Blogging Religiously

From a New York point of view


Archive for July, 2010

Will Chelsea convert?07.30.10

So Chelsea Clinton is marrying a Jewish fellow up the road in Rhinebeck this weekend.

There’s a lot of speculation in the Jewish world about whether she will convert.

The Jerusalem Post notes:

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Whatever Clinton eventually decides, already her choice of a Jewish mate and the ho-hum response from the masses indicates how accepted Jews have become in US society.

“In the mid-20th century, Jews were the least prestigious white ethnic group in America,” according to Steven Cohen, an expert on American Jewry. “Half a century later, they are among the most prestigious, most desirable and most sought-after family members for Americans of all backgrounds.”

He pointed out that Clinton has been participating in Jewish rituals such as Shabbat meals and at least one Yom Kippur service, so that whether she formally converts or not, she is already part of a significant trend in American Jewish life.

“Many non-Jewish spouses are going through sociological conversions rather than rabbinical conversions.

They’re becoming in effect members of the Jewish community without official rabbinical instruction or authorization,” he noted. “Sociological conversions may be the biggest denomination of converts today.”

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The Forward wrote up a nice introduction to the groom, Marc Mezvinsky, and his family.

It starts with this:

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With her choice of a mate, Clinton, daughter of a former president and the current secretary of state, is marrying into a family that includes a former U.S. congressman convicted of fraud; another member of Congress who fell on her sword for a future in-law in a vote that ended her political career; no fewer than 10 brothers- and sisters-in-law, and a fervently anti-Zionist uncle.

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Sounds like quite a family.

That’s where the wedding will take place, by the way: Astor Courts in Rhinebeck.

JewishJournal.com raises a bunch of questions about why Clinton should convert—if she’s even remotely interested.

Columnist Danielle Berrin writes:

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We’re dealing with a Clinton here. Not a stupid woman, a dependent woman or a desperate woman. Clinton is well educated, comes from a good family, is independently successful and has ambition in the world. And we’re raising debate over her spiritual future by lobbing facts and figures about the declining Jewish populace and the fact that Conservative rabbis are forbidden from officiating at intermarriages? We’re going to have to come up with a more compelling argument than that. What we should be talking about is what Judaism might bring to her life, to her marriage, to her raising children, to her sense of purpose in the world.

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(AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Chelsea Clinton, conversion, Intermarriagewith No Comments →

Your top 50 most influential rabbis07.29.10

Newsweek has released its 4th annual list of the most influential rabbis in America.

Is it a ridiculous concept? Of course.

Even Newsweek says: “Is the list subjective? Yes. Is it mischievous in its conception? Definitely.”

But it’s fun to peruse.

The list is put together by two guys in the entertainment biz: Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc.

Your top 3:

1. Yehuda Krinsky, head of the Chabad-Lubavitch.

2. Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism (who plans to retire in 2012). That’s him.

3. Marvin Heir, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

So there you go.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Lists, Newsweek, Rabbiswith No Comments →

Proposing a forum on media coverage of the Catholic Church07.27.10

In his latest blog post, Archbishop Dolan again tees off on the media.

He begins:

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Because of all the inaccuracies in the recent coverage of the Catholic Church in the New York Times and other publications, appearing in news articles, editorials, and op-eds, I was tempted to try my best to offer corrections to the multitude of errors. However, I soon realized that this would probably be a full time job.

It is a source of consternation as to why, instead of complimenting the Vatican and a reformer like Pope Benedict XVI, for codifying procedures long advocated by critics, such outfits would instead choose to intrude on a matter of internal doctrine, namely the ordination of women.

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Dolan later says that the media’s “obsessive criticism” of the pope is “simply out of bounds.”

I’ve noted in the past that Dolan has become something of a media critic since coming to NY. Defending the church and the pope from the NYT and others seems to be one of his passions.

So here’s an idea: How about someone organizes a forum on media coverage of the church?

Give Dolan and someone from the Times, plus others (John Allen? Father James Martin? A  media critic like Howard Kurtz?), a chance to make their case and rebut the other side(s).

Do it in public. In a civil forum.

The Fordham Center on Religion and Culture seems like a natural host. They did a program about anti-Catholicism a few years ago, which I still regret that I missed. (How does one define anti-Catholicism in 2010, I wonder?) But a forum on media coverage of the Catholic Church would certainly revisit the anti-Catholicism question.

