Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Everyone is Exotic

I have to say, I am very grateful to Hashem for my job. Being the Zoo Rabbi means that I am able to teach in the most incredible settings. Yesterday, my group came to Zambia. We visited Victoria Falls, also known as "The Smoke That Thunders," which was breathtaking. Somehow, a few of us got separated from the rest of the group. Eventually I noticed them on the other side of the ravine, at the extreme right edge of the falls (which are about a mile wide). Look for them in the following picture, somewhere over the the rainbow:

We spent the night at the magnificent Royal Livingstone Hotel, which is right next to the falls. It's a colonial-style hotel, which means that many of the staff wear British shorts and those funny round hats. There are also staff wearing traditional Zambian dress, which consists of berets and gaudy red dresses - for the men!

The hotel is situated on the banks of the Zambezi river. Electrified wire and sharp rocks had been placed between the hotel and the river, to prevent hippopotami from wandering into the hotel grounds and killing people. There was, however, a near-infinite amount of monkeys in the hotel, although they didn't appear to have started work on their Shakespeare scripts. Here's a photo that I took of one of them, which appears to be an albino:

This morning, I woke up before dawn. Hoping to spot some wildlife, I decided to go for a walk. Upon opening the door to my room, I got quite a shock:

Yup, there was a zebra right outside my room. It didn't seem as surprised to see me as I was to see it.

But the most fascinating experience occurred at shacharis. We made our minyan in our private kosher dining room. The hotel staff, who were setting up breakfast, were absolutely fascinated by our tallesim and tefillin. One of them brought a camera and started shooting pictures of us!

If you're a Zambian man wearing a gaudy red dress, living in the jungle surrounded by monkeys and zebras, then it's Orthodox Jews who look exotic. It was a good lesson in how "normal" is a relative term!

Monday, July 29, 2013

And We Have A Winner!

There was an astonishingly large response to yesterday's contest. Aside from all the comments on the blog, my inbox was flooded with ideas. Some of them were ingenious! I took the best elements of several of them and combined them for the following:

Thanks to everyone for their input!

Right now, it's 4.15am, and I'm heading out to fly to Zambia. I'm not sure how much ability I'll have to post over the next few days. Don't forget that you can subscribe to receive this blog via email, using the subscription form on the right-hand side of this webpage.

Meanwhile, since this Shabbos is parashas Re'ay, I'll leave you with a photo of a nesher that I took yesterday. For more on this identity of the nesher, see this essay.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I'm currently in Cape Town, South Africa, and I wanted to catch up on some things from last week. When I encountered the semi-tame hyena and elephants in a special facility, there was also another animal that I encountered: a five hundred pound lion.

Note that I am holding a short stick. This was to fend him off in case he attacked me. Seriously. As the animal handler told me, there's no such thing as a tame lion.

I'll write more about this extraordinary experience and post more pictures/ video on another occasion. Meanwhile, I thought that it would be fun to have a contest. Please suggest what you think would be amusing to portray the lion as thinking when he approached me:

My own idea, based on a famous statement by Reuven Schmeltzer, is "I'm a shaliach from Rav Moshe Shapiro, being lochem milchemes Hashem!" But perhaps you can come up with something funnier.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

With Moses in the Wilderness

Here in Africa, many African-Americans - sorry, I mean African-Africans - have interesting names. On yesterday's game drive, the driver, before setting off, launched into a long introduction. He spoke with the slow manner of speaking that some Africans use, in which they draw out each syllable in a painfully long amount of time. "Myyyyyy  naaaaame," he said slowly, "is Civilized. C - i - v - i - l - i - z - e - d.  I  am  your driiiiii-veeerrrrr for todaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay." 
"Hi, Mr. Civilized," I said, "My name is Impatient. Can we get going?"

On this morning's game drive, the driver was called Moses. He led us through the wilderness, starting before dawn. We didn't see as many species as yesterday, but we did have the rare thrill of being in the midst of a huge buffalo herd, seeing a herd of elephants, and watching a leopard and her cub roaming around. The cub kept on launching surprise attacks at the mother, which she tolerated as only a mother can. Here's a picture that I took of the cub:

We watched them for quite a while, then headed off to meet up with the other jeeps, in order to make a minyan for shacharis out in the savannah. Meanwhile, two people on my jeep were quite desperate to go to, er, attend to a call of nature. But Moses didn't want to stop, because he was in a rush to meet up with the other jeeps. "Moses!" I thundered, "Let my people go!"

