Friday, February 5, 2016

The Wonder of Horrible Creepy Things

It's been a fascinating few weeks at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We've had such a diverse range of visitors. Multiple bar/bat-mitzvah groups from the Flatbush Syrian community, mesorati school groups from local moshavim, a French girl's seminary, a group of secular Israeli teachers, a bunch of American gap-year yeshivos and seminaries, and the usual assortment of local families, visiting relatives, and Anglo tourists. We also hosted a birthday party, and we started a new children's chug, attended by mesorati and dati children aged 5-9. Today's tour was joined by a family who live in Bnei Brak but who are in Beit Shemesh for Shabbos and so came early so that they could visit the museum:

Meanwhile, our collection is continuing to grow, on both a collective and individual level. Here is a picture of our monitor lizard, Bubale, taken last February, alongside a picture taken in November:

And, speaking of comparison photos, here is a fascinating letter that we received from a visitor: "Our visit to the museum was a smashing hit with the kids who loved and regularly speak of it. We are not big animal lovers (my wife is actually afraid of most animals) but this is mostly out of lack of knowledge. One thing I found interesting is in the two pictures attached. This is our little 4-year-old not knowing what a turtle is. The first picture is when her mom told her this was disgusting, the second when I told her it was great. In other words, children are totally shaped by us, and we should be opening their horizons and influencing them positively!"

I'm going to sign off with a photo which I think is amazing, but which will repulse some people. So you have to scroll down to see it. You have been warned!

Click to make the picture much bigger and give yourself nightmares!

To make up for that, here is a picture of one of our hedgehogs, just chillin'

Good Shabbos!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

On Eagles' Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The nesher, king of birds, is the most prominent bird in the Torah. Although many assume that the nesher is the eagle, and some of the commentaries have identified it as such, the evidence shows that it is more likely a vulture - specifically, the griffon vulture (see full essay here).

The best-known Scriptural description of the nesher is also the most problematic to understand. It occurs in reference to God bringing the Jewish People out of Egypt:
"You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you (va'esa eschem) on the wings of nesharim, and brought you to Myself." (Exodus 19:4)
The conventional translation of va'esa eschem is "I carried you." However, some translate it as "I elevated you." The explanation is that the nesher is the highest-flying bird, and God raised the Jewish People to spiritual heights above anything in the natural world with His miraculous redemption.[1] The highest flying birds are griffon vultures.

But many explain this verse instead to refer to God poetically carrying the Jewish People like a nesher carrying its young on its back (see Rashi ad loc.). This relates to a description of the vulture later in the Torah:
"As a nesher stirs up its nest, flutters over its young, spreads out its wings, takes them, bears them on its pinions; So did God guide them, and there was no strange god with them." (Deuteronomy 32:11-12)
The description here is of the nesher carrying its young upon its wings while flying. Many have considered this verse to present us with a great difficulty and to require some kind of allegorical or poetic interpretation, since neither vultures or eagles are generally known to carry their young on their wings. Swans and other waterfowl sometimes carry their young on their backs while swimming, and jacanas and bustards may sometimes carry their young between wing and body while walking.[2] There are reports of some ducks taking flight while their young are on their backs.[3] A further report concerns an obscure water bird from Central and Southern America called the sungrebe, which carries its twin young in pouches under both wings.[4]

