Monday, August 16, 2010

Theological analysis of Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids (The Discworld Series, book 7)


Jewish date:  6 ’Elul 5770 (Parashath Ki-Theṣe’).

Today’s holidays:  Nag Panchami (Hinduism), Feast Day of Stephen of Hungary (Roman Catholicism), Solarinite Day (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy causes of the day:  “Take Action: Tell President Obama: Make Our Food Safe NOW!”, “GOP: Stop Punishing the Unemployed - The Petition Site”, and “Save the Internet: Take Action!:  Dear Chairman Genachowski: Don't Let Google Be Evil”.

Note:  My trip to Israel begins tomorrow afternoon.  Expect posting disruptions and (YHWH willing) cool pictures of places in Israel.

PyramidsTopic 1:  Theological analysis of Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids (The Discworld Series, book 7):


Pyramids is aptly titled, as pyramids really are one of main focuses of this book in two of their aspects.  The first aspect of pyramids is their being the tombs of dead kings, in this case of the Discworld kingdom of Djelibeybi, which corresponds with ancient Egypt.  Djelibeybi has a very extensive necropolis of the pyramids and monuments of all its previous rulers.  In each of the pyramids lies the mummy of a ruler, the later ones preserved in something close to Egyptian fashion:  with the brain and internal organs removed and pickled in jars and the empty body embalmed.  Laying the mummy in its pyramid, along with models of the necessities of life, is supposed to give it a good afterlife.  The other aspect of pyramids which shows up melded with the first aspect is the New Age concept that pyramids have occult powers, including the (flakey) idea that pyramids can sharpen razor blades.  The pyramids of Djelibeybi are nothing so trivial; their pyramids are magical devices which can stop the flow of time (or at least some “arrows of time”) and flare off accumulated new time from the top periodically in something akin to lightning.  The original point of pyramids is to stop time therein so that the entombed king never dies.  Real mummification is a later development.

Other aspects of ancient Egyptian religion are reflected in Djelibeybi.  The inhabitants are polytheists, worshipping various animal-headed gods.  Notably the sky is a goddess, and much emphasis is placed on the Sun and its movements across the sky.  The king is considered a living god, sacred in his person, and somehow responsible for making the Sun rise each day.  There is also a priesthood, headed by the high priest Dios.  “Dios” is a rather strange name for a priest, meaning “god” in Spanish, but it fits his character.  He has been around for as long as anyone can remember, is opposed to changing anything ever, and effectively rules Djelibeybi with a proverbial iron hand, even creatively interpreting the commands of the king to mean what he wants them to mean.

Curiously, the Djelibeybi religion is intrinsically inconsistent.  Now, it is common enough for real people to have not thought things through enough or not to know enough and thus to not realize that some of their beliefs are in conflict.  However, there are blatant inconsistencies in the Djelibeybi religion which even fairly dull people can recognize are contradictions.  E.g., it is not possible for the Sun to be rolled across the sky by a giant dung beetle and to be a boat and to be a hole in the sky and to be a flaming ball of gas orbiting the Disc.  What usually happens in real religions is that when conflicting beliefs are noted, some way is found to harmonize them.  E.g., conflicting beliefs may be things which are possibly true, or they may each be in some aspect true.  However, occasionally there are individuals who are not that wise and thus embrace contradiction.

All of this interacts to create the two major problems of the plot.  The easy one to understand is that the new king, Teppicymon XXVIII (“Teppic” for short), is highly displeased with Dios effectively countermanding his orders, including ordering the execution of the handmaiden Ptraci for refusing to voluntarily be buried with the old king and Teppic’s father Teppicymon XXVII.  Despite Teppic being a recent graduate of the school of the Assassin’s Guild, he has enough of a conscience to try to work against Dios underhandedly and effectively become an outlaw in his own kingdom in order to save Ptraci.  (To be fair, members of the Assassin’s Guild are supposed to kill only for large sums of money, and Dios is not paying Teppic anything.  And, yes, killing only for money is a rather strange concept of morality.  On the other hand, the Discworld pokes fun at a lot of the really nutty things that real people do and believe.  In our world, we have the no less bizarre notion of regulating warfare, which in turn is perverted by failing to apply the standards in anything resembling a fair manner.  But I digress.)

The other major problem is wholly due to the construction of the pyramid of Teppicymon XXVII.  This is the largest pyramid ever constructed in Djelibeybi, and with its construction come bizarre magical effects.  Pyramids, as noted, have magical effects on time, and effects are felt even before the pyramid is finished.  The Ptacslup clan who build it and their workers are frequently “looped back”, so they may be effectively present in multiple places at the same time, enabling them to do the job in a matter of days.  Flaring begins before the capstone can be put into place, and when two of the Ptacslups try to hurriedly manhandle it into place, all of Djelibeybi is rotated 90° through another dimension away from the rest of the Discworld, effectively isolating it.  (The effect is done in a way which shows that Pratchett really has not quite gotten the hang of four-dimensional geometry, but since this Divine Misconceptions and not Scientific Misconceptions or Mathematical Misconceptions, I will let it slide.)

Now, remember that on the Discworld belief changes reality.  While Djelibeybi is part of the Discworld, the beliefs of everyone on the Discworld go into creating reality.  But after the isolation, the belief system of the Djelibeybi religion takes over, unimpeded by the beliefs of other people.  But the Djelibeybi religion is inconsistent, which contradicts a principle that most of us take for granted:  reality is always self-consistent.  As much of the Djelibeybi belief system as possible is manifested, but the result in chaotic.  All of the sudden, gods who are supposed to be fulfilling the same function are fighting each other, including multiple Sun gods fighting over the Sun so that it gets tossed all over the sky.  Even worse, these gods are fairly stupid and ignore humans, causing a lot of damage wherever they go.  This is not what the gods are supposed to be like, suggesting that a lot of people in Djelibeybi, while believing in their gods’ existence, give little thought to their gods having minds and personalities or caring about humans; instead, they are just indefinite, uncaring powers.  All this is a shock for the priests, especially Dios.  Dios invented these gods and the entire religion of Djelibeybi in the first place, and he is at a loss at what to do.

A much stronger belief is in the afterlife for kings.  Now, in the Discworld people survive after death in according to their beliefs, so it should be no surprise that Teppicymon XXVII survives as a ghost to watch his mummification in grisly detail.  After the isolation of Djelibeybi, however, the belief in the mummy as the physical form of the deceased king took hold, and his mummified remains become his actual physical form.  Teppicymon XXVII quickly realizes that what has happened to him is probably happening to every other mummy in Djelibeybi.  He enlists two embalmers, and the three of them set out to free the other mummies.  Indeed, every pyramid contains an active mummy, many expressing a hatred for pyramids.  (You just try lying in a casket for 1,000 years.  You would probably hate it, too.)  But there is one exception to this rule:  one small, extremely primitive pyramid.  This pyramid is empty, and enough aspects of time run backwards in it for a lit torch to unburn.  (The amount of fuel increases rather than decreases.)

The plot resolves with three different groups converging:  1) the mummies and the embalmers, 2) the priests, who really have no idea how to handle the situation, but are still determined to do something anyway, and 3) Teppic.  Teppic, with the help of the mummies, manages to get his father’s pyramid capped, causing a huge flare.  Besides a lot of pyrotechnics, most of the pyramids are destroyed, the mummies fall into water and are dissolved (thus sparing them the horrors of eternal life), Dios disappears, the gods of Djelibeybi disappear, and Djelibeybi drops back into the Discworld.  Teppic abdicates in favor of Ptraci, who it turns out is his half-sister.  But then, at their last scene together, Ptraci demands that he not leave and ends up snogging him.  (I know:  EW!)  I am well aware that the ancient Egyptian royalty (and gods) had a thing for incest, but I am left wishing for something other than historical accuracy on this point and hope this pairing does not recur later in the series.  We also learn what happens to Dios:  he is blown right back to the beginning of Djelibeybi history, to found the kingdom.  His life history is circular, without beginning or end, and he never ages, due to his pyramid.  Appropriately, the symbol on his staff is the ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail and thus a kind of circle.

Also:  All rulers of Djelibeybi have a dream about seven fat cows and seven thin cows.  This should be familiar to anyone with a decent knowledge of Genesis as one of the two dreams of Par‘oh (Pharaoh) interpreted by Yosef (Joseph), though in that dream no cows were doing anything silly (unless one considers cannibalism silly).  Descriptions of Djelibeybi as “a land flowing with milk and honey” are less appropriate, since that description normally applies to Israel; it is only applied to Egypt once, by Jews dissatisfied with life in the Desert.

Also:  Djelibeybi lies between two powers, Ephebe and Tsort.  Once Djelibeybi disappears, these two countries decide to go to war, more out of principle rather than any real cause.  However, they base their tactics on what happened in a previous era, and both sides build giant wooden horses, which their soldiers hide in.  (Shades of the Trojan War.)  Fortunately, Djelibeybi reappears before anything actually happens.

Also, and finally:  I am well aware what the name “Djelibeybi” plays on.  I have seen more than enough Doctor Who to know that.

Next up:  Probably The White Goddess by Robert Graves.  This work is famous for having influenced the Neopagan movement and infamous for historical inaccuracy.  Though I have a ways to go in it, I am so far dissatisfied with the quality of its scholarship to the point that I am likely to title the review “I spit on Robert Graves”.  (Thanks to Barry for devising that title, intended for a nonexistent movie.)

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor: “Puff, the Kosher Dragon”.  This is a song which goes at least far back as my childhood.  There is also an audio version (RealPlayer required).  And, for the record, dragons are not suitable for food according to Jewish law; Puff is kasher in the sense of eating kasher food and being Torah-observant.


