Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Now I'm A Charedi Fanatic!

This is too bizarre!

I've been condemned for a lot of things over the years. Due to my insistence that there was an Age of Dinosaurs, but there wasn't an Age of Mud-Mice and Mermaids, I've been branded a heretic, an apikores, and the Third Manifestation of Satan. Then I started writing about Orthodox society, and insisted that Chazal were correct in saying that a man should work to support his family, and that Torah study does not provide an exemption from military service, for which I was further condemned as being a hater of Torah. I also wrote extensively on local issues about Beit Shemesh, criticizing the the charedi political leadership and campaign, and advocating strongly for the non-charedi parties, for which I was further condemned as being a fanatical charedi-hater.

After all this, I was most surprised to discover today that a journalist is preparing an expose on me, charging that I am a fanatical charedi!

Here's the background. On Sunday, at a staff meeting at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, I suggested that we should start offering chugim (children's workshops), to be run by my colleague Shlomo Horowitz. I personally did not want to run the chugim, and Shlomo was only available for this on Sunday evenings, so we picked Sunday evening, which limited us to a small number of chugim. Then we had to decide who to offer them for. In the past, I had run two such chugim. One was for younger boys, and one was for older boys; I had tried offering a chug for girls, but for some reason there was never much interest. The boys who had attended my chugim were interested in continuing, and we had received further inquiries from other boys. So we decided to offer the chugim for three age groups of boys, since we already had a nucleus with which to begin, and to advertise for more to join.

And that's when the fireworks started.

Our Facebook post announcing the chugim met with heated comments. Is there a Biblical reason why girls cannot learn Biblical natural history? Why the intolerance against girls? Is a government-funded institution allowed to practice discrimination based upon gender?

Flabbergasted, my administrator and I started responding. No, we have nothing against girls; we just have not seen any interest from girls for these chugim. Yes, we are perfectly happy to offer chugim for girls is there is demand for it. No, we are not government-funded, but we are pretty sure that there are plenty of government-funded educational institutions and matnasim that run gender-separate programs for children.

But why can't the boys' chugim simply be presented as open to bother genders, people demanded. Well, the reason is very simple: the boys who are attending these chugim are from charedi families, and their families would not send them to the chugim if they were mixed.

But we want our children to attend mixed chugim, some people said. Well, we are perfectly ready to offer mixed chugim if there is sufficient demand, we responded.

Now, I can understand that our initial advertisement might have given the wrong impression, to people who didn't realize the background. Still, one would presume that after explaining the situation, there is nothing to complain about. But some people were still dissatisfied. They said that we should not allow separate-gender chugim to take place, and that a museum should be discouraging archaic attitudes. One person said that anyone who does not want to send their child to a mixed chug should in any case not be welcome at the museum!

All this raises interesting questions about who is truly intolerant - a person who wants their child to attend gender-separate chugim, or a person who wants such a person not to be tolerated.

Anyway, today our administrator received a call from someone inquiring about the chugim, and soon smelled a rat. She challenged the person to reveal the purpose of their inquiries, and the person stated that they are a journalist for The Marker - a subsidiary of Ha-Aretz - preparing a story about this. So we provided all the answers - we have nothing to hide here. Let's see what happens!

It's just too bizarre that I, of all people, am being accused of attempting to charedify Beit Shemesh!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Was Eisav a Vampire?

This post was originally published three years ago, and re-published last year, and is one of the most-read posts of all time! It stemmed from a post that I wrote about werewolves which stirred up a great deal of interest. This topic led me to come across an interesting discussion about Eisav being a vampire. The following evidence was given, and I have appended several further pieces of evidence that were given in the comments:
1. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 63:10) describes Eisav as "ensnaring" or, "hunting" people "with his mouth." While the Midrash itself explains that in a metaphorical sense, perhaps it is also intended literally. Hunting people with one's mouth is what vampires do.

2. The Midrash Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer (Ch. 37) says that Eisav wanted to suck out Yaakov's blood:
אמר עשו איני הורג את יעקב בחצים ובקשת אלא בפי אני הורגו ומוצץ את דמו שנ' וירץ עשו לקראתו וישקהו אל תהי קורא וישקהו אלא וינשכהו

3. Why would Eisav trade his birthright for lentil soup? The "red, red stuff" was instead something more precious: blood!

4. The Midrash discusses how Yaakov "gave his life" for the birthright. But how is giving away lentil soup "giving one's life"? Rather, it means that he gave Eisav some of his blood.

5. When Eisav was reunited with Yaakov and "fell on his neck and kissed him", the word "kissed" has dots on it, which the Midrash explains to allude to the fact that Eisav tried to bite him. Who else would bite someone on the neck other than a vampire?

6. When Yaakov was struggling with Eisav's angel, the latter had to leave at daybreak. Why? Because vampires are harmed by daylight!

7. What did the angel mean when he says that Yaakov struggled "with God and with man" Which was it? Answer - it was with a vampire, which is immortal and thus has aspects of both God and man.

8. The Gemara (Sotah 13a) says that when Eisav tried to prevent Yaakov from being buried in Machpelah, Chushim Ben Dan killed him with a wooden stick and beheaded him. That is how you kill a vampire - with a wooden stake, and by beheading.

9. Vampires have hair on their palms, and Eisav had hair all over his body, including, most significantly, on his hands - HaYodayim y'dei Eisav.

10. Eisav was known as "the red one" and this may have been due to the color of his hair rather than his complexion. Red hair is traditionally a sign of vampirism.

11. Eisav's angel wrestled with Yaakov before he crossed the river. This was because Eisav's angel couldn't cross the river himself - vampires cannot cross running water.

12. According to the Gemara in Bava Kama, the category of damages of shen, "tooth," is learned from Eisav: "איך נחפשו עשו נבעו מצפוניו" (Ovadia 1). The Gemara understands this pasuk to refer to fangs.

13. According to Chazal, Eisav had attacked a young woman. This is typical behavior for vampires.

Finally, the reason given for why all this is not widely known, is that Jews are very sensitive about matters involving blood, due to blood libels.
It's an ingenious explanation, no? I'm not revealing where I saw this idea, because the interesting question to consider is this: How would your evaluation of this explanation differ depending on whether it was said by a thirteenth-century Rishon from Northern France, an eighteenth-century Acharon, a contemporary Gadol, or a regular Joe of today?

(For the record: No, I do not believe that Eisav was a vampire!)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Rosenblum Calls For Reform

Chanukah is a time to talk about our salvation from the Big Fat Greeks who wanted to reform our way of life. They wanted to change us from our traditional ways, but we remained true to the mesorah. It's a victory for timeless, Torah-true tradition.

Of course, resistance to those who are trying to change our way of life is certainly a good thing. But some of us feel that certain groups take this too far. This is especially with regard to the situation with charedi society in Israel, which ferociously rejects any attempt to change the system of long-term kollel for the masses and virtually zero secular education.

With that in mind, I was pleasantly astounded to see Jonathan/Yonason Rosenblum's latest column in Mishpacha magazine. He calls for wholesale reform in the charedi way of life vis-a-vis Torah study! Of course, he does not say anything about what kind of reform is actually needed - if he did so, then he would simply cease to be able to have any future impact in the charedi world. But his message comes through loud and clear:

Change in order to Preserve


"Shev v'al ta'aseh adif -- [In a case of doubt] remaining stationary is preferable," is a familiar Talmudic principle. But we learn in this week's parashah Vayeishev that there are times in life where the inertia principle does not apply.

After all the travails of Lavan and Esav and Dina, Yaakov Avinu sought nothing more than a little peace and quiet, But, as Rashi, explains peace and quiet are not the natural state of a tzaddik in this world. And so Hashem immediately brought Yaakov's most difficult test – the disappearance of his beloved son Yosef for 22 years. For the tzaddik, the natural state is one of continual striving. There is no possibility of remaining stationary. If one is not ascending on the spiritual ladder, one is descending – just like the angels in Yaakov's dream. In the tzaddik's world – the world of ruchnios – there is no standing still.

At the communal level too, it is often impossible to remain standing or to continue to operate according to old battle plans. Often times, just to preserve what has been gained, it is necessary to change the course of action that made possible those gains in the first place.

Not long ago, the Belzer Rebbe observed the remarkable growth of Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael over the last six decades and commented, "It will take no less siyata d'Shmaya to preserve what was built than it took for the building itself." I understood him to mean, inter alia, that building and preservation are separate stages, and the hanhaga of building may not be the hanhaga of preservation. After all, in the process of building a great deal changed from when the process began.

Today, the Bais Yaakov system is so embedded at the heart of the Torah community that it is hard for the current generation to begin to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Sarah Schenirer's movement.

Yet Rabbi Chaskel Sarna, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, once said to an audience of gedolei Torah and roshei yeshiva that the person who had done more for Am Yisrael than anyone else is the preceding hundred years was none of their ancestors, and had never even learned a single blatt Gemara. Everyone present laughed until he revealed the name of the person about whom he was speaking: Sarah Schenirer. At which point, all agreed.

True, she convinced the Chofetz Chaim and the Imrei Emes of Gerrer to join her revolution, but she was the one who saw the need that had escaped others: For the young women of her native Cracow, Yiddishkeit had become an empty shell that they were eager to abandon. Had matters been left to head in the same direction there would soon have been no Jewish women left eager, or even willing, to marry a Torah scholar. A radical change in women's learning was needed to preserve Torah itself.

And similarly when the Chazon Ish declared that Hebrew would henceforth be the language of instruction in Chinuch Atzmai. He knew very well that blood had been spilt in Jerusalem over the issue of Yiddish vs. Hebrew as the language of instruction in the chadorim.

Yet he also decided that those holding up the banner of Yiddish instruction were like the generals who are always said to be preparing for the last war. "Yiddish is not the battle front today," the Chazon Ish said to those who came to question his decision. The battle of the hour, in his eyes, was the preservation of the ancient religious culture of Jews from Arab lands. Had Chinuch Atzmai remained Yiddish-speaking it could not have absorbed that population and they too would have been largely lost.

In business today, we see countless examples of the impossibility of just "playing it safe" and trying to protect one's market share. Witness what happened to companies that once dominated their respective markets right up until the time those markets simply ceased to exist – Olivetti (typewriters); Eastman Kodak and Polaroid (film).

Just carrying on with what we have been doing until now is often not the best way to protect once past achievements. Standing pat is never a response with respect to preserving one's level of ruchnios and often not in hanhagas of the Klal either.
On previous occasions, Rosenblum has likened the kollel system to toxic chemotherapy. It's amazing that he is able to get away with this!

(On another note: If anyone is coming to Israel from the US or UK in the next week or so and can bring some items from a pet store for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch!)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Yet Another Strange Request

Being the Zoo Rabbi, I receive some unusual questions and requests. There was the woman who wrote to ask me if she should teach Torah to her dog, because it was the reincarnated spirit of her late husband. There was the man who asked to borrow my chameleon, in order to cure cancer. There was the new couple who consulted me about their shalom bayis problems, relating to the husband not wanting to murder any bugs that were in the house, much to his wife's distress.

Today's request falls into that category. My administrator at The Biblical Museum of Natural History just contacted me about how to handle a request that we received. Somebody desperately wants to borrow goat horns to place in her home for a few days, as a segulah. And we do indeed have some goat horns at the museum (along with horns of kudu, oryx, impala, blackbuck, eland, springbok, blesbok, pronghorn, mouflon, aoudad, rhinoceros, jackalope and unicorn), which were made into shofars (strangely, many of the alleged "ram's horn shofars" on the market are actually from goats). What should we say?

Now, I didn't hear what the goat horns are allegedly a segulah for. (It might have something to do with the Amiltai segulah.) But, coming from a Maimonidean rationalist perspective, I am confident that they don't actually function as a segulah for anything. So what should I tell her?

On the one hand, I don't want to cooperate with, and effectively endorse, highly irrational beliefs that have nothing to do with traditional Judaism. But on the other hand, the person appears to be in a situation of distress, and it could be psychologically beneficial to provide the segulah. It also depends on whether the problem is a medical problem, which can be greatly alleviated by the placebo effect, or an external problem, which cannot be solved merely because one believes it will be solved. If it's the latter, then either her problem will be solved, in which case it doesn't matter if she doesn't get my goat, or it won't, in which case any comfort derived from the goat horns will be undone.

So what should I reply? Yes? No? Only if it's a medical problem? Unfortunately I don't think that there is any objectively correct answer to this question.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Peeled Onions and Evil Spirits

In the course of a culinary discussion, my wife recently mentioned to someone that she was storing half an onion in the refrigerator. The other person was horrified, and informed my wife that this is categorically forbidden by halachah. Was she correct?

Rav Ari Kahn has a terrific shiur on this topic at YU-Torah, in which he says as follows: True, the Gemara does say that eating peeled onions (and garlic, and eggs) that were left overnight is lethally dangerous, due to the "evil spirit" that rests upon it. The Gemara further says that someone who does this is considered to be responsible for the ensuing loss of life. However, there are three factors which mean that this is not a halachah today.

First is that not many people since that time believe that there is actually any such danger. (Reinterpreting the Gemara to be referring to some sort of scientifically-confirmed phenomenon is problematic, since the danger is considered to be neutralized if even a tiny amount of peel is left on it.) And we are not just talking about Maimonidean rationalists; even Tosafos states that such "evil spirits" are no longer found.

Furthermore, whereas other such statements in the Gemara (based on views that are not consistent with contemporary science) may still be halachically binding due to their having been canonized in the halachic tradition, this is not the case with peeled onions. None of the major halachic works of the Rishonim or early Acharonim make any mention of this. Only recently did it become more common to find halachic works making mention of it.

Finally, it is certainly not part of the living tradition. How many of our mothers and grandmothers were ever concerned about such a thing, or even heard of it? Not many!

Thus, concludes Rabbi Kahn, if it's not mentioned in any of the major halachic works, and is not part of the general tradition, and is not a person's own family tradition, then while a person is entitled to adopt it as a stringency, you can't call it a halachah!

While I think that Rabbi Kahn's analysis is excellent, I'm not sure how long it's going to be accurate for. Due to the phenomenon of "chumrah creep", and the rise of the book tradition over the living tradition, the practice of not eating peeled onions that were left overnight is rapidly spreading. At some point, it is going to be considered normative practice in all circles. And at that point, it effectively becomes halachah. That's probably not a good thing, but it's near-inevitable. Such is the nature of Jewish evolution.

On an entirely different note: If you are coming to Israel for Chanukah, then (a) book a tour at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and (b) let me know if you can bring some supplies for the museum from a US or UK reptile store!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Lion Hunter Returns to Zion

It's not often that I attend re-interments of the ashes of Christians. But when I received the invitation from the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel for today's ceremony, I leaped at the opportunity. It was a chance to honor someone who was a great friend not only of Binyamin Netanyahu's family, but of the entire nation of Israel. This person's remains were finally being re-interred in Israel, in accordance with the wishes that he had expressed.

Who was this person, that was honored with a ceremony attended by the Prime Minister and his entire extended family, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, the Ambassadors of Britain and Ireland, and other dignitaries? Who was this person about whom Ze'ev Jabotinsky had said that "Never in Jewish history has there been in our midst a Christian friend of his penetration and devotion," and about whom Prime Minister Netanyahu said today that it was no exaggeration to say that without him, there would have been no IDF? The International Business Times and The Independent report that he was known as "the Lion Hunter of Zion." In fact, he was never known as this; it was a title which I coined last year for an article in The Times of Israel. But it is, I think, a worthy title, reflecting his extremely diverse causes for being a hero, as I wrote last year:

Colonel John Henry Patterson was an Irish soldier and engineer assigned to Kenya by the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. His job was to supervise the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo river for a massive railroad project. Unfortunately, railroad workers were constantly being slaughtered by the most notorious man-eating lions in recorded history. Two maneless but huge lions, working together, were estimated to have killed and eaten well over a hundred people working on the railroad.

