Israel

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

One of the most famous tales of World War I began when a fantasy fiction writer wrote a story in 1914 about British soldiers crying for help while facing overwhelming German forces near Mons, in France.

Their prayers summoned heavenly hosts of archers attacking the "heathen horde."

Soon, veterans started claiming that they saw these "angels" with their own eyes. Images of the Angel of Mons began appearing -- as fact -- in posters, paintings and popular songs.

It's hard to imagine a world in which nations led by rational, scientific elites could embrace these claims, said historian Philip Jenkins, in recent lectures at King University in Bristol, Tenn. That world is impossible to imagine because it was swept away a century ago by waves of change that few saw coming.

"What happened in the victory? 'Oh, angels appeared. The dead arose to fight for us.' When the Germans launched their great offensive in 1918, of course, what else could it be called? It's Operation Michael, after the leading archangel -- who by this point has become something like a German war god," said Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University and author of 27 books.

"If you look at the propaganda of the time, the assumption is that Christ is absolutely with US -- whoever WE are, the Germans, the Americans, whatever."

Before World War I, most global leaders followed a radically different set of assumptions, with ironclad ties between their governments and major religious institutions, he said. Many soldiers believed that St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc, would fight by their side. As the war began, Germany experienced fervor many called a "New Pentecost," with Martin Luther as a messianic figure.

While it's common to believe that religion evolves slowly over time, in a linear manner, the evidence suggests that history lurches through periods of "extreme, rapid, revolutionary change, when everything is shaken and thrown up into the air," said Jenkins. Ever 50 years or so, new patterns and cultural norms seem to appear that never could have been predicted.

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since foreign correspondent David Aikman wrote a novel about a second American Civil War, with a government led by urban socialists going to war with heartland conservatives.

Alas, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About a year ago, the bitter events unfolding on cable-TV political news made it rather clear that it was time for a new edition of that post-Cold War thriller, "When the Almond Tree Blossoms."

"No matter who wins … there are people out there who think we are headed toward some kind of civil war," said Aikman, in an interview just before Election Day.

"It's disappointing that our nation really hasn't come to terms with all of its internal problems. Right now, it feels like it would take a miracle -- some kind of divine intervention -- to heal the divisions we see in American life today."

Aikman was born in Surrey, England, and came to America in the 1960s to do a doctorate in Russian and Chinese history, after his studies at Oxford's Worcester College. After contemplating a career in diplomacy -- he speaks German, French, Chinese and Russian -- he moved into journalism and became senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine. Among his many adventures, Aikman witnessed the 1989 massacre in China's Tiananmen Square and introduced readers to a Russian politico named Boris Yeltsin.

Ironically, Aikman wrote "When the Almond Tree Blossoms" -- the title is rebel code drawn from Ecclesiastes -- while preparing to become a naturalized United States citizen in 1993. In the novel, the liberal "People's Movement" -- backed by Russia -- rules the East and West coast power centers, as well as the industrial Midwest. The "Constitutionalists" control most of the Bible Belt and have dug into the Rocky Mountain West. But who will the pragmatic Chinese support?

Dershowitz visits Oslo (sort of)

Ask Orthodox Jews in Norway where one can find a fresh shoulder of kosher beef and they will give the same answer -- nowhere. There is more to this obscure fact than a clash between Jewish tradition and the concerns of animal-rights activists in today's Europe, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told a Jewish forum in Oslo. This is a symbolic fact about tensions that surround Jews in Norway.

"You live in the only country in the world today that does not permit kosher shechita," he said, at the city's Chabad House. "Shechita" is a rite in which a skilled Jew uses an extremely sharp blade to swiftly sever an animal's trachea, esophagus and the arteries and veins of the neck, allowing blood to drain out.

"They wonder why there are only 800 Jews or 900 Jews living in Norway. This is a country that permits the butchering of seals, the butchering of whales, but not this ritual slaughter -- which has been proved by every scientific means to be one of the most humane means of slaughter."

The audience grasped the big idea behind his words, since this March 25 event -- which was recorded -- was held in an outreach center for observant Jews. How can Jews honor the details of their ancient faith without keeping kosher?

However, Dershowitz noted that when he asked other Jewish community leaders about any anti-Semitic trends in Norway, all they would say is that "things are wonderful," before falling silent.

"How can things be wonderful," he added, "if you can't have your own meat? How do you deal with the meat here, do you have to bring it in from England?"

Someone in the audience quietly replied: "We don't talk about certain things."

