Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Persecution and the Art of Writing Pt V - The Literary Form of the Kuzari

(continued from here)

After a short appetizer of a discussion on the relationship between Rational Laws and Revealed Laws, Strauss begins the analysis of the literary character of the Kuzari. So first let's review the basic form of this book.

We start out with haLevi setting the stage by saying that he will relate to us the story of the conversion of the Khazars. In this story, the pagan king is visited by an angel who tells him that while his "intentions" are pleasing to God, his "actions" are not. This introduces the rest of the work which is a series of conversations between the king and first a philosopher, then a Christian, a Muslim and a Jewish scholar. In the end, the King is convinced that Judaism is the religion that his people should accept.

The first question that Strauss poses is - why did haLevi choose this literary form to write his work? He clearly did this intentionally and he must have thought that this is the most powerful defense of Judaism. Obviously, showing the superiority of Judaism to other Jews would not have been very dramatic. Arguing for it in front of Muslims and Christians would also not be as hard since they both already accept the Divine origin of Judaism, but having a Jewish scholar convince a pagan, and not just any pagan, but a king, of the superiority of Judaism, is quite a feat! Given that this is a retelling of actual historical events, it would really demonstrate how powerful these arguments must be - right?

Or will it? Strauss brings up the counter-argument that in many ways this is a slam dunk for the Jewish scholar. First of all, the king is no match for the scholar in terms of rhetorical skill or knowledge of the subject matter, and secondly, the king has already decided that it is preferable that he should become an adherent of one of the Revealed religions. The king is easy prey.

Strauss points out at the outset that although haLevi engages in a form of Jewish Kalam, meaning, he uses rational arguments to advance the foundations of Jewish theology, he believes that such arguments are inferior to the revealed nature of Judaism. However he will use such arguments since his main intellectual adversaries in this work are not the Muslims, Christians or pagans, but philosophers. And it is at this point that Strauss asks a critical question. At no point is there a disputation between the philosopher and the Jewish scholar in front of the king. Surely, this would have been the real coup de grace? It seems from the historical evidence that the real debates in the conversion of the Khazars were not structured the way that haLevi presents them. They were set up as disputations before the king, and there was no philosopher present, just the representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths. So why does haLevi set up a fictional situation and yet refuse to put the nail in the coffin of the philosopher?

According to Strauss, haLevi omits any explicit arguments for philosophy because he believed that a true philosopher would never be able to accept the notion of Divine revelation and so was impossible to "convert" to the other side. He felt that being able to accept the notion of "revealed wisdom" was an inherent trait of some people, and philosophers by their natures were incapable of such an understanding. But this in itself would not preclude haLevi in setting up a confrontation between the Jew and the philosopher. The philosopher would have to admit, a la Stephen Jay Gould, that philosophy and religion occupy separate magisteria, and he would have to admit incompetence in the matters of a revealed religion. So why the silence?

Strauss hypothesizes that haLevi was so burned, so traumatized by his, most likely short time spent as a philosopher, that he refused to even give the philosopher any type of voice, because even though haLevi felt that he could provide convincing counter arguments, perhaps some of his readers would not be swayed by them, or perhaps, his readers would be tempted to learn more about the points of the philosopher and go down the path to apostasy. Even when the Jew rehashes the philosopher's positions in the most basic and unappealing way for the king as part of his conversation, the king is impressed enough by even that summary to the point that the Jew needs to go back and straighten him out again. HaLevi felt that he could not take this risk with his audience as well.

Persecution and the Art of Writing Pt IV - Kalam

(continued from here)

The next chapter of Strauss' book is an analysis of the Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levy. Before summarizing this essay, it is worthwhile to quickly review a couple of things that figure in the essay. The first is the discipline of Kalam. I am sure that there are volumes that can be written about Kalam, so here is a summary of some key points.

Kalam was a Muslim theological movement that arose as a way of responding to Aristotelian philosophy from an Islamic point of view. It arose in the 9th century, focused in Baghdad during its Golden Age. It is interesting that not more than a few centuries after the advent of Islam, the great scholars and thinkers of that religion were thinking about such philosophical issues as free will vs predestination, proof of the existence of God, the creation of the Universe, etc...

