Saturday, July 22, 2017

Devastating

The news of the murders in Neve Tzuf is devastating. I knew the father; he was my sister's next-door neighbor. I don't want to say too much about what happened before I can find out what exactly is permissible for public release; I will say that I am very proud of the person who shot the terrorist, the second time that he has stopped a terror attack. But it's awful that he had to do it; in real life, such heroics are not fun at all. 

Upon reading the terrorist's claim that he was doing it to protect Al-Aksa mosque after what the Zionists are doing (i.e. installing metal detectors), my first reaction was to think, If only they had not put up the metal detectors, then these people would still be alive! But, of course, it's not so simple. In the long run, capitulating to such things does not necessarily serve to protect more lives. Israel is not the West, where compromise leads to peace; instead, compromise is often seen as weakness, spurring on further hostilities. On the other hand, it was certainly a lesson to me in that it's so easy to call for Bibi to take a harder line when you don't actually have to face the potential consequences.

I don't have anything more to add right now. May Hashem heal the wounded survivors of the attack, may He comfort the family, and may He avenge the dead. And may we never hear of such things again.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hail To The Chief!

The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rav Ephraim Mirvis, has accomplished something extraordinary. He took an impossible situation, and through his strength, wisdom and political acumen, solved it.

For those who don't know, I am talking about his resolution of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in London. Over the last few months, there has been a storm raging in British Jewry about (depending on which side you are on) various controversial teachings of his, and the response to this by various rabbis and other people. When Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef declared that Rabbi Dweck should not be allowed to serve as Rabbi, this seemed to have forced the conclusion. Yet, through some supernatural miracle that I cannot explain, Rabbi Yosef then put out a letter admitting that as a non-Brit he was not really qualified to evaluate the situation, and that it should be resolved by Rabbi Mirvis, whose judgment he would accept. Rabbi Mirvis put together a review committee, consisting of various senior Dayanim and - very significantly - a QC. They decided that Rabbi Dweck should remain in his position as senior rabbi, after he issued an apology for some of his teachings, stepped down from his position on the Beit Din, and an agreement to be more cautious in future. (I am simplifying matters - see the full report elsewhere.)

Several people had written to me over the last few months, asking me to write in defense of Rabbi Dweck. I did not do so (although I did defend him against the disgusting attacks of Yosef Mizrachi), for several reasons. One is that I felt that, being who I am, stepping in would inflame matters rather than help them. But another reason is that I felt that I simply did not know enough about the situation. 

I find it amazing, and disturbing, how many people are ready to form strong opinions on controversial matters about which they know very little. For example, a few years ago, someone asked (and expected) me to voice my support for a woman stuck in a certain messy divorce case. But I refused to do so, for the simple reason that I did not feel that I knew enough about the situation. While her story seemed compelling, there are very often (if not always) two sides to a story.

The initial storm surrounding Rabbi Dweck was based on a shiur that he gave about homosexuality - a shiur that I did not listen to, on a topic that I know very little about. The subsequent controversy surrounded various statements that he made over the years - and once again, I have no idea what these were. So how on earth was I supposed to give an opinion?

What I find particularly distressing is how many people are criticizing the Chief Rabbi even though they, too, lack knowledge of the situation. There are numerous ordinarily intelligent people condemning Rabbi Mirvis for even the very limited way in which Rabbi Dweck was not fully vindicated. They have accused Rabbi Mirvis of giving in to charedi bullies. But how on earth do they know this to be the case? Maybe Rabbi Mirvis (or the Dayanim that he appointed - at least of whom is definitely not one to fall in line with charedi "Daas Torah") - actually did believe that some of Rabbi Dweck's teachings were problematic? After all, there certainly are at least *some* non-charedi rabbinic figures who feel that way. And, as I discussed in the previous post, you can't claim that *every* statement should be automatically acceptable within Orthodoxy.

So, while it's *possible* that Rabbi Mirvis kowtowed to charedi pressure, it's also perfectly possible that he reached an honest judgement based on his personal appraisal of the situation. And I see no reason why one should not assume this to be case. Furthermore, it seems that people who are so sure of themselves in criticizing Rabbi Mirvis don't actually know any more than I do about the details of the questionable teachings. So it would be appropriate for them to simply keep silent.

There's another reason why they should keep silent. You can be sure that the zealots who tried to destroy Rabbi Dweck will be up in arms about Rabbi Mirvis' verdict to permit him to stay in his post. They will point to Rav Yitzchak Yosef's condemnation of him. And yet, Rav Yosef subsequently wrote that people should go by whatever Rabbi Mirvis decides. If you want Rabbi Dweck's opponents to follow Rabbi Mirvis's decision, then you should likewise follow it and not protest it.

I am far from the only one to be in awe of how magnificently the Chief Rabbi handled this very difficult situation. One well-known commentator on the Orthodox community wrote to me "I was overwhelmed by the difference between the way they handled you - and a dozen other issues in Bnei Brak and NY - and the way they satisfactorily dealt with the Rabbi Dweck in London.  Maybe you Brits are on to something!" Chief Rabbi Mirvis took a near-unsolvable situation and resolved it. To adapt an American expression to this British situation, Hail to the Chief!

(I wrote this post in the airport in a hurry, and now I am boarding a plane to Bangkok. So I hope that there are no errors, and I apologize if there are.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Orthodoxy and Heresy

Over the last few weeks, there have been a variety of different controversies regarding who is In and Out of Orthodoxy. I don't want to get into specific discussions regarding any of these cases. Instead, I would just like to share some general thoughts, extrapolated from my own experiences, about Judaism, Orthodoxy, heresy, and how it relates to cricket.

When several of my books were notoriously banned for being heretical, this was obviously extremely upsetting, to put it mildly. Many people, with the best of intentions, attempted to console me by saying things like, "Well, I haven't read your books, but if they were banned, then they must be good! After all, Rambam's books were banned also!" Well, yes, they banned Rambam. But they also banned Spinoza! To quote Carl Sagan: "The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” 

A similarly mistaken argument put forth in my defense was that banning books is by definition wrong. But I couldn't agree with that either. Yes, banning books may be strategically unwise. However, you can't claim that Judaism is against banning ideas that are deemed harmful. The Torah is full of messages about how paganism must be eradicated and idols destroyed. Classical Judaism has always maintained that if ideologies are genuinely wrong and dangerous, then they should indeed be fought (in a strategically wise way). Like it or not, Judaism is not a pluralistic religion. 

My defense against the ban was not that it is wrong to ban books. Rather, it was that there was nothing in my books that was heretical. The central points that were deemed problematic - my saying that the account of Creation need not be interpreted literally, and that the Sages of the Talmud were not correct in all their statements about the natural world - had all been said by great Rishonim and Acharonim that were universally accepted, even in charedi circles. And I had been taught in yeshivah that Rishonim K'Malachim - the early Torah scholars are like angels, and it is unthinkable to declare their views of Torah to be treife.

However, as events progressed, I saw that my defense was problematic. It became clear that for charedi society (at least, the vocal parts), the overriding value was that one does not evaluate Torah "in light of" modern science, and certainly not to say that Chazal were incorrect in any of their statements. And so even though charedi society claimed that Rishonim k'Malachim, this was evidently mere lip-service; in practice, if any Rishonim said that Chazal were incorrect, it meant that the Rishonim were espousing a warped view of Chazal a.k.a. heresy.

And so while it was understandable that I had thought that my books would be acceptable in charedi circles, due to Rishonim k'Malachim, I was mistaken. The infallibility of Chazal, the unthinkability of the rationalist approach, was much more important in charedi circles than Rishonim k'Malachim.

Once I reached that realization, it was clear that I could no longer attempt to claim that my books should be acceptable in charedi circles. I could (and still do) argue that they were being inconsistent about the reverence that they claimed to have for Rishonim. And I could argue that the way that they treated me was disgraceful. But I could not argue that the rationalist approach should be permissible in charedi society. Every society has the right to define for itself which values and beliefs they treasure, and charedi society had made it clear that the rationalist approach to Torah/science issues was unacceptable to them.

Every group has the right to define its own boundaries. You can't go to England, insist that cricket should be played according to the rules that make sense to you, and expect to be accepted into the game. Of course, there will always be tension between those who seek to define the boundaries narrowly, and those who seek to define them broadly. And there will always be people who are just motivated by tribalism, lusts for power, and evil intentions (and these people should be denounced just as strongly as alleged "heretics"). But just as there are mistakes on the right, by people who attempt to define Judaism or Orthodoxy in such a way as to exclude its greatest figures, likewise there are mistakes on the left, by people who, to all intents and purposes, seem to believe that Judaism or Orthodoxy should have no boundaries.

There can be debate about what exactly the boundaries of Orthodoxy and Judaism are. But if you're going to claim that everything is acceptable, then you don't understand what Judaism and Orthodoxy is.

