Thursday, August 18, 2016

Contentment vs fact

For lunch on Sunday, I made "Israeli Salad" (and the accompanying cocktail) from Zahav.  This was a deliberate choice on a number of levels: 1) it's summer, and tomatoes and cucumbers are in season, and delicious and 2) Saturday was mostly spent running around and all I could really manage to eat was potato chips, rice snacks, and a bowl of cereal, so I was feeling kind of carb-heavy.

Now, #2 is entirely silly.  Eating vegetables for lunch was kind of an act of "cleansing" which doesn't work.  The idea that some foods rid your body of other foods is entirely unscientific, except for the possible exception of insoluble fiber.  I know this is a nonsense idea.  But psychologically, it feels satisfying to eat vegetables to make up for eating lots of carbs.

And I am wondering if this psychological sense of contentment, of something that feels satisfying in the face of facts, is partly what is going on in this election season.  I mean, when majorities of Trump's supporters don't even believe half of what he is saying, facts are obviously not what is carrying the day.  It feels good (for them) to hear someone saying what he is saying.  It feels scary to know that black people, brown people, non-English-speaking people, and women are gaining power in society, power that had previously been reserved for white, English-native men.  Even if they have never actually seen these effects, they know they're out there.  It's not the actual disenfranchisement as much as the fear of it.

I'm not really sure what can be done about it, though.  In pastoral care and counseling classes, we are taught that feelings are neither right nor wrong, and that one of the first steps to dialogue is validating the other person's feelings, regardless of whether the other party thinks they are "valid" or "fair."  But when those feelings and emotions lead to real harm, to hatred and violence, validating them may not be the way to begin.  Where do you go when you've validated vitriolic hatred?  Not even that the hatred is valid, but that the person feeling it has good reason to.  That is what people are doing when they point to the hollowing of the middle class, wage stagnation, and the disappearance of jobs that don't demand a college education.  But for all the analysis of the validation, no solution is offered to get the people who are hating to stop hating.  Value systems aren't easily changed after generations.

And even educated, informed people can act contrary to fact and their own knowledge.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Swinging hips and feminism.

Taking a break from academic and theological reflections to engage in something I haven't done in a long time: film theory.  With Freud!

I spent last weekend with my sister, so she decided we must watch Frozen together.

I hadn't seen it since it was out in theatres, but of course I've read about it since then.  And there seems to be an undercurrent of frustrated feminism with the animation accompanying Elsa's "Let It Go" ballad.  A lot of that frustration hangs on Elsa's "makeover" in which her skin is suddenly revealed and she swings her hips when she changes her hair and dress.

I can understand that.  There's too much sexualisation of women's bodies out there, and it's depressing to see yet another woman get the "sexy treatment."  And yes, a lot of what is put forward as "expressing a woman's sexuality" is, in fact, expressing sexiness, that is, catering to male sexuality by becoming an object of desire, leaving the subjective gaze male.

But I think, ironically with the help of Sigmund Freud, that Elsa's makeover might not be as bad as it seems. 

"Let It Go" is undeniably a claim to power.  Elsa, catastrophically facing the fact that suppression is not control, gives in and really learns to control her ice powers for the first time by freeing and expressing them.  She is overjoyed to finally claim and use her power.  And let's not forget that this comes on her coronation day; she is not only claiming magical power, but also political power.  She is the Snow Queen.

In Freudian theory, female power is always sexual (ok, in Freudian theory, everything is sexual).  The womb, and even more so, the vagina, are tied to death, or the fear of death for men.  Male power is penetration.  When Elsa makes herself over, she is claiming her political power, her magical power, and her sexual power.  And here is the thing: she is claiming them for herself.  She has left everyone behind and wants to remain alone.  She is not remaking herself for a man.  Slightly later, one of her icicles very nearly penetrates a man who has come to kill her.  Elsa's new hair and dress are for her, and for her alone.  She even remains uncoupled at the end of the story.  I think it's also worth noting that she's striding forward aggressively when the makeover happens, not sitting back on a couch and winking in a come-hither manner.  And the men in the story are terrified of her.

Traditionally, the destabilizing, powerful, single female character is domesticated at the end of a story by marriage (or by death if it's a tragedy).  Having threatened the destruction of family and/or nation, she is reabsorbed into its structure and penetrated by her new husband (e.g. Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, or Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings). 

Yes, Frozen is a film.  Yes, Elsa remains on screen, a spectacle for the male gaze.  But in the context of the film itself, she is the opposite of the faux-feminist sexiness; she has claimed power for herself, she remains unpenetrated and uncoupled.  She does not need a man to make her happy or to perform for.  Instead of marriage, her instability is domesticated in the story by having her take up her proper position as queen, guided by a ruler's love for her people and country (this being traditional story conventions, Classical and Medieval "divine right of kings" stuff here,  not my personal opinion).

There's a debate over whether it's really appropriate to use Freudian theory to analyze texts, and I agree that sometimes it's used inappropriately.  But Elsa's song and makeover are just so perfectly explained by it and ironically rescued as indeed feminist by it that I just couldn't help myself.  Suppression, female power, female sexuality, male fear of death, penetration, it's all there. 

Now.  You can certainly debate the appropriateness of having an adult character with adult sexuality set as a role model for pre-pubescent girls.  But I think the message of Elsa's makeover isn't quite as anti-feminist or domesticating as it might seem.  In claiming her power, Elsa removes herself from male power and defies the male gaze.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

You don't have to believe.

One of the things that has bugged me for a long time and has been a driving force personally in my very vague career direction is people tacking things on to Christianity and forcing people to accept a whole bunch of stuff that is not, in fact, universal to Christianity. 

As far as I'm concerned, the Nicene Creed pretty much sums it up.* 

There are a whole bunch of things that people of all stripes add on that drive people away from Jesus.  So I'm going to list some of the things here that piss me off.

You do not have to believe:

1.  The earth is 6,000, or 10,000 or whatever years old.

2.  Evolution doesn't happen.

3.  God meticulously controls everything.

4.  God created evil.  Also under this heading: God planned the Holocaust, God plans for children to die, God plans serial killers, God endorses war.

5.  God likes or endorses patriarchy.

6.  Only certain special people control access to God.

7.  The Bible is an instruction book.

8.  God is obsessed with what you do with your genitals.

9.  The best Christian is an unthinking, blindly believing Christian.

10.  One slip-up in activity dooms you for life and/or eternity.

11.  Christianity is just a series of guidelines invented over the years to help people live better.

All of these things are things you can believe if you want.  I would argues that all of them are wrong, actually, but I don't condemn anyone for believing them.  But absolutely none of them are essential to being a Christian.

*Normally, I would have linked here to Wikipedia or whatever, but I'm actually working on my own translation of the Nicene Creed.  I'll probably unveil it some day.  In the meantime, GIYF.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Including tradition.

So many things I could have blogged about this week. 

But I'm going to take on something that I should have written last week that is still bugging me.

I haven't been to church in over a year.  Part of that is that I've been very, very hurt by a church in the past, part of that is that I've moved 3 times and I'm not in a place with weak public transportation, and part of it is that I don't really know how to go to church anymore if I'm not staff.  And yet one more factor is that I am, as my blog says, quite eclectic in my theology, and it's hard to find a place where I'm comfortable. 

One of those eclecticisms is that I'm both traditionalist and progressive.  I love a lot of the classic hymns of Christianity, but I don't love a lot of the masculine language they contain.  Last week, I woke up from a dream with the hymn "Be Thou My Vision" stuck in my head.  This is a lovely hymn with 2 quite problematic lines.  The first appears in the second verse:

Thou my true Father and I thy true son
And the second is the first line of the third verse:

Riches I heed not nor man's empty praise
 The last church I attended was a moderately conservative Episcopal church, and I remembered that in the hymnal, that second line had been changed to
Riches I heed not nor vain, empty praise
which I think is nice, and works.  But I couldn't remember what the other line had been.

