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.

July 31, 2006

Achieving Buddha Consciousness

Master Goso Hoen Zenji said,
It is like when a water buffalo leaves the safety of its enclosure to the edge of a cliff over an abyss. His horns, head, and hoofs pass through, but why can't his tail?

Wu-Men then added the verse:
If the buffalo runs, he will fall into the abyss;
If he returns, he will be butchered.
That little tail
Is a very strange thing.

July 27, 2006

Brothers In Arms

For more images of the current war, see Baleboosteh

You Say "Potato" and I Say... "LATKES"!!

The award for the stupidest word in the English language officially goes to "phylacteries". What the hell are phylacteries? Well, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, they are "small leather box[es] containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law". Ohh, Tefillin ! Why didn't you say so? You see "phylactery" comes from Greek (φυλακτηριον) and literally means an 'amulet'. Only it is never used to refer to an amulet, you see: it only ever means Tefillin. So if we expect non-Jews to learn the word "phylactery", why can't they just learn to use the word Tefillin instead??

Philologos has a great article in The Forward that touches upon just this issue.

Faithless Believer

Thomas Mann once described apostasy as the greatest act of faith. However irreverent such an assertion may appear, it has an almost mathematical quality to it. An act based on lack of faith is still a faith-based act. A Jew who organises his Saturday around not going to the synagogue falls into the same category as she who does go every single week. The first believes that there is no god while the second believes that there is a god, but both are believers.

Atheism never held an appeal for me and still strikes me as being an inherently untenable position. If I were to encounter someone who believed that his next-door neighbours were keeping a great white shark in a tank beneath their home, I might choose to disagree. I do not share that belief for I have never encountered this shark nor, indeed, anything else that could lead me to the conclusion that it may exist in such a place. But I couldn't believe that they weren't doing it for the simple reason that I haven't checked!

So too with God. I have neither encountered God in my life nor anything else that has led me to the conclusion that God exists. It goes without saying that, to me, this idea is as foreign as a three-metre shark in a suburban home. Can I believe that God does not exist? No, of course not. The universe is simply too large and I am too small and there may be somebody out there who has had an experience that has led him to believe in the existence of this divinity.

Ah, so I must be an agnostic. I neither believe in the existence of a god nor will I commit myself to the belief in God's absence. I quite literally don't know and, were I to be a Christian, then that would suffice to render me as such. Christianity, save a few rules that my ethnocentrism may permit me to declare performed by every civilised individual, is not a religion of law. On the contrary, one must render unto Caesar all that is Caesar's - in other words, follow the law of the land. Unlike Islam, Christianity has never been a model for political leadership, and Christian nations have been ruled in accordance with secular law, under God.

Islam and Judaism, on the other hand, are religions of law. As a Jew, it is not enough for me to declare myself agnostic and go about my irreligious day. How can I so openly flaunt the Sabbath if, as an agnostic, I acknowledge that maybe God does exist? Maybe God did reveal Himself to the souls of every unborn Jew, standing at the foothills of Mount Sinai? Maybe the Torah really is the magnum opus of this god? Maybe the Rabbis really are infused with cosmic fairydust, and all their sayings are the only truth?

If I were a true agnostic then I would have to acknowledge every one of these separate possibilities, and live my life accordingly. Should my doctor tell me that he thinks that I might have a particular disease and that if I do it will surely kill me, I will take the medication and forgo any minor side effects for the sake of prolonging my life. The side effects of observing the Sabbath are pretty minor, all things considered, so I would be a fool of an agnostic were I not to observe it! Ah, but who said that I was an agnostic?

No, as a Jew, this position is just as untenable as atheism and I propose a new word. I am an arevelarian. Arevelarianism is the belief that, while God may or may not exist, HE DID NOT WRITE A BOOK. No, and not only that! God never revealed Himself at Mount Sinai, never spoke to prophets, never endowed people with the ability to plug themselves into His unchanging essence - in short, never told me what to do. If you haven't guessed yet, arevelarianism is the belief that there was no revelation.

I may not believe that God either exists or does not exist, but I can put my foot down and believe with perfect faith in the non-existence of all the sort of patent nonsense that only the religiously initiated ever lull themselves into believing. If God did write a book, it probably would have been funnier.

July 26, 2006

Rahab... RAHAB!!

In the Biblical book of Joshua, a curious character appears. Her name is Rahab and we are told that she lives within the wall around the fortified city of Jericho. Her role is an enigmatic one: when Joshua sends spies into the land, she hosts them for the evening and hides them from the local authorities. The spies themselves say little within the narrative, but she is given several lines, and she appears to be the one who is completely in charge of the situation. She sends the spies to the roof, she covers them with a protective blanket, speaks to the authorities and even tells the spies what they are to do next. Oh yes, we are also told that she is a prostitute.

Prostitute is an interesting word. Deriving from two Latin words (pro-, meaning 'before' and statuere, meaning 'set up, place'), the prostitute is somebody who exposes themselves publicly or who is, themselves, for sale. In common usage this refers specifically to somebody (generally a woman) who sells her body for sexual purposes. A text about prostitution is known as a 'pornographic' text (from the Greek: πορνη, 'prostitute' and γραφην, 'write'). Does this story actually fall within that category? Were our two heroes soliciting sex when they went to spend the night at Rahab's inn?

The Babylonian Talmud, while it does not suggest the (obvious) conclusion, nonetheless gives a resounding affirmative to the former question. Rahab was a woman who sold her body, and was so beautiful that one need only mention her name twice to be so overcome with lust that he will actually ejaculate. When Rab Nahman notes that he is able to say the name twice without experiencing this curious phenomenon, Rab Yitzhaq responds by informing him that this only occurred to those who were familiar with her beauty. While the Talmud does not suggest as much, this may seem to include the two spies themselves.

There are several references to prostitutes within the Bible, but it is not always so clear that this is what they are. When Judah mistakes Tamar for a prostitute, sitting as she was at the cross-roads, it is quite clear that the word possesses the meaning familiar to us, for Judah solicits sex with Tamar in exchange for payment. In our story, however, the word is slightly more dubious and a brief note on the word's etymology is not out of order.

The Hebrew is זונה (pron. 'zonah') and is used for the English 'prostitute' in modern Israeli society. Is this what it always meant? Actually, no. The root of the word (זנה) is related to the word for food (מזון, 'mazon') and literally means 'nourisher'. The location of Rahab's house at the very entrance to the city, coupled with the fact that she was a suitable person for the authorities to question concerning wayfarers, indicates that 'innkeeper' would be a more appropriate translation.

So much for defending Rahab's honour, but what may be done to salvage Tamar's?

The narrative, found within the book of Genesis, describes the means by which the thrice-widowed Tamar manages to curry the sexual favour of her father-in-law. She removes her widow's garb, covers her face with a veil and sits at the cross-roads, waiting for Judah to walk past. We are told that he mistook her for a prostitute, "for she had covered her face", and he immediately solicited her for sex. There may be no means of salvaging his reputation, but exegetes have found very clever ways of salvaging hers.

In many respects, these methods rest upon changing conceptions of female seduction. The Wiles of the Wicked Woman (known, more technically, as 4Q184) is a short tract from Qumran that likens sin to a temptress and describes her seductive ways. One of these (in line 5) is the wearing of a veil, something that had obviously been perceived in the ancient world as an alluring characteristic of a flirtatious woman. Not so in later societies, where such an adornment was perceived to be a sign of modesty. Assuming that, were Tamar to really play the harlot, she must have removed the veil prior to Judah's approach, how is it that he did not recognise her?

The answer, according to the Midrash, is that Judah's reference to her wearing a veil (the reason for his not recognising her) lay in the fact that she had worn a veil, every other time that he had seen her. So great was her modesty that she had covered her face in all of her dealings with her father-in-law and that now, while she's sitting at a cross-roads with face uncovered, he does not recognise her and mistakes her for a prostitute. The word used in this text is actually קדשה (pron. 'qedeisha') but, when Tamar is accused of having been a harlot, the author slips back to the more familiar זונה ('zonah').

While such exegetical concerns are clearly secondary to the text and the plain-sense understanding demands that Tamar wore a veil, there is nonetheless a world of difference between her activities in Genesis and the activities of Rahab in Joshua. The only connection that may be drawn between them is the usage of the noun that, while primarily referring to the keeper of an inn, also came to designate a prostitute by virtue of the innkeeper's reputation in the ancient world.

July 23, 2006

A Controversial Question

A question: Could the Jews have held a place in Hitler's vision of the Master Race? To explain the pertinency of this, seemingly facile, question it is first important to understand a key distinction between different approaches to Holocaust studies in the academic world. This distinction has been labelled the intentionalism vs. functionalism dialectic. In brief:

Intentionalists argue that Hitler, from the outset, aimed to obliterate the Jewish people. He was the true architect of the Final Solution, and the brilliant instigator of a diabolical scheme. The Third Reich, in other words, was completely controlled by Hitler himself, and its activities were the result of his forthright planning and skilled statesmanship.

Functionalists, on the other hand, argue that Hitler was a weak dictator, blessed with oratorial skills that made him suitable for the role but with no real capabilities of planning. The Third Reich was effectively run by bureaucrats at a lower level and its activities were the result of spiralling bureaucracy moreso than the carrying-through of a particular plan. When the Nazis initially began looking into ways of transporting Jews to other countries (such as the famed Madagascar plan), these were genuine attempts and not just a means of easing into the Final Solution and, ultimately, making murder more palatable.

If we should choose to approach the topic from a purely functionalist perspective, a good argument can be made that (had history worked out slightly differently) the Jews themselves may have held a place in Hitler's vision of the ubermensch. In other words, just as 'honorary Aryan status' was conferred upon the Japanese and the Arabs, so too may it have been conferred upon the Jewish people. But how?

The Nazis had many dealings with the Zionists in Palestine, and even sent Eichmann at one stage as an ambassador to their fledgling country. Eichmann was a worthy choice of emissary, for he remarked at great length in his trial upon the fact that he was a great supporter of the Zionist movement. Of the only two books that he ever recalled reading, Herzl's political tract was one that left a great impression upon him. While he disliked religious Jews for their weakness, he admired the strength and ideological determination of the Zionists.

Indeed, this was what the Nazi party also admired about the Japanese and the Arabs. They were strong, they were powerful, and they were deeply committed to ideology. This is the very way in which the Nazis also sought to view themselves. Proof of the fact that other Nazis within Hitler's Third Reich viewed the Zionists in a similar fashion lies in the deals made with various Zionist representatives, who were allowed to hand-pick strong and mentally active Jews from concentration camps, and take them to Zionist training camps in Yugoslavia.

There is some debate over whether or not these training camps existed or, if they did, for how long they were operational - and no doubt an intentionalist would argue that the Nazi Party (as orchestrated by Hitler) was never going to sanction such activity. There is also evidence from the opposite perspective, and it is not too difficult to envisage a situation where, had the State of Israel been declared a decade earlier, the Zionist country may have found themselves supported by the murderous regime in Europe, and granted a status most ironic.

July 12, 2006

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Aged 3

Quote of the Day

"Nietszche is dead"
- God

The Eleventh Stanza

Another poem from Yehuda Amihai - this one requiring a brief prefatory explanation. The following is an example taken from the synagogue liturgy, read towards the end of certain services:

אין כאלהינו, אין כאדוננו
מי כאלהינו, מי כאדוננו
אתה הוא אלהינו, אתה הוא אדוננו
אתה הוא שהקריבו אבותינו לפניך את קטרת הסמים

There are none like our God, there are none like our Lord.
Who is like our God? Who is like our Lord?
You are our God! You are our Lord!
You are the one who drew our fathers close to you with the sacrificial burning of the incense.

Stanza eleven of "אלים מתחלפים, התפלות נשארות לעד":
אין כאלהינו, אין כאדוננו כך מתפללים
אין כאלהינו, אין כאדוננו שרים בקול גדול
והוא לא מגיב. ואנו מגבירים את קולנו ושרים
מי כאלהינו, מי כאדוננו והוא לא זז
ולא פונה אלינו. ואנו מוסיפים עוד בכח תחנונים
אתה הוא אלהינו, אתה הוא אדוננו. אולי יזכר
אותנו עכשו? אבל הוא נשאר אדיש, אפילו
פונה אלינו בעינים זרות וקרות
והפסקנו לשיר ולצעק ואומרים לו בלחישה
ומזכירים לו משהו פרטי, משהו קטן
אתה הוא שהקריבו אבותינו לפניך
את קטרת הסמים אולי יזכר עכשו
(כמו איש שמזכיר לאשה אהבה ישנה
את לא זוכרת איך קנינו נעלים
בחנות הקטנה בפנה וירד הרבה גשם בחוץ וצחקנו הרבה)
ונדמה שמשהו מתעורר בו ואולי זכר
אבל העם היהודי כבר נגמר

"There are none like our God, there are none like our Lord": so we pray.
"There are none like our God, there are none like our Lord": singing with voices raised.
But He does not respond, so we strengthen our voices and sing:
"Who is like our God? Who is like our Lord?" Yet He does not move
And He will not face us. So we increase the strength of our supplications:
"You are our God! You are our Lord!". Perhaps He will recall
Us now? But He remains indifferent, even
Turning to us with a cold stranger's eyes.
So we stop singing and crying out, and we speak to Him in a whisper
And we remind Him of something specific, something small.
"You are the one who drew our fathers close to you
With the sacrificial burning of the incense". Perhaps He will remember now?
(Like a man who reminds a woman of old love:
'Do you not remember when we purchased shoes
In the little store on the corner, and the rain poured down
Outside? How we laughed!')
And it seems that something has stirred within Him and He now turns around...
But the Jewish people can no longer be found.

July 11, 2006

Maximalism vs. Minimalism

How does one reconcile Biblical 'history' with archaeology? How do we go about uniting different historical accounts of the same event? The second book of Kings (2 Kgs 3) relates a war that took place between Israel and Moab. The following is the account of this war as presented by the Biblical historian:

1. The Israelite king, Ahab (son of Omri), dies and the Moabites rebel against their Israelite overlords;
2. The new Israelite king, Jehoram (son of Ahab) musters his troops and heads south to unite with the Judean king, Jehosephat, and the Edomite king;
3. The three allied kings run low on water to sustain their armies and are forced to ask for assistance from the prophet Elisha;
4. Elisha miraculously produces rainfall and, thinking that the reflection of the sun in the water is the blood of the allied armies, the Moabite King (Mesha) throws caution to the wind and advances against them;
5. The Moabites are sorely routed and left with a single fortress: Kir-Hareseth;
6. Mesha sacrifices his son on the battlements, a "great wrath" comes upon Israel, and the allied armies retreat to their respective countries.

The following is the account of the Moabite king, Mesha, as engraved upon the so-called Moabite Stele:

1. The Israelite king, Omri, oppressed the land of Moab for the length of his reign and half the reign of his son (Ahab): a total of forty years;
2. During Ahab's reign, Mesha revolts and wages war against a series of Israelite military installations to the north;
3. Mesha slaughters all of the inhabitants of some cities, taking others captive and turning them into slaves;
4. Mesha utilises his new slaves to build greater fortifications for himself, including the moving of his capital from Kir-Hareseth to Dibon;
5. There is no Israelite counter-attack.

A number of problems exist, making the two accounts difficult to harmonise. They are as follows:

1. According to the Biblical chronology, Omri ruled for twelve years and Ahab ruled for twenty-two. Omri's reign plus half of Ahab's reign does not even almost amount to forty years;
2. According to the Biblical chronology, Jehoram (Ahab's son) is the ruler of Israel at the time of the insurrection, and the preceding king was his brother, Ahaziah. According to the Moabite Stele, Ahab is still the king of Israel;
3. The Biblical account has the allied armies delivering a stunning victory against Moab, while the Moabite account presents the exact opposite: the unchallenged conquest of several Israelite cities and Moab's return to greatness on the world's stage.

Even taking into account a king's propensity to lie in his own favour, these difficulties are difficult to resolve, but attempts to do so are perceived to fall upon a particular spectrum. This spectrum is characterised by its two poles: maximalism and minimalism.

The maximalist seeks to ascribe historical veracity to the Bible's account, over the accounts of other sources. They will seek to find a way to harmonise the sources and, if such a way does not present itself, assume errancy on the part of the non-Biblical text. The minimalist, on the other hand, is more inclined to view the Bible as the result of lengthy textual evolution and Biblical history as too theologically charged to constitute an accurate recording of events. Neither extremity is desirable, and both positively reek of ideology. To gain an understanding of the differences between them, the following are the thoughts of two different scholars: G. Rendsburg of the maximalist camp and P.D. Stern of the minimalists.

[Note: Neither scholar is an extremist in his views. Considerably more extreme conceptions actually exist, but they are not always worth taking seriously]

Rendsburg harmonises the accounts as follows:
1. The insurrection began during Ahaziah's reign but, as Ahaziah only reigned for two years, it is falsely ascribed to the reign of his predecessor;
2. Forty years is a round number, designed to convey the sense of 'a generation';
3. Israel was weak during the reign of Ahaziah (who is portrayed by the Bible as a sickly man) and opposition did not mount until the reign of his successor, Jehoram.

This still leaves us with a problem. The Biblical account would have us believe that Israel's retaliation was swift. How do we explain the fact that Israel did not respond to the insurrection until the reign of the following king? By inserting a passage from Chronicles (2 Chr 20) in the midst of the narrative in Kings. The following is the order of events:

1. The Moabites revolt against Israelite oppression and succeed in conquering a variety of cities to the north;
2. The Moabites then head south and conquer the kingdom of Edom;
3. The Moabites force the Edomites to fight with them and, together, they invade Judah - marching within five miles of Jerusalem;
4. Unable to conquer Jerusalem, Mesha then turns against the Edomites again;
5. The new king of Israel, Jehoram, musters his army and heads south to find support amongst the Judeans and the Edomites;
6. The war continues as per the Biblical description.

Rendsburg's final suggestion is that the Moabite Stele was erected closer to the commencement of the insurrection and, thus, could not take into account the stunning retaliation.

The following, however, is the indictment of Stern.
1. Based upon the fact that the Bible's concerns appear to be chiefly theological (with most of the account centred around the miracles of Elisha) and the Moabite account chiefly historical (demonstrating a profound awareness of topography and military strategy), we must side with the latter;
2. During the latter days of Ahab's reign, Israel was at war with Aram and Assyria in the north. This was a prime time for the Moabites to revolt;
3. The route south, as taken by the (wrong) Israelite king is another example of the Biblical account being an historical fiction: according to the Moabite source, Mesha was busy conquering cities in the north. Heading south would not only have exposed Israel's rear to Moab, it would also have exposed Israel's rear to Aram and Assyria;
4. Further indications of the fictitious nature of the Biblical account lie in the realm of archaeology. According to finds, there was no king in Edom at the time of Jehoram, and the Moabites went on to maintain their kingdom (something that they could not have done had they been reduced to a single fortress).

The Bible's perspective? Utterly theological: the story is brought as a means if indicating the notion that Yahweh saves and not Khemosh (the Moabite god). This is demonstrated chiefly through the use of names: "Mesha" (Saviour) and "Elisha" (God saves). The Biblical historian had no concern for actual history, and certainly did not intend their audience to interpolate stories from another text altogether in order to make sense of the events.

Neither account is perfect. Rendsburg fails to explain why the Moabites recorded the insurrection as having occurred during the reign of Ahab and Stern fails to take into account the alternative passage from Chronicles. There is no ready answer to this question, and disagreements tend to fall along the maximalism vs. minimalism spectrum. An awareness of the Bible as intended history is necessary (in the light of genre analyses that indicate that such is what much of it is), but a recognition of the process of editorial development is likewise of the essence.

While we can continue hoping for another discovery that may reveal, once and for all, what happened between Israel and Moab in the tenth century BCE, it is likely that this particular issue will never be resolved.


For some unknown reason, I have started rekindling my interest in Gothic literature. As I don't wish to lead this blog away from its stated purpose, I have decided to devote this post to the first stanza of Yehuda Amihai's beautiful poem, "אלים מתחלפים, התפילות נשארות לעד". The following is the text of this first stanza, followed by my own (perhaps, unworthy) translation. I have taken a certain degree of license with my translation, both in content and in form:

ראיתי ברחוב, בערב קיץ,
ראיתי אשה שכתהב מלים
על ניר פרוש על דלת עץ נעולה,
וקפלה ושמה בין דלת למזוזה והלכה לה.

ולא ראיתי את פניה ולא את פני האיש
שיקרא את הכתוב
ולא ראיתי את המלים.
על שלחני מנחת אבן שכתוב עליה "אמן",
שבר מצבה, שארית מבית קברות יהודי
שנחרב לפני כאלף שנים, בעיר שבה נולדתי.
מלה אחת "אמן" חרותה עמק באבן
אמן קשה וסופי על כל שהיה ולא ישוב,
אמן רך ומזמר כמו בתפלה,
אמן ואמן, וכן יהי רצון.

מצבות נשברות, מלים חולפות, מלים נשכחות,
שפתים שאמרו אותן הפכו עפר,
שפות מתות כבני אדם,
שפות אחרות קמות לתחיה,
אלים בשמים משתנים, אלים מתחלפים,
התפלות נשארות לעד.

I saw on the street, on a summer evening,
I saw a woman who was writing words
On a sheet of paper, flattened against a locked oak door,
And she folded it and placed it between the door and the doorpost
And she went her way.

I did not see her face, and I did not see the face of the man
Who is fated to read the writing
Nor did I read the words.
Upon my desk lies a stone, upon which is written "Amen":
A fragment from a tombstone, the remains of a Jewish cemetary
Which was destroyed a thousand years ago, in the city of my birth.
One word, "Amen", engraved deep in the stone
An emphatic and a conclusive Amen on all that was before and is no more,
A soft and a lyrical Amen, such as is spoken in prayer.
Amen and Amen, and May it be His will.

Broken tombstones, vanished words, forgotten words,
Lips that spoke them, returned to dust
Dead languages - like dead men
Other languages - brought to life
The gods in heaven are different, gods change
But the prayers remain the same.

July 09, 2006

I was recently criticised by a good friend of mine for not including anything about my life in this blog. In his words, "you never write anything about your friends or about yourself". Well, his name is Dave (so there you go, Dave, you made the blog) and the following is a little blurb about my day today.

Today I went out on a boat (What? Everything I do has to relate to Semitic languages and Tanakh?? Sheesh!). My father joined a particular club, through which we are able to take out a boat a certain number of times a year. Today was our first time! My dad drove the boat most of the time, although he also handed the controls over to me for what constituted my first lesson. We went out past the bridge (starting from Rose Bay), turned it around and headed over to Clifton Gardens where we dropped anchor and ate lunch. After that, we took off for Manly, turned around again and headed home. All up, I was on the boat for about four hours.

It was wonderful! I can really see how such an experience could become completely addictive. Admittedly, I started to feel a little under the weather as we were heading home, but I've been assured that such feelings pass as one becomes accustomed to the sensation. Also, even though I am thoroughly grounded again and sitting in my room, the keyboard before me seems to sway slightly as though I were still onboard. But it is not unpleasant.

Having previously been a student at UTS, I look forward to joining their diving society ("DOUTS") as an alumnus, after which I plan to use this boat for diving. There is plenty of room onboard for the storage of tanks, and more than enough room on deck for getting geared-up. Compared to paying anywhere between $60 and $90 for the hiring of equipment, DOUTS-membership guarantees me as little as $30! You hear that, Dave (and Sean and Toffee)? WE'RE GOING DIVING.

Well, wasn't this little excursion into my own personal life entertaining? Now, back to work!

July 07, 2006

A New Hebrew Grammar

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the differences between formal English grammar and dialectic English grammar. Now, I've never actually studied English grammar before so I am prepared to stand corrected in much (if not all) of what I am about to say. Nonetheless, it appears evident to me that there are a couple of very simple rules when it comes to the usage of prepositions: don't start a sentence with them, and don't end a sentence with them. The following are incorrect English sentences:

"To the citadel, gentlemen!"
"For king and country!"
"Who were you speaking to?"
"Where is he from?"

The first two sentences commenced with a preposition ('to', 'for') and the second two ended with a preposition ('to', 'from'). If I were to be writing an essay, I would alter each of these sentences to:

"Let us advance to the citadel, gentlemen!"
"We fight for king and country!"
"To whom were you speaking?"
"From where (whence?) is he?"

Each of the above sentences (despite the archaic use of the accusative in the final one) is now grammatically correct - in accordance with the aforementioned rules of formal English grammar. But, dialectically speaking (is there any other way?), the former sentences were correct as well. Literary convention these days also allows me to write the sentences as they initially appeared, so long as I indicate the fact that they are direct speech.

Another example of where dialectic English grammar may find its way into a formal text is where the clause in question constitutes a fixed expression. The following two examples would indicate two expressions utilising this phenomenon:

"Over my dead body!"
"I honked like mad but the bugger cut in!"

Well, maybe that last one doesn't constitute an expression in its entirety, but "cut in" certainly exists as a verb in its own right, when speaking about driving a car. There is no way that I can alter either of the above sentences to produce something formally 'correct'.

Now, all this is by way of an introduction.
When studying Classical Hebrew literature, scholars have a habit of formalising the grammar. Rules are developed and then, in the situations where those rules no longer hold, further categories are delineated that allow for these aberrations. At the end of the day, what we are left with is a gigantic corpus of syntactic formulae, to which the ancient Israelite supposedly adhered when penning his or her texts. This seems odd.

Gary Rendsburg of Rutgers University pioneered the notion that the Bible testifies to a variety of 'grammars'. He isolated regional variations (chiefly, Israelian and Judahite Hebrew), and also went so far as to say that Hebrew itself was a diglossic language. This means that, like Arabic, Hebrew had one system of rules for writing, and another system of rules for speaking. In truth, it means even more than this. For Hebrew to be truly diglossic then it would constitute, like Arabic, one language for writing and another language entirely for speaking. But let's not get too carried away.

Rendsburg also argued that certain texts within the Bible give away this manner of speaking. My favourite example of this phenomenon was not first noticed by Rendsburg, but is nonetheless one of the examples that he brings. It appears in the first book of Samuel (1 Sam 9:10-13) and takes place when the devastatingly handsome Saul approaches a gaggle of young girls to enquire after the whereabouts of the prophet Samuel. Their answer is ridiculous and reminds me of the terrible habit that people from Shenkin St, Tel-Aviv, have of ending every sentence with כאילו.

The 'confused syntax' as manifested in their answer to Saul was taken by many scholars as being proof of the fact that this story had undergone extensive editorial revision and that the finished product was moreso the work of a committee, so to speak, than the polished prose of a single author. On the contrary, however, this marvellous example of girlish chatter can actually be read as being both highly polished and, it must be noted, somewhat satirical. All struggling to answer the handsome Saul at once, the author depicts them as actually speaking in unison. This is not formal Hebrew grammar of course, but it does constitute an example of what may have been dialectic Hebrew grammar.

So, what is my point? The lesson that I have taken from all this is that I should stop being such a 'grammar Nazi'. So quick to correct the syntactic errors of others, I seem to forget the true value of letting one's own self shine through accidentally in prose. Without such glorious slip-ups, the world in 2,000 years may indeed know nothing of how twentieth century Australians spoke. And, after all, is that not what we're writing for?

July 06, 2006

"Not Normally Political"? Well...

The following is an article taken from TIME, and to which all I can offer is my own small "ditto".

Remember What Happened Here
Gaza is freed, yet Gaza wages war. That reveals the Palestinians' true agenda

Israel Invades Gaza. That is in response to an attack from Gaza that killed two Israelis and wounded another, who was kidnapped and brought back to Gaza ...which, in turn, was in response to Israel's targeted killing of terrorist leaders in Gaza...which, in turn, was in response to the indiscriminate shelling of Israeli towns by rockets launched from Gaza.

Of all the conflicts in the world, the one that seems the most tediously and hopelessly endless is the Arab-Israeli dispute, which has been going on in much the same way, it seems, for 60 years. Just about every story you'll see will characterize Israel's invasion of Gaza as a continuation of the cycle of violence.

Cycles are circular. They have no end. They have no beginning. That is why, as tempting as that figure of speech is to use, in this case it is false. It is as false as calling American attacks on Taliban remnants in Afghanistan part of a cycle of violence between the U.S. and al-Qaeda or, as Osama bin Laden would have it, between Islam and the Crusaders going back to 1099. Every party has its grievances--even Hitler had his list when he invaded Poland in 1939--but every conflict has its origin.

What is so remarkable about the current wave of violence in Gaza is that the event at the origin of the "cycle" is not at all historical, but very contemporary. The event is not buried in the mists of history. It occurred less than one year ago. Before the eyes of the whole world, Israel left Gaza. Every Jew, every soldier, every military installation, every remnant of Israeli occupation was uprooted and taken away.

How do the Palestinians respond? What have they done with Gaza, the first Palestinian territory in history to be independent, something neither the Ottomans nor the British nor the Egyptians nor the Jordanians, all of whom ruled Palestinians before the Israelis, ever permitted? On the very day of Israel's final pullout, the Palestinians began firing rockets out of Gaza into Israeli towns on the other side of the border. And remember: those are attacks not on settlers but on civilians in Israel proper, the pre-1967 Israel that the international community recognizes as legitimately part of sovereign Israel, a member state of the U.N. A thousand rockets have fallen since.

For what possible reason? Before the withdrawal, attacks across the border could have been rationalized with the usual Palestinian mantra of occupation, settlements and so on. But what can one say after the withdrawal?

The logic for those continued attacks is to be found in the so-called phase plan adopted in 1974 by the Palestine National Council in Cairo. Realizing that they would never be able to destroy Israel in one fell swoop, the Palestinians adopted a graduated plan to wipe out Israel. First, accept any territory given to them in any part of historic Palestine. Then, use that sanctuary to wage war until Israel is destroyed.

So in 2005 the Palestinians are given Gaza, free of any Jews. Do they begin building the state they say they want, constructing schools and roads and hospitals? No. They launch rockets at civilians and dig a 300-yard tunnel under the border to attack Israeli soldiers and bring back a hostage.

And this time the terrorism is carried out not by some shadowy group that the Palestinian leader can disavow, however disingenuously. This is Hamas in action--the group that was recently elected to lead the Palestinians. At least there is now truth in advertising: a Palestinian government openly committed to terrorism and to the destruction of a member state of the U.N. openly uses terrorism to carry on its war.

That is no cycle. That is an arrow. That is action with a purpose. The action began 59 years ago when the U.N. voted to solve the Palestine conundrum then ruled by Britain by creating a Jewish state and a Palestinian state side by side. The Jews accepted the compromise; the Palestinians rejected it and joined five outside Arab countries in a war to destroy the Jewish state and take all the territory for themselves.

They failed, and Israel survived. That remains, in the Palestinian view, Israel's original sin, the foundational crime for the cycle: Israel's survival. That's the reason for the rockets, for the tunneling, for the kidnapping--and for Israel's current response.

If that history is too ancient, consider the history of the past 12 months. Gaza is free of occupation, yet Gaza wages war. Why? Because this war is not about occupation, but about Israel's very existence. The so-called cycle will continue until the arrow is abandoned and the Palestinians accept a compromise--or until the arrow finds its mark and Israel dies.

- Charles Krauthammer, TIME

Cowards and Hypocrites

Gil Student, in one of his more recent posts, has taken the passing of Rabbi Jacobs zt"l as an opportunity to discuss this man's 'heresy'. The shameful comments appended to this despicable post are not even worthy of acknowledging, and it is an absolute travesty that somebody like Student, who is apparantly a Rabbi himself, should unabashedly attack one of the leading scholars of our generation so. The greatest injustice that one can perpetrate upon another is that which is done after their death. Rabbi Jacobs zt"l was stabbed many times by his erstwhile 'friends' and colleagues, but this represents the deepest cut of all.

I am reminded of the Talmud's consideration of who is the worse sinner: the thief who attacks by day or the thief who attacks by night. The conclusion is that the thief who attacks by day is worse, for neither thief fears the retribution of God, but the thief who creeps under cover of darkness fears the retribution of his fellow humans. Cowards and hypocrites have no place within our tradition.

July 03, 2006

Barukh Dayan HaEmeth

The founder of the English branch of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Louis Jacobs zt"l, passed away on Shabbat. The author of over fifteen important works (one of the greatest of which was We Have Reason to Believe), Rabbi Jacobs was nominated in 1961 to be the successor of Rabbi Isidore Epstein, the principal of Jews' College, London. Due to the controversy generated by his published opinions - controversy that culminated in his founding of the English Conservative Movement - Rabbi Jacobs' recommendation was ultimately vetoed. Prior to the rejection of his scholarship by the mainstream orthodox establishment, it was also rumoured that Rabbi Jacobs would have served as a candidate for the next chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, after the then serving Rabbi Israel Brodie.