Theories of the Torah and Torah as Theory

Rethinking the Role of Biblical Criticism in Social Thought: An Introductory Preamble to a book on the Strangeness of the Torah

  1. What Lay Beneath the World in the 19th Century (Darwin, Marx, de Wette)

Biblical criticism is one of the great 19th-century Western European theories, like Marxism and evolution, that hit their world like a volcanic eruption. They transformed everything, then froze. Each has a radically different scope and subject matter but share a world-changing premise: like society, like life, scripture has a hidden history driven by deep patterns that betray the finished, stable whole, the integrity of things as they are. The recognition that things could have been otherwise suggests the potential threat: one day they will be.

While these theories had their initial impact around the same time period they differ vastly in scope. Yet they each shared a “moral” that ordered the theory but has turned out to be its most difficult and uncertain part: progress. Beneath their conflicting claims, they shared a teleology. Just as “man”–implicitly defined as an industrial society led by upper class white European males–was the successful outcome of millions of years of life’s development, so the dissolution of class would be the successful outcome of thousands of years of society’s development. Similarly with the canonical Christian scriptures, the Bible was the culmination of thousands of years of literary development.

Evolution was ironically (or appropriately) the first to lose its evolutionism: its assumption that things inevitably had to have turned out this way. The classic early fantasy image was of life evolving in one direction: better. In a long but steady process of improvement, organisms developed from tiny microbes and crude fish to amphibians, crawling mammals, apes and humans. The history of life was one of improvement from simple and primitive to complex and advanced forms, culminating in us. But it turned out that evolution did not have any necessary direction: species simply adapted to their environments, whatever they happened to be.

Marxism underwent a similar transformation with the rise of “actually existing Socialism”–large polities claiming the mantle of Marx. Initial claims of inevitable progress–still eloquently expressed in Nikita Kruschev’s famous pronouncement to John F. Kennedy, “We will bury you”– ran up against the dirt and haze of historical contingency. Especially in the form of a ruthless, militant form of US-led anticommunism that fostered authoritarianism around the world, not stopping at mass murder, and inspired these things in its opponents in return. Marx’s theory of capitalism and social structure cut through the self-serving justifications of the ruling classes like an x-ray. Yet while his teleology worked as an ideal, guiding revolutions across half the world, it is not clear when or whether it will turn out to work as description of history’s direction.

Biblical criticism seems to be the narrowest of these three, concepts that shook the Western European universe and by that means the world. Its actual research focuses on a single human artifact. Despite the limitless metaphysical claims Christians and Jews have staked on it, they themselves are on record as having created its canonical form.

But if its scope is smaller there is a way that the historical matter of the bible runs deeper than these other Western European theories. For one thing it helped create them. The notion that the history of life moves in coherent stages, revealing underlying laws, came to European thought largely from reading Genesis, Daniel, and Revelation in that order. Jacob Taubes summed up the resulting apocalyptic paradigm thus:

“The events of the world are written on the face of the divine clock, so the point is to follow the course of world history to determine the hour of the aeon. Apocalypticism is the foundation which makes universal history possible. “

Seen as the template of natural history, it provided a paradigm for the development of earth and animal life. As the template for political history, it gave apocalypticists like Joachim of Fiore and idealists like Hegel the idea that there was a world-spirit manifested in how humanity moved from stage to stage. Parallel ideas could have been drawn from other sources, but Christendom ended up drawing key parts of its universal histories of life, earth, and society from a biblical framework.

But as the thinking behind biblical criticism cooled and hardened, it made its last major impact outside of its own realms of theology and biblical studies just after Darwin and Marx, in the late 19th century. The theories of de Wette and Wellhausen about the history of its composition were hotly discussed because they pried the Bible’s timeless appearance and ordering power apart from its real history. In a heresy trial that made the front pages for six years in the UK, the young Evangelical William Robertson Smith was kicked out of the Church of Scotland and thus his position at the University of Aberdeen for his espousal of these ideas. Since then the most successful exceptions such as Eric Auerbach, Ilana Pardes, or Harold Bloom have taken the Bible into literature departments, treating its form mostly in isolation from its historical development and social context.

Beyond asserting the claims of theology or giving clues to its own history, is there something else the Torah might tell us about the order of human things?

2. More Than Law: Torah as Nomos

The legal theorist Robert Cover introduced a review of the 1982 Supreme Court term with the startling title “Nomos and Narrative.” What does “narrative” have to do with such grinding technical matters as the case of “White v. Massachusetts Council of Construction Employers, Inc.,” which kicked off the issue’s first category, Market Participant Immunity? Cover argued that all law–including the constitution the Court was interpreting in this case–implied myth. It is not a society’s ruling powers that provide it with ideals and motivations, but rather people’s shared sets of habits and theories related to its social order–what Cover called a nomos. This nomos, this set of norms and hopes about social order, arise in the form of stories people tell about society’s rules:

No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. (1983:4)

It was ancient Judaism, not the American Revolution, that provided Cover with his foundational case of how nomos demands narrative, because Judaism is founded on the interpretation and application of the Torah. Indeed the Hebrew term tôrâ is often translated “law,” though as we will see this misleadingly mistakes a part for the whole. In fact the whole point is that Torah is not just a set of laws but contains a model of law within it. Commandment framed by retold events is inherent in the very form of the Torah, which the literary critic David Damrosch called a “narrative covenant.” The Torah presents its commandments by telling stories about them: how they came to be given to Moses on Mount Sinai and the consequences of Israel having accepted them.

