Henry Ford's Apology to the Jews

The International Jew

I think it's fair to generalize that most American Jews think of Henry Ford as an extreme, unrepentant antisemite who happened also to make cars. This has been, at least, my own impression, and I don't think I am alone in it.

So I was quite surprised to learn that in 1927, Ford wrote a public letter of apology, not only regretting, but even disavowing all previous knowledge of, the series of viciously antisemitic articles that had appeared in his own newspaper and under his own name, and later became the pamphlet "The International Jew".

How sincere was Ford's apology? How seriously should we take his claim of ignorance, which seem to rely upon the premise that he didn't even read his own articles in his own newspaper, let alone write them? Read on.

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 From the J-Vault: Statement by Henry Ford (1927)

Henry Ford

What did Henry Ford write by way of apology? Some excerpts:

Although both publications are my property, it goes without saying that in the multitude of my activities it has been impossible for me to devote personal attention to their management or to keep informed as to their contents. It has therefore inevitably followed that the conduct and policies of these publications had to be delegated to men whom I placed in charge of them and upon whom I relied implicitly...

I am deeply mortified that this journal, which is intended to be constructive and not destructive, has been made the medium for resurrecting exploded fictions, for giving currency to the so-called Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion, which have been demonstrated, as I learn, to be gross forgeries, and for contending that the Jews have been engaged in a conspiracy to control the capital and the industries of the world, besides laying at their door many offenses against decency, public order and good morals.

Had I appreciated even the general nature, to say nothing of the details ,of these utterances, I would have forbidden their circulation without a moment's hesitation, because I am fully aware of the virtues of the Jewish people as a whole, of what they and their ancestors have done for civilization and for mankind and toward the development of commerce and industry, of their sobriety and diligence, their benevolence and their unselfish interest in the public welfare...

I frankly confess that I have been greatly shocked as a result of my study and examination of the files of The Dearborn Independent and of the pamphlets entitled "The International Jew." I deem it to be my duty as an honorable man to make amends for the wrong done to the Jews as fellow-men and brothers, by asking their forgiveness for the harm that I have unintentionally committed, by retracting so far as lies within my power the offensive charges laid at their door by these publications, and by giving them the unqualified assurance that henceforth they may look to me for friendship and good will...

Finally, let me add that this statement is made on my own initiative and wholly in the interest of right and justice and in accordance with what I regard as my solemn duty as a man and as a citizen.

This letter paints quite a different picture of Mr. Ford than do the writings for which he apologizes in it. Yet in a reply, Marshall reacts with a curious coolness, seeming to acknowledge Ford's apology, and to consider the matter closed, and even to refer indirectly to forgiveness, without really quite saying that Ford is actually forgiven:

The statement which you have sent me gives us assurance of your retraction of the offensive charges, of your proposed change of policies in the conduct of The Dearborn Independent, of your future friendship and good will, of your desire to make amends, and what is to be expected from any man of honor, you couple these assurances with a request for pardon. So far as my influence can further that end, it will be exerted...

Referring to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, Israel Zangwill once said that we Jews are after all the only Christians. He might have added that it is because essentially the spirit of forgiveness is a Jewish trait.

What accounts for Marshall's less-than-enthusiastic reception of Ford's energetic apology? If he found the apology insufficient, why did he not say so? The answer can be found hinted at in (or rather by) the cover letter that accompanies "Ford's" letter of apology:

June 30, 1927
Mr. Earl J. Davis
Detroit, Michigan.

My dear Sir:

I hereby approve of the attached tatement [sic] and authorize you and Mr. Joseph Palma to deliver same to Louis Marshall, of New York City.

Yours respectfully,
Henry Ford.

It seems clear, in other words, that the lengthy apology was signed by Ford, but written for him, not by him. (This casts a new and ironic light upon the final sentence of the apology: "Finally, let me add that this statement is made on my own initiative and wholly in the interest of right and justice...")

That the letter is not exactly the unfiltered outpourings of Mr. Ford's heart is also alluded to in Marshall's introduction recounting the circumstances of the exchange of letters. As Marshall tells it, he was approached by several politicians (Earl Davis and Joseph Palma) who were acting as Ford's emissaries. (Marshall does not mention in his introduction that Ford was in the midst of a libel lawsuit over this very issue at the time.)

