Monday, June 30, 2014

So Sad

So sad. I have no words. I can't imagine how painful this must be for the families.

May Hashem help the IDF avenge their blood.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Yeeeooowww!!!

Here's a video clip from my exciting leopard encounter on Friday. If you're reading this via e-mail subscription, you'll have to go to www.rationalistjudaism.com in order to watch it:


And here's a picture of one of my mementos from the experience:


Thanks to Dr. Whats-her-name Jewish Doctor Neighbor for giving me a tetanus booster! And thanks to Rabbi Gavin Michal for taking me around.

"Be as brazen as a leopard... to fulfill the will of your Father in Heaven." (Mishnah, Pirkei Avos)

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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home

Friday, June 27, 2014

Close Encounters of the Feline Kind

I had a great encounter with some quasi-tame leopard cubs today:


The leopards were very, very feisty. My internet connection is slow, so I don't know when I'll be able to upload the video. Suffice it to say that it provides an entertaining explanation of why I needed a lot of antibiotic cream today. Don't worry, it's just a flesh wound.

There are other felids that I got to meet today. Bet you don't know what this is:


It's a serval. Servals are African cats of medium size, which are so agile that they can leap to catch birds on the wing.

Wishing you all a restful Shabbos!


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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

It's Time For Africa!

I just arrived in South Africa. My group arrives on Monday, but I came a few days early to do some lecturing, filming and procuring items for the museum. Today, I visited the Rhino & Lion Reserve, which is not exactly "the wild," but it's a great place for photography and filming. I had a close encounter with a very ugly and unusually inquisitive marabou stork:


Like all storks, marabou storks are predatory (and thus non-kosher), and they can be particularly aggressive, sometimes killing flamingos. I was somewhat nervous when this stork started poking his beak around my midsection. I realized that he was looking for food, and also water. So I turned on a nearby faucet, and he happily gulped the water down:



Here's a lucky shot that I took of a leopard yawning:


It was only after I transferred this photo to my laptop, and zoomed in, that I saw the most remarkable part of it. Once, I had my hand licked by a cheetah, and it was quite painful. Cats have sharp backward-facing spines on their tongue, called papillae, which they use for shredding meat from a carcass. The bigger the cat, the bigger the papillae. Zooming in on this yawning leopard shows the papillae very clearly:


Ouch!

Meanwhile, here's another picture that I took, of a lion cub tearing at some meat. Note his sharp claws protruding from their sheaths:


For the next two weeks, my posts are going to be light on the Rationalist Judaism and heavy on the wildlife!

(Thanks to Rabbi Gavin Michal for driving me around.)

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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Function of Prayer and Tehillim

I've been getting sidetracked a lot on this blog, writing on various matters relating to politics, and I'm going to be getting sidetracked again, posting pictures and reports from my Africa trip. But I do have a list of topics about Rationalist Judaism that I plan to address, and in this post I will deal with one of them.

As we have discussed before, one of the main differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought in Judaism relates to the function of mitzvos. According to the rationalist approach, prevalent amongst the Rishonim and best expressed by Rambam, all mitzvos serve one or more of three purposes: teaching us concepts, improving our characters, or improving society. There is nothing else that mitzvos do, because there is nothing else that they can do. Mitzvos can only affect our minds and personalities.

According the mystical approach, on the other hand, while mitzvos can do all of the above, that is only a relatively minor aspect of their function. Their primary function is to manipulate various spiritual metaphysical forces.

(It is crucial to stress that my goal - and I believe this should be everyone's goal - is not to delegitimize either approach. Rather it is to help people understand that both approaches have a long history to them, and are both part of Torah Judaism.)

