Thursday, September 22, 2016

Be A Part Of It!

Most of the readers of this website share an interest in promoting certain values. We believe that the natural sciences have much to offer us as Jews. We believe that exploring the connection between Torah and the natural world will enrich peoples' lives. We want to strengthen peoples' connection to Eretz Yisrael. We want to see the charedi community being able to connect to the natural world.


The Biblical Museum of Natural History is an institution that really does make all that happen. To date we have hosted nearly twenty thousand visitors from all walks of life, from Amish to Chassidish! Every person who comes has a wonderful experience. We've inspired secular kids with a newfound appreciation for their Jewish identity; we've educated North Americans and others about the connection between the animals of our heritage and the Land of Israel; we've educated ultra-Orthodox chassidim (who won't go to the zoo, because it's open on Shabbos) about the natural world. We have the broadest reach of any educational institution in Israel. Nowhere else will you find Modern Orthodox Jews, ultra-chassidish Jews, secular Jews, and non-Jews all receiving the same presentation - and all enjoying themselves immensely!

We are still a very young institution, with many start-up costs, and we have not yet attained the economies of scale that we will one day achieve. We are therefore still very much in need of support from people who understand the value of our work and who wish to be a part of it.

To that end, we launched our Friends, Partners and Patrons program, which you can learn more about at this link. For our patrons, we are putting on the amazing Exotic Biblical Dinner, the day after Yom Kippur.

We are also publishing a book to accompany the dinner, entitled "A Feast of Biblical Flora and Fauna." This will include fascinating articles about the Biblical flora and fauna that is being served, and will serve not only as a souvenir of this special event, but also a stand-alone book in itself. All patrons will be acknowledged in the book, and the book will be distributed to all patrons (including those who are not able to attend the event), and will also be available in the museum gift store. We are printing dedications/ advertisements in the book, which can be sponsored for the following donations:

Diamond: $18,000
Platinum: $10,000
Gold: $3,600
Silver: $1,800
Full page: $1,000
Half Page: $500
Quarter Page: $250


If you would like to sponsor a dedication or advertisement, please write to Maayan@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org with the text that you would like to include. Or, you can reserve your sponsorship or advertisement online with this online form. The donation is tax-deductible in the US and helps us continue our mission.

If you believe in the educational goals of the museum, please show your support and help make it all happen! On behalf of all our visitors, thank you.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Modern Orthodoxy Fails Again

Have people gone crazy, or is it me?

I just came across a report that this week, there is a major fundraising drive for Chinuch Atzmai - the network of charedi Talmud Torahs, Beis Yaakovs and yeshiva ketanas in Israel. And this drive is taking place in... Teaneck.

Teaneck?!

Why on earth would Modern/Centrist Orthodox, Zionist Jews, fund a charedi, non-Zionist system of yeshivos, which is opposed to educating children towards professional careers?!

Apparently Rabbi Yosef Pollak, Campaign Director of Chinuch Atzmai, cited passages from the Talmud showing that "in times when the Torah is in danger of being forgotten, our sages have always placed the Torah education of children as their highest priority."

But how on earth is Torah in danger of being forgotten in Israel?! Never in history has there been as much Torah studied as there is today!

On the other hand, Torah is indeed very much in danger of being forgotten in America, where there is an enormous tuition crisis, and many kids go to public school instead of receiving a Torah education because they can't afford the Jewish schools! Which is more of a spiritual tragedy - that a charedi kid would go to a Torani (state religious) school, or that a Modern Orthodox kid would go to a public school?!

Apparently, this fundraising drive is making a big fuss of the fact that Rav Soloveitchik was a strong supporter of Chinuch Atzmai, and was even invited by Rav Aharon Kotler to serve as the first guest of honor at a Chinuch Atzmai dinner. Rav Soloveitchik stated that “a school system of the type of Chinuch Atzmai is of the greatest importance for the survival of Torah Judaism in the Holy Land.”

The relevance of this escapes me.

Top: Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kotler.
Bottom: The picture as it appears in
The Legacy of Rav Aharon Kotler

First of all, if you're going to argue that the dinner honor demonstrates that Rav Soloveitchik greatly respected the chareidi world, it should be pointed out that it also demonstrates that the charedi world of the time greatly respected Rav Soloveitchik. Such is not the case today. In fact, the legacy of Rav Aharon Kotler is that The Legacy Of Rav Aharon Kotler (Feldheim Publishers) crops Rav Soloveitchik out of the picture of the Chinnuch Atzmai dinner.

Second, and more fundamentally, Rav Soloveitchik did this in 1956. How many charedi students were there back then? Less than twenty thousand. They were a miniscule fraction of the population, living a strongly anti-religious country. Contrast that with today, when hundreds of thousands of students, including over thirty percent of first-graders in Israel, are in charedi frameworks!

Unlike in 1956, the problem today is not "Torah is in danger of being forgotten" or "the survival of Torah Judaism in the Holy Land." The problem today is precisely the opposite: that there is too much Torah study, taking place at the expense of other obligations mandated by the Torah and Chazal: working to support one's family, serving the nation, and teaching one's children to be able to support themselves. The majority of Chinuch Atzmai schools have substandard secular education, encourage the children to go to yeshivah ketanah instead of high school, and teach the strong message that students should not serve in the army or do Sherut Leumi, that they should all learn in kollel, and that they should not train for professional careers. And this, as Chazal predicted, has catastrophic consequences, which threaten to get much, much worse.

Don't take my word for it. Read the Israeli Mishpachah magazine article about the economic collapse of chareidi society. Trust Jonathan Rosenblum, who actually lives in Israeli charedi society (rather than being an American with romanticized views of life in Israel), and who wrote about how it is essential for chareidim to engage in a wholesale reform of their educational system - not just to prevent the collapse of their own society, but to prevent serious harm to the entire country.

In the past, I have written about how for thirty years (until the rise of Koren), Modern Orthodoxy completely dropped the ball with regard to publishing Torah works. One could likewise talk about the long failure of Modern Orthodoxy to produce enough of its own Torah teachers, instead importing teachers with different worldviews. But this one really takes the cake. When there is a catastrophic shortage of funds for Torah education in the Modern Orthodox community, are they really going to give their donations to a community which disregards and disrespects that which they hold dear, which is threatening itself and the rest of the country with catastrophe, and which is learning too much Torah at the expense of other critical areas of education?!

Am I missing something, or have they gone crazy?!

UPDATE: Here's a comment that someone posted:
"Yosef Ehrman:
We have a chareidi school started not so long ago, with all secular studies to go with very strong torah studies, and its called תלמוד תורה ממלכתי חרדי
We give the kids the best education possible, both in torah mishna and navi and halacha. The Chinuch hAtzmai is one of our biggest opponents. They fear that they loose their hold of the tzibur. That they will be irrelevant. That they wont be able to hold such an event of fundraising, where the principals make 20-30-49 percent of the income to marry of their children, where the rest of the kids in the town wont have proper education, and will be forced to stay in kolel, or paint houses for a living.
Sorry for my english. Im an israely that had enough of the system.
Look up תלמוד תורה בית רבן."

There are charedi high schools, such as Rabbi Betzalel Cohen's Chachmei Lev, which innovated a full secular curriculum - and was promptly condemned by the chareidi establishment. There's a great new institution called Derech Chaim, which combines yeshivah studies with army service (you can donate at their website). If Americans want to support charedi education in Israel, they should be supporting institutions that address the problems, not those that perpetuate them.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Guest Post: Daas Torah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and the King of Togo

This week, there was a brouhaha over the news that Rav Chaim Kanievsky told a kallah to break her engagement upon discovering that the chosson owns a non-kosher smartphone. For the record, this is a ruling to which I am personally sympathetic, even though I am not entirely supportive of such a drastic step. Still, I thought it would be relevant to publish the following guest post on the topic of Daas Torah in general and Rav Chaim Kanievsky in particular. The author of this post does not want to reveal his name. He learned in charedi yeshivos and kollelim for fifteen years.