(Reminder: All the materials relating to the ban on my books can be found at http://www.zootorah.com/controversy)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Were Chazal Able To Extract Science From Torah?

Let's get back to my multi-part critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science. On p. 4, after quoting various Midrashim about Torah being the blueprint of the world, which Rabbi Meiselman (like many others) understands to mean that it encodes all scientific knowledge, he claims as follows:
...It should come as no surprise, then, that we find so many incidents recorded in the Gemara and midrashim in which our Chachamim were able to derive facts about the physical world directly from the Torah.
Unfortunately, this claim is entirely false. Not only do we not find "so many" such incidents; we do not find a single one. That is, we know of no case where Chazal extracted information about the natural world from the Torah and it turned out to be correct. On the other hand, we know of several cases where Chazal extracted information about the natural world from the Torah and it does not appear to be correct (and can only be made irrelevant via strained apologetics which require claiming that the Rishonim did not explain the Gemara correctly).

In this post, we shall discuss the first example brought by Rabbi Meiselman, concerning the gestation of the snake. Here is the passage brought in the Gemara (R. Meiselman brings a lengthier version from the Midrash):
(The gestation period for) a snake is seven years… How do we know this? Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav…: As it says, “You are cursed from all the domestic animals and from all the beasts of the field” (Bereishis 3:14). If the snake is cursed more than all the domestic animals (which have a gestation period of at least five months), then surely all the more so it is cursed more than the wild animals (whose minimum gestation period is only 50 days)! Rather, it tells you that just as a domestic animal is cursed seven times more than a wild animal – namely, the donkey (which has a gestation period of one year) and the cat (whose gestation period, according the Gemara earlier, is 52 days) – so too is the snake cursed seven times more than the domesticated animal, which results in seven years. (Talmud, Bechoros 8a) 
The problem, as acknowledged by Rabbi Meiselman in a footnote, is that the gestation period of snakes is not seven years. (Sometimes, snakes can store their sperm for several years, but this does not help us; firstly, the majority of snakes do not store the sperm at all, and when it does happen, it can be for less and more than seven years.) Rabbi Meiselman addresses this problem as follows: "But again it must be recalled that Chazal were speaking of a specific species, the identity of which is unknown to us and under conditions unknown to us." Yet this is just as unreasonable as positing that the atalef of the Gemara is a platypus. If the Gemara had meant to refer to a particular and very unusual type of snake, it would have said so. Instead, it used the generic term nachash.

Furthermore, as a reader here once pointed out, there are other inaccurate statements in the Gemara about snakes. Chazal warn against drinking from an unattended wine glass unattended, in case a snake dripped venom into it, and they likewise warn against eating fruit with punctures in it, lest snakes injected venom there. But snakes do not drink with their mouths open, do not bite fruit, and their venom is perfectly safe to ingest; it is only dangerous if it enters the bloodstream. So Rabbi Meiselman's hypothetical unknown particular species of snake that is strangely unspecified and which gives birth after exactly seven years now also has a number of other characteristics that are completely at odds with all the thousands of species of snakes known to science. There is probably no point at which Rabbi Meiselman feels he is straining credulity; but for the rest of us, he passed that point long ago.

Rabbi Meiselman says that his point is not to prove Chazal's knowledge of nature from this Midrash, but only to show that they claimed their knowledge to be derived from Torah. But that doesn't help very much, when every indication is that they were not able to derive this knowledge correctly! (With regard to what is going on in the Gemara, and especially the longer version in the Midrash brought by Rabbi Meiselman, see Rabbi Josh Waxman's analysis.)

Note too that this very same page of Gemara discusses the gestation period of other animals (as discussed in an earlier post):
The [gestation period of a] fox and all kinds of creeping creatures is six months... The [gestation period of] small clean animals is five months... The [gestation period of] large unclean domestic animals is twelve months... The [gestation period of] clean large cattle is nine months... The [gestation period of the] wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and monkey is three years...
Rabbi Meiselman only references this Gemara in a footnote, on p. 6, where he presents two possibilities. One is that the Gemara is not talking about the length of gestation, but rather "some other aspect of the reproductive process." This vague speculation does not seriously address the issues. What other aspect could be reconciled with these statements? What aspect of the reproductive process can be said to be fifty days with a dog, six months with a fox, and three years with a wolf? Furthermore, this does not address the other problematic statements on this page of Gemara, such as that any species in which the male has internal genitalia lays eggs, or that camels mate backwards, or that any two types of animal that mate in the same position and have the same gestation period can interbreed.

Rabbi Meiselman's other suggestion is that "the facts of nature have simply changed over the years." This claim (which is ironically often advanced by those who simultaneously argue that evolution is scientifically impossible) cannot be taken at all seriously by anyone even remotely familiar with zoology. Elephants used to lay eggs, but no longer do so? Countless species used to be interfertile, but are no longer interfertile? Camels used to mate back-to-back, but now awkwardly twist themselves around to mate front-to-back? Wolves, which are genetically virtually identical to dogs, used to have a gestation period of three years?!

Were Chazal able to extract scientific knowledge from Torah? The only honest answer to that appears to be no. But let us phrase the question a little differently. Did Chazal consider themselves able to extract science from Torah, and if so, to what extent and to what degree of reliability? And to what extent was their self-assessment accepted or disputed by later authorities? There are indeed certain indications that Chazal did consider themselves able to reliably extract science from Torah:
The Emperor once asked R. Joshua b. Hanania: ‘How long is the period of gestation and birth of a serpent’? — He replied to him: ‘Seven years’. ‘But did not the Sages of the Athenian school couple’ [a male serpent with a female] and they gave birth in three years’? — ‘Those had already been pregnant for four years’. ‘But did they not have sexual contact’? — ‘Serpents have sexual intercourse in the same manner as human beings’.‘But are not [the sages of Athens] wise men [and surely they must have ascertained the true facts about the serpent]’? ‘We are wiser than they.' (Bechoros 8b)

On the other hand, the fact that they argued with each other about facts such as the path of the sun and the source of rain means that they acknowledged that they weren't necessarily correct in their exegeses. And indeed, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi conceded that the non-Jewish astronomers were correct about where the sun goes at night, even though the Jewish sages had connected their view to a Scriptural exegesis. It would seem that although where Jewish pride was at stake, Chazal insisted on their superiority, otherwise they acknowledged that their methodology would not necessarily yield correct results. As indeed it didn't.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

When Jews Betray Israel

A Public Letter To the Editor of Mishpachah Magazine:

In his most recent column, Eytan Kobre criticizes non-Orthodox Jews who, in their anger at the actions of the Government of Israel with regard to religion, attempt to harm Israel and stir up opposition from non-Jews. It is good to see Mr. Kobre standing up for Israel, in light of an earlier column of his in which he dismissed the significance of Israel. However, the way in which he criticizes those seeking to harm Israel is rather dishonest. He writes: 
"...Have Orthodox Jews ever made the kinds of threats against this country and its people that we’re now hearing, things like withholding donations and terminating business dealings that will impair the Israeli economy? Have Orthodox Jews ever suggested, as Conservative clergyman Daniel Gordis has, that “Israeli hospitals survive in part thanks to American Jewish philanthropy. The flow of money should stop. Meetings with hospitals’ fundraisers should be canceled”? Have Orthodox Jews put constituent pressure on members of Congress to involve themselves in an internal matter of Israeli politics and religion and decry Israel’s lack of religious freedom for all America to hear, as heterodox Jewish leaders have now done?" 

Well, the unfortunate answer is yes, Orthodox Jews have indeed engaged in such actions. In 2013 there was a rally against the policies of the Israeli Government with regard to drafting yeshivah students, which was held in Manhattan, for all America to see. The rally had tens of thousands of people and numerous rabbinic dignitaries, including not only Satmar rabbanim but also Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Aaron Schechter, Rav Osher Kalmanovitz, Rav Shlomo Feivel Shustal, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman (who was once praised to the heavens by Eytan Kobre in a fawning profile in Mishpachah magazine) and others. The speakers described Israel as an "evil regime" and talked about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling.” The event was reported by the New York Daily News, along with various pro-Palestinian outlets who presented it as evidence that authentic Jews are opposed to the brutal Zionist regime.

Then just a few weeks ago, there was a rally at the Barclays Center, primarily with Satmar chassidim but again also supported by Litvishe rabbonim such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Aaron Schechter and others. This event was likewise intended to send a message to people outside the Jewish community, as reported in a press release by The Central Rabbinical Congress of the USA and Canada (CRC): "We want the world to know about their (Haredi Jews) plight, that their religious rights are being systematically abused. The Israeli government isn't allowing for freedom of assembly or freedom of speech on this issue," said CRC spokesman Rabbi Isaac Green. Rabbi David Niederman, Intergovernmental Liaison for the CRC, stated: "International law under Section 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights demands for exemption of military service based on ones' sincerely held conscience. Unfortunately, it is a right that the Israeli government has withheld from our community."

Nor did Rabbi Niederman describe the function of the effort as being limited to words - he said that he hoped to exert pressure in terms of financial aid to Israel. "Niederman said rally organizers hoped to influence American lawmakers who give Israel billions of dollars in defense aid. If the U.S. and Israeli governments don’t pay heed, the Satmar community will take additional steps, he said, though he declined to give specifics."

Rabbi Niederman should be familiar to readers of Mishpachah magazine, as he was once featured on the cover of the magazine, and he was praised as an outstanding example of an Orthodox Jewish diplomat. If Mr. Kobre is going to criticize non-Orthodox Jews for their betrayal of Israel, then he should not deny that the same sin is sometimes committed by Orthodox Jews, including those who are praised in this very magazine.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Around the World in Thirty-Two Days

I'm a terrible traveler. Until I discovered a travel medication that worked for me, I would regularly pass out on airplanes and throw up on boats. El-Al had me sign waivers of liability so many times, I feared they would put me on a no-fly list. It also takes me anywhere up to a month to recover from jet-lag, especially traveling east. With that in mind, you'll understand that I have somewhat mixed feelings about a spectacular itinerary that I have for this summer.

My route map according to Google. Though I doubt
that El-Al flies over Iran.
In two weeks, I am going around the world! Not only that, but I'm going further south than I've ever been and further north than I've ever been. This journey includes travel by airplane, ship, boat, and three other exciting forms of transport that I will reveal in due course (and it's not elephant or camel or giant tortoise, which I have done previously but will not be doing on this trip). I'll be setting out east to Bangkok, then south to Perth, then east to Melbourne, then north-east to Los Angeles, then north to Seattle, then north-west to Alaska and Victoria (British Columbia), and then back to Seattle, LA and home to Israel. The total distance is nearly forty thousand miles!

It must be said that modern transport is truly astonishing. For most of human history, making such a journey required an exceedingly dangerous ocean voyage. In 1870, when the technological breakthroughs of steamships, railroads and the Suez Canal enabled relatively easy circumnavigation of the globe, it was still an exciting challenge to think of doing it in as little as eighty days, as immortalized in Jules Verne's acclaimed novel. Even when airplanes were invented, the first commercial flights to Australia took up to twelve days, and required several changes of aircraft and up to forty-two refueling stops. Today, I can travel to Australia in just two Dramamines!

A behind-the-scenes kangaroo encounter
at Jungle Island in Florida
There are multiple purposes for this trip. It's a combination of lectures, shooting video for museum exhibits and a documentary, acquiring museum exhibits, fundraising, and part of it is a family vacation. Since one of the purposes is filming about Biblical zoology, and Biblical zoology is the animals that live in precisely the place where I'm not going to be, one might wonder how exactly the scenes are going to be relevant. Don't worry, that question will be answered, and I hope to be posting clips and photos from some truly extraordinary animal encounters. (Not kangaroos - you can see those at any good zoo!)

The shiurim that I am giving in Alaska are not only about wildlife, but also about other Jewish concepts relating to Alaska (for which I will be admittedly have to resort to being a little creative). But in addition, the entire concept of a country down under the world, and flying around the world, raises some interesting questions about Jewish intellectual history, which I plan exploring in some blog-posts over the next few weeks. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog via e-mail, using the form on the right of the web page. (Remember that you have to confirm the subscription; if you don't get an email requesting confirmation, check your spam folder.)

If you live in Perth, Melbourne or LA and you'd like to host a fundraising event for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! (The same invitation is open to readers in Bangkok and Alaska, but I suspect that I don't have much of an audience there.) I will also be returning to the US - to New York - in October, and to Toronto in December, so please be in touch if you would like to arrange a speaking or fundraising engagement then. Meanwhile, we have truly excellent guides at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, so if you're in Israel, come visit!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Is There a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living?

In light of everything going on, I would like to strongly recommend a wonderful and very important article by Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried, "Is There a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living? And If So, How Can We Connect Them? A Focus on Middos,” from Hakirah: The Flatbush Journal of Law and Thought, Volume 6 (Summer 2008) pp. 11–56, freely downloadable at this link. It certainly does not account for all or even most of the Lakewood situation, but it assists with a certain aspect of it. Definitely worth reading, and if you've read it before, it's worth reading again!


Devastating

The news of the murders in Neve Tzuf is devastating. I knew the father; he was my sister's next-door neighbor. I don't want to say...