Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not Every Mitzvah Deserves A Song

This is a uniquely difficult time for our nation. Usually, it is the non-Jews that are our enemies. But right now, it is a team of Jews who are exhibiting appalling and brutal behavior. Even more confusingly, while everyone agrees with the previous sentence, there is a distinct split regarding who it refers to. Some would take it as referring to the Shabak, while others would take it as referring to the people dancing with guns and worse in the notorious wedding video. There may even be some people who take it as referring to both, but not many.

Before I address one of the theological aspects of this topic, I should clarify my position regarding the politics/ conspiracy theories. First: I am very right-wing, politically. Second: I am well aware of the notorious history of the Shabak, especially with provocateur Avishai Raviv. Third: Much of my immediate family are right-wing settlers in the West Bank. Fourth: Before writing any of this, I consulted with a reliable source who is connected with the leaders of the Yesha communities. I was told as follows: The vast majority of Yesha residents were as shocked and horrified by the video as everyone else. My Yesha relatives have never, ever seen people dance with guns, let alone the worse things shown in the video. (Regarding the impropriety of dancing with guns, see my post Swords, Guns and Judaism.) However, the Yesha leadership, who have been engaging in extensive discussions with the security services, did accept that there does indeed exist a small fanatic group. To claim, as some do, that the notorious video is only showing Shabak agents dressed up, is a silly conspiracy theory, tragically advanced by those who cannot bring themselves to accept that "their side" might have any serious problems.

But I want to deal with the theological aspects of something incontrovertible and much more widespread: the song about Shimshon's declaration of revenge against the Philistines. This song has been quite popular in some right-wing circles for at least fifteen years. Some are astonished that any religious person could challenge its legitimacy - after all, it is a verse from Tanach! And Shimshon was surely carrying out the will of God!

Yet carrying out the will of God is not always something to sing about. As I wrote in the post Killing In The Name Of God, a mitzvah involves two components; obeying God’s words, and committing an act. One can feel satisfaction at fulfilling God’s command at the same time as feeling revulsion at committing an act.

Before giving examples, let us look at a parallel concept in the world at large. We certainly find that one can commit an act which one feels to be ultimately good, and to take pleasure in that knowledge, even while the performance of the act is itself brutal and repulsive. The simple example is a surgeon or a dentist. The dentist is happy to be healing someone, even though drilling out his tooth is a brutal, painful act. You wouldn't want to go to a dentist who sings about how much he enjoys drilling teeth! Judaism likewise acknowledges that certain acts are themselves brutal and unpleasant, even though they are performed for ultimately noble purposes. There is no celebration of bloodshed.

For example, King David was not allowed to build the Temple because of the blood on his hands—notwithstanding the fact that he was absolutely justified and even praised for all the blood that he spilled. And, in a very different sphere, according to many halachic authorities, one does not recite the blessing of Shehechiyanu at the circumcision of one’s son, for the reason is that one cannot pronounce such a declaration of joy at an act that is a source of pain to one’s child.

One case that would appear to contradict our thesis is that of Abraham’s planned slaughter of Isaac. The Midrash tells us how Abraham complied with this command with alacrity, joyous at the opportunity to fulfill the will of his Creator. Yet further analysis and contemplation proves otherwise. The Midrash also tells us that Isaac was blinded by the tears that Abraham spilled. Abraham had mixed emotions; joy at fulfilling the Will of his Creator, grief at spilling the blood of his son. He certainly wouldn't have been singing a song as he did it - "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-A! I'm gonna slaughter my son today!"

Not every mitzvah and not every verse is to be sung about. With all due respect to a certain chassidic singer who is a wonderful person, I don't think that Timcheh Es Zecher Amalek should be made into a upbeat song. (And at a time when people are all too casual about calling other Jews Amalek, one should be especially vigilant about this.)

And neither should Shimshon's declaration of vengeance against the Philistines be something to sing joyously. Opposing that song would be a good first step to impressing upon others - and ourselves - that we will not tolerate any inclination towards celebrating combat. Let's leave such celebrations of violence to the Palestinians, who excel at it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Life-Changing Lizards

Baruch Hashem, this blog has several thousand regular readers. In the previous post, I published the first annual report of The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and made a rare appeal for support for the museum. But, rather disappointingly, it received only one donation in response!

I am sure that there are many reasons for this. But in case it was that the PDF was too much bother to download and open (it was a very large file, and not easy to read on a computer screen), I'm going to try something else: publishing an extract from the report here on the blog. Here is the section on our volunteer program:

The Biblical Museum of Natural History runs an extensive volunteer programs. This is not only to save costs – it is also a way to benefit the community. Many young people, especially in Beit Shemesh, find it hard to “fit into the system.” The museum provides a constructive, positive and safe environment in which they can find fulfillment. Over twenty teens and young adults have volunteered at the museum during its first year. Here is a letter that we received from one of our most dedicated volunteers:
“I was very fortunate to be able to become involved with The Biblical Museum of Natural History. I had been sick for a few years. It was bad enough that I was not able to function very well properly in society - I had lost motivation and faith in myself.

“As a child I was so fascinated by animals. I had met Rabbi Natan Slifkin at the age of ten shortly after I had moved to Israel. He gave classes about animals in the Torah, and I made sure to always be there. It was my dream as a child to be a zoologist. And though that dream had faded, my passion for animal life was still there.

“Ten years later, Rabbi Slifkin got in touch with me and told me about his idea for the museum. And that day I worked up a real sweat. Scraping away old layers of paint and stucco. Putting in new layers of stucco, sanding them down and painting over. It was hard work, but I felt like I had accomplished something. I did this for a few days. And then I was done. It was nice to work hard, but I felt it was time to go back to my old life of directionlessness.

“A few days later though Rabbi Slifkin asked me if I wanted to help out with caring for the animals. And that’s what I did. Eventually I was the one caring for all the animals there, and I spent eight months at the museum. I felt like I had a purpose there, that people (and animals of course) depended on me. When people feel they are appreciated, they will work harder. And I sure felt that peopled cared for what I did.

“When people feel strongly about things in a positive way, they want others to experience that same pleasure. And I really saw it during my time at the museum. It was wonderful to see people’s faces light up when they interacted with the animals and learned about them. And it felt great knowing that I was helping to introduce people to something I thought was amazing.

“I became more responsible and less detached. And once I started taking steps towards progression, I did the same in other facets of my life. I came out a totally different person after those eight months, and kept on growing. The museum is an amazing place run by some great people. I have Rabbi Slifkin and the rest of the staff to thank for nudging me in the right direction. I now have a steady job, and I’m starting my psychometric study course in December. I plan to go to university as soon as I finish. And in the meantime I am looking into jobs for the future.

“I will always be grateful for the opportunity I was given. It was an experience I won’t soon forget. I am very thankful to Rabbi Natan Slifkin for letting me be a part of this miraculous place.”

The full annual report for The Biblical Museum of Natural History reviews the various goals, activities and accomplishments of the museum in our pilot year, the feedback that we've received, and it also includes some really great photos. You can download it at this link (it's a 6mb PDF). Enjoy!

As mentioned in an earlier post, setting up, developing and operating this museum is enormously expensive. On behalf of all our visitors, I would like to ask for people who value our goals to support our cause and participate in our mission. In the report, you can find details about making donations, or you can use your credit card or Paypal account at this link. We also have patron and naming opportunities. Thank you very much for your support!

I will also be visiting New York in January, and there were be parlor meetings for the museum taking place in Bergenfield, Woodmere, and Flatbush. At the parlor meetings, I will be explaining more about the programs and goals of the museum. Please be in touch if you would like to attend.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Our First Annual Report!

I'm thrilled to release the very first annual report for The Biblical Museum of Natural History! It reviews the various goals, activities and accomplishments of the museum in our pilot year, the feedback that we've received, and it also includes some really great photos. You can download it at this link (it's a 6mb PDF). Enjoy!

As mentioned in the previous post, setting up, developing and operating this museum is enormously expensive. On behalf of all our visitors, I would like to ask for people who value our goals to support our cause and participate in our mission. In the report, you can find details about making donations, or you can use your credit card or Paypal account at this link. We also have patron and naming opportunities. Thank you very much for your support!

I look forward to seeing you all at the museum someday. Shabbat shalom!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Some Of My Best Visitors Are Chassidim

As is well known, Beit Shemesh is home to a large number of charedim, including the most extreme branches of chassidim. These are people whose worldview and values are very, very far removed from my own. They are anti-Zionist, anti-science, anti-rationalist, etc., etc.

