Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Disproof of Rationalism?

Several weeks ago, I came across a website for someone diagnosing and curing "ayin hara" via lead-pouring (Bleigießen). Now, as regular readers know, I don't believe that these things have any validity. I carefully researched the topic of ayin hara, and wrote a study of the topic, and I think that ayin hara is nothing more than an outdated belief (and it should be noted that Rambam did not accept its existence, at least not according to its classical definition).

Furthermore, the idea that pouring lead could cure or even diagnose an "ayin hara" was preposterous. Bleigießen, otherwise known as molybdomancy, is a medieval superstition with no value (and in fact the potential for considerable harm, via lead poisoning). It is clear that such soothsayers, with Rebbetzin Aidel Miller being the most famous, are not "reading" people's problem at all; instead, it is a combination of subconscious cold-reading by the practitioner (whereby they give vague guesses and are able to hone in according to the answers received) along with the Barnum effect working its magic upon the patient (whereby people are inclined to give a favorable interpretation to such diagnoses).

But this website particularly took my interest. The person advertising this service, Rabbi Daniel Hool of London, was someone who I vaguely knew from yeshivah a quarter-century ago. I remembered him as an extremely intelligent and straight person, and I was (and still am) certain that he is not deliberately deceiving anyone. So I reached out to him, sent him my study of the topic, and recommended that he switch to using tin, so as to avoid lead poisoning.

We got into a discussion. Rabbi Hool said that he can't use tin, because it doesn't have the correct metaphysical properties. He then made a staggering claim of an efficiency rate of around 80% in diagnosing problems using lead-pouring.

So I decided to conduct a little experiment, to prove to him that he had no such power. I would have him work his magic for someone that I name. I would only give him the person's Hebrew name, and there would thus be no possibility of his engaging in cold-reading. And it would be someone with a very specific problem, so that there is no way to succumb to the Barnum effect.

Rabbi Hool agreed, and furthermore said that I only need to pay if he is correct. The only condition that he made, which is one for every case he takes on, is that I had to take upon myself a small and realistic acceptance to do some kind of improvement in my Avodas Hashem. Fine!

So I gave him the Hebrew name of someone that I know well. There was absolutely no way for him to know the person's real identity. And I didn't tell him anything at all about her. She was suffering from a problem with her right shoulder and arm, with the cause not yet diagnosed, as well as an extremely sore throat and an anxiety issue. I looked forward to showing Rabbi Hool that his imagined powers were not real.

Within a few hours, I received a response from him. Here it is, exactly as I received it from him:
Ok, so she had plenty of ayin horah and I dealt with it the best of my ability.... The lead tells me she has an issue with her head around about nose height.- that could be internal or external. She also seems to be suffering from headaches maybe towards the back of her head on the right.... There was also signs of either problem with right shoulder area or she is having stress from a close family member at the moment....
That was NOT the result that I expected!

How did he get the right shoulder correct?! (And anxiety could be described as in issue in her head.) Was that just an extremely lucky guess? (I told him that he wrong about the headaches, so he went to check the lead again, and said that he thinks it's actually a sore throat!)

I was extremely unnerved by this, so I ran the test with him a second time. This time, his hits were significantly less accurate than with the first patient. But he still correctly named one of the issues.

Since then, I've been engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with him. When I pointed out how he missed several things, he countered that not every problem with a person is necessarily caused by ayin horah, and that if the ayin horah shows on a body part and there is no physical issue with that body part, then the ayin horah is still there but it is affecting another non-physical area of their life.
My counter-claim is that he is thereby setting it up such that he can never be disproved. And it's so easy for the Barnum effect to work here - most adults, especially the kind that feel they have an ayin hara, are suffering from lower back pain and various other ailments. Furthermore, seeing as he predicts five or six things with every patient, out of a potential list of around twenty body parts at the most, he is statistically going to hit the mark enough times for the Barnum effect to work its magic.

To this, Rabbi Hool responds that his hits are frequent and specific enough to discount the Barnum effect. He has been sending me accounts of many of the procedures that he does. Here is one recent example:
So this lady comes to me a few minutes ago and tells me she has terrible problems with her sinuses before the procedure. I do her procedure and tell her:  ''It's much worse on your right side than the left- correct?'' She says "absolutely!'' I then tell her she has a "problem with her left arm"- She says ''absolutely!'' I then tell her she has internal problem/indigestion chest left side -she says ''Absolutely!'' I then tell her she has lower back pain right side she says ''Absolutely!''. This- after telling me nothing other than she has a 'problem with her sinuses.' So you still think "statistically" anyone can do this???
Well, I'm still skeptical. And I think that there's a lot of flexibility being employed in confirming successes here, along with patients who are very eager to validate the procedure. But on the other hand, I'm also still a little unnerved by the shoulder thing!