Previously, we have discussed numerous examples of this difference. Mezuzah, according to the rationalist Rishonim, serves as a reminder of our duties; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it provides metaphysical protection. Netilas yadayim, according the rationalist Rishonim, cleanses our bodies and puts us in a fresh frame of mind; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it exorcises harmful spirits. Shiluach hakein, according to the rationalist Rishonim, is all about compassion; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it is about manipulating the celestial court. Studying Torah, according to the rationalist Rishonim, is about understanding Judaism, improving our characters and improving society; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it is about creating spiritual energy.

I would like to introduce another example: prayer. This is a complex topic, but without getting into too much detail here, we can say as follows: According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God. According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, prayer is primarily about manipulating various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world.

What about Tehillim? This is an interesting case, which I think also expresses the difference between the two schools of thought. According to the rationalist approach, Tehillim such as those commonly recited after tefillah in a time of crisis - e.g. Shir lama'alos esa einai - are effectively a form of prayer, and function in the same way. On the other hand, the concept of reciting the entire book of Tehillim, which includes those that solely consist of praise, would be done by adherents of the mystical school. They perceive mystical benefit in all the chapters, and even more so in the unit of the entirety of Tehillim. (Rationalists would also see a benefit here, but of a different sort - in the emotional effects.)

Again, I must stress that I think nobody should try to delegitimize either approach. This also means that nobody should try to impose their own approach on others. It's different strokes for different folks.

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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The "Bring Back Our Boys" Slogan

The sharp shock is transitioning into a dull ache, and the realization is setting in that this could be a long haul. We need to think about a long-term approach to helping our boys. The main strategy in maintaining awareness about the situation appears to involve spreading the slogan "#Bring Back Our Boys."

Personally, I have to say that I dislike that slogan on a number of levels (which may relate to my being British, I don't know). I feel that it is trivializing the most serious of situations, reducing it to a soundbite and an internet meme. But it seems that in a world that has become enamored with Twitter, Facebook and hashtags, and which has a short attention span, this is the way to develop and maintain awareness.

Being very pedantic/ yekkish about precision in language, I also think that the formulation of the slogan is not necessarily ideal. It was lifted from the slogan #Bring Back Our Girls, developed in response to the tragic kidnapping of 200 kidnapped Nigerian girls. "Bring back" is a request, or command, directed to others. I don't know who invented it, but my understanding was that it was directed towards the West, to bring about political/military pressure to rescue them. When I saw the famous picture of Michelle Obama holding the sign, my first thought was, "Who is she talking to? Her husband?" Yet it's become an effective succinct way to raise awareness in the wider world, and as such, "#Bring Back Our Boys" is a valuable slogan for our global campaign.

But what about when it is not a matter of raising global consciousness, but instead when we are talking amongst each other? I don't think that "Bring Back Our Boys" is the best way of phrasing it. As religious Jews, who exactly are we addressing when we say "Bring back our boys"? It makes most sense to be addressing Hashem, but then it should be phrased as a plea rather than a demand, and it's inappropriate to be doing so with a picture of a sign with a hashtag.

At the same time, I think that it is important for all religious Jews to be aware of how we hope Hashem to bring them back. I formulated a prayer, with which I have been signing off my posts, which says "Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home." Someone criticized this, telling me that I shouldn't be dictating to Hashem how He should bring them back. But I think that it is important to be aware of how we hope and expect it to happen. Obviously it's not going to be via Hamas having a change of heart. It could be via the political method of a prisoner exchange, but that is far from ideal, and isn't even on the cards at the moment. What we are really hoping for is for the IDF to perform a spectacular rescue mission, like they did in Entebbe (but without any casualties on our side). And we should remember that it is the soldiers of the IDF who are currently engaged in the difficult and dangerous task of combing through Palestinian areas to find our boys. Our prayers to Hashem to save our boys should simultaneously include a prayer for Him to help those who are making the most important and demanding efforts in this direction - both in terms of the success of their mission, and also for their own innate protection and benefit.

Still, as noted, for the wider global campaign, something universal and brief is required, and the slogan "#Bring Back Our Boys" has been adopted. As I understand it (and I am very new to this whole social media phenomenon), it is considered helpful to post this slogan everywhere, and to post pictures of people holding signs of the slogan in as many diverse locations as possible. (I've seen some pictures in which the children holding the sign are smiling, which seems very inappropriate.) I've also seen people tie three yellow ribbons to the gate of their homes.

It might seem like clutching at straws. But when three of our children have been taken, we will clutch at every straw we can find.

Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Can I Put These In My Trunk?

One of the crucial principles in identifying the various animals mentioned in Tanach is that they must be species with which the Jewish people were familiar. The animals of the Torah are gazelles and lions and storks. There are no pandas or penguins or parasaurolophuses in Scripture.

One might presume that this translates into the principle that all the animals of Scripture must be native to the Land of Israel and the surrounding region. That is approximately true, but not exactly. It is also possible to be familiar with a non-native animal if it is reported or imported.

The latter case is the scenario in one instance. King Solomon's ships brought him the following riches:
The king had a fleet of trading ships that sailed with Hiram's fleet. Once every three years the ships returned, loaded with gold, silver, ivory (shenhabim), monkeys, and peacocks. (I Kings 10:22)

Elephants and monkeys and peacocks are not native to the Land of Israel, but these items are described as having been sent in by ship.

Now, the goal of the forthcoming Biblical Museum of Natural History is to display the animals of the Torah - live exhibits for the smaller species, and taxidermy mounts for the larger ones. As such, it would be appropriate, not to mention spectacular and awe-inspiring, to display a set of elephant tusks, similar to those that King Solomon received. However, it is absolutely impossible to buy a pair of elephant tusks. Due to the problem of poaching, trade in tusks is highly illegal. The only tusks that are free from legal restrictions are those of mammoths, because mammoths are not in danger of extinction. But mammoth tusks are not suitable acquisitions for my museum for three reasons: they are crazy expensive, they are not Biblical, and they would contravene my mandate not to have anything controversial in the museum.

What to do? I'm traveling to Africa on Wednesday and I just learned of a company there which manufactures museum-quality replica elephant tusks. They look identical to the real thing and are 100% legal. They are fairly pricey, but just within the range of the museum's very tight budget. There's just one problem:


At about 30 pounds each, they are not as heavy as the real thing (which can weigh over two hundred pounds per tusk), but at around eight feet in length, shipping is extraordinarily expensive. I was wondering if I could bring them with me on the plane as an additional luggage item. El-Al's baggage rules don't have a clear policy for elephant tusks. I called El-Al, and they said that it would depend on the agents at Johannesburg airport. But it didn't look good!

Searching around further, I discovered that some slightly inferior but much cheaper replica elephant tusks can be purchased in the US. I have a good connection with El-Al in LA, as well as a greater luggage allowance, so it might be better all around to buy them in the US and to try to bring them on the plane with me when I fly back from LA in August.

Failing that, I'm going to check if any ships from King Solomon's trading fleet are still in business.

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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.

(You can support the soldiers in a practical way here.) 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Happy 100th Birthday Daas Torah!

There has always been a concept of rabbinic authority in Judaism. But the modern phenomenon of Daas Torah goes far beyond the traditional model. It extends the authority of certain rabbis into political and other worldly affairs, and it does so in inverse proportion to their experience with worldly affairs - i.e. the more that the person has been isolated from the world, the more he is said to reflect a pure Torah perspective. Furthermore, unlike classical rabbinic authority, which was expressed in terms of responsa that could be evaluated, modern Daas Torah is usually presented with no rigorous explanation or justification. Indeed, the very concept of presenting a rationale for its verdicts is often argued to be inappropriate. Modern Daas Torah also seeks to extend its authority beyond the natural communities of its various figures to the entire Jewish people.