But they are some of my favorite visitors to The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

It's true that the chassidic visitors present a challenge. We can't show them our short movie about the lion in the Torah, since movies of any kind are unacceptable for them. And the chassidic kids are often very, um, leibedig. I was once watching one of our guides give a tour to some chassidic families; as he put an animal back in its cage and then turned back to the group, one of the kids ran behind him, opened the cage, and took the animal out again!

But on the other hand, it is such a pleasure to watch their reactions to the exhibits. All the guides agree that, as much as everyone loves the museum, there is no other group which appreciates everything as much as the chassidim.

Chassidim are so utterly fascinated by absolutely everything in the museum! Even something as simply as a baby tortoise is a source of endless delight. They want to blow every single shofar in our vast collection. They stare mesmerized into the faces of the taxidermied animals. They want to touch and hold every single egg and skull and hoof. They are thrilled to touch all of our live animals - not only the super-exotic ones, but even common species. And as for the snakes, symbol of evil in the Torah - they can't get enough of them!

The reason for this is very simple - Israeli chassidim have never seen anything like this before. Of course nobody has ever seen anything quite like our museum, but at least other visitors have seen animals before (albeit not as close-up as at the museum), on television or at the zoo. But chassidim haven't. They've never seen National Geographic (unlike the litvishe charedim, who have seen mehadrin versions of National Geographic documentaries on DVDs). And many of them don't go to the zoo in Jerusalem, because it is open on Shabbos. Our museum therefore presents the only opportunity for them to see the amazing world of animals - and the Torah significance of each and every exhibit is an added bonus.

Unfortunately, we really don't get many chassidic visitors. In general, very, very few of our visitors are charedi, and even less are chassidic. With Anglos, this is to some extent the result of the name Natan Slifkin, even though there is absolutely nothing controversial about the museum and I don't even give most of the tours to these groups. But Israelis have never heard of me, so why do hardly any Israeli charedim and chassidim visit?

The sad answer is that they simply can't afford it. While the enormous costs of developing and running the museum are heavily subsidized by private donors, we still have to charge admission. It's not very much - the guided tour costs 40 NIS for adults, 30 NIS for children aged 4-17, and there are discounts for groups. But this is simply beyond the reach of most Israeli charedi and chassidic families. Many of the schools, talmudei Torah and chadarim likewise cannot afford to visit, even though we offer them major discounts. Especially after adding the cost of transportation, if they ever do trips, it is only to places that are free.

Oh well. Those that are able to visit have a wonderful experience, and it's also a wonderful experience for us. While I don't lead the tours for Israeli groups, I usually try to be around - I love watching their faces, and I also enjoy shmoozing with them after the tour. These are people with whom I have so little in common, and with whom I differ very strongly on issues that are extremely important to me, and who wouldn't even look at me if they knew who I am, and yet we can have a really enjoyable conversation about animals and Torah.

During one tour for a local cheder, the rebbe noticed me standing at the back. He figured out that I'm the person who created the museum, and he came over to talk to me. He said, "If you made this place, you must have a really interesting life-story! Perhaps you'd like to share it with our talmidim?" I smiled and politely declined, as I murmured to myself, "Let's not go there!"

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Merits, Not Masechtos

“Should the chareidim serve in [Israel’s] military, or at least serve in some other capacity such as recognized public service commensurate with military service?”

This was the question posed by a journalist to Rabbi Avi Shafran, media liaison for Agudath Israel of America. His reply was that "in the view of chareidim, they are already doing so." As he explains, "a religious Jew sincerely believes that his or her life, based as it is on religious observance, charity and Torah-study, helps ensure the security of Jews."

Rabbi Shafran continues to elaborate how many major world events are shaped not by raw military power, but rather by unexpected events and freak occurrences which mask Divine providence. He concludes: "Divine providence is at work in the world; and spiritual merits, not superior munitions, are what matter in the end."

Superficially, this seems like a solid religious argument. However, on closer inspection, it falls apart.

From a traditional Jewish perspective, it is indeed divine providence that determines the security of the Jewish People. And from a traditional Jewish perspective, such providence is indeed contingent upon spiritual merits. However, Rabbi Shafran's error is to assume that masechtos (Talmudic tractates) equal merits. This is strongly rooted in a non-rationalist worldview, in which Torah study and mitzvos have a mechanistic function of manipulating spiritual energies. Both the rationalist and the classical Jewish perspective, on the other hand, is that merits are solely a result of following God's will as determined by the Torah.

On Tisha B'Av, for example, the proper activity is to mourn for the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, and that is how one accrues merits. It does no good to learn Bava Metzia on Tishah B'Av - that is not what God wants on that day. Likewise, Rav Steinman noted that it is wrong to learn Torah if one's wife needs help. Learning Torah does not automatically accrue merits. It only accrues merits if it is the right thing to do.

The question, then, is not "are the charedim learning Torah, giving charity, and being otherwise religiously observant" - it is "are the charedim doing Hashem's will, as determined by the Torah, in avoiding army service?" And the answer to that is clearly a resounding no.

From a halachic standpoint, as we have explained on many occasions, there is simply no exemption in a milchemes mitzvah for Torah students. There are clear exemptions for a newlywed, or someone with a new house or new vineyard, in the case of a milchemes reshus (but not a milchemes mitzvah), yet no exemption is presented for Torah students.

From a historical standpoint, Torah study was never presented as an optional alternative to military service. When the tribes of Gad and Reuven wanted to stay on the other side of the Jordan, Moses did not tell them that that would be satisfactory if they learn Torah. Not even the tribe of Levi was exempt from army service. There is a Midrash which says that a thousand people from each tribe had the job of praying, but this was praying, not learning, and it was done on the front lines. Likewise, the Netziv says that some Torah scholars were exempt from military service, but he notes that to make up for this, they had to pay higher taxes, perform national service, and pray on the front lines.

From a hashkafic standpoint, the idea that Torah scholars provide some degree of protection has some support, but the idea that the Torah study of a yeshivah student provides equivalent protective service to that of a soldier has no basis. Furthermore, charedim are never interested in discussing the hashkafos of the nature and parameters of the protection that they claim their Torah provides.

Finally, from a realistic standpoint, we have noted that there is no empirical reason to believe that charedi yeshivah students actually have any protective benefits. Furthermore, when push comes to shove, charedim themselves certainly don't act as though they believe that their Torah study is producing tangible protective benefits. When danger threatens, charedi yeshivah students flee, demand IDF protection, or learn to use guns. They never believe that their Torah study provides any practical benefits, either in the realm of security or in the realm of removing the yoke of worldly affairs, other than enabling them to avoid army service.

So please, Rabbi Shafran, save us your spin. As all perceptive observers know, the reason why charedim do not serve in the IDF has nothing to do with an alleged belief that their Torah allegedly provides significant protection. Rather, the reason is that they fear the threat that army service would pose to their way of life. Rabbi Shafran is supposed to be representing the views of the Agudah Moetzes, but the only Moetzes member to discuss this topic, Rav Aharon Feldman, explicitly wrote that the reason charedim avoid army service is because they are afraid of the effect that it would have on their youth. Even Mishpachah magazine recently quoted Rabbi Betzalel Cohen as saying “For years the chareidi establishment stated the reason for not going to the army is because of limud Torah. But the real reason is that they want the boys to remain frum.” This is understandable, but there are also the factors of the halachos of milchemes mitzvah and sharing the burden of national responsibilities. Given their disinterest in those, I doubt that their masechtos earn many merits.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Kosher Certification for Maccabees

Over Shabbos I dusted off my ancient copy of ArtScroll's Chanukah: Its History, Observance and Significance - A Presentation based upon Talmudic and Traditional Sources, written by Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm and published way back in 1981. The subtitle is interesting, because some of the primary sources used are only traditional in the loosest sense of the term. Presumably sensitive to this concern, the preface to the History section includes the following explanation:
...Through an understanding of the history of the period, we can gain a deeper insight into the significance of Chanukah itself. With this goal, we shall approach our historical inquiry into the events of the period.

