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Yuval Harari: Early Jewish Magic

Alan Brill reviews Yuval Harari’s recent book Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah and interacts with the author in a brief online interview. He argues that the practice of magic was very much a part of early Judaism (and Christianity), even though we’re predisposed not to see it. (What I do is “ritual”; what the people I don’t like do is “magic.”) Here’s one small snippet:

Magic is may be considered as pre-scientific technology, a scheme of technical practices founded on the belief in the way reality is run. Given the traditional premises concerning what forces that reality, magic behavior was rational.

Jewish magic is founded on a belief in human aptitude to affect the world by means of rituals, at the heart of which is execution of oral or written formulas. It is not different from Jewish normative religious view, which ascribes actual power to sacrifice, prayer, ritual, and the observance of law. Magic also does not differ from the normative views regarding God’s omnipotence or the involvement of angels and demons in mundane reality. It has elaborated as a system parallel to, and combined with the normative-religious one, a system that seeks to change reality for the benefit of the individual, commonly in order to remove a concrete pain or distress or to fulfill a certain wish or desire.

Books of magic recipes from antiquity as well as from later periods show that magic was pragmatically required in every aspect of life. Magic fantasy of the kind of One Thousand and One Nights or Harry Potter is missing almost all together from recipe books, which usually offers assistance in achieving targets that may be achieved also without magic. According to these Jewish books, magic power can be implemented personally or by an expert. Expert magicians offered their help in choosing and performing the right ritual and in preparing adjuration artifacts and other performative objects, such as amulets of roots and minerals.

The Philistine Language(s)

Brent Eric Davis has written a brief summary of all that can be surely known of the original language of the Philistines before they adopted a Semitic tongue during the Iron Age. Spoiler: This is a rather brief article.

How the Romans Helped Invent Judaism

Next week, I’ll once again explain to my New Testament students that all of first-century Judaism was thoroughly Hellenized, even among those who despised Greco-Roman culture. This article by Burton L. Visotzky at The Bible and Interpretation outlines some of what I’ll be talking about.

To summarize thus far: vocabulary, institutions, hermeneutics and exegesis, rhetoric, law, philosophy, art, and architecture were all adapted from the broader Greco-Roman world in the service of reshaping Judaism to become a viable religious force following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.

Somebody Made a Children’s Book about Gilgamesh

According to the Times of Israel, a Hebrew-language version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is underway:

In writer Shirley Graetz’s mind, the Akkadian figure who stars in the ancient poem “Epic of Gilgamesh” sounded a lot like her eldest son. Big, strong, and not always able to delicately avoid things in his path.

“I got to thinking about Gilgamesh,” said Graetz, who at the time was finishing up her PhD on cuneiform, an ancient form of writing from the Mesopotamian region. “He was half human, half god and he was a tyrant. Until he found his match, and then he calmed down and went on adventures.”

Graetz then went on to write a chapter book geared to children aged 8–11.

Best sentence in the article? This one:

Ever practical, the academic turned popular fiction writer also considered the fact that neither Disney nor Pixar had ever touched the story of the Mesopotamian figure.

I wonder if the bit with Shamhat might have something to do with that.

(H/T: PaleoJudaica)

The Orthodox Jew Who’s Staged to Revolutionize Evolutionary Theory

Fascinating article from Meghan Walsh at Ozy.com:

So what does God have to do with all this? In his quest for answers, [physicist Jeremy] England, of course, finds himself at the center of the classic struggle between science and spirituality. While Christianity and Darwinism are generally opposed, Judaism doesn’t take issue with the science of life. The Rabbinical Council of America even takes the stance that “evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator.”

For his part, England believes science can give us explanations and predictions, but it can never tell us what we should do with that information. That’s where, he says, the religious teachings come in. Indeed, the man who’s one-upping Darwin has spent the past 10 years painstakingly combing through the Torah, interpreting it word by word much the way he ponders the meaning of life. His conclusion? Common translations are lacking. Take the term “creation.” England suggests we understand it not as the literal making of the Earth but rather as giving Earth a name. All throughout the Bible, he says, there are examples of terms that could be interpreted differently from what we’ve come to accept as standard.

The 2014 Platypus Awards

How did I not know about this?

The Platties honor ideas that are interdisciplinary: a bit duck, a bit beaver, a bit otter. These are the new ideas and innovations that made us do a double take. At first, we wondered whether they could be real. And when they proved to be, it wasn’t just the little idea, but the little idea’s enormous potential that delighted us.

Want to Build a Better Brain?

Learn a foreign language! From The Guardian:

The Swedish MRI study showed that learning a foreign language has a visible effect on the brain. Young adult military recruits with a flair for languages learned Arabic, Russian or Dari intensively, while a control group of medical and cognitive science students also studied hard, but not at languages. MRI scans showed specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged. Equally interesting was that learners whose brains grew in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning had better language skills than other learners for whom the motor region of the cerebral cortex developed more.