David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

BialeDavid Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.

Omnia El Shakry: Psychoanalysis and Islam

Omnia El Shakry‘s new book, The Arabic Freud, is the first in-depth look at how postwar thinkers in Egypt mapped the intersections between Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic thought.

What are the very first things that pop into your mind when you hear the words “psychoanalysis” and “Islam” paired together?  For some of us the connections might seem improbable or even impossible. And if we were to be brutally honest the two terms might even evoke the specter of a so-called “clash of civilizations” between an enlightened, self-reflective West and a fanatical and irrational East.

It might surprise many of us to know, then, that Sigmund Freud, the founding figure of psychoanalysis, was ever-present in postwar Egypt, engaging the interest of academics, novelists, lawyers, teachers, and students alike. In 1946 Muhammad Fathi, a Professor of Criminal Psychology in Cairo, ardently defended the relevance of Freud’s theories of the unconscious for the courtroom, particularly for understanding the motives behind homicide. Readers of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s 1948 The Mirage were introduced to the Oedipus complex, graphically portrayed in the novel, by immersing themselves in the world of its protagonist—pathologically erotically attached and fixated on his possessive mother. And by 1951 Freudian theories were so well known in Egypt that a secondary school philosophy teacher proposed prenuptial psychological exams in order to prevent unhappy marriages due to unresolved Oedipus complexes!

Scholars who have tackled the question of psychoanalysis and Islam have tended to focus on it as problem, by assuming that psychoanalysis and Islam have been “mutually ignorant” of each other, and they have placed Islam on the couch, as it were, alleging that it is resistant to the “secular” science of psychoanalysis. In my book, The Arabic Freud, I undo the terms of this debate and ask, instead, what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem,” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement.

What I found was that postwar thinkers in Egypt saw no irreconcilable differences between psychoanalysis and Islam. And in fact, they frequently blended psychoanalytic theories with classical Islamic concepts. For example, when they translated Freud’s concept of the unconscious, the Arabic term used, “al-la-shuʿur,” was taken from the medieval mystical philosopher Ibn ʿArabi, renowned for his emphasis on the creative imagination within Islamic spirituality.

Islamic thinkers further emphasized similarities between Freud’s interpretation of dreams and Islamic dream interpretation, and they noted that the analyst-analysand (therapist-patient) relationship and the spiritual master-disciple relationship of Sufism (the phenomenon of mysticism in Islam) were nearly identical. In both instances, there was an intimate relationship in which the “patient” was meant to forage their unconscious with the help of their shaykh (spiritual guide) or analyst, as the case might be. Both Sufism and psychoanalysis, then, were characterized by a relationship between the self and the other that was mediated by the unconscious. Both traditions exhibited a concern for the relationship between what was hidden and what was shown in psychic and religious life, both demonstrated a preoccupation with eros and love, and both mobilized a highly specialized vocabulary of the self.

What, precisely, are we to make of this close connection between Islamic mysticism and psychoanalysis? On the one hand, it helps us identify something of a paradox within psychoanalysis, namely that for some psychoanalysis represents a non-religious and even atheistic world view. And there is ample evidence for this view within Freud’s own writings, which at times pathologized religion in texts such as The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. At the same time, in Freud and Man’s Soul, Bruno Bettelheim argued that in the original German Freud’s language was full of references to the soul, going so far as to refer to psychoanalysts as “a profession of secular ministers of souls.” Similarly, psychoanalysis was translated into Arabic as “tahlil al-nafs”—the analysis of the nafs, which means soul, psyche, or self and has deeply religious connotations. In fact, throughout the twentieth century there have been psychoanalysts who have maintained a receptive attitude towards religion and mysticism, such as Marion Milner or Sudhir Kakar. What I take all of this to mean is that psychoanalysis as a tradition is open to multiple, oftentimes conflicting, interpretations and we can take Freud’s own ambivalence towards religion, and towards mysticism in particular, as an invitation to rethink the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion.

What, then, if religious forms of knowledge, and the encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam more specifically, might lead us to new insights into the psyche, the self, and the soul? What would this mean for how we think about the role of religion and ethics in the making of the modern self? And what might it mean for how we think about the relationship between the West and the Islamic world?

