Category: Religion

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.


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.


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.

GWB LB DIGITAL 12:35 Statements with Pope John Paul II.

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.


Michael Coogan



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.

The Meaning of Faith and Reason

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It’s good practice, if you are going to argue with something, to aim at the best version of that thing you are arguing with. In Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Terry Eagleton argues that opponents of religion like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (or ‘Ditchkins’ as Eagleton calls them) should criticize religion as it actually exists, not the lesser versions of their imagination. Reason, Faith, and Revolution, originally from the Dwight H. Terry Lectures  in 2008 at Yale, finds Eagleton wading into the “religion debates” made famous by the New Atheists. As Dawkins and other New Atheists continue to tour and lecture on the topic, these debates continue to hold a place in the cultural conversation.

Reason, Faith, and RevolutionEagleton responds to Christopher Hitchens’ claims that, since we have advanced technologically and can now observe the universe scientifically, we do not need religion to explain our world. “Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place,” writes Eagleton. “It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekov.” Reason, Faith, and Revolution explains aspects of what religion does mean, and has meant historically.

According to Eagleton, critics like Dawkins not only mistake certain versions of fundamentalism to be Christianity itself, the author notes the similarities between Ditchkins and the fundamentalists they criticize (“and not just in their intemperate zeal and tedious obsessiveness,” he adds). The scriptures are far more complex than Hitchens and Dawkins allow.

One of the major misconceptions Eagleton addresses is a false dichotomy between “faith” and “reason”. Severing the two allows for
“faith” to be blamed for society’s ills, while “reason” can be characterized only as reasonable. Reason and faith are intertwined for Eagleton, and one is not to be discarded for the other. Reason does not go “all the way down”, he explains, and for centuries the two have been understood together.

Religion does not come out unscathed from Eagleton’s analysis either. He does not flinch in naming the failures of the church throughout history, betraying what Eagleton understands as the roots of the gospel. Indeed, he writes, the version of the gospel found in some churches has made it easy for people to “buy their atheism and agnosticism on the cheap”

Culture and the Death of God

As usual, Eagleton’s prose is acerbically witty and pointed, and he does not hesitate to make light of rigid secularity or self-righteousness along the political spectrum. While polemical, it remains entertaining to read and thought-provoking regardless of what side of the debate you find yourself on. As the conversation over religion in the public sphere continues, Eagleton is an important voice to listen to, particularly as he offers nuance in a debate too easily dismissed as black and white.


Coming this month, Eagleton’s new book, Culture and the Death of God, reflects further on the role of religion in public life. Since modernity attempted to accept the absence of God, replacements for the role have rushed in. Eagleton analyzes these historical developments from the Enlightenment to life after 9/11 in the light of religion and atheism, as well as considering possibilities for the future.

Extraordinary Stories of Everyday Lives

Get the Kindle Edition of Everyday Jews for only $1.99 in March 2014


Everyday JewsEveryday Jews was first published in Poland in 1935 by Yehoshue Perle in an attempt to document the daily experiences of Polish Jews. It is a story of love and sex and spirit, a beautiful testimony to a strong and enduring people. Although originally chastised as crude, the novel quickly became a canonical work in explaining this time period. Although the story’s narrator, Mendl, is only a child, this work catalogs the intricate lives of Polish Jews. As he works though the stuff of twelve-year-old boys – puberty, sexual identity, family drama –the world around him also drastically changes. The result is a complex, interwoven tale told in a simple and precise tone, which is neatly captured in this translation.

Perhaps even more important than the book’s characters is its incredible sense of prehistory. Published just before the outbreak of the war, Perle’s text speaks to the experience of Jewry before the Holocaust. The Holocaust’s omnipresence can be felt throughout, a terrible foreboding of what is to come. And yet, this is still a story of hope, built on the believe that sharing a cultural history is of the utmost importance. Yehoshue Perle’s slice-of-life fiction provides a resonating voice to this population.

In his introduction, editor David G. Roskies writes:

We now offer Everyday Jews to the English reader is Maier Deshell’s masterful translation… Whether looking for vanished Jews or for a window into the everyday, the English reader will here – for the first time – discover a modern master. This is no everyday occurrence.

This March is the perfect time to explore the life of Mendl and the history of the Polish Jew through Everyday Jews, translated by Maier Deshell and Margaret Birstein and part of Yale University Press’s New Yiddish Library series.

Terry Eagleton: An Intellectual and Cultural Nomad

eagletonFifty years ago, Terry Eagleton—one of the foremost and polemical cultural critics and literary theorists—was appointed Fellow in English at Jesus College, Cambridge shortly after graduating from the university himself with a First in English. He was the youngest fellow in the history of the college since the eighteenth century, and he hasn’t stopped working at such an accelerated pace. While accepting professorships in the U.S, the UK, and Ireland (not to mention countless guest speaker appearances worldwide), he has published more than forty books that cover topics across the board, perhaps because, as he joked to The New York Times, “I don’t actually read other peoples’ books. If I want to read a book, I write one myself.” From literary and political theory; cultural criticism; and religion to memoir; screenplays; theater; and fiction, Eagleton has nearly done it all, leaving his mark in many areas of intellectual discourse.

Eagleton has set foot on both banks of the divide when it comes social and cultural matters. Though born in England, he is of Irish ancestry and despite feeling very English he published a trilogy examining Irish history and culture. On a social level, he is very open about his working-class upbringing even though he attended and has worked at the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom and beyond. And in terms of religion, Eagleton is a lapsed Catholic (though his childhood avocation was as Gatekeeper, an altar boy who escorts novice nuns as they make their vows) but has made headlines for defending the existence and purpose religion and his heated attacks on well-known New Atheists.

His fist major work Literary Theory: An Introduction became an international academic best seller and is now a staple in many literature classrooms. But his career would lead him into other genre of intellectual discussion, such as religion and political theory. Eagleton’s relationship with Yale University started in the mid-2000s when he was the Terry Lecture series speaker in 2008, where he talked about faith, fundamentalism, and the influence of Richard Dawkins. The book Reason, Faith, and Revolution—based on the lectures—was published shortly thereafter. Two years later, YUP published his book On Evil, in which Eagleton analyzes our culture’s evolving relationship with and perception of evil, which has shifted from religious “sin” to a more secular form, “transgression.” Shifting away from theological discussion, his next venture with YUP would be about Marxism (which has interested him since his university days as an influential member of the Leftist Christian magazine Slant) titled Why Marx Was Right. That same year, he also released the book The Event of Literature, which goes back to his academic roots in literary theory (though he started out as a Victorian literature scholar). In a similar vein, Eagleton completed the book How to Read Literature, which was published last spring and provides an insightful guide for students studying literature or for those looking to deepen their reading experiences with books read for pleasure. His latest publication with us, Culture and the Death of God, comes out this spring and marks a return to his study of atheism and religion in our post 9/11 culture.

Eagleton frequently revisits topics he’s previously studied in his career to flesh out more analysis on the topic or reexamine it from a different perspective. Regarding his Catholicism, he admits that “there is still the old Joycean question of how far you can walk away from something culturally imprinted on you so deeply,” but the same could be said about his longstanding and close relationship to literary and political theory. That said, Eagleton looks to see that the essential questions about these subjects are constantly reexamined in the evolving culture around us. Describing his work is difficult to pin down in one or two words because it would suggest boxing him in a way that he appears to have resisted throughout his life, perhaps because in continually transgressing mainstream categorization he ensures a steady stream of debate and discussion to reveal novel insights.

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For the Introspective Writer

No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.

—Franz Kafka in a letter to Milena Jesenska, August 26, 1920

kafkaThe anguished metaphor that Kafka describes to Jesenska is perhaps characteristic of his life and work. In his letters, diaries, and especially his fiction, there is a pervasive sense of guilt and shame that never quite seems to go away. Pulitzer prize-winning historian Saul Friedländer sets out to explore these personal anxieties in his fascinating intellectual biography, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. “Very early on,” Friedländer explains, “Kafka must have felt that he was different from most of those who surrounded him, different in his erotic cravings and different in the powers of imagination and expression he sensed within himself. [...] In his fiction he demolished the very norms to which he submitted in his everyday life.”

