seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
A few things:

A friend from college just posted this comic, and it's pretty amazing and should be shared widely: http://www.charipere.com/blog/miscarried (TW: The title pretty much gives it away. Deals with miscarriage and living with loss)



On a completely different note, I've been watching How To Make It In America and struggling to articulate a genre name for a thing I love which links How to Make it In America with shows as disparate as Orphan Black and The Wire and Suits and some other shows I love. What these shows have in common is that they use the mechanics of the competence porn subgenre- supernaturally clever and skilled protagonists working together in teams that maximize everyone's potentials- but the good guys don't always win at the end of the hour.

The rush I get from watching these shows is definitely the same I get from watching shows like Leverage or Bones or the Flash, the hustle of adjusting plans on the fly to deal with unanticipated obstacles, the sudden insight of how to creatively route around a problem... but somehow outside the genre requirement that the end of the episode bring a triumph and a close to the episodic structure.

How To Make It In America sometimes closes its episodes with its heroes getting an unexpected order to make 300 T-shirts by next Wednesday, when they'd gone in looking to sell jeans. But it just as often ends its episodes with those 300 shirts, frantically and competently sourced from a mysterious warehouse in Greenpoint, stolen when the truck they were sitting in was jacked.

I really like that combination of competence and failure. But I don't have a vocabulary to describe the generic conventions of these stories, though I think they do have conventions. Like, there's a very specific kind of defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory beat that I've seen on all the shows I mentioned, and a very specific gutpunched-character-sits-alone-while-sad-usually-indie-music-plays-into-the-credits beat.


Incompetence Porn? Anti-Competence Porn? Failure Porn? None of these names seem quite adequate to call what I'm describing. Possibly it's just Competence Porn That's Weirdly Paced... it's very common on these shows for the heroes to hit the tropey denouement of a competence porn plot at the three quarters mark, and it feels like the episode is over, and then rather than the episode ending, the remaining quarter of the show is the letdown. But we could, I suppose, think of that as really being the first fifteen minutes of the next episode of a competence porn storyline, time-shifted to the end of the previous episode.




Also, I finished reading the Meyer's history of Reform Judaism, which remained just as frustratingly full of interesting factoids yet tantalizingly far from enough detail fleshing out any of those factoids to the finish. The biggest hole in the book is in Meyer's discussion of the Reform Movement's actions during the Holocaust- I think there's a general sense in the Jewish community that because of Reform's connections at the time to the richest and most politically influential Jews in America, it could have done more than it did to mitigate the effects of the Holocaust, and nothing Meyer says refutes this sense, but... he mostly chose to skip over any serious discussion of what Reform did do during the Holocaust, despite covering both the immediate pre-war and post-war eras at length. It's an omission that felt cowardly to me.

I also had feelings about his discussion of Sally Priesand, since unlike most of the other interesting factoids taking all of a page in the book that I wanted to read a whole book about, I actually have read the whole book about Sally Priesand. I did think Meyer actually fleshed out some questions I had after reading Nadell's book... it seems clearer, in the wake of Meyer, that women Rabbis became an inevitability in Reform Judaism only after the merger of HUC and JIS- the institutional politics of the various campuses of HUC-JIS is something Nadell wasn't all that interested in.

All in all, I'm glad I read the book, but it's probably going to lead to a lot more reading about Jewish history to answer all the questions it left me with. But that's okay.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Not in God's Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I found this book sometimes interesting and thought-provoking, but more often I found it frustrating. I didn't read the whole thing, though I did read large chunks of it and after a certain point I started skipping around to read chunks of different chapters to sample as much of it as I could take. It's Rabbi Sacks's effort to talk about a lot of related issues involving the intersection of religion and militism, and there are so many different topics and so many different ideas and Rabbi Sacks as a moderate traditionalist is trying to navigate such a precarious middle ground that it feels like every chapter contradicts the chapter before it.

Rabbi Sacks's chief argument is, perhaps, that religious violence is not the result of particularism, of sectarian identification, but of the warring impulses of particularism and universalism. It emerges when a particular sect with its particularist ideology decides that it has the moral imperative to impose its ideology on others. He claims that this is a natural consequence of theological dualism and suggests that the Jewish form of monotheism was introduced as a competitor to this dualism, to the idea that the Other is the Enemy. Also, I think, that anti-semitism exists because of the threat this ideology poses to dualist sects.

But then he waves away the violently dualist passages in Torah in a sloppy and inconclusive chapter called "Hard Texts" in which he says that the Rabbanim always understood these violent passages as not really impelling violence (which is mostly true), but doesn't offer a compelling alternative explanation for why these passages are violent, simply claiming that people in the Biblical era were more violent and needed this violent language in their holy texts for some reason.

I wanted more from Rabbi Sacks. I made a similar argument a few years back with regards to Artscroll's choice to render 'thy two breasts' in the Song of Songs as "thy twin tablets of Law". It's fine that two thousand years of religious tradition understand this text as metaphorical, but it's important to recognize how metaphors work in Judaism. We recognize that there is something to be taught from the p'shat, the literal meaning, even though as a matter of practical halacha we don't observe the p'shat. Rabbi Sacks does not offer a convincing reason why there are Biblical exhortations to genocide, even though they are not observed, and I think it weakens his overall case for Jewish theology as uniquely suited to being an Or LaGoyim.

On the other hand, I don't know any thinkers offering better explanations for these verses. There may just not be a good answer to this question.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

It's Edith Wharton, of course it's fantastic.

Everyone in the book is terrible, and Wharton's marvelously honed condescension shows how little respect she has for most of the characters in the book, but she nonetheless manages to conjure empathy for their position: New York high society is constructed on a certain kind of order and its members are trained from childhood to be committed to making the hard choices required to uphold that order. The techniques they've established are so robust that even the dullest members of society understand their role in holding up the edifice.

What really struck me is her portrait of Newland Archer, who has enough intelligence and has had enough exposure to the arts and to other forms of society that he knows how toxic the rules of New York high society are, but he nonetheless can't escape its straitjacket, because of his own faults. Because he can't see May or Ellen or Janey as people rather than as women, because he likes it when society compliments him and dislikes it when society insults him, because he finds the order of New York society attractive in spite of himself.

You spend most of the book groaning at Newland Archer's fatuousness, and you strongly suspect he's never going to overcome it. But you also resent him a little in the small places when he does half-heartedly resist. Ellen knows full well that there's no version of Archer who will ever actually be emotionally available to her. She knows that whenever he teases her with the hope of rejecting New York's rules, it is just a tease. She has seen 'the Gorgon' and it has opened her eyes, to borrow Wharton's marvelous metaphor. Still, in spite of this, Wharton recognizes that Archer is by many standards a good person. He is a good father, an always appropriate husband, a loyal friend. Sometimes he is even able to stand, however briefly, against society.

I also really enjoyed Wharton's descriptions of the opera and of its place in New York society. The modern Met is a very different kind of institution, especially the way I experience it, but I liked how Wharton engaged with it, with the repeated performances of Gounod's Faust with Christine Nilsson as the diva, holding new meaning each time it's experienced, even if many of the attending were barely paying attention. "Archer turned to the stage, where, in the familiar setting of giant roses and pen-wiper pansies, the same large blonde victim was succumbing to the same small brown seducer."
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith

It feels like a cop-out to give this book a short review, but I think that's what I have at the moment. Starting with On Beauty, Smith's books have swung further and further from the gimmickry and gameplay of her first novels, turning instead to more and more complex and intricate character work. It's hard for me to say what Swing Time is about in any reasonable amount of time, I'll instead just say that I enjoyed it unreasonably.

I felt like Swing Time picked up quite a bit of the threads of the Felix section of NW, which were the most challenging parts of that book. My sense then was that if NW was in some fashion, consciously or not, schematized by the Four Children of the Passover seder, Felix represented the child who didn't even know how to ask questions, and far more so in Swing Time Smith is grappling with what possible meaning her work can have to the illiterate or unliterary characters she is often writing about. I'm not sure I have an answer to her question, though I think it's an important one. Since there are many people who will never have any interest in reading the sort of dense, humanist novels Smith is writing, what does it mean to call them humanist? If there is a transformative aspect of reading a great novel, is Swing Time transforming the people Smith desires to see transformed?
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

If anything, better than the Hugo Award winning first book in the series. It's middle booky in that it doesn't advance the plot too quickly toward the climax, but the introduction of Nassun's story gives the book just enough forward momentum and the story of everyone figuring out how to fight against the Season is gripping from beginning to end. And the character depth is just brilliant. Essun is once again fascinatingly bumpy and complicated, but Nassun's epiphanies about her mother and father and in Schaffa her new ersatz father are what charge the book with meaning, for me.


Tefillin by Aryeh Kaplan

A short book I got for a quarter at the library book sale, but a startlingly powerful and moving book nonetheless. Kaplan pairs good mechanical explanations of the process of wearing tefillin and praying with straightforward, plain English summarizations of abstruse Kabbalistic understandings of Tefillin. Kaplan sees tefillin not as a metaphor, as metaphors have limits and limitations, but as the perfected (or perhaps just perfectable) physical embodiment of the idea of Judaism's connection to and responsibility to God. We wear them, he seems to be saying, because the mitzvot exist as a way for us to perfect ourselves and repair the world, and the tefillin are a tool for making that process physical. The next time I wore tefillin, that made a huge difference in how I interacted with them.

I don't think this book would say as much to people who don't already have physical experience with wearing tefillin. I don't think this book would have said much to me when I was first wearing tefillin. But Kaplan brilliantly gives deeper meaning to the physical experience of wearing tefillin.



And then Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon put out new books the same week! My two favorite active writers!!!! I'm currently starting on Swing Time.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The New Rabbi by Stephen Fried

This book is everything I aspire to in my own personal writings about Jewish community- though it is in a completely counterintuitive shape.

It is ostensibly the behind-the-scenes saga of a messy Rabbi search committee at a large, wealthy Conservative Jewish synagogue in the Philadelphia suburbs. In practice, it's a powerful exploration of the force of ritual in Judaism and the different kinds of inspiration that Rabbis can provide to their congregations.