The academic study of the doctrine of Da'at Torah begun with an article published in the journal Tradition in 1980 by Lawrence Kaplan, and expanded twelve years later into an extensive study on the subject. Since then more works have been written, and an English bibliography can be found here. In 2005, Benjamin Brown wrote a long article in Hebrew where he traced three stages in the development of the doctrine:

1. The ability of Torah scholars to draw advice and guidance from the Torah which was perceived as worth heeding, but not necessarily authoritative or obligatory.

2. From the beginning of the twentieth century with the establishment of Agudat Yisrael until the end of the Holocaust Da'at Torah became institutionalized and only certain religious leaders who made up the Moetzet Gedolei ha-Torah of the political Agudat Yisrael party could issue obligatory non-halakhic rulings.

3. After the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel the obligation to obey Da'at Torah was considered not to be predicated on the assumption of a positive outcome, nor its soundness to be judged by its results. Second, the quasi-mystical element of the doctrine was bolstered by claims that the decisions of the sages are inspired by “the holy spirit,” or a “Divine inspiration.”

In a subsequent Hebrew booklet published in 2011, and summarized in an English article, two more stages were added: a fourth stage - the monopolization of Da'at Torah associated with the leadership of Rav Shach; and a fifth stage - the post-ideological or technocratic phase of Da'at Torah, in which its direction is not only determined by the gedolim, but is also influenced in significant part by a group of aides and gabbaim that surrounds them. (He also discusses a sixth phase which is beginning of a democratization of Da'at Torah, which is just beginning, where one's authority is chosen based on one's one views.)

I would like to discuss further the fifth stage. Over the past decades, as gedolim have been besieged by the public, a group of family members, gabboim and askanim have formed around them as gatekeepers to protect them. Thus their source of information is restricted and filtered, and not only have some people (including Rabbis) have been denied access to them and not allowed to properly present their case (phone calls with two Rabbis in regard to Rav Shach and Rav Eliyashiv has confirmed this), but it has become much easier to manipulate them.

In 2010 I wrote Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita a letter asking if he really signed on a letter supporting an indicted child abuser. He replied that he signs on whatever his own Rabbis sign on. His handwritten response can be seen on this blog here. I subsequently sent Rav Chaim a letter respectfully challenging his reliance on his Rav and his issuing decisions based on incomplete knowledge of the situation. I quoted Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky as saying: "דעת תורה אהין דעת תורה אהער דער פאקטס מוז מין העב'ן", and the following from Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the Seredei Aish, who wrote:

יודעים אנו על פי הניסיון כי מסביב לכיסאו של אדם גדול שורצים ורבים בריות שפלות, מין רמשים קטנים, אשר קטנותן תהיה להן למבטח כי לא תֵראנה ולא תִמצאנה, ועל כן יכולות הן, בהאפילן על עצמן בטליתו של ה"גדול", לעשות כמעשה הרמש, ולרדוף אחרי כל אדם ישר באין כל סכנה לנפשן. ויש לפעמים אשר אנשים ישרים נפגעים על ידי גאון מפורסם מבלי הבין את חטאתם ופשעם, כסבורים הם שזאת היא "עקיצת עקרב" ומתמרמרים על הגאון, בעוד שבעיקר הדבר אין זאת אלא "נשיכה של שועל" היוצא מבית קודשי הקודשים של גאון, או לחישת נחש המתחמם בחיקו..." (מתוך ספר לפרקים)

Rav Chaim did in fact read my letter and replied, inviting me to talk to him when I would be in Bnei Brak. Unlike the letter which was a private correspondence between us, I have learned from experience that a face to face meeting is nothing like that. Aside from a long wait, there are gabbaim urging you to hurry and a bunch of people surrounding Rav Chaim listening in, so I did not take him up on his offer.

