What I’ve been reading

1. Michael Meyer, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.  Adam Minter has a very good and useful review of a very good book.  The main lesson, beyond the specific and often fascinating vignettes, is that history is everywhere, and everywhere is interesting if only you know how to read the open book.

2. Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East.  An engaging look at a time and place of increasing relevance for today’s global problems.

3. Bill Gifford, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying).  An informative, entertaining, and yet non-sensationalistic account of recent (and some not so recent) attempts to conquer aging.  It avoids the temptation of exaggerating the science and also turning all of the profiled individuals into “colorful characters.”  A genuinely good book.

4. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.  Imagine taking an underdiscussed (by most people) book of the Bible and showing its connections to politics and the legitimation of authority, to spiritual yearning, to overcoming trauma, and to Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories of the ambiguity of desire.  This is all done from a theologically Jewish point of view, incorporating the midrash as well.  That may sound like a bit much, but I found this book fully captivating — virtually every paragraph is substantive and interesting — and it will definitely make my “best of the year” list.  I will buy more books by her as well.

Comments

OT: Students of Sweet Briar are trying to raise $20m to save the school. That's $30k per student. They've hired Troutman Sanders, an Amlaw100 firm, to fight the closure. http://savingsweetbriar.com/

"Imagine taking an underdiscussed (by most people) book of the Bible and showing its connections to politics and the legitimation of authority, to spiritual yearning, to overcoming trauma, and to Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories of the ambiguity of desire. This is all done from a theologically Jewish point of view, incorporating the midrash as well."

Theological trash. What if a Hindu author were to do something similar using Hindu scriptures? Would you link that on your blog? Oh yeah...that would be "hindu revivalism".

It's ridiculous to see all these European authors with a great pagan heritage behind them embrace this middle eastern theological nonsense with the typical zeal of a convert.

I find this comment disgusting. Tyler simply found this book insightful and you imagine, just imagine, he abhors anything Hindu!!! Years ago India Today magazine, a popular news weekly in India, had a cover story on Chinmayananda, witht he title: "Crusader for Hinduism". That does not mean the editors find non-Hindu faiths hateful!
And yes, if Tyler fins anything substantial written from a Hindu/Buddhist/Islamic etc viewpoint he would appreciate that too. See the chapter on Buddhist meditation in his book Infovore .

By the way, I think all religion is trash. Unlike you, I hold Hindu theology is also trash.

I never imagined any such thing.

All I did was to bemoan this unhealthy obsession that over 50% of this world has with those desert religions, much to the exclusion of everything else.
The West ought to honour its Greco-Roman pagan past a lot more than it does. And move away from its Judeo-Christian roots.

Theological trash. If a pagan author did something similar using pagan lore, they wouldn't be linked to by this blog, they would simply be "pagan revivalists".

A good start would be to write the equivalent of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, about the martyrdom of all those pagans persecuted when the Roman Empire switched to Christianity.

I'm sure future generations will feel the same about, The Blogger's Book of Martyrs, a litany of all the downtrodden internet commentors who were forced to read blog posts whose topics they disagreed with or found uninteresting.

As Borges wrote, "every educated man is a theologian and faith is not a requisite."

4. Wow, her books have been on my to read list for a while but this review just bumped them up to 1st place! I believe her name is Avivah though, not Aviah.

I'm glad you found Avivah Zornberg. She's brilliant. "The Beginning of Desire" is a great book.

These spiritual books that try to incorporate science to their analysis are interesting indeed. It reminds me of the German Protestant tradition of making the miracles of Christ more believable by pointing out they are magic tricks and/or forces of nature at work. For example, the walking on water is simply walking on a submerged sandbar, as sometimes form during storms, while the feeding of multitudes from a single sack is simply the apostles not realizing the multitudes brought lunch with them, hidden away, so it was an optical illusion. Raising Lazarus from the dead? He was in one of those rare comas and snapped out of it. Isaiah making the sun go backwards? Hmm, maybe a magic trick of the David Copperfield making the Statute of Liberty disappear variety? BTW many magicians of the Roman era could do the same miracles as Jesus performed, and this was widely acknowledged even by critics of Jesus.

And then there's Immanuel Velikoksky...

The Bible itself acknowledges this. Pharaoh's magicians, Simon Magician. But I guess it can be attributed to demons.

Ray, I realize we're an obscure sect, but here's a basic view of Judaism and Science:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-geoffrey-a-mitelman/why-can-judaism-embrace-s_b_880003.html

Also, our greatest thinker, who was a physician and logician as well as a Rabbi, Maimonides, held this view:

"What would Maimonides do with that information? Rabbis Marc Angel and Natan Slifkin can both fairly be described as Modern Orthodox. Both stress Maimonides’ commitment to understand the natural world and to seek its underlying Truth. Angel argues that “Rambam would surely not expect us to continue to operate on the basis of Ptolmaic theories.” (Angel, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (Jewish Lights 2009), at 162.) To the contrary, Angel contends that because of his rational approach, Maimonides would consider it foolish to reject what contemporary science has proven beyond a reasonable doubt. (Id. at 164.) Slifkin, too, acknowledges Rambam’s tendency to favor natural, non-miraculous explanations of phenomena and suggests that he would have no problem accepting modern scientific views on, for instance, cosmology and evolution. (See Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation (Zoo Torah, 2d Ed. 2008), at 62, 147, 221 n.1, 268, 343 n.2.)" http://www.jewishjournal.com/judaismandscience/item/wwmd_what_would_maimonides_do

I'll stick with Maimonides on this, but thanks for the response.

Of course, Maimonides was an atheist.

Maimonides, yes, a great thinker. I believe he essentially believed in compromise, since he was in the Spanish era where it did not pay to be dogmatic, on pain of death from the Inquisition. Hence he was a moderate. Let me Google this and see...well, Wikipedia does not quite support me, though Maimonides was modern not reactionary, and he lived a bit earlier than the classic Inquisition of Philip II, but Wikipedia is not always a comprehensive source. And this: (Wikipedia)" "Maimonides remains one of the most widely debated Jewish thinkers among modern scholars. He has been adopted as a symbol and an intellectual hero by almost all major movements in modern Judaism, and has proven immensely important to philosophers such as Leo Strauss "... Leo Strauss...again!

You are not sticking with Maimonides. You are sticking with what some 21st century Leftist who is all but assimilated to the Western world claims Maimonides said. That is not the same thing.

As with the HuffPo travesty. It is not a statement about Judaism. It is a statement from a dying sub-sect of highly assimilated Jews who have no basis in the historic past and will not survive in the future.

4. Applying Gematria to the Book of Numbers is too clever.

Better yet, applying Gematria to the Book of Numbers is too clever for words.

Thank you for these types of posts!

'The West ought to honour its Greco-Roman pagan past a lot more than it does. And move away from its Judeo-Christian roots.'

You need to troll a lot better than this. Throw in some reference to Islam as a 'desert religion,' at least - then you will get any number of responses.

This isn't a troll. This is a plea for people to pause for a moment and ponder over the deleterious impact of that mischievous cult which originated in Judea 2000 years ago on Western civilisation.

Let's take economic indicators of this impact as this is an economics blog. As per Maddison, the per-capita income of Italy in 0AD was higher, yes higher, than what it was in 1000 AD. Yes, you read that right. Tyler bemoans the so-called "Great Stagnation" of our times which has barely lasted half a century. How about a millennium of stagnation?

Let's talk culture. Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Euclid, Archimedes, Heredotus, Plutarch, Thucydides, Tacitus, Cicero, Solon. Now what do you get in return over the next 1000-1500 years? Bede, Roger Bacon, Aquinas? Haha. The classical heritage wins hands down over Judeo Christian civilisation.

And what more, this Judeo Christian ethos has promoted plebeian ideas that remain with us to this day. As evidenced by the redistributionist welfare systems you see all around you. Sorry. But the West did get a very raw deal from Asia by importing this religion. They'd have been better off importing Zoroastrianism, Buddhism or Hinduism.

The West did shrug off Christianity during the late middle ages and got itself re-acquainted with its classical past. But I suspect the shrugging-off wasn't as thorough as it should have been.

And yes. The only charitable thing one can say about the Judeo Christian tradition is that it compares very favourably with its great semitic rival that emerged from the same benighted region 600 years after Christ.

This is not a troll? Thanks for the warning.

Sorry. I guess it was.
But trolls can provoke constructive thought sometimes. Provided the readers are open-minded enough to withstand their precious beliefs being attacked.

'This is a plea for people to pause for a moment and ponder over the deleterious impact of that mischievous cult which originated in Judea 2000 years ago on Western civilisation.'

So, the Judeo part of Judeo-Christian is irrelevant? Because all three 'desert religions' consider the Old Testament to be the words of God, give or take a translation or two.

'As per Maddison, the per-capita income of Italy in 0AD was higher, yes higher, than what it was in 1000 AD.'

And yet, today, after 2000 years of the starting of that 'deleterious' cult, Italy's per-capita income is higher than both 0 CE and 1000 CE.

'it compares very favourably with its great semitic rival that emerged from the same benighted region 600 years after Christ'

Nice recovery - really, you have to go for all three 'desert religions' in such discussions.

Technical note - read how Socrates committed suicide due to what the classical world considered atheism - "not believing in the gods of the state" - before holding the classical world up too high. You can read more here - Xenophon's The Apology at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1171 and Plato's Apology at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1656

Plenty of ways to criticize 'deleterious' cults - no need to focus on just a couple, after all.

"So, the Judeo part of Judeo-Christian is irrelevant? Because all three ‘desert religions’ consider the Old Testament to be the words of God, give or take a translation or two"

Not irrelevant. But the Hebrew tradition did not really impact West (as in Western Europe) in any big way before the rise of Christianity.

"And yet, today, after 2000 years of the starting of that ‘deleterious’ cult, Italy’s per-capita income is higher than both 0 CE and 1000 CE"

That's despite Christianity, not because of it.

So the stagnation in income over 1000 years was entirely due to Christianity? Nothing about the fall of Rome, resulting wars, general fragmentation, etc.? All because the dominant religion changed?

I never said the decline was all about Christianity. It was one of the major factors.

Even the great Edward Gibbon agrees with me. He holds the rise of religion (i.e Christianity) as one of the major reasons for the decline of Europe in the 1st millennium.

Was that a stealth edit of "Aviva"? I think it was.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's work must be great. Can I just say that I admire this book review of another of Dr Zornberg's work:

From Publishers Weekly
In 1939, just before he died, Freud published Moses and Monotheism, his last creative effort. He applied psychoanalytic insights to the story of Moses. Using a somewhat similar approach, augmented by her skills in literary analysis, Zornberg (The Beginning of Desire), a Jerusalem resident and biblical scholar with a Cambridge Ph.D. in English literature, looks at several figures from the Bible, including Adam, Eve, Noah, Jonah, Esther, Abraham, Rebecca, Isaac, Joseph and Ruth. Unfortunately, Zornberg lacks Freud's ability to write clearly, so her text is dense and studded with such odd words as facticity, dysprovidential, conversive, transferential, problematizes, futural, asymbolia and performative. Also, she displays her impressive erudition by quoting obscure Talmudic, psychological and literary sources. The result is a hard-to-read treatise that will be of interest only to a small group of academics. (Mar.)

This is what Amazon thinks is the appropriate quote to sell the book. Can't wait myself.

In Judaism, we're not frightened by big words or difficult ideas. If you think the Talmud is obscure, believe me, there are lots of Jews, and probably others, who study it constantly. Also, I'm a fan of learning and erudition. The author of that review ( sic ) needs to study a bit more before giving their opinion. They might start by reading one of Neusner's many basic books on Judaism and the Talmud.

The problem is you assume that her difficult language is a mask for difficult ideas. Well, Freud was also Jewish. He also had a lot of difficult ideas - and to be honest a little bit of a liking for difficult language. So it makes you wonder how bad this book must be.

Someone hiding their lack of anything to say in obscure language is not proof of having interesting ideas. Read Derrida for example. Or Chomsky. If she cannot express what she means clearly, her editor should have sent the book back for a re-write.

Regarding 2 :

The West need not engage in self-flagellation and brood over its role in causing the downfall of the Ottomon Empire and the partitioning of the middle east.

The problems we face today in that region have got more to do with Islam per se and its inability to handle the civilisational rise of the West in a positive way. Islam, unlike say Buddhism or Hinduism, isn't just a personal faith. But an entire civilisation. The Western ascent was an affront to the Islamic way of life and stemmed the Islamic tide - which was practically unstoppable from 620 AD till about 1700 AD all over the world.

The redrawing of the borders is just a small blip in the region's history, about which the West shouldn't feel guilty at all. Islamic world has been violent and aggressive ever since Mohammed made his famous journey from Mecca to Medina. These are not problems engendered by any western policy or the Great War for that matter.

OK.

Who should the US invade next, then?

Another good book on Manchuria is Christie's "Thirty years in Moukden".

The Zornberg book is the sort of thing that one finds on bookshelves in apartments where the real-life equivalent of Srugim takes place. You should try hanging out in Katamon some time.

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