Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Since the semester ended (but not, alas, the grading, which still isn't done!) I've been doing some traveling. I went to Washington, D.C., for the Association for Jewish Studies conference. I chaired a session on "Passages to Glory - Textual Ways of Transforming Experience Among Sectarians, Sages, and Early Jewish Mystics."
Do the verbal structures and literary devices of sectarian, rabbinic, and early Jewish mystical sources correspond to transformations of experience? Where such texts speak of heavenly journeys and glorifications, are they intended also to induce them? Were the wondrous perspectives produced by these texts experienced as actual, and how so? Our panel carries forward a conversation about Sectarians, Sages, and Early Jewish Mystics, once more comparing notes across the ages and sources - this time, on the relationship between text and experience.
There were four speakers: Jonah Steinberg, Alan Segal, Nehemia Polen, and Daphna Arbel. I also went to a number of other good sessions on quite a variety of topics - it's always fun to go to sessions not in my field. I stayed an extra day in Washington to go to an Ithaca College Jewish Studies event (meeting with alumni) and then drove up to Boston to see family and friends, which has been a lot of fun. I've gone several Hanukkah celebrations, including visiting my cousins in New Hampshire. And some Hanukkiah photos follow!

Havurat Shalom candle-lighting.

At my cousins'.

A little bit later in the evening....

Monday, December 12, 2005

Bloggers on Paul Mirecki

More bloggers on Paul Mirecki:

WITCH HUNT IN KANSAS. The author comments: "[Kansas Rep.] Landwehr is right about one thing. This all is religious bigotry. But the bigotry comes from her side. Right wing 'Christians' have been trying to force their fundamentalist religious beliefs on the people of Kansas for too long now. When someone stands up to them, they cry foul and hide behind some bizarre banner of religious persecution. It’s a joke, though not a very funny one. "

Mark Goodacre on Paul Mirecki: assault, the media, and protection. He says, "Perhaps because I am now in American higher education myself, I find this report pretty depressing. The thought that a professor has now had to absent himself from class because of media harrassment, and that his colleagues and students are being interviewed on his character and integrity, is a very unhappy situation. I have long since ceased from releasing any personal information (address, phone number etc.) on phone-books, the web and so on (and I am surprised that Mirecki has been less careful) and this story hardly discourages me from that kind of course of action."

John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts, a postdoctoral research fellow in the philosophy and history of biology, writes:
1. ID [intelligent design] is mythology. It is not only not science, but it fulfils one of the major functions of a mythos - to organise and unify a community against outsiders. Mirecki was right to teach it that way, and right to put it in religious studies, for there is no other motivation or feature of ID than the religious.

2. Mirecki's email was obnoxious, but in no way unjustified or immoral or contrary to decent ethical standards. Religious people make much worse comments about "godless atheists" every day, and in America, they (and he) have that right constitutionally. The apology ought to have been enough to settle this, in a civilised nation. And it was in a private forum. He didn't broadcast it to the nation, Altevogt did. Is it a surprise that Mirecki thinks fundamentalists are often stupid bastards? I do, and many others, a lot of whom are Christians of a more reasonable kind, also do. So what is at issue? That he said to those he had a reasonable expectation shared those values what he thought? Bad man! Bad bad man!

3. Mirecki has academic freedom, or ought to, to teach what he wants without interference from lobby groups or the majority. His peers - those who are professionals in his discipline - are the ones who are fit to judge his actions; not some politician or religious opponent. Threatening the freedom of academics by withholding funding is the reason why universities got out from under church control in the first place.

Mark Maynard suggests, "Perhaps, it occurs to me, we’re entering an era in which the right not only demands more of a presence in academia (as we’re seeing more and more), but in which liberal faculty are 'held accountable' for their unpopular beliefs. This event in Kansas might not, in other words, be an isolated event - the work of 'a few bad apples.' It could be a harbinger of things to come." I certainly hope not, but it is also one of my fears.

