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Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-08-21 21:41
Subject: Rabbits and Torah, two subjects which go together like rabbis and carrots
Security: Public
It's been a while since we've had any adventures with the rabbits; what have they been up to? Well, same as most of us: same old, same old, most of the time. Bar Navi's been continuing to study Talmud:

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...and daven in a chareidi shul:

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(This is not a photomontage; I really did photograph him there!)

However, in amidst all that, he did have time to pose for a third birthday card for my niece:

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The little rabbit we haven't seen here before. His name is Arnie the אַרְנְבוֹן (rabbit).

Jane again got Bar-Navi a present for Tu BəĀv this year. So what do you get for the frum rabbit who already has capel, tallis, tefillin and Talmud volume? Answer: A Sefer Torah!

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(aviva_m, on helping Bar-Navi open the present: "Oh, you didn't!" (even though she originally suggested it). Actually, the scroll has been sitting on my shelf in Newcastle, largely ignored, for twenty-five years; I thought Bar-Navi might get more use out of it than me.)

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-08-20 20:29
Subject: Chandeliers
Security: Public
Tags:newcastle
Remember the chandeliers from Jesmond shul, now installed in Gosforth shul? Let's (now I've had a chance to get close with a camera) take a close look at them:

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Can you see what's at the top? Little figures (angels?) blowing trumpets.

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They're easily missed from floor level. I'd bet you'd never get that in decorations for a new Orthodox synagogue today!

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-08-19 12:36
Subject: London's smallest statue
Security: Public
Here is aviva_m in front of (or indeed underneath) London's smallest statue, of two mice eating cheese.

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Précising from here (on which click for a fuller version):
These two wee mice are a memorial to two builders who died nearby, working in the 1670s on the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which had destroyed a vast part of the City a few years before.

At some point during the Monument’s construction, the two builders sat down on a high scaffold to enjoy their packed-lunch of bread and cheese. However, something was amiss… one of the men’s sarnies had been nibbled away to almost nothing!

For some reason, the victim of this food theft immediately blamed his mate sitting beside him and a fight broke out—not wise when you’re poised so high up. Trading punches, the unfortunate pair lost their footing and plunged to the ground, both being killed instantly.

It was only later, after similar disappearances of bread and cheese, that the real culprits were discovered:

An infestation of tiny mice.
As aviva_m put it, "Only in Britain!" (Would such a statue be put up, I think she meant, not would such a fight break out.)

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-08-10 17:31
Subject: Clock
Security: Public
Back in 1998 or 2000, I attended the Discworld Convention and was given a freebie "Science of Discworld" mousemat, which pleased me greatly until I took it home and discovered that it was no good at its designated purpose: my mouse pointer either stayed put or skittered all over the place.

After it had been kicking around for some time unused, it occurred to me that if I punched a hole in the centre of it, it would make a great clock.

A decade and a half later, I finally admitted to myself it was never going to happen if I left it to myself, and asked my parents for it as a Chanukah present. And over half a year later, I finally have the end result hanging on my wall, and am very pleased it with it; thanks Dad!

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-08-07 12:26
Subject: Theological ramblings in the form of a book review: The Bible According to Mark Twain
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Tags:book reviews

Readers of this blog may recall my review of The Bible According to Spike Milligan. When I came across the book The Bible According to Mark Twain, I thought: this I must read.

It is a very different book from Milligan's; but that shouldn't be surprising, as they were very different characters. The book consists of narratives by Twain, some of them previously published, some not, on the two subjects of Adam, Eve, and the antediluvian civilisation (which Twain portrays as a high civilisation, in order to use it to satirise his own—I bet you didn't know Cain and Abel's sisters were called Gladys and Edwina), and Heaven and the afterlife.

Much of the book consists of gentle mockery of an overliteral reading of the Bible and the traditional Christian interpretation of it, for example (from "Adam's Diary"):

[Eve] engages herself in many foolish things: among others, trying to study why the animals called lions and tigers live on grass and flowers, when, as she says, the sort of teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each other.
(I thought as I was growing up that this kind of argument was fully thrashed out in the mid-nineteenth century (certainly Joseph Herman Hertz, Chief Rabbi in the first half of the twentieth, wrote a wonderful rebuttal of literal Creationism that I can post here if anyone is interested); it's depressing that this has come back as an issue in our day and age.)

I wasn't strongly grabbed by these narratives, and found some of them wandered somewhat, failing to maintain a uniform voice or theme. However, later in the book—corresponding, loosely, to later in the author's life—the narratives grow darker and more theologically challenging, and hence more interesting to myself.

One of the appendices to the book, "God of the Bible vs. God of the Present Day", sets out Mark Twain's views on the nature of God circa 1870, in which he contrasts the pettiness of the scope or scale of God and his interests as portrayed by the Bible, with that as envisaged by the theologians of his day.

