Remember the Elderly


This is an important reminder from Shai Held, president, dean, and chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Atlantic:

Why do I say “the elderly”? In its biblical context, the obligation to honor parents is a command given to grown children (as are the Ten Commandments more broadly—you don’t tell children not to commit adultery nor to covet their neighbors’ fields). When you are an adult, the Bible instructs, you must not abandon the elderly. Giving voice to a pervasive human fear, the Psalmist prays, “Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me!”

What does it say about our society that people think of the elderly so dismissively—and moreover, that they feel no shame about expressing such thoughts publicly? I find myself wondering whether this colossal moral failure is exacerbated by the most troubled parts of our cultural and economic life. When people are measured and valued by their economic productivity, it is easy to treat people whose most economically productive days have passed as, well, worthless.

From a religious perspective, if there is one thing we ought to teach our children, it is that our worth as human beings does not depend on or derive from what we do or accomplish or produce; we are, each of us, infinitely valuable just because we are created in the image of God. We mattered before we were old enough to be economically productive, and we will go on mattering even after we cease to be economically productive.

Varied ethical and religious traditions find their own ways to affirm an elemental truth of human life: The elderly deserve our respect and, when necessary, our protection. The mark of a decent society is that it resists the temptation to spurn the defenseless. It is almost a truism that the moral fabric of a society is best measured by how it treats the vulnerable in its midst—and yet it is a lesson we never seem to tire of forgetting. “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old,” the Bible says—look out for them and, in the process, become more human yourself.

Read the entire piece here.

Christian Uses and Representations of Judaism and the Old Testament in Reformation Europe

ASCH logoRalph Keen is writing for us this week from the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City.  Keen is Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 2018 he was president of the ASCH.

In a session on uses and representations of Judaism in the Reformation era, Samuel Dubbelman (Boston U) described Johann Matthesius’s role as the source of a legend in which a Polish Jew named Michael of Posen tried to assassinate Luther with poison; Erik Lundeen (Baylor) uncovered new points in John Foxe’s sermons (on the occasion of a Jew’s conversion to Christianity) that reveal a deeper ambivalence toward Judaism than previously recognized; and Brian Hanson (Bethlehem College, MN) examined pre-1560 Tudor sermons for their use of examples from the Prophets. Thomas Becon as Elijah, Robert Crowley on the role of a shepherd—both adopting Biblical personas in their rhetoric. All three papers uncovered nuances in these Reformers’ attitudes to Judaism, the Jewish rejection of “idolatry and superstition” providing a basis for an affinity with the anti-Catholic rhetoric and tempering the anti-Judaism usually associated with early Protestantism.

Why Jews and Muslims Might Claim a Religious Liberty Exemption to the Alabama Abortion Bill

Abortion Alabama

Steven Waldman, author of a new book titled Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedommakes a fascinating argument in a recent op-ed at Newsweek.  What happens when a pro-life position on abortion clashes with religious liberty?  Jews believe life begins at birth, not conception.  Muslims believe that life begins around the fourth month of gestation.  Are these deeply-held religious beliefs?

On the Christian Right, where anti-abortion legislation and religious liberty drive the political agenda of its members, heads are exploding.  What happens when religious liberty clashes with anti-abortion laws?

Here is a taste of Waldman’s piece “Alabama Abortion Law: Should Jewish and Muslim Doctors and Women Get Exemptions For Religious Freedom?:

There may be a strange, implied loophole in the Alabama anti-abortion law—that abortions can be performed … if the doctor is Jewish or Muslim.

Here’s the logic.  We are in a moment of history when the courts are leaning in the direction of providing religious exemptions to secular laws. This was the thrust of the Sisters of the Poor case, when a group of nuns said they should be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for contraception coverage. They argued that the rule violated their religious beliefs so they shouldn’t have to participate. The “Bakers of Conscience” have made a similar argument—that they should be allowed to avoid making a cake for a same-sex wedding without being prosecuted under anti-discrimination laws—because their beliefs are grounded in religion.

The drafters of the law were at least partly motivated by their faith. “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life,”  said Clyde Chambliss, a sponsor of the bill.

So the question becomes: does the law infringe on the religious beliefs of the woman or the doctor?

Though there are many interpretations in the Jewish tradition, the most common is that life begins at birth, not conception. Reform Rabbis have decreed that abortion is permitted if there is a  “strong preponderance of medical opinion that the child will be born imperfect physically, and even mentally.” If you’re a Jewish woman, you could argue that this law forces you to abide by a different definition of life (with roots in Roman Catholicism). 