Now, just how easy it is to fool Rav Chaim came to light last week. According to a news article (at this link) in January of this year Rabbi Daniel Asur brought King Francois Ayi, a king in Togo in Africa to Rav Chaim. Ayi claimed to rule over millions of people descended from the ten tribes whom he wants to bring closer to Judaism, and when Rav Chaim asked if he can impose capital punishment on them, he replied that he has that power and showed him a picture of himself with a crown on. Rav Chaim then stood up and made a brochah with shem u'malkhus. The scene can actually be viewed in its entirety here. Of course the idea of an African king sounded like a fairy tale to many of the public, and a quick Internet search brought many to doubt Ayi's claims. Last week Rabbi Asur publicly revealed he was duped and that Ayi is actually a Christian missionary.

Rav Chaim is well-known for generously spending hours each week writing thousands of laconic answers to halakhic questions in response to mailed questions, and which are printed at the beginning or end of many seforim. A quick perusal of some of them clearly shows that he never advocates making any brakhah unless he is absolutely convinced of its necessity, yet here he relied on a dubious claim to himself make what was clearly at best a brakhah le'vatalah.

The moral of the story is that even if one accepts the doctrine of Da'at Torah in any of its permutations, there should be great concern that the information on which it is based should be accurate and unbiased, and often that is unfortunately not the case.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Angry Birds: Rationalist vs. Mystical Views of Shiluach HaKein

I just discovered a website: www.shiluachhakan.com (whose name follows the popular mis-vocalization of shiluach hakein; while it's KAN tzippur, it's shiluach haKEIN). It offers that "For a nominal fee one can achieve the blessing of the Torah (Devarim 22:7) and receive PROSPEROUS DAYS AND LONGEVITY." The website continues to note that if take advantage of this opportunity, you are "guaranteed" by the Midrash to find a spouse, conceive children, buy a new house, merit livelihood, avoid harm while traveling, and bring mashiach. I have also heard of institutions that actually transport groups of people on buses to the forests to chase birds, in return for substantial contributions to their causes; one such institution has been renamed Yeshivat Tzaar Baalei Chaim by its various detractors.

While the mitzvah of shiluach hakein presents itself as a simple, innocent and charming mitzvah, it is not at all straightforward. Tracing the exposition of this mitzvah through Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Rishonim, and Acharonim, we encounter extraordinary perspectives that turn the simple understanding upside-down. These relate to the understanding of the purpose of the mitzvah - some seeing the goal as minimizing a bird's distress, others as creating such distress - as well as the logic behind its rewards. It also has halachic ramifications regarding whether it is an optional mitzvah which applies only in a case where one wants the eggs, or if one is obligated (or at least recommended) to do it even if one does not want the eggs, and even praised for actively seeking out opportunities to do so. Shiluach hakein highlights the profound, irreconcilable differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, and shows how they result in radically different notions of what doing mitzvos is all about.

Shiluach HaKein: The Transformation of the Mitzvah
is a comprehensive study of this important topic. You can download the document after making a donation to The Torah and Nature Foundation, the non-profit foundation that funds The Biblical Museum of Natural History. The recommended amount is $5. But if you want to take this opportunity to express your gratitude for the RationalistJudaism website, OR, if you want to support the museum's project of teaching about Torah and the natural world, it would certainly be appropriate and appreciated to give a larger donation!

You can make a donation via PayPal or credit card by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document.



