Saturday, June 21, 2008

CHRISTIAN MANUSCRIPTS get a brief treatment in the London Times by the Right Rev Dr Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. The book of (Ethiopic) 1 Enoch, the Septuagint, the Apocrypha, and the Letter of Barnabas all get a mention.

Friday, June 20, 2008

HAPPY SUMMER SOLSTICE to all those celebrating. It's a bright, cloudless, starless, temperate evening here -- still bright enough to read by if you angle your chair by the window just so. But I'm cheating and have the light on. It's been a very cold June, but at least it's been sunny a good bit. Enjoy your solstice.
JOHN T. QUINN, Professor of Classical Languages and Coptologist at Hope College, requiescat in pace. He was only 45.
HENRY CHADWICK - 1920-2008. Requiescat in pace.
FALLEN ANGELS, Harold Bloom's new book, is reviewed in the Jewish Exponent. Excerpt:
This is the way the book proceeds, with this kind of expansive scholarship delivered in the clearest, least cumbersome manner, whether Bloom is talking about Elijah, Lilith, the fall from grace or the angel of death. It may be that Bloom, in the hunger of his critical appetites and the awesome range of his learning, has created a new genre completely, instead of cornering one -- the gift book for the intellectual crowd.
RECENT WORKS ON THE KABBALAH are surveyed by Jay Michaelson in The Forward:
Kabbalah is so… last decade. I still remember the flush of excitement, confusion, appreciation and concern that I felt in 1998 when I first read that Madonna was going to The Kabbalah Centre, and that her new tour design featured kabbalistic imagery. Then came Demi and Ashton and Britney and Roseanne, and a whole decade of references on celebrity Web sites and articles in reputable mainstream magazines. By now, Kabbalah seems like old news.

Still, it hasn’t gone away — both the genuine article, which has been around for 800 years, and the popularized version — and so maybe it’s time to start taking pop Kabbalah seriously, at least as a cultural phenomenon. In fact, in at least three areas — introductions to Jewish mysticism, serious Kabbalah scholarship and new academics just coming of age — the past couple of years have been the most fertile for the production of Jewish mysticism in two centuries.

There follows a long listing of recent books on the subject. I'll just excerpt one paragraph:
Rachel Elior, chair of the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University (where I am completing my own dissertation) has also produced a recent trilogy of career-culminating work: “The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism” (Littman, 2004), “The Mystical Origins of Hasidism” (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006) and, finally, “Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom” (Littman, 2007). The first two books are rewritings of some of Jewish mysticism’s most familiar origin-stories, those of the ancient Hechalot and Merkavah schools of visionary mysticism, and of the 18th-century revival movement of Hasidism. But it is “Infinite Expression of Freedom” that most grandly summarizes Elior’s overall theory of Kabbalah: that it creates a cosmic zone of freedom and power for an oppressed and marginalized people. The kabbalists were, as Elior points out, a subjugated group, victims of antisemitism, expulsion and often extreme poverty. And yet they constructed a world in which their actions maintained the universe itself.
I would add Daniel Matt's ongoing translation of the Zohar to the list.

On a related note, in case you're interested, I am currently working on an English translation of the pre-Kabbalistic Jewish mystical texts -- the Hekhalot literature. The project is well underway and I hope to get a lot of it done in my remaining couple of months of research leave. After that, research time will be scarce, but with luck I may have it out in the next couple of years.

UPDATE: Iyov comments.
PARADISE (pardes, פרדס), a subject near to my heart, is covered in this week's Philologos column in The Forward. It's a nice introduction to the complexities of the Hebrew word and its use in the famous story of the Four Who Entered Paradise in the Hekhalot literature.
Writing from San Francisco on June 9, The New York Times’s Edward Rothstein reviewed that city’s new Contemporary Jewish Museum, which has recently opened its doors to the public. “The jagged lights on [its] sloping lobby wall,” he wrote, “form four Hebrew letters that spell ‘pardes.’ That word has the same Persian root as the English word paradise. It alludes to a park, a garden, an orchard, and thus invokes the pastoral promise of Eden as well. This is the kind of esoteric symbol much beloved by the museum’s architect, Daniel Libeskind.”

It is indeed sufficiently esoteric for much of its significance to have eluded both Mr. Rothstein and whoever guided him through the museum. ...
Indeed. Read on for why.

I didn't know about the lights in the Contemporary Jewish Museum. If you go there, stay away from any water fountains.
DAVID IN SHADOW AND LIGHT had to close a week early due to poor ticket sales. Seems it was just too much for the reviewers. The Theatre J Blog has a long post on the early closing. Excerpt:
The closing notice is a public admission that the show absorbed a bruising body blow. And that potential ticket buyers stayed away because of a round of reviews. I don’t feel like mincing those words. An incredibly strong presentation of a “wildly audacious, genre-defying show” is felled by a first wave of notices that puts its ticket sales in a deep freeze. A second wave of good notices comes late, a full ten days to two weeks later, but ticket buyers don’t seem to respond. So rather than noticeably limp home to one finish line, we consolidate our performances and go out singing strong. That’s the logic and the reality of what’s happening.

We didn’t expect this show to be such risky material. One person’s classical narrative is another person’s uneasy bible story “best left to Sunday School.” As I’ve written before, we pressed an Ambivalence Button here. We know that some of our critics had rejected postmodern, biblical narrative-driven theater pieces before and still we went forward convinced that the stature and seriousness of our endeavor–the sheer quality of what we were amassing–would win out. There were many partial victories throughout. Mastering the music. Fielding a top flight band to play it out. Integrating dance. Pulling it off. We hit a home run with some, and struck out with others. “Head held high, sir” Uriah tells the young shepherd boy after David kills the giant in one of the funnier comic moments in our show. We strike the pose, like Young David. And parade our show proudly. Still haunted by what’s just transpired–an act of violence that we were a part of–as we soldier on with many new battles still in store. And all those new wives… Hmm… David’s drama will live on and on. But we close in two Sundays.

“The King is dead/LONG LIVE THE KING.”
Background here. Some photos of the production here.

(Heads up, Carla Sulzbach.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Study finds Israel's religious foundation not so unique
By HAVIV RETTIG (Jerusalem Post)

"The Jewish-Israeli case is often said to be unique," begins an article by Dr. Alexander Yakobson, a senior lecturer in Roman history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, in the summer 2008 edition of Israel Studies, an academic journal on Israeli society.

The country's strangeness comes from the "'extra-territorial' character of the Jewish people, Israel's ties with the Jewish Diaspora and the strong connection between the Jewish religion and the prevalent notion of Jewish peoplehood," explains the author. Some celebrate this, "pointing to the uniqueness of Jewish history and culture," and some are critical of it as "inconsistent with modern civic democracy," but rarely is the "underlining premise of uniqueness" questioned, Yakobson believes.

But he's out to change that, with an argument that examines the constitutions of other democracies to show that Israel is neither officially nor in practice alone in this, well, uniqueness.

"There are numerous other cases where national identity and religion are officially connected in some way, and where there are official bonds between a nation-state and an ethnocultural Diaspora," he writes.

The Greek constitution, for example, makes some surprising provisions. ...

Yakobson's article, titled "Jewish Peoplehood and the Jewish State, How Unique? - A Comparative Survey," summarizes more extensive findings of a book he co-authored with Israeli constitutional thinker Amnon Rubinstein titled Israel Among the Family of Nations. The idea presented in the book, and the newly-published article, is an important contribution to the international discussion surrounding the Jewish state. It isn't merely that an Israeli scholar has located another freakish case - Greece - among contemporary democracies, but that religion-based ethnocultural identity is the social glue of a broad swath of the free West.


He relates the story of a visiting foreign professor who was asked, "Do you think that the Jewish people are unique?"

"Of course you are unique," he replied, "but you are not unique in being unique

Indeed. To say that something is "unique" is almost useless to the historian. As I like to say, everything is unique or it would be the same as something else. The interesting question is how each particular thing is unique.
A DEAD SEA SCROLLS FORUM at St. Martin's University:
Forum explores connection between ancient scrolls, Bible

By Diane Huber | The Olympian • Published June 19, 2008

About 2,000 years ago, an ancient Jewish sect wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest-known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. Some of the texts closely match canonized scripture, but others were left out.

The puzzle of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their connection to the Bible will be the topic of a free presentation Friday night at Saint Martin's University.

The panel-style lecture, titled "The Authority of Scripture: The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls," culminates the 26th annual Spiritual Life Institute, a weeklong spiritual program each summer hosted by the university.


If you go

•What: Free presentation of "The Authority of Scripture: The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls"

•When: 7:30 to 9 p.m. Friday

•Where: Worthington Center at Saint Martin's University, 5300 Pacific Ave. S.E., Lacey

•Speakers: Robert Kugler, Cecilia Wassen, Hanne von Weissenberg, Daniel Falk and Ian Werrett
Court to hear petition on Silwan digs
By DAN IZENBERG (Jerusalem Post)

The High Court of Justice is due to hand down its decision in the next few days on a request to lift the interim injunction preventing the Antiquities Authority from resuming its excavation of a Herodian water channel in Silwan, outside Jerusalem's Old City.

In March, the court issued the injunction at the request of six Palestinian families, who charged that the authority was excavating underneath their homes.

The excavation is not a new archeological discovery. The site is a tunnel or channel located about six meters below the surface, and archeologists believe it was built by King Herod. ...
The case is quite a knot of claims and counter-claims.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

THE BITS OF ARCHAEOLOGY in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are reviewed by Mark Rose in Archaeology Magazine. While you're there, take the poll on which of the Indy movies is your favorite. I'm with the 40.9% who voted for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Plus, Archaeology has an interview with, Rob Cohen, the director of the August-release The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, who has an anthropology degree from Harvard. Not that the movie is exactly obsessed with getting the history right:
We took the facts and we let our imaginations play with them. So any archaeologists looking for absolute re-creation will say, "These people didn't do their research." But I'm making a fantasy, which frees me to some degree from verisimilitude and historical accuracy. Ninety percent of it is historically accurate to my knowledge, but the 10 percent is where you play fast and loose. It's a movie. You've got to make it entertaining.
I can go with that. I'm looking forward to the movie.
What are the mysterious stones emerging from Kinneret waters?
By Eli Ashkenazi
Tags: Lake Kinneret, Israel

A marine scientist has discovered a series of mysterious stone patterns on the lake bed of drought-stricken Lake Kinneret.

The man-made piles of stone, which are now above water, jut out from the freshwater lake, and sit 30 meters from each other along a 3.5-kilometer stretch of the eastern shore, from the Kinneret College campus to Haon resort.

Gal Itzhaki of Kibbutz Afikim first noticed the stones while strolling along the lake's receded shoreline. He says the patterns are a "fascinating phenomenon" and are part of an "impressive building enterprise."

Though they have not yet been scientifically examined, there are several hypotheses as to what functions they fulfilled. One theory postulates that they were part of a boundary between the ancient lakeside towns of Hippos, also known as Sussita, and Gadara. ...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

THE MUSICAL DAVID IN SHADOW AND LIGHT is reviewed in the Jewish Press. The review includes discussion of the background of the story in rabbinic legend. Excerpt:
The frames come from a projector upon which Archangel Metatron (Donna Migliaccio) shows the 930-year-old, wheelchair-ridden and dejected Adam (Norman Aronovic) how the future will unfold. Metatron shows Noah, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Miriam, Samson, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Einstein, Martin Luther King, and Kennedy. But as she tries to fast forward past the young David, who is only destined to live a matter of hours, Adam insists that Metatron stop the reel:

“I wanna see the baby. The one with the red cheeks,” he demands. “Ah … ah … look at him … see how he shines so bright. His heart is fire - holy light.” Though she has been sent to cheer Adam up, Metatron agrees to euthanize him and helps him transfer his final 70 years to King David.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is accompanied throughout his series of journeys by his guardian angel: the “gray-eyed goddess” of wisdom, Athena. In “David in Shadow and Light,” King David (Matt Pearson) has the benefit of two protectors in Adam and Metatron, who try to defend him, even as he sins and fights with King Saul (Bobby Smith) and Michal (Carolyn Agan). Still, viewers know that David will ultimately have too much blood on his hands to build the Temple, and he will die unhappy for his inability to achieve this dream, just as Moses did when he only managed to see Israel from the distant peak of Mount Nebo.

Where most plays that address biblical topics deal in clichés and very loose allegiance to the text, “David in Shadow and Light” must be commended for its careful study of Jewish scripture and commentaries. Hyman does invoke poetic license at various points in the narrative, but he proves himself to be such a diligent student of scripture that these departures appear to be conscious decisions rather than ones bred from ignorance.

The basic storyline is based on tradition. According to the Zohar (Part 1, page 91b), God showed Adam how history would unfold, so Adam, who was supposed to live until 1,000, donated his final 70 years to David. The Zohar does not mention any angel, but the Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishit 41) does include Metatron in the story. In the Yalkut, Adam asks God for permission to give David the 70 years, and God agrees. Adam then writes up a contract (which perhaps inspires the contract Faust proposes to Mephistopheles in Goethe’s “Faust”), which he, God, and Metatron sign. Metatron is viewed as a protector of the Jews, and the name (which is not feminine in scripture) might mean “messenger.”

The play casts Goliath (Russell Sunday) as a punk rocker, with a Mohawk, a lot of spikes, and tight leather pants. This, of course, does not appear in the Bible, but a punk rocker with a serious attitude problem makes sense, in light of the biblical tale of Goliath trash-talking the Jewish soldiers in Samuel 1:17, “Why have you come out to battle? Am I not the Philistine and you the servants of Saul? Choose for yourselves a man, and let him come down to me.” He later curses David’s God and tells him, “Come to me, and I will give your body to birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.”

Even if the giant’s attire is more contemporary than biblical, the play does follow the Babylonian Talmud in its decision to have Goliath haunt David after he is beheaded and insist he is David’s relative. Tractate Sotah (page 42b), which responds to the moment in the Book of Ruth where Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye while Ruth, clinging to her, states, “Let the descendents of the one who kissed (‘neshukah/’) fall in battle to the sons of the one who remained (‘devukah’).” The Talmud is of course referring to David and Goliath.
The reference to Samuel should read 1 Samuel 17:8 and the later reference to Samuel, not quoted here, should be 1 Samuel 16. I don't have time to check the other references.

Background here. In response to my earlier post, Carla Sulzbach sent some relevant links that I didn't have time to post at the time. The story is told in Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews IV, p. 87:
In a measure David was indebted for his life to Adam. At first only three hours of existence had been allotted to him. When God caused all future generations to pass in review before Adam, he besought God to give David seventy of the thousand years destined for him. A deed of gift, signed by God and the angel Metatron, was drawn up. Seventy years were legally conveyed from Adam to David, and in accordance with Adam's wishes, beauty, dominion, and poetical gift (12) went with them.
And the story from the Yalkut is given here. Carla also noted the parallel to Joseph's and Clarence's viewing of George Bailey's life in It's a Wonderful Life, which had occurred to me too.
EPHREM THE SYRIAN was saint of the day on 9 June and got a blurb from the Catholic News Agency. He wrote a great deal of important Syriac literature in the fourth century, a good bit of which still survives. For more, see here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

HAARETZ EDITORIALIZES AGAINST the proposed Israeli-Palestianian archaeological agreement. Excerpt from this piece by Meron Benvenisti:
Indeed, the agreement has sections that deal with the return of archaeological artifacts that were removed from the occupied territories since 1967, preservation of archaeological sites, cooperation on excavations, as well as special arrangements for Jerusalem. But the interest raised by the draft is connected less to its details than to its fundamental approach, which regards Israel's archaeological activities in the West Bank as a theft of cultural objects rightfully belonging to the Palestinians, as if Israelis were colonialist grave robbers a la 19th century, who stripped the precious historical legacy of the Ancient Near East and transferred them to museums in Europe. Now, goes the logic, as the land Israel is divided into two states and the era of colonialism is brought to an end, what was stolen will be restored to its rightful owners.

This approach transforms national cultural heritage into a matter of collections, which exist to be exhibited in museums before tourists, or to be part of the antiquities trade. Even though the Cultural Heritage Agreement declares that "Israel and Palestine constitute one archaeological domain that is divided by political borders," the concept that drawing geopolitical borders can determine the ownership of an ancient artifact - or an archaeological site - by one nation or another, is not only simplistic and legalistic, but should be unacceptable to anyone for whom national or cultural heritage is not dictated by "peace makers" specializing in conflict resolution and creators of a virtual world.

It is true that chauvinists and settlers have corrupted this heritage and turned it into a rite of blood and earth, but it must also be recognized that an approach that is willing to view the Qumran site, for example, as Palestinian, is an unfortunate approach that stems from revulsion at the aggressive effort to transform the Palestinians into aliens in their homeland.
Background here.

UPDATE (17 June): Todd Bolen has much more from Joseph Lauer here.
JAMES KUGEL is interviewed about his book How to Read the Bible by CBCRadio.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"This is very bellicose literature," [Amy] Cottrill [assistant professor of religion at Birmingham-Southern College, Alabama] said. "It's very violent. They are asking God to go kill their enemy."

Though they may be largely ignored, the psalms are considered along with the rest of the Bible to be divinely inspired and the word of God to most evangelical Christians, Cottrill said. "The Bible has a tremendous amount of authority," she said.

The ancient texts, held sacred for millennia, are deserving of scrutiny and study, she said. "There is a trend toward reading less scripture," she said.

Cottrill, 37, has a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Emory University in Atlanta and a master of divinity degree from Methodist Theological Seminary in Delaware, Ohio.

She grew up in Parkersburg, W.Va., the daughter of a United Methodist minister, but she is a teacher, not an ordained minister or preacher.

"I knew pretty early on I wanted to teach," she said.

Cottrill arrived on the faculty at Birmingham-Southern a year ago and teaches classes on world religions, Old Testament, New Testament, gender in the Hebrew Bible, and Bible in contemporary culture.

Her book, "Language, Power and Identity in the Lament Psalms of the Individual," offers literary analysis of the writing style of the psalmists.

She finds them to be starkly different in worldview from the modern religious sensibilities of Jews and Christians.

"Most mainstream religious people do not think of God as a religious warrior," she said. "The psalmists did. To them, God is all-powerful, but God is also very personal, very close. They definitely feel they have access. Sometimes they barter with God, saying, `If I die as a result of this suffering, who is going to praise you?' That's a pretty bold view."