The news rushes at us fast and furiously, as do so many worthy articles, books, and essays that call out for attention. Some of these items clearly deserve a closer look. What follows is a briefing of writings that should not escape your review.
Young, Restless, and Jewish?
Peter Beinart has ignited a firestorm in the American Jewish community. A former editor of The New Republic, Beinart wrote an essay, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," in the June 10, 2010 edition of The New York Review of Books. Within days, a heated conversation had erupted among Jewish leaders and intellectuals, and a reading of his article reveals why this is so.
The thrust of Beinart's essay is that the American Jewish establishment has failed to maintain a credible form of Zionism. American Judaism is forfeiting its commitments to Israel because, he argues, American Jews are overwhelmingly committed to a secular liberalism that is no longer represented by the state of Israel. In failing to criticize Israel for its illiberalism, Beinart argues that these Jewish leaders have undermined the case for American Jewish support.
That is an interesting argument, and one that has drawn fierce criticism from Jewish leaders and intellectuals such as Abraham Foxman and Alan Dershowitz. But what many readers may miss in the controversy is what makes Beinart's essay of particular interest.
As Peter Beinart makes clear, the old-line mainstream of American Jewish life is giving way to polarization among younger Jews. The same polarization, it turns out, is happening within Israel itself. What we might call the older "mainline" of moderate Judaism is giving way to younger Jews who tend to be divided between the deeply Orthodox and the ardently secular. The middle ground is disappearing fast.
In both the U.S. and in Israel, the fastest growth is among the Orthodox. Beinart reports that "while Orthodox Jews make up only 12 percent of American Jewry over the age of sixty, they constitute 34 percent between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four." The same pattern is evident within Israel, where the younger population is also trending into a polarization between the fast-growing Orthodox and the avowedly secular.
The secular Zionists "aren't reproducing themselves," Beinart reports - and he appears to mean this in both biological and ideological terms.
What makes this especially interesting is how this essay appears to describe a phenomenon well documented in the U.S. with respect to younger evangelicals. The "young, restless, and reformed" trajectory traced by Collin Hansen and others documents how, against the challenges posed to faith in late modernity and the larger secularizing trends, younger evangelicals are drawn to robust theological foundations and beliefs, and are decreasingly attracted to more moderate (and thus less compelling) beliefs.
In other words, the distinction between belief and unbelief is made simultaneously more clear and pressing when defined over against the increasingly secular intellectual culture the young know all too well. It is more than slightly interesting to see the parallel development in Judaism.
Pope Benedict XVI and Words from the Past
The June 3, 2010 edition of TIME magazine featured a cover story entitled, "Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry," written by Jeff Israely and Howard Chua-Eoan. The article discusses what the magazine describes as the central difficulty faced by the Roman Catholic Church in the sex abuse scandal. As they write, "The word reformation is a sensitive one for Catholics, raising the specter of one of the church's great historical challenges." That, we might assume, is something of an understatement.
What makes this article of particular interest is a statement from the Pope, spoken on radio in 1969 when he was a young theologian of age 42. Given the current crisis faced by the Roman Catholic Church, this statement is both striking and hauntingly prophetic:
"From today's crisis, a church will emerge tomorrow that will have lost a great deal. . . . She will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning. She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor. Because of the smaller number of her followers, she will lose many of her privileges in society. Contrary to what has happened until now, she will present herself much more as a community of volunteers … As a small community, she will demand much more from the initiative of each of her members and she will certainly also acknowledge new forms of ministry and will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs … It will make her poor and a church of the little people … All this will require time. The process will be slow and painful."
Peter Singer and the End of the Human Race
Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer is one of the most reprehensible intellectual forces alive today. He has advocated the morality of human infanticide, for the greater value of animal life over some human life, and for a radical vision of animal rights that is based in his purely evolutionary view of life.
Now, in an "Opinionator" column for The New York Times, Singer considers whether the current generation of human beings should be the last. He cites the work of David Benatar, who has argued that it is immoral for human beings to reproduce, given the probability of some pain experienced as a consequence of life.
"So why don't we make ourselves the last generation on earth?", Singer asks. In the end, his only argument is that in his own personal judgment, "for most people, life is worth living." If this is not yet so, Singer predicts that future developments for human happiness are likely to make it so. That is all he has to offer.
Behind all this is purely materialistic view of all life. In an article published in The Guardian [London] just two days later, Singer made that position clear:
The belief that the animals exist because God created them – and that he created them so we can better meet our needs – is contrary to our scientific understanding of evolution and, of course, to the fossil record, which shows the existence of non-human primates and other animals millions of years before there were any human beings at all.
In the end, everything Peter Singer believes about life can be traced back to that kind of statement. If life is an accident, it just might be conceivable that life is not worth living.