Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Presentation of Necklace to Shakira by Israeli President Shimon Peres

Earlier today, President Peres presented a necklace to international recording star, Shakira, who was in Israel promoting education. The necklace was made by Yemenite silversmith and artist Ben-Zion David and was presented to Shakira on behalf of Shimon Peres by a young girl from Ra'anana, who I happen to know quite well.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time

Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time is a wonderful exploration of different aspects of the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. The book was a finalist for the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and has received other critical acclaim. Part spiritual autobiography, part historical essay and part lyrical journey, the book examines the idea of the Sabbath and its history.

Shulevitz reviews Sabbath observance ranging from early and later Jewish practises, right up to Shabbat in Israel to those of other religious groups as well as secular, labour-inspired views of the need for a weekly day of rest. Along the way, she analyzes the transformation of the Sabbath in Christianity from the early days of the Catholic Church through various Protestant and Sabbatarian movements. Her discussion of the role of the Sabbath in Puritan communities in American History is detailed and fascinating.

With references to and discussions of various philosophers, theologians, novelists, academics and other thinkers throughout the book, Shulevitz overlays history, theology and philosophy with her own personal "spiritual autobiography" as she puts it to arrive at a meaningful relationship with Sabbath observance, in a Jewish context. The stories, feelings and anecdotes that Shulevitz shares imbue the book with a genuine sense of warmth and personal vulnerability.

Drawing on a wide range of sources as diverse as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Samson Raphael Hirsch, D.H. Lawrence, Marx, Kafka, Ferenczi and others, Shulevitz paints a mosaic of sometimes clashing Sabbath ideas. At times poetic, with literary excerpts and allusions, Shulevitz is at other times analytical, juxtaposing various philosophical and biblical ideas.

This not a polemic or strictly an apologetic, though Shulevitz does ultimately call for increased Sabbath observance in society, even if only justified by the secular need to improve the lives of workers, to help people gain some small amount of control over their time and as a means to improve the quality of life generally, if not religiously.

The book is multi-layered, complex, thought provoking and beautifully written. Though the book has, on the whole, a progressive Jewish slant, it examines many different ideas in open minded but critical fashion.

I have to point out that the author's self-defined Sabbath observances are ultimately quite similar to those that I follow so much of what Shulevitz has to say resonates in a very personal way, though this played no role in my original decision to read the book.

Finding a way to create one special day each week, to turn off and tune out technology and to focus on family, friends and community is not only a very important Jewish practice but also one that seems to make increasingly good sense in today's fast paced world. Shulevitz provides a bookful of reasons why this is the case.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Michael Coren's Why Catholics Are Right

Michael Coren’s latest book, Why Catholics Are Right is as pugnacious as the title suggests. Though relatively short, Coren sets out to explain or justify a wide range of official Catholic Church positions and historical conduct. Describing a variety of sources of anti-Catholic beliefs, Coren positions his book as a handbook for those who wish to defend Catholicism against its many would-be attackers. Coren paints the Catholic Church as an institution under attack. One might be confused into thinking he was describing a much smaller and more endangered religious group rather than the Church with its hundreds of millions of adherents.

Calling anti-Catholicism the “last acceptable prejudice in what passes for polite society,” Coren is on a mission to respond to those perceived slights. He points out, on a few occasions in the book, that anyone who disagrees with the views set out in his book is simply wrong. In his introduction, he generously concedes that Non-Catholic Christians, including “serious Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox believers” are only “slightly wrong.” Others, including Christians with different interpretations of the Bible, atheists, “part-time Catholic bashers” and presumably members of every other religious group are “wrong most of the time and to a shocking degree.”

With introductory words like that, it might be tempting for someone like me to simply close the book. But I am interested in reading a range of views, so I continue on. After all, the book is a mere 200 pages and is relatively easy reading.

Coren begins the book by addressing head on what he believes to be two of the major sources of attack on the Church, the abuse scandals and the crusades.

