Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Edible Legends from the Sea

Among the long list of things at which I am superbly incompetent is the preparation of any kind of food. If you're looking for someone with the ability to make anything more complicated than a tuna melt, you won't find it with me. But what I do have are a particular set of skills, acquired over many years of researching arcane rabbinic sources about animals along with the more unusual aspects of zoology. And so, notwithstanding my utter uselessness in the kitchen, it turns out that these skills make me uniquely suited to devising novel dishes for the exotic halachic feasts at the Biblical Museum of Natural History.

These events are enormously complicated, stressful and expensive to produce, but they are spectacular. Our first feast at the museum, two years ago, was a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna (which we are also running in Teaneck this October). The next year, we wanted to do something different, so we had a Feast of Exotic Curiosities (which we plan to run again in Los Angeles next February). That menu featured non-Biblical foods of halachic intrigue, including kingklip, sparrow, Braekel, pheasant, guinea-fowl, udders, turkey testicles, Asian water buffalo, and more!

This year, we wanted to do something different yet again. But what? I came up with the idea of "Legends from the Sea." Now, I'm not going to tell you everything on the menu, because it's a surprise. But I will tell give you some broad hints about some of the planned dishes of which I am particularly proud.

First of all, despite the name and theme of the event, the feast is not pareve - there are two fleishig items on the menu. But everything served is on the theme of "Legends from the Sea." And all fishes are pareve. So how can we be serving two "Legends From the Sea" that are fleishig? There's one riddle for you!

One of the other planned dishes is something of which I am particularly proud (and praying that we can actually pull off!) It's going to be called Salade Céphalopode, which is the fancy French way of saying "Cephalopod Salad."

Cephalopods, in case you don't know, are the class of molluscs that includes octopus and squid. Needless to say, they are all entirely non-kosher, as treife as treife can be. And yet, God willing, we will be serving something that looks like a cephalopod (complete with tentacles), that will have the texture of cephalopod, that will (hopefully) taste like a cephalopod, and - here's the clincher - that is actually made with real cephalopod!

How on earth is this possible? Well, it certainly isn't easy! Devising it involved three things - tracking down a specialized item in Japan (which I'm praying will arrive in time), discovering an obscure halachic ruling (which, while not accepted by everyone, is accepted by a major kashrus organization), and the knowledge of a certain very obscure piece of zoological information. And the result is something which will not only be kosher according to the letter of the law, but even according to the spirit of law (although I will acknowledge that not everybody will necessarily agree with that).

Both the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck and the Feast of Legends from the Sea in Israel are primarily aimed at those who are (or who become) patrons of the museum, supporting our mission of inspiring and educating people about the relationship between Torah and the natural world. Once the patron seats are filled, we will sell tickets to non-patrons. To find out more details, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/feast.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Elephant Idol

Ever have one of those days? I just had two of them. I'm not going to go into the various reasons why they were so lousy - suffice it to say that (a) it is very upsetting how many people in the Beit Shemesh city administration seem to have no desire to improve the city, and (b) my family are refusing to go into my car because something that I transported made it smell so bad.

Anyway, this afternoon, even though I was totally not in the mood for it, I decided to switch with the guide at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and take over leading the tour. It was a large and diverse mixture of religious Jewish tourists from the US and Australia, secular Jewish students from South Africa, and a Hindu family from India. Leading the tour lifted me right out of my bleak mood; it's always immensely rewarding to see people so excited and happy as they learn so much about Torah and nature.

Pictured: Not my elephant idol
As they left, one of the men from the Hindu family approached me to thank me. He said that they had heard a lot about the museum (in India?!) and they were so happy that they were able to come. As a token of their gratitude, he pushed a gift into my hand: a keychain with a gold-painted replica of an elephant's head. He told me that it was a Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, and that it would protect the museum.

I was very touched, and thanked him as he left. But I was left in a quandary. It was a bona fide idol! I asked my Rav and he said that while he's not a specialist in the halachos of idolatry - it doesn't tend to come up on a regular basis - it would appear to be problematic to keep it.

This was disappointing. After all, it's not as though I am ever going to be worshiping an elephant-headed deity. Idolatry is so not a concern in our society. And it had really symbolic value to me, as representing the happy conclusion to a day that had started so badly. Still, halacha is halacha.

