Sunday, December 30, 2012

Childish Hell, Childish Religion

The Economist has this to write about Hell:

Hell hardly hurts any more. In everyday parlance (“What the hell are you doing?”), it is merely a bark, not a place. As a place, it is anywhere nasty: the London Underground in summer, the worst bits of Lower Manhattan, department stores at sales time, a publisher’s party. Philosophically, Jean-Paul Sartre has encouraged the idea that Hell is other people. Theologically, even the Vatican now defines Hell as a state of exile from the love of God. The devils and pitchforks, the brimstone clouds and wailing souls, have been cleared away, rather as a mad aunt might be shut up in the attic.

 After explaining how differnet religions still have their purists who believe in a literal, pitchfork holding demon hell, the Economist comments:

Hell’s democratisation seems to have begun in Judaism, with both Isaiah and Ezekiel arguing that it did not seem right that good and bad alike should go to Sheol. The wicked, surely, should have deeper and sharper punishment. God should deal with them as they deserved—especially since, in life, they had usually prospered from their wickedness, whereas the virtuous, like Job, had been struck with disasters and covered with sore boils. The Essenes, a more extreme sect, injected the idea of eternity into it, as well as storms and dungeons. Just as man has always made God in his own image, so he projected his own notions of fairness on to the world to come; and ended up with a real horror story.

I haven't actually thought of Hell (with a capital H) for a few years. I think I lost my conception of hell as a physical place early in my teens, replaced with a conception of hell as a place where the soul suffers  and then later as a place of shame.

I don't think I've had a conversation with anyone who believes in a physical hell for many years. I take this as an encouraging sign that most of us do not believe in the religion of our youth.

The Problematic Use Of B'Tselem Statistics

For the purpose of an academic paper I'm writing, I needed to find out how many Jewish terrorist attacks against Palestinians there have been. Statistics about the Arab-Israeli conflict are notoriously hard to come by, and endlessly debated. However, the common method has evolved to cite B'Tselems statistics. As such I went to the B'Tselem statistics page found the following summary (the list is up to operation Cast Lead):

The Fatalities' data can be shown either by the date of the event in which they were hurt or by the date of their death. Since some of the fatalities died of their injuries days, weeks and sometimes months after they were hurt, choosing the view affects the distribution of data.
Data by the date of event, 29.9.2000-26.12.2008
Occupied Territories
Gaza StripWest BankTotal
Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces
Palestinians killed by Israeli civilians
Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians
Israeli security force personnel killed by Palestinians
Foreign citizens killed by Palestinians
Foreign citizens killed by Israeli security forces
Palestinians killed by Palestinians
Palestinians executed by the Palestinian Authority
Palestinians executed by the Hamas Government

I then clicked on "Palestinians killed by Israeli civilians" where there is a description of how each person died. Here are two of the descriptions from 2008:

Mahmoud Khalil 'Abd al-Fatah Sabarneh
20 year-old resident of Beit Ummar, Hebron district, killed on 24.01.2008 in Kfar Ezyon, Bethlehem district. Additional information: Killed by gunfire of teachers in a yeshiva after he entered the yeshiva area with another armed person and stabbed the instructors.

Muhammad Fathi Yunes Sabarneh
21 year-old resident of Beit Ummar, Hebron district, killed on 24.01.2008 in Kfar Ezyon, Bethlehem district. Additional information: Killed by gunfire of teachers in a yeshiva after he entered the yeshiva area with another armed person and stabbed the instructors.
In other words - Palestinians killed by Israeli Civilians includes those Palestinians that were committing terrorist acts at the time.  When you think about it, the title is clear enough - it is counting people killed by civilians, and not civilians killed. However, I highly doubt anyone would realize that the list includes terrorists, unless he goes and examines the cases. Additionally, for some reason, B'tselem does not count Israeli deaths in the same manner. It clearly separates between Israeli soldiers and civilians killed.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Second Worst Singing of Hatikvah By A Politician Award

Wow, I didn't think I'd get to give two of these out day after day..

This version was released by Balad "in an animated clip showing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and several nationalist MKs singing Hatikva in to a Middle Eastern tune."

In the clip, Lieberman explains that he was the one who proposed a law requiring citizens to pledge allegiance to the state of Israel in order to be eligible for an ID card. He then announces that he has now become convinced that the tune of Hatikva – Israel's national anthem – should be changed so that Arabs feel comfortable singing it as well.

Worst Singing Of Hatikvah By A Politician Award

This is probably the only time I'll get to give the award, but this is truly terrible:

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nice Jewish Guys 2013 Calendar

Yated Ne'eman Publishes The Wrong Picture

File this under the amusing/giggle worthy.

