The new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. spends what seems to be a disproportionate amount of time on the history of the Old Testament rather than the New, according to a review in the Washington Post.

That’s significant to many since that’s the section of the Bible without Jesus (depending on who you ask, anyway). The museum gift shop also sells Jewish items such as menorahs and mezuzahs, and the sounds of people praying in Hebrew can be heard through loudspeakers.

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In many ways, then, the museum seems like a very Jew-friendly place. Yet many Jews are skeptical of the museum. Why is that? Religion reporter Michelle Boorstein writes:

The answer blends politics, culture, theology and the question of whether it’s possible for disparate groups to ever share the Bible in a meaningful way. While modern liberal rhetoric aspires to religious pluralism, the reality is that Christians and Jews see the Bible in fundamentally different ways — from what counts as “the Bible” to how to read and understand it. Not to mention the significant differences within faith groups.

Shmuel Herzfeld, a modern Orthodox rabbi who leads the Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington, wanted to go weeks ago, when the museum opened, but members of his study group weren’t willing. He finally went alone last week and said he felt awed and a bit weird walking through a bustling museum that to him seemed more about Jews than for them.

On the one hand, it’s not unusual or unexpected to go to a museum created by evangelicals and learn about the Old Testament as interpreted through the eyes of Christians. An Old Testament museum created by Jews (who, of course, wouldn’t call it the “Old Testament”) would look very different.

But since the stories and features in this museum involve Jewish characters, it’s hard to find where the line is between story-telling and “goy-splaining” (when Christians attempt to explain Jewish history to other Jews).

To its credit, the museum creators (who are also founders of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby) didn’t go out of their way to distort facts like you would expect from Creationist Ken Ham:

The museum collaborated with a number of paid Jewish consultants — including Bible scholars, community advocates and rabbis. The consultants sit on an international advisory board or are expert guides. The Museum’s director of content, Seth Pollinger, said 35 to 40 percent of the academic advisors are Jewish, a dramatic number when you consider Jews are less than 2 percent of the adult U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center (and less than a half of 1 percent, worldwide, Pew says).

The consultants lean to the more Orthodox side (which represent about 10 percent of U.S. Jews), but the list also includes people from across the religious and ideological spectrum.

“We are pursuing exhibits that present balanced descriptions that highlight broad consensus views … without taking up causes for the ‘religious right’ or the ‘political left.’ Although this is our goal, we will need to constantly host discussions that are open to critical and constructive suggestions on points to improve so we can advance a more ‘centrist’ presentation,” Pollinger wrote in an email.

Pollinger added that the goal was to feature “balanced descriptions that highlight broad consensus views” about the faiths, but it’s worth noting that the museum’s exhibits never explain why Jews organize the Old Testament writings differently from Christians; you won’t learn why Jews don’t consider Jesus to be the Messiah; you also won’t learn that Jews don’t consider the Torah, or any of the books of the Bible, to be an “ultimate authority” the way that Christians do, but see it instead as a teaching tool for understanding the history of the Jewish people and the way they related to God. Literalism has no place in understanding the Bible’s Jewish origins.

It’s not that the museum is deliberately anti-semitic. Rather — in the case of selling Jewish memorabilia in the gift shop — it grazes the line of cultural appropriation, thinking it is honoring the Jewish heritage, when it is really setting visitors up for inaccurate information about Judaism as its own separate religion. It would be better for the museum to give credit where it’s due, rather than claiming items like mezuzahs and menorahs as part of Christian practice, when in fact they are not.

After decades of reports, and years of investigation, a dangerous cult leader and child abuser is finally going down.

Police have arrested Anna Elizabeth Young, also called “Mother Anna,” the matriarch of a religious boarding school in Florida that has been described as a cult. Prosecutors say it’s so bad, that they’ve dubbed the House of Prayer the “House of Horrors.”

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Young was finally indicted for the unlawful death of Emon Harper, a toddler who was tortured, denied food, and murdered in the 1980s, but authorities say there’s much more to the story. Young was also previously convicted for child abuse for bathing a child in chemicals that caused severe burns.

Several other people have come forward accusing Young of torturing and starving kids at the “boarding school,” according to the police who arrested her.

“I think the extent of how long this took place,” said Art Forgey, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer. “You know, going clear back to the 60s is the most shocking thing here.”