And on Daily Kos, several postings about Paul Mirecki.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

More on Mirecki

Latest developments in the story about Paul Mirecki: Anti-creationism professor: Resignation was forced.

An interesting blog comment: Academic Freedom.

A professor at Johnson County Community College, in Overland Park, Kansas, Professor of Biology Paul Decelles has an interesting blog that addresses issues of intelligent design and academic freedom, and he has a number of posts about Mirecki. He seems like a sensible person and writes that "Now granted e-mails are not private but I doubt Mirecki is alone in having written inappropriate emails." Whatever else this case may be, it's also a renewed warning that one should not write in an e-mail anything you would not want printed on the front page of your local newspaper.

On the question of whether it's legitimate to mock other people's religious beliefs and practices. An interesting example is presented by J-Walk Blog, who makes fun of Orthodox Jews who don't use electricity on Sabbath and avoid doing so through various technical strategems, such as the Shabbat alarm clock. He refers to this and other devices that allow people to use electrical appliances on the Sabbath as "probably one of the most absurd religious practices of all time." A few weeks ago Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in Slate attacking the practice of metzitzah be-peh (defined as "after removing the foreskin of the penis, the practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the wound to clean it"). Hitchens, in his inimitable fashion, lambasted those who engage in this practice as well as politicians who hesitate to condemn it (in this case, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of NYC).

Are either of these writers wrong to mock or criticize Jewish practices? Not in my opinion. As far as I'm concerned they're free to make fun of Judaism or any other religion. I'm also free to disagree with them and argue against them.

People who teach religion on the college level do not lose their right to free speech by virtue of their jobs - including mocking speech about others. I don't think there's a place for that in the classroom, but if a professor wishes to make fun of others outside of the classroom, why is that wrong? There are a lot of things that people say that I don't like, but that doesn't give me the right to stop them from saying them or to dismiss them from their jobs for saying them. My only concern is basically a pedagogical one - in the classroom, or in other professional capacities, professors should behave in a respectful fashion towards students, regardless of whether they agree with what those students are saying on intelligent design or anything else. I also think that professors should do their best to refrain from one-sided advocacy in the classroom. This doesn't mean that they should avoid controversial topics or keep silent about their own opinions, but that they should educate students that there is more than one side to most arguments, and that it is worth listening to several points of view and analyzing them.

Academic Freedom and Creationism

Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica just brought to my attention a disturbing series of events involving Professor Paul Mirecki of the University of Kansas. For a summary of what has happened to Mirecki, see this recent article from the Lawrence, Kansas, local newspaper - Embattled KU Professor. In short, he got into a lot of trouble for making intemperate remarks about creationists in on e-mail and on a discussion board, was forced to resign his position as chair of the religion department, and in addition, was beaten up by a couple of thugs who mentioned the controversy when attacking him (see Professor blasts KU, sheriff's investigation).

The remarks were made in connection with a course that he planned to offer (but eventually had to cancel) on creationism and intelligent design, entitled: "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." One of his e-mail messages read: "The fundies (fundamentalists) want it all taught in a science class. But this will be a nice slap in their big, fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category 'mythology.''' Even before the e-mail was published, his announcement that he was teaching the class seems to have angered many people who were offended that he was calling creationism and intelligent design mythologies. (See this WorldNetDaily article for an account by someone offended by Mirecki's remarks).

I find this whole story very disturbing. While Mirecki should certainly have been more careful in what he wrote on e-mail, he's certainly free to do so (given both the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom). The only genuine concern I could see is in how he would have taught the class - he should be respectful of all students and permit students who disagree with him to speak.

Some members of the Kansas State Legislature, however, seem to have a weak grasp of what academic freedom is, and what it means to teach religion at a university (as opposed to a seminary).
The university’s action [cancelling Mirecki's course] wasn’t enough for conservative lawmakers, who said they want to know whether professors teaching other courses are letting their biases get in the way. “This may show a bigger problem than just Professor Mirecki,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican. “It may show we’re not providing fair and balanced opportunities to our students.”

