What does it mean?

February 22, 2005


My parents are coming to visit tomorrow. They're landing at the airport at 5:35 AM (I have to pick them up).

Lately, I've had even less time to post than usual. And while my parents are here I'll have even less than that.

So I'd like to declare a hiatus. If I find I have the time, I will post. But no promises. (I think I'll still read comments.)

They leave March 29.

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Modules of my Mind

Quite a lot of discussion on Gene Expression has revolved around the modular nature of the human brain. Now, I know very little about neurology, but I do have extensive experience with at least one data point, and I do know something about modules: they feature prominently in my profession. So I would like to attempt to put my knowledge of the subject on line and see if anything more general can be learned from it.

I earn my living designing software systems, and I work with the concept of a module every day. In fact, I think of systems as being composed of only two things: modules and architecture. The perfect module is what we in the industry call a "black box" - one which is so completely defined by its interfaces that its inner workings need not be known. This is not as clean a definition as it may, at first, appear: interfaces can be very complex. At the extreme, a module's behavior can be so complex that nothing less than publishing its source code will describe its behavior. On the other hand, a well designed system will have modules as close as possible to black boxes, meaning that all interdependencies between modules will occur at the interface level. (When modules influence each other not at the level of interface, this is called a "side effect".)

Architecture, on the other hand, is the environment in which these modules "live" and interact with each other. For example, the steering wheel of a car is a module: it can be replaced with, say, levers without changing any other parts. Gasoline, on the other hand, is an architectural feature: replace it with diesel or, even worse, electricity, and the car will have to be completely redesigned. Sometimes an architectural feature can be expressed as a module: IANA and DNS, for example, can be easily described by interfaces, like modules, but without them the Internet would cease to function. These kind of modules are often called low-level modules or resources - i.e. modules that are primarily (or solely) used by other modules.

Okay, that was a pretty boring introduction, but I am a great believer in the maxim: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms” - so I felt I had to get it out of the way. Now (...since I no nothing about neurology), I would like to define my mental modules on a purely functional basis: a module is something I do (correctly) without "thinking" i.e. without being conscious of thought. Language, of course, is the most obvious mental module: I produce grammatical sentences in my native language without thinking (of the grammar), and I can tell when a sentence is ungrammatical instantaneously, without necessarily being able to say why - i.e. I first know that the sentence is ungrammatical, I then have to go back figure out why. In fact, I first started thinking about modules of my mind because of a dramatic event in my life: I suddenly, after years of trying, found myself able to speak a foreign language.

What happened? One day I was painfully parsing sentences and figuring out what they meant. The next day I was just listening and understanding. I had the same amount of knowledge of grammar and vocabulary - obviously that didn't change overnight. On thinking about it, I realized that though this experience was particularly dramatic, it was by no means unique. I have a vivid memory from about the age of 5 or 6 of suddenly being able to ride a bicycle. Again, one moment I couldn't do it, the next moment I could, and I've been riding ever since. Later on something similar happened with symbolic logic: I spent most of a semester looking at proofs, understanding every step, yet having no idea how they got from here to there, i.e. how they chose which steps to take. Then one day, I knew instinctively what to do.

On further reflection, I realized that what I experience as "thought" is really only a tiny proportion of what I do that might, in some other person/organism/world be called thinking. Balancing, seeing, hearing - anyone who has tried to program a computer to do these things knows how difficult it is (in fact, it's impossible at the current state of the art) to even come close to what humans do automatically, without "thinking". It reminds me of a story from the early days of personal computing. At the height of the "database wars" between Dbase and FoxBase, Dbase claimed to be faster because it was written in assembly language, while FoxBase was written in a high-level language (C). It turned out, upon testing, that FoxBase was, in fact, faster. One commentator (I forget which) wrote something like: "The Dbase people should learn something about the importance of algorithms". In other words, although something written in assembly language is theoretically faster, since compiled code is visibly full of inefficiencies (especially considering the compliers of the day) the performance hit of high-level languages is more than made up for by their contribution to the efficiency of the human mind, and its consequent enhanced ability to create efficient algorithms. The moral of the story: For most tasks, it's most important to enhance the efficiency of the human mind.

Now, let's look at some consequences of my particular definition of modularity as it relates to the human mind.

1. I don't see any difference between the language module, the sight module, and the bicycle-riding module - i.e. new modules can be added ad hoc. (This does not rule out the possibility that some modules are supported by "hardware", only that there are clearly "software" modules as well.)

2. General Intelligence is either a characteristic of one or more low-level modules or an architectural feature (such as dendrite growth).

3. The ability to perform a task well is often critically dependent on the development of relevant modules.

I particularly want to relate to points (1) and (3) with respect to education. Not long ago, a GNXP post asked: "What kinds of activities can be done to enhance cognition and memory beyond nutritional interventions?" I would like to answer a similar question: I think that more education should be devoted specifically toward equipping people with mental modules that are useful in our society. Some of these modules can be called, "skills" - and there is a recognition of the importance of teaching skills. (Though I can think of at least one skill that every elementary-school graduate would benefit from in this day and age: typing.) But I'm sure there are other modules, not usually recognized as skills, that would help with many cognitive tasks, which we could seek to develop explicitly. Here's one: Math. I remember kids in school people complaining of "math block" - at the time I thought they were just making up excuses, but now, after my experience with learning a foreign language, I believe them. I am fairly good at math, and when I see an equation, I don't just see it as a collection of symbols - it "speaks" to me. One glance and I say, for example, "that's a parabola" and in my mind's eye I see a picture of a parabola. I bet that most people can't do this, but perhaps with a little directed training, they could.

(Cross posted at Gene Expression.)

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Europe betrays freedom, again

Europe's love affair with tyrants - and hatred of democracy - continues. Vaclav Havel writes:

One of the strongest and most powerful democratic institutions in the world -- the European Union -- has no qualms in making a public promise to the Cuban dictatorship that it will re-institute diplomatic Apartheid. The EU's embassies in Havana will now craft their guest lists in accordance with the Cuban government's wishes. The shortsightedness of socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero of Spain has prevailed.

Try to imagine what will happen: At each European embassy, someone will be appointed to screen the list, name by name, and assess whether and to what extent the persons in question behave freely or speak out freely in public, to what extent they criticize the regime, or even whether they are former political prisoners. Lists will be shortened and deletions made, and this will frequently entail eliminating even good personal friends of the diplomats in charge of the screening, people whom they have given various forms of intellectual, political or material assistance. It will be even worse if the EU countries try to mask their screening activities by inviting only diplomats to embassy celebrations in Cuba.

I can hardly think of a better way for the EU to dishonor the noble ideals of freedom, equality and human rights that the Union espouses -- indeed, principles that it reiterates in its constitutional agreement. To protect European corporations' profits from their Havana hotels, the Union will cease inviting open-minded people to EU embassies, and we will deduce who they are from the expression on the face of the dictator and his associates. It is hard to imagine a more shameful deal.

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Equality and Diversity

Equality and Diversity: two mantras of modern times. I am passionately in favor of both. Which, ironically, puts me out of step with current fashion, for current fashion somehow manages to interpret these two words in a way which is diametrically opposed to what I believe. How did that happen?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

United States Declaration of Independence

The framers of the Declaration of Independence, when they wrote these words, were well aware that people are not equal (i.e. "the same") - as were millions of Americans in the centuries that followed. Yet these words were taken at face value in most people's minds, without need of interpretation or elaboration. What could they have meant to these people if, in our day and age, they seem so hard to illusory?

The answer is really quite simple, and it shows how far we, as a society, have moved away from our traditions. Equality, of course, didn't mean in equal in qualities or circumstances, but in our humanity. Or, as someone at the time would likely have put it: "Equal before God". It is this essential equality from which we derive equal rights. But remove God from the picture (as most of us moderns do) and we are left with the nebulous idea: humanity - a belief in which is no less faith-based than a belief in God.

But that is not the end of the story. Take God out of the picture, and there is nothing left with which to judge a life worth lived than "qualities and circumstances". In contrast, followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition (and many other traditions, I am sure, as well) assert an essential meaning to life, our qualities and circumstances being transient and mysterious to human understanding. A follower of these traditions is comfortable with the idea that each of us has our own challenges in life, whether qualities (laziness, anger, pride...) or circumstances (poverty, persecution, death...) and are lauded not for the achievement of some arbitrary standard, but for overcoming our own particular challenges. Still, we are expected to adhere to a universal standard of morality, with the assurance that meaning can be found in any life, no matter how hard. Take away the sacred standard of meaning and morality, and you are left with a new essentialism - the belief that we are intrinsically, mundanely (as opposed to transcendently), qualitatively, equal, and that all appearances to the contrary are due to mere circumstance. Clearly, this is a new religion, inasmuch as it replaces one axiomatic notion of equality with another.

Religion, by my definition at least, is part of the human condition. (My definition of religion: that which we believe but cannot prove. Preferably the "we" does not refer to the individual in question, but to inhabitants of this world.) Therefore, the rejection of one religion necessarily requires the adherence to another. So, it is not surprising that, considering our commitment to the axiom of equality, once its transcendent definition is discarded, a new mundane definition must be found. It is from this need that we derive the current definition of diversity.

Diversity, by this definition, is that which makes us seem different from one another, despite the fact that we are equal. So the real crime is noticing it in any way other than to make sure it is not noticed. In other words: since we are all equal, any deviation from equal results must by definition be the result of immoral recognition of diversity and thus the only moral response (fighting fire with fire) is to recognize diversity in order to fix it (by quotas, reverse discrimination, etc.).

This is what we have come to. While once we could delight in the diversity of the universe (God's creation, by some), now we must believe that diversity is an illusion. There is no other way to square diversity and equality. We must give up on one, at least in this world - or give up on the notion of equal rights.

So which are you?

1. Equality is transcendent, diversity is real

2. Equality is real, diversity an illusion

3. People are not "endowed with equal rights"

4. Something else?

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February 17, 2005

Diminishing returns to order

Some years ago, when my wife was 7 months pregnant with our first child, we took a three-week vacation in Scandinavia. (Probably our last vacation as a couple for the next 20 years...) I was reminded of this trip when I read Hatshepsut's post comparing Israeli and Icelandic hospitality.

We were a group of about 45 Israelis: about half older couples on a post-child-raising vacation, and the other half mostly retired people. My wife and I were among the youngest on the trip, which suited us fine, since we were still newly enough married to be fairly uninterested in others our own age. So it wasn't a group of rowdy youngsters by any means. Nevertheless, we garrulous, amiable, informal Israelis were quite a contrast to our dour, formal hosts. And there were no lack of conflicts and misunderstandings as a result. I will relate some of them here. (Warning: I am telling these stories from my own point of view, which is distinctly one-sided.)

Now, a seven-month-pregnant woman has quite a large child sitting on her bladder. As a result, we were in a more or less continual search for a bathroom. You may or may not believe this, but restaurants in Scandinavia will actually turn away an obviously pregnant woman with the refrain: "The bathrooms are only for patrons". Sometimes they will direct you somewhere else, often located a considerable distance away, often a McDonald's or some other restaurant. One time in Stockholm, after being turned away from several establishments in a row, a patron overheard my wife being told, yet again, that she couldn't use the bathroom. He got up from his meal and told the headwaiter that he wouldn't eat in a restaurant that wouldn't let a pregnant woman use the bathroom. As we were walking out (me, my wife, and the patron) we exchanged a few words. He was an Israeli.

We spent the days touring, often arriving late at our hotel. One time in Oslo we arrived at our destination quite late, around 11:15 PM. As 45 Israelis decamped in the lobby, our tour guide argued with the management. She had arranged to arrive late, but she had told them that we would arrive at 11:00 - and we were fifteen minutes late! So apparently the personnel necessary to admit us had already been sent home. Eventually some more money changed hands, the missing personnel miraculously appeared, and we were admitted. I couldn't help thinking that if it were Jews behaving this way toward Scandinavians, instead of the other way around, we would be hearing some nasty stereotypes.

My last story took place at a hotel in some tiny Norwegian town, I don't remember which (we were in a lot of them). The usual procedure for disembarking was very orderly, and we eventually learned it well. Our tour guide had given all our baggage large, colorful numbers. When we arrived, she would give the hotel management a list of our names and numbers (the same numbers as on our baggage) and they would use it to assign rooms, hand out keys, and bring the baggage to the correct destination. The bus driver would unload the baggage from the bus, and line it up on the curb, from which someone from the hotel staff would take it to the rooms. It so happened that shortly after we arrived at this particular hotel, while we were waiting in the lobby to get our room assignments, the heavens opened up, and it started to pour. We looked out the glass front of the hotel, and there were our bags, in a neat line, getting wet. Of course, we all ran outside to collect our suitcases, and bring them helter-skelter into the lobby. The hotel management was furious! "You cannot do this!" (That's an exact quote.) We were disrupting their system. "You will have to take your baggage to your rooms yourself," they told us. And that's what we did.

It seems to me that there are diminishing returns to order, and at some point they become distinctly negative. But maybe that's just my cultural prejudice. Scandinavia is much cleaner and neater than Israel.

PS: Our Swedish bus driver probably thought that we hated him. People were always complaining to him about something, or making life hard for him in some way. What a surprise he got when, at the end of the trip, someone spontaneously organized to tip him. It came to quite a lot, and he was visibly pleased.

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Trackback from Cerberus Blog, Found Elsewhere:
My Grand Tour of Europe is still in the future, but it seems to confirm some of the horror stories as related to me by my fellow Americans who have traveled in Europe.

February 14, 2005

Life After Life

In the previous post I mentioned that Heaven and Hell (as places for the soul to get its eternal reward) are not part of the Jewish tradition. What, then, do Jews believe about the afterlife? The answer is: it's not well defined, i.e. there isn't one particular Jewish belief. Remember that Judaism is not a faith-based religion. Pretty much all you are required to believe to be a good Jew is that there is one (and only one) God, and that He wants Jews to follow His commandments. What I mean by "not a faith-based religion" is that it is not a particular body of faith (dogma) that sets Jews apart from members of other religions: it is a commitment to live according to halakha (Jewish Law). Judaism is a lifestyle-based religion. As a result, in many areas Judaism is quite agnostic, permitting Jews a wide variety of beliefs. One of those areas is the realm of the afterlife.

