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?

The Future Is Not A Place

There's a rather silly misconception that many people hold about the future. They believe that it is a wonderful, magical realm, within which people transport themselves in flying cars and have telephones implanted in their wrists. They foresee the abolition of money, the perfection of the incarceration system, and the glorification of the internet. None of these particular ideas is necessarily silly in and of themselves: what's silly is that people believe them.

The future is not a place to which we are all inexorably heading; it is the result of the decisions that we make in life. There are any number of an infinite range of possibilities that may describe our world several years from now. There may be implanted telephones; the internet may reach the proliferation for which it thrives; money may be abolished in its current form. But none of these things necessarily marks an improvement, and none of them is in any way definate. Equally likely is the prophecy that the internet will become privatised, that greater technologies will introduce more insidious diseases, and that flying cars will be found to be infinitely more lethal than those on the road. Seriously, what do you think happens after a collision fifty metres in the air?

Thousands of years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote that the statement, "Life was better then" is a statement made from ignorance. The author may well have added that so too is the assertion that "Life will be better, when..."
It's up to us to make it so.

September 17, 2006

Styron's "Lightning in the Mud"

An excellent post on clinical depression can be found here.

September 14, 2006

Speaking For Myself...

I can understand where Muslims are coming from when they insist that not all Muslims are terrorists, but until they take responsibility for the fact that all terrorists are Muslims and actually speak out against the hijacking of their religion then they have no right to mourn the necessity of racial profiling.

Comedy Is No Laughing Matter

Fred Phelps, the ecclesiastical leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, recently had a little to say in regards to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. This self-styled "fire and brimstone" preacher belongs to a community that is outlawed by most other evangelical communities in America. With websites like godhatesamerica.com and godhatesfags.com, Phelps and his followers (most of whom are related to him by blood or marriage) have made names for themselves as extreme (and often offensive) fundamentalists. Their habit of turning up at the funerals of soldiers and high-ranking US army officials with denigrating placards has infuriated many. While previously being permissable under the First Amendment, President Bush recently signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, prohibiting such activity.

It is difficult to find support for Phelps's curious brand of Baptist Christianity on the internet, but not particularly difficult to find condemnation. Phelps has been accused of everything from wife-bashing and money-laundering to murdering the first wife of his eldest son, Fred Jr. It is most probably in reference to Phelps and his renowned sermonising that Stephen Colbert greeted the audience of the recent Emmy Awards ceremony with a serious, "Good evening, godless Sodomites". While this received a large peal of laughter from the Hollywood crowd, it also elicited a sermon from Phelps himself.

It should be no surprise that Phelps also considers Hollywood (and, indeed, all of America) to be populated by godless Sodomites, and that he believes that it is now an unpardonable sin to even pray for the salvation of Americans. All Americans are going to hell, either because they are gay or because they are what Phelps endearingly refers to as "fag-enablers". In any case, while I wouldn't recommend necessarily tracking down any of his lengthy sermons and subjecting yourselves to an hour-or-so of hate speech, the short sermon delivered against Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is perhaps worth listening to.

For those of you who can't be bothered (I hardly blame you), the following is what I considered to be the most salient point that Phelps made:

In Genesis 19, two unidentified messengers ("angels", according to many traditional translations) arrive at the home of Abraham's nephew, Lot, on the outskirts of Sodom and Gomorrah. Their message: that the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah are wicked sinners and that they are all soon to be destroyed by fire and brimstone (גפרית ואש). Lot warned his sons-in-law but they did not heed his message. According to verse 14,
ויהי כמצחק בעיני חתניו
But he seemed like a jester in the eyes of his sons-in-law
Subsequently, fire and brimstone do indeed rain down upon the twin cities and everybody, save Lot, his wife and his two daughters, dies in the desolation - including the sons-in-law who were warned directly by Lot himself. What is the message that Phelps derives from this? There are several.

One is that it is not only the sinners themselves who die in God's fury. Lot's wife was not guilty of the same crimes for which the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah burned, but she looked back longingly at the cities and can thus be understood to be supportive of their crimes. Like many of the citizens of America, Lot's wife is one of Phelps' "fag-enablers".

Another major message, and the one that allowed Phelps to rant for a time about Colbert and Stewart, was the fact that Lot was misunderstood by his sons-in-law to be joking around. Clearly, argues Phelps, such was a common joke at the time. The citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah knew what terrible sinners they were, and they frequently mocked the very fact that they were all, indeed, destined for hell.

While I do not share Phelps' sentiments, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised at what appeared to be an interesting and rather viable exposition on the Bible. It is worth noting that there is nothing within the Biblical text itself that would indicate that homosexuality was the sin for which the residents of the two cities were to die. While men of Sodom do request the messengers/angels that they may have intercourse with them, this is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible as being the crime for which they were guilty. In fact, the very notion that the residents of Sodom were all practising homosexuals (hence the word 'sodomy') is thoroughly post-Biblical and almost entirely of Christian origin. Nonetheless, the fact that Lot's relatives perceived what he was saying as a joke may also be taken to indicate the prevalence of such humour.

Is it a marked sign of our own depravity that, instead of being berated, we are effectively congratulated through the medium of comedy? Does liberalism, indeed, constitute depravity at all? It's fun to hate people like Phelps for their single-minded bigotry, but I am nonetheless struck by the pertinence of this particular point. I laughed at Colbert's and Stewart's performance, but I also found that it gave me pause to think.

September 11, 2006

How Am I? I'll Tell You!

I'm getting a bit sick of people who seem to think that the only correct response to the question, "How are you?" is "Well". That's not true, people. "Good" is also correct.

You see, the difference between "well" and "good" is simple. "Good" is an adjective. That means that it describes nouns. A film can be good, as can a tree, a dog, an event or a thought. "Well", on the other hand, is an adverb. That means that it describes verbs. You can watch something well, climb something well, pat something, attend something or think something well. Right? Okay.

If I ask you, "How is the film?", the correct answer is "good". It is not "well". So too if I ask you, "How are you?", the correct answer is "good". It is not "well". This is because "you" is a (pro)noun, and not a verb. If I say, "How are you going?" or "How are you doing?", then the correct answer is "well" and not "good". Both "go" and "do" are verbs. Right.

Now, you might tell me that the question, "How are you?", naturally assumes one of the previous two extensions. Clearly I am not asking you how you are as a person, but how you have been keeping. "Keep", like "do" and "go" is a verb and merits the adverbial response. But I disagree. I do not think that that is necessarily what people are asking me, and I do not feel that it is incumbent upon me to treat the question as though it is possessing an invisible verb.

Next time someone asks you how you are, indicate that the sentence was a nominal one by providing them with something that is clearly an adjective! Look them straight in the eye and say,

"Tall, thanks. How are you?"

cogito, ergo...

Inspired by a great couple of posts over at Bilbulatsia, I decided that it was high time that I actually write a little bit about who I really am.


My family is not religiously observant. My father always wanted me to be a Rabbi, but this was moreso because he perceived me as being genuinely interested in Judaism and he felt that I would make a good one. It is perhaps a testament to his open-mindedness that he could even advocate such a thing for his son, he not being a particularly religious man himself. We always attended synagogue services for Rosh HaShana and Yom HaKippurim, and even went through a faze when I needed to go with my father a few times a week on the lead-up to my bar-mitzvah. When I look back at it, those were very pleasant experiences, and the synagogue seemed a pleasing place for me, and a provocative one.

My interests may have all but died there, for I never pursued any degree of religiosity while still attending school. It was while I was undertaking a degree in Communications that I first began to develop a stronger interest, and it manifested itself in the form of a zeal for Qabbalah. I began reading widely (and purchasing ever more widely), but was deterred by the fact that I had no background in any of the 'more necessary' material. I had always felt attracted to the Bible, for reasons that I had never been able to put into words, but was now also feeling myself drawn towards Talmud and Halakha. I started taking classes.

The classes that I took were run by Chabad Rabbis in Sydney, and they generally continued on into farbrengens: the Yiddish term used to denote gatherings of Hassidim for the purposes of spiritual encouragement. These functions consistently had a high quantity of alcohol, but my extreme enthusiasm for the words of the Rabbi presiding over the event always ended up precluding me from actually doing much drinking. I do not even remember being dismayed by the quantity drunk by others.

I started attending synagogue services - Friday nights only at first, but I soon started going on Shabbat as well - and before long I was opting to wear a kippah. My Communications degree was actually combined at the time with International Studies, and I was to be spending 2002 in St Petersburg before returning and completing my degree in Sydney, 2003. I altered my degree, curtailed my plans and, after a brief and motivating visit to New Zealand (where I had a good friend who was also becoming very fascinated with Judaism and who was highly receptive to my wearing of a kippah), I left for Israel.

I spent six months between learning Hebrew on a kibbutz in the north and volunteering on an ambulance in Tel-Aviv before I finally entered the environment for which I had moved to Israel in the first place: yeshiva. It was a Chabad yeshiva and, within a very short space of time, I thoroughly looked the part. I grew my beard, donned the thickest and longest tzitzit that I could find, embraced wholeheartedly the Ashkenazi pronounciation employed by Lubavitchers, and bought myself a hat. By the time that my ten months were up, I had made my way through the factory and had finally come out the other end. The only things still my own were my opinions, and it was for their sake that I left.

I had become increasingly frustrated with Lubavitch Messianism¹, and fully cognizant of the fact that there was no such thing as a Lubavitcher who did not believe that the Rebbe was the Messiah. I was fed up with the amount of alcohol abuse that was going on in my so-called "yeshiva", and the fact that there were very few students there who were actually spending their time learning anything, rather than hanging out on street corners all afternoon and pestering passers-by with tefillin. I left, and I chose a Haredi yeshiva for its seriousness. I wanted Talmud, undiluted by Chassidut.

I was in for the surprise of my life. I had always learned that Lubavitchers were renowned for studying Chassidut as though it were Talmud, but I came to realise that they had only ever studied Talmud as though it were Chassidut. The real deal, as offered to my by (what I considered to finally be) a real yeshiva was infinitely more complex and conceptual. My life was becoming thoroughly cerebral, and I found myself vowing never to leave.

Life was good. For a time. It didn't take long before I realised that my opinions were as black-and-white as the clothes that I was wearing every day. I was harbouring racist thoughts about non-Jews, sexist thoughts about women, and downright disgusting thoughts about homosexuals. I was becoming one of them, and I did not like it. Every now and then, alarm bells would ring in my head, warning me of how I was behaving. I started on the road towards deciding to leave.

This was a difficult time for me, but only because of the successive psychological barriers that I had erected for myself. It was so easy to adopt a new practise, but so incredibly difficult to take one away. I had come to yeshiva in order to learn, but I was rapidly heading down the path of eradicating my entire life in order to be a part of a system to which I did not need to belong. This was not the life that I wanted to lead, but I didn't know how to leave it.

The final straw came when my mother visited me. I had not seen her in two years, and should have been very excited. Instead, I found myself feeling embarrassed by her secularism. She was not covering her hair, her dress should have been longer, her make-up was immodest. Immodest! My mother! I left the yeshiva. Although I joked afterwards to friends that I had done so "at the drop of a hat", I knew that it was a lot more complicated than that, and I suffered a lot of anxiety at the time. I didn't know who I was anymore without the elaborate mindset that I had built up for myself, and was not sure where I was going to find myself in Australia. One thing that I knew for sure: I wanted to keep studying.

To that end, I enrolled in a couple of Diplomas at Sydney University with the intention of working towards a PhD in Biblical Studies. A main part of the attraction was the excitement that was due to come with 'un-learning' everything that I had been taught to believe, and the certainty that should be provided by establishing some degree of bedrock on which my new lifestyle would be able to rest. Little did I know just how much these studies would mean to me.

It turns out that, as much as I love the Bible and as passionate as I am about Judaism, my chief interests are philological. The classes that I was encouraged to take (Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac in my first year) quite literally blew my mind. The classes that I took in the Hebrew Bible left me astounded. This was the real deal, and it was something that no ultra-Orthodox yeshiva could ever have given me. This was real. This was a means of studying the texts themselves, not just buying into the literal truth of what their authors were saying.

I lost the kippah and I abandoned my observance of the mitzvot. There are times when I consider adopting these practises again, but I am no longer searching with the same degree of zeal with which I had once searched before. I have swum in the deep end and, while I did not drown, I knew when to leave the water and go back home. I am now taking a combined Honours program in both of my Diplomas and am thoroughly loving it. Next year will hopefully see the start of a PhD.

There is no end to this story, at least not yet. I have never regretted any of the things that I did, and I got an incredible amount out of my time in yeshiva. I am thankful every day for the fact that I went there, but I am equally thankful for the fact that I left. Fourteen months was quite long enough for me, but I look forward to the other places that my life may lead me.

¹ For those of you who are unaware, Chabad and Lubavitch are two names for the same phenomenon. Chabad is the name of the ideology, Lubavitch the name of the group.

