Friday, October 30, 2015
Thursday, October 29, 2015
However, I subsequently discovered that matters are a little more complicated. A number of commentaries discuss the question of how Avraham could have simply taken a sheep that might have belonged to somebody. Chizkuni, Seforno and Bechor Shor say that this is the meaning of the curious word אחר appearing in the phrase והנה איל אחר נאחז בסבך בקרניו. They explain that it means "subsequently." Avraham saw the ram roaming around, but did not take it, out of concern that it belonged to somebody; subsequently, when he saw it get trapped by its horns, he understood this odd occurrence as a sign that he should bring it as an offering. (See too Netziv, Haamek Davar, for a slight variation on this.)
R. Yisrael Lifschitz also addresses the ownership of the ram in his Tiferes Yisrael commentary to Mishnah Avos 5:6. The Mishnah there describes this ram as one of things created at the end of the week of Creation. R. Lifschitz states that this does not mean that Avraham's ram was created thousands of years earlier, but rather that his ram was a descendant of that primordial ram. He explains that this is in order to avoid the problem of Avraham taking somebody else's ram - it had to be a descendant of the primordial ram that had always been ownerless.
The common theme with all these commentaries is that none of them suggest that it was a wild ram (i.e.a mouflon), not a domestic ram! Why not?
Could it be that these commentaries were unaware of mouflons? Possibly, though that does not seem likely. I think that there are two other possible answers.
One is that perhaps the word ayil itself denotes a domestic ram. It is true that the English word ram is equally applicable to the males of wild sheep such as mouflons, but that does not need to be the case with the Hebrew word.
Another answer is that a mouflon is ruled out because a wild animal cannot be brought as on offering. Without getting into the ever-popular topic about whether the forefathers actually observed all the mitvos (a topic about which I am currently preparing an extensive analysis for the Rationalist Judaism book), we see that Noah only brought offerings from domestic animals, and thus this is a pre-Sinaitic concept.
In any case, is it actually possible for a ram to get trapped by its horns? Yes it is! Here is an incredible video of a mouflon actually trapped by its horns in a thicket, exactly as described in the Torah! (Note for those reading this post via email subscription - as usual, you will have to visit www.RationalistJudaism.com in order to see the video.)
Monday, October 26, 2015
But at the other end of the scale, Rav Uri Sherky, of the dati-leumi Machon Meir, told his class that the calls to strengthen Torah and prayer are "utter nonsense." He clarified that “it is obvious that we must always strengthen the study of Torah and fear of Heaven, but it’s beside the point.” Rav Sherky stated that what needs to be done is to empower the nation on both a national level, via enforcing Israeli sovereignty, and on an individual level, with people learning how to defend themselves in combat. He argued, "Don’t hide behind slack-handed religious activity, which has nothing to do with what’s happening.” Predictably, this triggered a furious response from others, such as former Shas minister Shlomo Benizri, who described Rav Sherky as being the "partner of Amalek."
Before analyzing this topic, let's first scale down the rhetoric. It's clear that Rav Sherky is not opposing increasing the study of Torah, just as it's clear that his opponents are not opposing increasing military enforcement and individuals learning self-defense. Rather, the dispute is primarily over emphasis. But I would like to add that there is also crucial relevance to rationalist vs. non-rationalist worldviews.
Let us first note that if we look at traditional sources, we certainly do not see that Torah study is prescribed as the primary response to security threats. In Tanach, of course, there is no mention whatsoever of learning Torah as protection against danger - instead, it is military action that is described, along with prayer. In the writings of Chazal and classical Torah authorities, we likewise see that with regard to spiritual efforts to ward off danger, the primary emphasis is on prayer, not Torah study. Yaakov, when meeting Eisav, is said to have prepared himself for prayer, appeasement and battle - there is no mention of studying Torah. Traditionally, if Jews were in danger, other Jews sought to spiritually assist them by praying for them, not learning on their behalf.
