Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Purim Mythconceptions

There is a general sense in the frum world that the way things are done now is the way they've always been. Some take this to ridiculous extremes, claiming that they share even their social norms and communal idiosyncrasies with religious Jews down through the ages, but even those with a more realistic view of how practices develop tend to assume that certain things, like holiday customs, are more or less kept now as they have always been. The truth is that customs evolve over time. New customs are invented and replace old customs, customs are carried on with their original intent lost, and things that started as something cute come to be taken seriously.

The purpose of this post is not  to try to ruin Purim. Whatever the holiday's origins or the origin of particular customs may be, the day itself is a lot of fun. Debunking misconceptions doesn't take away from that. Things can be enjoyable and meaningful even if they don't go back quite as far as we thought they did or commemorate what we thought they commemorated. But I think it's important to live in the real world, and part of that is understanding how these things really got started.

The following is a list of the origins of some of Purim's practices.


The popular myth
The triangular cookies are eaten on Purim in remembrance of what Haman tried to do to us because Haman wore a triangular hat (or had triangular pockets).

The probable true origin
There has been a tradition to eat sweets made with poppy seeds and honey on Purim at least as far back as Ibn Ezra (1089–1164), who writes about it. In Yiddish poppy seeds are "man" and "tasch" means "pocket." In Central Europe mantaschen - poppy pockets - were a popular Purim treat, in keeping with the long tradition of sweet poppy treats on Purim. At some point, either as a pun or mistakenly, people  started calling the cookies "hamantaschen." The true etymology of the name was forgotten by most people, and the myth developed that the cookies symbolized Haman's triangular hat. Today, most depictions of Haman show him in a triangular hat, based on nothing more than the similarity between his name and that of a popular Purim treat.

Taanis Esther

The popular myth
We fast on the day before Purim in remembrance of the fast that Esther asked the Jews in Shsushan to hold for three days before she went to speak to Achashverosh on their behalf. Taanis Esther is part of the Purim holiday, a day of introspection before the day of celebration.

The probable true origin
The day before Purim used to be a different holiday, Yom Nicanor. As detailed in Megillas Taanis (which discusses many no-longer extant Jewish holidays), this holiday commemorated the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Seleucid general Nicanor. Nicanor had been sent to Judea as governor by the Seleucid king Demetrius only a generation after the events of Chanukah. He was told by the king to reinstate the ousted kohen gadol Alcimus. When the Jews refused, Nicanor declared war. He was eventually defeated on the thirteenth of Adar. The Chashmonaim, who had removed Alcimus for being too Hellinized, then did a very Hellinistic thing and declared the day a holiday for all time in commemoration of their victory. As time went on the Chashmonaim became more and more Hellenized. After they lost power the Rabbonim went out their way to erase the effects the (in their view) tainted dynasty had on Judaism. As part of that effort, they replaced Yom Nicanor with Taanis Esther. For generations, Jews had two back-to-back holidays in Adar, Yom Nicanor and Purim. Taanis Esther is not so much part of the Purim package as it is a political move meant to erase the Hellenized influence of the Chashmonaim from Judaism.

Noise During "Haman"

The popular myth
We make noise when Haman's name is read to drown it out, to show our disapproval and to erase his name. This is despite the obligation to hear every word of the megillah, which obligates the baal koreh to repeat the word after everyone has calmed down, defeating the purpose of drowning out Haman's name. It is also despite the fact that this custom, far from obliterating Haman's name, causes people (especially kids) to pay special attention to his name in order to make noise at the right moment, and that the effect is that it seems we're cheering for the story's villain.

The probable true origin
The custom of erasing Haman's name used to be taken more literally. People would write Haman's name on the bottom of their shoes (which some still do) or on rocks. When Haman's name was read, they would stomp their feet or bang the rocks together, literally erasing his name. In time, the practice of writing out his name in order to erase it faded away, but the noise from foot-stomping and rock-banging remained. The current custom, then, is essentially a mistake,  continuing to reproduce a side-effect of the original custom without any of its substance.

The popular myth
We wear costumes on Purim because Hashem's actions in the Purim story were hidden. Just as He disguised  Himself, so too we disguise ourselves. The usual way things would be expected to work out, that the citizens of the powerful Persian Empire would destroy the weak Jews when ordered to do so, was turned on its head, and instead the Jews destroyed their enemies. So we turn things upside down on Purim and be silly to commemorate the unexpected turn of events. We drink on Purim in celebration of our survival, and have a mitzvah to get so drunk that we don't know the difference between Mordechai hatzadik and Haman harasha.

