Mayan calendar to expire in under 100 days




Published September 13, 2012


  • 260288-dresden-codex.jpg

    Pages from the Dresden Codex, one of only four Maya books known to have survived the Conquest.

Better grab your bucket list: There’s less than 100 days left for you to finish it off — if you believe in the Mayan apocalypse.

December 21 is the end of days. Or, perhaps it’s the 23rd … Interpreting the Mayan calendar is not a precision science. But what we know is the “Long Count” and “Dresden Codex” calendars of the ages of the Earth do expire in December. Maybe.

And, according to a thriving industry of books, television documentaries and web blogs, that means it’s time to kiss everything goodbye.

New Agers around the world have been busy preparing for the event in recent years. Blast shelter sales have soared in the United States, and some remote villages have been cashing-in on the hype by offering “refuge” packages.

Exactly how the world will end is a confused topic, however.

Some say it will be consumed by a black hole. Some say it will be hit by an asteroid. Others say the ancient gods will return and consume everything in their rage.

Many ethnic Mayans dismiss the apocalyptic hype as a Western invention. Everybody knows that, rather than an end of time, the inscriptions refer to a new era, they say.

Mayan calendar math is also somewhat difficult to interpret.

It is based on a 260-day ceremonial cycle, the 365-day orbit of the Sun, the 584-day cycle of Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars.

These were used to determine the “ages of the Earth,” which varied between roughly 900 years through to 6,700 years in duration.

A measure of time popularized by New Age theorists is the baktun, a 144,000-day cycle that repeats only 13 times on the Dresden Codex. And this is the basis for the “end of the world” speculation for December 21.

Besides, calendars older than the “Long Count” — such as that found at Xultun in Guatemala — cast their counts some 7,000 years into the future. Xultun predates the Codex by some 500 years.

And, like our calendars, the end of the page does not mean the end of the world.

“It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling from the 120,000 to 130,000,” said Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University in a report earlier this year. “The car gets a step closer to the junkyard as the numbers turn over; the Maya just start over.”

So, it’s time to quickly get that bucket list together and start enjoying yourself.

The Earth is due for a trade-in.

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2012/09/13/mayan-calendar-to-expire-in-under-100-days/#ixzz26Y3RFH9V


Rosh Hashana: Repairing a broken world


‘On the seventh month, the first day of the month, shall be a Holy Convocation for you… it will be a day of the broken shofar sound [terua] for you… ’ (Numbers 29:1)

Each of our festivals, biblical as well as rabbinic, derives its sanctity from the miraculous occurrence which took place on that day. For example, Passover begins on the date the Hebrews left Egypt, and Hanukka on the date the Maccabees achieved victory over the Greek- Syrian Hellenists.

In the case of Rosh Hashana, our liturgy repeats again and again, “Today the world was conceived” (Hayom harat olam), and the Midrash explains this phrase to refer to the day on which the first human being was created. Hence Rosh Hashana is the most universal of our celebrations, urging us to give thought to and thanks for the emergence of the human being. This leads us to ponder the most existential of questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? And – each in his/her own personal way – are we making the most of the allotted time we have in this world? It is to be expected that the commandments of the day will help us on this crucial existential journey. The introductory verse to this commentary defines a commandment unique to Rosh Hashana: On this day we must sound the shofar, the ram’s horn, and it is to be the broken, staccato sound of the horn, the terua. The Talmud defines this sound as either three sighs (shevarim),nine sobs (terua) or a combination of the two.

What is this commandment teaching us? Is it that this world, this life into which we were born, is a vale of tears, a series of sighs, a sojourn of suffering? If so, why is Rosh Hashana considered a festival, a day on which we are enjoined to rejoice, a day in which we must drink wine and eat meat, a day which cancels a bereaved person’s seven days of mourning? Does our Bible not teach us, at the conclusion of its account of the primordial week of creation, “And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)? Does not the entire corpus of Jewish law teach us about the ultimate value of each human life, the necessity of even desecrating Shabbat to preserve life, that he who preserves a human life is considered as though he preserved the entire world?

To be sure, there is an additional sound of the shofar. An exultant, victorious sound; the straight, clear sound which announced the coronation of the kings of Israel. The tekiya sound. But the source of this sound is not a description of our Rosh Hashana celebration; rather it belongs to the Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, the 50th year which in biblical times proclaimed freedom for all inhabitants throughout the land, when each person was to return to his family and ancestral heritage, a year which presaged the period of redemption for all humanity.