And far from a cookie-cutter example of command and obedience, the Torah’s narratives are not just-so stories about why everybody should obey its laws. Maybe the opposite. Instead, as Cover wrote, the Torah actively embodies and transmits the tensions between laws and narratives about laws that generate nomos. Primogeniture, the eldest son inheriting the best portion, was the norm embodied in the Torah’s law of inheritance (Deuteronomy 21). But already in the Torah’s first meaningful scene of inheritance Abraham makes the younger Isaac and not the firstborn Ishmael his heir; whereupon God demands Abraham sacrifice him. As happens repeatedly in Genesis, it is the younger child–not the expected main inheritor–on whom the fate of Israel hangs, threatened then rescued by God. Cover sums up this piece of biblical nomos as a twist: “divine destiny is not lawful.”

This means that the Torah tells a somewhat different story about law than states do. The standard social theory of law is that it needs to be enforced and must always ultimately be backed by violence. Without a “monopoly of the legitimate means of coercion” over its own territory, Max Weber wrote, a modern state is no state at all. Absent physical or economic threats, theories of obedience tend to rely on superficial imitation or mindless conformity. Cover showed that the Torah embodied a very different yet deep-seated and long-running way that a group may follow law. He called this alternative norm “paedic,” that is, based on teaching or tradition.

Cover’s argument challenges the idea of the independence of law, not just as a genre but as a way of dealing with the world. For some it may be traditions and narratives rather than “objective” institutions that make laws valid. Yet as Steven Fraade points out, “nomos” itself is at the root of the separation between law and narrative in Judaism–for early Jewish translators almost always rendered the Hebrew for Torah as a Greek word for law–nomos. In the Hebrew Bible tôrâ first denotes ritual or legal directions but expands to include “divine teaching, prophetic preaching, moral exhortation, and wise living more broadly. Eventually it becomes synonymous with revelation or Scripture as a whole” and so “might more suitably have been translated with a Greek term closer in meaning to teaching writ large” such as “paideia (cultural instruction and discipline).”

C.H. Dodd explained this split’s negative consequences for both the Bible and Judaism: “over a wide range the rendering of torah by nomos is thoroughly misleading, and it is to be regretted that the English versions followed the Septuagint (via the Vulgate) in so many cases,” thus “giving a misleading legalistic tone to much of the Old Testament.”‘ And, Fraade continues,

Once the Torah and the Hebrew Bible are represented as “The Law,” then the isolation of its narratives from its laws, and the reductionist dichotomization of Old Testament Law (and “legalism”) vs. New Testament Spirit are not far to follow.

Contemporary scholarship has rediscovered the way that Torah is just as much paideia–cultural instruction in a tradition–as it is law. Michael Fishbane presented his magisterial Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel as a drama of transmitting tradition. For him the construction of the Hebrew Bible revealed itself through the early Jewish relationship between ancient cultural inheritance (traditum) and the process of its transmission (traditio).

But there is also a unique power in the type of distortion that reduces Torah to law. If mistranslating tôrâ as nomos distorted the meaning of Torah, it also made it visible and conceivable in a new way. In The Renaissance Bible, Deborah Kuller Shuger discusses the analogous way that Christian theologies of sacrifice were (mis)interpreted through Roman law. By reducing the richness of Paul’s atonement theology to a flat legal concept of compensation that could be applied to any instance of sacrifice across the world, scholars like Hugo Grotius ended up performing the first cross-cultural comparison of religious forms in Western European thought. As Kuller Shuger notes citing Jonathan Culler, the advantage of an inappropriate mapping of one domain onto another is the very possibility of theory–in this case comparative religion. To create a language for identifying and comparing patterns, one takes terms from one domain and applies them “inappropriately” across others. Thus Judaism may be categorized as a “legal civilization” and compared to US Constitutional law, as Cover does. What is crucial to the integrity of these categories is their subsceptibility to reshaping, that their thinkers and subjects remain in a dialogue that allows them to be corrected, reformulated, abolished or reinvented.

Social theory’s illuminatingly “inappropriate” acts of repurposing have been drawn from theological and religious areas, as well as mapped onto them. Indeed, it was none other than one of the founders of sociology, Max Weber, who took “charisma,” a term from Christian theology meaning “a gift from God” (such as healing, prophecy, or speaking in tongues) to help furnish social theory with explanatory categories for why people obey commands. Weber suggested three primary types of social power: traditional (do this because we have always been taught so), rational-bureaucratic (do this because an appropriate official points to a written rule–ratio–that says so), and charismatic (do it because of my gift, my kharisma, that can make you believe in me despite traditions and rules, and I say so).

If Weber’s categories of social order were appropriated from other realms including religious ones, they may be productively reshaped in dialogue with their sources. For as Weber was well aware, his appropriated categories bore the limits of their creator’s own intellectual origins, his Western European Protestant background and assumptions. Among them was the implicitly evolutionist image of how human politics and social order developed, from ancient and “traditional” to modern and “rational” (though Weber himself was always open to dialectically blurring the lines). Cultural historians such as Edward Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty have shown the destructive shaping power of this image. The idea of a rational and Christian Western Europe at the center of history is typical of Protestant-based thinkers like Hegel. It implies a relationship of master and slave, of unequal power but doomed mutual dependence. The historical master-slave paradigm of colonialism places the West at the center, destined to subordinate the traditional non-western world which makes up its outlying provinces even as it needs to parasitically feed on the material and human richness of those provinces to be the West, to be the smart, rich center. This is why it has seemed so urgent to think beyond the paradigms of evolutionism and colonialism in our social theory.

Cover’s framing of Torah as a “jurisgenerative” set of rules in a productive tension with the narratives that frame them suggests a broader potential for social theory. Picking ancient Judaism as an example suggests an alternative way to categorize a “traditional” social order without the evolutionist prejudice. For as a written document the Torah intertwines laws with ancient accounts about them, thus putting a Weberian “rational” (Latin ratio a mode of “reckoning, numbering, procedure”) order itself in the form of a tradition.

