Tattoos for Jews?

Everyone has heard at some point that Jews with tattoos cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

But is it true?

I was talking to my colleague Noreen O’Donnell yesterday about how it seems that everyone has tattoos these days. I mean, even 10 years ago, you rarely saw tattoos on anyone other than bikers and old Navy guys. Then women started getting those little ones on their ankles — hearts and flowers — and young guys started getting them around their temporarily flush biceps.

Now tattoos are mainstream. People from all walks of life are getting them — big, colorful ones.

But what about Jews and the whole cemetery prohibition thing? It seems that rabbis are pretty much in agreement that tattoos are contrary to Jewish law and tradition.

But the cemetery thing may be a folktale.

I came across a formal position from a Conservative rabbi — a responsum — about tattoos that reached this conclusion: “Tattooing is an explicit prohibition from the Torah. However, those who violate this prohibition may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual. While no sanctions are imposed, the practice should continue to be discouraged as a violation of the Torah. At all times a Jew should remember that we are created b’tzelem Elokim. We are called upon to incorporate this understanding into all our decisions.”

The key to the overall prohibition seems to be Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

An Orthodox rabbi, speaking in a video on, puts it like this: “Our bodies are on loan to us, on loan from God. He gives us these bodies for X number of years. But these bodies don’t belong to us.”

But what about the cemetery thing? Last year, the NYTimes interviewed eight rabbinical scholars from different traditions, who agreed that the cemetery prohibition is a myth.

Finally, a filmmaker from LA named Andy Abrams actually made a film about why Jews get tattoos. It’s called Tattoo Jews.

The website explains: “This is not simply a story about Jewish people with tattoos. It is an examination about the ways in which we all express and define our cultural identity. Tattoo Jew is about the balance between individuality and a sense of belonging.”


Sport and the development of the person

The Tour de France is passing by the pope’s vacation spot in the alpine town of Introd and Benedict — recuperating from a fall and fractured wrist — has a message for the bicyclists.

From the Vatican press office:


For the occasion of the passage of the Tour de France in the Valle d’Aosta, the Holy Father (who is spending some days at Les Combes near Introd) addresses his cordial greetings to all the athletes and to the organisers of the race, at the same time extending his thoughts to all sports men and women currently involved in various activities and competitions. His hope is that involvement in sport may contribute to the integral development of the person, and that it may never be separated from respect for moral and educational values.

A ‘designer priest’ getting notice

Did you know that clothes designed by a Catholic priest who serves in the Bronx are getting rave reviews, including from Anna Wintour — editor of Vogue and inspiration for the Devil Wears Prada?

Huh? It’s true.

According to a feature from the New Haven Register, Father Andrew O’Connor, a native of New Haven, is moonlighting as the owner and designer of an “ethical” clothing company. The garments are made from fabric hand-woven by Mayan men and women.

And O’Connor’s company, Goods of Conscience, is providing fair paying jobs to people in Guatemala and the Bronx (where he serves at Holy Family Church).

“The church demands that you don’t just involve yourself in your own personal salvation, but we are really here to work for the salvation of the world,” O’Connor (that’s him) tells the Register.

Archbishop Dolan has even offered his encouragement.

The Register’s Mary E. O’Leary explains how O’Connor got started:


The priest said he was moved to start the company after he went on retreat in 2005 to a small town in Guatemala where an American priest, the Rev. Stanley Rother, is still revered. Rother was killed in 1981 another victim in that country’s long-running civil war.

“It was almost a visceral thing,” O’Connor said of his visit to the site and the inspiration he took from Rother’s dedication to the people there.

To help the Tzutujil ethnic group in the village of Chicacao continue to practice weaving, O’Connor worked out an arrangement with the last commercial farm that uses heritage seeds for the cotton.

O’Connor said the high demand for Mayan’s work in the 1990s dropped off when Guatemala imported cheap cotton from China, which did not hold up like the rare strains of cotton indigenous to the country.

The 40 Mayans who work for Goods of Conscience, polish the yarn with a traditional mixture of cornstarch, water and calcium and weave in a special reflective fiber that O’Connor found. This eliminates the possibility of someone counterfeiting the fabric.

He calls the resulting bolts of cloth “social fabric” and he sees the combination of man-made fiber and the heritage cotton is a metaphor for the Incarnation.

“One is made with human hands, and one is not,” O’Connor said.

More thoughts on the summer slowdown

My FaithBeat column Saturday was about how congregational life slows down during the summer.

Like so many things.

You can read it HERE.

One member of the clergy who I tried to contact, the Rev. Susan Fortunato of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Pearl River, had been at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in the Golden State. But she emailed me some thoughts over the weekend, so here they are:


Churches and temples have understood the importance of slowing down and stepping out of our busy lives for a long time.   At its essence that is what worship is — a chance to live for a few moments outside of the priorities of our day to day lives and reflect.  Reflection is the currency of the soul.  Without time to step out of our daily priorities and reflect, we run the risk of letting our souls atrophy and forgetting altogether that we are, in fact, spiritual beings and not simply bodies rushing to and from work, the grocery store, and the mall.

Summer is often a time when our society allows us that time for reflection.  Whether walking to the store instead of driving, taking your kids on a hike through Harriman State Park, or simply sitting on your deck and sharing a meal with frriends — longer days, milder weather, and the beauty of Rockland County all conspire to help us slow down.

I’ve found that whenever I slow down and allow myself to step outside of my routine I find myself thinking about the world, my life, and ultimately about God more deeply.  So I think that everyone should dust off their bikes, make a date to go kayaking and rejoice at all the blessings God has graced us with.

Cronkite was no fan of the ‘religious right’

Walter Cronkite, who died the other day, is being universally remembered as the nation’s newsman, the voice of all.

He was a relic, really, of a day when journalists were seen as down-the-middle, impartial, objective. He wasn’t a favorite of the left or the right, like just about all TV celebrities these days.

But Cronkite did lend his considerable voice and credibility to a partisan cause during his later years.

He did not like the “religious right.”

A couple of years back I got a fundraising letter for the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal to moderate group that tries to serve as a balance to conservative Christians in the public square.

On the envelope was a picture of Cronkite. And this quotation: “For years I kept my opinions to myself. But now I must speak out.”

In a letter marked “From the desk of Walter Cronkite,” America’s most respected man described his deep concern over the “dangerous and growing influence of people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on our nation’s political leaders.”

He explained his larger fears this way: “As a concerned person of faith, however, I have watched with increasing alarm as the Christian Coalition and other Religious Right groups manipulate religion to further their intolerant, political agendas.”

Today, the Interfaith Alliance is remembering Cronkite, its honorary chairman. Cronkite was affiliated with the group since 1997.

The Alliance’s president, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, writes:


Walter Cronkite embodied the core values espoused by Interfaith Alliance—integrity and civility, respect for diversity and the importance of religious liberty.  In venues across the nation and around the world Walter called for responsive and responsible government, leaders characterized by honesty and courage, and citizens informed as well as active.  Walter valued personal faith even as the right to keep his faith private.

Walter was uncompromising in his reporting of reality—what he saw and heard—and straightforward when speaking of possibility—exploring what could be and pointing the way forward.  The intensity and seriousness with which Walter did his work were complemented by the lightness of his sense of humor and the warmth of his smile.  His strong resonant voice conveyed the relentless objectivity with which he reported the news but a pause in his speech or an infrequent tear in his eye provided insight into how much he cared about the people and events in his reports.

Bridgeport Diocese still fighting to keep court records closed

No surprise here: The Diocese of Bridgeport will try to go to the top, the U.S. Supreme Court, to prevent the release of court documents related to sex abuse.

The diocese explains its rationale on its website. The diocese asserts:

“From the very beginning of these court cases, the Diocese asserted that it was a violation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment for the courts to second-guess a Church’s selection and evaluation of ministers. The United States Supreme Court has expressly ruled that this is outside the proper role of civil authorities.”

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says this:

“No one wins here except a handful of self serving, secretive top Catholic officials whose complicity in child sex crimes remains hidden even longer. This is more evidence that there has been virtually no reform in the church hierarchy despite repeated pledges of openness about pedophile priests.

For any victim, witness or whistleblower who has kept quiet, hoping bishops have reformed, this is the reason and now is the time to speak up, protect others, and call police.”

Here’s the AP story in full:


Associated Press Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — A Roman Catholic diocese in Connecticut sought Friday to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep under wraps sex abuse documents that could shed light on how a prominent retired cardinal handled the allegations.

Bridgeport Diocese officials asked the state Supreme Court to continue a stay on releasing the documents while it appeals to the nation’s highest court.

The state court has ruled that more than 12,000 pages of documents from more than 20 lawsuits against priests should be released. Those documents have been sealed from public view since the diocese settled the cases in 2001.

The records could reveal details on how retired New York Cardinal Edward Egan handled the allegations when he was Bridgeport bishop from 1988 to 2000. Egan’s deposition should be in the file, according to an attorney for the newspapers seeking the documents.

