Monday, May 18, 2015

In Praise of the Library Shelf

books on shelves
I don't spend enough time in the library these days. Online requests have made it too easy to breeze in, pick up a book at the front desk, and walk out. But with that gain comes a loss: the loss of serendipity.

A shelf of books in a library is a serendipity engine: it brings books under my nose that I would never search out for myself. When I'm reading nonfiction, the good librarians have pre-sorted it by subject. Whether they use the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal system, they've done the equivalent of what Amazon now does with its "People who like this also liked that" algorithm. And they did it first, and better.

Even with fiction, which is often shelved by authors' last names, I have often found new authors through the sheer power of proximity. Lisa Scottoline is a best-selling author of mysteries. Sandra Scoppetone wrote a series of lesbian detective novels with punny titles like I’ll Be Leaving You Always  and Gonna Take A Homicidal Journey. They're side by side on the library bookshelf, and that's how I found the less read and (better written) series.  

So, I'll keep the convenience of the Minuteman Library Network and the assurance that anytime I hear of a good book, I can go online and order it. But here's to the physical shelves of the Somerville Public Library and the people who maintain them. Your subtle magic enlivens many lives.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What Did--and Didn't--Just Happen in Israel's Elections

Judging by what I see online, most Americans have no idea how Israeli elections actually work. Here's a short introduction.

Nobody votes for prime minister. Israeli voters cast their ballots for one of many political parties. The parties get a share of the 120 seats in the Knesset in rough proportion to the number of votes they actually got. (You have to get a few percent to get ANY seats at all.)

The party that gets the most seats in the Knesset is usually--but not always--the one that gets to try to form a coalition with some of the other parties that includes more than 60 votes out of the 120. If they do, the leader of that party becomes the prime minister. So, neither Netanyahu, Herzog, nor anybody else was elected as prime minister today.

No party is clearly ahead. Depending on which poll you trust, either the two biggest parties have 27 seats each or the Likud has 28 and the Zionist Union has 27. It's basically a draw.

Therefore, it's not clear who will be asked to form the next government. That's up to the President of Israel (not the Prime Minister), and he has stated a clear preference for a "government of national unity": that is, a government that includes BOTH the biggest parties and others besides.

Netanyahu's party, the Likud, may have an advantage. It's fairly easy to see how they would get to 60+ votes. If every right or center-right party supported them, they'd be in.

But maybe not. One of the center-right parties is a breakaway from the Likud, headed by a man who personally dislikes Netanyahu. That party might choose to ally with center-left Zionist Union instead...for the right price.

The biggest news is not who's #1 nor #2.  The third largest bloc in the Knesset is likely to be the Joint List of Arab parties and one Arab & Jewish party. That has never happened before. What it means for the future is unclear, but at the very least, they'll be in a position to lobby for better services to Israeli citizens who are Arabs.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Jewish Gospels, by Daniel Boyarin: a review

Boyarin argues that when Jesus claimed to be a divine being as well as the anointed king, he was saying something other Jews would understand and find normal. From Boyarin's perspective, the difference between Jesus' followers and other Jews was not that he claimed to be the unique Son of God but that most Jews didn't think he was that guy.

I'm not a biblical scholar. I'm a Jew, immersed in the Judaism of the 21st century CE. So, the challenge for me reading this book was to try to imagine myself in the 1st century, before most of what I know as Judaism had taken firm shape.

Unlike some of the other reviewers, I had no problem with the idea that Jesus kept kosher (the title of chapter three). It even made sense to me that he might have been aghast at the new ways of keeping kosher that the P'rushim (later called Pharisees by people who couldn't read Hebrew) introduced. These forerunners of the rabbinic movement had the radical idea that all Jews could live in a state of ritual purity--not just the priests--and that ordinary activities like cooking and eating could be made holy. On Boyarin's reading, Jesus was a conservative, saying "Don't add new rules to what the Torah already prescribes." I can't verify his reasons for saying that, but it seems plausible to me, perhaps because to my mind it makes the rabbis look as revolutionary as I think they were.

The idea that there were a lot of different ways of being Jewish at the time, and that Christianity was just one of them for centuries, also makes sense with what history I know.

Given that, there may even have been Jews who think what Boyarin thinks they thought: that the Messiah, son of David, would also be a divine figure. Boyarin uses ingenious readings of Jewish texts that are minor (Daniel) or totally obscure (First Enoch, Fourth Ezra) today, to back up this point.

According to his reading of these texts, "Son of Man" (ben adam, in the Hebrew) actually means a figure shaped like a man who sits on a throne at the right of God and then descends in the clouds to earth, to rule. "Son of God" actually means the divinely chosen ruler, who is a son of God the same way a bar mitzvah is literally a son of the commandment: he's under God's authority. (That is my comparison, not Boyarin's.) At some point, the two became identified.

Boyarin argues that these texts set up the expectation of a divine Messiah, that Jesus said he was that person, and that the Jews who rejected him understood what he was saying--it wasn't an innovation to them--but denied his claim to be The One.

This is completely intriguing, but I am dubious, for several reasons.

1. Boyarin cherry-picks the verses that support his argument.

2. When he comes across verses that seem to contradict his thesis, he writes them off as an editor trying to bring an unruly original text back into line. You can do anything with a text that way!

