27 04 2011

How far would you go for a pie?

Recently, driven on the winds of hunger, I drove 775km for one of the best pies in the world. Large chunks of real beef, drenched in gravy and blanketed in thin, crusty pastry…

Fortunately, the annual Blues and Roots Festival happened to be on while I was in Byron Bay, so I also managed to see several acts, including Fishbone, Indigo Girls, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan. For the last one, I can only say that the times, they are a-catching up. And when I was not at the festival, walking on the beach, hiking through the bush, nor gazing at the horizon from the vantage point of Australia’s eastern-most tip, I was irritating anybody who came within earshot by reading the first two tractates of the Mishna aloud in an effort to cement them before moving on to the third. I should certainly have brought the first of my new thirteen-volume Mishna with Kehati with me, the better to correct my inevitable comprehensive lacunae.

It is so good, at the end of a long, two-day drive, to be again home. It is so wonderful to be back in my book-lined room, to which I have recently added not only those volumes of the Mishna (only $100, if you can believe it, from Pomeranz Books), but a full set of Steinsaltz Babli, and an impressively comprehensive four-volume analysis of Jewish Law by Menachem Elon, former justice on Israel’s supreme court. I have so much reading to get through, so much marking that has to be done, new courses that need to be prepared, a talk on the history of Palestinian Judaism that needs to be given, and a thesis that I need to write. It’s good to be back.

The Good, the Bad … and the Ugly

1 04 2011

I was very pleased to discover the other day that Professor Jim Davila had again mentioned me on his popular blog, PaleoJudaica. I know this because a friend alerted me to the fact and because my blog stats magically tripled overnight. The series of posts that Jim had kindly publicised were written by me in 2005 (although added to this blog a year later), and although I don’t think that there is anything too egregious about them, I spoke with a confidence that belied my level of familiarity with the literature. The same can be said for other posts from the same time, and this blog has been a two-edged sword in that regard. While providing me with an opportunity to write about issues that interest me, it also serves as a record of the various things that I have thought and believed in the years since its inception in 2006. There are things that I can erase if I wish, and things that I sometimes do, but something published online cannot ever be eradicated completely.

The single most popular post on this blog was from July 2008, after having just returned from the SBL International Meeting in Auckland, New Zealand. A summary of Prof. David Clines’ paper on Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd” has received a total of 13,265 views – that’s only 2,000 more than the second-most popular post on this blog (a review of a truly awful Hebrew tattoo that won me the unpaid job of translating tattoos for people), but around 10,000 more views than the third-most popular post. Had I known that so many people were going to be reading it, I almost certainly would have thought a little more about what I wrote.

There are some posts of which I am particularly proud, like my translation and commentary of the Shimon bar Yochai narrative in Shabbat 33b-34a, and my overview of the development of the Halakha at the end of last year. Others, of which I am less proud, don’t need any advertisement, but I am always flattered by those who find them and hate them less than I do. Few generate genuine discussion, for which reason I have sometimes chosen to publish my posts on Galus Australis instead, where the discussion is frequently feisty. Good discussions have occurred once or twice on this blog too, as on my review of Tolkien’s translation of Jonah, although it has generally been because I posted on an issue of political significance, like the closing of Sheffield’s undergraduate biblical program, or my rejection of atheism.

Some posts have generated discussion offline as well, whether through email correspondence or when somebody approaches me and tells me that (s)he reads my blog. That’s always a strange feeling and, while it’s certainly not unwelcome, it does make me wonder just what they’ve been reading, and whether I should have been careful with what I wrote. Likewise, when I occasionally see my blog on the Biblical Studies Carnival, the excitement quickly gives way to a concern that I should be choosing my words with more care, that I should have possibly opted for a pseudonym, or that it’s high time that I go offline and do some real work for a change. When John Hobbins invited me to a dinner for bibliobloggers in New Orleans, all of those hours spent editing my rants paid off, and I wish that opportunities to meet other bibliobloggers existed in the real world more often. I also wish that I could write more.