In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned after church records were released detailing his role in handling sexual abuse claims.

The Brideport Diocese faced a Monday deadline to appeal before the records were disclosed.

“The diocese believes there are important constitutional issues,” said Ralph Johnson III, attorney for the church. “These are issues important to all citizens.”

Johnson acknowledged that the nation’s highest court takes up only a small percentage of cases it is asked to review.

The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Hartford Courant have been seeking the documents. Jonathan Albano, attorney for some of the papers, said that he would object to continuing the stay and that the case really involves state law that has been resolved.

“It’s somewhat disappointing that the diocese continues to approach the litigation in a way that delays the public’s right to see these documents,” Albano said. “There’s been seven years of litigation.”

An advocacy group for victims of church sexual abuse condemned the latest appeal.

“We’re disappointed that the complicity of top Catholic officials continues to remain hidden,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “This is not what Connecticut Catholics or citizens deserve. It’s one more painful reminder that bishops will do everything possible to protect themselves and their colleagues instead of children.”

Church officials said that the media have reported on the cases extensively and that attorneys and victims had access to the sealed documents. Court officials declined to comment.

A Waterbury Superior Court judge ruled in 2006 that the files should be unsealed, but the diocese appealed. The high court agreed with the trial court that the documents, which include depositions, affidavits and motions, were subject to a presumption of public access.

Church officials say the ruling fails to uphold the privacy and constitutional rights of all parties to lawsuits, especially when cases are sealed, and contends that disclosure of the sealed documents is barred by the religious clauses of the First Amendment.

The state Supreme Court rejected church officials’ claim that the documents were subject to constitutional privileges, including religious privileges under the First Amendment.

Politicians with ties to mysterious Christian group having their troubles

I can remember back in 2003 reading an article in Harper’s magazine about a group of conservative movers & shakers in Washington, D.C., who lived together in some kind of Christian frat house.

I just went back and found the story about this place, known as Ivanwald, about which the religion writer Jeff Sharlet wrote:


Ivanwald, which sits at the end of Twenty-fourth Street North in Arlington, Virginia, is known only to its residents and to the members and friends of the organization that sponsors it, a group of believers who refer to themselves as “the Family.” The Family is, in its own words, an “invisible” association, though its membership has always consisted mostly of public men. Senators Don Nickles (R., Okla.), Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), Pete Domenici (R., N.Mex.), John Ensign (R., Nev.), James Inhofe (R., Okla.), Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), and Conrad Burns (R., Mont.) are referred to as “members,” as are Representatives Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Frank Wolf (R., Va.), Joseph Pitts (R., Pa.), Zach Wamp (R., Tenn.), and Bart Stupak (D., Mich.). Regular prayer groups have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries. The Family maintains a closely guarded database of its associates, but it issues no cards, collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities.


The article mentioned that the Family also had a “four-story, redbrick Washington town house, a former convent at 133 C Street S.E. complete with stained-glass windows.” The residents there were also brothers in Christ, “only more powerful.”

This town house is known as C Street.

I mention this now because several politicians who have recently fallen prey to sex scandals apparently had various ties to C Street.

A Washington Post story includes:


It blends into the streetscape, tucked behind the Library of Congress, a few steps from the Cannon House Office Building, a few more steps to the Capitol. This is just the way its residents want it to be. Almost invisible.

But through one week’s events, this stately old pad — a pile of sturdy brick that once housed a convent — has become the very nexus of American scandal, a curious marker in the gallery of capital shame. Mark Sanford (that’s him), South Carolina’s disgraced Republican governor and a former congressman, looked here for answers — for support, for the word of God — as his marriage crumbled over his affair with an Argentine woman. John Ensign, the senator from Nevada who just seven days earlier also was forced to admit a career-shattering affair, lives there.


Now an AP story begins like this:


JACKSON, Miss. — The estranged wife of former U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering claims in a lawsuit that the Mississippi Republican had an affair that ruined their marriage and derailed his political career.

Leisha Pickering seeks unspecified damages in the alienation of affection lawsuit she filed this week against Elizabeth Creekmore Byrd of Jackson. The Pickerings filed for divorce in June 2008, but the divorce is not complete.

The lawsuit says Chip Pickering and Creekmore Byrd dated in college, reconnected and began having an affair while Pickering was in Congress and living in a Christian building for lawmakers on C Street, near the U.S. Capitol.


You have to expect David Letterman and Conan O’Brien to have some fun with this.

And wait until Bill Maher can get in front of a camera.

