Tuesday, December 30, 2003

In Jim Davila’s blog on December 29 he quoted several sermons given by Muslim preachers employed by the Palestinian Authority over the last couple of years that denied that Solomon’s Temple had ever stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (quoted from a report by Memri). In one of the sermons, on September 21, 2001, Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi spoke in the Sheikh 'Ijlin Mosque in Gaza about what he considered ridiculous Jewish beliefs:

Oh beloved of Allah, who are the Jews? Regarding their belief about Allah: The Jews have said that the hand of Allah is fettered in chains; [but] it is their hand that is fettered in chains, and they are cursed for their words. According to the Jews' belief, as it is written in some of their holy books, such as the Talmud, Allah divides his time into three parts. One third of the time he weeps. Why? Because his [chosen] people are dispersed in all directions. Another third he spends playing with the whales, and the final third he spends doing nothing in particular. This is their perverted belief about Allah.


Jim found incredible the idea that these beliefs were to be found in the Talmud. In fact, however, both ideas are found in rabbinic and later Jewish literature, and were, in fact, attacked both by Karaites and by Muslims in the early middle ages as part of religious polemics between Rabbanites and Karaites and between Jews and Muslims.

What I find rather incredible is that these polemical themes have been resurrected from early medieval times and are still being used to attack Jews and Judaism. The claim that Jews believe that God’s hands are fettered is found in the Qu’ran, Sura 5:64: “The Jews say, ‘Bound are the hands of God.’ Tied be their own hands and damned may they be for saying what they say! In fact, both His hands are open wide: He spends of His bounty in any way He please.” The Qur’anic passage seems to be picking up on an idea found both in the midrashic literature and in the Hekhalot literature. Michael Fishbane has written on this idea in his article “Arm of the Lord: Biblical Myth, Rabbinic Midrash, and the Mystery of History,” pp. 271-292, in Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr, eds. Samuel E. Balentine and John Barton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), and my recent SBL paper dealt with this issue extensively. One place this idea is found is in 3 Enoch chapters 44 and 47, where Rabbi Ishmael sees that God’s right hand has been bound behind him since the destruction of the Temple. A similar idea is found in Lamentations Rabbah, Proem 24, where it says, “At the time that the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to destroy the Temple, He said, ‘As long as I am within it, the nations of the world will not touch it; but I will hide my eyes from it, and I swear that I will not be attached to it until the time of the End, and the enemies will enter and destroy it.’ Immediately the Holy One, blessed be He, swore by His right hand and placed it behind Him, as it is written, ‘He has drawn back His right hand from before the enemy’ (Lam. 2:3). At that time the enemies entered the Temple and set it afire.” This profound meditation on the meaning of historical defeat was attacked by both Muslims and Karaites as an unforgivable example of anthropomorphism, offending their strict monotheistic sensibility.

The idea that there are three watches in which God responds to the suffering of his people is found in b. Berakhot 3b. In one version, R. Eliezer says, “the night consists of three watches, and during each and every watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and roars like a lion.” Another opinion, that of Rav Isaac b. Samuel in the name of Rav, is as follows: “The night is composed of three watches, and over each watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and roars like a lion, and says, ‘Alas for the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My Temple, burnt My Shrine, and exiled them among the nations.’” Salmon ben Yeruhim, a tenth century Karaite writer, quoted this Midrash and attacked it along with other anthropomorphic midrashim in his Wars of the Lord. Al-Qirqisani, a 9th century Karaite writer, also attacked this idea.

It seems to me, from reading the excerpts of the sermon translated by Memri, that there must be an ongoing Muslim polemical tradition of attacks upon Judaism that has continued since the first Islamic centuries, and that this imam has used themes taken from this polemical tradition and fitted them to our day. Perhaps his audience also knows this polemical tradition, but to the eyes of contemporary Jews, who do not know these ancient midrashim and mystical works, his charges simply seem bizarre distortions of Judaism. As a scholar of ancient Judaism, I find it distressing that these polemical charges are still being used to attack Jews and some of the most profound Jewish theological responses to evil and suffering that have emerged from the Jewish religious tradition.


Monday, December 29, 2003

And here is today's Ha'aretz editorial about the shooting of unarmed Israeli, Palestinian, and foreign demonstrators protesting the separation fence on Friday, in which one Israeli protestor, a recently demobilized soldier, was severely injured -- Harsh treatment and a light finger.
I'm now visiting Israel for a few weeks, and the view looks different from here. Suddenly what seems so clear in America now turns into shades of grey. And I allow other information in that I really didn't want to think about in the U.S. For example, this article by Danny Rubinstein in Ha'aretz today, Attack on Maher shows anger at silent Arab world, which is chiefly about the Palestinian response to the attack on the Egyptian foreign minister at the Al Aqsa Mosque last week, contains this paragraph about what is happening to Palestinians at the hands of the Israel military:
Anyone who follows daily events in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and reads the Palestinian press finds it difficult to comprehend the scenes of horror. The nearly regularly-occurring photographs of bleeding babies and children in the arms of screaming mothers and of elderly people fleeing from their bombed houses in Rafah, Khan Yunis and Balata. Parents dangling their children from balconies to enable them to flee to safety. Tall buildings that have collapsed and heaps of rubble between which people try to gather their household goods. And the flood of reports and complaints of humiliations. Every day on the front pages of the Palestinian newspapers there are pictures of mass funerals and shackled young people, standing in line with their hands up, young men being led away blindfolded, or curled up on the ground with IDF soldiers standing over them, rifles at the ready.
We largely don't hear about this in the American media, even in those sources that are regularly derided as "pro-Palestinian," like the New York Times and National Public Radio, nor do we see those scenes on our television screens.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

A good Washington Post editorial yesterday on Howard Dean, Beyond the Mainstream. If only more Democratic primary voters agreed with these sentiments....

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica.com quotes from the obituary of J.B. Segal, a noted scholar of Semitic languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in the University of London. He taught there from 1961-1979. J.B. Segal recently published the Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum, together with an article by Erica C.D. Hunter. I have been using this volume in the last few days to do research for my paper at the Association for Jewish Studies, which is on pictorial and symbolic depictions in the incantation bowls, with comparisons to the Greek Magical Papyri and later Jewish magical manuscripts. My paper is entitled, "Demons, Characters, and Angelic Alphabets: Pictorial depictions in Jewish amulets and texts of ritual power." Here is the abstract:

The Aramaic incantation bowls, dating from the 4th-8th centuries C.E., are inscribed earthenware bowls whose purpose was to exorcise demons, cure illness, protect against evil spirits, and save one’s children from Lilith and other demons. They were used by Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, and polytheists in Sassanian Babylonia. Most studies of the Aramaic incantation bowls, found in archaeological excavations in present-day Iraq and Iran, have concentrated on the written texts and not on the pictorial depictions on the bowls. In fact, the ancient remains of the incantation bowls, metal amulets from Israel and Syria, incised gems from the eastern Mediterranean, and papyri texts of ritual power from Egypt are filled with images – of demons, of the person to be exorcised, and of weapons directed against evil forces. The images also include what the ancient texts call "characters" – letter-like figures that seem to belong to unknown alphabets. Pictures and characters also appear in the ritual power texts found in the Cairo Geniza, in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and on Jewish amulets made up to the present day. In this paper, I will be examining the images found on the bowls and their relation to the texts of the same bowls, in comparison with images on Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek amulets and papyri from Israel and Egypt. This paper will examine the images and discuss what they mean, and how they relate to the accompanying texts. Why did those who made the bowls and other amulets find it necessary and meaningful to use pictures and characters in concert with words? Do the pictures and characters cross cultural and political boundaries, as the words of the spells so frequently do? Were they considered efficacious when used alone, or was it necessary to accompany them with words? This paper will argue that it is important to analyze the pictures along with the words in order to fully appreciate this aspect of ancient Jewish material culture.


I may not manage to do everything I planned to in this ambitious abstract, but I will definitely be speaking about the incantation bowls, both Aramaic and Mandaic.



Steven Weiss at Protocols asks why the organized Jewish community in the U.S. and France is not objecting to the proposed French ban on wearing articles of clothing or adornment that indicate religious affiliation in public schools (yarmulkes, large crosses, or head-scarves). I think he's right. I'm definitely against the oppression of women (if only for my own personal interest), but I also think that if women wish to wear head-scarves, they should be able to.

As he says, "If I'll be allowed to read into that, it seems they're against religious symbols as an oppression of women -- but crosses, and yarmulkes are definitely not symbols of oppression, and while you could argue that headscarves are, you could also argue that they aren't -- it seems an appropriate moderate religious position to consent to, short of a burka or a chador. "

And what about married Jewish women who cover their hair with sheytels (wigs), scarves, or hats? Or who wear modest clothing from neck to ankles? Does this mean that married Jewish women teachers will also have to uncover their hair if they are teaching at French public schools?

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica has a very good fisking of anti-gay arguments made by David Klinghoffer about gay marriage. He exposes Klinghoffer's shoddy argumentation in a detailed way. Well worth reading.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Time Magazine Europe, in this article, Seven Days Of Hatred , recounts the many and various kinds of hate crimes committed on the European continent -- especially against Jews, Roma, gay people, and Muslims (via Andrew Sullivan).

In the last few days I have read an article about prominent feminists in France who have called for banning the veil (hijab) in French schools and universities, on the basis that it furthers the oppression of women in Islam. I wonder what they are thinking. Do they really imagine this will free Muslim women? Instead it will make it further impossible for Muslim women to contemplate being both Muslim and modern, or Muslim and feminist. If the state officially opposes women wearing hijab, it makes the state seem anti-Muslim, and it makes wearing hijab seem like an action that strikes a blow for Islam.

It seems to me that we have here a contemporary example of the 19th century French "civilizing mission," in which Jews and other colonized peoples (especially in the French North African colonies) must conform to what the metropolis considers to be "civilized" in order to attain a modicum of acceptance. When the French Assembly was debating whether to emancipate the Jews of France just after the Revolution, one formulation put forward was to give all rights to the Jews as individuals, but none to the Jews as a group -- in other words, for Jews really to receive equal treatment as French citizens, they had to lose all signs of a distinctive Jewish religious and especially ethnic identity.

And this is why I still support the U.S. war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the Baathists in Iraq -- Survey: Saddam Killed 61,000 in Baghdad.