A year’s worth of digging revealed Anna Elizabeth Young is responsible for the torturous abuse and death of multiple children.

“Witnesses came forward from the House of Prayer alleging brutality and even some children being murdered,” Forgey said.

Forgey explained that, although Young was arrested for the murder of Harper, this was not an “isolated incident.”

“It’s not just one isolated incident of beatings,” Forgey said. “There were numerous children that were beaten, locked in solitary confinement, food-withheld.”

“The arrest is in no means going to close this case, because there is so much more and so many more potential victims and witnesses,” Forgey said.

We all know the only real difference between a “cult” and a “religion” is the size and power of the organization (Christianity began as a cult of Judaism, for instance), but there is a certain freedom from scrutiny that comes with smaller religious groups. Young took advantage of that by abusing children for decades and escaping most punishment.

This is an extreme example of religious harm, but it’s an example nonetheless. Here we have a convicted child abuser who was able to get away with torturing numerous kids because of the trust and respect that comes with running a religious institution — in this case a boarding school.

People have the right to practice their faith, but not when it harms children. That’s not religious freedom — that’s a crime.

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

One of the Democrats running for Congress next year, and someone who has a reasonable chance of winning his seat, is Robert B. Barr. The House candidate from Ohio’s 1st Congressional District would be running against incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Chabot.

What makes him especially unique is that, if elected, he would become the first Jewish rabbi elected to Congress.

Even more unique? There’s a good chance he’s not very religious.

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According to Mark Oppenheimer in the Washington Post,

… while Barr’s professional life looks rabbi-ish (to coin a term), his Judaism is seen, by some, as well outside the mainstream. Although ordained a Reform rabbi, Barr founded a congregation, Beth Adam, that belongs to none of the major branches of Judaism. It is widely identified with what’s loosely called humanistic Judaism, a small movement in which Barr is considered a leader.

It raises some fair questions: Does Barr subscribe to Jewish religious beliefs? Or is he a secular Jew who doesn’t believe in God?

Barr, playing it strategically, didn’t give a straight answer… except to say he wasn’t an atheist.

“I’m not an atheist,” Barr said, in an interview yesterday. When asked what he does believe, he demurred.My relationship to God has always been private. Everyone should have that right. I have never made the congregation about my personal beliefs.”

It’s essentially the same answer given by Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Democrat from Maryland who won his seat in 2016 and who many atheists hoped would be the only open atheist in the current Congress. But when pressed by the media — and despite murmurs among those who know him fairly well — Raskin made clear in May of 2016 that he was “one hundred percent Jewish.”

All of this is fine, of course. If they’re being honest, then there’s nothing wrong with religious people in Congress who believe it’s a private matter. Especially if they support church/state separation. Hell, I wish others would follow in their footsteps. But if they’re only using a religious label for political reasons — because anything religious is better than not being religious in the eyes of voters — than it’s just frustrating. We won’t be able to overcome the stigma unless qualified candidates are willing to use the word without making a big deal about it.

That doesn’t mean he won’t get my support. Barr is fiercely against the GOP agenda, and damn near anyone on that side of the aisle deserves your vote.

(Image via Facebook. Thanks to Brian for the link)

We are still in the midst of the Kickstarter campaign for our book Queer Disbelief, written by Camille Beredjick, about why atheists should be advocates for LGBTQ rights. We’re two-thirds of the way toward our goal, and anyone who would like to pre-order the book should do it now!

Until the campaign ends, we’ll be running a few excerpts from the book for anyone who’d like a better sense of what’s in it.

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In the excerpt below, Camille shares an interview with a transgender woman from an Orthodox Jewish family.

I first interviewed Abby Stein back in 2015, about a month after she came out to her Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community as a transgender woman. Abby’s story is especially interesting because she’s the descendant of a founder of Hasidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (also known as the Baal Shem Tov). Hasidic Judaism maintains strict roles for how men and women “should” behave, and being transgender definitely doesn’t fit into them. Abby told me that she didn’t know different gender identities existed until she was 19. She thought she was crazy for feeling the way she did.

