Monday, January 22, 2018

An Aura of Respectability?

We've discussed lots of pseudoscientific claims in this forum, but there never seems to be a shortage of new ones to explore. The latest was mentioned in a recent article in Hamodia magazine.

Significantly, it was presented by Rabbi Pinchos Jung from the Ani Maamin Foundation, which has the backing of Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Avraham Levine, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and Rav Aharon Feldman. This is an organization which disdains primitive approaches to faith such as that expressed in Reuven Schmelczer's book The Heart of Emunah and which presents miraculous stories of sentient pigs, mermaids and sorcery.  They set out to reinforce emunah in a "mature fashion," with an aura of respectability. And in the summer 2017 issue of Dialogue (the journal under the aegis of Rav Miller and Rav Feldman), there was a harsh critique by Dr. Jonathan Ostroff of The Heart of Emunah.

Now, in the past, I have pointed out that the criticism of Schmelczer's approach by these people is somewhat ironic, in that the Ani Maamin Foundation, relying on Ostroff himself, spreads nonsense such as that the universe is only 5778 years old, and dinosaurs lived just a few thousand years ago, concurrently with contemporary species. And the arguments for emunah given in the Ani Maamin Foundation's book, Emunah: A Refresher Course, contain the usual specious claims about the Torah's claims regarding animals with one kosher sign, the fins and scales of fish, and so on. But in the new Hamodia article, a new type of pseudoscience is presented: Auras.

According to Rabbi Jung, the aura, "a possible manifestation of some aspect of the neshamah," can be captured by a special type of photography which shows ultraviolet. "This has advanced to the degree that we have photos depicting the difference in the glow around a person before and after laying tefillin! The same has been shown of a married woman before and after covering her hair." As a source for this astonishing claim, Rabbi Jung cites Rabbi Zamir Cohen's book The Coming Revolution. (You can also see Rabbi Cohen's material online at this website and also at a website called "Absolute Truth".)

Aura photography began back in 1939 with Russian scientist Semyon Kirlian. He discovered that a hand placed on a photographic plate connected to a source of voltage produced an image of the hand surrounded by an "aura." Kirlian photography, as it is known, became very popular among paranormalists and new-age spiritualists. Its most recent incarnations include special Aura Cameras that you can buy for just a few thousand dollars.

However, as with countless other such paranormal claims, aura photography is a simple fraud. Needless to say, there are no rigorous double-blind tests to prove its efficacy. The photographic effects are produced not by a spiritual aura, but rather as a result of moisture in the air surrounding the object being photographed. There are various factors which determine the color of the aura in the photos, and there is no consistency. Yes, the photos of people before and after laying tefillin show differently colored auras, but so would photos of anyone taken in slightly different circumstances - especially if you wrap an item of clothing such as a tallit around the head!

I have great sympathy with those who are trying to reinforce emunah, and especially with those who are attempting to do it in a scientifically respectable way. But they bear a tremendous responsibility. Professing to have an aura of respectability, and yet presenting pseudoscientific nonsense which can be exposed by a simple Wikipedia or Google search, is a shirking of that responsibility. It is going to result in the brightest Jewish minds being utterly turned off to Judaism.

So how should one teach emunah? Well, you can teach about the single greatest miracle in our history, which nobody denies the factuality of, although some would downplay how extraordinary and special it is. Or, you can opt to teach emunah as it really should be - not Discovery-style "proofs," but rather loyalty (which is the true etymological meaning of emunah) to our sacred and wonderful mesorah.

My second child, my oldest son, just put on tefillin for the first time. There was nothing that could be captured by Kirlian photography. But I saw an incredible aura radiating from him.



Stay tuned for a very important blog post coming up soon. You can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Are You Going To Murder Someone?

Are you ever going to murder someone? Are you ever going to end up in prison for taking a life?

I'll bet that you are confident that the answer is no. But how can you be so sure?

This morning, near my home, a six-year-old boy lost his life when he was hit by a vehicle.

It's too early to say who was at fault. And it's irrelevant to the rest of us. The fact is that many of us act in such a way that we cannot honestly say that we will never bear the guilt of taking a life.

If you ever look at your phone while you're driving, even just for a moment, to check a text or Waze, then you are losing concentration. Even talking on a phone without holding it is a distraction and significantly decreases your reaction time. And you are driving nothing less than a killing machine.

What can you do? There is a Lo ta'aseh and an Asei.

The Lo ta'aseh: Never, ever interact with your phone while driving. Just resist the temptation. You may think that the risk of an accident is small, but the potential cost is prohibitively high.

The Asei: Install MobilEye in your car. MobilEye alerts you with crucial additional seconds of warning before you are about to go out of lane or hit somebody. I'm not sure how it works in the US, but in Israel you can call them (as I just did) and they will come to your home and install it. Yes, it costs a few thousand shekels. But it is unquestionably worth it (and it is compulsory in all new cars).


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Gods, Frogs, and Drash

Why were the Egyptians punished with a plague of frogs? Someone sent me an insight that they heard from a contemporary rabbi: "Because Pharaoh portrayed himself like a god by not relieving himself, G-d specifically brought frogs as the second plague, since frogs are creatures that eat and do not void their waste." Pharaoh falsely claimed to be a God who does not excrete, so he was punished with lowly creatures that really do posses this ability.

There's pshat, and there's drash. Within the category of drash, you have different levels. There's drash that can reasonably be posited to be the true deeper meaning. And then there's drash that is clearly being invented rather than discovered. This does not mean that it is illegitimate; it's a nice way to create meaning and to ground lessons in older sources. (Still, one would prefer there to be clarity as to such drash being an invention rather than it being claimed (or implied) to be a discovery of actual hidden intended meaning.)

When it comes to divrei Torah involving animals, the drash often relates to an (alleged) fact about the animal. For example, I like to give a drash about the gevurah of the lion being its ability to overcome its aggressive nature and to live in groups with other lions, as per the Mishnah's statement that "Who is mighty? The one that overcomes his inclination." Now, lions actually aren't always the nicest of creatures to their kin; sometimes, males will kill and eat cubs, when trying to take over a pride. Still, it is a fact that lions are able to control their intra-species aggression much more than other big cats, and they are the only ones to live in social groups. So, this is a drash that is grounded in fact.

Then there's drash that is not grounded in fact. Sometimes, this is understandable, such as when there is popular or long-standing myth, or when the person is repeating something that he heard from others. Still, if it's something that sounds unlikely, then educators have a responsibility to verify its factuality. On occasion, one wonders if the person giving the drash has just invented something out of thin air in order to justify the drash.

I don't know how this frog drash came about. I've never heard of an ancient belief that frogs do not excrete. (Though I do often hear people asking me if snakes excrete; for some reason, people seem to think that without legs, there's no tushie.) But the fact is that frogs, like every other creature in the world, excrete their waste. How could it be otherwise? What else would they do with the parts of their food that they haven't digested?

There is something extraordinary, however, about the excretory abilities of certain species of frog. It has been discovered that some Australian tree-frogs, when they have a foreign object impaled or implanted into their body cavities, are able to transfer the foreign object into their bladder and excrete it. Feel free to incorporate this fact into a creative drash about the plague of frogs!


(See too this post: Frogs Challenge Rationalism. And don't forget that you can also read this blog via email subscription, using the form on the right.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

An Event In Poor Taste

Earlier this week, in San Francisco, a number of rabbis and Jewish scholars attended a special banquet with a unique menu.

Everything was treife.

(picture is for illustrative purposes and is not from this event)
I don't mean treife as in not having a Badatz hechsher. I don't mean treife like Braekel chicken or Cornish Rock. I don't mean treife like desert locusts, which no kashrus agency approves but which are certainly kosher. And I don't mean treife like peacocks, which virtually no Orthodox rabbi eats but which is undoubtedly a kosher bird. I mean straight-out treife - rabbit, bacon, lobsters, meat-and-milk, and so on.

