Thursday, June 30, 2022

Rabbinic Mythbusting

Here's a colorful comment that someone under the name of Leah wrote on my previous post regarding abortion:

"Thank you "rabbi" slifkin for bending over backwards to demonstrate how liberal you are. The vast majority of world renown poskim, including R Moshe, actually maintain unequivocally that abortion is a form of murder. You are a shill. A dult with a compromised level of intelligence. Your books are silly. You are silly. Everyone knows you are a ruined person.... A horrified liberal wannabe. And a failed human to boot."

Well, I've been called worse. But my curiosity was piqued - what was a liberal wannabe like me purportedly horrified at? Someone else called Shimshon helpfully explained that Leah was referring to the mesorah. Apparently I was horrified at the mesorah, which views abortion as murder, and thus, explained Shimshon, I "mocked and denigrated it."

So near, and yet so far.

Yes, I was, and continue to be, horrified. But not at "the mesorah." Rather, at how people utterly misrepresent what "the mesorah" is, to the extent that it is actually they who are distorting the history of rabbinic opinions over the ages.

I've long been both horrified and fascinated by a particular phenomenon: when the widespread perception of rabbinic thought regarding a topic turns out to be the exact opposite of the reality of rabbinic thought regarding that topic. And over the last few years, I've come across a few.

The first was with regard to Chazal's knowledge of scientific matters. Until then, I'd assumed that the notion that Chazal could be fallible in scientific matters was a legitimate but minority view, with the majority view being that they had divine inspiration for everything that they said. But after studying the the topic of the sun's path at night, I realized that the exact opposite was the case - at least in the times of the Rishonim, the majority view was that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters. 

Subsequently I discovered this phenomenon with several other topics. Given my field of interest, I was encountering them in topics relating to rationalism versus mysticism. Abortion has very little to do with this, and so it was particularly interesting for me to see this phenomenon appearing again.

I think that Leah and Shimshon accurately reflect popular notions about the Torah position on abortion. There is a widespread assumption is that it's a form of murder (and thus almost never permitted), and that the consensus of rabbinic opinion says the same. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Yes, you can find opinions which state that, especially among 20th century poskim (and it is interesting to analyze why this view suddenly peaked during that period). Rav Moshe Feinstein is, of course, the most prominent example - though even he admits that the fetus is not a full life, and says that it is a "somewhat of a life."

But when you actually study the history of rabbinic thought over the ages, it becomes abundantly clear that the majority rabbinic view over the ages is that abortion is not homicide in any shape or form. Of course, it is still generally severely prohibited, and there is no basis whatsoever in Judaism for the notion that a woman (or a man) has the right to do whatever they want with their body. But it is not any form of homicide (and accordingly there are various circumstances under which it can be permissible and actually mandatory). This in turn is based on the straightforward understanding of various laws in the Mishnah and discussions in the Gemara. 

For example, the execution of a woman who is pregnant is not delayed to allow the birth of her child, since the fetus is considered to be merely a part of the woman rather than a separate life. And the Gemara, discussing the case of a woman dying in childbirth, where she may be saved at the expense of the fetus if its head has not yet emerged, rejects the notion that this is due to the fetus being considered a rodef (another human acting as a murderer); instead, as Rashi and the other commentaries explain, the reason it is permitted is that the fetus is not yet a nefesh. Meanwhile, Ramban and his disciples use the fact of the Torah requiring monetary payments of damages for killing a fetus as evidence that there is no form of homicide involved. In fact, the big challenge for rabbinic authorities over the centuries was to figure out exactly why abortion is prohibited, precisely because it is not any kind of homicide - and the general answer was that it is prohibited as a form of physical injury to the mother, or that it is an act of wanton destruction of seed.

(Even in contemporary times, it is simply not true to state that the "vast majority of world renowned poskim maintain unequivocally that abortion is a form of murder." The most prominent posek on such matters was Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, who sat on the Jerusalem Beis Din with Rav Elyashiv and was considered the preeminent posek regarding questions of medical halacha. He followed the classical approach that it is not generally considered any form of murder, with its resultant leniencies, and plenty of other "world renowned" poskim would refer abortion cases to him.)

