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Archive for the ‘Social Sciences’ Category

JEWISH SOCIOLOGY: PEW’S IMPRECISE AND MISLEADING CONSTRUCT OF “JEWS OF NO RELIGION”

Monday, November 25, 2013 @ 04:11 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Pew Research Center

Of the many interesting aspects of the recently released survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center (the “Pew Portrait”), perhaps none is more troubling than the distorted bisection  of American Jews into two primary sub-groups, one labeled “Jews by religion” and the other “Jews of no religion.” Once those designations were established, Pew, among other things, then sought to determine whether members of the two sub-groups had different attitudes or characteristics, whether, for instance, a person assigned to one sub-group was more likely or less likely to believe or behave differently than a person assigned to the other.

How large is the group of “Jews of no religion?” Pew found that about one fifth of adult American Jews (totaling approximately 1.2 million individuals) were Jews of “no religion” and that among Jews born after 1980 (“Jewish Millennials”) the fraction increases to one in every three. (See Portrait, at 7, 23, 32/214.) Pew’s survey director reportedly said that the rise in the number of Jews “of no religion” was the most significant finding of the study.

Just as one might expect, as soon as the Pew Portrait was published, the commentary class waxed wise on Pew’s findings about the Jews of no religion. Much of the concern expressed was about related findings that Jews of no religion were less connected to the Jewish community, less likely to be involved in Jewish organizations and less likely to raise their children as Jewish. (See Portrait, 60-62, 67-69/214.)

In all the hubbub, an important fact seems to have been overlooked: not only is the label “Jews of no religion” awkward, nowhere in the more than two hundred pages of the Pew Portrait does Pew precisely define what it means by “religion.” Pew’s failure to do so has created unnecessary ambiguity and confusion and muddled its survey results. At one point Pew says that Jews of no religion are “also commonly called secular or cultural Jews.” (See Portrait, at 8/214.) But those characterizations were not offered as primary choices in Pew’s survey questionnaire.  (See Portrait, at 177, 186/214.) A look at the survey, beyond the executive summary, reveals some of the problems of Pew’s binary construct which is, perhaps, more provocative than probative. read more

What if Cyrus Had Not Freed the Jews?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 @ 11:09 AM
posted by Roger Price

Over twenty-five centuries ago, Cyrus II, founder and ruler of the Persian Empire, freed the Jews who had been transported forcibly to Babylon and facilitated the reconstruction of their Temple in Jerusalem. Without the intervention of Cyrus, the Jewish People and Judaism as we know it (if that is not redundant) would not exist today. In short, no Cyrus, no Jews. So who was Cyrus, and why aren’t we celebrating his actions?

Cyrus was born into the royal family of the small state of Anshan, located in what is now southwest Iran. Not long after becoming king of Anshan around 559 BCE, Cyrus first conquered nearby Media (550 BCE) and then turned west to capture Lydia (546 BCE) in what is now western Turkey. Next, he shocked the world by toppling the previously dominant empire of Babylonia (539 BCE). Whether his victory after a multi-year siege of the capital Babylon was more the result of brilliant tactics, Babylonian palace treason or some other factor can be debated, but it is crystal clear that Cyrus emerged from Babylon triumphant. And with this victory, Cyrus became ruler of, among other lands, the territory bordering and east of the Mediterranean Sea to and surrounding the Jordan River. read more

The Evolution of Human Spirituality

Thursday, July 11, 2013 @ 10:07 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Religion is not a maladaptive “illusion” (Freud), nor is religion a manipulative “opiate” (Marx). Religious behavior is a ubiquitous biological adaptation rooted in Homo Sapiens, because religion like intelligence and language helps human communities survive. Religion, like intelligence and language, can be used for both good and evil purposes, but this is also true of culture, science, politics and all other important human activities. Since almost all revealed religions teach that humans have a pre-birth soul that predisposes them to respond to a Divine call even before the revelation occurs, I identify the existence of a biologically based, self-conscious spiritual soul with the evolution of Homo Sapiens spirituality.

