Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sheep Worship in Ancient Egypt

Apropos to the upcoming Pesach holiday, a recent guest post on DovBear asked the question "why was a sheep chosen for the Passover sacrifice?" I wanted to explore a bit some relevant passages in the Torah, not to answer this question per se (and thus I will not be discussing the important passages in Ex. 8:22 and Ex. 12 - especially 12:46 with regards to the prohibition to break the bones of the pascal lamb) but to look at some of the descriptions and commentaries related to sheep worship and shepherding in Egypt.

Rashi explains in the Joseph story as to why Egyptians found it distasteful to eat with Hebrews:
And Joseph made haste for his compassion towards his brothers had been stirred and he wanted to weep; so he entered his chamber, and wept there. And he washed his face, and came out; and he restrained himself, and said: 'Set out bread.' And they set for him by himself, and for them by themselves, for the Egyptians could not bear to eat bread with the Hebrews; for it is an abomination to the Egyptians. (Gen. 43:30-32).
Rashi comments only that Onkelos gives a reason for this behavior. The Artscroll Sapirstein mentions that there are two variants of Onkelos; one of which renders the targum as "For the animal that the Egyptians worship the Hebrews eat". There are two major problems with this interpretation. First, it is not implied by the text at all. The plain rendering is simply that the Egyptians found it offensive to eat with Hebrews (Hertz takes this approach here). Such behavior would be typical of any xenophobic culture, and for millennia the people of Egypt believed themselves to be far superior to all of the surrounding nations.

The second problem is that the Egyptians themselves ate meat of animals that they worshiped (although saying that they actually worshiped animals is an oversimplification. It is more accurate to say that animals were symbolic of universal cosmic principles and manifestations of gods, rather than being worshiped as gods in their own right.) Although meat was a delicacy in ancient Egypt and was mostly eaten by nobility, even the common people would feast on domesticated animals - such as sheep and goat - during festivals. Even pork - associated with the malevolent god Set - was eaten (the Jews in Goshen would have been well aware of this, for pig was widely consumed in Lower Egypt during the New Kingdom.) Probably the most well-known animal used by the Ancient Egyptians in religious ceremony was the Apis Bull, yet the upper classes would eat cattle meat as well.

The first passage that explicitly indicates that the Egyptians had a particular abhorrence towards shepherds is found in chapter 46 after Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. He tells them that he will make especial mention of their occupation as shepherds:
And Joseph said to his brothers, and to his father's household: I will go up, and tell Pharaoh, and will say to him: 'My brothers and my father's household who were in the land of Canaan have come to me; and the men are shepherds, for they have been keepers of cattle; and they have brought their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have.' (46:31-32)
Joseph then coaches them with instructions to tell Pharaoh a similar story when they are summoned before him:
And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: 'What is your occupation?' then you will say 'Your servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our forefathers'; so that you may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians. (46:33-34)
There are some discrepancies between the two passages, notably the omission of the mentioning of flocks of sheep. (But more interestingly, and as an aside, note the use of "father's household" in 46:31; there were obviously other family members present besides the brothers to whom Joseph was speaking!)

Rashi now explains that shepherds are an abomination to Egyptians because sheep are a deity to them. (Why he only hinted at this earlier by referencing Onkelos I don't know.) The Sapirstein edition notes that either "abomination" is a euphemism for "pagan deity" per the Zohar, or because shepherds are considered abominable because they lack respect for the sheep, a pagan god of the Egyptians.

Returning to the text, Joseph then tells Pharaoh:
Then Joseph went in and told Pharaoh, and said: 'My father and my brothers, and their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have, have come out of the land of Canaan; and, behold, they are in the land of Goshen.' (47:1)
Joseph presents five of the brothers to Pharaoh who asks them what their occupation is. They respond:
Your servants are shepherds [of sheep], both we, and our forefathers. And they said to Pharaoh: 'We have come to sojourn in the land since there is no pasture for your servants' flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. Now therefore, we pray thee, allow your servants to dwell in the land of Goshen.' (47:3-4)
To which Pharaoh responds:
And Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, saying: 'Your father and your brothers have come to you; the land of Egypt is before you - in the best of the land settle your father and your brothers; in the land of Goshen let them settle. And if you know any able men among them, then make them rulers over my livestock.' (47:5-6)
Again we have a discrepancy with the implication that shepherding was an objectionable livelihood to the Egyptians. Pharaoh obviously considered this a critical enough occupation to make mention of his need for skilled sheepherders to Joseph! Many people kept sheep in Egypt, but this would have been on very small-scale since appropriate pasture land was scarce (thus the scarcity of sheepherders and the particular attraction of Goshen for the Jews.)

An additional problem with the biblical insistence on an abhorrence towards shepherds is the fact that Osiris, god of the underworld and primary deity for much of ancient Egyptian history, is often depicted carry a shepherd's crook. The linking of Pharaoh with Osiris meant that he, too, would carry a crook as a symbol of his office, as it "symbolizes his role as the shepherd of his people." (wiki). The crook was thus one of the most important items associated with Pharaoh, often used during coronation and other ceremonial occasions. (Indeed, I probably don't even need to link to a picture of King Tut's sarcophagus as the image of his golden coffin with crook and flail is likely indelibly inscribed in your memory! But here it is anyway.)

To explain the supposed dislike for shepherds, one (religious) online commentary states that perhaps this "is a consequence of the Hyksos oppression, in which case these references in Genesis would be powerful arguments for a late date for the time of the Exodus". The writer is referring to the common translation of Hyksos as "shepherd kings". (Interestingly, Hertz uses the same translation - typical of this time period - but he also assumes that the Hyksos were in power at this time and that they "inherited" the dislike of shepherds from the Egyptians.) But this is a misnomer and indeed much of the "proof" for the Torah's claim is based on a mistranslation! "The Jewish historian, Josephus, in his Contra Apionem, claims that Manetho was the first to use the Greek term, Hyksos, incorrectly translated as "shepherd-kings". Contemporary Egyptians during the Hyksos invasion designated them as hikau khausut, which meant "rulers of foreign countries", a term that originally only referred to the ruling caste of the invaders." Source.

There are many indications that the "Israel in Egypt" stories accurately describe some details of Egyptian life and culture and likely reflect a first-person experience there (as Kenneth Kitchen, James Hoffmeier, and others loudly proclaim). Certainly any multi-source document theory regarding the Torah's origins must admit to this. A trivial (but admittedly weak) example is that the author(s) of the Torah apparently knew about a "sheep god". Quite possibly this recalls Amun, one of the most important deities of ancient Egypt. Amun took on many forms, and as god of Thebes he was depicted as ram-headed. His worshipers sacrificed a ram once a year at which time its fleece would be used as clothing for a ram-headed idol. Another Egyptian ram-headed god was Banebdjed, associated with Osiris (see above), who wore a crown with ram's horns.

Yet it does seem that there is some confused narrative as well, as witnessed by the descriptions of the Egyptian attitudes towards shepherds and the implied abhorrence towards eating meat from animals that worshiped. Perhaps one could make the argument that there was a different set of rules for foreigners regarding the latter, but I have never seen such a reference in any other historical document. Someone with greater knowledge in ancient Egyptian culture and/or archaeology is welcome to convince me otherwise.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Limits of Rational Orthodox Theology?

Rabbi Natan Slifkin has started a new blog, Rationalist Judaism. He's already faced considerable opposition from the OrthoFundie crowd, and I expect that he will eventually encounter an onslaught of challenges from the SkeptiYid world as well. It will be quite interesting to see how far he can take rationalism and still remain firmly entrenched in the Doxic world.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Resurrection According to Bizarro

Is Dan Piraro a closet Lubavitcher? Apparently he holds according to the opinion of the AriZal that the resurrection of the dead is the final state of perfection (after the Messianic Era.) Thus we see his depiction of a tzaddik in the World of Souls getting his body parts back in preparation for Olam HaBah (Olam HaTechiyah.)

