November 13, 2013 | 12:49 pm

# Biblical numbers, mathematics and attributed patriarchal ages

Posted by Roger Price

Patriarchal age equations
Photo credit: R. Price

The Hebrew Bible is filled with numbers. There are different kinds of numbers -- cardinals and ordinals, integers and fractions, even primes. And they are everywhere in the Torah text.

There are numbers for days and numbers for life spans.

There are numbers for populations and numbers for the duration of events.

There are numbers for the measurement of quantities and numbers for the sizes of objects and areas.

There are numbers for the duration of events.

And there are numbers for a host of seemingly mundane things, such as the number of visitors and the number of palm trees.

Some Biblical numbers are curiously round. For instance, Noah reportedly was 500 years old when his son Shem was born, and 600 when the great Flood occurred. Shem was, then, 100 years old at the time of the Flood, and he died 500 years later at age 600.

And Isaac married Rebekah at age 40, became a father of twins at age 60 and was 100 when Esau was married. He died at age 180.

Some Biblical numbers are identical and strangely coincidental. The rain that created the Flood for Noah lasted 40 days and nights. That is the same number of days and nights that Moses reportedly spent on Mount Sinai on each of two occasions to receive the tablets engraved with the teachings and the commandments.

Other numbers appear hyperbolic and incredible. The Bible states that Jacob’s descendants consisted of 70 individuals when the family entered Egypt. After centuries of involuntary servitude, the number of adult males that left Egypt with Moses is asserted to be about 600,000.  Including wives, concubines and children, the total number of those leaving must have been in the millions. Understood literally, the number seems absurdly large.

When we encounter numbers in the Bible, what are we to do with them? Are all or some of the numbers to be taken literally or is one or more of them to be understood symbolically? And how can we tell which numbers fall into which category? Do we have a collection of essentially random numbers? Or, are there patterns that provide information, suggest meaning, or, maybe, reveal secrets?

Of all the number puzzles in the Bible, perhaps none is more intriguing than the longevity of the generations from Adam though Moses.  Using a variety of approaches, scholars and others have long considered the numbers found in the Bible. They have speculated fancifully in an effort to make sense of some of them. With perhaps rare exceptions, though, these efforts have not been particularly satisfying, leaving the original problem, as the mathematician Lewis Carroll had Alice say in a different context, “curiouser and curiouser!” (See Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Ch. 2.))

The data

Let’s look at the data first.  According to the Torah text (meaning here the Masoretic text), there were 10 generations from Adam to Noah, inclusive. There were another 10 generations after Noah and to Abraham, inclusive.  Coincidence?

The life spans recorded in the Bible for the first group are as follows: Adam (930), Seth (912), Enos (905), Cainan (910), Mahlaleel (895), Jared (962), Enoch (365), Methuselah (969), Lamech (777) and Noah (950). The life spans recorded for the second group, exclusive of Terah’s son Abraham, are as follows: Shem (600), Arphaxad (438), Salah (433), Eber (468), Peleg (239), Reu (239), Serug (230), Nahor (148) and Terah (205).

Looking at the three primary patriarchs separately, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived 175, 180 and 147 years respectively. Parenthetically, the only life span we have for a matriarch is that for Sarah, who died at age 127.

Finally, while at one point the Bible states that Jacob’s descendants were in Egypt for 430 years (see Ex. 12:40-41), the book of Exodus records just four generations from Jacob to Moses. Jacob’s son Levi lived 137 years, Levi’s son Kohath lived 133 years and Kohath’s son Amram lived 137 years. (Ex. 6:16, 6:18, 6:20.) Moses, who was Amram’s son and, therefore, Jacob’s great-great grandson, lived 120 years. (Deut. 34:7; see also, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (URJ Press 2005), at 383 n. 20.)

What, if anything, do these 26 numbers tell us?

Attempts to explain Biblical ages

Even a quick review suggests that the life spans of the first group of Biblical humanity was reasonably consistent within a relatively narrow range of 895-969 years, with the notable exceptions of the seventh generation descendant Enoch and Noah’s father, Lamech.  As a general matter, the life spans of the second group, and through Moses, then continued on a downward slope. The first three individuals after Shem lived between 433 and 468 Biblical years, and the next three lived in a reduced range of 230 to 239 Biblical years. After Terah, no Biblical personality is indicated to have lived in excess of 200 years.

Rabbinic sages of the past accepted the reported ages as accurate. To explain the longevity of Adam, one noted that Adam was made in God’s image and therefore physically perfect. Adam’s immediate descendants were similarly vigorous. To explain the decline after the Flood, one sage suggested that the Earth’s atmosphere deteriorated. Another opined that the people faced a harsher climate after the post-Babel dispersion. (See The Chumash (Stone Ed. Mesorah 1993) at 25, 51 n. 19.) There is, unfortunately, no actual evidence to support such speculation, no way to test any of these propositions.

A more modern and purely mathematical analysis of the numbers by Charles A. Glatt, Jr. concludes that the longevity of the individuals from Noah to Joseph (and then to Moses) declined in a manner consistent with base e exponential decay (where e = 2.718 . . .).  (See Glatt, “Patriarchal Life Span Exponential Decay by Base e,” at www.ldolphin.org/lifespans.pdf.) Base e is a rate of growth (or decay) that appears to exist commonly in nature in continuing processes. If Glatt’s analysis is solid, then it would not only provide a naturalistic explanation for the reduction of the life spans studied, but might also impart some credence to the ages themselves.

Glatt used the ages of 14 individuals from Noah through Joseph, inclusive, as the raw data for his study. He claims that ten of the fourteen data points fall with one estimate of the standard deviation and the other four come within two standard deviations. (Id. at 9.)  While the author concedes that his equation does not work if extended to today, he does argue that it “does fit the data for the 1500 years from the flood to Moses . . . .”  He reaches this conclusion by looking at the calculated lifespan for the time in which Moses lived (said by Glatt to be 2,580 years after Adam) which yields 68 years, and he implies a consistency with the 70 year lifespan asserted in Psalm 90, the Psalm of Moses. (Id.)

Initially, there is a general concern with Glatt and his analysis. His bona fides are not evident. He provides no background information so that his qualifications can be checked and no contact information so that he may be called upon to respond to inquiries. His paper is not even dated. Still, treating the analysis as it appears, is Glatt on to something, or he is merely trying to squeeze a result out of the data?

There are both general and specific questions to be asked here. As a general matter, why is decay analysis an appropriate form of investigation of population ages? Isn’t this sort of exponential analysis more suited to radioactive decay, interest calculations or the growth of crystals or populations? And if decay analysis is appropriate generally, are fourteen data points really enough information on which to base a serious study?

There are specific issues, as well. One major error appears to be in the time frame used by Glatt. He has Terah born in 1879 AC (After Creation, sometimes Anno Mundi) and Terah’s son Abraham born in 2009 AC, when Terah would have been 130 years old.  (Id. at 8.) According to Gen. 11:26, however, Terah was 70 years old at Abraham’s birth, meaning that Abraham was born in 1948 AC. All subsequent dates are erroneous as well. (For a traditional chronology and timeline, see The Chumash, above, at 53.)

Two other problems relate to the predicted and the reported duration of Moses’ life. First, and most simply, according to the Torah text, as noted above, Moses lived to be 120 years old. Glatt makes no effort in his study to address that number or relate it to his study. Second, Glatt does not explain how he reached either the 2,580 year number for “after Adam to Moses” or the 1,500 year number “from the flood to Moses.” Moreover, if Adam died in 930 AC, then according to Glatt Moses would have been alive in 3,510 AC, but if Moses were alive 1,500 years after the Flood, which occurred in 1656 AC, then he was alive in 3,156 AC.  Not only are those results inconsistent, if the current count of years after Biblical creation comes to 5774, then both of Glatt’s timeframes place Moses much closer to the common era than seems justified.

Glatt’s real focus, though, is from Noah to Joseph. Within that range, though, Glatt does not express any opinion as to why the numbers seem to fall in line with his equation. Is he simply noting or claiming implicitly claiming that a natural phenomenon was at work. Or is he implicitly contending that supernatural activity was involved? Regardless of the answers to these questions, if one accepts the notion that base e decay was at work, how does Glatt explain why there are any deviations from the path predicted by the decay equation?

Finally, and despite the obvious decline in life spans, the raw numbers in group 2, and through Moses, still seem high. After all, the ages at the respective deaths of the fourteen identified individuals, Glatt’s data points, never fall below 110. Other than an unsupported statement (at 3), that “a global longevity of around 100 years is historically recorded in Egypt around the time of Joseph,” Glatt does not provide any information on life spans generally for populations 3,000-5,000 years ago.

Of course, accepting the accuracy of the given numbers, whether done so by rabbis centuries ago or mathematicians today, is problematic at another level. It avoids, even precludes, the possibility that the numbers we read or hear mean something other than what they appear to mean.

In connection with the antediluvian life spans recorded in the Bible, the editors of The Torah: A Modern Commentary, published by the Union for Reform Judaism, refer to the Metonic Cycle, a relationship of the solar and lunar cycles bearing the name of an Athenian astronomer Meton in the 5th century BCE, but, apparently, recognized long before him. The Meton Cycle is premised on the equivalence in time of 235 lunar cycles and 19 solar years. The editors then note that certain life spans of the ancient aged, like Methuselah’s 969 years and Noah’s 950, are divisible by 19. Under this approach, Methuselah lived 51 Meton Cycles and Noah lived 50. (See The Torah: A Modern Commentary, above, at 42.)

But what good is this information? If it is meant to suggest a formula by which we can devise the true age of these Biblical individuals, then it does bring the numbers down to an area where we are more comfortable, but applying the formula creates other problems.  Noah was 500 Biblical years old, or 26.3 Metonic Cycles, when he fathered Shem, but Methuselah was 187 Biblical years old when his son Lamech was born. Was Methuselah just under 10 in Metonic Cycles? What about Mahalaleel who was 65 biblical years old when his son Jared was born? That comes to just over 3 Metonic Cycles.

Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto (1883-1951 CE) was the director of the Rabbinic Seminary in Florence Italy and, starting in 1939, chair of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Cassuto has argued generally that it is not possible to comprehend Torah without reference to Israel’s neighbors. More specifically, he has contended that the ancient chronologies, and the use of numbers generally in the Bible, cannot be understood without reference to the sexagesimal system which prevailed in ancient Mesopotamia, often supplemented with the use of the number 7 or some multiple of it. (See generally, Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (Magnes,  Eng. Ed., 1961), at 1,7, 192-93, 258-62; From Noah to Abraham (Magnes, Eng. Ed., 1964), at  255, 257-62.)

The sexagesimal system placed great emphasis on the number 6 and extensions of that number, including 60, 600, 6,000, 60,000 and 600,000. Fractions and multiplications of those numbers were also important. So, if 60 was a value, then 2 times 60, or 120, was even more special.

The numbers 5 and 7 were also important. According to Cassuto, 5 years was the equivalent of 60 months. The number 5 factored, i.e., the product of 1 times 2 times 3 times 4 times 5 turns out to be 120. The number 7 was considered an ideal or perfect number, one that was a sign of totality or completeness. (See Cassuto, above, From Adam to Noah, at 12-17, 191-92, 243, 256, 258-62, 276; see also, Gen. 2:1-3.) The number 7 appears by itself hundreds of times in a wide variety of contexts, and as an additional element or factor, such as 17 or 77, in scores more.

For Cassuto, then, the years listed in Genesis for the first 10 generations, with two special and explainable exceptions, can be divided into two groups, one where the ages end in 5 or a multiple of 5 and another where seven has been added to such a number.  As he notes, the reported life spans of six of the first ten individuals identified from Adam through Noah end either in 5 or a multiple of 5 which yields an end number of 0. Two more ages fit the pattern if 7 is added. Methuselah’s age of 969 requires the addition of 2 times 7 to conform, perhaps further underscoring the exceptional importance of his age.

The two individuals whose ages do not fit the main pattern are, to Cassuto, the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. Methuselah’s father, Enoch, lived only 365 years. The age 365 can be viewed as special in at least three different ways. It may refer to the number of days in a solar year.  It may be seen special under the sexagesimal system, being the total of 6 times 60 plus 5. It is also a schematic number, the sum of 102 plus 112 plus 122. We do not know what the number denotes in this particular instance, but it does not seem merely coincidental that this 7th generation person was singled out for special treatment. Lamech’s age of 777, as described in Torah at Gen 5:31, is seven and seventy years and seven hundred years, an obvious emphasis on the ideal number 7, and, again, more likely symbolic than factual.

The ages of the second group of individuals, from Shem through Abraham do not fall so neatly into Cassuto’s system. Shem at 600 does and so does Terah at 205, but the others do not. Perhaps, as with Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the hound of the Baskervilles, the clue is in the absence, rather than the presence, of something expected. Here, perhaps, the failure of the numbers to end in a 5 or a 0 signals that the member of this group are not as special or deserving as the original group of 10.

The primary patriarchs

What happens when we reach the ages of the three primary patriarchs? As set forth above, the life spans recorded for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are 175, 180 and 147, respectively.   Each number falls neatly within Cassuto’s analysis. The numbers 175 and 180 end in 5 and 0, respectively, and 147 reflects an addition of 7 to the product of 2 times 70.

Not incidentally, the approach works for the matriarch Sarah, as well. Torah tells us that Sarah died at age 127, which is 2 times 60 (a good sexagesimal number) plus 7. If 120 was an honorific number, then 127 was even more so.

The ages of the three primary patriarchs are, however, also part of a sequence, and a unique one at that. As illustrated by Nahum Sarna, each number in the sequence is the product of a number squared multiplied by another number. And the numbers involved follow in two clear descending and ascending orders. So, 175 = 7 times 52, 180 = 5 times 62, and 147 = 3 time 72. (See Sarna, Understanding Genesis (Schocken 1970), at 84.) That formula can be extended in two directions, resulting in 144 for 9 times 42 and 64 for 1 times 82. No patriarch or other biblical personage is assigned either number, however, underscoring how special were the ages attributed to the primary patriarchs.

In his marvelous review of Genesis, then University of Chicago Professor Leon Kass added, no pun intended, that the sum of the three equations is identical. That is, 5 plus 5 plus 7 is the same as 6 plus 6 plus 5 which equals 7 plus 7 plus 3. Each total is 17.  As to what possible significance this could be, Kass says, however:  “I have no idea.” (Kass, Beginning of Wisdom (Free Press 2003), at 629 n.18.)

And there lies the rub. We are so removed from the mathematical considerations that even when we think we can identify some of the signals, we cannot determine where they point. The number 17 is, of course, a prime number, one not divisible by any number other than itself and 1. Moreover, it is the 7th prime number after 1, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 13. It is also the sum of 7 and 10, the latter also considered a number of ordinal perfection.

The number 17 occurs in interesting and varied contexts. For instance, after he was born, Joseph lived with his father Jacob for 17 years until he was sold to the Ishmaelites or, alternatively, the Midianites. Later, Jacob lived with Joseph in Egypt for 17 years until he died. (See Gen. 37:2, 25-28, 47:28.) Further, the life span of Levi, another of Jacob’s son, was 137, which is the sum of 120 and 17.

Attributed ages were neither random nor fanciful

But what, if anything, is there here beyond coincidences and parallelisms? We do not know for sure. (Accord, Andrew P. Kvasnica, “The Ages of the Antediluvian Patriarchs in Genesis 5” (2005), at 4, 6 at www.bible.org/article/ages-antediliuvian-patriarchs-genesis-5.)

What we do know, though, and what is important to know, is that the attributed ages of the primary patriarchs, are neither random nor mere numbers to be located as data points on a line. They are numbers, whether products or sums, which suggest an intent by the author or editor of the text to convey something important about the three primary patriarchs, their distinctiveness from all others and their relationship to each other.

A few final points need be made. First, this discussion has been limited to numbers that appear in the Masoretic text. There are some different numbers that appear in the Greek Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch.  (See Cassuto, From Adam to Noah, above, at 264-65; From Noah to Moses, above, at 258-59.)

Second, Cassuto was not a disinterested academic. In addition to desiring to show what Torah text meant to those who first heard it, he was interested in demonstrating that the text of Genesis was part of a unified whole, rather than a collection of writings of different authors as postulated by the documentary hypothesis of higher biblical criticism. (See, e.g.,  Cassuto, From Adam to Noah, above, at 94, 193.)

Nevertheless his insights cannot be denied. Sarna concludes that “the biblical chronologies of the patriarchal age are not intended to be accurate historical records in our sense of the term.” (Exploring Genesis, above, at 84.) Rather, they “fall within the scope of historiosophy, or philosophy of history, rather than historiography.” (Id.) In this view, they tell us less about actual time intervals than about the ideas of Biblical import. Numerical symmetry or harmony is not a matter of coincidence among random events, but a signal of importance, and a sign of presumed divine control and direction. (Id. at 85.)

Lastly, whoever wrote or redacted the Hebrew Bible was more than a drafter of national history, a recorder or developer of laws and mores and a masterful storyteller. He, she or they also had a real competency with mathematics. We do not yet understand the signals, or even whether they were theologically purposeful or narrative drivers or both, but they are clearly there, mean something and deserve serious and further consideration.

A version of this article was previously published in www.judaismandscience.com.

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October 23, 2013 | 1:02 pm

# To frack or not to frack: is that a Jewish question?

Posted by Roger Price

Did you know that fracking, the industrial process of extracting natural gas from shale rock is treif, that it violates Jewish values? Who knew? You could read the entire Torah, study the Mishnah and Gemara too, go through the commentaries of the rationalist Maimonides and the more mystical Nachmanides, and review Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch and you will never once see the technology discussed, much less the word uttered. And yet, there are Jewish individuals and organizations that insist that fracking is so contrary to Jewish values that it must be banned.

What is fracking anyhow?

Before we drill down a bit into the Jewish aspects of these arguments, let’s take a moment to review some basic facts about fracking. Hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking or fracking) is a method of drilling for gas trapped in shale rock formations deep in the earth. The process has been utilized in the United States for over sixty years, but recent advances in technology have both led to new discoveries of huge reservoirs, or basins, of potentially recoverable natural gas in a large number of areas across the continental United States and allowed gas drillers to go deeper into the ground and also farther horizontally to recover that gas.

The process itself is messy. It requires the injection of highly pressurized water, combined with 1% of other materials such as sand, plastic balls and chemicals, through a pipe thousands of feet underground and into a shale rock formation. The infusion cracks the rock or expands existing cracks, releasing natural gas, and perhaps other items, which had accumulated naturally in the shale. The natural gas then can flow back up the pipe to the wellhead.

Today fracking is often accomplished in conjunction with horizontal drilling which allows for greater access to a vertical shale formation and therefore a more extensive and economical frack. Brian Ellis, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, discusses the process here.

Modern fracking has had a dramatic effect on energy development in the United States, both on an absolute basis and in terms of the allocation of energy resources in America. According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), domestic production of shale gas has increased nine fold from 2006 to 2012. (See here, at 3/14.) Moreover, the EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2013 projects shale gas to be the leading source of gas production in the U.S.  over the next several decades, and natural gas’ share of the power generating market is expected to increase as well. (At 5, 79/233.) By contrast, solar, wind, biomass and other renewable sources, while projected to increase, will still remain relatively small contributors to America’s energy supply in the foreseeable future.  (At 75/233.)

In addition, according to EIA, because natural gas is mostly methane, it has a relatively high energy content when compared to other fuel sources and emits a relatively low amount of carbon dioxide per energy content. In that sense it is better for the environment than heating oil and much better than coal. Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel credits fracking with lowering emissions of carbon dioxide in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012, plus providing a host of other benefits, including job creation and lower vulnerability to global oil shocks. Similarly, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that “(r)esponsible  development of America’s shale gas resources offers important economic, energy security, and environmental benefits.”

Why do some Jews object to fracking?

So, if natural gas from fracking is plentiful, cheap and better for the environment, and also enhances energy security and independence for the United States, who could possibly be against it and why?  Let’s consider a few of the objections.

Rabbi David Seidenberg argues that fracking is “a danger to the well-being of the planet” and, moreover, “(c)onflicts with Kabbalah,” a mystical approach to Judaism. Seidenberg notes that in Kabbalah, water is “the very symbol of blessing and life,” and asserts that “water that stays in that fracked rock is deprived of fulfilling its deepest purpose.”

The appropriately named Jews Against Hydrofracking (JAH), founded by Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, also sees fracking as a “destructive practice” and seeks to ban it. In one of her essays, Dr. Goldsmith, who is not a medical doctor but is an environmental psychologist, argues that Jews should be sensitive to the “ethical implications of hydrofracking.” Her  case begins with the proposition that “We [Jews] value life above all else . . . .”

The JAH website also has a section called “Jewish Perspectives.” One essay refers to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a deep river flowing eastward out of a rebuilt Temple 2500 years ago, creating a new Garden of Eden. (See Ezek. 47:1-12.) To the author, “(f)racking is a transgression against God’s Creation, delaying the redemption of the world.” He understands access to clean water to be “a basic human right,” one that is impaired by fracking, among “other things,” which uses a large amount of fresh water.

The more established Religious Action Center (RAC), an arm of the Reform movement, acknowledges that natural gas is often seen as a cleaner source of energy than other fossil fuels “because it produces 43 percent less carbon emissions than coal for each unit of energy delivered, and 30 percent less emissions than oil.” Nevertheless, it urges that fracking not be permitted until “we can confirm that (the process) poses no danger to our communities . . . .” (Emphasis supplied.) In its discussion of Jewish values and fracking, RAC refers to the calling in Genesis to “till and tend God’s Earth” and the Midrash that notes that no one will be present to repair the damage if we fail to do so. (See Gen. 2:15; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13.) RAC adds that “(t)he Talmudic law of Bal Tashchit, do not destroy, derived from Deuteronomy 20:19 paired with our ‘till and tend’ mandate, emphasizes the need to act as  guardians” of the environment.

That three opponents of fracking assert that their opposition is premised on Jewish values, but do not agree as to which principles are applicable, suggests that something is amiss in the argument that fracking is clearly treif. Whether taken separately or collectively, however, the Jewish aspect of these arguments is neither conclusive nor, really, even persuasive, except perhaps to those predisposed to the conclusion.

For example, the contribution of the Kabbalah to a serious discussion of fracking issues seems quite limited. The Zohar, a major work of Kabbalah first disclosed in the 13th century, but purporting to be of much older origins, understands the universe to consist of four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water, each of which is seen as imbued with a spiritual dimension. Whether inadvertent or not, Seidenberg acknowledges that this approach is how “the natural world is imagined in Kabbalah . . . .” (Emphasis supplied.) But imaginative musings, however inventive, and however instructive they may be in other circumstances or for other purposes, are not the firmest of foundations for an ethical stance to be applied in the world as it truly exists.

JAH’s assertion that Jews value life above all else taps into an older and deeper Jewish value system, but as stated goes too far and undermines JAH’s credibility. JAH refers to no source in the Jewish tradition for its sweeping statement that Jews value life “above all else,” and, as written, it is not accurate as a matter of theory or in practice.  For instance, rabbinic tradition  (Sanhedrin 74a) has long taken the position that death is preferable to committing idolatry, murder, incest and adultery. And today, studies show that most Jews in America countenance taking the life of an unborn fetus in all or most circumstances.  Jewish tradition places a high value on life, to be sure. But it is not absolute.

JAH’s reference to Eden does not help its argument either.  Just as Dorothy came to understand that she was not in Kansas anymore, so too must those who seek to restrain the exploitation of natural resources understand that we that we do not now live in Eden and, in fact, never did. Nor, indeed, should we want to do so. To the contrary, we should embrace knowledge whether from a tree, the ground or elsewhere.

Nor is a vision of a mythical river extending from a once desired temple (which I doubt the author wants rebuilt) a reasonable metaphor for the present.  The worthwhile effort to protect limited fresh water supplies is too serious a matter to be subject to such irrelevant references.  To be plausible, reasonable water protection and conservation policies must address the actual and complex social and economic situations they seek to affect.

RAC’S reminder of traditional calls to till and tend the land and be guardians of the environment are, no pun intended, well grounded in the tradition. The problem here is whether those principles are applicable, and, if so, how they are to be applied. RAC expresses concern about “the safety of our clean water supply, radioactive chemicals present in the Marcellus Shale, and the chemicals used in natural gas extraction.”  The concerns are fair. Let’s have a reality check.

What are the alleged risks of fracking?

RAC states that fracking “threatens to release” naturally occurring radioactive chemicals, creates a “risk” of exposure to the chemicals used in the fracking process and implies that the fracking might contaminate clean water. To drive home the unqualified nature of its position, RAC would require that that communities be assured “that radioactivity present in the rock and the chemicals used in gas extraction have absolutely no possibility of contaminating our clean water supply.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Radioactivity is pretty scary stuff in general, and there is no doubt that radioactive isotopes such as radium 226 and 228 are found in association with shale. Indeed, exploitable shale deposits are often discovered by the presence of such isotopes. But the mere presence of such isotopes does not necessarily indicate a health hazard, and RAC does not cite a single incident of the release of radioactive chemicals due to fracking in all of the years and all of the places fracking has occurred. To the contrary, tests of water used in fracking in the Marcellus basin in Pennsylvania found no evidence of levels of radioactivity that would adversely affect the public.

Moreover, if RAC’s requirement of complete assurance of risk free activity were applied consistently to manufacturing processes and the provision of services, there would be precious little, if any, innovation or even conventional  manufacturing or delivery of goods and services.  Risk free living is neither realistic nor even reasonable. The farming and preparation of food products sometimes cause illness. We still eat.  Ingestion of pharmaceuticals can cause adverse reactions. We still take pills. Traveling on cruise ships can expose us to viruses. We still sail. The important question is not whether there is a risk of harm or contamination (though that is a fair question), but how serious the risk is and whether it can be managed. Experience teaches that radioactivity is not a real problem.

Anti-frackers also raise two arguments with respect to water.  One concerns the chemicals involved and the other the amount of fresh water used in the process.

Rabbi Seidenberg , for instance, asserts that the water used in the fracking process contains “poison,” and that the water which returns to the surface after fracking is “lethal and extremely difficult to treat.” The assertion is supported by no details whatsoever. Let’s assume though that some of the chemicals used by some of the drillers can, in certain concentrations, be considered toxic. That circumstance still would not compel a conclusion that as actually used in the field those chemicals are dangerous. Indeed, given the number of fracked wells in operation, and the duration of fracking in the U.S., if fracking was as poisonous and lethal as Seidenberg contends (albeit without any supporting scientific study), one would expect to hear by now of increased disease and death resulting from the process.  We haven’t. Again, a recent study suggests that the fear mongering is unwarranted. Preliminary results of a year-long study by the federal Department of Energy regarding drinking water at a western Pennsylvania drilling site found no evidence of chemical contamination due to fracking.

The fair conclusion, based on the evidence to date, is that whatever known risks exist are being managed appropriately. Rather than banning fracking, requiring disclosure of chemicals used, implementing appropriate safeguards, and monitoring the process seems more reasonable.

JAH contends that fracking squanders limited water resources. There is no doubt that fracking uses large quantities of water, perhaps millions of gallons a water for each frack. But fracking is hardly the largest user of fresh water. Again, data and context are important. A Penn State hydrogeologist reportedly noted that natural gas exploitation in Pennsylvania utilizes 1.9 million gallons of water a day (MGD). That’s a lot, but the usage pales in comparison to the 62 MGD used by livestock, the 96 MGD used in other mining activity and the 770 MGA used in other industrial processes. As a percentage of the 9.5 billion gallons of water used daily in Pennsylvania, fracking’s share is less than two one-hundredths of one percent.

Even one of JAH’s Torah Perspectives acknowledges that there are multiple causes of potential fresh water shortages – “the rapid increase in world population,” “an increase in contaminated water from human effluents,” “an increase in the rate of water consumption per capita,” and “(m)odern agricultural methods, power generation and industrial use.” But JAH is not calling for population limits, a return to pre-modern agriculture or a reduction in power generation and industry.  Consequently, its singular focus on fracking reflects limited science, and even undermines its purported seriousness about preserving fresh water.

In short, arguments against fracking based on water usage and contamination have not yet been supported by any objective study and have been refuted by others. Hyperbolic claims cannot overcome stubborn facts.

What about fracking and economics?

While the eco-warriors rail against fracking, they tend to avoid one eco issue – that of economics.  As Gary Becker, a University of Chicago professor and Nobel Laureate in economics, pointed out last year, because the cost of fracking became so competitive (1) most domestic natural gas production now comes from fracking and (2) the price of natural gas per BTU has fallen dramatically. But economic realities do not seem to affect those whose preconceived narrative does not allow for them.

Rabbi Seidenberg does not tell us how the Kaballah would address either micro- or macro-economic issues, whether domestic or international.

Dr. Goldsmith at least has an economic argument and it is straightforward. “(I)t makes no sense,” she says “to invest in new infrastructure for outdated fossil fuels when we could put the same money into renewables.” But who are “we,” what “same money” is she talking about, and why does she think “we” “could”? Apparently Dr. Goldsmith believes that energy sources are fungible in the production of process and that the demand for them is also quite insensitive to price, i.e., inelastic.  The bases for any such beliefs are not evident. Perhaps some would be willing to bet on and pay for more expensive solar panels and windmills instead of proven technology that delivers energy in an economical and thoroughly reliable fashion. Most Americans don’t have that luxury, though, and just want cheap, dependable energy.

For its part, RAC concedes that “ninety percent of new natural gas wells utilize” fracking, but would still place an unprecedented burden on fracking drillers. If adopted, the logical consequence of RAC’s position would be to diminish the domestic production of natural gas which in turn would not only  condemn America to use even more coal and oil than it does presently, but to do so at a greater financial cost than would be incurred were the supply of gas not artificially restricted. RAC also does not explain how a goal of guarding the environment is served by greater use of more expensive and dirtier sources of energy than natural gas.

Do all Jews oppose fracking?

Not all Jews or Jewish organizations oppose fracking. Support comes from multiple directions, and subject to a variety of conditions.

Referring to the significant reduction in imported oil due to fracking, the American Jewish Committee recently noted its approval of the current use of fracking “under regulations that make it as safe as possible.” (At 13/23.) Similarly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs recognizes that fracking could reduce energy costs and create jobs. It calls for a number of reasonable safeguards to protect the environment and public health. Nationally prominent Jews like Malcolm Hoenlein, Sandy Eisenstat and Neil Goldstein, through the Council for a Secure America, as well as less known individuals, like the Libertarian Jew, also advocate fracking. Some Jewish camps have even leased some of their property to drillers.

Conclusion

The problem with opposing fracking on Jewish principles is not that fracking is not mentioned in the Torah or Talmud. Jewish tradition is organic and can adapt to new circumstances. The problem is that the opponents to date have not made a compelling case based on those principles. Rather, they assumed a burden they then failed to meet. Instead, they have relied on quote mining for selected Jewish adages, aphorisms and irrelevant fables and metaphors, which is not persuasive advocacy in complex matters of science, technology, economics and societal well-being. Worse, inappropriately waving the tikkun olam flag diminishes the importance of the idea and the impact of the approach.

University of Michigan chemical engineering professor Johannes Schwank characterizes fracking as a “remarkable feat of engineering.” He also recognizes it to be an imperfect process, and there are abundant reasons for concern and caution about fracking, just as there are for many industrial activities in which we do or might engage. Further experience and studies may reveal facts that call for a reevaluation and increased regulation of what currently appears to be not only a cost-effective and relatively beneficial process, but one that is safe when performed properly. Until that time, however, fear should not trump facts. Fracking is a multi-dimensional issue which requires rigorous analysis. Let’s all act accordingly.

A version of this article appeared previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

September 24, 2013 | 9:01 am

# What if Cyrus had not freed the Jews?

Posted by Roger Price

The Cyrus Cylinder
Credit: R. Price

Over twenty-five centuries ago, Cyrus II, founder and ruler of the Persian Empire, freed the Jews who had been transported forcibly to Babylon and facilitated the reconstruction of their Temple in Jerusalem. Without the intervention of Cyrus, the Jewish People and Judaism as we know it (if that is not redundant) would not exist today. In short, no Cyrus, no Jews. So who was Cyrus, and why aren’t we celebrating his actions?

Cyrus was born into the royal family of the small state of Anshan, located in what is now southwest Iran. Not long after becoming king of Anshan around 559 BCE, Cyrus first conquered nearby Media (550 BCE) and then turned west to capture Lydia (546 BCE) in what is now western Turkey. Next, he shocked the world by toppling the previously dominant empire of Babylonia (539 BCE). Whether his victory after a multi-year siege of the capital Babylon was more the result of brilliant tactics, Babylonian palace treason or some other factor can be debated, but it is crystal clear that Cyrus emerged from Babylon triumphant. And with this victory, Cyrus became ruler of, among other lands, the territory bordering and east of the Mediterranean Sea to and surrounding the Jordan River.

During his approximate thirty year reign (559-530 BCE), the Persian Empire extended from the Indus river on the east to Thrace at the northeast border of Greece. Enlarged by his son-in-law and successor, Cambyses II (r. ~530-522 BCE), and subsequent emperors, the Persian Empire at one point stretched farther than any previous empire, and encompassed vast swaths of Asia, plus sections of  Africa and Europe. Some estimate that at its height, over two of every five persons on Earth were under its protection and control. This empire lasted for over two hundred years, until 332 BCE when Alexander III of Macedon conquered Persia. For his triumphs and his traits, Cyrus II is known as Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus was no ordinary military victor. Within a year of his success in Babylon, Cyrus issued a proclamation which was inscribed using Akkadian cuneiform script on a clay cylinder approximately 9 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. The issuance of a proclamation was not, in and of itself, unusual. There was, apparently, a tradition of new rulers in Mesopotamia (today, Iraq) announcing their conquests and plans at the outset of their ascendance.  So it was not surprising when Cyrus, after his conquest, claimed to be not only king of Babylon, Sumer and Akkad, but king “of the four corners of the world.”

What sets apart the contents of the Cyrus Cylinder is Cyrus’s declaration that the peoples previously conquered by Babylon were free to return to their homelands and his encouragement that they rebuild their destroyed temples. Said Cyrus: ". . . I sent back to their places to . . . the sanctuaries across the river Tigris – whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, . . . ."

Among the people allowed to return and rebuild were the Judahites, whose kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and whose royal family and cultural elite, among others, were deported to Babylon in a set of forced population transfers primarily around  597 and 587 BCE.

To understand the impact of Cyrus’s declaration for the Jewish People, one has to remember what preceded their defeat and exile.  The people who claimed to be descendants of the patriarch Jacob and heirs to the tradition of Moses were for over two hundred years (beginning around 930 BCE) living in two kingdoms in the Middle East. The northern of these, the kingdom of Israel, extended from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea eastward across the Jordan River. The southern kingdom of Judah was entirely landlocked, in the hill country west of the Dead Sea. In 720 BCE, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians and the Israelites were deported or dispersed. Essentially, ten tribes  were lost to history. The territory of the former kingdom was then repopulated with foreigners under the domination of Assyria.

Some from the northern kingdom sought refuge in the smaller and poorer kingdom to the south. Judah and its capital Jerusalem grew rapidly and in strength, but Judah’s geographic location put it squarely in the sights of the Egyptians to the southwest and the Assyrians to the northeast, as if the smaller groups that surrounded it, such as the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites and Amorites, were not contentious enough.

In the summer of 609 BCE, as Egypt swept north, perhaps to join the Assyrians against the Babylonians, the reform leader of Judah, King Josiah, was killed in a skirmish at Megiddo. The Egyptians also deposed and imprisoned Josiah’s son and heir, Jehoahaz, and replaced him with another son, Jehoiakim. (See 2 Kings 23:33-37.) The Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Assyrians in the battle at Carchemish (Northern Syria, today) around 605 BCE, and turned their attention to the south.  Judah became a vassal state of Babylonia. (See 2 Kings 24:1.)

After a few years, Johoiakim rebelled against Babylonia, but as the fighting ensued, Jehoiakim died and his son, Jehoiachin, became king. (See 2 Kings 24:6-8.) In and around 597 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzer conquered Jerusalem, carried away King Jehoiachin and absconded with treasures from the royal palace and the Judahite Temple. (See 2 Kings 24:12-25:8.)The Hebrew Bible reports the numbers inconsistently, but perhaps up to 10,000 Judahites, mostly commanders and warriors, but also notables and skilled workers, were also forcibly taken to Babylon. (See 2 Kings 24:14-16.) Among these notables was a priest called Ezekiel. (See Ezek. 1:1-2.)

Josiah’s youngest son, Zedekiah, now ruled what remained. After he sought to align with Egypt and rebel against Babylonia, King Nebuchadnezzar responded savagely, attacking again around 589 BCE. After two years of war, the Babylonians breached the walls that were supposed to protect the city. They captured Zedekiah, forced him to watch his sons die and then blinded and carted him off to Babylon. (See 2 Kings 25:1-7.) Then they tore down the city’s walls, and burned down the Temple, the king’s palace and other main buildings and residences in Jerusalem. (See 2 Kings 25:7-17.) A second deportation followed. As the Bible says, “Thus Judah was exiled from its land.” (See 2 Kings 25:21; see also, 2 Chron. 36:1-21.)

The next governor, Gedaliah, was appointed by the Babylonians and attempted to govern from the Mizpah, just north of Jerusalem. He was assassinated, and the Bible reports that “all the people, young and old” were afraid of the Babylonians and fled to Egypt. (See 2 Kings 25:26.) In the immediate future, Judah was to be governed, ironically, from Samaria, the former capital of the late northern kingdom of Israel.

By the conclusion of the Babylonian effort, the national life of Judah was shredded. Everything from the political, tribal, royal and intellectual leadership to the real estate itself was affected. The physical devastation was total, the deportation and decimation of the population almost complete.  The capital and its economy were in ruins. Archeological evidence confirms much of the biblical story. (See Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge U. Press 2004), at 144.)

The despair of those in exile was palpable. The god of the Judahites had promised this particular land to them, and it was now no longer in their control. Further, the same god had promised that the people would be led by a king who was descended from the house of David, but the last king of Judah was a blinded prisoner in Babylon and his sons had been murdered. True, these were conditional promises, premised on the people’s fidelity to their god and their god’s commandments, laws, ordinances and regulations, but clearly something was fundamentally wrong. Either the Judahites had failed their god or their god had failed the Judahites.  So when the psalmist cried out “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion,” his anguish is entirely understandable. (See Psalm 137:1.)

Almost sixty years passed between the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE and Cyrus’s defeat of the seemingly impregnable Babylonians.  Early on, the prophet Jeremiah urged accommodation: “. . .  seek the peace of the city wither I have caused you to be carried away captives.” (Jer. 29:7) No doubt some of captured Judahites followed that advice and acclimated quite well to the opportunities presented in the capital of the world’s dominant power, with its towers and gardens and vibrant society and economy. And close to sixty years was surely more than enough time for two new generations to be born who had no direct recollection or knowledge of the old homeland.

Still, poets and prophets, among others, attempted to keep alive a national consciousness and the hope of return. A psalmist asked how the people could sing a song of the Lord on alien soil, adding “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” (See Psalm 137:4-5.) And Ezekiel envisioned Judah metaphorically as a collection of dry bones, into which God would breathe new life and fashion a people reunited and cleansed, with a new heart and a new spirit. (See Ezek. 36:24-27; 37:1-14.)

Consequently, when Cyrus took action which allowed the Judahites to go home, he was described in the most glowing terms by Judahite nationalists. Deutero-Isaiah mentioned Cyrus by name (Choresh, in Hebrew),  called him God’s “Moshiach,” the “anointed one,” a term usually reserved for a descendant of King David, and described the God of Israel speaking to Cyrus and referring to him endearingly as “my shepherd.” (See Isa. 44:28; 45:1-5.)

The Hebrew Bible contains a number of writings concerning what happened after Cyrus’s proclamation in 538 BCE.  These entries are found primarily in the biblical books of the priest Ezra, the court official Nehemiah, the prophets Haggai and Zachariah and the records of Second Chronicles. While not internally consistent, they portray a plausible, if embellished, version of what might have transpired.

According to the Book of Ezra, Cyrus understood that the Judahite Lord God of Heaven directed him to build a house for the Deity in Jerusalem, in Judah and he issued a decree. Said Cyrus:

Any one of you of all His people –may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of the Lord God of Israel, the God that is in Jerusalem; and all who stay behind , wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, besides the freewill-offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:2-4; see also 2 Chron. 36:22-23.)

Ezra then states that Cyrus designated Sheshbazzar, a “prince of Judah,” to go to Jerusalem to build the Temple, and that Cyrus returned the Temple vessels which Nebuchadnezzer had taken, including gold and silver bowls and basins. (See Ezra 1:7-11.) Ezra also reports that 42,360 individuals responded to the invitation to return to Jerusalem, and that their neighbors supported them. (See Ezra 2:64, 1:6.)

According to Ezra, those who returned set up an altar in Jerusalem, and the following year laid the foundation for a new temple.  (See Ezra 3:2-8.) Neighbors opposed the construction, however, and successfully secured an injunction against it. (See Ezra 4:4-24.) The returnees subsequently resumed construction anyway and then appealed to Cambyses’ successor, King Darius (r. ~ 522-486), who found a memorandum of Cyrus concerning the construction and ordered the governors of the province to assist in the construction. (See Ezra 5:1-6:12.) The Second Temple was completed in the Spring of the sixth year of Darius’s reign, either 516 or 515 BCE. (See Ezra 6:13-15.)

Decades later, the Persian Empire had a new monarch, King Artaxerxes I (r. ~ 465-424 BCE).  Artaxerxes appointed the priest Ezra “to regulate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God, which is in your care.” (See Ezra 7:14.) He also appointed another Judahite, Nehemiah, as his cup bearer, a position of trust and status. (See Nehemiah 1:11.) Subsequently, when Nehemiah sought permission from Artaxerxes to travel to Jerusalem, the King not only granted the request, but supported the mission with the appointment of Nehemiah as governor.  (See Neh. 2:4-9.) Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in 445 BCE, and focused on rebuilding the walls of the ancient city. (See Neh. 1:1, 2:17, 19, 4:1-6.)  Again some neighbors sought to undermine the project, but to no avail. (See Neh. 3:33-38, 6:1-19.) According to Nehemiah’s memoirs, Ezra brought the written Torah to Jerusalem and read it to the people, with the Levites translating and explaining. (See Neh. 8:1-8.) Ezra and Nehemiah both called for ethnic separateness and both  banned intermarriage. (See Ezra 9:1-2, 10:10-11; Neh. 13:1-3, 23-27.)

There are reasons for skepticism about the accuracy of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s memoirs. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah was an eye witness to Cyrus’s pronouncements, and there are inconsistencies in the texts. Nevertheless, this much seems clear: in or around 538 BCE Cyrus issued a proclamation which was inscribed on a clay cylinder and which allowed the Judahites to return to Judah and Jerusalem and live their lives consistent with their customs and beliefs. Some took advantage of the offer, ultimately rebuilt a second Temple and reinstated an active Jewish presence centered in and around the Temple. Temple-centric Judaism lasted until 70 CE when Roman legions led by Titus crushed a Jewish rebellion and destroyed Jerusalem and the renovated sanctuary.

Cyrus’s proclamation of 538 BCE was both unprecedented and historically unique. Certainly the Assyrians who destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, dispersed the indigenous population and repopulated the conquered land with allies were not as benevolent. Nor was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, whose scorched earth and deportation policy for Judah sought capitulation, rather than conciliation. The list can be extended for emperors grand and petty subsequent to Cyrus, from Alexander through Constantine to present times.

Cyrus was special, and but for his extraordinary approach, there would have been:

• no proclamation of return,
• no encouragement extended to facilitate a return to the native land,
• no repatriation of perhaps tens of thousands of individuals,
• no leadership appointed to guide the rebuilding of the Temple,
• no return of artifacts taken from the Temple,
• no rebuilding of the Temple,
• no chance for Nehemiah or someone like him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem to protect the people and the Temple,
• no security for Judah against its neighbors and enemies, and, critically,
• no people to whom or place to which Ezra, or anyone like him, could bring written documents containing the lore of and law for the Judahites or begin to refashion a community separate from their neighbors and reunite them with their land and their god.

Each of these factors was vital to the survival and success of the Jewish People. Conversely, without all of them the folkways of Judah would have become a distant memory, just as the customs of the northern kingdom became for its dispersed tribes and as they were becoming for the many Judahites who chose to remain in Babylon or who moved elsewhere.

For instance, had Cyrus merely stated that exiled peoples could return home, but did not encourage them to do so, how many fewer would have made the journey? If they made the journey, but were not provided safe passage along the way and security on arrival, how many would have survived? If treasures of the first Temple were not returned, would the second Temple have achieved any legitimacy? Even if some people returned and began to rebuild the Temple, but had no authorized leadership, would they have been successful in creating a new community? If they created a community, but there was no writing to remind them of their past and set forth national values, would there have been a firm enough foundation upon which to build a future?

Thanks to Cyrus, enough Judahites not only returned, they proceeded to conserve some core ancient precepts, reform others and reconstruct their shattered civilization. The father and daughter Oz have summarized the result this way: “The Babylonian returnees indeed reinvented Israel: a new temple, a new calendar, new laws against intermarriage, an enhanced particularism, a recently canonized bookshelf, and a new lineage of text-based scholarship.” (Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, jews and words (Yale 2013), at 164.) Moreover, as archeologist Israel Finkelstein and historian Neil Asher Silberman have observed: “This is also the moment in our story when we must change our terminology: the kingdom of Judah becomes Yehud – the Aramaic name of the province in the Persian empire – and the people of Judah, the Judahites, will henceforth be known as Yehudim, or Jews.” (Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Free Press 2001), at 297.)

Yet if it is true that but for Cyrus there would be no Judaism and no Jews today, why is not more attention paid to him? The man was extolled in the Hebrew Bible by the well regarded prophet Deutero-Isaiah and the esteemed priest Ezra, and more recently by Israeli founder and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on the 2500 anniversary of the Cyrus Cylinder, but Cyrus is hardly remembered, much less honored , today in the Jewish community.

Part of the answer may be that the ancient sages did not want to attribute such momentous consequences to a mere mortal, preferring to see the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple as evidence of God’s intervention and grace. But then, how do you justify the inclusion of the Purim story in the canon and the celebration of that holiday? Jews of all stripes seem to love the fictional story set in Shushan in modern day Iran and the holiday that celebrates it, even though God is never mentioned. And who can resist? You get to wear costumes, eat some triangular cookies, drink a lot of wine and cheer as the pretty Jewish girl and her uncle save the Jews who were threatened with extinction. But, again, why is a true story of Jewish emancipation, set in a similar geographic locale, given no recognition? Sure, Cyrus was an emperor, not a paragon of modern democratic values, but the failure to designate a time to honor Cyrus is a serious omission in the Jewish calendar.

The Cyrus Cylinder corroborates the core premise of the writings of Ezra, Nehemiah and others regarding the return from exile. In keeping with Mesopotamian tradition, the cylinder was used as a foundation deposit, and placed under the walls of Marduk’s temple in Babylon, there to remain until ruins were excavated in 1879 CE by archeologists and the cylinder was taken to the British Museum in London. Watch here for a TED lecture by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, discussing “2600 years of history in one object.” This year the Cyrus Cylinder has been on tour in the United States. The tour concludes in Los Angeles with an exhibition at The Getty Villa between Oct. 2 and Dec. 2, 2013. What a wonderful opportunity to see such an important piece of history, and give thanks to Cyrus the Great.

A version of this article was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

August 29, 2013 | 12:42 pm

# The other annual migration of North American Jews: to shul

Posted by Roger Price

Beth Emet, Evanston, IL
Credit: R. Price

The first of the two annual migrations of North American Jews began a couple of weeks ago, with thousands and thousands of young Jews heading to colleges across the continent. (See The annual migration of North American Jews to college.) The second seasonal migration of North American Jews is quite different. The population is generally older, sometimes much older, than the college bound migrants. Often, but not always, these relatively older adults are accompanied by young children.

This second migration, which begins soon, amounts to a pilgrimage. The distances travelled are generally shorter than the trips to college, sometimes much shorter. The older adults, whether singly, in pairs or in family groups, will go to some synagogue or temple, maybe even a hotel, a movie theatre or a church, but in any event to some location where other Jews are gathering to participate in High Holy Days services. For many, this will be the only time or two in the year in which they will engage in any religious or Jewish communal activity.

The 2012 Jewish Values Survey of the Public Religion Research Institute found that “slightly more than one-third (35%) of American Jews report being a member of a local synagogue . . . .” Self-identifying Conservative Jews appear to do so about twenty-five percent (25%) more often than self-identified Reform Jews. Among those who are “just Jewish,” only one in twenty is a member of a congregation.

Whether affiliated or not, only about a fifth (21%) of American Jews attend religious services once or twice a month. Just over a quarter (26%) never attend. That leaves slightly more than half of the adult Jewish population (52%) who say they attend “seldom” or “a few times a year.” (See  http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/04/jewish-values-survey/.  (At 27.))  If they are going to participate at all in Jewish communal activity, High Holidays are the likely time.

What will they see and what will they hear? When they arrive at their destination, they may see family or old friends, or not. But there will be crowds, dense crowds, generally dressed well, as if attending an important business meeting. For some, that will be joyous. For others, it will accentuate feelings of anomy or alienation from the community.

Relatively few will understand whatever is said in the ancient tongue that dominates the occasion. For most, the service will be inaccessible, even opaque. That will be a cause of restlessness for some, and a source of white noise for others.

The service style may be dominated by what appears to be mumbling or by choirs with flowing robes and operatic soloists, depending on the custom of the congregation. The participants may stand or sit, more or less on cue, but a good number will not be able to penetrate through the mysterious activities to figure out whether there is any substance there.

Switching from the old language to the current one may not help the annual migrants. Indeed, discomfort for them often sets in when some message is communicated in English. Not comfortable with God-talk to begin with, here they are confronted with God-talk on steroids. This is not the relatively soft creation and rest theology of the Sabbath. Nor is this the time for some namby-pamby, sugar-coated, feel-good spirituality. These holy days are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, beginning with one day at once joyous as it is Hayom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world, and solemn, for it is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. It is time for seriousness about how we behave -- a purely confrontational experience with the God as King, as Judge, and, most significantly, as Decreer not only of life and death, but if one is to die, how that person shall die, whether by fire or by water, whether by sword or by beast, whether by hunger or by thirst.

Most of the words are of ancient origin, quotations from ancient texts, collected over time and arranged in a particular order. Many of the passages are poetic. All are metaphors, depicting the God of the ancient ones in terms to which those in communities far, far away in space and time could relate.

By training and experience, some will understand the references and the symbolism. They will transvalue the words and phrases into messages that work for them. However, most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate well to the old language. They will hear about God as Malkenu, Our King, but they are citizens of a democratic republic and do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the subject of any King (even if corrected politically to Sovereign or Ruler). If history is any guide, they will likely not return for another year.

They will hear about God as Avinu, Our Father, but they know too much about DNA and evolution and, in any event, are too independent to warm to this kind of paternalism. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the children of this distant and invisible Father (again, even if gender neutered to Parent or Ancestor). They will likely not return for another year.

They will hear about God as Roeh, the Shepherd, but they are now urban, or maybe suburban, certainly not rural. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as members of a flock to be herded even protected. They will likely not return for another year.

Of course, some in attendance will be like the father who while at services in a recent year with his pre-teen child and was asked, “Do you believe in God?” The father replied softly that he did not, prompting the next question: “Then why are we here?” Responded the father, even more softly, “I’ve been wrong before.”

When not inundated with metaphors or other mythic poetry to which they cannot relate, or simply hedging their theological bets, some will hear descriptions of ritual practices in two temples destroyed thousands and more years ago. Most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate to these words either. They are not familiar with a theocratic world, with animal sacrifices and special words only invoked by a priest in a special room at a special time. They have no desire to rebuild the long gone temples, and, if possible, less desire to hear about them.  They will likely not return for another year.

Some will hear a seeming internal inconsistency in the holiday message. First they will hear that their fate is written and soon to be sealed. Then they will hear that the severe decree can be averted by teshuvah, tzedakah and t’filah, i.e., by repentance, charity and prayer. Well, they might ask, “Is my fate sealed or isn’t it?” As the service progresses, they will not have much time, even if they have the inclination, to resolve the apparent conflict or contemplate how much needs to be done and by when.

Unless something is done to change the pattern, once they have satisfied whatever urge or obligation they felt which drew them to congregate, most of the annual migrants will not return to a pilgrimage site for another year. Not understanding much of what has just occurred, many will feel  (perhaps paradoxically) smugly satisfied that they have done their duty and yet are so much superior to the regulars who were singing their hearts out, beating the chests at the mention of community foibles and, on that last day, cranky with hunger.

Most rabbis who conduct High Holy Day services are not stupid. They know that a good number of annual migrants will not come back for another year. And they even know that berating them for their lack of attendance throughout the year will be counter-productive. Nevertheless, many of these rabbis will still be tempted to win over the migrants with a clever sermon or some cute gambit they think might hold appeal. The wise ones will resist that temptation, and remember that these holidays are not about them, nor even about God. The holidays are about the people who come to celebrate them, many of whom do so despite their distaste for theology and ritual, trying to balance a desire to approach with a desire to avoid.

The wise rabbis will, therefore, reduce and maybe eliminate their sermons. Here less can truly be more. Some wise rabbis will use the time saved to insert teaching moments throughout the service. For instance, when the time comes for a communal confession which is traditionally accompanied by breast beating, rather than just read and beat, they will take the time to explain the practice, and even provide alternatives like heart stroking. Encouraging physical movement will at minimum serve as a useful break from the sitting and standing routine. Properly done, changes of tone and pace will be memorable.

Rather than reading the English portions of the prayer book rapidly and in a “responsive” manner, some wise rabbis will also inject moments of silence and refer congregants to the commentaries that now line mahzorim such as Lev Shalem and Kol Haneshamah. If the books presently used do not contain such lessons, the wise rabbis will provide them. The annual migrants think that they are smart. The wise rabbis will give them times to think. On occasion, the way to the heart travels through the head. The wise rabbis will provide the occasions.

Of course, the notion that these services are problematic for many is not a novel insight.  And others have also offered hope that wise rabbis will actually try to engage their congregants as active participants. See, for instance, the challenge of writer Abigail Pogrebin.  But the lack of novelty does not mean that the problem should not be addressed. Rather, it speaks to its pervasive and persistent nature. The inconvenient truth is that many of the annual migrants think that the services they attend are repetitious and boring. The wise rabbis will try to prove them wrong, not with lectures, but with leadership. And that leadership cannot come too soon.

* * * * *

The annual migration of the North American Jews to shul is approaching. It is a time for reflection and growth. For a portion of the minority of North American Jews who still affiliate with a synagogue or temple, the ancient words may yet resonate.  Maybe these individuals take these words literally and believe the statements to be true. Maybe they are able to understand the textual references and the symbolism and accept the lesson taught. Maybe the words are unimportant, but they are moved by the music either because of its inherent worthiness or because of its ability to evoke fond memories. Regardless, their continued attendance and engagement must be respected. But the data suggests that they are a minority and a diminishing one at that.

Here’s the thing. The Jewish population in North America is shrinking. Synagogue membership is shrinking. Attendance of those who are members is shrinking. And every year, we lose Jews who had ties directly or through close relationships to an older world, maybe based in a distant land. And every year, we gain, or at least have the potential to gain, highly educated Jews who see the world differently than did their ancestors.  As a result of all these trends, the remaining population of Jews, not entirely for sure, but increasingly, does not accept that which is being offered. More crassly, they are not buying what is being sold.

If we were merchants or goods or services and we saw our customer base change, if we saw that the new customer base was not coming into the store as much, not buying as much when it came in, what would we do? For starters, we might take a hard look at whether the problem is the merchandise or the packaging. We might try to figure out what our customers want and whether we can provide it. Especially difficult will be the question about how to attract new customers without alienating the remaining ones who are quite content with the familiar product.

To be clear, Judaism is not a good or service to be sold and bought in the marketplace.  And the inventory should not be changed to meet any and all demands. But two things are for sure. First, as the old adage has it, if we keep going the way we are going, we are going to get where we are headed. The returning herds in each annual High Holy Day migration will be thinner and thinner, the annual meeting grounds will be fewer and less inviting, and at some tipping point there will be an absence of critical mass. Second, this path is not immutable and that destination is not inevitable.

Averting the severe decline will, however, require more than teshuvah, tzedakah and t’filah. It will require some tachlis, too, that is, some frank, reality based substantive talk. It will require that seminaries and rabbis start talking sense to, and talking sensibly with, the American Jewish community. It will require recognition that saying the same things that have been said before at the migration celebrations, only louder or more slowly or with bigger typeface and more transliterations, will not cause anyone to hear or understand them better.

All God-talk is metaphorical, but some metaphors may be better than others. It is well past time to find the better ones and use them.  Now we must turn a worrisome trend into an opportunity, as with the other annual migration of North American Jews, to build a vibrant, positive Judaism for the adults of Israel.

A version of this article was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

August 15, 2013 | 8:13 am

# The annual migration of North American Jews to college

Posted by Roger Price

UCLA-Royce Hall

When they are underway, the annual migrations of various animal species are truly magnificent to behold. By sea, land and sky, they move: the sea turtles and the baleen whales, the caribou and the wildebeests, the green darner dragonflies and the arctic terns and the free-tailed bats, among others. (See http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/11/great-migrations/; http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/photo/.)

These migrations, which can transpire over thousands of miles, exhibit common characteristics. They suggest preparation and persistence, attentiveness, intentionality and unique allocations of energy. The participants will face distractions and temptations, but they will meet these challenges and more with what seems to be a shared sense of purpose. They are marvelous and inspiring adventures.

Perhaps these animals move because of some encoded instinct or perhaps from some form of communication we do not yet understand. Whatever the cause, they are not on an orderly and docile walk, two by two, as in the Noah fable. They are engaged in an existential activity, where travel is grueling and life and death are at issue for each animal individually and for the group as a collective, whether bale or pod or herd or team or swarm, flutter or flock.

Humans participate in seasonal movements, too. They are not as literally colorful or as dramatic in quantity or distance as the storied travels of the red crabs or the monarch butterflies.  No, these migrations are different, seasonal to be sure, but more dispersed and more conscious than those of other species.

Right now, the first of two annual migrations of North American Jews is underway. This first migration occurs over a period of several weeks. The migrating population is young, generally 18 through 21 years of age, though some are a bit younger and certainly some are older. Male and female they go, not to any one locale, but still to special places, where they will, like caterpillars, change and grow. Some will travel long distances and some will commute. Some will go to metropolitan areas and some to more rural settings. Some will go join large populations and some will go to be with small groups.

Not all in this age range will participate, but most will. They will go in droves, if not packs and prides. More than attending High Holy Day services, more than participating in a Passover seder, more than lighting Shabbat candles, young adult Jews go to college. Estimates vary, but perhaps 85-90% or more of young adult Jews go to college. (See, e.g., “Why More Colleges Want Jewish Students,” at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/10/29/jewish; “American Jews,” at http://jbuff.com/c052302.htm.)

Some will go to elite private schools like the University of Chicago and Harvard University. Some will go to elite public schools, such as the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. They will go to college towns like Boulder and Tempe and Lawrence and Raleigh. And they will go to Miami, the one in Florida and the one in Ohio. They will go to major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles and New York, for instance. They will go to many and diverse places, but the key fact is that they will go, tens of thousands of them in any year.

The percentage of students who are Jewish at many schools is astonishing. Consider these figures for some private schools:

·         32% at Tulane University in New Orleans

·         30% at Emory University in Atlanta

·         29% at George Washington University in Washington D.C. and at Oberlin College in Ohio

·         27% at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut

·         25% at Washington University in St. Louis

Even at public schools, the percentages can be high:

·         22% at the University of Maryland in College Park

·         18% at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

·         17% at the University of Florida in Gainesville

·         16% at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey and at U. of California, Santa Cruz.

Percentages can be deceiving, of course. Only 8% of the undergraduate population at the University of Texas is Jewish, but that 8% totals 4,000 students, more than twice as many as attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts which is 50% Jewish. Five thousand (5,000) will go to Penn State, 4,000 more to Wisconsin, 3,000 to Cornell. (For a fuller list of schools and Jewish populations at them, see “Admissions 101 & 102” in Reform Judaism, Fall 2013, at 36-37.) You can almost hear the merchants calling “The Jews are coming! The Jews are coming!”

What will they see and what will they hear? For most, the experience will be mind-expanding, as it should be. They may encounter new subjects, from archeology to zoology. They may drill deeper into formerly familiar concepts. No doubt old ideas will be challenged, old assumptions questioned. Their heads will be stuffed with dates and facts. Their brains will be asked to engage in critical thinking.

In the majority of cases, the young adults will succeed. Not only will they graduate, but many will continue their education.  In the Chicago area, for instance, about forty percent (40%) will earn graduate degrees. (See http://jewishdatabank.org/Reports?Jewish_Populations_in_the_United_States_2011.pdf. (At 24.))

And when they get out, when they emerge from their collegiate chrysalis, what will they know? Many things, of course, but here’s one thought they think is true. According to a relatively recent survey at a Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, a clear majority (51%) of Jews aged twenty-something who responded agreed with the proposition: “Science explains everything, making God an unnecessary hypothesis.” (See “The God Survey” in Reform Judaism (Summer 2012) (http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=3036).)

The Massachusetts survey is flawed, of course. The sample is small and the questions do not allow for subtle responses. Indeed, how many scientists believe that science explains “everything”? We cannot even define “everything.” Nevertheless, we understand the message and the results are not (or should not be) surprising. Whatever they learned in Hebrew School or Sunday school, in whatever congregation they belonged just a few years earlier -- let’s call it pediatric Judaism--they seem to have rejected. What they have replaced it with, if anything, is much, much less clear. What is clear is that the pediatric Judaism that might once have been sufficient to sustain the children of Israel is no longer suitable for many of the adults of Israel.

If Jewish college graduates in North America are the future of the Jewish people in North America (and they are), and if Judaism is the evolving, religious civilization of the Jewish people, as Mordecai Kaplan defined it four score years ago (and it is), then the collective college experience of North American Jews will have a dramatic impact on that civilization as it continues to evolve, including how and to what degree that civilization will be described as “religious.”

Having planned so hopefully, worked so hard, sacrificed so much to make sure that they received a “higher education,” we should not be afraid of the consequences of that education. Rather, we need to listen to what these new BAs and BSs and MBAs and JDs are saying, verbally and physically, about their Jewishness. We won’t need a PhD in sociology or psychology to understand that they have read too much literature to be moved by mere lore, studied too much science to be captivated by fable, learned too many facts to be swayed by fiction, and, not incidentally, met too many different kinds of good and decent people to be committed without question to their tribe. We need to engage with these young Jews on the level they have now reached, help them move beyond pediatric Judaism by showing them that there can indeed be a vibrant Judaism that their minds can affirm, a positive Judaism for the adults of Israel worthy of being chosen by them as educated members of that community.

For those of us who graduated some years ago, this is no small challenge. Many of us are questioning too, asking about what we believe and why we belong, how we can be part of a unique community and still champion universal values. Fortunately, just as it is time for the annual migration of some North American Jews to college, so the time is approaching for other North American Jews to participate in their own migration, not to college, but to shul for a bit of reflection.  That, however, is a discussion for another day.

Another version of this essay was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

July 12, 2013 | 8:48 am

# Isaac Asimov, Two Foundations and the Jews

Posted by Roger Price

The Foundation Trilogy - Boxed Set

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned 20th century philosopher, understood that gaining “control of the world of space” is one of the main tasks of humankind.  The result of the conquest of space is “technical civilization.” But, Heschel argued, “(l)ife goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” For Heschel, time, not space, “is the heart of existence.” (See Heschel, The SabbathIts Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Young 1951) at 3.)

Judaism, according to Heschel, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” (Id. at 8.)  Recognizing that a different sensitivity is involved in creating holiness in time, rather than space, he urged that we cultivate that sensitivity in order to achieve the goal of being, rather than having.

If Abraham saw Judaism as a religion of time, Isaac did not. Isaac Asimov, the renowned 20th century writer, had a rather cramped view of religion. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Russia, he came to America in 1923 as a young child. As he related in his third autobiography (no misprint), however, his parents never made “any effort” to teach any religion to him, even to have him participate in a bar mitzvah ceremony. (Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir (Doubleday 1994) at 12.) Not surprisingly, throughout his adult life, Asimov was strictly non-observant with respect to any known religious practice. At the same time, Isaac Asimov never changed his name as did others to hide his Jewishness, always acknowledged that he was Jewish and seems to have absorbed some Jewish values if not Jewish practices or sense of peoplehood. (See Id. at 13, 15-18, 322.)

Philosophically Asimov considered himself a rationalist and an atheist. Echoing George Bernard Shaw (see I. Asimov, above, at 333), he reportedly once said, “I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” From 1985 to his death in 1992, Asimov served as the president of the American Humanist Association

Best known for his science fiction and fantasy writings, Asimov authored or edited about 200 works of fiction, including a smattering of mysteries. But as a chemist by training and a general scientist at heart he wrote or edited even more non-fiction, including over 60 books on astronomy, over 30 on chemistry, bio-chemistry and biology, and over 20 on physics.  All in all, he authored or edited over 500 works , mostly for adults, including a two volume guide to Shakespeare, annotated versions of Lord Byron’s Don Juan and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, six volumes of limericks and six books on the Hebrew Bible, a subject to which he came relatively late in life.

By the time he reviewed the Bible seriously, Asimov was well familiar with ancient mythologies of all stripes. That, and his scientific orientation, naturally led him to a conclusion that the Hebrew Bible was not supernaturally guided, but written by men in particular contexts over time. He accepted, for instance, and without critical commentary, the Documentary Hypothesis of the formulation of the Biblical text. (See Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (Doubleday 1968) Vol. 1, at 19-21.)

Asimov’s recognition that the Bible was not a “history book in [the] modern sense” (Id. at 9) did not lead him, as it has for more recent militant atheists, to denigrate the text. To the contrary, he praised the biblical writers and editors for succeeding “wonderfully” at producing a text both “reasonable” and “useful.” He continued: “There is no version of primeval history, preceding the discoveries of modern science, that is as rational and as inspiring as that of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis. . . . If the primeval history of the Book of Genesis falls short of what science now believes to be the truth, the fault cannot lie with the Biblical writers, who did the best they could with the material available to them.” (Asimov, In the Beginning . . . (Crown 1981), at 3.)

Despite his immense range and prodigious work ethic, with rare exceptions, Asimov never consciously wrote about Jews or Jewish themes. It wasn’t that he denied his Jewishness. As he explained in his introduction to Wandering Stars (Pocket Book 1975), a small but worthy anthology of Jewish fantasy and science fiction, while many great American novels dealt with Jewish themes, science fiction was different. “(B)attles with space pirates, outer-world monsters and evil wizards . . . . What kind of place was that for Jewish boys?” (Id. at 16.) He said that he just “didn’t think of Jews, particularly, in connection with robots, wrecked spaceships, strange worlds with six suns, and Galactic Empires.” (Id. at 17.) Asimov’s own contribution to Wandering Stars, a short essay titled “Unto the Fourth Generation,” addressed assimilation.

Asimov claimed genuine surprise when he learned that Jack Dann was putting together that anthology, and once more when Dann followed the first volume with a second, More Wandering Stars (Doubleday 1981), for which Asimov again wrote an introduction. With the publication of that second volume, Asimov had reached the conclusion that “the Holy Writings lead the way to science fiction.” He finally saw “why there are so many Jewish writers of science fiction and fantasy, and why so many Jewish themes are used.” (Id., at  viii, x.)

His original protestations notwithstanding, Asimov conceded that even in his writings sometimes Jewish references “popped up.” (Wandering Stars, at 17.) For instance, Asimov’s first novel, Pebble in the Sky (Robert Bentley 1950) is about one Joseph Schwartz, a retired tailor, whose home planet (Earth), eleven thousand years into the future, is populated by “an obstinate and stiff-necked race” who are despised by the 500 quadrillion people living on some 200 million inhabited planets in the Galactic Empire. Sound familiar--name, occupation, group stereotype and predicament? If these clues were not enough, Asimov makes clear that the future Earthlings were facing “the nearly insoluble problem of anti-Terrestrianism” in significant part because of their “blasted customs and traditions.” (Id. at 155, 198.) Similarly, as Asimov acknowledged in his introduction to Wandering Stars (at 18), he had some characters use a Yiddish dialect in the first volumes of his early and award winning Foundation Series

The intriguing question is whether the Jewishness of the Foundation Series runs deeper than familiar references and the occasional usage of Yiddish. The Series was formed from stories published in the 1940s, initially fashioned into a trilogy published in the 1950s and later expanded to include two prequels and two sequels.

The core trilogy is set another eleven thousand years beyond Pebble in the Sky.  At the outer edge of the galaxy, a social scientist named Hari Seldon, having applied mathematical equations to behavioral patterns of large groups (over 75 billion!), has developed psychohistory, a model which can predict aggregate group behavior over extended periods.  (Here Asimov seems to have anticipated the work of Professor Peter Turchin who promotes “cliodynamics,” the statistical analysis of huge amounts of historical data aimed at discovering social patterns or cycles and predicting future events.)

Seldon’s grand scale, no, galactic scale exercise predicts the decline of the Empire into an extended thirty thousand year period of barbarism, but also sees a way to limit the dark times to a single millennium. Under Seldon’s leadership, a group of Encyclopedists (the Foundation) seeks both to preserve human knowledge and cultural values and covertly guide the Empire through its difficult future. As matters unfold –spoiler alert—the Foundation’s plans are disrupted and we learn of the existence of a previously hidden Second Foundation, located “at the other end of the Galaxy” which Seldon has also created as a contingency plan.

The Foundation Series has enchanted and challenged generations of readers, each with his or her own understanding of the real meaning of the collection. Various readers will find within the Series somewhat disparate themes such as the importance of intellectualism and scholarship, the triumph of rationalism over mysticism and emotion, the challenges to and value of individuals acting within the framework of historical currents, and the notion that our destiny is not predetermined by the stars, but by ourselves.

Nobel award winning economist and political columnist Paul Krugman, for instance, in an introduction to a new edition of the Foundation Series, has written rapturously about what was for him life shaping fiction, characterizing the trilogy as a “unique masterpiece.” He sees in it a “thrilling tale” about how “self-knowledge –an understanding of how our own society works – can change history for the better.” (At ix, xvi.)

Asimov intended to use Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a model for his commentary on the evolution of society (Asimov, Gold  (HarperPrism 1995) at 186.) Still, some have wondered whether the Foundation Series has a Jewish core.

In his book Superman is Jewish?, Harry Brod digresses for a bit to discuss the Foundation Series. He finds what he considers Jewish themes permeating the works: the notion that history is intelligible, with a trajectory discernible amidst the “seeming chaos and unpredictability,” the “commitment to rationality, embodied for modern consciousness in science” and the idea of messianism.  (See Brod, Superman is Jewish? (Free Press 2012) at 51.)

Without accepting most of these themes as “particularly Jewish,” Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student  offers his own view.  He sees the Foundation, the cultural outpost in an otherwise barbaric community, as a “rough metaphor for the Jewish people in exile.”

Over the centuries of widespread pagan and barbaric beliefs and practices, we Jews kept to ourselves as much as possible and maintained our ancient truths and attitudes. We served as outposts of culture and literacy throughout the Dark Ages, maintaining God’s truths despite the widespread decadence. Even today, in a technologically advanced world, we maintain morality and belief while society descends into hedonism. We are a light among the nations, even when they live in the dark and even when they try to extinguish our flame.

Rabbi Student wisely does not believe that Asimov consciously used that purported metaphor, but he considers it viable, even if unintended. The greater problems with the metaphor are not Asimov’s conscious or subconscious usage, however. They are that the metaphor is overly romanticized in the claim of Jewish moral superiority and not necessarily applicable today in any event when half of the world’s Jews are not in geographic exile.

Besides, both Brod and Student miss a key factor in Hari Seldon’s plan: the necessity of two Foundations. Seldon realized that for all the sophistication of his psychohistorical equations, and the probability that history writ large would unfold as predicted, there was always the possibility for interference, for error, for disruption. Consequently, as a precaution, as a safeguard, Seldon made sure that a Second Foundation would be placed “at the other end of the Galaxy,” available to fulfill the mission should something adverse happen to the First Foundation.

Perhaps here, and perhaps unconsciously, Asimov had Jewish history rather than Jewish ethics and beliefs in mind. The Kingdom of Israel could fall, but there was a Kingdom in Judah to absorb the immigrants and maintain the culture. Jerusalem could fall, but the prophets and priests, if not the royal family, in exile in Babylon would be instrumental in the restoration. The Second Temple could be destroyed, but Yavneh would live and then creatively change the very structure and thought of the Jewish world. Parallel communities would develop in the Iberian Peninsula and in northwest Europe, and if Sepharad were to be destroyed, yet Ashkenaz could flower. Later, America would be established as a homeland for Jews, among others, before European Jewry was decimated.  And, after the devastation of World War II, a State of Israel would be born.

It would be way too much to argue that Jewish history was the product of two foundations changing over time, and changing pursuant to some master plan, whether supernatural or human design. And yet, today there are essentially two foundations of Jewish life. Today, the Jewish population of the world is just under 14,000,000, largely, but not entirely, concentrated in two centers, Israel with just over and the United States with just under six million Jews. France, Canada, United Kingdom and Russia collectively do not quite account for another ten percent of world Jewry.

These two current foundations of Jewish life are not like Hari Seldon’s Foundations. They are not hidden from view, and do not appear to function in any coordinated way. Yet one does not have to be either very frum or a psychohistorian to see that the fate of the entire Jewish People seems to be linked inextricably with the survival and of its two current foundational communities.

When he wrote the Foundation Series, was Asimov (even subconsciously) thinking descriptively about the pendulum swings in Jewish history or perhaps prescriptively about a Jewish future? Could Asimov have stumbled inadvertently on the previously secret model of Jewish survival? Or, writing around the time of the decimation of European Jewry, could Asimov have been warning about the need for a secretive guiding organization?

There are clues about an undercurrent of Jewishness in the Foundation Series, and they extend beyond the use of Yiddishisms noted above. Consider the title of the first book in the original trilogy: The Foundation. One Hebrew word for foundation is mossad, which happens to be the name of Israel’s national intelligence agency, HaMossad or the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Talk about hiding in plain sight. And what about Hari Seldon’s name?  Perhaps we should ask using the barely concealed Hebrew version, Ari Elyon, Lion Most High.

For some, these may be slim reeds upon which to build a case, much less a Foundation or two. And, if we are to dig a bit deeper, we must ask whether the Jewish People, during  the present period of significant transition, really needs a Seldon-like Foundation. Would it be sufficient if a modern day Hilkiah were to find a hidden scroll with revelations and guidelines sufficient to revitalize Jewish life here and now?  (See II Kings 22:8.)

Asimov can tantalize us with stories about strange civilizations in the heavens above.  Heschel can inspire us with lessons about holiness in time, visions of heaven on Earth. But long ago the authors of D’varim (Deuteronomy), writing in an age of wrenching change, taught in the name of Moses himself that the answers to the challenges face were not in heaven. (See Deut. 30:12.) Centuries later, the Sages reinforced the point in their now famous story of Rabbi Eliezer and the carob tree. So it is today. If we are to meet current challenges, among which are science, technology, disbelief, demographics, economics, freedom, diluted ethnicity, illiteracy, assimilation, isolation and communal polarization, we must do so, not with our heads in the clouds, but with our feet planted firmly on the ground.  A good place to start would be with Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Sidney Schwarz (Jewish Lights 2013)).

Another version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

June 13, 2013 | 6:50 pm

# Sportin’ Life was right, but what about that Torah tune?

Posted by Roger Price

George Gershwin
Credit: Wikipedia

Sportin’ Life, the dope peddling conman who lived on Catfish Row in 1930s Charleston, South Carolina -- at least in the musings of George and Ira Gershwin and writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward -- never did delve deeply into higher Biblical criticism.  He probably never even heard about seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, or late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century scholar Julius Wellhausen, for that matter. And yet, he hit the nail on the head, didn’t he?

Singing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the most famous tune in Porgy and Bess after “Summertime,” Sportin’ Life chided, even taunted, the more reverent and traditionally minded folks on Catfish Row about some familiar but not so credible Biblical stories such as “li’l David” slaying big Goliath, Jonah making his home in a whale’s abdomen, and Methuselah living nine hundred years (actually 969, but who’s counting). And to underscore his point, Sportin’ Life would sing:

"It ain’t necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. De t’ings dat yo li’ble/ To read in de Bible/ It ain’t necessarily so."

Now Sportin’ Life could have gone further. Putting aside for the moment the stories about divine beings mating with human females (see Genesis 6:1-4) and winged creatures with multiple faces and a single leg (see Ezekiel 1:4-9), each of which can be forgiven as fanciful excesses in the name of literary license, the Bible contains a number of statements which are not factually accurate or at least are anachronisms. Two examples illustrate the situation:

• Parashah B’reishit (Gen. 1:9-12) asserts not just, and incorrectly, that the Earth was formed before the Sun, but that plant life emerged before the Sun was around to fuel photosynthesis on which plants depend.
• Parashah Lech L’cha (Gen. 14:14) describes how Avram (later Avraham) sought to rescue his nephew Lot with an army of allies pursuing Lot’s captors all the way north to the town of Dan in the Huleh Valley. The town was named after Avram’s great-grandson (Yaakov’s fifth son), but Dan was not yet born at the time of the military adventure. (See Gen. 25:7-8; 30:6.) In fact, he was not born until after Avraham died. Moreover, the town in question (originally Laish) was not named Dan until it was conquered hundreds of years later, according to other entries in the Bible. (See Joshua 19:47-48; Judges 18:26-29.) (For more, see here.)

Obviously if Sportin’ Life really got into it, Porgy and Bess would be an even longer production than it is, and considerably duller. So Sportin’ Life stuck to a few of the better known and easier to understand stories.

And then he did something quite amazing. To convey his point that the Bible was not error free, Sportin’ Life sang his famous refrain to what sounds like a Jewish melody -- and not just any melody at that. The melody that Sportin’ Life seems to have used is essentially the same as that commonly invoked for the blessing before the reading of the Torah portion: Bar’chu et Adonai Ham’vorach (Bless Adonai the blessed One).

Of course, George and Ira Gershwin, who wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, for Sportin’ Life, were familiar with Jewish musical themes and motifs. The Gershwins were products of, if not a religious family, at least an intensely Jewish community on the lower east side of New York City at the turn into the twentieth century. And while George may not have had a bar mitzvah, older brother Ira did, and George, as well as Ira must have been familiar with the melody for the Torah blessing.

According to two Gershwin biographers, the music of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” came before the lyrics. (See Howard Pollack, George Gershwin His Life and Work (2006) at 576; Walter Rimler, George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait (2009) at 145.) So how and why did the melody for the Torah blessing get paired with the subversive lyrics about the errancy of the Bible? Even given the musical melting pot that boiled in New York City in the first third of the twentieth century in America, surely this conflation could not be mere coincidence.  Song writing at the Gershwin level was too precise an art to allow for that possibility.

Were the Gershwins taking another, more subtle stab, at tradition by using sacred music for sacrilegious thought? Or were they saying quite the opposite? That while we can poke fun at the myths of our heritage, we still know our roots, we still understand the core values of our people and we still remember their practices.

Biographies of George Gershwin and at least one seems to be published every year, typically spend very little, if any, time talking about his use of Jewish melodies. And at least one writer discounts the Jewish elements in George Gershwin’s melodies. In response to the evidence some see in the use of minor 3rds, Rodney Greenberg argues that “to be really Jewish” a song would need augmented 2ds, as, for instance, in Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man.” Greenberg contends that some are just hearing what they want to hear. (See Rodney Greenberg, George Gershwin (1998) at 191.)

More recently, University of Houston music professor Howard Pollack has published the most extensive and thorough George Gershwin biography to date. Among its over 700 pages of text and over 100 pages of endnotes is what appears to be a robust, if not exhaustive, catalog of Gershwin’s use of liturgical and other Jewish themes. (See Pollack, above, at 42-47.) A decade before Porgy, George Gershwin acknowledged that “traditional Hebrew religious melodies have had a marked influence upon modern music . . . .” (Id. at 42; see also Larry Starr, George Gershwin (2011) at 179 n.2.) The continued use of such melodies over time strongly suggests that we are not simply hearing what we want to hear. (See Joan Peyser, The Memory of All That (1993) at 236-37, 248.)

Barely a handful of years before Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company to write an opera based on Szymon Ansky’s The Dybbuk (a wandering disembodied spirit), itself derived from an old folk tale.  He even began to create some music for the work. (See Rimler, above, at 40.)  The effort failed because certain rights could not be obtained.

It is possible, then, that George Gershwin just wanted to include in his American opera a melody that he had planned to use on the aborted Dybbuk project. After all, both Catfish Row and the old country shtetl were communities that were financially poor, politically oppressed and rooted in cultural and religious traditions. And yet, it is one thing to use Jewish ritual music in a work about a fictionalized Jewish community and quite another to collaborate with a descendant of Southern aristocracy and slave holders like DuBose Heyward to write about a black community and incorporate a sacred Jewish melody into that work.

Mordecai Kaplan, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the last century, reportedly tried to dispense with the rendition of Kol Nidre which immediately precedes the evening service for Yom Kippur, but ultimately failed to do so in large part because of the emotional power of the melody that accompanies the reading. Perhaps the same was true of the Gershwins, creators of quintessentially American music. Perhaps something like that musical pull was at work here, in the sense that while the Gershwins could stay out of shul, the shul still stayed in the Gershwins. Perhaps their use of the Torah blessing theme was their homage to their heritage. Unfortunately, unless someone discovers a letter to one of their contemporaries like Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen or Oscar Levant or, perhaps, an entry in a diary, we may never know what the Gershwins had in mind.

We do know, however, that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was an enormously powerful piece. In 1943, with the second World War raging, Porgy and Bess made its European debut in Copenhagen at the Royal Danish Opera. Not surprisingly, the Nazis were not enamored with the production of a show written by Jews and about blacks. (Apparently, they did not give much credit to the DuBoses.) Despite the efforts of Hitler’s thugs to shut the show, it was successful in Denmark, and ran in repertory into the Spring of 1944. By then, though, the Nazis had had enough, and the Luftwaffe was threatening to bomb the Royal Opera unless production ended, which it then did.

Though George had died in July, 1937, the Gershwins would not be silenced. In response to Goebbel’s propaganda, the Danish resistance, bless ‘em, would interrupt enemy broadcasts with those wonderful words (in Danish) to that very special tune: It Ain’t Necessarily So! It Ain’t Necessarily So! It Ain’t Necessary So! (See Robin Thompson, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (2006) at 160; Rimler, above, at 171.)

Some may consider this conveyance of truth to power, by way of a sacred chant in a most unconventional manor and setting, to be a minor proof of the existence of God. And some may not.

Regardless, we should all be able to agree: S’Wonderful.  S’Marvelous.

Who could ask for anything more?

Another version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

May 23, 2013 | 3:10 pm

# The camel’s nose and the Torah’s tent

Posted by Roger Price

Credit: Wikipedia

For those who hold that the Bible, and particularly the Torah, is the Word of God, without flaw and inerrant, the last few hundred years have been very frustrating. The development of the Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that the Torah was a compilation of works from several discrete sources, was and, despite scholarly challenge, remains a formidable obstacle to the claim of unitary and divine authorship. But the Documentary Hypothesis is, for all its power and value, just that, a hypothesis. Similarly, the notion that much of the Torah text is pretext, i.e., a series of allegories designed to enhance the image of one or more Kings of Judah, is another provocative and persuasive concept, but again, just that, a concept.

Yet while some would dismiss such broad theories as too sweeping, and not definitive, small, stubborn little problems with the text cannot be so easily refuted and disregarded. One sign that the Torah is not the work of a single writer, much less a divine one, is the presence of anachronisms in the text.

An anachronism is a word or reference that is out of place temporally. It may be a person who is named, but was not yet born at the time in which his identification was set. Or, it may be a location or thing or event which is mentioned, but which did not exist or had not occurred when the story was placed. In such instances, the presence of the word both counters the claim of inerrancy and, conversely, helps to show when and where the passage in question may really have been drafted. For instance, if the Torah had said that Moses turned on electric lights the night before the exodus from Egypt so that he could review a map of his escape route, we would know that the text was flawed because electric lights were not invented until about thirty-one centuries after Moses supposedly lived. Moreover, the reference would help place the writing of the passage to some time in or after the nineteenth century of the Common Era.

Consequently, in order to determine whether a text actually includes an anachronism, you need to know at least two things. The first is the time in which the story in the text is set. The other is the time when the person, place or thing mentioned first existed or occurred.

Sometimes, the anachronism is obvious from the text itself. For instance, in Genesis 34:7, we read that Shechem committed an “outrage in Israel” by lying forcibly with Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. The narrative, however, has not yet identified any people known as Israel. There was no nation, nor any group, by that name around at the time to be outraged. (Contrast Deut. 22:21.) Similarly, in Exodus 19:22, 24 we read that the priests must stay pure. But the priesthood had not yet been established, and would not be until after the revelation of Sinai and the subsequent consecration of Aaron and his sons described in chapters 28 and 29 of Exodus.

In each of the foregoing instances, the author or editor seems to have made reference to a circumstance that his audience would have understood, i.e., rape penalty, priesthood. But each reference was also internally inconsistent with the chronology of the story.

Sometimes, discovering an anachronism requires knowledge outside of the text at issue. At Genesis 47:1-6, we read about Joseph introducing his father and brothers to an unnamed Pharaoh. The brothers request permission to stay in the Nile Delta area known as Goshen. Pharaoh grants their wish, and allows the family to settle in “the best part of the land,” in the “region of Goshen.” The story concludes with a note that Joseph settled his father and brothers “in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Rameses.” (Gen. 47:11.) The problems here are two-fold. First, the reign of Rameses the Great did not begin until about 1279 BCE. It lasted until about 1213 BCE. Consequently, the area at issue was not named for Rameses until the 13th century BCE or subsequently, but at least two hundred years after the initial settlement of Jacob’s family according to Genesis. Moreover, the name Goshen may be related to an Arabic tribe whose domination of the area did not occur prior to the 6th or 5th centuries BCE. (See Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Free Press 2001), at 67.)

At Genesis 26:1, we read that at a time when famine forced him to move, Isaac traveled to the King of the Philistines. The story seems perfectly reasonable, until one realizes that the Philistines, as part of the Seas Peoples migration, did not arrive in Canaan until about 1200 BCE, centuries after Isaac died.

There’s more.

At Genesis 11:28 we read that Haran, brother of Abram (as he was then named) died in his native land, called Ur of the Chaldeans. Ur, located in what is now Iraq, was an ancient city, once the capital of Sumer. But the Chaldean Empire existed only relatively briefly, from about 626 to 539 BCE. That is, there were no Chaldeans until the late 7th or 6th centuries BCE, perhaps a thousand years or more after the reported death.

In chapter 28 of Exodus the Torah text discusses in detail the vestments that are to be made for and worn by Aaron and his sons in their capacity as priests. After the robe, tunic, breastplate, sash and other items are described, verse 42 states: “You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs.” These trousers or undergarments were to be worn as the priests enter the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar. As Biblicist S. David Sperling, has demonstrated, however, trousers were invented by the Persians around the 6th century BCE. The sartorial direction at Ex. 28:42 could not, therefore, have been written prior to then, certainly not during any 14th-13th century BCE Exodus. (See Sperling, The Original Torah (NYU Press 1998), at 116.)

In short, there are a variety of anachronisms in the text of the Torah which indicate, first, that the author of those passages lived after the time in which his story was set and, second, that he retrojected commonly understood circumstances back into an era that had no connection to them. Why he did that is another topic, but the fact that he did cannot really be disputed.

Moreover, at least some passages of the Torah can be no older than the 6th century BCE. That is, not only were they not written at Mt. Sinai just after the Exodus, they were not written prior to the alleged entry from the wilderness into Canaan. Indeed, they were not written before the time of Joshua, Judges, or Kings David and Solomon.

Of all the possible anachronisms in the Torah, perhaps none has caused as much controversy as the references in it to camels. The Torah contains just over two dozen such references and the entire Hebrew Bible contains no less than 53 references to camels, extending from mentions in the stories of the patriarchs to the travels of Ezra and Nehemiah to Jerusalem from Babylonia at the very start of the Persian Period, around 538 BCE.

The first reference is at Genesis 12:16 where Abram and Sarai (as she was then known), were well received in Egypt, especially Sarai, and Abram is reported to have acquired sheep, oxen, asses, slaves and camels. Camels are also mentioned with respect to Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. (See, e.g., Gen. 24:61-64; 31:17, 34; 37:25.)

These references, and others, all seem to make perfect sense within the story line -- except for the camels. The history of the camel, it turns out, is rather unusual, complex and not well detailed or understood. The ancestors of modern day camels, by which we really mean the dromedary or one-humped camel, originated in North America and then about two million years ago, at the end of the Pliocene Epoch traveled north and west to the Asian land mass, ultimately reaching Mesopotamia and even what is now the Saharan desert.  While there is sporadic evidence of the presence of camels in Syria and the Dead Sea area well over hundreds of thousands of years ago, former Missouri Southwest University Prof. Juris Zarins reports that wild camels “seem to have disappeared or to have been driven out of their natural habitat into the more inhospitable reaches of the Arabian peninsula” by about 3000 BCE, the beginning of the Bronze Age. (See Zarins, “Camel,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday 1992), at I, 824.)

Based on the existence of jars and figurines that are said to be camels, various individuals have proposed a wide range of dates for the domestication of the camel, including prior to 2000 BCE. Ancient records of the Egyptian Nile Valley, however, while depicting a broad menagerie including all of the larger mammals, do not have a word for the camel. Moreover, there is a thousand year gap, between about 2180 and 1170 BCE in representations of camels in pottery. (See generally, A. S. Saber, The Camel in Ancient Egypt (United Arab Emirates University 1998).)

Columbia University Prof. Richard Bulliet states that “(h)istorically, the earliest explicit indications of camel use in northeastern Africa date back to the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. and are related to Assyrian and Persian invasions of Egypt across the Sinai peninsula.”  (See Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Columbia 1990), at 116; accord, Saber, above, at 209.) Archeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman effectively concur, noting both that Assyrian texts from the 7th century are the first to refer to camel trade caravans in Canaan and that archeological excavations have revealed a noticeable increase in camel bones discovered from that period. (See Finkelstein and Silberman, above, at 37.)

So, while camels may have been domesticated, meaning may have been used as a source of milk and meat in the second millennia BCE in other locations such as Persia (present day Iran), there does not appear to be any serious evidence discovered to date that camels were domesticated in Egypt prior to 800 BCE. Thus, the stories of Rebekah riding a camel (Gen. 24:61-64), of camel caravans to Egypt (Gen. 37:25), of camels as part of Pharaoh’s livestock herds (Ex. 9:3) appear to be as Hamlet had it “out of joint.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet I, 5.)

All this talk about camels and the Middle East naturally reminds us of the ancient teaching that you should not allow a camel to put its nose in your tent, lest you will soon have the entire camel in there with you. The lesson is a metaphorical warning that permitting a small act can lead to greater and quite undesirable consequences.

From this, some might argue that anachronisms undermine the divine origin and, therefore, the importance of the text. But that argument goes too far. The presence of all of these anachronisms, those mentioned here and others, certainly support the conclusion that the Torah is the product of numerous human hands writing over a long period of time. That evidence, though, is corroborative. It compliments and supplements other approaches to the study of the text.

And the argument misses a greater point. If the Torah were really written by a Divine Finger, we would surely have to question the character and integrity of the presumed Author. The result does not demonstrate any of the omnis attributed to God (e.g., omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence), for it is not a pretty product, or even a coherent one. Leaving aside the murder and mayhem, the text is chock full of factual errors and internal inconsistencies which an omniscient Deity or even just a good editor would have resolved. Moreover, instead of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-compassionate deity, we frequently see an admittedly jealous God who induces His chosen people to enter into an illusory covenant conditioned on adherence to a multiplicity of rules and regulations that no human group could long endure, much less obey. It is a contract destined to be breached.

If, however, the Torah is text by mere mortals, a work of human minds struggling to understand not so much their place in a grand heavenly scheme, but simply how to survive in their earthly present, then we have a work worthy of continuous study.  For here are stories of a people seeking to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, and, on their better days, choosing, rather than chosen, to live an ethical life, to love each other and treat the stranger with compassion, and to become a holy nation. Here are stories, sometimes written in frank and salty language, and sometimes with puns, sarcasm and humor, that are both rooted in reality and aspirational, and because of that duality so challenging and inspirational for us.

Consequently, that the Torah is less divine decree and more human hand does not make it less worthy of reverence. To the contrary, if we understand these stories as written by those dared by their geography and history to survive on hard scrabble Earth and to try to figure out how to live day by day, week to week, season to season and year to year, then we have a source of endless worthwhile lessons about life, a fitting foundational text for Western Civilization and a work to treasure.

This essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

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