For information, we are indebted primarily to the books of Maccabees I and II the authors of which lived relatively close to the time of the miracle (in the case of I Maccabees), or drew upon contemporary sources. The authorship of these books is unknown, but they were undoubtedly written by staunchly loyal Jews. Although there is evidence that I Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, both books were available only in Greek and Latin for over 1500 years and came down to us through gentile hands. For this reason, the two books were largely unknown to Jewish chroniclers and commentators until recent times... Despite the fact that the books of Maccabees are not mentioned in virtually any early classic Rabbinic work, we may assume that Jewish scholars would have accepted them, because they are cited by the great commentator to the Mishnah, R' Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosefos Yom Tov, Megillah 3:6), and by the great halachist R' Eliyah Shapiro of Prague in his magnum opus Eliyah Rabbah to Orach Chaim 671:1. I know of only three other relatively early Jewish scholars who had access to Maccabees: R' Azariah min HaAdomim (De Rossi) in his Me'or Einayim (Imrei Binah ch. 16, 25, 25, 51, 55); and the disciple of R' Moshe Isserles, R' David Ganz (in Tzemach David, part I, year 3590). Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that such scholars would not have cited the books of Maccabees unless they were convinced of its reliability.

The reader should bear in mind that the period of Scripture was sealed prior to the events of Chanukah. No later book, even if it were historically accurate and true to the underlying spiritual theme of events it chronicled, could have been canonized. Consequently, the status of Maccabees as an apocryphal work does not, in and of itself, prove that it is not reliable.

In general, I'm not into the genre of "ArtScroll-bashing" - for the most part, ArtScroll is simply catering to the needs, desires and sensitivities of their readership, as well as understandably desiring to avoid trouble. But analyzing ArtScroll does afford an opportunity to understand the dynamics of the Orthodox community (as Dr. Yoel Finkelman has shown), and there are a number of observations to be made with regard to these paragraphs.

First, it's fascinating to see how sources are conferred with the status of "traditional," or its equivalent level of kashrus - something that I also have to do quite often. We are first assured that the authors of Maccabees were "staunchly loyal Jews." Then a justification is given for these works not being cited in classic Rabbinic literature. We are then told that prestigious later rabbinic authorities did make use of these works, and thus must have been convinced of their reliability. This also provides the importance assurance that had Chazal and the Rishonim had access to these works, "we may assume... that they would have accepted them." Finally, we are told that the stigma of being "apocryphal works" does not disqualify them "in and of itself," since they were written too late to be canonized. It's quite an elaborate set of justifications.

Also of interest is the statement that the citation of Maccabees by various Acharonim shows that they were convinced of its reliability (and hence we can also be convinced). What exactly does "reliability" mean in this context? Historical accuracy, or kosherness in Orthodox circles? It's hard to see how the citations by various Acharonim confer the former, so I assume that it means the latter, but I'm not certain.

Then, as I started to read the list of Torah scholars cited as endorsing Maccabees, I was intrigued to see R' Yom Tov Lipmann Heller as the first such authority cited. After all, he also quotes from R' Azariah De Rossi, a scholar whose name is anathema in many Orthodox circles, following the vehement condemnation of De Rossi by Maharal and (reportedly) by R. Yosef Caro. Reading on, I was flabbergasted to see that De Rossi himself is one of these authorities cited to show that Maccabees must be reliable! While it is encouraging to see that he is presented as someone who can be relied upon to show that something is reliable, it does raise some interesting questions. For if a source is "reliable" because it was quoted by R' Azariah, then we can also add a number of others to the list of works that Torah Jews can consider "reliable," including the works of Augustine, the works of Sebastian Munster, and the works of Annius of Viterbo (which are, ironically, completely unreliable).

Finally, if the Books of Maccabees are being quasi-canonized as reliable, traditional works, then what does this mean with regard to the reason for Chanukah lasting eight days? For II Maccabees explains the eight days of Chanukah not in terms of the miracle of the oil, but rather as due to the first Chanukah making up for the eight-day festival of Sukkos not having been celebrated in the Beis HaMikdash that year. And Josephus, who is also mentioned in the ArtScroll Chanukah, had a very surprising explanation as to why Chanukah is called "the festival of lights". This is a problem that has been hotly debated in recent years. For a variety of perspectives, see Rabbi Dr. David Berger's article, the comment thread on this post, R. Josh Waxman's discussion - and if anyone has any other useful links, please submit them.

Now, of course it is to be expected that an ArtScroll work is only going to present the view of the Bavli, that the reason for eight days of Chanukah is due to the miracle of the oil (which is also presented in Megillas Antiochus, of uncertain antiquity). But it is interesting that when presenting that account (on p. 55), it adds that when this happened, "they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days and offered up peace and thanksgiving offerings." Where did this come from?

It seems to me that this is incorporating the view of II Maccabees, that there was a reason for celebrating the initial eight days that had nothing to do with the oil, but rather was due to there having been an initial eight-day festival which Chanukah commemorates. ArtScroll doesn't give Maccabees' reason as to why they celebrated for eight days, but the fact of describing an eight-day celebration in that first year itself implies that there was a reason that was independent of any miracle involving the oil. (I don't think that quoting this reason is necessarily undermining the reason given by the Gemara; after all, Megillas Taanis also gives two reasons for the eight days.)

Note that much later in the work on p. 95, when discussing the famous question of the Beis Yosef regarding why we have eight days of Chanukah rather than seven, it quotes Megillas Taanis (in the scholia - later additions) that there was an eight-day rededication celebration, and then cites Birkei Yosef as saying that the extra day that we celebrate commemorates this rededication. But Birkei Yosef did not quote Megillas Taanis as saying that there was an eight-day rededication celebration, and with good reason: because it does not say any such thing! As well as describing the miracle of the oil, Megillas Taanis says that it took eight days to repair the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash - not that there were eight days of celebrating its rededication. (Furthermore, Birkei Yosef does not give this as a reason for an eighth day, supplemental to celebrating seven over the miracle of the oil, but rather he says that the eight days of repair are the reason for all eight days of the current festival, and that the question of the Beis Yosef is therefore redundant!) It therefore seems to me that on p. 95, ArtScroll has subconsciously replaced the view of Megillas Taanis with the view of II Maccabees.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Missing Chanukah

(A repost from a few years ago)

Some people miss Chanukah when it's over.

Some people miss Chanukah when it's happening.

Story number one: I was at the printing house last week, arranging to print 2000 copies of my sample chapter about leopards from the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. I told the (secular Israeli) woman in charge of the printing schedule that I wanted it out in time for Chanukah, because the subject matter is related to Chanukah.

"What do leopards have to do with Chanukah?" she asked.

It was a very reasonable question. I explained that in Scripture, Daniel has a prophetic vision in which he sees various animals which represent different kingdoms, and the leopard represents Greece.

"But what does Greece have to do with Chanukah? she asked.

Story number two: I heard a dvar Torah which, as a launch point, discussed the halachah that if the candles on the menorah blow out, you need not rekindle them. The speaker went on to describe how the message of Chanukah is that everything is in Hashem's hands, about how the Greek army was defeated entirely by way of supernatural miracles, and about how the ultimate message of Chanukah is that Torah and mitzvos is all that counts, and hishtadlus is entirely irrelevant, and basically pointless and unnecessary.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gedolei Yisroel Insist On Economic Ruin For Charedim, All Israel

A conference was held yesterday in Bnei Brak for the principals of charedi girls' schools, in the presence of Gedolei Yisroel from both Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah. The conference was dedicated to "The Dangers of Academic Institutions for Women." It was emphasized that "Bnos Yisrael should not get a matriculation diploma (bagrut) or engage in studies preparing them for higher learning without exception and one must not take the tests independently. All studies and continuing education seminars attended by the girls and teachers in Beis Yaakov must be exclusively in the framework of Beis Yaakov and no other institution and it goes without saying a woman should not seek an academic diploma."

One of the speakers quoted Rav Steinman as saying that "it is better to steal money than for a women to attend college." In light of this Daas Torah, perhaps the twenty charedi school principals and businessmen who were recently arrested for being part of a fraud ring can be viewed more positively - at least they weren't getting their money as a result of a college education. (And, of course, they were demonstrating the truth of Chazal's statement that one who does not teach his child a career has taught his child to steal.)

Also at the conference, the Gedolim warned of the dangers of the relatively high salaries that academic qualifications can bring. A member of the Council of Torah Sages, Rav Dovid Cohen, observed that it can cause problems in a marriage if the husband is just a kollel student, bringing home virtually no money, whereas the wife has a professional career and brings home a good salary. His solution is for her to also lack a professional career and to bring home virtually no money.

