Lining up the facts on eruvim

The New York Times  has a story about three lawsuits that have been filed over the erection of an eruv, or ritual boundary, for Orthodox Jews in the Westhampton Beach area of New York. It gets some important details wrong. Let’s look at the beginning:

Every Saturday, Eugene Milanaik, a nurse anesthetist, walks more than five miles back and forth between his Orthodox synagogue and his weekend house on Dune Road. When it rains, he gets soaked, because he cannot carry an umbrella. When his 3-year-old grandson is in town, as he was last weekend, his wife must stay home, because she cannot push his stroller.

Life would be much easier, in Mr. Milanaik’s view, if Westhampton Beach would finally permit a series of narrow plastic strips, known in Hebrew as lechis, to be placed on the village’s utility poles. The strips would create an eruv, a ritual boundary that would allow those Orthodox Jews who do not push or carry things outside the home on the Sabbath to do so when within the eruv’s perimeter.

Technically, the strips don’t create the boundary — there needs to be a string between them. Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that this passage leaves the impression that it would be permissible to carry an umbrella if the eruv were created. But is that Orthodox practice? Here’s Rabbi Ari Enkin:

It is well-known that one is forbidden to use an umbrella on Shabbat. This is because the use of an umbrella is considered to be a violation of the melacha of “boneh”, the prohibition of erecting any type of tent, structure, or protective covering.[1] In fact, the use of an umbrella might even be a violation of a number of other Shabbat prohibitions, as well.[2] An umbrella may not be used on Shabbat even if it was opened before the start of Shabbat. This is primarily due to the prohibition of ma’arit ayin (“the appearance of a sin”) lest onlookers be led to believe that one had opened the umbrella on Shabbat itself.[3]  ….

Even though there have been authorities in the past who supported the use of umbrellas on Shabbat, the familiar ban on using them is one which has been universally accepted.[6] In fact, the Chafetz Chaim writes that “one who is careful with his soul will refrain from using them”.[7] Not only is it forbidden to use an umbrella on Shabbat, but they are muktza and may not even be moved.[8] Furthermore, our sages decreed that one should avoid assembling all forms of tents and canopy-like structures on Shabbat, even permitted ones, lest it lead to handling forbidden ones.[9] Nevertheless, one need not overly rebuke those less-learned who use an umbrella which was opened before Shabbat.[10] One may open and close garden umbrellas on Shabbat which are permanently implanted into the ground or some other base.[11]

The next error is also striking.

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Running the White House spin on HHS regulations

If news is ever going to break on your beat, it will break on Friday afternoon, a few hours before you planned to enjoy your weekend. I don’t know why it’s always true, but it’s always true. Or at least, that’s how it works for me.

On Friday, the White House announced that there’d be another change to its rule requiring groups to provide insurance plans that cover abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization even if they have religious objections. On Twitter, Godbeat pros immediately started complaining about this change happening on a Friday afternoon — like all the other news related to this ruling had happened on Friday afternoons.

Why is this significant? Well, you have an extremely limited time to compose a story and people who might react to the story have a very short time to think through their reaction to this story. Some were able to power through the mandate revisions and respond, but some wanted to take their time and reflect before reacting. Do they have any idea how frustrating this is to a reporter on deadline?

I simply must share Sam Rocha’s hilarious post from elsewhere on Patheos, headlined “BREAKING NEWS: USCCB to Think About HHS Amendment Sanely and Without the Advice of Drudge, Huff Post, or Alike.” Here’s how it begins (though the whole thing is funny):

In a shocking press release, United States Conference of Bishops made several unexpected moves in response to the Obama administration’s proposed modifications to the HHS mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, known by many as Obamacare. In a brief three-sentence memo, Cardinal Timothy Dolan implied a number of cryptic, esoteric, and ridiculous things. Two of the three sentences were particularly disconcerting to American Catholics:

We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.

American journalists and politicians are outraged. An MSNBFOX reporter writing on condition of anonymity e-mailed,

WTF! Seriously? The USCCB is going to READ the whole document before they comment? What is this, the stone age? Clearly the Bishops are again showing how out of touch they are with the times. We reported on this story before we were sure it was real. That’s what we do: we make things real, even if they’re not. And if they are, we sometimes make them unreal by ignoring them. How naive and trite of them to act like this is their role. Ridiculous, really. Know your role, Bishops.

Obviously I love daily journalism, but I’ll take a chance to ruminate on a story any day. So I was impressed with how some reporters were able to get the details out quickly, including some reaction from the affected groups who claim they care about something they call “religious liberty.” (I think that’s how we’re supposed to characterize the parties suing the federal government.) Here’s Christianity Today, for instance.

The White House is claiming that they’ve compromised. Some folks need time to react to the changes and others are already saying that the changes are not a compromise. A lot of what’s been said in response to the mandate changes sounds like spin, too. So should media outlets just run with White House spin?

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Pod people: Making progress on abortion coverage

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the good and bad of March for Life coverage. You can listen to it here. We revisited some of the themes we first looked at in these posts: “How to write a bland story about the March For Life,” “Foot-long subs vs. March For Life,” and “Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life.”

One of the problems with the annual discontent over how the signal event of the pro-life movement is covered is that the two sides in the dispute (that is, the pro-lifers and the media) have a very difficult time getting the other side to understand each other.

So I wanted to highlight an interesting conversation on another thread from this week, headlined “We don’t have a free press. Discuss.” I don’t think we all came to agreement on anything, but there were some interesting comments. The occasion of the comments was Professor Anthony Esolen’s jeremiad against the media’s coverage of the abortion debate in general.

Journalist Jeffrey Weiss got the ball rolling with his suggestion that the March for Life isn’t big news, particularly after 40 years, and that the crowds aren’t that big of a deal when compared to a weekend of sporting events. Reader Martha wondered whether the 40 years’ commemoration itself doesn’t make it more newsworthy. She made a comment about how the media find it possible to cover annual sporting events. Jeffrey responded that it’s a “pep rally for the faithful. A large preaching-to-the-choir.”  Reader Patrick pointed out that it’s a massive pep rally, if that’s the case, and one that even 40 years after the initial court decision represents a movement as large as the movement for same-sex marriage. And there were many more interesting comments, too, including Jeffrey’s latest, with wise words for all.

But I wanted to highlight this comment from reader Michael, who is always worth reading:

All the usual comments about media bias and the tired discussion of whether or not the March is news miss what I think is the most provocative part of Esolen’s essay: the suggestion that journalism on the whole makes us stupid (which in turn makes the abundance of stupid journalism rather unsurprising) and that a people who think in journalism (newspeak) will be a people who are ultimately incapable–and worse, uninterested–in thinking. I have my own theories about this, not to mention a few qualifiers, which I’ve trotted out here from time to time, and I wish he had done more to explain why this is so, but clearly he wanted to vent about coverage of the March. I can’t say that I blame him. Yet to me this essay is as much an indictment of the culture dominated by its superficial media as it is an indictment of the superficiality of the reportage. And this seems to me to be much the point of the article: that the two are made for (and by) each other.

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GetReligion turns nine; Newsweek sort of vanishes

So once again, with feeling.

Nine years ago today, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc clicked a mouse and GetReligion went live. As I have noted before, I actually wrote the “What we do, why we do it” post on Feb. 1, 2004, but the site opened its cyber-doors the next day, on Feb. 2, 2004.

This kind of anniversary landmark tends to inspire meditations on the passage of time (and a GetReligionista or two will jump in with anniversary thoughts in the next few days). So what is on my mind this year?

Well, how about this: Newsweek, Newsweek, Newsweek, wherefore art thou Newsweek?

Let’s start with a confession or two.

I was a loyal Newsweek (and Time, as well) subscriber for several decades, until theologian-in-chief Jon Meacham openly and honestly decided to run off a million or more of his readers in order to re-brand his struggling magazine as a more elite and openly progressive advocacy operation. At the time, I observed that this mystified me. I mean, I already subscribed to The New Republic. Why would I want Newsweek to take the same approach to the news?

It was pretty obvious that issues linked to religion and faith were at the heart of this Newsweek lunge to the journalistic left. I wondered, out loud, if Newsweek was simply trying to become the World Magazine of the religious left.

Whatever. It didn’t work. Meacham left and Newsweek drifted into another brief era, one in which editor Tina Brown tried to keep the advocacy thing going, while featuring voices on the right as well as the left. The key, however, was that opinion and heat was more important than journalism, more important than reporting and clearly attributed information.

All I knew was that, with the magazine’s ties to The Daily Beast, I needed to start paying attention to Newsweek once again — because that was where I would find the religion, politics and culture reportage of one of the best journalists on the planet, Peter Boyer (best known for his years of work at The New Yorker). So I bought another subscription.

Well, that didn’t last long.

For me, the key was that Newsweek — along with most of the work published at another Meacham-DNA platform, “On Faith” at The Washington Post — came to symbolize the belief that the best way for journalists to handle religion coverage was to baptize it in emotions, feelings and opinions, as opposed to striving for a journalistic blend of history, factual material and clearly attributed quotations from qualified people on both sides of hot-button issues.

Religion, in other words, was not real.

Religion was not worthy of real journalism. Religion was interesting and powerful, but there was no need to think of it as an issue linked to real life in the real world. It was sort of, well, hazy, vague and foggy. In a GetReligion post about “On Faith” (“On Fog” — A Meditation), I noted:

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Telling the story of Timbuktu’s terror

The New York Times has done some amazing work this week covering Islamic conflicts in Africa. This story, which tells how sharia was implemented during Islamist domination of Timbuktu, is so very good. Note the beginning:

When the Islamist militants came to town, Dr. Ibrahim Maiga made a reluctant deal. He would do whatever they asked — treat their wounded, heal their fevers, bandage up without complaint the women they thrashed in the street for failing to cover their heads and faces. In return, they would allow him to keep the hospital running as he wished.

Then, one day in October, the militants called him with some unusual instructions. Put together a team, they said, bring an ambulance and come to a sun-baked public square by sand dunes.

There, before a stunned crowd, the Islamist fighters carried out what they claimed was the only just sentence for theft: cutting off the thief’s hand. As one of the fighters hacked away at the wrist of a terrified, screaming young man strapped to a chair, Dr. Maiga, a veteran of grisly emergency room scenes, looked away.

“I was shocked,” he said, holding his head in his hands. “But I was powerless. My job is to heal people. What could I do?”

This piece is riveting and so very descriptive. It shows how Muslims dealt with Islamist fighters linked with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. While Islamist militants have retreated to the desert, they are still a threat — and the story deals somewhat with that.

The damage done to Timbuktu, according the story, is severe. Many residents fled. The city is dangerously isolated. I love the attention to religious detail in this story. For instance:

Those who remained told stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.

“They tried to take away everything that made Timbuktu Timbuktu,” said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, whose ancestors first settled in Timbuktu from Morocco in the 13th century. “They almost succeeded.”

The story provides some historical perspective of the occupations of Timbuktu.

My favorite aspect of the story, however, is how both groups’ religious beliefs are included in the story — not just those of the religious extremists, as is so often the case.

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We don’t have a free press. Discuss.

With the headline “Stupid Press, Stupid People: Non-Reporting the March for Life,” you know Anthony Esolen has something to say:

Our founders believed that a free press was essential for a free society.  We believe we have a free press.  But what good is nominal freedom—the government does not censor our newspapers—if the writers are liars, or are ill-educated, or feed the populace a lot of claptrap, or ignore important events because they don’t like the people involved or the cause?  What happens, if the “teaching” of three hundred million Americans is in the hands of people who give headlines to a football player with a fictional girlfriend, or to the sleazy habits of a porn girl turned celebrity, or to “scientific” studies about when your “relationship” is going to end, rather than to anything of substance, anything that requires learning, listening, investigating, and thought?  What happens, particularly, if the only stories about faith come from the category, “Benighted Believers”?

What happens is what we got for non-reportage on this year’s March for Life in Washington.

The issue he raises in the first paragraph is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’d be the first to point out that it’s easy to blame the media. At least a a large part of the blame lies with the people who care more about fictional girlfriends than global concerns. But it’s also true that our media have problems with accurately conveying information and have strong biases that affect their coverage. What’s worse is is that I think that many know this and just don’t care. We have a media that is content to go after some people, certainly (my prayers go with you if you’re a conservative woman in any field, for instance) but don’t seem that interested in how corporate interests helped write, say, Obamacare or all other pieces of legislation. They’ll go after you with the fury of a firestorm if you decide you don’t want to fund an abortion business any more but they don’t seem terribly interested in said abortion businesses. (Did you see much coverage of this riveting documentary out just last week about the abortion doctor who is charged with eight homicides?) They’ll go after you if you don’t share their doctrinal approach to sexuality. But if you do, you’re probably going to be just fine. And on and on. This is not speaking truth to power or being properly adversarial. And is it a truly free press? I think Esolen asks a good question.

