A Passover to enlightenment

Passover starts in a few weeks (the evening of April 2), and I recently got a new haggadah in the mail. Not just any haggadah. But the Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists.

What is an haggadah for Jews and Buddhists, you ask?

According to the publisher — the “Modern Haggadah Distribution Co.”:http://modernhaggadah.com/haggadahs.html — it is a “discussion provoking retelling of the Passover ritual, linking its meaning with Buddhist concepts.”

In other words…

The seder plate includes bitter greens, which “are eaten at spring festivals in many traditions. The sharpness of the taste awakens the senses and makes us feel at one with nature’s revival.”

A blessing of the candles includes “As we light the candles, let us make an attempt to reach the Light within ourselves.”

And the answer to the question “Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs?” becomes:

“We eat bitter herbs to remind us of the bitter experience of enslavement, of our ancestors enslaved in Egypt, of oppressed people all over the world. We could become bitter. Instead, by transforming our anger, we can reclaim our experience and reshape the world.”

From Jewish literacy to Jewish ethics

The Jewish Book Council is holding its 56th annual awards ceremony on Wednesday night in NYC, and its “book of the year” award is going to Rabbi “Joseph Telushkin”:http://www.josephtelushkin.com/ for his amazing, 500-plus-page A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1.

jtelushkin.jpgTelushkin, who lives in NYC, is a prolific writer who is best known for his Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. It is the best-selling book on Judaism over the past two decades (and a key resource for every religion journalist I know).

He’s also written books about Jewish wisdom, biblical literacy, anti-Semitism, Jewish values, Jewish immigration and even Jewish jokes.

His Code of Jewish Ethics (which I’ve read big chunks of) includes sections on “What Matters Most to God,” “Building Character,” “Judging Others Fairly,” “Good Manners and Civility,” “Common Sense,” “Repentance,” “Forgiveness,” “Humility” and other such topics.

I’m sure it will be around a good, long time.

Changing the locks on churches

The blogosphere is having a lot of fun with yesterday’s NY Post “report”:http://www.nypost.com/seven/02272007/news/regionalnews/cardinal_sin_regionalnews_dan_mangan.htm about Cardinal Egan summoning the pastor of Our Lady of Vilnius in lower Manhattan to a meeting — and then having security guards change the locks on his church.

The church was one of several targeted for closure as part of Egan’s big realignment of the archdiocese. (UPDATE: I was wrong about this. Our Lady of Vilnius was not among those churches that were closed as part of the realignment process. See comment below from a parishioner).

Parishioners from the just-shuttered Our Lady of the Rosary in Yonkers said that the locks on their church were also changed without warning.

By changing the locks, Egan probably wanted to avoid another sit-in like the one that took place at an East Harlem church a few weeks back.

These tales, though, sure will not help Egan’s reputation as a cold and removed archbishop, which seems to be much more widely shared than it was even a year ago.

Will Bush’s “faith-based initiative” survive?

I’m not sure if our “host server” problems have been solved, but here we go…

It hasn’t gotten much attention, but the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in a case that could decide the fate of the Bush Administration’s much-hyped “faith based initiative.” It was the president’s first major domestic program way back in 2001, aimed at making it easier for religious groups to apply for and obtain tax dollars for social service programs.

It’s very hard to measure the success of the program, for an assortment of reasons. When I “wrote”:http://www.religionandsocialpolicy.org/homepage/article.cfm?id=3743 last year about faith-based grants in New York state during 2003 and 2004 — looking at a list given to me by the White House — I learned that the program had produced little change in NY.

Most of the groups on the list had no real religious mission or were the non-sectarian charitable arms of religious denominations. Most had been receiving federal money for a long time and had no idea that their grants were considered “faith based.”

Regardless of the program’s success in driving tax money to religious groups that could not have gotten it before, the faith-based initiative has been controversial since Day One because of church/state concerns.

According to “report”:http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0702280128feb28,1,2773143.story?ctrack=1&cset=true from the Washington bureau of the Chicago Tribune, the Supreme Court is preparing to hear Hein vs. Freedom From Religion Foundation, a case that “hinges on whether a group of taxpayers wishing to sue the executive branch for using tax dollars to fund faith-based initiatives has the standing, or legal right, to have its day in court.”

The paper said:

“This is arguably an indirect and technical conduit to addressing an intensely political issue. But if the Supreme Court rules broadly, it could significantly affect taxpayers’ ability to challenge programs they feel impermissibly breach the separation of church and state.”

The court’s eventual decision, then, will determine whether others can challenge the constitutionality of the faith-based initiative.

Iranian president wants to talk, group says

A delegation of liberal religious leaders returned the other day from a trip to Iran, where they met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The group has released a statement that urges face-to-face talks between America and Iran and asks both countries to “cease using language that defines the other using ‘enemy’ images.”

The statement also includes this:

“What the delegation found most encouraging from the meeting with President Ahmadinejad was a clear declaration from him that Iran has no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons, as well as a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political, not military means. He said, ‘I have no reservation about conducting talks with American officials if we see some goodwill.’ “

The idea that Ahmadinejad believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved through political means is bound to raise some eyebrows. Hasn’t he said that Israel will soon be destroyed?

Before the group went, several participants said they would talk to Ahmadinejad about his Holocaust denial conference. But it’s not mentioned in the statement.

