Sunday, June 30, 2013

Circular Reasoning At Its Best

Here's another installment of my critique of Dr. Isaac Betech's book on the shafan, which will reveal yet another fascinating aspect of irrational thought.

First, a quick summary: In the first post, I discussed the fraudulence of presenting his book as a search for truth rather than as a mission to contrive arguments that will support certain religious beliefs. I also noted his fallacy in presenting the views of Spanish Rishonim, that the shafan is the European rabbit, as evidence for identifying the Biblical shafan as the rabbit (and this comment, I exposed his false claim that he was doing nothing of the sort). He even makes their descriptions of the rabbit into criteria that the shafan must fulfill, e.g. that it must have long ears! (pp. 134-5)

In the second post, I noted that Betech has a habit of arguing that something cannot be conclusively disproved, and then smoothly changing that to mean that it is likely, probable, and ultimately that it is true. I also pointed out that his denial that Rav Saadiah Gaon explained the shafan to be the hyrax has no serious basis.

In the third post, I discussed the reason why every single academic scholar of Biblical zoology, and every reasonable, rational person who is aware of the facts and arguments, dismisses the rabbit as a candidate for the shafan - namely, that the rabbit did not live in Biblical Israel. I also discussed Betech's misrepresentation of the nature of this argument, and his inadequate response.

Betech failed to respond to any of these criticisms, despite his claim that he would respond to difficulties raised with his book, and that he would concede when shown to be in error. He claims that his reason for not responding is that I sometimes makes use of sarcasm. I'm not sure what his alleged reason is for not responding to David Ohsie, R. David Sedley, and R. Josh Waxman, who have been making the same points.

In this post, I would like to address Betech's main argument that the shafan cannot be the hyrax: namely, that the shafan is described as maaleh gerah, bringing up its cud, and the hyrax does not bring up its cud. Now, there are several approaches that have been taken with regard to this point:

1) One approach is to propose that the shafan is not the hyrax. However, this is not viable, because, as discussed at length in my book and on this blog (particular in my second post on his book), there is no other remotely reasonable candidate.

2) Another approach is to say that the hyrax used to chew its cud, and no longer does so. While I don't think that this is reasonable from a biological standpoint, I'm not sure why Betech and co., who believe in rapid evolution (as I shall demonstrate on another occasion), don't consider this as a possibility.

3) Another is to propose that the hyrax practices merycism - a limited form of rumination. But is this actually the case? Having studied my own captive hyraxes for years, and having consulted with zoologists and papers that expressed a range of opinions, I simply can't decide. A hyrax certainly makes many chewing motions at times when it is not eating, but it's not clear if this is related to food or communication. (It should be noted that positing that they are practicing merycism is certainly not as unlikely as, say, proposing that rabbits used to live in Israel.)

4) Another is to say that the Torah "speaks in the language of man," as explained at length in my books. I think that this is the preferable solution for religious Jews. While this approach is well-founded in the writings of Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook, based upon various Rishonim, I can certainly understand why people would not find it appealing. However, if one is to maintain belief in the Divine origins of the Torah, one would in any case have to adopt such an approach in order to account for the Torah describing dew as descending from Heaven, the heart and kidneys as housing the mind, the sky as being a solid firmament, the nesher as carrying its young on its wings, the snake as eating dirt, and so on.

(Or, to put it another way: I'm sure that Isaac Betech can engage in extensive intellectual gymnastics to justify why the Torah describes these phenomena in the way that it does, and far less gymnastics are required to explain why the Torah describes the hyrax as bringing up its cud.)

5) Another is to say that the Torah is simply mistaken, and is thus not Divine. Now, obviously this approach is not acceptable to a believing Jew. However, if someone does not have prior commitment to believing in the Divinity of Torah, and for some reason buys into Betech's rejection of approaches (3) and (4), this would be a far more reasonable explanation than Betech's proposal that the Torah is referring to cecotrophy in rock-dwelling rabbits of South Africa.

Now, Isaac Betech is a devout believing Jew, and therefore option 5 is unacceptable to him. While humans could (and did) mistakenly believe that hyraxes ruminate, the Master of the World could not make such a zoological error; hence, the shafan could not be the hyrax.

But here's where things get interesting. You see, Isaac Betech doesn't merely want to understand the Torah; he wants to use this topic to prove the divinity of Torah. Let's quote his conclusion:
We can recognize with admiration, today as always, that only the Master of the World could state this accurate information thousands of years ago. 
But that means that he is engaging in a classic case of circular reasoning. For it's only because of Betech's a priori belief that the Torah is divine, that he rules out the possibility that the Torah is simply making a mistake about the hyrax! (And the same can be said for Discovery and others who use this topic to prove the divinity of the Torah.) He's saying that we recognize that the Torah is divine, because there are no zoological errors, because we recognize that the Torah is divine!

I'm sure that such circular arguments reinforce the faith of irrational people who are already believers. But to others, it simply makes Torah Jews look foolish. And as Rambam says, using a flawed argument to convince people of something is worse than using no argument.

Amazingly, Betech is explicit about using circular reasoning! On p. 120, amongst a list of reasons as to why the shafan should not be identified as the hyrax, Betech says that if the definition of "bringing up the cud" is broadened to include the hyrax, "then the consequence is that many more animals could also be called maaleh gerah, positing unnecessary challenges against the Torah's and Talmud's exclusive list of one-signed species; hence the importance of understanding that the hyrax cannot be the Biblical shafan." In other words, we recognize that the Torah is divine, because these are the only animals in the list, because to admit that there might be more animals in the list would mean that the Talmud is not divine. Circular reasoning at its finest, and most explicit!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Parameters, Please!

There are several aggadic statements about the protective merit/value of Torah. (It should be noted, however, that it appears to have been a dispute amongst the Sages as to whether Torah provides protection; see Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman, "Righteousness as Its Own Reward: An Inquiry into the Theologies of the Stam," Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 57, 1990 - 1991, pp. 35-67). At any rate, the charedi community wants to turn this into a halachic exemption from serving in the army and contributing to the economy. Furthermore, they expect all other Jews - even non-religious Jews - to accept this. They even present this argument to non-Jews:
Porush began by explaining the hareidi-religious view of Torah study. Israel survives in the hostile Middle East not due to the strength of its army, but due to the merit of Torah study, he told (French Ambassador to Israel) Bidot.

Well, as a religious Jew who will be sending his sons to the army, and who is (as a taxpaying citizen) sharing the financial burden of those in kollel, I think that we have a right to know the parameters of this protection. If you're claiming that it is a concrete benefit, which exempts you from concrete action while others serve instead and fund those in kollel, as concrete halachah, then I think that you should provide some concrete specifics.

1. Is this protection dependent upon time?

Does the protective effect of Torah even apply when the Torah student is not studying? Does it apply during the night? During vacation?

If yes - then why did many Gedolim urge their students to study during their vacation when various wars were taking place, or when there were even worse threats, such as the draft?
If not - then shouldn't the charedi community be learning in shifts, so that protection is kept steady around the clock, throughout the year?

2. Does this protection apply under all circumstances?

Bava Kama 60a-b indicates that a time of community-wide misfortune, Torah does not protect, and material steps are advised. Responsa Radvaz 2:752 greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling about Torah scholars being exempt from contributing towards security, including stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection. Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin wrote that "If you understand that the scholars don't need protection in relatively peaceful times and are exempt from building the protective walls, what consequence has this when compared to a life-and-death struggle, a war which is a mitzvah and in which all are obligated?" So on what basis is the charedi community so certain that their Torah study protects from the clear and present dangers that exist today, such as to exempt them from serving the army?