As of today, I now teach almost every day of the week (Friday and Sunday are the only days on which I don’t have regular classes, and many Sundays are an exception), and as I am trying to get my PhD submitted before the end of 2012, I really do have very little time to contribute anything of substance. When I noticed the increased traffic coming from PaleoJudaica, my first thought was to quickly write something that might generate discussion. Instead, while I thank whoever is reading this for their kind patronage of my blog, I must regretfully indicate that my next post is unlikely to be any time soon, is doubtless going to be fairly superficial, and will be born of a desire to procrastinate above all else. I do, however, look forward very much to writing for you again when I have the time to do so properly.

For those of you who are in the least bit interested, this is the very first post that I ever wrote, only two posts before the commencement of the series that Jim Davila linked to. That was over four years ago now, and I hope that in four years from now I am still here – but not still doing this @&!# PhD.

Thoughts from the Silence: a Vipassana Review

26 12 2010

As some of you would be aware, I recently participated in a ten-day Vipassana course in Blackheath, NSW. Going into it, I knew only what little information had been made available on their website, together with a couple of things that former participants had agreed to tell me, despite their unanimous insistence that it is better to go into these things blind. Anybody who shares this ridiculous belief and would rather not know in advance what happens at a Vipassana retreat is advised to stop reading, now. As for the rest of you, the following constitutes my review of the experience.

To start off, participants were encouraged to take a vow. The content of the vow was as follows:
• I will abstain from telling lies. This is actually very easy, given that
• I will abstain from any form of communication, including speech. This even included making eye contact with fellow participants, but did not include our relationship with the assistant teachers, with whom we were encouraged to meet privately every day and discuss our “progress”.
• I will abstain from killing anything. Unfortunately, this one did include the assistant teachers.
• I will abstain from having sexual intercourse with anybody. Apparantly, even if I refuse to make eye contact with them while we’re doing it, or speak to them afterwards.
• I will not take any intoxicants.

Had I have known that I was going to be given my own private room, I would most certainly have snuck in some reading material. A tractate or two of the Babylonian Talmud might have gone down nicely, together with Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary, a nice Tanakh, some scholarship on Ezra/Nehemiah, and a book in which to write. But then, I probably would have also snuck in a bottle of scotch, so it’s good that I was expecting shared accommodation.

As a result, for ten days, in the bushland of Blackheath, I wandered in silence. For ten days, with neither phone, nor email, nor printed matter of any description, I sat in the bush and I walked through the trees. I observed a lizard hatching from an egg, an old bee grooming himself and dying, and life positively teeming all around me. As a long-time fan of Sir David Attenborough and his remarkable documentaries, it was a very pleasant surprise to discover just how much one can see, up close and personal, if only one takes the time to shut up and sit still.

For several hours on every one of those days, I also learned and practised a technique of meditation that practitioners ascribe to Siddhartha Gautama, and that they claim represents the essence of Buddhism. Professing it to constitute a universal doctrine that transcends faith and creed, they insist upon its applicability to every major religion and every minor sect. I respected their rules (with one exception: I took covert notes) and, despite finding the process almost unbearable, I lasted the full length of the course.

So, do I recommend it? Well, that all depends on what one means by “it”. The technique: absolutely. Simple and yet profound, it is a meditation that offers a number of advantages. The course that presented that technique, however, was so heavily laden with absolute garbage that it is impossible to know where the baby ends and the bathwater begins. Or, to bastardise a different metaphor, I would advise not only taking everything that they say with a pinch of salt, but also tossing it over your left shoulder as you walk out the gate at the end of the course. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Our daily schedule was as follows:
4:00 – wake up to the gentle sound of a gong outside the window.
4:05 – go back to sleep.
4:20 – wake up again to the gentle sound of a gong, and groan. Remind me why I signed up for this?
4:30 – stumble, bleary-eyed into the hall for a “sit”. Sit.
6:25 – the hall is filled with the noise of Pali chanting, projected through speakers that are mounted near the roof. Hallelujah: the first sit of the day has finished, and it is time for…
6:30 – breakfast! Cereal, oatmeal and toast aplenty. I had the toast, and I had it aplenty.
8:00 – the first compulsory sit of the day. One hour, crosslegged, don’t you move. Instructions come at the beginning of it, and develop as the course progresses.
9:00 – meditate for two hours, either in the hall or in your room. Or, of course, don’t. Wander the grounds at your leisure and pretend to focus on your breathing. On occasions, be asked to remain behind with either the new male students, new female students, old male students or old female students – depending, of course, on which of those categories you belong to. This is an opportunity to meet with the assistant teacher, even if you didn’t want to. Males and females were separated throughout the entire course, and the only time we ever crossed paths (if it could be called “crossing paths”) was on our way to…
11:00 – lunch! Oh, so much food! Completely vegetarian, but of such high quality that I didn’t think of meat or fish once. This is the luck of the draw, really, as the kitchen (indeed, the entire program) is staffed by volunteers.
2:30 – the second compulsory sit of the day. One hour, crosslegged, etc.
3:30 – meditate for an hour-and-a-half, or wander the grounds and curse yourself for not having brought that tractate.
5:00 – “dinner”. Two pieces of fruit (either of which might have been banana, apple, orange, mandarin, kiwifruit, watermelon or pineapple), and copious amounts of tea.
6:00 – the third compulsory sit. You know the deal.
7:00 – the absolute worst part of my day. For one hour, our esteemed teacher, S.N. Goenka, delivered (via DVD) his smiling yoda wisdom. I wanted to stab something.
8:00 – another one-hour sit, in which we could practise some of the material that we had just learnt, before utilising it properly the following morning.
9:00 – go to bed. Have the strangest and most vivid dreams ever. Freud would have loved me.

Staffed completely by volunteers, and offered for no fee whatsoever, I almost feel bad insulting the guards staff who run the place. And yet, whether they were pacing the hall with clipboards in their hands, checking to see that nobody was extending their feet (this is apparantly an insult to the teacher in somebody’s country, somewhere), or bursting into my room at 5:00 one morning, on the one occasion that I was not on my meditation mat by 4:30, their tight-lipped grimaces belied the compassion that they feel for all sentient beings. So, to combat their fascistic love of timetables, I learned to stir at 4:00 only to turn on the light in my room, and go back to sleep until 6:20, thus creating the illusion that I was meditating in private. Where there’s a Buddhist will, there’s a Jewish way. I need my sleep.

And there, in a nutshell, is Vipassana. But of what substance is the kernel? Allow me now to mention some of the more insulting, insane, condescending or absurd elements of Goenka’s ridiculous philosophy. And who knows: maybe even insult a few people in the process.

By meditating upon the body, your mind will begin to uncover sensations of which it had previously been unaware.

Remember that old Zen koan? “If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it make a noise?” This was probably more profound in the 14th century, when people didn’t know how sound travelled or how it was perceived. I don’t want to be obtuse, but isn’t it obvious that the answer is “no”? If there is nothing around that can perceive sound waves as sound, they remain merely vibrations in the air. So too when it comes to sensations on the body. While some sensations might possess a physical counterpart (such as a mosquito bite), sensation remains a strictly neurological phenomenon. Proof of this lies in the plethora of sensations that amputees continue to feel in limbs that have been long removed from their bodies, for unless the mind’s map of the body should change, the body’s physical contours are largely unimportant. This is even the case when there is a strong physical component to the itch/cramp/twitch, or whatever. All it takes is to be sufficiently distracted, and the sensation disappears. To suggest that it is still there, undetected, would be like saying that the tree made a crashing noise as it fell through the canopy, even though there was nothing around to have heard it.

