Tuesday, December 28, 2004

My thanks to Rua da Judiaria for naming my blog on his "Magen David'Ouro Os Melhores Blogs de 2004." I appreciate the boost - now, can you tell me what this means in Portuguese?

Monday, December 27, 2004

And then, for the really important news: At least 24,000 people killed by the Southeast Asian earthquake and tsunami catastrophe. "The wall of water up to 10 meters tall flattened houses, hurled fishing boats onto coastal roads, sent cars spinning through swirling waters into hotel lobbies and sucked sunbathers, babies and fishermen off beaches and out to sea. Worst affected were Sri Lanka where over 12,000 were killed, India where officials reported as many as 5,600 could be dead, Indonesia with 4,991 drowned and the southern tourist isles of Thailand where at least 866 were feared to have lost their lives. Many of the dead were foreign tourists."

I'm visiting Israel right now, and Ha'aretz reports that an Israeli medical team went to Sri Lanka today.

To give aid for emergency relief, go to the American Jewish World Service website, among many others.

AJWS is sending humanitarian aid to the people affected by the tsunami caused by the world's largest earthquake in 40 years. More than 22,000 people are known dead and thousands are still missing in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Burma, and Maldives. For several years, AJWS has partnered with 22 non-governmental, community-based organizations in the region on sustainable community development projects. AJWS is working with these local groups to assess needs and provide emergency relief - food, water, shelter and medicine - and long-term development support.

Donations for this relief effort are being sought and can be made by mail, phone or Web site: American Jewish World Service, Asia Tsunami Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018, 800-889-7146.

To donate on-line to AJWS, go to: AJWS secure website.

West Bank Settlers to Wear Orange Stars

And DovBear also comments on the story about the WEST BANK SETTLERS TO WEAR ORANGE STARS. On this point, Ha'aretz points out that this particular tactic seems to have backfired.
In Israel, home to the world's largest number of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, opposition to the orange patch was fierce, cutting with ease across ideological lines.

Perhaps the clearest, most potent voice in opposition came from a most unexpected source, the army's highest-ranking religiously observant officer, a major general who is himself the child of Holocaust survivors."They belong to Holocaust deniers, those settlers who wear the star," IDF Personnel Branch commander Elazar Stern said. "This truly plays into the hands of those who say that the Holocaust was just some legitimate phenomenon that happened in history, the result of a people taking a democratic decision," Stern said. "If what was done during the Holocaust resembles what we are doing to them, then apparently the Holocaust was not all that bad, not all that unique, especially in our own history."

Stern spoke poignantly over the weekend of his parents' experiences in the death camps, where his mother lost her twin sisters, mother and grandmother at the whim of Nazi death camp doctor Joseph Mengele, and his father was forced to eat horse carcasses to survive.

Appearing on Channel Two television's highly-rated "Meet the Press," he quoted his parents as having called the idea of the orange patch "madness." Asked what he himself thought of the idea, he replied, "I think that it is madness."
I have a hard time feeling sorry for Gaza settlers who will receive many thousands of dollars when they leave Gaza, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis don't have enough to eat EVERY DAY. And those same poor Israelis within the Green Line will be paying for the ample compensation for Gaza settlers. There was a harrowing article in the most recent Jerusalem Report about poor elderly people in Israel - the most horrifying example was a 105-year old woman who is fed every day by other (slightly less) elderly people from Ezrat Avot, since the maximum old-age pension one gets from the National Insurance Institute is about 1400 NIS per month.

William Donahue - the Jews control Hollywood!

As pointed out by DovBear, William Donahue, the president of the Catholic League, has finally revealed his anti-semitic beliefs - the Jews do control Hollywood! On the show "Scarborough Country," for December 8, the question was whether "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "The Passion" should win an Oscar in 2005 (my hope is that neither will get it...). On the show were, among others, Pat Buchanan (acting as the antisemitic host), Shmuely Boteach, defending the Jews but also making sure we understood his conservative bonafides, and William Donahue.
Who really cares what Hollywood thinks?  All these hacks come out there.  Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.  It‘s not a secret, OK?  And I‘m not afraid to say it.  That‘s why they hate this movie.  It‘s about Jesus Christ, and it‘s about truth.  It‘s about the messiah. 

Hollywood likes anal sex.  They like to see the public square without nativity scenes.  I like families.  I like children.  They like abortions.  I believe in traditional values and restraint.  They believe in libertinism.  We have nothing in common.  But you know what?  The culture war has been ongoing for a long time.  Their side has lost. 

