Monday, December 29th, 2008


In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

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This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

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And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

What on earth does this mean?

One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.

Also, many Christians apparently view their didactic text as flexible. According to Pew’s August survey, only 39 percent of Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and 18 percent think that it’s just a book written by men and not the word of God at all. In fact, on the question in the Pew survey about what it would take to achieve eternal life, only 1 percent of Christians said living life in accordance with the Bible.

Now, there remains the possibility that some of those polled may not have understood the implications of their answers. As John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said, “The capacity of ignorance to influence survey outcomes should never be underestimated.” But I don’t think that they are ignorant about this most basic tenet of their faith. I think that they are choosing to ignore it … for goodness sake.

By CHARLES M. BLOW, December 27, 2008, Op-Ed Columnist

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A man in a Santa Claus outfit opened fire on a Christmas Eve gathering of his in-laws in this Los Angeles suburb and then methodically set their house ablaze, killing at least eight people and injuring several others, the authorities said Thursday.

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Shortly after the attack, the gunman, identified as Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, 45, killed himself with a single shot to the head at the home of his brother in the Sylmar section of Los Angeles, the police said.

In addition to the eight people whose bodies were found in the ashes of the house here, none of whom were identified, at least one other person was thought to be missing, and perhaps as many as three. Among the total of dead or missing were the couple who owned the home and their daughter, the estranged wife of the gunman, the police said.

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Investigators continued to search the charred structure Thursday, and coroners said dental records would be needed to identify some of the remains.

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The frenzied shooting occurred just before midnight Wednesday at the two-story house, set on a cul-de-sac in this middle-class town about 22 miles east of Los Angeles. Lt. Pat Buchanan of the Covina Police Department said Mr. Pardo, armed with one or two handguns and fire accelerant, had gone to the house looking for his former wife, Sylvia, with whom he was finalizing a contentious divorce after only a year of marriage.

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People who escaped the house got out by smashing through glass and jumping. One woman broke an ankle when she leapt from a second-floor window.

The house was owned by James and Alicia Ortega, an elderly couple who were retired from their spray-painting business and who often invited their large extended family over for parties, particularly around Christmas.

Relatives said about 25 people, among them many children, were inside the home celebrating when Mr. Pardo knocked on the door around 11:30 p.m. He had apparently disguised himself as a hired entertainer for the children in order to gain access.

When a guest opened the door, Lieutenant Buchanan said, Mr. Pardo stepped inside the house, drew a semiautomatic handgun and immediately started shooting, beginning with an 8-year-old girl who was hit in the face but who survived, as did an older girl who was shot in the back.

As Mr. Pardo unleashed a barrage of gunfire in the living room, relatives smashed through windows, hid behind furniture or bounded upstairs. Then he sprayed the room with accelerant, using a device made of two pressurized tanks, one of which held pressurized gas. Within seconds, the house was ablaze.

Joshua Chavez of Seattle was visiting his mother’s house, which sits behind the Ortegas’, when he heard a loud explosion. “Then I saw black smoke and this large flame,” he said.

Mr. Chavez ran out to the backyard and heard three girls, including the one who had been shot in the back, trying to climb over his mother’s wall. “There’s some guy shooting in there,” he said one of the girls told him.

“About 20 seconds after that,” he continued, “the house was totally on fire. One girl said that a guy dressed as Santa started shooting.”

Another neighbor, Jeannie Goltz, 51, saw three more partygoers fleeing the burning home. One of them, a young woman, had escaped upstairs from the living room but broke her ankle when she jumped out a second-story window.

SWAT teams arrived shortly after Ms. Goltz had shepherded these three survivors into another neighbor’s house, but by that time Mr. Pardo was on his way back to Los Angeles.

Police officers said they could not recall so horrific a crime in Covina, and neighbors said they would never have imagined anything so grisly on their quiet block.

The Ortegas had lived in the house for more than two decades and were known for their family spirit, their generosity and their dog, which frequently escaped their yard.

“I would generally play Santa for the family every year,” said Pat Bower, a neighbor of the Ortegas for 25 years. “The family was always together. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles were always in the house. They were a gigantic family. We all envied them, actually.”

Robert and Gloria Magcalas lived next door to the Ortegas for 11 years but were celebrating Christmas Eve with relatives in Los Angeles. Their own home was barely spared the flames.

“They were a big, loving family,” Mrs. Magcalas said. “We usually exchanged gifts with them today. They gave us tamales and cookies every Christmas.”

The police said they had found two handguns in the ruins, and an additional two pistols at the scene of Mr. Pardo’s apparent suicide. Officials said they would continue to search the crime scene Friday, seeking information about the identities of the dead.