Yated Ne'eman, the foremost daily Haredi paper in Israel, published a recipe for a real "Italian Pizza". Haredim it would seem enjoy a pizza like the rest of us. The problem? the picture illustrating the recipe was a pizza with pepperoni on top. Not Kosher. Not even Mostly Kosher.

Yated Ne'eman famously has an extremly strict censor, making sure their readers are not exposed to anything that may offend Haredi sensibilites. However, they explained that their censor "simply didn't know it was pizza with pepperoni. The Haredi public is not exposed to this kind of food, and didn't realize it was a picture of unkosher food."

Hat Tip: ICE

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Little Known Jewish Dragons (Part II)

This is a continuation of my examination started in the previous post, of some of the less known dragons in the Jewish tradition.

Our next dragon, also from the apocrypha appears in a story normally called "The book of Bel and the Dragon", which is a supposed continuation to the book of Daniel. The book, has come to us in two different translations - Greek and Theodotian, though the differences are not great.

The first few verses (which I will omit) tell of how Daniel proves to King Cyrus that "Bel" the god worshiped in Babylon is false. The King admits that Bel - an idol - is a false God, but insists a dragon worshiped in Babylon is a true deity:

1:23 And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped.
1:24 And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him.
1:25 Then said Daniel unto the king, I will worship the Lord my God: for he is the living God.
1:26 But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave.
1:27 Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof: this he put in the dragon’s mouth, and so the dragon burst in sunder : and Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship.

Is this a fire breathing dragon? the use of pitch and fat would seem to me to suggest it. I assume that the dragon bursts because the fat and pitch catch fire, though this conjunction is not in the text.
The story also exists in the Midrash -

 מדרש בראשית רבה סח, יג: "והנה מלאכי אלהים", זה דניאל, "עולים ויורדים בו", שעלה והוציא את בלעו מתוך פיו. הדא הוא דכתיב: (ירמיה נא) "ופקדתי על בל בבבל והוצאתי את בלעו מפיו". שהיה לו תנין אחד לנבוכדנצר, והיה בולע כל מה שהיו משליכין לפניו. א"ל נבוכדנצר לדניאל, כמה כחו גדול, שבולע כל מה שמשליכין לפניו. אמר לו דניאל: תן לי רשות ואני מתישו. נתן רשות. מה עשה? נטל תבן והטמין לתוכו מסמרים, השליך לפניו, ונקבו מסמרים את בני מעיו. הדא הוא דכתיב: "והוצאתי את בלעו מפיו". 

In this version the monster is a Crocodile (תנין) and not a dragon, though possibly they are one and the same in early Hebrew. Daniel kills the beast not with Pitch and Fat, but with straw filled with nails.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Little Known Jewish Dragons (Part I)

After enjoying "The Hobbit" I started thinking of the Jewish tradition of dragons. In the coming week, I'm hoping to examine some of the lesser known Jewish sources dealing with dragons, especially from the Apocrypha. I'm no Natan Slifkin, and my knowledge of these issues is very casual, and meant mostly as "Whoa, dragons, cool". 

That the dragon was a potent symbol for Jews is undeniable. Perhaps the clearest sign that dragon were a widely used symbol comes from the apocryphal additions to the book of Esther. The additions to Esther begin with Moredchai dreaming a puzzling dream,  foretelling the story:

[2] In the second year of the reign of Artaxerxes the Great, on the first day of Nisan, Mordecai the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, had a dream.
[3] He was a Jew, dwelling in the city of Susa, a great man, serving in the court of the king.
[4] He was one of the captives whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had brought from Jerusalem with Jeconiah king of Judea. And this was his dream:
[5] Behold, noise and confusion, thunders and earthquake, tumult upon the earth!
[6] And behold, two great dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and they roared terribly.
[7] And at their roaring every nation prepared for war, to fight against the nation of the righteous.
[8] And behold, a day of darkness and gloom, tribulation and distress, affliction and great tumult upon the earth!
[9] And the whole righteous nation was troubled; they feared the evils that threatened them, and were ready to perish.
[10] Then they cried to God; and from their cry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water;
[11] light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and consumed those held in honor. 

Two dragons are fighting, while the world is brought into a great distress.  We are not offered much of a description of the dragons, so it is impossible to understand whether "dragon" = flying lizard spewing fire, or just a generic word for monster. The dream itself is solved in a later chapter:

And Mordecai said, "These things have come from God.
[2] For I remember the dream that I had concerning these matters, and none of them has failed to be fulfilled.
[3] The tiny spring which became a river, and there was light and the sun and abundant water -- the river is Esther, whom the king married and made queen.
[4] The two dragons are Haman and myself. 
[5] The nations are those that gathered to destroy the name of the Jews. 

