Judaism

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social-media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal-contacts file -- politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others -- was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people.

"That Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to take the coward's way out & deny justice to his victims is a DISGRACE," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "Pedophiles deserve the Ninth Circle of Hell, but not before a full accounting."

The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation -- a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

In 1990, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans believed in hell and only 4% of respondents thought there was a chance they would go to hell. In 2014, The Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study said 58% of American adults believed in hell, defined as a place where "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."

The bottom line: For many Americans, hell is for people who have already been damned in the court of public opinion -- since everyone agrees they are extraordinarily bad. This view of eternal life doesn't point to a reality that has anything to do with how normal people make choices and go about their lives. Hell is a vague, majority-vote concept that applies only to mass murderers and sickos involved in sex-abuse scandals.

Many modern people want eternal justice on their own terms. This desire may have little or nothing to do with God.

Is it safe for religious believers to 'come out of the closet' in the modern workplace?

Is it safe for religious believers to 'come out of the closet' in the modern workplace?

Americans wrestling with religious conflicts in the workplace need to start by doing some math.

Right now, about 157 million Americans work fulltime. Meanwhile, a 2013 study by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding found that 36 percent of workers surveyed said they had experienced religious discrimination at work or witnessed this discrimination happening to someone else.

This sobering trend "affects all groups, including evangelical Christians reporting high levels of discrimination. Muslims, Jewish people and people with no affiliation also experience discrimination on the basis of religion or belief," said Brian Grim of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation in Annapolis, Md. He led a panel on faith-friendly workplaces during a recent religious liberty conference at Yeshiva University in New York City.It was cosponsored by the International Center for Law and Religious Studies at Brigham Young University.

"If you turn that into numbers," said Grim, this means "36 percent of the American workforce is 50 million people. That's a big, big issue."

These conflicts cannot be ignored. For starters, religious institutions and "faith-friendly businesses" contribute $1.2 trillion annually to the U.S. economy, said Grim. And while headlines focus on rising numbers of "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- in America, birth rates and religious-conversion trends indicate that the "religiously affiliated population of the world is going to outgrow the religiously unaffiliated by a factor of 23 to 1. … We're going to have a much more religious workplace and much more religious marketplaces."

Meanwhile, some economic powers -- China, India, Russia, Turkey and France, for example -- have increased restrictions on people's "freedom to practice their faith, change their faith or have no faith at all," he said. This often causes violence that is "bad for business. It's good for businesses that produce bullets and bombs, unfortunately."

Corporate leaders in have addressed some diversity issues, such as discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, but "religion is the next big issue that they need to be looking at," said Grim. Last year, he noted, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about religious discrimination outnumbered LGBTQ cases nearly 2-1.

Grim asked this big question: "What is the right way to … come out of the closet about your faith at work?"

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

In the last decade or two, cable television's holiday-movie season has expanded to the point that it starts soon after Labor Day and weeks before Thanksgiving arrives.

Many titles are classics: "White Christmas," "A Christmas Story," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Home Alone" and the grandfather of them all, near the end of the season, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Alas, then there's "Bad Santa," "The 12 Dogs of Christmas," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Jingle All the Way" and way, way too many others to count.

Occasionally, TV executives add something strange -- like "The Nativity Story."

Consumers who pay attention may note an intriguing gap in this "holiday" entertainment blitz. To be blunt: Where are the Hanukkah movies?

Yes, there is comedian Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights," which critic Michael Arbeiter once called "a travesty." Writing at Bustle.com, Arbeiter stretched to create a holidays essentials list for Jewish viewers with titles such as "The Producers," "Barton Fink," "Annie Hall," "An American Tail" or even -- "bite the bullet," he said -- "Scrooged," "Muppet Christmas Carol" or another take on "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Part of the problem is that many American Jews -- secular and religious -- have a complex relationship with Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights" which this year begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 2. For starters, many are offended by all efforts to turn this relatively minor holiday into a "Jewish Christmas." Is it really necessary to create copycat "carols" like "On the First Day of Hanukkah," "I'm Dreaming of a Bright Menorah" and "Maccabees are Coming to Town"?

Meanwhile, some rabbis are not all that comfortable with some "militaristic" themes woven into the Hanukkah story, said veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky of Orlando, Fla., author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" and "A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." Hanukkah isn't a season that leads to easy sermons, he said.

Hanukkah centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels led by a family known as the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian rulers. The familiar rite of lighting menorah candles – one on the first night, increasing to eight – is based on a miracle linked with this victory. According to tradition, when the defiled temple was recaptured it contained only one container of pure lamp oil. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

A December dilemma: Why turn this holiday into a big deal?

God, man, faith, FIFA and the World Cup

God, man, faith, FIFA and the World Cup

History buffs probing the origins of the Cross of St. George will find themselves exploring a labyrinth of faith and legend in the Late Middle Ages.

But to see this heraldry symbol, just look at England's flag -- a bright red cross on a white background. Soccer fans may notice that the English side's 2018 World Cup kits feature a St. George's Cross on the back collar. During "away" games, a subtle cross covers the entire front of the red jersey.

This is interesting, since the International Football Association Board's "Laws of the Game" -- used at the FIFA World Cup -- state: "Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images." This rule "applies to all equipment (including clothing) worn by players," according to IFAB guidelines.

Does this apply to religious symbols woven into the flags and traditions of many nations?

"It's important to remember that the rules of soccer came from Europe," said Jennifer Bryson, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom office at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. "The IFAB began in England. FIFA began in Europe. Both of these organizations are supposed to be truly international -- but their roots are European.

"Basically, the word 'religion' in these rules means 'Christianity.' … FIFA is still trying to come to terms with the rest of the world."

It's hard to imagine a more challenging task than imposing modern European secularism on this very religious planet, said Bryson, in a telephone interview. England's Cross of St. George is just one example of faith mixing with football. Players from Iran wear their nation's flag, with a red "Allah" symbol and two bold horizontal bars consisting of 11 repetitions of "Allahu akbar (God is greatest)." Can Brazilian evangelicals keep wearing "I belong to Jesus" t-shirts under their jerseys?

Bryson has paid close attention during World Cup 2018, looking for expressions of religious faith. She summarized her early findings in a late June lecture in Washington entitled "Exorcisms and Exercise, Crosses and Cross Passes: What the World Cup has to do with Religious Freedom."

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

It's a question that may pop into the minds of Jewish children at some point when they are little: Does Santa Claus deliver their Hanukkah presents?

The answer must be "no," according to shopping-mall orthodoxy, since the cultural icon called Santa does his thing on Christmas Eve.

Hanukkah gifts have to come from somewhere else and, according to a daring new book for children, that pre-dawn work is done by a Steampunk-styled Jewish hero named Hanukkah Harvie, who flies out of the Statue of Liberty in his Hanukkopter.

But that solution to the presents puzzle raises another tricky question: What happens when Christmas falls during Hanukkah and Santa Claus and Harvie show up at the same house? After all, a 2013 study by the Pew Forum Religion & Public Life found that the intermarriage rate has hit 58 percent for all American Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews. Lots of children are growing up in homes that, to one degree or another, are interfaith.

"The reality, like it or not, is that there are a million-plus children that are doing this, who are trying to make sense out of Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time," asked David Michael Slater, author of "Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus."

"Do they have a story? What's that like? … I was trying to walk a fine line, while avoiding having to take a stand on all of these hot-button issues. I guess this book's message isn't really religious at all, but it's about people who are trying to live together with some kind of tolerance."

Hanukkah is already a complex and ironic holiday. This year's eight-day "Festival of Lights" began at sundown on Dec. 12th. The season's symbol is a menorah with nine candles symbolizing a miracle -- tradition says that a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated their temple from Greek oppressors. The center candle is used to light the other candles, with one new candle on each night.

This was once a simple season with simple pleasures.

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

As long as there have been chase scenes -- think Keystone Kops or Indiana Jones -- movie heroes have been caught straddling danger while trying to get from one vehicle to another.

Inevitably, the road splits and the hero has to make a decision.

Religious believers now face a similar challenge after decades of bitter conflict in the postmodern world, said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a recent lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State.

For a long time, "we were able to have our feet in society and our head in religion, or the other way around. … But today the two cars are diverging and they can't be held together any longer," said Sacks, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and made a life peer in the House of Lords.

It's an agonizing dilemma that reminded the rabbi of a classic Woody Allen quote: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Truth is, there's no way to escape the Internet, which Sacks called the greatest economic, political and social revolution since the invention of the printing press.

"I sum it up in a single phrase -- cultural climate change," said Sacks, who from 1991-2013 led the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. "It's not so much a matter of more religion or less religion, because the truth is that both are happening at once. … The result is a series of storms in the West and even more elsewhere in the Middle East, in Asia and Africa."

For four centuries, European and American elites wrongly assumed the world would get more and more secular.

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

When Bob Dylan tells the story of Bob Dylan, he often starts at a concert by rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly in the winter of 1959.

At least, that's where he started in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature lecture.

Something mysterious about Holly "filled me with conviction," said Dylan. "He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something, I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills."

Days later, Holly died in a plane crash. Right after that, someone gave Dylan a recording of "Cotton Fields" by folk legend Leadbelly. It was "like I'd been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me," said Dylan.

That story probably sounded "rather strange to lots of people," said Scott Marshall, author of the new book "Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life."

"What happens when somebody lays hands on you? If people don't know the Bible, then who knows what they'll think that means? … Dylan is saying he felt called to some new work, like he was being ordained. That's just the way Dylan talks. That's who he is."

For millions of true believers, Dylan was a prophetic voice of the 1960s and all that followed. Then his intense embrace of Christianity in the late 1970s infuriated many fans and critics. Ever since, Dylan has been surrounded by arguments -- often heated -- about the state of his soul.

The facts reveal that Dylan had God on his mind long before his gospel-rock trilogy, "Slow Train Coming," "Saved" and "Shot of Love."

One civil rights activist, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, catalogued all the religious references in Dylan's 1961-78 works, before the "born-again" years. In all, 89 out of 246 Dylan songs or liner notes -- 36 percent -- contained Bible references. Cartwright found 190 Hebrew Bible allusions and 197 to Christian scriptures.

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

NEW YORK -- The drama unfolds in a Gothic sanctuary in a limbo zone between heaven and hell.

In this new Off-Broadway play -- "Martin Luther On Trial" -- Lucifer requests new proceedings against the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, with St. Peter acting as judge and Luther's wife, former nun Katharina von Bora, as defense counsel.

The first witness is Adolf Hitler, who hails Luther as a "great German patriot" who saved Germany "by uniting all Germans against a common enemy -- the pope. … Luther's 95 Theses freed the German conscience from the clutches of Rome, creating space for a new moral system, one that would be distinctly German."

Luther's wife shouts: "Objection. Luther wasn't a nationalist. He wanted people to follow Christ first, nation second."

St. Peter sadly replies: "Overruled."

So the debate begins. Luther's defenders stress his struggles against worldly Medieval church structures, his work translating the Bible into German and his messages stressing that salvation was found through repentance and faith. It was a world-changing event when, on Oct. 31, 1517, the theology professor posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Devil says Luther's goal was to "Reform the Christian church. His result: fracturing it into a thousand pieces." Luther's work also unleashed a violent storm of change in Europe. Facing public failure, as well as success, the aging Luther lashed out at Rome and the Jews in language and logic later recycled by Nazi leaders.

"There is the mad genius thing here. Not in the sense that Luther ever went mad, but there were times when he gave into his anger," said Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play with Max McLean, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is producing "Martin Luther On Trial."

Big shift in modern America: Remember the Sabbath Day, or maybe not?

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, many news reports claimed that stunned Americans were seeking solace in sanctuary pews and in private rites of faith.

But then the Gallup Poll came out, with its familiar question asking if people had recently attended worship services. The number, which has hovered between 38 percent and the low-40s for a generation or two, had risen to 47 percent -- a marginal increase. By mid-November the Gallup number returned to 42 percent.

That 40-ish percent church-attendance estimate has long been an iconic number in American religion.

Thus, it's significant that a new Deseret News poll asked, "Which, if any, of the following activities do you usually do on a typical (Sabbath)," and only 27 percent of the participants said they regularly attended worship services.

"Something is going on and I think we see that in the 27 percent number," said Allison Pond, national editor for The Deseret News. "There appears to be a kind of consolidating going on among those who are loyal when it comes to practicing their faith. … It appears that more people are losing a kind of appearance of religion, of any connection to what some used to call a Moral Majority. …

"What we are seeing now is that the truly devoted really look different -- as a group -- when compared with other Americans."

The Deseret News poll, conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov, is part of its "The Ten Today" project exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern American life. In this poll the goal was to explore the implications of the familiar, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."