The Dean and the Decalogue

The Dean’s Diaries:  

                                      by  Prof. D.W.R. Purdie  MD   FRCP Edin.

Office of the Dean:
St Andrew’s College,
                                                                         King George IV Bridge,
Edinburgh EH1 3TD


THE COLLEGE remains relatively peaceful as we move through our Vacation while hosting, as every Summer, a parade of lucrative Conferences and Seminars, to the financial delight of the Bursar. We are most fortunate to be just a few hundred yards from the Royal Mile at the heart of what is now one of Europe’s most popular cities for academic meetings.

However, the College’s Martinmas Term, which begins the Academic Year, starts on 1st October, when we all get back to work; that is, except my friend the deeply intellectual Prof Abraham Rabbinowitz, my Head of Semitic Studies who, as you may already have surmised, is Jewish. Abe was in this morning to tell me that 1st Oct may be the Feast of Martinmas and the first day of Term for goyim like me, but it is also the first day of Sukkot for orthodox Jews like him. Work is apparently forbidden as he and the family celebrate the first day of this ‘Feast of Tabernacles.’ These were apparently the flimsy dwellings occupied by his ancestors during the forty years when they wandered around the Sinai desert before getting fed up and heading for Tel Aviv.
Now, I’m a huge fan of Jewish humour and couldn’t resist telling him about the alternative version of Exodus. This has Moses descending, from Mt. Sinai very slowly, weighed down by two giant Tablets of granite. On these, the Decalogue, (the 10 Commandments) had been incised, presumably in Hebrew, by YHWH the tetragrammaton (from Greek τετραγράμματον, ‘four letters’), Jehovah to you.
“Hear me, O my people,” says Moses, “I bring some good news & some bad news already. Which first do you want?”
“ Oy vey, Moses! ” cries his brother Aaron, “We’ve been forty years in this sodden desert! Go on man, give us the good news…”
“Right” says Moses, looking down at the Tablets, “I’ve got him down to ten….”

Thinking of The Decalogue, antecedents for which exist in Hittite literature by the way, it features in a present I received from my opposite number at All Souls College, our academic ‘twin’. This gem is The Oxford book of Oxford, edited by the extraordinary Jan (formerly James) Morris, author of the trilogy Pax Britannica and a terrific writer. Anyway, an Oxford undergraduate is undergoing an oral theology exam:

Examiner: “ Now, how should we regard The Decalogue? ”
Undergraduate: (not at all sure what the decalogue was)   “Er…With reverence, Sir , not unmixed with awe.”
Examiner: Excellent. I quite agree.”

As is well known, there are twelve tribes of Judah which comprise the Jewish people. Legend has it, however, that there was once a thirteenth tribe, now lost. It was once thought that it might be the Falashas, a tribe in the Semien Mountains of northern Ethiopia who had been observed to be observing Jewish observances and practices. This caused considerable excitement in Tel Aviv; the Falashas were airlifted to Israel and feted as returning members of the original diaspora. Alas, when their DNA, specifically their Y chromosome polymorphic markers, were checked, it turned out that they were an African people. At some point in their remote past they had adopted circumcision, observance of Shabbat etc., possibly through contact with some wandering ancient Hebrews. Mind you, they had also clearly adopted a facility in business, their removal to   Eretz Yisrael taking them from poverty to relative affluence in a modern state.

Then there was Arthur Koestler. Back in the 70s he sensationally alleged, in The Thirteenth Tribe that the Ashkenazim (European Jews) are not descended from the Israelites of antiquity. No, they were Khazars, a Turkic people originating between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Koestler’s hypothesis was that the Khazars converted to Judaism in the 8th century and migrated westwards into Eastern Europe. This brought down on Koestler a storm of abuse from the ivory towers; anthropologists, ethnologists, philologists and several other academologists combining to rubbish the very thought that the most successful branch of Jewry might actually be…Turks!
The book, hoever, met with support here at home from Sir Fitzroy MacLean that remarkable Highland chieftain, soldier, diplomat and author of Eastern Approaches. Fitzroy thought that Koestler was right, but the irony is that Fitzroy was wrong. Wrong because, I suggest, that he himself was one of the actual thirteenth tribe – the Scots!

Scotland is one of the very few countries in Europe that never had a pogrom, England certainly did; five million Scots are in Scotland with 15 million in the diaspora; five million Jews are in Israel and 15 million elsewhere; we have the same passion for business, innovation, finance and education; only the US competes with Scotland and Israel in the number of graduates produced per head of population – and all three countries head the premier division for academic papers published. On the literary front was the national bard of Scotland not Rabbi Burns?  My own yarmulke or skull cap, a present from my friend Dr David Shapiro, has ה-13 שבט יהודה * embroidered on the margin. It all fits, as does the yarmulke, which caps it all.

Some years ago I arrived in Jerusalem to give a lecture at the Hebrew University’s Ein Kerem campus. I was met by Prof. Avi Rahamimov, then the Dean of the Medical School.
Shalom!” said he, “Come to my office at once for coffee and an argument.”
“What about?”
“Who cares! The best arguments on earth are between Scots like you – and Sabras like me. Get on with it. Say anything and I’ll profoundly disagree!”
“ Ok, you asked for it. Right; I say that Jews are smart…! ”

We have to be related; but mark you, no-one is getting a sight of, let alone getting their hands on, my Y chromosome…

* Tribe of Judah (No13)