Monday, December 15, 2014

Kosher Certification for Maccabees

(A re-post from a few years ago.)

Over Shabbos I dusted off my ancient copy of ArtScroll's Chanukah: Its History, Observance and Significance - A Presentation based upon Talmudic and Traditional Sources, written by Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm and published way back in 1981. The subtitle is interesting, because some of the primary sources used are only traditional in the loosest sense of the term. Presumably sensitive to this concern, the preface to the History section includes the following explanation:
...Through an understanding of the history of the period, we can gain a deeper insight into the significance of Chanukah itself. With this goal, we shall approach our historical inquiry into the events of the period.

For information, we are indebted primarily to the books of Maccabees I and II the authors of which lived relatively close to the time of the miracle (in the case of I Maccabees), or drew upon contemporary sources. The authorship of these books is unknown, but they were undoubtedly written by staunchly loyal Jews. Although there is evidence that I Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, both books were available only in Greek and Latin for over 1500 years and came down to us through gentile hands. For this reason, the two books were largely unknown to Jewish chroniclers and commentators until recent times... Despite the fact that the books of Maccabees are not mentioned in virtually any early classic Rabbinic work, we may assume that Jewish scholars would have accepted them, because they are cited by the great commentator to the Mishnah, R' Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosefos Yom Tov, Megillah 3:6), and by the great halachist R' Eliyah Shapiro of Prague in his magnum opus Eliyah Rabbah to Orach Chaim 671:1. I know of only three other relatively early Jewish scholars who had access to Maccabees: R' Azariah min HaAdomim (De Rossi) in his Me'or Einayim (Imrei Binah ch. 16, 25, 25, 51, 55); and the disciple of R' Moshe Isserles, R' David Ganz (in Tzemach David, part I, year 3590). Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that such scholars would not have cited the books of Maccabees unless they were convinced of its reliability.

The reader should bear in mind that the period of Scripture was sealed prior to the events of Chanukah. No later book, even if it were historically accurate and true to the underlying spiritual theme of events it chronicled, could have been canonized. Consequently, the status of Maccabees as an apocryphal work does not, in and of itself, prove that it is not reliable.

In general, I'm not into the genre of "ArtScroll-bashing" - for the most part, ArtScroll is simply catering to the needs, desires and sensitivities of their readership, as well as understandably desiring to avoid trouble. But analyzing ArtScroll does afford an opportunity to understand the dynamics of the Orthodox community (as Dr. Yoel Finkelman has shown), and there are a number of observations to be made with regard to these paragraphs.

First, it's fascinating to see how sources are conferred with the status of "traditional," or its equivalent level of kashrus - something that I also have to do quite often. We are first assured that the authors of Maccabees were "staunchly loyal Jews." Then a justification is given for these works not being cited in classic Rabbinic literature. We are then told that prestigious later rabbinic authorities did make use of these works, and thus must have been convinced of their reliability. This also provides the importance assurance that had Chazal and the Rishonim had access to these works, "we may assume... that they would have accepted them." Finally, we are told that the stigma of being "apocryphal works" does not disqualify them "in and of itself," since they were written too late to be canonized. It's quite an elaborate set of justifications.

Also of interest is the statement that the citation of Maccabees by various Acharonim shows that they were convinced of its reliability (and hence we can also be convinced). What exactly does "reliability" mean in this context? Historical accuracy, or kosherness in Orthodox circles? It's hard to see how the citations by various Acharonim confer the former, so I assume that it means the latter, but I'm not certain.

Then, as I started to read the list of Torah scholars cited as endorsing Maccabees, I was intrigued to see R' Yom Tov Lipmann Heller as the first such authority cited. After all, he also quotes from R' Azariah De Rossi, a scholar whose name is anathema in many Orthodox circles, following the vehement condemnation of De Rossi by Maharal and (reportedly) by R. Yosef Caro. Reading on, I was flabbergasted to see that De Rossi himself is one of these authorities cited to show that Maccabees must be reliable! While it is encouraging to see that he is presented as someone who can be relied upon to show that something is reliable, it does raise some interesting questions. For if a source is "reliable" because it was quoted by R' Azariah, then we can also add a number of others to the list of works that Torah Jews can consider "reliable," including the works of Augustine, the works of Sebastian Munster, and the works of Annius of Viterbo (which are, ironically, completely unreliable).

