David KlinghofferWith the end of Charlotte Hays' Loose Canon blog last week, we introduce David Klinghoffer as Beliefnet's guest blogger for the week of March 6 to March 10. Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and the author most recently of  "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History" (Doubleday).

What's a Liberal?

What makes a liberal a liberal, and a conservative a conservative? A perceptive book review in the Miami Herald implicitly raises the question.

It's a review of a couple of books from "a successful new literary sub-genre: the liberal, Bible-based counterattack." The books under review are Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right and Dan Wakefield's The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. To these two, add Rev. Jim Wallis's God's Politics: Why the Right Gets Its Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, and a forthcoming title Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, a "humor" title by a not very funny liberal Christian writer, Becky Garrison.

All these books want to wrestle out of the hands of religious conservatives the claim to represent the most authentic Biblical politics. The book I'm supposed to start in on writing next month (for Doubleday) is Why God Is a Republican: An Honest Look at the Politics of the Bible. These liberal books could all be strung together under the title Why God is a Democrat.

Who's right? Of course there's always some self-righteous killjoy who will harrumph, "God isn't a Democrat or a Republican!" OK, OK, obviously true. But the question still stands: If forced to choose, would you say a conservative or a liberal political outlook comes closer to representing the politics of the Bible.

Readers, please give me your thoughts. Just don't be a wimp and duck the question.

My own view starts from the observation that clearly there is something, a deeper issue or concern, that unites the seemingly disparate collection of opinions we call liberalism. And there is a deeper issue or concern that unites the opinions we call conservative. There must be, otherwise how can we explain the strange fact that if you ask someone for his view on, say, gun control, from this you can nearly always guess what his views will be on taxes, abortion, and immigration. What's one got to do with the others?

It's not for nothing that you meet few genuinely eclectic political types. Few people mix and match political opinions of the left and right. Generally most of us line up on one side or the other. And you can't explain this with, again, the self-righteous harrumph that "Well, most people are sheep, they don't think for themselves--unlike me!" Because obviously there are many liberals and conservatives alike who transparently are not sheep, who obviously do think for themselves, and yet they accept the whole package of views associated with their ideological community.

My favorite explanation, which I've heard articulated best by Michael Medved, holds that what unites liberal positions on apparently unrelated issues is materialism.

In almost every familiar liberal political position, there is what you might call the privileging of a materialist perspective over a non-materialist one. By materialism I don't mean greed for luxuries but rather a single-minded focus on material stuff.

Some examples include:

Gun control: liberalism sees the material artifact (the gun) as the problem. Unwanted pregnancies: liberalism sees a material solution (abortion) to the problem rather than a spiritual one. Gay rights: liberalism sees a material substrate (the hypothetical "gay gene") as determining sexuality and sexual activity rather than moral choices. Crime and punishment: liberalism sees sickness and other biological problems (heredity) as determining criminality rather than, again, moral choice. End-of-life medical issues: liberalism sees the human individual as a purely material being that, once its brain has deteriorated to a certain point, may be ethically killed just like any other animal. And so on.

This, by the way, may help explain why intelligent design is currently being fought over so fiercely in the courts and in the media. Darwin's evolutionary theory is the keystone of the modern "religion" of materialism, a/k/a secularism. It provides confirmation, in the form of an origins narrative, for materialism in the same way the story of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis (which may be understood in more important ways than a simple literal reading) underlies Biblical religion.

If you undermine people's faith in the myth at their religion's roots, the superstructure is in danger of collapse. To the extent Darwinism's influence in the culture is weakened, the roots of liberal social policies are cut off from their source of nourishment. The political importance of intelligent design is, then, potentially huge.

The Good, the Bad, and...the Religious

In an interview in the Boston Globe, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz tries to uncouple religion from morality. Actually he goes much further than merely saying you don't have to be religious to be moral, which is obvious. Quoth Dershowitz: "You need not to have religion to have morality. Morality based on religion is often no morality at all. If you do it because of heaven or hell, or because an instruction book told you to, it's not morality. It's morality when you have decided yourself, without benefits or threats, that this is the right thing to do."

I don't know how many variations I've heard on this basic theme which tries to deny that religion has anything positive to contribute to a society's moral tone. Folks like Dershowitz are entitled to their opinions, but let's at least recognize them as mere opinions with zero basis in empiricism.

Empirically--meaning, based onhard evidence derived from scientific observation--we actually know that Dershowitz is wrong. A person may be moral without being religious, but within a society or a culture, religious individuals are statistically more likely to espouse moral viewpoints than non-religious individuals. This has been shown by sociologist Rodney Stark from studies of peoples around the globe.

The hard data may be found in Chapter 7 of Stark's book Exploring the Religious Life. The same material may be found in an academic journal article by Stark, in PDF form, here.

Platinum Messiah?

The new Matisyahu album, Youth, came out yesterday and I have not heard it mainly because I’ve always found reggae a repetitive bore and I would so much like to like Matisyahu’s music. Rolling Stone, indeed, gives the album a mixed review but the talk is that Youth will rocket to platinum status in short order, making the 26-year-old artist the best known Lubavitch hasid since the late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Good for him--which I say mainly because I’d love to see Chabad catapulted to greater visibility as a result, this organization that is the most valuable Jewish group in the country and that offers a lesson to Christians as well.

Chabad is a Hasidic sect that focuses its amazing energies on “inreach”--basically, ministering to and evangelizing fellow Jews on behalf of a highly traditional but at the same time highly nonjudgmental form of Orthodox Judaism. It is frequently assailed, not least in Jewish religious circles, Orthodox and otherwise. The rabbi at the Reform temple where I grew up denounced the local Chabad rabbi who, the Reform rabbi felt, was seeking to poach on his congregation, thereby endangering the man’s livelihood. From the Orthodox side, Chabad used to be and sometimes still is condemned for the belief among some Lubavitchers that the late Rebbe was the Messiah, or Moshiach, that after he died in 1994 it was only a matter of time before he was resurrected to assume the Messianic mantle. There is some speculation about whether Matisyahu himself believes this.

The view from a Jewish perspective isn’t as far out as it sounds--the Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin offers an opinion that the Messiah could indeed be someone from either the currently living or from the currently dead. For an example of a resurrected Messiah, it proposes the prophet Daniel as a hypothetically imaginable candidate. But the Lubavitch movement has overwhelmingly moved on from the “Messianist” position and rejoined mainstream Judaism which looks forward to a Messiah who is very much of the living.

More recently, Jewish anti-Chabad sniping has taken the form of the complaint that Chabad is a sellout, that is somehow cynical, that is waters down the requirements of Orthodox Judaism. The website FailedMessiah.com--a consistent Chabad-basher--carps nastily about how “Matisyahu pimps the [Chabad] image, and Chabad pimps Matisyahu.” For more instance of anti-Chabad teeth-gnashing see here, here, and here.

The nastiness is all a symptom of the success that Chabad has had since the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, arrived in the U.S. in 1940, following a miraculous escape from the Nazis. (The anniversary of his arrival is tomorrow.) Since then, the Chabad philosophy centered on unconditional love of fellow Jews has blossomed in the system of emissaries--basically Jewish missionary workers scattered around the world, I mean everywhere around the world, who provide the service of ministering to Jews--lost Jews, found Jews, all Jews--offering meals, fellowship, counseling, worship opportunities, friendship.

Chabad emissaries are omnipresent, frequently operating out of home synagogues, raising their own salaries, this most extraordinarily energetic and cheerful--truly joyous, full good humor and bonhomie--group of people I know.

Their loving acceptance of others is amazing to behold, and Jews from all walks of life respond to it. For example, I recently became reacquainted with my fourth-grade homeroom teacher, who lives in Southern California where I grew up. She self-identifies as an atheist--yeah, right--but loves Chabad and attends Chabad Sabbath services whenever she can. This is far from unusual.

I know countless Jews who, like myself, come from secular backgrounds but have been touched by Chabad’s grace, charm, sincerity, and dedication. We make up the large majority of people who attend worship services led by Lubavitch emissaries around the country and around the world. Lubavitchers serve us selflessly. There’s never any intention of making anybody into a Chabad follower. The ideal, of course, is to see every Jew joined in a relationship with God through the language of the Torah’s 613 commandments. But Chabad is patient. It puts no pressure on anyone. It assumes that the electricity that surges in Torah, if simply presented, not pushed, will exercise its own attraction. All in good time.

It is, in fact, this very patience that has got Chabad in hot water with some fellow Orthodox Jews who want standards enforced. This vein of anti-Chabad carping represents, I think, an illustration of a very human comfort with mediocrity and stasis coupled with a resistance to high-energy attempts to shake things up. This, indeed, is the history of mystical Hasidic Judaism, in its confrontation with conventional Judaism, in a nutshell.

The lesson for Christians, especially evangelical Christians, should be obvious. Spend less time preaching, more time offering fellowship, friendship, especially over meals, which is the Jewish way. Be patient. You’ll be rewarded, and so will those people to whom you minister.

No Joy in Mudville

There is much disappointment in certain Jewish and Christian circles over the news in Jerusalem Post that two important Christian pastors, John Hagee and Jerry Falwell, don’t think Jews are going to heaven. This follows corresponding excitement and jubilation at a previous Post report that Hagee and Falwell had accepted “dual covenant” theology, which teaches that Jews and Christians have separate but equal paths to an eternal heavenly reward.

“Say it ain’t so,” is what I’m sure Falwell and Hagee’s followers and colleagues beseeched them, and understandably so - “dual covenant” makes nonsense of the basic Christian message that the new covenant or new testament supercedes the old. Like it or not, that’s what Paul clearly had in mind when he dismissed Jewish Torah observance as a “curse,” a “captor,” from which we Jews are now set free. To reject the offer of liberation - had God made such an offer, or if “liberation” from a Torah-based relationship with Him were desired - would be a poor basis for a continuing covenant of any value.

Quite consistent with his adherence to this basic Christian belief, Falwell clarified:

“I have been on record all 54 years of my ministry as being opposed to dual covenant theology...I simply cannot alter my deeply held belief in the exclusivity of salvation through the Gospel of Christ for the sake of political or theological expediency. Like the Apostle Paul, I pray daily for the salvation of everyone, including the Jewish people.”

Good for him. I’m a great believer in deepening Jewish-Christian friendship but that can’t be done on the basis of dismantling fundamental belief structures.

I know many Jews find it eerie to sit across a table from a Christian friend who thinks, unless you accept Jesus, you’re going to hell. But consider, there is a strong vein in our own religion that says much the same about them.

Yes, it’s true that Jews have a concept of “the pious ones of the nations of the world,” a category of gentiles who have an eternal reward in the world to come. A non-Jew who studies the Bible and fulfills it is held, by Jewish tradition, to be on the level of a Jewish high priest, no less. On the other hand, in his encyclopedic rendition of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides - there is no more authoritative rabbinic voice in the past thousand years - rules that Christians and Muslims have no heavenly reward. This is because they both, in their different ways, deny the authority of the Torah.

This disturbing idea about Christians and Muslims is not a mainstream belief in any Jewish “denomination.” But it is still right there on the page in a religious work (the Mishneh Torah) that as a whole is extremely mainstream.

So when Jews say it’s somehow inherently offensive of Christians to imagine us being denied God’s presence in the afterlife, I say: Oh yeah? Offensive? Go ask Maimonides.

Out of a Hat?

Responding plaintively to my earlier post linking Woody Allen with the sinister Biblical entity called Amalek (associated with the belief that the history of life and of existence is driven by chance and randomness), a reader going by the handle revandre asks: “But, tell me, your interpretations of scripture...do you stay up nights coming up with these things?”

Presumably, revandre was puzzled by some not-obvious interpretation I cited, on the authority of “Biblical tradition.” I figure some clarification of that phrase may be in order.

The Hebrew Bible is the most extraordinarily puzzling document I know of. While translations invariably seek to hide this from us, papering over what’s so very strange, the Scriptural text is full of what one may only call editorial difficulties: everything from grammatical and spelling anomalies to factual contradictions, language that makes no sense, information that should be there but isn’t, information that seems totally out of context, and on and on. When read in the original Hebrew, the Torah especially is full of seeming editorial glitches. There’s at least one in almost every verse. I was a professional magazine editor for nine years and I can tell you that either the Five Books of Moses are the most ineptly edited work ever - or, it’s something else.