3. What type of things does Torah protect from?

Based on the Gemara in Berachos 5a, the protection appears to be from physical illness. Other sources that speak about the protective value of Torah make no mention of specifically military threats, and indicate that it provides protection equally from illness, famine, etc. If that is the case, does that mean that the charedi community should receive less government assistance for medical services and other forms of aid? Otherwise, aren't they being hypocritical?

4. Is the protective effect more potent in the area where the Torah study takes place?

Presumably it is, because many stories about its alleged protective effect relate to the particular place where the Torah scholar/ tzaddik lived. But if so, why do the charedi yeshivos flee to safer places when war breaks out, leaving the residents of the city behind? If their Torah is providing any degree of protection, and they are doing their "military duty" in this way, then they should stay in, and even travel to, the cities that are under attack. Soldiers don't go where it is safe - they go where their services are needed, even at personal risk!

5. Is the intent of the person studying Torah relevant?

It's generally accepted that reciting Tehillim for the sick is only, or most, effective if the sick person's name is mentioned and/or "had in mind." Presumably, Torah study is likewise only, or more, effective if explicitly done with the goal of protecting those at risk. If so, then since soldiers are the ones most at risk, why don't charedim, when beginning their study sessions or dedicating their yeshivos, ever specify that their learning is to protect the soldiers? (The reason is presumably that charedim don't want to identify in any way, shape or form with the IDF. But if they won't dedicate their learning to protect the soldiers, why should they be able to claim exemption on the grounds that they are learning to protect the soldiers?)

The IDF can give precise answers as to the parameters of the effectiveness of their forces. If charedim are claiming that their Torah study is of equal or greater effectiveness, they have an obligation to do the same.

(Of course, the charedi community would never answer these questions, because they cannot do so without tripping themselves up. And the true answer to all this is that charedim do not really believe that their Torah protects. It's just an excuse, to cover their real reasons for not serving in the army: that it interferes with the way that they want to conduct their lives and society, and they feel no obligation to the wider Jewish community in this regard.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Primary Reason - Clarified

I'd like to continue my critique of Isaac Betech's book on the shafan, which is of no contribution to Biblical zoology, and of no interest as such, but is fascinating as a case-study in irrational thought.

In the first post, I discussed the fraudulence of presenting his book as a search for truth rather than as a mission to contrive arguments that will support certain religious beliefs. I also noted his fallacy in presenting the views of Spanish Rishonim, that the shafan is the European rabbit, as evidence for identifying the Biblical shafan as the rabbit (and this comment, I exposed his false claim that he was doing nothing of the sort). In the second post, I noted that Betech has a habit of arguing that something cannot be conclusively disproved, and then smoothly changing that to mean that it is likely, probable, and ultimately that it is true. I also pointed out that his denial that Rav Saadiah Gaon explained the shafan to be the hyrax has no serious basis. Dr. Betech failed to respond to all these criticisms, despite his claim that he would respond to difficulties raised with his book, and that he would concede when shown to be in error.

In this post, I will concentrate on Betech's negation of the primary argument against his claim that the shafan is the rabbit, and the reason why every single academic scholar of Biblical zoology understands the shafan to be the hyrax rather than the rabbit.

The reason is very simple: Rabbits didn't live in Biblical Israel.

Betech mentions, and attempts to deal with, this objection in his book, yet he fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the objection. But first, let me explain why some of his proposed solutions are wrong.

Betech argues that Scripture mentions several animals that were not native to Biblical Israel, such as elephants, giraffes and whales. However, whales were indeed native to the Israeli coast, elephants are mentioned with regard to their ivory that was imported as a royal tribute, and giraffes are (a) not clearly mentioned in the Torah, and (b) were also imported as royal tributes.

Betech also argues that the Torah, in listing non-kosher birds, mentions the peres and azniyah, which live in distant islands, citing Rambam. However, the fact that Rambam describes them as living on distant islands does not mean that they actually live on distant islands! In fact, Biblical zoologists identify them as local species. Furthermore, as we shall see, it is anyway irrelevant, because the evidence that the shafan lived in Biblical Israel has nothing to do with it being mentioned in the laws of kashrus, as we shall explain.

Betech also argues that David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech could have known about the rabbit via ruach hakodesh. But first of all, since when does ruach ha-kodesh equate to describing the characteristics of unfamiliar animals in remote places? Rabbi Sedley and myself made many requests of Dr. Betech to provide sources to that effect, but he was unable to do so; he merely gave lists of references which, upon investigation, proved to say nothing of the sort. Second, Rashi is also said by many to have been written with ruach hakodesh, and yet no Rishon, and few Acharonim, believed this to mean that he possessed knowledge about the natural world beyond that which was known in his time and place. Rashi himself certainly didn't think so! Third, if we look at the rest of Nach in general and Barchi Nafshi in particular, nowhere do we see that the Kings and Prophets mentioned fauna or flora that was unknown in Biblical Israel. There is no mention of polar bears, pandas, penguins, pangolins, puffins, or platypuses. In fact, all of the descriptions of the natural world in Tenach perfectly match the perspective of people in Biblical Israel - including various inaccuracies, such as describing dew descending from heavens, the earth standing still, the sky as being a solid firmament, and the kidneys housing the mind.

But in any case, the nature of the argument that the shafan had to live in Biblical Israel has nothing to do with saying that David and Shlomo could not have known about it otherwise, as we shall later explain.

Betech also attempts to solve this problem by claiming that rabbits did indeed live in Biblical Israel. Unfortunately, zoologists and zooarcheologists universally say otherwise. So, Betech argues that perhaps they are all wrong, giving a host of technical explanations. I will leave it to the reader to decide who has more credibility here: zoologists and zooarcheologists, who are specialists, and who have no horse in this race, or Betech, who is a non-specialist, and who has given explicit religious reasons for wanting to believe that rabbits did indeed live in Biblical Israel.

Betech also argues that rabbits are native to Egypt. However, as I pointed out previously, he is wrong. He argues that they are referred to in Egypt as "native rabbits." That is true, but it only means that they they are native in the same sense that I am native to England. Rabbits were introduced to Egypt from Spain at some indeterminate point. If Betech wants to argue that this happened in Biblical times, he has to provide evidence. But in any case, even if rabbits were living in Egypt in Biblical times, it is irrelevant, for reasons that shall now be explained.

As I mentioned earlier, Betech fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the problem. The objection is not that the Author of the Chumash could never have known about the rabbit (which Betech answers by saying that God knows everything). Nor is it that David HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech could never have heard about it (which could perhaps be answered by saying that they had ruach hakodesh, or that they heard of it from travelers, or had it imported to eat, or that it lived in Egypt). Rather, the reason why the shafan must have lived in Biblical Israel is that David and Shlomo, with a goal not to describe a specific animal, but rather to describe an animal that fulfills a certain role, describe the shafan. And that role is clearly one of an animal that lives in Israel, and is perfectly fulfilled by the hyrax.

Let us examine the two references to the shafan in Nach. First is the verse in Barchi Nafshi:

"The high hills are for the ibex, the rocks are a hiding place for the shafanim." (Psalms 104:18)

This verse has two separate proofs that the shafan is the hyrax and not the rabbit. First is that every single one of the verses in Barchi Nafshi describing the natural world has a single theme; if there are two parts to the verse, they are tightly connected. Since the verse about the shafan begins by describing how the ibex live in the high hills, the animals in the second part must have some sort of connection to the ibex in the high hills. Since hyrax live in the exact same places as ibex, such as Ein Gedi, this would make sense (see the video at the end of this post). But there is no connection between rabbits and ibex.

