An Egyptian man was convicted and sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison for “Like”

An Egyptian man was convicted and sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison along with a fine of $840 dollars for violating Egypt’s blasphemy laws, which make illegal any criticism of the Islamic religion.
The International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that Kerolos Shawky, a Christian man living in southern Egypt, was initially accused of violating the Islamic blasphemy laws in article 98 of the Egyptian penal code, which prohibits “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife”, but as the ICC notes, the law is almost always used to go after religious minorities.
Kerolos’ lawyer said, “Kerolos didn’t intend to insult the Islamic religion, only he made a like on the page of Knights of the Cross on Facebook. He doesn’t have much experience in the internet plus he suffers from poor eyesight. So there was not any intention for the contempt or blasphemy of Islam.”
A Researcher for the Institute for Middle East Policy said violent acts unfolded which seemed to be directly related to the ongoing trial. “Shortly before the man’s trial was set to take place, Christian-owned property in the same village was set ablaze in what appears to be a related attack,” he said.
The ICC pointed out that Kerolos’ conviction is the third of its kind since Abdel Fatah El-Sisi took control of Egypt.
The ICC’s Middle East regional manager said of the trial:
The Egyptian legal system appears to have no concern for upholding the rule of law or protecting the fundamental rights of Egyptian citizens. From frivolous convictions on accusations of blasphemy like those brought against Kerolos and Demyana or the conviction of Bishoy, to the cases involving journalists, political dissidents, and protestors, fundamental human rights are being trampled. Egypt must quickly abandon the use of sham trials that violate the most basic rights of all citizens, including its Christian minority. The United States should use its role as a key ally and a significant donor of funds to Egypt to ensure that the country is moving to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens.


Book Review: ‘Defending the City of God’ by Sharan Newman

Ruling Jerusalem after the First Crusade, she was told: ‘You must set your hand to great things and, though a woman, you must act as a man.’

June 8, 2014 6:10 p.m. ET

A great many medieval Christians projected their millennial longings onto a spiritualized Jerusalem they had never set eyes on. More than 1,000 years after the crucifixion, the city’s sites—Golgotha, the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Olives—kept a firm grip on the imagination of Christian Europe. Urged on by a papal appeal in 1095, tens of thousands of feudal barons, sons of nobility, clergymen, traders and peasant volunteers went eastward on one of the most audacious military campaigns in history. The hope was to translate religious longing into political fact and heavenly aspiration into earthly victory.

Against all odds, they succeeded. After a five-week siege in the summer of 1099, the First Crusade ended four centuries of Muslim rule in Jerusalem and liberated the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, first built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the fourth century on the hill where his mother, Helena, identified the site of Jesus’ tomb.

But what of the morning after? To throw light on the formative period of the Crusader states—and on the opening chapter of European expansion— Sharan Newman, a medieval historian and a novelist, recovers from obscurity the story of the only woman to rule the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem in her own right.

Ms. Newman’s engaging book, “Defending the City of God,” centers on Melisende, born in the Frankish colony of Edessa (modern-day Urfa, Turkey) in 1105. At age 13, she came to Jerusalem with her French father, Baldwin II, recently chosen as king of the city and the realms surrounding it. Her Armenian mother, Morfia, had borne four daughters, one becoming a powerful abbess in Jerusalem and two others marrying royals in Antioch and Tripoli. Melisende, the eldest, was chosen to succeed to her father’s throne. With her dual heritage, Ms. Newman writes, “Melisende became a bridge” between “the Frankish settlers and the eastern Christians she lived among.”

When Baldwin II died in 1131, Melisende and her husband, a crusader-count named Fulk of Anjou, were jointly crowned. A dozen years later, after Fulk had died in a riding accident, Melisende had her second double coronation at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, this time beside her 13-year-old son, Baldwin III. As long as her son remained a minor, the queen would exercise sole rule by hereditary right. A Cistercian abbot advised her: “On you alone the whole burden of the kingdom will rest. You must set your hand to great things and, though a woman, you must act as a man.”

Ms. Newman marshals evidence to show that Melisende proved equal to the task. “It was her ambition,” wrote the 12th-century chronicler William of Tyre, “to emulate the magnificence of the greatest and noblest princes and to show herself in no wise inferior to them.”

Melisende began by reconstituting her battered city. She built vaulted bazaars (still visible today), completed the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and endowed the conversion of the Al-Aqsa mosque into a palace. In consolidating the Latin church in Jerusalem, she cannily cultivated relationships with eastern Christian communities, like the Armenians and Greek Orthodox. And she oversaw the development of the Hospitallers and Templars, religious-military orders that joined monastic ideals to knightly chivalry.

Traveling her kingdom—from Tyre (in current-day Lebanon) to Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast—she dispensed royal favors, issued charters and concluded treaties. And at a time when Byzantine, Islamic and European artistic traditions began to commingle, she made herself a patron of the arts. One example of her patronage is the exquisitely illuminated Melisende Psalter—itself a blend of eastern and western styles—created at her scriptorium and today housed in the British Museum.

Melisende excelled in playing what Ms. Newman calls “the chess game of the Levant,” but when her son reached the age of 21, he demanded a share of the kingdom. The realm was divided: Jerusalem and Nablus to Queen Melisende; Acre and Tyre, in the north, to Baldwin III. The short-lived partition plan—like its modern-day successors—only led to strife. Baldwin and his troops besieged his mother in the citadel of Jerusalem, forcing her to relinquish her rule and retire into a life of quieter, though still active, diplomacy.

After Melisende died, at age 51, she was buried next to Mary’s tomb at the foot of the Mount of Olives. William of Tyre noted that her much-tested rule “had been wise and judicious.” Baldwin III survived his mother by a year. Two decades later, in the wake of the disastrous Second Crusade, Saladin was at the city gates. The Christian rule of Jerusalem had endured just 90 years.

In illuminated medieval manuscripts, Melisende never appears by herself; in iconography, at least, she is subordinated to her father, husband or son. Ms. Newman, drawing on an array of historians, painstakingly reframes the picture. The overlooked stories of Melisende and her sisters, she suggests, are essential to grasping the full dimensions of the Crusader legacy. Melisende’s life, she writes, “encompasses the conflicts that wounded a beautiful land, along with the deep faith and opportunism that created those conflicts.”

