The Religious Life Of Two Senators

August 31, 2011

By Jack Jenkins
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Truth be told, when asked to name a spiritual role model, few people would likely pick a sitting U.S. senator.

In fact, with congressional approval ratings at record lows, few lawmakers — Democrats or Republicans — would seem to qualify as a profile in righteousness.

But two new books this summer, Sen. Jim DeMint’s “The Great American Awakening” and Sen. Joe Lieberman’s “The Gift of Rest,” are trying to push back against the image of a godless Senate.

To be sure, DeMint and Lieberman have differences both political and religious: DeMint is a Tea Party Republican from South Carolina and a self-described “follower of Christ,” while Lieberman, an observant Jew from Connecticut, is a sometimes unpredictable Independent.

But their books offer equally intimate glimpses into the spiritual lives of America’s elected officials.

On the surface, DeMint’s “The Great American Awakening” is primarily focused on the insurgent conservative movement, particularly the Tea Party.

“The book is really about what Americans did between when Obama was elected and the 2010 elections,” DeMint said in an interview. “The power has shifted out of the hands of Washington and back into the hands of the people where it belongs.”

While the topic is technically more about politics than religion, DeMint said the title of the book is meant to echo the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the early 19th century.

“(The Tea Party) is as much a spiritual awakening as a political awakening,” said DeMint, a Presbyterian. “The concern about our country … has awakened the faith of many people.”

DeMint frequently cites Christian theology and biblical passages to help make his points. “The spiritual assessment is just the lens I look through,” he said.

Such strong connections between faith and politics seem second nature to DeMint in his book. Arguing that the separation of church and state “is contrary to what our founders envisioned,” he attacks the idea of big government on spiritual grounds.

“Big government is a religious issue,” DeMint writes. “History shows in nations where there is a big government, there is a little God. When people are dependent on government, they are less dependent on God, and their spiritual fervor fades. Socialism and secularism go hand in hand, as do faith and freedom.”

DeMint admitted that he hasn’t Read the rest of this entry »

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Soul survival

August 18, 2011

by Abigail Klein Leichman

‘Journey to Heaven’ presents in a clear and organized manner the various Jewish approaches that evolved pertaining to the hereafter

As the daughter of a Lurianic kabbalist, Leila Leah Bronner learned from an early age about the beautiful “olam ha-ba,” the World to Come. Death was not to be feared, because of the perfection of this next world. Once, she asked her father with all the sincerity of a young child, “Tati, if olam ha-ba is such a wonderful place, why don’t we go there now?”

Her book Journey to Heaven presents in a clear and organized manner the various Jewish approaches that evolved pertaining to the hereafter, based on biblical allusions and oral traditions.

Starting with scattered references in the biblical canon – such as incidents of resurrection in narratives from Elijah and Elisha, the prophet Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision and apocalyptic passages in the Book of Daniel – she then examines post-biblical writings in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Mishna and Talmud, medieval Jewish philosophers, kabbalists and mystics, and finally modern theologians. One chapter focuses on the concept of the Messiah, which “is closely linked to Jewish thinking about the afterlife and has its own fascinating evolution over time.”

A former professor of Bible and Jewish history in South Africa, Bronner conveys this material with just enough clarification and commentary to provide religious, sociological and historical context without veering into too much commentary of her own. She successfully illustrates that although Judaism “is not a religion that dwells on what we might expect beyond the grave,” it does have a rich tradition of discussions and descriptions relating to this topic of timeless interest.

The picture that emerges is hardly monolithic, beginning with “a fragile trail of evidence” in biblical sources that grew increasingly detailed over the ensuing centuries.

In post-biblical texts containing Second Temple-era notions about the afterlife, the concept of the immortality of the soul is added to the existing belief in physical resurrection. Resurrection as a reward for righteousness also surfaces in these works.

It is in this corpus that we find the martyrdom story of Hannah and her seven sons. The mother fortifies her dying boys with the belief that “the Creator of the Universe… in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put His laws above all thought of self.” In IV Maccabees, the martyrs’ reward is described as “pure and deathless souls.”

The primary eschatological work of this period is the book of Enoch, which “deals not only with the fate of the individual soul but with the fate of humankind,” describing “the soul’s journey after death with an end-point in time, a Day of Judgment, and a spiritual Messiah who presides over human destiny.”

