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Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-04-06 09:21
Subject: "Josephus's Discourse To The Greeks Concerning Hades"
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Tags:josephus
Seeing in my shul library a copy of the complete works of Josephus, as translated by Whiston, I picked it up to see what I hadn't read yet (apart from the obvious condidates—his autobiography, and Against Apion), and, seeing a "Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades", opened it to have a look what he says.

In the second paragraph, the author writes:
In this region there is a certain place set apart, as a lake of unquenchable fire, whereinto we suppose no one hath hitherto been cast; but it is prepared for a day afore-determined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men; when the unjust, and those that have been disobedient to God, and have given honour to such idols as have been the vain operations of the hands of men as to God himself, shall be adjudged to this everlasting punishment, as having been the causes of defilement; while the just shall obtain an incorruptible and never-fading kingdom. These are now indeed confined in Hades, but not in the same place wherein the unjust are confined.
Aha, I thought: this is obviously where the idea in Christianity of the lake of fire* comes from; it's another one of those Christian concepts which derive from thoughts in contemporary Judaism, but which the latter religion has since moved on from. (Another example is the Christian view of the Devil as the source of temptation towards sin: Jewish texts from the first centuries CE, basing themselves on the Book of Job, talk about a being variously called either the Adversary (Hebrew haś-Śāṭān) or Prince Masṭémā ("Hostility"), which has this role, whereas more recent Jewish thought views every person as having a good inclination (יֵצֶר טוֹב) and an evil inclination (יֵצֶר הָרַע), i.e. the temptation to sin is of internal origin, not external.)

(Also noteworthy in the above quotation is the fact the lake of fire is empty now, awaiting the Great Day of Judgement; I don't know whether this is reflected in Christian theology, but one doesn't get that impression from those who invoke the fear of it.)

* It occurs to me to wonder whether the rock group Nirvana did a cover of the song "Lake of Fire" not because they liked it so much as because of the irony of a song with this theme being covered by a band with that name...

The essay goes on:
The just are guided to the right hand, and are led with hymns, sung by the angels appointed over that place, unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world; not constrained by necessity, but ever enjoying the prospect of the good things they see, and rejoice in the expectation of those new enjoyments which will be peculiar to every one of them, and esteeming those things beyond what we have here; with whom there is no place of toil, no burning heat, no piercing cold, nor are any briers there; but the countenance of the and of the just, which they see, always smiles them, while they wait for that rest and eternal new life in heaven, which is to succeed this region. This place we call The Bosom of Abraham.
Aha, I thought; another source of a Christian concept. In paragraph six, however, the text went on to read:
For all men, the just as well as the unjust, shall be brought before God the word: for to him hath the Father committed all judgment : and he, in order to fulfill the will of his Father, shall come as Judge, whom we call Christ.
"What!?" I thought. Now, I know the text of Josephus has been diddled with by Christians, but the diddlings-with in Antiquities at least present Josephus as a Jew trying to make sense of what was reported about Jesus of Nazareth, not as a believer in out-and-out Christian theology. So at this point I abandoned the text, and headed off in search of answers.

William Whiston, the eighteenth-century theologian whose translation of Josephus was used in both the book I read the above passage from, and my Wordsworth Classics edition of Antiquities, states that this essay was written when Josephus was bishop of Jerusalem. Cue one further "what!?" from me, and a heading off to Wikipedia, which informs me that though the text was "erroneously attributed to the Jewish historian since at least the 9th century, it is now believed to be (at least in its original form) the work of Hippolytus of Rome." Which, I have to say, is a damning indictment of Western scholarship between the ninth century and some time after the eighteenth.

Wikipedia adds: "As Whiston's translation is in the public domain, it appears in many present-day English editions of Josephus' work without any noting of its questionable attribution." Quite.

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-04-03 12:17
Subject: Life expectancy
Security: Public

It's been on my mind for a while that none of the deceased ancestors I have known (three grandparents and one parent) reached their eighties. Moreover, there's a couple of not too distant ancestors of mine who died really quite young (my father's mother died when he was eleven, and my father's father's father got out of bed one morning, keeled over with a massive heart attack and died, when he was in his mid-fifties).

I'm not worrying about this too much: medical technology has advanced (the cancer that killed my father's mother in the fifties would be treatable now), life expectancies have increased, and I live a healthier lifestyle than most of the ancestors I have dates for (I exercise more, don't smoke, and don't subsist on a diet of eastern European stodge). But still, I did find myself wondering whether I came from a particular short-lived line, on the whole.

It's taken me years to get around to collating dates from my family tree, for such of my ancestors as I know both birth and death dates, to find out, but the answer:

67? = 80? 88 77?
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69 = 73     87 = 86  72? = ?   65= ?   77? = 88?     75 = 71?  