Among First Amendment and criminal law attorneys, few are as famous and infamous as Dershowitz. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1964 and, three years later, was promoted to full professor at age 28. Even a brief summary of his courtroom career would include a gallery of clients such as porn star Harry "Deep Throat" Reems, British socialite Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. In the 1970s his attempts to defend Russian dissident Anatoly Scharansky made global headlines.

Dershowitz didn't travel to Norway just to talk about dietary laws.

The goal was to lecture about legal affairs and, especially, the role of international law in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts through the years. However, the Zionist group that organized the tour -- the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem -- found that Norwegian academic leaders were not anxious to have Dershowitz lecture on their campuses, at no expense to the hosts.

The dean of the Bergen University law faculty, according to Dershowitz, said the school would "be honored to have Prof. Dershowitz give a lecture on the O.J. Simpson case, as long as he promises not to say a word about Israel." The Harvard professor has written six books about the Middle East, advocating a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian standoff.

Israel was the key, in part because of 2009 debates at Norwegian universities about a proposed boycott at Jewish Israeli scholars and others who support Israel. However, rather than focusing on recent conflicts about occupied territories, Dershowitz noted that the text defining the boycott began by saying: "Since 1948 the state of Israel has occupied Palestinian land and denied the Palestinians basic human rights."

In addition to challenging the founding of the state of Israel, the first academic leader to sign the boycott petition also offered a harsh critique of the "egocentric ... tribe-mentality" among Jews in Israel, Norway and "all over the world."

While Norwegian leaders keep talking about dialogue on these issues, said Dershowitz, it will be hard for Jewish leaders to take part in bridge-building efforts if their voices are not allowed to be heard. The only previous time in his career in which he was turned away from major universities was in "apartheid South Africa, when I was Nelson Mandela's lawyer."

The bottom line: Boycotts do not promote dialogue.

Based on recent events, Dershowitz said it appears Norwegian intellectuals want "dialogue with Hamas, but not with Dershowitz. Dialogue with Hamas, but not with Israel. … Dialogue with people that we agree with, but not with people we disagree with. This is not dialogue. This is a one-way monologue."

Take Pat Robertson, please

Once again, inquiring media minds wanted to know: Does the Rev. Pat Robertson's telephone actually have a speed-dial button for the angel of death?

The evangelical alpha male keeps making news with grim pronouncements about life, death and God's will. In the past, he has discussed the steering mechanisms of hurricanes and the aging hearts of liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justices. This past summer he said it wouldn't be a bad idea to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Now, of course, he has speculated that, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is "a very likeable person," there may be a link between his devastating stroke and his decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. And what about that 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin?

The Old Testament, Robertson noted on the 700 Club, "makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, quote, 'divide my land.' ... I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU (European Union), the United Nations or United States of America. God said, 'This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.' "

This is old news. What is new is the growing chorus of voices crying out that, while Robertson speaks for himself and an aging niche TV audience, he long ago wandered far out of mainstream Christian life.

Consider this urgent reaction to his remarks about Sharon.

"The Bible clearly reveals God to be a God of justice and righteousness as well as a God of forgiveness and mercy. Does God judge? Yes. However, whether or not a particular event is God?s judgment is something that the Apostle Paul has told us is 'past finding out.' No one ?hath known the mind of the Lord.'

"Even if one agreed with Pat Robertson?s position that the Israelis do not have the right to grant part of the Holy Land to the Palestinians, it would be well beyond Rev. Robertson's competence to discern that these tragic events were in any way, shape or form the result of God's judgment on any individuals. I am almost as shocked by Pat Robertson's arrogance as I am by his insensitivity."

Did these blunt words come from an official at the National Council of Churches? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Former President Jimmy Carter?

Actually, this quotation came from Dr. Richard Land, president of The Southern Baptist Convention?s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land said he asked a classroom of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary students what they thought of Robertson's statement and they were "embarrassed and incensed."

It's understandable that journalists want to craft edgy sound bites and hilarious headlines out of Robertson's comments. And there are, in fact, "Christian Zionists" who share his beliefs about the land of Israel. Reporters writing in-depth stories about tensions between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East would want to cover this small, but vocal, group in order to contrast its beliefs with those of other Christians in Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Truth is, evangelical Protestantism is both unorganized and complex and it does not have one or two acknowledged leaders, noted the liberal media critic Amy Sullivan, writing for the Washington Monthly weblog.

"Given that, there are a few different groups of people who should be (and sometimes are) featured as evangelical voices," she noted. "For religious leaders, there are Ted Haggard of New Life Church and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, Brian McLaren of Cedar Ridge Church, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church, and Franklin Graham (Billy?s son). Political voices include Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Cizik of NAE, Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation, and Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center."

The list goes on and on. Journalists should learn these leaders' names and tap them for comments, instead of aiming their pens and cameras at Robertson again and again and again.

"As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was 20 years ago," wrote Sullivan. "The only reason they?re still booked as talking heads is that most producers don?t know these two men no longer have any power. But more than that, they?re just not representative of today?s evangelicals."

2005: Is terrorism 'religion' news?

The suicide bomber struck at a sandwich stand in the busy outdoor market of the Israeli coastal city called Hadera, killing five people and wounding dozens more.

Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the blast, which came a month after Israel's September exit from Gaza. Israeli leaders quickly released a statement noting that this attack followed remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be "wiped off the map."

The bomber was a Palestinian. News reports did not attempt to pin ethnic or religious labels on the victims.

Are events such as this one "religion" news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers -- Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events "religion" news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

Nevertheless, it's hard not to ask these kinds of questions when reading the list of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 news events of 2005.

The overwhelming choices for the top two stories were the final decline and death of Pope John Paul II -- who mourners hailed as "John Paul the Great" -- and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The 100 religion-beat professionals who took part also selected John Paul II as religion newsmaker of the year, with 68 percent of the vote. The new pope placed second, with 21 percent.

News at the Vatican will always make headlines. The rest of the 2005 list included other familiar topics, from debates about evolution to euthanasia, from battles over homosexuality to unresolved church-state tensions among the justices -- current and future -- at the U.S. Supreme Court. But the top 10 included no events linked to terrorism, Iraq, Israel and the clash of cultures that has dominated the news in recent years.

This is news about religion, but is it "religion" news?

According to historian Martin Marty, America's best-known commentator on religion, it's time for journalists to ask a more disturbing question: "In the wake of Sept. 11, is there any news today that IS NOT religion news?"

Here's the rest of the RNA list of the top 10 religion stories:

(1) The world mourns the death of Pope John Paul II after his historic reign of 26-plus years. His courage in the face of death inspires many. Admirers call for his canonization and major networks broadcast mini-series about this life.

(2) The veteran Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a top aide to John Paul II, is elected by the cardinals to succeed him as Benedict XVI. Catholic progressives are appalled, while other Vatican insiders watch for signs of what his papacy will bring.

(3) While demonstrators mourn, Terri Schiavo dies in a Florida nursing home after her feeding tube is removed. Politicians, clergy and family members debate her right to live or die.

(4) Churches and faith-based agencies respond to Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia and a devastating earthquake in Pakistan. Many clergy ask: What role did God play in these disasters?

(5) Disputes about homosexuality continue to split the global Anglican Communion, as well as cause tensions among Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists and, in a dispute that finally went public, the American Baptists.

(6) Advocates of "intelligent design" continue to push for the right to question Darwinism in public schools, but suffer stinging defeats in Pennsylvania.

(7) U.S. Supreme Court approves posting of Ten Commandments outside the Texas state capitol and disapproves their posting inside Kentucky courthouses -- both by 5-4 votes. A federal judge reinstates a ban on "under God" in Pledge of Allegiance in three California school districts.

(8) Voices on the religious right and left question President Bush's three nominees to the Supreme Court, with some evangelicals supporting and some opposing born-again candidate Harriet Miers.

(9) Vatican releases long-awaited document on gay seminarians, barring from ordination those who are actively homosexual, have "deeply rooted" gay tendencies or oppose the church's teachings on the subject.

(10) Billy Graham holds a final evangelistic campaign in New York City.

Cheeseburgers in Jerusalem

It was the night before Melanie Preston's immigration flight to Israel and the 28-year-old daughter of a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father knew exactly what she wanted to eat.

"I want a cheeseburger, right now," she said, scanning a trendy South Florida menu. "You can get cheeseburgers in Israel, but you can't get a really good one. You know?"

This wasn't just a wisecrack about the kosher tradition of separating meat and dairy products. This was the kind of symbolic issue that Preston faced when she signed up for one of the free tours that have taken 70,000 young Jews to Israel during the past five years.

The global Birthright Israel program is open to young people between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been on an organized tour of Israel. It doesn't matter if they have one Jewish parent or two. It doesn't matter if they have no idea why some Jews eat cheeseburgers and some do not.

"There are cheeseburgers in Israel. You can get them at McDonald's and some places serve them just like regular hamburgers," said Marlene Post, chair of Birthright Israel in North America. "You make your choices. If she's planning on being religious, then she will never see another cheeseburger in her life. If she's going to be secular she will have all the options she would have anywhere else."

This tension between Judaism the faith and Judaism the culture has been part of Israel from the start. Thus, one of the key philanthropists behind www.BirthrightIsrael.org is Wall Street legend Michael Steinhardt -- an avowed atheist. Nevertheless, he joined the Israeli government and a coalition of donors, foundations and civic groups to fund this experiment.

The young people can select tours that emphasize education, art, recreation, religion or nothing in particular during their 10-day visits. They float in the Dead Sea and hike the Golan Heights, hang out with young Israeli soldiers and meet Holocaust survivors, visit security checkpoints and tour in buses tracked by on-board global positioning systems.

It isn't hard to spot the agenda, said Roman Smolkin, a 24-year-old computer professional in Aventura. Insiders stress the need for young people to "bond" with the state of Israel. Others talk about helping them establish a sense of "Jewish identity," whether religious or secular. Clearly, the constant late-night socializing is meant to facilitate friendships, some hooking up and even Jewish marriages.

"I think they're just trying to get people like us to be us, to be ourselves. They want us to act like young Jews," he said, during a dinner with Preston and several other tour veterans in South Florida. "But the people funding this must be thinking in terms of a very long-term investment for Israel and for Judaism. They must be thinking that they give us this trip now and, 30 years down the road we'll be different people."

For Harrison Heller, the impact was immediate. When he returned to Boca Raton he promptly signed up with Students for Israel and began speaking out politically. He still considers himself non-religious, although he now wears a prominent Star of David necklace.

"The whole religious thing is impossible to avoid," he said. "One of the very first application forms that we had to complete came right out and asked that question. It said, 'Are you Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or just a Jew?' You can't get more direct than that."

Preston wrestled with the faith issue as she prepared for "aliyah" -- the Hebrew word that means "to ascend," or move to Israel. She said she was raised "sort-of Reform" and "did the Christmas thing every year, but with no church services." Before Birthright Israel, she thought a "kibbutz" was a kind of boat.

Long after the tour, she had a tearful epiphany when she heard a Scottish folk singer attack Israel during a music festival in Montreal.

"What I've discovered," she said, "is that it's almost impossible to get involved in the life and politics of Israel without getting underneath that into the religious questions. ... That's what Israel is all about. It's great. It's scary. I love it. It's frustrating. I'm moving there.

"What can I say? I know that I can't escape the Israel question now, because it's my question."

Terrorism, fiction and the Truth

WASHINGTON -- One of the most sobering sights that novelist Joel Rosenberg has ever seen was the glitter of Manhattan outside the windows of a Learjet a few months after Sept. 11.

Since this was a private plane, its passengers did not pass through a metal detector and have their ID cards checked. There were no security procedures at all.

"It was the middle of the night and we were flying right over Ground Zero," he said. "I remember saying at the time that there was nothing -- literally nothing -- except our own morality that could stop us from taking a private jet like this one and doing pretty much whatever we wanted to do with it. That's still true."

This moral blind spot in the war on terror has bugged Rosenberg for years. That's why his first novel -- the 2002 bestseller "The Last Jihad" -- opened with a private jet exploding into a presidential motorcade in the not-so-distant future.

Rosenberg was writing the final chapters of that book on the morning of Sept. 11. That meant he had some rewriting to do.

But those kamikaze pilots were front and center in chapter one, written in 2000. So was the author's emphasis on faith. This is what happens when a Jewish Christian who used to work for Rush Limbaugh and Israeli politico Benjamin Netanyahu starts writing thrillers about nuclear terrorism. The religious content increased in the 2003 sequel, "The Last Days," which earned Rosenberg a $1 million advance.

Many secular critics have been brutal, including the Washington Post's infamous verdict that his work was "an act of terrorism on the reader's brain."

Rosenberg is unapologetic. He said he simply started asking "what-if questions" about terrorism in America and the Middle East and tried to figure out the answers. As it turned out, the timing was right to ask big questions about good and evil.

For example, one of Rosenberg's fictional heroes is a retired Israeli spy who is convinced that American leaders cannot wage a war on terror because they no longer believe that evil is spiritual reality. Thus, they also doubt the existence of eternal, absolute truth.

This theme shouldn't be surprising, said Rosenberg, because his ancestors were Orthodox Jews who fled the pogroms of Russia. The writer's father was Jewish and his mother Methodist. Both converted as adults to evangelical Christianity, as did their son.

"Because of my own faith and my family's experiences, I truly believe in the reality of evil. ... But many, many people in this town do not," said Rosenberg, sitting in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill. "That includes lots of people in the U.S. intelligence community and the state department. They had a hard time conceiving of a 9/11 because they didn't BELIEVE it could happen.

"What we had was not so much a failure of intelligence as it was a failure of moral imagination. ... It was a worldview problem."

All Rosenberg did was take these religious convictions and blend them with what he knew about politics, economics, world affairs and intelligence work -- creating fiction. It also didn't hurt that his political roots gave him bullet-proof ties to the rulers of talk radio. During one blitz, he was on 160 radio and television programs in a month.

Some of these shows were religious, but the vast majority of them were secular. Also, his books were published by a mainstream company, rather than a religious one. This was intentional, he said, because the Christian writers he admires the most -- such as J.R.R. Tolkien and John Grisham -- dominate shelves in secular bookstores.

Now it's time to navigate the minefield of making a movie in mainstream Hollywood. Rosenberg also faces hard decisions about the content of his future books. What happens to his themes of moral absolutes and religious conversion?

"I don't know if Hollywood producers are going to want those scenes in a movie," he said. "We'll have to see. Whatever happens, it won't weaken my conviction that Christians and other conservatives have not been doing enough to tell these kinds of stories in the secular media.

"We have to try. Who knows? We may have stories that people want to hear and see. That is, if the stories are good enough."

Which Church of the Nativity?

The Gate of Humility into the Church of the Nativity is just over four feet high and was added in 1272 A.D. to help repel raiders.

Visitors must stoop or bow in submission. Once inside, most tourists - about 1.25 million a year, in peaceful times - quickly queue on the right side of the 5th century Orthodox basilica and wait to enter the Grotto of the Nativity beneath the high altar.

I passed through the gate two years ago and headed for the altar icons. A priest appeared.

"You are American? You are Orthodox?", he asked, before assisting me. "We have so few people who come here to pray."

Frankly, I was glad to have a guide in the maze. The main lesson I learned was that the Church of the Nativity is not one building.

Nevertheless, most news about the recent Bethlehem siege described it has one church served by 30 or more priests, monks and nuns. Sadly, the reality is more splintered than that and recent events may have deepened the cracks.

Journalists said Palestinians in "the monastery" exchanged fire with Israeli troops. Which monastery? There are separate Roman Catholic and Greek monasteries and an Armenian Orthodox convent. "The priests" said they were not held hostage. Which priests? Gunmen raided food supplies and trashed monastic cells. In which cloister?

It is not even clear how the Palestinians entered "the church."

Time reported that they used the Gate of Humility. Yet it's hard to imagine several dozen al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade leaders, Tanzim militia, Hamas fighters and Palestinian Authority police being allowed through the Gate of Humility with 90 weapons, including assault rifles, and enough explosives for a reported 40 booby-traps.

Newsweek and numerous other publications say they shot their way through the main doors of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine, a 19th century sanctuary adjoining the Orthodox basilica. But some reports said the Franciscan priests opened these doors, perhaps due to fear of being taken hostage.

Either way, how did gunmen get from the Franciscan passageways into the ancient basilica? Why did Palestinians - as shown in news photos -- end up sleeping on its cold stone floor, rather than in the Catholic sanctuary's pews? Orthodox churches do not have pews.

The Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem believes these are not trivial questions. His words could not have been more blunt, as reporters surveyed the Greek monastery after the siege.

"All the media concentrated on the Franciscan quarter, where little damage was done," said Patriarch Irineos I, according to a Washington Times report. "Why? The Franciscans actually let the gunmen in then guided the gunmen to our rooms. ... The Franciscans then blocked their own rooms' doors with iron bars."

The New York Times and other publications reported that the most militant Palestinians appear to have lived, fought and died in the quarters of the Orthodox monks. Greek clerics feared Muslims would even attempt to claim these bloody sites as shrines. At one point, gunmen tried to bury one of their dead in the Greek monastery's garden.

Franciscan priests did report that gunmen tore up Bibles for toilet paper. The organ in their church was damaged, as was a mosaic. Meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli leaders traded accusations about who caused fires in the monasteries. The militants stole candelabra, icons and other golden objects, but left them behind with their weapons. Everyone leaving the basilica passed through a metal detector.

A Vatican envoy quickly ruled that St. Catherine's had not been defiled. The first Mass after the siege was celebratory, complete with the sound of a tambourine. Reporters noted that this church's main gate had been repaired, since it appeared that gunmen shot off the lock.

Next door, Patriarch Irineos led solemn reconsecration rites, before the first Divine Liturgy in his violated sanctuary. One altar had been used a common table, the baptismal font as a washtub and parts of the nave as latrines. The Grotto of the Nativity was used as a morgue. And Eastern Orthodox believers were unable to celebrate Holy Week and their Easter on May 5.

Was this another tragic first in the history of one of Christendom's oldest churches?

The siege raised agonizing questions inside the Church of the Nativity, as well as outside of its ancient walls.

Next year in Jerusalem?

Germany has the world's fastest-growing Jewish population.

One of Judaism's hottest schools of spiritual renewal has its roots in Argentina.

Jews in Atlanta set out to raise $25 million and ended up with $50 million, including nearly $5 million poured into the project by Coca-Cola -- a corporate pillar of the old Protestant South.

These are snapshots of modern Judaism. Get used to it.

"Obviously, when people think of Judaism they think of Israel and that's as it should be," said journalist Larry Tye, author of a provocative travelogue entitled "Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora."

"But right now, anyone who wants to see what is happening in Judaism needs to look outside of Israel. If you just focus on Israel, you can't see the big picture."

When Tye talks about the diaspora, he is referring to Jewish communities that exist and often thrive outside of Israel. While Israel remains the unique homeland, the Boston Globe veteran is convinced most Jews increasingly feel at home in a wide variety of lands. In fact, the diaspora Jewish communities have "more in common with each other than with the Jewish state as they search for spiritual and religious meaning in a largely non-Jewish world."

Nevertheless, the Passover Seders that start next week -- the season begins Wednesday at sundown -- will end with Jewish believers reciting this vow: "Next year in Jerusalem!"

"The words will stay the same, but the meaning is changing," said Tye. "Most Jews don't want to move to Jerusalem. They are doing just fine where they are."

If Tye sounds upbeat about modern Judaism, that's because he is. While researching his book, he traveled from Germany to Ukraine, from Argentina to Ireland, and from France to the United States -- the Bible-Belt South as well as the urban Northeast.

But he knows many do not share his optimism. Debates about the health of Judaism have been driven by two statistics -- soaring intermarriage rates and the falling numbers of Jews in pews. There are 20 percent fewer Jews today than when the Holocaust began. Then again, notes Tye, there are three times as many Jews right now than there were a century before the Holocaust.

"Everything I heard said that these numbers were going way down and that they would keep going down," he said, during a South Florida pilgrimage. "Yet I kept visiting Jewish communities around the world and what I was seeing with my own eyes was not jibing with what I was hearing. ... I know that the bad news stories are real. But there is good news out there, too."

Yes, an infamous 1990 survey of American Jews found that the rate of Jews marrying non-Jews had topped 50 percent. Then again, researchers found that the intermarriage rate had actually fallen 10 percent among those who openly claimed and practiced their Jewish faith.

Here's another Tye snapshot. Half of Atlanta's Jews have no ties that bind them to any Jewish institution. That's bad. But the other half of the Jewish community is so active in worship and educational activities that it seems everyone is building a new synagogue. That's good.

"Where does that leave us? The overall number of Jews probably will continue to decline, while many of those at the periphery will continue drifting away to atheism, Buddhism or nothing at all," according to Tye. Yet wherever he traveled, Jewish leaders rejoiced at the growth of their cultural and, yes, even their religious programs. When asked about the future, Jewish leaders around the world recited variations on this mantra: "Fewer Jews, but better Jews."

Tye is convinced this surge in diaspora energy and innovation will eventually lead to changes in Israel. After all, there are four times as many Israelis living in America as there are American Jews living in Israel. New ideas flow both ways, now.

"Again we see the role of the diaspora in Judaism today," he said. "Israel is increasingly looking to the diaspora to learn how to have a healthy, pluralistic Jewish community. ... For many modern Jews, Israel has come to represent hierarchy and law. Meanwhile, life in the diaspora has come to represent the freedom of the individual and a kind of creative chaos."