Not much time for posting these days. Too much teaching and grading and dealing with the situation at school which only seems to be getting worse. Right now, it appears as if the administration has used the pretext of a criminal investigation into the alleged abuse of our college email system, specifically involving the college-wide listserv that we use to communicate with the entire campus, to impose a pre-screening of any email that anyone wants to send to the entire campus; and it is very clear that the result of this pre-screening, even if it is not the intent, has been to censor certain communications that are critical of the administration. It’s not a free speech violation, apparently, since they have not closed off all avenues of communication – though this situation does make it more difficult to get information out to the entire campus in an efficient manner – but it does raise serious questions about the administration’s commitment to academic freedom. And it is depressing.
But it is also Chanukah, and I want to share with you this video that my wife shared with me on Facebook. It’s just plain fun and it lifted my spirits. I hope it does something similar for you:
I confess that I am among those Jews about whom Professors Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler write in the introduction to their recently published The Jewish Annotated New Testament who tend to “believe that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion.” My experience with Christian missionaries and proselytizers of all sorts has made it very difficult for me to see the Christian Bible as anything other than a tool for persuading me to give up my own religious tradition as obsolete at best. I realize this is not rational. The book is a book, nothing more; it’s the Christians who have tried to put the book in my hand or who have brought quotes from it to prove to me the error of my ways who deserve the suspicion and distrust that I feel. Nonetheless, like any irrational belief, this one has been hard to shake, and I have tried, even assigning portions of the New Testament in one of my literature classes as a way of forcing myself to read it. I read it; I taught it; but it left a bad taste in my mouth and I have not picked the text up again.
I am thinking about this because The Jewish Annotated New Testament got a write-up in The New York Times this weekend, and it seems that even Jewish Biblical scholars have developed the habit of not dealing with the Christian holy book in their work. As Mark Oppenheimer, the article’s author writes:
As any visitor to the book expo at the [American Academy of Religion] conference discovered, there is a glut of Bibles and Bible commentaries. One of the exhibitors, Zondervan, publishes hundreds of different Bibles, customized for your subculture, niche or need. Examples include a Bible for those recovering from addiction; the Pink Bible, for women “who have been impacted by breast cancer”; and the Faithgirlz! Bible, about which the publisher writes: “Every girl wants to know she’s totally unique and special. This Bible says that with Faithgirlz! sparkle!”
Nearly all these Bibles are edited by and for Christians. The Christian Bible comprises the Old and New Testaments, so editors offer a Christian perspective on both books. For example, editors might add a footnote to the story of King David, in the Old Testament books I and II Samuel, reminding readers that in the New Testament, David is an ancestor of Jesus.
Jewish scholars have typically been involved only with editions of the Old Testament, which Jews call the Hebrew Bible or, using a Hebrew acronym, the Tanakh. Of course, many curious Jews and Christians consult all sorts of editions, without regard to editor. But among scholars, Christians produce editions of both sacred books, while Jewish editors generally consult only the book that is sacred to them. What’s been left out is a Jewish perspective on the New Testament — a book Jews do not consider holy but which, given its influence and literary excellence, no Jew should ignore.
He is, of course, correct. No Jew should ignore the New Testament, especially for the irrational reasons that have led me to do so for most of my life, and so it is nice to know that an edition of that text now exists which uses as an editorial and critical framework a perspective that counts me as an insider.
Commenting in the discussion on Alas about a post dealing with the circumcision ban that has been proposed in San Francisco, Chingona wrote the following:
Secondly … and here I’m trying to put into words something that I think is felt on a subconscious and instinctual level (with additional caveats that I cannot speak for every Jew everywhere) … with all the blood that has been spilt to maintain Judaism over the centuries, there is a feeling that one, as an individual, does not actually have the right to just dispense with something so fundamental as this. For more secular Jews, to not circumcise is to say that not only do you not care if your kids aren’t Jewish, but to actually push them away from it. You might be a scofflaw in a hundred different ways, but to not circumcise would be to renounce your citizenship. It’s the step too far. And to take that step is to spit on the memory of every Jew who died for being Jewish.
Even as I write this, I imagine you laughing at how ridiculous it sounds. Do other Jewish people on this thread think I’m exaggerating? Like I said, I’m trying to put something into words that is more felt than thought, and it’s entirely possible that I’m overstating the matter. But in my experience, it’s something in the neighborhood of what I wrote above.
