Thursday, October 29, 2015
Friday, September 25, 2015
Call something a religion and we make assumptions about its beliefs about God and life. We automatically assume that it teaches God is all-knowing and all-powerful. We assume all religions believe God dictates and man’s duty is to obey; and when he doesn’t, God punishes. But anyone who reads the Torah honestly would have to admit that none of this accurately captures its depictions of God and human beings. There, the relationship between man and God is hardly ever straightforward.
I would not call the frequent debates, for example between God and Moses or God and Abraham, a simple matter of God proclaiming and man obeying. Sometimes God learns from them. He agrees to debating what truth is instead of proclaiming it. He accepts Moses confronting him about an appropriate punishment for Miriam and, in fact, reduces a lifetime of leprosy for Miriam to seven days. There is an implication that God makes or is capable of making mistakes. He agrees to reason with Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He practically begs Abraham to teach him. None of this fits what religious dogma is supposed to say about who God is and what he wants.
A better description of ancient Jewish culture, like other cultures, is that it wrestles with the existential problems of life. Existential problems never change. They are there in so-called religious culture and they are there in scientific culture. That’s what we should pay attention to, that’s what ails us, and not the manufactured, bogus conflict between religion and the secular. Existential dilemmas, often the exact same ones, remain in every culture, and calling them secular or religious does not change a thing. Verbal gamesmanship never solves anything.
The existential themes of life have been around forever. The ancients were as much concerned with them as we are. They were just as sophisticated, just as rational, just as historical, just as sensible and foolish as we are in attempting to figure out what is what. We are not superior. We have nothing over them. They too struggled to understand human nature, where we fit in the scheme of things, where we come from, and whether we can tolerate diversity or do we have to force everything into one mold. Their answers are comparable to our answers and as good as ours. Their mistakes were just like our mistakes. The grammar of their wrestling with these questions may have been different than ours, but I can assure you that they were no less rational than we were.
It is arrogance to think we secularists or scientists are superior in any way. We are still not sure if we can accept the diversity of human life on this planet or does everyone have to fit the mold of western civilization with all its devotion to technology and consumerism. We have our gods too. We have our Towers of Babel.
Just to switch over to Greek culture for a moment: In the play Ajax by the very ancient Greek writer Sophocles, Ajax enters the scene completely mad. The goddess Athena, visible to the audience but invisible to the human characters on stage, mocks him and enjoys her act of having driven him crazy. But if we pay attention, we realize that Ajax has gone mad because he had always considered himself to be the number one warrior in the world and now he has just lost a contest with Odysseus. For the first time in his life, he is now the second best fighter in the world. His self-image has been shattered. He cannot adjust or bend, so he breaks. He goes mad and then commits suicide. Ajax could not accept that he could be more than one thing.
When Odysseus appears later on, he tries to convince the authorities to give Ajax an honorable burial despite the shame of his suicide. Odysseus, we realize, has the flexibility that Ajax lacked. The rules of tradition are pliable for him. He would rather bend (including bending his attachment to tradition) than break. (I owe this interpretation of Ajax to a great philosophy teacher I had at Queens College in New York, Professor Henry Wolz—one of the great teachers who become more unforgettable as time passes.)
It reminds me that the Talmud points out that copies of Torah are made with the pliable reed, and not a more rigid implement, to teach us that to study and learn Torah you have to be as bendable as that reed (Taanith 20b). Torah in each verse is more than one thing. Only the man or woman who bends can fully appreciate what Torah has to tell us.
I am not here to proclaim that this is the central message of Torah or that love of the stranger and immigrant (alluded to so often in Torah) is the central message. There is no one final lesson. The Bible, like the writings of Darwin or the essays of Wallace or the varied output of Constantine Rafinesque or the plays of Shakespeare or the plays of the Greeks, has no one theme. Any great work has multiple threads running through it. ‘God don’t like empire or oneness’ is one theme of Torah, not the ultimate theme.
The problem of one versus many, autocratic rule (in personal or social life) versus the flexibility of diversity, goes back for ages. We are just as capable as the ancients of letting irrationality intrude into our system of knowledge (science) and they were just as sophisticated as we are in finding rational answers. We are not superior, better, wiser. If Darwin came up short in some respects (in his anthropological opinions of the inferiority of native peoples), it is a far more serious problem that we have come up short in discussing what he said. It is nothing but arrogance to misrepresent his complete views. It is arrogance to treat him or any modern figure as superior to previous accomplishments. If we are serious about defeating arrogance and if we truly (as opposed to hypocritically) believe that this is one of the purposes of science, then we had better learn this—learn it well and learn it fast—that our “advances” are just travels in a circle.