If you spend long hours in meditation, your coarse mind becomes subtler and subtler, until the sensations that you notice are of a likewise subtler nature, and are felt throughout the entire body.

At first, I nicknamed Goenka the Subtler Rebbe, but only because, at first, he struck me as a friendly, pious fellow. By the time that I was sick of his bloated hypocrisy (I don’t like my own “religious leaders”; why would I like somebody else’s?), these sentiments came to grate significantly on my nerves. For a start, if you spend long hours in meditation, focusing in silence on your still, crosslegged body, you are going to hone your proprioception down to an absolute T. And as you do so, you will begin to psychosomatically generate subtle vibrations throughout those parts of your body that you can make yourself aware of. As you progress further, you will naturally get better and better at proprioceptively recognising every part of your anatomy, and you will consequently begin to do an even better job of generating sensations of a subtle nature throughout it. Every now and again you will get a screaming itch, but those are just the sensations that have a physical counterpart, screaming at you through the haze of your invented vibrations. Must we pretend that we are uncovering a deep truth about ourselves in the process? Cannot a cigar ever be a cigar?

The vibrations that you feel are just macro-representations of tiny subatomic particles called kalapas, which are coming into existence and passing away with great rapidity.

Schrödinger’s cat is now out definitely of the bag. The teacher is an idiot.

By training your mind to be aware of such sensations, you not only begin to recognise the impermance of your existence, but remain equanimous during times of negative emotion…

Ah! And it is here that I acknowledge the value of this meditative technique. Ignoring the bullshit with which it is encrusted, what we have here is the tiny gem that lies at the heart of Vipassana. Rather than succumb, let’s say, to anger, I can (ideally) become aware of the changes in my respiration that mark the onset of anger, and the sensations that my body produces when it is overcome by the emotion. By observing these phenomena dispassionately, I avoid the ill effects of the sensation altogether. In fact, I had already been practising this for a while, having encountered a variation of this on a Buddhist website, once upon a distant time:

Imagine that you are driving your car, and some bastard cuts in front of you. The nerve of this fellow! How infuriated you become! Intellectually, you know that you’ve no reason to be so irate, as you most probably committed whatever heinous act has just offended you twice in the last half hour yourself, but driving is a stressful activity and we are all prone to stress-induced irritation. But take a moment to observe your irritation. Behave as though you were writing a research paper on human psychology. Simply note that, in this situation, “there is anger”. Note, when somebody has offended you, that “there is hurt”. Indeed, for the whole gamut of negative human emotions (and excepting those times when grief genuinely overpowers the senses), one might get by with simple observation of the human condition, and prevent oneself from succumbing to the psychological tribulations that the moment might otherwise bring. With the right degree of training (focus on your respiration; attune yourself to sensations that your body generates under different conditions), you ideally work towards the stage at which you have nullified all negative emotion.

… and positive emotion.

Well that’s just stupid.

After all, happiness leads to craving, and craving leads to suffering.

Actually, it was “fear leads to suffering”: get it right. The whole notion that desire is really a craving for the feeling of desire itself is one of those ideas that sounds so profound when you haven’t had any sleep, when you’ve been meditating in silence for several hours a day, and when you are surrounded by other people who apparantly share the same view. And yet, if this is enlightenment, why is it only achieved by Buddhist monks and mumbling sycophants? Indeed, why would anybody want to remain equanimous during hours of genuine joy? So that you can wander the monastery of your mind like a lobotomised vegetable? Is life so difficult for you that you need to strip yourself down to the dispassionate core?

In this respect, the teachings of Buddha are universal. After all, suffering is universal.