Speaking of which, don't you just love people trying to sound intelligent regarding the logistics of techiyas hameisim? Witness these reader comments (scroll to the bottom) where folks attempt to understand what happens during resurrection if a man or woman had been married more than once.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Christian Man's Evolution or God the Abortionist

Francisco J. Ayala is an esteemed geneticist and evolutionary biologist who teaches at University of California. He's also ordained as a Dominican priest and has been proselytizing about evolution to Christian believers for the past 30 years. Ayala is dismayed that "despite outreach efforts by scientists and constitutional rulings against them, creationists and intelligent design advocates are not getting weaker. If anything, they’re more visible."

A common assertion by both OrthoFundies and Uber-Skeptics is that one must choose between Darwin or God. How many have lost their faith because of this false dilemma?
Ayala thinks that scientists who attack religion and ridicule the faithful — most notably, Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford — are making a mistake. It is destructive and gives fodder to the preachers who insist followers must choose either Darwin or God. Often students in Ayala’s introductory biology class tell him that they will answer test questions as he wishes, but in truth they reject evolution because of their Christian beliefs. Then, a couple of years later, when they have learned more science, they decide to abandon their religion. The two, students seem to think, are incompatible.
One suggestion of Ayala's that I find particular fascinating is how Darwin solved the problem of evil in the world by introducing the concept of (undirected) natural selection!
Ayala... would like believers to reconcile their faith with science. Drawing on five years of study in preparation for ordination as a Dominican priest, Ayala uses evolution to help answer a central paradox of Christianity — namely, how can a loving, all-knowing God allow evil and suffering?

Nature is poorly designed—with oddities such as blind spots built into the human eye and an excess of teeth jammed into our jaws. Parasites are sadists. Predators are cruel. Natural selection can explain the ruthlessness of nature, Ayala argues, and remove the "evil" — requiring an intentional act of free will — from the living world. "Darwin solved the problem," Ayala concludes. He refers to science-savvy Christian theologians who present a God that is continuously engaged in the creative process through undirected natural selection. By addressing religious people on their own terms, Ayala aims to offer a better answer than intelligent design or creationism.
I took some liberties with the title (the original is called "The Christian Man's Evolution: How Darwinism and Faith Can Coexist") based on one of Ayala's favorite shock tactics:
One out of five pregnancies ends in spontaneous miscarriage, he often reminds audiences. Next he will pointedly ask, as in an interview with U.S. Catholic magazine last year, "If God explicitly designed the human reproductive system, is God the biggest abortionist of them all?" Through such examples, he explains, "I want to turn around their arguments."
The full article from the October 2008 issue of Scientific American (written by Sally Lehrman) can be found here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

An OU Pesach Leniency

Is the OU moving towards the dark-side?

Well, no, not really. But check out their 2009 Guide to Passover in which they state:
To kasher a dishwasher, one should wait twenty four hours, make sure that the dishwasher is clean, and then run two cycles. If the dishwasher is plastic, there is a debate as to whether one may kasher it, and an Orthodox rabbi should be consulted.
Not only do they state that there are opinions that plastic can be kashered, but there is no mention of any problem with the racks, which are often rubber-coated metal.

I couldn't find last year's OU guide, but here is a 2007 link to an OU-affiliated shul which references oupassover.org and which clearly states "Dishwashers may not be kashered for Pesach".

This is similar to the Star-K's opinion, which states "One may not kasher a dishwasher from treif to kosher, from chometz to Pesach, from meat to milk or from milk to meat. This is true even if the interior is stainless steel, since all the hoses, fittings, pumps, etc. cannot be kashered."

Chicago's CRC similarly holds - based on a Rema - that dishwashers cannot be kashered, classifying them with sieves and other utensils that cannot be made perfectly clean before kashering.

Sephardim are generally more lenient in their approach to this issue. For example, "Gateway to Halacha" states that one simply needs to "clean away any tangible Chametz and run through one cycle empty. Some recommend replacing the racks for Pesah."

