Archive for May 2008


May 29, 2008

Blogs are all about community.  And community on the web is much broader than blogs.

This is an official invitation to “friend” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.  I’d love it if you would let me know that you are reading this blog, and add any comments/suggestions/constructive criticism.

And while we are on the subject of social media, I would like to thank my top 2 referring sites:

The Narrative and Ontology blog

Z-Word blog


Boycotting Israel

May 29, 2008

Z-World has an interesting post on the British UCU reviving its academic boycott of Israel.  Strangely, the UCU is claiming it is not boycotting Israel, just supporting the Palestinians.

Normal vs. Unique

May 29, 2008

David Hazony describes all of Jewish history as a struggle between normalcy and uniqueness.  He argues that this is the paradox of Israel today.  On the one hand, Israel seeks to be a “nation like any other nation,” emphasizing its cultural, intellectual and technological achievements.  On the other hand, Israel is unique as the only Jewish State, the only democracy in the Middle East, and because of its diverse population.  He concludes that Israel may achieve normalcy by giving up the attempt to achieve it, embracing instead the things that make Israel different.

Read the whole article and see if you agree.

Who Were the Essenes?

May 28, 2008

The Essenes are often named as the sect which lived at Qumran and composed/compiled the Dead Sea Scrolls.  But who were the Essenes?  How do we know about them?  What did they believe?

Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder described a sect called the Essenes—Essenoi or Essaioi in Greek. No scholarly consensus has been reached as to the etymology of the name. According to Josephus and Philo, the sect numbered approximately 4,000. The Dead Sea Scrolls do not mention the Essenes by name, but most scholars identify the Dead Sea sect with the Essenes. One of their strongest arguments for this claim is Pliny’s mention of an Essene settlement between Jericho and Ein Gedi, the vicinity of Qumran. Nonetheless, the identification of the Essenes with the Qumran sect is not conclusive.

Membership in the Essene sect was not easy to achieve, even for the children of sectarians. Only male adults could join. Applicants were given three items—a hatchet, a loincloth, and a white garment—and had to undergo an initiation process which lasted for one year. At the end of the year, applicants were eligible for ritual ablutions. Two years later they were initiated by oaths (although in all other cases the Essenes forbid swearing). Once they were full-fledged members of the sect they were permitted to participate in communal meals.

The Essenes practiced community of property. New members relinquished all of their property, and all property was shared. The members worked in various occupations such as agriculture and crafts (avoiding commerce and weapon-making). The income from these endeavors was used to support the entire community and donated to charities around the country.

The Essenes believed in living simply. They dressed in simple white clothing and ate simple foods. Some Essenes were celibate, although in many cases celibacy was only undertaken after having had children. As the sect disagreed with the methods of sacrifice and observance of purity in the Temple, it did not participate directly in the Temple rituals, but instead sent voluntary offerings to Jerusalem.

A day in the life of an Essene began with prayer. After working at their occupations, the members assembled for ritual purification. The communal meal—prepared by the priest—was served to each member in order of status; all members wore special garments for meals. The members then returned to work, after which they assembled for another meal. Prayers were recited again at sunset. Though some of these practices were common to other Jews of the period as well, the Essenes’ unique manner of practice separated them from their fellow Jews.

The Essenes placed special emphasis on ritual purity. Members purified themselves before meals, after relieving themselves, and after coming into contact with non-members. They were meticulous about attending to natural functions modestly. The Essenes were also stringent in their observance of the Sabbath.

The sect believed in the concept of unalterable destiny and in the immortality of the soul. According to Josephus, their theology closely resembled that of the Pharisees.

Josephus also reported that the Essenes participated in the revolt against Rome in 66–73 CE and that some members were tortured by the Romans. In the aftermath of the failure of the Great Revolt, the Essenes disappeared.

Byron McCane Compares Himself to Indiana Jones

May 27, 2008

The new Indiana Jones movie is providing the media with an opportunity to discuss archaeology. Byron McCane of Wofford College has the floor in an article about what archaeology is really about:

“There are some similarities between what he does and what I do,” McCane said. “We both go to the desert. We both go into catacombs and tombs. We both find really old stuff. We are both college professors. And we both wear hats.”

“But,” he adds with a good deal of professorial emphasis, “I’ve never been shot at (yet) with guns, arrows, blow darts, tanks, bazookas or slingshots. Nothing has exploded or burned down or crashed. I haven’t found the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail or a crystal skull. I’ve only had one romantic relationship on a dig, and that was last summer when my fiancée, Ellen Goldey, went digging with me.”

And he manages to get in an important sentence about Biblical Archaeology:

“Archaeology gives us a glimpse into what was ordinary and typical in the ancient world,” McCane said. “It complements biblical studies by showing us what the biblical writers took for granted and thus didn’t bother to say. We don’t dig to prove or disprove the Bible; we dig to enrich our understanding of the world of the Bible.”

Indiana Jones – The Most Famous Archaeologist

May 26, 2008

Neil Asher Silberman complains that Indiana Jones misrepresents archaeology. He says the movies are filled with exaggerations and inaccuracies, and that archaeologists are scientists and not adventurers in fedoras.

Even worse, the picture of the vine-swinging, revolver-toting archaeological treasure hunter is all wrong. Gone are the days when all that mattered was museum-quality treasure, and the “natives” didn’t matter at all. Certainly in the age of the great colonial empires, archaeologists were often solitary adventurers who could count on the prestige and power of their nations to claim the ruins and relics of ancient empires for themselves. Even without a fedora and a bullwhip, Lord Elgin shipped the famous Parthenon marbles home to England, Heinrich Schliemann smuggled away Troy’s golden treasures, and Howard Carter managed to spirit away precious artifacts from King Tutankhamen‘s tomb in Egypt.

But today, the rules are different, and the professional attitude of archaeologists has changed. In place of loners acting on hunches have come teams of specialists in anthropology and the natural sciences who work closely with local scholars and administrators to excavate and painstakingly document their sites centimeter by centimeter. Individual objects are now less important than contexts; the goal is not to collect exotic or mystical artworks but to fit pieces together to form new ideas about history.

In my own work in Israel, I’ve traced the early archaeologists’ attempts to discover relics that would provide proof of the historical reliability of the Scriptures — not too different from Indy’s search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant. But in the last generation, archaeological teams at sites throughout the Middle East — working to analyze everything from ancient plant remains to distributions of animal bones to ancient metallurgy and environmental data gathered from satellite imagery — have begun to understand the social and cultural background to the rise of the biblical tradition. In the process, they’ve revealed that many of the taken-for-granteds of biblical history, such as the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua and even the vast kingdom of David and Solomon, were mostly literary tall tales and exaggerations of the historical reality.

Today, the typical archaeological site is a combination laboratory, field school, campground and open-air classroom, inhabited by professional archaeologists, their students and eager volunteers from all over the world. The dust still rises and the landscapes are often still exotic, but the problems of research, rather than threatening natives and enemy agents, are the main obstacles to archaeological success.

Silberman does admit that the Indiana Jones movies raise awareness of archaeology and occasionally even funds for support of excavations. He just wants us to know the difference between science and fiction. Oh – and if you meet him in the street, please don’t ask him where he left his fedora.

HT to Jim West.

Has Zionism Made Kabbalah Obsolete?

May 25, 2008

According to Prof. Boaz Hess of Ben-Gurion University,

[Gershom] Scholem felt that the creative forces of Kabbalah had been channeled into the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah) and Zionism, and was very skeptical about the possibility of having any serious creative energy left for productive Kabbalistic expression. With the creation of the State of Israel, Kabbalah, essentially a source of vitality which preserved Diaspora Jewry, was now obsolete.

In the past few years, Kabballah study has become prevalent in Israel and the United States, as a way for people to bring spirituality into their lives. So perhaps Gershom Scholem was wrong? Last week Ben-Gurion University hosted a conference entitled Kabbalah and Contemporary Spiritual Revival: Historical, Sociological and Cultural Perspectives.

The real question of course is, is Madonna really studying Kabbalah, or some New Age philosophy masquerading as Kabbalah?

More on this at the Jerusalem Post.