Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Gospel According to the Pharisees, part 2

Jewish date:  24 Siwan 5771 (Parashath Ḥuqqath).

Today’s holidays:  Corpus Christi (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Archie McPhee (Church of the SubGenius).

I post this now in an effort to get caught up.  There are things going on religiously which are unlikely to be discussed by me, but at least I hope to make progress on what one might call “original content”.

About ten months ago I reported on a passage in Sanhedhrin 43a in the Talmudh Bavli dealing with one Yeshu the Noṣri (Jesus the Nazarene).  It is not clear if this Yeshu is the same as the subject of the Gospels, though there are suggestive similarities.

Around Shavu‘oth I was at a lecture which brought up another (commonly censored out) passage in Sanhedhrin which deals with Yeshu the Noṣri.  When I looked it up, I discovered it appears slightly differently in Soṭah, too.  Here are both versions, my translation (with apologies for any inaccuracies there may be, as the language is difficult):

Soṭah 47a:
Our Masters taught:  Always the left [hand] should push away and the right bring near.  [This is] not like [the prophet] ’Elisha‘, who pushed away [his assistant] Geḥazi with his two hands, and not like Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah, who pushed away Yeshu the Noṣri with his two hands.
Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah—what is this?  When King Yanna’y [one of the Maccabean kings] was killing Our Masters, Shim‘on ben Sheṭaḥ’s sister  [wife of King Yanna’y] hid him.  Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah went [and] fled to ’Aleksanderiyya’ of Miṣrayim [Alexandria, Egypt].
When there was peace, Shim‘on ben Sheṭaḥ sent to him:  “From me [in] Yerushalayim [Jerusalem] the Holy City to you [in] ’Aleksanderiyya’ of Miṣrayim:  My sister [says], ‘My husband dwells in your midst, and I sit desolate.’”
He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said, “Hear from this he [Shim‘on ben Sheṭaḥ] had peace.”
When he came [and] reached a certain inn, he [the innkeeper] stood before him with much honor; they did for him great honor.  He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] sat and praised, “How pleasant/beautiful is this hostess!”
Yeshu the Noṣri said to him, “Rabbi, her eyes are ṭeruṭoth [oval?  long?  narrow?  tearful?  at any rate, probably not intended as a complement].
He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said to him, “Evil [one]!  In this do you busy yourself?”  He brought out 400 shofaroth [for the sake of publicity] and excommunicated him.
Every day he [Yeshu the Noṣri] went before him [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah], and he did not receive him.
One day he [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] was reading Qeriyyath Shema‘ [a basic Jewish prayer].  He [Yeshu the Noṣri] came before him.  It was on his mind to receive him.  He showed him with his hand [i.e., made a sign to avoid interrupting his prayers].  He [Yeshu the Noṣri] thought that he [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] had pushed him away; he went [and] set up a brick [as] a worshipper.
He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said to him, “Return yourself!”
He [Yeshu the Noṣri] said to him, “Thus I received from you:  All sinners and those who cause the masses to sin cannot succeed in doing repentance.  For Mar [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said, ‘Yeshu the Noṣri performed magic and incited [to transgression] and tempted [to commit transgressions] and caused Yisra’el [Israel] to sin.’”