Later, back at the ranch, I took the following photograph of an impala at the water-hole by the dining room, which brought a certain passuk to mind:

And finally, here's a video clip of the leopards:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Kings Camp

Today, I flew out with my group to the Timbavati game reserve. Most of my group is staying in the spectacular Kings Camp lodge, which consists of eleven cabins, along with the dining room, etc. I was slightly surprised to see on the reservations list that I had been placed in a room together with Rabbi Yoni Isaacson, the tour operator. But I figured that since we are both here without our wives, it would be cheaper to house us both in the same cabin.

Upon entering my cabin, I was in awe of the decor - see the picture below. I was simultaneously horrified to discover that it was the honeymoon suite - with a king-size bed, and a bath that had already been filled with hot water and bubbles and candles placed around it, with a sign next to it saying "Natan and Yoni - Rejoice!"

To my immense relief, R. Yoni informed me that he would be sleeping elsewhere. 

In the evening, we headed out on our first game drive. I've been on numerous game drives before, but this one was my best yet. We saw impala, steenbok (not the steenbok mentioned by Rashi in Chullin, which is an ibex, but rather a type of tiny antelope), nyala, buffalo, wildebeest, giraffe, vervet monkeys, baboons, civet, genet, warthog, hare, elephant, hornbills, vulture, zebra, leopard, and lion! Here are pictures that I took of buffalo, vulture, and lion:

As I told my group, if you want to see the animals of the Torah today, Africa is the place to see many of them!

(It's also amazing to be writing this post on a wi-fi connection in the middle of the African wilderness!)

Monday, July 22, 2013

So Big!

On Friday, after the hyena encounter, I went to meet some elephants. As with the hyena, the goal was to film a clip for my documentary. In this case, I would be speaking about the wonder of elephants, and the blessing that is pronounced on them - Baruch meshaneh habriyos.

Now, I've seen elephants plenty of times before. I've fed them, hugged them, and ridden on them. So I was expecting that I would have to artificially put on an expression of wonder.

But that wasn't necessary. Having an African elephant right next to me, towering above me, was such an awe-inspiring experience that I burst into the berachah spontaneously, with immense emotion. Pictures absolutely do not do this justice, but here are some anyway:


NOTE: This was, of course, a trained elephant. One would never, ever, ever do this with a wild elephant, such as those that I hope to see tomorrow! (Even what I did had its dangers; the trainers were constantly assessing the elephants' mood and instructing me accordingly - where to stand, when to move, etc.)

(Additional note to those emailing me - please be aware that while I am traveling, it is very hard for me to keep up with emails.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Close Shave With A Hyena

On Friday, I filmed some sequences for the "Zoo Torah" documentary, and I had the thrill of encountering a number of exotic animals - up close and personal. This was the first time that I had interacted with a hyena. (If you're reading this via email, and you can't see the picture above, I recommend that you visit www.rationalistjudaism.com!)

It was an exhilarating, albeit nerve-wracking, experience. Spotted hyenas are exceptionally dangerous creatures, with jaws that are more powerful than those of a lion. Even though this one was trained, there's not really any such thing as a tame hyena. I had a handful of pieces of meat that I was supposed to feed to it. But I was warned to throw the pieces to it, and not to let it eat from my hand - with one bite, it would neatly amputate my entire hand.

So here I was, throwing pieces of meat up into the air as it leaped around me, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was swiftly running out of pieces of meat. Moments later, there was no meat left, and my hands were covered with traces of smelly raw meat. The hyena looked at my hands hungrily, which is the moment at which the pictures below were taken.

I was anticipating being imminently not very handy, but fortunately the handler, who realized what was happening, immediately lured the hyena away. Phew!

Anyway, during the hyena encounter, I really understood how a certain belief about hyenas, recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud, arose. The Gemara states that the male hyena turns into a female. This belief is not unique to the Sages; it's found in many cultures. Looking at this hyena, I saw why people would think this. Female hyenas are the most masculinized mammals in the world. They are larger, stronger, and more aggressive than males - and even their reproductive organs look like those of a male, as I could plainly see. Anyone looking at this hyena would assume that it was a male animal - and upon seeing it give birth, would assume that it had changed gender.