Second is that it is not David HaMelech's goal to speak about the shafan, per se (as it is the goal in the laws of kashrus). Rather, the goal of Barchi Nafshi is to describe the wonders of all creation. Yet instead of it presenting a list of examples like that which you might see in a contemporary book on the wonders of nature, it limits itself to examples that would have been familiar to a person in Biblical Israel. When David is singing about the trees, he doesn't mention the giant redwoods and sequoias of California; instead, he mentions the much less impressive cedars of Lebanon. When he wants to describe the wonderful fit between terrain and animal, and describes the hills being terrain for ibex, and the rocks being a hiding place for another animal, obviously he is taking about something that hides under the rocks right here, amongst the ibex that he just mentioned. It is absurd to posit that he would instead pick an example from an animal that lives in a remote region.

Let us now turn to the second reference to the shafan, in Mishlei:

"There are four in the land that are small, but are exceedingly wise… The shefanim are not a strong people, but they place their home in the rock." (Proverbs 30:24, 26)

King Shlomo speaks about animals that are "small, yet ingenious." If I was speaking on that topic, I'd mention the bombardier beetle, the basilisk, the pistol shrimp, or some similar extraordinary marvel. Shlomo, on the other hand, speaks about the ant, the locust, and the lizard - presumably, because he and his readers knew about such animals, whereas they did not know about bombardier beetles, basilisks and pistol shrimps. He also wants to refer to an animal that is weak, but manages to evade predators by hiding amongst rocks. Obviously, then, he would refer to the animal that lives right in his area and does exactly that! Doesn't that make infinitely more sense than positing that Shlomo ignores the animal that lives in his area and does exactly that, and instead mentions a much less familiar animal that lives far away? Not to mention the fact that rabbits vastly prefer to hide in burrows rather than rocks (unless he's talking about the genus of rock-rabbits that he mentions in his book, but disingenuously fails to mention that they only live in southern Africa)?

I raised these points here before Betech's book went to press, but he ignored them. And I presume that the rabbis who wrote endorsements for his book are entirely unaware of these problems. But these are the reasons why every academic scholar of Biblical zoology rejects as absurd the notion that the shafan is the rabbit. And likewise, any rational person that is aware of these points.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Perpetuating Classical Judaism (updated)

Rabbi Avi Shafran has a track record for getting things exactly backwards. I'm not just talking about his seeing Bernie Madoff as more worthy of admiration than Captain Sully. In the past, he's claimed that the scientific community has a greater problem than the charedi community with regard to a lack of critical thinking. And he's claimed that abuse is less prevalent in the Orthodox community, citing a Gemara that indicates precisely the opposite. In his latest article on Cross-Currents, he does it again.

His topic is defending the charedi kollel system against the governmental and popular plan to encourage/force people to work. He presents an astonishing parable for people in kollel: a single mother named Cindy, working at a low-income job from home, and receiving government support, so that she can mother her children.

The analogy fails on several grounds. Here's some just off the top of my head:

1. Cindy's situation is unplanned, unwanted, unfortunate, and she hopes to get out of it one day - and there's no reason why she shouldn't. She is not part of a community that plans, desires, and idealizes such a situation for everyone, and makes it very difficult to get out of it.

2. Motherhood is something valued by everyone. Mass kollel is not. (It's not being a religious Jew that we're discussing - plenty of people who work are also religious Jews.)

3. Cindy is presumably appreciative for the aid. She's not part of a movement that disparages the government, refuses to serve in the army even in times of great national danger, and refuses to display any gratitude to those who defend her and those who financially support her.

4. Cindy is raising her children to be productive citizens, not to also require welfare.

But I was most taken aback by a single key sentence in the article, where Rabbi Shafran spells out why the government, and ultimately the other citizens of Israel, should support the charedi mass-kollel lifestyle:
And a country that calls itself the Jewish one, it can well be argued, has a special responsibility to underwrite the portion of its populace that is willfully destitute because of its dedication to perpetuating classical Judaism.
The charedi community is not willfully destitute because of its dedication to perpetuating classical Judaism. In classical Judaism - both in sources in the Gemara and Rishonim, and in actual Jewish history - people worked to support their families. Following the directives of Chazal, people raised their children with the skills, the desire and the motivation to work for a living. There was no system of mass kollel.

The charedi community is not willfully destitute because of its dedication to perpetuating classical Judaism. It is willfully destitute because of its dedication to perverting classical Judaism.

(On a lighter note, check out this video that I took of foxes outside my house!)

Monday, June 24, 2013

From Non-Disprovable to Possible to Probable to True

I know that many people have no interest in rabbits and hyraxes. But if you're interested in the conflict between rational and irrational thought, it's worth following our critique of Isaac Betech's book on the shafan, which is of no contribution to Biblical zoology, and of no interest as such, but is fascinating as a case-study in irrational thought.

In the first post, we discussed the fallacy of seeing his book as a search for truth. In this post, we will examine another aspect of his epistemology.

A hallmark of anti-rationalists in general, and Isaac Betech in particular, is the inability to grasp the concept of reasonability. In their mind, if something is remotely possible, then it is just as viable as something that is very probable. If something cannot be categorically disproved, then they see no reason not to believe it.

A prime example from anti-rationalists in general would be the spontaneous generation of lice. Many (though not all) anti-rationalists get around by saying that it can't be categorically proven that no insect spontaneously generates; all that can be said is that we've never seen it. Prof. Herman Branover (a physicist who was influenced by the Lubavitcher rebbe), and Rabbi J. David Bleich, made this absurd claim. Of course, we also cannot categorically disprove the existence of a giant invisible pink fairy in Manhattan, but that doesn't mean that it's reasonable to believe that it exists!

I've found three examples of this way of thinking with Isaac Betech, so far.

A) Betech asserts that the rabbit matches the description of the shafan given by the Spanish Rishonim. I pointed out that this is irrelevant, since their opinion was simply based on the local fauna with which they were familiar, not a mesorah from Biblical Israel. After I pushed him on it, Betech admitted that it's only possible that the Spanish Rishonim had a mesorah from Biblical Israel as to the identity of the shafan. (I provided arguments that it isn't even a plausible possibility.) Yet he transforms their descriptions of the shafan into criteria that must be matched! (See this comment.)

B) One major objection to identifying the shafan as the rabbit is that there were no rabbits in Biblical Israel, according to experts in the field. Betech spends several pages arguing why he believes that their conclusions, based on the fossil record and species distribution, are not conclusive. On p. 97 he writes that " my humble opinion an objective reader cannot find the published information sufficient to rule out the existence of rabbits' fossils from ancient Israel."

Now, let's put aside the hilarity of Betech considering himself (rather than zoologists and zooarcheologists, who have no horse in this race) to be an "objective reader." What does it mean that one "cannot find the published information sufficient to rule out the existence of rabbits' fossils from ancient Israel"? Does this mean that it is faintly possible that zooarcheologists are wrong, and that rabbits lived in ancient Israel, but it is most likely that they are correct and rabbits did not live in ancient Israel? Or does it mean that it is likely, or even near-proven, that rabbits lived in ancient Israel? It ought to mean, at most, the former - but he seems to take it to mean the latter!

C) Another major objection to identifying the shafan as the rabbit is that Rav Saadiah Gaon identifies the shafan as the wabr, which is the Arabic name for the hyrax. Furthermore, is the most authoritative classical Jewish source - from a rationalist perspective, due to where he lived, and from a non-rationalist perspective, due to his being the earliest authority to discuss it. Betech discounts this on the following grounds, to which I am appending my responses in parenthesis:
1) Maybe he originally identified it as a rabbit, and a copyist changed it to a hyrax! (Too silly to even respond to.)
2) Wabr is based on a root meaning "hairy" - maybe it refers to a different hairy animal! (And dov is based on a root meaning "movement." So maybe Elisha's honor was avenged not by two bears, but by two elephants, which are also animals that move! But in any case, "hairy" is an alternate meaning for wabr, and it is not the meaning that Rav Saadiah Gaon is using. In medieval times, wabr meant "hyrax.")
3) Even if wabr meant "hyrax" in Rav Saadiah's era, maybe the name "hyrax" meant something else instead! (This makes no sense whatsoever.)
4) Maybe he was referring to rabbits, which are also hairy! (So are yaks, but there's no reason to think that he was talking about those, either.)
5) A near contemporary of Rav Saadiah, Ibn Janach, identified the wabr as the rabbit! (Yes, because he lived in Spain! See R. Josh Waxman's excellent post, That Wascally Wabr)
6) Ibn Ezra challenges the reliability of Rav Saadiah's animal identifications! (And no doubt Rav Saadiah would do the same for Ibn Ezra. So what? The fact is that Rav Saadiah is more reliable, since he lived in the right area!)

