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13 July 2005


Let's face it: The entire significance of the story and photo of the Giant Mekong Catfish (previous post) is that two guys got to have their photo taken (on dry land, not at the bottom of the Mekong River) with a fish they just caught which weighed four times as much as each fisherman. If the nearest camera had been 80 miles away through the snake-and-tiger-infested jungle, they would have flippped a coin to choose which one of them would start running.

This is not a fish you want to have to tell text stories about while trying to stretch your arms 2.7 meters / 9 feet wide. This is not a fish you want people to have to trust you about.

If I had caught this fish, and there had been an Orthodox Rabbi standing around, I would have had to lie and tell him I was a Methodist or a Buddhist or a Swedenborgian. If I had caught that fish, you bet I would have fried that sucker up with a truckload of breadcrumbs, garlic and shallots, baked 1 metric ton of cornbread, and begun to dig in.

But the Rabbi would have forbidden me from doing that. (Rabbi is Hebrew for "Party Pooper.")
Notice that the Monster Catfish does not have scales.

"Show it me in The Book!" an old Scots Presbyter used to yell to settle all controversies. Here is where in The Book the Rabbi forbids me from eating the fish which I just hauled in after fighting with it for an hour, the fish which weighs four times as much as I do:

Deuteronomy 14

[1] Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.
[2] for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.
[3] Thou shalt not eat any abominable thing.

. . .

[9] These ye shall eat of all that are in the waters: all that have fins and scales shall ye eat:
[10] And whatsoever hath not fins and scales ye may not eat; it is unclean unto you.


Leviticus 11

[1] And the LORD spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them,
[2] Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.

. . .

[9] These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat.
[10] And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:
[11] They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.
[12] Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.


Anonymous despicableTeacher said...

Bob can you explain this passage to me??:
Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.

I am curious now

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

The baldness between the eyes I ain't even going to pretend to guess. Consult your local Rabbi. My GUESS is that in the early days of occupying the Holy Land, there was a neighboring tribe, maybe a few, who ritually marked themselves by shaving the hair between their eyebrows. Like the Kosher Laws, the Jews said "We don't do this" to set themselves apart from the neighboring tribes, and to announce to everyone who saw them that Their God told them not to do this.

But the "cut yourself" -- this is ritual scarification, a decoration of the skin practiced by many tribes all over the world, and doubtless by many of the Israelites' tribal neighbors. It's like tattooing -- which is also forbidden in Deuteronomy or Leviticus.

Mostly ritual scarification is a "man thing," but I once saw a documentary in which a woman anthropologist from Oxford was invited back by a tribe she'd lived with wayyyyyy up the Congo River, they wanted to officially make her a member of their tribe, and this was their highest honor. The honor consisted of a few hours of cutting scars on her chest/breasts. She went through the ordeal by drinking a lot of the local beer, but nothing stronger. Now she has scars all over her chest. Ordinarily only young males get initiated into the tribe this way, but they regarded her with such honor that they were willing to make an exception.

You can see this dedicated scientist receiving her Honor on "Great River Journeys of the World," the Congo River segment. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Oh well, I got a little dragon tattoo on my right bicep. Ouch.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Not much on the Web about it, but here's a reference. In a mini-bio of documentary writer Michael Wood, it says "He traveled the whole length of the Congo for the BBC's 'Great River Journeys.'"

And while he was on the Congo passenger steamer, he met the backpacking Oxford anthropologist lady, and she invited the BBC TV crew to go with her and film her tribal initiation.

Well of course! Who would have a bar mitzvah without hiring the video camera guy? She wanted a record of getting her chest all sliced up with sharp knives that she could watch and remember for the rest of her life.

Anonymous Jim Olson said...

Might I recommend either the Tanakh, or the NRSV version of the Bible for future reference?

The Tanakh is the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Torah, and uses a direct equivalency method of translation. Very good reflection of what the original Hebrew has to say, though is sometimes awkward in English.

The New Revised Standard Version uses dynamic equivalency method of translation. Not so close to the word-for-word of the hebrew, but is a better method of getting to the subltety of the Hebrew text, in English, for those who cannot read Hebrew.

As for the prohibitions in Leviticus, its all based on a simple classification system. Most fish have scales and live in water. Anything that lives in the water and does not have scales does not fit into the definition of fish, and therefore does not fit into the classification set out in Genesis, and therefore is unclean (toevah, or an abomination) and therefore would render the eater ritually unclean.

Anonymous DespicableTeacher said...

Ok found it:)

Defacing the Body
The first one comes to my mind from verse 1 of chapter 14. I wonder if you thought of it:

Deuteronomy 14:
1 Ye are the children of the Lord your God: therefore ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.

Perhaps you would say, ``Who in the world would want to do that anyway?" The heathen. The heathen did it all the time. They shaved their heads and they cut off their eyebrows and they made marks on the forehead every time anybody died. God said, ``You are My people and I don't want you to do that," so the first thing that this verse of Scripture suggests to me as a sign that we are God's peculiar people, are certain (listen carefully) practices we should avoid

Anonymous DespicableTeacher said...

Wow our ancestors were smart Bob hehehe

The unclean species of fish, such as shark, lack the counterbalancing chemical selenium which enables the fish to be fit for human consumption. The clean fish on the other hand contain balanced levels of detoxifying agents, such as selenium and arsenic, which minimises the impact on the human species.

As a general rule, the clean species of fish do not have high levels of toxic substances. Only in the larger carnivorous species are these levels present, but with balancing chemicals, which limit the toxic effects on the human body. The smaller clean fish are clearly the most free from toxic substances and, therefore, the most advantageous to diet.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Oh yeah I bought the English version of the Tanakh at your Seminary bookstore! And I know I've got the New Revised Standard Version around here somewhere.

And I agree, on actual theological questions, their modern standards of scholarship would be better.

But the King James Version (1611) ... I confess I'm just a hopeless literary addict. The English lingo just Never Got Better than the KJV. The KJV -- and The Pilgrim's Progress

by that self-taught jailbird John Bunyan around the same time (1678) -- these are the High Water Marks of English strength, clarity and beauty.

And these versions also harken back to a Lost Moment -- when nearly Everyone who spoke English BELIEVED that these were Words Directly From God. There's a spirit to the KJV translation that will just never again be recaptured. The scholarship can get much better, but not the Conviction, not the Reverence. Reverent, True-Believing Great Poets chosen from a Whole Society of Reverent True Believers -- there's a phenomenon we probably won't ever be seeing again in this lingo and on this planet.

I won't say it was all downhill after that, English still had lots of beautiful surprises in store, but this was Shakespeare's Moment. Yummmm! The older I get, the more beautiful this English Moment sounds.


If I knew anything about other lingos, I could say something clever about THEIR Great Moments. Portugues -- what is its Perfect Moment, who are its Perfect Authors?

Deutsches -- Schiller? Goethe? (In my thuggish ignorance, Brecht -- alive and writing in My Own Lifetime -- moves me, but that must be a function of my ignorance.) Can anybody say a few words about the Great Moment of francais? Espan~ol -- I guess that has to be Cervantes, si? No? Italiano = Dante?

Come on, here's a Vleeptron Fiesta for every Lingo on Earth -- brag, brag, tell us your Great Poets, your Great Literary Works!

Anonymous Jim Olson said...

Sorry to disappoint you, Bob, but the KJV is not as divinely inspired as you might think.

I highly recommend "God's Secretaries"...about the politics, palace intrigues, murders and general societal mayhem that led to the writing of the KJV.

It is true, it is a pinnacle of the English language.

Did you know that the "thees" and "thous" of the KJV is the informal voice of English? (sort of like the tu/toi vu/vous distinction in in French). The thees and thous are not the high church sacral language, but rather the language of the love poem and public house.

Personally, I'm partial to the Latin of Seneca and of Origen.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Oh man, I've stumbled into a theological controversy again! How does this happen?

I didn't say the KJV was "divinely inspired."

1. Literarily, it just SEEMS and SOUNDS sincerely as if it is.

2. It turned out to be, for centuries, the perfect literary instrument for convincing English-speaking Christians that they were, in their own language, in direct inspired contact with the Word of God.

It's not a question whether the scholarship was good or adequate or up to modern standards.

The question is: Did the millions who read it and took religious belief and conviction from it feel they had inspired access to the heart of their faith and the spirit of their God?

Maybe a good metaphor is that it's a sort of Hollywood thing. When you make a Bible Movie, you don't hire God to star as God, and you don't hire Holy Men and Women to write the screenplay.

You hire talented literary and photographic experts to convince an audience of millions that they're seeing Authentic Religious Miracles and Acts of Gods and Patriarchs and Saviors and Saints. (Just like, in the next movie, you convince millions that they're seeing actual cowboys and actual Indians. But those aren't real cowboys and those aren't real Indians. And in the next movie, they sure look like UFO aliens -- but there are no real UFO aliens.)

One thing for sure -- the authors of the KJV were brilliant language craftsmen, the equal of Defoe, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, and poets like Coleridge and Blake.

And, bad scholars and translators or not, they clearly rose to the occasion, were inspired by the task they were commissioned to do: Bring the Old and New Testaments into an English translation that all reasonably literate readers could comprehend.

And then for centuries the KJV did the converse task: It taught beautiful English literacy and skills to people, it became a model of English prose and rhetoric to inspire great ideas expressed as beautifully as English-speakers could express them. The overpowering influence of the KJV on Abraham Lincoln's greatest speeches, for example, raise them to literary immortality.

We began with a very different question: Why does God, through the Torah, forbid me from eating catfish?

To the extent that it is possible today to KNOW the answer in any true, confident, meaningful way, the KJV is probably not a reliable source and reference book.

But two other questions -- What book has most shaped and influenced Protestant Christianity in the English language, and what books shaped the very heights of the English language itself most profoundly over the last four centuries -- the KJV claims blue ribbons for these not insignificant achievements. Subsequent translations have been more scholarly and reliable -- but are not the revolutionary literary masterpiece the KJV was.

It might have been a WRONG faith, but millions and many generations of English speakers lived their entire Christian faith through that single book. If it was wrong, they were all wrong -- but then they died and never knew or suspected they believed in a faith terribly flawed by bad scholars and bad translators. I would be very cautious about suggesting that we are so smart and advanced today that we can say with certainty that the faith of great-great-great-grandmother Jeanne and the faith of great-great-great-grandfather Thomas was flawed and defective, that it should have been recalled.

And in those generations, the KJV was an amazingly powerful literary instrument for calling on men and women to sacrifice their whole adult lives for what the KJV told them was the Word and Spirit of God. Did they sacrifice -- we know now because we have grown so smart -- for flawed ideas and for a flawed and defective understanding of ancient Judaism and the origins of Christianity? Very few of these people who devoted their lives to this faith could read and compare and analyze in Hebrew or Greek. All they knew of their faith was the KJV. They read it each night before they went to sleep, and awoke burning with the desire to advance the best ideals of their understanding of their faith.


In other news, the blueberry pancake and waffle breakfast was a huge success, and we collected $340 which will go toward the bus trip to Boston in October.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

The other thing ... none of the kosher laws have any basis in our modern ideas of health or medical science.

(Shark cartiledge, by the way, seems to have some near-magical anti-cancer powers. It's some of the best Miracle Health Stuff in the sea.)

The ancients didn't know that swine carry trichinosis, and that it was more healthy to avoid eating it. If you'd tried to explain germs and microscopic -- invisible -- parasites to them, they wouldn't have known what you were talking about.

The kosher laws are just a code to say: God wants us to do these things to show the world and ourselves that this is the God we worship. If some of them actually have health benefits, it's purely a coincidence. (My childhood rabbi told me that over and over again. He used to get really annoyed when he'd read that the kosher laws reflected ancient notions of good health practices.)

Blueberry pancakes are Parve, neutral, neither kosher nor trayfe. (We make ours with margerine and vegetable oil.) Eat all you want. Pour lots of maple syrup on top.

Anonymous despicableteacher said...

I am glad to see my little question to you triggered all this. People were not leaving comments lately which was sad ;)

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Yeah, I really have to Get A Grip on the things that make me Sad. NOT LEAVING COMMENTS for more than 2 days at a time makes me Very Sad.

Vleeptron gives out lots of Pizza to bribe people into leaving Comments.

The Carrot is good. But clearly what Vleeptron also needs is a Stick. Vleeptron needs a Firing Squad. Or a Bureaucracy that punishes Not Leaving Comments with nasty official threatening letters or large fines. Hooray for Pleasure, but clearly Vleeptron needs to investigate the creative use of Pain if it wants Comments.


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