Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Purim: The Jewish April Fools

It's been several years since I posted here, and I still don't plan to post regularly. But I had an idea about the possible origins of the holiday of Purim, which I wanted to share. As far as I know, this idea is not found anywhere else, and obviously because of that, it's not backed with fancy sources. It's my own idea, and should therefore be subject to an extra critical eye, as there very well may be obvious things I'm overlooking. Anyway those caveats aside, let's begin.

The Question - How did Purim start?

In my original post on Purim, I noted that the holiday is very strange, and that there does not appear to be any Persian, Babylonian, Canaanite, or other cultural holiday around this time period for the Jews to have based Purim off of. Since the story itself is definitely ahistorical, it is interesting to wonder how the whole thing got started in the first place. There are two key features that bring me to the hypothesis I'll lay out in this post.

1) The holiday, and the book of Esther, are both focused on humor and satire. 
2) The timing of the holiday is exactly one month before Pesach (Passover).

We'll see why these two facts lead me to the idea that Purim bears significant similarities to the modern day "holiday" of April Fools. But before we get there, we need to digress a bit and talk about the calendar.

How long is a year exactly?

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, with months beginning with new moons. Lunar months are around 29.5 days long, which means that a lunar year of twelve months tends to be about eleven days shorter than a solar year. If you measure a year of twelve months then the two calendars will gradually desynchronize. This is exactly how the Islamic calendar is run, and the result is that major Islamic festivals can fall at pretty much anytime in the solar year. Ramadan can be in the summer or the winter. In Judaism such a solution would not work because of the specification that Pesach fall in the springtime. This requires the calendars to be synchronized in some manner.

The solution to synchronizing the two calendars was first practiced in Babylon and was called intercalation, or in common terms, making a leap year. The Babylonians would add an extra month at the end of their calendar year (like Jewish calendars, the Babylonian last month was Adar). Babylonian mathematicians figured out that you could synchronize the two calendars over a 19 year period by adding 11 extra months. This scheme would eventually be adopted in Judaism as well, but not until past the Talmudic period. What did they do before then?

The Talmud in Sanhedrin describes the laws of adding extra months. If you're interested it begins on 11a and continues for about four pages. It's far too long even to summarize.  Even though there is significant debate over how you decide when to intercalate, all sources agree that one of the key deciding factors in the decision is the tekufah, or the equinox. The gemara brings a source that the timing of the equinox suffices alone to decide to add an extra month, and that other signs such as crop or tree blooming are of lesser importance. The equinoxes and solstices were key calendar markings in ancient cultures. In Judaism, the equinoxes marked the beginning and end of the rainy season, and thus had agricultural importance. The holidays of Pesach and Sukkot are essentially described by the equinoxes.

Another important feature of the leap year decision is that it needed to be made from a central location (namely Israel) and it needed to be made by a Nasi. This makes sense because you don't want different cultures declaring leap years differently and observing holidays on different days. The latest day that they could declare a leap year was the 13th day of Adar. Supposedly this would give enough time for Passover preparations.

April Fools!

So what in the world does this have to do with April Fools? The origin of April Fools is a bit obscure. One common hypothesis, and the one that is important for this post, is that the holiday came about because people used to celebrate New Year's between March 25 and April 1. When most regions adopted Jan 1 as New Year's Day, they made fun of the people who celebrated it on April 1, by having a lighthearted April Fool's holiday. Whether this is the actual origin or not is not really important. What is important, is the idea of a holiday that begins because different groups are celebrating a joint holiday on different days.

So what does this have to do with Purim? Let's imagine a scenario. You're a Jew living in Persia, and it's the twelfth day of the thirteenth month since the beginning of last year. You're probably preparing for Pesach. The fourteenth day rolls around and you start your seder, when all the sudden a messenger from Israel comes and says to stop because a leap year has been declared and it's not actually Pesach for another month. What do you do now? You already had this feast prepared. You might as well finish it.

Let's go a bit further. The thirteenth month starts and you're not sure whether it's Adar II or Pesach because you haven't heard about the leap year declaration yet. So you decide, just to be safe, you'll prepare a festive meal for the 14th of this month too. Then if a leap year is declared, you'll just prepare another one for the next month.