Abby left the Jewish faith formally a few years ago for what she called “philosophical and ideological reasons,” but she’s still maintained cultural ties to the community. She also writes about her experiences with gender, religion, philosophy, and atheism on her blog, The Second Transition. Her family hadn’t taken the news of her coming-out well when we first spoke, and she told me they weren’t doing much better when we talked more recently. We discussed her experience of coming out twice and her take on why atheists are natural allies to LGBTQ people.

Can you tell me how you identify on both the religious spectrum and the LGBTQ spectrum?

I identify as a woman of transgender experience. Religious-wise, I usually say I’m philosophically atheist and spiritually or culturally involved with [Judaism].

Can you talk more about the relationship between those two? Did being an atheist help you figure out you were trans, or vice versa, or neither?

For me, it was definitely interrelated. I lived in a community without trans people, and I got to a point where I knew there’s this part of my identity, mainly gender, which everyone disagrees with. To me, atheism was an outlet to explore my identity. I ended up learning about trans people, learning about transition, and so on. I feel like they were very strongly intertwined. There are a lot of overlaps between coming out as an atheist in a community that is very cult-like and coming out as trans. From people saying, “What the hell are you talking about, this doesn’t make any sense,” to people saying, “You’re evil, you’re the devil,” and so on. The backlash I have gotten for being trans is somewhat amplified back from what people get for being atheist.

Did people really tell you that you were the devil?

Yeah, I get that all the time. I was Satan, and the devil, and all the words they used for it.

Were any of the people who said that close to you?

One of my brothers actually reached out to me once after coming out. He used an Aramaic term for Satan. And I replied, “Thanks for the compliment.”

That’s heavy.

Yeah. But I don’t take it as an insult at all. It’s whatever. It’s a joke. It’s like when religious people, especially Christians, start claiming that atheists worship Satan. I’m like, what the fuck. I don’t worship Satan, that’s not the point.

Should atheists support the LGBTQ rights movement because of their atheism?

Definitely. I think we’re all people that have been discriminated against. Atheists are one of the most discriminated-against groups today. There still hasn’t been a single member of Congress that was openly an atheist. It’s considered political suicide to be an atheist. There’s definite discrimination on a broader spectrum. The validity of it is being questioned, just like a lot of other minority identities. And we can really gain a lot by working with each other. For an atheist who is also queer, that ends up making it a lot harder for them in every form. [For example,] if they grow up in a conservative family, they’ll have enough on their plate for being queer, and if they’re also atheist they get all this other baggage of discrimination. So there’s a lot of overlap.

Do you think that if you had been only trans or only an atheist, but not both, that your family and your community would have reacted better?

Only an atheist, definitely. I mean, they reacted negatively, but the fact is that it wasn’t as big of a [deal] as being trans. If I would have been just trans, in my community specifically, it’s a lot more cult-y. You have to fit in more. They don’t have an understanding of trans people. I’m visibly trans. I think it might be a bit different than being just an atheist. For me, to some extent, being an atheist while leaving the community and transitioning was too much.

How can an atheist who is straight and cisgender be an ally to you?

Just by putting themselves out there and saying, “We are allies.” Not just being a cis, straight ally, [but] being an ally because they are atheist, saying, “We know what it’s like to be a minority. We know what it’s like to get hate for our identity.” In addition, it would be really good to have more support groups for LGBTQ people that are run by specific nonreligious organizations. In general, I even find that a lot of queer people end up being really spiritual. So for people who don’t believe in God, they don’t feel comfortable in a lot of these spaces. It’s important to have a humanistic LGBTQ support group, or specifically atheist. I think it’s also important to be aware that trans people come in all different forms, which includes all different forms of religious communities. Know that people who are not just atheist but have an additional minority identity really struggle. They need more support.

Please consider contributing to the Kickstarter here! We can’t do this without you.

Netflix has released the trailer for a new documentary called One of Us. It’s all about the lives of Hasidic Jews trying to leave their insulated, isolated world.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who made this film, are the same team that made Jesus Camp. So you know it’ll be good.

We’ve posted several times about the problems within the Orthodox Jewish community and the difficulties of trying to break free from it.

When you’re raised without exposure to the “outside” world — one young man in the trailer says he didn’t even know what “Google” was — getting that first bit of knowledge that the outside might be better than the inside is frightening. So imagine how brave you have to be to actually step out into that world. You’re giving up everything for the unknown.

To watch these people actually do that is bound to be captivating. The movie begins streaming on Netflix beginning October 20.

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