Melisende’s monarchy helped bring the Orient into the European consciousness, and vice-versa. Fulcher of Chartres, a French-born chronicler of the First Crusade and canon of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, remarked on the shift during Melisende’s lifetime: “Reflect how in our time God has transferred the West into the East. For we who were Occidentals have now been made Orientals.” As “Defending the City of God” ably shows, it was this transplantation into the rich soil of Jerusalem that seeded a still-swirling encounter between cross and crescent.

Mr. Balint teaches at the Bard College humanities program in Jerusalem.


Bible App 5 Shows YouVersion Still on Track to Engage the World in Scripture

Update Helps Share Content That’s Not Simply ‘What You Had For Breakfast,’ Says LifeChurch.tv Innovation Pastor


April 23, 2014|8:50 am

With the recent release of the Bible App 5 that has already been installed, beginning with the original application, on 136 million devices, it’s clear that its maker, YouVersion, remains on track to engage more people with the Bible than ever before. The updated app lets people share Scripture with friends in an online community.

“For the last five and a half years the features we’ve had inside the app have been primarily to help someone individually connect with the Bible,” Bobby Gruenewald, innovation pastor of LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma, told The Christian Post recently. “This new release, the Bible App 5, actually introduces a new set of features that allow you to form relationships with people that you know and trust, and then have conversation about Scripture and the activity that you are doing with the Bible with those people.

“It really moves it from being just an individual experience to giving people the opportunity to experience it with others. We think it is a really important step forward in engagement and understanding of Scripture,” Gruenewald said.

He explained that although it is not a requirement to use the Bible app, users can go and find people that are known and trusted by them who are also Bible app users and add them as a friend.

“That’s similar to what you would do on Facebook or other social media networks, except the relationships have to be mutually agreed upon,” Gruenewald said.

He continued, “As you and your set of friends engage in Scripture by bookmarking something or highlighting something, or writing a note, you are able to see that activity of your friends, and for each of those things you can have a comment stream or discussion on it.

“You can also ‘like’ the content that your friend shared, similar to what you would see in social networking except the difference is that everything is focused on Scripture,” he added. “It’s not what you had for breakfast.

“It’s really a Bible-focused type of engagement that is real unique and something we think is really going to dramatically increase the amount of time and the frequency that people spend in God’s Word.”

YouVersion has grown to 30 full-time employees and budgeted for more than $6 million this year, according to Gruenewald. The money comes through LifeChurch.tv as well as donors outside of the church. The pastor said that the organization is really blessed and most of the funds go toward growth.

“We want to move this forward in a way that will engage people and reach more people than it is currently,” he said. “We are pretty aggressive in wanting to see this generation become the most Bible-engaged generation in history and because of that we feel like there is a lot to be done.”

Gruenewald said that in his own use of the app, as he begins to add friends, he sees that interaction with friends has been really effective at increasing the time they are spending in God’s Word. “It’s very obvious because you can see that people have gone from maybe highlighting a passage once every couple weeks to two times a day or more than that,” he highlighted. “I think there are some strong advantages to people experiencing God’s Word in the context of community.”

The app has been well received, he noted.

“We’ve been blown away with the response. Any time you make a significant change, and this is really the most significant change that we’ve made since we’ve started, you always expect a mixture of feedback on it, and we were surprised how positively it was received from our community. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from people who have downloaded and installed the update and begin to use some of the features.”

On the Web: http://www.youversion.com/



Shavuot puts the meaning into mitzvah

The essence of Judaism is a response to divine commandment

By Rabbi Dr Ben Elton, June 1, 2014

The latest stir in America’s modern Orthodox community has come from an article by Jay Lefkowitz in Commentary, called “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy”. Lefkowitz considers himself to be social Orthodox, which means that he largely observes halachah, but not because he (necessarily) believes that God commanded him.

For Lefkowitz, Jewish observance has a different motivation. It connects him to a community with all the benefits of support and belonging which that brings. God, whether or not He exists, is very much secondary. In his search for a life of meaning, Lefkowitz has found that being part of a people, with a history and identity, answers a need.
It is difficult for a rabbi to respond. On the one hand, mitzvot are mitzvot. If the social Orthodox are lighting candles, putting on tefillin, drinking four cups of wine on Seder night and learning Torah, that is wonderful. It would be tragic if by insisting on faith in addition to practice, we reduced the performance of mitzvot. It would be distressing to hear someone say: “If you say my practice is meaningless without belief, then fine, have it your way. I won’t keep Shabbat anymore.”
So the first responsible response to social Orthodoxy is to be thankful that Jews are observing halachah, whatever their reasons. After all, the Talmud tells us mitoch lo lishma, ba lishma, even if the initial motives are not ideal, they will become so (Sanhedrin 105b). The sages were patient and had faith that even if the right intentions were not always there, eventually they would emerge. I am sure that in many cases it is true. Faith often varies over the course of a lifetime, but when we tell people they are not good enough, we can put them off entirely.
The focus of Shavuot is not social, but God and His commandments
But there are still concerns, both in practice and in principle. It is hard to transmit the sense of commitment without commandedness. How can parents make a compelling case for their children to continue to fast on Yom Kippur or light Chanucah candles on the basis that it gives them a sense of community?
The children can respond “I don’t want it” or “I don’t need it”. They can claim that they express their Judaism through holidays in Israel or that their identity is primarily as a member of their family and they reinforce that by getting all the cousins together to have a big lunch on December 25. Mordecai Kaplan was one of the most brilliant Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, and he founded an entire movement with an alternative to a traditional God as the basis of observance. For Kaplan, mitzvot were meaningful as “Jewish folkways”, the religious way in which Jews have chosen to express themselves. His denomination, Reconstructionism, is only 100 synagogues strong and was recently in severe financial trouble. Kaplanism is interesting, but it seems not to work on the ground.
These practicalities aside, there must be major religious objections to social Orthodoxy. We are about to celebrate Shavuot. Although it has a strong agricultural component, for most of us it is primarily the celebration of the giving of the Torah. Whereas Pesach and Succot are very busy festivals — eating matzah, shaking the lulav and etrog — Shavuot is at heart quiet and reflective. The customs of staying up to learn on the first night and eating milky foods were relatively late developments.
Shavuot is not a festival for doing, it is a festival for thinking about why we do what we do. The answer of Shavuot is not the answer of social Orthodoxy. It exceeds the communal. Pesach and Succot are built around social elements. The Paschal lamb was eaten in a large group, the mitzvah of Succah applies to kol ha’ezrach b’Yisrael, members of the nation, and not to others. They are bonding rituals.
Shavuot is different. The classic mitzvah of Shavuot was the bringing of bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple, when the farmer would declare “now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me”.
The focus of Shavuot is not social, about being part of a people, important though that is. Shavuot is about God and His commandments. On Pesach we became a nation, but Shavuot is the fulfilment of Pesach, because it was the moment when we became a nation called by God to His service and we answered that call.
Shavuot takes us beyond social Orthodoxy. Observance, done for whatever reason, should not be devalued, but Shavuot gives us an additional challenge. Ultimately, we perform mitzvot because God revealed His will to us and when we keep mitzvot, we are not just developing a relationship with each other, but with Him. We cannot all have that in mind, or have it in mind at all times, but it is remains the ideal for which to strive.
Rabbi Elton is director of education at Lincoln Square, New York


