Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Other 10%

Here's an interesting tidbit that relates to several topics discussed in this forum. A reader sent me a clipping from the Israeli Yated Ne'eman, which contains an account from the late Rav Shmuel Wosner ztz"l, author of Shevet HaLevi, of how Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer told him of the Chazon Ish's expertise in answering questions relating to medical matters of life and death (such as whether or not to proceed with an operation). Rav Meltzer said that "our teacher, the Chazon Ish, was correct 100% of the time." Amazing!

However, if one looks at the actual text of Rav Wosner's Shevet HaLevi, he says something significantly different:

שו"ת שבט הלוי חלק י סימן יג 

וזה לי קרוב לחמשים שנה שכבר הייתי פה רב בסביבה, והייתי מאד מקושר עם מרן החזון איש זי"ע, בקרתי אז את הגאון האמיתי בעל אבן האזל הגרא"ז מלצר זצלה"ה והוא ידע על הקשרים שלי עם החזון איש ומאחר ששמע ממני כמה דברים אמר לי בהתפעלות, וז"ל, החזון איש פוסק דיני נפשות ברגעים (אם כן לנתח או לא, וכיו"ב) והפלא אמר שיותר מתשעים אחוז זוכה לכיון האמת והצלחה, עכ"ל. 

What Rav Wosner actually attests is that Rav Meltzer said that the Chazon Ish was correct more than ninety percent of the time!

So how does 90% becomes 100%? Presumably, the doctrine of the effective (if not theoretical) infallibility of Daas Torah makes it difficult to say that the Chazon Ish was wrong even 10% of the time, especially if it led to people dying as a result.

Of course, a 90% success rate would still be impressive. However, seeing how 90% becomes 100%, one cannot help but wonder if even the figure of 90% has likewise been inflated along the way.

In any case, where did the Chazon Ish's medical knowledge come from? The standard view in the charedi world is that it came from supernatural sources/ his knowledge of Torah, as per the classical concept of Sod Hashem Liyreyav. (In my monograph on Sod Hashem Liyreyav, I demonstrate that the classical concept has been radically transformed.) But many years ago, I traveled to Bnei Brak to meet Rav Gedalyah Nadel ztz"l, one of the foremost talmidim of the Chazon Ish. I asked him about the Chazon Ish's medical knowledge, and he told me two things: First, that the Chazon Ish didn't actually know all that much, and second, that which he did know, came from the medical journals that he read.

It is reasonable to presume that one's views as to the source of the Chazon Ish's medical knowledge also have an effect on one's perceptions of his success rate. If his knowledge came from reading medical journals then it is acceptable for him to sometimes have been mistaken. But if it came from supernatural sources, then it should have been infallible.

I wonder if the Yated would print a correction?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

This Yeshivah Gets It Right!

Like everyone else in my neighborhood, this week I was inundated with knocks on the door from people collecting money. Some were collecting for the poor, as per the account in Megillas Esther of Purim being a time for matanos l'evyonim. In some cases, they were collecting for those who can't help being poor, and in other cases, for those who are poor by choice, mistakenly believing it to be a Torah ideal. But most knocks on the door came from yeshivah students, who were collecting not for the poor, but instead for their yeshivos.

With one striking exception. Today, there was a knock on the door from yeshivah students who were not collecting for their yeshivah. Instead, they were collecting for Lemaan Achai, a local (and amazing) charity organization. The students were from a local and amazing yeshivah, where I had the privilege to teach a weekly class for ten years: Yeshivat Lev HaTorah.

Lev HaTorah is an incredible institution. The staff is amazingly dedicated. The students not only learn Torah, but also how to be good Jews. They do all kinds of chessed programs, helping local families in many different ways, from tutoring children to building sukkos to distributing food.

Like all educational institutions, Lev HaTorah requires donor support. And no doubt they could raise funds by sending out their students to raise money for the yeshivah, like every other yeshivah does. But Lev HaTorah believes that matanos l'evyonim is about matanos l'evyonim. And they want to teach their students to care about the poor.

Purim is about helping the poor, and Lemaan Achai is a great way to do it. But when the Purim season is over, if you're ever thinking about supporting a Torah institution (aside from The Biblical Museum of Natural History!), I would recommend Lev HaTorah. Just take a look at their donation page to see the incredible programs that they run!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Kosher Signs

The little boy in this picture visited the Biblical Museum of Natural History yesterday, along with his family. During the tour, I brought the group to the mammals section of the Kashrus exhibit, which displays a range of hooves and skulls. I asked them, "What are the signs of a kosher animal?"