© 2105 Leon Zitzer
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Hints: Jewish leaders did not arrest or prosecute Jesus and turn him over to Rome, and Judas never betrayed him. But those are just the negative parts of the solution; there is a positive answer buried here. Solving historical problems, even with respect to events in the Bible, is exactly like trying to solve a crime and is highly doable, if you have enough evidence.
I make this appeal because no one has a better understanding of the rules of good scientific thinking than writers of TV crime dramas. In fact, they occasionally produce an episode in which they give a demonstration of bad scientific reasoning. What is so interesting about crime dramas, especially tales of homicide, is that they illustrate both why we love science and how (and when) we still misuse it.
In general, we love science when it gives us practical results. We are great at science when we want bridges that won’t collapse, cellphones that won’t drop calls, computers that won’t malfunction, a/c that will continue to pump out cold air, medicines that will heal. We know exactly what it means to pay attention to the evidence, and we do it well because we value inventions that actually work.
Another thing that we usually value (but not always) is solving crimes and bringing culprits to justice. So we are pretty good at employing scientific reasoning to find out the truth: Who really did it and why? For example, we know that one scientific rule is that if a theory is not explaining the evidence very well, then we should try another theory. In homicide investigations, a theory is “So-and-so is the murderer.” They usually have some evidence pointing in one person’s direction.
But in these fictional dramas, the detectives are always running into evidence that their working theory cannot explain. That means the suspect they have in custody is probably the wrong person. So they keep going back to the evidence to see what they are missing. This is science at its best—where evidence always comes first and theories second, ready to be abandoned when they do not account for the evidence.
But unlike the case of technological problems (bridges, cellphones, etc.) where evidence always rules because we need good stuff that works right, in homicides, there is a catch: Sometimes, prejudices and emotions rule (in other words, ideological bias intrudes), and a bad detective will latch onto a suspect regardless of what the evidence says. Even though it is the wrong person, our technology and society will continue to work very well. Nothing will collapse, even if the wrong person is executed.
That’s where the good detective comes in. He or she often runs into flak for questioning the motivations of the bad cop. They have to endure a lot of hostility, sometimes even from their boss, for challenging the way another detective has conducted a case. In the end, good old science will solve the problem and everyone acknowledges that the crime has been solved, but only after the good cop has endured risking his or her career and a lot of other bad shit as well.
This is the same problem in all study of history (a homicide investigation is just an example in miniature of larger historical problems). A bridge will collapse if we don’t do the science right, but what will happen if history is falsified? The general feeling is that nothing bad happens if lies are told about history; society will go on functioning very well. If anyone suffers from history badly told, it is usually minority groups. The majority or people in power often benefit from historical lies, so there is not much incentive to change it (whereas nobody benefits from a bridge that collapses). Any good historical detective who comes along will be maligned until she has to run into a corner and hide.
These TV writers know all this. And I am telling you that New Testament or historical Jesus scholarship is exactly the same. There is enough evidence in the record to solve the problem of how Jesus really came to meet his end, but right now the field is permeated by ideological biases. The basic one is that Jesus is surrounded by Jewish enemies who seek to do him in or at least cooperate with Rome to this end. The evidence for this is paltry at best. Many odd pieces of evidence are left unexplained. This field is a classic case of refusing to consider another theory no matter what the evidence is telling us. Ancient Jewish leaders and Judas are in jail and no one is inclined to let them out.
There is a much better theory that will explain it all. All that is needed is that some people come to the aid of the good cop who is trying so hard to introduce reason and fairness into a field that is sadly lacking in both.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer
Monday, July 13, 2015
As I won’t have access to the Internet for about a month, I probably won’t be able to post again until the end of August. In the meantime, I want to make one additional comment on the post below. As I said there, the Talmud (actually, all of rabbinic lit) is usually presented as a dry, pedantic debate over rules and rituals, while its poetic glories are ignored. There are scholarly tomes that do this, and that creates one kind of harm. But equally harmful, in my view, are the tossed off comments about the Talmud we find in popular writing. It may be mentioned only in passing, but sure enough, it is always the stereotypical Talmud we get. It becomes the accepted and acceptable assumption that no one wants to challenge.
Why is that the prevailing view and why is it so hard to break free from it? I think Agnes Arber gave the best answer and she wasn’t even writing about the Talmud. Arber was a British botanist, in the 1930’s and 40s, I believe. After a lifetime of experiments in plant morphology, she spent her later years as a philosopher of science. At one point, she had this to say:
“[T]he general intellectual atmosphere of any given moment has an effect upon this history [of science] which is compulsive to a humiliating degree. In every period certain classes of beliefs and ideas have been actively distasteful, and even workers of some independence of mind are found to have shrunk from them as if they were tabooed.” But it isn't only in the history of science. The general intellectual atmosphere in any field is compulsive to a humiliating degree.
She went on to say that anyone who glimpsed a fresh point of view has “too often proceeded to turn his back upon it, reverting to the familiar beaten paths, where he could absorb confidence from the reassuring society of his fellow-workers.” We are, she said, “too much bedazzled” by the pressure, or the Zeitgeist, of contemporary scholarship.
She got it so right. The general intellectual atmosphere is compulsive, everybody wants to fit in and belong to the prevailing stream, but only an Agnes Arber would point out that this is so humiliating for anyone who strives for fresh insights. University education is an exercise in humiliation—an exercise in restraining yourself from doing the right thing—and if you accept it and kowtow, you will be honored. But deep inside, you will be ashamed of yourself for abandoning the search for truth.
I remember a guy I once knew who worked in theatrical make-up. I used to ask him a lot questions. One day, he saw me coming and told me, “I hate you. I hate it whenever you come around.” Why?, I asked. He answered, “Because you make me think and I hate thinking.” I wasn’t trying to make him feel bad. I asked questions because I was just curious. Then he smiled, and said maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. We got along somehow. Maybe what made him so mad was that I reminded him he was restricting his own thinking and no one had forced him to do that, not overtly anyway.
In academia, it is worse. They really hate thinking about the evidence. It is easier to just repeat what everyone knows. To give a fresh look at the evidence can really be such a headache. Why do it, when it is so much easier to give in and stop thinking? Humiliation is not that hard to bear after all. You get used to it.
© 2105 Leon Zitzer
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
[Links to my books on the historical, Jewish Jesus are at the right.]
This prejudice against the Talmud came from Christian theology. Theologians made Talmudic an adjective for narrow-minded, spiritless exegesis. But why choose that way to read the Talmud when there is so much else there?
In the first pages of the tractate Berakoth, we are told of Rabbi Yochanan’s visit to Rabbi Eleazar who was ill. The room was dark and Yochanan had to bare his arm from which a light emanated in order to see Eleazar. Eleazar was weeping.Why do you weep?, he asks him. Because you did not study enough Torah? But it does not matter whether it was a lot or a little. Because you don’t have enough food? Not everybody is rich. Because you did not have children? Well, I have just buried my tenth child. Why do you weep? Finally, Eleazar responds, I weep for this beauty that will rot in the earth. (Yochanan was famous for his good looks, so Eleazar might have been referring to that.) Oh for that you really should weep, says Yochanan. And they sat together in the dark and wept.
There are thousands of stories like this, some much more complex, some more dramatic, in the Talmud. This is the far better way to read it. In a more honest world, Talmudic would be essentially synonymous with Shakespearian. It would be considered a great epic poem or a collection of sometimes inspiring, sometimes puzzling folktales. It digs deep.
Someone might object that this is a very biased way to read the Talmud. But reading it for pedantic debates over how to follow rituals is equally, if not more, biased. We make choices. The history of writing about the Talmud has largely taken place with only one choice in mind. We will never understand anything in history if we remain so locked into one way of seeing. The evidence for reading the Talmud, and all of rabbinic literature, in far richer ways is there. All you have to do is open your eyes—the hardest thing in the world to do.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
One way to do this is the “I’m Spartacus” approach. In the Kirk Douglas film (the direction of which was taken over by Stanley Kubrick in mid-filming), when the slave army is defeated, the Roman general announces that he wants Spartacus to reveal himself. If I recall, as he stands up, first his friend (Tony Curtis) stands up and shouts “I’m Spartacus” and then others follow suit. It seems like everyone is declaring “I’m Spartacus” and the real Spartacus is safe for the time being.
Back in the 19th century when historical Jesus studies began or took off, I think they realized right away that this would be the best way to keep the real historical, Jewish Jesus concealed. A plethora of Jesuses appeared and that has remained true to this day. There have been books that will review various approaches to the historical Jesus, and while the author may disparage a couple of them, it is clear that his main purpose is to make it appear that many of them are appealing, and therefore we will never know the full truth.