It’s very difficult to be Christian in Britain, says Ann Widdecombe


Ann Widdcombe: Christians had less freedom of speech than Nazis in postwar Britain

Jeremy Young

Sonia Elks

Last updated at 10:41AM, June 8 2014

Ann Widdecombe has said that “quite militant secularism” and concerns over political correctness have left many Christians afraid to express their faith.

The former Tory cabinet minister, who is a Roman Catholic, said that intolerance towards the faith and legislation on equality made it “very difficult” to be an active Christian in modern-day Britain.
Outspoken atheists were also undermining the principle of “freedom of conscience”, making it a more hostile environment than for Nazis in Britain after the Second World War, she said.
“Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say ‘God bless you’, you can’t offer to pray for somebody,” said Ms Widdecombe.
“If it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves.
“So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.”
Ms Widdecombe said that a concern about “political correctness” meant that people were reluctant to express their faith to others because “they think strong belief offends them”.
Christians also faced a “sort of atheism” that “wouldn’t once have been said”, she told an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live with Stephen Nolan.
There used to be a view that “we’ve all got freedom of conscience, we’ve all got freedom of expression”, she said.
“In the 1950s, when plenty of people had lost lives and limbs and loved ones to the Nazis, it was still possible to be a Nazi in this country.”
Similarly, she invoked the right of people to identify openly as a Communist – and to stand for Parliament on that ticket – during the height of the Cold War.
“No matter how strongly we felt as a nation at the time, we’ve always respected the right of people to their own views and I do feel nowadays as a combination of political correctness and equality law and all the rest of it, we’ve started suppressing the expression of conscience.”
Ms Widdecombe’s comments are likely to re-ignite controversy over the role of faith in Britain.
David Cameron provoked hot debate when he said that the UK should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country” in an article shortly before Easter.
A group of 50 public figures said in a letter to The Telegraph that they rejected that description and its “negative consequences for politics and society”.
The prime minister found support however from Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that criticism of the remarks was baffling and criticised “atheist protesters”.
Dominic Grieve, the attorney-general, also stepped into the row to say that atheists who denied that Britain was a Christian country were “deluding themselves”.


Book Review: ‘Rebbe’ by Joseph Telushkin and ‘My Rebbe’ by Adin Steinsaltz


Menachem Schneerson transformed a small sect into a world Jewish movement—but was he also the Messiah?

June 13, 2014 5:54 p.m. ET

‘Are you Jewish?” If you’ve lived in a large American city in the past 30 years and look the part, chances are that a young Hasidic man has approached you with this question. Men who answer “yes” are given a quick tutorial in donning tefillin, ritual objects worn by Jewish men during prayer; women receive Sabbath candles with instructions to recite ancient blessings. It all seems suspiciously cultlike, but these bearded enthusiasts aren’t out to convert anyone. They are emissaries of Chabad (also known as Lubavitch), a religious movement whose goal is to expose more Jews to Judaism—unconditionally.

Schneerson speaks to his followers in Brooklyn in January 1992 about the everlasting nature of the soul on the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death. Corbis Images

Their approach has succeeded in a secular age when hundreds of other Jewish organizations have failed. A recent Pew study of American Jews showed a dramatic attenuation of communal ties, and other religions have also seen declining institutional involvement, but Chabad has built thriving outposts from Anchorage to Zimbabwe, touched the lives of millions, and become ubiquitous almost to the point of comedy. On a recent trip to Australia, I discovered that the building adjacent to my hotel in Melbourne was an exact replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s legendary Brooklyn headquarters. Two excellent new biographies of Chabad’s great 20th-century leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94), help explain how one man turned a decimated sect into a world-wide presence.

Hasidism is a religious revival movement inspired by the spiritual crises that followed the 1648 massacres of tens of thousands of Jews in Ukraine. Led by charismatic leaders called rebbes (a variant of a Hebrew word for “teacher”) who elevated seeking God through sincere action like prayer and deeds of kindness above studying Torah. Hasidism flourished in Eastern Europe, with various dynastic courts gaining ardent followers.

In the 1780s, a rebbe named Shneur Zalman in the Belarusian town of Lubavitch founded a new Hasidic group called Chabad (a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge), distinguished for its intellectual rigor. He also began his own dynasty; leadership descended within the family through followers’ consensus. It is this mantle that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a direct descendant of Shneur Zalman, reluctantly assumed after the death of his father-in-law Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth rebbe, in 1950. (The tangled Schneerson family tree would put the Windsors to shame.) After a year of power struggles with a brother-in-law who badly wanted the job—and whose son was later sued by Chabad for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rare books—Schneerson became the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1951.

By all accounts, Schneerson, born in 1902 and raised in Ukraine, was gifted with extraordinary intelligence and empathy. He never studied in a yeshiva but learned Torah and Talmud with his father and reportedly committed all 63 tractates of the Talmud to memory; his close relationship with his father-in-law, whom he first met in 1923 and who was later imprisoned and exiled by the Soviets, defined his spiritual life. As a young man he studied physics, calculus and philosophy at the University of Berlin. Just before the Nazi takeover, Schneerson and his wife moved to Paris, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. This served him well when the couple escaped to New York in 1941, where he found a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, supervising work on battleship electrical systems. Most Lubavitchers were murdered in the Holocaust; at Chabad’s new Crown Heights headquarters, people had to be pulled off the street to provide the quorum of 10 Jewish men for prayers. The new Rebbe’s worldliness—he spoke seven languages and could read more than 10—prepared him to lead not just a small sect but a movement that could reach millions.