These kinds of scenarios might play out fairly often in places far from Israel, where it took a long time to get the message about leap year declaration. Namely Persia, where many Jews lived, and where Purim appears to have originated. The idea is that just like April Fools is New Year's Day on the wrong day, Purim is Pesach on the wrong day. Just like everything else, as the holiday grew in popularity, it eventually became part of Jewish culture as a whole.

This also helps explain why Purim is always celebrated in the leap month if there is one. In the April Fool's theory of Purim, the holiday would have originally been celebrated only on these months. It also help explain why the holiday is light-hearted and satirical, just like April Fool's is.

So there you have it. Purim is the original April Fool's.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Vort: Replacing the Old Laws

If I were to sum of Christianity (from a religious Jewish perspective) it might go something like this: Christianity is a religion where the actual laws of Judaism were considered too difficult, so they decided to institute a new set of laws that removed all the difficult laws and replaced them with extremely simple requirements of belief that anyone could follow. And how do we know that this is what God wants? Well, according to the Christians we just have to trust Jesus and his disciples. The Jews of course saw through this ruse, but the goyim didn't, and many converted to the "simple" religion that promised large rewards for no hard work.

That view is of course a bit slanted, but there is some truth here. Christianity did abrogate the old laws, which they termed the "Old Testament" and replaced them with a new set, the "New Testament." The "New Testament" did focus more on belief rather than religious precepts like dietary laws, sacrifices, circumcision and the like. The religious spin comes in when describing the motivation for the switch. Perhaps the founders of Christianity, mainly Paul, thought that the old laws were actually "bad laws" and should be replaced. They hampered the approach to God rather than enabling it. Christians say that the replacement came directly from God through Jesus, but Jews scoff at this explanation. God doesn't change his laws. Why would he ever do that?

This week we'll see where at least one prophet accuses God of giving bad laws in the past and attempts to rectify them, an idea that seems pretty "Christian."

Before we get there, I'll note that Judaism itself does try to soften or excise "bad laws". One example of this is the "eye for an eye" which was completely neutered in Talmudic times. Other examples were all the commands for capital punishment which were also essentially removed by the Rabbis, who then claimed they had never been in effect in the first place. But we're not talking about this kind of change in the laws, we're going to talk about something more direct.

Yehezkel's "Bad Laws"

The prophet is Yehezkel (Ezekiel) and the versed in question are Ezek. 20:24-25. Here they are in Hebrew:
כד יַעַן מִשְׁפָּטַי לֹא-עָשׂוּ, וְחֻקּוֹתַי מָאָסוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתוֹתַי, חִלֵּלוּ; וְאַחֲרֵי גִּלּוּלֵי אֲבוֹתָם, הָיוּ עֵינֵיהֶם.  כה וְגַם-אֲנִי נָתַתִּי לָהֶם, חֻקִּים לֹא טוֹבִים; וּמִשְׁפָּטִים--לֹא יִחְיוּ, בָּהֶם.
 And here's my translation:
24: Because they did not do my judgments, and disdained by laws, and profaned by Sabbaths, and their eyes were directed towards the idols of their fathers. 25: And then I gave them bad laws, and judgments that they would not live by.
A lot of the scholarly discussion regarding this verse comes with the context of the verses after, which seem to imply that one of the "bad laws" that Yehezkel is referring to is child sacrifice. But this is not the topic I wish to discuss. (If you're interested in this topic, you can see this series of blog posts 1, 2, 3, where the second and third link deal entirely with this section of Yehezkel)

Instead, I merely want to draw attention to the pretty monumental claim that Yehezkel is making. He is basically saying that there were some laws, given directly by God, that are bad and that people should not do. And he gave these laws as a sort of punishment. Presumably he's coming to tell you what the good laws are and what the bad laws are.

