Mike Kueber's Blog

October 10, 2014

No democracy; we just want Islam

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 11:01 pm
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A Facebook friend recently posted a photo of bearded, agitated Muslims marching with a sign that reads, “No democracy, we just want Islam.” The punchline of the photo is that the Muslims weren’t marching in the Middle East, but rather in Dearborn, USA.

My first reaction to the photo was from a practical perspective – i.e., that it was another conservative attempt to create hysteria over the presence of Muslims in America, just as they often do with a warning that Muslims are attempting to impose Sharia law in America. And because the Muslims are such a small minority in America, I am confident that they will never be able to impose their views on democracy or Sharia law.

But my next reaction to the photo was from an intellectual perspective – i.e., is there anything wrong with Muslim-Americans advocating for democracy or Sharia law?  Many groups and institutions in America are run under undemocratic principles and they are able to function, some quite well. And Americans are among the most religious people in the world, and most religious organizations are highly respected despite being highly undemocratic.

So, do free people have the right to prefer a government that is more theocratic and less democratic? Yes, they do, but because of our constitution and its strong preference toward democracy and against theocracy, it seems that anyone with such an inclination would be better off living in a country with traditions and values more similar to their own.

April 10, 2012

Yoga, Islam, and Namaste

Filed under: Culture,Fitness,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 9:48 am
Tags: , , ,

Most people consider yoga to be some exotic, mystical, even quasi-religious experience, and that turns them off.  To avoid this turn-off, yoga in America has evolved into a form of physical exercise that focuses on building strength, increasing flexibility, and improving balance.  There is still a minimal amount of attention to stress relief and meditation (the concluding shavasana), but chanting is almost always excluded.  I have one new instructor at Lifetime Fitness who likes to throw in a few chants even though she acknowledges that some participants object because of its religious implications.

According to a recent article in the NY Times (attached below), the practice of yoga in New York City is experiencing a similar narrative, especially in Muslim dominated areas, such as Jackson Heights in Queens, an area that I have visited several times.  Muslims are much more sensitive to avoiding anything that might be inconsistent with their fealty to Islam, and the article examines how practitioners of yoga are “Seeking to Clear a Path Between Yoga and Islam.


Incidentally, Wikipedia says the following about Namaste:

  • Namaste is a common spoken valediction or salutation originating from the Indian subcontinent. It is a customary greeting when individuals meet, and a valediction upon their parting. A non-contact form of salutation is traditionally preferred in India and Namaste is the most common form of such a salutation….  When spoken to another person, it is commonly accompanied by a slight bow made with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, in front of the chest. This gesture, called Añjali Mudrā or Pranamasana, can also be performed wordlessly and carries the same meaning….  Namaste is derived from Sanskrit and is a combination of two words, “Namaḥ” and “te.  Namaḥ means ‘bow’, ‘obeisance’, ‘reverential salutation’ or ‘adoration’ and te means ‘to you.’  Therefore, Namaste literally means “bow to you” translated as “I bow to you.”

Another internet website provides essentially the same information – “Nama” means bow, “as” means I, and “te” means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”

All of which makes me wonder why all of the yogis at Lifetime Fitness conclude practice by saying some variation of, “We finish yoga practice by saying Namaste, which means that the divine in me bows to the divine in you.  Namaste.”  According to Wikipedia, this is a modern extrapolation.  Sounds like they have all been programmed by some yoga sensei in their corporate headquarters.   

In Queens, Seeking to Clear a Path Between Yoga and Islam


Published: April 8, 2012

As a community activist in Queens, Muhammad Rashid has fought for the rights of immigrants held in detention, sought the preservation of local movie theaters, and held a street fair to promote diversity.

But few of those causes brought him anywhere near as much grief and controversy as his stance on yoga.   Mr. Rashid, a Muslim, said he had long believed that practicing yoga was tantamount to “denouncing my religion.”

“Yoga is not for Muslims,” he said. “It was forbidden.”

But after moving to New York in 1997 from Bahrain, he slowly began to rethink his stance. Now Mr. Rashid, 56, has come full circle: not only has he adopted yoga into his daily routine, but he has also encouraged other Muslims to do so — putting himself squarely against those who consider yoga a sin against Islam.