This is not to say that there are no Jewish beliefs, just that they are not required. In fact, there are several, and I will endeavor to talk about them here. Don't try to understand them as parts of a whole: they are not necessarily reconcilable with each other. However, they do have something in common: the belief that good will be rewarded and evil will punished.

`Olam Haba' (עולם הבא) - The World to Come: This is the most common notion of the afterlife that you will see in Jewish literature and prayer. It is a vague belief that there is a next world, and that you will go there when you die. There is no explicit notion as to what it is like, only that rewards and punishments will be meted out there. According to this idea, the worst possible punishment is not to go to the next world at all, i.e. to die.

Somewhat related to `Olam Haba' is the notion of eternal life in this world through your "name" - that is, the good influence your life will have on the future. The worst possible curse in Hebrew, somewhat similar to saying 'may he burn in Hell' is: yimah sh'mo (ימח שמו) - 'may his name be erased'. It is normal in Hebrew to use this expression after speaking the name of a particularly evil person, e.g. "Hitler, yimah sh'mo, invaded Poland in 1939". At some future date, when good finally wins out over evil, no remnant of Hitler's life will be left in the world.

Y'mot Hamashiah (ימות המשיח) - The Days of the Messiah: This is also a continual theme in Jewish prayer, literature, and theology. It is the notion that there will be a messianic era in which God's sovereignty will be universally recognized. It is one of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith, meaning that in his opinion Jews are required to believe it. But Maimonides has a very minimalist notion of the messianic era: According to Maimonides, "Nothing will change in the Messianic age except that Jews will regain their independence."

T'hiyat Hametim (תחית המתים) - Resurrection of the Dead: This is actually prophesied in the Bible, so in a literal sense it is mandatory, but what it means is subject to debate. Some equate it with either `Olam Haba' or Y'mot Hamashiah. Others, such as Maimonides, associate it with neither. There is also a debate as to whether the dead will be brought back to an ordinary corporal life, or will be brought back in incorporeal form.

Gilgul N'shamot (גילגול נשמות) - Reincarnation of Souls: This is the belief that a soul can be reborn in another body (not necessarily in the body of a human being). In terms of sociological and theological importance, this is definitely secondary to the previous three ideas. Nevertheless, it is a concept that every practicing Jew is familiar with, and may believe.

There are more, but I think this covers the major ideas. Most Jews give little thought to the details of these ideas, and if they do, it is usually in an academic sense, rather than as a deeply felt belief. However, what is deeply felt among the vast majority of Jews is that we do have an immortal soul (with the possible exception of particularly evil people), and we will be rewarded for the good that we do. Knowing the particulars is not particularly important at this point in time. It is what I believe too.

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February 13, 2005

Hell in Hebrew

John Ray is exploring the concept of Hell in the Bible. The short answer, as he points out, is: there is none. In fact, there really isn't even a word in modern Hebrew (let alone Biblical Hebrew) which expresses the concept of the Christian Hell. Considering how much Hebrew material (TV shows, movies, books, articles) comes from languages which do have words for this concept, it creates a quite a problem for translators. My impression is that (at least in TV shows and movies) the most common usage of the word is in the expression "go to Hell" - this, by convention, is translated: lekh l`azazel (לך לעזאזל) - go to `Azazel. But `Azazel doesn't mean Hell at all: it is the name of the cliff from which the sacrificial goat (scapegoat) was cast in ancient times as part of the process of atonement, on Yom Kipur:

וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גֹּרָלוֹת
גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַה' וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל
וְהִקְרִיב אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר
אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַה' וְעָשָׂהוּ חַטָּאת
וְהַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַעֲזָאזֵל
יָעֳמַד חַי לִפְנֵי ה' לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו
לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה

V'natan aharon sh'ney has`irim goralot
Goral ehad l'H v'goral ehad la`azazel
V'hiqriv aharon et hasa`ir
Ashe `ala `alav hagoral l'H v`asahu hatat
V'hasa`ir asher `ala alav hagoral la`azazel
Ya`amad hay lifney H' l'khaper `alav
Lishalah oto la`azazel hamidbara

And Aaron cast lots on the two goats
One lot to the Lord, and one lot to Azazel
And Aaron sacrificed the goat
That the lot fell on to the Lord, and made it a sin offering
And the goat that the lot fell on it to Azazel
Will stand living before the Lord to atone for him
To send him to Azazel, into the desert

Leviticus 16:8-10

The word `Azazel comes from the words: `ez (עז) and azal (אזל). `Ez means goat (the vowel change e > a comes from normal vowel shortening due to it being the first word of a compound), and azal means 'lost', 'no more', or, in modern Hebrew, 'sold out'. So `azazel just means something like 'lost goat'. (Compound words, in Hebrew, are generally written separately, i.e. with a space between them, but occasionally place names coalesce into one word.)

The second word often used to translate 'Hell' is 'gey hinom' (גיא הינום) - this word is usually rendered into English as Gehenna. It, too, is the name of a real place - in fact, I've been there often, it's very beautiful. (So I guess you can say I've gone to Hell... and since I'll likely go there again, you can say I'm going to Hell.) Jerusalem is situated between two steep valleys, to the east is the Qidron (קידרון) Valley, and to the west is the Hinom (הינום) valley. Gey Hinom means simply 'valley of Hinom'. The two valleys meet to the south of Jerusalem, so the only way to enter the city on more-or-less level ground is from the north. (Here's a topograpic map.) Besides its literal meaning, Gey Hinom in Hebrew can refer to any terrible place (but not to a place where bad people go when they die). Its allegorical meaning comes from its history as a place were the Canaanites sacrificed their children to Ba`al:

 וּבָנוּ אֶת בָּמוֹת הַבַּעַל לִשְׂרֹף אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם בָּאֵשׁ עֹלוֹת לַבָּעַל

Uvanu et bamot haba`al lisrof et b'neyhem ba'esh `olot laba`al

And they built alters of Baal (the master) to burn their children in the fire, sacrifices to Baal

Jeremiah 19:5

John claims that this valley was Jerusalem's incinerator. I have never heard this explanation, and I don't know of any scriptural evidence for it, but it is not unlikely. The valleys around Jerusalem are hundreds of meters deep, and very steep. In the past, the city disposed of its garbage by simply throwing it into the valleys.