The little boy said, "I know! An OU!


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Conversations with Collectors

Scenario 1:

Collector: Hi, I'm collecting for Yeshivas ***** ******

Householder: Okay. Listen, I help institutions in one of two ways. Most I help in a small way, but some I help in a big way. Would you like your yeshivah to be in the second category?

Collector: Sure, that would be great!

Householder: Okay, then can you answer a few questions about your yeshivah?

Collector: Sure! Fire away.

Householder: Do the students at your yeshivah learn seriously?

Collector: Yes, absolutely!

Householder: Do they sincerely believe that learning Torah is the greatest thing that a person can do?

Collector: Definitely!

Householder: The yeshivah doesn't encourage the guys to go to college, right?

Collector: No way!

Householder: And the yeshivah encourages guys to learn in kollel, right?

Collector: Yes, of course!

Householder: And the yeshivah doesn't encourage them to go the army, right?

Collector: Of course not!

Householder: The yeshivah believes that the greatest way that they can help Am Yisrael is by learning Torah, right?

Collector: Yes! Yes!

Householder: Okay, fine. So I'm going to help your yeshivah in a big way...

Collector: Great!

Householder: ...I'm going to learn Torah.

(There is silence for a few moments.)

Collector: What?

Householder: I'm going to learn Torah. You said that this is the greatest way that one can help others.

Collector: But... but... there also needs to be financial help!

Householder: Oh, absolutely! But others can do that. I want to help in the greatest way, just like you guys do. So I'm going to learn Torah for you!

Scenario 2:

Collector: Hi, I'm collecting for Yeshivas ***** ******

Householder: Okay. Did your yeshivah go the anti-draft Atzeres Tefillah and say Tehillim?

Collector: Yes, of course!

Householder: Does your yeshivah say Tehillim or a Misheberach for the IDF?

Collector: Um, no...

Householder: So you agree that we need an army, but you protest sharing the burden of army service, and do not even care about those who do bear it. How can you expect others to share in your burden, and care about you?

Scenario 3:

Collector: Purim sameach! I'm collecting for Yeshivas ***** ******

Householder: I'm sorry, I'm not donating.

Collector: But it's a mitzvah to give tzedakah!

Householder: It's a mitzvah to give charity. To the poor. To people who are trying to make ends meet, but can't. Purim is an opportunity to raise money for these people, who struggle to pay for a Purim seudah; it's not a time to collect for institutions.

Collector: But supporting Torah study is the greatest tzedakah!

Householder: Supporting poor people who are Torah scholars is a great tzedakah. Not facilitating a movement of people who are deliberately choosing not to work, against the mainstream, traditional view in Judaism.

 - BUT - 

These kinds of conversations should probably be had with people who run charedi society, and/or with adults, not with teenagers who are innocently knocking at doors because they have been taught to collect for their institutions. On the other hand, there are precious few opportunities to actually engage with people from that society on these matters. But on the third hand, adversarial one-upmanship is unlikely to change people. So, if you are thinking of actually implementing one of these conversations, please bear these points in mind!

(NOTE: If you would like to give tzedakah in the best possible way, I recommend Lemaan Achai - they focus on getting people back on their feet. They help people from every community - secular, charedi, and dati-leumi, even though they have unfortunately been banned from collecting in some shuls where they help people. Check out their website, http://lemaanachai.org)

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Rav, Cosmology, and Evolution

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, also known as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik or simply "the Rav," was one of the seminal rabbinic figures of the twentieth century. He also raises difficulties for Charedim (at least, those who are aware of him), since he was a Gadol B'Torah by any standard, and yet espoused many views that were at odds with Charedi norms. As a result, he has been expunged from charedi history. For example, in the recent book The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler, a photograph of Rav Kotler sitting next to Rav Soloveitchik at a Chinuch Atzmai dinner has been carefully cropped to remove Rav Soloveitchik (even though Rav Soloveitchik was the guest of honor at the behest of Rav Aharon, who asked him to give the keynote address!). Apparently, the Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler is to be so frum that you distort Rav Aharon's own worldview.

