Monday, December 29, 2008

The Tradition Of Seven Lean Years In Egypt

Concerning the seven years of famine dream of Pharaoh - and it's interpretation by Joseph - we find an intriguing connection to a much older tradition in Egypt of seven lean years. The following is an excerpt from Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p 31. While there is little else to suggest a borrowing of the Joseph story from this earlier narrative, it does raise an obvious question as to why neither Pharaoh, nor all of the magicians or wise men of Egypt, understood the meaning of his dream as stated in Genesis 41. There are parshanim that do indeed explain that some of Pharaoh's advisers correctly interpreted the dream, but assert that Joseph demonstrated much greater wisdom in his explanation (e.g., because he filled in details that Pharoah left out, or because he combined the interpretation with a plan of action, etc...) It seems, however, that according to the oldest (midrashic) sources, that the true meaning of the seven lean years was "hidden" from these advisers. See in particular Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews - available for free in its entirety on Google Books, Gutenberg Project, and elsewhere - for the various interpretations that were supposedly given to Pharaoh.

Impatient readers can skip to the bolded sections...

The prosperity of Egypt depends upon the satisfactory flow of the Nile, particularly upon its annual inundation, and that river is antic and unpredictable. Ancient Egyptian texts have frequent references to hunger, "years of misery," "a year of low Nile," and so on. The text which follows tells of seven years of low Niles and famine. In its present form the text derives from the Ptolomaic period (perhaps around the end of the 2nd century B.C.). However, its stated setting is the reign of Djoser of the Third Dynasty (about 28th century B.C.). It states the reasons why a stretch of Nile land south of Elephantine had been devoted to Khnum, god of Elephantine. It is a question whether it is a priestly forgery of some late period, justifying their claim to territorial privileges, or whether it correctly recounts an actual grant of land more than 2,500 years earlier. This question cannot be answered in final terms. We can only affirm that Egypt had a tradition of seven lean years, which, by a contractual arrangement between pharaoh-and a god, were to be followed by years of plenty.

The inscription is carved on a rock on the island of Siheil near the First Cataract. It was published by H. K. Brugsch, Die biblischen sieben Jahre der Hungersnoth (Leipzig, 1891), and by J. Vandier, La famine dans l'Egypte ancienne (Cairo, 1936), 132-39. Photographs were also used for the following translation.
Year 18 of the Horus: Netjer-er-khet; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Netjer-er-khet; the Two Goddesses: Netjer-er-khet; the Horus of Gold: Djoser, and under the Count, Mayor, Royal Acquaintance, and Overseer of Nubians in Elephantine, Madir. There was brought(3) to him this royal decree:

To let thee know. I was in distress on the Great Throne, and those who are in the palace were in heart’s affliction from a very great evil, since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of seven years(4). Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they eat was short. Every man robbed his companion. They moved without going (ahead). The infant was wailing; the youth was waiting; the heart of the old men was in sorrow, their legs were bent, crouching on the ground, their arms were folded. The courtiers were in need. The temples were shut up; the sanctuaries held [nothing but] air. Every [thing] was found empty(5).

I extended my heart back to the beginnings, and I asked him who was the Chamberlain, the Ibis, the Chief Lector Priest Ii-em-(ho)tep(6), the son of Ptah, South-of-His-Wall: "What is the birthplace of the Nile? Who is... the god there? Who is the god?"

Then he answered me: "I need the guidance of Him Who Presides over the House of the Fowling Net(7),… for the heart’s confidence of all men about what they should do. I shall enter into the House of Life and spread out the Souls of Re(8), (to see) if some guidance be in them."

So he went, and he returned to me immediately, that he might instruct me on the inundation of the Nile,… and everything about which they had written. He uncovered for me the hidden spells thereof, to which the ancestors had taken (their) way, without their equal among kings since the limits of time. He said to me:

"There is a city in the midst of the waters [from which] the Nile rises, named Elephantine. It is the Beginning of the Beginning, the Beginning Nome, (facing) toward Wawat(9). It is the joining of the land, the primeval hillock(10) of earth, the throne of Re, when he reckons to cast life beside everybody. 'Pleasant of Life' is the name of its dwelling. 'The Two Caverns' is the name of the water; they are the two breasts which pour forth all good things.(11) It is the couch of the Nile, in which he becomes young (again) .... He fecundates (the land) by mounting as the male, the bull, to the female; he renews (his) virility, assuaging his desire. He rushes twenty-eight cubits (high at Elephantine); he hastens at Diospolis seven cubits (high).(12) Khnum is there as a god..." ...(13)

...As I slept in life and satisfaction, I discovered the god standing over against me.(14) I propitiated him with praise; I prayed to him in his presence. He revealed himself to me, his face being fresh. His words were:

"I am Khnum, thy fashioner...(15) I know the Nile. When he is introduced into the Fields, his introduction gives life to every nostril, like the introduction (of life) to the fields... The Nile will pour forth for thee, without a year of cessation or laxness for any land. Plants will grow, bowing down under the fruit. Renenut will be at the head of everything... Dependents will fulfill the purposes in their hearts, as well as the master. The starvation year will have gone, and (people’s) borrowing from their granaries will have departed. Egypt will come into the fields, the banks will sparkle, ...and contentment will be in their hearts more than that which was formerly."

Then I awoke quickly, my heart cutting off weariness. I made this decree beside my father Khnum:(17)

"An offering which the King gives to Khnum, the Lord of the Cataract Region, Who Presides over Nubia, in recompense for these things which thou wilt do for me:

"I offer to thee thy west in Manu and thy east (in) Bakhu, from Elephantine as far as [Takompso], for twelve iters on the east and west, whether arable land or desert or river in every part of these iters..."

(The remainder of the text continues Djoser’s promise to Khnum, the essence of which is that the land presented to the god shall be tithed for his temple. It is finally provided that the decree shall be inscribed on a stela in the temple of Khnum.)

3. To Madir, the Governor at Elephantine.
4. Or: “in a pause of seven years."
5. "Found empty" may be used of the desolation of buildings. However, it is particularly common as a scribal notation to mark a lacuna in an older text. Its appearance here might be raised as an argument that our inscription derived from an earlier and damaged original.
6. Ii-em-hotep was the famed minister of Djoser, whose reputation for wisdom later brought him deification. On his career, see K. Sethe, Imhotep, der Askiepios der Aegypter (Untersuch. II, Leipzig, 1902), 95-118.
7. Thoth of Hermopolis, the god of wisdom and of priestly lore.
8. For this passage see A. H. Gardiner in JEA, xxiv (1938), 166. The House of Life was the scriptorium in which the sacred and magic books were kept. "The Souls of Re," or emanations from the creator-god, were the books themselves.
9. As the southernmost of Egyptian administrative districts, Elephantine was the "Nome of the Beginning" Wawat was that part of Nubia immediately south of the First Cataract.
10. In a context which has many uncertainties, it is certain that Elephantine is likened to the mound on which creation took place.
11. In Egyptian mythology the Nile emerged from two underground caverns at Elephantine.
12. Sema-behdet=Diosopolis Inferior has been located by A. H. Gardiner at Tell el-Balamun in the northern Delta: JEA, xxx (1944), 33-41. In context with Elephantine, it was the "Dan to Beersheba" of the Egyptians. It is not easy to interpret the measurements given here, since we do not know what zero datum was used. The Nile was 28 cubits high (about 14.5 m. or 48 ft) at Elephantine, and 7 cubits (about 3.75 m. or 12 ft.) at Diospolis. Baedeker's Aegypten und der Sudan (8th ed., Leipzig, 1928), lxviii, gives the mean average difference between low and high Nile at
Assuan as 7 m. (23 ft.) and at Cairo as 4.9 m. (16 ft.).
13. Ii-em-hotep’s report goes on to recite the divine powers of the god Khnum and of the other deities of Elephantine, as well as the mineral wealth of the region. Having received the report, the pharaoh performed services for the gods of Elephantine.
14. Khnum appeared to the pharaoh in a dream.
15. This translation omits Khnum’s recital of his powers.
16. The goddess of the harvest.
17. That is, in the temple of Khnum.
18. Manu was the western and Bakhu the eastern mountain range bordering the Nile.
19. The stretch of 12 iters from Elephantine south to a place called Takompso constituted the Dodekaschoinos known from the Greek writers. Unfortunately, the location of Takompso and the length of the iter at the time in question are unknown. See Sethe, op.cit., 59 ff.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Technical Interlude - Give the Gift of Safe

Happy Chanuka! Here is a gift for you - feel free to pass it on!

