Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Look Before You Leap

(This article appears in today's Jerusalem Post)

This November, two individuals, both thought to have been consigned to history, unexpectedly reappeared and promptly leaped to fame. Coincidentally, both were frogs.

One was Kermit the Frog. Back in the 70s and 80s, Kermit entertained us on The Muppet Show, which in the 1970s was the most widely watched television show in the world, and he even spawned (if you’ll excuse the pun) several Muppet movies. But the television show’s ratings eventually declined, and it was ultimately cancelled. It looked like the end of the Muppets; everybody thought that Kermit had croaked. And yet one determined Muppet fan has now brought Kermit and his friends back to life in a new movie, The Muppets, which is proving surprisingly popular.

The other frog to make a surprising comeback recently is the Israel painted frog, Discoglossus nigriventer. It was thought to be extinct since the 1950s when its native habitat of the Hula swamp valley was drained and no more frogs were to be found. Yet a single painted frog was just found in the newly re-flooded Hula nature reserve, restoring hope for the species.

It is my hope that Kermit the Frog and the Israel painted frog have more in common than just being frogs that simultaneously and unexpectedly returned from extinction. Perhaps they both denote a societal improvement – or rather, society retreating from that which was previously and mistakenly thought to be advances and improvements.

Why did the Muppets disappear? The muppets were all about innocence; singing, dancing, gentle humor, and always ultimately transmitting messages about loyalty, love and friendship. The only “edge” to them were Statler and Waldorf, the two cynical old men in the gallery who were constantly derisive (although even their taunts were restrained).

But as audiences became more “sophisticated”, the television and movie industry changed. Adults (and even children) were no longer interested in fabric hand-puppets; they wanted animatronic robots and 3-D computer-generated wizardry. The wide-eyed innocence of singing-and-dancing muppets became less popular. Audiences became Statler and Waldorf. They wanted entertainment that was sophisticated, by which was meant racy, biting and cynical. Eventually, even children became too advanced for cheery puppets. The Muppets were replaced by The Simpsons and eventually the horrible South Park.

Why did the Israel painted frog disappear? Because its native habitat of the Hula valley was thought in the 1950s to be nothing more than a malaria-breeding “wasteland.” In the mid-twentieth century, mankind was drunk with its powers in technology and engineering, and decided to refashion such wastelands into more productive terrain. The JNF decided to transform the Hula for agricultural use, and its drainage was trumpeted as a great national achievement.

Both Kermit and the Israel painted frog disappeared as a result of mankind deciding to become more advanced. But you have to look before your leap. The “accomplishment” of draining the Hula, like other mid-20th century ideas about “improving” the natural world, turned out to be a disaster. Stripped of natural foliage, the soil blew away. Water carrying chemical fertilizers began to pollute Lake Kinneret instead of being absorbed by the swamp. And the peat in the dried-out swamp often ignited into underground fires.

Eventually, people realized that they should have more respect for God’s world. There are no “wastelands.” The natural environment has developed with exquisite balance, and while we are able and entitled to develop it further, we should do so with tremendous respect and caution. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was thus formed, and the Hula was carefully re-flooded. It is now an outstanding nature reserve which serves as a stopover for millions of migrating birds each year. And maybe the Israel painted frog will now be able to make a comeback.

The return of Kermit the frog may perhaps likewise signify, and help people realize, that the more “sophisticated” forms of popular culture do not represent a positive improvement. People are starting to wonder whether advancement is always progress.

When I began teaching about the animal kingdom in Jewish thought, I was surprised and disappointed to discover people assuming that my presentations were for children. Adults had been conditioned to believe that they were too advanced for animals and zoos, which are “just for kids.” Yet when menageries were first introduced in the 19th century, they were very much seen as being for adults. Why should an adult not marvel at the wonders of the natural world? Why is it considered more sophisticated to have outgrown such things?

Or consider technology. We have more technology flooding our increasingly busy lives than ever before, but is it always an improvement to our lives? Do the drawbacks of being addicted to emails and Twitter and Facebook perhaps outweigh the advantages? Are our children enriched by being plugged in? Are we really happier by always rushing to upgrade to the latest computer or smartphone? These questions deserve serious consideration. As Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted recently, we live in consumer society, where everyone always wants to advance their lives by accumulating more technology and possessions, but it does not necessarily help their lives be any more enriched.

On a broader scale, we have often had to learn the hard way that technological innovation can have harmful consequences. Several years back, a fascinating book was published entitled “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.” It brought numerous examples of how people assumed that advances in technology would prove beneficial, and yet backfired. This is not, of course, to say that technology should always be avoided. Rather, the point is that great caution should always be exercised. Instead of just getting excited about what we could do, we should think about what we should do.

Kermit the Frog sung a famous and beautiful song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” about his learning not to be jealous of more spectacular creatures, and instead being happy with being a frog. Ultimately, the song was about learning to appreciate one’s lot in life. Perhaps the return of both of these frogs, Kermit and the Israel painted frog, signifies that society is internalizing that message: that not every advance is an improvement.


  1. Is this the promo to your presentaon at next year's Agudah Convention on the dangers of modernity?


  2. Zoos are for kids bc adults should be learning torah tag/nacht. After all, if one is learning correctly (ie from a book) and stops to notice nature, one is chayav misah!

  3. Great article! You wrote:

    Yet when menageries were first introduced in the 19th century

    menageries are much older than that (and you are correct that they were an adult occupation, and not just that, but a royal one). In footnote 52 of an article you have it is claimed that they were familiar to the Ba'alei Tosafot from the courts of the royal "frogs" -- in their description of the eating habits of the "pet lion" in Tosafot Hulin 14a. This made a lasting impact on hilkhot treifot.

  4. Nice article!
    I wonder if anyone's called you a Luddite yet. (heh)

    > "...we are able and entitled to develop (the natural environment) further, we should do so with tremendous respect and caution."

    One might infer from this that the JNF did not do their work in the swamp with tremendous respect and caution. Of course, they'd claim otherwise.

  5. otoh read the accounts of the malaria deaths and what choices were available then. while I generally agree with your take, I'm reminded of a classmate, Mitchell Mamarosch z"l who died way too young, responding to one of the Big D's tirades on the old days when he had real students, with "right on rebbi, back to the good old days, bubonic plague"(i guess you had to have heard it realtime to appreciate all of us,including the Big D, cracking up for 5 minutes.
    Joel Rich

  6. Excellent article.

    I'm also amazed at how seamlessly you navigate between articles with heavy, political tension to such easygoing, genuinely insightful pieces about the value of nature for the genuinely religious.

    How did you find out about that frog's reemergence?

  7. 1) The Muppets had a racy, intelligent edge to them and catered to the sense of humour of their children fans while tickling the sarcastic wit of their adult ones. Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog? Interracial romance (at least Piggy thought so). Scooter? Nepotism works and get used to it! Important life lessons.

    2) I have to disagree with one thing. Yours is not the first time I've heard criticism of how the chalutzim destroyed environments in Israel by their obsessive draining of the swamp but, respectfully, please remember that these people had no land on which to grow crops or build homes. The arable mountain land was held by Arabs who only sold the swamps to the Jews because they figured they wouldn't be able to do anything with the land. The draining of the Huleh might have almost wiped out a type of frog but it helped give birth to a state. it is easy, 80 years or so later, to sit back and criticize the environmental insensitivity of the time but remember the context.

  8. I agree people need to slow down, turn off screens sometimes, and enjoy the simple things in life. Okay, same page there.

    But I wonder if you're committing a Golden Age Fallacy here. Were things really so greatly simple in the 70s and 80s? Was there not a large element of racy, cynical, biting humor? You had All in the Family and Roseanne!

    I also think you're overstating things, even with what kids watched. Even before the 70s, you had Looney Tunes...drinking, lust, and racism galore. As for today, I'd guess most the shows which are most popular among teens and tweens today aren't in the vein of South Park and Family Guy.

  9. The lot we have been dealt is one of technology. It is time to sing "Its not easy being green" because, while facebook and twitter may not be how you would prefer to spend your time, the computer technologies that are created to create these infrastructures, will and do affect our lives positively everyday. To not have access to the internet is one thing, that is a personal or communal choice, but to be a luddite is irresponsible when we have the ability to improve the world with large scale computing and big data etc. Anyway, "Its not easy being green".

