Friday, August 29, 2014

On The Sofer Tragedy: A Defense of Israel

By now you have all heard that the body of Aaron Sofer has been found. Tragically, he fell during a hike, and died as a result of his injuries.

While the search was underway, a number of people, including prominent figures, accused the State of Israel and the general public of being relatively indifferent to the cause due to Sofer being a charedi yeshivah student. The purpose of this post is to defend the government and general public of Israel against this condemnation.

It is not an exceptional event for people to go missing in Israel. There have been several cases in the last year. Every year the police in Israel process around five thousand reports on missing persons. Most of these cases are quickly closed, but twenty to thirty cases remain open each year. According to a Jerusalem Post article from two years ago, there are currently over a thousand children and teens in Israel listed as missing. How many of them have you heard about? Cases of missing persons do not generally make the headlines, because there can be all sorts of reasons for it. The situation of a missing person only makes headlines to the extent that it is believed to be a terrorist abduction. One might argue that this is not rational - after all, the potential for tragedy is the same, whether a person has a hiking accident or a car accident or is abducted by terrorists. However, the fact of human psychology is that society is more traumatized by the latter. Furthermore, the latter is more part of the government's responsibility and purview, and thus the government expends more effort in such cases.

Now, in the charedi community, it was widely believed that Aaron Sofer had been abducted. A family member publicly quoted Rav Chaim Kanievsky as saying that Sofer was alive and being held in an Arab village. Thus, there was naturally very deep concern. But outside of the charedi community, few believed that this was the case. Especially at the outset, there was little reason to believe that Aaron Sofer had been abducted. Personally, I was certain that he had experienced a hiking accident. I have hiked in that area many times and I know that the terrain can sometimes be deceptive, with unexpected crevasses. Furthermore, it would be extremely unlikely for terrorists to be staking out that area in the hopes of capturing somebody. Since it was unlikely that he had been abducted, there was naturally less of a response than in the case of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, where it was clear from the outset that they had been abducted.

But could it be that there was less concern from the general public than in comparable cases? I don't think that there is sufficient data to answer that question. If one believes that such was indeed the case, there are a number of potential factors involved. One is that he was an American citizen rather than an Israeli citizen; another is that he was a charedi yeshivah student. As I noted in my posts contrasting the great concern that the charedi community expressed for the yeshivah students in Japan with the lesser concern that they expressed for Gilad Shalit, to a certain extent (though only to a certain extent) it is inevitable and understandable that people care more about those in their own community. Indeed, consider that some sectors of the charedi community seem have put a lot more effort into prayer rallies and suchlike for Aaron Sofer than they did for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. Of course, we should aim to care about all Jews, but it is inevitable that we care more about those to whom we feel closest. How many Jews in America, or charedi Jews in Israel, know the name Shachar Shalev, a 20-year-old soldier who was struggling for his life for the last six weeks as a result of injuries sustained in Gaza, and finally succumbed this week?

Brooklyn city council member Dov Hikind issued a criticism of the Israeli authorities that was particularly strange:
"Not enough was done from the very beginning. Not enough attention was paid to the disappearance of Aaron. So I want to say to the Israeli government: treat Aaron as if he were an Israeli soldier missing. Because we know what the Israeli government does when an Israeli soldier goes missing - every resource in the world is put into it." 
I do not think that his criticism of the government was appropriate. As discussed above, much less effort is put into these things when there is little reason to suspect terrorist involvement. The government does not put "every resource in the world" into searching for each of the 20-30 people who go missing each year. Furthermore, Hikind's demand that Sofer be treated like an Israeli soldier was very strange. Aside from the fact that Sofer wasn't Israeli, he wasn't a soldier. Of course a country will be far more concerned with the welfare of someone risking his life to defend it than with the welfare of a person who is not doing that! Likewise, I presume that people donate more money to those who are disabled as a result of IDF service than to those who are disabled as a result of car accidents. One person wrote to me about the irony of a community that refuses to serve in the army to protect the country, but demands to be treated like soldiers in terms of the concern extended to them.

(Also of interest is that Rav Steinman ordered yeshivah students to take time off their learning and search for him. Evidently, Rav Steinman felt that this hishtadlus would be of greater value than their learning Torah in his merit. This is consistent with Rav Steinman's position, as told to Rav Moshe Schneider, that today's Torah cannot be presumed to be lishmah and therefore cannot be assumed to have supernatural protective abilities. We see that Rav Steinman's position is that the opposition to charedim serving in the IDF or doing national service is not because their Torah studies is a form of providing protection, but rather because army service would harm their way of life.)

The case of Aaron Sofer is a terrible tragedy. But it is not a reason to criticize the government or people of Israel. Let us pray for the Sofer family to be comforted, and for all missing persons to be located.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rationalism and the International Dateline

There were many fascinating comments written in response to my post "No, I Am Not Desecrating Shabbos," about the international dateline and halachah. It would be great if someone would write a full halachic treatment of this topic from a rationalist standpoint. I can't do this myself, but I would like to point out some things that such a work should take into account:

1) Chazal (at least, those in Babylonia) were of the view that the world is basically flat, with a slight rise to Israel and Jerusalem at the center. (See my monograph The Sun's Path At Night for sources.)

