A holy site for Muslims and Jews

temple mount from aboveTalk about tiptoeing around the elephant in the living room.

Scores of mainstream journalists are literally trying to walk through a war zone as they cover the current clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians angered by a project to expand some of the pedestrian ramps used by people entering Temple Mount section of Jerusalem. This seems like a rather straightforward story to me, and one of the crucial elements has to be telling readers why this particular location is so important to Muslims and to Jews.

Apparently this task is harder than I thought. Take, for example, the report by Scott Wilson of the Washington Post Foreign Service. The lede says that this conflict centers on “one of this city’s holiest sites.” Later, we are told that the construction work is near “Haram al-Sharif, a complex of 7th-century mosques and olive groves known by Jews as the Temple Mount.” Thus:

The foreign minister of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic nation, demanded that Israel immediately halt the work here near the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven, the third-holiest site in Islam.

… Israeli crews began work this week on a damaged access ramp that leads from the Western Wall plaza, where Jews pray at the base of the Temple Mount, to the Mugrabi Gate. The entrance, one of eight to the mosque complex, is used by Israeli soldiers and tourists to reach the plateau where the Second Temple stood until its destruction in A.D. 70.

In other words, if the story states that this is the third-holiest site in Islam, it would also be good to state — perhaps even as high up in the story — that this conflict centers on the holiest site in Judaism. These two facts must be presented together for readers to understand the emotions and history involved in this story. Right?

Actually, the language used in the New York Times report by Greg Myre is much better, although the section I am about to quote comes quite a ways down in the story — just before the end. It would have been good to have some kind of precise reference higher up in the text.

Perhaps the assumption is that anyone reading foreign news in this day and age is the kind of reader who already knows this information (audible sigh). Anyway, Myre does tell us:

The walkway, which is adjacent to the Western Wall, is used primarily by tourists and some Jews to visit the mosque compound, which is built atop the ruins of the biblical Temples.

The walkway was damaged by a snowstorm and an earthquake three years ago and needed to be repaired, according to the Israelis. … The office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement on Thursday that the renovations “do not constitute any damage to the Mount or Islamic holy places.”

. . . But the site is so holy to Jews and Muslims that any action by either side tends to provoke howls of protest. Many Palestinians claim that the Israelis want to destroy the mosque complex and build a new Temple. While some fringe Jewish groups have expressed that desire, the Israeli government says the compound will remain a place for Muslim worship, as it has been for most of the last 1,300 years.

That’s enough information, in a daily news report of this length.

I have received some emails from people who say they have seen or heard reports in which there is no material whatsoever about the importance of this site in Jewish tradition and history. Does anyone have any URLs for such a story? Perhaps there are wire reports out there in which the final paragraphs of a longer story have been cut off?

Hey, at least — so far — I have not seen a mainstream news report that links the violence to the influence of the Left Behind novels on U.S. foreign policy. Then again, I have not been listening to the BBC.

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Readers lost in Sea of Reeds?

parting red seaWhile I was covering the religion beat for The Charlotte Observer long ago, one of my editors stressed that I should not write in a story that a man said that a key moment in his life was when he “walked the aisle” and “accepted Jesus as his personal savior.”

It did not matter that these terms were used in an evangelical context and were explained. It also didn’t matter to the editor — a Unitarian, by the way — that the newspaper was in a city in which one of the major roads is named after that famous local guy named Billy Graham.

This is, however, an example of a crucial issue for professionals on the Godbeat.

How do we know what our readers understand and what they do not understand? Does it matter if a reporter uses religious language accurately if a large percentage of readers do not know what the words mean? Where do we cross the line between writing with authority and simply sliding — “inside baseball style” — into niche language?

Please consider this example on the left side of the sanctuary aisle.

GetReligion reader John L. Hoh Jr. recently sent us an interesting Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about rites held for five women who never been able to celebrate bat mitzvah ceremonies. Here is a crucial passage in the story:

(At) one point, Rabbi David Brusin surprised the people at Congregation Shir Hadash by having the five women take tambourines and move through the parting, swaying crowd in a symbolic re-enactment of Miriam crossing the parted Sea of Reeds with Moses.

The idea for Saturday’s event originated with the congregation’s Rosh Hodesh women’s group, named after the monthly appearance of the new moon in the Jewish calendar. It is celebrating its 13th anniversary this year, the age at which girls in this Reconstructionist congregation normally have a bat mitzvah ceremony.