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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pros and cons of organized religion


Jewish date:  2 ’Elul 5770 (Parashath Shofeṭim).

Note:  For information on ’Elul, see the Orthodox Union’s ’Elul page.

Today’s holidays:  Ramadan (Islam), Thursday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Francisco Franco (Church of the SubGenius), Feast Day of William Blake/Feast for the First Night of the Prophet and His Bride/Feast of Heracles (Thelema), Sea Org Day (Scientology), Zaraday (Discordianism)

Worthy cause of the day:  “  FCC: Say NO to Google and Verizon / Demand the FCC do its job and protect the open Internet”.

Topic 1:  Yesterday on the news they reported that author Anne Rice has “quit being a Christian”.  I’m going to let her speak for herself before commenting on this:

To be technically correct, Rice has not quit being a Christian or religious, but rather has separated herself from all organized Christian groups.  Organized religion has the great advantage that it allows people to pull together and more easily do worthwhile things that they could not do easily or at all on their own.  E.g., it is much easier for a house of worship to start and manage a soup kitchen than an individual, as the house of worship can pool resources and spread effort among many people, while an individual would probably not be able to manage alone except maybe on a very small scale.  Organized religion, like any form of human organization, has a downside:  politics.  There is a lot of quarreling and bickering which goes on, both within groups and between groups.  Religions also tend to place a premium on beliefs and practices, so a lot of the politics may deal with beliefs and practices.  I am fortunate that I am currently a member of a group, the West Ashley Minyan, in which the politics have been kept under control (thank YHWH; we are what I have termed a “volunteerocracy”).  Unfortunately, in some groups the politics get to the point where members feel the problems of that organization outweigh the benefits.  Often this results in a schism if enough people feel the same way, allowing for maintaining organization but with a rejection of the old politics.  If there are not enough people, the result can be exactly what Rice is doing:  leaving organization behind completely and going alone.  This is a drastic measure, but organization is (usually) supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself; thus if the means is counterproductive, another means has to be employed.  I hope for her sake that she finds going it alone a sufficiently productive means towards the search for truth, and if not, that she find or form a group in which she can feel comfortable enough to enjoy the benefits of organization.

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor (submitted by Barry): “Prop 8 Overturned! Here's Some Anti-Gay Protesters Getting Owned (PHOTOS)”.  Next to no one likes the Westboro Baptist Church, as they seem to do nothing other than protest with hate-filled signs.  The photographs are of one of their recent protests, in which counter-protestors managed to get the last laugh.


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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Gospel According to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice Revisited


Jewish date:  30 ’Av 5770 (Parashath Shofeṭim).

Today’s holidays:  Ro’sh Ḥodhesh/New Month (Judaism), Feast Day of Lawrence (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Irwin Corey (Church of the SubGenius).

NOTE:  One week from today, I am traveling to Israel for a two-week pilot trip to determine whether I want to live there and can find work there.  I am making no guarantees as to posting from Israel (as if I ever made guarantees about posting), though that may happen if I can find Wi-Fi access (e.g., at Café Hillel or a kasher McDonald’s).  At the very least, I should have pictures to post afterwards.

Jesus Christ SuperstarTopic 1:  The 2000 edition of Jesus Christ Superstar.  I managed to get my hands on a copy lately, and my memories of it are largely correct.  It is, indeed, done better for the most part than the 1973 version.  It is performed on sets rather than in ruins, so the setting is tailored to the story.  Much of the sets are appropriately dark and ominous.  Herod’s set is appropriately ostentatious, including having his name literally up in lights, though unfortunately without a swimming pool for Jesus to walk across.  The costumes are a bit better—including having the Romans in Nazi-like uniforms—except for the angels in Jesus’s vision near the end, which are tasteless almost to the point of being unrecognizable as allegedly angels.  (Doing angels right is a chronic problem in popular culture.  See Ezekiel 1 for an example of how angels may be manifested, depiction of which would probably be unprecedented and well-worth the CGI.)  The singing is noticeably better, even for the weak-voiced Herod.  While the vocals are the same, the acting is different.  Jesus’s disciples actively fight the Romans, and we get to see the machine guns they plan on using for a revolt.  The role of Judas Iscariot is played with him visibly as a rival with Mary Magdalene for Jesus’s attention.  One might even interpret this Judas as having non-Platonic feelings for Jesus, though it is not clear whether this is intentional.  Still, the rivalry makes it easier to believe that Judas betrays Jesus, at least subconsciously striking back for being snubbed.  The context-destroying number is even worse in this version; rather than occurring while Jesus is on the Cross, it happens while Jesus is bearing the Cross—in front of cameras, without anyone acting in such a way to indicate they do not see Judas and the purported angels.  Unlike the 1973 version, the 2000 version has no frame story.  With the modern technology and clothing, it is not clear what this version is meant to represent; possibly it is intended to be set in an alternate universe.  All in all, a better-executed version of the 1973 version.

Related:  Zemanta for some reason led me to the YouTube channel of Anthony von Eckstein, who was the musical director for some zero-effects productions of Jesus Christ Superstar.  In his version, he corrects Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mistake of having Pontius Pilate have a premonition dream by transferring the relevant song, with some minor changes, to his wife, Procula.  Kudos to Von Eckstein for noticing Matthew 27:19.  Now I am wondering whether anyone has done a production which addresses other problems with the musical or the Gospels themselves.  I can easily see much of the material played sarcastically or with Jesus having delusions.

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor: “Ceiling Cat guides the”:
Humorous Pictures


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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Beware of pygargs


Jewish date:  28 ’Av 5770 (Parashath Shofeṭim).

Today’s holidays:  Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Britishthermalunit, inventor of AC (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy causes of the day:  “Ban New Offshore Drilling - Take Action Today @ The Rainforest Site”, “  Tell Google: "Don't be evil" / And to stop dealing away the Internet”, “ Political Action: Google: Don't Be Evil”, and “Alliance for Justice:  Congress: Repair the Damage Caused by the Corporate Court”.

Topic 1:  It has occurred to me that there is an irony in the terminology of the Arab-Israeli War.  The Muslims call Israel “Palestine” in an effort to dissociate it from Judaism.  Now, where does this term come from?  After the Romans finally crushed the Bar Kokhba’ Revolution (with much difficulty), they adapted the name of traditional rival state about where now the Gaza Strip is, the Pelesheth (= “low-country”) and started calling Israel Syria Palestina.  This was later shortened to “Palestine”.  Thus the Muslims are implicitly identifying with Israel’s oppressors and occupiers from the Roman Empire.  The irony comes in that the “Palestinians” claim to be oppressed and occupied.  They could have gone with “Canaan” instead, given that the Kena‘anim lost out to the Children of Yisra’el, but no one has any nostalgia for the Kena‘anim.

More anti-Semitism:  “Canadian Media Bark up the Wrong Tree in Lebanon Ambush (August 4, 2010)”, “Dead Photojournalist Waiting To Happen” and “Border Clash: A Case Study in Reuters Photography” deal with reporter bias, participation in an international incident, and stupidity.  (I am aware “stupidity” is a strong and undiplomatic word, but putting oneself in a position where one could easily be mistaken for an enemy soldier and get shot is pretty stupid.)  “Photo Bias Rampant In the Media” deals with the photographic equivalent of quoting out of context:

Sky News Discovers Gaza's Middle Class” reveals that not all Gazans are suffering.

Related:  “Taqiyya - Lying For Islam” deals with lying in the name of Islam.

AddaxImage of “pygargs” via Wikipedia

Topic 2:  Some strangeness from the King James Version (KJV):  The KJV renders dishon in Deuteronomy 14:5 as “pygarg”, which is not an English word at all.  “Pygarg” is an adaptation of the Greek pygargos, meaning “white-rumped”, which is used in the Septuagint.  Why they did this, I am not really clear.  “Addax” is a perfectly good English word, though maybe they really did not know anything about addaxes in England at that point.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor: “Basement kitteh tabulates quarterly figures.”:


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Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Gospel According to the Pharisees


Jewish date:  25 Tammuz 5770 (Parashath Re’eh).

Today’s holidays:  Dedication of St. Mary Major (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Lucretia Borgia/St. Enola Gay (Church of the SubGenius).

Topic 1:  For someone who was supposed to be the Jewish Mashiaḥ (= Messiah), Jesus is almost totally unmentioned in Jewish tradition.  I say “almost” because there is one passage in the Talmudh Bavli which might refer to Jesus, though the story presented is very different from anything presented in the Gospels.  Thus is it written in Sanhedhrin 43a (my translation):
[Quote from the Mishnah under discussion:]  “And a herald goes out before him [one condemned to death by a court]”—before him, yes, from the beginning [forty days before], no.
But it was taught:  On the eve of Pesaḥ [= Passover] they hung Yeshu the Noṣri; and the herald goes out before him forty days:  “Yeshu the Noṣri goes out to be stoned because he practiced magic and incited [to transgression] and tempted Yisra’el; all those who know for him any merit, let him come and teach it.”  And they did not find for him merit, and they hung him on the eve of the Pesaḥ.
‘Ulla’ said:  And you will think [this is something to bring a proof from]?  Is Yeshu the Noṣri one worthy to overturn [judgement] in his merit?  He was an inciter, and the Merciful One said “You will not pity and will not cover over him [an inciter]” (Deuteronomy 13:9).  But Yeshu is different, for he was close to the government [and thus the Sanhedhrin needed to give him every opportunity to have his name cleared, even though they knew this would not actually happen].
Our Masters taught:  Yeshu the Noṣri had five students:  Matta’y, Naqqa’y, Neṣer, and Buni, and Todhah.
They brought Matta’y.  He said to them, “Will Matta’y be killed?  Isn’t it written, ‘When [mathay] will I come and see the face of ’Elohim?’ (Psalms 42:3)?”
They said to him, “Yes, Matta’y will be killed.  For it is written:  ‘When [mathay] will he die and his name be lost?’ (Psalms 41:6, as if it were ‘Matta’y will die and his name be lost’)”.
They brought Naqqa’y.  He said to them, “Will Naqqa’y be killed?  Isn’t it written, ‘And one clean [naqi] or righteous you will not kill’ (Exodus 23:7)?”
They said to him, “Yes, Naqqa’y will be killed.  For it is written:  ‘In secret he will kill one clean [naqi] (Psalms 10:8).”
They brought Neṣer.  He said to them, “Will Neṣer be killed?  Isn’t it written, ‘And a stem [neṣer] from his root will bear fruit’ (Isaiah 11:1)?”
They said to him, “Yes, Neṣer will be killed.  For it is written:  ‘And you will be throw from your grave like an abominated stem [neṣer]’ (Isaiah 14:19).”
They brought Buni.  He said to them, “Will Buni be killed?  Isn’t it written, ‘My son [beni], my firstborn is Yisra’el’ (Exodus 4:22)?”
They said to him, “Yes, Buni will be killed.  For it is written:  ‘Behold, I kill your son [binkha], your firstborn’ (Exodus 4:23).”
They brought Todhah.  He said to them, “Will Todhah be killed?  Isn’t it written, ‘A song for thanks [todhah]’ (Psalms 100:1)?”
They said to him, “Yes, Todhah will be killed.  For it is written:  ‘One who sacrifices a thanksgiving-offering [todah] will honor Me’ (Psalms 50:23).”
The elements that are the same between this passage and the Gospels are the central character’s name (Yeshu the Noṣri = Jesus the Nazarean), that he had some sort of powers and incited people to violate the Torah, that he had disciples, that one of the disciples is named Matta’y (= Matthew), the Sanhedhrin tried Yeshu and found him guilty, and (in accordance with John) he was executed on the day before Pesaḥ.  On the other hand, this Yeshu was a magician and inciter to ‘avodhah zarah (“strange worship” = idolatry and polytheism) and not a prophet or the Son of God, he was stoned and hung and not crucified, his execution was announced 40 days in advance and was not done hastily, he was close to the government, he was executed by the Sanhedhrin and not the Romans, and he had five disciples and not 12.  And four of the disciples’ names are unlike those in the New Testament.  Notably strange is that the canonical Gospels all disagree with this passage and claim that the Romans, not the Sanhedhrin, executed Jesus, even though they go out of their way to lamely pin the blame on the Jews.  Intuition suggests that the Christian version of the story may have undergone a period in which they shifted blame to the Romans and then flip-flopped back again to blame the Jews, but this is just speculation on my part.

Rather unusual is the second part of the passage, in which every disciple gives a reason he should live, citing verse in the Hebrew Bible as word-play, and he is condemned with another verse in equal and opposite word-play.  While the first part of the passage is (so far as I know) at least historically possible, the second part is rather unrealistic and reads like fiction, and a truncated one at that since the charges against the disciples are not mentioned and neither are their executions.  Intuition suggests this section is a legend that was added to the first section.

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor: “Cyoot Kitteh Of The Day: The Power Of Ceiling Cat Compels You!”:
funny pictures of cats with captions
NOTE:  You want to click the link for an additional LOLcat shown after the one displayed above.


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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We must stop the enemy from cutting down trees in their own territory!


Jewish date:  Jewish date:  24 ’Av 5770 (Parashath Re’eh).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of John Vianney (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Charles Addams (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Tell Mott's: get the scabs out of your applesauce!”.

Topic 1:  More anti-Semitism:  Lebanon’s unprovoked attack on Israel yesterday is covered in “Special Alert: Media Collusion in Lebanon Ambush” and “Border Clash: Confirmations on the Day After”.  One would think that the Lebanese could come up with a better excuse to attack Israeli soldiers and get five people killed than the Israelis doing border maintenance by cutting down a tree in Israeli territory.  “Shimon Peres versus the Brits” deals with just how long and how deep British anti-Semitism towards Mandatory Palestine and Israel has been; apparently the British have been stabbing Israel in the back at least far back as 1921 by violating their commitments in Mandatory Palestine by giving all of it east of the Jordan River to the emir of Mecca.  “Demonizing Israel is bad for the Palestinians” argues that media focus on alleged atrocities against stateless Arabs in Israel keeps the focus off real atrocities against “Palestinians“ in Arab countries.