Of course, as a person listening to Yehezkel, why should you believe him? After all, the old laws, those "bad" ones were given by God himself, and who is he to contradict God? But more importantly, we see an idea wherein Yehezkel's concept of Judaism is very different from the concept today. Yehezkel obviously does not believe in a static set of laws that are in effect for all time, and he's actively seeking to abrogate some of the old laws he doesn't like. Instead of using the same approach of Christianity or the Talmudic Rabbis, that the old laws are outdated, he actually says that God gave the old "bad" laws as a form of punishment for disobedience. It's actually a pretty crazy idea if you think about it. It's a level of malevolence that most people would not ascribe to God.

When you read through the book of Yehezkel, you find that he has a very different idea of how Judaism's laws came about. In some places he directly contradicts the Torah story about when laws were given, and like every other prophet, he makes absolutely no mention of the revelation at Har Sinai. Here it seems, that he thinks the laws are a bit more fluid, and that we should actively get rid of "bad laws" and replace them with good ones. How exactly we should know what is bad and what is good? Well we just need to trust Yehezkel.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

God's Coconspirators

The last post described a single verse in the Torah in which I offered an interpretation where, Asherah, the consort of God, appears at his right side. This week we'll look at three other places in the Tanach where there appears to be other divine beings, who are either at the same level or slightly subservient to God. One example is known by everyone, one is known by all religious Jews, and one I would never have ever discovered without academic insights.

What Shall We Do?

One of the more bizarre but well known stories in the Torah is that of Migdal Bavel (The Tower of Babel). Along with the general strangeness of the story itself, there is some weird descriptions of God's actions which are almost entirely confined to this one brief narrative. Specifically, God appears to talk to other being to discuss the actions. Specifically Gen 11:7 says:
Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'
This language is obviously meant to mimic the speech of the people previously (Gen 11:3-4):
 3 And they said one to another: 'Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' 
But still one wonders who exactly is God talking to? Tradition offers several answers, which are actually plausible in my view because of the strangeness of this particular story. Nevertheless, one can maintain the possibility that God is speaking to other divine beings who may or may not have agreed with this course of action.

Edit: zdub rightly points out in the comment that there is another salient example of the plural "we" which appears near the creation of man. Gen 1:26 reads:
And God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'

The Divine Council

One of the traditional options for "who is God talking to" in the Migdal Bavel story is that he's talking to a "divine council." In traditional Judaism, this council is made up of entirely subservient beings, angels and the like. The actions of the council are merely a formality. However, perhaps at a point in time this type of council meant something different, with God acting more or less as one of the group of equals. We previously saw one instance that hinted at this type of arrangement, but there might even be a better example. We turn to Psalm 82. Verses 1 and 6 are specifically salient. Here is verse 1 in Hebrew:
אֱלֹהִים, נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת-אֵל; בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט.
And my translation:
Elohim stands in the council of El, in the midst of the gods he delivers a judgment.
The translation is complicated because of the two different uses of the word Elohim, the first instance is coupled with a singular noun, so it's clearly meant to mean God. The second use doesn't make much sense to translate it the same way, so I use it to refer to other gods. Traditional Judaism would translate this as "angels" or something similar. The next four verses describe the various things that God is judging, specifically for this psalm, God appears to be angry at the other gods for allowing various social ills. Then we get to verse 6-7, where God appears to call out the other members of the divine council. Again here they are in Hebrew first:
ו אֲנִי-אָמַרְתִּי, אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם; וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם.ז אָכֵן, כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן; וּכְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּלוּ.
and here is my translation:
 I (God) said you are gods, all of you are the sons of Elyon. But you will die like a man, like one of the (mortal) rulers, you will fall.
After accusing the rest of the Gods for not behaving properly towards the oppressed, he specifically calls out the other gods, and mentions that they are also children of Elyon. And then he pronounces his judgment on them, that those gods will all die and lose their spheres of command. The verse ends with the psalm author encourage Elohim (God) to arise and make his judgment.

Before we go on, we'll note that this Psalm uses the uncommon form of God's name, Elyon. This name of God always seems to pop up in places where it seems to imply some deity other than the God of the Hebrews, someone higher up, older, possibly even aloof. We've seen two other instances of this in the blog of this, which I'll link here and here.

