Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Biblical Museum of Natural History

Check out this new promotional video for The Biblical Museum of Natural History - best played full-screen with the volume cranked up! Please help us out by sharing it with all your friends! (Note that if you are reading this post via email subscription, you will not be able to see the video - go to this link instead:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Rationalist Exodus

Yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of the Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy. Many people ask me how it affected me (to which the brief answer is that it was extremely painful for my wife and I, and had mixed results for my career), but a much more important question is how it affected society at large. Was it Good For The Jews or Bad For The Jews?

The ban certainly had a great impact on many people. I have a folder full of hundreds of letters that I received about it. While a few are from people hurling abuse at me, the vast majority are from people who were greatly distressed and shocked. Just a few weeks ago, I was speaking with someone that I hadn't seen in many years. This person, many years my senior, is a talmid chacham of note, "old school charedi," who is a product of mainstream charedi yeshivos. He told me that the ban on my books was a watershed in his life, causing him to fundamentally re-assess his view of the charedi world.

Not everyone is so honest with themselves. Someone else that I know recently sent me a letter that he received from "an extremely prominent and widely respected Rav" who described me as having become an apikores, but expressed sympathy for me. This Rav described me as having been "lynched and butchered by the kanaim and no one was willing to stick his neck out for him. I am not justifying his having become a mevazeh talmidei chachamim at all, but it’s difficult to not feel for him. He is a victim of some of the most embarrassing aspects of our society and we should not take pleasure in knocking him. The entire parsha is very painful and we should avoid discussing him altogether.”

This Rav would like to pin the entire episode on the kanaim, avoid discussing me, and not think about this painful episode. In reality, of course, you cannot pin all the blame on the low-level kanaim who are now in prison or otherwise disgraced. First of all, the charedi Gedolim were all willing to put their trust in these people, which speaks volumes about them. Second, several of the Gedolim, such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Moshe Shapiro, were at the forefront of the campaign. Third, the fact is that virtually all of the Gedolim were describing the positions of dozens of prominent Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah. But it's too uncomfortable for this prominent Rav to think about all that, so he would prefer to pin it all on the kanaim, dismiss me as a mevazeh talmidei chachamim, and and not think about the episode any further.

My impression is that as a result of the Gedolim's ban, many hundreds, even thousands, of people moved away from the charedi world to a greater or lesser degree. (I doubt that there were many people who moved in the opposite direction!) For some, it was just an internal feeling of disconnect. Others re-assessed the direction of their charity dollars - I know of one philanthropist in New York who kept a list on his desk of all the rabbonim who banned my works, so that if collectors would come, he would know who to turn away. For still others, there were actual lifestyle changes - taking off the black hat, choosing different schools and yeshivos for their children, and so on.

Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the controversy over my books was "the public issue most damaging to the Torah's honor and to its leaders in recent memory." (Incredibly, he pinned the blame for this on me!) It was certainly a chillul Hashem of historic proportions, but did it really harm rabbinic authority? I would argue that it only harmed it in a beneficial way - it decreased the rabbinic authority of some rabbis, but boosted that of others. In other words, it caused thousands of people to realize that that rabbis whom they had thought were their leaders were not actually suited to being their leaders. Most of these people then moved towards, or solidified their connection with, other rabbinic leaders, generally from the non-charedi world, who were on their hashkafic wavelength and whom they perceived as exercising rabbinic authority appropriately.

This, in turn, is something that would appear to be a very good thing. Not only are all these people now connected to rabbinic leaders who are much more suited to them, but they are also making better lifestyle choices. For example, they are more likely to support serving in the IDF rather than attend chilul Hashem rallies against it, and more likely to follow Chazal's directives about raising their children to be economically independent.

Overall, then, as painful as the ban was for me and for countless other people, I would say that it was Good For The Jews.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Okay, Okay, I Won't Call It That!

Well, I was inundated with comments and emails after yesterday's post about the book I am currently working on. Everyone agreed that the title I was toying with, One Judaism, Two Religions: Rationalism versus Mysticism, was an appalling idea. Thank you for your input, and I will abandon that title!

I liked two of David Bar-Cohn's suggestions the best. One was Rationalism Restored: Defending Jewish Intellectual History from Religious Revisionism. The other, which I prefer, was Rationalism vs Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. I like the way it presents the fact that there are very deep differences between the two worldviews, yet does not try to delegitimize either of them. That's an important component of my presentation, in which I always stress that while I personally identify with the rationalist worldview, I do not believe in trying to exterminate the other perspective.

Co-existence between the two groups is difficult. There is an unfortunate tendency among some mystics to brand rationalists as heretics, and there is an unfortunate tendency among some rationalists to brand mystics as idiots. But perhaps each can at least see that the other side has a long legacy, and that there are people for whom it is uniquely suited. It’s a case of different strokes for different folks.

Furthermore, fortunately Judaism is largely a religion of deed rather than creed. There are relatively few practical ramifications, on a daily basis, between rationalists and mystics. I myself daven at a wonderful tiny shteeble that contains both die-hard rationalists and staunch mystics, and we all get along just fine. It’s only when people give divrei Torah that the sparks fly.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Book Project

While the primary focus of my work is with The Biblical Museum of Natural History (don't forget to book a tour if you are coming to Israel!), my next publishing project is a book about rationalist Judaism. Originally, the planned title was going to be Rationalist Judaism: Its Nature, Decline and Rebirth. However, it has come to my attention that some people unfamiliar with this project think that it is about a different form of Judaism than Orthodox Judaism. Therefore, I think it's important for the title to clarify that it is about distinguishing between two approaches within Orthodox Judaism. Accordingly, I am toying with titles such as One Judaism, Two Religions: Rationalism versus Mysticism. But I am open to suggestions!

The plan is to divide the book into two parts. Part One will be a lengthy overview of the entire topic, similar to the lecture on this topic that I have delivered at many synagogues. It will include a brief synopsis of the topics in part two, as well as a brief review of the of issues discussed in Menachem Kellner’s important work Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism.

Part Two, Studies in Rationalist Judaism, will contain in-depth treatments of various subtopics. Some of these I have already e-published as monographs, while some are yet to be written. I plan to introduce each of them with an explanation of its relationship to the overall topic. Here is the list of chapters planned for this section:
  1. The Revolution in Approaching the Sages and Science: The Sun's Path at Night
  2. Maharal's Multiple Revolutions in Aggadic Scholarship
  3. Sod Hashem Liyreyav  - When God Reveals His Scientific Secrets
  4. Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists
  5. The Sages' Powers of Life and Death (written but not published)
  6. Wrestling with Demons 
  7. The Evolution of the Olive - perhaps including some supplementary material
  8. Angry Birds: The Nature of Shiluach haKein
  9. What Can One Do for Someone who has Passed Away?
  10. How did the Avos keep the Torah? (An expansion of this post, not yet written)
  11. Brain Death and Organ Donation (written but not published)
  12. The Transformation of Torah (Probably the most important and provocative chapter, documenting how the mitzvah of learning Torah has changed over the centuries, with all kinds of ramifications. It will be an expansion of several blog posts on this topic.)
  13. The Nature of Nature and Providence (Similar to my discussion of this topic in The Challenge Of Creation)
It will also include an appendix on the topic of the role of belief in Judaism, which I have already mostly written.

(This book will not include my monographs about the development of orthodoxy and the evolution of charedism. Those will hopefully appear in a future volume about Orthodoxy, as yet untitled. That volume will also include detailed studies of the topics of rabbinic authority, yeshivah study versus IDF service, and studying Torah versus working for a living. It probably won't be on sale at the Agudah convention.)

I would welcome suggestions regarding what material to include (and not to include!) in the book.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

But What Kind Of Ram?

We know that the best way to fulfill the mitzvah of shofar is with the horn of a ram. This is because one of the reasons for the shofar is to remind us of Avraham's binding of Yitzchak, and the ram that he offered in its place. But has anyone ever stopped to think about what kind of ram it was?

It occurred to me that it wouldn't have been an ordinary domestic sheep, since Avraham was out in the wilderness. Furthermore, as my friend Rabbi David Bar-Cohn pointed out, Avraham would presumably not have stolen someone's sheep! Thus, it would have been a wild variety of sheep - possibly the aoudad, but more likely the mouflon.

Mouflon shofars are not normally available; the one that is on display at The Biblical Museum of Natural History may be the only one in the world. It is spectacularly beautiful! There are no longer any wild mouflon in the Middle East;  contemplating Avraham's ram reminds us that many wild animals which used to live in the Land of Israel no longer do so.

A mouflon caught by its horns in a thicket. See this link.
I've added this tidbit to my monograph Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations, which has also been updated with new photos, and is freely available for download at this link.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Rationalist Tzedakah

You'd think that a mitzvah as basic as tzedakah, charity, would not have anything to do with the primary topics of this forum - rationalism vs. mysticism, and charedi vs. centrist Orthodoxy. But, at least in Ramat Bet Shemesh, it certainly does.

There are a number of different communal charity organizations in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Some organizations give hand-outs to the many local desperate kollel families which, while alleviating their current hardship, does nothing to change their long-term situation. This is presumably based on the mystical idea that such kollel study is valuable; perhaps even more so than financial self-sufficiency.

But one of them, Lemaan Achai, is the most extraordinary charity organization that I've seen, and has a different approach. Their motto is "smart chessed." When taking on a family, they first have a case worker assess every aspect of the family's situation. Then their goal is to practice charity according to Rambam's principles, whereby the highest level of charity is to rehabilitate the family such that they are independent.

"Smart chessed" also has ramifications for collecting donations. They focus less on shtick and more on what people really need. For example, collecting money to provide people with a Purim seudah made a lot of sense in an era where the basic requirement was food. But today, when the amount of money collected may well exceed the cost of providing Purim seudos, but there are utility bills and other problems to be solved, it makes more sense to spread donations more broadly. Lemaan Achai offers a "Smart Matanos L'Evyanim" program, whereby some of the donation is used to buy provisions for a Purim Seudah, and the rest is used for more important needs.

Lemaan Achai equally services all sectors of the local population - charedi, dati-leumi, secular, Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Israeli, Russian, French, Anglo. Its rabbinic board is also diverse, including dati-leumi as well as moderate charedi rabbanim.

Put together all the above factors, and you have the recipe for an organization which does incredible work - but you also have the recipe for an organization that, in Ramat Bet Shemesh, faces active opposition.

It's no secret that Ramat Bet Shemesh, for all its amazing qualities that make it a much sought-after place to live, suffers from a lot of divisiveness and zealotry from certain sectors of the population. This has spilled over to local charities. Despite the fact that Lemaan Achai helps many local charedi families, they are prohibited from making appeals in many local charedi shuls - often the same shuls which have families that they help! In some cases, Lemaan Achai fundraisers have been forcibly and physically prevented from entering local shuls. And when they put up banners and posters to fundraise, these are often ripped down. At a broader level, the struggle between Lemaan Achai and other organizations has become symbolic of the larger struggle to define the character of Ramat Bet Shemesh - as a town housing a diverse population, or as a charedi hegemony.

If you're looking for a good, smart cause for your charity shekels/dollars, please consider Lemaan Achai. You can find out more, and donate, via their website at