By Ignoring Judaism, a New Book Errs in Trying to Explain the Origins of the Modern Idea of Religion

Nov. 14 2019

In Religion as We Know It, Jack Miles, a renowned scholar of comparative religion, notes that modern Western notions of religion, and of the difference between the sacred and secular, have been “profoundly shaped by Christian assumptions.” Miles traces these assumptions specifically to early Christianity’s experience with persecution. But, writes Elaine Pagels in her review, his story of how this conception of religion came into being has a major flaw:

While Miles’s account apparently selects data through the lens of the “history of ideas,” a clearer sense of the social and political dynamics in the historical conflicts he mentions could add depth to his analysis. Historians of Judaism, for example, have shown that before the time of Jesus, many Jews throughout the world, forced to accommodate to domination by foreign armies—Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman—sought to separate their sacred practices from the demands of occupation forces. From the first century of the Common Era into the second, Jews, including many of Jesus’ early followers, benefited from an “atheist’s exemption” to demonstrate loyalty to Rome by paying taxes and offering sacrifice for the emperor’s welfare in their own temple.

In the same review, Pagels examines another recent book—Believers, by the anthropologist Melvin Konnor—about the permanence of religion:

Noting that the death of religion, so long predicted, has failed to arrive, Konner asks “what it is about the brain . . . that has made this so.” . . . [N]oting that “theorizing about religion’s origins is now a cottage industry,” he dives into scientific and social-scientific papers that investigate related questions, and offers a series of marvelously readable chapters to summarize the research they present.

Best of all, Konner refrains from offering a simple answer, which people asking questions about religion often expect. Instead, like Charles Darwin, he notes that “such a huge dimension of life must serve many functions.” Some readers may take this to mean he is ducking the question; yet the energy and passion articulated in the book belie that charge. In his final chapters, he clearly states his conviction that religion is “a part of human nature,” and so “very persistent, and, in my view, will never go away.”

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Read more at New York Times

More about: ancient Judaism, Christianity, Religion

Why the Leader of Hamas Went to Russia

Sept. 30 2022

Earlier this month, the Hamas chairman Ismail Haniyeh and several of his colleagues visited Moscow, where they met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials. According to Arabic-language media, Haniyeh came seeking “new ideas” about how to wage war against the Jewish state. The terrorist group has had good relations with the Kremlin for several years, and even maintains an office in Moscow. John Hardie and Ivana Stradner comment on the timing of the visit:

For Moscow, the visit likely reflects a continuation of its efforts to leverage the Palestinians and other issues to pressure Israel over its stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia and Israel built friendly relations in the decades following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jerusalem condemned the war, but made sure to tread carefully in order to preserve working ties with Moscow, lest Russian military forces in Syria disrupt Israel’s strategically important air operations there.

Nevertheless, bilateral tensions spiked in April after Yair Lapid, then serving as Israel’s foreign minister, joined the chorus of voices worldwide accusing Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Jerusalem later provided Kyiv with some non-lethal military aid and a field hospital. In response, Moscow hardened its rhetoric about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian issue isn’t the only way that Russia has sought to pressure Israel. Moscow is also threatening, on seemingly spurious grounds, to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Moscow likely has little appetite for outright conflict with Israel, particularly when the bulk of Russia’s military is floundering in Ukraine. But there are plenty of other ways that Russia, which maintains an active intelligence presence in the Jewish state, could damage Israel’s interests. As Moscow cozies up with Hamas, Iran, and other enemies of Israel, Jerusalem—and its American allies—would do well to keep a watchful eye.

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Read more at Algemeiner

More about: Hamas, Israeli Security, Russia