Jul 19 2015

New(ish) publication: The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800-2000, by Kocku von Stuckrad

scientification

In The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800-2000 (De Gruyter, 2014), Kocku von Stuckrad describes “the discursive constructions of  ’religion’ and ‘science’ through the disciplines of astrology, astronomy, psychology, alchemy, chemistry, and scientific experimentation more generally. The second half of the book explores the power of academic legitimization of knowledge in emerging European modernities.” (Source: Review by Kristian Petersen, accessible here.)

The table of contents for this volume may be found here.

An interview with von Stuckrad on a wide range of topics, including Theosophy, marginalized knowledge, Earth-based spirituality, Jewish mysticism, Paganism, and contemporary science, is also available at the above link at the bottom of the page. This is one of the best interviews I’ve listened to in a while.

I have yet to read this volume, but look forward to doing so. I also welcome scholarly guest reviewers in the broadly overlapping areas of astronomy and religion. If you have read this book (or plan to) or other volumes spanning astronomy (and/or space) and religion, and wish to post a review here, please e-mail me at a_lobel@live.concordia.ca.

 


Jul 13 2015

Exhibit (San Francisco): “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

“Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty” looks like a marvelous exhibit. An artistic take on the Jewish day, which begins the night before, it runs through September 20 at the CJM, 736 Mission St., San Francisco. More information available at http://www.thecjm.org.

A quote in this Jweekly.com article describing the exhibit, however, caught my eye:

According to Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, the rabbis of early times had a deep understanding of astronomy: After all, the Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle, and called upon Jews “to observe nature and be a part of this world.

“We have a tradition,” Wolf-Prusan notes, “that says, ‘Pay attention. See what’s around you.’ ”

There are certainly a number of rabbinic sources that support this viewpoint; Wolf-Prusan is not wrong, precisely. But in keeping with the old borscht belt adage “two Jews, three opinions,” I’d like to throw my own hat into the ring. While the Jewish calendar is lunisolar (not purely lunar), I would argue that the gradual move toward the fixing of the Jewish calendar (i.e., in place by the ninth-tenth centuries CE) turned rabbinic eyes away from direct celestial observation, not toward it. As per the research of Sacha Stern in ‘Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies’ (2012, Oxford University Press), this move was in keeping with the rise of the era of urbanization and fixed calendars (Stern 336). Aside from the recitation of the rosh hodesh (new month/moon) prayer (usually performed en passant) and the blessing on the sun recited every twenty-eight years (more about which, see here and here) Judaism is no longer focused on the skies. Heaven, yes, but not the heavens.

But here is the key. As is so often the case when analyzing rabbinic sources, particularly the Babylonian Talmud, multivocality reigns. This, combined with doubts cast upon the historicity of certain rabbinic institutions and astronomical-calendrical procedures makes it difficult, if not impossible, to unequivocally state that the rabbis all understood, let alone championed, the observation and study of the cosmos. In my own recent research, I demonstrate this rabbinic multivocality, highlighting views of the natural world on Earth, and perspectives on the heavens, that range from reverence and appreciation to outright scorn toward those who would waste time on any pursuit but the study of Torah.

That said, however, in addition to his own call for Jews to appreciate the natural world, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan also mentions that of the late rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel for “‘radical amazement’ — a sense of wonder that is a prerequisite to wisdom and faith.” It is on the contemporary scene that we see the opening of the floodgates of writing and political action — from Heschel’s call to similar calls for the preservation of nature as a “Torah responsibility” by the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), as well as the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. In addition, the past few decades have brought with them new Earth-based Jewish groups, including Tel Shemesh, The Walking Stick Foundation, the Adamah Fellowship, and Wilderness Torah.

While these are most welcome changes, I leave open the question of whether these were borne of the classical sources themselves or whether they are, in fact, inspired but primarily contemporary shifts toward a more grounded (and cosmos-inspired) spirituality.


Jul 09 2015

The Nebra Sky Disc — an astronomical Bronze Age treasure

Photograph by Gerhard Singer, on Flickr

Photograph by Gerhard Singer, on Flickr

Discovered in 1999, the European Bronze Age astronomical artifact known as the Nebra Sky Disc was nearly lost to the black market, but fortunately found itself in the hands of the scientific community. It is now on display at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Germany.

Dated to circa 1600 BCE, the bronze and gold-emblazoned disc contains a graphical representation of the sun, moon, and the constellations Andromeda and Cassiopeia, among other celestial objects of agricultural and calendrical importance, including the Pleiades.

The astronomical sophistication it demonstrates is remarkable. Astronomer Ralph Hansen has determined that the disc served to coordinate the solar and lunar cycles for agricultural purposes.

Perhaps just as important is the glimpse it offers into the astral religion of the Bronze age in Northern Europe. This is supported by Hansen’s research, which demonstrated a striking parallel to a rule of intercalation (i.e., adding a thirteenth month to the year) related to the lunar crescent found in the Babylonian MUL.APIN, dating a thousand years later, to the seventh-sixth centuries BCE.  According to Hansen, the intercalary month would be added every two to three years when the position of the Pleiades in the night sky matched its position on the Nebra sky disc. However, according to archaeologist Harald Meller of the State Museum for Prehistory at Halle (who was involved in the recovery of the disc), later layers suggest that at least some of its astronomical function was eventually lost, and “that in the end the disk became a cult object.” Astronomers Emilia Pasztor and Curt Roslund go even further, stating that it more likely served a religious purpose for the Northern Bronze Age European elite, including chiefs and shamans. [The full article, in Antiquity 01/2007; 81 (312):267-78, may be accessed here.]

In 2013, the Nebra sky disc was added to UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ Register.

 

 


Jul 07 2015

Call for papers: Religion, Science and the Future Conference – January 14-16, 2016, The University of Florida

Category: Announcements,Call for papersalobel @ 9:05 pm

Sponsored by The International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, the Religion, Science and the Future Conference will take place January 14-17, 2016 at The University of Florida, Gainesville.

The deadline for paper and panel proposals is July 15, 2015.

For more information, please see the full announcement.