There followed further discussions at personal interviews in my office with Mr. Palma, over the long distance telephone, and otherwise, with the result that on Thursday, June 30, 1927, Mr. Palma informed me that Ford was ready to sign the document previously prepared.

That someone else (Marshall himself? Palma in consultation with Marshall?) wrote Ford's statement answers both the questions I posed above regarding Marshall's response. Marshall didn't find the apology insufficient because (whether directly or indirectly) he designed it himself, and so he could hardly criticize it. But for the same reason, he could hardly grant Ford a full-throated (and undeserved) statement of forgiveness. The result was an exchange of letters which must be regarded as insincere on both sides, for the purpose of preserving the good reputation of both sides with the public at large. Ford wanted to get out of his legal troubles and stop being targeted for criticism as an antisemite. Marshall wanted the great tycoon on the record praising the Jews, even if the praise was wildly disingenuous. Both of them, it seems, got what they wanted out of the exchange.

What did Henry Ford write by way of apology? Actually, no more than this: "I hereby approve of the attached tatement [sic]".

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The Lubavitcher Rebbe's 19th Yahrtzeit

Lubavitcher Rebbe

Today is the 19th anniversary (by the Jewish calendar) of the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe. Here are two BJPA publications to mark the occasion:

The Many Movements of Chabad

Maya Balakirsky Katz | Sh'ma, December 2102  |  Information  |  View

Under the leadership of its last rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902- 1994), Chabad in America evolved its leadership to include a geographically scattered group of followers, turning a necessary response to dislocation into a modus operandi of modern Chabad...

The Chabad Lubavitch Movement: Filling the Jewish Vacuum Worldwide -- An Interview with Samuel Heilman

Manfred Gerstenfeld  |  JCPA, December 2005  |  Information  |  View

While other Hasidic groups grow only through their high fertility, Chabad increases also through persuasion. This carries a risk. When a Hasidic group imports outsiders, they do not leave behind all they were before. They bring new cultural elements into the group. One finds, for instance, art in Chabad environments, a rather uncommon phenomenon among Hasidim. Chabad Hasidim - also due to the environment they live in - must have a certain level of tolerance toward nonobservance. They usually also have friends who are non-Orthodox Jews.

 

Browse BJPA by Topic for related publications:

Orthodox Judaism

Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Judaism

Jewish Leadership

Peoplehood & Pluralism 100 Years Ago

The latest edition of the Peoplehood Papers focuses on "Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism." In this edition of J-Vault, we'll see that elements of this current conversation are, of course, anything but new.

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From the J-Vault: The Lesson It Teaches Us: Campaign to Raise Four Million Dollars in a Fortnight by the Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Association (1913)

Falk Younger outlines the genesis of the YMCA movement, in a passage with obvious relevance to modern Jewish communities:

In England, about seventy years ago, a small group of earnest, liberal and highminded men met in conference to consider what could be done to keep within the fold the large number of young men who were rapidly drifting away from the influence of the church. They realized that the emphasis that was laid upon ritual and ceremony by the various denominations at the time, and which aroused more or less feeling and dissension among them, did not appeal to the young men and that some means must be devised to retain their fidelity and devotion to Christian ideals... something practical was needed to properly guide them and aid them to recognize the fact that to lead a clean, honest and upright life is not after all such a lonesome job, and that to be a church member does not necessarily mean to be serious at all times and to wear a long, sad face.

Younger goes on to describe the founding of the YMHA and YWHA along the same lines, as a means of engaging the next generation of Jews. But the mission of these community centers goes beyond engagement, he writes, and into topics related to what we would now describe as both peoplehood and pluralism:

All those truly interested in the progress of Jewish affairs must deeply deplore the lack of union in our midst and the consequent waste of energy. This condition of affairs is often disheartening to those most optimistic. Our communities are divided and sub-divided, and each faction attempts to go its own way, and a lack of sympathetic co-operation is manifest everywhere, especially when it comes to questions concerning the good name and general welfare of all, when it is absolutely necessary that we should work in unison as a people...
Let us therefore be Orthodox or Reformed, as our feelings may prompt; but above all things, wc must learn to understand that questions of detail regarding religious forms and ceremonies are matters concerning which we may honestly differ. Our influence for good in the world surely does not hang on these things. If our mission as a priest people is to mean something more than an empty boast, an idle dream, or mere play with words' and the world shall some day witness the realization of this ideal, let us emphasize the many things we have in common that demand our hearty co-operation rather than those minor matters in reference to which we may hold different views. We may have diversity of opinion and at the same time have perfect union when it comes to the solution of important problems...

Judaism today needs—aye, is weeping for—a class of young men and women who will come forward and be broad, liberal, generous and tolerant as well as magnanimous in spirit. Such young men and women must assert their Judaism, not by constantly referring to the forms and ceremonies they keep or have cast aside, or by boasting of the food they eat or do not cat; that they pray in Hebrew or in English, as the case may be, or with head covered or uncovered. No, not so our methods. Let the purity, integrity and virtue of our lives, our characters, our modesty, culture and refinement as well as our devotion to all that is lofty and elevating proclaim our Jewishness.

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Who Has Premarital Sex? (Or Who Admits It?)

chart

The chart above is from Religion and Sexual Behaviors: Understanding the Influence of Islamic Cultures and Religious Affiliation for Explaining Sex Outside of Marriage. It seems that Jews are more likely than any other monotheists to report having premarital sex. The paper also reports (p. 739) that married Jews are more likely than married people in other major religious groups to report having extramarital sex.

Does this mean Jews have more premarital sex, and commit more adultery, than people of other religions--or is it just that Jews are more likely to admit these behaviors to a researcher? Either way, what does that say about Jewish communities?

Browse BJPA for Sexuality.

iCenter Survey

A letter from Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz and Dr. Minna Wolf of Research Success Technologies:

Are you someone who is interested in educating about Israel? If so, we are turning to you with the hope that you fill out a short 10 minute survey.

We are seeking an understanding about how you and others in the field of Jewish education and communal work seek to connect children and teens from pre-school through 12th grade to Israel.

The survey is part of a broader effort by the iCenter to advance Israel education. Your survey answers will contribute to a report about the challenges and possibilities facing educators who are attempting to educate about Israel and provide recommendations to funders for future investments in the field. We will share the report with you once it is ready for public release.

Link to Survey

If you prefer to cut and paste the link:

http://researchsuccess.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_004HKQI8yjmuJQF&Source=BJPA

Please forward this survey invitation to any colleagues who you feel have an interest of any sort in education about Israel.

This survey is anonymous. If you want to see a copy of the final survey report or receive information about opportunities for educators with an interest in Israel education you will be given an option at the end of the survey to provide your contact information.

If you have any questions, please contact Ezra at his personal e-mail address ezra@researchsuccess.com

Sincerely,
Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz and Dr. Minna Wolf
Research Consultants to the iCenter
Research Success Technologies

Fein & Cohen to Yoffie: Let Secular Jews Be Secular

yoffie-cohen-fein

Responding a HuffPo column by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (former President of the Union for Reform Judaism) entitled "The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews", Leonard Fein and BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen pen a defense of secular/cultural Judaism, also in the Huffington Post. Excerpts:

Secular Jews, Yoffie claims, regard themselves as "people of reason and not of faith, as champions of modernity rather than slaves to some concept of God or other outmoded patterns of belief." They seek to "throw off the oppressive power of the past."... Yoffie's description of so-called secular Jews rather closely mirrors the tradition of Reform Judaism....

True, some cultural or secular Jews can be dismissive of faith, if by faith we mean God-oriented belief. But nothing prevents honorable people from adhering to a faith pointed in other directions. One may, for example, have faith in the improvability of humankind, or in progress as the underlying cadence of the universe...

In our experience, secular Judaism is very far from withering, much less dying. Quite the contrary: A large number of Jews find Jewish identification and involvement in an entirely comfortable mode even if it is, in their view, more cultural than religious. Indeed, asked about how they define themselves in a national survey of American Jews sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, just 13 percent checked "to a great extent" when asked whether they were religious Jews. By contrast, slightly more - 16 percent -- called themselves secular Jews, and a hefty 36 percent saw themselves as cultural Jews...

Yoffie wants us to believe that "values such as social justice, hospitality and mentschlichkeit (decency) ... are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and ... have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes." He does not recognize that by now these values have momentum on their own, that their derivation may be interesting to historians and theologians, but are of very little interest to their practitioners, including the thousands of Jewish social activists who champion the social and economic justice causes of labor, civil rights, peace, freedom, human rights, feminism and, most recently, environmentalism.

