Children ‘face distorted view of religion’

  • Friday, November 22

Primary school children should be taught to discuss their views on topics such as whether God is real and the origins of the universe, the report says
Anita Stizzoli/Getty Images
  • Milky Way
    Primary school children should be taught to discuss their views on topics such as whether God is real and the origins of the universe, the report says Anita Stizzoli/Getty Images
Ruth Gledhill Religion Correspondent
Published at 12:01AM, October 23 2013

A generation of children is at risk of growing up with a “superficial and distorted” understanding of religion, a report warns today.

Religious education is in “crisis”, it says, calling for children to start learning about beliefs and visiting places of worship such as churches, mosques and synagogues from the age of four.

The review, launched today at the House of Commons, says that primary school children should be taught to discuss their views on topics such as whether God is real and the origins of the universe.

Published by the Religious Education Council for England and Wales, it says that between the ages of five and seven, RE lessons should include topics such as learning about festivals, including Easter and Diwali, religious symbols and actions and the meanings of religious stories.

Between seven and 11, children could be taught how to discuss and present views on challenging questions surrounding different faiths.

In secondary school, they should “extend and deepen their knowledge and understanding of a range of religions and world views”.

According to the report, most current GCSE teaching fails the core aim of enabling pupils “to adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion”.

RE is the only subject where teachers do not have to be specially trained, meaning PE or other teachers often double up as RE teachers without any expert knowledge, said Dr Jonathan Romain, Rabbi of Maidenhead synagogue and chairman of the Accord coalition, which campaigns for inclusive education.

Dr Romain said the report did not go far enough. “It is vitally important that all children understand all the major faiths today,” he said.

“It is a statutory subject which means it has to be taught but it is part of the core and not national curriculum which means there are guidelines only to content. Basically schools can teach whatever they want.”

He added: “It is enormously worrying because children are leaving school without understanding the heritage of this country which is founded on Christian values. They are missing out on an historical understanding of what being British means.

“Knowing about religion is as important as knowing about mountains and rivers.”

The report calls for better monitoring of RE. Arguing for a review of the subject’s present status, set in 1944, when religious education was defined as “religious instruction”, it says: “School structures and curricula, and religion and society have changed greatly, and a new basis for the provision of RE in the 21st century should be considered.” It also says teacher training in the subject needs improving.

“The number of RE trainees has plummeted in recent years, and bursaries have been removed; access to continuing professional development is now minimal. Without a trained and confident teaching force, no long-term improvement in RE is possible.”

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, says in the foreword: “The modern world needs young people who are sufficiently confident in their own beliefs and values that they can respect the religious and cultural differences of others, and contribute to a cohesive and compassionate society.”RE’s place on the curriculum will be strong “if its role and importance are communicated effectively and widely understood”. The country needs a “rigorous model” of RE, he says.

In July, Mr Gove admitted that RE has suffered as a result of the Government’s school reforms.


Trove of religious offerings unearthed from ancient sanctuary in Turkey

By Megan Gannon

Digging History

  • seals-doliche

    These seals carved with religious inscriptions were found near the site of the ancient city of Doliche. (UNIVERSITY OF MÜNSTER)

Archaeologists digging in southern Turkey say they’ve discovered more than 600 stamp seals, cylinder seals and amulets left as religious offerings in an ancient sanctuary.

Carved with images of animals, people, deities and geometric figures, the small artifacts date from the seventh to fourth centuries B.C. and were found near the site of the ancient city of Doliche, which has a long history of worship.

Researchers think the place was revered as early as the Iron Age (around the beginning of the first millennium B.C.). It later became a famous sacred site of the Roman era, dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, the god of storms and weather, and then it was used as a Christian monastery.

People used stamp seals and cylinder seals to impress images into wet clay. These objects were sometimes used as a way to authenticate documents (in this case, tablets), but they also seem to have been used as religious offerings. [Images: Ancient Carving of Roman God]

“The amazingly large number proves how important seals and amulets were for the worshipping of the god to whom they were consecrated as votive offerings,” excavation director Engelbert Winter, a professor at theUniversity of Mnster in Germany, said in a statement. “Such large amounts of seal consecrations are unheard-of in any comparable sanctuary.”

So far, the objects found at Doliche have been identified as belonging to the late Babylonian, Syrian Achaemenid and Levantine cultures. The sealsare made of glass, stone and quartz ceramics, and they feature a wide range of images, from men fighting animals to men praying in front of divine symbols.

“Even those images that do not depict a deity express strong personal piety: With their seals, people consecrated an object to their god which was closely associated with their own identity,” archaeologist Michael Blmer, also a professor at theUniversity of Mnster, said in a statement.

Winter said the seals and amulets could fill gaps in knowledge about history of worship at the site, especially during the first millennium B.C., before Doliche’s status as a Roman sacred site was cemented.

Winter and Blmer conducted excavations this year during a two-month period. The site is being preserved and protected so that it can double as an archaeological park that will be accessible to visitors, the researchers say.


Ugly Truth

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries

Ugly Truth

In the movie A Few Good Men, we get the iconic line from Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) under cross examination in a trial by Lieutenant Lionel Kaffee (Tom Cruise): “You can’t handle the truth!” The phrase jars us even as it resonates. In John’s gospel, Jesus taught that we would know the truth and the truth would set us free. However, herein lies the challenge:  Truth can set us free, but we can’t always handle the truth!


What does that mean? An old preacher used to say that God cleanses sin, not excuses. Yet as I study the human condition, I find that excuses are our specialty. When someone is caught in some wrong doing, when we are exposed in a hypocrisy, when facts speak for themselves, we often find elaborate (and contrived) rationalizations or denials:  “You don’t understand…” “It was more complicated…” “They brought it on themselves…” Or, as we find in the first book of the Bible, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree.”


I have read many books on the Nazi period and those who seemed unable to come to terms with the evil to which they contributed. I have recently been reading a book by Jean Francois Revel exposing the intricate webs of truth avoidance by the French Socialists and Communists in regards to the evils by and under existing communism. Men and women of eminent credentials, from significant educational institutions, employ the most mind-bendingly silly arguments to justify evils committed under their preferred system, whilst simultaneously demonizing those of their clearly defined enemies. We don’t need to look to foreign countries or history for example; there is always recent evidence that this is a human issue, and not a political, racial, historical, or geographical one.


It is not a pleasant thing to contemplate, but it is real:  this self-justifying mechanism, this denial system, this hidden factor that makes me quick to judge others for infractions against me or my view of morality, but which equally quickly grants allowances, justifications, rationale for my own failings, errors, or wrong doings.


When Jesus said that we would know the truth, part of this truth is that we would know ourselves. That is, who and what we are, that something is indeed wrong, that something is wrong with us! We need help, we need healing, we need something to intervene in our lives to address the broken aspects. Sin is the biblical condition named to define this issue. The Greek word often used is hamartia, which means to miss the mark, as when an arrow misses the target. Something in space and time has happened that has disrupted and disordered reality. Though we often see the truth and maybe even at some level wantthe truth, we indeed cannot always handle it—at least, not without grace.


On the contrary, Jesus knew what was in men and women. He came as God’s means of renewal and redemption. He came as light, and he came as the door to another kingdom where light, life, and hearts are exposed. As the door, a way is opened to new life, and Jesus beckons, “Come unto me.” So, where are you today? Making excuses, justifying behavior, rationalizing attitudes, or seeking grace to be different? God loves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us as we are. If we can handle it, the truth will set us free.

Stuart McAllister is regional director for the Americas at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.


‘Gate to Hell’ guardians recovered in Turkey


By Rossella Lorenzi

Discovery News
  • gate to hell digital reconstruction.jpg

    A digital illustration shows the ancient Plutonium, celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology.(FRANCESCO D’ANDRIA)

Archaeologists digging in Turkey have found the guardians of the “Gate to Hell” — two unique marble statues which once warned of a deadly cave in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, near Pamukkale.

Known as Pluto’s Gate — Ploutonion in Greek, Plutonium in Latin — the cave was celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology and tradition. It was discovered in March by a team led by Francesco D’Andria, professor of classic archaeology at the University of Salento.

“The statues represent two mythological creatures,” D’Andria told Discovery News. “One depicts a snake, a clear symbol of the underworld, the other shows Kerberos, or Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of hell in the Greek mythology.”

Rolled onto itself, the snake looks threateningly toward anybody trying to approach it, while the 4-foot-tall Kerberos resembles the Kangal, the Anatolian shepherd dog.

“It’s a pretty scary statue,” D’Andria said.

The sculptures were found as archaeologists further excavated the area where in March they unearthed the remains of the Plutonium, which included an inscription dedicated to the deities of the underworld — Pluto and Kore.

The dig revealed the source of the thermal springs, which produce the famous white travertine terraces.

“Pamukkale’s springs originate right from this cave,” D’Andria said.

Believed to have healing properties, the hot springs made the Roman city of Hierapolis — now a World Heritage Site — a popular destination for pilgrimages.

Both marble statues emerged from the thermal water, leaving little doubt that the site was indeed Pluto’s Gate. The cave was described in historic sources as filled with lethal mephitic vapors.

“This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death,” the Greek geographer Strabo (64-63 B.C. to about 24 A.D.) wrote about the site.

“I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell,” he added.

“They were instantly killed by the carbon dioxide fumes,” D’Andria said.

Strabo’s account was confirmed during the excavation, as D’Andria and colleagues found several dead birds and insects near the opening.

In the previous excavation, the archaeologists also found the remains of a temple, a pool and a series of steps placed above the cave — all matching the descriptions of the site in ancient sources.

The site represented an important destination for pilgrims. People watched the sacred rites from steps above the cave opening, while priests sacrificed bulls to Pluto. The ceremony included leading the animals into the cave, and dragging them out dead.

Only the eunuchs of Cybele, an ancient fertility goddess, were able to enter the hell gate without any apparent damage.

“They hold their breath as much as they can,” Strabo wrote, adding that their immunity could have been due to their “menomation,” “divine providence” or “certain physical powers that are antidotes against the vapor.”

According to D’Andria, the site was a famous destination for rites of incubation. Pilgrims took the waters in the pool near the temple, slept not too far from the cave and received visions and prophecies, in a sort of oracle of Delphi effect. Indeed, the fumes coming from the depths of Hierapolis’ phreatic groundwater produced hallucinations.

The popularity of the site is testified by dozens of lamps unearthed in front of the cave opening. Among the most precious objects, the archaeologists also found a marble head representing the goddess Aphrodite.

“These votive offerings shows the relentless vitality of the pagan cults in Hierapolis between the 4th and 6th centuries A.D., when the Roman empire was progressively Christianized by emperors such as Constantine and up to Justinian,” Alister Filippini, a researcher in Roman history at the Universities of Palermo, Italy, and Cologne, Germany, told Discovery News.

It is possible that during the 5th century the Plutonium’s entrance was blocked, preventing access to the underground cave, so that the related pagan rites could not be performed. However pilgrims continued to venerate the area by leaving offerings to the deities, who were believed to miraculously heal the sick people taking the thermal waters near the Plutonium.

At the same time, between the 4th and 6th centuries, the statues of Kerberos and the snakes were scarred, most likely by Christian pilgrims.

“These details show the growing conflict between the new and old cults, and the resulting marginalization of the traditional pagan religion,” Filippini said.

During the 5th century A.D. pilgrims came to Hierapolis from remote locations to venerate the tomb of Saint Philip, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, whose remains were found by D’Andria two years ago.

Several pilgrims however, continued to visit Pluto’s Gate, braving the anti-pagan laws.

Finally, in the 6th century A.D., the site was obliterated by the Christians who covered it with soil.

“Geological investigations have already started in collaboration with the University of Pamukkale to begin the restoration of this unique site. We hope we can open it to the public in a near future,” D’Andria said.


Photo by: Courtesy Manischewitz Thanksgivukka: Please pass the turkey-stuffed doughnuts


Print Edition

Photo by: Courtesy Manischewitz

Thanksgivukka: Please pass the turkey-stuffed doughnuts

As Thanksgiving and Hanukka converge for a once-in-a-lifetime event, double holiday cheer – and endless culinary mashups – are on the menu.
This year, as American Jews light their first Hanukka candle, most will also be checking on the defrosting turkey, finishing up the pumpkin pie and stocking up on green beans.

That’s because this year the US national holiday of Thanksgiving coincides with the first day of Hanukka, a rare confluence that has been dubbed “Thanksgivukka” in popular culture.

Dana Gitell, a marketing expert from Boston, has been credited with coining the word Thanksgivukka last year, when it first occurred to her that the holidays would overlap.

When she realized what “a big deal” it would be, “I started thinking ‘What would you call it?’ The name Thanksgivukka popped into my head.”

So Gitell started a website – Thanksgivukkah.com – a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, which now has more than 10,000 “likes.”

Teaming up with her sister-in-law Deborah Gitell and illustrator Kim DeMarco, a line of Thanksgivukka T-shirts, notecards and posters was created and is for sale on the website moderntribe.com.

“This is a funny and entertaining pop culture moment for Americans,” she said. “Even if you’re not Jewish, there’s a lot of awareness of Hanukka in pop culture in America. But I didn’t anticipate the [excitement] or the demand for these products… Everything has exceeded any projection we would have had.”

The hybrid holiday is getting big name recognition too.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced last month that he would officially proclaim November 28 this year “Thanksgivukka Day” in the city. And Macy’s declared that for the first time, its acclaimed Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City will include a spinning dreidel balloon to honor the occasion.

A great deal of the hype is circulating around the fact that this calendar fluke is a once-in-a- lifetime event. But is it?

Almost all sources agree that the holidays have overlapped before. It happened in 1888 just like this year, and then again in 1899, when Thanksgiving fell on the fourth day of Hanukka. But will it happen again?

According to Jonathan Mizrahi, a quantum physicist from Maryland, the answer is no – unless you’re still around in the year 79811.

But things are a bit more complicated than that. Since American holidays are held during the day, but Jewish holidays start in the evening, there are at least two more times when, after eating their fill of turkey and sweet potatoes, American Jews will light the first Hanukka candle. In those years – 2070 and 2165 – the holidays will overlap for a few hours after sundown, according to Chabad.org.

“The first day of Hanukka coincides with Thanksgiving this year, meaning that the first night is actually the night before Thanksgiving,” Mizrahi told The Jerusalem Post. “This will never happen again. However, if the first day of Hanukka falls the day after Thanksgiving, the first night of Hanukka falls on Thanksgiving night.”

But of course, things get even more complicated than that.

According to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, the calculation of 79811 for the next “true overlap” of Thanksgiving and Hanukka is based on “a lack of understanding of the Hebrew calendar.”

“The Hebrew calendar gains one day on the Gregorian calendar every 233 years,” despite the occasional additions of leap months to correct the problem, Freeman told the Post.

If that continues without modification, he said, eventually Hanukka will circle around the Gregorian calendar and return to Thanksgiving in 79811, assuming the American holiday’s date does not change either.

But, he said, Passover must always be in the spring. So at some point, “we’re going to have to take additional measures.”

“Originally, the central beit din [rabbinical court] in Jerusalem decided when Passover was going to be each year,” he said.

“That fell apart with the Diaspora, and a fixed calendar was established.”

However, Freeman said, that calendar “was only set to work until the year 6000.” Before that time, the rabbi continued, the Messiah “is expected to arrive and gather the Jews from the Diaspora…. But there certainly is no possibility that anyone will let Hanukka fall in July.”

However often the confluence of celebrations will happen, for most, it is about one thing: food.

Buzzfeed.com posted a guide to celebrating Thanksgivukka – “the best holiday of all time” – with suggested dishes such as Manischewitz-brined roast turkey, sweet potato bourbon noodle kugel and pecan pie rugelach.

Manischewitz has jumped on the bandwagon, launching a multimedia campaign that it spent a reported $2.5 million on, with extensive advertising, recipes like pumpkin latkes and deep-fried turkey meatballs, videos – including one featuring a rap battle between a turkey and a dreidel – e-cards, an app and a contest awarding $1,000 to the best user-submitted mashup recipe.

And New York City restaurant Kutsher’s Tribeca is offering a four-course Thanksgivukka menu for two days, including pumpkin shlishkas, halla chestnut stuffing, sweet potato latkes with sour cream and cranberry compote and sufganiyot with cranberry-raspberry jelly filling.

In an article celebrating the holidays’ convergence, The New York Times declared that we should let “the gravy of one holiday freely flow into the olive oil of another,” and offered recipes for latkes topped with Portuguese pumpkin preserves; sweet and sour braised brisket with cranberries and pomegranate; and horseradish matzo ball soup.

Bringing the culinary combinations to their inevitable and terrifying destination, Zucker Bakery in downtown Manhattan has created four different Thanksgivukka-themed doughnuts.

Its Israeli-born chef and owner, Zohar Zohar, is offering spiced pumpkin doughnuts with cranberry and turkey filling, sweet potato with toasted marshmallow filling, spiced pumpkin with turkey and gravy filling, and spiced pumpkin with cranberry filling.

The mashups haven’t been limited to just food. Nine-year-old Asher Weintraub of Brooklyn dreamed up a “menurkey” – a turkey-shaped menorah, or hanukkia – and posted it on crowd-funding website Kickstarter in hopes of raising $25,000 to start production.

Instead, he was granted $48,345, and has sold more than 1,500 so far.

Dozens of communities around the US will host Thanksgivukka festivals, and the phenomenon has even jumped across the pond to London, where Saatchi Shul is hosting a Thanksgivukka Friday night dinner.

In Israel, homesick Americans can make their way to Tel Aviv, where Nefesh B’Nefesh and White City Shabbat are co-hosting a Thanksgivukka Friday night dinner and clothing drive.

Despite the culinary frenzy, many are hoping American Jews will see more in the overlap of traditions than just pumpkin doughnuts and deep-fried turkey.

“There’s an opportunity in this overlap to not only celebrate the Jewish-American experience but to give thanks to America for giving us all the religious freedoms we enjoy here,” Gitell said.

“The overlap this year is just begging us to rediscover the true meaning of Thanksgiving and Hanukka,” said Freeman.

“There’s the obvious idea of thankfulness: Thanking God for all we have in life, all the big miracles and especially the smaller ones that happen every day.”

But, he continued, “there are other common themes between them… the Pilgrims [were] running from religious persecution in England – much as the Maccabees were fighting it on their own territory. Now that we are no longer running and neither are they, we have to take advantage of that freedom… Be proud of all you have to be thankful for and celebrate it out loud, and outdoors.”

And while the holiday spirit has been doubled for most this season, there will always be some who find a reason to grumble. Satirical TV host Stephen Colbert included a segment on Thanksgivukka on his show last month, in which he railed against the convergence of the holidays in a segment called “Thanksgiving Under Attack.”

With the two celebrations overlapping, he said, “keeping the story straight is going to be impossible. Pretty soon schoolchildren are going to believe Thanksgiving started when the Wampanoag sat down with the Maccabees and the yams lasted for eight nights.

“It wasn’t a miracle – nobody likes yams,” he said.


Book Review: ‘The Cave and the Light,’ by Arthur Herman

The Wall Street Journal

In the pantheon of Dead White European Males, are there any specimens more deeply interred than Plato and Aristotle?


Nov. 17, 2013 3:37 p.m. ET
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. ” In “The Cave and the Light,” Arthur Herman extends the citations to include Plato’s renegade student, Aristotle.

Mr. Herman is one of those writers whose appetite for ideas and command of narrative drama make them a companionable guide through the thickets of intellectual history. Often, as in “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” (2001), he advances a bold thesis that readers can take or leave without diminishing their enjoyment of the story he unfolds. In “The Cave and the Light,” he seeks to explain the metabolism of history with a single master idea: the perpetual struggle or “creative tension” between the ideas of Plato—which he says emphasize the ideal at the expense of the actual—and those of Aristotle, whose philosophy remains rooted in experience and everyday life.

It might seem odd to search for “the soul of Western Civilization” in the work of two philosophers from the fourth century B.C. In the pantheon of Dead White European Males, are there any specimens more deeply interred? But Mr. Herman takes the reader on a rollicking trip from classical Athens to 21st-century New York to make the case that “everything we say, do, and see” has been shaped—”in one way or another”—by the ideas of Plato or Aristotle.

And what were those ideas, exactly? Mr. Herman turns to Plato’s allegory in Book VII of “The Republic” to explain. Socrates compares the lot of most men to bound prisoners in a cave. A fire behind them casts a play of shadows on the wall in front, and these shadows they naturally mistake for reality. As Yeats said in “Among School Children”: “Plato thought nature but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.”

Imagine the prisoner set free. His eyes would be dazzled first by the fire and then, as he emerged from the cave, by the sunlight outside—a world of ideal forms, the true reality. This journey upward, says Socrates, is like the “upward journey of the soul” from the deceptive realm of the senses to a realm of timeless if abstract certainty. For Aristotle, by contrast, the world wasn’t a shadow-filled cave but a provocation to curiosity, a place to be investigated for itself. Mr. Herman several times quotes his declaration that “the fact is our starting point.”


The Cave and the Light

By Arthur Herman
(Random House, 676 pages, $35)

Mr. Herman is an able storyteller, and his many vignettes—about Euclid and Archimedes, about Luther (who believed Aristotle’s work was the doing of Satan) and Newton, about Aristotle’s influence on the American Founders and the fatuous idealism (Mr. Herman cites Plato here) of Woodrow Wilson—are entertaining and often illuminating. I am not sure that Aristotle played as big a role in the thinking of Friedrich Hayek as Mr. Herman suggests, but his account of Hayek’s insights about the way centralized government stymies freedom are arresting and as pertinent today as they were when Hayek wrote in the 1940s.

Between them, according to Mr. Herman, Plato and Aristotle divide the world. Interested in modern science and technology? Aristotle’s your man. Meanwhile, Plato is “the spokesman for the theologian, the mystic, the poet.” Aristotle, Mr. Herman says, inspired modern economics, Plato, the Reformation. “One gave us the U.S. Constitution, the Manhattan Project, and shopping mall”—that would be Aristotle—”the other gave us Chartres Cathedral, but also the gulag and the Holocaust.”

If you were brought up short by mention of the gulag and the Holocaust, you aren’t alone. “The Cave and the Light” glories in that sort of hyperbole. Do environmentalists offer a “manifestly Platonist” reply to Aristotle? Is it true that without Aristotle there would have been “no Steve Jobs”? It seems a stretch, and I couldn’t help thinking of one writer that Mr. Herman doesn’t mention, Bishop Butler, the clear-eyed, 18th-century philosopher who observed that “everything is what it is and not another thing.” The problem with Hitler wasn’t Plato, nor are terrorists inhabiting “the scariest depths of [Plato’s] cave.” Their caves feature AK-47s, not shadows.

Overstatement notwithstanding, what makes “The Cave and the Light” so enjoyable is Mr. Herman’s command of that most uncommon virtue, common sense. “Balance”—what Aristotle called sophrosune—stands at the top of his list of virtues. And although he insists that sanity and balance require the spiritualizing impetus of Plato as well as the pragmatic outlook of Aristotle, it is clear that he harbors a partiality for the latter. Mr. Herman doesn’t mention Cardinal Newman, but I suspect he would appreciate Newman’s comment that, about most things, to think like Aristotle is to think correctly.

Early on, Mr. Herman cannily observes that “one of the most crucial differences” between Plato and Aristotle is that Plato is backward-looking, Aristotle forward-looking. It is striking, for example, that Plato should describe knowledge as a sort of anamnesis, “recollection.” There is something deeply nostalgic about Platonism: homesickness elevated to metaphysical longing. Aristotle, though, is at home in this world. “All men by nature desire to know,” he says at the beginning of the “Metaphysics,” “and the proof of this is the delight we take in our senses.” For Aristotle, the senses don’t so much beguile us, as in Plato, as they provide a window on the world and hence a means of liberation.

“Human beings,” Mr. Herman rightly says, “build their lives around the future, not the past.” That might seem like a thoroughly Aristotelian sentiment. But it is worth noting that, in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Socrates not only describes an ascent from the realm of illusion to the sunlit uplands outside but also notes that those who make the ascent must return: “You must go down . . . to live with the rest and let your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness.” Which is to say that Plato isn’t the thoroughgoing Platonist he is sometimes taken to be.

Mr. Kimball is editor of the New Criterion.


What makes humans unique—tools? Language? Cooking

The Wall Street JournalThe Wall Street Journal

Book Review: ‘The Gap’ by Thomas Suddendorf

What makes humans unique—tools? Language? Cooking?


Nov. 15, 2013 3:23 p.m. ET
Why is our species different from all other species? This isn’t a Passover Seder question but a genuine scientific one that can be divided into two parts: How are human beings different from others, and by what means has this difference come about? It turns out that neither question has a simple answer, although the former may be more amenable to productive inquiry.

For “true believers” among the Big Three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—there is no problem answering either question. Why are we different? Easy: because we Homo sapiens possess immortal and God-given souls, chips off the old Divine Block. And what produced this difference? Also easy: Hashem, or God, or Allah made us that way. Things aren’t so simple, however, for a scientist, even though Thomas Suddendorf is a good one—a remarkably good writer, too, as he leads the reader on a rewarding, thought-provoking journey to understand what he calls ” The Gap “: not the clothing and accessories retailer but the hard-to-define qualities that distinguish our species from the rest of the organic world.

The Gap

By Thomas Suddendorf
Basic, 358 pages, $29.99

Rock paintings from the Neolithic era in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountains in what is now Algeria. Thousands of images made beginning as early as 8,000 B.C. depict cattle, crocodiles and humans. Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

I was favorably disposed toward Mr. Suddendorf’s book as soon as I saw its subtitle: “The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals.” Not only is “science”—rather than theology—right up front, but instead of embracing the frequently employed but altogether misleading construction that sets people apart from animals, the phrase makes clear that human beings are to be treated as just another species. Mr. Suddendorf, I am pleased to note, has no doubt that, whatever else we are, we are also animals, although this doesn’t blind him to a degree of self-proclaimed (and likely justified) species-centrism.

“The physical continuity of humans and animals is incontestable,” he writes. “But the mind is another matter.” We think, therefore we are . . . special. (Ambrose Bierce modified Descartes’s famous “cogito” as follows: “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am,” adding that this was as close to certainty that philosophy was likely to get. Thanks to researchers such as Mr. Suddendorf, comparative psychology, informed by evolutionary biology, may well get closer yet.) But then again, when it comes to its presumed specialness, every species is unique; that’s how we identify any species as distinct. “Always remember that you are absolutely unique,” wrote anthropologist Margaret Mead, “just like everyone else.” Although she was referring to individuals, she could have had all human beings in mind.

There is quite a history of scientists as well as philosophers trying to distill the unique essence of humanness, attempting to improve upon Linnaeus’s Homo sapiens (“Man the knowing,” or “wise”). Such attempts have included H. ludens (“the player”), H. religiosus (“the religious”), H. lingua (“the language-user”), and H. cultura (“the culture-using”), as well as some tediously anatomical monikers, such as H. glaber (“hairless”) and H. bipedalis (which should be self-explanatory). Over time, most of these traits have been shown to be “less unique” than their promoters had hoped.

If we limit ourselves to animal language alone, cases of remarkable capacities—verging on the human—are legion. For example, vervet monkeys have four acoustically distinct kinds of predator-alarm calls, evoked by leopards, eagles, pythons and baboons. And even non-primates come close to human language. Prairie dogs—not normally considered among the brightest bulbs in the animal chandelier—have different alarm calls for humans, coyotes, domestic dogs and red-tailed hawks. Moreover, they employ modifiers that even specify the size and shape of an individual predator.

Research by Irene Pepperberg on her pet African gray parrot strongly suggests that he could understand and employ nouns, verbs and adjectives, as well as sophisticated concepts such as “different.” And the brilliant border collie Rico not only learned more than 200 distinct words but, when asked to identify an object that he didn’t know amid several other items, all of which he had previously identified, he correctly chose the new and unknown object—a mental feat that is not only remarkable but also replicable and that cannot be explained except by granting this animal extraordinarily complex mental agility.

Some decades ago, one of the more promising candidates for human uniqueness was Homo faber: man the tool-user. But in the early 1960s, a young Jane Goodall—studying free-living chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park—watched two of her subjects pick up twigs, strip off the leaves and smaller branches, and use them to “fish” for termites. Not only were these animals using tools, they were making them! When Ms. Goodall’s mentor, Louis Leakey, received her excited account, he famously wrote back: “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

None of these possibilities transpired, and the search for human uniqueness went on. Chimps have been found to chew leaves and then dip them into otherwise inaccessible puddles of water, using the mashed mess as a sponge to soak up moisture; at a different location, they were observed smashing recalcitrant nuts with stones. Other animals, including several bird species, are also known to employ tools. “He who understands baboon,” jotted Charles Darwin in one of his notebooks in 1838, “would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Thanks to a veritable army of field researchers, we understand baboons quite well these days—albeit not entirely—and yet the metaphysical payoff remains elusive.

Into this gap comes “The Gap,” offering an easily digested and suitably unbiased overview of the current state of what comparative psychologists have discovered about the traits typically considered to be uniquely human: language, intelligence, morality, culture, “theory of mind” and “mental time travel.” When it comes to interpreting examples of seemingly insightful animal behavior, Mr. Suddendorf employs philosopher Daniel Dennett’s dichotomy of “romantics” vs. “killjoys”: Romantics posit mental processes in animals that are similar to our own, and killjoys look for simpler, more “instinct-based” interpretations. In describing their debates, Mr. Suddendorf cuts an entertaining swath through a thicket of research studies on primate cognition, of which most of the original technical accounts I at least have always found terribly boring.

The author’s style is not only consistently interesting and informative but at times delightfully playful, as when he describes how human language—unlike the communication systems of other animals—is governed by rules of word order or syntax. “You may remember some of them from school (or you may remember that you have forgotten them),” he writes. “Even if you are not able to explain them, you still know when they violated being are.”

Mr. Suddendorf’s goal is to answer this seemingly simple question: “Which characteristics of the human mind, be they distinct traits or gradual differences, enable and motivate us to do the great diversity of things that other animals do not? What makes us human?” He points to two “master adaptations” as fundamentally responsible for The Gap: a purported “drive to connect with other minds” and what he calls “nested scenario building”—aka mental time travel. We struggle not only to be understood but often to maximize the number of others with whom we are able to communicate (think of blogging and Twitter). We are also predisposed to imagine situations without necessarily experiencing them and to imagine what someone else is imagining: “I think she thinks that I think that she likes me.” But here Mr. Suddendorf is regrettably, and surprisingly, unpersuasive, since the evolutionary relevance of these characteristics is simply asserted, and then reasserted, rather than demonstrated.

One can point to any number of other defining human traits, as did Mark Twain when he proclaimed that “man is the only animal that blushes—or has reason to.” We may also be the only animal that wastes energy and efforts engaging in spite, thereby demonstrating a unique degree of independence from those fitness-maximizing tactics to which other animals are bound by the dictates of natural selection. Primatologist Richard Wrangham has made an impressive case that—strange and simplified as it may seem—cooking was our ancestors’ key humanizing adaptation. And language still remains a strong candidate, as does death awareness, as championed by the late anthropologist Ernest Becker.

Mr. Suddendorf does a good job of discussing the fraught question whether other apes possess a theory of mind, which involves developing a mental picture of what another individual knows or is thinking. The adaptive significance of such a theory is presumably that it allows humans to navigate the complex, shifting shoals of social existence. We might call it the Burns Benefit, after the poet’s plaint: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, / To see oursels as ithers see us! / It wad frae mony a blunder free us, / An’ foolish notion.”

I was disappointed to find no serious consideration of the role of consciousness in generating the Gap. My German Shepherds are exquisitely alert, responsive to and aware of their environment, much more so than I. But insofar as they lack a recursive awareness of their own awareness, I think we are justified in questioning whether they are conscious, at least as human beings are. My own guess—and it is little more than a guess—is that consciousness underlies many of the uniquely human traits that contribute to the Gap.

There is, nonetheless, much to admire in “The Gap”—the book no less than the phenomenon. Despite its imperfections, it is a welcome addition to the growing literature explaining science to the intelligent layperson, although a clarification is in order: Publicity surrounding this book gives the impression that it develops the thesis that human beings are taxonomically as well as metaphysically alone because we have likely killed off our near-relatives. This is an attention-grabbing notion, one that may indeed be true and could well warrant its own book-length treatment; certainly, as Mr. Suddendorf, to his credit, points out with appropriate outrage, we are currently pushing our existing great-ape relatives to the brink of extinction.

But at present we simply don’t know if other species in the direct line of descent to Homo sapiens (known these days as “hominins”) disappeared because they were ill-adapted to changing environments or if our ancestors killed them off directly, “defeated” them indirectly via ecological competition, swamped their genomes by interbreeding. Or it could be that our current existential and biological loneliness is due to something else. It is even possible, as suggested by the fossil of H. erectus recently found in the European state of Georgia, that there weren’t that many different hominin species similar to us after all. In any event, you have just now read more about what might have befallen our ancestral and collateral relatives than you will find in all of Mr. Suddendorf’s book.

Mr. Suddendorf’s lively attempt to discover what exactly makes humans different from other species raises other questions. What is the adaptive significance, the evolutionary payoff, of these Gap-generating traits, whatever they may be? Why should natural selection have favored early human ancestors who were able to engage in mental time travel, or who strove to link their minds with others, or who achieved consciousness? Was there a payoff in terms of intergroup competition, within-tribe coordination, enhanced sexual opportunities or something not yet identified?

However you slice it, there is much to be said for the ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself,” and “The Gap” is an excellent place to start.

—Mr. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is “Buddhist Biology.”


Does God have a body?

11/14/2013 18:03   By SHLOMO BRODY

The problem of anthropomorphism plagued biblical commentators for many centuries.

TALMUD scholars.
Photo by: Wikimedia commons

On the one hand, reason dictates that an omnipotent God with absolute unity does not have any form of corporeality, which by definition implies finitude and the ability to be divided. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of God creating humans in His image (“Let us make man in our image and likeness”), and repeatedly depicts Him performing actions with His hands and other body parts.

For medieval scholars, this problem was compounded by homiletic passages (Aggadata) in the Talmud that occasionally portray God as performing actions like donning tefillin or report how humans bear the same image as Him.

Already in the early medieval period, many scholars such as Rav Hai Gaon declared that such passages should be read metaphorically. While adopting this approach in most cases, Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon also suggested a theory of “created Glory,” which asserted that God would sometimes create a visible entity to give prophets a visual affirmation of their experience, as in the case of Ezekiel’s visions.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi also believed that many passages should be understood figuratively. Yet he also contended that great spiritual figures, including prophets and pious sages, have a unique sense of apprehension (“inner eye”) that combines the intellect and imagination to perceive the inner nature of the divine world, which they then depict in distinctive imagery.

While these figures all denied any corporeality to God, the most trenchant critic of anthropomorphism was Maimonides. He asserted that believers in divine corporeality were both idiots and heretics, since their conception of God was entirely false – as it denied the omnipotence and unity of the Creator. All biblical and rabbinic passages that imply otherwise must therefore be understood as metaphors or visions in the prophet’s minds. Such imagery, he asserted, were pedagogically necessary to introduce complex concepts in familiar terms or because some concepts elude linguistic expression, thereby necessitating pictorial images to convey a sense of the teaching.

Maimonides also deemed the early mystical work Shiur Koma, a midrashic work from the Heichalot literature that graphically depicts God’s exact measurements, as heretical and stemming from non-Jewish hands. Following in his father’s footsteps, Maimonides’s son Abraham maintained that believing in a corporeal God was equivalent to worshiping demons or idols, and further sniped that it was no surprise that Christians were generally supportive of those Ashkenazi scholars who vociferously opposed Maimonidean teachings.

While he agreed with the basic theological claim negating corporeality, Rabad of Posquières strongly criticized Maimonides’s assertion that belief in God’s corporeality was heretical. He noted there were “many greater scholars” than Maimonides who had been innocently led astray by the confusing biblical and rabbinic texts.

Other historical sources, documented by Ephraim Kanarfogel, affirm that several (but certainly not all) Ashkenazi scholars – let alone laity – believed in some form of divine corporeality.

Rabbi Moshe Taku, for example, argued that God has the power of movement and may adopt well-defined forms as necessitated in a given situation, even as He does not have a singular, permanent form. Others appear to have believed that while God does not have flesh and blood, He is comprised of some large, ethereal matter. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani II (known as the Riaz) disagreed with these beliefs but deemed them non-heretical since, he contended, they were shared by a few talmudic sages.

In any case, several Ashkenazi scholars, both before and certainly after Maimonides, agreed that God did not have any form of corporeality; today, one would be hard-pressed to find any traditional religious thinker who does not scorn its very notion. One notable exception is the contemporary theologian Michael Wyschogrod, who adopted a form of mild anthropomorphism which emphasizes God’s human-like experiences. Acknowledging its philosophical difficulties, he nonetheless believed that a central biblical tenet is that God lives amongst the Jewish people as an expression of his love for them, and that this axiom was lost through Maimonidean rationalism.

Many have shunned Wyschogrod’s theory for its overtones of a carnal theology. Nonetheless, other 20th-century philosophers, without attributing physical attributes to God, have argued that biblical anthropomorphism regarding God’s actions or emotions were not intended simply for pedagogical reasons, as Maimonides contended. Instead, Franz Rosenzweig argued, they are meant to reflect, on an existential level, the emotional depth of man’s momentary encounters with God. As Eliezer Berkovits declared, “God’s involvement in the world is the source of all anthropomorphisms… Since God’s involvement in the destiny of man is the precondition of man, ‘anthropomorphism’ is indeed inseparable from religion… That God cares is no mere allegory, but a statement of fact, which one makes on the basis of the actual experience of the encounter.”

Thus, the conversation over God’s corporeality ultimately reflects the complexity of a religious outlook that affirms God’s infinite state, as well as His involvement in the world. ■ The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tivkah Israel Seminars and is a junior scholar in the Judaism and Human Rights program at the Israel Democracy Institute. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody


The People & the Book: Joseph the righteous – but not over much

Jerusalem Report

The People & the Book: Joseph the righteous – but not over much

11/18/2013 12:01   By SHAI CHERRY

What did hatzaddik do to get himself in Egypt’s royal dungeon?

What did Joseph hatzaddik do to deserve imprisonment in Egypt?

“Don’t be such a tzaddik,” my dad would say to me – though, admittedly, not often.

Dad was channeling Ecclesiastes. “Be not overly righteous,” or, as we might say, “Don’t be an über tzaddik!” Among our Torah characters, the rabbis awarded the über tzaddik trophy to Joseph. They even changed his last name to hatzaddik.

Joseph merits the designation of tzaddik because of his refusal to sleep with Mrs. Potiphar. The text is clear, at least the first time.

(Genesis 39:8) Joseph hatzaddik, a virile young man, rebuffed her advances.

It is difficult for me to relate to that Joseph. Indeed, my research suggests just how incredible (as in “not believable”) a hot-blooded Hebrew refusing a golden opportunity for consensual sex would be.

Further, more learned research bolsters my incredulity. The Masoretes, those grammarians who punctuated and scored the Torah, gave Joseph’s refusal a note of indecision. The shalsheletover the word vayema’en (he refused) is a rare trope that, in our case, signifies that Joseph wavered, repeatedly. You can hear his footsteps going up and down the staircase to Mrs. Potiphar’s boudoir. Our boy vacillated, and triumphed – earning himself the appellation oftzaddik for the rest of Jewish history. I can relate to vacillation.

Scholars have long noticed how, on the surface, our Torah portion looks perfectly symmetrical. Joseph’s dreams get him thrown into the first pit, and deciphering others’ dreams gets him out of the second pit.

Just as he was stripped of his cloak by his jealous brothers, so was he again stripped of his cloak by the zealous Mrs. Potiphar. That’s literary symmetry. Even Joseph’s musically oscillating refusal is symmetrical.

But, where is the ethical symmetry? What did Joseph hatzaddik do to deserve imprisonment in Egypt? Where is the Torah’s karmic version of measure for measure? Hillel’s study buddy, Avtalyon, cautions against speaking indiscriminately lest the result be exile. He may have been referring to Joseph who insensitively revealed his dreams of dominance to his already envious brothers. They threw him in a pit, and he ended up in Egypt. That sequence is understandable within the biblical paradigm of being punished for one’s deeds. So, then, what did Joseph do to get himself in Egypt’s royal dungeon for all those long and prime years?

Potiphar is introduced as a saris. Although the word can mean “a royal official,” it also means “eunuch.” If nothing else, the word choice sets the stage for a sexually charged plot line. Genesis Rabbah understands from this term that Potiphar purchased Joseph for sex and was duly, and divinely, castrated as a result. The Hebrew text overflows with double entendres: “Potiphar found Joseph pleasing in his eyes and he served him… He left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, did not know of anything except the bread that he ate. And Joseph was well built and handsome.”

Allow me to suggest that Potiphar’s lack of knowledge extended to his wife – he did not know even her. We Jewish men, by the way, are not allowed to ignore our women. Through some creative interpretation and righteous legislation, the rabbis of the Mishnah spelled out our marital debt, as it was called. Yet, as much as Mrs. Potiphar craves Joseph, the Hebrew hunk, she also desires his companionship, “to lie beside me and be with me.” One gets the sense that Potiphar, regardless of possible anatomical deficits, was not an attentive partner.

Mrs. Potiphar, day after day, was relentless. Finally, Joseph enters the house, when no one else is there, “to do his work.” The Talmud’s Rabbi Yochanan acknowledges that Mrs.

Potiphar’s persistent coaxing had dissolved Joseph’s resolve.

As the accompanying haftara queries, “Can two walk together without knowing one another?” (Amos 3:3) But our haftara also piously suggests there was no consummation. Our tzaddik’s overpowering morality undermined his bio-mechanics.

“The bow grasper [archer] will not stand… Even the most stouthearted warrior will escape naked that day.” Amos, of course, did not have Joseph hatzaddik in mind – but the rabbis, who chose his words as our haftara, did. Regardless of consummation, for his bow did not stand and he escaped naked, Joseph was consumed by lust.

The true climax of our story has been discreetly cloaked by the etnachta of verse 12, the pregnant pause between Mrs. Potiphar grasping Joseph, and Joseph escaping and leaving hisbeged (yet another double entendre meaning both cloak and betrayal) in her hand. Only later, when Mrs. Potiphar “sees” that Joseph had left his cloak, does she call out to the servants who had not been there when Joseph arrived.

And so he languished in the royal dungeon for surrendering to desire.

Even Joseph wasn’t an über tzaddik . That’s a Joseph to whom I can relate.

Shai Cherry is the director of Shaar Hamayim, a Jewish Learning Center in Solana Beach, California, and the author of ‘Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times’


Ancient city discovered beneath Biblical-era ruins in Israel

Ancient city discovered beneath Biblical-era ruins in Israel


Published November 19, 2013

| LiveScience

Archaeologists have unearthed traces of a previously unknown, 14th-century Canaanite city buried underneath the ruins of another city in Israel.

The traces include an Egyptian amulet of Amenhotep III and several pottery vessels from the Late Bronze Age unearthed at the site of Gezer, an ancient Canaanite city.

Gezer was once a major center that sat at the crossroads of trade routes between Asia and Africa, said Steven Ortiz, a co-director of the site’s excavations and a biblical scholar at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

The remains of the ancient city suggest the site was used for even longer than previously known. [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]

Biblical city
The ancient city of Gezer has been an important site since the Bronze Age, because it sat along the Way of the Sea, or the Via Maris, an ancient trade route that connected Egypt, Syria, Anatolia and Mesopotamia.

The city was ruled over many centuries by Canaanites, Egyptians and Assyrians, and Biblical accounts from roughly the 10th century describe an Egyptian pharaoh giving the city to King Solomon as a wedding gift after marrying his daughter.

“It’s always changed hands throughout history,” Ortiz told LiveScience.

The site has been excavated for a century, and most of the excavations so far date to the the 10th through eighth centuries B.C. Gezer also holds some of the largest underground water tunnels of antiquity, which were likely used to keep the water supply safe during sieges.

But earlier this summer, Ortiz and his colleague Samuel Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority noticed traces of an even more ancient city from centuries before King Solomon’s time. Among the layers was a section that dated to about the 14th century B.C., containing a scarab, or beetle, amulet from King Amenhotep III, the grandfather of King Tut. They also found shards of Philistine pottery.

During that period, the ancient site was probably a Canaanite city that was under Egyptian influence.

The findings are consistent with what scholars suspected of the site, said Andrew Vaughn, a biblical scholar and executive director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, who was not involved in the study.

“It’s not surprising that a city that was of importance in the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah would have an older history and would have played an important political and military role prior to that time,” Vaughn told LiveScience. “If you didn’t control Gezer, you didn’t control the east-west trade route.”

But once the location of that major road moved during the Roman period, the city waned in importance. It was later conquered and destroyed, but never fully rebuilt.

“Just like today when you have a ghost town where you move the train and that city goes out of use,” Ortiz said.