There's all sorts of strange beliefs about hyenas, and it's not surprising - they really are freakish creatures. Still, I've come up with some really inspirational insights about the hyena in Jewish thought, which you can read about in my forthcoming encyclopedia, and watch on the forthcoming movie!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Zoo Torah: The Movie

Twelve years ago, at the dawn of the DVD era, my wife bought me a present from Mea She'arim: a DVD on my favorite chapter of Tehillim, Barchi Nafshi. It turned out to be a montage of clips relating to the verses, many of which were pirated from National Geographic videos, with a voice-over reciting the verses of Barchi Nafshi. There was also amazing background music, which I eventually identified as the soundtrack from Last Of The Mohicans. A charming effort, but it wasn't going to be winning any Oscars for Best Documentary.

More recently, I was given another DVD about animals and Torah. This one at least featured original content in the voice-over, with explanations about the identities of various animals in the Torah. However, it suffered from several drawbacks. The explanations were rather poor, from a rationalist/ academic standpoint, in that they fell into the error that I have discussed previously: not appreciating that the Rishonim of Europe were not familiar with the animals of the Land of Israel. The footage was, again, pirated from National Geographic, along with BBC's Life series. True, this is amazing footage; but aside from the ethical/halachic issues in using such footage, it actually makes it harder to concentrate on the Torah material being presented. Another drawback was that the soundtrack was abysmal, and made me pine for Last Of The Mohicans.

Several years ago, I myself was featured in a big-budget TV special, Beasts of the Bible for Animal Planet. It was a very high-end production, with dazzling visual effects, filmed on location in many places. Still, it was unsatisfactory from my perspective, because it was simply too sensationalistic, and spent more time on strange cryptozoological theories than on actually imparting useful information.

With all these videos being disappointing, I've long wanted to produce my own video about Torah and the animal kingdom (previously, I've just done a few short segments of middling quality for my lecture presentations, some of which can be viewed at www.zootorah.com/videos). And now, the opportunity is finally presenting itself!

The wild animals that are featured in the Torah are no longer found in Israel - today, one gets a better picture of Biblical wildlife by visiting Africa. I'm going there tomorrow night, teaching on a safari that will travel through South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. But I'm arriving a few days before my group comes, and I'm using the extra time to film footage for an educational video, tentatively titled Zoo Torah: The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought. Arrangements have been made to visit a ranch where there are tame lions, leopards, hyenas and other animals that are used for filming. (Well, as tame as these beasts can be; just this week, Adam Sandler revealed that he was attacked by a "tame" cheetah at one such ranch in South Africa.) This will be supplemented by footage that I'll film in Israel when I return. The plan is to produce a DVD documentary of high quality that is both educational and entertaining.

All this is extremely expensive; apparently, the ranch with the "tame" predators has very high insurance premiums! Plus, there are many other expenses, especially if I'm not going to simply use the soundtrack from Last Of The Mohicans. If you'd like to help sponsor this production, that would be gratefully appreciated by myself and all the viewers. Donations are tax-deductible (in the US) and can be sent to The Torah and Nature Foundation; details at this link. Smaller donations can be made via PayPal:

If you have any ideas or suggestions regarding the video, please write them in the comments! As always, I can be reached at zoorabbi@zootorah.com.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Where Yeshivah Learning and Academia Meet

As I've written in the past, I am fascinated by the differences between the yeshivish/ traditionalist approach to Torah and the academic/ rationalist approach. I do not feel that one or the other is better in absolute terms - rather, each has its advantages and disadvantages. The academic/ rationalist approach is superior in terms of ascertaining the historical reality of what is actually going on in the Chumash/ Nach/ Talmud/ Rishonim/ Acharonim. But the yeshivish/ traditionalist approach is generally superior in terms of imparting religious devotion. Of course, in some cases, and for some people, the yeshivish approach is a major turn-off from Judaism. But in general, it is a more inspirational and motivational approach.

This dichotomy is unavoidable. Reaching truth requires intellectual honesty and objectivity; this requires a detached, critical analysis, which harms the reverential experience required for religious inspiration. And the academic approach acknowledges that everyone is a product of their environment, and contextualizes all writings, whereas the traditionalist approach sees religious writings as transcending the time and place in which it was written and thus being equally relevant to us. In fact, one way of summarizing the difference between the two approaches is simply with one word: context. (See this post for examples of how it plays out.)

