Category: Religion

A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (Author Interview Video)

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On the night of November 9, 1938, now known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany. In the video below, Alon Confino explains why this act, among the other horrors committed that night, was particularly unusual. There is not a direct connection between the Nazi’s racist ideology and the burning of religious holy objects. The act can only be understood as part of the Nazi’s effort to build a new civilization independent of previous religious ideas and morality. Confino explores the thoughts and ideas that led the Nazi’s to the belief that Jews and Judaism had to be eradicated to build this new society in A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. Watch Confino’s eloquent responses to the questions of why we should strive to understand the Nazi imagination,  and why historical storytelling is important.

“The main issue in explaining the holocaust is not what happened in Auschwitz, but is about the imagination that made Auschwitz possible to begin with.”Alon Confino

Jewish American Heritage Month Features The Glatstein Chronicles

Get the ebook of The Glatstein Chronicles for only 2.99 via Open Road Media this Jewish American Heritage Month!

 

In 1934 and with World War II steadily nearing, Jacob Glatstein, one of the most prominent Yiddish-language poets of his time, boarded a ship from the United States to visit his dying mother in his hometown of Lublin, Poland. It is this trip that serves as the basis for the two novellas of autobiographical fiction comprising The Glatstein ChroniclesTold from the first-person perspective of Yash, The Glatstein Chronicles highlights the decline of an entire community through the lens of international Jews in the years leading up to World War II. Book One, “Homeward Bound” details Yash’s observations of his fellow passengers’ political and social leanings over the course of his journey. Glatstein combines childhood memories of violent pogroms in Poland with commentary on escalating anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe to highlight the resilience of the Jewish people and their ability to remain united as a collective group in the face of growing hostility.

In book’s second half, Glatstein reveals the true matter at hand, once again through the experiences of others: the utter despair and seeming lack of hope that must be endured by the Polish Jewry in an environment almost wholly overtaken by anti-Semitism. The Glatstein Chronicles’ importance lies not only in its ability to shed light on the Jewish experience in the years leading up to World War II, but also in its prescience, foreshadowing the imminent horrors of the Holocaust Jews had yet to face at the time of the novellas’ publication.  At the end of Book Two, “Homecoming at Twilight,” before his return to the United States, Glatstein reflects:

Even my mother’s death seemed to coincide oddly with the downward movement of my own life, and all this was in step with Jewish life as a whole, maybe even with the twilight now settling down over the whole world.

Although fraught with anguish and hopelessness, The Glatstein Chronicles serves as “a filial homage to Polish Jews,” offering hope, a hope rooted in the notion that solidarity with one’s community is the most crucial to enduring harship.

This month is the perfect time to explore the life of Yash Glatstein and the experiences of the Polish Jew through The Glatstein Chroniclestranslated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman and part of Yale University Press’s New Yiddish Library series.

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Yale Press Podcast: Author Jennifer Michael Hecht on Suicide

Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against ItThere is a certain myth to the idea that most suicides occur around the holidays; in fact, it’s usually in spring and summer that see the highest rates of this irretrievable act. In our latest episode of the Yale Press Podcast, Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against Itspeaks poignantly to the value of  recovering the most powerful historical and contemporary arguments against the act.  The book, based on research as well as personal experience — has been well received by critics: it’s what David Brooks has called “eloquent and affecting” in his New York Times column, what Maria Popova claimed as “more than a must-read — it’s a cultural necessity” on Brain Pickings, and what Andrew Sullivan has treated readers to with a series of videos with an Ask Anything series with Hecht on The Dish.

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Listen to Jennifer Michael Hecht on the Yale Press Podcast on iTunesU!

As we close our #YUPapr conversations this month about “Ancient Texts, Modern Beliefs”, Hecht‘s argument importantly shapes how we have perceived our own humanity as an object of faith and community, and for our modern society and its set of beliefs, the message is clear: don’t go, stay.