Topic 2:  Also about Muslim misbehavior:  “How a Tolerant Country Can Avoid Being a Doormat for Intolerant Countries” suggests that freedom of religion should not be unconditional but should instead be conditioned on respect for the freedom of religion of others.  “Treat others as they treat you” or “tit for tat” may sound downright selfish (and like something right out of LaVeyan Satanism), but Muslims abusing freedom of religion in the West is well-documented, and self-defense is a commonly recognized moral behavior.  (Exception:  Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42 and Luke 6:27-31, the whole business of “turning the other cheek”, which at least on the surface seems to value not resisting one’s enemies, which Jesus is reported as doing to the point of allowing himself to be crucified when he easily could have escaped.)  Do note that if we are tolerant of intolerance, then the intolerant win and there is no longer any tolerance.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor: “We guard the gates of HELL!”:
funny pictures of cats with captions


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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The goddess who never existed: a review of Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess


Jewish date:  23 ’Av 5770 (Parashath Re’eh).

Today’s holidays:  Tuesday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Dympha (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Save BioGems: Take Action: Stop Shell Oil:  Send a message urging President Obama to impose a 7-year moratorium on Shell's offshore drilling in the Arctic that will give scientists enough time to best determine how to protect the polar bear's home.”

Today’s topic:  The goddess who never existed:  a review of Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess

I first saw The Hebrew Goddess in the library at Yeshiva University in 1989 when I was visiting the school in order to determine whether I wanted to attend college there.  (I did.)  The book promoted itself on the front cover as revealing that Jews have been secretly worshipping a goddess since ancient times.  Having been Jewish all my life and having had some Jewish education, I knew very well that Judaism has no goddess.  As such, I figured the book was (to be frank) cranky and thought nothing of it again until I started the Divine Misconceptions project.  Since the point of Divine Misconceptions is to study religious fallacies and misinformation, I quickly put The Hebrew Goddess on my list of books to acquire.  I finally acquired a copy on eBay recently, and having been waiting literally a few years to find out what Mr. Patai was thinking, I took the opportunity to actually read it.

It is well-established that Judaism recognizes the existence of and demands the worship of only one god, YHWH, Who is unique and beyond all other beings.  This system of beliefs comes directly from the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 4:39, Deuteronomy 5:6, Deuteronomy 6:4, Deuteronomy 32:39, Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 45:6, Isaiah 45:21, Ezekiel 35:5, Proverbs 21:30) and has been considered a core belief in Judaism ever since.  There are also no records of Jewish heretical groups who worshipped a goddess.  The real question in this review is not whether there are any merits to Patai’s thesis of a Hebrew goddess; the real question is why he believes in one despite the case being hopeless.  Patai never explicitly states why, but some digging turned up some interesting information.

Raphael Patai collaborated with the poet Robert Graves on a book called The Hebrew Myths.  Graves is famous for his book The White Goddess, which presents the historically questionable hypothesis of an ancient goddess-based religion in Europe and the Middle East which was the ancestor of the religions practiced afterwards up to today.  Judaism is one of the two contenders for Earth’s oldest continually practiced religion (the other being Hinduism), and it never has had a goddess.  As such, it represents a serious challenge to the Graves hypothesis.  What Patai evidently tries to do is to find a Hebrew goddess anyway to save the hypothesis, and since he cannot possibly claim one was ever officially recognized, he has to claim She was recognized unofficially throughout history.  Let us examine the entities Patai presents as aspects of the Hebrew goddess:

1) ’Asherah (pp. 34-53) and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath (pp. 54-66).  In official Jewish theology, YHWH is neuter.  (Technically, He never reports what His sex is in the Hebrew Bible.  But being unique and not reproducing, biological sex is irrelevant to Him, so He is neuter for all practical purposes.)  However, during the period of the Judges and the First Temple Period this was not taken for granted.  Despite the repeated railing of the Prophets against idolatry and polytheism, many Jews worshipped idols and the Canaanite gods, including the goddesses ’Asherah and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath.  Some even had the audacity to syncretically pair up YHWH with ’Asherah, as if He were actually male.  However, by the start of the Second Temple Period, all trace of goddess-worship disappears.  Monotheism is the clear winner from henceforth.  How then does Patai make the claim of an undercurrent of the idea of a goddess in Judaism?  He fudges.

2) The Keruvim (Cherubs) (pp. 67-95).  Keruvim are a kind of angel which manifest as mammals with birdlike wings.  They are depicted not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also in other ancient Middle Eastern media as well.  Images of keruvim featured in the Tabernacle, the Temple, and on the Ark of the Covenant.  Patai thinks he can squeeze a goddess out of a keruv due to a Jewish legend that the images of the keruvim reflected how YHWH felt about the Jewish people.  If He was happy with them, the keruvim faced each other; if He was angry with them, they faced away from each other.  When Titus came to destroy the Temple, he went into the Holy of Holies and found the keruvim having a beautiful moment (to put it euphemistically).  Patai assumes that if one keruv represents YHWH, the other must represent a goddess; who else would a god be so intimate with?  The problem is that this interpretation flatly contradicts an extended metaphor which runs throughout the Hebrew Bible in which YHWH and the Jewish people are married, including that the worship of other gods is metaphorically adultery and fornication (Exodus 7:17, Exodus 34:15-16, Leviticus 17:7, Leviticus 20:5-6, Numbers 15:39, Deuteronomy 31:16, Judges 8:33, Ezekiel 16, Ezekiel 23, Ezekiel 24:15-24, Isaiah 1:21, Isaiah 5:1, Isaiah 50:1, Isaiah 62:4-5, Hosea 1-3, Hosea 4:13-19, Hosea 5:3-4, Hosea 9:1, Song of Songs, 1 Chronicles 5:25).  The much more likely explanation for what Titus saw is that despite the immanent destruction of the Temple, YHWH had in no way rejected His people.

3) Wisdom (pp. 97-98).  King Shelomoh (Solomon) poetically personifies wisdom in Proverbs 8.  Treating personified wisdom as a real being only happens among Gnostics, not Jews.

4) The Shekhinah (pp. 96-111).  The Shekhinah (“dwelling”) is the presence of YHWH, often manifesting as a cloud.  Patai takes the Shekhinah as female because shekhinah is a feminine noun in Hebrew.  This is a specious argument since masculine nouns (e.g., ben-’adham = “human”) can refer to female beings and feminine nouns (e.g., nefesh, neshamah = “soul”) can refer to male beings.  The Shekhinah can only be considered a deity by a very loose definition of the term; it is not really clear whether the Shekhinah is an independent being or is sentient.  At best the Shekhinah may be something in the way of an angel, but not a genuine goddess.  Patai tries to claim that the Shekhinah is depicted in the form of a nude human female form in a fresco in the Hellenistic era Dura-Europos synagogue (pp. 282-294), but this figure, depicted standing in the Nile River with a basket in the river at her feet and holding the baby Mosheh (Moses), no matter how much it resembles depictions of Aphrodite or Anahita, is much more plausibly from its context the daughter of Pharaoh.

5) The Maṭronith (pp. 112-220).  The Maṭronith (“lady”) or (more commonly) Malkhuth (“kingdom”) is the interpretation of the Shekhinah according to the esoteric doctrine of the Qabbalah.  At this point it is necessary to take a step back and describe something of how to Qabbalah works before describing the Maṭronith, so please bear with me.  The Qabbalah aims to be the equivalent of a theory of everything for Judaism, tying together halakhah (Jewish law) and ’aggadhah (non-legal material) by claiming that everything we do has effects on higher levels of reality.  Everything we do, according to the Qabbalah, is actually a reflection of what happens on higher levels.  Now, the Qabbalah divides YHWH up into a number of discrete sub-entities.  Above all else (so to speak) is ’En Sof (“endless”, “infinite”), YHWH as He is completely beyond human understanding.  Below ’En Sof are a structure of ten reified attributes or potencies of YHWH known as the Sefiroth:  Kether (“crown”), Ḥokhmah (“wisdom”), Binah (“understanding”), Ḥesedh (“kindness”), Gevurah (“valor”), Tif’ereth (“beauty”), Neṣaḥ (“victory”), Hodh (“glory”), Yesodh (“foundation”), and Malkhuth.  Malkhuth, the lowest Sefirah, connects with our own world.  (Actually, this is a simplification of the system, arguably an oversimplification, but one that will suffice for our purposes.)  The system of the Sefiroth may be broken down into a number of configurations known as Parṣufim (“faces”), one of which, Ze‘er ’Anpin (“impatient”) (under the collective label of “Tif’ereth” and consisting of Ḥesedh, Gevurah, Tif’ereth, Neṣah, Hodh, and Yesodh) is significant to Patai because it interacts with Malkhuth/the Maṭronith in what is metaphorically a sexual relationship.  Actually “metaphorically” is not quite the right word; since what happens here is a reflection of what happens above, arguably sexual relationships here are a metaphor for the relationship between Ze‘er ’Anpin and Malkhuth/the Maṭronith.  This relationship in described in lurid reverse-metaphorical detail in the Zohar.  Patai emphasizes a biased selection of the sexual imagery and appeals to the subconscious rather than deal with the reality the imagery is meant to convey, claiming Malkhuth/the Maṭronith as the mate of YHWH.  This is not correct; the Maṭronith is just as much YHWH as Ze‘er ’Anpin, and their sexes are only reverse-metaphorical.  Neither even really merits being termed a god or goddess, as both are really just organs of the Godhead.  No one disputes that the imagery of the Zohar is shockingly mythological, but once one gets past the imagery to its actual meaning, Patai’s claims about the Maṭronith being a goddess collapse completely.  It must be noted that the Zohar is a very elite document, being composed in artificial Aramaic and rarely read by ordinary people, even in translation.  The people who can read it are for the most part intelligent enough to see beyond the reverse-metaphor.  Patai tries to get around this by claiming that yiḥudhim, mystical declarations recited before fulfilling certain commandments printed in many Jewish prayerbooks which claim that the commandments are done with the goal of “unifying” the Holy One, Blessed be He, with His Shekhinah, have been misinterpreted by the uneducated as actual Divine sexual intercourse, thus leading to belief in the Shekhinah as a full-fledged goddess.  This attempt is unconvincing because it assumes that a) the uneducated actually said the yiḥudhim—by no means a given, as anything printed in small type is likely to be ignored, especially by people trying to get through their prayers quickly—b) the yiḥudhim were understood, which is not a given, since not every Jew in the old days knew Hebrew and Aramaic, and c) the yiḥudhim were understood sexually.  This last item is highly unlikely, as it would require an actual mention of sexual intercourse.  Indeed, no reports of anyone taking the Shekhinah for a goddess are produced.  There is no question that the Qabbalah uses sexual imagery, but for the most part those who know are discreet about it.

6) Lilith (pp. 221-254).  Lilith is an evil demon who kills babies in Jewish legend.  The Zohar may magnify her into having an affair with Ze‘er ’Anpin(!), but that affair, like the rest of the relevant imagery in the Zohar, is reverse-metaphorical.  Claiming she is a goddess is something akin to Christians claiming that Satan is a god.

7) Shabbath (the Sabbath) (pp. 255-276).  The Talmudh recounts that in the Galilee that they would actually go out into the fields to greet Shabbath as if the day itself were a queen (Shabbath 119a).  The Qabbalah takes this poetic metaphor further and mystically identifies Malkhuth with Shabbath.  This led Rav Yiṣḥaq Lureyah to expand on the old custom by instituting the recitation of the hymn Lekha Dodhi and Proverbs 31:10-31, the first of which poetically discusses Shabbath and in the latter of which he reads Malkhuth mystically into the text.  Patai also cites an Ethiopian Jewish document in which Shabbath is personified as the daughter of YHWH.  In no case is any evidence brought that Jews have ever taken the personification beyond mere metaphor.

In no case does Patai demonstrate the Jews ever had what they would consider a goddess after the First Temple Period.  His book is a complete failure at its stated objective.

But, one may object, what if we put aside definitions of “goddess” that Jews would use?  Not every religion and culture denotes the boundaries of godhood (or goddesshood) the same way.  But if we do that and lower the threshold to admit entities to goddesshood that otherwise would not pass muster and read YHWH as male as Patai insists, something disturbing becomes apparent:  implicit sexism.  YHWH, Creator and Manager of the Universe, is still above and beyond all other beings, including these goddesses.  The Keruvim are the beasts He hitches His chariot to.  The Shekhinah is just His presence.  The Maṭronith is just one of his organs.  Wisdom and Shabbath are still just personifications.  And Lilith is still a psychopathic murderer of innocents.  Even ’Asherah and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath are below Him, created beings and not the Creator.  Not to mention that the symbolism of ’Asherah’s sacred tree is an obscenity if one knows what it really stands for, and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath’s morals (promiscuity, nudity, and bloodthirstiness) are abominable.  Patai also leaves out Qabbalistic entities which are just as deserving as any of these to be considered goddesses.  It is not just the Sefirah of Malkhuth/the Maṭronith which is reverse-metaphorically female; Binah, Gevurah, and Hodh are as well.  Belonging to the left side of the Tree of Life, they all embody the less-pleasant attributes of YHWH.  And collectively they constitute the Siṭra’ ’Aḥra’ (“the other side”), which when let loose without being counterbalanced by the right side of the Tree can cause terrible things to happen.  Patai writes as if a goddess is a wonderful thing.  One might want to think about whether an inferior, immoral, or unpleasant goddess is really so wonderful.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Learn how to mow down the enemy with machine guns at Ḥamas summer camp!


Jewish date:  22 ’Av 5770 (Parashath Re’eh).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Days of Eusebius of Vercelli and Peter Julian Eymard (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Robert Goddard (Church of the SubGenius).

Note:  I have finished reading The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai and have written a draft review of it.  I hope to present the finished review tomorrow.

Topic 1:  More anti-Semitism (as if you did not know that was coming):  “Israel "Ethnically Cleansing" Bedouin Arabs?” and “Gaza Missile Hits, UK Press Misses” both deal with biased reporting.  The Dry Bones cartoon “No Big Deal”, only less politely.  “Hamas summer camp: Weapons training for leaders' kids” has a title which shows just what is considered important in Gaza.  “From Gibson to Ahmadinejad” notes that anti-Semitism may often be ignored or explained away when other forms of irrational bias are not.

Topic 2:  I cannot make this up:  “Sharia in New Jersey: Muslim husband rapes wife, judge sees no sexual assault because Islam forbids wives to refuse sex”.  The title summarizes it well, though do note the decision was overturned.  References in the Islamic literature permitting marital rape are provided.  Though I cannot say that the Muslim husband did anything wrong according to Islam, I am under the impression that freedom of religion stops when it tramples on the legal rights of other human beings.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor: “Teh Ten Commanments of Ceiling Cat”:


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