For Judaism was Christianity’s original example of the “primitive” and past, in contrast to which St. Paul and St. Augustine defined the Church as the present and future. This led to a productive binary opposition that has been intertwined with an evolutionist worldview in Western European thought between a static world that must be left behind, versus what is current and developing. Applied to Jews, pagans, Muslims, and the various natives others, it represents a morally coded antinomy between the premodern and what the anthropologist Webb Keane called the Christian Modern. There is a whole history to the challenges and alternatives that have arisen to this narrow opposition. Most relevant for us, as Susannah Heschel showed, already in the 19th century Abraham Geiger led an academic movement within Jewish thought that challenged the Protestant evolutionist view of Christianity itself, framing Jesus as simply a particularly influential teacher of Judaism.

In Chakrabarty’s analysis, the enlightening inversion Heschel identified might count as “provincializing” Jesus, reversing the view of Christianity as the pinnacle and center and instead placing it on the margins of Judaism. Yet might we go further and question the very dominating and subordinating language of capital vs. province and center vs. periphery–terms themselves taken from European empires? As Hegel himself argued, the very move of simply reversing a hierarchy rather than doing a way with it can be a way of recreating it–what he called the master/slave dialectic.

But we may also consider adopting a pattern visible in Torah as an alternative model for a typology of modes of social order along Cover’s lines. Rather than provincializing Christian thought, such a model can be generative of useful concepts but without the implied subordination or evolutionism, the old master/slave dialectic of traditional vs rational.

3. Conclusion

A model of tradition as a form of unsettling can invite new theorization from areas like the critical study of race, where we may see the concept of Peoplehood and the practical means of constituting it through the lens of Barbara and Karen Fields’ concept of Racecraft.

The anthropologist John Kelly has argued that through its very need to gain acceptance of legitimacy, the state’s “monopoly of legitimate force” is always shadowed by a contest for the monopoly of legitimate communication. Outside the state model itself we can argue that Judaism is an example of developing a kind of “monopoly of legitimate tradition” as a people-constituting mechanism.

Can we find concrete cases of this attempted socially ordering “monopoly of legitimate tradition?” Our refreshing of theory can return us to textual and material data with useful new questions, to a new dialogue with ancient evidence and cultural history. In the context of ancient Near Eastern writing, the Torah’s founding document (“Grundschrift“) attributed to the Priestly tradition may be an example. In the concrete perspective of textual production during the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods, it is most distinctive in how it encoded the actions of ritual law as culture, while contemporary and earlier ancient Near Eastern scribal cultures instead encoded the mainly verbal texts of divination or incantation or prayer. It was this new foundational process that permitted turning religious directives–tôrâ or ritual “law”–into the tradition that generates Judaism through its transmission.


Seeing the Bible’s Two Creations and Two Meanings of Life in Genesis

While in geology it has long been possible to visualize the building blocks of the earth’s history, until now despite strong agreement on the Bible’s most essential building blocks, it has been difficult to visualize them in their independent form. Compare the two most widely known and used presentations, those of Carpenter and Harford-Battersby (1900) and Friedman (2003):

While the older work of Carpenter and Harford-Battersby (top) clearly separates the two plausible interwoven sources, they swim in a sea of tiny margin notes on all sides. The more recent work of Richard Elliot Friedman (bottom) is simpler but one must recall which colored lines correspond to which source, and if one wants to read either as a coherent work, imagination and memory are required, supported only by very sparse notes.

By contrast, our simple interface (modeled on the pop lyric site just gives a text and where you can look for discussion. But this is only part of the payoff…

The most remarkable results are to come when we add the comparison function. This lets us see visually–for the first time in the history of Western scholarship– how the two very different (but universally recognized among scholars) accounts of the origins of the universe and original fate of humanity look as independent stories.

The Priestly Tradition versus The Non-Priestly Traditions

Seen side by side and on their own for the first time, the two traditions make two different ancient Hebrew literary worlds and modes of thought available to us. First of all the Non-Priestly account of how and why life and the world were made and how they relate to God is about three times as long as the Priestly one.

Not only this, the non-Priestly account (here, conventionally, the “J” or Yahwistic source) is an ontologically different thing: a story riven with uproar, conflict, and irony at every key point where the Priestly one just serenely unfolds. The Priestly order of Sabbaths and cosmic signs is built into the DNA of the universe but emerges in its own time. There is no prayer because human speech is not of cosmic import, except in its role as communicating the rules of ritual for serving God through sacrifice. Humans do not yet know any of them so these rules are the subject of the only important verbal revelations, which occur not on Mount Sinai but afterward, in the Tabernacle. In the Priestly tradition the one human being before Noah to get more than a single line of description is Enoch, of whom it is said twice that he “went about with the divine beings” then did not die but “was no more, for God took him.” It is a material world where every thing has intrinsic cosmic significance, and the narrative is serenely focused on each thing’s role in unfolding it. What humans can do is learn to know it and walk in its ways, as first Enoch, then Noah does.

Meanwhile in the Non-Priestly tradition everything that is generative–productive of life or knowledge–is also terribly fraught. The first childbirth and the world’s first sacrifice leads to the first murder with Cain and Abel and the diversification of human labor leads to violent threats and violence-based prestige in the song of Lamech. Finally, the sexual desire of divine beings for human beauty leads to the birth of giant warriors, the “famous men.” This tumult is well described by Harold Bloom as a terrible, yet laughable sublime. Humans and gods can do all kinds of things but none of them quite works out as planned; what they do may be great but is never enough.