Fried grew up in a small Conservative shul in central Pennsylvania and drifted from his faith as an adult. His father's death pulled him back: Even though his father had no expectation that he would say Kaddish for him, Fried felt the need to do so, and so he found himself initiated into the secrets of the minyanaires, hopping all over Philadelphia in search of the elusive tenth man. When Fried learned that the Rabbi of his childhood shul, having moved to the aforementioned large Philadelphia shul, was retiring, he decided to cover the Rabbi search for a potential magazine article or book. In the process of conducting interviews, (and Fried does get a lot of fascinating insider detail about the ugly parts of the process) Fried finds himself drawn into participating in the community, and discovering for the first time the difference a Rabbi can make in someone's life, and the different kinds of difference different Rabbis can make.

The combination of the reportorial style and the personal journey is really, surprisingly compelling.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Maimonides by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel, this is an early work of Heschel, written when he was 28 and living in Berlin in 1935. That... is an astonishing fact to recall as you read, and think about the questions and dangers to his community that Heschel was grappling with as he tried to provide context and meaning to the life and works of the Rambam.

Heschel's biography is primarily informed by the primary sources- Rambam's own writings about this life, as well as what can be inferred about Rambam's life from his theological and philosphical writings. He pulls a little extra detail from the writings of Yehuda HaLevi and Yosef Ibn Aknin and some of the Rambam's other contemporaries, but not a whole lot. The biography is therefore, on the whole, a direct intellectual conversation between Heschel and Maimonides, both giants of Jewish philosophy. That is something to treasure.

Heschel is extremely interested in Maimonides's wandering, how he went from Spain to Morocco to Israel to Egypt, fleeing Islamic persecution and seeking a stable, safe Jewish community, and at the same time trying in all of his sojourns to offer meaningful and pragmatic spiritual succor to the Jews living under pressure. It's a tradition he links to Rambam's father, Rabbi Maimon, who wrote a powerful letter providing halachic cover to Jews forced to pretend to be Muslims and only practice Judaism in secret, against hardliners in the Jewish community insisting that only those who risked martyrdom by openly practicing Judaism were offering valid worship to God. Rambam picked up the responsibility when his father died, engaging with splinter sects and messianic cults in a desperate and important effort to hold Jewish unity against the siege of Almohad persecution. Just imagine Heschel reading these texts in 1935 and thinking about their applicability to his own situation, how to create a viable Judaism in response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis! How just three years after he published the book, the Jews of Berlin would see a pogram as bad as anything Maimonides ever saw, how he would lose most of his family to the Holocaust over the next decade.

Heschel sees in Maimonides's teachings a very clear response, and it is the response that informed the rest of Heschel's own life: Torah education and the spiritual exploration it fosters is the reason man was placed in the world, and it is the great protection of the survival of Judaism and the Jews. Maimonides, in both Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchin, as well as Iggeret Teiman and his responsa literature, was creating the pathway for Jews to survive in spite of the persecution of the Almohades. Heschel reviews all of this literature in detail and in context. Earlier this year I reviewed Seeskin's A Guide for Today's Perplexed, which offers an interpretive gloss on Moreh Nevuchin in an explicitly modern philosophical language. Seeskin is asking how to understand Maimonides in the wake of Kant and Hegel and so on. Heschel is interested in understanding Maimonides on his own terms, in relation to medieval philosophy generally. This is, generally speaking, a less useful approach to engaging with the philosophical message of Maimonides, but it is a much richer approach to engaging with Maimonides as a person and as a leader. Heschel's biography of Maimonides is a thrilling guidebook to thinking about how to keep Judaism thriving.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Empress, The Queen, and the Nun: Women and Power at the Court of Philip III of Spain by Magdalena Sanchez

Alternately infuriating and fascinating, an academic re-examination of the historical view of the roles of Empress Maria, Philip III's aunt and grandmother, Queen Margaret of Austria, Philip III's wife, queen, and cousin, and Margaret of the Cross, Maria's daughter who took vows as a nun, possibly as an alternative to having to marry her cousin Philip II and possibly out of sincere devotion to the Faith. The trio were the most visible and notable Habsburg women at the court of Philip III, and I mention all their family relationships to highlight what Sanchez does repeatedly, that family and politics were intertwined deeply for the Habsburgs and this reality enlisted the Habsburg women as powerful political agents on behalf of the House of Austria, in spite of a significant literature composed by the Habsburgs' allies that suggested that these women were pious Catholic women who did not engage in politics but only served their nations as wives, mothers, holy women, charitable givers, and other positive stereotypes of early modern femininity.

The main reason the book is annoying to read is that Sanchez demolishes this anti-feminist Habsburg propaganda literature fairly quickly and extremely effectively and then spends the rest of the book repeating herself. Not just repeating her arguments- repeating her facts.

Sanchez shows how power in Philip III's Spain was driven by two things only- access to the King and access to his privado, or personal favorite, who for most of the period discussed in the book was the (infamous) Duke of Lerma. The privado served as a sort of informal chief minister, capable of speaking in the King's voice within certain limits. And while in official political settings, the King and the Duke of Lerma moved in exclusively male circles meeting with the Council of State, various ad hoc committees, and diplomatic envoys from other nations, the reality of the King's court was much broader and included significant room for female access to the King. As a devout Catholic, much of the King's day often involved religious activities such as attending masses, giving money to poor people, and visiting convents and monasteries. And those activities were often undertaken with his wife, and often led to interacting with other royal women, including his aunt and cousin, who lived in the Descalzas Real convent that was adjacent to the royal place in Madrid.

Sanchez lays out the evidence for this reality, that King Philip was constantly talking to and being influenced by his female relatives, and that the serious players at court were aware of this and that they moved within spheres of influence including those whose agendas were set by Empress Maria and Queen Margaret of Austria. She draws from the memoirs and letters of male diplomats at court who knew that if they wanted to advance the Austrian Habsburg agenda, their first call wasn't to Lerma but to Empress Maria. She talks about how these womens' agendas began with protecting the interests of their Habsburg relatives in Central Europe but expanded outward from there to encompass other personal political agendas- rewarding trusted allies, establishing legacy-making institutions, providing for the poor and needy. She uncovers the way Lerma tried to gain influence over Queen Margaret by planting his relatives as ladies in waiting to the Queen, and how Queen Margarget kept suborning his spies and forcing him to install new spies, and how the Queen's allies were able to use the Queen's sudden death as a political tool against Lerma because of the seeds of doubt in Lerma's loyalty that the Queen skillfully planted during her lifetime. She highlights how Lerma's desire for an isolationist public policy, a Spain-First policy involving negotiated peace with England and other traditional rivals in order to build the wealth of Spain and consolidate a century's gains against the Moors, warred with Philip III's ties and obligations to support his Austrian Habsburg relatives in their wars against Protestants and Muslims to the East and North.

The first three chapters or so were great, but as I got deeper and deeper into the book these details just got rehashed again and again in new variations. Chapters 4-6 barely had any new ideas or facts the first three chapters don't have. I got more and more desperate for any kind of new argument or perspective.

And then we got one, and it was even more infuriating- a final chapter on the melancholy and illness of Empress Maria, and how it was a political tool wielded to influence Philip III and the Duke of Lerma. Basically this chapter reduced its discussion of melancholy to "Empress Maria pretended to be sick in order to manipulate men."

Sanchez doesn't have much evidence of this beyond outcomes- sometimes when Empress Maria claimed melancholy, she ended up achieving some political objective, or sometimes just a thing that one might suppose was a political objective, like getting more visits from King Philip III. She has no letters between Empress Maria and her political allies where Empress Maria says that she's going to feign melancholy. Nonetheless she tries to argue that her melancholy wasn't a disease afflicting her but a pose used to communicate displeasure.

This makes me so angry because I have science!feels about humor medicine. Which is kind of ridiculous, I know. On the one hand, humor theory is completely wrong. The body has far more than four fluids whose regulation is necessary for the operation of the body, these fluids have no connection to the four elements, except in very rare cases these fluids do not get out of balance in a way where draining or infusing one of the fluids is going to help a person medically... As a medical theory with any relation to a realistic description of the body's processes, humor medicine is mostly bunk. As a medical theory offering any useful advice toward treatment, humor medicine is completely bunk.

But as a symptomology, that is less true. Here's what I mean by that: We know depression is a illness caused by brain chemistry problems. This did not start being the case when scientists disxcovered the faulty neurological processes, it was always a human condition that some people had. Likewise, the flu existed before we discovered the microbe. And it was doctors in the Galenic/Hippocratic tradition who treated them, and recorded the symptoms in their records. The science was fake, in other words, but the symptoms were real. They were using humor medicine to treat people who actually had the flu. And to treat people who actually had schizophrenia, and people who actually had depression.

It's not very clear how to map 'melancholy' onto the modern diseases of clinical depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophenia, etc... Probably it included all of them to some degree, and brain tumors, as well as other physical ailments that caused mental struggles, and probably it also included some things that modern science would not call disorders of any kind. Sanchez notes that Queen Margaret reported periods of melancholy after her pregnancies- we would today likely call that post-partum depression.

It seems... really toxic to me to treat melancholy, since it is a fake disease created by unsystematic doctors compositing various symptoms together under the false theory of humor medicine, as reflecting fake symptoms. Even today we as a culture are bad at treating depression as a real disease. I certainly am not proposing to diagnose Empress Maria as suffering from clinical depression from across five centuries- not only am I unqualified to diagnose anyone with any mental illness, but the facts in the historical record are ambiguous and mental illness seems to me to at least partially encode culture, so diagnosing a 16th century woman with clinical depression is meaningless. But I'm proposing that we ought to assume that when people claimed the symptoms of melancholy in the 16th century, they were claiming symptoms of a disease that they were legitimately suffering from, unless we actually have evidence to the contrary.


In any case, I read this book so that I could learn more about Philip III's Spain, toward eventually writing a Pirate Rabbi novel. It was definitely helpful in that regard... The impressions I held of the Duke of Lerma and Catalina de la Cerda and which informed "Chasing Pirates" and "If We Were All Wise Men" seem to me to have been inaccurate in some respects, and I would have written those stories differently had I written them with knowledge of this book. It also gave me a closer and deeper sense of how Catholicism informed the court, which is essential knowledge to a story about Jews navigating the court. In the end, it was a valuable read.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The summer I was fifteen, I went as an observant Conservative Jew to an Orthodox Jewish summer camp and came back wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit on a daily basis. I passed it off to my parents tacitly as some sort of conversion that'd happened at camp, but that wasn't really accurate. Jew camp was thoroughly ridiculous, in fact, but I didn't reveal most of the horrors to my parents until many years later. The basic principle of the camp was that all morning we studied Talmud and all afternoon we played sports and all night we did whatever the hell we wanted without supervision as long as we were awake the next morning for Shacharis davening. It was a strange unbalancing combination. It was an interesting experience for a few weeks, but it was exhausting and confusing and most of the time had very little to do with Judaism. One night those of us who were actually asleep at 3AM were awakened by our counselors- someone was friends with the dude responsible for closing the Baltimore kosher Krispy Kreme and had managed to score all of the leftover donuts from that night- several garbage bags full. They spread the garbage bags out on the hood of someone's car and urged all of the campers to eat as many stale donuts as they could. It was an incredibly surreal experience that did not bring me any closer to God, needless to say.