There are a lot of questions that people might want to ask of those who took part in a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with the Iranian president. I don’t see that any are answered in the group’s statement, which you can read “here.”:http://www.ncccusa.org/news/070226iranopen.html

Participants on the trip were:

J. Daryl Byler, Director, Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office

Jeff Carr, Chief Operating Officer, Sojourners/Call to Renewal

Ron Flaming, Director of International Programs, Mennonite Central Committee

Edward Martin, Director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Central and Southern Asia Program

Jonathan Evans, Special Representative for Iran at the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

Shanta Premawardhana, Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA for Interfaith Relations and Director of the NCC Interfaith Relations Commission

Maureen Shea, Director of Government Relations, The Episcopal Church

Patricia Shelly, Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA

Geraldine Sicola, Associate General Secretary for International Programs, American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

David Robinson, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA

Joe Volk, Executive Secretary, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)

James Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS), The United Methodist Church

Two sides digging in over Bush library

The debate is heating up over whether Southern Methodist University should host the future George W. Bush Presidential Library.

Some time ago, a group of United Methodist bishops and clergy started an “Internet petition”:http://www.protectsmu.org/ to oppose the library being set up at SMU.

More recently, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank trying to stem the liberal tide in mainline Protestant denominations, began a “petition”:http://www.ird-renew.org/siteapps/advocacy/ActionCenter.aspx?c=fvKVLfMVIsG&b=2468183 in support of the library.

Now three retired United Methodist bishops who oppose the library are calling on eight SMU trustees to recuse themselves from deliberations concerning the library — seven because they have contributed big money to Bush and one (a minister) because he is a longtime friend of the Bush family.

The First Lady also sits on the SMU board, but has said she will not participate in any decisions regarding the library.

The Bushes are Methodists (although the president could probably be described as an evangelical Methodist). They attend a United Methodist church in Dallas when they’re back in Texas.

The three retired bishops who are upping the ante are C. Joseph Sprague, Joseph H. Yeakel and Kenneth W. Hicks. (You might remember that Sprague was accused of heresy a few years back after saying that he did not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, among other things.)

The three said in a statement today:

“We believe those trustees who have had long term personal, financial, and/or political relationships with President George W. Bush should recuse themselves from this project rather than permit questions to be raised about whether they have interests that conflict with their fiduciary duty as trustees of the university.

“We call upon these eight trustees to recuse themselves, along with any others who have had noteworthy personal, political, or financial dealings with George W. Bush. The proposed Bush Complex will significantly affect SMU and The United Methodist Church that founded it. Such a decision requires objectivity unencumbered by personal considerations.”

This thing does not appear to be going away any time soon…

Jim Cameron takes on the divinity of Jesus (Will anyone care?)

Wow. TV was all over the James Cameron press conference yesterday about his new documentary that “identifies” the tomb of Jesus (and both Marys).

I saw a preview of a report on one station and then flipped around between 10 and 11 and saw the famed filmmaker everywhere, pretty much trying to debunk the divinity of Jesus. That’s a big target, even for the guy who had Leonardo DiCaprio cry out “I’m king of the world!”

“We don’t have any physical record of Jesus’ existence,â€? he said at the New York Public Library. “So what this film … shows is for the first time tangible, physical, archaeological and in some cases forensic evidence.â€?

In case you were busy yesterday, Cameron and Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici have completed “The Lost of Tomb of Jesus,”:http://www.jesusfamilytomb.com/ which will premiere on the “Discovery Channel”:http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/tomb/tomb.html on Sunday at 9 p.m. The film contends that 10 first-century ossuaries — boxes that hold bones — that were discovered in Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the bones of Jesus and his family.

The implication is that Jesus was not raised from the dead.

Here’s my question: Will this film have any traction in the vast world of bibical scholarship. Or is this a media event that will dissipate long before Cameron’s next blockbuster?

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I got a bunch of emails yesterday from Christian groups denouncing the film. Even Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film doesn’t add up:

“I don’t think that Christians are going to buy into this,� Pfann said. “But skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear.�

I’m curious whether there will be interest in the film after people actually see it. Or whether yesterday’s stir had more to do with the maker of “Titanic” making a public appearance to explain/defend his latest work. This is a celebrity-obsessed culture, after all, is it not?

You can see a trailer “here.”:http://www.jesusfamilytomb.com/trailer.html

Just back from the Gulf

I’m working on an article today about 53 people from four local congregations who returned over the weekend from Ocean Springs, Miss.

Here’s the bottom line: Things down in the Gulf are still real, real bad. The Gulf communities are depending on volunteers to come down and help rebuild their communities and lives.

We don’t hear much about the effects of Hurricane Katrina anymore. So New Yorkers may assume that the need isn’t that great.

The volunteers — from Dobbs Ferry Lutheran Church, Emanuel Lutheran in Pleasantville, Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh and a few folks from St. Paul’s Lutheran in New City — spent a week doing whatever they could to help eight families in Ocean Springs.

They tore stuff down. They built stuff up. And they spent time getting to know people who have been through a lot.

Most of them plan on going back.

The Latin Mass is still around, by the way

A quick follow-up to my post Friday about the possible “return” of the Latin Mass…

I didn’t mean to make it seem as if the traditional Mass has been extinct since Vatican II. That’s not the case at all. Parishes can celebrate the Tridentine Mass with the permission of their bishop. In the Archdiocese of New York, the Latin Mass is celebrated at six locations.

One of them is the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Sleepy Hollow. A group called Una Voce Westchester publishes the schedule and all relevant information on its “website.”:http://www.unavocewestchester.org/

Here’s the thing: It’s been well documented that many bishops and priests have been reluctant to offer the Tridentine Mass. Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith, in the “interview”:http://www.insidethevatican.com/newsflash/2007/newsflash-feb21-07.htm I referred to on Friday, said as much.

What he was talking about, it seems, was the possibility that Benedict XVI will emphasize that the Latin Mass should be made available more often, in more places, if there is a desire for it among the faithful.