Night after night, Patterson sat in a tree, hoping to shoot the lions when they came to the bait that he set for them. But the lions demonstrated almost supernatural abilities, constantly breaking through thorn fences to take victims from elsewhere in the camp, and seemingly immune to the bullets that were fired at them.

Patterson was faced with the task of not only killing the lions, but also surviving the wrath of hundreds of workers, who were convinced that the lions were demons that were inflicting divine punishment for the railroad. At one point, Patterson was attacked by a group of over a hundred workers who had plotted to lynch him. Patterson punched out the first two people to approach him, and talked down the rest!

After many months, Patterson eventually shot both lions. He himself was nearly killed in the process on several occasions, such as when one lion that he had shot several times suddenly leaped up to attack him as he approached its body. He published a blood-curdling account of the episode in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which became a best-seller, and earned him a close relationship with US President Roosevelt.

Upon returning to England, Patterson was a hailed as a hero. When World War One broke out, however, Patterson traveled to Egypt and took on a most unusual task: forming and leading a unit of Jewish soldiers, comprised of Jews who had been exiled from Palestine by the Turks. As a child, Patterson had been mesmerized by stories from the Bible. He viewed this task as being of tremendous, historic significance. The unit, called the Zion Mule Corps, was tasked with providing supplies to soldiers in the trenches in Gallipoli. Patterson persuaded the reluctant War Office to provide kosher food, as well as matzah for Passover, and he himself learned Hebrew and Yiddish in order to be able to communicate with his troops. The newly-trained Jewish soldiers served valiantly, but the campaign against the Turks in Gallipoli was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Zion Mule Corps was eventually disbanded.

In 1916 Patterson joined forces with Vladimir Jabotinsky to create a full-fledged Jewish Legion in the British Army, who would fight to liberate Palestine from the cruel reign of the Ottoman Empire and enable the Jewish People to create a home there. The War Minister, Lord Derby, succumbed to anti-Zionist agitators and attempted to prevent the Jewish Legion from receiving kosher food, from serving in Palestine, and from having “Jewish” in their name. Patterson promptly threatened to resign and risked a court-martial by protesting Derby’s decision as a disgrace. Derby backed down and Patterson’s Jewish Legion was successfully formed. During training, Patterson again threatened the War Office with his resignation if his men (many of whom were Orthodox) were not allowed to observe Shabbos, and again the army conceded. Meanwhile, Patterson brought Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook to address and inspire his troops.

Patterson clashed repeatedly with antisemitic officers in the British Army. Once, when a visiting brigadier called one of his soldiers “a dirty Jew,” Patterson demanded an apology, ordering his men to surround the brigadier with bayonets until he did so. The apology was produced, but Patterson was reprimanded by General Allenby. On another occasion, Patterson discovered that one of his Jewish soldiers had been sentenced to execution for sleeping at his post. Patterson circumvented the chain of authority and contacted Allenby directly in order to earn a reprieve. The reprieve came, but a notoriously antisemitic brigadier by the name of Louis Bols complained about Patterson’s interference to General Shea. Shea summoned Patterson and, rather than discipline him, revealed that his children were great fans of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. The Jewish Legion fought well, and Palestine was liberated from the Turks. But Patterson himself was the only British officer in World War One to receive no promotion at all – a result of his outspoken efforts on behalf of the Jewish People.

After the war, Patterson dedicated himself to assisting with the creation of a Jewish homeland. The achievements of the Jewish Legion gained sympathy for the cause, but there was much opposition from both Jews and non-Jews. One Jewish delegation, seeking to explore an alternate option of creating a Jewish homeland in Africa, was dissuaded after reading The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Meanwhile, against Patterson’s strenuous efforts, Bols was appointed Military Governor of Palestine, and filled the administration with antisemites who attempted to undermine the Balfour Declaration and empowered hostile elements in the Arab world.

When World War II broke out, Patterson, now an old man, fought to create another Jewish Legion. After great effort, the Jewish Infantry Brigade was approved. Aside from fighting the Germans, members of the Brigade succeeded in smuggling many concentration camp survivors into Palestine. Many other survivors had been cruelly turned away, and Patterson protested this to President Truman, capitalizing on his earlier relationship with Roosevelt. This contributed to Truman’s support for a Jewish homeland.

Patterson spent most of his later years actively campaigning for a Jewish homeland and against the British Mandate’s actions towards the Jews in Palestine. Tragically, he passed away a month before the State of Israel was created. The newly formed country would not have won the War of Independence without trained soldiers – and the soldiers were trained by veterans of Patterson’s Jewish Legion and Jewish Infantry Brigade. Colonel John Patterson had ensured the survival of the Jewish homeland. But his legacy lived on in another way, too. Close friends of his named their child after him, and the boy grew up to be yet another lion-hearted hero of Israel. His name was Yonatan Netanyahu.

Further reading:
John Patterson, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (free download)
John Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli (free download)
John Patterson, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign (free download)
Denis Brian, The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory 

With thanks to Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation

 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Har Nof Heroes

Following the appalling tragedy in Har Nof, we learned of the amazing qualities of the victims (aside from the amazing heroism of the Druze police officer Zidan Saif). It was also very impressive to see the dignified reaction of the Har Nof community. See, for example, the article in the Times of Israel, "In Har Nof, Introspection, But No Religious War". There was no attempt to attach blame to anyone other than the murderers and those who incite them. There were no claims from Har Nof residents that it was due to the sins of a different community (unlike the Satmar Rav, who claimed that the non-Zionist victims were killed in retribution for the Zionists who ascend the Temple Mount, as a lesson which would have been entirely lost due to neither group being followers of Satmar). The gratitude to Zidan Saif, including Rav Rubin attending his funeral, was genuine, not merely "to make a kiddush Hashem".

I was inspired, and not at all surprised. This was, after all, Har Nof. I spent countless Shabbosos there when I was in yeshivah, and I lived there for eight months after I got married, and I can attest that it is full of the most wonderful people. This is not a naive claim that they are all wonderful; I know of several people there of poor character. But my impression is that a larger-than-usual percentage of the population is of exceptional character.

Har Nof is a mostly charedi neighborhood in which a large proportion of the population are olim, and/or baalei teshuvah to varying degrees, and/or involved in Jewish education by choice (i.e. not because they had no other skills or general education or socially acceptable options). This means that a large proportion of the population are extremely idealistic. Add to this that many of them are Anglos, and this means (apologies for the xenophobia) that they have certain qualities that are often lacking in their Israeli co-religionists.

It was around twenty years ago, when I first started spending time in Har Nof, that I became greatly enamored of the charedi world, and began crusading for the charedi cause. At the time, someone argued to me that I was making a mistake in extrapolating from the idealistic Anglo olim/ baalei teshuvah/ mechanchim of the charedi world to the charedi world in general. I was reminded of this last week, when someone spread the inspirational account of how one woman had taken it upon herself to arrange free transportation for people to attend the funeral of Zidan Saif. The person who shared the story with me stressed that this was a charedi woman, from Beitar, using her story to score points for charedim. Upon reading about her noble deed, however, I was intrigued to see that she had arranged it by means of Facebook. If she is using Facebook - something that is banned for the charedi community - then she is certainly not typical of the charedi world!