Even now, having rejected circumcision in my own family, it’s hard to dismiss the ritual merely as the patriarchal marking that, at its roots, it is. Because whatever else that ritual might be, the history of the oppression of the Jews has made it also a sign of defiance, a bodily affirmation of Jewish (male) identity and Jewish (male) worth in the face of enormous persecution.
I put the word male in parentheses in the last sentence because, while circumcision marks only men and is therefore problematic from the point of view of gender equality within the Jewish tradition, I do not want to deny the courage that it took for Jewish mothers to continue to allow their sons to be circumcised, or for Jewish women to continue to value circumcision as a religious ritual, a physical mark and as a metaphor for the relationship between the Jews and their god at times when forcing a man to pull down his pants was one way that anti-semites would identify appropriate targets for their hatred and violence. In Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, for example, Yaffa Eliach tells a story that, whether it is completely true or only an embellished version of the truth, illustrates precisely what I mean. In the midst of a “children’s Aktion,” a massacre of Jewish children, the tale goes, a Jewish woman demanded of a Nazi soldier, “Give me [your] pocket knife!”
She bent down and picked up something…a bundle of rags on the ground near the sawdust. She unwrapped the bundle. Amidst the rags on a snow-white pillow was a newborn babe, asleep. With a steady hand she opened the pocket knife and circumcised the baby. In a clear, intense voice she recited the blessing of the circumcision. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by thy commandments and hast commanded us to perform the circumcision.”
She straightened her back, looked up to the heavens, and said, “God of the Universe, you have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a wholesome, kosher Jew.” She walked over to the German, gave him back his blood-stained knife, and handed him her baby on his snow-white pillow. (152)
I am that boy; that boy was me. Had I been alive during the time of the Nazis, they would have tried to kill me precisely for being “wholesome and kosher.” Yet while the violence that mother did to her son absolutely pales in comparison to the violence the Nazi intended to do to him, the story nonetheless omits the boy’s pain, glosses over the blood that must have stained the pillow, the mother’s hands and the German’s knife. It is that blood which haunts me, for my circumcision is my connection to that mother’s courage, to the courage of the men who circumcised and were circumcised at a time when a cut penis could have gotten them killed.
It was not an easy thing for me to arrive at the point where, as a Jewish man, I could choose not to have my son circumcised and also not feel like I was betraying my community at a much, much deeper level than any rejection of circumcision’s religious significance might represent for me. This is something I might choose to write more about at a later time, but for now I will say that it had to do with letting go of a certain kind of culturally inculcated anger and fear, with deciding that doing violence to my son’s body – to the body of any Jewish infant born with a penis – in order to mark that body over and against the violence that has been done to Jews throughout our history was, in some sense, only a continuation of that violence.
Nonetheless, I have tremendous respect for the feelings of people who continue to see brit milah – we might as well call the ceremony by its proper name – as a way of saying not only to the circumcised child, but to the historically hostile world in which that child will grow up, “You are here, in this world, as a Jew; we are here in this world, as Jews, and we are not going anywhere.“
My mother sent me the link to this music video by 8th Day. The music is great, but what made me smile the most was the little boy in peyos and a sweatshirt with a Batman patch bopping to the beat. I also really appreciate the mixing of Sephardic and Ashkenazic language and references throughout. Discussion of lyrics, etc. is below the video.
is a combination of the sepharadic “Ya’lah”, a common phrase in sephardic songs which roughly translates as “come on”, and “li li li”, a common filler in yiddish songs (BTW, the word for ‘song’ in yiddish is “leid”).
The lyrics – though it’s worth reading the whole discussion at the above link – can be roughly translated as follows:
Ya’alili, dance my beloved
It should be fortunate, may it be,
G-d willing, it will be
The bridegroom, sephardi
the attractive bride, ashkenazi
Mother Imeinu [our mother] sephardi,
Mama Rachel, ashkenazi
Baba Salli [a famous rabbi] sephardi,
Rabbi Nachman, ashkenazi
It should be fortunate, may it be,
G-d willing, it will be
Ya’alili, dance my beloved
Gina Gina sephardi
may we hear more ashkenazi
Yosef our father, sephardi
the eith day, ashkenazi
days for joy, sephardi,
have a good yom tov, ashkenazi
It should be fortunate, may it be,
G-d willing, it will be
I found a link to Foreskin Man on The Good Man Project. To respond fully will require a more careful reading than I can give the comic now, but even paging quickly through issue two reveals an awful lot that is problematic in the way the characters are drawn. The Good Man Project pointed to this image of the evil Jewish circumcisers:
But the depiction of women is also problematic:
The routine circumcision of infant boys, medical and otherwise, is a problem. Somehow I can’t see a comic like this being the way to address it.
