Torah and Truth: Theology in the Obituary Pages

Theological lessons appear in the most unexpected places. The February 12, 2012 edition of The New York Times included an obituary for Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, who died February 8 in Toronto at age 99.

The obituaries in The New York Times are legendary, rivaled only by those in The Times of London. Both papers feature unexpectedly lengthy obituaries devoted to those who made a difference in their times.

Rabbi Plaut was one of those figures. As Margalit Fox of the Times explained, the rabbi was one of the most influential figures in Reform Judaism, North American Judaism’s most liberal major branch.

As Fox stated, Rabbi Plaut was “a rabbi whose vast, scholarly and ardently contemporary edition of the Torah has helped define Reform Judaism in late-20th-century North America.”

Rabbi Plaut’s commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was “the first non-Orthodox full commentary on the Torah published in English for congregational use,” said Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, an official with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Previous to Rabbi Plaut’s work on the Torah, congregations had been dependent on the work of Rabbi Joseph M. Hertz, written from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, affirming the divine inspiration of the text as given through Moses.

Reform Judaism does not require any belief in a personal God, and many adherents are agnostics or atheists in terms of traditional theism.

Rabbi Plaut wrote his commentary on the Torah for this movement and its congregations, and in the introduction to the work, he stated what he believed about the Bible:

“God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds.”

With those words, Rabbi Plaut honestly stated what he believed about the Bible, and specifically about the Torah. God is not the author of the text. The text was not divinely revealed to Moses, nor to anyone else. The Torah was the literary achievement of the Jews. God’s voice “may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds.”

That is an amazing statement, and it may even shock some readers who are unaware of the fact that many people consider the Bible to be nothing more than a human book. In the secular academy and among liberal Bible scholars, the Old Testament is increasingly referred to as an example of “Ancient Near Eastern Literature.”

The rabbi’s statement is not merely indicative of Reform Judaism, but of the belief about the Bible held within liberal Christianity. Rabbi Plaut’s words are hauntingly reminiscent of the arguments offered by Rudolf Bultmann, the most influential liberal New Testament scholar of the twentieth century.

Here we see the great dividing line — the line that divides those who affirm the Bible as the inspired Word of God and those who see the Bible as a human product. Everything flows from where one stands with respect to this line, and no one can avoid taking a stand.

Sometimes, the most urgent issues in theology show up where you least expect. Then again, maybe the obituaries serve us well by reminding us, by their very nature, of what matters.

The Family Torn Apart — Richard Wolff on Economics and Family Life

Though this may surprise some readers, liberal and conservative economists often agree on the nature of the problems posed by various economic practices, even as they vigorously disagree about the solutions to those problems.

Richard Wolff is a man of the Left who has been friendly toward Marxism throughout his long teaching career. He is currently professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a visiting professor at the New School in New York City.

He was interviewed recently in the pages of The Sun, a magazine first associated with the counter culture of the 1970s. In the interview, Wolff championed the Occupy Wall Street movement as a new mass protest that, he hopes, will usher in a mass movement of the Left.

In the course of the interview, Wolff explained his theory of what went wrong with the economy, and his analysis deserves a close look. He pointed to the technological revolution and the rise of computers as the cause of great job losses in the manufacturing sector. He also pointed to the rise of debt, with Americans borrowing vast sums of money, largely driven by their confidence in rising home values. He sees this as mass delusion. “The amazing thing about the last thirty years is the collective self-delusion in the U.S. You cannot keep borrowing money if your ability to pay it back — i.e. your real wage — is not going up. You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand this.”

Then he said something well worth our attention:

So the current crisis really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped rising. But its effects were postponed for a generation by debt. By 2007, however, the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was unsustainable. People could not make the payments. They were exhausted financially, exhausted physically by all that work, and exhausted psychologically because the family has been torn apart by everyone working.

Stay-at-home parents hold families together. When you move everyone into the workplace, tensions in the family become unmanageable. You can see evidence of this in popular culture. The sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families. Americans are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 65 percent of the world’s psychotropic drugs, tranquilizers, and mood enhancers. We are a people under unbelievable stress.”