2) The Rishonim, for the most part, knew that the world is a sphere. However, they believed that the lower half was entirely uninhabited. To quote a comment by R. David Ohsie: "The Rishonim, like others, made the assumption that the inhabited part of the world spanned approximately 12 timezones. Naturally, the eastern edge had the earliest times and the western edge had the latest times. There was no need for a "dateline" per se because civilization did not wrap around the globe. The question of where exactly the day turns would be completely theoretical and probably was not considered important; it certainly had no meaning in halacha."

3) Most recent halachic authorities to weigh in on the topic of the dateline probably did not realize/ accept the previous two points. (A notable exception would be R. Menachem Kasher.)

4) To what extent can a halachic dateline be implemented? Here is another fascinating comment from R. David Ohsie:
I want to point out one other huge problem with any "degree" based dateline, especially ones that are close to Asia. We have a general principle that the Torah can be applied with the technology available in ancient times. Anything that requires modern technology, such as a microscope, is not considered imperative. Now in ancient times, there was no way to measure latitude accurately, nor generally to map the extent of landmasses. So to say that the halacha requires you to know that Indonesia is less than 90* from Jerusalem while Japan is greater than 90* or that the western tip of Australia is less than 90* from Jerusalem while you are sitting in the eastern side would be beyond what the halacha required. So more than the fact that the Torah never says where the dateline is, it could not have required a dateline, since that would require the knowledge of modern technology to implement.

5) There is a basic distinction between the mystical and rationalist schools of thought regarding concepts such as sanctity, whether of items, rituals or dates. According to the mystical school of thought, the sanctity of these things exists as an actual metaphysical entity. According to the rationalist school of thought, on the other hand, the sanctity of these items is a state of designation. For extensive and excellent discussion, see Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism (which is the most fundamentally important book for anyone interested in rationalist Judaism).

Saturday, August 23, 2014

If I Could Make One Point

If I could get a full-page advertisement with just one sentence in the New York Times or Britain's Independent or Guardian, or have one chance to speak to the awful Jon Snow from Britain's Channel 4 news, I would say as follows:

The US, UK and NATO have killed tens of thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as unavoidable collateral damage and accidents of war; why condemn Israel for doing much less?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Does Rationalism Mandate seeing Judeopathy as Naturalistic?

Here is something that I posted four years ago. It came to mind after reading about the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has condemned Israel more than almost every other country combined, and for which the only officially-mandated topic for its sessions is human rights abuses by Israel.

Is Judeopathy (a.k.a. antisemitism, but I dislike that word as it is inherently and deliberately misleading) a naturalistic phenomenon? That is to say, can it be entirely explained in terms of political, social and psychological reasons? Or is there some metaphysical factor involved?

Prof. Menachem Kellner explains that one of the differences between the mystical school of thought (as represented by R. Yehudah HaLevi) and Rambam's school of thought is that according to the former, there is an inherent metaphysical difference between Jews and non-Jews, whereas according to the latter there is none. From this and other things it probably follows that according to Rambam, Judeopathy is a naturalistic phenomenon.

Personally, I can't bring myself to believe that. About 12 years ago I engaged in an extensive study of Judeopathy. (I even wrote a book on it, largely based on the teachings of Rav Moshe Shapiro, that I never published.) In the course of my research, one study that I read (Grosser and Halperin, Anti-Semitism, Citadel Press 1976) concluded that there are one hundred and eighteen factors that must be invoked to account for antisemitism! The longevity, extent, and irrationality of the phenomenon led me to the conclusion that it cannot be reduced to a solely naturalistic phenomenon.

Does that mean that I am not a rationalist? That depends on how one defines and applies rationalism.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Teenage Mutant and Ninja Turtles

I'm currently in LA for a few days, having returned from my vacation on the island of Maui. But I wanted to share one more post relating to the precarious status of the wildlife indigenous to that island.

A week ago, I went out on a catamaran to explore the coral reefs. I went snorkeling from the boat, and also did snuba diving. Snuba is a sort of cross between snorkeling and scuba, whereby the oxygen tank stays on a floating raft, while your respirator is connected to it via a long hose, as follows:

There were many fabulously colored fish to be seen on the reef. But the big attraction was a reptile - the sea turtles for which this part of the world is famous:

Sea turtles are amazing to watch underwater. These huge animals are incredibly graceful as they swim slowly along. While snorkeling, I was able to swim with each of them for several minutes at a time. They displayed no fear, and once one swam close enough for me to touch; I was sorely tempted to do so, but it is illegal.

