Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 19, 2007

The Bible as Blank Slate

In an ongoing, multi-part series called Blogging the Bible on Slate, David Plotz offers comments on his first reading of large parts of the Hebrew Bible. At his best he is superb. He is selling innocence and a new viewpoint—two commodities you might have believed the world was fresh out of when it comes to the Bible, the mightiest text of all, most famous and most exhaustively-studied book known to man. Yet, amazingly, it is all new to Plotz, and his loss is our gain: we experience his fascination, excitement, and occasional joy alongside him as he discovers the narrative genius and moral profundity of the good book.

But to reach these peaks of fine writing Plotz’s readers must slog through the usual nonsense about the alleged contradictions and cruelties of the Hebrew Bible, written with as much vigorous outrage as if these observations had just occurred to mankind yesterday afternoon. Worse is Plotz’s passivity: repeatedly he writes (frankly and openly) that “I don’t know” or “I wonder”—but virtually never cracks a book or calls in an expert to find out. He waits for the answer to come to him, in the form of emails from readers. His commentary suggests a whole new way to do research: if you want to learn about topic X, write an essay about it and your readers will teach you.
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In an ongoing, multi-part series called Blogging the Bible on Slate, David Plotz offers comments on his first reading of large parts of the Hebrew Bible. At his best he is superb. He is selling innocence and a new viewpoint—two commodities you might have believed the world was fresh out of when it comes to the Bible, the mightiest text of all, most famous and most exhaustively-studied book known to man. Yet, amazingly, it is all new to Plotz, and his loss is our gain: we experience his fascination, excitement, and occasional joy alongside him as he discovers the narrative genius and moral profundity of the good book.

But to reach these peaks of fine writing Plotz’s readers must slog through the usual nonsense about the alleged contradictions and cruelties of the Hebrew Bible, written with as much vigorous outrage as if these observations had just occurred to mankind yesterday afternoon. Worse is Plotz’s passivity: repeatedly he writes (frankly and openly) that “I don’t know” or “I wonder”—but virtually never cracks a book or calls in an expert to find out. He waits for the answer to come to him, in the form of emails from readers. His commentary suggests a whole new way to do research: if you want to learn about topic X, write an essay about it and your readers will teach you.

This lack of curiosity may be deliberate. In his introduction to the series, Plotz tells us that his aim is to “find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.” Undeniably this approach has its moments. When David sings his lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, Plotz doesn’t recognize this most famous elegy in the history of the world. Yet he does recognize its greatness (all on his own, not because anyone tipped him off); and he is unfailingly honest about his ignorance. “David sings a gorgeous lament about the deaths [of Saul and son]. (Hey, language mavens! This song is the source of the phrase: `How the mighty are fallen.’)”

But innocence can be overdone—to the point where you question the author’s competence as a literate reader. In the middle of his discussion of Leviticus 19, which Plotz calls the “most glorious chapter of the Bible” (a lovely phrase), we read: “’Love your fellow as yourself’—Ever wonder where Jesus got ‘Love thy neighbor’? Not anymore.” The most famous sentence in the Hebrew Bible is news to Plotz. What does a man know if he doesn’t know this? Not that Plotz is alone in his ignorance—but ignorance this dramatic makes a peculiar basis for offering yourself as a commentator.

Of course any way you look at it, it takes plenty of swagger, arrogance, or what you will to write a commentary on a book you have only read in translation, consulting no commentaries in the process. Plotz notes that “In second Creation [the story beginning in Genesis 2:4], the woman is made to be man’s ‘helper.’ In Chapter 1 they are made equal.” But this word “helper,” which troubles Plotz, originates in one of the most celebrated untranslatables of the Bible. God actually says, in Genesis 2:18, that He will create Eve to be ezer k’negdo; the King James Bible translates, “I will make him [Adam] an help meet for him” (whence the word “helpmeet”). Actually the preposition neged (as in k’negdo) means “in sight of” or “standing opposite to” or “over and against.” The sentence ought to be translated, “I will make him a helper standing eye-to-eye with him,” or “a helper as his counterpart”—as most modern commentaries point out. Eve is Adam’s assistant, but she measures up to Adam; she is Adam’s counterpart; in no sense is she a lesser human being. Hence one of the most astounding sentences in the Bible, which Plotz passes over without a word, in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” A man will leave his parents, a man will cleave to his wife? Ancient listeners would have stopped dead in their tracks. But Plotz keeps right on going.