His first chapter downplays the sexual abuse scandals of the Church by essentially arguing that the rate of this type of egregious behaviour is no worse in the Church than anywhere else. He cites various statistics dealing with rates of abuse, both within the Church and other institutions all with the aim of disavowing any relationship between Church dogmas (requiring celibacy and only male priests) and abuse and by extension minimizing the level of Church culpability. He highlights a lengthy letter written by the current Pope in March 2010 to the Irish Church as reflecting Benedict’s historical role as “one of the fiercest opponent of abusers.” Though Coren attacks Christopher Hitchens’ writings on the subject as “cruel, flippant or dumb,” I found Hitchens’ review of the Church’s role in these abuse scandals in God is Not Great to be much more persuasive.

Coren ends the chapter by briefly addressing theological equality, explaining that the Church “simply does not have the authority to ordain women.” The Pope has spoken on this issue and those who disagree can “go elsewhere.” Even though Coren later in the book discusses the role of Biblical interpretation, he dismisses the notion of equality between men and women by arguing that “gender-bending may work in some areas of life but not in the institution that will take you back to God.” By way of contrast, Coren argues later in the book that the Church’s fight against abortion is like the fight of the early opponents of slavery. Sooner or later, the rest of the world will look back on the Church’s position as the correct moral position. But with respect to women’s rights to religious equality, Coren is completely dismissive. It seems to me that the arguments in favour of women as priests are much more analogous to those who fought and opposed slavery and other forms of discrimination. But of course, as Coren points out repeatedly in the book, anyone who holds this view must be wrong. He finishes the chapter with a spirited defence of the celibacy requirement for priests before moving along.

Entitled “Catholics and History,” the second chapter offers a defence of the Church’s behaviour through various historical periods. Coren provides his thumbnail sketch of the Church’s role in the crusades, defending the Church’s conduct at all times. Whether the Church acted in justifiable response to Muslim aggression or within the acceptable ranges of conduct at the time (however barbarian), the Church was part of a generally brutal medieval world, argues Coren. He continues on to suggest that it is ridiculous to pin the Spanish Inquisition (including the mass torture, forcible conversion and expulsion of Jews and others) on the Church and even downplays the number of people “hurt or affected by it.”

Coren also addresses the Holocaust and provides his historical version of why Pope Pius XII was a righteous man whose actions during the Holocaust have been misunderstood or overlooked. There are extensive historical works covering this complex subject which are outside of the scope of a book review. However, it is worth noting that in dealing with this topic, as with every other area that Coren covers in his book, there is no room for any other viewpoint and no admission of any possible errors or wrongdoing on the part of the Church. Coren does not address the history of anti-Semitism in the Church nor the manner in which this was addressed and changed by John Paul II. That would not fit with his thesis that the Church has always been right and everything is immutable.

Moving to theology, Coren explains the doctrines of the supremacy of the Church and of papal infallibility. Coren covers the compilation of the Bible by the Church between 393 A.C.E. and 419 A.C.E. Since the Church selected and compiled this version of the Bible, the Church must be infallible, since the Bible is infallible. This seems self-evidently circular to me. But there it is in black and white. And since Coren says it, it must be correct.

Coren goes on to explain the doctrine of transubstantiation, the importance of confession, Catholic beliefs about purgatory, saints, the Virgin Mary and other sacraments. He circles back to the history and origins of Christianity near the end of his book and ties the historical points there to the various doctrines that are discussed here. Libraries of material have obviously been written about these issues and there all kinds of viewpoints. For an explanation and understanding of the history of the development of the Church and review of the origins of its beliefs and dogmas, I would simply suggest that a book like How Jesus Became Christian by Barrie Wilson provides a much more detailed and critical look at these matters.

Next Coren moves on to social issues. He provides a vigorous and unquestioning restatement of the Church’s fundamentalist positions on a range of issues – abortion, birth control, euthanasia and homosexuality and provides short arguments in favour of each of the Church’s stated orthodox positions. Coren quotes former New York Mayor Ed Koch earlier in the book as saying “many in the public…are incensed by positions the Church holds, including opposition to all abortions, opposition to gay sex and same-sex marriage, retention of celibacy rules for priests, exclusion of women from the clergy, opposition to birth control measures involving condoms and prescription drugs and opposition to civil divorce….I disagree with the Church on all of these positions. Nevertheless it has a right to hold these views in accordance with its religious beliefs.” Since Coren is right about everything, as he points out in his book on a number of occasions, everyone who holds contrary views on any of the above issues is simply wrong, including, presumably the former New York Mayor and any other Catholics who might have more liberal views.

The final chapter turns to miscellaneous issues including the most crucial historical details of the life of Jesus and the origins of some of the key beliefs of Catholicism. Coren also discusses marriage annulment, the issue of communion for non-Catholics and the historical myth of a female pope (Pope Joan). On every issue here, as throughout the book, he provides his argument in favour of the most conservative Church view, allowing no room for historical changes, nuanced Biblical interpretations or even dissenting views within the Church.

Coren saves his harshest words for those who he describes as hypocrites – people who claim to be Catholic but act as if they are not. To Coren, there is no room for any liberal interpretation of Catholicism, whether in action or belief. To him, there is one truth, described by the Church, that all Catholics must follow if they are to be taken seriously and accepted as real Catholics.

Though interesting to read, Coren’s book was not particularly stimulating or thought provoking and certainly not persuasive. It sets out a range of beliefs that Coren and many other Catholics have chosen to follow but this is not a book that uses reason, scientific method or critical scholarship. I felt much more challenged by Richard Dawkins The God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great even though each of those books also had its own significant shortcomings.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jonathan Kay - Among the Truthers

Jonathan Kay’s book Among the Truthers is a thought provoking read, but ultimately unsatisfying. Subtitled “A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground,” the book describes and explains various historical examples of conspiracies, provides a history of some conspiracy movements and sets out lessons Kay has drawn from immersing himself in Truth Movement (9/11 conspiracy) lectures, conventions and meetings at which he has had the time to get to know many leading conspiracy theorists.

At the outset, Kay cites examples of real or problematic historical events that may have actually been conspiracies such as Iran-Contra, the “unsatisfying Warren Commission Report on JFK,” the secret bombing of Cambodia, U.S. military cover up of Mai Lai massacres and other examples of real conspiracies. Yet he later calls conspiracy theories a “leading cause and a symptom of intellectual and current crisis.” He is quick, for example, to dismiss any suggestion that the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island could be part of a conspiracy without providing any convincing details.

Kay suggests that sometimes “we don’t know” is the answer to difficult questions that conspiracy theorists raise. While that may be true, conspiracy theories can sometimes be deflated with proper proof. For example, President Obama has now successfully defeated the “birthers” by producing full and proper birth records. Historians have demonstrated, with overwhelming historical proof, the factual basis and record of the Holocaust. Kay himself provides a sound explanation of the hoax of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how it was debunked historically.

Much of the book focuses on the movement of Truthers – those who would argue that 9/11 was a conspiracy by the U.S. government. Kay cites frightening statistics to illustrate the success that Truthers have had in convincing a large percentage of the American population that the U.S. federal government participated in the collapse of the twin towers. He profiles a number of the Truther movement’s leading figures, taking pains to point out that these people are not all easily dismissed as cranks. Many are mathematicians, engineers and others with high level academic achievements. However, Kay points out that his book is not a rebuttal of the various conspiracy theories in detail. Instead he provides a range of references and sources for that type of material.

In reviewing some of the history of conspiracy movements, Kay is convincing in explaining the role of anti-Semitism and more the recently, left wing anti-Zionism in the historical development of these movements. Some of the rest of the historical description is lacking. For example, the lack of a decent response to the JFK material leaves the issue hanging. Although Kay shows a link between JFK conspiracies and 9/11 Truther conspiracies, the factual differences are enormous. With respect to 9/11, there are cell phone calls from victims, airport video surveillance, video footage from many angles, names, faces and stories of each of the terrorists and much other information. This can really only be compared to one home video showing Kennedy’s assassination (the Zapruder film).

The chapter discussing the “birth certificate conspiracy” over Obama is illuminating, particularly demonstrating the link between the Tea Party, Christian fundamentalists (particularly those who rely, literally, on the book of Revelations) and the demonization of Obama. Although Kay acknowledges the “kernel of truth” to some of the allegations about Obama, relating to Obama’s background and upbringing, which might even affect Obama’s decision making on Middle East issues, Kay is easily dismissive of any suggestion that this would make Obama part of some kind of fifth column or an illegitimate president.

The heart of Kay’s discussion is the lessons that one can take from 9/11. The widespread availability, particularly on the internet, of unreliable information has undoubtedly played a major role in the spread of conspiracy theories. Here, Kay laments the downfall of traditional media and the commensurate loss of accuracy in information. But Kay forgets that traditional media have also, historically, been complicit in spreading misinformation. For example, the demonstrably false stories of a massacre in Jenin by the Israeli Defence Forces were spread by the “traditional” media outlets.

Kay refers to the phenomenon as the “democratization of paranoia.” He underlines the fact that internet users can load up web sites with unprovable and false information and rise to the top of Google searches. Of course, accompanying video, that is easily edited and even created, can also be spread quickly and easily.

Ultimately, Kay goes overboard in tying in issues of political correctness and academic “reconstruction” theories to conspiracists. Though he discusses certain issues of Canadian and American discourse, such as aboriginal land claims issues and the reliability of aboriginal “oral history” and also touches on controversial affirmative action issues, it is quite a leap to propose that Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld are targets as alleged conspirators because of the attack by the political correctness movement on middle aged white men. This suggestion does not accord with other parts of Kay’s book in which he notes that most of the Truthers are, in fact, middle aged white males. The idea that an exaggerated version of political correctness should be tied in to the conspiracy theorists is a claim that allows Kay to ignore the very real and positive changes that society has made by changing some of the offensive and discriminatory language that was used in the past.

Kay is on much stronger ground in tracing the tie in between anti-Semitism and conspiracy movements. Here, he highlights the fact that conspiracists on the right and on the left have both been plagued by variants of anti-Semitism. He segues into a discussion of the use by the left of anti-Israel anti-Semitism, which is disguised as fair comment on Israel’s foreign policy. The discussion explains why this is, often, simply disguised anti-Semitism and why that has led or contributed to a shift in Jewish voting patterns and party support in the U.S. and Canada. The shared anti-Semitism is sometimes something that the far right and the far left can share together even while their conspiracy conferences are being held blocks away from each other.

Kay’s recipe for confronting conspiracy movements is in education, particularly in educating people in the ability to filter information and in providing people with the history of conspiracy movements. But Kay lumps in atheist authors such as Hitchens and Dawkins as being complicit in creating an atmosphere that allows for conspiracy theories. “Society requires some creed or overriding national project…” and in the absence of faith, people will be led to these types of theories. But Kay does not circle back to the impact of the many religious Tea Party fundamentalists at the heart of many conspiracy theories that he describes. Surely they have to be at least as dangerous as the atheists, given Kay's historical discussion.

While Kay ultimately calls for the need for society to balance scepticism with faith and cites the need to rehabilitate public institutions, Kay fails to adequately explain why the public institutions warrant the rehabilitation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mighty Judgment by Philip Slayton - a look at the Supreme Court of Canada

There is a distinct tone of condescension that runs through Philip Slayton’s book Mighty Judgment. Subtitled “How the Supreme Court of Canada Runs Your Life,” the book reviews the history and role of the Supreme Court of Canada, ultimately calling for significant reforms to the Court, primarily reforms to the manner in which judges are appointed.

Written for lay people, Slayton’s book begins by describing the role and history of Canada’s highest court. It moves on to a discussion of some of the Court’s more controversial recent decisions, a look at its current members, a discussion of its clerks – and then ultimately, a call for change. Though I agreed with some of Slayton’s penultimate recommendations – I found the journey at times tedious – and at other times obnoxious – particularly the repeatedly cited mantra that the Supreme Court “runs your life,” which seems overly hyperbolic.