FreudOmnia El Shakry is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt and the editor of Gender and Sexuality in Islam. Her new book, The Arabic Freud, is out this September.

Steven Weitzman: The Origin of the Jews

WeitzmanThe Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? While many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. In The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be. Weitzman recently took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.

Isn’t the origin of the Jews well known? The story as I learned it begins with the Bible—with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What is it that we do not understand about the origin of the Jews?

SW: Arguably, modernity was born of a recognition that things did not originate in the way the Bible claims. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the intellectual elite in Europe began to realize that the Bible could not be relied upon as an origin account, they turned to science, to critical historiography, to archaeology and to other scholarly methods to try to answer the question of where things and people come from. The result of their efforts include Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Bing Bang theory and other enduring theories of origin, along with a lot of theories and ideas that have since been discredited. The same intellectual process unsettled how people accounted for the origin of the Jews. Scholars applied the tools that had been used to understand the origin of language, religion and culture to the Jews and in this way developed alternative accounts very different from or even opposed to the biblical account. This book tells the story of what scholars have learned in this way and wrestles with why, despite centuries of scholarship, the question of the origin of the Jews remains unsettled.

So what have scholars learned about the origin of the Jews?

SW: A lot and a little at the same time. There has been a tremendous amount of scholarship generated by the question. The Documentary Hypothesis, the famous theory that the Five Books of Moses reflects the work of different authors in different historical periods, was originally intended as an effort to explain how the people of the Old Testament became the Jews. Focusing on different textual sources, Assyriologists have uncovered evidence of a people in Canaan known as the Habiru that are believed to be the ancestors of the Hebrews, and others would trace the Jews’ origin to Egypt or see a role for Greek culture in their development. Every theory can cite facts to support its account; and some are quite pioneering in the methods they deploy, and yet even as someone conversant in this scholarship, I find that I myself cannot answer the question of what the origin of the Jews is. It is actually the difficulty of answering the question that fascinates me. From within my small field, I have always been drawn to questions that lie at the edge of or just beyond what scholars can know about the world, questions that appear to be just beyond reach, and the origin of the Jews represents one of those questions, lying inside and outside of history at the same time.

Can you explain more why the origin of the Jews is so hard to pin down?

SW: Partly the problem is a scarcity of evidence. If we are looking to prehistory to understand the origin of the Jews—prehistory in this context would refer to the period before we have written accounts of the Israelites—there just isn’t a lot of evidence to work with. We know that at some point a people called Israel emerged, but we have very little evidence that can help us understand that process—a lot of theories and educated guesses but not a lot of solid facts.
Origins are always elusive—they always seem to be buried, hidden or lost—and scholarship has really had to strain to find relevant evidence to base itself on.
But for me at least, the biggest challenge of all was the problem of pinning down what an origin is. The term covers a range of different ideas—continuity and novelty, ancestry and invention. An origin can refer to lineage, to whatever connects a thing to the past, but it can also refer to a rupture, the emergence of something fundamentally discontinuous with the past. I came to realize that one of the main reasons scholars explain the origin of the Jews so differently is that they begin from different conceptions of what an origin is. This project forced me to recognize that I didn’t understand what an origin is or sufficiently appreciate all the different assumptions, beliefs and questionable metaphors that lay hidden within that term.

Not only are there conceptual difficulties inherent in the search for Jewish origin, but there are political problems as well. The effort to answer the question of the origin of the Jews has had devastating consequences, as the Nazis demonstrated by using the scholarship of origin to rationalize violence against the Jews. Of course, more recently, the question has gotten caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and is entangled in various intra-communal and interfaith debates about the nature of Jewish and Christian identity. There were many reasons to avoid this topic, intellectual, political and arguably even ethical, but not pursuing it also has its costs. There are lots of ideas circulating out there about how the Jews originated, along with a lot of misstatements, unexamined assumptions and confusion, and I felt it would be helpful to describe the challenges of this question, why it is difficult to address, what we know and don’t know, and what is at stake.

