Friday, August 11, 2017

Chicken Shtick

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Answer: To ask the posek if he needs a mesorah.

Many news outlets this week were reporting on the story of the Braekel chicken, an old breed from Belgium which has not historically been used for food. Some of the greatest charedi rabbinic authorities met this week and spent four hours discussing whether it is kosher. Rav Moshe Sternbuch said no, while Rav Nissim Karelitz said yes.

There are many people with great expertise in kashrus. And my friends Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Rabbi Chaim Loike and Moshe Rosenbaum are tremendous experts in the halachic history of unusual species of birds. However, it seems to me that nobody has yet studied the overall picture of Torah taxonomy, and how that impacts the evaluation of the kashrus status of different creatures.

I can't get into a full discussion here, but here are some brief points (and you can find extensive discussion in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom). The Torah lists two dozen birds that are not kosher. Since we can't identify them with certainty, we only eat a bird if there is a mesorah that it is kosher. But how do you decide if a seemingly new bird is actually a new type, that is not covered within the existing mesorah?

There is no formal definition of min, the Torah term for "type." However, if we survey Torah classification in general, two things become clear. One is that min is generally a much broader classification than species. Another is that the more charedi you are, the broader the definition of min ought to be.

Allow me to explain. The Torah lists ten types of kosher land animals. There is a dispute in the Gemara as to whether this represents the sum total of kosher land animals. The generally accepted conclusion is that it does indeed represent the sum total. However, the modern science of zoology counts 172 species that are definitely kosher: thirty-eight species of deer, four species of musk deer, the giraffe and okapi, the pronghorn, twenty-four species of wild cattle, seventeen species of duiker, twenty-three species of grazing antelope, thirty-two species of gazelle and dwarf antelope, four species of chevrotain, and twenty-seven species of goat antelope. Can these all be included in the ten types mentioned in the Torah?

Most of these species, such as the deer, gazelles, antelope and cattle, can certainly be included in the Torah’s list without difficulty, simply by saying that min includes different species in the same genus. But some are very different and are thus more difficult to include in these categories. Some identify the giraffe as one of the ten animals in the Torah’s list, but then what about the okapi? Furthermore, it would seem difficult to classify the enormous, strange-looking moose, the tiny, tusked musk deer, and the even smaller chevrotain, as varieties of the types in the Torah’s list.

Now, I personally am comfortable with saying that the Torah's list is either not exhaustive, or that the "world" of the Torah is limited to a very small region. However, it can be safely assumed that most charedim would reject those approaches (and indeed, some of the opposition to my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax was due to my advancing such views). Thus, in order to encompass all 172 species within the Torah's ten types, they must be taking a very broad definition of min indeed. Similar arguments can be advanced for how they would include all camelids and lamoids, and all species of pig, amongst the four animals listed in the Torah as possessing one kosher sign. With birds, there is further evidence that the Torah in general, and the charedi approach in particular, would have a very broad definition of min; I plan to discuss this in a future post about the kashrus of kiwis.

Thus, when it comes to rating the kashrus of a variety of chicken, with which even according to zoology's narrow definition, they are all the same species, and they can all interbreed, and they are all descended from Indian jungle fowl - kal v'chomer ben beno shel kal v'chomer that they are all the same min!

So why do some people say otherwise? Partly because they have not undertaken a broader analysis of the topic, as discussed above. But there are also other reasons why people make a fuss about these things. It will distract the discussion if I mention them now, so I will leave them for a future post. Meanwhile, if you will be in Israel in October, and you are interested in kashrus, come join our Feast Of Exotic Curiosities!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rambam, Aristotle, and Creation

Rabbi Chaim (Howard) Jachter recently published a book called Reason to Believe. I haven't seen it, but someone sent me a few pages of it in which he discusses various approaches to Torah and science, including my own. While I greatly value Rabbi Jachter's writings in general, and I am honored that he engages in a serious presentation of my views, there is an unfortunate serious distortion of my position, which I would like to correct.