  10. It seems like the author didn't do much research on this one...

    1. The Muppets Show didn't cancel due to bad ratings.

    2. Kermit continued to be a popular guest character at Sesame Street and in many popular Muppets movies.

    "Why did the Muppets disappear?"

    "everybody thought that Kermit had croaked"


  11. RNS, the only time I find myself shaking my head in disagreement with your many fine articles is when you wax environmental. You annoyed many of your readers when you stated, or implied, that skeptics of the "climate change" industry are merely religious radicals. And you are doing it again now, by retrospectively questioning the intelligence of the Chalutzim.

    Please keep in mind that there was practically no land for the early pioneers in the first aliya movements. You may be worried about the painted frog, but more people are worried about having enough food to eat. And you seem to have forgotten the sickness and malaria caused by the Hula swmap before it was drained. It also brought settlers to the area, and even the very project aided the development of Israeli agricultural technology.

    Your broader point, that not every social advance is an improvement, is of course true, and bears repeating. [I apply it most obviously to the feminist movement, which has had the concurrent effect of ruining much of the family social fabric.] But I think you overstate the case with regard to the Hula.

  12. DF: "Free Trade," union bashing, Wall Street, changing economics, and married men ruin more of the "social fabric" (whatever that means) that women who simply want equal rights and access to education and jobs. Avoid facile connections!

    Beautiful article, Rabbi Slifkin! Perhaps one day you'll write about the things that are destroying our environment and world far, far, far more than the halutsim of yesteryear - our "superior" monocrop culture, factory farms, and overfishing. All thinking individuals should focus their efforts on fighting the growth of these human-created destructive powers.


  13. Excellent article! Many people throughout the developed world are suffering greatly because of their addiction and cumpulsive behavior regarding computers, cell phones, video games, etc. Obesity rates are so high, causing much suffering and death, but if people could only spend an hour a day walking in nature, or bicycle to work instead of driving, it would improve their lives immeasurably. People today need to expend a considerable amount of critical thinking and discipline to go against the majority to engage in more productive, healthy behaviors. Following the advice of Rebbe Nachman to spend an hour every day in nature engaged in hitbodedut (leaving one's cellphone behind) is ideal for getting exercise, taking time away from technology and appreciating nature.

    Of course we adults are supposed to marvel at nature! We have many blessings for this, and why would we have blessings we're not supposed to use? And now that the Chofetz Chaim rules we should say "Baruch shekacha lo b'olamo," omitting Hashem's name, we can say it as often as we want without worrying about reciting a blessing in vain. We can also recite Tehillim 104:24:

  14. Also, it hasn't really been Kermit since Jim Hensen died, just a sound-alike manipulating the felt corpse of an American icon.
    Kind of like how Bugs and Daffy aren't really Bugs and Daffy anymore either...

  15. Nice article.

    Stick to this kind of stuff and stop writing articles which attack others groups.

  16. Shimon S. I was thinking the same thing, N. Slifkin, where is your research?!

  17. Loved this article and would love to see more of this type on this blog. It has been getting a bit heavy lately.
    Just tonight we were having a talk with my daughter about how technology fills the spaces of time that we would rather be spending hanging out together. Relationships are built on time, there are no short cuts. I think that this is the biggest danger of the internet- stealing our time.
    I am also a big muppet fan and had a bit of a chill run up my spine when I saw their come back.

  18. >It is now an outstanding nature reserve which serves as a stopover for millions of migrating birds each year. And maybe the Israel painted frog will now be able to make a comeback.<

    Let's hope the migrating birds are not of the frog-chomping variety!

  19. "retrospectively questioning the intelligence of the Chalutzim"


    Charedim can't question Gedolim, Zionists can't question Chalutzim.

    Is all of Judaism about identifying some group that can't be questioned?

  20. People interested in these technology issues may find this initiative interesting:

    "A Day to Disconnect is a worldwide movement, spearheaded by Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein of Ohr Naava, which will take place on October 2, 2011. On that day thousands of people will voluntarily unplug their gadgets for some time -- an hour, two or even all day. During this time, those who chose to disconnect will take pleasure in cherished relationships be it spouses, children, family, self or G-d."