If you have kids in the house, you need to be concerned about inappropriate internet sites that are often just an innocent (or intentional) click away. You could take the Lakewood approach and simply ban the internet from your house completely, but of course you wouldn't be reading a heretic's blog in the first place if that is your mindset. I have tried numerous site and content filtering options over the years, and was never happy with software-based solutions (the Net Nanny method). For a while I used Smoothwall (more on that later) but currently have settled on a free service called OpenDNS. OpenDNS works by modifying the DNS settings on your PC so that all network name requests are routed through their servers. You can then manage the settings for your network (and here you have to know a little about how your internet provider dishes out your IP address, whether dynamic or static, with the former requiring a few extra steps on your part) to, for example, block categories of sites (OpenDNS provides a large number of them, such as pornography, gambling, and religious(!)), block individual sites (e.g.,, or open up a site that may be in a blocked category.

There are a few caveats that you need to know about this feature of OpenDNS. First, it works by blocking whole domains, and is therefore not useful if you need more sophisticated content filtering, for example if you want to block only certain pages on a site, or filter out specific words or images that you deem inappropriate. Second, since it works by changing the DNS settings on the PC, resourceful kids can override these settings if they have administrator privileges on a Windows PC (which should never be the normal mode with which they logon. Keep in mind also that if someone has physical access to a machine, if is very difficult to prevent a knowledgeable person from getting administrative access to a PC. But if your kids are bent on subverting your house rules, I suggest family therapy sessions.)

We have a bunch of computers in our house, and I have updated all of them (except for my own, no jokes please, this helps me evaluate whether a blocked site should be opened up) to use OpenDNS. It requires minimal management and works flawlessly. It may not give you all of the features of some commercial products but it is well worth a test drive. Even if you don't care about the domain filtering feature, it is still worthwhile to use the service for its phishing protection, cool network statistics pages, network shortcuts, and other features. And oh yeah, did I say that it's free??

If you would like internet content filtering - and are technically competent - I recommend using Smoothwall, an open-source (free) network firewall. Smoothwall, which will run on a cheap throwaway PC, can do just about anything you desire with a firewall (intrusion detection, VPN, etc etc) PLUS it can be used with the very sophisticated Dansguardian to filter actual content of pages based on such methods as phrase matching and URL filtering. Just be aware that if you do install a Smoothwall firewall, you'll be spending lots of time fiddling & playing with it, not because it is inordinately difficult to setup but because it so amenable to tinkering!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Skeptics Guide to Chanukah

I. The Miracle of the Oil

A nice idea:
Even the most secular Jew has grown up with the story about the miracle of the oil. When the victorious Maccabees entered the Temple, they could only find one jug of sealed olive oil which was only only enough to burn for one day. A great miracle occurred and the light lasted for eight days.

Reality check:
Any regular reader of Jewish skepti-blogs will be aware of the true story by now (as well as most of the other points in this post), as elaborated in Maccabees I and II. Before recapping, let's look at a time line.
  • Maccabean revolt: 167 BCE
  • Maccabean victory and re-dedication of the Temple: 164 BCE
  • Writing of I Maccabees: ca. 134-63 BCE
  • Writing of II Maccabees: ca. 124-63 BCE
  • Philo of Alexandria: 20 BCE - 50 CE
  • Josephus: ca. 37 – 100 CE
  • Gospel of John: ca 70 - 85 CE or later
  • Talmud: ca 500 CE
NONE of the early historical sources through Josephus mention the miracle of oil. Nor is the miracle mentioned in the Chanukah (or Hanukkah, as The Church of Google prefers) additions of Birkat HaMazon of the Amidah. The only source for the miracle comes from the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), and is described in a few sentences in the name of some anonymous rabbis. We can't date precisely when this tradition began, but keep in mind that the earliest that we can confidently account for the Talmudic story is approximately 650 years after the Maccabean revolt! Admittedly this may reflect a much older tradition, but such a belief is merely conjecture. Occasionally you'll hear someone make a claim that the "miracle" was not mentioned by the early sources because they wanted to emphasize the Hashmonean military victory - which, after all, could be claimed as merely the result of superior strategic maneuvering - instead of an overtly spiritual deliverance. This is quite absurd, as all of these early sources - written by religious Jews regardless of their factional affiliation - would not have hesitated to mention such a miracle were it to have actually occurred. It is much more likely that Chazal wanted to diminish the emphasis on the military victory because of strong anti-Hasmonean sentiments as a result of Alexander Jannaeus and Aristobulus siding with the Sadducees and the internecine fighting that ultimately culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. As such, they redefined the Chanukah so that the military victory took a back seat to the spiritual one.

The Early Historical Sources

I Maccabees. Chapter 4 of this important historical work describes the celebration of the Kislev thusly:
Then said Judas and his brothers, Behold, our enemies are crushed: let us go up to cleanse and dedicate the sanctuary. So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest, or as on one of the mountains. They also saw the chambers of priests in ruins. They rent their clothes, and made great lamentation, and cast ashes upon their heads,and fell down flat to the ground upon their faces. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried toward heaven. Then Judas appointed certain men to fight against those that were in the fortress, until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law. They cleansed the sanctuary, and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned and thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathens had defiled it. So they pulled it down and laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to show what should be done with them.

Then they took unhewn stones according to the law, and built a new altar like the former. They rebuilt the sanctuary, and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table. And upon the altar they burned incense, and the lamps that were upon the candlestick they lit, that they might give light in the temple. They set the loaves on the table, and hung up the curtains, and finished all the works which they had undertaken. Early in the morning on the twentieth fifth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Kislev, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs, and citherns, and harps, and cymbals. Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They also decked the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold, and with shields; and the gates and the chambers they renewed, and hanged doors upon them. Thus was there great joy among the people, for that the disgrace of the Gentiles was put away.

Moreover Judas and his brothers with the whole congregation of Israel ordained that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year for eight days, from the twentieth fifth day of the month Kislev, with joy and gladness.
II Maccabees. This books adds additional historical information, including the fact that the eight days of dedication also served as a celebration of the (delayed) holiday of Succot. It begins with a letter exhorting the Jews in Egypt to observe the relatively new festival. Chapter 1:18:
Since on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the feast of booths and the feast of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices. And later in Chapter 10: It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.
Philo of Alexandria. The historian completely omits any mention of Chanukah. Had the holiday fallen into disuse during these very turbulent times (or, more likely, had it not taken hold in Egypt despite the exhortations of II Maccabees), or was the omission a result of political concerns or personal religious leanings?

Josephus Antiquities. Book 12 Chapter 7 (find the whole work at the Gutenberg Project) explains things in a manner that is strikingly similar to the First Book of Maccabees, possibly he used the book as his source. He adds some details, including a conjecture as to how Chanukah became known as the festival of lights:
Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.
John 10:22. "And it was at Jerusalem the Feast of the Dedication, and it was winter." Here the anonymous author of the Gospel of John recounts that Chanukah represents a "feast of dedication".

The bottom line: Contrary to the assertions of other skeptics, I do not believe that Chanukah was initially designated as an eight-day holiday so that it could function as a "delayed Succot". I Maccabees states simply that they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days and joyfully offered burnt offerings and thanksgiving offerings. This eight day dedication was simply a re-enactment of previous dedications such as the initial inauguration of the Tent of Meeting by Moses (Lev. 8:33-35, with the conclusion on the eighth day as stated in 9:1); the dedication of the First Temple by King Solomon (II Chron. 7:8-9); and Hezekiah's re-dedication of the Temple (II Chronicles 29:17). Thus it seems much more likely from the historical accounts that the eight-day festival was modelled after previous dedications. Once it was so determined, the first Chanukah celebration also functioned as a means by which the people could fulfill the missed holiday of Succot.

II. Dreidels

Some nice ideas: Of course everyone knows the story about how the Jews used to play games with dreidels as a cover. When they were ostensibly spinning the top and playing a simple gambling game in front of the Greeks, they were really learning Torah and discussing very deep halachic and mystical concepts. Indeed, Bnai Yissachar teaches use that the letters on the dreidel allude to the four exiles of the Jewish people: Nun=nefesh, soul, for the Babylonians who desired that the Jews resort to idolatry and thereby contaminate their soul. Gimel=guf, body, for the Persians (typified by Haman) who tried to destroy us physically. Shin=sechel, the intellect, for the Greeks who valued the rational human mind over spiritual endeavors. Hey=HaKol, everything, for Rome who incorporated the basest qualities of each of the previous three nations, representing total destruction of the Jew and the moral imperative that the Jew represents. Also, the gematria of nun + gimel + hey + shin = 358, which is the gematria of nachash - snake - which is our primordial enemy as well as mashiach who represents the culmination of history!

Reality check: the dreidel game is based on a German game: "N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In German, the spinning top was called a "torrel" or "trundl," and in Yiddish it was called a "dreidel," a "fargl," a "varfl" [= something thrown], "shtel ein" [= put in], and "gor, gorin" [= all]." (Reference: see here and here.)

III. Maoz Tzur

A nice idea: The most common melody for this song is of Jewish origin.

Reality check: Per the article here, "Scholars suggest it dates from an old German folksong that spread among the Jews in the 15th century; this melodic line appears in a well-documented church melody of that period, used by Martin Luther (1483-1546) for his German chorals. The earliest preserved Jewish source of the melody is a manuscript from Hanover, dated 1744."

IV. Sufganiot

A nice idea: R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach explains why we eat jelly donuts on Chanukah. According to the Talmud Avodah Zarah (52b), when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple they could not use the altar-stones, for the Greeks had contaminated them through idolatry. They therefore stored them away. After eating donuts, we make the after-blessing of "Al HaMichya" in which we ask God to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. We also ask for mercy for God's altar ("al mizabachecha") unlike the Birkat Hamazon in which this is not mentioned. As for the jelly, the Talmud in Sotah (48a) states: "Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says: R. Joshua testified that from the day the Temple was destroyed... the flavor has departed from the fruits." Thus, adding fruit jelly to donuts helps us to remember what we lost when the Temple was destroyed.

Reality check: I have no idea when the custom to eat jelly donuts began, but does anyone honestly believe that some talmidei chachamim got together one day and learned out from these gemaras that eating jelly donuts would be an appropriate way to celebrate Chanukah? Gimmeabreak. Donuts are fried in oil, just like potato latkes; eating them on Chanukah help us to recall the so-called miracle of the oil.

By the way, did John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech really mean "I am a sufganiot"?? Unfortunately, this is nothing more than an urban legend.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Vampire vs the Golem

When Jacob passed to come into the land of Canaan, Esau came to him from Mount Seir in violent anger, contriving to slay him, as it is said, "The wicked plotteth against the just and gnasheth upon him with his teeth." (Ps. xxxvii. 12). Esau said: I will not slay Jacob with bow and arrows, but with my mouth and with my teeth will I slay him, and suck his blood, as it is said, "And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept" (Gen. xxxiii. 4). Do not read vayishakehu (and he kissed him) but (read) vayishkehu (and he bit him). But Jacob's neck became like ivory, and concerning him the Scripture says, "Thy neck is like the tower of ivory" (Cant. vii. 4). The wicked (Esau's) teeth became blunt, and when the wicked one saw that the desire of his heart was not realized he began to be angry, and to gnash with his teeth, as it is said, "The wicked shall see it, and be grieved; he shall gnash with his teeth and melt away" (Ps. cxii. 10).

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (trans. Gerald Friedlander, p285)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our Dysfunctional Jewish Family

Jewish history has been characterized not only by omnipresent Gentile against Jew persecution, but by Jew against Jew infighting. A few examples from modern times includes the Mitnagdim against the Chassidim, present day Chassidic feuds (e.g., Lubavitch vs Satmar, the dynastic succession feuds of Satmar and of Bobov), Chareidi vitriolic response towards secular Zionist Jews or their accusations of heresy regarding Modern Orthodox approaches to Judaism, the Orthodox / non-Orthodox (secular, Reform, etc) divide, the list goes on and on and on and on. (And, of course, grows exponentially if we widen our perspective and look at ancient Jewish history, especially the late Second Temple period.)

There is truly only one reason for our problems: Ma'aseh Avot Siman Lebanim - the actions of the forefathers presage the experiences of the children! Simply put, our current dysfunctionality stems from the dysfunctional behavior of our ancestral families. Thus we have:
  • Abraham kicking his concubine Hagar and his son Ishmael out of the house at the behest of his wife Sarah, because Ishmael was mocking (some say sexually abusing) Isaac. As a parting gift before sending them into an inhospitable wilderness, the very wealthy Abraham gives them only some bread and a skin of water.

  • Abraham taking his son Isaac to be sacrificed, only to stop at the last minute because of an angelic vision telling him not to proceed (some midrashic accounts having him actually going through with the act)

  • Jacob taking advantage of Esav's state of famishment to trade a bowl of cholent for Esav's first-born rights, and - more importantly and less justifiably - taking advantage of the decrepitude of his father and stealing the blessing designated for Esav at the instigation of his mother

  • Esav's desire to kill his brother Jacob as a result of the deception, and the latter consequently fleeing from his house

  • Jacob's bride-to-be Rachel colluding with her sister Leah so that Jacob marries the wrong woman

  • Leah's knowledge that she is unloved by her husband. The jealousy between Rachel and Leah and their competition to have offspring

  • Jacob showing preferential treatment to his four wives/concubines and their children to the extent that each group sees how valued they are by the degree to which they are put in harm's way for the meeting with Esav (shades of Sophie's Choice!)

  • Joseph tale-bearing on his brothers

  • Jacob showing greater love for Joseph than for his other children

  • The brothers of Joseph attempt to kill Joseph but later deciding "only" to sell him as a slave. They then deceive their father, claiming that Joseph was torn by a wild beast, thus putting Jacob through many years of inconsolable hell.

  • Joseph - as a ruler of Egypt - toying with his brothers and accusing them as spies, taking Shimon as hostage, and the brothers returning to Egypt not to attempt to rescue Shimon but because they lack food
  • Joseph apparently estranged from his family who now live in Goshen

  • Jacob demonstrating one last act of preferential treatment of Ephraim, the younger son of Jacob, over Manasseh
There are many positive lessons to be learned from the avot and imahot, but it seems that the only lesson that we should take from their family interactions is how not to behave!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Did Jews Invent the Intolerance Meme?

Interesting article here on how a Catholic priest, Diego de Landa, single-handedly destroyed the written language of the Mayans. Author Craig A. James states:
Diego de Landa's one-man inquisition perfectly illustrates the power of the Intolerance Meme, an idea that evolved in the Jewish religion a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, and was taken up with a vengeance by Christians in the third and fourth centuries AD. The Intolerance Meme declares that not only is Yahweh the only god, but in addition, anyone who worships other gods is committing a sin. The Intolerance Meme justifies all sorts of atrocities in Yahweh's name: Murder, slavery, forced conversion, suppression and destruction of other religions, racism, and many other immoral acts.
Oh, man, I thought, yet another radical atheist with an axe to grind against religion. Indeed, James' brief biography shows that he has been greatly influenced by Richard "The Root of All Evil" Dawkins.

James' more extensive writings on the "Intolerance Meme" can be found in his book, The Religion Virus. If you are interested in reading his own novel take on early foundational Judaism, check out this excerpt. (Sample quote: "[Abraham and Moses] believed in, and sometimes worshipped, the gods Baal, Asherah, Anat, and many others.").

Now I (and countless other Jewish bloggers) have written on some of the disturbing aspects of Torah law, not to mention genocidal atrocities such as those committed by the Israelites against the Canaanites (although these may never have actually occurred.)

Nevertheless, let's be honest here: it isn't just the "intolerant" monotheistic religions of the West that are guilty of such behavior. There are long shopping lists of barbarism committed by Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, plus the unparalleled crimes against humanity carried out by atheist anti-religionists such as Stalin and Pol Pot. James naively suggests that the Jews invented intolerance, but this is not an issue of religion or secularism, it is an issue of power and control. Religion is just a very convenient means by which such control can be exerted on others.

Fortunately, the Pharisaic progenitors of Rabbinic Judaism abandoned strict application of Torah law long ago - even when the Sanhedrin was still extant. I certainly do not desire that Israel return to a theocracy, but if it does I would hope that - regardless of indications to the contrary by many of the so-called gedolim of today - our evolved moral sensibilities would take precedence over some misguided nostalgia for intolerant fundamentalism.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Morality Monitor

I think I'm doomed (though hopefully not forever like good Christians assert.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mormons - Lenient on Masturbation!

Those Mormons, so meikel regarding the scourge of masturbation! Let's look at a few of the points found in their guide to self-control taken from this 1970 missive and see if we can help them out by the judicious application of halachic principles.

Never touch the intimate parts of your body except during normal toilet processes.

Authentic Orthodox Jewish Comment (AOJC): Better advice is found in the Talmud, Niddah 13a (which is also the best place to start to put the fear of God into you regarding the sin of wasting seed): R. Eliezer said, Whoever holds his membrum when he makes water is as though he had brought a flood on the world.

Avoid being alone as much as possible. Find good company and stay in this good company.

AOJC: They forgot about being along during the night, which is when the real danger starts. The Talmud (Shabbat 151a) says that one should not sleep alone at night lest one be seized by that succubus, Lilith. (She's the one responsible for wet dreams and all of those little demon babies that are created as a result...)

If you are associated with other persons having this same problem, you must break off their friendship. Never associate with other people having the same weakness.

AOJC: All around good advice, as it says in Pirke Avot 1:7: Nittai the Arbelite said: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.

When you bathe, do not admire yourself in a mirror. Never stay in the bath more than five or six minutes -- just long enough to bathe and dry and dress AND THEN GET OUT OF THE BATHROOM into a room where you will have some member of your family present.

AOJC: The Shulchan Aruch (YD 156:2) rules that a man may not look in a mirror due to "lo yilbash gever" (prohibition to wear a woman's garments). The Vilna Gaon agrees. It is permitted to look into a mirror only for medical reasons or if one cuts his own hair, or if a non-Jew cuts his hair in private.

When in bed, if that is where you have your problem for the most part, dress yourself for the night so securely that you cannot easily touch your vital parts, and so that it would be difficult and time consuming for you to remove those clothes. By the time you started to remove protective clothing you would have sufficiently controlled your thinking that the temptation would leave you.

AOJC: And also don't forget that it is a severe transgression to lie on one's back or on one's stomach, rather than on one's side. The fear is wasteful emission of seed. (Mishnah Berurah 239:6, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 71:5, T. Bavli Berachot 13b).

Never read pornographic material. Never read about your problem. Keep it out of mind. Remember -- "First a thought, then an act."

AOJC: Forget porn, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 20b) even prohibits watching animals mate lest it arouse one to inappropriate thoughts.

A number of additional suggestions are quoted in the document, including vigorous daily exercise, wearing pajamas that are difficult to open, holding the Book of Mormon in bed, tying a hand to the bed frame, etc. But we have only to turn to that great - though severely flawed - Gaon of Mussar, the Seinfelder Rav, for the best advice of all: be the master of your own domain!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Tale of Aqhat

In Robert Alter's Genesis: Translation and Commentary, he makes note of the similarity between the "annunciation" story of Genesis 18 in which angels inform Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son and an Ancient Near Eastern Text:

The whole scene seems to be a montheistic adaptation to the seminomadic early Hebrew setting from the Ugaritic Tale of Aqhat (tabet V:6-7) in which the childless Dan'el is visited by the craftsman-God Kothar. As Moshe Weinfeld has observed there are several links between the two texts: Dan'el also is sitting by an entrance, overshadowed by a tree; he also "lifts up his eyes" to behold the divine visitor and similarly enjoins his wife to prepare a meal from the choice of the flock.

Here is tablet V from Tale of Aqhat as translated in Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament:
(Some 13 lines missing at the top. The preserved portion begins in the middle of a speech of the craftsman-god addressed to Daniel:)
(abraded except for traces)

"I myself will bring the bow,
    Even I will convey the darts."
And behold, on the seventh day--
Straightway Daniel the Rapha-man,
    Forthwith Ghazir the Harr1am[iyy]-man,
Is upright, sitting before the gate,
    Beneath a mighty tree on the threshing floor,
Judging the cause of the widow,
    Adjudicating the case of the fatherless.
Lifting up his eyes, he beholds:
    From a thousand fields, ten thousand acres(1)
The march of Kothar(2) he espies,
    He espies the onrush of Khasis,(3)
See, he bringeth a bow;
    Lo, he conveyeth darts.
Straightway Daniel the Rapha-man,
    Forthwith Daniel the Harnamiyy—man,
Loudly unto his wife doth call:
"Hearken, Lady Danatiya,(4)
    Prepare a lamb from the flock
For the desire of Ko[th]ar wa-Khasis,(5)
    For the appetite of Hayyin(6) of the Handicrafts.
Give food, give drink to the godhead;
    Serve, honor him,
    The Lord of Hikpat—El,(7) all of it.
Lady Danatiya obeys,
    She prepares a lamb from the flock
For the desire of Kothar wa—Khasis,
    For the appetite of Hayyin of the Handicrafts.
Afterwards, Kothar wa-Khasis comes.
The bow he delivers into Daniel’s hand;
    The darts he places upon his knees.
Straightway Lady Danatiya
    Gives food, gives drink to the godhead;
She serves, honors him,
    The Lord of Hikpat-El, all of it.
Kothar departs for(8) his tent,
Hayyin departs for(8) his tabernacle.
Straightway Daniel the Rapha-man,
    Forthwith Ghazir the Harnamiyy-man,
The bow doth [...]..., upon Aqhat he doth ...
"The first of thy game, O my son,
    The first of thy ...[...],
The game of thy ...[...]."(9)
(some 12 lines missing)

Re-edited Footnotes:
1 i.e. in the distance.
2 "Skillful," the commonest name of the craftsman-god.
3 "Clever," another of his names.
4 The name means "God judges." Juding the cause of the widow and the fatherless is Daniel's special concern. His wife's name, Danatiya, is from the same root.
5 "Skillful and Clever"; see nn. 2 and 3.
6 "Deft," still another of his monikers.
7 The name of the craftsman-god’s "estate."
8 Or "from," if Daniel’s tent is meant rather than Kothar’s.
9 Perhaps Daniel here impresses upon his son the duty of offering some of his game to the gods. "First" may mean "choicest" here.
It has been said that there are only 7 basic plots in all of literature (for example, see here and here.) In the same way, some apologists would like to claim that Bible critics look at similarities to ANE texts and conclude that the Bible has engaged in large-scale borrowing from earlier texts, rather than admitting to the common use of universal themes. Most OrthoFundies are less sophisticated and know nothing about ANE texts, and simply reject the similarities as mere coincidence. Certainly from a religious point of view such similarities are largely irrelevant, for it is in the differences that the real theological uniqueness of the Biblical text shines through.

But I ask you, are the similarities between Genesis 18:1-9 and tablet V of The Tale of Aqhat compelling enough to suggest that the Biblical story has borrowed components from the Ugaritic one?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Is Nothing Sacred?

Just an excuse to post my all-time favorite Gahan Wilson cartoon.

Another Historic Figure Bites the Dust

OK, we all know that
But now they've gone too far. A frum Muslim says that Mohammed never existed!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Movies from a Godol Hador of Intelligent Design has a great set of Moody Institute of Science films from the 50's. They are described thusly:
The film's host Irwin Moon had an interest in science as a child and later incorporated that interest into his life as a pastor. He would tour the country giving his "Sermons of Science" where the marvels of science provide the visible evidence of a Divine plan of creation. His work with GIs during World War II showed him the impact that training films had on the troops. Moon partnered with the Moody Bible Institute to form the Moody Institute of Science, a company that made basic science films with a religious hook at the end. While revealing the complexity of nature, their films would end with Moon saying that this complexity was part of God's plan rather than evolution. Moody Institute of Science films were marketed to churches and also to public schools where today even the mention of the word "God" sparks a conflagration of protests and court cases.
Moon wasn't just some two-bit evangelist; he played to huge crowds at the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair, created sophisticated equipment out of war surplus material, and was a huge advocate of what is now called "intelligent design". Although the religious message of the films here are non-denominational, Moon is credited with first developing the concept of using science to illustrate the Gospel. There is some fascinating biographical material on Irwin Moon in James Gilbert's book on religion and science in American culture, Redeeming Culture; check out excerpts here.