At the heart of any discussion of the role of the Supreme Court (whether it is Canada’s Supreme Court or any other) is the debate between those who would prefer an “activist” court willing to use its power to strike down laws that seem to run afoul of the Constitution (the Charter)and those who would have the Court play a much more deferential role towards Parliament. In Slayton’s discussion of some of the issues that the Court has wrestled with – such as abortion, gay rights, religious minority rights – the early tone of the book seemed to suggest that he was advocating for a more deferential court, particularly from his review of abortion issues.

Interestingly, by the end of the book, he suggests that he would side with the view point of those such as Justice Rosalie Abella, who see the court’s role as interventionist - charged with the responsibility of protecting minority rights against the tyranny of the majority.

In some ways, the heart of the book is Slayton’s arrogant assessment of the Amselem case, a landmark religious rights case which he refers to as a “bad decision.” The case looked at the issue of whether a group of Orthodox Jews in Quebec could build sukkas (temporary huts) on their balconies for the eight day holiday of Succoth in a condominium building despite having agreed to property contracts that banned the building of any structures on balconies. The Supreme Court, by majority decision (5-4), narrowly determined that minority religious rights overrode other considerations, such as restrictive property covenants. In doing so, it carefully noted that there was no demonstrable threat to safety or security in the building and that minority religious rights could be accommodated in this type of situation where the real or perceived harm to the majority was minimal. Slayton sounds the alarm bells over the decision by exaggerating the deference provided to religious rituals. Although it is true that the Supreme Court held that only a sincerely held belief that a particular practice was required – in order to gain some level of protection for a minority religious practice – the Court also discussed the boundaries of the exercise of such rights – the discussion of which seems to have eluded Slayton. This decision from the Supreme Court gave real protection to religious minority rights – for practices that were unpopular – provided that they did not unduly interfere with the rights of the majority. This is a classic example of the Court protecting the rights of the minority against the majority – a principle that Slayton supposedly endorses by the end of the book – yet he dismisses this case with such disdain.

In the same chapter, Slayton argues that the Wilson Colony decision – which held that Hutterites (an Alberta religious community) cannot refuse to have their pictures taken if they want to get drivers licenses – is also wrongly decided because it is too harsh. Here the Supreme Court felt that the impact of hundreds of Hutterites having drivers licenses without photo identification – would outweigh their religious freedom. Slayton argues that the case runs contrary to Amselem but I think it is simply an application of it. In both cases, the Court set the boundaries of minority religious rights – depending on the extent to which they affected other rights and other aspects of social policy.

Slayton’s book spends a number of chapters on petty reviews of the personalities, backgrounds and, sometimes, hobbies, of the current members of the Court, whom he patronizingly divides into “the Chief,” the “Leaders of the Court,” the “Middle of the Pack,” and “Bringing Up the Rear.” I can’t imagine that Justices Deschamps, Fish and Cromwell could be too thrilled with being slotted into this final category – though the assessments of the judges – as with the other six – are all reasonably favourable. It seems to me that much ink is spilled unnecessarily on these sections of the book - especially since Canada is about to receive a number of new Supreme Court judges. Individual personalities are interesting and important – but in the long run – some are relatively ephemeral and have minimal impact.

At the end of the book, some of Slayton’s calls for reform are logical and persuasive – though I felt that the impact was undermined by a poor discussion of some of the Court’s decisions and by a fairly tedious discussion of some of the members of the current Court. Nevertheless, Slayton proposes changes to the appointment of judges with either a U.S. or U.K. model and term limits of twelve to fifteen years. The idea here would be to increase transparency and ensure that new ideas are considered – at least every 15 years or so. These changes seem to make good sense.

I’m less convinced that we should do away with regional representation or a preference for Court of Appeal judges (even if such judges have only spent a short period of time sitting on the appellate court) – both of which are also among Slayton’s preferred reforms. I’m torn over Slayton’s idea of insisting that all judges be fully bilingual. Although it makes sense to prefer this – the reality is that this would exclude a very high percentage of the Canadian population. We should probably start here with improving language instruction across the country – to first ensure that more Canadians are fluently bilingual.

Overall, I felt better about the book after reading the final chapter or so – though my impression was that it could have been reduced from 261 pages to a polemic article of about 20 – and it wouldn’t have lost of its forcefulness – and may well have avoided much repetition.