On the whole, I'm inclined to implement the two-headed rhino principle. Which is more likely - that he has the ability to diagnose and heal physical ailments via the pattern of cooling lead (with all the ramifications that this has for our entire understanding of existence), or that I am somehow not grasping the cold-reading/Barnum effect in action? I think it's the latter.

Rabbi Hool has documented many of the cases that he does, on his website. I invite people to read the list (bearing in mind that he is an honest person, although still obviously biased to interpret situations favorably, as are his patients). You can also try his services, via email (he accepts payment via Paypal). If you do so, please first make a list of exactly what you suffer from, leaving nothing out!

(To obtain my monograph on the topic, see the post "The Surprising History of Ayin Hara")

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Legislating the Neighborhood

There was an article in the news today about various concessions to which Netanyahu had agreed in order to have the charedi parties support his coalition. It's the issues of unlimited military deferrals and no Shabbos construction which get most of the public attention, but buried in this article was something remarkable:
"Another clause stated that anything that might “injure” a religious or haredi way of life should be prevented in neighborhoods where these sectors constitute a majority."
This was particularly interesting in light of an article on Yeshiva World News yesterday titled "Secular Residents Protest The Coming Of The Chareidim To Charish." There have often been secular complaints and protests when charedim move into a city or neighborhood, with Kiryat HaYovel as another example. Charedim respond that this is discriminatory and hateful. But if the charedim are trying to legislate that as soon as they become the majority of a neighborhood, other residents cannot do anything that might "injure" a charedi way of life, then how can they possibly complain when other people do not want charedim to live in their neighborhood?

Of course, my own home town of Ramat Beit Shemesh is a case in point. When I moved here, eighteen years ago, it was around a third charedi, a third dati-leumi, and a third secular. Within a few years the secular all moved out, as life here had become quite uncomfortable for them. Then the charedi community tried to impose its standards on the rest of Ramat Beit Shemesh, with signs and letters in the commercial center demanding charedi standards of modesty, and local rabbis (including Anglo-charedi rabbis) trying to prevent restaurants from having outside seating areas. Imagine if they had the legal power to do this!

If you're going to demand that other people conform to your restrictive social mores, don't be surprised when those people don't want you to move into the neighborhood!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Cuddly Hyrax and the Two-Headed Rhino

Following taking Torah-in-Motion's 2019 African Adventure group to Zimbabwe and Botswana, where we saw astonishing elephants, hippos and monster crocodiles, we went down to Capetown in South Africa. There, we took the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain. This is one of my favorite places, because it is pretty much the only place outside of Israel where you will see an important Biblical creature: the hyrax. I posted the following photo to Facebook:

Now to my mind this looks like I bought a cuddly toy hyrax and put it on the mountain for a photo. Which is indeed exactly what I did; the real hyraxes were (unlike in other years) too far away to get a good picture of them. But, much to my surprise, a number of people on Facebook thought that it was a photo of a real hyrax!

Okay, I guess most people are not as intimately familiar with hyraxes as I am. But then yesterday, I was able to post a truly extraordinary photo:

As I wrote on Facebook, this is "Possibly the most extraordinary wildlife photo that I have ever taken. A two-headed rhino!"

This photo got an enormous amount of attention! Many people were marveling at the incredible phenomenon of a two-headed rhinoceros. But others were wondering: could such a thing really exist?

The answer is that it's certainly possible for such a creature to exist. The phenomenon of a creature possessing two heads (or perhaps it should be phrased as twins possessing a single body) has been documented with numerous species. Two-headed snakes appear to be particularly common; there was one exhibited for many years at a reptile zoo near Eilat. I've also seen two-headed turtles. And at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we have the skull of a two-faced cow.

Most remarkable of all are Abigail and Brittany Hensel. They are adult twins who possess a single body, with Abigail controlling the arm and leg on one side, and Brittany controlling the arm and leg on the other side. The Hensel twins are fully functional, and can even drive!

