Monday, March 05, 2007


I've been having trouble logging into blogger and google recently so I haven't been posting. But here's a sampling of some of my musings over the last few weeks:

Some of you may have noticed this New York Times article about the Texas lawmaker who got some flack for characterizing modern science, including the Big Bang and evolution, as kabbalistic and rabbinic. But he was simply offering the non-philo-semitic version of what has long been a trope among kabbalistically inclined Orthodox Jewish scientists. If one googles "Kabbalah and Science," the first result is for something called "" and which includes this short story on its website. An interesting case of Jewish apologetics (our holy rabbis discovered the Big Bang before modern physics)? Of course if one thinks modern physics is a great threat to one's own religion (fundamentalist Protestant Christianity), one might accept this claim and see it as further evidence of Jewish (or "Pharisaic") perfidy. The best line in the NYT article refers to a characterization (by the website that served as source material for the Texas representative) of Albert Einstein as a "Kabbalist physicist."

One of my actual physicist friends got a kick out of that when I mentioned it to him yesterday at a Purim carnival. He's been reading Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion--dare I say spreading the good news about this book? In the meantime (via Leiter Reports), I just read this interesting article in the Guardian about a kind of anti-Dawkins backlash in England. And the letters in response are equally interesting. The impression one forms from the reviews of Dawkins is that he is quite aggressive about countering rather simplistic belief in a supernatural God whose followers often take violent actions against those who do not share the same belief. Presumably Dawkins would say that the fact that this critique does not take into account sophisticated liberal theologies, naturalistic as well as supernaturalistic, is beside the point since the "liberals" (broadly speaking) in whichever religious tradition one focuses on are not the ones doing violent things to other people in the name of "God." But I will say no more until I have read his book.

Meanwhile, I have been thinking some about religious violence in my own religious-ethnic tradition of late, given that Purim was yesterday and my friend Elliott Horowitz (author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence) spoke last Monday at Pitt. I could not help pay attention to the stories about Ariel Toaff's now-pulled Pasque di Sangue over the last two weeks. Without reading the book (and it looks like that will not be a possibility for the foreseeable future unless anyone in Italy has a bootleg copy they would like to send me), I won't offer any historical judgement on Toaff's claims since I'm not really sure what those claims are (were?). However, one issue strikes me as interesting and worthy of comment: historians of pre-modern Europe have routinely relied on Inquisition documents and other archival records of trials as primary sources for years. Given the use of torture in medieval and early modern judicial systems, how one uses these sources is a tricky methodological problem. The best approaches, it seems to me, are those that regard archival sources (all of them) as texts to be interpreted--in which authorship, intended audience, genre, political considerations in the production and conservation of the material, language (both langue and parole for you structuralists), and a host of other factors have to be considered in order to make sense of what these pieces of past writing can actually tell us. In terms of methodology, this seems to be the central question in evaluating Toaff's work. Yet many (lay) commentators have suggested that using the trial records at all was wrong. So far, I have only seen two discussions of the work that emphasize the manner in which Toaff reads (wrongly as far as these reviewers are concerned) his texts: Kenneth Stow, writing for History News Network, and Roni Weinstein, writing in Haaretz. (If you can read the Hebrew, I recommend that version of Weinstein's article.) Weinstein notes that Toaff turns to Carlo Ginzburg's groundbreaking historical work for inspiration. So Ginzburg's comments in Corriere della Serra are worth noting (found via the blog, My Obiter Dicta).

Ok. That's enough about books I haven't read.

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