In any case, I hope that we can all take a lesson from the wonderful qualities of all our fellow Jews who were involved in this horrible event. By doing so, this is a credit to those who tragically lost their lives.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Challenge of the Akeidah

Benyamin Reich, Akedah(A re-post from four years ago. The comments to this post are especially stimulating. On an unrelated note - it's time that the museum had a professional website, including an online reservations system. If anyone is interested in donating their services, please be in touch!)

The akeidah never used to present any problems for me. About 15 years ago a certain rabbi claimed that Avraham failed the akeidah, and that he should have protested the order, just as he protested God's destruction of Sodom. I wrote an essay in response, in which I pointed out various significant differences between the two cases, as well as the fact that from Jewish tradition as well as the text of the Torah itself it is abundantly clear that Avraham was not considered to have failed the akeidah.

Over the last few years, however, there is a question that has really been bothering me. I've been studying various literature on the topic, but so far I have not come up with a fully satisfactory answer. My studies continue, but I wanted to share my question here in the hopes that perhaps someone can suggest an answer.

My problem is with the "happy ending" of the story, where God tells Avraham not to kill Yitzchak. Was this the inevitable ending? Is it actually entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication?

Some claim this to be the case, and to be the message of the story. A teacher of mine once told me that God does not want child sacrifice, but He does want the willingness to do it. Rav Kook writes that there is a holy root to the pagan desire for child sacrifice, namely the willingness to give up everything for God, but Judaism demands this to be fulfilled differently. Shadal says that the point of the akeidah was to counter the claim by other nations that they are willing to sacrifice more than us. The akeidah showed that we are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – but God doesn’t want it.

But if child sacrifice is immoral, and it is for this reason that God does not want it, then why would we be willing to do it? If it is entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about?

On the other hand, if it is not inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, then why did the story end with God telling him not to do it? Wouldn't this give the wrong message and undermine the lesson?

I came up with another question that puts all this into sharper focus: What if God would have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov? What should Yitzchak have said? If he says no, then he is disobeying God, which doesn't sound right. But if says yes, then he is acknowledging that child sacrifice might be a legitimate way of serving God. In which case, why didn't God let Avraham follow through with it?

I have a possible approach, but I am not sure if it is satisfactory. We do believe in the principle of yeherag ve’al ya’avor. There are situations when fulfilling God’s command takes precedence over life. And obeying God’s direct command is certainly a higher religious priority than the three cardinal sins. Sometimes the right thing to do is to sacrifice life for a higher goal. The akedah teaches us that God does not normally set things up this way. That it is not generally a goal – except in certain specific cases where it may serve as a Kiddush Hashem, such as with the akedah. Maybe it can be said that it would be simply impossible for God to have asked Yitzchak to kill Yaakov, and that asking such a question is like asking whether God can create a stone that He cannot lift. Maybe it is truly inconceivable that God would want child sacrifice as a regular part of serving Him, but not that He might ask for it on a rare and significant occasion?

That's the best that I could come up with so far, but I don't think it fully answers the questions that I raised. I would welcome peoples' thoughts on this.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Scientist Who Thought That Birds Migrate to the Moon

There is a fascinating article in Wired magazine about how scientists (or natural philosophers) of earlier centuries grappled with the question of where certain birds come from in the spring and where they go in the winter. Some claimed that they spend their winters hibernating at the bottom of lakes (as is also mentioned by several commentaries in Perek Shirah, in discussing the retzifi-bird). Others proposed that they spontaneously generate from barnacles (which presented rabbinic authorities with the halachic question of whether they were kosher, and if so, which berachah should be made on them, as referenced in Shulchan Aruch; see my book Sacred Monsters for extensive discussion).

And there were other scientists who proposed that birds go to the moon. They knew that the moon was a very long way away, and realized that such a journey would take many weeks. However, since there is no air resistance or gravity in space, it would be a very easy journey, and birds could sleep through most of it.

I think that articles such as this can be of benefit for frum people who struggle with the notion of Chazal making statements about the natural world that are not consistent with modern science. Such people are under the misconception that if a person said something that is completely wrong from the perspective of modern science, then it means that they were foolish. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was prestigious scientists of great intellect that proposed such things. They were not at all foolish. They were working with the best information that they had. Being wrong does not mean being foolish.

(On a different note: If anyone is coming to Israel from the US and can bring some small or medium items for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! Also, if you are on Facebook,  please like and share https://www.facebook.com/biblicalnaturalhistory)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Man Plans, And God Laughs

Sunday October 12th was the first day of receiving visitors at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. (I can't really call it opening day, because we have not officially launched yet - we are still working on many things - but that's when we began receiving visitors.) What with it being such a significant day, not to mention chol hamoed, I made sure to approach it accordingly. In the morning, after showering, I dressed very respectably, as befitting such a day.

Man plans, and God laughs.

I walked into the museum in the morning and saw, to my horror, that the door to the cage housing the monitor lizard was open, and the monitor had escaped!

Of all the animals to escape, this was the worst. First, he is extremely valuable. Second, he is three feet long and quite vicious - not the sort of thing you want unexpectedly encountering a visitor!

After twenty minutes of frantic searching, I found him wedged behind another cage, and after another half hour of scrabbling on the floor with a stick, I managed to extract him. As I hauled him back to the cage, he demonstrated his indignation in typical reptilian style - by evacuating on my pants.

Sweaty, disheveled, dusty, and dirty, I started the day of tours. Baruch Hashem, it was very successful; we hosted nearly a hundred visitors in four groups. If people noticed the state of my clothing, they were kind enough not to comment. During one tour, I managed another mishap; one of the "tame" animals bit me quite hard during a presentation. I didn't have time to stop, so I carried on speaking, while some of the tour participants worked to stem the flow of blood from my finger and patch me up.

So much for my attempts at a fresh, clean, respectable appearance! Man plans, and God laughs.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Dangerously Presumptuous Drashos

This is not a post about climate change. I am saying that from the outset, because for some people, saying that you think that there is such a thing as man causing climate change is like saying that you eat babies, or support Obama.

Instead, this is a post about the problems of being presumptuous in interpreting the Torah.

Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran (who, intriguingly, has often written in support of Obama) argues that there is no such thing as harmful climate change caused by man. Whatever the merits of that position, what bothers me is the Torah argument that he offers in support of it:
Enviro-zealots are convinced that the current climate change signals the end of the world (or, at least, the destruction of the world as we know it), and that humanity is at fault for the impending doom (and has the power to head it off).
Some of us, though, feel that a passuk we recite daily – “Tremble before Him, all the earth; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter” (Divrei Hayomim 1 16:30) – reassures us that Hashem has built self-correcting mechanisms into nature, and that our zeal should be reserved for Torah-study and mitzvos.
The problem is not only that there does not appear to be any firm grounds for understanding this verse, "the world is fixed so that it cannot falter," as negating the possibility of harmful climate change. Even worse is that there is a long history of this very verse being used to make claims about the natural world that turned out to be mistaken. Numerous prominent Acharonim, including such luminaries as Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz, used this verse to argue that the world is stationary and that Copernicus was therefore wrong (for extensive discussion, see Jeremy Brown's excellent work, New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought.)

But it gets even more ironic. You don't need to search for an ambiguous verse that can be interpreted as telling us whether it is possible for man to harm the world. There is an explicit Midrash, based on a Scriptural exegesis, that says clearly and unambiguously that there is indeed such a danger:
“Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!” (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:1)
Is mankind causing the climate to change, with dangerous repercussions? That's not a question that Judaism can answer; it's a question for meteorologists. But is it theoretically possible, within the framework of Jewish theology, for man to harm the world in such a way as to have harmful repercussions? Absolutely. And it's not clear why so many people are religiously convinced otherwise.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bring a Group to the Museum!