In Sharlet’s Harper’s story from way back when, he mentioned the group’s political guidelines, set forth in a document called “Thoughts and Principles of the Family.” Among the principles:


21. We recognize the place and responsibility of national secular leaders in the work of advancing His kingdom.

23. To the world in general we will say that we are “in Christ” rather than “Christian”—“Christian” having become a political term in most of the world and in the United States a meaningless term.

24. We desire to see a leadership led by God—leaders of all levels of society who direct projects as they are led by the spirit.

Clergy need a life outside church

Are clergy lonelier than other folks?

A short but insightful column on clergy loneliness, by Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest based in NYC, has been floating around the Web in recent weeks, thanks largely to Religion News Service.

It’s worth reading:


A Facebook group to which I belong held a discussion of loneliness among senior pastors.

People commented that pastors tend to have few friends with whom they can relax and be themselves.

Clergy said they need to be guarded about what they say and wary of being judged on superficials, such as their attire. They said their work is so all-consuming that they rarely have time for friendships outside the congregation.

It isn’t just senior pastors, participants said, but all clergy, and indeed most organizational leaders. Hierarchical leadership leaves them cut off from sustaining friendships, even cut off from their families.

My immediate contribution to the discussion was to say this:

— The No. 1 need is to have a life outside church — a life filled with nonchurch activities and nonchurch friends, where the pastor can be just a guy or gal. If the pastor has a family, life outside church should put family first. Children need a parent, not a role model standing in a pulpit.

— Second is to have healthy boundaries, where church work ends and rest of life begins. Fuzzy boundaries lead to loneliness.

— Third is to have realistic expectations of church members. To them, the pastor is never out of role. True intimacy with church members tends to be problematic.

Loneliness takes a serious toll. It can lead to sadness and depression. It can lead to boundary problems, acting out and inappropriate behavior. It can sap the pastor’s energy and self-confidence.

Some laity impose isolation as a way to keep clergy under control, which is also a way to keep God small and nonthreatening. One pastor told me, “Many laypeople are unwilling to treat their leaders as human beings who need a compliment or kind comment from time to time.”

Another told me, “I turned down a call to a small-town parish once because the chairperson of the calling committee said, ‘We always know what’s going on in the rectory.”’

Most constituents, I think, contribute to the loneliness unwittingly by making comments that treat their pastor as a curiosity and by not including the pastor in certain activities.

Politicians learn to exploit such behavior — although they still get into boundary troubles — and celebrities ride it to the bank. Clergy occupy a strange middle ground: needing to be political but not possessing the politician’s thick skin; serving as a local celebrity but not equipped to manage the spotlight.

As church staffs shrink and church institutions provide less collegiality to clergy, the pastor’s loneliness seems likely to worsen. Dealing with that loneliness should be a primary task for both congregations and their denominations.

Nervous clergy might be malleable, but the Gospel is better served when clergy feel able to preach boldly, to tend to all constituents and not just the powerful, and to lead with godly vision, not paycheck anxiety.

Clergy who have full lives, including friendships, downtime and acceptance (of both their personalities and their flaws), will be more likely to connect with their constituents’ lives.

Isolated clergy tend to get too institutional because institution is the one place they feel safe and competent.

It’s unclear why, as clergy report, denominations have stopped working to promote collegiality among clergy. Maybe denominational leaders are themselves too lonely to imagine better. But they should take the lead in breaking down their mutual isolation.

Bloomberg: Enough religious holidays from school

The New York City Council called this week for the city’s public schools to be closed on the two holiest Muslim holidays — Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

But Mayor Bloomberg says he won’t go along: “One of the problems you have with a diverse city, is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.”

Advocates say that 12% of NYC students are Muslim, according to the Daily News.

Right now, NYC schools are closed for Good Friday, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent out a letter to members today asking them to contact Bloomberg and urge him to change his mind.

A sample letter includes this:


This issue significantly affects over 800,000 Muslim New Yorkers including children who make up one in eight New York City public school students.  Students are faced with a difficult decision of missing school or observing their religious holidays with their families and communities.

The June 30th City Council vote by 50 members in support of Resolution 1281, calling on the Department of Education to recognize the holidays, indicates broad-based support throughout the city.

Mr. Mayor, like you, we too value education and do not want children missing school. However, giving days off for Eid does not mean fewer days of instruction. Since Muslim holidays rotate throughout the year, Eid would often fall on a weekend, another school holiday, or summer recess. Adding them will have a minimal impact on the actual school calendar while sending an important message that Muslims are a valued part of this city.