“The Bible Doesn’t Say That” Goes On-Sale Today!

February 16, 2016 Leave a comment

The Bible Doesn't Say ThatMy latest book — The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings — goes on sale today!

A “witty and accessible look at Scripture … Hoffman has produced the best kind of popular scholarship, that will interest both religious and secular readers.”

Publishers Weekly

Here’s the cover copy:

The Bible Doesn’t Say That explores what the Bible meant before it was misinterpreted over the past 2,000 years.

Acclaimed translator and biblical scholar Dr. Joel M. Hoffman walks the reader through dozens of mistranslations, misconceptions, and other misunderstandings about the Bible. In forty short, straightforward chapters, he covers morality, life-style, theology, and biblical imagery, including:

    •  The Bible doesn’t call homosexuality a sin, and it doesn’t advocate for the one-man-one-woman model of the family that has been dubbed “biblical.”

    •  The Bible’s famous “beat their swords into plowshares” is matched by the militaristic, “beat your plowshares into swords.”

    •  The often-cited New Testament quotation “God so loved the world” is a mistranslation, as are the titles “Son of Man” and “Son of God.”

    •  The Ten Commandments don’t prohibit killing or coveting.

What does the Bible say about violence? About the Rapture? About keeping kosher? About marriage and divorce? Hoffman provides answers to all of these and more, succinctly explaining how so many pivotal biblical answers came to be misunderstood.

The table of contents is on-line here, and you can learn more about the book here. Publishers Weekly has a pre-review here.

I’m excited about this latest work, and look forward to discussing it here.

Categories: announcements, Bible

New Evidence on Who Wrote the Bible, and When

April 12, 2016 2 comments

The world’s most popular piece of writing may have been written earlier than many people think. And it may have been more widely read.

In 2004, I suggested that the Israelites promoted widespread literacy early in the first millennium BCE, in part or perhaps primarily to help spread Scripture. My analysis, which appears in my NYU Press publication In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, is based largely on theoretical considerations like the ancient Israelites’ contributions to writing.

In 2007, the excellent scholar Karel van der Toorn published a competing theory in his Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. He represents the more mainsteam view that literacy was limited to a very small scribal class. In my review of his work for the Jerusalem Post (apparently no longer available on line), I noted that:

Vexingly, then, we are left with two largely incompatible conclusions [van der Toorn’s and mine], each internally consistent and coherent, but unlikely both to be entirely correct. Puzzles such as these create exciting times for scholarship…

In an article just published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) — available on line here for a fee and summarized here by the New York Times — an interdisciplinary team that includes mathematicians, archaeologists, and historians concludes that literacy was widespread in the Kingdom of Judah as early as 600BCE.

Their evidence comes from 16 inscriptions from Arad, an ancient military outpost south of Jerusalem. The style of the letters in the inscriptions points to at least six different ancient literate writers. The content of the inscriptions suggests that even low-ranking officials wrote things for themselves.

In fact, the authors identify five rungs of hierarchy represented by the inscriptions, starting with the king of Judah and running through a high-ranking commander, a local commander in Arad, and a quartermaster in Arad named Eliashib down to Eliashib’s subordinate. Even that subordinate, apparently, was literate.

The authors conclude that literacy in Judah was widespread far earlier than scholars like van der Toorn have thought.

Combined with my largely theoretical evidence in In the Beginning, we now have even more reason to believe that parts of the written text of the Bible date to the early first millennium BCE.

Additionally, it seems that widespread literacy was an integral part of the ancient Judaean agenda, alongside other more widely noted goals such as monotheism.

Categories: Bible, Judaism, writing

Why Mississippi’s Religious Liberties Law Is More Nuanced Than You Think

April 6, 2016 5 comments

Law-and-Gay-Marriage-MississippiDo you think that a wedding florist should be allowed to deny service to a gay couple just because they’re gay?

Do you think that a Jewish photographer should be allowed to refuse photography services to a Neo-Nazi group just because of the nature of that group?

Do you think that a store — on religious grounds — should be allowed to refuse insurance coverage for birth control?

Do you think that an advertising agency — on contrary religious grounds — should be allowed to refuse to help that store’s owners explain their position?

PullquoteIf you have different answers for these four questions, then you appreciate the complexity of Mississippi’s controversial “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” (HB 1523), which was just signed into law; of Georgia’s similar “Free Exercise Protection Act” (HB 757), which that state’s governor vetoed; and of similar legislation.

Mississippi’s law claims to protect people, and groups of people, who act based on a “sincerely held” belief or “moral conviction” in any of three hotly debated tenets:

  1. Marriage is only between one man and one woman.
  2. Sex should be confined to such a one-man-one-woman marriage.
  3. People have only one gender (“sex”), the biological one with which they were born.

Opponents to the law say it legalizes discrimination against, for example, gay couples.

Proponents counter that it protects religious freedoms.

In my opinion, both claims are right (though that doesn’t mean that I think both sides have equal merit). The Mississippi law generates such vehemence precisely because it pits one cherished American value against another.

In this country we believe in equality before the law. We have already established, for instance, that it’s illegal to set out to hire men instead of equally qualified women, no matter how much an employer may prefer working with men.

In this country we also believe in freedom of religion. We have already established, for instance, that the Church can bar women from certain positions of leadership, no matter how qualified they might otherwise be.

Or to look at it differently, the opponents to Mississippi’s law say that, in this case, equality trumps religious freedom. Proponents say that these religious freedoms trump equality.

And here, I think, is the real issue: when these two supreme values collide, which one do we, as a society, choose? And why?

Unfortunately, the public conversation plays out differently.

Proponents double down, defending their religious position, for instance, that marriage is, was, and always shall be between one man and one women. (I think they’re wrong, but that isn’t the point.) They ignore the fact that similar religious arguments were advanced in the 19th century to defend slavery. And they ignore the fact that even Christian-owned stores are not allowed to discriminate against women, even though the Church is.

Opponents also double down, defending their position, for instance, that a marriage between two men is just as valid as a marriage between a man and a women. They ignore the fact that they might experience supreme discomfort if they had to work in support of the KKK. (The KKK probably takes offense at my position, but that isn’t the point.) And they ignore the fact that laws already permit religious gender-based discrimination.

So I have a challenge:

If you defend this law, why do you think that these particular religious beliefs are more important than equality? That is, how is an anti-gay-marriage stance different than, say, 19th-century pro-slavery religious beliefs or, more generally, other gender-based religious beliefs?

If you oppose this law, why do you think that these particular religious beliefs should be squashed? That is, how is forcing people to support gay marriage different than, say, forcing people to work on their sabbath, or forcing people to support other things they don’t like, such as perhaps, the KKK?

And in the meantime, as we continue to discuss this law, perhaps we can at least tread softly out of respect for people who disagree with us.

So What, Exactly, is Tu Bishvat?

January 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Haifa-Sunset2The evening of January 24th marks the start of Tu Bishvat this year. The name means the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, and it refers to the so-called “new year of the trees.”

Why do trees need a new year?

For an answer we turn to the Talmud — that great compilation of Jewish laws and lore from the middle of the first millennium CE. The section called “Rosh Hashana” (“New Year”) starts with the intriguing claim that “there are four new-year days.” And it turns out they fall in the months of Nissan, Elul, Tishri, and Shevat.

The new year with which we are now most familiar — Rosh Hashana — falls in Tishri, which, as it happens, is the seventh month of the year. Certainly the year ought to begin with the first month, so we know we have some digging to do.

The first month is Nissan. Passover falls on the 15th day of this month, and the first day is what the Talmud calls the new year for kings and festivals.

Elul is the sixth month, usually overlapping August and September in our calendar. The first of Elul is the new year for the cattle-tithe.

After Elul comes Tishri, the first day of which is New Year’s Day. As we just just saw, this puts the Jewish new year in the middle of the Jewish year.

And then we get to Shevat, the 11th of the 12 months in the Jewish year. The Talmud advises that some people thought that the 1st day of Shevat was the new year for trees, but the prevailing opinion relegated that status to the 15th day of the month.

Fine. So we have, working our way through the year, the new year for kings (in the 1st month, a couple of weeks before Passover), the new year for cattle-tithes (in the 6th month), New Year’s Day (on the first day of the 7th month), and then the new year for trees in the 11th month.

The Talmud explains why kings need their own new year, starting with a cryptic answer: “on account of documents.” It turns out that documents such as mortgages were dated according to the year of a king’s reign — as in, “during the second year of the reign of King So-and-So.” The question is when that second year commences. Is it on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne? No. It’s on the new year for kings. So along with each first day of Nissan there begins a new year for reckoning time according to the reign of kings.

What about the cattle-tithe new year? It used to be that people would pay yearly taxes of a sort based on how many animals they had. To implement this system, an arbitrary cut-off date for counting the animals was required. For instance, you might have 15 heads of cattle on one date, and 20 an another. At what point would you pay for the additional animals? The answer is that the 1st of Elul was the cut-off date. You paid taxes each year on however many animals you owned on Elul 1. (The IRS uses the same principle in calculating income tax. Tax on money earned up to December 31 of one year is due by April 15 of the next year.)

Similar reasoning applies to the new year for trees. Taxes were paid on fruit trees. A tree whose fruit was fully formed before Tu Bishvat of a given year was taxed in its entirety during that year; if the fruit formed thereafter, it was taxed in the next year.

Of course, we no longer reckon our years by kings and no longer pay tithes on the animals or on the fruit trees that we own. (And in any event, my animals number zero each year.) So why should we care?

Beyond the interesting if now-irrelevant details, and the spotlight on our history, we find meaningful customs that have come to accompany the different new years. On Tu Bishvat, for instance, we now pause to honor trees and nature in general.

In addition, we learn that our lives have more than one yearly cycle. Natural patterns commence around Passover, with the onset of spring, just as things like school calendars begin in the fall, and our official American calendar resets in the middle in winter. And thanks to a long sequence of interpretation, January 24 marks yet another fresh start.

Happy new year.

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof — And My People

December 11, 2015 1 comment
Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof.  (Yes, that's me with Bartlett Sher, the man who arranged the wonderful visit from my ancestors.)

Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof. (Yes, that’s me with Bartlett Sher, the man who arranged the wonderful visit from my ancestors.)

Thinly disguised, my ancestors and tradition visited me earlier this week. There they were on the Broadway stage of Fiddler on the Roof — hiding in the shadows, animating the props, and permeating the set — barely masked by actors, lights, costumes, dancing, and song.

I love musical theater, and of course I’ve seen Fiddler before. Many times.

But for me Fiddler on the Roof is different than other shows, because this one is about me, about my people, and about my journey. Like most of my recent ancestors, my grandfather — the only grandparent I really knew — came from the kind of Eastern European shtetl in which Fiddler is set.

To be sure, my grandfather’s life was both more mundane and more extraordinary than anything in Fiddler. He didn’t marry off a daughter to a man in Siberia, he didn’t dance with cossacks in taverns, and he didn’t (I don’t think) have a mysterious fiddler variously serving as companion and nemesis.

Equally, my grandfather didn’t leave his village as part of a collective exodus. He left alone. Then most of his family perished.

But my grandfather did light shabbos candles. He treasured his heritage. He lived his life as a stranger in a foreign land. And he grappled with the balance between tradition and modernity. For that matter, so do I.

When the on-stage characters welcomed shabbos with candles, wine, bread, and blessings, I saw more than just generations past. I saw a snapshot from my childhood and a mirror of my life today. When Yenta announced that she was moving to the Holy Land, I heard more than a mere desire for new scenery. And when Tevye (played masterfully by Danny Burstein) quarreled with God, I felt his pain.

Interestingly, as much as the plot in Fiddler is about tradition, the musical itself is replete with its own traditions. So any new production both depicts and exemplifies the difficult task of balancing what was with what can be, of preserving the past while still addressing the present. This new rendition struck me as masterful in this regard, so I felt particularly privileged to head backstage and meet some of the people who created it: the director and a handful of the actors.

Then the stage manager told us how drab and mundane the area backstage is. There’s nothing exciting about it — at least, not to judge by appearances — in contrast to the on-stage magic that brings the past vividly to life. Yet if the stage depicts the timeless reality of my people, it’s the quotidian reality of the present backstage that makes it possible. Which is real, and which the real fiction? Past and present, extraordinary and commonplace, grandiose and picayune — life is apparently woven from a disparate and mutating mixture of threads.

Fiddler ends on a precarious note of uncertainty as the inhabitants of the fictitious Anatevka leave their village. Does their journey lead to a brighter future? Or have they left behind what they value most? They don’t know. In the storybook of my own life, I know that both are true, because I know what the characters do not: the glory of America, the unprecedented tragedy of the holocaust, the miracle of Modern Israel, the rumblings of renewed fear in Europe, the promise of the future, the lessons from our past.

My personal chapter in that storybook has yet to conclude, of course, and I obviously wasn’t around before it began. So it was a treat to look back a few chapters and revisit my place in an ever-unfolding adventure that, I am still convinced, is graced by light and joy and happiness and honor and God.

Categories: Judaism, religion, spirituality

Do Allergy-Induced Endogenous Blood Histamine Fluctuations in Humans Modulate Blood-Brain Barrier Permeability and Psychotropic Drug Efficacy?

December 10, 2015 Leave a comment

[Draft of December 10, 2015]

Abstract

Simple seasonal allergies, or other allergies, may impact the efficacy of psychotropic drugs in some people, because:

  1. Histamine modulates blood-brain barrier permeability (BBBp) ([5] and refs., [9]).
  2. Psychotropic drug efficacy is determined in part by BBBp.
  3. Human blood-histamine levels vary idiosyncratically as part of the allergic response.
  4. A normal human allergic response can elevate blood histamine levels to 10(-8) M.
  5. Histamine levels of 10(-9) M are sufficient to open the BBB significantly in cats.

That is, allergies cause histamine level fluctuations, which cause BBBp fluctuations, so constant extracranial drug levels may correspond to varying intercranial levels, with widespread clinical implications.

Details

Wide agreement in the literature, going back to the 1990s, supports the observation that endogenous histamine mediates BBBp — e.g., [8] from 1992, [6] from 2000 (authorship overlapping with [8]), and [2], also from 1992.

Schilling and Wahl [7] show that an in vivo blood histamine concentration in cats of 10(-9) M is sufficient to let Na(+)-fluorescein (mw 376 g/mol) through the BBB.

In humans, non-acute histamine concentrations range up to 10(-8) M ([3]; [1], from 1976; and [4]).

The molecular weights of common psychotropics fall within the range that may be impacted by histamine-induced changes in the BBBp: Diazepam (Valium) [285 g/mol], Fluoxetine (Prozac) [309 g/mol], Lorazepam (Ativan) [321 g/mol], Quetiapine (Seroquel) [384 g/mol], Haloperidol (Haldol) [376 g/mol], Sertraline (Zoloft) [306 g/mol], Carbamazepine (Tegretol) [236 g/mol], Paroxetine (Paxil) [329 g/mol], etc.

Case Study

Patient S, suffering from intractable epilepsy and seasonal allergies, was hospitalized 31 times before age 25 for either uncontrolled seizures or intolerable adverse reactions to various AEDs. None of her hospitalizations occurred in May, June, July, or August. (The statistical likelihood of 31 events occurring at random during the same 2/3 of the year is about 5 in a million.)

My hypothesis is that seasonal allergies give S constant histamine levels during the summer but, during the rest of the year, varying histamine levels, and thus varying intercranial AED levels.

Ramifications

Therapeutic dosing for psychotropics may depend on the presence of serum histamine, and may be impacted by allergies, including seasonal allergies.

Therapeutic AED levels, in particular, are often expressed in extracranial blood concentrations. This approach may need to be modified.

Research Suggestions

  • Retroactive patient intake review: Do other epileptics demonstrate seasonal hospital admission patterns?
  • Retroactive patient intake review: Do other patients taking psychotropic drugs demonstrate seasonal hospital admission patterns?
  • Patient study: Measure histamine levels as part of routine AED monitoring.
  • Patient study: Measure histamine levels as part of other psychotropic-drug efficacy monitoring.
  • Basic research: Study BBBp with regard to AEDs/other psychotropics in other mammals, to see if Schilling and Wahl’s results hold for these compounds.

References

[1] Bruce C, R. Weatherstone, A. Seaton, and W. H. Taylor. Histamine levels in plasma, blood, and urine in severe asthma, and the effect of corticosteroid treatment. Thorax. 1976.

[2] Butt AM, Jones HC. Effect of histamine and antagonists on electrical resistance across the blood-brain barrier in rat brain-surface microvessels. Brain Res. 1992 Jan 8;569(1):100-5.

[3] Lin RY, Schwartz LB, Curry A, Pesola GR, Knight RJ, Lee HS, Bakalchuk L, Tenenbaum C, Westfal RE. Histamine and tryptase levels in patients with acute allergic reactions: An emergency department-based study. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2000 Jul;106(1 Pt 1):65-71.

[4] De Marchi, Sergio M.D., Emanuela Cecchin, M.D., Danilo Villalta, M.D., Grazia Sepiacci, M.D., Gianfranco Santini, M.D., and Ettore Bartoli, M.D. Relief of Pruritus and Decreases in Plasma Histamine Concentrations during Erythropoietin Therapy in Patients with Uremia. N Engl J Med 1992; 326:969-974 April 9, 1992.

[5] Mayhan, WG. Role of nitric oxide in histamine-induced increases in permeability of the blood-brain barrier. Brain Res 1996 Dec 16;734(1-2)70-6, pubmed ID 9017232.

[6] Patnaik R, Mohanty S, Sharma HS. Blockade of histamine H2 receptors attenuate blood-brain barrier permeability, cerebral blood flow disturbances, edema formation and cell reactions following hyperthermic brain injury in the rat. Acta Neurochir Suppl. 2000;76:535-9.

[7] Schilling L, Wahl M. Opening of the blood-brain barrier during cortical superfusion with histamine. Brain Res. 1994 Aug 8;653(1-2):289-96.

[8] Sharma HS, Nyberg F, Cervos-Navarro J, Dey PK. Histamine modulates heat stress-induced changes in blood-brain barrier permeability, cerebral blood flow, brain oedema and serotonin levels: an experimental study in conscious young rats. Neuroscience. 1992 Sep;50(2):445-54.

[9] Varon, David. Personal Communication: “Of course” histamine modulates BBBp.

Categories: other

Mi Y’malel Fantasy

December 8, 2015 Leave a comment

A Fantasy based on the traditional melody for Mi Y’malel. Enjoy!





Categories: holidays, Judaism
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