When I pointed this out, citing an article by Rav Eliezer Melamed on the topic, Shimshon responded as follows:

"This isn't me you are arguing with, clever one. The Rambam disagrees, and very explicitly and strongly. No, don't ask me for the cite. I've seen it, mentioned by non-anonymous rabbis. I don't even doubt you are familiar with it. I'll take his opinion over a modern-day rabbi notorious for his iconoclasm (that's to put it mildly and euphemistically) on various controversial issues. How can he ignore the Rambam? He can't, but he does, because he would have no choice but to argue against it. The rabbis I know don't. He does. What does that say about him? Are there no comments from the last 1500 years on the subject he will draw from? That's severe cherry picking. And even then, his Talmudic references and the logical inferences he makes do no follow."

Now, of course it should first be noted that Rambam is hardly the only opinion that counts. But even when it comes to Rambam, his position is most certainly not "very explicit and strong." In fact, Rambam's apparent position that the fetus is a life (deduced from his description of abortion being permitted for a woman about to die in childbirth due to the fetus being a rodef) is viewed by rabbinic authorities as  problematic, precisely because it conflicts with the straightforward understanding of the Mishnah and Gemara (which seems to rejected that line of reasoning). For this reason, numerous authorities explain Rambam in such a way that he is not rating abortion as a form of homicide.

Alas, I suspect it would be a mistake to presume that actual sources in Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim would sway those who are determined to argue that abortion is homicide and anyone who says otherwise is a "horrified liberal wannabe." The key is revealed in the accusation of my being a "liberal" (even if only a wannabe). For many people, their opinion on abortion is the same as their opinions on Covid restrictions, the reliability of the 2020 US election results, and everything else - it is governed by the powerful tribalism of their social identity. How strange it is that this leads to them rejecting mainstream positions in rabbinic law out of hand.

I am indeed horrified. But then again, I'm a dult with a compromised level of intelligence, and a failed human to boot, so what do I know?

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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Dirtiest Trick

In the 1990s, some Jewish recalcitrant husbands hit upon a new and particularly horrible tactic for hurting and blackmailing their estranged wives. By using kiddushei ketanah, they could report that they secretly betrothed their young daughters to someone, rendering the girls unable to marry. Only two cases were publicized, one from the US and one from Canada, but a men's organization dishonestly named "Shalom Bayis" endorsed the practice and claimed that around 20 others had already implemented it. 

What could be done to stop such dirty tricks? Various solutions were proposed, and a posthumously-discovered solution from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was eventually implemented - though not accepted by all. But until this solution was unearthed, several people proposed using secular law. One lawyer was looking into applying laws regarding extortion and endangerment of minors, while Sheldon Silver proposed passing a law making kiddushei ketana a felony. In a chapter on this topic in The Wed-Locked Agunot: Orthodox Jewish Women Chained to Dead Marriages, the authors note that Rabbi J. David Bleich was opposed to this tactic, as per his general approach:

"Rabbi J. David Bleich, a prolific writer on halakhic issues, objected to involving civil law. He noted that halakhic betrothals are meaningless under civil law. After all, he pointed out, the girls are not actually being forced to live with their "husbands," which would be statutory rape. Bleich warned against the danger of harnessing the power of the state to religious law. He did not want civil courts to examine the issue of whether the girls' marriage prospects are harmed. Bleich had a record of opposition to mobilizing civil law to deal with issues regarding halakhic marriage and divorce. He was highly critical of the 1992 New York State Gett Law that had been engineered by Silver and COLPA. Bleich condemned the father but said the girl could not marry unless she received a gett or the death of the unknown husband was proven. He called for a "communal ban" on this practice, meaning that going forward the practice would have no binding effect. But the rabbis did not take up his call, and even had they done so, it would not have helped little girls betrothed by their fathers before such a ban was implemented." (Note that in his Tradition article on the topic, R. Bleich acknowledges that actually implementing an effective communal ban on such a person is unrealistic.)

