Passover debate highlights religious rift in Israel

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray as they burn food containing leavening in Jerusalem, 18 April 2008/Gil Cohen MagenEarlier this month an Israeli court decided that stores and restaurants can sell food banned by Jewish ritual law during this week’s Passover holiday. Israeli courts are often arbiters in quarrels between Israel’s influential Orthodox community and its secular majority. This time the ruling has angered the Orthodox.

Ritual Jewish law forbids consuming leavened products known as hametz– from bread to beer– during the week of Passover. The tradition commemorates the biblical Israelites who did not have time to let their bread rise before the hasty exodus from slavery in Egypt.

My article on the Passover debate discusses the details and consequences of the April 3 court decision that overturned the convictions of two restaurant owners, a grocer and the owner of a pizza parlor who sold hametz last year. The court ruled that restaurants and stores can serve hametz because they are not “public areas.”

Matzah-unleavened bread traditionally eaten by Jews during the Passover holidayThe decision has been heavily protested, including by a 27-year-old Orthodox man who was arrested by police after he stripped off his clothes in a non-kosher supermarket near Tel Aviv to challenge the definition of “public areas.”

But this is just the latest episode highlighting the rift between Orthodox and secular Jews in Israel.

King David: mighty warrior, fabled monarch and…villain?

Kings III by Yochi BrandesBeloved by Jews and Christians as a biblical hero, King David is famous for slaying Goliath with a single slingshot. Despite some serious moral slip-ups — he seduced the beautiful Bathsheba then sent her husband off to war to die — David is traditionally championed as the fearless leader who vanquishes the Philistines in the name of God.

But in a new biblical novel by Israeli author Yochi Brandes, “Kings III”, David is portrayed as a blood-thirsty warrior and womaniser who mercilessly slaughters his enemies.

“It’s provocative, and it plays with people’s expectations,” Brandes told Reuters in an interview this week. “The reader gets angry at this dictatorial ruler, then discovers at the end it is actually a character they have been taught to love.”

Saudi mufti denies inviting Israeli rabbis

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe call last week by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for an interfaith dialogue has provoked outraged reactions from Saudi Islamists and praise from Saudi liberals. Saudis of all persuasions were taken by surprise when Abdullah made his announcement, which met with a quick and positive response from religious leaders abroad. The Vatican was said to be especially interested in this idea because Abdullah made a groundbreaking visit to Rome and met Pope Benedict last November.

But one report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot went to the nub of the matter — will Jewish rabbis be able to visit the bastion of Sunni Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest sites? That would be big news. As the Israeli daily reported it, the Saudi grand mufti, the official government spokesperson on religious affairs, had begun sending out feelers to Israeli rabbis to attend some meeting in Riyadh at an unspecified date.

Well, the report made it into English and led to the mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, issuing a carefully-worded denial. “The mufti clarified that what was published in some newspapers and news agencies saying that he had called on a group of Israeli religious scholars to take part in a religious reconciliation conference in Riyadh is devoid of any truth and has no basis,” the Saudi royal-owned paper Asharq al-Awsat reported on its front page on Wednesday. “He said: ‘I hope everyone will check facts before reporting things’.”

How many Catholics will hear disputed Good Friday prayer?

A Good Friday procession at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 21 March 2008/Yannis BehrakisGiven the discussion about the new Latin prayer to be read at Catholic Good Friday services in the Tridentine rite today, I’ve tried to find estimates for how many people will actually hear it. Jewish groups have expressed dismay that the new version of the prayer, which drops references to the “blindness” of the Jews but still calls for their conversion. The leader of Germany’s Jewish community said she could not fathom how the German-born Pope Benedict could “impose such phrases on his church.” The Vatican rejects this criticism and sources there say it could soon issue a conciliatory note. So there’s a lot of talk about this issue, but how much is actually happening on the ground?

Actually, the vast majority of Catholics attending Good Friday services around the world will not hear this prayer in Latin but a different one in their own native language. That prayer is based on a 1970 text without any explicit reference to the conversion of the Jews. There is no official number for how many will attend the Latin services in the older Tridentine rite that Pope Benedict promoted with a ruling last year authorising wider use of the old Latin Mass. But even ardent supporters of the traditional rite agree that the number is very, very small. Some have objected to our use of the term “tiny minority” for it, saying this was dismissive and implied the number was insignificant. It wasn’t, but it’s very hard to write about such a small amount without seeming to write it off.

Fr. John ZuhlsdorfLooking for anecdotal evidence, I first turned to the excellent conservative Catholic blog What Does The Prayer Really Say? (which just swept the 2008 Catholic Blog Awards). This was a logical step since its lively moderator, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (“Fr. Z”), had just taken us to task for writing “tiny minority.” I posted a question about how to describe the size of this group and several readers chimed in, suggesting words like “rare” (sounds like an endangered species), “relatively few in number” (too vague), “some” or “a few” (even more vague) or “small but growing minority” (that adds movement, but it’s still vague). Even the most neutral synonyms for “tiny” — diminutive, microscopic, miniature, minuscule, slight or wee (for my Scottish colleagues) — can be read as dismissive. How would Fr. Z put it — paupera lingua angliae?

High on Mount Sinai?

There is no end to modern speculation trying to explain how some ancient event in the Bible may have happened. Here’s the latest, picked up by Jeffrey Heller, editor-in-charge in our Jerusalem bureau:

A man prays on Mount Moses on the Sinai Peninsula, 4 March 2007/Goran TomasevicThe biblical Israelites may have been high on a hallucinogenic plant when Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, according to a new study by an Israeli psychology professor.

