5774: The Year that Was

17 02 2015

5774 was an incredible year for me.

It began, somewhat predictably, with Rosh haShana. Little more than a week later, on the day following Yom Kippur, my sister got married to her wonderful husband and I was honoured with being mesader qiddushin. My lovely girlfriend, Ariella, had flown up to Sydney for the occasion, and the two of us partied late into the night. (Which is to say, we partied until the wedding finished and then we both went home, for we are old.)

In November of that year, which was 2013 by the Gregorian calendar, I received a phone call from “the university” while holidaying with Ariella in Melbourne. It turns out that the thesis that I had not yet started to research nor to write was due to be submitted, and that no further possibility of deferral would be extended to me. Way to ruin a vacation.

Still, there are some vacations that cannot be so easily spoilt, and the one that was approaching fell thoroughly into that category. It commenced on Boxing Day, when my immediate family and I (with the delightful Ariella in tow) flew to Cape Town for my brother’s wedding. He was to be making official his long-standing relationship with the love of his life, his highschool sweetheart and the mother of his beautiful little boy, and since they are both so enamoured of the culture of that continent, they had picked an African location.

We spent ten days in Cape Town eating meat and seafood, basking in the thick sunlight, canyoning through ravines, climbing up Table Mountain, hiking through the dense forest, relaxing in the Botanical Gardens of Kirstenbosch, walking the old township and having a generally fabulous time. Even weighed down with books on metaphor theory and their application to biblical studies, nothing could dampen my spirit.

Having exhausted so much of what Cape Town had to offer, we then flew to Johannesburg and caught a shuttle bus up north. After a six-hour drive we had arrived at Madikwe game reserve, where we spent the next few days and where my brother was married. Once again, I was truly honoured to have been mesader qiddushin, and to have fulfilled those duties in such a beautiful and exotic location.

We saw herds of impala and zebra, a great many elephants, two ferocious lions, a lioness, several giraffes, rhinos and buffalo, and a tremendous number of birds. On the evening before the wedding, we had dinner under the stars, surrounded by trees and by rangers with guns, where we feasted on the flesh of Madikwe’s former four-legged residents.

This part of the vacation over, we drove back to Johannesburg and caught a flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. There we spent two days white-water rafting, hiking along the waterfall and eating feasts of epic proportions. It was sad to leave, but leave we must, and our next stop was Chobe National Park in Botswana, where we added to our list of wildlife an abundance of hippos, several crocodiles, more wild dogs and a cheetah.

When we finally arrived back in Sydney, some three weeks after we had left, Ariella moved in with me and I began to write my thesis…

In July, when the thesis was finally beginning to take shape and the deadline was little more than a month away, Ariella and I flew to Helsinki with her parents, and there I met the rest of her family. Her brother, who is married to a Finnish girl, lives in Helsinki with his wife and their two beautiful children, and for two weeks we strolled and shopped, kayaked and ate, and I tried to write more of my thesis.

Towards the end of the holiday, Ariella and I made a brief stopover in Paris for three nights, where we got to feel like Europeans, catching flights and trains without need of a passport and with only enough luggage to see us through a few days. They were some of the most wonderful days of my life: we spent approximately eight hours on each of them walking, stopping only to fill up on cheese, cured meats, red wine and roast duck. The snails, which I ate on the first night and on the third, were magnificent, and the Jewish quarter was like a slice out of time.

On our return to Sydney, I commenced the traumatic period of thesis-writing, in which I didn’t leave the apartment, barely slept and wrote for over twelve hours a day. That culminated in an awful fortnight, at the conclusion of which I reeled into the university printery, produced five copies of the finished product, submitted four of them and tried not to have a nervous breakdown.

When Rosh haShana approached once more and 5774 morphed into 5775, so too did Ariella (without whom my thesis would still be unwritten) morph from being my girlfriend into being my fiancée.

We made the announcement in Melbourne, shortly after Yom Kippur, and had an impromptu lechayim for all of her 150+ family and friends (including a handful of my own people, there to toast the end of my long bachelorhood).

While that concluded 5774, I feel that a word or two should be said for the beginning of 5775, at which Ariella and I (who both believe in short engagements) got married at the home of my parents. Ariella’s father, who is both a Torah scholar and a tzaddik, honoured us both by being mesader qiddushin, and we custom-designed the marital proceedings ourselves.

Put simply, we separated the eirusin from the nisuin by an hour, such that qabbalat panim was followed by Ariella circling me seven times, my giving her a ring and her father reciting two berakhot. While our guests ate, she and I (together with her father and our two witnesses) filled out and signed the beautiful ketubah that my parents had given us. Then, we returned downstairs for the chuppah, at which I wore a kittel and was given a new tallis by Ariella’s parents. I put it on, made a shehechiyanu, was given a ring by Ariella, draped the tallis over the two us for the seven berakhot and then stomped on a glass.

The following week was spent in Melbourne, where we had sheva berakhot almost every day, and where we turned our one-day wedding into a seven-day feast.

I look back now and I am amazed at how much has changed over so short a time. One of my two sisters is married and is due to have her first baby soon; one of my two brothers is married and now has a second baby boy; my thesis has finally been submitted, and I find myself married to the love of my life; and – as of only two days ago – my other sister is engaged!

I really don’t know what this year will bring, but it will be pretty hard to top the last.

The King is a Tree

10 03 2014

Recent additions to my bookshelf (you may notice a trend) include the following texts, arranged in alphabetical order:

David H. Aaron, Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics, and Divine Imagery (2002)

Antonio Barcelona (ed.), Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads (2003)

Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (2nd ed, 1981)

Max Black, Models and Metaphors (1962)

Marc Zvi Brettler, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor (1989)

Claudia Camp and Carole Fontaine (eds.), Women, War and Metaphor: Language and Society in the Study of the Hebrew Bible (Semeia 61; 1993)

Mordechai Z. Cohen, Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi (2008)

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1966)

William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (1967)

Kurt Feyaerts (ed.), The Bible Through Metaphor and Translation: A Cognitive Semantic Perspective (2003)

Robert J. Fogelin, Figuratively Speaking (2nd ed, 2011)

Terence Hawkes, Metaphor (1972)

Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (1977)

Mark Johnson (ed.), Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor (1981)

Eva Feder Kittay, Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure (1987)

Gail Labovitz, Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature (2009)

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (1989)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689; ed. P.H. Nidditch, 1975)

John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (1968)

Earl R. Mac Cormac, A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor (1989)

J.J.A. Mooij, A Study of Metaphor (1976)

Kirsten Nielsen, There is Hope for a Tree: The Tree as Metaphor in Isaiah (1989)

Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought (2nd ed, 1993)

I.A. Richards, The Art of Rhetoric (1936)

Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multidisciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (trans. Robert Czerny, 1977)

Sheldon Sacks (ed.), On Metaphor (1979)

Israel Scheffler, Beyond the Letter: A Philosophical Inquiry into Ambiguity, Vagueness and Metaphor in Language (1979)

Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (1985)

Danny D. Steinberg and Leon A. Jakobovits (eds.), Semantics: An Interdisciplinary Reader in Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology (1971)

Gustaf Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (1931)

Together with Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, Schmitz’s Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts and Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, I have had no choice but to create a new subsection of my Literary Theory shelf and place it on my desk, its content being so relevant to my continuing absence from this blog.

Books that do not quite fit this trend, but have been nonetheless added to my shelves in recent times, include:

David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom (eds.), The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition (trans. Arnold J. Pomerans, B.M. Mooyaart-Doubleday and Susan Massotty; 2003)

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions; ed. Michael North, 2000)

William Empson, The Complete Poems of William Empson (ed. John Haffenden; 2001)

The acquisition of an annotated critical edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land and The Complete Poems of William Empson have forced me to move my poetry section from the living room into the bedroom, where there is currently more space. Sixty-two books now dominate my vision in the brief time before I lose consciousness; their authors (mostly deranged, occasionally just high), narrate the contents of my dreams.

Qohelet 12:12

16 09 2013

It may be that I simply have too many books. Since I last wrote about my library (which is now two libraries – one that dominates the living room, and another that almost prevents my entering the study), I have acquired the following texts:

In Hebrew/Aramaic:

Megillat Taanit. Considered by some to be the earliest work of “rabbinic” literature, Megillat Taanit comprises a list of dates on which it is forbidden to fast or to deliver a eulogy, written in Aramaic. The entire text can be viewed online here. It also includes a Hebrew commentary, which may have been written several centuries later, providing historical reasons behind each of the dates in the Aramaic text. The Aramaic component was probably authored at some stage in the 1st century CE, being referred to in the Mishna (Taanit 2:8), and at least one baraita (Shabbat 13b). Mine is the critical edition, מגילת תענית: הנוסחים, פשרם, תולדותיהם בצירוף מהדורה ביקורתית, by Vered Noam (Yad Ben-Zvi: Jerusalem, 2003).

HeArukh al-haShas (3 vols.), by R’ Natan ben Yechiel of Rome (1035-1106). Completed in 1101, the Arukh constitutes the first ever dictionary of the Babylonian Talmud. According to a poem that the author wrote by way of an introduction, it appears that he had four sons: Yechiel, his firstborn, died after thirty days, Benjamin lived only to the age of eight, Shabbetai died at the age of three, and the fourth did not survive long enough to be circumcised. Seeking comfort for his grief in an intensive study of the rabbinic literature, R’ Natan produced a work of scholarship that had a profound influence on subsequent generations of Talmudic scholars, and one that sheds light today on the early history of Talmudic interpretation in Europe.

Sefer Hasidim, by R’ Yehuda heHasid (1140-1217). As one of the leaders of the pietistic movement known as Hasidei Ashkenaz, which flourished in Germany during the 12th-13th centuries, R’ Yehuda has had his name attached to this text but without any certainty as to its actual provenance. A collection of ethical maxims, although not homogeneous in nature, it is believed to have reached its final form in Germany in the early part of the 13th century.

Beit haBechirah (7 vols.), by R’ Menachem Meiri (1249-c.1306). Although this commentary on the Talmud wasn’t published until the 18th century, and had a very limited influence upon the development of the halakha as a result, it is widely regarded as one of the most lucid overviews of Talmudic law. One area in particular in which it has had some effect is in the author’s emphasis on non-Jews of his day (specifically Muslims and Christians, but also other peoples whose nations are run in accordance with law) falling beyond the purview of those to whom the Talmudic authors were often referring when they spoke of goyim, nochrim and akum. As such, R’ Meiri was likely the first person to observe that certain passages need to be viewed within the context of their Sassanid-era composition.

Shnei Luchot haBrit (5 vols.), by R’ Yeshayahu Horowitz (c.1565-1630). First published in 1648 by the author’s son, R’ Horowitz’s magnum opus is actually several books in one:

Toldot Adam: written in eighteen parts (with an introduction of its own), this is the author’s introduction to the overall text. In it he makes clear the work’s tripartite structure and emphasises the fact that it serves as a testament to his children. He also provides an overview of his philosophical approach to the nature of God, the purpose of existence, the study of Torah, and several other issues, including the phraseology of prayer and the Temple service;

Aseret Maamarot: the first of the text’s three parts, this section comprises ten philosophical/kabbalistic discourses;

Sha’ar haOtiyot: an addendum to Aseret Maamarot, this section comprises twenty-two halakhic/philosophical excurses, titled as an alphabetic acrostic;

Aseret haDibrot: the second of the text’s three parts, this section comprises discourses on ten of the tractates in the Talmud and their related legislation. Each discourse is further subdivided into three parts: Ner Mitzvah, in which the laws are explicated in full; Torah Or, in which the reasons for the laws are enumerated; and Derekh Chayim, in which the author expands upon the philosophical and ethical lessons to be learnt from this legislation. To several of these discussions are appended drashot on a variety of related subjects;

Torah ShebiKhtav: the first of two addenda to Aseret haDibrot, this section comprises the author’s philosophical, legal and ethical commentary on the Torah, arranged by parsha. This section is occasionally published separately, as its own text;

Torah Shebe’al Peh: the second of the two addenda to Aseret haDibrot, this section comprises a lengthy and technical introduction to the early rabbinic literature, divided into twenty-seven “principles” and constituting a methodology for Talmudic analysis. The concern here, as with similar introductions, is with provenance and authority: which parts can be said to have been authored by whom, what is the relationship of individual corpora to one another, and how can we determine the halakha. The thirteenth “principle”, titled לשונות הסוגיות (“the expressions found in Talmudic pericopes”), constitutes a corpus-based analysis of Talmudic clauses and phrases, based upon information found within the Talmud’s various commentaries and meta-commentaries. In that respect it is not dissimilar to a modern dictionary, albeit with phrases for lemmas;

Aseret Hilulim: the third and final division of the text, this section comprises ten ethical treatises.

Although Shnei Luchot haBrit was written expressly for R’ Yeshayahu Horowitz’s children, it has had a profound impact upon the development of subsequent Jewish ethics and philosophy. One area in which it has had a particularly powerful impact is that of hasidic Judaism. The classic Liqqutei Amarim (“Tanya”) of R’ Schneur Zalman of Liady – the principle expression of the kabbalistic philosophy of Chabad – is heavily indebted to this text, perhaps more than any other post-Talmudic expression of ethical philosophy.

HaMeor haGadol (2 vols.): a compilation of novellae taken from various sources, all of them attributed to R’ Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), published in 2004. Novellae concern selections taken from the individual parshiyot of the Torah, (most of) the subsequent books of the Tanakh, the sixty-three tractates of the Mishna, the Pesach haggadah and the siddur.

• Various works of R’ Yonasan Eybeschütz (1690-1764), each of which was published posthumously:

Chasdei Yehonatan (first published 1897) is a collection of novellae on various midrashim, halakhic and aggadic, found chiefly in Midrash Rabbah, Yalkut Shimoni, Midrash Tanchuma, Torat Kohanim, Sifrei Bemidbar and Devarim, and Rashi’s commentary on chumash;

Ahavat Yehonatan (first published 1875) is a collection of novellae on the parshiyot and haftarot that are read throughout the year, as well as on Lamentations (Eikhah);

Divrei Yehonatan (first published 1903) is a collection of novellae on the Torah, arranged by parsha, as well as on the festival of Pesach, its laws and customs, and the text of the haggadah;

Nefesh Yehonatan (first published 1901) is a collection of novellae on the Torah, as well as on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim, arranged according to the parsha and in reference to a variety of midrashim and passages from the Talmud and the subsequent halakhic literature;

Midrash Yehonatan (first published 1933) is a collection of novellae, frequently complex, on the individual parshiyot of the Torah, in which the author links concepts from a wide range of Talmudic and halakhic texts;

Tiferet Yehonatan (first published 1873) is a collection of novellae on the Torah, arranged by parsha;

Tzefichat haDevash (first published 1887) is a collection of drashot that had been delivered by R’ Eybeschütz on various shabbatot and yamim tovim.

Seder haDorot (2 vols.), by R’ Yechiel ben Shlomo Heilprin (c.1660-c.1746). First published in 1769 (תקכ”ט), Seder haDorot is three books in one:

Seder Yemot ha’Olam. This 425-page text constitutes a history of the world, based on a variety of rabbinic historiographical sources, from the creation of the first man until the year 1696 (“ה’ אלפים תנ”ו”). The work is prefaced with a comprehensive 50-page index of all instances in the Babylonian Talmud in which the author believes that the name of a sage or the relationship between two sages has been incorrectly recorded; it is followed by a 69-page index of all names mentioned within the text (although Jesus, whose birth is mentioned in the year ג’ תרע”א and whose ministry is mentioned in ג’ תש”ז, appears to be mysteriously absent);

Seder Mechabrim uSefarim. Based heavily upon the monumental Siftei Yeshenim of R’ Shabbetai Bass (1641-1718), this 203-page text constitutes an alphabetical index of rabbonim, together with the titles of the works that they authored. Unlike Siftei Yeshenim, this text includes no additional information as regards each of the works that it lists, nor their dates of publication;

Seder Tannaim veAmoraim. This 778-page text constitutes a comprehensive index of every sage mentioned in the Mishna and Gemara, together with some brief biographical information (chiefly parentage, tutelage and names of disciples). The index also includes references to every passage within the Mishna in which they are mentioned, as well as to sources within the two Talmuds and their respective commentaries in which the biographical information that he provides can be found.

Nefesh haChayim, by R’ Chayim ben Yitzhak of Volozhin (1749-1821). A disciple of R’ Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (the Gaon of Vilna; 1720-1797), R’ Chayim is most famous today for having founded the yeshiva in Volozhin – regarded by many as the first “modern-style” yeshiva, in terms of its curriculum, its management and the means by which ambassadors of the yeshiva raised funds for its continued support. Nefesh haChayim, which was first published in 1824, is the author’s major philosophical work, dealing with issues that pertain to the nature of existence, the mechanism of prayer, our relationship with God and the study of Torah. To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the text lies in its author’s distancing himself from a particular philosophy that was ostensibly held by his rebbe – a philosophy that, in Chabad literature, is presented as having been the chief cause of friction between the Gra and the hasidim – that of tzimtzum kifeshuto. So, for example, the Nefesh haChayim writes:

והוא ענין הכתוב “הלא את השמים ואת הארץ אני מלא” (ירמיה כג, כד). ויותר מפרש במשנה תורה “וידעת היום וגו’ כי ה’ הוא האלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד” (דברים ד, לט). וכן “אתה הראת לדעת כי ה’ הוא האלהים אין עוד מלבדו” (שם, שם לה) והוא ממש כמשמעו, שאין עוד מלבדו יתברך כלל, בשום בחינה ונקדה פרטית שבכל העולמות, עליונים ותחתונים והבריות כלם, רק עצמות אחדותו הפשוט יתברך שמו לבד

– Shaar III:3; for more on this subject, see Allan Nadlar, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Baltimore, 1999), 11-28. On p16, Nadlar notes that, contrary to Chabad sources, “there was virtually no substantive theological difference between Hasidim and Mithnagdim in their respective theoretical understandings of the nature of divine immanence”.

Mei haShiloach (2 vols.), by R’ Mordekhai Yosef Leiner (1839-1854), student of R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa and the Kotzker Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Morgensztern. First published in 1860 (תר”כ), approximately six years after his death, Mei haShiloach comprises two distinct hasidic commentaries on the Torah.

Minchat Chinukh (3 vols.), by R’ Yosef ben Moshe Babad (1801-1874). First published in 1869, Minchat Chinukh is the author’s conceptual commentary to the 13th century Sefer haChinukh, itself a methodological presentation of the 613 mitzvot, according to their presentation in the Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot, and arranged by parsha. This 19th century commentary provides depth to those halakhot, teasing out the nature of the legislation by means of reference to Talmudic and post-Talmudic discussions on the subject, and through the author’s own discussion of hypothetical cases.

• Two collections of novellae on the Torah by R’ Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), aka Chatam Sofer:

Torat Moshe Chatam Sofer (2 vols). First published in 1881, this is a collection of the Chatam Sofer’s novellae on the Torah, written as drashot and arranged by parsha;

Chatam Sofer al-haTorah (5 vols). This is a collection of the Chatam Sofer’s previously unpublished novellae on Torah, first printed in 1961 by R’ Yosef Naftali Stern, the son-in-law of the Chatam Sofer’s grandson, R’ Shlomo Aleksandri Schreiber.

Ketav Sofer (2 vols.), by R’ Shmuel Binyamin Schreiber (1815-1871), the eldest son of the Chatam Sofer. First published in 1883, this is a collection of the Ketav Sofer’s novellae on the Torah, the five megillot, the individual chaggim and the haggadah.

Ha’Ameq Davar (6 vols.), by R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), rosh yeshiva at Volozhin. First published in 1879, Ha’Ameq Davar constitutes a commentary upon the Torah (at times, a super-commentary upon Rashi) and upon Song of Songs.

Meshekh Chokhmah (4 vols.), by R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (“Or Somayach”; 1843-1926). In three volumes (the fourth constituting a series of detailed indices), this is the Or Somayach’s celebrated commentary on the Torah, first published posthumously. Perhaps the most (in)famous component is a remark made in the author’s explication of Parshat Bechukotai, to the effect that certain of his contemporaries were responsible for neglecting the study of Jewish literature, of failing to master the Hebrew/Aramaic language, of ceasing to consider themselves in exile and of considering Berlin to be the new Jerusalem. To such people, R’ Meir Simcha promises a storm of tremendous ferocity, the likes of which this exile has never seen, which will transport Jews to a foreign land in which they will be subjected to harsh decrees, will be reminded that they are Jews and will be brought to the edge of annihilation.

[Such threats are not uncommon in certain modes of literature, but the time and place of Meshekh Chokhmah’s composition makes their author seem something of a prophet.]

• Various novellae and drashot from the school of Brisk:

Beit haLevi al-haTorah: a collection of novellae arranged by parsha (from Bereishit to Ki Tisa), plus twelve drashot on Hilkhot Stam (the writing of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot). Authored by R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk (“the Beis haLevi”, 1820-1892);

Sefer Drashot: a collection of eighteen drashot on a range of subjects, extracted from the Beis haLevi’s magnum opus, “Beit haLevi”;

Yalqut Shemu’ot miBeit haLevi: first published in the 9th and 10th editions (2001-2002) of Yeshurun, this is a collection of novellae and drashot on various parshiyot of the Torah, on some of the subsequent books of Tanakh, on certain tractates of the Mishna/Talmud, on the siddur and on the haggadah. They are all of them attributed to the Beis haLevi, either by people who heard them from him or who heard them in his name;

Chiddushei Maran haGriz haLevi: a collection of novellae and drashot on Tanakh and on various passages in the rabbinic literature, attributed to R’ Yitzhak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (“the Brisker Rov”, 1886-1959), grandson of the Beis haLevi. As with the previous collection, these have all been recorded by individuals who heard them from him personally or who heard them in his name. They were first published in 1996.

Tzafnat Pa’aneach al-haTorah (3 vols.), by R’ Yosef Rosen of Rogatchov (1858-1936). Known as the Rogatchover Gaon, R’ Yosef Rosen (together with R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) was one of very few people to have recognised the infamous Yerushalmi Qodshim as a forgery. A Kapuster hasid, the Rogatchover studied under the Beis haLevi and R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin (“Maharil Diskin”), and gave semikha to the seventh rebbe of Lubavitch, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. At the time of his death in 1936, most of his voluminous writings were unpublished, and there were few who were capable of deciphering his famously laconic style. Leaving her home in Petach Tikva, the Rogatchover’s daughter, Rachel Citron, travelled to Dvinsk and met up with her father’s student, R’ Yisrael Alter Safern-Fuchs. Togther, they frantically prepared the Rogatchover’s writings for publication until such time as the Nazi ban of Jewish printing put an end to their efforts. In the time that they had left, they photographed the pages of his Rambam and Shas, together with his copious marginalia, and sent the pictures by post to R’ Tzvi Hirsch Safern in NYC. They were both murdered in 1942, but it is thanks to their efforts that many of the Rogatchover’s writings have now been published.

This three-volume set is a commentary upon the Torah and upon the Rambam’s Guide of the Perplexed. It was first published in 1974 by R’ Menachem Kasher, together with introductions that pertain to the life and thought of R’ Yosef Rosen. If you wish to read more about this incredible man, his insights into Torah and the amazing self-sacrifice of those who worked at disseminating them (or if you wish to contribute in any way to the ongoing labour of preparing his manuscripts for publication), you can consult the Tzafnat Pane’ach Institute.

Mikhtav meEliyahu (5 vols.), by R’ Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953), mashgiach ruchani at Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Published between 1955 (תשט”ו) and 1997 (תשנ”ז), Mikhtav meEliyahu is a collection of R’ Dessler’s ethical writings, personal correspondence and mussar schmuessen, primarily dealing with themes that touch upon matters of faith, divine providence and free-will.

Sefat Emet (5 vols.), by the second Gerrer Rebbe, R’ Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905). First published in 1905 (תרס”ה), immediately after the rebbe’s death, Sefat Emet constitutes a hasidic commentary on the Torah, widely regarded as exceptionally complex by virtue of its offering the reader very little in the way of any indication as to precisely which subject is under discussion, or which passage (in the Torah, in Rashi’s commentary or in the Talmud) is being specifically referred to.

Yismach Yisrael, by the second Alexanderer Rebbe, R’ Yerachmiel Yisroel Yitzhak Danziger (1853-1910). First published in 1911/2 (תרע”א), Yismach Yisrael is a hasidic commentary on the Torah.

Tiferet Shmuel, by the third Alexanderer Rebbe, R’ Shmuel Tzvi Danziger (1860-1923), the brother of his predecessor. First published in 1925 (תרפ”ה), Tiferet Shmuel is a hasidic commentary on the Torah, and one that makes reference in a number of instances to the Yismach Yisrael.

Divrei Yoel (8 vols.), by the first Satmarer Rebbe, R’ Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979). First published in 1971/2 (תשל”א), Divrei Yoel constitutes the Satmar Rebbe’s commentary on the Torah, and probably the most systematic elucidation of his hasidic thought.

Melekhet haMishkan veKheilav, by R’ Asher David Meyers. Published in 2004, this text (“The Construction of the Mishkan and Its Vessels”) constitutes a detailed study of the sanctuary and its adornments, the altars, the table and the courtyard, and the means by which these were constructed. It is based upon discussions of the subject in the rabbinic literature, and includes responsa by R’ Chaim Kanievsky (born 1928), son of R’ Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, “the Steipler Gaon”.

Sha’arei Sefarim ‘Ivrim, by A.M. Haberman. Published in 1969 by the Museum of Printing Art in Safed (מוזיאון לאומנות הדפוס, צפת), this work is a collection of images of 104 different Hebrew title pages over the course of several centuries. Commencing with a hand-drawn title page from a Tanakh written at the end of the 13th century, and culminating with a printed title page from a 1949 printing of Maayan Tahor (by R’ Moshe Teitelbaum, rav of Ujhely; 1759-1841), it is fascinating to see the evolution of different styles. Some are quite startling: a Pentateuch printed in 1591 shows a bare-breasted woman, draped in a cloth and sporting a crown, with a spear in her hand, pointing downwards at a seven-headed dragon; a collection of halakhic novellae on tractates Beitza, Bava Metzia, Ketubot, Hullin and Gittin, printed in 1737, depicts a ship at sea under attack from a giant, hornéd sea-monster, which appears to be swallowing the anchor and which has two men in its belly, wearing pointed hats and lighting a fire beneath a cauldron. The title pages of my own books are staggeringly boring to me now.

In Yiddish:

• Jacob Shatzky, The History of the Jews in Warsaw I: From the Beginnings to the Uprising of 1831 (New York, 1947).

• Jacob Shatzky, The History of the Jews in Warsaw II: From 1831 to the Uprising of 1863 (New York, 1948).

• Jacob Shatzky, The History of the Jews in Warsaw III: From 1863 to 1896 (New York, 1953).

In English:

• Malachi Beit-Arié, Unveiled Faces of Medieval Hebrew Books: The Evolution of Manuscript Production – Progression or Regression? (Jerusalem, 2003).

• William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein (trans.), Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana: R’ Kahana’s Compilation of Discourses for Sabbaths and Festal Days (London, 1975). Strack and Stemberger provide a variety of possible dates for this compilation, all of them within the first millennium but differing from one another by several centuries. A collection of homiletical discourses for Shabbatot and festivals, it has been described by some as the oldest exegetical midrash, and is our primary source for the ten special haftarot that are read before and after the 9th of Av.

• Mordechai Z. Cohen, Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi (Leiden, 2008). In this text, Cohen applies metaphor theory to the figurative language found within Tanakh, and analyses the different ways in which these three rishonim interpreted scripture.

• Anne and Roger Cowen, Victorian Jews Through British Eyes (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization; London, 1998). This delightful 200-page text is a collection of newspaper articles, photographs and caricatures that concern Jews in England (be they English Jews or migrants) between approximately 1829 and 1900. The articles attest to the changing fortunes of Jews in England, both socially and politically, to attitudes that were held towards Jews from the East, and to the manner in which certain prominent Jewish individuals were considered in the public eye. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• José Faur, The Horizontal Society: Understanding the Covenant and Alphabetic Judaism (2 vols; Boston, 2010). A somewhat strange but phenomenally eclectic collection of essays, dealing with a wide range of Jewish subjects and exhibiting an almost encyclopedic familiarity with the rabbinic literature. Its author is an alumnus of Beth Midrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, and a former professor at JTS and Bar-Ilan.

• John C.L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions I: Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions (Oxford, 1971). (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• John C.L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions II: Aramaic Inscriptions, including inscriptions in the dialect of Zenjirli (Oxford, 1975). (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (London, 2008).

• Isaac Halevy-Levin (ed), The Revival of the Hebrew Language (Ariel 25; Jerusalem, 1969). Featuring articles by S.Y. Agnon, Chaim Rabin and E.Y. Kutscher, among others.

• Louis Jacobs, Theology in the Responsa (London: 1975). A fascinating text, R’ Jacobs looks at a range of responsa from the Geonic period through to the 20th century, and considers how their authors, either explicitly or implicitly, developed arguments on matters of faith. Arranged chronologically, with chapters devoted to different centuries. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• Leo Kadman, The Coins of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE (Corpus Nummorum Palaestinensium III; Jerusalem, 1960).

• Paul Kahle, The Cairo Geniza (2nd ed; Oxford, 1959). Based upon a series of talks given by the author for the British Academy Schweich Lectures in 1941, this text is an historical and literary introduction to the materials found within the Cairo Geniza, with a special emphasis placed upon witnesses to the biblical text, both masoretic and translations. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• Gail Labovitz, Marriage and Metaphor (New York, 2013). As with the work by Mordechai Z. Cohen, mentioned above, this is a contribution to the field of metaphor theory, and one in which the author turns her attention to the language of commerce that pervades rabbinic matrimonial texts.

• Binyamin Lau, The Sages III: The Galilean Period (trans. Ilana Kurshan; Jerusalem, 2013). The third volume in a three-volume series, the first was titled “The Second Temple Period” (from Shimon haTzaddik to R’ Tzadok) and the second was titled “From Yavneh to the Bar Kokhba Revolt” (spanning Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai to R’ Yehuda ben Bava, and the deaths of R’ Akiva’s students). This third volume, titled “The Galilean Period” covers the establishment of the bet midrash in Usha, through to the death of R’ Yehuda haNasi.

• Marvin Lowenthal (trans.), The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln (New York, 1977). Written in Yiddish between 1690 and 1719, Glückel’s diary (which she authored for the benefit of her children, shortly after the death of their father) provides a fascinating insight into the life of a Jewish woman of business in the final quarter of the 17th century. She writes of her memories of the expulsion of Jews from Hamburg in 1648, the Swedish invasion of Altona in 1657, the aftermath of the Chmielnicki uprising in the east, and the false messiah, Shabbetai Tvzi. The first of the two major German translations of this work was undertaken by a descendant of Glückel named Bertha Pappenheim. Better known to the world as “Anna O.” (the pseudonym by which Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer referred to her in their case studies), Pappenheim was the most significant patient when it came to Breuer’s work on hysteria, and takes a major place in the early development of psychoanalysis. What can I say: this world can be a very strange place.

• Shimon Yosef Meller, The Brisker Rav: The Life and Times of Maran HaGaon HaRav Yitzchok Ze’ev HaLevi Soloveitchik zt”l (3 vols; trans. Daniel Weiss; Jerusalem, 2007). Published by Feldheim, these three volumes constitute a (somewhat romantic) biography of one of the greatest Torah scholars of the twentieth century, the son of R’ Chaim Soloveitchik and the grandson of the Beis haLevi. His nephew, R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (“the Rav”) is not mentioned once in the book’s 1,792 pages. His absence, while not particularly surprising, is somewhat striking in the opening chapters of the first volume, in which the Rav’s family tree stops with his father, R’ Moshe Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav’s brother), and in which information about the life of R’ Moshe Soloveitchik is attributed to his grandson, R’ Moshe Meiselman. R’ Meiselman, who heads Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Jerusalem, has courted controversy with his pretence that the Rav’s Zionism was put on for the purposes of outreach only, and that the Rav (who was both his uncle and his teacher) was as staunchly anti-Zionist as the rest of the Soloveitchik family.

• Jacob Neusner, A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai Ca.1-80 CE (Leiden, 1970).

• Jacob Neusner, Major Trends in Formative Judaism II: Texts, Contents, and Contexts (California, 1984).

• Hayim Goren Perelmuter (trans.), Shir haMa’alot l’David (Song of the Steps) and Ktav Hitnazzelut l’Darshanim (In Defence of Preachers) (Ohio, 1984). Authored by R’ David Darshan and first printed in 1571 and 1574, respectively, these were the first books of darshanut to have been published in Poland, and its author the first itinerant preacher to have devised a handbook for others of his profession. Perelmuter’s translation incorporates a copy of the original publication in the back of the text, an introduction to the period and the style, and a running English commentary. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• Gil S. Perl, The Pillar of Volozhin: Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin and the World of Nineteenth-Century Lithuanian Torah Scholarship (Studies in Orthodox Judaism; Boston, 2012).

• Harry Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life: Jewish Laws and Customs of Mourning (London: 1964). This short and pocket-sized text provides information that pertains to the various periods of mourning, the care of the deceased, funerary and consecration practices and the observance of yahrzeits. Most importantly, it is replete with copious footnotes, providing sources in the Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature, making it an excellent pedagogical tool. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (2 vols; 1999). These two volumes constitute a brief biography of the Rav, followed by a compendium of remarks made by him on a wide variety of issues, translated into English.

• Stefan C. Reif, Shabbethai Sofer and his Prayer-book (Cambridge, 1979). One of the most outstanding grammarians of the 16th-17th centuries, the Polish-born Shabbetai Sofer was commissioned by the Council of Three Lands to write an official siddur for use by Ashkenazi Jews. That text was lost until the end of the 19th century, when the original manuscript was recovered in London by A. Neubauer and subsequently published. This volume, by Stefan Reif, constitutes an introduction to and commentary on the text of Shabbetai’s siddur. (From the library of Alan and Sadie Crown.)

• William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1977).

• Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century: Creating a Tradition of Learning (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization; trans. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz; Portland, 2012). Shaul Stampfer focuses primarily on the yeshiva in Volozhin, which was established by R’ Chaim ben Yitzhak and which counted amongst its leaders (at least for a time) both the Beis haLevi and the Netziv, but he also gives attention to the yeshivas in Slobodka, Telz and Kovno. The yeshiva in Slobodka is particularly interesting to me: headed by R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel (“the Alter of Slabodka”; 1849-1927), the yeshiva placed a very strong emphasis on the study of mussar. In 2011, when the rosh yeshiva of the Mir in Jerusalem died (a man also named Nosson Tzvi Finkel) he was eulogised by R’ Nissan Kaplan as having come to the yeshiva as a young American boy so many years back – a young boy, with no yichus. I don’t know what it means to have no yichus, given that his father was a rabbi, his great-uncle was the rosh yeshiva at the Mir, his grandfather was the mashgiach ruchani at Yeshivas Hebron, and his great-grandfather (for whom he was named) was the Alter of Slabodka. But there you go.

• Bernard Wasserstein, On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (New York, 2012). From the book’s jacket: “Unlike most previous accounts, On the Eve focuses not on the anti-Semites [sic] but on the Jews. Wasserstein refutes the common misconception that they were unaware of the gathering forces of their enemies. He demonstrates that there was a growing and widespread recognition among Jews that they stood on the edge of an abyss… Wasserstein introduces a diverse array of characters: holy men and hucksters, beggars and bankers, politicians and poets, housewives and harlots… from Vilna (the “Jerusalem of the North”) to Amsterdam, Vienna, Warsaw, and Paris, from the Judeo-Espagnol-speaking stevedores of Salonica to the Yiddish-language collective farms of Soviet Ukraine and Crimea… Based on comprehensive research, rendered with compassion and empathy, and brought alive by telling anecdotes and dry wit, On the Eve offers a vivid and enlightening picture of the European Jews in their final hour.”

• Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jerusalem, 2012).

and the pièce de résistance:

Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archaeology – Jerusalem, April 1984. This wonderful text contains articles and addresses by a number of different scholars, many of whom were giants in their field. The list of authors includes, but is not limited to, Frank Moore Cross, Benjamin Mazar, Yigael Yadin, David Noel Freedman, Norman K. Gottwald, Siegfried Herrmann, Moshe Kochavi, Amihai Mazar, Israel Finkelstein, Avraham Biran, Ruth Amiran, William G. Dever, David Ussishkin, Donald B. Redford, André Lemaire, Baruch A. Levine, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Joseph M. Baumgarten, Elisha Qimron, John Strugnell, Hartmut Stegemann, David Flusser, Cyrus H. Gordon and Ephraim E. Urbach.

Jenolan Caves

4 06 2013

On Saturday morning, at 7:00am, my brother and I left Katoomba for the Jenolan Caves. After being given a helmet with a flashlight, blue overalls, knee pads and a belt, we joined up with another six explorers and three terrific guides to explore a small section of the largest underground cave network at Jenolan and the oldest in the world: the Mammoth.

After a twenty minute walk from the guidehouse, through a dense forest of eucalypt and pine, meandering along a dried-out riverbed of stone and ivy, and in the permanent shadow of a looming cliff, we reached the steps that took us up to a small grate that was then unlocked. Turning on our torches, we crouched through in single-file…

Our first stop, after clambering down, down, down into the belly of the mountain, was the Rock Pile: a mass of fallen boulders, held in place around each other by their own stubborn weight. We clambered over, crawled under and slithered sideways through this labyrinth, feeling the icy touch of age-old stone so far away from distant sunlight.

At every turning in the passage, past every narrow entranceway, it was too easy to forget which way we came. In silence, and with nothing save our bobbing torches to light the inside of the mountain, we followed our guides down to a burbling river. There, greedily, we drank the clearest water I have ever tasted, and washed the dirt of a million years from every hand and face.

Our next stop was the Oolites Cavern: a short, but not so tricky climb to a high, expansive cave whose every wall glittered with crystal, where stalactites and straws hung dripping from an ancient roof. We marvelled at the priceless wonder of it all, the breathtaking acoustics and the short and shiny stalagmites that took an age to grow. Finally, this part of our adventure over, we turned back and retraced our steps… but we were far from being finished.

Climbing and winding our way back to the Rock Pile, we were each of us clipped onto a karabiner for the purpose of scaling a rigged-up ladder that swayed listlessly through a chimney of stone. This was the most challenging part of the day: hauling myself up, two rungs at a time, contorting my body to get onto the ledge, adjusting my position to remove the karabiner and then finding the strength to clamber up and over a boulder not much smaller than myself. There, after another short and fairly easy climb, we turned off our torches and marvelled at the dense and utter blackness, so thick that it seemed to crawl behind the eyes and stupefy the brain.

There is no time within the bowels of this green earth, no way to mark the slow aging of rock and stone. I could not help but imagine being trapped down here: unable to differentiate between day and night, unable to tell the difference between dreams and waking, unable to take a step for fear of falling an immeasurable distance…

Our lunch was had in a tiny, dirt-floored chamber, where we were careful not to leave a single crumb, the smallest morsel flowering rapidly into an eager mould. A dark line near the ceiling showed us how high the water gets in the rainy season, and bits of decaying stick and leaf served as evidence of the most recent flood.

Packed and ready to keep exploring, we trudged onwards over rocks that were coated in slippery goo, and into a dark world of clay and slime. Crawling on our bellies beneath the overhanging stone, through cracks no higher than a human head, we emerged after a series of tunnels, caked in clay and soaked with  water, at an undulating field of mud.

Careful to place our feet in the deep, watery footprints left by others, and mindful of the smallest misstep sending us sliding towards the edge of a rocky pit to our right that breathed upon us as we marched, we walked carefully and in single-file towards an abyss so deep that our guide’s thrown stone continued sending back echoing report as faint vibration even after we could no longer hear its distant chime. Crudely, the wall was marked with an arrow facing away from the precipice, whose base lay out of hope and memory, along with an image of a skull and crossbones: a dire warning, scrawled by 19th century explorers, one of whom may have learnt too late what lay beyond its lip.

Our final stage was optional, but it was an option that we all took. The Hellhole. A slimy, mudpacked tunnel through which we ducked and squeezed and crawled, which flattened out into a winding chimney the size of a human torso. Watching the man in front of me squeeze his way through, his two arms pressed flat alongside his body, boosting himself upwards with his legs, his fingers working the roof above his back, I wondered whether I might need to give up here.

Once his feet had disappeared beyond the bend, I embraced the slimy walls. Sliding my arms before me, and attempting to dig my elbows into the tightly-packed clay, I wedged my head and upper body into the crack. So tight that I could not change the direction in which I was facing, there being insufficient room to turn my head, I gasped and grunted, squeezed and pushed until I came plopping through into a slightly larger cavity, from which I could pull myself safely up. “It’s a boy!”, shouted someone from above.

Finally, defeated by the Mammoth Cave and breathing loudly, we embarked upon the most dangerous part: a journey along the face of a stone wall, guided by a hand-held cord, our feet and knees pressed firmly against the slippery surface opposite us, and a crevice beneath us that tapered away into a crack just wide enough for a person’s ankles, and maybe half their legs. No legs were broken and no ankles sprained, but the trek over this drop was tortuous and slow, made easier by the guides’ advice on where to lean and where to push, and safer by their physical presence towards the end.

Finally – finally! – we retraced our steps, through mud and slime and over rock and stone, under, over and through each narrow cleft made smaller by my own physical and psychic exhaustion. The final push, a long flight upwards, so easily traversed when coming down it at the very start of our journey, absolutely broke me. I was utterly spent, and almost wept with joy when I got a face full of cobweb. A sign of life; a sign that we are approaching the summit.

All told, we had spent a total of seven hours in the Mammoth Cave. Seven hours climbing and sliding and squeezing and crawling through the age-old intransigence of stone. Seven hours deep within the heart of the mountain, with silence our companion and with darkness our friend. Seven hours where the walls leer and the shadows dance around the dim reach of the torchlight. Where the only other living creatures are infant bats and featureless white flatworms. Seven hours, and we had finally made it through, blinking and teary in the dying sunlight, into a gently-raining forest, bathed in sound.

On the Death of Rav Elyashiv

1 08 2012

Two weeks ago, I felt the need to comment on the passing of Rav Elyashiv. In the time since then, a few people have drawn articles to my attention (either privately or on Facebook) that have presented views at odds with the one I shared. Rav Elyashiv had no relationship with his family. Rav Elyashiv was responsible for further estranging Haredim from the state. Rav Elyashiv’s rulings have harmed women and converts. From such allegations, I cannot (nor will not) defend him. Instead, I think it best to make my feelings about Rav Elyashiv more properly understood.

As many people know, I have a love/hate relationship with Haredi Judaism. It is difficult for me to speak about people like the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov without feeling my pulse quicken, but it is also difficult for me to speak about people like Rav Shach or Rav Steinman without some measure of contempt. Some time ago, a friend of mine asked me why I found the Steipler Gaon so admirable, and my answer probably goes for the former two whom I admire as well: I don’t know much about him.

It seems that the more I learn about individual Haredim whom I admire, the easier it is for me to remember why I left. I look at Haredi society today and I see a community becoming further and further mired in their trenchant opposition to modernity. I see people who seek stringencies where leniencies have greater precedent. I see people who are beginning to manifest attitudes that are revoltingly misogynist and terrifyingly racist. So far as how they got here, they largely have themselves to blame.

To an equally large extent, however, the blame lies with a belligerent Israeli government. Comprised originally of secular European intellectuals who thought their culture inherently superior, they treated North African Jews with disdain, Haredim with condescension, and Arabs with outright contempt. In all three cases, they grossly misjudged the people with whom they were dealing, and while the Knesset today is not plagued with this particular problem (leastways, not so far as Sephardim and Haredim are concerned), the damage has already been done.

That said, I cannot blame secular Zionists for their behaviour any more than I can blame Haredim for theirs; both attitudes were forged in the fires of the Shoah, and both are merely differing manifestations of trauma. With his typical astuteness, Raul Hilberg recognised the striking ferocity with which Zionists suddenly turned against the British and against the Arabs as a case of misplaced anger. The same could be said for the intensity with which Haredim turned against the fledgling state.

It is impossible to predict what Haredi society might have looked like in a world in which it had been allowed to flourish. With the recent advent of schools for girls, and with the solidarity that was afforded Haredim across Europe after the formation of the Agudah, it is tempting to imagine the development of a society both rigidly conservative in its interpretation of the law and socially progressive with its application of it. But such, in Israel, was not to be.

Instead, we see a society in which poskim seek to outdo one another with stringency, and in which any concession to the lifestyle or the background of the petitioner is deemed scandalously liberal. We see a society that is so phenomenally out of touch with the outside world that even the ways of North American Haredim are inscrutable to them. Most alarmingly of all, we see the utterly unprecedented phenomenon of people with deliberately machmir interpretations of the law, forcing their stringencies upon large communities of Jews who do not want them.

Without the politicisation of Haredi Judaism, such a thing would not be possible, but this politicisation was a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the formation of the Agudah in 1912 allowed for Haredi interests to be representated to the state – whether in Poland, where it was formed, or in Palestine. On the other hand, it has also afforded the potential, which we now see expressed, for foisting Haredi legislation upon the general public. This more recent and frightening manifestation was the brainchild of Rav Shach. Until he formed Degel haTorah and its media arm, Yated Neeman, Haredi power (insofar as it existed) rested only in a body of rabbis. The legacy of Rav Shach is such that power in the non-Hasidic world is increasingly coming to be represented in a single individual.

There is a certain irony to the fact that the Brisker Rov strongly opposed Heichal Shlomo, the office of the Chief Rabbinate, on the grounds that religious power should never be concentrated. His protegé, Rav Shach, has succeeded in creating just such a concentration – one that, through the machinations of the Eda haHaredis, is now exerting greater and greater influence over the rabbinate itself. While many Haredim look down on such political manoeuvring, and tend to value more highly a rav who does not dirty his hands in politics, it is frequently the one who professes the greatest disdain for power who wields it most of all.

Rav Elyashiv exerted greater influence than he could possibly have known. So divorced was he from the world around him that he had no comprehension as to how his rulings might affect the lives of other people – or even, perhaps, any real comprehension of other people at all. He was hardly alone for having lacked any vestige of empathy, but he was alone in having turned himself completely into a vessel for the halakha.

The breadth of knowledge of which Rav Elyashiv was possessed was savant-like, and I have great admiration for it. In the eighteen hours-or-so that he studied each day, until shortly before his death at 102, he very rarely opened the Shulchan Arukh. There was one time (and this, alone, speaks volumes), immediately after being informed that his daughter had died, when he is said to have closed the tractate of the Talmud that he was studying and opened up the laws of mourning in Yoreh Deah. Nonetheless, despite almost never consulting such material, when he deigned to answer people’s questions he demonstrated an awe-inspiring familiarity with the content of its commentaries. His preparation in this regard was to reacquiant himself with the relevant Talmudic passages – themselves the basis for the laws within the Shulchan Arukh, on which such texts were commenting.

I have no way of easily conveying just what it means to be able to do that. It’s like preparing yourself for a lecture on Newton’s understanding of Kepler by triangulating the stars. It doesn’t make any sense.

While eulogising him, Rav Nissan Kaplan of the Mir Yeshiva recounted an event when Rav Elyashiv was asked to issue a ruling on the legitimacy of wigs that came from India. He gave his ruling without consulting a single text. Wishing to understand it, a group of scholars came to his house to argue with him on the ruling. Their preparation for the argument was to learn Tractate Avodah Zarah in depth (with all of the mediaeval commentaries) and through to the halakha (to learn the relevant passages in the Rambam, the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh, together with all of the commentaries on the latter). Rav Elyashiv contented himself with merely revising the tractate, and after an hour of arguing they all acquiesced to his understanding of the law.

To so impress a community of people, in which it is not uncommon for a man to devote thirty or forty years of his life to uninterrupted study, is itself a powerful statement. That such a person should also exert so strong an influence over other people is a tragedy, but the problem lies moreso with his society in that respect than it does with him.

In a lecture on the genius of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Prof. Marc Shapiro opines upon the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi poskim. Where the former, for their own sociohistorical reasons, have come to favour stringency and to eschew any form of compromise as needless modernisation, the latter (for sociohistorical reasons of their own) have tended to adopt a more lenient and compromised position. Were I in the market for a posek, it would not be a Haredi posek whom I would want, though that doesn’t mean that I think that Rav Elyashiv was ever “wrong”.

I might disagree with him strongly, but my disagreement merely signals the fact that I do not like his rulings. That he, with his terrifying familiarity with the vastness of halakhic Judaism, should have felt that the rulings he made were consonant with the system as a whole is not something that I, with my knowledge of nothing, can either validate or deny. The greatest scholars often make the lousiest humanists, and Rav Elyashiv (who, were he not Haredi, would very likely be considered on the autism spectrum) was a lousy humanist. He was not a good father, nor a good husband, nor a good posek nor anyone’s friend. He had no personality, save what could be gleaned from his posture or the tone of his voice. He almost never smiled at anybody and his only relationships were with the books that he loved.

Bobby Fisher, despite all of the ugly things that could be said about Bobby Fisher, never ceased being the world’s greatest chess player. Rav Elyashiv, for all of the damage that he might have caused both within and outside of Haredi society, was an unparalleled master of the art of halakha. He had no peer.

Christopher Hitchens is Dead

17 12 2011

For so long, the man loomed larger than life; those words – the title of this post – sound way too small.

Social philosopher, political critic, agent provocateur, contrarian par excellence: a man who spoke his mind freely, refused to suffer fools gladly, and brought the full weight of his intellect into the formation of his convictions, behind which he stood until the end. Christopher Hitchens succumbed to esophageal cancer just two days ago. He was 62 years old.

Wikipedia is cruel. No sooner had Vanity Fair released the details of his death than verbs were changed to past tense and a new date was appended to his photograph: a flourish of finality that may have even borne a trace of satisfaction. We are all of us slain by time.

What can one say about the man? He never shied from an argument. When, after a long and colourful career as commentator on the major political events of his time (during which he was most famous for having moved from the left into the neoconservative camp), he reinvented himself as a horseman of the apocalypse. After writing God is Not Great, Hitchens went on a tour of America’s bible belt, engaging priests and politicians, evangelists and scholars in debate after scathing debate. It is fair to say that in the game of words, Hitchens was better armed than his opponents. I never saw him falter.

Unlike most people, Hitchens never tired of insulting those whom he despised, even after they were dead. When Jerry Falwell died (a man whom Hitchens labelled a “little toad”, a “faith-based fraud”), he quipped that if he’d only been given an enema first, they could have buried him in a matchbox. While the world mourned Princess Di, Hitchens declared her a childish degenerate, whose sordid relationships and reckless behaviour got her killed. Most famously, if only because he dedicated his The Missionary Position to her, he indicted Mother Teresa as a fanatic, a friend of poverty, a fundamentalist and a fraud.

Let us therefore not spare Hitchens in his own passing. Anything for him but tired platitudes. He was rude, he was self-righteous, he was conceited. He made racist jokes, smoked cigarettes by the carton, believed women incapable of being funny, and was never without a glass of scotch. He was erudite and exceedingly eloquent. An opinionated and highly-gifted raconteur, he was born to be a public speaker, a scholar who spoke truth to power, and in many ways a genius. He was witty, he was forceful, and he was proud. Most importantly, about so many of the issues to which he lent his tongue and his pen, he was right.

Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, composed a variation on the El Male Rachamim (אל מלא רחמים, “God full of mercy”): a prayer, traditionally recited at Jewish funerals. Whether it is perfectly or imperfectly suited to the passing of Christopher Hitchens, I leave up to you. My faulty translation does not in any way reflect the beauty and the cleverness of the original.

אל מלא רחמים

אל מלא רחמים
אלמלא האל מלא רחמים
היו הרחמים בעולם ולא רק בו
אני, שקטפתי פרחים בהר
והסתכלתי אל כל העמקים
אני, שהבאתי גוויות מן הגבעות
יודע לספר שהעולם ריק מרחמים

אני שהייתי מלך המלח ליד הים
שעמדתי בלי החלטה מול חלוני
שספרתי צעדי מלאכים
שלבי הרים משקלות כאב
בתחרויות הנוראות

אני שמשתמש רק בחלק קטן
מן המילים במלון

אני, שמוכרח לפתור חידות בעל כורחי
יודע כי אלמלא האל מלא רחמים
היו הרחמים בעולם
ולא רק בו

God, Full of Mercy

God full of mercy,
If only God were not full of mercy,
There would be mercy in the world and not just in him.
I, who plucked flowers on the mountain,
Who gazed out over all of the valleys,
I, who brought corpses from the hilltops,
I can tell you that the world is void of mercy.

I, who was the king of salt beside the sea,
Who stood against my will before my window,
Who counted the footsteps of angels,
Whose heart lifted weights of anguish
In dreadful contests.

I, who use but a tiny portion
Of the words in the dictionary.

I, who am forced to decipher riddles,
I know that if only God were not full of mercy
There would be mercy in the world
And not just in him.

To a man who declared himself, not an atheist but an anti-theist, a man who believed the very notion of God to be inherently evil, who never despaired of the fact that death was to be nothing more nor less than what the naked logic dictates – a man for whom the very notion of a “deathbed confession” would be a slanderous insult – I wish him, in the strictly etymological sense,

Requiescat In Pace
ינוח בשלום על משכבו
≈ Isaiah 57:3

Decorating my Tomb

13 12 2011

At some time this morning, my blog finally reached 100,000 views! It’s the little things in life.

Well, what better way to usher in the new centumillennium than by inventing a word (thank you, yes) and by remarking on the current state of the five bookshelves in my bedroom. But first:

A Disclaimer.

I have been warned, by one whose opinion means much to me, that the following blog post is “incredibly boring”, and also that “nobody cares”. While a cataloguing of my books might have value for any future insurance claim, does it need to be published? A cogent critique! And yet, being the pedant that I am, I am going to publish it anyway. Feel free to simply look at the pretty pictures, skip to the Old and Rare Books section near the end, or else skip the whole thing altogether and wonder why you let yourself contribute to my slowly growing view count.

Excepting the volumes on my desk (a mini-Shas and several journals: NAPH, JBL, Tradition, Hakirah, etc), the following are the five shelves in my bedroom:

This is bookshelf #1. It might not look like much, but it does fit snugly into its little niche. This is the first of my two academia shelves, and sorted only by the author’s last name. Included here are books that deal with biblical studies, Qumranic literature, rabbinic literature and Jewish history. Books are arranged from right to left and include the ABD, two volumes of the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament (“Pentateuch” and “Historical Books”), David Biale’s (ed.) Cultures of the Jews, four volumes of the “Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum” series (Mikra, Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, and Parts 1 and 2 of The Literature of the Sages), twelve volumes of The International Critical Commentary (Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah 1-27, Ezekiel, Amos and Hosea, Job, Daniel and Chronicles), and all four volumes of Menachem Elon’s Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles.

Books on this shelf that either changed my life, my course of study or my mind include:

• Gedaliah Alon’s The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age,

• Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative,

• Shaye Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties,

• Noah Efron’s Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel,

• Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel,

• Theodore Gaster’s Thespis, and

• Norman Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction.

This is bookshelf #2: the second of my two academic shelves. From the fourth shelf down is material pertaining to the Hebrew language: Biblical, Rabbinic and, in one instance, Israeli (Ghil’ad Zuckermann’s Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew). In addition to other works of scholarship on Hebrew, I have a total of twelve grammars (Arnold and Choi, A. Davidson, B. Davidson, Gesenius, Joüon and Muraoka, Lambdin, Segal, Sperber, Spinoza, van der Merwe, Waltke and O’Connor, Weingreen and Williams).

After Hebrew, things are a bit of a mess. I have books (grammars, dictionaries, other scholarship) concerning Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Greek, Latin, Yiddish, Akkadian, Arabic, Ge’ez and Ugaritic, followed by a few works that deal with comparative Semitics. Between Syriac and Coptic, however, lie all of my linguistics and literary critical books. The shelf is pretty tight, and in order to make room for newcomers, I have been moving unwanted literary critical texts to one of the shelves in my living room, together with material pertaining to modern European languages. When I run out of space for new books, I’ll just have to get a bigger house.

Books on this shelf that have changed my life, my course of study or my mind include:

• Gary Knoppers and Bernard Levinson’s (eds.) The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding its Promulgation and Acceptance,

• Allan Nadler’s The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture,

• Donald Redford’s Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times,

• Jeffrey Rubenstein’s Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture,

• Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,

• Marc Shapiro’s Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters,

• Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Tractate,

• Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading,

• Isaiah Tishby’s The Wisdom of the Zohar, and

• Emanuel Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.

While I imagine that he would not like to know it, I’ve a huge debt of gratitude to Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, whose From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism did wonders in getting me out of yeshiva.

Favourite linguistic or grammatical works include Sue Groom’s Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, Paul Joüon and Takamitsu Muraoka’s A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, and Peter Cotterell and Max Turner’s Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation. Most formative in this area, however, would be Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor’s An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax and, of course, Kautzsch and Cowley’s Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar.

These are bookshelves #3 and 4. I couldn’t get a clear shot from the other side, which is the first of my three primary literature shelves. That one (the inverse of the side that you can see) contains material relating to the Hebrew Bible and to the period of the second temple. On the top shelf is my Miqra’ot Gedolot, to be followed by a Tiqqun Qor’im, a set of Torat Hayyim, a BHS, witnesses to the Hebrew Bible (MT, SP, LXX, Peshitta, Vulgate, Saadiah’s Arabic translation and some Coptic mss), a facsimile of the Geneva Bible, the KJV, RSV and NRSV, the Jerusalem Bible, Martínez and Tigchelaar’s Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, two editions of Ben Sirach (one, the official publication with plates; the other, a critical edition), Josephus, Philo, and critical editions of the Nag Hammadi library, the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. After that, I have a concordance (Even-Shoshan), an English Mishna (Danby), the BDB, HALOT, Jastrow, an excellent index of the rabbinic literature (arranged by scriptural source) and – because I like to “cheat” – both Kehati’s and Albeck’s commentaries on the Mishna, as well as Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Hebrew translation of the Babylonian Talmud. Next to that set is Frank’s grammar on Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic, and I have found that by assiduously avoiding everything he has to say about Biblical Hebrew (a waw that “converts the tense”! Indeed!), I have so far avoided throwing it at my wall.

On the side that you can see in the picture, I have my primary rabbinic literature: midrash, parshanut, chassidut and philosophy. From the top right, there’s the Etz Hayyim in four volumes, after which is all of my midrash aggadah: Midrash Rabbah, Midrash Tehillim (“Shocher Tov”), Yalqut Shim’oni, Midrash Tanchuma, Leqach Tov, Pirqei deRebi Eliezer, Pesiqta deRav Qahana, Pesiqta Rabbati, Seder ‘Olam Rabbah, Seder ‘Olam Zuta, Tana deVei Eliyahu and Sekhel Tov. After that is an English translation of Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Sefer haAggadah, and then all of my parshanut. That includes Mishnat haRosh (a compendium of Rabbeinu Asher‘s observations on the parsha, culled from his writings and the writings of his son), Gur Aryeh (the Maharal‘s 16th c. super-commentary on Rashi), the Meshekh Chokhmah of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (the “‘Or Sameach”), seven homiletic commentaries of Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschütz (Tiferet Yehonatan, Chasdei Yehonatan, Ahavat Yehonatan, Divrei Yehonatan, Nefesh Yehonatan, Midrash Yehonatan and Tzefichat haDevash) and a collection of scriptural observations of the Vilna Gaon: Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman.

Chassidut! The only work of “general Chassidut” that I have is the Noam Elimelekh. For Breslov, I have the Liqqutei Moharan, Shivchei haRan, Sikhot haRan, and an English translation of Rebbe Nachman’s stories. I have a haggadah with a commentary by Spinker Hasidim, the Sefat Emet of the second Gerrer Rebbe, Reb Arleh’s Shomer Emunim (in two volumes), together with a couple of works that were published by Toldos Aharon: Tiqvat haGe’ulah and Derekh Emunah. I have the Satmar Rebbe’s VaYoel Moshe, and number of works of Chabad: Liqqutei ‘Amarim (“Tanya”), Siddur Torah ‘Or, Seder Tefillot miKol haShanah, Torah ‘Or and Liqqutei Torah, two volumes of commentary on various ma’amarim of the Baal haTanya (Chassidut Mevu’eret), the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derekh Mitzvoteikha, and a few works by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, including his Hadranim al-haRambam veShas, Hilkhot Bet haBechirah, and ‘Inyanah shel Torat haChassidut. I did have the full set of Liqqutei Sichot, but until I figure out whether or not I want to sell it, it’s sitting on a shelf in my living room.

As for philosophy, I’ve the Rambam’s Moreh haNevukhim (trans. S. Pines) and R’ Yehuda haLevi’s haKuzari, as well as Reishit Chokhmah, Sha’arei Teshuvah, ‘Orkhot Tzadikkim, and the Ramchal‘s Derekh haShem, Derekh haTevunot and Sefer haHigayon. How I love those last two. I also have a variety of English books on this shelf, whether philosophical (Soloveitchik, Leibowitz, Jacobs, Hirsch and Heschel) or academic. For the latter, I have three works on prayer (R’ Seth Kadish’s Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer, Jeremy Schonfield’s Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer, and Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber’s On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations), as well as Marc Shapiro’s incredible The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised. I also have an excellent and provocative work by a brilliant and highly underrated scholar: Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective. I have been greatly intrigued by feminist approaches to scripture ever since I encountered the works of Cheryl Exum and Phyllis Trible, and feminist (or at least, gender-based) approaches to rabbinic literature since I discovered Daniel Boyarin. Judith Plaskow’s work is the feminist approach to Jewish tradition par excellence. A must read for feminists, and for those who haven’t yet realised that that’s what they are.

You cannot see it in the photo, but buried on the bottom shelf, like an embarrassing neurosis, is material pertaining to the Holocaust. As with many of my interests, there is a thin line between analysis and devotion, and a confusion over whether or not there is a difference between the two. For that reason, I include here a slim volume of drawings and poems that were made and composed by children in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp (I Have Not Seen a Butterfly Around Here), a DVD that contains footage from Penig, Ohrdruf, Breendonck, Hannover, Arnstadt, Mauthausen, Buchenwald and Dachau, and the Piaseczno Rebbe‘s Sacred Fire: Torah From the Years of Fury 1939-1942 (trans. from Esh Kodesh), which could have been placed with parshanut, or even chassidut. Within this section of my fourth shelf, I also have Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, Raul Hilberg’s Sources of Holocaust Research: An Analysis, his three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews, Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, and Claude Lanzmann’s brilliant 9.5hr documentary, Shoah.

Ah, it’s bookshelf #5! This one is a continuation of my primary rabbinic literature, but this time with a decidedly halakhic and kabbalistic theme. Along the top is my Babylonian Talmud, followed by my Palestinian Talmud (in eight clunky volumes; I miss my single-volume Yerushalmi). The second shelf contains antique and rare books, recently rescued from the cabinet in my living room. The oldest of these books is from 1701, although some of them were published in places like Warsaw, Vilna and Berlin immediately prior to the Shoah. One of them (Avraham Mapu’s Ahavat Tziyon) was published in “Palestine”, 1948. The introduction notes that it was published “שבועים להכרזת המדינה היהודית” (two weeks after the declaration of a Jewish state)! Those that are in particularly poor condition (excluding a few that are at the book doctor’s as we speak) are sitting in the cabinet still, waiting to be looked after.

At the end of the Old and Rare Books section, the halakhic literature continues with my midrash halakha: Mekhilta deRebi Shim’on bar Yochai, Mekhilta deRebi Ishmael, two versions of Sifra (“Torat Kohanim”; one of them a critical edition), Sifrei on Numbers and Deuteronomy, and Midrash Tannaim. Next is my 13-volume Mishnayot Zekher Chanokh: a set of Mishna, published by Moznaim, with every conceivable commentary and super-commentary that you could poke a stick at. Following that is Sefer haChinukh, the Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot, and the Rambam’s illustrious Mishne Torah. After those is Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna’s ‘Or Zarua and the anonymously authored Sefer Kol Bo, followed by the Arba’ah Turim and the Shulchan Arukh, the Shulchan Arukh haRav, Hayyei Adam, Mishne Berurah, Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, Ben Ish Chai, the Arukh haShulchan and the Arukh haShulchan he’Atid.

Some “minor” works of halakha follow, some of them in English, after which I’ve placed my Sifrei haGeonim: Rav Saadiah Gaon’s Siddur, the famous responsum of Rav Sherira Gaon and the Sheiltot of Rav Achai Gaon. My favourite siddur follows (Siddur Vilna, if you’re curious, although I think that Siddur Torah ‘Or and Seder Tefillot miKol haShanah are both marvellous), the machzorim that I inherited from my grandfather and a couple of haggadot.

You cannot see the bottom shelf on this photo either, but it contains some “kabbalistic” siddurim with kavvanot included: one three-volume set in the tradition of Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, a single volume that purports to be the siddur of Rabbi Asher Margoliot, and two hand-written siddurim by a hasid of Shomer Emunim (one of them with a haskamah from Rabbi Yisroel Reizman of the Edah). I have a couple of copies of Sefer Yetzirah (one with R’ Aryeh Kaplan’s commentary, and one with commentaries by the Raavad, the Ramban, Rav Saadiah Gaon and the Vilna Gaon, amongst others), R’ Aryeh Kaplan’s translation and commentary of Sefer haBahir, and two versions of Sefer Raziel haMal’akh. Following those is a reference book on Jewish amulets, a nice three-volume set of Sefer haZohar al-haTorah, and the twenty-two volume “Matoq miDevash” commentary on Sefer haZohar (with Tiqqunei haZohar and Zohar Chadash).

The following is a catalogue of my Old and Rare books, arranged in chronological order by date of publication:

Amsterdam, 1701. A small Hebrew Bible (Biblia Hebraica), with no vowels or accents, and with the qere/ktiv written in the form of a list at the back;

Magdeburg, 1720. A large Hebrew Bible (Biblia Hebraica), with text-critical apparatus in the margins and at the bottoms of the pages. The volume features a Latin introduction, and a dedication to King Frederick Wilhelm I (“Friderico Wilhelmo”). The title page features an illustration of five men, one of whom wears a crown and has a harp at his feat. They have Isaiah 8:20 open before them, with the words לתורה ולתעודה (“For teaching and for instruction”, NRSV) on display. They are gazing in wonder as the heavens above them open: a celestial temple can be seen through the clouds, above which is a triangle which features three yods, and which radiates light over the whole scene. A banner, beneath the lowermost cloud, features a (slightly truncated) quote from Psalm 36:10: כי] עמך מקור חיים באורך נראה אור (“[For] with you is the source of life; by your light we will see light”):

London, 1843. Moses Margoliouth, The Fundamental Principles of Modern Judaism Investigated; Together with a Memoir of the Author, and an Introduction: to which are appended a List of the Six Hundred and Thirteen Precepts: and Addresses to Jews and Christians;

Prague, 1856. A machzor for Yom Kippur, acc. to the tradition of Poland, Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary (כמנהג פולין בעהמען מעהרן ואונגארן), with German translation. The front page features an illustration of Abraham, knife-drawn, holding the hand of a young Isaac, who clutches a bundle of sticks and looks innocently at his father. The inscription: מי שענה לאברהם אבינו בהר המוריה הוא יעננו (“He who responded to our father, Abraham, on Mt Moriah – he will respond to us”). If you look carefully, you can see a ram in the thicket behind them:

Prague, 1860. Selichot for the entire year, acc. to the tradition of Poland, Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary (כמנהג פולין בעהמען מעהרן ואונגארן);

Warsaw, 1863. The first volume of a three-volume Zohar al-haTorah;

Vienna, 1863. The liturgy for Tishah b’Av, with Lamentations. The title page boasts the presence of large letters, nice paper and black ink (באותיות גדולות ובנייר יפה ובדיו שחור);

London, 1864. A King James Bible, originally gifted by a mother to her son in 1881;

London, 1864. A siddur in Hebrew and English, acc. to the Polish tradition;

Berlin, 1866. The third and fourth volumes of a Mishne Torah (being the fourth and fifth books: נשים and קדושה) – in need of rebinding;

London, 1868. W.M. Thomson, The Land and the Book; or, Biblical Illustrations drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land;

Lemberg, 1870. Rabbi Chaim ben Shlomo of Chernowitz, סדורו של שבת (Sidduro Shel Shabbat, “The Order of Shabbat”). A Hasidic discourse on the laws and customs of Shabbat;

Vilna, 1873. A machzor for Rosh haShana, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, acc. to the Ashkenazi tradition – currently being rebound;

Vilna, 1874. Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, חובות הלבבות (Chovvot haLevavot, “Duties of the Heart”);

London, 1874. Reverend A.P. Mendes, The Students Prayer Book: A New Interlinear Translation of the Daily, Sabbath and Festival Prayers, with the Blessings, Prayers for Children, &c., &c., to which is prefixed A Compendium of the Hebrew Accidence, Designed to Serve as an Introduction to the Study of the Sacred Language;

Unknown, 1881. A large English King James Bible with embossed wooden covers and metal clasps. Extensive commentary, copious illustrations (both black-and-white and colour), and introductions dealing with flora, fauna, weaponry, architecture, etc. Apocrypha included:

London, 1886. Frederic W. Farrar, History of Interpretation: Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year MDCCCLXXXV;

Vilna, 1887. The first volume of a Midrash Rabba (being Genesis Rabba and Exodus Rabba) – in need of rebinding;

Vilna, 1891. Seder Zeraim in the Mishna, together with the commentaries of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro and Rabbi Yisroel Lipschitz (“Tiferet Yisrael”), and selections from the commentary of Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (“Tosafot Yom-Tov”);

Philadelphia, 1891. Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews. Volume 1: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Simon the Maccabee (135 BCE);

Vilna, 1895. A Siddur in the Ashkenazi tradition;

Vienna, 1896. A Hebrew Bible;

Vilna, 1898. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Yissachar Shapira, תפארת יעקב (Tiferet Yaakov). A super-commentary on the תפארת ישראל (Tiferet Yisrael: Rabbi Yisroel Lipschitz’s commentary on the Mishna). This volume contains an approbation by the Rogatchover Gaon, Rabbi Yosef Rosen;

Vilna, 1898. A collection of poems by the maskil, Yehuda Leib Gordon, cleverly titled “שיַרי השירים” (Shayarei haShirim, “Remnants of Songs”);

Tarnów, 1904. Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, נועם אלימלך (Noam Elimelekh). A Hasidic commentary on the Torah. This volume contains an approbation by the Shinever Rov, Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam – currently being rebound;

Vilna, 1911. Selichot for Rosh haShana – currently being rebound;

Braunschweig, 1907. C. Diercke and E. Gaebler, Schul-atlas für höhere lehrenstalten (“An Atlas For High School Students”) – in need of rebinding;

Berlin, 1912. A Hebrew Bible;

Vilna, 1913. Chaim Meir Heilman, בית רבי: תולדות הרב (Beit Rebi: Toldot haRav, “The House of Rebbe: Generations of the Rav”). The text constitutes an early history of Chabad, dealing with the lives of Rabbi Schneur Zalman (“the Alter Rebbe”), Rabbi Dovber Schneuri (“the Mitteler Rebbe”) and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (“the Tzemach Tzedek”);

Pietrkov, 1913. A machzor for Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur, acc. to the Ashkenazi tradition;

Vienna, 1921. Moses Rath, שפת עמנו: A Hebrew Grammar and Reader for Schools and Selfinstruction – currently being rebound;

Leipzig, 1922. Chaim Brody (ed.), מבחר השירה העברית: Anthologia Hebraica: Poemata selecta a libris divinis confectis usque ad iudaeorum ex hispania expulsionem. A selection of Hebrew poems, composed between the years immediately following the formation of the canon until the exile from Spain. The oldest poems in the text are by Ben Sirach, and the latest are by Rabbi Shlomo ben Reuven Bonfid;

London, 1922. Hillaire Belloc, The Jews – first edition;

Warsaw, 1922. Shmuel Leib Gordon, עשרים וארבעה: נביאים אחרונים – דברי ירמיהו (‘Esrim veArba’ah: Neviyim Acharonim – Divrei Yirmiyahu, “Twenty-Four: Latter Prophets – The Words of Jeremiah”). The third volume of an illustrated commentary on the twenty-four books of Tanakh;

Berlin, 1924. A beautiful facsimile of a handwritten Shir haShirim;

London, 1926. A Hebrew Bible;

Berlin, 1927. Rabbi Yaakov ibn Habib, עין יעקב (Ein Yaakov). Originally composed at the end of the 15th century, the work constitutes a presentation of the aggadic passages in the Babylonian Talmud, together with the author’s commentary;

Warsaw, 1927. A small siddur in the Ashkenazi tradition, titled שפת אמת (Sefat Emet, “Truthful Speech”);

Vienna, 1930. A haggadah for Pesach;

London, 1933. A haggadah for Pesach;

Vienna, 1934. A two-park machzor for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, acc. to the Polish tradition;

Vienna, 1937. A haggadah for Pesach;

Cairo, 1940. A haggadah for Pesach, acc. to the Karaite tradition. Written in French and Hebrew, with a disclaimer in Hebrew and Arabic to the effect that anybody who reproduces a Karaite siddur without it being stamped with the offical stamp of the Karaite bet din in Egypt will be penalised in accordance with local law;

Jerusalem, 1948. Abraham Mapu, אהבת ציון (Ahavat Tziyon, “Love of Zion”). First published in 1853 (בשנת תרי”ג, as the introduction innocently points out), Ahavat Tziyon was the first novel ever published in the Hebrew language. This version was published in “Eretz-Israel (Palestine)”, two weeks after the declaration of the Jewish state (שבועים להכרזת המדינה היהודית);

Unknown, 1952. A haggadah for Pesach, acc. to the Karaite tradition. Written in Arabic;

Unknown. A siddur in the Ashkenazi tradition, of unknown provenance. The binding is strong, but the pages are in poor condition. My guess is that it is either early 20th century, or very late 19th.

• The Aleppo Codex, or כתר ארם צובא (Keter Aram Tzova, “Crown of Aleppo”). The earliest Hebrew Bible in codex form, dating from the 10th century. The full extant manuscript (severely damaged after the synagogue that housed it was set alight in the 20th century) can be viewed online. The original is housed in Jerusalem, at the Shrine of the Book;

• The Leningrad Codex. After the damage accrued by the Aleppo Codex, this is now the oldest most complete Hebrew Bible in codex form, dating from the 11th century. According to the colophon, the text was completed in the month of Sivan, of the year 4770 – almost exactly one thousand years ago (1010/11 CE). The date is also given as 1444 since the exile of King Jehoiachin, as 1319 from the “dominion of the Greeks” and the cessation of prophecy, of 940 since the destruction of the second temple, and of 399 of the “reign of the small horn” (ie: Hijrah). The full text can be downloaded from this link. The original is housed in the National Library of Russia, under “Firkovich B 19 A”;

• A haggadah from Prague, 1527. It would appear that the original is kept by the Religious Council of Efrat, although I have not been able to determine where, and under which classification:

• A (very) small Birkat haMazon from Hungary, written and illustrated by a Polish scribe named Meshullam, who went by the name of Zimel (נעשה ונכתב ע”י הסופר משולם המכונה זימל פאלין). Acc. to the title page, the booklet was commissioned in 1751 as a gift from Koppel, son of Rav Yirmiyahu Broda, to his bride, Gittel, the daughter of Rav Savel Leidersdorf. There are colour illustrations throughout the text, some quite gruesome. Alongside the additional prayer said on Purim is the hanging of Haman and his sons. Alongside the additional prayer said on Hanukkah is Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes aloft, the stump of his neck protruding bloodily from the sheets of his bed. In the background, a boy lights a hanukkiah, and in the foreground stands a girl who waits to receive his head in an open sack. The original is housed in the Jewish Museum in Budapest, No. 64.626:


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.