When did the modern phenomenon of Daas Torah arise, and what lay behind its emergence? The concept of Daas Torah was first informally introduced in Hassidic circles in the late nineteenth century, as a technique to reaffirm rabbinic authority in light of the modern challenge of individual autonomy. A good date to mark the official appearance of Daas Torah in the world of Misnagdim appears to be June 19th, 1914. This is the day that Agudas Yisrael, then in the process of being formed, published certain resolutions that had been adopted.

The manifesto shows that Agudas Yisrael accepted two proposals insisted upon by the Hasidic rebbes as a precondition to joining the organization. One was that the verdicts of the Torah sages would be given without having to provide any justifications. Another was a considerable extension of the authority of the Council of Sages as against the lay leadership, to go beyond halachic questions.

It could be claimed that Daas Torah was adopted in order to ensure that the chassidic world would join and strengthen Agudas Yisrael. But it is also argued that the concept of Daas Torah had to be developed in order to justify the very existence of Agudas Yisrael, which was a modern political structure, and, perhaps more importantly, to render it superior to other Jewish organizations—in particular, Zionism and Mizrahi. Others suggest that the strengthening of the role of rabbis in non-Torah decisions at that time may have been a reaction to the Zionist approach of restricting rabbinic authority to laws of kashrut and similar such narrow provinces.

Whatever the cause, the modern Daas Torah phenomenon has certainly had a powerful impact. In the last ten years, however, it has been seriously threatened by the emergence of the internet. The internet enables people to give voice to their challenges of its pronouncements - and to their challenges of its very claim to be the traditional model of rabbinic authority. It will be interesting to see where the modern phenomenon of "Daas Torah" goes in its second century.

Further Reading:
The Making of Haredim
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein: The "Da'as" in Da'as Torah
Gershon Bacon: The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916-1939  
Lawrence Kaplan: Daas Torah, A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority
Interview with Professor Lawrence Kaplan



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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.

(You can support the soldiers in a practical way here.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

And Now For Something To Make You Smile

And now for something to make you smile. Or perhaps to make you roll on the floor crying with laughter.

Previously, I have posted certain, um, interesting pictures that my kids have brought home from school, such as "Rabbi Adam in the Garden of Eden." But this one, sent in by a reader, really takes the cake. It was brought home by his three-year-old-daughter. Behold:


I think that this must make the children very confused.

(Hat-tip: Raffi at FrumCounselor.)

On another note: If your shul has stained-glass windows depicting the Twelve Tribes, please could you send me a photo of Yehuda/lion, Naftali/deer and Binyamin/wolf, for potential inclusion in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. Thanks!

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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.

(You can support the soldiers in a practical way here.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

And Life Goes On. But We Do Not Forget.

Last night I went to a barmitzvah made by good friends of mine. They are very special people, tremendous baalei chessed, whose little girl overcame a difficult struggle with cancer. This was the barmitzvah of their oldest child, and it was a tremendous simcha.

Before I went, I was thinking how difficult it must be to make a simcha at a time like this, when everyone is in anguish over the missing boys. Does one simply switch off everything else?

My friends showed me how it's done.

The mother of the barmitzvah boy delivered a rousing speech. She spoke about the tremendous sense of love and unity that she felt with all her family and friends celebrating with them. Everyone had been there for them, helping to make this simcha happen. The emotions in the hall were almost tangible, with everyone feeling so happy together.

And then she noted that right now there are three boys who are in terror, imprisoned in some hellhole not too many miles away. With tears in her eyes and her voice cracking, she looked at her son and said, "These boys are just three years older than you!" She asked us all to seize this powerful moment, in which we were all united with our emotions, take a minute to silently beg Hashem to bring our boys back home. The entire hall fell silent as we each pleaded to Hashem in our minds.

Life goes on. We celebrate milestones, we rejoice in the blessings that God has bestowed upon us. But we do not forget our boys. And, amidst our happiness, amidst everything that we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.



Monday, June 16, 2014

What Does One Say At A Time Like This?

Someone asked me if I am going to be writing a post about the kidnapped boys. Like everyone else, I am consumed with worry, sadness, despair. But what's there to actually say?