But eagles and vultures, despite being widely studied, are not generally described as displaying such behavior. However, unbeknownst to many, reports do indeed exist of eagles carrying their young on their backs. One ornithologist writes:
"Many ornithologists have thought that the Bible picture of an eagle carrying her young was merely figurative, but in recent years certain reliable observers have actually seen a parent bird let its young rest for a moment on the feathered back - especially when there was no other roosting place in sight. When an eagle nests on the ledge of a sheer-walled canyon, many feet above the earth, with no jutting tree or protruding rock to break the fall, the quick movement of a mother bird to offer her own back to a frightened fledgling may be the only way to let it live to try its wings again." (V.C. Holmgren, Bird Walk Through The Bible [New York: Dover Publications 1988] p. 98)
One report of this behavior is as follows:
"Our guide was one of the small company who have seen the golden eagle teaching the young to fly. He could support the belief that the parent birds, after urging and sometimes shoving the youngster into the air, will swoop underneath and rest the struggler for a moment on their wings and back. ... Our guide, when questioned, said that every phrase of the verse [Deut. xxxii, I I] (which was new to him) was accurate, save the first; he had seen it all except the stirring up of the nest." (W.B. Thomas, Yeoman's England [1934], pp. 135-6)
Another report concerning the golden eagle comes from Arthur Cleveland Bent, one of America's greatest ornithologists, on the authority of Dr. L. Miller:
"The mother started from the nest in the crags and, roughly hand-ling the youngster, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet; then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. Once perhaps she waited fifteen minutes between flights. I should say the farthest she let him fall was a hundred and fifty feet. My father and I watched him, spellbound, for over an hour." (A. C. Bent, Bulletin of the Smithsonian Institution CLXVII [1937], 302) 
True, these reports have not been widely confirmed, despite extensive studies of these species. Furthermore, these reports concern eagles, whereas evidence shows the nesher to be the griffon vulture rather than the eagle. However, it is possible that such rare behavior likewise occurs with griffon vultures, or that nesher is a generic term encompassing both eagles and griffon vultures.

Another solution to the entire question is to posit that "the Torah speaks in the language of men," which, according to one school of thought, means that it packages its messages within the scientific worldview of the generation that received the Torah. For more on this approach, which has been used by several recent and modern authorities to explain other phrases in the Torah that are scientifically inaccurate (such as references to the "firmament," the hare bringing up its cud, the dew falling, and so on), see my essay "The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel."

If referring to a griffon vulture, these verses show that the vulture is regarded by the Torah very differently from the way that it is perceived in contemporary culture. While people today view the vulture in a negative light, the Torah presents it as an example of a loving and caring parent. This also relates to the vulture's entire parenting process. Female griffon vultures usually lay one egg, which both parents incubate for an unusually long period of around seven weeks until it hatches. The young are slow to develop and do not leave the nest until three or four months of age. The long devotion of the vulture to its young symbolizes God's deep dedication to the Jewish People.

[1] See HaKesav VeHaKabbalah ad loc.
[2] See Johnsgard, Paul A. and Kear, Janet, "A Review of Parental Carrying of Young by Waterfowl" (1968). Papers in Ornithology. Paper 32. Also Celia K. Falzone. 1992. “First Observations of Chick Carrying Behavior by the Buff-crested Bustard”. The Wilson Bulletin 104 (1). Wilson Ornithological Society: 190–92.
[3] See Johnsgard and Kear, ibid.
[4] This remarkable phenomenon was first reported in 1833 by the German ornithologist M.A. Wied. Subsequent generations of ornithologists viewed this report with skepticism or ridicule. However in 1969 Mexican ornithologist Miguel Alvarez del Toro confirmed that soon after hatching, the male sungrebe places each of the two chicks in pouches under his wings and departs. An article by B. Bertrand explains: "M. Alvarez del Toro, who observed a nesting pair in Mexico, discovered that the male has a shallow pocket under each wing into which the two young can fit. The pocket is formed by a pleat of skin, and made more secure by the feathers on the side of the body just below. The heads of the chicks could be seen from below as the bird flew. Alvarez del Toro collected the bird in order to examine it and confirm the unlikely discovery. Subsequently, he found it confirmed also by a report published by Prince Maximilian of Wied 138 years earlier but apparently ignored, forgotten or not believed. This adaptation is unique among birds: in no other species is there any mechanism whereby altricial young can be transported...." Bertrand, B. C. R. (1996) Family Heliornithidae (Finfoots) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Risk Your Kids?

As many people pointed out, Avishai Ben-Chaim's article entitled "The Charedim: Disintegration," translated in the previous post, was strange and deficient in several ways. For example, among the statistics claimed in the article was that the dropout rate from charedi to secular is 10%, and from national-religious to secular is 25%. Both of these figures seem suspect.

