Monday, October 8, 2018

Dealing with the Deluge

It's that time of year again... so here is the slightly expanded version of my original post regarding the Deluge.

Over the years I've received numerous questions about reconciling the traditional view of Noah's Flood with modern science. There are two sets of problems. First are those concerning the scientific impossibility of such an event - how the animals survived, how they traveled to their various locations, where the water came from, etc. These can all be answered by simply positing numerous miracles, but this is not satisfactory for those who follow the approach of Rambam and others which seeks to minimize supernatural miracles. The second set of problems is based not on the scientific impossibility of such an event, but instead upon the evidence that even a supernatural event of this nature did not happen - i.e. the evidence and records of continuous civilizations throughout the entire period.

There are a variety of different ways of approaching this topic. I tried discussing some of them online back in the summer of 2004, which may well have been one of the factors leading to the infamous ban on my books, and my comments were subsequently widely and wildly (and sometimes deliberately) misquoted. So instead of discussing it, I will just provide references to further reading material which shed light on various different approaches. Many people will condemn these approaches as unacceptable, but until they have a credible response to the scientific difficulties with the simple understanding, they would be wiser to remain silent.

First and foremost, I strongly recommend that people struggling with this difficulty read The Challenge Of Creation, preferably the third edition. I only explicitly deal with the flood in footnote 2 on page 302 (third edition), but there are many other parts of the book which are actually more relevant in terms of determining which options are available and acceptable - in particular, chapters 6-8, and 14-15.

Other relevant sources (remember, not all of these present the same approach) are:

Joel B. Wolowelsky, "Divine Literature and Human Language: Reading the Flood Story," in Bentsi Cohen, ed. As a Perennial Spring: A Festschrift Honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (NY: Downhill Publishing, 2013), pp. 521-534. (This is a revised version of his earlier article “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” Tradition 42:3 (Fall 2009) pp. 41-48.)

Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel, BeToraso Shel Rabbi Gedalyah, pp. 116-119.

Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1961).

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, commentary to Genesis, pp. 140-141.

Rabbi J. Hertz’s “Additional Notes to Genesis” at the back of The Pentateuch.

Nahum Sarna, "Understanding Genesis" (New York: Schocken Books 1966). (Note that this is not an Orthodox book, but it contains valuable insights.)

Rav Kook's letter on literalism, translated here.

Marc Shapiro's postings on this topic (I, II, and commentary by Rav Moshe Shamah here).

Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks' essay on the Deluge and the Tower of Babel (here)

Natan Slifkin, "Historical Records Vs. Dramatic Accounts"

Lorence Collins, "Yes, Noah's Flood May Have Happened, But Not Over the Whole Earth."

Thursday, October 4, 2018

News Roundup

1. The Feast of Legends from the Sea was amazing! A full write-up is forthcoming, but meanwhile you can look at a partial photo album at this link. Regarding the kashrut of the pièce de résistance - the swordfish - see my article at this link.

2. In this week's Jewish Press I have an article about creation and evolution, which you can read online at this link. Unfortunately in the print edition they edited what I wrote - in the version that I sent, I did not describe people as being "ignorant of modern science."

3. I am traveling to the US next week. For Shabbat parashat Noach, I am speaking at Young Israel of Brookline (Boston); for parashat Lech Lecha, I am speaking at Beth Aaron in Teaneck. On Tuesday October 16th, I am speaking at the Sixth Street Synagogue in Manhattan, on the topic of Rationalism vs. Mysticism. If you'd like to arrange a lecture, or a meeting about the development of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, please email me.

4. Our next spectacular museum event is in just over two weeks, in Teaneck - A Biblical Feast of Birds and Beasts! If you're interested in attending, write to

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Role Model for Charities

The other day, I was caught in an ethical dilemma. Someone was asking online if anyone knew of an English translation of Perek Shirah, because they need the famous segulah of reciting it for forty days. Aaargh!

After some agonizing, I replied that I do know of one, Nature's Song, which can be purchased at - but I added that there's no traditional basis for the notion that it's a segulah to say it for forty days, and that classical Judaism says that repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil decree, not saying Perek Shirah.

