The important scholar of Ancient Judaism, Christianity, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Geza Vermes (1924-2013) has passed away. Besides his important scholarly output, Vermes has an incredible personal story. He was born to Jewish parents in Hungary, and when he was seven years-old he and his parents converted to Catholocism. His parents were then killed during the Shoah, and after the war Vermes eventually made his way to England with a number of stops along the way, including ordination as a priest. In 1970 he joined a London synagogue. An interesting side note is that the seminary in which Vermes studied was in Szatmar/Satmar, Hungary.
The following news article appeared on the front page of the New York Times on June 30, 1967. It describes the removal of the barriers that once divided Jerusalem. I have a special affinity for this article and not only because of the joyous news that it reports, but also because it appeared in the paper on the day that I was born.
On Ebay there is a postal cover for sale that seems to have been sent to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch from Palestine in 1883. It would be a nice purchase, that is, if you have $2,450.
This essay responds to essays written for a symposium on Living Originalism that will appear in the Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies. It expands and develops the book’s argument for fidelity to original meaning.
First, the essay explains why interpretive fidelity requires, at a minimum, fidelity to the basic framework — the Constitution’s original semantic meaning and the Constitution’s choice of rules, standards, and principles. This is a hypothetical imperative, not a categorical one. If Americans want to follow the plan of their Constitution, this is the least that fidelity requires. But they need not continue to do so. As they did with the Articles of Confederation, Americans could reject their present Constitution through a new act of constituent power. The argument assumes, however, that Americans are not deluded or disingenuous in asserting that they continue to accept their Constitution as amended.
Second, the article argues for a “thin” theory of original meaning that both leaves room for and necessitates constitutional construction by subsequent generations. To be sure, framework originalism makes use of background context to infer some aspects of original meaning that are not explicitly stated by the text, but it limits these inferences to those necessary to make sense of the basic framework and its economy of delegation and constraint.
A “thin” account of original meaning makes the best sense of Americans’ actual practices of constitutional development. It is also the most consistent with the democratic legitimacy of an ancient constitution over time. A theory of original meaning that is too thick will increasingly undermine democratic legitimacy as time goes on. It will fail to make use of the institutional capacities of later generations to adapt government to technological, social and economic change. The problems of the increasing democratic deficit of originalism over time and of the limited institutional capacities of adopters are best solved by a thin theory of original meaning, which leaves ample room for constitutional construction.
The essay concludes by comparing different theories of originalism — including Living Originalism — with different theories of Jewish law that explain or justify disagreement or change over time. An important difference must be noted at the outset: According to Jewish tradition, the Torah is the word of God, and therefore cannot be mistaken, while a political constitution is the work of fallible human beings.
Nevertheless, the different rabbinic solutions to (or explanations of) disagreement and change in the Talmud correspond to different positions in American constitutional scholarship. The argument of Living Originalism, it turns out, is closest to the position of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (the Dor Revi’i), who argued that while the Written Law does not change, the Oral Law must be dynamic in order to “not to tie the hands of the sages of every generation from interpreting Scripture according to their understanding.”
After much urging and encouragement from my “fans” and friends, I am launching my blog, VaTashar Devora – ותשר דבורה (Judges 5,1). My primary focus is to discuss Jewish family law, through examination of recent piskei din (judgments) from the Israeli batei din (Jewish courts of law).
All of you have probably heard that the lid has been blown off the secret witchcraft being practiced by Jews and Zionists:
In a speech to religious students on April 20, Mehdi Taeb, who heads a think tank and is considered close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said that Jews are powerful sorcerers who have used their abilities to attack Iran. He noted that while “the Jews” had yet to unleash their full powers, their abilities were negated after they tried to use magic to interfere with the Iranian elections of 2008 and 2009.
According to the story brought in JT Hagigah 2:2 (77d), ‘R. Simeon ben Shetah hanged eighty witches in Ashkelon, these being women who had lived in a single cave and who had “harmed the world”. The Talmudic description which details exactly how Simeon ben Shetah’s men were able to capture these witches indicating a knowledge of witchcraft, and leaves no room for doubt that there was indeed a historical background to that story, although this particular aspect is not clarified. It is difficult to know from the story whether Simeon ben Shetah captured Ashkelon, or why he specifically killed witches rather than his enemies. It would appear logical that these witches were priestesses of idolatrous worship, for it is obvious that every sorcerer or witch must turn to the god who he or she worships. It thus follows that Simeon ben Shetah’s action was linked to the attempt to expunge idolatry from the country. In any event, these witches were evidently not Jewish, and one cannot deduce anything about the Jewish society in Eretz Israel in ancient times from this particular account.
If you are associated with an academic institution, you may have access to the recently written article about a demon who hung out in the bathroom, An Akkadian Demon in the Talmud: Between Šulak and Bar-Širiqa.
This article examines the resemblance between the Talmudic privy demon (“Shed Bet ha-Kise”) and Šulak, a well-known Akkadian demon. There are four considerations that point to identifying the privy demon of the Talmud with the Babylonian demon Šulak: (1) They both dwell in the privy; (2) they both are demons that cause epilepsy, strokes, or sudden falls; (3) they both seem to have the form of a lion; and (4) their names (“Šulak” and “Bar Širiqa”) are very similar. This suggestion is yet another example of the presence of beliefs and opinions from the Ancient Near East that found an echo in the Babylonian Talmud, one that may be added to a number of examples given by M. Geller.
Isaiah Gafni wrote the following about demons in the Talmud:
One seemingly obvious example of contact between popular Iranian culture and statements recorded in the Babylonian Talmud relates to the realm of demons and demonology.” To be sure, a belief in the existence of vast armies of demons and spirits existing alongside human beings and constantly interacting with them was shared by all the peoples of the Ancient Near East. Among the biblical sins of ancient Israel was their recurrent sacrificing to shedim, a Hebrew term translated in the Septuagint as daimones (demons).” Second Temple Jewish literature is replete with allusions to a variety of such forces of evil, and Josephus even claims that King Solomon was trained in the ways of fighting evil spirits, and that he “composed incantations…and left behind forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by demons drive them out, never to return?” Josephus himself testifies to witnessing the activity of an exorciser in the presence of Vespasian and his soldiers,” and of course the New Testament is replete with stories of people possessed by a variety of evil spirits.’ Scholars have even noted distinct similarities in the import assigned to some terms that refer to a variety of spiritual forces in Palestinian sectarian literature with those found in Iranian terminology, suggesting some sort of Iranian cultural impact on the religious thought and imagery embraced by certain Palestinian Jewish circles.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the Palestinian rabbis were also party to this widespread belief in spirits; according to one opinion in the Mishnah, “the harmful spirits” (mazikin) were among the lo things created on Sabbath eve at twilight.” Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai interpreted the word “all” in a particular scripture (“And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the Lord”—Deuteronomys 28:10) to refer “even to spirits and even to demons.’ Such beliefs found their way into halakhic discourse as well, and thus, for example, the Tosefta addresses the permissibility of whispering an incantation “about demons” on the Sabbath.
The universality of belief in demons and spirits notwithstanding, it is nevertheless in the Babylonian rabbinic corpus that we sense a true affinity to specific demonological images prominent in Iranian religious thought. The pervasiveness of demons so common in Pahlavi literature resonates clearly in the Babylonian Talmud. (From Gafni’s chapter “Babylonian Rabbinic Culture” in David Biale ed., Cultures of the Jews, p. 244.)
The next time a leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has an accident in the bathroom, you’ll know who to blame.