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54? = 70   63 = 93  77? = 79   79? = 78  

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79 = 44   70 = 75 

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שליט״א = 65  

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me (also שליט״א)

...is no. Average life expectancy of the above: 74.1 years.

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-04-02 12:17
Subject: A forgotten uprising? East Germany 1953
Security: Public
The BBC published an article the other day, "The six key moments of the Cold War relived" (for the benefits of those who couldn't remember it). Under the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, it quotes a former communist supporter from London:
"My family saw the Soviet Union as the first country in which the working class had broken through and taken power. The invasion came as a tremendous shock. There were families and friendship groups divided by it. My father continued to believe that the Soviet Union's actions were correct. Others, like my mother, were more critical. It took me two decades longer to realise that the Soviet Union wasn't a socialist country after all because you can't have socialism without democracy."
It's well known how communist supporters in the West were shocked by the Soviet action then, and in Prague in 1968; it's only recently that I discovered that the whole phenomenon had happened before, in East Germany, in 1953. How did that uprising become so completely forgotten from the western consciousness (or at any rate, that part of it outside Germany)?

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-04-02 12:16
Subject: Evolution of English
Security: Public
On the subject of yesterday's posting, it's occurred to me that something I'd love to hear is a text read which starts in Old English, and as the reading progresses, the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary gradually shift into Modern English, via all the intermediate stages. A quick google does not show me any such thing, though there are things like this, which have discrete texts jumping forward several hundred years between each.

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-04-01 12:08
Subject: Biblical pronunciation
Security: Public
I discovered this morning from ewx's blog that Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog hath ycalled, *ahem* has called for a celebration of ancient languages today, which ties in very nicely with what I was going to post this week anyway.

As some of my readership here will be aware, I use the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew, but most people nowadays use the Israeli pronunciation, which is to say the Sephardi pronunciation watered down to remove sounds Ashkenazim find it difficult to pronounce. Since most Jews today are Ashkenazim, this means they or their ancestors switched pronunciations in the course of the last century.*

* Or, in a few cases, the last two centuries: see my notes on Ismar Schorsch's talk on the European roots of Masorti Judaism the other day, if and when I get around to blogging them.

I grew up in one of the few non-Chareidi communities still to use the Ashkenazi pronunciation; everyone else in the synagogue I now attend, however, uses the Israeli. Over the course of the last ten years, I've had a few people tell me to change my pronunciation. "Why should I?" I said. "We did!" they replied.

Now, there is a tradition in Judaism of fitting in with one's community, but in today's individualistic world, few outside the Chareidi community take this very seriously. There's also a tradition, however, of adhering to the custom of one's ancestors; and if my parents and grandparents used the Ashkenazi pronunciation, and indeed their ancestors for the previous half millennium (though they mostly a different dialect of it*), who am I to change this custom unnecessarily.

* Newcastle uses the Yekkish pronunciation; I have a few Yekkes among my ancestors, but most of them are Litvaks or from what has historically been Poland (or in a few cases Sephardi); which differ mostly in how the vowel חוֹלָם is pronounced.

As it happens, though, I have been subtly changing my pronunciation of Hebrew over the last few years, in the direction of greater historical accuracy: I now pronounce מַפִּיק (the dot in a ה at the end of words), and I pronounce שְוָא נָע where, and only where, it is indicated in good siddurim.*

* My justification for this change, in the light of what I said above, is based on the precedent of Ashkenazi rabbis persuading their communities during the Middle Ages to place the stress when leyning where the trop is indicated on the words, rather than in the historically incorrect position used in the Ashkenazi pronunciation. I had never noticed before I learned this how when I am speaking, I pronounce, for instance, יִשְׂרָאֵל as /jɪs'rɒeɪl/, but when leyning as /jɪsrɒ'eɪl/.

Consequently, if I were to change my overall pronunciation, it would not be to the newfangled Israeli pronunciation at all, but to Biblical pronunciation (or as close as I can get to it). And if you'd like to hear what this sounds like, come along to Assif this Shabbos, where I shall be delivering a redacted version of the above rant prior to reading the הַפְטָרָה in Biblical pronunciation. (PS: This is not an April Fools!)

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-03-31 21:31
Subject: Lovely Jublee
Security: Public

[photo: 'Jublee general store']



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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-03-31 13:03
Subject: Online petitions
Security: Public
Online activist sites have burgeoned. A couple of years ago, I'd occasionally get an email (such as from IRAC) asking me to sign a petition or participate in a mass email. In the last year or two, however, I saw the odd petition, on sites such as change.org, 38 Degrees or SumOfUs, about a cause I felt sufficiently strongly about to want to sign; once I did so, they had my email address, and would email me from time to time with other petitions to sign.

