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.)
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 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).
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
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.
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):
( View piccy )(The subject of the photo is apposite: The reason I'm going up to Newcastle this weekend is because it's my mother's .)
( View piccy )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 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 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...).
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!
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.
I didn't see this coming.
( View piccy )...and daven in a chareidi shul:
( View piccy )(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:
( View piccy )The little rabbit we haven't seen here before. His name is Arnie the (rabbit).
Jane again got Bar-Navi a present for Tu BəĀv this year. So what do you get for the rabbit who already has , tallis, tefillin and Talmud volume? Answer: A Sefer Torah!
( View piccy )(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.)
( View piccy )
( View piccy )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.As 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.)
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.
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!
( View piccy )
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.
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?
[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; 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.
aviva_m has remarked that you can tell a Briton in Germany by the way whenever they see a red squirrel, they go chasing after it with a camera...
Yes, I'm doing a parachute jump for charity, in aid of alleviating the human misery in Israel and the Palestinian Terrorities caused by the current war; please donate and help me reach my target. Half the proceeds will go to Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross. Because the Israelis are not the only ones suffering in the current conflict, I wanted to do something to help out the Palestinians as well. Since I was not able to find an equivalent Palestinian charity that is not engaging in anti-Israel politicising at best, or complicit in terrorism at worst, I have chosen as my second charity B'Tselem, an Israeli NGO which fights human rights abuses in the Occupied Terrorities (whether by the occupying power or the PA). Donations to B'Tselem will be funnelled via the New Israel Fund, since direct donations to B'Tselem, as a non-UK charity, is not supported by Virgin Money Giving.
Please note that this is a non-political fundraising event; I am trying here to help people on both sides of the conflict. If you disagree with my allocation of funds (and even I recognise that it's not ideal), I invite you to donate half the amount you would have liked to here, and give the other half to a further non-political, non-violence-promulgating charity of your selection.
By the time the jump happens, I hope the war will be long over; however the fundraising hole it has caused will take a long time to backfill, and donations will still be necessary.
The jump will be at the London Parachute School near Reading; you're invited to come along and watch. Indeed, anyone else as mishugge as me is invited to join in and keep me company.
Lastly, please note that Virgin Money Giving is a not for profit organisation and will claim gift aid on a charity's behalf where the donor is eligible for this. I appreciate your support, and thank you for any donations.
 This is actually an old resolution of mine. When I was an undergraduate, for a short while there was an society within J-Soc called DJS—Dangerous Jewish Society—with whom I signed up to do a charity parachute jump. Society founder Michael Jaeger and I got a lift down to London with a third meshuggine, who was to drive us all to the airfield early the following morning, but the car-owner got cold feet (he was concerned the insurance would not pay enough in the event of his death) and pulled out, leaving the other two of us with no way to get to the airfield on time. Now's the time to right that wrong.
 Not an exaggeration. See, for example, here.
 Homepage; see also their Wikipedia entry.
Mr. and Mrs. J. ANKER, 46, Holly-avenue, Jesmond, with Mr. and Mrs. E. GOLDSTON, "The Square", Stockton-on-Tees, will be pleased to see all relatives and friends at the Synagogue, Leazes Park-road, Newcastle-on-Tyne, on January 2nd, 1906, on the occasion of the marriage of their daughter Eva, to their son Joshua. Ceremony at 2.30 p.m. Reception at the "Minories" Assembly Rooms, Jesmond-road, 4 till 7 p.m.Which is all well and good until you come to the last line, for which remember that they chose to publish this in a national newspaper—and indeed the births, marriages and deaths column was at that point on the front page:
Relatives and friends please accept this, the only invitation.