That quality of insight should be appreciated, even when it comes from an unexpected source.

The Supreme Court Speaks: A Major Victory for Religious Liberty

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the most important decisions on religious liberty in recent decades. For the first time, the Court held that there is indeed a ministerial exemption that allows churches and religious organizations to discriminate in ways that other employers cannot. The Court’s decision was unanimous, and the affirmation of religious liberty and the right of churches to hire religious teachers without state interference is fundamentally important.

The case emerged when a teacher in a Lutheran church school in Michigan was terminated by the church. She sued, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] sided with her, bringing a suit against the church. The teacher was a “called teacher” in the church’s program, which meant that she had the responsibility to teach the church’s beliefs. The EEOC and lower courts had held that there is no ministerial exemption that would force the EEOC to drop the case. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected that logic, calling the view put forth by the EEOC and the Obama Administration “remarkable.”

The Chief Justice reviewed the history of religious liberty in the United States and England, noting that the founders of the United States wanted to ensure that the state could not interfere in the churches’ hiring of ministers. Pointing to the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, Roberts wrote: “The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

Directly rejecting the arguments of the EEOC and the findings of the lower court, the Chief Justice stated: “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

He also wrote: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Court should have gone further, granting to religious organizations the sole and final authority to determine who is and is not covered by the ministerial exemption. Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan wrote a second concurring opinion, arguing that the issue of ordination should not be the determining issue, since ordination practices, titles, and other designations of ministers differ by church, denomination, and religious group.

In his opinion, the Chief Justice also stated clearly that the EEOC has no right to declare that a church has wrongly terminated a minister. In his words, “it is precisely such a ruling that is barred by the ministerial exemption.”

By any measure, this is an important and vital decision. One way to consider its importance is to ponder what the opposite finding would have meant. In this case, this would mean that there is no ministerial exemption, and that churches, church schools, Christian colleges and seminaries, and any number of church-based employers, would be forbidden to hire and fire on theological and doctrinal grounds.

In other words, the government would be able to direct and limit churches and church schools in matters of hiring those with teaching and ministerial responsibility.

This would mean, effectively, the end of religious liberty. Thankfully, the Court preserved religious liberty, and did so in an opinion that is clear in its findings and declarations. Add to this the fact that the decision was unanimous — and be thankful.

The Emergence of Digital Childhood — Is This Really Wise?

The easiest way to infuriate the young is to lean into nostalgia. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for a childhood in which the basic equipment for elementary school was pretty much limited to notebooks, pencils, and an occasional ruler. Those days are long gone.

Verizon Wireless recently released a national survey of parents. The study revealed that the average age at which parents give their children their first cell phone is 11.6. Do sixth graders really need a cell phone?

Well, hold on. The same survey indicated that ten percent of parents give their children a cell phone between the ages of 7 and 9. A recent Nielsen Company study indicated that the average age for a first phone in many families may be as low as 9.7.

Most parents said that safety is their concern. But how many 7-9 year-olds are waiting on the curb at the mall for mom to pick them up? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question. In reality, few second-graders need a cell phone for safety in that sense. Something else is going on here, and the net result is that children are being pushed into the digital world at ever-earlier ages.

The Verizon survey also revealed that many parents fail to set any rules or protections for their offspring’s use of the cell phone. The danger of this is increased when it is realized that many of these cell phones are actually smart phones with advanced Internet access and access to social media. This effectively puts a miniature computer with unrestricted Web access in the hands of very young children.

There can be no doubt that we are all now living in a digital world. The digital revolution has wrought wonders and unparalleled access. But it has also brought unprecedented dangers — and those dangers are magnified when it comes to children and teenagers. This Verizon survey should serve as a wake-up call to parents and to all those who care for the coming generation. Childhood is being left in the dust of the digital transformation.

One final observation: When parents did set rules for how a child was to use a cell phone, the most common rule was that the child had to answer the phone when a parent called. Now, that rule makes sense.

My Letter to the Southern Seminary Community: Our Duty to Report

This letter to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College community was released in the wake of the tragedy and scandal at Penn State University, and in honor of all those who have experienced such abuse.

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