Finally, if the Books of Maccabees are being quasi-canonized as reliable, traditional works, then what does this mean with regard to the reason for Chanukah lasting eight days? For II Maccabees explains the eight days of Chanukah not in terms of the miracle of the oil, but rather as due to the first Chanukah making up for the eight-day festival of Sukkos not having been celebrated in the Beis HaMikdash that year. And Josephus, who is also mentioned in the ArtScroll Chanukah, had a very surprising explanation as to why Chanukah is called "the festival of lights". This is a problem that has been hotly debated in recent years. For a variety of perspectives, see Rabbi Dr. David Berger's article, the comment thread on this post, R. Josh Waxman's discussion - and if anyone has any other useful links, please submit them.

Now, of course it is to be expected that an ArtScroll work is only going to present the view of the Bavli, that the reason for eight days of Chanukah is due to the miracle of the oil (which is also presented in Megillas Antiochus, of uncertain antiquity). But it is interesting that when presenting that account (on p. 55), it adds that when this happened, "they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days and offered up peace and thanksgiving offerings." Where did this come from?

It seems to me that this is incorporating the view of II Maccabees, that there was a reason for celebrating the initial eight days that had nothing to do with the oil, but rather was due to there having been an initial eight-day festival which Chanukah commemorates. ArtScroll doesn't give Maccabees' reason as to why they celebrated for eight days, but the fact of describing an eight-day celebration in that first year itself implies that there was a reason that was independent of any miracle involving the oil. (I don't think that quoting this reason is necessarily undermining the reason given by the Gemara; after all, Megillas Taanis also gives two reasons for the eight days.)

Note that much later in the work on p. 95, when discussing the famous question of the Beis Yosef regarding why we have eight days of Chanukah rather than seven, it quotes Megillas Taanis (in the scholia - later additions) that there was an eight-day rededication celebration, and then cites Birkei Yosef as saying that the extra day that we celebrate commemorates this rededication. But Birkei Yosef did not quote Megillas Taanis as saying that there was an eight-day rededication celebration, and with good reason: because it does not say any such thing! As well as describing the miracle of the oil, Megillas Taanis says that it took eight days to repair the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash - not that there were eight days of celebrating its rededication. (Furthermore, Birkei Yosef does not give this as a reason for an eighth day, supplemental to celebrating seven over the miracle of the oil, but rather he says that the eight days of repair are the reason for all eight days of the current festival, and that the question of the Beis Yosef is therefore redundant!) It therefore seems to me that on p. 95, ArtScroll has subconsciously replaced the view of Megillas Taanis with the view of II Maccabees.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Yet Another Strange Request

Being the Zoo Rabbi, I receive some unusual questions and requests. There was the woman who wrote to ask me if she should teach Torah to her dog, because it was the reincarnated spirit of her late husband. There was the man who asked to borrow my chameleon, in order to cure cancer. There was the new couple who consulted me about their shalom bayis problems, relating to the husband not wanting to murder any bugs that were in the house, much to his wife's distress.

Today's request falls into that category. My administrator at The Biblical Museum of Natural History just contacted me about how to handle a request that we received. Somebody desperately wants to borrow goat horns to place in her home for a few days, as a segulah. And we do indeed have some goat horns at the museum (along with horns of kudu, oryx, impala, blackbuck, eland, springbok, blesbok, pronghorn, mouflon, aoudad, rhinoceros, jackalope and unicorn), which were made into shofars (strangely, many of the alleged "ram's horn shofars" on the market are actually from goats). What should we say?

Now, I didn't hear what the goat horns are allegedly a segulah for. (It might have something to do with the Amiltai segulah.) But, coming from a Maimonidean rationalist perspective, I am confident that they don't actually function as a segulah for anything. So what should I tell her?

On the one hand, I don't want to cooperate with, and effectively endorse, highly irrational beliefs that have nothing to do with traditional Judaism. But on the other hand, the person appears to be in a situation of distress, and it could be psychologically beneficial to provide the segulah. It also depends on whether the problem is a medical problem, which can be greatly alleviated by the placebo effect, or an external problem, which cannot be solved merely because one believes it will be solved. If it's the latter, then either her problem will be solved, in which case it doesn't matter if she doesn't get my goat, or it won't, in which case any comfort derived from the goat horns will be undone.

So what should I reply? Yes? No? Only if it's a medical problem? Unfortunately I don't think that there is any objectively correct answer to this question.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Peeled Onions and Evil Spirits

In the course of a culinary discussion, my wife recently mentioned to someone that she was storing half an onion in the refrigerator. The other person was horrified, and informed my wife that this is categorically forbidden by halachah. Was she correct?

Rav Ari Kahn has a terrific shiur on this topic at YU-Torah, in which he says as follows: True, the Gemara does say that eating peeled onions (and garlic, and eggs) that were left overnight is lethally dangerous, due to the "evil spirit" that rests upon it. The Gemara further says that someone who does this is considered to be responsible for the ensuing loss of life. However, there are three factors which mean that this is not a halachah today.

First is that not many people since that time believe that there is actually any such danger. (Reinterpreting the Gemara to be referring to some sort of scientifically-confirmed phenomenon is problematic, since the danger is considered to be neutralized if even a tiny amount of peel is left on it.) And we are not just talking about Maimonidean rationalists; even Tosafos states that such "evil spirits" are no longer found.

Furthermore, whereas other such statements in the Gemara (based on views that are not consistent with contemporary science) may still be halachically binding due to their having been canonized in the halachic tradition, this is not the case with peeled onions. None of the major halachic works of the Rishonim or early Acharonim make any mention of this. Only recently did it become more common to find halachic works making mention of it.

Finally, it is certainly not part of the living tradition. How many of our mothers and grandmothers were ever concerned about such a thing, or even heard of it? Not many!

Thus, concludes Rabbi Kahn, if it's not mentioned in any of the major halachic works, and is not part of the general tradition, and is not a person's own family tradition, then while a person is entitled to adopt it as a stringency, you can't call it a halachah!

While I think that Rabbi Kahn's analysis is excellent, I'm not sure how long it's going to be accurate for. Due to the phenomenon of "chumrah creep", and the rise of the book tradition over the living tradition, the practice of not eating peeled onions that were left overnight is rapidly spreading. At some point, it is going to be considered normative practice in all circles. And at that point, it effectively becomes halachah. That's probably not a good thing, but it's near-inevitable. Such is the nature of Jewish evolution.

On an entirely different note: If you are coming to Israel for Chanukah, then (a) book a tour at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and (b) let me know if you can bring some supplies for the museum from a US or UK reptile store!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Lion Hunter Returns to Zion

It's not often that I attend re-interments of the ashes of Christians. But when I received the invitation from the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel for today's ceremony, I leaped at the opportunity. It was a chance to honor someone who was a great friend not only of Binyamin Netanyahu's family, but of the entire nation of Israel. This person's remains were finally being re-interred in Israel, in accordance with the wishes that he had expressed.

Who was this person, that was honored with a ceremony attended by the Prime Minister and his entire extended family, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, the Ambassadors of Britain and Ireland, and other dignitaries? Who was this person about whom Ze'ev Jabotinsky had said that "Never in Jewish history has there been in our midst a Christian friend of his penetration and devotion," and about whom Prime Minister Netanyahu said today that it was no exaggeration to say that without him, there would have been no IDF? The International Business Times and The Independent report that he was known as "the Lion Hunter of Zion." In fact, he was never known as this; it was a title which I coined last year for an article in The Times of Israel. But it is, I think, a worthy title, reflecting his extremely diverse causes for being a hero, as I wrote last year:

Colonel John Henry Patterson was an Irish soldier and engineer assigned to Kenya by the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. His job was to supervise the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo river for a massive railroad project. Unfortunately, railroad workers were constantly being slaughtered by the most notorious man-eating lions in recorded history. Two maneless but huge lions, working together, were estimated to have killed and eaten well over a hundred people working on the railroad.

