Elie Wiesel (Sept. 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

“Indifference is more dangerous than anger and hatred.”

On July 2, 2021, it will be five years since our colleague Professor Elie Wiesel passed away. Wiesel was world famous as a Nobel laureate, Holocaust survivor, human rights advocate, and author of one of the most influential memoirs that gave voice the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during WW II, among them a million and a half children. Elie Wiesel was one of the lucky ones who survived Auschwitz, one of the infamous death marches, and Buchenwald. Like other survivors, for the rest of his life he was haunted by guilt.

At Boston University, generations of students were privileged to learn from Professor Wiesel. Surprisingly perhaps, he rarely taught the Holocaust. Wiesel was Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities and he taught literature, because he believed that literature gives us insight into the human condition; because he believed that words speak louder than facts; because he believed that imagination is the antidote to indifference.

We were privileged to have Professor Wiesel as a colleague. At Boston University, his legacy lives on as a mandate. In 2005, when he gave his name to our Center for Jewish Studies, he left us with the expectation that we would carry on his mission to teach the humanities in a Jewish key; to foster love for the Jewish people and keep Jerusalem in our hearts; to speak out for human rights; to make sure our students were awake to the problems faced by their fellow human beings across the globe.

Those who knew him also knew there was a streak of Hasidic mischief lurking behind his eyes. He could always surprise you with a repartee. He had the presence of a true conversationist. To be with Elie elevated you in unexpected ways. This was true even when he disagreed with you. And he certainly disagreed with me on occasion! Nevertheless, I always walked away with the sense that I had been in the presence of a very special human being. It was truly a privilege to know him. May his memory be for a blessing!

Michael Zank, PhD

Professor of Religion, Jewish, and Medieval Studies

Director, The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies

 

 

“Holy Silence” Reflection

Maggie Leone (COM ‘21) Maggie Leone Portrait CU

Originally from Pittsburgh, Maggie Leone is a journalism student in the BU College of Communication. Taking CAS RN 384 The Holocaust encouraged Maggie to explore the topic further and meet survivor Irene Shashar. For the past two and a half years, Maggie has been working with Irene to compile her memories of the Holocaust in order to help Irene share her history. She is honored to have gained Irene’s trust and friendship.

On January 31, 2021, the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies program at Boston University, AJC New England, the Consulate General of Israel to New England, and the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies presented the 2020 documentary Holy Silence, which details the abhorrent silence from the Vatican during the Holocaust. Pope Pius XI planned to denounce anti-Semitism and racism through an encyclical authored by American Jesuit John LaFarge. Unfortunately, however, he died the night before presenting the document. Eugenio Pacelli — who became Pope Pius XII in 1939 — did what he could to silence his predecessor’s remarks on antiracism and saw to it that Pius XI’s encyclical never saw the light of day.

Since watching Holy Silence and listening to the panel discussion with Fr. Charles Gallagher, an Associate Professor of History at Boston College (who appeared in the film), and Rob Leikind, the Director of AJC New England, I have been thinking primarily about one major question posed in the film: What difference could German Catholics have made if they had been actively against the Holocaust?

While it seems a logical question, it is something I have never specifically pondered before. There are many layers to it — many actions that could have been taken on behalf of aiding Jewish people and yet the question will remain unanswerable forever. With a few words or actions from the Pope, European Catholics could have been allies for Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII ostensibly chose a side through his efforts to remain neutral. His silence was a loud enough proclamation that he would not stand in Hitler’s way; his failure to denounce the actions of the Nazi party did nothing to help the plight of Europe’s Jewish population.
Furthermore, to put it simply, the ideals of Nazism and Catholicism do not particularly align, so I find it interesting that so many German Catholics wanted “permission” from the Pope to follow Hitler. While I cannot understand how Nazism seemed to be the correct methodology to anyone, Catholic interest in the movement seems especially vexing. For a group of people whose belief system hinges upon acceptance, forgiveness, and treating people with empathy, I cannot comprehend the inclination to follow Hitler.
As a Catholic myself, I thought it was really important to hear from Fr. Gallagher, as he spoke passionately about Pacelli’s missteps upon his papal election. He also stated that the reaction to the film has been overwhelmingly positive since its release last year. As our society continues to bear witness to discriminatory and racist acts, perhaps we can use Pope Pius XII’s silence as an example of what not to do.

What Does “Never Again” Mean When it Comes to the Uyghurs?

Guest-blog by David Malamud (Third-year PhD student in the BU Graduate Program in Religion) 

This summer, Buzzfeed’s four-part series of articles exposed the gargantuan extent of the Uyghur and Kazakh concentration camps in western China. The articles reignited coverage of the humanitarian and human rights crisis in the US media. Buzzfeed’s reports have inspired the editorial boards of other news outlets across a wide political and ideological spectrum, including the Washington Post and the New York Post, to take a stance against the human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government. These atrocities have been recognized in the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 passed by the 116th Congress and signed into law by President Trump. I remember first reading rumors about these atrocities several years ago, while working on my undergraduate degree. I have since watched with horror and felt frustrated by my inability to do anything about it.