Having these adult women become b’not mitzvah (the plural of bat mitzvah) was a meaningful way to mark the anniversary, said Sara Shutkin of Whitefish Bay, who is a founder of the group. Most grew up when such public ceremonies were not commonly offered for girls in Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative congregations in their areas.

I have some questions. It helps that the story makes an attempt to define, in some way, the small Reconstructionist movement (the modernist, progressive wing of Judaism). Still, readers are given little to work with in terms of where this movement fits in with Reform or Conservative Judaism, let alone the various forms of Orthodox Judaism. Do readers know things like that?

And what about the Sea of Reeds? I assume that people who have taken a biblical-studies class or two in college or graduate school would understand that reference. But many, many more people are likely to be confused. They are familiar with the parting of the Red Sea, as described in thousands of churches and synagogues (not to mention a certain Hollywood movie and plenty of other forms of populist art).

Should the reporter pause and explain the background of that “Sea of Reeds” reference? Should it be placed in the context of debates between premodern and modern forms of the Jewish faith? In other words, for whom is this story written? How much do these readers need to know in order to read their daily newspaper?

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Jews don’t have to believe anything?

TorahI have heard variations of this statement many times and have heard it on the lips of many different kinds of Jewish believers — the most controversial issue in modern Judaism is God.

Then the questions begin. Do Jews have to believe in God? Is it good for Jews for believe in God? Do Jews need to believe that Judaism is true? Should they live their lives as if Judaism is true, even if, in their hearts and minds, they are not sure? Can you be a Jew and believe nothing at all? Is the only essential Jewish belief the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is not the Messiah?

You cannot cover trends in premodern, modern and postmodern Judaism without hearing all of these questions.

So I was rather surprised to pick up my local newspaper this morning — the Baltimore Sun — and read the following statement in the midst of a nice, ordinary little Metro front feature on a new trend in Jewish education in our city’s large and very influential Jewish community. The headline introduced the news hook: “Jewish teachers grapple with a big question: God.” The second deck of the headline said even more: “Jewish religious school teachers have been exploring a topic rarely covered in class: God.” The key institutions in this story are linked to the Center for Jewish Education.

Here’s the key part:

But at the request of principals of Jewish schools, the center — an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore — this year has organized a series of workshops and training sessions to help teachers better express their understanding of God and spirituality. Ultimately, the center’s staff members hope that the exercises will help the instructors when students raise questions of their own.

Judaism does not require adherence to specific doctrines, said Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the San Francisco-based author of books about Jewish spirituality. He addressed nearly 400 educators at a recent conference organized by the Jewish education center titled “Yom Iyun: Teaching G-d to Children, Teaching G-d to Ourselves.” (Some Jews avoid spelling out “God” to avoid defiling the name.)

“Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not a dogmatic spiritual tradition. You don’t have to believe anything to be a Jew,” Kushner said in an interview before the talk.

I want to stress that this story by reporter Liz F. Kay includes a lot of information about the complex nature of modern Judaism. It clearly states that the center’s work is complicated by the fact that it works with teachers from the different branches of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Oh, and the “secular” Jews, too.

Still, I cannot help but think that many Jews would challenge the story’s blunt statement of fact that “Judaism does not require adherence to specific doctrines.” This is attributed to Kushner, who is a Reform leader from San Francisco, an NPR commentator and a visiting professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

I kept wondering if Orthodox Jewish leaders here in Baltimore would embrace Kushner’s statement as a statement of fact or challenge it.

Is this, in fact, a clear statement of faith that can be made on behalf of the different brances of Judaism? Can you be an Orthodox Jew today and reject all belief that the Torah is inspired by God? Can you be a Conservative Jew and believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Can you be a Reform Jew today and believe that it is wrong for women and gays to serve as rabbis? Or, are there doctrines that you don’t have to believe, but you had better be quiet about it if you don’t?

I think the Sun story needed a bit more clarity here. It needed another voice to respond to Kushner.

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What about the two Buddhists?

hank johnsonThe Washington Post ran a short story on page A17 Friday about the religious makeup of the 110th Congress that highlighted the record-high number of Jewish lawmakers.

Reporter Elizabeth Williamson also mentions the other Congress members within the Judeo-Christian tent, but for the most part she focuses on the high number of Jewish Democrats:

About 2 percent of Americans identify themselves as Jewish. But in Congress, the proportion of Jewish members is now four times that. Six new Jewish House members were sworn in last week, bringing the total to 30. In the Senate, the 13 Jewish members include freshmen Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), according to the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Other faith-related facts: This Congress includes its first Muslim member and, in Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), its highest-ranking Mormon ever. Catholics remain the largest single faith group in Congress, at about 30 percent — slightly larger than their proportion of the U.S. population. Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians outnumber Jewish members, who outnumber Episcopalians.