If you’re a Jewish doctor who has sworn the Hippocratic oath—to perform medically appropriate procedures without discrimination—then it may be your religious belief that you have a duty to provide a Biblically-sanctioned abortion. By blocking you from offering that service, the law is forcing you to violate your Hippocratic oath and the guidance from your religion.

Read the rest here.

5 “Must-Read” Books on Anti-Semitism in America

FordThese recommendations come from Brandeis University’s Jonathan Sarna, one of the foremost authorities on American Judaism.  (Back in 2012, I reviewed Sarna’s excellent book When General Grant Expelled the Jews).

Antisemitism in America
By Leonard Dinnerstein

And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank 
By Steve Oney

Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate
By Neil Baldwin

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton 
By Jerome Karabel

The Temple Bombing 
By Melissa Fay Greene

Read Sarna’s annotations on these titles at the Brandeis University website.

Who Owns the Oldest Synagogue Building in the United States?


Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.

A federal court just ruled that Congregation Shearith Israel (Manhattan, 1654), the oldest Jewish congregation in America, owns Touro Synagogue (Newport, R.I.), the oldest synagogue building (1763) in America.

Find out more by reading Sharon Otterman’s story at The New York Times.

Here is a taste:

Two Jewish synagogues consider themselves the oldest in the nation, for different reasons. Shearith Israel, founded in Manhattan in 1654, is the oldest congregation, though it is not located in its original building. Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., built in 1763, is the oldest synagogue building.

But now a federal court has ruled that Shearith Israel in New York actually owns the Touro Synagogue building in Newport, the result of twists in a history spanning centuries.

Justice David H. Souter, the retired associate justice of the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion for the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued on Wednesday. In it, he overturned a district-court ruling that the congregation that has worshiped for more than 130 years in the Touro Synagogue building, Jeshuat Israel, had control over the building and its objects.

The appeals court instead enforced a series of contracts between the two congregations from the 20th century, in which Jeshuat Israel acknowledged that it was leasing the Newport building. Now, what may be the country’s most historic synagogue building — which George Washington visited in 1790, inspiring an important letter on religious freedom — is officially owned by a group that is based 180 miles away.

The reasons are complicated. When Newport’s Jews faced persecution during the American Revolution, they fled the town and the synagogue building, many for New York. Without a congregation in Newport, Shearith Israel took control of the synagogue, along with the sacred ritual objects with which the congregants fled. Among the objects was a pair of decorative knobs with attached bells made of silver and gold designed to top the shafts around which the Torah scrolls were rolled.

Read the rest here.


America and the Ten Commandments

StoneOxford University Press blog is running an excerpt from Jenna Weissman Joselit‘s new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.

Here is a taste:

Although we are told that Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, their presence has always been particularly strong in America. Regardless of who invokes them and for what purpose, the Ten Commandments have proved to be incredibly versatile and enduring in our cultural idiom. Below you’ll find ten moments in American history where the Decalogue has made its presence felt.

1. In June 1860, a man in Ohio named David Wyrick found an oddly shaped stone in one of the many Native American burial sites in the area which had indecipherable markings on it. He claimed to have found one of the stone tablets that God had bestowed upon Moses. Largely ridiculed at first, he then discovered another stone, shaped like the top of a church window which was covered in what was later confirmed as a variant of Hebrew script. When brought to experts the script did indeed feature a form of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated, but still the basic text. Was it authentic or an elaborate hoax? You can go to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coschocton, Ohio to see the stones for yourself.

2. In 1897, Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan proposed that all immigrants be given a test to display mastery of the Ten Commandments in order to gain American citizenship. He claimed that it was not a religious test but rather a “test that goes to the constitution of society.”

3. In 1905, the Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco revealed the stain glass window of its newly constructed synagogue. At first glance, the window seemed to depict a traditional scene of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets in his hand. Closer examination, however, revealed that the mountain in the background was not Mount Sinai, nor were the flora and fauna that of Israel. Rather, El Capitan of the Yosemite Valley loomed in the background, complete with the plant and animal life of central California, refiguring the Golden State as the Promised Land.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner With Zev Eleff

ZevZev Eleff is  Chief Academic Officer at Touro College, Hebrew Theological in Skokie, Illinois.  This interview is based on his new book Who Rules the Synagogue?: Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Who Rules the Synagogue

ZE: Long ago, historian Jon Butler called for American religious historians to pay greater attention to the “Catholic model” of historical inquiry. By this, Butler asked the field to consider questions that we normally ask in the realm of Catholic history but rarely do for other religious communities. This provocative essay directed me to ask questions about the role of authority in American Judaism, a research question taken up by Catholic historians but by few others. I hope that my monograph will be a useful model for others in the field of American religion.