Anyway, after listing all these weak suggestions, Betech summarizes (p. 104): "...I do not know of any decisive proof that Rav Saadia Gaon translated shafan as hyrax."
What on earth does this mean? Is he saying that while it is overwhelmingly probable that Rav Saadiah is referring to the hyrax, it is not absolutely proven? Or is he saying that there is very little reason to believe that Rav Saadiah was referring to the hyrax? He seems to take it to mean that there is no reason to believe that Rav Saadiah was referring to the hyrax! This is evident from chapters 2 and 4, where he presents the views of Spanish Rishonim as sources that must be reconciled with the shafan and are matched by the rabbit, but he does not include the view of Rav Saadiah as a source that is not matched by the rabbit!

As I said, Betech's book is absolutely fascinating as a case-study in irrational thought.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

When Is An Apology Not An Apology?

During the controversial controversy over my books, a certain former friend, whom we shall call Mr. X, in conjunction with a certain rabbi, was urging me to issue a public retraction/ apology for my books. It's not that Mr. X thought that my books were actually heretical; indeed, Mr. X himself believed that the world is billions of years old, and he did not believe in Chazal's descriptions of spontaneous generation. But Mr. X urged me to issue a partial apology, for errors in "tone" or "expression," as a tactical move, in order to defuse the controversy, and prevent damage to myself and others.

A rav that I was consulting didn't agree. He told me that there's no point issuing a partial apology - my opponents would be satisfied with nothing less than a complete capitulation, that my books are utter heresy. And a complete capitulation, while serving the interests of many rabbis/ charedi apologists associated with me or my books, would not be beneficial to me or to the people who so strongly identify with the rationalist approach. He told me that the people pushing me to apologize were looking out for their own best interests, not mine. I'd be compromising my integrity for no benefit to the people that count. And if I have to suffer the results, so be it.

I didn't apologize. In retrospect, I believe that the rav was completely correct, and I'm glad that I listened to him. But Mr. X was furious with me for not following his advice. In a public lecture that he later gave about the ban on my books, he criticized me as "a person who is not willing to listen to anyone."

(Of course, there are times when one should apologize even if one does not feel sorry - such as for shalom bayis. I am not referring to such cases.)

I was reminded of this when thinking about certain recent "apologies" that are not genuine apologies at all; instead they are just tactical moves to deflect opposition. This alone is disturbing enough; what makes it sadder is that some naive people seize upon these as examples of the moral greatness of the person issuing the apology. Whereas in fact, it doesn't demonstrate any moral greatness - just political wiliness.

How can one tell if an apology is sincere or merely a ploy? It's not always possible, of course. But sometimes there are clues that give it away.

First was Rabbi Avi Shafran's apology for his infamous article in which he said that Bernie Madoff is more worthy of respect than Captain Sully (because Sully was just doing his job, whereas Madoff went beyond expectations in apologizing). When there was uproar at this dangerously insane article, and many people calling for Rabbi Shafran to be fired from Agudas Yisrael, he issued an apology, but it seemed rather tepid. He spoke about having used an "unsuitable example" instead of admitting that the core idea was wrong. My suspicions about the insincere nature of the apology were confirmed when, in a personal email to me, he told me with pride about all the positive comments he had gotten on the article and about how he would love to discuss it one day.

Second was Leib Tropper's apology for having used his position at the top of a geirus organization to take advantage of female converts for the benefit of himself and others. His apology was carefully worded to not even be an explicit admission of guilt, despite the fact that audio and video recordings of his activities were freely available on YouTube. And I recently discovered that his devoted disciples still believe, presumably with his encouragement, that he never did anything, and that the recordings were elaborate fakes engineered by powerful adversaries.

But now we have perhaps the ultimate example of an insincere apology that is just a tactical maneuver. I'm referring, of course, to Jonathan Rosenblum's apology for slandering Rabbi Dov Lipman, as discussed in a previous post. Rosenblum, I'm told, received a tremendous amount of heat, with several people publicly responding and pointing out that his accusations were based on gross factual inaccuracies.

Rosenblum's apology starts out great. He goes into full details about his factual errors. He admits that "he had no business to make any assumptions, and certainly not to publish them, without clarifying the situation." He apologies to Rabbi Lipman and Mrs. Wolfson "for wrongly characterizing their actions as provocative, and for not having done adequate research."

Of course, one can ask, as did Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, "I think it is important to examine how Jonathan Rosenblum, who 'had no business to make any assumptions, and certainly not to publish them, without clarifying the situation' did exactly that." A neighbor of mine, Menachem Lipkin, pointed out that, to make matters worse, he had already given Rosenblum the correct information a long time ago:
Rosenblum talks about the “assumptions” he made and how they were wrong. However, he and I had an ongoing email/phone exchange during the the Fall of 2011 when all this was going on. I gave him great detail of what was going on. I sent him a highlighted a map of the area showing him all the relevant buildings, “zones”, etc. I urged him to come down and I’d give him a tour of the area. I also urged him speak directly with Rabbi Lipman (who was not yet the “evil” man the Chareidi media has made him out to be). He did neither. Even articles he wrote at the time had factual errors which I pointed out to him.

Rosenblum makes an interesting statement: "For a Torah Jew, 'We regret the error' is insufficient." I'd expect that to mean that for a Torah Jew, it's not enough simply to issue an apology. There must be genuine contrition, a sincere effort to make amends with the victim, introspection as to how one did such a thing, and a change in one's ways.

Unfortunately, it seems that I misunderstood him. After a brief diversion to criticizing Yesh Atid, Rosenblum returns to yet another all-out attack on Dov Lipman. And to quote Menachem Lipkin:
Even if one accepts his "apology", he can barely get through the article before repeating the very transgression he so narrowly apologized for in the first place!
From JR’s “rebuttal” section:
“SADLY, RABBI LIPMAN has done little himself to provide secular Israelis in his party or beyond with a greater appreciation of the joy, the intellectual stimulation, or the cosmic power of Torah learning.”
From an assistant in Dov Lipman’s office:
1) E-mail Dov received from someone chiloni “True Story: I met on Friday afternoon with two successful young Israeli entrepreneurs — both secular IDC graduates and IDF special forces veterans. The issue of them having a meeting on Saturday (as they were leaving NYC Sunday morning) came up — and one said that he would not meet on Shabbat. He explained that he usually would have done so, as religion to him was personified by the haredi who did not share his values and with whom he did not identify at all. Then, he explained, Yesh Atid came along, with the Rabbi Dov Lipman — and showed him that he could embrace Judaism…that it was now owned and controlled by those with whom he disagreed so profoundly.”
2) Yesh Atid started the weekly Bet Midrash for MK’s – the first in the history of the Knesset. Every Tuesday at 3:00p.m. religious and secular MK’s study a section of Torah together and Dov is a regular contributor.
3) After a speech in a Jerusalem bar a girl raised her hand and said to Dov – “I just want you to know that you make me want to be more Jewish.”
4) Dov speaks a few times a week to secular students visiting the Knesset and each time he emphasizes the value of Torah study and he emphasizes the message of secular people respecting religious and vice versa.
5) After speaking in a bar in Tel Aviv, the young college students said that they never met someone chareidi who respected them and Dov explained that most chareidim would not force their ways on them. The outgrowth of that event was a Knesset taskforce for dialogue between chareidim and chilonim which Dov chairs.
Furthermore, if Rosenblum genuinely regrets having been motzi shem ra on Dov Lipman, then why on earth does his apology only appear on Cross-Currents, and not in Yated, where the original motzi shem ra appeared? In a heated email exchange that I had with Rosenblum last week, I asked him that question twice, and he did not respond. I also posted this question on Cross-Currents, but my comment was rejected. Since at least last Sunday, Rosenblum was aware that his accusations against Dov Lipman were false - plenty of time to put a retraction in the Yated, if he was genuinely sorry.

