Monday, April 23, 2018

Sublimity vs. Stupidity in Shul Hand-Outs

Last Shabbos I picked up two Torah leaflets in my local shul. One was sublime, inspirational, amazing, educational. The other... not so much.

Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines
The former was the inaugural issue of HaMizrachi, the official publication of World Mizrachi, the religious Zionist movement founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines. It actually commemorates one hundred years since the publication of the first HaMizrachi in Poland. The booklet includes articles by such illustrious figures as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rabbanit Racheli Frankel, Rabbi Yosef Rimon, Rabbanit Shani Taragin, and others. It can downloaded at, and I very much look forward to future issues.

Reading the introduction by Rabbi Doron Perez (who also authored a fantastic piece in the Koren/Mizrachi Yom Ha-Atzma'ut Machzor), I learned something surprising. The organization's name, Mizrachi, is actually an acronym for MercaZ RuChanI, expressing its goal of providing a spiritual base for Zionism. Who knew?!

The other leaflet that I picked up was the official publication of a certain branch of chassidus. I've picked up a few of them, and they inevitably irk me, because they are chock-full of implausible miracle stories. I don't mind the occasional chassidishe miracle story (preferably told with a twinkle in one's eye) which has an inspirational message, and I recognize how such an approach is beneficial for many people. But, at least with the few issues of this publication that I have seen, that's all it is! Miracle story after miracle story after miracle story.

This particular issue had a section about the holiness of Shabbos, and it was really over the top. It contained several short anecdotes, and as I read them, my eyebrows kept going higher and higher, until finally they shot off my face and hit the ceiling.

The first anecdote was regarding der heiliker Ruzhiner, and about how when Shabbos started, his appearance changed so dramatically that anyone who wasn't watching would think that it was a different person.

The second was about how a "famous doctor" testified that there is an actual change in the pulse of a Yid's hand on Shabbos.

The third was about how the Baal Shem Tov's Shabbos clothes were a much larger size than his weekday clothing, but both sets fitted him perfectly, because on Shabbos he was much bigger.

The fourth was about how Reb Chayim of Chertovitch had to change his place in Shul every Shabbos, because his weekday seat was under a beam, which cleared his head during the week, but did not do so on Shabbos, when he was a full head taller.

Extra-tall hassidic rabbi spotted in Crown Heights
Good grief!

As nonsensical as all this is, in the past I would still have just dismissed it as harmless entertainment. But lately I have grown increasingly concerned about the effects of teaching people to be utterly naive and gullible about Holy Men. Ha-aretz had a frightening article about the cult surrounding convicted sexual predator Rav Eliezer Berland, whose followers believe that he is God in human form, and that it is permitted for him to engage in actions that would be forbidden for others. And I've posted here several times about people getting taken advantage of by other "holy men," or making other damaging choices due to their complete lack of critical thought. I am beginning to think that such Torah leaflets could be downright dangerous.

Although, I must say, my suit does feel smaller on me by the end of Shabbos!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

All In A Day's Work

The main guide at the Biblical Museum of Natural History was away today, so I led the tours. Among the visitors today were: 
  • A German Christian family spending some time in Israel who were returning for their second visit in three months, because they loved it so much;
  • An Asian visitor who wrote the first 5-star review of the museum in Chinese (at least, it looks Chinese to me);
  • A Californian Jewish retired couple with their children and grandchildren that they came to visit;
  • An Israeli Arab learning to be a tour guide who was so fascinated that he bought The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom and asked me to inscribe it;
  • Several other tour guides, one of whom mentioned that of all the museums he's been to in Israel, ours is the best;
  • And an ultra-charedi principal of a cheder in Beitar who came to check out the museum, and liked it so much that he is sending 120 children. 
Stay tuned for a major announcement about The Biblical Museum of Natural History coming next week!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Greatest Miracle

It's sad that some people seek to bolster emunah through ridiculous stories of sentient pigs, flawed "proofs" from animals that chew the cud, or pseudo-scientific demonstrations of auras. Because there's something so much more powerful which, unlike our ancestors, we are blessed to have right in front of us. It's the single greatest miracle in post-Biblical history: the return of the Jewish People to their ancestral homeland.

An ancient nation, exiled and dispersed and massacred with the most horrific persecution in human history, fulfills its ancient prophecies and returns to its homeland, to create an amazing country and triumph against overwhelming odds. Is there anything more inspirational than that?!

The more that one learns about the creation of the Israel, the more miraculous it becomes. Historian Paul Johnson, in A History Of The Jews, describes the extraordinary confluence of circumstances that was necessary for it to happen, including the death of Roosevelt (who had turned anti-Zionist), and an amazing brief period in which the Soviet Union was pursuing an active pro-Zionist policy. As Johnson concludes: "Israel slipped into existence through a fortuitous window in history which briefly opened for a few months in 1947-8. That too was luck; or providence." (It's worthwhile reading Johnson's book to learn more about all the factors that had to coincide for Israel to come into existence.)

Then there are all the amazing aspects of the War of Independence. The only reason that Israel had soldiers at all were to due to the remarkable events of the life of Colonel John Patterson, the lion hunter of Zion. The fledgling army didn't even have communication devices for its forces, and relied on a network of carrier pigeons. Israel's homemade Davidka mortar turned out to be wildly inaccurate and completely useless at damaging things, but it did make a very loud noise, and that scared away Arab forces!

And ever since the War of Independence, it's been miracle after miracle. Entebbe. The Six-Day War. The absorption of refugees from all over the world. The desert turning green. The tiny state turning into a source of technology and ideas that improve life all over the world.

Yom Ha'Atzmaut celebrates the greatest miracle in recent history. There's nothing more worthy of celebration (see Rav Eliezer Melamed's discussion at this link). Chag Sameach!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Yom HaZikaron and Charedim: The Bad, The Ugly, and the Amazing

There are three approaches to Yom HaZikaron that are found in the charedi community.

By far the most common is that which I practiced during my years in the charedi community: obliviousness and indifference. For the vast majority of charedim, Yom HaZikaron just doesn't register for them. They don't know anyone in the IDF, and they don't want to be part of the national community that is mourning those who fell in battle. If they happen to be walking in the streets while the siren sounds, then they may well stand still out of good neighborly relations, but otherwise they don't see any reason why this day should be significant.

For a very small minority of charedim, most of whom live down the street from me, a truly disgusting approach is taken. They will steal Israeli flags from cars and homes, and they will holler and jeer during the siren. The Beit Shemesh municipality even had to ask the police to safeguard the flags in the military portion of the local cemetery, after they were twice ripped down in the last few days. The flag destruction is very, very upsetting to local Zionist residents - it is done mostly by children, but often accompanied by laughing adults - yet unfortunately there does not seem to be any solution.

Another small minority of charedim take the opposite approach - actively commemorating Yom HaZikaron. There is an Anglo-charedi-lite shul in my city which encourages its members to watch Yom HaZikaron ceremonies and visit military cemeteries. And here is an extraordinary video about the amazing Rabbi Menachem Bombach and his chassidic school in Beitar, showing how they meaningfully commemorate Yom HaZikaron: (If you are reading this via email subscription, you will have to visit to watch the video)

I usually do not like predicting the future, except in hindsight. Still, my prediction is that Rabbi Bombach's approach will spread further, due to its obvious ethical value. Yet it will do so very minimally. The reason is that for most charedim, there is too great a fear that by teaching the children about the great sacrifices made by heroic soldiers, there is a risk that the children may want to join the IDF. That is why charedi rabbanim have opposed praying for the welfare of soldiers. There are only a few brave souls who recognize that this fear should not outweigh the importance of showing care and concern for our brothers and sons who place their lives on the line for all of us.

May Hashem comfort all those who have lost relatives and friends in the struggle for Israel's survival.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Real Reasons For Charedi Practice

When people from the charedi community give reasons and explanations for various aspects of charedi society, these are very often not the real reasons. It's not that these people are necessarily lying. Rather, it's that there are two "levels" of explanations. There are the explanations that are given for kiruv or PR or even internal purposes, and that are believed by many Anglo charedi wannabees, and sometimes even by some real McCoy Israeli charedim. And then there are the real explanations, which are well understood by astute observers of the charedi world, as well as many people within the charedi world.

For example, why do charedim wear black fedoras, white shirts, and dark suits? The explanation often given, such as by Nosson Slifkin (my cousin's cousin) in a book called Second Focus, is that it is because a Ben Torah should dress respectably. However, that's not the real reason. The real reason is for social identification. Thus, in charedi circles it is not acceptable to dress very respectably in a light suit and colored shirt and tie, but it is acceptable to dress with an ill-fitting jacket and battered hat and no tie.

Another example is with the mass avoidance of army service. Often, spokesmen for the charedi community will claim that the reason is that the Torah study of all the yeshivah students provides a vital part of Israel's protection. But as I have written about on numerous occasions, aside from this having no basis in classical Judaism, nobody in the charedi world seriously believes it anyway. The real reason why charedim don't go to the army, as Rav Aharon Feldman once stated, is that army service is extremely threatening to the charedi way of life.

A third example is with charedim not participating in Yom HaShoah. Explanations such as "the siren is chukas hagoy," or "we don't mourn during Nissan," or "we don't see the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as being the correct event to base it around," have a lesser or greater degree of merit, but none of them are the real, underlying reason why charedim do not participate in Yom HaShoah. Even if Yom HaShoah was in Teves, and was commemorated by everyone simultaneously saying Yizkor, charedim still wouldn't participate. The real reason is that Yom HaShoah is an event created by and for the nation of the State of Israel as a whole, and charedim do not want to identify as part of that wider community. It's as simple as that.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Mysterious Bear-Beast of Afula

The last few posts were pretty heavy, so here's something a little lighter. At least, it's light in retrospect; while it was happening, I feared that something inexplicable was going on with the universe.

Earlier today, I was involved in an online discussion about a photo of a "dead deer" found outside Ramat Beit Shemesh. I pointed out that the animal had been misidentified and it was actually a gazelle. Meanwhile, someone mentioned that their son had just come back from a hike near Afula, where he saw a dead bear in a sack by the side of the road.

A dead bear?!

This was clearly impossible. The last bear in Israel was killed 101 years ago, in 1917. There are a few bears in zoos, but they wouldn't be lying in a sack by the side of the road.

But the person insisted that this was for real. He added that his son had taken a photo of the bear, and he shared it:

As soon as I saw the photo, I laughed. That was no bear! Although it had certain similarities to a bear. It was obviously the animal that was called arktomys, "bear-mouse" in Latin, due to its rough similarities to a bear. It was a hyrax, the very animal mentioned in last week's Torah reading (or this week's, if you live outside of Israel).

There was no mistaking it. Brown fur. Pointy snout. Very small ears. Short, stocky legs. The hyrax is the only animal in Israel that matches all those characteristics. My wife saw the picture, and said, "Oh, that's a hyrax." Even my youngest child, age five, who wandered into my office and saw the photo, instantly said "Hey, look at that hyrax!" I pointed this out to the people in the online discussion.

Before we proceed, here are some photos of hyraxes:

You see? Pointy nose, small ears, short stocky legs. All distinctive features of a hyrax.

"But the animal in the photo is huge!" said someone. "That's a bag used in construction, and they are one cubic meter in size!"

Well, that was impossible. So obviously there must be smaller bags that are of the same style. Sure enough, we consulted someone in construction, and he said that while most bags of that type are a cubic meter, there are some that are smaller.

Case dismissed!

Or so I thought.

Because then someone pointed out the Coca-Cola bottle top.

It's at the bottom right of the picture. And when I noticed it, I was stunned.

Can you see the problem?

A Coca-Cola bottle top is only about an inch wide. That would make the hyrax in this picture absolutely huge! A hyrax is only around eighteen inches in length, maximum twenty, but the one in this picture would be about three or four feet long!

That was impossible. Completely impossible. There are no mutant giant hyraxes. This was Afula, not Dimona.

So what on earth was going on? Was it some sort of optical illusion? Was this a prank? I felt like I was in an episode of The X-Files.

The best guess that I had was that the ground was sloping down to the right in some kind of way that meant that the bottle top was much further away than it looked. I showed it to a colleague at The Biblical Museum of Natural History and he suggested that it was a combination of a rare outsize hyrax together with an optical illusion caused by the slope of the ground near the bottle-top. I decided to send the picture to a friend of mine at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority for his input.

A while later, he got back to me. He said that the picture was indeed very confusing. But after discussing it with several colleagues at the Nature and Parks Authority, he had the answer.

It's a cow.

Now, this answer initially seemed preposterous! Cows don't have pointy noises. Cows don't have short ears. Cows don't have short, stocky legs.

However, if you examine the picture again, and add some insights, you can see how there was an extraordinary confluence of bizarre factors that made a young cow look exactly like a hyrax.

Let's start with the ears. Cows have big ears, not small ears. However, my friend argued that its ears were probably chewed off by jackals.

What about the short, stocky legs? Well, once you posit that it is a cow, then you can see how the legs could theoretically be much longer, with the lower part of the leg concealed inside the bag.

What about the pointy snout? It has a lot of flies around it. If you look very carefully and use some imagination, you can see how it could be a broad snout which only looks pointy because of the way that the flies were positioned when the photo was taken.

Is all this too far-fetched? Well, before deciding that something is implausible, you have to weigh it up in light of the alternatives. It's much less far-fetched than positing that there is a bear or a giant mutant hyrax near Afula!

Shabbat Shalom! As you hear/read the Torah portion about hyraxes, non-kosher birds, and the shemonah sheratzim, remember that you can see and learn about these animals at The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Is Yom HaShoah on the Wrong Day?

Is Yom HaShoah observed on an inappropriate day?

In the previous post, I explained the mistake in the charedi position that saying Tehillim, rather than standing in silence, is a more traditionally Jewish way of commemorating the dead. In a future post, I will explain the fundamental reason why charedim do not participate in Yom HaShoah. In this post, I want to address a particular objection, voiced by charedi leadership, to the day picked to commemorate the Shoah. It is an objection with a certain degree of merit.

There are a number of possible days to commemorate the Holocaust, which fall into several categories. One could choose a day which denotes the beginning of the Holocaust. This itself is open to a range of possibilities. In a course on Holocaust Studies that I took at Bar-Ilan, by Dr. Judy Baumel-Schwartz, she noted that historians dispute the date that should be said to begin the Holocaust - the rise of the Nazi Party in 1920, the German elections in July 1932, the election of Hitler as chancellor in January 1933, the passing of the Nuremberg laws in 1935, Kristallnacht and the accompanying race laws in November 1938, the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the launch of the Final Solution in 1941, or the Wannsee Conference of 1942.

Another option is to choose a date of religious significance. The first Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel was on Asarah B'Tevet 1949, following a decision by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel that it should be observed on a traditional day of mourning in the Jewish calendar. Others commemorate it on Tisha B'Av, when they add extra Kinnot.

When the Knesset decided in 1951 to establish a day to commemorate the Holocaust, however, they decided to choose a very different type of day: One relating to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This began on the 14th of Nissan, but this date was rejected since it would be impractical to observe Yom HaShoah on erev Pesach. So instead, they picked the date of the end of the uprising, the 27th of Nissan.

Why did the Knesset choose a day relating to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? This relates to the full name of Yom HaShoah: Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah, "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day." It is a day of commemorating not only the tragedy of those who died, but also the heroism of those who fought back. The incredible events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the few drove out the many, were a psychological victory, demonstrating that Jews could be fighters and heroes.

Herein lies the problem, as articulated well by several authors in A Path Through the Ashes: Penetrating Analyses and Inspiring Stories of the Holocaust from a Torah Perspective, Collected from the Pages of the Jewish Observer (ArtScroll 1986). Defining the day in terms of the heroes, and designating the heroes as those who physically fought back, fits well with the Zionist ethos. However, it can also be seen as deeply offensive. Those who went to their deaths "like sheep to the slaughter" should not be criticized in any way. As Auschwitz survivor Joseph Friedenson wrote,
My late father, Reb Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, who gave away his last morsel of bread to the weeping children of the ghetto, was no less a hero for not having ever shot a gun... And what of the thousands of young men and women who did not part with their elderly fathers or mothers, although they could have saved themselves, and accompanied them right into the gas-chambers? And those who sacrificed themselves in order that others should live? They were all heroes. Yes, we find this new segregation of heroism at the commemoration reprehensible to our whole hashkafah, philosophy, on the Holocaust.

In my humble opinion, this objection to the date chosen for Yom HaShoah has much merit.

So why do I believe in observing Yom HaShoah on the 27th of Nissan?

Because if you define yourself as part of a group, then you should be open to compromise for the sake of achdus. Consider the response of one of the leading halachic authorities of the 18th century, R. Yaakov Reischer, when he was asked about a move to reject the kosher status of meat that was slaughtered in outlying villages by Jews that were insufficiently learned or pious. R. Reischer strongly condemned this approach (Shevut Yaakov II:58). He argued that the Jewish community must be united and not splinter into groups with different standards. And this was for a halachic matter!

The fact is that Friedenson himself notes that in 1975, he requested of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah to define a way of commemorating the Holocaust, and that while they agreed that this must be done, it never happened. Meanwhile, the Government of Israel, and the majority of the population of Israel, selected the 27th of Nissan. And so whatever inappropriate subtle messages are contained in the selection of that date (and to be honest, the "VeHaGevurah" part of Yom HaShoah is rarely even mentioned, let alone dwelt upon), the fact is that this is the date which the nation has picked.

The choice of which day to designate for Yom HaShoah was perhaps inappropriate. But the day on which it is appropriate to commemorate the Holocaust is the day that now exists for this purpose.

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה, בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וטְהוֹרִים כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיע מַזְהִירִים אֶת כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת שֶׁל שֵׁשֶׁת מִילְיוֹנֵי הַיְּהוּדִים, חַלְלֵי הַשּׁוֹאָה בְּאֵירוֹפָּה, שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׁחֲטוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׂרְפוּ וְשֶׁנִּסְפּוּ עַל קִדּוּשׁ הַשֵׁם, בִּידֵי הַמְרַצְּחִים הַגֶּרְמָנִים הָנַאצִים וְעוֹזְרֵיהֶם מִשְּׁאָר הֶעַמִּים. לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵם בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים, וְיִצְרוֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמוֹתֵיהֶם, ה' הוּא נַחֲלָתָם, בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתָם, וְיַעֶמְדוּ לְגוֹרָלָם לְקֵץ הַיָּמִין, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן.

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Sublimity vs. Stupidity in Shul Hand-Outs

Last Shabbos I picked up two Torah leaflets in my local shul. One was sublime, inspirational, amazing, educational. The other... not so muc...