All this is disturbingly relevant now, thirty years later. The overturning of Roe v. Wade enables the Christian approach to abortion to be enforced in various states. R. Bleich recently welcomed this, declaring that Judaism owes a debt of gratitude to the Catholic church (even though it means that women who should be getting abortions from a halachic perspective will have a difficult time doing so). It is strange that he rejects using secular law to enforce Torah ideals for helping women and girls, even when such laws would be fully in accordance with Torah principles, but he welcomes using Christianity-based law to prohibit abortion, even though such laws are not fully in accordance with Torah principles.

It should be stressed: The Christian approach to abortion is very, very different from the Jewish approach. The opinion of most classical rabbinic authorities is that a fetus is not a life and the prohibition against abortion is not based on it being any form of murder. And accordingly, abortion is permitted and even required in various cases where the Christianity-based laws in several states would not permit it. Thus, as Jews, we cannot welcome the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

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Monday, June 20, 2022

The Disaster That Wasn't

In the last municipal elections in Beit Shemesh, the charedi political movement warned that if the non-charedi candidate was elected, it would be The End Of Torah. There would be buses on Shabbos, treife food being sold in stores, yeshivos would be closed, secularism would run rampant, chassidic children would be in prison camps (see the advertisement on the right)! It could even lead to mixed dancing.

Of course, after Dr. Aliza Bloch was elected, no such thing happened. Religious life in Beit Shemesh - including charedi religious life - is flourishing just as strongly as ever, and probably even more so, especially now that there is a non-corrupt administration. (One of the deputy mayors in the previous, charedi coalition flat-out asked me to bribe him and the mayor.)

Today's news about the opposition's success in collapsing the government reminded me of this terrible religious tragedy in Beit Shemesh that failed to happen. Because the same thing happened (or rather, failed to happen) at a national level. The Bibi-Likud-Smotrich-UTJ camp all cried that the Bennett-Lapid coalition were Evil Leftists who would destroy the country. They screamed about how the government was such a terrible danger that they must be stopped by any and all means, even including previously unthinkable things such as working to protect rapists and to harm the residents of Judea and Samaria. The ends were so crucial that they justified any means.

But what terrible things actually happened as a result of the Bennett-Lapid government? None at all. The fight against enemy states and terrorism continued just as before, in some cases even more decisively so. The economy had its improvements and problems just as before and in line with the rest of the world. None of the terrible (from a right-wing perspective) withdrawals and prisoner releases that happened under previous Likud governments happened under this government. And on the undeniably positive side, there was actually a functioning government and a budget was finally passed, for the first time in years.

What about the allegedly terrible thing of having an Arab party, Ra'am, in the government? Well, this was hardly an innovation - it used to happen regularly. And again, nothing bad actually happened as a result. In fact, considering that neither right-wing nor left-wing politics has any kind of realistic solution for Judea and Samaria, the cooperation of Ra'am provided some much-needed good news that there is hope for long-term change. 

Actually, the only novel and serious harm that happened over the last year was caused by Bibi, the Likud, Smotrich, and UTJ. For the first time in Israel, it became acceptable to deliberately and systemically and explicitly cause harm to the country for the sake of political power.

Well, they got what they wanted. Israel is heading for elections again. And perhaps Bibi will return to power, followed by his adoring groupies who do not know or care that they are compromising the country's interests for the sake of one man's ego and lust for power. Or perhaps we'll be in another endless, expensive, paralyzing cycle of elections. And all for the crucial, all-important need of avoiding the disaster that wasn't.

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Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Kosher Octopus

Well, this was a miscalculation.

Last week, the Biblical Museum of Natural History hosted a "Feast of Legends from the Sea" in Beverly Hills. This is one of our three different banquets in which we serve foods that are kosher but highly unusual from either a halachic or culinary perspective. The full photo gallery and article is yet to come, but in the meanwhile, I posted the following photo on Facebook, with the comment that he was so charming that it seemed almost a crime to eat him:

To my mind, it was perfectly obvious that we did not actually serve octopus at the event. But much to my surprise, several people - all educated religious Jews - expressed their surprise that there is such thing as a kosher octopus!

