Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review of Crash Course in Jewish HIstory from Abraham to Modern Israel by Ken Spiro

  Rabbi Spiro is an Orthodox Jew who wrote this book based on courses he taught at the Aish HeTorah College of Jewish Studies in Israel.  It is his intention to give Jews a simplified historical line to trace their beginnings as a people to their place in today’s world.

     Because it is a “crash course”, Spiro’s book is easy to read.  In a nutshell, Spiro’s intention is to delineate Judaism from other people groups in the world.

     Now that’s not hard to do or prove.  Jews are the offspring of Abraham with whom God made a covenant.  God does not change or go back on His word.  His plan for the Jewish people will continue until its fruition.  It's important to note that Rabbi Spiro's conclusions differ to what the Bible states in Romans 1:16.  He claims the whole point of the Jewish existence is to usher in world peace. 

      The first part of the book gives a basic run down of historical events that are in the Old Testament.  He skims through the beginnings of the world, the Patriarchs, the Exodus, Moses and the law, the chronicles of the judges, prophets and Kings and finally the Babylonian exile.  This much I already knew from reading my Bible.  Nothing new there. 

     What was interesting was the information he gave concerning the four hundred year gap between the Exile and the Messianic Era.  Here we learn about the Men of the great Assembly, the rise of the Greek empire, the Revolt of the Maccabees, the Romans, Herod and the events that led up to the war of the Jews, the fall of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple.  While these latter things were prophesied in the New Testament (Jesus’ Olivet discourse in Matthew 24) they are not recorded there, presumably because the New Testament writers had all been killed during the Roman Emperor Nero’s persecution.  Much of this I had  read about in Josephus’ books on the War of the Jews but Spiro gives a quick recount which makes it easier for people who just want the skinny on the subject.

       After this, Spiro gives concise accounts of the beginnings of the Talmud, the rise of Islam, the different Jewish groups that scattered throughout Europe during the Middle Ages up to establishing the nation of Israel and the heroic individuals that helped make this historic occasion happen. Spiro describes Kabbalism and the beginning of the Hassidic movement

     Spiro’s main thrust for the rest of the book is how the last two thousand years of has been one long onslaught of persecution and sorrow for the Jewish people.  It is tragic and heart rending to read about.  He doesn’t exaggerate, it is all sadly true.

     Because of the relentless persecution and numerous attempted annihilations of the Jewish people, Spiro concludes that Christianity is a false religion. He also asserts that Christians claim that God changed His mind about the Jews and rejected them in favor of Christians.  On the one hand, I can see how he would think this based on how some Christians or even certain Christian denominations have acted throughout history.   On the other, for all his research, he apparently didn’t take the trouble to actually read the teachings of Christ in the NewTestament to see whether these professing Christians were actually obeying Scripture when they persecuted the Jews.  He might have concluded that instead of Christianity being a false religion that, in fact, some people falsely profess to be Christians.  Jesus said you can judge a tree by its fruit

      Interestingly, in Chapter 39 (Origins of Christianity) Spiro claims that Christians have mistranslated the Bible because they used only Greek and Latin translations.  That is a false assertion-every modern translation of the Bible is from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.  This is true even of the 1610 King James Bible. But then he goes on to say that the reason the United States have been a place of refuge for the Jews is because the Puritans who founded our country based their beliefs on Old Testament Scripture and, in fact, many of the founding fathers were Hebrew scholars! (Chapter 54:  Jews and the Founding of America) 

     Finally, he says it’s impossible to read the Bible without Oral Tradition and since time is taking us farther and farther away from Moses and Oral Tradition, the meaning of Scripture is becoming increasingly obscure.  So according to Rabbi Spiro, Christians are wrong because they don’t have an accurate translation of the Bible but then again, he asserts no one can really know what the Bible is saying anyway! 

        Also what I found fascinating was how Spiro acknowledges that the Messianic era began at the time Christ came to earth but doesn’t believe Jesus is the Christ.  He believes the Messiah is still coming and when he does, he will usher in world peace through the Jewish people.

     Yet Spiro doesn’t take into account the problem of sin.  Moses did.  What was the purpose of all those animal sacrifices?  What is the purpose of Yom Kippor and Rosh Hashanah?  Why did the animal sacrifices that were made to atone for the sins of the people stop at the ushering in of the Messianic era?  Isn’t it because the Messiah had in fact come and made the one and only atoning sacrifice when He sacrificed Himself for everyone’s sins- making animal sacrifices no longer necessary?  Does not Isaiah 53 prophesy this very event?   

    Rabbi Spiro ignores all of this and insists that the Messiah is only coming to bring world peace and he’s going to do it through the Jewish people.  He believes the time is very soon now that Israel is a nation again.  He never mentions mankind being reconciled to God. He also fails to share any belief Jews have of the after life. 

     A couple of other things I found interesting.  Spiro is against both the Hassids and the secular Jews.  Both have got it wrong, according to him.  Hassids have created an artificial legalism that isn’t necessary and the secular Jews have capitulated in an effort to assimilate with the Gentiles.  He insists this is also true of any Jew that becomes a Christian: it is merely an insincere effort to avoid persecution.  He doesn’t explain why Jews became Christians even when it caused persecution.  As it does for many today. Some Jewish friends of mine who have become Messianic believers (recognize Jesus Christ as Y'shua Mashiach) have told me that their families held a "shiva" for them.   This is a symbolic burial (literally “seven days of mourning”) for becoming an “apostate”.

     Do I recommend this book?  I don’t know.  I don’t think it is the most informative book out there-even for Jewish history because it is so superficial.  It certainly isn’t a reliable resource for Christians.  I think it’s value for me, as a Christian, lies in that it allows me to get inside the head of a Jewish person and understand why he and-I’m sure other Jews- think the way they do about themselves and how they perceive Christians.

I bought this book.
For more information or book reviews on Jewish literature and culture:
The Chosen
Called to Controversy: The Unlikely Story of Moishe Rosen

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Complete Works of Josephus translated by William Whiston

 It took me three years but I have finally finished Whiston’s translation of the complete works of Josephus. It is probably overly ambitious to try to review this 1,147 page translation in one post, but I will share the highlights of specific sections.

The first work is The Life of Flavius Josephus which was written by Josephus himself. In this book Josephus informs us that he is a Levite; which is to say that his is a descendant of the Aaronic order which were the priests. He was born in the first year of the reign of Caius Caesar, also known as Caligula. This was the crazy Caesar who initiated the Caesar cult, made his horse a god, and also one of the crueler ones, maybe even crueler than Nero, if he had been allowed to live long enough. (He was murdered by his own body guard, that’s how horrible this particular Caesar was.)

In Josephus’ autobiography we are informed of how destructive the internal fighting for power was among different Jewish factions that ultimately led to Rome stepping in and the resulting fall of Jerusalem. He also lets us know what kind of warrior he was. According to him, he was a very fierce warrior. We learn of all the intrigues and deceptions that transpired back and forth between different Jewish leaders and how his own life was at peril by opposing leaders and their armies and how he successfully fought them off.

To get an idea of the brutality of the times, I’ll mention one example where another Jewish leader attempted to overthrow Josephus by spreading lies and slander about him. He then set an army against him but Josephus fought back with his own army and captured the leader. In his “mercy” he allowed the man to cut off his own right hand in exchange for his life. After hanging the man’s hand around his neck, he let him go as an example to the others. Gee. What a guy.

As I read of all the wars and battles included in this book I gather this was a common practice. This was an era when there must have been a lot of mutilated men walking on the earth.

It was enlightening to read  about the vying for leadership between the priests, Sadduccess, Pharisees and Zealots. Each one was determined to rule over Jerusalem and none of them seemed to care what sort of chaos, misery or suffering they caused to do it. I had not previously understood how this internal division had led to Jerusalem’s destruction.

What all of them seemed to forget is that Rome considered them a province and Vespasian and his general Titus eventually arrived with troops and caused even greater slaughter than the Jews were already experiencing at their own hands, if that were possible. The blood bath described is unimaginable. One particularly harrowing account describes the cannibalism that peoples in the city resorted to because they were being starved out. There’s one particularly hideous account but I don’t have the heart to write about it.

The second book is titled The Antiquities of the Jews. This is comprised of twenty books that starts with the Creation, works its way through the Patriarchs, the Kings of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem prophesied by Jeremiah and Isaiah and the ensuing Babylonian captivity. It ends with the Jews departure out of Babylon, return to their homeland, rebuilding their sacred city and Roman rule.

What I found exciting about these books were their faithful account and affirmation of the historical account of the Bible. Josephus’ history of the Jews is not a word for word repetition of the Old Testament but a reliable secondary source and substantiates the historical veracity of the Biblical account and its place as a valid historical document.

Also enlightening is the historical account of what happened in the four hundred year gap between the Old and the New Testaments. Here we learn about Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Alexander the Great, and the Herods. One has to read Josephus’ account of Herod Antipas to truly appreciate what a paranoid, murderous monster he was. Nobody was safe around him. Not his wives, his children, no one. He believed everyone was plotting against him.

Of course, they all were. It’s interesting to see the world in which despots live. Everyone is constantly fearful of his own life while seeking to snuff out the next person’s in order to rise in power. It didn’t matter who that person was, either. If it was a son, or mother or father. People willingly threw their own relatives to the wolves if it meant furthering their own position. Were people ever really happy back then?

The final book is The War of the Jews. This is a more in-depth description (seven books) of the fall of Jerusalem. When one reads of the bloodshed and destruction of the time, Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 takes on a whole new understanding. The mass slaughter of humans defies description. I don’t know how there can be any Jews left after this whole sale destruction of humans. Thousands upon thousands were killed. Lakes were filled with bodies. Yet the Jews wouldn’t surrender. The remnant that was left was dispersed and would not return to their own country until two thousand years later.

The last section is essays by the translator, William Whiston, who contends that Josephus became a Christian and was one of the first Bishops in the church. He cites many early sources to support this. I don’t know if that is true or not but the only thing for sure is a direct quote where Josephus mentions Jesus Christ:

Now there was about this time, one Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles also. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him for he appeared to them alive again the third day as the divine prophet had foretold them and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him: and still the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18 pg. 379 and Appendix, dissertation 1 The Testimonies of Josephus concerning Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and James the Just, pg. 979.)

The Complete Works of Josephus is not a quick, easy read. But it is a highly rewarding one and, if you’re willing to invest some time in reading a little a day, you’ll find your own historical insight and appreciation for the Judeo-Christian culture and tradition all the richer.

There are a number of translations available. I recommend William Whiston’s because it is extensively annotated and has the added bonus of Appendices that include seven dissertations by Whiston as well as ancient Jewish weights and measurements, several maps, and a list of Ancient testimonies and records cited by Josephus.

Kindle: $1.99

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante

 This is probably one of the most useful books I've read yet in learning how to write well. It is used as a part of curriculum in a number of universities. It's broken up into fourteen chapters which are then broken up into three parts. The first part tackles a specific writing challenge, the second part provides writing exercises and the third part includes one or two short stories or excerpts from novels by (mostly) contemporary writers.

Non fiction writers would probably find the first couple of chapters worth reading. LaPlante gives specific strategies in how to make your non fiction book flow like a fiction book, which seems to be the reigning thought in nonfiction books these days. She discusses how to notice the world around us as a writer and how to lose the “writer's voice” when putting those observations on paper.

Other good advice is on how to ensure the reader uses all his senses when he reads your stories. She devotes a chapter on how to give a story shape and how and where to apply epiphanies.

Probably the most valuable thing I got out of the book was on avoiding cliches. Cliched story lines, cliched plot twists, cliched characters and especially...cliches. As I reread my own writing, I'm appalled at how many well-trod expressions I use. But at the same time, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I don't want my writing to sound hackneyed, but I also think that figurative or metaphorical speech is fast disappearing in our culture because the younger generations are not reading books that use rich vocabulary or colorful expression.

I bought a couple of books that trace the origins of expressions. Where did “red herring” or “white elephant” or “the die is cast” come from? Today's young people don't care because they've never heard of these expressions. This is not a good sign. It tells me that contemporary literature has scraped the meat off writing and has left us with bare bones.

Another good chapter was on showing and telling. Speaking of cliches, since I've started writing and reading books on writing, I've read “show don't tell” until I can't hear it without rolling my eyes. I think anyone who's had to sit through seventh grade English knows this rule by now, but every “writing expert” I've come across shares this “pearl” as though they were flinging a lightning bolt at my head.

Furthermore, LaPlante proves you need both. In Chapter 5 she discusses the importance of narration and when it's appropriate. She shows how an effective writer skillfully dances back and forth between narrating and showing.

She provides an interesting chapter on voice. She defines each of the voices(first, second, third, omniscient) and provides sample writing in each voice . She shows which is the best, which should only be used by Mark Twain or Graham Greene and the tricky art of changing voices inside the same story.

The only complaint I have is that I really did not enjoy her writing examples. With the exception of one short story by the Russian author, Anton Chekov and another by Ernest Hemingway, all are contemporary examples.  And all of them seem to belong to the same “Life Sucks School of Angst”. The only thing I really got from them was a more clearly defined idea of how I don't want to write.

One last chapter was particularly interesting on the importance of editors. She debates their power. How much autonomy should they have over the author's work? Is it a good thing or not? She then gives a fascinating account of one author who won many prizes and became nationally renowned for his work. It now turns out that most of his work was largely rewritten by his editor. This is only just coming out because the author has died and researchers now have access to his archives. In the end LaPlante lets the reader decide for himself by including two short stories-the same short story- supposedly by the same author. One was edited the other not. The difference is like night and day. (Sorry, can't escape cliches.)

If you are a writing student or someone who is serious about honing their skill, I would recommend this book. And if you are a fan of the "Life Sucks School of Angst", you'll even enjoy the samples.

More reviews on writing:

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Last Days of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo

The Last Days of a Condemned Man is a short novel written by the great Romantic writer, Victor Hugo. Hugo is best known for his novels, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. It's always a pleasant surprise to come across yet another work by a favorite writer, so it was a serendipitous moment when I happened to see this novel in the book store.

The book is exactly what the title says. Victor Hugo writes in the first person, describing the last couple of days of a man condemned to the guillotine. His purpose, as he states in the prologue, is to provide the horror of someone waiting to die in order to make the death penalty illegal. The book has been reprinted by Amnesty International in hopes of using Hugo's work as an influence towards this end.

I'm not going to give any opinions on whether the death penalty should be outlawed or not, I'm simply going to comment on the book.

The writing, needless to say, is as powerful as any of Hugo's work. You are sitting in the cell with the condemned man, experiencing what he is experiencing. Hugo shows how degraded prisoners are-especially when citizens come in to observe them as a type of freak show for their own amusement. It is appalling that the executions were public and extremely popular among the citizens, including the children.

To me this is proof that exposing people to violence does not make them more aware of injustice or motivate them to end it. It serves to desensitize them to it. I say this in response to the rationalization I've heard that certain movies are necessary (like Goodfellas or Taken) because they reveal the horrors of certain situations and the public needs to know. I watched Taken on a bus full of high school students. Judging from all the cheering and laughing throughout the film, I'd say not too many of them left the movie feeling motivated to end violence.

As I read the story, what I kept waiting for, was some sort of regret or repentance from the condemned man. His crime is barely mentioned. Apparently he murdered someone. He doesn't seem to reflect on this much. He mostly focuses on his own fate. He wants to see his wife and daughter again. He hopes against hope that he'll be granted a reprieve.

If Hugo's intentions were to garner sympathy for his protagonist, for me at least, he failed. For one. This was not a real person. Hugo was projecting his own conclusions on someone, trying to imagine what someone about to die would think. I'd be more interested in knowing what a real condemned person is thinking.

Hugo's protagonist mostly gripes and complains. He never once thinks about his victim. What he so desperately desires for himself, to live, he took from another person who had every bit as much right to live as he did. More so in the sense that victim was innocent.

In one respect, I think Hugo does succeed. Hugo successfully portrays a man without a conscience. He has no remorse for his crime. He only feels a sense of wrong concerning himself. I saw this played out so many times at the school where I taught for many years. In the nine years that I taught, being the music teacher, I taught thousands of children. This allowed me to observe human behavior on at least a small scale.

One thing I noticed about certain children, the bullies, predators, etc...They had no conscience toward how they treated others. But they were outraged that any consequences should happen to them. It was as though they couldn't connect the dots between cause and effect. There was no sense of personal responsibility.

This thin book is probably little known, being over shadowed as it is by Hugo's epic works but it is thought- provoking and worth sitting down one evening and reading.

or buy on Kindle for $3.79

Illlustrated  version:

.99 on Kindle