Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Evils of Civic Responsibility and National Pride?

A rabbinic colleague of mine recently purchased a Hebrew illustrated children's haggadah, Me-Avdut LeCherut, published by Yefeh Nof, to study with his youngest child. The copyright page includes a "hechsher" - an emblem announcing that it is a "kosher sefer," under the "Committee for the Kashrus of Books" established by a Machon Eshnav in Bnei Brak. The copyright page further includes not only the name of the "Torah editor," but also the person involved in the "Spiritual Oversight" (pikuach ruchani). Each of the cartoon illustrations, we are told in the introduction, brings to life various lessons that are taught in Torah sources.

With all this stress on the theological kashrus of the material, you'd expect it to be a very "safe" book. But my friend got to the first page, illustrating the cruelty of the slavery in Egypt, and was horrified. As am I.

The Egyptians are depicted as evil taskmasters with whips, maliciously lashing their Jewish slaves. But the statements they are uttering are not about how the Jews must suffer undue hardships and suffering. Rather, they are about basic civil responsibility - in particular, the statements commonly uttered in contemporary Israeli discourse. "You need to contribute to the state," says one taskmaster, "not just study Torah all day." And another Egyptian, with a snarl on his face as he raises his whip, says, "There needs to be an equal sharing of the burden!" The Hebrew phrase used, shivayon be'netel, is the phrase instantly recognizable to all Israelis as referring to the need for all Israeli communities, including charedi communities, to share the burden of supporting the economy and serving in the IDF.

I'm not sure which is worse - that an ostensibly super-kosher haggadah for children is pushing a hardline political worldview, or that the editors think that civic responsibility represents the evil of Ancient Egypt. I'll bet that children educated with such messages would guess that phrases such as "Shall your brethren go to battle, while you remain here?" were coined by evil Amalekites like Yair Lapid, rather than by Moshe Rabbeinu. Even the charedi Mishpacha magazine published an article by Jonathan Rosenblum stating that we all need charedim to get academic education and professional employment, for the sake of funding the IDF as well as supporting the economy. Rosenblum is clearly fighting an uphill battle, when children are being taught that civic responsibility is an evil Egyptian concept.

But even Mishpacha is hardly teaching good lessons about being part of a nation. In a recent column, Eytan Kobre condemns people feeling national pride in Israel's accomplishments in entrepreneurship, scientific discovery and innovation, economic strength, and sports. He bases this off a wild expansion of a statement by Rav Saadia Gaon that “Ein umaseinu umah ela b’Toroseha — Our nation is not a nation other than by virtue of its Written and Oral Torahs.” In fact, the original Arabic refers to the commandments rather than the Torah, and Rav Saadiah is merely establishing why the commandments are always binding. But Kobre takes it much further:
"Nothing other than our possession of the Torah plays any role in our national character, nothing whatsoever. Not a common land, language, and culture."
Apparently Kobre has forgotten about much of Sefer Bereishis and the first part of Shemos, in which we are established as a nation, descended from the forefathers, with a unique culture (and perhaps even a unique language), and in which we receive a promise of inheriting the Land of Israel. All of these are certainly a role in our national character, and they were all before we received the Torah.

Kobre continues:
"Not winning four games, or 15, in a baseball competition. Not ranking on some non-Jew’s list as the world’s eighth-strongest power. Not being a world leader in hi-tech R&D or entrepreneurship or 21st century Nobel Laureates. Not even boasting one of the world’s best-trained and equipped fighting forces. Of course, we should hope and pray that Israel’s economy thrives, and feel great when it does — and thank the Reason for it, too. That means Jews will have parnassah. Of course we need to be able to defend ourselves against the wolves that encircle us. But there’s a world of difference between feeling good that Jews are secure and have parnassah, and one’s heart swelling with national pride and feelings of 'we’ll show them…' "
Rabbi Sholom Gold has already penned an open letter with a harsh and devastating critique of Kobre. There are an abundance of explicit pesukim in Tanach which state precisely the opposite of Kobre's claim - verses which clearly demonstrate national pride in military and economic achievements. Which makes it particularly amusing/tragic that Kobre claims to be explicating "the most important truth in all of human history, one that echoes off the pages of every book in Tanach." Has he ever even read Tanach?!

But you don't need to go back to the Bible to see how Kobre is perverting Judaism. We have a much more recent and "charedi" source: none other than Chasam Sofer, the founding father of ultra-Orthodoxy. He declares that in the Land of Israel, one does not only work the fields in order to make a living. There is also the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz, settling the land. In the same way as one stops learning Torah to put on tefillin, says Chasam Sofer, one stops learning Torah to farm the land, which is the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. Chasam Sofer explains that yishuv ha'aretz does not just mean living in the Land of Israel; it means developing the country. He further says that not just farming, but all industries and professions, are part of settling the land and giving it honor - which includes concern about how it is perceived by the rest of the world.