The author clearly saw dragons as creatures of great power, though they don't really do much in this narrative. The dream as an addition to the book of Esther, seems to be intent on adding "God's" influence into the biblical narrative.

Hopefully, some future dragons will be slightly more active.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Short Review Of "The Hobbit" Movie

I've always had a special soft spot for Tolkein's Hobbits. My father gave me The Hobbit to read when I was ten or eleven years old, and I happened to be sick that day. I liked the book so much that I pretended to be sick for the next two days so that I could finish the book. Unfortunately I had to get out of bed to go to the library to find "The Lord of the Rings", otherwise I might have had to be sick for the next month.

I purposely didn't read any of the reviews before going to see the movie, though I understand that they have been less than glowing. The most common of complaints appears to be Peter Jackson's decision to take a modest 300 page book and turn it into three movies. This makes it equivalent in length to Lord of the Rings - three books with a total of 1500+- pages. Famously C.S Lewis (of Narnia fame) when reading Lord of the Rings stated "Not another Fu***** Elf". Though this quote, isn't true, it does capture what one feels when watching the movie. In every single scene the merry band of dwarfs and Bilbo are running from something - Orcs, Goblins, Trolls and even Elves. In fact, in one scene, Jackson cuts from them being chased by Goblins (and miraculously fighting 30 to 1 odds) to being chased by Orcs (and miraculously fighting 30 to 1 odds).  Additionally every scene is either set to a sunset or to a sunrise, or has the main characters standing on a breathtaking outcrop of rock thousands of feet in the air above a huge chasm. We get it, New Zealand is the most stunning place on Earth, but Jackson is over doing it.

Despite it all, the movie is great entertainment. True to the book, the movie is much lighter in tone than Lord of the Rings. The movie is saturated with comic relief, especially with Bilbo himself who never fails to deliver a quick one liner. The special effects are breathtaking, and the 3D works well throughout the movie. Despite the faults mentioned above, "The Hobbit" is fantasy escapism at its best. If the next two movies are comparable, I'll forgive Jackson his decision to stretch the book into a trilogy.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What Israelis are Searching for on Google

Ha'aretz reports on a recently published list by Google of the top searches from Israel. The list is divided into seperate categories (culture, news etc..). However, I'd like to focus on just one part of the list...the top searches in "How TO":

1. איך לעשות כסף
2. איך להוציא גימלים
3. איך עושים ילדים
4. איך למשוך אישה
5. איך לבנות אפליקציה
6. איך מתנשקים צרפתית
7. איך להתגרש נכון
8. איך להשתזף נכון
9. איך להפסיק לעשן
10. איך להיות מקובלת

Quick translation:

1. How to make money,
2. How to get "sick days" in the army,
3. How to make kids..
4. How to attract a woman
5. How to make an APP
6. How to French Kiss,
7. How to get a good divorce,
8. How to get a good Suntan,
9. How to stop smoking,
10. How to be accepted.

Anyone notice a pattern? first you make kids, then you attracts a woman, followed by french kissing, a divorce, a new suntan, stop smoking and finally you look to be accepted for who you are..

I also love that soldiers looking for sick days is the second most popular "how to" search. Only in Israel. 

Nice Picture of a Wild Hyena In The Golan

This picture was supposedly taken recently in the Golan. I just liked the picture..

Kate Middelton, Religious Fashion Star?

Who would have guessed?

Millions of women worldwide, who follow every single garment worn by the duchess of Cambridge, are being joined by the religious Jewish women in Israel and abroad, who have finally found the perfect fashion model: A real, beautiful princess who happens to wear suits and dresses that would be warmly welcomed in any synagogue.

The author is also a strong candidate for one of the most politically incorrect questions..

Middleton is very thin. Isn't it difficult for religious women, who have given birth quite a few times, to imitate her appearance?

"Each woman makes the required adjustments according to her own figure." 

Religious People Functioning In A Secular World?

