Monday, December 11, 2017

Can Bad People Do Good Things?

President Trump's declaration about Jerusalem, delivered as part of an excellent and uncharacteristically presidential speech (and following on the heels of Mike Pence's incredible speech at Israel's UN celebration last week), is a fascinating phenomenon. It's really brought some antisemites out of the woodwork, from the appalling London Times cartoon depicting a kippa-wearing Trump smashing a dove to death against the Western Wall, to Linda Sarsour's declaration that Jerusalem is definitively not the capital of Israel and that Trump does not speak for her (to which someone wittily responded, "No, Hamas does!")

Was it a good thing for Israel? Virtually everyone I know agrees that the answer is clearly yes. While it isn't as concrete as we would hope - it is far from certain that the embassy will ever actually move, and the next President could easily walk this all back, without having to formally revoke it - it is a tremendous political boost. Furthermore, the fact that everyone and their mother warned that this would result in hell being unleashed, and yet nothing particularly significant happened as a result, clearly demonstrated that histrionics can often safely be ignored. And the claims that this destroys or even harms the chances of peace are nonsense. In the extremely unlikely event that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is ever attained, it will not be due to Israel have demonstrated a willingness to concede things, but rather due to it having been proved that Israel is here to stay, and the Palestinians accepting that the Western Wall is the Western Wall.

Still, some very fine people that I know were not in a celebratory mood. The reason for this was that Trump is not a particularly savory individual, to put it mildly. Aside from being petulant and childish and vain and having no regard for truth, he is a rather nasty person who has taken joy in being extremely offensive to many people, especially women. So how can one celebrate his acts - and indeed, how can it even be possible for such a person to do something worth celebrating?

While I understand how these people feel - imagine if it was Yosef Mizrachi, a person of similar character traits - I believe this attitude to be mistaken. One person protested, "This is not what the good Lord meant when he promised this land to Avraham and his descendants. Not like this." To which I responded, "That's what Satmar said."

It would be nice if the world was black-and-white, divided into good people and bad people, with good people always doing good and bad people only doing bad. But the reality is not that way. The world is complex and people are complex. Rarely is someone thoroughly good or bad, and even if they are that way, they can sometimes do things that are at odds with this. 

Our history is replete with celebrations of good things that were accomplished by not very good people. To give some extreme examples, as has been pointed out, King Ahab, who married a non-Jew, encouraged idol worship and stood silent while his wife killed a prophet, was told by a prophet that he would lead troops to miraculous victory. Omri, identified as a greater sinner than all the wicked Jewish kings before him, merited a long-lasting dynasty because he added a city to the Land of Israel despite the fact that his intention in adding that city was to eliminate Jerusalem as the focus of the Jews! Herod rebuilt the Beis HaMikdash. There are many Jewish boys named after Alexander, in gratitude for all that he did for the Jewish People, notwithstanding the fact that he was something of a despot. We appreciate the good, even when it is accomplished by different people than we would have hoped for.

Furthermore, the inverse is certainly true; good people can do bad things. Most people would agree that Rav Steinman is a selfless, caring person (there is an amazing account of his refusing to accept back-pay because he had already been mochel it), and yet his repeated opposition to charedim receiving the education necessary to earn a living is to be lamented. Rav Chaim Kanievsky is revered as a righteous scholar, and yet he defended the monster Elior Chen. So if good people can do bad things, why can't bad people do good things?

There is an odd mix of people denouncing Trump's speech - the Palestinians (though the response from the rest of the Arab world is muted), the Europeans, the UN, Democrats, and both Satmar Rebbes (at last, something that they can finally agree upon!). But we don't need to agree with them. Regardless of what kind of person Trump is, his speech was Good For The Jews.

Don't forget to book your Chanukah tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and see our new exhibits! Book online at!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Was Rachel Imeinu Killed By A Werewolf?

(A update of this post from a few years ago, in light of my discovering that Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein has an online shiur on this topic.)

In Sacred Monsters, I noted that Rabbeinu Ephraim ben Shimshon, one of the Tosafists, wrote about werewolves. But I only recently came across the full text, and I found some additional fascinating material. (I uploaded the original text of Rabbeinu Ephraim on werewolves as a PDF- you can download it here.)

Rabbeinu Ephraim refers to werewolves in a curious discussion about Yaakov’s son Benjamin. In this week's parashah, the Torah relates how Yaakov repeatedly expressed concern about Benjamin’s brothers taking him down to Egypt, “lest an accident befall him.” Rabbeinu Ephraim explains this concern to relate to the description of Benjamin as “a predatory wolf” (Genesis 49:27), understanding it very literally:
Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him. (Rabbeinu Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29)
Elsewhere in the manuscript of Rabbeinu Ephraim’s commentary, there is further discussion about werewolves attributed to “a writer from Ashkenaz” (apparently disciples of Rabbeinu Ephraim, or other scholars from the region):
There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf. When it changes into a wolf, his feet emerge from between his shoulders. So too with Benjamin—“he dwells between the shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). The solution for [dealing with] this wolf is that when it enters a house, and a person is frightened by it, he should take a firebrand and thrust it around, and he will not be harmed. So they would do in the Temple; each day, they would throw the ashes by the altar, as it is written, “and you shall place it by the altar” (Leviticus 6:3); and so is the norm with this person whose offspring turn into wolves, for a werewolf is born with teeth, which indicates that it is out to consume the world. Another explanation: a werewolf is born with teeth, to show that just as this is unusual, so too he will be different from other people. And likewise, Benjamin ate his mother, who died on his accord, as it is written, “And it was as her soul left her, for she was dying, and she called his name ‘the son of my affliction’ ” (Genesis 35:18). (Commentary to Genesis 35:27)
In Sacred Monsters, I thought that the description of Benjamin eating his mother was a figure of speech, and metaphorically referred to his causing her death via childbirth. But now I think it might mean that he literally ate her! An earlier comment makes use of the albam system of letter substitution, whereby the Hebrew alphabet is split into two parts, and each letter is replaced by the corresponding letter in the other part. Based on this system, the word tzelem, “image,” as in “man was created in the image of God,” converts to ze’ev, “wolf,” which is explained to have great significance:
Tzelem is ze’ev in the albam system; therefore, those people who change into wolves were created as such from the Six Days of Creation, and do not return to their earlier state until they have eaten the blood of a man or woman. (Commentary to Genesis 2:28)

As I explained in Sacred Monsters, it would be a mistake to look upon those who believed in such things as being "naive" or "foolish." While such a belief would be outlandish today, in the medieval period it was perfectly ordinary. After all, Scripture itself attested to King Nebuchadnezzar turning into an animal. While some would interpret this as mental illness, others interpreted this as meaning that he physically transformed into an animal. Why, then, should a person not be able to turn into a wolf?

On the other hand, it's a little less understandable when more recent figures believe in such things. Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein cites Chida as stating that this account is literally true (I'm on the road and I am unable to verify this). He also elaborates and says that the werewolf can only turn back into human form if he kills someone. For Chida to believe it is still understandable, albeit somewhat less so than with Rabbeinu Ephraim. For Rabbi Wallerstein, on the other hand, to insist that "this is Torah" and that "it must be taken very seriously," strongly implying that one is obligated to believe that it is true, is a little less acceptable. I recently met some baalei teshuvah who listened to his shiur and took it to mean that they are obligated to believe in werewolves. I don't think that this is a true or responsible message for an educator to impart. (I thus also cannot agree with what Rabbi Wallerstein says later in his shiur, that whatever comes out of his mouth in a shiur is what Hashem wants the world to hear.) There are all kinds of weird beliefs that crept into Jewish works over the centuries (see especially the Seder HaDoros that quote in Sacred Monsters), and there is absolutely no obligation to believe them.

(For further discussion of the belief in werewolves, see Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories, pp. 96-105)

See too this post: Was Eisav a Vampire?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

O Canada!

Extra points if you can guess where on the Canadian border
I am at in this picture. Clue: An animal named Buck
Tonight I head out to Canada for a week; more specifically to Toronto, a very different part of Canada to that which I briefly visited in the photo on the right. My schedule is as follows:

On Shabbat, I will speaking at BAYT, with a Motzai Shabbat multimedia presentation on "The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought."

Sunday evening is a special private event for the museum, at which I will be speaking on the topic of "Rationalist Judaism vs. Biblical Natural History," with an introduction by Rav Shlomo Miller. If you'd like to attend, please email (Please be aware that this is a fundraising event!)

On Tuesday evening at 8pm, I am speaking on the Chicken Wars at Shaarei Shomayim.

If you'd like to contact me about a private meeting, please email me at

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Badatz Boycott

For many years, the gold standard in kashrus has been the Badatz Eidah Charedis. If you wanted food of the highest halachic standard, if you wanted food that you can be sure that all your guests will eat, that's the hechsher you would get.

But that is changing.

