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The First Love Story

Adam, Eve, and Us

flsfinal3dFrom the New York Times bestselling author of Walking the Bible and Abraham comes a revelatory journey across four continents and 4,000 years exploring how Adam and Eve introduced the idea of love into the world, and how they continue to shape our deepest feelings about relationships, family, and togetherness. READ MORE

 

The Secrets of Happy Families

Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More

The Secrets of Happy Families book coverBest-selling author and New York Times family columnist Bruce Feiler found himself squeezed between aging parents and rising children. He set out on a three-year journey to find the smartest ideas, cutting-edge research, and novel solutions to make his family happier. READ MORE

 

The Council of Dads

A Story of Family, Friendship & Learning How to Live

The Council of Dads book coverWhen bestselling author Bruce Feiler was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his leg, he could only imagine all the walks he might not take with his daughters, the ballet recitals he would miss, the art projects left undone, and the aisles he might not walk down. READ MORE

Read Bruce’s cancer diary.

Bruce's latest news

Check this Events List to see if Bruce will be appearing in your town on The First Love Story book tour.

Bruce discusses the Secrets of Happy Families on the latest Digital Dads podcast.

Announcing Bruce’s forthcoming book, The First Love Story, from Penguin Random House

Archive for September, 2009

What Would Moses Eat?

Monday, September 28th, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: The Diet Craze that Moses, Jesus, and Deepak Chopra All Endorse

If you’re looking for a way to bring together believers and scientists, here’s a tip that could remind them of their commonality and save money, too: no food!

Fasting may be the one activity these days that unites the religious and the secular, the left and the right, Deepak Chopra and Glenn Beck.

As Muslims look back on a month of daytime fasts, Jews observe a 24-hour fast to observe the Day of Atonement, and Glenn Beck initiates a daylong fast to honor the founding fathers, the time seems ripe to ask: Does fasting work? Can it, as the prophets suggest, expiate our sins and bring us closer to God? Can it, as the yogis propose, purge our toxins and improve our sex lives? Can it, as researchers hypothesize, cure our jet lag and help us get pregnant?

In short, can fasting save the world?

Fasting pops up in an astonishing array of cultures around the world, from the Babylonians to the Incas, the Confucians to the Jains, which suggests that abstaining from food is one of the core impulses of religion, right up there with mourning, marriage, and sexual regulation. Abnegation is a way of adding oomph to any ritual; putting your stomach where your mouth is. It’s like saying, “Hey, God, I really mean it!”

In the Abrahamic faiths, the notion of fasting appears in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran, but generally speaking the practice seems to grow more important over time. The patriarchs don’t fast, but Moses does. The kings fast some (especially David, who had lots of sins to atone for), but the prophets even more. Christians fast more than Jews; Muslims more than either. One explanation might be that as religion became more organized, diverse, and international, fasting as a way of imposing universal authority on far-flung, disparate people became more central to the priestly class.

Fasting in the Bible is both personal and political. Individuals abstain from food to express contrition (Ahab) or to prepare for divine revelation (Moses). In a precursor to hunger strikes today, leaders also fast to prepare troops for battle (Samuel) or to request divine aid for a political cause (Ezra). Jesus fasted for forty days but warned others not to starve themselves for public show. (WHAT WOULD HE HAVE SAID ABOUT a 2003 publicity stunt IN WHICH David Blaine starved himself for 44 days in a glass box over the Thames and lost 25% of his body weight?)

Eastern religions stress a different reason for fasting, namely that it cleanses the body and purifies the mind. The Indian tradition of Ayuerveda, espoused by both Buddhists and Hindis and endorsed by Deepak Chopra, holds that the body is 80% liquid and that fasting purges corrosive toxins and restores proper balance. The Jains have a ritual of voluntary death by fasting, which they distinguish from suicide because of the prolonged period of contemplation and preparation.

So is any of this backed up by science?

The normal instinct of scientists is to scoff at religious rituals as primitive and naive, coming from that pitiable time before the invention of the lab coat. And scientists do, indeed, downplay many of the supposed benefits of abstaining from food. For starters, your vital organs already do a pretty good job of dispensing with toxins. Second, fasting is not a good strategy for losing weight — after about half a day of not eating, the body turns to muscle and fat for fuel, then eventually slows down its metabolism, so that once you start eating again, any weight loss is quickly reversed.