Yoffie complains that these allegedly faithless secular Jews continue to assemble in synagogues and to undertake acts of family life and communal celebration that are either explicitly religious or that radiate with the power of deep faith. Indeed, he may be drawing upon his familiarity with his own Reform movement. In the same survey we find that of those identifying as Reform, just 6 percent (6 percent!) see themselves as religious Jews "to a great extent." Among the same Reform Jews three times as many (18 percent) see themselves as secular, and nearly seven times as many (41 percent) call themselves cultural Jews.

The self-ascribed definitions as religious, cultural and secular blend into one another. Most who see themselves as at least somewhat religious also see themselves as equally cultural. In fact, about 40 percent of all American Jews call themselves both at least somewhat religious and at least somewhat cultural. These blurry and fuzzy patterns stand in stark contrast with Yoffie's binary view of the world, one which sharply divides the faithful from the faithless...

One wonders if Yoffie has taken to relating to cultural and secular Jews the way Orthodox Jews have often related to Reform, asserting a claim to authentic Torah-true Judaism and dismissing the distinctive virtues of the stubbornly ignorant and resistant others. Just as some Orthodox leaders can't let Reform Jews be Reform, Rabbi Yoffie can't let cultural Jews be cultural.

Yoffie wants to make claims about Judaism's authentic roots. We prefer to give primacy to Judaism's wonderfully varied branches. One of those branches is Reform Judaism, Yoffie's obvious favorite; but just as assuredly, another is secular or cultural Judaism. And it is a great pity that Yoffie cannot being himself to acknowledge the authenticity of that sensibility, much less its transcendent (shall we say, religious?) quality. And it is an even greater pity, if not irony, that one of the most articulate and compelling advocates of religious pluralism cannot bring himself to celebrate the virtues and distinctiveness embodied in pluralistic cultural and secular approaches to being Jewish not only in America, but in Israel and the world as well.

 Read the entire piece here.

BJPA publications by Leonard Fein.

BJPA publications by Steven M. Cohen

BJPA publications by Eric Yoffie

Top 20 Downloads of 2012

In case you missed our email last week, here are the 20 publications downloaded most often by BJPA users in 2012:


1 Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy 
     (Haym Soloveitchik
)
 

2.  The Limmud International Study: Jewish Learning Communities on a  Global Scale
     (Steven M. CohenEzra Kopelowitz)
 

3.  Profiling the Professionals: Who's Serving Our Communities? (Steven M. Cohen  

  

4.  Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel
     (Steven M. CohenAri Y. Kelman) 

 

5.  Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp  

     (Steven M. CohenRon MillerIra M. SheskinBerna Torr)  

  

6.  Jewish Population in the United States, 2011 (Ira SheskinArnold Dashefsky)

  

7.   Generation of Change: How Leaders in their Twenties and Thirties are Reshaping American Jewish Life  (Jack Wertheimer)

  

8.  Moving Beyond the Limited Reach of Current "Social Media" Approaches: Why Jewish Digital Communities Require Rich and Remixable Narrative Content  
(Owen Gottlieb)

  

9.  Language Syncretism and the Hybridization of Religious Jewish Identity in Postmodern America (Chaya Nove)

 

10.Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life (Sylvia Barack FishmanDaniel Parmer)  

 

11.  Modern Orthodoxy and the Challenges to Its Establishment: An interview with Marc B. Shapiro (Manfred GerstenfeldMarc B. Shapiro)  

  

12. The Jewish Demography of Florida (Ira M. Sheskin)

  

13. Workmen's Circle / Arbeter Ring 2012 American Jews' Political Values Survey
      (Steven M. CohenSamuel Abrams)  

  

14.  Defining Israel Education (Bethamie Horowitz)

  

15. Building a Base of Reform Jewish Leadership: An Impact Study of Three Youth Programs (Samantha M. Pohl)   

  

16. Three Questions: Orthodoxy's Power, and After (Yehudah Mirsky)

  

17. Demography of the Contemporary Russian-Speaking Jewish Diaspora (Mark Tolts) 

  

18. Sh'ma January 2012: The Jewish Electorate 2012--Complete Issue 

  

19. Creating an Open Orthodox Rabbinate (Dov LinzerAvi Weiss)  

  