And that line has bothered me for a long time.  I know "man" has been used for "human" for a long time, and while I don't like it, I can kind of at least slide myself into it when I sing a traditional hymn.  But I can't be a son.  "Sons" maybe I can sort of include myself in because I know it's a clumsy translation in the Bible from בני b'nei or παιδός paidos (both of which, yes, can mean "sons" but they also stand in those languages generally for "children" especially in Hebrew which doesn't have another word for "children").  But "I thy true son" just doesn't work in my head.  And it was driven home strongly several years ago when the hymn was sung as a solo by one of the women on our music team.  She had a gorgeous voice, mezzo-soprano-ish, and that line just sounded utterly ludicrous when she sang it.  And it's funny because that community usually changed the pointless masculine language to inclusive language when it could.

I think the problem is the next line.  You see, the usual arrangement of this hymn is in rhyming couplets.  So it goes:

Thou my true Father and I thy true son
Thou with me dwelling and I with thee one
This also makes sense in the context of the original hymn, which was composed and sung by Irish monks.  They were all male, and they had dedicated their lives to a kind of life that centers around God and worship.  But as much as I might long for unity with God, I'm not a monk and I cannot really be a "true son."  I'm not so great with rhyme and rhythm language, and I couldn't think of a way to alter those two lines to keep the meter and rhyme.  "Child" really doesn't work - what in the world could it rhyme with?

So, as we do, I turned to the internet.  Googling "be thou my vision inclusive" doesn't, helpfully, bring up an inclusive version of the hymn, but instead a lot of people bitching about changing hymn lyrics.  Which, just, ugh. 

I don't mind traditional masculine language for God, as long as it's properly balanced by acknowledging that there is plenty of traditional feminine language for God and I do prefer if people avoid pronouns generally.  And I don't mind the "king" language, because that is rather part of God's character and what makes God God.  If God isn't ruler, no one is, and we are God's creation, so God has authority over us and the rest of creation.  I'm as pacifist as anyone, and I'm all for the church avoiding taking power and authority, but I don't mind if God has it.

But there are people out there who bitch about any change to any masculine language.  Including that referring to people.  Sometimes they claim it's about translation and respecting the original grammar, but somehow they're ok with never referring to the Spirit of God as feminine the way it is in Hebrew grammar.  So basically that argument is intellectually bankrupt.  Appeals to "original language" are just appeals to keep women from being fully included, and are no better than the Victorians leaving obscene bits untranslated "in the modesty of the original language" (which was, of course, perfectly understood by women in ancient Greece or Rome). 

One of the things that drove me away from the fringes of evangelicalism where I was and to the Episcopal Church was that I am just sick of fighting about gender.  I'm a woman (more or less), God called me to teach.  I'm not going to fight about it.  I'm just tired.  Other women are called to, and I'm glad for them.  But I'd rather be part of a community that lets me get on with doing what I'm called to do and not interested in deciding if it's ok first or not.  It reminds me of one of my professors at JTS.  He is orthodox, and JTS is conservative (which is to say, less observant and slightly more liberal).  I once asked him why he was at JTS and not YU and he said at YU, he would say something, and the class had to spend 20 minutes discussing whether what he said was heretical or not.  At JTS, they just engage in what he actually said.  I'm not interested in people debating whether I can talk or not.

It took me a while of slogging and fine-tuning the Google search, but I finally found a lovely inclusive re-phrasing:
Thou my true Father, thine own may I beThou with me dwelling and I one with thee
 Keeps the same theme and sentiment, just re-works the word order for a nice couplet.  So now I can sing this hymn again.  Thank God for community.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Rhetoric has consequences.

I hope I don't need to provide links.  There have been so many violent events recently that it would be depressing to go trawling through websites looking for examples of all of them.  Other people have done the reporting, and some have even attempted to look at the context.

