Monday, August 8, 2011
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
According to Adam Kirsch in his recent review in Tablet Magazine, this is precisely the question that Kevin M. Schultz tries to answer in his book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford). The answer Schultz supplies, according to Kirsch (I have not yet seen the book), is quite simple: "The change came about in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks primarily to the concerted effort of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a lobbying and educational group founded in 1927." Schultz tells the story of the NCCJ and its (largely successful) mission to forge a common language in America between Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. The argument is certainly plausible, particularly during World War II and the post-war period. It fits neatly into the narrative of the development of the multi-cultural melting pot that was America in the post-war period.
The dramatic increase in the use of "Judeo-Christian" seems to buck against the replacement in America of the image of the "melting pot" with that of "multiculturalism" or the "mosaic" as the governing metaphor in America of cultural relationships. (This is dramatically illustrated here.) Jews and Christians - all of them - are now lumped into one category, perhaps in recent years, as Kirsch might suggest (I am stretching his words here) to contrast America with Islamic civilization or the like - and this is before 9/11.
Monday, May 2, 2011
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop at Yale University on the term "belief". The focus was on whether, how, and why "belief" remains a useful category for discussing and explaining religion today. The day of conversation was immensely interesting and I will make no attempt here to convey its richness. As is usually the case with such succesful conversations, I left with more questions than answers.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
In an essay discussing his new book, In Defense of Flogging, Peter Moskos wants to begin a conversation. Prisons, we all know, don’t work as well as we would all like. Around .5% of all Americans are currently in prison, an extraordinary number when considered by any measure, and one that is up nearly four-fold since 1980. The recidivism rate is also extraordinarily high. Of all first-time prisoners, 47.3% were arrested within the three years after their release (Bureau of Justice Statistics Analysis Tool). While there is undoubtedly a need for prisons, imprisonment can also breaks lives and harden criminals, all at great, perhaps unnecessary, cost to the taxpayer. What if, Moskos asks, instead of imprisoning certain kinds of criminals, we flog them? Might we achieve the same or better results at lower human and material costs?
Flogging, of course, is currently illegal, understood as prohibited by the U.S. Constitution’s eighth amendment against “cruel and unusual punishments.” But “cruel and unusual” is a moving target. Flogging is an acceptable form of punishment in many countries today, and its use in the U.S. military was not banned until 1850. One could imagine that a day could come when flogging is seen as less cruel than a lengthy prison sentence for a minor crime.
Moskos’s essay particularly resonated with me. It was this very issue that led to a quite literally sophomoric epiphany in my own life. When I was an undergraduate in college I read a book that put the modern prison system into historical context, showing how it arose from a changing sense of human nature. Prisons only make sense if one believes that humans can be “rehabilitated,” a possibility that itself depends on certain assumptions about the nature of the self. This had never occurred to me; I had always taken for granted prisons and the prohibition against punishments like flogging. My epiphany had less to do with prisons in particular than in the implications of this realization: history can help me to see my present world differently. If I cannot take prisons for granted, can I taken anything for granted? The study of history thus opened for me the potential to re-envision my present.
Indeed, the rabbis of late antiquity took flogging for granted. It is hard to go far in rabbinic literature without running into flogging. A whole (albeit short) tractate in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot, is (putatively) on the topic, and the literature simply assumes that the vast majority of infractions against Jewish law would meet with flogging. Flogging, the rabbis are quick to point out, should not lead to death. It can disfigure, shame, and be excruciatingly painful, but it cannot kill. The rabbis were hardly unique for their time. Flogging was a common punishment throughout antiquity.
Yet while the rabbis discussed flagellation at length, they did not appear to have had any authority under the Roman law in which they lived to actually administer this punishment, as admitted by the rabbis themselves (see Berakot 58a). This raises the larger question of the administration of judicial penalties among Jews in late antiquity. Did Jews flog other Jews in the towns and villages of the Galilee? Under what law and authority, and for what crimes? Was flogging effective in deterring both the recipient and onlookers from future crime? I don’t have answers to these questions, but it is always worth bearing in mind when we look at earlier (and some modern) societies that flagellation was an actual, common practice, not just a conversation, and that understanding its use in practice might help us to see it not as merely barbarous, but as something more complex and perhaps even effective.
Monday, April 18, 2011
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I recently watched an inspiring presentation by Professor Dan Cohen, entitled "The Ivory Tower and the Open Web." For some time I have been wondering if the web could be used to help develop an online a scholarly community that was relatively tightly focused on early Judaism. A website would offer such scholars an opportunity to engage with colleagues in an ongoing way. It would by no means replace conferences, but could help to promote a different kind of dialogue.
A website like this might ideally include:
- An updated list of announcements of interest: Upcoming conferences, calls for paper, funding opportunities, etc;
- An aggregate of current, relevant news, such as IAA find reports. Some of us currently get this from blogs, such as Paleojudaica, whose posts can be aggregated into a single spot on the page;
- An aggregate of the tables of contents of relevant journals as they are released;
- The blog itself, which would be the central focus of the site. Here scholars can post new ideas, texts, images, etc. for which they seek feedback. These would not be full drafts to workshop, but rawer ideas. Others could then develop a conversation around the idea using "Comments";
- Drafts to workshop. There has been increased interest in (and tools for) online open peer review. These tools can be used in a less evaluative context;
- An archive of visual resources, perhaps linked in through a photo-management site such as flickr;
- Guides to relevant educational materials;
- A chat room. This is more whimsical, but there are times in the day that I just need recharging. It would be fun to have a site to go to in order to chat with colleagues in the field.
It would not take very much to build such a site using "Wordpress". The key to the site's success would be collaboration: would anybody actually come to it and participate in the community? I experimented with something like this a few years back using another platform, but it didn't work out. The primary reason, I think, was simply that people are busy and didn't feel that it was worth their time to participate. This, of course, is entirely understandable. I wonder, though, if now the passing of several years and a new platform would make a difference.
Of course, if anybody else would like to take this idea and run with it, I'd be delighted. Sign me up!