I suppose the mistake is ultimately mine. Considering that we serve many foods that people do not expect to be kosher, such as sparrows and piranhas and locusts, it's to be expected that some people expect to be surprised to learn that various creatures are actually kosher. (And it's not such an outrageous mistake - in fact there really is a species of squid, the Grimaldi squid, which has scales and sort-of fins and is arguably kosher!)

In general, while there is a halachic concept of maris ayin - that a permissible act can be forbidden if it gives the appearance of doing a forbidden act - this does not apply where there is no concern that onlookers will err. For example, cooking meat with margarine does not create any problem of maris ayin, since everyone knows that there is such a thing as margarine and that it is not butter. The same is true for pareve coffee creamer and Pesach “bagels.” 

I had assumed that this would also be true for these museum special dinners. We often think that maris ayin is about not doing something which make people think that we are sinning, and clearly nobody thinks that we are serving food that is not kosher. But it is also (and in fact primarily) about not misleading people into thinking that something forbidden is permissible. I had thought that nobody would think that octopus is kosher, but this was evidently a mistake.

So, let me state for the record that which was made very clear to everybody at the event - octopus is NOT KOSHER. As for the octopus that we presented, which took a lot of planning and craftsmanship, you should be able to figure out the truth about him. (Incidentally, we all found it impossible to refer to him as an "it," and he was affectionately named Timothy.) The clue is that we served him for dessert. I must confess, although it was incredible to watch him be wheeled out amidst swirling smoke and thundering music, I found the sight of Timothy being cut up to be extremely disturbing!

Photos by Jonah Light photography.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Jews and The Scientists

Some people wonder why it's antisemitic to say that the Jews run Hollywood. After all, with the exception of Disney, pretty much every movie studio was started and run by Jews.

There are two answers to this. One is that studios are one part of enormous corporations with many levels of involvement, and so it's meaningless to talk about anyone running them.

The other answer is that there is an enormous difference between saying that Jews run Hollywood and saying that "the" Jews run Hollywood. Yes, there are many Jews in prominent positions in the industry, but when you say "the Jews run Hollywood," this implies that they are running it as a coordinated unit, separate from everyone else, with a further implication that there is a distinct agenda.

I was reminded of this recently while having a conversation with a terrific yeshivish guy about science. He made reference to what "the scientists" say. It occurred to me that this is a style of speech that you don't hear outside of the yeshiva world. People talk about what science says, or perhaps about what scientists say, but not about what the scientists say.

Although this person was refreshingly well educated and was not anti-science, he was referring to the scientists in the context of a point about what religion knows and scientists do not. And it made me think that perhaps yeshivish people talk about The Scientists for the same reasons that some people talk about The Jews. Referring to them as "The" seems to imply that they are a coordinated unit, separate from everyone else, with a distinct agenda. 

What do The Rationalist Judaism readers think?

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Hunt for the Legend

At six this morning, I headed out to the California coastline to search for a certain legendary "baby sea bird" to present at tomorrow's Biblical Feast of Legends from the Sea. Fortunately, I was able to capture some very quickly and easily, so I decided that I had time to explore further along the coastline. And I found some very interesting things!

First, I found something very handy:

Then, I spotted a heron on a successful fishing expedition:

Next I discovered a tragic sight:

And finally something extraordinary - the wreckage of some sort of spacecraft!

That's it for now - I have to go deal with a complicated halachic issue involving a cephalopod for the feast tomorrow!

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Teaneck Event

On my way back from the Biblical Feast of Exotic Kosher Legends in Beverly Hills, I'll be doing the following event in Teaneck:

Space is very limited for this event, which includes an exclusive viewing of minerals & gems. To learn more about joining our family of patrons, see

(On the morning of the 15th, I'm looking for a responsible teenager or adult to assist me in cataloguing an extraordinary collection of Noah's Arks that is being donated to the museum. If you'd like to assist with this, please write to me.) 


Rabbinic Mythbusting

Here's a colorful comment that someone under the name of Leah wrote on my previous post regarding abortion: "Thank you "rabbi&...