Rabbi Jachter writes that "a primary source" for my approach is Rambam saying that he would have accommodated Aristotle's eternity of the universe, had it been proven. In fact, I did not refer to any such statement by Rambam. And with good reason - he says no such thing!

According to the Rambam (Guide 2:25) only Plato's view (that the universe was created from timeless matter) could theoretically be brought in line with Torah. Rambam admits that the verses of the Torah could also be theoretically reinterpreted according to Aristotle (who maintains that the universe always existed in its present form), but he says that such an accommodation would be impossible, due to the fundamental theological incompatibility of Judaism with the Aristotelian worldview.

Incidentally, R. Jachter is not the only person to misunderstand Rambam's position here; I have seen Prof. Nathan Aviezer make the same error. And there are, of course, those who claim that Rambam secretly really did accept Aristotle's approach, despite his vehement stated opposition to it, but personally I have no patience for such Straussian quasi-conspiracy theories (notwithstanding the claims by certain maniacal zealots that I subscribe to such things).

So, that was not the source in Rambam that I based myself on, because it does not exist. Instead, the source in Rambam that I used was Rambam explicitly saying that the account of creation is not all to be interpreted literally, and his cryptic statements which his interpreters revealed to mean that he held that the Six Days were not actually periods of time.

Note that there is a world of difference between this and the Straussian approach of claiming that Rambam was a secret Aristotelian. With regard to the nature of the account of the six days, Rambam openly states that he is presenting his view in a cryptic manner:
"The following point now claims our attention. The account of the six days of creation contains, in reference to the creation of man, the statement: "Male and female created he them" (i. 27), and concludes with the words: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them" (ii. 1), and yet the portion which follows describes the creation of Eve from Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, the history of the serpent and the events connected therewith, and all this as having taken place after Adam had been placed in the Garden of Eden. All our Sages agree that this took place on the sixth day, and that nothing new was created after the close of the six days. None of the things mentioned above is therefore impossible, because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed. There are, however, some utterances of our Sages on this subject [which apparently imply a different view]. I will gather them from their different sources and place them before you, and I will refer also to certain things by mere hints, just as has been done by the Sages. You must know that their words, which I am about to quote, are most perfect, most accurate, and clear to those for whom they were said. I will therefore not add long explanations, lest I make their statements plain, and I might thus become "a revealer of secrets," but I will give them in a certain order, accompanied with a few remarks, which will suffice for readers like you." (Friedlander translation, from
This, and the interpretation of this passage by the primary commentators on the Guide, is the passage of Rambam that I was quoting in my book. I already wrote to Rabbi Jachter about it, and he promised to amend his for the next printing. But since there will be many people who form their opinion of both Rambam's view and my own work, I wanted to set matters straight here.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Time Travel

This Sunday morning, I am flying from Melbourne to Los Angeles. My flight leaves Melbourne at 9:15am Sunday. The flight is long - over fourteen hours. And it arrives in Los Angeles at 6:30 am - on the same day.

I am traveling back in time! It's going to be the longest day of my life (unless we are speaking metaphorically, in which case we have to give precedence to days in which I was at Misrad HaPenim).

Halachically, it raises all kinds of interesting questions. Which tefillos do I davven? When do I davven them? Does Shabbos come back again briefly for me, and if so, do I make kiddush/havdalah? (See extensive halachic discussion on these issues at this link.)

Such questions, and the very concept of the International Date Line - and the question of where, halachically, to set it - potentially relate to the rationalist/mystic divide. According the mystical approach, halachic reality is a metaphysical reality which is "out there" and we have to discover it. There is a metaphysical dateline, and we have to try to figure out where it is. According to the rationalist approach, on the other hand, halachic reality is institutional. We create halachah, by the application of halachic principles to the best of our ability. Once created, it is what we created.

For further discussion on this point, as well as on the related topic of what Chazal and the Rishonim believed to be the shape of the world, see my post Rationalism and the International Dateline.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Aussie Stuff

For readers NOT in Australia: Can you guess what this animal is? It's not a hedgehog or a porcupine. (By the way, the animal pictured in the previous post was a Southern hairy-nosed wombat.) For extra points, what is the tube thing in the middle, and what is very special about this creature?