Sanhedhrin 107b:
Our Masters taught:  Always the left [hand] should push away and the right bring near.  [This is] not like ’Elisha‘, who pushed away Geḥazi with his two hands, and not like Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah, who pushed away Yeshu the Noṣri with his two hands.
Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah—what is this?  When King Yanna’y was killing Our Masters, Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah and Yeshu went to ’Aleksanderiyya’ of Miṣrayim.
When there was peace, Shim‘on ben Sheṭaḥ sent to him:  “From me [in] Yerushalayim the Holy City to you [in] ’Aleksanderiyya’ of Miṣrayim:  My sister [says], ‘My husband dwells in your midst, and I sit desolate.’”
He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] stood [and] came [and] arrived by chance at a certain inn.  They did for him great honor.  He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said, “How pleasant/beautiful is this hostess!”
He [Yeshu the Noṣri] said to him, “Rabbi, her eyes are ṭeruṭoth.
He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said to him, “Evil [one]!  In this do you busy yourself?”  He brought out 400 shofaroth and excommunicated him.
He [Yeshu the Noṣri] came before him [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] several times [and] said to him, “Receive me!”  He would not look at him.
One day he [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] was reading Qeriyyath Shema‘.  He [Yeshu the Noṣri] came before him.  He thought to receive [him].  He showed him with his hand [i.e., made a sign].  He [Yeshu the Noṣri] thought, “He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] has pushed me away.”  He went [and] set up a brick and prostrated himself before it.
He [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said to him, “Return yourself!”
He [Yeshu the Noṣri] said to him, “Thus I received from you:  All sinners and those who cause the masses to sin cannot succeed in doing repentance.   And Mar [Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah] said, ‘Yeshu the Noṣri performed magic and incited [to transgression] and tempted [to commit transgressions] and caused Yisra’el [Israel] to sin.’”

Like the Sanhedhrin 43a passage, this passage takes place at a time of Jewish rule, not Roman; Herod the Great ruled after the Maccabean kings.  Like in the Gospels, this Yeshu spent time in Egypt due to persecution from the government; however, the Gospels blame Herod the Great for trying to kill Jesus as a small child, while here Yeshu is presumably an adult.

Clearly there is a lot left out of these passages.

1) The cause of Yeshu’s excommunication, that he was criticizing the appearance of a married woman’s eyes, is odd.  That he noticed there was something unusual about a married woman’s eyes is nothing unusual; since he was presumably not blind, it is to be expected.  Talking about it, however, is rude and improper, as it is completely irrelevant to how the inn staff were treating Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Peraḥyah and Yeshu—people who are physically unusual can be just as nice as anyone else—but this would be the first time your humble blogger is aware of anyone being excommunicated for being rude.

2) Like in the Sanhedhrin 43a passage, this Yeshu also goes horribly wrong.  Idolatry is strictly forbidden in Judaism, but why he fell that far is never stated.  Many people screw up horribly without becoming idolators.

3) What Yeshu was doing to cause others to transgress or what he did magically is not stated.  Why he did either is never stated.

Humans, even when they go bad, have reasons for what they do.  These reasons may be anything from excellent to idiotic, but they do not happen arbitrarily or suddenly.  Is Yeshu’s comment on a woman’s eyes part of a series of other misbehaviors which together justify his excommuication?  What happened to Yeshu which gave him the idea of practicing idolatry or magic?  Why would he make other people do wrong, too?  I have no idea.  But I find myself wondering if there are other passages in the Talmudh about Yeshu the Noṣri.  I hope further searching will turn up more information on  him which will fill in the gaps in his life.



Friday, June 24, 2011

The Coyote Ugly sermon

Jewish date:  22 Siwan 5771 (Parashath Qoraḥ).

Today’s holidays:  Birth of John the Baptist (Christianity); Feast Day of Elizabeth,  Mother of the Forerunner (Greek Orthodox Christianity); Feast of the Lesser Mysteries (Thelema); Feast Day of St. Anton LaVey (Church of the SubGenius).


Given that I recently posted a review of the utterly dreadful song “Judas” by the utterly tasteless performer Lady Gaga, one may now assume that anything which I can stand to read or watch without losing my lunch or going insane is now a legitimate target for review and commentary.  And so, after six years, I am going to finally publish what may be first and last sermon ever written on Coyote Ugly, here and now.  I have chosen this time because the sermon is directly relevant to this week’s Torah portion.

Peace and Shabbath shalom.


I have boasted that I give sermons stranger than anyone else’s, and to this end I will attempt to tie together Qoraḥ, the exoteric and esoteric meanings of Song of Songs, and (of all things) the movie Coyote Ugly.  (I know it sounds like a circus stunt, but please, bear with me.)
One evening at a joint CSEB-SER conference in Toronto (28 June 2005), the guy I was sharing a hotel room with decided to watch television, and after flipping through channels, he settled on Coyote Ugly.  From what I saw of the movie, it was mainly about conventionally beautiful, immodestly dressed women who dance on top of bars.  The point of this is to attract customers to the bar, and these have to purchase alcoholic beverages to stay there.  Though there were clear attempts at a plot and character development, my intuition insists these were not the point of this film or why anyone would deliberately see it; indeed, what little I can remember of how it was marketed was “women dancing on bars” and not “the struggles of an aspiring songwriter”.
Being a religious Jew, I naturally was soon mentally contrasting this tasteless movie with something vaguely similar in any respect out of the world of Judaism, namely the exoteric meaning of Song of Songs.  Song of Songs on the simple level also deals largely with sexuality, but in a vastly different manner than Coyote Ugly.  Sexuality in Song of Songs is all about love between a husband and wife, with the goal being that through appreciation of each other the lovers become closer.  This socially functional sexuality is private, shared by them alone and not with other people.  In contrast, the sexuality of Coyote Ugly is public and exploitative.  It is out there for anyone to see—as long as they are paying customers.  Sexuality is turned into a tool to hawk a product, perverting its whole point.  Sex evolved as a means for reproduction and was later adapted as a means to keep couples together for their mutual benefit for long periods of time.  In contrast with this, in Coyote Ugly men come to the bar, lured by sexuality, but they are never ever allowed to progress past looking.  Instead, they are coerced into buying drinks of questionable hygiene and a deleterious effect on judgement, and ultimately they leave alone, cheated of sexuality’s promise.  This exploitation occurs on a higher level, too.  Men go to see the movie, lured by sexuality, but it is a sham.  They see the pretty sights, but two hours later the movie is over.  There are no beautiful women—in fact, they never were any, so there is no chance of a relationship, and the movie-goers have to go home with nothing but ticket stubs and $5.50 less in each of their wallets.
The real fun happens when we move from the exoteric to the esoteric.  The esoteric meaning of Song of Songs is about the relationship between YHWH and Yisra’el; He loves us, and we love Him.  The practice of Judaism is how we express our love for YHWH.  If we apply this symbolism to Coyote Ugly, we end up with a situation straight out of the Torah, namely the story of Qoraḥ (Numbers 15:1-17:28).  Qoraḥ, like most evil people, depicted himself as righteous.  He stood in public for all to see, calling for everyone to gather around him and see how righteous he was; in fact, he claimed to be even more righteous that Mosheh.  In the text of the Torah alone he accuses Mosheh of ignoring that all of Yisra’el is holy and instead resorting to nepotism in appointing the priesthood.  In midhrash, he argues that Mosheh’s teachings are inconsistent and biased against the most vulnerable people in society.  Like sexuality in Coyote Ugly, Qoraḥ’s righteousness is a sham.  He puts on a big show, but it has nothing to do with expressing his love for YHWH; he is just trying to exploit people.  He promises the great religious concepts of holiness and equality, but he never intends to do anything but grab power and send his followers home no better off than they were previously.  In short, Qoraḥ is the esoteric meaning of Coyote Ugly.
I do realize that the connection between Qoraḥ and Coyote Ugly was almost certainly never intended by the creators of the latter, but the phenomenon of exploitative superficiality which underlies both of them has, so far as I know, been common throughout human history, and it is still common today, to the point where we often expect it.  In movies, we expect great special effects and sex rather than good plots or believable characters.  We expect overblown claims in advertising; if something is labeled “low-fat”, it is high in sugar, and if it is “low-sugar”, it is high in fat—and we expect this.  In the domain of religion, there are cults, the whole purpose of which is to let the clergy exploit the laity.  In science, there are “junk science” and “creationism/intelligent design”, the point of which is to create doubt where none exists and obscure truths rather than reveal them.  In politics, we expect politicians to lie whenever they open their mouths and make promises they never intend to keep, yet we still vote for them.  In short, the World is filled with Qoraḥs, and the question before us is whether we will continue to fall for their lies, thereby perpetuating exploitative superficiality.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Holidays between Pesaḥ and Shavu‘oth

 Jewish date: 15 Siwan 5771 (Parashath Shelaḥ Lekha).

Today’s holidays:  Friday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast of Marvel “Jack” Parsons (Thelema), Feast Day of St. Zontar of Venus (Church of the SubGenius).


To get completely caught up, I should put in a few words on Jewish/Israeli holidays which occur between Pesaḥ (Passover) and Shavu‘oth (Pentecost).  I am sorry I did not get around to writing about them earlier; my memory of them seems to have faded further than I should have allowed it.

Yom hashSho’ah (Israeli Holocaust Day) and Yom hazZikkaron (Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day):  These are naturally solemn days.  The first does not seem to be taken off from work, while the second everyone left early from.  Both I remember being marked by the lighting of memorial candles, such as this one:

I also remember a national minute of silence on both days.

Yom ha‘Aṣma’uth (Israeli Independence Day):  This holiday celebrates the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.  My activities on that day on the Temple Mount have already received the attention of an entire blog post.  Yom ha‘Aṣma’uth is celebrated as a national holiday, with everyone getting off of work, and here in Giv‘ath Shemu’el we celebrated it as a religious holiday, too.  Our synagogue had an evening assembly with prayer services, speakers, and music to celebrate, and in the morning the synagogue I prayed out said Hallel (celebratory psalms) with blessings—something done in recognition of the arguably miraculous nature of Israel’s surviving the attack of the surrounding Arab countries intent on preventing there being a non-Muslim state in the region.  This was not only a day off from work, but the country really meant it.  As I walked from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station to the Old City, I saw barely any store of any kind open.  People also tend to have barbecues, and there were a lot of blue and white decorations around.  (Actually, a lot of them are still up, come to think of it.)

Day 33 of the ‘Omer/Lagh ba‘Omer:  I have already posted a link to commentary on the questionable origins of this holiday.  This holiday is infamous for people making bonfires.  Unfortunately, I somehow managed to avoid seeing any.

Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day):  This holiday celebrates the reunion of Jerusalem in 1967 when the Arabs attacked again, intent on wiping Israel off the map again, and not only lost the war, but territory as well.  This was not a day off, but we had another assembly, and Hallel with blessings was said in the morning.  I assumed that there was no way that the Waqf was going to let an observant Jew visit the Temple Mount this day, so I did not arrange my schedule for such a visit.  To my surprise, I afterward learned that Rav ’Ari’el of the Temple Institute did ascend on Yom Yerushalayim, lectured up there, and even laid a stone towards the rebuilding of the Temple.

OK, that is it for the moment.  I have other writing projects in the works.  I have learned of another passage in the Talmudh on Jesus (found in two places) and translated both versions; I now need to get around to writing commentary on it.  There is also a Jesus movie on Hulu which I ought to comment on.  Furthermore, Barry has alerted me to Ayn Rand becoming popular among the Republican Party lately.  Ayn Rand’s quasi-religion, Objectivism (a misnomer if there ever was one), is openly pro-selfishness—something rare in moral systems—leading to an obvious contradiction with Christianity.  I have started reading Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and it definitely merits moral commentary.  This may also lead me to reread material on LaVeyan Satanism, another pro-selfishness quasi-religion.  (Now somebody remind me to get back to reading The Golden Bough, which I am stuck in the middle of and need to get around to finishing.  Come to think of it, I am still in the middle of the Mahabharata, too.  So much material, so little time to review it…)

I would like to end with a bit of religious humor before it eats my brain.  I have finished unpacking all the books I had shipped to me here in Israel.  The last box contained the entire Scientology public canon.  The cover of one of the books struck me as shocking:

I realize that the Church of Scientology loves to recruit celebrities and have them promote Scientology, but HOW COULD THING (OF THE ADDAMS FAMILY) EVER BECOME A SCIENTOLOGIST?  SAY IT ISN'T SO!  SAY IT ISN'T SO!

Peace and Shabbath shalom.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Pesaḥ and Shavu‘oth

Jewish date:  8 Siwan 5771 (Parashath BeHa‘alothekha).

Today’s holidays:  Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of Basilides, (Thelema), Feast Day of St. Wacky Wall Walker (Church of the SubGenius).


I hope to finish up Pesaḥ (Passover) and also discuss Shavu‘oth (Pentecost) today.  (Working on that got delayed by the whole Lady Gaga business and other things I have been working on.)  Let’s see what we can do…

Yom ṭov sheni (second day of festivals):  Before Rav Hillel II enacted the current version of the Jewish calendar, the start of months was determined by empirical sighting of the new moon.  This was long before modern communications, and so places far from the court declaring the new moon might not hear about it for some time.  Thus communities in the Diaspora often had a real doubt what day it was, and thus they kept an extra day of the holidays in the Torah just to be sure.  When the current calendar was enacted, the practice remained despite the lack of a doubt; the reason I heard is that people liked having an extra day off.  It has been retained to this day except for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement); apparently no one liked fasting for two days in a row.  In Israel, the practice is (and apparently always has been) not to add an extra day.  Nothing felt wrong about it, though it did make both Pesaḥ and Shavu‘oth noticeably shorter.  I also ended up doing things on days I previous had treated as festivals that I would never have considered doing before.  E.g., yesterday was the second day of Shavu‘oth in America but an ordinary day here in Israel.  And I went to work and did laundry, both of which are simply not to be done on a festival.

Also:  It is not quite correct that yom ṭov sheni is observed in the Diaspora and is not in Israel; how one practices is actually dependent on where one lives.  I knew some Israelis back in Charleston who did not keep yom ṭov sheni, though they were very private about it.  I have also heard of Jews from America visiting Israel keeping yom ṭov sheni to various degrees.

The sedher:  I attended a sedher (only one) by a mixed Middle Eastern-’Ashkenazi family.  Liturgically there was not really anything unusual, though the tunes used for singing were not the ones I was used to.  This was the place I first ate soft maṣṣah.  They also had multiple sedher plates, and the man of the house gave some Qabbalistic explanations of details of the sedher.  I was very impressed with the handling of the children, which encouraged their participation and involved handing out prizes to them.

Qiṭniyyoth:  ’Ashkenazim (such as myself) have the practice of not eating qiṭniyyoth during Pesaḥ.  This group formally consists of legumes and grain-like seeds, e.g., rice, corn, peas, and beans.  There is a good deal of controversy over what the boundaries of this prohibition, e.g., whether peanuts and quinoa included.  There is even controversy over where the practice came from, and some ’Ashkenazim have dropped it altogether (“A New Explanation for Eschewing Qitniyoth”, “The Prohibition Against Qitniyoth on Pesah: Anatomy of an Error”, “The Road Map from Qitniyoth to Qorban Pesah”).  I did not go to such an extreme, but buying food for Pesaḥ in Israel is complicated that much of what is available contains qiṭniyyoth (as opposed to Pesaḥ food in the United States, which never does).  I did, however, keep three cans of kasher for Pesaḥ corn on my coffee table as a demonstration of my lack of paranoia.

Restaurants:  In the United States, I never heard of restaurants open for Pesaḥ.  Having a restaurant open on Pesaḥ requires a lot of preparation and cost, and the turnout has to be large enough for just a few days to make it worthwhile.  Previously, I had only heard about it being done at McDonald’s here in Israel, something about “matzoburgers”.  This Pesaḥ I found lots of restaurants open on Pesaḥ with their food certified as being kasher for Pesaḥ.  And on a date in Yerushalayim I ate pizza with a potato-based crust at one such restaurant.

Shavu‘oth:  This holiday is largely ignored and unknown in the United States outside of observant circles.  Here in Israel, it is a national holiday, and everyone takes it off.  It is so well-known over here that  I even saw a relevant advertisement:

Pardon the perspective, but sometimes one does not find a good place to stand while taking a photograph. This one is for cheesecake, which is commonly eaten on Shavu‘oth.

I did not notice anything particularly unusual about the observance of Shavu‘oth, other than everything was compressed into one day rather than two.  I did find out that Sefaradhim/Middle Eastern Jews read the Book of Ruth at night rather than during the day, but this did not strike me as more than a mere variation.

OK, someone remind me to blog soon on the holidays which occur during the counting of the ‘Omer.

Shabbath shalom.