Here are some of the movie highlights (if you do check these out, make sure and read the comments on each film):

In this 1960 movie on carnivorous plants, Moon mentions that the Venus Fly Trap is completely devoid of muscle tissue and a nervous system. At 5:10 he asks, "How does it happen? Someday we'll know" and gives a beatific look towards the heavens. Continuing, he explains that a master craftsman has laid out with intricate design a variety of traps to serve the needs of nature (but he doesn't say that the same craftsman allows another creature to die very slowly in the fly trap's digestive juices). At 7:30, Moon shows an intricate mechanical trip and asks rhetorically, "Can you imagine building all of this complicated mechanism into a trap the size of the head of a pin? God did it!"

The one on electric eels is well worth watching. You only get the kicker at the very end when he says about the eel, "you've given us a new understanding of God who made us all".

This 1957 one on Acara fish is geared to the under 10-year old crowd (here Moon is what you'd get if you crossed Mr Rogers with Mr Wizard). Some great comments on family values, especially the closer: "The acaras devotion to their babies is a wonderful thing, but the love of human parents for their children is different and far more wonderful. And what children do is important in family life too, for God requires that children obey their parents." Who can argue with that?

Living with Atom is a pretty long one at 25 minutes. We are treated to a lesson in atomic physics and are shown the frightening power of the atomic bomb. The moralizing begins, as usual, near the end. About the need to have reverence for the Creator, the importance of faith, righteous and humility before God. Principles upon which this country was founded (we'll ignore the fact that most of the founders - although deists - had very unfavorable things to say about Moon's religion) and principles upon which it can continue to exist.

In the Wonder of Water, Moon gives some younguns a science lesson plus tells them about the creators great wisdom and careful planning. If you want to hear much more detailed lectures on this subject with a decidedly Orthodox approach, check out Rabbi Shmuel Irons' lectures here and here (there is a fee).

And finally, The Wonder of Our Body tells us about the miracles of the eye, ear, the hand, and other parts of the body. I was scared for a minute when Uncle Bob ushered those boys into his back room to talk about their bodies, but my suspicions were for naught. Anyway, one of the boys takes the intelligent design talk to heart when he says "I guess God went to a lot of trouble just to make our bodies so perfect". A nice talk at the end about the importance about taking care of the body, keeping our bodies and minds clean. We can all take Irwin Moon's final words to heart: eat & drink good stuff, get plenty of fresh air, and plenty of exercise.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

God is a Mafia Boss!

At least according to Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb.

In this lecture on Evolution and The Age of the Universe, Gottlieb explains the discrepancy between the scientific age of the universe - 14 billion years old - and the Jewish date of 5766 (the lecture is 3 years old so add that to both dates):

"Now the short answer to the contradiction is that the universe is 5766 years old and God created it looking older than it is. So that scientists when they follow up the evidence of greater age, are following it up correctly. And they are correctly inferring the age of the universe upon that evidence based on certain assumptions that they are making... but their conclusions are wrong. Similar to a case where the Mafia plants evidence that someone committed a crime and police use the evidence according to all the correct forensic techniques to identify so-and-so as the criminal - they aren't making any mistakes in their inferences from the evidence - except they don't know the evidence is planted."

[Aside: there are other similarities between God and the Mafia - both have a Ten Commandments code of behavior!]

Is God therefore a jokester trying to trick us? Gottlieb asks rhetorically.
  1. No, the question is irrelevant since we cannot understand why God would do things in such a way.
  2. Since God told us the truth he's not fooling us. Some facts he wants us to know by observing the world, other facts he wants us to know by telling us.
  3. If we need to, we can easily supply a motivation for God by pointing out that the world largely presents a misleading appearance. God makes the world anew continually, as we say twice each day in davening. Clearly God makes the world in such a way that we cannot see the truth by observable evidence.
But couldn't you also use the "planted evidence" argument to say that the universe is 5 minutes old?

No, that's an inappropriate technique because it undermines all critical thinking. So you can't apply it arbitrarily. However, the "planted evidence" argument applies to the singular case of the Jewish date because it is a superior explanation, even superior to the scientific explanation! How? Try to follow this logic, folks:

The Jewish people have an independent source of evidence. Gottlieb doesn't discuss it in this lecture, but he references his other lectures on the historical verification of Torah (I'm sure that you've heard it all before). These proofs say that the world is 5766 years old. Claiming that a 14 billion year old age is a result of planted evidence fits the Torah explanation AND the scientific explanation (since science can't distinguish real from planted). But a purely scientific explanation cannot explain the 5766 date. That is, Torah can explain science's evidence, but science cannot explain Torah's evidence. Thus "5766 actual/14 billion planted" is a superior explanation! Q.E.D.

I had to listen to this section of the lecture a few times because I found it hard to believe that Gottlieb would resort to such convoluted logic. Of course, his biggest fallacy is in suggesting that the 5766 age is something that science needs to take seriously and somehow explain.

What I find most appalling is that Gottlieb never gives an inkling that there are other "Torah true" approaches. To my mind he is scraping the bottom of the kiruv barrel as he snares unsophisticated folks who will eventually give up their brains and adopt similar fundamentalist ideas.

By the way, the rest of the lecture is devoted to tired old arguments against evolution; someone really needs to bring this man up to date and send him a Kenneth R. Miller book.

Oh yes, you wouldn't know it from the logic that he uses in the lecture, but Rabbi Gottlieb has a Ph.D. in mathematical logic from Brandeis University.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Einstein - The Secret Weapon Against Assimilation?

As if developing the special and general theories of relativity, winning a Nobel Prize, and making numerous other major contributions to the field of physics weren't enough, Albert Einstein is now the secret weapon for combating assimilation!

The following is a short excerpt from the Fall 2008 issue of Jewish Action.
OU President Steven Savitsky: One of the greatest problems facing Jewry is intermarriage. What do you think can be done to stem the tide of assimilation?

Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman: There’s another aspect of this issue that we’re not touching on. And that is, How do we talk to our children about the problem of intermarriage? In other words, to simply say that we will not grant legitimacy is not sufficient. We have to instill in our children a love for Judaism. We have to create a sense of emotional relationship [to Judaism], of pride and joy. We have to talk to them not only about Jewish tradition, but about great Jews who brought credit to us. We have to talk to them about an Albert Einstein, a Jew who brought great glory to our people.

Frum Heretic's response: Rabbi Klaperman, you do know that Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God, the God of the Jews, don't you? Perhaps you should read Albert's 1954 letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, which has some quite acerbic words to say about Judaism:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this... For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them. [excerpt]

Did you also know, Rabbi, that Einstein's first wife, Miliva Maric, was Catholic? That Einstein got her pregnant before they were married and they divorced because Einstein committed adultery with his cousin, Elsa? That after marrying Elsa he had several extramarital affairs?

Is this your ideal of a Jew that can help stem the problem of intermarriage and assimilation?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dang, He Busted My Mabul Crapometer!

Every year at this time, I peruse the web to try and find some intelligent commentary on the Mabul. Although the Deluge as described in the Torah clearly cannot be taken literally, I am still curious at seeing how people attempt to reconcile the story with modern science. My personal approach is similar to that found in Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization. This book, which backs up many of its claims with hard science, states that the ubiquitous flood myths around the world mostly represent wide-scale flooding caused by end of Ice Age glacier melting, especially following the Younger Dryas period at the end of the Pleistocene about 12,000 years ago.

The Mabul in particular may have been the result of a massive flood through the Bosporus about 5600 BCE, according to geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman who in 1998 published evidence for such an event. Glacial retreat caused the Mediterranean to rise until it finally spilled over a sill at the Bosporus into Black Sea. To get an idea as to the magnitude of this event, Ryan and Pitman state that ten cubic miles of water poured through the straits each day - two hundred times the volume of water that flows over Niagara Falls - for at least three hundred days!

I recently came across the article "Noach and the Tayva, Some Torah, Some Biology" which appeared in Derech HaTeva, a publication for undergraduate students at the Stern College for Women. It was written by Harvey Babich, a Biology Professor that teaches at Stern. Although Dr Babich has an impressive curricula vitae, his speculations - which frequently rely on rabbinic commentary - are jampacked with the most appalling pseudoscience. I read the article slack-jawed. Here are some of his speculations and you can see why my BS meter is now completely busted.

1) Noach was the first person to be born circumcised (besides Adam HaRishon) and with distinct fingers, while antediluvian man webbed hands. Babich explains that every fetus has webbing at an early stage but this eventually disintegrates due to apotosis. Because Noach had distinct fingers, he was able to invent the plow, scythe, and axe (Torah Shelaimah). This was around 2705 BCE.