Steve Fuller, reviews Robert Wuthnow's "The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable":
The key finding is that people of faith understand exactly how their beliefs differ from those not of faith and can justify them in quite sophisticated ways, although typically without learned theological reference. Perhaps that refusal to invoke any academic authority for their beliefs contributes to the appearance of believers as naive or uninformed. But most of Wuthnow's accounts also suggest that people of faith really "mean" what they believe, and that secular people may believe something similar but talk about it differently. In the end, what is the difference between a believer's "openness to God" and a non-believer's "openness to the evidence"? The answer lies in judgement calls and how they are justified - but not the view that there are standards that transcend the mundanely human.
What may well be this book's most disturbing feature is a subterranean sense that one need not believe what one knows. Religious believers know how the secular world works, yet they openly reject its principles without compromising their ability to function within it. For example, contrary to popular secular opinion, an increasing number of religious believers around the world are moving into scientific fields, especially medicine and engineering. They learn the received wisdom of the scientific establishment about, say, evolutionary biology without necessarily having it affect their worldview. Given the strong division of labour in science, in which professionals are required to justify their findings only in terms of ongoing research in their fields, the strategy works perfectly well, escaping the muckrakers' gaze because science publishes only what can be defended, not what is believed
There is much to be said about religious people whose lives - at least on the surface - seem to ignore their beliefs (if not actually refute them).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When Did Esav Leave?

I noticed this week a small problem in the Parasha. If you were to read the end of the parasha (chapter 36) you would assume that Esav left Canaan, after Jacob returned:

ו  וַיִּקַּח עֵשָׂו אֶת-נָשָׁיו וְאֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בְּנֹתָיו, וְאֶת-כָּל-נַפְשׁוֹת בֵּיתוֹ, וְאֶת-מִקְנֵהוּ וְאֶת-כָּל-בְּהֶמְתּוֹ וְאֵת כָּל-קִנְיָנוֹ, אֲשֶׁר רָכַשׁ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל-אֶרֶץ, מִפְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב אָחִיו.6 And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the souls of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his possessions, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan; and went into a land away from his brother Jacob.
ז  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, מִשֶּׁבֶת יַחְדָּו; וְלֹא יָכְלָה אֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵיהֶם, לָשֵׂאת אֹתָם--מִפְּנֵי, מִקְנֵיהֶם.7 For their substance was too great for them to dwell together; and the land of their sojournings could not bear them because of their cattle.
ח  וַיֵּשֶׁב עֵשָׂו בְּהַר שֵׂעִיר, עֵשָׂו הוּא אֱדוֹם.8 And Esau dwelt in the mountain-land of Seir--Esau is Edom.

However, there are various passages in the beginning of the Parasha that indicate that Esav left long before Jacob came. For example in chapter 32:

  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם.4 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

Jacob when he is heading home, sends his messangers to Esav at Edom! In other words, Esav was no longer in Canaan when Jacob was heading home.

Very few of the classical commentators comment on this - Radak explains that Esav was in Edom, but had yet to settle there. Ibn-Ezra expalins that Edom is between Haran and Israel, and hence Jacob has to send the messangers to Esav. This explains why Jacob bothered to send messengers to Esav at all, but not why Esav had already left Canaan. Nahmanides (commentary on Gen. 36:6) explains  that initially Esau moved to Edom with only a few of his people, leaving most of his family in Canaan. Later, he returned to Canaan to meet Jacob, who was coming back from Laban's home, and only afterward did he take the rest of his family to Edom. Hazkoni (Gen. 36:6) similarly explains that until this point Esav lived in both places, and now he decided to give up any rights to Canaan. 

These explanations are all possible, though somewhat unsatisfactory. Harav Goren gives a different explanation. Esav left Canaan long before Jacob returned, because Esav truely believed his father's blessings would come true (evidenced by his cry of anguish). Since Esav had no wish to be ruled by his brother, he got up and left before Jacob came back. The problem with this explanation is that the Torah specifically says Esav left because the land could not bare them both. 

Quick Election Musings

  • Labor Party MK List - where have all the generals gone? Once upon a time Labor used to be the home of retired generals. Now it is the home of retired protesters.
  • Yesh Atid list - Harav Peron is a very interesting #2 on the list. I'm also intrigued that Ruth Calderon is on the list, though not in a realistic placing. The combination of the two, makes Yesh Atid  the most "Israeli-Jewish" culturally party.  Dov Lipman - the "Anglo" candidate is also not in a realistic position on the list.
  • Tzipi Livni "The Movement" - Amram Mitzna is a great person, who really should be in the Knesset. Its just ashame that he's after Tzipi Livni. There are also reports that Ben Dror Yemini might join her party, which would certainly make for an attractive list.
  • I noticed this a week or two ago, but was too busy to post about it. Mofaz launched his election campaign with the slogan "Bibi will endanger us" (ביבי יסבך אותנו). The campaign tried to brand Mofaz as the responsible adult. However, just a few weeks later, during operation Pillar of Defense, Bibi was the one who refused to order a ground attack, while Mofaz was the one championing it.