September 08, 2006

By the Rivers of the Mississippi

One of the more interesting contemporary readings of the Bible is that which is undertaken by African-American Christian communities. Having been converted to Christianity by their former masters, many of them felt a particular degree of affinity with the Israelites of the Old Testament. Like them, the Israelites were a nation of slaves and, like them, the Israelites were redeemed. Similarities do not stop there, however, for African-Americans were expected to sing and dance for their patronising overlords, and there is good indication within the Bible that the same thing was expected of the Judeans.

Psalm 137, often referred to as "By the Rivers of Babylon", expresses this very idea. Made popular by The Melodians' cheerful version in the 1960s, this particular psalm is actually a dirge of grief, encapsulating the mood felt by the Judeans who were thrown into exile after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 596-586 BCE. Many of the psalms composed prior to this one are believed to have been sung in the temple, and this psalm indicates in particular the renown that Judea had for its singing.

The following is the JPS translation of the first half of this psalm:
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors, for amusement:
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
The references to hanging up lyres in an interesting one, for it demonstrates that the Judeans were renowned for more than their singing alone. Indeed, the legendary king David is also presented as a celebrated lyre player, from whom the Israeli Hebrew word for harp (כינור דוד) is derived. The request to "sing us" a song is not to be understood as a benevolent one; rather it is much as the African-Americans themselves have experienced it. Belittling and condescending, it reduces the Judeans to the status of chattel.

The overriding theme of this particular part of the psalm is encapsulated in the question, "How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?" This is also the overriding concern for the prophet Ezekiel, whose prophetic vision commences with the image of God in a fiery chariot, moving like the wind. Scholars have indicated the wheels of the chariot along with its rapid movement as a way of indicating that even in Babylonia (which is where Ezekiel's text is composed) prophesy is possible. The God of Israel, in other words, is a portable God and the worship of Him is not contingent upon residing in the Holy Land.

This is an issue that turns up elsewhere as well, particularly when the Aramean Naaman requests Israelite earth so that he may pray to the Israelite god (2 Kings 5:17). It would seem that the psalmist in our example is also struggling with the idea that the Israelite god may indeed be an Israelite god, and that His song may not be sung in a foreign land. While such a conception may have changed over time (although note the Rabbinic assertion that every synagogue is considered to be built on Israelite soil), it was a pressing issue for the earliest generations of exiles. Such a generation is credited with the composition of this particular psalm, not least because of the fact that the temple was rebuilt less than a century after its destruction, and there is no indication within this song of so happy an event.

I would like to make one more observation about this particular psalm, concerning the nature of its translation by JPS.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you
There is nothing within the Hebrew that gives any indication that the psalmist is speaking of his hand withering and, short of it being a possible reference to God indicating His strength by making Moses' hand leprous, I do not know from where the editors are deriving this particular word. The common translation is "let my right hand forget its cunning", but even this is a stretch.

The Hebrew reads, quite simply,
אם־אשכחך ירושלם
תשכח ימיני
In other words, "let my right hand forget". There is no object in the sentence and therefore no indication as to what the hand is going to be forgetting. I have even seen some translations that attempt to deal with this problem by suggesting that "hand" is the object and that the psalmist is saying, "forget my right hand", but this is only plausible if the author is speaking to a male and Jerusalem is a feminine word.

On the contrary, I would argue that the right hand is destined to forget its ability to play the harp. This would also fit with the following line that, by speaking of the tongue cleaving to the palate, would indicate the inability to sing. Just as the African-Americans have struggled to retain their culture in the face of an overbearingly European society, so too did the ancient Judeans stress that they may sing and they may play music, but only on the condition that they do not forget Jerusalem.

September 07, 2006

Summer Approaches

Well, for us folks in the so-called antipodes, Summer is only getting ready to begin. Guess how I'll be spending it?