The Biblical Museum of Natural History had an immensely popular Sukkot preview week, in which we received over 400 visitors, and front-page coverage in The Jerusalem Post! But now, after Sukkos, it's slow season. We would appreciate all the help that we can get in spreading the word about the museum. The museum is ideally suited to groups of adults or students in post-high school institutions. So if you teach in a yeshivah or seminary, or have a son or daughter enrolled in one, or if you are connected to any tourist groups,
please recommend that they write to info@biblicalnaturalhistory.org and book a visit!

"Rabbi Slifkin did not disappoint. Combining his well known erudite knowledge of the animal kingdom with fascinating connections to תנך and statements of חז"ל, the museum tour provided for an edifying time. The hands-on opportunities made for an enjoyable experience as well. We highly recommend it for anyone looking for a family trip that is both meaningful and fun. We look forward to returning to this wonderful museum!" - Rabbi Dr. Howard Apfel

"We all enjoyed the museum, from age 8 to 51. It was just the type of tiyul we needed - close to home, educational, fun and fascinating. (My kids all thanked me for bringing them). May you have much success!!!" - Rabbi Hillel Horovitz

"Our trip to the museum was a perfect family outing - stimulating, educational and enjoyed by all. The rare and varied exhibits were not behind glass, enabling us to get close and even touch some of them. We highly recommend a guided tour of the museum to people of all ages." - Daniel Price

"The Biblical Museum of Natural History connected us both to Nature and to Tanach (and Chazal) in ways our modern lives often don't allow. The tour also reminds us of the rich wildlife that used to roam Israel-- even as we celebrate the country's renewal and resettlement, a museum like this reminds us of a lost world, in which daily life could involve encounters with lions, bears, jackals, leopards, and more. It's Torah, it's Nature, it's an enjoyable, informative, and illuminating experience for family members of all ages!" - Rabbi Gidon Rothstein

"The Biblical Museum of Natural History is fantastic! It was an amazingly fun and educational experience. I highly recommend that people take advantage of the fact that we have a great Museum located right here in Bet Shemesh." - Lenny Solomon



Monday, October 13, 2014

The Lion Hunter of Zion Returns to Zion!


Great news today! The ashes of Colonel John Patterson were brought to Israel for burial alongside his Jewish Legion soldiers, in accordance with his dying wishes. If you don't remember who Colonel Patterson is, here is my post on him from last year:

The Lion Hunter of Zion

In his youth, King David proved his heroism by slaying a lion. He went on to put his life on the line for the Jewish People and become a hero for all Israel. Three thousand years later, another lion-hearted lion-slayer also put his life on the line for the Jewish People and became a hero for all Israel. He wasn’t even Jewish, but he was one of the greatest friends and supporters that the Jewish People ever had – and his experiences with lions assisted in numerous ways.

Colonel John Patterson was an Irish soldier and engineer assigned to Kenya by the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. His job was to supervise the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo river for a massive railroad project. Unfortunately, railroad workers were constantly being slaughtered by the most notorious man-eating lions in recorded history. Two maneless but huge lions, working together, were estimated to have killed and eaten well over a hundred people working on the railroad.
Night after night, Patterson sat in a tree, hoping to shoot the lions when they came to the bait that he set for them. But the lions demonstrated almost supernatural abilities, constantly breaking through thorn fences to take victims from elsewhere in the camp, and seemingly immune to the bullets that were fired at them.

Patterson was faced with the task of not only killing the lions, but also surviving the wrath of hundreds of workers, who were convinced that the lions were demons that were inflicting divine punishment for the railroad. At one point, Patterson was attacked by a group of over a hundred workers who had plotted to lynch him. Patterson punched out the first two people to approach him, and talked down the rest!

After many months, Patterson eventually shot both lions. He himself was nearly killed in the process on several occasions, such as when one lion that he had shot several times suddenly leaped up to attack him as he approached its body. He published a blood-curdling account of the episode in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which became a best-seller, and earned him a close relationship with US President Roosevelt.

Upon returning to England, Patterson was a hailed as a hero. When World War One broke out, however, Patterson traveled to Egypt and took on a most unusual task: forming and leading a unit of Jewish soldiers, comprised of Jews who had been exiled from Palestine by the Turks. As a child, Patterson had been mesmerized by stories from the Bible. He viewed this task as being of tremendous, historic significance. The unit, called the Zion Mule Corps, was tasked with providing supplies to soldiers in the trenches in Gallipoli. Patterson persuaded the reluctant War Office to provide kosher food, as well as matzah for Passover, and he himself learned Hebrew and Yiddish in order to be able to communicate with his troops. The newly-trained Jewish soldiers served valiantly, but the campaign against the Turks in Gallipoli was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Zion Mule Corps was eventually disbanded.

In 1916 Patterson joined forces with Vladimir Jabotinsky to create a full-fledged Jewish Legion in the British Army, who would fight to liberate Palestine from the cruel reign of the Ottoman Empire and enable the Jewish People to create a home there. The War Minister, Lord Derby, succumbed to anti-Zionist agitators and attempted to prevent the Jewish Legion from receiving kosher food, from serving in Palestine, and from having “Jewish” in their name. Patterson promptly threatened to resign and risked a court-martial by protesting Derby’s decision as a disgrace. Derby backed down and Patterson’s Jewish Legion was successfully formed. During training, Patterson again threatened the War Office with his resignation if his men (many of whom were Orthodox) were not allowed to observe Shabbos, and again the army conceded. Meanwhile, Patterson brought Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook to address and inspire his troops.

Patterson clashed repeatedly with antisemitic officers in the British Army. Once, when a visiting brigadier called one of his soldiers “a dirty Jew,” Patterson demanded an apology, ordering his men to surround the brigadier with bayonets until he did so. The apology was produced, but Patterson was reprimanded by General Allenby. On another occasion, Patterson discovered that one of his Jewish soldiers had been sentenced to execution for sleeping at his post. Patterson circumvented the chain of authority and contacted Allenby directly in order to earn a reprieve. The reprieve came, but a notoriously antisemitic brigadier by the name of Louis Bols complained about Patterson’s interference to General Shea. Shea summoned Patterson and, rather than discipline him, revealed that his children were great fans of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. The Jewish Legion fought well, and Palestine was liberated from the Turks. But Patterson himself was the only British officer in World War One to receive no promotion at all – a result of his outspoken efforts on behalf of the Jewish People.

After the war, Patterson dedicated himself to assisting with the creation of a Jewish homeland. The achievements of the Jewish Legion gained sympathy for the cause, but there was much opposition from both Jews and non-Jews. One Jewish delegation, seeking to explore an alternate option of creating a Jewish homeland in Africa, was dissuaded after reading The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Meanwhile, against Patterson’s strenuous efforts, Bols was appointed Military Governor of Palestine, and filled the administration with antisemites who attempted to undermine the Balfour Declaration and empowered hostile elements in the Arab world.

When World War II broke out, Patterson, now an old man, fought to create another Jewish Legion. After great effort, the Jewish Infantry Brigade was approved. Aside from fighting the Germans, members of the Brigade succeeded in smuggling many concentration camp survivors into Palestine. Many other survivors had been cruelly turned away, and Patterson protested this to President Truman, capitalizing on his earlier relationship with Roosevelt. This contributed to Truman’s support for a Jewish homeland.

Patterson spent most of his later years actively campaigning for a Jewish homeland and against the British Mandate’s actions towards the Jews in Palestine. Tragically, he passed away a month before the State of Israel was created. The newly formed country would not have won the War of Independence without trained soldiers – and the soldiers were trained by veterans of Patterson’s Jewish Legion and Jewish Infantry Brigade. Colonel John Patterson had ensured the survival of the Jewish homeland. But his legacy lived on in another way, too. Close friends of his named their child after him, and the boy grew up to be yet another lion-hearted hero of Israel. His name was Yonatan Netanyahu.