    Here's a video done to support the initiative:

    I think this kind of thing is very important, but it is just the beginning of the solution for what is a vast problem. Think about email, for example. Many people don't need to check it more than once or twice a day, but end up checking it hundreds of times a day anyway, taking away time from Torah, mitzvot, relationships, sleep, etc. Same with Facebook, blogs, surfing, etc. Rambam said you can't serve Hashem unless you're healthy. Yet countless people sleep an hour or more less each night because of all the gadgets distracting them!

  21. Second of frog species long thought extinct found in Israel nature reserve.

  22. > But as audiences became more “sophisticated”, the television and movie industry changed.

    You can’t generalize from two shows. The Muppet Show was a family show. The Simpsons and South Park are meant for adults.

    The Godfather came out a few years before The Muppet Show premiered. It certainly wasn’t about “innocence; singing, dancing, gentle humor.” On the other hand the ‘00s brought us movies like Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Up, family movies that have “messages about loyalty, love and friendship.”

    Of course, you can’t generalize from a few movies any more than you can generalize from a couple of shows.

    > Adults (and even children) were no longer interested in fabric hand-puppets

    Sesame street is still on today, after 40+ years, and still relies on muppets for most of their segments (though for some reason they now have animated muppets and claymation muppets too).

    > Adults had been conditioned to believe that they were too advanced for animals and zoos, which are “just for kids.” … Why is it considered more sophisticated to have outgrown such things?

    I don’t think it’s about sophistication so much as association. Zoos are a great family outing, and many people therefore associate zoos with childhood day trips.

  23. The Chazalian in me can only say "baruch atah hashem, Mechayah Hamatim!"

    To which I know people will object and say that such a bracha is a distortion in this context... but is it really, or is that exactly what they meant by this bracha?

  24. R' Natan, great article!

    Re: unintended consequences, have you ever heard that the US actually introduced the boll weavil to America in order to knock off a smaller species?

    If so, do you know where I can learn more about that?


  25. scarred by the muppet show and in therapyDecember 1, 2011 at 11:09 PM

    The muppets were all about innocence; singing, dancing, gentle humor, and always ultimately transmitting messages about loyalty, love and friendship.

    I think this is an excellent example of "Achrei Mos ==> Kedoshim". Once something passes from the scene, we look back at it with nostalgia and rose colored glasses and overlook the all the ugly warts. (Pun intended)

    "The Muppet Show" DEFINITELY had a macabre dark side with it's Vaudeville stage show setting.
    Everything that involved "Miss Piggy" was a satire of darker adult themes of jealousy and betrayal.
    Not to mention the sadism of Dr. Bensen Honeydew and Beaker, and of course, the maniac with the explosives.

    Kermit was an island of decency and sensitivity in a very violent and unpredictable muppet world.
    Perhaps the focus on Kermit is what led you to paint the entire muppet show in his sympathetic image, but its entirely false.

  26. Great Article! Along a somewhat similar vein, here's a great luddite-leaning article written by, of all people, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur:

  27. The ZooTorah website and articles look a bit childish.

  28. "the maniac with the explosives"

    He has a name, you know. (Crazy Harry.)

  29. scarred by the muppet show and in therapyDecember 5, 2011 at 12:23 AM

    The only “edge” to them were Statler and Waldorf, the two cynical old men in the gallery who were constantly derisive (although even their taunts were restrained).

    Let the readers see and judge for themselves.

    Rabbi Slifkin, you are a shameful revisionist.

  30. Not to get too lost in the details, but the simpsons and southpark are both aimed as older audiences than the muppets were. Some of the people watching may be the same, but that's because they got older and moved to new shows. The muppets have been succeeded by Sesame st, Barney, Teletubbies, and Dora the Explorer, all of which have lessons on similar themes.

  31. The Muppets was NOT a children's show!

  32. scarred by the muppet show and in therapyDecember 6, 2011 at 11:26 PM

    Now you tell me?
    Where were you 30 years ago?


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