Talmud & The Casuistic Style (Shlomo Deshen & the Jews of Morocco)


Working through 18th and 19th century halakhic sources (in this case, responsa) to get a bead on traditional Moroccan Jewish life prior to formal colonial period (prior to the establishment of the French protectorate in 1912), Shlomo Deshen said something interesting in this classic study about the Talmud and the casuistic style.

In a comment that should bedevil the work of any social historian who relies on this material, Deshen writes:

“The reasoning of Talmudic sage, as they advance towards conclusions, frequently leads them to describe scenarios that could theoretically have arisen in the case discussed. The sages describe ways of action that protagonists could have chosen and other eventualities that could have arisen. Sometimes these scenarios are based on elements of real-life possibilities, but more often they are the products of legal minds that are steeped in Talmudic literature and precedents of other times and places. Insensitive reading of the responsa material sometimes leads researchers to impute reality to casuistic statements that are completely imaginary” (The Mellah Society: Jewish Community Life in Sherifian Morocco, p.12).

The same sensitivity should be required also of Jewish philosophers when they write about law and authority, and also about scholars of rabbinics who perform symptomatic readings of the texts in order to get a grip on social history and social tensions. Key words in Deshen’s statement include “theoretical,” “could have,” “scenarios,” “products,” “literature,” impute” and “completely imaginary,” and also””frequently” and “sometimes.”



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Holocaust Objects Are Small (Auschwitz at the Museum of Jewish Heritage)


Probably because it was close by and in New York City, I went to see “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” the big exhibition now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and then I went again. There are two parts to the exhibition. First is a thorough historical lesson, introducing the history of the Holocaust, the history of Oscwiecim and the history of the Auschwitz camps. This was the central spine of a travelling exhibition meant to serve broadly as a history lesson for a broad viewing public, including young people and non-Jews. Some of the prints, posters, drawings, photographs were original, but most were facsimiles created for the exhibition. They tell the large story. The second and more vital component part of the exhibition were the original object-artifacts from the site. These are on loan, mostly from what is officially the “Memorial Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau: Former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp.”

I went primarily interested in the artifact-objects. I went back a second time, because the first time I lost my grip, as it were, not sure what kind of pictures to take, of which kind of items. While they were not my primary interest, not in general and not for this blogpost, I spent some time on my first visit with the facsimile images because of their inherent interest; and in the process, I lost focus on the artifact-objects and, wisely, put the camera away. I went by myself back a second time, perhaps unwisely, to take more digital photos with something that might resemble a more clear focus.

This is what confused me about the artifact-objects on view at the Museum. In his book on Holocaust icons, Oren Stier writes about the emplacement and displacement of such artifact-objects when put on view. His interest concerns the felt public need for “authenticity” of the actual or “genuine” Holocaust artifact as a tactile object that puts the viewer in some sort of real and/or imagined contact with the event itself.  Noting the sense of “aura” such objects convey or seem to convey, Stier’s analysis is particularly attuned to fetishization, reproducibility, monumentality, mystification, and mythologization (Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing The Shoah in History and Memory, p.38).

My own confusion has to do with the monumentality of a Holocaust object.

Maybe one expects everything to look bigger, to be bigger. As Stier notes, the placing of even ordinary Holocaust artifacts conveys or is intended to convey the “enormity” of the Holocaust itself (p.35). It’s the metonymy that is the confusing thing. In relation to the scale of the event conveyed by the photographs, posters, wall mounts, and wall texts that form the narrative spine of the exhibition, the artifact-objects are, to a piece, physically small. That they are supposed to but cannot really stand in for the whole they are meant to reflect has to do with the problem of physical scale.

A case in point and as per Stier is the cattle car placed on view outside of the Museum. Its function as a Holocaust icon is intended to initiate the viewer into the exhibition inside. But as looked at solely as a visual object, the cattle car on view is a actually a very small physical thing, much smaller  than what one might have otherwise imagined. Looked at this way, all the objects on view had the same diminutive character. Small in size are the modest personal effects seized from the victims at their arrival to the camp. So too is the bunkbed from the Auschwitz KL, a soup caldron and wooden ladle, parts of the machinery pieces from the crematoria. Small too is the wheel carriage of a train and the concrete fence posting, both of which are exhibited inside the first main gallery along with a single red shoe in a glass vitrine. Expecting something monumental, one comes up against small artifact-objects.

Confusing at the exhibition is what’s confusing in life. This has to do with how objects in the center of the room are overwhelmed in relation to the photographs and wall-texts hanging behind and around them. The small objects are part of an enormous story that towers over the person confronted by the enormous historical arc of the Holocaust, its memory, and memorialization.

Confusing too is what happens when these objects are professionally photographed or placed in a room. Insofar as they fill up the entire frame of a photograph, one has already lost sight of the small size of the photographed objects; insofar as they are grouped together en masse to emblematize genocide, one loses sight of the individual object; insofar as the object is photographed in isolation, there is the problem of fetishization.

Confusing is the range of value between the very small size of the physical object juxtaposed to the very large as a historical and mental phenomenon, the ordinariness of objects that would otherwise not command a second of anyone’s attention. Setting aside questions about the aura of distance, this is a visual puzzle, not a metaphysical or ethical enigma.

Thinking back on the exhibition, one walks away from these kind of things kind of frightened, and a little repelled, as one continues to think about them. This too is a Holocaust object lesson.

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Tisha B’Av Lament (Reading Lamentations Rabbah)


No political hot take, Lamentations Rabbah, the rabbinic commentary to the biblical book, is an ambiguous lament. This is more true of the main body of the text as opposed to the by-and-large more “orthodox” proems, focused as these are upon Torah, mitzvot,  law, and sin. Quietistic, the main weeping body of the commentary more than suggests that the  crimes of the people were not such as to merit God’s punishing anger upon the body of Israel.

There are “historical” scenes and martyrologies (Yohanan ben Zakkai in Jerusalem, Bar Kochba, Bar Kamza, Miriam and her seven sons, and many others). Over the whole place hangs that punishing anger, the anger of God who abandons his consort, who beats his children to death, who takes the crown with which they adorned him and throws it in their face.

“Oh that My head were full of waters” (Jer. 8:23). God wants to return the world-palace to its former watery condition. In the end, it’s enough that we wake up in the morning, enough that we are alive. So don’t complain. “I am the Man” is Israel, who can stand up to all afflictions. That’s one message. The other is that it’s up to God. At the very end of Lamentations Rabbah, the Community of Israel states it like this. “Lord of the Universe, it depends upon You.” God tells the people that, no, it’s up to them, up to them to return. In their consummate stubbornness, the Community of Israel insists, “it depends upon You” to restore the people and turn “us” to you. With anger, the rabbis knew, there’s at least the hope that the one who is angry may be appeased in the end.

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(Feeling Nostalgic) Nixon Resignation Speech



August 8, 1974

Good evening.

This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made that shaped the history of this Nation. Each time I have done so to discuss with you some matter that I believe affected the national interest.

In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.

In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future.

But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.

I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations.

From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.

I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.

To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.

Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

As I recall the high hopes for America with which we began this second term, I feel a great sadness that I will not be here in this office working on your behalf to achieve those hopes in the next 21/2 years. But in turning over direction of the Government to Vice President Ford, I know, as I told the Nation when I nominated him for that office 10 months ago, that the leadership of America will be in good hands.

In passing this office to the Vice President, I also do so with the profound sense of the weight of responsibility that will fall on his shoulders tomorrow and, therefore, of the understanding, the patience, the cooperation he will need from all Americans.

As he assumes that responsibility, he will deserve the help and the support of all of us. As we look to the future, the first essential is to begin healing the wounds of this Nation, to put the bitterness and divisions of the recent past behind us, and to rediscover those shared ideals that lie at the heart of our strength and unity as a great and as a free people.

By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.

I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my Judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.

To those who have stood with me during these past difficult months, to my family, my friends, to many others who joined in supporting my cause because they believed it was right, I will be eternally grateful for your support.

And to those who have not felt able to give me your support, let me say I leave with no bitterness toward those who have opposed me, because all of us, in the final analysis, have been concerned with the good of the country, however our judgments might differ.

So, let us all now join together in affirming that common commitment and in helping our new President succeed for the benefit of all Americans.

I shall leave this office with regret at not completing my term, but with gratitude for the privilege of serving as your President for the past 51/2 years. These years have been a momentous time in the history of our Nation and the world. They have been a time of achievement in which we can all be proud, achievements that represent the shared efforts of the Administration, the Congress, and the people.

But the challenges ahead are equally great, and they, too, will require the support and the efforts of the Congress and the people working in cooperation with the new Administration.

We have ended America’s longest war, but in the work of securing a lasting peace in the world, the goals ahead are even more far-reaching and more difficult. We must complete a structure of peace so that it will be said of this generation, our generation of Americans, by the people of all nations, not only that we ended one war but that we prevented future wars.

We have unlocked the doors that for a quarter of a century stood between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

We must now ensure that the one quarter of the world’s people who live in the People’s Republic of China will be and remain not our enemies but our friends.

In the Middle East, 100 million people in the Arab countries, many of whom have considered us their enemy for nearly 20 years, now look on us as their friends. We must continue to build on that friendship so that peace can settle at last over the Middle East and so that the cradle of civilization will not become its grave.

Together with the Soviet Union we have made the crucial breakthroughs that have begun the process of limiting nuclear arms. But we must set as our goal not just limiting but reducing and finally destroying these terrible weapons so that they cannot destroy civilization and so that the threat of nuclear war will no longer hang over the world and the people.

We have opened the new relation with the Soviet Union. We must continue to develop and expand that new relationship so that the two strongest nations of the world will live together in cooperation rather than confrontation.

Around the world, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, there are millions of people who live in terrible poverty, even starvation. We must keep as our goal turning away from production for war and expanding production for peace so that people everywhere on this earth can at last look forward in their children’s time, if not in our own time, to having the necessities for a decent life.

Here in America, we are fortunate that most of our people have not only the blessings of liberty but also the means to live full and good and, by the world’s standards, even abundant lives. We must press on, however, toward a goal of not only more and better jobs but of full opportunity for every American and of what we are striving so hard right now to achieve, prosperity without inflation.

For more than a quarter of a century in public life I have shared in the turbulent history of this era. I have fought for what I believed in. I have tried to the best of my ability to discharge those duties and meet those responsibilities that were entrusted to me.

Sometimes I have succeeded and sometimes I have failed, but always I have taken heart from what Theodore Roosevelt once said about the man in the arena, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is not effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievements and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

I pledge to you tonight that as long as I have a breath of life in my body, I shall continue in that spirit. I shall continue to work for the great causes to which I have been dedicated throughout my years as a Congressman, a Senator, a Vice President, and President, the cause of peace not just for America but among all nations, prosperity, justice, and opportunity for all of our people.

There is one cause above all to which I have been devoted and to which I shall always be devoted for as long as I live.

When I first took the oath of office as President 51/2 years ago, I made this sacred commitment, to “consecrate my office, my energies, and all the wisdom I can summon to the cause of peace among nations.”

I have done my very best in all the days since to be true to that pledge. As a result of these efforts, I am confident that the world is a safer place today, not only for the people of America but for the people of all nations, and that all of our children have a better chance than before of living in peace rather than dying in war.

This, more than anything, is what I hoped to achieve when I sought the Presidency. This, more than anything, is what I hope will be my legacy to you, to our country, as I leave the Presidency.

To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God’s grace be with you in all the days ahead.

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(An Evil Report) A Land That Eats Its Own People (El Paso)


What kind of country is this?

Something like from Numbers, chapter 13:

13:26 And they went and came to Moses, and to Aaron, and to all the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh; and brought back word unto them, and unto all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land.

13:27 And they told him, and said: ‘We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.

13:28 Howbeit the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there.

13:29 Amalek dwelleth in the land of the South; and the Hittite, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanite dwelleth by the sea, and along by the side of the Jordan.’

13:30 And Caleb stilled the people toward Moses, and said: ‘We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.’

13:31 But the men that went up with him said: ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’

13:32 And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.

13:33 And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’

[with thanks to @WaveDemocratic]

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The Priestly Blessing is Weird and Most Impressive (Hertz Pentateuch)

priestly blessing

As I continue to scroll through the Hertz Pentateuch in search of wayward things and other points of interest that tell us something about the HP and its time and place, I found this odd and unexpected thing. It’s his comment to the priestly blessing that appears on a comment in the commentary to Number 6:22-7. The actually blessing appears at v.24-6: The Lord bless you and guard you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious with you. The Lord lift up His face upon you and give you peace. THAT is how the Torah instructs the children of Israel “to put My name” upon them (v.27).

What Hertz highlights is the simplicity and beauty of the petition. Its image is of  “the crown and seal of the whole sacred order.” The fifteen words are “clothed in a rhythmic form of great beauty, and the fall with majestic solemnity upon the ear.” Reference is made here as well to the Temple in Jerusalem and the place of the blessing in the synagogue. It’s “ancient melody” in its “original form” Hertz calls “weird and most impressive.” (Hertz, introductory comment to 6:22-7).

Nothing that follows the introductory comments to the blessing compare to these remarks, not the comments on God’s “light” and not on the virtue of peace, which are all nice enough, the ones on peace being particularly instructive re: early 20th c. Jewish attitudes re: the subject. But what I walk away with is introduction which is supposed to call attention to itself, and to the coupling there of “beauty,” “simplicity,” and “weird and most impressive.” The final phrase suggests something that is maybe true about the original blessing, and about the rite and theology that is its expression, that these were, indeed, weird impressive things. At the very least, we get a snapshot of the way that archaic thing (the blessing writ small and, writ large, the sacred of order of Judaism) looked to the modern liberal Anglophone Jewish reader in the first half of the twentieth century. The remarks confirm my own hunch that this attraction to an archaic religious form was and remains aesthetic and (then) ethical.

Re: the image at the top of the post, I chose it, precisely because it is weird and archaic, and not familiar like, for instance, the over used kitsch-image of the ancient priestly hand-signal. The blessing on the amulet in an impossible to read script is the more unfamiliar and also a more original form. The First Temple era amulets are held at the Israel Museum where I found this note:


H: 3.9-9.7; W: 1.1-2.7 cm

These two silver amulets bear the oldest copies of biblical text known to us today. They are some five hundred years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. | The amulets, inscribed with ancient Hebrew script, were found rolled into tiny scrolls in a burial cave in Jerusalem. They were incised with a sharp, thin stylus, no thicker than a hair’s breadth, and thus deciphering the inscription was difficult. The lower part of the inscription has been identified as a version of Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless and protect you. The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace.” This formula, which found its way into the Jewish liturgy, is known as the Priestly Benediction. 

Weird indeed, such close incision, a form of writing not meant to be read. About the amulets and the ancient form of miniature writing is this note here at Biblical Archaeology Society website, including a link to “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, by Jeremy D. Smoak.

At the website of the BAS:

In 1979 during the excavation of a late Iron Age (seventh century B.C.E.) tomb at the funerary site of Ketef Hinnom outside of Jerusalem, archaeologist Gabriel Barkay uncovered two small silver scrolls—no bigger than the diameter of a quarter—that were originally worn as amulets around the neck. When researchers from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, unrolled the sheets of silver, they detected tiny lines of the ancient Hebrew script inscribed on them. High-resolution photos of the miniature writing were taken in 1994 by the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California, giving researchers the opportunity to study and decipher the Hebrew text on the ancient amulets. When they finally read the arcane writing, the researchers discovered that the inscriptions, dating to the eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E., contained blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26.1

The miniature writing on the silver scrolls was clearly not meant to be read—the letters are too small, and the writing was furthermore concealed inside the rolls. If this was the case, then what purpose did they serve? In “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hebrew Bible scholar Jeremy D. Smoak discusses what these ancient amulets from Ketef Hinnom can tell us about religion in ancient Judah.

Upon discovery, Amulet 1 was 1 inch in height and 0.4 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll measures 3.8 inches in height and 1 inch in width. Amulet 2 was 0.5 inches in height and 0.2 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll has a height of 1.5 inches and a width of 0.4 inches. The second scroll contains about 100 words arranged in 12 lines of text—thus, the person who inscribed the text was able to fit all of that onto a silver sheet the length of a match stick.


In addition to containing blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26, the inscriptions are illuminating for what they reveal about the deity Yahweh as well as amuletic magic in Iron Age Judah. As Smoak writes:

Amulet 1 refers to Yahweh as the one who shows graciousness to those who love him and keep his commandments. This expression exhibits close parallels to several Biblical texts (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4). Amulet 2 refers to Yahweh as the deity who has the power to expel Evil.

As the amulets from Ketef Hinnom contained small inscriptions that were not meant to be read, Smoak further considers in his article the significance of miniature writing:

Miniatures—especially those worn on the human body … create a sense of intimacy, privacy, and personal time between the body and the object. Such objects became part of one’s daily routine and lifecycle. Their lightweight quality allows them to dangle comfortably from necks, producing a feeling that they are part of the body. In the case of miniature texts on jewelry, this means that even though the writing might be invisible or hidden from eyes, the words are always accessible in the wearer’s mind as the writing interacts with the body on a physical level. As the jewelry dangles from, bounces off, and returns to the body, the words inscribed on their surfaces are replayed in the mind.

Read Jeremy D. Smoak’s complete analysis of the ancient amulets’ miniature writing in “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of BAR, and discover what these unique artifacts illuminate about religion in Iron Age Judah.

Also, here, thanks to Ittai Hershman, is a essay by G. Barkay and A. Vaughn on the Ketef Hinom amulets.

Weird and impressive is some unexpected interest over at FB in these amulets in a post about the Hertz.


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Foucault and Transcendence: Haunted by Merleau-Ponty, Affect, and the Norm of Determinacy

Gail Hamner on Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, sense and dream, world and the transcendence of climbing out


“We are condemned to sense,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in his Preface to Phenomenology ofPerception (Landes translation, lxxxiv). The statement concludes a paragraph not on our bodily schema or our being toward the world (être à monde) but on history, or the relation of (natural) perception to (social) history. He ends the sentence with the conviction that “there is nothing we can do or say that does not acquire a name in history.”

We are condemned to sense. This is to say that we are the kind of being, a kind of animal, that is condemned to pull meaning and orientation out of our habitats, or what we come to call our worlds.

My close reading of Phenomenology of Perception this summer has been juxtaposed with my return to volume 1 of Foucault’s Dits et Écrits. It is a forceful intellectual juxtaposition, by which…

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