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


A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to...