September 05, 2006

An Argument of Cosmic Proportions

lu•na•tic |'loōnə¸tik|
a mentally ill person (not in technical use)
• an extremely foolish or eccentric person

ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French
lunatique, from late Latin lunaticus, from Latin luna 'moon' (from the belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity).
- Oxford American Dictionary
In Genesis 1:16, we are told:
ויעש אלהים את־שני המארת הגדלים את־המאור הגדל לממשלת היום ואת־המאור הקטן לממשלת הלילה ואת הכוכבים
And God created the two large luminaries: the large luminary to rule by day and the small luminary to rule by night, along with the stars
Faced with the obvious question (why are we told that the sun and the moon are both large, only to then be told that the sun is large and the moon is small?), the Rabbis come up with a curious explanation. In Tractate Ḥullin of the Babylonian Talmud (page 60b), they wrote:
אמרה ירח לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע אפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד אמר לה לכי ומעטי את עצמך
"The moon spoke up before the Holy One, Blessed is He: 'Master of the World, is it possible for two kings to share a crown?' He said to her, 'Go and reduce yourself'."
For the moon's impertinence, she is reduced to being a minor luminary, while the sun is granted supreme dominion over the day. The midrash takes this even further by demonstrating that the nations of the world (who are many times more numerous than the Jewish people) shall mark their calendar by the sun, while the moon shall be utilised for the calendrical observations of the Jews. The text was written some time before the rise of Islam (which utilises a solely lunar calendar and which now may boast numbers surpassing the global population of Christians), but the implication is that the sun is used by those with many adherents to their faith while the moon is used by those with few.

The Talmud goes on to relate the benefits of being small by listing a variety of important personages in the Bible who happened to either be the youngest in their families or the shortest in physical stature. Among such greats are Jacob (whose epithet Israel became the name given to all of his descendants) and David (whose reign typified the commencement of Israel's glory-days and who is taken as a model of piety and stature).

Every month, religious Jews bless the new moon and express their hope that one day the moon will be granted its former status and will actually eclipse the sun. On that day, Judaism shall be the recognised truth and all of the nations of the world will come to the mountain of God in Jerusalem to praise the creator of heaven and earth. Like the editors of the Oxford American Dictionary supposed, perhaps we're all a little mad...

Crocodile Tears

In honour of the passing of Australian wildlife conservationist, Steve Irwin, I have decided to make a few comments concerning reptiles in the Hebrew Bible.

The first reference to these animals can be found in the beginning of Genesis. We are told, in 1:21, that:
ויברא אלהים את־התנינם הגדלים
"God created the large taninim"
What does this word mean?
To answer this question, the best place to look is a Biblical concordance. According to mine, this word appears some fourteen times. Of these times, several of the references are poetic and there is not much contained within them that may shed light on the word's meaning. Some of the others, however, are a little more explicit.

Isaiah (27:1) speaks of taninim that exist in the sea, and Ezekiel (29:3) speaks of one 'crouching' within a river. Perhaps the most interesting reference is found in Exodus 7 when God teaches Moses a trick by which he may prove his power to Pharaoh.

God tells Moses that he should cast his rod upon the ground and it shall turn into a tanin. Moses does so and, behold, that is exactly what his staff does. Pharaoh's response, however, is to have his magicians perform the same trick, and we are told that their rods turn into taninim as well. The tanin of Moses and Aaron, however, eats the taninim of Pharaoh's magicians and, assumedly, God's supreme power is demonstrated.

This all seems very simple until a few verses later when Moses is told to meet Pharaoh at the bank of the river. God explicity tells Moses that he should bring his staff with him: the one that had turned into... a snake. What's going on? It would seem that tanin and nachash ('snake') are not too dissimilar! So a tanin must be something very like a snake, that lives in water, and 'crouches' within a river...

I considered inserting a photo of a crocodile here, but I thought that might be a little too obvious. Indeed, tanin means crocodile in Israeli Hebrew.

So, in the beginning of Genesis, God created giant reptiles on the fifth day...
No comment.

September 04, 2006

What's In A Name?

"Though it comes into futility and departs into darkness, and its very name is covered with darkness"¹, the archetypal Jew in English literature captivates me. What is it about the miserable fiend who holds me so enthralled? Is it his lisping self-effacement? The simpering manner in which he seeks to gratify his worldly masters whilst nonetheless stabbing them all in the back? Or is it the darkness with which he appears to envelop himself like a thick and dirty cloak, invisible to those who dwell in light and laughter, and detested by the very creator of the world?

There are reams of commentaries devoted to his character; rivers of ink have been spilled in understanding his author's prejudice. What was the motivation behind the apparent hatred that underlies texts like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta? What was the root of Chaucer's fixation with the blood libel in "The Prioress' Tale"? In answering this question, it is pertinent to note the role of the Jew's daughter in much of the literature. Both Shylock's daughter (Jessica) and Barabbas' daughter (Abigail) serve a common purpose. They abscond from their communities, reject their faith, cause untold despair to their hated fathers, and marry a virile and virtuous Christian man. So triumphs Christianity.

Was this the world-view of Shakespeare and Marlowe (respectively)? Do the actions of their Jewish protagonists reflect the experiences that they both had with Jews? In actual fact, the answer is no. In 1290, Edward I ("Edward Longshanks") had all of the Jews in England expelled. For 350 years, England was completely rid of its erstwhile Hebrew citizens. Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer, all three of whom were writing during this period, had never met a Jew. So deep was the racial prejudice ingrained, however, that the moneylenders they presented to their audience were steeped in characteristics that simply reeked of age-old Jew hatred. And their unfamiliarity with Jews and Judaism is reflected most clearly in the names that they chose.

Jessica and Abigail are names that were also prevalent amongst non-Jews at the time. Abigail is a Biblical name, but common enough in English society so as not to appear even slightly Hebraic. The purpose here is reflected in the protagonists themselves: just as Jessica and Abigail righteously abandon their dead faith in favour of the living Christianity, so too are they graced with 'real' names by their authors. Their stiff-necked fathers, condemned literarily to a dying religion, are not granted names with which a Christian may necessarily be familiar. Shylock, a mock name, reflects Shakespeare's ignorance. Not having met a Jew, he was incapable of choosing a genuine Jewish name. The name that he ended up choosing, however, was most probably designed on the basis of its sound.

The word shy conjures up the image of a simpering and an ingratiating person, as Shylock himself proves to be. The word lock, on the other hand, may have been chosen for its proximity to the word 'forelock', the English name for the curls of hair that some religious Jewish men grow from the sides of their face. The combination of the two terms, that mixture of obsequiousness and piety, encapsulates the manner in which Jews were considered by the Christians amongst whom they had once lived. For Chaucer too, whose characters do not have names, there is this same combination of fearful gratification, coupled with an almost satanic degree of religious ritual.

For Marlowe, whose Barabbas embodies this same distasteful combination again, there is more on which to elaborate. The name Barabbas speaks volumes for, unlike Shylock, Barabbas is a Biblical name. It features in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, when Pilate offers the citizens of Jerusalem a choice between liberating Jesus ("the king of the Jews") and an instigator of rebellions by the name of Barabbas. The people, spurred on by Caiaphas and the Pharisees, select Barabbas and have Jesus condemned to death. While we hear more of several of the other minor characters in the narrative, Barabbas departs from the written record almost as soon as he had entered it. His name, however, is a curious one.

Barabbas is the Greek transliteration of an Aramaic name, Bar Abba. This name translates, literally, to "the father's son". In a world where many people's names featured patronymics, this name is a mockery. It is one thing to be given a name like Abba Shaul (The Father of Saul²) or Bar Kosiba (The Son of Kosiba³) but Bar Abba by itself makes no real sense. On the contrary, the name is ironic. When faced with the opportunity to redeem the Son of the Father (Jesus), the fickle multitudes instead opted to redeem a man whose name merely happened to be "Son of the Father". Over the reality, they opted for appearances.

In many ways, Marlowe's protagonist (like Shakespeare's) has a most fitting name. It is not a Jewish name and, short of simply lifting a name from the pages of the Hebrew Bible, there was no real way for him to have chosen one. Nonetheless, it conveys certain images. While "Shylock" conveys the distasteful combination of excessive flattering and false piety (the very stereotypical image of the Jew in Shakespeare's England), "Barabbas" conveys images of misplaced hope. His character, as a moneylender, has all the appearances of somebody who services his community, but his very soul is bare. He is a reminder, as Jews themselves served as a reminder in many Christian communities, that God was dead; killed by the Jews themselves before salvation could be effected. Just as the role of Barabbas' and Shylock's daughters was to indicate the triumph of Christianity over a religion of appearances, so too was this role reflected in the very names of the protagonists themselves.

[Postscript: It may also be worth noting that, of the other Jewish names chosen by Marlowe in the same text, Ithamar is the name of Aaron's son; Obed is the name of the son of Ruth and Boaz; Nones was a contemporaneous Jewish doctor who had converted to Christianity; and Kirriah Jearim was an Israelite town, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.]

¹ Ecclesiastes 6:4.
² More probably "Saul the Elder"; a Rabbi of the Babylonian Talmud.
³ Possibly "sheep-shearer", or "resident of KSB"; the failed hero of an insurrection against Roman rule.