The bishop, known as Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus, said during an interview on Greek television on Monday that Jews “control the international banking system.” He added: “Adolf Hitler was an instrument of world Zionism and was financed from the renowned Rothschild family with the sole purpose of convincing the Jews to leave the shores of Europe and go to Israel to establish the new Empire.”
In response to the outrage his statements caused, the bishop issued a statement, which Mackey quotes in full:
December 23, 2010
On the occasion of the concerns raised by the European Jewish Congress with regard to my interview with the MEGA television channel on December 20, I have to say the following:
1. The things I said during my television appearance on the show “Society Hour Mega” are strictly my personal views and opinions, which I have repeatedly expressed… verbally and in writing.
2. I respect, revere and love the Jewish people like any other people of our world according to the teaching of the incarnated Son of God and the true Messiah the Lord Jesus Christ the Savior and Redeemer, who was heralded by all the Prophets and was incarnated through the Jewish nation.
3. My public vehement opposition against International Zionism refers to the organ that is the successor of the “Sanhedrin” which altered the faith of the Patriarchs, the Prophets and the Righteous of the Jewish nation through the Talmud, the Rabbinical writings and the Kabbalah into Satanism, and always strives vigorously toward an economic empire set up throughout the world with headquarters in the great land beyond the Atlantic for the prevalence of world government and pan-religion.
4. I consider like any sane person on the planet the Nazi régime and the paranoid dictator Adolf Hitler as horrible criminals against humanity and take a stand with all honor and respect against the Jewish Holocaust and any other heinous genocide such as that of the Pontic Greek and Armenian people. Besides, the Greek nation mourns thousands of martyrs from the criminal Nazi atrocities.
+ The Metropolitan of Piraeus, Seraphim
On the one hand, I am not surprised; on the other hand, the whole thing leaves me speechless.
I took my wife and my son for their birthdays, which are a day apart later this month, to see the Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani last night at Town Hall. He is very talented and very funny. One of the things he does to great effect is bring the audience into dialogue with him as part of his show, and so – since part of this agenda is quite explicitly political, i.e., to use comedy as a way of calling out and breaking down stereotypes and other kinds of barriers between different kinds of people – he asks members of different groups to identify themselves in the audience: Iranians (obviously), white people, Arabs (making sure to specify which country they come from, to make the point, you know, that the Arab Middle East is not all one country), Jews, Latinos, etc. Perhaps my favorite joke of the evening resulted from this – not that it was the funniest, but it was my favorite.
He was talking to some Palestinian women sitting in the front and then – I don’t remember exactly who said what – identified some Jewish people sitting in the same row, more or less, but across the aisle. He asked them to wave at each other, which they did, and made the predictable joke about the peace process starting right there as part of the Maz Jobrani show. There followed some other patter and then he said, addressing himself to someone else in the audience, saying something like, “See, now, we need to start with a wave. Can’t go too far too soon; there’s just too much distrust.” Then he turned to the Palestinians and said, “Please, now, don’t go throwing anything at them; I don’t know what you brought with you, but don’t throw it. Not tonight.” And then he turned to the Jews and said, “And don’t you go taking her seat; it’s her seat. Okay?”
The audience exploded with laughter. It was not his funniest joke of the evening, but it was in some ways his most pointedly political, and he carried it off so lightly, so well, I was clapping as much in admiration as I was in laughter. It made me wonder what he would have done with us had we been sitting close enough: a Jewish American man, a Muslim Iranian woman and our son. It also reminded me, for some reason, of one of my favorite poems by the 12th century Iranian poet Saadi. Here it is in my tranlsation:
Everyone thinks his own thinking is perfect and that his child is the most beautiful.
I watched a Muslim and a Jew debate
and shook with laughter at their childishness.
The Muslim swore, “If what I’ve done is wrong,
may God cause me to die a Jew.” The Jew
swore as well, “If what I’ve said is false,
I swear by the holy Torah that I will die
a Muslim, like you.” If tomorrow the earth
fell suddenly void of all wisdom
no one would admit that it was gone.