Lesser Gods

One of the common themes of academic study versus religious study is that academic study puts a lot more emphasis on the writing of the Nevi'im (prophets) than traditional Judaism. And for this third example, we'll look at the relatively obscure prophet Habakuk. This prophet is pretty much at the bottom of the pile of obscure biblical prophets. He doesn't describe anything about who he is, where he's from, when he's writing etc. The name could just as well be a pseudonym; it doesn't appear to have any clear meaning, and isn't a well known name in any prior period.

We can put together some information about Habakuk. He writes about the Chaldeans, so that implies that he's writing in the late 9th century or later, which is the earliest that anyone would be referencing them. Another piece of information is that the chapters do seem structured so that it appears to be the work of a single individual. The book isn't very long (only three chapters) so this isn't surprising, but some short books even have multiple author hypotheses.  These don't tell us very much, but it's at least something.

Anyway, let's get to the verse in question. It appears in the third chapter. First we look at Hab 3:3
God cometh from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah His glory covereth the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise.
If you read the previous post, this kind of idea should look familiar to you. God is arriving from locations in the south. God is here referred to by the Hebrew Eloha, a somewhat rare form, although in the previous verse, you have the more common tetragrammaton. Verse 5 though is the interesting one. Here it is in Hebrew:
לְפָנָיו, יֵלֶךְ דָּבֶר; וְיֵצֵא רֶשֶׁף, לְרַגְלָיו
If you look at traditional translations for this verse, you'll get something like the JPS translation:
Before him goeth the pestilence (dever), and fiery bolts (reshef) go forth at His feet.
The word dever translated as pestilence is not obscure, it is the same verse used for the cattle plague in Egypt. Reshef is considerably more obscure. It is often translated as some kind of fever, although here it is translated as "fiery bolts." However, the insight here is that both dever and reshef are actually the names of other deities. Dever is a bit obscure, but Reshef is not. From tablets of Ebla, we learn about various deities, this includes Dever but more specifically we learn that Reshef was the patron saint of Shechem an important city of the northern kingdom of Israel.

So we have something very similar to the verse in Deuteronomy from last week, although this time instead of God having along with him his consort Asherah, possibly included by her devotees, here God has in tow the patron deity of the northern city in a clearly subservient role.

Reinforcing the Polytheistic Roots

This post is just one in many ideas that support the hypothesis that Judaism started out as polytheistic and then gradually moved to a religion where their God was the chief god and the only one worth worshipping, until finally ending up in the theological ideas we know today where God is the only god, period. In this last stage those roles previously filled by other gods were now filled by subservient angels and messengers, as well as natural processes without their own agency. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

God's Consort in the Torah?

This post is prompted by a discussion from a commenter on the post 2 weeks ago about the loanwords in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). The commenter linked to this article, which, at the end, disputed the idea that Persian loanwords are a marking of an early text. One of their reasons was the presence of what they determined a Persian loanword of dat in Devarim (Deut. 33:2). My response to the article in general is included in the comments of that blog post. This week I want to talk about this specific verse, and what the possible meaning of it could be.

Tricky Translations

Certain verses in the Torah are hard to translate. This is because they include words that are not known elsewhere, or that make little sense in context. One is often forced to decide whether the text is corrupted and it should actually be read differently, or whether we're dealing with a meaning of a word that is non-standard, or whether the word is a hapax legomenon (a word that only appears once, and thus has a meaning that can only be determined from immediate context.)

There are many words that the Masoretes, (the individuals who standardized pronunciation and grammar, and added all the vowels to the text,) decided should be different than how they were written. These are known as kri/ktiv differences, which literally means spoken/written. Sometimes these involve replacing a letter with another, sometimes they involve changing an entire word. Some of these kri/ktiv's are described in the Talmud, but the Talmud also describes many alternate readings that were not taken up by the Masoretes. There is a kri/ktiv in 33:2 which involves the word dat in question from the preamble.