Contents

Introduction 5

I. Rationalist Approaches 7

In the Midrash 7

In the Rishonim 8

II. The Mishnah: No Speaking Of Mercy 10


Explanation #1: Anti-Christian Measures 10

Explanation #2: Highlighting Inequalities 12

Explanation #3: A Decree, Not God’s Mercy 12

3a. An Incomprehensible Statute 12

3b. Medieval Rationalist Interpretations 14

Explanation #4: Cruelty, Not Mercy 15

III. Mystical Approaches 17


Esoteric Reasons 17

Benefits of Cruelty 17

The Cruel Engineering of Compassion 18

IV. Optional, Recommended or Obligatory? 21


Relating the Halachah and the Rationale 21

Determining the Halachah 22

1. Optional - Only if one wants the young 23

2. Obligatory, Recommended, or Praiseworthy 26

A Mitzvah to Seek Out? 28

V. Rewards and their Logic 31


Good Days and a Long Life 31

Midrashic Rewards 32

Highlighting Anti-Rationalism 34

Modern Anti-Rationalists 35

Conclusion 36


Bibliography 39

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Distressing Prevalence of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

Amidst the horror of seeing the videos and photos from the 9/11 attacks, I came across the following extremely depressing information: 
In August 2004, a poll by Zogby International showed that 49 percent of New York City residents, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, believed that officials of the U.S. government “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.” In a Scripps-Howard Poll in 2006, with an error margin of 4 percent, some 36 percent of respondents assented to the claim that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center or took no action to stop them.” Sixteen percent said that it was either very likely or somewhat likely that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.”
Conspiracy theories are by no means a strictly domestic phenomenon; they can easily be found all over the world. Among sober-minded Canadians, a September 2006 poll found that 22 percent believe that “the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden and were actually a plot by influential Americans.” In a poll conducted in seven Muslim countries, 78 percent of respondents said that they do not believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. The most popular account, in these countries, is that 9/11 was the work of the U.S. or Israeli governments.
(From Sunstein, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian, Conspiracy Theories (January 15, 2008). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-03; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 199; U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 387. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1084585 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1084585.)
The consequences of irrational thought are far worse than merely denying dinosaur eras.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Rambam and the Rav On Allegory In Bereishis

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed 2:30:
Consider the difficulty... in the statement that time existed before the creation of the sun! We shall undoubtedly soon remove this difficulty... All things were created together, but were separated from each other successively...
The account of the six days of creation contains, in reference to the creation of man, the statement: “Male and female He created them” (1:27), and concludes with the words: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (2:1), and yet the portion which follows describes the creation of Eve from Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, the history of the serpent and the events connected therewith, and all this as having taken place after Adam had been placed in the Garden of Eden. All our Sages agree that this took place on the sixth day, and that nothing new was created after the close of the six days. None of the things mentioned above is therefore impossible, because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed. There are, however, some utterances of our Sages on this subject [which imply a different view]. I will gather them from their different sources and place them before you, and I will refer also to certain things by mere hints, just as has been done by the Sages. You must know that their words, which I am about to quote, are most perfect, most accurate, and clear to those for whom they were said. I will therefore not add long explanations, lest I make their statements plain, and I might thus become “a revealer of secrets,” but I will give them in a certain order, accompanied with a few remarks, which will suffice for readers like you. 
Abarbanel, Commentary to Genesis, p. 10:
The Rambam believed that there were not separate creative acts on six days, but rather everything was created on one day, in a single instant. In the work of Creation, there is mention of “six days” to indicate the different levels of created beings according to their natural hierarchy; not that there were actual days, and nor that there was a chronological sequence to that which was created in the acts of Genesis… This is the view of the Rambam which he considered as one of the major secrets of the Creation. He tried to conceal this view with ingenuity, as can be seen in his words there. But Ralbag went and tattled, revealing his secret, as did Narboni and the other commentators to his work; they uncovered his secret and publicized his view….
Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494) in Akeidas Yitzchak, Bereishis, Shaar 3:
The Rav, the Guide, gave the reason for the mention of Days in the Beginning by explaining the statement of the Sages, who said that “all the products of Creation were created in their full form” (Talmud, Chullin 60a); in other words, everything was created at the first instant of creation in their final perfect form. Thus the mention of an order of Creation is not describing the sequence of days; rather, [but the days are simply serving] to differentiate the status of [the elements of creation] and to make known the hierarchy of nature. This was [Rambam’s] major esoteric doctrine concerning Creation as those who are understanding can discern from that chapter (Guide For The Perplexed 2:30) which is devoted to this extraordinary account.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in Maimonides between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Lectures on The Guide Of The Perplexed (ed. Lawrence Kaplan):
Maimonides' view of the original sin is thus allegorical. As he states in Guide 2:30 regarding the dicta of the Sages about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: "Their allegorical interpretation was clear to those to whom it was addressed, and they [the dicta] are unambiguous." Referring to some of these dicta, which he describes as "amazing," Maimonides further states that "their external meaning is exceptionally incongruous, but ...when you obtain... true understanding, you will admire the wisdom of these parables." (p.187)
Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science:
...The Rambam limits the use of allegory to the Nevi'im. Consequently it may not be invoked with respect to the Creation narrative, which is part of the Chumash... The Rambam took the opening chapters of Bereishis completely literally, albeit neither simplistically nor superficially... Mori veRebbi, ztz"l, never suggested at any stage in his thinking that anything in Sefer Bereishis could be taken allegorically. On the contrary, he insisted that all the narrative be taken in their most literal sense. This was essential because what made the moral lessons in them true was the fact that the events actually occurred precisely as described." (pp. 391, 415, 650)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Sunny Side Up