The Biblical universe consisted of but one important feature, a miiniature world 8,000 miles in diameter; the minor features were a roof a rocket-flight overhead, containing a toy sun and moon, and speckled with dimensionless sparks, placed there with the avowedly sole object of confining their homage to that little world and humbly serving it. The difference between that universe and the modern one revealed by science is as the difference between dust-flecked ray in a barn and the sublime arch of the Milky Way in the skies. Its God was strictly proportioned to its dimensions. His sole solicitude was about a handful of truculent nomads. [...] One day he coaxed and petted them beyond their due, the next he harried and lashed them beyond their deserts. He sulked, he cursed, he raged, he grieved [...] but all to no purpose; his efforts were all vain, he could not govern them.

In comparison:

The universe discovered by modern men comports with the dignity of the modern God, the God whom we trust, believe in and humbly adore.

And so forth, at greater length than I am willing to beg your indulgence by quoting. He concludes from this:

To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce, and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a Being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes; whose unwritten laws, so far as they affect man, being equal and impartial show that he is just and fair.

This I found astonishing: He is willing to avow disbelief in much of what the Bible says, yet goes on believing in God. Apparently in this he was much influenced by the classic eighteenth-century deist tract The Age of Reason. I think I shall have to read this now. I'd known about deism in an abstract way, but had never seen belief in God set out alongside outright denial of core Christian values in that way beforehand. (I think I thought of deism and (intellectually informed) theism as both acknowledging the Bible and the evidence from the universe, but differing in which was considered trustworthy for proof.)

It's also interesting that Twain concludes that God is still to be worshipped, as some of the charges that can be put against the Biblical God can also be put against the deistic one. These charges came to the fore as Twain's theological outlook darkened in the 1890s and 1900s. They include the way that God, although claiming to be just and fair, has a habit of punishing not just the guilty, but anyone remotely connected with them.

Here I think Twain is making a theological mistake: He is conflating the ascription to God of attributes we value and should wish to emulate—lovingkindness, etc—with the ancients' attempting to find meaning in a world in which bad things happen to good people by declaring that they must be acts of God, i.e. beyond the human capacity to understand or explain. Without a firm mental separation between the two, you end up with a contradictory depiction of God, which lends itself to the charge of hypocrisy.

Another theological mistake Twain makes is to say that Man is not to blame for his nature, given that that nature is the work of God. It is (as I have heard other theologians say) unfair to blame Adam and Eve for sampling the forbidden fruit when it was both in their nature to do so, and they neither did, nor could, understand the nature of the punishment (without having eaten of the fruit in the first place). Twain's mistake here is to extend that to all Man's nature and actions. He would absolve an adulterer for adultery simply because he is of an adulterous nature. But by that criterion, surely all law systems are in the wrong! But of course without them civilisations would descend into anarchy (which, despite the protestations of some anarchists, is not a good thing, as we have seen in countries deprived of law and order in the last few years). What Twain seems to forget is that what distinguishes Man from the beasts is an ability to overcome his nature. I cannot understand how Twain did not mention this, but of course have only read in this book a selection of his thoughts on the subject.

Twain's darkened theological outlook is captured in his powerful Letters from the Earth (sent by an incredulous Satan back to the other archangels about the nature of life on Earth). These depicts God as having created a universe in which everyone and everything suffers. The fly being eaten by the spider, and the spider by the wasp are all part of this suffering for Twain; indeed for him the situation is even worse for the animals, as they don't even get a heaven to look forward to afterwards. Yet for him the advent of the promise of a Heaven is a double-edged sword, because it resulted in the creation of Hell too. Recognising (implicitly) that neither exist in the Hebrew Bible, he talks about Hell as having come about "When God got religion" or "became Christian".

Of course, Twain's antagonism to these derives from the Christian concept that only a tiny proportion of humanity will get into Heaven, the rest will fry in eternal torment; this concept is mercifully lacking in my own religion.

Twain goes on to criticise God for supposedly being omnipotent but not saving everyone. What perversity is it to cure one leper without curing all lepers? Indeed, what perversity was it to create diseases in the first place? This finds expresson in Twain's treatment of Noah, whom he criticises for having taken the housefly on the Ark, rather than letting it and all the diseases it carries die out.

Which raises the question of whether, then, one still owes such a God worship. In a quotation from his autobiography dating from 1906, Twain concludes emphatically no. It's strange to read Twain going on in this manner, and yet still using the term "God" to describe this entity to which worship is not due. I suppose it's because English doesn't really have a term for an entity that is Creator and Supreme Being but not suitable to be the object of worship. Or, to put it another way, what makes such a being worthy of being called God if worship is not due it?

Twain concludes:

[Man] is flung head over heels into this world without ever a chance to decline, and straightaway he conceives and accepts the notion that he is in some mysterious way under obligations to the unknown Power that inflicted this outrage upon him—and thenceforth he considered himself responsible to that Power for every act of his life, and punishable for such of his acts as do not meet with the approval of that Power—yet that same man would argue quite differently if a human tyrant should capture him and put chains upon him and make him a slave.

Though of course we cannot expect Twain to have heard of Stockholm syndrome! Which raises a question that's been going through my mind in recent years: How much bad does God have to do to the Jewish people before we stop praising God for the few good things God has done in our long history?

The answer to this I think lies in the appeal of the traditional liturgy, as borne out by the history of the Reform movement, which started out by throwing out everything traditional, and then has spent the last two centuries gradually putting it back in again.

This is not, however, for me a closed question. I've spent years looking for a theology which does not leave me unsatisfied. I read Nill Gillman's book Sacred Fragments, which gives a description of all modern such attempts, and none of them really did much for me.

There's a story of a group of rabbis in a concentration camp during the Holocaust who decided to put God on trial for what God had allowed to pass. They assigned counsels for the prosecution and defence, weighed up the evidence, and eventually, after much debate, found God guilty. But they came to pronounce sentence, one of them looked at his watch and said, "It's time for mincha!; so instead of sentencing God, they went off to pray to God instead.

There is a sense that we—they, I—continue because it's what we do. I've posted before about how I came to start reciting בִּרְכוֹת every day because I wanted to express gratitude for things, but got sucked into using theistical language, because it's the language of Jewish prayer. This is the same problem here, just on a wider scope.

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-08-04 19:04
Subject: Red Squirrel
Security: Public
I saw a red squirrel for the first time ever in the UK yesterday. (I've previously only seen them—and only two or three times—on the Continent.) Made my day.

[Red squirrel crossing sign]

aviva_m has remarked that you can tell a Briton in Germany by the way whenever they see a red squirrel, they go chasing after it with a camera...

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-07-30 21:44
Subject: Charity parachute jump in aid of alleviating the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Security: Public
The news from Israel recently is depressing; so depressing I'm going to throw myself out of a 'plane.[1]

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Yes, I'm doing a parachute jump for charity, in aid of alleviating the human misery in Israel and the Palestinian Terrorities caused by the current war; please donate and help me reach my target. Half the proceeds will go to Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross. Because the Israelis are not the only ones suffering in the current conflict, I wanted to do something to help out the Palestinians as well. Since I was not able to find an equivalent Palestinian charity that is not engaging in anti-Israel politicising at best, or complicit in terrorism at worst[2], I have chosen as my second charity B'Tselem[3], an Israeli NGO which fights human rights abuses in the Occupied Terrorities (whether by the occupying power or the PA). Donations to B'Tselem will be funnelled via the New Israel Fund, since direct donations to B'Tselem, as a non-UK charity, is not supported by Virgin Money Giving.

Please note that this is a non-political fundraising event; I am trying here to help people on both sides of the conflict. If you disagree with my allocation of funds (and even I recognise that it's not ideal), I invite you to donate half the amount you would have liked to here, and give the other half to a further non-political, non-violence-promulgating charity of your selection.

By the time the jump happens, I hope the war will be long over; however the fundraising hole it has caused will take a long time to backfill, and donations will still be necessary.

The jump will be at the London Parachute School near Reading; you're invited to come along and watch. Indeed, anyone else as mishugge as me is invited to join in and keep me company.

Lastly, please note that Virgin Money Giving is a not for profit organisation and will claim gift aid on a charity's behalf where the donor is eligible for this. I appreciate your support, and thank you for any donations.

[1] This is actually an old resolution of mine. When I was an undergraduate, for a short while there was an society within J-Soc called DJS—Dangerous Jewish Society—with whom I signed up to do a charity parachute jump. Society founder Michael Jaeger and I got a lift down to London with a third meshuggine, who was to drive us all to the airfield early the following morning, but the car-owner got cold feet (he was concerned the insurance would not pay enough in the event of his death) and pulled out, leaving the other two of us with no way to get to the airfield on time. Now's the time to right that wrong.

[2] Not an exaggeration. See, for example, here.

[3] Homepage; see also their Wikipedia entry.

Donate



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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-07-21 21:11
Subject: Moar JC mining: Wedding invitation
Security: Public
I was somewhat surprised to receive a wedding invitation a few years ago on Facebook and nowhere else (the groom assured me he had sent a print one, but it never arrived), but this takes the biscuit. In December 1905, my great-great-grandparents posted this in the Jewish Chronicle:
Mr. and Mrs. J. ANKER, 46, Holly-avenue, Jesmond, with Mr. and Mrs. E. GOLDSTON, "The Square", Stockton-on-Tees, will be pleased to see all relatives and friends at the Synagogue, Leazes Park-road, Newcastle-on-Tyne, on January 2nd, 1906, on the occasion of the marriage of their daughter Eva, to their son Joshua.  Ceremony at 2.30 p.m.  Reception at the "Minories" Assembly Rooms, Jesmond-road, 4 till 7 p.m.
Which is all well and good until you come to the last line, for which remember that they chose to publish this in a national newspaper—and indeed the births, marriages and deaths column was at that point on the front page:
Relatives and friends please accept this, the only invitation.


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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-07-17 18:14
Subject: Unity Mews
Security: Public

[photo]

She does? Better give her some milk, then.

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-07-16 20:47
Subject: Palestine Red Crescent Society
Security: Public
As those of you who follow me on Facebook may have seen recently, I'm gearing up to do something crazy in aid of charity, and have been trying to decide which. I'm leaning in favour of Magen David Adom, but feel it is important to alleviate the suffering of all those caught up in the tragedy, not just the Israelis'.

So, does anyone reading this know whether the Palestine Red Crescent Society is a trustworthy body to also donate to?

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