Further reading:
John Patterson, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (free download)
John Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli (free download)
John Patterson, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign (free download)
Denis Brian, The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Come Visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

The Biblical Museum of Natural History will be starting to take visitors this chol hamoed! The museum showcases the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects of Scripture, including both live and inanimate exhibits, as well as featuring related zoological topics from the Talmud. It provides an educational encounter that is designed to inspire and educate visitors young and old. The personal guided tour includes some hands-on encounters!

The museum is not yet fully finished, but we are sufficiently set up to offer a great experience. So if you are visiting Israel this Sukkos, now is an opportunity not to be missed! Visits are only via reservation; currently there are slots for hour-long English tours on Sunday, Monday at 10am, much of Tuesday, and Wednesday morning. Hebrew tours are on Monday, beginning at 11am. (You can also, of course, visit after Sukkos, when things will be much quieter!)

Admission fees are as follows:
Adults (age 18 and up) 40 NIS
Children (3 - 18) 30 NIS
Children below age 3 FREE
Senior citizen, Student, Soldier, Policeman, Handicapped 30 NIS

The Biblical Museum of Natural History is located at 5 Rechov Ha-Tzaba Street, in the northern industrial zone of Beit Shemesh.

Please see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org for more details, and let us know which slot you are interested in.

See you at the museum!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Closing the Book on the Ban

This week marks ten years since the controversial ban on my books. It was ten years ago that I received the phone call warning me to retract three of my books or face scandal and humiliation; ten years ago, on erev Yom Kippur, that flyers condemning my books as heresy appeared in certain shuls in Ramat Beit Shemesh. This was followed by a year and a half of raging controversy, and extreme turmoil in the lives of many people.

Ten years on, it has completely died down. The zealots who engineered the ban have been publicly disgraced. The rabbonim who signed on to the ban were taken aback at how it blew up in their faces and had many negative consequences. Meanwhile, I wrote an essay in which I accepted that the ban, if interpreted as a sort of social policy, should be understood and respected. The new editions of my books are not targeted at the charedi world - I wrote this explicitly in The Challenge Of Creation - and therefore do not pose a threat.

While the controversy was swirling, I started writing a book about it. Recently, someone urged me to complete it and publish it. But I have no plans to do so, even though it would no doubt gain much publicity and be a bestseller. Allow me to explain why.

My major project in life, for the foreseeable future, is The Biblical Museum of Natural History. Unlike my books about science, this is something that can benefit every type of person. It is as universal as my book on Perek Shirah, which was never banned, and my input to the Schottenstein Talmud, which remains in place. There is nothing controversial about the museum, no reason for anyone to avoid it. And I want it to remain that way.

The museum is bigger than me; I am not the only member of staff. Many visitors (especially Israelis) won't even see me! Still, as its creator and director, I am, to a certain degree, significantly associated with it. I therefore want it to be clear that I am making a fundamental bifurcation in my career. The museum will be entirely non-controversial. There will be no dinosaur fossils, and nothing relating to evolution. My so-called controversial books will not even be on display in the gift store. They will remain in print and will be available for those who are suited to them, but the museum is not the place to market them. The museum website does not and will not link to this blog (and I am probably going to be posting less and less on this blog).

It's time to close the book on the ban and move on. Hopefully, everyone else will realize that this is to everyone's benefit.

I wish you all a gemar chasima tovah!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Providence - Again!

Is everything that happens in our life providential? Is it all bashert? Is it all part of God's plan for us?

According to the great rationalist medieval scholars, generally not. (I discuss their views in The Challenge of Creation.)

But it's very hard for me to accept that perspective, because I see so much providence in my own life. I once wrote a post, "Providence In My Life," about how the various nefarious zealots who campaigned ten years ago to destroy Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and myself all met their downfall in ways that delegitimized their "holy" mission. In this post, I'd like to discuss a different example.

Many years ago, when I was in the shidduch parashah, I started out with a very clear picture of what I was looking for. After many, many encounters which I really hoped and thought would work out, but didn't, I was beginning to despair of ever getting married. Then Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein suggested that I meet someone, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. My wife is not someone who conforms to my original (silly) criteria, and she doesn't even particularly like animals, but she is an amazing person who is good for me in ways that I never originally realized were so important.

When we were house-hunting, I very much wanted to find something with sufficient garden space to house my ever-increasing collection of unusual animals. That is not easy to find in Ramat Beit Shemesh, but I had an idea which, while not ideal, seemed to be the only possible option. I worked on it for months, trying to persuade the owner to sell, and it was going through, but then it fell through at the very last moment. I was extremely disappointed, and despaired of ever being able to find the type of place that I was looking for. Then someone showed me a home only a hundred yards from my apartment, which I had never realized was suitable. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

A few years ago, I began developing plans for a Biblical Museum of Natural History. For a year I was actively looking for a suitable temporary site, which was not easy to find. Six months ago I was recommended a building under construction in the nearby moshav of Zanoach. This seemed to be a good, and indeed the only, option, and my partner and I spent a long time working towards it. I even rented two rooms next to the building site and moved my entire collection of animals and artifacts over, in preparation to move into the building. Then, at the last minute, the whole thing fell through, due to technical obstacles. We were pretty devastated. We looked at several alternatives, and nothing was even close to fitting our requirements. I despaired of ever finding a suitable location. My wife pointed out to me that I had also despaired of finding a wife and a home, and that had worked out well, but with ruthless rationalist logic, I responded that this did not necessarily mean that this would happen every time.

Then, at the end of a whole day of scouring completely inappropriate locations, my partner noticed a "for rent" sign. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a building that was vastly more suitable than the one in Zanoach. And the rest, as they say, is history - The Biblical Museum of Natural History.

According to the strictly rationalist Rishonim, it would be wrong to view any of this as providential. But I can't help viewing it all that way!

More details about the museum to come!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Shofar Mistake

No time to write a post today, so I decided to re-post this hilarious post from two years ago. Wishing you all a year of health, happiness, and success!

My youngest child came home from gan with the following picture:


My eldest child, aged nine, pointed out a glaring mistake (I am so proud of her!) Can you spot it? I'm amazed at how many people I meet who have this misconception! (UPDATE: I am not referring to the fact that the head looks like that of a deer rather than a ram!)

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Avodah

We all have areas in which we need to improve and work on ourselves. Often, these are very private matters that we don't talk about to others. However, I am going to share with you something that is one of my areas of personal struggle. The reason why I am publicizing it is that it is something that is quite clearly important for everyone, from a Jewish and every other perspective. Rambam, in particular, stresses its importance as a path to God. If one doesn't do it, one is likely directly and indirectly falling foul of numerous Torah and rabbinic directives. And yet many people in the Orthodox community do not show any concern whatsoever about it. I'm not being "holier than thou"; I freely acknowledge that I myself am very, very bad at this, even though I have been told (and I intellectually recognize) that it is extremely important for me. I can make all kinds of excuses, but they are inadequate. Bli neder, I am going to try to work on this area, and b'ezras Hashem, which will only be helpful if I make the effort, I shall improve at it.

Can you guess what I'm talking about?

Scroll down for the answer...









Exercise.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Who Doesn't Adopt "Modern" Values?

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, whom I greatly respect for many reasons quite aside from his being my shadchan, posted an article on Cross-Currents entitled Modern Orthodoxy Can Do Better. Amongst the points that he raised in the article was that if values are taken from contemporary non-Jewish society, then how are they timeless, Jewish values? "Why these values? How many other values in human civilization have come and gone?"

I think that he raises an excellent point - just look at the advertisement pictured here, which reflects the values of fifty years ago. On the other hand, a good friend of mine called Joseph submitted a lengthy and very interesting comment. Unfortunately it got lost in cyberspace, and nobody is looking at that post anymore, so I decided to present it as a guest post:
...As to the key point Rabbi Adlerstein raises, perhaps a little more self-awareness is in order. Were both he and Dr Brody planted in fifth century Mehoza, I'm not convinced he would find the adjustment to the then-prevalent value system much easier than his modern orthodox companion.