Kalam becomes more interesting to us as Judaism responds to this philosophical development. It seems that Saadia Ga'on was a big proponent of Kalam, as were many of his bitter enemies, the Karaites. Rabbenu Bachya and Hai Ga'on are other famous Jewish thinkers that dealt with "Jewish Kalam". The Rambam mentions it extensively in his writings, mostly taking a negative view of it, believing it to be naive and incomplete.

It seems to me that the first time Judaism encountered "philosophy" through the Greeks, it basically took the attitude that it was not something that could be integrated into Judaism, and therefore Judaism formed a very negative attitude towards "Greek Wisdom", at best ignoring it for the most part, and at worst prohibiting it. However, it appears that "philosophy" was much more palatable to the great Jewish thinkers the second time around, couched in terms of Islamic Kalam, because it was embraced by a great many thinkers.

This enthusiastic embrace of Kalam philosophy must have been similar to the haskalah enlightentment movements of the mid 19th century. There was a frenzy of Jewish thinkers that tried to digest the new ideas and conform them to traditional Judaism.

Strauss makes a statement that ha-Levy's polemic in the Kuzari was not against the Christians and Muslims but against the "philosophers". This is a very interesting statement if you examine ha-Levy's life. He was a philosopher himself, clearly very intelligent, a physician, a thinker. Morever, he was a poet and in many ways a secular man, a Man of Letters, a bon vivant. Yet at some point in his life, he rejected his ideas about the role of philosophy in life. It is not clear what prompted him to change his mind, but the Kuzari is his attack on his former beliefs.

Of course, the main point of Strauss' essays is that oftentimes there are hidden meanings in works of great thinkers, and by looking carefully you can find meanings often the opposite of what a cursory reading may reveal. It is not clear whether ha-Levy truly believes the arguments he puts up against philosophy. Could it be that he feels like the things he discovered are two dangerous and potentially destructive to Judaism? Perhaps he feels like he needed to write this book because it would convince the majority of Jews to stay away from the "bitter waters" of philosophy and so protect them from finding out the "ugly truth"?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Old mathematicians never die...

Though I am not a mathematician, I had to suffer through enough of mathematics on my way to a stillborn career in engineering to find these quotes amusing...

“Relations between pure and applied mathematicians are based on trust and understanding. Namely, pure mathematicians do not trust applied mathematicians, and applied mathematicians do not understand pure mathematicians.”

"Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more." -- Albert Einstein

"Only professional mathematicians learn anything from proofs. Other people learn from explanations." -- Ralph Boas

“The highest moments in the life of a mathematician are the first few moments after one has proved the result, but before one finds the mistake.”

"It is easier to square a circle than to get round a mathematician." -- de Morgan

"Old mathematicians never die; they just pass into another field."

"Old mathematicians never die, they just tend to infinity."

“Old mathematicians never die; they just lose some of their functions”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just reduce to lowest terms.”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just disintegrate.”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just go off on a tangent.”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just get disarrayed.”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just lose their identities.”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just tend to zero.”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just become angles.”

“Old mathematicians never die; they just become irrational.”

“Old mathematicians never die; their second derivative goes to zero.”

“Old mathematicians never die; their systems just become unsolvable.”

“An engineer thinks that his equations are an approximation to reality. A physicist thinks reality is an approximation to his equations. A mathematician doesn't care. “

“A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” -- Paul Erdos

“A topologist is a person who doesn't know the difference between a coffee cup and a doughnut.”

"Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them they translate into their own language and forthwith it is something entirely different." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“There are three kinds of mathematicians; those who can count and those who can't.”

“To a mathematician, real life is a special case.”

"To think logically the logically thinkable -- that is the mathematician's aim."--C. J. Keyser

"Everyone knows what a curve is, until he has studied enough mathematics to become confused through the countless number of possible exceptions." -- Felix Klein

"No more fiction, for now we calculate; but that we may calculate, we had to make fiction first." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

"How happy the lot of the mathematician. He is judged solely by his peers, and the standard is so high that no colleague or rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve." -- W.H. Auden

"Two and two the mathematician continues to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateur for three, or the cry of the critic for five." -- James McNeill Whistler

"I have hardly ever known a mathematician who was capable of reasoning." -- Plato

"You know we all became mathematicians for the same reason: we were lazy." -- Max Rosenlicht

"The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or poet's, must be beautiful. The ideas, like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”-- G. H. Hardy

"The mathematician does not study pure mathematics because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it and he delights in it because it is beautiful." -- Henri Poincare

"The mathematician's best work is art, a high perfect art, as daring as the most secret dreams of imagination, clear and limpid. Mathematical genius and artistic genius touch one another."-- Gosta Mittag-Leffler

"The life of a mathematician is dominated by an insatiable curiosity, a desire bordering on passion to solve the problems he is studying." -- Jean Dieudonne

"A surprising proportion of mathematicians are accomplished musicians. Is it because music and mathematics share patterns that are beautiful?" -- Martin Gardner

"A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas." -- G. H. Hardy

"Some mathematician, I believe, has said that true pleasure lies not in the discovery of truth, but in the search for it." -- Tolstoy

"A mathematician's reputation rests on the number of bad proofs he has given." -- A. S. Besicovitch

The right to suicide

On littlefoxling's blog, he asked a question:

it doesn't strike you as hypocritical to live in a society with the death penality(sic) but no right to suicide?

I think it is funny to even talk about the "right to suicide" because this is a right that no one an really take away (at least not easily in normal circumstances). I can choose to jump in front of a train tonite and no one can stop me unless I tell people ahead of time.

I think in general it is a very hypocritical topic - because as much as we talk as a society about the value of human life, in reality we show by our actions how little value it has. And I am not talking about just the death penalty. Look at the murders that happen every day, the wars.

More Matisyahu Monday

Friday, November 23, 2007

Peacock mods, lemonheads, rudeboys, skinheads, suedeheads, smoothies, bootboys, punks

In the late 1950s, the United Kingdom's entrenched class system limited most working class people's educational, housing, and economic opportunities. However, Britain's post-war economic boom led to an increase in disposable income among many young people. Some of those youths spent that income on new fashions popularised by American soul groups, British R&B bands, certain movie actors, and Carnaby Street clothing merchants.

These youths became known as the mods, a youth subculture noted for its consumerism—and devotion to fashion, music, and scooters. Mods of lesser means made do with practical styles that suited their lifestyle and employment circumstances: steel-toe boots, straight-leg jeans or Sta-Prest trousers, button-up shirts, and braces (called suspenders in the USA). When possible, these working-class mods spent their money on suits and other sharp outfits to wear at dancehalls, where they enjoyed soul, ska, bluebeat and rocksteady music.

Around 1965, a schism developed between the peacock mods (also known as smooth mods), who were less violent and always wore the latest expensive clothes, and the hard mods (also known as gang mods), who were identified by their shorter hair and more working-class image. Also known as lemonheads and peanuts, these hard mods became commonly known as skinheads by about 1968. Their shorter hair may have come about for practical reasons, since long hair can be a liability in industrial jobs and a disadvantage in streetfights. Skinheads may also have cut their hair short in defiance of the more bourgeois hippie culture popular at the time.

In addition to retaining many mod influences, early skinheads were very interested in Jamaican rude boy styles and culture, especially the music: ska, rocksteady, and early reggae (before the tempo slowed down and lyrics became focused on topics like black nationalism and Rastafarianism). Skinhead culture became so popular by 1969 that even the rock band Slade temporarily adopted the look, as a marketing strategy. The subculture gained wider notice because of a series of violent and sexually explicit novels by Richard Allen, notably Skinhead and Skinhead Escapes. Due to largescale British migration to Perth, Western Australia, many British youths in Perth joined skinhead/sharpies gangs in Medina, Rockingham, Armadale, Kelmscott, Lynwood, and Thornlie in the 1960s; forming their own Australian style.

By the 1970s, the skinhead subculture started to fade from popular culture, and some of the original skins dropped into new categories, such as the suedeheads (defined by the ability to manipulate one's hair with a comb), smoothies (often with shoulder-length hairstyles), and bootboys (with mod-length hair; associated with gangs and hooliganism). Some fashion trends returned to mod roots, reintroducing brogues, loafers, suits, and the slacks-and-sweater look.

