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. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Unexpected Predators

Although I am currently on an exotic island that I have never visited before, and nor have most of you, I saw a place yesterday that will be familiar to many of you. It's a smaller, very steep, island, just off the coast:

You don't recognize it? Perhaps that's because when you last saw it, you were looking at it from the other side:

(Those reading this via email will have to go to to see the video above.)

Unfortunately, there are no actual dinosaurs on this island. However, I did see something else that was almost as primeval and horrifying. It was just a few yards away from where I took the above picture. Here it is:

It's a pitcher plant. That odd-looking leaf is about ten inches tall and forms a cup that has a few inches of liquid at the bottom. The inner surface is extremely slippery, and any creature that ventures inside falls into the liquid - which is not water. Instead, it is a digestive juice!

The normal prey of pitcher plants is insects. But this one had caught something quite a bit bigger:

It's a lizard, now in the process of being eaten by the plant. Even more surprisingly, it is a gecko, which (as noted in Sefer Mishlei) has an amazing ability to stick to walls, yet could not maintain a grip on the inner wall of the pitcher plant.

So there are no man-eating reptiles on this island, but there are reptile-eating plants! Amazing. I would wonder why Hashem made such a thing, but according to the rationalist perspective, there is really no such question. The horrifying pitcher plant is simply a byproduct of the evolutionary process.

In the next post, I will discuss a theological lesson to be learned from the animals on this island.

Friday, August 8, 2014

No, I Am Not Desecrating Shabbos

Yesterday, I took my 15th plane flight so far this summer, this time not for work but instead joining a family vacation. I am now further from Israel than I have ever been in my life. This presented an interesting question when I recited mincha yesterday: Should I face east or west? I had flown from the east to get here, but the shortest journey home would be to travel west to get back home.

This may (but not necessarily) relate to a vastly more significant halachic question: Am I desecrating Shabbos by writing this on my computer? Certainly some Poskim would say so!

Here is the background: As we fly west from Israel, we keep moving the hour back, so as not to outpace the sun. But if we were to constantly do that, we could end up arriving back in Israel at an earlier time and date than having left it! Hence, the need for an international dateline. But where is the halachic international dateline?

This is a famous and complex question that I certainly can't do justice to in a blog post. But I will outline the issues and mention the factors that are relevant from a rationalist Jewish viewpoint.

There are three well-known approaches to this question, the first of which has two variants. The first approach is based on an inference from the words of the Baal HaMaor, which are in turn an inference from the Gemara in Rosh HaShanah relating to when the new moon can be seen. This is a very technical discussion, but the bottom line is that according to this view, the day begins six hours (90°) east of Jerusalem. According to the strict interpretation of this, followed by the Brisker Rav, China and parts of Russia and Australia would be west of the halachic dateline, i.e. people in those places would observe Shabbos on what the rest of the world considers to be Sunday.

A variant on this approach is that of the Chazon Ish. He considers it unreasonable for the halachic dateline to bisect a country - it would mean that your next-door neighbor could be keeping Shabbos on a different day than you! Hence, he says that contiguous land of China, Russia and Australia should be incorporated to their western parts. According to this, only places such as New Zealand would be keeping Shabbos on what the rest of the world considers Sunday.

Some, however, would entirely reject these approaches. This is because they consider the inference from the Baal HaMaor's inference to be either technically incorrect, or unsuitable for resolving a question that Chazal were not addressing.

A second approach is that of Rav Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky. He bases himself of the Gemara's statement that Jerusalem is the navel, i.e. center, of the world. This is understood to mean that it is the Prime Meridian. Accordingly, the halachic dateline is 180° east/west of Jerusalem. This is extremely close to the secular international dateline - the significant difference being the Hawaiian islands. These would on the western side of the halachic dateline rather then the eastern side, and thus eleven hours ahead of Israel rather than thirteen hours behind; accordingly, Shabbos would be on Friday.

But while it may seem intuitive to use this Gemara to resolve the question, it is problematic. The meaning of the Gemara's statement that Jerusalem is the "navel" of the world is not at all clear. Even if it is making a geographic rather than spiritual statement, it was stated at a time when the conception of world geography was very different. In fact, when the Americas were discovered, R. David Gans felt that this Gemara posed a problem, and felt forced to explain it as a geo-cultural statement that Jerusalem is the center of the civilized world (or something like that; it's a long time since I saw it).

A third approach is that of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and Rav Zvi Pesach Frank. They are of the view that there is no halachic Prime Meridian and thus no unique halachic international dateline. Rather, one simply follows what the rest of the world considers to be the day of the week. It would seem that this would be the correct approach from the rationalist perspective.

However, there is one further wrinkle. What about being choshesh lechol hedeyos - being concerned for all opinions? After all, we are talking about Shabbos - a very serious matter! Perhaps Jews in eastern Australia should avoid melachah on Sunday, and Jews in Hawaii should avoid melachah on Friday?

The answer to this also relates to rationalist vs. mystical approaches to Judaism. According to the mystical approach, there is a metaphysical reality to Shabbos, an objective spiritual state that is "out there". Hence, one would probably want to make absolutely sure to be in line with it, and one would take into account other views; after all, they might be right. According to the rationalist approach, on the other had, there is no independent metaphysical reality to Shabbos. Rather, Shabbos attains its status as a result of how we conduct ourselves.

Of course, there is much more to be said on topic, but I'll have to sign off here. Shabbat shalom!