More to the point, it is important to note that many of the areas in which modern orthodoxy differs from charedism are in the realm of implementation rather than values. I remember a talmid of Rav Ruderman telling me that one of the reasons his rebbe sanctioned college study was his conviction that the professions were more likely to guarantee an "umanus kala unekiya" than the world of business. While this per se is obviously not a sign of modern orthodoxy, the idea that current circumstances warrant a change in traditional curricula (and not due to a commitment to modern values) is rejected by much of the charedi world.

And even in many of those areas where modern orthodoxy does differ ideologically from its charedi counterpart, that is often because the former emphasizes values that, while not in vogue in recent centuries in eastern Europe, have a strong precedent in the rishonim (e.g. contributing to yishuv ha'olam as an ideal, "rationalism" broadly defined at the expense of mysticism etc.).

Moving on to areas in which the values embraced by modern orthodoxy really are "modern" in terms of pedigree, it is worth reiterating that the difference is usually one of degree rather than kind. As much as they may protest otherwise, I would submit that few contemporary charedim would be able to stomach the punishments that the gedolei harishonim imposed on sinners of various sorts in medieval Spain or even slavery, which few great authorities disapproved of a mere two centuries ago. Even Rav Kook sought to forbid female suffrage, yet I imagine that many charedi women would be most aggrieved at anyone attempting to deny them that right nowadays. And when a charedi is embarrassed by the primitivism displayed by a contemporary gadol who believes that jews and non-jews have a different number of teeth, he's being distinctly "modern" too.

Thus the question is not whether we adopt "modern" values, but how. And it is here that the best of modern orthodox thought (and I include Rav Kook in that category) can help us. Firstly, the insight that the moral development of society is one that is at least inflected with sparks of the divine provides the basis of the claim that, in certain circumstances, we should be positively oriented towards such progress. The Charedi author Devorah Heshelis' book "The moon's lost light" (which bears haskamos from rabbis far to the right of Rabbi Adlerstein) provides one possible hashkafic model along these lines.

One only has to read Steven Pinker's "The better angels of our nature" to realize that many of the moral horrors that enlightenment values have stamped out are equally horrible by R. Adlerstein's lights as they are by Dr. Brody's.

To take an example with particular contemporary salience, I can’t imagine even the staunchest apologists defending the following teshuva (108), on what we would regard from the Chavos Yair, in which he permits a pauper to send his daughter to be molested by an “arel” for financial gain: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=857&st=&pgnum=129&hilite= Do we have a greater appreciation of Torah values than one of the greatest poskim of three centuries ago? Of course not; we have simply (for want of a better word) become “modernised”, and Baruch Hashem for that.

And let it not be thought that integrating values garnered from the outside world is a modern orthodox invention. The dedication to philosophical endeavor displayed by so many medieval authorities was entirely absent from Chazal's milieu. The proto-democratic political philosophy espoused by the Abarbanel owes more to his contemporaries than it does to the medrashim. And, less salubriously, the Ralbag's disdain for women is entirely in consonance with the views of the society he operated in.

So how should we decide when society's "values" should be ours? I see no easy answer to this question but it is certainly true that we should seek to ensure that the moral impulses underpinning our worldview have the sanction of Torah authorities. That does not mean that in retrospect every value subscribed to by those authorities will be upheld by those inspired by them: there should be no shame in admitting that Rav Kook's attitudes on women's suffrage have been surpassed. And neither does it mean that we simply adhere to (or even revere) the moral outlook of the "greatest" talmidei chachamim of our day. I will never be the equal of R. Aharon Teitelbaum in learning, but I will not hesitate to utterly condemn his views on sexual abuse, and my attitude would be no different were he the only gadol batorah alive, no matter how much more semblance his approach bears to many early responsa on the issue than mine does. I have equally little truck with a socioeconomic model that forces thousands of families into poverty, and my critique was no less strident before I learned that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shares my view.

Sometimes right is just right and wrong is just wrong, and as Rav Kook taught us, it's not always the elite talmidei chachamim who are best at figuring this out. Yet none of this negates the need to ascertain that the foundations of our worldview are in concert with Hashem's will. When it comes to condemning the aforementioned socioeconomic model (and its inevitable consequence - massive welfare dependency), we need not go further than Chazal. But when it comes to "new" issues, such as women's suffrage, we are guided by the fact that gedolim from Rav Uziel onwards confirm our moral and spiritual intuitions. We are no better served by denying the complex interplay of factors that go into our moral decisions, regardless of the community we choose to associate with.
Food for thought. See too my post Ever Changing Morality.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tooting My Own Horn

It's shofar season, so if you haven't read my illustrated essay on exotic shofars and how they shed light on hilchos shofar, you might want to download it (free) at http://zootorah.com/essays. It has lots of unusual insights on everything from oliphaunts to jackalopes! If you are interested in purchasing any exotic shofars, I will have some for sale at the Biblical Natural History Experience next to Beit Shemesh; you will also be able to see my entire (and ever-growing) collection, which I'm pretty sure is the largest in the world, on display. During my recent globe-trotting, I acquired another artifact from the animal kingdom that makes the same sound as a shofar, but is not kosher to use as a shofar - can you guess what it is? Hint: There is a second-degree connection to the Mishkan.

On a different note: If anyone would like to volunteer to quickly put together an extremely basic website for the Biblical Natural History Experience, that would be greatly appreciated. And if anyone is making a shipment to Israel from the US and can put a flat-pack heavy animal cage in it, that would also be great! You can reach me at zoorabbi@zootorah.com.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Guest Post: What are the Challenges of a Kosher Parnassa?


A guest post by Marty Bluke of The Jewish Worker

The English edition of Mishpacha Magazine this past week had an article saying that people who earn a living need to make sure that they put fear of heaven before parnassa. While the overall message is a good one, I believe that the examples used were very poor and showed a complete lack of understanding of the real challenges a frum person has when working.

The two examples given of challenges were davening mincha with a minyan and not shaking women's hands. IMHO the author completely missed the point with these examples.

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest challenge when working is the issue of stealing. I don't necessarily mean directly stealing money (although unfortunately that happens a lot as well, see for example Ocean County attorney admits role in Facebook scheme), what I do mean is stealing indirectly. For example, not working the amount of hours that you are being paid for, taking long lunch or Mincha breaks, wasting time at work, misusing company resources, etc. Chazal were very concerned abut this issue, so much so that they said (Berachos 14a, Shulchan Aruch Siman 90) that workers who worked high up in trees should daven mincha up in the tree so as not to waste their employers time by climbing down and then climbing back up.

If I had to suggest something related to arayos, it would not be shaking women's hands. I follow the psak of my Rabbeim that if a woman extends her hand you shake it as quickly as possible. I have found that in these situations, I am so nervous about this (thinking whether she will extend her hand or not) that this totally occupies my mind and I have no pleasure at all from the handshake, in fact it is almost painful. If there was an issur related to arayos that I would bring up it would be the issur of yichud. So many of the sexual abuse scandals that have come up in recent years would have been prevented if people simply kept hilchos yichud.

As with many things, it seems that the Charedi mindset is that a chumra is always better especially if it is Bein Adam LaMakom. However, the fact is that many chumras are kulas in a different area. The 2 mentioned in the article are good examples.

While davening mincha with a minyan is an important thing, it is at best a chiyuv midrabbanan while stealing from your employer however, is an issur d'oraysa. If it takes you 10 minutes to walk to Mincha 25 minutes to daven (because after all you need to daven slowly with kavana etc.) and 10 minutes to walk back (45 minutes) you are probably stealing from your employer, as he may be willing to give you 10-15 minutes for mincha but not 45. We see this message clearly from Chazal as they permitted workers to daven mincha up in the tree so as not to cheat the employer and allowed workers to skip parts of bentching for the same reason. You see clearly from the Gemara in Berachos (14a) that Chazal were much more concerned about not cheating your employer which is a sin of bein adam lchaveiro and therefore has no kapara until you pay the person back then mitzvos bein adam lamakom like davening and bentching where they instituted leniencies for workers.

