Sunday, October 16, 2016

First Photos from the Banquet!

Here is the first batch of photos from the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna at the Biblical Museum of Natural History! Thank you to our amazing photographer, Mordechai Gordon (, Yehuda Schwartz for the stunning setup, and Chef Moshe Basson for the incredible food! The book that we published in conjunction with the banquet is available at the museum office for 50 NIS. Enjoy the photos! And if you haven't visited the museum yet, book your tour now at!




Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When is an Apology Sincere?

(Sorry for the slow pace of posts! It's been a wild few weeks of traveling the length and breadth of Israel collecting (and shechting) animals for my museum dinner this Thursday, and writing a book to accompany it!)

Erev Yom Kippur is a challenging time for me, because it's the anniversary of the ban on my books, the effects of which continue to ripple through to this very day, twelve years later. But I'm not going to detail the specifics of what happened today, because that would just depress everybody. Instead, I want to mention something else.

Why do people ask for mechilah (forgiveness) on erev Yom Kippur? Hopefully, the gravitas of the season has led them to genuinely reflect upon, and regret, some of their actions. But on other occasions, it's just a matter of people feeling good about themselves that they've fulfilled a religious obligation. I find that apologies that are issued when it isn't the aseres yemei teshuvah are usually more convincing. Here is a beautiful apology that I received a few weeks ago:
On a personal level, I would like to ask you mechila. I first read your book, "Sacred Monsters" when I was 19, I initially thought it was very good and my father who is a Rabbi told me it was fine. 

Then I went to Yeshivas XXXX where your name is less than mud. I became fanatically Charedi and spent a lot of time besmirching you and aggressively disagreeing with all that you said. 

However, over time I mellowed significantly, left the Yeshiva and now have a great respect for everything you have written in your blogs and in your books.

Now, that is someone whom I can wholeheartedly forgive! I know exactly what it is like to be brainwashed by a yeshivah into besmirching others, because it happened to me too. And I greatly respect this person for coming forward to apologize. Kol hakavod to him!

Wishing everyone a gmar chatima tova!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Denial - On Both Sides

Historian Deborah Lipstadt is one of my heroes. Her book History on Trial is an absolutely riveting account of the libel suit brought against her by notorious Holocaust denier David Irving. Even though I knew how the story ended, I couldn't put the book down! I am very excited to see the new movie of this story, Denial, which came out in the US last week, and which will hopefully reach Israel soon. It has received very favorable reviews, and it is an outstanding kiddush Hashem.

For those who don't know the story: Back in 1993, Deborah Lipstadt published a book about Holocaust denial, in which she condemned David Irving - a man with a reputation as a prominent historian - for deliberately distorting various significant aspects of the Holocaust. Irving responded by suing Lipstadt for libel. He did so in Britain, which has very strange libel laws, and requires the defendant to prove that what they said was true. Thus, Lipstadt had to prove not only that the Holocaust happened, but that Irving's minimization of what happened was due to his deliberately distorting the facts rather than making innocent errors. It was also important to win in a way that would not allow Irving to torture Holocaust survivors on the witness stand, or to nitpick Lipstadt's work. Fortunately, Lipstadt and her wonderful legal team won a decisive victory (except for failing to recoup the massive costs of the trial from Irving).

That's the story in a nutshell, but I really recommend that everyone read the book. And by all accounts, the new movie, with Rachel Weisz playing Deborah Lipstadt, is superb.

Unfortunately, there is an aspect of the movie's marketing that I feel obligated to protest. Many media outlets, feeding on comments made by Denial's screenwriter Sir David Hare, are connecting the movie to a critique of Donald Trump and the extreme right wing. Just as we had to fight the dangerous lies of David Irving, they say, so too must we fight the dangerous lies of Trump and the far right.

Now, God (and anyone who's heard me on the topic) knows that I am no fan of Trump, nor of the nonsensical conspiracy theories of the far right. However, I think that it is very, very problematic to make the message of Denial about fighting the dangerous lies of the far right. Because it's not as though the right has a monopoly on dangerous lies.

Let's start with President Obama. Now, I am not one of those Orthodox Jews who believes that voting Obama is worse than murder, idolatry and adultery. Nevertheless, he has told some dangerous lies. For example, in his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama justified the Jewish nation's claim to the State of Israel in terms of the persecution that we have suffered in various places - but conspicuously failed to acknowledge the actual historical connection with the Land of Israel. That's a lie, and a dangerous one - it encourages the Arab world to believe that we are merely European colonialists, and why should they have to pay the price for the persecutions of Europe?!

Then, in his important speech at the UN last week, Obama described Israel as "occupying Palestinian land." That is a lie. Judea and Samaria are not Palestinian land. They are disputed land. The Palestinians have a certain claim, going back at least several generations. The Jews have a claim, going back millennia earlier. The 1920 San Remo conference and the subsequent Palestine Mandate recognized the legal right of Jews to live anywhere in the country. When Jordan annexed Judea and Samaria, the US did not claim that it was "occupying Palestinian land." It is especially ironic that in the same week that the Obama administration refuses to describe Jerusalem as being in Israel, due to this being a matter of dispute, Obama considers the status of Judea and Samaria to be resolved in favor of the Palestinians.

Want some more examples of dangerous lies from the left? How about the widely respected New York Times? They printed an article by Abbas claiming that the 1948 war was started by Israel. That is a lie. And then there was their "scholarly" article discussing the conceptual roots of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which managed to completely falsify the historical truth and lent credence to Temple denial - which is a much more pressing danger than Holocaust denial!

The lies of the left might not be as colorful and blatant as the lies of the right. But their insidiousness and acceptability in respectable forums makes them all the more dangerous.

I hope that Denial makes people aware of the dangers of falsehood, and how they must be fought - no matter where they come from.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lunch with the Piecemaker

Shimon Peres has passed away at 93. I thought that it would be appropriate to re-post the following post, which I originally posted in January 2012:

A while ago, I wrote a post about age and leadership in the Orthodox world. Later that day, I gained further perspective on this topic when I was privileged to have lunch with Shimon Peres, the octogenarian President of Israel. (No, I can't reveal the how's and why's of the experience, sorry!)

Shimon Peres is 88 years of age and is the oldest head of state in the world. I asked him if he still remembered meeting the Chafetz Chaim for a berachah when he was a child; he joked that he hasn't been allowed to forget it!

We spoke about legendary figures from history such as Ben-Gurion. Peres told me the story of how in 1945, when he was still called Shimon Perski, Ben-Gurion went with him on a surveying trip in the Negev. Perski discovered the nest of the rare and spectacular bearded vulture, which is called peres in the Torah, and he promptly decided to change his European name to the Hebrew Peres.

I asked the President if he knew why the bearded vulture is called peres. He suggested that it is from the phrase lifros kenafayim, to spread the wings, referring to its huge wingspan. However, that is spelled with a sin rather than a samech. I informed him of another suggestion that has been put forward by Biblical commentators: that it is from the root meaning "piece." The bearded vulture is famed for making pieces. It eats bones, which it does via picking them up, flying high over rocks, and then dropping them and smashing them to pieces, as you can see in this video:

I told him that the name Peres therefore means "piecemaker," which, if spelled differently, is a name that I am sure he appreciates!

Anyway, getting back to the subject of age and leadership: While the role of president in Israel is obviously nothing like the role of president in the United States, the President of Israel is much more connected to national politics than, say, Queen Elizabeth, and has frequent, lengthy meetings with the prime minister. Despite his advanced age, Shimon Peres still demonstrates keen intelligence, a good memory, and a great sense of humor. He works harder than most people half his age. He gets up at around 5:30 in the morning, and aside from a rest in the middle of the day, he works until very late at night. He reads voraciously (I just hope that he has time to read the new books that were added to his library yesterday). Without going into detail, I can attest that he has made tremendous personal sacrifice for his job. His staff, who made quite an impression on me, love and revere him and the office of the presidency, and they are in awe of how much he is able to do at such an age.