Finally, there is the word: sh'ol (שאול). I have never seen this word used to translate the word 'Hell'. I don't know much about this place: it has no theological significance in Judaism. As far as I can tell, it is deep, dark, underground place. But it is not the place where souls go when they die, and it is definitely not a place of exile from God:

אָנָה אֵלֵךְ מֵרוּחֶךָ וְאָנָה מִפָּנֶיךָ אֶבְרָח
אִם אֶסַּק שָׁמַיִם שָׁם אָתָּה וְאַצִּיעָה שְּׁאוֹל הִנֶּךָּ
אֶשָּׂא כַנְפֵי שָׁחַר אֶשְׁכְּנָה בְּאַחֲרִית יָם
גַּם שָׁם יָדְךָ תַנְחֵנִי  וְתֹאחֲזֵנִי יְמִינֶךָ

Ana elekh meruhekha v'ana mipaneykha evrah
Im esaq shamayim sham ata v'asi`a sh'ol hineka
esa' kanfey shahar eshk'na b'aharit yam
gam sham yadkha tahteni v'tohazeni y'minekha

Where will I go from your spirit, and where will I flee from your countenance?
If I rise up to the heavens you are there [go up], if I lie down in Sheol I behold you [go down]
If I lift up wings of morning [go to the east], if I dwell across the sea [go to the west]
Even there your hand is under me, your right [hand] holds me

Psalms 139:7-10

So what do Jews believe about the afterlife? It's late, and I have to go to sleep. I hope to address the question in a future post.

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February 10, 2005

Not in Heaven

This is the promised follow-up to the previous post. There is an halakhic expression: hatora lo' bashamayim hi (התורה לא בשמים היא) - the Tora is not in heaven. It comes from the following passage of the Talmud. (Since the quote is much too long for my usual triplicate format, I will just quote the translation from here. I have highlighted some key words to help those who want to go back and forth.)

השיב רבי אליעזר כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קיבלו הימנו אמר להם אם הלכה כמותי חרוב זה יוכיח נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה ואמרי לה ארבע מאות אמה אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי אמת המים יוכיחו חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול גער בהם רבי יהושע אמר להם אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה אתם מה טיבכם לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע ולא זקפו מפני כבודו של רבי אליעזר ועדיין מטין ועומדין חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי מן השמים יוכיחו יצאתה בת קול ואמרה מה לכם אצל רבי אליעזר שהלכה כמותו בכל מקום עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר לא בשמים היא מאי לא בשמים היא אמר רבי ירמיה שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה אחרי רבים להטות

אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו אמר ליה מאי עביד קודשא בריך הוא בההיא שעתא אמר ליה קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני

On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. 'No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,' they retorted. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!' Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water,' they rejoined. Again he urged: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,' whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?' Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!' But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.' What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'

Talmud Bavli Baba Mesi`a 59B

In other words, no miracle or sign from heaven, even to the extent of a heavenly voice calling out "the halakha is according to so-and-so" is considered proof of your interpretation of God's word. The only valid authority is tradition, i.e. the majority opinion of the previous generation. The Tora (now that it has been given) is not made in heaven, it is made right here on earth, by mortal men.

As an aside, I have always loved that last line: nishuni banay (ניצחוני בני) - my sons have defeated me. (Or, more precisely, 'my sons are victorious over me'. Nisahon [ניצחון] means victory, it is related to nesah [נצח] - eternity.) It is an example of the playfulness often found in the Talmudic text. Remember, the Talmud is a record of actual discussions between real people. Nishuni banay doesn't really make literal sense (if God is saying it), but it effectively conveys the message that Man's fate is in his own hands, and God approves.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:15 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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February 09, 2005

How many God?

John Ray has been exploring the concept of the trinity lately. I'm not going to go near that subject. The Jewish position is clear: There is one God, indivisible (with liberty and justice for all - couldn't resist). However, in the course of his discussions he raises some questions, about a couple of verses from the Bible. Let's take a look at them.

The first question is about the following passage:

 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ

Vayomer elohim na`ase adam b'salmenu kidmutenu

And God said, let us make Man (Adam) in our image as our likeness

Genesis 1:26

What do you mean 'us' kemosabe?

John points out that the usual word for God in Hebrew, which is used here, has a plural form, so this could account for the plural. It cannot: Though the word has a plural form, it is grammatically singular - that is, it takes singular verbs and adjectives. We see that here: "elohim" looks plural (it ends with -im) but its verb (vayomer) is singular (the plural of vayomer is vayomru). John also raises the possibility that we might be seeing here a "royal" or "polite we". Hebrew doesn't have either. But I have a rule for anyone learning a foreign language: expect the unexpected! The traditional pronunciation of the tetragrammaton (the name of God) means "My Lords" not "My Lord". Why? I don't know, however, this too is grammatically singular (i.e. it takes singular verbs and adjectives). So, a grammatical explanation doesn't work.

Rashi, of course, addresses the question:

נעשה אדם
אע"פ שלא סייעוהו ביצירתו ויש מקום למינים לרדות
לא נמנע הכתוב מללמד דרך ארץ ומדת ענוה
 שיהא הגדול נמלך ונוטל רשות מן הקטן
 ואם כתב אעשה אדם לא למדנו שהיה מדבר עם בית דינו
 אלא עם עצמו
ותשובתו כתובה בצדו ויברא את האדם ולא כתיב ויבראו

Na`ase adam
Af `al pi shelo' siy`uhu bisirato v'yesh maqom l'minim lirdot
Lo' nimna` hakatuv mil'lamed derekh eres umidat `anava
Shey'he hagadol nimlakh v'notel r'shut min haqatan
V'im katav a`ase adam lo' lamadnu shehaya m'daber `im beyt dino
Ela' `im `asmo
Utshuvato k'tuva b'sido vayivra' et ha'adam v'lo' k'tiv vayivr'u

"Let us make Man (Adam)"
Even though they didn't help Him and it gives an opportunity for heretics to win arguments
The text does not refrain from teaching good manners and the attribute of humility
That the greater one is ruled and derives his authority from the lesser one
And if it had been written: "I will make Man" we would not have learned that one should talk with his court
But with himself
And the answer [to the heretics] is written next to it: "And He created the man (the Adam)" - and it is not written: "they created"

It is a continual theme within Judaism that we should strive to be Godly, therefore it is not a stretch to believe that God shows by his actions how mankind should behave. In fact, God often does things in the Bible that would seem to deny His omnipotence (see Genesis 18:23). And it is certainly curious, to one who might claim that there are many gods, that the very next verse returns, as Rashi points out, to the singular. In case you are wondering, here it is:

 וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם

Vayivra' elohim et ha'adam b'salmo b'selem elohim bara' oto zakhar unqeva bara' otam

And God created the man (the Adam) in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them

Genesis 1:27

John's second question concerns this verse (see here for my conventions on writing the name of God):

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל  ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד

Sh'ma` yisra'el H' eloheynu H' ehad

Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one

Deuteronomy 6:4

Rashi doesn't address John's question: whether ehad should be translated as "one" or "only" - probably because it didn't occur to him that it would be a question. Ehad means "one" under normal circumstances, it seems a stretch to translate it as "only". In fact, the only reason I can think that you would want to translate it as "only" is if you thought to yourself: "Of course God is one! Therefore the verse must be saying something else..."

UPDATE: Amritas comments. He has an explanation for Genesis 1:26 that I hadn't thought of (which incidentally supports John's thesis):

The unexpected is often what I call diachronic* detritus: a remnant of something that had been expected in an earlier state of the language but seems inexplicable in later stages. In this particular case, I suspect that prehistoric Hebrew might have had a exalted plural that was later reinterpreted as a singular before Genesis (or any other extant text) was written.