By SOLOMON MOORE and ANAHAD O’CONNOR; COVINA, California —December 26, 2008

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There is a teaching in the Talmud that says an individual who comes before God after death will be asked a series of questions, the first one of which is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” But it is the Ten Commandments that have weighed most heavily on the mind of Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles in light of the sins for which Bernard L. Madoff stands accused.
“You shouldn’t steal,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “And this is theft on a global scale.”
The full scope of the misdeeds to which Mr. Madoff has confessed in swindling individuals and charitable groups has yet to be calculated, and he is far from being convicted. But Jews all over the country are already sending up something of a communal cry over a cost they say goes beyond the financial to the theological and the personal.
Here is a Jew accused of cheating Jewish organizations trying to help other Jews, they say, and of betraying the trust of Jews and violating the basic tenets of Jewish law. A Jew, they say, who seemed to exemplify the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes of the thieving Jewish banker.
So in synagogues and community centers, on blogs and in countless conversations, many Jews are beating their chests — not out of contrition, as they do on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but because they say Mr. Madoff has brought shame on their people in addition to financial ruin and shaken the bonds of trust that bind Jewish communities.
“Jews have these familial ties,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “It’s not solely a shared belief; it’s a sense of close communal bonds, and in the same way that your family can embarrass you as no one else can, when a Jew does this, Jews feel ashamed by proxy. I’d like to believe someone raised in our community, imbued with Jewish values, would be better than this.”
Among the apparent victims of Mr. Madoff were many Jewish educational institutions and charitable causes that lost fortunes in his investments; they include Yeshiva University, Hadassah, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. The Chais Family Foundation, which worked on educational projects in Israel, was recently forced to shut down because of losses in Madoff investments. Many of Mr. Madoff’s individual investors were Jewish and supported Jewish causes, apparently drawn to him precisely because of his own communal involvement and because he radiated the comfortable sense of being one of them.
“The Jewish world is not going to be the same for a while,” said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York.
Jews are also grappling with the implications of Mr. Madoff’s deeds for their public image, what one rabbi referred to as the “shanda factor,” using the Yiddish term for an embarrassing shame or disgrace. As Bradley Burston, a columnist for haaretz.com, the English-language Web site of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote on Dec. 17: “The anti-Semite’s new Santa is Bernard Madoff. The answer to every Jew-hater’s wish list. The Aryan Nation at its most delusional couldn’t have come up with anything to rival this.”
The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement that Mr. Madoff’s arrest had prompted an outpouring of anti-Semitic comments on Web sites around the world, most repeating familiar tropes about Jews and money. Abraham H. Foxman, the group’s national director, said that canard went back hundreds of years, but he noted that anti-Semites did not need facts to be anti-Semitic.
“We’re not immune from having thieves and people who engage in fraud,” Mr. Foxman said in an interview, disputing any notion that Mr. Madoff should be seen as emblematic. “Why, because he happens to be Jewish, he should have a conscience?”
He added that Mr. Madoff’s victims extended well beyond the Jewish community.
In addition to theft, the Torah discusses another kind of stealing, geneivat da’at, the Hebrew term for deception or stealing someone’s mind. “In the rabbinic mind-set, he’s guilty of two sins: one is theft, and the other is deception,” said Burton L. Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“The fact that he stole from Jewish charities puts him in a special circle of hell,” Rabbi Visotzky added. “He really undermined the fabric of the Jewish community, because it’s built on trust. There is a wonderful rabbinic saying — often misapplied — that all Jews are sureties for one another, which means, for instance, that if a Jew takes a loan out, in some ways the whole Jewish community guarantees it.”
Several rabbis said they were reminded of Esau, a figure of mistrust in the Bible. According to a rabbinic interpretation, Esau, upon embracing his brother Jacob after 20 years apart, was actually frisking him to see what he could steal. “The saying goes that, when Esau kisses you,” Rabbi Visotzky said, “check to make sure your teeth are still there.”
Rabbi Kalmanofsky said he was struck by reports that Mr. Madoff had tried to give bonus payments to his employees just before he was arrested, that he was moved to do something right even as he was about to be charged with doing so much wrong. “The small-scale thought for people who work for him amidst this large-scale fraud — what is the dissonance between that sense of responsibility and the gross sense of irresponsibility?” he said.
In a recent sermon, Rabbi Kalmanofsky described Mr. Madoff as the antithesis of true piety.
“I said, what it means to be a religious person is to be terrified of the possibility that you’re going to harm someone else,” he said.
Rabbi Kalmanofsky said Judaism had highly developed mechanisms for not letting people control money without ample checks and balances. When tzedakah, or charity, is collected, it must be done so in pairs. “These things are supposed to be done in the public eye,” Rabbi Kalmanofsky said, “so there is a high degree of confidence that people are behaving in honorable ways.”
While the Madoff affair has resonated powerfully among Jews, some say it actually stands for a broader dysfunction in the business world. “The Bernie Madoff story has become a Jewish story,” said Rabbi Jennifer Krause, the author of “The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time,” “but I do see it in the much greater context of a human drama that is playing out in sensationally terrible ways in America right now.”
“The Talmud teaches that a person who only looks out for himself and his own interests will eventually be brought to poverty,” Rabbi Krause added. “Unfortunately, this is the metadrama of what’s happening in our country right now. When you have too many people who are only looking out for themselves and they forget the other piece, which is to look out for others, we’re brought to poverty.”
According to Jewish tradition, the last question people are asked when they meet God after dying is, “Did you hope for redemption?”
Rabbi Wolpe said he did not believe Mr. Madoff could ever make amends.
“It is not possible for him to atone for all the damage he did,” the rabbi said, “and I don’t even think that there is a punishment that is commensurate with the crime, for the wreckage of lives that he’s left behind. The only thing he could do, for the rest of his life, is work for redemption that he would never achieve.”

By ROBIN POGREBIN

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