In related news, the charedi political parties recently managed to overturn all the changes introduced by the previous government. And in other related news, Bank of Israel governor Dr. Karnit Flug warned of economic disaster for Israel if charedim, who number a third of all first-grade students, do not enter the professional workforce.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Innovations in Orthodoxy

The controversy over Open Orthodoxy is something that I have been studiously avoiding discussing, for three reasons. First of all, there already seem to be enough people making all the points that need to made. Second, the limited amount of things that I have to say on the topic would anger people on both sides. Third, the truth is that it does not particularly interest me.

However, I came across something today which made realize that there really is a serious and dangerous innovation here, which some are trying to pass off as "traditional," and which needs to be refuted. I am referring to the innovation of Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, one of the leading activists against Open Orthodoxy. He penned the following lines in an op-ed in The Times of Israel:
...Cutting to the core of the issue, the defining feature of Orthodoxy is submission to Chachmei Ha-Mesorah and Gedolei Ha-Dor — the generation’s top-tier, preeminent rabbinic authorities — and perpetuating their approach to Torah (emphasis his), be they names such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Aharon Kotler or Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik.
This is not the defining feature of Orthodoxy. In fact, it's not a feature of Orthodoxy at all.

Whether you want to use the term Orthodoxy in its popular sense of "traditional rabbinic Judaism," or in its academic sense of "the approach to traditional rabbinic Judaism that was innovated in the nineteenth century as a response to emancipation and Reform," there has never been a requirement of "submission to Chachmei Ha-Mesorah and Gedolei Ha-Dor."

Who even decides who makes the cut for such a list, anyway? The original Misnagdim didn't recognize the original Chassidim as being on that list. The charedi Gedolei Ha-Dor don't include Religious Zionist and Torah u-Madda Gedolim on that list.

There are innumerable streams of religious Judaism who have no concern with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik, or anyone else who would appear on Rabbi Gordimer's list. There are countless streams of Chassidim who couldn't care less about submission to such people. Some of them have their own leaders who could be described as Gedolei HaDor, but others do not. There is Chabad, including its large messianic branch. There is Breslav, including the unusual Na-nach branch. There are the followers of Rav David Bar-Chayim. None of these people care about submission to some Rabbi-Gordimer approved list of Gedolim. Is Rabbi Gordimer therefore going to start writing all of these people out of Orthodoxy? If so, then there are bigger things to worry about than a handful of Open Orthodox Jews.

To be sure, every group has its own treasured beliefs and norms, and those who undermine those treasured beliefs and norms will justifiably not be welcomed in that group. For example, Rabbi Gordimer, who probably espouses some form of Zionism, would not be welcomed in the charedi community (except insofar as he bashes the Open Orthodox). On a broader scale, characteristics of the Orthodox community in general include the acceptance of the divinity of the Torah, allegiance to the halachic community, and so on. But "submission to Chachmei Ha-Mesorah and Gedolei Ha-Dor" is simply not a feature of any form of Orthodoxy outside of charedi Judaism, itself an innovation.

It is quite ironic that in his efforts to preserve traditional Judaism against innovation, Rabbi Gordimer has innovated an entirely new feature of Judaism!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving For The Unsung Heroine

On the occasion of my fifteenth anniversary, here is an expanded version of a post from a few years ago.

Many of you have written to me over the years to express your appreciation for my work and your support for me against the opposition that my work has aroused. Your letters are always gratefully appreciated, but the truth is, they are almost always addressed to the wrong person. More precisely, they should be primarily addressed to another person.

Sure, I've had a tough time dealing with bans and condemnations and threatening phone calls and dedicated hate-sites and so on. But at least I have the benefit of being very passionate about science and hyraxes and so on, and of having many people speaking to me and giving their support. There's another person who also suffers from the flak that is sent in my direction, but who was never particularly interested in the intersection between Torah and science in the first place. I am talking, of course, about my wife, Tali.

When my wife, as a starry-eyed idealist, married me fifteen years ago today, she had no idea what she was getting into. At that time, my work was popular across the board; her old teachers from seminary would quote my works, and I was featured on the cover of Mishpachah magazine. She was a little surprised to discover that I was writing a book reconciling evolution with Judaism - actually, more than a little surprised - but offered her full support nonetheless, even buying little plastic dinosaurs for the book launch.

Then, a few years later, everything changed. There were posters in the street and editorials in the newspapers delivered to our home that were condemning my books. Some of my wife's old teachers started circulating letters viciously attacking me. The "Gedolei HaDor" declared my writings to be heresy! Even I was constantly asking myself whether I was in the right; imagine how much harder it was for my wife, who was never passionate about "rationalist Judaism" in the first place. Not to mention having to deal with a husband who was falling to pieces! And worst of all - perhaps the most horrible moment of our lives - was when she received a phone call relating a threat to the lives of our children.

Yet she stood by me. More than that - she gave me unwavering support. It's no exaggeration to say that I could not have gotten through that turbulent period without her.

Furthermore, it's not as though the controversy over my work has been the only challenge that my wife has had to endure as a result of being married to me. And I'm not just talking about having to deal with a husband who maintains a blog. When we were dating, I told my wife that my days of keeping pets were long behind me. I think that I even believed it myself. Ha!

Over the last few years, my wife has had to deal with chinchillas turning on videos in the middle of the night, bats in the bathroom, and hyraxes on the couch. Her red line - no snakes - somehow fell by the wayside. I've appropriated (okay, stolen) her kitchen utensils for cooking locusts, and taken over the bottom shelf of the freezer with certain Items that I feed to my giant monitor lizards (though, to my credit, at least I put on a warning label saying "GROSS STUFF - DO NOT OPEN").

When I was accumulating specimens for my forthcoming museum, I filled up our basement and the childrens' bedrooms with all kinds of bizarre items, from live reptiles to stuffed carnivores and ungulates and birds of prey. My wife also has to be worried about her husband having dangerous close encounters with lions and leopards and bears and wolves and great white sharks.

When I go out of the country - which is quite often - things can get even more challenging. Once, during a harsh winter night, my wife noticed that our giant iguana, Billy Bob, had failed to return from his outdoor enclosure to his night-time heated area. Concerned that he would freeze to death, my wife actually donned gauntlets, went outside in the cold and rain, picked up the enormous and repulsive (to her) reptile, and staggered back with him to stuff him into his sleeping quarters. Such mesiras nefesh!

Now that I've opened my museum, it's true that our house is much more spacious, but there are new challenges. Setting up the museum was an unbelievably difficult and stressful period. Running it makes enormous demands on my time, especially during vacations, which is busy season at the museum. And there's no getting away from it; when we went away for Pesach, I was on the phone dealing with a hyrax with birth complications; when we went away for a day last Chanukah, I was on the phone dealing with an electrical fire at the museum; when we went away for a day this week, to celebrate our anniversary, I was on the phone dealing with an escaped monitor lizard.

So, here's to my wife. Thank you for putting up with everything with good grace and cheer, and for supporting me through the tough times. And to my readers, I will quote Rabbi Akiva's words regarding his wife - "What is mine and what is yours, is due to her."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Guest Post: The Rationalist Mezuzah

Guest Post: The Rationalist Mezuzah 
by Tzvi H. Adams

Dr. Martin Gordon’s article, “Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol?” is conveniently available on Rabbi Slifkin’s website. The article is a must-read for any rationalist Jew. Gordon argues that the rationalist understanding of mezuzah, that mezuzah is a mitzvah which regularly reminds one of one’s obligations to God rather than being a source of mystical protection, was prevalent amongst Chazal.

I add here three points not made in Gordon’s paper:

1) The Gemara (Menochos 31b) states that when writing a mezuzah, the scribe may not shape the text in the overall appearance of “a teepee or a tail”. However, if the start and end of each line are merely not aligned it is okay. What can be the reason for these laws? The Gemara and rishonim do not explain. It appears though that the sages were discouraging the notion that a mezuzah is a protective amulet. The Gnostics and Essenes, who strongly believed in the cosmological value of letters and magical powers of amulets, would write the “holy” names of angels or demons in their amulets in the overall form of a teepee or tail to augment or diminish the alleged powers of these supernatural forces [1]. Chazal did not want the ideas of these mystical groups to infiltrate mainstream Jewish thought, so they said a mezuzah written in such a way is invalid [2].