Yet it occurred to me that actually, I can understand the halachic problem. I was on the verge of considering this idol to be a good-luck charm. And the idea that a physical object would have the metaphysical ability to help me goes against the very essence of monotheistic Judaism.

My only remaining question is, how is a hamsa, or a silver segulah ring, any different?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Serial Killers Among Us?

An idealistic tour guide recently posted a diatribe to an e-mail discussion group for tour guides, in which she basically accused me of being a serial killer of wild animals. Her outrage was based on the taxidermy specimens of wild animals that are displayed at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and especially due to what she referred to as the "meat feasts of exotic African antelopes" that we do (i.e. our educational fundraising banquets in which we serve various exotic species, albeit not exotic African antelopes). She also raged against the museum videos of "captive wild animals", in which I teach about Biblical zoology while interacting with lions, leopards, and so on.

This reminded me of a story that you may have read about last week. A woman from Kentucky went to Africa on a big-game hunting trip, and killed a large black giraffe. When she posted pictures of herself posing with the trophy, there was outrage. One celebrity called her a “disgusting, vile, amoral, heartless, selfish murderer.”

What would be the Rabbinic perspective on this? And what would be the perspective of wildlife conservationists?

Let's begin with the latter. Obviously, the idea of taking joy in killing animals is repulsive to anyone who cares about animal life. And poaching is a tremendous threat to wild animals. It's right up there with another huge threat - habitat loss. Appallingly, my children may never see a wild rhinoceros, because in a few years there probably won't be any left!

Both of those problems - poaching and habitat loss - require tremendous resources to solve. Yet one of the most effective ways to do that is via carefully managed big-game hunting. Wealthy Americans pay vast sums to be able to legally hunt big game. This money funds the acquisition, and protection, of areas of land that are set aside for wildlife, in which only certain non-endangered animals are allowed to be hunted. As contradictory as it may sound, big-game hunting can, under certain circumstances, actually be good for wild animals. And while certain species of giraffes are endangered, the black giraffe was from a non-endangered species. So while I am personally nauseated by the picture above, I recognize that, in the interests of wildlife conservation, such things should ironically not be opposed.

The Rabbinic perspective on this would be slightly different. The various rabbinic authorities who addressed sport hunting did not do so from a broader perspective of wildlife management - indeed, they probably believed (as was normative until recently) that it was impossible for any species to become extinct. Instead, they addressed this question from the perspective of the moral propriety of the person doing the hunting, and they universally condemned it. In the Gemara, for example, we find the following:
Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai expounded: “Happy is the man who does not go…” – this refers to one who does not go to the theaters and circuses of heathens. “And in the path of sinners does not stand” – this refers to the one who does not participate in their hunts. (Avodah Zarah 18b)
On the other hand, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 95a does refer to King David going hunting, and there is no criticism of him. Still, normative rabbinic opinion over the centuries was definitely to condemn sport hunting. Here are but two examples; others are discussed in my book Man & Beast:
"How can a man from Israel actively kill an animal for no need other than to fulfill his desire to spend his time hunting? We do not find that people [in the Torah] are hunters except with Nimrod and Esau. This is not the way of descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…" (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Shailos U’Teshuvos Noda B’Yehudah, Mehadurah Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 10)
"…It is certain that those who shoot arrows after birds and beasts for no purpose at all other than to learn archery, and kill animals for no reason, are destined to stand in judgment for it; for it is not the way of Israel, the holy congregation, to commit evil to any creature for no reason." (Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover, Kav HaYashar 83)

Thus, with regard to modern, licensed big-game hunting today, we have something of a quandary. On the one hand, it is strongly frowned upon as an act of cruelty. On the other hand, due to the peculiarities of the modern world, it can actually be beneficial to wildlife. And the curious fact is that many modern hunters are people who are much more in touch with wildlife and caring of it than many armchair animal-lovers who rage against these hunters.

The rational approach would therefore seem to be something like the following: On a personal level, it is inappropriate for a person to enjoy hunting. But on a societal level, it should not be opposed.