While I certainly don't agree with Peres' political views, and I was never happy with him as a politician, I think that he is excellent and invaluable to Israel as a president. But even those who do agree with his politics would probably not want him to serve as prime minister at the age of 88. There have been democratically-elected world leaders in their seventies, but eighty-eight is a different league entirely. Yes, Shimon Peres is in incredible shape, both physically and mentally, for his age. There is no question that he is of sound mind. But during the hour and a half that I spent with him, I was very conscious at all times that I was with a very elderly person. This does no harm - it may even help - with the role of president, but it would surely be a hindrance to being prime minister.

The word zaken is homiletically explained to be an acronym of zeh kanah chachmah. With age comes wisdom, and there are great Torah scholars of very advanced age who are likewise of sound mind and are an invaluable source of wisdom. My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, was well into his eighties and still teaching me wisdom. But political leadership requires a degree of strength and vigor that is rarely found with the very old. Is it possible? I suppose so; but certainly in most cases, people should eventually be allowed to retire from such roles.

Charedi society has reformed many aspects of rabbinic leadership, such as transferring it from community rabbis to roshei yeshivah, investing it with broad political leadership, and innovating many aspects of Daas Torah. But, as discussed previously, it is the ostensible investment of this leadership in people over a hundred years old (let alone 88), never allowing them to retire from this role, which is perhaps the most tragic. Respect and appreciate them for what they are; don't force them into keeping a role for which they are not suited.

Monday, September 26, 2016

On The Popularity of Criticizing Chareidi Causes

There was an astonishing level of response to last week's post, Modern Orthodoxy Fails Again, criticizing the Teaneck campaign to support Israeli charedi schools. Whereas most posts on this website receive a few thousand readers, that one shot up within 48 hours to become the second most-read post in all six years of this website - over twelve thousand people read it! It received dozens of "shares" and hundreds of "likes" on Facebook. Furthermore, in contrast to many other posts on this blog, the response was overwhelmingly in agreement. Clearly, there are many thousands of my readers who strongly agree that their charitable donations should not go to institutions whose values and goals are not in agreement with their own.

I didn't think that it was appropriate to merely criticize one charedi cause and not recommend another. So, at the end of the post, I recommended supporting a superb institution for charedim, which does comport with the values and goals of my readership - Derech Chaim, which combines yeshivah studies with army service and an academic degree in computer science. They are a small but highly significant new institution, facing tremendous challenges, and they need all the help they can get.

Then, in a follow-up post entitled Be A Part Of It!, I mentioned a cause very close to my own heart, The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We inspire secular kids with a newfound appreciation for their Jewish identity; we educate North Americans and others about the connection between the animals of our heritage and the Land of Israel; we educate ultra-Orthodox chassidim (who won't go to the zoo, because it's open on Shabbos) about the natural world. Our mission is very much in line with the values and goals of this blog's readership. And, while our long-time financial position is relatively secure, in the short term we do have a budget shortfall and are in urgent need of support.

So, of the over twelve thousand people who agreed that they didn't want to support a cause that they didn't agree with, how many supported causes that they did agree with?

Well, I checked with Derech Chaim, and the number of donations that they received as a result of my blog post was... one.

And I checked the Paypal account for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and the number of donations that we received as a result of the post was... one.

Now, it could be that with regard to the museum, I didn't present the appeal correctly - the blog post only mentioned putting dedications in our forthcoming book, A Feast Of Biblical Flora And Fauna, for which the minimum dedication is $250. So here is a link that you can click on for making Paypal donations (using either a Paypal account or a credit card) for any amount at all:

And click on this link to visit the Derech Chaim website, where you can also donate online.

So come on, people! Please support one (or both) of these causes. Put your money where your mouse is! And if you liked or shared the Teaneck post on Facebook, please like and share this one too!

Thank you very much, and yasher koach for participating in these important missions! Together, we can make the world a better place - me-chaya le-chayal!

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 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.


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.