Jews and Judaism

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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Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what

Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what

At this point, I think reporters have no choice but to dig into the Calvinist themes in the manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused shooter at Chabad of Poway.

It’s crucial to find out, of course, what he learned during his many hours in the pews at Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It would appear that Earnest then blended pieces of Calvinist theology into the white supremacist beliefs that he says that he learned elsewhere.

Here is the key question at this point, as I see it: Was there an online website (a specific writer, even) that twisted Calvinist doctrines into the form that Earnest blended into a radicalized, violent white nationalism that embraced some things that he heard at church, while rejecting others?

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the following, from my first GetReligion post on this subject:

Yes, reporters … need to note that Earnest said, in that same manifesto, that he didn’t soak up this twisted version of Christianity while frequenting church pews with his family. His hateful, deadly heresies grew out of a private, secret life online, listening to true radicals. Church members tried to talk to him, but he turned away.

Nevertheless, there is no question that reporters will have to deal with two clashing versions of Christianity when covering this story — that white supremacist brand proclaimed in this digital testimony and the Orthodox Presbyterian — uppercase “O” is part of the name — faith taught in his family’s congregation. In this case, the accused gunman did everything that he could to put the word “Christian” into play.

This brings us to two Washington Post stories that can — by savvy readers — be read together. They cover two parts of the same equation.

Here’s the headline on the first one I’d like readers to study: “Ancient hatreds, modern methods: How social media and political division feed attacks on sacred spaces.” And here is the overture, which covers the crucial ground:

Inspired by the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and enabled by the largely unchecked freedoms of social media, individual extremists have launched a steady series of assaults on religious institutions around the world, the latest at a California synagogue. …

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Yes, John Earnest put 'Christian' label into play: That's half of an equation reporters need to cover

Yes, John Earnest put 'Christian' label into play: That's half of an equation reporters need to cover

The following headline at the Progressive Secular Humanist weblog at Patheos was meant to be a grabber and it certainly achieved its goal.

Check this out: “Christian Terrorist John Earnest Issued Manifesto Before California Synagogue Shooting.”

That manifesto included some stunning pull quotes that were totally valid material for mainstream news reporters. Try to get through this Earnest passage without wanting to spew your morning beverage:

My God does not take kindly to the destruction of His creation. Especially one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and innovative races that He has created. Least of all at the hands of one of the most ugly, sinful, deceitful, cursed, and corrupt. 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.

Patheos blogger Michael Stone added, with justifiable snark: “Can you feel the Christian love?”

Yes, reporters also need to note that Earnest said, in that same manifesto, that he didn’t soak up this twisted version of Christianity while frequenting church pews with his family. His hateful, deadly heresies grew out of a private, secret life online, listening to true radicals. Church members tried to talk to him, but he turned away.

Nevertheless, there is no question that reporters will have to deal with two clashing versions of Christianity when covering this story — that white supremacist brand proclaimed in this digital testimony and the Orthodox Presbyterian — uppercase “O” is part of the name — faith taught in his family’s congregation. In this case, the accused gunman did everything that he could to put the word “Christian” into play.

It helps that leaders of the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church decided to let journalists sit in on part of the confession and healing process. Here’s the top of a key USA Today report:

SAN DIEGO — Before Saturday, John T. Earnest was known only as a quiet, successful student and an accomplished pianist.

On Sunday, his church reeled, calling a special session to address the news: Earnest had been detained in connection with Saturday’s deadly synagogue shooting near San Diego. His name had also been linked to a racist online posting that praised mass shooters, spoke of a plan to "kill Jews," and extensively cited scripture. …

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Some of the best religion stories start with a question — this one about NYT's David Brooks, for example

Some of the best religion stories start with a question — this one about NYT's David Brooks, for example

When Sarah Pulliam Bailey writes a thoughtful, nuanced story on religion, it’s not exactly a man-bites-dog scenario.

That’s what she almost always does, after all.

But here at GetReligion, we like to highlight positive achievements in religion news coverage (as well as the negative). So I can’t resist noting Bailey’s very interesting Washington Post piece today on the complicated faith of New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks.

Like a lot of the best religion stories, this one starts with a question.

“So what is David Brooks' faith?” Bailey commented in a public Facebook post. “I've heard that question over and over for the past few years. Here, I try to explain.”

Suffice it to say that Brooks’ faith is not an easy thing to explain, and that makes the former GetReligion contributor’s story all the more compelling.

The opening paragraphs:

In the world of national columnists, David Brooks is a star. But in the last few years, the New York Times writer and author has whipped up fascination among a certain subset of readers for a specific, gossipy reason: They wonder if the Jewish writer has become a Christian.

In his bestselling new book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life,” Brooks, 57, one of the most prominent columnists in the country, traces his spiritual journey alongside his relationship with his second wife, his former assistant who is 23 years his junior and attended Wheaton College, an elite evangelical school.

“I really do feel more Jewish than ever before,” he said in a recent interview. “It felt like more deepening of faith, instead of switching from one thing to another.”

He has no plans to leave Judaism, he writes, calling himself “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.”

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