It's gradually been dawning on people that the appalling anti-IDF and anti-Israel incitement, which has grown especially widespread recently, and which is produced by Peleg in conjunction with the Eidah Charedis, is being effectively funded by the Badatz hechsher (which is how the Edah Charedis receives its funding). So when you buy food with a Badatz Edah Charedis hechsher, you are funding incitement such as this:

Not an appealing thought. And one must wonder whether this outweighs any potential kashrus advantage in the food. In any case, as a result, there is now a concerted effort to boycott the Badatz Edah Charedis hechsher (not to be confused with other Badatzes). This includes rallies outside of food corporations such as Osem, and the distribution of the video below (people reading this via email subscription will need to visit to see the video):

I don't know how effective this will be, since it's difficult to get people to change their shopping habits and the hechsher is so widespread. Perhaps it would be helpful to compile a list of foods with which there is a non-Edah Charedis alternative to Badatz. Then you could say, "Instead of buying Bamba, buy ___".

Whatever one thinks of this, the fact is that for anyone selling food products or producing an event, you can no longer assume that your consumers or guests will be happy if you get an Edah Charedis hechsher. They may refuse to eat the food.

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Today is Giving Tuesday! You can contribute to your favorite Biblical Museum of Natural History at this link.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

How Frum Is Your Food?

How frum is your food? Does it have a good hechsher? Does it have the best hechsher? What exactly are the kashrus organizations certifying?

While researching the Chicken Wars and other topics for the Feast of Exotic Curiosities, I discovered some pretty disturbing things about the poultry industry. For example, contemporary broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow as fat and as fast as possible on as little food as possible, so that they can be slaughtered at around seven weeks of age. But this is not how God/nature designed chickens to develop; it does not allow their bodies to develop properly. If humans grew as fat as fast as a modern chicken, a 6.6 pound human baby would, in two months, reach a weight of 660 pounds! With chickens, the problems of such extreme growth include skeletal malformation and dysfunction, skin and eye lesions, and congestive heart conditions. It's not a matter of giving them more space to roam; in any case, it is too painful for them to walk. It's the very type of artificial chicken that's the problem.

Chickens that are raised as egg-layers suffer a different set of problems. Male chicks, which are useless, are culled; while some practices decried as ghastly are actually painless (such as putting them in a specialized high-speed grinding machine), others, such as suffocation, are certainly problematic. The females have their beaks cut off so that they do not attack each other in the crowded conditions under which they are raised, a surgery which is likely to cause acute and chronic pain.

Now, some of the problems with factory farming may indeed cause actual halachic problems with the kashrus of the creature, such as rendering it a treifah (mortally unwell). But, for the purposes of this post, let us assume that there are no actual technical kashrus problems. But what about the halachos of tzaar baalei chaim?

There are countless laws in the Torah which teach us sensitivity to animals, including in the laws of kashrut. On the other hand, there is a principle that tzaar baalei chaim is permitted in the case of benefit to man. But does the economic benefit of cheaper chickens count as sufficient reason to cause them great pain? While some halachic authorities are of the view that economic benefit does indeed justify causing pain to animals, others are of the opinion that minor benefits and financial benefits do not warrant causing severe pain to animals.

So, what do you do with a situation which according to some halachic authorities is permissible albeit unfortunate, while according to some halachic authorities it is problematic? Well, what usually happens is that the consumer is presented with a choice. For example, when it comes to arba minim, there are a range of different options available. Some are only kosher according to some opinions, and are cheaper. Others are more mehudar and more expensive. In contemporary Orthodox and especially charedi society, there is an emphasis on fulfilling halachah according to all opinions, and doing so in the most mehudar way, even if it costs more money.

Seeing that many people are fastidious to meticulously fulfill halachah according to all opinions, such punctiliousness should surely also apply to the laws of tzaar baalei chayim. That is to say, since there are opinions which state that the financial benefits such as those enabled through factory farming do not justify the suffering thereby caused to animals, those who are meticulous to follow all opinions should refrain from consuming animals farmed in such a manner.

Furthermore, even if there is no technical infringement of the laws of tzaar baalei chaim, can anyone really argue that it is perfectly fine? Rav Melamed discusses the topic of hens that are starved in order to then make them enter a new cycle of laying eggs. He quotes none other than Rav Yitzchak Weiss - of Manchester and then of the Edah Charedis - who says that even though there is no technical problem of tzaar baalei chaim here, someone who wants to conduct himself via middas chassidus will refrain from this. Do people who are careful to eat Badatz Eidah Charedis today ever demonstrate care about such things?