What do you think, Mr. and Mrs. Steinfels?

The Crossroads Cultural Center in NYC, run by the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has run several provocative forums in recent years and could do one on media coverage. Monsignor Albacete?

One of the many academic centers at Notre Dame could do it—but I would rather the forum be in New York.

How about the Columbia Journalism School?

Maybe Iona could step up to the plate and bring some action to Suburbia?

So who is going to do it? How about one night in late September?

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in anti-Catholicism, Catholic Church, Media coveragewith No Comments →

Christian Zionists pledge ‘I am an Israeli’07.26.10

A big pro-Israel crowd recently came to the Washington, D.C., convention center to listen to people like Joe Lieberman and to promise their eternal devotion to the Holy Land.

But they weren’t Jews.

They were…Christian Zionists.

A colorful report on WeeklyStandard.com notes that Charlie Daniels played Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) on his fiddle at the big Christians United for Israel bash. The evangelical Christian group is led by the San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee.

The Standard quotes Hagee:

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The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is a Zionist text. To read and understand the Bible is to accept the reality that the Jewish people are not living where they chose but where God chose. There is a real estate contract recorded in the Bible with the boundaries of Israel, given as clearly as the human tongue can express. And the land is God’s gift to the Jewish people. That’s not political. It is the will of the sovereign and eternal God.

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The article—by Jennifer Rubin, contributing editor to the conservative Jewish journal Commentary—focuses on Christian Zionists’ political support for Israel, especially at this tenuous time for Israeli support in general. One leader is quoted as saying that it would be a tragedy if “one of the two parties ceased to be pro-Israel.”

Rubin also lets them explain their historical ties to the Jewish people. It’s the Judeo part in Judeo-Christian, one fellow says.

Hagee says he understands if many Jews don’t trust them because of a history of Christian anti-Semitism. One pastor, who does Hispanic outreach for the group, says outright that they are not trying to convert Jews—an usual statement from an evangelical about any group of non-Christians.

The story avoids the question of whether Christian Zionists support Israel because of a much-discussed belief that the Jews must be united in Israel before Jesus can return. Maybe this was a starting point in drawing certain evangelicals to Israel before they discovered other commonalities? Who knows?

Regardless, at one point in D.C., 4,000 Christians stood and chanted “I am an Israeli.”

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Christian Zionism, Israel, John Hageewith No Comments →

Jehovah’s Witnesses consider the non-believers07.23.10

Jehovah’s Witnesses from throughout the Hudson Valley will begin meeting this morning up in Newburgh.

It’s the start of one of several district conventions being held across the country.

Like so many other faiths, the JWs are focused on the great many non-believers out there.

The theme of this year’s convention is “Stay Close to Jehovah.”

A press release begins with: “In a world where some powerful and influential voices in academia and the media dismiss or disparage belief in God, Jehovah’s Witnesses are proclaiming the importance of such belief, actually promoting the strengthening of one’s personal attachment to God.”

The weekend program will examine “different attitudes nonbelievers have toward God and misconceptions that hinder many from developing an intimate friendship with God.”

One session will look at “why faith in God must be built on fact and reason…”

The convention, open to the public, is at the Newburgh Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And, if you’re curious, the JW website addresses the question of why JWs go door to door.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in District conventions, Jehovah's Witnesses, Non-believerswith No Comments →

Msgr. Kavanagh writes he was charged with ‘grooming’07.22.10

I don’t know how many times I wrote about the case of Monsignor Charles Kavanagh.

A lot.

I still get emails every now and then asking what happened to the guy. Well, I now have a small update.

Going back a bit, Kavanagh was the chief fundraiser for the Archdiocese of NY and a very visible and well-known priest in Westchester and all around. Then he got removed from ministry in 2002 after a former Peeskill resident named Daniel Donohue charged that Kavanagh had an improper, sexually charged relationship with him three decades before at a high school seminary.

He didn’t say there had been sexual contact, but that Kavanagh had manipulated him into a strange and inappropriate relationship. Donohue did say that Kavanagh once got into a bed with him on a trip wearing only underwear.

This was supposed to have happened while Donohue was a student at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary during the late 70s/early 80s and Kavanagh was the head of the place.

Kavanagh has maintained his innocence as his case has…languished. That’s him at a birthday party in Harrison in 2005.

Little happened before a church trial was held in 2006. No result was ever announced.

Both Kavanagh and Donohue have told me in the past about their extreme frustration over not being able to get (their version of) justice or even any information about what might happen.

