Monday, October 31, 2016

Aliens, Monsters, and Giant-Killers

So here's something lighter, to cheer up all the American readers who are miserable about the elections. I received a fascinating request from a movie company working on a new film called "I Kill Giants." It's being produced by Chris Columbus ("The Goonies," "Home Alone", "Mrs Doubtfire") and will star Zoe Saldana, known for starring as colorful aliens ("Guardians of the Galaxy", "Avatar,") and as a starfleet officer battling colorful aliens ("Star Trek"). The film follows a young girl struggling with her everyday life, who is escaping into a fantasy life of magic and monsters in which she must save the world from giants. The artistic team wants to use my book Sacred Monsters as set dressing in the bedroom of the main protagonist!

I was happy to grant permission, though I am quite confused as to why they need it. I always thought it's companies that pay movies to advertise their products, not the other way around?

Anyway, the film sounds fascinating. Maybe they could also make a movie about a young man struggling with his everyday life, in which his rebbe insists that he must believe in magic and monsters, and he wants to escape into a word of rationality? (They could even give that movie the same title!)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Ten Questions On Evolution And Judaism

(Originally posted at The Jewish Press)

Evolution is feared by many as being heretical. But is this really the case? Here are ten questions about evolution and Judaism, along with brief answers. This does not substitute for the detailed discussion that this topic requires; it is merely intended as an introduction.

1) Evolution is alleged to have taken place over millions of years. But doesn't the Torah teach that the universe was created just a few thousand years ago?

There is a strong (albeit not universal) tradition in Judaism that "the account of creation is not all to be taken literally," to quote Maimonides. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, suggested that the Six Days of Creation were lengthy eras rather than 24-hour periods. Maimonides himself, as the commentaries on the Guide to the Perplexed reveal, was of the view that the Six Days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation.

2) Why should anyone accommodate evolution? Isn't evolution just a theory, not a fact?

"Evolution" is a confusing term, because it covers two very different concepts. One is common ancestry, the concept that all animal life arose from a common ancestor - simple organisms gave rise to fish, fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds and mammals (without getting into how that could have happened). This is supported by a wealth of converging evidence along with testable predictions. Common ancestry is considered by all scientists (except certain deeply religious ones) to be as well-established as many other historical facts, and is thus often referred to as "the fact of evolution." It is of immense benefit in understanding the natural world - for example, it tells us why whales and bats share anatomical similarities with mammals, despite their superficial resemblance to fish and birds.

The second and very different aspect of evolution is the mechanism via which one species changes into another. This is called the "theory" of evolution. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the word "theory" has a very different meaning in science than in everyday conversational English. It does not refer to wild speculation, but rather to an explanatory mechanism. Most, though not all, biologists believe that random mutations, coupled with natural selection, broadly suffice to explain this mechanism. The issue is, however, of zero religious significance, as we shall explain in the answer to the next question.

3) How can we accept scientific explanations for how animal life came about? It was God who made everything!

We have a science of meteorology, but that does not stop us from saying that God "makes the wind blow and the rain fall." We have a science of medicine, but this does not stop us from saying that God "heals the sick." We have documented history of the process involved in winning the '67 war, but this does not stop us from talking about God's miraculous hand. God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not.

4) Doesn't the Torah say that animals and man were created from the ground, not from earlier creatures?

Indeed it does. But what does that mean? The blessing recited over bread is “Blessed are You... Who brings bread out of the ground.” But what actually happens is that God created wheat, which man sows, nature grows, and man transforms into bread. Yet the blessing simplifies this in describing God as bringing bread out of the ground. By the same token, the description of God bringing animal life out of the ground can refer to His creating the raw material of nature and the natural processes that lead to the formation of animal life.

In any case, it is widely accepted today that we do not learn science from the literal meaning of Scripture - after all, Scripture describes the sky as a dome, the hare as bringing up its cud, and the kidneys and heart as housing one's mind. All these descriptions were interpreted literally by the Sages of old, and yet almost all recent Torah scholars interpret them non-literally.

5) Doesn't the notion of randomness in evolution contradict with the idea of a purposeful creation directed by God?

Judaism has always acknowledged that there are events which, in the physical world, appear to be random and happenstance. But it maintains that this does not rule out God's role behind the scenes. Indeed, this is the entire message of the Purim story! As it states in Scripture, "When the lot is cast in the lap, its entire verdict has been decided by God" (Proverbs 16:33).

6) Doesn't the Biblical concept of man being created in the image of God contradict the notion that man comes from animals?

Absolutely not! Classical Judaism has long maintained that man is not qualitatively different from animals in his physical aspects. Man's unique identity is in his spiritual soul, not in his physical body and most certainly not in his physical origins. The great medieval Torah scholars stated that man was created physically as an animal, but was given the spiritual potential to rise beyond that level. The Mishnah notes that on an individual level, we all come from a "putrid drop (of semen)," which is even less than an animal; yet we are defined not by what we come from, but rather by what we become.

7) Don't most rabbis state that evolution is heresy?

Very few leading rabbis have studied the science and have ever given the matter serious thought (and rabbis in the charedi world are not operating from the rationalist perspective that is the legacy of Maimonides and the great Torah scholars of Spain). The few rationalist-oriented rabbis who did study the topic, such as Rav Kook, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Rav Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of Chazon Ish) and Rav Aryeh Carmell, concluded that evolution is compatible with Judaism. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was personally skeptical of evolution but saw no theological problem with it: "...If this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world... Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures." ("The Educational Value of Judaism," in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)

8) Doesn't evolution go against tradition?

No more so than the notion of the earth orbiting the sun. That was also rejected by many leading rabbis from the era of Copernicus through today. Yet most religious Jews have managed to come to terms with it. The same is true of evolution, which has become widely accepted by religious Jews with a strong background in science and/or rationalist Jewish theology.

9) But aren't there many secular evolutionists who use evolution to try to attack religious principles?

Yes, unfortunately there are. But this is an abuse of science; it doesn't reflect on the science of evolution itself. This, however, is why it is important for anyone teaching evolution to understand it properly.

10) You didn't answer all my questions and objections!

Of course not! Evolution is an immensely complicated topic, to which it is impossible to do justice in a brief article. Please see my book The Challenge Of Creation (available in Jewish bookstores and at for a very detailed discussion.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Charedim and Higher Education

I have heard several people claim that employment for charedim is no longer a problem because there are so many new programs designed to give them higher education. The following article from The Jerusalem Post shows that this is not the case:

Jeremy Sharon

Among the thousands of students preparing to begin or return to their university and college studies this Sunday, some 13,000 haredi students will also be heading to the halls of higher education this coming academic year.

According to statistics from the Council for Higher Education, there will be approximately 1,000 new haredi students beginning a variety of courses this year at a broad array of institutions, including established haredi colleges and prestigious universities such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Bar-Ilan University.

The number of haredi men and women in higher education has been increasingly rapidly, albeit from a tiny starting point, over the past five years. Whereas in 2011, there were just 5,500 haredim in higher education, that number has more than doubled to this year’s figure of 13,000, an increase of 136%.

Despite these achievements, several concerns have been raised by experts in the field of haredi education.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Prof. Dan Ben-David, a senior faculty member of the department of public policy at Tel Aviv University and president of the Shoresh Institution for socioeconomic research, said the rate of increase in haredi higher education, the dropout rate from higher-education courses and the quality of the education itself are all problematic.

Although there have been significant increases in the numbers of haredim in higher education, this is partly explained by the overall growth of the general haredi population, which is growing very rapidly.

According to the Council for Higher Education, approximately 4,000 haredi men and women start academic courses every year out of an annual cohort of approximately 15,000, roughly 26%, significantly lower than the national average of 50% of students who go into higher education.