My favorite parts of this video are Sarah Silverman explaining how a Jew would kvetch about your sweater while saving you from a fire and Ben Stiller explaining why the organization should change its name to Jewish American World Service, so the acronym would spell “JAWS.”
Part 1 ended with the following paragraph: And so on and so on, until the fundamental difference between the Jew and the woman. Neither believe in themselves; but the woman believes in others, in her husband, her lover, or her children, or in love itself; she has a center of gravity, although it is outside her own being. The Jew believes in nothing, within him or without him.…The woman believes in the man, in the man outside her, or in the man from whom she takes her inspiration [Jesus], and in this fashion can take herself in earnest. The Jew takes nothing seriously; he is frivolous and jests about anything, about the Christian’s Christianity, the Jew’s baptism.
The Jew, in other words, is an even more debased woman than a woman is.
The Jew’s baptism. A Jewish joke: In the years before Vatican II, when Catholics were still prohibited from eating meat on Fridays, a Jewish man named Yankel converted to Catholicism. From that moment on, he insisted on being called only Jacob.
Jacob was a devout churchgoer, active in his parish and well-liked and respected by those who knew him. Still, Jacob was a new Catholic and old habits do die hard. So one Friday the parish priest decided to stop by Jacob’s apartment, just to make sure. As he walked up the stairs to Jacob’s floor, the priest could smell that someone was cooking pot roast. As he approached Jacob’s door, the smell got stronger, and when he knocked and Jacob appeared in the doorway, the priest’s worst fears were confirmed. The odor filling the hallway came from Jacob’s apartment.
“Jacob,” the priest tried to be circumspect, “you do realize it’s Friday, don’t you?”
“Of course, Father. Would you like to stay for dinner?”
“I’d love to stay, but it is Friday, you know, and we’re not supposed to eat meat.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Father,” Jacob’s voice was warm and reassuring, “I’m not serving meat.”
At this obvious lie, the priest got angry. “What do you mean you’re not serving meat! I can smell the pot roast!”
“Really, Father, don’t worry. It’s not pot roast.”
The priest pushed past Jacob into the kitchen. Sure enough, there, in the oven, was a pot roast. “Look,” he was pointing directly at the meat. “How can you tell me this is not a pot roast?”
“Well, Father, last Sunday I brought some holy water home from the church, and today, before I started to cook, I sprinkled some of the water on the meat and I said, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you’re no longer a pot roast. You’re a poached salmon.’”
The book was called Sex and Character, and it was brilliant — all the critics on both sides of the Atlantic said so. Otto Weininger, the author, was a German Jew who converted when he received his doctorate. By arguing that Jewish men are essentially degenerate women — this is Sander Gilman’s line of reasoning in Jewish Self-Hatred—Weininger hoped to prove that he had left his former Jewish self behind for good, but it didn’t work. Weininger the Jew haunts the pages of Sex and Character the way the voice of any unwanted self haunts the person who tries to disown it. We are always, inescapably, at every moment of who we are, all of who we are, and to disavow that wholeness is to turn the part of ourselves we have rejected into a ghost.
The Jew’s baptism. I wish I could remember which rebbe it was who first explained to me that Jews cannot convert — or, more precisely, that Jewish law does not recognize as valid any conversion ritual to which a Jew might choose to submit. You could live the rest of your life in strict, definitively non-Jewish adherence to the principles of your new faith, adopting whatever label of identification that faith required, but, according to this rebbe, there was ultimately nothing you could do to wipe away the fact of your Jewishness. “When the day of judgment finally arrives,” I remember him telling my class, “God will judge these men and women as Jews, and it will be as Jews that they enter or are prohibited from entering olam haba, the world to come.”
The underlying Jewish reality of my existence, in other words — and I believed this, because in those days I believed almost everything about being Jewish that my rebbes told me — could not be changed. What it meant for me to be a Jew was as permanently written into the foundation of my Yiddishe neshama, my Jewish soul, as the fact of my circumcision had been permanently written into my body, because even though most of my non-Jewish friends were also circumcised, mine was different. My circumcision had been performed in the name of God — this is my grandmother talking, though I don’t remember why she felt the need to explain it to me — was proof of the covenant God had made with Abraham, of my inclusion in and obligation to fulfill that covenant. I could change about myself anything I wanted to; I could even become a woman — this is me; my grandmother would never have allowed such a thing to enter her mind — but I could never escape the fact that a divine cut had been made in my flesh, that the mark of God’s chosen people had once been visible on my flesh.