The "Trefa Banquet 2.0" memorialized the infamous 1883 "Trefa Banquet," held in honor of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College. At that meal, pork was not served (unlike in this week's event), but there was crab, shrimp, and frogs' legs. Along with the 1885 declaration of the Reform movement that kashrut is an "archaic practice," this led to a number of people leaving the Reform movement in disgust and creating the Conservative movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

An article about this week's event interviews Rabbi Camille Angel, whose father was ordained at Hebrew Union College, and who proudly identifies as a “second-generation lobster-eating rabbi.” She reports that “My mother loved sending me to school during Passover with a lunch of matzah with ham and cheese.” According to the interviewer, "this led to teasing from another Jewish classmate, who felt that this somehow diminished Angel’s Jewish cred." You don't say! At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I would like to note that while you might have two generations of lobster-eating rabbis, it is highly unlikely that further generations of proudly discarding Jewish law and tradition will produce any rabbis or even any Jews.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco enjoyed eating the bacon, and declared, "I would rather eat food that’s humanely and ethically raised than kosher.” Now, it is indeed true that most kosher meat and chicken is not humanely or ethically raised (like all factory-farmed animals). And Rabbi Avi Shafran's recent disavowal of Kashrut agencies having any responsibility for this beyond government legislation is incorrect from a Torah perspective (not to mention that kashrus agencies are often particular about issues entirely unrelated to the actual kashrus of the food). And let's assume that Mintz's bacon was indeed ethically raised (although I do wonder if that was the case). But why on earth does she present it as a choice between the two? There are plenty of options available for eating food that is both humanely raised and kosher. Or, you can go vegetarian. What ethical principle is there that requires one to eat non-kosher food?

Event organizer Alix Wall "told the crowd that her mother was a child during the Holocaust, hidden with a family of Poles; she grew up eating what they ate, including plenty of pork. In this family, an essential 20th-century Jewish story of Holocaust survival is tied to pork. So for Wall, “keeping treyf” (if I may coin a phrase) connected her to her Jewish history, just as keeping kosher does for others." How bizarre. Following this logic, perhaps just as her mother was given away, she should give away her daughter to a non-Jewish family, to let her connect to Jewish history? Yes, there are people who were forced to survive the Holocaust by living as non-Jews, but living as a non-Jew is hardly a way to connect to Jewish history.

The journalist concludes his article by claiming that "Judaism — and history of the Reform movement in particular — is full of this: not a transgression of religion, but transgression as religion." Well, Reform Judaism may well be full of transgression as religion (and one wonders how, if that is the case, they expect full recognition in Israel), but it's hardly accurate to describe classical Judaism in that way.

Moshe Basson, Chef for the Biblical Museum of
Natural History's special events, with a plate of locusts
It should be noted that for people who are desperate to taste non-kosher food, the Talmud states that for every non-kosher food there are kosher equivalents. These featured as part of the Feast of Exotic Curiosities held last year at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We served kosher bacon (made from a certain type of seaweed), kosher oysters (made from certain mushrooms along with real oystershell, which is kosher), food that replicates the taste of meat with milk (udders), and non-shrimpian invertebrates (locusts).

There is no nutritional or ethical need to eat non-kosher food. And there are very good reasons to be loyal to Jewish law and tradition, even for Jews who do not believe that the laws of kashrut are divinely mandated. If people wish to ignore those reasons, well, it's a free society. But to promote it as something that is actually in the spirit of Jewish tradition is incorrect, and in very poor taste indeed. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

How Do You Stop Jews Stoning Jews?

Down the hill from the lovely neighborhood where I live is the world's number one hotbed of religious Jewish fanaticism: Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, known as RBS-B. Earlier today, a religious IDF soldier was driving his car through that neighborhood when he was assailed by stones. He lost control of his car, crashed into a post, and had to be hospitalized.

It could have been worse. He could have been killed. He could have run over a child. God forbid, such a thing could happen next time. As I once wrote in a post, it may be only a matter of time before someone is killed.

What does one do about this? I've been writing about it for years, but I don't know if that's achieved anything. A number of local activists organized a rally. Maybe that will make things better, by motivating locals and authorities to take action. Maybe it will make things worse, by inciting the zealots further. I honestly don't know, and I'm not sure if anyone else knows, either.

Meanwhile, while all this was going down, I was dealing with other stone-throwing religious hooligans in Beit Shemesh. I was in my office at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and I happened to glance at the feed from the security cameras. To my dismay, I saw three little children with long peyos, who looked no more than seven years old, throwing stones at our outdoors petting zoo. I raced outside and confronted them.

"Yeladim, would you like it if I threw stones at your house?" I asked them.

"What, is this your house?" one of them asked me in puzzlement.

They didn't appear to grasp the message, but they stopped throwing stones.

A half-hour later, we had a scheduled visit of fifty children from a local Talmud Torah from a certain sect in RBS-B. Some of these communities refuse to visit zoos, since they are open on Shabbos. We not only present a rich Torah experience, but we also provide a Shomer Shabbos, "safe" environment for them - there are no dinosaurs or other hashkafically-challenging material, we switch off all the video screens, we hide any promotional literature with pictures of women, and the female members of staff stay out of sight. Today's group even asked our guide to conceal his smartphone.

We run many such tours and it's never clear to me who finds the experience more fascinating, them or us. These are children from communities that don't visit zoos, that don't have pets, and that don't watch wildlife documentaries. They have never have had any significant exposure to the natural world, and it shows in the most unexpected ways. For example, in our record-breaking exhibit of shofars from different species, we have little plastic figurines of the animals that each shofar is from. Frequently, the children ask if the figurines are real animals!

I don't guide these groups myself; we have an American-Israeli charedi-lite guide for these groups (and a chassidic guide from the Kirya Charedit for the Yiddish-speaking groups). But I often step into the main hall to watch, and to assist with the handling of exotic animals that takes place at the end of each tour. Like all Israelis, these kids are often quite unruly compared with Anglos. And within each group, as with any group, there is a spectrum of personalities - there are the adorable, sweet, polite kids, and there are the ruffians.

Sometimes I wonder if I am dealing with a kid who, ten years down the line, will be throwing rocks at soldiers and religious Zionists. But these children inevitably have a certain measure of respect for the staff of the museum, even though we are not from their communities. And we have impressed (and perhaps surprised) them with our knowledge of animals and Torah. I'm not sure if anyone outside of their communities has ever made such an impression on them before.

And when we show them how to handle the animals, which is a completely new experience for them, we teach them how to interact respectfully with others. These children, with no previous exposure to animals, often don't realize that animals are living creatures with feelings. When they bang on the cage to make the animal move, I ask them if they would like it someone banged on their house, and you can see how they are grasping the concept. When they ask if the turtle or lizard or snake will bite them, I tell them that if they treat the animal gently and with respect, it will reciprocate. And they understand, and they handle the animal more gently.

I don't know how much this blog impacts charedi society. I don't know how much counter-violence rallies impact charedi society. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps the Biblical Museum of Natural History, in the long run, has the gentlest but greatest impact.


We are currently working on taking the museum to the next level, by moving to a much larger building. If you'd like to support our efforts, you can do so at this link. Thank you and yasher koach!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Compliments and Insults

And now for something lighter.

At the Biblical Museum of Natural History, as part of the "Wonders of Creation" exhibit, we have a stunningly beautiful eclectus parrot called Hertzl. His role is to present an opportunity for visitors to pronounce the bracha that the Talmud prescribes on beautiful creatures, Baruch shekacha lo b'olamo, "Blessed is the One Who has such things in His world." This is a berachah that can be pronounced on either beautiful people or beautiful creatures, and the Poskim suggest that a parrot qualifies. Hertzl also talks very well, in both English and Hebrew.

The other weekend, I brought Hertzl home for Shabbos. On Sunday morning, I came downstairs to the kitchen, where Hertzl was in his mobile cage. He looked at me intently, and said, with great deliberation, "Baruch shekacha lo b'olamo."

*  *  *

I was duly elated by Hertzl's compliment, but my ego was suitably deflated later in the day. Someone posted an insult about me online: "Slifkin is an ugly retarded apikores."

And my immediate thought was, "Ugly???"

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Strengthening Emunah: Via Denying Dinosaur Eras, or Sentient Pigs?

This week's Mishpacha magazine has a feature story about the late Rav Moshe Shapiro, through the lens of his leading disciple, Rabbi Reuven Shmelczer. Here is a post from two years ago about Rabbi Shmelczer's book (which is also mentioned in the Mishpacha article, though the article does not mention the story about the sentient pig).

There's a fascinating and disturbing battle taking place about how to strengthen emunah with students. It pits one group of charedi Gedolim against another, and both of them against modern educated people with the capacity for critical thought.

Today I was in a Jewish bookstore in New York, and prominently displayed were two new books on emunah. One was by Rabbi Dovid Saperman of the Ani Maamin Foundation and was entitled Emunah: A Refresher Course. The approbations are from Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and Rav Aharon Feldman. It contained the usual specious "logical" and "scientific" arguments of the sort popularized by the Discovery seminar - the Kuzari argument, the claim that the Torah claims there to be only four animals with one kosher sign and no others have ever been discovered, the claim that Chazal made a supernatural prediction that there are no fish with scales and without fins, etc.

Unlike the Discovery seminar, however, Emunah: A Refresher Course also included extensive pseudo-scientific material attempting to prove that there was no era of dinosaurs; the universe is only 5776 years old, and dinosaurs lived just a few thousand years ago, concurrently with contemporary species. Likewise, there was extensive presentation of kashyas on evolution, arguing that it is false and nonsense. This material all appeared to be from computer scientist Jonathan Ostroff, well known to long-time readers of this blog as a Young Earth Creationist with bizarre debating tactics and even more bizarre beliefs. Rabbi Saperman apparently rates Ostroff as some kind of scientific expert and unhesitatingly accepts all his material. He appears to believe that convincing people that modern science is all wrong will strengthen people's emunah.

The other book that I saw takes a very different approach and indeed was apparently written as a direct response to Rabbi Saperman. It is entitled The Heart of Emunah: The Torah Approach for Conveying Yiddishkeit to our Children, and it is written by none other than Rabbi Ruven Schmelczer. For those who don't recognize that infamous name, Ruven Schmelczer is the person who, along with Leib Pinter and Leib Tropper, engineered the ban on my books. He subsequently wrote a book in opposition to my own, entitled Chaim B'Emunasam, with glowing endorsements from his rebbe Rav Moshe Shapiro, Rav Elya Ber Watchfogel, and numerous other charedi Gedolim who had signed the ban on my books. Chaim B'Emunasam was a masterpiece of intellectual dishonesty (full critique at this link), rivaling Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science as the most dishonest Torah work ever written. Rabbi Schmelczer not only ignored the views of Rishonim and Acharonim which contradicted his claims; he actually re-arranged the words of Rambam in order to entirely change their meaning!

After I printed and distributed a booklet exposing the dishonesty of Rabbi Schmelczer's work, I received reports that Rav Moshe Shapiro's circle was very embarrassed by the whole matter, and claimed that Rabbi Schmelczer was not, in fact, representing Rav Shapiro's positions. (Subsequently Rav Moshe Shapiro himself severely harmed his own reputation, with the police indicting him for instructing one of his followers to beat an old woman half to death, Rav Moshe's denial of any guilt in the crime, but a video then emerging of his giving these exact instructions.) So I was quite intrigued to see Rav Moshe Shapiro again writing a glowing approbation for Rabbi Schmelczer's book, alongside Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Yaakov Hillel and Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler.