20. The Future of Reform Jewry: An interview with Rabbi David Ellenson
      (David EllensonManfred Gerstenfeld

Prison Reform: A Jewish Imperative?

prison

The Orthodox social justice organization Uri L'Tzedek has declared this week (on which we read in the weekly Torah portion about Joseph's release from Pharaoh's prison) to be Jewish Prison Reform Week. For anyone interested in considering this issue from an Orthodox social justice perspective, here is an article by that organization's founder and president, the indefatigable Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz:

Prison Reform: A Torah Perspective on the American Crisis (2007)

Outlining the basic state of American prisons today, and providing a brief history of the American penal system and its antecedents, Rabbi Yanklowitz then turns his attention to Biblical penal concepts, Talmudic penal law, and later rabbinic concepts of criminal justice. "Our Torah values and moral convictions place responsibility upon the American Jewish community to advocate for better conditions within prisons and for more creative solutions for rehabilitation than are currently being provided," he writes.

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Uri L'Tzedek's Prison Reform Campaign...

On the "Native Shrewdness" of Jewish Hoboes

[A] steady stream of Jewish hoboes, jocularly known in their own circles as "trombenicks," knocks at the doors of charity day in and day out, begging for food, clothing and shelter...As in every other walk of life, the Jew has fully contributed his peculiarly characteristic subtlety, native shrewdness, and quaint dry humor to the already baffling person of the hobo, like pungent oil poured over an inextinguishable flame.

Thus wrote Ralph Astrofsky in March 1928, in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly (now the Journal of Jewish Communal Service).

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 From the J-Vault: "Trombenicks" or Jewish Hoboes (1928)

Astrofsky is writing not as a disconnected observer, but rather as a social services worker who has been immersed in helping Jewish hoboes:

I have interviewed two thousand men in some four years, listened to their hard luck stories, heard them tell their experience in their colorful language, and observed the reckless disregard of the accepted conventions and open contempt for the contented and respectable wage-earners by the more misanthropic vagrants...

"Nature won't let me break away," "Jerusalem Slim" told me. He was one of a large and poor family who had to leave his home at the age of fifteen to support himself, and he has been a hobo since. "In school, some guys were naturally born math sharks, but nuts, say, in history. Well, I'm the nut in the course of life. But I should worry. Some guys can even beat life and play tricks on it, but I'm always the grand joke. Maybe, if I was a fink (professional strike-breaker) I could make enough money to settle down. But I got my principles. Oh, well, I guess I'm a bum and ain't got no excuse."

Unafraid of sweeping generalization, Astrofsky compares Jewish and Gentile hoboes:

The Jewish hobo who, in spite of himself, drifts into vagabondage, becomes more enthralled to the road after each futile effort to free himself, but unlike his Christian companion, still expects at some future date liberation and a home through marriage. Your Gentile hobo loses hope, fills his stomach with rotten liquor at every opportunity, and shoots needles into his arms to relieve his aching heart. The Jewish tramp will take refuge in metaphysics or "riddles," as he calls it, break up a game of dice to which he is not adapted, and start a poker game instead...

Unlike the Gentile hobo, the "trombenick" does not allow himself as readily to become the victim of an older and unscrupulous tramp of homo-sexual tendencies, commonly known among them as a "wolf." Sex perversion is generally frowned upon by Jewish hoboes, although they freely indulge their normal desires in the cheapest brothels where they never once fail to admonish an inhabitant of their own faith for her disgraceful profession.

The whole piece, written shortly before the onset of the Great Depression, is fascinating reading. In the following years, Astrofsky followed it up with Homeless and Transients, Report of the National Committee on Transients, and A National Approach to the Transient Problem.

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To learn more about Jewish homelessness and poverty in the greater New York area in our times, visit the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

Event: Is Jewish Education Broken?

Image- Speakers Lab

Is Jewish Education Broken? debates new visions for liberal Jewish schools in the 21st century. Presented by Speakers' Lab, a new public programming initiative of the Posen Foundation, with Tablet Magazine and The New School for Public Engagement, Jewish Cultural Studies Program.

