The Origin of the Alphabet: Part 1

We all swim in the alphabet like fish in water or birds in air, so it is hard to appreciate what an astounding communications technology it still is even after thousands of years of use. So imagine what this new flexible technology must have seemed like when humanity first discovered it around 1500 BCE.  The easy literacy the alphabet enabled must have been at least as powerful and transformative in its time as the printing press, the telephone, the atom bomb, or the computer. These inventions produced rapid, breathtaking transformations of culture, shifts in power and wealth, disruptions of society, and creation of new ways for humans to relate to the universe and to each other.

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The phantom limb of language

What is a pun?

At its most basic, a pun is a way of using the sound of words to make a connection between meanings that don’t exist otherwise. The husband confuses impotent for important. Of course, the major point of the joke is the ridiculous spectacle the man makes of himself because of his mistake. A minor point is the slim connection between his biological impotence and his impotence in language, although you can laugh at the pun without explicitly making that connection.

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Beheadings and the “Precarious Joint”

Talmud, ISIS, and the Decapitation of Civilization

When decapitations occur, the connection between heaven and earth has been severed

Today, September 2014, I’m unable to shake the images that infected me from watching videos of beheadings by ISIS. These are horrific, but with all due respect to the victims, it’s hard not to appreciate them as brilliantly successful social media retroviruses injected into the worldwide teletechnoculture. They have achieved their authors’ goal: after billions of views on YouTube and elsewhere, a few savages with an instinct for stagecraft and low-budget indie production values have awakened the giant American war machine.

Beheadings aren’t new. Jewish law was concerned about them thousands of years ago, but not as a means of revenge and spreading true faith. Rather, beheadings are symbolic of a problem that concerns the rabbis in the Talmud. A beheading plays the central role in a mystery that worries them.  They imagine a corpse, victim of a murder, found half way between two cities. Who is responsible for pursuing the criminal? Judging the crime?  For burying the body? And if the crime is not solved, how do we rid the world of guilt when when there is no clear authority? Chaos threatens. For the sages, beheadings were symbolic of the retreat of holiness rather than as a means to achieve it. But the symbolism runs even deeper.

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Divine Telepathy: Reading Talmud

Reading is Telepathy

Ox Gores Man
Bull Gores Man at Pamplona 



Writing and reading are acts of telepathy.  The author tells me what’s in his mind. I try to decipher it. It can be an ecstatic communion, or dull. But assuming there’s another mind may help us out of the postmodern moral abyss.

Yes, the author’s story is just a version. The characters are just representations. The author tries to reduce the arbitrariness of selecting these few signs out of an infinity of possible others through force of will and practice and erasure. If we resonate with what we read, we respect and admire and can be pleasured by word art. But who is to say what is right or wrong in anything?

Welcome to the postmodern abyss, where morals throw themselves off the cliff to die. Where ethics are a matter of local taste. Where the world is anything you make it. Chacun á son goût. Or a “Negative Theology,” what Charles Taylor saw in Derrida’s philosophy.

When you open a book, are you already judging the author against some ideological test? Or do you try to know the author’s mind first before deciding he had failed your personal litmus test?

Reading the Talmud is good training for suspending your judgments.

The Talmud is a hypertextual text of a symposium among hundreds of rabbis and scholars spread across continents over the first five centuries after the Destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The  Mishnah plus Gemarah that make up the canonical Talmud, along with inclusions of sanctioned commenatries by Rashi and others, are at least 6000 pages long. But the Talmud project has never stopped growing and promises to keep growing as commentators comment on commentators to adapt the Torah to an evolving reality. Easily millions of pages have been written about it. Not only is it a cryptic attempt at capturing a convoluted conversation, the conversation itself is an attempt to reconstruct a text that was never supposed to be written down, the Oral Law of the Jews. In short, the mere act of learning to read the Talmud requires years of study just to give it a fair hearing, to try to understand what the sages were trying to say before deciding if what they said had any merit.

Anyone can dip into this sea of interpretations and stories and pronouncements and duels among rabbis and extract something out of context to prove a point. But just to learn the names of the “authors,” the eras and cultures in which they lived, the assumptions underlying their discourse,  and the pretexts for that discourse, requires a lifetime.  It’s good practice for suspending your self-interested interpretations when reading a mere 300-page novel by a single author.



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Dung and Divinity:

How the Rabbis of the Talmud Recognize and Preserve the Added Value of Public Spaces

This Sunday I found Divinity in dung.

Bava Kama is a tractate of the Talmud concerning the assessment of responsibility, damages and liabilities. When people cause harm to each other directly, by injury or theft, or indirectly, through hazards that they own like wild animals or open pits or fire that’s gotten out of control, how do judges apportion payments of liability? After all, the thin line between barbarity and civilization lies in the rule of law to exact retribution in place of vengeance.
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Elijah the Thin-Skinned

“A bashful person cannot learn, nor can a kapdan teach.”
Pirke Avot 2:6

A wise psychiatrist pal once told me, “The only people I can’t treat are the hyper-defensives.”

Everyone knows a “hyper-defensive.” They’re easily offended, ready to be outraged at the slightest hint of personal affront so you walk on eggshells around them. They think your most innocent comment or suggestion is a critique aimed at them, and you never know what’s going to set them off. They are too busy protecting themselves or scanning the environment for attack to be sensitive to others. And if you do set them off, get ready to be attacked.

Remarkably, Elijah, one of the most revered Jewish figures, was one. At least, that’s the way the Talmud presents him in the very last page of Sanhedrin.

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Can There Be Prophesy in Exile? Esther’s Lament

What is the status of prophesy for Jews today? Can we communicate directly with God and speak for Him? Are those who speak with inspiration and profound insight channeling the Divine, or is it soothsaying? Are modern day prophets mistaking personal inspiration for the real thing?
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Perpetual Chanukah in the West:

<Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek? -or- Philosophical Violence in the Judaeo-Christian Hyphen

The last page of Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish generations, spirit, learning and virtue after the Chorban (the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE). The section, and others like it in Talmud and Jewish literature is called Yeridas HaDoros, “Descent or Decline of the Generations.” In the middle of this lamentation, The Talmud discusses many virtues of Jewish spirit that were lost, and many customs which had to be abandoned, such as the bridal veil and litter and the ritual to cleanse an unsolved murder of a body found between two cities – the eglah arufah.
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Hebrew and the Decapitation of Israel (Sotah)

The last chapters of Sotah are less well known in pop culture. It is seemingly less dramatic part, after the trial of the alleged adultress drinking the bitter water. But there’s plenty of high drama anyway: the Kohen’s rallying cry to the assembled troops about to go to war, the three kinds of war, who is ineligible to be drafted or should be sent home, the filthy nature of Goliath’s mother and her filthy offspring.
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