In 1977, the skinhead subculture was revived to a notable extent after the introduction of punk rock. Most of these revival skinheads were a reaction to the commercialism of punk and adopted a sharp, smart look in line with the original look of the 1969 skinheads and included Gary Hodges and Hoxton Tom McCourt (both later of the band the 4-Skins) and Suggs, later of the band Madness. From 1979 onwards, skinheads with even shorter hair and less emphasis on traditional styles grew in numbers and grabbed media attention, mostly as a result of their involvement with football hooliganism. These skinheads wore punk-influenced styles, like higher boots than before (14-20 eyelets) and tighter jeans (sometimes splattered with bleach). However, there was still a group of skinheads who preferred the original mod-inspired styles. Eventually different interpretations of the skinhead subculture expanded beyond The UK and Europe. One major example is that in the United States, certain segments of the hardcore punk scene embraced skinhead style and developed its own version of the subculture.


Legislating Holocaust Denial

How stupid and futile to make Holocaust denial illegal. Firstly, the idea that you can stop people from thinking certain thoughts by making them illegal is straight out of George Orwell. But more importantly, it is an example of addressing the symptom and not the core problem. Why don't they address the reasons why Holocaust denial happens?

This may be the most disturbing idea I've seen ever...

Most of us have heard of the Quantum Mechanics notion that an observer can change the behavior of the observed. Now a pair of American cosmologists have published a theory that suggests that by observing certain properties of the Universe, such as Dark Energy, we are altering the behavior of this Dark Energy, and consequently we are nudging the Universe towards destruction...

Read it here...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More on the Kishinev pogrom

Stumbled upon this quote about the Kishinev pogrom on some anti-semitic Russian nationalist website - I will not link to the scumbag demagogue. What strikes me about this quote is the juxtaposition of the first two sentences!

This is from the writings of A.I. Pollan (the investigating government attorney) wrote:
"The youth, consisting mostly of teenagers, began to break the windows in the Jewish houses, throwing out their property and destroying it... The disturbances did not take on a threatening character... By evening, when the army was asked to intervene, 62 people were arrested. The next day, April 7, the disturbances started up again... Some of the Jews, defending their property, began to shoot from revolvers, and one of them, who shot one of the troublemakers, was killed immediately. Afterwards, many more Jews were killed or wounded... At the present time, among those shot we count over 40... Of Christians 3 people... There are no Jews who were killed by firearms."

A typical Dutch person doesn't exist

Holland may be the first domino...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In a bind about the Akeidah

First of all - sorry about the title.

This post happened because of a line in some article online. The writer mentioned in passing that his co-worker, a "modern" Egyptian told him that the feast at the end of Ramadan is to celebrate the aborted sacrifice of Ishmael by Abraham.

When I read this, I was not completely taken aback, because I remembered hearing this sometime a while back. But for some reason I decided to look into it a little more.

The belief that Ishmael is the son that was meant to be sacrificed comes from the Muslim equivalent of Midrash, and is not explicitly mentioned in the Koran, and there is some disagreement between the Muslim theologians of whether it is Isaac or Ishmael who is bound, however, Ishmael seems to be the dominant opinion. The key reasons for this belief seem to be the phrase "your only son" in the Torah. The Muslims argue that since Isaac was not the only son, the verse must refer to Ishmael. The fact that Isaac is named explicitly in the Torah is explained away by tahrif, the belief that the Jews corrupted the Torah to further their interests. They support this idea of corruption by citing, among others, Jeremiah 8:8
"How can you say, "We are wise,
for we have the law of the LORD,"
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?
[For those interested in the whole back and forth argument, which is just as spirited as anything you'll find on XGH or DovBear, feel free to visit the answering-islam and answering-christianity websites.]

Obviously the notion of God asking you to sacrifice your only child is so jarring that the meaning of the akeidah has been debated for thousands of years and reinterpreted many times from Midrash to Kierkegaard. Wikipedia mentions Chassidic interepretations that change the meaning of the episode from a "test" of Abraham to a "punishment" for sending Ishmael and Hagar away into the desert. In the Koranic version of the Akeidah, Abraham reveals his plan to Ishmael who willingly submits to his destiny - hence the test of faith is for both the father and the son, consistent with the idea of submission to God's will (Islam means "submission" in Arabic).

For Christians, of course, the idea of the Akeidah is a foreshadowing of God sacrificing his only son through the Crucifixion, even to the point of Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice foreshadowing Jesus carrying the cross. Interestingly enough, there are Jewish traditions of Isaac actually being sacrificed and then resurrected. It is hard to say what the intent of these "unorthodox" traditions was.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Poisoning the well

Today marks the third time in the last week or so that people used the phrase "poisoning the well" in comments on XGH's blog.

As Jews, is this really a good phrase to be bandying about?

Blue Monday - Ronnie Baker Brooks

Son of legendary Chicago Bluesman, Lonnie Brooks. I wrote about them here...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How to start your own religion

How to start your own religion

hat tip OnionSoupMix

Friday, November 16, 2007

Scary Mary and Shining

Isn't it amazing how creative people can be?

Bass-ically OK

So, following up on my decision to actually enjoy my life, I purchased a bass guitar(see pic) and a little practice amp. I have to say that I really enjoy this little present to myself. What's funny is that every time I hear any kind of music, I seem to subconsciously focus much more on the bass parts in the song. I really seems to stand out to me now.
The progress I am making is OK. On the one hand, since I know how to play guitar, I know the notes etc... So could pretty much hit the ground running and be able to produce something that doesn't sound like total crap.
On the other hand, I know that my technique sucks and that I really should be focusing on the basics - doing finger strength exercises, playing slowly and with a metronome, and probably signing up for some lessons to make sure that I start out learning how to do things the right way, instead of just learning bad habits which will be hard to break later. But it is hard to discipline myself, even though I know that that is the right thing to do. I think it would have been easier if I did know anything at all, since then I would have a choice but to start at the beginning...

Oh, here's one of the songs I started practicing...

Thursday, November 15, 2007


The novelist, what's his name, Markfield, has written in a story somewhere that until he was fourteen he believed "aggravation" to be a Jewish word. Well, this is what I thought about "tumult" and "bedlam," two favorite nouns of my mother's. Also "spatula." I was already the darling of the first grade, and in every schoolroom competition, expected to win hands down, when I was asked by the teacher one day to identify a picture of what I knew perfectly well my mother referred to as a "spatula" but for the life of me I could not think of the word in English. Stammering and flushing, I sank defeated into my seat, not nearly so stunned as my teacher but badly shaken up just the same...
Phillip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint

Today, I found out that the word "snood" is not a Jewish word.

More Strauss

An interesting review by Allen Nadler in the Forward of Steven B. Smith's book Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Do not feed the Trolls!

A little history for the script kiddies out there:

In the late 1960's the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the US Department of Defense had successfully completed the construction of a new national computer communication network - the ARPANET. This network connected the leading research institutions in the country as well as various military and government facilities. By 1971, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, due to its pioneering research into computing with the ILLIAC machines, was connected to this network.

In the spring of 1988, a certain freshman of the College of Engineering at the UIUC was shown a room full of VT-100 terminals and discovered the wonders of the Internet. It was then when he first encountered trolls.
An Internet troll, or simply troll in Internet slang, is someone who intentionally posts controversial or contrary messages in an on-line community such as an on-line discussion forum or group with the intention of baiting users into an argumentative response.

I will not name names, but please, readers of the blogs - do not feed the trolls. They thrive on responses. Like weeds they choke the positive discussions in the comments. And you will never win an argument with them because that is not their aim. It is difficult, but the reward is great.

Spread the word!

Persecution and the Art of Writing Pt III - Maimonides

(cont'd from here)

The third chapter of the book is an analysis of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. Strauss' key point is that the Guide was purposefully written as an esoteric text, whose true meaning was encoded in the text, which Maimonides states pretty much outright in the introduction. Strauss then procedes to decode the various methods that Maimonides employs to hide the true meaning of his work.

Strauss starts out by pointing out that Maimonides, like other traditional Jews, believed that the text of the Torah contained secrets and mysteries encoded in it; secrets that can only be unlocked through a careful analysis of the text by the select few. In this Maimonides perpetuates the ancient outlook - there are those who are destined to be the elite, the philosophers, those who have the capacity to understand the secret teachings, and then there are the rest, who are doomed to ignorance. The writing of the Guide, ostensibly to explicate the mysteries of the Torah, is done using similar techniques that the Torah used.

Strauss then elaborates on these techniques, specifically, repetition and contradiction. In Scripture, whenever concepts or stories are repeated, usually with minor variations, the traditional approach is to look carefully at the minor variations, since it is through them that the hidden additional meanings are revealed. The Guide uses the same technique. Likewise, whenever a seeming contradiction is encountered in the text, instead of attributing this contradiction to a shortcoming of the author, the astute reader needs to analyze the contradiction, since it is also a signpost for a secret concept.

This is a profound thought. In many ways, modern Biblical criticism uses the concepts of repetitive variation and contradicting statements to argue against the Divine authorship of the Torah. Yet here Strauss argues, that these techniques can be used on purpose as a method of conveying secret concepts, that they were done intentionally by the author. Of course, Strauss is not arguing for Divine authorship of the Torah, and the fact that Maimonides uses the same approach as used by the Sages is not a very strong argument. However, what struck me as interesting is that Strauss states that Al-Farabi, and Plato used similar techniques in their works. Now Al-Farabi was very familiar with greek philosophy so it is likely that he picked up this technique from them, but is it the case that the Greek philosophers were using such techniques. If so, this would imply that the techniques of purposeful repetition and contradiction were known independently in both the Jewish and Greek traditions.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Fathers are different!

Check out this video. I will bet my mortgage that this guy was left alone to babysit his kids that night. But he had something to do - he needed to post a YouTube video of himself playing 'Man of Constant Sorrow' on his folk guitar. So, put the baby on the couch, tell the other kid to sit still on the couch, and away we go!

Persecution and the Art of Writing Pt II

(cont'd from here)
Strauss starts out by making a statement that it is possible for a good writer in a totalitarian regime to write a work in such a way that it will expose his heterodox ideas without triggering the attention of the censors. For example, the writer can write an attack on a particular topic, and by doing so, expose his readers to most of the points of such a topic. It would be as if a Chareidi writer wrote a book attacking evolution, but in the course of the book described in detail the main points of evolutionary theory. His readers would be exposed to many ideas which they had not been exposed to before, and may be then impelled to study these ideas and to think more about them.

Strauss gives several reasons why this method would be feasible. One is his assertion that in general, censors are less intelligent than writers. Another is that if challenged by the censors, the burden of proof would be on them to show that the writer had intentionally done something to promote the heterodox beliefs.

For some reason, Strauss' thesis doesn't resonate with me. I feel like he is being naive, which is surprising, since this essay was written in the late '30s. It seems like his argument falls apart if you say that the state doesn't have to be fair when accusing the writer of subversion. Sure, in a fair trial you could argue that bad intent on the part of the writer would be hard to prove, but what of the case where the state doesn't make the effort to have a fair trial? - which was the case in most of the totalitarian regimes in 20th century Europe!

BlueBoom Boom Monday

Blues great Johnny Lee Hooker performing on the BBC

Friday, November 09, 2007

Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym

By the wayside stands a bent tree;
All the birds have flown away,
And the tree stands deserted.

Turn toward the west, turn toward the east,
And the rest--turn toward the south,
And the tree is abandoned to the storm.

I say to momma--"Listen,
If you don't stand in my way,
Then, one--two,
I'll quickly become a bird.

I'll sit in the tree
And lull it during the winter and comfort it
With a lovely tune."

And momma says, "No, child,"
And weeps bitter tears.
"G-d forbid, you might freeze in the tree."

So I say, "Momma, it's a waste of your lovely eyes,
Because before you know it,
I'll be a bird."

And momma cries, and says "Itzik, my Crown,
As G-d would want, take a scarf with you,
Lest you catch cold.

"Put on your galoshes,
It will be a severe winter.
And take your fur hat, too.
Woe is me!

"And wear you warm underwear, foolish child,
Lest you become a guest of the dead."

I lift my wing, but it's hard...
Too many things, too many things
Has momma put on her weak little fledgling.

I look sadly into my momma's eyes;
Her love did not allow me to become a bird.

By the wayside stands a bent tree.
All the birds have flown away,
And the tree stands deserted.

This is a lullaby by Itzik Manger. A beautiful melody, and somehow, quintessentially Yiddish. Here are the original Yiddish lyrics...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Persecution and the Art of Writing

Started reading Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing. So far I am about half way through the Introduction. It is not light reading. Some observations thus far:

The introduction is operating on at least three levels. Strauss is writing about al-Farabi, who is writing about Plato. It is a little challenging to keep track of who is talking about whom.

Philosophers were essentially persecuted in Greece. They were not popular with the people nor with the government. This persecution created a duality in writing, an esoteric and exoteric message, one for the common people, and one for fellow philosophers who know the code. Interestingly, in Judaism, this idea is supported both by philosophers such as the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed and the mystical Kabbalists with their ideas of nigleh and nistar. Once again, at another level, it is possible that Strauss' work itself is written at both levels, containing hidden messages to his initiates.

Interestingly enough, the persecution of philosophers had led Plato and his disciples to the belief that it is the philosophers that represent the highest ideal of mankind. This seems to me very similar to the idea of the Jews viewing themselves as God's special people even as they were being degraded and persecuted by the Gentiles.

I hope to finish the Introduction in the next couple days and move on to the actual meat of the book.

Rachel and Her Children

More from the Chronicles of Solomon bar Simson

Now I shall recount and tell of the most unusual deeds that were done on that day [May 27, 1096] by these righteous ones.... Who has ever seen anything like this? Who has ever heard of a deed like that which was performed by this righteous and pious woman, the young Rachel, the daughter of Rabbi Isaac ben Asher, the wife of rabbi Judah? For she said to her friends: "I have four children. Do not spare even them, lest the Christians come, take them alive, and bring them up in their false religion. Through them, too, sanctify the name of the Holy God."
So one of her companions came and picked up a knife to slaughter her son. But when the mother of the children saw the knife, she let out a loud and bitter lament and she beat her face and breast, crying: Where are Thy mercies, O God?" In the bitterness of her soul she said to her friend: "Do not slay Isaac in the presence of his brother Aaron lest Aaron see his brother's death and run away." The woman then took the lad Isaac, who w as small and very pretty, and she slaughtered him while the mother spread out her sleeves to receive the blood, catching it in her garment instead of a basin. When the child Aaron saw that his brother Isaac was slain, he screamed again and again: "Mother, mother, do not butcher me,'' and ran and hid under a chest.

She had two daughters also who still lived at home, Bella and Matrona, beautiful young girls, the children of her husband Rabbi Judah. The girls took the knife and sharpened it themselves that it should not be nicked. Then the woman bared their necks and sacrificed them to the Lord God of Hosts who has commanded us not to change His pure religion but to be perfect with Him, as it is written [Deuteronomy 18:13]: "Perfect shall you be with the Lord your God."

When this righteous woman had made an end of sacrificing her three children to their Creator, she then raised her voice and called out to her son Aaron: "Aaron, where are you? You also I will not spare nor will I have any mercy." Then she dragged him out by his foot from under the chest where he had hidden himself, and she sacrificed him before God, the high and exalted. She put her children next to her body, two on each side, covering them with her two sleeves, and there they lay struggling in the agony of death. When the enemy seized the room they found her sitting and wailing over them "Show us the money that is under your sleeves," they said to her. But when it was the slaughtered children they saw, they Struck her and killed her, upon her children, and her spirit flew away and her soul found peace at last. To her applied the Biblical verse [Hosea 10:14]: "The mother was dashed in pieces with her children." . . .

When the father saw the death of his four beautiful, lovely children, he cried aloud, weeping and wailing, and threw him upon the sword in his hand so that his bowels came out, and wallowed in blood on the road together with the dying who were convulsed, rolling in their life's blood. The enemy killed all that who were left in the room and then stripped them naked; [Lamentations 1: 11] "See, O Lord, and behold, how abject I am become." Then the crusaders began to give thanks in the name of "the hanged one" because they had done what they wanted with all those in the room of the bishop so that not a soul escaped. [The crusaders now held a thanksgiving service in the archbishop's palace where the massacre took place.]

It is possible that this may not be a historical account. I am not sure how Solomon bar Simson would have gotten this information. But what horror! How much suffering exists in this world!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Liquid Paper

Used Liquid Paper today for the first time in probably 10 years. I don't think young people today even know what that is!

BlueMellow Monday

Satta Massagana

There is a land far, far away
Where there's no night, there's only day
Look into the Book of Life and you will see
That there's a land far, far away
That there's a land far, far away.

The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords
Sits upon his throne and He rules us all
Look into the Book of Life and you will see
That He rules us all
That He rules us all.

There is a land...

If God lived on Earth, people would break His windows!

or perhaps just amputate His limbs!
A toddler born with eight limbs and believed by some to be the reincarnation of the multi-limbed Hindu goddess Vishnu, is set to undergo a 40-hour operation to remove half of her limbs.
The extraordinary eight-limbed baby was born in a poverty-stricken region of Bihar, India - on the day devoted to the celebration of the four-armed Hindu deity Vishnu. Her mother Poonam Tatma said she believed her daughter was "a miracle, a reincarnation" of Vishnu.

Read the full story here...

Mirror images

XGH posted a reply from James Kugel to a question that many of us have been struggling with - how do people reconcile their Orthodox beliefs with the apparent contradictions from Archaeology, Science, and Biblical Scholarship, that assail the foundations of those beliefs.

I guess I find this reply though eloquent, lacking. Ultimately, though his reasoning may differ, his conclusions are remarkably like those of evanstonjew. Essentially, it sounds like he is recommending a two fold approach for the Orthodox Jews:

1) If you are not already aware of all the issues, stay ignorant of them. Avoid looking into Biblical Scholarship, or Archaelogy, etc.

2) If you already have been exposed to it, then compartmentalize the two concerns, pretending that the conclusions of one have nothing to do with the other. His defense for this approach lies in noting that the halachic lifestyle is not directly dependent of the Torah.

So I wonder what his advice would be to potential Baalei T'shuva. In my mind they are the mirror images of the Orthodox skeptics. They too are in a state of cognitive dissonance and are attempting to resolve it. Would Kugel and evanstonjew and the rest of the advocates of compartmentalization advise them to not become observant and to continue to live as unobservant Jews?

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Tail Wagging the Rebbe

LubabNoMore writes:
All kidding aside, I honestly think it would take a order from The Rebbe, in person, to abuse them of the notion that he will rise from the grave. (A tape of The Rebbe saying as much at a previous event wouldn't do. It would be too easy to explain away.)

I don't know why but it reminds me of the old article from the Onion: Christ Converts to Islam.
The controversial retraction of two millennia of Christian doctrine has provoked strongly divided reaction. Millions of devout Christians, insisting that obeisance to Christ's commands is the cornerstone of their faith, have heeded His instructions and converted to Islam. Millions more, however, have decried the recalcitrant Christ's apostasy, breaking ties with Him and calling His conversion "a heathen act" of "utmost blasphemy before Himself."

"Jesus, or Isa Shabazz, or whatever He's calling Himself these days, is the way, the truth and the light. It says so in the Bible," said devout Catholic Kathleen Langan of Cork, Ireland, kneeling toward Mecca for the first time. "My loyalty to Him is absolute. If He told me to be a Buddhist, I'd do it. All praise and thanks to Allah."

Ruth-Anne Girolamo, a Sunday school teacher in Stillwater, OK, disagreed. "I've been a Bible-believing Christian all my life, and nothing, not even a direct order from Christ Himself, is going to change that," Girolamo said. "If Christ is going to leave the fold and become a sinner, we'll just have to go on worshipping Him against His will."

Dear Diary

Yesterday was a decidedly freaky day. Had a meeting with my boss at his cube. He started it off with a few inappropriate jokes which struck me as odd since we don't know each other very well. One of the jokes was truly odd, as pedophilia jokes are wont to be. I felt a weird vibe, but I figured the guy just had a long day and his brain is a little fried.

We get onto his computer, but instead of opening the document we needed to review, for some reason he opened his personal email. He pulled up a set of photos of nude women with elaborate body painting. Probably some Halloween spam from his buddies. Now, I am a pretty open minded guy, but at this point I am more than a bit uncomfortable. I barely know this guy, yet here I am sitting next to him as he proceeds to leer at the pictures, moving his mouse over the naughty bits while kinda grunting to himself, "Oh yeah, she looks pretty good!". I am speechless. People are walking past the cubicle as this is happening. I am beginning to think this guy is either drunk, on drugs, or lost his mind. I tell him that I've had a long day and maybe we should reschedule our meeting. It is about 5:30 pm.

I get on the road, still shaken by this surreal turn of events. I notice the traffic ahead of me is swerving to avoid something lying on the road. As I get closer, I discover that the object in the express lane is in fact a full size stuffed pony. How bizarre.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

This world is too weird

This is almost mystical in its dissonance:

For some couples, distance is key to closeness

Dude! Never has one man said so much while saying so little