Still, Torah study is also traditionally stated to have protective value. The Gemara (Sotah 21a and Makkos 10a) says that the study of Torah protects a person from certain types of harm. In addition, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 108a and Bava Basra 7b) rules that Torah scholars are exempt from the expense of building protective walls for the city, since they are protected by virtue of the Torah they learn.
Previously, I have noted that the extent and parameters of this protection are classically (and logically and practically) understood very differently from how contemporary charedi apologists explain it. And of course, it's hard to say that such notions have significant empirical value for us - just think of the Torah scholars who have been murdered in terror attacks, sometimes on their way to perform mitzvos. But in this post, I would like to return to a different angle, that I have discussed previously - the very nature of this protection.
As we have discussed before, the mystical and rationalist schools of thought have very different ideas regarding what mitzvos actually do. According to the rationalist approach, mitzvos improve our characters, our intellect, and society - and do nothing else. According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, mitzvos primarily serve to create and manipulate various metaphysical energies. To pick one example, according to the rationalist approach, mezuzah serves to remind us of our duties, whereas according to the mystical approach, mezuzos create a metaphysical force-field that protects our homes.
The same is true for Torah. According the rationalist approach, learning Torah imparts valuable knowledge, improves our character, and teaches us how to improve society (see my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) That is it, and that is all. Which is not, of course, to trivialize these functions - from a rationalist perspective, these are of immense importance! With the rise of mysticism, on the other hand, came a new and primary function of Torah study. As expressed by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, the primary function of Torah study was now seen as being to create spiritual energies and thereby metaphysically influence the universe. (See my post on The Goal of Torah Study.)
The difference between rationalist and mystical approaches with regard to the relevance of Torah study to providing protection is similar to the topic that I discussed in my essay "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" According to the mystical/ charedi approach, you can benefit anyone who has passed away via learning Torah and transferring "spiritual currency." According to the classical/ rationalist approach, on the other hand, there is simply no mechanism for such a thing. Instead, only the descendants and disciples of the dead can benefit them, via creating a merit for them.
Likewise, in this case, the mystical/ charedi approach is that Torah study creates metaphysical protective forces. These can be set up to protect one's own city. But they can also be exported, via declarations of designation, to other places.
The rationalist approach to the notion of Torah providing protection would be very different. (I am not talking here about extreme rationalist interpretations of Maimonides, but rather about mainstream rationalist approaches that reflect Chazal's understanding in this area.) It relates to the idea of the personal merit of the person studying Torah, rather than a metaphysical protection provided by the Torah study itself. This personal merit can perhaps also be effective for one's community, but it is not an entity or commodity that can be transferred.
It seems that the rationalist approach has stronger support from classical sources. The Gemara in Sotah speaks about the zechus, the merit, of Torah, rather than speaking of the “protective power” of Torah. And the Gemara speaking about Torah scholars not requiring protection does not phrase it as "Torah study protects" but rather "Torah scholars are protected." It refers to the person who has performed the act rather than the act itself. Just as Sodom could have been saved in the merit of righteous people, so too righteous people can create a merit which leads to the machinations of enemy forces being divinely repressed.
In summary: According to classical Judaism, the primary way of defending ourselves against our enemies is with military means. The primary spiritual defensive tool is prayer. You can also create a merit for yourself by learning Torah, and you can pray on behalf of anyone. But you can't export the merit of your Torah to other people.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Yesterday, I published a guest post from my sister Dinah Paritzky. She stated that people should tone down their hysteria over the terror attack in Beit Shemesh, arguing that she is more likely to get in a car accident. And she was right! Today she got into a car accident!
I am in the ER with her right now. It looks like nothing more than whiplash, thank God. Fortunately she has retained her sense of humor. She saw the irony of the incident in light of her blog post yesterday, and asked me to write this post.
The rationalists will take this as evidence that she was correct. The non-rationalists will take this as evidence that you shouldn't give yourself an ayin hara!
Thursday, October 22, 2015
The panic levels of the general population are (rationally) out of all proportion to the threat – and the media is not helping any. Imagine if every single time someone got injured or killed in a car crash, the headlines would pop up on our screens, along with interviews with eye witnesses. It would happen dozens of times every single day – and would probably terrify us all. Nobody would want to get in a car – or leave their house!
I wonder what would happen if the terrorist attacks were only reported on the regular evening headlines? And not as newsflashes? It's obviously not a realistic wish – but let's just imagine for a moment. Of course the news channels would not get their nice juicy stories – but maybe we would all be that much calmer?
Am I scared when I leave my house in Bet Shemesh and go to work in Jerusalem that I will be stabbed by a terrorist? Well, yes. I am also scared that someone will crash head-on into my car at full speed (as once happened!), that I will get run over, that there will be an earthquake, or I could be bitten by a poisonous snake, or I could fall over and break my back or skull. I could also have a heart attack or a brain aneurysm. Or get struck by lightning. Or catch Asian flu. Or get murdered by a random lunatic as opposed to an actual terrorist.
We all know that some of those things are statistically more likely to happen than a terrorist attack. And yet perfectly rational people lose all sense of perspective. If a terrorist attack happens in Bet Shemesh (a town of 80,000 people or so), you do not need to call me to see if I am okay. I assume that if I were to be murdered then you would be upset. But you do not need to demonstrate your affection for me by calling to see if I am alive and well. You could wait to hear on the news what actually happened. If an attack happens on my street (chas ve...), then sure – go ahead and call. But if it happens in my town? Or my country? You really don’t need to bother. It just adds to the general levels of hysteria.
Last week my son's school had a 2 day trip to the yishuvim in the south including Sderot, to see how they live. Despite the school getting all possible ishurim, a few parents sent out mails saying how scared they were, and asked if we were sending our sons. I replied that I work in downtown Jerusalem, my daughter is on a kibbutz on the border of Gaza and my son is in the army, and that Sderot seems like a safer option than any of those. The reply? "I want to keep my son 100% safe, not 90% safe." Well, sorry, but I have news for you - you can't. You could try chaining him to his bed wrapped in cotton wool and never letting him go near a road – but you won't do that.
I do realize this is a sliding scale: anyone more scared than me is hysterical and anyone less scared is an idiot :-). However, can we at least try to be slightly rational?
To be sure, we can take some basic precautions - after all, I don’t cross the road with my eyes closed. But can we a) carry on with our lives and b) not frantically phone/ sms/ whatsapp/ facebook the minute there is a pigua?
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
An Arab was following a Chassidish woman in Jerusalem for about 20 minutes, after which he disappeared. The woman immediately called in his description to the police, who were able to make the arrest. They brought the suspect in for interrogation, during which he revealed that he was planning to stab her but couldn’t get close to her, since she had with her two big bullies with her, one on her right side and one on her left side. After realizing these bullies weren’t leaving her sides, he gave up. The police went back to the woman to confirm she was alone as she had told them. She confirmed that she was alone, but said the whole time the Arab was following her, she kept repeating the words from the bedtime Shema: “מימיני מיכאל ומשמאלי גבריאל” ["To my right, Michael, to my left Gavriel"]
Someone wrote to me to ask for the "rationalist response." They also forwarded a list of objections to the story by a skeptic, along with their responses to said objections. My response was something much more basic: What reason is there to believe that it is actually true?
Still, it's a beautiful story, and in stressful times like these, it makes people feel good. For many people, that is why they believe that it is true. And given that therapeutic effect, I don't think that it's necessarily a good idea to dismiss it. When people are full of anxiety and fear, if they want to believe that they have angels by their side protecting them, and this helps them leave their homes and continue with their lives, then let them believe it!
What bothers me, however, is the reaction to some people who disbelieve the story. I saw someone quote a popular saying: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. But anyone who believes none of them is an apikorus." This saying is often proffered with the undertone that any given story should not be dismissed.
Well, Rambam would certainly not have believed any of these stories at all. As he writes in the Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead:
"…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle."And that's with regard to events in the Torah. Certainly when it comes to popular legends, he would dismiss them as folktales. Of course, there are indeed people who dismiss Rambam as an apikorus, not entirely without basis. Still, most of us would consider him a legitimate role model to follow.