A reference to a prescriptural, prehistoric period when spiritual evolution was unaided  by God appears in the book of Genesis (4:26) where it states, “At that time humans began to invoke YHVH by name.” Most of the rabbinic commentators translate the verb hukhal to mean ‘profane’ taking this as a negative statement. But ‘began’ is the more normal meaning of the verb. The Torah asserts that prior to Enosh humans did not practice religion based on the divine insight of revelation (i.e., “invoke YHVH by name”) that they were able to do later. Mystical and spiritual experiences were interpreted by human intelligence without the benefit of prophetic revelation. In the spirit of this Torah insight I offer the following account of the evolution of pre-historic human spirituality. read more

Isaac Asimov, Two Foundations and the Jews

Friday, June 21, 2013 @ 09:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned 20th century philosopher, understood that gaining “control of the world of space” is one of the main tasks of humankind.  The result of the conquest of space is “technical civilization.” But, Heschel argued, “(l)ife goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” For Heschel, time, not space, “is the heart of existence.” (See Heschel, The SabbathIts Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Young 1951) at 3.)

Judaism, according to Heschel, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” (Id. at 8.)  Recognizing that a different sensitivity is involved in creating holiness in time, rather than space, he urged that we cultivate that sensitivity in order to achieve the goal of being, rather than having.

If Abraham saw Judaism as a religion of time, Isaac did not. Isaac Asimov, the renowned 20th century writer, had a rather cramped view of religion. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Russia, he came to America in 1923 as a young child. As he related in his third autobiography (no misprint), however, his parents never made “any effort” to teach any religion to him, even to have him participate in a bar mitzvah ceremony. (Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir (Doubleday 1994) at 12.) Not surprisingly, throughout his adult life, Asimov was strictly non-observant with respect to any known religious practice. At the same time, Isaac Asimov never changed his name as did others to hide his Jewishness, always acknowledged that he was Jewish and seems to have absorbed some Jewish values if not Jewish practices or sense of peoplehood. (See Id. at 13, 15-18, 322.) read more

Confronting Cremation: Violation of Jewish Law or Sensible Modern Ritual?

Sunday, April 14, 2013 @ 04:04 PM
posted by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips

This article was published previously by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips in The Forward at http://forward.com/articles/156397/confronting-cremation/?p=all#ixzz2IGRcOnqF. Thank you to Rabbi Sandler-Phillips for her permission to republish here.

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At first glance, the two sides of the Jewish cremation dilemma seem clear. Opponents deplore what they see as a violation of Jewish law, desecration of the body and callous indifference to the memory of the Holocaust.

Proponents claim that cremation is less costly and more ecological, and that it saves land for the living. Yet a closer examination reveals a much more complicated picture. We need a Jewish conversation that speaks to the realities of both cremation and burial. This conversation is difficult because it involves facing death — not the illusory death of movies and computer games, but real and inevitable mortality — and what it means for our lives.

     Levayah, the Hebrew word for “funeral,” actually means “accompanying.” Whether we bury or burn, our willingness to accompany is usually quite limited. Between medical pronouncement and final disposition, our dead are typically wrapped up and taken away to preparations of which we have only the vaguest knowledge. It’s much easier to focus on the details of a product — an urn or a coffin, a memorial plaque or a headstone — than on honoring and protecting a body in transition. read more

Jews, Genes and Genetics: A Look at Family, Haplotypes and Peoplehood

Monday, May 28, 2012 @ 10:05 PM
posted by Roger Price

In the United States today, the freest and richest nation on the planet, a country characterized by opportunity and mobility, the reality is that most Jews are Jews, if at all, by choice. For some, that choice is relatively easy, a coincidence of birth, culture and acceptance. For others, the situation is more complicated, involving perhaps disaffection with the faith or circumstances into which one was born and raised or, conversely, an attraction to a set of beliefs or patterns of behavior newly encountered.

Regardless of one’s position, in the open and fluid society that is America, most adults are not forced to be Jewish, i.e., to engage in conduct commonly understood to be specifically Jewish, such as attending shul, keeping kosher, studying sacred texts or simply identifying as a Jew. Nor are they forced to believe in a particular collection of ideas or ideals, including whether God exists, or, if they think that God does, what attributes or aspects that God may or may not have. Certainly strong social pressures can operate on an individual to motivate him or her to behave or believe one way or another, but most individuals still retain the ability to choose whether to be Jewish.

There is, however, one matter that is not open to choice, much less dispute or revision, and that is one’s genetic structure. And here, as elsewhere, advances in science in the relatively recent past have allowed us to investigate, to probe, to attempt to provide science based perspectives, if not answers, to the most basic questions: “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?”.    read more

Jewish Spirituality: When Defining Something is Harder than Discussing It

Thursday, April 12, 2012 @ 10:04 AM
posted by Roger Price

You know, or should know, there is a problem, when you cannot define the subject that you want to discuss or analyze. Potter Stewart famously faced such a situation when he acknowledged that he could not say what hard core pornography was. That inability did not, however, preclude Justice Stewart from also declaring that he knew it when he saw it. (See, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).  Not only that, despite his lack of a definition, Justice Stewart was able to express his opinion about an allegedly obscene film and concur in a Supreme Court decision reversing the criminal conviction of a manager of a motion picture theatre.

Not to equate the two situations in any way, but the same sort of problem attaches to Jewish Spirituality.  What is that exactly? And if we cannot define it, will we at least, like Justice Stewart, know it when we see it? And be able to talk sensibly about it, measure it, and do something concerning it?

Whatever Jewish Spirituality is, it seems to be drawing a fair amount of attention. We can measure attention drawing fairly easily these days. All one needs to do is run a few Google searches. If you did that one night in early April, 2012, within less than a second, you would have learned that there are over 33,800,000 sites that Google has identified as relating to Jewish Spirituality. Is that a lot? Well, similar search results in only 2,030,000 sites for Reform Judaism, the largest of the Jewish denominations in North America, and Reform Judaism appears to elicit about twice as much interest, as measured by the Google search count, as does Orthodox Judaism, for instance, which generates only 1,070,000 sites. Searches for Conservative Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism yielded 738,000 and 459,000 sites respectively.  And for perspective, consider that the results for Justin Bieber exceeded 640,000,000, thankfully less than the number for President Barack Obama at 943,000,000. read more

Jewish Atheism and Jewish Theism: The Data and the Dilemma

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 @ 09:03 AM
posted by Roger Price

American Judaism has a God problem.  Actually, and paradoxically, it seems to have two God problems. One is Jewish atheism. The other is Jewish theism. Here we will look at the data and the dilemma.

At the outset, we have to recognize that there is something odd about the concept of Jewish atheism. Is there really such a thing? Can there be a Judaism without God, however you want to define it. What are the People of the Book without the Hero of the story? How can there be commandments without a Commander? Doesn’t a Covenant require a Party of the First Part and a party of the second part? What do you do with prayer? Can there even be a place for atheism within Judaism?

The questions recall the story about President Harry Truman being asked whether he believed in baptism. “Believe in it?” the crusty president responded, “Hell, I’ve seen it done!” read more

The Wise Scientists of Chicago Debate About the Latke and the Hamantash

Sunday, November 20, 2011 @ 08:11 PM
posted by Roger Price

What is it about latkes and hamantashen anyhow? What makes these two foods different from all other foods? Which food is better and which best represents the values and aspirations of the Jewish people?

Since 1946, these and related questions have occupied some of the greatest minds of the Western hemisphere. In that time, world renowned scholars have gathered annually under the auspices of the University of Chicago Hillel to debate the merits of the latke and the hamantash.

As often happens when scholarly pursuits become intense, everybody wants to get into the act, and imitations of the Chicago debates have been attempted at other institutions. But in all these years, no one quite does it like the Maroons, with grand entrances, flowing academic robes and standing room audiences in excess of 1,000 at venerable Mandel Hall. read more

No More NOMA (Part I)

Friday, August 19, 2011 @ 08:08 AM
posted by Roger Price

In a previous post (August 10, 2011), I discussed Stephen Jay Gould’s book Rocks of Ages and his support for the proposition that science and religion occupy (or should occupy) two non-overlapping spheres, or magisterial, of authority (“NOMA”). In the decade since Rocks of Ages was published, Gould’s approach to science and religion has been both praised and reviled, both followed and rejected. Some of the reaction is attributable to the form of his argument, some to the substance. read more