2) The addition of God’s name ‘Shaddai’ on the mezuzah’s exterior is not mentioned in the Gemara - the practice only appeared in the early Middle Ages. Rambam writes in Mishneh Torah that it is the “universal custom to write ‘Shaddai’ on the back of the mezuzah”- he makes no objection. However, Rambam strongly believed that mitzvas mezuzah does not supply any supernatural protection; it is mitzvah like any other. Rambam says that those who treat mezuzah as a protective amulet have no share in the world to come (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mezuza 5:4) The inclusion of ‘Shaddai’ in a mezuzah subscribes to the thinking that a mezuzah is a form of protective amulet [3]. If Rambam, the rationalist, so strongly believed that mezuzah does not supply a supernatural protection, why does he record this custom with no protest?

It seems that Rambam did not record this custom in order to perpetuate it; rather, in midst of his diatribe against the practice of including angel’s names inside the mezuzah he had to say that the ‘Shaddai’ on the back is not as severe - it will not make the mezuzah possul.

That Rambam mentions a common minhag in his Yad HaChazaka does not necessarily mean he believes the minhag is correct. The following proves this point: Rambam in his Mishna Commentary (Gittin 5:8) launches a lengthy polemic against the widespread practice of calling a kohen am ha’aretz to read from the Torah before a yisroel talmid chochom. He expresses his displeasure with this custom in no uncertain terms. However, in Yad HaChazaka (Hilchos Tefillah 12:18) Rambam simply says “the common custom today is that even a kohen-am ha’aretz is called to the Torah before a yisroel-talmid chochom.” He doesn’t add any comment regarding his true feeling toward this custom. This demonstrates that Rambam may cite customs that he does not approve of, which appears to be the case for the custom of writing ‘Shaddai’ as well.

3) Rambam doesn’t mention the custom of writing ‘kuzu bemuchsuz kuzu’ on back of the mezuzah, only ‘Shaddai’. The Tur (Y.D. 288) describes this custom as minhag of the Jews of Germany and France. The kuzu’s significance is rooted in the belief that the written names of God and specific letter combinations have deep mystical and cosmological value. These mystical letters augment the mezuzah’s protective powers [4]. These beliefs were the teachings of the school of the Chasidei Ashkenaz [5]. Rambam outright rejects these notions in Moreh Nevuchim (1:61-62), describing their adherents as “fools who believe anything.”

An exception amongst the European rishionim was Rabbainu Avigdor Katz of Vienna (c. 1250) who directed all of Austrian Jewry to refrain from adding ‘kuzu bemuchsuz kuzu’ or Shaddai to the back of their mezuzos [6]. R. Yosef Caro writes “in our time we do not have this custom” of writing kuzu [7]. It can be assumed he is speaking (at least) for the Jews of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, and Eretz Yisroel, the countries he had lived in. As late as 1777, R. Refael Elazar Nahmiaś, a leading rabbi of Slonika, testifies that the minhag of the Sefardim is not to write kuzu on the back of their mezuzohs. He goes as far as to pasken that a mezuzah with extra writing on its back should be placed in geniza and not used for mitzvas mezuzah, based on the words of Rambam [8]! The historic customs which exclude the kuzu bemuchsuz kuzu inscription may hint at an underlying rationalistic approach to the mitzvah of mezuzah.

Do you have a rationalist mezuzah on your doorway? Most probably not. Nowadays all mezuzos are written with ‘Shaddai’ and ‘kuzu bemuchsuz kuzu’ on their backs. However, if you wish, you can contract a sofer to write a mezuzah without these mystical additions. Note though that you must make sure that the sofer does not use the mikvah before writing the sheimos inside the mezuzah. The Rambam considers such a person a fool - a disqualification for writing tefilin and mezuzos:
You must beware of sharing the error of those who write amulets (kameot). Whatever you hear from them, or read in their works, especially in reference to the names which they form by combination, is utterly senseless; they call these combinations shemot (names) and believe that their pronunciation demands sanctification and purification, and that by using them they are enabled to work miracles. Rational persons ought not to listen to such men, nor in any way believe their assertions. (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 1:61- Friedlander translation)

[1] See Julius Eisenstein’s entry in his Otzar Yisroel Vol I pg.103 s.v. “abracadabra”.
[2] The Talmud records a magical utterance “shabriri, briri, riri, iri, ri…” which rids one of demons and evil spirits. Rashi explains that shavriri is the name of a demon. By saying his name repeatedly, each time removing one letter of his name, the demon is scared away. R. Hai Gaon (Otzor HaGaonim Peshachim 115b) says he does not know the origin of the lachashin mentioned in the Talmud. They seem to come from the Gnostics and like-minded groups.
[3] See Zohar Parshas Va’eschanan and Maharsha to Brochos 15b.
[4] Beis Yosef Y.D. 288:15 citing Re’em
[5] See Tur O.C. 113 and Siddur Chasidei Ashkenaz pg .221.
[6] Ikkrei Dinnim Y.D. Hilchos Mezuza 14. A streak of rationalism can be seen in the halachic rulings of R. Avigdor Katz of Vienna (teacher of Shibbolei HaLeket). He maintains that the minhag to pray and donate charity to elevate the souls of the deceased is futile (Beis Yosef O.C. 284:7). See Rabbi Slifkin’s article here.
[7] Beis Yosef Y.D. 288:15 
[8] See his sefer Hon Rav- The Sephardim have more recently started to add kuzu bemuchsuz kuzu probably due to the influence of Ashkenazic custom or kabbala.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Medical Halacha, Morality, Philanthropy, and Politics

A few miscellaneous links of interest -
  • The Rationalist Medical Halachist is back! This time he has written an in-depth article on giving medical treatment to gentiles on Shabbos. You can read it at this link.
  • Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz is a family friend and a major supporter of the Biblical Museum of Natural History. He is well known for his philanthropic endeavors in many areas, especially fertility treatments. Yesterday, he gave a spontaneous gift that was not only touching but also an outstanding kiddush Hashem, in the most unlikely of places: Businessman Buys 400 American Soldiers Meals During Airport Layover

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Reader's Guide to The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom is, thank God, very popular and receiving wide acclaim. However it does suffer from some drawbacks. One is that it is really heavy. Another, related to this, is that there is so much information in it, that it might be hard to get "into it." Not everyone wants to wade through page after page exploring the multitude aspects of lion symbolism, or the finer points of animal identification. Many people therefore probably just settle for looking at the beautiful photos. But I thought that it would be a good idea to provide a list of what I consider to be the most interesting parts of the book to read (which is admittedly somewhat subjective). So here goes:

  • The second paragraph in the acknowledgements
  • “The Wildlife of the Torah” pp. 29-31
  • “The Prestige of Wild Animals” pp. 37-38
  • “The Lurking Lion” pp. 93-94
  • “The Lion Hunter of Zion” pp. 101-102
  • Bear – entire chapter!
  • “When the Wolf Lay with the Lamb” p. 166
  • “Hour of the Hyena” pp. 176-177
  • “Foxes and Jackals” p. 180
  • “The Narrow Womb: Conception and Birth” pp. 234-235
  • "Return of the Deer" p. 238
  • “Writing Torah Scrolls on Gazelle Hide” p. 252
  • “The Mighty Aurochs” pp. 280-281
  • “The Return of the Re’em” p. 285
  • Giraffe – entire chapter!
  • “Hares, Hounds, and the Haggadah” p/ 325-6
  • “The Untamable Onager” pp. 341-343
  • Elephant – entire chapter!
  • “Monkey Hands” – pp. 387-8

Enjoy! If you'd like to buy the book and simultaneously support The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please buy it at this link.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect.

Does Torah study actually protect from terrorists?

In the past, I have discussed this question from several angles. I have analyzed sources which discuss the parameters of such protection, and I have discussed the mechanism of such protection. In this post, I would like to discuss a different angle: whether this concept can be said to be of any practical value.

Yated Ne'eman, quoting Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein (son-in-law of Rav Elyashiv), says that it does:
The first thing to do is to learn, Rav Yitzchok added, citing the Gemara (Makos 10) which says: "How do we know that Torah protects [a person as effectively as a city of refuge protects the inadvertent murderer]? For it says, 'Betzer in the desert' [among the list of cities of refuge] and says afterwards, 'And this is the Torah'." “The greatest safeguard for a bus is to learn inside it, especially with a chavrusah,” he said. “For then the bus turns into a beis medrash. If the murderers want to attack a bus, it’s not a bus, it’s a beis medrash.”
The claim being advanced here is that the Gemara teaches that learning Torah on a bus protects a person from being killed just as the city of refuge legally protects a person from being killed. But if we look at the Gemara, we see that it is not necessarily saying any such thing.

This passage is raised in the Gemara as a question on a ruling of Rabbi Yochanan. The ruling is that if a rabbi accidentally killed someone, he has to go to a city of refuge (Ir Hamiklat), along with his disciples, in order to avoid being killed by the victim's relative. On this, the Gemara asks that Rabbi Yochanan elsewhere says that Torah protects just like a city of refuge protects, so why should he have to go to a city of refuge? The Gemara presents two answers to this contradiction. First is that Torah only protects during the actual minutes that one is busy with it. Second is that Torah only protects from the Angel of Death, not from the victim's relative.

Now let us analyze the Gemara more carefully. The first point to note is that, according to Ritva, the Gemara's question is not talking about the Torah providing metaphysical protection, but rather about legal protection - that the relative is legally prohibited from killing someone who is busy with Torah, and is himself charged with murder if he does so.

Second, the whole point of the Gemara's second answer (see Maharsha) is that Torah does not, in fact, provide any protection from human killers, only from death by natural causes (the "angel of death").

Third, Aruch LeNer points out that just a few lines earlier, the Gemara discusses the ruling that a Torah student who inadvertently kills someone must go to a city of refuge, and the Gemara does not raise the question that his Torah should protect him. Why not? One of the answers suggested by Aruch LeNer is that the only notion of Torah providing protection is with a teacher of Torah, not a student of Torah.

So, this Gemara does not in fact prove what it is being brought to prove. But there is a bigger issue to discuss here.

One thing that emerges from our brief analysis of this passage of the Gemara is that, as with every passage of Aggadata, there are all kinds of different interpretations, qualifying criteria, and so on. There is no unequivocal claim in the Gemara that someone learning Torah receives protection from being killed by a terrorist.

It's just as well that the Gemara does not make any such claim, because such a claim is quite clearly not true. All such claims about the protective value of Torah and mitzvos - "Torah scholars do not need protection," "Someone on their way to do a mitzvah (shaliach mitzvah) cannot be harmed," "When you're learning Torah, you can't be harmed," might be true in some abstract or hyper-qualified aggadic sense, but are clearly not true in any practical sense today.

"Torah scholars do not need protection"? We saw the terrible tragedy of the Torah scholars who were massacred in Har Nof. In fact, Mishpachah magazine expressed concern that charedim are attacked in proportionately even greater numbers than non-charedim.

"Someone on their way to do a mitzvah (shaliach mitzvah) cannot be harmed"? Some of the stabbing victims of the last few weeks were on their way to davven or to give shiurim.

"When you're learning Torah, you can't be harmed"? We saw otherwise in the tragedy a few years ago at Mercaz HaRav.

Again, you can come up with all kinds of ways to explain how these statements are nevertheless true and why they are not applicable to these situations. Yet it makes no difference. The bottom line is that there is no practical truth or ramifications for these statements.

Now, many people, even in the charedi world, realize this, at least to some degree. That's why, since the stabbings began, many charedim have been learning self-defense, buying pepper spray, and requesting increased army protection. But the problem is that when it comes to sharing the duty of army service, many charedim still trot out these Aggadic statements in order to claim that their learning Torah provides protection and that they should therefore be exempt from serving in the IDF.

There is no claim in the Gemara that a yeshivah student learning Torah provides any protection from Arabs. And the painful facts on the ground show very clearly otherwise. It's time for everyone to face up to this, and to its ramifications.

See too these posts:
Torah Against Terror?
Torah Protection: What is a Halachic Source?
Parameters, Please!
What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects?
Who Doesn't Believe That Kollel Students Are As Good As Soldiers?
Torah Study and the IDF - A Response to Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Torah, Army, and the Bizarre Chess Analogy 
"Rabbis Do Not Need Protection" 
(and possibly other posts that I have forgotten about)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Kezayis Revolution!

This is amazing!

My article on "The Evolution of the Olive," which explains how the measurement of a kezayis got to be so big if olives are so small, is probably the most widely-read of all my articles. Although there's nothing really controversial about it, many anti-rationalists nevertheless deem it problematic. This is partly because they are very uncomfortable with saying that the Rishonim of Ashkenaz did not know the size of an olive (although strangely they seem to be fine with Rabbi Meiselman repeatedly saying that all the Rishonim are wrong), and perhaps in part simply because it was written by me. The charedi polemical journal Dialogue included an article that fabricated some sources and ignored others in order to challenge me on this topic and to claim that olives used to be bigger. Someone told me that he asked Rav Aharon Feldman about my article on kezayis, and Rav Feldman replied that he is writing a full-length rejoinder to be published soon.

Well, last week somebody presented me with a fabulous sefer written by Rabbi Hadar Margolin. Titled Hiddurei HaMiddos, it mostly focuses on the size of a kezayis. And, albeit in a much more yeshivishe manner, it makes all the points that I made in my article and in my blog posts:
  • Olives were always the same size as those of today.
  • The Rishonim of Ashkenaz only said otherwise because they had no access to olives.
  • There are sources from several Rishonim that the kezayis is the same size of the olives of today.
  • Eggs were likewise never any bigger than they are today.
  • The only reason to assess a kezayis in terms of a proportion of an egg is if you don't know how big an olive is.
  • The kezayis is supposed to be a minimum, less than which is not even an act of eating; it's certainly not a "target" that one should struggle to get down.
Best of all, this work presents an astonishing array of evidence that recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! There is a testimonial from a rav who asked the Steipler Gaon how much matzah the Chazon Ish gave out at his seder, and the Steipler replied that in a piece of matzah the size of a palm, there were two kezaysim. Likewise there is a statement from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that if necessary, one can rely on Rav Chaim of Volozhin's position that a kezayis is the size of a regular olive. There are many other such statements from leading charedi rabbinic authorities. (Considering this work, a fascinating question arises. What is the charedi mesorah? Is it what the oilom of today does, or is it what the Gedolim of yesteryear held?)

I asked Rabbi Margolin if I could make his sefer available for my readers, and he kindly consented. So here is the entire work for download! (it is a 16mb PDF). This is one small step for mankind, and one giant leap for Rationalist Judaism!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Guest Post: Dear Dad, Mom and Chaim

Last week's post, Why Do Centrists Send Their Kids to Extreme Charedi Yeshivos?, garnered a lot of interest. One reader sent in the following letter that he had written to his in-law's family (identifying details have been altered):

Dear Dad, Mom and Chaim,

I am writing this to all of you to clarify why I think it is a mistake to choose a haredi yeshiva for next year. I hope you find time to discuss this together, and I am available if you wish to revisit the issue with me.

Until now, Chaim, you have been in an American center-right high school. The school prepares you for college, but the emphasis is on a yeshiva experience. Students are expected to wear black hats, and, explicitly or implicitly, your school places you within the yeshiva (or “yeshivish”) culture. Now, you are choosing a school for next year. This decision deserves serious consideration that includes an examination of what you, as a new adult, think about yourself and what you think about your relationship to Am Yisrael, Torah, and God.

Some people believe strongly that their entire purpose in this world is to learn Torah. Even if they have to work, they believe it is an unfortunate reality that they have to do so, one that, in an ideal world, would never materialize. They spend each and every moment of their time outside of work (or other necessary activities) learning Torah. They do not practically believe there is any good to be gained by interacting with secular culture, and purposely have nothing to do with secular music, art, literature or even science. These people do not read Blake, Tennyson, or Milton – nor do they find value in Hume, Kant or Schleiermacher. Museums and art galleries are of little value or interest. This is the type of philosophy your high-school projects. This is also the philosophy Merkaz, Mir, Toras Moshe and other schools in Israel espouse.

When a student from a different background attends these types of schools, one of two things can happen: 1) they can buy into the views of the school 100% (I have a number of friends who went to modern-orthodox high-school with me, who, when in Yeshiva in Israel "frummed out" and took on the worldview I described above). Alternatively, 2) the student can bifurcate his (or her) world - they can split their life into two pieces: when in Yeshiva, or around their teachers from school, they pay lip service to the school's philosophy, they wear black and white, they live in line with what their teachers expect. However, outside of school, they live within the guidelines of their more open, modern background: they watch television and movies, listen to secular music, find (forbidden?) pleasure in their required readings for English Lit., and generally, enjoy other activities of which their school would not approve.

I am not going to deal with the first possibility in this email, since it is internally consistent, and does not produce cognitive dissonance (a feeling of going against what you think you are meant to believe). The student simply takes on his school's philosophy as his own. However, the second alternative (2 above) is very important, and requires examination. The question is, does it lead to a healthy religious and social result for the student? Can a student really be sincere about his relationship with Hashem and Torah in his "school persona", while his "outside-of-school persona" acts (guiltily?) against the philosophy he learns in school?

This comes to a head when the student is outside of the yeshiva or school system, perhaps a few years later. Does he abandon the values of learning Torah to the secular enticements around him that he always enjoyed, or does he maintain a connection to Torah learning and Torah love? After all, the secular world which the student also loves is worthless and denigrated, without any holiness, according to the school's teachings. How long can a person maintain the tension between what he loves and what he is told is right? How long can a student live with loving things that his school teaches him are antithetical to a Torah-true lifestyle? At what point does he perhaps throw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting not only the lesson of the school that there is no value in the secular things he finds so pleasant, but ditching the whole committed religious lifestyle, which, as he has always been taught, is available only through fidelity to the school’s religious philosophy?

When he goes to college, does he maintain his "school persona" or shed it? Is it really a genuine part of him or is it just a mask, a costume, he puts on to make his school happy, that he removes when he can?

Chaim, you are a wonderful, thoughtful and deep 12th grader - and you find fulfillment in many things that your school might consider worthless. I know, because I did (and do) as well! So do your mom and dad. Your parents see spiritual and religious value in things that are not simply "yeshivish". Your dad's antique car restorations, the music in your home, your mom's insistence on exposing you to the wonderful literature that makes up a well-balanced western mind, these are all things that your parents find to be full of value - not only value, but also fulfillment - and yes, religious and spiritual importance. Your father would not be the same religious man without his understanding of the subtleties of a carburetor, or his hard work in family court. These aspects of his personality imprint themselves indelibly upon his Talmud-learning, and make it unique. Your mother would not be the same person without her skills as a social worker - and you would not be the same adult you are today without all these things.

Precisely because of how important the secular world is to your family and you - and how much it influences your life (and mine and your parents!) - you should not agree to live with tension between your school or yeshiva, and your passions.

There is a whole world of Jewish people out there who share your family's passion for things that are outside of the beis midrash. In a different kind of yeshiva, your interests in literature, science and philosophy would not be seen as shameful things to hide but positive attributes that complete you as a Jew. Your love of surfing, of art and of music can be seen as a positive religious act. Your interest in furthering your education and looking forward to a meaningful career can be seen as more than an unfortunate necessity but instead as a foundational religious activity of supreme importance and value.

You owe it to yourself, Chaim, to experience that view of Torah - to see an unapologetic view of a Jew who is completely involved in the world, and finds in that involvement spiritual and religious fulfillment! These areas of life become hand-maidens to the rich intellectual Torah life you will continue to live, and you will know that to the extent your knowledge is lacking in secular areas, it is lacking in Torah as well. This view can transform the rest of your life from one of unfortunate necessity to blossoming meaning.

If you go to a haredi yeshiva, you will continue on the path of driving a wedge between Torah and the world in which you engage. On the other hand, if you go to a school that teaches the bedrock of the modern-orthodox hashkafa, you will have an opportunity to see how Torah and the world around you assist each other in making you a complete Jew: Talmud study and the classics of literature and philosophy, a career and sincere involvement in Torah learning, all come together to complete the rich tapestry of your soul. Most importantly, you will not have to choose between being loyal to the teachings of your teachers and following those passions you know have value - rather your passions and the teachings will fulfill each other in harmony. What a missed opportunity, and one whose loss you will suffer for years to come, if you opt out of learning the philosophical underpinnings of the life you have been raised in so far!

Chaim, you stand at the threshold of adulthood. I have the highest regard for the path in which your parents are raising you - Torah with secular knowledge. I encourage you to consider very carefully where you go next year, and I encourage you, if you do end up going to a haredi school, that you find someone (it can be me or someone else) with whom to learn hashkafa, so that at least you have a taste of the kind of Jewish thinking I describe above, and never, out of ignorance, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Love to you all,


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Egg-Laying Elephants and Overly-Pregnant Wolves

Of the 2,711 pages in the Babylonian Talmud, the one featuring the most conflicts between the Sages and modern science has got to be Bechoros 8a.

It begins by describing the "people of the sea" which breed like human. This, however, does not pose any conflict with science. Although Rashi explains the Gemara as referring to mermaids, which interbreed with people, the Gemara is actually talking about dolphins, as I discuss in Sacred Monsters. But after that, the Gemara gets much more problematic.

The Gemara then says that "Any species in which the male has external genitalia bears live young; any in which the male has internal genitalia, lays eggs." As a general rule, this is strikingly accurate, and the Gemara's rules are often only meant to be general. However, this section of Gemara is intending to give absolute rules, as evinced by the fact that the Gemara on the previous page names the bat as an exception to its rule that every lactating mammal gives birth to live young (ironically, the bat is actually not an exception to this rule). And as an absolute statement, it is incorrect that any species in which the male has internal genitalia, lays eggs. Whales, dolphins, elephants, giant anteaters, and hyraxes all have internal genitalia, and none of them lay eggs. If you want to avoid this problem by arguing that the Gemara is talking about genitalia that are permanently internal, then you run into a problem with the first part of the Gemara's statement, which would have to correspondingly be referring to species in which the genitalia of males are not permanently internal and can be extruded. The males of many reptiles, and even some birds, extrude their genitalia, and yet they do not bear live young.

The Gemara then states that if an animal mates during the day, then it gives birth during the day, and if it mates during the night, then it gives birth during the night. I haven't checked this one out, but I doubt that it's true.

Next, the Gemara states that any two types of animal that mate in the same position and have the same period of gestation, can interbreed. This is clearly not true. Countless species are identical in these details and yet are genetically incompatible and cannot produce hybrids.

Then comes a particularly fascinating passage:
Everything copulates front facing back, except for three species that copulate face-to-face: fish, humans and snakes. And what is unique about these three? When Rav Dimi came, it was said in the West: Since the Divine Presence spoke with them (Jonah’s whale and the primordial serpent). It was taught that the camel copulates back-to-back. 

Although the Gemara's first principle is broadly accurate, there are actually other animals that mate face-to-face: bonobos and sloths. And although a camel's penis normally points backwards, it awkwardly twists it around to the front during mating, so that they copulate front-to back, unlike as described in the Gemara.

The Gemara continues to list the gestation periods of various animals:
The Rabbis taught: A hen [lays its eggs] after twenty-one days, and corresponding to it among trees is the almond [whose fruit ripens twenty-one days after its blossoming]. The [gestation period of a] dog is fifty days, and corresponding to it among trees is the fig. The [gestation period of a] cat is fifty-two days, and corresponding to it among trees is the mulberry. The [gestation period of a] pig is sixty days, and corresponding to it among trees is the apple. The [gestation period of a] fox and all kinds of creeping creatures is six months, and corresponding to it among trees is wheat. The [gestation period of] small clean animals is five months, and corresponding to it among trees is the vine. Large unclean domestic animals [go with young] for twelve months, and corresponding to them is a palm-tree among trees. The [gestation period of] clean large cattle is nine months, and corresponding [to clean large cattle] is an olive-tree among trees. The [gestation period of the] wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, monkey, and long-tailed ape is three years, corresponding to them are white figs among trees... The [gestation period of a] serpent is seven years, and for that wicked animal there is no companion [among trees].
Many of these descriptions are accurate, but some are very far off. The gestation period of foxes and other small animals is much, much less than six months. The gestation period of the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and monkey, is much, much less than three years. The gestation period of the snake is much less than seven years.

So, what are we to make of all these? From a rationalist perspective, none of this poses any kind of theological problem. Following in the footsteps of countless Geonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim, we would simply say that Chazal were speculating or repeating ancient beliefs about the natural world that we now know to be incorrect.

But according to many (but not all) charedi rabbonim, such an approach is heretical. In particular, let us consider Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, because he is giving a shiur on this very page of Gemara in Baltimore tomorrow morning, at 5:50am in Kol Torah (it's open to all).

Rabbi Meiselman insists that any definitive statement made by the Sages cannot be challenged, and that to do so is heresy. Indeed, the bulk of his 800 page book on Torah, Chazal and Science serves to stress this point. He further repeatedly makes clear that he believes himself to be one of the few people (or only person) qualified to address these topics. So what does he do with the cases listed above?

Maybe he'd say that when the Gemara talks about camels and foxes and wolves, it doesn't mean camels and foxes and wolves, but rather entirely different animals that are unknown to us. That, of course, is an absurd suggestion, but is it absurd to suggest that he would offer such an absurd suggestion? Not at all, because that's exactly what he does in some of these cases!

Rabbi Meiselman claims that the atalef (bat) mentioned in the Gemara as laying eggs is not actually a bat, as has traditionally and universally been understood. Rather, he says that it is a platypus, which Chazal somehow knew about, and which they called by the same name as an animal that is birdlike in other ways, thereby misleading every single student of the Talmud for nearly two thousand years, other than him. And he claims (p. 5) that the snake mentioned by the Gemara is not any of the ordinary types of snake, referred to with that name in countless other passages in the Gemara, but rather refers to a different and entirely unknown species. So maybe Rabbi Meiselman would likewise claim that the camels and foxes and wolves and other animals mentioned on this page likewise do not refer to the animals that they were traditionally understood to refer to, but instead to unknown species!

However, Rabbi Meiselman does not actually do so, for reasons that are unclear. Instead, when he addresses one of the passages in this Gemara (regarding gestation periods), in a footnote on p. 6, he presents two possibilities. One is that the Gemara is not talking about the length of gestation, but rather "some other aspect of the reproductive process." This vague speculation does not seriously address the issues. What other aspect could be reconciled with these statements? What aspect of the reproductive process can be said to be fifty days with a dog, six months with a fox, and three years with a wolf? Furthermore, this does not address the other problematic statements on this page of Gemara, such as that any species in which the male has internal genitalia lays eggs, or that camels mate backwards, or that any two types of animal that mate in the same position and have the same gestation period can interbreed.

Rabbi Meiselman's other suggestion is that "the facts of nature have simply changed over the years." This claim (which is ironically often advanced by those who simultaneously argue that evolution is scientifically impossible) cannot be taken at all seriously by anyone even remotely familiar with zoology. Elephants used to lay eggs, but no longer do so? Countless species used to be interfertile, but are no longer interfertile? Camels used to mate back-to-back, but now awkwardly twist themselves around to mate front-to-back? Wolves, which are genetically virtually identical to dogs, used to have a gestation period of three years?! (Perhaps someone in Baltimore would like to attend the shiur tomorrow and pose these questions, and record his response?)

As I have stated many times, if someone is determined to believe these things, I have no problem with that, as long as they don't attempt to impose their belief on others. But Rabbi Meiselman claims that he is the greatest expert on these topics, and that anyone who takes the rationalist approach of Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Hirsch is a heretic. And, amazingly, there are many people who take him seriously (albeit not outside of the charedi world). It's important to bring these cases of the Gemara to the forefront of discussion, in order to expose how his approach simply cannot be taken seriously. Any serious person knows that the rationalist approach of Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Hirsch is not only not heresy - it's the only remotely reasonable approach to take.

(Note: The full index of critiques of Rabbi Meiselman's book is here: You can download a PDF of all the parts written so far at this link.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why Do Centrists Send Their Kids to Extreme Charedi Yeshivos? The Answers!

In this post I would like to finally address a question that I raised several months ago. There are many thousands of wonderful families in the Centrist and Modern Orthodox communities. These are people who value the State of Israel, one of the greatest miracles of Jewish history. They also value modern science, which has unlocked so many mysteries of the universe. These people also share the values of Chazal and the Rishonim in rating it as very important that a man work for a living and support his family. And Baruch Hashem, there is no shortage of wonderful yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael which share and teach these values. Why, then, do so many of these people send their children to yeshivos which teach the exact opposite?

These are yeshivos in which students were encouraged to attend a rally and pray to Hashem to pour out His wrath upon the State of Israel for somewhat equalizing the burden of military service. Yeshivos in which the Roshei Yeshivah, the revered heads of the institutions, attend Satmar anti-Israel hatefests. Yeshivos in which modern science is disparaged and students are taught an anti-rationalist outlook. Yeshivos in which students are taken to the Kosel to davven that their fellow students should not be forced to attend YU. Yeshivos in which it is drilled into the students that they must spend endless years in kollel, and rely on their parents to support them, rather than training for a profession. A student at one yeshivah told me how, when he told his rebbe that he was leaving, the rebbe took a Gemara, spat on it, hurled it to the ground, and said, "That's what you're doing to Chazal!"

Why do these people send their children, at a highly impressionable stage of their lives, to be immersed in an environment which teaches the exact opposite of the values that they hold dear? I would like to suggest several explanations for this disturbing phenomenon. (Note: I am addressing the topic of post-high school yeshivos, not yeshivah high schools.)

1. They don't do proper research into the yeshivah

This is probably the most common, albeit least excusable, reason. I was speaking with someone recently whose son is in Toras Moshe. The parent was horrified to discover the extent to which Toras Moshe is rabidly anti-Zionist and anti-YU. The mother said to me that she assumed that since Rabbi Meiselman has a PhD and is a nephew of Rav Soloveitchik, then Toras Moshe must be a YU-type place. Good grief! You really don't have to do too much asking around to find out what kind of place it is!

2. The yeshivah misleads them

Sometimes, the parents are misled by the yeshivah itself about its nature. Of course, rabbonim whose goal it is to steer students away from university and towards kollel, or away from Zionist hashkafah to charedi hashkafah, are not going to advertise that as being their goal. People need to know that they have to do independent research about the yeshivah.

3. The starter yeshivah sends them

There are several starter yeshivos which cater for students from centrist homes, but which have charedi-oriented rebbeim or roshei yeshivah. These rebbeim often encourage students to spend more years in yeshivah, and since this yeshivah is only designed for a one or two year program, they send them to more "serious" yeshivos. In order to avoid this problem, parents must be sure to check that not only is the student body of a centrist hashkafah, but so are the faculty.

4. They overestimate their children 

Some parents are aware that they are sending their kids to a place where the rebbeim have a very charedi approach, but they are convinced that their child will not be affected.  This is naive. Most people would probably rate me as being intelligent and independent-minded, yet I was completely and utterly brainwashed in yeshivah. People do not realize the extent to which the yeshivah environment is immersive, and the power of pressure exerted by revered rabbonim.

5. They are under the impression that Charedi Judaism is Torah-True Judaism

Many people are under the mistaken impression that charedi Judaism is authentic, traditional, Torah-true (TM), "real" Judaism. As I have shown in several monographs and countless blog-posts, this is very much not the case. But it is going to take a lot of outreach by a lot of people to correct this popular misconception.

6. They feel that the "level of learning" is the most important factor

Some parents feel that they should be looking for a place which as a good reputation for the level of learning, and that other things are not so important. However, they fail to realize that these other things often determine whether their children will be gainfully employed in twenty years or desperate for hand-outs, and can also determine whether their grandchildren will receive a secular education. I would add that if a yeshivah's rosh yeshivah is someone who expresses poor middos or hateful attitudes, then what is the value of the "high level learning"?

7. A combination of the above

There are countless families of a centrist hashkafah whose children end up living an extreme chareidi lifestyle, and many of these instances are due to a combination of the above factors. They send their kids to a yeshivah or seminary that has rabbonim who are on the chareidi side, but they don't see it as a big deal. At the end of the year, the kid wants to spend another year in Israel, which they agree to. Then the kid wants to go to a more serious yeshivah, and the parents, who are reluctant to get into a serious confrontation with their child, begrudgingly agree. Before you know it, the kid is married with children and the parents are fully financially supporting them with no end in sight, and the grandchildren are learning in a Talmud Torah with little or no secular education.

That's the stage where many parents come to me and ask me what to do. But at that point, unless you want to threaten cutting off all financial support and risk your relationship with your child, there's not much to be done. You have to be vigilant in advance!

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is, Baruch Hashem, no shortage of wonderful yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael where the faculty share and teach the values of Torah, Zionism, and chachmah. If you're not thinking about sending your kids to one of those yeshivos, think again. The stakes are higher than you think.

Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both ...