Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ghosts, Frog-Zilla, Loving the Pushy, William Safire

This will be one of my multiple blogs, where I blog on more than one topic in one post. I'm trying to get things done before the Day of Atonement. I'll still be blogging on that day, but I want to get my blogging on my academic reading and church out of the way. Plus, I just found out that William Safire passed away, so I'll say a few words to honor him.

1. The book I'm quoting is Jacob Neusner's Invitation to Midrash (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998). On page 218, Neusner quotes from the Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (fifth-sixth centuries C.E.) 12:2:

It is not the soul of Moses alone that is stored away under the throne of glory, but the souls of the righteous are stored under the throne of glory, as it is said, Yet the soul of my Lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God (1 Sam 25:29). Is it possible to imagine that that is the case also with the souls of the wicked? Scripture says, And the souls of your enemies, those he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling (1 Sam 25:29). For even though one is tossed from place to place, it does not know on what to come to rest. So too the souls of the wicked go roving and fluttering about the world and do not know where to come to rest.

The part about the souls of the righteous being beneath the throne of glory reminds me of Revelation 6:9, only Revelation says that the souls of the righteous martyrs are underneath the heavenly altar.

I'm interested in the part about the wicked souls restlessly wandering the earth because I watched Celebrity Ghost Stories last night, and one of the people interviewed talked about a ghost who was caught between two worlds: the man died, yet his spirit didn't know where to go, so he went to the house where he was most comfortable. At least one rabbinic document appears to account for ghosts.

But are all ghosts evil, as the rabbinic document seems to claim? Another celebrity talked about the ghost of his dead mother, who intervened a few times to help her children. Was she wicked? Or can wicked ghosts do good, since even bad people can love their families?

2. Richard S. Sarason, "Interpreting Rabbinic Biblical Interpretation: The Problem of Midrash, Again," Hesed Ve-Emet: Studies in Honor of Ernest S. Frerichs, ed. Shaye J.D. Cohen (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 141.

...the fanciful interpretation of Exod 8:6, And the frog (sing.) came up, and covered the land of Egypt, ascribed to Akiva, that this refers to a single frog that filled the entire land of Egypt, is greeted by this pointed response attributed to a colleague: "Akiva, what business do you have expounding aggadah? Cease your words and go study the laws of Nehaim and Ohalot!" (b. Sanh 67b and parallels).

Exodus 8:6 does use the singular for "frog," whereas the other verses in Exodus 8 have the plural for that word (vv 1, 3-5, 7-9). According to Dr. Sarason, Akiva interpreted this to mean that there was one frog that filled the whole land of Egypt. The thought that entered my mind when I read this was "Frog-zilla," a giant frog who filled Egypt. In Genesis Rabbah 10:4, however, Akiva appears more reasonable, for he says there was one frog who "bred so rapidly that it filled the land of Egypt" (translation on my Judaic Classics Library). And his colleague responds that the one frog croaked for others to come, after telling Akiva to stay out of aggadah.

I don't see why the colleague responds in this way, since Akiva's position appears reasonable. But if Akiva had claimed that a giant frog covered Egypt, I'd understand the colleague's reaction. In b. Sanh 67b, Akiva just says that one frog covered Egypt, and the Judaic Classics Library translation inserts "by breeding" in brackets, meaning it's not part of the text. So perhaps his colleague misunderstood, thinking Akiva was talking about a Frog-zilla!

3. At my Latin mass this morning, we didn't have the priest who talks about philosophy and patristics, nor did we have the priest who discusses politics and the culture wars. Rather, we had the one who talks about love in a grandiose voice. I don't learn much from his sermons, but they do encourage me to become a better person.

One point the priest made: he said a psychologist came up to him and offered to give him advice that would make him a better priest. He declined to listen to her and walked away, and he said he later realized that he missed an opportunity to reach out to a person in love.

All sorts of people sell things or want something. People like to offer advice, and it's easy to feel put-down if someone is telling you what to do. But, as the priest said, everyone is made in God's image, meaning there is some imprint of the divine on his or her soul. Is there a way to say "no" to pushy people while being respectful? And there may be cases when listening to someone's unwanted advice may not be so bad, since that can make the other person feel useful. But the person offering advice should realize that we always have the right to do differently from what he or she suggests.

4. I just read that William Safire has passed away. Safire was a Nixon speechwriter and a conservative syndicated columnist. I first encountered his name in David J. Smith's Newswatch, an ultra-right wing publication of the Church of God (Evangelistic Association), a splinter group from the Armstrong movement. Smith's group focused on conspiracies to create a one-world dictatorship. Newswatch was reprinting a William Safire column in favor of civil liberties. I don't remember the exact issue that Safire was commenting on, but Newswatch was trying to tie what Safire was criticizing to the mark of the Beast. It may have been a national ID card, or something the government was proposing that would infringe on privacy rights. Years after this article, Safire opposed the Patriot Act, so he favored protecting individuals from their government, regardless of whether that government was run by the Right or the Left.

The second time I encountered Bill Safire's name was in 1996, when Pat Buchanan was running for President. Safire had worked with Buchanan in the Nixon Presidency, and he said that Pat was anti-Semitic. That was his impression. There are other Jews who have worked with Pat Buchanan who have a different view, however.

I also saw a book by William Safire on the Book of Job, but I've not read it.

R.I.P., William Safire.

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