In making its count, the NJDC, which bills itself as the national voice of Jewish Democrats, counted only those lawmakers who identify themselves as Jewish. (So even if he had won, Virginia’s George Allen wouldn’t have made the cut.)

mazie hironoI know everyone finds it deliciously ironic that George Allen found out amid a heady campaign that his family background was Jewish, but it’s not the first time this happened to a politician. A more prominent but less local character for the Post to highlight would be John Kerry.

The article mentions that GOP attempts to court Jewish votes have been to no avail. This is true for many reasons — much of what Republicans believe goes against what a majority of Jews believe — but there’s also the Republican Party in Texas:

Pollsters say the GOP failed to counter Jewish voters’ opposition to Republican stands on issues such as reproductive rights, stem cell research and the Iraq war. And then there’s the Republican Party platform in President Bush’s home state of Texas, which has declared the United States to be a Christian nation.

The religious politics of Republican Texans is a tip-of-the-iceberg issue when it comes to Jews’ hesitancy to vote Republican. There’s a much bigger story there, but a party platform declaring the United States to be exclusively Christian is a good place to start.

One of our readers, Jason Pitzl-Waters, noted and linked to this piece pointing out that this Congress has the nation’s two first Buddhist members, a detail missing from the Post article. What gives? Hank Johnson and Mazie Hirono deserve at least a mention. The New York Times‘ Caucus blog mentioned it a few weeks ago amid the Koran hubbub. That’s one of the only references I’ve seen to Hirono and Johnson’s religious beliefs.

Why did the Post editors overlook Hirono and Johnson? Perhaps they’ll revisit it later in a Style section piece?

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The Jewish Valentine’s Day?

12daysochristmaslightsAll this week I have been serving long days on a jury.

Although I tried my best to get out of it, I found the entire experience absolutely riveting and educational. I cannot commend the work highly enough. Working with 11 very different people to come to unanimous agreement on a complicated case is difficult but very rewarding. In the end, we found the defendant guilty, which was a hard decision to make during this time of year.

While you’re serving you’re not allowed to surf the Internet, so my daily paper reading was greatly limited. One thing I did get to read was The Examiner, a free newspaper distributed in my city. Each day it has been running through the “12 Days of Christmas,” counting down to Dec. 25, with a picture of local readers acting out each verse of the song.

I know that many journalist types aren’t religious, but certainly someone at that paper knows that the 12 Days of Christmas run from Dec. 25 to January 6, right?

Those churches that keep the liturgical calendar, of which I am a member, are in the season of Advent right now (or Nativity Lent in the Eastern churches). It’s kind of the opposite of the American Christmas season. While other people are busy partying it up, we’re supposed to be in prayer and repentance. And then when everyone else is in post-Christmas mode, we’re celebrating a 12-day season.

I commend The Examiner for trying to do something to engage readers, but it’s kind of funny or sad how much newspapers miss the religious aspect of this time of year. One reader sent along this very funny chart in The Washington Post making fun of how vapid made-for-TV Christmas movies are. But a lot of mainstream media reports fit in that same genre with heartwarming stories that indicate the meaning of Christmas is anything but religious.

One area I would like to see reporters cover is what this time of year is like for Americans who are not Christian. The Boston Globe‘s Christopher Muther had a very funny entry in that category with his story about how young Jewish singles party on Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve is perhaps the most important night of the year for the city’s Jewish singles. While Boston’s gentiles are tucked away with their eggnog, plastic Santas, and enough sugar cookies to feed the population of Luxembourg, something massive has happened in the clubs. Christmas Eve has evolved into Jewish Valentine’s Day.

Muther talks about the Matzo Ball, which is a popular Boston party held on Christmas Eve. It’s facing competition this year from Let My People Go, a New York-based group. He spends quite a few paragraphs talking about all the heavy imbibing at these parties.

Mayshe Schwartz, a Brookline-based Orthodox rabbi who wears a baseball cap embroidered with Hebrew symbol chai (which means living) and answers to the nickname Schwartzy, thinks the advent of Christmas Eve as Jewish Valentine’s Day has more to do with loneliness than the consumption of large quantities of booze.

“At some point, many Jews feel isolated at Christmas,” he says. “There’s a whole country celebrating something, and you can only run with it so far, then at some point, you can’t. You don’t have a Christmas tree, stores are closed, everything you’re watching is ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ It was only logical that these giant singles parties would evolve from this.”

