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