The two systems of study normally remain worlds apart. But there is one field in which they often meet, and that just happens to be my own specialty: Biblical and Talmudic zoology.

Consider this: ArtScroll, which serves as an excellent barometer of yeshivish/ traditionalist norms and sensitivities, never quotes from academic works. But there does appear to be one, single exception: Professor Yehuda Feliks’ Plants and Animals of the Mishna, which is quoted in a number of ArtScroll works. Why? Someone at ArtScroll once explained to me that this book "somehow found its way into the Beis HaMidrash." But this merely begs the question: Why, of all academic works, did only this one become "acceptable" in the yeshivah world?

I think that there are two reasons. One is that there was simply no alternative. Every student of Tenach and Talmud at some point wants to know the identity of the shafan  or the bardelas. For a long time, Feliks' book was the only such work available.

The second reason is that Biblical and Talmudic zoology appears to be an entirely non-threatening topic. It's not like archeology, where an Orthodox Jew instantly has his guard up. What could be religiously problematic in using modern zoology to assist in identifying the obscure animals of the Torah and Talmud? It's perceived as pareve.

Yet the truth is that this latter point is far from accurate. Contextualization is extremely relevant to identifying the animals of the Torah. Many recent traditional identifications of animals in the Torah come from the great Torah scholars of medieval Europe. But the flora and fauna of Europe is very different from that of the Land of Israel.

Anyone trying to seriously make sense of the identities of animals in Torah and Talmud simply cannot help but notice that the medieval European Torah scholars give very different identifications from those given by Rav Saadiah Gaon and from academic works of Biblical zoology. Furthermore, following the medieval European tradition gives rise to all sorts of difficult problems, which do not exist if one follows the approach of Rav Saadiah and academic Biblical zoology. If the tzvi is the deer, why does the Gemara say that it doesn't have antlers? If the shafan is the rabbit, why is described as habitually hiding in rocks? If the nesher is the eagle, why is it described as being bald? If the shu'al is a fox, which is a solitary animal living far from other members of its kind, how did Samson collect three hundred of them? If the bardelas is a polecat, why is it described as dangerous to man? And so on. You can contrive explanations for each of these - or you can solve them all in one fell swoop by acknowledging that people were only familiar with animals in their own locale. In my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, I saw no way around pointing this out, albeit delicately.

Of course, as discussed in my post "Sugar for Elephants" and in a follow-up post, even many Rishonim and Acharonim acknowledged that European Rishonim were often hampered by a lack of knowledge regarding Eretz Yisrael. Still, this itself strengthens my point - Biblical and Talmudic zoology (and botany) is a field in which the academic approach of contextualization inevitably makes inroads into traditional approaches to Torah.

But is this a good thing or a bad thing? I honestly don't know.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Guest Post: Factual Corrections

Guest Post by Eli Duker

Rav Feldman's speech in Baltimore as transcribed here by R. Yaakov Menken, has several factual errors that I feel need to be addressed. I must add a disclaimer that I am only going on what was written; I do not know what words Rav Feldman actually used.

1. He cites Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rosh Yeshiva of Har Bracha, as claiming that 20% of Hesder students cease religious observance during their army service. But Rav Melamed never said such a thing. What he actually said both here and here is that 20% (or more) of those who go through the Religious Zionist educational system through high school abandon religious observance. Rav Melamed also claims that the number of those who grew up in "Torani" communities and later cease observance is around 5%. Nowhere does he give numbers about Hesder students. A new survey of Hesder alumni had 7% of respondents describe themselves in categories other than "Dati" (Hiloni, Masorati, Non-Orthodox, non-denominational); however, this was a survey of Facebook respondents and hence non-scientific. Nonetheless, there is no evidence for Rav Feldman's rather staggering claim.

2. A second claim Rav Feldman makes is that "the Religious Zionist party" went from thirteen seats at the time of his moving to Israel to five today, and claims that "this is in no small part due to the secularization of their youth in the army." I don't know when Rav Feldman moved to Israel. At no point did the Mafdal have 13 seats. But the fact is that in the current Knesset, the Bayit HaYehudi party has twelve seats – up from seven seats in the previous Knesset (three Bayit HaYehudi/ Mafdal; four Ichud HaLeumi). It is strange that in a speech where R' Feldman is extremely critical of Naftali Bennett he seems to be unaware of Bennett's great political achievement. Moreover, it is incorrect to gauge the religiosity of the Religious Zionist population by the size of the Mafdal, and this is because of several factors:
a) In the years prior to Bennett's catapult of the Bayit HaYehudi, there was generally a right-wing party in addition to the Mafdal which competed for votes of the Religious Zionist population.
b) Religious Zionists have always been represented in other parties, and many never considered themselves obligated to vote for a sectoral party. This is a matter of political strategy and not an indication of secularization. The Likud, whose MKs are elected in primaries, have 4 Religious Zionist MKs out of a total of 20 (without Yisrael Beiteinu) – this is due in part to the large number of religious Likud members, and it is safe to assume that there are a large number of religious Likud voters.
c) There are many Sephardim who identify with religious Zionism and who made up a huge block of Mafdal voters before 1977, if not 1984, and now vote Shas due to the charisma and overall presence and authority of Rav Ovadiah.
All this being said, I fail to see how secularization in the army has drastically weakened Religious Zionist political strength.

3. Out of the seven indicted ministers to whom Rav Feldman points to prove the ethical bankruptcy of any non-Haredi educational system and weltanschauung, two are haredi ministers from Shas!

4. What I found most disturbing was the way the famous meeting between the Chazon Ish and Ben Gurion was related to this audience. R. Yaakov Menken claims that R. Feldman said that "Ben-Gurion went to visit the Chazon Ish to persuade him that religious Jews should be drafted into the Army. Ben-Gurion said that the state could not survive without it. The Chazon Ish countered that the Torah could not survive with it."

In fact, the Chazon Ish never said that it is forbidden to serve in the army, and the notion that he would have told Ben Gurion that the Torah could not survive if "religious Jews" were to serve in the army is patently ridiculous. Ben Gurion was quite ambivalent about his decision to exempt less than 400 Yeshiva students, and the notion that he would have held a discussion with the Chazon Ish about exempting the entire religious population from army service is also ridiculous. Moreover, "Peer Hador" – clearly a Haredi work – claims that the Chazon Ish was opposed to army exemptions being given to anyone who is not in Yeshiva, and quotes the Chazon Ish as saying that anyone took a Yeshiva deferment who isn't learning full time has the status of a rodef.

What is more disturbing, however is that there isn't a single account of the meeting, whether Haredi or not, that claims that the issue of the men's draft was ever brought up. Ben Gurion requested the meeting in the context of the struggle of the Haredi community against mandatory National Service for religious girls who were exempt from army service. But that issue wasn't brought up by either side either. Only the fundamental issue of how secular and Haredi Jews can coexist was discussed, without getting into any details regarding any part of the draft. (See Benjamin Brown's "The Hazon Ish", which deals with this episode as thoroughly as one can).

If one studies the surveys mentioned above about the Religious Zionist world and the Hesder system, they may come to the conclusion that there is a risk of secularization if one serves in the army; this may give Rav Feldman enough information to justify his position, albeit from a Haredi perspective. The Haredim as a whole clearly have different priorities than the religious Zionist community, and they aren't willing to risk their way of life in any way for the sake of doing military service. I fail to understand why this approach cannot be justified to Haredi communities without giving faulty information about other Jews and falsifying accounts of Gedolei Yisrael.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Face Up!

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, recently gave two addresses about the political situation vis-a-vis the charedi community in Israel. Over at Cross-Currents, in a post entitled Wake Up!, Rabbi Yaakov Menken has posted excerpts from these addresses. Unfortunately, the post is closed to comments. I would therefore like to post some responses here, from both myself and Menachem Lipkin.

It was pleasing to see that Rav Feldman did not make any claims about charedim believing that their Torah provides essential protection for the country. I have written on many occasions about how they don't believe any such thing, and it appears that this excuse is no longer being offered. Instead, Rav Feldman is honest, and gives the real reason why charedim do not want to go to the army: because it is an environment which is very harmful to the charedi lifestyle.

Now, I think that people should be able to understand that, and be sympathetic to it. Yet, contrary to what Rav Feldman thinks, it doesn't settle the matter. To quote Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein: "the robbing of our youths’ formative years as a ben Torah would be a price that we could not pay... But how do we ask other, reluctant Israelis to pay a different price so that we don’t have to pay ours? Who gave us that right?"