But a host of new studies suggest that tactical fasting can be beneficial in a surprising number of circumstances:

– Arthritis. A Norwegian study by Jens Kjeldsen-Kragh and others (2000) concluded that a seven-to-ten day controlled fast is effective in improving rheumatoid arthritis, but only if followed by a strict vegetarian diet. Patients who returned to eating normally lost all benefits.

– Fertility. A study by Jonathan Tilly of Harvard Medical School released this month shows that reducing the caloric intake of older mice by 40% significantly reduces the number of eggs with abnormal chromosomes. A similar study by Tilly last year concluded that restricting food intake of adult mice extended their reproductive lifespan and the health of their offspring.

– Jet lag. Harvard’s Clifford Saper published a study last year demonstrating that when mice eat no food for about 16 hours, their body clocks adjust much more rapidly to jet lag. Though untested on humans, the study suggests that the desire to eat is greater than the desire to sleep, so the body opts to postpone rest for fuel, thereby resetting its circadian cycle.

– Aging. Everyone agrees that reduced caloric intake boasts a host of medical benefits, but research by Marc Hellersteing, at Berkeley, suggests that targeted fasting, such as every other day, coupled with a healthy diet, can shows signs of slowing cancer and reducing aging.

Given this continued fascination with fasting in both the laboratory and the pew, the urge not to eat would appear to be as universal as the desire to eat. Even more tantalizing, both sides can claim to be right. Fasting is that rare endeavor that believers and scientists can agree is beneficial. With that mutuality, the old parable may need a new spin. The fastest way to a man’s heart just may be through an empty stomach.

Does Fasting Work?

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

If you’re looking for a way to bring together believers and scientists, here’s a tip that could remind them of their commonality and save money, too: no food!

Fasting may be the one activity these days that unites the religious and the secular, the left and the right, Deepak Chopra and Glenn Beck.

As Muslims look back on a month of daytime fasts, Jews observe a 24-hour fast to observe the Day of Atonement, and Glenn Beck initiates a daylong fast to honor the founding fathers, the time seems ripe to ask: Does fasting work? Can it, as the prophets suggest, expiate our sins and bring us closer to God? Can it, as the yogis propose, purge our toxins and improve our sex lives? Can it, as researchers hypothesize, cure our jet lag and help us get pregnant?

In short, can fasting save the world?

Read my take in The Daily Beast.

Where Have All the Christians Gone?

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Christianity is plummeting in America, while the number of non-believers is skyrocketing.

A shocking new study of Americans’ religious beliefs shows the beginnings of a major realignment in Americans’ relationship with God. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) reveals that Protestants now represent half of all Americans, down almost 20 percent in the last twenty years. In the coming months, America will become a minority Protestant nation for the first time since the Pilgrims.

The number of people who claim no religious affiliation, meanwhile, has doubled since 1990 to fifteen percent, its highest point in history. Non-believers now represent the third-highest group of Americans, after Catholics and Baptists.

Other headlines:

  1. The number of Christians has declined 12% since 1990, and is now 76%, the lowest percentage in American history.
  2. The growth of non-believers has come largely from men. Twenty percent of men express no religious affiliation; 12% of women.
  3. Young people are fleeing faith. Nearly a quarter of Americans in their 20’s profess no organized religion.
  4. But these non-believers are not particularly atheist. That number hasn’t budged and stands at less than 1 percent. (Agnostics are similarly less than 1 percent.) Instead, these individuals have a belief in God but no interest in organized religion, or they believe in a personal God but not in a formal faith tradition.

The implications for American society are profound. Americans’ relationship with God, which drove many of the country’s great transformations from the pilgrims to the founding fathers, the Civil War to the civil rights movement, is still intact. Eighty-two percent of Americans believe in God or a higher power.

But at the same time, the study offers yet another wake-up call for religious institutions.

First, catering to older believers is a recipe for failure; younger Americans are tuning out.