3. That picture of an orthodox editor implies that the view that the Messiah was NOT a divine figure was always the dominant one. The Christological idea that Boyarin says is "Jewish" may always have been as strange to most Jews as "Jews for Jesus" are to most Jews today.

4. Boyarin gives no evidence that Daniel (which was eventually included in the Jewish canon, or Tanach, but has no role in the liturgy) was widely read at the time. (A stray part of me wonders if Boyarin wants "Daniel" to be important because it's his first name.) Some of the other books he cites are only extant in the literature of the Ethiopian Jews. It may be just my ignorance, but I have no way of knowing whether those books were circulating in first-century Palestine or not--and Boyarin doesn't tell me. So is he making an argument that people in that time and place would find recognizable?

Finally, let's say for the sake of argument that Boyarin is right in every respect. I can understand why that would be important to a historian. But why in the world would it be important to the rest of us?

Judaism and Christianity may have parted ways later and over different issues than we used to think--but they did part. They have been separate religions for at least 1800 years now. Since the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Jews have been persecuted in the name of Christianity. (I hasten to say that there have also been individual Christians who were great friends of Jews, even putting themselves at risk to do so.)

Harking back to a time when followers of Jesus were a recognized but minor Jewish sect does nothing to bring us closer together. Understanding where we are and how we differ today is a more productive path for Jews, Christians, and (I would add) the other children of Abraham, the Muslims, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Davening the Lord's Prayer

My parents used to sing us to sleep every night.  One of the songs that took a regular turn in the repertory was The Lord's Prayer, the Perry Como version, I think. And this could have been strange. We were a Jewish household, holding onto our identity in a nearly all-Christian suburb of Pittsburgh. The song is based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Yet it seemed perfectly natural and in tune with what we believed.

Ten pages of The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine, explain my childhood experience to me. Those are the pages where she shows, phrase by phrase, that the "Lord's Prayer" is made up of concepts that are entirely Jewish. In fact, she suggests that Christians would understand the prayer better if they knew more about its historical context. Follow this with me.

"Our father in heaven": Jews in the first century used the term Abba ("father") regularly, and even today Avinu (our father) is a common term in the Jewish prayerbook. Back then, it was also a political statement: a rejection of the Roman Caesar's claim to be the father of all his subjects.

"Hallowed be your name": every Jewish prayer service includes repetition of the Kaddish prayer, which begins "Magnified and sanctified be [God's] great name." And name in Hebrew is not just a word or a sound but the expression of God's active energy in our lives.

"Your kingdom come": this expresses the Jewish wish for the olam ha-ba, the "world to come," which is not an afterlife but the kingdom of God during the Messianic period. Again, this is a bold rejection of Rome's claim to be the ultimate sovereign.

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven": because the kingdom of God will create a world of justice and peace, here, where we live, and not exclusively in a spiritual realm.

"Give us this day our daily bread": Levine argues persuasively that this translation, in its redundancy, is missing the point. She would translate it "Give us tomorrow's bread today." Tomorrow's bread, for which we hunger, is precisely the Messianic age.

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors":  This is a Jewish idea as well. We help those who are in economic distress, which would have been the only reason to take on debt in an agricultural economy. We believe that God will help us in our distress and keep us from paying all that we owe for our actions, whether they are sins ("trespasses") or just falling short of the mark.

Levine says, "The Greek phrase usually translate as 'Lead us not into temptation' is better rendered 'Do not bring us to the test.'" If the Roman empire would persecute you for practicing your religion and give you a good job if you would renounce your people and your traditions, that is a test that no one should have to face. Jesus knew that, and ultimately had to face that inhuman trial himself.

"But deliver us from evil": better, "the evil one." Satan in the Jewish tradition was the prosecuting angel when we were put to the test, always arguing that we had failed. For first-century Jews facing the trials of the Roman empire, it must have felt like an evil enemy pursuing them at every turn.

So, what I learn from Levine is that we could understand the "Lord's Prayer" this way:

Avinu malkeinu, our father in heaven, the way that you use your power in our lives is holy. Bring about the world to come, the Messianic age, so that what you have commanded us will be our actual everyday lives. Let us taste that world now. Don't hold our wrongdoings against us. Be merciful as you have told us to be merciful. Especially, don't let worldly powers put us in a position where we have to pay a terrible price for doing the right thing. Release us from their justice which is no justice. You are our only God and ruler.
If Jesus were alive today and prayed this prayer, as a Jew I would respond, "Amen!"

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What You Should Know about CIA Torture

Can you handle the truth?

Then here it is, in simple language:
The CIA engaged in pointless sadistic practices against people many of whom had nothing to reveal anyway, and they lied to Congress, the White House, and the press to keep on torturing people.

7 Key Points From the C.I.A. Torture Report (in the flat language of the New York Times)

  1. The C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques were more brutal and employed more extensively than the agency portrayed. 
  2. The C.I.A. interrogation program was mismanaged and was not subject to adequate oversight.
  3. The C.I.A. misled members of Congress and the White House about the effectiveness and extent of its brutal interrogation techniques.
  4. Interrogators in the field who tried to stop the brutal techniques were repeatedly overruled by senior C.I.A. officials.
  5. The C.I.A. repeatedly under-reported the number of people it detained and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques under the program.
  6. At least 26 detainees were wrongfully held and did not meet the government’s standard for detention. 
  7. The C.I.A. leaked classified information to journalists, exaggerating the success of interrogation methods in an effort to gain public support.