Thursday, December 1, 2016

When Bears Clash

You might remember the following hilarious video from way back in 2010 (if you're reading this blog via email subscription, you'll have to go to www.RationalistJudaism.com in order to see it):


The bears (or are they dogs?) are arguing about whether Biblical characters who lived before the giving of the Torah at Sinai should be conforming to Torah law. There are indeed statements in the Talmud about the Avos having "kept the Torah," though these are subject to different interpretations. The video was criticized by Rabbi Yair Hoffman, and I published a response on this site; see too the response by the video's creator.

Over the years, I have accumulated an enormous amount of material on this topic, though I don't know if and when I will ever have the time to put it together; see too Isaiah Gafni, "Rabbinic Historiography and Representations of the Past," in The Cambridge Companion to The Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, and Akiva Weisinger's paper "Pre-Sinaitic Halakhic Observance As Interpreted By Medieval Authorities." Suffice it to say that both the maximalist view (that the Avos and their relatives were aware of the entire Torah, down to the details of disputes between the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama) and the minimalist view (that the Avos followed the will of God as it applied to them, but were not aware of commandments that had yet to be revealed at Sinai) have a long history of support among classical rabbinic authorities.

Should the minimalists mock the maximalists? I don't think that this is a good idea, for a variety of reasons. But I understand why it happens. It often stems from frustration that the maximalists are expecting everyone to accept their approach as the only legitimate approach, despite its inherent implausibility.

There are people who enjoy the intellectual gymnastics required to make pre-Sinai behavior conform with the Torah. There are people who actually seem to want Torah beliefs to be as fabulous, incomprehensible and counter-intuitive as possible. I once heard a wonderful person repeat a claim "from the seforim" that if one were to truly understand the spiritual depths of the trop (cantillation notes) of the Torah, it would be possible to figure out the words from the trop alone. Now, this notion is unreasonable to the extreme. But I received the impression that this person loved the idea precisely because it ran against all logic. The same goes for extreme Midrashim.

The maximalist/minimalist debate regarding the Avos keeping the mitzvos is somewhat related to the rationalist/mystical divide in two ways. One is that the notion of pre-Sinai people having knowledge of the Torah suggests the sort of supernaturally-sourced knowledge that is associated with the mystical school of thought. Another is that the rationalist approach prefers to minimize the extent to which beliefs run counter to reason; it seeks, to use Rambam's words, to harmonize Torah and rational thought as much as possible.

If someone wants to believe that Eisav and Yaakov were dealing with a shaylah in hilchos b'rachos, fine. They should be respectfully allowed to maintain such a belief. But they, in turn, should be sympathetic to those who do not wish to believe such things.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Coming To America


I am coming to America in February, b'ezrat Hashem, and I am available for scholar-in-residence engagements in the following places/dates:

West Coast - Shabbos February 3-4

New York/ New Jersey - Shabbos February 10-11. Maybe Teaneck? ;-)

If anybody is interested in hosting an event for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please let me know!

You can write to me at director@tevatanachi.org

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Teaneck Redux

Much to my surprise, in the seven years that I have been running this website, the most read post of all time is not about kezayis, the ban on my books, or charedim and the IDF. Instead, it's one that I put out a few weeks ago, Modern Orthodoxy Fails Again. In that post, I expressed bewilderment and dismay that the Modern Orthodox community of Teaneck was hosting a fundraiser for the charedi educational network of Chinuch Atzmai.

Since that time, I have been steadily corresponding with one of the rabbinic leaders in Teaneck who organized this campaign, as well as a senior representative of Chinuch Atzmai. They both reached out to me after being very distressed by my post, and they respectfully but forcefully argued that it was misinformed in certain crucial aspects. It turns out that there was indeed some misinformation, and I am no longer bewildered as to why the rabbinic leadership of Teaneck supported this cause. It is therefore important that this post reaches just as many people as the first one did. So if you sent the original post to anyone, please send them this one too! However, I do still maintain that the cause is potentially problematic for Teaneck. I also think that there is a huge difference in perspective for someone living in Teaneck and someone living in Israel.

In the original post, I asked, "Why on earth would Modern/Centrist Orthodox, Zionist Jews, fund a charedi, non-Zionist system of yeshivos, which is opposed to educating children towards professional careers?!" This was based on the initial publicity for the Teaneck campaign, which spoke about the Chinuch Atzmai network in general and the 108,758 children enrolled in its schools. However, it turned out that the campaign was not actually for the general Chinuch Atzmai network. Instead, it was specifically for a transportation fund serving a distinct stream of Chinuch Atzmai schools - those serving children from families that are not particularly religious. These schools, known as outreach schools, do indeed have a strong secular curriculum. I apologize for giving a false impression about this.

Furthermore, as my correspondents argued, this particular campaign was for the Hadera area and its outlying communities. The children in these communities are from families who are not especially motivated to give their children a strong Torah education. If not for the Chinuch Atzmai transportation fund, which pays to bus these children to the Chinuch Atzmai schools, the children would go to local schools that are not particularly religious.

For both these reasons, both the Modern Orthodox rabbinic leader in Teaneck and the senior representative of Chinuch Atzmai argued that my post was seriously mistaken and damaging. They said that this cause is something that should be supported by all religious Jews, regardless of their particular worldview. But I would respectfully disagree.

It is indeed true that this campaign was specifically for outreach schools, which do have a strong secular education. But this is not relevant. The main issue with schooling in Israel is not the level of secular education provided in elementary schools. Rather, it is the path that the school sets the child upon.

Broadly speaking, there are two paths for education in Israel. One is the path of high school, army service, college, and professional careers. The other is the path of yeshivah ketana (which has no secular studies), yeshivah gedolah, kollel, poverty, and menial work.

The first of these paths carries great risks. The drop-out rate from Torah observance in high school, army and college is unfortunately very high. On the plus side, at least it leads to people fulfilling their roles as husbands, fathers, and contributing members of society to the army and the economy.

The second of these paths also carries great risks. True, the drop-out rate from Torah observance is less than with the first path. However, it still exists, and in greater numbers than is commonly presumed. See this new article which speaks about an extremely high dropout rate among charedim. Furthermore, those who drop out usually fall far lower in life than those who are never charedi in the first place. And those who do not drop out, and who succeed in the charedi path, usually fail in their role as husband/father providers, and as contributing members of society to the army and the economy.

Schools guide their students along one of these two paths. It doesn't make much difference how much secular education there is in elementary schools. (It's not even necessarily relevant if there is secular education in high school - consider Maarava, which has a strong secular education, yet with which almost all its graduates take the kollel path instead of army/college/career, and whose famous mashgiach, Rav Leff, is opposed to secular education.) The crucial issue is towards which path does the school direct its students.

The Chinuch Atzmai representative wrote to me that the funds from the Teaneck campaign are going to the Mada'im VeYahadut school. He further reported that a large percent of the students attend Mada'im V'Yahadut's own high school program that continues through twelfth grade (I'm not sure where they are directed after that), and the rest attend a state religious high school. Looking at their website, Mada'im V'Yahadut seems to be a very fine school.

However, the publicity article for the Teaneck campaign stated that it was for a very different school: the Ner Shmuel boy's school and Beis Yaakov girl's school. You can take a look at this YouTube video about the school. It depicts young children, first and second graders, that are clearly from non-charedi homes. But look at the children from the graduating class! They are wearing hats and jackets, and being taken to meet "the Gedolim." They are clearly children that are proceeding to yeshivah ketanah, not high school. The goal of this school is to be "mekarev" these children to being charedi.

When I pointed this out to the Chinuch Atzmai representative, he responded that Chinuch Atzmai is seeking to fund transportation for both schools. There was some back-and-forth in which he said that there is only enough money for one, and wavered between which school the campaign money should go towards; his final statement was that it would go to Mada'im VeYahadut. From his perspective, it didn't make much of a difference. From my perspective (and, I believe, from the perspective of most people in Teaneck), it makes all the difference in the world. The Mada'im VeYahadut school may well be sufficiently in line with the values of Modern Orthodoxy (though with some reservations - see below). The Ner Shmuel school, in my opinion, is not.

There are some other relevant points. The rabbi from Teaneck told me that there are no strong religious alternative schools for children in the area of Hadera. This was apparently based on information that he received from Chinuch Atzmai. I did my own research, and this is simply not true. While many state religious schools are indeed weak, there are several strong religious Zionist schools in the Hadera area. When I mentioned this to the Chinuch Atzmai representative, he told me that those schools would not accept children from non-religious homes. My own sources were skeptical of this claim.

For my correspondent, the bottom line was that the most important thing is that these children should be shomer Shabbos. Personally, I think that this is a gross oversimplification to the point of inaccuracy. I discussed the matter with a senior mechanech, from the yeshiva world, with decades of experience in both the US and Israel. He argued to me that there are more severe problems with children in the charedi system, who are at great risk of failing in every aspect - both religiously, and as members of society.


Another point: the Chinuch Atzmai representative told me that these outreach schools are catering to the values of the families. However, he simultaneously admitted that the Torah educators in these schools are exclusively charedi. Personally, I see a contradiction here. The families are Zionist and believe in traditional Jewish ideas about work. If the schools are just about making kids religious, rather than about making the kids charedi, then why are there no Dati-Leumi educators? Why aren't the kids exposed to any Dati-Leumi rabbanim, and instead only to charedi rabbanim?

On a related note - if this is a cause that every religious Jew can stand behind, how come there are no Israeli Dati-Leumi rabbanim endorsing these schools? Look at the above photo, demonstrating the rabbinic line-up in support of the transport fund for these schools. Where are the Dati-Leumi rabbanim calling for support? To me, this lack of haskamot speaks volumes about this not being a cause that is in line with the values of the Dati-Leumi communities. And while there are Modern Orthodox rabbis in the US endorsing it, it seems to me that this is based on information coming from Chinuch Atzmai sources.

Ironically, while I was doing this research, I coincidentally received a phone call from someone fundraising for an organization called Acheinu, which is a division of Dirshu. The person explicitly told me that their goal is to guide children from traditional homes to avoid the path of army and college and careers, and to instead enroll in yeshivah ketanah and to end up in kollel. (They called the wrong guy!) Now, Acheinu is not formally affiliated with Chinuch Atzmai. However, they are under the same rabbinic guidance, part of the same value system, and the Chinuch Atzmai representative that I spoke with expressed support of them. (He argued that they avoid the problem of poverty by raising stipends for successful avreichim; I would argue that this perpetuates and increases the problem rather than avoiding it.)

Another related issue that adds to the complexity of this topic is the question of whether one should fund a charity that is not aligned with one's worldview. For example, should the Litvishe or modern Orthodox communities support a messianic Chabad outreach school? After all, it could be argued that the bottom line is that they will make kids be Shomer Shabbos. For some, this is adequate reason to support them, at least to some extent. Others (especially in the chareidi world) would argue that these schools are so flawed in our view that even if there is some net benefit, our charity dollars should instead go to causes that are more aligned with our worldview, of which there is no shortage. But what if the other cause is servicing a particular sector that one's own charity of choice is not serving? Again, a complex question.

Relating to this, the Chinuch Atzmai representative made a point that may well be correct. He argued that even though I offered alternative charitable causes for people to support (specifically, Derech Chaim and the Biblical Museum of Natural History), the reality is that people will give less to those causes than they would have given to this campaign. That might be true (although not necessarily relevant), though there is no way to know with certainty. All I know is that my initial post resulted in precisely one donation to Derech Chaim; the follow-up post, in which I lamented this, did raise quite a bit more, but still short of what I would have hoped for.

I still have not completed my research on this complex topic, and there are a number of questions for which I am still seeking answers. For example: Is it true that the cut in state funding to Chinuch Atzmai’s transport operations was "part of an anti-Torah movement effort to undermine Torah education," as they claim? Why don't Dati-Leumi schools offer a subsidized transport option? What do Dati-Leumi rabbanim, and Dati-Leumi educators in the Hadera area, say about the Chinuch Atzmai outreach schools? Do they support them, and if not, why not? Are they simply jealous of the competition, or do they have a serious ideological disagreement? What do they say is the best option for children in outlying communities? Perhaps someone can find out the answers to these questions.

In the meanwhile, I would say as follows: If the issue of secular education in elementary schools is the only reason why you did not contribute to the Teaneck Chinuch Atzmai campaign, then please contribute to them (write to teaneck@chinuchatzmai.org or call 201-252-5550 for details). If the broader issue of the path in life is what concerns you, then you may likewise wish to contribute, but you would want to specify that it is only for the Mada'im VeYahadut school. If you pulled out of the campaign because you became convinced that the entire system is wrong, then please donate to Derech Chaim or some such similar cause. And no matter what your position, if you forwarded the original post to someone (or "liked/shared" it on Facebook), then please do the same with this!

