Tag Archives: Religion

Who Is a Jew?

This article reminds me of that Margaret Cho bit where someone approaches her and says: Are you Chinese or Korean?  I can never tell you Asians apart!  And Cho replies: Why would you need to tell us apart?

Great Britain has embarked on that perennial question: Where does a “People” end and an individual’s belief system begin?  And, perhaps more singularly interesting when it comes to Judaism, where does a community end and “A People” begin?

Schools in the UK can base admissions decisions on religion, but not on ethnicity or race.

So is Jewishness a race?  Or is it a religion?

In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”

Two interesting questions here.  It seems the difference between a religion and a race connects intimately with which affiliations are by choice, and which affiliations are intrinsic.  For instance, while a rabbi may push me away with his left hand while pulling in with his right, I am capable of “becoming Jewish,” as defined by the Jewish community’s assessment of my relevant ideology.  But, try as I might, it would be impossible for me to be accepted as “Asian,” simply because there’s a phenotype associated with the Caucasian/Asian divide that simply isn’t present at the Jewish/Gentile cleavage.

The second question comes from how the court approached this question.  When the court first asked how the community determined who was a member, that interpretation of “Jewishness” proved “explosive.”

Noting that some Catholic schools “use baptism as a baseline for admission,” the article suggests no similar baseline for Judaism.  Indeed:

[T]he Court of Appeal ruling threw the school into a panicked scramble to put together a new admissions policy. It introduced a “religious practice test,” in which prospective students amass points for things like going to synagogue and doing charitable work.

That has led to all sorts of awkward practical issues, said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, because Orthodox Judaism forbids writing or using a computer on the Sabbath. That means that children who go to synagogue can’t “sign in,” but have to use methods like dropping prewritten postcards into boxes.

Evidently even if the judiciary arm of the state did look to Jewish assessments of “Jewishness,” there’d still be some controversy.  Not surprisingly, denominations that differ along ideological lines also differ across definitions of who’s in and who’s out:

The case has stirred up long-simmering resentments among the leaders of different Jewish denominations, who, for starters, disagree vehemently on the definition of Jewishness. They also disagree on the issue of whether an Orthodox leader is entitled to speak for the entire community.

What’s interesting is that the court completely disregards how the individual defines himself.  It makes sense that when asking about a categorical inclusion (or exclusion) with regards to a community, that the court would look only to how the community determines how membership gets defined.

But this inflicts a categorically racial analysis on the whole question.  Religion is a personal, internal choice.  If the court really wanted to know whether an individual is categorically Jewish, they would look to see how coherent his beliefs are with some monolithic Jewish system, no?  Whereas if the state begins from the proposition that what characterizes a person as Jewish is somehow external, non-fluid, or determinative only by community acceptance (or not), then the state begins from a presumption that Jewishness functions as a race.

What do you think?



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Principles and Popularity

Last night I had a great conversation with perhaps my favorite sheeb in the world about how religions operate, in a business sense.

Evidently the Pope recently announced that the Catholic church would no longer recognize female bishops, and that they are re-enforcing their boundaries to more specifically and emphatically exclude gay folks. My friend was incredulous that the church would alienate “the modern world” by looking so staunchly backwards, driving hordes of moderate papists to hypocrisy.  No one actually accepts such extreme measures, she reasoned. Right?!

I haven’t read the article she read, so I’ve not checked precisely *how* the Pope intends to “exclude” gays, but the mechanics really aren’t the point. The point is that a huge part of religion is in reinforcing tradition and pushing disciples to decide what’s important.

What made the conversation interesting was that, as a Jew, she was aghast that the church would take action that might alienate followers. “They’re bleeding adherents already!” she reminded me — “aren’t they concerned about numbers?!”

Are Catholics concerned about numbers? Or are they concerned with principle? Catholics have been on the prosperous end of the PR train for awhile now, having converted-or-slain en masse often enough in history that now cementing those last few heathens in Africa represents a mere feather in that tall papal cap.

Indeed, Jews self-classify as “orthodox” or “reform” according to how seriously they take that gospel, and whether it comes from Maimonides or Woody Allen. Catholicism represents the “orthodox” end of that stick, leaving dissenters to choose whichever appropriate reformed sect resonates for them.

In fact, now is the time for religions to regroup and re-establish their boundaries. Is it better to be popular, or to be right? For better or for worse, the Catholic church seems determined to eschew popularity for what it deems right.

And, frankly, I’m into that. Regardless of how similar my feelings are to that particular party line, I appreciate the church’s taking responsibility for providing moral guidance at their own expense.  And now, at the precipice of the paradigm shift to come, isn’t this as good a time as any to regroup and reassess?  To draw a line in the sand and encourage idle disciples to choose a side?

What distinguishes religion from politics, or philosophy, or idle musing is that a religion does not operate like a buffet. While it’s tempting to accept some tenets and reject others, that disregards the point of choosing this (to continue this bad analogy) prix fixe core-belief-plus-necessarily-affiliated-conclusions plate in the first place.