Oy gevalt. Suffering? Universal? I come from the world’s greatest particularistic tradition, and I can personally vouch for the fact that the notion that anything is universal is not, in itself, a universal notion. But this is quibbling. After all, as Wesley famously told Buttercup, “Life is pain, highness. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something”. And yet, if Vipassana were universal, why the constant emphasis on leaving your religion at the door? Why is it impermissible for me to have, in mind, an image of a god or a goddess? Why am I not allowed to focus on the words of a scriptural mantra, or practise a religious tradition privately, within the comfort of my room? The fact that I was forbidden to bring tefillin or tzitzit, that I was forbidden to pray, and that my mantra (רבונו של עולם) was anathema to the Buddhist tradition was all fine by me. I don’t lay tefillin, I don’t wear tzitzit, I haven’t uttered a prayer since the last time I shocked a religious friend by thanking the sun for my lunch, and I’ve not meditated since 2002. But don’t sit there and tell me that by excluding proponents of major organised religions, Vipassana becomes universal. That’s a lie.

By becoming aware of this fact, and by practising equanimity, we can die with a smile, and the next host body for our mind will be one that is fated to experience comfort and bliss.

Say what? Just the technique, right? “No dogma at all”? Hilarious! That the same oblivion and decay that awaits my moribund flesh lies in store for every grinning Buddhist is a matter of fact. But if you want to believe that your mind will keep coming back until it attains some form of enlightenment, then that’s your psychosis. I would really prefer it if you kept it to yourself, or at least had the integrity to mention it in environments where your audience is allowed to speak. How am I supposed to empty my mind when you keep dumping nonsense into it?

Bhavatu Sabba Mangelam.
Ah, it must be 8:00 already. The discourse over, S.N. Goenka now belches out a strained Pali mantra (“May all beings have peace”, or something), and I have a sudden insight into what it would be like, training to be a Jedi under Jabba’s instruction. To my continued disappointment, a surprising number of people bleat, “Saddu Saddu Saddu”, which is the Pali equivalent of Amen, before bowing in the direction of his punchable form. Me, I just contented myself with leaning back and extending a foot.

And, of course, there was the usual sprinkling of nonsense about Buddhism being scientific, about how some Nobel prize-winning physicist has only recently come to the same conclusions as [insert name of religious leader; insert number] centuries ago, and about how all matter, all sensation and all emotion is comprised of the four basic elements: earth, fire, wind and water. That would have made studying for biology easier. But all this I can forgive.

You see, if I had brought reading material with me, distracting myself from their stupidity with my own stupidity (which is superior because it is mine), the whole business would have been a piece of cake. Given that the only information going into my head from the outside was the claptrap that I was being force-fed every evening, these ten days were more of a brainwashing experience than all of my months in yeshiva.

And yet, despite all of this garbage, all of the insulting dogma and all of the simpleminded stupidity, the ten days were a useful and rewarding break away from the busyness of existence. That I got to observe animals in ways never previously experienced was a real blessing. And although I thought that I was bored, I felt positively radiant when the whole experience was over: calmer than I have felt in a long time, with a greater appreciation for precisely what I have to do and how I need to go about doing it. That is not the result of Vipassana, so much as it is the result of my taking time away from the internet, my mobile phone, and speech. I have not maintained the meditation since I returned, and I truly cannot be bothered making any effort. But I have rediscovered the beauty and the efficacy of Jewish prayer, and I hope to blog more about this in the future.

In fact, while the whole experience was meant to enable me to separate myself from Judaism, I actually found that it has only cemented my connection even further. By stripping back the subconscious – at least, ostensibly – and getting to the id that underlies my bloated, monstrous ego, I thought that I might at least come to understand exactly where that identity ends and The Real Me begins. Turns out, however, that underneath my id was another yid all along.

In fact, it’s yidden all the way down.


8 12 2010

I leave this afternoon for a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat. Conducted in silence, the course forbids eye contact between participants, and involves long hours of quiet introspection without reading material, writing material, mobile phones or internet access. We rise at 4:00 and retire at 9:00. Men and women are separated, and the days are filled with sitting still. Does it sound wonderful or devastating? My declaration to friends, family, colleagues, and even random strangers has produced polarised reactions, which were not too dissimilar to the response that I received nine years ago when I announced my intention to go to Yeshiva.