The probable true origin
Purim falls out roughly the same time of year as Carnival, the Feast of Fools, and other similar holidays. All of these holidays have as part of their celebration masquerading, drinking, and a reversal of the usual order of things. In ancient Rome and medieval Europe, it was common for the social order in particular to be upended during the holiday, with a commoner being appointed "lord" for the duration of the holiday and the aristocracy serving him. These holiday customs can be traced back to older winter holidays such as Saturnalia. It is likely that Purim either borrowed traditions from these holidays or that both Purim and these holidays share traditions from an older source.

The Purim Story
The popular myth
The megillah recounts a historical event in which the righteous Mordechai and Esther thwarted the plot of the evil Haman and saved the Jews of the Persian Empire from annihilation.

The probable true origin
Although extensive records have survived from the Persian Empire, there is no mention of anything resembling the Pruim story. "Mordechai" is a Babylonian name which means, "servant of Marduk," (the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon) and "Esther" is a variant spelling of "Ishtar," a popular goddess in the Ancient Near East, also known as Isis in Egypt, Asarte in Greek, and Asherah in Canaan. At best, these Jewish heroes who, according to the commentaries, protested other Jews assimilating into Persian society and attending the king's feast, were named the ancient Persian equivalent of John and Christina. At worst, the Purim story is a Judaicized version of a Babylonian folk tale about the gods.

Also of interest is that Marduk was a warrior god and the patron god of soldiers. Soldiers were often referred to as the servants of Marduk, which may be the ultimate source of the medrash that Mordechai had been a soldier in the Persian army.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Niddah and other Menstruation Taboos

I'm currently reading  The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. It's about traditional hunter-gatherer societies, the way in which humanity lived for most of its history. The book discusses the handful of still-extant hunter-gatherer peoples as a way of looking back in time to the way our ancestors would have lived. In a section discussing childbirth, Diamond mentions that among the Kaulong people of New Britain (an island off of New Guinea) the men are afraid of contamination from a woman during menstruation and childbirth.  That's awfully familiar sounding. Intrigued, I did a little poking around online.
The idea that menstruating women are impure and contact with them is harmful is widespread, both in the ancient world and in modern-day primitive cultures.  Pliny the Elder wrote in 77 AD, “Contact with menstrual blood turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die…" Traditional societies have various taboos surround menstruation. "Among the Beng of Ivory Coast, a menstruating woman may not touch a corpse, cook for old men or set foot in the forest. She may not touch the logs or coals on the fire of a non-menstruating woman." " According to the Eskimo, if a man comes into physical contact with a menstruating woman, an invisible vapor will attach itself to the man and make him less successful at hunting." " In Malekula, an island of the New Hebrides, a menstruating woman may not enter a garden in which young plants are growing."

Menstruation taboos have also held on in some of the world's major religions. A Muslim woman who is menstruating is forbidden from performing certain religious activities or having sex, and Hindu women are similarly prohibited from certain activities and must be purified (just as Judaism requires women to tovel in a mikvah) before resuming those activities. Judaism, of course, has niddah.

One of the most common features of the menstruation taboos is a requirement for the woman to remove herself from society for the duration of her period. In many of these societies, there are special communal huts for women who are menstruating. Ancient Judaism, too , required a niddah to go chutz lamachaneh.

One theory as to why menstruation has been seen as dangerous and polluting is that it is something outside of the way things normally are. Things that are unusual - not rare, necessarily, but not the usual way things are - are often seen as dangerous and polluting. Dead bodies, for instance, are not rare, but are different from the usual live people we interact with, and so have been seen as dangerous and polluting (e.g, tammei). Blood usually comes from a cut. Blood without an obvious source is therefore unusual, and is dangerous and polluting. In a patriarchal society, as traditional societies usually are, the holy man who declares which things are impure is, well, a man, for whom bleeding without an obvious source is doubly unusual. Add to that the fact that, unlike now, in the ancient world women rarely got their periods (because of inadequate nutrition, frequent pregnancies, and the suppression of menstruation by frequent nursing) and that no one understood why women bled. Even for women, the bleeding was an unusual, suspect event.

Niddah, despite modern whitewashing, is  NOT about improving marriages or making sex more special. It's about fear of contamination from the miasma of impurity around a menstruating woman, a fear that is not particular to Judaism, ordained from on high by an all-knowing God, but that is common to primitive cultures around the world. It is a relic of the primitive period of the culture that would go on to evolve into the magnificent culture of the Jewish people, preserved as a religious dictate that could not be abandoned.

While in the distant past niddah and the accompanying separation between husband and wife would have been a rare occurrence, something that happened once every few years, today it has become an onerous burden, imposing itself on couples for half of every month. Frum couples today have to endure niddah as many times in a year as couples in the past would experience in their lifetime.

The one thing I wonder is if the particular practices associated with the menstruation taboo was originated by men or women. Was it men who, fearful of their wives' impurity and the general ickiness of a week of constant bleeding decided to banish women to menstruation huts and forbid sex with them, or was it women who, feeling lousy during their periods, invented menstruation huts as a way to get away from domestic chores and banned sex so that their husbands wouldn't bother them while they weren't feeling well?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Electricity on Shabbos

I have a theory about why electricity is assur on Shabbos, despite its use not violating any melachos. I'm not a halchic expert by any stretch, not am I a lighting historian, so take my speculation for what it's worth, but I think the evidence speaks for itself.

The transition from gas lighting to electric lighting wasn't sharp or sudden. Electric lighting was adopted slowly, there was a period when both gas and electric lights were in use, and the first electric fixtures were nearly identical to gas fixtures.  

One of these is a gas fixture, the other is electric. Can you tell which is which?*

The controls, as well, were very similar. After all, people were more likely to buy things that looked familiar. The knobs at right were early electric switches, reminiscent of the knobs one would use to adjust the amount of gas flow to gas light fixtures.

These removable keys were also used to adjust the gas flow to gas light fixtures. If you look closely at the vintage electric lamp on the right, you can see that the switch is shaped just like the control key for a gas fixture.

I think that electricity is assur on Shabbos simply because lighting was the first home use of electricity, the electric fixtures replaced nearly-identical gas fixtures that actually were assur to use on Shabbos, and people mistakenly thought that they were the same thing. Decades later, when electicity was common and people realized it's not fire, there was a scrambling to justify the extant practice, and so we got the specious idea that closing a switch is maka b'patish (which would also make opening a faucet or closing a gate assur) and then later RSZA's more honest assessment that there's no halchic reason for electricity to be assur on Shabbos, but it is becuase everyone accepts that it is.

*The top one is an early electric fixture, the bottom one is a gas fixture.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Where Have All the Skeptics Gone?

I realized yesterday that only four Jewish blogs on my list post regularly anymore, and they all belong to frum people: DovBear, Rationalist Judaism, Fink or Swim, and one I started following only recently, EmesV'Emunah. The rest post infrequently, if at all, and most have been defunct for years. Even Frum Satire, the site through which I discovered the blogosphere way back when, is a shadow of its former self. There was a time when  almost every time I looked, there was a new post from someone. Now it seems the blogosphere is dying.

When Unpious started up it subsumed a lot of the Chassidshe skeptic blogs, like "A Hasid and A Heretic,"  and "Penned In," (both which are gone now) and of course "Hasidic Rebel." It published essays by those and other bloggers, but Unpious hasn't posted anything in almost a year.

A year ago also there was a short-lived blog, "Diaryof a Jewish Skeptic," which looked promising, but there were only four posts, and nothing for the last year. Two years ago " Divrei Ben Zoma," stopped posting.  It was a blog by a frum guy with a skeptical tendency that explored theological questions. Around the same time a blog I particularly enjoyed, " coin laundry," also stopped posting. Its author was a firmly atheistic Jewish woman from Toronto who was interested in Orthodox practices. There were a lot of interesting conversations over its two-year run.

Three years ago "Orthoprax" stopped posting. He was one of the original skeptic blogs, and ran for five years. He posted once a year ago, but I think it's safe to say his blog is finished. Another of bloggers who was around when I discovered the blogosphere, "FrumHeretic," also stopped posting then. As did two blogs with an academic-ish flavor, " Baruch's Thoughts" and " Textuality." "ThePraxy Project," a collaborative blog belonging to two college-age guys exploring Jewish theology and the mechanisms of belief also ended three years ago.

Four years ago saw the end of the great XGH's blogging career with the deletion of his latest blog, "OrthoModerndox." It was also the end of another of the greats, the " Da'as Hedyot" blog which ran for six years and included many interesting posts, not least of which were his interview series with a diverse group of people who had left the frum world. He posted once two years ago, but that blog is likely also finished. At that time " onionsoupmix," an orthoprax women - and one of the few female Jewish skeptic  bloggers - who had also been blogging for six years decided she didn't care enough about the foibles of the frum world to post anymore. Two of the smaller blogs, " TheSkeptitcher Rebbe" and "Sitting on the Fence" also stopped posting then. And there was a short-lived blog which lasted for less than a year but caused a lot of interest and controversy, "The Orthoprax Rabbi'sBlog."

Five years ago "Frustrated Ortho Jew," "DivreiAcher," and "Notes on Nothing" stopped posting. So did a blog I really enjoyed, "Lunacy Log," which lasted a little less than two years and picked apart the rantings of the Jewish blogosphere's resident troll.

Six years ago "Baal Habos," another of the blogs that was around when I first found the skeptic blogs, ended his run.

And there are others over the years, some interesting, some not, which lasted for a few months or years, then were abandoned, made private, or deleted.

There are a few that still post occasionally, like "UndercoverKofer," "Wolfish Musings," and "Atheodox Jew," but there's nothing like the volume there used to be. Nor do the blogs that stop posting get replaced by new ones like they used to.

So, where is everyone?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Practice vs. Pedantry

This past week I was at my in-laws for Shabbos. At lunch, they read from a Shabbos halacha book. It is divided into sections to be read at Shabbos meals, and is meant to be finished over the course of one year. Apparently this is something they started doing lately. Anyway, this particular section was about lighting candles Friday night, specifically about what to do if someone is staying at a hotel where everyone lights in the dining room. Since the purpose of lighting candles is to give light, can only  the first person to get to the dining room light with a bracha, or can each person light their own candles and make a bracha?

In the abstract, I suppose this is a valid legalistic question, but it completely misses the point of why people do things like light candles Friday night. People light candles because that's what you do to start Shabbos, because it makes them feel good to perform the ritual and continue the tradition, because without lighting candles Friday night it doesn't feel like Shabbos. In the absence of the book's legalistic discussion, I don't think the question would occur to most people. Lighting candles Friday night is just what you do. From the point of view of how and why people actually perform rituals like candle-lighting, a discussion about whether the light is really necessary is nonsensical. (The fact is that electric lights make lighting candles for light pointless, and yet no one has suggested abolishing the custom, making the whole discussion nonsensical even from a legalistic standpoint, but that's beside the point.)

It reminded me of the famous essay, "Rupture and Reconstruction," about the change in Orthodox transmission of rites and ritual from a memetic one learned naturally in the home and community to a textual one learned through study and consulting authoritative books. In a society with a memetic tradition, the question of whether or not everyone lights with a bracha wouldn't come up, because of course everyone does. Lighting candles Friday night and making a bracha is what one does as Shabbos begins. In a society with a textually-transmitted tradition (or more accurately, where the tradition is learned both memetically and from texts, but where the text is the authority) people must be always consulting the texts so they can be sure they are performing rituals properly, and things that would once have been academic questions of interest only to scholars now intrude into practice.

On the one hand, I'm in favor of people doing things primarily for rational rather than emotional reasons or because that's just how it's done. On the other hand, this legalistic hair splitting ruins some of the useful things that religion does, like grounding people in traditions and rituals that give a sense of significance to the daily rhythm of their lives. It takes something that comes easily and imbues the mundane with a touch of the  transcendent and turns it into a circumscribed chore. It ruins the religious experience and completely misunderstands how and why people perform rituals.

Monday, December 15, 2014

If God Was One of Us…

If God Was One of Us…

A hundred thousand years from now, technology has progressed almost beyond what anyone today could have imagined. A man, an R&D engineer named Bob, is fiddling with his company's latest model of long-distance transporter, and serendipitously discovers how to transport himself outside of space-time. Excited at his new discovery, he grabs a couple of instruments that will let him measure and manipulate the non-space. After a few years, he's figured out how do things in the non-space nothingness.

Using his futuristic technology, Bob creates a universe - our universe, the same one that he came from. Ignoring the paradox, Bob nurtures the universe. Existing outside of space-time, Bob is eternal, and unconstrained by time. His instruments allow him to monitor everything about the universe, and he knows everything that happened/is happening/will happen in the universe. He wants only the best for the inhabitants of the universe, and he can use his technology to manipulate the universe at will. As intelligent beings evolve, Bob gives them instructions for how to best live their lives. Unfortunately these instructions are almost always clothed in mythology, but Bob decides not to interfere too much, and lets the various intelligent species get on with their lives.

Bob is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent, created the universe and has given revealed wisdom. Is Bob God?

On a completely unrelated note, I came across something really interesting today. Apparently the leading theory for why repeating a word over and over makes it sound like gibberish is that repeating the word causes the neurons that code the meaning of the word to fire over and over. After a few repetitions, the neurological response becomes less and less, much like how when you walk into someone's house you may notice its unique smell, but after a few minutes it fades as your olfactory nerves stops responding to it. As the neurological excitement ceases, you stop noticing the smell - or stop attaching meaning to the sound that you're making.

I think it's fascinating that we have answers to "weird" things like this. And it shows how our experiences really can be reduced to brain functions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Similar Songs

I always find it interesting how similar different religions are in their outline. This song:

reminded me of this song:

While there are differences, the message of the two songs is very similar.