The Ten Commandments in Modern Context

Read Michael Coogan’s post on the politics of the April 27 canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II
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Despite the Ten Commandments’ enduring power as either the purported word of God or a document of great historical significance, few would support following a literal interpretation of them to the letter. One could read in the 10th commandment, for example, a perception of women as the property of men.

You should not scheme against your neighbor’s house; you should not scheme against your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave or his female slave, or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
(The 10th Commandment as written in Exodus 20:17)

How do we reconcile the Ten Commandments’ endorsement of secular and universal values with their affirmation of those that are no longer defensible?

In The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text, Michael Coogan traces the development of the Ten Commandments as a text and considers their differing interpretations throughout history. Opening with a reproduction of the three biblical versions of the Ten Commandments and concluding with recommendations on how we should honor them today, he ultimately challenges our perception of the Ten Commandments as infallible and reveals literal interpretations of their words as unhistorical.

At the end of “Idols and Images,” the first chapter of the book, Coogan poses questions integral to placing the Ten Commandments within a modern context and introduces his framework for analyzing their centrality within contemporary American society:

Commercial, constitutional, and textual matters aside, there are more important issues: Is this ancient Israelite set of laws an appropriate, if controversial, American symbol? Are its values so easily transferable to a modern context? Before we can decide on the relevance for our time of a text is several thousand years old, we should determine what it meant in its original setting, to its first audiences. To do so we will need to consider the Ten Commandments in their historical and literary contexts in the Bible, as well as their broader ancient Near Eastern environment. We will see that the Ten Commandments are the stipulations of the contract or covenant between God and Israel, a central biblical concept that is also elucidated by other types of contracts in biblical and ancient Near Eastern law. Moreover, the Ten Commandments come from a culture different in many ways from ours. Ancient biblical society was overwhelmingly patriarchal, one in which women were essentially property and slavery was a given. The Ten Commandments reflect those values –but should they still be authoritative, even if contained in an apparently divinely given code?

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… continuing up to the present, it is clear that the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Ten Commandments were not always observed literally, and various subgroups within Judaism and Christianity differed, and continue to differ, about how to interpret and apply them. Is making an image of God – or of any divine, human, or animal form – allowed, or not? Is the Sabbath to be observed on Saturday or Sunday? Are women hierarchically subordinate to men, and may people own slaves? Most important, should the Ten Commandments still be an authoritative text?

Coogan treats seriously the Decalogue as a historical moment whose teachings have informed the essence of religious practice for centuries. While he performs textual and historical analysis, he simultaneously argues that this document need not be elevated against others in the public square today.

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Ten Commandments Monument at the Texas State Capitol

Dispatches from Faith: Radiant Truth and America

Radiant TruthsSome stories are best told in fragments, built like mosaics from pieces brought together. The story of American religion, what belief can look like since the early years of this nation, is one of those complex histories that benefits from a multiplicity of disparate voices. In Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, Jeff Sharlet compiles works of literary journalism with thoughtful introductions that take us through, if not the full of scope of American religion, a vast swath of it. From Mark Twain to James Baldwin, from wounded soldiers to Christian music festivals, these stories lend insight how belief can function in diverse lives.

Literary journalism is a slippery genre, as Sharlet explains, and as such it is able to cross boundaries fitting for an examination of religion, blending narrative and poetry. “Literary journalism’s only essential truth – the impossibility of perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise – makes it uniquely suited for the subject of American religion,” he writes, “so often struggling to be one or the other, pious or democratic, communal or individual, rooted or transcendent.”

Below are excerpts from the diverse accounts Sharlet brings together, arranged chronologically.

Walt Whitman from Specimen Days, 1863/1882

I open’d at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man ask’d me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion. I said, “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing. He said, “It is my chief reliance.”  He talk’d of death, and said he did not fear it. I said, “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said, “I may, but it is not probable.”

Zora Neale Hurston from Hoodoo, 1935

The terrified chickens flopped and fluttered frantically in the dim firelight. I had been told to keep up the chant of the victim’s name in rhythm and to beat the ground with a stick. This I did with fervor and Turner danced on. One by one the chickens were seized and killed by having their heads pulled off. But Turner was in such a condition with his whirling and dancing that he seemed in a hypnotic state. When the last fowl was dead, Turner drank a great draught of wine and sank before the altar. When he arose, we gathered some ashes from the fire and sprinkled the bodies of the dead chickens and I was told to get out the car. We drove out one of the main highways for a mile and threw one of the chickens away. Then another mile and another chicken until the nine dead chickens had been disposed of. The spirits of the dead chickens had been instructed never to let the trouble-maker pass inward to New Orleans again after he had passed them going out.

Mary McCarthy from Artists in Uniform, 1953

This period in his life, in which he had thrown off the claims of the spiritual and adopted a practical approach, was evidently one of those “turning points” to which a man looks back with pride. He lingered over his story of his break with the church and his parents with a curious sort of heat, as though the flames of his old sexual conquests stirred within his body at the memory of those old quarrels.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, from Arguing with the Pope, 1994

The Church has always been at war with the world, which it simultaneously loves; it is in this coincidence of opposites that the spiritual wealth of the Church lies. I went to Denver to see – I needed to see, in the flesh – the demanding old Pope, a man wedded to the past, a man who calls the earth a “vast planet of tombs,” and the buoyant young people in whom the future lives so vividly. Stasis and energy, the old and the young: perhaps another coincidence of opposites, two halves of the equation meeting and (like the lion and the lamb) providentially joining. One is something immensely grateful to the Church for espousing eternal values and sometimes inclined to regard it as fossilized. One’s equilibrium, such as it is, rests shakily on the apparent dichotomy between spirit and flesh… the instructive flesh.

How the Bible Became Holy: An Interactive Timeline

Though it is easy to see the Bible today as a singular work – one text held as holy by many religious believers – it has a less straightforward history. The Bible was compiled over time from the writings of religious figures whose influence depended on the balance of political power. Professor Michael Satlow has tracked down this history in How the Bible Became Holy, identifying the original sources of the text and the contexts in which they developed significance to religious followers.

Faith, and by extension what is held sacred or holy, is an extremely personal concept. The scope of influence of these beliefs that comes with organized religion reaches far beyond the personal level. The beliefs of organized groups of people have a strong influence on politics, as seen today in debates on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and public school curricula. It can be harder to see the ways in which politics, in turn, influence religion. Below, the interactive timeline developed by Satlow condenses the history of the Bible, providing a perspective that shines light on the lines of influence between politics and religion.


View larger on mlsatlow.com.


Visit mlsatlow.com for more of Professor Satlow’s research and writings.

Our Texts are Palatial: Words from Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

Jews and Words is a book that celebrates the written word with a very particular voice that grew out of a lifetime of father-daughter conversations between co-authors Amos Oz, and Fania Oz-Salberger. As Martin Peretz of the Wall Street Journal noted, “You cannot get the taste of this book, let alone its essence, without reading it.” It seems natural to let Amos and Fania’s words speak for themselves.

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Amos and Fania’s interviews with NPR and i24 News provide another glimpse into their ongoing dialogue about the Jewish literary tradition. Hear in their own words what it means to be Jewish atheists, how the words “Jews” and “readers” can be interchangeable, and how Jews grew uniquely dependent on words.

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For more from Amos and Fania, listen to their conversation on the Yale Press Podcast with John Donatich and like Jews and Words on Facebook.

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Every Pope a Saint? The Politics of Canonization

For our #YUPapr conversations this month about “Ancient Texts, Modern Beliefs”, a closer inspection of contemporary religious practices—and their comparative differences— is important for our consideration of changing beliefs in the greater context of world history. Here, Yale University Press author Michael Coogan discusses the upcoming April 27 canonization of two popes and the rapidly increasing rate of sainthood for modern Bishops of Rome, offering some perspective on the changing political nature of the Church in today’s society.

Michael Coogan—

On April 27, ornately robed clerics will celebrate the canonization of two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. In the modern Roman Catholic Church until the last few decades, canonization­—declaring someone a saint—was rare and occurred only after a protracted process. Successive steps lead to canonization: first, one is declared “Servant of God,” then “Venerable,” then “Blessed,” and finally “Saint.” From the beginning of the fourteenth century to the mid-twentieth, only two popes were canonized and another three were declared “Blessed.” Not so any more: since the papacy of John Paul II a flurry of canonizations has been underway, not just for ordinary individuals deemed holy, but also for modern popes.

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Pope John Paul II

Remarkably, all of the popes since the mid-twentieth century, except of course for those still alive, are on the path to canonization: Pius XII (1939–1958, declared Servant of God in 1990 and Venerable in 2009), John XXIII (1958–1963, declared Servant of God in 1965, Venerable in 1999, and Blessed in 2000), Paul VI (1963–1978, declared Servant of God in 1993 and Venerable in 2012), John Paul I (1978, declared Servant of God in 2003), and John Paul II (1978–2005, declared Servant of God in 2005, Venerable in 2009, and Blessed in 2011). Why this sudden, almost automatic rush to sainthood for recent popes?

Part of the answer lies in nineteenth-century realpolitik. For more than a thousand years, the pope was not just the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also a monarch, the ruler of the Papal States in the central Italian peninsula. As sovereigns of this territory, popes engaged in diplomacy and war to maintain and expand their control. In the nineteenth century, however, the papal domain was virtually eliminated by the unification of Italy under Garibaldi and his successors, culminating with the capture of Rome by Italian forces in September 1870. All that was left of papal territory was tiny Vatican City. Only a few months before, when the fall of Rome was already inevitable, the First Vatican Council, at Pope Pius IX’s prompting, declared the doctrine of papal infallibility. If the popes could not be political sovereigns, it seems, they could at least have absolute spiritual authority, especially, as the official wording has it, when they say they are speaking infallibly on an issue of faith or morals.

Although there has been only one technically infallible pronouncement since 1870—Pius XII’s proclamation in 1950 of the doctrine of the Assumption, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had been bodily taken up to heaven at her death—papal authoritarianism has expressed itself in other ways, as when John Paul II asserted in an apostolic letter that women could never be priests, and then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) subsequently called this teaching infallible, unchangeable, and binding on all Catholics forever.

By the second half of the twentieth century, even the popes’ spiritual authority was being eroded, because of flawed leadership. Pius XII’s silence about the Holocaust was moral cowardice, if not latent anti-Semitism. Paul VI’s insistence on banning artificial contraception in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, against the opinion of a majority of his advisors, effectively ended papal authority for many Catholics. John Paul II’s clericalism led to years of denial and coddling of predatory priest pedophiles and their episcopal superiors, which further diminished the Church’s authority as well as its coffers. Significantly, these last two issues concern what the current pope has called an obsessive preoccupation with sex and reproduction; it is of more than tangential interest that of the thousands of men and women put on the path to sainthood by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, only a tiny percentage were married. Most openly sexually active persons, it seems, can’t really be saintly.

The haste to canonize the last five deceased popes is an effort to shore up the diminished spiritual authority of the papacy. If every pope is a saint, who could dare disagree with them? Surely they are being elevated to sainthood not mainly because of their personal holiness but because they were popes, even though as popes most of them were deeply flawed. Is flawed leadership no bar to sainthood?

Among the popes whose canonization process John Paul II sped up was none other than Pius IX, declared Servant of God in 1907, but Venerable only in 1985 and Blessed in 2000: the most authoritarian pope of the nineteenth century was propelled toward sainthood by one of the most authoritarian popes of the twentieth. The Vatican is locked in a time warp of absolute monarchical authority, and popes canonizing their predecessors is an attempt to preserve and enhance it. The joint canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II—the first a darling of liberal Catholics, the second a favorite of traditional Catholics—is calculated to appeal to different constituencies. Even sainthood is political, and it is disingenuous to pretend that it is not.


Michael Coogan is the author of The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text, out this month from Yale University Press.

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Michael Coogan

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Message: Don’t Look to Suicide, Stay with Us

Twenty years ago, the suicide of Kurt Cobain shook not only the alternative music scene, but much of popular culture as we know it. The infamous 27 Club, which then included musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, and more recently, Amy Winehouse, was mainly a phenomenon of accidental deaths and murder. Though many died from drug and alcohol related causes, Cobain’s suicide has continued to be a subject of great spectacle and controversy, even as the case was re-opened briefly in March 2014 and confirmed as suicide. The heartfelt responses—both of today and yesteryear—have rippled out from Cobain’s native Seattle region and reached a global recognition of this type of tragedy.

Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against ItIn the critically-acclaimed, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, Jennifer Michael Hecht  examines suicide from a number of philosophical, religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions, bringing forward the argument of what its impact has become in our contemporary society and how we deal —collectively—with the pain. In the video below, recorded for The Dish, Hecht discusses the mimetic tendencies of suicide in response to the impact that an individual’s suicide has on friends, family, and community.  The message is to stay with us, as a part of a community: If you don’t kill yourself, you’re saving someone else’s life. “I’m grateful, you’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”

Jennifer Michael Hecht: The Impact Of A Suicide from The Dish on Vimeo.

The Catholic Church’s Role in World Development

Last week, President Obama and Pope Francis met for almost an hour in a much-anticipated private visit in which they discussed, among other issues, income inequality and global peace. Indeed, in his first year as Pope, Pope Francis has emphasized the necessity to care for the poor, both from the standpoint of the Church and in political terms. This special emphasis on the plight of the poor has touched many, and drawn particular attention to the Church’s role in addressing these needs. In his book Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, Robert Calderisi places the role of the Church in global and historical context. This book takes on the Catholic Church’s practical role in developing nations, particularly in the last 60 years. In so doing, Calderisi touches on the relationship between religion and politics, the economy, and social progress.

Earthly MissionIndeed, in looking at both individual people and official institutional practice and dogma, this book obliquely raises the question, “What is the Church?” The tension between the institution and the individual occurs throughout Earthly Mission, in ways one wouldn’t always expect. The institution has often, but not exclusively, played a “conservative” role; in fact, the term “conservative” takes on wider meaning than a distinct place on the political spectrum. There are institutional, national, and economic issues at stake in the meeting between the Catholic Church and international development, not to mention the actions of persons outside the institution.

In addition to keen historical and economic investigation, Calderisi draws from the stories of people he met in fourteen developing nations from Rwanda, to Argentina, to Bangladesh. He speaks to cab drivers in Italy, economists in the Philippines and pastors in Tanzania. This approach gives Earthly Mission the insight that comes from individual experience alongside broader analysis with hard data.

The scope of the Catholic Church’s role in world development is vast and complex, and Earthly Mission includes the range from hopeful moments where poverty has been alleviated and to the most difficult ones. Calderisi examines heartbreaking moments in world history, such as the horrors of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. Calderisi speaks to those who were there and grapples with the incomprehensible violence.  “Church leaders did nothing to prevent the butchery,” he explains, “and some even seemed to encourage it.” The heroism of some individuals is set up against failures of courage on the other. Priests, nuns and lay Catholics all participated, some as victims, others as perpetrators.

In the end Earthly Mission provides a dynamic picture of the intersection between religion and politics and the diverse ways that appears in different places on the globe. It is in part a story of the Church’s institution meeting governmental institutions, and the individuals in between. “Diverse and all too human in its internal organization,” Calderisi writes, “the Church has varied greatly in its responses to social challenges. Vagaries of character, pressures of circumstance, and instincts of self-preservation have sometimes won out over the eternal truths to which it is dedicated.” Laying his cards on the table, Calderisi himself does not give up hope for the Catholic Church, yet leaves the story open for readers to draw their own conclusions as to whether the Catholic Church, as a whole, has been a force for good.