The "problem" of Rav Soloveitchik is particularly acute for Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. He was a nephew and disciple of the Rav, but later moved very far to the right, even sitting on the dais of the notorious Satmar anti-Israel rally in Manhattan where they denounced Israel as an "evil regime." Rabbi Meiselman's solution is to simply convince himself that the Rav was entirely misunderstood and was in fact a true Charedi--and to attempt to convince others of this, asserting that he possesses an "insider's view." But as Professor Lawrence Kaplan points out in his famous article "Revisionism and the Rav," this is a grave distortion:
"First, R. Meiselman's "insider's view" is, at many points, clearly contradicted by the insider views of other distinguished members of the Rav's family who were also his close disciples... Second, and even more important, wherever it is possible to check R. Meiselman's claims against the Rav's writings, it turns out that those claims are clearly and explicitly contradicted by clear and explicit statements of the Rav."
Professor Kaplan documents R. Meiselman's revisionism in the context of the Rav's positions on the value of philosophy, the nature of Daas Torah, universalism, and Zionism. (You can read Prof. Kaplan's article at this link, and his response to Rabbi Meiselman's rejoinder at this link.) In this forum, I have been documenting R. Meiselman's revisionism with regard to the Rav's positions on Torah and science, in his book Torah, Chazal and Science.

For example, in my post "Metzitzah and the Rav," I noted that Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, claiming to be presenting the views of his rebbi Rav Soloveitchik, says that whenever Chazal make a statement about realia, and do not indicate that they are speaking tentatively, then they are correct, and to doubt them is genuine heresy. Rabbi Meiselman thus states, with regard to metzitzah (pp. 239-40), that "Chazal's assessment overrides that of modern medicine," because "Chazal understood the situation better than the physicians." He stresses that "we rely upon their judgment unswervingly, even if medical opinion says otherwise." Following from this, Rabbi Meiselman states that "the mohel must suction the wound in a traditionally prescribed manner," i.e. metzitzah b'peh.

However, as I noted in that post and in a follow-up post, there are several disciples and family members of Rav Soloveitchik who attest that at brisim which he attended, Rav Solovetichik did not only not require metzitzah b'peh, he actually actively opposed it, and did not even require metzitzah at all, whether orally or otherwise! Thus, Rabbi Meiselman demonstrates that his approach to Torah and science is fundamentally at odds with that of his alleged rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik.

In this post, I would like to discuss another instance of Rabbi Meiselman distorting the position of Rav Soloveitchik. Chapter 65 of Rabbi Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science is dedicated to discussing the views of Rav Soloveitchik on cosmology. R. Meiselman begins by noting that "Mori veRebbi, ztz"l, was unequivocally opposed to any accommodation, however minor, to the cosmological theories of the day... One of the more outrageous distortions you will find in contemporary Jewish literature is the suggestion that his philosophical writings are based on an evolutionary conception of man." As support for this very strong charge, he cites an address of Rav Soloveitchik as follows:
"We are still at loggerheads with modern science. There is no way to somehow, to try to eliminate that conflict or to try to reconcile it. There is no reconciliation and I will tell you quite frankly that I’m not worried and not concerned that there is no reconciliation, because science has absolutely no right to make a certain statement about briyah... Of course, science has no right to say anything because it is not a scientific problem."
At first glance, that statement certainly seems to back up R. Meiselman's claims. But if we look at the full quotation from this lecture by the Rav, which is relegated to an appendix in R. Meiselman's book (and still omits a crucial sentence, which I have inserted in bold), we see what Rav Soloveitchik is actually saying:
"The foundation on which our emunah rests is Briyat HaOlam... ex nihilo, yesh me’ayin. You see here we are at loggerheads… from antiquity, with Greek philosophy, Greek science. We are still at loggerheads with modern science. There is no way to somehow try to eliminate that conflict, or to try to reconcile it. There is no reconciliation and I will tell you quite frankly that I’m not worried and not concerned that there is no reconciliation. Because, science absolutely has no right to make a certain statement about briyah. We believe in creation ex nihilo, which means that there was nothing before, there was only HaKadosh Baruch Hu… We had a lot of trouble with Greek philosophy… We were confronted many times with those who try to deny briyah yesh me’ayin. We are in the same situation and the same condition nowadays. No matter, whatever, it’s completely irrelevant what theory of evolution science accepts – whether the big bang theory, or the instantaneous birth of the universe, or it is the slow piecemeal emergence of the universe, whether it is the emergent evolution or the instantaneous so-called birth of the universe. But science will always say, as far as matter is concerned, particles were always here. Of course, science has no right to say anything, because it is not a scientific problem. It is a metaphysical problem. And in my opinion, it is just as good as the opinion of Einstein about everything. But again we are still at loggerheads... We still have something which the goyishe world has not understood. Yesh me’ayin! Yesh me’ayin is our Jewish heritage... HaKadosh Baruch Hu created everything from nothing."
The Rav makes it absolutely clear that his objection is to those who deny creation ex nihilo. It is creation ex nihilo which Torah demands - but it is irrelevant how the universe developed after that. (Modern science does not in fact deny creation ex nihilo - it says nothing about what caused the Big Bang - but there certainly have been those, especially in the past, who denied creation ex nihilo.) It is this view which the Rav is placed at loggerheads with Torah, not anything to do with the subsequent development of the universe!

In fact, in a series of lectures on Genesis that is currently being edited for publication, the Rav explicitly states that one can interpret the six days as referring to long periods of time, or even as stages or sefiros:
"Evolution and creation can be reconciled merely by saying that six days is not absolutely so, but is indefinite and may be longer. Maimonides spoke of Creation in terms of phases and the Kabbalah in terms of sefiros, the time of which may be indefinite." (Genesis Notes, Lecture XII)
Thus, it is simply false to claim that the Rav "was unequivocally opposed to any accommodation, however minor, to the cosmological theories of the day." He was perfectly open to accommodating the discoveries of science regarding the antiquity of the universe (in contrast to Rabbi Meiselman, who claims (p. 493) that it is forbidden to believe that the world is more than a few thousand years old, and further insists that there is no legitimate scientific evidence challenging the Biblical account of creation). Rav Soloveitchik is even open to reconciling the evolutionary development of the animal kingdom with Torah - he writes elsewhere that there is no difficulty regarding "divine creation and mechanistic evolution... We could find a solution of some kind to this controversy." It is only with regard to the issue of creation ex nihilo that the Rav saw any problem.

(It is true that Rav Soloveitchik did not believe that the development of the universe was entirely naturalistic - he did insist on ten points of creative intervention by God, following the Mishnah in Avos which speaks of ten utterances with which the world was created. Nevertheless, he most certainly did not object to this development taking place over billions of years. In these areas of modern science - precisely those that Rabbi Meiselman is declaring to be at loggerheads with Torah, and invoking the Rav as support - the Rav did not see science as being at loggerheads with Torah at all.)

What about with regard to human evolution? The Rav delivered lectures and wrote manuscripts on the topic, which were recently published as The Emergence of Ethical Man. Outside of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, everyone sees this book as demonstrating that the Rav saw no problem with the theory that man evolved from animals; his point of departure from secular evolutionists was in presenting man as having the ability to transcend his animal origins (just like, on an individual level, we transcend our origins as a tipah serucha).

In a lengthy footnote, Rabbi Meiselman claims that it is very problematic to take The Emergence of Ethical Man as being representative of Rav Soloveitchik's thought. R. Meiselman claims that it was wrong to publish these manuscriptsbecause they (allegedly) reflect the Rav's early thoughts and not his final thinking. He says that the Rav didn't mean these ideas for publication, that he subsequently changed his mind, that there are interpolations by other people, etc., etc. This is similar to the same line of argument that R. Meiselman uses for another text that conflicts with his worldview, the ma'amar of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and is indeed a time-honored tradition for those who are uncomfortable with rabbinic texts that are at odds with their own worldview.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Meiselman does not outrightly reject the entire book. He proceeds to quote from The Emergence of Ethical Man in order to prove that "Mori veRebbi totally rejected the conception of man implicit with evolution... a hairless anthropoid descended from animal ancestors could never be the bearer of the tzelem Elokim.... Mori veRebbi distinguished between the conception of man found in Torah thought, and to a certain extent in Greek and Christian thought, and the very different conception that emerges from modern empirico-scientific thinking." The quote that Rabbi Meiselman provides as evidence for this claim is as follows:
"What, in fact, is theoretically irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of the Divine image with the equaling of man and animal-plant existences. In other words, the ontic autonomy of man or heteronomy of man is the problem. The Bible and Greek philosophical thought separated man from the flora and fauna; science brought him back to his organic co-beings." (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 5)
That certainly seems to back up R. Meiselman's claim that the Rav, siding with the Torah and Greek thought, "totally rejected" the notion that human bodies evolved from animals. However, once again, R. Meiselman has been selective in his citations - this time, absurdly so. For the Rav presents the above notion as being a widespread but mistaken belief, that he immediately proceeds to forcefully refute at length:
"However (emphasis added), I wish to emphasize that the widespread opinion that within the perspective of anthropological naturalism there is no place for the religious act, for the relatedness of man to eternity and infinity, is wrong. Perhaps more than man-as-a-divine-person, man-as-an-animal needs religious faith and commitment to a higher authority..."
The Rav proceeds to argue that that which he mentioned above as being presented as the "Torah position" (and which R. Meiselman presents as "the Torah position" of the Rav) is not in fact the Torah position at all!
"Our task now is to investigate the cogency of the almost dogmatic assertion that the Bible proclaimed the separateness of man from nature and his otherness. It is certain that the fathers of the Church and also the Jewish medieval scholars believed that the Bible preached this doctrine... Yet the consensus of many, however great and distinguished, does not prove the truth or the falseness of a particular belief... The sooner Biblical texts are placed in their proper setting—namely, the Oral Tradition with its almost endless religious awareness—the clearer and more certain I am that Judaism does not accent unreservedly the theory of man’s isolationism and separatism within the natural order of things... We come across a duel concept of man in the Bible. His element of transcendence was well-known to the Biblical Jew. Yet transcendence was always seen against the background of naturalness. The canvas was man’s immanence; transcendence was just projected on it as a display of colors. It was more a modifying than a basic attribute of man." 
The Rav continues in this vein at great length, vociferously rejecting the notion that Rabbi Meiselman quoted as representing the Rav's view. The Rav's subsequent resolution of this conflict with evolution is to explain that man is indeed a part of the animal kingdom, but with the power to ascend beyond it. Man’s unique identity as possessing the “image of God” does not refer to a metaphysical, other-worldly entity housed in his body, but rather to the application of his evolved intelligence. This is elaborated upon at great length, and with plentiful use of the word "ontic," in The Emergence of Ethical Man.

Rabbi Meiselman claims that it was wrong to publish the manuscripts of The Emergence of Ethical Man, because these manuscripts (allegedly) reflect his early thoughts and not his final thinking. But, in an astonishing demonstration of outright hypocrisy, he proceeds to quote part of it as presenting the Rav's view, while not revealing that this quote is actually just a hava amina that the Rav immediately proceeds to firmly reject! This is revisionism and intellectual dishonesty of the highest order.

Click here for an index to the critiques of Rabbi Meiselman's book Torah, Chazal and Science.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Join the Museum's Mission!

If you think that it's great to:

  • Show how Torah can relate to the natural world
  • Enhance the connection between the Jewish People and Biblical Israel
  • Demonstrate that Judaism can be exciting and exotic while simultaneously enriching our lives
  • Help the charedi public learn about the natural world

...then join the mission of the Biblical Museum of Natural History!

We have now launched an initiative for people to join as Friends, Partners, and Patrons. Click on this link to learn more. Your involvement helps us provide an amazing educational experience for tens of thousands of people! On behalf of all our visitors, thank you for your support!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reporting Rabbis Badly

Is it wrong to quote Torah scholars on matters that may reflect them in a bad light?

To clarify - I am not talking about things said in private, in a weak moment. I am referring to statements of ideology said as thought-out policy, which they believe in, but which others consider wrong. For example, if they told their followers that Person X is a rasha, or that the State of Israel is an evil entity.

There are many people who believe that relaying such statements is very, very wrong indeed. However, they don't usually muster detailed arguments beyond "Lashon hara! You are being Mevazeh Gedolim!"

I raised this issue a few months ago, in a post entitled On Being Mevazeh Gedolim. Reader Moshe Abrams pointed out that Rav Yehudah Henkin discusses precisely this question in Responsa Bnei Banim 3:18. The question was raised regarding publicizing a letter written by one rav in condemnation of other rabbonim, which would have the result of raising the ire of many people against this rav.

Rav Henkin replies that it is entirely permissible, and gives three separate reasons for this. The first is that the Talmud demonstrates that it is permissible to relate lashon hara about someone who is a baal machlokes - instigating conflict. Rav Henkin explains the technicalities of this at length, noting that it does not refer to anyone who is involved in a dispute, but rather to someone who is specifically trying to create divisions by delegitimizing others. Rav Henkin does not explain the conceptual rationale to the Gemara's license, but perhaps it is as follows: The problem with lashon hara is that it tears apart society. But if someone is already engaging in efforts to tear apart society, then exposing those efforts is a way to solve that problem.

The second reason given by Rav Henkin is that lashon hara is permissible when it is for public benefit. (He notes that this particular reason must be employed carefully.) While Rav Henkin does not elaborate on how that applies here, I think it is self-evident. If a rabbinic leader seeks to delegitimize another group, it is important for those who are evaluating him as a leader to know about it.

Rav Henkin's third reason is that the rav under discussion himself publicized his words. Since he was quite happy to do so, due to his conviction that his words were appropriate, there is no reason for others to protest that it is against his honor to do so. (Of course, it is crucial that there are no distortions of his words.)

Rav Henkin concludes with a powerful observation. He notes that the people protesting those who publicize the rav's words profess to be very concerned about the honor due to a Torah scholar. But, he asks, why are they not concerned about the honor due to the Torah scholars that this person condemned?

I found Rav Henkin's responsum to be very powerful and relevant. There is a pervasive phenomenon of Anglo charedim, especially those who come from non-charedi backgrounds, being deeply uncomfortable with various statements and positions of many charedi rabbinic leaders. Some of them re-assess whether they really belong in charedi society. But others address their discomfort by trying to suppress any mention of these statements and positions.

Personally, I think that Rav Henkin is obviously correct that it is permissible and even important to publicize such statements and positions. People need to make informed decisions, about which community to associate with, which schools and yeshivos to send their kids to, and which rabbanim to seek guidance from. If the leaders of a society feel strongly about certain things, then this should be known!

There are some important qualifications to be made here. If a rabbi says something that you find deeply objectionable, it certainly doesn't mean that he is entirely disqualified from having anything good to offer. And it may not be relevant or praiseworthy to relay his objectionable positions if, for example, someone is merely having a discussion about a shiur given by this person on an unrelated topic. But when people are making life decisions based on rabbinic leadership, they should be informed about the views and positions of this leadership.

Again, I am not talking about trashing people by relating their shortcomings, which is a more complicated matter - sometimes important, often wrong. I am talking about publicizing positions of rabbinic leaders that the rabbinic leaders themselves hold to be true and to be important to share with at least some of their followers. Anyone who opposes this needs to take a good hard look at themselves, and to ask themselves what they really think about this person, and what exactly is making them uncomfortable. The truth can be painful, but don't shoot the messenger.

See also these posts:
On Being Mevazeh the Gedolim
When Lashon Hara is a Mitzvah
The Angst of Anglo-Charedi Converts

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Purim Massacre

(A re-post from a few years ago)

Download this as a PDF here

In the victorious conclusion of Megillat Esther, we find that after Haman’s decree against the Jewish People is revoked, and they are spared from destruction, they do not leave matters at that. Instead, having obtained royal permission to strike their enemies, including women and children, the Jews kill over seventy-five thousand people! Esther then further seeks permission for another day of massacre.

This episode provided excellent fodder for Christian antisemitic sentiments. The nineteenth-century German biblical scholar Friedrich Bleek concluded that “We may, therefore, with truth, maintain that a very narrow-minded and Jewish spirit of revenge and persecution prevails in the book, and that no other book of the Old Testament is so far removed as this is from the spirit of the Gospel.”[1] Over in America, the leading church pastor Washington Gladden described it as “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty… The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion… Let it remain as a dark background on which the Christian morality may stand forth resplendent; as a striking example of the kind of ideas which Christians ought not to entertain, and of the kind of feelings which they ought not to cherish.”[2] Countless other such expressions of disgust by Christian scholars have been documented by Elliott Horowitz.[3]

However, if we carefully study the account in the Book of Esther and consider the situation, a very different picture emerges. Let us first examine the crucial verse in which the Jews are granted license for the massacre:
By these the king authorized the Jews who were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate, any armed force of any people or province that would attack them, little children and women, and to plunder their goods (Esther 8:11)
There are several significant points to be noted here. One is that they were being given permission to attack those that might attack them. Contrary to Bleek’s description of the massacre being an act of revenge, it is presented instead as precautionary self-defense. Rabbi Mordechai Ventura notes that “these people that they killed in Shushan were haters of Israel, who would always tell the Jewish People that they were going to kill them and smite their young.”[4] In other words, while there was a reprieve from Haman’s plan, there was no guarantee that such a danger would not arise again. There was an ever-present danger of antisemites gaining permission to engage in wanton slaughter of Jews. Had Haman’s decree not been rescinded, there is no doubt that these antisemites would have gladly taken the opportunity to slaughter all the Jews! Since the Jews were given a unique chance to attack their enemies, it was appropriate to take the opportunity to kill those people who would undoubtedly take the opportunity to kill them if such an opportunity would ever arise.

Furthermore, it may even be the case that this was the only way to actually rescind the decree – in 8:3 Achashverosh points that an edict sealed with the king’s signet ring may not be revoked. Thus, Haman’s decree could not be revoked, only circumvented – by authorizing the advance killing of those who would fulfill Haman’s decree.

What about with regard to the women and children? There are several possibilities to be considered here. One is that we should not make the mistake of judging actions of millennia ago by the moral barometers of today. In times of old, women and children were always considered to be extensions of the husband. This was not some Jewish innovation; it was the standard model in the ancient world. And it was not only the perception of reality; it was reality, as women were far less independent. Killing your enemies did not mean the adult males; it always included their families. While this answer may not be emotionally satisfactory from a contemporary perspective, it cannot be ruled out. But there are alternatives.

Another approach is that this case may be considered not as a battle between two groups of individuals, but rather as one between two nations: Jews and Amalekites (using the term Amalekite not in the technical sense of someone genetically descended from the tribe of Amalek, but instead in the sense of someone fundamentally identifying with a certain worldview of Judeopathy (pathological hatred of Jews) which is Alan Dershowitz’s preferred term for antisemitism.[5]) It is safe to assume that the families of these men who would have killed the Jews were themselves quite supportive of this ideology. And even those children too young to form an opinion, are part of the same social group. It is thus no different from the Torah’s instruction to wipe out the nations of Amalek and the Seven Nations of Canaan. Maharal uses the notion of “war between nations” to justify Shimon and Levi’s slaughter of the community of Shechem.[6] That justification is disputed by many, since Shechem was a single individual. But in this case, where we are talking about the family members of a group united in a single cause, there is more justification for seeing it as a war between two peoples.

Paul Haupt argues that the permission to kill women and children was only applicable to those women and children that desired to attack the Jews.[7] It does not seem especially likely, however, that children (the word probably describes very young children) could have posed a serious threat.

Robert Gordis presents an extraordinarily original interpretation of the verses, according to which the Jews did not take on the task of killing the women and children and were never instructed to do so. He explains the phrase “women and children” as referring to the Jewish women and children that the enemies of the Jews wished to kill, reading the verse as follows: “the king authorized the Jews… to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate, any armed force of any people or province that would attack them, their children and women, and that would plunder their goods.”[8] Whether this is a linguistically sound interpretation is unclear.

Another proposal is that the license to kill women and children has to be considered in light of the fact that it mirrors the original edict by Haman:
And the letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. (Esther 3:13)
This is taken by some to mean that it was considered a legitimately symmetrical counter-response to the original decree, according to ancient norms;[9] but it may instead mean that Mordechai, who composed the new decree, wished to publicize a strong deterrence for the Jews’ enemies and to highlight the measure-for-measure reversal that had transpired.[10] Along these lines, it is pointed out by some that is that even though the killing of the women and children was authorized, it is by no means clear that it actually took place. Rabbi David Nativ argues that the only mention of it is in the decree that authorized this action. Yet in that same decree, it states that the Jews were permitted to plunder the spoils. Now, the Book of Esther attests that this did not happen:
For the Jews who were in Shushan also gathered themselves together on the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and slew three hundred men at Shushan; but they did not lay their hand on the plunder. But the other Jews who were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of their foes seventy five thousand, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder. (Esther 9:15-16)

We thus see that the Jews did not take advantage of everything that Achashverosh authorized. There is thus no evidence that the Jews actually did kill the women and children; all that Scripture attests to is that they killed their enemies.
Furthermore, the fact that the Jews did not plunder the spoils indicates that they did not see this as an ordinary battle of survival. Instead, they apparently perceived it as strictly self-defense and that they should not exceed this mandate. Thus, there is a case to be made for saying that they did not kill the women and children.[11]


[1] Bleek, Introduction to the Old Testament, vol. 1 p. 450.
[2] Gladden, Who Wrote The Bible, p. 164.
[3] Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence: pp. 23-45.
[4] Ventura, Patshegen HaKetav to Esther 9:16.
[5] Dershowitz, Chutzpah, p. 121.
[6] Maharal, Gur Aryeh to Genesis 34:13.
[7] Haupt, “Critical Notes on the Book of Esther,” p. 63.
[8] Gordis, “Studies in the Esther Narrative,” p. 52.
[9] Levenson, Esther: A Commentary, p. 110-111.
[10] Moore, Esther, p. 83.
[11] Nativ, “The Historical Framework of Megillat Esther.” A similar explanation is provided by Rabbi Yonatan Grossman, “Indiscriminate Slaughter?” On the other hand, the fact that Scripture highlights the fact that they did not touch the spoils but makes no such mentioning of them not harming the women and children, may indicate that they did kill them.

Bleek, Friedrich. Introduction to the Old Testament, English translation by G.H. Venables, (London: Bell and Daldy 1869)
Dershowitz, Alan. Chutzpah (New York: Touchstone Books, 1992)
Gladden,Washington. Who Wrote The Bible (Kessinger Publishing 2003)
Gordis, Robert. “Studies in the Esther Narrative,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 43-58
Grossman, Rabbi Yonatan. “Indiscriminate Slaughter?” Translated by Karen Fish, accessed online at http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/ester/22ester.htm
Haupt, Paul. “Critical Notes on the Book of Esther,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jan., 1908), pp. 97-186
Horowitz, Elliott S. Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton University Press, 2006)
Levenson, Jon D. Esther: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press 1997)
Moore, Carey A. Esther (Garden City, New York: Anchor Bible/ Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971)
Nativ, Rabbi David. “The Historical Framework of Megillat Esther,” lecture at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Adar 5752 [1992], accessed online at www.vbm-torah.org/purim/­pur60-dn.htm
Ventura, Rabbi Mordechai. Patshegen HaKetav, in Mikraot Gedolot Urim Gedolim (Jerusalem: Even Yisrael Institute 1999)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Seventy Nations Visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History

Well, that was different.

We've had some pretty diverse groups visit the museum. For example, last week, we had one tour which combined two groups from Monsey - a group of Chassidishe yeshivah students, and a group of Christian African-American girls from a Ramapo high school on an exchange program. That made for a pretty interesting combination! We've also had groups of Bible scholars from Ireland, Nigeria, and Tibet.

But today's group was perhaps our most fascinating group yet. It was forty-two elementary school children from the Anglican International School Jerusalem. This is a multinational school that has many children from families of diplomats and other foreigners temporarily living in Israel. The language of instruction is English, and so, for a change, I led the tour myself instead of having one of our usual children's guides.

One of the themes of the museum is about how the animals of the Bible are, generally speaking, the animals that lived in the region of Biblical Israel, which are different from the animals that live in other places. As a prelude to this discussion, I noted that the children present were from many different countries, and I turned to each of them to ask them which country they are from.

"Where are you from?"


"Italy!" I repeated through the microphone. I pointed to the next child. "And where are you from?"


"Holland! And you?"


"India! And you?"


"Japan! And you?"


"Kenya! And you?"


"Israel! And you?"


"Korea! And you?"


"Canada! And you?"


I nearly choked.

"Pa - Palestine!"

I didn't know if he meant Ramallah, East Jerusalem, or Jaffa, but I didn't ask.

There were some memorable moments on the tour. When the children saw the taxidermy displays, I explained that these animals were not killed for the museum, but rather they died in zoos and were subsequently stuffed. One child asked: "Wouldn't it be more respectful to cremate them?"

Later, a ten-year-old boy asked me my name.

"Rabbi Slifkin," I replied.

He hesitated. "That's really hard to remember," he said. "Can I call you Jim instead?"

And so for the next hour, whenever this boy wanted to ask me something (which was quite often), he would frantically wave his hand and call, "Jim! Jim!"

Click the picture to embiggen it and see forty-two entranced faces
All forty-two of the children were incredibly well behaved. The difference between them and a certain ultra-religious school that visited yesterday was astonishing. They were so polite and respectful! My staff had never seen anything like it.

My only regret is that my administrator is not a Star Trek fan, and thus did not take advantage of the opportunity to say to me, "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it."

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