Like many Americans, I grew up hearing the tales of Nazi atrocities committed during the Holocaust. It always disturbed me to hear about the indifference that allowed the Nazis to act with impunity. The world watched and did nothing. How could the whole world stand by as the Nazis exterminated my people and attempted to erase the very memory of our existence? Many people and politicians invoke Holocaust comparisons to describe current events, but I think in this case, the comparison is particularly apt. 

A recent BU conference showed the link between discrimination and economic exploitation of Jews during the Nazi period. Like the Nazis, the Chinese government and businesses are profiting economically from the forced labor of the imprisoned Uyghur population. This exploitation extends to their very bodies. In July, a thirteen-ton shipment of Uyghur hair was seized by US Customs and Border Patrol. In many ways, we are complicit in this exploitation. Uyghurs have been forcibly detained in work camps to produce PPE for COVID-19 exported to the US. As this fact became clear, US House of Representatives responded by passing a bipartisan bill 406-3: the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would “prevent certain imports” and “impose sanctions” on products from Xinjiang. But this is not enough to stop the Chinese government-sponsored exploitation and mistreatment of entire populations that are persecuted, incarcerated, tortured, and forced to live under subhuman conditions.

I cannot, in good conscience, stand silent while I watch an oppressed ethno-religious minority destroyed by a powerful authoritarian regime intent on ethnic and religious purity and obedience to the state. I was taught in Hebrew school to say, “Never Again.” As some of our fellow Jews claim with regard to the American immigration crisis, “Never Again is now.”

I am heartened by the growing number of Jewish institutions, including Bnai Brith Canada and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum who are calling for a vigorous response to the Chinese repression of the Uyghurs. Jewish individuals, such as Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, have denounced China’s actions as well. For the past year and a half, a British Orthodox Jew (“Andrew”) has protested every Tuesday and Wednesday at the cultural office of the Chinese Embassy in London. I am proud to have joined the nascent Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom. We are an international and interdenominational Jewish organization which seeks to foster student advocacy, lobby Jewish organizations, and support Uyghurs in their diaspora.

What can we do for people suffering under a powerful authoritarian regime halfway around the world? If you would like to stay up to date on current news or join the fight for Uyghur freedom in a Jewish context, please subscribe to JMUF or learn how to take action lobbying for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Join with Uyghur activists like Ziba Murat and Jewher Ilham’s who have called on us to #boycottMulan, Disney’s latest Live Action film. Not only was it filmed in Xinjiang, but it also credits the “publicity department” or the Chinese government’s propaganda wing in Xinjiang, and the “bureau of public security” of Turpan, a city in Xinjiang, and an organization directly responsible for the Uyghur genocide. Uyghur activists have also recently called on the ICC to deny Beijing the honor of another Olympics in 2022. 

Join me! Never Again is Now.

David Malamud is a PhD student in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean tract. He graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Jewish Studies, a BA in History, and a BA in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park (2018). His research interests include sectarianism and messianism in Second Temple Judaism, the development of canon in early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, and broader questions of religious and cultural identity and exchange in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Confronting Conspiracism After a Failed Insurrection

Benjamin Austin CU by Benjamin J. Austin, a PhD candidate at Boston University specializing in the philosophy of digital religion.

 

Wednesday morning (1/6/2021), prior to the Trumpist insurrection, I was preparing the syllabus for my undergraduate writing seminar on “Tricksters and the Invention of Religion.” The title is an intentional provocation to students. It is based on Carole Cusack’s notion of “invented religions,” a category with origins in mid-century American counterculture, live-action role play (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons), fan fiction, and the complex, intertwined worlds of game and film-based subcultures. Some prefer to call such phenomena “consumer religion,” “postmodern” or “meta modern” religion, or “remix religion,” all with good reason. The fun in calling them “invented religions” lies in the fact that students tend to read Cusack as implying that there are religions that are not invented. The traditions we often call “world religions” retain a special degree of authenticity, if simply because their historical narratives and truth claims are so far in the past as to be impervious to allegations of “fake news.” My goal is not to convince students that ancient or “axial age” religious figures were every bit as coercive and corrosive as Jim Jones or Osama Bin Laden, but to expose a peculiar contemporary bias against invention as a religious act. Too many assume that if a religious movement is so new that we can trace its emergence, it is a fad at best, and a cult at worst. This is a strange assumption; imagine thinking that access to blueprints would render a house uninhabitable. Cusack’s invented religions are nothing more or less than religious movements that implicitly understand, and sometimes explicitly emphasize, that their recent vintage and countercultural orientation are no impediment to meaning-making, community organizing, mystical exploration, and spiritual fulfillment. Our mistake has long been to insist that religious traditions are, or ought to be, in the business of uncovering and preserving “truths,” or, more recently, “facts.”

This way of thinking blinds us to a reality that we can no longer afford to ignore: new religious movements are everywhere, especially online. The prominence of conspiracy theory and unbridled groupthink has rendered the Internet, to borrow a phrase from Henri Bergson, “a machine for the making of gods.” The novelty of such gods does not mean that they will not take hold, or that their devotees are not perfectly capable of waltzing into the U.S. Capitol through ranks of sluggish and/or sympathetic law enforcement officers, leaving menacing notes on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, and sabotaging vital democratic processes. The late Robert Anton Wilson – a prominent proponent of Discordianism, which is perhaps the prototypical invented religion – used to say that “reality is what you can get away with.” This appears to be truer of political reality than many of us might have anticipated, even just one week ago.

Americans saw unfamiliar flags, symbols, and slogans alongside more familiar Christian nationalist insignia like the ichthys (Jesus fish) at the Capitol on January 6th. We also listened to news anchors decry the “crackpot” and “baseless” QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon’s currency with the Trumpist rioters was evident for those who know what to look for – a sweatshirt bearing a large “Q,” a banner inviting us to “Trust the Plan” or “Save the Children,” and, at the front of the unruly mob a bare-chested, heavily tattooed figure wearing face paint and a horned fur hat. This man – Jake Angeli – is known in QAnon circles as “the Q Shaman.” Thus the question arises: are we confronting a neo-shamanic fascist cult born in the digital wilderness or perhaps a more familiar iteration of American Christianity fallen prey to the temptations of chauvinism?

American conspiracy theory is a strange genre, perhaps best thought of as a kind of secular eschatology (reasoning about “last things,” i.e., the end of the world or at least the status quo). As such, it draws at once on contemporary (“secular”) and ancient (“religious”) sources for inspiration. QAnon is no exception here. Beginning in October of 2017, QAnon emerged on the online message board 4Chan as a kind of meta-conspiracy or “big tent” conspiracy theory intended to identify the root cause of governmental corruption and social degeneration. The basic QAnon thesis is that the world is run by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles who harvest the adrenalized blood of their young victims in order to consume a concoction – “adrenochrome” – which allows them to live (and therefore rule) in perpetuity. Major figures accused of belonging to this class of elites include Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, George Soros, and the Rothschild family. Q supporters stormed the Capitol last week (alongside more cynical and opportunistic comrades) because they sincerely believe President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to be members of this vile coterie.

In many respects, QAnon is an outgrowth of the patriot movement, which sprang up during the 1990’s in response to the Clinton administration’s push for increased gun control as well as two disastrous showdowns between federal agents and Christian/White Nationalist extremists at Ruby Ridge (1992) and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas (1993). The patriot movement drew mythological and eschatological inspiration from the work of Milton William (“Bill”) Cooper, especially Behold a Pale Horse. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh considered himself a “patriot” in Cooper’s sense, a guerilla warrior combatting excessive federal overreach into the lives of American citizens. Cooper himself espoused a kind of libertarian equality for Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and denounced McVeigh’s violence and racism. Still, Cooper’s decision to reprint the notoriously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Behold a Pale Horse has only fanned the flames of ethnonationalism in the patriot movement since his death in 2001. To this day, the movement only partially overlaps with White and Christian nationalist movements in the United States; Bill Cooper, in fact, enjoys a certain cachet in segments of the black community, notably the Five-Percent Nation. I would encourage anyone interested in the history of the patriot movement to check out Mark Jacobson’s Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America.

I attribute QAnon’s success as a conspiracy theory to its participatory character as well as a certain complicity on the part of producers of popular culture. “Q” refers to an anonymous poster on 4Chan (subsequently migrating to 8Chan and then 8Kun) who periodically posts “Q drops” – highly cryptic and sometimes entirely nonsensical missives concerning an ongoing attempt on the part of Donald Trump and his allies in the upper echelons of government to sabotage the “deep state” and expose the Satanic cabal. Q followers coordinate to decipher and interpret (or “bake”) Q drops to discern what is happening behind the scenes of the political arena and the corrupt corporate media. QAnon gives adherents the opportunity to participate in a detective drama and Armageddon – a final battle between forces of good and evil – at the same time. Followers often explicitly celebrate that their lives become more meaningful, interesting, and cinematic upon joining the movement. A couple prominent QAnon slogans – “Where We Go One, We Go All” (WWG1WGA) and “the Calm Before the Storm” – are in fact ripped directly from Ridley Scott’s 1996 film White Squall. In general, Q supporters display little self-awareness about the extent to which their cinematic experience of the movement follows dependably from the movement’s reliance on cinematic narratives for structure. In other words, QAnon blatantly models its narratives on (certain kinds of) blockbuster films, and yet Q supporters are routinely mystified and enchanted when “reality” turns out “just like a movie!”

All this indicates that QAnon’s factuality is less important than its galvanizing, participatory function. Above I indicated a certain complicity on the part of corporate producers of popular culture. Much of this is accidental – the eschatological structure of Q’s narrative allows supporters to reach back into the annals of film and television and conclude that pretty much any representation of a hero taking on shadowy government forces on behalf of democracy (think: The X-Files, National Treasure, Outbreak, etc.) was a prophetic warning, or perhaps an early attempt at public disclosure. More insidious is the ongoing decision of media outlets such as History Channel and Gaia.com to capitalize on generic, formulaic, and vague insinuations of conspiracy. The narrator of Ancient Aliens, for instance, might not explicitly say that the Satanic pedophile deep state is responsible for suppressing information about extraterrestrials, but someone certainly is. In other words, the show’s formula is successful precisely because it allows armchair historians to fill in the conspiratorial blanks episode after episode in any number of idiosyncratic directions. The viewer is encouraged to feel both more intelligent and less trusting of established academic and political authorities. The result of such programming, as QAnon hero General Michael Flynn so darkly puts it, is that “the American people [have] decided to take over the idea of information.” One wonders which Americans he means.

I mentioned QAnon’s demonization of the Rothschilds above, which ought to set off familiar anti-Semitic alarm bells. Somewhat more difficult to discern is the fact that QAnon is ultimately a contemporary iteration of “blood libel.” The blood libel was a family of medieval conspiracy theories alleging that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children every Easter in order to ensure return to Jerusalem. QAnon is deeply anti-Semitic at its core, though many followers lack the historical awareness to identify this, and many opponents are (rightfully) concerned with the various other modalities of hate (anti-black racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) endemic to the movement. The erasure of this anti-Semitism in some ways speaks to the “ancient” inspiration of QAnon’s eschatology. Many contemporary American evangelical readers of the Book of Revelation– with ahistorical blinders supplied by e.g., Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series – assign a marginal role to Jews during the End of Days, one largely contingent upon their conversion by some admixture of rhetoric and violence. More proto- than anti-Christian to the evangelical QAnon mind, the Jewish people remain peripheral to the drama unfolding between Christian patriots and the Deep State. This is in contrast to other more urgent and “evil” threats posed by LGBTQ+, Islamic, and racial justice activist communities. What makes QAnon all the more disturbing, then, is that card-carrying, blood-libelous Neo-Nazis can march alongside relatively oblivious evangelicals, Instagram wellness gurus, and Reptilian-fearing new agers* without anyone experiencing a modicum of cognitive dissonance. The “Satanic pedophiles” trafficking our children are Jewish for those who want them to be, and “elitists,” “globalists,” or “Illuminati” for those who would rather not think of themselves as anti-Semitic.  By dint of historical ignorance, this modern blood libel expands to encompass ever more non-Christian, non-White groups.

Is QAnon a new digital religious movement or an extremist sect with deep historical roots in mainstream Christendom? The answer is yes. We can attribute its existence to the effects of the post-truth media environment and/or we can perceive the strong resonances of Tertullian’s “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est” (“it is certain because it is absurd”) and Paul of Tarsus’ conviction that the proclamation of “Christ crucified” would be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). I recommend Tara Isabella Burton’s theory of “remix religion” in Strange Rites: New Religions for A Godless World as a tool for thinking through this bizarre duality and the convergence of ancient and modern religious sensibilities on this belief in absurdity for its own sake. In any case, we must recognize that QAnon does not care whether its theories are “real” or “invented.” The price of ideological admission– believing patent absurdities – is high enough to create an uncommonly strong sense of camaraderie in the face of persecution. Q’s predictions and supporters’ interpretations will have been proven real and true (for them) in all relevant senses if and when QAnon assumes power and squashes dissent. We shouldn’t assume that they won’t; it has happened before. More and more otherwise “normal” and “respectable” people are falling under its spell and, in truth, I don’t know what to do about it. That said, education is never a bad start. What follows is a list of resources that you might find useful for understanding what’s happening in our country right now, and perhaps also for deprogramming friends and family members who may be succumbing to the lure of easy answers, empty revolt, and corrosive hatred.

*Prominent British conspiracy theorist David Icke circumvents the anti-Semitism of the Protocols by claiming that the text actually refers to shape-shifting Reptilian extraterrestrials.

Articles

Jerusalem Post –  “Capitol Riots – What Far-Right Hate Symbols Were on Display?” by Laura E. Adkins and Emily Burack

The Atlantic – “The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories Are Entering a Dangerous New Phase,” by Adrienne LaFrance

The Conversation –  “QAnon and the storm of the U.S. Capitol: The Offline Effect of Online Conspiracy Theories,” by Marc-André Argentino

Anti-Racism Daily –  “Condemn QAnon,” by Nicole Cardoza

Teen Vogue – “QAnon Conspiracy Theories Are Driving Families Apart,” by Fortesa Latifi

“How to Convince Loved Ones to Change Their Political Perspectives,” by Sophie Vaughn

 Podcasts

QAnon Anonymous

  • The first episode of this podcast provides an excellent overview of QAnon and their most recent episode covers the events at the Capitol. I cannot recommend their work enough for those interested in developing a holistic and critical understanding of contemporary conspiracy culture.

 

Books

A lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, by Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead

Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House, by Mike Wendling

Antisocial: Online Exremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, by Andrew Marantz

A Rumor about the Jews: Conspiracy, Anti-Semitism, and the Protocols of Zion, by Stephen Eric Bonner

Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth, by Magda Teter

Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump, by Daniel C. Hellinger

Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, by Talia Lavin

Cyber Racism and Community Resilience: Strategies for Combating Online Race Hate, by Andrew Jakubowicz, Kevin Dunn, Gail Mason, Yin Paradies, Ana-Maria Biluc, Nasya Bahfen, Andre Oboler, Rosalie Atie, and Karen Connelly

Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, by Jessie Daniels

Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America, by Vegas Tenold

Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, Edited by Asbjørn Dyrendal, David G. Robertson, and Egil Asprem

Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right, by Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays On and Around the Alt-Right, by Elizabeth Sandifer

Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America, by Mark Jacobson

Plots, Designs, and Schemes: American Conspiracy Theories from the Puritans to the Present, by Michael Butter

Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination, by Alexandra Minna Stern

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Ruha Benjamin

Race After the Internet, Edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White

Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us: by David Neiwert

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton

The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town, by Edward Berenson

The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner

The Nature of Conspiracy Theories, by Michael Butter

You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (forthcoming)

Benjamin J. Austin is a PhD candidate at Boston University specializing in the philosophy of digital religion. He works in the areas of continental philosophy, phenomenology, aesthetics, media theory, ritual theory, and esotericism. He holds a B.A. in International Relations and Religious Studies from Boston University as well as an M. Phil in Interreligious Studies from Trinity College Dublin. Benjamin’s dissertation research brings together media theory, ritual theory, and phenomenology in order to theorize the transition from analog to digital life as a traversal of a liminal state or space—a rite of passage.

Image: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Jew and the African American Who Saved America

by Michael Zank, Director EWCJS

Next year, at this time, when the pandemic of 2020-21 will be a distant memory and the vivid impressions of the violent assault on the nation’s Capitol we are still processing now will have receded, we should remember this: on January 5, 2021, Georgia turned blue. Georgia, formerly a solid red state, now resembles the rest of America: a state with an increasingly diverse population concerned with the major issues threatening our common future: healthcare, the environment, and economic justice.

I am writing to celebrate the election of the first African American senator from Georgia, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, and the election of the first Jewish senator from Georgia, Jon Ossoff.

I am also writing to celebrate the durability of the rule of law and its institutions that make the United States of America the beacon of liberty that it is and remains. Every attempt to subvert the results of a fair election has been foiled by the judges and officials, no matter their party affiliation, who determined the groundlessness of the many legal and illegal challenges launched by the president and his enablers. Men and women stood their ground, calmly and with determination. The institutions held because the people did.

One of those who literally stood his ground, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, paid with his life. Our heart goes out to his family. May his memory be for a blessing!

While some elected representatives opportunistically exploited the chaos that followed the November elections and culminated in the January 6 storming of the Capitol building that many have called an insurrection, most have condemned it. Many have found clear and heartening words to strengthen the nation’s resolve to resist the attempts of a few to destroy this democracy.

The election of two democratic senators from Georgia flipped the Senate and, with any luck, much good will come from it. But not everything will be well by January 2022. All of us need to be vigilant and remain engaged. We cannot go back to sleep. Liberty, the right to vote, civil and human rights, including reproductive rights, the functioning of democratic institutions, and the rule of law are precious goods to be defended and further developed, not just at home but also abroad.

The rule of law is fragile. It can be easily undermined, hollowed out, overturned by would-be autocrats who stoke the emotions of a violent minority and exploit the lethargy of an indifferent majority. Indifference, as the late Elie Wiesel has warned, inevitably allies itself with hate. It enables the fear-mongers and conspiratists. We must not be indifferent. History, including Jewish history, offers us countless lessons. Ignoring them will only force us to repeat them.

For now, let us thank the good people of Georgia for renewing our confidence that change is possible. I am particularly heartened by  Republican voters who turned their backs on the extremist rhetoric and over-the-top populism of one of their party’s candidates. They made the right choice, the choice for what is right.

I want to end with a note about the people who broke into the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6. Many of them believed they were patriots defending the republic. They clearly did not know that they had placed their trust in a con-man and a liar. Do they understand it now? They are the one’s who are losing their jobs and going to jail. The rioters committed criminal acts and should be prosecuted. But they should not be dismissed as “deplorables.” They were a small group but they represent a significant minority. Only because they don’t look like us or think or speak or act like us, they are no less part of America; a part, some of us may not like or wish to exist, but they are still fellow citizens. We are all obliged to engage, to listen, to hear out one another’s grievances and, if possible, find common ground on which to move forward, together. Those who represent a danger to the rule of law must be contained. But those who have been misled by a cunning demagogue and trapped in a web of disinformation  need our compassion. And, of course, our republic needs to strengthen its institutions and brace itself for future onslaughts. But perhaps, by January 2022, you and I will have met and spoken with one or two of those we don’t usually want to hear or speak to, and perhaps we may have learned something new about ourselves and about our own “bubbles,” the safe spaces of privilege we live in and cherish, but that also prevent us from seeing others as fully human.

Reflections on Dr. Marbury’s Lecture about Moses in the African American Tradition

Guest blog-post by Katya Tsvirko (CAS ’21), an International Relations major and currently a student in CASRN101/JS120 The Bible with Professor Zank.

Dr. Marbury’s lecture left me reflecting on the power of biblical interpretation; his presentation answered one of the biggest questions I had since I first started reading the Bible this September: how do these chapters and verses impact their readers? In answering this question, Dr. Marbury looked at the cyclical interpretations of the Bible and biblical figures through the lens of racism, feminism, patriarchy, and oppression.

One part of the presentation that strikes me is the story of Gronniosaw, an enslaved man on the boat who encountered the Bible for the first time. Through Dr. Marbury’s summary, I understand the story this way.  Gronniosaw sees his white captain reading a book (the Bible) aloud and decides to attempt to hear the book on his own; however, when he puts his ear on the book, it doesn’t speak. His conclusion is that the book, like everything else in his world, hates him because he is Black. To give context to Gronniosaw’s actions and deep hurt, Dr. Marbury explains that in traditional African religions, spiritual objects such as talismans often speak to people and believers. It is for this reason that the main character in this story feels so defeated and rejected that the book which spoke to the white man chose not to speak to him. What was particularly striking in Dr. Marbury’s retelling of this story is his analysis that, naturally, the book was silent to both men, but their separate politics is what fills that silence— “the vanquished versus the conqueror.”

In extending this story to the larger history of African Americans in the United States, Dr. Marbury introduced a conceptual framework for looking at the African American interpretation of the Bible: mythic cycles. He proposed the idea that during slavery, the promised land meant emancipation; from the mid 19th to the early 20th century, the promised land meant self-development, and during the Civil Rights era, the promised land meant equal civil standing. This idea of a mythic cycle also extended to the time of the Harlem Renaissance, in which the promised land now equaled the product of self-improvement, rather than self-improvement by itself. Dr. Marbury gave an extensive outline of the African American experience in WWI, from the creation of a new urban Black working class, to the recruitment and authoritative experience of Black men serving in the U.S. army during their deployment in Europe, and then the desire for authentic Black representation in art; this was the context to Zora Neale Hurston’s book Moses, Man on the Mountain.

Dr. Marbury’s clear analysis of the book was compelling, and I hope to read the book myself sometime soon. I was fascinated by the feminist lens he adopted in his analysis of Moses’s sister Miriam. His argument that her imagination is what forms the glory and legend of Moses was incredibly thought-provoking. Perhaps it even ties into recent discussion during a RN101 lecture in which it was pointed out that much of the backbone of religion is human fantasy; although it is powerful and incredibly significant for its followers, the fantasy is what drives the religion. Thus, Dr. Marbury posits that it is a woman’s fantasy/imagination that establishes, for an entire community, this idea of Moses and his glory. The woman, Miriam, is able to enjoy community leadership and authority, until Moses returns and can’t accept female leadership. Then, she is made powerless against him and even feels that he controls the power of life and death. In essence, this relationship compels the readers of Hurston’s book to consider the odd fact that Moses, a figure whose glory is owed to Miriam, ends up overpowering her.

With this message, Dr. Marbury concluded his lecture, saying that Hurston’s biblical interpretation attempted to give the power of religion back to the people; it was people that could lead themselves to transcendence, they didn’t necessarily need to wait around for an individual, a messiah, to lead them.

All in all, Dr. Marbury’s presentation was thought-provoking, compelling, and clarifying for a student who began reading the Bible only three months ago. Entering a sphere as complex as religion is a difficult and rewarding task, but understanding how people interpret religious texts makes it easier to read the Bible as literature. The authors of the Bible were driven by their political and social issues, and readers are also susceptible to interpret it according to their socio-political needs. I wonder what religious texts would look like if they hadn’t been written with an angle? Would people still have felt drawn to them? As Dr. Marbury quoted, “‘Gods always love the people that create them,’” and with this in mind, I hope to continue neutrally analyzing religious literature while exploring its social and political interpretations.

If you missed Dr. Marbury’s lecture, you can watch it on our YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/m4JQghlWGX4.

Finding Moses. The Search Continues

Last Monday night, about 100 viewers joined our webinar with Professor Shari Lowin (Stonehill College), a specialist in comparative early Islamic and Jewish intellectual history and literature.

Shari introduced us to some of the ways the greatest prophet of Jewish tradition appears in the Qu’ran and Hadith. We learned that Moses, Nebi Musa in Arabic, is the most frequently mentioned prophet in the Qur’an, before Abraham and Jesus. Muhammad himself, to whom the Suras that make up the Qur’an were revealed, is not the subject of the Qur’an. Much of the holy book of Islam consists of angelic speeches that remind the prophet and his audience of the antecedent sacred history, which is seen as a continuous  history of divine revelations and admonitions that  culminate in the messages conveyed by this final messenger. The aim is to establish God’s rule over humanity, starting with those who submit to his command.

Shari compared stories about the birth of Moses and the role of his divinely inspired mother and stories about the birth of Prophet Muhammad and his divinely inspired parents, showing that the Hadith (stories about the prophet and his companions) casts Muhammad as a new Moses. Moses and Muhammad even meet during the famous “Night Journey” to the “distant sanctuary” (see Sura 17), the only truly miraculous event in the life of the prophet, as recounted by the traditional biographers.

To understand why Moses matters so much to the early Muslims one needs to know that 7th-century Arabia was a world of trade and exchange, not just of goods but of stories and ideas, a world that connected the three ancient continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and that was alive with debates between Jews, orthodox and heterodox Christians, Gnostics, Zoroastrians, and others. The choices made by the early Muslims and the messages of Prophet Muhammad himself reflect the outsized role of Moses in the political and religious imagination of late antiquity.  The idea of divine rule on earth had been proclaimed by Byzantine Roman Emperors long before the institution of the Caliphate arose. Since the writings of Philo, whose Life of Moses decisively shaped the Christian understanding of the biblical prophet, Moses was perceived not just as the lawgiver of the Jews but also as king, prophet, and high priest. Moses served as the model by which Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea cast his Life of Constantine. And Moses served as the model of striving for the highest human perfection for Gregory of Nyssa, whose allegorical interpretation of the Moses story harks back to Philo. Gregory, who took on the responsibility of a prince of the Church only grudgingly, emphasized Moses’ search for spiritual perfection, deliberately tamping down the political dimension emphasized by others.

It is into, and out of, that world that the Moses of the early Islamic isra’iliyyat is spoken: affirming, correcting, and carrying forward the legacies of Judaism and Christianity as they existed and interacted then and there.

Shari Lowin’s lecture reminded us of what scholars have long since come to see, namely, that Islam did not arise from nowhere but in many respects represents the coming together and culmination of late antique culture. Or, more simply put: without Moses, no Muhammad.

 

The Sense of An Ending. What I learned from Aviva Zornberg

This post is by Tiffany Leigh  (CAS ’21)                   Tiffany Leigh pic CU

Dr. Zornberg looks at Moses’ role as a leader, specifically focusing on the end of his life. She refers to the book The Sense of an Ending to demonstrate how humans must imagine and anticipate the end of a story in order to give significance to one’s own life. She mentions how you must imagine the end of your life to help you evaluate its meaning. We know the beginning of our stories, but we have hopes and expectations for the future. Viewing time as a series of events that have not yet occurred helps us to organize our lives by providing a framework for the future. This alludes to the idea of “kairos” which is eventful time, and “chronos” which is undistinguished time. Our desires for the future provide significance to our current life, as seen in the life of Moses.

Moses’ goal was to cross the Jordan River and enter into the promised land. However, there is a deviation to the imagined plot Moses had for his life. Dr. Zornberg recounts the book of Deuteronomy and how Moses essentially begged God to let him enter into the promised land, yet was refused by God. Moses’ persistent prayers for his one main goal in life showed that he expected God to eventually open the gates for him. Moses thought that his personal goals and plans for his life will be brought to fruition by God. Yet, as Avivah Zornberg eloquently stated, the nature of human life is incompleteness. Kafka said Moses was able to see Canaan in the time leading up to his death but could not enter “not because his life is too short, but because it’s a human life.” Part of being human is dying without achieving the goals you spent your whole life dreaming about.

God was angry at Moses for continually praying to cross over into the promised land. God interrupted Moses and refused to listen, differing from their past interactions. Prior to this, God had always listened to Moses, and he was seen as someone who always had access to God. Moses was always heard by God, but his final plea was not heard. Recounting the interaction Moses had with God must have been extraordinarily humiliating and upsetting because he was silenced by the same God that encouraged him to speak up to the Israelites. The disappointment Moses felt after acknowledging that his future aspirations will never be fulfilled didn’t demolish him. Instead he spoke with power and leadership to the Israelites about what had happened. The goal he had for the end of his life, crossing over the Jordan, was now replaced by the desire to look after the welfare of the Israelites.

I think Dr. Zornberg’s takeaway from describing the end of Moses’ life shows us that we can’t change the future. Imagining how our life will unfold gives us the feeling of control and of purpose. But the passages of Deuteronomy show us that our purpose is not to complete our own goals, but to fulfill God’s plans for us. The sense of incompleteness in human life is encompassed by Moses emphasizing to the people that they will cross into the promised land, when they would rather stay on the fertile side they are currently on. While Moses, who wants to cross over more than anything, will die without having done so.

 

How I discovered Elie Wiesel…

This post is by Verónica Rodríguez (COM ‘20)

Verónica is currently studying for my master’s degree in Public Relations at the College of Communications at Boston University.

I have used this time at BU to explore my interests, discover passions, and reflect about where I am and where I want to go. This year, I started working at Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, where I have been creating social media content and working on ways that the center can reinvent themselves during these hard times. Although many know the Elie Wiesel story, I didn’t. Most of my life as young Latina woman, I have been immersed in Catholicism: its practices and rituals. I grew up in a small, traditional, family-oriented neighborhood in Puerto Rico, where most people are Catholic. I went to a Catholic private school for twelve years, attended mass on Sundays with my family and have always been a believer. However, I did get to see more of the world as I was fortunate enough to travel to many places with my family where I learned about and was able to appreciate different cultures. When I was in eighth grade, we got to visit Auschwitz, coinciding with the time during which we studied the Holocaust in school. Perhaps, this was the last time I thought  deeply about the Holocaust. Five years later, I attended Boston College as an undergraduate and, during these years, I became the best version of myself, in large part thanks to the Jesuit values that permeated through the entire experience. 

During our many team zoom sessions, my boss asked me, “Vero, do you know who Elie Wiesel is?” I thought to myself, “I did research before but I don’t know who he is before, or never read about him during my high school years….” How could it be that I have never heard about Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel. Could it be because of my religious beliefs, my past education, my surroundings, ignorance? I didn’t know who Elie Wiesel was because of academic and educational background. By knowing who Elie Wiesel is, I feel enriched by not only an influential figure in history, but also about a new tradition and culture I have never been exposed to before.

Avivah Zornberg and Pandemic Reflections

 

A post by Tallulah Bark-Huss (COM ’21)

 “To discover firm standing ground, it is necessary to explore, to stumble, even to fall, certainly to survive the chaotic vibrations of a world that refuses to be.” (Avivah Zornberg)

It’s times like these when I turn towards sage advice. Contemporary Torah scholar Avivah Zornberg’s quote above has resonated with me since high school. I actually had the privilege of meeting Zornberg on a chance encounter during Shabbat in Jerusalem. I don’t know many teens who would be starstruck by a Torah scholar, but I definitely was one. 

“Firm standing ground” doesn’t exist, in this turbulent world. The “chaotic vibration of the world that refuses to be” constantly pushes, pulls, and knocks us down. It’s words like these that I find myself coming back to in times of discomfort or uncertainty. Zornberg’s observation of our unsteady world comes from studying Genesis. Adam and Eve commit moral transgressions yet, become closer to God through them. It’s a testament to our relationship with God. It suggests that, to discover God and ourselves, we must allow ourselves to stumble. Becoming closer to God, or whatever it is that makes you feel whole, is that firm standing ground.

Falling is inevitable, and we shouldn’t attempt to avoid it. Life is not meant to be smooth sailing no matter how hard we wish it was. Obstacles will always be thrown our way, but our true selves are shown by how we respond to these obstacles; by how we adapt and turn our challenges into advantages. Your failures are not measured by how many times you didn’t succeed. Your failures are only measured by how many times you refused to try. These “falls,” as Zornberg puts it, are something that should be embraced, not feared. If you never fall, you’ll never know how to get back up, dust off your shoes, and work even harder to achieve your goals. Your losses are a measure of your strength, because, when you get back up and prove to the world that you will not stay down, in Zornberg’s terms, you will have “survive[d] the chaotic vibrations of a world that refuses to be.”

So when the dust settles, where will you find yourself? Will you remain knocked down, or stand and show the world that its punches only made you stronger?