The truth is I'd been contemplating making some shift of the sort for months if not years before I went to camp- camp gave me an excuse and an impetus to make the shift. I found Conservative Judaism an uncomfortably tenuous place to be- I believed in Hashem and believed that at Bar Mitzvah I'd been obligated in Hashem's commandments, but I wasn't exactly clear on what Conservative Judaism said that obligation looked like. Conservative Judaism's answers to how to resolve the tension between modernity and traditional Judaism did not satisfy me and even in cases where today their answers do satisfy me, my teachers in Conservative Judaism often failed to do a good job of publicizing those satisfying answers. (Part of the problem, looking back, is that most of my teachers in Conservative Judaism weren't actually Conservative Jews. For want of qualified staff, my Hebrew Schools often hired a)Orthodox Jewish teachers and b)Secular Israelis who could teach Hebrew. Neither was equipped to intelligently articulate the philosophy and praxis of Conservative Judaism. But that's neither here nor there.) I was looking for an approach to Judaism that offered a deeper connection to Mesorah and I was looking to make a commitment to it. But I've never been the sort to make a blind commitment. I research and I research and I think and think, and then I jump. The jump I made that summer was in the aftermath of a long and serious negotiation with my faith, and the reality is that I'm still negotiating.

One of the things that was important to me in this negotiation with Modern Orthodoxy was making sense of Judaism's ideas about science. I already knew at 15 that I was probably going to end up a scientist or engineer- After those three weeks at Orthodox Jewish summer camp, I went straight to three weeks at a summer camp (CTY) where I studied number theory all day. I was (and still am) a giant nerd, an intellectually curious, skeptical, omnivorous bibliophile, and a strong believer in the scientific method, and I needed reassurance that there was a place in traditional Judaism for those parts of me. And people have a sense that religion and science are things in tension with each other, and there are reasons for that. Not always good reasons, but sometimes they are good reasons. They're fundamentally epistemologically different approaches to the world, and while I don't think that means you can't use both approaches, it does provide an explanation for why they might see the world differently. It is not, in fact, easy, to hold two visions of the world in your head at the same time. It's much easier if you can reconcile the two approaches so they're both seeing things the same way. You will find Jewish scientists on the Orthodox Right who say things like "People ask me if it's hard to be a scientist and an Orthodox Jew and I tell them No! When I'm doing my scientific work, I apply the scientific method. When I think about God and our place in the universe, I turn to Judaism." It does not strike me as being as easy to compartmentalize as that, for many reasons.

One of the texts that was really important and influential to me on this nebulous journey we might hyperbolically call a teenage religious epiphany was Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God. I've recommended the book to a number of people since then, including [personal profile] marginaliana. I sent her a copy for Yuletide bookswap, after she asked me how I thought about Creation and entropy, but I realized I hadn't actually read the book myself since I was 15 and my thinking about religion and science has changed considerably since I was 15, so I figured I ought to revisit it myself.

And, well, I can see why the book mattered to me at 15, but I am not the same person anymore, and the book does not well-serve the 31 year old me.

Schroeder's basic question is this: Genesis describes a particular story by which the World was Created. Many of the particulars of this story do not match the conventional presently dominant scientific narrative of the origin of the universe and the Earth. How should a religious person who wants to hold by the dogma that the Bible is unerringly true understand the tension?

And his basic approach to resolving the question is twofold: First, he asserts that the ancient Rabbis understood the narration in Genesis not literally and not as a metaphor, but as a sort of coded explanation of true events. And second, he asserts that if you can decipher the code, scientific revelation never contradicts Biblical revelation, and in fact affirms the hidden wisdom of the Torah and it's worldview.

I have less problem with the first prong of his approach than the second. It's pretty obvious if you spend any time learning traditional Jewish approaches to Genesis that most Rabbis don't expect you to read Genesis literally, but that if you start reading it metaphorically you're veering out of theism altogether. Which does not necessarily make such an approach non-Jewish. Obviously that kind of metaphorical reading is how observant Reform Jews tend to approach Genesis, though not exclusively, and I don't presume to speak to their theology. It also sort of appears to be how Ibn Ezra reads Genesis, if you take the ibn Ezra at face value, which is probably a bad idea since ibn Ezra is smarter and cleverer than you. And it's worth noting that there are some who do read it literally- the Lubavitcher Rebbe is noted for the claim that the dinosaurs may have been planted by Hashem to look older than they are, apparently as some sort of test of faith. There is a strand of tradition in Judaism particularly aligned with the Kabbalist/mystical tradition, in opposition to the rationalist strand, that believes that God miraculously maintains the universe from moment to moment and that because of the nature of this miracle, any effort to study archaeology or history or cosmology is useless. Schroeder barely acknowledges this tradition, but that's fine, most Jews I talk to on a regular basis usually don't either.

But the second prong is problematic to me. Schroeder uses as his proof texts of the Rabbis' wisdom a number of quotations from the Talmud, and from Nachmanides' (Ramban) commentary on Genesis. There is a confidence in his writing that suggests he's got an absolutely clear comprehension of these texts from the religious side, and he's using this comprehension to share the wisdom of the Rabbis with the reader. At fifteen I swallowed this up fairly unquestioningly, not because I felt Schroeder was some unerring Torah scholar, but because the interpretations he was placing before us seemed like fairly straightforward Torah interpretations.

But let me share with you one of the first things Nachmanides says in his commentary on Genesis. He's asking a question about the commentator Rashi, because Rashi famously opens his own commentary on Genesis by saying that it is puzzling that the Torah begins with Genesis, since there are no commandments in the Creation story, and the Torah is ultimately a vehicle for delivering the commandments to Israel. Nachmanides objects, since clearly if one knew for certain that Hashem created the universe in miraculous fashion, it would have an impact on their observance of the commandments, so why is Rashi puzzled? His answer is that Creation is a mystery and the narrative in Genesis does not actually explain it, and so therefore Rashi's question pertains- given that the Genesis account fails at its ostensible purpose, why open the Torah with it?

And one can question it, because there is great need to begin the Torah with "In the beginning God created" for it is the root of faith; and one who doesn't believe this and believes that the world is primordial is an apostate and has no Torah whatsoever. And the answer, it is because the work of creation - it is a deep secret - is not intelligible from the verses, and will not be understood by its students except through the received tradition up until Moses our Master from the mouth of God [lit. "The Strength"], and those who know it are required to hide it.

So I'm more than a little skeptical of Schroeder's assertion that Nachmanides's interpretation of Creation aligns with science's interpretation. Supposing it were true, it would actually mean Nachmanides failed at his purpose, which was to offer religious insight into the message the Torah was providing in Genesis while hiding that which he was obligated to hide about the true nature of Creation. Nachmanides explicitly says that he is not offering a scientific explanation of Creation!

But that's sort of a meaningless speculation without actually looking at what Schroeder's project means for his analysis of the scientific data. And here it gets a lot messier. The problem is exactly why the book was so useful when I was 15. I said to [personal profile] liv that The Science of God is Jewish apologetics, which does not work the same way as Christian apologetics does. Schroeder teaches a Judeo-scientific approach by way of the Ramban, but his main purpose is not to create a book teaching the teachings of the Ramban.

Schroeder's real purpose is to offer a Jewish counterpoint to secular atheistic popular science books- Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Gould's Wonderful Life, Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, and so on, not to offer the answers to the deep questions about Creation and its nature. The '09 edition that I'm reading now actually has substantial updates to add to the list of atheist popular science books he is parrying, including Dawkins's noxious The God Delusion.

And when I was fifteen, that's exactly what I needed, because those were the books I was reading, and I needed something in conversation with them. I was reading Gould and listening to him lay out this flimsy, speculative mechanism by which he thought evolution occurred and thinking "That doesn't quite add up," and I was looking for other ways to think about the bigger questions we grapple with when we think about the origin of humanity and our place in the the universe because Gould and Dawkins and Hawking weren't giving me what I needed. But most of the Jews I was talking to weren't giving me the answers I wanted, either. Most of the Jews I was speaking to about these questions weren't scientifically trained and they couldn't recognize the problems I was having with Gould and Dawkins and so on, so they couldn't articulate for me the appropriate Jewish counter-arguments. Schroeder at least was, more or less.

There is a dogmatic certainty in the writing of these materialist secular scientific giants that the gaps in their scientific knowledge will be filled with more and more materialist interpretations of nature until all the gaps are closed, and I found this faith wanting. But there's a trick Dawkins in particular pulls- he fills his works with so much legitimate evidence that it almost papers over the giant gaps in his knowledge. So a Jewish counterargument against Dawkins that I find worthwhile has to acknowledge and accommodate all legitimate evidence, while still finding value and truth in whatever it is the Torah says. And while rejecting all the clear nonsense Dawkins is pitching.

Now that I'm much more experienced as a scientist I see the flaws in those popsci books as scientific literature much more clearly. I therefore don't find refutations of them very interesting on their face because I recognize that disproving arguments advanced in popular science books is not equivalent to disproving the latest scientific theories, and furthermore, that disproving scientific theories is something that scientists do. It's epistemologically part of the process of doing science, it's not epistemologically part of the process of pursuing God. Seeing Schroeder pick up a particular oversimplified argument from Dawkins and knock it down is not a very fruitful exercise for me. I could do it myself, and have. But it doesn't say anything about the nature of God's universe to do so. But I guess it was a stepping stone to where I am now. Which is a deep, powerful uncertainty.

But to the book!