However, at least for the purposes of this post, let us accept that the dropout rate from the national-religious community is significantly higher than that from the charedi community (which I think is quite likely to be true, at least for now). Recently, I had a discussion with a neighbor who pointed to this fact in order to explain why he was raising his children in the charedi framework rather than the national-religious framework. In fact, he couldn't understand how anyone could reason otherwise. Surely the most important thing is to raise your kids to be religious, so how can you raise them in a framework in which the chances of them going "off the derech" are greater?

While I was sympathetic to his viewpoint, there are (at least) two responses to be made to this. One is that if you believe a certain framework to be correct and another to be deficient, then you might choose to raise your children in the correct framework even if it contains risks greater than those in the deficient framework.

The second point to note is that this reflects two very different worldviews. The charedi worldview is that the most important priority to consider is one's own (or, extension, one's childrens') religious growth and security. Accordingly, one would never choose a path in which that is more likely to be threatened.

The national-religious worldview, on other hand, is that the top priority is not oneself (or one's children), but the nation. It is indeed true that your child is more likely to suffer spiritual harm if they go to the army and college. Yet they are also a good deal more likely to suffer physical harm, but this is not a reason not to send them on that path! We have all kinds of responsibilities to the nation - not only in the religious sphere, but also in the material realm, such as with national security and the economy. Raising our children on this path, with its greater physical and spiritual risks, is part of our responsibility to the nation, and in turn reflects the values that we wish to inculcate within our children.

Some will denounce this as false and defamatory. But I think that it's self-evident. The national-religious community is, by its very nature, more focused on national responsibilities. That's why it's called the national-religious movement.

(See too this post: The Difference Between Charedi and Dati-Leumi Rabbonim)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Guest Post: The Charedi Spring?

Here is part one of a series from Avishai Ben-Chaim, entitled "The Charedim: Disintegration," translated by Marty Bluke

According to estimates, one out of ten charedim have become non-religious - and Charedi society is in a crisis that it has never experienced before. Some become part of the romanticized group, those that represent freedom, but also many of the sons and daughters of baalei teshuva are leaving the path in great numbers. "This is like the Arab Spring, the same influences," says Yehuda Moses, the son of MK Rabbi Eliezer Moses. "In the past what blocked Charedim from the world was the failure to bring in the outside media. Today anyone who wants has it in his pocket."

Is it possible that for the first time since the masses left the yeshivas on the winds of the haskala and and later with the charm of Zionism that we are looking at a revolution? Is it possible that today there are more people leaving Charedi Judaism then joining?

"Today Charedi society is facing its biggest challenge in its history" says Avishalom Shiloach a former Charedi. "Thousands of young people are leaving. This is no longer just teens in trouble, or families in distress, this is from the cream of Charedi society. There is no house that doesn't have someone leaving."

Moshe Shenfeld, a former Charedi from the organization "Making a Change," says, "In the past few years, about 1/10 of the Charedi population leaves every year. The Central Bureau of Statistics has a poll about society. Among other things that it asks, it asks about the persons level of religiosity now and asks what was your level of religiosity when you were 15. 10% have become non-Charedim."

These astounding numbers are backed up by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Out of 157,000 people polled who said that they grew up in a Charedi household at the age of 15, more then 12,000 defined themselves as no longer Charedim. "Given a few more years and the Charedi mother will be giving birth to more Chiloni children then the Chiloni mother", says Shenfeld.

Since the poll a few years has passed and the phenomenon of "yotzim bisheila", becoming non-religious, in the Charedi world is only growing and getting bigger and bigger, the estimate is that 1 in 10 Charedim are leaving. To these, one must add the even larger number leaving the National Religious world, according to some estimates 25%.

For many years there has been talk in Israel about successful Charedi demographics, but it seems that the Chilonim may be able to ultimately win in this historic battle, and the number of Charedim leaving today is more then the number of Chilonim joining the Charedi world. Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi, an important kiruv Rabbi, states: " The number of religious people in the world is not growing. Many Charedim are leaving the fold. Someone told me that there are more people leaving religion then joining".

