I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

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I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karni stating:

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

I know, I know. We’re talking about Twitter. But stop and think about this. What was the Times White House correspondent saying there, other than “Trump is wrong”?

As always, words matter when you’re trying to talk about theology, and that’s what was going on here.

What are our options, in this case? What’s the real question here that’s worth discussing?

* Do Jews believe in what some would call a “Christian” concept of heaven (and hell)?

* Do Jews believe in life after death? Period.

* Do Jews have a theological tradition linked to reunion with ancestors? How about a mysterious state of darkness called “Sheol”?

* Do Jews believe that there is any kind of judgment after death? Do actions and decisions in this life affect souls after death?

* Do Jews believe in any kind of “resurrection of the dead”?

I could go on. Trust me on this: There are lots of different Jewish thinkers saying lots of different things on these topics. Click here, then here and even here for some options.

So what was the news context of this theological wise crack?

The main Times story on the State of the Union was written by veteran Peter Baker and it’s interesting for several reasons — including a rather stunning lack of quoted material from the speech itself.

What really mattered — #DUH — was political theater, as opposed to factual discussions of political issues and, for sure, cultural and moral issues. Religion? Forget about it. Here’s a sample:

Republicans jumped to their feet at the president’s calls to curb immigration, limit late-term abortions and ensure that the United States does not turn to socialism, even chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” a couple of times as if at a Trump campaign rally. “That sounds so good,” he exulted. …

But the evening was filled with political theater as the president introduced World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors, the Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a 10-year-old cancer survivor, a police officer shot seven times at last fall’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh and the teary-eyed relatives of a couple killed by an illegal immigrant, all sitting with the first lady, Melania Trump.

What did Trump actually say that led to the Jewish heaven tweet?

Here is a transcript of a long, long chunk of the speech dedicated to a serious topic — anti-Semitism. Yes, this also includes an oh-so-Trump interjection of a personal nature, right in the middle of material on life-and-death issues.

Just months ago, 11 Jewish-Americans were viciously murdered in an anti-semitic attack on the tree of life synagogue in pittsburgh. Swat officer Timothy Matson raced into the gunfire and was shot seven times chasing down the killer. And he was very successful. Timothy has just had his 12th surgery and he is going in for many more, but he made the trip to be here with us tonight. Officer Matson, please.

Thank you. We are forever grateful. Thank you very much. Tonight, we are also joined by Pittsburgh survivor Judah Samet. He arrived at the synagogue as the massacre began. But not only did Judah narrowly escape death last fall — more than seven decades ago, he narrowly survived the nazi concentration camps. Today is Judah’s 81st birthday.

(Some sing “Happy Birthday.”)

They would not do that for me, Judah.


Judah says he can still remember the exact moment, nearly 75 years ago, after 10 months in a concentration camp, when he and his family were put on a train, and told they were going to another camp. Suddenly the train screeched to a halt. A soldier appeared. Judah’s family braced for the worst. Then, his father cried out with joy, “it’s the Americans.”

Thank you. A second holocaust survivor who is here tonight, Joshua Kaufman, was a prisoner at Dachau. He remembers watching through a hole in the wall of a cattle car as American soldiers rolled in with tanks. “to me,” Joshua recalls, “the American soldiers were proof that God exists, and they came down from the sky.” They came down from heaven.

I began this evening by honoring three soldiers who fought on D-day in the Second World War. One of them was Herman Zeitchik. But there is more to Herman’s story. A year after he stormed the beaches of normandy, Herman was one of those American soldiers who helped liberate Dachau. He was one of the Americans who helped rescue Joshua from that hell on Earth.

Now, after you read that, is the first thing that leaps into your mind a rushed tweet about Jewish theology on heaven and hell?

Just asking.

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