I would paraphrase the popular saying as follows: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. And anyone who believes none of them is a Maimonidean rationalist."
Monday, October 19, 2015
We posted it to our Facebook page with a request for suggestions for a caption. Here are some of the suggestions that we received:
"He says we should eat the apple!"
Garden of Eden Reunion photo
"I asked for a boa, not a boa constrictor!"
"I guess eating from the tree didn't kill us after all!"
Feel free to add more suggestions!
Friday, October 16, 2015
The same thing is happening with the current situation. The Palestinians have been quite clear what this is about. It's about Israel "attacking" the Temple Mount by letting some Jews pray there, thus sullying it with their "filthy feet." As David French put it: "When there is a shared holy site, Palestinians demand exclusively Muslim faith practice. And if they don’t get it, they’ll kill innocent men, women, and children until you relent."
But this is deeply uncomfortable for the Western media. First of all, it's not even true that Israel is letting Jews pray there, but even if they were, what would be wrong with that? After all, the West prizes tolerance, so if Moslems can pray at their third-holiest site, why can't Jews pray at their holiest site? Therefore, you'll see that much of the Western media are trying to re-cast it as being about the occupation or the oppression or anything except what the Palestinians say it is actually about.
Fantasies are always easier than reality.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Abbas Appeals For Calm, More Killing." The article presented Abbas as simultaneously telling his followers that he wants peace and that they should kill as many Jews as possible. But the only satirical aspect of this is that it has him telling two contradictory things to the same people. In reality, he tells two contradictory things to different people.
The UK Daily Mail writes that "Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas has spoken out against violence and in favour of 'peaceful, popular resistance'." It's true, he has. He told Ha'Aretz that “I support a popular, nonviolent struggle and oppose all violence and use of weapons. I’ve made clear a number of times that I don’t want to return to the cycle of violence.”
Yet at the same time, Abbas stated that “Al-Aksa is ours and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet. We won’t allow them to do so and we will do whatever we can to defend Jerusalem... We are in Jerusalem and we will stay in it to defend our Islamic and Christian holy sites. We’re not going to leave our country... Each drop of blood that was spilled in Jerusalem is pure blood as long as it’s for the sake of Allah. Every shahid will be in heaven and every wounded person will be rewarded, by Allah’s will.”
So, yes, Abbas had, quite ludicrously, simultaneously appealed for calm and more killings. (It should also be noted that all the talk about "defending holy sites" actually refers to violently blocking Jews who simply want to pray at their own holy site, just as Moslems do.)
Now That Jews Have Also Attacked Arabs, BBC To Report Violence." The world press did not report the dozens and dozens of attacks over the last week by Palestinians with rocks and knives. It's only when Israelis respond that it makes the news, so that the roles of aggressor and victim can be completely inverted. Take the following notorious headline from the LA Times: "Four Palestinians are killed in Israeli violence." The so-called "Israeli violence" was actually security forces stopping the said Palestinians in their killing spree! You might as well describe the planes crashing into the Twin Towers as "Saudi Arabians killed in American violence"!
As I once wrote in a post entitled "Drawing Strength From Blood Libels," I personally draw inspiration from the extraordinary irrationality of the world's attitude to Israel. But we all have a duty to assist in any way possible. In the world that we live in, that means working hard to clarify the reality of the situation to anyone that might listen.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
The article, Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place, was a masterpiece of obfuscation and falsehood. It took minor academic debate about the precise location of the Temple - was it a few hundred feet this way, or a few hundred feet that way - and presented that as lying at the heart of competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives about claims to the land, and even as raising questions about the very existence of the Temple.
The reality, however, is that the precise location of the Second Temple (and even the very existence of the First Temple) is entirely irrelevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All that is relevant is the existence of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. And all that should be reported, and hammered home, is that outside the Arab world it is recognized as absolute historical fact that there was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Palestinians, on the other hand, deny this basic historical fact. And therein lies the reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be peacefully resolved. As long as Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the historical connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, and falsely portray us as nothing more than European colonialists, there is no hope of their accepting our living in Israel.
