Friday, November 06, 2009

Want to Read More about Hebrew Literature?

The poetry of the Hebrews has a structure which is both complex and subtle.

Robert Lowth published his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews in 1787. The book remains in print today. Lowth was educated as a classicist, and explains Hebrew poetry by constant reference to Greek and Latin poetry, thoroughly comparing and contrasting the Classical and Sacred literary forms. He advanced the thesis, never serious doubted since then, that almost all Hebrew poetry is formed in parallelisms, couplets of parallel structure. Lowth was an Anglican Bishop.

George Buchanan Gray wrote The Forms of Hebrew Poetry in 1915. It also remains available in modern reprints. Gray refined Lowth's classifications, and developed ingenious readings of texts which had been previously been seen as corrupt and readable only with major emendations; Gray deduced principles of Semitic poetry which allowed these texts to be sensibly read without emendation. Gray was a Non-Conformist clergyman.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Obama Opposes Release of Terrorist

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison recently. The move was called "compassionate" by Scottish officials, because he has only a few weeks to live with terminal cancer.

When he landed in Libya, according to newspapers, "thousands were on hand to greet him warmly when his plane from Scotland touched down at a military airport in Tripoli. There was a festive atmosphere with some wearing t-shirts with al-Megrahi's picture. Others waved Libyan and Scottish flags while Libyan songs blared."

In 2001, the terrorist was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 which killed 270 people. He has been considered a hero in Libya, which is 97% Islamic.

President Obama released an official statement, saying that the decision to free terminally ill Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds was a mistake and warned Libya not to give him a hero's welcome. The White House declared it "deeply" regretted the Scottish decision. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday the United States disagreed with the decision to free al-Megrahi.

We continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland," Gibbs said. "On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Victory for Free Speech at UCLA

The administration of UCLA upheld a student's free speech rights, and overruled lower-level administrators, regarding a graduation ceremony.

At a ceremony for students receiving graduate degrees in molecular biology (not the mass graduation for four-year degrees), students were permitted to write a brief statement, which they would read when receiving their diplomas. All manner of diverse opinions were allowed, except one: any reference to Christianity was prohibited by the administrators. At least one student, Christina Popa, had wished to make such a reference, and that student, supported by her professors, appealed to the university's upper-level administrators, who pointed out the obvious discrimination in allowing every variant of religious and political views to be expressed, and then singling out one religion and forbidding any mention of it.

Thankfully, a courageous stand by students and professors in the molecular biology department withstood an attempt by administrators to steamroller the first amendment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Murder at the Holocaust Museum

Within recent days, we have been shocked and horrified by the murders perpetrated at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. What is the profile of this madman, James Von Brunn, who would take human lives in this most serious place?

The killer was apparently filled with hatred toward President George W. Bush; he accused Bush of favoring Jews, and decried Bush's views about the Middle East. He asserted that Bush, not al-Qa'ida, had carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rejoicing that Bush was finally out of office, he was emboldened by the election results, and finally carried out these shootings.

In his remarks, he specifically stated that he hated "conservatives and neo-conservatives." He noted that many of the leaders of the neo-conservative movement were Jews.

The lesson - people filled with irrational, passionate hatred will eventually take actions: horrifying actions. James von Brunn was clear in his speaking and writing: he had a intense hostility toward George W. Bush and toward the neo-conservative movement in American politics. We now know where such hatred leads.

Student Sues Teacher and Wins

A federal judge ruled in favor of a student in Santa Ana, California. The student alleged that the teacher had violated the first amendment's guarantees of "free exercise" of religion, and freedom of speech.

The teacher, James Corbett, had made comments insulting and denigrating the beliefs of various students in his history class. Corbett told the students that any doubting or skepticism about Darwinism was "superstitious nonsense." Instead of admitting that increasing numbers of professors in the science departments of the world's universities are less inclined to accept the teachings of Darwinism, and asking if there is sufficient evidence for, Corbett rather simply accused the biology, physics, and chemistry department of being unable to "see the truth", and dismissed their questions about evidence as "religious nonsense."

The judge opined that the teacher had favored "anti-religion over religion," violating the right to "free exercise" of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and nearly everyone else. Instead, the teacher's duty is to create "expansive discussion even if a given topic may be offensive to a particular religion."

In short, the teacher's job is to create a free discussion, even about offensive topics; but the teacher may not conduct an anti-religious tirade.

Terrorist Killing in U.S.

Since the attack on the World Trade Center, we have been relatively safe in America; most of the terrorist plots to kill people here were stopped before they could be carried out.

Until June 2 of this year, that is.

The Associated Press reports as follows:

A Muslim convert "with political and religious motives" shot two uniformed soldiers outside an Arkansas military recruiting center Monday, killing one and wounding the other, authorities said.

Police arrested Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, 23, on a nearby interstate shortly after the bloodshed at the Army-Navy Career Center in a shopping center in west Little Rock. Three guns were found in his SUV, they said. Investigators say that he appears to have been "passionate about Islam."

He will be charged with first-degree murder, plus 15 counts of committing a terrorist act, authorities said.

The terrorist struck without warning.

"He saw them standing there and drove up and shot them," he said.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Different Worldview

We try to understand events which seem strange to us, especially when they are part of a cultural fabric in some other part of the world, because we are trying to understand the underlying idea of life. The specific events are interesting, but more important is the cohesive worldview of which they are all a seamless part:

* Two high-profile cases within the last year in Saudi Arabia speak volumes. In the first, a brother killed his sister, named Fatima, because she had become a Christian. In the second case, a father cut out his daughter's tongue to prevent her from discussing Christianity; finding this insufficient, he then burned her death. In both cases, there was no legal action against the killers, in part, because they were male relatives of the victims, and in part, because they were motivated my anti-Christian hatred. In a final layer of shocking detail, the father in the second killing was a high-ranking official in the Saudi government, whose career in "The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" was helped, rather than hurt, by the killing. To be sure, these were not the only two cases of Christians being murdered because of their beliefs, but they are two cases that were leaked out to the free press in western countries.

* During President Obama's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, he bowed to the king, something never before done by the leader of a free nation. Normally, when heads of state visit each other, they do so as equals, and therefore they do not bow. During the preceding eight years, when President George W. Bush visited Saudi Arabia, he did not bow to the king; President Bush and the king are personal friends, and the Bush family and the Saudi royal family are friends. Obama's action has been interpreted variously; there is no clear consensus about what he was intending by this violation of protocol.

* President Obama issued an invitation to the leaders of Iran to open diplomatic discussions; the Iranian government has indicated that it is not interested in negotiating about nuclear weapons, or its regional ambitions regarding Iraq.

* Obama also issued an invitation, asking to speak with "moderate" elements of the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman replied, in a press release, that "there are no moderate Taliban."

* The five prisoners who had been the support team for the nineteen terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks have issued a statement in court; delivered by their lawyer, and released by the judge, their statement says that they are dedicated to "kill all infidels, including Christians, Jews, and atheists;" that they consider themselves "terrorists to the bone;" and that the 9/11 attacks are "a badge of honor in our religion." Although we can dismiss these five men as merely extremists, and not representative of a larger group, we must remember that they are still celebrated in posters, T-shirts, and bumper stickers in Arab world; we must remember the spontaneous celebrations in the streets of the Middle East on 9/11. This is indicative of something larger.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Poetry Captures Reality

One of poetry's several merits is its ability to crystallize a truth in a single group of words. In response to a horrifying tragedy, Haley Patail wrote about a murderer, "When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail," encapsulating an insight into the criminal mind.

Writing about the deceased victim and a funeral, she wrote, "I would go and give words to the dust-heavy air if it would change something, I would pretend that I know how to kneel in pews if it would make me feel right about this." The poet has recognized two spiritual truths here: that our songs and prayers do not change the fact that our loved ones have gone into the next life, that we bitterly grieve because we miss them; funerals are for the living, not for the dead - to remind the living about God and the afterlife - a reminder which will neither bring the deceased back into this life, nor ease our mourning, but a reminder which centers and stabilizes us by placing the events into a global, objective, and neutral frame of reference. By stating that our spiritual meditations neither "change something" nor make us "feel right about this," the poet has communicated these two truths in an efficient economy of words.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once made a comment to the effect that, if one wants to investigate eternal truths, poetry can often do a better job than philosophy.

Sometimes, Bigger is Better

Robert Kennedy was a major figure in the politics of the 1960's. His speeches and actions, as Attorney General of the United States, and later as a candidate in the primary elections, have been much studied and discussed.

One of nine children, Robert Kennedy was the father of eleven. He was tremendously popular in the press, in part because of this family image. Many of his eight brothers and sisters have earned their own fame in American politics, as have his children, and his numerous nieces and nephews.

The popularity of the Kennedy family stands as a paradox, given the hatred directed toward large families by much of the current media culture. Forty years after the emergence of the Kennedy political profile, the family remains influential in partisan government, but American culture has abandoned its respect for having children.

Statisticians, however, are not surprised by the success of the Kennedy clan. It has been shown that there is a strong correlation between large families and various indicators of success: the more children born to a married couple, the more likely those children are to earn good grades in school, do well on standardized tests, and to not commit crimes; further, those children will do better at the university, and are more likely to rise to positions of leadership in their communities and careers.

These are averages, of course. Exceptions do exist. But the general trend is undeniable, and not too surprising: to manage a large family, parents will need to be intelligent and organized, and the children will likely have these traits also.

Contrary to stereotypes in the electronic media, higher education levels among the parents also lead to larger families: married couples with college educations will likely have more children than those with less education.

Ever since Thomas Malthus wrote about population, it has been clear that sustainable, renewable, and environmentally responsible resources on planet earth can support world populations many times larger than the current six or seven billion. Overpopulation, which was considered a threat in the 1960's and 1970's, is not a danger.

Which leads us to a mystery: why, then, is there such antipathy toward families who have more than two or three children? This is a field for research. Although sociologists have advanced a number of theories, there is no clear cause for this irrational hatred - or, perhaps there is a clear cause, but nobody has yet discovered it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Is Obama Black, or Simply African-American?

America's obsession with racial politics is fanned daily by the press. An unending stream of articles continues to examine Obama's status from the perspective of his skin color.

A recent variation on this theme is to examine the quality of Obama's "blackness": in Detroit, a survey received responses like: "He is not black enough" or "That is what you get, when you have a mixed child raised by a white mother."

These responses point to a painful and divisive topic within American society: at the intersection of race and culture, the situation of mixed-race children is highlighted to an uncomfortable degree.

Obama, like Alicia Keyes and Halle Berry, is the result of a brief marriage between a Black man and white mother; after the marriage disolved, he was raised by his mother. Young Barack did not grow up in the "hood" of Harlem, Watts, or Detroit. He grew up in a middle-class, college-educated, white extended family. He may be African-American, but Detroiters are wondering if he's Black.

And not only Detroiters. Black Entertainment Television's Jeff Johnson notes that there's a difference between "Obama the president" and "Obama the personality," saying, "he's my president, and not my homie."

Obama's life has hardly been that of a "homie": a private prep school in Hawaii from fifth grade until his senior year in high school; before that, a paradoxical mix of private Roman-Catholic elementary schools and a Madrasah in Indonesia. His life experience places him far outside the mainstream of African-Americans. He spent no significant amount of time in the continental United States until after graduating from high school; after that, he was at Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

Obama's mother is from Kansas, and studied Anthropology and Russian at the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington. Obama's father was separated from his mother long before the couple's actual divorce, and so young Barack had no formative influence from his African father as a child.

Americans continue to try to understand their new president: is he Black? is he African-American? is he Hawaiian-Kenyan-Indonesian?

How does he view the African-American culture, if he grew up in an white extended family, away from the major Black urban centers? How does he understand American society, if he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Race Numbers

No, this isn't about NASCAR. The numbers mentioned are statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, reflecting the population of the Ann Arbor area:

74.68% White
8.83% Black or African American
0.29% Native American
11.9% Asian
0.04% Pacific Islander
1.21% from other races
3.05% from two or more races

These numbers are based on the census from the year 2000, revised according to subsequent surveys and calculations.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Various Forms of Slavery

As Americans, we read the word "slavery" through the lens of our own experience - and very harsh experience it is. Slavery as practiced in Western hemisphere until 1863 was one of the most brutal forms of this social institution.

When we read ancient texts, it is important to remember that translators are often perplexed when deciding to render a given vocabulary word into English as "slave" or "servant" - the difference to our eyes being great, but in earlier eras of history, a much more subtle distinction.

In some ancient cultures (notably Rome), these people were given authority within households and businesses; they were educated, wrote books, and made important decisions.

In certain phases of Egyptian and Babylonian history, slavery was more cruel, and slaves were treated like working animals. Moses took a great step forward when he limited slavery to seven years. Prior to that, slavery was lifelong, and, in a majority of cases, it would continue to be lifelong in all societies except the Hebrews.

So read carefully when you see words like "slave" or "servant" and realize that a variety of circumstances can hide behind these terms.


When small children learn their ABC's, they don't realize that they are paying homage to a major turning-point in the history of civilization.

The alphabet represents progress, because earlier writing forms (hieroglyphs, cuneiform) took longer to learn, longer to write, and longer to read. Before the alphabet, very few people could read or write, because it took so long to learn how to read and write; and very little reading and writing was done, because it took so long. After the invention of the alphabet, more people could read and write, and more information was recorded in writing. The alphabet is a Semitic invention.

The term "Semitic", we remember, includes a range of groups including Arabs, Hebrews, Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, and Ethiopians, to name a few.

Not Semitic are Persians, Hindus, Hittites, and the European language families.

So the rise of the alphabet highlights the importance of Semitic cultures in the ancient world.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Denying the Holocaust

Some facts about the history of the twentieth century are clear to everybody: one of these is that millions of innocent men, women, and children died in the event which we usually call "the Holocaust" or Shoah. Yet, despite the manifest documentation about the Holocaust, there are Holocaust deniers, or those who insist that it never happened.

Recently, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Prof. Joseph Ratzinger, took strong measures against an employee of his church who made remarks which seemed to deny the existence of the Holocaust. Ratzinger, also known as Benedict XVI, would not allow any statements which compromise the historically documented facts. The employee disciplined by Ratzinger, Richard Williamson, is facing stronger measures from different national governments in Europe, who classify Holocaust denial as fraud punishable by law.

This is in contrast to the government of Iran, which promotes Holocaust denial. The current president of Iran, members of its government, and professors appointed to its universities persistently spread the notion that there simply was no Holocaust - that it never happened. Such a view can be accepted only by those who have left all rational thought behind. Yet it remains the officially stated position of the Iranian government.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sex, Anyone?

Human sexuality is always fascinating, yet often we rely on vague impressions rather than scientific observation and systematic data. When we look at the facts, we find that some of our perceptions are rather inaccurate.

In the first comprehensive global study of sexual behavior, British researchers found that people aren’t losing their virginity at ever younger ages, and that married people have the most sex.

Professor Wellings of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicines and her colleagues analyzed data from 59 countries. Wellings said she was surprised by some of the survey’s results: "We did have some of our preconceptions dashed." Experts say the study will be useful in dispelling popular myths about sexual behavior.

The study also found that contrary to popular belief, sexual activity is not starting earlier. Nearly everywhere, men and women have their first sexual experiences in their late teens — from 15 to 19 years old — with generally younger ages for women than for men, especially in developing countries. That is no younger than 10 years ago. In every country, teens are choosing keep their virginity longer. This surprised researchers, because the common media image presented to the public is that of young people failing to keep their virginity. "There's a big disconnect here," commented one scientist, "between real life on the one hand, and the world of TV and movies on the other hand."

Researchers also found that married people have the most sex, reporting engaging in sexual activity in the previous four weeks more frequently than single people. There has also been a gradual shift to delay marriage, even in developing countries. Married people also report greater satisfaction in their sexual activity, both physical and emotional.

A follow-up study, conducted by sociology professor Armour at Ohio State University, explains why some of these surprising trends are taking place: Teens who lose their virginity earlier than their peers are more likely to steal, destroy property, shoplift or sell drugs than their virgin counterparts. The study, reported in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that those who had sex early were 26 percent more likely to be in trouble than those who waited, even years after their sexual debut and well into early adulthood. Those who had sex later had delinquency scores 20 percent lower than their peers. Waiting had a protective effect.

"Students in high school and college are watching their peers and learning," said a researcher. "They see what happens to others choose to keep their virginity a while longer, because they don't want to endure those same negative consequences."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Allowed to Live?

In November 2008, voters in Michigan pondered a vote about stem-cell research. Now, there are almost no moral or ethical objections to research which attempts to derive medical benefits from those stem-cells which are harvested from a patient's blood, skin, or bone marrow; and there is little argument against stem-cells derived from umbilical cords.

Very controversial, however, are those stem-cells obtained by killing a fetus (an unborn child). This was at the core of the Michigan vote.

In press coverage leading up to the election, a local newspaper quoted the supervisor of a research lab who commented that "these are embryos that would have within them genes for specific diseases so it would be unethical to donate them to use reproductively." In brief, she was saying that it would be unethical to allow these children to live.

The example was given of Alzheimer's, and genes which may either predispose individuals toward it, or cause it. The implication is this: if we know that a child has a tendency to develop Alzheimer's Disease, it is our moral duty to prevent such a child from being born.

Consider, then, some of the people who have led productive lives until they developed the disease (the average age of onset is approximately 65 years): Rita Hayworth (actress), Harold Wilson (Prime Minister of Britain), Iris Murdoch (novelist), Ferenc Puskas (soccer star), and Terry Pratchett (novelist), to name only a few.

We are being told, then, that society should have prevented the above-named individuals from being born; and that society failed, that society committed an unethical act, in allowing them to be born. This is the inescapable logical conclusion of the quote, given in the media, by a researcher.

As if to somehow soften this moral harshness, the newspaper article gratuitously added that one of the researchers in this lab attend a Roman Catholic high school, as if that fact were in any way relevant to matter at hand.