All of the above confirms a rule that I posted about a long time ago, which is neatly revealed in a statement that Rosenblum makes immediately following his expression of moral regret:
THAT HALACHIC AND JOURNALISTIC failure was a double patch in panim [smack in the face], resulting not only in a loss of credibility but serving to distract attention from the very real issues that divide me and Rabbi Lipman, who is now an MK in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.
Whenever someone gives two reasons for something, it's always the second reason that is the real reason. The first reason is given because it sounds better.

Rosenblum's expression of regret for a moral failure, a sin of bein adam l'chavero, was only urgently issued to Cross-Currents readers, not Yated readers. It was followed by exactly the same sin of motzi shem ra all over again. Because it wasn't a sincere apology at all - just a tactical maneuver, in order to enable Rosenblum to repair and reinforce his attack on Yesh Atid, and Dov Lipman.

Oh, and to return the story that I opened this post with. The real name of Mr. X who was urging me to apologize for my books, as a tactical move? I'm sure you can guess.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Quest for Truth: A Fascinating Case Study

I just received a copy of Dr. Isaac Betech's new book The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan. It's fascinating and invaluable - as a case study in anti-rationalism. As a work of Biblical zoology, on the other hand, it's completely useless.

(Some background for non-regular readers: Dr. Isaac Betech is a Mexican pediatrician who is a staunch anti-rationalist - campaigning that evolution is false, the universe is 5773 years old, Chazal knew modern science, etc. He was one of the people involved in engineering the ban on my books. He is also notorious for his style of debate, in which he avoids giving direct answers to direct questions.)

I'll be analyzing several aspects of his book, over several posts. The great thing about his book is that it has lots of haskamos (approbations) from charedi rabbonim, and thus our analysis will be very revealing not only about Dr. Betech himself, but also about them. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective), the book is virtually unreadable - it's a messy mixture of English, Hebrew, Spanish, bold, italics, poor formatting, and poor layout, quite aside from the eccentric writing style and specious argumentation.

Upon reading the book, I was reminded of something. Several years ago, I saw a brochure that was seeking to raise funding for a book refuting challenges to the Divinity of Torah from archeology. At one point, the brochure spoke about how archeologists are blinded to the truth by their anti-religious agenda, whereas the project being funded would have no such biases and would be objective. The laughable nature of this claim was exacerbated a hundredfold by the accompanying graphic, which featured some decorative text: Moshe Emes v'Toraso Emes!

As I told the rabbi who prepared the brochure: If you want to claim that secular archeologists have an anti-religious agenda, fine. But don't pretend that you're even remotely objective!

Betech's book is the same thing. In the introduction, he stresses that any mistake is to be attributed to him alone, and not chas veshalom to the G-d given Torah and Talmudic knowledge. His clear starting point is that the Torah, and the Gemara, and even the Rishonim, must all be scientifically correct. (Thus, there must be only four animals with one kosher sign, and the European Rishonim must be correct that the shafan is the rabbit.) And in the conclusion and epilogue, Betech expresses gratitude that he has been able to accomplish his goal, of solving any "seeming contradiction" between Torah or Talmudic statements and scientific knowledge.

Well, obviously!

If your starting point is the infallibility of Torah/ Chazal/ Rishonim, and your goal is to demonstrate that belief, then obviously you will find a way to convince yourself that you have done that. In anything apart from rigid mathematics, it's always possible to contrive some sort of skewed argument, whether that the moon landing is a hoax, Christianity is true, or evolution is false. If you have a passionate commitment, then reason can go out of the window.

Note that I am not saying that because Betech is biased, therefore his arguments are wrong. (See my very important post on The Seven Principles of Bias.) I'll be devoting other posts to explaining why his arguments are wrong. Rather, my point here is that his bias is so obvious, broad and overwhelming, that it is inevitable that he will find some sort of argument, whether strong, weak or utterly fallacious. It is absurd to see this book as any kind of scientific investigation, where the outcome is not decided in advance.

You can either be committed to discovering truth - to whatever evidence, logic and reason shows - or you can be committed to dogmas. But you can't be committed to both, within the same investigation!

The rabbonim who wrote approbations don't seem to realize this. They praise the book as being a search for truth, while simultaneously acknowledging (and praising) the book having a strong religious agenda! Rav Belsky writes about how the book strives for truth, and to show how Torah sages are correct and without error. Rav Aharon Feldman claims that the book "displays both an honest quest for truth as well as reverence for the words of the Sages." Rav Aharon Schechter writes about how Betech is driven to search for truth - by his fear of God!

As discussed in previous posts, and as I will show in future posts, Betech's arguments are unreasonable to the point of absurdity. But it's not surprising that these rabbonim, hacharedim l'dvar Hashem, found them to be convincing. After all, they confirmed everything that they were desperate to have confirmed!

I'll conclude with just one example. Several of Betech's arguments for the shafan being the rabbit (pp. 79-83) are that the rabbit perfectly matches the description given by the great Rishonim of Europe - long ears, etc. This is, of course, ridiculous - naturally the Rishonim of Europe thought that the shafan was the rabbit, because they were only familiar with rabbits and had never heard of hyraxes! And not only does Betech ignore this point (which I had already raised to him before his book went to press) - he makes it into an argument as to why the shafan cannot be the hyrax! He argues (p. 130) that one of the Spanish Rishonim noted that the shafan is abundant in Spain - and therefore it can't be the hyrax, which is non-existent in Spain!

You might as well prove that olives used to be gigantic from the fact that the French Rishonim gave a huge shiur for the kezayis!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mazeltov - The Wild Animals Are Finished!

I'm thrilled to announce that, after twelve years, 150,000 words, and a lot of distractions, I have finally completed the first volume of The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, on wild animals. I haven't yet decided which publisher/ distributor I am using, but I have had several offers. Actually, I nearly signed a contract for it with ArtScroll, twelve years ago, but I backed out at the last minute! There's another publisher that I am leaning strongly towards, and I will be making a final decision very soon. Of course, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of editing, preparing the indexes, choosing the photos, doing the layout, etc., etc. But I'm hoping that it will come out in about a year. (If you would like to volunteer to review part of the manuscript, and you know me personally, please write to me.)

There were many difficult decisions that I had to make along the way. What is a yachmor and a zemer? Should the dog be in the volume on chayos, or behemos? Is the kelev hayam a seal or an otter? How should I handle statements about animals that are in conflict with modern zoology?

Hopefully, I made the right judgement in these cases. There are a few tricky decisions that I still have to make, and which may affect my choice of publisher/ distributor. Unlike my books on Torah and science, this is a work that is suitable for, and will be of interest and benefit to, a very broad audience, from entirely secular to charedi. But, depending on how it is packaged, it may lose readership from some circles. Let me give a primary example, which might seem silly, but is in fact of great significance. Which system of transliteration should be employed? "Shabbos" or "Shabbat," "Avos d'Rabbi Nosson" or "Avot d'Rabbi Natan"? Decisions such as these affect which type of people will buy the book.