So, you have authorities ruling that there is an actual problem of tzaar baalei chaim and you have authorities saying that middas chassidus would be to refrain from such a thing. And it's fairly clear that even if there is no contravention of the letter of the law of kashrus, there is certainly contravention of the spirit of the law. My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, had the following to say:
"It seems doubtful… whether the Torah would sanction “factory farming,” which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts." Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, Masterplan (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers/ Jerusalem Academy Publications 1991) p. 69
At this stage, I don't think that it's viable to say that it is forbidden to eat factory farmed chickens. I ate one today myself. But how is that virtually nobody cares about having a different option available? How is it that while you can find frum communities being careful to observe all kinds of stringencies, even those with a very shaky basis, and even those which are expensive, and yet there is no mehadrin option for chicken in terms of tzaar baalei chaim? In future posts, I plan to discuss some efforts that have been made in this direction - some of which are commendable, and others of which are problematic. But certainly, any God-fearing Jew who prides him/herself on trembling before the word of God, should ask him/herself whether it wouldn't be worth spending a little more on eating food that hasn't involved great suffering to God's creations.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Mezuzah Miracle?

Here's a really freaky story.

Four girls in my niece's class broke their hands or arms in the last ten days. The teacher decided to have a sofer check the mezuzah of the classroom. He checked it, and saw that the letter yud in ידך was missing!

They announced this in a WhatsApp group to the parents... and then, later that day, before the mezuzah had yet been replaced, my niece broke her hand!

Now, I'm not as much of a rationalist as many people think, and I certainly don't claim to be anywhere near as much of a rationalist as some people believe me to. When I first heard this story, I was really freaked out. It's very difficult to dismiss all that as coincidence. It would pretty much demolish the entire rationalist enterprise, like how finding the fossil of a rabbit in the Precambrian would demolish evolution. The rationalist Rishonim were absolutely opposed to the idea that mezuzah provides direct metaphysical protection in such a way; it goes against their entire worldview. (See the comprehensive, and only slightly overreaching, article by Martin Gordon, "Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol?")

But then I gave it some more thought. If this is indeed a case of the consequences of a flaw in the mezuza's protection, then what exactly does it mean? If the letter yud was never written in the first place, then why would it suddenly much later cause an effect? So did it suddenly degrade from the parchment? And if such a flaw in the mezuzah did exist, who is halachically responsible - and who deserves Divine recompense? Surely not the little girls?

Then we need to think about how this might have gone down. I've heard first-hand stories of collectors taking advantage of people by examining their mezuzos and revealing information about them that "they couldn't have possibly known about in any other way." Of course, they could have known this information in the same way that any mentalist does so - via a psychological trick known as cold reading, possibly in combination with actual background research. Then it can be linked to the mezuzah by knowing all kinds of different permutations and halachic subtleties regarding the precise form of the letters.

When my niece's teacher took the mezuzah to be checked, she probably told the sofer that she was bringing it because several girls injured their hands. It would have been easy for the person to find a way of demonstrating a flaw with the word yadecha - perhaps even to scratch it out. (And consider that if this teacher went to have the mezuzah checked, then she is clearly of a particular worldview. Such people are often attracted to self-styled "miracle workers" and "holy men" who are less than scrupulously honest.) Or maybe the sofer, or the teacher, saw this as an opportunity to teach a lesson in emunah by fabricating the flaw. Is this a likely scenario? It's impossible to quantify the likelihood of it. But the question is, how likely is it vis-a-vis the alternative?

It would still leave the coincidence that my niece broke her hand after this took place. But that's not a quantitatively greater coincidence than several girls in the class injuring themselves in the same week, which is not itself so unlikely. Maybe there's some sort of class activity that makes it likely for them to injure their hands. Maybe the teacher is hitting them with a mezuzah.

Is positing the combination of an unscrupulous sofer and some coincidental injuries more or less likely than positing that a flaw in the mezuzah led to a metaphysical lack of protection and a resultant injury to some of the childrens' hands? Well, the answer to that depends very much on a person's general worldview. It reminds me somewhat of a book by arch-atheist Richard Dawkins that I read recently, called The Magic of Reality, where he insists that it's ridiculous to posit supernatural explanations for phenomena--because miracles are impossible. People have their starting assumptions, and they evaluate everything else in light of that.

The bottom line is that for someone more rationalistically inclined, there is no reason for this story to sway their worldview. But for someone more mystically inclined, the story really does support their worldview. Everyone can feel vindicated!

(If you missed my previous post, "Disposing of Nosson," I recommend that you check it out!)

Happy Chanukah!