Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recent book, Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.
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35 Years After Jonestown
It’s been 35 years since 918 people, including 257 children, died on Nov. 18, 1978, at the Peoples Temple massacre in Jonestown. The mass murder inside the South American jungle commune in Guyana was engineered by Jim Jones, a murderous cult leader, and was the only time in American history a member of Congress, Leo Ryan, D-Calif., was killed in the line of official duty.
Most of the victims were forced to commit suicide by drinking a fatal cocktail of poisoned punch spiked with a Valium tranquilizer. In the days that followed the slaughter of the innocents, Jonestown became a widely reported global event whose media coverage rivaled that of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
As a result of the massacre, “drinking the Kool-Aid” entered the popular lexicon to describe blind acceptance of a belief without critical analysis. Some of the Jonestown dead were not suicides; they were killed against their will, and the actual drink of death was, in fact, something called Flavor Aid.
The Persistent Stained-Glass Ceiling
More than 40 years have passed since Sally Priesand was ordained as the first female rabbi in the U.S. Since then, more than 800 female rabbis — including 647 in the Reform movement — have graduated from several seminaries, including my daughter Eve.
Even so, Jewish and Christian clergywomen still face visible and invisible obstacles in their careers. Call it the persistent stained-glass ceiling. Some barriers are major in nature; some minor.
A male rabbi, minister or priest might be praised for being “assertive” and “ambitious” as he climbs the slippery ladder of success in American religious life. But women who possess similar qualities are dubbed “brash” or “arrogant.” Male clergy can be “dynamic,” while women with the same qualities are often termed “strident.”
God Didn’t Choose Sides at Gettysburg
During the July 1-3, 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, there were Christians and Jews on both sides of the conflict who knew the answer to the question “Whose side is God on?”
Or at least they thought they did.
In 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared: “Our cause is just and holy,” and the South self-assuredly adopted as its motto Deo vindice (“God will vindicate us”). In the same year, Julia Ward Howe composed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the triumphant words: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. … I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps. … Glory, glory Hallelujah, His truth is marching on.”
Father Abraham and the Jews
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will probably nab a few of its 12 nominated Academy Awards when the Oscars are handed out on Sunday — a sign that Americans never have and probably never will tire of our 16th president.
Abraham Lincoln’s face is etched in stone on Mount Rushmore and his brooding statue sits enshrined in a Greek-style temple in Washington. His succinct Gettysburg Address (about 270 words) took all of about two minutes to deliver, yet remains this nation’s most famous speech 150 years later. His assassination lifted him to mythic status — a martyr who earned his place in our pantheon of national heroes.
We just marked the 150th anniversary of his Emancipation Proclamation, but that necessary action wasn’t enough. Spielberg’s film revives Lincoln’s second act, in 1865, to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery through a divided Congress. It wasn’t the only injustice Lincoln worked to correct.
In his recent book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Brandeis University Professor Jonathan D. Sarna recounts an important but little-known event in 1863 in Lincoln’s quest for full civil, religious, and human rights for all Americans — this time, for American Jews.
Ancient Wisdom for 21st Century Problems
In an attempt to make sense of the 2012 election and the unfolding David Petraeus sex scandal, I consulted the Bible and the Sayings of the Fathers, a collection of sage rabbinic teachings written between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.
Turns out the ancient perceptions about politics and ethics are as insightful today as when they were first uttered.
I am appalled when clergy of any religion endorse candidates by name in the run-up to an election. Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams, of course, have every right to vote for any particular person they choose, thanks to the secret ballot. The clergy also have the right — indeed, the obligation — to discuss and debate the critical issues facing society. But religious leaders err and undermine their own authority when they publicly call for the election or defeat of a specific individual.
Last month “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” was sponsored by a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom. Nearly 1,500 Christian ministers openly backed various candidates as they tested the U.S. tax code, which forbids non-profit organizations (including houses of worship) from speaking out for or against political candidates. Such actions endanger their tax-exempt status, but the ADF sees that restriction as an incursion on freedom of religion and speech.
Of Protestants, Politics, and Power
As the Republicans leave Tampa and the Democrats prepare to gather in Charlotte, one dynamic is immediately clear in both parties: For the first time since Abraham Lincoln ran in 1860, no white Protestant will be on the ticket of either major party.
Mitt Romney, the newly minted Republican nominee for the White House, is a Mormon, though he clearly does not want to talk publicly about how his faith shapes his identity and personal values. Paul Ryan, his running mate, is a Catholic, a fact Romney made sure to mention in the vice presidential rollout ceremony. Indeed, Romney’s two closest rivals in the GOP presidential primaries were also Catholics: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
On the Democratic side, President Obama is an African-American Protestant despite the fetid conspiratorial screams that the president is a crypto-Muslim. Finally, Vice President Joe Biden, like Ryan, is an Irish-American Catholic.
Pride Goeth Before a Sail
Word to the wise: don't get on a cruise ship in a year ending in the number 12. Especially if the captain feels a little too sure of himself.
Earlier this year the world was captivated by images of the Costa Concordia capsized off the Italian coast. The captain allegedly ignored the navigation maps, ran aground and at least 30 people died as a result.
April 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster of the Titanic, which sank about 360 miles from Newfoundland when the famously "unsinkable" ship hit an ice berg. Three hours later, it was an underwater grave two miles below the frigid surface of the North Atlantic.
They're Baaa-aaack: Return of the Christocrats (Who Never Really Went Away)
The Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006 and President Obama's election in 2008 convinced many people the religious right had been defeated and discredited. They believed it was time to "move on," a ubiquitous but dangerous phrase that often blinds people to unpleasant realities.
The truth, however, is that the religious right, Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism have never gone away. And now they're back — "big time," as Dick Cheney might say.
In the 2012 presidential election, the Christocrats are out in force on many fronts: trying to eliminate prenatal care and all forms of contraception; defunding breast cancer screening; opposing civil rights for same-sex couples; contesting evolution and substituting creationism in public schools; denying the reality of global climate change; and discrediting the "lame stream media."
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