As the approbations and introduction to The Heart of Emunah make clear, this book is written specifically to counter works and programs such as those of Rabbi Saperman. Emunah, it says, should not be taught via any kinds of "proofs" or "arguments" based on history, science or philosophy, which can lead to dangerous confusion. Rather, it should be based on emunah peshutah, straightforward simple faith.

That actually sounds quite reasonable, in and of itself, but when Rabbi Schmelczer fleshes out what he means, it becomes very problematic. On p. 33 we are told that "the foundation of emunah is surrendering one's own sechel to those who have acquired sechel haTorah." On p. 71, Rabbi Schmelczer guarantees that one can cure a bone stuck in the throat by placing another bone from the same dish upon the forehead and saying certain Kabbalistic words. He then proceeds to insist that a person is obligated to believe in the existence of salamanders that are formed from fire, mice that are formed from dirt, mermaids and phoenixes. The main thrust of the book is that children must be be brainwashed with emunah peshutah, by having it repeatedly drilled into them, and removing any influence that might cause them to have any questions. Any questions or discussion should be strongly discouraged; the ideal is to accept everything without questioning anything.

The book mixes this message with all sorts of questionable hashkafic dictates, such as that one's non-Jewish "cordial neighbor" lives a life of "transient self-indulgence," and can turn against you "with utmost cruelty," because it is a halachah that Eisav hates Yaakov (p. 219). Chapter 24, "Combatting Disenchantment," addresses those who "claim" to feel disenfranchised from Klal Yisrael, and who have unanswered questions; Rabbi Schmelczer assures his readership that such heretics are simply seeking license to pursue their lusts for corrupt behavior. The possibility that there are other approaches to these issues amongst the Rishonim and Acharonim is entirely negated; when Rabbi Schmelczer discusses the topic of the sun's path at night (p. 368), his extensive Hebrew footnotes entirely ignore all the dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim who saw this topic as demonstrating that the Sages' beliefs about the natural world were not always correct.

Rabbi Schmelczer relates countless stories about the supernatural powers of Gedolim, the truth of miraculous phenomena, and suchlike. He saves the best one, a second-hand story allegedly told by the Chafetz Chaim, for the final chapter. In the city of Shavel (Šiauliai), a pig once forced its way into a shul, went to the ammud, and stood up on its hind legs. Demonstrating a level of intelligence, eyesight, and dexterity not normally seen in this species, it opened up the siddur, and began turning pages. It found its way to a piyut that mentioned pigs, tore that page out of the siddur, and ran out of shul. The rav explained that this pig was a gilgul of Eisav, and that this was a bad sign; a few days later, the entire city was destroyed in a fire. Rabbi Schmelczer concludes by noting that "stories such as these, told by tzaddikim and gedolim who personify trustworthiness.... are proof to our emunah that there is always a spiritual dimension above what we can see and understand."

So, this is the debate between the charedi gedolim. How do we strengthen emunah in our children? Do we give them pseudo-scientific proofs of the truth of Torah, and explain why all the world's scientists are wrong and there was never an age of dinosaurs? Or do we tell them that they have to unquestioningly accept everything, and demonstrate the truths of Torah with tales of sentient pigs?

I wonder how this battle of giants will play out. Personally, I think that for students who are connected to modern knowledge (which is virtually everyone), the healthiest approach is to avoid insisting that they must accept far-fetched claims, and to focus instead on the wonderful experience of Judaism, the significance of Jewish identity, and that which is unquestionably true (yet no less miraculous), such as the return of the Jewish People to the Promised Land.

And if I'm going to inspire people with amazing animals, I prefer elephants and chameleons to mermaids and sentient pigs.

An Aura of Respectability?

We've discussed lots of pseudoscientific claims in this forum, but there never seems to be a shortage of new ones to explore. The latest...