. Here we go:

For many Latter-day Saints, the most important cue came from the church’s iconic musical organization, known since 1929 as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The group was on tour in Los Angeles last year, singing in Disney Hall, when a bishop asked choir leaders to begin thinking about new names.

At first many performers felt “a little uptight” about the idea, said the group’s president, Ron Jarrett. … They mulled options: the Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the Tabernacle Choir in Utah, the Tabernacle Choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and finally landed on the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

Still, the group had to manage a swath of legal issues, like how to protect copyrights and recording labels all made under the former name. Products and recordings made before 2019 will maintain the previous legal name, but new ones will not.

“For me, it has been an opportunity to really evaluate who we are and what we stand for,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I was able to say, ‘I will follow a living prophet, and our music will remain the same.’”

The singers have retired their catchy nickname, the MoTabs. They are trying out a new one, Mr. Jarrett said: the TCats, or TabCats.

I think legions of headline writers would embrace that kind of short, catchy, option, should the church’s leaders come up with an unofficial official nickname. After all, you may recall that use of the “LDS” brand was also discouraged, along with the big change in the status of “Mormon.” The Times story notes the practical implications online:

The church’s longtime website, LDS.org, now redirects to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, and Mormon.org will soon switch over, too. In May, the church stopped posting on its @MormonChannel Instagram feed and encouraged followers to move to @ChurchofJesusChrist instead.

OK, but why did this change happen?

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Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

My May 30 Memo proclaimed the third edition of the “World Christian Encyclopedia," due next year, as a “must-buy” for media organizations because it will provide current overviews and statistics about each religious group in each country on earth, and much else.

This time around, The Guy proposes other religion works media shops savvy enough to maintain reference libraries should have on hand for unexpected breaking news as well as timeless features. Writers might want some items in their personal collections. The following covers print, but some e-editions are available.

Basics

The first essential is a couple comprehensive one-volume encyclopedias or dictionaries describing all world religions, as issued by several reliable publishers. You’ll also want the hefty ($215!) “Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.”

Save money by using a good public or college library for the multi-volume encyclopedias on religion, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaica, Islam, etc. However, via amazon.com you could get the 1987 “Encyclopedia of Religion” for only $275. (Publishers: We really need a 21st Century equivalent of James Hastings’ less abstract “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” from 1913!)  

Acquire similar one-volume reference books on Catholicism and Judaism, which on some matters can be supplemented by century-old, multi-volume encyclopedias online here and here. For Protestantism, there’s the latest “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” and more comprehensive one-volume “Encyclopedia of Protestantism.” For Islam, get John Esposito’s dictionary and/or Cyril Glasse’s one-volume encyclopedia. For other world faiths, if those overview volumes do not suffice  tap experts as needed.  

 Baylor professor Gordon Melton compiles the remarkable “Encyclopedia of American Religions,” pretty much mandatory for describing gazillion offbeat sects you’ve never heard of.

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Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Are there other intelligent beings somewhere out there in the cosmos? Forget science fiction. Recent news said level-headed U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing what seemed like UFOs, so classified military protocol deals with how to handle such incidents. Meanwhile, scientists, aided by new technology, have spent decades seeking to contact alien life.

Nonetheless, “perhaps humanity is truly alone,” contends Ethan Siegel, an astrophysics theorist and college teacher turned science writer, in a cover story for the June Commentary magazine. This old, old story is ever new, and perhaps it’s time for journalists to run it past some quotable theologians for an off-the-news if not off-the-wall feature.

Siegel himself offers no insights on the obvious religious implications. That’s not surprising, since he’s an atheist, albeit a Jewish one, who preaches that “everything that has ever happened in this universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them.”

Still, the questions nag. Did God, or intelligent design's Designer, create beings like us on Earth and nowhere else?

If so, why? Or, if there is intelligent life in other realms, what is God’s purpose with mere earthlings? Are those extraterrestrials “sinful” and “fallen” like us? What would this mean for Christianity’s belief that God was uniquely incarnated on Earth in Jesus Christ? And so forth.

Darwin’s theory of evolution becomes probable when vast stretches of time allow vast accumulations of genetic mutations that can undergo vast selection to yield the origin of vast species. (The Guy, no science whiz, senses that the sudden emergence of countless advanced life forms during the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago is hard to fully comprehend in such simple terms).

Probabilities also seem to tell us there just have to be many forms of intelligent life beyond those on Earth.

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RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

There is much to recommend in the Religion News Service commentary that ran the other day with this headline: “What is killing the American synagogue?” This is one of those think pieces that points to hard news angles, for those with eyes to see them.