In New York City, where yoga has become as secular an activity as spinning or step aerobics, the potential sins of yoga are not typically debated by those clad in Lululemon leggings. But in some predominantly Muslim pockets like Jackson Heights, Queens, yoga has been slow to catch on, especially among first-generation immigrants, newly arrived from cultures where yoga is considered Hindu worship.

When Mr. Rashid, who also tutors children, had his students learn yoga to help improve their concentration, three Muslim students quit after a few sessions, he said, in part, he believed, because of their families’ stance toward the practice. “I am putting them in something extra that is not in the Muslim religion,” he said. “The parents did not accept it.”

The religious opposition to yoga also extends to some Christian sects. One widely publicized clash came in 2010, when R. Albert Mohler Jr., an evangelical leader and the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared the practice of yoga blasphemous because of what he said were its pantheistic roots.

In India, near-annual pushes by members of Parliament to make yoga compulsory in schools have riled Muslim parents who feel it bridges on indoctrination. When a Parliament member proposed to insert yoga into most curriculums in 2010, wording was included to exempt things like madrasas, or Islamic schools. Four years ago, a council of Malaysian Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against yoga, declaring it haram, or forbidden by Islamic law. The ruling followed similar edicts in Egypt and Singapore, where one of the earliest bans was issued in the early 1980s.

The fatwas typically cited the Sanskrit chants that often flowed through yoga sessions, and which can be considered Hindu prayer by some in the Muslim faith. According to  “Yoga in the Hindu Scriptures” by H. Kumar Kaul, who has written numerous books on yoga, yogic principles were first described in the Vedas, the Sanskrit scriptures that form the backbone of Hinduism, and are considered to be over 10,000 years old.

Even the word “namaste,” for example, invokes the divine.

Given that cultural history, it was understandable that when Mohd A. Qayyoom, an imam who runs the Muhammadi Community Center of Jackson Heights, joined a large yoga demonstration at an open-air interfaith festival in Jackson Heights last summer, it would not go unnoticed.

His participation drew instant reproach from the community, he said. “As soon as we finished our event, they said, ‘Imam, what is that, why are you doing that?’ ” he said. “ ‘This is not within our Islam.’ ”

But Imam Qayyoom said he had come to believe that Islam and yoga could be compatible — if the Sanskrit benedictions are left out, he said, and women’s skin-tight yoga gear is traded for more conservative garments. “Reformed, it will be more popular” among Muslims, he said. “It will not contradict with Islamic religion.”

Others are less convinced.

Anwar Hassan, 27, who is from Bangladesh and works in the Queen of Sheba grocery in Jackson Heights, says yoga’s roots are irreconcilable with his faith.

“When I came here, I see there is yoga and everything, but we don’t go,” Mr. Hassan said. “A lot of people, they are new to it so they think it’s a gym class, or something. But Hindu people started it, and I think it’s Hindu religion, so I don’t go.”

When Dr. Alex Eingorn prescribed yoga recently to a Bangladeshi woman who came to him with spinal pain at his Better Health Chiropractic clinic in Midtown Manhattan, “she looked at me in horror,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m a Muslim, I can’t practice a different religion.’ ” Dr. Eingorn persuaded her to try it, he said, by saying that in New York, it is viewed as a secular, or at the most, spiritual practice.

Mimi Bord, 46, who runs Mi-mi-for-Me Yoga, a tidy and serene studio in Jackson Heights that is one of the neighborhood’s only yoga centers, has had to make similar allowances. “If there is a little chanting going on, right away this is a turn- off” for some of the Muslims who sign up for her sessions, she said. “Often they won’t come back.”

In response, Ms. Bord has tailored certain classes, cutting out Sanskrit chants if she thinks it will upset certain students. “Emphasizing the physical, they’re kind of cool with it,” she says. “They feel safe.”

For Ms. Bord, who has taught yoga to a variety of audiences, including Hasidic women in Brooklyn, it came as a shock, when shortly after opening a studio in the area eight years ago she was approached by a Muslim student who voiced concerns with customary chants like “ohm.” She found herself fielding questions like “ ‘Is ‘ohm’ God? Is ‘ohm’ Allah?’ ” she said.