The book surveys several different approaches—various historical approaches, archaeology, social scientific approaches, even psychoanalysis has been used to address the question—but the research most likely to interest many contemporary readers comes from the field of genetics. What does DNA reveal about the origin of the Jews?

SW: First of all, I should say up front that I am not a geneticist and much of what I present in the book is based on what I learned from geneticist colleagues when I was a faculty member at Stanford or read at their suggestion. But we happen to be in a period when geneticists are making great strides in using DNA as a historical source, a way to understand the origin, migration history, and sexual and health history of different populations, and Jews have been intensively studied from this perspective. Even though the science was new to me, I felt I could not write a book on this subject without trying to engage this new research. As for what such research reveals, it offers a new way of investigating the ancestry of the Jews, the population(s) from whom they descend, and potentially sheds light on where that population lived, its size and demographic practice, and its mating practices. It can even help us to distinguish distinct histories for the male and female lineages of contemporary Jewish populations. All fascinating stuff, but does genetics represent the future of the quest to understand the origin of the Jews? The research is developing very rapidly. The data sets are expanding rapidly; the analysis is getting more nuanced; studies conducted a decade or two ago have already been significantly revised or superseded; and it is hard for non-geneticists to judge what is quality research and what is questionable. What is clear is that there has been criticism of such research from anthropologists and historians of science who detect hidden continuities with earlier now discredited race science and question how scientists interpret the data. I tried to tell both sides of this story, distilling the research but also giving voice to the critiques, and the book includes bibliographic guidance for those who want to judge the research for themselves.

Has this project gotten you to think about your own origin differently?

SW: Yes, but not in the way one might expect. Of course, as a Jew myself, the questions were not just intellectual but also personal and relational, bearing on how I thought about my own ancestry, my own sense of connection to my forebears, to other Jews, and to the land of Israel and to other peoples, but what I learned about the history of scholarship just didn’t reveal the clear insight one might have hoped for. To give a minor and amusing example, I recall being impressed by a genetic study which uncovered evidence of a surprising ancestry for Ashkenazic Levites. A Levite is a descendant from the tribe of Levi, a tribe with a special religious role, and I inherited such a status from my father. I never put any real stake in this part of my inheritance, but it was a point of connection to my father and his father, and I admit that I was intrigued when I read this study, which found that Ashkenazic Levite males have a different ancestry than that of other Ashkenazic Jews, perhaps descending from a convert with a different backstory than that of the other males in the tiny population from which today’s Ashkenazic Jews descend. But then a few years later, the same scientist published another study which undid that conclusion. So it goes with the research in general: it tells too many stories, or changes too much, or is too equivocal or uncertain in its results to demystify the origin of who I am. But on the other hand, I did learn a lot from this project about how—and why—I think about origins at all, and the mystery of who I am as a Jew—and of who we all are as human beings—runs much deeper for me now.

Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Solomon: The Lure of WisdomSurviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity, and The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age.

Lewis Glinert tells the story of Hebrew

Hebrew has existed for over 3,000 years, but if Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation? According to Lewis Glinert, author of The Story of Hebrew, the answer is yes.

The first language of millions of Israelis today, the story of Hebrew’s origins and evolution is  extraordinary. Over the millennia, it attracted Kabbalists and humanists who sought philosophical truth, and Colonial Americans on a quest to shape their own Israelite political identity. The Story of Hebrew explores the hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and non-Jews alike, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Recently, Glinert answered some questions about his book, Hebrew’s rebirth, and the elemental force driving this unique language.

GlinertIn an age where language is increasingly treated as a mere commodity—a ticket to a job or a mark of prestige—Hebrew is often described as a linguistic miracle. Can that really be so?

LG: Hebrew is certainly unique among languages in being reborn as a mother tongue after 2,000 years—reborn just a century ago, and spoken today by millions. I’ll leave the definition of miracles to philosophers. Even if we could be sure of the constellation of social, political and spiritual forces that made it happen—and we really aren’t—it was clearly an extraordinary event in human history. Could it be repeated? Perhaps. But it’s a tall order to recharge languages in decline even if they’re still spoken, let alone when all you have is written texts.

So how did the rebirth of Hebrew start? Was there a moment of conception?

LG: Yes, it was quite a romantic affair—at least as I heard it from a 91 year old lady, Dola Ben-Yehuda, when I interviewed her 25 years ago for a BBC documentary. She was the last living daughter of the man they called ‘the father of Modern Hebrew,’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was a fiery young Jewish nationalist, but deeply pessimistic for the future of Jewish cultural identity. So one day he resolved that the Jews must speak their own ancient tongue in their ancient homeland—and in 1881 he made a tryst with his bride that they and any offspring they might have would sail to Israel and speak only Hebrew. And they did! Her father, she told me, wouldn’t even send them to parties in case they picked up Yiddish or Arabic. So there’s your moment of conception…

So one family revived Modern Hebrew?

LG: Far from it. They had to get tens of thousands of people on board—and make it economically viable. Playgroups, schools, workplaces, newspapers, public institutions. They also had to coin an entire modern vocabulary. Pre-State Israel attracted waves of Zionists who loathed Yiddish and other Diaspora languages and loved Hebrew. Some of them, in fact, had already acquired Modern Hebrew in Europe, from newspapers and novels. And then in 1917 came the British, who at first supported Jewish statehood and actually financed the entire school system in Hebrew (standard colonial policy!).

“Let There be Hebrew” is the intriguing name of your first chapter. Does Genesis portray Hebrew as the mother of all tongues?

LG: Not in so many words! But the opening chapters of Genesis explain several names of persons by what they mean in Hebrew. Thus Adam calls his wife Hava (Eve) because ‘she was the mother of all life’ (hay). So, yes, Genesis seems to imply that Hebrew was the first language. But there’s much more to it than that: Genesis has God say ‘Let there be light.’ Did language transcend Creation? How? Religious philosophers and mystics have variously viewed Hebrew as inherently sacred or as a regular human language, or somehow as both. As for the rest of the world’s languages, everyone knows the story of the Tower of Babel and the Lord’s linguistic retribution, but wait—here again, the Bible is unclear: Perhaps there were different languages from the start, and the World Hebrew lost at Babel had just been an acquired lingua franca, a kind of World English ahead of its time.

If Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation?

LG: If you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, then yes, Moses would be taking it all in. It’s the same basic vocabulary and word structure as 3,000 years ago, with a streamlined European-style syntax. Kudos to the men and women a century ago who grafted the new Hebrew onto its ancient roots. An Israeli adult can readily open the Bible and start reading.

What about Jesus and his disciples?

LG: Yes, they’d also understand today’s Hebrew! In truth, most of them were more comfortable in Aramaic, which had largely supplanted Hebrew (Aramaic was the main lingua franca in the Near East). But they must all have been versed in reading the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures.

You devote considerable space to “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination.” What has Hebrew meant for Christians?

LG: At times a great deal, at times nothing. For centuries, Christians learned the Bible in Latin or Greek or whatever, but suddenly a cry would arise: “Our translations are false. Let us revisit the Hebrew!” And so you have the 4th century hermit Jerome mastering Hebrew and producing what became the standard Latin translation. And again with the humanists—Erasmus, Tyndale, and the authors of the King James version. Hebrew also provided the combustion in religious break-outs: Reformation, Puritanism, Mormonism, and endless but fruitless attempts to use it to convert the Jews. And here and there, a quest for deeper dimensions (Christian Kabbalah) and a new society (Colonial America), which gave us all those American Hebrew place names and perhaps even contributed to our distinctive laws and values.

If a language can maintain its integrity and identity across 3,000 years, is there some elemental force driving it?

LG: A marvelous question. I tried to shake it off (Western academia is uncomfortable with the metaphysical!), but it kept coming back to haunt me. Up to our own times, for a Jewish person to use Hebrew, even just the Alef-Bet, was a statement, and often a struggle. It was about perpetuating a heritage or studying sacred texts, or just connecting with other Jews. The rebirth of Modern Hebrew was perhaps the most intense twist in this elemental vortex. But now, paradoxically, for many Israelis using Hebrew is often an act without meaning. It’s just in the air, taken for granted. For many other Jews, though, the elemental force is still with them—in their language use, their language community, and in the language itself.

What false beliefs have people held about Hebrew?

LG: To name just a few:
“Hebrew letters and sounds have magical powers”.
Esoteric, yes—in the right hands. Magical, no. But once widely believed by simple folk and by Renaissance scholars.

“Native Americans are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and spoke a garbled Hebrew.”
Wildly wrong, but some intelligent folk, especially millennialists, thought so—take Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782.

“Hebrew was dead for 2,000 years until it was reborn.”
OK, it has been reborn in a sense, but it never ‘died.’ It was no longer a mother tongue but it went on being written and read (often aloud), sometimes creatively, and far more widely and intensively than Medieval Latin ever was.

“During those 2000 years, it was just a language of religion.”
Nonsense. It was the written language for European Jewish science, medicine, trade, all serious writing—until the 19th century.

Of all the great works that Hebrew has produced, which would you say are the ‘must reads?’

LG: Where does one begin! Genesis, Isaiah 1 and 11, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 120-134, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel 1), Ruth, the Song of Songs, Job. So much of the Bible was once part of the English canon (sigh). Dip into the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire (Hasidic wisdom), the short stories of Nobel laureate S.Y.Agnon, and a ‘must hear:’ the enchanting songs of Naomi Shemer.

What moved you to write this book? And where do you fit into the story of Hebrew?

LG: Like so many Jewish children down the centuries, I was raised in postwar London on the classic religious texts of ancient Hebrew—Torah, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud—but when my parents brought me to Israel as a ten-year old, I was enthralled to see people speaking it. I remember thinking: gosh, they have a word for ‘already’ that I never saw, and my father wants me to buy a ‘bus ticket’ in Hebrew! I vowed I would never take it for granted. And behold, my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book were about the syntax of this amazing new Hebrew—then almost uncharted territory. But as I learned from my mentors in Oxford and Jerusalem, Roy Harris and Chaim Rabin, there’s another, richer and even more complex dimension of language: How we use it and what it means for us. And in writing The Story of Hebrew, I hope I can be a tiny part of this story.

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. He is the author of The Grammar of Modern Hebrew, The Joys of Hebrew, and The Story of Hebrew.

Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.

Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

Albert J. Raboteau: What does it mean to be an American prophet?

In American Prophets, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, and many other individuals who conveyed their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. In this interview for the PUP blog, Raboteau discusses his new book, social justice, and the good religion can do in politics.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book by an undergraduate seminar course, “Religious Radicals” that I have taught at Princeton several times over the years. The students’ active engagement with the figures discussed in the course was refreshing and inspiring to me as a veteran of 1960s activism, inspired in part by meeting Dorothy Day when I was a freshman in college.

Your book is called American Prophets. How do you define prophets in your book?

I use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “one who feels the divine pathos for humanity like a fire in the bones and has to share it.”

These days when we think of the intersection of religion and politics, we think of the influence of the conservative right. But this hasn’t always been the case. How has religion’s intersection with American politics changed over time?

Our attention has been attenuated to focus on the “religious right,” but within the memory of many the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war movement is still vivid. Moreover, large scale movements for radical social change are, in the nature of the case, rare.

What good can religion do in politics?

Two booksellers at our local bookstore asked me that question one morning several years ago. My immediate answer was “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.” They responded “yes, but they were exceptions.” I responded “true, they were exceptional but they also were exemplary.” My book is an attempt to turn the exceptional into the exemplary.

Your book tells the stories of characters from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to A. J. Muste, to Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—all inspired individuals. Did you have a favorite story?

Yes. When Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman met Gandhi on a visit to India, he asked them to sing him an American Negro Spiritual. They obliged by singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” As they sang, Gandhi and his assistants prayed and afterwards he said, “that song gets at the universal human feeling under the wings of suffering.” He went on to speculate that perhaps it would be the black American struggle that would finally succeed in breaking the hold of racism over white society.

How is prophetic thought and action at work in today’s world?

One prominent place is in the Industrial Area Foundation movement founded by Saul Alinsky, which my colleague, Jeffrey Stout has describes so well in his book Blessed Are the Organized. Another is the Catholic Worker movement, which has houses of hospitality for the poor around the U.S. and in Europe as well. The prophetic struggle goes on in local communities across the nation. Hopeful examples exist in the activism of the Industrial Areas Foundation chapters and similar networks of organizing for social change that continue to crop up in local struggles. Typically based in existing congregations, churches, synagogues, and mosques, the foundation encourages local people to meet and identify issues of common concern. Citizens are encouraged to speak of their own experiences, tell their own stories to encourage empathy, and raise the possibility of imagining change in their lives. Home meetings serve to identify and recruit leaders from the community. Mass meetings are structured to hold public officials accountable for problems of concern. The IAF has fifty-nine affiliates active across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. Jeffrey Stout has told their story in his book. By 2015 the Catholic Worker movement organized by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s had grown to 207 communities across the U.S. and 25 abroad, committed to nonviolence and hospitality for the poor and homeless. Circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper had reached approximately ninety thousand. And several local Worker houses had established their own newspapers in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

RaboteauAlbert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.

Stanley Fish debates the eternal

This podcast on Stanley Fish’s panel discussion was originally posted by the Institute for Arts and Ideas

While the world turns we think ideas, right or wrong, are eternal. Yet meaning changes over time and context. Should we conclude that, like the material world, ideas are transient and knowledge and morality passing stories? Or is the eternal in our grasp after all? New York Times columnist and author of Think Again Stanley Fish, philosopher of language Barry C. Smith, and award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna seek out the eternal.

Stanley Fish is the author of numerous books, including How to Write a Sentence, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and Versions of Academic Freedom. He is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Florida International University and the Visiting Floersheimer Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School. He previously taught at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education.

Utopian Town Planning: Photos and Illustrations from City of Refuge

lewisVisions of Utopia obsessed the nineteenth-century mind, shaping art, literature, and especially town planning. In City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning, Michael Lewis takes readers across centuries and continents to show how Utopian town planning produced a distinctive type of settlement characterized by its square plan, collective ownership of properties, and communal dormitories. In honor of #Archtober, NYC’s month-long celebration of architecture and design, here is a sneak peek at select photographs and illustrations.


Donald Lopez on the Lotus Sutra

Lopez, Jr. In The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, Donald Lopez traces the many roles of what is perhaps the most famous of Buddhist historical texts, the Lotus Sutra.  Examining the history of the famous scripture that was composed in India in the first centuries of the Common Era, Lopez’s biography provides an engaging background to the enduring classic. Lopez recently took the time to answer some questions about his own early encounters with the text, and why its proclamations remain so important today.

What is the Lotus Sutra?

DL: The Lotus Sutra is arguably the most famous of all Buddhist texts.  It is one of only three Buddhist works, among a vast canon, that is well known in the West by its English title (the other two being the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra). The Lotus Sutra was composed in India, and in the Sanskrit language, where its title is Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. This might be translated as the Discourse on the White Lotus of the True Doctrine. As I explain in the book, this title is rather “loaded” from a Buddhist perspective. It is not just a lotus (the traditional flower of Buddhism), but the white lotus, the best of lotuses. It does not just teach the dharma, the doctrine, but the true doctrine. As a sutra, or “discourse,” it is traditionally attributed to the Buddha himself.

Why is it so famous?

DL: Although composed in India, the Lotus Sutra became particularly important in China and Japan.  In terms of Buddhist doctrine, it is renowned for two powerful proclamations by the Buddha.  The first is that there are not three vehicles to enlightenment but one, that all beings in the universe will one day become buddhas. The second is that the Buddha did not die and pass into nirvana; in fact, his lifespan is immeasurable. The sutra is also famous for its parables, like the Parable of the Burning House and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was because of these parables that the Lotus Sutra became the first Buddhist text to be translated from Sanskrit into a European language (French). The Lotus Sutra has several dramatic scenes; perhaps the most famous is when a giant bejeweled stupa (a tomb of a buddha) emerges from the earth and a living buddha is found inside. Such scenes inspired hundreds of works of art across East Asia.  At the Dunhuang cave complex in China, scenes from the Lotus Sutra are found in some seventy-five caves.

What was your first encounter with the Lotus Sutra?

DL: When I was in college in the 1970s, a friend invited me over for a meeting with a Buddhist teacher. I was surprised to find not a monk in saffron robes but a white guy in a business suit. After a brief talk, he knelt down in front of a small altar that he had brought with him and started chanting something that I couldn’t understand. In retrospect, I realize that he was chanting in Japanese, saying Namu myoho renge kyo, “Homage to the Lotus Sutra.” He was likely a member of Nichiren Shoshu of America, the “Orthodox Nichiren School of America.” The Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222-1282) was the most famous of the many devotees of the Lotus Sutra in Japan. He is a central figure in the book.

This is the second book you have contributed to PUP’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.  How did you choose the Lotus Sutra and what is it about the text that lends itself to a reception history?

DL: My first book for the series was about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The famous version, first published in 1927, is an odd work. For example, it is not called the “book of the dead” in Tibetan; it is called Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing. It is not a translation of the entire work, and it includes all manner of rather eccentric prefaces, appendices, addenda, and notes by the editor, the American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Because of its strange history, it was a perfect candidate for Lives of Great Religious Books, but it would have been unfortunate had it been the only Buddhist work in the series. The series editor, Fred Appel, thus agreed to include a second Buddhist text, and I chose the Lotus Sutra.

I chose it in part because of its great fame in the Buddhist world. I also chose it because it is obsessed with the question of how its teachings are received, making it an ideal candidate for a reception history. That obsession derives from the fact that although the Lotus Sutra purports to be the words of the historical Buddha, it is not. It was composed some four centuries after the Buddha’s death. It is thus the most famous of the Mahayana sutras, or “Great Vehicle” sutras, works that set forth a different vision of the Buddhist path. In order to have authority, however, they must claim to have been taught by the Buddha himself.

In researching the book, what did you find that was unexpected?

DL: The anonymous authors of the Lotus Sutra presented a radical re-vision of both the Buddhist path and of the person of the Buddha. They did this with remarkable skill; they were clearly monks who were deeply versed in traditional Buddhist doctrine but were also deeply dissatisfied with the state of the Buddhist tradition as it existed around the beginning of the Common Era. One of the things that I saw again and again in the text was a concern with legitimation. The authors were determined to portray their work as the words of the Buddha and thus have the Buddha constantly praise the Lotus Sutra, promising rewards to those who embrace it and punishments to those who reject it.

If you could write a second book about the Lotus Sutra, what would it be?

DL: Funny you should ask. One of the attractive features of the titles in the Lives of Great Religious Books series is their beautiful production and their compact size, only about 60,000 words. In researching the book, I found that there was much more that I wanted to say about the content of the sutra. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is fascinating in its own right; the Lotus Sutra is a masterpiece of Buddhist literature, but the mastery of its authors is not fully evident without knowing something of the historical and doctrinal background. Professor Jacqueline Stone of Princeton (a leading expert on the Lotus Sutra in Japan) and I will be writing a guide to the Lotus Sutra (also to be published by Princeton University Press). The goal of both books is to bring this remarkable text, already so famous in the Buddhist world, to a wider readership.

Donald Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He has contributed other books to the PUP Lives of Religious Book series with titles such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Princeton). He is also the author of the book The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (with Robert E. Buswell, Jr.). Lopez currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.




Why read the Hebrew Bible? An interview with John Barton

barton the hebrew bible jacketUnderstanding the Hebrew Bible is crucial to understanding Western literature, human nature, covenant, creation narratives, ethics, ritual and purity. In The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, an invaluable reference book for students and teachers, John Barton outlines the endless reasons, beyond the religious, for studying The Hebrew Bible. Recently, Barton shared why this is the perfect starting place for anyone seeking a user-friendly introduction to the Old Testament.

Why should anyone be interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Many Jews or Christians have encountered it as all or part of their Bible, and are intrigued by it—it is, after all, a very long and complex work to have as one’s Scriptures. But the Hebrew Bible is part of Western culture, especially through its many translations—first into Greek and Latin, and then in more modern times into all European languages and, eventually, almost all the languages in the world. Western literature can’t be understood without knowing it, and it has stimulated and inspired huge numbers of people over many centuries, and infuriated others. No one can afford to ignore it.

How did you get interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Like many biblical scholars, I came to the Bible from a religious interest. I was planning to be ordained in the Church of England, and that meant studying theology; and at that time (in the 1960s) theology courses all involved the Hebrew Bible. But of all the subjects I studied, it was this that caught my interest most strongly, because of its mixture of literary, theological, historical, archaeological, and geographical themes, and its relation to other ancient literature from the classical and ancient Near Eastern world. A rabbi in ancient times said ‘Everything is in it’, and I have found that chimes with my own experience.

What is the difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament?

JB: In terms of content there is no difference—the books are the same, though Jews and Christians arrange them in a different way. Christians call them the Old Testament, since for them there is also a New Testament, and the Old Testament books preceded that. Jews generally call them simply ‘the Bible’, but sometimes the ‘Tanakh’, which is an acronym based on the initial letters of the three sections of the Bible: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Torah, Nebiim, Ketuvim in Hebrew). Nowadays there is a suspicion that the Christian term ‘Old Testament’ could encourage anti-Semitism by implying that these books are ‘old’ in a derogatory sense, so the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ has been developed as a more neutral description that everyone can use.

How can I start reading the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Preferably not by beginning with Genesis and simply pressing on, since parts of the text are more accessible than others. I would distinguish prose from verse: in prose, I would read the books of Samuel, which contain much of the best prose narrative, followed by Genesis; and, in verse, the Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, which are both stylistically excellent and religiously profound.

Isn’t the Hebrew Bible a barbaric and brutal work?

JB: Parts of it describe brutalities—Joshua is probably the book most readers find chilling. But this is because it is the literature of a nation, not of a religious community, and it describes the history of that nation without glossing over its brutal aspects. The God who is encountered in the text is also sometimes presented as brutal and violent. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible also presents a monotheistic idea of God, for the first time in world history; and it has a developed and humane social morality in which the underprivileged are meant to be cared for, and rulers are encouraged to rule justly and generously. The brutal episodes are a problem if we think that we are bound to approve of everything in the Bible, but if not, then we can see them as reflection on the whole of life, good and bad alike.

How can a work from such a remote culture still have anything to say to us today?

JB: Great texts speak across the centuries: think of Greek tragedy, Dante’s Comedy, Shakespeare. A lot of effort, and some background knowledge, are needed to get into an ancient text, and this book is meant to provide some of that knowledge. But most, at least, of the books of the Hebrew Bible repay the effort by having important things to say about human life, whether we agree with them or not. In the process we encounter an ancient culture that was in many ways highly distinctive in its world, and where people had thoughts, especially about God, that no one had had before.

How were the books of the Hebrew Bible selected?

JB: They weren’t. No one ever ruled on what was to be in the Bible until long after it was all settled anyway. We don’t know whether the books we have represent the majority of those that existed in ancient Israel, but they are the only ones that have survived (with a few exceptions, such as the books sometimes called the Apocrypha). The Hebrew Bible consists of all the literature we know of from Israel up till the second century BCE. There are many later books (various books of Enoch, the book of Jubilees), but they were never part of the Hebrew Bible.

How do we know that the Hebrew Bible really goes back to such ancient times—might it not have been totally corrupted over such a long time?

JB: We have no complete manuscript of the whole Hebrew Bible before the eleventh century CE (the ‘Leningrad Codex’). But among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between the second century BCE and the first century CE, there are substantial parts of almost all the biblical books. These differ from the Leningrad Codex in many points of detail, but they are quite obviously the same books, and hardly diverge in any major ways. This confirms that the Bible was transmitted carefully by scribes, at least from the second century BCE onwards. There is every reason to think that such care goes back even before that.

John Barton is the Oriel and Laing Professor Emeritus of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. His many books include Reading the Old Testament; Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile; and The Nature of Biblical Criticism. His most recent book is The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion.

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.