25 February 2010

Purim Costume Provenance

With the holiday of Purim coming up this weekend, one of the common practices associated with the holiday is dressing up in costume. It was never clear to me how this came about, although having read an article last year on the topic (see Herman Pollack, "An Historical Inquiry Concerning Purim Masquerade Attire," Proceedings of the World Congress on Jewish Studies 7 (1981): 217-235) helped me understand where it comes from. It is interesting to consider that "by the sixteenth century, the parsuf (פרצוף), as the Purim mask was called, had become popular in Italy, Germany, and Poland" (p. 217).
The mask - or rather - the Purim mask was what was first developed from "the carnival celebration," Pollack writes, "derived from the commedia dell'arte. The carnival, which was accompanied by processions and parades, was associated with the demonic and 'souls of the dead' (anime del morte)" (p. 232). He continues:
First, the mask was a means of mocking and ridiculing prestigious members of the community. Second, through their antics, the masked clowns and jesters contributed to the festival gaiety. Third, and as already suggested, the disguise enabled a person to assume "the role of another" by pretending to be someone else. Herein is a release and escape from being continuously the same person.
The masquerades, parades, and carnival festivities must have appealed to individuals of the Italian Jewish community, otherwise during the time of repression religious and civil authorities would not have required them to wear the "badge" so as to differentiate them from non-Jews. Leon da Modena, for example, was among those who would participate in a non-Jewish masquerade.
The commedia dell'arte was also called the "comedy of masks" in that masks were worn for "stock characters" given a "fixed role". Jewish comedy was influenced by social types portrayed by the mask in the commedia dell'arte. Among the personalities adopted and made part of the Purim celebration through the mask were the paltoniere, the "beggar"; the arlecchino, the "clown"; the capitano, the "blustering soldier"; the pantalone, the "pantaloon". (pp. 233-234)

21 February 2010

My First Jewlicious Festival: Initial Reflections

Although I'm sure there's a lot to say about it, but I wanted to tap out some initial thoughts on my experience at Jewlicious Festival 6.0. By far, the most enjoyable part of the weekend was getting to meet and talk with some of the cool presenters and staff (including. Some were from Israel, some were from the east coast, and some were from Georgia, like Patrick Aleph (pictured to the left). Plus, it was great getting to hang out with fellow bloggers, such as Patrick, as well as Esther Kustanowitz (who did an outstanding job as a panel moderator) and Heshy Fried. I also enjoyed the sessions, some of which I staffed, which were fruitful, as there were many people from the Southern California area, but many from afar, as well as the presenters, which produced some great discussions that wouldn't've necessarily have occurred with college students in these parts.
One thing at which I was surprised was how many participants opted out of attending some of the day sessions on Saturday. With so many interesting people at the festival and sessions taking place, I wondered why participants were not taking advantage of this opportunity. However, I realized that some students were local and had other things going on in their lives; plus, some of the participants stayed up hanging with each other into the wee hours and slept in. With havdallah, though, many people came back and added their energy, which kept increasing with the concert, which was good. (Pictured, at right, is dinner on Saturday night.)

16 February 2010

Day 2 of 2009 AJS Conference

Sorry about the delay in getting to the rest of the 2009 AJS conference, which I had begun by blogging about the first day.
The first session I attended was The Bavli in Its Sassanian Context (the room got packed (granted, the
room wasn’t big (probably because it wasn’t expected that it would garner so much interest), but it filled up nevertheless and there were even people standing). First up was the incomparable Yaakov Elman, who started off the session with a totally excellent paper “Fifth- and Sixth-Century Redactions Compared: The Bavli, the Pahlavi Videvdad, and Herbedestan”, wherein he talked about similarities in discussions between later Babylonian amoraim and their contemporary Sassanian sages. In fifth century texts, we see that the Babylonian amoraim and the Sassanian sages were discussing the same issues, sometimes coming to the same conclusions, therefore, the communities were very friendly with each other.
Iranists have conceded that the Ta
lmud Bavli is the earliest record of Sassanian discussions. Because there is a similarity, we can now do studies on comparative studies on redactional history, most of their discussions are on legal analysis. As excited about these things as he’s been, he’s starting to see striking similarities, which is really exciting. One example is that the same type of pollution is reserved for those who are natives. From 10th century texts, we see that the conservative viewpoint won out, but in 6th century text, 3-way argument. There’s also a stam (editorial commentary that is unattributed to any particular named author) in the Sassanian texts, as well(!). However, there is a difference between the stam of the Talmud Bavli and the stam of the Sassanian texts. Difference between stam and stam: Herbedestan is relatively small: 5000 words and Pahlideb 55000 words versus 1.8mil in the Talmud Bavli – half are stam – whole bavli cant be anonymous. So stams may be different. Iranists cannot do these studies alone, he pleaded, and same with Talmudists - cross-pollination of these studies are important.
Next up was David Brodsky, who gave a very interesting paper at last year's AJS conference, followed it up with another intellectual history of an idea: “Hirhurei ‘aveirah ke-‘aveirah damei (Thoughts of Sin Are Akin to Sin): The Importance of Good Thoughts in Zoroast
rianism and the Development of a Babylonian Rabbinic Motif”. In it, he spoke about the difference between the terms מהרהר and מחשב. With Palestine tannaim, מחשבות only significant regarding thoughts, but they do not entertain the idea that thought could be like an action, whether מצוה or sin. (The Human Will in Judaism – major book on Tannaitic thought and intentions.) He said thoughts are important for guilt, but need action, too; if action and no intention, not as bad. With regards to Tannaitic usage, one of the ways מחשבה is used with reference to קרבנות, as well as with susceptibility to impurity with making vessels. When tannaim referred to thought, they used the word הרהר (didn’t use much, except in 1 or 2 contexts: sexual thoughts which could lead to טומאה and the other is הרהורי תורה, which is important for bathr (whoops, amoraic(!)) – but הרהור שמע… - influenced amoraim in their use of the term. Thought can lead to actions. Close is mSanhedrin 8:5-6 but that’s about the eventuality. No sense of thought as equivalent to sin. The verb לחשוב is used to denote.... In amoraic Palestine, there is some evidence that bad thought can be sinful. To the extent that it was there, it was important for amoraic babylonia. If you are interested in his conclusion, it's up on YouTube. In response, Yadin pointed out that NT already mentioned issue (pre-tannaitic), so it's not as if it wasn't a possibility for tannaim to have considered it (no pun intended).
Next up was Jeffrey Rubenstein, who spoke on “Ki
ng Herod in Ardashir’s Court: The Bavli Story of Herod (Bava Batra 3b–4a) in Light of Sasanian Sources”, which he discussed has elements from Babylonian stories (issue of Josephine influences) and the Bavli understood Herod’s rise to power through the rise of Ardashir to power. Anyways, I left soon into the paper because I wasn’t interested in the topic, so I went to the Borders and Transactions in Rabbinic Literature session, where I was hoping to catch Yehudah Cohn’s “Rabbinic Trade Regulations: An Economic Perspective”, but instead, Michael Pitkowsky, who was supposed to have presented yesterday, was speaking on “Gentile Midwives and Wet-nurses and Dead Jewish Babies: B. Avodah Zarah 26a”, after which we met and I ended up getting a nice mention on his blog.