Regarding not shaking hands with a women, again the issue is not as clear cut as the author makes it out to be. While the Chazon Ish is machmir other poskim are lenient and they are lenient in part because of the concern for embarrassing the woman. If a woman sticks out her hand and you refuse to shake it, it can be very embarrassing especially in a public setting. Embarrassing someone is a very serious aveira, Chazal equate it to killing someone. In Parshas Vayeishev, Tamar is willing to be killed in order not to embarrass Yehuda and Rashi quotes Chazal who praise her for this. So in fact, you can say that someone who shakes a woman's hand is machmir in bein adam l'chaveiro.

Finally, I would like to take issue with the first story that the author wrote. He wrote that he was in a shul in Yersushalayim for Rosh Chodesh bentching, davening next to a kollel avreich, and while the avreich had kavana when he said חיים של פרנסה he had much more kavana when he said חיים שיש בהם יראת שמים. The point being that יראת שמים is much more important then פרנסה.

IMHO, you see from Chazal that they thought פרנסה was very important and in fact a prerequisite for יראת שמים.  The Gemara in Kiddushin (29b) states explicitly that a father who does not teach a son a trade is teaching him to become a thief. Unfortunately, today we see this too often where people have no way of making a living end up resorting to less then honest means to make money.

There is an obvious question that we can ask about davening for חיים שיש בהם יראת שמים. The Gemara states that הכל ביד שמים חוץ מיראת שמים, that יראת שמים is the one thing that is for sure in our hands and not in Hashem's hands. If so, how can we daven for יראת שמים?

The Maharsha asks this question on the Gemara in Berachos (10a). The Gemara tells a story about a group of thugs who were bothering R' Meir. R' Meir was going to daven that they should die, however his wife, Beruria, told him that instead he should daven that they do teshuva which he did, and they did teshuva. The Maharsha asks our question from above, how could R' Meir daven that the thugs should do teshuva, isn't that under the rubric of יראת שמים?

The Maharsha asks this question on a Gemara at the end of Moed Katan(28a) (that was just learned in Daf Yomi) as well. The Gemara states that Rava davened that he should become an ענו like Rabba Bar Rav Huna (his prayer was not answered). The Maharsha points out that ענוה should fall under the rubric of יראת שמים and therefore how could Rava daven for it?

R' Moshe Feinstein in Iggros Moshe (as well as others) answers that you cannot daven directly for יראת שמים, that is only in your hands. However, you can daven that Hashem should remove any obstacles that you have that may prevent you from achieving יראת שמים. Interestingly enough the example R' Moshe gives is parnassa, he says that the thugs were thugs because they had no parnassa, once R' Meir davened for them and they received parnassa they did teshuva. We see that parnassa is a key blocker in achieving יראת שמים.

In fact, based on the above, it makes more sense to daven for parnassa than יראת שמים because יראת שמים can only come from you, while parnassa comes from Hashem and is a prerequisite to יראת שמים and therefore it makes sense to daven for it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Frum Ways To Die

Following the previous discussion of how some people deny the potentially fatal risks involved in metzizah b'peh, I was sad to see a new report about another way in which certain frum people endanger the wellbeing and lives of their (and our) children. The Baltimore Jewish Times reports (p. 1, 2) on the phenomenon of people who refuse to vaccinate their children. It was depressing to see that no less a figure than Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, the most moderate and least anti-rationalist Gadol B'Torah in the charedi world, is supporting these people:
According to Dr. Linda Grossman, bureau director for clinical services at the Baltimore County Department of Health, independent schools that operate under Maryland laws have the same policy. She says that some Jewish day school parents claim religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.
“I’m not aware though of any religious reasons not to vaccinate in Judaism,” she said. Beginning this fall, two additional vaccines are being phased in statewide. Kindergarteners will now be required to receive an additional dose of the chicken pox vaccine, and seventh-grade students must receive the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis as well as one dose of a vaccine against meningitis.
“There are far worse consequences to not vaccinating as compared with vaccinating,” said Grossman, reiterating her hope that parents do not claim religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.
R.B. encountered significant difficulties when she claimed a religious exemption at a local boys’ day school. Before her son began school, she contacted someone at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as the state attorney general’s office, to inquire about Maryland’s laws regarding religious exemptions.
“They said that the school could not refuse to accept a religious exemption,” she related. “But then school started and the nurse called. She said the school didn’t accept religious exemptions. I told her they had to accept them so she said I would have to speak with the principal.”
R.B. reached out to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, founder and dean of the Talmudical Academy of Philadelphia, whose wife, Temi, speaks out against vaccinating children. The rabbi wrote a letter on R.B.’s behalf, leading to her son’s principal relenting and apologizing.
When reached by phone, both Kamenetzkys confirmed their belief that vaccinations, not the diseases they prevent, are harmful.
“There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all,” said the rabbi. “I see vaccinations as the problem. It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine [against polio] is a hoax. It is just big business.”
Kamenetzky says he follows the lead of Israeli Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky, who rules that schools “have no right to prevent unvaccinated kids from coming to school.”
Normally, I don't mind if people have views that run counter to modern science. It doesn't really affect or bother me that Rav Chaim Kanievsky says that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth. But in this case, it's everyone else's children who are put at risk.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What Does That Penn Study Actually Conclude?

In yesterday's post, Suckers for Strawmen, I responded to an article entitled "A scientific perspective on ‘A New York circumcision controversy,’ by Dr. Daniel Berman, Professor Brenda Breuer, and Professor Awi Federgruen. In support of their claim that there is no reason to believe that metzizah b'peh is dangerous, they wrote as follows:
A 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, moreover, analyzed the relevant evidence and all the prevailing literature and concluded [emphasis added - N.S.] that: “This evidence base is significantly limited by a very small number of reported infections, most of which were not identified or documented systematically. Other important limitations include incomplete data about relevant elements of the cases, the presence of confounding factors, and indirect data sources.”
I took a look at the University of Pennsylvania study, which most readers won't do. Here is the concluding paragraph:
Neonatal HSV infection can cause severe morbidity and death, so mitigating potential risks for infection is critical. Current evidence suggests that direct orogenital suction during ritual circumcision was the likely source of infection in recent cases that resulted in significant illness and death. Future research using cohort or case-control designs that fully capture all of the relevant data are needed to more rigorously examine this association.
In light of a misrepresentation such as this, it's all the more remarkable that the authors describe themselves as "disinterested medical and statistical expert witnesses."

For a thorough dissection of all the errors and flaws in the article, see the Rationalist Medical Halachist's extensive new post, "MBP Again! A Scientific Perspective?"

UPDATE: It turns out the University of Penn has already publicly criticized these people for distorting this study. Joel Betesh, project director of the study, stated, “I do not agree with the way they are portraying our report.” See this article in the Forward, "Penn Researchers Charge Orthodox Misused Report on Circumcision Rite."

UPDATE II: It was pointed out that the writers were actually referring to an earlier unpublished version of the Penn paper rather than the published version. First of all, this itself is dishonest. Second, even the earlier version is not in line with these writers' claims. Here is the final paragraph from the earlier version (from here):
Neonatal infection with HSV-1 carries a risk for potentially severe morbidity, including the possibility of death, so exposure to infection should be carefully considered. The available evidence indicates that circumcision with direct orogenital suction may be a risk factor for infection, but this evidence base is small and significantly limited. Hopefully, future studies will provide additional evidence on this and other risk factors for neonatal HSV-1 infection.

Another View On How Torah Protects

A few years ago, in a post entitled What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects? , I discussed the concept that Torah protects from har...