Of course secularist academics insist that the Torah was edited together from older texts by an editor or editors with minute care over the course of years, decades, centuries...This theory, the Documentary Hypothesis, is implausible to anyone who’s been an editor. Then again, as I also know from personal experience, most professors can barely write, much less edit, competently. So don’t blame them for missing this.

The only other explanation of the weirdness of the Pentateuch - at least the only explanation seriously on offer--is that it is intentionally cryptic. That is, every seeming editorial glitch is like a hand with a pointed finger directing us to consult some outside source that provides the key to unlocking this otherwise locked text.

What’s the key? Well, Judaism offers what we call the oral tradition, which is said to have its origin, just as the Torah itself does, at Mount Sinai. There, Moses received not only the text of the Pentateuch but also an oral explanation from God. He was instructed to keep this interpretation oral, not to write it down. And so it remained, the inheritance of every generation of Jews, passed down from father to son, from teacher to student, for some 1,500 years.

That is, until the oral tradition, a.k.a. the Oral Torah, began to be lost. So it was written down, first in the Mishnah, about 200 C.E., later at more length in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, then in the Midrashic books, and so on. In a real sense, the Oral Torah is still being passed down and written into our own time.

When I cite “Biblical tradition,” this is what I have in mind. This is why when you open a traditional printing of the Hebrew Bible, the text itself is surrounded by a swarm of classical commentators deploying the oral tradition to clarify the text’s veiled meanings.

I hope this helps. I know it won’t sit right with liberals. So go ahead, attack away. Tell me how you can explain the reason that the very first word in the Bible, “Bereishit,” is a grammatical error--meaning not “In the beginning” but “In the beginning of”--where the grammatical referent (“of what?”) is simply missing.

Then go on to the next error in the text, and the next, and the next. Then go on to Genesis 1:2 and proceed from there.

Happy Birthday, Moses

Today, interestingly, happens to be the anniversary of both the birth and the death of Moses (1393-1273 BCE). This is according to Biblical tradition, which teaches that the greatest saints have the merit both of being born and of dying on the same calendar date--in this instance the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Adar.

So while we’re at it, a thought on the two tablets of the Ten Commandments that Moses famously brought down from Mount Sinai.

I’m wrapping up a book now on that subject: Shattered Tablets: What the Ten Commandments Reveal About American Culture and Its Discontents (Doubleday). One theme of the book is supplied by an ancient teaching, from the rabbinic work Mechilta, that God gave the Decalogue on matching twin tablets, instead of on one (which would have been just as easy--use a smaller typeface), to show the correspondence between the commandments on the first with those on the second. What’s more, the correspondence is linear, matching each commandment with the other on the facing tablet. My spin is that when a culture disregards those first five it will also disregard the second five, and I back this up from other very old works of Biblical tradition.

Reading the Decalogue this ways produces a series of if-then statements, reading across: If a culture neglects the First Commandment it will neglect the Sixth. If it neglects the Second, it will neglect the Seventh. And so on.

I’m writing about the Tenth Commandment now, which forbids coveting. The corresponding commandment on the first tablet is the Fifth, about honoring your father and mother. How does dishonoring parents lead to coveting?

I’d love to get your thoughts on this. Here’s one morsel for your consideration, which occurred to me while I was reading Helmut Schoeck’s fascinating book Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.

Coveting or envy doesn’t mean simply wanting luxuries that you can buy at a store. It means resenting the privileges of others and wishing to see their wealth or other gifts taken away or ruined. As Schoeck argues, one measure of envy is taxation levels so high that it’s obvious the purpose is to take the privileged down a notch or two by redistributing their wealth. The death tax, on estates, is a great example of this. That money was taxed a long time ago already, when it was earned. The only reason to tax it again is pure envy.

Those who have the money are eager to go along with such a tax scheme because there is an ancient fear, in almost every culture, of envy and its baleful effects. Often this is called the evil eye. The wealthy and gifted often seek to appease this sinister spiritual force by actively supporting socialism.