Here are some factors to consider:
- There are probably more potential readers on the "right."
- People on the right are more likely to be put off by Sephardic transliteration than people on the left are by Ashkenazis transliteration (since they all use Artscroll anyway).
But on the other hand, perhaps it's important for the centrist/ Zionist Orthodox community to be strengthened via increased use of non-Artscroll style transliteration.

Then there's the similar, but not identical, question about referring to names of people and sources. Should it quote Jeremiah or Yirmiyah, Iyov or Job, Bamidbar or Numbers, Bereishis Rabbah or Genesis Rabbah? Here, too, there are factors both ways. People on the right probably all can adapt to the secularized transliteration, but secular Jews may not be able to adapt to the more literal Hebrew transliteration. But on the other hand, the secularized transliteration gives the book a certain feel that might dissuade more right-wing readers from reading it.

Then there are other decisions to be made. Should it include Hebrew text for the pesukim? (Probably, yes.) How about for the citations from the Gemara and Midrash? (Probably not.)

Decisions, decisions! Meanwhile, you can download the table of contents, and two sample chapters, at this link. Dedication/ sponsorship opportunities are also available; please see this link.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bear Season

It's certainly understandable that the charedi community has great hostility towards Rabbi Dov Lipman. Unfortunately, that appears to have translated into a declaration of open season upon him - including interpreting his statements in the most negative way possible, and outright lies about his activities.

A while ago, we had Rav Aharon Feldman condemn Lipman as a rasha. He subsequently sort-of apologized, saying that he had since learned that Lipman truly believes that he is doing the right thing in trying to get charedim to receive a minimal secular education, and is not acting out of wickedness.

But why couldn't he figure this out in the first place? Even a minimal amount of research on Dov Lipman reveals that he is a very idealistic person, who puts himself out to improve society. And is it so unthinkable that a person might, for altruistic reasons, want charedim to be able to support their families?

But the real nasty hatchet job on Lipman was performed by Jonathan Rosenblum in Yated last week.

Rosenblum began by referring to Lipman's famous/infamous remark upon seeing an elderly street cleaner - “Why couldn’t a yeshiva student be doing that?” Rosenblum presented this as an example of contempt for Torah learning.

Now, for the record, I think that it was a huge mistake for Lipman to say what he said. But is there really no possible interpretation other than that it reflects contempt for Torah learning? It couldn't be that Lipman simply feels that yeshivah students, instead of focusing only on Gemara, could also work on chessed projects? In one charedi yeshivah where I spent many formative years, the emphasis was only on Gemara, to the extent that when a badly handicapped person in the neighborhood needed daily assistance, some "top bochrim" refused to help, saying that it was "bittul Torah" and best performed by lesser students. Conversely, the wonderful yeshivah where I teach part-time, Lev HaTorah, strongly encourages all students to take on chessed projects for the community, as part of becoming better Jews. Does this mean that they have "contempt for Torah"? Of course not. And why not assume the same for Lipman, who, as someone who spent most of his career as a yeshivah rebbe (and himself volunteered for street cleaning), clearly does not have "contempt for Torah"!

Rosenblum proceeds to describe a video in which 
"Lipman is seen leading a woman whose attire was guaranteed to provoke an angry response past a shul in the “Yerushalmi” neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh. Just in case she failed in her task, he thrust his arms triumphantly in the air numerous times to provoke the desired response for this bit of filmed street theater."

What a sneaky, dishonest account. The distortions are so densely packed into this that it has to be fisked.

Let's first discuss the description of the woman wearing "attire guaranteed to provoke an angry response." He gives the impression that she was wearing a halter top and shorts. In fact, she had sleeves (albeit above the elbow), a long skirt, and her hair was covered (albeit only with a hat). This is exactly how many women in the neighborhood dress, especially on that street, where they have lived for many years, before any Yerushalmis moved into the neighborhood.

More to the point, Lipman was not "leading" her "past a shul" in a "Yerushalmi neighborhood" in a provocative act of "street theater" with the "task" of provoking an angry response. I happen to live just a few minutes away, so I know the facts.

It is an apartment block, not a shul. It is not a "Yerushalmi neighborhood." It's a street that connects a dati-leumi school with a dati-leumi neighborhood. (Recently, charedi apartment buildings were built on one side, facing the previously-existing dati-leumi neighborhood.) 

Walking along this street is something that dati-leumi residents have been doing for over fifteen years, long before any charedim moved in to the area. Unfortunately, when their school (which had been planned for years) was opened, certain charedi residents (who had only recently moved in) decided that it was their turf, and harassed dati-leumi people walking past, including children. (Similar harassment of children has occurred in my own neighborhood.) And so many dati-leumi people decided to walk along that road - in their own neighborhood - to make it clear that they would not tolerate this kind of intimidation of children. And it wasn't a performance for "filmed street theater" - it just happened that one of the local residents involved in the daily walk spontaneously decided to show the world what happens here on a regular basis. It wasn't "provoking" anything - the charedim were out there yelling even before Lipman arrived on the scene.

As for Lipman thrusting his arms into the air - how on earth does Rosenblum know that this was to provoke a desired response? Is he a mind-reader? Maybe it was a reaction to an approaching hostile group, to show that he wasn't intimidated? Maybe it was a nervous or quasi-playful gesture, to make light of their insults and curses? Why does Rosenblum feel an obligation to judge it in the worst possible light?

And for all Rosenblum's condemnation of "provocations" and his dismissal of Lipman as a peacemaker, with Rosenblum claiming that the problem had already been largely resolved, the facts are otherwise. The chareidi mayor of Bet Shemesh was all for giving in to the zealots and removing the school from the dati-leumi population that it had been promised for. The only reason why the dati-leumi community was able to keep their school - and that the protests eventually died down - was that they took a strong stand and did not give in to intimidation.

Amazingly, Rosenblum says in this very article that people should only have opinions on matters when they are intimately familiar with the local situation. (Yes, I am aware of the irony of that position being stated in a publication that idolizes Gedolim who are famous for giving rulings for situations of which they have no knowledge.) Why doesn't that apply to him?

Rosenblum's main point is that the RCA should not have Lipman speak at their convention, due to guilt by association. But if he believes in guilt by association, and he's writing in Yated, then why doesn't he mention anything about the Satmar rally, featured in the same issue, in which Lithuanian Gedolim sat at a dais where speakers described Israel as an "evil regime," and talking about how “the very existence of the state is a rebellion against God” and about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling”?

The basic problem is that Rosenblum and co. try to make the focus all about the personalities of Dov Lipman, Lapid and Bennet. But what about R. David Friedman of Karlin, who also wrote about how charedim in Israel should receive secular education to prepare them for employment? Was he also motivated by hatred of Torah? (Rosenblum claims that the issue is less about math and English than it is over ceding curricular control of chareidi schools to secular authorities. I'll believe that when I see some independent charedi interest in teaching math and English.)

It reminds me of the time that Rosenblum was speaking to a secular audience about the ban on my books. He did not reveal that the Gedolim insist that the world is a few thousand years old, that the Sages of the Talmud were scientifically infallible, and that the rationalist approach of the Rishonim is forbidden and/or heretical. Instead, Rosenblum launched a personal attack on me - as if my personality was the issue at stake.

Even Rosenblum himself agrees that the charedi community in Israel has a huge problem with mass kollel and underemployment, describing kollel as "chemotherapy". And not everyone will agree with his spin about how the Gedolim secretly agree with him. The charedi community is taking steps to deal with it; but many people see these as relatively miniscule, painfully slow, and woefully inadequate. It may - may - be strategically unwise for the government to force the issue, but it's not evil or anti-Torah.

