The Cave of Ignorance: In Concert with a Frog (First year University 3)

The Cave of ignorance in concert with a frog

Follow on from The Calves will dance for joy: Malachi 4:2 (First year university 2)

At school, I was never taught how to take notes or any other language skills like making summaries or scanning a text. State schools in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t teach these language skills. Thus, in my first year at university, I had no idea how to take lecture notes. In biology lectures I took notes loose sheets of paper with very narrow lines, and I wrote very small. I was trying to squash the notes into a small space to make them more accessible for revision. My writing is hardly legible, and so when it came to revising the notes, I had to trawl through the scrawl. I gave up taking notes and stuck to the textbook. In the second year, my notetaking improved, but I have still struggled to read my own handwriting.

The first year of Medicine was done on the main campus and not at Medical School, because none of the first-year subjects were medical subjects but the same as Bachelor of  Science. first year. I seldom visited the Medical School. I once visited the anatomy room. There were cadavers  on slabs at different stages of dissection. I hated the smell. The budding doctor took a quick peek and fled.

The Med students at  the University of Cape Town seemed to know nothing but medicine. There were exceptions like Stanley Sagov, whom I met a few years later. He had so many varied interests and was a very talented musician. After qualiying as a doctor, he moved to the United States. In 2002, Stanley received the Doctor of the Year award by the Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians.

I hated being uneducated. By “educated”, I mean knowledge of such things as literature, music, philosophy, history. I began to read books on philosophy. Up to the age of seventeen, my reading repertoire consisted of Biggles, the Hardy Boys, Jeffery Farnol, Rafael Sabatini, Cathy’s glass-topped coffin (was it glass?) in Wuthering Heights, and some Afrikaans books like “Skankwan van die Duine” (Skankwan of the dunes – about a pigmy in the Kalahari).

In the final exam, I passed Chemistry and Physics, and failed Zoology and Botany. Botany was a half course (a semester course). I was allowed to write supplementary exams in these failed subjects.

I got a vacation job as a waiter in the main hotel in Gordon’s Bay, a seaside village with narrow streets and a small beachfront. The beach was across the road.

I brought Plato’s “Republic” with me, a softcopy Penguin Edition. Plato is the seminal philosopher of the ages. And the Republic is his most influential book. Alfred North Whitehead is famous for his quip, “the European philosophical tradition… consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979

Between waitering shifts, I read Plato on the beach (in the photo). The sea air got into the pages. They gradually lost their smooth crispy sheen, and the book swelled to twice its size. My head hadn’t felt so swollen with wisdom since my Biggles days.

After three weeks reading Plato – time that should have been spent on my zoology and botany supplementary exams – I realized  that I had been living in a cave of ignorance all my life. The material world was no longer the real world. Or rather, there were other worlds more real. As my prospective Professor of Political Philosophy, Andrew Murray, used to say in his “rooms” to his little band of students: there are many levels of reality: there’s the real, the really real, the really really real, and so forth. The material world – the domain of zoology and botany – belonged to the gross level, Plato’s level of ignorance. The“allegory of the cave” (also called “simile”, or “analogy” of the cave) in Plato’s “Republic” is about ignorant men who take the shadow for the real thing, but eventually – through progressive steps in learning – arrive at true knowledge.

So what if the greatest doctors study it. What about the greatest philosophers. Do I have to be a great doctor. What’s wrong with being a great philosopher?  A great Jewish philosopher.

After three weeks at the hotel in Gordon’s Bay I came back home to Claremont. I went to see the Dean of the Medical School and asked him whether I could take off a year to do a year of philosophy. He consented on condition that I passed my supplementary exams. If I didn’t, I would have to repeat zoology and botany. Instead of studying hard for the sup exams, and immersing myself in the “real”, I continued on from where I’d left off on the beach at Gordon’s Bay. I  “plunged deeper”  into the really really really real.

The exams arrived. The zoology practical. The candidates stood in a queue at the entrance to the laboratory. I was about half way down the queue. They were handing out specimens for dissection: dogfish, frog, dogfish, frog, dogfish frog. Let me see: every second person is getting a frog. How many are in front of me. Let me see: there’re 11 in front of me. If I stay where I am in the queue, I’ll end up with a frog. Please don’t give me a frog. Anything with blood in my hands will end up a mess. I try and jump a place in the queue. It doesn’t work. I’m done for.Hey, they’ve changed the order; frog, dogfish, frog dogfish. I’ll be ok, I’ll get a dogfish. Hey, what’s that! Frog, frog, dogfish, frog, dogfish, dogfish, – I hold out my hand – FROG!

I sliced open the frog along its midriff and pinned it on the board. I had to expose it’s veins and muscles and draw what I saw. My scalpeI “deftly” slashed the aorta. My trilling fingers couldn’t stanch the bloodflow. The frog’s innards turned to pulp. The concert was over. I failed the practical. In the botany practical, I had to dissect some plant stems. I failed the botany practical as well. I couldn’t put the blame on blood for this one.

One reason why I did so badly in my science practicals might have been the dismal lack of training at school. As I pointed out, I never once in all my schooling – at Wynberg, Wellington, and Herzlia in Cape Town, even got to touch a test tube or a scalpel. Another reason might have been – and which could be closer to the facts – that my fingers were more adept at playing the guitar than at playing “doctor doctor.” With regard to the classical guitar, it was only six years later that I began to learn the guitar.

I notified the Dean that I was giving up medicine – for philosophy. Such a move was uncommon, and, for most, perhaps a crazy one. To give up medicine for philosophy? It was hard to get into Medicine. Not very sensible at all. What can you earn as a philosopher? Can you “work yourself up” – Issy’s favourite question – not up into a frenzy, but up the ladder? Can you eventually own the place where you do the philosophy?

The following year (1960), I registered for the first year B.A.

Oral Torah and Sola Scriptura

“The reason why Oral Torah exists, says Yeshudas Chandrashekhar is because the estimation on the meaning of written Torah is not to be left to every individual to decide for themselves what Torah means. That is Sola Scriptura.”

From Wikipedia:

[The Oral Torah] used to denote the legal and interpretative traditions which, according to tradition, were transmitted orally from Mount Sinai, and were not written in the Torah. According to Rabbinic Judaism, the oral Torah, oral Law, or oral tradition was given by God orally to Moses in conjunction with the written Torah, after which it was passed down orally through the ages. Later to be codified and written in the Talmud. The form of Judaism which does not recognize an Oral Torah as authoritative, but relies instead on the most natural meaning of the Written Torah is known as Karaite Judaism. Karaites is a movement from the Middle Ages that rejects, as did the Sadducees, the validity of the Oral Torah.

Karaites claim to preserve the original religion of the Hebrew Bible, rejecting later creative “accretions” of rabbinical Oral Law. Each individual must take responsibility for interpreting the Tanach. Karaites are a small minority today with branches in Israel and the US. If I, a Jew, were not (also) a Christian Sola Scripturist, I’d possibly be a Jewish heretic, a Karaite.

For Mishnahkites (written record of the Oral Law consisting of hidden meanings not contained in the written Torah), Oral is in; written is, if not out, way off centre. Oral Torah is a kind of biblical post-modernism; with this difference; it’s a post-modernism posted from eternity and revealed in one swoop at Sinai. Let me explain. Here is a typical post-modern definition of “interpretation” (hermeneutics) : The science or practice of interpretation. “Assumes that the text remains as written, painted, or recorded but that its interpretation changes between historical periods, across cultures, etc.
” The rabbis of the Oral Tradition (which is claimed to originate at Sinai) claim that the original multiple layers of interpretation were already housed in the written text, and its for the sages to tease them out.

As a Christian sola scripturist, my hermeneutical foot is firmly planted in the Karaite camp. I would add that the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Breath) also has a large role to play. As the much maligned Calvin said so clearly: “the Word AND the Holy Spirit.” Without the Word – what the grammar and the context says – the Holy Spirit (within you) has no secure moorings. And without the Holy Spirit, the Word becomes a dead letter.

Where Judaism has the rabbinical tradition based on the Oral law to tease out the purported multi-meanings lurking below the Written Law, the Catholic Church has the Vicar of Christ on earth (supported by his Magisterium) to do this job.

Enter Martin Luther.

The Calves will dance for joy: Malachi 4:2 (First year university 2)

And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall

(Malachi, 4:2b).

I continue my chronological “bography” from where I left off at “My son the doctor.”

I felt aggrieved. I had no calves. The Cape Jewish Orphanage (in their report – I entered the Orphanage at the age of three and half years) blamed Fanny and Izzy, my parents, for my condition. Even if I was underfed during my first few years, what parent would give their child a stone even if he was not old enough to ask for bread?