Everyone, charedim included, agrees that Israel needs a strong army. If charedim feel that they cannot do their share in providing manpower, then this means that they have a debt to the rest of the country. But Rav Feldman, and virtually every other leader and spokesperson for the charedi community, never make any mention of such a debt.

Rav Feldman claims that the charedi community should have the status of conscientious objectors. But they are not objecting to the goals of the army, or to its methods of war. They agree that the State of Israel needs defending from the Arab nations. They are simply objecting to they themselves having to contribute to these efforts, which is not what "conscientious objectors" normally refers to!

Rav Feldman then claims that charedim are doing their public service to the nation by learning Torah. But here he utilizes a tactic that is commonly used by charedi spokesmen. It is to use the word "Torah" without qualification, and thereby to blur the differences between studying Torah, teaching Torah, the relationship between the Torah and the entire nation, and the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel. This is a mistake/ distortion that happens all the time, and I would like to elaborate by examining Rav Feldman's statements in turn.
"Learning Torah ensures the survival of the Jewish people."
Yes, that is absolutely true. However, this does not mean that the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel ensures the survival of the Jewish people. In fact, the Jewish people survived for thousands of years without mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel. And the Religious Zionist community still manages to survive, and thrive, without mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel.
"Learning Torah should not be considered on a par with changing bedpans in a hospital?! How outrageous that this should be suggested in a Jewish state!"
It's not outrageous at all. Teaching Torah should certainly be considered at least on a par with changing bedpans in a hospital. But a person who is only learning Torah is not contributing to the rest of society (unless you subscribe to recent mystical ideas developed by R. Chaim of Volozhin). He is building up his own Torah scholarship, but that is not what "national service" is about.
"Without Torah, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel. How can learning Torah not be considered a valid public service?"
This is a perfect example of blurring the differences between studying Torah, teaching Torah, the relationship between the Torah and the entire nation, and the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel. It is indeed true that without the relationship between the Torah and the entire nation, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel. But this does not mean that without the system of mass long-term uninterrupted yeshivah/kollel, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel!

Learning Torah, knowing enough to live life as a religious Jew, is an essential task. But it is not fulfilling a service to the nation! Learning to read and write and do math is likewise an essential task, but it would not be considered fulfilling a service to the nation! National service means doing something for other people. Serving in the army is an immense service to everyone else. Learning Torah is not a service to anyone else.

Or, to put matters another way: You can learn Torah and serve in the army. Many, many national-religious Jews do exactly that. There are even some charedim who do that. To have all charedim learning not only for most of their lives, but also non-stop between the ages of 21 and 24, is not an essential national service!

Turning to the topic of education, Rav Feldman claims that the government has no right to impose an educational curriculum upon the charedi community, and that "nowhere in the world would they act so paternalistically towards a minority." How on earth can he say such a thing? Every Western country has compulsory education! Again, to quote Rabbi Adlerstein: "They uphold the need of a democratic society to assure that children are given both a chance at vocational success as well as share some information... that is meant to bring about some social cohesion." (Not to mention the fact that Chazal themselves held that a parent has an obligation to teach his child a trade!)

Rav Feldman complains that the natural leaders of the Charedim should be consulted before making such changes. Why? It's something that is a need for the rest of the country (who are financially supporting the charedim), as well as for many charedim. Adina Bar Shalom, Rav Ovadiah Yosef's daughter, appeared before the Knesset task force to help charedim enter the work force, and begged them to implement math and English because 50% of the boys in her chareidi college drop out due to their lack of math and English. If the leaders of the charedi community were open to discussing how this should be solved, then I'm sure that Lapid and co. would be open to consulting them as to how to go about doing this; but all the charedi leaders say is no, no, no.

Strangely, Rav Feldman then claims that the "primary purpose of education should be... to educate young people to be human beings." Well, yes, but that's not what's under discussion here. Rav Feldman then goes on about how secular Zionist society is morally bankrupt and leaders are bought off by bribery, whereas charedi children are educated not to lie, cheat or steal, and to love Jews and respect authority. Aside from the fact that this is completely and utterly irrelevant to the issue of teaching math, it's also completely and utterly false. Do I really have to go into details about how so many charedi leaders were bought off by the bribery of Leib Tropper? Or about all the lying, cheating and stealing that is done by charedi Jews, sometimes under the auspices of kollels and other such institutions? And this is directly attributable to the fact that charedim do not have the education, qualifications and inclination to be financially self-sufficient. As Chazal state, Whoever does not teach his son a trade, has taught him to steal.