What is, and I hate to use the word, but, interesting is that it seems to be a transnational western/northwestern global thing right now.  The rise of nativism and populism in the United States is trailing a similar rise in western Europe.  While the U.S. has a somewhat unique racial context and history to some that rhetoric, western Europe is itself grappling with the legacy of colonialism which radically and violently othered those with darker skin, and the philosophical underpinnings of those histories is quite explicitly shared.

At the same time, a new rhetorical power (from those of darker skin) is also rising right now and explicitly designed to cause its own violence. 

As long as those in power somehow believe that their history and wealth and light skin absolve them of the actual, real, violent effects of their rhetoric, as long as they lie to themselves and say, "they're not like us, we are rational and would never commit those acts," they will continue to cause them.  A friend of mine was lamenting to me today about the predictability of that violence.  This rhetorical and ideological world that is being created inevitably, logically leads to violence.

Yes, yes, everyone has to make an individual decision to be violent eventually.  Shut up.  The nativist,  populist, othering, even apocalyptic rhetoric that is coming from all corners is, in fact, creating an environment where making that decision to be violent seems logical, reasonable, and even praiseworthy.

As long as dehumanizing rhetoric is being used, humans will continue treating other humans as things, not human beings. 

As Jews and Christians (I don't actually know about Islam), we affirm that all human beings are created in the very image of God, that there is something divine and therefore worthy of respect and love in every single human being.  Colour of skin or religion or wealth are not enough to deprive anyone of that divine image.  The destruction of it in other human beings is an act of violence not only against them, but against the image of God in the one committing the violence as well.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

quick update.

lack of caps,  in the old style.

i'm moving tomorrow, so my life is in shambles right now.  i keep looking for things and thinking, "oh, i packed that already."

however, i've been trying to leave a comment on my own blog and said blog is eating it o.O

so thanks to Jonathan in the post below for the update on aramaic at cal.  i am specifically interested in the post-biblical stuff, so not sure where the epigraphic content falls.  i could hope for DSS and Bak Kochba, but who knows.

probably the only person capable of instructing palestinian jewish aramaic is my old midrash professor at JTS.  traditionally, you are simply handed the rabbinic texts and told, "good luck, kid."  Professor Visotzky kept complaining about "the gremlins of Bar Ilan" who "corrected" palestinian jewish aramaic to bablyonian jewish aramaic. maybe i'll just have to take a semester and go back to NYC!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A bit much.

This is getting a bit ridiculous.

Because of a misspent youth, I ended up having to learn a whole bunch of languages.  French, because you needed a language in high school.  Latin and Greek because I was a Classics major.  Italian because, uh, actually, just because.  I got to live in Florence for a month which was a lot of fun.  Biblical/classical Hebrew, because in seminary I already had Greek, so why not?  Syriac because... uh, well, because by that time I was kind of collecting languages, and it was really interesting to not only learn a new language but also a new Christian tradition.  Modern Hebrew because JTS requires all their students to learn it because Jewish (and most Israelis I've ever spoken to insist that Modern Hebrew and Classical Hebrew should really be categorized as different languages.  Just like I wouldn't say I can speak Modern Greek).

So I'm up to ... 8 languages.  4 modern (yes, English counts even if it is my native language), and 4 ancient.  And that's still not enough to satisfy PhD requirements.

I'm taking German this summer.  And my department wants me to take either Aramaic or another ancient language.  If I could learn Palestinian Jewish Aramaic instead biblical Aramaic, I'd rather that.  Palestinian Jewish Aramaic is the language of the later Amoraic rabbis, after the Mishnah, and after the Roman empire went Christian.  It's the language the later Midrashim are written in, as well as the Yerushalmi Talmud, not the Babylonian Talmud, which is the famous one.  I'm trying to keep my research focus on the eastern Roman empire, and I'm interested in Jewish belief and practise before the hegemony of the rabbis and the Babylonian Talmud.