Those who admire young Mormons who commit to two-year missions ought to be awed by Chabad shluchim (emissaries), young married couples barely in their 20s who are sent to far-flung places to build Jewish communities and serve the needs of Jewish travelers—not for two years but for their entire lives, raising their children abroad. As pre-eminent Israeli Torah scholar Adin Steinsaltz details in “My Rebbe,” this practice began with the fifth rebbe at the turn of the 20th century, who sent shluchim to outlying regions of the Russian empire. But Schneerson vastly expanded the program. Shluchim are recruited for their intelligence and ingenuity, serve voluntarily, receive no salary (they must raise funds to support themselves), and devote their lives to bringing Judaism to places where resources like kosher food or synagogues are often nonexistent.

The Rebbe insisted on maintaining shluchim in challenging circumstances. In “Rebbe,” American rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin describes a 1982 incident where the Israeli government planned to evacuate the Tunisian Jewish community after the Palestine Liberation Organization established a headquarters in Tunis. The Rebbe, citing his own intelligence sources, insisted the threat wasn’t credible. The Israelis backed down, and Chabad, along with the city’s native Jewish community, remains in Tunis today. Such persistence isn’t without risk: In 2008, shluchim in Mumbai were targeted, tortured and murdered during citywide terrorist attacks, an incident that goes unmentioned in these books. It is worth noting that this atrocity did not lead to any pullback—8,000 shluchim currently serve around the world.

Both of these biographies depict the Rebbe’s management style. One of the Rebbe’s principles, for instance, was his religiously motivated insistence on never waiting to get things done. As Mr. Telushkin recounts, in 1978 a Jewish chaplain for South African prisons visited the Rebbe and lamented that Jewish prisoners, many of whom were dissidents, had permission to observe Passover but not Hanukkah. The Rebbe suggested that the chaplain approach the director of prisons. When the chaplain noted that Hanukkah would begin the following evening, the Rebbe told him to call the director at home, even though it was after midnight in Johannesburg, so that “he would be impressed by the matter’s urgency.” The director was indeed impressed, and prisoners received Hanukkah candles the following night.

The Rebbe also held private meetings all through the night and often until dawn. Petitioners from students to senators felt the urgency of the hour as they arrived for appointments at, say, 2 a.m. Mr. Steinsaltz vividly describes the profound, almost supernatural attention that people felt they received during these encounters. “Many people who stood in the Rebbe’s presence came away feeling that they had been branded, as a being that is marked by fire and set aside; so it was with me,” he writes.

Spreading himself too thin was never the Rebbe’s concern; he responded to those who complained of being overwhelmed with “I’m also tired. So what?” The Rebbe slept no more than a few hours nightly and ate only dark chocolate while at work, which was nearly always. During the day he prayed, often at his father-in-law’s grave, prepared religious discourses (later collected in over 200 volumes), edited Chabad publications, and handled correspondence from around the world. He and his wife were childless, which greatly pained them, but they had daily tea together. According to Mr. Steinsaltz, the Rebbe once remarked that this ritual was “as important to him as putting on tefillin.” Despite running a global organization, he rarely left Crown Heights.

The Rebbe never traveled to Israel. Nonetheless, he consulted with Israeli prime ministers and generals, who sometimes regretted ignoring his advice. In 1969, he wrote a detailed letter to Gen. Ariel Sharon pointing out vulnerabilities in a particular defensive line—which was attacked by Egypt in 1973 exactly as the Rebbe had warned. Congressmen made the Rebbe’s office into a regular campaign stop. In 1982, the Rebbe met Nevada Sen. Jacob Hecht and told him to make Soviet Jewry his priority. Later, when President Reagan owed Hecht a favor, Hecht convinced Reagan to pressure Mikhail Gorbachev for Jewish emigration.

But the Rebbe’s influence stemmed less from realpolitik than insight. Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn representative who was the first black woman in Congress, told the Rebbe of her dismay at being relegated to the agriculture committee. The Rebbe suggested: “You can use the gift God’s given you to feed hungry people.” Chisholm would go on to spearhead children’s food-stamp programs that still feed millions.

These two books, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death, take very different approaches to their subject. Mr. Steinsaltz, writing from a deeply religious perspective, vividly describes Chabad’s history and the Rebbe’s achievements, interspersing biographical facts with musings on spirituality that can be quite moving. “My Rebbe” gives a rich sense of Hasidic history and ideas, as well as the Rebbe’s spiritual impact. Mr. Telushkin’s book is more journalistic, and a more accessible choice for the non-Jewish or nonreligious reader. It will appeal to those curious about the Rebbe’s influence on public life, and Mr. Telushkin is particularly strong on the Rebbe’s impact on Soviet Jewry, Israel-Diaspora relations and American politics. He includes many revealing anecdotes, along with the Rebbe’s thoughts on subjects ranging from evolution to baseball. (Mr. Telushkin also provides a timeline appendix that could be a book in itself.)

Both authors exhibit a frank admiration for the Rebbe, even when addressing his movement’s flaws. Not everyone appreciates Chabad’s assertiveness: Native Jewish communities in places where shluchim are sent don’t always welcome Chabad’s incursions, and after the Rebbe’s death a narrow slice of Lubavitchers who regarded him as a messianic figure gave the movement its own extremist fringe. Yet as Mr. Telushkin explains, the Rebbe repeatedly denied he was the Messiah. In 1965, he ordered an elderly Lubavitcher who had scattered messianic fliers around Tel Aviv to collect and destroy every flier. Mr. Telushkin relates that when an emissary presented the Rebbe with a letter addressing him as “King Messiah,” the Rebbe threw “it down in frustration, and wrote on it, ‘Tell him that when the Moshiach comes, I will give him the letter.’ ” When a journalist asked point-blank if he were the Messiah, the Rebbe answered: “I am not.” Still, Mr. Steinsaltz admits that, like other Lubavitchers, “while he was alive, I believed that he could be [the Messiah]. That is, I believed in the potential of his candidacy.”

To be fair, Lubavitchers who saw their Rebbe as the Messiah were influenced by his own mission: For the Rebbe, the entire goal of human life was to bring about the world’s redemption, and he interpreted the atrocities the Jews had suffered in the 20th century as the birthpangs of a messianic age. What comes through in his countless public talks, Mr. Telushkin writes, “is his passion and insistence that world redemption via the Messiah must happen soon and that people must do everything in their power to influence it to happen. He would speak about this time and again, often with tears and barely suppressed sobs.” Yet he would appoint no heir to take his place.

Judaism has many traditions regarding a future Messiah; none of them allow the Messiah to die, which the Rebbe did in 1994. This did not stop some Lubavitchers from believing, in grief-related denial, that their deceased leader would somehow return and redeem the world—a belief that sparked a schism within the Chabad movement. Here Mr. Steinsaltz’s book is particularly helpful, describing a concept of life after death that includes a person’s legacy in the here and now. The Rebbe, he writes, “implanted his spirit in so many people that . . . his insights and his singular passionate desire to change the world continue.” Mr. Telushkin and Mr. Steinsaltz both respectfully dismiss Chabad’s messianic margin today as, in Mr. Telushkin’s term, a “nonissue.”

These two books, while mesmerizing, are not objective works of criticism. Mr. Steinsaltz is a Lubavitcher Hasid who had a close relationship with the Rebbe: His book opens not with a catchy anecdote but with a discussion of eschatology. While this may alienate skeptics, Mr. Steinsaltz sensitively examines the Rebbe’s spiritual gifts, particularly his track record of “miracles.” In one example, Mr. Steinsaltz recounts how Jean Sulzberger of the New York Times publishing family approached the Rebbe, concerned that she felt distanced from God. The Rebbe told her to see a doctor. She did and discovered she had cancer. “One may describe this as a miracle,” Mr. Steinsaltz writes, “or one could say that this story reflects the Rebbe’s deep understanding of human nature.”

Mr. Telushkin’s father was the Rebbe’s personal accountant and friend. But he, too, is under the Rebbe’s sway—and movingly so. The Rebbe, the author relates, once called Mr. Telushkin’s hospitalized father to bother him with an accounting question. To the author, it seemed intrusive, but his father was enlivened and cheered. It was a calculated gesture typical of the Rebbe’s “moral imagination,” honoring each individual’s need to feel needed.

For all his immense achievements, the Rebbe’s power ultimately came from a simple message that anyone can appreciate. As Mr. Telushkin puts it: “Love your fellow, and not just those who agree with you.”

—Ms. Horn’s most recent novel is “A Guide for the Perplexed.”


Christianity’s Rapid Growth in China Despite Persecution


Wednesday, Jun 04, 2014

Panel Looks at Christianity’s Rapid Growth in China Despite Persecution

By Michael Gryboski
June 4, 2014|7:18 am

WASHINGTON – Even as the Communist Chinese government recently cracked down on Christian communities, Christianity continues to grow rapidly in the People’s Republic.

This was the observation noted by a panel – titled “Christianity in China: A Force for Change?” –sponsored by the Brooking s Institution on Tuesday. Experts discussed the growth of Christianity, especially in the years since 1989, after the infamous crackdown on demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

Carsten Vala, assistant professor at the Political Science Department of Loyola University Maryland and one of the panelists, told The Christian Post how many Chinese Christians view recent actions against them.

“Chinese Christian leaders look at this as a winnowing effect, so those who are not true Christians will leave the churches; the ‘Sunday Christians,'” said Vala.

“The really committed, devout believers will be increasingly strengthened in their faith by this ‘winds of persecution’ and honestly the church buildings may be torn down, but that doesn’t mean the congregations themselves have scattered.”

Held at the Falk Auditorium, the event featured two panels on Christianity in China, focusing on topics such as the socio-political status of Christianity in the Asian country and how Christianity is influencing civil society.

In addition to Vala, the first panel of speakers featured Liu Peng, professor at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; the Rev. Zhang Boli, head pastor at Washington Harvest Chinese Christian Church; and Richard Bush, director and senior fellow at Brookings’ Center for East Asian Policy Studies, who moderated the first panel.

“I am also very interested in this subject because it’s a key issue for understanding the dynamics of state and society in China,” said Bush.

“Whether one is religious or not, the survival of religious belief and faith in China from 1949 to 1979 is really one of the most inspiring stories that one could ever come across.”

Bush also told those gathered that he found it appropriate to link Christianity’s growth in China and the Tiananmen Square protests “because both were a response to the political and moral vacuum in China in the post-Mao period.”

Vala gave a presentation to those gathered in the auditorium about his research among Chinese Christian communities during the 2000s. Focusing mostly on Protestant Christianity, Vala noted that a large number of Chinese Christians are younger, well educated, and have only been believers for a relatively short amount of time.

Vala told CP that in contrast to their American counterparts, Protestant and Catholic churches in China rarely cooperate on matters like activism, as they have strong boundaries.

“The words for Christianity, for Protestant and Catholic Christianity are different. Even the words that they use for God is different, so it is seen as really a separate religion in a sense,” said Vala.

“So there’s very little cooperation. There is some learning. The Catholics have been learning about Protestants and Protestant missionizing, from the Protestants.”

A human rights activist who was present at Tiananmen in 1989, Boli spoke through an interpreter about more recent persecution of Christians in the Communist nation.

Boli provided photos and descriptions of churches, including ones registered with the government, that first had their crosses removed by the government and then were demolished.

Boli noted this cracking down as happening on both “Three-Self churches,” which are congregations that registered with the government, and “house churches,” which are not registered with the government.

“Recently we have seen some changes in the Chinese government’s policy towards religion,” said Boli via the interpreter. “The reason that caused them to decide to make those changes is because Christianity is moving very, very quickly in China.”

When asked by CP what American churches could do to help Chinese Christianity, Vala responded that there were two important things.

“I think the first thing is to learn more about the diversity of the church. The churches are, some are still flourishing while others are being persecuted,” said Vala.

“Secondly, I think the churches can develop direct connections with church leaders and support them by remedying the shortage of qualified pastors and then they can of course pray for the churches.”

According to Chinese government records, there are approximately 33 million Christians in the People’s Republic. Given the many unregistered “house churches” in the country, many believe the actual number to be far larger.


Book Review: ‘Strange Glory’ by Charles Marsh

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of contradictions—and his theology the essential response to modernity.

May 30, 2014 5:30 p.m. ET

When I was a kid growing up in the Baptist badlands of far West Texas in the 1980s, the only serious theologian I ever heard a word about was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was odd in one sense. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran, and his theology was stringent, complex and fraught with a kind of vital void, a meaning in meaninglessness that Christians were just beginning to piece together from the shards of modernism and its tidal violence. By contrast, the sermons I heard in Texas tended toward fire-eyed warnings of the Rapture or clear-cut moral imperatives about fornication (bad) or football (good).

Strange Glory
By Charles Marsh
Knopf, 515 pages, $35

bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, NY
In another sense, though, the reference was apt, for Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was Christocentric to a secularly alarming degree, and so were we. He believed that God’s remoteness was woven into the flesh and blood of living existence and that, moreover, “we are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth.” For Bonhoeffer, the church must penetrate every aspect of the lives of its parishioners; either it acknowledges and answers intractable human suffering and from that suffering wrings a strain of real joy and hope, or it is simply an easy extension of secularism and thus an abomination. That image of the upright, uptight, Yankee Episcopalian sitting rigid in his pew—God’s frozen people and all that—well, let’s just say that occasionally Bonhoeffer provided our more apocalyptic preachers with some potent rhetorical ammunition.

Plus, his was one hell of a story. There was the little boy with the taste for eternity deciding at 13 to become a theologian. There was the aristocratic, patriotic and astonishingly accomplished family crushed by the country they would have died to save. (The Bonhoeffer family lost four members to the Nazis.) There was the consummate intellectual who, safely ensconced in New York City at the start of World War II, returned almost immediately to Germany because, as he put it, if he did not suffer his country’s destruction, then he could not credibly participate in her restoration.

By that point Bonhoeffer was already well-known, and not simply in Germany. He had written what still may be his most famous book, “The Cost of Discipleship” (1937), which is both bracing and haunting to read in light of the events that followed. (“Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only insofar as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion.”) Faith, Bonhoeffer stressed, could be found only in actions of faith: “Only he who obeys, believes.”

Just about the entire German church, Catholics and Protestants, turned up its belly to Hitler —and was gutted. Bonhoeffer was undeceived from the start. Within two days of Hitler’s ascension in 1933, with storm troopers already in the streets, Bonhoeffer gave a dangerous radio address in which he proclaimed resistance to the Reich and support for the Jews. His sense of Christian responsibility and fraternity would only grow firmer. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing the Gregorian chant,” he said in 1938.

Eventually this gentle, cerebral man became a quite capable double agent, ostensibly working for German military intelligence while he was actually passing information to the nations at war with Germany, as well as helping Jews escape. The pacifist so adamant that at one time he believed all violence was demonic joined a group that launched multiple assassination attempts on the life of Hitler. “Both the no and the yes involve guilt,” Bonhoeffer told one of his anguished co-conspirators. The only consolation lay in knowing that the guilt was “always borne by Christ.”

And Christ—the immediacy of him in other men’s faces, the suffering that was both shearing and shared—was what Bonhoeffer clung to when the Gestapo arrested him in April 1943. For a time his circumstances, aside from the extreme isolation, were relatively mild because of his family connections and because the full extent of his “betrayal” was not known. Writings of all sorts—letters, fragments, sermons, poetry—poured out of him.

A different side of Bonhoeffer’s theology emerged in prison: “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.” His family would eventually find these writings, which gained an enormous readership after Bonhoeffer’s death, a great consolation. Not only did they reveal his strength of character and existential serenity even as things grew truly awful—Bonhoeffer suffered degrading, painful torture and was finally executed in April 1945—but they ameliorated some of Bonhoeffer’s early sternness. They also restored the more mystical side of Bonhoeffer that had made him become a theologian in the first place.

Charles Marsh’s excellent biography, “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” enters a crowded and contentious field. For years the standard life, and certainly the most theologically comprehensive, has been the book written by Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary.” But it is almost 50 years old, it’s a thousand pages long and of course Bethge had no access to any of the information that has been unearthed in the intervening years.

More recently, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, founder of the Bonhoeffer Society and a close friend of Bethge, published “Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance” in 2010. Unfortunately for Mr. Schlingensiepen, his scrupulous and erudite book appeared at almost exactly the same time as Eric Metaxas’s blockbuster, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (notice how the descriptors are amped up for a broader audience). Mr. Metaxas sought to “reclaim” Bonhoeffer, both from a certain strand of liberal Protestantism that reads most attentively from the existential, in extremis late work (my favorite part of Bonhoeffer, I should admit) and from the secular humanists who had, in Mr. Metaxas’s view, sought to praise Bonhoeffer’s courage while purging his Christianity.

Mr. Marsh does not even mention the Metaxas book or the enormous attention it brought to Bonhoeffer. He is a scholar, and Mr. Metaxas is a popular biographer, and it’s possible that Mr. Marsh found no new information in the Metaxas book that he needed for “Strange Glory.” Still, though Mr. Marsh deals quite well with the intractable contradictions of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and actions, he misses the chance to situate the theologian and his ideas more clearly within the contemporary context. A simple preface would have helped.

But he goes about his business quietly and professionally (the notes alone are a treasure of information), and he has a rare talent for novelistic detail—which requires a genuine creative imagination as well as scrupulously documented research in order not to become ridiculous. It’s lovely to read of young Bonhoeffer and his twin sister, Sabine, lying awake at night “trying to imagine eternity”:

When the twins got separate bedrooms they devised a code for keeping up their metaphysical games. Dietrich would drum lightly on the wall with his fingers, an “admonitory knock” announcing that it was time once again to ponder eternity. A further tap signaled a new reflection on the solemn theme, and so it went, back and forth, until one of them discerned the final silence—usually it was Dietrich. And with the game concluded, he lay awake, the only light in his room coming from a pair of candle-lit crosses his mother had placed atop a corner table.

It’s inspiring to almost feel Bonhoeffer slipping verses or notes of comfort into the sweaty hands of fellow prisoners either coming or going from torture. Mr. Marsh is so good at these scenes, so deeply embedded within them, that you almost miss when the bombshell drops.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was gay.

Well, no, that’s not what Mr. Marsh says, not outright. What he says is that for a number of years Bonhoeffer and Bethge, who had been teacher and student, lived very much like a couple: sharing a bank account, giving gifts under both of their names, traveling together, sleeping by warm fires, and rapturously reading books and playing the piano madly at all hours. Their intimacy was that of lovers, not friends.

There is no question of consummation, nor even the suggestion that Bonhoeffer ever actively sought it. “Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love,” writes Mr. Marsh, “one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations.”

But what about Bonhoeffer’s engagement, at the age of 36, to Maria von Wedemeyer, who was 20 years his junior and the first “girlfriend” he’d ever had? Mr. Marsh stresses not only that last fact but also the severe formality between them and their intellectual incompatibility (he had been her teacher—and flunked her!). Bonhoeffer made his proposal just two weeks after Bethge made his own (to Bonhoeffer’s 17-year-old niece) and, according to Mr. Marsh, “took it as a test of his own mettle—his capacity for entering into and sustaining a romance with a woman and thus keeping pace, as it were, with the man who was his soul mate.”