As enrollment declines in liberal Jewish schools, scholars and educators are asking critical questions about the relevance of Jewish education to today's students. Is Jewish Education Broken? will explore current models and challenges facing liberal Jewish education, and propose new curricula and educational models for teachers and administrators for the future. Concerns and topics will include:

  • The discrepancy between 20th century Jewish educational models and 21st century perspectives on Jewish life.
  • The teaching of Jewish culture as ahistorical and disconnected from contemporary life.
  • The role of Jewish schooling in Jewish continuity.
  • Concerns about using the American school model to teach Jewish culture.
  • The rise of new and informal Jewish educational models.
  • The challenges of teaching minority education in America.

Panelists:

  • Zvi Bekerman, Director of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education, Hebrew U.
  • Benjamin Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Social Studies, Education and Jewish Studies, NYU
  • Jonathan Krasner, Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience, HUC-JIR
  • Tali Zelkowicz, Assistant Professor of Education, HUC-JIR.
  • Moderator: Bethamie Horowitz, Research Assistant Professor, NYU.

Free and open to the public. Seating is limited and pre-registration is encouraged. Sign-up at www.speakerslab.org or by calling 212-564-6711 x305.

Steven M. Cohen on President Obama's Drop in Share of Jewish Vote

Haaretz

From Haaretz, in an article behind a paywall:

Steven M. Cohen, a prominent sociologist of American Jewry and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University said it was important to put the Jewish vote in context with the trend of a downturn of support for Obama among the broader white vote in the election. Obama’s share of the white vote dropped from 43 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in this election, mostly because of the economy. “Whites votes for Obama dropped by four percent and Jewish vote for Obama dropped by five percent. Statistically that means there is no difference. And compared to whites, Jews are just as firmly in the Democratic camp as they were in 2008,” he said, citing a Workman’s Circle survey released in July that he conducted that indicated Jews make their voting decisions primarily based on views on economic justice and social inclusion.

If you're a Haaretz subscriber, you can read the rest of the article here: Sibling Rivalry: American Jews spar over the meaning of the Jewish vote

Browse BJPA for: Elections; Political Behavior; Voting Patterns

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane

BJPA offices are closed for the storm, but for those of you out of the hurricane's path--or for those of you who are homebound due to the storm but still have electricity and an urge to research the Jewish community--here is some interesting material on Jewish communal disaster management:

Browse BJPA for Emergency Management...

Stay safe.

47th Anniversary: Nostra Aetate

Vatican

In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions...

Thus begins the Roman Catholic Church's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, better known by its first two words, nostra aetate, "in our time". It was promulgated 47 years ago today--October 28, 1965.

Originally titled Decretum de Judaeis, "Declaration on the Jews," this text--whose final form had (and has) wide-ranging implications for Catholics' relationships with all religions--began as a piece concerned only with Christian-Jewish relations. Much has been written about the meanings in, effects of, and history leading up to this important milestone. Here are a few examples from BJPA:

Search BJPA for Catholic

Browse BJPA for Christianity

Browse BJPA for Jewish-Christian relations

 

 

Kol Nidrei

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 On Tuesday night, September 25th, Jews the world over (including many who go to synagogue only once per year) will gather in synagogues for the opening evening service of Yom Kippur, a service commonly known by the name of the declaration that begins it: Kol Nidrei, "All Vows..." This liturgical climax of the Jewish year is known for its haunting and beautiful melody.

 As a 1924 article from the American Jewish Year Book explains, however, the declaration of Kol Nidrei (it really isn't even a prayer) has a history of confusion and controversy.

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From the J-Vault: Kol Nidre (1924)

Kol Nidrei, Professor Israel Davidson explains,

takes its name from the opening words and is recited at the beginning of the evening service of the Day of Atonement, has come down to us in two versions, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic... [T]he Hebrew version, which contains a reference to the vows contracted during the year that has passed... presents a legal difficulty. For, according to law, vows already contracted cannot be annulled unless the votary explicitly states what these vows were and makes his statement before a board of three, and none of these conditions is required in connection with Kol Nidre. To overcome these difficulties, R. Meir b. Samuel, the son-in-law of Rashi, changed the text of Kol Nidre and made it to read as we have it now in the Aramaic version: "from this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement"...

Kol Nidre presents a number of other difficulties. Why, for instance, is this prayer placed before the beginning of the services? What connection is there between the absolution of vows and the verse from Numbers 15:26, with which it concludes? If it is a prayer for forgiveness, why should the sin of non-fulfilment of vows be singled out from other transgressions for which the Day of Atonement is supposed to atone? How is it that this particular composition has come down to us in two languages?

Professor Davidson goes on to offer numerous theories and explanations related to these questions. He also discusses rabbinic objections to Kol Nidrei at many points during Jewish history, from an array of religious leaders--from medieval sages to the Reform Movement's early leaders (who completely altered the text, retaining only the popular melody). Yet, he notes, Kol Nidrei has endured:

Historic Judaism, however, still braves the storm of accusations, safe in the consciousness of its integrity, and mindful of the wise adage not to indulge in too many explanations, because friends do not need them and enemies would not believe them.

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Bonus: for anyone interested in a contemporary religious explanation of Kol Nidrei's history and purpose, I can't resist embedding this video lecture from British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (click here if you can't see the embedded video player):

Politics & Scripture

Romney-Obama

Both President Obama and Governor Romney recently granted an interview on faith to the magazine of National Cathedral in Washington. Both candidates named favorite passages of scripture, with the choices revealing a fascinating difference in emphasis. One candidate's chosen passage focuses on charity, and specifically on helping the needy with their physical needs. The other candidate's passage discusses God's power over the world, and to provide protection for human beings who trust Him.

If you think you know which favorite scriptural inspiration belongs to which candidate, think twice.

It was Pres. Obama who cited Isaiah 40:31—"But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (NIV)—and Psalm 46. And it was Gov. Romney who cited Matthew 25:35-6—"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me" (KJV).

What, if anything, can we learn from this seeming inversion of what we might expect the two candidates' theologies to emphasize? Why does the President, whose politics insist we are all collectively responsible as a human society to tend to the physical needs of the needy, emphasize God's sovereignty and ability to provide protection? Why does his conservative opponent emphasize handouts of food, hospitality and clothing? If the candidates chose these passages with an eye toward political traction, perhaps the inversion is a deliberate attempt to reassure religious swing voters that they are not the caricature the other side would paint. Pres. Obama is attacked as a secret Muslim and/or godless Communist, so his biblical passages imply his Christian faith is rock solid. Gov. Romney, on the other hand, knows that conservatism is often attacked as heartless, and one of his gaffes was a declaration that he was "not concerned about the very poor". So his biblical passage implies that he cares deeply about the needy, and his desire to cut government programs doesn't mean he doesn't value charity on a private basis.  Both choices can be read as damage control.

(You could argue that a New Testament passage might have made the Christian point for Pres. Obama more clearly than two Old Testament passages, but nobody is attacking him for being a secret Jew... Wait, scratch that, people in the Middle East probably are attacking him for being a secret Jew. But no significant voting bloc in America is doing so... Could the Old Testament choices have been aimed at shoring up the Jewish vote? Quite unlikely.)

What, if anything, can we make of Gov. Romney's decision to truncate verse 36? In the interview, the Governor didn't only mention the verses by name, he quoted them as above. But the complete verse 36 continues further than he quoted. The part of the verse Gov. Romney left out is in bold: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (KJV).

Drawing conclusions from this is awfully tempting. Is visiting prisoners not tough enough on crime for the Republican candidate to include in his favorite quotation? Did Gov. Romney stop where he stopped so as not to bring up the issue of health care, and the similarity of his Massachusetts plan to the President's national version? Or was the truncation simply a forgetful mistake? (And if he did forget the verse's conclusion, what (if anything) can we make of that?)

On all counts, the answer should be that there's nothing we can make of this at all. In a reasonably sane world, I'd be the first one to criticize a blog post like this one and say, "Are you crazy? Have some respect. Don't assume the candidates chose these passages cynically. Why not give these two leaders the benefit of the doubt and assume they both made their choices solely out of a genuine affinity for these verses, and not read political calculations into their choices?"

That's what I'd think in a sane world... Meanwhile, in this world: so vitriolic has this election been—so divisive and rhetorically dishonest—that the kind of cynical speculations in which I've just indulged (and I have indulged in them, I will say, not without a small hint of guilt) don't feel very much out of place. Both campaigns have at various times advanced such blatantly unfair arguments against the other side that I have a hard time imagining that either of these two candidates could let an opportunity to score even the tiniest political point go by, and simply choose their favorite passages without running it by a pollster.

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