The second problem is the high rate of haredim who fail to complete their academic course.
According to the council, there is a 50% dropout rate from higher education among haredi men and 30% for haredi women.

Research data from Shoresh shows that these dropout rates are reflected in statistics that show that the number of haredi men and women in the workforce with academic degrees has remained static.
In the decade from 2003 to 2013, the share of prime working-age Israeli haredi men, aged 35-54, with academic degrees has remained on average at approximately 15% of the haredi male population, with a similar figure for women.

Figures for young haredi men and women, aged 20-34, are even lower, with an average of below 5% for men and around 10% for women.

Ben-David says that the most basic reason for the high dropout rate among haredi students, especially men, is their lack of a basic education at the primary and secondary school levels.

In 2013, 42% of haredi boys of elementary school age studied at institutions where no core curriculum subjects are taught, while such studies in other haredi elementary schools are often limited to just 11 hours a week.

And just 2% of haredi boys obtain a school matriculation certificate, compared to the national average of 70%, along with 17% of haredi girls, although haredi girls, do in general study general education subjects in high school and take alternative exams.

Ben-David added that the quality of education at some of the colleges providing courses for haredi men and women is lower than at research universities.

Although such qualifications do assist haredi men and women in finding employment, the pay is often lower than that received by employees with more qualitative degrees, and the jobs are often in sectors not necessarily related to their field of study.

Ben-David said the primary reason for the high dropout rate and the attendance of haredi students at colleges with lower academic standards is the absence of a general education at the primary and secondary school levels.

As a result, he said, many gifted and talented haredi individuals are not fulfilling their potential, even when they manage to obtain a higher education degree.

“As a country, we’re not running on all cylinders, and our national productivity is hindered because of this failure, and depriving children of the basic right to education is unconscionable” Ben-David said. “This prevents such children from making it to the higher levels of academic achievement and is hurting them and hurting us as a nation.

“There is a reason that all other developed countries in the world provide a general education at the primary and secondary school ages, so we can’t put our heads in the sand and ignore something we know to be corrupt.”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

First Photos from the Banquet!

Here is the first batch of photos from the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna at the Biblical Museum of Natural History! Thank you to our amazing photographer, Mordechai Gordon (, Yehuda Schwartz for the stunning setup, and Chef Moshe Basson for the incredible food! The book that we published in conjunction with the banquet is available at the museum office for 50 NIS. Enjoy the photos! And if you haven't visited the museum yet, book your tour now at!




Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When is an Apology Sincere?

(Sorry for the slow pace of posts! It's been a wild few weeks of traveling the length and breadth of Israel collecting (and shechting) animals for my museum dinner this Thursday, and writing a book to accompany it!)

Erev Yom Kippur is a challenging time for me, because it's the anniversary of the ban on my books, the effects of which continue to ripple through to this very day, twelve years later. But I'm not going to detail the specifics of what happened today, because that would just depress everybody. Instead, I want to mention something else.

Why do people ask for mechilah (forgiveness) on erev Yom Kippur? Hopefully, the gravitas of the season has led them to genuinely reflect upon, and regret, some of their actions. But on other occasions, it's just a matter of people feeling good about themselves that they've fulfilled a religious obligation. I find that apologies that are issued when it isn't the aseres yemei teshuvah are usually more convincing. Here is a beautiful apology that I received a few weeks ago:
On a personal level, I would like to ask you mechila. I first read your book, "Sacred Monsters" when I was 19, I initially thought it was very good and my father who is a Rabbi told me it was fine. 

Then I went to Yeshivas XXXX where your name is less than mud. I became fanatically Charedi and spent a lot of time besmirching you and aggressively disagreeing with all that you said. 

However, over time I mellowed significantly, left the Yeshiva and now have a great respect for everything you have written in your blogs and in your books.

Now, that is someone whom I can wholeheartedly forgive! I know exactly what it is like to be brainwashed by a yeshivah into besmirching others, because it happened to me too. And I greatly respect this person for coming forward to apologize. Kol hakavod to him!

Wishing everyone a gmar chatima tova!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Denial - On Both Sides

Historian Deborah Lipstadt is one of my heroes. Her book History on Trial is an absolutely riveting account of the libel suit brought against her by notorious Holocaust denier David Irving. Even though I knew how the story ended, I couldn't put the book down! I am very excited to see the new movie of this story, Denial, which came out in the US last week, and which will hopefully reach Israel soon. It has received very favorable reviews, and it is an outstanding kiddush Hashem.

For those who don't know the story: Back in 1993, Deborah Lipstadt published a book about Holocaust denial, in which she condemned David Irving - a man with a reputation as a prominent historian - for deliberately distorting various significant aspects of the Holocaust. Irving responded by suing Lipstadt for libel. He did so in Britain, which has very strange libel laws, and requires the defendant to prove that what they said was true. Thus, Lipstadt had to prove not only that the Holocaust happened, but that Irving's minimization of what happened was due to his deliberately distorting the facts rather than making innocent errors. It was also important to win in a way that would not allow Irving to torture Holocaust survivors on the witness stand, or to nitpick Lipstadt's work. Fortunately, Lipstadt and her wonderful legal team won a decisive victory (except for failing to recoup the massive costs of the trial from Irving).

That's the story in a nutshell, but I really recommend that everyone read the book. And by all accounts, the new movie, with Rachel Weisz playing Deborah Lipstadt, is superb.

Unfortunately, there is an aspect of the movie's marketing that I feel obligated to protest. Many media outlets, feeding on comments made by Denial's screenwriter Sir David Hare, are connecting the movie to a critique of Donald Trump and the extreme right wing. Just as we had to fight the dangerous lies of David Irving, they say, so too must we fight the dangerous lies of Trump and the far right.

Now, God (and anyone who's heard me on the topic) knows that I am no fan of Trump, nor of the nonsensical conspiracy theories of the far right. However, I think that it is very, very problematic to make the message of Denial about fighting the dangerous lies of the far right. Because it's not as though the right has a monopoly on dangerous lies.

Let's start with President Obama. Now, I am not one of those Orthodox Jews who believes that voting Obama is worse than murder, idolatry and adultery. Nevertheless, he has told some dangerous lies. For example, in his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama justified the Jewish nation's claim to the State of Israel in terms of the persecution that we have suffered in various places - but conspicuously failed to acknowledge the actual historical connection with the Land of Israel. That's a lie, and a dangerous one - it encourages the Arab world to believe that we are merely European colonialists, and why should they have to pay the price for the persecutions of Europe?!

Then, in his important speech at the UN last week, Obama described Israel as "occupying Palestinian land." That is a lie. Judea and Samaria are not Palestinian land. They are disputed land. The Palestinians have a certain claim, going back at least several generations. The Jews have a claim, going back millennia earlier. The 1920 San Remo conference and the subsequent Palestine Mandate recognized the legal right of Jews to live anywhere in the country. When Jordan annexed Judea and Samaria, the US did not claim that it was "occupying Palestinian land." It is especially ironic that in the same week that the Obama administration refuses to describe Jerusalem as being in Israel, due to this being a matter of dispute, Obama considers the status of Judea and Samaria to be resolved in favor of the Palestinians.

Want some more examples of dangerous lies from the left? How about the widely respected New York Times? They printed an article by Abbas claiming that the 1948 war was started by Israel. That is a lie. And then there was their "scholarly" article discussing the conceptual roots of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which managed to completely falsify the historical truth and lent credence to Temple denial - which is a much more pressing danger than Holocaust denial!

The lies of the left might not be as colorful and blatant as the lies of the right. But their insidiousness and acceptability in respectable forums makes them all the more dangerous.

I hope that Denial makes people aware of the dangers of falsehood, and how they must be fought - no matter where they come from.

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 ...