Whether it's with children's' comics or supposedly sophisticated adult op-eds, the charedi community clearly has a long way to go in understanding the traditional Torah importance of civic responsibility and national pride.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

My Big Fat Greek Pesach II

Six years ago, I spent Pesach on the Greek island of Crete, and I wrote a post about the fights over second day Yom Tov - see My Big Fat Greek Pesach. This year, I was once again in Crete for part of Pesach. But this time, I had a different sort of excitement. As a child, I devoured all the books of Gerald Durrell, who grew up in Corfu and wrote about the small but fascinating Greek wildlife and the charming but incompetent Greek humans. This Pesach, I didn't see much of the former, but I saw plenty of the latter!

The first warning that this was going to be a "special" experience was with Aegean Air at Ben-Gurion, where the check-in line took over two-and-a-half hours. The flight itself was uneventful, the stewardesses were pleasant. But when we arrived, our luggage didn't!

Pictured: Socrates, annoyed that his clothing is
in his lost luggage, wearing a sheet instead.
After filing a report for the lost luggage, we checked into the hotel, where we had booked three rooms side-by-side for my wife and I and our children (some of whom are small and needy). But our room turned out to be a long and cold outside walk from our kids' rooms, past lots of other rooms in between! It transpired that in Greece, they see no reason for rooms that are sequentially numbered 331, 332, and 333 to be anywhere near each other!

To cut a long story short, our clothing arrived after only five days, and we were eventually able to switch rooms, so the end of chag was lovely. And when we traveled to the airport this morning to fly home, our flight was only delayed two hours. But Aegean Air had one final surprise in store!

Upon boarding the plane, my wife was surprised to discover that her sister's family had been given the exact same seats as us! One would think that it's rather simple for airline computers to make sure that people are not given the same seats, but apparently that's not the case with Aegean Air. Fortunately they found other seats for my sister-in-law's family, and we were finally able to take our seats. Whereupon another family boarded the plane, and it turned out that they, too, had been given the exact same seats as us...

Anyway, we finally made it home, thank God. THANK YOU GOD. I think I saw a news story about viral video footage of a man being dragged, screaming, onto an Aegean Air flight that was underbooked.

Sometime this week, I hope to be returning to my semi-regular writing schedule. There is a particularly fascinating topic that I plan to discuss, combining both rationalist Judaism and natural history, based on something that I saw in Crete. Here's a photo of it; see if you can guess what it is, where it is, and why it's there.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Can You Do Mitzvos To Benefit Others?

Can you do mitzvos in such a way that the merit for them will benefit other people? Can you designate them to receive the reward for your mitzvah in their mitzvah bank account, such that they receive more Divine favor?

A friend of mine recently forwarded to me a request on behalf of someone who is tragically unwell. The community was requested to pray for his recovery, which is certainly a time-honored Jewish response. But there was also a request to do mitzvos on his behalf, as a merit for God to heal him. My friend wanted to know if there was any classical Jewish basis for this.

In my essay "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" I noted that classically, one's mitzvos are only a credit to those people who had a formative influence on you. One's mitzvos cannot help the souls of other people. Rashba cites a responsum from Rav Sherira Gaon on this:
"A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds." (Rashba, Responsa, Vol. 7 #539)
Maharam Alashkar cites Rav Hai Gaon who firmly rejects the notion that one can transfer the reward of a mitzvah to another person and explains why this is impossible:
"These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, 'The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,' (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, 'And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.' Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvos is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person?" (Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101) 
The same view is found explicitly and implicitly in other sources, as I noted in my essay. There is simply no mechanism to transfer the reward for one's own mitzvos to other people. It seems that only very recent mystical-based sources claim otherwise.

Now, I don't see any reason why there should be any difference if the person that one is trying to help is deceased or alive. Nor do I know of any source in classical rabbinic literature that one can do a mitzvah as a merit to help someone that is sick. Prayer, yes. And Tehillim are also a form of prayer (though it may depend upon which Tehillim are being recited). But I know of no classical source that one can honor one's parents or learn Torah or send away a mother bird as a merit for somebody else.

(The most common example of people attempting to do this may be the custom of women to separate challah on behalf of a sick person. Here too, though, it appears that the classical basis of this is not that the mitzvah of separating challah is crediting the sick person, but rather that the person separating the challah thereby has a special time of power/inspiration, which makes their prayer more powerful.)

