Friday, September 28, 2012

The Prime Ministers

One of the best books that I read this year was The Prime Ministers. It was written by Yehuda Avner, former Israeli ambassador to the UK and advisor/ speechwriter for four of Israel's prime ministers. (I grew up knowing Yehuda Avner as "Uncle Gubby Haffner" - he was from a family in my shul in Manchester, and frequently came to visit.) Laced with hilarious anecdotes, moving stories, and behind-the-scenes accounts of meetings with various international leaders, the book is an absolutely gripping inside view of the inside world of the premiership and the history of the State of Israel.

The introductory chapters, describing the author's experiences in the War of Independence, are moving and humbling. With regard to the main body of the work, one message that I took from the book is that the average person in the street understands little of the situation with a prime minister of Israel vis-a-vis the Presidency of the United States and other countries. It's all too easy to criticize a PM for kowtowing to others and not acting with a free hand. This book shows another side to things, that I for one had not previously appreciated. It was a lesson in Chazal's maxim, "Do not judge a person until you are in their place."

It's difficult to have the same respect for leaders of today as one can have for leaders of the past. I'm not saying this due to the shortcomings of any particular people - it's just that a living person, exposed on the media, can never be as mythic as someone from history. Still, I found Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's speech at the United Nations General Assembly to be powerful and even inspirational. Putting aside the distraction of the ridiculous cartoon image of a bomb that he showed, à la Wile E. Coyote (perhaps a calculated move to gain publicity for the cause?), the words of his speech were tremendous, and I reproduce them here:

Thank you very much Mr. President.

It's a pleasure to see the General Assembly presided by the Ambassador from Israel, and it's good to see all of you, distinguished delegates.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Three thousand years ago, King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem. I say that to all those who proclaim that the Jewish state has no roots in our region and that it will soon disappear.

Throughout our history, the Jewish people have overcome all the tyrants who have sought our destruction. It's their ideologies that have been discarded by history.

The people of Israel live on. We say in Hebrew Am Yisrael Chai, and the Jewish state will live forever.

The Jewish people have lived in the land of Israel for thousands of years. Even after most of our people were exiled from it, Jews continued to live in the land of Israel throughout the ages. The masses of our people never gave up the dreamed of returning to our ancient homeland.

Defying the laws of history, we did just that. We ingathered the exiles, restored our independence and rebuilt our national life. The Jewish people have come home. We will never be uprooted again. Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Every year, for over three millennia, we have come together on this day of reflection and atonement. We take stock of our past. We pray for our future. We remember the sorrows of our persecution; we remember the great travails of our dispersion; we mourn the extermination of a third of our people, six million, in the Holocaust.

But at the end of Yom Kippur, we celebrate.

We celebrate the rebirth of Israel. We celebrate the heroism of our young men and women who have defended our people with the indomitable courage of Joshua, David, and the Maccabees of old. We celebrate the marvel of the flourishing modern Jewish state. In Israel, we walk the same paths tread by our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But we blaze new trails in science, technology, medicine, agriculture.

In Israel, the past and the future find common ground. Unfortunately, that is not the case in many other countries. For today, a great battle is being waged between the modern and the medieval. The forces of modernity seek a bright future in which the rights of all are protected, in which an ever-expanding digital library is available in the palm of every child, in which every life is sacred. The forces of medievalism seek a world in which women and minorities are subjugated, in which knowledge is suppressed, in which not life but death is glorified. These forces clash around the globe, but nowhere more starkly than in the Middle East. Israel stands proudly with the forces of modernity. We protect the rights of all our citizens: men and women, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians – all are equal before the law.

Israel is also making the world a better place: our scientists win Nobel Prizes. Our know-how is in every cell-phone and computer that you're using. We prevent hunger by irrigating arid lands in Africa and Asia. Recently, I was deeply moved when I visited Technion, one of our technological institutes in Haifa, and I saw a man paralyzed from the waist down climb up a flight of stairs, quite easily, with the aid of an Israeli invention.

And Israel's exceptional creativity is matched by our people's remarkable compassion. When disaster strikes anywhere in the world – in Haiti, Japan, India, Turkey Indonesia and elsewhere – Israeli doctors are among the first on the scene, performing life-saving surgeries.

In the past year, I lost both my father and my father-in-law. In the same hospital wards where they were treated, Israeli doctors were treating Palestinian Arabs. In fact, every year, thousands of Arabs from the Palestinian territories and Arabs from throughout the Middle East come to Israel to be treated in Israeli hospitals by Israeli doctors.

I know you're not going to hear that from speakers around this podium, but that's the truth. It's important that you are aware of this truth.

It’s because Israel cherishes life, that Israel cherishes peace and seeks peace.

We seek to preserve our historic ties and our historic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. We seek to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians.

President Abbas just spoke here.

I say to him and I say to you: We won't solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the UN. That's not the way to solve it. We won't solve our conflict with unilateral declarations of statehood.

We have to sit together, negotiate together, and reach a mutual compromise, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the one and only Jewish State.

Israel wants to see a Middle East of progress and peace. We want to see the three great religions that sprang forth from our region – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – coexist in peace and in mutual respect.

Yet the medieval forces of radical Islam, whom you just saw storming the American embassies throughout the Middle East, they oppose this.

They seek supremacy over all Muslims. They are bent on world conquest. They want to destroy Israel, Europe, America. They want to extinguish freedom. They want to end the modern world.

Militant Islam has many branches – from the rulers of Iran with their Revolutionary Guards to Al Qaeda terrorists to the radical cells lurking in every part of the globe.

But despite their differences, they are all rooted in the same bitter soil of intolerance. That intolerance is directed first at their fellow Muslims, and then to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, secular people, anyone who doesn't submit to their unforgiving creed.

They want to drag humanity back to an age of unquestioning dogma and unrelenting conflict. I am sure of one thing. Ultimately they will fail. Ultimately, light will penetrate the darkness. We've seen that happen before.

Some five hundred years ago, the printing press helped pry a cloistered Europe out of a dark age. Eventually, ignorance gave way to enlightenment. So too, a cloistered Middle East will eventually yield to the irresistible power of freedom and technology. When this happens, our region will be guided not by fanaticism and conspiracy, but by reason and curiosity. I think the relevant question is this: it's not whether this fanaticism will be defeated. It's how many lives will be lost before it's defeated. We've seen that happen before too.

Some 70 years ago, the world saw another fanatic ideology bent on world conquest. It went down in flames. But not before it took millions of people with it. Those who opposed that fanaticism waited too long to act. In the end they triumphed, but at an horrific cost.

My friends, we cannot let that happen again.

At stake is not merely the future of my own country. At stake is the future of the world. Nothing could imperil our common future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons.

To understand what the world would be like with a nuclear-armed Iran, just imagine the world with a nuclear-armed al-Qaida.

It makes no difference whether these lethal weapons are in the hands of the world's most dangerous terrorist regime or the world's most dangerous terrorist organization. They're both fired by the same hatred; they're both driven by the same lust for violence.

Just look at what the Iranian regime has done up till now, without nuclear weapons.

In 2009, they brutally put down mass protests for democracy in their own country. Today, their henchmen are participating in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians, including thousands of children, directly participating in this murder.

They abetted the killing of American soldiers in Iraq and continue to do so in Afghanistan. Before that, Iranian proxies killed hundreds of American troops in Beirut and in Saudi Arabia. They've turned Lebanon and Gaza into terror strongholds, embedding nearly 100,000 missiles and rockets in civilian areas. Thousands of these rockets and missiles have already been fired at Israeli communities by their terrorist proxies.

In the last year, they've spread their international terror networks to two dozen countries across five continents – from India and Thailand to Kenya and Bulgaria. They've even plotted to blow up a restaurant a few blocks from the White House in order to kill a diplomat.

And of course, Iran's rulers repeatedly deny the Holocaust and call for Israel's destruction almost on a daily basis, as they did again this week from the United Nations.

So I ask you, given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons. Imagine their long range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, their terror networks armed with atomic bombs. Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America? Who would be safe anywhere?

There are those who believe that a nuclear-armed Iran can be deterred like the Soviet Union. That's a very dangerous assumption. Militant Jihadists behave very differently from secular Marxists. There were no Soviet suicide bombers. Yet Iran produces hordes of them.

Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival. But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons.

There's a great scholar of the Middle East, Prof. Bernard Lewis, who put it best. He said that for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it's an inducement. Iran's apocalyptic leaders believe that a medieval holy man will reappear in the wake of a devastating Holy War, thereby ensuring that their brand of radical Islam will rule the earth.

That's not just what they believe. That's what is actually guiding their policies and their actions.

Just listen to Ayatollah Rafsanjani who said, I quote: "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything, however it would only harm the Islamic world." Rafsanjani said: "It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality." Not irrational… And that's coming from one of the so-called moderates of Iran.

Shockingly, some people have begun to peddle the absurd notion that a nuclear-armed Iran would actually stabilize the Middle East.

Yeah, right… That's like saying a nuclear-armed al-Qaida would usher in an era of universal peace. Ladies and Gentlemen, I've been speaking about the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for over 15 years.

I spoke about it in my first term in office as Prime Minister, and then I spoke about it when I left office. I spoke about it when it was fashionable, and I spoke about it when it wasn't fashionable.

I speak about it now because the hour is getting late, very late. I speak about it now because the Iranian nuclear calendar doesn't take time out for anyone or for anything. I speak about it now because when it comes to the survival of my country, it's not only my right to speak; it's my duty to speak. And I believe that this is the duty of every responsible leader who wants to preserve world peace.

For nearly a decade, the international community has tried to stop the Iranian nuclear program with diplomacy. That hasn't worked.

Iran uses diplomatic negotiations as a means to buy time to advance its nuclear program.

For over seven years, the international community has tried sanctions with Iran. Under the leadership of President Obama, the international community has passed some of the strongest sanctions to date.

I want to thank the governments represented here that have joined in this effort. It's had an effect. Oil exports have been curbed and the Iranian economy has been hit hard. It's had an effect on the economy, but we must face the truth. Sanctions have not stopped Iran's nuclear program either.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, during the last year alone, Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges in its underground nuclear facility in Qom.

At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs. That's by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war.

Look at NATO's charter: it made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all. NATO's red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.

President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.

In fact, it's the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression. If the Western powers had drawn clear red lines during the 1930s, I believe they would have stopped Nazi aggression and World War II might have been avoided. In 1990, if Saddam Hussein had been clearly told that his conquest of Kuwait would cross a red line, the first Gulf War might have been avoided.

Clear red lines have also worked with Iran. Earlier this year, Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormouz. The United States drew a clear red line and Iran backed off. Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran's nuclear weapons program. But to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran's efforts to enrich uranium. Now let me explain why: Basically, any bomb consists of explosive material and a mechanism to ignite it. The simplest example is gunpowder and a fuse. That is, you light the fuse and set off the gunpowder.

In the case of Iran's plans to build a nuclear weapon, the gunpowder is enriched uranium. The fuse is a nuclear detonator. For Iran, amassing enough enriched uranium is far more difficult than producing the nuclear fuse.

For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they're still vulnerable. In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator – the fuse – in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months. The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That's a country that's bigger than France, Germany, Italy and Britain combined. The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won't find that facility either.

So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

So, how much enriched uranium do you need for a bomb? And how close is Iran to getting it? Let me show you. I brought a diagram for you. Here's the diagram.

************** This is a bomb; this is a fuse.

In the case of Iran's nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium. And Iran has to go through three stages.

The first stage: they have to enrich enough of low enriched uranium.

The second stage: they have to enrich enough medium enriched uranium.

And the third stage and final stage: they have to enrich enough high enriched uranium for the first bomb.

Where's Iran? Iran's completed the first stage. It took them many years, but they completed it and they're 70% of the way there.

Now they are well into the second stage. By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.

Ladies and Gentlemen, What I told you now is not based on secret information. It's not based on military intelligence. It's based on public reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Anybody can read them. They're online.

So if these are the facts, and they are, where should the red line be drawn? The red line should be drawn right here…………..

Before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it's a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. Each day, that point is getting closer. That's why I speak today with such a sense of urgency. And that's why everyone should have a sense of urgency.

Some who claim that even if Iran completes the enrichment process, even if it crosses that red line that I just drew, our intelligence agencies will know when and where Iran will make the fuse, assemble the bomb, and prepare the warhead. Look, no one appreciates our intelligence agencies more than the Prime Minister of Israel. All these leading intelligence agencies are superb, including ours. They've foiled many attacks. They've saved many lives.

But they are not foolproof.

For over two years, our intelligence agencies didn't know that Iran was building a huge nuclear enrichment plant under a mountain.

Do we want to risk the security of the world on the assumption that we would find in time a small workshop in a country half the size of Europe? Ladies and Gentlemen, The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb.

The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target.

I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.

This will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether.

Two days ago, from this podium, President Obama reiterated that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran cannot be contained. I very much appreciate the President's position as does everyone in my country. We share the goal of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program. This goal unites the people of Israel. It unites Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike and it is shared by important leaders throughout the world.

What I have said today will help ensure that this common goal is achieved. Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together. Ladies and Gentlemen, The clash between modernity and medievalism need not be a clash between progress and tradition.

The traditions of the Jewish people go back thousands of years. They are the source of our collective values and the foundation of our national strength.

At the same time, the Jewish people have always looked towards the future. Throughout history, we have been at the forefront of efforts to expand liberty, promote equality, and advance human rights.

We champion these principles not despite of our traditions but because of them.

We heed the words of the Jewish prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah to treat all with dignity and compassion, to pursue justice and cherish life and to pray and strive for peace.

These are the timeless values of my people and these are the Jewish people's greatest gift to mankind. Let us commit ourselves today to defend these values so that we can defend our freedom and protect our common civilization.

Thank you.

Monday, September 24, 2012


(Extracted from my book Man & Beast, and re-posted from two years ago. Sorry for the absence of original posts; I've been busy with hyrax, ibex, oryx, addax, and aurochs.)

On the days preceding Yom Kippur, some have a custom to designate a chicken as a scapegoat for their own sins. They recite a statement designating it as such while passing it around their head, and the bird is then slaughtered. Many have the custom of then giving the chicken to the poor. (Some have the custom to use money for the procedure instead.)

Two of the early authorities, Rashba[1] and Ramban,[2] strongly protest against this custom, considering it to fall under the prohibition of “following the ways of the Emorites.” The Shulchan Aruch likewise disapproves of this custom.[3] However, Rabbi Moshe Isserliss, in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, notes that since this is an ancient custom that has widespread support, one should not dissuade people from it.

But what of the aspect of causing suffering to the birds? There is no real reason why it should be any different to any case of slaughtering a chicken to eat. Passing a bird around one’s head can certainly be done in a way that does not cause undue distress, although unfortunately inexperienced people may not know how to handle it in such a way.

The bigger problem lies in how the entire process is commonly facilitated nowadays. In pre-war Europe, a person would simply take a chicken from his yard, or from the local farmer. Today, the chickens are packed en masse into crates and shipped to city centers where they wait for people to take their turn in performing the kapparos process. This commonly results in the birds being kept in horrifically cramped conditions without food, water or shade.

While it is permitted to cause suffering to animals for material or spiritual benefit, the suffering in this case is quite needless. It would seem that causing needless suffering to animals is a Biblical prohibition that far outweighs the value of a custom. Furthermore, it would seem to fundamentally negate much of the significance of the kapparos ritual. The Tur states that after slaughtering the chicken, there is a custom to throw its innards on the roof for birds to eat. Taz[4] and Aruch haShulchan[5] state that the reason for this is to show compassion for other creatures and thereby to earn Divine compassion.[6] On the eve of the Day of Judgment, when there is a special need to earn Divine mercy, it is surely counterproductive to inflict needless suffering upon creatures.

Fortunately, in recent years, people have gradually become sensitive to this issue, and positive steps are slowly being taken to rectify this situation.


[1] Shailos U’Teshuvos HaRashba 1:395.

[2] Cited in Orchos Chaim, hilchos erev yom hakipurim 1.

[3] Orach Chaim 605:1. Several other objections to this custom are given in other works, such as that the great volume of birds being slaughtered under rushed conditions is likely to lead in disqualifications in the slaughtering process.

[4] Orach Chaim 605:4.

[5] Orach Chaim 605:4.

[6] Others say that it is because the chicken may have benefited from stolen foods and therefore we must limit our benefit from it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Judgment Day: A Necessary Belief?

(A re-post from two years ago. Wishing all my readers a happy, healthy and successful new year!)

There is an astonishing discussion by Meiri here (link is to PDF at HebrewBooks). If I understand it correctly - and it is a little cryptic, so I may well be mistaken - he is saying that Rosh HaShanah is not really a time of judgment (which takes place constantly, not at a particular time), but Chazal declared it as such in order to have a season that would stimulate people to repent. If that is what he is saying, it would be a fascinating application of Rambam's idea of "necessary beliefs." But wouldn't it spoil it to say that it isn't actually true? (Which would also mean that I shouldn't be writing about it.) Presumably, if one is reasonably confident of one's audience, it would be acceptable if they are the sort of people for whom the facts are more helpful.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Chassidic Rebbe Discovers Evolution (Almost)

Earlier this week, I had a meeting with a Chassidic Rebbe in Jerusalem. The purpose of the meeting is not relevant to this forum, and I won't be naming the sect. However, during the meeting, we sidetracked to a different topic, which is of interest.

When the Rebbe learned of my interest in zoology, his eyes lit up in interest. He told me that he had read in HaModia that a lion had been caught in Midbar Yehudah. I told him that I didn't think that was possible, since all the lions in this area were killed out around a thousand years ago, but perhaps it was a leopard. The only lions today are in Africa, and a small population in India.

The Rebbe was intrigued: were there not lions in every country in the world? I informed him that no, lions only ever existed in certain countries. Each species of animal is restricted to different regions.

The Rebbe found this remarkable. Why would Hashem decide to put certain animals in certain countries? (He was so taken by this question, that he didn't even get on to the question of how the animals got to those countries after the Deluge!)

"It's complicated," I said. Changing the topic somewhat, I shared with him an insight regarding the lion being the symbol of gevurah, power: It is the only member of the cat family that lives in groups. Big cats are aggressive, and have a hard time getting along with each other; tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and cougars all live alone. Only the lion lives in large family groups, being able to subdue its aggression. And thus it epitomizes gevurah, as the Mishnah says: Who is mighty? He that conquers his inclination.

The Rebbe was fascinated by something I had said. What did it mean that the lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar were all "in the cat family"? Were they cats? Surely a lion would eat a cat! I explained that they all have certain anatomical similarities which makes them into one family. The Rebbe found this intriguing.

I had other business to attend to, and I didn't really feel like pursuing the discussion further. But what was happening was this: The Rebbe was asking the exact questions that led Charles Darwin to evolution.

Why are certain animals very similar to each other and very different from other animals? Why do lions and tigers and leopards and jaguars all resemble each other in various ways, while dogs and wolves and foxes and jackals all share different similarities? Why, at a broader scale, do whales and dogs and bats all share more basic similarities, that are not shared with fish and birds?

Why do certain animals live in certain parts of the world? Why do almost all marsupials live in Australia, and nowhere else? Why do islands so often have their own unique species?

The answers to all these questions emerges from a very simple insight: All animals descended from common ancestors. Lions and tigers and leopards and jaguars are all descended from an ancestral cat. Whales and dogs and bats are all descended from an ancestral mammal. And because animals emerged from common ancestors, they are often restricted to the locations of those ancestors.

I suspect that if common ancestry could be evaluated by itself, without any connection to the mechanisms of evolution, the evolution of man, and without any connection to godless atheists, a lot more people would be able to accept it. They would be receptive to Rav Hirsch's description of it being part of God's "creative wisdom."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Star Trek

When I saw a link at Hirhurim to an article by J. Brown entitled "The Sun is a Star," I assumed that the article was about astronomy and Judaism, written by my friend Dr. Jeremy Brown (who is imminently publishing a fascinating book on Jewish reactions to Copernicus). It turns out that I was only half correct.

The article is indeed about astronomy and Judaism. But it was written by Judy Brown, author of Hush, a novel about sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. In the article, she describes how when she was an innocent member of the ultra-Orthodox community, she underwent a religious crisis when a friend explained to her that the sun is a star and that stars are suns. This was followed by reading Carl Sagan's book Cosmos, and the simplistic view of the universe that she had been taught in her Chassidishe community was shattered. Thus began her journey away from that insular community.

I forwarded the article to the other J. Brown, who replied, "Thanks. I hope that I will be able to remain within my faith community, despite the fact that the sun is a star." Very funny! But I think that there is a very important concept to understand here.

I've met people who have no problem accepting that the world is billions of years old, but would suffer a religious crisis if they were ever shown that evolution is true. I've met people who think that it's the easiest thing in the world to accept that the Gemara is not always scientifically correct, but who go to pieces when confronted with scientific inaccuracies in Tenach. And I've met people who are perfectly at ease with reading the first chapter of Bereishis non-literally, but are extremely uncomfortable with scientific objections to the Deluge. Etc., etc.

Every intellectual challenge is also an emotional challenge. When that which we have been taught by revered teachers, and which is a preciously held-belief in our community, is demonstrated to be incorrect, it's hard to make an adjustment. Modern Orthodox Jews who have no problem with my books are not necessarily more open-minded; it's just that evolution and Talmudic inaccuracies about science are within their societal comfort zone.

Furthermore, because every intellectual challenge is also an emotional challenge, this is why radically overhauling one's intellectual approach can be emotionally overwhelming. There are theological approaches which I am now comfortable with, but which I was only able to reach after a long struggle, due to my long and very limiting charedi yeshivah education. There are ideas that would have been much easier for me to accept, had they not come as such a shock.

We are not robots. We are not solely rational beings. We all have our intellectual comfort zone, and find new ideas to be challenging. Being aware of this can help us be sympathetic to others, and can help us cope with our own struggles.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Olifants and Triceratops

As with every year at this time, I would like to announce that my monograph "Exotic Shofars - Halachic Aspects" is freely available. Each year I add some new material to it. This year's addition is to the section discussing a shofar made from a non-kosher animal. The halachic status of such a shofar is the subject of considerable discussion amongst Rishonim and Acharonim. But does this dispute have any practical relevance? Is there such thing as a shofar from a non-kosher animal?

In this latest version of the monograph, I discuss two new potential candidates. One is the olifant, which is the name given to a horn made out of the tusk of an elephant. But while an interesting candidate, it seems to be halachically invalidated for separate reasons that I discuss in the monograph. Another candidate which, it seems, would indeed potentially be a viable shofar, and would be the sole case of a shofar from a non-kosher animal, is a triceratops (pictured below). However, the keratin sheath from which the shofar is made would only be found on a living specimen. Thus, short of radical advances in cloning technology, à la Jurassic Park, this would not appear to present a practical situation for the halachic discussion.

Meanwhile, in the previous edition of the monograph, I noted that the largest shofar in the world would come from a Marco Polo argali sheep. I just noticed a head of such a sheep appear on eBay - if you want a pair of the largest shofars in the world, they can be yours for just a quarter of a million dollars!

You can download the monograph at this link. Please spread the word!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The El Al Ticket Fiasco and Rationalism

As many of you know, a few weeks ago there was a very big mistake made with El-Al tickets, which were accidentally advertised for just a few hundred dollars - a fraction of the normal price. When the mistake was discovered, El Al decided to nevertheless honor the tickets, for reasons that are unclear. But the question was, what should those who purchased the tickets do? They might have originally thought that it was simply a sale, but once it became clear that it was actually a costly error, should they offer to return the tickets?

To my mind, this was a non-starter. Of course one should return the tickets! Not that I'm judging anyone who didn't - one should not judge someone until one is in their place. But it seems obvious to me that the proper course of action - not lifnim meshuras hadin, but the proper course of action - is to offer to return the tickets. El-Al's stated mechilah - presumably due to various pressures - is irrelevant. As the Torah says, v'asisa hayashar vehatov - "You shall do that which is just and good." Ramban notes that halachah does not necessarily govern every case, and one must extrapolate from existing halachos so as to exercise moral judgment in other cases. Taking advantage of someone's mistake, and thereby causing them a loss, is clearly immoral. The whole idea of the halachos of ona'ah is based upon this!

It was surprising, and even disturbing, to see how many people claimed that it was justifiable to keep the tickets. Many of the justifications involved assumptions about what is best for El-Al, as though the buyer is entitled to make that decision! Others justified it based on technical halachic considerations. I was wondering if there is perhaps a connection with rationalism.

As discussed in a post of a while back, Reasons for Mitzvos, one of the differences between rationalist and non-rationalist schools of thought is the issue of reasons for mitzvos. Non-rationalist approaches see the reasons as primarily metaphysical and unknowable. Rationalist approaches, on the other hand, see the reasons as theoretically comprehensible, and relating to improving our minds and behavior.

There is a well-known serious drawback with the rationalist approach, in that it can lead to the weakening of observance. As we see with no less a person than King Solomon, once a person believes himself to understand the reason for a mitzvah, there is a temptation to rationalize that it is not binding when the reason is presumed not to be present.

However, I think that it might not be appreciated that there is also an advantage with the rationalist approach. A non-rationalist is perhaps more likely to get caught up in the technical details of the halachah, and to assert that halachah is the start and end point of morality. The rationalist approach, on the other hand, encourages a person to grasp the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law. In the case of the El-Al tickets, a rationalist will perhaps be less concerned with whether it is technically permissible to keep them, and more concerned with what the spirit of the law demands as moral behavior.

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...