Here’s my latest at Lehrhaus (where I am now an editor too!) examining one of the kinnot (laments) recited on Tishah Be-Av. I suggest that the kinnah deals with thorny questions of theodicy and how we can challenge God on this saddest of days in the Jewish calendar: https://thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/confronting-god-on-tishah-be-av-in-yehudah-ha-levis-yom-akhpi-hikhbadti/
At the Lehrhaus, where I am now an editor, I wrote a short post reflecting on what it was like to return to the synagogue to pray after more than 3 months. See the post on Facebook below:
It’s also been archived on the Lehrhaus website: https://thelehrhaus.com/culture/the-loneliest-communal-prayer/
If there’s a part of the Shavuot liturgy that begs for an explanation, it’s the widespread Ashkenazic custom to recite two cryptic Aramaic poems, or piyyutim, as part of the Torah service. The first, Akdamut, is chanted on the first day right before Torah reading, and the second, Yatziv Pitgam, is inserted toward the beginning of the haftarah on the second day. Where did they come from? And why do we say them?
It turns out that these poems are rather remarkable. They are the last remaining vestiges of live targum or oral targum, a practice that died out nigh on a millennia ago in most Jewish communities. And even though we won’t be saying the piyyutim in shul this year, perhaps they can provide us with a perspective on prayer during these challenging times.
A long time ago, before there were any Chumashim one could use to follow along with the Torah reading, synagogue attendees were provided with a live translation of the Torah portion into the common language of Aramaic verse by verse. The Mishnah (Megillah 4:4) recounts that after the ba’al korei completed one verse, a designated individual would recite the Aramaic targum, or translation, aloud. The Talmud (Megillah 3a) traces this practice all the way back to Ezra’s public reading of the Torah, where there’s indication that his reading was translated (Nehemiah 8:8). The famous Targum Onkelos likely began as live targum before being written down. There was oral targum for the haftarah as well; Targum Yonatan ben Uziel for example, which is less literal than Onkelos and contains many midrashic additions, probably came into being as a haftarah targum.
Live targum flourished when Aramaic was widely spoken by Jews, but died out as the language declined. Although today, it’s practiced only in some Yemenite communities, it didn’t disappear all at once. As late as the fourteenth century, Kol Bo (52) and other Rishonim from Ashkenazi Europe attest to the fact that live targum remained part of the Torah and haftarah service two times a year: on the seventh day of Pesach, which features Shirat ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea, and on Shavuot, when we read the Aseret ha-Dibrot on the first day.
We don’t know exactly why live targum continued to be part of these two holidays in particular, but even nowadays, their Torah readings are unique. We stand for both Shirat ha-Yam and the Aseret ha-Dibrot, but not for other parts of the Torah. And we read each portion a special way: Shirat ha-Yam has a triumphal tune, and for the public reading of the Aseret ha-Dibrot, the ba’al korei uses ta’am elyon, the more dramatic musical notation, or trop, which is written above the letters.
Both Akdamut and Yatziv Pitgam date from this medieval period when live targum had been largely discontinued but was still part of the Torah and haftarah reading for Shavuot. They were written as introductions to the targum, and are part of a larger genre of piyyutim that ask God for permission to translate the Torah or the Navi.
Akdamut, which discusses many topics, including the glory of God, the special nature of the Jewish people, and the greatness of the Torah, was written by Meir ben Isaac Nehorai in the eleventh century. It was originally recited after the first verse of the Torah portion on the first day, right before the targum, as an introduction. Nowadays, however, most say it before the leyning begins in deference to Taz (Orah Hayyim 494:1) and other Aharonim who felt that the Torah reading should not be interrupted in the middle.
Akdamut was held in particularly high regard, not least because its origin was literally the stuff of legend. According to a well-known story, although Rabbi Meir wrote Akdamut, he did not teach it to the Jewish community. Rather, when the community was threatened by an evil Christian sorcerer who challenged them to a magical contest, Rabbi Meir sought help from the ten lost tribes who lived across the Sambatyon River. The river threw rocks during the week and was only navigable on Shabbat, so once Rabbi Meir crossed it in an attempt to find a champion save his people, he was not permitted to return. Instead, he taught Akdamut to the champion he procured from the tribe of Dan, and it was this Danite who, after defeating the sorcerer, conveyed it to the Jewish community.
Yatziv Pitgam doesn’t have nearly as interesting a story associated with it, but it was probably written in the twelfth century by Rabbeinu Tam, one of the most famous Tosafists, who signed his name in the first letters of each line. Unlike Akdamut, the poem explicitly notes that it’s an introduction to live targum; the penultimate line of the piyyut, omitted from the ArtScroll Siddur but retained in the Koren, reads, “ke-ka’aimna ve-targaimna, bemilui debahir safrin,” — “As I stand and translate with the words the scribes chose.” Further, the final line, which begins, “yehonatan gevar invatan” could be translated as “Yonatan the humble one,” an allusion to the Mishnaic Sage Yonatan ben Uziel to whom Targum Yonatan, the most famous targum on Navi, is attributed.
So that’s where Akdamut and Yatziv Pitgam come from. But we don’t do oral targum of any kind anymore. So how come on Shavuot, and on Shavuot alone, two piyyutim introducing the targum have stuck around to this day? (The question only becomes stronger when one considers that in the United States and Israel, many communities have eliminated nearly all of the piyyutim that were once part of the Yom Tov tefillah in Ashkenazi communities such as the ma’araviyot recited during Ma’ariv and the yotzrot said during Shaharit.)
Unfortunately, no one really knows for sure. It’s not really the type of question that’s amenable to cut-and-dry answers. Some have suggested that people found the language of these poems particularly beautiful and meaningful. But while that may have been true once, most people can’t understand the piyyutim anymore, and many other beautiful compositions have faded away. Others have speculated that people kept saying them because each has a distinctive tune. (An interesting aside: the tune for Akdamut commonly used in the United States is nearly identical to the one used for Yom Tov Kiddush.) But the tunes we use now are not universal, and they have changed over time. One scholar has suggested that the extraordinary legend associated with Akdamut’s authorship made an indelible impression on Ashkenazi Jews and ensured that it remained part of the liturgy. This approach, however, does not explain Yatziv Pitgam. One might more promisingly argue that because the Aseret ha-Dibrot is among the most dramatic and religiously significant Torah readings, we recite Akdamut to retain some of the pomp and drama that surrounded the reading in earlier times, and we even carry over that spirit to the next day by saying Yatziv Pitgam in the haftarah. I also wonder whether the longevity of these two poems is related to the fact that their propriety is debated in the halakhic literature. As I noted above, some prohibited interrupting the Torah reading with Akdamut. The same authorities, however, permitted interrupting the haftarah with Yatziv Pitgam because of the haftarah’s lesser status. Ironically then, the very debates over how the piyyutim should be incorporated into the synagogue service could have helped enshrine them in perpetuity.
But I want to close with a different suggestion. It may not be peshat, yet it recognizes a connection between the two poems and what Shavuot is all about.
At first glance, Mattan Torah seems like a top-down experience. There’s a Torah up in heaven, and God brings it down to Earth. This Torah is perfect, immutable, and demands our obedience. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a), for example, speaks about Mount Sinai being suspended over the heads of the Children of Israel. And yet there’s another side to Revelation that’s bottom-up, for the Torah she-Ba’al Peh, the Oral Law, is in large part ours to create. Perhaps this is why Rabbi Elazar declares in Pesahim (68b) “hakol modim ba-atzeret de-ba’inan nami lahem” – on Shavuot, more so than on any other festival, we must spend a portion of the day focused on our own needs; the day cannot be entirely about God. On Shavuot, we must acknowledge the human role in the continual unfolding of the Oral Torah.
Devarim 5:19, when describing the Revelation at Sinai, speaks of a “kol gadol velo yasaf.” While commentators debate what this means, one translation renders the phrase as “a great sound that did not stop.” The nineteenth century commentator Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg homiletically suggests in his work ha-Ketav ve-Hakabbalah that this “great sound” refers to the Oral Torah, which is always growing and developing through our interpretive efforts. In this sense, revelation is a resonance yet reverberating and a voice still vocalizing. God speaks through our efforts to interpret the Torah.
Live targum is a very daring kind of Torah she-Ba’al Peh. By interrupting the public reading of the Torah with translation and interpretation, we proclaim, in no uncertain terms, that the Torah is not high up in heaven, but here on earth, and that it’s our to learn. So perhaps it is fitting that on Shavuot in particular, when we celebrate both the Written and Oral Torah, acknowledging that we shape the Torah just as it shapes us, a vestige of oral targum remains. The piyyutim of Akdamut and Yatziv Pitgam are our words, inserted smack in the middle of God’s words, which is exactly where they are supposed to be.
We live in extraordinary times. Communal prayer, which was once our anchor, is gone. Each of us is cautiously experimenting with what it means to pray in solitude and to be alone with God. More than ever, many of us want to find new words to express this moment. Perhaps Akdamut and Yatziv Pitgam, which request permission to translate, can inspire us to carve out space to speak to God in our own language and on our own terms. Indeed, the genre of piyyut itself emerged in the third and fourth centuries in the Land of Israel when prayer was more dynamic; each week, virtuosic hazzanim would lead the congregation in their own compositions. May our prayers both old and new find favor so that we can be together once more, ke-ish ehad be-leiv ehad.
I’ve spent over a year reading back issues of English Passover guides. Although it’s commonly assumed that these guides have taken more stringent positions on matters of Jewish law as time has gone on, I’m not at all sure it’s true.
See my new article at The Lehrhaus:
Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time comparing different Torah translations and commentaries, particularly ones that Orthodox Jews use in the synagogue on Shabbat.
Although it’s likely no one will set foot in a synagogue again for quite some time, here’s my latest, a history of synagogue Torah translations and commentaries, out this month in Jewish Action magazine:
My thoughts on how quickly the world has changed in the past week:
I always loved reading Isaac Asimov as a kid, but his stories don’t seem to age well. Here’s my thoughts on reading Asimov nowadays — my third article for The Atlantic — on the occasion of the centennial of his birth:
A few weeks ago, I spoke at the synagogue I attend about the history and impact of the Daf Yomi Talmud study program in honor of the recent completion of the Talmud by the program’s participants. I don’t upload the text of every speech I give, but this one came out particularly well, so I’ve decided to put it here for those who might be interested.
Here is a link to a Word version. Full text below as well.
From Lublin to MetLife Stadium: Ninety Years of the Siyum HaShas
More than 10,000 people descended upon the city to celebrate. The overjoyed crowd filled the streets. Distinguished rabbis, sitting on a dais, arose one after the other to address the crowd, praising the participants who completed Daf Yomi and encouraging those gathered to further commit themselves.
You might think I’m talking about a recent Siyum HaShas, one of those grand affairs that fills a major sports stadium to capacity in an awe inspiring Torah spectacle (I’ve never been), but you’d be wrong. I’m talking about the very first Siyum HaShas in 1931 at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin in Poland, the yeshiva founded by the patriarch of Daf Yomi R. Meir Shapiro just a few years earlier. Some sources say that over 10,000 people gathered for that siyum from all over Europe. In 1938, for the second siyum, around 20,000 gathered at the yeshiva. And prewar Jewry’s distinguished rabbis were out in full force.
I once thought that the siyum only became a major event in recent years. But the truth is that it’s always been a big deal. Even the way it was first established by R. Meir Shapiro was awfully grand. The idea actually wasn’t first conceived of by R. Shapiro. There are several antecedents in various books, newspapers, and Torah journals, where people suggested that a great way to unite world Jewry around Torah learning would be to have everyone study the same page of Talmud each day. But R. Meir Shapiro was the one to implement it, and it worked in part because he did it in a big way, making an announcement at the first convention of Agudas Yisrael (Kenessia Gedolah) in 1923. Several rabbis had opposed his plan to make this announcement. Some, like the Munkatcher Rebbe, R. Chaim Eliezer Shapira, wondered how one could learn something so arbitrary as a daf, which often ends in the middle of a discussion. But R. Shapiro went ahead anyway and his idea caught fire. To a certain extent, the popularity that endures today is an outgrowth of that.
Except not completely. Because then came the Holocaust, and in a blink of an eye, European Jewry was gone. Daf Yomi didn’t die completely though; nor did the siyum. Its locus was transferred to then-Palestine, and several smaller siyumim were held in 1945, although they were not as great as the ones in Europe. Incredibly, there was even a siyum held in the DP camp of Feldafing that year.
The siyumim in Israel continued to grow stronger after the Holocaust, but it took a lot longer for things to pick up in America. In 1968 at the Beis Yaakov of Boro Park, 200 or 300 people showed up. But 2,000 came to the Manhattan Center in 1975, where the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah permanently dedicated the siyum to the 6 million killed in the Holocaust.
Shortly after the 1982 siyum at the Felt Forum in NY where there were 5,000 attendees, R. Moshe Sherer announced he wanted to book Madison Square Garden for 1990. The Agudah put down a non-refundable deposit 2.5 years in advance, and people were nervous it would be a waste of money. But 20,000 people showed up, filling the arena to capacity. By 1997, they had to get the Nassau Coliseum as well; now the total in attendance was 45,000 (and these are just the NY area siyumim). 92,000 people came to MetLife Stadium in 2012 – and now in 2020 there were again that number at MetLife and 20,000 more at the Barclays Center. It might be the largest Jewish gathering in America. And there were Daf Yomi celebrations and siyumim all over the world. It’s estimated that 350,000 people participated in a Daf Yomi siyum worldwide.
That’s a little bit of the history. But what explains the rapid growth of the siyum? The most obvious answer is that Daf Yomi has become a big deal; there are so many more people learning the daf than ever before. For one, Daf Yomi has been the concerted project of Agudath Israel in America and elsewhere for a number of years. In the early 1960s, the American organization created a Daf Yomi Commission that printed small gemaras, provided teachers to groups, encouraged and hosted siyumim. Now it arranges the great siyum like the one that just took place.
Also, the technological revolution has allowed daf yomi to flourish. It’s already hinted to in what R. Meir Shapiro said at that first Agudah convention:
A Jew travels by boat and takes a tractate of Berakhot in his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Israel to America, and each day towards evening he opens the Gemara and studies the daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a Beit Midrash in New York and finds Jews studying the very same page that he studied that day, which allows him to happily join their study group. . . . Another Jew leaves the United States and travels to Brazil. He returns to the Beit Midrash and finds people immersed in the very page that he studied that day. Can there be a greater unity of hearts than this?
If you read R. Shapiro’s words, you see how new modes of transportation were making it possible for Jews to be more united—to travel and know what was going on elsewhere in the Jewish world. I think that this kind of simultaneous worldwide project, where everyone is on the same page, must be seen in light of modern communication like radio and telephone and faster travel. When R. Shapiro spoke, the time was right.
It used to be that unless you had a strong yeshiva education and a set of Gemarot, you needed to physically go to a class. Now you don’t need a live class. From 1953 to 1988, there was a weekly Daf ha-Shavua radio program taught by R. Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth, NJ, in Yiddish. By the 1980s there were cassette tapes you could get featuring shiurim from the Torah tapes lending library. Or, thanks to R. Eli Teitelbaum, you could Dial-a-Daf on the telephone and here a pre-recorded shiur. In 2005 there was ShasPod for the iPod. Now you can just go to the internet and find web based classes, podcasts, and pretty much any resource you can think of. There are Facebook groups devoted to the daf. Erica Brown and others are tweeting the daf.
And the written resources in English and other languages are incredible. You have the ArtScroll Gemarot coming out in the 90s and finishing in 2005 to coincide with the 11th siyum. You have the Koren/Steinsaltz that just finished production for the 13th siyum. Now that Sefaria has put the Koren online (just the text and translation, none of the notes), you don’t even need a physical Gemara anymore.
So it’s easier to learn the daf. But we also live in an achievement oriented culture that’s well suited for the daily regimen of Daf Yomi. People run each day to train for marathons. Some go on diets, count their calories, and schedule their waking hours down to the last moment. Daf Yomi, for better or worse, fits our cultural moment.
The siyum also fits this particular age. Research has shown that people are finding more satisfaction now through seeking out experiences than by acquiring possessions. To answer “amen yehei shmei rabbah” with nearly 100,000 others is a powerful experience that can last a lifetime. American Jews have also become far more comfortable with public displays of religion. The Haredi world in particular has become much more engaged with aspects of the secular world in order to bring religion into a more public place, even as its adherents try to stay away from elements of secular culture. The siyum is a reflection of that. An ethnographic study of the 9th siyum in 1990 by the sociologist Samuel Heilman concludes by noting the wonderful dissonance between the billboard at the entrance to Madison Square Garden, advertising Bud king of beers, and the event, dedicated to God Kings of Kings.
The popularity of Daf Yomi and the siyum has led to some remarkable results. Learning Gemara has become a greater part of Torah discourse everywhere. Learning Gemara is cross-denominational; a Reform rabbi wrote about it in Tablet. Many women are studying Daf Yomi; Michelle Cohen Farber teaches a popular class in Israel. Adam Kirsch, a literary critic, wrote about daf yomi at Tablet the entire last cycle, drawing broader cultural lessons. Author Leah Sokol recently published a children’s book called No Day without Torah about how R. Meir Shapiro’s started the Daf Yomi. So we have an interesting result: the great yam ha-Talmud, that once unfathomable sea, now has a clearly demarcated beginning and end every 7.5 years. Through the Daf Yomi resources available everywhere, this yam can now be studied by anyone, just like the steamship and then the jet plane tamed the Atlantic. But note that Daf Yomi, like the jet plane, provides an overview of the Gemara only from 30,000 feet.
One final point. The growing enfranchisement created by Daf Yomi—with so many different types of Jews learning—has led to some disenfranchisement at the big siyum itself. Daf Yomi has always been an Agudah project, and the Agudah is most certainly not Modern Orthodox. They talk a lot about the unity that the daf creates, and they’re absolutely right, but the siyum itself has to cater to certain Haredi and Hasidic interests. Already in 1938, at the 2nd siyum in Chachmei Lublin, women tried to attend, and a rabbi got up and said that the siyum couldn’t begin until the women left the yeshiva. Eventually they reached a compromise by holding it outside. At the 2012 siyum, women sat in the upper tier of the stadium behind a 12-foot-high mehitzah made of four tiers of curtain that cost of $250,000; at 2.5 linear miles, it was the largest mehitzah ever created. And generally, the speeches at the siyum talk not about women learning the daf, but them making sacrifices so their husbands can learn it.
Some have likewise been upset that in the past, the YU rashei yeshiva have not been allowed to sit on the dais with other rabbinic figures or address the siyum. Some Hasidim opposed R. Yisrael Meir Lau speaking at the siyum in 2012, as R. Lau is a Zionist. In part for these types of reasons, there was a separate Modern Orthodox siyum at Shearith Israel in 2012. And now of there was the Hadran siyum for women in Israel.
Still, as R. Elli Fischer just pointed out in the Lehrhaus recently, even at the big siyum, things have been changing over the last 30 years. There are more kippot srugot; Jay Schottenstein, wearing one, recited a kaddish. Another kaddish was recited for fallen Israeli soldiers. YU rabbis had more roles at the siyum. The OU daf app was mentioned as a resource, which features YU rabbis. Yet overall, it’s still very black hat at MetLife Stadium.
In many ways though, these issues are a sign of Daf Yomi’s success and the culture around the siyum it’s created, not its failure. We aren’t all going to be able to agree on everything, but we are united in learning the Talmud in an unprecedented way. In his recent book on Halakha, Professor Chaim Saiman notes that in interpreting a prophecy of Zekhariah, the Gemara (Megillah 6a) says that in the future, the officers of Judah are destined to teach Torah in public in the theaters and the circuses in Edom. For millennia of Jewish history, that seemed only a messianic vision, even a pipe dream. But the modern siyum Daf Yomi has made it a reality.
I started a Times of Israel blog to occasionally publish short articles that might be of some interest but don’t neatly fit into my typical writing topics or style. My first attempt is some musings on repentance before Rosh Hashana, and how we ough to put others first:
My review of the Rabbinical Council of America’s new-ish prayer book is now online at the Lehrhaus. The siddur is quite different than what I expected:
I wrote some reflections on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Since I’m not going to be able to find anyone to publish them, I’ll put them here instead.
Moon Nostalgia on the National Mall
On July 20, I pretended people were going to the moon again.
That night, I joined thousands of other spectators at “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” an outdoor show commissioned by the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and made possible by a partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior and 59 Productions. We were promised a full-length Saturn V rocket projected onto the Washington Monument and a once in a lifetime light-and-sound show.
Hand-in-hand with my almost-six-year-old son, I tolerated the sticky heat of D.C.’s weeklong sauna and navigated darkened streets blocked-off to vehicle traffic by the glare of police lights. In a moment of dark humor, I wondered if we would find a Hollywood backlot. “This is where we finally learn how NASA faked the moon landing,” I had joked with a friend earlier. Or, perhaps, reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s recent Salute to America, the space shuttle would shake off its mothballs and make a low pass over the crowd.
But as we turned the last corner, my doubts evaporated. For there, on the face of the Washington Monument, was the Saturn V in all its glory, smoldering silently on its launch pad. And by golly it sure looked like it was ready to go to the moon.
The show was as magnificent as promised, a seventeen minute whirlwind of nostalgia starting with Kennedy’s famous speech and going all the way through to later NASA achievements like the space shuttle and the International Space Station. The Apollo 11 mission itself was of course the highlight. On the Monument and supporting screens, the Saturn V went spaceward, the lunar module kicked up dust on the moon, and the Apollo capsule splashed down in the Pacific. When the rocket launched, I could feel the ground reverberating beneath me (presumably some subwoofer magic at work). At 10:56 p.m., when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, a boot print appeared on the Monument. Heroic music played in the background as voiceovers of the astronauts and the people at Mission Control made the mission’s tensest moments come to life.
When the show ended, the Saturn V faded from the Monument as if it never was, leaving a smooth façade crowned by two baleful, sentinel-like red lights blinking on and off. As I wiped the blur of nostalgia from my eyes, reality began to sink in.
There is no rocket that can go to the moon anymore. The best we have is a projection on the Washington Monument.
The moon landing is thoroughly in the past. It’s a memory, a point of patriotic pride, something we can hardly believe was possible. Too many Americans think it never happened.
Supposedly we are going back. President Trump has directed NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024; that effort was recently dubbed Artemis, who in Greek mythology was Apollo’s twin sister. The anniversary show made sure to note this most recent effort as it concluded. But, as of today, there is still no rocket, no lander, no rover, and most importantly, no approved budget to support Trump’s request.
And what are we going to do on the moon exactly? It’s not even clear there’s a point to returning.
In 1968, director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke imagined humans traveling through the solar system to Jupiter around the year 2001 in the film of that name, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1966, Robert Heinlein wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which envisioned a lunar penal colony with millions of inhabitants by 2075. Fifty years ago, and even earlier, futurists were predicting everything from space elevators to gravity-generating rotating space stations to missions on Mars. NASA itself had grandiose plans. Perhaps the most moving part of President John F. Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech is not those famous lines but earlier ones, also replayed during the Saturday night show, in which Kennedy compressed all of human history into a fifty year span. By that reckoning, television and nuclear power came into being less than a week before the moon landing, and planting a flag on Mars would have been just one of six less-than-impossible things we could achieve before breakfast tomorrow. In 1969, humanity believed that it existed on the edge of history. Right after the moon landing, anything seemed possible.
So what happened?
The answer is of course complex. I’ll hit just a few highlights. For one, space travel is more difficult than most imagined. Mars, for example, is over 200 times further than the moon, and among other problems, we haven’t found a way around the near lifetime radiation dose a person would receive in the six months of space travel to Mars and back.
Moreover, human spaceflight can be hard to justify when robots can do it more cheaply and safely.
Perhaps the most iconic image of Apollo was not Buzz Aldrin’s boot print on the moon, but the “Earthrise” photo the Apollo 8 crew snapped in December 1968, in which the half-shell of Earth balances on the moon’s horizon, a fragile ball of blue and white. The picture made people realize that humans are the Earth’s stewards. It’s up to us to protect it, and we sure aren’t doing a good job. Outer space can wait.
In fact, science fiction was already taking this inward turn when the Apollo program was in its highest gear. In the 1960s, “New Wave” authors like J.G. Ballard and others cast aside “Golden Age” pretentions of rockets and robots exploring the stars, instead imagining new and strange futures on Earth where people are forced to grapple with the full weight of the Anthropocene.
The future never unfolds in quite the way we might imagine. In their stories, for example, Heinlein and Clarke envisioned humanity as a spacefaring race, but its leaders were nearly all white men. They failed to fully anticipate the social revolutions that shook up years of orthodoxy about race, gender roles, and sexuality.
And then there’s the internet, which rapidly connected humanity in ways that no one could have predicted, but paradoxically tends to encourage a narrower, self-oriented kind of progress. Why bother to see what’s out there when the sum total of human knowledge is available with the swipe of a finger? Often the death-spiral debates dominating Twitter and Facebook seem more enticing than exploring the universe. The pull of inner space triumphed over the draw of outer space.
After the show, I stayed seated in the grass for a moment, thinking these thoughts, taking it all in.
“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” my son confided to me.
I kind of had to agree, because despite all my doubts about the future of manned spaceflight, I’m a sucker for a space launch, and I will try to hold onto the dream of reaching upward to the cosmos for as long as I can. I hope my son does too.
Yet on that night, it was time to go. We couldn’t stare at the past forever. Before we left the Saturn V behind, I looked upward to an oppressive cloud cover.
I couldn’t even make out the moon.
It’s no secret that The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book, and I’ve been interested in all things Tolkien for a long time. Up at The Atlantic today is my article discussing “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien’s short story that is among his finest works:
I have a new article up at The Forward today about how the Four Question from the Passover seder are more complicated to interpret then they seem at first, and about how their development can teach us something about how the haggadah came to be:
My latest for the 929 English Tanach study project. I wrote about Deuteronomy 32’s radical theology: