Religion: The ‘first and worst’ explanation


Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning.

“Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.”

To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed — or actually insisted upon — that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister.

For Sir Isaac Newton — an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-papist — the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian, as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about evolution and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued — though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it — that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

How true is this on a second look or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct in Africa 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan.

Which design or designer made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan or planner determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous and even cruel.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it. They cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was once the prerogative of the pope and the witch doctor, but now it’s gone.



Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books


This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism, not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence.

It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear.

This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This, of course, is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates, we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of “God Is Not Great” and the editor of “The Portable Atheist.” This piece was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation as part of an essay series that can be found at http://www.templeton.org/belief.

One-Day U


Maybe it was because I had just helped my daughter move into her freshman dorm room and I was envious of the deliciously named courses she was thinking of
taking. Or maybe it was because I’ve always been a sucker for pitches like “Conversational Hebrew in One Day!” Or maybe it was because I didn’t know what else to do with my rage about the anti-intellectual matches that the Republican presidential campaign is playing with.

Whatever the reason, I was a sitting duck for a publicist’s offer to comp me to the first “One Day University” in Los Angeles. Judging from the full house paying $259 a pop at the Skirball’s Magnin Auditorium, I wasn’t alone.

The lineup included teachers from Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth and USC. The subjects were Lincoln, the psychology of happiness, the history of cosmology and the foreign policies of an Obama or a McCain administration. The audience included not only the retirees seeking educational nourishment and brain fitness whom I had expected, but also boomers like me and more than a few people who looked to be in their 40s and 30s and even younger.

Three out of the four speakers really knew how to work a room, making good on the publicist’s promise of a day of engaging “edutainment,” and the fourth — even though, unlike the others, he worked from a prepared text and never left his spot behind the lectern — nevertheless held people’s attention with his material.

All day long, while learning things like the average age for the first onset of depression (14 1/2, compared to twice that a generation ago), and the proportion of the universe containing carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the elements that people are made of (less than 1 percent), I kept wondering what bound us students together, besides our common jones for knowledge.

The answer came home to me during the foreign policy lecture by my friend and USC colleague, professor Steven Lamy.

In the midst of providing an analytic framework for understanding the traditions and belief systems of U.S. foreign policy, he pointed out the substantive poverty of the discussion of foreign policy occurring during this campaign, despite so many grave foreign policy issues that will face the next president. Security challenges and security strategies? Yes, those are in the campaign mix. But dealing realistically with the global economy, or thinking creatively about using the U.S.’s non-military power, or grappling with the social threat that traditional cultures see posed by the massive exportation of American entertainment, or with the environmental threat posed by exporting our consumerist culture: issues like these — not so much, or not at all.

The reason for this neglect is that the conduct of foreign policy is now all about electoral considerations, and the majority of the American people return the favor by not paying attention to it. The result, says Steve Lamy, is an uninformed American public easily manipulated by power players in Washington who prefer that the wide range of options potentially available for America’s role in the world not be put on the table for scrutiny.

The irony is that there is a rising generation that does see foreign policy as something more than shouting, “9-11!” At USC, as Steve pointed out, the 791 undergraduates majoring in international relations — one of the most popular majors in the college — do know what the Bush doctrine is.

Which brings me to the thread binding the newest alumni of One Day U. Yes, I could be projecting my own feelings onto them. But from the questions they asked the faculty, from conversations I heard during breaks, from the room’s reaction to Steve Lamy’s mention of the foreign policy credential claimed by Sarah Palin with a straight face (you can see Russia from an island in Alaska), I had the strong impression that the people in that auditorium were connected by a common sense of outrage at the demonization of learning going on in this campaign.

To be sure, every campaign, in both parties, relies on bumper-sticker slogans and 30-second ads, and, at least since the 1980s, television has proven itself dismally unequal to the opportunity for covering a campaign as a national conversation about the big issues facing the country.

Yet the way the McCain campaign has turned “elite” into a dirty word, and delightedly derided Obama’s education as effete, and turned the sow’s ear of Sarah Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience into the silk purse of salt-of-the-earth small town values — you have to go back to Spiro Agnew and his bullyboy ventriloquists, Pat Buchanan and William Safire, to find this kind of sneering contempt for educated people.

The neoconservative intellectuals who have fanned these fires have particularly dirty hands. With their Ivy League degrees and their perches as columnists and commentators, their collaboration with the Republican defamation of learning is especially unctuous. By being accomplices to what is arguably the most lying campaign in modern history, they are complicit with the same noxious rejection of reason that has brought us the teaching of “intelligent design” (aka creationism) in our schools; the politicization of science in everything from climate change to environmental regulations; and the intrusion of fundamentalist religious doctrines into the shaping of public policy.

I see adult education as a political act, a refutation of this neo-Know Nothingism. I see reading a good newspaper as a thumb in the eye to this anti-intellectual hypocrisy and to candidates who refuse to hold press conferences. I see the conversation occurring in some online precincts, and among people who have abandoned cable news for actual discussions about issues they care about, as a patriotic response to the political porn served up to us by mainstream media. I see studying and going to the best school you can and learning to think critically as a powerful antidote to the homespun yahooism that is being held up to us as the gold standard of competence.

Sure, some people may have signed up for One Day U because it looked like fun, or to get out of the house, or just because they were curious. But curiosity is a quality that has been lethally absent in the occupant of the White House these last eight years, and if you listen to the team that could well replace him, having a healthy intellectual appetite is wussily un-American.

I don’t doubt that Americans who love learning may constitute a minority. I just hope that enough of them live in battleground states to make a difference.

Marty Kaplan has been a White House speechwriter, a deputy presidential campaign manager, a studio executive and a screenwriter. He holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Judaism 101: everything we need to know


What is Jewish literacy? What does it mean to be Jewishly literate? Who is an educated Jew?

Paula Hyman, professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University, wrote in an issue of Sh’ma, “There has been no consensus on the issue of ‘Who is an educated Jew?’ for more than 200 years.”

Clearly, our definitions have changed over the centuries. But where are we today? What must we know to function as literate Jews?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his introduction to “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History,” observes, “At a time when Jewish life in the United States is flourishing, Jewish ignorance is, too.”

He goes on to say that while large numbers of Jews of all ages are seeking Jewish involvement, in many cases, they are secretly “Jewishly illiterate.”

Modern Jews, Telushkin writes, are either vaguely familiar with or completely unaware of the most basic terms and significant facts about Jewish life and Jewish history.

The traditional definition of literacy is the ability to use language – to read, write, listen and speak. In modern contexts, the word means reading and writing on a level adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function at certain levels of a society.

For our purpose, the phrase “successfully function at certain levels of a society” is where we must begin. What do we need to know to function in or create a Jewish home, to function in the synagogue, to function in Jewish communal life and to function in the world as a knowledgeable Jew? What should we know, feel and be able to do to be considered a literate Jew?

Jewish educators wrestle with these questions on a regular basis. Whether working in a congregation, in a day school or in a graduate program in Jewish education, the questions are the same, although the answers may vary greatly from setting to setting.

Let’s begin with some basic categories: God, Torah, Jewish nation, Israel, holidays, life cycle and deeds. These categories, once briefly explored, will form the basis on which most Jewish learning, leading to Jewish literacy, is built.

  • God: It is in this category where ideas and concepts about Jewish belief are explored. Understanding God and spirituality is a process with which Jews must wrestle. Discussion encompasses questions such as: What is the nature of God? What is Judaism? What do Jews believe?
  • Torah: This category can be expanded to focus on the “words” – the ideas and concepts – of Jewish life. It includes not only the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew language, common expressions and greetings, Jewish names and names for God, but it also includes: What is the Torah? What are Torah readings? What is in the Bible? What are prayers and blessings? What is Jewish liturgy? What are the basic Jewish texts? What is biblical history and modern Jewish history?
  • Jewish nation: Who is a Jew? How many Jews are there in the world? What are the movements in Judaism? Who are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Oriental and Ethiopian Jews? What is “Jewish” food? Who are the patriarchs and matriarchs? Who are the prophets, the sages and the scholars of the Jewish people?
  • Israel: Why is Israel, the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people, important to all Jews? What is the difference between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel? Who lives in Israel?
  • Holidays: This area begins with a discussion of the Jewish calendar. How is the Jewish calendar the same and different from the secular calendar? What is Rosh Chodesh? What do we need to know about Shabbat and religious holidays? What is Yom HaShoah? What is Yom Ha’atzmaut? Which holidays are celebrated at home? Which are celebrated in the synagogue? What is the history of the synagogue?
  • Life cycle: What are the rituals and traditions that accompany each of the stages of the life cycle? Birth, naming and the first month of life are times of beginnings and celebrations. Bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation are milestones in a child’s religious education. Marriage begins a new Jewish home and family. Death and mourning have special customs to help the family and bring the community together. What does Judaism say about the afterlife?
  • Deeds: Ethics and ethical behavior are important Jewish values. How are we to behave toward Jews and non-Jews? What is tzedakah? What is meant by gemilut chasadim? What are the Ten Commandments? What does Judaism expect of us? How should we speak about others? What is lashon hara? How should we treat animals?