Subsequent to the NYT article, there was an uproar. The NYT was forced to add the following clarification:
Correction: October 9, 2015As the archive of the article shows, the crucial sentence had originally read as follows:
An earlier version of this article misstated the question that many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered concerning the two ancient Jewish temples. The question is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.
The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone. (emphasis added)After the correction, it read instead like this:
The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is where on the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, wasA number of other modifications had to be made in order to make the article technically correct, though it was of course still entirely misleading.
alsothe precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone. (emphasis added)
Let's get things straight here. This is not a minor technical error, to be be clarified in a subsequent footnote. This is a fundamental perversion of the most prominent conflict in modern times. There are few things more central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than recognizing the historical connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, and recognizing the Palestinian's refusal to acknowledge this historical fact. The New York Times managed to completely distort this.
Historical certainty about Jerusalem's holiest place does not prove elusive in the least. Journalistic accuracy in the New York Times about the most fundamental aspect of the world's most prominent conflict, on the other hand, proves very elusive indeed.
Thursday, October 8, 2015
There are different scenarios to be discussed. Obviously I am not talking about name-calling or anything like that, which is surely never justifiable. (Strangely, however, there is a popular speaker who once referred to an important rabbinic leader as a "moron" and managed to get away with a very unconvincing apology - I think that this was because the rabbinic leader was not in the charedi camp.) Rather, I am talking about scenarios which don't involve obvious disrespect.
One is relating stories about the actions of the Gedolim which can be perceived as less than stellar. This, of course, is what happened with the famous case of Rav Nosson Kamenetzky's banned book Making of a Godol. That work presented biographical accounts of many Gedolim which were actually true, and thus very different from popular hagiographies. It included certain anecdotes which revealed these Gedolim to be human rather than superhuman. Controversy raged about whether or not this was disrespectful.
Another situation is disputing the positions taken by Gedolim. Many people are unfortunately of the opinion that this is automatically a sin of being mevazeh the Gedolim. Incredibly, Rav Chaim Kanievsky even stated that someone who supports one of the rival charedi political parties is guilty of being mevazeh the Gedolim! This, however, has no basis in Jewish tradition or Torah law. (An exception would be undermining the practical authority of rabbinic leaders of one's own community, which is certainly against Torah principles.) Of course, disputing people's positions should be done with due respect, but the nature of that respect is necessarily going to vary tremendously in different circumstances. For example, in some cases, there may genuinely be very little respect that is due. Another factor is that the nature of discourse varies between different cultures and societies - that which is considered par for the course in some places is viewed as unacceptably rude in other cultures.
Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History provides countless examples of cases where positions of great Torah scholars were censored out of their works, because they were considered to be inappropriate. This is very strange - after all, if you are publicizing the teachings of someone that you consider to be a great person, then surely you should respect their right to see things differently from you.
What happens when one actually goes ahead and quotes the strongly-held position of a Gadol in a case where his view is embarrassing to some people? I have done that on several occasions and have been accused of being mevazeh the Gedolim! My response is that if people have publicly voiced positions with significant ramifications, then these positions should be widely known, not suppressed. If there is any loss to their honor as a result, that is their own responsibility.
Unfortunately, for people who would like to put these figures on a pedestal and blind themselves to problematic positions they have taken, it's much easier to shoot the messenger than to honestly face up to reality.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
|One of the guides, Tuvia, with a prickly friend|
|Now those are big eggs!|
|Here's looking at you, chameleon-eyes|
|Alas, poor Yorick!|
|Now that's a Kodak moment|
|I thought that I was seeing double|
Thanks so much to our incredible staff, including administrative director Maayan Steele who set up all the Sukkos arrangements, expert associate guide Tuvia Frankel, office manager Tehila Cohen, and all the wonderful volunteers. And thanks to all our sponsors, especially our major benefactors Shlomo and Tamar Rechnitz, Stephen Schloss, and Lee Samson.
Hope to see you all at the museum soon!