You have got secular Jews.  You have got embittered ex-Catholics, including a lot of ex-Catholic priests who hate the Catholic Church, wacko Protestants in the same group, and these people are in the margins.  Frankly, Michael Moore represents a cult movie.  Mel Gibson represents the mainstream of America.
Read the whole transcript for many other fine sentiments from Donahue, Buchanan and other sterling guests.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

AJS 2004: How to Expel Demons with Pictures

I am currently trying to finish my paper for the Association for Jewish Studies meeting, which is occurring this coming weekend (panic!). Abstract of my paper follows:
How to Expel Demons with Pictures:
Performance Theory and the Aramaic Incantation Bowls
The Aramaic incantation bowls (4th-8th centuries C.E.), used by Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and others in Sassanian Babylonia, 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. Most studies of the bowls, found in archaeological excavations in present-day Iraq and Iran, have concentrated on the written texts and not on the bowls’ pictorial depictions. In fact, the remains of the incantation bowls are filled with images – of demons, the person to be exorcised, and weapons directed against evil forces. The images also include what the ancient texts call “charakteres” – letter-like figures that appear to belong to unknown alphabets. This paper examines the images found on the bowls and their relation to the bowl texts and discusses why those who made the bowls and other amulets found it meaningful to use pictures and characters in concert with words, and explores how the pictures and characters cross cultural and political boundaries. The paper explores the use of performance theory, as exemplified by the work of Stanley Tambiah and J. L. Austin, to understand these images in their material and ritual context. Were the images considered efficacious when used alone, or was it necessary to accompany them with words? This paper concludes that it is important to analyze the pictures along with the words in order to fully appreciate this aspect of ancient Jewish material culture.
Instead of working on the paper today I sat and read many papers for my modern Jewish history course - some of them even well-written - mostly on the founding of the state of Israel and the history of the Holocaust (these were two different topics). I would have preferred that the students not write about the Holocaust but most of them opted for this as a paper topic. Perhaps the next time I teach the course I will speak about the way that fascination with the Holocaust has become a mainstay of American Jewish identity and question perhaps whether this is healthy or justifiable.

Next semester in my introduction to Judaism course we will be reading Elie Wiesel's Night, as part of a unit on Jewish theology. Afterwards I intend to introduce the idea that the committing of genocide did not end with the Shoah, and provide information about the slaughter in Darfur and some of the contemporary Jewish responses to it. A couple of years ago when I taught the book for the first time we discussed the meaning of the slogan "Never Again," and it became clear to me that the students (mostly Jewish) had learned it from their synagogue educations, but that it was essentially devoid of content for them. Perhaps if we pay attention to a currently-occurring genocide (which the world seems to be doing its best NOT to prevent) then the real meaning of "Never Again" will become clear to us.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Impossible Introspection

It’s amazing that the semester leaves so little time for any real introspection – it seems to me that it simply dies away with no encouragement. I spend all my time thinking about my students, what will work in class, grading papers, preparing myself to stand in front of the class, worrying about what they think about me – and often feeling that I don’t present myself as I truly am to them or to anyone else. But how much would I want to reveal about myself to them? I don’t know, I’m not sure – but sometimes it seems to me that better teachers actually reveal more, not necessarily in words & personal details, but in the way they embody their teaching. And then at the same time they make it more possible for the students to be honest about themselves, their motives, their motivations.

I was just thinking of that passage in the fourth Harry Potter book where the fake “Mad-Eye Moody” is saying that he disabled his truth-telling devices, because there was so much outright lying that students did – lying to teachers about why their essays were late or were not handed in or why they had not done the work, etc. I think the same sort of device would also have to be disabled at any college I’ve ever taught at! It’s frustrating, the level of artifice and dissimulation that exists between the students and us.

And then the semester just seems to eat up any motivation to do something other than teaching, or doing research (which definitely runs a poor second). This summer I was very upset about Darfur and really wanted to do something about it – but now? I went to one meeting about it and had a couple of conversations with students. I tried to raise the topic with friends, usually unsuccessfully. I don’t know why I was so unsuccessful – perhaps the presidential election just soaked up everyone’s political energies. But now at least there does seem to be some activism about it in the Jewish community. Our rabbi spoke about Darfur during this Shabbat’s service, and in the most recent issue of the Temple newsletter there was a page about Darfur.

The Klezmatics came today to give a Hanukkah concert – singing the Hanukkah songs of Woody Guthrie (who would have thought it?!). It was beautiful, energetic music. Their last song was called “On Holy Ground” – about the experience of revelation, when God demands we take off our shoes because we are standing on holy ground. Because this was an afternoon concert with songs meant for children, and many of those who came brought their kids, there was a lot of dancing down in front. I went to dance during the next to last, incredibly energetic song, and then during “On Holy Ground” a young man took off his shoes very elaborately (they were hiking books with lots of hooks and the laces took a long time to get off) and danced a gorgeous dance, as if no one else was there.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Exorcisms and Amulets in the Israeli elections of 1996 and 1999

For the last class meeting of my Jewish Magic and Ritual Power course, we watched part of the 1937 Yiddish move, Der Dibek, after having finished reading Yossi Chajes' fascinating book on spirit possession in 16th century Jewish communities, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism.

In order to illustrate how acts of ritual power can become part of modern politics, I also handed out articles on a case of modern-day dybbuk possession that roiled the Israel elections in the spring of 1999. One contemporary account (from the right-wing Israeli radio station, Arutz Sheva) reported (April 27, 1999):
The media in Israel have widely reported the removal ceremony of a "dybbuk" [wandering soul] that was performed by kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri, together with some 30 other rabbis, in a Jerusalem yeshiva in mid-April. The event has aroused reactions from many quarters, ranging from total scorn to a desire to repent. It was broadcast live over haredi radio stations, and many people were invited to the ceremony, in order to "publicize the sanctification of G-d's Name, and to cause more people to believe in the existence of an afterlife" -- according to Rabbi Batzri's son, Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri. The younger Rabbi Batzri told Arutz-7 radio that an "unbelievable amount of people have called and expressed the desire to observe the commandments as a result."

Rabbi Batzri [the son] related that a woman whose husband had died three and a half years ago had recently been plagued by the soul of her husband, which "entered her body and spoke from within her in his own voice to his sons and friends....The woman underwent terrible suffering. Finally, after great hesitations, my father agreed to perform this ceremony, feeling that the life of the woman was at stake -- for the dybbuk had threatened to kill her by choking." In a subsequent conversation with an Arutz-7 correspondent, the younger Rabbi Batzri explained that a "wandering" soul suffers more than one that faces immediate divine punishment. In the exorcism ceremony, Rabbi Batzri is heard talking forcefully with the dybbuk, whose short answers are delivered in a raspy and sometimes unclear voice. "My father told the dybbuk over and over that he has no right to harm anyone....The dybbuk said he had committed many sins, but did not want to elaborate....My father then performed a "tikkun" [sublimation of the soul], and forced the dybbuk to exit the woman's body through her toe. She later felt great pain there for a few hours, but now, thank G-d, she is perfectly healthy." The entire ceremony [in Hebrew] may be heard on the Arutz-7 website....
[I checked the Arutz-7 website and it appears to have been taken down].

A Christian Science Monitor article, A world of trinkets and tombs reported on how the dybbuk exorcism had become part of the Shas election campaign. In a previous election, that of 1996, Shas used another technique taken from the world of Jewish ritual power - amulets - to induce people to vote for them.
Just days before national elections in 1996, Shas distributed thousands of amulets - religious good-luck charms - in the form of mystic prayer keepsakes personally written by Kabalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie. The nonagenarian Mr. Kadourie is the spiritual mentor of Shas - sort of their living patron saint. Followers say he is the only Kabalist in this generation with the power to write amulets that include the secret names of angels and arcane abbreviations that can protect a house from evil. But these particular amulets were given out to recipients with the instruction that Kadourie wanted people to vote for Shas - and for Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu. In an election upset in which Mr. Netanyahu won by only 0.5 percent of the vote, the amulets provoked outrage among secular Israeli politicians. Last fall, a judge ruled that the distribution of such items at election time constituted gift-giving and was thus illegal.

This time around, Shas's campaign distributed and screened two videotapes at rallies in the weeks before the May 17 election. The tapes, say some analysts and Shas activists, contributed to the party's electoral triumph. One was of a recent exorcism by a Kabalist rabbi with close ties to Aryeh Deri, who resigned recently as leader of Shas, after he was convicted on charges of fraud and bribe-taking during his tenure as a government minister. The rabbi, David Batzri, has declined all requests for interviews. But his son, a young rabbi who has permission to speak on his father's behalf, was willing to explain their philosophy in a meeting at their new four-story yeshiva in Jerusalem. "We didn't prevent anyone from taping [the exorcism] because we knew that seeing it could make all the world believe in life after death," says Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri. The need for exorcisms is rare, he says, and as such, it was the first time his father ever performed one. "My father didn't want this tape to focus on politics or Deri, but to prove the existence of the afterlife," says Mr. Batzri. "We don't get involved in politics, but it's true that Shas is a spiritual movement. And if someone sees this tape, he may become a more spiritual person and, naturally, vote Shas. Many people who saw this tape said they [decided] to vote Shas." Despite that, he says, he and his father don't support the use of amulets or candidate endorsements before elections. Although his father studied with the premier Kabalist himself - Rabbi Kadourie - Batzri says they shun any direct involvement in politics.
Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri's claim that this was the first exorcism his father had ever performed appears to be false, because an earlier article from the Jerusalem Post (August 8, 1996) reported that he had advertised for a mass exorcism of dybbuks in 1996.
A GROUP of kabbalists are to gather next week to conduct a mass public prayer to exorcise "dybbuks" from people suffering from mental and emotional problems. This will be the first time such prayers are held in public. The prayers will be conducted on Monday in Yeshivat Hashalom in Jerusalem, which is headed by Rabbi David Batzri, a leading kabbalist. The date marks the yahrzeit of Batzri's grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Fetaya, who was known for his ability to heal people with severe emotional problems.
I will be visiting Israel later on this month so the possibility of terror attacks is more on my mind than usual. I'll be there for almost three weeks to visit friends, tour around a little, and get some research done at the National Library in Jerusalem. Our semester is about to end, so I have the time to do some traveling. While there I expect to continue working on an article that I gave a presentation on at the Society of Biblical Literature conference last month.

What follows is an abstract of my SBL paper, ""He Shall Not Look at a Woman": Gender in the Hekhalot Literature."

The Hekhalot literature contains many ascetic prescriptions that the mystic must follow to invoke angels or enter the hekhalot – prescriptions which imply that the world of the Merkabah was a male-only world. The male adepts must avoid any contact with women, including not looking at women and not eating food prepared by women. A distant contact with menstrual impurity suffices to recall Rabbi Nehuniah b. Ha-Qanah from his Hekhalot vision. This paper examines the Hekhalot requirements of ritual and sexual purity that prohibited the male mystic’s contact with women, and the concomitant assumption in the Hekhalot texts that only men can engage in mystical practices. It attempts to answer the following question: Why were there no female Hekhalot mystics and why was the visionary experience "gendered male" in the Hekhalot literature? This question arises because the comparative evidence from early Christianity and early Islam differs so much from the Jewish sources. Early Christian texts present literary expressions of women's ability to receive revelation from angels. In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she will have a son; in 1 Cor. 11–14, Paul refers to both women and men speaking "the tongues of angels. The Montanists’ female prophets received wisdom from angels. Women participated in early Christian ascetic and monastic movements. The woman mystic Rabi'a, whose teachings are revered by later Sufis, was a prominent figure in early Sufism. Why, in contrast, were Jewish women’s mystical experiences not recorded and their absence required from Hekhalot circles?
Despite the hopeful signs after the death of Arafat that another window for peace is opening, Hamas is doing its best to prevent any peaceful possibilities with its latest attack - 5 IDF soldiers killed in Gaza tunnel blast.

On another note, the E. Jerusalem terror cell suspected of committing the Cafe Hillel bombing (on Emek Refaim) in September 2003 has been seized. This was the attack in which Dr. David Appelbaum and his daughter Naava, along with five others, were killed.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

This is an utterly fascinating story from the Jerusalem Post - B'Tselem and the IDF: Unlikely partners - the Israeli army has been hosting lectures by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which relentlessly criticizes the army.

Publicly, the army has long followed a practice of either responding to some of B'Tselem's flow of allegations with a robust defense of its actions, or choosing to ignore them. Privately, and remarkably, however, it has gradually been exposing more and more of its soldiers directly to their B'Tselem critics.

B'Tselem staff have been delivering lectures to the IDF, at the Military Educational Academy at Har Gilo, south of Jerusalem, on a sporadic basis since the mid 1990s. But over the past two years, precisely as B'Tselem's critiques of the army have reached new heights, the frequency of such lectures has increased dramatically.

In close coordination with senior officers from the IDF's Educational Corps, B'Tselem staffers now lecture at least two or three times a month to a broad spectrum of IDF soldiers including Border Police, the officers who staff the District Coordination offices handling entry permits for Palestinian civilians, officers training for the Educational Corps, and members of a new checkpoint unit.

Would that the U.S. army was sponsoring similar lectures by Amnesty International and the International Red Cross!
On a much lighter note than the previous two posts: if you've ever had a hankering to own the Ark of the Covenant, a small scale model is now available for only $12.95: Welcome to Archie McPhee Online.
More evidence of prisoner abuse by American troops in Iraq, this time by Navy SEALS: Navy Probes New Iraq Prisoner Photos.
This is disgusting -- Israeli officer: I was right to shoot 13-year-old child.
An Israeli army officer who repeatedly shot a 13-year-old Palestinian girl in Gaza dismissed a warning from another soldier that she was a child by saying he would have killed her even if she was three years old.
More on this from Ha'aretz: Officer on tape says he 'confirmed kill' of Gaza girl
Channel Two's documentary show Fact broadcast last night the army communications network tape recording of the real-time events, including videotape, in which R. is heard explicitly stating he "verified the kill." The tape showed that the soldiers at the outpost kept firing at the girl even after she had been identified by soldiers as "about 10 years old."

The October 5 event took place around 7 in the morning, when a soldier on duty at the outpost spotted a "suspicious figure" about 100 meters from the outpost. Soldiers immediately began firing at the figure while R., the outpost commander, together with some officers and soldiers, left the outpost and took up a position behind a sand rampart next to the outpost.

The soldiers said they thought she was planting a bomb. The girl's family said she was on her way to school when she was shot. According to the indictment, R. charged the girl after she was shot and fired two rounds at her from close range. He began walking away, then turned around and shot her again.

"The accused stood similarly to the way he stood when he shot her twice - pointed his weapon downward and shot, this time on automatic, approximately 10 bullets until he emptied his magazine," the indictment says. It is not known whether the girl was already dead when he shot her. At the time, Palestinian hospital officials said the girl was shot at least 15 times, mostly in the upper body.
Here's another Ha'aretz article on the same horrible incident Analysis / Absolutely illegal:
But that is far from the key question in the case. At least from the moral aspect, the main question is why the company commander and his soldiers fired at the girl who was 100 meters away from the outpost, was not armed, was not a danger to the soldiers inside the protected outpost, and when at least some of the soldiers knew that it was a little girl. A soldiers is explicitly heard saying "it's a little girl," and that she is "scared to death." Nonetheless, the shooting went on. Moreover, R. himself reports later that he shot "the girl."

No less important is the tone of the voices on the tape. Officers trying to explain what happened constantly said that the areas is dangerous, and that the soldiers were under threat. But that does not come across in the voices of the soldiers. They don't sound worried or pressured, but almost apathetic. They seem to be shooting because those are the orders - to shoot at anyone who comes close, even if some know it's only a girl, and there is no sense of fear. It seems, at least, that the order to shoot is blatantly illegal, and therefore the soldiers should have refused it. The question becomes, therefore, why only the company commander is being prosecuted, and only for illegal use of his weapon and not for manslaughter at the very least.
And so is this: Torture Can Be Used to Detain U.S. Enemies.
U.S. military panels reviewing the detention of foreigners as enemy combatants are allowed to use evidence gained by torture in deciding whether to keep them imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the government conceded in court Thursday.

The acknowledgment by Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Brian Boyle came during a U.S. District Court hearing on lawsuits brought by some of the 550 foreigners imprisoned at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. The lawsuits challenge their detention without charges for up to three years so far.

Attorneys for the prisoners argued that some were held solely on evidence gained by torture, which they said violated fundamental fairness and U.S. due process standards. But Boyle argued in a similar hearing Wednesday that the detainees "have no constitutional rights enforceable in this court."
And so is this: Red Cross Finds Detainee Abuse in Guantanamo.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has charged in confidential reports to the United States government that the American military has intentionally used psychological and sometimes physical coercion "tantamount to torture" on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The finding that the handling of prisoners detained and interrogated at Guantánamo amounted to torture came after a visit by a Red Cross inspection team that spent most of last June in Guantánamo.

The team of humanitarian workers, which included experienced medical personnel, also asserted that some doctors and other medical workers at Guantánamo were participating in planning for interrogations, in what the report called "a flagrant violation of medical ethics."

Doctors and medical personnel conveyed information about prisoners' mental health and vulnerabilities to interrogators, the report said, sometimes directly, but usually through a group called the Behavioral Science Consultation Team, or B.S.C.T. The team, known informally as Biscuit, is composed of psychologists and psychological workers who advise the interrogators, the report said.
So tell me, what does differentiate us from our enemies?