Pity for the Enemy

12 03 2011

In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus is quoted as having made a rather brazen statement. “You have heard,” he says, “that you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy. Well I say that you should love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” In Berakhot 10a, Rabbi Meir is talked by his sensible wife into praying for the repentance of “bandits” (countryfolk, to be linguistically precise), but to suggest that somebody should go so far as to actually love the ones who threaten them might be a bit much. In fact, show me somebody who genuinely has compassion for those who endanger the lives of his children, and I’ll show you somebody who shouldn’t have any. But that’s only one of two reasons as to why this statement is a brazen one. The other, less obvious, reason is that nowhere is it said that you should hate them in the first place.

In fact, Jesus’ assertion (if we might take at face value that it was his) is renowned for going so much further than the statement attributed to Hillel before him: that which is harmful to you, do not do to another; that is the whole of Torah (Shabbat 31a). Like Rabbi Akiva, who in later years was to suggest that “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18) was the most important mitzvah (cf: Sifra 19:45), Jesus seems to be drawing on this principle in citing his modified ruling. Yet where does the Torah ever stress the corollary, that one should hate his enemies? Nowhere does the verb √שנא (nor the nouns שנאה or אימה), appear within the context of an imperative, commanding us to hate anybody or anything. There are ample passages that testify to an enmity for certain nations, people, animals, objects and practises, but nothing that says that you must actually despise those things. At least, not in the way that Jesus appears to be suggesting.

It strikes me that Jesus is employing a rather exclusionary interpretation of the word רעך, which I have above translated as “your neighbour”, but which more properly means “your friend”. I do not suppose that anybody (leastways, nobody who pretends to live in accordance with this principle) would suggest that it is referring to anything so exclusive as the individual who you would consider your actual companion, but it is through intimating that it is only those people whom one is required to love that Jesus derives the implicit corollary: those who are not your friends, you are required to actually hate. That is going a bit far for my liking, but then it is Matthew 5 that we are talking about.

Be that as it may, I was teaching my weekly Shabbat morning class on Isaiah this morning, and we were reading chapters 15 and 16. This lengthy oracle against Moab provided me with a wonderful opportunity to present also the Moabite Stone, and compare it (on a surface level) to the war between Moab and Israel, Judah and Edom in 2 Kings 3. Considering the generally polemical nature of all texts that concern Moab (and it is the exceptional character of Ruth that proves the rule), it is no surprise that Isaiah’s oracle (not unlike all of Isaiah’s oracles in this section) should be so gratuitously violent. Indeed, I even suggested that those sections in which he expresses sincere grief for the misfortune of the Moabites were anything but that, and that the Israelite poet who composed this particular oracle wanted nothing more than to crow bombastically over the annihilation of his foes. And yet… there is something strange about 16:3-4.

Having immediately followed on from the threat of destruction, levelled against even those few who escape God’s immediate wrath (15:9), the prophet now admonishes us to show mercy to their refugees, to hide their escapees, and to be a general refuge for them. That the editors of the NRSV noted the incongruence of this passage might be demonstrated in the fact that they enclosed it in quotation marks. Somebody is saying this, but it is evidently neither the prophet himself nor God. In a footnote to the New Jerusalem Bible, the assertion is made that this is the Moabites who are speaking. That might make sense, and may be what the NRSV is meaning to suggest. But is that what the Hebrew actually says?

יגורו בך נדחי מואב הוי סתר למו מפני שודד

I would translate this as “Let the Moabite refugees dwell among you; be a hiding place for them from the despoiler”. If I were to vocalise it, in other words, I would render it as yaguru vakh nidchei mo’av hevei seter lamo mifnei shoded. Yet I was most intrigued to discover that this is not how it is actually vocalised in the MT. On the contrary, there it is vocalised as yaguru vakh niddachai mo’av hevei seter lamo mifnei shoded. In other words, “Let my refugees live among you, O Moab; be a hiding place for them from the despoiler”.

I think that it is safe to say that this reading makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Instead, I would suggest that it is a symptom of exegetical discomfort over the possibility that Isaiah is here exhorting the Israelites to have compassion for their foes. While I can understand the Masoretes having had a problem with this possibility, I find it difficult to understand why certain Christian translations would find it problematic, especially when it occurs in what is widely referred to as the fourth gospel.


25 02 2011

Quite some time ago, I wrote a post about an interesting difference between the Masoretic Text (Genesis 42:1) and two of the Aramaic translations: Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the Peshitta. What interested me about them was that they had both understood the word תתראו as תתיראו: “[you pl.] looking at one another”, vs. “[you pl.] are afraid”. It seemed to me, if not to others, that the Aramaic/Syriac version was superior to the version in the Hebrew, which never really satisfied me in context. Turns out that there’s another instance, very similar to that one!

Almost exactly one year ago, Dov Bear wrote a post about Exodus 32:5, in which he indicated his confusion over precisely what it was that Aaron is said to have seen. In this instance, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan keeps the same Hebrew verb as we find in the Masoretic Text (although he does add details that concern what Aaron saw), but the Peshitta, again, renders this as √דחל, “to fear”. In this instance, however, the anonymous translator would not have had a text that featured an additional letter, but was merely vocalising differently those letters that he had.

This all reminds me of the fact that I really should read more of the Peshitta. I wonder how often it renders “look” as “fear”? The root √ראה turns up almost four hundred times in the Torah alone, and as I don’t have the Peshitta on my copy of Accordance, I expect that this experiment might take more time than I am prepared to commit. Until I update my hopelessly outdated software, I wonder if anybody in possession of a newer version would like to take a stab at this? Does the anonymous translator of the Peshitta specifically have a thing for the horror genre?

“As the Waters Cover the Sea”

28 01 2011

There are various places online where you can read about the top applications for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. Assuming that you are interested in games, or various forms of social organisers and search tools, these lists can be quite helpful. But what happens if your tastes are a little more… boutique? What are the best applications for the Hebrew scholar? For the purveyor of rabbinic literature? For the biblical geek? Well, my friend, you have come to the right place, for while I don’t want to out myself as a “fan-boy”, the number of Apple devices that I now use has reached a disconcerting five, and I am told that I am a bit of a Jew.

What follows is not only in praise of Apple (although I suspect that various mediaeval artists were correct when they depicted it as the fruit of all knowledge), but is simply my top-five list of Hebraic/rabbinic/biblical applications in general. Those who are interested in such things: knock yourselves out. (Those who are not: what are you doing here?)

[And to all of you: I am sure that this list is not nearly exhaustive! If you know of other applications that you can recommend, please share them in the comments thread.]

5. Even though I no longer use it, I feel the need to draw people’s attention to “the iPhone application 1800 years in the making”. Crowded Road’s iMishna is fantastic. I am surprised that it is presently selling for $15 (I seem to remember it being very cheap when I purchased it originally), but I do think it’s excellent. It contains the full text of the Mishna (I cannot tell you which manuscripts it relies upon), and the commentaries of Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura and the Tosafot Yom Tov. Apparently, you can also download lectures by a certain Rabbi Chaim Brown, although this is not a feature that I have ever utilised and so I cannot vouch for their quality. As an application that enables you to search for Hebrew words within individual tractates, individual orders, or throughout the Mishna as a whole, this is an excellent product. I almost got hit by a car once because I was somewhat engrossed in Tractate Avot while walking from Chatswood to Artarmon, but I’ve nobody to blame for that but myself. Knowing Mishna off by heart is much safer.

4. Now, I got excited once before about a website that enabled me to download the full text of the Hebrew Bible, spoken by a fellow with a beautiful Sephardi accent. It remains a marvellous site, but I have found something better. Granted, it won’t suit everybody. Indeed, it may not even suit anybody, but it has provided me with hours of genuine fascination, and so I share it with you: Rav Nissan Kaplan, the mashgiach ruchani at the Mirrer Yeshiva, Jerusalem, has uploaded a very large number of audio files. While driving, I occasionally listen to his mussar schmuessen, although mainly for the nostalgia value. When I have more time on my hands, I listen to a halakha or a gemara shiur. Other excellent (and decidedly more “academic”) lectures are available from Merkaz, but the audio quality is generally pretty poor. And of course, neither of these sites are actually “applications”, but they make my iPod happy.

3. I have heard lots of good things about Bible Works, but I have never used it. Instead, I use a program called Accordance, which runs like a charm on both my iMac and my MacBook. Without this program, I would never have been able to write my Honours thesis (which was a fascinating analysis of the frequency and distribution of locative-heh suffix forms in Chronicles), and I am tremendously impressed me with the acumen of former generations of scholars who were able to find such information without the aid of a computer program. I am running an old version of the software (6.9.1), and despite spotting the occasional error, an ability to search quickly and easily for grammatical and syntactic features of the Hebrew text (BHS, with Groves-Wheeler Westminster Hebrew Morphology) makes it well worth whatever it was that I paid for it back in 2005. I use it less today than I used to, but it remains a sensational resource.

2. Why don’t I use “Accordance” as often as I once did? Because I have a concordance in my pocket! Bill Clementson’s HebrewBible is the very best thing about the Apple iPhone. As you can see from the link, it has a wide variety of different features, but its most useful one is the fact that it contains a fully functional concordance. Many a time I have whipped out my iPhone in class in order to quickly search for a Hebrew root. The application finds the various occurrences for me, and even presents the individual verses that feature that particular word. It relies on an internet connection in order to operate, but if there’s a network available (or if you have 3G on your device), you will also be pleased to note the inclusion of the full text of the BDB.

As for the biblical text, the Hebrew is taken from a variety of different manuscripts (the Aleppo Codex is given preference, although they have apparantly privileged the Leningrad Codex in those places where the Aleppo is unavailable), and you can even switch to Aramaic (Onkelos, based on various Yemenite manuscripts). The English is based on the 1917 JPS, although I find it handy to also utilise Paul Avery’s (free) Holy Bible, which has the King James Version amongst others. At $9, Bill Clementson’s “HebrewBible” is worth every cent.

1. And this brings us to number 1. The absolute greatest in 21st century gadgetry! Good.iWare’s Goodreader for the Apple iPad is a product that I cannot recommend highly enough. This is where my search for the perfect e-Reader ended. I wanted something with a large screen, PDF functionality and full Hebrew support. The only device with E Ink that seemed to be available was the Pocketbook 902, and I can certainly recommend it to those whose PDFs are very small, or who are also likely to read material in alternative formats. But if, like me, you are getting your literature from HebrewBooks.org, then you are going to need something that can handle files approaching 200MB. As beautiful as the Pocketbook 902 is, it just doesn’t cut it.

Goodreader on the iPad enables you to go online within the program itself and download PDFs directly from the website. It then allows you to rename them, create folders for them, organise them within your folders, preview them before viewing them, and even make your own notes on them when you do. It loads pages quickly (at worst, a little over a second), allows you to jump to specific pages in advance, lets you search within the documents (in Hebrew as well as in English), and reloads the pages if you zoom so that the writing is still sharp. It has a number of other features as well, which I’ve not yet had the time to encounter, and is absolutely perfect for those who wish to have a rabbinic library on the go. I have already dumped the entire Mishna onto it, the entire Babylonian Talmud, some PDFs of Hebrew and Greek verbal paradigms, Midrash Rabba, Torat Kohanim and a handful of inscriptions: the Mesha Stele, Tel-Dan Inscription, Kilamuwa Inscription, Kuntillet Ajrud Inscription and the Gezer Calendar. Next stop: Rambam’s Mishne Torah and the Shulchan Arukh! And all for a whopping $4. (Not including the cost of the iPad).

Now I know what you’re going to say: why would you want to read these sorts of things on an eReader anyway? Indeed, I have asked the same question myself. When faced with the choice, I will opt for printed literature 100% of the time, and my overcrowded bedroom is a testament to that fact. But in truth, we are none of us always at our desks. And when attending a conference, sitting at the university, travelling on a bus, sleeping in a tent, hiking through the bush, even walking down the street, there are times when I wish to consult something, confirm something, prove a point, or simply sit and learn. The fact that the 21st century has provided regular people with an ability to do this, wherever they may be and whatever they might have been otherwise doing, is astonishing.

I sometimes wonder what Maimonides might have said, had he been transported from the 12th century to the 21st, and had he been able to witness the tremendous proliferation of Torah, made readily available to all manner of individuals excluded in the past. Whether it’s the awe-inspiring Bar Ilan Responsa Project, the far-reaching commentaries of Rav Adin Steinsaltz, or the tremendous proliferation of vernacular translations by Artscroll, this would surely have been considered a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (11:9) that the knowledge of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. When you consider the ready availability of these texts and their highly portable nature, I imagine that there is only one word that Maimonides could have used to describe it.


Sixty-Six Clouds

20 12 2010

“Well, I’m back,” said Sam Gamgee. I am currently writing a full review of my Vipassana experience but, in the meantime, thought that I might share a particularly interesting video. By putting the contents of the New International Version (*grr*) into Wordle, 66 Clouds have created a series of beautiful images, available for purchase both as posters and in a book. Representing the frequencies of individual words throughout the Old and New Testaments, the following is a video of their creation:

I have never used Wordle and so I do not know if it is limited to English, but it would be fun to feed the words of the Hebrew Bible into their algorithm.

[Hat-tip to J. Mark Bertrand of Bible Design and Binding.]


6 12 2010

… from Deane Galbraith’s Biblical Studies Carnival 57:

Lester Grabbe turned 65 on Nov 5 (which dates him, contrary to popular rumor, well after the Persian period).

One rarely gets a “laugh out loud moment” when reading a biblical studies carnival, which makes this statement a most fitting birthday tribute to a man who has provided me with “laugh out loud moments” even in his scholarly publications themselves. Indeed, I would like to share Lester Grabbe’s hilarious introduction to an essay that he wrote, entitled “The Law of Moses in the Ezra Tradition: More Virtual Than Real?”, which is found on pp91-113 of Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch (ed. James Watts; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001):

When you read the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel, you could be forgiven for thinking that at the time of the Persian Empire, the Jews had really taken over the joint. You can hardly turn around without stepping on a Jewish minister, governor, advisor, favorite of the emperor, and even the odd queen. Yehud seems to have been the most esteemed province in the entire Persian Empire, on which was lavished constant attention, a stream of favorable decrees, and great quantities of precious metal… The text stops short of making one of the Persian kings Jewish, but never fear! A scholarly theory shall soon fill this gap. Don’t be at all surprised if in the future Cyrus is discovered to be a Benjaminite; Darius, a worshiper or YHWH; and Xerxes, circumcised on the eighth day.

If only biblical studies were always so amusing.

Development of the Halakha

5 12 2010

As it has come to my attention that some people who are interested in the development of Jewish law have been unable to find satisfactory resources online, I thought I might take a moment to delineate the basic process by which the principles expounded in the Torah are applied today. This is not intended to be at all exhaustive, but rather an overview of the development of the halakha, with attention paid to those texts that, historically, have proven to be most beneficial. A truly “bottom-up” approach might look at all manifestations of legal exegesis, rather than merely those that the tradition deems authoritative, and those who are interested in reading more can consult the recommended reading list below, in §7. Likewise, those who prefer only a summary of a summary can skip straight to the “Summary and Conclusions” in §6.

Read the rest of this entry »

Biblical Studies Carnival 57

2 12 2010

Deane Galbraith has, what must be, the most thoroughly comprehensive Biblical Studies Carnival to date. With no fewer than six categories (“Academy, Biblioblogging and Handy Hints”, “Christian Origins”, “Emerging Judaism”, “Language, Text and Translation”, “Reception History” and “Humor and Gossip”), this carnival has something for everyone! Except people who don’t care about the Bible. But hey, you can’t please everybody.