lethargic_man: (Default)
I just realised I've been posting about this on Facebook (and Craigslist) but not on my blog.

I've posted here before about my love for the Romani band Taraf de Haïdouks. I've been waiting for years for them to do a concert here (that I don't find out about afterwards, if at all!), and so jumped at the chance when I saw on Facebook that they are performing in Glasgow on the 24th of January (as well as Norwich and Helsinki, neither of which was of interest to me). After two days researching the logistics of getting there after Shabbos from Newcastle, where I'll be for my mother's yahrzeit, I bought a ticket, and a train ticket to get there... and just hours later they announced a further tour date in London.

Neither of these tickets is returnable; great, that's £50 wasted. However, there's nothing in the conditions of sale of my concert ticket (I checked by 'phone!) to prevent me selling it on. So, does anyone reading this want—or know anyone who might be interested in—a ticket to the Glasgow concert? The ticket cost £17.50 plus booking fee plus P&P, but I'll knock a bit off to make it worthwhile buying from me rather than the box office.

The blurb for their London concert reads:
Expect riotous Romanian folk from the world’s greatest gypsy group Taraf de Haïdouks – literally ‘band of outlaws’.

Nothing prepares you for seeing Taraf de Haïdouks live. Their shows burst with intense passion and overflowing energy. The clattering virtuosity and passionate gypsy rasp of this orchestra of honourable brigands will steal your breath away and they're guaranteed to get you on your feet. When presenting their BBC Radio 3 award for World Music, long time admirer Johnny Depp stated: “Taraf De Haidouks are the greatest musicians I know – they play a music which expresses the most intense joy, and have this gift to make you feel alive.”

Catch them soon or repent at leisure.

'Their live act is extraordinary – a magical mix of quicksilver melodies, amazing violin and cimbalom solos, earthy songs of lost loves, and riotous traditional wedding songs.' (Daily Telegraph)
lethargic_man: (reflect)
I've been listening to this year's Reith lectures, on the future of medicine (previously broadcast: why do doctors fail? and the century of the system). They're good stuff, and I recommend them.

This week's lecture, is on mortality and death; it resonated strongly for me with what my mother had to go through last year. If you've not been in a position of watching a family member have to get to grips with their own mortality, this programme might help you prepare for it.
lethargic_man: (capel)
My blog post yesterday merely made mention that I'd been reciting kaddish for the last eleven months, but didn't go into what the experience was like. I wondered when I went to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in 2007 whether the experience would change me; after all, one hears of people who go to yeshiva and come back ultra frummers. In practice, of course, the Conservative Yeshiva was never going to have that effect on anyone; but I realised after a while that, rather than going to yeshiva changing me, it was more a case than I went to the yeshiva because I had already changed, myself. (If you'd told me barely more than three years earlier I'd have chosen to spend time studying at a yeshiva, I'd have laughed at you.)

So too was the case davening at every service for a whole year. I'd never done so for longer than a day or two beforehand; even when I was at the Conservative Yeshiva I routinely skived ma`ariv to avoid spiritual burnout. So, I davened every service because I felt it was the right thing to do: it's the Jewish way of dealing with bereavement, it's what we do, and connects me into a thousand years of tradition. Also, it's what my mother would have wanted (if not necessarily to that extent), and it felt a way of obeying the commandment to honour one's mother and father. But it hasn't made me anxious to run off to shul for services now the eleven months are over; I've gone back to my old routine of doing a little davening בְּיָחִיד each day without a backward glance.

Most of the past eleven months, I was attending services as part of a routine; when my routine got disrupted, things became... interesting, no more so than on my holiday this year.

[livejournal.com profile] aviva_m had been trying to get me to go to Israel on holiday for some years; I'd been resisting, as, unlike her, I've spent lots of time in Israel and felt I knew the country well. Early in the year, though, she said, "If you want to recite kaddish with a minyan three times a day, there's only one place in the world you can go on holiday where, no matter how obscure a place you are in, how middle-of-nowhere, you'll be able to find nine other Jews for a minyan to recite kaddish." And so it came to pass that we went to Israel.

One curiosity of davening in Israel is that, rather than starting to pray for rain on 4 December as in the Diaspora, they start on the seventh of Cheshvan. This means I started praying for rain on my holiday, stopped again a week and a half later when I returned home, and will start again in another week from now!

[livejournal.com profile] aviva_m had experience of Jerusalem and the south, but not of the north, so we spent most of our holiday in the Galil and Golan. Until the Russian aliyah of the late 1980s, the majority of Israelis were Sephardi, and the majority of frum Israelis still are, so I ended up davening mostly at a variety of Sephardi synagogues on my holiday. Amongst Ashkenazim, the most important mourner's kaddish is the one after Aleinu; amongst Sephardim, it's the one before Aleinu. Some shuls didn't even do the one after Aleinu; for those that did, it's only a half-kaddish which meant that (since I was saying the Ashkenazi wording) I'd suddenly find myself the only one still reading for the last two lines of the kaddish!

Back home, weekday shacharis is at 7:15am, or 7:05 on Mondays and Thursdays. In Israel, outside of the big cities, I was unable to find shuls davening later than 6:15; in many places it was at six o'clock. I think this is because in the height of summer, and to a lesser extent even in late October, you really don't want to be wrapping yourself in a thick woollen shawl once the sun's got high enough to start churning out heat; but this did mean that, as [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m pointed out, it was the only holiday we'd been on in which we were getting up earlier than we would for a normal working day!

Beforehand, I'd put quite a bit of time into trying to find out locations of shuls in Israel, and service times. (Once we were there, we also made use of the minyan finder on [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's smartphone.) A useful starting point was typing in "synagogue" into Google Maps, but sometimes the shuls this showed me would be ancient ones, not used for over a millennium! (We did end up visiting some of these, but as tourists, rather than to pray!)

A bit after four, we'd have to knock off tourism in order to get me to shul for mincha. (Many touristy places shut at four in the winter anyway.) Occasionally, this would be a bit hairy. After we'd visited Banias up in the Golan Heights, we drove down to Kiriat Shemonah in the Jordan valley for mincha, only to discover that the shul I'd randomly picked couldn't get a minyan now the clocks had moved back and many people were still at work. In the end we managed to get the last three people by virtue of one man standing outside and hollering at passersby to try and get them to join us.

That was supposed to be our one day in the northern Golan, but, having only a bit of time left in the afternoon after visiting Gamla in the southern Golan, I drove [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m north to show her the view out over Syria east of the Golan, then further north still (it was further than I had thought!) to the Druze town of Majdal Shams, high on the slopes of Mt Hermon, to introduce her to Saḥlab (mmmm!). The minyan finder said the nearest shul was at Neve Ativ, a ski resort nearby, but when we got there we discovered it had no weekday services, and a passerby told us we'd have to go back down into the valley. Cue a frenzied drive nearly twenty miles west, but more pertinently a thousand metres down to get to Kiriat Shemonah before the end of mincha.

(Every time I'm in Kiriat Shemonah I say I ought to go to Metulla just to the north to have a look down into Lebanon; to date I haven't managed it, and I didn't manage it these two times either, as by the time I was out of ma`ariv it was getting dark.)

I thought the uncertainties of getting to synagogues I'd never been to, and couldn't always discover service times for, would mean that I'd miss lots of minyanim whilst I was in Israel; to my surprise, it wasn't until I came, near the end of my time in Israel, to the city with five thousand synagogues, that I missed a single one, and that turned out to be the only one in the whole two weeks.

Last kaddish

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014 01:18 pm
lethargic_man: (capel)
I've just recited my last (for the time being) kaddish for my mother (at a service led by my brother). In total, I've recited kaddish at nine hundred and forty-nine services since 5 January (I'm counting mussaf with shacharis here for simplicity*); in the course of the year I only missed nineteen services, as well as attending three which failed to get a minyan (plus there's the sui generis case of Yom Kippur morning). Phew!

* Mussaf is always recited back-to-back with shacharis, and inserted before the end-of-shacharis עָלֵינוּ and psalm of the day; it does not add additional kaddishes to the service. Besides, after the sheloshim I determined to reclaim some of my time by reciting a halachically minimal bare-bones service in the morning from Monday to Friday and then leaving shul after בָּרְכוּ; by chosing not to count mussaf separately it means I don't count the kaddishes after עָלֵינוּ on the times rosh chodesh fell on a non-Sunday weekday as missed services.

† I didn't try and get there for the kaddishes before פְּסוּקֵי דְזִמְרָה because I knew they wouldn't have a minyan; I assumed I'd be able to say kaddish later in the service, like on any other day of the year. I was surprised to discover those were in fact the only mourner's kaddish and kaddish derabbanan in the entire day (aside from those the previous evening).
lethargic_man: (beardy)
I am continuing, in odd moments, to plough my way through Sir Henry Yule's commentary on The Travels of Marco Polo. In III.XVII, Polo writes of the province of Maabar in India:
They have in this country the custom which I am going to relate. When a man is doomed to die for any crime, he may declare that he will put himself to death in honour of such or such an idol ; and the government then grants him permission to do so. His kinsfolk and friends then set him up on a cart, and provide him with twelve knives, and proceed to conduct him all about the city, proclaiming aloud: "This valiant man is going to slay himself for the love of (such an idol)." And when they be come to the place of execution he takes a knife and sticks it through his arm, and cries : "I slay myself for the love of (such a god)!" Then he takes another knife and sticks it through his other arm, and takes a third knife and runs it into his belly and so on until he kills himself outright. And when he is dead his kinsfolk take the body and burn it with a joyful celebration.
Which leads Yule into this delightfully morbid (and largely irrelevant) discursion:

I have not found other mention of a condemned criminal being allowed thus to sacrifice himself; but such suicides in performance of religious vows have occurred in almost all parts of India in all ages. Friar Jordanus, after giving a similar account to that in the text of the parade of the victim, represents him as cutting off his own head before the idol, with a peculiar two-handled knife "like those used in currying leather." And strange as this sounds it is undoubtedly true. Ibn Batuta witnessed the suicidal feat at the Court of the Pagan King of Mul-Java (somewhere on the coast of the Gulf of Siam), and Mr. Ward, without any knowledge of these authorities, had heard that an instrument for this purpose was formerly preserved at Kshira, a village of Bengal near Nadiya. The thing was called Karavat; it was a crescent-shaped knife, with chains attached to it forming stirrups, so adjusted that when the fanatic placed the edge to the back of his neck and his feet in the stirrups, by giving the latter a violent jerk his head was cut off. Padre Tieffentaller mentions a like instrument at Prág (or Allahabad). Durgavati, a famous Queen on the Nerbada, who fell in battle with the troops of Akbar, is asserted in a family inscription to have severed her own head with a scimitar she held in her hand. According to a wild legend told at Ujjain, the great king Vikramajit was in the habit of cutting off his own head daily, as an offering to Devi. On the last performance the head failed to reattach itself as usual; and it is now preserved, petrified, in the temple of Harsuddi at that place.

I never heard of anybody in Europe performing this extraordinary feat except Sir Jonah Barrington's Irish mower, who made a dig at a salmon with the butt of his scythe-handle and dropt his own head in the pool! (Jord. 33 ; I B. IV. 246; Ward, Madras ed. 249-50; J. A. S. B. XVII. 833; Rás Mála, II. 387.)

lethargic_man: (Default)
As I posted here before, I recently did a charity parachute jump in aid of the victims of the recent war in Israel and Gaza; here's my report on it.

I did my jump with the London Parachute School,* on the day after Yom Kippur—I wanted to see if I'd been forgiven my sins. (It was actually because [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m wanted to see me do it, and there were limited dates she was available.) I was lucky with the weather: the previous day and the following day it rained, but on this day it was warm with hazy sunshine.

* Which, despite the name, is about a third of the way between Reading and Oxford: you don't want to actually jump onto London; it's full of spiky things and cars which would run you over.

I was taken up in a Cessna with three other students: two of them tandem jumpers like me, each accompanied by an instructor to whom they'd be strapped and a cameraman who would jump along with them. The other student, who jumped first of all, was doing her second ever solo jump; she jumped with two experts who would instruct her on the way down by means of hand signals.

We climbed to 9000 feet (3km), then they opened the door. (From the ground, looking at those who had gone up before me, it's just possible to make out individual jumpers at that height as they exit the 'plane.) Fortunately, you don't spend long enough sitting in the doorway to get scared; you jump as soon as you're in position. (Actually, I didn't sit in the doorway at all; my instructor sat there and I hung outside the aeroplane altogether, hence the terrified rictus on my face in the video.)

I remembered Abigail Kay telling me the day beforehand about her experience at that moment: "I'm not doing it; I can't go through with it." "Yes you are: You don't have a choice; you're strapped to me!" What I failed to remember (because so many other people had told me other things) was my sister-in-law's father telling me that you do a somersault as you come out. As a result, the first few seconds were the most terrifying experience of my entire life: seeing the ground in front of me, then the 'plane, then the ground again, it felt like I was tumbling out of control.

Of course, I wasn't, and once I was in a stable skydiving posture, it was actually quite enjoyable. The instructor had told me to hold onto my shoulder straps until he gave me the signal, then leave go and wave at the cameraman, but holding my straps gave me a (false, natch) sense of security, and he pretty much had to pry my hands loose!

We had thirty seconds of freefall, taking us down from 9000 to 4000 feet, though if you look closely at the video, you'll see we have a drogue 'chute open almost from the start, slowing down our terminal velocity a little. Then the (main) 'chute opened, the wind noise went away, and I could have conversation with my instructor. The cameraman, however, kept freefalling a while longer, so he could be on the ground in time to capture my landing.

At that point, the instructor started doing manoeuvres to make sure we landed in the right place, and every time he did so I got motion sick. They had in fact told us they would do "spiralling", and said we could ask them to keep it to a minimum if we suffered, but I thought it's part of the experience, and I can put up with it for a short while. Hah. By the time I landed I was sick as a parrot, and spent two and a half hours afterwards just waiting to feel well enough to drive again. Everyone else who had jumped before me had come off the airfield going "That was amazing"; I came off it going "urrrggghhh!" (If you look at the swaying back and forth I'm doing on the video just before I land, you'll understand why.)

And so, to landing. I had read on the Net of a Million Lies that landing after a parachute jump was like jumping off a four-foot wall. In fact, with the large 'chute used for tandem jumps, it was considerably more gentle than that. And I didn't land on the ground at all, as if I stopped my instructor would run straight into me: As instructed, I merely lifted my feet up and let him touch down.

Despite the motion sickness, I'm glad I did the jump. I wanted something to liven my life up, and I certainly got it: I'm not going to forget that in a hurry! And, if I had a way of countering the motion sickness, I'd even do it again (though it's rather expensive a hobby).

Anyhow, as a reward for all those who sponsored me,* here's the video of my jump:

* I set myself a target of raising £1000 for Magen David Adom and B'Tselem. At the time of writing, I've raised exactly that on-site, excluding Gift Aid, but there have also been somewhere in excess of £120 donated off-site directly to Magen David Adom by people who refused to support B'Tselem (which is an issue for another post).
lethargic_man: (Default)
Once again there's no period in between Simchas Torah and Shabbos when I can post about parshas Bereishis, so I will have to do so before Simchas Torah.

I read this from a link on Facebook a little while ago (can't remember where, or who posted it, so can't give credit, sorry); it's a most... unusual interpretation of the צֵלָע, normally translated "rib", that Eve was created from.

And now you'll never look at the story the same way again
lethargic_man: (Default)

My charity parachute jump in aid of the victims of the recent war in Israel and Gaza will be this Sunday, weather permitting, and I'm still a little short of my donation target of one thousand pounds.

If you've been considering donating but forgot about it, or never got around to it, now's the time to make good. We are in the middle at the moment of the Ten Days of Repentance; our prayers tell us "Repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree" against us. Please dig deep (or even shallow!) and help save lives via Israel's ambulance service.


Bamburgh Castle

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014 08:19 pm
lethargic_man: (Default)
Yesterday when I posted a photo of Dunstanburgh Castle, [livejournal.com profile] hairyears said, "I saw Dunstanburgh on a coastal walk (mumble) years ago: 'bleak' hardly describes it."

That depends on what time of year you go, I suppose. Here's a picture of my mother, on her last outing in July last year, with Bamburgh Castle, a little further up the coast, in the background (click on the image for a larger view):

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(The subject of the photo is apposite: The reason I'm going up to Newcastle this weekend is because it's my mother's stonesetting.)
lethargic_man: (bike)
Today's amusing moment was seeing the taxi driver who had somehow got past the barrier blocking off the road being resurfaced, going around the bend obscuring its view ahead only to run into a bunch of angry workmen resurfacing the road, and being chased backwards back down the hill by a steamroller. Oh how I laughed.
lethargic_man: (Default)
This is [personal profile] liv and Fabien WINoDW, shown ten years ago in front of Dunstanburgh Castle, on the Northumbrian coast:

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Dunstanburgh Castle may be reached by a twenty-minute walk from the kipper capital of Craster; two or three years ago I tried to go there with [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m as part of a day of showing her the Northumbrian coast, but we ran out of time and didn't get further than the gate from Craster into the fields leading to the castle.

When I went ten years ago with [personal profile] liv and Fabien, we managed to get further, and got as far as the gate halfway from Craster to the castle before we too ran out of time and had to retreat.

A few weeks ago, I went with my father, at the end of a day out in the Ingram Valley, and got as far as the front gate of the castle compound, where we saw there was a sufficiently substantial charge for admission that we weren't going to get our money's worth in the half hour we had left (having underestimates) before I had to return to Newcastle to catch my train back to London.

I'm determined to get into that bloody place now; I'm not going to let a ruined castle with a mile-long front lawn defeat me! My next attempt will be on Monday (on which it will probably end up pouring down, and I will get vetoed by the family members I was going to be doing with...).
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

This last year, I've been reading my way through Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on the Torah. He talks quite a bit about the meanings of Hebrew words (though he often gets his etymological derivations completely wrong, writing either in ignorance of or before the advent of modern Hebrew philology); and something he mentioned in last week's sedra answered something I'd been wondering about for years:

The second benediction of the Amida focuses on תְּחִיַת הַמֵּתִים the resurrection of the dead. (Indeed, it mentions it no fewer than five times, which would be good evidence, even if the Talmud didn't tell us so, that at the time the benediction reached its present form, rabbinical Judaism had a problem with other denominations—the Saduccees and Boethusians—denying the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.) However, the בְּרָכָה makes use of two grammatical forms, מְחַיֶּה and מְחַיֵּה. What is the difference between them?

As I understand it, the vowel on the last letter of the root of a verb turns to a סֶגוֹל when that root letter is a ה, which indicates that מְחַיֶּה is the correct present participle. So what, then, is מְחַיֵּה?

From Hirsch's writing about another word using the same grammatical form, I now understand that מְחַיֶּה is the verb form ("bringing life"), and מְחַיֵּה the noun ("bringer of life").

Another of my incredibly finicky questions about Hebrew grammar answered. Thanks, R. Hirsch!

lethargic_man: (Default)
Earlier this year, I read The Travels of Marco Polo. It was the Wordsworth Classics edition, and sadly came without any notes; I decided to rectify this by reading my way through Sir Henry Yule's century-and-more old edition, which I've been doing online bit by bit; and have learned some fascinating things from it, such as the huge changes that have taken place in the route of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the latter even changing from flowing into the sea on the south side of Shandong Province to the north side.

But perhaps the most astonishing thing I have learned is that the Buddha was revered as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches! I couldn't resist doing a quick web search to see whether this is still the case, now the identification of St Joasaph (or Josaphat) with the Buddha is well-established; the Catholic Encyclopedia recognises this identification and stays silent that Joasaph was ever revered as a saint, but this page suggests the Orthodox Church in America, at least, still revere him as before his real identity was uncovered.
lethargic_man: (bike)
Due to a combination of not having fallen ill yet this year, continuing to cycle (to and from Brunnenstraße for daily services) throughout the Pesach break, and not having taken a summer holiday before the conclusion of my cycling year yesterday (the anniversary of my having bought my current bike in 2006), the last year has turned out to have had my highest mileage yet, at 2564 miles:


I didn't see this coming.
lethargic_man: (Default)
It's been a while since we've had any adventures with the rabbits; what have they been up to? Well, same as most of us: same old, same old, most of the time. Bar Navi's been continuing to study Talmud:

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...and daven in a chareidi shul:

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(This is not a photomontage; I really did photograph him there!)

However, in amidst all that, he did have time to pose for a third birthday card for my niece:

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The little rabbit we haven't seen here before. His name is Arnie the אַרְנְבוֹן (rabbit).

Jane again got Bar-Navi a present for Tu BəĀv this year. So what do you get for the frum rabbit who already has capel, tallis, tefillin and Talmud volume? Answer: A Sefer Torah!

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([livejournal.com profile] aviva_m, on helping Bar-Navi open the present: "Oh, you didn't!" (even though she originally suggested it). Actually, the scroll has been sitting on my shelf in Newcastle, largely ignored, for twenty-five years; I thought Bar-Navi might get more use out of it than me.)

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Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 08:29 pm
lethargic_man: (Default)
Remember the chandeliers from Jesmond shul, now installed in Gosforth shul? Let's (now I've had a chance to get close with a camera) take a close look at them:


Can you see what's at the top? Little figures (angels?) blowing trumpets.

Click through for closeup )

They're easily missed from floor level. I'd bet you'd never get that in decorations for a new Orthodox synagogue today!
lethargic_man: (Default)
Here is [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m in front of (or indeed underneath) London's smallest statue, of two mice eating cheese.

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Précising from here (on which click for a fuller version):
These two wee mice are a memorial to two builders who died nearby, working in the 1670s on the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which had destroyed a vast part of the City a few years before.

At some point during the Monument’s construction, the two builders sat down on a high scaffold to enjoy their packed-lunch of bread and cheese. However, something was amiss… one of the men’s sarnies had been nibbled away to almost nothing!

For some reason, the victim of this food theft immediately blamed his mate sitting beside him and a fight broke out—not wise when you’re poised so high up. Trading punches, the unfortunate pair lost their footing and plunged to the ground, both being killed instantly.

It was only later, after similar disappearances of bread and cheese, that the real culprits were discovered:

An infestation of tiny mice.
As [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m put it, "Only in Britain!" (Would such a statue be put up, I think she meant, not would such a fight break out.)


Sunday, August 10th, 2014 05:31 pm
lethargic_man: (Default)
Back in 1998 or 2000, I attended the Discworld Convention and was given a freebie "Science of Discworld" mousemat, which pleased me greatly until I took it home and discovered that it was no good at its designated purpose: my mouse pointer either stayed put or skittered all over the place.

After it had been kicking around for some time unused, it occurred to me that if I punched a hole in the centre of it, it would make a great clock.

A decade and a half later, I finally admitted to myself it was never going to happen if I left it to myself, and asked my parents for it as a Chanukah present. And over half a year later, I finally have the end result hanging on my wall, and am very pleased it with it; thanks Dad!

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lethargic_man: (reflect)

Readers of this blog may recall my review of The Bible According to Spike Milligan. When I came across the book The Bible According to Mark Twain, I thought: this I must read.

It is a very different book from Milligan's; but that shouldn't be surprising, as they were very different characters. The book consists of narratives by Twain, some of them previously published, some not, on the two subjects of Adam, Eve, and the antediluvian civilisation (which Twain portrays as a high civilisation, in order to use it to satirise his own—I bet you didn't know Cain and Abel's sisters were called Gladys and Edwina), and Heaven and the afterlife.

Much of the book consists of gentle mockery of an overliteral reading of the Bible and the traditional Christian interpretation of it, for example (from "Adam's Diary"):

[Eve] engages herself in many foolish things: among others, trying to study why the animals called lions and tigers live on grass and flowers, when, as she says, the sort of teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each other.
(I thought as I was growing up that this kind of argument was fully thrashed out in the mid-nineteenth century (certainly Joseph Herman Hertz, Chief Rabbi in the first half of the twentieth, wrote a wonderful rebuttal of literal Creationism that I can post here if anyone is interested); it's depressing that this has come back as an issue in our day and age.)

I wasn't strongly grabbed by these narratives, and found some of them wandered somewhat, failing to maintain a uniform voice or theme. However, later in the book—corresponding, loosely, to later in the author's life—the narratives grow darker and more theologically challenging, and hence more interesting to myself.

One of the appendices to the book, "God of the Bible vs. God of the Present Day", sets out Mark Twain's views on the nature of God circa 1870, in which he contrasts the pettiness of the scope or scale of God and his interests as portrayed by the Bible, with that as envisaged by the theologians of his day.

The Biblical universe consisted of but one important feature, a miiniature world 8,000 miles in diameter; the minor features were a roof a rocket-flight overhead, containing a toy sun and moon, and speckled with dimensionless sparks, placed there with the avowedly sole object of confining their homage to that little world and humbly serving it. The difference between that universe and the modern one revealed by science is as the difference between dust-flecked ray in a barn and the sublime arch of the Milky Way in the skies. Its God was strictly proportioned to its dimensions. His sole solicitude was about a handful of truculent nomads. [...] One day he coaxed and petted them beyond their due, the next he harried and lashed them beyond their deserts. He sulked, he cursed, he raged, he grieved [...] but all to no purpose; his efforts were all vain, he could not govern them.

In comparison:

The universe discovered by modern men comports with the dignity of the modern God, the God whom we trust, believe in and humbly adore.

And so forth, at greater length than I am willing to beg your indulgence by quoting. He concludes from this:

To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce, and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a Being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes; whose unwritten laws, so far as they affect man, being equal and impartial show that he is just and fair.

This I found astonishing: He is willing to avow disbelief in much of what the Bible says, yet goes on believing in God. Apparently in this he was much influenced by the classic eighteenth-century deist tract The Age of Reason. I think I shall have to read this now. I'd known about deism in an abstract way, but had never seen belief in God set out alongside outright denial of core Christian values in that way beforehand. (I think I thought of deism and (intellectually informed) theism as both acknowledging the Bible and the evidence from the universe, but differing in which was considered trustworthy for proof.)

It's also interesting that Twain concludes that God is still to be worshipped, as some of the charges that can be put against the Biblical God can also be put against the deistic one. These charges came to the fore as Twain's theological outlook darkened in the 1890s and 1900s. They include the way that God, although claiming to be just and fair, has a habit of punishing not just the guilty, but anyone remotely connected with them.

Here I think Twain is making a theological mistake: He is conflating the ascription to God of attributes we value and should wish to emulate—lovingkindness, etc—with the ancients' attempting to find meaning in a world in which bad things happen to good people by declaring that they must be acts of God, i.e. beyond the human capacity to understand or explain. Without a firm mental separation between the two, you end up with a contradictory depiction of God, which lends itself to the charge of hypocrisy.

Another theological mistake Twain makes is to say that Man is not to blame for his nature, given that that nature is the work of God. It is (as I have heard other theologians say) unfair to blame Adam and Eve for sampling the forbidden fruit when it was both in their nature to do so, and they neither did, nor could, understand the nature of the punishment (without having eaten of the fruit in the first place). Twain's mistake here is to extend that to all Man's nature and actions. He would absolve an adulterer for adultery simply because he is of an adulterous nature. But by that criterion, surely all law systems are in the wrong! But of course without them civilisations would descend into anarchy (which, despite the protestations of some anarchists, is not a good thing, as we have seen in countries deprived of law and order in the last few years). What Twain seems to forget is that what distinguishes Man from the beasts is an ability to overcome his nature. I cannot understand how Twain did not mention this, but of course have only read in this book a selection of his thoughts on the subject.

Twain's darkened theological outlook is captured in his powerful Letters from the Earth (sent by an incredulous Satan back to the other archangels about the nature of life on Earth). These depicts God as having created a universe in which everyone and everything suffers. The fly being eaten by the spider, and the spider by the wasp are all part of this suffering for Twain; indeed for him the situation is even worse for the animals, as they don't even get a heaven to look forward to afterwards. Yet for him the advent of the promise of a Heaven is a double-edged sword, because it resulted in the creation of Hell too. Recognising (implicitly) that neither exist in the Hebrew Bible, he talks about Hell as having come about "When God got religion" or "became Christian".

Of course, Twain's antagonism to these derives from the Christian concept that only a tiny proportion of humanity will get into Heaven, the rest will fry in eternal torment; this concept is mercifully lacking in my own religion.

Twain goes on to criticise God for supposedly being omnipotent but not saving everyone. What perversity is it to cure one leper without curing all lepers? Indeed, what perversity was it to create diseases in the first place? This finds expresson in Twain's treatment of Noah, whom he criticises for having taken the housefly on the Ark, rather than letting it and all the diseases it carries die out.

Which raises the question of whether, then, one still owes such a God worship. In a quotation from his autobiography dating from 1906, Twain concludes emphatically no. It's strange to read Twain going on in this manner, and yet still using the term "God" to describe this entity to which worship is not due. I suppose it's because English doesn't really have a term for an entity that is Creator and Supreme Being but not suitable to be the object of worship. Or, to put it another way, what makes such a being worthy of being called God if worship is not due it?

Twain concludes:

[Man] is flung head over heels into this world without ever a chance to decline, and straightaway he conceives and accepts the notion that he is in some mysterious way under obligations to the unknown Power that inflicted this outrage upon him—and thenceforth he considered himself responsible to that Power for every act of his life, and punishable for such of his acts as do not meet with the approval of that Power—yet that same man would argue quite differently if a human tyrant should capture him and put chains upon him and make him a slave.

Though of course we cannot expect Twain to have heard of Stockholm syndrome! Which raises a question that's been going through my mind in recent years: How much bad does God have to do to the Jewish people before we stop praising God for the few good things God has done in our long history?

The answer to this I think lies in the appeal of the traditional liturgy, as borne out by the history of the Reform movement, which started out by throwing out everything traditional, and then has spent the last two centuries gradually putting it back in again.

This is not, however, for me a closed question. I've spent years looking for a theology which does not leave me unsatisfied. I read Nill Gillman's book Sacred Fragments, which gives a description of all modern such attempts, and none of them really did much for me.

There's a story of a group of rabbis in a concentration camp during the Holocaust who decided to put God on trial for what God had allowed to pass. They assigned counsels for the prosecution and defence, weighed up the evidence, and eventually, after much debate, found God guilty. But they came to pronounce sentence, one of them looked at his watch and said, "It's time for mincha!; so instead of sentencing God, they went off to pray to God instead.

There is a sense that we—they, I—continue because it's what we do. I've posted before about how I came to start reciting בִּרְכוֹת every day because I wanted to express gratitude for things, but got sucked into using theistical language, because it's the language of Jewish prayer. This is the same problem here, just on a wider scope.


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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