The story was rather fluffy but the actual topic — singles parties on Christmas Eve — doesn’t really lend itself to much substance. It would be nice to see more in-depth stories about what it’s really like to be a member of a minority religion.

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Democrats praying? In public?

wi praying hands ckb 1jpg copyHere inside the cloistered alternative universe called Washington, D.C., many politicos are paying an unusual amount of attention to the health of Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota. The latest, as of 42 minutes ago as I begin typing, is that he has been conscious at several times since last week’s emergency brain surgery.

The reason that everyone is so concerned, of course, is politics. Johnson is a Democrat and the governor of South Dakota is a Republican. Everyone around here knows what that means, since the Democrats have a one-vote margin in the new Senate. As The Washington Post crisply explained last week:

The Constitution provides for governors to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, whereas House vacancies must be filled through elections. Johnson can remain in the Senate through the end of his term, regardless of his medical condition. In recent decades, senators have missed up to four years of votes because of illness or old age without giving up their seats.

Should Johnson’s seat become vacant before Jan. 4, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, could replace him with a Republican, resulting in a 50-50 Senate when Congress opens. Vice President Cheney, as Senate president, would break tie votes in the Republicans’ favor, giving them the majority.

Thus, it is not surprising that we have seen a few headlines like the one offered by ABC News: “Democrats Pray for a Senator’s Health, as Senate Control Hangs in Balance.” All we need now is for the Rev. Pat Robertson to broadcast an appeal for God’s Own Party to start the prayer winds blowing in the other direction. That would stir up some headlines.

Just kidding. Actually, I have nothing against people praying for the health and recovery of loved ones and associates. I consider this rather normal. Then again, I am that kind of person. Right?

Which leads me to a very interesting passage in the aforementioned Post story, by reporter Charles Babington. It was one of those strange journalistic flourishes that caused me to shake my head. Ready?

Although Johnson’s illness was the talk of Washington [Thursday], politicians in both parties refrained from publicly discussing how the two-term senator’s illness might affect the incoming 110th Congress. A few Democratic lobbyists and their spouses were dining Wednesday night at Sesto Senso, an Italian restaurant near Dupont Circle. As they discussed Johnson’s condition, they folded their hands as if praying for him, a gesture that appeared tinged with political as well as heartfelt sentiments.

This immediately raised some questions for me as a reporter.

Did an editor send Babington or, perhaps, an intern out to visit the haunts of Washington insiders to see what people were saying and doing during this crisis? Did this journalist see the Democratic insiders from afar and watch them fold their hands in this colorful and strange manner? Or, by some chance, was the reporter actually having dinner with this circle of politicos and, thus, knew that they were praying or, perhaps, even prayed with them, but was afraid to share this detail? Or was the reporter sitting at the next table listening and could not quite hear the telltale word “Amen”? Did a source leak the information that Democrats were seen praying?

It’s all there in those wonderful words, “folded their hands as if praying.”

Where is Jim Wallis when you need him? Somebody trustworthy needs to tell this city’s elite journalists that prayer is a natural thing. Go ahead and talk to people about it. Democrats can pray too, you know, right out in public.

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So who nixed the Seattle menorah?

TSMy247689One of the most interesting stories in the 2006 Christmas Wars broke the other day in the Pacific Northwest, where the staff at the Port of Seattle hauled off all the Holiday Trees because of a conflict with a rabbi from the Chabad-Lubavitch organization about a long-delayed request to erect a giant Hanukkah menorah.

It was a familiar story. The trees went away. Civic officials were not happy about answering questions asked by angry citizens. A nationwide media furor erupted, creating waves of nasty calls to the Port authorities and, of course, to Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, who, it should be noted, never opposed the trees in the first place. Yada, yada.

Then came the second act, as written by Seattle Times reporters Janet I. Tu and Lornet Turnbull:

The holiday trees that went away in the middle of the night are back.

Tonight, Port of Seattle staff began putting up the trees they had taken down Friday night after a local rabbi requested that a Hanukkah menorah also be displayed. Port officials said the rabbi’s lawyer had threatened to imminently file a lawsuit, leaving them with insufficient time to consider all the issues.

. . . “This has been an unfortunate situation for all of us in Seattle,” Port of Seattle Commission President Pat Davis said in a statement. “The rabbi never asked us to remove the trees; it was the Port’s decision based on what we knew at the time. We very much appreciate the rabbi’s willingness to work with us as we move forward.”

A menorah will not be displayed this year.

There are all kinds of interesting stories involved in this case, starting with an angle that I tried to cover last year for Scripps Howard News Service. The goal, it seems, is to fill the public square with safe, neutral, “secular” symbols of the non-religious holidays. The lawyers want it that way.

Thus, a “Holiday Tree” is a neutral symbol for Christmas and a menorah is supposed to be a neutral symbol for Hanukkah — as if it is possible to find safe, secular symbols for holidays built on claims of divine miracles.

And then there was the fallout from the civic decision. Take this, for example:

Robert Jacobs, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said about 14 organizations or rabbis had reported receiving hate e-mail. On Monday, his organization was advising local Jewish institutions that have received significant numbers of hate e-mails to consider having security during Hannukah and other holiday season events.

However, unless I have missed this fact in all of the coverage, it does appear that the Seattle Times failed to ask one crucial question in this story. It’s a rather obvious question: Who opposed the erection of the giant Hanukkah menorah in the first place?

That question may have been hard to answer. You see, there is a reason that lawyers are so nervous about giant menorahs — they represent a fault line in the public square between the left and right wings of Judaism. The primary voices protesting the civic menorahs are Jewish. The people cheering are traditional Christians. Click here to read a story about this conflict, which dates back to the late 1980s, published in the daily Jewish newspaper called the Forward. Here is a crucial clip:

In 1987, Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress wrote a report titled “The Year of the Menorah.” In the report, Stern said, “we believe the Lubavitch campaign undermines Jewish interests in a most fundamental way.”

“To the American Jewish Congress, the menorah on public lands clears the path for the creche and the Cross,” Stern wrote.

… “We’re no more enthusiastic about Chabad’s campaign than we were before,” Stern told the Forward. … “If it’s done properly, though, there’s not much that can be done legally to stop them.”

So who tried to nix the menorah? The ACLU? Generic secularists? The Jewish left? Lawyers nervous about all of these folks?

I do not know the answer to this question in the Seattle case.

Still, this news story began with a decision to reject the Chabad request. Thus, I think it would have been interesting to know who opposed the Hanukkah menorah in the first place. A rather basic news question, right?

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Reflecting local religious flavor

crab cake Most people are familiar with two of Christianity’s holiest days — Christmas and Easter. But those are just two of many holy days, or holidays, celebrated by Christians who follow a liturgical calendar. And the calendar has seasons that lead up to the high festivals.

Even people who have sung “The 12 Days Christmas” hundreds of times don’t think of Christmas time as comprising two distinct liturgical periods. Until the 12-day festival of Christmas arrives, the four weeks prior are Advent in the Western Church, which mark a solemn time of prayer and preparation for Christmas. The season begins in mid-November for the Eastern Church and is called Christmas Lent.

I like watching for stories that talk about what it’s like to celebrate the holy days of the season as a liturgical Christian, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this one from Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

But Advent has another purpose that is at even greater odds with the office partying, extreme shopping, egg-nog-sipping customs that the month of December has come to represent. According to the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Advent “has a twofold character: It prepares for the commemoration of the Incarnation … and it looks forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time.” Pastors say that second message is even harder to push through the wall of commercialism that Christmas in America has become.

The first part of Townsend’s story quotes extensively from St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke’s written column and a previous homily on Advent. He also speaks with a theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati and pastors at Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Methodist parishes. And that’s wonderful. But it made me realize that I rarely see any Missouri-Synod Lutherans in Townsend’s pieces. In fact, the last time I remember a piece about my brand of Lutherans was when our Synodical President faced an election challenge two and a half years ago. Ths could be an oversight of my newscrawling capabilities, to be sure.

But the reason it’s interesting is not because Missouri Synod Lutherans are one of the largest Protestant church bodies in the United States; it’s that they are headquartered in St. Louis. So I hope Townsend is spending time digging into the stories that are happening in his backyard. But I am completely compromised on this topic.

Let’s look at another example of a local news site and its relationship to the local religious scene. Recently The Washington Post started a religion blog called On Faith. The “conversation on religion,” hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, is still getting started.

So far, 75 panelists take part in the conversations. By my rough count, you have a dozen Muslim experts or adherents, almost the same number of Jewish scholars, eight Anglicans, eight Roman Catholics, and several Baptists and evangelicals. This is based on my interpretation of their biographies, so I could be wrongly ascribing a religious view to panelists. A Latter-day Saint, Native American spiritualist, Wiccan practitioner, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and Baptist round out the discussion.

Why not include someone from the Seventh-day Adventist church, whose world headquarters are in Silver Spring, Maryland? It sure couldn’t hurt. Leaving them out would be like the Post neglecting to mention crab cakes in a regional food review. Any other suggestions for missing voices on that site?

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