Slandering people, on the other hand, is most certainly evil and anti-Torah.

UPDATE: See Rabbi Lipman's response at

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Karma and Chameleons

Upon arriving home one day last week, my wife told me that someone had been desperately trying to reach me. "Something to do with animals," she said, rolling her eyes. I had barely been in the house for a few minutes when he called again.

"Someone told me that you keep exotic animals... do you have a female chameleon?" he asked.

As it happens, I do have a female chameleon. Since chameleons are mentioned in parashas Shemini, I keep them in my nascent museum. But it's not the Israeli variety, which is illegal to catch, and fares very poorly in captivity. Instead, it's a very unusual variety from Africa, known as Jackson's three-horned chameleon, and in Israel, it's priceless and near-irreplaceable. It's not for sale, I told him. I was surprised that he wanted one; it's unusual for someone to attempt to breed chameleons. Which is the only reason why someone would specifically want a female chameleon, right?


He told me that he didn't want a female chameleon for breeding purposes. Nor to keep as a pet. He wanted it for a reason that you'd never, ever guess, not in a million years.

He wanted it to cure someone's cancer.

When I found my tongue again, I tried to explain to him that female chameleons don't cure cancer. But he wasn't interested in hearing what I had to say.

There are others cases of belief that diseases can be moved from people to animals. In Jerusalem, there are "kabbalists" who "transfer" jaundice from people to pigeons, provided that the pigeon is of the same gender as the person. But as Dr. Fred Rosner notes, it appears that the pigeons die not from absorbing the jaundice, but from being crushed in the hands of the healer. And the patient recovers because - well, people sometimes recover, especially with the help of a powerful placebo.

There is also a long-standing belief in the ability of lizards to cure disease. In 18th century America, doctors recommended that cancer patients swallow several lizards daily. My famous Stincus marinus is known in Hebrew as the "pharmaceutical skink" due to the ancient belief in its curative powers, and dead specimens can still be purchased today in the Arab shuk for this purpose. Certain types of geckos are recently being caught in vast quantities, due to a belief that they cure cancer and AIDS.

Some people will doubtless latch on to a news report that a certain compound produced by pregnant lizards may provide important information on the origins and treatment of cancer in humans. But this has nothing to do with curing cancer via eating a lizard, or placing it on a person!

I find the whole matter rather sad. I remember that when my father, z"l, was dying of cancer, the oncologist warned us against resorting to quackery. People in such situations are often so desperate that they try anything to change their karma. And others, sensing vulnerability, come out of the woodwork to peddle their snake-oil, and in some cases they have convinced themselves of its efficacy. At the time, someone called me to tell me about a special tefillah that works wonders in such cases. "Great!" I said. "What is it?" No, he said, it only works if he says it. "Okay," I said, "go ahead!" No, he said, he doesn't do it for free, only for payment. "Okay," I said, "but do I get a refund if my father doesn't recover?" No, he said, he can't absolutely guarantee that it works in every case. But he knew for sure that it was very powerful! A friend of mine told me that when his mother was dying of cancer, a rabbi tried to sell them mushrooms, for thousands of dollars, that would cure it.

Can it be categorically proven that chameleons and geckos and mushrooms don't cure cancer? No, of course not. But it also can't be categorically proven that there is no giant invisible pink fairy in Manhattan. The point is not whether something can be categorically disproved. It is whether there is the slightest reasonable basis to believe that it is true, such as to justify investing time, money and hope. The last one is tricky - placebos can be very powerful, and hope can be beneficial. Still, it has to be weighed against the costs, including the cost of false hope.

Cancer is a horrible, horrible illness. Sometimes, it can be cured. And sometimes, it can't - and chameleons won't change your karma. We are not in control of what happens to us - only of how we react to it.

(On a lighter note, check out my post about a penguin ba'al teshuvah, over at the Zoo Torah blog.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

An Enemy Worth Fighting Against

Sunday saw 20,000 Satmar Chassidim hold a protest rally in Manhattan against the proposed draft of yeshivah students into the IDF. Regardless of what one thinks about yeshivah students being drafted, the protest was, of course, a horrible idea, for reasons discussed previously. To hold a protest in Jerusalem is one thing - but to hold one in Manhattan? To join forces with Satmar, for whom the event is effectively a hatefest against the State of Israel in general? To empower those who claim that Israel is religiously intolerant? To sit at a dais where the speakers are describing Israel as an "evil regime," and talking about how “the very existence of the state is a rebellion against God” and about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling”?!

Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and other mainstream American charedi Litvishe figures, including the Lakewood establishment, were not in favor of the rally, following instructions from Rav Chaim Kanievsky. (It's rather sad that leaders of the charedi community in the US feel a need to say that they are following instructions from Israel.) This was despite Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel claiming that Rav Kanievsky supported the rally, and even a letter of support from Rav Kanievksy - subsequently ingeniously revealed to be a clever forgery.

However, the Satmar rabbis on the dais were joined by a small number of the more extremist Litvishe roshei yeshivah. The list reads like a who's who of people who were involved with the campaign against my books - Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Aharon Schechter, etc. Rabbi Moshe Meiselman was also there (he's on the left in the picture), which doubtless comes as a great shock to some supporters of Toras Moshe and other people who, inexplicably, see him as some sort of moderate, mainstream figure.

Anyway, I would like to comment on one of the flyers that was distributed, urging people to attend the event - which presumably means leaving the Beis HaMidrash to do so. It stresses the gravity of the situation, that Torah students in Israel are threatened with being forced away from the study of Torah, the real lifeblood and protection of the Jewish Nation. It urges those in the United States to join forces with their brethren in Eretz Yisrael who are battling this threat. And, right at the top of the flyer, it quotes a passuk from the Torah for a rallying cry:

"Shall your brothers go to war, while you sit here?"

Yes, you read that correctly. The very words stated by Moshe Rabbeinu in order to urge the tribes of Gad and Reuven to join the rest of the nation in the army, are being used here to urge people to protest against joining the rest of the nation in the army! Alas, the irony appears lost on them. Incredibly, it appears that they genuinely did not realize that the passuk means the exact opposite of how they employed it.

The flyer, and indeed the event itself, are extremely revealing. Charedim claim exemption from military service on the grounds that their Torah study provides the true protection. But, as we have noted on several previous occasions, they don't really believe that at all. When it comes to a cause that they really support - an enemy that is truly important for them to fight against - they don't trust in their Torah to help. Instead, they leave the Beis HaMidrash and resort to regular, secular methods of battle: protest rallies at sites of secular significance.

There's another point of interest in the flyer. It declares that Klal Yisrael is united, as one man with one heart, in support of this rally. Now, that might sound odd, in light of the fact that not only was this rally not supported by Reform, Conservative, secular, Modern Orthodox, or national-religious Jews, but it wasn't even supported by most charedi Jews. However, the fact is that Satmar and their ilk simply do not see these others as actually being part of Klal Yisrael, to all intents and purposes. Which, as I discussed in my post The Tragedy Of Segregation, is an unfortunate, but all too common, feature of ultra-Orthodoxy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Another Letter To Yated

To the Editor:

In “The Identity of the Israeli People is at Stake - Understanding the Current Situation in Eretz Yisroel" (Wednesday, May 08, 2013), Rabbi Moshe Meiselman writes that "On Lag Ba’omer, Naftali Bennett visited Bnei Brak and declared that the lifestyle of the chareidi community is a greater existential threat to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat." That is truly a shocking report, and one that would make it understandable that Rabbi Meiselman describes Naftali Bennett as an "enemy."

However, it turns out that Naftali Bennett said nothing of the sort.