Night after night, Patterson sat in a tree, hoping to shoot the lions when they came to the bait that he set for them. But the lions demonstrated almost supernatural abilities, constantly breaking through thorn fences to take victims from elsewhere in the camp, and seemingly immune to the bullets that were fired at them.

Patterson was faced with the task of not only killing the lions, but also surviving the wrath of hundreds of workers, who were convinced that the lions were demons that were inflicting divine punishment for the railroad. At one point, Patterson was attacked by a group of over a hundred workers who had plotted to lynch him. Patterson punched out the first two people to approach him, and talked down the rest!

After many months, Patterson eventually shot both lions. He himself was nearly killed in the process on several occasions, such as when one lion that he had shot several times suddenly leaped up to attack him as he approached its body. He published a blood-curdling account of the episode in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which became a best-seller, and earned him a close relationship with US President Roosevelt.

Upon returning to England, Patterson was a hailed as a hero. When World War One broke out, however, Patterson traveled to Egypt and took on a most unusual task: forming and leading a unit of Jewish soldiers, comprised of Jews who had been exiled from Palestine by the Turks. As a child, Patterson had been mesmerized by stories from the Bible. He viewed this task as being of tremendous, historic significance. The unit, called the Zion Mule Corps, was tasked with providing supplies to soldiers in the trenches in Gallipoli. Patterson persuaded the reluctant War Office to provide kosher food, as well as matzah for Passover, and he himself learned Hebrew and Yiddish in order to be able to communicate with his troops. The newly-trained Jewish soldiers served valiantly, but the campaign against the Turks in Gallipoli was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Zion Mule Corps was eventually disbanded.

In 1916 Patterson joined forces with Vladimir Jabotinsky to create a full-fledged Jewish Legion in the British Army, who would fight to liberate Palestine from the cruel reign of the Ottoman Empire and enable the Jewish People to create a home there. The War Minister, Lord Derby, succumbed to anti-Zionist agitators and attempted to prevent the Jewish Legion from receiving kosher food, from serving in Palestine, and from having “Jewish” in their name. Patterson promptly threatened to resign and risked a court-martial by protesting Derby’s decision as a disgrace. Derby backed down and Patterson’s Jewish Legion was successfully formed. During training, Patterson again threatened the War Office with his resignation if his men (many of whom were Orthodox) were not allowed to observe Shabbos, and again the army conceded. Meanwhile, Patterson brought Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook to address and inspire his troops.

Patterson clashed repeatedly with antisemitic officers in the British Army. Once, when a visiting brigadier called one of his soldiers “a dirty Jew,” Patterson demanded an apology, ordering his men to surround the brigadier with bayonets until he did so. The apology was produced, but Patterson was reprimanded by General Allenby. On another occasion, Patterson discovered that one of his Jewish soldiers had been sentenced to execution for sleeping at his post. Patterson circumvented the chain of authority and contacted Allenby directly in order to earn a reprieve. The reprieve came, but a notoriously antisemitic brigadier by the name of Louis Bols complained about Patterson’s interference to General Shea. Shea summoned Patterson and, rather than discipline him, revealed that his children were great fans of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. The Jewish Legion fought well, and Palestine was liberated from the Turks. But Patterson himself was the only British officer in World War One to receive no promotion at all – a result of his outspoken efforts on behalf of the Jewish People.

After the war, Patterson dedicated himself to assisting with the creation of a Jewish homeland. The achievements of the Jewish Legion gained sympathy for the cause, but there was much opposition from both Jews and non-Jews. One Jewish delegation, seeking to explore an alternate option of creating a Jewish homeland in Africa, was dissuaded after reading The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Meanwhile, against Patterson’s strenuous efforts, Bols was appointed Military Governor of Palestine, and filled the administration with antisemites who attempted to undermine the Balfour Declaration and empowered hostile elements in the Arab world.

When World War II broke out, Patterson, now an old man, fought to create another Jewish Legion. After great effort, the Jewish Infantry Brigade was approved. Aside from fighting the Germans, members of the Brigade succeeded in smuggling many concentration camp survivors into Palestine. Many other survivors had been cruelly turned away, and Patterson protested this to President Truman, capitalizing on his earlier relationship with Roosevelt. This contributed to Truman’s support for a Jewish homeland.

Patterson spent most of his later years actively campaigning for a Jewish homeland and against the British Mandate’s actions towards the Jews in Palestine. Tragically, he passed away a month before the State of Israel was created. The newly formed country would not have won the War of Independence without trained soldiers – and the soldiers were trained by veterans of Patterson’s Jewish Legion and Jewish Infantry Brigade. Colonel John Patterson had ensured the survival of the Jewish homeland. But his legacy lived on in another way, too. Close friends of his named their child after him, and the boy grew up to be yet another lion-hearted hero of Israel. His name was Yonatan Netanyahu.

Further reading:
John Patterson, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (free download)
John Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli (free download)
John Patterson, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign (free download)
Denis Brian, The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory 

With thanks to Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Har Nof Heroes

Following the appalling tragedy in Har Nof, we learned of the amazing qualities of the victims (aside from the amazing heroism of the Druze police officer Zidan Saif). It was also very impressive to see the dignified reaction of the Har Nof community. See, for example, the article in the Times of Israel, "In Har Nof, Introspection, But No Religious War". There was no attempt to attach blame to anyone other than the murderers and those who incite them. There were no claims from Har Nof residents that it was due to the sins of a different community (unlike the Satmar Rav, who claimed that the non-Zionist victims were killed in retribution for the Zionists who ascend the Temple Mount, as a lesson which would have been entirely lost due to neither group being followers of Satmar). The gratitude to Zidan Saif, including Rav Rubin attending his funeral, was genuine, not merely "to make a kiddush Hashem".

I was inspired, and not at all surprised. This was, after all, Har Nof. I spent countless Shabbosos there when I was in yeshivah, and I lived there for eight months after I got married, and I can attest that it is full of the most wonderful people. This is not a naive claim that they are all wonderful; I know of several people there of poor character. But my impression is that a larger-than-usual percentage of the population is of exceptional character.

Har Nof is a mostly charedi neighborhood in which a large proportion of the population are olim, and/or baalei teshuvah to varying degrees, and/or involved in Jewish education by choice (i.e. not because they had no other skills or general education or socially acceptable options). This means that a large proportion of the population are extremely idealistic. Add to this that many of them are Anglos, and this means (apologies for the xenophobia) that they have certain qualities that are often lacking in their Israeli co-religionists.

It was around twenty years ago, when I first started spending time in Har Nof, that I became greatly enamored of the charedi world, and began crusading for the charedi cause. At the time, someone argued to me that I was making a mistake in extrapolating from the idealistic Anglo olim/ baalei teshuvah/ mechanchim of the charedi world to the charedi world in general. I was reminded of this last week, when someone spread the inspirational account of how one woman had taken it upon herself to arrange free transportation for people to attend the funeral of Zidan Saif. The person who shared the story with me stressed that this was a charedi woman, from Beitar, using her story to score points for charedim. Upon reading about her noble deed, however, I was intrigued to see that she had arranged it by means of Facebook. If she is using Facebook - something that is banned for the charedi community - then she is certainly not typical of the charedi world!

In any case, I hope that we can all take a lesson from the wonderful qualities of all our fellow Jews who were involved in this horrible event. By doing so, this is a credit to those who tragically lost their lives.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Challenge of the Akeidah

Benyamin Reich, Akedah(A re-post from four years ago. The comments to this post are especially stimulating. On an unrelated note - it's time that the museum had a professional website, including an online reservations system. If anyone is interested in donating their services, please be in touch!)