Uri Zohar, in a publicity video for the organisation "Maaneh", adds, "We are in a very unique generation. There is a phenomenon that has never happened is such numbers, there were many people who left the Torah world at the time of Haskala and reform ... but that was due to ideological reasons."

Avi Tapilinksy
Avi Tapilinsky, once Rabbi Avraham Tapilinsky, lives in an old building in Nachlaot and was joined by a group of people who left the Charedi world. "The Charedi world does not understand the depth of the crisis that it is in", he says. Shiloach adds "They say that we have [lives with] no meaning, a soul, spirituality. [However,] we have God and also the Sabbath and also girls. We have both this world and the next world". Others add "We are like a big population of immigrants. In our view, the Charedi world has lost the war. Charedim is a new phenomenon, 60, 70 years old - they keep everything in the Torah except in reverse."

This is the spring for former Charedim. Suddenly even those who disappeared years ago are revealing themselves. Yehuda Moses, son of MK Eliezer Moses, left the Charedi world. Why did no one speak of him, only the daughter [of MK Moses]? "Because I am shy" he explains. "I didn't publicize it because I didn't want publicity".

It is hard to describe how bewildered the Charedi leadership is in response to these powerful stories, and how these stories are so painful and dealt with great care. Rabbi Eliezer Moses "Why do you say my children, I have my daughter Chaya Heidi, who I am very close to and she is very close to me, my grandchildren, an accident happened to her in her life as they say. What can I tell you, it really hurts me. It hurts me but I am not sitting shiva. I asked the Gedolei Hador and they told me there is nothing like Kiruv, to have any chance of making things better".

Yehuda Moses: "This is like the Arab Spring. In my opinion it happened for the same reasons. In the past what blocked Charedim from knowledge of the world was the inability to bring in any media. Today, everyone who wants has all the information in their pocket. Someone who is an idiot, better he stays that way, someone who has the ability to understand and the curiosity to want to know, knows. This is the Charedi Spring".

Rabbi Lazer Moses, the father, has a great soul. There is much pain and longing hiding behind the historic drama that the two opposing sectors of society provide, those who leave religion and those who return. "Today I went to a monastery, that is anthropology" says Yehuda. "When you see other religions, you see either how pathetic your religion is or how similar they all are."

The romanticized group of leavers from mainstream Charedi society that have turned into a symbol of freedom are only part of the crisis. Charedi society at its high point produced many returnees, but now their children are leaving the path in great numbers. With them it is not ideological, even if the pain and disappointment sound much the same.

Shiloach: "We are part of a crusade to to kill God, 'the threatening God,' the 'strict God,' the 'God of texts and rituals.' We are looking for a God who is much greater and much more loving. Every day we need to kill the old God so that we can love the new God and ourselves."

Given the large numbers of leavers, it seems that the non-religious and Zionists are going to win this historic battle and even to offer an alternative Sabbath experience. Later, we will see how the non-religious help the extremist Charedim win out over the moderate Charedim and come out on top in the struggle to define the face of Israel and no less important, Judaism.

[A reminder, because, incredibly, there are always people who do not read the title or first paragraph: This is a guest post. That means that I didn't write it. N.S.]

Sunday, January 24, 2016

My, What Little Teeth You Have!

Last week I acquired something extraordinary to add to the exhibits at The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

These are the jaws of the biggest fish in the world, the whale shark. Whale sharks can reach forty to fifty feet in length, with jaws five feet wide! This set, at only three-and-a-half feet wide, is from an immature specimen.

What are the theological ramifications, if any, of this leviathan? Well, there are a few interesting things to consider.

One: Could this be the fish that swallowed Jonah? Even the jaws of this juvenile specimen are more than big enough to swallow me whole. But surviving in the belly of a fish (or a whale) is not possible within the ordinary realm of nature. So it would either have been accomplished via supernatural means, or one can adopt the approach which was held by Rambam (according to some) and others that the story of the Jonah is not historical. (See Marc Shapiro's latest book for some fascinating discussion on how that view went down.)

Two: Is it kosher? No. It doesn't have scales.

Three: Is it the largest non-kosher fish? Not if we are using the biblical definition of fish. The largest non-kosher fish is the blue whale.

The fourth theologically-relevant (according to some) aspect of the whale shark, which will not be discussed at the museum, is the significance of its teeth.  

The jaws of the whale shark contain over three thousand teeth. But they are really, really tiny; not even big enough to snag my clothing when I sawed the jaws in half to fit them in my duffel bag. The teeth certainly don't play in role in the whale shark's life. It swims with its mouth wide open, vacuuming in tiny plankton. It doesn't need teeth and it doesn't use them.

So why does it have them? Well, it makes sense if they are simply the vestigial remnants of the larger teeth that its ancestors possessed and which they used to eat fish and people at Amity Beach.

For some strange reason, many people find that religiously threatening. Others, however, see it as being a wonderful testimony to the creative wisdom used in the development of life:
[If evolution were to ever be accepted as scientific fact,] ...Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, “The Educational Value of Judaism,” Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)
Creating whale sharks and great white sharks and bamboo sharks and nurse sharks and lemon sharks and hammerhead sharks and goblin sharks and mako sharks is amazing. But creating one shark that becomes all these different sharks is even more amazing!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Amazing Manna Segula!

"Manna manna."
Were you inundated today with emails about the amazing segulah of saying parashas ha-man, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, because it is Tuesday of the week of parashas Beshalach? I was.

It's quite bizarre. Here is something that was proposed by one chassidishe rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, two hundred years ago. All of a sudden, it is considered to be something that all Jews should do! (Though you don't even need to say it yourself - the Gedolim say that you can pay others to do it for you, for even better results!) This is especially odd in light of the fact that this is entirely inconsistent with the approach of the Mishnah Berurah, surely a much more mainstream work, as we shall see. (I am indebted to Rabbi Josh Waxman of the excellent Parshablog, from whose post on this topic much of the following was taken, with his permission.)

Some claim that the source for this is the Yerushalmi, but that's not quite accurate. The given source says כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו, "Whoever recites parashas ha-man, is assured that his sustenance will not decrease." Early sources, such as Seder Rav Amram Gaon, explained that it was recited every day, along with korbanos and a host of other things. However, only select people do so; most do not, because they are too busy working! To quote:
זה המנהג הנכון לנהג היחידים אנשי מעשה. והצבור אין נוהגין כן, שלא יתבטל איש איש ממלאכתו אשר המה עושים, ומקצרין ואומר אחר סיום, קדיש. חזק.