I had to do something. I joined the university weightlifting club. But while my torso took on muscle, the petrified calves huddled in their stall. The German word for “legs” is beine. In Afrikaans (a Germanic language), the same word bene is used for both “legs” and “bones.”  There is the German expression das neugeborene Kalb schien nur aus Beinen zu bestehen “the new-born calf seems to be all legs.” The new-born Raphy seems to be all bones.

When I was  in the police during the Rhodesian war in 1976, at the age of 35, I was known in the camp as “pullthrough” (a device used to clean a  weapon or any instrument with a barrel or a tube by pulling the device through the barrel/tube). The dirt stuck to the pullthrough leaving a clean barrel. When I was a small boy I was a noise with a piece of dirt on it. Thirty five years later, the noise had transnostrilled into a pull-through. The dirt, though, was still there; la condition humaine.

The weightlifting society operated from the “Sports Centre,” which in the 1950-60s was a little hall behind the cafeteria (the building on the right side of the Jameson (Jammie) Hall. All big functions were held in the Jammie Hall like exams, graduation ceremonies and social functions.


The Jammie (Jameson Hall) steps is a famous landmark. Every UCT student has spent many hours sunning and preening on this central vantage point from which he or she has “lunched a thousand chips” (a famous UCT quip). The original Jagger library is on the left. The big addition to the library buildings (in the top left of the bottom photo) was added many years the year of my B.A. graduation (1963).  Rhodes Memorial is behind the university, and behind that is Devil’s Peak.

One of the weightlifters at the club said that I had a good frame. I was tall and no longer needed  matriculating.

(In “A nose of any other form smells as sweet,” I mentioned that when I was close to matriculating (Grade 12), Sonia, my sister, was buying a suit for me. She said to the Jewish shopkeeper, “He’s tall and he’s matriculating.” What had matriculating got to do with being tall? More sense to a tailor would have been “He’s tall and he’s metriculating”).

If I boast,I do it sparingly: I had a great looking frame. After a few months,  the mice under my skin began to  ripple into abs and lats and lats of muscle. [1] I no longer needed  to write to Charles Atlas and tell him how much I enjoyed his course, and ask him “now will you please send me the muscles.” [2] As the months passed, the mirror told a top-heavy story. While the top half began to bulge, the calves remained in their stall.  I lost interest in weights and took up rugby. Once,  I practised with the first team; they didn’t have a centre, and I happened to be lolling on the field. I played for the 4th team. My first match was against Stellenbosch University. The match was held on  the UCT sportsfields that were situated on the lowest level of the university.


I was on the left wing, which was the position I played at school. My opposite number in the match against Stellenbosch was the son of Awie Retief, who was my principal at Huguenot High School, Wellington. (See “The rabbi, the evangelist and coming home)” Awie Retief was a big heavy man with jowls to match. His nickname was Awie Bull. His son was an Awie Bullock. One of my team rashly threw me the ball. The bullock charged after me and dived into my long shanks. I came down like a ton of match sticks. I hobbled for the rest of the match.  I limped home to my digs in Rondebosch a few kilometres away. Rugby is not a game for long skinny people. I resolved to devote more time to the pursuit of knowledge, a rare decision for a first-year university student.

At the beginning of this piece i quoted the second half of Malachi 4:2. Here is the complete verse:

“But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.”

I do revere the LORD’s name, and I receive the promise that righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And I shall also leap like calves released from the stall.” For if the calveless calves can leap with joy so can this oxymoron.

[1] The Latin for mouse is “musculus”

[2] This quip is from a movie  of my youth.

I had no calves. The Cape Jewish Orphanage (in their report – I entered the Orphanage at the age of three and half years) blamed Fanny and Izzy for my condition. Even if I was underfed during my first few years, what parent would give their child a stone even if he was not old enough to ask for bread?

I had do something. I joined the university weightlifting club. But while my torso took on muscle, the petrified calves huddled in their stall. The German word for “legs” is beine

In Afrikaans (a Germanic language), the same word bene is used for both “legs” and “bones.”  There is the German expression das neugeborene Kalb schien nur aus Beinen zu bestehen “the new-born calf seems to be all legs.” The new-born Raphy seems to be all bones.

When I was  in the police during the Rhodesian war in 1976, at the age of 35, I was known in the camp as “pullthrough” (a device used to clean a  weapon or any instrument with a barrel or a tube by pulling the device through the barrel/tube). The dirt stuck to the pullthrough leaving a clean barrel. When I was a small boy I was a noise with a piece of dirt on it. Thirty five years later, the noise had transmuted into a pull-through. The dirt, though, was still there; la condition humaine.