The person challenged me, asking on what basis I can declare this? I replied that, speaking as someone who literally wrote the book on it, I know of that which I speak. And that before I wrote the book on it, pretty much nobody had ever even heard of Perek Shirah - which shows that it can't be such an important part of Judaism anyway.

Despite my best efforts to sabotage my own book sale, the person bought it anyway. But for those of us who want to engage in traditional, classical Judaism, this is the time of year to be giving charity, not reciting Perek Shirah or swinging chickens. And as far as I've seen, there's no better charity than the Ramat Bet Shemesh-based charity Lemaan Achai.

The greatest form of charity is to make somebody no longer need charity. And that's also the smartest form of charity. Lemaan Achai makes this its mantra - "smart chesed." They have case workers and social workers (my wife used to be one of them) and financial experts figuring out exactly what problems the families are having, and how to get them out of these difficulties. Most charity organizations boast about how many families they help - Lemaan Achai boasts about how many families they no longer help.

So, if you're looking for a good charity, I strongly recommend donating to Lemaan Achai at this link. And I hope that it serves as a role model for how all communal charity organizations should operate.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Feed a Lone Soldier - Like He's Never Been Fed Before

Would you like to do something special for two lone soldiers and a lone bat sherut? Here are two letters that we received from some special young people who would love to attend our forthcoming Feast of Legends from the Sea
"My name is Zach and I am currently a lone soldier serving in a unit called Maglan (a special forces commando unit in the IDF). I first came to the Biblical Museum of Natural History on a trip to Israel and fell in love with the fact of seeing animals that are spoken about in the Torah. Really seeing Torah and nature hand in hand. And it had enough of an impact on me to come make Aliyah and join the army. I was looking at your website and found that you were having an event right after Sukkot and it looks amazing. I was wondering if my friend (another lone soldier) and I can come to your event. We would love to join."
"My name is Tali and I am in my second year as a volunteer in National Service/Sherut Leumi. In addition to being taught to be a proud Zionist, chessed is top priority for me. So I volunteered for Sherut Leumi to serve Israel and the Jewish people in the best way I can. One of the things that inspired me to come here was the Biblical Museum of Natural History founded by Rabbi Slifkin. I have been a big fan of his since I was a little girl. His sefer, Nature’s Song, was what I studied for my Bat Mitzvah and I used many of my Judaic shop gift cards to buy all his books and continue to study them. I love animals and Torah and the way Rabbi Slifkin makes them coexist so perfectly is really a gift for all of us. I just would love to be a part of the museum dinner but unfortunately cant afford the price. As a Bat Sherut Bodedah, I get no financial assistance, and my parents have been more than generous, so I cannot ask them for more help. If there is any way that I could attend, that would be amazing."

Unfortunately, due to the highly specialized nature of the event, it is tremendously expensive to put on - the $360 price for the non-patron ticket is cost price! If you would like to sponsor seats for these young people, please write to Thank you!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Are Your Hands Big Enough?

(Or: How To Make The Gemara Reasonable)

Daf Yomi this week was learning Menachos 26b, which discusses the laws of kometz (the slightly-less-than-a-fistful of flour that the kohen takes). The halacha is that a kometz must contain the volume of two kezaysim, and a kohen whose hand is not big enough to encompass two kezaysim cannot perform kemitzah (and according to some views is disqualified from all Temple service).

ArtScroll notes that this raises a problem: How is it possible to grasp two kezaysim of flour in one's hand, if a kezayis is two-thirds the size of an egg?

In response, ArtScroll quotes the Steipler Gaon, who says that Kohanim used to be much bigger, and thus had much bigger hands. And that perhaps there are indeed some people today with really enormous hands, and hopefully when the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt, there will be more such giants.

Of course, there is a much simpler answer which avoids the whole problem in the first place.

A kezayis is not the two-thirds the size of an egg. It is ten times smaller. It is the size of... an olive!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Beasts of the Sea

Don't miss the important announcement at the end of the post!