What’s this got to do with honoring mom and pop? Everything. In a redistributionist tax system, we take people’s money and give it to strangers--the more, the better. This is socialism in a nutshell. It’s also the exact opposite of the way generosity and charity are supposed to work. In the Biblical model, which the great medieval sage Maimonides codified, there is a clear scale of priorities for charitable giving.

First, you give to those in your family who are in need, starting with your parents. Then those in your city, assuming there’s anything left over. Then those in your country. Then finally, in the very unlikely case there’s leftovers, those in other countries. But the priority is parents.

The Fifth Commandment is defined primarily as a matter of taking care of your mother and father in their agedness and their infirmity, caring for their material needs. It also directs us to honor our parents, not other people’s parents.

In a welfare state, or a state like ours where billions are handed out overseas yearly, this whole Biblical hierarchy is turned on its head. Taxes are farmed, our money is seized, and then handed out with no consideration to the relationship between giver and receiver. The members of our family have no priority to receive the money taken from us.

So you see that an envy-based society, one that discards the Tenth Commandment, is predicated on first having discarded the Fifth Commandment. A true welfare state can never take root in a culture that truly honors parents.

Happy birthday, Moses!

Conservative No More

In the intra-religious wars over homosexuality, the really interesting question is what drives those clergy who--having inherited a conservative and Bible-based tradition--avert their eyes and through force of will imagine that their tradition is far more “progressive” than it is.

By way of illustration, the New York Times informs us that Tuesday and Wednesday of this week the Jewish Law and Standards committee of “Conservative Judaism” is meeting to decide whether to embrace gay matrimony. Now, for those who don’t know, Conservative Judaism is the shrinking middle-of-the-road Jewish denomination that’s forever trying to triangulate a position between left-wing Reform, which is utterly cut loose from the ancient mooring of the Hebrew Bible, and Orthodoxy, which maintains that God actually gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Conservative Judaism isn’t conservative at all, it’s political, always defined by a look over the shoulder at what the other guys are doing.

Before long, Conservative Judaism will gave way to cultural pressures, abandon the Hebrew Bible’s crystal clear viewpoint on the question of homosexual relations (the famous Leviticus 18:22 and bend itself into the necessary pretzel to make gay marriage kosher for Conservative synagogues.

I liked the comment of one Conservative rabbi and professor at the denomination’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Burton L. Visotzky: “There are so many laws in the Torah about sexual behavior that we [Conservative Jews] choose to ignore, so when we zero in on this one, I have to wonder what’s really behind it.”

Good question!

It’s not as if gay people of Jewish or any other ethnic background have no place to go in the event that they wish to get married before a clergyperson. Plenty of men and women with beautiful robes and sonorous voices will be delighted to bless their union in a building that looks exactly like a church or a synagogue. No problem! So why must Conservative Judaism, or the Episcopal Church--or fill in here the name of the latest once-traditional denomination that’s blowing in the wind on the gay issue--now join the mad clerical rush to ol’ Brokeback?

Get us to the pup tent on time! But why?

Is it simply and purely compassion at work? Is there just absolutely no way to adhere to the integrity and truth of the plain-as-day Scriptural text while simultaneously maintaining an attitude of kindness, empathy, understanding, and love for Jack and Ennis and all others born with an inclination to homosexuality?

I don’t believe so. And a beautiful letter--very compassionate and very understanding--from a distinguished Orthodox rabbi, Aharon Feldman, to a Jewish gay returnee (baal teshuva) to Jewish tradition proves it. The subject is repentance (teshuvah). I love, especially, Rabbi Feldman’s citation from Isaiah 56:4-5. (Thanks to Rabbi Adlerstein at Cross-Currents for the link.)

So if it’s not necessarily pure love and compassion that drives liberal clergy, what is it?

Cynicism about Biblical tradition? That’s part of it. Cowardice? Certainly: a fear of what others will say if you stand up to secular culture, which right now has a lot more prestige than religious culture does. However the rush, the enthusiasm, to applaud homosexual relations isn’t fully explained this way.

