Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Challenge of the Akeidah

Benyamin Reich, Akedah(A re-post from four years ago. The comments to this post are especially stimulating. On an unrelated note - it's time that the museum had a professional website, including an online reservations system. If anyone is interested in donating their services, please be in touch!)

The akeidah never used to present any problems for me. About 15 years ago a certain rabbi claimed that Avraham failed the akeidah, and that he should have protested the order, just as he protested God's destruction of Sodom. I wrote an essay in response, in which I pointed out various significant differences between the two cases, as well as the fact that from Jewish tradition as well as the text of the Torah itself it is abundantly clear that Avraham was not considered to have failed the akeidah.

Over the last few years, however, there is a question that has really been bothering me. I've been studying various literature on the topic, but so far I have not come up with a fully satisfactory answer. My studies continue, but I wanted to share my question here in the hopes that perhaps someone can suggest an answer.

My problem is with the "happy ending" of the story, where God tells Avraham not to kill Yitzchak. Was this the inevitable ending? Is it actually entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication?

Some claim this to be the case, and to be the message of the story. A teacher of mine once told me that God does not want child sacrifice, but He does want the willingness to do it. Rav Kook writes that there is a holy root to the pagan desire for child sacrifice, namely the willingness to give up everything for God, but Judaism demands this to be fulfilled differently. Shadal says that the point of the akeidah was to counter the claim by other nations that they are willing to sacrifice more than us. The akeidah showed that we are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – but God doesn’t want it.

But if child sacrifice is immoral, and it is for this reason that God does not want it, then why would we be willing to do it? If it is entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about?

On the other hand, if it is not inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, then why did the story end with God telling him not to do it? Wouldn't this give the wrong message and undermine the lesson?

I came up with another question that puts all this into sharper focus: What if God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov? What should Yitzchak have said? If he says no, then he is disobeying God, which doesn't sound right. But if says yes, then he is acknowledging that child sacrifice might be a legitimate way of serving God. In which case, why didn't God let Avraham follow through with it?

I have a possible approach, but I am not sure if it is satisfactory. We do believe in the principle of yeherag ve’al ya’avor. There are situations when fulfilling God’s command takes precedence over life. And obeying God’s direct command is certainly a higher religious priority than the three cardinal sins. Sometimes the right thing to do is to sacrifice life for a higher goal. The akedah teaches us that God does not normally set things up this way. That it is not generally a goal – except in certain specific cases where it may serve as a Kiddush Hashem, such as with the akedah. Maybe it can be said that it would be simply impossible for God to have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, and that asking such a question is like asking whether God can create a stone that He cannot lift. Maybe it is truly inconceivable that God would want child sacrifice as a regular part of serving Him, but not that He might ask for it on a rare and significant occasion?

That's the best that I could come up with so far, but I don't think it fully answers the questions that I raised. I would welcome peoples' thoughts on this.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Scientist Who Thought That Birds Migrate to the Moon

There is a fascinating article in Wired magazine about how scientists (or natural philosophers) of earlier centuries grappled with the question of where certain birds come from in the spring and where they go in the winter. Some claimed that they spend their winters hibernating at the bottom of lakes (as is also mentioned by several commentaries in Perek Shirah, in discussing the retzifi-bird). Others proposed that they spontaneously generate from barnacles (which presented rabbinic authorities with the halachic question of whether they were kosher, and if so, which berachah should be made on them, as referenced in Shulchan Aruch; see my book Sacred Monsters for extensive discussion).

And there were other scientists who proposed that birds go to the moon. They knew that the moon was a very long way away, and realized that such a journey would take many weeks. However, since there is no air resistance or gravity in space, it would be a very easy journey, and birds could sleep through most of it.

I think that articles such as this can be of benefit for frum people who struggle with the notion of Chazal making statements about the natural world that are not consistent with modern science. Such people are under the misconception that if a person said something that is completely wrong from the perspective of modern science, then it means that they were foolish. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was prestigious scientists of great intellect that proposed such things. They were not at all foolish. They were working with the best information that they had. Being wrong does not mean being foolish.

(On a different note: If anyone is coming to Israel from the US and can bring some small or medium items for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! Also, if you are on Facebook,  please like and share https://www.facebook.com/biblicalnaturalhistory)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Man Plans, And God Laughs

Sunday October 12th was the first day of receiving visitors at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. (I can't really call it opening day, because we have not officially launched yet - we are still working on many things - but that's when we began receiving visitors.) What with it being such a significant day, not to mention chol hamoed, I made sure to approach it accordingly. In the morning, after showering, I dressed very respectably, as befitting such a day.

Man plans, and God laughs.

I walked into the museum in the morning and saw, to my horror, that the door to the cage housing the monitor lizard was open, and the monitor had escaped!

Of all the animals to escape, this was the worst. First, he is extremely valuable. Second, he is three feet long and quite vicious - not the sort of thing you want unexpectedly encountering a visitor!

After twenty minutes of frantic searching, I found him wedged behind another cage, and after another half hour of scrabbling on the floor with a stick, I managed to extract him. As I hauled him back to the cage, he demonstrated his indignation in typical reptilian style - by evacuating on my pants.

Sweaty, disheveled, dusty, and dirty, I started the day of tours. Baruch Hashem, it was very successful; we hosted nearly a hundred visitors in four groups. If people noticed the state of my clothing, they were kind enough not to comment. During one tour, I managed another mishap; one of the "tame" animals bit me quite hard during a presentation. I didn't have time to stop, so I carried on speaking, while some of the tour participants worked to stem the flow of blood from my finger and patch me up.

So much for my attempts at a fresh, clean, respectable appearance! Man plans, and God laughs.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Dangerously Presumptuous Drashos

This is not a post about climate change. I am saying that from the outset, because for some people, saying that you think that there is such a thing as man causing climate change is like saying that you eat babies, or support Obama.

Instead, this is a post about the problems of being presumptuous in interpreting the Torah.

Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran (who, intriguingly, has often written in support of Obama) argues that there is no such thing as harmful climate change caused by man. Whatever the merits of that position, what bothers me is the Torah argument that he offers in support of it:
Enviro-zealots are convinced that the current climate change signals the end of the world (or, at least, the destruction of the world as we know it), and that humanity is at fault for the impending doom (and has the power to head it off).
Some of us, though, feel that a passuk we recite daily – “Tremble before Him, all the earth; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter” (Divrei Hayomim 1 16:30) – reassures us that Hashem has built self-correcting mechanisms into nature, and that our zeal should be reserved for Torah-study and mitzvos.
The problem is not only that there does not appear to be any firm grounds for understanding this verse, "the world is fixed so that it cannot falter," as negating the possibility of harmful climate change. Even worse is that there is a long history of this very verse being used to make claims about the natural world that turned out to be mistaken. Numerous prominent Acharonim, including such luminaries as Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz, used this verse to argue that the world is stationary and that Copernicus was therefore wrong (for extensive discussion, see Jeremy Brown's excellent work, New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought.)

But it gets even more ironic. You don't need to search for an ambiguous verse that can be interpreted as telling us whether it is possible for man to harm the world. There is an explicit Midrash, based on a Scriptural exegesis, that says clearly and unambiguously that there is indeed such a danger:
“Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!” (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:1)
Is mankind causing the climate to change, with dangerous repercussions? That's not a question that Judaism can answer; it's a question for meteorologists. But is it theoretically possible, within the framework of Jewish theology, for man to harm the world in such a way as to have harmful repercussions? Absolutely. And it's not clear why so many people are religiously convinced otherwise.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bring a Group to the Museum!

The Biblical Museum of Natural History had an immensely popular Sukkot preview week, in which we received over 400 visitors, and front-page coverage in The Jerusalem Post! But now, after Sukkos, it's slow season. We would appreciate all the help that we can get in spreading the word about the museum. The museum is ideally suited to groups of adults or students in post-high school institutions. So if you teach in a yeshivah or seminary, or have a son or daughter enrolled in one, or if you are connected to any tourist groups,
please recommend that they write to info@biblicalnaturalhistory.org and book a visit!