Then I went to go to Jews in the High and Later Roman Empire, but it was cancelled, so, instead, I headed over to Sharpened Arrows: Violence in Rabbinic Discourse, which turned out to be interesting. Because I had initially gone over elsewhere, I showed up while Naftali Cohn was presenting his “Ritual Failure and Violence in the Mishnah’s Accounts of Temple Ritual”.
David Bernat speakingNext up was David Bernat, who spoke on “Phinehas, Baal Peor, and Rabbinic Judicial Procedure”, wherein he pointed out that the rabbis are faced with contradiction: scripturally-prescribed processes which are accompanied by actions that run counter to those: Phinehas and Shimeon ben Shetah. The rabbis attempt to uphold validity and rationalize actions of the hero in each of the cases. Since Phinehas was lionized by the Bible, the rabbis had to justify his actions.
Next up was Aryeh Cohen, who delivered a very interesting paper, on a topic I had never previously considered: “Ish milhamah: Epistemology and Theomachy in the Bavli’s Bet Midrash”. He mentioned all of the ways in which Torah scholars engage in Torah discussions which make it seem as if they are involved in violence/war. Beit midrash as a competitive locus. He pointed out that oral culture is more inherently competitive/violent. Is violence the culture of studying in the Bavli? Violence is the structure and the ground for Torah study – theme with giving the Torah is also violent: Creation ex nihilo, recreation of victorious; Repositioning of creation at giving of torah
Creating something where there hadn’t been. Sages partaking part in creation. Remythologization – remaking God. Making their partners into enemies. Stakes of torah study huge and need violence
Jane Kanarek speakingThe response to the papers at this session was by Jane Kanarek
From Rubinstein, Babylonian culture more violent than Palestinian culture. How does the Bavli think about knowledge? Theological for Cohen. We need to be cogniscent of how our students in rabbinical schools interact through texts (very interesting for me to hear, after having spent several years in rabbinical school). What about when rabbinic texts don’t even realize they are violent? A very interesting response came from Cohen, who said good and evil doesn’t come into the discussion – it’s just violent, although it is the vanquishing of non-truth.
Session #3 of the day I went to Rabbinic Pedagogy and Textuality. To start it off, Barry Wimpfheimer spoke on ““Go teach verse to your son”: Rabbis and Schoolteachers in Rabbinic Babylonia”, in which he pointed out that schoolteachers were well compensated while amoraim not:
Heading disciple-circles was prestigious but not so lucrative. He also pointed out the antipathy of amoraim toward schoolteachers (more job security, too), which has more stability and the reaction of amoraim toward schoolteachers seems overblown (but makes sense once we understand that those who are paid better don't teach as much intellectually difficult matters).
Elizabeth Alexander speakingElizabeth Alexander spoke next on “Imparting Intellectual Skills vs. Replicating Cultural and Social Identity”, in which she pointed out that Tannaitic rabbis understood torah study as a means not just for instrumentally, but also cultivating a social and cultural identity. There is a pragmatic and utilitarian purpose for study – student receives skills, etc. Biologically reproducing is good, but culturally reproducing is great – seen in context of honoring Torah teacher and father. Thus, there is a framing of ritual study. One set: Unequivocally exempt women from study and Other set take for granted men are studying but does not exempt women. Ritual means to reproduce cultural identity. Biological reproduction is necessary for the continuation of the line, but not sufficient. Torah study as a means for fathers to teach their sons, which is why women/girls are not. Torah study is posited as a means in which the covenantal community is continued.
Then Tzvi Novick spoke on “Pedagogy and Legal Language: A Case Study”, in which we looked at tannaitic midrashim as rhetorical texts. There are midrashim that seem to attempt to persuade the audience, but there are also texts that seem to be rhetorical. He showed that the phrase יוכיח in Yishmaelan midrashim is comparable to either אל תתמה or הואיל ו phrases in Akivan midrashim, which serves as a punctuation, pointing to the coming to an end of the discussion. It may be that it is serving to clarify and underline…
Genuine attempts to convince – make it seem like a study session, reproducing the didactic process.
The last paper was by Jonathan Schofer, who was not at the conference, so Professor Alexander presented Schofer’s “Pedagogy, Hyperbole, and Rabbinic Ethical Instruction”.
Session #4 was on Studies in Tannaitic Literature. It started off with Yonatan Sagiv “Looking for the Motive: Motive as a Key to Understanding the Biblical Exegesis of the Sages”. He started off by showing a really cool diagram (at left) with blocks representing all of the words in the book of Leviticus, showing which words were interpreted in the Sifra and which were not. Diagram B showed anonymous Sifra and uninterpreted verses. Diagram C - Only 13% of attributed. He also showed a pie chart, in which 82% of the Sifra commentary is anonymous, 7% named, and 11%, commentaries are shared between sages.
Azzan Yadin was next and I found tremendously excellent in his paper on “Rabbi Akiva and the Emergence of Rabbinic Polysemy." He spoke on how Rabbi Akiva's role as interpreter,
both those anchored in scriptural texts and with those that are halakhot. A fascinating term that Yadin illuminated was the tannaitic term הלכה, which denotes an extra-scriptural tradition.
In tannaitic sources, both apodictic and midrashic, Rabbi Akiva is committed to interpreting extra-scriptural traditions (halakhot (הלכות)):
- Use of halakhot
- Transmission of halakhot
- Explicit characterization of extra-scriptural authority
- Explicit admission of the authority of the received tradition
In post-Tannaitic literature, Rabbi Akiva becomes different, thoroughly scriptural, and perhaps even oral. Sifra understanding itself as providing supports for existing practices and not fleshing out explanation. In post-tannaitic literature, Rabbi Akiva is seen as an oracular figure, providing scriptural texts for practices. He is then shown as an interpreter who shows hidden understandings of scripture, as opposed to, in Tannaitic literature, being shown as hewing closely to extra-textual traditions. Babylonian world not connected to the extra-Scriptural traditions…. Yadin asked very poignantly: “Why does Rabbi Akiva become the posterchild for this transformation?” since he was a supporter of הלכות and not as a scriptural interpreter in tannaitic. His loose allegiance to scripture, later on, paves the way for the oracular understanding of Rabbi Akiva.
Next up was Robert Brody whose paper was “Textual Traditions of Mishna Shekalim: Palestine, Babylonia, Ashkenaz”, in which he discussed as to how/why msKaufman became so valorized, should be seen as a larger trend of reaction against anything associated w/ the BT, goes back to the 19th century and the Wissenschaft des Judentums and against traditional learning – great deal of suspicion directed against the BT. However, there was a swinging pendulum against them. It is a snare and a delusion to talk about The Babylonian tradition and The Palestinian tradition of texts. msKaufman isn’t necessarily better or more right.
Michal Bar Asher Siegal speaking Although for me, Brody's paper wasn't within my area of interest, it was fascinating to hear about the swinging pendulum of how the academy has dealt with these texts.
Last up for the day was Michal Bar-Asher Siegal who spoke on “The Hebrew Slave’s Pierced Ear: The Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael’s Secondary Use of Earlier Midrashic Materials”.

08 February 2010

Mezuzah on My Mind

mezuzah removed and parallel with the gateA week ago, Rachel and I were in LA and bought a bunch of mezuzot for the house we are renting for at least a year in Long Beach (since there are a lot more doorways in a 3-bedroom house in California than there are in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City) and put them up that evening.mezuzah holder on the ground
The following day was my first session holding a "Twenty Minutes of Talmud Tuesdays" class at CSULB and I led it on a section in the Talmud about where on the doorway to place a mezuzah. I figured it was relevant in my life since we had to put up a bunch of mezuzos and figure out where to place them.mezuzah put back up
By Thursday evening, I had noticed, while walking in the patio in the back of our house while holding my daughter that there was a mezuzah scroll on the ground. "How odd," I thought, "it must've just slipped out the bottom of the mezuzah holder." When I went around the back gate, I saw that the mezuzah holder's top and bottom were cast aside and it was parallel to the back gate. The obvious thing that occurred was that it did not fall on its own nor was it done by wind or rain - it was clearly done by a person. What I am hoping is that the removal of our property was a one-time occurrence and hopefully that person did not do it out of malice, nor out of anti-semitism, maybe just because we live in a housing association and it looked slightly different, someone took it off. If it does happen, again, the ADL will know about it.