Judaism places great emphasis on caring for one another and the world around us. Jewish literacy requires that we be able to function successfully as knowledgeable Jews. If we accept that Jewish study is a lifelong pursuit, we will learn what we should know, feel and be able to do at each stage of our lives.

Jo Kay is director of education of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and vice president of educational resources for the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Balance With ‘One Foot’


Has a question or statement about Israel ever caught you so off guard and tongue-tied that you wished you could just reach into your back pocket to pull out an answer? Well, now you can.

Dr. Mitchell G. Bard, author and executive director of the American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise, has written a pocket-size guide to the Middle East.

Titled "On One Foot," the resource is the brainchild of Los Angeles movie producer Tom Barad, who contacted Bard after observing the extreme anti-Israel sentiment last year on his son’s campus, UC Berkeley, and his niece’s campus, University of Colorado.

"I knew that kids were leaning on bars at parties and sitting in their dorm rooms and hearing people make claims and accuse Israel of certain misdeeds that they were completely unprepared to defend," Barad said. "I had a concept of a product they could pull out of their pocket at a moment’s notice and have three simple responses."

"On One Foot" is a more concise version of Bard’s previous book "Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict." Divided into eight sections, such as "Refugees," "Human Rights" and "Disputed Territories and Settlements," it includes various "myths" about the conflict, followed by his succinct factual and historical responses that dispute the myths.

Additionally, each section is introduced by a biblical passage — an element that Barad felt was an essential addition to the text.

"I felt it was important that at least laced into ‘On One Foot’ there would be something that would touch our tradition … a continued expression about why we’re in this struggle to begin with," Barad said. "How can you deal with your relationship to Israel if you’re completely ignoring your relationship to your religious heritage?"

The book’s title, "On One Foot," refers to the talmudic story of Hillel the Elder who is confronted by a man demanding to learn Torah. He wants the knowledge fast and demands to have it "while standing on one foot." Hillel responds, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary."

Bard further explains in the introduction of the book: "In our hyperspeed world, we, too, need to get some fast learning, often while we are on one foot, struggling for balance, seeking the truth."

Due to its brief nature, Bard recommends that "On One Foot" should be read as a reference guide. "It’s not necessarily the final word, but at least it is a brief word on the topic," Bard said. "I encourage everyone to do more in-depth research."

To order a copy of "On One Foot" ($10), call (310) 364-0909 or e-mail ononefoot@earthlink.net. Discounts are available for bulk orders and for organizations.

The Ethics of War


When the U.S. House and Senate voted last week to pass resolutions authorizing the use of military force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the domestic political debate surrounding the war issue was brought to rest, at least for the time being. But for many people across the nation and around the world, Congress’ political decision merely fueled the heated ethical debate surrounding the legitimacy of waging such a war.

Even among Jewish ethicists and rabbinic authorities, there are significant differences of opinion regarding the moral efficacy of waging war against Iraq. And while few of these ethicists may look to the nation’s political leadership for moral guidance, almost all of them acknowledge that the moral debate about this war ultimately comes down to the same issues as does the political debate: Does the Iraqi regime represent a clear and present danger to the United States?

"The motivation for the war is the critical issue," said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. "If it’s self-defense, then the standard is the same: You have a right to defend yourself. From what I understand, I think the war against Iraq is well-justified from a Jewish point of view, but I make this judgment based on my political knowledge."

Political knowledge is critical to the process of determining whether a war is morally legitimate.

"It’s a question of pragmatism," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "You can’t remove pragmatic issues from the ethical decision-making. Pragmatics will define your ethics at times. You don’t just talk ethically in a vacuum. You have to know the issues on the ground."

Halacha (Jewish law) is quite clear when it comes to matters of life and death. If a person faces a deadly threat from a given assailant, called a rodeph (pursuer), then that person is required to take whatever steps necessary to preserve his or her own life, including killing the assailant. Self-defensive killing in such cases is a moral obligation, and one need not wait until a knife-wielding assailant strikes the first blow before killing in self-defense.

The debate about a war against Iraq begins with the question of whether the Iraqi regime constitutes a deadly threat to others, and whether a preemptive strike against the regime constitutes an act of self-defense. Even those who answer both those questions in the affirmative must contend with the dilemma of whether waging war against the Iraqi regime is the most pragmatic way to eliminate that threat, and what ethical limitations exist in prosecuting such a war.