To close, here are the promotional videos for the Ner Shmuel school and the Mada'im VeYehadut school. (Those who subscribe to this website via email will not be able to see the videos unless they visit www.RationalistJudaism.com.) Some will see the Ner Shmuel video as showcasing a school that is mekarev children to the true Torah path. Others will see it as showcasing a school that distances them from it. The gap between the two views is so vast as to probably be unbridgeable. In any case, just look at the contrast with the video for the Mada'im VeYahadut school! How can both schools be under the guidance of the same Gedolim?! What are the ideals and values that these schools teach? And to what extent are both videos catering to a desired audience? There are so many questions!



UPDATE: See the following comment that someone posted:
"We almost sent our kids to one of those outreach chinuch atzmai schools when we made aliya. The local residents assured us that the place 'wasn't that charedi.' After all, they said, they do celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut.

We went to interview the school and it all seemed good. But for some reason I asked the principal where they want the kids to go to in the future. 'To University?' I added honestly hopefully and sincerely. My question was met with a look of contempt and the response 'Of course not.' The principal said it just as a flat out statement of fact.

And the bubble was burst. The mask removed. These outreach schools are schools whose aim to to take Israeli kids and turn them into charedim."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Tackling The Beast!

I am currently in Florida, and today I filmed some videos at Jungle Island for The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We'll post the videos on the museum Facebook/ YouTube page soon, but meanwhile, here's a photo of an alligator that I fed. This particular alligator was extremely aggressive and dangerous, having killed a crocodile which shared its enclosure. The trainer is grasping my belt at the back, ready to pull me backwards if anything went wrong!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Sold!

Yesterday, we sold our entire collection of live animals! We did this because our food costs have become exorbitant. So we sold them all to a friend of ours, Rabbi David Bar-Cohn. The total value of the collection is around forty thousand shekels; he made a down payment of ten shekels, and will pay the balance if and when he ever decides to remove them from the museum premises.

In the meanwhile, the animals are still at the museum, but with a very significant difference: they are now the property of someone who is, as his name suggests, a Kohen (priest). Now, a kohen is the recipient of Terumah and Maaser (tithes). However, today, when there is no Temple, Kohanim are assumed to be in a state of impurity, and may not eat Terumah and Maaser. But their animals can! So we will now be receiving Terumah and Maaser from various sources, at no charge, to feed to Rabbi Bar-Cohn's animals. Problem solved!

Pictured below, from left: Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, Rabbi David Bar-Cohn, and Rav Menachem Copperman, along with one of Rabbi Bar-Cohn's new acquisitions.
 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Aliens, Monsters, and Giant-Killers

So here's something lighter, to cheer up all the American readers who are miserable about the elections. I received a fascinating request from a movie company working on a new film called "I Kill Giants." It's being produced by Chris Columbus ("The Goonies," "Home Alone", "Mrs Doubtfire") and will star Zoe Saldana, known for starring as colorful aliens ("Guardians of the Galaxy", "Avatar,") and as a starfleet officer battling colorful aliens ("Star Trek"). The film follows a young girl struggling with her everyday life, who is escaping into a fantasy life of magic and monsters in which she must save the world from giants. The artistic team wants to use my book Sacred Monsters as set dressing in the bedroom of the main protagonist!

I was happy to grant permission, though I am quite confused as to why they need it. I always thought it's companies that pay movies to advertise their products, not the other way around?

Anyway, the film sounds fascinating. Maybe they could also make a movie about a young man struggling with his everyday life, in which his rebbe insists that he must believe in magic and monsters, and he wants to escape into a word of rationality? (They could even give that movie the same title!)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Ten Questions On Evolution And Judaism

(Originally posted at The Jewish Press)

Evolution is feared by many as being heretical. But is this really the case? Here are ten questions about evolution and Judaism, along with brief answers. This does not substitute for the detailed discussion that this topic requires; it is merely intended as an introduction.

1) Evolution is alleged to have taken place over millions of years. But doesn't the Torah teach that the universe was created just a few thousand years ago?

There is a strong (albeit not universal) tradition in Judaism that "the account of creation is not all to be taken literally," to quote Maimonides. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, suggested that the Six Days of Creation were lengthy eras rather than 24-hour periods. Maimonides himself, as the commentaries on the Guide to the Perplexed reveal, was of the view that the Six Days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation.

2) Why should anyone accommodate evolution? Isn't evolution just a theory, not a fact?

"Evolution" is a confusing term, because it covers two very different concepts. One is common ancestry, the concept that all animal life arose from a common ancestor - simple organisms gave rise to fish, fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds and mammals (without getting into how that could have happened). This is supported by a wealth of converging evidence along with testable predictions. Common ancestry is considered by all scientists (except certain deeply religious ones) to be as well-established as many other historical facts, and is thus often referred to as "the fact of evolution." It is of immense benefit in understanding the natural world - for example, it tells us why whales and bats share anatomical similarities with mammals, despite their superficial resemblance to fish and birds.

The second and very different aspect of evolution is the mechanism via which one species changes into another. This is called the "theory" of evolution. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the word "theory" has a very different meaning in science than in everyday conversational English. It does not refer to wild speculation, but rather to an explanatory mechanism. Most, though not all, biologists believe that random mutations, coupled with natural selection, broadly suffice to explain this mechanism. The issue is, however, of zero religious significance, as we shall explain in the answer to the next question.

3) How can we accept scientific explanations for how animal life came about? It was God who made everything!

We have a science of meteorology, but that does not stop us from saying that God "makes the wind blow and the rain fall." We have a science of medicine, but this does not stop us from saying that God "heals the sick." We have documented history of the process involved in winning the '67 war, but this does not stop us from talking about God's miraculous hand. God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not.

4) Doesn't the Torah say that animals and man were created from the ground, not from earlier creatures?

Indeed it does. But what does that mean? The blessing recited over bread is “Blessed are You... Who brings bread out of the ground.” But what actually happens is that God created wheat, which man sows, nature grows, and man transforms into bread. Yet the blessing simplifies this in describing God as bringing bread out of the ground. By the same token, the description of God bringing animal life out of the ground can refer to His creating the raw material of nature and the natural processes that lead to the formation of animal life.

In any case, it is widely accepted today that we do not learn science from the literal meaning of Scripture - after all, Scripture describes the sky as a dome, the hare as bringing up its cud, and the kidneys and heart as housing one's mind. All these descriptions were interpreted literally by the Sages of old, and yet almost all recent Torah scholars interpret them non-literally.

5) Doesn't the notion of randomness in evolution contradict with the idea of a purposeful creation directed by God?

Judaism has always acknowledged that there are events which, in the physical world, appear to be random and happenstance. But it maintains that this does not rule out God's role behind the scenes. Indeed, this is the entire message of the Purim story! As it states in Scripture, "When the lot is cast in the lap, its entire verdict has been decided by God" (Proverbs 16:33).

6) Doesn't the Biblical concept of man being created in the image of God contradict the notion that man comes from animals?

Absolutely not! Classical Judaism has long maintained that man is not qualitatively different from animals in his physical aspects. Man's unique identity is in his spiritual soul, not in his physical body and most certainly not in his physical origins. The great medieval Torah scholars stated that man was created physically as an animal, but was given the spiritual potential to rise beyond that level. The Mishnah notes that on an individual level, we all come from a "putrid drop (of semen)," which is even less than an animal; yet we are defined not by what we come from, but rather by what we become.

7) Don't most rabbis state that evolution is heresy?

Very few leading rabbis have studied the science and have ever given the matter serious thought (and rabbis in the charedi world are not operating from the rationalist perspective that is the legacy of Maimonides and the great Torah scholars of Spain). The few rationalist-oriented rabbis who did study the topic, such as Rav Kook, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Rav Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of Chazon Ish) and Rav Aryeh Carmell, concluded that evolution is compatible with Judaism. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was personally skeptical of evolution but saw no theological problem with it: "...If this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world... Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures." ("The Educational Value of Judaism," in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)

8) Doesn't evolution go against tradition?

No more so than the notion of the earth orbiting the sun. That was also rejected by many leading rabbis from the era of Copernicus through today. Yet most religious Jews have managed to come to terms with it. The same is true of evolution, which has become widely accepted by religious Jews with a strong background in science and/or rationalist Jewish theology.

9) But aren't there many secular evolutionists who use evolution to try to attack religious principles?

Yes, unfortunately there are. But this is an abuse of science; it doesn't reflect on the science of evolution itself. This, however, is why it is important for anyone teaching evolution to understand it properly.

10) You didn't answer all my questions and objections!

Of course not! Evolution is an immensely complicated topic, to which it is impossible to do justice in a brief article. Please see my book The Challenge Of Creation (available in Jewish bookstores and at www.zootorah.com) for a very detailed discussion.