What he actually said was that "the inclusion of tens of thousands of Chareidim to the workforce - with love - is a national goal, exactly like stopping the Iranian nuclear threat."

He did not say that that the lifestyle of the chareidi community is a greater existential threat to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat. He did not even say that that the lifestyle of the chareidi community is an equal existential threat to Israel with the Iranian nuclear threat. He did not even speak about a "threat" at all, existential or otherwise. Rather, while speaking with joy at an institute that provides professional training to chareidim, he said that helping many chareidim enter the workforce (just as they do in the United States) is a national goal of great importance to the entire country, in the same way as stopping the nuclear threat from Iran is a national goal of great importance to the entire country.

It would behoove Rabbi Meiselman, and your newspaper, to retract the falsification of MK Bennett's words, and the resultant motzi shem ra.

Natan Slifkin

(Note to my readers: Thanks to Chopping Wood for pointing out this distortion; see there for further analysis of Rabbi Meiselman's letter. Yated will not be publishing either this or my previous letter; aside from the obvious reasons, their policy is not to publish letters that are also posted to the internet.)

Friday, June 7, 2013

No Other Possible Reason?

There is much to criticize with the charedi editorials and op-eds about the desire of the majority of Israel for the charedim to share the military and economic burden. But one of the most astounding aspects is the constant claim about how this is motivated by some deep-rooted hatred of charedim, which is ultimately hatred of Torah. To give but one of countless examples, here is Rabbi Moshe Grylak in Mishpacha magazine:
Those who plot against the Torah world today are motivated by the same animosity that has long stirred in the hearts of the nations. They can’t enjoy their Western liberalism and self-centered individualism in peace, because the presence of Torah gets in the way of a new permissive society unfettered by Judaism. So, sensing where their values have led them, they can only justify themselves by striking out at those who won’t let them sleep in peace.

Really? Is there no other possible reason why people would want charedim to serve in the army and to enter the workforce? You can't conceive of anything else?

The really incredible thing is that charedim use extremely hateful words against Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet, and especially R. Dov Lipman, whom Rav Aharon Feldman called a rasha (before sort-of apologizing) but then, in an op-ed at, they insist that they don't actually hate him at all. If they claim that charedim don’t hate R. Dov Lipman, despite the hateful words used about him, then why are they so sure that he hates charedim, even though he has not used hateful words about them? (I tried posting this in a comment at Matzav, but it was not accepted for publication.)

Why can't it be that the rest of Israel is worried about the economic future of a country in which there is massive under-employment? Why can't it be that people justifiably resent the fact that they send their sons to the army for three years, while charedim sit in yeshivos and don't show the slightest hakaras hatov for the sacrifices made on their behalf? Why can't it be that people think it's a disaster for the country when a rapidly-growing sector of the population demands to bring up their children with zero secular education and zero desire to enter the workforce? Why can't it be that people resent having to give money to a large segment of the population that claims a right to be vastly underemployed, to have 90% discounts on taxes, and to be subsidized by everyone else? (These astonishing demands were made explicitly and shamelessly by popular chareidi writer Chaim Walder and UTJ Knesset Member Rabbi Meir Porush.)

And if "sharing the burden" is all about hatred of Torah, then why do many Torah scholars, and even people in the charedi world, feel the same way?

Perhaps it is precisely because the "share the burden" demand is so obvious, so reasonable, and so consistent with classical Judaism, that the charedim have to come up with absurd charges of "hatred of Torah" in response.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Providence and Lion Attacks

Although this website is called "Rationalist Judaism," I have never personally claimed to be a perfect rationalist; instead, I usually describe myself as "rationalistically inclined." There are certain issues with which I simply can't personally adhere to the rationalist approach. One of them is providence.

As I discussed in The Challenge Of Creation, from a rationalist standpoint, personal providence is to be downplayed. Pre-hassidic rabbinic authorities generally did not see everything as being bashert. And I'm also aware of how easy it is for the human mind to see pattern and significance in that which, statistically speaking, contains none.

But I can't help how I feel. Quite simply, I really strongly feel a tremendous amount of divine providence in my own life. I'm not just talking about all the various blessings that I enjoy as a result of how my life has turned out. I'm not even just talking about the way in which those who campaigned against me experienced their own downfall, which continually unfolds. I'm talking about the way in which, in the course of writing books for the public about Judaism and the natural sciences, obscure but incredibly useful pieces of information find their way to me - sometimes at extraordinarily fortuitous times.

Twelve years ago, I began writing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. At the moment, I am finishing the first volume, on chayos (wild animals). I left writing the chapter on lions until last, even though it appears first in the book, due to its difficulty. Over the last few months I have been completing this chapter, and on Friday I came to a particularly problematic section, regarding how lions hunt.

Zoologists have observed that while the lion’s method of obtaining prey takes many forms, the most common method involves co-operative hunting in which several lions will stalk their prey, fan out, and some will then rush the prey animal and chase it towards the others. Zoological studies also describe lionesses as doing most of the killing of prey, with males enjoying the results of the lionesses’ kills. George Schaller's seminal study of lion behavior, performed in the Serengeti, describes how out of a total of 1,210 lions observed stalking and chasing after their prey, only 3% were males.

Such co-operative stalking and chasing by lionesses is, however, never described in Scripture. Instead, all accounts of lion attacks – most of which are metaphorical, but which should still be using an image drawn from reality – are of solitary male lions that are lying in ambush:
He lies in wait secretly, like a lion in his den; he lies in wait to catch the poor; he catches the poor, when he draws him into his net. (Psalms 10:9)
He is like a lion that is greedy for its prey, and like a young lion lurking in secret places. (Psalms 17:12)
[God] is to me like a bear lying in ambush, and like a lion in secret places. (Lamentations 3:10)
Why does Scripture describe male lions hunting via ambush, if the zoological accounts of hunting involve lionesses hunting via stalking and chasing? This was the problem that I faced on Friday morning.

I stared at these verses on my computer screen, trying to figure out how I would address this topic in my encyclopedia. A burst of inspiration completely failed to enter my head. So I did what I usually do in such situations; I temporarily gave up, and switched windows on my computer in order to take a look at my feeds from various websites. And, lo and behold, there was a headline about a newly published report on lion behavior, which directly addressed this problem.

It turns out that the reason why zoological accounts of lions hunting involve lionesses stalking and chasing their prey is that the zoological studies were, until very recently, necessarily selective. Most studies of lions hunting have taken place in open savannah such as the Serengeti, where it is easy to observe such behavior. But the study that hit the news on Friday utilized GPS devices fitted to lions and laser-based terrain mapping technology. This revealed that while in the open savannah, the hunting is mostly done via lionesses stalking and chasing, in forested regions it is different: male lions hunt alone, via ambushing their prey. (It does not appear that they hunt on behalf of the females, but who knows, perhaps this will yet be demonstrated.)

The reason for this has to do with the physical differences between male and female lions. Males are much more powerfully built, with a heavy mane. This makes them well-suited for fighting other males for control of the pride, but it makes them slower and less agile than females, and the mane harms their ability to camouflage themselves in grass. Whereas lionesses can engage in group hunting involving stalking and speed, male lions must use a technique of ambushing. Such a technique is most effective in dense forest. This terrain is not very common in the African savannah, but there would have been much of it in Biblical Israel, which was much more densely forested than the Israel of today.
The lion has come up from his thicket... a lion from the forest shall slay them… (Jeremiah 4:7, 5:6)
The typical lion attack in Biblical Israel would have been an ambush from a solitary male lion in a thicket, not the stalking and chasing done by groups of lions in the Serengeti. Fabulous!

The timing of my seeing this news report was simply exquisite. That's why I can't be a full-blooded rationalist. Who knows, maybe I should try reciting Perek Shirah as a segulah to get funding for my museum!

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