"You have a lot of questions that are not so easy to answer," Muskin said. "I think Saddam Hussein qualifies as a pursuer. But if we do this preemptive strike, will it be beneficial to the world? Will it cause more trouble for Israel than not attacking?"

"I think it’s more a pragmatic question than an ethical question at this junction," he said. "How do you handle Saddam Hussein?"

For rabbinic authorities like Muskin, the ethical debate about U.S. action against Iraq mirrors the political debate in Congress.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino said that in assessing the morality of making war, "history, itself, is part of what we have to consult." Jewish history, in particular, teaches that evil must be resisted, he said.

"The Holocaust, itself, while it has not been codified into a law, has taught us a terribly important wisdom," Schulweis said. "I cannot look at Saddam without looking at what happened to our people in the late 1930s."

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion’s California campus and senior rabbi at Ohr HaTorah Congregation, takes his lessons from U.S. history.

"Let’s say the U.S. had discovered the Japanese fleet heading for Pearl Harbor at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941," he said. "There’s a threshold where ‘preemptive’ and ‘preventive’ become empty terms."

"No country is morally obligated to wait until his enemy has the upper hand," Finley continued. "Waiting for that magic moment could be imprudent, and it may even be immoral, if the job of the government is to protect its citizens. The risk, of course, is getting there and finding out that there was no intent to attack."

Some rabbinic authorities, like Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, are not convinced that Saddam intends to attack the United States.

"I don’t think anybody is arguing that Saddam today is a clear and present danger to the U.S. domestically," Artson said. "There isn’t a clear black-and-white case; it’s a judgment call. The case has not yet been adequately presented."

The author of "Love Peace and Pursue Peace: A Jewish Response to War and Nuclear Annihilation" (United Synagogue Book Service, 1988), Artson argued that more evidence needs to be brought to bear to determine that an attack against Iraq indeed would constitute an act of self-defense, and therefore qualify the war as a milhemet mitzvah, a permissible war of defense.

"We’re all in the sticky business of trying to determine if this war is close enough to a defensive war," he said. "Bring that evidence before Congress and the American people. I think that case still needs to be made."

Rabbi J. David Bleich, the Tenzer professor of Jewish law and ethics at New York’s Yeshiva University, agreed. "I can’t make decisions in a vacuum. I need some facts," he said.

"The administration has been very parsimonious in that respect," Bleich said. "I have no idea if Saddam is a credible threat. I don’t know whether this is just a gigantic smokescreen, or whether Bush has solid information. He has asked the American Congress to sign on carte blanche. If I were a congressman, I certainly wouldn’t have."

Some Jewish authorities, like Bleich, argue that Jewish law cannot be applied at all to non-Jews. Therefore, there can be no discussion within the framework of Jewish law about the moral legitimacy of a war between two non-Jewish nations like the U.S. and Iraq.

The author of "Contemporary Halachic Problems" (Ktav Publishing House, 1995) a book that includes several chapters on war-related issues and laws for non-Jews, Bleich argued that Jewish law has little to say when it comes to the moral dilemmas of non-Jews.

"We haven’t established yeshivas for bnei noach [sons of Noah]," Bleich said, referring to gentiles. "Nobody ever wrote a Shulchan Arukh [code of Jewish law] for non-Jews. We don’t have a simple compendium, so you’re going to find a wider array of opinions."

For his part, Finley argued that waging war is an inherent right of all nations. "In the Jewish tradition, a sovereign has the right to wage war. That’s part of what nations do; they make war on each other," he said. "But we can still morally ask: Should they wage war in a given case?"

Nearly every issue having to do with a potential U.S.-initiated war against Iraq is fraught with ethical questions, and even if Jewish ethicists agreed unanimously on the need to wage war, the conduct of that war presents its own ethical quagmire. For example, while most Jewish ethicists agree that a war of defense waged by a non-Jewish nation is permissible, that does not mean that killing innocent civilians in the process of defending against an aggressor is acceptable.

"You cannot engage in self-defense if it involves taking the lives of innocent bystanders," said Yeshiva University’s Bleich. "There’s no concept of a just war in halacha."

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School, said, "Jewish law has more to say about how to conduct war than decision-making about how to commence hostilities."

Adlerstein said there are laws about mandatory suing for peace before commencing hostilities, about leaving egress for civilians to flee, about the treatment of prisoners of war and about avoiding mindless destruction in the midst of battle, to name just a few. Most of the laws pertaining to warfare, however, have to do with Jewish wars — those waged by Jews in their own defense or in defense of Israel, he said. In such cases, Adlerstein added, "the usual distinctions between civilians and combatants don’t apply."

In Jewish wars, Muskin said, a limited number of civilian casualties are acceptable, as when, for example, the Israeli Defense Forces inadvertently kill civilian bystanders in pursuit of Palestinian terrorists.

The preponderance of ethical questions posed by war necessitates constant moral and political decision-making. Politics and morals cannot be divorced from each other, as the ongoing debate in Israel regarding the moral efficacy of that country’s military operations makes evident.

"In an ideal world, you would have generals and ethicists sitting in the same room discussing these issues before going into battle," Muskin said.

Historically, the kings of Israel were required to consult with the Jewish supreme court, the Sanhedrin, before waging war. During the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews sought the answers to such moral dilemmas in the urim v’tumin (the magical breast-plate worn by the high priest). Today, answers to these moral questions are less clear.

"The ethics of war are a very complex dilemma," said Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha and rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. "I think for me in this debate, it’s critical to understand the other side.

"It’s often the case that the different sides in the debate begin to impugn each other’s motives," he said. "That’s where it gets really ugly and dangerous. It’s critical that people listen to each other. I think on most issues, if you cannot see that there’s room for debate, then there’s something wrong with your own position."

Finding Their Way


Her husband, Christopher, a pianist and composer, agrees.

“Sometimes, when I play at Jewish weddings, I have to explain to them that the kiddush should come before the motzi, the blessing of the bread.”

Like most converts, the Hardins take the precepts of their adopted faith more seriously than many born to it, and they display an intense hunger for knowledge, as if to make up for what they missed during their childhoods.

The Hardins were among eight Jews-by-choice who spoke at recent services at Valley Beth Shalom; they brought along their infant son, Benjamin, to receive his Hebrew name.

Jennifer, a professional singer and actress, was raised in a largely secular home in Bakersfield but was baptized as a Lutheran at age 12. By her late teens, she started to question various dogmas of Christianity and defined herself as an agnostic.

In her mid-20s, she moved to Los Angeles and befriended a Jewish family, who invited her to a seder.

“I had never experienced a holiday so deeply, with such profound symbolism and emotions,” she says. Turned on, Jennifer started visiting different synagogues, enrolled in University of Judaism classes and read books on Judaism.

She hadn’t known one Jew in Bakersfield, but, in Los Angeles, “I started hanging around Jewish people, though I felt somewhat self-conscious about it,” Jennifer says.

She met Christopher on a “Love Boat” cruise to Alaska, where she was performing as a singer and he as a member of the band. When their relationship became serious, Jennifer told her husband-to-be that she was considering becoming a Jew.

Christopher, who had grown up in a Lutheran home, told her, “I would be supportive, but I had no wish to convert.”

His attitude changed when their daughter, Calah (Hebrew for bride), was born. “I felt that she would need some spiritual guidance and that I wouldn’t be able to give it to her,” he says.

Christopher attended his first Rosh Hashanah service, conducted by Temple Judea, and, while listening, experienced an “eerie feeling of connection,” he says.

Encouraged by Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea, the couple enrolled in the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism. The six-month course, taught by Rabbi Neal Weinberg, has served as a beginning to advanced training program for thousands of born and aspiring Jews for more than 30 years.

“The course was very intense,” says Jennifer. “In six months, we had to absorb 4,000 years of history, Jewish rituals and holidays, and Hebrew prayers.”

Classes ended with an extensive examination, which students had to repeat until they got all the answers right.

(Sample question: List in order, starting from the fall, the Jewish holidays on the Jewish calendar. Explain the meaning of each holiday. List some of the symbols or objects associated with the holiday.)

Jennifer passed the test on her second go. Christopher says proudly, “I nailed it on the first try.”

Next came the hearing before the beit din, a three-person rabbinical court; immersion in a mikvah; and, for Christopher, a symbolic bris (he had already been circumcised).

After some shul searching, the Hardins settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Jennifer sings in the temple choir, and Christopher serves on the Jewish Music Commission.

“We feel very comfortable and have encountered some of the kindest people we’ve ever met and who share our values,” Christopher says.

They fondly remember their initial contact. “When we first came in, we asked Rabbi Jerry Danzig, the executive director, if there were any programs for converts,” Christopher said. “He said there weren’t any, adding, ‘You’re as much Jews as I am.'”

There are some collective sorrows, such as personal ties to Holocaust victims or the sting of anti-Semitism, that lie outside the Hardins’ own experience, Jennifer acknowledges.

“We just feel an incredible sadness,” says Jennifer, who adds, “We would rather be with the persecuted than the persecutors.” — Tom Tugend