Rav Feldman claims that "Gemara prepares a person for modern technology more than even math and science. When our students enter job training, they score higher than their secular counterparts, because their minds have been developed." But his students in Baltimore learn secular studies in addition to Gemara! In Israel, on the other hand, where they learn virtually no secular subjects, the students are ill prepared for any meaningful education. Again, recall Adina Bar-Shalom's testimony that 50% of her male students drop out due to lacking basic math and English!

And now we come to the tired old canard that the real reason why many non-charedim want charedim to get the most basic secular education has nothing to do with alarm at a growing sector of the population which is under-employed, does not build up the economy or workforce, and has its Knesset representatives insist on a "right" to be supported by the rest of the country. No, the real reason, says Rav Feldman, is the desire to secularize the charedim!

Surely he can't be serious. Eleven hours a week of math, English and Hebrew is going to “secularize” them? He must not have much faith in the Torah that they learn the rest of the time! The charedi-leumi community in Israel and the charedi community in America have even more hours of general studies. Wanting charedim in Israel to be more like charedim in the US is not wanting to "secularize" them!

Rav Feldman then repeats Rabbi Meiselman's slander about Naftali Bennett stating that the Charedim are a greater threat to Israel than Iranian nuclear weapons. As I wrote to Yated, this is a serious distortion of what Bennett said. It's strange that just a few weeks after Rav Feldman publicly apologizes for falsely reporting R. Dov Lipman's positions, he does the same with Naftali Bennett. Is it really so difficult to find out what a person actually said before condemning them in public? (UPDATE: After I sent a complaint to Rav Feldman and Rabbi Menken, this has now been changed to "Bennett said something similar." I'm not sure if Rav Feldman's speeches have likewise been retroactively corrected. And, of course, I would not agree that Bennett said something similar at all.)

Many years ago, in calmer times, Rav Feldman criticized the Israeli Yated for adopting a "siege mentality." He himself does exactly the same in his addresses, talking about "demonization of religious Jews." And it's ironic, considering that the charedi community equals, and probably vastly exceeds, its opponents in its demonization of them. Whether it's Rav Feldman calling Dov Lipman a rasha, Eytan Kobre saying that the Zionist enterprise is a bigger threat than Iran, or the Yated and Agudah rabbis comparing Yesh Atid to Hitler, Bilaam, and Amalek, I think that the charedi community wins hands-down on the demonization front.

Rav Feldman then repeats a claim that he made several weeks ago, that charedim pay taxes just like everyone else. I don't understand how he can say something that is so obviously false. A person learning in kollel does not pay anything like the amount of taxes that someone in a regular job pays. Sure, he pays property tax and VAT. Whoop-de-do! But his company isn't paying company tax, he doesn't pay income tax, and he only pays 10% of municipal taxes.

This in turn shows the flaw in Rav Feldman's complaint that charedi tax money goes to pay for things that they neither want nor use, such as television, sports stadiums, and so on. The amounts that are spent on such things are a miniscule fraction of that which goes to things that charedim do benefit from - infrastructure and defense. But more significantly, the amount of taxes coming from the charedi community, and their contribution to the workforce and economy, is so low that they are certainly not net providers!

Rav Feldman concludes by returning to the army issue, and asking the Israeli government not to "wreck our lives as Jews." I really don't see how the charedi-leumi community, which serves in the army, have had their lives as Jews wrecked. Still, if that is how Rav Feldman feels, to the extent that he talks about pulling his family out of Israel, so be it. In the US, he will find a government that also dictates basic secular education. And also one that, in times of war for national survival, would not grant an exemption to 20% of the population.

Being a citizen of the state carries responsibilities to the state. These may be spiritually threatening. They may even be physically threatening. I'm terrified about sending my sons to the army! But that is part of the responsibility and privilege of being a citizen of this tiny, precarious, amazing country.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mighty Lambs and Evil Beasts

Yesterday, I delivered a lecture at a seminar organized in honor of the 20th anniversary of the new Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. The line-up of speakers was rather eclectic. A leading gynecologist spoke about his role in the successful artificial insemination of an elephant at the zoo; Mayor Nir Barkat spoke about tourism in Jerusalem; an ornithologist for the Nature Reserves Authority spoke about the rampant problem of raptors with tracking devices being captured in neighboring countries and suspected of being Mossad agents; MK Nachman Shai spoke about the Labor Party's plans for Jerusalem; the director of the Amsterdam Zoo spoke about the history of zoos; the Jerusalem Zoo's curator spoke about the fabulous aquarium that will be built there; and so on. I spoke about the identification and symbolism of various animals in the Bible, and afterwards I got into a fascinating discussion with the chief scientist of the Nature Reserves Authority about whether the yachmor of the Bible is the hartebeest, and whether it should be reintroduced to the wild.

