Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

September 26, 2006

Important Notice: This Blog Is Now Closed

That's right: I shall no longer be posting at this address. My new address is http://deba.wordpress.com. I look forward to seeing all of you there.

September 24, 2006

El Diablo

September 22, 2006

Who Shall Live

In the spirit of Rosh HaShana and Yom HaKippurim I have decided to post another of my favourite sections of the liturgy. Tradition has it that this was written by Rav Amram, a Rabbi who was believed to have lived in the German town of Mainz about a thousand years ago. Some have argued that the tradition is an adaptation of a similar tradition concerning the Christian St. Emmeram of Regensburg but, in the manner in which it is related in Jewish circles, it involves Amram's refusal to convert to Christianity after having been invited to do so by the local Bishop.

According to the story, Rav Amram suggests that he shall think about it for three days, but immediately repents of having intimated that he would. His allotted time passes and the Bishop has him returned to his presence. Upon returning, Amram suggests that the Bishop should cut out his tongue for ever having used it to imply that he may convert to Christianity. The Bishop refuses, insisting that it is Amram's legs that should be removed for not having hastened back to him in time.

Amram is taken back into town, bleeding profusely (as one can imagine) and is brought into the local synagogue for Rosh HaShana. Upon being carried onto the bimah, Amram sings a song and dies. This song, entitled Let Us Relate the Power (ונתנה תוקף) was supposedly taught to Rabbi Kalonymous by Rav Amram, in a dream, a short while after Amram's death.

It is sung several times on both Rosh HaShana and Yom HaKippurim and, despite its highly dubious and somewhat simplistic origin myth, nonetheless constitutes an exceptionally beautiful poem.
ונתנה תוקף קדשת היום, כי הוא נורא ואיום. ובו תנשא מלכותך, ויכון בחסד כסאך, ותשב עליו באמת. אמת כי אתה הוא דין ומוכיח, ויודע ועד, וכותב וחותם וסופר ומונה, ותזכור כל הנשכחות. ותפתח את ספר הזכרונות, ומאליו יקרא, וחותם יד כל אדם בו. ובשופר גדול יתקע, וקול דממה דקה ישמע. ומלאכים יחפזון, וחיל ורעדה יאחזון, ויאמרו הנה יום הדין, לפקוד על צבא מרום בדין, כי לא יזכו בעיניך בדין. וכל באי עולם יעברון לפניך כבני מרון. כבקרת רועה עדרו, מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו, כן תעביר ותספור ותמנה, ותפקוד נפש כל חי, ותחתוך קצבה לכל בריותיך, ותכתוב את גזר דינם

בראש השנה יכתבון, וביום צום כפור יחתמון, כמה יעברון, וכמה יבראון; מי יחיה ומי ימות, מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו, מי במים, ומי באש, מי בחרב, ומי בחיה, מי ברעב, ומי בצמא, מי ברעש, ומי במגפה, מי בחניקה, ומי בסקילה, מי ינוח ומי ינוע, מי ישקט ומי יטרף, מי ישלו ומי יתיסר, מי יעני ומי יעשר, מי ישפל ומי ירום

ותשובה ותפלה וצדקה
מעבירין את רע הגזרה

כי כשמך כן תהלתך, קשה לכעוס ונוח לרצות; כי לא תחפוץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה. ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו. אמת כי אתה הוא יוצרם, ואתה יודע יצרם, כי הם בשר ודם. אדם יסודו מעפר וסופו לעפר; בנפשו יביא לחמו; משול כחרס הנשבר, כחציר יבש, וכציץ נובל, וכצל עובר, וכענן כלה, וכרוח נושבת, וכאבק פורח, וכחלום יעוף

ואתה הוא מלך אל חי וקים
My translation is as follows:
Let us relate the power
Of the sanctity
Of the day
For it is terrible and awesome.

On it is Your kingdom upraised
And Your throne,
Secured with kindness

You sit upon it in truth!
Truth, for You are who judges and proves,
Knows and testifies,
Writes and then signs,
Relates and then numbers,
And remembers all of the forgotten.