2) Animals imitated man and cohabitation between different species was common, resulting in hybrid species (Netziv). The dinosaurs came from such forbidden sexual relationships which is why they were destroyed in the Mabul (about 2100 BCE). That Netziv and Malbim state that dinosaurs and man were contemporaneous is not a problem because C14 dating is inaccurate due to changes in cosmic radiation striking the earth.

3) Either all animals - including 800,000 species of insects, 35,000 species of spiders, 8,600 species of birds, etc etc - fit into the ark because of a miracle (Ramban), or only basic "minim" entered to preserve the necessary genetic information. "Postdiluvian diversification" (i.e., a super speeded up evolution, a word that Babich avoids, but see the last point) yielded the different genera and species of today.

4) The ark had three floors. The upper was for people and kosher animals, the middle for all of the other animals, and the bottom for the foul-smelling excreta that was deposited there via a trapdoor on the second level (Babich doesn't say how the refuse from the top floor made it to the bottom; presumably there were also trap doors and they just dumped it on top of the animals.) The refuse was not dumped overboard because it contained the plant seeds and spores needed to repopulate the world, as fertilizer to replenish the washed away top soil, to preserve the microbiota, and/or to provide the proper habitat for some creatures such as earthworms.

5) Noach took along food for all of the animals. Carnivores survived on a vegetarian diet (Ibn Ezra) similar to dogs who require a special vegetarian formula due to allergies (note to Babich: dogs are not carnivores.) Wild animals - who didn't have meat - were quieted down by some sort of radiation that God produced (Meam Loez). Such tranquility may have been a form of tonic immobility from the adverse environment.

6) Noach cared for all of the wild animals, Shem for domesticated, Cham for birds, Yefes for reptiles. All animals retained their natural inclinations, food preferences, and behavioral patterns. (Did they plant trees for monkeys? Mini-ice floats for polar bears and penguins?) Avraham's servant, Eliezer, was told by Shem that the inhabitants never got any sleep because they had to feed the diurnal species by day, the nocturnal by night.

7) Babich quotes the renowned scientist, Avigdor Miller, to describe how volcanoes superheated the water. Fish had to escape to the deepest parts of the sea where the water remains cool (presumably also fish who are not able to descend or survive at such depths. Hmmm, what about fresh water creatures and those in shallow ponds?) We are then given a science lesson about why heat will increase the volume of "aqueous water" until it becomes a gas at 100 degrees C; for some reason this had something to do with the turbulence and volume of the floodwaters but the ark floated "like any buoyant object".

8) Short-lived creatures like the fruit-fly either stayed alive (via a miracle, of course) or did die but reproduced so that their offspring left the tayva (Sanhedrin 108b).

9) When the flood waters began to recede, Noah knew that it was too soon for vegetation to grow, so he sent out a raven first because it is omnivorous and would eat the dead carcasses that washed atop mountains. (Interlude for a discussion of the raven diet.) And it did find and eat a dead human carcass (Meam Loez). He then sent out a dove because it would return to bond because it mates for life, but we are unsure of the exact species of dove that was sent! (Note: 90% of bird species are monogamous, including ravens, Dr. B.)

10) Predator/prey relationships resumed about a year after leaving the ark. The world had changed dramatically; lower air quality, poor soil productivity, four seasons instead of one (Sforno, Malbim).

11) All races of man trace their ancestry from the humans on the ark. Dark-skinned races came from Cham (Bereshis Rabbah.) (Interlude to discuss the genetics of skin color.) Whew, at least he avoided the racist nonsense of Tanchuma, as popularized by Meam Loez.

12) Biodiversification (see #4) occurred via natural selection. This was speeded up during the separation of the continents, due to plate tectonics, at the time of the Towel of Babel.

No, the above is not a spoof! Dr. Babich, Ph.D, is being perfectly serious, and isn't at all embarrassed at passing off this crap as science (or presumably teaching similar crap to students.) Nor is Yeshiva University embarrassed at making this crap available on One could literally spend hours demolishing the pseudoscientific claptrap in the article and still not reach the top of the pile of steaming crap. Sorry for the loss of eloquence, folks, as my crapometer is way off the scale.


Monday, October 27, 2008

An Army Antisemitic Coverup?

For some reason, I didn't see mention of the story of Michael Handman on any of the popular Jewish blogs, including the very politically-aware DovBear. In case you haven't heard about it, in September Army trainee Handman was severely beaten by one or more soldiers and subsequently hospitalized. Handman - who wears a yarmulke with his uniform - claims that the attack was anti-Semitic in nature. He says that his drill sergeants referred to him as a "fucking Jew" and a "kike" and demanded that he remove the yarmulke during dinner.

"I have just never been so discriminated against/humiliated about my religion," Michael Handman wrote his mother. "I just feel like I'm always looking over my shoulder. Like my battle buddy heard some of the guys in my platoon talking about how they wanted to beat the shit out of me tonight when I'm sleeping. It just sucks. And the only justification they have is [because] I'm Jewish. Maybe your dad was right...The Army is not the place for a Jew."

Has justice finally been served or is there a coverup to hide anti-Semitism at Fort Benning? Earlier this month, punishment was meted out to an Army trainee who attacked Handman. But the punishment in nonjudicial punishment rather than criminal and has the result of keeping many details of the attack secret. This article continues:

"Four days before the attack, Handman was interviewed by commanders of his basic training unit about complaints he'd made in letters to his parents that he had been harassed by two drill sergeants because he's Jewish.

The Army later acknowledged one drill sergeant had ordered Handman to remove his yarmulke, which he wore with his uniform, as he ate in a dining hall. Another drill sergeant had called him "Juden" — the German word for Jews.

[Fort Benning spokeswoman Monica] Manganaro said military police concluded the attack on Handman wasn't motivated by religious bigotry, but she would give no other details."

Note that the maximum allowable punishment is a 45 day restriction where the offender is unable to leave his unit buildings, plus 45 days of extra duty, plus a reduction in grade and forfeiture of pay. Lest people think that this is a mere slap on the wrist, it should be noted in fairness that a first time battery conviction in Georgia is only a misdemeanor which carries a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and a fine up to $1000. However, Fort Benning officials would not say what punishment Handman's attacker received.

So is there a coverup of endemic Antisemitism at Fort Benning, or is this just an example of a few lowlifes? mentioned the original story in brief (although I haven't found a followup article there) and it elicited numerous reader comments, left almost exclusively by military personnel. There was zero evidence of Antisemitism in the posts with a large number of people objecting to such sentiments and quoting regulations that allow one to wear a head-covering in the military, however many people did feel it best to keep one's religion to oneself. I found it appalling that some people actually made an excuse for the beating, claiming that Handman must have been a "F.U." or just missed "mommy and daddy". Are these assholes really suggesting that a severe beating is deserved in some cases?? Do they really believe that such sentiments reflect well on the military?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Jewish Nation Myth

No one is more surprised than Shlomo Sand that his latest academic work has spent 19 weeks on Israel's bestseller list – and that success has come to the history professor despite his book challenging Israel's biggest taboo. Dr Sand argues that the idea of a Jewish nation – whose need for a safe haven was originally used to justify the founding of the state of Israel – is a myth invented little more than a century ago.

...he argues that the Jews were never exiled from the Holy Land, that most of today's Jews have no historical connection to the land called Israel and that the only political solution to the country's conflict with the Palestinians is to abolish the Jewish state.

... Surprisingly, Dr Sand said, most of his academic colleagues in Israel have shied away from tackling his arguments. One exception is Israel Bartal, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily newspaper, Dr Bartal made little effort to rebut Dr Sand's claims. He dedicated much of his article instead to defending his profession, suggesting that Israeli historians were not as ignorant about the invented nature of Jewish history as Dr Sand contends.

...Dr Sand's main argument is that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews only because they shared a common religion. At the turn of the 20th century, he said, Zionist Jews challenged this idea and started creating a national history by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion.

Equally, the modern Zionist idea of Jews being obligated to return from exile to the Promised Land was entirely alien to Judaism, he added.

"Zionism changed the idea of Jerusalem. Before, the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. For 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem not because they could not return but because their religion forbade them from returning until the messiah came."

The biggest surprise during his research came when he started looking at the archaeological evidence from the biblical era.

"I was not raised as a Zionist, but like all other Israelis I took it for granted that the Jews were a people living in Judea and that they were exiled by the Romans in 70AD.

"But once I started looking at the evidence, I discovered that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were legends.

"Similarly with the exile. In fact, you can't explain Jewishness without exile. But when I started to look for history books describing the events of this exile, I couldn't find any. Not one.

"That was because the Romans did not exile people. In fact, Jews in Palestine were overwhelming peasants and all the evidence suggests they stayed on their lands."

Instead, he believes an alternative theory is more plausible: the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. "Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God."

So if there was no exile, how is it that so many Jews ended up scattered around the globe before the modern state of Israel began encouraging them to "return"?

Dr Sand said that, in the centuries immediately preceding and following the Christian era, Judaism was a proselytising religion, desperate for converts. "This is mentioned in the Roman literature of the time."

Jews travelled to other regions seeking converts, particularly in Yemen and among the Berber tribes of North Africa. Centuries later, the people of the Khazar kingdom in what is today south Russia, would convert en masse to Judaism, becoming the genesis of the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe.

Dr Sand pointed to the strange state of denial in which most Israelis live, noting that papers offered extensive coverage recently to the discovery of the capital of the Khazar kingdom next to the Caspian Sea.

Ynet, the website of Israel's most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined the story: "Russian archaeologists find long-lost Jewish capital." And yet none of the papers, he added, had considered the significance of this find to standard accounts of Jewish history.

One further question is prompted by Dr Sand's account, as he himself notes: if most Jews never left the Holy Land, what became of them?

"It is not taught in Israeli schools but most of the early Zionist leaders, including David Ben Gurion [Israel's first prime minister], believed that the Palestinians were the descendants of the area's original Jews. They believed the Jews had later converted to Islam."

This fascinating article can be found in full here. It was written by Jonathan Cook, a journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. A quick perusal of his website at is all that is needed to demonstrate Cook's rabid anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian bias. A footnote at the bottom states that "A version of this article originally appeared in The National (, published in Abu Dhabi." Abu Dhabi, in case you didn't know, is a country with very strong anti-Judaic policies. They also flog unmarried girls as young as 14 for having sex.

Neither the author of this article nor the Abu Dhabi connection has any bearing on whether Sand's assertions are factual or not, but it does clearly show one how Sand's work is perfect fodder for both anti-Zionists and anti-Semites.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

God - Address Unknown

A US judge has thrown out a case against God, ruling that because the defendant has no address, legal papers cannot be served.

Full story here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Scent of Heresy?

The following story, A Problematic Purchase, was taken from Along the Maggid's Journey by R. Paysach Krohn.

The laws regarding the kashrus (ritual validity) of an esrog for use on Succos are detailed and complicated. Sometimes a barely noticeable blemish is serious enough to invalidate an esrog, which is why many people will not purchase an esrog unless they show it to a recognized expert in these laws. One of ]erusalem's most respected experts in this field was the renowned R' Sholom Eisen (1917-1988). Young and old would come by the hundreds to have him examine their esrogim and lulavim. Rabbi Eisen was known not only for his halachic expertise but also for his remarkable insights. The following story involves two of the laws of Succos. The first law is that only in the Beis Halviikdash was it Biblically ordained to take the Four Species every day of Succos. Nowadays, the Biblical requirement to take the Four Species applies only on the first day; on other days, their use is a Rabbinic law.

The second law is that the Rabbis ordained that the Four Species may not be used on the Sabbath, lest one inadvertently carry them [to a teacher to learn how to use them] in a public domain, which would be a desecration of the Sabbath. ln our times, therefore, if Succos begins on the Sabbath, the Four Species would not be taken until Sunday, and their use that year would be required only by Rabbinic law.

The following story was witnessed by R' Menachem Glick of Jerusalem.

A few weeks before Succos in 1982, when the first day of Succos was on the Sabbath, a young man was showing Rabbi Eisen an esrog he was considering. R' Eisen turned the esrog slowly and carefully. "It is not spotted or blistered in any way," said R' Eisen, “and the pitom (top bulblike growth) and ukatz (bottom stem) are beautiful. However," he continued as he looked at the esrog through a magnifying glass, "it seems that at this particular place on the esrog, it is chaseir (a part is missing)."

The questionable area was very tiny. Knowing the basic laws of the Four Species, the young man protested, "But even so, an esrog that is chaseir would be kosher this year, because the whole mitzvah of taking the Four Species is only Rabbinic."

"If you were to purchase this esrog now," said R' Eisen firmly, "it would be a she'eilah of apikorses (a question of heresy)."

The young man was startled at R' Eisen's strong admonition. Heads turned throughout the room as everyone suddenly became quiet to hear the reason for the Rabbi's comment. "We have a few weeks until Yom Tov", R' Eisen exclaimed. "Within this time, it is certainly possible that Mashiach may come. If indeed he does and we have a Beis HaMikdash, you would surely want to use your esrog in the Beis HaMikdash, wouldn't you? But this deficient esrog would be invalid in the Beis HaMikdash. Yet you are still willing to purchase it — which displays your conviction that Mashiach will not come. Such an attitude has the scent of apikorses!"

We all claim to believe in Mashiach. But do we?
There is only one teeny problem with this "inspiring" story: Rabbi Eisen seems to have invented a completely new category of heresy! Rambam's 12th principle, the belief in the coming of the messiah, quite specifically states that "no time for his coming may be set, nor may the verses of Scripture be interpreted to reveal the time of his coming, as our Sages have said, 'May the wits of those who calculate the date of the end be addled'". That is, while there is an obligation to believe in the coming of moshiach according to Rambam, there is certainly no obligation to believe that he is coming tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or even within one's lifetime!

Now it wouldn't bother me that much if a well-known rav accused me of apikorsus (although I would implore him to read a little Marc Shapiro or Menachem Kellner), but can you image how this young man must have felt as "heads turned throughout the room" to hear R. Eisen claim that his attitude had the scent of heresy?

Lest I be accused of casting aspersions on Gedolei Hador (although some truly deserve it), I will conclude with a truly inspirational story by R. Eisen, plagiarized from the Cleveland Jewish Learning Connection website:
A young married student had searched for several hours to find a beautiful esrog to fulfill the mitzvah. He brought it to Rav Sholom Eisen, a renowned expert in Jerusalem, for his approval. After several minutes, Rav Eisen informed the young man it was not for him.

The young man was crestfallen, as it seemed to be a flawless esrog. He asked what the problem was.

Rav Eisen answered, "This esrog is so beautiful it must cost a fortune. I know you don’t earn much money. It is more important that you buy your wife something nice for Yom Tov, which is a Torah obligation, than it is to buy such a beautiful esrog, which is only to beautify the mitzvah."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Great Press for the Chareidi Modesty Patrols

The Huffington Post, regardless of its liberal bent, is one of the most widely viewed news websites. Now the entire world will be equating all Chareidim with the Taliban. Sad...

See here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Quick Quiz

Where in the Rosh Hashanah service is there a word containing five mems?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Assorted Rosh Hashanah Tidbits

  • Unetaneh Tokef did not originate with the horrible torture story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, that Artscroll retells in its mahzor. The historical brutality of Christian leaders and laypeople towards Jews is certainly a given and there is no reason to doubt that such mutilation could have been based on a real incident, but the "revealed in a dream to Rabbi Klonimos" story originates with the Or Zarua who lived 200 years after the supposed event. Most damaging to the legitimacy of this story has to be the simple fact that Unetaneh Tokef dates back to the pre-Gaonic era as revealed in Cairo Geniza fragments. More juicy details in this article.
  • The custom of reciting L'Dovid Ori during Elul through Shemini Atzeres is likely Sabbatean in origin, established by Nathan of Gaza, the "prophet" of false-Messiah Shabbetai Zevi. Check out this well-researched post.
  • The gematria of אגוז (egoz / nut) does not equal חטא (chet / sin), although people play fast and loose with the alef of the latter to make things work out. This post from a couple of years back goes into some detail. The more kabbalistically inclined can ignore these nitpickings and refer to "Ginat Egoz" by R. Yosef Gikatilla.
  • The first set of shofar blowings of Rosh Hashanah are referred to as "tekiot demeyushav" because they are supposed to be heard while sitting down (see the end of Rosh Hashanah 16a). However, it has become a universal custom to listen while standing (see Mishna Berurah on O.C. 585:1). Anyone know of a congregation that does otherwise?
  • I cannot find a source inside (please leave a comment if you know where), but a Rav in the know once told us that it is incorrect for the congregation to recite the first two Aseret Y'mei Teshuvah additions during the repetition of the Amidah (i.e., "Zochreinu" and "Mi Chamocha".) Certainly this is substantiated by the mahzorim that state only "Chazan" for these additions while "Congregation then Chazan" precedes the last two additions ("Uchesov chayim" and "B'sefer chayim").

Friday, September 26, 2008

Madcap Journalism Logistics

The Jewish Voice & Opinion, a monthly publication published in New Jersey by Susan Rosenbluth, is about as far to the right as you can get without falling off the edge and cutting yourself. The highlights are always the many rants disguised as advertisements sponsored by "Friends and Family of the Victims of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon". The name of this pseudo-organization (it's likely the product of a single individual, possibly even the editor herself) changes from time to time; for example, if I recall it used to be called "Friends and Family of the Victims of Oslo". The "ads" in the September issue are primarily devoted to anti-Obama rhetoric, such as "Barack Obama's Involvement with the Communist Party" and "Like Father, Like Son: The Audacity of Socialism".

But these "ads" pale beside the cover feature articles, because the latter are portrayed as news pieces, not as the one-side agenda-driven editorials that they actually are.

On one side (the left, of course) you have a very flattering picture of "Tehran's Favorite Senator", Joe Biden, and on the other you have the eye-candy VP pick of the Republicans, "Pro-Israel Gov Sarah Palin". The joke, of course, is that Biden is one of the most vocal supporters of Israel, while Palin's support for Israel consists solely of a flag (almost certainly the result of her evangelical outlook towards Israel and not for any great love of Jews, but hey, I'm not going to knock any support that Israel can muster; we'll let the "end of times" sort things out) and a hawkish viewpoint in general but specifically towards Iran. The stupidity of the article is further exemplified by statements such as "it is open to question what the late Menachem Begin would have to say about [Biden's Zionist identification]." Well, of course it is "open to question", idiots, the man is dead! You can speculate all you want in your feeble effort to destroy the Democrats.

As a disclaimer, I am an Obama supporter, but don't feel that either side can make a better pro-Israel claim. It is important, however, for folks to understand that Obama does have a 100% pro-Israel voting record. Just Google it and see for yourself.

Oh yeah, the title of this post "Madcap Journalism Logistics"? It's an anagram for the Jewish Voice's subtitle, "Promoting Classical Judaism".

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nicole Kidman Solves Some Conceptual Difficulties

Having trouble conceiving? Doctors and fertility clinics too much cost & bother? Don't worry, you still have lots of other options.

First, daven! Just refer to the article Prayer Works published in The New York Times. Yes, I know about Columbia University 'Miracle' Study: Flawed and Fraud, but the Times is the "paper of record", so it must be true! You'd rather listen to some atheist skeptics??

If that fails, go to your local Baal Mofes (miracle worker). Even a dead one will suffice, as this article states; heck, it could even be better for your pocketbook: I personally know someone who went to a rebbe for a bracha, and the rebbe required a 10% of yearly income donation to the rebbe's yeshiva if the man's wife became pregnant. (She did, and he made the donation happily.)

Finally, if all else fails, don't worry - head out to the Australian outback for both fun and babies. Nicole Kidman credits fertile water with pregnancy.

And don't me any of that "confirmation bias" crap.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Frum Heretic Defends the Traditional POV!

Recently I came across a blog post in which the writer, Diane, took offense at a midrash, feeling that it "insulted womanhood". The post:
R. Hanina, son of R. Adda, said, From the beginning of the Book until here, no samech is written, but as soon as she [Eve] was created, Satan was created with her.

The leading English translation notes laconically, in effect, oh by the way, "Satan" is not actually spelled with a samech (usually). So here would be a timely analogy, about equally well-reasoned:

Osama Bin-Laden is obviously connected to Barack Osama. Oh by the way, his name is actually Barack OBAMA.

In other words, what we have is not only a baseless, pointless slander against womankind (in our original aggadah), and of a rather extreme type (the appearance of femininity coincides with the appearance of evil in the world) -- but it is actually based on a MISTAKE, and what is obviously a sort of deliberate, pointed mistake. (Surely, we are not expected to think the rabbis didn't know how Satan was most typically spelled.)

So we might begin by asking, where is the counter-text (we find them often), which would read something like this, R. X, son of R. Y, replied, Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron. But that text is missing. We just flow right on to the next thing.

So if we want to read against the text, without inventing new midrash, here is one way we might do it: The idea that femininity is evil is based on a mistake. Isn't that actually exactly what the text tells us? The idea that the introduction of femininity into the world brought with it or somehow coincided with the arrival of Satan is fundamentally based on a mistake -- here, the silly grammatical/spelling mistake of thinking Satan starts with a samech, but a mistake, nonetheless. Put another way, thinking the introduction of femininity (or, if one wished to read more broadly and in a slightly different direction, the introduction of gender difference) is the source of evil in the world is exactly as stupid and misguided as thinking Satan begins with a samech.
The few comments that were left suggested, for example, that "R Hanina may have a reading problem as well because a samekh occurs earlier", another wondered "how much of the hatred in the world is based on a stupid mistake/misunderstanding."

I felt that I had to step in here, not to defend the honor of Chazal (well, who knows, perhaps Elul is affecting my perspective...), but because I felt that the post was guilty of being superficial in its approach to midrash:
[FH]: "Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron." blah blah blah

You obviously don't understand that interchangeable sounds (like with the samech and sin) are frequently the source of Torah exegesis. (But I wouldn't say that "davka, you're a moron", just ignorant of this fact.) R. Hirsch uses this technique time and again when discussing the meaning of 3-letter roots.

Far be from me to resort to apologetics (I am a heretic, after all), but it has been my experience that too many people take a very superficial approach to midrash and thus fail to understand the deeper meanings that are being conveyed. You are certainly free to presume that Satan=woman was the intention of the midrash, but it would be intellectually dishonest to do so without looking into how it has been understood by various meforshim.

So here is an alternative explanation: When someone succumbs to the Satan, or evil inclination, it removes them from Godliness by dragging them down to base animalistic behavior. With the creation of woman, sexual desire was also created. Sexual desire is arguably the most powerful human drive; Judaism seeks to transform that drive into an elevating force rather than a degrading one.

See how easy it is to interpret a midrash in a more positive light?
To which Lawrence King replied:
Actually, I quite expect Diane does understand this. But even if we allow that the rabbis freely confused shin and samekh, the fact remains that before Woman is created in verse 2:22, there have already occurred two samekhs (2:11 and 2:13) and dozens of shins (1:1 ff.)

So R. Hanina's argument is evidently false to any careful reader today. Could it have been otherwise to his contemporaries?
I couldn't let this one go either (by the way, note his choice of words, "freely confused"):
[FH]: Yep, another example of trivializing a midrash by assuming that "he must have made a mistake". You really think that R. Hanina - one of the most important students of R. Yehudah haNasi - or the rabbis that he discussed this with didn't know about earlier samechs? Gimmeabreak. And certainly the masoretic text had been firmly established by the 3rd century. But the samechs in 2:11 and 2:13 have nothing to do with the creation of man. The Zohar explains that 2:21 is the first instance of a samech relating to the creation of woman and then uses this to make a theological statement. The Zohar, however, makes a different point: it says that man was an imperfect being until the creation of Eve and that this is indicated by the absence of the letter Samech - which denotes "help" - until this passage.
At this point I lost interest in continuing the thread. Besides, I didn't want this post to grow too long.

I'm not an expert on midrash, nor do I play one on TV. But I learned long ago that aggadic statements cannot be trivialized as if they were nothing more than naive fairy tales. Much deep meaning is often encoded in the statements and stories of Chazal (I highly recommend The Juggler and the King: An Elaboration of the Vilna Gaon's Insights Into the Hidden Wisdom of the Sages )

Yes, I do feel that much of what Chazal believed, and the way in which they expressed such beliefs, were often deeply affected by the cultural milieu in which they lived. And I certainly have many issues and concerns regarding the role of woman as perpetuated by traditional Judaism. But I don't automatically take any statement made by a gemara or a midrash in a negative light if it is possible to interpret it otherwise. (Sorry, I couldn't interpret the Sifrei otherwise in my post Women - Don't Speak Unless Spoken To!)

The bottom-line is that if one wants to view Chazal as being misogynous old-farts who couldn't even read the Torah properly, well then there is nothing I can say to convince such a person otherwise.