Alas, many people are not rational. Regardless of how many conservationists will say that licensed big-game hunting should not be stopped, many people will insist that it's unthinkable under any circumstances to kill wild animals. This is just one of several cases I have observed in which people purportedly acting out of love for animals act in a way that is not actually in the best interests of animals, and actually go against the views of professional wildlife conservationists. (The situation with feral dogs in Israel is another such example; the conservation authorities want to kill them, due to the catastrophic destruction that they wreak, but they are unable to do so due to so-called animal lovers.)

Yet aside from being irrational, and not acting in the best interests of animals, what is taking place is often a form of speciesism - discrimination against certain species in favor of others. A few years ago, when there was enormous outrage over the hunting of Cecil the lion, I pointed out how a video on YouTube of Palestinians stoning a truly endangered striped hyena to death provoked no outrage at all. Majestic lions and graceful giraffes have supporters - mangy hyenas do not. (And, of course, rich white hunters make good villains, whereas poor Palestinians do not - which also explains a lot of the  recent selective rage over the treatment of immigrants.)

The tour-guide accusing me of being "no friend of animals" exhibited a similar lack of knowledge/rational evaluation about the taxidermied animals on display at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. No animals were killed for the museum - they are all animals which lived long and happy lives in zoos, and which we acquired upon their expiry of illness or old age. Her objection to the videos of me with "captive wild animals" was likewise misplaced. These are not animals that were plundered from the wild. They were all filmed in private licensed facilities in Africa which hand-raise orphaned animals, and in which the animals are extremely well cared for, and even lead better lives than those in the wild.

Yet what was most striking was the specieism that this tour guide displayed. I happen to know that she is not a vegetarian. So she is perfectly fine with killing and eating cows and chickens, but not with killing and eating deer and buffalo. Why the difference? The deer and buffalo were not poached from the wild - they were captive-farmed for meat production. Why would it be wrong to kill deer and buffalo, but not cows and chickens? It's just specieism.

But it's even more hypocritical than that. The deer and buffalo and exotic birds that we serve at our banquets lived, and died, in far more comfortable circumstances than the factory-farmed cows and chickens that this tour-guide consumes! As discussed in an earlier post, commercially farmed chickens lead absolutely terrible lives. That's something that we really need to address, not the occasional, licensed killing of non-endangered wild animals which are raised under comfortable conditions.

Before signing off, this seems like a good opportunity to announce this year's special educational banquet - which will take place, for the first time, in New Jersey, as well as in Israel! To be notified of more details, write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org.

Prediction: Many comments on this post will be from people who did not read it carefully.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Ruach HaKodesh, Kangaroos, SUVs and Cloning

Now here's something interesting. It relates to an earlier post, in which I pointed out that Malbim's explanation of a verse in Barchi Nafshi as referring to whaling is anachronistic. While there was ancient whaling in certain remote regions, there was no whaling in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. A fascinating complaint was lodged in the comments, by a reader going by the nom de plume of JoMorris: 
Rabbi Slifkin, I fear this post is an example of something that happens all too often on this blog, namely taking valid points of Rationalism a stage or two too far.

It is one thing to say of the Rishonim that they lacked a chareidi-ideology-inspired kind of divine inspiration that would allow them to know things about the natural world that they had never seen (such as the size of an olive), and perhaps one could even say such things about the sages of the Talmud (eg. regarding the sun's path at night), although this is more debatable. But it is another kettle of fish entirely to say the same of Dovid Hamelech!

Surely you agree that the books of the Bible are divinely inspired prophecy, and as such your constant mention of the Mediterranean is beside the point. Barchi Nafshi is not necessarily confined to the Middle East, but is a divinely inspired poem praising Hashem for the various creations and their purposes that He created throughout the entire world. You yourself wrote that people have been hunting whales for millennia (see also the Wikipedia article on the history of whaling), and as such the Malbim is perfectly entitled to explain the verse as pertaining to the sport of whaling even though Dovid Hamelech's knowledge of it could not have been naturally acquired.

Now, of course I could argue that my position is defensible from a rationalist standpoint. After all, Rambam says that even the prophet Yechezkel, in his vision of the Divine Chariot, had errors, because he perceived it within the framework of his own flawed knowledge of the natural world. But instead, I would like to discuss whether JoMorris is even expressing a position consistent with the typical non-rationalist worldview.

Initially, it would seem that he is. After all, the standard non-rationalist view is that Chazal had supernatural insight into the world, and knew things that modern science would only discover much later, such as the existence of platypuses. Kal v'chomer, then, that David HaMelech would have ruach hakodesh and would know of things taking place in remote parts of the world. Accordingly, then, there is no reason to object to explaining him as referring to whaling, even though it did not occur in the Mediterranean.

But I don't think so.

Let's start from the other direction. Modern technology raises all kinds of halachic questions. Cloning, brain death, surrogate pregnancy, even electricity on Shabbos. Why doesn't the Torah tell us how to approach them? (And don't say, "But it does! With implicit clues!" Because the greatest poskim of the era are in great debate and uncertainty regarding how to resolve these questions, then clearly the Torah is not giving guidance on them. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach has made some explicit statements to this effect.)

Even more basically, why does the Torah discuss the laws of damages in terms of goring oxen and the like? Why not in terms of SUVs?

There is only one possible answer to this: the Torah speaks in the framework of the generation that received it. True, this statement is understood in different ways. True, the principle of dibra Torah b'lashon b'nei Adam did not originally refer to this notion. But that notion is nevertheless unavoidable. Yes, God knows everything, but there is no purpose in discussing things with which the audience has absolutely no idea as to what is being discussed.

So the Torah (and kal v'chomer for Nevi'im and Kesuvim) does not discuss things that exist in a different time period, outside of the knowledge of the Bnei Yisrael. (Which, of course, is also the reason why it doesn't discuss dinosaurs.) But by exactly the same token, it also does not discuss things that exist in a different geographical region.

Not at the Biblical Museum of Natural History
Tanach abounds with metaphors from the natural world. There are 150 references to lions. There are references to bears and leopards and gazelles and deer and crocodiles - all of which were found in Biblical Israel. But where are the references to Australian kangaroos, Indian tigers, and polar bears?! Why speak of the great cedars of Lebanon, and not of the much more impressive redwoods and sequoias of California?!

Now I suppose a dedicated anti-rationalist would counter, "There are some animal names in Tanach that we don't know the meaning of - perhaps they are indeed referring to such animals!" But I think that most people, even in the anti-rationalist camp, wouldn't go for that. After all, clearly the overwhelming majority of references to animals in Tanach are to animals that lived in Biblical Israel, so would it really make any sense to posit that there is an occasional reference to a kangaroo?! That's as absurd as claiming that there is an occasional reference to helicopters. And once you're going with that approach, how can we know what anything in the Torah refers to?! Maybe there are words which refer to things that we haven't discovered yet?!

And that's why, although you'll get the occasional eccentric like Isaac Betech arguing that David HaMelech spoke about Spanish rabbits, most non-rationalists/charedim don't go for that sort of thing. In fact, we get plenty of the most ultra-charedi visitors at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, all of whom are perfectly fine with this point. Especially since many of them have been to Ein Gedi, they find it perfectly reasonable to say that David HaMelech follows his mention of ibex with a reference to the hyraxes that live near them.

I'll leave you with Rabbi David Sedley's illustration of Dr. Betech's position:
Little (future king) Solomon comes home from Shul on Rosh Chodesh, and says, "Daddy, that was a great song you sang today for Rosh Chodesh."

"Why thank you, Solomon" says King David. "Just one question, Dad. What does that word mean that you used - shafan? According to the KJV it says, 'The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for something', but I don't know what!"

"Ah, good question, my wise son. The shafan is an animal that neither you, nor anyone else in this generation has ever seen. In fact, no Jews will know anything about it for over 1000 years. But G-d told me about it. It will make a cute house-pet, Beatrix Potter will write stories about it, and Warner Brothers will make a cartoon shafan who will popularize the phrase 'What's up Doc?' But that is all in the future."

"Thanks Dad" says Solomon. "But just two more questions - what do we call those brown things that hide in the rocks next to the wild goats? And what's a cartoon?"

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

No, Charedim Aren't The "Original" Jews

A recent column in Tablet magazine asks the following question: What does one call "really religious Jews"? "Ultra-orthodox," or something else?

Tablet decides to Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public relations for Agudath Israel of America, for his answer. He begins by saying that "ultra-" is an offensive prefix, because of its implications of being something far beyond the norm, whereas the lifestyle of his community, he claims, is the traditional norm. We shall return to this claim soon.

Shafran then complains that only so-called "ultra-Orthodox" Jews are denied the right to choose their own name for their group, unlike Native Americans and Blacks. He has something of a point here, which is why it would be appropriate to let "ultra-Orthodox" Jews choose their own name. However, they should choose one which will not be protested by others as inaccurate; Rabbi Shafran himself has protested that Open Orthodoxy should not define itself as a form of Orthodoxy.

Furthermore, ultra-Orthodox Jews already have chosen a name for themselves: charedim. The charedi community itself adopted that term in the early twentieth century and still proudly uses it today, and so Rabbi Shafran is not being a very good spokesman for his community when he says that he doesn't like it. And his alleged reasons for disliking it are rather odd. "Firstly," he says, "it implies that non-haredim are less observant, which isn’t necessarily true." Yet this is precisely why charedim chose it and like it as a definition - because they believe themselves to be more "trembling at the word of God" than others. Others, of course, would disagree, and would claim that while charedim excel at certain aspects of Judaism, they are no better than other groups in various other aspects, and they are decidedly inferior in yet others.

Which brings us to Rabbi Shafran's second reason for disliking the term: "And secondly, while we may shuckle when we daven, we don’t generally tremble (unless the IRS is auditing us)." Precisely. Charedim live in a "fear society," and they do indeed tremble more than others - but it's not always at the word of God, as often the fear of man is more potent. And it's not only in fear of the IRS and other consequences of being incapable of earning an honest living. Charedim greatly tremble in fear of what others in their community might say, which leads to transgressions in all kinds of areas.

In any case, the term "charedi" is liked by charedim for what they believe it to mean, and by others for what they see it to mean. Still, if Rabbi Shafran doesn't approve of "ultra-Orthodox" or "charedi," what does he say that his community should be called?
“Personally,” said Shafran, “I prefer ‘Orthodox.’ Let prefixes be used by others: centrist, modern, ultra-modern. We’re the original, in no need of a prefix.”
Now, Rabbi Shafran has written some things in the past that have caused a lot of head-scratching. There was his claim that Bernie Madoff is more worthy of admiration than Captain Sully. He believes that unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas is more of a problem in the scientific community than in the charedi community. He even claimed that charedi society is big on women's liberation and female empowerment! And so while his claim that ultra-Orthodoxy is the Original McCoy might not be the most outlandish thing that he's ever said, it's certainly equally incorrect.

Charedi Jews are not "the original" form of Judaism or rabbinic Judaism or even of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is itself a unique product of the mid-nineteenth century, developing as a response to the threats of modernity and emancipation. It differed from the Judaism that preceded it in several ways. One was its traditionalism - the opposition to anything which appeared to be a change, despite the fact that historically, many great rabbis had emended Talmudic texts, changed the siddur, changed communal practice, and so on. Another was its segregation - creating halachic rulings based on the needs of the immediate community, not the larger Jewish community. A third was its conscious tendency towards halachic stringency, as a principled reaction to the general spiritual laxity that had developed, along with the elevation of customs to law, and Rabbinic laws to Biblical laws.

Thus, Orthodoxy was itself a novel approach to Judaism. And Orthodoxy in turn branched into several forms, of which ultra-Orthodoxy is certainly very far from the original, in a variety of ways.

One of these is with regard to communal authority. Traditionally, leading Torah scholars were consulted on numerous issues. But, for most of history, political and communal leadership was in the hands of positions such as kings, exilarchs, and parnassim, rather than the leading rabbinic authorities. Furthermore, it was generally the case that, even for rabbis, wisdom in non-Torah-specific areas was understood to be commensurate with knowledge and experience in those areas. Daas Torah, however, presented the opposite notion: that the ultimate guidance on all areas of life—even social and political decisions with no obvious connection to Torah—is provided precisely by those who are the most cloistered from the world and who have only been immersed in Torah. (A further significant characteristic is that in contrast to the time-honored approach of rabbinic responsa, Daas Torah presents its conclusions without any explanations, halachic or otherwise.)

Another way in which ultra-Orthodoxy differs dramatically from traditional Judaism is in the role of the yeshivah vis-a-vis the community. In earlier generations, the yeshivah was merely another component of the community, servicing its spiritual needs and preparing its students for their role in the community as rabbinic leaders. But the new yeshivah was a distinct framework in which students were not preparing for their role in the community, but rather were deliberately isolating themselves from the community for the pursuit of studying Torah as its own ideal. Concurrent with this came the rise in authority of Roshei Yeshivah, with no experience in communal leadership or practical halacha, over community rabbis.

One of the charedi reformations with the most far-reaching ramifications is long-term kollel for the masses. Historically, while there is some precedent for supporting Torah scholars or those preparing for such a role, both the norm and the societal ideal was for most men to work and support their families. The charedi system, in which it is the women who train and work to support the family, has overturned the traditional roles of husbands and wives, enshrined in the kesubah and in millennia of halachah and Jewish history.

Another novel aspect of charedi society is in its opposition to secular studies. It is not only among the Rishonim that we find great engagement with secular studies and culture; none other than Chasam Sofer, while making some statements of general opposition to secular studies, nevertheless himself extensively studied many of the sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, and geography, as well as history and philosophy. And he even utilized the tools of academic, scientific study in order to evaluate halachic practice; at the Pesach seder, he used celery for karpas, based on looking at cognate Semitic tongues. Such a thing would be regarded as bizarre and inappropriate in charedi society today.

Judaism constantly evolves, sometimes for internal reasons and sometimes as a reaction to external situations. The massive challenges of modernity, the upheaval of the Holocaust and the test of Zionism has resulted in the development of a number of forms of Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, Religious Zionism, Centrist Orthodoxy, and others. Ultra-Orthodoxy, otherwise known as Charedi Judaism, is one of the most radical and innovative evolutionary developments. The reason why many charedim believe otherwise is due to the lack of study of history, the carefully selected curriculum, and the rampant historical revisionism in their community.

It is disappointing that Tablet did not ask any historians, or non-charedi scholars, for their view. Because they would have dismissed Rabbi Shafran's claim to be the "Original Orthodoxy" as being ahistorical nonsense.

For more extensive discussion, see my monographs on The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making of Haredim.

Reminder: I am available for scholar-in-residence engagements on the West Coast in August, and in NY/NJ during October. Please email me at director@biblicalnaturalhistory.org for details.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who is Playing with Leviathan?

The other day I came across a fascinating example of how historical context can shed light on rabbinic scholarship. And I'm pretty sure that nobody has ever noticed it before.

Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim, is a paean to the great wonder of the natural world, from the smallest creature to the largest. It includes the following account of the ocean:
 מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְדֹוָד כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם גְּדֹלוֹת: שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ: (תהילים קד:כד-כו) 
“How manifold are Your works, O God! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations. Here is this great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great. There go the ships; and Leviathan which You have made to play in it.” (Psalms 104:24-26) 
I photographed this humpback whale in Alaska
Now, there is actually some ambiguity regarding the meaning of this verse. The Hebrew phrase לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ “to play in it,” can be translated in different ways. Who exactly is doing the playing? And what is Leviathan, anyway?

Simply speaking, the verse is referring refers to God having Leviathan to play in the sea. This is indeed how most of the commentaries explain it. And while Midrashic accounts of a titanic leviathan have been interpreted by some as referring to an actual creature of stupendous proportions, and by others as an allegorical concept (and this is one of the topics of the Maimonidean controversies), the leviathan of Psalms can straightforwardly be explained as the whale. Sperm whales, fin whales, and other species are found in the Mediterranean, while a blue whale was recently seen in Eilat, for the first time in recorded history!

Rashi, however, following an Aggadic portion of the Talmud, gives a different explanation. He explains it to mean that God created the Leviathan for Him to play with. Accordingly, it would mean that even the mighty Leviathan is nothing more than God’s plaything. (Furthermore, according to Rashi, the verse does not refer to whales, but rather to the singular titanic Leviathan, of which there is only one in the world.)

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879), on the other hand, gives a third explanation. He states that it means that the aforementioned ships are playing with leviathan. Accordingly, it refers to whaling ships engaged in the "sport" of hunting whales.