Here's a photo of my dinner last night:


That teeny-tiny egg is a quail egg - specifically, an egg laid just a few hours earlier at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We are breeding quails in order to be able to serve a quail to each person at the forthcoming Exotic Biblical Dinner. But the incubator already has forty eggs in it, and doesn't have room for any more, so I decided to take this one home for dinner. I can't say that it tasted like much - it was so miniscule that I swallowed it before having time to really appreciate it!

Quails are not only mentioned in the Torah as kosher birds; they are also relevant to Rationalist Judaism. Upon initial appearances, the description of the arrival of the quail in the Torah appears to be portraying a miraculous occurrence. The sheer numbers of them, their sudden arrival all together, their ease of capture, and even the mysterious plague that followed all seem to be supernatural events. This is indeed the way that some explain it.

However, some explain differently. Earlier, the Torah describes how Moshe doubted God’s ability to provide meat for the entire Jewish People for a month. This is obviously very difficult to understand – Moshe was well aware of God’s infinite powers! Ramban explains that Moshe certainly did not doubt that God could provide meat by way of a supernatural miracle. But Moshe understood from God that this would not be done by way of a miracle. According to Ramban, miracles are very black-and-white affairs. They are either an act of absolute compassion and reward, or an act of strict judgment to exact retribution from the wicked. But in this case, it was going to be an event that combined merciful and harsh aspects. God stated that he would provide meat until the people were sick of it and it would be coming out of their nose. Such an act would clearly not be done as a miracle. Furthermore, miracles were always described in advance to Moshe, which did not happen here. Moshe therefore correctly concluded that God did not intend to provide meat for the people by way of a miracle, but rather through natural means. It was this that Moshe queried, asking how is it possible to provide meat for such a large number of people through natural means.

But according to this view, that the arrival of the quails was within the parameters of a natural occurrence, how are we to understand it? How could there be so many millions of birds, all suddenly arriving in one place, and being easily caught, as a natural phenomenon? The answer is that, unlike other game birds, quails can indeed suddenly occur in huge numbers that are easy to capture. They migrate over the Mediterranean in vast numbers and arrive in the Sinai absolutely exhausted. That's how God was able to provide meat to the Jewish People without performing a supernatural miracle.


Quails are very small birds, but when you have millions of them, it adds up! At our Exotic Biblical Dinner, though, quails are merely one of many courses. There's plenty of other birds, beasts, and bugs to fill you up... If you'd like to join the dinner, and thereby help support the museum, please see details at this link.