You will open the Book of Memories
And from it, it shall be read
With everyone's signature in it.

A great horn shall be sounded
But a thin, small voice shall be heard.

The angels then shall all hasten
Fear and trembling shall seize them
And they shall cry:
"Behold, the Day of the Law!
Commanding the heavenly army by law!
Who can be pure in Your eyes through the law?"

And all the inhabitants of the earth shall pass
Before You, like a flock of sheep
Like a shepherd who pastures his livestock,
Brings his herd underneath his crook,
So too do You bring, do You count, do You number,
Do You analyse the souls of the living
And apportion the needs of each being
And write the decree of their sentence.

On Rosh HaShana they are written
And on Tsom Yom Kippur they are sealed.
How many shall pass, and how many created:
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who in their time and who not in their time;
Who by water
And who by fire;
Who by the sword
And who by a beast;
Who by hunger
And who by thirst;
Who by disaster
And who by sickness;
Who by strangling
And who by stoning;
Who will rest
And who will wander;
Who will be go peacefully
And who will go violently;
Who will be calm
And who will be harried;
Who will be poor
And who will be rich;
Who will be degraded
And who will be exalted.

But repentance, prayer and charity
Remove the evil of the decree!

For Your name signifies Your glory:
Hard to anger and easy to please.
You do not delight in the death of the dying
But in their return from their ways, and their life.
Until the last day of their lives You are waiting
And if they repent You receive them at once.
It is true, for You are their maker
And You know well their inclination,
That they are but flesh and blood.

Man is derived from the dust
And the dust constitutes his conclusion.
In peril he gathers his bread.

Likened to a broken shard,
Dry grass,
A fading flower,
A passing shadow,
A dispersing cloud
A returning wind,
Scattered dust,
A passing dream.

But You are the King!
The Living and Eternal God.

Killing Cats

There is a particular principle of theoretical physics named (after its author) "Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle". In a nutshell, this principle states that it is impossible (in the case of some minute particles) to guage both their speed and their location. By measuring their location, one alters the speed at which they move; by noting their speed, one moves them. Some have used this principle, and its natural corollary that not everything about our universe can be known, to argue against the fatalist philosophy that suggests that all events are predetermined on the basis of the universe constituting a closed system of information.

In any case, a German physicist by the name of Schroedinger developed a metaphor for the representation of Heisenberg's idea. The metaphor runs as follows:

Suppose I take a cat, and I place it within a "black box" (so named by virtue of the fact that its contents are either invisible or unknown). Alongside the cat, I place a radioactive atomic nucleus and a canister of poison gas. Should the nucleus decay, a particle will be emitted that will trigger a mechanism within the canister and fill the box with gas. Thus dies the cat. Over the course of one hour, there is a 50% chance that the event occurs.

As Heisenberg's uncertainty principle dictates, I cannot know the state of the cat. So long as the cat is within the box, it has no status as either living or dead; indeed, it exists only as a possible either. In reality, of course, the cat is also endowed with consciousness and so does exist in one form or another, but should we rob the cat of its ability to know whether or not it is alive (queror ergo sum...) then the experiment presents a most curious paradox. The only way to know whether or not the cat is alive or dead is to open the box but, until then, the cat must be considered as both.

I only raise this issue to express my opinion that the expression, "Curiousity killed the cat", has more to do with the curiousity of a German scientist than it does with the activities of an inquisitive feline.

September 21, 2006

Analysing a Childhood Film

I was struck just yesterday morning with a revelation that seemed to me to be both astonishing and perspicacious. If I don't say so myself. I was thinking about the 1986 Jim Henson film, Labyrinth, and considering what the film was actually about. The simple answer would be that it is about a girl (the young Jennifer Connelly) who must make her way through a treacherous maze in order to rescue her baby brother, held captive by the cruel Goblin King (the masterful David Bowie). This is, of course, a very simplistic overview of the plot, and it occurred to me that a deeper meaning underlay the entire story.

The film is actually about adolescence. It concerns a young girl's journey from childhood to adulthood, and her appreciation of the fact that true adulthood can only come once she learns to also embrace the childhood that she is leaving behind. Viewed in that way, many elements of the story make sense. Her rejection of her brother at the beginning is contrasted with the emotional maturity that she demonstrates in rescuing him at the end. She is often given a way out of the labyrinth (Jareth, the Goblin King, frequently tells her to go back) but nonetheless chooses to face him alone at the film's denouement.

This confrontation is also very telling, for Jareth represents Sarah's burgeoning sexual desire. In a scene that would have made Freud choke on his cigar, Sarah eats of a poisoned fruit and experiences a dream in which she alternates between dancing with Jareth and searching for him desperately. Upon awakening she is offered a room much like her own, stuffed full of all of her childhood toys and comforting in its oblivion. In truth, it is little different to the oubliette in which she found herself in the previous scene, and she makes the decision to leave it behind her and accept responsibility in her brother's life.

Sarah's victory over Jareth is also her victory over herself. She conquers the Goblin King (her own sexuality) by asserting that even though he turns her world upside-down, he nonetheless has no real power over her. She remains herself but, importantly, so does he. In the final scene, Sarah is attended in her room by all of the characters of the film (minus the goblins of teenage angst, acne, etc). They are arranged on her bed and her bookshelf, muppets amongst the toys with which she grew up. She confesses that, yes, she does still need them all and it is then that we realise that her adolescence is in some manner complete.

Outside the window, Jareth observes the scene in the form of an owl: the same owl that was responsible for transporting Sarah to the labyrinth at the film's beginning. Lest we do not notice this parallelism, the film's opening song ("Underground") begins playing again just before the credits role. Jareth was in control of Sarah at the start of the film, but the end of the film has witnessed her control over him. She is the master of her own desires and, now that she is willing to embrace her childhood and accept responsibility, she is also an adult.

Needless to say, I was quite pleased with my observation.
Having spoken to a friend of mine, it would seem that every woman in the world has known this since 1986. Am I slow? Is it a male/female thing? Anyone?

Quote for the Day #2

There are only 10 types of people in this world:
Those who understand binary,
And those who do not.

The Art of Kissing; or Why Sociology is Silly

Once upon a time, while I was undertaking a BA in Communications at UTS (and majoring in Writing and Contemporary Cultures), I took a class on sociology. My teacher, a lady in her mid-thirties whose name I would probably no longer even recognise were I to hear it again, decided to share with us her thoughts about kissing. She was in the process of writing a book which I hope, for her sake, was never published. Her overriding thesis was that kissing on the mouth is a thoroughly recent phenomenon, thanks to the wonderful developments in the realm of dental and oral hygiene, and that prior generations of amorous lovers (a curious tautology) kissed each other elsewhere.

O, how wrong she was.

The following are some brief examples of kissing in ancient literature, each of which testifies to the existence of this phenomenon so recently attributed solely to the French.

Song of Songs 1:2. Date of composition is disputed.
ישקני מנשיקות פיהו כי טובים דדיך מיין
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth...
Oh, your loving is better than wine!
While one may choose to argue that the kisses of his mouth may be delivered on other parts of the nameless lady's body, the reference to wine conjures images of taste-related appreciation.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ḥullin, 127a Composed no later than 700 CE.
אמר רב גידל אמר רב נרשאה נשקיך מני ככיך
Rav Gidel said in the name of Rav,
"If a Nerashean [a people criticised in the Talmud for being thieves] should kiss you: count your teeth!"
Geoffrey Chaucer. "The Miller's Tale"¹. Composed, c. 1380-1390
The first cock crew at last, and thereupon
Up rose this jolly lover Absalon
In gayest clothes, garnished with that and this;
But first he chewed a grain of liquorice
To charm his breath before he combed his hair.
Under his tongue the comfit nestling there
Would make him gracious. He began to roam
Towards the carpenter's; he reached their home
And by the casement window took his stand.
Breast-high it stood, no higher than his hand.
He gave a cough, it was a semi-sound;
'Alison, honey-comb, are you around?
Sweet cinnamon, my pretty little bird,
Sweetheart, wake up and say a little word!
You seldom think of me in all my woe,
I sweat for love of you wherever I go!
I eat as little as a girl at school.'
'You go away,' she answered, 'you Tom-fool!
There's no come-up-and-kiss-me here for you.
I love another and why shouldn't I too?
Better than you, by Jesu, Absalon!
Take yourself off or I shall throw a stone.
I want to get some sleep. You go to Hell!'
'Alas!' said Absalon. 'I knew it well;
True love is always mocked and girded at;
So kiss me, if you can't do more than that,
For Jesu's love and for the love of me!'
'And if I do, will you be off?' said she.
'Promise you, darling,' answered Absalon.
'Get ready then; wait, I'll put something on,'
She said and then she added under breath
To Nicholas, 'Hush... we shall laugh to death!'
This Absalon went down upon his knees;
'I am a lord!' he thought, 'And by degrees
There may be more to come; the plot may thicken.'
'Mercy, my love!' he said, 'Your mouth, my chicken!'
She flung the window open then in haste
And said, 'Have done, come on, no time to waste,
The neighbours here are always on the spy.'
Absalon started wiping his mouth dry.
Dark was the night as pitch, as black as coal,
And at the window out she put her hole,
And Absalon, so fortune framed the farce,
Put up his mouth and kissed her naked arse
Most savorously before he knew of this.
And back he started. Something was amiss;
He knew quite well a woman has no beard,
Yet something rough and hairy had appeared.
'What have I done?' he said. 'Can that be you?'
'Teehee!' she cried and clapped the window to.
This last one, while it may perhaps not involve kissing on the mouth, as the subject of this post did promise, nonetheless testifies to the protagonist's suavic intentions.

In other news, however, this constitutes my 101st post on this blog!
Ah, I am reminded of the great Orwellian nightmare that lay behind door 101; the reflection of one's innermost self. While I may not be able to claim that this blog has enabled me to encounter and deal with my personal id, it has nonetheless enabled me to scratch the surface of my bulging and rather impersonal ego. Perhaps that's what blogs are for.

¹ 88-106 of The Canterbury Tales (trans. N. Coghill; London: Penguin, 1977).
² 102-103, ibid.

September 20, 2006

I Have Dreamed a Dream...

In honour of the rapidly approaching Rosh HaShana I thought that I might post up some of the more beautiful parts of the day's liturgy. When the kohanim ascend the bimah to bless the congregation, custom dictates that they sing the words of Numbers 6:24-26 slowly enough for the congregation to insert a brief prayer in the midst of their singing. That prayer is as follows:
רבונו של עולם, אני שלך וחלומותי שלך. חלום חלמתי ואיני יודע מה הוא. יהי רצון מלפניך, יהוה אלהי ואלהי אבותי, שיהיו כל חלומותי עלי ועל כל ישראל לטובה - בין שחלמתי על עצמי, ובין שחלמתי על אחרים, ובין שחלמו אחרים עלי. אם טובים הם, חזקם ואמצם, ויתקימו בי ובהם כחלומותיו של יוסף הצדיק. ואם צריכים רפואה, רפאם כחזקיהו מלך יהודה מחליו, וכמרים הנביאה מצרעתה, וכנעמן מצרעתו, וכמי מרה על ידי משה רבנו, וכמי יריחו על ידי אלישע. וכשם שהפכת את קללת בלעם הרשע מקללה לברכה, כן תהפוך כל חלומותי עלי ועל כל ישראל לטובה, ותשמרני ותחנני ותרצני. אמן
The following is my translation:
Master of the World, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours.
I have dreamed a dream and I do not know what it was.
May it be Your will, O Lord my God and the God of my ancestors, that all of my dreams concerning myself and concerning the Jewish people be for good:
Whether I dreamed them about myself;
Or whether I dreamed them about others;
Or whether others dreamed them about me.