Landwehr has called for hearings when the Legislature resumes next month. She said she wants to know whether professors are exhibiting any intolerance, whether it’s religious, political or any other kind.

Landwehr also questioned whether Mirecki should be allowed to teach religious studies courses. “It’s hard to teach religion if you don’t believe in it,” she said.

Sen. Kay O’Connor, an Olathe Republican, said public universities should not condone anti-Christian talk by professors. “We’re not in the taxpayer-funded hatred business,” she said. “Why should taxpayers give him an opportunity to profess his hatred for Christians?”
Landwehr doesn't seem to understand that it's possible to teach all sorts of things one doesn't believe in. One doesn't have to be religious to teach about religion. Nor is it wrong to criticize (or even make fun of) people who belong to other religions and their religious practices. (I don't think mockery belongs in the classroom, however - that's advocacy, not education).

Aside from the issue of the intemperance of Mirecki's language, the most disturbing feature is the idea that a religion course is not the proper place to discuss creationism and intelligent design. This is exactly the place to discuss these two ideologies/theologies. In fact, on Wednesday, in my Hebrew Scripture class, I asked my students to bring in news stories that mentioned the Bible in reference to contemporary issues. In one section we spent a lot of time discussing creationism/intelligent design, both in connection to the case of the Dover School Board, in Dover, Pennsylvania, and in Kansas. We discussed (briefly) what creationism/intelligent design are, how creationism derives from the biblical account of creation, and how intelligent design is also a theological way of understanding how life has come to be. At some point I would like to teach a class on the Bible in American life and culture, and the creationism vs. evolution debate is an obvious place to start. Other professors at my college also discuss this issue, from other points of view (for example, it's addressed in the biological anthropology classes).

There are other courses at the University of Kansas that do address these issues without being attacked by religious conservatives.
Walter Dimmick, associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, said he taught students in his introduction to evolutionary biology course about natural theology and beliefs at the time of Charles Darwin. These topics are a starting point to his course on evolution. “Young people need to have an understanding of what science is and what science is not,” Dimmick said. Dimmick, who has taught this introductory class for three years, has never stirred controversy in or out of the classroom. Part of this may be due to his approach. “It’s not my job to try and change their religious beliefs,” he said.
I agree with Dimmick on that last point. In my Hebrew Scripture class I certainly introduce students to theories about the Bible that they will not have encountered before - the most prominent example being the documentary hypothesis - but I certainly don't require them to swear allegiance to them. I want them to understand the theories, not have faith in them. I'm not in the business of telling students what their religious beliefs should be. But just presenting these theories, whose intellectual basis is that human beings wrote the biblical texts and that it's possible to investigate their origins through literary and historical analysis, can be upsetting to some students, and not only to students who are self-identified as fundamentalist Christians. I don't like upsetting the students, but I do believe that in order to teach the Bible in an intellectually honest way, it's necessary to teach critical theories about the composition of the Bible.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Our friend Ramsay Clark

Another good Hitchens column on Ramsey Clark, Saddam's chief apologist.

Our Friends, the Iranians, Take Two

At the Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in Mecca, Saudi Arabia yesterday (Dec. 8, 2005), President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran denied that the Holocaust occurred and suggested that the state of Israel be moved to Europe.
"Some European countries insist on saying that during World War II, Hitler burned millions of Jews and put them in concentration camps. Any historian, commentator or scientist who doubts that is taken to prison or gets condemned. Let's assume what the Europeans say is true…. Let's give some land to the Zionists in Europe or in Germany or Austria. They faced injustice in Europe, so why do the repercussions fall on the Palestinians?"
It is comforting to see so many countries condemning Ahmadinejad's comments, but on the other hand, the Holocaust denial that he expresses appears on Iranian state television and in the popular media in many Muslim countries.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Mel Gibson Developing Holocaust Mini-Series

Is this bizarre, or what?.
Mr. Gibson's television production company will base the four-hour miniseries for ABC on the self-published memoir of Flory A. Van Beek, a Dutch Jew whose gentile neighbors hid her from the Nazis but who lost several relatives in concentration camps.

