Archive for the ‘Research’ category

Rabbi Binyamin Lau’s The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity

July 11, 2011

Judaism’s history is not only about legal thought. It includes many  theological teachings called aggadah. In a review of a new book on aggadah, Elli Fischer writes:

A recently translated volume, Rabbi Binyamin Lau’s The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity (the first in a series of which three volumes have already appeared in Hebrew, to great popular success and acclaim), provides an instructive test case. This history of the Second Temple period falls short of academic standards and hearkens back to premodern efforts, attempting once more to reconstruct the biography of Simon the Just. That Lau himself holds a doctorate in Talmud and liberally cites from even recent scholarly literature about the era he discusses only seems to render his work even more disappointing. To be sure, he is anchored in and constrained by the scholarly consensus in ways that other contemporary Orthodox historiographers of the rabbinic era clearly are not.  Nevertheless, his creative attempts to cast ancient disputes and movements in ways that almost inevitably correspond to some contemporary analogue give Lau’s work the feel of a speculative if not fanciful retelling.

Yet Lau, a 21st-century rabbi and leading figure in liberal Orthodox southern Jerusalem, deserves to be treated as fairly as the rabbis of 5th-century Babylonia or 3rd-century Palestine.  That is to say, he should be read as a rabbi and not as a historian—an approach affirmed by the book’s origins as a Sabbath afternoon synagogue lecture series.

Approached in this way, The Sages succeeds in doing what rabbinic historiography or storytelling ought to do: digest and interpret earlier histories, memories, and traditions in a manner that allows them to speak to the current moment. Thus a discussion of Honi the circle-drawing rainmaker becomes a critique of contemporary reliance on alleged miracle-workers; the failure of the ancient rabbis to stand up to the Zealots in the last days of the Second Temple becomes a critique of the passivity of contemporary rabbinic leadership; and Hillel prefigures modern rabbis who seek to chart a course between fealty to tradition and contemporary relevance.

What’s interesting about this perspective is that it takes the world of ancient aggadah and brings it to life. Judaism is not a static religion, in which ideas presented 2000 years ago are no longer relevant. Instead, it is a way of life which can and should be adapted for modern life. Throughout the history of Judaism, sages and scholars have sought to make Jewish tradition relevant to the times they lived in and Rabbi Lau’s book is another step in this direction.


Bible, Archaeology and Jerusalem – Again

March 25, 2010

Because it never gets old (apparently), Reuters has published another one of those articles in which Eilat Mazar argues with the opponent of the day whether the Bible and archaeology go hand in hand.

Mazar says “the Bible offers a “core of reality”: We’ve got a fantastic 10th century fortification line that indicates a central, powerful regime.  The Bible tells us there was such a king at this time, and his name was Solomon. Why ignore it?”

Raphael Greenberg, an Israeli archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, says “Archaeology cannot prove or disprove the Bible. A name that matches that of a person in the Bible can only be taken so far — it’s just a name.”

There’s nothing new in this article, so why did Reuters bother? I am inclined to think that people just can’t resist talking about controversy in Jerusalem, whether it’s about building some apartment buildings in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood or who ruled Jerusalem in the the 10th century BCE.  If it says Jerusalem and controversy people will read it.

Ritual Bath Discovered Near the Western Wall

September 23, 2009

A ritual bath, or mikveh, has been uncovered only 20 meters from the Western Wall. This mikveh must have served the many pilgrims who came to Jerusalem and purified themselves before ascending to the Temple Mount.

According to the IAA:

In his book The War of the Jews, Josephus Flavius writes there was a government administrative center that was situated at the foot of the Temple. Among the buildings he points out in this region were the council house and the “Xistus”- the ashlar bureau. According to the Talmud it was in this bureau that the Sanhedrin – the Jewish high court at the time of the Second Temple – would convene. It may be that the superb structure the Israel Antiquities Authority is presently uncovering belonged to one of these two buildings.

This discovery is only the beginning of the excavation of this structure and chances are there are more surprises to come.

Portrait of Alexander the Great

September 15, 2009

According to the University of Haifa:

A rare and surprising archaeological discovery at Tel Dor: A gemstone engraved with the portrait of Alexander the Great was uncovered during excavations by an archaeological team directed by Dr. Ayelet Gilboa of the University of Haifa and Dr. Ilan Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Despite its miniature dimensions – the stone is less than a centimeter high and its width is less than half a centimeter – the engraver was able to depict the bust of Alexander on the gem without omitting any of the ruler’s characteristics” notes Dr. Gilboa, Chair of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. “The emperor is portrayed as young and forceful, with a strong chin, straight nose and long curly hair held in place by a diadem.”

Amazingly, archaeologists have been digging at Tel Dor for 30 years! Dor was a major port city until Caesarea replaced it during the Roman period. Alexander the Great passed through Dor on his way from Tyre to Egypt in 332 BCE.

American Jewry and the Holocaust

July 14, 2009

Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish History at New York University, has written a book to dispel a long-time myth. Historians have been claiming for years that the Holocaust had no place in Jewish life and culture in the 1950’s. The myth states that Jews preferred to bury the memory of the Holocaust in order to assimilate into American culture. The memory was then rekindled in the 1960’s as a response to Arab claims on the land of Israel.

Prof. Diner grew up in the 1950’s and remembered that the Holocaust was a constant presence in her childhood so she decided to investigate this myth. What she found were numerous memorial projects from every segment of American Jewry and in multiple languages. American Jews were engaged with the Holocaust and with providing help to its survivors. According to Diner, the myth was created because of political agendas but has no basis in reality.

Auschwitz as the Symbol of the Holocaust

July 5, 2009

Prof. Timothy Snyder of Yale University claims that Auschwitz is the wrong symbol of the Holocaust. He says that the reason it has become the symbol is as a result of the large number of survivors who lived in democracies after the war and were able to tell their stories. However, the greatest number of victims were Poles, many of whom didn’t survive. Those who did were locked behind the iron curtain after the war, unable to publish or speak about their experiences.

Read the full article at History News Network.

Sultan’s Pool Aqueduct

June 17, 2009

The Israel Antiquities Authority has announced the discovery of the aqueduct which brought water to the Sultan’s Pool and to the Temple Mount. More information can be found on the COJS website.