But without further ado, let's look at the text, first in Hebrew:
וַיֹּאמַר, יְהוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ--הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן, וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ; מִימִינוֹ, אשדת (אֵשׁ דָּת) לָמוֹ. 
The translation is very tricky. But I'll give my own, leaving some of the more difficult words untranslated for now.
And [Moshe] said: God came from Sinai, he shown forth from Seir to them. He appeared from the mountain of Paran. He came from the myriads kodesh. In his right hand, Eshdat, to them.
The first half, up to the mountain of Paran is pretty straightforward. After that it's really tricky. One thing that's clear is that there's is a lot of parallelisms. There appear to be four places where God comes from: Sinai, Seir, the mountain of Paran, and the myriads of Kodesh. That last one seems to fit the pattern of the other three places, the translation is unclear. Personally, I'm inclined to read it as Kadesh not Kodesh, and understand this as a fourth place, which like the first three, appears in the wilderness. As a side note, this verse is one of the supporting verses that indicate that the practice of worshipping YHWH began in the wilderness. See this post for more details.

If the phrase וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ is tricky, the next two words, מִימִינוֹ אשדת, are even more problematic and most of the rest of the post will be devoted to them. Before we get there, we need to discuss the last word לָמוֹ which parallels the same word in the first half. We first note, that if we remove מִימִינוֹ אשדת and interpret מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ as some sort of place location, then the verse contains nice symmetry. So consider the following translation highlighting the symmetry.
God
Came from Sinai
and
Appeared from Seir
 - to them
Appeared from Paran
and
Came from Kadesh
- to them
Not only is there symmetry, but there's a nice chiasmic structure, much beloved in biblical poetry, where the words with meaning similar to "appear" occur in the middle two phrases and the words similar to "came" occur in the outer two.  מִימִינוֹ אשדת breaks the symmetry. With those words, it reads something like:
God
Came from Sinai
and
Appeared from Seir
 - to them
Appeared from Paran
and
Came from Kadesh
(at his right Eshdat)
- to them
Not only does it break the symmetry, but it also interrupts the phrase, "Came from Kadesh to them." So we're left with a puzzle. What in the world does אשדת (eshdat) mean, and how was it so important that it was possibly inserted into the text. As usual, with these types of things, there are lots of possibilities. So let's go through them.

What exactly is an Eshdat?

The first thing to check is to see if there are any differences in the old versions of the text we have available. The verse does appear in one of the dead sea scrolls (from 50 CE), but I couldn't find any information on it, so I assume it appears the same as in the Masoretic text. The verse also appears in the Samaritan Torah almost identical, but the only change in the Samaritan Torah is that they spell Paran differently. אשדת is unchanged. The Septuagint is more interesting, and we'll get to that later.

For a naive interpretation, you might look at the root אשד which appears only once in Tanakh (Num 21:16) where it implies some geological feature, and most commonly is thought to mean a slope or a ravine. אשדת would be some sort of plural form, although it is a feminine plural for a word that looks masculine. Ignoring the plural issue, perhaps this can be construed to make some sense in the context of the verse, since it does mention place names, but it's a stretch. Unsurprisingly, I know of no translation that takes this approach.

The most common approach in traditional Jewish circles is to follow the Masoretes who themselves follow the interpretation of Raba in Berakhot 62a that it should be read as two words אֵשׁ דָּת, which literally mean "fire law." This interpretation is echoed in the Rishonim, where at very least Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand it as such. But what exactly does this mean. We don't have this kind of concept of a "fiery law" anywhere else in the Tanach. The Rishonim try to give explanations of what it could possibly mean, but they never attempt to justify the explanation in the first place.

There is another problem, with this interpretation. Namely that the word דָּת is a Persian loanword. The authors of the article linked at the top of the post note this and use it as a indication that Persian loanwords appear in the text of the Torah itself. Furthermore, they argue that if you say it can't actually mean דָּת but means something else, because it is early, then you are engaging in a circular argument.

However, I think there are ample reasons to reject this interpretation of אֵשׁ דָּת, a fiery law, without resorting to the loanword argument. And these are the following. A fiery law is not a phrase anywhere in Tanach, even in the derivative forms from this verse (please let me know if I am wrong, this is hard to search for!) I don't just mean the phrase אֵשׁ דָּת but any phrase that is similar in concept. The idea of a fiery law makes no sense in context either. The interpretations imply that he's bringing it with him, but the actual word מִימִינוֹ is better understood as "at his right" or "from his right", one might expect something more like בְּימִינוֹ, in his right hand.

What options though are left? When we turn to the Septuagint (and the KJV based off of it), we find a very bizarre translation. The Septuagint translates אשדת as meaning something like "angels". At first this looks like a terrible mistranslation, but after thinking about it for a second, you can possibly understand where it's coming from. Could it be that the Torah that the Septuagint was translated off of had a resh instead of a daled, and the word was אשרת, which could perhaps mean, "servants" from the root שרת to serve? This is also a stretch, but it might explain how the Septuagint arrived at its strange choice of translation.

Side note: resh/daled confusion is the most common written typo in Biblical texts. The letters are very similar in form in both ktav ashuri and ktav ivri. There is also precedence for resh/daled errors in the Torah. The one that comes to mind is the Dodanim (Gen 10:4) which is properly written as Rodanim, or people from Rhodes, in Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles).

But I go a step further. I say that the Septuagint translation is on the right track, and the original verse probably had a resh, and read אשרת, but it doesn't mean "angels" rather it means, "his Asherah," or more specifically the royal consort of God. This idea of a southern God with an Asherah is present in the Kuntellet Arjud inscriptions which say "Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah," so we have an external source that really lends credence to the association of the god Yahweh with an Asherah.

Now we can make a hypothesis as to how this verse varied over time. The beginning of the verse did not have the two words מִימִינוֹ אשדת, in them. However, they were added into the song (probably only an oral tradition at this stage) by a group of people who probably attached strong importance to worship of Asherah. So this modification, which became canonized in the Biblical text read מִימִינוֹ אשרת, a reading that perhaps remained intact in the Septuagint.

But worship of Asherah fell completely out of favor in later versions of Judaism as exemplified in the reforms of Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) and Yoshiyahu (Josiah), so perhaps they upheld a version with a copyist error, or maybe there was a "pious" scribe who read this verse and said, "this can't be the right reading, Asherah have been a typo." The change from אשרת to אשדת was made, perhaps with the idea of it meaning "ravine." This change would have to have been earlier than the Samaritan split, which means it's likely Exilic or pre-Exilic.

With the inclusion of the meaning of דָּת as law arriving in the Jewish lexicon from Persian, this allowed the commentators of the Talmudic era, and probably the second temple era, to understand this word entirely differently, as some sort of "fiery law."

As a side note, this idea of the verse possibly meaning Asherah was one of the first things that popped into my head when I read this verse. I did a quick search online and found that lots of other people have had the same idea.

Probably no post next week. We'll see about the week after.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Looking for help typesetting/formatting

A while back, someone suggested a skeptic's annotated haggadah would be an interesting project. While I agreed in theory, I also thought that the major roadblock for me would be providing an appropriate layout. After poking around for about 30 minutes this morning, I still think that's the case. But that could also be because I have very limited skills in this area. Laying things out in html is one thing, but doing it in a nice .pdf is another matter.

Therefore, I'm looking for help in this. What I was thinking is a text where (vowelized Hebrew) is on one side and an English translation (which I will rewrite) on the other. Instructions (such as, lift the cup of wine) will be in english and centered. Then there needs to be room for annotations. These could either be along the side, or as footnotes, or whatever. Some of the annotations may be quite long though. To get a feel for what they might look like, this post, has some examples of annotation ideas.

If anyone thinks they can do this, or at least set me up with a template, that would be great. I'm not planning to make any money off of this, so it's an entirely volunteer thing. The ideal format would probably be a LateX template. But I could work with other formats if needed. (I don't actually have access to Microsoft word though, just the free opensource alternatives, so that could make things difficult).

Email if interested (email can be found under the contact section.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It's Because of the Book

This is a post I wrote on the exjew subreddit a while ago. I figured I might as well share it here, edited slightly, since not too many people frequent that place.

We often hear stories of parents or friends that were living a comfortable conservative or reform lifestyle, and then, after a trip to Aish or a visit by Chabad, they take a hard turn to Orthodoxy, often of a serious fundamentalist variety. Often the parents or friends are left wondering why? They thought they had provided a comfortable and socially conscious approach to religion. Why had their kids chosen such an intolerant form of the religion. We had an article posted recently and there are tons of similar stories. Every single one a victim of pretty much standard missionary tactics.

The reason why they are so easily victimized is because of the book, specifically in this case the Torah.

The problem arises because while less-fundamentalist versions of Judaism don't necessarily follow the Torah, they still venerate it. They still believe that it was God's divine gift. And they teach this to the kids. The book is important.

Now when the kids grow up, they start looking around and they find some people who actually take the book seriously. Perhaps they say, "If it's God's gift to humanity, then, shouldn't we be taking it seriously?" Because they don't necessarily have the tools (Hebrew) to examine it themselves, they're susceptible to cherry-picked verses and explanations. They can be presented with a very fundamentalist viewpoint, modernized by out-of-context quotes and sketchy interpretations. And they eat it up. They eat it up, because they have been taught their whole life that the book is the key.

And yes, this is the exact same thing that happens in "radical Islam" recruitment. It's why moderate Islam is inherently unstable, just like conservative Jewry, continually losing people to the left (secularism) or the right (fundamentalism). It's why moderate Islamist are continually fighting and uphill and losing battle against the fundamentalists. Part of me wonders if the only difference between Judaism and Islam in this regard is the size and the relative power they wield. If Judaism had the number of adherents of Islam, would it be guilty of the same sorts of atrocities? As Einstein said,
As far as my experience goes, they [the Jewish People] are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Vort: Loanwords in Kohelet and Pseudepigrapha

Sticking with the "authorship" theme there are a few books of the Tanach that very clearly have author attributions that are not likely at all. Rather, they very much seem like they were written by much later individuals but attributed to an earlier important personage. These fall into the genre of writing called, "pseudepigrapha" which means works that are attributed to another, usually mythical or historical, person.

Why Pseudepigrapha?

It's fairly easy to understand why authors would attribute works to someone other than themselves. Mainly, by attributing the work to a well known individual, be it Moshe or Avraham or whoever, then it becomes more likely that the work will receive attention. We see this happen all the time with religious writings. The entire book of Mormon is attributed to mythical individuals. The Zohar, "discovered" in the Middle Ages, is attributed to Moshe. In fact, there are tons of works from 200-400 CE that were attributed to other individuals. You can see a list here. Most of these were rejected from the Biblical canon but some made it in.

Kohelet Claimed Authorship

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) doesn't have an explicity claim of the author. However, two sentences in the first paragraph are used to give the usual attribution to Shlomo (Solomon) (Eccl 1:1,12)
1 The words of Koheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem....,12 I Koheleth have been king over Israel in Jerusalem
Now, it is entirely possible to interpret "son of David" as descendent of David and therefore Kohelet could have been written by a later individual. Indeed this is the opinion of the Gemara in Bava Batra 15b which attributes the book to the time Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah). Of course both of these are impossible and we'll see why now.

Persian Loanwords

The reason Kohelet cannot be written at the time of Shlomo is that it includes words that would not have been known to anyone at the time. The words are Pardes (cognate with English Paradise) which literally means garden and appears in 2:5 and Pitgam which means decree and appears in 8:11. Pitgam also appears several times in the book of Esther, set in Persia.

Jews living in Israel had absolutely no contact with Persia until the Babylonian exile. They knew of the empire to the east of the Assyrians and Babylonians, which was the Median empire until the conquest of Cyrus in 550 BCE. However, there is no strong influence of Persian culture until the conquest of Babylon and the next few centuries when the Persians controlled Israel. It's during this period that we start seeing the strong influence of Persian culture on Judaism.

For Hizkiyahu or Shlomo to have used Pardes or Pitgam would be akin to a Jew during the Persian period using the word Sanhedrin or Afikomen which are derived from Greek, or like a Jew in the 1st century using the word Shvitz or Schlepp. In other words, the loanwords provide markers for the earliest possible date of the work, and in this case we can very confidently date Kohelet to the Exilic period at earliest.