The author, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, backs up that blunt headline with lots of practice observations about cultural trends that are affecting all kinds of liberal, old-line religious groups in America, these days. He admits that there are times when cultural trends are signs of serious issues of philosophy and, I would add, theology.

So what are reporters to think then they hear that another synagogue/temple is being torn down? First of all, that RNS headline really needed to include the word “Reform” or “liberal” in front of the word synagogue. Read on, to see if my judgement is accurate.

Here is some ultra-personal material from the rabbi, right near the top:

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh, NY. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had one hundred kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two Bs of the apocalypse: Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.

Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

The question I would ask, as someone who has followed the liberal Jewish demographic apocalypse since the stunning Denver Jewish community intermarriage studies of the 1980s, whether Salkin needed to add a third “B,” as in “babies (or lack thereof).”

To be specific, the article didn’t address to major issues that keep showing up in studies of the Jewish future in America and in the Western world — birth rates and intermarriage.

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Trends and realities in religion news: Candid words from Emma Green of The Atlantic

Trends and realities in religion news: Candid words from Emma Green of The Atlantic

I have just returned to East Tennessee from a short, but fascinating, trip to New York City to take part in a conference called “What’s Next for Religious Freedom.” It was sponsored by Yeshiva University and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University.

The event was recorded and I hope, eventually, to update this post with URLs for the various sessions. GetReligion readers can also check YouTube in a week or so.

The opening session was held at Shearith Israel Synagogue on the upper West Side, which is the oldest Jewish congregation in America in continuous existence (founded in 1654). The topic: “The Media and Religion: Trends and Challenges.” This very lively session was chaired by the rabbi and scholar Meir Soloveichik, the leader of  Congregation Shearith Israel and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

The panel?

* Emma Green, religion writer at The Atlantic.

* Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at The New York Post and contributing editor at The Catholic Herald.

* John Podhoretz, editor and columnist at Commentary Magazine.

* Terry Mattingly, as in me.

This is the second summer in a row that I have been on a panel of this kind with Green and, as always, it was great to hear her candid thoughts. She’s a rising force in this field, working at a news and commentary magazine and website that is clearly trying to give religion the attention that it deserves.

Getting to hear from her again reminded me that I have meant to post the link to a recent World dialogue — “Getting the big story” — between Green and journalism historian Marvin Olasky, who for several decades has been the editor of that magazine. This conversation took place at Patrick Henry College outside Washington, D.C. Here’s the full video:

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NPR offers a short report on the eruv: Lots more can be said about making public space sacred

NPR offers a short report on the eruv: Lots more can be said about making public space sacred

When I worked at a small daily newspaper in South Florida, the two major faith groups that I covered were Jews and Catholics. And these were plenty of Jewish readers who demanded articles with some degree of theological sophistication about their lives and beliefs.

While there was always the inevitable “best hamantaschen in Broward County” pieces, I also wrote about the building of a new eruv in a neighborhood with a fast-growing Orthodox Jewish community. Only in the Miami area — and several corners of New York City — could a religion writer cover the establishment of an eruv and have a large, vocal readership that knows what that is.

One problem with writing about an eruv is that the tradition started with the Talmud and trying to explain Talmudic law in a news story was like stepping into quicksand. You got sucked in by all the history and the details.

What is at stake was not just the eruv itself but explaining the Jewish laws that mandate Sabbath-keeping and set the stage for the building of an eruv in the first place. So I was glad to see that NPR tackled the topic in a recent report. The journalism question here is whether the story is long enough to get the job done.

A clear fishing wire is tied around the island of Manhattan. It's attached to posts around the perimeter of the city, from First Street to 126th. This string is part of an eruv, a Jewish symbolic enclosure. Most people walking on the streets of Manhattan do not notice it at all. But many observant Jews in Manhattan rely on this string to leave the house on the Sabbath.

The concept of the eruv was first established almost 2,000 years ago to allow Jews to more realistically follow the laws of Sabbath rest, particularly one — no carrying on the Sabbath.

Actually, there is no one Bible verse saying “Thou shalt not carry anything on the Sabbath.”

The closest is a verse in Jeremiah 17:21 that talks about not carrying things for sale during the Sabbath, but there’s nothing that really addresses what goes on domestically. Carrying isn’t mentioned in the traditional 39 activities prohibited on the Sabbath.

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This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

THE QUESTION:

In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.

New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.

The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.”

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Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

My God understands why I did what I did. … To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews — remember that you are secure in Christ.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

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