The Talmud links Yom Kippur to Rosh Hashana, and joins the tekiya of Yom Kippur to the terua of Rosh Hashana as well.

But why is the day the first human being was born biblically linked to the sighing, sobbing sound of the terua? My revered teacher, Rav Joseph B.

Soloveitchik, explained that in truth the Almighty created an imperfect, incomplete – even broken – world. The prophet Isaiah says it clearly: “The Former of light and Creator of darkness, the Maker of peace and Creator of evil – I am God, the Maker of all these things” (Isaiah 45:5).

Rav Haim Vital explains, in the name of the Holy Ari, that God – who is first and foremost a God of love – had to constrict Himself (tzimtzum) as it were, and leave room for “other.” He had to leave room for a human being with the freedom of choice to do even that which God would not wish him to do, leave room for a world which would also contain chaos, darkness and evil.

Thus the human being would not merely be an extension of God (for if so, in loving the human being, God would only be loving Himself); the truly free human being would then act not merely as a pawn or puppet, but rather as a full partner with God, charged with the possibility of repairing the broken world, or perfecting the imperfect, incomplete world in the Kingship of the Divine.

God promises His chosen people, Israel, that we will ultimately choose the good, repent, perfect ourselves and teach the world God’s love, morality and peace, so that the world may be redeemed (Deut. 30:1-10, Isaiah 2, Micah 4). Hence our mission is to repair the broken world, each in his/her own way, each in his/her environment with the gifts with which we were blessed by God.

Each of us must communicate Abraham’s compassionate righteousness and moral justice however we can do it best.

The terua, the broken sound of Rosh Hashana, tells it to us the way it is, from the depths of the broken vessels within the world. The exultant tekiya sound tells us that ultimately we can and will succeed – personally, universally and cosmically.

For every broken sound, there are two victorious sounds – because our Creator loves us, believes in us and guarantees our ultimate success and redemption.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


Contractors to God



08/30/2012 14:54   By SHLOMO RISKIN

“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers.”

Father and son
Photo by: Israel Weiss

“Do not withhold the wages due to your hired hand… that very day shall you give him his payment.” (Deut. 24:14-15)

An interpretation which I heard for this particular verse on the third Shabbat in the month of Elul 1970 in the synagogue of Riga, Latvia, in the then USSR changed my life forever. I had been sent on a mission by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, to establish four underground yeshivot – one in Moscow, one in Leningrad, one in Riga and one in Vilna. These yeshivot were to be established in a communist- driven Soviet Union which had made every aspect of Jewish life forbidden; the transgressor, whose sin may have only been owning a Hebrew primer would be exiled to Siberia and never heard from again.

I had succeeded in Moscow and Leningrad. When I left my hotel in Riga that Shabbat morning I noticed that I was being followed by four very tall and burly individuals who barely gave me breathing space. They literally surrounded me in the sanctuary where I was seated in splendid isolation on the extreme corner of the right side. The other 28 congregants, each individual clearly over the age of 65, were all sitting together on the extreme left side of a large space which could easily seat 600. The cantor and choir chanted the service as if they were performing before thousands. I was given the honor of returning the Torah to the ark.

The gabbai, a short man with a white, wispy beard, whispered to me in Yiddish, “We are thirsty for Torah. We have a kiddush after the service downstairs. We expect you to teach us. Please come down after the praying – but without your friends.”

The interminable service ended at exactly 12 noon, the four goons miraculously disappeared (they probably went for lunch) and I went down into a pitchblack room where 15 people were seated around the table. The table was set with many bottles of clear white liquid (which I thought was water) and slices of honey cake. A chair of honor was set for me with a large kiddush cup. The gabbai repeated, “We are thirsty for Torah” as he poured me a full glass of liquid which he told me was vodka. I chanted the kiddush, gave a lesson from the Torah, they sang a tune, they did a dance, and then poured me another vodka. Another lesson, a tune, a dance and again more vodka – nine times!

By the ninth time two things happened. The first, where as every day heretofore in the Soviet Union had been Black Tisha Be’av, it suddenly became Pink Purim. Secondly I didn’t have any more words of Torah to give on the portion of Ki Tetze no matter how hard I racked my brain. In the group of 15 – many of whom were young and, I learned later, studying for conversion to Judaism, I recognized the Torah reader from the synagogue. I later learned that his name was Yisrael Friedman and he was a staunch Chabadnik. I asked him to give the Torah lesson in my stead. He agreed, and it was his lesson that changed my life. Here were his words:

“Elisha ben Avuya was a great rabbi of the Mishna who became a heretic. The Talmud (B.T.Kiddushin 39) explains why. He saw the great tragedy of a son who climbed a tree to bring down a pigeon for his father after sending away a mother bird; in doing this he performed two commandments which promise the reward of long life, nevertheless the youth fell from the tree and died. ‘There is no judge and no judgment,’ cried out Rav Elisha and he became a heretic. His grandson, Rabbi Ya’acov, claimed that had his grandfather only understood a major axiom of Jewish thought he would never have left the Jewish fold. ‘There is no reward for the commandments in this world.’”

Friedman looked out at the basement assemblage with blazing eyes and then looked up, heavenwards. “But God, that’s not fair! How can You expect your Jewish servants to pay the day laborer on that very day when you withhold our reward for the commandments till after our lifetime, in the world to come?! It’s not fair!”

Friedman answered his own question. “The Talmud in the seventh chapter of Bava Metziadifferentiates between a day laborer and a contractor. Yes, a day laborer must be paid at the end of the day, but a contractor is to be paid only at the end of the project. We, vis-a-vis God are not day laborers, we are contractors. Each of us, given his/her unique gift and the time and place in which he/she lives, must do his share in helping to complete the world in the Kingship of God. Whether we have performed the right function or not, whether we have done most of them or little of them or perhaps were in the wrong ballpark altogether, can only be determined at the end of our lifetimes. For us contractors there is no reward for commandments in this world.”

Despite the nine vodkas, or perhaps because of them, I was moved to tears by his words. After witnessing firsthand the persecution of Soviet Jewry upon the heels of the Holocaust atrocities, I was overwhelmed by thinking of God’s great gift of a newborn State of Israel. I felt deeply in my heart that I could not possibly have been born in a free country in these most momentous times in order to fulfill a function in New York. And so in the basement of Riga I made an oath: I will bring my family to the State of Israel and hopefully there realize my function. And when I get to Israel I will make kiddush on vodka every Shabbat afternoon.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


At Last, Humans Get a Scientific Promotion

The astronomer Martin Rees recently coined the neat phrase “Copernican demotion” for science’s habit of delivering humiliating disappointment to those who think that our planet is special. Copernicus told us the Earth was not at the center of the solar system; later astronomers found billions of solar systems in each of the billions of galaxies, demoting our home to a cosmic speck.
Mr. Rees says further Copernican demotion may loom ahead. “The entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part of the aftermath of ‘our’ big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps-infinite ensemble.” Indeed, even our physics could be a parochial custom: Mr. Rees says that different universes could be governed by different rules and our “laws of nature” may be local bylaws.

[image]Illustration by Leo Acadia

Copernican demotion is a habit of biologists, too. Charles Darwin told us we were just another species among millions. In the 1950s, cytologists found we had one fewer pair of chromosomes than gorillas or chimpanzees—hardly good for our self-esteem. Anthropologists reported that apes could make tools, while paleontologists told us that our brains are possibly smaller than those of Neanderthals. Then came the news that, even within our own species, relative brain size had been shrinking, not growing, over the past 10,000 years.

Geneticists were no help either. In the 1960s, they discovered the startling fact that we had one-third as much DNA as grasshoppers and one-tenth as much as salamanders. For a while we stroked our egos by telling ourselves that we must have special genes to build and run our special brains. But it turned out not to be true. When the genome was sequenced at the turn of this century, and the genes counted, it transpired that we have the same number of genes as a mouse. Indeed, give or take a handful, we have the same genes as a mouse, just switched on in a different order and pattern.

Even when uniquely human features did emerge, they were humiliatingly mundane. In the 1990s, biochemists, led by Ajit Varki of the University of California at San Diego, found that about three million years ago, human beings developed a different version of a sugar called sialic acid on cell surfaces, possibly as a defense against malaria parasites. Intriguing, but hardly the key to the soul.

Now, at last, comes news that a team of scientists led by Daniel Geschwind of the University of California, Los Angeles has found something special about the human brain. Using the latest gene sequencing machines and gene chips, they have compiled the “transcriptome” of the human “telencephalon,” which means (in plain English) that they have identified those genes that are active in the main part of the brain. They then compared this list with equivalent data from chimpanzees and macaque monkeys.

What they found was that the frontal lobe of the human brain—the bit that seems to determine personality—stood out as unusual, even compared with the closely related chimpanzee. “Our analysis reveals a predominance of genes differentially expressed within the human frontal lobe and a striking increase in transcriptional complexity specific to the human lineage in the frontal lobe.”

What’s intriguing about the new results is not just that more genes seem to be active in the human frontal lobe, especially those involved in letting brain cells link with each other, but that the extra complexity clusters around certain “hub” genes. One of these is FOXP2, a gene that is known to be crucial to the development of language. In apes, monkeys and mice, FOXP2, seems to have fewer other genes at its beck and call than in human beings. As Mr. Geschwind’s team puts it, “we experimentally validate an enrichment of human FOXP2 target genes” in the human frontal lobe.

A Copernican promotion at last?

Write to Matt Ridley at matt.ridley@dowjones.com

Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Daniel Geschwind works at the University of California, San Francisco.

A version of this article appeared September 1, 2012, on page C4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: At Last, Humans Get a Scientific Promotion.


From the Ark To Evolution

For early natural philosophers—whose ideas would grow into the science of geology—Noah’s Flood explained anomalies in nature, like shell fossils on mountaintops.



Picture a scholarly discipline that investigates the past. Practitioners spend a lot of time sifting through the shards of evidence that have survived the ravages of time. Some remnants are numerous; others are rare, available only in remote places. Most challenging are the gaps in the evidentiary record that must be filled by inference. Through painstaking work, scholars arrive at a consensus while discarding earlier inferences that have solidified into myths, obscuring the true picture rather than revealing it.

Such a scenario might well fit a tweedy historian poring over ancient manuscripts but also, lest we forget, an intrepid geologist doing research with a hammer and a pair of sturdy shoes. Both history and geology are disciplines dedicated to the excavation of what happened in the past, although on vastly different time scales. It is this parallel that animates “The Rocks Don’t Lie,” an idiosyncratic history of our geological understanding by David R. Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington.

Given Mr. Montgomery’s reputation as both a scientist and a writer of popular books (such as “Dirt” from 2003), it is unsurprising that sections of “The Rocks Don’t Lie” present delightful forays into field sites. Mr. Montgomery interprets—that is, explains geologically—landscapes as diverse as the Grand Canyon, the Scablands of eastern Washington state and Siccar Point on the east coast of Scotland, “a natural monument to the unimaginable expanse of time required to account for geologic events.” Such passages are gripping though surprisingly few, and one wishes there were more of them.

Other chapters battle the claims of “creation science,” understood here as an argument positing the recent creation of Earth in six literal days, with Earth’s current topography largely laid down by a cataclysmic global flood. Along the way, Mr. Montgomery mentions other variants of creationism, such as old-Earth theories and gap theories—according to which, respectively, the creation of mankind took place on a much older Earth or there were vast chasms of time between the “days” of Genesis—but these variants are not the focus of his debunking efforts. (He doesn’t mention Intelligent Design, almost certainly because its main arena of scientific engagement is biochemistry, not geology.) The author’s own arguments are spirited and compelling, but his most novel conceit is to frame this intellectual history of geology by giving special attention to Noah’s Flood.

Mr. Montgomery begins his story with the 17th-century investigations of Nicolas Steno, a fascinating Danish Protestant turned Catholic bishop who laid down Steno’s Law of Superposition, the still valid idea “that the oldest sedimentary layers are on the bottom and the youngest are on top.” Like Steno, other natural philosophers who established the principles of what would later become the science of geology did not reject the idea of the Flood but saw it as a central component of their explanations.

The Rocks Don’t Lie

By David R. Montgomery
(Norton, 302 pages, $26.95)

The Flood served to explain the presence of shell fossils on mountaintops and other anomalies, such as canyons that seemed to have been carved out by huge rivers. “Faced with the choice between a catastrophic flood or mysteriously rising mountains,” Mr. Montgomery observes, “early natural philosophers considered a mammoth flood less preposterous.” In this period, the discussion of the geological consequences of the Flood was scientific. Only later did the Flood cease to be part of our understanding of both history and nature and get assigned to the sphere of religion—a myth only.

Following the work of Martin J. S. Rudwick, our leading historian of geology, Mr. Montgomery next focuses his attention on British geologists from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as James Hutton, Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick. He rightly credits them with the most significant innovation in the study of the Earth’s surface since Steno: the articulation of “deep time,” the extension of the age of Earth almost unimaginably far back to millions, even billions, of years. This idea emerged from a “uniformitarian” understanding of the forces that shape the planet: The same forces we observe now, such as erosion and earthquakes, have always been working at roughly the same rates.

The extension of time made it seem more plausible that such weak forces could have carved out the world around us, and catastrophes such as the Flood became unnecessary for explanatory purposes. As Earth’s topography came to be understood without the Flood, Mr. Montgomery notes, religion and science began to part ways. This is his main point: The Flood used to be a constructive part of science, in the age of Steno, but has now become an obstruction. Mr. Montgomery’s goal is more to rehabilitate the earlier positive story of cooperation between religion and science than to lament their current hostility, although he does both.

The goal is certainly laudable, reminding us that the relationship between religion and science is more complicated than, say, the overemphasized Galileo affair of the early 17th century, which some today use to imply a Manichaean opposition between the church of that time and observed nature. Still, the story that Mr. Montgomery tells can itself seem too simple. The characters are treated in series, like geological strata, so we rarely see multiple theories vying for supremacy at the same time, or the recurrence of past ideas, or newer ideas being tested and discarded for lack of accuracy. Mr. Montgomery wants his own account to obey Steno’s Law, with older layers lying safely under more recent ones. Yet his story of the sifting of historical evidence, including those truthful rocks, suggests a more turbulent and varied process, defying his expectations and ours.

Mr. Gordin is a professor at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming “The Pseudoscience Wars.”

A version of this article appeared September 4, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: From the Ark To Evolution.


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Putting Literary Flesh on Biblical Bones


Putting Literary Flesh on Biblical Bone


[image]Ryan InzanaWhere the Old Testament provides a statement of fact, Mann provides heightened and detailed drama.

Anyone with the least literary pretensions has read one or another work by Thomas Mann. Some will have read “Buddenbrooks,” his saga about a Baltic German mercantile family as its energy peters out; others, “The Magic Mountain,” that most philosophical of novels, set in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Switzerland. One is likely to have encountered the novella “Death in Venice,” or one of his many splendid short stories. But not many people, I suspect, will have read “Joseph and His Brothers,” his 1,207-page tetralogy of rich and rewarding complexity.

I, a man of extravagant literary pretensions, had not read it until recently. Fifteen or so years ago, I made a run at it, but hit the wall roughly at page 60. What goaded me to take another shot was finding a clean copy at a used-book store. What I discovered is a true masterpiece of a most extraordinary kind. Not the least unusual thing about this vastly ambitious work is that Mann chose to tell a story that everyone already knows.

It’s the Old Testament account of Jacob, son of Isaac, brother of Esau, and his 12 sons, and of the most impressive of those sons, Joseph, who goes on to become Pharaoh’s principal administrator, his Grand Vizier, during the seven fat and seven lean years visited upon Egypt. Mann used this best of all Old Testament stories—one of overweening vanity, betrayal, reunion and forgiveness—as, in effect, an outline, which he filled in and retold with the narrative power of the great novelist that he was.

In the Old Testament, for example, in a mere half page we are told that Potiphar’s wife, enamored of Joseph’s good looks, attempts to seduce him, Joseph refuses, she then falsely accuses him of attempted rape, and he is sent off to prison. Mann, or his narrator, claims to be “horrified at the briefness and curtness of the original account” in the Bible. In Mann’s version, 80 or so pages are spent on the incident, with Potiphar’s wife’s beauty, cosmetics, handmaidens, seduction methods and much else persuasively described. Where the Old Testament provides a statement of fact, Mann provides heightened and detailed drama.

Mann took 16 years, between 1926 and 1942, to complete “Joseph and His Brothers”—the tumultuous time of world-wide Depression and Adolf Hitler’s rise. Nazism forced Mann and his family into exile—first in Europe, then in the U.S. But he pressed on with his novel. In early 1930 he traveled to the Middle East, where “with my physical eyes I saw the Nile country from the Delta up (or down) to Nubia and the memorable places of the Holy Land.” This book, during these hard years, was “the undertaking that alone vouchsafed the continuity of my life.”

“Joseph and His Brothers” is an astonishing feat—a book in which an artist, through scholarship and above all through imagination, has worked his way back through time and insinuated himself into the culture of the biblical Jews and the more elaborately exotic culture of the ancient Egyptians. Mann, ever the ironist, at one point early in the book writes: “I do not conceal from myself the difficulty of writing about people who do not precisely know who they are.”

The book is studded with exquisite touches. Laban, Jacob’s exploiting father-in-law, possesses “the hands of a having man.” Of Jacob’s love for Rachel, Mann writes: “Such is love, when it is complete: feeling and lust together, tenderness and desire.” Apropos of Jacob’s agedness, he writes of “the touching if unattractive misshapenness of old age.” Potiphar’s wife, distraught over her passion for Joseph, is barely able to eat “a bird’s liver and a little vegetable.” Rachel’s labor in giving birth to Joseph is so well described as to leave the reader exhausted.

Past and present are interwoven throughout this novel. “Men saw through each other in that distant day,” Mann writes, “as well as in this.” Recurrence is a leitmotif that plays through the book. “For we move in the footsteps of others, and all life is but the pouring of the present into the forms of the myth,” he notes. Through the novel Joseph is aware that his is a role in a script already written by God—and this gives him the courage to carry on: “For let a man once have the idea that God has special plans for him, which he must further by his aid, and he will pluck up his heart and strain his understanding to get the better of all things and be their master.” The woman Tamar, who in the disguise of a prostitute allows herself to become pregnant by Joseph’s brother Judah, does so because she, too, wants to be inscribed forever in the history of this important family.

One could create a dazzling anthology of aphorisms from “Joseph and His Brothers.” “It takes understanding to sin; yes, at bottom, all spirit is nothing else than understanding of sin.” And: “We fail to realize the indivisibility of the world when we think of religion and politics as fundamentally separate fields.” And: “No, the agonies of love are set apart; no one has ever repented having suffered them.” And again: ‘Man, then, was a result of God’s curiosity about himself.”

In another of the book’s aphorisms, Mann writes: “Indeed resolution and patience are probably the same thing.” How often must that sentiment, over the years he spent composing this grand prose epic, have occurred to Mann himself. At the end of his foreword to the single-volume edition, he wonders if his tetralogy “will perhaps be numbered among the great books.” He cannot know, of course, but as the son of a tradesman he does know that only quality endows the products of human hands with endurance. “The song of Joseph is good, solid work,” he writes, “done out of that fellow feeling for which mankind has always been sensitively receptive. A measure of durability is, I think, inherent in it.”

Mann was correct. In “Joseph and His Brothers” he created a masterpiece, which is to say, a work built to last.

—Mr. Epstein’s latest book, “Essays in Biography,” will be published this autumn by Axios Press.A version of this article appeared August 25, 2012, on page C13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Putting Literary Flesh on Biblical Bones.    WSJ.com – Putting Literary Flesh on Biblical Bones*


The God of Independent Minds

Is religion the enemy of reason? A look at the questioning, disobedient heroes of the Old Testament

Today’s debates over the place of religion in modern life often showcase the claim that belief in God stifles reason and science. As Richard Dawkins writes in his best-seller “The God Delusion,” religious belief “discourages questioning by its very nature.” In “The End of Faith,” his own New Atheist manifesto, Sam Harris writes that religion represents “a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.”

The argument that religion suppresses rational inquiry is often based on the idea that “reason” and “revelation” are opposites. On this view, shared by atheist crusaders and some believers as well, the whole point of the Bible is to provide divine knowledge for guiding our lives, so we don’t need questioning and independence of mind.

Musee des Beaux-Arts/Clermont-Ferrand, France/Roger-Viollet, Paris/Bridgeman Art LibraryIndependent thinker: ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,’ 1865.

This dichotomy between reason and revelation has a great deal of history behind it, but I have never accepted it. In fact, as an Orthodox Jew, I often find the whole discussion quite frustrating. I will let Christians speak for their own sacred texts, but in the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) and the classical rabbinical sources that are the basis for my religion, one of the abiding themes is precisely the ever-urgent need for human beings, if they are to find what is true and just, to maintain their capacity for independent thought and action.

Almost every major hero and heroine of the Hebrew Bible is depicted as independent-minded, disobedient, even contentious. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, Moses and Aaron, Gideon and Samuel, prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, and exilic biblical figures such as Daniel, Mordechai and Esther—all are portrayed as confronting authority and breaking the laws and commands of kings. And for this they are praised.

But aren’t these biblical figures just disobeying human institutions in response to commands from on high? Not at all. Very often the disobedience we see in Hebrew Scripture is initiated by human beings with no word from God at all. Thus the midwives Shifra and Pua resist Pharaoh’s decree to murder the Israelite children in the Exodus narrative. And Moses’ mother and sister hide the infant boy, although it is against the law. And Moses grows up and slays an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave.

None of these deeds is initiated or guided by divine command. Like many other stories in the Bible, they tell us about human beings who make their stand entirely on their own authority.

Some will want to object that the biblical heroes exhibit such

Almost every major figure of the Hebrew Bible confronts authority and breaks the law.

independence of mind only with respect to other human beings, and that they become pushovers when God enters the picture. But that isn’t right either. Many biblical figures dare to extend their arguments and criticism to God himself. Abraham is famous for challenging God over the fate of Sodom: “Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?” Moses repeatedly argues against God’s intention to destroy Israel. David is outraged over what he sees as God’s unjust killing of one of his men, and similar arguments with God appear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Havakuk, Jonah and Job.

Nor do these biblical figures stop at just arguing with God. They also disobey God. Abel disregards God’s instructions to go work the soil, while his brother Cain obeys—yet it is Abel whom God loves, not Cain. Moses, too, directly disobeys God’s command to lead the people up to Canaan after the sin of the golden calf. Aaron refuses to conduct the sacrificial service as commanded after God kills his two sons. The daughters of Tzelofhad even demand that Moses alter God’s law because they deem it unjust. And in all these cases, the biblical narrative endorses such resistance.

The Bible acknowledges this pattern explicitly when God gives the name “Israel” to Jacob and his descendants, saying: “Your name will no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have contended with God and with men and have prevailed.”

Reread that last sentence. It says that the God of Israel so cherishes independent-minded men and women that he himself names them Israel, meaning “will contend with God,” as a sign of his love and esteem.

The claim that the Hebrew Bible seeks to suppress inquiry and argument can be maintained only by way of colossal ignorance or willful distortion. In fact, no literary tradition of the pre-modern world—including Greek philosophy—was so effortlessly radical in its endorsement of human questioning, seeking and argument. And few have rivaled it in modernity either.

Perhaps it is time for the participants in the great “religion wars” of our day to give the Hebrew Bible another read.

—Dr. Hazony is the author of “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture,” which has just been published by Cambridge University Press.


‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye Says Creationism Hurts Kids

The former children’s show host who was credited with turning kids on to science during his 1990’s PBS show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” has released a video in which he charges that people who deny evolution are hurting children.

“Denial of evolution is unique to the United States,” Nye says on the video, titled “Creationism is not Appropriate for Children.”


‘Baywatch’ beauty Donna D’Errico on searching for Noah’s Ark, and leaving her wild past far behind

“Baywatch” beauty Donna D’Errico made news recently when photos of her battered face, injured climbing Mount Ararat in her search for Noah’s Ark, went viral. The 44-year-old blonde was on a quest taking her even further from her past as the ex-wife of Motley Crue wild man Nikki Sixx and the September 1995 Playboy playmate. Today D’Errico is deeply committed to her Catholic faith, a mother of two… and searching for Noah’s Ar

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2012/08/28/baywatch-beauty-donna-derrico-on-searching-for-noah-ark-and-leaving-her-wild/?cmpid=cmty_%7BlinkBack%7D_’Baywatch’_beauty_Donna_D%E2%80%99Errico_on_searching_for_Noah’s_Ark%2C_and_leaving_her_wild_past_far_behind#ixzz25FrQJMsI