I did draft a lengthy post about which responses classical Judaism maintains to be of help and which responses it does not maintain to be of help. But I was very, very uneasy about posting it, so I sent it to two very different people for their opinion, and both strongly advised me that now is not the time for such a discussion.

I'm not going to say what I think the IDF should do, because I'm not qualified to have any opinion on the matter, and what I say is in any case of no consequence.

I'm not going to sound off with criticisms of the Israeli government, or of the US government, because I don't see any point, and after reading "The Prime Ministers," I realize how different things are when you have to negotiate international politics.

I'm not going to post a hashtag "#bring our boys back", because I'm not personally convinced that that is a meaningful or respectful way to express solidarity, although I understand that others feel differently. And I'm certainly not going to post a "selfie" of me holding a sign with that message.

So what's there to say? Perhaps it is simply important for everyone to give public voice to their distress, and to add to raising global consciousness about the situation. (See this article by Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll for an articulate expression of the public mood.) Like everyone else, I am in anguish, and I hope and pray that our boys will return home safely. And I wish much strength and success to our troops that are working so hard, under such difficult and dangerous conditions, to get them back.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Founded on the Principles of Rav Hirsch"

Here is a quote from Ami magazine, April 30th, discussing how some schools in Antwerp are able to qualify for government subsidies and accreditation:
"The largest school, Yesodei HaTorah, boasts a student body of over 800 students, and its secular program does make the cut. Founded 120 years ago on the principles of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, it is the largest school of its kind in Europe. Teachers there have been able to include references to evolution by framing this belief as heresy rejected by Yiddishkeit."

And here is a quote from Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264, discussing how evolution is not to be rejected as heresy:
"...If this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world... Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures."
If you are going to claim that a school is founded on the principles of Rav Hirsch, it's not a good idea to contradict his principles in the very next sentence.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Big Men And Little Moons


Reader Elie Lederman sent me a fascinating approbation provided by the third Gerrer Rebbe, R. Avraham Mordechai Alter (1866-1948). This was written to a chassid of his, R. Yosef Pacanovski, better known as the Pardes Yosef. The Gerrer Rebbe explains that he is particularly fond of R. Pacanovski because he not only busies himself with Torah, but also works for a living!


The Gerrer Rebbe explains that his approval of R. Pacanovski reflects the advantage that Eisav had over Yaakov. Yaakov was called "little" and Eisav "big" because Eisav was superior in being self-supportive (he knew how to hunt his own food), whereas Yaakov relied on his father Yitzchak to feed him. The Gerrer Rebbe also refers to a comment later in Pardes Yosef, in which it is explained that the moon is called the "Small Luminary" not because of its smaller size or lesser light, but because instead of being able to produce its own light, it only uses that of the sun. It is a sign of inferiority to have to rely on others.

Incidentally, this Gerrer Rebbe was was one of the founders of Agudas Yisrael in Poland. Wouldn't it be great if the Moetzes of the Agudah today likewise said that it's better to work for a living than to study and rely on others for support?

(Note to readers in Johannesburg: If you have any time to drive me to some wildlife encounters when I come in two weeks, please be in touch. Unfortunately I am not able to make the Gerrer Rebbe proud by being big enough to drive in South Africa on my own!)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Prickly Problems and Design Dilemmas

As The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom takes shape, I've been accumulating pictures for the book. Most of the pictures are photos; the quality of wildlife photography available today, if you look hard enough for it, is truly amazing. But of course I also want to include illustrations of animals which appear in Jewish settings, such as Torah literature and synagogue architecture. In some cases this expresses the symbolism of the animal as discussed in the encyclopedia, such as the illustration of an elephant that appears on the front page of a 14th-century Sefer Devarim.