The Book of Baruch also contains graphic descriptions of life after death, making a distinction between the fate of the righteous (who will be changed into “the splendor of angels”) and the evil (who will be changed into “startling visions and horrible shapes”). This distinction was first alluded to in the Book of Daniel and fleshed out by many later sages. Resurrection, rather than immortality, comes to define the life hereafter, and “this is the idea that finally took hold and became a cornerstone of rabbinic and post-rabbinic Judaism.”

Bronner posits that “apocalyptic writing is typical at a time of turmoil; some people are comforted by the idea that this world will end and what comes next will be better.” She notes that “an afterlife provides reassurance that the suffering we endure in this existence is not worthless; instead, it is part of a greater pattern.”

The themes of judgment, accountability, punishment and vindication are Read the rest of this entry »


Voices Magazine Talking Books Review of And You Shall Tell Your Children

August 15, 2011

by Sharon Katz

From page one of Dr. Ida Akerman-Tieder’s autobiography, And You Shall Tell Your Children – A Chronicle of Survival – Lessons of Life for Today, I felt its unique spirit. Dr. Akerman-Tieder is a child survivor of the Holocaust, and the book tells us the stories of her traumatic childhood and her courageous transformation into a young woman/mother/doctor. But And You Shall Tell Your Children is not only a “Holocaust book.” It’s a book of life’s wisdom.

It’s a survival manual, even billing itself as one. It’s also a book of meaningful and beautiful poetry – no pretentious verse, just deep-felt and direct. Through her poetry, Ida sings a song of love and remembrance to her father, her mother, her husband; she takes an honest look at the world around her; she yearns for Zion; she conveys the awe of Jerusalem and the eternity of the Jewish people.

If for no other reason to acquire …Tell Your Children, and there are plenty of others, the poetry itself is worth the read. It gives a distinction to the book.

Using her dramatic life-story as its framework, the author considers three dimensions – the poetic, the practical and the educational – teaching the reader how we go forward despite it all. Throughout the story and throughout her life, Dr. Ida Akerman-Tieder works hard to overcome the obstacles before her, and she does not allow for the reader’s passivity either. The picture of her life and her suffering are clear, but she is never paralyzed from the traumas around her, and she advises us not to get caught up in our challenges either.

Her first piece of advice, written as a poem from Paris in 1983, is never Read the rest of this entry »


Kosher Bookworm: “Intergalactic Judaism” and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

August 4, 2011

by Alan Jay Gerber

The recent visit to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of the last space shuttle by a group of very talented students of Yeshiva Katana of Inwood and the publication of a new book dealing with that very subject will serve as the focus of this week’s review.

In his new book, Intergalactic Judaism [Urim Publications, 2011] by Rabbi David Lister of the United Kingdom, the subject of the Jewish take on space travel and related activities and studies is dealt with in depth.

Much of the theological discussion found in this book is based upon the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who, according to Rabbi Lister, “has had a major influence on my life and work. His [Hirsch’s] deep love for the Torah, for his fellow Jews and for humanity as a whole, and his advocacy that one sublimate secular learning and culture into opportunities to serve G-d, have been inspirational for me in my work as a rabbi.”

In my communication with Rabbi Lister, he states that, “I discovered Rabbi Hirsch’s writings when I was a teenager and his thought was a revelation to me. He explained the Torah not just as a series of obligations with lots of technicalities but as a system for perfecting oneself, one’s community and the whole of mankind through deeply symbolic and meaningful actions, underpinned by a history of interaction between G-d and His creation.”

Rabbi Lister noted how Rabbi Hirsch demonstrated “how each of the technicalities associated with the rituals is not there for its own sake or as a result of exegetical happenstance, but is, rather, ordained by G-d to add a further depth of meaning to what we do.”

Throughout his book Rabbi Lister references Rabbi Hirsch and clearly demonstrates the contemporary relevance that Rabbi Hirsch still has in Jewish theological methodology.

The method by which Rabbi Lister utilizes Rabbi Hirsch’s teaching is noted throughout the very text itself as well as in the footnotes. British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his foreword to this work states, Read the rest of this entry »