Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 24, 2008

The Principle of Uncertainty

When I was in London a few weeks ago, I spent a wonderful evening in the company of my cousin wandering the halls of the British Museum (which I might note is free, which both appeals to my hereditary parsimonious instincts and damningly contrasts with standard practice at New York museums.)

Moving from the Egyptian hall to the Assyrian, then the Babylonian remains of Nimrud and Nineveh, Greek, Roman and then the ancient Middle East, we started discussing the idea of God, and our experience of the conception within Judaism. I didn’t feel I like I did the Rambam’s approach enough justice, so after some thought this is what I came up with:

In the realm of the divine (what you call the supernatural), we can only speak of assumptions not facts. This is the implication of the conclusion that humanity’s capability to assimilate knowledge (to grasp the fundamentals) is limited – and why we have to depend on purely logical entities we call computers to function as a technological society.

But, for the purposes of constructing a coherent religious system and ensuring its continuity, we take the assumptions as fact. This is a conceit – a conscious but tacit agreement to ignore our limitations in order to establish a consensus, a point of common ground.

The aim of religious behavior in Rambam’s terms is not defend the conceit that our assumptions are facts.

Rather, to honestly recognize that they are not facts and constantly challenge them to build a wider and wider systematic set of relationships between the assumptions. This process is not solely intellectual – it involves what Rambam calls the imaginative faculty, or what we might call simply inspiration, to extend the assumptions so that we can form an understanding of God. One of the issues that Rambam clashed mightily over with the defenders of tradition is the persistence of divine corporeality, the idea that God has physical, tangible aspects. Why was he so adamantly opposed to it. Because it led to a deficient understanding of God, essentially nullifying the purpose of Judaism.

The Rambam’s may be undergoing a cautious revival in mainstream Orthodox Judaism but is literally anathema to more conservative elements. Ironically enough, it is far more of a sustainable argument from theological perspective than to deny that the Hebrew prophets who have pretty divergent ideas of God and Judaism were deeply influenced by time and place, as Biblical criticism increasingly demonstrates.

It’s also ironic that Rambam’s mode of inquiry and idea of inspiration probably contributed (via Thomas Aquinas) heavily to the scientific method of matching observable data to a set of assumptions and attempting to develop a theory to reconcile discrepancies.

And on the subject of public cultural institutions, Raphael, the New York Public Library up the street from my office has not one but two copies of The Sacred Mushroom and The Cross (although somebody seems to have absconded with one copy.

Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 19, 2008


Seen displayed in a storefront on E. Tremont Ave, en route to the Bronx Zoo for the King Julian habitat:

A black t-shirt with white lettering. Below a rendering of the Stars and Stripes, the legend “My president is a black man”.

Seen at Levine’s Judaica store where I tried unsuccessfully to acquire “In the Footsteps of the Kuzari”:

Two piles of kipot (that’s yarmulkes to you Ashkenazi chauvinists), one with the Obama logo and one with the McCain logo. The Obama pile had four or five left and the McCain pile was almost untouched.

Phambili ne-change, phambili!

Posted by: Steve Coplan | December 21, 2007

The Kashrut Supervisors Union

is part of the AFL-CIO. Really

Kosher Supervisors Union

Posted by: Steve Coplan | October 23, 2007

At least England lost

South Africa this weekend won the Rugby World Cup for a second time, seeing off bulldog England’s valiant effort. Since I am big rugby fan and South African, many of my friends expected to be overjoyed. Not so much. Here’s how I would frame my response to the outcome.

  1. My love of the game of rugby transcends any chauvinist national allegiances.
  2. If I had to pick one team to win the World Cup it would be either France or Ireland. France because I enjoy their brand of rugby — complex but open to sudden flashes of brilliance and Ireland because of their spirit. (Plus, I am an Irish citizen).
  3. If France or Ireland don’t win then I’d like for a major upset from any team outside of the big four.
  4. In the absence of any those conditions, I would probably want South Africa to win.
  5. Fortunately, one constant amongst all these variables is that my firm conviction that any team but England is an acceptable outcome.

My ambivalence isn’t just the consequence of my inability to be a fan of any team. I am just unlucky to be an ardent lover of the game who has grown up in a country with the most entangled and conflicted relationship with the sport. Rugby is of course an English sport, but is dominated by Afrikaners in South Africa. If there was any restriction imposed on South Africa during the apartheid years that deeply affected white South Africans, it was the ban on international rugby tours. For years, South Africans would have to comfort themselves with the thought that the Springboks were the best team in the world in theory.

When I was about 16 or so, I was introduced to the world of non-racial rugby through reports in the alternative weekly the Mail and Guardian. I was astounded: it was if the game had suddenly been purified for me. Here was a group of hard, talented players who were using rugby as tool of resistance and building a parallel dimension of excellence on their own terms. When I got to college, I somehow managed to find a bunch of guys who were playing in the non-racial league. Joining was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. When the team dissolved, I joined the Eldorado Park Raiders.

The year I played for the Raiders was the first year leagues were united. Having the only white face (and body) was something of a liability against the more conservative elements that populate the game’s lower rungs. But even as I got my head kicked in, I felt I was doing the right thing. With the end of apartheid, rugby could become an instrument of transformation precisely because it was so fraught with symbolism. It hasn’t.

There’s definitely been progression away from the game being an expression of white, Afrikaner supremacy but nowhere enough for me to really feel honest about supporting the team without reservations.

Posted by: Steve Coplan | October 12, 2007

Kol nidrei

Probably the moment of highest drama in Jewish synagogue services is Kol Nidrei on the evening of Yom Kippur. The liturgy is amongst the oldest in the Jewish prayer book, and marks the beginning of the 25-hour fast period, which is meant to facilitate a period of deep introspection. When I was a child, I would sneak up to the women’s section of the shul so I could look out at a sea of white. Kol Nidrei night is the only time of the year when men (in the Orthodox tradition) wear the bleached cotton prayer shawl known as a talit at night.  In the community where I grew up this was also the only night in the year where every seat was occupied, and it was wall to wall, shoulder to shoulder white on white.  As I got a little older, the excitement of the spectacle and the sense I was part of a ‘holy congregation’ was worn down. Since getting a seat was expensive and they were in demand, showing your face on Yom Kippur was a way of demonstrating your good fortune (or the product of conniving commercial dealings in some cases) over the past year. The other more tangible way, was securing a parking spot as close as possible to the shul so everyone could see your expensive car (at a time when the import duties were 100% on foreign cars, unless you knew whose pockets to line).

I won’t go into all the details, but the prayer is basically a way of creating a tabula rasa or removing sanction from unfulfilled personal vows, so that we can concentrate on moving forward, and not become submerged in self-castigation. It’s a way of creating a psychic space for the process of what is translated as repentance, but is better understood as personal change. This was at least my personal understanding of the prayer until I read the commentary on the prayer by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, by far the most penetrating mind of the last century in Orthodox Judaism. The fourth type of vow in the prayer is ‘haremei’ or ‘excommunications’. Soloveitchik interprets this literally: all the acts of excommunication are annulled, or the need for repentance by the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur is rendered impossible. It is a communal responsibility to rectify the mistakes of the past year, not just an individual one.  This interpretation is related to Soloveitchik’s understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity as expressed within Judaism, one aspect of which is a set of societal obligations. In other words, it’s enough simply to be an upright person, one has to strive to correct society around you. This obligation starts with the Jewish community first. When I read this interpretation, my mind went immediately to Baruch Spinoza, the son of Portuguese Jews who had kept their religion in secret for for close to 150 years before arriving at the the shores of the tolerant Dutch republic. Read More…

Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 8, 2007

Links for an oppressively hot August Wednesday

Baraka style video for Portishead remix

The indestructible beat of Angola, via Leo Africanus. See too Frederic Galliano’s cultural appropriations.

Always engaged, but never married to the Land of Israel — Zionism as fornication, from Azure online magazine.

William Orbit old school jam remix

African Hip Hop Radio. Can be derivative for the most part, but incredible how much talent there is coming out of Africa. Semper aliquid, etc etc.

And, the lamentably underappreciated Flight of the Conchords.

Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 1, 2007

Antonioni in memoriam

This entire shot was done in a single take. I am generally not one for DVD commentaries, but Jack Nicholson’s narration for this scene’s cinematography illustrates how serious Antonioni was about the art of cinema.

Slate, New York Times obituaries.

Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 10, 2007

Links for a scorching Monday in July

I think must have had the same conversation in form if not content that precedes this video a thousand times. It was irritating the first time I had it. Unfortunately for me, it’s never followed by dancehall ragga parodies running through my mind. Fast forward, selector!

Hats of Jerusalem

Hebrew Baile Funk – Pitom Banu is the the recommended track

Posted by: Steve Coplan | June 14, 2007

My nephew makes his thespian debut


Posted by: Steve Coplan | June 11, 2007

Eagle vs Shark

Thanks to the helpful bunch at a Very Short List, I believe I have found a worthy substitute for Borat to satisfy my need for comedic obsessions. Eagle vs Shark is sure to generate a lot of favorable comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, which is probably a mixed blessing – on the one hand, a lot of people get to see a film from the edge of the earth (ie New Zealand) where they really do have strange accents but on the other, it’s going to be seen more as derivative, and less as original.  Putting aside the Sundance “buzz” and the potential for any preview to be entirely misleading, the final scene of my YouTube selection suggests to me that my hopes are not misplaced.  The red London telephone box off to the side of the frame and the wide bay occupying the rest of it is so perfect that you almost miss the classic comedic dialog.

The film’s protagonist Jemaine Clements is well known as the part of the “Flight of the Conchords” duo but on the strength of the trailer’s final shot, I was very intrigued to see who the director was.  A quick Google search and perusal of the IMDB profile revealed that the director Taika Waititi, scion of an illustrious Maori clan, is also known as Taika Cohen.  I initially assumed that it must have been his father who was the Cohen, but as it turns out that is his mother’s last name. For anyone familiar with halachah, or Jewish law, there are two conditions under which an individual may be defined as being Jewish: the first is having a Jewish mother, and the second is converting. Of course, these simple rules have been modified with varying levels of stringency. For instance, the validity of conversions by US Reform or Conservative rabbis has long been opposed by religious parties in Israel who are largely responsible for the lack of separation between synagogue and state in Israel.  Also, for some streams of Judaism, you need to have had a bar mitzvah to be considered Jewish even if your mother was Jewish.  By this measure, my father would not be Jewish, which seems unfair since it’s not by any fault of his own.

This digression assumes that a person with the last name Cohen is Jewish. This is not always the case. To my great disappointment, I eventually learned that the England rugby winger Ben Cohen and member of the 2003 squad that won the Rugby World Cup is not Jewish. Neither is he is uncle George Cohen (or either of his parents), who was a Fulham defender and a member of 1966 England team that won the Football World Cup.  I suspect that some contemporary of the character that was the inspiration for Dickens’ Fagan must have taken advantage of the dislocation afforded by the Industrial Revolution to relinquish his heritage and become English.

Cohen is derived the Hebrew word for ‘priest’, and by implication for a descendant of Aaron, Moses’ brother who served as the first high priest.  Kohanim (the plural) still serve some ceremonial purpose in Jewish ritual (some of it involving the Vulcan salute), and the first person called up to read the Torah in the synagogue should be a Kohan.  Membership is passed through the father, and studies of Jews across the globe indicated that there is a statistically anomalous occurrence of a particular genetic marker on the Y chromosome amongst Jews who claim priestly descent (including the BaLemba).  I have recently learned that even having the last name Cohen does not necessarily mean that the the family is of priestly descent — at some point in the late nineteenth century Jews adopted the name to avoid conscription in the Czarist Army since priests were exempted.

There is a remarkably broad set of Jewish family names that indicate priestly descent. My family name before my grandfather changed it in Depression-era Los Angeles was Kaplan, which apparently is German for ‘chaplain’ but I’ve seen other posited derivations.  Having just discovered that the Provencal word for ‘priest’ is ‘capelain’, I am going to set about investigating whether in fact my family was at some stage resident in the south of France. Makes for a more interesting story than the dreary and muddy Lithuanian village where my paternal family is from.

So in other words, just because his mother’s last name is Cohen, doesn’t make Taika Waititi Jewish.  If it is the case, I’d have to say he would be the first Jewish Maori (or Maori Jew for that matter) that I’ve yet come across. Even more reason to hope that the film meets with great commercial success.

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