And I'm kind of thinking of learning Arabic because it seems like it might be useful, and also because of world events, etc.

So that would make it... 11?

Uh, yeah.  This is getting a bit much.  But it is also interesting and fun.  The more languages I learn, the more literature opens up to me, and also more people and cultures to learn about and understand.  And I feel like in our current socio-political environment, understanding other people and cultures and being able to speak their language is a good and important thing.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Finished, sort of.

Well, that's over.

Thesis written and approved.

Last class paper written, submitted, and graded.

Final exam taken.

I'm done with another Master's degree.

I never really wanted this degree, and parts of it have been a huge pain in the ass and disappointment, but despite having to take a bunch of courses I never wanted to, I can't really say it's been a waste of time.  I did learn a lot that I wouldn't have otherwise, and I made some very good contacts who probably helped me finally get that PhD admission.

On the other hand, a number of the courses I took were really fascinating and I learned quite a lot that I wanted to and acquired new academic tools.  I now have a credible background for handling rabbinic texts, which will only be beneficial moving forward.

What has been most fascinating to me, and what I think has actually been the most helpful, has been learning to navigate the subculture of Jewish academics.  (Gentile) Christians read some of them, but there are whole subtexts that I think are being missed, because the Jewish scholars are fundamentally asking different questions and coming at the texts from a slightly different way.  Whereas (Gentile) Christian scholars either come from a faithful Christian perspective or pretend to be interested in dispassionate history, Jewish scholars almost always have the question, "What does it mean to be Jewish?" hovering in the background of their writing.  In many ways (except maybe for the colour of skin), Jewish scholarship really does fit better with minority/minoritized scholarship instead of "mainstream"/"unhyphenated" scholarship.  I am certainly asking this Jewish question, and I am unapologetic about it.  All scholarship is biased; it's better to acknowledged our biases up front than either hide them and pretend they're not there, or to completely ignore them and be un-self-conscious about them..

So.  On to the next degree!  I've worked really hard to get here.  I'm finally a PhD student.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

6 million is a lot of people.

On Yom HaShoah, I am once again pondering the effects of the Holocaust on twentieth and twenty-first century scholarly imagination.  I already posted about the "crisis in theology" that resulted among Christian scholars, but today I have a different thought.

We forget how many Jews there used to be.

6 million is a lot of people.  It's a number that gets thrown around, but I think it really is kind of incomprehensible to think of how many people that really is.  And then there are, to my surprise, almost 200,000 survivors living in Israel alone today, not to mention how many there have been over the last few decades.  These are even more people that were removed from the European population.

I once preached a sermon, I forget which one it was now, and a visitor (who therefore didn't know I was Jewish) came up to me afterwards and said to me, "I always resisted calling us 'Judeo-Christian' because I didn't think there was anything really Jewish about who we are and I didn't want to be associated with Jews.  But you've kind of changed my mind."  I was... a little flabbergasted, to be honest, and responded with a smile and something polite about the accuracy of history and how many Jews there were in the Roman Empire.  He laughed and said, "Yeah, all point-three percent of them!" and went on his way.

But he was wrong.  Jews weren't 0.3 percent of the Roman Empire.  By some estimates, 10% of the population of Rome in the first century BCE were Jews (I think.  I know I've read that somewhere but I can't find a source at the moment...).  Jews were a significant portion of the population in Alexandria, and all over the eastern Mediterranean.

We, today, are so used to the decimated Jewish population in Europe that we really don't have a sense for how big and apparently influential the Jewish population was in the ancient world.  I say influential, because there had to be a reason Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Herodotus, and Suetonius, at a minimum, mentioned and wrote about Jews.  Claudius' expulsion of the Jews from Rome was a momentous enough event that Suetonius included it in his biography a hundred years later.  The Jewish population was not always the small minority it is now, but was a much more significant minority which had political standing and enough weight that special legislation was written for it.

This has led to some interesting scholarly reactions.  The one I'm thinking of right now is recorded in Cynthia Baker's chapter "'From Every Nation under Heaven' Jewish Ethnicities in the Greco-Roman World" in Prejudice and Christian Beginnings (eds. Laura Nasrallah and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza) where she points out that all the people "from every nation" in Acts 2 were probably all Jews.  Christian scholars have such a hard time wrapping their minds around the phenomenon of a) lots and lots of Jews from all over the ancient world, inside and outside the Roman Empire and b) Jews who speak other languages.

This is, in an odd way, both the triumph and tragedy of the success of Zionism and its projects of both the modern state of Israel and Modern Hebrew.  It has become so ingrained in the contemporary imagination that Jews are focused on Israel and have some knowledge of Hebrew.  The Holocaust and the subsequent establishment of the state of Israel so drastically changed the face of Europe's Jewish population that people today have problems conceiving of any other way of things being arranged. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Language and preconceptions.

I finished my thesis last Thursday!  And it was approved by my advisor! So I'm that much closer to my second master's degree.

For today, something that isn't my thesis.

Yesterday after Ulpan Hebrew, one of my classmates asked me if the Ten Commandments were given in Aramaic.  And I shrugged my shoulders and said, well, they're written in Hebrew, and that's the only form we have them in.

But more important, I think, is the question or assumptions behind her question.  She's a scholar, I think she has a PhD, and she's leaving Sunday to travel around Europe giving talks on Ladino, the Hebrew/Spanish/Latinate creole of Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (similar to the Hebrew/Germanic/Slavic Yiddish of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe).  So her specialty is Medieval, not ancient Jews.

There's this long assumption, and because of its history, it's the one in popular culture/non-specialist academics, that Hebrew was mostly a written language and Aramaic was the spoken one.

There are two problems with this assumption.  One, Aramaic and Hebrew are different languages.  And it's not like Latin to French, it's more like Spanish to French.  Both are Western Semitic languages which developed in parallel, not one from the other.

The second is that Hebrew must have functioned like Latin in the late Medieval church, because even though the Mishnah and the early Midrashim are written in Hebrew, it's a different Hebrew from the Bible, so it must be a corrupted version, like Medieval Latin was to Classical Latin, and the rabbis were obviously speaking Aramaic.  This assumption, I shouldn't have to point out, comes from Christian scholars in the 19th century.  I usually do have to point out, however, that these Christian scholars were by and large either straight-up anti-Semitic, or more casually anti-Jewish.  Underlying either stance is the unquestioned assumption that Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple was a dead religion, dry and legalistic, with no spirituality, non-life-giving, and abandoned by its God.  It's also worth pointing out that many Jews from the 19th and early 20th centuries who trained in European, and therefore Gentile, Christian universities adopted and perpetuated some of these assumptions because they were the accepted scholarly opinions of the day.

In 1947, the caves at Qumran were discovered, and eventually the thousands of manuscript fragments there gave quite a different picture.  Most of them are written in Hebrew, and it is a Hebrew that is obviously a spoken, living language, one that is used for letters, scriptural commentary, poem and prayer composition, and speculative theology.  Also discovered in wadis in the Dead Sea area were the Bar Kokhba letters and the Babatha Archive.  While the Babatha Archive is mostly in Greek, the Bar Kokhba letters are in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, and these are not religious but political documents.  Together with the scrolls from the Qumran sect, these documents show the Hebrew was, in fact, a living, spoken language, well into the second century CE, and that Mishnaic Hebrew, far from being a corrupted memory of a dead "liturgical" language, was instead probably the language the rabbis were actually speaking when they composed their texts.

It is true that eventually, later in the third and fourth centuries, Aramaic did apparently become the main language, as the later Midrashim and the Yerushalmi (Palestinian/Jerusalem Talmud) are written in Palestinian Aramaic, not Hebrew.  But there doesn't appear to be any historical evidence backing up the old assumption that by the Second Temple period, Hebrew had already faded into a barely remembered "liturgical" language.