Given the frequency with which Jews were forced to convert to Christianity throughout much of European history — and as far as I know it was in Europe that the notion of the unconvertible Jew first took shape — it’s understandable that the rabbis who shaped Jewish law might see becoming a Christian as something one might do to survive, but not as an act one would choose willingly to perform. Indeed, the idea that there was such a thing as an immutable Jewish soul could be understood as a form of resistance, a way of drawing a line that the Christians could not cross under any circumstances. It’s ironic, therefore, that the medieval church also conceived of the Jewish soul as immutable, except that the church thought the impossibility of a fully valid Jewish conversion resulted from shortcomings with which the Jews were born and which could never fully be overcome.
Remember “the blood of Christ” versus “the blood of a Christian”? According to de Cantimpré, the mistake was made by a Jewish prophet who didn’t understand Latin well enough to get it right. No, more than didn’t. Couldn’t. Who couldn’t get it right because he was incapable, as all Jews were understood to be incapable, of commanding any language other than their own. In de Cantimpré’s time, this language was Hebrew, the tongue in which the Jews read and interpreted their holy texts, and it was in the nature of Hebrew, and therefore in the nature of the Jewish soul that perceived the world through Hebrew, that the Jews could not see, for example, the many prefigurations of Christ’s coming that their texts. To put it another way, the Jews had a limited and essentially false view of the world because they spoke Hebrew, and they spoke Hebrew because they had a limited and false view of the world. The Jews’ very existence, in other words, was based on false pretenses, and so even when a Jew claimed to have converted out of real conviction, the assumption among his new coreligionists was that he or she was most probably lying.
Since Jews in the middle ages could be condemned to burn at the stake for even the tiniest perceived slight against Christianity — and a false conversion was an offense neither tiny nor imaginary — Jews who converted had a vested interest in putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their own disavowed Jewishness. So, in the 1500s, when the converted Jew Johannes Pfefferkorn wrote a series of pamphlets attacking the Jews, he had first to convince his Christian readers of the validity and value of his own conversion. “My dearest Christians,” he wrote, “you should understand and appreciate the great value and bounty that the Jews will bring to the Christian Church.… Much as a hungry bear who has broken open a beehive will not be driven away because of the attraction of the sweets, so, too, will it occur with the Jews. When they taste the honey, they will say, This is a feast above all feasts, and I believe, as true as it is within me, that all of the worldly feasts are not to be compared with one who has understood the Old Testament in the light of the New.”1
Pfefferkorn wrote in vain. Victor of Karben, a rabbi who converted to Christianity and became a priest, and who was a contemporary of Pfefferkorn, summed up where converts like him fit into his new religious community’s world view: “And thus, says the Psalmist, one spends the entire day like a poor dog that has spent its day running and returns home at night hungry. For there are many uncharitable and ignorant Christians who will not give to you but will rather show you from their doors with mockery, saying, ‘Look, there goes a baptized Jew.’ And then others answer, ‘Yes, anything that is done for you is a waste. You will never become a good Christian.’.…And [still others say] with satisfaction, ‘Though you may act like a Christian, you are still a Jew at heart.’”2
You are still a Jew at heart. The cycle is vicious, because if Jews can never change, then conversion and its accompanying salvation are categorical impossibilities. And yet if you are a Jew who’s converted not only do the Jews have to be able to change, but they also have to be, at the same time, so radically and irreconcilably different that your becoming a Christian negates entirely the Jew you once were. Otherwise, how can you prove that your conversion is real? Or maybe your conversion was a lie after all, the result of a Jewish deceitfulness within yourself of which you had no knowledge. And yet you know how you feel. You know the joy you experienced when you were baptized. How could that have been false? And yet and yet and yet and yet, and yet again. The cycle is vicious, and it forms the core of all self-hatred — in this case Jewish self-hatred — and there is, ultimately, no way out of it.
Dear — ,
I was glad to receive your letter the other day. It has been many months since you left and I welcomed the opportunity that reading your words gave me to hear again the sound of your voice. You ask how, after having lived most of my life as a Jew, I found it in myself to embrace as fully and with as much certainty as I have the light that is Christ. Indeed, it is a good story, worth telling. Perhaps you, or those with whom you share it, will find it instructive.