While reading Moby Dick this summer, I was surprised to come across a reference to a concept found in the Gemara:
On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen... Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else... And even when recognised at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, in all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.
Indeed, in other respects, you can hardly regard any creatures of the deep with the same feelings that you do those of the shore. For though some old naturalists have maintained that all creatures of the land are of their kind in the sea; and though taking a broad general view of the thing, this may very well be; yet coming to specialties, where, for example, does the ocean furnish any fish that in disposition answers to the sagacious kindness of the dog? 
The sea-horse steed of Aquaman
The highlighted text is found in Maseches Chullin:
Everything that exists in the land, exists in the sea, with the exception of the chuldah (weasel or marten). (Talmud, Chullin 127)
It turns out that this was a widely-held belief in antiquity, referenced by Pliny the Elder and by later writers in Christianity and Islam. It held theological significance, being seen as expressing the symmetry of Creation. In the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne argued that it was a "vulgar error," and we see that Melville rated it as only potentially true in the broadest of senses.

There is also another Talmudic reference to this concept:
Abayey said: "The donkey of the sea is permissible [as food]; the ox of the sea is prohibited. And the way to remember it is: The impure is pure, the pure is impure." (Avodah Zarah 39a)  

But what does the notion of a "marine counterpart" actually mean? R. Chezkiah da Silva (1659-1698), author of the Pri Chadash commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, argues that the "donkey of the sea" and the "ox of the sea" refer to actual aquatic versions of oxen and donkeys—i.e. creatures which were essentially oxlike and donkeylike in form, complete with four legs, but which happened to be aquatic. (He discusses this in the context of arguing that an aquatic creature does not need to be a fish in order to be rendered kosher by the presence of fins and scales--which has ramifications for a certain species of squid.)

Meeting a sealion twenty years ago, back when I had hair.
The notion of an aquatic donkey and ox is by no means as unreasonable as it may first appear. After all, the Mishnah mentions a “sea-dog,” which refers either to a seal or an otter—and both these creatures are indeed essentially extremely dog-like. Others, however, interpret the "sea donkey" and "sea ox" much more loosely, to refer to certain fishes that have certain points of resemblance to donkeys and oxen.

It took quite a bit of research for me to nail down what the "sea donkey" and "sea ox" actually are. And then it took some further effort to actually acquire them! Both of them will be making an appearance at the "Feast of Legends from the Sea," at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. We've change the date of the event yet again, to accommodate people visiting Israel for Sukkos - it turns out that hardly anyone keeps two days anymore, and many people are leaving Israel on the night after Sukkos, so we are having the dinner that evening! More details are at this link.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Anti-Corbyn Enigma

An article today in Politico points out a bizarre aspect of many people's rejection of Corbyn:
“For me, Corbyn’s patronizing, racialized put-down of British ‘Zionists’ and our sense of history and English irony was no surprise,” said David Krikler, a Jewish communications consultant in London. “His political career has been spent in the company of Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and terrorist groups, so I don’t need to hear him sounding like an old-fashioned anti-Semite to know exactly what he stands for.”
“It’s been interesting to see some commentators say they can no longer defend him after seeing that,” he added. “I think it’s telling that they were prepared to defend his support for organizations that literally murder Jews, whether on Israeli buses, in Olympic villages or in Argentinian community centers, but they’re more concerned by a linguistic micro-aggression. Support for anti-Semitic terror groups is fine, as long as you don’t sound like an elderly racist who’s had one drink too many in the process.”

But what I've been saying for a while is that this it not only true for those who defended Corbyn's support for terrorist organizations; it's even true for the mainstream Jewish and non-Jewish community, who are against it. Because while they are against it, and even mention it, they don't discuss it with anywhere near the intensity that they discuss his antisemitic expressions of speech. There's been more focus on condemning his linguistic micro-aggression than on his actual support for terrorist organizations and brutal regimes! What is the explanation for that? I'm mystified by it.

Dealing with the Deluge

It's that time of year again... so here is the slightly expanded version of my original post regarding the Deluge. Over the years I&...