Schroeder tries out some old chestnuts from the book of bad arguments for theism. Quantum mechanics, says Schroeder, proves that miracles exist! Why? Because one of the elements of some parts of the theory of quantum mechanics is apparently 'effect without cause', which he says is the definition of a miracle. But this is only true of some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, while others preserve locality and causality. And in any case it's a baldly presumptuous linguistic game- the sort of 'miracle' quantum mechanics implies has very little to do with the sort of miracles the Bible treats with- the parting of the sea in Exodus, or the stopping of the Sun, in Joshua, or the swallowing of Korach in last week's Torah portion.

To a certain degree I'm being too hard on Schroeder. He's making a qualitative argument in a popular theology work, and if I were feeling more generous I could say that his point here is the same as the point he makes more effectively about the Big Bang Theory: Until a revolution struck the mid-20th century astrophysics world, the scientific consensus was toward a steady state theory that the universe had always been in the basic form it is now. However, the Bible and its believers firmly claimed that the Bible argued that the universe had a Beginning. Now, via a 'new convergence' (his term, not mine, definitely not mine), the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that there was a Beginning- and it is the scientific world that has shifted.

Similarly, we could say that Schroeder's point with respect to quantum mechanics is not that quantum mechanics is miraculous in the same way as Elijah being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, but that science until recently always claimed that causality was inviolate, that cause always preceded effect, whereas believers in the Bible insisted that there mechanisms by which effect could happen without cause, i.e. miracles. However, by the same 'new convergence', the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that causality is not inviolate. This is a much flimsier argument, though, and the original argument about Beginnings, which I just defended as being well-sounded by Schroeder, is rather flimsy and qualitative to begin with. There is the fact that the assertion about science and steady state hypotheses is less storybook-true than the theists would prefer, and there have always been 'scientific' theories about a beginning to the universe. I put 'scientific' in quotes because the problem for Schroeder's triumphalist narrative of science converging on the Bible is that until the 20th century there was no significant scientific evidence either for or against a Beginning of the universe, so any so-called scientific theories were just speculations with little basis. Even worse, there's the fact that seeing as many scientists, albeit with no real evidentiary basis, supposed the steady state hypothesis to be the truth, several great Rabbis, most famously Maimonides, tried to do what Schroeder attempts in The Science of God and reconcile the Bible with the steady state hypothesis. And likeweise in the centuries before the 20th, the majority of scientists were theists and believed in miracles, so it seems silly to claim a new convergence on the idea of cause not following effect as a vindication of the Torah over scientists.

Schroeder's problem gets even deeper when he leaves physics and moves on to tackle a proposed Jewish scientific approach to evolution. At least with physics, the basic effects are more or less understood in a quantitative way. There's a clear scientific consensus about the things he is talking about. Everyone agrees that the equations of relativity work in a specific way. The problem with evolution is that Schroeder is trying to prove that science agrees with the Bible, when science isn't even sure what it thinks!

It's inarguable that there are species that once existed and no longer do, and that these species have familial similarities with currently living beings that suggest that species change over time on a geological scale. It seems likely that one or some of the to this point poorly understand mechanisms of genetic mutation drive these changes that lead to speciation. But how this happens is not clear. Those Christians who argue against evolution in a scientific register make the argument that whole complex biological systems would seem to have been required to develop all at once, as it's implausible that partially developed versions of such systems would offer fitness advantages, an argument called 'irreducible complexity'. Schroeder is not interested in arguing against evolution, thankfully, or I would throw the book across the room. Irreducible complexity is a stupid, qualitative, sleight of hand argument. It looks at something really complicated, acting by mechanisms that we don't understand, and it concludes without evidence that since it can't figure out the mechanism, there must be no mechanism. Irreducible complexity is not something to place faith in. But it has a certain air of plausibliity to it. The truth is that we DON'T know where the human eye comes from, what kind of evolutionary mechanism might have had to occur for it to happen and how many steps there were along the way. And the plausibility of the irreducible complexity argument is a problem for Schroeder- if scientists cannot explain how these systems developed, how can he show that the scientific truth of how evolution works is in agreement with the Bible's description? Schroeder's general solution is to go through the counterarguments against all the current tentative hypotheses, as if to show that since none of them are right, the ultimately-to-be-discovered true explanation of evolution will necessarily have to agree with Genesis, since there is no known unresolvable incompatibility between the inarguable facts of evolution and the Torah, and in fact that the order in which God is described as creating different sorts of creatures in Genesis is in at least rough alignment with the current fossil evidence about the origin of species.

But this is much harder to show than Schroeder would like it to be, for all the reasons that Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books show so well- definitions of species and categorizations of species are not indisputable scientific truths, they're fuzzy categories applied by taxonomists for convenience. And this is both true in science and in the Bible, which each use different taxonomic categories because of their different purposes. In one notable place of conflict, Schroeder dispenses with the difficulty posed by Genesis 1:20 with a single sentence. Per NJPS: "And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl [עוֹף] fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.' " But this is too early, right after the appearance of liquid water, for birds to have evolved. Schroeder easily resolves this problem by retranslating עוֹף as 'flying creature', a translation he says is uncontroversial among Rabbis since צִפּוֹר is the true word for 'birds'. The truth is more complicated: The language the Torah uses does not align with modern scientific taxonomy, so it's not so simple to say that the Bible does not use עוֹף in the more specific sense. As R' Slifkin points out, as far as the Bible is concerned, winged creatures fall into only two taxons: kosher winged creatures, and unkosher winged creatures. Any further granularity is unnecessary. The idea of 'species' is not really in the picture. The idea of distinguishing between the dove and the bat by one of them being a mammal and one of them being an avian is not worth considering. This is not because the Torah is unscientific, it's because the Torah is not a 21st century science textbook! Most of the places where עוֹף is used in the Torah use the word as a figurative language where it doesn't matter whether it means bird or just winged creature, like several places in Daniel. So Schroeder could be right. But עוֹף is used in Leviticus, like in Leviticus 7:26, "And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl [ עוֹף ] or of beast, in any of your dwellings." In that verse, clearly it must be referring to birds more or less as we currently understand them, since it's talking about the laws of kashrut and non-bird flying things are not kosher, so nobody would possibly think the verse is suggesting that you would consider eating the blood of generic winged creatures. So while resolving the scientific discrepancy as Schroeder does is possible, it is not incontrovertible the way he suggests it is.

Beyond the argument for alignment, Schroeder attempts, even less successfully in my opinion, an argument against 'randomness' in evolution. I put 'randomness' in quotes because it remains unclear to me exactly what principle Schroeder is objecting to, other than pure materialism in general. According to Schroeder's 'randomness' paradigm, every time a DNA transcription error occurs, it is like a four sided coin is being flipped. Some almost completely hypothetical number of such coin flips must go in the correct way, over a certain period of time, for new biological pathways to be installed in a genome. I don't think this is the right way to think about evolutionary statistics, as I've said before. The probabilistic alternative isn't no change, it's a different change.

That is to say, suppose we play a game with a four sided die. I tell you, "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey kiss, if it rolls anything else, nothing happens." That's the game Schroeder is imagining. Now suppose we play a different game: I tell you "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey's kiss. If it rolls a three, I'll give you a Mounds bar. If it rolls a two, I'll give you a bag of M&M's. If it rolls a one, nothing happens." That's the game as I see it. The probability of getting a Hershey Kiss is the same in both games. But the meaning of getting a Hershey Kiss is different. If you start with the end result: I have a Hershey kiss in my hand... then you can calculate and say it's a fairly improbable event. There was only a 25% chance of it happening. But if you asked what the probability of something happy-making happening was, it's 75%. The difference is considering the possibility of other different but positive outcomes.

Both Schroeder's arguments on the Big Bang and evolution are buttressed by the book's biggest and most notable construction, which is to use General Relativity and a 'universal' non-Earth based frame of reference to construct a relativistic time clock for Creation. Essentially, if you plot the temperature of the cosmic background radiation on a polar natural log plot with the time constant being the expansion rate of the universe, you get the time dilation of time on Earth relative to time at the beginning of Time itself. This works out to roughly six logarithmic time half-periods. Depending on how you calculate the expansion rate of the universe, obviously, which is in some dispute, so it could be five and it could be seven, I guess. Each of these successive time periods is roughly half the length of the previous, in the Earth's current relativistic frame of reference. The result is that if you call each of these periods a 'Day' for Torah purposes, each successive day is zooming in closer and closer on the story of Earth and humankind. (In a really weird moment, Schroeder says "I do not claim my calculation is any more accurate than +/-20%", which is weird because what is he asking you to believe? That when Hashem composed the Bible, what was actually meant was "And it was evening, and it was morning, Day 1 +/- 20%""??? More likely he's asking you to take on faith that since his calculation came close, as science refines its calculation of the age of the universe it will get closer and closer to his cosmic clock, but this is the same problem I complained about with Dawkins and Gould. Being close but not quite there sometimes means you're close to true understanding, but it sometimes means you're missing some important factor. In my lifetime as a scientist, I have been off by 20% for some pretty colossally important reasons.)

Schroeder uses this idea of a cosmic relativity clock to claim that the various events that happen on each Genesis Day align with the events that scientists believe happened in each time period. The similarities he finds are compelling and fascinating, but not convincing, because the science is not certain enough for it to be convincing. Scientists think that life appeared about 500 million years ago, based on radiation dating of the earliest fossils and hypothesizing about the nature of the origin of life. This aligns with Schroeder's clock reasonably well, but this scientific idea is based on us not finding earlier fossils and not finding any calculation errors in our radiation dating, and all sorts of assumptions that are not set in stone, as it were. Darwinian gradualism, which scientists now think is generally implausible, was a plausible interpretation of the fossil record as it stood when Darwin was writing, and it is the quite-recent discovery of further components of the fossil record that has cast doubt on the idea of gradual evolution. Furthermore, there are some types of creature that because of body type cannot be discovered in the fossil record- our knowledge of their evolution is much weaker. If the science refines its calculations and pushes some events out of one period into the next, is Schroeder going to be sunk on his reliance on in-progress science? Defenders of Genesis's primacy can't be dependent on the latest science. They can point to it to show it holds no contradictions, perhaps but they can't assert it as a truth on its own because it's built on assumptions and suppositions. Schroeder's cosmic clock is not a dependable proof of Hashem's creation, just a cute game to tease people with.

And furthermore, have you tried reading Nachmanides's commentary on Genesis? It's incredibly hard to read and interpret and most of the time I have no clue what it's saying. If you actually read Schroeder against Ramban, as I did this time, you realize that what he's pointing to as uncanny similarities with the scientific narrative are small sections carefully selected from the account. That's not an accusation of deceitful manipulation on Schroeder's part, mind. He uses all the comprehensible parts and his translations seem reasonably fair to me. It's just that so much of Ramban's understanding of Genesis is not part of Schroeder's schematic, because so much of Ramban is abstruse metaphysics pointing toward, apparently, the hidden Torah of Genesis he's not allowed to discuss. Much of the Ramban's commentary on Genesis, Artscroll's Ramban Chumash refuses to translate because it considers it to be Kabbalah not meant for the common reader. It's hardly worth the effort of keeping it secret, though, because when I try translating it on my own it makes no sense to me. One wonders if in a hundred years, with advancements in cosmology, a new generation of Schroeders will be struggling to explain how those incomprehensible Kabbalistic passages correlate to the new theory of the start of the universe.

The truth as I see it is that the Torah is its own greatest defender. The words of Genesis have an evocative power that speaks to me and testifies to its own truth, and that is the truth I see echoed in the commentaries of the great Gedolim of Jewish history, of Rashi and Rambam and Ramban and Rif and Ibn Ezra and so on. All the answer Ramban need have provided to Rashi's question, if you ask me, is that the Torah began with Genesis to prove that God's creation matters. To tell us that it is a challenge to all Jews to try to ask questions about God's universe, and to wonder where it came from and how it came into being. The Torah is blessing scientific pursuit and linking it to the mitzvot. Reading further into the words of Genesis is worthwhile without having any expectation of revelation of the great secrets of the text. Still, fifteen year old me appreciated that Schroeder made the effort even if he didn't really get anywhere solid. Thirty one year old me wonders how he got as far as he did without questioning the effort.

Ultimately, what Schroeder reassures me of is not that Nachmanides's evocation of Creation is convincing or accurate, but that there is a plausible reconcilation. I don't need the specific reconciliation. I've never needed the specific reconciliation- God as Jews understand God is not a falsifiable proposition. But the ideas Schroeder lays out, though I don't believe them, suggest that at least a similar approach might actually be accurate. Or not, I don't really know where science will go in its explorations of God's universe.

So going forward, when friends ask me for books to read about Judaism and science, I do not think I will continue to recommend The Science of God. I think instead I will invite them to join me at a bar over a beer to talk about Judaism and science. I am in a place right now where I don't have all the answers, but I think that might be the more productive way to advance the conversation.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

This was one of the books I received for Yuletide bookswap, and have finally finished. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's one of the best popular science books I've ever read, and I have had a few opinions about popular science books in my day.

It tells the story of an 1850s London cholera epidemic and the amateur epidemiologists who finally provided compelling statistical and epidemiological evidence of cholera's water-borne cause and the specific locus of the outbreak in one particular well.

Its central protagonists are a pioneeering anesthesiologist, John Snow, and a church curate, Reverend Henry Whitehead, who together did the excruciating and dangerous work of surveying residents of the afflicted neighborhood and piecing together the water usage trails that proved their case, work that ultimately saved millions if not billions of lives down the line. And it was so good at giving me scientific method feels, so that the moment when Whitehead uncovered proof of how the water had been infected (a proof that was inevitable by that point in the analysis, but which provided the basically indisputable proof that the analysis had been correct), it actually made me weep with pride for humanity (though I was admittedly on 30 hours without sleep at that point, stuck in my second airport of the day).

The epilogue is a little loopy in its speculative extrapolations, but otherwise I have no complaints. Grateful to my gift giver for introducing me to this wonderful story. I may request John Snow/Henry Whitehead fic for Yuletide, too.


The Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Fleming

A short little book, more of my reading around Hamilton. (Though as a document of the Jefferson presidency, this features more of Burr than Hamilton.)

Fleming takes as a given that the Louisiana Purchase ultimately worked out well for the US- few historians would disagree, I think. For a relatively small amount of money, spent at a moment when Hamilton's banking reforms and a booming American economy had the US comparatively flush, the US greatly expanded its territorial claims, avoided a war with Spain or France that Fleming thinks may have been looming, and set the tone for a century of American expansion. (Of course, in other ways this expansion was a mixed legacy. It's obviously not clear that France had the right to sell this land given that it was occupied by numerous Native tribes. If France did have a right to sell this land, this right was governed by treaties the Louisiana Purchase obligated the US to also recognize; the US immediately proceeded to disregard these treaties and also impose martial law on the remaining French in New Orleans out of a concern from Jefferson that they were not ready to enjoy the fruits of democracy.)

Fleming's focus, then, is on the difficulties surrounding the actual purchase, of the role of the brutal war of the French to retake Haiti and its impact on the terms of the purchase, on the political wrangling between Jefferson Republicans and the weakened remnant of the Federalists, on the personal rivalries between chief negotiators Robert Livingston and James Monroe, and on the difficulty of negotiating with Talleyrand and Napoleon. Fleming's writing is clear, straightforward, and detailed, and he creates a vivid picture of the setting. I found the book informative but not deeply significant.


I is for Innocent by Sue Grafton

Possibly the best of the series, it innovates in form while retaining all the core elements that make the Kinsey Milhone books great- the vivid California setting deepening in complexity with each story, the toughness and vulnerability of Kinsey, the importance of actually pounding pavement to investigation, the complexity of the motivations for the interactions of witnesses with Kinsey, the monstrous but recognizable villains.

Unlike a lot of the series, which get conventional in their ending with Kinsey finally putting the pieces together and outsmarting the bad guy, I liked that even after Kinsey put the pieces together, the villain succeeded in tricking her for a time. It made him seem even more dangerous and capable, and made the ultimate conclusion feel that much more earned.


Medium Rare by Anthony Bourdain

Borrowed from the swaps table at Vividcon because the flight delays meant I'd read all the books I'd brought and needed something for the trip home. It's not a book I'd otherwise read, and I actively disliked a good third of the book, the part that consisted of personal vendettas against other chefs. But there were some good parts, some good meditations on the place of food and restaurants in our culture, and it was certainly fine as an airplane book, where you're always getting distracted from being able to really focus on anything complex anyway.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Women Who Would be Rabbis by Pamela Nadell

It's an academic historical survey of the American history of the movement to ordain female Rabbis, mostly covering the conversation in the Reform (and reforming) communities, with a late detour into the Conservative Movement's parallel debates and a small appendix asking about Orthodoxy.

As a work of scholarship, it is thorough and well researched, with some sixty pages of endnotes testifying to the depth of Nadell's search for relevant documentation. Her research takes her as far back as the 1830s and 40s all the way up to the ordination of Amy Eilberg by JTS in the mid '80s. And as a work of reconstructed historiography it is an important work, pointing to the repeated pattern in the history of the struggle for women's ordination to forget its forbears, whom Nadell labels with the term 'proto-Rabbis'. Because the thing that emerges as Nadell takes you through the history is that nobody the media ever labeled as 'first' was ever in any true sense 'first', at least without qualifications. Before Priesand and Eilberg became the first women ordained, respectively, by the Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries (and Hurwitz by an at least putatively Orthodox rabbinic seminary), there were a number of women, both among those who attended those seminaries on a non-Rabbinic track and those who did not attend the seminary but were possessed of considerable Jewish education for other reasons, who received some or all of the education of a Rabbi and performed some or all of the roles associated with the Rabbinic profession and may have at least informally been assigned the title of Rabbi or at least spiritual leader.

I did feel that Nadell, though she develops this point extremely effectively from a purely historical point of view, does not delve deeply enough into the theological reasons underpinning some of this confusion, which she seems to assert as mainly the result of sexism (I don't mean to say that she is simplistic in this regard. Nadell's discussion of sexism as a complex social force in American life is quite thorough and historically attenuated.). But Nadell's term 'proto-Rabbi' is ultimately confused, I think, and it may lead to confuse the reader to a certain degree.

What Nadell's excellent book is missing is any thought to the primary question "What is a Rabbi?" I think this is especially important because the answer to this question evolved significantly over the course of the time period Nadell surveys.

The first 'proto-Rabbi' Nadell uncovers is Ray Frank, dubbed in the Jewish media 'the girl Rabbi of the West'. A gifted preacher with minimal formal Jewish education, she spoke compellingly from the pulpit of a number of Jewish congregations in the Western US in the late 19th century, but made no claim to ordination. Frank herself looked back to Rashi's daughters and Miriam and Devorah and the Maid of Ludmir for examples of female leaders of the Jewish people. And I think that exactly points to the problem with the idea of reading Frank as the first proto-Rabbi. Women have always been Jewish leaders, though never with the title of Rabbi. But what is a Rabbi?

The reality that Nadell butts up against is that the responsibilities and training of a Reform Rabbi are very different than the responsibilities and training of an Orthodox Rabbi, and the responsibilities of a Reform Rabbi a hundred years ago were very different than the responsibilities of a contemporary Reform Rabbi, so asking whether women should be Rabbis is not asking a single question, it's really asking a few dozen circumstantially different questions about how and in what conditions a woman can be called a Rabbi. I think generally when people and the media labeled a particular 'proto-Rabbi' as a Rabbinical or pseudo-Rabbinical figure, what they were actually identifying was that the person in question was performing some or all of the tasks that a comparable male Rabbi- of that era and denomination!- would be expected to perform. But this is not necessarily the same thing as being a 'proto-Rabbi' because that seems to require that the male Rabbinate was not a moving target, that gradually the roles women served were more and more 'Rabbi-like' over time, which I do not think is precisely the case.

My own post on the most recent RCA resolution against female ordination speaks to further theological difficulties in the question. Are people really fighting over the function, or the title, or both? Sometimes Nadell engages with these questions, but too often she takes a step back and looks at other societal factors that she seems to think the theological questions the authorities are discussing are proxies for, resulting in fairly sparse and unsatisfying discussion of the actual responsa literature. The theological questions sometimes are proxies for these societal questions, to be sure. She is convincing when she can point to responsas in which rabbinical figures worry about pregnancy and marriage prompting students the seminaries have invested time and effort in to leave the rabbinate, and discussions where people worried about the general capabilities of women to perform rabbinical functions- evidence that sexist societal attitudes about women were (and still are) inflecting the debate about the place of women in the Rabbinate.

But sometimes that's not enough of an answer. One of the 1920s students at Hebrew Union College who sought a Rabbinical ordination if she completed the curriculum, Dora Askowith, ultimately was rejected for failure to complete the second year Hebrew examination, despite otherwise exemplary coursework and research. Nadell assesses this as a sexist failure of the system, noting that other male students might have similarly struggled with the Hebrew curriculum, but they at least knew that if they managed to complete the examination, they would likely receive ordination, whereas Askowith ultimately used it as the reason for dropping out of HUC. And this is no doubt true, but by focusing on the societal issues Nadell obscures the subtle but important practical religious problem, which is that the Hebrew curriculum was probably a more important part of the HUC curriculum in 1920 than it probably is today, because to a greater degree than today graduates of HUC were being sent out to effectively be the only Hebrew-speaking Jew in communities with far less Jewish learning than most practicing Jews have today. HUC required the Hebrew examination because in order to send out its students into the field as it was currently constituted, HUC needed to make sure they were prepared in this area. We can criticize the structural sexism that made it more difficult for students like Askowith (who went on to have a long, successful but undistinguished career as a Jewish history teacher at Hunter College and a more distinguished career as a leader of Reform Jewish institutions) to pursue the Rabbinate, but it's less clear to me that we can criticize the sexism of demanding that women achieve the same requirements as the men.

On the other hand, Helen Levinthal succeeded Askowith a few years later at HUC, fully completed the academic coursework the same as any Rabbinical student, but was unable to receive ordination because of the refusal of the faculty, so it's certainly possible to argue that since even had Askowith completed her coursework she would probably not have been ordained, the roadblock posed by the Hebrew examination was of a fundamentally different character than the challenges imposed on male students.

Nadell shows that again and again, from men who 'in principle' had no objection to female Rabbis, the demand was placed on the first women who would become Rabbis that they be exceptional women, capable of by their visible capability and competence proving any criticism of them unfair. She tries to show that this represented a double standard that kept otherwise deserving women out of the Rabbinate by making the criteria to ordain women impossibly high. Sometimes this is convincing; other times it is less clear to me that the 'double standard' isn't actually a single standard that the female student failed to attain, for a variety of reasons including family obligations, financial difficulty, a sense of isolation engendered by being the only women in school, other competing academic demands, and others. You can make the argument that in recognition of these barriers, someone seeking to bring about true equality should make allowances for women by easing the requirements, but this is not always a wholly satisfying argument.

Likewise, Nadell mentions but doesn't really engage with the distinction between the 'private ordination' received by Regina Jonas and the seminary ordinations received by Priesand, Eilberg, et al. From her position as a contemporary Reform Jew, Nadell wants to read seminary ordination as the real, legitimate ordination that nobody can argue with, since Reform Judaism currently is a movement with a pretty strongly centralized ordination authority. But I think this stands in contrast not only to the more diffuse ordination authority of contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but also to the more diffuse ordination authority of early Reform Judaism, which had multiple streams providing its corps of Rabbis- multiple affiliated and partially affiliated seminaries, as well as defections from Orthodox- and Conservative- seminary trained Rabbis, as well as Rabbis who received private training and private ordination in an era where that sort of direct teacher-to-student ordination was more commonly accepted, though not always without controversy. I think it likely that the merger of the different Reform seminaries and the greater central guidance over the Rabbinical institution made it more likely for an eventual female ordination to happen, and more likely, when it did, for it to be globally accepted by the Reform community without the kind of schism that greeted previous significant evolutions in the Reform practice. But Nadell is so interested in situating the struggle within women's history that she doesn't pay enough attention to situating the struggle with Jewish history.

All that said, this was a fascinating book that I'm glad to have read. And obviously relevant to the interests of some of my readers, if they haven't already read it.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The weather hasn't calmed down, but it's cooled down- we've had a series of pretty dramatic summer thunderstorms that have dropped temperatures from the 90s into the 80s and very occasionally into the 70s. I've taken advantage of a few of the lulls in the thunderstorms to get back in the biking thing. Sunday I rode over to the river and then through a riverside park... Google maps says the total trip was about 8 miles, which is a lot for me. I sort of tricked myself into the distance- the trip out to the river is mostly downhill, and the ride along the river was mostly flat, so I kept pushing further out because I wasn't feeling winded, but I struggled on some of the uphill parts heading back. There was one hill in particular that I might've been able to climb at the beginning of the ride, but certainly couldn't at the end, and ended up walking my bike up the hill. But it was a good ride, really pleasant, and my legs were a lot less sore the day than they were after my first bike ride of the summer when I only went half the distance I did yesterday, so maybe my body's adjusting. I always found that to be the case when I was somewhat serious about frisbee in college- I'd come back after winter break of not doing any fitness stuff and the first practice would kill me, and then I'd be fine after that. But my body is not eighteen anymore and it's been a lot longer since I was in shape, so I suspect it'll take longer this time around.

Suburbia makes fitness hard. You basically have to drive everywhere to get to anything useful, so any exercise has to be unpurposeful, done just for its own sake. When I lived in New York City, I didn't need to do exercise because I got several miles of walking done every day, and more on good days. Where I was living for the past ten years, I just didn't have much interest in unpurposeful exercise. I'd get home from work after wrestling with traffic for an hour and be exhausted and grumpy and not want to move. My only exercise of the week came on Shabbos with walking to and from shul. My new town, well, the new township I've technically moved into is even more spaced out than my old one, but I'm two blocks from the border of a town that is much more tightly packed together and has interesting things to walk and bike to. And I have this extra energy that comes of the shorter commute and I'm glad I've been able to burn some of that energy by moving my body.

I also did some stuff in the kitchen Sunday. I baked challah for Vividcon, which is in less than two weeks and I'm very excited about it. I'm hosting a Shabbos dinner at the con, which should be nice. The only problem with VVC is that Saturday night into Sunday is Tisha B'Av, which is a weird semi-holiday that I'm going to have to figure out my comfort level with doing con stuff around. Going straight from Club Vivid to reading Eichah seems weird. On the other hand, I don't want to skip Club Vivid, since I'm premiering a vid there. Eh, I'll figure it out.





Notes on politics I have resisted posting on Facebook:

-My father said when I saw him on Sunday "The liberals keep falling into Trump's traps."

I think in a lot of cases he's right. The baffling case of Donald Trump, Russian agent is a perfect example. The DNC was hacked and their emails released by Wikileaks. It is not clear who the hackers were or what their motivation was. Wikileaks' motivation is general chaos by way of radical information transparency, which is to say, Wikileaks believes that no information should be secret.

The information in the emails included information that was embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. In order to deflect attention, Clinton and her advisors suggested that the Russian government might be behind the hacks. They made this suggestion despite their being no evidence of Russian involvement beyond speculation. The FBI was asked and they said something like "Sure, it could be the Russians, we don't know." On this basis the idea that the Russians, with or without the direct collusion of Donald Trump, had hacked the DNC started to be spread by the media as a rumor.

So Donald Trump, confronted with the ridiculous and unfounded accusation that the Russian government is propping up his campaign, made the sarcastic remark that if he could control who the Russians hacked, he would have instead directed them to recover the missing emails Clinton and her legal team deleted from her private email server- emails that she claims were personal but which a lot of people suspect included sensitive political exchanges, emails which she hid using a private server to step around the Freedom of Information Act's requirements for reasonable transparency, even when it meant mishandling sensitive information.

And the Democrats took this- a clear joke, and a barbed one- and started raving about how Donald Trump had committed the treasonous act of calling for a foreign government to hack an American national's server. When Trump has done nothing wrong except suffer the unverified accusations of liberal hacks.

When conservatives- the kind of conservatives like me who fear Trump- see this kind of nonsense game, it makes it harder and harder to take Hillary Clinton seriously as an alternative to Trump. It makes it easier and easier to say "Okay, Trump is a disaster, but voting for Clinton is courting a different kind of disaster. Hillary Clinton doesn't take democracy seriously, either." Easier and easier to say "If Trump is president, he'll only be able to pass the laws that Paul Ryan sends to him, so Congress will act as all the check on his power we'll need."

And Donald Trump knows this. He knows that if he acts like Donald Trump, outrageous and sloppy and insulting, the Democrats will in their outrage and their distorted worldview fall all over themselves making ludicrous accusations against him. And every time they do, it'll bring the people who know better than to swallow these credulous media narratives more securely into his camp. Every time liberals snicker about how reality has a liberal bias, it helps Trump. Reality doesn't have a liberal bias, the media does. And every time a nonsense story like this is spread by the liberal media- and this one was immediately followed up two days later by the nonsense story of how Donald Trump had leaked information about a secret US base in Saudi Arabia from a classified security briefing he hadn't even received!!!!- every time a story like this is spread, people like me say "Well, Trump is a disaster, but I suppose he'll only be able to pass the laws that Paul Ryan sends to him. Maybe Paul Ryan will be able to act as a brake on his lunacy."


-Except that's the problem. For whatever reason- and I admire Paul Ryan, and to a certain degree I admire the way he's trying to maintain his integrity while struggling to keep the Republican Party he was reluctantly entrusted with in one piece, just as I admired John Boehner's ultimately futile efforts toward the same end, Paul Ryan has not upheld his end of the bargain with his conservative base. Paul Ryan was supposed to have emerged from his meetings with Trump, after Trump had effectively become the presumptive nominee, having extracted meaningful concessions from Trump. Meaningful concessions meaning that Trump would stop acting like a racist authoritarian monster and start presenting himself as a President who could actually lead America, all of America.

Paul Ryan has been struggling hard to maintain his integrity, to draw lines in the sand and to call out Trump when Trump crosses those lines. It's astonishing to imagine that the House Majority Leader has called his own party's presidential candidate a racist, but it's happened! More than once in the past two months! That's actually happened! But it's clear that no meaningful deal was arranged. It's clear that Ryan has nothing Trump wants and no power to control what Trump does, and given that this is the case, it's hard to see the Republican Congress, the clusterfuck that has been this Republican Congress, serving as any kind of break on Trump's megalomania.

And so I'm still voting for Hillary Clinton, because it's possible- actually, the more I think on it, plausible- that the combination of Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell will result in the most legislatively productive Congress since the late Clinton/early Bush era. And that productivity could be beautifully tempered by the spirit of compromise.






Emma by Jane Austen

The third Austen novel I've read, and the first which didn't advertise its themes in its title. I enjoyed it greatly, obviously, as it is a great novel. Nobody- nobody!- drops one-liners as brilliantly as Austen. And the whole cast of characters, but particularly Emma Woodhouse herself, are so sharply and complicatedly drawn. There were moments in the later third of the book where I realized that we were still unfolding yet further layers of depth to Emma's personality, new layers that I couldn't have predicted or expected yet which I found completely integrated into my overall sense of who Emma was.

Mr. Knightley is a little hard to like and I think the romantic endgame was a little too neat for me, but I liked basically everything else. I think I particularly like the sense that even when Emma is not behaving well, Austen is rooting for her. There's a really powerful honesty in Austen's writing, and from that honesty emerges love. I am now poking at Northanger Abbey


The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald

Do people know Travis McGee? I think I first learned of McGee from Spider Robinson's Callahan books, as Robinson and Jake are both big fans of MacDonald's work. I've read three or four of them over the years- I haven't particularly been looking for them, but they don't seem to turn up that often. You never see big displays of MacDonald's writing in bookstores or libraries, you rarely turn up the books at used bookstores, but there's about twenty of them and each that I've read so far has been a brilliant mystery novel and also an epitome of that curious genre, the Florida Novel. MacDonald's characters put Hiaasen's to shame. (I also just tried to read a Hiaasen novel, but it didn't take. Sometimes I like Hiaasen, but too often he sounds like reheated Elmore Leonard, like he's trying too hard.) The Long Lavender Look starts off with a pile of cliches- McGeee in jail for a crime he didn't commit, in a secretive rural county with a sheriff who has an unclear backstory- and then MacDonald eases off them one by and the book goes in so many surprising- and moving- directions. The book is funny, but bleak, entertaining but meditative, picaresque but realistic. It's leavened with just the right amount of all the ingredients that flavor life.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Liberty's First Crisis by Charles Slack

A good if sometimes slightly weirdly paced book about the passing of the Sedition Act of 1798, as I continue to stubbornly not watch or listen to Hamilton but read all sorts of interesting books about the early days of the Republic. This one was alternately bleak and terrible and hilarious...

You'd get scenes where Benjamin Bache, Philadelphia printer and favorite grandson of Benjamin Franklin, got thrown in prison for badmouthing the President in a newspaper, and then died of Yellow Fever before he could ever go on trial, leaving his indebted newspaper to a wife already struggling with several young children.

And then you have Luther Baldwin, proudly of Newark, NJ, even back then a bastion of true American Heroes. Baldwin was a spy for Washington during the Revolutionary War, sailing up and down various waterways sabotaging British boats and passing information to the Continental Army. After the war he went into business as a river trader. And then we get to the moment when he displayed his true American heroism. Luther Baldwin was drunk one morning, as one does, and John Adams, President of the United States of America, was travelling through on carriage to the accompaniment of a cannon salute. Irritated by the noise, and needless to say, drunk as a skunk, he observed that he wouldn't mind if someone shoved one of those cannonballs up Adams's arse. Someone overheard this comment and reported him to the US Attorney for New Jersey, who sent him to jail on Sedition charges.

Both of these stories, actually, are equally terrible. It's just that one of them is also incredibly funny. In Slack's even-handed approach to a topic where it is easy for us to kneejerk against the suppression of civil liberties, he argues that the problem was that there were no real meaningful precedents for the kind of freedom of speech the First Amendment promises. The line it draws in the sand was previously unheard of, and everyone was still trying to figure out what it meant. The Federalist's defense, flimsy to modern ears, was that they were merely imprisoning people for statements that in that day's England would have resulted in gruesome execution.

Slack sees the Sedition Act as an early experiment in the limits of American free speech, an experiment that ultimately helped to destroy the Federalist Party and create negative precedents that still serve as vital warnings for us. But he also points out that some of the 'heroes' of the fight against the Sedition Act were unlikely heroes, and some were arguably not heroes at all. Some of the targets of the Federalist crusade were irresponsible journalists heaving poisonous and untrue statements at politicians who were barely managing to hold a fragile young country together. Should they have been more responsible? Of course. Is throwing unfiltered bile at one's political enemies the most productive way to solve America's internal disagreements? Of course not. But suppression of their speech and imprisonment of their supporters is not the American solution to this problem and should never be the American solution to this problem. We are a nation founded on the idea that with as many different viewpoints as we hold, it is better for the government to protect our individual freedom as citizens than to try to protect our national freedom as a community. This is ultimately a harder idea to accept than it would seem at first. There are always temptations and reason to suppress speech one disagrees with and finds hurtful and damaging. But it is the plain truth as I see it.


Somewhere- A Master by Elie Wiesel

Like everyone I know in the Jewish community, I was deeply saddened by the death of the great Elie Wiesel. I've been listening to people share stories and remembrances for the past several weeks, and it inspired me to read another one of his books.

The truth is I've always thought Wiesel was at best a mediocre writer, and Somewhere- a Master does not change this opinion. The prose styling is awkward and repetitive, his topics jump all over the place without apparent reason. This feels like an insensitive thing to say in remembrance of a great man shortly after his death, but there's a reason I am revisiting his writing now in remembrance in spite of the fact that I don't really admire his writing. It's because I do so admire the man.

What Wiesel's books lack in storytelling knack, they make up in courage. Wiesel was one of the bravest men of the 20th century, whose unflinching honesty is apparent in every page he labors to share with his readers. He is not writing because he's good at it. He is not writing because he wants to. He's writing because he feels an obligation to risk himself by sharing of himself with the world.

Somewhere- A Master is a collection of stories about 18th century Hasidic rebbes, part of a larger project on Wiesel's part to set down an oral history of the Hasidic cultures lost in the Holocaust. I've heard all these stories before- not all these specific stories, no, but basically I've heard all these stories before. I will hear them all again, because B"H the Jewish oral tradition has started up again. B"H we tell stories of Jewish leaders in shul every week, in divrei Torah and at tisches and onegs and farbrengens. B"H Hitler didn't win, but Wiesel setting the stories down, ploddingly, earnestly, and insistently, is an act of defiance that resounds. The book is a monument, one that doesn't necessarily benefit from being read, but its mere existence matters. Elie Wiesel mattered, and his loss is a shattering one to the Jewish people, but the Jewish people will survive in part because of what he wrote and what he said, and because of the determination he made that since it had to be said, he would be the one to say it.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I'm halfway through Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God, a re-read since I first read it when I was fifteen. I sent a copy to [personal profile] marginaliana in December for Yuletide bookswap, and bought myself a copy since I realized fifteen years is a long time and my feelings about the topics Schroeder explores have changed quite a bit in those fifteen years, so it was probably worth a re-look.

The post I will be posting when I finish the book is already over 3,000 words. And I still have half the book to go. I have a lot of things to say about this book.


H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton

A little uncharacteristic for the series- a little higher on actual detective work than G, but G was atypically low on detective work itself. Raymond Maldonado is probably the series's most compelling villain so far, though, with Pat Usher from B is For Burglar being the only reasonable competition. Neither of these statements is really a spoiler, which I think testifies to the powerful realism of the Kinsey Milhone books. These are not Agatha Christie-esque elegant whodunnits, they are not stories in which secrets unravel at the proper application of brainpower. They're stories about the intersection of people and crimes, which is to say the intersection of people and desire. And so when you meet someone who seems like a bad apple in a Kinsey Milhone story, the odds are pretty good they're a bad apple.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

The Fifth Season is an epic fantasy that strongly reminds me of Samuel Delany's Neveryon cycle in a lot of ways- in the reshuffling of racial boundaries married with a deeply nuanced sense for the way structural power imbalances shape societies, in the exploration of alternative sexualities and relationship shapes, in the sense of historical and geographical scope, in the power of myth and magic, in the fascination with complicated nonlinear story structures. But the problem with comparing Jemisin to Delany is that on the one hand, comparing a black fantasy writer to Delany feels so obvious, and on the other hand, failing to note that influence feels so dismissive. *shrug* What can you do? Racism is hard.

Neveryon is my favorite fantasy series, in any case, and so the comparison I'm making is about as flattering as I can possibly make it. There are many ways The Fifth Season is not like Neveryon, too. Delany was responding to the dominant sword and sorcery epics of his childhood- Howard, Haggard, Dunsany, Leiber, etc... as well as conversing with the New Wave fantasies of LeGuin and Moorcock and so on. Pulp sword and sorcery fiction has a set of genre conventions driven by the haste at which the stories were written and the reader's expectations... a certain kind of overly elaborate, conventionalized descriptive language, a certain set of acceptable lurid settings and scenarios, and Delany is writing responsive to those conventions. Jemisin, while certainly aware of Delany and his forbears, is much more responsive to Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time and the more elegantly designed and planned epic fantasy that has dominated the genre over the past twenty years.

So in Neveryon, there are power structures and empires, but they're all a little bit vague and abstract. Carefully and delicately planned by Delany to make his thematic arguments, to be sure, but their inner workings are inexplicable and unimportant to the story. In The Fifth Season, though there is no palace intrigue or nation level conflict, the empires are specific and carefully planned out and their structures inform the plot at deep levels.

And it's just a great, great book all around, and I'm looking forward to the sequels, but one of the unusual things it does that I want to single out is the later parts of Syenite's narrative, when they are on Meov and the book basically just takes a break from plot. And you know, from genre conventions and from the peculiarities of the book's structure that plot is going to start happening again, and it's going to be painful, and you just want the no-plot section to go on and you're anticipatorily frustrated for when it comes to an end. I feel like in this moment Jemisin is as brilliant as Delany: she makes you realize that her epic fantasy heroes don't actually want to save the world, don't have any stake in saving the world, and are just fighting and clawing with every bone in their body just to save themselves. And she makes you care anyway, makes you believe in her story subversion as a story in its own right. The Meov section of the book is a little island of fluff in an otherwise very dark (and [personal profile] cahn uses the word 'angry' to describe it- rightly so, I think) story, but it's a structurally significant piece of fluff. And its very existence thus calls to attention questions about what we are looking for in stories, what the balance between character and plot looks like and what it CAN look like.

That's just generally illustrative of how well written The Fifth Season is. It does all sorts of unconventional and unexpected things with genre and storytelling conventions and it makes all of them work. It does second person and it does third person and even a little first person, it does omniscient narration and then it subverts the omniscience of the narration. It plays with Nalo Hopkinson-style vernacular narration, but never overplays it. It creates new swear words and new setting-specific vocabulary without ever overwhelming or confusing, and it handles infodumps as smoothly as it handles incluing. It does seamless time jumps and nested stories and it does it all without every seeming gimmicky or twee.

And at the center is Damaya, fierce and clever and constantly evolving as the world around her constantly evolves. The Stillness is a land of reinvention, where constant tectonic activity reshapes the land and its people on a regular basis, for Father Earth hates man. It's a really great way to heighten the stakes, to intensify and create an epic setting without requiring massing armies and warring kingdoms. And of course it's an allusive way of speaking about the spate of terrible natural disasters the world has been grappling with over the past number of years- Katrina and Sandy and Irene, Haiyan, the 2004 Tsunami, and so on. In a lot of really compelling ways, The Fifth Season feels like a fantasy with relevance to our own world more than most fantasies do.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed by Kenneth Seeskin

A fairly short, academic but Jewishly-guided synopsis of the arguments in Maimonides's Moreh Nevuchin, the 'Guide for the Perplexed'. Can't remember where I got this rec, probably from [personal profile] rhu, but though this was incredibly slow going and very apt to prompt me to get very sleepy and want to take a nap, (probably helped by the fact that I mostly read this on lazy Shabbat afternoons) I really enjoyed reading it and appreciated the insight into the Rambam's philosophy and its strengths and limitations. Seeskin provides a very strong argument for his interpretation of Rambam's envisionment of the radical unity of God and what that means for the viable methods for knowing God. And I particularly appreciated how Seeskin sees Rambam's conclusion as not representing a fully realized philosophical system, but as a call to constantly seek to perfect one's knowledge of God in the world- a call that is not merely theoretical and abstract but is incredibly concrete as embodied by performance of mitzvot. As I was reading Seeskin, I have also been studying bits and pieces of Mishneh Torah, and it actually does feel like Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchin represent sort of dual keys to each other. Mishneh Torah on its own is a little unsatisfying to study, compared to Talmud, because it occupies a middle ground. It's not Shulchan Aruch, laying out a codification of the laws without citing the derivations: This is what we practice. But it's not Talmud, working out the laws in detail: this is where the laws come from. But Mishneh Torah as a deliberate cipher designed as a guide to perfecting one's knowledge of God through the practice of mitzvot makes sense, and its existence thus provides a guide to living out the life suggested in Moreh Nevuchin.


G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton

Not my favorite in the series, because the interlocking mysteries were messy and disjoint and then resolved in a disturbingly neat way, but I enjoyed it enough to keep going. The first time in the series, though, that I felt like the idea of reading 20 of these is daunting, because it was for the first time a little bit of a chore to read.


Currently finishing up NK Jemisin's The Fifth Season, midway through a reread of Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God, and starting George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher

Only read it because it was Hugo nominated. I will say this about it: it's like a good action movie. The action scenes are well-written and exciting, and the characters are just interesting enough to keep you engaged. There is not much deep here, not much to keep you thinking about the story once it's over, but it delivers popcorn worthy action all through. >600 pages and I galloped through it in less than a week, so I have to acknowledge that. Also, it has few of the annoying tics that really bother you when you're working your way through your nth Dresden Files novel.

F is for Fugitive by Sue Grafton

Bleak, and I feel like Kinsey has so many layers of PTSD at this point that it's a miracle she can stand up (this story set in the aftermath of her home being blown up), but I continue to enjoy how compellingly Grafton world-builds her mysteries.


Currently reading the new China Mieville, This Census-Taker, which is so far pretty good, and excited that a new new China Mieville is coming out shortly even though it doesn't sound up my alley. Sometimes China Mieville writes books I hate and that is an important part of my love-hate relationship with his works that should not be neglected.

Books

Jun. 2nd, 2016 04:43 pm
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
D is for Deadbeat, E is for Evidence by Sue Grafton

This series continues to be great, but E is definitely my favorite so far for personal reasons: the victim worked at a vacuum furnace manufacturer, a field that is adjacent to my own. And there's this scene where Kinsey is sitting in the lobby of the manufacturer waiting to speak to the president and two engineers are arguing about heater design and... the dialogue makes sense. Like, it is a thing two vacuum engineers would debate about, the technical vocabulary is dead on. This has nothing to do with the plot of the novel. If those two characters reappear it's not for more than another scene, their debate does not offer clues to the mystery, and the percentage of readers who would notice if she botched it is infinitesimal. But Grafton went through the not inconsiderable effort of getting it right. I just love how much Grafton's mysteries are about real people and how solving a mystery is about solving people, not just the criminal but all the witnesses as well.


Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

The overall headline is: way better than I expected a Kim Stanley Robinson novel to be.

Aurora is about the last generation of a generation ship before it reaches its destination star. Their journey has not been an easy one: The tight resource management controls required to keep the ship moving without stopping for refuel have been slipping out of control because of hysteresis effects, despite sophisticated 3D printing technology and powerful genetic manipulation techniques.

Robinson vividly imagines these characters who were condemned by their great-great-great-grandparents to this life, compelled to think of unspeakable privations as being the ordinary course of life, and then he takes us through the joys and sorrows of landfall, which does not go as planned. The story is gripping at all moments as the best of hard SF can be, reminiscent of recent works like The Martian as well as older monuments of our genre like The Fountains of Paradise.

It's also interesting because it reflects an evolutionarily different approach for Robinson to space colonization as compared to his most famous work, the Mars Trilogy. Though the Mars Trilogy has moments of conflict and tension and doubt, it is fundamentally an optimistic work believing in the inevitability of Martian colonization. Aurora is more uncertain about the outcome of our stellar future, more likely to assert that any given mantra of the Space Movement is just wishful thinking and scientism. 25 years of scientific discoveries have led Robinson to believe that a future in space is not foreordained, that just because it's there doesn't mean it's actually habitable, and that there are solutions to the Fermi Paradox that we'd prefer not to think about.

That doesn't stop Robinson from reveling in the sheer adventure of space exploration. If anything, it increases the pleasure- space exploration may perhaps prove foolhardy and ill-advised in the long run: If it does, stories of space will be all we have to substitute.


A narrative of the proceedings of the black people, during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia, in the year 1793 : and a refutation of some censures, thrown upon them in some late publications by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen

Primary source reading on the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic, a response to the dominant contemporary publication on the subject by a white author. It was written by two black churchmen outraged that their black brethren who had served as nurses during the plague were being accused of charging extortionary rates for their services.

There are levels of fucked-upness here. It was believed without any real basis that blacks were less susceptible to yellow fever, as it was considered a 'jungle fever'. (In reality it was possibly just geography that kept the first wave mostly white, or even worse, the first wave wasn't actually mostly white but nobody talked about the black deaths and therefore everyone thought the blacks weren't dying) Thus the leading physicians of the time encouraged freed blacks in Philadelphia to stay and nurse the while ill. And they heroically did so, and thus a lot of them ended up dying. And since there was thus a scarcity of nurses, and the whites weren't willing to serve as nurses as often, sick white people got into bidding wars for the services of the available nurses, and then blamed the black nurses for jacking up prices.

Incredibly fascinating stuff if you are a history of diseases nerd.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Let me know if you want more specific thoughts

Books I Recommend

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton

Silas Marner by George Eliot


Books I Don't Recommend

Mars, Inc. by Ben Bova

This Is How I Leave You by Jonathan Trotter

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton

I don't think I mentioned reading A is for Alibi, but I read that a few months ago and now I've read the next one, and I have checked out C is for Corpse, because these books are great. The mysteries are intricate but not all that compelling, but the characters! My lord, Grafton knows how to turn the knife when she writes that it's May Snyder who finally hears Kinsey in the Grice's home. She could have delivered the information the Snyders delivered in so many other ways. Everyone in a Kinsey Milhone novel is a fully realized character with fully realized motivations, and it makes the investigations into so much more than a detective wandering around town questioning people and taking down their stories.


Legends of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 1: Dawn by Yoshiki Tanaka

The first in a classic Japanese space opera novel series, later converted into popular anime and manga, I'm told, not being very knowledgeable about anime myself. The original novels are finally being translated into English some thirty years after their original publication (making this book, I believe, the first book I have read eligible for the 2016 Hugo Award).

The language and storytelling are times Golden Agey and clunky and there are three named female characters in the whole book, but it's a pretty fun story anyway. The politics of the story involve a hereditary empire (of space Nazis) falling into decadence waging battle against a democracy edging toward demagoguery, and it's easy to see disturbing parallels between the dysfunction of the Alliance and our own present dysfunctional election... some of the lines from the Patriotic Knights sound disturbingly like things Donald Trump has said.

Perhaps the most interesting mechanical feature for me was the way the space battles were described. Traditionally space opera uses naval metaphors for space battles, or somewhat less commonly air force metaphors. Tanaka writes his space battles as if they were infantry engagements, with constant reference to holding lines and holdinng positions and maintaining supply lines. It was not a convincing way to write space battles, but it made them interesting to read anyway because it was new to me, and it helped highlight what made particular generals and admirals good or bad at their job.


Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

Not the best novel I've ever read about a robot noir detective, but it was a good time anyway. I liked how consciously Christopher was writing 'Chandler's scifi novel', how Los Angeles's unique sense of what it was as a city was at the core of the story.


Angles of Attack by Marko Kloos

Probably the best in this series of milSF adventures, and the last one was (admittedly possibly undeservingly) nominated for a Hugo Award. Angles is elevated by the presence of Dmitry, who Kloos writes both as a ridiculous Russian stereotype and as a fascinating and complex person in his own right who uses the Russian stereotypes for his own ambiguous purposes. I know it's unlikely, but I hope we get more Dmitry in future books.

The meat of the Frontlines series is supposed to be, I guess, infantry engagements between space marines and the behemoth alien Lankies, given that our protagonist is a combat controller who's mostly ineffectual unless boots are on the ground. Angles has far less of this than the previous two books, and one of the two major infantry engagements is basically a boring cakewalk, but I didn't feel the lack, because the space battles are better and the interplay between Dmitry and Andrew is alternately gripping and hilarious, and the way in which selfishness and fear struggles against hope and duty gives me pause.

Profile

seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
seekingferret

June 2017

S M T W T F S
    1 2 3
4 5 6 789 10
111213 14151617
18192021222324
25 2627282930 

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags