Religion Today

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

You CAN Pray in Your School!

 The school year is arriving again. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.
What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?
Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American. It also includes members of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Wicca. Even Pagans and Neo-Pagans can pray, as can members of any religion or worshippers of any god or goddess I have not mentioned. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.
It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.
Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.
What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?
It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.
Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student. These general prayers should not be ended with a religion-specific phrase, such as, “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.
Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not. Favoritism should not be shown to members of the same faith and discrimination should not take place against members of different religions.
These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others. It is the balance of everyone’s religious freedom that the rules aim to maintain.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

King Herod: President of the Olympics

The London Olympics have provided a wonderful opportunity to enjoy outstanding competition by the world’s best athletes.
And in between  the contests, we hear about how much more expensive these games are than any before them and learn about different sponsors -- companies, taxpayers and governments -- that have contributed money to pay the cost. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the Olympics limps from games to games trying to determine how to pay the bills.
Well, this is nothing new. More than 2,000 years ago, the Olympics were having the same problem. It was getting harder and harder to pay the bills, and the games were in decline. But then a financial savior appeared, in the unlikely form of Herod the Great, King of Judea.
The year was 14 B.C., and the citizens of Olympia, the city and religious shrine in Greece where the Olympic games were held, were worrying about paying for the next games. Hosting the gathering every four years was taking a toll on the city’s finances, for not only did they have to cover the housing and feeding of many people, athletes and spectators, they also had to pay for the sacrifices offered at that time. Olympia served as the central Greek shrine to the god Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. The Olympic games were held as a celebration in his honor. The first and last of the five days set aside for the games were devoted to offering animal sacrifices to Zeus and his consort, the goddess Hera. In recent years, the Olympic’s leaders noted, the money had been getting tighter and the lavish character of the games had become noticeably more shoddy and worn.
King Herod of Judea heard about these troubles and decided to do something about it. Herod, at that time, was looking for a project in which to get involved. The previous year, he had finished rebuilding the central area of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had taken him 15 years. It was so magnificent that, six centuries later, the rabbis still said that anyone who had not seen Herod’s Temple had never seen true beauty. Herod also was finishing up his other building project, Caesarea Maritima, a new city built from the ground up. With the largest harbor on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, it was designed to encourage trade and travel.
So, needing a new project on which to lavish his money, Herod decided to pay for the Olympic games of 12 B.C. He journeyed to Olympia for the games that summer and presided over them as president. Of course, Herod’s gift ensured that the games would go on in style. But by granting Herod the role of presiding president, the Olympians placed Herod in a position where everyone, especially the elite, the wealthy and the rulers, would meet Herod and thank him for his benefaction. Even Caesar Augustus probably thanked Herod for honoring Zeus, Caesar’s patron God, when Herod visited Rome later that summer. Since the ancient Olympic Games were not a secular event as they are today, but a religious celebration devoted to Zeus, a good part of the money Herod the Jew donated must have gone to pay for the sacrifices to Zeus. Herod must have thus practiced the saying of the later Christian apostle Paul: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Apparently Herod enjoyed his Olympics so much that he gave additional funds afterwards to endow the festival in future years. For this further gift, the ancient historian Josephus records Herod had his name recorded as perpetual president of the Olympic Games.

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Death and Evil

On Monday morning, the Washington Post carried a pair of headlining articles. One focused on the mass murder in Aurora last week, the other on a pickup truck crash in Texas. In the first, 12 people were killed and more than 50 wounded, while in the second 14 people were killed and 9 injured.
The first event quickly became a national tragedy; the second did not. The first event generated daily headline stories; the second fell off the main news before the end of the day. The first gained a presidential visit; the second did not.
The first event, the mass murder, was quickly declared to be “evil.” The second, the wreck of the pickup truck, was just an accident, even though more people were killed.
The loss of life and the number of people injured in both of these events were large in scope as well as both tragic and horrifying in their human consequences. But we see one as evil and not the other. Why is that? What is our intuitive definition of evil that motivates us to classify these events in this way?
President Obama twice called the mass murder evil. During his Saturday press conference he said, “Such evil is senseless -- beyond reason.” By his Sunday speech in Aurora, he took the deed’s evil character for granted, referring to the killer as “the perpetrator of this evil act.” Similarly, most news articles and commentaries have assumed that this was an evil deed. There has been no questioning or debate on that point.
So what makes mass murder evil and mass death not? It is clearly not the body count.
Perhaps in part evil comes from premeditation. The killer planned to murder and injure a large number of people. He bought thousands of rounds of ammunition. He purchased an assault rifle and other guns to deliver them to his victims. He protected himself to make it difficult for others to interfere with his murderous actions.
Perhaps our sense of evil comes from its random character. The predator did not care who died as long as someone did. He did not target particular individuals who he thought had wronged him, nor did he target groups of people based on age, racial, religious or other prejudice or hatred. He just wanted to shoot human beings, preferably a lot of them.
The killer must have had a motive, but our sense that his actions were evil does not require us to know it or to take it into account. While we want to know why he did the deed in a (vain?) hope that the information will help us make sense of the horrific event, we do not need that information to determine its evil character.
President Obama made an observation on Saturday that may suggest an answer. He said, “What matters in the end ... [is] how we choose to treat one another, and love one another. It's what we do on a daily basis to give our lives meaning and to give our lives purpose.” While few of us treat everyone as kindly as we should, most of us recognize that our kindness and politeness to others usually comes back to us. We participate in this social agreement.
So if life’s meaning comes from the way we treat and love others, then a person who purposely kills randomly is decidedly evil. Such a person intends to act to harm people not because they have harmed him, but because they are human. He derives meaning by violating the social compact of kindness that most of us recognize. His murderous actions are not about revenge (rightly or wrongly) against an individual who harmed him, but against humanity as a whole, whether children, adults or old people.
In this instance, then, evil is defined as the intentional, premeditated repudiation of the way we understand our ties to other people. However individualistic we are, we sense that this constitutes an attack on the fabric of our society. It is humanity and human society that is somehow seen as the most appropriate target of violence and murder. The people killed in the truck accident tragically lost their lives, but their death was caused by an accident of a moment rather than premeditated evil.

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The Huqoq Synagogue Mosaics

Since my last column, you may have seen that Huqoq, the ancient Galilean village I have been discussing recently, has been in the international news. The team announced the discovery of two parts of a mosaic synagogue floor: A scene of the biblical hero Samson and a Hebrew inscription with the heads of women on either side. (See the links below.) It is dated to roughly the fourth to sixth century.
This is quite an impressive find because the mosaic is of high artistic quality. The artist was able to incorporate many colors and much detail because he/she used tiny tesserae, smaller than those in most mosaics constructed at this time around the Mediterranean Sea. 
What does it take to discover such artwork? In Huqoq’s case, it takes a small expedition, whose members spend a month undertaking daily hard and pain-staking work. Several dozen people, both staff and students, were in the field during June, and while there, they needed regular meals and gallons of water, housing, as well as the necessary equipment to support the work.
This scientific expedition was planned, organized and led by Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, closely assisted by David Amit and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Several other universities helped sponsor the excavations, from the University of Oklahoma and Brigham Young University to the University of Toronto. The American and Canadian students (and one Slovak) who participated earned college credit while learning proper excavation techniques, from trowel and wheelbarrow handling to the intensive measuring, identification and recording that accompanies even the smallest finds.
So what’s the payoff for all this time, work and expense? If we believed the Indiana Jones movies, then the goal would be either to acquire important artifacts for a museum (to display human heritage) or for treasure hunting (stealing people’s heritage). In addition, you will find some groups aim to set out to discover objects that will “prove the Bible,” such as recent attempts to find Noah’s ark. The first goal is much too limited and the latter two are usually fraudulent at best.
But for archaeology carried out in a scientific manner, the goal is understanding the human past--our past. And understanding comes from interpreting the finds within their archaeological context, namely, that of ancient people and their activities, lives, accomplishments and beliefs.
The excavations that took place at Huqoq provided such a context, for in addition to the synagogue, excavations were also done in the housing area of the ancient village. This work provided insight into the villagers’ foodways, and even hinted that the village might have been wealthy enough to support a butcher business.
The synagogue itself supports the conclusion that the village was prosperous at the time of its erection. Not only do the mosaic’s tiny tesserae point to its quality and expense, but so do the massive, shaped stones that make up the synagogue’s walls. There is nothing small about its construction.
A bit of historical context is provided by a contemporary book; the Palestinian Talmud mentions that Huqoq is known for its mustard production. Could the mustard industry have been profitable enough to provide the village’s prosperity?
Or maybe we should expand our horizon and view Huqoq within the context of its surrounding villages. Many of the nearby synagogues of this era also show evidence of affluence. Capernaum, Chorazin, Hamat Tiberias and Wadi Hamam immediately come to mind. Perhaps the Jewish villages around the Sea of Galilee were generally prosperous, rather than impoverished, which enabled them to build monumental synagogues.
That would be an interesting conclusion, for the sixth century is the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. He was a powerful ruler famed for compiling an extensive law code. In that code, he outlawed pagan religions and forbade Jews from building new synagogues, although they could remodel old ones. The monumental synagogues of Huqoq and surrounding villages show that Justinian’s law was not being followed in Galilee. His control apparently did not extend to the Galilean interior.
The scientific archaeological excavations at the village of Huqoq, then, provide important insight into the lives of ancient Galilean Jews, as well as help us evaluate the power and effectiveness of one of the most important rulers in the ancient world.
Note: News on the Huqoq finds appears at:
Also visit the website Bible and Interpretation at
The Religious Studies Program is a sponsoring institution for the Huqoq excavations. If you would like to donate to support us sending students to participate in these excavations, please email

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