The point is to decide what’s important and then conform, to let your belief in X or Y lead you to the proper conclusions and appropriate behavior. Cherry-picking permits a sort of moral relativism that undermines all meaning in life. How can we know what’s real if we don’t acknowledge any boundaries or rules?

Perhaps this absolutist standpoint reveals why, at 26, I’m still struggling with what I believe. I’m still looking for something that speaks directly enough to my core that I’m willing to sublimate the rest of my premises and hand my rational, conclusion-drawing mind over to _that_.

I appreciate that the church has taken this opportunity to formally reject the incentive to blur lines; to inject relativity into what should follow a sort of moral imperative. Whatever Christianity is or is not, it’s critical to any moral — rather than business, or mere philosophy — making authority to police a baseline. “Feel free to reform,” the church is saying, “but fyi here’s what’s important to us.”

It’s refreshing, frankly, to hear the Pope lay it out like that, frank and straight-forward-like, so we can digest church tenets in a sophisticated way, and then freely accept or reject.


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Good Lord

The unparalleled awesomeness of the Letters to the WSJ Editor this weekend:

Debating the Really Big Questions of the Universe

The combination of Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong as presenters of two contrary views on the existence of God (“Man vs. God,” Weekend Journal, Sept. 12) is in itself a “creative act.” For one, God is a fairy tale, and for the other “at least it’s a nice fairy tale.” One may as well have asked Osama bin Laden to write his thoughts on America and then ask Hugo Chávez for a counter perspective.

Mr. Dawkins says: “What is so special about life? It never violates the laws of physics.” Let’s grant him that for the moment. But the fact of physics is that however you section physical, concrete reality, you end up with a state that doesn’t explain its own existence. Moreover, since the universe does have a beginning and nothing physical can explain its own existence, is it that irrational a position to think that the first cause would have to be something nonphysical?

A spiritual, moral first cause is a much more reasonable position than questions that smuggle in such realities without admitting it.

G.K. Chesterton said: “When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from him. But in heaven’s name to what?”

Ravi Zacharias

Norcross, Ga.

Unwilling to concede that God is cruel, Ms. Armstrong seems to conclude that God isn’t in control. But there are other ways of resolving the age-old question, “If God is good and all-powerful, why do evil and suffering exist?”

The best answer was provided by the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In his “Summa Theologica,” he wrote that God wills only the good directly but permits some evils and indirectly wills others. God wills the beautiful harmony of the whole created order, but for the sake of the whole, God permits and indirectly wills defects in some of its parts.

While Thomas Aquinas didn’t conceive of evolution, his thought complements it, for evolution teaches us that defects produce conditions for new, more wonderful things to emerge.

The wisdom of this plan peaks in humanity. But while we are the high point of this world, we are its most dangerous part, uniquely able to destroy the whole. Why would God make something capable of such evil? God permits the evil of sin because God directly wills the good of human freedom

The ultimate wisdom of this order is apparent only in light of what Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan calls the “supreme good,” namely love. There is no love without freedom, and no freedom without the chance of evil.

Thus, this world order—with all its current imperfections—shows not that God is redundant as Mr. Dawkins believes, nor that God is not all-powerful as Ms. Armstrong implies. Rather, an evolutionary world order demonstrates more clearly the wisdom, goodness and power of God.

Mark T. Miller

San Francisco

As a retired scientist, I know that while parts of evolution are well-explained, there is no scientific explanation of the origin of life. If you accept that life began only because of random events, then you and science are acting on faith. Accepting an explanation on faith isn’t a part of science, but is the way to God.

Howard Deutsch


Albert Einstein famously said: “I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world.” Mr. Dawkins has taken Einstein up a notch and has chosen to play dice with God. Any bets on the outcome?

Mr. Dawkins fails to recognize that religions view this world as fallen. This fall doesn’t impugn or dismiss a creator. We learn from the challenge.

Chris W. Kite

Cornelius, N.C.

My friend and erstwhile neighbor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was asked by reporters in the 1960s for his reaction to the fact that some intellectuals thought God was dead. The president replied, “That’s odd; I was just speaking to him this morning.” Mr. Dawkins goes one better; he says God was never alive in the first place. I’ll cast my lot with the former president, as well as the Psalmist who wrote “The fool says in his heart there is no God.”

Ms. Armstrong opts for God, but her God is no more than a mythic evolutionary journey on a road less traveled that we make up as we go along. No “unsustainable certainty” for her. Presumably she’s OK with the “story” of the death and resurrection of Christ, for example, if (making no pretentions to historical accuracy) it gives one the needed psychological boost to cope with human grief and helps one find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. St. Paul would beg to disagree. Writing to the early Corinthian church, he said that if Christ isn’t raised, then our faith is in vain; and if we only have hope in Christ in this life, we are of all people to be pitied. Once again, I vote with St. Paul rather than Ms. Armstrong.

John E. Archibold


So life has evolved from the simple to the complex, and there can be no intelligent design to the universe because intelligence itself is complex and therefore can only exist through Darwinian evolution? I’m supposed to look at this amazing planet and galaxy and universe (with my eyes and brain), and rule out any intelligence behind its design based on this weak argument? I don’t think so.

The only thing of which I am truly convinced is that anyone who claims to know the origin of the universe and our astonishing lives is certain to be wrong.

Marianne Mason

Austin, Texas

Mr. Dawkins should leave the God question to others and stick to the evolution-versus-creation debate. Even I, an agnostic scientist, find his commentary polemic and off-putting. It is no wonder the God crowd is gaining in number; they are easier to read.

Katherine Helmetag

Troy, Mich.

If we accept Mr. Dawkins’s point of view, we have only the human mind left to worship, and if we accept Ms. Armstrong’s description of God beyond God, we are in danger of wandering off into the ethereal mists. While her approach may work for mystics and academicians, it offers little solace to most of us as we slog through our work-a-day world.

Whether God is a separate reality (my view) or a figment of our wishful thinking, we are a deeply flawed species and need God to save us from ourselves. Voltaire recognized this fact when he wrote, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

Thomas M. Hyers

St. Louis

I only had two semesters of college physics, so I must have missed the part where Mr. Dawkins’s much vaunted laws of physics began permitting man to love, laugh and cry.

Joseph Furman

San Antonio, Texas

One day Mr. Dawkins will discover God, not by looking up into the cosmos and failing to see God, nor by looking down into an electron microscope and failing to see God, but by looking deep within himself and finding his own inadequacy. When that day comes he will be astonished and delighted, not that he has invented God, but that long before he ever thought of God, God invented him. God will also be delighted, but not astonished.

William G. White

Franklin Park, Ill.

I conclude from their writings that both essayists are here on planet Earth totally by accident, and that their ancestors evolved from some primeval stuff that just happened to be around. That leads one to think that there is no reason for their existence. They have no purpose, no one to answer to, nothing to look forward to after death, and when they die, they will cease to exist. Their accomplishments during their 70 years of life, compared to eternity, will be completely insignificant. Boy, what a bummer!

However, I have a purpose and a future. I was created by God to worship him and to enjoy being in his presence forever. I am in unity with God through his son Jesus Christ and am assured of going to be with him when I die. I will live forever with joy, contentment, etc. No pain, no tears.

Frankly, I prefer my position to theirs.

Donald C. Dowdy

Greensboro, N.C.

Ms. Armstrong doesn’t speak for Christians, who believe that historical events are foundational to faith in God. Whether God used evolution or some other means to create the Earth, the belief that he did so in an historical act is foundational to the Christian faith.

For Christians in the mainstream of the faith, God was never as Ms. Armstrong asserts, “merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.”

The Rev. Josh Miller

Church of the Ascension


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Out of Curiosity

More plagiarizing, via The Dish:

Stanley Fish writes about the religious tradition that condemns curiosity:

[The curious] have no power of self-control because they have no allegiance — to a deity, to human flourishing, to community — that might serve as a check on their insatiable curiosity. (Curiosity is inherently insatiable; its satisfactions are only momentary; there is always another horizon.) In short, curiosity — sometimes called research, sometimes called unfettered inquiry, sometimes called progress, sometimes called academic freedom — is their God. The question, posed by thinkers from Aquinas to Augustine to Newman to Griffiths, is whether this is the God — the God, ultimately, of self — we want to worship. Given the evidence…the answer would seem to be yes.

I’ve always considered Curiosity close to the top of my list of preferred virtues.  It’s always my favorite thing about people, and the most satisfying part of my own personality.  Indeed, perhaps ironically (who could have imagined that there was a religion for condemning curiosity?) my Facebook status for “religious beliefs” reads: Curious.

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Voltaire on Capitalism and Religious Tolerance

My brain is tired from its exercise tonight of razor-sharp cutting through scarcely separated layers of religion and morality. Ahem.

Voltaire, you knew just what I needed to hear:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word.

At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son’s foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.

(from Notable and Quotable.)

Voltaire is talking about capitalism, but this applies just as well to law. If “bankruptcy” is the only infidelity in capitalism, then I’ve been sifting through legal interpretation to find those empirical wrongs punished in all legal systems. The thing is, my paper is actually on Jurisprudence. So there’s this shifting empiricism between analyzing what is and analyzing how we got there.

What I’m doing is analyzing law from four “jurisdictions”: Jewish, Catholic, Anglo-Saxon common law as we know it, and a fourth “in reason we trust” society that has specifically removed the legal bits that evolved directly from religious morals. Functionally the fourth jurisdiction is the equivalent of people who won’t thank you when you say “bless you” after they sneeze, because even though it’s been incorporated as a cultural norm, the fact that it brings religious context to the everyday is somehow offensive.

My theory of evolution/interpretation is this:
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