It is sadly typical of modern intellectual life that Plotz is willing to be honestly, innocently surprised by nearly anything in the Bible except its frequent departures from anti-feminist type-casting. But his most serious error is to misrepresent the very process of Jewish Bible reading. He calls himself a “proud Jew” (more power to him); he acknowledges the immense quantity of rabbinic Bible commentary (in the Talmud and midrash) of which he is ignorant. But he fails to grasp that normative Jewish authorities do not read the Bible alongside the Talmud but through the Talmud. Thus he includes, for example, the usual tiresome stuff about all the death sentences imposed by Biblical law. But as Judaism reads these verses, there are no death sentences in the Bible: the Talmud (for better or worse) erects such elaborate procedural protections for the accused in capital cases that it virtually rules executions out. Which has been pointed out innumerable times before.

It might be fairest to say in the end that Plotz’s sins are the sins of his era and medium, but his virtues are his own. He is sometimes rambling and shallow—but Internet prose encourages shallow rambles. He is ignorant of religion and the Bible, but so are most educated people nowadays. On political topics he speaks with the freshness and spontaneity of a wind-up doll—after the defeat of the Israelites at Ai, Plotz writes, “A devastated Joshua tears his clothes in mourning, and tries to figure out what went wrong (Don’t you wish our leaders took war as seriously?)” But that’s life in America’s intellectual elite. On the other hand he writes with honesty and integrity and—on the whole—a sharp eye for brilliant prose and deep moral philosophy. Blogging the Bible is illuminating in more ways than one. Enjoy it, but read at your own risk.

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Barack’s Big Adventure

Barack Obama has formed a presidential exploratory committee, and is expected to announce his candidacy formally on February 10.

There’s a surprise.

Who doesn’t have an exploratory committee? Even Christopher Dodd has one. This is a very rich country, and it seems to behoove many people to give money to politicians for any semi-plausible reason. For the politicians themselves there is virtually no downside: running, becoming a national figure, losing and learning from your mistakes is excellent practice for—next time. Besides, it is so much more fun than being a serious Senator, engaged in the dull business of making policy choices and then making them again when the first set fail in unanticipated ways.

Some might find it offensively arrogant for a neophyte, with two years in the Senate, no experience running anything, and a thin resume to seek the nation’s highest office. But it’s hard to argue with the reception Obama has gotten. At a moment when national politics increasingly resembles a reality-TV show, his breezy, confident manner, good looks, and natural speaking talent all add up to a version of plausibility.

“Running for the Presidency is a profound decision, a decision no one should make on the basis of media hype or personal ambition alone,” he announced with a straight face on Wednesday. I must have missed the part of the announcement where he revealed the substantive rationale for his candidacy.

Obama is the perfect fresh face, the new “it girl,” on whom the left end of a very disenchanted electorate can project their hopes and dreams for . . . something different. He’s black, but not militant, not Al Sharpton. White mom, absent African dad: almost like Tiger Woods.

But then there’s the Clinton factor. The media are playing Obama’s candidacy as a big “diss” to Hillary on the part of Democratic primary voters who may regard her nomination as inevitable but are not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect. And she seems to be obliging them, by looking worried. But at the end of the day? I’d bet on Clintonian discipline and ruthlessness.

In fact, Obama is a pretty good foil for Hillary. He makes her look experienced, reasonable, mature, serious. And did I mention mature?

Barack Obama has formed a presidential exploratory committee, and is expected to announce his candidacy formally on February 10.

There’s a surprise.

Who doesn’t have an exploratory committee? Even Christopher Dodd has one. This is a very rich country, and it seems to behoove many people to give money to politicians for any semi-plausible reason. For the politicians themselves there is virtually no downside: running, becoming a national figure, losing and learning from your mistakes is excellent practice for—next time. Besides, it is so much more fun than being a serious Senator, engaged in the dull business of making policy choices and then making them again when the first set fail in unanticipated ways.

Some might find it offensively arrogant for a neophyte, with two years in the Senate, no experience running anything, and a thin resume to seek the nation’s highest office. But it’s hard to argue with the reception Obama has gotten. At a moment when national politics increasingly resembles a reality-TV show, his breezy, confident manner, good looks, and natural speaking talent all add up to a version of plausibility.

“Running for the Presidency is a profound decision, a decision no one should make on the basis of media hype or personal ambition alone,” he announced with a straight face on Wednesday. I must have missed the part of the announcement where he revealed the substantive rationale for his candidacy.

Obama is the perfect fresh face, the new “it girl,” on whom the left end of a very disenchanted electorate can project their hopes and dreams for . . . something different. He’s black, but not militant, not Al Sharpton. White mom, absent African dad: almost like Tiger Woods.

But then there’s the Clinton factor. The media are playing Obama’s candidacy as a big “diss” to Hillary on the part of Democratic primary voters who may regard her nomination as inevitable but are not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect. And she seems to be obliging them, by looking worried. But at the end of the day? I’d bet on Clintonian discipline and ruthlessness.

In fact, Obama is a pretty good foil for Hillary. He makes her look experienced, reasonable, mature, serious. And did I mention mature?

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Louis Kahn at Yale

The Yale Art Gallery, which reopened last month after a three-year renovation, eminently warrants a visit, but not only for its collection. That collection, to be sure, is splendid, highlighted by Vincent van Gogh’s Night Café (1888), his deeply disconcerting interior “with an atmosphere like the devil’s furnace.” But the building itself is a major work of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) and a visit reminds us why he was as important an architect in the second half of the 20th century as Frank Lloyd Wright was in the first.

Kahn was a late bloomer who came right down to the wire, creating no works of distinction or originality until he was fifty. This was the dilemma of his entire generation, which was steeped in the academic classicism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Their aesthetic was rendered obsolete almost overnight after 1929, first with the Depression and then with the arrival of European modernists fleeing Nazi Germany. Kahn embraced the flowing space and the abstract volumetric play of modernism, but he never quite jettisoned his classical roots.

Now disencumbered of its later accretions, the Yale Art Gallery depicts Kahn just as he was struggling to reconcile modernism with the lessons of architectural history. All of the devices of high modernism appear in it: the flat roof, the flowing interior space, the laconic expression of wall planes, even the innovative space frame that demonstratively carries the ceiling (or rather rhetorically carries it, since Kahn’s proposed system was too progressive for local building laws). And yet the building also has about it a sense of profound weight and solemnity that recalls the great monuments of the ancient world.

In a certain sense, the building is a failure, for Kahn could not integrate his ideas. The austere masonry cylinders in which the stairs are threaded speak a different architectural language than the all-glass wall facing the building’s courtyard. A decade would pass before his personal architectural language would emerge in such masterpieces as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

Our academic institutions do not always do right by their historic architecture, yet Yale has done so here. Even better, across the street from the gallery is Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, his last building. I know of no other place in America where you can take the whole measure of an architect’s career so poignantly.

The Yale Art Gallery, which reopened last month after a three-year renovation, eminently warrants a visit, but not only for its collection. That collection, to be sure, is splendid, highlighted by Vincent van Gogh’s Night Café (1888), his deeply disconcerting interior “with an atmosphere like the devil’s furnace.” But the building itself is a major work of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) and a visit reminds us why he was as important an architect in the second half of the 20th century as Frank Lloyd Wright was in the first.

Kahn was a late bloomer who came right down to the wire, creating no works of distinction or originality until he was fifty. This was the dilemma of his entire generation, which was steeped in the academic classicism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Their aesthetic was rendered obsolete almost overnight after 1929, first with the Depression and then with the arrival of European modernists fleeing Nazi Germany. Kahn embraced the flowing space and the abstract volumetric play of modernism, but he never quite jettisoned his classical roots.

Now disencumbered of its later accretions, the Yale Art Gallery depicts Kahn just as he was struggling to reconcile modernism with the lessons of architectural history. All of the devices of high modernism appear in it: the flat roof, the flowing interior space, the laconic expression of wall planes, even the innovative space frame that demonstratively carries the ceiling (or rather rhetorically carries it, since Kahn’s proposed system was too progressive for local building laws). And yet the building also has about it a sense of profound weight and solemnity that recalls the great monuments of the ancient world.

In a certain sense, the building is a failure, for Kahn could not integrate his ideas. The austere masonry cylinders in which the stairs are threaded speak a different architectural language than the all-glass wall facing the building’s courtyard. A decade would pass before his personal architectural language would emerge in such masterpieces as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

Our academic institutions do not always do right by their historic architecture, yet Yale has done so here. Even better, across the street from the gallery is Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, his last building. I know of no other place in America where you can take the whole measure of an architect’s career so poignantly.

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Crunching Freedom’s Numbers

Yesterday I reported on how the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung managed to spin the release of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2007 as an anti-Bush story. Here are some of the interesting points that the survey highlights when read without DeYoung’s intensely ideological spectacles.

Freedom House notes that 90 countries qualify as “free,” which is 47 percent of the world’s 193 independent states. As for the remainder, 30 percent are “partly free” and 23 percent are “not free.” The percentage of “free” countries has not increased appreciably over nine years, leading Freedom House to comment that the progress of freedom is “stagnating.”

Perhaps. But Freedom House also reports that 30 years ago the number of “free” countries was a mere 42, or 26 percent of the total, and that the number of “not free” countries stood at 68, or 43 percent of the total. Compare these two sets of numbers, and the degree of transformation is startling. The number of “free” countries has more than doubled, while the number of “not free” has decreased by more than one-third. To put it another way, a mere 30 years ago, “not free” countries outnumbered the “free” ones by more than 50 percent. Today, there are fully twice as many “free” countries as “not free” ones.

In addition to its freedom scale, Freedom House also counts “electoral democracies.” This number includes all of the “free” countries plus some of those ranked “partly free,” i.e., countries where the government has been elected in an honest multiparty contest but where some of the other attributes of freedom, like a reliable court system, are lacking. The number of countries governed by rulers chosen by the people has reached 123, or 64 percent. We have, in sum, witnessed a revolution in the norms of governance in the past thirty years. Most (but not all) of this is due to the West’s triumph in the cold war. That this steep curve has flattened out over the last few years might be called “stagnation.” But it might just as well be termed a period of consolidation amidst rapid, epochal change.

A noteworthy P.S.: Only eight countries scored a worst-possible 7 on Freedom House’s numerical scores. These are Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. (Iraq was not, as DeYoung erroneously claimed, among them.)

Yesterday I reported on how the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung managed to spin the release of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2007 as an anti-Bush story. Here are some of the interesting points that the survey highlights when read without DeYoung’s intensely ideological spectacles.

Freedom House notes that 90 countries qualify as “free,” which is 47 percent of the world’s 193 independent states. As for the remainder, 30 percent are “partly free” and 23 percent are “not free.” The percentage of “free” countries has not increased appreciably over nine years, leading Freedom House to comment that the progress of freedom is “stagnating.”

Perhaps. But Freedom House also reports that 30 years ago the number of “free” countries was a mere 42, or 26 percent of the total, and that the number of “not free” countries stood at 68, or 43 percent of the total. Compare these two sets of numbers, and the degree of transformation is startling. The number of “free” countries has more than doubled, while the number of “not free” has decreased by more than one-third. To put it another way, a mere 30 years ago, “not free” countries outnumbered the “free” ones by more than 50 percent. Today, there are fully twice as many “free” countries as “not free” ones.

In addition to its freedom scale, Freedom House also counts “electoral democracies.” This number includes all of the “free” countries plus some of those ranked “partly free,” i.e., countries where the government has been elected in an honest multiparty contest but where some of the other attributes of freedom, like a reliable court system, are lacking. The number of countries governed by rulers chosen by the people has reached 123, or 64 percent. We have, in sum, witnessed a revolution in the norms of governance in the past thirty years. Most (but not all) of this is due to the West’s triumph in the cold war. That this steep curve has flattened out over the last few years might be called “stagnation.” But it might just as well be termed a period of consolidation amidst rapid, epochal change.

A noteworthy P.S.: Only eight countries scored a worst-possible 7 on Freedom House’s numerical scores. These are Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. (Iraq was not, as DeYoung erroneously claimed, among them.)

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Missing Sharon

I was thinking this morning of Ariel Sharon, who has just finished his first year in a coma at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. It’s a funny thing. One misses him, wishes he still were prime minister, almost physically longs for the broad, unflappable bulk of him to protect Israel from its current political unraveling—and knows he is to blame for a good part of it.

It was Sharon, after all, who threw a bomb, called “the big bang” by political commentators, into Israel’s political scene by bolting the Likud and creating a new centrist party, Kadima, that went on, after his stroke, to win the March 2006 elections under the leadership of Ehud Olmert.

New centrist parties in Israel indeed have a long record of starting with a bang and ending, being ex nihilo creations with no political infrastructure, with a whoosh of escaping air. This is almost certain to happen to Kadima too, especially if Olmert is forced to resign on corruption charges in the coming months—the difference being that this time, precisely because of Kadima’s electoral victory, unprecedented for a first-time-around party, its blow-out will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the Israeli political scene. A veteran politician like Ariel Sharon should have known better.

He also should have known better than to found Kadima as a single-issue party, with unilateral disengagement as the only real plank in its platform. Unilateral disengagement is now dead in the water, killed by last summer’s unsuccessful war against Hizbullah and the specter of a Lebanon-like West Bank, and Kadima has been a rudderless ship ever since. And although the outbreak and conduct of the war in Lebanon can’t be pinned on Sharon, the years of Hizbullah’s build-up in the Lebanese south after Israel’s withdrawal from there in 2000 took place entirely on his watch. So did the lack of coherent military planning for a major confrontation with Hizbullah that was the main reason for last summer’s botched campaign, which has now resulted in chief of staff Dan Halutz’s resignation. An old general like Sharon should have known better, too.

One wishes he were back. There’s no other Israeli politician large enough to make up for his blunders.

I was thinking this morning of Ariel Sharon, who has just finished his first year in a coma at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. It’s a funny thing. One misses him, wishes he still were prime minister, almost physically longs for the broad, unflappable bulk of him to protect Israel from its current political unraveling—and knows he is to blame for a good part of it.

It was Sharon, after all, who threw a bomb, called “the big bang” by political commentators, into Israel’s political scene by bolting the Likud and creating a new centrist party, Kadima, that went on, after his stroke, to win the March 2006 elections under the leadership of Ehud Olmert.

New centrist parties in Israel indeed have a long record of starting with a bang and ending, being ex nihilo creations with no political infrastructure, with a whoosh of escaping air. This is almost certain to happen to Kadima too, especially if Olmert is forced to resign on corruption charges in the coming months—the difference being that this time, precisely because of Kadima’s electoral victory, unprecedented for a first-time-around party, its blow-out will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the Israeli political scene. A veteran politician like Ariel Sharon should have known better.

He also should have known better than to found Kadima as a single-issue party, with unilateral disengagement as the only real plank in its platform. Unilateral disengagement is now dead in the water, killed by last summer’s unsuccessful war against Hizbullah and the specter of a Lebanon-like West Bank, and Kadima has been a rudderless ship ever since. And although the outbreak and conduct of the war in Lebanon can’t be pinned on Sharon, the years of Hizbullah’s build-up in the Lebanese south after Israel’s withdrawal from there in 2000 took place entirely on his watch. So did the lack of coherent military planning for a major confrontation with Hizbullah that was the main reason for last summer’s botched campaign, which has now resulted in chief of staff Dan Halutz’s resignation. An old general like Sharon should have known better, too.

One wishes he were back. There’s no other Israeli politician large enough to make up for his blunders.

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