History unfolds in the same key stages in the two different traditions: Adam and Eve’s creation, the first generations, the coming of the flood. But they map out two radically different, incommensurable visions, offering two incompatible alternatives for what the world is, and what we are to do in it.


How Old Are the Books of Enoch?

One of the lynchpins in discussions of early Jewish apocalyptic literature has been dating the oldest extended fallen-angel narrative, the Enochic Book of the Watchers, to precisely the 3rd century BCE. But as far as I can tell, that precise dating is on pretty shaky ground.

The script of the oldest copy, 4Q201, is dated by its most recent editor to the late 3rd or early 2nd century BCE (Drawnel 2019:71), but by its second-most-recent editor to the 2nd century (Langlois 2008:67-68). However Langlois notes that the Aramaic of the text suggests multiple chronological layers, which would push the date back. Others note an equally important point: the text is not only editorially layered, with an introduction (1-5) tacked on, but also interwoven: it combines two different narratives with totally different accounts of why the angels fell, followed by two separate but similar cosmic journeys (e.g. Newsom 1980). Given that the oldest manuscript shows signs of copying and cannot be an original autograph composition, and that its content not only weaves together two myths that are otherwise known separately but adds layers to that, it is certainly at least as old as the 3rd century.*

But this tells us absolutely nothing about when the myths in the text began circulating. A common move has been to assume that one of the myths, about the angel Asael’s revelation of forbidden knowledge to humans, must be the result of Greek influence dating to the Hellenistic period. The myth of a divine intermediary teaching forbidden knowledge to humans, and then being punished for it, does appear in the Greek in the myth of Prometheus–even if the earliest versions do not necessarily resemble the Book of the Watchers all that closely.** But myths of conflicts among primordial beings are well known to have circulated across the Mediterranean*** already in the Late Bronze Age, when a tragic divine revelation to a human is also documented in a text likely intertwined with the figure of Enoch. Speaking of the semidivine sage Adapa’s knowledge of ritual speech, which makes him almost equivalent to his patron god Ea, lord of secret knowledge, and gets him in serious trouble with the gods, the head god Anu says: “Why did Ea expose a human to such terrible cosmic things?” (Amarna fragment rev. 57-58)

Indeed, the move by which one dates the Book of the Watchers to the 3rd century, placing a multilayered text to precisely 30 or 50 years before the earliest manuscript preserved to us, is prejudicial and we do not apply it to other Qumran texts. For one thing it would put the whole Hebrew Bible in the 3rd century as well! Another intuitive but unreliable argument is that the Enoch stories must be later additions to the older fallen-angels myth. This is based on the important observation that Enoch plays no role in the initial fall of the angels (6-11) despite the fact that Genesis 5 states he was around then, and perhaps suggests he was in their company (if we choose to read אלהים as ‘divine beings’ not ‘God’).

But this doesn’t show that Enoch was not originally connected with the story! A clear example of this issue is Tablet XI of the Standard Gilgamesh epic, a version of the Flood story with literary indications of being tacked-on to the epic. Gilgamesh only appears as the audience. But it turns out that Gilgamesh’s connection to the Flood hero was already a thousand years old by that point, since the Sumerian Death of Bilgames already lists ‘who met the flood hero!’ as one of his majestic accomplishments.

In sum, since texts like the Story of Ahiqar prove there was already a thriving Aramaic literary tradition by around 500 BCE, the guess of Enoch’s first editor, Josef Milik, to date the core narrative to the 5th century BCE is just as likely as the 3rd century. And of course, any historical claims based on a special connection between the Book of the Watchers and the 3rd century BCE are likely built on sand. Historically there is absolutely no evidence to prefer the 3rd over the equally plausible 4th, and in terms of influence and reception it would be equally appropriate to center the Book of Watchers in the 2nd century when we know it was actually being repeatedly copied.

We should resist the desire to use Qumran discoveries to fill in gaps in Biblical knowledge, pinpointing the Book of the Watchers in the 3rd century in order to help smooth out the biblically-based break in continuity that appears if we go from a 4th century Ezra-Nehemiah to a 2nd-century Daniel. Instead, as my colleagues in the two recently published BRANE symposia have argued, we should take a more open and less anachronistic approach. We can treat early Enochic literature such as the Book of the Watchers and Astronomical Book as much like “biblical” literature that did not yet know it was going to be in a bible as we treat our canonical texts, and this includes being open to the entire plausible spectrum of dates and contexts that can be supported with evidence.

Further Compositional and Linguistic Dimensions

The lack of clear basis for the commonly accepted terminus post quem makes me wonder about some other assumptions. For example, the Ethiopic Book of Dreams (83-90) is dated based on historical allusions in Chapter 90, but despite 3 mss covering Chapter 89, there is no evidence of 90 at Qumran.**** Nickelsburg uses 90:6ff to suggest composition around 200 BCE but does not differentiate in his commentary between the Aramaic and the Ethiopic, and despite his frequent emphasis on Fortschreibung and interpretive expansion in BW, he does not make anything of 90’s absence. On the one hand, the absence of the chapter used to date the book is quite plausibly an accident of preservation. On the other hand, the Aramaic version of BW in 4Q201 may be totally different from the Ethiopic after ch 9, and we know the Astronomical Book differed radically.

A further linguistic observation might suggest a tendency. Cook’s dictionary of the nonbiblical Aramaic texts from Qumran registers about 20 Akkadian loanwords, 15 Persian loans, and 0 Greek. This is in contrast to earlier everyday Elephantine Aramaic (37 Akk, 72 Pers, 2 Gk) For Biblical Aramaic, Rosenthal mentions about 25 Akk and 24 Pers loanwords, alongside the 3 Greek terms for musical instruments mentioned in the court tale of Daniel 3. These corpora seem to be tools forged entirely or mostly in the Persian period–did they just ossify?

The corpus of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic seems to stand on the other side of a gulf from the Aramaic of Ahiqar, Daniel, or Enoch. It is hard to read a page of early Palestinian Targum without encountering a Greek loan–more often they occur in almost every sentence. What might this mean? While this doesn’t prove how much Greek culture the creators of early Enochic literature were or were not aware of, it does show one thing: totally unlike with Aramaic under Akkadian or Persian administrations, these writers’ education was not connected with Greek scribalism.


*As Michael Stone remarked immediately after Milik’s initial publication,

“Neither of [the two earliest] manuscripts appears to be an author’s autograph, and it is reasonable, therefore, to date the composition of the writings that they contain to the third century. There seems to be no basis upon which to dispute these dates, since they are founded upon firmly established paléographie criteria. Moreover, The Book of the Watchers does not stem from a single pen, but was composed by a writer who utilized diverse source-documents. At least one of these, chaps. 6-11, is itself composite. Consequently, the sources of The Book of the Watchers may be inferred to be even older than the writ- ing down of its present form which, as said above, took place some time in the third century B.C.”

“The Book of Enoch and Judaism in the Third Century B.C.E.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978): 484

**See Sanders 2018.

***Cf Lopez-Ruiz 2010; Bachvarova 2016

****On this see the important 2021 Princeton PhD Dissertation of Elena Dugan.


Bachvarova, Mary R. From Hittite to Homer : The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic /. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Drawnel, Henryk. Qumran Cave 4, The Aramaic Books of Enoch, 4Q201, 4Q202, 4Q204, 4Q205, 4Q206, 4Q207, 4Q212. First edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Dugan, Elena. “The Nature of the Beast: The Animal Apocalypse(s) of Enoch.” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 2021.

Langlois, Michaël. Le Premier Manuscrit Du Livre d’Hénoch : Étude Épigraphique et Philologique Des Fragments Araméens de 4Q201 à Qumrân /. Lectio Divina. Hors Série. Cerf, 2008.

López-Ruiz, Carolina. When the Gods Were Born : Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East /. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Newsom, Carol. “The Development of 1 Enoch 6-19: Cosmology and Judgment.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42, no. 3 (1980): 310–29.

Sanders, Seth L. “Enoch’s Imaginary Ancestor.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 9 (2018): 155–77.


4. Charlie Parker & My Dad Help Hip Great Composer to Other Dimensions

… least according to my dad

This is a chapter I missed. And then the chapter I come from. It’s my dad’s second Yahrzeit so it’s time to tell it.

In my bewildered struggle to understand how my father wandered, again and again and again, into the forcefield between almost every great creative cultural force in mid-century America, I passed over how he claims to have gotten Jazz composer, Jack Kerouac collaborator, and epic soundtrack creator David Amram into Charlie Parker and thus whole new worlds.

So let’s take a step back. Bridging the gap between Jack Kerouac, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, and the worlds of classical and film is surely the great composer, educator and raconteur David Amram. Before giving the music to Jack Kerouac’s poetic jam session Pull My Daisy and maybe the greatest paranoid political film of all time, The Manchurian Candidate, David Amram was an up and coming young classically trained composer fascinated with the new freedom and rigor that Jazz offered.

Amram had a magical apartment in a magical part of Washington DC where a lot of things happened. After my dad fled his failed first marriage and started hanging out with the folks who did the world’s first Jazz fanzine, the Record Changer, in DC, he used to regularly drop by this magical apartment. When I talked with David last month, he remembered the address precisely after 70 years: 1815 16th st.

What helped make the place special was that it was in what people then called a “checkerboard” neighborhood, an area that was so thinly segregated that black blocks alternated with white ones, and people sometimes wandered into each other’s zones. And in this zone there was frequently a BYOB party. Musicians, travellers, gardeners from foreign embassies would bring their instruments, and talent, and even the cops might drop by after hours to hear the jams.

It was here, according to my dad, that he took his friend David to see Charlie Parker, and Parker returned the favor by dropping by the apartment one night and preaching a gospel of interdimensionality that opened up a whole new way of being. As David tells it, Parker told him to

“Put some of what you learned from jazz into the symphony and put some of what you learned from the symphony into jazz,’” Amram says. “He also encouraged me to study my own Jewish heritage and to play all the places my forebears have been before they came over to this beautiful country. And to learn about all the other languages, all the stuff that was out there – all those things of beauty — to try to get close to them and then live with them, and then…to put that in the music. And in 1952, there weren’t many people giving you that kind of advice. It was mostly 98 percent ‘Don’t you dare’ or ‘You can’t do it’ before you even had a chance to strike out.”

After wandering into the forcefield between Jazz, Jewish music, and the film world dad quickly ducked out again, to Berkeley, evaded the Korean war by nearly killing himself, then to his second marriage–which led indirectly to my half-brother Aaron–and the Hotel Havana. The Cuban Revolution was bad luck for him. So…

Dad with David Amram, probably late 1980s.

Dad Flees America and Cuba to Meet William Burroughs, Psychedelic Vines, and my Mom.

So he fled to Mexico where he hung out with one of the McCarthy era’s great heroes, the blacklisted Socialist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo of the Hollywood Ten (“he didn’t talk about Hollywood much, I can understand why”). This was an era of remarkable exiles and I’m not sure if this was the same pirate-themed basement bar where he spent time with William S. Burroughs, but they hung out together a lot. Dad also dealt pre-Columbian antiquities and went on quests for Yage, the sacred psychedelic vine that Allan Ginsburg and Burroughs explored for its mind-expanding properties before LSD.

I didn’t believe the part about William Burroughs til my half-brother Aaron pestered us into going to meet Burroughs himself in Lawrence. There I witnessed him and my dad reminiscing about that and Morphic Resonance for 2 days straight. Burroughs was both somewhat decrepit and incredibly canny–when I rattled off some anthropological trivia about name taboos he immediately asked which group the data was from. Burroughs was clearly delighting in life, knocking out a gin and tonic and slices of cantaloupe with prosciutto. When it came time to leave he gave each of us a big hug and somehow also ended up waving an enormous revolver around.

Back in Mexico, Dad struck up a friendship with the composer Leonard Bernstein and traveled across the country with him. He became involved with the groundbreaking textile shop, one of the greatest to draw on and represent indigenous Mexican and African designs started by the legendary design couple DD and Leslie Tillett, and then very good friends with the designer Fred Usher, a bond that lasted a lifetime.

“Fred came and stayed with me in Mexico for 2-3 years, we lived in Veracruz for a while, we went and had mushrooms in the mountains of Oaxaca. In eastern Oaxaca there’s a mountain range that comes out of the gulf of Mexico, the Sierra Madre. The most beautiful place you could ever see. At the top of this mountain there’s these mushrooms that grow out of manure. We made a tape of the woman who administers these mushrooms. Also we got involved with the Mayans in southern Mexico and Fred made tapes of them chanting.”

One String Blues by Eddie "One String" Jones (CD, Oct-1993, Gazell  Productions) for sale online | eBay

Later Fred continued his discoveries of musicians including a remarkable guitarist nicknamed one-string of whom it has been said that “If there’s a romantic, mystery figure in blues history, Eddie “One String” Jones would certainly be at the top of the list.” He was instrumental in the design of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its indelible logo.

“A friend of mine in Cuba had hundreds of posters of Fidel Castro he was selling on the streets of Havana,” Dad remembered. “He came to my apartment in Mexico City with all of these Fidel posters and said what are we gonna do with these. In Mexico you never you never knew who was in charge, and Castro had just come to power as a revolutionary. And you know that guy from Russia was murdered (Trotsky) by one of Stalin’s henchmen so you never know who’s a revolutionary and who isn’t. So we burned them one by one in the fireplace. But I thought nowadays they’d probably be worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars, now that Castro’s no longer a bad guy. Well he’s still a bad guy but there are people who love him.”

And Mexico is where he met my mother, Jacquelyn Seevak, when she was on vacation under the most romantic possible circumstances. She wrote of visiting an art studio and there,

“surrounded by unfamiliar art and people speaking an incomprehensible language I felt and turned completely green. After we finally managed to get back to the hotel, a lanky Southern expatriate saved me from Montezuma’s revenge. Bill, my rescuer, was a friend of our co-worker Ben’s architect brother who was also living in Mexico City. We spent much of the time that we were in the city (about 10 days)with Bill. He brought me the magic pill that enabled me to rise from my bed and continue our trip. He did a lot more. Billy Woodrow Sanders (I loved that name) was from Greensboro, North Carolina and had been living in Mexico for a few years. Charming, bright, romantic, he showed us the U.S. part of the city. He was a self taught furniture designer. It was difficult to know exactly how he supported himself. He never really learned Spanish – he liked not being able to understand much of what was going on around him – it protected him from being overstimulated. But he took us dancing, introduced us to Paella, and I fell in love.”

Later my mom told me that when she asked what would happen if she got pregnant, dad said “I’d run away”—one of the darker unifying threads in his life.

“He gave me his ring – wood with a silver insert – it was way too big, but I wore it for a while – even after he stopped writing. The correspondence lasted just a few months and I didn’t hear from him again until 10 years later when he called from Los Angeles. He had come back from Mexico – had had some of his designs accepted in the Pasadena Museum’s design show and now wanted to settle down, build a business and start a new life. So, he called me because I was the most stable person he knew and he intended to marry me. My phone number was the same – he had kept it.”

And that’s where I come from: they got married at Chicago City Hall just like my wife and I did 45 years later.


Ancient Israel’s Two Primeval Histories

Scholars have long recognized that the world was created twice, first in Genesis 1 by a being called God (Elohim) who created purely with divine commands, and then in Genesis 2-3 by a being called the Lord (Yahweh) who worked with his hands and breath. God created plants, animals, and then humans, in that order. The Lord created a male human, then plants to fill his divine garden, then animals, and finally a human female, in that order.

They have also noticed that almost everything in the Flood story (Genesis 6-9) happens twice, once with God responsible and once with the Lord responsible. But here the two versions are not one after the other but woven together. Do they make sense as originally separate stories? This is, as far as I know, the first place you can see for yourself.

Read the Priestly tradition of creation, the flood, and the rest of Genesis here, in an annotated version.

Compare the non-Priestly tradition of creation and the flood (a more basic version here).


The House of the Father as Symbol, Mostly.

The concept of the “House of the Father” may well be the most dominant “masculinity” in scholarship on gender in ancient Israelite society, used to connect biblical literature with material culture and ancient social reality. As a Biblical Hebrew kinship term it is consistently identified with the “four room pillared house” of Israeli archaeology and so assumed to undergird both the familial and architectural structures of the southern Levant. Originally proposed by the Harvard school of biblical archaeology, this gendered construct has been widely adopted as an objective scholarly term and assumed to reflect a largely unchanging synchronic reality for most of the first millennium BCE. But what did it mean to people in ancient Judah?

In dialogue with more fine-grained recent historical work such as Christine Neal Thomas’ Reconceiving the House of the Father: Royal Women at Ugarit (2014 Harvard PhD dissertation and f/c book), this paper challenges that assumption by locating this masculine construct more precisely in literary and social history and in dialogue with Levantine patriarchal society’s changing ideologies of the feminine. Within genealogies, the term does not appear in earlier biblical lists but only in those of the Priestly tradition and the Persian period (Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah): precisely when the “house of the father”’s architectural correlate, the four-room pillared house, has disappeared. It is most plausibly a reaction to changes in feminine social location (the “house of the mother”) related to the breakup of clan systems in the Babylonian and Persian periods. Within the traditions of Priestly literature and Chronicles the house of the father resembles the Tabernacle, an organizing literary concept mapped onto a now-mythic object of memory in the shadow of rising patterns of matrilineality.



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Ancient Babylon: Where to Start?

I’ve long noticed that while people continue to care deeply about ancient myths and cultures, and even argue passionately about them, it’s not always obvious where to start with understanding its context. In the case of ancient Babylon, if we date the Mesopotamian written record from the early 3rd millennium BCE, it has arguably a longer continuous written history than that of Western Europe.

If you imagine the task of summarizing “Western Civilization” in a book, let alone a chapter, you can guess what a tricky balancing act this is. And how absurd it would be to expect one statement from one person to capture all, or even most, of its facets. So instead I’m throwing out a set of options.

1 Sweeping and Magisterial, if Outdated, Overviews

Leo Oppenheim, Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (open access)

Jean Bottéro, Ancient Mesopotamia

2 Brilliant Advances in Our Understanding

Eleanor Robson, Ancient Knowledge Networks (open access)

Francesca Rochberg, Before Nature

3 Reliable Translations of Important Texts

–broad collections (you’ll learn a bit about everything):

Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (a concise survey of Akkadian-language narratives)

Jeremy Black, The Literature of Ancient Sumer

–more focused (you’ll gain deeper knowledge of a specific area):

Wilfred Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths

Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh (bizarrely Penguin lists the very up to date 2019 edition as 2003 but never fear, if you order it you’ll get the 2019)

Martha Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor

Some Further Explorations of Mine

I’d suggest you pick one from each of the top three categories to start. Then if you want to drill down a little I have some deeper surveys of:

What the Babylonian Creation Epic is really about, with a synthesis of two amazing studies, by Piotr Michalowski and his student Andrea Seri.

Who Hammurabi really was (to start with, that wasn’t how he would have pronounced his name, and it turns out that that tells you a lot about who he was)

What the Editing of the Gilgamesh Epic really tells us about biblical composition

A small sampling of Assyriologists who share their learning online

Moudhy Al-Rashid @Moudhy

Jay Crisostomo @cjcrisostomo

Gina Konstantopoulos @gvkonsta

Megan Lewis @digi_hammurabi

Willis Monroe @willismonroe

Eleanor Robson @Eleanor_Robson

note: these are accounts that are especially ancient-content-heavy (unlike e.g. mine which is equally devoted to things like strongly-held musical opinions. That said…)

The Three Best Mesopotamian Metal Songs

I could include others but I don’t want to mislead people by including posers who I shall not name

  1. High on Fire, “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil”–self explanatory
  2. Ooozing Wound, “When the Walls Fell”–no explicit Mesopotamian content but I’ve decided it’s actually about the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek
  3. Nile, “Von unassprechlichen Kulten“–technically this means “conderning unpronounceable religious practices” but since that describes pretty much the entire field I think we’re good.
  4. Morbid Angel, “Umulamahri“–sorry, four best.


3. From Black Mountain to the Havana Hilton (Castro Never Apologized to My Dad)

My father attended Black Mountain College, “the mythic school of the mountain” and maybe the most unique educational institution in midcentury America . It was here he met John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and—crucially—Buckminster Fuller, an experience that shaped his remarkable, practical yet anarchic creativity. I’m not sure how he wound up there or whether it was just before or after his salvation by smoking. But as a collaborative school run by teachers and students, with no rich, out-of-touch trustees and little administrative overhead, Black Mountain’s model of learning and experiment as a mode of living is worth reflecting on again as a promising path not taken for the future of higher education. 

Students climb one of Buckminster Fuller’s designs
Students pose for a picture at Black Mountain

In 1972 the first detailed history of Black Mountain called it “the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in art, education, and life style…known, too, as the refuge, in some cases the nurturing ground, for many of the singular, shaping talents of our time: Cage, Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning…and Robert Rauschenberg”* The term “refuge” is precise because refugees were among its founders: its main arts teachers, Josef and Ani Albers, were among the first wave of thinkers who fled Hitler’s Germany. If the later wave of intellectual refugees such as Eric Auerbach, Ernst Kantorowicz, and Hannah Arendt which populated more prominent universities such as Yale, Princeton, and Chicago was to reshape the landscape of academia in the same way that Black Mountain’s wave impacted American art. Of these teachers it was the American Buckminster Fuller, at whose feet he could sit for hours and hours and who he later followed to Chicago for a time, that made the greatest impact on my father.

This remarkable institution was started in 1933 by a Classics professor with a vision of education based on a process of discovery, led collaboratively by teachers and students rather than Trustees, sororities or fraternities. John Rice was forced out of his previous institution for his pugnacious nonconformism after a 10-day hearing in which he won over the external reviewers from the American Association of University Professors, several faculty and a number of students, including the student body president and newspaper editor—left with him.

The practical and conceptual daring of my father’s later designs seems to be intertwined with Black Mountain’s early impact and the motto of using spontaneity as a design tool—“leap before you look!” Its founder John Rice would engage his students in Socratic dialogues that would continue at leisure allowing each student to work out their own understanding of what a word or concept was doing—what my father later liked to call his “Must Mean” school of philosophy. More broadly, they were engaged in what Duberman described as the project of attempting “to find some consonance between their ideas and their lives, who risked the intimacy and exposure that most of us emotionally yearn for and emotionally defend, but in practice shun.”

Soon after this my father’s interests—perhaps a fascination with the possibilities of making new kinds of design with new materials like bamboo—brought him to Mexico. There he met a brilliant young psychology student at the University of Mexico who he picked up at a restaurant after passing her a note. Sharing a spirit of adventure and following some of Betsy’s connections, the young couple soon moved to Cuba.

They could not have arrived at a more dramatic point in Cuban history. Here he married Betsy Sanders, the mother of my half-brother Aaron, at the American Embassy. And through a connection with Betsy’s friend Scondina Dweck, my father got a job helping design the interior of the landmark Havana Hilton, which the dictator Batista, Frank Sinatra and the American Mafia were hoping to make into a monumental tourist destination. Things were coming together and his star was on the rise.

But even as my father worked to bring his designs to reality in this lush environment, a revolution was brewing. Almost immediately after the Havana Hilton’s completion, he saw it taken over by Cuban revolutionary forces and made into Fidel Castro’s office. My father and Betsy fled the bloody conflict, back to Mexico and eventually each moved on from the marriage. While the revolution and its imperfect but real socialism improved life for the majority of Cubans, the artistic and business types who had seemed to hold such promise for my father suffered—sometimes in horrifyingly violent ways. While my father was strongly egalitarian and a diehard supporter of Bernie Sanders (apparently a distant cousin!), this loss of friends and a potential future was one for which he held a lifelong grudge toward Castro.

*Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community


2. How Smoking Saved My Life

“I met my first wife working in Burbank at the Lockheed factory doing final assembly on P-38s. Her name was Eunice Klotz. She was from Riverside and her father was Dr Leo J Klotz, head of UC Riverside Citrus Experiment station. We got married at 18 in Reno. Her mother was also a doctor and died when she was born. She had two brothers.

He went on ruefully, remembering the instability he brought to a relationship he was too young to handle.“I’m guessing we were married 2-3 years. She got pissed at me, so I left and went to DC. Later on she shipped off my records.” It was in DC that my father was involved with what you could call the first Jazz fanzine, the music nerd/collector-oriented Record Changer: “a small and independent magazine [whose editors] transformed the traditional jazz oriented publication into a progressive voice,” as you can see from these two striking 1946 illustrations.

My dad became friends with one of the editors, Nesuhi Ertegun, who went on to found Atlantic records with his brother Ahmet. It may have been here that my father took his friend David Amram to see Charlie Parker for the first time, helping get the young composer into Bebop and thus making one of the more productive connections in American music. And as Eunice Riemer my father’s first wife went on to become an artist and writer in Vermont.

We next find him living in Berkeley on College Ave, where he paid $60/month for an apartment. He took the streetcar that ran down the middle of College “Across the street from me was George Good Custom Tailor, where I worked. He had giant benches in basement where Jewish and European tailors would sit and stitch the stuff together.”

“I was part of the early co-op movement,” which collectively bought not just groceries but its own gasoline. “I was the head of a Berkeley co-op with its own gas station and supermarket. I was also involved in Hostels, we had a trailer that carried bikes behind an old 1934 Chevy, taking them on the ferry boats that went from Berkely to San Francisco. We would bike up Mount Tamalpais and come down.” This is part of the remarkable early history of city-dwellers’ nature pilgrimages to Mt. Tam. The ride down the mountain—his daughter-in-law’s first introduction to California—is still thrilling today even on a modern suspension-equipped mountain bike.

Mount Tam by Tom Killion

“I do lie. I don’t lie about superficial things. I lied to get out of the army. I didn’t smoke but I went and smoked until I was sick and then I smoked some more. I ate carbon to turn my shit black and said it was bleeding. And all my friends went to Korea and 80% of them died. So I’m here because I lied. Smoking can save your life. I’m here because I lied at the right time for the right purpose. I used to go to AA just to hear the stories because they were so great.”

My father only joined the army after being threatened: “If you don’t come for a physical we’re going to come get you for violating draft law!” They took him to an army camp in Virginia for the 82nd airborne

“I don’t want to jump out of a plane!” “Well, that’s where we’re putting you/”

“Then took me to a bivouac with live ammo. There was a guy who’d been playing tricks back and forth with me in the army that spiraled out of control. The guy wanted to dump my trunk out the back steps so I switched his trunk secretly and guy dumped own trunk. I got scared the guy would frag me on bivouac.”

“Our sergeant was an alcoholic Oklahoma Indian who’d knock Japanese teeth out for the gold in them. I called him and said ‘I’m shitting black, I think I have a bleeding ulcer”, They picked him up in a jeep at 3am and took him to the army hospital. The army doctor said, ‘take 2 asprin and see how you are.’”

After that my father got his hands on as many packs of cigarettes as he could and smoked til he could barely breathe. “So I took charcoal to make my shit black. I had a friend who was a filmmaker, did the first documentary of the Turner automobile, and I had him come along as a witness. In the morning I took a fake poop sample. Again the doctors shrugged it off and gave me Kayopectate.

So I said (in a quavering voice), “Doctors, which one of you are going to be responsible for my ruptured ulcer,” got them to arguing and turned them against each other

Ended up in hospital for 3 months where I learned to play badminton. After that they made me do KP so I deliberately spilled grease all over floor so guy said “get the fuck out of my kitchen!” After that, I just hid under stairs when duty came around. And that’s how smoking saved my life.