In this well-written, painstakingly annotated and beautifully designed book, physicist Baruch Sterman (with contributor Judy Taubes Sterman) traces the history and prehistory of a certain blue pigment, along with its cultural and religious significance through the ages. It’s what the Torah and Talmud calls tekhelet, and it’s made from a gland harvested from Murex sea snails.
Though greatly interested in history, archaeology and biology, I find myself poorly equipped to engage with the book’s subject matter. Or put differently, I don’t think I’m part of its intended audience. Because there’s a major unstated premise here, explaining why a writer would want to view the history of the Eastern Mediterranean from such an odd thematic standpoint. Sterman assumes that his readers will find deeply meaningful certain mollusc-dyed blue treads prescribed in the Torah for the fringe of a Jew’s ritual shawl. Those tassels are where his entire project starts. He clearly feels that the 19th century rediscovery of the ancient sacred dye that had been forgotten for centuries was a symbolically important event that renewed Judaism’s ties with its origins. Indeed, working with dye is “… an integral part of my life’s goal: the modern renewal of ancient techniques and a return to practices forgotten for so many centuries and nearly lost to history” (p. 219). Whereas I – an atheist Gentile, a cultural relativist and a citizen of the world’s probably least nationalistic nation – believe that no culture is particularly meaningful or carries any intrinsic value.
All people have culture and funny traditional garments. That’s nothing to wave about. There is no way for us humans to avoid having culture and funny garments. If we manage to uphold some kind of long-term continuity in this area, then so what? A modern Jew still is not the same as an Iron Age Jew. A born-and-bred Swede, I am not even the same as the people who called themselves Swedes 500 years ago. The people who now wear blue-fringed ritual shawls are essentially reenactors to me. Renaissance Fair.
Don’t get me wrong: though he’s hugely enthusiastic about past leaders of Hasidism, I don’t think Sterman is an ethno-religious chauvinist. He just assumes that his reader will agree that customs such as the wearing of ritual shawls made according to ancient rules are very fine things. He describes his own attitude to those blue fringes in terms of “exuberant fervour” and “overwhelming sense of humility” (p. 210). Sterman is completely OK with the Baal-worshipping Canaanites of yore that get such a rough treatment by the Torah’s writers. But he doesn’t so much as mention today’s Palestinians. And after explaining that the Dome of the Rock sits on the site of the Jewish temple’s Holy of Holies, he admiringly describes the Temple Institute, an organisation that prepares for the reinstatement of scriptural Jewish temple service on that very spot! I can only call this passive-aggressive. And in that context it is distinctly odd to find Sterman speaking appreciatively about Irish independence from the English.
Sterman’s use of the Torah as historical source is completely uncritical. To point out just one of the more obvious issues, he doesn’t acknowledge that Kings David and Solomon are now widely considered to be fictional. They’re to Israel what the Yellow Emperor is to China. Last I checked, the 9th century BC King Omri of Israel was the earliest Biblical figure whose bare existence has unequivocal support in period sources. If I understand correctly, historians in Tel Aviv have accepted this for decades while the ones in Jerusalem hold on to the traditional accounts. Sterman is a very well-read man, as the book’s meaty bibliography attests. I can only assume that he knows that not even all Israeli Jews believe in King David any more, but has chosen to uphold a polite fiction that his intended reader will be happy to share.
I would prefer it if people living in Israel rolled up both their fringed shawls and their prayer rugs once and for all and sent them off to be recycled. They are a stark example of how unhealthy it is hold on to tribal superstitions and ancient identities. Jews should be more concerned with tying knots of fellowship with the Palestinians and neighbouring countries than with the fictional kings of a bygone golden age.
But if you’re willing to agree that ancient religious traditions should be cherished, that ancient religious scriptures are trustworthy historical sources, and that disgruntled ethnic minorities should be ignored, then this is a good read.
Sterman, B. & Taubes Sterman, J. 2012. The Rarest Blue. Jerusalem & New York. 306 pp. ISBN 978-965-229-621-4.