Friday, August 01, 2008

Bogus Academia

With the utmost thanks to Jordan, who defends the honor of God.
~
Perhaps one of the most problematic aspects of being a student lies in the fact that ideally, one must check up every source in order to verify its authenticity and veracity. Yet as a student, one walks into school with certain idealistic notions still intact. These include the belief that the professor knows more than the student, that the professor is well-versed in his specialty and that if an important professor writes a book, it is a work which should be taken very seriously, as it is impossible that the book would be published were it merely a shoddily researched tome. There is also the idea of humility with regard to those who know more than you. Should I read a book and be confused, it stands to reason that it is simply because I do not know as much as the professor, and it is my own lack of knowledge which leads me to misunderstand. Nevertheless, I have recently been taught (thank you, Jordan) to read everything with a more critical eye, and I was amazed to find that despite my presupposed notions, professors as well may fall prey to misrepresentation, disingenous phraseology or even a complete misreading and misapplication of sources.

To demonstrate the point by means of an example, let us take the work Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by Professor Israel Jacob Yuval of Hebrew University, in which he attempts to demonstrate the way in which Jews and Christians were in dialogue, and more importantly, how Judaism was influenced by Christianity in a religion (in its legends, stories, tales or other ways.) An acclaimed scholarly work, I was upset to find the following convoluted, shoddy logic advanced time and time again. I will here demonstrate my point by bringing you four examples.

1. "Galit Hasan-Rokem has noted the similarity between the Hebrew word for "gnat," yatush, and "Titus." To which one might add, Titus' gnat is the Jewish legend's answer to Vespasian's vespa (Latin for "wasp"). (page 46)

"Likewise, the exegesis of the words vespa= Vespasian seems primary, whereas the play on yatush (gnat) and Titus seems forced and may be viewed as a polemical answer to an earlier, more successful wordplay." (page 49)

Leaving aside the fact that yatush and Titus are not even spelled similarly, as yatush has a tav and a shin, whereas Titus sports a tes and a samach, look at the logic Yuval just employed. Because Rokem noted a similarity between these two words, therefore it must be that this play on words exists. Once we have decided this, the fact that the play of words is not as strong in the "Jewish legend" as the Christian source, we have effectively proven the Christian source came first. What kind of convoluted logic is that? Because you decided there might be a similarity on the words and therefore a play on words, you now use that potential similarity as a proof for your point?

2. "In Matthew 26:26, the formulation also includes an invitation to eat: "Take, eat; this is my body"- an invitation reminiscent of that in the Haggadah: "Let all who are hungry come and eat." (page 72)

You have got to be kidding me. The word reminiscent means nothing, absolutely nothing! Firstly, I simply do not understand the logic. How is an invitation to anyone on the street to come and partake of the paschal lamb/ bitter herbs/ bread of affliction, which is all physical food connoting nothing other than actual food at all reminiscent of eating the body of Christ? Because both of them have to do with eating? Well, gee whiz, I guess every time I eat anything that's reminiscent of the fact that someone is eating a Communion wafer! What kind of logic is this?!

3. "Second, how did the Midrashic author know that Jacob went down to Egypt "compelled by the divine word"? "Word" (dibbur) is tantamount to logos and can mean "an angel"- but where is it written in the Bible that Jacob was ordered by God or by an angel to go down to Egypt?" (page 85)

There are a couple things wrong with this derivation. First, he is utilizing the same assumptive logic as he did before. Word= logos which can mean angel, hence, where is Jacob ordered to go to Egypt by an angel? He has decided because something has a potential meaning, it can now be used as an absolute proof and one needs to discover where exactly an angel told Jacob to go down to Egypt. But much more problematic is the simple fact that this is written out straight in Tanakh! See Genesis 46: 3-4.
    ג וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ; אַל-תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה, כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם.
    3 And He said: 'I am God, the God of thy father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation.

    ד אָנֹכִי, אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי, אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה; וְיוֹסֵף, יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ.
    4 I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes.'
Now, to give Yuval the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the reason he thought Jacob had determined to go down to Egypt without being commanded to do so by God was due to the verse in 45:28.
    כח וַיֹּאמֶר, יִשְׂרָאֵל, רַב עוֹד-יוֹסֵף בְּנִי, חָי; אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ, בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.
    28 And Israel said: 'It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive; I will go and see him before I die.'
The problem is that Yuval made the assumption that Jacob saying "I will go and see him before I die" meant that he would go all the way to Egypt without God's command. The fact that Jacob decided to embark upon a journey to go see Joseph could mean that he was prepared to go partway, whereas Joseph would have to come meet his father halfway as well- the only statement in this sentence is that Jacob will go but not where he will go or how far he will go (as we see, he stopped in Be'er Sheva to offer sacrifices.) Indeed, he is clearly afraid of going down to Egypt, due to the fact that he must be reassured by God that he should go down and that God will go with him. So for Yuval to ask where we see that Jacob was "compelled by the divine word" to go down to Egypt suggests something ludicrous- that he did not read the very verses in Tanakh, or perhaps simply chose to ignore them.

4. "In this vein, we may understand a passage that many have found difficult to comprehend: "And He saw our affliction' [Deut 26:7] - this refers to their abstinence from sexual relations [literally, the way of the world], as is written: "And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew [va-yeida elohim] [Exod 2:25]." Daube has suggested that this exegesis is based on the biblical usage of the word knew, understanding the phrase "and God knew" as sexual intercourse. Even though the Israelites practiced sexual abstinence, they succeeded in having progeny by virtue of miraculous conception. Daube thinks that this exegesis reflects an ancient Jewish source for the story of Mary's pregnancy, one that was not excised from the Hagadah for some unknown reason. I consider the opposite conjecture to be more likely- that this exegesis responds to the Christian story and plemicizes with it, arguing that a miraculous birth from the Holy Spirit did in fact take place, albeit not of Jesus, but of the Israelites born in Egypt. This is in accordance with the general tendency of the Haggadah to portray the Exodus from Egypt as a prototype of deliverance." (page 83)

FOOTNOTE: Daube (n. 112, p. 76) 5-0. Daube's theory was rejected by Urbach (n. 77, p. 63) n. 16 who described his theory as "absurd" and "curious" and was seconded by D. Henshke, "The Midrash of the Passover Haggada" [in Hebrew], Sidra 4 (1988): n. 4 ("Urbach has already noted Daube's bizarre words"). But in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, the medieval commentator Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham Ashbili wrote, "There are those who say that he inferred it from the verse, "and God knew," that this was like "and Adam again knew his wife Eve"; see Hiddushei ha-Ritba al ha-Shas, Pesahim, ed. Y. Leibovitch (Jerusalem, 1984), 31. Similar things appear in Genesis Rabbah on the verse, "And the Lord visited Sarah" (Gen 21:1): "R. Huna said: there is an angel appointed over desire, but Sarah had no need for such, as He in His glory [made her conceive]" (Gen. Rab. 53:6, ed. Theodor-Albeck, 560.)

When you first read this section, you make the following assumptions-

a) Abstinence means complete abstinence - there were absolutely no sexual relations going on, and therefore all the children were conceived by means of immaculate conception.

b) Because Daube argues that the interpretation of the verse "and God knew" uses the word "knew" to connote sexual relations, and the Ritva also argues this, the Ritva is supporting Daube's approach. (This is because Yuval contrasts the Ritva's approach to that of Urbach- note the "but,"- who dismisses Daube as being ridiculous.)

c) In Genesis Rabbah, God impregnated Sarah (again immaculate conception.)

This is beyond ridiculous. When you actually look at the sources, nothing of the kind was ever suggested, nor would it ever be suggested, and neither the Ritva nor Genesis Rabbah in any way argue for immaculate conception (there is no reason to read that verse as meaning anything other than God himself took care of desire in that case, rather than the angel.) This is for the very simple reason that the Ritva is not positing that there was complete and total abstinence when it came to sexual relations, but rather that because the men were engaged in backbreaking labor, they were not able to be with their wives as frequently or in a normal fashion, and hence to some extent there was abstinence.

Here is the Ritva's exact language (thank you to Moshe Y. Gluck.)




As you can see, the Ritva in no way advocates for any kind of statement suggesting that there was complete and total abstinence, and just because he darshens from the use of the word "knew" in the sentence that there was some kind of suffering taking place in the matter of sexual relations does not in any way mean that he supports Daube's point, which is what Yuval slyly implies. It is amazingly disingenous of him. Here is his logic:

a) The Ritva supports Daube's point that vayada can be read in accordance to sexual suffering/ abstinence
b) Therefore the Ritva is really saying EVERYTHING that Daube says, including this ludicrous claim about the Jews having a million immaculate conception births
c) Once we are saying that these immaculate conception births happened in Egypt, that CLEARLY means the sages who wrote the Haggadah were trying to counter the Jesus idea of immaculate conception with the idea that ISRAEL came from immaculate conception
d) This idea is "not alien to the Midrash" because look, there are other wonder child variants on the Jesus story (Yuval specifically brings down baby Gadiel, somehow overlooking the fact that baby Gadiel very clearly has a human mother and father, which is only the most important part to this claim!)

This is crap. It is cleverly disguised crap, and if you read the book thinking that it's been written by an esteemed professor, and therefore he has done his research and is above misrepresenting ideas, creating syllogisms that don't apply, or otherwise lying by omission or by the way he has phrased something (even if not outright), it's easy to be confused. But in the end, it is crap, and just goes to show that simply because something is academia does not make it true, or right, or mean that the researcher has done his research appropriately.

34 comments:

G said...

Um, yeah...duh?

sorry to your bubble was burst, but people are people regardless of profession or stature...sadly more of ten than not Dr. House is right.

The Cousin said...

This is crap. It is cleverly disguised crap, and if you read the book thinking that it's been written by an esteemed professor, and therefore he has done his research and is above misrepresenting ideas, creating syllogisms that don't apply, or otherwise lying by omission or by the way he has phrased something (even if not outright), it's easy to be confused. But in the end, it is crap, and just goes to show that simply because something is academia does not make it true, or right, or mean that the researcher has done his research appropriately.

Yes, there's quite a bit of that in the Ivory Tower of Academia. Moreso in the social sciences and the humanities but there's a bit in the natural sciences as well. The names of certain academics almost instantly ocme to mind (but I won't name names right now--to be polite)

One of the most important skills I learned was in school was to how to "sift" through and evaluate information.

Ezzie said...

These include the belief that the professor knows more than the student, that the professor is well-versed in his specialty and that if an important professor writes a book, it is a work which should be taken very seriously, as it is impossible that the book would be published were it merely a shoddily researched tome.

Before I read the rest, I seriously couldn't help but chuckle to myself. Thank you. :D

Also, what G said.

And the cousin.

yesod shel limud said...

as really G said human are human they are given the gift of intellect but are still limited in many ways
let's be happy that were limited that Hashem runs world and be Zocheh to truly see the good of hashem for us

( Thanks For the post keep good work)

Ben Rosenfeld

an old friend said...

Chana, I can see how something like this is disturbing to you. You are known to be careful with your words, someone who does thorough research and a person who addresses situations with fairness and consideration . When you measure others by your standards and they fall short,it is unsettling, to say the least. Keep on moving forward and making this world a better place for yourself,your friends,your readers and etc. I will always be expecting great things from you,your wisdom and your ability to share your light and grace with all of us. Have a good shabbos!

yu student said...

I'm with you on this one!
Nice usage of examples!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately you will find this outside of academia as well. How much is the end leading the reading of the means and how much is just mendacious is an interesting question(and I don't know how self-aware any one particular person or group is)
KT
Joel Rich

Moshe said...

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

Mark Twain

Glad we're learning some critical readings skills here folks.

ClooJew said...

Chana,

First off, you should not have been at all surprised at the shoddiness of the material, as everything you quoted was, lulei demistafina, published in a BOOK. I mean, it's not like this stuff was published on a BLOG, where all is true and flawless.

Second, you failed to mention another part of the Hagaddah that was lifted directly from a secular source. Chad Gadyah as we all know is nothing more than a Jewish take on "Mary had a little lamb."

Talk about needing to do your own research. Sheesh!

Izgad said...

“… just goes to show that simply because something is academia does not make it true, or right, or mean that the researcher has done his research appropriately.”

Curious Jew

Who claims that just because something is written by an academic it is true, right or that the researcher has done his work properly? Not even academics claim this. Academics make a living by ripping into each other. In a sense they are the human equivalents of piranhas.
Yisroel Yuval is a very controversial scholar. He makes a lot of very interesting arguments, though they are often quite speculative. You might have an easier time with his work if you think of him as a theorist, suggesting possible lines of enquiry and not someone dealing with hard evidence. He is the sort of person that you are supposed to go: "what the f#%$ has he been smoking? I want some!"
Yuval is best known for an essay he wrote back in 1993 on the blood libel. He argued that the charge of ritual murder originated in the wake of the first crusade. Christians saw Jews murder their own children in order to arouse God’s wraith against the gentile nations and assumed that Jews were also out to murder Christian children. The entire next issue of Zion was devoted to publishing responses. The essay is a lot of fun. If you can handle the Hebrew you should definitely read it.

Stubborn and Strong said...

are you alive? i wrote to you twice in facebook and gmail so i will try here if it will get your attention! where are you for tishea b'av? do you want to come for this shabbos and spent sunday at my house for tishea b'av? please call or email me thank you!

Anonymous said...

>Second, you failed to mention another part of the Hagaddah that was lifted directly from a secular source. Chad Gadyah as we all know is nothing more than a Jewish take on "Mary had a little lamb."

Mary had a little lamb 1750, chad gadya 1300.

Anonymous said...

Second, you failed to mention another part of the Hagaddah that was lifted directly from a secular source. Chad Gadyah as we all know is nothing more than a Jewish take on "Mary had a little lamb."

Why the hell doesn't this false and idiot statement, to a level worthy of the above mentioned scholar, get a lulei demistafina?

Anonymous said...

Nevertheless, I have recently been taught (thank you, Jordan) to read everything with a more critical eye.
===========================
Chana,
Could you expand on this thought a bit, is this critical eye limited to reading academia or does it extend to observing the world around you.
KT
Joel Rich

Chana said...

old friend,

You know me very well, and are always right on with your assessments. I don't know if there is a particular reason you choose to remain anonymous, but if not, I'd love to know who you are (you can email me.)

everyone else except my cousin,

Unlike the rest of you, I hold professors to certain standards, and am upset when they don't match up to them.

my cousin,

I love you and will continue this conversation with you via a different medium. ;-)

ClooJew said...

"Mary had a little lamb 1750, chad gadya 1300."

"Why the hell doesn't this false and idiot statement, to a level worthy of the above mentioned scholar, get a lulei demistafina?"

Is there anyone else in the room who thought, lulei demistafina, that I was being SERIOUS???

yesod shel limud said...

you mention an interesting point in your response chana people at times aren't cracked up to what there supposed to be we see them do one thing and out of either them needing to change for improvement or through being someone there not go another way kinda sad that happens but at the end of the day we need to see people good have offer and for really who they are in portrayal to the world
that Zocheh good uplift us good see

Thanks for your wise words

Ben Rosenfeld

Anon said...

I'm ready for a new post.
Thanks.

G said...

I hold professors to certain standards, and am upset when they don't match up to them.
---------

Why?

Seriously, why "professors" any more than anybody else?

Anonymous said...

g raises an interesting question - do you hold limudei kodesh teachers to the same standard?
KT
Joel Rich

Chana's former classmate said...

Joel Rich,
I attended the same BY High school as Chana and can tell you without a doubt that Chana does hold all limudei kodesh teachers to the same standard. Chana takes education very seriously and it doesn't matter if its secular or not.

Izgad said...

Chana's former classmate

Joel raised an important question considering the glowing posts Curious Jew recently wrote about the Haredi world. She moved from lyrical praises of the Haredi world to vitriolic attacks on academics. Notice that she did more than attack Yuval. She also made some fairly generalized remarks about the academic world.

Chana's former classmate said...

Izgad,are you and I reading the same posts by Chana? If yes,then your perception of them is different from mine.

Chana said...

Izgad, my former classmate and Joel Rich,

Ideally, every educator should have a competent grasp of the material which he is teaching and be able to say "I don't know" if he truly does not know something. I have had unfortunate experiences with Limudei Kodesh teachers and therefore no longer expect them to know very much (although it depends who they are- I expect the established teacher to know more than the recent seminary graduate.) I was only evincing my disappointment with academics who are not up to snuff; that does not mean I don't take Jewish teachers to task as well. On the contrary, I attempt to look at every source through a critical lens, no matter their religious affiliation or lack thereof.

ssecunda said...

Just came across this wonderful blog!

A critical eye is of course laudable. Still, two important points. You assume that this book is written by an esteemed and respected professor. Most in the field recognize that Yuval's work of late has been off the deep end. Also, you seem to be unaware of the politics of the scholarly habit of citing prior works. Galit Hasan-Rokem is quoted not because anything she says must be true, rather because Yuval accepts her thesis and gives her credit. By the way, matter of the spelling of yitush/ titus, is immaterial. These stories would have been created and transmitted orally. To assess the parallel you need to have a background in Rabbinic Hebrew, as well as babylonian and palestinian aramaic phonology. I think Galit's claim is actually worth considering.

As for your comments in #2, here I think a basic understanding of the NT and Early Christianity would serve you well. There is an organic relationship between Matthew's comments and Jewish practice at the Seder. I think this is obvious.

Keep up the critical eye - but be careful to critique resopnsably and not assume that Yisrael Yuval's scholarship is representative of anything real going on in academic Jewish studies.

For a related treatment I highly recommend Peter Schaefer's Jesus in the Talmud - though you will come across similarly wild claims!

Anonymous said...

ssecunda said...


R" DR" Shai Secunda?

KT
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

ssecunda: notice Chana threw that in as a side point and did not use that as a pointed criticism- obviously they may sound the same, but that is no reason for Yuval to go discussing it as a fact without addressing the points of rabbinic hebrew as you pointed out. with regards to the haggadah, what does that have to do with anything,are you saying the quote from the hagada and Yuvals "parallel" is something that makes an iota of sense? and Chana did not say she has a problem with wild theories, she said that to present it in the way he does is disingenuous and dishonest on the part of Yuval as well as the publisher

G said...

For the record, my comment had nothing to do with limudies kodesh versus limudie chol.

It was a question of why do you expect more out of "professors" than anybody else?

On the contrary, I attempt to look at every source through a critical lens, no matter their religious affiliation or lack thereof...taking this one more step why does their academic status matter?

ssecunda said...

"that is no reason for Yuval to go discussing it as a fact without addressing the points of rabbinic hebrew as you pointed out."

Actually, the other aspect of the scholarly habit of citation is that Yuval would expect the reader to look up the Hasan-Rokem article that makes the connection between titus=yitush and should do so.

"with regards to the haggadah, what does that have to do with anything,are you saying the quote from the hagada and Yuvals "parallel" is something that makes an iota of sense?"

Yes. While I don't buy into Yuval's method of reading which sees polemic everywhere, I do think that there is a startling correspondence between:
Titus=Yitush in the Jewish folktale, and Vespasian=Vespa (Lat. wasp). A perusal through any old baby-naming dictionary will tell you that the Vespasian is: "From the Roman cognomen Vespasianus, derived either from Latin vesper meaning "west" or "evening" or vespa meaning "wasp". This was the name of a 1st-century Roman emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the founder of the Flavian dynasty."
It was (and is?) quite common to play with the names of leaders and politicians (just look at the brilliant if tasteless front- covers of the NY post and Daily News) and even construct narratives and folktales from them.
Thus, the fact that Der Wilde Mann tells a Christian tale about wasps nesting in Vespasian's head (see Yuval, p. 41), which almost certainly derives from Vespasian=Vesta, and the Bavli tells a story about another flying insect invading the roman ruler that is hinted to in his name, is a pretty strong parallel. Also, as you can see in the footnotes, this is not Yuval's hidush. Indeed, this whole section is probably the strongest part in the book.
However, I've found that it is almost impossible to convince someone about what is intellectually "convincing"!

Baruch said...

Dr. Secunda,
Thanks for coming on down to the blogosphere and shmoozing about these issues with those of us who are curious!

If you get a chance, maybe you could check out my blog. I'd be very appreciative.

ssecunda said...

But the way, Yuval's discussion of dibbur and logos is based on over a century of research, which should be assessed on its own merits. See the list in Daniel Boyarin, Borderlines (2004), p. 300 fn. 42.

wolf2191 said...

"It was (and is?) quite common to play with the names of leaders and politicians "

Look at the poem in the beginning of I, Claudius - Caesar means hairy man - w/o hair (he was bald)...

And then there are any number of jokes based on Cicero's name (chick-pea in Latin).

anon said...

Chana,it's time for a new post.
Thanks.

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