If I'm wrong in any of the above, I'll be glad to see sources showing otherwise. But so far, I have found that while people are shocked when one challenges the notion that you can learn Torah on behalf of someone who is sick, nobody has yet actually come up with any classical sources demonstrating otherwise. Furthermore, if this indeed was a part of classical Judaism, we would certainly expect it to have prominent mention in the writings of Chazal and the Rishonim. We appear to have another situation of something widespread that is believed to be an integral and classical part of Judaism, and yet is actually a modern innovation that has no basis in classical Judaism whatsoever.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Missing You, Dad

A treasured memory from nineteen years ago -
on a canoe with my dad, sipping from coconuts,
during a father-son trip to Mombasa, Kenya.
Yesterday, I was having a discussion with a friend about revisionism in Rambam. We were wondering what Rambam would have to say about it were he alive today. My friend asked me: "If you could choose any figure in Jewish history to come back to life, who would you choose?" Without even consciously formulating a response, I blurted out, "My Dad."

I had my father on my mind because today is his tenth yahrzeit. Professor Michael Slifkin, of blessed memory, was a wonderfully patient and good-natured father, a brilliant scientist, and a man of outstanding integrity. In a career spanning biochemistry, physics, electronics, membrane biology, and nanoparticles (amongst other things), he published 197 papers, including 11 in the prestigious journal Nature. He strongly believed in doing the right thing even if it made him unpopular, such as when he voted according to his conscience and not according to what was "the done thing" in England, or when he took on the position of safety officer for university labs and actually enforced safety regulations, much to the horror of his colleagues. He also had a terrific sense of humor!

Just like last year, due to a scheduling conflict with one of my sisters who is out of the country, a shiur that I am giving in his honor for family and friends is not being delivered on the actual date of his yahrzeit. In case you didn't read last year's post, I mentioned then how someone near and dear to me objected that since it's not being done on the actual date of the yahrzeit, "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah!"

This is, I believe, a terrific example of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews. According to the mystical worldview, our actions serve to manipulate various metaphysical energies. If they are not done in exactly the "right" way, then they don't have any effect. According to the rationalist worldview, on the other hand, our actions are not manipulating any metaphysical energies. The date of a person's passing is a meaningful and appropriate time to honor their memory. If it's done a day late, in order to better accommodate the family, that honors their memory more, not less.

This also relates to the fundamental nature of what one does for the deceased, a topic that I examined in detail upon the passing of my dear mother-in-law, Anne Samson, of blessed memory - see my essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In brief, the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin, is that one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos whose reward is transferred to their mitzvah-account. The classical and rationalist view, on the other hand, is that by doing memorial events we honor their memory, and by performing good deeds we become a credit to their influence.

(As an update to that essay: I just came across something that seemed to raise a challenge to my thesis that there is no classical or medieval source for the notion that you can do a mitzvah to benefit someone who has passed away, unless you are their descendant or were otherwise influenced by them. Today I was looking at a contemporary sefer called Pnei Baruch which said that "Chazal say that Yaakov's son Asher sits at the entrance to Gehinnom and saves all those who learn Mishnayos, and even a stranger who learns Mishnayos on behalf of somebody saves him from Gehinnom." As I looked into it further, though, it became clear that the source in Chazal was only for the first part. The earliest source I could find for the second part was a sefer called Yalkut Das V'Din which was only published in 1945.)

Dad, I love you dearly, and I miss you more than ever. I'm sure you would understand why we are doing the shiur a day late. Because among the many good qualities that you taught me, one of them was common sense!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Kezayis Post

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link. This year, I was sent a fascinating new piece of evidence that Chazal's kezayis was much smaller than the sizes popularly stated today. It's from the following Mishnah:
 טלית טהורה שהכניס ממנה שלש על שלש לבית טמא נטמאה. וטמאה שהכניס ממנה אפילו כזית לבית טהור טמאתו: 
A pure cloak of which a three-by-three [finger-length] piece entered an impure house becomes impure. [If it was] an impure [cloak], if he extended even the volume of an olive [of it] into a pure house, it makes [the house] impure. (Mishnah, Nega'im 13:8)
This Mishnah states that a piece of a cloak (which is a material approximately the thickness of matzah, or less), which is the volume of an olive, is less than three-by-three finger lengths. Unless you're going to say that people back then were much bigger (which indeed, some people do say), then we see that a kezayis of matzah is significantly smaller than about a quarter of a letter/A4-size piece of paper.

Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - exploring why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should aim to eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night.

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in the charedi polemical journal Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

The Kezayis Revolution - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Finally, two notes regarding The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

First, there are lots of tours over the next few weeks, including before Pesach as well as Chol HaMoed. But they are rapidly filling up, so if you'd like to come, book your tour as early as you can!

