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.)