In 2008, I wrote that Donohue, who now lives on the West Coast, believed a decision had been made, but no one would tell him what it was.

In 2009, Archdiocese Dolan, recently arrived, told me he would look into Kavanagh’s case.

Now Kavanagh has sent a letter to his supporters updating things from his point of view. A copy of the letter, dated July 4, was sent to me by one of the recipients.

Here’s the key part:

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Although I have never had sexual contact with anyone, I am now being charged with “grooming.” The fact that, thirty years ago, I took a student to ballgames, drove him home from school, helped him with tuition is a crime because, supposedly, those kindnesses were “preparatory acts” aimed at sexual exploitation.

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So some party in the church—A jury of priests? A Vatican tribunal? The CDF?—has concluded that Kavanagh was guilty of “grooming” Donohue for exploitation. But Kavanagh apparently has not given up. He also writes:

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Needless to say I am protesting the charge and hope to prevail soon. I have to keep on trusting that the Church will treat me with the respect and fairness I know I deserve after 47 years of service.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Archdiocese of New York, Catholic Church, Church trials, Sex abusewith 4 Comments →

American Jews anxious about Israeli conversion bill07.21.10

Every couple of years, the great “Who is a Jew?” debate arises in a slightly new form. And this is one of those years.

Non-Jews may not realize the difficulty that Jews often have defining who is a Jew—especially when it comes to the tricky questions of conversion.

Each of the main Jewish movements in the U.S.—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist—have their own standards and processes for conversion. In general, the movements leave each other alone (even if everyone knows that the Orthodox world may not recognize those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews).

Things get really tricky when it comes to Israel.

Israeli politicians promote policies and laws that they consider to be in the best interests of Israel—but which are often seen by diaspora Jews, including non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., as directly affecting them.

Right now, Israel is very concerned about the growing numbers of Israeli citizens from Russia who are not Jewish. For one thing, some of these non-Jewish Russian-Israelis are bound to marry Jewish Israelis, raising a litany of intermarriage questions and concerns that American Jews have been dealing with for decades.

Many Israelis would like to see many of these Russian Israelis convert to Judaism.

A piece of legislation, known as the Rotem bill, was supposed to address this by allowing a decentralized system of rabbis to oversee conversions. But—there’s always a but—it would also allow Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to have final say on conversions.

In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate—the religious establishment—is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. And ultra-Orthodox Jews, as you might imagine, prefer ultra-Orthodox standards for conversion.

The concern among American Jews who are not Orthodox is that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate could be given the power to not recognize conversions performed in the U.S.

It is a mostly symbolic issue, because there aren’t many Reform Jewish converts in the U.S. looking to move to Israel. But symbolism is powerful, especially when many non-Orthodox Jews support and defend Israel all their lives.

So there.

It seems that the bill will not be voted on just yet. But the debate continues.

As the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt writes:

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The larger issue — squaring the circle of maintaining standards of Orthodox religious law in Israel without further alienating the majority of world Jewry — is not going away. And neither is the ill will created among the majority of Jews in this country by the attempt to pass the bill, however well intended it may have been.

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Elsewhere in the Jewish Week, Thomas Dine, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says: “Eventually, these things begin to wear out the enthusiasm of American Jews for the Jewish state.”

Our own Nita Lowey weighs in: “One of my real concerns is that this is not a new issue. We’ve raised objections to this kind of proposal for as far back as I can remember, because it affects the character of Israel and it affects Jews around the world.”

This is serious stuff for Israel/American Jewish relations.

As a convert to Judaism writes on JewishJournal.com:

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Our leaders in Israel need to understand that this growing ultra-Orthodox monopoly, which would only be enhanced by the Rotem bill in whatever form that it might take, or any similar legislation that resurrects the “who is a Jew?” issue, has the potential to irreparably damage the strong ties between Israel and her Diaspora supporters and to create a sectarian rift between Orthodoxy and the 85 percent of world Jewry who do not identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

The increasing power and influence of ultra-Orthodox extremists is providing regular fodder for critics of Israel and institutions like J Street to suggest that Israel lacks a commitment to pluralistic forms of Judaism and the democratic principles that have allowed it to develop into the strongest nation in the Middle East and one of the most durable economies in the world.  It is particularly poisonous to young Jews in the Diaspora who lack the historic perspective to continue to rationalize the current state of affairs.

