Friday, March 28, 2008

Three Approaches to Bible Scholarship

I am far from an expert in Biblical scholarship, but my readings suggest that there are three primary approaches that are taken when studying Bible as an academic discipline.

The first approach attempts to reconcile the Bible with archeology, philology, anthropology...(feel free to add to the ellipsis). When archeology was in its infancy in the 19th century, its raison d'etre was to prove the veracity of Biblical stories. So Woolley's excavations at Ur proved the truth of the Mabul, Egyptian archaeological chronology affirmed (or more accurately was made to fit into) a literal Biblical chronology, destroyed remnants at the site of Jericho must have been the wall that came a tumblin' down during the conquest of Joshua.

Then you have those that attempt to tear down the claims of the Bible by using the same disciplines. Many of the early Bible critics were anti-Semites who deemed it desirable to take away the uniquely Jewish claim to a God-given Torah. Julius Wellhausen was a card-carrying member of this group and it seems obvious that he had such an ulterior motive in his formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis.

Finally you have folks that take a truly scientific approach and try to look at the evidence objectively and through the lens of a continually improving body of knowledge in all of the relevant hard and soft sciences (including scientific disciplines that weren't even around 10 years ago, much less 100, such as studies of mtDNA variations.)

It is important to note that one's motivations says nothing about the veracity of one's claims. But while people in all three camps like to profess objectivity in supporting their respective claims - it is clear that only the third group demands of itself constant and expert scrutiny of its assertions and requires one to adopt the most reasonable explanation based on all of the available evidence.

I would put James Kugle - see How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now - and Mark Zvi Brettler - see How to Read the Jewish Bible - into the third camp. While the frum velt may question Kugel's right to call himself "Orthodox", it is clear that he has looked at more evidence than the vast majority of people ever will, and as a result has presented many well-reasoned challenges to fundamental theological principles of Judaism. It is no longer sufficient to deny the claims of Biblical Criticism just because "that anti-Semite Wellhausen" was its primary progenitor (note that I am not making any particular DH claim here.) One must be able to challenge the sheer weight of evidence that supports a composite and fallible document, and not merely challenge Bible Criticism on a point here and a point there.

Unfortunately, there are too many barriers for most Torah Jews to be dispassionate in such matters since the threat of the abandonment of one's faith is usually seen as the ultimate outcome when fundamental beliefs are challenged, although Kugel and Brettler obviously disagree with this as a necessary consequence. The emotional anguish in disconnecting from one's community, the stigma of being considered an "outsider", the resultant familial discord, and the sheer existential trauma in the realization that one's Weltanschauung is a precarious foothold on the edge of a crumbling cliff, any one of these will allow cognitive dissonance to win out. Not only do such individuals faithfully resist all attempts at objectivity but at the same time they are often the most vociferous in their denial of doing so. The "Aish Hatorah/Arachim/Proofs of Torah" crowd exemplifies such a mentality.

Some will claim that Kugel and his ilk are guilty of dissonance as well, suggesting that they cannot fully reconcile the implications of their academic studies which should necessarily result in their taking the final leap of abandoning Orthodoxy altogether. The accusations will go so far as to assert that such individuals are no more rational than those who deny critical thought altogether. The mistake in such an assertion is that it conflates the Search for Truth and the Search for Meaning (which is also why I only criticize a fundamentalist theology - as promulgated by organizations like Aish Hatorah - for its claim to truth, not for its claim to meaning.) And the latter does not inevitably and deterministically derive from the claims of the former.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

We Would Do The Same Thing

1) Seyed Mehdi Kazemi's appeal for asylum by Dutch authorities has been turned down. Mehdi is a 19 year old gay Iranian, who was 'outed' in Iran when a friend revealed his relationship with Mehdi to the authorities. The friend was subsequently hung on sodomy charges... He faces a possible death sentence in Iran for being a homosexual... Mehdi will be sent back to the United Kingdom. It is likely the Home Office will deport him to Iran. Reference here.

Under Sharia law, the death penalty for homosexuality (defined as "lavat") is being enclosed in a bag and then being thrown into the ravine at the top of a cliff.

Under a Jewish theocracy, we would do the same thing. Vayikra 20:13. The only difference is that the condemned isn't put into a bag before he is flung over the cliff as this could possibly cushion his fall too much and cause him undue pain!