The project is in its early stages, so there is no guarantee that it will be completed. Mr. Gibson is not expected to act in the mini-series, nor is it certain that his name, rather than his company's, will be publicly attached to the final product, according to several people involved in developing it.

But Quinn Taylor, ABC's senior vice president for movies for television, acknowledged that the attention-getting value of having Mr. Gibson attached to a Holocaust project was a factor. "Controversy's publicity, and vice versa," Mr. Taylor said.
And I guess all we want is publicity, right? Well, it gets more twisted:
ABC brought in Con Artists [Gibson's production company] after an independent producer, Daniel Sladek, proposed a project to the network based on Ms. Van Beek's story. With her husband, Felix, she survived the sinking of a passenger ship by a German mine, followed by three years in hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands, before going to the United States in 1948.

The network chose Mr. Gibson's company shortly after having rejected a pitch by Ms. Cotton of Con Artists for another Holocaust-related subject, Mr. Taylor said. "This has the middle, the love story, that the other one didn't have," he explained.

Mr. Sladek said ABC's motive in engaging Mr. Gibson - an Academy Award-winning producer and director whose "Passion" sold $370 million in tickets in the United States alone - was to win the largest possible audience. "I think that what ABC wants out of this is to build the biggest billboard imaginable in order to get everyone logically interested to tune in and watch this," Mr. Sladek said.
Well, it's good to get that out in the open - if we're going to have a movie on the Holocaust, it's got to have a love story, I guess so that the great American public doesn't have to focus on the fact that the Holocaust is not, really, you know, a love story! And we need that big billboard, so Gibson's the way to get it. This is about as crass as it gets!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Saddam and Ramsey Clark

A couple of interesting new articles on Iraq. The first one, The Big Black Book of Horrors, is on a recently published book about the atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime. Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein presents comprehensive evidence about the crimes against humanity presented by Saddam and his dictatorship.
"The first weapon of mass destruction was Saddam Hussein," writes Bernard Kouchner, who has been observing atrocities in Iraq since he led the first Medecins Sans Frontieres mission there in 1974. "Preserving the memory of the arbitrary arrests that Saddam's police conducted every morning, the horrible and humiliating torture, the organised rapes, the arbitrary executions and the prisons full of innocent people is not just a duty. Without that one cannot understand either what Saddam's dictatorship was or the urgent necessity to remove him."
While I do not think that reading this book would be very pleasant, I hope that it is soon translated into English, for the benefit of all the American anti-war activists who think that President Bush (for all his flaws) is worse than Saddam.

The second one is an opinion piece by Christopher Hitchens - Sticking Up for Saddam - Ramsey Clark admits that his client is guilty. Hitchens demonstrates just how deep into the slime Clark has sunk since his days as Attorney General for President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s - representing the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. Of course, even murderous dictators need competent counsel - but I would prefer that that counsel not justify their clients' crimes.

NPR this morning had a piece on Ramsay Clark in which they were trying their best to be absolutely even-handed, and unfortunately in doing so left out some of the damning evidence against him, including his association with the Workers World Party (the real force behind International ANSWER).

Escaping from the SBL

My way home from the SBL was much more eventful than I hoped it would be. When I finished loading up my car with luggage, I went to start it – and lo and behold! It did not start. Through pure coincidence, a car with someone from AAA was driving through the parking garage at just that moment, so I flagged him down and asked him if he could start my car. He did my best, but concluded that the car needed a new starter motor. I called AAA to get a tow-truck to take my car to the Honda dealership.

When the tow-truck arrived, it transpired that it was much too big to go down to the lower level of the parking garage. The tow-truck guy called a buddy of his from his shop. The buddy arrived in a two-tone car (the door was red, the rest of the car was blue). He towed my car out of the garage, and it was then put onto the enormous tow-truck. We drove to the shop (any hope of going to the Honda dealership was scotched by the two-truck driver). As we drove deeper into a run-down section of Philadelphia I wondered what was going to happen to my car. We drove into the lot (surrounded by a fence with razor wire on the top!), and he eased my car off the truck. I went into the office to talk to the manager. He promised to start working on it first thing the next morning. Then my eye wandered around the walls of the office – and fixed on two photographs of the Lubavitcher rebbe, and a prayer for a successful business, in Hebrew. Needless to say, this is not what I expected to find in a repair shop in urban Philadelphia. I asked the manager if the shop was owned by an Israeli. He said to me, “Is that a problem?” I said no, I had spent time in Israel. Then the guy sitting next to him spoke up – in Hebrew. I replied. His father owned the shop. After that I felt a bit more confident that my car would get fixed and that the repairs would cost a reasonable amount of money.

The next morning, the buddy from the shop drove my fixed car to the hotel where I was staying, and I went back to the shop to pay for the repairs – which were indeed at a very reasonable price. I got to meet the boss, who indeed spoke with an Israeli accent. It was an unexpectedly pleasant experience, despite the fact that I had to stay an extra night in Philadelphia and then had the truly tedious drive from Philly to Boston via the N.J. Turnpike, the GW Bridge, and I-95…. I hope never to do that again on the day before Thanksgiving!

Enoch/Metatron at the SBL

I attended the AAR/SBL meeting in Philadelphia the week before Thanksgiving, and was part of the book review session organized by the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section. I reviewed the new book by Andrei Orlov, The Enoch/Metatron Tradition, which traces the development of traditions about Enoch from the Bible through to the Zohar, concentrating mostly on Enoch traditions in Second Temple literature and 2 and 3 Enoch. What I found particularly helpful about the book was its treatment of 2 Enoch, which is extant only in Slavonic. My review began this way:
This is a fine book on the development of the figure of Enoch from early Mesopotamian traditions about the seventh antediluvian king, Enmeduranki, to the transformed Enoch-Metatron of the Hekhalot literature, especially in Sefer Hekhalot, (3 Enoch). Andrei Orlov comprehensively demonstrates how the roles and titles of Enoch developed from his first appearance in Genesis, when “God took him” (Gen. 5:24), through the five subsections of 1 Enoch (in many cases influenced by Mesopotamian traditions about the seventh antediluvian king, Enmeduranki), to the Slavonic apocalypse of Enoch (2 Enoch), which he dates to first century Alexandria, and finally to Sefer Hekhalot. The book examines the early Enochic booklets and then Sefer Hekhalot, only then turning back to the Slavonic apocalypse in order to show how the roles and titles there are an earlier version of what is found in 3 Enoch. The second part of the book addresses the question of how Enoch’s roles and titles developed in 2 Enoch as a result of polemics with several other important mediatorial figures: Adam, Moses, and Noah. This book is the first complete effort to show how the Slavonic apocalypse adumbrates several important roles and titles of Enoch that reach their full development in the Hekhalot literature. As such, it is particularly important for scholars like myself who do not have control of the Slavonic original of 2 Enoch and must rely upon translations. On important aspect of the book is that Orlov demonstrates that the Shi’ur Qomah tradition, the tradition that states that it is possible to measure the anthropomorphic body of God, found in the Hekhalot literature, is present in an early form in 2 Enoch.

The two sessions of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section were very interesting, as was the opportunity to go out to dinner with members of the section on Saturday night (although the food did take forever to come!)

The conference was fun – I got to see friends I hadn’t seen in quite a while, some of whom I will see again at the Association for Jewish Studies meeting, which is happening during the third weekend in December in Washington, D.C. I spent a fair amount of the conference in the Book Exhibit, as I usually do, and brought home a haul of books that I hope will be useful for my research.