Second, Americans are interested in God, but they don’t think existing institutions are helping them draw closer to God.

Finally, Americans’ interest in religion has not always been stable. It dipped following the Revolution and again following Civil War. In both cases it rebounded because religious institutions adapted and found new ways of relating to everyday Americans.

Today, the rise of disaffection is so powerful that different denominations need to band together to find a shared language of God that can move beyond fading divisions and move toward a partnership of different-but-equal traditions.

Or risk becoming Europe, where religion is fast becoming an afterthought.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Moses!

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Faster than a speeing bullet, more powerful than a locomotive.

Fifty-seven years ago this week, The Adventures of Superman debuted on American television. The show grew out of the comic book series begun in 1938 by two bookish Jews from Cleveland, Ohio, who channeled their religious anxieties into a cartoon character they modeled partly on the superhero of the torah.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew on many sources for their comic book hero, including Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. But many of its principal themes are drawn from the Hebrew Bible, and its backstory is taken almost point by point from Moses.

Just as Moses was born into a world in which his people faced annihilation, Superman is born a planet that is facing extinction. Just as baby Moses is put into a small basket and floated down the Nile by his mother, baby Superman is placed into a small rocket ship by his parents and launched into space. Just as Moses is rescued by the daughter of the pharaoh and raised in an alien environment where he has to conceal his true identity, Superman is rescued by Jonathan and Martha Kent in a midwestern corn field and raised in an alien environment where he has to conceal his true identity. Just as Moses receives a calling from God to use his powers to liberate his people from tyranny, Superman receives a calling from his father to use his great strength “to assist humanity.”

Even Superman’s name reflects his creators’ biblical knowledge. Moses is the leader of Israel, or Yisra-el in Hebrew, commonly translated as one who strives with God. Superman’s original name on Krypton was Kal-El, or Swift God in Hebrew. His father’s name was Jor-El. Superman was clearly drawn as a modern-day god.

As Rabbi Simcha Weinstein told me, “Today, Action Comic #1 with Superman on the cover sells for over a million dollars. But in those days it was a joke. For Jewish artists, getting into advertising was hard, getting into highbrow art was harder. But with comic books, the barriers to entry were nothing. So people like Siegel and Shuster started drawing these superheroes who were metaphors for their own lives.”

Superman even fought Hitler. In Superman #1, published in 1939, Clark and Lois Lane travel to a thinly disguised Nazi Germany, where Lois ends up in front of a firing squad, until Superman rescues her. In Superman #2, also from 1939, Clark Kent visits faux Germany again and meets Adolphus Runyan, a scientist clearly modeled on Adolph Hitler, who has discovered a gas so powerful “it is capable of penetrating any type of gas-mask.”

Americans may or may not have noticed Superman’s Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did. As early as April 1940, Hitler’s chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels, denounced Superman as a Jew. But Americans still loved him. One in four American soldiers carried a comic book in their back pocket during World War II.

Here’s the opening of the series:

My Rifle, My Bible, and Me

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

A new ad campaign pokes fun (or sends flames) at Barack Obama’s comment last year that some Americans “cling to guns and religion.” Come to think of it: Some of the greatest victories in America have grown out of the combo of guns and Bibles. Get me one of those holsters!

RifleBible

Moses get your gun!

Is Genesis Real?

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

What Happens When Dan Brown Meets Adam and Eve?

My answers on The Daily Beast.

Do the Ten Commandments Support Gays in the Military?

Monday, September 14th, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Gays in the military.

In Ted Kennedy’s new memoir, being published today, the Senator describes his first meeting with Bill Clinton in the White House. The new president had stumbled into a firestorm about gays in the military and invited the Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee to a meeting. All of the senators went around the room giving their opinions, so much so that the meeting lasted a whopping two hours, costing Kennedy a seat at the ballet that night. Kennedy spoke in favor of lifting the ban; Robert Byrd spoke against. Finally, the president spoke up. Here is Kennedy’s telling:

President Clinton stood up. His response was short and sweet. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Moses went up to the mountain, and he came back with the tablets and there were ten commandments on those tablets. I’ve read those commandments. I know what they say, just like I know you do. And nowhere in those ten commandments will you find anything about homosexuality. Thank y’all for coming.’ He ended the meeting and walked out of the room.”