For readers in Melbourne, here is my speaking schedule for the next few days:

Friday, July 28, 2017

Counter-Terrorism for Dummies (TM)

This will, I very much hope, be the last of my posts relating to my nephew's shooting of the terrorist in Neve Tzuf. If you don't want to read any more about this topic, feel free to skip to the end of the post to see a photo of an amazing animal that I met this week.

On Facebook, I posted a link to my previous post, Armchair Commandos, with the request that people should "please read this post to see why people who are criticizing my nephew for not killing the terrorist have no idea what they are talking about and are causing unwarranted distress." Incredibly, some people responded by criticizing my nephew without reading the post!

In that post, I deliberately did not explain the reasons why my nephew did not kill the terrorist. For I wanted to stress that the more fundamental point is that if you haven't trained as a soldier, don't know the Rules of Engagement or the reasons for them, AND haven't been in such a situation, then you are simply not in a position to judge what he did.

Some people said that it was wrong for me to try to shut down discussion and "argue from authority." After all, they said, everyone's entitled to their opinion. And wasn't I being a hypocrite - after all, when the Gedolim banned my books, I didn't accept the argument from authority!

The answer to that is that there's actually no problem of logic or reason with arguing from authority. The only question is, who is considered an authority! I would argue that the charedi Gedolim are not authorities in resolving conflicts between Torah and science. (Obviously, others disagree, but I have presented ample arguments as to why they are mistaken.)

When it comes to counter-terrorism, however, the IDF and my nephew are clearly greater authorities than some random Joe Shmo with a computer. This was made very clear by the silly comments made by people with absolutely no knowledge of these things. In order to explain why they are wrong, I will have to explain some of the reasons for the IDF's rules of engagement and my nephew's actions. But I am sick of arguing this with people, and it is extremely hurtful to my family (who read my posts and the comments). Aside from dealing with the trauma of the attack itself and the loss of their neighbors, my sister and her family have had to deal with the press hounding them and the most horrific comments made about my nephew being a coward(!!!) and suchlike. So if people want to post critical comments on the arguments that I will now present, do it on your own blog or Facebook page, not here!

So here are some sample criticisms and my response (I am not a soldier either, but at least I have read about the rules of engagement and spoken to my family):

"He should have shot to kill!"
Response: That is only in the movies, not in real life. In real life, except for certain very specific types of situations (e.g. with a sniper), there is shoot to hit or shoot to miss. The human head is a relatively small target compared to the body. To maximize their chances of hitting the terrorist, soldiers are trained to shoot for the largest target, which is their torso. (It's pretty amazing that my nephew managed to hit him - after suddenly running out of his house, scaling a wall and firing through the very small kitchen window!) Shooting them in the torso may or may not result in their death. So this is the perfectly logical reason why he did not "shoot to kill." Now, someone without military training would not necessarily know this. But what they should know is that they don't have military training and therefore should not criticize!
Even if it was possible to "shoot to kill," there are very good reasons why the IDF would not train its soldiers to do that. One reason is that there have been cases of mistaken identity - of terrorist attacks in which well-meaning defenders accidentally killed the wrong person. It's much better to have a practice of simply stopping the terror attack, and then evaluating what should be done. (There are also other reasons why "shoot to kill," even if possible, would not be a wise policy.)

"He should have shot him dead afterwards!"
Response: Really? At what point exactly should he have done this? My nephew shot the terrorist, the terrorist dropped, and then my nephew ran into the house. At that point, when every second counts, he did exactly the right thing - he checked to see if there were other terrorists (for which he would need every bullet!), and he tried to stop his neighbors from bleeding to death. When exactly should he have killed him?

When help came for the victims, should he have gone to the side and quietly put a bullet in his head? Aside from the fact that the consequences for my nephew would have been disastrous, why don't you demand that of everyone else who showed up? There is a government and there are courts and terrorists get put on trial. If you want the courts to apply the death penalty, then petition the government. Don't demand whoever happens to be around the terrorist - be it the soldier, the medic, or the prison warden - to act outside of the legal system.

Again, I understand that people are frustrated that this murderer is alive and might walk free one day. Believe me, my family is every bit as upset about that as you are - and probably a lot more so. But don't vent your frustration in misplaced criticism. And if you haven't been trained and experienced in combat situations, then you are not in a position to judge those who are.

Shabbat Shalom from Australia. Here is a photo of an amazing animal that I met this week:

And here is a reminder about the Exotic Halachic Feast at The Biblical Museum of Natural History - which has a very limited number of seats available!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Armchair Commandos

(Apologies in advance if this post is too angry. I just arrived in Australia and I haven't slept much in the last two days.)

My nephew. A very sweet and sensitive young man.
In the aftermath of the terrible slaughter of the Salomon family in Neve Tsuf, there have been all the expected reactions. But one reaction, from a surprisingly large number of people, is catching my family by surprise, and is extremely upsetting.

There are a lot of people criticizing my nephew for only stopping the terrorist and not killing him. I'm not talking about people innocently seeking to understand what happened; I am talking about people passing judgment on my nephew, and saying what he should have done instead.

It's hard to find the words to explain how foolish this is. In order to voice any such opinion, you'd have to (A) know what it means to be a soldier, (B) know the IDF rules of engagement, (C) understand the reasons for the rules of engagement (there are at least three good reasons not to kill wounded terrorists, and even more in this case), (D) know what it's like to suddenly run from your Shabbos table to find your neighbors being killed, and (E) know the precise details of what happened in Neve Tsuf, including the layout of the house and how the shot was taken. I'm pretty sure that all these people criticizing my nephew fail on most if not all of these.

People voicing these criticisms are not only being foolish; they are also causing a lot of distress to my family. Now, when I first spoke to my sister, right after Shabbos went out, and I told her how sorry I was for her, she replied, "It's not about me, it's about them." Of course, she was being her typically selfless self; the truth is that while nobody's suffering can compare to that of the Salomon family, my sister and her family are also suffering immensely. How people can add to that by criticizing the heroic actions of my nephew is beyond me.

The problem is that people do not realize that they do not understand that which they think they understand. And it's so easy to lecture other people as to what they should have done, when you're merely sitting at your computer, with no real knowledge of such situations. It's the same with people criticizing the government for not enacting wide-scale actions against the Palestinians as retribution. It's easy to say such things when you don't actually have to consider the potential consequences of such actions.

I understand that people feel tremendous grief and rage. But if you're giving voice to that, please try to express it appropriately. And if you don't understand why someone acted as they did - whether a soldier, a prime minister, or anyone - then try to find out and understand why they did what they did, before passing judgement. (This is an important lesson for lessening disputes in general. People are not usually "crazy." If someone does something that you see as deeply wrong or absurd, try to understand why they did it. There's usually a reason.)

And if you really want to help Neve Tsuf, please donate to help them install a more advanced security system, at this link.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The news of the murders in Neve Tzuf is devastating. I knew the father, Yossi Salomon; he was my sister's next-door neighbor. I don't want to say too much about what happened before I can find out what exactly is permissible for public release; I will say that I am very proud of my nephew, who shot the terrorist, the second time that he has stopped a terror attack. But it's awful that he had to do it; in real life, such heroics are not fun at all. 

Upon reading the terrorist's claim that he was doing it to protect Al-Aksa mosque after what the Zionists are doing (i.e. installing metal detectors), my first reaction was to think, If only they had not put up the metal detectors, then these people would still be alive! But, of course, it's not so simple. In the long run, capitulating to such things does not necessarily serve to protect more lives. Israel is not the West, where compromise leads to peace; instead, compromise is often seen as weakness, spurring on further hostilities. On the other hand, it was certainly a lesson to me in that it's so easy to call for Bibi to take a harder line when you don't actually have to face the potential consequences.

I don't have anything more to add right now. May Hashem heal the wounded survivors of the attack, may He comfort the family, and may He avenge the dead. And may we never hear of such things again.

Chicken Shtick

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To ask the posek if he needs a mesorah . Many news outlets this week were reporti...