What about a two-headed rhinoceros? In fact, there is a webpage, titled "Five Bizarre (Yet Real) Two-Headed Animals," which features photos not only of a two-headed snake, turtle, kitten and piglet, but also of a two-headed rhino!

Yet at the same time, one should ask oneself: What is more likely? Is it more likely that I saw a two-headed rhino, or is it more likely that there is some other trickery involved? For example, it's possible that the photo was digitally manipulated on Photoshop. Or that there were two rhinos which were standing with their legs perfectly lined up, giving the impression that there was a single four-legged body - which would still make for a fabulous photo, albeit not quite as fabulous as a two-headed rhino!

(For the record, I hereby attest that I did not alter my photo in any way! But as for the photo of the two-headed rhino on the aforementioned webpage of "Five Bizarre (Yet Real) Two-Headed Animals," shown here, I am convinced that it is digitally manipulated.)

Many people focus on what is theoretically possible, rather than on what is likely. This is something that I encounter quite often in arguing various topics surrounding Rationalist Judaism. To give but one example: Is it theoretically possible that when the Gemara said that the atalef lays eggs, that it was not referring to a bat, but rather to a duck-billed platypus from Australia, and just happened to describe it with the exact name that everyone has always understood to refer to the bat, which is a creature that is birdlike and often mistakenly thought to lay eggs? Yes, it's theoretically possible. But is it likely? Not in the slightest!

When evaluating claims, it's always important to think about what is most likely and reasonable, not what is theoretically possible. And to be aware of all the different possibilities to exist - and their probabilities. Of course, different people will have different ways of weighing up various probabilities. But the first step is to at least be aware that that is what should be done.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Zimbabwe and Botswana

I'm currently leading the Torah-in-Motion 2019 African adventure, so I thought I'd share some photos. These are from the Zimbabwe and Botswana segment:

The Great Baobab Tree in Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls 

This is how I know that crocodiles are big enough to eat buffalo

If the food was a little higher, would he jump to get at it?


Sunday, June 30, 2019

Is This The Fabulous Shamir?

I've been inundated with emails about the recent discovery of a rock-eating worm. Everyone wants to know if it is the shamir, the mysterious and fabulous creature that was used to carve the stones of the Temple, or (according to another view) the gemstones of the priestly breastplate.

Sorry to disappoint, but the answer is no! This worm only eats carbonate limestone, a very soft rock. It wouldn't have any impact on the priestly gemstones.

There was actually a much more interesting discovery a few years ago, when scientists discovered the strongest biological substance known to date. It's the teeth of a tiny creature in the snail family - the limpet, a small conical creature which is a familiar sight on rocks at the seashore. That's a much better candidate.

In truth, the Gemara does not state that the shamir was an animal - it just describes it as something the size of a barley kernel, which had to be kept in a lead tube. In my book Sacred Monsters, I discussed Immanuel Velikovsky's original idea that this refers to a radioactive substance. Rambam and Rashi, however, describe it as a worm-like creature. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler suggests that it is a snail from the genus Euchondrus, which carve gouges in rocks in the Negev desert. However, as I noted in my book, these limestone rocks are much softer than the gems of the breastplate. But, I noted, there are marine mollusks with much stronger dental equipment, and therefore it is therefore not beyond the realms of biological possibility to posit that there is (or was) a species of invertebrate that could indeed engrave the gemstones of the priestly breastplate. The limpet might be such a candidate, although it is difficult to see how it could have actually been employed in this way.

A second way in which this discovery relates to Judaism is in the symbolism of it. The Gemara says as follows:

"The Rabbis taught: There are five fears with which the fear of the weak is upon the mighty: The fear of the leontophone upon the lion, the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant, the fear of the gecko upon the scorpion, the fear of the swallow upon the vulture, and the fear of the kilbit-fish upon the whale. R. Yehuda said: What is the scriptural source? “He grants the robbed one power over the mighty” (Amos 5:9). (Shabbat 77b) (See the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom for discussion of this passage.)
The idea here is that the very smallest creatures in the world are often the strongest in some way. This reminds us not to attribute too much power to the physically intimidating. The very strongest biological substance of all is not the fangs of a lion or the tusks of an elephant - it's the teeth of a humble snail.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

HaRav HaRasha, Shlita

Back in 2005, Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the ban on my books was "probably the public issue most damaging to the honor of Torah and to its leaders in recent memory." Well, it's probably safe to say that with the latest news, that will no longer be true. There is a public issue that is infinitely more damaging.