The piece, published at Crisis isn’t just about the big-picture problems with how the media portray the abortion debate. He also brings it down the story level, fisking an Associated Press report on the recent March for Life. Let’s go ahead and look at it:

But the Ministries of Truth mostly ignored it.  What they didn’t ignore, they belittled or distorted.  In doing so, however, they revealed their own ignorance.  Here is the AP story, in News-speak, with my comments in brackets:

Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators

[That’s a lie, right there.  If 650 people show up at a town meeting, and the reporter says that “several” people showed up, that reporter is a liar, and should be fired.  If 6,500 people show up at the State House to protest a bill, and the reporter says that “dozens” showed up, he’s a liar, and should be fired.  If a crowd fills the Rose Bowl, and the reporter calls them “hundreds,” he should be fired.  The March for Life is, year after year, the largest peaceful assembly of people in the nation.  To know this, and to fail to report it, is to be a liar.  Not to know this is to be a moron; no third possibility exists.  Meanwhile, a gun control protest was held in the same place a few days later, and “thousands” were reported to have taken part in it, when the actual number was about 1,000.  The two stories together show an exaggeration of 50,000 to 65,000 percent, in favor of what the reporter favors.]

marched through Washington to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to protest the landmark decision that legalized abortion.

 

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How PR attempt against Life Marchers played out at MSNBC

YouTube Preview Image Earlier this week, I looked at how a PR push from a progressive group called Faith in Public Life, which attempted to distract from the annual human rights march in defense of unborn children, became a New York Times article. I got a lot of feedback on that piece, and I appreciate all of the kind words about it. I also got quite a bit of feedback from people who suggested I was naive to think this was surprising or noteworthy — as if this is just standard operating behavior from the media.

I was the media critic who had a hard time believing that Faith in Public Life would simultaneously run a PR campaign suggesting that the Catholic bishops were being too political when they fought for religious liberty and a PR campaign for a hyper-political anti-Paul Ryan bus tour featuring a couple of nuns. I further found it impossible to believe that the media would swallow both campaigns whole without even mentioning that these were both highly funded and savvy PR campaigns from a group with tons of connections to the Obama campaign. (Why do journalists always like to claim they’re about afflicting the comfortable or speaking truth to power? I don’t see it as much as they do.)

Anywho, I get the criticism that I was naive to be surprised or outraged by this press release being transposed into the pages of the New York Times but (and, as Pee Wee Herman says, everyone he knows has a big “but”), this really was a particularly egregious example of the larger problems the media have in covering the pro-life movement. To that end, you may be heartened to know that more than a few reporters wrote me to say that while they respect the Times’ journalism, they didn’t support this approach and they would encourage fellow reporters to be more skeptical of some PR campaigns (however much we all rely on them for stories).

So let’s move on. Above is an interview of a pro-life activist done by MSNBC. I know, I know — MSNBC. But this isn’t one of that cable outlets opinion shows. MSNBC, as to be expected, perhaps, also pushed the “if you’re really pro-life, why not gun control” messaging from the savvy PR group. (One wonders why people who support gun control are never asked by reporters about scalpel and curettage control or other tools of violence used in abortion. Why did this question only move one way last week? Why not both ways? Hmmm.)

My transcript of the above video interview by MSNBC’s Craig Melvin of Ryan Bomberger:

Melvin: Do you agree that anti-abortion activists, groups and politicians also have a moral commitment to also join the fight for stricter gun control?

 

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When is it OK to burn Islamic texts?

We’ve been critiquing the good and bad coverage of what’s been happening to Mali in recent months. The latest news is about how fleeing Islamists destroyed a library in Timbuktu. Here’s the Associated Press:

SEVARE, Mali – Fleeing Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said Monday, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali’s fabled desert city.

Ousmane Halle said he heard about the burnings early Monday.

“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” he told The Associated Press by telephone from Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Monday. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”

The mayor said Monday that the radical Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute , a library rich with historical documents , in an act of retaliation before they fled late last week.

Reporting out of Mali has been difficult and I’m so thankful for all those who are doing just that. Here’s Reuters:

The burning of a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali’s desert city of Timbuktu is just the latest act of destruction by Islamist fighters who have spent months smashing graves and holy shrines in the World Heritage site.

The United Nations cultural body UNESCO said it was trying to find out the precise damage done to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a modern building that contains priceless documents dating back to the 13th century.

The manuscripts are “uniquely valuable and testify to a long tradition of learning and cultural exchange,” said UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan. “So we are horrified.”

But if they are horrified, historians and religious scholars are unlikely to have been surprised by this gesture of defiance by Islamist rebels fleeing the ancient trading post on the threshold of the Sahara as French and Malian troops moved in.

“It was one of the greatest libraries of Islamic manuscripts in the world,” said Marie Rodet, an African history lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“It’s pure retaliation. They knew they were losing the battle and they hit where it really hurts,” she told Reuters.

OK. Do you have the same question I have at this point?

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