There are those who, either having done Vipassana before or having known somebody who has done it, gush enthusiasm. How they would love to do it, or do it again! How firmly they recommend that I overcome the natural desire to leave, and stay there for the full course! How jealous they are of me! What bliss to devote so long to doing so little… And yet, how other people see the same things in a different light. Eyebrows arched, they express everything from mild disapproval to a rather emphatic disgust that somebody could possibly waste such precious time. Ten days could be spent writing my thesis, reading scholarly literature, learning a language, or even going to the beach. Even ten days doing absolutely “nothing” (drinking beer, eating BBQ, seeing films, etc) would be something! Allow me then to explain precisely why it is that I have decided to do something so strange this summer (and so uncharacteristic of me!) as meditate.

I am all for filling my brain with information. Indeed, what turned me off Zen Buddhism so many moons ago was its emphasis on mindlessness. Why rid the mind of thoughts when you can fill it up instead? Life is all about learning, and the more obscure, the more arcane, the more utterly esoteric those things are, then the better they seem to fit inside my head, and the more eagerly do I seek to embrace them. Indeed, my return to Sydney will see me starting three Summer School courses at Macquarie Uni and the University of Sydney: Intermediate Classical Greek, Intermediate Latin, and Beginners Sanskrit. Bliss! And yet, despite all this, there is virtue in detachment. Despite all this, as Chuck Palahniuk once said, I am not the things I know. I am not my job, I am not the contents of my bank account, and as beautiful as are the books with which I have surrounded myself, I am not them either. I am not my friends and I am not my family. Indeed, so closely do these various externalities impinge upon my being that it is impossible for me to know exactly where I end and all of them begin.

Who would I be, if everybody I knew were dead? Who would I be, if every edition of the Bible were to burn? What if all of Mozart’s sheet music – what if all sheet music in the world were to be destroyed? Along with every recorded piece of music, on CD, DVD, cassette and vinyl? If every gallery were to burn to the ground, if every museum were to be blown up, and if every monument melted into pools of lead? Who would I be, with no literature, no art, and no music to identify with? Who would I be without Sydney, or Australia, or the English language? If I were not doing a PhD? If I were not an educator? If I were not a Jew? In all honesty, I must admit that I do not know. The attempt to dwell upon this thought produces confusion and a sense of uncertainty about myself, which is countered most easily by a dismissal of it and a return to my books. For I have no prior experience in detaching myself from the world around me, and with so much of my identity bound up with those things that are not me, I have no confidence in my ability to identify that part of myself that is. Does meditation provide the means?

I do not think myself a “spiritual” person, but I have had success with meditation in the past and I would like to learn a proper technique. Learning how to successfully detach myself from all outside distractions is difficult, and even if I had two hours a day to devote to the task, the process might take months. With ten days that I am able to take off work, and during which I could have chosen to avoid my studies in a thousand different ways, the opportunity to learn full-time and to walk away with a genuine skill is too good to pass up.

What is more, Vipassana is a practise and not a theory. That was the chief “selling point” for me: the fact that there is no explanation given as to why practitioners do things the way they do, nor as to the mechanism that underscores the success of the process. That is fantastic, as I can think of nothing more nauseating than the need to listen to pseudo-scientific claptrap in an environment that does not allow me the opportunity to refute such nonsense verbally, nor to simply walk away. I want the method, not the methodology. The results, and not the religion that goes with it. And above all, I want the time and the patience to try something new with sincerity, and to see if the several million people who testify to the benefits of meditation are indeed correct.