One particularly interesting talk was given by Meir Shalev, a prominent Israeli author. He spoke about his childhood memories of the original Biblical Zoo, before it moved to its beautiful new premises. Shalev's family was friendly with the director of the zoo at the time, the late Professor Aharon Shulov (pictured at right with his wife and a friend). Shulov's zoo was a true Biblical Zoo, which exclusively housed animals from the Bible, unlike the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo of today.

Shalev related that Professor Shulov wanted the zoo to feature not only animals from the Bible, but also animal-related scenes from the Bible. In particular, he wanted to exhibit the wolf lying down with the lamb.

(It's funny that everyone thinks that the Bible talks about the lion lying down with the lamb. It doesn't. It speaks about the lion living with the cow. It's the wolf that is described as lying down with the lamb. Now is not the time to get into the medieval Maimonidean dispute about whether this is to be interpreted literally.)

Anyway, the problem with creating a wolf-lamb exhibit was that it would be prohibitively expensive, due to the need to replace the lamb on a regular basis! But Professor Shulov was determined to find a way around this problem, and he did.

One day, said Shalev, he came with his family to the zoo, and he saw a wolf lying spreadeagled on the ground, with a look of abject misery and exhaustion. "What happened?" he asked Professor Shulov. Shulov replied that it had just returned from the new wolf-lamb exhibit.

It turns out that Shulov had decided upon a rather novel solution to displaying a wolf with a lamb. The wolf was barely more than a cub, just eight months old. The lamb, on the other hand, was a strapping two-year-old, well on its way to becoming a ram. It had spent its time together with the wolf using its head and horns to butt it all around the cage!

But it was a different story that Shalev told that I found more interesting. He was describing how, as a child, he read Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family And Other Animals. This is the same book that I read as a child, about Durrell's experiences with wildlife in Corfu. At one point, said Shalev, Durrell describes how his mentor in biology brought him some specimens of anopheles mosquitoes to study. Shalev said that at the time, he was horrified. He simply couldn't understand how Durrell could describe the anopheles mosquito with wonder and interest. The anopheles mosquito was no mere insect. It was the Evil Enemy of Zionism!

In the early days of the State of Israel, children were taught how to identify the anopheles mosquito, evil enemy of Zionism. This was not really an exaggeration. The formation of the State of Israel was not only threatened by political and military forces; it was also threatened by malaria. Malaria, transmitted by the anopheles mosquito, is a terrible disease with no cure. It was rampant in Palestine, and it led to some early settlements being completely abandoned. Entry permits to Palestine warned that "the mosquito is your enemy!" Thanks to intensive efforts to combat it, it went into decline, and was finally eradicated from Israel in 1967. Had this battle not been fought, the State of Israel would probably not have been able to come into existence and survive.

This story helped me to understand something in Scripture. Dangerous animals are often described in Scripture with the term chayah ra'ah, "evil beasts." Yet these animals are certainly not consciously engaging in acts of wickedness. In Jewish thought as well as contemporary zoology, animals do not possess free will such as to make moral choices. I had previously understood the Scriptural description to mean that these animals are evil in the sense of being vicious. But perhaps it's that they are evil in terms of their effects on people. From a contemporary cushy Western perspective, we don't seriously fear the effects of dangerous animals on our lives. But in harsher times and places, lions and leopards and even mosquitoes really were The Evil Enemy.

I even know of one poor wolf who viewed a certain sheep that way.

(I'll be starting my anti-malaria medication soon, as I head out to my safari in Africa. Readers in Johannesburg are invited to attend my lectures on Shabbat July 20th at Beit Yisrael Waverley. If anyone has availability to drive me around on July 18th-19th, please be in touch.)

Blog Migration!

Birds migrate, butterflies migrate, whales migrate, and this blog is migrating! It's being moved over from Blogger to Substack. The URL ...