Reconstructionist 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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Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict over control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif appears over. It ended well short of its worst possible outcome, but without any finality — again.

By “worst possible outcome,” I mean a terribly bloody escalation. By “without any finality,” I mean that sooner or later the situation will again heat up because the core of the conflict -- which side has the final word on physical control of the site -- remains unsettled.

But that’s how both sides want it for now -- save for each camp’s most radical elements who would relish an explosive fight to the finish. That’s because neither side's leadership Is capable of making the tough political compromises necessary to really defuse the situation.

So this slow-boiling tribal war over land continues. (Need to catch up with recent events?  If so, read this piece from The Economist, written part way through the episode.)

Religion reporters: Jews this week observed the solemn commemoration of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destructions of the First and Second Jewish temples (plus other Jewish tragedies across history) that stood on the Old City esplanade from which the site takes it Jewish name.

While the commemoration ran from Monday evening to Tuesday evening, it's not too late to tie Tisha B’Av (literally, the ninth day of the Hebrew calendar’s month of Av)  to the current state of affairs. You might want to refer to this handy Religion News Service “‘Splainer."

I'm not qualified to speak definitively about just how the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif dispute breaks down along religious, nationalistic and political lines among ordinary Palestinians and other Muslims that support them -- as opposed to the statements of Palestinian leaders who always stress religious claims in rallying global Muslim support.

Suffice it to say that traditional Islam, far more than do contemporary Christianity or rabbinic Judaism (rabbinic, meaning post-Temple), makes little differentiation between the religious and political realms, and that for many Muslims living under undemocratic governments religion is the only outlet for political expression on any level.

However, I do know enough about the Jewish side to suggest that reporters consider the following.

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How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?

How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?


What caused Judaism to break into branches? Are the branches even seen as a division? Does theology differ among them?


The questioner has “a Christian background" and, thus, is familiar with a religion made up of separate groups. 

Christianity has long been divided into four main families, the so-called “Oriental Orthodox,” the Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism. A fifth family of new, independent churches in the developing world developed in the 20th Century. 

Islam, too, suffered the big breach between Sunni and Shia believers in the first century that continues to be troublesome, and sometimes lethal, today.

By contrast, for much of its history Judaism was essentially one united faith, though naturally it encompassed various movements, tendencies, cultures and local variations.

That began to change with the modern emancipation and assimilation of Jews in Western Europe. A liberal form of the faith developed, especially in Germany, and flourished among 19th Century German immigrants in the United States. Worship was simplified, Hebrew was downplayed in favor of worship in common  languages with Protestant-style sermons, and age-old observances were eliminated or made matters of personal choice.

The resulting liberal branch or denomination eventually known as Reform Judaism centered on three North American institutions, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) that 34 synagogues formed in 1873, Hebrew Union College to train rabbis (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1890).

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Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Be wary. Be very wary when reporting survey results, those microwave-ready story hooks -- perfect for slow news days -- that purport to provide objective data revealing, well, sometimes nothing. That goes double for polls that claim to measure religious beliefs and practices.

That's because all but the very best crafted ones fail to get anywhere close to the subtleties that turn generalized numbers into accurate snapshots of how beliefs and practices truly play out in individual lives.

Case in point: A recent WIN/Gallup International survey claiming to measure religious belief around the world. One of the nations surveyed was Israel, where religion is as politicized as it is anywhere, making it particularly difficult to label individual religious choices.

Take, for example, my Israeli-born wife's cousin, Ayala. She's a leader in her Jerusalem synagogue but would probably physically recoil if you called her religious because of the divisive social and political connotations the term carries in Israel.

Ayala speaks contemptuously of those theologically ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews who consider themselves the only true practitioners of Judaism in Israel. Nor does she speak well of the politically right wing Orthodox Zionist hardliners who are the backbone of the West Bank settler movement.

Want to get into a sure fire argument in Israel?

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Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Is there a more desirable photo op for an Israeli politician (excluding Israel's Arab and some of its left-wing Jewish parliamentarians) than one taken at HaKotel, which is the short-hand Hebrew term for Jerusalem's Western Wall?

Oh, never mind; silly question. And ditto for visiting dignitaries who also flock to the mostly Herodian-era stone blocks, the exposed portion of which stands 62-feet high. The resulting image screams identification with Israel's binary raison d'être -- secular contemporary Zionism and traditional religious piety.

Which is why Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was there the Saturday night prior to his highly charged Washington address to Congress, when he implored President Barack Obama not to sign a deal with Iran that would allow the Islamic republic to retain its suspected nuclear weapon capabilities. The visit dominated the American news cycle for the better part of a week, a virtual eon in this time of 24/7 deadlines.

Yes, it was political theater of the highest order. But it was something more, because anything to do with Israel automatically takes on a religious tone. You know, Jews versus Muslims, the knee-jerk equating of all things Israeli with religious Judaism, the entire Holy Land gestalt.

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