"Rabbi Slifkin did not disappoint. Combining his well known erudite knowledge of the animal kingdom with fascinating connections to תנך and statements of חז"ל, the museum tour provided for an edifying time. The hands-on opportunities made for an enjoyable experience as well. We highly recommend it for anyone looking for a family trip that is both meaningful and fun. We look forward to returning to this wonderful museum!" - Rabbi Dr. Howard Apfel

"We all enjoyed the museum, from age 8 to 51. It was just the type of tiyul we needed - close to home, educational, fun and fascinating. (My kids all thanked me for bringing them). May you have much success!!!" - Rabbi Hillel Horovitz

"Our trip to the museum was a perfect family outing - stimulating, educational and enjoyed by all. The rare and varied exhibits were not behind glass, enabling us to get close and even touch some of them. We highly recommend a guided tour of the museum to people of all ages." - Daniel Price

"The Biblical Museum of Natural History connected us both to Nature and to Tanach (and Chazal) in ways our modern lives often don't allow. The tour also reminds us of the rich wildlife that used to roam Israel-- even as we celebrate the country's renewal and resettlement, a museum like this reminds us of a lost world, in which daily life could involve encounters with lions, bears, jackals, leopards, and more. It's Torah, it's Nature, it's an enjoyable, informative, and illuminating experience for family members of all ages!" - Rabbi Gidon Rothstein

"The Biblical Museum of Natural History is fantastic! It was an amazingly fun and educational experience. I highly recommend that people take advantage of the fact that we have a great Museum located right here in Bet Shemesh." - Lenny Solomon



Monday, October 13, 2014

The Lion Hunter of Zion Returns to Zion!


Great news today! The ashes of Colonel John Patterson were brought to Israel for burial alongside his Jewish Legion soldiers, in accordance with his dying wishes. If you don't remember who Colonel Patterson is, here is my post on him from last year:

The Lion Hunter of Zion

In his youth, King David proved his heroism by slaying a lion. He went on to put his life on the line for the Jewish People and become a hero for all Israel. Three thousand years later, another lion-hearted lion-slayer also put his life on the line for the Jewish People and became a hero for all Israel. He wasn’t even Jewish, but he was one of the greatest friends and supporters that the Jewish People ever had – and his experiences with lions assisted in numerous ways.

Colonel John Patterson was an Irish soldier and engineer assigned to Kenya by the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. His job was to supervise the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo river for a massive railroad project. Unfortunately, railroad workers were constantly being slaughtered by the most notorious man-eating lions in recorded history. Two maneless but huge lions, working together, were estimated to have killed and eaten well over a hundred people working on the railroad.
Night after night, Patterson sat in a tree, hoping to shoot the lions when they came to the bait that he set for them. But the lions demonstrated almost supernatural abilities, constantly breaking through thorn fences to take victims from elsewhere in the camp, and seemingly immune to the bullets that were fired at them.

Patterson was faced with the task of not only killing the lions, but also surviving the wrath of hundreds of workers, who were convinced that the lions were demons that were inflicting divine punishment for the railroad. At one point, Patterson was attacked by a group of over a hundred workers who had plotted to lynch him. Patterson punched out the first two people to approach him, and talked down the rest!

After many months, Patterson eventually shot both lions. He himself was nearly killed in the process on several occasions, such as when one lion that he had shot several times suddenly leaped up to attack him as he approached its body. He published a blood-curdling account of the episode in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which became a best-seller, and earned him a close relationship with US President Roosevelt.

Upon returning to England, Patterson was a hailed as a hero. When World War One broke out, however, Patterson traveled to Egypt and took on a most unusual task: forming and leading a unit of Jewish soldiers, comprised of Jews who had been exiled from Palestine by the Turks. As a child, Patterson had been mesmerized by stories from the Bible. He viewed this task as being of tremendous, historic significance. The unit, called the Zion Mule Corps, was tasked with providing supplies to soldiers in the trenches in Gallipoli. Patterson persuaded the reluctant War Office to provide kosher food, as well as matzah for Passover, and he himself learned Hebrew and Yiddish in order to be able to communicate with his troops. The newly-trained Jewish soldiers served valiantly, but the campaign against the Turks in Gallipoli was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Zion Mule Corps was eventually disbanded.

In 1916 Patterson joined forces with Vladimir Jabotinsky to create a full-fledged Jewish Legion in the British Army, who would fight to liberate Palestine from the cruel reign of the Ottoman Empire and enable the Jewish People to create a home there. The War Minister, Lord Derby, succumbed to anti-Zionist agitators and attempted to prevent the Jewish Legion from receiving kosher food, from serving in Palestine, and from having “Jewish” in their name. Patterson promptly threatened to resign and risked a court-martial by protesting Derby’s decision as a disgrace. Derby backed down and Patterson’s Jewish Legion was successfully formed. During training, Patterson again threatened the War Office with his resignation if his men (many of whom were Orthodox) were not allowed to observe Shabbos, and again the army conceded. Meanwhile, Patterson brought Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook to address and inspire his troops.

Patterson clashed repeatedly with antisemitic officers in the British Army. Once, when a visiting brigadier called one of his soldiers “a dirty Jew,” Patterson demanded an apology, ordering his men to surround the brigadier with bayonets until he did so. The apology was produced, but Patterson was reprimanded by General Allenby. On another occasion, Patterson discovered that one of his Jewish soldiers had been sentenced to execution for sleeping at his post. Patterson circumvented the chain of authority and contacted Allenby directly in order to earn a reprieve. The reprieve came, but a notoriously antisemitic brigadier by the name of Louis Bols complained about Patterson’s interference to General Shea. Shea summoned Patterson and, rather than discipline him, revealed that his children were great fans of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. The Jewish Legion fought well, and Palestine was liberated from the Turks. But Patterson himself was the only British officer in World War One to receive no promotion at all – a result of his outspoken efforts on behalf of the Jewish People.

After the war, Patterson dedicated himself to assisting with the creation of a Jewish homeland. The achievements of the Jewish Legion gained sympathy for the cause, but there was much opposition from both Jews and non-Jews. One Jewish delegation, seeking to explore an alternate option of creating a Jewish homeland in Africa, was dissuaded after reading The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Meanwhile, against Patterson’s strenuous efforts, Bols was appointed Military Governor of Palestine, and filled the administration with antisemites who attempted to undermine the Balfour Declaration and empowered hostile elements in the Arab world.

When World War II broke out, Patterson, now an old man, fought to create another Jewish Legion. After great effort, the Jewish Infantry Brigade was approved. Aside from fighting the Germans, members of the Brigade succeeded in smuggling many concentration camp survivors into Palestine. Many other survivors had been cruelly turned away, and Patterson protested this to President Truman, capitalizing on his earlier relationship with Roosevelt. This contributed to Truman’s support for a Jewish homeland.

Patterson spent most of his later years actively campaigning for a Jewish homeland and against the British Mandate’s actions towards the Jews in Palestine. Tragically, he passed away a month before the State of Israel was created. The newly formed country would not have won the War of Independence without trained soldiers – and the soldiers were trained by veterans of Patterson’s Jewish Legion and Jewish Infantry Brigade. Colonel John Patterson had ensured the survival of the Jewish homeland. But his legacy lived on in another way, too. Close friends of his named their child after him, and the boy grew up to be yet another lion-hearted hero of Israel. His name was Yonatan Netanyahu.

Further reading:
John Patterson, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (free download)
John Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli (free download)
John Patterson, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign (free download)
Denis Brian, The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Come Visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

The Biblical Museum of Natural History will be starting to take visitors this chol hamoed! The museum showcases the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects of Scripture, including both live and inanimate exhibits, as well as featuring related zoological topics from the Talmud. It provides an educational encounter that is designed to inspire and educate visitors young and old. The personal guided tour includes some hands-on encounters!

The museum is not yet fully finished, but we are sufficiently set up to offer a great experience. So if you are visiting Israel this Sukkos, now is an opportunity not to be missed! Visits are only via reservation; currently there are slots for hour-long English tours on Sunday, Monday at 10am, much of Tuesday, and Wednesday morning. Hebrew tours are on Monday, beginning at 11am. (You can also, of course, visit after Sukkos, when things will be much quieter!)

Admission fees are as follows:
Adults (age 18 and up) 40 NIS
Children (3 - 18) 30 NIS
Children below age 3 FREE
Senior citizen, Student, Soldier, Policeman, Handicapped 30 NIS

The Biblical Museum of Natural History is located at 5 Rechov Ha-Tzaba Street, in the northern industrial zone of Beit Shemesh.

Please see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org for more details, and let us know which slot you are interested in.

See you at the museum!