At first, it was strictly business, the way it always is with the Jews. I was in Mainz to keep an eye on Ekbert, the bishop of Mainz, to whom I’d been foolish enough to lend money without sufficient collateral. I went regularly to his sermons, standing at the edge of the crowd, pretending to be interested, but really I just wanted to let him know I was there, that it would not be easy for him to get out of paying me back. Slowly, though, I’m not sure exactly when or precisely why, his words started to mean something to me, and it was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, a darkness cleared. Of course the binding of Isaac prefigured the crucifixion! And of course Isaiah’s prophecy about the virgin was really a foretelling of the virgin birth! How could I not have understood this before? Soon I was not only attending Ekbert’s sermons; I was also getting private instruction from him, though I had to use the pretense of going to collect my money so I could see him without arousing the Jews’ suspicions. Because they are a devious people, they trust no one, not even each other, and so I made sure to take from Ekbert just enough money to put my neighbors at ease. Of course I gave every bit of it back once my conversion was complete.
Still, even though I am now Hermann, the abbot of this monastery at Scheda, even though the man I was, Judah ben David ha-Levi, is as foreign to me as if he’d never been born, even now, sometimes I hear in my dreams the words of the monk to whom I first confided my desire to accept Christ, before I asked Ekbert to be my teacher — “Get out! Get out, you heathen! You blind Jewish dog! Get out!” Just as they did when I first heard them, the words paralyze me, and I am overcome with fear that I remain beneath these monastic robes nothing more than a Jew, forever blind and, for that blindness, forever damned. Only prayer and the knowledge that Christ’s love is all-forgiving help me then. May you never know such doubts.
Yours in Christ,
Hermann — yes, he really did exist3—did not write this letter, but I am guessing that he wrote or wanted to write one just like it, and so I have imagined for him an interlocutor to whom he could express his frustrations and fears not only without fearing reprisal, but also, and more importantly, with the hope that in speaking to this person he would be able to find some affirmation of what he understood to be true about himself. In this sense, Sex and Character was Otto Weininger’s letter to the world, but while the letter I’ve invented for my version of Hermann succeeds in the sense that he is honest about his doubts and the pain they cause him, Weininger’s left him blind.
“The pilpul,”—this is Sander Gilman — “is the quintessentially Jewish mode of argument. It is the basis for all Talmudic discourse. Suspending time and space, it confronts the opinions of all authority, seeking the moment of resolution hidden within seemingly contradictory positions.” The pilpul proceeds “based on analogy and approximation and not on the syllogism, the basis of classical logic.”4 So, for example, in Tractate Bava Metzia, when the rabbis take up the question of what kinds of found objects the finder is obliged to return and what kinds he or she may keep, everyone agrees that if the found object has some identifying mark on it, such that the object’s owner has a reasonable expectation of identifying and retrieving it, the finder cannot keep the object without first making a concerted and public effort to locate the owner. If, on the other hand, the found object has no identifying mark, then the finder can keep it without making that effort because we assume that the owner, since he has no expectation of identifying what he has lost, has given up hope of retrieving it.
In other words, if someone finds “scattered fruit” without any identifying mark, he or she is allowed to keep it. Rabbi Yitzhak wants to know, however, precisely how much fruit spread over precisely how much area qualifies as “scattered.” The rabbis then take a moment to define the context in which the fruit is found, deciding that they are not talking about a situation in which the fruit fell by accident or where there is some indication — even if there is no mark on the fruit — that the owner will return later to retrieve what he dropped. Rather, they are dealing with a situation in which grain kernels have been left behind on the threshing room floor, and since the effort required to collect the kernels would be greater than what the owner would gain by collecting them, we can assume the owner will not come back to do so. Anyone who finds the grain, therefore, is entitled to keep it. On the other hand, though, if the grain is spread over a small enough area such that the owner might consider the effort it would take to retrieve the grain worthwhile, then we have to assume that he or she will return for the grain, and so the person who finds it cannot keep it without first attempting to return it.
But another question still remains unanswered. The rabbis want to know the owner’s primary motive for abandoning part of his crop. Is it the fact that it will take too much effort to collect the scattered grain? Or is it because the value of the grain once it has been gathered will be too small? So Rabbi Yirmeyah poses the question of whether the same principles would apply to half the amount of grain scattered over half the area. The effort to gather the grain is smaller, but the value of the grain is less. Do we assume the owner would come back for the grain or not? So then the rabbis ask about twice the amount of grain spread out over twice the area, where the effort to gather the grain would be greater, but the value would be greater as well. The discussion then becomes even more complicated when the rabbis start to consider that different kinds of fruit are not only of different sizes, but they have different values. Sesame seeds, for example, are very small and exceptionally hard to pick up, but they were also, in Talmudic times, extremely valuable. Given that fact, someone might indeed be willing to expend the effort of gathering the seeds up, even a relatively small amount scattered over a relatively large area. So is the quantity and square footage that define “scattered” for sesame seeds different from, say, the measurements that define “scattered” for figs?
And so on and so on and so on, until the rabbis pronounce teiku, which means they have concluded that the questions raised by Rabbi Yirmeyah must remain undecided.
And that’s it. They just leave it there. The text records no uneasiness that they have not been able to resolve this question, no frustration at Rabbi Yirmeyah for posing an unsolvable problem. They seem to be content that the problem has been articulated, and they move on to the next issue, which is a good deal more complex and has to do with what it means to say that someone who has lost an object has given up hope of finding it — and remember that we are talking here about objects that have no identifying mark. The rabbis want to know the precise moment at which this loss of hope takes effect, freeing the finder of any obligation to locate the owner. Is it from the moment the loss occurs, whether or not the owner is aware of the loss? Or is it from the moment the owner becomes aware that he has lost something? The question may seem silly, but there is an important underlying principle at stake: Is it possible, or even desirable, to consider as having already occurred events that have not yet taken place, but that will without a doubt occur in the future? Here’s another variation of the same question: How does one distinguish legally between something that happens of its own accord (a storm, say, that knocks a tree from your yard onto your neighbor’s property and damages your neighbor’s roof) and something that happens because of human action (the same tree damages the same roof, but this time it’s because you were cutting the tree down and it fell in the wrong direction)?5
The Jew takes nothing seriously. So imagine you’re a man walking down the road at the time of The Malleus Maleficarum. Not far ahead something that looks like the largest worm you’ve ever seen is trying to crawl across the road. When you get closer, you realize it’s a penis, probably just escaped from the cage it was kept in by the witch that stole it. Which portion of the law should apply? Is finding the penis the same thing as finding, say, a lost sheep? (Or in this case perhaps a horse, since the witches, you’ll remember, feed their stolen penises barley and oats?) Or is it like finding a piece of food that fell from the bag of the person who bought it? Or suppose instead of one penis, you happen across an entire cage’s worth scattered along the road? Does it matter precisely how scattered they are? Do we assume that a man who has lost his penis will be able to identify it and so, by definition, cannot be said to have given up hope of finding it? Or is it all moot because the penises were stolen? And since we’re talking here about penises that have become unattached to the men whose bodies they used to adorn, we know, I mean, we really know, they had to have been stolen. Must you announce what you’ve found? How, assuming someone comes to claim what you’ve found, will you identify its rightful owner? Under what circumstances, if any, can you keep a penis you have found for yourself? Why on earth would you want to?
Well, if you were an eighteenth or nineteenth century man of medicine or science, you’d want one in your specimen collection, specifically a Black one, because the study of comparative anatomy pretty much demanded that you have one. Founded by Johan Friedrich Blumenbach, this new scientific field treated the body as a text even more revealing of the differences between and among groups of people than their languages or culturally determined behaviors, especially when the differences in question were racial. “Every peculiarity of the body has” — this is the nineteenth century anatomist Edward Drinker Cope, quoted by David M. Friedman in his book, A Mind Of Its Own—“…some corresponding significance in the mind, and the causes of the former are the remoter causes of the latter,” a principle understood in practice to mean that larger physical or physiological features conferred superiority on the race that possessed them. With one exception. The larger penises that Black men were understood to have — the myth actually dates at least as far back as the ancient Romans — conferred on them not sexual superiority but the bestiality that white people believed defined Black inferiority. 6
Even in the early years of the twentieth century, the idea was widespread that the genitals of Black men precluded any possibility of equality with whites. In “The Negro as a Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilization,” published in 1903, Dr. William Lee Howard developed this idea at some length, arguing that because “all intellectual development [in Black men] cease[d] with the advent of puberty,” and because Black men possessed “enormously developed” genitals that compelled them to devote their entire lives “to the worship of Priapus,” resulting in the corresponding enlargement of the sexual centers of their brains, the only way Blacks could be “elevated” by education — the phrasing that was common at the time — was if that education managed somehow to “reduce the large size of the African’s penis.”7
Throughout history, in other words, people have believed that what they think they know about the nature of a man’s penis somehow bespeaks the true essence of his character.
Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews 36. [↩]
The poet Kazim Ali posted this to his Facebook page, saying that he thought it “had to be a myth,” and that is what it sounds like at first, but the Dove World Outreach Center is indeed inviting people to burn a Quran on September 11, 2010. It’s easy to dismiss this as quackery, as not worth giving the attention that it got through CNN’s coverage, but the truth is that if we don’t pay attention to it, if we don’t call it out for what it is – and it’s gratifying to see that the Facebook page protesting the event has close to twice as many fans as the Facebook page announcing the event – it will spread. More than that, though, it will become – it already has become, actually, and this is kind of frightening – part of the way perceptions of Islam are framed by our national rhetoric. Here’s the video:
Rick Sanchez, I think, proves himself to be a particularly inept interviewer here – I don’t watch him, so I don’t know if he’s usually better than this – but one of the things that disturbs me about the way he tries to respond to Terry Jones, Dove World Outreach’s pastor, is his but-there–are–moderate-muslims-out-there tone, as if those “moderate Muslims” – and more about that phrase in a moment – are somehow the exception to the rule. Or as if they are, you know, out there, but really well hidden, and so you have to know the secret code or something to get them to reveal themselves. Equally troubling to me, though, is the way the phrase “moderate Muslims” has taken on the same descriptive weight and authority as, say, Orthodox Jew or Evangelical Christian, as if “moderate” were somehow actually a sect of Islam. Well-meaning as it may be, the phrase actually contributes to rather than deconstructs the way in which Islam is being defined as a profoundly hostile theologically-informed, we-want-to-rule-the-world political stance towards the West, broadly speaking, and the United States in particular, rather than as a religion. This is to me – and I’d be interested to hear what other people think of this – very similar to the way in which the antisemitic rhetoric of Europe framed Judaism from the 18th century, and certainly the 19th century on, and it is certainly one of the underlying assumptions – i.e., that the Jews want to rule the world – of the “World Zionist Conspiracy” theories.
It’s also worth noting that Jones and his group also declared August 2 “No Homo Mayor” day, a day to protest Gainesville’s openly gay mayor. Both groups – Muslims and homosexuals – are godless according to Jones, a logic similar to the one that created the association between being Jewish and homosexuality, to mention being communist, Jewish and homosexual, that was an important point of antisemitic rhetoric in this country during 50s, 60s and even 70s.
It’s easy to dismiss Terry Jones and his church as a bunch of nuts, especially when his arguments for why Islam is a devil’s religion, as quoted in the text accompanying the Rick Sanchez video, include doozies like this:
“I mean ask yourself, have you ever really seen a really happy Muslim? As they’re on the way to Mecca? As they gather together in the mosque on the floor? Does it look like a real religion of joy?” Jones asks in one of his YouTube posts.
“No, to me it looks like a religion of the devil.”
The problem is that Jones and company are only giving expression to the logical conclusion of what an awful lot of people in the United State., consciously or not, already believe. The term Islamophobia may be relatively new, but the (often racialized and racializing) hatred of Muslims has a long history in this country – and that is something I will perhaps write about in another post – a history that predates the September 11th attacks not by decades, but by centuries, and its assumptions, its images, its rhetoric is/has been as much a part of our culture as the assumptions, images, rhetoric of, say, racism.
I am not an alarmist, though I do think there is a comparison to be made between the way in which antisemitic rhetoric was deployed so as to make the Nazi’s campaign against the Jews and the way Islamophobic rhetoric has been more and more making its way into our public discourse. Indeed, I think this comparison would probably work with the rhetoric of any genocidal campaign, though I do not think and I am not implying that this is the beginning of some kind of anti-Muslim government action. Rather, I think, plain and simple, that those comparisons should make clear to us how imperative it is not to let the actions and the rhetoric of people like Terry Jones go unanswered.