Writing in the British journal Time and Mind, Benny Shanon of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said two plants in the Sinai desert contain the same psychoactive molecules as those found in plants from which the powerful Amazonian hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca is prepared.

“Lefebvrists” say Vatican caved on Good Friday prayer

A missal (prayer book) for mass in Latin, 25 July 2007/Alessandro BianchiEver since Pope Benedict allowed wider use of the old Latin mass last year, we’ve been watching to see whether the schismatic traditionalists in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) would soften their staunchly critical line towards the Vatican. They have stuck for decades to the centuries-old Tridentine mass in Latin and rejected all the modernising reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Benedict has long been concerned with bringing them back into the Roman fold and lifting most restrictions on the old Latin mass was partly a step in their direction. But that didn’t stop the “Lefebvrists” (from the name of their first leader, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) from denouncing the Vatican for updating the Latin version of a Good Friday prayer about the Jews.

In a weekend statement for its French-language news service, the SSPX said: “Following foreign pressures on the Catholic Church, the pope has felt obliged to change the very venerable Prayer for the Jews, which is an integral part of the Good Friday liturgy. This prayer is one of the oldest and goes back to about the third century. It has thus been recited throughout the whole history of the Church as the full expression of Catholic faith.

SSPX Bishop Bernard Fellay, 13 Jan. 2006/Franck PrevelThe SPPX said the change, which it called an “amputation,” had “the allure of a real transformation, expressing the new theology of relations with the Jewish people. It is part of the liturgical upheaval that is the characteristic mark of the council and the reforms that followed it. While the necessity to accept the Messiah to be saved has been retained, one can only profoundly deplore this change.”

Gay Orthodox Israelis click on new religion Web site

HOD logIt’s been less than a month since an underground movement of gay Orthodox Jews in Israel went online and already tens of thousands of people have visited their Web site.

The site is called HOD (for Homo’eem Dateem or Religious Homosexuals), a play on the Hebrew word hod for glory. It’s the first to cater to gay men living in Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jewish minority, where homosexuality is viewed as a sin and people are often scared to admit publicly they are gay, fearing harassment or banishment.

Protesters at Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, 21 June 2007/Yonathan Weitzman

Of course, not all of the online visitors fit into that category, said Rabbi Ron, one of the site’s creators. The site was flooded after local media reported on its inception and Ron, a gay Orthodox rabbi who asked that his last name not be mentioned, was interviewed on Israeli radio.

Sharia comments debate details of Williams’s idea

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 11 Feb. 2008/Luke MacGregorComments on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s speech about sharia are starting to explore some of the ideas in more detail. Opinions are still mostly against the idea, but there are some defenders and there are more balanced arguments than the first wave of reactions. Here are some of the latest items we found interesting:

First of all, documentation — Ruth Gledhill came up with Williams’s Q&A after the speech, including the full text and the video. Note he insists he is talking about “supplementary jurisdiction” and not “parallel systems.” argues in Shariah ‘Courts’ and Freedom of Contract that the issue is simply one of arbitration, something already allowed under the law: “The fact that the parties are choosing to settle their commercial or social disagreements by reference to the Qu’ran is therefore of no more consequence to society than if they decided to settle the same dispute by tossing a coin, asking a neighbour to decide, or any of the other myriad of ways in which human beings settle disagreements peacefully.”

Sarkozy wants French pupils to ‘adopt’ Holocaust child victims

Nicolas Sarkozy and Richard Prasquier at CRIF dinner, 13 Feb 2008/Gonzalo FuentesThe “Sarko & secularism” story takes on ever new twists. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already kicked up lively debates in France by praising religious faith whenever he can, defending his country’s Christian roots in a Roman basilica and complimenting the Saudis in Riyadh for fighting against fanaticism and fundamentalism. After the Catholics and the Muslims, France’s Jews were in line for some presidential stroking. It came on Wednesday evening, at the annual dinner of the leading Jewish organisation here, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

Always good for a surprise, Sarkozy unexpectedly announced he wanted each 10-year-old pupil to study the life and death of one of France’s 11,000 child Holocaust victims. The president also announced he would visit Israel in May to mark its 60th anniversary and “won’t shake hands with people who refuse to recognise Israel” — a remark apparently ruling out any face-to-face meetings with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

File photo of children survivors of Auschwitz showing their tattooed ID numbersOne of Sarkozy’s remarks at the CRIF dinner seemed to go too far even for his hosts. He said: “The drama of the 20th century was not due to an excess of God, but to his awesome absence. There is not a line in the Torah, the Gospel or the Koran, when seen in its context and the fullness of its meaning, that can put up with the massacres committed in Europe during the 20th century in the name of totalitarianism and a world without God.”

Sarkozy and France’s Jews

Nicolas Sarkozy and Lyon Chief Rabbi Richard Wertenschlag, 28 Nov. 2002/poolWe’ve had several news stories and blog posts about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to modify France’s policy of laïcité, that almost untranslatable term for secularism. The focus in the discussion here is usually on what that would mean for Muslims and Christians. But what about Sarkozy and France’s Jews? Before I got the chance to look into that, my former Reuters colleague Bernard Edinger produced a very informative piece on this for the Jerusalem Report . I’ll let him tell the story right here.