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Archive for March, 2009

Birkat HaHama, NY 1897

Quite an amazing story as told in the New York Times of 8th April 1897.

Birkat HaHama is coming up again in a couple of weeks on the 8th April again. Last one was 28 years ago in 1981, though I don’t remember that at all.

The whole story of Birkat Hahama is pretty weird. If you want to know what it’s all about you can take a look at the article in Wikipedia. As it points out there, solar leap years do not strictly occur every 4 years so the whole thing is suspect anyway. That’s assuming you reckon the world was created in Nissan/April 5769 years ago and not in Tishrei/October of that year or like a few billion years earlier.

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Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Joshua A. Berman, Oxford University Press 2008

A couple of years ago I heard a fascinating lecture by (Rabbi Dr.) Josh Berman given at the annual Tikun Leil Shavuot held in our community. In his lecture he compared the structure of the ten commandments to that of suzerain treaties (treaties between dominant and subordinate kings) in the Near Eastern late bronze age. His thesis was that in order to understand the Biblical text correctly, we must look as much to the cultural context in which it was written (or given, if you will) as we do to the later commentaries written in the spirit of traditional interpretation of the texts. By doing this we can uncover a whole new layer of understanding of structures and nuances that would have been understood and taken for granted by the protagonists of Biblical times (and sometimes even to the writers of Midrash) but that are totally lost to us.

In his book Joshua Berman explores these avenues further in order to show how the Bible is a book of political and social reform as much as it is a book of religion. He elucidates the revolutionary egalitarian program proposed in it together with its attendant covenantal theology and compares and contrasts the structures of this new social order with those of its contemporary cultures and Western political theories beginning in Greece and to this day.

The Biblical political program stands in stark contrast to its contemporaries. These were deeply hierarchical, totalitarian and dehumanizing political systems, legitimized by a parallel theology that mirrored and justified the earthly self-serving hierarchy. What the Bible proposed was an anti-hierarchical society of freemen answerable to God alone, assets were envisioned as ultimately belong to God himself and the weilding of power political or economic over another illegitimate. Knowledge likewise, was to be universally distributed.

 The book is divided into five chapters that discuss in turn the new status of man before God, the new political hierarchy (or lack of it), the Bible’s economic program, its attitude towards the dissemination of knowledge and the revolutionary use of writing technology to this end. The final chapter examines the stories of the birth of Sargon of Akkad and Moses (Exod. 2:) in the light of the insights gained through the course of the book. The texts are examined word by word on a micro scale and then through artistic interpretations. This case study is stylistically very different from anything that went before and I am not sure what it really adds to the book. I was left with the feeling that it was an afterthought, maybe a reworked paper on that subject, that was appended to the book.

As well as being an academic scholar, Joshua Berman is an Orthodox rabbi. At the outset of the book he sets his ground rules whereby he will read the Pentateuch as a textual whole – maybe as an idealized text – without reference to theories of the historical authorship and editing of the text. This stance is undoubtably determined by his Orthodox standpoint, but he well justifies it in intellectual terms without resorting to dogma. Personally I agree with his approach of holistic reading and this is what makes his study valuable and interesting. This approach does not prevent him from writing a very interesting comparitive study that quotes disparate sources from the whole history of Western thought, modern academia, rabbinic writings and the Christian holy books. It is perhaps a badge of honor of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy that modern approaches from that of Breuer through to studies such as Berman’s are increasingly legitimized and taking a center stage in theological discussion, synthesising old and new in a textual revival.

Created Equal is a book I would recommend to all readers interested in reading and understanding the Tanakh as it was intended. Whether you come to the subject religiously or academically, this is a book that can change the way you think about the Biblical age and the Bible. Unfortunately many of the potential readers that I would recommend the book to will be frightened to read it and to be exposed to unfamiliar ideas… but that is another story.

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This is something that completely blew me away.

For anyone who hasn’t seen this yet, Google Street View is an extra layer in Google Earth that shows you eye-level panoramic photographs by a click from the regular Google Earth aerial picture. Click on a camera icon in that are lined up along the roads and you zoom in to a 360° panorama photographed at street level. You can also get there by looking for an address in Google Maps and then clicking on the “Street View” link.

76 Worcester Road, Sutton, Surrey

I went on a nostalgic trip to visit various places I have lived in (like the above, which is the house I grew up in for the first 18 years of my life) and walked routes along streets just like I did 20 or 30 years ago. Just totally amazing.

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More hope in sight for a cure to Parkinson’s disease.

After having watched my father die of this disease, I am always on the lookout for hope that there will be a cure before I get too old. From what I understand, it is not a hereditary disease as such, but the propensity to contract it does appear to run in families.

Of course what I’d like to see would be a complete cure, but I’ll start with a relief if that’s what’s on offer.

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And that’s a good thing because it means we’re having a lot of it. Sorry to bore you all again but we just had over 80mm of rain over the wekend, bringing us up to a grand total of a pitiful 282mm this season. That means we still need another 250mm more to make this even an average year.

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