The elephant is somewhat of a rare find; much more common are classically symbolic animals such as lions and deer. But there is one animal in my encyclopedia that I was extremely surprised to find depicted in an ancient Jewish manuscript: the crested porcupine, called kuppod in the Mishnah (contrast this with the Modern Hebrew name for the hedgehog, kippod). It appears in the famous 15th-century Rothschild Miscellany, alongside a yotzer that is recited on a Shabbos on which a bris milah is performed.

But what is the connection between a porcupine and a bris milah? Is it that both involve painful incisions? That seems somewhat of a stretch! I consulted with historians of Jewish art and of Italian Jewish culture with regard to this prickly problem, and nobody was able to come up with anything. But since the same section of the Rothschild Miscellany also includes pictures of deer, leopards, and cheetahs (which, amazingly, is drawn very distinctly from the leopard), perhaps the porcupine has no particular significance, and is just a random animal. Still, the porcupine is a very different sort of creature from such heraldic creatures as deer and leopards, and it seems like somewhat of an odd choice.

(Incidentally, if you have any pictures of wild animals in synagogue architecture or Jewish manuscripts, please be in touch! If you're going to Caesaria, and can take high-quality photos of the mosaics there, that would also be helpful!)

Meanwhile, over the last two weeks I've been struggling, together with my book designer Raphael Freeman, to overcome yet another design challenge with the encyclopedia. We were grappling with the problem that sometimes it was difficult to easily and rapidly distinguish between the text written by me and the quotations from the Gemara (because sometimes there are several short quotations interspersed with brief fragments of main text).

After much thought and experiment, we came up with what seems to me to be a great solution: having a pale-colored vertical bar next to those quotations, to complement the parchment-style vertical bar next to the Scriptural quotations. This will also help the reader who is searching for a particular Gemara, as well as enhancing the aesthetics of the book (at least in our view). Please take a look at the newly revised PDF for the leopard chapter and let me know what you think!

(Don't forget, sponsorship opportunities for the encyclopedia are still available...)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shofars for Shavuos

Today's page of Daf Yomi, Rosh HaShana 26, discusses different types of animal horns that are used for shofar. If you'd like to better understand this topic, you can read my illustrated monograph, Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations, which you can freely download at this link. If you're not learning Daf Yomi, it can be interesting study material for Shavuos. Chag sameach!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Ten Questions on Evolution and Judaism

(Cross-posted at The Jewish Press)

"Heresy!" An uproar erupted from some people yesterday when the Education Ministry announced that evolution will be taught to seventh through ninth grade pupils across the state education system, including in national-religious schools. Evolution is feared by many as being heretical. But is this really the case? Here are ten questions about evolution and Judaism, along with brief answers. This does not substitute for the detailed discussion that this topic requires; it is merely intended as an introduction.

1) Evolution is alleged to have taken place over millions of years. But doesn't the Torah teach that the universe was created just a few thousand years ago?

There is a strong (albeit not universal) tradition in Judaism that "the account of creation is not all to be taken literally," to quote Maimonides. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, suggested that the Six Days of Creation were lengthy eras rather than 24-hour periods. Maimonides himself, as the commentaries on the Guide to the Perplexed reveal, was of the view that the Six Days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation.

2) Why should anyone accommodate evolution? Isn't evolution just a theory, not a fact?

"Evolution" is a confusing term, because it covers two very different concepts. One is common ancestry, the concept that all animal life arose from a common ancestor - simple organisms gave rise to fish, fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds and mammals (without getting into how that could have happened). This is supported by a wealth of converging evidence along with testable predictions. Common ancestry is considered by all scientists (except certain deeply religious ones) to be as well-established as many other historical facts, and is thus often referred to as "the fact of evolution." It is of immense benefit in understanding the natural world - for example, it tells us why whales and bats share anatomical similarities with mammals, despite their superficial resemblance to fish and birds.

The second and very different aspect of evolution is the mechanism via which one species changes into another. This is called the "theory" of evolution. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the word "theory" has a very different meaning in science than in everyday conversational English. It does not refer to wild speculation, but rather to an explanatory mechanism. Most, though not all, biologists believe that random mutations, coupled with natural selection, broadly suffice to explain this mechanism. The issue is, however, of zero religious significance, as we shall explain in the answer to the next question.

3) How can we accept scientific explanations for how animal life came about? It was God who made everything!

We have a science of meteorology, but that does not stop us from saying that God "makes the wind blow and the rain fall." We have a science of medicine, but this does not stop us from saying that God "heals the sick." We have documented history of the process involved in winning the '67 war, but this does not stop us from talking about God's miraculous hand. God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not.

4) Doesn't the Torah say that animals and man were created from the ground, not from earlier creatures?

Indeed it does. But what does that mean? The blessing recited over bread is “Blessed are You... Who brings bread out of the ground.” But what actually happens is that God created wheat, which man sows, nature grows, and man transforms into bread. Yet the blessing simplifies this in describing God as bringing bread out of the ground. By the same token, the description of God bringing animal life out of the ground can refer to His creating the raw material of nature and the natural processes that lead to the formation of animal life.

In any case, it is widely accepted today that we do not learn science from the literal meaning of Scripture - after all, Scripture describes the sky as a dome, the hare as bringing up its cud, and the kidneys and heart as housing one's mind. All these descriptions were interpreted literally by the Sages of old, and yet almost all recent Torah scholars interpret them non-literally.

5) Doesn't the notion of randomness in evolution contradict with the idea of a purposeful creation directed by God?

Judaism has always acknowledged that there are events which, in the physical world, appear to be random and happenstance. But it maintains that this does not rule out God's role behind the scenes. Indeed, this is the entire message of the Purim story! As it states in Scripture, "When the lot is cast in the lap, its entire verdict has been decided by God" (Proverbs 16:33).

6) Doesn't the Biblical concept of man being created in the image of God contradict the notion that man comes from animals?

Absolutely not! Classical Judaism has long maintained that man is not qualitatively different from animals in his physical aspects. Man's unique identity is in his spiritual soul, not in his physical body and most certainly not in his physical origins. The great medieval Torah scholars stated that man was created physically as an animal, but was given the spiritual potential to rise beyond that level. The Mishnah notes that on an individual level, we all come from a "putrid drop (of semen)," which is even less than an animal; yet we are defined not by what we come from, but rather by what we become.

7) Don't most rabbis state that evolution is heresy?

Very few leading rabbis have studied the science and have ever given the matter serious thought (and rabbis in the charedi world are not operating from the rationalist perspective that is the legacy of Maimonides and the great Torah scholars of Spain). The few rationalist-oriented rabbis who did study the topic, such as Rav Kook, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Rav Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of Chazon Ish) and Rav Aryeh Carmell, concluded that evolution is compatible with Judaism. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was personally skeptical of evolution but saw no theological problem with it: "...If this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world... Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures." ("The Educational Value of Judaism," in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)

8) Doesn't evolution go against tradition?

No more so than the notion of the earth orbiting the sun. That was also rejected by many leading rabbis from the era of Copernicus through today. Yet most religious Jews have managed to come to terms with it. The same is true of evolution, which has become widely accepted by religious Jews with a strong background in science and/or rationalist Jewish theology.

9) But aren't there many secular evolutionists who use evolution to try to attack religious principles?

Yes, unfortunately there are. But this is an abuse of science; it doesn't reflect on the science of evolution itself. This, however, is why it is important for anyone teaching evolution to understand it properly.

10) You didn't answer all my questions and objections!

Of course not. Evolution is an immensely complicated topic, to which it is impossible to do justice in a brief article. Please see my book The Challenge Of Creation (available in Jewish bookstores and at www.zootorah.com) for a very detailed discussion.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Biggest Problem Threatening The Jewish People Today

What is the biggest problem threatening the Jewish People today?

It's not intermarriage. It's not Conservative or Reform. It's not Open Orthodoxy (whatever one's views of that movement, at the end of the day it's a relatively tiny number of people). It's not the Agudah Convention's condemnation of Open Orthodoxy. It's not open-mindedness or closed-mindedness. It's not the singles crisis or even the terrible problem of child abuse.

The single biggest problem threatening the Jewish People today is probably Iran. But that's something that most of us are not in a position to do much about, save for voting for those who adequately recognize the threat. So I'd like to move on to discussing the second biggest problem threatening the Jewish People today: the economic crisis in the Israeli charedi world.

This is something that the Israeli charedi world itself is screaming about being an unprecedented catastrophe - a banner headline in the Israeli Mishpachah magazine described it as nothing less than the utter financial collapse of the charedi world. There are children who literally do not have enough food to eat. And abject poverty brings all kinds of problems in its wake. Mishpachah reports that there are hundreds of girls who are not entering shidduchim because there is no money to marry them off. Poverty in the charedi world leads to illness, to loss of shalom bayis, to theft.

But it's worse than that. Much, much worse.

The charedim blame this problem entirely on government ministers Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, and also on wealthy Americans who are not adequately bailing them out of this crisis (see this article at The Jewish Worker). But of course the real cause is that so many charedim choose not to work. The charedi community sees it as their right and even duty to largely avoid work and to be supported by the rest of Israel (see this letter explicitly making this point). But the rest of the country cannot endlessly support a community that is underemployed and rapidly growing. The longer that it takes for the government to put on the brakes, the greater the eventual catastrophe.

The consequence of the charedim failing to correctly identify the cause of the problem is that things could get vastly worse. As far as the charedim are concerned, there is no need to solve this by looking for employment, or by giving their children the schooling and desire to work for a living. Instead, this is a problem that should be solved in the next national elections. If Lapid loses seats (which will probably happen), the charedim can again join the government, offering to go along with whatever policies the next prime minister wants, provided that he gives lots of money to them. In the short run, whoever runs for prime minister finds this very helpful. In the long run, it's a disaster.

The economic crisis in the Israeli charedi world does not just threaten charedim. It threatens the entire State of Israel. It's not just a problem of poverty, as the charedi world claims; rather, it's a problem of people not being employed. This is bad enough when the charedim number about 15% of the population. But what happens as their numbers rise, with their far higher birthrate than the general population?

At the moment, fully one-third of the first-grade students in Israel are charedim, and it's a proportion that rises every year. What happens further down the line, when this is not one-third of first-graders, but one third of adults? What happens when a third of Israel's Jewish population not only does not serve in the IDF, but also lacks professional employment and does not even have high-school matriculation? Does anyone think that the economy and the country itself can survive?!

I've heard several people argue that this problem is declining with the rise of charedi college programs. But a frightening article at The Times of Israel entitled Deceptive Statistics on Charedim shows otherwise. The rise in the share of charedim who are studying towards a degree can mostly be attributed to women, who are in turn mostly only in the field of education. Most men don't attend college and don't even have high school matriculation. In the last decade, the proportion of charedim whose secular education goes no further than primary school rose from 31% to 47%. Even if such people want to acquire training and professional employment later in life, they are almost entirely incapable of doing so. Their parents have crippled them.

All this is not only a terrible problem from an economic perspective, but also from a Torah perspective. Chazal wrote about how it is better to seek a lowly trade than to cast oneself on the community for support. Chazal states that one is obligated to teach one's child a trade such that he can be economically self-sufficient. The charedi world started with a temporary override of these principles in order to rebuild the losses of the Holocaust, but has now proceeded to entirely dismiss these directives and to adopt fundamentally opposing values. They have completely deviated from the mesorah.

It's not at all easy to figure out how to solve this problem. But the first step is to acknowledge its severity and cause. Does anyone know if it was discussed at the Agudah Convention?

A Mezuzah Miracle?

Here's a really freaky story. Four girls in my niece's class broke their hands or arms in the last ten days. The teacher decided...