Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Locust Mistake, and the Locust-o-Matic

We have a new machine at the Biblical Museum of Natural History: a Locust-o-Matic (TM). We acquired it to prepare our locusts for some special museum events taking place - a parlor meeting next Sunday in the Five Towns, and the Feast of Exotic Curiosities the following Sunday in Beverly Hills. In advance of these events, I want to clarify something about the kashrut of locusts.

In any disagreement, it's not adequate to know that your disputants are wrong. You have to know exactly where they are going wrong, and why they are making this mistake. I've finally managed to do this with the topic of eating locusts.

I came across an old article on the OU website explaining the policy with regard to accepting a mesorah for a new species. Bear in mind that the OU is not a halachic decisor for individuals of a particular community - rather, they are a kashrus organization servicing many different communities. Accordingly, any policies that they adopt have to be compatible with a broad variety of different communities.

Now, what do you do if one community has a mesorah for a particular species, but other communities do not have such a mesorah? On the OU website, at, it says as follows:
"Regarding cases where some communities have a clear mesorah permitting other animals, and other communities avoided it, the OU will not give certification... This is not because the OU relies only on an Ashkenazic mesorah, but because OU certification means that the item may be eaten by everyone according to halacha. If the animal was avoided in certain communities, that may indicate that those communities had a mesorah that it was not kosher... However, if a particular animal did not exist in a particular community, the fact that the community has no mesorah to eat it is not considered evidence that it has a mesorah not to eat it.... if certain species of bird did not exist at all in Germany, for example, and existed only in Iraq, testimony from an authoritative source from Iraq that that specific bird was shechted and eaten in Iraq would suffice to permit the bird." 

This is all perfectly logical and reasonable. In fact, it reflects an awareness of biogeography that was entirely lacking for most of history until about two centuries ago, and is still lacking by many people today. Until the thorough studies of the Americas and especially Australia, people just didn't realize that different parts of the world have very different animals. This is the foundational principle of biblical natural history, and the explanation as to why Rashi identified the animals of the Torah very differently from Rav Saadiah Gaon. As the OU points out, if a particular community had no mesorah to eat a certain creature, it doesn't mean that they had anything against it - they may have simply never encountered it! Guineafowl, for example, are African birds. It is of no significance to find that many communities in Europe had no mesorah that guineafowl are kosher - they had never encountered them.

But then take a look at how the OU applies this policy to locusts: 
"In the case of grasshoppers, it is clear from Rashi that many species of grasshoppers existed in Europe in his time and were known by the Jews, but the Ashkenaz communities did not eat any of them. This is considered a mesorah that they are not eaten, and so the OU would not certify them, even though Teimanim have a mesorah and can rely on their mesorah."
This is incorrect. Yes, Rashi was familiar with many species of grasshoppers, but not with locusts. Certain types of grasshoppers form destructive swarms, under specific conditions - these are the ones known as locusts. In the order Orthoptera, which contains grasshoppers (including locusts) and crickets, there are over twenty thousand species. But less than twenty of these are locusts. And all of the locust species are only found in tropical or desert climates. Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust, for which there is a mesorah among many Jewish communities from Yemen and North Africa, never appears in France or central Europe. (Locusta migratoria, the migratory locust, for which there is a more limited mesorah, rarely appears in the south of France and never in the north.)

So there is no Ashkenaz mesorah not to eat kosher locusts. They just didn't have them, the same as in the OU's example of the bird that only lives in Iraq and not Germany.

(I've been in touch with the OU to follow up on this, but as I pointed out to them, I am not claiming that there are no other reasons for the OU not to certify locusts. There are very good reasons for them not to certify locusts. It would be a disastrous decision that would ruin their business and all the good work that they do.)

The interesting point that differentiates locusts from, say, guineafowl, is that while nobody ever had a reason to believe that European communities were necessarily familiar with guineafowl, people did have a reason to believe that they were familiar with locusts. After all, Rashi and other European authorities seemed to discuss them. Thus, the position of these authorities that locusts were not eaten was therefore significant. What people didn't (and don't) realize is that while every locust is a grasshopper, not every grasshopper is a locust. Rashi and other European authorities may have thought that the kosher species were living around them, mixed in with the non-kosher types, but they weren't.

In Ashkenaz, there was never a tradition to eat locusts. They just didn't have any. Accepting the tradition from those who did have them is no different to accepting a tradition for guineafowl, quail, sparrow, pheasant, or anything else. Bon appetit!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Natan the Great, and the Implications for Charedim and Palestinians

Today is the thirty-third anniversary of the release of Natan Sharansky from the Soviet Gulag. While he doesn't usually wear a kippah, Sharansky is surely one of the greatest people of our time, a true hero of our generation. His book Fear No Evil is an astonishing testimony to how one man, by virtue of bravery, shrewdness and massive willpower, was able to triumph against a superpower.

Perhaps less well known, but of even greater importance, is Sharansky's book The Case For Democracy. If there's one book that should be required reading for everyone with any say on foreign policy, it's this one.

In The Case For Democracy, Sharansky explains that all societies fall into two basic categories: Free societies, and fear societies. In free societies, people have the right to express dissenting views without concern for repercussions such as imprisonment. A society which does not protect dissent will inevitably be founded upon fear.

(When I first read this, several years ago, I was instantly struck by the parallels with charedi society, which brooks no dissent. Sharansky writes that crucial to the power of a fear society is "a regime's ability to control what is read, said, heard, and above all, thought. This is how a regime based on fear attempts to maintain a constant pool of true believers.... All fear societies are based on a certain degree of brainwashing." The parallels are obvious.)

Sharansky further explains that true democracies can only emerge in free societies. And it requires those freedoms to be well established, in terms of a free press and independent courts. In contrast, tyrannical regimes stay in power by repressing their populations, using a combination of force, threats and information control. It also requires the manufacture of external enemies, to maintain internal stability and justify repression. The important consequence of this is that non-democratic regimes must maintain a constant state of conflict and are inherently belligerent.

(Again, there are clear parallels to charedi society. Every so often, they need to create an external enemy - Steinsaltz, Modern Orthodoxy, Slifkin, Open Orthodoxy. That helps them rally the troops and maintain control.)

Sharansky translates this to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He demonstrates that as long as the Palestinians run a fear society, it will be impossible to ever reach peace with them. The leaders of the Palestinians need to keep Israel as an enemy, in order to maintain power. Any "peace plan" which does not include freedom for Palestinians from Palestinian repression is doomed to fail.

But there is one aspect of Sharansky's argument with which I am not at all sure that I agree. He argues that while it is impossible to make peace with Palestinians with the current structure of their society, most people, including most Palestinians, would prefer to live in a free society. The exhilaration of freedom is vastly preferable to living in fear.

It is not at all clear to me that this true. While people enjoy freedom, they also enjoy emotional security, tribal identity, and purpose. Again, think of the analogy to charedi society. True, there are many secret dissidents. But there are also countless others who prefer to be in a situation where other people do the thinking for them, and in which they are part of a close-knit homogeneous group which valiantly struggles against the rest of the world.

And so, I am not convinced that most Palestinians would prefer to live in a free society. Maybe yes, maybe not. But the crucial point is that as long as such a society does not exist, any so-called "peace plan" is a recipe for disaster. And meanwhile, our task is to explain that to the rest of the world, and to urge them to fight for Palestinian rights - to live in a free Palestinian society.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Endorsing Shysters

Agudas Yisrael held a "historic" national convention last week in Netanya, as reported by HaModia. It was attended by "hundreds of Agudas Yisrael members from all over Eretz Yisrael, representatives in the Knesset and the local city councils, public figures and askanim, activists of the movement and representatives of the many communities identified with Agudas Yisrael." Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman said, “This is the time to unite and to proudly elevate the good name of this holy movement.” Leaders stated that the goal was to unite everyone in a mission "to increase kvod Shamayim."

And, in this mission of elevating their good name and increasing kvod Shamayim, they flew in a special guest speaker: Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin.

It amaze me that apparently there are people who see no connection between honoring a convicted felon and the recent news that the Jerusalem District convicted five senior charedi figures for hundreds of counts of fraud. This included swindling 24 million shekels from the Education Ministry by inflating the number of students learning at yeshivos, using forged identity papers, and busing in masses of impostors to fool inspectors.

When you honor someone who was convicted of 86 counts of fraud, along with numerous other charges against him, what does that say about societal values with regard to such crimes?

(It should also be noted that Litzman, along with Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism, also honored the truly evil Rabbi Eliezer Berland with a hospital visit.)

In sharp contrast, consider the following account, from Rav Shlomo Goren's autobiography, about how Rav Kook went to great efforts to save an accused Jew from an undeserved sentence - and yet would not honor him:
"...On his final appeal, Abraham Stavsky was acquitted of the murder of Dr. Haim Arlosoroff. I was sitting beside Rabbi Kook when he received a phone call from Stavsky after his release from prison. Stavsky said that he wanted to come and visit Rabbi Kook, to thank him for his tremendous efforts on Stavsky's behalf. Rabbi Kook asked Stavsky not to come to the Haifa hotel where Rabbi Kook was vacationing, but rather to wait until after he returned to Jerusalem.
"I asked Rabbi Kook about this. After all, he had made a tremendous effort and risked his position in order to save Stavsky from the gallows. Rabbi Kook had become embroiled with the British and with the high commissioner because Rabbi Kook was certain that Stavsky was innocent. Why then, when he wanted to come and thank Rabbi Kook, did the latter not want to receive him?
"Rabbi Kook replied that according to the testimonies in court, Stavsky was not of impeccable character, and his personal behavior and ethics were blemished. However, as long as Stavsky was in danger, and as long as Rabbi Kook believed that Stavsky had had no part in Haim Arlosoroff's murder, Rabbi Kook felt obligated to do everything in his power to save Stavsky. Under such circumstances, Rabbi Kook held that there is no difference in whether a Jew is an observant, God-fearing Hasid. Every person, as a human being - if he is innocent and in danger - deserves to be helped. As Hazal taught, "He who saves a single life, it is as if he saves the entire world," but now, when thank God Stavsky was out of prison and no longer in danger, Rabbi Kook had no interest in making a fuss out of the issue and in glorifying Stavsky's name. Thus, Rabbi Kook told Stavsky to wait. Now that he had been acquitted, there was no rush."
The sooner that charedi society adopts such values, the less shocking headlines we will see.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Daf Yomi LIVE from the Museum!

This Sunday, Daf Yomi comes to life!

Chullin – LIVE

at the Biblical Museum of Natural History

A special orientation session for Daf Yomi learners, featuring a presentation and discussion of the unusual mammals, birds, reptiles and insects in this week’s daf.
Join us at the museum, or participate live online!

Sunday, 27th January 2019, 8pm-10pm Israel Time

Sunday, January 20, 2019

You Don't Mess With The Zohar... Or Do You?

Who wrote the Zohar? Was it the tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, as the work claims, or was it a collection of texts from Amora'aim and/or later figures that was compiled, liberally edited, and generously added to, by the fourteenth-century forger Moses de Leon?

Nearly a decade ago I wrote a post titled "You Don't Mess With The Zohar," in which I agreed with someone's claim that questioning the Zohar's authenticity or authority is unwise. The Zohar has become canonized as one of the pillars of Judaism. The fact that Rav Yaakov Emden wrote a book with over three hundred arguments for the Zohar being largely of later authorship is not widely known, and pointing it out is unlikely to make a difference. The reaction would be too visceral.

Today, however, I'm not so sure if this is still true. Over the last decade, some changes have taken place. First is that due to the spread of the internet into Orthodox homes, more and more people are aware of things that were previously only known in scholarly circles. Second is that more facts have come to light regarding rabbinic authorities of impeccable credentials who disputed the Zohar's authenticity to a lesser or greater degree. Aside from Rav Yaakov Emden, there was also Chasam Sofer and the Noda B'Yehuda. Even Rav Ovadiah Yosef acknowledged that it cannot be considered heretical to deny the Zohar's authenticity, due to the many questions on it. Marc Shapiro's Hebrew article on this topic, "Is There An Obligation To Believe that the Zohar Was Written By Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai?" and blog posts have doubtless also been of great impact.

In my original post, I shared a critique of the Zohar, in English, by an anonymous charedi author. Recently I discovered a much more extensive document, this time in Hebrew. It's Rav Yaakov Emden's Mitpachas Sefarim, but with a lengthy introduction and elaborations of various parts. You can download it at this link. Meanwhile, for the English/ academic reader, there is an excellent treatment in Tishby, The Wisdom Of The Zohar, vol.1, pp. 55-87. I plan on including a brief summary as an appendix to my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought.