Clinton was technically correct. The Ten Commandments do not mention homosexuality. But the Five Books of Moses do, in ways that have plagued homosexuals for centuries. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.” Leviticus 20:13 says this “abomination” is punishable by death. Conservative Jews and Christians have long cited these two verses in their condemnation of homosexuality, though more liberal-minded believers have claimed these verses occur in the context of idol-worship or other passages that render them irrelevant to current conventions. In any event, many offenses for which the Bible calls for the death penalty have not been punished in that way for millennia, if ever.

Clinton’s quoting Moses to support his softening of the ban of gays in the military recalls another use of the Hebrew prophet. In 1948, Harry Truman issued an executive order integrating the U.S. military. Noting that polls showed 82 percent of American were against the policy, Truman wrote in his diary: “How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?”

From the pilgrims to the founding fathers, the civil war to the civil rights movement, American leaders have used Moses in the face of staunch opposition to advance the cause of justice. Obama, though, might have a trouble quoting Moses to support his policy toward gays in the military. Just last month he cited Moses in support of his health care plan.

Take Your Own Path!

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Check out this new Dell ad campaign featuring, well, my wife! And try to answer this Zen question: Which came first, the color of the shirt or the color of the font? [Actually, this applies to the link, not the photo below…]

Take Your Own Path

Choose Life: Was Moses Really Pro-Life or Pro-Abortion?

Monday, September 7th, 2009

THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Moses has entered the abortion wars.

From the “Baby Moses Law” in Texas to a pitched battle over “Choose Life” on license plates, the Bible’s leading prophet has become the latest touchstone in America’s hottest hot-button issue.

This week, synagogues across the country consider Moses’s farewell speech on Mount Nebo in which he gives the Israelites a choice as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.

“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live.”

This passage has a storied history in America. John Winthrop quoted it at the end of his speech in Boston Harbor in 1630 in which he called America a “shining city upon a hill.” Ronald Reagan quoted it at the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Al Gore quoted it in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 2007.

Now this speech has become ground zero in the abortion wars in America. Twenty-four states have approved specialized license plates with the tag line “Choose Life” sponsored by anti-abortion groups. New Jersey denied the license plate and was sued by a New York based pro-adoption agency, Children’s First. The state argued before the 3rd U.S. Circuit court that it rejected “Choose Life” because the law limits designs to group names and logos, like the Sierra Club or Rutgers football, and does not permit slogans. A decision is pending.

In Texas, pro-adoption groups latched onto Moses for a different reason. A law passed in 2000, called the “Baby Moses Law,” allows that a parent may leave any baby up to 60 days old at any hospital or fire station with no questions asked. The reference comes from the opening of Exodus in which the pharaoh orders the slaughter of all newborn Israelite males, and the mother of Moses wraps him in a small basket (the Bible uses the term “ark”) and floats him down the Nile. About 100 babies in Texas are said to be saved by the “Baby Moses Law.”

So what did Moses really think?

The Bible doesn’t say. Of the 613 laws of Moses, none comments on abortion. Exodus 21:22 – 25 says that if a woman has a fight with a man and suffers a miscarriage, the man should be fined. “If other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” As the closest mention of a terminated pregnancy, this phrase was the centerpiece of rabbinical arguments about abortion. Most commentators agree that “other damages” refers to harm of the mother.

Jewish law generally asserts that an unborn fetus does not become a person (or a “soul”) until it is born, thereby excluding a fetus from the Ninth Commandment against killing. Still, many Jewish commentators denounce abortion as a serious moral offense, though the great Jewish commentator Maimonides did explicitly support abortion if the life of the mother was endangered. (For a fuller discussion of Jewish law and abortion, click here.)

Given this controversy, perhaps all sides can get behind another use of the phrase “choose life.” The Scottish government has adopted it as the name of a program to reduce suicides by twenty percent. It’s the name of an HIV campaign in Africa. And the Ewan McGregor character in Trainspotting uses it as an ode to a drug-free life. “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family … But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life.”

Could Moses be the next face of “Your Brain on Drugs”?