Owing in part to the vast interpretive possibilities of Kafka’s writing, countless studies have been written on his life and work. Friedländer acknowledges that “treasures of erudition have been spent on recording the tiniest details of Kafka’s life and on excavating the philological, literary, and philosophical foundations of each of his metaphors or name games,” but also points out that “some huge spires towering over Kafka territory–his sense of shame and guilt, perceived by every reader–have elicited mainly very general and abstract interpretations that do not sufficiently point to the personal anguish from which they stemmed.” What were the experiences and relationships in Kafka’s life that produced such anxiety? And how did it manifest in his writing? Friedländer‘s highly original work grants readers a glimpse of that tortured world. One of his central claims is that the issues tormenting Kafka were of a sexual nature. Commentators have pointed out his fear of sexual intercourse and suggested impotence, which helps us to understand the domain for shame; as for his feelings of guilt, Friedländer ties them “not to some concrete initiatives on his part but to fantasies, to imagined sexual possibilities.

For anyone who enjoys Kafka’s work or is intrigued by the interplay between life and fiction, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt is an ideal gift.


Sins with a Lasting Legacy


As 2013 draws to a close, we reflect on the superlatives of the past year. Everyone is busy writing up their own “Best of 2013” lists and “Year in Review” articles. Amidst all of the reflection on our high points, we cannot escape recollections of our lows. In the opening of Sin, Gary Anderson describes the legacy of sins as an almost physical “thing” left in the cultural consciousness. We use the words stain, burden, and debt to describe the lingering effects of our sins. Anderson highlights the division of the Middle East after the close of the Second World War and the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries in the first pages of the book as sins whose effects are still playing out. We spoke with Anderson this December to reflect on the sins in history whose effects continue to this day. See below for his 2013 list of sins that linger in our collective conscience.


Biblical Sins:

1. Christian tradition says that all of human kind continues to bear the results of the sins of Adam and Eve, the so-called doctrine of original sin.


Adam and Eve


2. In Judaism the veneration of the Golden Calf after Moses had just received the Ten Commandments is equally thought to be catastrophic.  The Talmud states:  No retribution whatsoever comes upon the world which does not contain a light fraction of the sin of that calf.”


The Golden Calf, painting by Nicolas Poussin


3. The sins of King Manasseh (II Kings 21) lead to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Jewish people to the ends of the known world.  The Jewish people still await the moment of ingathering.


King Manasseh’s Sin and Repentance

4. The Christian tradition has claimed that the death of Jesus led to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD; the legacy of this tradition has been the source of considerable tension between church and synagogue and immeasurable tragedies.


The Crucifixion of Jesus


Destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem


Sins with the potential to rival the Biblical Sin’s lasting effects:

1.  The onset of the industrial age has liberated many persons from terrible physical labor but it has also resulted in terrible environmental degradation which could have catastrophic effects that linger for centuries.

Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon, the BP oil spill

2.  Digital technology has linked person from across the globe but could also lead to the permanent loss of invaluable civil liberties.


Edward Snowden, NSA Whistle Blower

Edward Snowden, NSA Whistle Blower


3. The division of the Middle East after the close of the Second World War, leading to the collapse of Lebanon and the wars in Iraq and Syria.


4. The slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, which left racial tensions yet to be resolved. During his candidacy, Barack Obama once said that the “stain of slavery” lingers to this day.






Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has authored two books with Yale University Press, Sin: A History and Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition.

Exploring Charity During the Season of Giving: Bill and Melinda Gates and Mother Teresa

This holiday season, giving is frequently on our minds. Gary Anderson’s Charity is a welcome reminder that not all giving is inspired by a commercial materialism. Different motivations for charity mean different ways of giving, as Anderson explains. Bill and Melinda Gates have given an immense amount money and their efforts have been effective, yet:

“they remain, in spite of this enormous donation, one of the wealthiest couples in the world. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, gave up everything to serve the poorest of the poor.” (Gary Anderson, Charity)

Mother Teresa began her charitable work out of a religious motivation that altered her whole approach to service.

“When Mother Teresa started her religious order, the entire premise of the organization was the gift of one’s total self to the poor. She refused on principle to establish any kind of endowment that would have relieved the sisters of the order of a total reliance on God and of identifying completely with the poor whom they served.” (Gary Anderson, Charity)

How do you measure who has done the greater good?


Stay tuned for a comparison with the “naughty” side of the holiday list — a post from Gary Anderson on the worst sins in history.