Monday, August 8, 2011

A New (Virtual) Home!

I have moved this blog and consolidated it with my other websites. Please update any feeds and keep visiting, at! I look forward to seeing you there.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Apocalypse, One of These Days

I had the good fortune of recently attending "The Enoch Seminar," which this year was devoted to study of the books of 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. These two books are both thought to originate in first or second century Palestine, written in Hebrew by Jews. Both contain a series of visions, given by the angels (or God) to the protagonist, in both cases a scribal seer. (Baruch is known from the Bible as Jeremiah's scribe, and in the biblical book named after him, Ezra too is described as a scribe. Neither, in their biblical context, receive visions.) Some of these visions, which the angel interprets, have to do with the end of time.

One session of the seminar was focused directly on apocalypticism in these books. The session took place at the Catholic University in Milan and was unlike any other academic session I had attended. It took me some minutes to figure out that the charge to the speakers was not only to recover the apocalyptic elements in the ancient texts, but also to reflect on apocalypticism as an ecumenical category. That is, could apocalypticism bridge Judaism and Christianity?

Now, my first reaction to this realization was disbelief. Leaving aside my discomfort at mixing ecumenical activities into academic contexts, it was hard for me to see apocalypticism as a unifying force. After all, wasn't apocalypticism all about last days of judgment and punishment for those who didn't accept the "true" deity during their lifetimes? Hasn't the primary difference between Jews and Christians been precisely in the closely related issue of redemption, in which Christians understand the world as already redeemed by Christ and Jews still await the world's redemption? Couldn't there be better places to look for theological dialogue between Jews and Christians?

Yet as the session progressed, I found my attitude shifting. Of course there are stark differences between Jewish and Christian notions of apocalypticism, and Lawrence Schiffman correctly warned against simply trying to find a broad, common rubric into which to collapse them both. But the speakers underscored that under both, maybe all, notions of apocalypticism is hope, perhaps with a healthy dose of fear. Apocalypticism is less a religious phenomenon than a human one, in which we all share a hope for a better future. While it was not discussed by the panel, I think that this extends beyond the namby pamby banal belief in progress and calls to act in bettering the world. There is something deeply psychological here. We can approach the future with hope, but there is no denying the trepidation that contemplation of the future also brings; apocalypticism is as much a feeling as an idea. In very human terms, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, these largely forgotten ancient texts, may be on to something big.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Through the Lens of "Judeo-Christian"

The phrase "Judeo-Christian" - as in, "America is based on Judeo-Christian values" - is a strange beast. Given the not insignificant and often fatal tension between Jews and Christians over 2,000 years over matters of doctrine and belief, what does it mean to meld Judaism and Christianity into a common concept? When and why would one do this?

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.

A very quick look at the quantitative data for the use of the term "Judeo-Christian" in all English books contained by Google from 1890-1900, though, at least suggests a more complex story. Take a look at the plot produced by the Google Ngram Viewer, available here (the picture above is a thumbnail). The first use of the term appears around 1900 and lasts about five years. This would accord with the coining of the term and a brief period of popularity. The second bump, of about the same scale, occurs from about 1945-1960 (with a weird dip in the middle) - this is the story that Schultz tells. To my mind, though, the real story occurs post-1960, when the slope of the curve increases dramatically. The NCCJ's work may have been reflected in all kinds of ways, but not really in published discourse.

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.

Kirsch, and Schultz in his telling, seem to like the concept of "Judeo-Christian", which shows a nice, benevolent ecumenicalism. Others, such as David Novak and Jon Levenson, have emphasized its negative side: it waters down Jewish and Christian distinctiveness into a pool of anodyne platitudes. Personally, the term makes me uneasy for similar reasons. Be that as it may, though, there is a rich and complex cultural history to be told through the lens of the phrase "Judeo-Christian."

Monday, May 2, 2011

gninoitseuQ "belief"

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.

One such question occured to me as I began to prepare my own short presentation and sharpened in the course of the day. On the one hand, it is clear that "belief" is valuable as a first-order category: religious communities often use the language of "belief." For scholars, the question is less "What do they believe?" than "How do they (whether an institution, group, or individual) articulate what they or others should or actually believe?" The answer to this question would be descriptive. More interesting would be the next stage of analysis, in which we try to understand how and why they articulate things the way that they do.

On the other hand, the value of "belief" as a second-order category - one that we might use to describe or explain things independently of the statements of the actors themselves - is less clear to me. Here I wonder if we have the question backwards. Instead of asking, "Is belief a useful category?", might it be more productive to ask, "Is there any analytical work that 'belief' does that we otherwise could not do? In other words, if scholars of religion were to ban the word/concept "belief" (in this sense) from their writings, would anything be lost?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

To Flog or not to Flog?

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

The Pope, the Jews, and the Vatican Museums

My essay on "The Pope, the Jews, and the Vatican Museums," was just posted online at "The Forward," and will appear in the next print edition.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

If it is built, would anybody come?

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!

(The photo, of the construction of the Olympic baseball field in Beijing, was taken from here.)