FaithWorld

Most influential U.S. rabbis listed

The third annual list of “America’s Most Influential Rabbis” is out, with the top spot going to David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism and co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve Religious liberty.

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Saperstein, described in the announcement as a ”Washington insider and political powerbroker,” took the No. 1 ranking away from Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who held that position on last year’s list.

The rankings were made by Jay Sanderson, chief executive officer of JTN Productions (the Jewish Television Network), Michael Lynton, chairman and head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of News Corp.

There are 50 rabbis on the list, which the executive say they drew up to provoke discussion about the role of religious leaders among Jews and non-Jews. Rounding out the top five were Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, an international grouping of foundations and philanthropies; Yehuda Krinsky, global leader of the Chabad Lubavich movement; and David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College.

Anyone know if there’s a comparable global ”most influential” rabbi list? Who would be your top choice?

Markets and morality: a tale of two uproars

excessThe howls of protest against fat cat bonuses during this financial crisis stem from a deep-seated source of moral outrage. For many people, it just seems like common sense that it’s unfair for Wall Street executives to reward  themselves for creating the mess robbing millions of their savings. (Photos: Protest outside Goldman Sachs in New York, 19 March 2009/Eric Thayer)

Evolutionary biologists and social psychologists believe this moral sense is innate, an instinct for cooperation and fairness that has been honed over millions of years of natural selection into a universal moral grammar that gives us a “gut feeling” about ethical dilemmas.

If we have this moral instinct, it would seem natural for politicians to appeal to it. Some are doing that, while others seem to be missing the mark. The news over the weekend from the United States and France shows the two different approaches in action.

War: is it the ultimate test of faith?

faithThere are many things that will test a person’s religious faith and war is among the strongest. “Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain’s Memoir”, which will be published this week, is Roger Benimoff’s moving account of his battle with the demons of war that almost cost him his faith and his family. He did two tours in Iraq and you can read my interview with him here.

The Iraq war of course remains fraught with religious overtones. Former U.S. President George W. Bush saw many of his policies as driven by his Christian faith (and aimed at his conservative evangelical base); Iraq itself has been riven by religious and sectarian conflict; and many people of faith question the morality of the U.S.-led war there, now six years old.

When I asked Benimoff if the Iraq war has been worth all of the sacrifice, he became very emotional and found that it was a question he is still wrestling with. As he describes in his book, asking such hard questions lead him to question his own faith and made him angry at times with God (while he also battled with post-tramautic stress disorder or PTSD).

What was real reason for banning Tariq Ramadan from U.S.?

ramadan-vatican1A group of academic and civil rights organisations has written to the Obama administration asking it to end U.S. visa refusals to foreign scholars apparently because of their political leanings. Probably the best known of these cases is that of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Islamic scholar who was just about to take up a chair at the University of Notre Dame in 2004 when a visa already issued to him was suddenly revoked. Ramadan is a leading Muslim intellectual in Europe with a strong following among young Muslims who like his message that they can be good European and good Muslims at the same time. (Photo: Ramadan at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome during a Muslim-Catholic Forum, 6 Nov 2008/Alessandro Bianchi)

Currently teaching Islamic theology at Oxford University, he is viewed with deep suspicion in France but well received in Britain (see, for example, the cover of Prospect magazine pictured below). Pope Benedict received him at the Vatican last November as part of a delegation of Muslim scholars to a Muslim-Catholic dialogue. No matter what one thinks of his views, he is an active figure in the debate about Islam and the West and deserves to be heard in serious discussions on the topic.

The American Civil Liberties Union will plead his case for lifting the ban before the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York on March 24. Given the way President Barack Obama has rolled back several policies of the preceding Bush administration, there could now be a chance that Washington will simply lift the ban and let Ramadan take up the many invitations to speak that he would probably get from U.S. universities and think tanks. That would be a victory for academic freedom, but it still leaves one question unanswered.

The scientist who leaves room for spirituality

bde-11 (Photos: Bernard d’Espagnat, 13 March 2009/Charles Platiau)

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote that he “had to deny knowledge to make room for faith.” The French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat hasn’t denied knowledge in his long career developing the philosophy that won him this year’s $1.42 million Templeton Prize. He was pursuing knowledge to better understand what we can know about the ultimate reality of the world. But just like his philosophy echoes that of Kant’s with its conviction that there are limits on knowing reality, his work leaves some room — he would say for spirituality — by saying that human intuitions like art, music and spirituality can help us go further when science searching to understand the world reaches the end of its tether.

D’Espagnat’s prize was announced at UNESCO in Paris on Monday. The quantum physics at the core of his work presents baffling insights about reality, but his philosophical conclusions from them sound like common sense. Science is an amazing discipline that opens vast areas of knowledge but cannot go all the way to explaining ultimate reality. There’s a mystery at the core of our existence that we can get a little closer to through the untestable but undeniable intuitions we have. That “little closer” still leaves a large black hole in our knowledge, but it is more than we have if we only rely on empirical science.

As often happens in cases like this, d’Espagnat was available for embargoed interviews several days before the prize was announced. I had the pleasure of meeting him on Friday at the Lutetia, a five-star hotel only a short bike ride from my more modest digs in Paris. Now 87 years old, d’Espagnat can look back on a long and illustrious career as a senior physicist at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, professor at the University of Paris (at its science hub in the suburb of Orsay) and guest lecturer at universities and conferences abroad. His latest book in English, On Physics and Philosophy, came out in the United States in 2006.

U.S. religious groups united on economic crisis

America’s many religious groups agree on one thing: the sinking economy must be the government’s top priority, according to a new analysis of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. You can view it here.

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It found that stengthening the nation’s economy was regarded as the most pressing issue for the government by 83 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 88 percent of white mainline Protestants and 85 percent of Americans unaffilated with any religion.

It doesn’t say what white evangelical Protestants, a key base for the now opposition Republican Party, would like to see the government do to address America’s economic woes.

Can the United States fix Durban II?

The United States has decided to participate in planning meetings for the United Nations Conference on Racism in April in order to influence its final declaration. The conference, a follow-up to the 2001 meeting in South Africa that the U.S. and Israel walked out on because the draft declaration called Israel racist (that language was later dropped). Israel and Canada have already announced they would boycott “Durban II,” as the conference is being called, and the Bush administration was opposed to the conference. But the Obama administration has decided to wade into the debate in the hopes of getting a better result. (Photo: United Nations General Assembly, 26 Sept 2008/Eric Thayer)

Apart from the expected criticism of Israel, this conference in Geneva is also due to be a showplace for a drive by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to have the U.N. condemn defamation of religion. The U.N. General Assembly voted for just such a condemnation last December, for the fourth year running. While the non-binding resolution urged member states to provide “adaquate protection against acts of hatred, discrumination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general,” the only religion it mentioned by name was Islam. Western countries opposed that resolution as contrary to the basic rights of free expression and opinion.

In statements in December, the freedom of expression rapporteurs of the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) have called on the United Nations not to issue any such resolution.

If Hillary goes to Jakarta, can Barack be far behind?

Is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Jakarta a hint that President Barack Obama will pick Indonesia as the first Muslim country he visits in his drive to improve U.S. relations with the Islamic world? There were lots of other suggestions when he first mentioned this back in December, including Egypt (the New York Times pick) and Morocco (judging by what might have been a write-in campaign on our comments page).

My tip at the time was either Indonesia or Turkey. In recent weeks, Turkey’s star has probably faded as its relations with Israel soured recently. Those strains came after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan angrily accused Israeli President Shimon Peres of “knowing very well how to kill” in Gaza during a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos and then stormed off the stage. (Photo: Hillary Clinton with Jakarta schoolgirls, 18 Feb 2009/Supri)

Clinton said all the right things today, like telling the country where Obama spent four years as a boy that it was proof that modernity and Islam can coexist. “As I travel around the world over the next years, I will be saying to people: if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can co-exist, go to Indonesia,” she said at a dinner with civil society activists. Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda reciprocated by telling her Indonesia shared the United States’ joy at Obama’s election and she should tell the U.S. president “we cannot wait too long” for a visit.

End of an era for the Amazon’s turbulent priests

Liberation Theology has long been out of fashion at the Vatican, but its effects have lived on in Latin America. One is a tradition of foreign-born Catholic priests who went to the region to preach its message of justice for the poor and oppressed. But the falling number of priests in Europe and the United States and a turn away from this activist view of the Gospels has taken its toll. The clerics defending peasants against landowners and denouncing child prostitution, drug trafficking and illegal logging are growing old and the flow of foreign priests is drying up. There are Brazilian priests, but with family members living in the country, they are often more vulnerable to death threats.

Stuart Grudgings, senior correspondent in our Rio de Janeiro bureau, travelled to Abaetetuba at the mouth of the Amazon in northeastern Brazil to visit Italian-born Bishop Flavio Giovenale and other members of this disappearing breed of priests.

Read the whole feature here. (Photo left: Bishop Flavio Giovenale, 11 Feb 2009/Paulo Santos) (Photo right: Sunset over Abaetetuba, 28 Sept 2008/Paulo Santos)

Italy’s “Terry Schiavo case” even more like its U.S. precedent

UPDATE: Eluana Englaro died on Monday Feb. 9.

What’s been called “Italy’s Terry Schiavo case” is starting to resemble its U.S. precedent in more ways than one. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ordered doctors on Friday not to disconnect the feeding tubes that the country’s top appeals court had ruled could be removed. Doctors had began withdrawing them on Friday before the order came from Rome.

Eluana Englaro, 38, has been in a vegetative state since a car crash in 1992. Her  case has looked much like that of Schiavo, the American who spent 15 years in a vegetative state and was allowed to die in 2005 after a long court battle. (Photo:Eluana Englaro in an undated family photo)

“Until we have a law about end-of-life issues, nutrition and hydration, because they are a form of vital life sustenance, cannot be suspended under any circumstances by those who are care-givers of people who are not self-sufficient,” Berlusconi said after making the case resemble the Schiavo drama even more by intervening to stop Englaro’s tubes from being removed. In the Schiavo case, President George Bush also stepped in at a late stage to try to block a court decision to disconnect her.