One of the most sick, evil people to masquerade behind the title of "rabbi" is surely Eliezer Berland. It's almost impossible to grasp the extent of his crimes against humanity. He has sexually exploited God knows how many women and girls. He has had people beaten up and has tried to have them killed. He has declared himself a deity. He preys upon the weak to give him their life savings, and laughs about it. He's also utterly insane, happily being recorded on video talking about eating human fetuses on the black market in China. See this deeply disturbing article at the Times of Israel, and this Hebrew website, for extensive documentation of his actions.

Berland confessed in court to indecent acts and assault, and was sentenced to prison. Unfortunately he was released for reasons of poor health, from which he since seems to have recovered. Like Shabtai Tzvi, he still maintains a magical hold on many hundreds of followers.

You'd think that such a sick monster would have absolute pariah status. And yet Knesset Minister Yaakov Litzman, of United Torah Judaism, honored him with a visit when he was sick. When there was an uproar, Litzman claimed that as health minister, it is his duty to help everyone! (As if he would visit me if I was sick!)

Which brings us to the latest news. The top tier of Gedolim and charedi Batei Din in Israel have announced a major, definitive investigation into Berland. This isn't some pashkevil arranged on an ad hoc basis by some kannaim - this is a very serious business. It's a joint effort of the Batei Din of Rav Karelitz, of Rav Wosner, of the Badatz Eida Charedis, and others. And they say that Berland and his followers have committed to abiding by their ruling.

Sounds great, doesn't it?


First, no further investigation is required. He already confessed in court and was convicted. There's already plenty of video evidence of his madness. What else do you need?!

Second, the Batei Din simply lack the competence to carry out investigations. If Rav Chaim Kanievsky can attest to the innocence of Elior Chen (sentenced to 24 years for severe, multiple child abuse) and justifies it by saying that "I sign whatever my rabbis sign," then what credibility do Charedi Batei Din have?

Third, the idea that he and his followers will adhere to the ruling, whatever it may be, is naive in the extreme. This is a crazy, evil man with a cult following. They are not going to abide by a ruling that he is a rasha.

Fourth, the letter declares that until the Beis Din has issued its ruling, nobody is allowed to say anything negative about Berland and his cult. It even gives Berland a chezkas kashrus with great praise added on top, referring to him as "HaRav HaChasid R. Elizer Berland, Shlita"!

Fifth, there is apparently a very real possibility here that despite the obvious nature of Berland's crimes, the Beis Din will conclude that he is still kosher. The fact that such a possibility can be entertained is too horrible for words.

What does all this say about the charedi rabbinic leadership?

To paraphrase Rav Aharon Lichtenstein - if there is no Daas, how can there be Daas Torah?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


There was something in the news the other day about plans to eventually replace taxi drivers in Israel with self-driving vehicles. If that ever happens, it will remove a unique aspect of the Israel experience.

My taxi driver to the airport just now was secular and somewhat surly. As we left Ramat Beit Shemesh, there was no conversation. But then I noticed a gazelle by the side of the road, and commented upon it. The driver responded by telling me that his favorite animal is a honey-badger. And we were off!

Over the next thirty minutes the conversation turned from one topic to another. The amazing thing was that at each stage it was him advancing the topics, not me. Honey badgers led to Israeli wildlife, which led to discussing various animals including oryx (called re'em in Modern Hebrew), which led him to raise the topic of the re'em of the Midrash, which led to dinosaurs, which led to the antiquity of the universe, which led to Rambam, which led to the controversy over Rambam's work, which led to him mentioning the recent Israeli television series about Rambam, at which point he suddenly realized that he recognized me because he had seen me interviewed in one of the episodes, which led to discussing the ban on my books, which led to discussing charedi society.

Anyway, as we approached the airport, he told me something fascinating, which I'd like to share with you. He mentioned that he had heard an interview with a secular Israeli scientist discussing why religious Jews and especially charedim live longer than secular Jews. Apparently the explanation given was that in secular society, when people get old, they don't have so much to live for. But in religious and especially charedi society, the old are venerated for their wisdom, and they therefore find greater meaning and satisfaction in life, which helps them live longer. 

Would I get such a discussion with a self-driving car? No I would not!

A Disproof of Rationalism?

Several weeks ago, I came across a website for someone diagnosing and curing "ayin hara" via lead-pouring ( Bleigießen) . Now, ...