Unfortunately, not all the turtles were as attractive as the one in the picture above. One of them had a bizarre cauliflower-like growth emerging from its neck. This strange mutation was actually a disease specific to marine turtles called fibropapillomatosis. It is rarely found in adult turtles, since by the time the turtle reaches adulthood the tumor has either regressed or killed it, which means that this mutant turtle was probably a teenager.

The cause of the disease is unclear. But in recent years it has risen such that in now affects a staggering 92% of the turtles in some areas. As such, it would appear to relate to human factors. It is speculated that it is the result of turtles feeding on yet another invasive species that has been introduced (unwittingly) by man - certain types of algae.

Let's finish this post on a a lighter note. A few days after my underwater turtle encounter, I was on a beach, and I saw a (healthy) turtle swimming right up to the sand. The water was so amazingly clear that I was able to take the following photo:

As the turtle approached the sand, I stepped into the shallows, taking care to observe the law prohibiting contact between humans and turtles.

But the turtle didn't care about the law.

With a flap of its flippers and a surge of the surf, the turtle suddenly shot forwards. Exhibiting the martial skills of a ninja warrior, it catapulted into me and gave me a mighty whack on my shins. YEEOUCH!

Well, at least it was nice to see that this ninja turtle wasn't a teenage mutant.

So, that's the end of my "field reports" for this summer, which began with a leopard bite and ended with a turtle slam. If you'd like to join me for next year's African adventure, scheduled for the beginning of June, please be in touch. Meanwhile, I'll be returning to the usual topics for this blog, and I'm pleased to announce that the Rationalist Medical Halacha blog is also back in action.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unintended Consequences

I would like to introduce this post with a picture of a smiley face:

What is this funny face? We'll get to that later, but first, let us return to another question that I posed in an earlier post: Why did God create lizard-eating plants? In the post, I suggested that the question is not necessarily valid. God may not have purposefully created the plant; instead, it may be nothing more than a by-product of the evolutionary process that God decided to employ in creation.

This claim caused some consternation. One person protested that "certainly the Rambam believed each plant and animal has a purpose." But I would disagree.

Even when it comes to Torah, Rambam believed that there are unintended consequences. In the Guide for the Perplexed 3:34, Rambam explains that while each mitzvah serves for the betterment of mankind, that is only from a general perspective; there could well be individual cases in which the mitzvah turns out to be detrimental. The Torah must be absolute in its binding nature, which is why exceptions can't usually be made, but this necessarily means that it will not always be beneficial to everyone. Rambam does not see this as presenting any limitation in God's wisdom and power; it's just an inherent drawback of any universal system.

Certainly, then, the same can be true with the natural world. Assuming that God desired to use a naturalistic process that would result in intelligent life, this may result in all kinds of byproducts that were not God's intention. (This is not to say that He did not know that these would result.) As such, it is not necessarily valid to presume that there is a Divine purpose in any given aspect of the natural world. (Note that Rambam also says that various aspects of non-literal Torah stories do not all need to have deeper meaning; they may simply be written to flesh out the story.)

Thus, following Rambam's view, we do not need to presume that there was specific Divine intent and purpose in the development of lizard-eating plants. Or dinosaurs. Or in the smiley face pictured above, which was on the back of a spider that I photographed this week:


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Major Myna Problem

Here on the jungle island paradise of Maui, there are many amazing creatures to be seen. Unfortunately, they are almost all the wrong ones.

In the pond outside, there are cane toads, which make a very loud cacophony. at night. Cane toads (also known as giant toads or marine toads) can reach up to fifteen inches in body length, though these ones are only about a third that size. There are about forty adult toads outside, and about a quarter of a million tadpoles in the pond. Here's a toad that I photographed last night:

Now, I happen to have a soft spot for toads, and I was excited to see them. But they shouldn't be here. They were introduced to Maui in order to eat insects that were ravaging the sugar cane crop, but they have multiplied out of control. Since they are poisonous, they have no predators.

The only native mammal species to Maui is a certain bat. But I met a bold and very cute baby mongoose:

The mongooses were introduced to Maui to kill the rats that had arrived on the ships. However, instead of killing the rats, the mongooses killed the unique native birdlife.

Maui is apparently home to all kinds of extraordinary birds. But I haven't seen any of them. I've seen some sparrows and chickens, which were introduced by man. But the most common bird here by far is the myna.

The myna bird has beautiful songs and vocalizations. Still, it shouldn't be here, either. There are staggering numbers of them in Maui - they are simply everywhere. Unfortunately, the myna bird is now also spreading in Israel, after some captive birds escaped about twenty years ago. At the time, myna birds cost many thousands of shekels to purchase; now, they are everywhere, from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat.

The ecological catastrophes of invasive species were often caused by people who were overly presumptuous about meddling with the natural world. In 1890, someone decided that America would look better if all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare lived there, and released sixty starlings in Central Park. They now number 200 million and have driven native species such as purple martens and eastern bluebirds to the brink of extinction.

We need to approach the natural world with humility. God has set up the universe such that it produces tremendous biological diversity. To preserve this wealth, we must respect it.