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livredor
Too busy living my life to blog it
Friday, 14 October 2005 at 11:20 am
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I've had a very full week, all told. Monday evening I went to a talk by Ciechanover. Tuesday evening I went to karen2205's Coffee in Borders, and stayed over with doseybat and compilerbitch. And Wednesday evening and Thursday were Yom Kippur.

The Ciechanover talk was organized by the British Technion Society, so it ended up being a bit of a Do attended by the great and the good, mainly from the Jewish community. I somehow managed to get nominated for a bursary from part of the Cambridge community, which was very sweet if slightly embarrassing! The venue was the Royal College of Physicians.

The pre-talk reception involved a lot of sushi, which made me think of rysmiel. I felt a bit out of place with all the grandees, but hey. I spoke to a Mertonian I'd met at a previous alumni event, and some of the Cambridge contingent contrived to introduce me to Ciechanover himself (amazing how my former boss' name opens doors).

Ciechanover spoke very well; he said he didn't want to get into detailed scientific discussion, but gave an impressively jargonless overview of the ubiquitin system and what it's good for. He provoked a lot of very sensible questions from audience members who clearly didn't have a biology background, which I think is an inidication of how well he got his message across. It was a little marred by some idiot thinking it was clever to ask him what he thinks of the proposed AUT boycott of Israeli universities, but he handled even that obviously hostile one very well. p53 got a mention, at which point my parents got all excited and nudged me.
Coffee in Borders was very fun indeed. compilerbitch gave me a lift to London, which made it a lot less of a hassle than it would otherwise have been, and she's very good company. There was a really good mix of people I know really well, people I feel comfortable with and new people. I had a lot of fun talking to ewtikins, who as well as being an interesting person has the most beautifully dyed purple hair I've ever seen. It made me think of that idea about extroverts drawing energy from being around other people; I could just feel the energy flowing from spending the evening talking to people. karen2205 kindly provided a namecheck for the event.

Some of us went on to Wagamama for supper, which as chain restaurants go impressed me. The ambience is modern without being painfully trendy, they coped well with a large group at no notice, the service was fast and friendly, the food was tasty and pretty good value for money (slightly under £10 a head including drinks), particularly compared to London. And we finished not unreasonably late, which was also appreciated. All in all the event is just as good as I was hoping from the descriptions I'd heard, so many thanks to Karen for inventing and organizing it!

I then managed to stay up way too late talking to compilerbitch. That's the second time in less than a week I've done that, so I think I should put compilerbitch on the officially too fascinating warning list. But it was lovely, and well worth being a bit tired the next day (even though the day before Yom Kippur is a particularly bad day to forego sleep). My only minor regret is that I didn't manage to speak to doseybat as much as I'd hoped, but it was still good to see her even if we didn't have that much direct interaction.
I feel about as positive about Yom Kippur as can reasonably be expected. It's the first time in some years I've been able to concentrate on my own prayer, experiencing it as a participant rather than running things. Diana chose to lead all the services herself, and having once attempted that myself and realized "never again" I have a very good idea how insane that is. She is very good at it, mind you, and her ability to sing loudly and with beautiful tone without flagging even by the end of a 25-hour fast and nine hours of continuous service is little short of a minor miracle. I'm in two minds about the Arab tunes; yes, very pretty and multicultural, but Arab music is really hard for a western-trained congregation to sing.

Beth Shalom are a young community on the whole, and blessedly unfamiliar with death, so the last few months have been particularly hard on the community. A member of the choir died this autumn, and several members have lost parents in the past few months, and just this week the chairman's mother died and a former chairman was diagnosed with a serious and possibly untreatable illness. This meant that there was more emphasis than usual on the death and mortality themes that are always present on Yom Kippur.

Melissa gave a very interesting sermon about what it means to call Judaism a religion of life. It seems that a particular prominent Orthodox Jew has been mouthing off trying to align the British Jewish community with the scary right wing bits of the American pro-life movement, which is all we need. I liked the focus of the sermon much better; celebrating life means much more than making one's highest goal ensuring that pregnancies are carried to term. Melissa talked about not making death a positive value, not relying on death to give meaning to life, and also not concluding that death makes life meaningless.

And during the study session in the afternoon, we looked at the very disturbing midrash on the martyrdom of R Akiba [Menachot 29b]. Background: R Akiba was a very prominent rabbi, one of the most respected in the Talmud. He made the political mistake of supporting Bar Kochba in his rebellion against the Romans in the first century, believing him to be the Messiah. When the revolt failed, the Romans made an example by executing by torture ten prominent figures who supported the revolt, among them R Akiba who was flayed alive. The Talmud (redacted around the fifth century CE, but referring to an older tradition in most cases) has this reaction:
Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: at the time when Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy One who is blessed, sitting tying crowns onto the letters [of Torah]. Moses said to God, "Master of the universe, who stays your hand?" God said to him, "There is one man who will come into existence after many generations, and his name will be Akiva b Yosef, and he will be able to expound heaps and heaps of laws on each and every thorn [serif]."

He said to God, "Master of the universe, show him to me!" God said to him, "Turn and face the future." Moses went and sat [in Akiva's school] eight rows back, but he could not understand a word of what they were saying. He felt uncomfortable until they came to a particular subject, and the students asked Akiva, "How do you know this?" and he replied, "It is a law given to Moses from Sinai," which comforted him.

Moses returned to the presence of the Holy One who is blessed, and said to God, "Master of the universe, if you have a man like this, why are you giving the Torah by my hand?" God said to him, "Shut up! It just came up into my thoughts that way."

Moses said to God, "Master of the universe, you showed me Akiva's learning, now show me his reward." God said to him, "Turn and face the future." Moses turned round and he saw them [the Romans] weighing out Akiva's flesh in the meat market. He said to God, "Master of the Universe, if this is his learning, how is this his reward?" God said to him, "Shut up! It just came up into my thoughts that way."
Midrashic theodicy doesn't give easy answers, that's for sure.


Moooood: energeticenergetic
Tuuuuune: Tori Amos: Girl
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redbird: default
From:redbird
Date:October 14th, 2005 03:03 pm (UTC)
40 minutes after journal entry, 11:03 am (redbird's time)
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Things like this remind me that rysmiel's icon for such things says "Bloody theodicy again". "Because I said so" isn't much of an answer, but it seems to be all that's available in this frame. [In my agnostic frame, half the questions become irrelevant or meaningless, and "just because" is still the answer to much of what's left.]
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:October 14th, 2005 03:18 pm (UTC)
56 minutes after journal entry, 04:18 pm (livredor's time)
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Yeah, I like rysmiel's Bloody theodicy again comment too; I was thinking of it when I wrote the cut tag text.

"Because I said so" isn't much of an answer
It's sort of that, except I think the deviation from just that is part of what makes this midrash interesting. It came up into my thoughts gives the impression that the idea came from somewhere, which is intriguing.

but it seems to be all that's available in this frame.
I agree. If God had said (or rather, if the midrash had portrayed God as saying), well, the greatest rabbi in history was tortured to death, but that's ok because... any explanation that could follow from that opening would, I think, be totally offensive.

I think a lot of people believe in the spurious idea that people get what they deserve (and of course the corollary, that they deserve what they get), and that seems to be pretty independent of whether the same people believe in God / religion or not. If "just because" is the best answer to suffering, it is the best whether you are casting it in theistic terms or not, I think.
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rysmiel: almost atheism
From:rysmiel
Date:October 14th, 2005 03:31 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 11:31 am (rysmiel's time)
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Yeah, I like rysmiel's Bloody theodicy again comment too; I was thinking of it when I wrote the cut tag text.

Thought you might be, though I'm not sure I have any comment on the midrash itself.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:October 14th, 2005 09:13 pm (UTC)
6 hours after journal entry, 10:13 pm (livredor's time)
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Fair enough; I think redbird is right that the midrash works within a particular frame, and outside that it isn't very meaningful. I could probably explain it in ways you'd find more interesting; there's stuff about how information is transmitted and the nature of authority in it too. But I'm focusing on the theodicy bit for this post because I'm trying to give the flavour of yesterday's service.
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redbird: default
From:redbird
Date:October 14th, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC)
8 hours after journal entry, 07:02 pm (redbird's time)
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I can accept "things just happen, and sometimes they're painful and destructive things" a lot better when it isn't being offered as evidence of an all-powerful loving deity, though.
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livredor: portrait
From:livredor
Date:October 15th, 2005 09:10 am (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 10:10 am (livredor's time)
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That's a very good point, and I'm most certainly the last person in the world to try to push religion on you. My feeling is that evidence of an all-powerful loving deity is really not what the post-exilic literary tradition is doing, though. There are some interesting parallels with some of the religious writing of the latter part of the 20th century, radical stuff that's taking faith deeply into doubt, that isn't prepared to accept simplistic reward and punishment theology.

The context of this midrash and stuff like it is not to do with having to prove that sort of proposition. They weren't trying to argue with Humanists or their bastard intellectual descendents, dogmatic atheists / secularists. (Equally, they weren't trying to construct Mediaeval style philosophical proofs that suffering is really a good thing to shore up a complex theological position with lots of "omni" concepts.) So I don't read this passage as saying, this proves there must be a loving God.

I think this sort of literature is asking the same questions that modern people might ask: what is reality, what is the meaning of life, why do bad things happen. But from their worldview, they couch it in terms of, what is God like? rather than, how does the world work? God in this literary tradition seems to be subject to some sort of necessity, and capable of some sort of suffering. Can it be seen as a comfort to see God as a perfect witness to human misery but not necessarily or even probably doing anything about it? I'm not sure if it's even meant to be comforting; I do feel that people in real hardship are unlikely to be convinced by fairy stories that obviously fail to reflect their reality.
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