(For anyone interested in the definition of heresy, I would strongly advise reading my article, “They Could Say It, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy," in Hakirah, available for download here.)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

I Was Wrong, And I'm Sorry

Like many people, I hate having to admit that I was wrong. It's particularly unpleasant for me because there is a whole crowd of people who hate me and who leap on such a thing gleefully. And these are probably people who have never, ever honestly examined issues which conflict with their worldview and concluded that they are wrong. Still, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't publicly admit to mistakes that I made. So, in this post, I want to admit to being wrong in not just one, but two of my posts from last week.

First was in my post about whether people in kollel can be considered as quasi-Levites. I wrote that according to Rambam, somebody in kollel is in no way an honorary Levite, for two reasons. One is that according to Rambam, it is forbidden take money for learning Torah. Second is that according to Rambam, the Levites were not learning Torah, they were teaching Torah.

Now, these last two sentences are indeed true. However, I went too far in claiming that this means that according to Rambam, somebody in kollel is "in no way" an honorary Levite. According to Rambam, such a person is indeed somewhat of an honorary Levite.

There are two pieces of evidence for this. One is that at the end of Hilchos Shemittah, where Rambam waxes lyrical about how anyone can be like a Levite in devoting themselves to God, he does not mention teaching, and he is including even non-Jews. Second is that Rambam elsewhere speaks about how Torah scholars (and there is no indication that he means specifically teachers) are allowed to receive certain financial benefits "just like Levites." (It should be noted, though, that he is specifically referring to the investment of funds, and assistance in business, rather than financial grants, which he expressly prohibits.)

And so, although according to Rambam somebody in kollel is not truly like a Levite - because he is not teaching - he is still somewhat like one, and is thus entitled to certain types of business assistance.

My second mistake was in my post critiquing telling the heir to give his father's charity funds to a yeshivah, instead of to conservation, as the father had requested. I wrote that it was extremely upsetting and unethical. After reading and digesting the comments, I still think that it was probably wrong, but I don't think that it reflect a lack of ethics, and it was wrong of me to condemn it so harshly.

The reason is that the answer was given from within the worldview that the father's soul in Heaven will receive no benefit at all from having left money for conservation, but will receive enormous benefit for the money being directed to yeshivos, and thus the soul is surely hoping that the money will be redirected. Now, one may disagree with that premise, but from the perspective of one who has that premise, it's not unethical.

But the reason why I still think it's wrong, even if not unethical, is twofold. First is that even from within a chareidi/mystical worldview, conservation is a cause with merit. There are numerous sources in my book Man & Beast from classical rabbinic works speaking about the importance of respecting and looking after the natural world. True, you won't find any explicit sources speaking about saving animals from extinction, but that's because, as discussed at length in The Challenge Of Creation, nobody believed that it was possible for species to become extinct! But you do find Rishonim speaking about how the prohibition of taking mother bird and young is because it is conceptually like not caring about the perpetuation of the species. Kal v'chomer one should care about the actual perpetuation of species!

Second is that the whole idea of changing from one's agreement with a person in order to do what the person "would surely want if he really understood things" is fraught with problems. It lends itself to abuse in all kinds of ways. And would we ever want people to do that with us? Imagine the following scenario: You gave money to a non-Jew (or a secular Jew) for kosher food, and they deceive you and give you cheaper but non-kosher food, and use the difference for a good cause, based on their sincere belief that if you really knew that kashrus didn't matter, you would want the money to be used more productively. Would you think that they acted ethically?

True, there are times when we are in a bind, because we have a halachic mandate - for example, if a relative asks to be cremated. But when there is no such mandate, and the person has not asked for the money to go to an evil or pointless cause, I think it would be very appropriate to honor their request, even if you consider that there is a better cause. But it is a difficult question.

So, apologies for my mistakes. And I hope that this post serves as further proof that I am open to changing my mind and admitting errors.

The Locust Mistake, and the Locust-o-Matic

We have a new machine at the Biblical Museum of Natural History: a Locust-o-Matic ( TM ). We acquired it to prepare our locusts for some ...