The most lenient opinion from a respected posek is that of Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi who states: "Any dishwasher can be used for dairy and then immediately afterwards for meat & vice-versa. And the same goes for Passover and non-Passover uses one after the next."

(BTW, if you are unacquainted with kashrut.org, browse through some of answers R. Abadi has given to various questions on kashrut - you will be quite surprised! Unfortunately, halachic sources are not included in the vast majority of answers, although one interesting post left by Marc Shapiro provides some sources for an important shitah of R. Abadi: that one can rely on intentional bitul by a non-Jew and basically just read the ingredients of a product to determine its kosher status!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The 70 Most Difficult Questions (and some stupid answers)

Listening to MP3 lectures has mostly supplanted my music and NPR listening while driving. So I'm constantly on the lookout for interesting podcasts from a whole gamut of topics, but with a focus on religion and science (quick plug for Radio Lab.) A particularly interesting lecture is usually fodder for a blog post (The Fast of the 9th of Tevet), but so is a particularly awful one (God is a Mafia Boss!). Now I don't go looking for the bad ones just so that I can trash it here, but occasionally I come across such supremely atrocious lectures that I simply need to vent! And so, I bring you The 70 Most Difficult Questions in Judaism, which should be more appropriately titled Stupid Answers to Questions That Aren't So Difficult. This lecture series is really ripe for fisking, but I'll be somewhat spare with the comments and briefly cover the few that I listened to. Truth be told, I couldn't actually listen to the majority of each lecture in the car, because I had a hard time simultaneously driving and screaming like an insane person at the voice coming from my car speakers. But my sanity was preserved by listening at home after loading them into Audacity and increasing the tempo to reduce the total playing time.

Puretorah.com seems to feel that one can prove the truth of Torah. In that it is a kindred spirit with kiruv organizations such as Aish HaTorah, both of whom rely on bogus proofs such as Torah codes. If they were intellectually honest, they would admit that codes are useless for their purposes because 1) Torah codes can be used to "prove" ideas anathema to Orthodoxy, such as Jesus being the fulfillment of the Jewish messiah (examples abound, such as here) and 2) similar codes are found in secular literature.

Here are a few of the outlandish statements made by Rabbi Eliyahu Kin (a Young Earth Creationist) in the lecture, Did dinosaurs ever exist and what happened to them? link

"You will have to face those that attempt to attack Judaism from different angles. One angle is... the age of the Earth, the millions of years according to scientists, and they say so based on all sorts of theories, nothing concrete, no real proof".

(Note especially his sneering tone almost every time he uses the words "theories", even though he obviously hasn't a clue as to what the word actually means.)

"Science only reinforces what the Torah says, as long as we're dealing with real facts, facts that can be proven, sound information, that which has been proven beyond any doubt. That which is still theory, or is just an opinion, of course is not worth anything".

"The most accurate method of measuring the age of the earth is Carbon-14 dating, and that also has a limitation of about 50,000 years".

"These animals that existed once upon a time did co-exist with human beings. And I'm really hoping that one of these days they will find a human skeleton together with a dinosaur skeleton. The problem is that the die-hard scientists are gonna say that somebody in the middle of the night snuck up and buried that human skeleton next to the dinosaur."

Kin then tells us about creatures such as the shamir, the tachash, the adnei hasadeh, and the mermaid ("it's mentioned in the gemara, it's not just a myth. People have seen it off the coast of Massachusetts in the 1800s. It's not just a fairy tale."). Anyone want to send him a copy of Slifkin's Sacred Monsters?

How did the dinosaurs become extinct? Disease or over-hunting may have been contributing factors, but in Kin's humble opinion it was due to three floods (according to the midrash): one in the time of Enosh (which covered 1/3 of the Earth), one during the generation of dispersion (which covered 2/3 of the Earth), and the "Noah Mabul".

Kin has an impressive knowledge of geology: "All the scientists clearly admit that the Grand Canyon did not come about by itself... Something very very big happened to bring this about." He tells us why there are fish skeletons found up on the hills of Malibu ("that's where they landed" after the flood. "Ample proof all over that there was a Mabul".) In Genesis, there was only one continent. All of this continental drift occurred because of the Mabul. This also contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Man, oh man, I had to stop halfway through the lecture. Sorry.

Now it's time learn What Are Ufos? link

Kin tells us that the lecture is really about the paranormal. Interestingly, he begins by discussing Clarke's Third Law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") although he doesn't attribute it as such. If you were to tell someone about the telephone in the 1800s, no one would believe you - it would be magic. "So because we got used to it, we take things for granted. In those days they also were aware about certain things that existed that for us may be very unusual today because we are not used to it."

"You may heard or seen someone bending a spoon. There are all sorts of individuals that have done many incredible things. Some are true, some are tricks. It is possible to do things like that using concentration of the mind using psychokinetic abilities. Science does not want to accept any of this. Science only accepts that which can be proven in a laboratory." Later, he states that he cannot tell us where Uri Geller gets his powers from. It could be fakery, witchcraft, or a gift from God.

Astrology: "certain people from certain months of the year, that have certain elements - fire, water, air, or earth - are attracted to each other like magnets".

Palmistry: "there are those who can read the lines in the hand. The palm contains lines that are not there by accident. How could this be? Obviously, the One who created man, created these lines too. To predict what's going to happen to a baby when he's 55 years old? That takes a greater knowledge [than weather forecasting]."

Chochma haPartzuf [phrenology]: some people can "look at a person's face and forehead and be able to detect certain illness and sins. Addition proof that there is knowledge that cannot be explained in physical terms."

Let's say that a paranormal expert makes a mistake. What can you conclude? [lots of chiming in from the audience, some of whom are probably buying all of this BS]. The skeptic will say it's totally not true. But actually, it's probably because the person is not such an expert.

Lecture highlight: After about 35 minutes, he starts to talk about UFOs. We know that there isn't life on other planets (discussed in another lecture), and claims of seeing UFOs fall into three categories: 1) lies 2) sightings of non-paranormal phenomena and 3)DEMONS! Yep, that's right, there are "real" UFOs and they are actually demons! Apparently some French researchers have analyzed "the real testimony of people who have actually observed something" and have come to the same conclusion. We know that they are real demons, because demons poke fun at humans and they can change form. They appear in deserts, rural places, and at night, appear to single individuals at a time, they fly in the air, and occasionally kidnap people. Just like UFOs. Other people didn't come to this conclusion because they are either close minded or don't understand that they exist. Demons have existed in all cultures and they are not a myth.

Uh oh, can there be a skeptic in the audience (41:30)? He says "seeing is believing" in response to Kin's claims. So Kin asks what if Skeptic were to see a human with chicken feet? Skeptic replies: probably someone with a birth defect. Kin answers: that's because you weren't exposed to the stories in the gemara, the zohar, etc.

At this point I'm thinking that Rabbi Kin is not just an OrthoFundie, but that he's completely bonkers. Can I really listen to any more of his ravings? Sure, a few more minutes.

The Bermuda Triangle may be due to a magnetic force that cannot tolerate metals at some places in the ocean. Or it may be the sitra achra, since demons have certain places where they congregate, like the North Pole. The Bermuda Triangle may be another place that demons hang out.

Demons procreate amongst themselves, they eat and die, they become visible to humans when they want to be seen. One should not give shalom to just anybody at night because you might be shaking hands with a demon. Typical advice about not completely closing off an opening in one's house, and making sure that your mezuzot are in good shape.

Kin says to let him know if you need to drive away demons from your home.


Now let's do an easy for fun. How do we know that the Torah is Divine? link

Up to about 200 years ago, it was obvious that the Torah was from heaven. Everyone was more or less observant. When the Conservative and Reform movements came about, people began to have doubts and now it takes more than tradition to convince people. Those that attempt to challenge the Torah's veracity have an agenda, "just like scientists that set out to discover what they have already made up their mind what they want to believe."

Many people can trace their rabbis all the way back to Moses. Thus there were no interruptions and Torah was not changed. Those that claim that the Torah was a result of a committee need to go through all of it: the entire Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah, and they will be convinced otherwise. If one is honest and sincere, then hopefully this will be convincing enough. A person has to be very arrogant to claim that they are more knowledgeable than their parents, grandparents, the Rambam.

Proofs (I'm not going to bother here with the counters to these so-called proofs):
  1. Kuzari. Nobody else can make the claim that God spoke to 3 million people, performed miracles for them, etc. People wouldn't lie to their kids that this happened. Nor would a stubborn people make up such difficult obligations.
  2. 3 pilgrimage holidays. One can leave the wife and kids to go to Jerusalem, even in border towns, and the Torah makes a promise that no one will invade at that time. This promise was always kept.
  3. Shmittah. No human can make the promise of a bumper crop in the 6th year.
  4. Torah criticizes its own leaders. Even Moses. So that proves it is not man-made.
  5. Torah codes.
  6. Nothing in archaeology disproves the Torah. Everything they've found so far just strengthens the Torah's record. (He also references Ipuwer, claiming that it is an account of the makot.)
  7. Prophecies. (Doesn't specifically state which ones in this lecture.)
  8. Moses was not a biologist. There are only 3 animals that chew cud and don't have split hooves. (Kin acknowledges chewing cud is not technical, lagomorphy of rabbits satisfies criteria. BTW, Kin states that one can reliably eat any non-pig animal that has split-hooves, which implies that there is no need for a mesorah.)
  9. Zohar says that the world is round like a ball.
  10. Zohar says that one's appearance is affected by the climate. Kin states that if you move to China, your great grandchild will have slanty eyes. This has been proven!!!
  11. Zohar says that there is one place on earth where most of the day is light.
  12. Prophecies and codes that Jews will return to Israel at the end of days.
Sorry that there was nothing new in the proofs, but at least I've saved you the time of listening to this lecture.

And finally, How does Judaism deal with the Theory of Evolution?

I'll just mention a few highlights from this lecture.
  • To us [the idea of creation] may be simple, either because we grew up it or because we are very logical and we don't have to think of something else that doesn't make much sense.
  • "Before you know it, you have a monkey becoming a human being".
  • "Hashem did not create Adam HaRishon with slanted eyes, that I can assure you." He agrees that micro-evolution occurs within a species and repeats the idea (see above) that if you move to China, your great grandchildren will look Chinese. But if a white man moves to Africa, their descendants will look darker but will not become Black. He'll explain in another lecture how the "Black race" originated.)
  • "Does everybody know what a fossil is?" [who is his audience, anyway?]
  • Geologists determined the age of strata based on circular reasoning. They determined the age of an organism by where it was found in the rock strata. And they determined the age of the strata by what kind of organism they found there.
That's the introduction. Now for a few problems with evolution (again, only the humorous highlights.)
  1. Fossils are all over the world but we have never found the missing link between ape and man.
  2. What came first, the mouth or the stomach or the rectum? They had to have been created together.
  3. No primitive cell can become through mutation so complex as a human being. It is statistically impossible. Evolutionists say that given enough time, anything is possible and it's only a problem for creationists because believe in a young earth. "They have the answer for almost everything".
  4. Ask an evolutionist where the first cell came from. No one has an answer for this. "If that you don't know that, then why don't you just say you don't know anything about everything else.
  5. Some evolutionists have admitted that it is impossible to explain the complexity of the human being without introducing a divine entity.
  6. All the fossils that have been found are fragments and you can't prove anything about it. Plus there are sometimes hoaxes.
  7. Sometimes they find human fossils with dinosaurs (contradicting his dinosaurs lecture above), sometimes below dinosaurs. But they are hiding this information from you because they don't want you to know the truth. So when they found human footprints next to a dinosaur in a river bed in Texas, you know what they said? That someone came in the middle of the night and chiseled the human footprint. Why? Because they have already made up their mind that it can't be.
  8. People believe in evolution only because they don't want to believe in the alternative. Kin then goes off on a tangent to discuss the psychology of atheists follows. People become atheists only because they want to follow their desires. Nobody leaves religion because they investigated it and found it not to be true. Anybody who investigates religion will become a baal teshuvah.
[Note: the lecture is corrupted because it unexpectedly ends there and then repeats the beginning 15 minutes of the lecture.]

One quick question before I go: What would you say about someone who takes a strict literalist approach to not only the Bible but to apparently every supernatural story told in the Talmud and Kabbalah, who believes that UFOs are really demons, who believes in everything from mermaids to spoon-bending to palmistry, and who has an utter disdain for science and scientists and believes they are covering up information that man and dinosaurs were contemporaneous?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Menachem Leibtag on Megillat Esther

One of my weekly rituals before Shabbos is to print out Menachem Leibtag's analysis of the parsha. Rabbi Leibtag obviously has studied all of the meforshim in depth and his shiurim are quite enlightening (the "Virtual Classroom" on the web site also works quite well.) I always learn something new about the chiastic subtleties of a parsha, the thematic connections between different parts of Tanach, and the historical context of the stories. R. Leibtag also has a very open "give and take" approach to teaching, so if you have the opportunity to hear him in person please do so.

His recent lecture Megillat Esther and its Hidden Message is quite interesting, as it points out many of the metaphorical qualities of that sefer. The story takes place after the Babylonian exile when the Jews - under Koresh (Cyrus) and later Daryavesh (Darius) - had the opportunity to return to the land of Israel. R. Leibtag is somewhat schizophrenic in this matter, because he quotes Seder Olam - the majority opinion in Chazal [and which today only OrthoFundies believe is accurate regarding the Persian period] - "that Achashverosh was the Persian King immediately after Koresh, but before Daryavesh", but his thesis seems to focus primarily on what the majority of historians believe (and a minority opinion in Chazal), that Achashverosh [Xerxes] succeeded Darius. Thus the story of the Megilla takes place some forty years after the Second Temple was built, after Chagai & Zecharia's plea to return and fulfill the potential of the Temple.

Achashverosh reigned after Yirhimyahu's prophecy of seventy years of exile had been completed. However, as mentioned in Ezra/Nechemiah, only about forty thousand Jews returned and the majority stayed in Bavel. Because they did not take heed to Zechariah's message, the later generations were found scattered all over the Persian Empire in the Megillah story. The story is written as a "satire" that shows how the Jews of Persian had replaced the Temple with Shushan. Some of the points that R. Leibtag musters to support this theme:

- the "ish yehudi" should have been in the "bira" in Yerushalayim, making God's Name known to other nations; instead, the Megilla opens as an ish yehudi in the bira of Achashverosh in Shushan, ironically with the name of a foreign god (Mordechai=Marduk).

- Vashti refuses to appear before the King who therefore becomes angry; similarly the Jewish people did not respond to its divine call and so God becomes angry (the Jewish nation is often compared to God's wife)

- the Jews replace the bet ha-mikdash with the palace of Achashverosh. Examples:
  • the word bira is used to describe Shushan. The only other time in Tanach where this word is mentioned, bira describes specifically the bet ha-mikdash (Divrei Hayamim).
  • the Jews at the party are using the vessels of the Temple according to Chazal.
  • the gemara (Megilla 12a) claims that Achashverosh donned the garments of the kohen gadol at his party.
  • entry to the inner chamber of the king's palace is forbidden under threat of death; this parallels the Holy of Holies in the mikdash (Purim / kippurim).
  • the 'waiting area' outside the inner chamber is called the chatzer ha-chitzona where those close to the King - like Haman himself - are allowed to enter freely; this parallels the kodesh where kohanim are permitted to enter.
  • in front of the palace is gate of the palace where people like Mordechai are permitted to stand; this parallels the azara in the Temple.
- the 6th month party followed by a 7-day celebration parallels the six months that it took to build the mishkan (from Yom Kippur till Rosh Chodesh Nissan) followed by the seven-day milu'im ceremony

- Haman's petition to Achashverosh to destroy Am Yisrael echoes God's threat in Shirat Ha'azinu to destroy the Jewish people for not keeping His laws

- Israel's salvation from Haman's decree comes only after a three day fast during the holiday of Pesach, a holiday that represents freedom from subjugation to a foreign nation

- special mitzvot are instituted to respond to Zecharya's messages of helping the needy (matanot le'evyonim) and acting properly towards one's neighbors (mishloach manot).

R. Leibtag then shows a connection between Yirmiyahu's prophecy of seventy years and the 70 days between the sending of the original decree calling for the destruction of the Jews and the one calling for its repeal. "During these seventy days, the Jews throughout the Persian empire thought their doom inevitable, an ironic reminder that they had not heeded Yirmiyahu's prophecy of what he expected from Bnei Yisrael once the seventy years had expired."

I encourage you to read the entire shiur as R. Leibtag develops these ideas in much greater detail.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the shiur is this parenthetical statement: "Before we continue, it is important to clarify a problematic issue. We are about to relate many elements in the story of the Megilla to a satiric commentary on Persian Jewry. This does not mean that these events did not actually occur. The story of the Megilla is true and based on historic facts. However, its prophetic message is conveyed through the use of literary tools, such as satire and irony."

I don't believe that R. Leibtag can muster any evidence whatsoever for his statement that the story "is true and based on historic facts" other than the oft-used claim of last resort - "we have a mesorah!" But his compelling analysis does give us a greater understanding for why this inspiring, yet largely fictional, story was written.

Friday, March 6, 2009

David Forhman on Megillat Esther - Two Thumbs UP

No need to reiterate my skepticism related to the historicity of the Purim story; readers are referred to the posts 10000 Talents of Silver and
The Ahistorical Nature of Megillat Esther. These touch on only a few of the many problems with the accuracy of such a story; the interested reader is referred to the considerable body of scholarly literature available on both the web and in print (one of my favorites is Michael V. Fox's Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther.)

But historical skepticism doesn't imply that there is no value to the telling of the story. Nor does it matter whether its multi-layered intricacy was intentional or primarily the product of later interpreters. The author(s) of Megillat Esther has (have) woven together a fascinating saga with a timeless message for the Jewish people.

I recently listened to a wonderful lecture by Rabbi David Forhman available on YUTorah: The Queen You Thought You Knew: The Hidden Heroism of Esther. Forhman begins by elaborating nine bothersome problems regarding the Megillah (it's too long - the climax seems to occur in chapter 7 yet it goes on for three more long chapters; Esther's puzzling strategy; emphasis on the grandeur of Mordechai; why does Haman point out that the Jews are scattered; why does the king want to display Vashti; etc.) and then weaves together a very compelling narrative that neatly answers all of the problems. (Much of it relies on the complex political interplay of the characters; see also the post My Last Words on Purim). The lecture is a pleasure to listen to and has my highest recommendation; if you have an hour to spare, please check it out before Purim - I guarantee that you will gain a new appreciation for the Megillah reading. Even if you are a skeptic like yours truly!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Online Source Critical Bible

As mentioned on the blog Serving the Word, the first source-critical Bible is now online here.

It's a great idea, but I find the site mostly unusable. Not only is it unfriendly to the eyes, but all content is primarily in chapter-by-chapter downloadable .doc files accessed via a poorly designed, cumbersome javascript menu.

Hopefully this valuable resource will be improved upon in a later incarnation.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

News Flash - Rabbis Rely on C-14 Dating!!

This is pretty cool news - apparently a Torah scroll dating from the 13th-14th century has been discovered. But what is even more interesting is that the scribe who acquired it relied on Carbon-14 dating to determine its age!

Maybe radiocarbon dating only works for up to one-half life, which is also the age of the earth??