This sounds good in theory—mass activism via the Internet—but soon I began to feel I was drowning in petitions. There'd only be a few a week, but when they arrived, I'd put them aside to look into later: I didn't want to simply read a summary and sign; I wanted to check first I had all the facts, and agreed with the evidence. Some of the above sites include links to external articles on the web corroborating what they say about their causes; some do not. But checking facts takes time, and everything else I wanted or needed to do took priority.

Now I've got nineteen emails dating back two months waiting to be attended to, and I simply do not have the time to give each one the attention it deserves. I feel I'm reduced to a choice between signing petitions without checking them out thoroughly, or ignoring worthy causes I would agree with had I the time and effort to deal with them. And this, I'm sure, is not how it's meant to be. But once it becomes easy to deliver the man on the street one request for action, it becomes just as easy to deliver him as many as there are; and it's simply not possible to deal with everything.

But I'm not the only person out there receiving requests to sign petitions or email organisations. So how do the rest of you deal with this problem?

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-03-27 20:18
Subject: Surprising (if you're me) calorific content of snack food
Security: Public
Tags:linguistics geekery
When I snack after dinner, it's on nuts and raisins (what the Germans amusingly call Studentenfutter, "students' fodder"). One reads that one should snack on healthy food like nuts, so I was quite surprised when aviva_m made a comment to be about nuts being high calorie. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised: a nut is a seed; it has all the resources in it to allow the germinating seed to grow to self-sufficiency. But I said that surely raisins would be higher calorie, because they contain all the sugar you find in a grape, but compressed into a smaller volume, meaning you are likely to eat more of them.

Well, in the way that one does (or at least I do), I went off to the Net of a Thousand Lies to investigate, where Google says that their calorie content is:
Nut typeCalorie content per 100g
Almonds576
Brazil nuts656
Cashews653
Hazelnuts628
Peanuts*567
Walnuts654
* Yes, I know they're actually peas, not nuts

Against which, raisins were just 299 calories per 100g. So go figure.

No, I'm not a calorie counter, but I find myself intrigued as to what one could snack on if one wanted to keep the numbers down. A quick glance at Google gives figures of 112 for couscous, 52 for apples, 89 for bananas, 47 for clementines... and 50 for the King of Fruit, the pineapple.

Well, looks like I've learned something.

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-03-26 22:00
Subject: Minhag vs. din
Security: Public
When a Jewish community's practices disagree with your הַשְׁגָפָה, sometimes it's possible to point a finger and say "but that's minhag, not din." An example that even my non-Jewish readers will be able to sympathise with: Reb Tevye getting so worked up about his daughters making their own matches in Fiddler on the Roof. (Indeed, something which would be lost on non-Jewish watchers of the film is that the reason he was willing to compromise with his first two daughters, but not with his third, is precisely because there the issue crossed the line from minhag to din.)

It's easy to say this, but what exactly marks the line between minhag and din? Outside of Orthodoxy the answer's clear: you have rabbinical assemblies, with law and standards subcommittees, to which responsa are submitted, which debate them, then either accept or reject them. Inside Orthodoxy, I'm not aware of a formal process for determining halacha in this way; it seems to me that people publish responsa, and either the majority of rabbis of the generation accept them, or they do not. But even then, the minhag of a community is regarded as inviolable, and treated almost on par with din. An example not from a teshuva is the materials aviva_m taught herself the practice of Judaism from when she first became practising; they made no distinction between kabbalistic minhag such as which order to cut your fingernails and core Jewish practices. And, come to think of it, the (aviva_m: look away now) Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) is no better.

So what, then, does distinguish minhag from din in Orthodoxy and pre-Orthodox normative Judaism?

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Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2014-03-25 18:40
Subject: Why I am reciting kaddish three times a day
Security: Public
Tags:mourning
I seem to have taken the injunction to recite kaddish three times a day for the full twelve months of mourning much more seriously than the other members of my family, even my Modern Orthodox brother. It intrigues me to speculate why. I think I know the answer.

Like some other communities including my present one, the Newcastle community has a mourners' siddur. It contains extracts from the second edition Singer's Prayer Book, adapted to leave out the prayers not said in a shiva house; along with prayers to be said in a house of mourning. I probably knew beforehand, but had forgotten until I saw the book again when my mother died, that it was not, as I had thought, a national publication, but was put together by R. Shlomo Toperoff, minister in Leazes shul in Newcastle before my birth (he was the rabbi who married my parents).

In his lengthy introduction to the book, R. Toperoff (whom my father informs me was very strict) bewails how mourning customs are, as he sees it, falling into disuse, and urges their observance. This had a big impact on me when I first read it at a formative age, when my paternal grandfather died in 1985, and when my maternal grandfather died in 1987.

So why, then, did this have such an influence on me but not the rest of my family? Answer, because I don't think they read it. I certainly know one member of my family did not. But I am the sort of person to read lengthy prefaces, as witness this prior incident.

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