Friday, January 14, 2011

The King James Bible at 400

THE KING JAMES BIBLE AT 400: Bernard M. Levinson and Joshua A. Berman have published a fascinating brief article on the historical background of the publication of the King James Bible and its subsequent influence. It is posted at
Levinson, Bernard M., and Joshua A. Berman. "Scripture, Statecraft, and the American Founding: The King James Bible at 400." History Channel Magazine, supplement, November 2010, pp. 1-11.

Lawrence Schiffman accepts vice provost post at YU

CONGRATULATIONS TO LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN, who has accepted a post as vice provost at Yeshiva University. YUNews:
President Joel Appoints Vice Provost

Lawrence Schiffman Will Lead Effort to Create a Unified Undergraduate Faculty and Improved Student Experience at Yeshiva University

President Richard M. Joel has announced the appointment of Lawrence H. Schiffman as vice provost for undergraduate education at Yeshiva University. Schiffman joins the University from New York University where he served as the Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.

(Via Joseph I. Lauer's list.)

Professor Schiffman is, of course, a world-renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His own website is here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sarah Palin's use of "blood libel"

SARAH PALIN is widely being taken to task for her use of the phrase "blood libel" to describe accusations from the left that incendiary political rhetoric from the right influenced the man accused of the horrific shootings in Arizona. Video here and transcript here. The relevant paragraph:
Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
My emphasis. The concept of "blood libel" comes from accusations against Jews of the ritual murder of non-Jews, mostly Christians and especially Christian children, and such accusations go back to antiquity. Time Magazine has a summary of some of the historical evidence. One of the earliest examples is cited by Josephus in Against Apion II 92-96 (or II 8 in the old citation system). One of Apion's claims:
Antiochus found in our temple a bed, and a man lying upon it, with a small table before him, full of dainties, from the [fishes of the] sea, and the fowls of the dry land; that this man was amazed at these dainties thus set before him; that he immediately adored the king, upon his coming in, as hoping that he would afford him all possible assistance; that he fell down upon his knees, and stretched out to him his right hand, and begged to be released; and that when the king bid him sit down, and tell him who he was, and why he dwelt there, and what was the meaning of those various sorts of food that were set before him the man made a lamentable complaint, and with sighs, and tears in his eyes, gave him this account of the distress he was in; and said that he was a Greek and that as he went over this province, in order to get his living, he was seized upon by foreigners, on a sudden, and brought to this temple, and shut up therein, and was seen by nobody, but was fattened by these curious provisions thus set before him; and that truly at the first such unexpected advantages seemed to him matter of great joy; that after a while, they brought a suspicion him, and at length astonishment, what their meaning should be; that at last he inquired of the servants that came to him and was by them informed that it was in order to the fulfilling a law of the Jews, which they must not tell him, that he was thus fed; and that they did the same at a set time every year: that they used to catch a Greek foreigner, and fat him thus up every year, and then lead him to a certain wood, and kill him, and sacrifice with their accustomed solemnities, and taste of his entrails, and take an oath upon this sacrificing a Greek, that they would ever be at enmity with the Greeks; and that then they threw the remaining parts of the miserable wretch into a certain pit." Apion adds further, that" the man said there were but a few days to come ere he was to be slain, and implored of Antiochus that, out of the reverence he bore to the Grecian gods, he would disappoint the snares the Jews laid for his blood, and would deliver him from the miseries with which he was encompassed.
Ms. Palin's use of "blood libel" has generated objections, exemplified by the statement of Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League:
It is unfortunate that the tragedy in Tucson continues to stimulate a political blame game. Rather than step back and reflect on the lessons to be learned from this tragedy, both parties have reverted to political partisanship and finger-pointing at a time when the American people are looking for leadership, not more vitriol. In response to this tragedy we need to rise above partisanship, incivility, heated rhetoric, and the business-as-usual approaches that are corroding our political system and tainting the atmosphere in Washington and across the country.

It was inappropriate at the outset to blame Sarah Palin and others for causing this tragedy or for being an accessory to murder. Palin has every right to defend herself against these kinds of attacks, and we agree with her that the best tradition in America is one of finding common ground despite our differences.

Still, we wish that Palin had not invoked the phrase "blood-libel" in reference to the actions of journalists and pundits in placing blame for the shooting in Tucson on others. While the term "blood-libel" has become part of the English parlance to refer to someone being falsely accused, we wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history.
Well, I imagine she wishes that too now, if for no other reason than that the commentary on her use of the phrase is swiftly overshadowing the larger point she was making.

That said, Alan Dershowitz and others quickly took her side, pointing out that the phrase has long been applied to baseless accusations that any group of people (or more rarely, an individual) has committed serious crimes:
The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People,its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe false accusations against the State of Israel by the Goldstone Report. There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is utterly irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely used term.
Numerous uses of the phrase in this "broad metaphorical" way in the last decade or so by people holding a wide range of political positions are collected by Jim Geraghty at National Review Online.

Where does that leave us? It would have saved trouble and discomfort if Ms. Palin had said something like "false accusations" in that paragraph instead of "blood libel." But at the same time, as Mr. Foxman says, she was well within her rights to defend herself against the inappropriate attacks against her and others, attacks that shamefully sought to score political points off a tragedy. And however discomfiting her use of "blood libel" is, that use is entirely within the norm for political discourse in the twenty-first century.

As for the broader issues around this story, I would like to see political discourse in America become less incendiary, more irenic, and more thoughtful. At the same time, both sides of the aisle use martial imagery and provocative language, and that's just politics. I don't see any reason to get too upset by it. And in this case the accused attacker seems to have been dangerously mentally imbalanced. It is a work of futility to try to censor everything that has a remote chance of setting such a person off, and there is no evidence so far that anyone's political rhetoric had that effect on him.

My heart goes out to the victims of this senseless crime and to their families.

UPDATE (14 January): Haaretz: U.S. Jewish leaders slam Sarah Palin's blood libel accusation. Excerpt:
President of Jewish Funds for Justice Simon Greer said in a statement that "the term 'blood libel' is not a synonym for 'false accusation.' It refers to a specific falsehood perpetuated by Christians about Jews for centuries, a falsehood that motivated a good deal of anti-Jewish violence and discrimination. Unless someone has been accusing Ms. Palin of killing Christian babies and making matzoh from their blood, her use of the term is totally out-of-line."
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in the Wall Street Journal: Sarah Palin Is Right About 'Blood Libel'. Excerpt:
Despite the strong association of the term with collective Jewish guilt and concomitant slaughter, Sarah Palin has every right to use it. The expression may be used whenever an amorphous mass is collectively accused of being murderers or accessories to murder.

The abominable element of the blood libel is not that it was used to accuse Jews, but that it was used to accuse innocent Jews—their innocence, rather than their Jewishness, being the operative point. Had the Jews been guilty of any of these heinous acts, the charge would not have been a libel.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Update on Cyrus Cylinder loan extension

UPDATE ON THE CYRUS CYLINDER LOAN EXTENSION: After some confusion, the British Museum has issued the expected announcement:
4 January 2011

Extension of Cyrus Cylinder loan

Following a request from the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO), the Trustees of the British Museum have agreed to extend the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Iran until 15 April 2011. This decision has been taken in recognition of the fact that the exhibition has proved to be very popular to date, and the extension will give an opportunity for people from the provinces including school groups to visit the exhibition during the Norouz (New Year) holidays around 20 March 2011.

The Trustees are delighted that the loan has been such a success and look forward to continuing the Museum’s collaboration with colleagues in Iran in the future.
I've only checked the British Museum website today, but the the previous press announcements (first link above and background link below) imply that it was not posted until well after 4 January.

Background here.

Meditation in the Hekhalot Literature and Kabbalah?

DID THE HEKHALOT LITERATURE AND KABBALAH INVOLVE MEDITATION? I would say yes, more or less. Simon Holloway discusses the question in The Silent Mind: A Jew’s Views on Meditation in Galus Australis. Excerpt:
That the story of the four rabbis [who entered the garden/paradise] should be sandwiched between two laws that forbid teaching and meditating upon mystical realia only reinforces the mystical nature of this orchard, and the story seems to function as a cautionary tale. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (“Rashi”) comments upon this passage as it appears in the Babylonian account, by noting that “entering the orchard” means “ascending to the firmament by means of a [divine] name”. This accords with an extra detail found in the Babylonian version (although found in neither the Palestinian Talmud nor in the Tosefta), in which Rabbi Akiva warns his comrades about what to say when they “reach the stones of pure marble”. It also accords with a genre of extra- and post-Talmudic literature that is known as Heikhalot (“palace chambers”), in which Rabbi Ishmael guides the reader through the various chambers of God’s divine palace, before arriving at the throne room and beholding his majesty.

So much for Rashi’s interpretation; significantly, the “Tosafot” disagree. Nobody knows with certainty which of these scholars were responsible for Tractate Hagigah, but with the majority of the Baalei haTosafot being from France, there may be good reason for suggesting one of the French academies. They stress in their commentary that the four sages didn’t really ascend to the firmament, but that “by means of a divine name” they made it appear to themselves as though they had. And so it is worth asking the important question: were the Tosafot suggesting that Rabbi Akiva and his three colleagues were meditating?

This question is not so strange. Contemporary with the later generations of the Tosafot was a rabbi in south-eastern France known as Yitzhak the Blind (Yitzhak “Sagi Nahor” – “Too Much Light”). The son of Rabbi Avraham ben David (“the Raavad”), Yitzhak the Blind contributed greatly towards early kabbalistic philosophies that pertain to the sephirot: divine emanations that bridge the distance between the transcendent godhead and his finite creation. Unsurprisingly for a man who was completely blind, Yitzhak believed that one could ascend these sephirot and approach his creator through mystical contemplation. This idea was to prove very influential amongst later generations of kabbalists – most notable Nachmanides, whose teacher was Yitzhak’s disciple.

But it wasn’t until the expulsion from Spain that these ideas gained widespread currency. Almost grudgingly, European scholars admitted the sanctity of a 13th century Iberian text called Sefer haZohar, which was attributed to the authorship of a second-century Palestinian rabbi named Shimon ben Yohai. Ben Yohai’s transformation is recorded in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, and served Jews of the sixteenth century with an origin story for the Zohar. A collection of mystical midrashim on the Torah, the Zohar not only constitutes a development of the sephirot philosophy of Yitzhak the Blind, but a profound testament to the development of experiential, introspective Judaism.
The Hekhalot texts to a large degree consist of instructions for ritual practices that promise to give the user access to and some control over the spiritual realm. This is pretty close to the generally accepted understanding of meditation as a mental or spiritual discipline. There is an influential school of modern scholarly thought that regards the Hekhalot texts as exegetical tractates rather than practical ones, but I think (and have argued extensively in print) that this is correct in what it asserts but wrong in what it denies. The Hekhalot literature, like all meditation traditions, is deeply rooted in exegesis of its native scriptures and mythologies, but it is also much concerned with spiritual ritual practices. For more on this and related issues, see my earlier posts here, here and here.

I am not a specialist on the Kabbalah, which is a much larger corpus than the Hekhalot literature, and I cannot speak to the balance in the Kabbalah between exegesis, mythology, and ritual praxis. It seems to vary a great deal from text to text and from author to author. Praxis seems especially important, for example, in the work of Abraham Abulafia. For past posts on the Zohar, the best-known and probably most influential Kabbalistic document, see here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Revisionist Purim and the (traditional) Tomb of Esther

Iran revises story of Esther, labels Purim a day of mourning

Monday, January 10, 2011 | Ryan Jones (Israel Today Magazine)

In a couple of months, Israelis and Jews around the world will celebrate Purim, marking the deliverance of the Jews of the Persian Empire from extinction 2,300 years ago. In Iran, the center of the ancient Persian Empire, the date will be marked with mourning and anger.

For years already, Iran has been teaching schoolchildren that Purim marks the massacre of 75,000 Persians by the Jews under the command of Queen Esther. It is presented today as an ancient Iranian holocaust perpetrated by the Jews.

The Iranian version leaves out the part where Haman, the royal advisor, convinces the Persian king to sign a decree permitting the wholesale slaughter the Jews of the empire. When Esther reveals her Jewish background to the king and reveals that Haman was tricking him, the king issues a second decree, allowing the Jews to defend themselves. By God’s grace, the Jews are largely spared, while their enemies are slaughtered.

This year, Iran may go further than simply revising the biblical account. Iranian authorities have decided to downgrade the status of the “Tomb of Esther and Mordechai the Jews” in the city of Hamadan in central Iran. The tomb had previously enjoyed that status of an official pilgrimage site.

Following the downgrading, the Iranian news agency Fars began pushing the idea that Esther and her uncle Mordechai were responsible for a massacre of Iranians, and that their burial place had merely been tolerated until now.

The Iranian news agency MEHR reported reported that a couple of weeks ago, a group of 250 militant Iranian students gathered at the tomb and threatened to tear it down.
I have mentioned the (traditional) tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Iran here and here. The story of Esther is a legend, and a pretty brutal one, but if the Iranians want to make something out of it, they should take it on its own terms. The Persians don't come out very well in that case. But everyone would be better off if we just take it as a story. And if we must find a moral to it, the lesson that small ethnic groups under threat in a larger nation have the right to protect themselves against persecution seems to fit.

Arutz Sheva has more on the threats to the shrine here. Excerpt:
According to the official Iranian news agency MEHR, a group of about 250 student-members of the Basij militia gathered in front of the tomb in December and threatened to tear it down The Basij members sent to threaten the landmark were students from Abu Ali Sina University. They said they were responding to alleged Israeli plans to damage the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem

"Muslims, be aware that [the Israelis] have started the destruction of Al-Aqsa mosque while their second sacred site in Iran, the Esther and Mordecai tomb, is at peace and no Muslims make a sound," the protesters stated. "We, the student basijis... warn Zionist regime leaders if they assault the Al-Aqsa mosque in any way we will destroy the tomb of these lowly murderers," they said.
If the Iranian government suddenly finds it politically expedient to tolerate, let alone encourage, threats to an historic shrine tied to a Jewish legend, it will only make itself look barbaric.

I was aware of these developments in Iran and I was sure I had noted this story before, but if I did, I can't find the post now. There is a somewhat related post here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sunday, January 09, 2011

News on 2nd-4th-century Christian manuscripts

LARRY HURTADO has posted a list of Christian Literary Texts in Manuscripts of Second & Third Centuries (pdf file) in the Essays section of his blog. It is an updated version of the list in his 2006 book. Many Jewish manuscripts are included as well. The list includes Old Testament and Apocrypha manuscripts; New Testament manuscripts; manuscripts of Philo, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, New Testament Apocrypha, Apostolic Fathers; and more.

Via Evangelical Textual Criticism.

And on a related note, from Unreported Heritage News:
A flax merchant from Egypt! Owner of 4th century New Testament papyrus identified

This papyrus contains the first seven verses of Paul's Letter to the Romans. Beneath the scripture a different author has scribbled in random phrases. It has been suggested that this papyrus may have been a writing exercise. New research has identified the owner of this document - a man named Aurelius Leonides.
Evidently this is the only ancient New Testament manuscript for which we have a named owner. And quite a bit of information about Aurelius Leonides survives.