The negative impact the Rotem bill could have on Israel and the Jewish people cannot be underestimated.  This is not an issue about which Jews outside of Israel will complain for a few days and then simply forget — it could permanently damage Israel’s relationship with world Jewry.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Diaspora, Israel, Jewish conversion, Orthodoxywith 1 Comment →

Will Fido be ‘left behind?’07.20.10

Say you’re a Christian who believes that when it’s time for the Second Coming, you will be raptured away to a better place.

When the time comes, who will take care of Spot and Rocky?

A retired businessman in New Hampshire has come up with a business that will—are you ready for this?—arrange for atheists to care for pets when their Christian owners disappear.

You can read about it on the website of Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA.

At first, I thought it was a joke for sure. But the tone is serious (I think) and there is a mechanism for people to pay $110 for the care of their pet (as long as the Rapture takes place within 10 years).

A Bloomberg article in February said that the business had over 100 clients.

Over 100!

The Bloomberg articles notes that: ”(Founder Bart) Centre must reassure the Rapture crowd that his pet rescuers are wicked enough to be left behind but good enough to take proper care of the abandoned pets.”

It also quotes a fella with a biblical prophesy website: “A lot of persons are concerned about their pets, but I don’t know if they should necessarily trust atheists to take care of them.”

EEBP says it has a network of atheist animal lovers in 22 states who are prepared to care for pets when the Rapture happens.

Of course, at that point they’ll know that they’re disbelief was a mistake and will be scrambling to become Christians and/or find a shortcut to salvation. So will they really have the time and will to take care of pets?

But, for now, they’ll take you money in preparation for an event they are sure will never come.

It’s worth reading the Terms & Conditions, which include this:

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If  subscriber loses his/her faith and/or the Rapture occurs and subscriber is not Raptured (aka  is “left behind”) EE-BP disclaims any liability; no refund will be tendered.

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Hey, this has got to be a joke, right?

Thanks to Religion News Service for alerting me to this extreme example of entrepreneurial spirit.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Atheists, Pets, Rapture, Second comingwith 1 Comment →

PCUSA still debating and shrinking07.19.10

It’s hard to put a positive spin on some things.

For instance: Presbyterian Church (USA) has now seen its national membership fall by half since the mainline Protestant heyday of 1965. We’re talking from 4 million people to 2 million.

Peter Smith, the terrific religion writer at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, recently broke down PCUSA’s fall.

The Rev. Gradye Parsons, a top official with the denomination, said in a statement: “What continues to sadden me is that the overwhelming majority of the loss in membership is in the category of ‘other,’ which means these are brothers and sisters in Christ who did not die or transfer to another congregation, but probably quietly slipped out the back door.”

PCUSA is best known these days for its knock-down, drag-out internal debates over gay clergy and the Middle East.

These issues, as usual, dominated the denomination’s recent General Assembly.

In a wrap-up of the General Assembly on the website of the Hudson River Presbytery—the regional PCUSA body that includes the Lower Hudson Valley—someone wrote this (it’s not signed):

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There will be much discomfort in the Church because of this Assembly. More politicking. More crying. More nail-biting moments as we await the results of all the votes to come.

There will also be many opportunities to remember who we are as Presbyterians: people of forbearance, lovers of Scripture, students of Jesus and seekers of God’s will.

It isn’t our Church after all. I know I wasn’t going to mention that, but it’s true. The more tightly we grip the reins of the Church the more we struggle.

I am convinced that the Spirit is at work in the Church – and that none of the Assembly’s actions is outside of God’s ongoing work. I got a few too many goosebumps this week, and not just from the incessant air-conditioning.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Falling church membership, Mainline churches, Presbyterianswith No Comments →

A casket company knows07.16.10

So I was driving on 287 the other day and saw a big double-truck cruising down the highway.

The side said “Batesville Casket Company.”

On the back door, like on so many back doors of trucks, it said “Please Drive Safely.”

But below that was added this: “Heaven Can Wait.”

You gotta have a sense of humor when you’re in the casket business, I guess.

I wanted to get a  picture, but I couldn’t do it when I was driving. So I looked around on the Web and, sure enough, a website called hankstruckpictures.com had a nice shot of the back of a Batesville truck (not to mention many photos of other trucks).

Here she is:

Thanks to David Faust and Brian Kuchay for letting me use their shot.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Caskets, Safe driving, Truckswith No Comments →

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