2) Afghanistan is home to numerous invaluable global cultural heritages, mainly Buddhist statues, including two huge stone statues of Buddha (55 meters and 38 meters) believed to have been built between 4th and 6th century AD and located in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. On 26 February 2001, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict to destroy all ancient statues in Afghanistan, including Buddhist stone cave carvings, stating that they represented idolatry, which is forbidden by Islam. Reference here.

Under a Jewish theocracy, we would do the same thing. Bamidbar 33:52. (Although you might have a few rabbonim say that Buddhism isn't avodah zarah, or alternatively try and get some Buddhists to "mevatel" the idols!)

3) There are over 100 persons in Pakistani jails accused of blasphemy, and either awaiting trial or under sentence of death. Most are Muslims, although a few are from minorities such as Ahmadis and Christians. Reference here.

Under a Jewish theocracy, we would do the same thing. Vayikra 24:10. (But it must be recognized that under Jewish law, the penalty for blasphemy is restricted to blaspheming God. Under Sharia law, blasphemy against Mohamed is included.)

4) Two Iranian sisters convicted of adultery face being stoned to death after the supreme court upheld the death sentences against them, the Etemad newspaper reported. The two sisters were found guilty of adultery – a capital crime in Islamic Iran – after the husband of one of the pair presented video evidence showing them in the company of other men while he was away. Reference here.

Under a Jewish theocracy, we would do the same thing. Vayikra 20:10, Devarim 22:22. (Hmmm, I wonder if video evidence would count for the Sota procedure?)

5) A man could be sentenced to death after being charged with converting from Islam to Christianity, a crime under Afghanistan's sharia laws, a judge said yesterday.
Reference here.

Under a Jewish theocracy, we would do the same thing. While it is a well-known machloket as to the status of Christianity vis a vis avodah zarah, I believe most hold that it indeed is considered avodah zarah for a Jew.

Except for some fundamentalist Moslems, I think it fair to say that most folks - including frum yidden - are deeply disturbed by these accounts. We like to say how barbaric Sharia law is but never stop to think how close it is to Jewish law! In capital cases there are, indeed, major differences that restrict the imposition of the death penalty, although a king may have someone executed even without proper warning or witnesses (see Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 3:10). Nevertheless, all of these penalties are still "on the books" and theoretically will be re-instituted if a Jewish theocratic monarchy is re-established. Even if not, we are a malkos happy nation, so I can see the whip being used for not only lavs, but for all kinds of violations of rabbinic enactments, reading of banned books, not wearing an approved sheitel - the sky's the limit!

For most of this, this problem is moot simply because we don't have to deal with it on any practical level. Many take the easy way out and say "I'm not going to worry about it. It'll all be figured out when Moshiach comes". But I find this a profoundly disturbing issue and am not satisfied with such a glib answer. So is there any way out of this dilemma for someone who simply cannot square the strict standards of Torah law with one's own - and I would argue more evolved - ethical standards?

I'll follow up later with my own thoughts but would first like to hear yours!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Last Words on Purim (for this year, at least. Maybe.)

The scholars have weighed in and overwhelmingly agree that the Megillat Esther story is largely fictional. But although consensus is that it cannot be treated as an accurate historical account, this is not to say that there is absolutely no historical basis to any of the events therein.

I'm going to leave the scholars behind now, and mention one section that never felt quite right to me. And Haman recounted unto Zeresh his wife and all his friends every thing that had befallen him. Then said his wise men and Zeresh his wife unto him: 'If Mordechai, before whom thou hast begun to fall, be of the seed of the Jews, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely fall before him.' (Esther 6:13.)

Let's assume for the moment that the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah wrote Megillat Esther with nevuah (see Baba Batra 15A; alternatively the writing of it is sometimes attributed to Mordechai with the Great Assembly giving it canonical status) and was therefore privy to this private conversation that was held in Haman's house. Does the conversation itself sound at all authentic? That a group of rabid anti-Semites whose mission it was to completely destroy the Jews agreed that one could not prevail against them? Furthermore, the literal reading suggests that somehow they weren't even certain that Mordechai was Jewish!

I'm sorry, the whole thing sounds phony and more like a self-aggrandizing statement that a Jew would write about his own nation, and not something that a Jew-hater would say.

Nevertheless, there is one intriguing notion that solves this, and a number of other, problems in the Megillat Esther (although, admittedly, it creates other problems.) And that is that Mordechai was a court insider currently out of favor with the king. If we look at the Megillah as a complex political interplay, then much more of it makes sense.

Mordechai is listed in Ezra 2:2 as one of the leaders that went back to Eretz Yisrael during the first wave under Cyrus, so even without Talmudic and Midrashic accounts it is likely that he held a high status even in Persia. We know that the Persian empire was tolerant of the diverse cultures of conquered nations (exemplified by the original decree of Cyrus allowing the rebuilding of the Temple and the return of the Jews to Israel) and it is quite possible that Mordechai - even before his elevation (Esther 8:2 and following) - held a politically powerful position in the court of Ahashuerus.

How did Mordechai hear about the Bigthan and Teresh assassination plot? Just as a casual bystander overhearing a private conversation? Or was he privy to inside information? Why was Haman so incensed that Mordechai didn't bow down to him? Because Mordechai was previously in favor with the king and Haman saw him as a threat to his own political aspirations! Why did Haman want to destroy the Jews? Because Mordechai still had sympathizers and it would have been easier - in a perverse way - to have him be just one more of the victims of the genocide rather than attempting to have him killed in a more direct manner. And perhaps there were even Jewish sympathizers among Haman's wise men and that verse 6:13 was both stated by one of them and later recounted to Mordechai (although this certainly doesn't explain why the pasuk implies that Zeresh also was included among those who made the statement).

Next time you read Megillat Esther, read it with this theory in mind. I've only touched upon a few points, but there are numerous other details in the Purim story that can be explained by this idea.

(See also The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther in which a somewhat similar notion in mentioned on pages 29ff. I haven't read much of the book and therefore cannot recommend it outright, much of it is available for free on Google Books.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Ahistorical Nature of Megillat Esther

My previous post "10,000 Talents" made the claim that the author of Megillat Esther used hyperbole in claiming that Hamen offered 10,000 talents of silver to Ahashuerus as advance payment for destroying the Jewish people of Persia. Subsequently I came across Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther by Michael V. Fox originally written back in 1991 (a 2nd edition was published in 2001). Fox is a professor of Hebrew Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and this critical literary analysis of Megillat Esther is both insightful and very readable.

Fox includes a chapter on the historicity and dating of Esther. And his conclusion is that there is no doubt that the book is "certainly a fictional creation with strongly legendary features." He provides a number of strong arguments against the books accurate portrayal of events including:

  • "There was no principle forbidding the Persians to change their laws; that notion is found nowhere but in Esther and Daniel. It would be impossible to run a government by such a principle." Refer, for example, to 1:15 and 8:8 which suggest that even the king may not reverse his own decree.

  • We know that the queen of Persia had to come from one of seven noble families (the practice is reported by Herodotus). But the Megillah has Xerxes marrying an obscure maiden of unknown ancestry.

  • There were only 20 to 31 satraps (provinces) in the Persian empire, not 127.

  • The deaths of thousands throughout the empire (500 were supposedly killed in Shushan alone - 9:6) would have left an imprint in the historical record. Fox mentions in a footnote that an argument from silence is valid when an event of such magnitude would be expected to leave an impression on other sources and that Greek fascination with Oriental culture would certainly have mentioned such an upheaval. [Addendum to post: chapter 8 mentions approximately 80000 people being killed. The estimated world population in 400 BCE was about 162 Million. Proportional to today's population, that's the equivalent of 3.2 Million deaths!]
These are only a few of the pieces of evidence arguing for ahistoricity. And what about the arguments on the other side? Very few - mostly that the author of the Megillah had a knowledge of some Persian words and names (most of which cannot be verified). Fox covers these arguments and mostly demolishes them.

Now some folks will argue with the historical record and claim that the critics are giving credence to one source (e.g., Herodotus) while distrusting another (Megillat Esther). "Hey, it's Herodotus against our mesorah and I'll go with the mesorah any time!" There is a major flaw with such an argument. Megillat Esther is the only source for the story therein, while there are numerous historical records (Greek, Babylonian, Persian) that testify to the legendary nature of the Megillah. A similar argument can be made regarding the Book of Daniel, Seder Olam, etc., concerning - for example - the succession of Persian kings. There are thousands of contemporaneous documents that not only agree with each other but can also be also correlated astronomical phenomena (lunar and solar eclipses, conjunctions, etc.). And that demands one logical conclusion - traditional Jewish history is not an accurate one.

So where does that leave us with Megillat Esther and Purim? What are we really celebrating here? Once again, I'll quote Fox who writes more cogently than I can at this late hour: "Although I doubt the historicity of the Esther story, and as a critical reader I must make that clear, every year at Purim when I hear the Scroll read in the synagogue, I know that it is true, whatever the historical accuracy of its details. Almost without an effort of imagination, I feel something of the anxiety that seized the Jews of Persia upon learing of Haman's threat to their lives, and I join in their exhilaration at their deliverance. Except that I do not think 'their', by 'my'". [a description of the anti-semitic horrors of the 20th century follows].

Megillah Esther is ahistorical, but it is nonetheless our story.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

10,000 Talents of Silver

"And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.

If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king's business, to bring it into the king's treasuries.'" Esther 3:8-9

How did Hamen come up with a number like 10,000 talents of silver?

I once hear from a Rav an interesting explanation based on a Tosfos (Megillah 17a). Hamen reasoned that as a nation, B'nei Yisrael can be evaluated according to the 1/2 shekel each adult (male) was to contribute to the upkeep of the mishkan. If 600,000 is considered the prototypical Jewish nation, it can be valued at 600,000 x 1/2 shekel or 300,000 shekalim. This is equivalent to 100 talents (3000 shekalim per talent). However, note that Haman described the nation as "scattered abroad and dispersed". He is claiming that there is no unity in this nation. Therefore, we have to evaluate them as individuals, not as a unified nation. And that we do according to the laws of erechin (see Vayikra 27:2), in which each adult male is valued at 50 shekalim. And 600,000 x 50 shekalim equals 10,000 talents!

It's really a great vort. Unfortunately, however, there are too many problems when you start to examine it more than superficially.

First, let's look at the sheer magnitude of 10,000 talents of silver. According to Wikipedia (R. Adin Steinsaltz concurs) the weight of a kikar (it is both a weight and a monetary measure) is approximately 27 kilograms. 10,000 kikkarim would weight 270,000 kilos, or almost 60,000 pounds! We're talking 30 TONS OF SILVER here, folks, an enormous amount! But how does that work out according to the value of the time?

It is commonly believe that Ahasuerus was Artaxerxes II, who reigned in Persia from approximately 404 BCE-358 BCE. This is close enough to the time of the Peloponnesian War in which it is described (again, thanks Wikipedia!) "that a talent was the amount of silver needed to pay the crew of a trireme for one month. Hellenistic mercenaries were commonly paid one drachma for every day of service, which was a good salary in the post-Alexander (III) days and years. 6,000 drachma made a talent. Based on this fact, assuming a crew of roughly 200 rowers paid at the basic pay rate of a junior enlisted member of the US armed forces (E-2), a talent would be worth nearly $300,000." So 10,000 talents would be the equivalent of $3 BILLION!!! Now I don't care how stinking rich Hamen was, $3 billion is a little over the top, don't you think?

Of course, the whole drasha suggests that Hamen learned! That he knew about laws such as erechin and the chatzi shekel, and therefore came up with this quite clever cheshbon. And if he is evaluating the Jews according to erechin - as individuals - then why would he use the 600,000 number? This only includes males from 20-60. What about all of the females, and what about the males below 20 and over 60, each category of which is evaluated differently? Why would he even care about how many adult males supposedly came out of Egypt and not about how many were in the lands that Artaxerxes controlled? Did he learn Kaballah and know about 600,000 root souls?

The most logical conclusion is that Megillat Esther is engaging in hyperbole when it says 10,000 talents. I believe that the number is being used to convey a theological lesson (possibly the writer of Esther himself thought that it would made for a nice vort!) and was never intended to be considered as historically accurate, like most of Tanach.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

God is the Plaster that Fills the Cracks in my Soul

Yeah, DovBear, Harry Maryles, and others have previously pointed out those Kupat Ha'ir mailings that promise all kinds of wonderful benefits that will accrue in this world to those who donate to their organization. But did you know that by donating to Kupat Aniyei Eretz Yisrael (Vaad Harabanim) you can cure the cracks in your wall? It's true! Just read the following testimonial:

"After investing $1 Million in a luxury villa, I celebrated with a large chanukat habayit. Within weeks I saw unsightly cracks in one wall. I quickly called down a handyman to plaster it, but all for naught. The cracks kept returning & expanding upwards, covering almost the entire wall. Then I chanced upon a bracha from the holy Tazddik, Rabbi David Abuchatzerha that promised good fortune to those who donate to Vaad HaRabbanim. I promised 18,000 shekel. Within days I found a wonderful contractor who showed me that the underlying problem was that the wall was sinking in. He fixed it while barely charging the minimum. It's been a year now and the wall still looks as good as new!"

Here's another amusing one (not that I am trivializing the heartbreak of eczema, chas v'shalom!)

"Our child was born with severe eczema that covered his body" [what follows is a description of the boy's chronic problems and the futility of treating him]. "The Vaad's Purim brochure arrived in the mail and we pledged a considerable sum. The next morning my wife met an acquaintance who after noticing our sons horrible appearance, asked what was wrong with him. When my wife explained, she said that a new medicine just arrive from N.Y. With the help of this remedy, our son is totally healed. Our personal Purim miracle!"

Of course, the brochure also has the standard miracles of helping someone find a job, or of giving birth to a healthy baby after having previously lost two others. But for those who don't have such heavy burdens it's good to know that Hashem is also involved with lesser matters and personally gets involved with home repair and acne medicine.

Normally I would have tossed the brochure into the trash as I don't respond well to segulot and the implicit promise of reward. But I felt strangely compelled to watch the movie that was on the included CD. And frankly, I was moved by some of the stories helped by the organization, and was impressed by the apparently extensive oversight that goes into Kupat Aniyei Eretz Yisrael. So in spite of the offense that I took regarding their mailing, I'm sending them a check today. (Of course, I couldn't find anything about them on the standard charity watcher websites, such as Guidestar or Charity Navigator, but I'll take a chance that my modest contribution won't be wasted.)

In any event, I'll let you know if any personal miracle happens to me as a result.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Righteous Atheist

Jan Zabinski was the director of the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Nazi invasion of Poland, he and his wife, Antonina, sheltered 300 Jews - as well as members of the Polish resistance - in their villa and in animal cages. (With a handful of exceptions, every one survived the war.) Their heroic - and heretofore not well-known - story is told by Diane Ackerman in The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story.

At a time where sheltering a Jew would mean a certain death sentence for one's entire family, the Zabinskis showed extraordinary courage for the risks they took on a daily basis. One is amazed at the cleverness (and chutzpah!) of Jan in the ways in which he was able to smuggle food into the Warsaw Ghetto and Jews out of the Ghetto. And it wasn't enough that they fed and sheltered their "guests" and assisted them in escaping Poland. The Zabinskis also felt that it was important that those that they sheltered have as much a sense of normalcy as was possible during the horrors of the Nazi era. To that end, they would hold an occasional piano concert, or would encourage socializing after dinner.

“I had a moral indebtedness to the Jews”, Jan once told a reporter. “My father was a staunch atheist, and because of that, in 1905, he enrolled me in the Kretshmort School, which at that time was the only school in Warsaw where the study of Christian religion wasn't required, even though my mother was very opposed to it because she was a devout Catholic. Eighty percent of the students were Jews, and there I developed friendships with people who went on to distinguish themselves in science and art. . . . After graduating high school, I began teaching in the Roziker School”, also predominantly Jewish. As a result, he made intimate friendships among the Jewish intelligentsia, and many school chums lived behind Ghetto walls. Although Jan didn't say much publicly about his father, he told a journalist that he'd chosen zoology “to spite my father, who didn't like or appreciate animals, and didn't allow them in the house other than moths and flies, who entered without his permission!”

They had more in common when it came to the loyalty shown Jewish friends:

“My father and I both grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. He was a lawyer, and even though he married into a very wealthy family - the daughter of a landowner - he rose to bourgeois status on his own. It was just by chance that we happened to grow up in this poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw. From childhood my father used to play with Jewish children in the streets, treating Jews as equals. And I was influenced by him.”

I found this statement one of the most powerful of the entire book: “Jan discovered that being an atheist didn't shield him from a robust sense of fate and his own personal destiny." (p 114).
(Note that not only was Zabinski an atheist, but he had a mesorah (tradition) of atheism from his father!)

Occasionally the claim is made that atheists cannot operate from a fundamentally moral orientation. One Jewish blogger in particular claims that atheists are “irrational, selfish and self-indulgent” and that they are usually “moral degenerates”. Jan Zabinski gives lie to such moronic drivel. He was motivated neither by fear of punishment in the next world nor by hope for any reward. In his words, “We did it because it was the right thing to do”. If there is an ultimate cheshbon (accounting), he will certainly be judged as one of the truly righteous of the world.