The akeidah never used to present any problems for me. About 15 years ago a certain rabbi claimed that Avraham failed the akeidah, and that he should have protested the order, just as he protested God's destruction of Sodom. I wrote an essay in response, in which I pointed out various significant differences between the two cases, as well as the fact that from Jewish tradition as well as the text of the Torah itself it is abundantly clear that Avraham was not considered to have failed the akeidah.

Over the last few years, however, there is a question that has really been bothering me. I've been studying various literature on the topic, but so far I have not come up with a fully satisfactory answer. My studies continue, but I wanted to share my question here in the hopes that perhaps someone can suggest an answer.

My problem is with the "happy ending" of the story, where God tells Avraham not to kill Yitzchak. Was this the inevitable ending? Is it actually entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication?

Some claim this to be the case, and to be the message of the story. A teacher of mine once told me that God does not want child sacrifice, but He does want the willingness to do it. Rav Kook writes that there is a holy root to the pagan desire for child sacrifice, namely the willingness to give up everything for God, but Judaism demands this to be fulfilled differently. Shadal says that the point of the akeidah was to counter the claim by other nations that they are willing to sacrifice more than us. The akeidah showed that we are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – but God doesn’t want it.

But if child sacrifice is immoral, and it is for this reason that God does not want it, then why would we be willing to do it? If it is entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about?

On the other hand, if it is not inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, then why did the story end with God telling him not to do it? Wouldn't this give the wrong message and undermine the lesson?

I came up with another question that puts all this into sharper focus: What if God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov? What should Yitzchak have said? If he says no, then he is disobeying God, which doesn't sound right. But if says yes, then he is acknowledging that child sacrifice might be a legitimate way of serving God. In which case, why didn't God let Avraham follow through with it?

I have a possible approach, but I am not sure if it is satisfactory. We do believe in the principle of yeherag ve’al ya’avor. There are situations when fulfilling God’s command takes precedence over life. And obeying God’s direct command is certainly a higher religious priority than the three cardinal sins. Sometimes the right thing to do is to sacrifice life for a higher goal. The akedah teaches us that God does not normally set things up this way. That it is not generally a goal – except in certain specific cases where it may serve as a Kiddush Hashem, such as with the akedah. Maybe it can be said that it would be simply impossible for God to have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, and that asking such a question is like asking whether God can create a stone that He cannot lift. Maybe it is truly inconceivable that God would want child sacrifice as a regular part of serving Him, but not that He might ask for it on a rare and significant occasion?

That's the best that I could come up with so far, but I don't think it fully answers the questions that I raised. I would welcome peoples' thoughts on this.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Scientist Who Thought That Birds Migrate to the Moon

There is a fascinating article in Wired magazine about how scientists (or natural philosophers) of earlier centuries grappled with the question of where certain birds come from in the spring and where they go in the winter. Some claimed that they spend their winters hibernating at the bottom of lakes (as is also mentioned by several commentaries in Perek Shirah, in discussing the retzifi-bird). Others proposed that they spontaneously generate from barnacles (which presented rabbinic authorities with the halachic question of whether they were kosher, and if so, which berachah should be made on them, as referenced in Shulchan Aruch; see my book Sacred Monsters for extensive discussion).

And there were other scientists who proposed that birds go to the moon. They knew that the moon was a very long way away, and realized that such a journey would take many weeks. However, since there is no air resistance or gravity in space, it would be a very easy journey, and birds could sleep through most of it.

I think that articles such as this can be of benefit for frum people who struggle with the notion of Chazal making statements about the natural world that are not consistent with modern science. Such people are under the misconception that if a person said something that is completely wrong from the perspective of modern science, then it means that they were foolish. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was prestigious scientists of great intellect that proposed such things. They were not at all foolish. They were working with the best information that they had. Being wrong does not mean being foolish.

(On a different note: If anyone is coming to Israel from the US and can bring some small or medium items for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! Also, if you are on Facebook,  please like and share