If they are good: strengthen them and enforce them and bring them to fulfilment in regards to me and in regards to them - like the dreams of the righteous Joseph.
But if they require healing: heal them [as You healed] Hezekiah, king of Judah, from his sickness;
And the prophet Miriam from her leprosy;
And Naaman from his leprosy;
And the bitter waters by the hand of our teacher Moses;
And the waters of Jericho by the hand of Elisha.

And in the manner that You altered the wicked Balaam's curse from a curse to a blessing,
So too may You favourably alter all of my dreams regarding myself and regarding all of the Jewish people.

May You shield me
May You be merciful to me
May You desire me.


September 18, 2006

Having recently written a post about the future, I thought that I might add my two cents concerning time travel.

According to Einsteining physics, we are all moving at the speed of light. Me, you, the tree outside my window - even an ant that I squashed underfoot earlier today in an act of clumsy non-Buddhist apathy. But before you all start jumping up and down and clicking on the comments box to inform me (politely) that nothing, save light, travels at 300,000 km every second I will also inform you that movement can occur in any of a number of dimensions. One of those dimensions is time.

If you picture a graph, the vertical axis of which represents the spatial dimensions and the horizontal axis of which represents the temporal, you can imagine the manner in which such movement may be plotted. We snail-like organisms who crawl through life at a paltry fraction of the speed of light do virtually all of our movement on the horizontal axis. The pilot of the jetplane (itself also moving at a miserable fraction of the Einsteinian "constant") does his movement almost entirely through time, as does the chair that I am sitting on and the dog running happily down the street. Light, on the other hand, does all of its movement through space. It travels so quickly that, on the horizontal axis, it does not move at all.

You heard me correctly. Particles of light ("photons") do not age. We age rapidly but, as Einstein also explained, movement through both space and time is entirely relative. That is to say that if I hopped on a hypothetical space-ship and zipped through the galaxy at speeds approaching those of light, even though the earth and all that is in it would have aged significantly beyond me by the time that I returned, I would not have experienced the slow passage of time felt by those that I had left behind me.

There is a curious practical element to all of this. Time travel, in one direction only, is actually a feasible possibility - so long as scientists can devise a way to speed up a craft to a sizeable fraction of the speed of light. Should that be possible then the occupant of that craft can move themselves as many years into the future as they so desire, simply by inhabiting it while it moves rapidly throughout space.

The downside: as I mentioned before, the future is not a place. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the world that will greet this occupant upon their exit from this craft will be anything other than a less familiar version of the one that they had left behind - now minus their families and friends. And, of course, there is no way to go back.

Mistaking the Commentary for the Text

Here are some interesting questions for the Jews in the crowd:

According to the Bible:
1. What was Abraham's father's profession?
2. What did King Ahashverosh ask Queen Vashti to do? (In the Purim story)

And for the Christians in the audience:

1. What was the fruit growing on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? (In the Garden of Eden story)
2. How many wise men visited the baby Jesus?

It's funny just how deeply entrenched Biblical commentaries can become. For myself, I have a great deal of difficulty reading about how King Ahashverosh asked Vashti to parade in front of his guests wearing a crown, and not think that he meant only a crown. If I close my eyes and I picture the Garden of Eden, I must confess to seeing an apple tree growing in its midst. And if I think of the turning point in young Abraham's life, I see him smashing the idols in his father's shop.

These are not details contained within the Biblical text: on the contrary, they are the result of centuries of commentaries that have superimposed secondary ideas over the mainline narrative. The Midrash Rabba is responsible for contextualising Abraham's revelation of godliness, as well as explaining Vashti's refusal to leave the king's harem; Renaissance artists in their glorious realism were responsible for depicting the Garden of Eden narrative in a manner resonant with European communities; and centuries of Christian folk-tales and commentaries have wrought the conception that three kings visited Jesus. They were not kings, and there were not three of them.

With reams of commentaries being written on the Bible today, from books like Diamant's The Red Tent to films like Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I wonder what the future holds for this ancient text?