Second, we are really looking for people who support our goals of educating the entire spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world, and who want to be part of our mission. To join the museum as a patron, please see for details. We can now arrange tax-deductible donations in Israel, the UK and Canada, as well as the US. For easy online donations, please click this link. Thank you for supporting our mission!

Monday, March 27, 2017

You Can't Go Home Again

They say that you can never go home again. Memories are never as we left them. You can never go back to your childhood and find it exactly as you left it. Well, yesterday I gave it a darn good try.

Yesterday I traveled back to my hometown of Manchester, England for the first time since leaving there twenty-four years ago. It was emotionally overwhelming. I'd forgotten just how beautifully green it was. Though on the other hand, I certainly didn't remember it being so black. Neighborhoods that were barely Jewish when I left are now full of kollel avreichim.

I went to visit an old neighbor of mine, Rabbi Hillel Gittelson, who had recently miraculously recovered from a life-threatening illness about which the doctors had declared that recovery was impossible. He was my barmitzvah teacher, and an outstandingly wonderful person. About thirty years ago, he told me that when I grow up, I should write a book about animals in the Torah. At the time, that seemed like the most ridiculous idea. Me, write a book? About Torah? Besides, Yehuda Feliks had already published that slim volume about the animal world of the Bible, and what else was there to say?

Lo and behold, thirty years later, I have indeed published a book about the animals of the Torah, so I decided to present him with a copy (which mentions him in the acknowledgements.) I knocked at his door, and when he opened it, he didn't recognize me at first. When the penny dropped, he hugged me and kissed me and we were both overwhelmed with emotion. He had changed a lot in his appearance, but his personality was exactly as I remember it; bursting with warmth and Torah and good humor.

With childhood memories flooding back, I decided to go and visit the house where I grew up. When I approached it, I first stood outside, taking the sight in. I remembered everything, even the individual bushes in the garden. I knocked at the door, and introduced myself as the previous resident. The owners, a lovely frum family, welcomed me in. By a coincidence that is so strange as to almost make me renounce rationalism, they also had a son called Natan, and they also kept reptiles and locusts and other exotic creatures!

I looked around the house, and while it was much, much smaller than I remembered it, I recognized almost all the elements in a dizzying rush of memories and emotions. Finally I went to the living room, where they still had the very same bookcases that we had installed. I was mamash back home! And lo and behold, there, in the very middle of the bookshelves, there was a book that I certainly recognized...

....Torah, Chazal and Science, by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman.

No, you can never go home again!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Miraculous Transformation

Several weeks ago, The Biblical Museum of Natural History received a gift from an entomologist friend of ours: a cluster of eggs. They were absolutely tiny, each one smaller than a sesame seed. After a few days, the eggs hatched into spiky green caterpillars. These ate and ate and ate and grew and grew and grew until they were the size of my pinky finger. Then they spun silk cocoons around themselves. Today, the very first moth emerged from its cocoon:

 Spectacular, isn't it? Here are the photos of the earlier stages. Note how tiny the eggs are!

This beautiful moth is an eri silkmoth, and it couldn't be more different from the caterpillar that it came from. And I'm not just talking about its wings and its completely different appearance and form. While the caterpillar was an eating machine, the silkmoth has no mouthparts and cannot eat or drink; it now lives only to mate and lay eggs. 

Eri silkmoths have two indirect connections to the Torah. One is that silk is a material mentioned in Tanach, and the other is that this particular species feeds on the deathly poisonous castor bean plant, which many identify as the kikayon - the tree that shaded Jonah. 

But perhaps the most powerful religious aspect of this creature is the sheer inspirational wonder of it! It's just amazing to see how a tiny speck turned into one amazing creature and then into an entirely different amazing creature!

There are two interrelated theological points that I would like to make here. One is that, while I do not believe (and I don't think anyone else does either) that there was any divine supernatural intervention involved in these transformations, I still think that it is reasonable to describe them as miraculous and as demonstrations (not proofs!) of the Creator's greatness. A universe in which such things take place is a very special universe!

The second point is as follows. Even the most religious and non-rationalist of people will agree that God did not use miracles to turn the egg into a caterpillar and to turn the caterpillar into a radically different creature. So why are they so insistent that there is no possible scientific explanation for the much less complicated transformation of one species into a slightly different species? Why are they so resistant to the notion that God, just as He used natural means to turn a caterpillar into a silkmoth, could have used natural means to evolve one species into another?

Meanwhile, the rest of our cocoons should be hatching over the next few days, but the moths don't have a long lifespan. So now is a good time to book a tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

The Evils of Civic Responsibility and National Pride?

A rabbinic colleague of mine recently purchased a Hebrew illustrated children's haggadah, Me-Avdut LeCherut , published by Yefeh Nof, ...