Ms. Bord adapted her classes for her new clientele, either omitting chanting, or adding both “shalom” and “amen” to the traditional sign-off of namaste, to indicate that a plurality of religions were being represented.

“A lot of us in the Western world, we look at it as anything that is going to enhance the way we look aesthetically,” she said. She said that some Muslim students were “not looking at the physical aspect, they’re looking at the spiritual aspect.”

For many immersed in a culture where vinyasa yoga is more readily associated with a New York Sports Club than a Hindu temple, the origin matters little. And for some of the devout living here, the American conception has overridden the beliefs with which they were raised.

When Mr. Rashid finally took up yoga, he said there were more similarities with his faith than contradictions. In salat, the five-times daily Muslim prayers, which entail a meditation-like centering of focus and several kneeling bows, he felt there were echoes of yogic poses.

“I discovered whatever I’m doing in yoga, I’m doing five times a day in prayer,” said Mr. Rashid, who is originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

During the daylong yoga class at the festival that Mr. Rashid helped organize in Jackson Heights last summer, classes were halted for salat.  Imam Qayyoom and others performed those prayers on their yoga mats.

It dawned on him then, the imam said, that many Muslims, in a sense, practice yogic postures several times a day. “Maybe they’re getting that same benefit in their prayers,” he said. “Maybe they don’t need to do yoga.”

October 18, 2011

Sunday Book Review #49 – Islam, a short guide to the faith

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 11:02 am
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Reminiscent of Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book on golfing, this little, highly readable book is an excellent primer to Islam.  In 139 pages, it manages to touch on just about every subject that a well-intentioned rube from Texas would be interested in.  It contains just enough detail to enable understanding, but not so much as to put me to sleep.  (One-week post-knee-surgery, I’m still generously using hydrocodone pills and thus vulnerable to dozing off.)

Islam is organized into 15 chapters, each authored by a different subject-matter expert.  But before jumping into that substantive information, the editors (Roger Allen and Skawkat M. Toorawa) provide a “Note to Readers.”  Included in the note is guidance in pronouncing three critical words – Islam (the religion), Muslim (the believers), and Allah (God).  What a great idea!  Nothing reveals a rube more than mangling the pronunciation of an exotic word, but people who rely on books instead of lectures to learn often fail to learn how to correctly pronounce a word.

For the record, Islam and Muslim are both pronounced with an “s,” not a “z”.  Iss-lamb and Muss-limb.  And Ull-laa.  Next time you say these words, sound like you know what the hell you are talking about.

  1. Chapter One, titled “Islam,” provides a brief historical overview of the religion, and includes a chart that shows where the 1.571 billion adherents live.  Although the greatest number of Muslims live in Asia-Pacific (972 million), they comprise only 24% of the total Asia-Pacific population.  By contrast, 315 million Muslims live in the Middle East- North Africa, but they comprise 91% of the population there.  Islam was started in 610 A.D. by the Prophet Muhammad in the city Mecca (currently in Saudi Arabia).  Muhammad received revelations from God between 610 and his death in 632.  Since 632, Islam has been spread by various disciples.
  2. Chapter Two describes the Koran (Qur’an) and the process by which Muhammad’s revelations were transmitted orally for several generations, but eventually were memorialized in the Koran.
  3. Chapter Three describes Muhammad and the birth of Islam.
  4. Chapter Four, titled Hadith and Sunna, refers to the fascinating concept of relying on reports of Muhammad’s “actions, statements, and practices” to elaborate on the
    black-letter law in the Koran.  The thought was that, with respect to issues not clearly addressed in the Koran, followers could infer or deduce more nuanced understanding by observing how Muhammad acted in certain situation.  This is analogous of the relationship of statutes and common law in American jurisprudence and is almost the opposite of the sarcastic refrain – “do as I say, not as I do.”
  5. Chapter Five describes Shari’a and the succession of religions revealed by God to various messengers, with the last messenger being Muhammad (not Joseph Smith).  Muslims believe that, although Judaism and Christianity were earlier revealed religions that are corroborated and clarified by Islam, there is another concept of abrogation which says that any conflicts must be resolved in favor of Islam.
  6. Chapter Six describes Islamic philosophy.
  7. Chapter Seven describes Sufism.
  8. Chapter Eight describes Shi’ites and Shi’ism.  Although the vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis, Shi’ites easily comprise the 2nd largest block of Muslims.
  9. Chapter Nine describes the Sunnus and Sunnism.
  10. Chapter Ten describes mosques.  There is nothing technically distinctive about a mosque; it is simply a place to pray.  Although there is current thinking that mosques
    should include a dome and minarets, historically mosques have been built to be consistent with other construction in the area.  Historically, there have been four types of mosques – (1) simple neighborhood mosques, (2) Friday mosques (Friday gatherings are bigger and more formal, so the Friday mosques are too), (3) Festival mosques (large open areas for high holidays such as breaking of fast or return from Hajj), and (4) funerary or memorial mosques.
  11. Chapter Eleven describes Islamic government.
  12. Chapter Twelve discusses women and Islam.  Without getting into the details of this chapter, the author of this chapter appears to sugar-coat the status of women living with Islam.
  13. Chapter Thirteen discusses Islam and Judaism.
  14. Chapter Fourteen discusses Islam and Christianity.
  15. Chapter Fifteen discusses Islam in America.  The largest group of American Muslims arrived after immigration quotas were abolished by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.  The second largest group of Americans Muslims consists of African-Americans who have been converting to Islam throughout the 20thcentury, with the Nation of Islam and its Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan.