On one level, it’s hard for me to care about any of this. It is possible for a man to fall in love with another man and not be gay. It is possible for a woman to fall in love with another woman and not be a lesbian. Or perhaps in both instances the lovers do warrant the words but in some more elastic and empathetic versions than contemporary American culture—or at least conservative religious culture—seems inclined to allow. Human desire is a complex phenomenon. Just think how much more complex is the human desire for God, or God’s desire for what human love ought to look like.

Still, there’s another way of looking at this. Theology is not a discipline like science, sociology or even philosophy. You can’t draw some stark line between the life and work of the theologian, because in a very real sense the life is an active test of the work. When Martin Luther wrote, late in his life, that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and . . . must be accounted as filth,” and then went on to suggest that the only Christian thing to do to Jews might be to kill them, the comments not only anticipated and almost ordained the rise of Nazism but also seeped like sewage back through the rest of Luther’s truly beautiful work, which can now never have quite the same smell.

And Bonhoeffer? He “became a theologian because he was lonely,” wrote Bethge, who would have known best. That loneliness is woven into the early, Wordsworthian experiences with nature that Bonhoeffer claimed—in a letter from a Gestapo prison—”made me who I am.” It is evident in the conflicted way in which he approached divinity: the awful longing for an absent God, the hunger for the hot touch of an absolute Christ. And one sees it most acutely in the way he pursued an always deeper intimacy with Bethge, who clearly determined the limits of their relationship, finally declaring in a letter that he simply could not give Bonhoeffer the kind of companionship he wanted.

There will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh’s claim. For some, it will be more damning to Bonhoeffer’s memory than any anti-Semitic aside that Martin Luther made half a millennium ago. I suspect that’s precisely why Mr. Marsh has written his book with such subtlety and circumspection: He didn’t want this story to be the story. He may be in for quite a shock.

As for myself, I feel both grateful for and pained by the revelation. Mr. Marsh’s evidence does seem compelling—though I think he may underestimate the feelings Bonhoeffer developed for his fiancée. I am grateful because the research casts a different, more introspective light on some of Bonhoeffer’s ideas and inclinations (his extreme need for a community that was bound together both physically and spiritually, for example). I am pained for the same reason: The discovery reveals the rift of emptiness, of unanswered longing, that ran right through Bonhoeffer and every word he wrote.

But this is precisely the quality that makes Bonhoeffer so essential to believers now. He embodies—and refuses to neutralize—the contradictions that have haunted and halved Christianity for well over a century. The same man who once declared that the church was the only possible answer to human loneliness also suspected that we were entering a stage in which “Christianity will only live in a few people who have nothing to say.” The same man who once called marriage “God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time” was almost certainly in love with another man—right up to his dying day.

This is where Charles Marsh’s book becomes truly beautiful and heartbreaking. Though by all accounts Bonhoeffer projected great strength and cheer even in the direst conditions, “fears of oblivion were a different matter,” Mr. Marsh writes; “the worst times were those when the past felt lost forever. ‘I want my life,’ he had whispered [in a poem] in the dark in the summer of 1944. ‘I demand my own life back. My past. You!’ ”

It takes a moment to realize just how poignant and surprising this longing is. Fear, when you are close to death, can be as much about memory as mortality. The fear is that all the life that has meant so much to you, the life that seemed threaded with gleams of God, in fact meant nothing, is unrecoverable and already part of the oblivion you feel yourself slipping into. Faith, when you are close to death, is a matter of receiving the grace of God’s presence, of yielding to an abiding instinct for that atomic and interstellar unity that even the least perception, in even the worst circumstances, can imply. “Lord, that I am a moment of your turnings,” as the contemporary poet Julia Randall wrote.

“Strange Glory” is a splendid book. It counters the neutered humanism extracted from Bonhoeffer by secularists who do not want to admit that his bravery and his belief might have been inextricable. It is honest to Bonhoeffer’s orthodoxies, which were strict, and distinguishes him from the watery—and thus waning—liberal Protestantism that has emerged since the 1960s. And, best of all, Mr. Marsh very properly emphasizes the importance of the volatile, visionary thoughts in the last letters and fragments, which Bonhoeffer himself believed might be his best work.

The multiple Bonhoeffers offered up by competing camps are a chimera. There is only the one man, who was aimed, finally, in one direction. As Charles Marsh (channeling Bonhoeffer) says so eloquently at the very end of his book: “The word of God does not ally itself with the rebellion of mistrust, but reigns in the strangest of glories.”

—Mr. Wiman teaches at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. His most recent book is “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.”


Torah and golf


06/02/2014 11:45

In golf, it is a hole in one. In religion, it is a whole with one – becoming whole with G-d, who is one.

The Parallels
They call it the gentleman’s sport. They say it either saps your soul or it inspires you, depending on your game. They say you can’t give up because every day is a new challenge. They say that if you play it alone you are eccentric, but if you play it with friends you are sociable. They say that cheating in this game is a waste of time, it doesn’t get you ahead.

They say all that about golf. They also say all that about Torah. A friend and I sat down for a coffee and a chat to see if we could find some parallels between golf and Torah and despite our initial skepticism we found quite a few. Here they are:

Every amateur dreams of a hole in one. It is the Holy Grail and when you hit it, it becomes a peak you never forget. Notwithstanding future successes or frustrations, this will always be your high moment, the emblem of your career. Yet, if you never hit it, you never stop dreaming. You go out every day because you never know, today might be the day.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that a soul can descend to this world for 70 or 80 years to do a single favor for another. You never know which favor it might be, but when you encounter that moment, it will make or break your entire lifetime. If you do the favor, you have fulfilled your purpose and endowed your entire life with meaning. If you don’t… it’s our religious hole in one opportunity and not hitting it, is simply not an option. There is too much riding on it. So we go out every day and seek out every opportunity to help another. We don’t miss a single one because it might just be THE one. When you encounter that moment, you want to hit it straight and true, driving it directly into the hole.

In golf, it is a hole in one. In religion, it is a whole with one. Becoming whole with G-d, who is one.

Competing Against Self
Golf is different from all other sports in that you compete against yourself. Unless you are a professional, competing at a tournament, the player to beat is yourself. You are always competing against yesterday’s score and last game’s drive. What others do is immaterial to your game. In golf there is only one person to overcome – you.

The same holds true in religion. People love to judge others, but Torah doesn’t want you to play the next person’s game. Torah wants you to play your game. Get out there every day and never give up. Yesterday might have been an amazing day for you, but that doesn’t absolve you from starting all over again today. In fact, it doesn’t absolve you from making tomorrow even better than today. On the other hand, yesterday might have been disastrous for you, but that doesn’t prevent today from being an unprecedented success – if you keep competing.

