Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution?

I’ll forgive Gershom his faux pas in referring to the laws of thermodynamics when he meant Newton’s laws of motion; after all, I’ve the science beat on this blog. The slip-up shows, however, how important terminology is. Gershom wanted to make a point about how every action produces a reaction. The first law of thermodynamics says that the change in the internal energy of a closed system equals the heat inserted into the system plus the work done in the system. That produces a very different political metaphor.

A political word, “revolution,” gets used in a lot of scientific contexts without sufficient attention to the meanings it bears with it. In this post I want to address one of those contexts, the period in prehistory called the Neolithic revolution.

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South Jerusalem Wins Big Prize

South Jerusalem is delighted to announce that we have received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in the amount of $500,000.

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Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

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The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Tamar Yellin has constructed a novel around an ingenious premise: that families are like texts. Just as ancient manuscripts of sacred books contain the same basic text but show surprising, odd, or idiosyncratic variations, so the members of a family, over many generations, share the same fundamental content but display individual peculiarities.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005) follows the Shepher family over several generations, as the family produces variants on itself, and as the family guards a biblical codex—a bound text of the Bible—that reputedly contains some surprising and significant deviations from the standard version. The story is told by Shula, an adamantly single, no longer young textual scholar from England. She’s come to Jerusalem to visit her aunts, uncles, and cousins and find out more about the codex.

(Yellin won the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this work. My book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award and received an honorable mention. I’ll be writing about last year’s and this year’s finalists in the weeks to come—and I’ll be meeting the other authors this summer for a writers’ institute sponsored by the prize committee. I hope the authors will allow me the freedom to praise them when I think praise is due and criticize when I think that’s called for—and trust they’ll do the same for me.)

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Israel’s Separation Barrier: The Best of the Worst

Pretty much everything the critics say about Israel’s separation barrier is true. It causes incredible hardship to the Palestinians; it has been used in many places as a means of annexing Palestinian territory to Israel; and it has caused much environmental damage.

For all that, however, it has achieved its purpose. Since construction of the barrier commenced, deaths in terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank have dropped precipitously. As I note in my article in the current issue of Orion Magazine,

According to figures provided by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 2000 and 2003, Palestinian terrorists carried out 73 attacks, killing 293 Israelis and wounding 1,950. From 2003 to 2006, the period in which the fence was gradually erected, there were 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445.

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The Demolition Drug: Does Destroying Terrorists’ Homes Work?

A large photograph on the front page of today’s Ha’aretz shows border police holding back a few dozen young Jewish right-wing extremists who wanted to march into the village of Jabel Mukaber. That’s the home town of the terrorist who murdered eight students at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva a week and a half ago. The demonstrators were demanding that the army demolish the home where the terrorist’s family lives.

Immediately after the bloody attack, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak promised to check to see whether the army could legally demolish the terrorist’s house. The implication was that, if the lawyers okayed it, that’s what Barak would do.

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Getting the Treatment Right: Conventional and Alternative Medicine

What makes a medical procedure scientific? What makes it quackery?

Unlike many of my friends, I’m a conventional medicine guy. I don’t have any patience for homeopathy and reflexology and the like because they have no scientific backing. And as a writer about science, I’m convinced that the scientific method—which in the case of medicine centers on random controlled testing of therapies, drugs, and procedures—is the best tool we have for determining what treatments are effective and what are not. There’s really no rational argument you can make that would lead to any other conclusion.

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The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”

“This unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” A man visiting an exhibition of exposed human tissue reflects despairingly on the disconnect between  his body and his soul, and between his soul and his self.

The poem is “Dissections,” the poet C. K. Williams. When it appeared in The Atlantic in November 2002 (read it, and hear the poet recite it, here), I pasted it up on my office door. Today I took it down, and had an opportunity to reread and reflect.

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The Muslims and the Banks

“This Obama, is it true he’s a Muslim?” Iris, my bank clerk, asked me this morning. My immediate reaction was to dismiss the charge scornfully. It’s an urban myth of a vile kind, I said. But as the conversation proceeded, I realized that Iris had asked the question because the prospect of a Muslim president of the United States intrigued rather than frightened her.

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More On Stories and Histories

The need to combine storytelling and historical inquiry that I discussed in my previous post obviously has implications for modern history as well. When we teach kids about Jewish and Israeli history, we can’t teach just the narrative and ignore the facts. But neither can we teach only the facts and ignore the narrative. In practice, it’s hard to find the right balance.

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