Learning Down Under

1 12 2010

Last weekend was Limmud Oz Fest: Sydney’s first outdoor festival of Jewish learning. Drawing some one-hundred-and-fifty people, the event was a terrific success. The sun shone brightly and, to the best of my knowledge, only one tent blew across the campsite like a tumbleweed. That might be a record. The highlight for me was Roxanne Azoory’s outstanding presentation on Inception, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, general representations of psychological recursion in dream states, and their relationship to the weekly parsha. Bet you all wish you were there now, don’t you?

I gave two presentations, and was very flattered with the turn-out. The first was on Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) communities in the State of Israel, particularly in relation to their attitudes towards the state in which they dwell. I discussed briefly the philosophy of the Zionist Haredim (“Hardal”), considered the history of the various Haredi political parties (Agudat Yisrael, Degel haTorah and Shas), whose attitude towards Israel is neither positive nor negative, but spent most of my time focusing on the history and the philosophy of those who oppose Israel’s existence. The session was, after all, called “Enemies of the State”. We looked at the formation of the Edah haChareidis, the philosophy of the Satmar Rebbe, who served as its president for much of its history, and its primary demographic. We then focused on more extreme elements that broke away from the Edah, such as the two wings of Neturei Karta, and Shomer Emunim.

The second of my two presentations was entitled “The Long Arm of the Law”, and was an overview of the history and the development of the halakha. Commencing with the need for an halakhic system, we considered the role of the midrash in developing Torah law, and remarked upon the disjunctivity between the midrashic corpus and the volumes of Mishna that were to become authoritative. We looked at the development of the Talmuds as an expansion of the Mishna, and considered the role of the early mediaevals in interpreting and codifying the Talmud’s legal pronouncements. We finished with the 16th century masterpiece(s) of Rav Yosef Caro: the extraordinary, and intellectually terrifying, Bet Yosef, and the hugely influential Shulchan Arukh. Finally, we looked at how certain contemporary scholars use this literature in order to make rulings on issues that transcend the concerns of the classic texts.

My thanks to all those who supported my presentations with their attendance, but especially those of you who supported Limmud Oz with presentations of your own. Whether it was an exegetical reconsideration of the Levitical ban on male homosexual intercourse, or an in-depth overview of the pharmacology of hallucinogens and their relationship to Jewish spirituality, there was not a session that I attended that was neither feisty, learned nor amazing. Let’s do it again next year!

Baruch Dayan haEmet

2 11 2010

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of Emeritus Professor Alan Crown of the University of Sydney. Alan’s feisty remarks and deliberately provocative observations will be missed by all of us at the university. He had a terrific sense of humour and a sharp mind. It was only one month ago that I saw him last, and while he was slow of gait and unclear of speech, his observations at a lecture given by Prof. Sara Japhet demonstrated that he was still as sharp as a tack.

I remember with fondness his classes in my Honours year, during which he declared that Song of Songs was a Judean text. The string of sibilants in the opening verse (shir haShirim asher liShlomo) was apparantly designed to exclude northernors, who ostensibly could not pronounce this particular phoneme (cf: Jud 12:5-6).

On another occasion, he remarked that all Israelites had red hair – his proof being a propensity for redheadedness among Israel’s modern-day Samaritans. And on another, that the simple, “plain-sense” interpretation of Esther was of a cosmic saga involving Persian deities. On every one of these occasions, I am not ashamed to say that I took the bait, and spent much time debating with Alan over what struck me as nonsensical and bizarre. It was some time before I realised that he was only making these observations because of the effect that they were having on me.

A practical joker, but an astute scholar, Alan had well earned his reputation as a leading expert on Samaritan history and culture. His views on Qumran as a halfway house for Jerusalem-bound pilgrims deserve to be given serious consideration. He was both a scholar and a gentleman, and he will be missed by his colleagues, his students and his friends.

יהי זכרו ברוך

Rhyme and Reason: The View from my Room

12 09 2010

Having recently increased the number of books that I own to 1,186, and having also recently acquired a new shelf for the purpose of storing those that I want as close to my desk as possible – not to mention being nerdy enough to actually photograph them for the benefit of others, I have decided to devote a post to the new appearance of my bedroom. The following is the first of my shelves, found to the left of my desk:

This shelf houses all of my academic literature (Hebrew Bible, Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabbinic Literature, Jewish History, Linguistics and [primarily Semitic] Languages). You can’t see all of it, but it’s the least pretty of my three shelves, so let’s move along.

Ah, now we’re talking! This is my Primary Literature shelf #1. It houses various copies of the Hebrew Bible (most notably Miqra’ot Gedolot, Torat Hayyim and BHS), as well as all of my versions (Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Peshitta, Vulgate, and two texts in Bohairic Coptic). It also houses my favourite English translations (Geneva Bible, KJV, RSV, NRSV and the Jerusalem Bible) and some material from Qumran/Masada. If you squint, you will notice Josephus, Philo, the “Apocrypha” and “Pseudepigrapha” (critical editions, all), a critical edition of various Gnostic texts, a wonderful biblical index to the rabbinic literature (again, thanks, Rivqa!), a couple of copies of the Mishna (Hebrew and English) and both Talmuds. I have to sit on my bed to access the Talmuds and the Ein Yaakov, but that’s all part of putting a library in a bedroom.

Isn’t she beautiful! This is my Primary Literature shelf #2, and the most recent addition to the family. You can’t see the bottom shelf in the photo, or the rightmost part of the top shelf, but it commences with facsimile editions of both the Aleppo and the Leningrad Codex. Afterwards is my large collection of midrashim (Midrash Rabba, Midrash Tehillim, Pirqei d’Rebbi Eliezer, Midrash Tanchuma, Pesiqta d’Rav Kahana, Pesiqta Rabbati, Tana d’Bei Eliyahu, Leqach Tov, Seikhel Tov, Yalqut Shim’oni, Mekhilta d’Rebbi Ishmael, Sifra, Sifrei, Mekhilta d’Rebbi Shim’on bar Yochai and Midrash Tannaim). The top shelf also contains what little I have of the Geonic literature: the Iggeret of Rav Sherira Gaon, the Sheiltot of Rav Achai Gaon, the translation of the Pentateuch into Arabic by Rav Saadiah Gaon, and Rav Saadiah Gaon’s siddur. Completing the top row, I also have Siddur Vilna (the nearest thing to a critical edition, that I have yet encountered, of the Ashkenazi nusach), as well as two copies of the Haggada, and a set of Ashkenazi machzorim that once belonged to my grandfather. Those have been cut off on the left.

Continuing downwards, this shelf houses Rambam’s Mishne Torah (in Shabbetai Frankel’s beautiful fifteen-volume critical edition), the Arba’ah haTurim, the Mishne Berurah, and various other lesser (and more contemporary) works of halakha. Entering the realm of the kabbalah, I’ve some early literature (Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer haBahir, Sefer Raziel haMal’akh), as well as three editions of the Zohar, and a variety of kabbalistic siddurim. My philosophy (“chaqirah”) component is very small, and focuses chiefly on works by Judah haLevi, the Rambam, Luzzato, Soloveitchik and Leibowitz, but my Sifrei Hassidut section is fairly long, and mostly Chabad. Nonetheless, it does contain a small selection of texts from Breslov, Satmar, Toldos Aharon, Shomer Emunim and Spinka, as well as the Noam Elimelekh.

Those with a keen eye (assuming that any of you are still reading this) will have noticed two things. There is a golem after my copies of the Sefer Yetzirah (honestly, I didn’t put it there…), and I’m going to need a new bookshelf soon. Possibly also a life, although I’m pretty happy with the bookish one I lead at present. Qohelet had it right, although I understand him to be praising the publishing industry, rather than advising against it. And after all, what else is life for if not to acquire a little learning? (Something about falling in love and having children, maybe… I think I read that somewhere.)