The Social Element
Golf wouldn’t be enjoyable if it were played in isolation. While there are exceptions to every rule, most people are enticed to the golf course by the social element. Spending several hours with good friends in a serene setting, makes an otherwise stressful game, enjoyable.

Religion can be a high strung affair. There are high expectations and demands. We are told to please G-d, whose perfection is beyond our capabilities. There are expectations of daily prayer, constant vigilance, dietary restrictions, Shabbat and holiday observances and strenuous fast days. There are moral exhortations of humility, generosity and honesty. Religion can easily become tense and stressful, but not when it is celebrated with community.

Torah asks us to celebrate with family and friends. Shabbat observances are not the same and certainly not as enjoyable on our own. What makes it special, is family and community. Private prayer is discouraged. Prayer in large groups is preferred. Religion ought to be pleasant, sociable and enjoyable. Not stressful and guilt-ridden.

Supporting Others
A big part of the golf etiquette is supporting your friends when they hit a good shot and comforting them when it goes bad. There is a somewhat selfish element to that because we want our friends to support us when we fall off our game, but that is certainly not the intent. The idea is that despite the solitary nature of the game, in that each person competes against their own record, we are in it together. We all have the same challenges. Notwithstanding our respective levels of talent, we are always there for each other.

The Torah instructs us to focus on our own game and not judge others, but there is another side to it too. When others need help or encouragement, we must be there for them. When others need direction or support, we must be there for them. When others need a compliment or cheering up, we must be there for them. When others require a crying shoulder, we must offer our own. In short, celebrate another’s success like it’s your own and help them with their shortcomings like you would want to be helped.

Gentlemen’s Ethic
More than any other game, golf is ruled by ethics. Due to the nature of the game, there is ample opportunity to cheat. You are often alone on the fairway, when you retrieve your ball and no one would know if you adjusted your placement. Yet, no one cheats. It goes against the grain. It’s understood on a gut level that a cheating victory is a hollow victory, one that lacks all meaning.

It goes without saying that there are no shortcuts in Torah. No one will know how you behave in the privacy of your room and what you think in the privacy of your mind. It’s possible to mislead the entire community and convince them you are more pious than you are, but what’s the point? In religion, more than any other endeavor, we seek to impress G-d. And G-d can’t be fooled. I once heard it put this way. You can’t fool society, you will eventually be found out. You certainly can’t fool G-d, He knows immediately. The only one you can fool is yourself, but what is to be gained from fooling a fool?

The many parallels between Torah and golf demonstrate that golf has spiritual a strain. It requires diligence, humility, honesty and hard work. Yet, golf isn’t a substitute for religion. No matter how many hole in ones you might hit, a Jew, on Yom Kippur, belongs in shul. In golf your objective is to best yourself. In religion your objective is to draw closer to G-d. The means might be similar, but the goals are different. One other difference is that golf can only be practiced on the course. Religion is much easier, it can be practiced anywhere. So when pick up your siddur at home, the message is the same as when you pick up your clubs at the course – keep practicing. With time, you will improve.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With High


What matters is God’s presence in every atom and leaf

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Ben Gurr/Times Newspapers

Published at 12:01AM, May 31 2014

The festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which begins on Tuesday night, was once the most neglected of the major Jewish festivals. But the ancient custom of staying awake all night absorbed in the study of Torah — the Five Books of Moses and the core sacred text of Judaism — has regained popularity among Jews of all denominations. It has become “cool”, an exciting way to prepare for what the morning of the festival commemorates — the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, God’s revelation.
How that revelation is understood goes to the heart of key debates within modern Judaism. Judaism has traditionally taken the Torah as God’s word, literally. It is sacred and immutable, though subject to the rich, creative and fiercely discursive process of rabbinic interpretation through which its meanings are refined and redefined, often radically, and applied to every domain of life. Thus, to the 12th-century philosopher and jurist Maimonides, the Torah comes “entirely from God” through Moses, who, in an inscrutable process, “acted like a secretary taking dictation”.
Many modern scholars would uphold Maimonides’ conclusion but not his premise. Since the 19th century scholarship has been shown that the Torah itself has a history and that the composition of its text cannot be understood independently of the social, literary, legal and moral context of the ancient Near East. The integrity of empirical inquiry represents a commitment to truth that must not be supplanted by doctrinal loyalties. Hence, in the words of the great Anglo-Jewish rabbi and scholar Louis Jacobs, the Torah needs to be understood as revelation through — as much as revelation to — human beings. Yet its words remain holy nonetheless, because they express the human endeavour to understand God’s will, the quest to find God, as much as God’s quest to find us.
In this debate, my head is with the rationalists — but my heart is with the mystics. To them, the precise history of the Torah is not the issue. What matters is God’s presence in every atom and leaf, in every breath of life. For, parallel to God’s revelation in the Torah, is God’s revelation in creation. The sacred energy of the first “Let there be” through which God spoke and the world came into being still reverberates in the deepening of the twilight, the flight of a swallow, and the stillness of the heart. The true meaning of the declaration “God is one”, wrote the Hasidic teacher Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, is that everything is a manifestation of God. We can therefore find God “through the holiness which exists in every single thing”.
The impact of experiencing the world in this way is as significant for our ethics as it is for our spirituality. It requires us to recognise at all times the unique and sacred value of every human being. It demands that we treat not just each person but all living beings with reverence. Nature cannot be taken to exist simply for our expropriation and exploitation but commands our respect because it, too, is the repository of God’s energy, and any wilful damage represents a desecration.
It was such an understanding that inspired Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro to write in 1942, from the Warsaw ghetto, that, since God’s revelation permeates all creation, a person can hear God’s voice “from the chirping of the birds, the mooing of the cows, the voices and tumult of human beings”. It is audible, he said, even within evil, though in a deeply distorted manner. His writings were found buried in the ruins of the ghetto, a testament to spiritual courage and the indestructible tenacity of faith and hope.
Shavuot celebrates not just the giving of the Torah, but also our acceptance of it. To the mystics this means more than consenting to comply with key principles and rules, essential as these are; for if no one ever murdered, stole or coveted, our world would be entirely transformed. To accept God’s revelation means also to keep our hearts and minds open to the sacred and the tender in all life, and to act towards it always with reverence and respect.
Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi, Masorti Judaism UK, and Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue