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.

August 31, 2006

Author Biographies

The Appeal of The Lord of the Rings

In an essay entitled "Time"¹, Barry Langford suggests that the chief appeal to be found in The Lord of the Rings is in its unremarked extension. As he explains, all novels require narrative and temporal extension. The diegetic element of the tale (ie: the manner in which the narrative appears to move through a temporal sequence) is always grounded within a broader set of preconditions. A contemporary novel alludes to those broader preconditions in an unremarked fashion, relying upon the reader's familiarity with the cultural norms of the novel's setting. Books about modern-day New York do not assume that the reader may be unfamiliar with cars, skyscrapers, stock-market crashes or bureaucracy. These backdrop elements to the story, utilised at will by the author, do not require additional narrative explanation. An historical novel, set for example in Victorian England, does require such explanation and can thus be referred to as a remarked novel. The means by which the author remarks upon the novel's extension is entirely up to them.

The Lord of the Rings, taking place in a purely fantastic reality, likewise requires a degree of remarking and, to this end, Tolkein relied to a great extent upon such characters as the Hobbits. By their very unfamiliarity with much of the world in which the story takes place, Tolkein is able to provide explanations of things, presented through the medium of more hardened characters who would explain things for the Hobbits' benefit. Yet, to a great degree, the world remains unremarked altogether. There are places on the provided maps that are never visited, creatures whose motivations are never fully explained, and periods of history that lie in the shadows.

Most fantasy novels eschew these absences yet, for Tolkein (who was, in many ways, the father of the genre) they were the very substance of his world. As he explains,
Part of the attraction of The Lord of the Rings, is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed².
To achieve this end, Tolkein relied upon both a narrative and a temporal extension. The narrative extension was developed through the usage of language (found in the names of places and beings, as well as the untranslated portions of epic poetry throughout the text), geography and time. This last one is especially interesting for it is not found merely in the references to historical events but also in the extended life spans of some of the protagonists, whose very longevity reminds the reader that they are glimpsing but a passing vignette of Middle-Earth's history.

To what extent may one put together the missing pieces? Is it possible, as many Tolkein fans do, to determine exactly what Denethor saw when he gazed into the palantír? Or the means by which Elrond and Isildur mustered the armies of elves and men against Sauron? Surely there is enough information within the text to provide the keen reader with substantial clues, should the book and the other corresponding writings of its author be appropriately scoured. Is such an approach valid?

Some would certainly think so. With essays entitled "Events Before the Opening of the Action in Hamlet", "Where Was Hamlet at the Time of his Father's Death?" and "Hamlet's Age", A.C. Bradley attempts to do just this. By analysing the extant manuscripts of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, and by assuming a certain degree of consistency within each one, Bradley is able to make various definitive statements concerning that which is not directly related by the play's author. Nonetheless, there are others (myself included) who would disagree with the supposed viability of such a study.

Perhaps Tanner said it best, in his brief commentary on Austen's Pride and Prejudice³. When faced with the issue of locating the period of the text's action in a brief reference to peace with France at the end of the novel, Tanner responds by stating that "where she [Austen] has been content to leave a matter as absolutely peripheral to her particular action and fiction, then so should we". Such a decision, pertinent not only in its warning against over-contextualising the works of Austen (as a dramatic novelist) and Tolkein (as a fantasy author), may be equally enforced in analyses of other texts as well.

The pseudo-historical desire to ground the works of the Hebrew Bible in chronology is likewise destructive in that it may often be seen to ruin the original import of the Biblical stories. Just as academics today are unconcerned with dating the "historical" flood, so too should they be unconcerned with locating the reigns of David and Solomon in history. Whether one concedes that both David and Solomon were historical personages or whether one views them as no more than the Arthurian legends is irrelevant. The text that immortalises them is a work of literary creativity and the analysis of history is a task better left to archaeologists to ponder.

¹ Langford, B. "Time". Pages 29-46 of Robert Eaglestone (ed.), Reading the Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkein's Classic (London: Continuum, 2005).
² Carpenter, H. (ed.) Letters of J.R.R. Tolkein (London: Allen and Unwin, 1981), 333; cited in Langford, 33.
³ Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice (ed. T. Tanner; Middlesex, Penguin: 1972), 399 n4.

August 27, 2006

Just a little guy...

Now that Pluto is officially a "dwarf planet", and the number of planets in our solar system down to a paltry eight, it has rightly been observed that a new mnemonic is required. No more may children declare that their very eldery mothers are doing anything that even remotely concerns their pa. The following are my two suggestions so far:

"Murdered Vietnamese Envoy May Justly Startle UN"


"Mexican Viagra Embargo Makes Juan So Unbelievably Numb"

Feel free to add your own suggestions: either here or with Allegorical Nonsense, who first came up with the idea!

The Ever Elusive Thesis

August 26, 2006

The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book!

Faced with the question as to whether or not books are liable to see their demise in the advent of the internet, Umberto Eco waxes philosophical in his analysis of just what a book is. Differentiating between texts that are utilised for reference and those that are utilised for the dramatic telling of a story, Eco foresees the redundancy of one and the undiminished usefulness of the other.

August 23, 2006

A Parable

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Izzie.
Izzie liked girls.
Izzie also kept a diary.
In this diary, Izzie wrote all about his girlfriends.
Whenever he was in a relationship, Izzie would write poetry for his girlfriends, and he would put this poetry in his diary. Izzie would write stories describing his girlfriends' incomparable beauty, and he would put those in his diary as well.

One day, Izzie fell in love.
Izzie's love was so fierce and so jealous that he decided to eradicate every diary entry that spoke of a different girl.
But Izzie couldn't do it.
Izzie's entries were so nicely written that it seemed a shame to simply erase them all. So, do you know what Izzie did?
He edited them.
He changed the details so that it looked as though it was the love of his life of whom he had been speaking all along.
And nobody knew the difference.

At first.

You see, many years after Izzie died, somebody found his diary entries. And, reading them, they noticed various inconsistencies.
References to the love of Izzie's life in one place seemed to describe her in a particular manner, while references to the "same" girl elsewhere seemed to describe her in a manner that was... contradictory.
Not only that, but some of these girls turned up in diary entries written by other boys. And slowly but surely, people pieced together the true history of Izzie's life.

Incidentally, Izzie's diary is available for purchase. Do you know what it's called?

August 18, 2006

The Hilarious Hebrew Bible

In a book entitled On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, Radday and Brenner attempt to demonstrate the assertion that Biblical authors knew how to have a good laugh. The fact that the Bible seems like so serious a text is simply because the people who have translated it over the ages have tended to be reasonably serious people. What is more, that which was funny two thousand years ago is not necessarily funny today. Today, even the reruns of Friends are starting to get tiring: how banal will they appear next millenium?

Throughout the essays in Radday's and Brenner's book, a variety of comic examples are listed. Some of them are slapstick (such as the manner in which the Egyptian magicians, when faced with a plague of blood, demonstrated their own prowess by making the plague worse), while others are simply sweet (such as the manner in which the local girls seem to speak over each other in answering the handsome Saul's questions). I would like to relate another example, but one which is not listed in this entertaining book. It involves the aftermath of Abel's murder.

Once God realises what Cain has done (or, at least, once God forces Cain to confess), Cain is immediately exiled. His punishment? To be a ceaseless wanderer for the rest of his days. He may never dwell amongst humanity, but he must wander the earth as a nomad. The first thing, however, that Cain does is settle in a city, and the rest of his days are spent living an urbanised life. Did Cain contravene the Lord's punishment? It would seem so, but upon closer examination it would appear that Cain found a loophole.

The exact wording of Cain's punishment is
נע ונד תהיה בארץ
na´ v'nad tihyeh va`aretz
You shall be a wanderer and a nomad on the earth
- Gen 4:12

Cain loudly bemoans his fate, for who would wish to be a ceaseless wanderer? In verse 16, however, we are told that he settles down in the land of Nod (to the East of Eden) and, we may assume, meets his wife for in the following verse they have a child. Did he not understand the punishment that he was given? On the contrary, it would seem them he understood it all too well. The name of the city that he chose was Nod, which is formed off the same verbal root as the imperative nad, as seen in the wording of his punishment.

While contemporary readers of modern-day translations may miss the joke, God is effectively telling Cain to be a wanderer and Cain is responding by dwelling in a land called Wander. A Wanderer he shall indeed be for the rest of his days.

August 16, 2006

How to Pick Up a Girl in Tel-Aviv

(Translated from the Hebrew: מדריך תל־אביב מקוצר: איך להתחיל עם בחורה, by Chanoch Levin)

In a coffee shop; Friday, after lunch

[A young man approaches a girl sitting alone in a coffee shop and sits on her]
Girl: Excuse me, but you're sitting on me!
Man: Waiter! I hear that you have talking seats?
[The waiter approaches]
Waiter: That's not a seat - it's a lady.
Man: So why don't you use seats!?
Waiter: We do use them, only you've sat upon a lady by mistake...
Man: Fine, fine! Bring me a cup of tea and stop screwing with my brain! Women and seats!
[to the girl]
The waiters here, I'm telling you!... What's your name?
Girl: Shoshana.

Putting My Cards on the Table


This is going to be a very difficult post to write. I realise that I am about to make myself very unpopular, but I am becoming fed up with the fact that everybody assumes that I, and countless other "diaspora" Jews, am something that I am not. It is time to come out of the closet and declare for one and all that I am not a Zionist. I am not even a Non-Zionist, whatever that is. If I have to be completely and dangerously honest, I am an anti-Zionist. I feel no connection to the State of Israel and I detest the fact that it is referred to in the media as the Jewish State. It is not a Jewish State, it is a Zionist State, and they are by no means the same thing.

I utilised the inverted commas above (in referring to myself as a "diaspora" Jew) because I do not believe in the existence of this curious phenomenon. A diaspora? Since when? Since 1948, to be perfectly honest, when the Israeli nation unofficially declared itself to be the centre of the Jewish world. It is not, nor has it ever been, the centre of the Jewish world. Palestine (in the classical sense), which is a great deal larger than the present political entity known as Israel, has always been a focal point for Jews around the world. There is nonetheless not so much as a single halakha that mandates living in Palestine. Why the sudden shift?

This is indeed a good question, for the Zionist movement was not born of the tragedy referred to as the Holocaust. Zionism was born of the emancipation, which is a most curious phenomenon for never in history have the Jews required it less. Indeed, Jews in South America and in Russia may desire the freedom granted to them in Israel today, but they would also no doubt relish the freedom that is granted Jews in Australia - a land of truly equal opportunity. Israel is, too, a land of equal opportunity, but only in the Orwellian sense. There, all are equal (although some are certainly more equal than others).

Israel is not only deserving of the epithet "apartheid state" for both their barbarous treatment of the Palestinians and for the second-class status awarded to Israeli Arabs, but they have effectively committed a cultural genocide against Jews from all around the world. No longer do the beautiful traditions of the Eastern Jews (the עדות מזרח) exist; no more the minhagim of the Yemenites, Moroccans, Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians nor Ethiopians. All cultures have been equally erased and replaced by the single hegemonic culture of European Judaism.

In many respects, I do believe that the declaration of a state was the single worst thing to have happened to the Jewish people. It is a populist form of messianism, one that perceives salvation in the form of a secular political entity. The erstwhile conception that salvation lies with God and good deeds has become a relic of a bearded past. The old Jew, incinerated in Auschwitz, has been replaced by the new Jew: muscular and energetic, bearing an AK-47 and eking out a living in his ancestral home, while battling evils of Biblical proportion.

Is this a viable representation of life in Israel? Or is it merely a bastardisation of Biblical texts; a reappropriation of classical rabbinic dogma in a thoroughly secular light? I vote steadfastly for the latter and, while I do feel an emotional attachment to Israel, it rests solely upon the time that I have spent there. I have friends in Israel, and there are places that I truly love. I wish no harm to come upon it or its citizens, but that is as far as my feelings for it go. My ancestors are European and I am an Australian: can I really buy into the lie that Israel is my "homeland"?

Around the world, Israel has created an equation in the minds of intelligent people that Judaism = Zionism, and woe betide any fool who dares to publicly question Israel's actions! The one dogma held dear by secular Jews is that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-semitism (as though Israel bears the flame for Judaism around the world and sets the global standard) and a Jew who commits so heinous a crime is clearly a "self-hater". Well, here is one self-appreciating Jew who has nothing to do with Zionism.

August 14, 2006

The (somewhat) Legendary Dan Osman

He's dead now, incidentally. That probably shouldn't surprise you.


לאן הלך ילדי, ילדי הטוב לאן?
חייל שחור מכה חייל לבן
לא יחזור אבי, אבי לא יחזור
חייל לבן מכה חייל שחור
בכי בחדרים ובגנים שתיקה
המלך משחק עם המלכה

ילדי שוב לא יקום, לעולמים יישן
חייל שחור מכה חייל לבן
אבי בחשיכה ולא יראה עוד אור
חייל לבן מכה חייל שחור
בכי בחדרים ובגנים שתיקה
המלך משחק עם המלכה

ילדי שבחיקי, עכשיו הוא בענן
חייל שחור מכה חייל לבן
אבי בחום ליבו, עכשיו ליבו בקור
חייל לבן מכה חייל שחור
בכי בחדרים ובגנים שתיקה
המלך משחק עם המלכה

לאן הלך ילדי, ילדי הטוב לאן?
נפלו חייל שחור, חייל לבן
לא יחזור אבי, אבי לא יחזור
ואין חייל לבן, חייל שחור
בכי בחדרים ובגנים שתיקה
על לוח ריק רק מלך ומלכה
- Chanoch Levin, 2000.

August 09, 2006

שלא עשני גוי

Oh dear...

A New Judaism

Just a quick note to mention that I found myself looking at the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (published 1941) the other night and was most interested to note certain omissions from its pages. Despite the fact that it was only printed a mere sixty-five years ago, there is no reference to the Holocaust, no mention of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and not so much as an allusion to the State of Israel. I find that it truly boggles the mind to think of the extent to which Judaism has changed in the last century.

The Holocaust, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the State of Israel have each bequeathed to us a lens through which to view the last two thousand years. Through the lens of the Holocaust we see a history wracked with anti-semitism (despite the anachronistic nature of this term prior to the 1800s); through the Dead Sea Scrolls we gain an insight into the sectarian nature of Judaism prior to the Talmud and to the traditions that bridged the Bible to both the Mishna and the New Testament; through the State of Israel we see an exile based around the lack of military power and a messianism that lies within the notion of a secular state.

Isaiah prophesied a new heaven and a new earth, but it seems that in the last century we have been given a new Judaism instead.

August 02, 2006