What I just said about the prestige of the matter may come closer to the truth. In liberal clerical circles, just like in Hollywood, there is a hunger for respect. After all, the key point about liberal churches today is that they are dying. They can barely fill their pews. Indeed, Conservative Judaism shrunk from 43 to 33 percent of America’s religiously affiliated Jews between 1990 and 2000. This is a denomination on the ropes.

Nobody gets less respect than a Conservative rabbi--who theoretically has the job of instructing his congregation about Jewish observance but who is rarely listened to. In many a Conservative synagogue, the rabbi is the only one who keeps kosher or even minimally keeps the Sabbath. He doesn’t dare admonish his own employers (the members of the synagogue) on such matters.

Like a Hollywood actor, the liberal clergyman, Jewish or Christian, wishes to seem serious, at the cutting edge on important social issues. For reasons beyond the scope of today’s post, secular culture attaches prestige to the opinion that gay sex is great and condemnation to the view that it may not be so great.

To be a liberal rabbi or minister today is to be continually chasing the sense of respect that you thought you’d been promised in seminary or divinity school but that the members of the congregation you serve simply don’t give you. It’s all very sad and pathetic. Poor guys and gals! They deserve our sympathy no less than gays and lesbians.

Why the Jews Rejected Jesus

Excuse the shameless personal plug. My current book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History, comes out today in paperback. Buy it here.

In brief, what I do is distinguish the comparatively weak reasons for rejecting Jesus (especially what I call the "resume" issue that one hears about from groups like Jews for Judaism, i.e. Did he do what the prophets say the Messiah will do?) from the irrefutable reasons (which get less attention).

For me, the top three reasons are:

1. Jesus’ and Paul’s voiding of the terms of what the Bible presents as an eternal covenant, centered on the 613 Biblical commandments that Paul, in particular, rejected;

2. What Jesus and Paul offer that’s positive--and of course there’s a lot--is something Jews already had, which renders the Christian message superfluous to us; and

3. The Bible explicitly gives Jews a mission as a priestly kingdom to educate the world about God, and this assumes an eternal and separate people of Israel -- on whose existence, however, Christianity acts as a powerful solvent or acid. Historically, Jewish families and communities that accept Jesus have invariably disappeared from the community of Israel. They erase themselves from history. This last point is particularly painful for culturally Jewish “Messianic Jews” to hear, but there are 2,000 years of empirical evidence behind it.

There’s more information on my website. If you get a chance to read the book, please give me your feedback, attempted counter-refutations, etc.

War on Woody?

Thank you, Beliefnet, for the opportunity to offend the tender sensibilities of your liberal readers from today through the end of the week! Let’s get down to business with an appreciation of what a deeply and subversively right-wing book the Bible is - taking as our occasion a line in Woody Allen’s underappreciated "Match Point," which last night failed to win an Oscar for best original screenplay.

The movie is excellent and edge-of-chair suspenseful, notwithstanding a very unfortunate culture war message. In "Match Point," a struggling London tennis pro marries a sweet-but-boring upper-class girl for her money while carrying on a dangerous affair with a sexy American actress. Woody Allen’s basic concept is that all of life is governed by luck. In the opening shot, a tennis game is won or lost based on whether the ball, hesitating on the edge of the net for a moment, falls in one direction or other. The film’s climax, involving a murder investigation, is also determined by which way a small object balanced on the edge of a railing falls. Nothing but chance!

Says the adulterous protagonist in a restaurant scene where Woody Allen defines the whole message he’s trying to articulate: "Scientists are confirming more and more that existence is here by blind chance, no purpose, no design."

Yes, clunky, I know. Very likely that’s not the line that won Woody his Oscar nomination. Still, notice the reference to "design" - a dig at Intelligent Design, for sure, the Darwin-doubting theory that life’s history shows evidence of a designer’s hand at work.

Now don’t jump on me yet, angry Darwinists. Hear me out!

The question of whether "existence is here by blind chance, no purpose, no design" happens to be the question on which turn virtually all the most fiercely argued political and social questions facing us as a society today. Often, what’s thought of as the "conservative" position on a given issue is simply the assertion that life has purpose and an underlying design. God designed us in a certain way, to thrive - a man marries a woman, for example, not another man. To set up a society that ignores the designer’s intentions is to court disaster. Every unborn child reflects its designer’s purpose and can’t lightly be discarded for convenience’s sake. And so on.

Let’s note that in Biblical tradition, Woody Allen’s all-is-chance thesis is an idea we’re called on to make war against forever. How do we know? Because just before the ancient Israelites received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, they were the victims of a cruel surprise attack by the mysterious and sinister tribe called Amalek. "Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt, that he chanced upon you on the way, and he struck those of you were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God" (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).

In the abovementioned verse from Deuteronomy, the Bible’s fifth book, the unusual Hebrew word translated "he chanced upon you" (kar’chah) has the connotation of randomness and coincidence. That’s why from ancient times Jewish tradition associated Amalek with the belief that, to quote Woody again, "existence is here by blind chance, no purpose, no design." Amalek hated Israel, because Israel stood for the precise opposite: the faith that a grand purpose and design drives history at every level.

Oddly, the same Hebrew word (kar’chah) also has a connotation of homosexual intercourse, suggesting that every pair of Amalekite gents had their pup tent with them.

Anyway, after the Jews fought a pitched battle against the Amalekites, God made a fateful announcement: "The Lord maintains a war against Amalek, from generation to generation" (Exodus 17:16), with the result that we humans of good will must get involved in the anti-Amalek hostilities, too: "You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven-you shall not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25:19).

Because there are no self-identified Amalekites around any more to wipe out, it follows that the war on Amalek is a spiritual one. It’s a struggle against the notion, so pervasive today, that existence is driven by chance and coincidence, without purpose or design. From Charles Darwin to Woody Allen, the Amalekite idea still lives and thrives.

Not coincidentally, this happens to be the week above all others when Jews are called on to remember to fight against Amalek. This Saturday morning in synagogues around the world, as per the Jewish calendar’s yearly cycle, a special Torah reading called Parshat Zachor is chanted, recalling the eternal charge to make war on Amalek. It’s considered a Biblical commandment to hear this reading. If you live near an Orthodox synagogue feel free to pop in and listen.


Michael Medved hits the nail on the head in his USA Today column, pointing out a hitherto unnoticed anomaly: the huge yawn from the Religious Right that greeted the release of Brokeback Mountain. No crowds of conservative Christians chanting slogans or beating anybody up or doing anything else the least bit destructive. Writes Medved:

"While derided by prominent liberals as ‘the Taliban wing of the Republican Party,’ conservative Christian leaders have displayed a new sense of security and confidence, in dramatic contrast to the paranoid Muslim mobs that riot across the globe over a dozen disrespectful Danish cartoons."

Interesting point, no?

In light of how scary worldwide Islamo-fascism has become, the much maligned so-called Christian Right surely deserves a break from its bitterest critics. I’m still waiting for the Anti-Defamation League and the liberal Jewish Reform Movement to withdraw their respective fatwas of late last year against evangelical and other conservative Christians. (See my article in the ecumenical journal First Things here.)

Even a seasoned Christian Right-basher like Bruce Bawer, who used to be a political conservative, seems to be eating crow in his new book "While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within." He had previously written "Stealing Jesus : How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity" (1997), about nasty and soul-destroying "fundamentalist" (that wonderfully vague word) Christianity. But along with a Norwegian gay partner, expatriate Bawer has been living in Europe since 1998 and now sees that there’s another "fundamentalism," namely the Muslim variety, that puts the American Religious Right entirely in the shade as dangers go: "In Western Europe, not to put too fine a point on it, fundamentalist Muslims were on the march. Their numbers-and power-were large and growing rapidly. And the ultimate objective of many of their leaders was far more than a ban on abortion or gay marriage."

Implicitly, Bawer seems to be making peace with the only country in the world with the will and guts to lead a resistance to Islamic fascism - a country that happens also to be arguably the most enthusiastically Christian one on earth. Coincidence?

With the anti-cartoon riots still fresh in memory, Bawer’s is a well timed book, a smartly written one, with an important message. Now if only the Anti-Defamation League could be prevailed on to withdraw its own suggestion that the No. 1 urgent threat to American liberty is from - go figure! - American Christians.

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