JF: What is the argument of Who Rules the Synagogue?

ZE: My book argues that nineteenth century American Judaism underwent important change, in ways that have been heretofore overlooked by scholars. In the first decades, synagogues and other institutions were led by lay leaders. However, by the end of 1800s, it was apparent that rabbis had seized control of the all-important synagogue. Much of this was accomplished through the introduction of religious reforms. My book theorizes that the 1860s represented the most critical period in this transformation and introduced important determinants of change. All related to the Civil War, religious, economic and transatlantic forces brought about a new era of a clergy-led Jewish community in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Who Rules the Synagogue?

ZE: I hope that my book introduces important questions that have not yet been taken up by the field. Scholars operating in other subfields may find that other factors led to change. In any case, my sense is that the book’s thesis and many of its rich primary sources will be useful to fellow historians. I really look forward and anticipate a time in the near future when my work will be placed in conversation with other historical studies in the broader field of American religion.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

ZE: As an undergraduate at Yeshiva University, I was very fortunate to find several terrific mentors, most notably Prof. Jeffrey Gurock. I wrote my honors thesis (later published in a scholarly journal) under Prof. Gurock and served as his research assistant. Afterward, I conducted my doctoral studies under the wonderful and wise Prof. Jonathan Sarna, as well as leading scholars like Profs. David Hackett Fischer and Jane Kamensky. All of my teachers have pushed me to think more creatively, and with the notion that there is still much room to explore in the field.

JF: What is your next project?

ZE: I am presently working on a project that explores various shifting centers and fissures within the American Jewish community in the 1980s. My major point of focus is the Reform Movement’s decision to accept Patrilineal Descent (as opposed to Jewish status determined by someone’s Jewish mother). This new policy had an important impact upon the middle-of-the-road path in Reform Judaism and in the broader American Jewish community. It also shifted the center of world Jewry from the United States to Israel. Of course, this “‘de-centering” matches similar changes in modern Christian history, as well as the political, social and economic history on American life in the 1980s.

JF: Thanks, Zev!

The Author’s Corner With Rebecca Alpert


Rebecca T. Alpert is Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Temple University.  This interview is based on the forthcoming paperback release of her 2011 book Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford University Press).

JF: What led you to write Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. My mother taught me that the Dodgers were “Jewish” because they were responsible for breaking baseball’s color line, and racial equality is a fundamental Jewish value. As I began to do some research many years later, I discovered that my mother was not the only one who held that belief; many liberal Jews, like other ethnic groups in Brooklyn, believed that their support of Jackie Robinson integrating baseball was a big reason why that happened. (They weren’t entirely wrong; Branch Rickey could never have succeeded at his “Great Experiment” in St. Louis where he worked for many years; in fact, he never even tried.) I wrote an article about that topic entitled “Jackie Robinson: Jewish Icon.” But then I started to wonder, where were the Jews when baseball was segregated? Did they play any role in the Negro Leagues?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: In Out of Left Field I argue that Jews made a unique contribution to mid twentieth century black baseball, in three ways. They played ball–a community of black Jews in Virginia, known as Temple Beth El, had their own team that played against the Negro League teams when they barnstormed through the South; they owned teams—several second generation Eastern European Jews were instrumental in the operation of the Negro Leagues; and they fought to integrate baseball—the Jewish sportswriters at the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, both reported on Negro League games when other white newspapers ignored them, and led efforts to end segregation as early as the mid-1930s, working alongside the black press.

JF: Why do we need to read Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: The book opens up a new perspective on the old question of the relationship between Jews and African Americans. It shows quite pointedly that there is some kernel of truth to the myth of the Black-Jewish alliance in the post-World War II era, but that the story is much more complicated, as illustrated through these case studies of black Jews, Jewish businessmen, and Jewish communists that took place before and during the war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RAI actually don’t identify as an American historian; I’m a religious studies scholar who works primarily in the area of American Judaism. My interest in American Jewish history began when, as a religion major in college, I decided to spend my junior year in Israel to learn more about my Jewish identity. What I quickly discovered there was that I’m really an American Jew, and so when I went to graduate school I focused my studies on American Judaism. From there I quickly learned I couldn’t understand American Judaism without learning about American religion, and ultimately that I needed to understand American history to really comprehend American religion.

JF: What is your next project?

RA: I am continuing to work in the area of religion and sports, co-editing an anthology, Gods, Games, and Globalization: New Perspectives on Religion and Sports. It will include articles about religious groups of all shapes and sizes that have used sports as a vehicle for inclusion into the mainstream, as a recruitment device, or for developing spiritual and physical fitness. And beyond the “holy trinity” of American sports—baseball, basketball, and football—one finds the traces of transcendence in everything from mixed martial arts to soccer. All told, this collection will reveal the variety of religious experiences within sports on the global stage.

JF: Thanks, Rebecca!

The Secular Prophetic Style of Bernie Sanders


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the religion of Bernie Sanders.  I tried to suggest that Sanders’s religion is informed by the virtues that have informed American socialism and republicanism.

Over at Religion & Politics, Michael Schulson offers a more thorough analysis of Sanders’s religious rhetoric.  Here is a taste:

…Bernie Sanders’ campaign seems immanent in two senses: first, he does not give scriptural stories special moral authority. And, second, he does not give his own story special moral authority. You could see this attitude on display in the first Democratic presidential debate, when the then-five candidates got up to give their introductory speeches. The other four talked about their resumes, their grandchildren, their personal stories. They said nice, normal, getting-to-know you things, such as “I’m Hillary Clinton” or “My name is Martin O’Malley,” or “My mother grew up in the poverty of east Arkansas, chopping cotton.” Sanders thanked the moderator. Then he pivoted to his favorite register, rage. “I think most Americans understand that our country today faces a series of unprecedented crises,” Sanders began. In his choreographed introduction to the American people, he did not bother to say his own name.

Something about this approach feels very Jewish. In part, it may be a relic of a history in which Jewish identity was often a barrier to social and political power. The solution was to conceal that identity—or to demand access based on less personal or tribal qualities. “I think Jews in this country know that the less that we are judging people on the basis of their beliefs, their ethnic heritage, how they worship or don’t worship, how they believe or don’t believe, the better the country will be,” said Jeffrey Falick, the secular humanistic rabbi at Birmingham Temple, the country’s oldest congregation of secular humanist Jews. “And I think that comes from the Jewish experience,” Falick added.

Alternately, this approach may feel so Jewish simply because the alternative feels so Christian. In contrast to the campaigning-as-testifying model, Sanders offers a kind of secular prophetic style, in the spirit of the Hebrew Bible—one in which the messenger matters much less than the message, and in which the appeal is not to some higher authority, but to the basic moral faculty of human beings, which is to say, our sense of fairness. Some people have a lot of money. Many more have very little. Cue the social critique.

Read the entire piece here.

Mini-Review of Jonathan Sarna, "When General Grant Expelled the Jews"

Today Books & Culture is running my mini-review of an excellent book: Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews.  Here is a taste:

On December 17, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War and only weeks before Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders No. 11. The order expelled Jews “as a class” from the territory of the Department of Tennessee, a region under Grant’s command that included Mississippi, western Tennessee, and parts of Kentucky and Illinois. Grant had been informed that some Jews were running a black market in Southern cotton and he wanted to put a stop to this violation of wartime trade regulations. (Both Jews and non-Jews were involved in this illegal trade. Rather than targeting the individual Jews and non-Jews who were leading the ring, Grant went after Jews “as a class”).

Read the rest here.

Beuttler Reviews Schultz, "Tri-Faith America"

Fred Beuttler, the former deputy historian of the House of Representatives, reviews Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Protestantism to its Protestant Promise.  Here is a taste:

Schultz concludes with warnings of a return to a “Protestant America,” complaining of how the new religious right in the 1970s and after have co-opted the concept Judeo-Christian, in a “visceral reaction” to the anticipated trajectory of where he sees the Tri-Faith ideal headed. For he notices the cultural shift from pluralism to secularism, one symbolized in the new name of the NCCJ. “Since the late 1970s, there has been a remarkable transition in the country’s religious sociology,” he says, unfortunately emphasizing “sociology” rather than the significance of ideas. However, he rightly points out that, instead of the divisions between the three faiths of democracy, as had been the case from the 1920s to the 1960s, “by the 1970s conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all began to feel they had more in common with one another than with their co-religionists who happened to be liberal.” This is probably the most significant shift in the religious and cultural landscape since 1960, and this ideological divide between liberalism and conservatism will lead to increasing polarization, not along lines of religion or race, but rather of ideas, as people seem to be sorting themselves out on cultural lines.

FDR was a Jew and Lincoln was a Catholic

OK, not really. But these rumors swirled during the FDR and Lincoln presidencies. Bruce Feiler wonders “Why Americans Don’t Like their President’s God.”

He concludes:

But as reliably as Americans have adopted these views, they’ve also moved past them. In every case of religious discrimination in the United States, whether it was Methodists in the eighteenth century, Catholics in the nineteenth century, or Jews in the twentieth century, the once reviled and ostracized “outsider” religion in America eventually makes it into the inner circle.

And odds are the pattern will repeat itself with Muslims in the twenty-first century.