Meanwhile, the Mishnah Berurah gives an interesting explanation of the daily recital of parashas ha-man:
פרשת העקידה - קודם פרשת הקרבנות. ויכול לומר פרשת העקידה ופרשת המן אפילו בשבת. ואין די באמירה אלא שיתבונן מה שהוא אומר ויכיר נפלאות ד' וכן מה שאמרו בגמרא כל האומר תהלה לדוד ג' פעמים בכל יום מובטח לו שהוא בן עוה"ב ג"כ באופן זה. וטעם לאמירת כ"ז כי פרשת עקידה כדי לזכור זכות אבות בכל יום וגם כדי להכניע יצרו כמו שמסר יצחק נפשו ופרשת המן כדי שיאמין שכל מזונותיו באין בהשגחה פרטית וכדכתיב המרבה לא העדיף והממעיט לא החסיר להורות שאין ריבוי ההשתדלות מועיל מאומה ואיתא בירושלמי ברכות כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו ועשרת הדברות כדי שיזכור בכל יום מעמד הר סיני ויתחזק אמונתו בה' ופרשת הקרבנות דאמרינן במנחות זאת תורת החטאת כל העוסק בתורת חטאת כאלו הקריב חטאת וכו':
משנה ברורה סימן א ס"ק יג
 "The parsha of the Binding {of Yitzchak} -- before the parsha of the sacrifices. And one is able to say the parsha of the Binding and the parsha of the Manna even on Shabbat. And it is not sufficient with mere saying, but rather he must understand what he is saying and and recognize the wonders of Hashem. And so too that which they say in the gemara that anyone who says Ashrei three times every day is guaranteed that he will be a resident of the world to come, in this manner {that is, not an incantation, but understanding and appreciating this}. And the reason for the saying of all this is as follows: the parsha of the Binding is in order to recall the merit of the forefathers every day, and also to humble his yetzer, just as Yitzchak was moser nefesh. And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his food {/livelihood} comes through special Divine direction {hashgacha pratis}, as it is written {and understood midrashically} "and the one who took more did not end up with more and the one who took less did not end up with less," to teach that increasing effort does not help at all. And it is found in Yerushalmi Berachot that anyone who says the parsha of the Manna {others have here: every day} he is guaranteed that his livelihood will not decrease. And the {saying of the} Ten Commandments is in order to recall every day the standing by Mt. Sinai, and his faith in Hashem will be strengthened. And {the reason for reciting} the parsha of the sacrifices is because of what we say in Menachot: "Zot Torat HaChatat -- Anyone who engages in the {learning of} Torah of the Chatat is as if he sacrificed a Chatat {sin offering}, etc."
Thus, this is not a magic incantation, but rather a mechanism by which one realizes certain facts about the world and reinforces his emuna. The repercussions of such an internalization of these ideas will be all these great things. Note too that none of these sources speak about reciting it shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum.

Meanwhile, the saying of parshat HaMan once a year, on a specific day, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, is most certainly presented as a segula, and thus is not in consonance with the Mishna Berura's explanation.

But can any of this reconcile with Rambam's rationalist approach? That will have to be the topic of another post. Meanwhile, with regard to the nature of the manna itself, see the post Manna and Maimonides.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

There Ain't No Such Thing!

"There ain't no such thing!"

This is a familiar sentiment to Orthodox Jews with rationalist leanings who have spent a long time in yeshivah. Whether the rebbe is telling you about mermaids, humanoids growing from the ground via a cord attached to their navel, or impossibly large animals, the modern and educated student has a hard time believing that such things exist.

"An albino cyclops shark?! There ain't no such thing!"
Yet the question itself is often rebuffed as an act of heresy. Sometimes, this is directly because of the prestige of the authority that is being challenged. In other cases, it is because of the prestige being given to science that is considered unwarranted. In those cases, the questioner is often rebuffed with phrases such as "scientists don't know everything," "scientists don't know anything," or "you can't prove a negative - you can't prove that something doesn't exist!"

It is therefore valuable to see the following comments of R. Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli, better known by his acronym Ritva. The subject is a mysterious fish in the Gemara, Avodah Zarah 39b, named a kilbit. Rashi identifies it as a fish that is spontaneously generated inside vats of fish-juice - but Rashi notes that it is only generated from the juice of kosher fish, and if there is juice of non-kosher fish mixed in, the kilbit will not appear. Ritva objects to this:
"This explanation is exceedingly difficult - first, it is not logical that there is such a thing, and it does not exist in nature."
This is a perfect expression of the rationalist inclination. The existence of such a creature does not make sense, and furthermore there does not appear to be empirical evidence of such a creature.

(At first, I was bothered by this comment of Ritva. After all, belief in spontaneous generation was perfectly normative throughout the medieval period. But there are two possibilities. First, we see that Rambam, while insisting on the reality of spontaneously generating insects, was skeptical of the possibility of spontaneously generating mice, presumably because it is a larger and more complex creature. Second, it could be that Ritva is not objecting to the spontaneous generation of this fish per se, but rather to the aspect of it only spontaneously generating from the juice of kosher fish.)

So would Ritva's comment be good ammunition for those seeking to defend the rationalist approach to their non-rationalist teachers? Of course not. The inevitable rejoinder would be "But you're not Ritva! He could say it, but you cannot!"

(Reminder: I am travelling to New York tonight, then to LA next week. If you would like to meet or join parlor meetings in support of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch!)