Another way is to abuse the one version of the historical Jesus that scholars find most objectionable. But that cannot be overdone, otherwise you end up bringing too much attention to the thing you fear most and you raise suspicions that maybe all this hostility is because this one Jesus is the right one. The best tone to adopt is to be dismissive and in as few words as possible. Everyone gets the message that this cannot be taken seriously. So it has been with the historical, Jewish, Rabbi Jesus/Joshua. Albert Schweitzer got rid of that Jesus in just a few sentences. It continues today with the way Rabbi Jesus is treated. He is not even one category among many that will get serious consideration. It comes down to a subtle form of mockery.
A third way is simply to mess up rational historical procedure, so that scientific method is turned topsy-turvy. For example, you need more than ambiguous evidence to prove a case, but you would never know that from the way scholars handle the story of Judas.
All the evidence concerning Judas (except for one slight piece) is ambiguous. Ambiguity cannot even establish a remotely possible case that Judas betrayed Jesus. But scholars act as if the more ambiguous evidence we have, the better the case. Three pieces may not prove anything, but twenty pieces of ambiguous evidence certainly amount to something. The exact opposite is true. The more ambiguous material you have, the worse your case is because it becomes just too obvious that there is no unambiguous evidence and that should be troubling. Of course, some scholars will outright misrepresent the situation and claim that some of the evidence is unambiguously negative, but that is not true for Judas.
One thing most scholars agree on is that when it comes to Jesus’ death, there seems to be a lot of confusion in the evidence. Actually, for most, it is not a case of it seems to be, but rather the evidence is indeed a mess. In genuine science, you are supposed to ask yourself whether the mess is really in the evidence, or is it rather in the way we are approaching the evidence. In other words, if one theory is not making sense of the evidence, then, for pity’s sake, TRY ANOTHER THEORY! before you decide something is wrong with the evidence. I cannot shout that too loudly.
In historical Jesus studies, this is absolutely forbidden. In the relationship between Jesus and Jewish leaders, there is only one theory that is allowed: Jewish authorities were his enemies and subjected him to some sort of hostile procedure. It does not matter that this does not explain the totality of evidence very well. It has become a sacrosanct ideology that must be accepted regardless of its inability to explain the evidence. This is precisely what a good scientist would never do.
Scholars will spin the meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus in different ways: There was a trial or it was a hearing, or the issue was a religious one, or maybe it was political, or maybe the priests had some legitimate concerns about Roman repression, but it is always something hostile towards Jesus. That is the only theory that is ever tried—Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies—and no one stops to think that it is possibly this theory that is making a mess of the evidence. The first thing a scientist would do is put that theory aside and try another approach. Maybe a Jesus more in harmony with Jewish leaders would make much better sense of things.
Scholars seem to be promoting a variety of Jesuses here—Jesus the healer, Jesus the Zealot, Jesus the charismatic, Jesus the magician, Jesus the social revolutionary, Jesus the opponent of rituals—but really, they all come down to one Jesus, the Jesus who was offensive to other Jews (‘offensive’ is in fact the most common word used by scholars to describe him). The purpose of all the phony variety is to make sure that one Jesus never makes it to the list—Jesus the one who was a perfect fit in his society, including his relations with his fellow Jewish authorities.
Championing a multitude of ways to approach a subject in most academic fields would be a sign of liberalism, tolerance, maybe even love for difference. In historical Jesus studies, it is just the opposite. It is a way of enforcing a highly conservative approach, especially when one possible way—a thoroughly Jewish Jesus—is given short shrift and never treated as equal to the others. Their point is not to tolerate difference, but to use difference to ensure intolerance of one idea. It is an exceptionally neat rhetorical trick.
The main conservative thrust behind all this apparent variety is simply to create so much confusion that the historical truth will forever be concealed. Conservatives might prefer that one false idea reigned over all, but they are so afraid of the Jewish Jesus, who embraced Pharisaic ideas about the Torah as a living Constitution, approaching God with chutzpah (originally an Aramaic word), humility, and more, that they will settle for a system in which one sensible pattern of evidence can never emerge. That negative result is all they hope for. A thousand voices with one rock steady purpose in mind—to suppress the Jesus who was a Jew to the max.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer
Monday, April 27, 2015
When I was a kid, sometime in high school, I think, I bought a paperback book called “30 Days To A More Powerful Vocabulary”, or maybe it was a better vocabulary. I think I still have it, buried in a box somewhere. I got my money’s worth with that book. It did its job and I did feel my word power grow. It made learning an entertaining exercise. I remember it had single-panel cartoons throughout the book. The one that stuck with me was of a young boy who had just returned home from school and says to his mother, “I learned a new word in school today, Mom. Try and surmise what it is.” It still gets a laugh out of me.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned a new term from a journalist on NPR: Epistemic closure. He described it as a condition in which a person is so sure of his own position that he will not hear any evidence to the contrary. I have been talking about that for years and never knew there was an expression for it. I was kind of delighted that there is now a name for it, but then I immediately had doubts about its usefulness. Is it good to have a name for something, and a fancy one at that? Sometimes naming something can help bring attention to a problem, but with something like this, the condition has been described for a long time and where has it gotten us?
And would a simpler term or description be more useful?
For a very long time now, I have frequently quoted Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haitian historian among other things, who wrote, “Worldview wins over the facts.” (I recently checked on Amazon and found that his incredibly enlightening book Silencing the Past has recently been reissued in an anniversary edition.) Trouillot’s simple sentence is a more powerful description of what epistemic closure points to. You could also say ideology wins over the facts. He used it to describe how Europeans could not accept that there was a slave rebellion going on in Haiti which was defeating European armies. So they explained the facts away to fit their worldview that, on the one hand, slaves were too docile to desire much less fight for freedom, and on the other hand, they were not skilled enough to defeat European might.
If “Worldview wins over the facts” does not hit your over the head like a ton of bricks, I don’t see why epistemic closure would be any more instructive. In True Jew, I described the same condition this way: The less we see, the more we know. That captures what scholars in many fields do. All these expressions do. Usually what happens is that tradition has handed them a certain point of view, and while scholars are fond of spinning it in ways that sound like something new is being said, nothing new happens at all. The same tale gets told over and over again, and everybody is convinced, “We don’t need no stinking evidence” because our worldview or ideology tells us everything we need to know. Our knowledge is closed down. It closed a long time ago. It would be too much trouble to open it up now.
Let’s face it: It’s all about telling lies and getting away with it. Lying is its own reward. What is shocking is that the lies can be bold-faced and still they get away with it. You know it’s a closed discussion when everybody is content with the lies that are being told.
Look at what happens in historical Jesus scholarship. We are repeatedly told that it was one of the duties of high priests to work with Romans to identify, arrest, and prosecute Jewish troublemakers. Supposedly, they shared a common concern. It does not trouble any scholar that there is not one stitch of evidence to justify this and that there are several pieces of evidence to contradict it. Their worldview tells them all they need to know about Jewish leadership, or ancient Jewish culture for that matter, and that makes evidence completely beside the point.
What historical Jesus scholar does not love to sum up ancient Judaism as being about Temple, rituals, and purity concerns, or some such combination? A highly inaccurate description of Jewish culture in Jesus’ time. Closer to the mark would be this: the fight for constitutional government, justice, and peace. But no scholar will tell you that because it will make ancient Jews look too good and they will no longer be able to serve as a foil for an idealistic Jesus. But whatever ideals Jesus had came directly from his own culture. That’s a secret, don’t tell anyone, or the wrath of scholars will come down on you.
These days, New Testament scholars shy away from declaring that Jesus was subjected to a hostile trial by Jewish leaders (for one thing, everyone knows that the details in the Gospels do not fit what ancient Jewish trials looked like), so they try to spin it in a softer way by calling it a hearing. It does not trouble them that there is no evidence that ancient Judaism knew anything about hearings. The truth is that ancient Jews held a judicial procedure to determine guilt or innocence on some matter, or not. The evidence in the Gospels says they held no such judicial procedure for Jesus. But scholars cannot face that simple conclusion, so they try to spin it in ways that will maintain the traditional story, while they only appear to say something different.
You can plead and plead with scholars until you are blue in the face that it is possible to reach a better understanding of ancient Jewish culture and Jesus’ happy place within it, that ancient Jewish leaders did not persecute him or help Rome to execute him, because neither the evidence in the Gospels or from other sources on ancient Judaism support such a misguided hypothesis, and all that will happen is that scholars will sneer at you and say, We don’t need any more evidence, thank you very much, we have all our knowledge wrapped up with a bow, and the evidence can take a hike. We have our epistemic closure. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that the less we see, the more we know? How dare anyone dispute that! What more is there to research?
Research is for discovering facts and shaking up our worldviews. Historical Jesus scholars will have none of that. Those who are not busy being shook up everyday are busy dying (that’s what epistemic closure means), and that’s just the way most scholars want it. Spinning in a circle, never going anywhere, never moving from that fixed spot, that center that never changes, spinning the evidence until it says nothing we do not want to hear. Whatever you call it, it is the end of learning anything.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer