Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Unsung Heroes of Daf Yomi


Daf Yomi is an extraordinary phenomenon. Thousands of Jews, all over the world, making time every day - every single day - to learn a page of Gemara.

My father, of blessed memory, did not grow up in a religious home and did not have the benefit of a yeshivah education. While he became religious at a young age and always learned Torah in various settings, it was only when he moved to Israel and decided to plunge into Daf Yomi that his studies really took off. Every single day, for nearly twenty years, he walked a half-mile, no matter what the weather, to his Daf Yomi shiur.

Daf Yomi was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who put forward his idea at the First World Congress of Agudas Yisrael in Vienna, 1923. Agudas Yisrael arranged the last Siyum HaShas at Madison Square Gardens in New York, and are arranging the forthcoming Siyum HaShas, to be held August 1 at MetLife Stadium. These are the greatest public celebrations of Torah in the history of the world.

Unfortunately, at these events, the glory is stolen from the true heroes of Daf Yomi and given to others.

There are two groups of people that are the heroes of Daf Yomi. First are the actual participants. These are largely ba'alei batim - regular people with regular jobs, who have every excuse to not be able to find the time for learning, and yet who make time in their schedules to keep up with the Daf. People learning the Daf on the train to work instead of playing games on their phones or spacing out. People on vacation getting up early to do the Daf before the day's activities. People setting up a system for keeping up with Daf Yomi on their iPads, on their mp3 players, so that mundane activities can be turned into an opportunity to connect with Torah and tradition.

The other heroes of Daf Yomi are the maggidei shiurim - those who prepare and teach the Daf every single day. It's a crushing schedule; I have great admiration for those who keep it up week after week, month after month, year after year. This group also includes those who teach Daf Yomi in other ways, such as those scholars who put together the ArtScroll and Steinsaltz Gemaras and the Daf Yomi Advancement Forum. These open up the Gemara to thousands of people who would not otherwise be able to learn it.

But who are the guests of honor at the grand Siyumim? Who performs the siyum, who makes the speeches, who gets the glory? Not the Daf Yomi participants and not even the maggidei shiurim. Instead, it's the roshei yeshivah.

This is not only tragic; it's also ironic. For the roshei yeshivah are the ones who not only do not learn Daf Yomi; they also often speak out against it!

Now, to be sure, there is room to criticize Daf Yomi. The breakneck pace means that the learning is often superficial and not committed to memory. But there is room to criticize the yeshivah style of learning, too. Spending endless weeks on three lines of Gemara is not exactly the traditional form of study. And learning without coming to clear halachic conclusions is entirely in opposition to the reasons for learning Torah that the Rishonim give.

But whatever the respective merits and drawbacks of the different approaches to learning Gemara, one thing is clear: yeshivos don't do Daf Yomi. Rabbi Meir Shapiro wanted all Jews to be studying the same material at the same time; yeshivos make no such effort. Rabbi Meir Shapiro wanted masechtos of the Gemara that are not usually studied to receive their due respect; yeshivos ignore those masechtos on principle. Daf Yomi is about covering ground in Shas, whereas in most yeshivos, the emphasis is on endless analysis of a few lines of Gemara - the "oker harim" approach instead of the "Sinai" approach. Most fundamentally of all, Daf Yomi is for ba'alei battim, the laymen from whom society is built, not yeshivah students. Why, then, would roshei yeshivah be the ones getting the glory at the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, and giving intricate pilpulim in Gemara (and in Yiddish!)? Mah inyan Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel aitzel Sinai?

If I'm not mistaken, the explanation is as follows. The grand pomp of the Siyum HaShas, with tens of thousands of participants, offers Agudas Yisrael an opportunity to further one of their primary goals: strengthening the Daas Torah form of rabbinic authority, and specifically that of roshei yeshivah.

(Ironically, this latter aspect is not only contrary to tradition of Judaism in general; it is even contrary to the original form of Agudas Yisrael. The Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel were originally mostly either community rabbis or those with experience in such roles; today, they are virtually all roshei yeshivah who have never functioned in any such role.)

These are thy Gedolim, O Israel! That is what the siyum haShas does. Make the biggest public Jewish event, and give the stage exclusively to the people that you want to publicize as the heroes and leaders of the Jewish community.

With the glory being given to the exponents of Daas Torah, it provides them with a platform to use the event for the politics of Daas Torah. The last Siyum HaShas took place during the peak of the controversial ban on three of my books. One yeshivah figurehead took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen the ideology of Daas Torah, and capitalized on the martyrs of the Holocaust, in whose memories the Siyum HaShas is dedicated. Rav Mattisyahu Solomon spoke about how the martyrs demand us to reject the "makeshift answers" to conflicts between the Gemara and science that are offered by the "midgets of our generation." Aside from the question of whether approaches to the Gemara offered by countless Geonim and Rishonim and Acharonim can be called "makeshift," and the question of whether the victims of the Holocaust really did die for this belief, one has to wonder why a siyum on Daf Yomi is being used to further such an agenda. It's a siyum haShas, not an Agudas Yisroel convention!

Orthodox Jewish society is made up of many different important people and institutions. We need baalei battim and teachers and schools and lay leaders and yeshivos and roshei yeshivah and universities and academics and shuls and community rabbis and mohelim and shochtim. And there are differences of opinion about whether leadership should be held by lay leaders, community rabbis or roshei yeshivah. But Daf Yomi is not about any of those three groups. They have plenty of opportunities to receive glory, at dinners and Internet Asifas and Agudas Yisroel conventions. Daf Yomi is about the ordinary man who takes his ArtScroll Gemara on the train with him every morning on the way to work. He is the hero of the Siyum HaShas. Let's grant him his well-deserved honor!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guest Post: R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran's Encyclopedia


Guest post by Rabbi Dr. Seth Kadish, continuing the series on R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Cosmos and Life on Earth

A few years ago, my son was given a gift by his metapelet (the woman who took care of him along with a small group of children at an after-school day care center in her home). It was a lovely book of “questions and answers” about nature and the world around us, beautifully illustrated with vivid color pictures, and published by a ḥareidi organization especially for religious children, to show them the wonders of Hashem's creation. My son loves animals, and he loved the book.

At the time, I was working together with a talented talmid ḥakham who also serves as a rabbi in the powerful network of ḥareidi-run synagogues in my town, all under the supervision of the official rabbi of the city. Both within his local ḥareidi community and outside of it, this particular talmid ḥakham is considered relatively “moderate” and “open” (in the sense of being deeply involved in the outside world on a positive level and capable of working together with people of all kinds). He even does milu'im (reserve duty), although his children most likely will not.

When I came into his home, I immediately noticed a copy of my child's book on his dining room table, and innocently commented that we had the very same book at home, that it was such a lovely book and my son too had received it as a gift. He replied that the copy on the table wasn't actually his. It belonged to one of the members of the local ḥareidi community, who had brought it over for him to look at and make sure that it was “kosher” enough to keep in a Torah home. (That person was apparently concerned that it might have “problematic” ideas like natural history or dinosaurs.) So it seems that if you have a respected place in a ḥareidi community (by wearing the right hat and getting the backing of the right rabbi), and yet you are still thought to be relatively broadminded, then people will make you their authority to pasken on the kashrut of childen's books... :-)

That parent who brought a children's book on nature to a rav for a hekhsher represents a need that is to be found wherever there are people of a very specific mindset: Religious Jews who think that the Torah teaches hard facts about nature or history which may be contrary to what is generally thought to be true. Communities like this will inevitably demand sources of general knowledge (books, magazines, documentary movies, etc.) that have been “cleaned up”—farendert un farbesert!—to reflect the facts of nature according to what the Torah supposedly teaches whenever such a contradiction seems to exist. A most desirable tool for such a community would be a “Torah encyclopedia,” i.e. a compendium of general knowledge from which all possible heresy has been removed or properly modified, and which in addition contains plenty of information that is of particular use to its readers (such as an emphasis on Jewish history in a way that reflects what is considered to be the proper “Torah attitude”). During the 20th century numerous people and publishing houses made attempts to create books and compendiums of this sort.

But there is also a completely different way to approach the issue. When Yeshiva University granted an honorary doctorate to Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz (this was in 1991 when I was a young semikhah student), he gave a public lecture on Torah u-Madda that I still remember vividly. He began by remarking that when people find themselves confronted by conflicts between science and the Torah, those problems are usually rooted in “popular science” or “popular Torah” (or both). The more serious and broadminded a scholar is, said Rabbi Steinzaltz, the less likely he is to find substance in many or most such apparent contradictions. But at the same time there will always still be some deeper and more nuanced problems, which are far more difficult to deal with, and for which there may not be satisfactory solutions. For these questions the answer is not censorship but honesty, along with the kind of intellectual humility capable of acknowledging that “no one ever died from a question.”

Neither sanitized science nor censored Torah is the answer. Rather, they are both the very root of the problem. Sanitized science is a sin against God's gift to us of the human mind, and against any true appreciation of the wondrous universe that He made. But censored Torah is even more frightening and dangerous, because when the study of God's Torah is limited to those opinions which are deemed acceptable in a certain community at a certain time, or according to certain rabbis who are deemed gedolim, the result will be not just hyper-inflated contradictions between Torah and science but something far worse: a perversion of the Torah itself and thus of God's will for Israel.

Serious questions about Torah and science are nothing new. In every generation mankind tries anew to understand both itself and the universe around it, and this continuing search reveals new truths. At the very same time, men of Torah in every generation—who are themselves also men of truth—honestly strive to understand anew both God's Torah and the world around them using the best tools available to them. This dual engagement not only forces them to meet deep and important challenges head on, but also has the potential to enrich their understanding of mankind, of the universe, and of the Torah itself.

In Rabbis Ḥasdai Crescas and Shimon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran we have two great men who were both outstanding in their pursuit of truth in the realms of Torah and universal knowledge alike. Both of them received the best possible education in both Torah and the science of their time. Both of them possessed encyclopedic knowledge of both realms, and they both continued to fully engage in Torah and science alike throughout their entire lives. Each of them was also the outstanding rabbinic leader in his locale, devoting his life to rebuilding Torah life in the devastated Jewish communities of Spain (Crescas) or to strengthening Torah life within a community of exiles in North Africa (Duran). For both of them, the hard but honest and high-quality work they did when they dealt seriously with the relationship between Torah and science was an integral part of their Torah leadership.

Nevertheless, despite their common origins, similar educations and parallel interests, Crescas and Duran were extremely different as men of the mind. Duran's passion, both in Torah and science, was always for the details. On any given topic, no matter how seemingly trivial at times, he loved to survey (in most cases apparently by heart) every opinion ever expressed in the generations before him, and every possible interpretation that might now be offered in light of them. This characteristic is true of his biblical interpretation, of his talmudic commentaries and halakhic responsa, and also in matters of science: The latter might be anything from personal experimentation to show whether or not spontaneously generated animals can themselves reproduce, to proofs of the existence of angels and demons. Essential to Duran's approach is that the Torah has much of importance to say about nearly every detail of the physical world, and that its wisdom regarding plant and animal life, humanity, and the cosmos is superior to human wisdom of the Aristotelian variety. Duran does not entirely reject allegorical interpretation of the Torah—indeed he occasionally revels in it—but his general approach is that the Torah and azal fully intended to describe the myriad details of concrete really and that they did so successfully.

Also essential to Duran's approach, however—though usually understated, and sometimes nearly lost entirely in his frequent praise of the Torah as superior to human knowledge—is the assumption that Aristotelian wisdom is generally correct, in its overall approach if not in all of its details. Duran is quite sure that human wisdom has objectively proven a great many truths about the universe (though it has also occasionally stumbled in the places where it contradicts the Torah), the most important of them by far being the existence of God, but no less so for matters such as the biological derivation of semen and the laws of heredity. The literary result of Duran's way of thinking is Magen Avot, as an encyclopedic compendium of knowledge about plant and animal life, human life, and the structure of the cosmos, in which the scientific corpus is corrected when necessary through the superior wisdom of the Torah.

Crescas' intellectual passion was the exact opposite of Duran's: It was nearly always the underlying concepts that fascinated him, not the concrete details. And unlike Duran, he was willing and even eager to cast doubt upon nearly everything. His major goal in Or Hashem is to show that human wisdom can never prove anything absolutely (up to and including the existence of God). And as for the Torah, he felt no compulsion to assume that it describes the concrete reality of the cosmos. A startling example of this is his discussion of the Garden of Eden towards the end of the book: Crescas—fully aware of both Maimonides' allegorical view of Eden and of Namanides' harsh critique of it, in which the latter musters the stories of explorers who have stumbled upon it as proof of its concrete existence—argues that the Eden of Genesis is a concrete place where the body and the soul will be rewarded together at the resurrection. He finds this position compelling because on the one hand it reflects the plain sense of the biblical text, while on the other hand rational inquiry simply has nothing at all to say about the issue. But he nevertheless admits that the question must remain open in principle by its very inclusion in Part IV of Or Hashem, on topics for which the Torah itself mandates no particular view: “Since the Torah does not reveal the true conclusion in these matters, whether to affirm them or reject them, the way to study them is therefore to explain the arguments in both directions for each of them, so that he who investigates them may separate that which is correct from that which is incorrect.” In other words, the ultimate conclusion in matters like these is up to each person, and there is no room for mandating any particular position on matters that the Torah itself fails to mandate.

Crescas' approach to the nature of Eden is typical of his overall approach to both Torah and science. His primary goal is always to deal with the most important conceptual issues, and not with other details: What is a “personality” and does God have one? What is causality? What is “will”? What is “creation”? What are “infinity” and “time”? For each and any of these issues, Crescas always begins by asking what science really says and what the Torah really says. Regarding science, what are the various approaches to the issue? If Aristotelian science has proven something, is that proof truly conclusive or is another explanation possible based on a new understanding of the underlying concepts? I emphasize that in no way did Crescas engage in anything remotely like the cheap disparagement of modern science popular among some Orthodox Jews today. Quite the opposite: Crescas didn't engage in polemics so that he could “save” the Torah. Rather, he placed himself firmly at the cutting edge of the science of his day by questioning its underlying concepts, and he was able to offer alternatives that other contemporary scientists found compelling.

Regarding the Torah, Crescas' also asks what it really means in principle regarding each and every concept it touches upon. In this way he delineates the underlying concepts of the Torah (an intricate structure of shorashim and pinnot quite different from Maimonides' 13 ikkarim) for comparison to the possibilities uncovered by human wisdom.

When we compare Duran and Crescas, it is obvious that there are far more contradictions between the Torah and human wisdom for the former than the latter. We might even say, in a certain sense, that this is the result of Duran's reliance on the popular ways to understand both Torah and science in his time. Regarding Torah, the extreme rationalistic approach had already fallen out of favor in the rabbinic world of which he was a part, and allegorical interpretation—while not forbidden—was nevertheless thought to be far less attractive than to say that the Torah correctly described concrete reality. And regarding human wisdom, Aristotelian science in Duran's time was still generally thought to be the only possible way to describe the universe, while those who cast doubt upon its very core (such as Crescas) were still far outside of the mainstream.

But to say that Duran engaged in “popular” Torah and “popular” science would also be extremely misleading. On the contrary, his extraordinary expertise in both fields is second to none in terms of its encyclopedic breadth, depth of understanding, and creative interpretation. By modern standards Duran would have earned several Ph.D.s, and should he have chosen an academic career he might well have been a respected professor of Bible, Talmud, Biology or Philosophy. But more likely is that in our day he would have been a rosh yeshivah and professor at Yeshiva University who teaches semikhah students in the morning and biology or mathematics in the afternoon. What he lacked nonetheless was a passion for rethinking underlying concepts in creative new ways. In other words, he was not at the cutting edge of his fields. But he most certainly was an expert.

Regarding Crescas, however, neither his Torah nor his science can possibly be thought of as “popular” in any way. He was both an expert and at the cutting edge. He tried to rethink assumptions on both sides for every issue he confronted. Nothing in Torah or human wisdom was obvious to him, and nothing was beyond question. By shattering popular notions in both realms he was able to not only reduce the friction between them, but also allowed each one to enrich the other.

In the middle ages, a single science reigned for centuries. But now that the static and dogmatic science of the middle ages is a thing of the past, and our understanding of both the world and the Torah is changing continually, it would seem that Crescas' more flexible approach is the one most appropriate for us today. Nevertheless, Duran's model remains highly relevant as a vivid illustration of how and why such an approach is extremely attractive to Torah Jews (including many to this very day), as well as of the great expertise, creativity and love that must go into building such a model for it to be done well.


Chapter 4 of The Book of Abraham (“The Torah Encyclopedia of the Cosmos and Life on Earth”) is available here (the PDF is a “hybrid” which means that it can also be opened as a fully editable file using LibreOffice). The full index of chapters and blog posts is here.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Monitor Lizard; Plus, New Google Search

(Cross-posted at the Zoo Torah blog)

I recently acquired a new specimen for my forthcoming "Jewish Museum of Natural History." In the Torah's list of sheratzim - small creatures that transmit ritual impurity when dead - one of the creatures is called koach. According to some scholars, this refers to the monitor lizard. Monitors grow to be very large - the desert monitor in Israel grows to around four feet, while in other parts of the world monitors can reach ten feet or more. Accordingly, koach, which means "power," is a worthy name.

The monitor that I acquired is a Savannah monitor. Fully grown, it can reach 4-5 feet in length, but the one that I purchased is just a baby, no more than six inches long. He's incredibly vicious - when I open the cage, he jumps up with an open mouth and tries to bite - but when I hold him for a while, he calms down, and hopefully he will become tamer in due course.

Anyway, the day after I got him, I saw the following e-mail posted to the local Bet Shemesh mailing list:
Subject: Baby Monitor
Date: Wed May 9, 2012 10:07 am
Hi i am looking to buy or borrow a baby monitor from somebody. If anybody has one available please respond to this email.
Thank You, Yossi 
Wow, I thought, isn't that a strange coincidence? The day after I get a baby monitor, somebody else wants one! And why does he want one, anyway?

Then I realized that he wasn't looking for a baby monitor. He was looking for a baby monitor!

*   *   *

While we're on a light note, you might find the following amusing. Google has made some changes to its search engine; when you search for the name of a person, it now displays a picture, some biographical info, and also some pictures and names of associated people. This is what it displays for "Rabbi Slifkin":

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Post-Asifa Reflections

Well, the Great Internet Asifa is over, and it wasn't exactly the Kiddush Hashem that some hoped for, or even the type of event that many expected. I'm not entirely clear at to what it was actually all about, or as to how it was intended to accomplish its objectives. Here are some links to some interesting and varied perspectives:

A comprehensive and level-headed write-up by S. about the event: Link

Rabbi Ron Eisemann's reflections on the responsibilities of those at the Asifa to the counter-Asifa: Link

Rabbi Eli Fink's perspective: Link

Finally, here's a fascinating statement by a non-Jew on a report at the Gizmodo tech blog: Link.




Monday, May 21, 2012

Rav Steinman's Speech

Last week, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman visited Ramat Bet Shemesh for a public address, amidst much hoopla and honor. Rafi Goldmeir, at Life in Israel, has provided a translation of most of his address. Many people are making a big fuss over Rav Shteinman's account of how the eight billion people in the world "are all murderers and thieves, people without seichel" - except, of course, for Torah Jews. But I'd like to discuss a different point.

The focus of Rav Steinman's talk was to set up two polar opposites: learning Torah versus educating oneself to earn a living. There is no nuance to his words; he sets them up as two opposites. In other words, yeshivah ketanah versus high school; yeshivah gedolah versus yeshivah+college; kollel versus working for a living. In this model, Rav Steinman correlates the following with the yeshivah/ kollel/ not-working model:
  • Being a talmid chacham;
  • Doing mitzvos;
  • Gaining nachas from one's children;
  • Fulfilling the purpose of creation;
  • Gaining everlasting life.

Those who gain a secular education and work for a living are deprived of these; their lot is apparently with the eight billion murderers and thieves and people without seichel. (I don't know if Rav Steinman himself actually believes that. But there are certainly those in his audience who do, and with the complete absence of nuance in his talk, he strengthens that view.)

What about all the Rishonim in Sepharad who studied secular subjects, and saw it as part of their avodas Hashem? Even Chasam Sofer, grandfather of charedi Judaism, studied secular subjects extensively. And certainly there was no mass kollel until a few decades ago! What about all Chazal's teachings on the importance of teaching one's children to earn a trade, and on the value of being self-sufficient?

Rav Steinman also claims that most rich people do not have a strong secular education, which, he says, is because parnassah is all up to Hashem. Actually, most rich people have a lot more education, marketable skills, and/or desire to actually work, than the poor. Furthermore, the point is not whether most rich people do not have a secular education; it's whether most people without a secular education get rich. And clearly, they don't.

In any case, there certainly is a distinct general correlation between education and income, and especially between employment and income. If it's all up to Hashem and has nothing to do with hishtadlus, then it's interesting that Hashem has decided to generally reward those who go to college and engage in hishtadlus with parnassah, while those who learn in kollel tend to struggle with poverty.

The greatest irony is in the following quote from Rav Steinman:
"The Chayei Adam writes in one of his books that when he was young the parents did not think about what the child would be later, from what he would earn his living. They only thought about the Torah."

There is no doubt that everyone in attendance understood that by taking the path of yeshivah and kollel, they are following in the holy path of the Chayei Adam. But in fact, the Chayei Adam - Rabbi Avraham Danzig - refused employment as Rabbi of Vilna and instead earned his livelihood as a merchant! (Later in life, when he lost his money, he was forced to take employment as a rabbi. But at no time did he learn in kollel!)

To be sure, Rav Steinman is extraordinary in many ways. But I don't see anything profound in his lecture. Worse, there seems to be much that is untrue and inconsistent with Jewish tradition. Chazal and the Rishonim did not believe that Jews should not learn a trade, engage only in Torah and be supported by others. Chazal and the Rishonim said precisely the opposite.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Do Scientists Pray?

Here is something fascinating that reader Gidon Shaviv sent to me.

In January of 1936, a young non-Jewish girl named Phyllis wrote to Albert Einstein on behalf of her Sunday school class, and asked, "Do scientists pray?" Her letter, and Einstein's reply, can be read below. (Source: Dear Professor Einstein; via Letters of Note)
The Riverside Church
January 19, 1936
My dear Dr. Einstein,
We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered. We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis's class.
Respectfully yours, Phyllis

January 24, 1936
Dear Phyllis, I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer: Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science. But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein 
For discussion of various possibilities as to how providence interacts with natural law, see chapter four of The Challenge Of Creation. For a discussion of Rambam's view of petitionary prayer, see Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides.

While on the topic of prayer: Longtime blog reader Rabbi Joshua Cohen of Elizabeth NJ has tragically suffered a stroke. He is only 38 years old and has a wife and four small children. Please pray for Moshe Yehuda Yehoshua Michoel ben Chava, that God should keep him with us and preserve his mind intact.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

That Bothersome Bardelas!

One of the numerous challenges in writing my Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom is that I am trying to make it suitable for as broad an audience as possible - including the charedi community. In cases where I run into an insoluble conflict between Chazal and science, I simply acknowledge the conflict (and I will write something in the introduction that outlines the range of approaches). But one animal requires me to point out that the Talmud Bavli misunderstood the Mishnah (although I am writing it more delicately than that!)

Many students of the Gemara have been perplexed by a mysterious creature called the bardelas, which appears in several places in Shas. People ask, is it a cheetah? A hyena? A polecat? (And, some people ask, what the heck is a polecat, anyway?) Even Tosafos admits to being perplexed.

The answer is that it depends on who's discussing it.

The first reference to the bardelas is in the Mishnah, discussing the laws regarding which animals are classified as dangerous, such that their owners have a higher degree of liability for damage that they cause:
"The wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the bardelas and the snake are muadin (rated as expected to cause damage). (Mishnah, Bava Kama 1:4)
The word bardelas is not Hebrew or Aramaic - it is quite obviously a transliteration of the Greek pardalis. This name originally referred to the leopard, but cannot refer to the leopard here, since the Mishnah lists the leopard separately. In the Mishnah, it therefore presumably refers to another spotted cat — the cheetah.

However, while the authors and audience of the Mishnah, living in the land of Israel, were familiar with such Greek terms, the same was not true of the sages in Babylon, who had far less exposure to Greek culture. The Babylonian Talmud therefore asks what type of animal the bardelas is, and concludes that it is the hyena:
"What is the bardelas? Rav Yehudah said: The nafraza. What is the nafraza? Rav Yosef said: the afeh. (Talmud, Bava Kama 16a)
The afeh is identical with the af’ah that appears as the Aramaic translation of “valley of the Tzevo’im” in I Samuel 13:18. From an etymological standpoint, af’ah is actually the same word as tzavua, in Aramaic transliteration (where the “tz” sound becomes “a”; cf. eretz becomes ar’a). Thus, the bardelas is being identified with the tzavua. This is definitely the hyena, which, as Rambam points out, is called al-tzaba in Arabic.

(While the reference to the bardelas in the Talmud here refers to the hyena, it seems that other references to the bardelas in the Talmud do not refer to the hyena. Instead, they are apparently a corruption of the word mandris, which refers to the mongoose, polecat, or similar such creature.)

Because the Bavli identifies the bardelas as the tzavua, it then runs into a difficulty: that Rabbi Meir adds the tzavua to the Mishnah's list, as an additional animal. The Bavli is forced to answer that the bardelas and tzavua are both the hyena, but that one term refers to the male hyena, and one to the female hyena. While the Gemara attempts to explain why this is necessary, the answer is forced.

Of course, from the perspective of Rabbi Meir (who lived in Eretz Yisrael and understood bardelas to refer to a cheetah), he was not adding a different gender of an already-named animal; he was adding a different animal.

And if it's not bad enough that I have to point out that the Bavli did not understand the Mishnah's terms, the Bavli then goes and speaks about how hyenas transform into bats, and then into thorns, and then into demons.

Siz shver tzu zein ah ZooRabbi!

Fortunately, I'm able to finish the chapter with an inspirational concept, based on Perek Shirah, about how the hyena is an essential part of the circle of life. With thanks to Rav Moshe Shapiro, who told it to me a number of years ago.

(For the definitive study on this topic, see Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas in Ancient Rabbinic Literature: A Test Case of Geographic Identification” (in Hebrew), Mo’ed 14 (5764) pp. 70-80.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reflections on the Internet Asifah

The previous guest post, Internet Asifah A Great Kiddush Hashem, generated some interesting reactions. While most people liked it very much, some detested it. Others simply didn't understand it; one person wrote to me in bewilderment to ask that surely the Asifah hasn't happened yet? In this post, I would like to outline some of my own thoughts on the forthcoming Asifah, and explain why I liked the guest post and decided to publish it. (Let me state, though, that it drives me nuts when people entirely ignore the words "guest post by... " and assume that the post was written by me!)

When the Asifah was first announced, there were a lot of negative reactions, which I did not understand. OK, perhaps it's slightly over the top to host it in New York's third largest venue. But the Internet does indeed pose great challenges to society in general and Orthodox Judaism in particular, not to mention it being absolutely lethal to charedi society.

People who claim that the enticements of alien values, pornography and heresy always existed, and that the internet doesn't really change anything, are, frankly, naive. Of course these things always existed, but when they become vastly more easily accessible, they are going to be accessed by people (and especially children) who wouldn't otherwise access them. In fact, people who claim that the Internet doesn't change anything are precisely those people who need an Asifah that will open their eyes to the reality!

Then there are those who criticize the "Unity" theme of the event, pointing out that this unity does not include YU, MO, Chabad, and various other groups. But it's difficult to sustain this criticism, when most of us would limit our "unity." YU does not want unity with YCT, YCT does not want unity with Reform, Reform does not want unity with Jews for Jesus, etc. I suppose one could make an argument that some seek to be as restrictive as possible while others seek to be inclusive, but I'm not sure that such an argument would be airtight enough to allow a criticism of charedim for wanting unity only with other charedim.

So, the internet poses serious challenges. That's why the Asifah seems to be a good idea. But then there are some disturbing questions about the nature of this event.

First, despite the problems and dangers of the internet, there are also some tremendous benefits. Now, apparently this Asifah will not be about banning the internet; instead, it will be about using it properly, acknowledging the necessity of the internet for many people in the modern world. But the internet is not just an evil entity that is useful for parnassah. It has numerous benefits, and specifically in one area in which Charedi society fails dismally and which is an even bigger problem than the internet: the scourge of child abuse and other abuses of power. Rav Mattisyahu Solomon, the rabbinic name behind the Asifah, complained to a friend of mine that he knows of three dozen pedophiles walking around Lakewood. Well, it's only because of the Internet that this problem is starting to be addressed! There's plenty of grounds not to like blogs such as UOJ or Failed Messiah, but there's no denying that to the extent that serious steps have been taken to deal with abuse, it is primarily due to such blogs. This makes it especially ironic that an Asifah is being dedicated to the evils of the Internet rather than to the plague of abuse.

Second, there are a large number of (mostly anonymous) claims that the main initiator and organizer of the event is a problematic individual who would be right at home with Pinter, Schmeltzer and Tropper. It's disturbing that those who wield power in charedi society often turn out to be such people. The results are always bad.

Nevertheless, as stated, the Internet does pose serious challenges, and it is something that Orthodox Jewish society should address in a serious way. That's why I liked the guest post. It was not unreservedly cynical (at least, that's not how I read it). It acknowledged that in theory, the Asifah is a good idea, and much good could potentially come of it. Unfortunately, as we have seen with the bans on rationalist Rishonim, the Lipa concert at Madison Square Gardens, Mishpachah, and with defending abusers, EJF, Troppergate, the general effort to condemn all charedi society to enforced poverty and so on, the charedi rabbinic pseudo-leadership seems to never miss an opportunity to mess up.

(Note to those who receive these posts via e-mail: If you ever wish to write to me, even just to comment on the blog post, do NOT hit reply to the email post. Instead, please compose a new message with a new subject.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Internet Asifa a Great Kiddush Hashem


A guest post by Yosef Drimmel 

May 20, 2012, Flushing, NY – A gathering of Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the New York tri-state area was held today at Citi Field. 40,000 men gathered here as approximately 40,000 women followed the events in their neighborhoods via satellite connection. This remarkable event filled with excitement and optimism offered a unique reflection on almost twenty years of Internet use and its effects on a generation.

Leading Rabbis spoke passionately about the various problems facing the community today and urged people to use the Internet and any tools available to address them. An introspective atmosphere was created that united laymen and leadership fostering a commitment to truth and transparency.

The leaders acknowledged they were short-sighted and unrealistic when in the past they attempted to ban the Internet entirely and that methods such as forced signatures on school applications were inappropriate and ineffective. Instead they expressed that many schools need to focus more on the academic and social growth of their students and less on their ability to conform to exclusive rules.

In a humbling manner, some rabbis went so far as to suggest that in the past they felt threatened by the dissemination of information and opinions over the Internet. But in the end they realized that transparency and open dialogue are in the greater interests of Klal Yisroel.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the day was the public apology issued by the leadership in the name of the entire community to the victims of decades of sexual abuse that occurred within our community, noting that it was the Internet that gave a voice to those who had none in the face of the establishment. A new covenant was drawn promising complete cooperation with law enforcement and advocating tougher laws to prevent and report child abuse. A number of enablers were removed from their positions and a new fund to support victims was created.

Some of the speakers also brought attention to the problems of Internet addiction. Expert psychologists and social workers discussed the pathways and pitfalls of excessive use of the Internet, a human challenge more than a religious one. Emphasis was made for teachers and clergy to be aware of individuals suffering from emotional problems of all sorts and to understand the best ways to help people. The disastrous stories of well-meaning but incompetent rabbis who offered counseling proved to be very enlightening to many in the field.

Some attention was paid to the unfortunate availability of pornography on the Internet. While no rabbi wanted to make a fire-and-brimstone rant against basic human instinct, even-keeled advice was offered regarding coping with this distraction and enjoying a healthy lifestyle and fulfilling relationships. A new program was presented to educate brides and grooms on the subject of positive attitudes about intimacy, mutual love and respect.

In the final remarks, the rabbis pledged to move forward with the continuous forging of new ideas. Future gatherings will probably be at a lower cost and scale but focused on actual changes and improvements the community will need to make. Future agendas will include problems and questions such as attitudes towards education and employment, proper allocation of charity funds, funding Jewish education as a community, today’s shidduchim system, agunos, extremism and intolerance, segregation of Ashkenazim and Sefaradim, participation in the Israeli workforce and armed forces, the system of Halachic rulings in Israel and America, reliance on subsidies, and integrity and honesty.

 Many of the attendees left the event feeling invigorated about their future and that of their children and grandchildren, echoing the sentiment that through justice and kindness we may merit the coming of the Messiah.

Friday, May 11, 2012

You Don't Mess With The Zohar

(A re-post from October 2010)

On the earlier post, Baby's Blue Beads, someone left the following comment:

...the reaction to questioning the Zohar - either its authenticity or its authority - and delving into the superstitious elements or some outdated medieval concepts that underlie the work, will probably be the most visceral and I think more so than any subject, even the evolution issue. The difference is that you don't really see this happening in print, unlike the evolution issue which has been a fairly prominent issue, relatively speaking, in recent decades.

Personally, I think the reaction against an intellectually honest historical approach to the Zohar would be even stronger than the reaction against Rabbi Slifkin. Even many reasonable people who would not necessarily go "on the attack" over it would nonetheless feel it's out of bounds or offensive to question that work.


I think that he's probably correct. You don't mess with the Zohar. Even a relatively moderate charedi figure such as Rav Leff said that somebody who does not believe that the Zohar was written by Rav Shimon Bar Yochai is a heretic (see this link for audio, transcript and analysis). I am told that Rav Leff did later retract this upon being made aware of various information, but the fact that he said it at all shows how widespread such a view is.

It is fairly well known that Rav Yaakov Emden challenged the origins of much of the Zohar, but this doesn't seem to be taken very seriously in traditionalist circles today. Perhaps this is because Rav Emden's opposition to Rav Yonasan Eybeshitz as a Sabbatean, which is popularly (though probably mistakenly) considered unfounded, gives him an image of someone who unjustifiably opposes things. But in the course of my research for my Shiluach HaKein article, I was surprised to find that even a figure as conservative as Chassam Sofer was of the opinion that most of the Zohar was written in a much later period. One would think that the Chassam Sofer would be an unimpeachable authority, but it seems that his views on the Zohar are not widely known.

Personally I have never really explored the issue, beyond the aforementioned view of the Chassam Sofer. There was an article on this which was floating around the net a few years ago, which you can download at this link. I can't give it a haskamah, since I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough in this area to evaluate it, and I haven't even read it carefully; just enough to see that it needs quite a bit of editing! But the quotations at the end, from unnamed Charedi gedolim, are fascinating and show just how divisive and explosive this issue is.

UPDATE: See too this post: Rav Ovadiah Yosef on the Zohar

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What You Can Do

In the last post, I announced the development of The Jewish Museum Of Natural History. There are a few areas in which people might be able to help:

1) There are certain items required that can only be purchased in the US, England and Europe, and are too large or fragile to go into regular luggage, such as small display enclosures. If you are making aliyah from these countries and have space on your lift, that would be appreciated (of course, the space would be paid for).

2) A 501(c)(3) charitable organization needs to be set up in the US. If you have any expert advice to contribute regarding this, or can recommend a good lawyer - ideally, one who is supportive of the project and is willing to charge a low rate! - please be in touch.

3) Donations of unusual shofars, taxidermy, certain animals (if you live in Israel) and animal husbandry equipment, and of course funds, will be gratefully appreciated!

4) If you have any other ideas, or would like to be involved in some capacity, please be in touch.

If you can help with any of the above, don't notify me by way of the comments; instead, please email me.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Jewish Museum of Natural History

I am thrilled to announce that plans are moving ahead for the development of "The Jewish Museum Of Natural History." The mission is outlined below, and you can download a full prospectus at this link.

Mission 

The Jewish Museum of Natural History will be a unique institution. Its primary goals are twofold: To enhance appreciation and understanding of Scripture, Talmud and Jewish tradition via the natural world, and to thereby also enhance appreciation and understanding of the natural world itself. Visitors will learn about Scriptural and Midrashic symbolism, Jewish law and history, and the natural history of the Land of Israel.

The museum will accomplish this mission via a combination of extraordinary live and inanimate exhibits, including taxidermy mounts and other intriguing biological artifacts. All exhibits, including live specimens, will be hands-on, since tactile experiences are the most powerful. Visits will be conducted exclusively via guided tours, in order to maximize the educational value. The Jewish Museum of Natural History will also serve as an invaluable educational resource, providing teacher training courses, extended lecture series, and trainee assistant curator programs for teens.

The nucleus of the collection has already been assembled and is licensed by the Nature Reserves Authority. Plans are currently underway for a temporary facility, under the auspices of a Foundation created for the museum and its associated publications. The long-term goal is to construct a building for the museum in the city of Bet Shemesh. Although housing a population of 80,000 which is projected to double in the next decade, and home to a large Anglo population which regularly receives visitors from abroad, Bet Shemesh lacks any kind of tourist attraction. The Jewish Museum of Natural History will fill that gap in a unique way.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Lactating Snakes and Vampire Owls

What are tanim? I used to think that this was fairly straightforward, but I recently realized that there may be a basic error that was made by those who studied the natural history of Scripture and assigned names for animals in Modern Hebrew.

In Scripture, there is mention of tanin (with a nun at the end) and tanim (with a mem at the end). The former is a generic term for serpentine/ monstrous creatures such as snakes, crocodiles, and whales (singular tanin, plural taninim). But what are the tanim (which, incidentally, is a plural form; the singular is tan)? The tanim are mentioned in several places in Scripture as creatures that live in ruins and desolate areas, along with birds called bnos ya'anah (ostriches or some kind of owl), and they are described as making a wailing sound. Thus far, they could be either jackals or a different type of owl.

There is one crucial verse which is thought to conclusively resolve this: 
Even the tanin have bared their breast, nursing their cubs; yet the daughter of my people has become cruel, like ya’enim in the wilderness. (Eichah 4:3)
In this verse, there is a kri/kesiv mesorah that the word written as tanin is to be read as tanim. There is reason to believe that this is the correct reading - no serpentine creature nurses its young. Thus, tanim are mammals. Hence, the tanim described elsewhere as wailing creatures of the wilderness must be jackals, not owls. That is why in modern Hebrew, jackals are called tanim.

This all seems straightforward. But there is an assumption being made here, which is not necessarily correct! The assumption being made is that the Scriptural writer knew which animals nurse their young and which don't. However, as Rambam and others make clear, the prophets (and even the Torah) speaks within the scientific worldview of antiquity. Thus, there is no reason to assume that the zoological description is necessarily accurate.

What does this mean with regard to tanim? One scholar, Othniel Margalith, argues that the verse in Eichah should be read as tanin - which matches the Septuagint's translation of draco (serpent). Margalith claims that this verse reflects a belief in antiquity that snakes nurse their young on milk. As evidence, he points to clay cobras from Beth Shean which are seemingly formed with breasts. Thus, the verse in Eichah is referring to snakes, and is not talking about the wailing tanim of the ruins that are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture. These can therefore be identified as some kind of owl.

While Margalith's view should certainly be taken into consideration, I don't know if it is necessarily correct. The interpretation of such clay figurines is debated; even if they do depict breasts, some argue that it may reflect artistic or idolatrous concepts rather than zoological beliefs.

(See too R. Yaakov of Lisa, Palgei Mayim (link: p. 171, second column, line 8), who, in a different approach, says that Chazal believed that snakes would take milk from women. I haven't been able to find any reference to such a thing in Chazal, and I would be indebted if anyone can point me to such a source.)

But Margalith's approach led me to consider another possibility. Even if the verse in Eichah should be read as tanim (and is referring to the wailing tanim of the ruins), does it rule out owls? As R. Josh Waxman pointed out in another context, there was an ancient belief in a strange type of owl called a strix, which was thought to nurse its young on milk.

There are advantages to positing that tanim are strix owls rather than jackals. Tanim are always translated by Targum Yonasan as yarudin, and the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kilayim 8:4) identifies these as birds. Thus, the most ancient traditions for the identity of tanim favors owls rather than jackals (whereas the earliest source for positively identifying them as jackals is Tanhum Yerushalmi, in the thirteenth century).

A further piece of evidence is that Gemara in Sanhedrin 59b mentions a “yarod nala”; according to Sokoloff's Dictionary Of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, s.v. נלא, this refers to a demon or vampire. The strix was believed to be a demonic bird which sucked people’s blood, and thus this phrase in the Gemara is further indication that the yarod (which is the tan) is the strix.

Of course, it's still not absolutely straightforward. The verse in Eichah refers to the young of the tanim as gurim. This word is elsewhere used only to describe lion cubs, which would perhaps favor identifying tanim as jackals, which have cubs, rather than strix owls. Still, it seems that Chazal, at least, understood the term to refer to lactating vampirous strix owls. And one thing is clear: the identity of the tanim of Scripture is certainly not as straightforward as is often assumed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Close Shave... But With What?

Last week, I was invited to the Yom Ha-Atzma'ut celebrations at the home of the President of Israel. It is a long ceremony, involving awards to the 120 most outstanding soldiers, songs by the Prime Minister and President (!), and lunch. For various reasons, I was not able to go.

Which was just as well. It turns out that the caterer discovered, the day before Yom Ha'Atzma'ut, that the meat had all spoiled. Shockingly, he decided to replace it with meat from a supplier in Abu Ghosh - which was, of course, entirely treife. Somehow slipping it past the mashgiach, the caterer thought he had gotten away with it. But it transpired that he had been caught on the security cameras in Abu Ghosh. Unfortunately, this was only after the meat had been eaten by the guests.

And so it's just as well that I didn't attend the event. Because if I would have gone, then I would have inadvertently eaten treife, and... what?

As Professor Menachem Kellner explains, in Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, the consequences of inadvertently eating treife are subject to a dispute between Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban (Nachmanides).

According to Nachmanides (and probably most other rabbinic authorities), non-kosher food inherently houses spiritual harm. If one had some kind of metaphysical measuring device like those of the Ghostbusters, one could take a measurement of it. Like poisonous food, it will cause harm even if one eats it entirely inadvertently.

According to Maimonides, on the other hand, the laws of kashrus are institutional rather than relating to some kind of metaphysical reality. There are various reasons why we must not eat non-kosher food, but it has nothing to do with anything metaphysical inherent to the food itself. Consequently, if one inadvertently and unknowingly eats non-kosher food, one's soul has not been harmed.

Personally, the thought of eating treife food, even inadvertently, gives me the heeby-jeebies. I guess I'm not so much of a rationalist, after all.

A Miraculous Transformation

Several weeks ago, The Biblical Museum of Natural History received a gift from an entomologist friend of ours: a cluster of eggs. They were ...