It is fascinating that Malbim seeks to provide an entirely new explanation of this verse. But is it a plausible explanation of what the Psalmist could have been referring to, or is it anachronistic? Although tribal peoples, with no easy sources of food, have hunted whales for millennia, it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. There is no archeological or archeozoological evidence for ancient whaling in the Mediterranean, although this is a case where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. A recent paper that performs an initial exploration of this topic, "Ancient Whale Exploitation in the Mediterranean," further suggests that if the Mediterranean whale community in antiquity was similar to that of today - i.e., species that only live in deep water - "it is unlikely that organized forms of whaling would have developed, as the presence of whales close to the coastline would have been rare and unpredictable."

ZooRabbi Junior, a.k.a. Batman, with a
small piece of baleen, currently on display at
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
Given the unlikelihood that the verse is speaking about whaling, why would Malbim explain it that way? The answer is that Malbim lived in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, ships and whaling techniques had developed to the stage where it was viable to hunt whales on the high seas of the Atlantic. And there was enormous demand for whale oil, which was used for lamps, along with baleen (whalebone) which was used for everything from buggy whips to corsets. In Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a very big business. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Malbim would explain the verse in this way.

I am available in NY/NJ as scholar-in-residence for Shabbos of October 13th (parashas Noach!) and October 20, as well as for weekday presentations between the two. If you're interested, please contact me via email, director@biblicalnaturalhistory.org. (I am also available on the West Coast for Shabbos of August 11th.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Without Taking A Position on US Politics

I would like to write about something that is related to US politics. Now, it's very dangerous for me to do this. As someone pointed out, for me to take a position on US politics, whatever it is, would instantly alienate half my readership (which seems remarkably evenly divided between pro- and anti-Trump). And I've already alienated enough people, so it doesn't make sense to alienate any more. It also seems to just trigger the most acrimonious arguments among commentators, inevitably ending up in some anti-Trumpists referring to Trumpists as Nazi-enablers, and some Trumpists referring to anti-Trumpists as antisemites. Who knew that the frum Jews comprising my readership include both antisemites and Nazi-enablers?

So that's one of the reasons why I'm not taking any position on US politics. But what if I am writing about something which does not involve my taking a position? No doubt some people will still get mad at me, for not taking a position! "How can you not take a position?! Don't you see that it's your responsibility to say that XYZ?!" Well, to that, I will point out that I am not American, and I don't live in America, and I don't understand what's going on there, and nor am I particularly interested to find out. I just want to comment on one very small aspect of all the political arguments that have been raging for years, during Obama and now Trump, and how it relations to rationalism.

One of the basic principles of Rationalist Judaism is Rambam's maxim that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes. More broadly, that means that one should evaluate statements and positions on their own merits, and not judge them based on who issued them. As Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l told me, wise men can say foolish things - and foolish men can say wise things. Great men can do terrible deeds, and terrible men can do great deeds.

Yet, for many years now, the appreciation of this seems to be lacking with certain people on both sides of American politics. For many Jews, whatever Obama did had to be terrible and evil. And for many other Jews, whatever Trump does has to be terrible and evil.

Children in cages. Does the date of this picture
determine how you feel about it?
This was brought to light very sharply in the last few weeks, on both sides. Some of those gushing with praise over Trump engaging with Kim Jong were revealed to have condemned Obama for doing the same. And some of those enraged at pictures of children having been put in cages by Trump suddenly changed their line of criticism when the pictures were revealed to have been taken when Obama was president.

Yes, I am well aware that one can draw distinctions between the two cases, and I'm sure that people will happily do so at great length in the comments section. And it could well be that overall, Trump is a great president, or a terrible president. Again - I'm not American and I don't know, I'm too busy researching other things.

Nevertheless, I think that it's still true that many people are evaluating things not based on their own merits, but based solely on where they are perceived as coming from. Which is a pity, and calls for some self-reflection, as to how much one has been caught up in partisanship. From where this foreigner is sitting, it seems that the great United States of America would be a lot better off if people would dial the tribalism back a notch.

Edible Legends from the Sea

Among the long list of things at which I am superbly incompetent is the preparation of any kind of food. If you're looking for someone...