The English word data is currently undergoing plural to singular reinterpretation: some say data are but others say data is.

The Bible was an oral tradition before it was written down, so something like this may well have happened. For those who are disturbed by the theological implications of this, if true, there is an halakhic expression: hatora lo' bashamayim hi (התורה לא בשמים היא) - the Tora is not in heaven. I'll try to explain more in a later post, but I'll give away the answer here: Judaism is a traditional religion, i.e. a religion that sanctifies tradition. You cannot overthrow the accepted tradition by appeals to a supposedly more authentic past: The fact that world Jewry has accepted a particular interpretation of halakha (Jewish Law) is viewed as its sanctification by God. But don't think this is a license to reinterpret halakha! Tradition is stable only because each generation endeavors to preserve it.

UPDATE: Maimonides (1135-1204), arguably the greatest post-Talmudic Rabbi, has this to say about Deuteronomy 6:4:

The Second Foundation [of the 13 principles of faith (י"ג עיקרים) - DB] is the unity of HaShem [God], Blessed be His Name. In other words, to believe that this being, which is the cause of all, is one. This does not mean one as in one of a pair nor one like a species (which encompasses many individuals) nor one as in one object that is made up of many elements nor as a single simple object which is infinitely divisible. Rather, He, HaShem Blessed be His Name, is a unity unlike any other possible unity.

This second foundation is referred to when [the Torah] says, "Hear Israel! HaShem is our God, HaShem is one". (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 6:4)

UPDATE: John Ray responds.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:46 PM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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Left for Tyranny

Pixy Misa wrote these words the day before Iraq voted. I missed them at the time, but, well, better late than never:

Let's review the situation from the point of view of a sane person:

The Taliban was bad. They oppressed women, supported terrorism, and gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden (who is also bad). Plus they blew up those giant Buddha statues.

President Bush got rid of them, and now Afghanistan is a democracy - with women not only voting but getting elected. This is good.

Saddam Hussein was bad. He ruled Iraq as a tyrant, ruthlessly crushing any opposition. He had people pulled off the streets to be tortured or murdered on his slightest whim; he employed men to rape his female prisoners. He also had appalling taste in art.

President Bush got rid of him, and tomorrow the Iraqis go to the polls to elect their new government. This is good.

So thanks to President Bush and America, and their allies Britain and Australia (and quite a few other countries), 50 million people are now free.

But, says the left, but, this is actually a bad thing because he is not an idealist. Without that idealism, he is forced to take on the world as it actually is, so his bringing freedom to 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq counts for nothing.

The logic of this position is difficult to untangle, but this is how it looks to me:

Axiom: America bad.
Axiom: Conservatives bad.

Postulate: Anything done by bad people is necessarily also bad.

Therefore: If President Bush speaks in idealistic terms, he must be lying.
If he frees entire countries from tyranny, it must be from base motives, and he deserves only scorn.
If people in the government support him, they are only in it for money and power.
If voters support him, they are stupid.

Against the strident opposition of the Left, America has fought two wars of liberation since 2001. The only contribution of the Left to this effort has been negative: to slow things down, to make every effort more difficult, to give hope to insurgents and terrorists.

There was a time when the Left stood for some good things, like fighting for freedom, equality, and caring about the world. Now only the right stands for those things.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:36 PM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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February 08, 2005

Latest Comments and Trackbacks

I've added a latest comments and trackbacks feature to the left column (of the main page only, not the archive pages). So if you are a regular visitor, you can now keep up with the latest activity on this blog more easily. I've also started closing comments on old posts - the vast majority of comments on old posts are spam anyway.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:51 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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February 07, 2005

Jewish / Israeli Blog Awards - Finals

The final voting round for the Jewish / Israeli Blog Awards has come! You can vote for all categories at once here.

Rishon Rishon has been nominated for the following categories:

Best Overall Blog
Best New Blog 2004
Best Jewish Religion Blog
Best Jewish Culture Blog
Best Post by a Jewish Blogger (Maladapted to our Habitat)
Best Series by a Jewish Blogger (Valleys)

Oddly enough, judging from the results of the semifinals, Rishon Rishon has the best chance of winning in the Best Jewish Religion category! So, if you have energy to vote only for one category (and you think I deserve it) vote there. If you have energy for just two, then add Best New Blog. Otherwise, vote for them all!

Since the real purpose of this contest, at least in my opinion, is not to win, but to publicize good blogs, I want to encourage all of you to visit them. Here they are:


Best Overall Blog


Best New Blog 2004


Best Group Blog

Silent Running
Winds of Change
Power Line
Friends of Micronesia

Best Humor Blog

Is Full of Crap
Kabbalah Discount Center
Random Thoughts
My Urban Kvetch
The View from Here
Chez Miscarriage
Protein Wisdom
Meryl Yourish
Protocols of the Yuppies of Zion
Luke Ford Seeks a Wife
Dov Bear
Aaron's Rantblog

Best Designed Blog

The View from Here
Simon World
Somewhere on A1A
Seraphic Secret

Best 'Life in Israel' Blog

Not a Fish
This Normal Life
The Cahans in Israel
On the Face
Jerusalem Revealed
House of the Joy
An Unsealed Room
Chayyei Sarah
Faith in Nathan
The View from Here

Best Israel Advocacy Blog

Smooth Stone
Clarity and Resolve
Meryl Yourish
Boker Tov, Boulder
Internet Haganah
Little Green Footballs
Melanie Phillip's Diary

Best Politics, Current Affairs, and Academia Blog

Melanie Phillip's Diary
Roger L. Simon
Soccer Dad
Jeff Dunetz
Daniel Pipes
Head Heeb

Best Personal Blog

Bad Mother
Celestial Blue
My Urban Kvetch
Chez Miscarriage
Chayyei Sarah
Orthodox Anarchist
Ari Goes Down
Superfluous Juxtaposition
Best Jewish Religion Blog
Velveteen Rabbi
Barefoot Jewess
Jewish Whistleblower
Rishon Rishon
A Simple Jew
The Shaigetz
Musings of a Jewish Soul

Best Jewish Culture Blog

The Yada Blog
Jewish Current Issues
Weird Jews
JDaters Anonymous
Klezmer Shack
My Urban Kvetch
Rishon Rishon
Kesher Talk
Best Post by a Jewish Blogger
Melbourne Anti-Semitism Watch
Story of Hanukah Revisited
For Love of Torah
Maladapted to our Habitat
Meirav Was Two
Glatt Kosher Cheese Steaks
A Mother's Love
IP Freely

Best Series by a Jewish Blogger


Photo Friday

Jews in Odd Places


Prayer Group


Boston Rally

Ben & J-Lo Saga

Pop Culture Entry

Jews Who Love Xmas

Anti-Semitism Watch

Old Bailey Files

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:36 PM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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Trackback from Soccer Dad, Good sport:
While many fellow bloggers who are up for the JIB awards are selfishly promoting themselves for an award, ( like me or here, here, here, here, here for example. But vote for me!) Rishon-Rishon understands that this isn't about winning...

February 06, 2005

Hebrew and Aramaic

In the previous post I linked to Targum Onqelos. This gives me a good excuse to blog about the similarity between the two languages, something I've wanted to do for a long time. Hebrew and Aramaic are very closely related, so much that Hebrew speakers who study the Talmud (which is mostly written in Aramaic) are expected to jump in with no formal language training. For the most part, they are expected to pick up Aramaic as they go along. Let's compare a passage from the Bible with its Aramaic translation from Onqelos. Here's the Hebrew:

וּלְכָל חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם
 וּלְכֹל רוֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה
אֶת כָּל יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב לְאָכְלָה
וַיְהִי כֵן

Ul'khol hayat ha'ares ul'khol `of hashamayim
Ul'khol romes `al ha'ares asher bo nefesh haya
Et kol yereq `esev l'okhla
Vayhi khen

And for all animals of the land and for all birds of the heavens
And for all things that crawl on the earth that have a living soul
[I have given] All herb greens for eating
And it was thus

Genesis 1:30

Here's the Aramaic translation:

וּלְכָל חַיַּת אַרְעָא וּלְכָל עוֹפָא דִּשְׁמַיָּא
 וּלְכֹל דְּרָחֵישׁ עַל אַרְעָא דְּבֵיהּ נַפְשָׁא חַיְתָא
יָת כָּל יָרוֹק עִסְבָּא לְמֵיכַל
וַהֲוָה כֵין

Ul'khol hayat ar`a ul'khol `ofa dishmaya
Ul'khol d'raheysh `al ar`a d'veyh nafsha hayta
Yat kol yaroq `isba limeykhal
Vahava kheyn

Now, let's compare them. The following is a chart of all the morphemes in both the Hebrew and the Aramaic, in order of appearance in the Hebrew. (Repeats not included.) For Semitic roots I'll use the conventions of this chart.

Hebrew Hebrew Trans. Aramaic Aramaic Trans. Comments
וּ u- וּ u- 'and' in both languages. In both languages 'and' is usually v'-, but it is u- before labials and letters followed by sh'va'.
לְ l' לְ l' 'to', 'for' in both languages
כָּל kol כָּל kol 'all', 'every' in both languages
חַיַּת hayat חַיַּת hayat 'animal of-' (form for first word of compounds)
הָ ha-     'the' in Hebrew, Aramaic of this period doesn't distinguish between definite and indefinite
אָרֶץ ares אַרְעָא ar`a 'land' in both languages. Semitic root: '-r-x, in Hebrew x > s, in Aramaic x > `. Final -a in Aramaic  is written with an alef (ָא), this is just an orthographic convention, like the final he (ָה) in Hebrew, it does not signify a glottal stop.
עוֹף `of עוֹפָא `ofa 'bird' in both languages. From root `-w-f, 'fly'.
    דִּ di- 'of' or 'that' in Aramaic. The Hebrew uses a compound in this case, while the Aramaic uses 'of'.
שָּׁמַיִם shamayim שְׁמַיָּא sh'maya 'heavens' in both languages. -ayim is the dual ending in Hebrew, and -aya is a plural ending in Aramaic.
רוֹמֵשׂ romes רָחֵישׁ raheysh 'crawl' in both languages.
עַל `al עַל `al 'on' in both languages.
אֲשֶׁר asher דְּ d'- 'that' in both languages
בּוֹ bo בֵּיהּ beyh 'in him', 'in it' in both languages
נֶפֶשׁ nefesh נַפְשָׁא nafsha 'soul' in both languages
חַיָּה haya חַיְתָא hayta 'living' in both languages
אֶת et יָת yat object marker in both languages.
יֶרֶק yereq יָרוֹק yaroq 'green thing', 'vegetable' in both languages
עֵשֶׂב `esev עִסְבָּא `isba

'herb' in both languages. Semitic root: `-x-b. In Aramaic x > s. In Hebrew the same thing happened, at a later date (hence my transcription as 's'). In both languages the rule for b/v is: b > v after vowels when not doubled.

אָכְלָה okhla מֵיכַל meykhal 'eating' in both languages. I think the root in both languages is '-k-l (it definitely is in Hebrew).
יְהִי y'hi הֲוָה hava 'be' - command form of the verb 'to be' in both languages. Semitic root: h-y-y or h-w-y (not clear).
כֵּן ken כֵּין keyn 'thus' or 'so' in both languages.

I think it should be clear from this just how similar the two languages are. Notice that there is only one content word in which the two languages use words from different roots: romes/raheysh. However, even in this case, the root used in Aramaic is also found in Hebrew as a synonym of romes (the word in Hebrew is rohesh).

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Translating in the beginning

Amritas posts:

I think John Ray and David Boxenhorn (who's updated his post on the opening line of Genesis) would be interested in what reader Ian M. Slater had to say about "Br'shyt".

I can't speak for John, but Amritas is certainly right about me! Here's an exerpt:

The Septuagint seems to have read the unvocalized Hebrew text as ba-reshith, "in the beginning," and ignored any problem with the construction with the following verb. And so most Christian translations, up to the present, and, following them, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society version. The New Revised Standard Version is an interesting exception.

Rashi, as noted in the link, explained that the Masoretic (official traditional) vocalization as be-reshith avoided the problem of the verb, and interpreted it as indicating only "at the time when..." This has its own problems, but, coincidentally or not, corresponds rather nicely to the opening of Mesopotamian creation narratives, like Enuma Elish (When above) and Enuma Anu Enlil (When Anu (and) Enlil [created the stars and planets]). This understanding is used, in one or another variation, in a number of recent Jewish translations. (When in doubt, a conjunction of Rashi's authority and Assyriological precedents is a good defense against attacks from almost any direction! )

The New Jewish Publication Society version (originally 1960) has "When God began to create." Everett Fox (1983, 1995) has "At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth." The New Revised Standard Version (1989) offers "In the beginning, when God created," with "When God began to create" and "In the beginning God created" as alternatives in fine print.

The Targum (Jewish Aramaic translation) actually seems to have dodged the grammatical issue entirely, offering bkdm (sorry, I don't remember the vocalization), "in the past." (Or, I think, by etymology, "in the east," but any geographical reference is excluded by context!) This could be translated, rather roughly, "A long time ago, God created...."

Here's the Targum of Genesis 1:1 - b'reshit is translated b'qadmin (בְּקַדְמִין). I might add Ian is referring to Targum Onqelos (תרגום אונקלוס) - the word 'targum' means simply 'translation'. Targum Onqelos is an ancient translation of the Bible into Aramaic, circa 1-300 CE. At one time it was read in the synagogue alongside the original Hebrew. In most communities the practice died out when the Hebrew became more readily understandable than the Aramaic, but Yemenite Jews preserve this tradition: the ba`al qore' (בעל קורא) - 'master of the reading' - reads a line from the Tora (תורה) - the first five books of the Bible, then a child reads the translation in the Targum.

Another thing: I've been doing a fair amount of translation since I started this blog, and I want to point out that this is not a typical translation problem. In this case, it really is unclear how the text should be read. More typically, it is perfectly clear how a text should be read, but it is impossible to translate it precisely, concisely, and fluently, into the target language. As a result, you are forced to choose between the possibilities. On this blog, I have also given myself another goal: to translate in a way that will help readers understand the original Hebrew - I therefore also want to maintain as much as possible the original structure of the text, so readers can figure out which word goes with which (are there any readers who do that?). Also, I don't want to spend more than a few seconds on each line. Put these goals together and you get compromises everywhere - not to mention mistakes (I almost always find mistakes in my transcriptions when I go back and read them, since I don't have a spell checker to help me out). I apologize for my sloppy translations and transcriptions!

So, what is going on here? Clearly there is something strange about the text: Either you accept b'reshit as 'In the beginning' without a following noun, or accept bara' as a noun, neither of which have any corroborating evidence. A big part of the problem is the limitation of the historical record: the fact that we have no evidence of a certain usage does not mean that it didn't occur, only that it wasn't recorded. So it is certainly possible that one of these exceptional usages did occur. If I had to bet, I would go with Rashi - not just because of his credentials, but because it conforms better to my instincts. I suspect that part of the problem is that the opening of the Bible was as famous in ancient times as it is now, and therefore preserves either archaic features, or features of a different dialect, that are not preserved in most of the Bible. There are clear instances of this occurring in other places, for example in the cohanic blessing.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:15 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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Trackback from Soccer Dad, Havei Havalim Edition #9:
Jewish Super Heroes Fred Lapides, a former co-poster at Israpundit now has his own site Israelpundit where he introduces us to some new Jewish Superheroes. Though the characters he created were not necessarily Jewish, Stan Lee definitely is. He talked...

February 04, 2005

In The Beginning

John Ray comments on the opening line of the Bible - how should it be translated? I thought I would contribute one thing that Rashi has to say about it (for more go here). Rashi is the foremost and most normative of Jewish biblical scholars, he lived in the 11th century.

ולא בא המקרא להורות סדר הבריאה
לומר שאלו קדמו
שאם בא להורות כך היה לו לכתוב
בראשונה ברא את השמים
שאין לך ראשית במקרא שאינו דבוק לתיבה שלאחריו
כמו בראשית ממלכת יהויקים
ראשית ממלכתו
ראשית דגנך
אף כאן אתה אומר בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים
כמו בראשית ברוא
 ודומה לו תחלת דבר ה' בהושע
כלומר תחלת דבורו של הקב"ה בהושע
ויאמר ה' אל הושע

V'lo' ba' hamiqra' l'horot seder habri'a
Lomar she'elu qadmu
She'im ba' l'horot kakh haya lo likhtov
Barishona bara' et hashamayim
She'eyn l'kha reshit b'miqra' she'eyno davuq l'teyva shel'akharav
K'mo b'reshit mamlekhet y'hoyaqim
Reshit mamlakhto
Reshit d'ganekha
Af kan ata omer b'reshit bara' elohim et hashamayim
K'mo b'reshit b'ro'
V'dome lo t'hilat d'var H' b'hoshea`
K'lomar t'hilat diburo shel haqadosh barukh hu b'hoshea`
Vayomer H' el hoshea`

And the Bible doesn't mean to show the order of creation
To say that these preceded [those]
For if it meant to show this it would have been written thus:
In the beginning (barishona) He created the heavens
For you don't have 'reshit' (beginning-) in the Bible that is not attached to the word after it
As in: At the beginning (b'reshit) of the kingdom of Hosea
The beginning (reshit) of his kingdom
The beginning (reshit) of your grain
Thus here you say: At the beginning of God's creation of the heavens
As in: At the beginning of the creation (b'ro')
And similar to it: The beginning of God's speaking to Hosea
That is to say: The beginning of the speaking of the Holy one Blessed be He to Hosea
The Lord said to Hosea

Rashi, B'reshit 1:1

The first word of the Bible is: b'reshit. The: b' is usually translated into English as 'in', 'at', or 'with', depending on the context. Reshit is in a form that can only appear as the first part of a compound word, meaning: "beginning of". Therefore, Rashi wants to translate the first verse of the Bible as: At the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth. The only problem with this is the second word of the verse: bara'. As far as I know, this word is never used as a noun, only as a verb: (he) created. Rashi says that we should understand bara' as if it were written: b'ro' - which would be the expected form of the word.

Note also that Rashi says explicitly that these words are not meant to show the order of creation. Follow the link above for more evidence, and more of his reasoning on the matter. (Unfortunately, I can't find an online source for the original Hebrew.)

UPDATE: Amritas links. I probably should have mentioned that Rashi is not only the foremost and most normative Jewish biblical scholar, he is also the foremost and most normative Talmudic scholar. These two are very closely related: to be a Jewish biblical scholar, you have to take into account Jewish tradition and the precedents set by previous Rabbis - all of which is recorded in the Talmud. And of course, the Talmud is a commentary on the Bible. Related posts: here, here, and here.

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The Pianist

Some time ago my wife bought the video of The Pianist. It's been sitting on the shelf since then, and somehow we were never able to make time to see it. We just saw it tonight.

I don't see many movies these days, and when I do I'm not in the mood for a Holocaust movie - I've never seen Schindler's List, for example. But I'm glad I saw this one. I'm not sure how I feel about it, though. It's definitely a good movie on its own terms, but a Holocaust movie is never judged simply on its own terms, but on how well it illuminates its subject matter.

The Pianist is the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist. He survives the war by avoiding the death camps - the story of many survivors. Unfortunately, if you come expecting a broader point of view, you won't get it in this movie unless you are already very familiar with the subject matter, and can see it operating in the background. On top of this, Szpilman is a very passive character throughout most of the movie. He spends a lot of time hiding, which is not unrealistic for those who managed to survive. (At one point he is hiding in a small apartment with a piano, which he cannot play for fear of being found. There's a very beautiful scene based on his predicament.)

Roman Polansky describes why he made the film:

This book describes the events I remember from my childhood. For many years I've been planning to make a film about this period, but I couldn't find the right material. Szpilman's book isn't just another chapter in the book of martyrdom we all know. In his memoirs, he describes these events from the point of view of a man who experienced them. The book was written shortly after the war and maybe this is why it is so fresh, unlike the accounts written later, 20-30 years after the war. Reading the first few chapters, I knew it was going to be my next film.

You know, many times I read things that I could more or less make a movie on that subject, but they were usually too close to my own personal experiences of the war. I didn't want that. Here, however, we are dealing with the Warsaw Ghetto - I was in the Krakow Ghetto. I could use my own experiences in the script without making it an autobiography. It was easy for me to work on this script because I remember that period all too well.

Adrien Brody describes playing Szpilman:

When I found I had gotten the role I had already discussed with Roman that I would need to lose a lot of weight...

When I arrived in Europe, I went on a diet where I lost 30 pounds in six weeks. I'm 6 foot 1 and I was 130 pounds. That was very difficult, but what it did was that it provided me into an insight of deprivation I had never experienced. The cravings end up going beyond hunger and open your thought processes into being more receptive to loss and emptiness. One thing we take for granted is sugar, caffeine and carbohydrates. All these things give us something to get through our boredom, our tiredness. When you omit them for a long period of time, there is a metamorphosis that takes place and you feel very different.

It forced me to conserve all energy unless I was doing something productive. It kills your motivation for other things. You have to be strong enough to make it through a long workday. Since we shot the film in reverse order, the first day I showed up on set I had to be the most destroyed. When I am climbing over the wall and seeing Warsaw's devastation, which they recreated, my reaction is real. I told Roman that I don't have any energy. He said "What do you need energy for? Just do it." I had to just climb over the wall and I could hardly do it. Essentially, I'm not acting and perhaps that's what Roman wanted.

The one thing the film is missing is a depiction of the destruction Szpilman returned to after the war. There are plenty of destroyed buildings in the movie, but no depiction of the human destruction, and specifically the destruction of the Jews. Warsaw was one third Jewish at the start of the war. At the end of the war there were twenty Jews left in the city - one of them was Szpilman. There were three million Jews in Poland before the war, after the war only about 100,000 remained. Szpilman lost his entire family in the war. Yet, the movie depicts him returning victorious to his musical career. Yes, we see his sadness, but not a sense of emptiness at what remained.

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February 01, 2005

Speaking of marks of Cain

Mark Steyn (via Hatshepsut):

According to a poll by the University of Bielefeld, 62 per cent of Germans are "sick of all the harping on about German crimes against the Jews" - which is an unusually robust formulation for a multiple-choice questionnaire, but at least has the advantage of leaving us in no confusion as to how things stand in this week of pan European Holocaust "harping on". The old joke - that the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz - gets truer every week.

I have some sympathy for that 62 per cent. Killing six million people is a moral stain on one's nation that surely ought to endure more than a couple of generations. But, on the other hand, almost everything else about the Germany of 60 years ago is gone - its great power status, its military machine, its aggressive nationalism, its need for lebens-raum. The past is another country, but rarely as foreign as the Third Reich. Why should Holocaust guilt be the only enforced link with an otherwise discarded heritage?

"Enforced" is the operative word. If most Germans don't feel guilty about the Holocaust, there's no point pretending they do. And that's the problem with all this week's Shoah business: it's largely a charade. The European establishment that has scheduled such lavish anniversary observances for this Thursday presides over a citizenry that, even if one discounts the synagogue-arsonists and cemetery-desecrators multiplying across the Continent, is either antipathetic to Jews, or "sick of all the harping on", or regards solemn Holocaust remembrance as a useful card to have in the hand of the slyer, suppler forms of anti-Semitism to which Europe is now prone.

From time to time, the late Diana Mosley used to tell me how "clever" she thought the Jews were. If you pressed her to expand on the remark, it usually meant how clever they were in always keeping "the thing" - the Holocaust, as she could never quite bring herself to say - in the public eye, unlike the millions killed in the name of Communism. This is a fair point, though not one most people are willing to entertain from a pal of Hitler. But "the thing" seems most useful these days to non-Jews as a means of demonstrating that the Israelis are new Nazis and the Palestinians their Jews. Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, has told the Home Secretary that his crowd will be boycotting Thursday's commemorations because it is racist and excludes any commemoration of the "holocaust" and "ongoing genocide" in Palestine.

Ah, well. He's just some canny Muslim opportunist, can't blame the chap for trying it on. But look at how my colleagues at The Spectator chose to mark the anniversary. They ran a reminiscence by Anthony Lipmann, the Anglican son of an Auschwitz survivor, which contained the following sentence: "When on 27 January I take my mother's arm - tattoo number A-25466 - I will think not just of the crematoria and the cattle trucks but of Darfur, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Jenin, Fallujah."

Jenin? Would that be the notorious 2002 "Jenin massacre"? There was no such thing, as I pointed out in this space at the time, when Robert Fisk and the rest of Fleet Street's gullible sob-sisters were going around weepin' an' a-wailin' about Palestinian mass graves and Israeli war crimes. Twenty-three Israelis were killed in fighting at the Jenin camp. Fifty-two Palestinians died, according to the Israelis. According to Arafat's official investigators, it was 56 Palestinians. Even if one accepts the higher figure, that means every single deceased Palestinian could have his own mass grave and there'd still be room to inter the collected works of Robert Fisk. Yet, despite the fact that the Jenin massacre is an obvious hallucination of Fleet Street's Palestine groupies, its rise to historical fact is unstoppable. To Lipmann, those 52-56 dead Palestinians weigh in the scales of history as heavy as six million Jews. And what's Fallujah doing bringing up the rear in his catalogue of horrors? In rounding up a few hundred head-hackers, the Yanks perpetrated another Auschwitz?

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My brother's keeper

This expresses what I thought every time I saw those blue fingers. It reminds me a little of the story of Qayin (קין) and Hevel (הבל) - Cain and Abel.

וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל הֶבֶל אָחִיו
וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה
וַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶל הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל קַיִן
אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ
וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי
 הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי

Vayomer qayin el hevel ahiv
Vayhi bihyotam basade
Vayaqam qayin el hevel ahiv vayahargehu
Vayomer H' el qayin
Ey hevel ahikha
Vayomer lo' yada`ti
Hashomer ahi anokhi

And Cain spoke to Abel his brother
When they were in the field
And Cain rose up against his brother and killed him
And the Lord said to Cain,
"Where is Abel your brother?"
And he said, "I don't know,
Am I my brother's keeper?"

Genesis 4:8-9

We are all our brothers' keepers. When the Iraqis went out and voted, they were keeping their country.

When Cain is punished, he complains:

הֵן גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹתִי הַיּוֹם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
וּמִפָּנֶיךָ אֶסָּתֵר
וְהָיִיתִי נָע וָנָד בָּאָרֶץ
וְהָיָה כָל מֹצְאִי יַהַרְגֵנִי
וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ ה'
לָכֵן כָּל הֹרֵג קַיִן שִׁבְעָתַיִם יֻקָּם
וַיָּשֶׂם ה' לְקַיִן אוֹת
לְבִלְתִּי הַכּוֹת אֹתוֹ כָּל מֹצְאוֹ

Hen gerashta oti hayom me`al p'ney ha'adama
Umipaneykha esater
V'hayiti na` vanad ba'ares
V'haya kol mos'i yahargeni
Vayomer lo H'
Lakhen kol horeg qayin shiv`atayim yuqam
Vayasem l'qayin ot
L'vilti hakot oto kol mos'o

Thus you have expelled me today from the face of the earth
And from your face I will be hidden
And I will be a roamer and a wanderer of the earth
And anyone who finds me will kill me
And the Lord said to him,
"Therefore anyone who kills Cain will be punished sevenfold"
And the Lord put on Cain a mark
So that nobody who finds him will hurt him

Genesis 4:14-15

The mark of Cain is usually thought of something bad, but actually it was given to him in order to protect him. Like those blue fingers...

ADDENDUM: The ha- in hashomer ahi anokhi (am I my brother's keeper) is not the ha- which means 'the'. This ha- has a different vowel, and it introduces a question. It is a short form of the word ha'im (האם).

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:55 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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