Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book review 349: The Jews in the Time of Jesus

THE JEWS IN THE TIME OF JESUS: an Introduction, by Stephen M. Wylen. 215 pages. Paulist paperback, $18.95

Rabbi Wylen’s survey (written for an undergraduate course) is balanced, humane and backwards.

In “Jews in the Time of Jesus,” one of his two main themes is that we don’t know much about the subject. Almost anything you might wish to think about the topic has to be hedged about with warnings about missing or obscure sources, accreted misunderstandings and prejudice.

Just so, but we do know one thing for certain sure: There never was a Jesus, if by that we mean a man who wandered around Judea (as it was called by the Romans) raising people from the dead. In 200 pages, Wylen never mentions it, though he does allude, briefly, to stories of other Jewish masters who were reported to raise the dead.

I’d have thought that was important, but Wylen says it is outside the scope of historical inquiry. I can imagine believers saying, well, so much for historical inquiry. Non-believers will say, so, what’s your point?

Wylen’s other points — if you can get beyond that big one — are good: that it is impossible to understand Christian scriptures without knowing Jewish practices (though these are more than a little unclear for the relevant period); that Christianity was not a development of and definitely not a replacement for Judaism but a parallel growth from earlier practices along with rabbinic Judaism — both enjoyed their great creative period about the same time.

The crux is, what was what Wylen calls “Second Temple Judaism”? How different was it from the pre-Exilic religion, and whence did it come? (Wylen would object to “religion” here; in our sense, it did not exist in ancient times. Each group followed its own “way,” but there was no sense of a separate religion, although Jews did believe in a separate covenant with one God.)

Summarizing recent (late 20th c.) scholarship, Wylen is scathing about the misunderstandings caused by ignorance of Jewish texts. He is on firm ground here. The funniest example was a Christian, Jeremias, who proclaimed that Jews addressed god as Father but never as Abba (Daddy) the way Jesus did, so opening a huge gap in the moral quality of the two religions, Judaism and Christianity.

Jeremias did not know Hebrew, so his cocksureness was ridiculous (but, in my experience, 100 proof Christian); but it was worse even than that. Jeremias sent his grad students (who did know Hebrew) searching for a Jewish Abba. They did not find one.

They would have had they looked in the Talmud, Wylen says in his most acid statement.

(It is hard to believe they would not have looked in the Talmud unless they were determined not to find what they claimed to look for.)

Wylen is not generally acid, preferring instead to hope for a mutually cordial interaction between Christians and Jews once they get to understand each other. For a Christian reader who is not conversant with Jewish thought, one of the benefits of reading “The Jews in the Times of Jesus” could be learning why Jews have been and still are insulted by common Christian conceptions, including some maintained by Christians who think of themselves as friends of Jews.

For someone who is not an evangelical Christian but was surrounded by them (as I was), the main lesson to be drawn from Wylen’s little book is that they really are the ignoramuses I always thought they were.

It is a main point for Wylen that the Pharisees were not the dry, cold, legalistic prigs that the early Christians said they were. Somewhat ironically, then, we know more about Jewish legal practices of the time because the Pharisees may not have been dry legists but they were intensely concerned with the law.

As a result, one of the few areas of Jewish life in the time of Jesus that Rabbi Wylen is quite confident about is court procedure. And it turns out that the story of the central drama of Christianity — the arrest, trial, conviction and execution of Jesus — cannot have occurred as described in the gospels, because, unlike non-capital trials, in Jewish procedure a trial and the sentence of death could not occur on the same day. Thus no capital trial could have been held on the day before Passover.

And so much for the inerrancy of the sacred texts.

Maui Snow job

I went to the cane smoke rally in Kihei Thursday. The first hour was pretty much fact-free, but that does not mean I did not learn something.

There were between 300 and 400 anti-smokers there, and I did not see a single AJA face among them. Not one. I did see more tie-dye than I have since the 2nd Atlanta International Pop Festival. That was in 1970.

If your political movement does not engage the AJAs, it isn’t going anywhere, no matter how much noise you make.

The second hour was the teach-in. I was deeply unimpressed.

There was, however, one relevant factoid, presented by Senator (and physician) Josh Green: one in four Hawaii keiki have “reactive airway disease.”

Far fewer — less than 5% — have ever experienced cane smoke, so it follows that if the middle-aged haoles of Kihei are looking for trouble, they are looking in the wrong place. It ain’t cane smoke.

Another factoid, new to me, came from Lorrin Pang, a public health physician I used to respect. It is difficult, he said, to design an epidemiological study to take out the effects of cane burning, because of the vog. And the effects of fog linger in an area for six days after the fog event has “ended.”

That would explain why my eyes were burning all last week — to the extent I was unable to sleep — although the tradewinds had returned. And why I can ignore the emotional testimony of the teacher from Kihei school who said her pupils come in with eyes watering and red. That’s how I go about, too, and I experience cane smoke not more that 3 or 4 times a year.

Pang lost me when he said he and his students had devised a control for a study of cane smoke.

It was not exact (of course), he said, because it involved daily indoor smoke and not occasional outdoor smoke. It was a World Health Organization study of health problems linked to people who cook over open wood or coal fires. Pang listed the diseases (by proportion affected), such as pneumonia (30%). Not listed: eye diseases.

We know (I do anyway) that the prevalence of blindness and eye troubles in premodern Europe were highly correlated with indoor smoke, and very common compared with today. So I was unimpressed.o

But I was disgusted by Joe Ritter, who presented himself as a researcher (for NASA) of particulates in the atmosphere. “Are the autoimmune diseases caused  by glyphosate? I don’t know,” he said. But,  in the meme so favored by snarkists: It would be irresponsible not to speculate.

You know what would impress me? A study showing that since the shut down of sugar plantations (which started nearly 40 years ago), the incidence of diseases that Kihei haoles want to blame on smoke has dropped significantly on Oahu, Hawaii and Kauai. Or West Maui.
Hint to Pang: There’s a study you can do without those pesky controls. It’s one of those natural experiments.

Here’s a factoid I can guarantee none of the people in that room want to know: Back when there were lots of cane workers and lots of cane smoke, the industrial subgroup with the longest life expectancy was — wait for it! — Hawaii cane workers.

You used to see the retirees, smoking like chimneys, playing hanafuda at Kahului Shopping Center, many of them still collecting pensions into their 90s. While I don’t suspect that smoke is good for us, you couldn’t contradict that from a global survey. We go out of our way to inhale smoke.

One of the questions that continues to disturb anthropologists — and has since at least the time of Aristotle — is how to define “human.” A way that excludes other animals we’d like to exclude, like chimpanzees. Here’s a way:

Humans are the only animals that make smoke so they can breathe it. And we have done so since we became humans. In a sense, smoke made us.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Firearms and the Founders

The Articles of Confederation don't get no respect. In general histories, they get only a line or two, explaining that they were cumbersome, or perhaps that they failed because they allowed the federal government no taxing power.

Perhaps, though, we should treat the Articles more respectfully. They were not the first voluntary compact intended to create a republic. The seven northern provinces of the Netherlands did that. But there is a lot of interesting stuff in there.

In the context of gun nuttery, there is this, Article VI:

. . . every state shall always keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutred, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipment.
Nothing there about individuals maintaining personal arsenals.

The men who wrote that clause -- perhaps we could call them Founding Uncles -- were immediately aware of, and some involved in, actual fighting. The articles were voted on in November 1777, just weeks after the Battle of Saratoga, which was the first significant victory of the rebels.

Clearly the Uncles thought of force and violence as something that was the province of the government, not of an undisciplined rabble, of which they had recently observed the useless expenditure of blood often enough. They had no love for a standing army but equally no illusions about the effectiveness of "embattled farmers."

War and bloodshed were serious business to them. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Restatement of the cool

Since I don't have a teevee, I seldom see President Obama, either in clips or extended appearances. From news reports and occasional audio clips, I have the sense that he's the most down-home politician in the country.

This video clip from The Washington Post confirms that. He really is a likeable guy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Take heart

This is my favorite kind of innovation: The kind that requires no investment but careful thinking.

RtO has from time to time cited the most successful investment in history, the creation of the Black Ball Line just about two hundred years ago. And at one time, when I was a reporter, I used to award the Red Cellophane Prize for innovation that benefitted everybody but the innovator.

(It was modeled on a slick idea that a physician had some 40 years ago: Instead of requiring every hospital laboratory to purchase a $5,000 red-lens microscope for a certain kind of test, just wrap red cellophane around the 'scope that every lab already had. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is not so common, so Red Cellophane Awards have not been made often.)

According to the New York Times
From 2003 to 2013, the death rate from coronary heart disease fell about 38 percent, according to the American Heart Association citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the primary federal agency that funds heart research, says this decline has been spurred by better control of cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced smoking rates, improved medical treatments — and faster care of people in the throes of a heart attack.
“It may not be long before cardiovascular disease is no longer the leading cause of death” in the United States, said Dr. Michael Lauer, the director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
 The red cellophane effect belongs to reducing the time to get people having an attack the correct treatment. For most attacks, that means within 90 minutes. It was achieved primarily by rethinking tasks: operational research.

The series is worth reading. This is why you should be reading newspapers (at least one).

My brother, an engineer, likes to tell the story about a car assembly plant where one in 25 new cars would not start. A new manager came in, called in the engineers and announced that from now on this plant would have 0 restarts.

The engineers nodded, took notes and started asking what budget the boss was allocating. This was a problem they could fix.

"No budget," said the boss.

The engineers protested. They were confident they could identify and correct the problem but it would take money.

It didn't.

When a car failed to start at the end of the assembly line, it was pushed into a repair shop nearby, where mechanics found the problem and corrected it.

The new boss moved that shop to the other side of the big parking lot. Faced with pushing thousands of cars hundreds of yards, the mechanics made sure the line workers understood how unhappy they would be if cars didn't start when finished.

Not all problems can be dealt with by the red cellophane approach, but all that can should be.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Color lines

The only winner in the Charleston shootings is Rachel Dolezal. Rachel who?

See, a few days ago she was on all the front pages, now she's gone.

Rap Brown said violence is as American as cherry pie. Changing your background is, too. Dolezal is not unusual in that.

Take Iron Eyes Cody, who portrayed an American Indian weeping about littering. He was born Espera Oscar de Corti in Louisiana; his parents were immigrants from Sicily.

Most of the changes are trivial or harmless. I knew a woman name Bodenstein who changed her name to Bodine because it "fitted in" better and was easier to handle for her clients. She was a real estate agent. Some are trivial but not entirely harmless. Janet Cooke, temporary holder of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, claimed to speak French but didn't.

Possibly her padding her resume helped push a more honest applicant out of the picture at the Washington Post, but knowing French was not relevant to her job interviewing English-speaking Americans.

(Cooke's French claim was harmless enough but I had not realized until I looked up her Wikipedia bio that she sold her lies to the movies for $1.6 mil, or about what she would have earned working as a Post reporter between 1981 and 1996. Except she didn't have to work. So not so overall harmless after all.)

Others are very harmful indeed, like Scott Hanson who faked being a doctor.

All this by way of introduction. RtO has no opinion about Dolezal. But she did say something that was true if not relevant to her employment.

I cannot find a link but it was along the lines of: We are all from Africa, aren't we? That gives me a chance to link to what I consider the cleverest political song of the last several years, Roy Zimmerman's "Rift Valley Drifters."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Who says Hawaii is a liberal state?

Not RtO, what with its loyalty oaths and so on. And its drive to confiscate Hawaiian land on Oahu a few years ago when lease rents were about to reset for a bunch of condo owners.

Same thing -- coming land rent resets -- is happening in Manhattan, according to the New York Times.

Remarkably, no one seems to be suggesting that the government step in and transfer the appreciation to the lessees.

There is a wrinkle that, so far as I know, is not a possibility in Honolulu:

The expiration of a lease is particularly fraught for land-lease co-ops that were once rent-regulated apartment buildings. When their land leases expire, these co-ops will be dissolved and the apartments will once again become rent regulated, with the landowner becoming the landlord, Mr. Saft said. Unless new terms are negotiated, the co-op shareholders could become tenants of their former homes.
 London is another city where values have increased a lot and that has  lot of leasehold housing, some of the leases going back to the Middle Ages. But, according to a commenter on the Times' story, in London the lessee can demand that the lessor sell, under court-supervised valuation.

Calling Peter Savio.

Gummint debt

Government debt, engine of prosperity
Governments have accumulated debts probably ever since there was a government, and -- as Paul Krugman writes in this column -- it is an unshakeable belief of rightwingers that this is a BAD THING, despite evidence to the contrary.

The prime example is England, which institutionalized its debt in 1694 (when the Bank of England was organized for the purpose of buying government bonds), touching off the greatest economic expansion in history.

Not many Americans know that, but you'd think some few Englishmen would, and that a Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasury secretary) would, for sure. But, as so often happens when you expect people to know obvious stuff (and otherwise there'd be no need for a blog called Restating the Obvious), they don't:

 In particular, one important factor in the recent Conservative election triumph was the way Britain’s news media told voters, again and again, that excessive government spending under Labour caused the financial crisis.

It takes almost no homework to show that this claim is absurd on multiple levels. For one thing, the financial crisis was global; did Gordon Brown’s alleged overspending cause the housing busts in Florida and Spain? For another, all these claims of irresponsibility involve rewriting history, because on the eve of crisis nobody thought Britain was being profligate: debt was low by historical standards and the deficit fairly small. Finally, Britain’s supposedly disastrous fiscal position has never worried the markets, which have remained happy to buy British bonds despite historically low yields.

Nonetheless, that’s the story, generally reported not as opinion but as fact. And the really bad news is that Britain’s leaders seem to believe their own propaganda. On Wednesday, George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the government’s austerity policies, announced his intention to make these policies permanent. Britain, he said, should have a law requiring that the government run a budget surplus — with current revenue paying for all spending, including investment outlays — when the economy is growing.
It’s a remarkable proposal, and I mean that in the worst way.
Readers who have been here for a while will remember that the globalization of the crash was a disproof of the rightwing claim that that Community Reinvestment Act caused our crash.  Remarkably, that idea is still being shopped and -- one supposes -- bought by the less reflective part of the citizenry that reads political statements.

RtO has been somewhat distracted by the covey of idiots vying for the rightwing vote in the coming elections and had almost forgotten how stubbornly the rightwing clings to its delusions. But the recent exchange between Jamie Dimon, criminal banker, and Senator Elizabeth Warren reminds us that the delusions are (as Krugman says) ineradicable.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Bad banana news

According to Bloomberg News, a new plague is sweeping bananadom, and this time there's no hope.

Well, let's hope it's overstated. There was a time, not so long ago, when Hawaii was almost in a panic about banana bunchy top virus, for which there was also no hope. But we still get some apple bananas. They usually cost more than imported Cavendishes, but most people think they taste better.