Islam and Muslims are destined to play an ever-increasing role in our lives.  If your knowledge in this area is deficient, you may want to jump-start your education, and this book is a great place to start.

June 11, 2011

Sunday Book Review #34 – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a former nun from Great Britain who gained fame in 1993 from her book titled A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  That book focused on the commonalities of those religions, and this book continues in that vein by describing the prominence that all religions give to compassion.

Armstrong won a TED award in 2007 and used the award to create and propagate a Charter for Compassion that began with, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

Her current book – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life – is a self-help guide to becoming more compassionate.  Armstrong quickly clarifies that her use of the term compassion is not the same as pity or an uncritical, sentimental benevolence.  Rather, she means “to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.” [Did you notice that Armstrong decided to split the gender references in the previous sentence – one for the girls and another for the guys?  She has a reputation for being politically correct, and another example of this is her usage of BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) year-numbering system because it is more inclusive than the Christian BC and AD system.]

Armstrong further defined, “That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict pain on anybody else.  Compassion can be defined,
therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism

I was attracted to this book because I have always known that, for whatever reason, I feel very little compassion.  Unlike Bill Clinton, I do not feel your pain.  And Armstrong’s reference to altruism is especially apt because I have done a lot of reading in past months on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who often disparages altruism.  In fact, more than a year ago I posted an entry to my blog that contrasted Ayn Rand’s self-esteem with Mitt Romney’s altruism.

Although I accept Ayn Rand’s admonition that a person should never live for the sake of another person, nor ask another person to live for theirs, I also agree with Mitt Romney that people’s lives are better if they believe in a purpose greater than themselves – such as our family, community, or country.

Armstrong explains the Rand/Romney dichotomy by declaring that Randian egotism “was bequeathed to us by reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago.  Wholly intent on personal survival, these creatures were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the ‘Four Fs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.”

Although these neurological impulses, which are located in the hypothalamus at the base of the “old brain,” are powerful, they can be overcome, according to Armstrong, by our “new brain” neocortex, which provides us with “the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and ourselves, and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.”

What are Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:

  1. Learn about compassion – “Instead of being a library of disparate texts composed over a millennium [like the Bible], the Qur’an was created in a mere twenty-three years and must be seen as a homogeneous whole.”
  2. Look at your own world – “As we seek to create a more compassionate world, we too must think outside the box, reconsider major categories of our time, and find new ways of dealing with today’s challenges.”
  3. Compassion for yourself – “It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them.  But we should also realize that the rage, fear, hatred, and greed that make us behave badly derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors.”
  4. Empathy – “But when the old brain is co-opted by the new, the result can be disastrous.  Reason was an ambiguous tool, because, as we have seen throughout history, it can be used to find a logically sound rationale for actions that violate our humanity.”
  5. Mindfulness – “Yet we should also take careful note of how unhappy these primitive emotions make us.”
  6. Action – “Try to catch yourself before you make the brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm.”
  7. How little we know – “[Notwithstanding science and technology,] unknowing remains an essential part of the human condition.”
  8. How should we speak to one another – “when making an effort to understand something strange and alien to you, it is important to assume that the speaker share the same human nature as yourself and that, even though your belief systems may differ, you both have the same idea of what constitutes truth.”
  9. Concern for everybody – “[All religious traditions] have at least one strand that insists that we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger and the foreigner – even to the enemy.”
  10. Knowledge – “When we are about to criticize another nation or religious tradition, we should get into the habit of catching ourselves and asking whether our country may have been responsible for a similar abuse in the past.”
  11. Recognition – “Reaching out generously to embrace the pain of another yields an ekstasis, because in such a moment we are leaving our egotistic selves behind.”
  12. Love your enemies – “Try to wish for your enemy’s well-being and happiness; try to develop a sense of responsibility for your enemy’s pain.  This is the supreme test of compassion.”

Throughout the book, Armstrong quotes from a variety of philosophers and religious leaders – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Socrates, and Aristotle.  One of the most frequently quoted is Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “We must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world.”  Sound familiar?  It reminds me of President Obama’s famous campaign slogan, “We are the change that we seek,” and I wonder why Obama is given credit for coining the phrase.  Just wondering.

Another interesting tidbit in the book – Armstrong noted that between 800 to 200 BC (called the Axial Age by German philosopher Karl Jaspers) a religious revolution occurred in four distinct regions of the world:

  1. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian sub-continent;
  2. Confucianism and Daoism in China;
  3. Monotheism in the Middle East; and
  4. Philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Armstrong says that Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are latter-day flowerings and concludes that “we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age.”  Furthermore, all of these traditions “agree that compassion is natural to human beings, that it is the fulfillment of human nature, and that in calling us to set ego aside in a consistently empathetic consideration of others, it can introduce us to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bound state.

Whereas a cynic might suggest that the Axial Age supports the theory that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God, Armstrong argues that “the fact that this ideal surfaced in all these faiths independently suggests that it reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.

That makes sense to me.


September 30, 2010

Constitutional conservatives and the separation of church and state

When I decided to run for Congress, one of my first tasks was to create a campaign brochure that described my position on various important issues.  I didn’t initially think that the relationship of government and religion was an important issue, but my primary opponent, Quico Canseco, did.  His website said the following: 

  • Faith and a Respect for Life:  Our country was founded on Christian principles but now secular liberals are trying to wipe our Christian identity from the public domain. Nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments and the name Jesus Christ are now being removed from common public areas. Our schools teach “tolerance” and understanding of other faiths but the subject of Christianity is avoided at all cost. We must fight back against turning our country into an atheist nation. The consequences would be far-reaching. We see it now in the disrespect our society shows for human life. Babies are now a choice that some make like deciding what color car they want. We must vigilantly fight back against these evil forces and defend our Christian values at all costs. The alternative is an unacceptable legacy to leave our children and could ultimately end our nation as we currently know it.

Because Canseco’s position struck me as extreme, I decided to include a paragraph in my first campaign brochure supporting the separation of church and state.  My brochure said the following:


  • Don’t ostracize those who don’t worship Christ.  I disagree with Quico Canseco’s suggestion that Congress should sponsor Christianity.  Christianity and religion in America will survive without sponsorship from Congress.   

My two conservative friends/advisors – Kevin Brown and Kent Cochran – warned me that the separation of church and state was some fallacy created by liberals to justify their secular positions, but I had studied enough government and constitutional law to reject their warning as misinformed.  As I went door-to-door with my brochure, however, I quickly learned that a lot of conservative voters were similarly misinformed.  A surprising number of voters specifically told me that there was no such thing as “separation of church and state” in the constitution, and many even knew that the U.S. Supreme Court had created the concept based on a letter written by Thomas Jefferson (which made Jefferson persona non grata to many conservatives).  Furthermore, they were upset that Islam and other minority religions seemed to receive more favorable treatment than Christianity in many forums.

Based on this voter feedback, I revised my brochure prior to my mass-mailing to 28,000 Republican primary voters.  The revision, as follows, accommodated conservative concerns without sacrificing fundamental principle:


  • The Bill of Rights prohibits government from establishing a religion or limiting the free exercise of religion.  While this clearly means that government can’t discriminate in favor of our country’s dominant religion – Christianity – it does not mean that minority religions should be afforded a preferred status – like affirmative action.  I disagree with Quico Canseco’s suggestion that Congress should sponsor Christianity.  Christianity and religion in America will survive – and thrive – without sponsorship from Congress.   

Even as revised, however, several constituents subsequently objected to the provision, and I assume they were reading between the lines to conclude that I was not their type of guy.

The “separation of church and state” dispute reveals a bigger problem that I have with so-called constitutional conservatives.  They demagogue difficult constitutional issues by suggesting that the issues are simple.  For example, the most popular provision in the Tea Party’s Contract from America requires “each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does.”  Do they really think that the Democrats will be unable to identify a provision that authorizes ObamaCare?  Do they really think this requirement will improve governance?  Although this provision seems, at best, innocuous, the Republican leaders in Washington decided to further demagogue it by including it in their Pledge to America.

(Incidentally, the fourth most popular provision in the Tea Party’s Contract from America requires that the federal government adopt “a simple and fair single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words—the length of the original Constitution.”  What does the length of the original Constitution have to do with the tax code?  It seems than any reference, however misplaced, to the original Constitution elevates an argument in the eyes of a constitutional conservative.)

Getting back to the original argument about the separation of church and state, the constitutional conservatives are correct in stating that those words are not in the Constitution, but they are fundamentally wrong to suggest that the Constitution must be read narrowly or strictly.  A document of only 4,543 words must speak in general terms, and a government must have the ability to act in reasonable accord with those general terms.  Even the conservatives’ patron saint, Justice Anthony Scalia, says the Constitution should be construed reasonably, not strictly.

There are a plethora of unchallenged reasonable constructions – the Constitution doesn’t say anything about “one person, one vote,” but Americans accept that is fundamental law under the “equal protection” clause.  Similarly, Americans accept that it is unconstitutional to discriminate or to have separate, but equal schools, but there is no such language in the Constitution. 

Responsible leaders should refuse to encourage this misinformation about constitutional construction and should certainly decline to demagogue it.  Quit bashing the Supreme Court.  If constitutional conservatives seriously think the Supreme Court has misinterpreted the Constitution, that document is very clearly about how to amend it.

September 13, 2010

Who is a Jew?

Joel Stein writes “The Awesome Column,” a sometime witty weekly column in Time Magazine.  A few weeks ago, he got into trouble for making fun at the expense of Indian immigrants who had taken over his hometown of Edison, NJ.  This week he made a comment about Jews that confused me.  The comment was his reaction to some advice he was given on how to persuade his wife Cassandra to have a second child:

“Then Jim Bob suggested I plan a date night once a week.  Also, that we put Jesus at the center of our marriage.  I told Jim Bob that I’m Jewish, Cassandra and I are both atheists and Cassandra is in her mid-30s.  Even the Apostle Peter couldn’t slip Jesus into our marriage in time for a second child.”

Aside from being surprised at his casual admission of atheism, I wondered (a) if an American could be a Jewish atheist and (b) why Jews didn’t have a place in their religion for Jesus.  My curiosity on this subject had already been piqued earlier in the week when I read in A Patriot’s History of the United States that Barry Goldwater, not Joe Lieberman, was the first person of Jewish ancestry to run for president or vice-president of the United States.

What do I know about Jews?  My upbringing in rural North Dakota in the middle of the 20th century didn’t expose me to any Jews.  North Dakota was populated with nothing but Germans and Norwegians, Catholics and Lutherans.  I don’t recall anyone ever discussing Jews or Judaism (the Jewish religion), but it was not uncommon back then to hear someone talked about being “jewed out of money.”  I thought that meant the same thing as being “gypped out of money” because the terms seemed to be used interchangeably.  I had no idea these were ethnic slurs until I met my first Jew while attending law school in Texas.  (Many years later, a Jew became one of my best friends and a mentor at USAA – Marv Leibowitz from Brooklyn.)

Fortunately, gaps in upbringing or education can be easily remedied in the internet age.  A simple Google search and a few minutes of reading reveal that being a Jew can refer to either nationality (citizens of Israel) or religion (Judaism).  Because Stein is an American, he must have been referring to his religion.  According to Wikipedia, people like Stein are “ethnic Jews”:

“Ethnic Jew is a term generally used to describe a person of Jewish parentage and background who does not necessarily actively practice Judaism but still identifies with Judaism or other Jews culturally and fraternally, or both.  The term is sometimes used to distinguish non-practicing from practicing (religious) Jews. Other terms include ‘non-observant Jew,’ ‘non-religious Jew,’ ‘non-practicing Jew,’ and ‘secular Jew.’  The term sometimes can refer exclusively to Jews who, for whatever reasons, do not practice the religion of Judaism, or who are so casual in their connection to that religion as to be effectively not Jews in the religious sense of adherent to Judaism. Typically, ethnic Jews are cognizant of their Jewish background, and may feel strong cultural (even if not religious) ties to Jewish traditions and to the Jewish people or nation. Like people of any other ethnicity, non-religious ethnic Jews often assimilate into a surrounding non-Jewish culture, but, especially in areas where there is a strong local Jewish culture, they may remain largely part of that culture instead.  Ethnic Jews include atheists, agnostics, non-denominational deists, Jews with only casual connections to Jewish denominations or converts to other religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam.” 

This reminds me of a phrase that Catholics used back home – “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”

My second Jewish question concerned Stein’s surprisingly firm denial of Jesus.  I have recently learned about the religion of Muslims (Islam) and was surprised to learn that they accept the Old and New Testaments in the Bible and Jesus Christ, albeit as a prophet.  Thus, three major religions in America seem situated along a continuum, with Jews abiding by the Old Testament, Christians abiding by the Old and New Testaments, and Muslims abiding by the Old and New Testaments and the Koran.  There is friction, however, because Christians reject the Koran and the Jews rejects Jesus Christ.  One particularly interesting website explained in excruciating detail why Judaism had to reject Jesus Christ.  See http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/jewsandjesus/.  This website also explains why Islam is more consistent with Judaism than is Christianity.  http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/islamjudaism/.  

The real difference between the two religions, however, lies in their basis for belief. Judaism is based on the unique historical event of a divine revelation experienced by the entire nation. Whereas Islam is based on the prophetic claims of a single individual who subsequently convinced others to follow his ways.  Talmudic tradition says that while Abraham’s son Isaac became the forefather of the Jewish people, the Islamic line is descended from Abraham’s other son Ishmael.

This is excellent reading.

Getting back to Joel Stein, he seems to have been using some literary license in his discussion of his Jewishness and Jesus.  His status as an atheist, not his status as an ethnic Jew, defines his rejection of Jesus Christ.  And by claiming status as an ethnic Jew, Stein has attempted to ameliorated his status as an atheist.  You will rarely see someone in the mainstream proclaim their atheism or admit to having an abortion.  That would be the surest way to be forced out of the mainstream.

July 31, 2010

Demagoging the Ground Zero mosque

A Muslim group is planning to build a $100 million community center near Ground Zero in NYC.  Self-proclaimed patriots, including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, consider the project to be an affront to American sensibilities and are attempting to block it.  It’s people like these that give the term “patriots” a bad name. 

An article in today’s NYTimes was headlined, “Debate Heating Up on Plans for Mosque Near Ground Zero.”     http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/31/nyregion/31mosque.html?_r=1&hp.  The NYTimes doesn’t typically attempt to inflame issues, but its headline seems unnecessarily inflammatory.  Although this community center will have a prayer room, it will also have a performing arts center, pool, a restaurant, and much else spread over 13-15 floors.  In fact, it will be modeled after area YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers.  Thus, it would have been more accurate for the NYTimes headline to describe the building as a community center as opposed to a mosque, but that wouldn’t be as provocative.

Republican rabble-rousers, however, don’t need the NYTimes to stir up the troops.  Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are way out front on this issue.  Sarah Palin calls it the Muslim community center an “unnecessary provocation.”  Newt Gingrich says it “is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.”  Instead of helping Americans to distinguish between mainstream Islam and the 9/11 terrorists, Sarah and Newt are sadly leading their followers to take a step backwards. 

The American Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion.  Despite the heinous acts of some radical Muslims, we should all stand for the right of law-abiding Muslim-Americans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and for the right of Islam to grow and thrive in America.