Thursday, February 25, 2016

The First Zoo Rabbis

My wife and I were very touched by the enormous outpouring of good wishes after my announcement that I completed my doctorate. Thank you! In this post, I will briefly describe my dissertation, "Rabbinic and Maskilic Encounters with Zoology in the Nineteenth Century."

In the middle of the nineteenth century an entirely new type of Jewish book appeared: an encyclopedia of animals which discussed them in relationship to the Bible and sometimes to the Talmud. No less than five such books were written during this period!

The title page of Biblische Zoologie
The first was Biblische Zoologie by Abraham Basch. It presented entries on every animal in Scripture, with discussions of their Hebrew names, natural history, and relevant scriptural and talmudic sources. This was the very first book ever written on biblical zoology, and yet there was not a person alive today who had ever heard of it, because Basch tragically died at the age of forty, before he could publish it. Somehow I came across a reference to it, and I was thrilled to discover that, miraculously, the manuscript survived, and I was able to obtain a copy of it from the Berlin State Library. (I have to say, it was very moving to be bringing to light the very first study of biblical zoology!)

Joseph Schonhack
The second book on biblical natural history was Joseph Schönhak’s Toledot HaAretz (Warsaw: H. Bomberg 1841-1859). This was essentially a popularization of scientific works on natural history, but which also included extensive footnotes discussing biblical and Talmudic issues. Not much is known about Schönhak; however, he also authored an Aramaic-German rabbinical dictionary, which received approbations from both Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spector and Rabbi Zacharias Frankel!

Rabbi Dr. Ludwig Lewysohn
The third book relating to biblical zoology was Rabbi Dr. Ludwig Lewysohn’s Die Zoologie des Talmuds (Frankfurt am Main 1858). Lewysohn was a phenomenal scholar, and his work is an extremely thorough study of all bibical and talmudic references to animals. Die Zoologie des Talmuds is even referenced today in the prestigious Encyclopedia Talmudit, which is especially interesting when you see what the author looked like!

Shalom Yaakov Abramowitsch is most famous as the “grandfather of Yiddish literature,” under the pen-name Mendele Mokher Seforim; considerably less well known is that at an earlier stage of his life he published a three-volume work on natural history entitled Toledot Ha-Teva (Leipzig 1862, Zhitomir 1866, Vilna 1872). Like Schönhak’s Toledot HaAretz, this was essentially a popularization of scientific works on natural history, but it also included extensive endnotes discussing biblical and Talmudic issues.

Rabbi Joseph Schwartz
A very different work was Tevu’ot HaAretz by Rabbi Joseph Schwartz (Jerusalem 1845). Schwartz actually traveled to the Land of Israel, and his book was a study of its geography and natural history. It also referred to some biblical and Talmudic material. Tevu’ot HaAretz was even translated into English, under the title A Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine (Philadelphia 1850).

Finally, the nineteenth century also saw a number of writings by Rabbi Baruch Yaakov Placzek of Brno which dealt with natural history and incorporated insights regarding rabbinic literature. (I wrote about Placzek in a blog post entitled The Most Fascinating Rabbi You've Never Heard Of.)

The near-simultaneous publication of all these books raises a number of questions that I addressed in my study. Why were these books written at this time? Were all of them written for the same reason or set of reasons, or were there different reasons in each case? What were the authors' cultural backgrounds?

The second set of questions that I addressed, potentially connected to the first, relates to the fact that in this period there were also, for the first time, books by Christian authors published on scriptural natural history—and in extremely large numbers. In which ways were the Jewish works on scriptural natural history similar to the Christian works and in which ways did they differ? What might account for the differences?

Third are the questions relating to comparative analysis. In which ways are the various Jewish books similar to one another, and in which ways do they differ? Do they differ in their stated goals? In the way in which the scriptural, talmudic and zoological information is presented? Do these differences reflect differences in the cultural contexts of the authors, differences in the goals of each work, or other factors?

The fourth and final sub-topic of my investigation related to the new frontiers of conflict between traditional rabbinic views and scientific discoveries that were presented in the nineteenth century. Darwin published On The Origin Of Species in 1859, and Jews did not really grapple with the issues that it raised until the twentieth century. However, before Darwin, there were several challenges to traditional Judaism that were posed by natural history. Examples include:
  • Scripture classified bats along with birds and whales along with fish. Yet the new zoology posited that bats and whales were mammals, and were to be classified along with cats and cows.
  • Scripture describes the hare as chewing its cud. Yet there were those arguing for the errancy of the Bible, based on the discovery that hares do not ruminate.
  • Critics of the Bible claimed that it would have been impossible for Samson to have captured three hundred foxes, since these are solitary creatures which are never found in large numbers.
  • Regardless of evolutionary explanations for the origins of species, what about the origins of domestic animals? Are dogs descended from wolves? Are cattle descended from aurochsen? The domestication of animals from wild ancestors was a process that was not posited to have taken place in some remote prehistoric past, but rather as part of human history. But if one accepts that domestic animals were created by man, this would appear to raise a problem with Scripture, which states that domestic animals were created by God, at the same time as wild animals.
  • Up until the eighteenth century, it was taken as an unquestioned fact, in both rabbinic and non-Jewish circles, that no species ever goes extinct, since God's providence would not allow it (amongst other reasons). In fact, one of the reasons why Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition was to find living mammoths and mastodons. The dodo was the first species which raised a serious problem, since they only lived on one island and there really didn't seem to be any more left. Christians and Jewish scholars alike grappled with this problem.
  • The Talmud discusses several different types of spontaneous generation: that of insects from sweat, fruit and water, that of mice from dirt, and that of salamanders from fire. Yet in the nineteenth century, it was becoming increasingly accepted that spontaneous generation does not occur.
How did the rabbis of the nineteenth century approach these conflicts, and in which ways was their approach different from earlier approaches to such conflicts? In which ways was it similar to approaches to other conflicts with science that were being confronted at that time? And to what extent were the Jewish authors even aware of all the potential theological problems that had arisen in this field?

Such were the questions that I spent several years exploring. In order to present a background to the discussion, I also explored the history of Christian, Jewish and Biblical natural history throughout the medieval period, as well as the Haskalah and its relationship with science. The research for some of the above issues conveniently dovetailed with my research for The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, and thus you can find some of the answers to the above questions in that book, as well as a history of Biblical and Talmudic zoology. It's much easier to read than my dissertation, and it also has beautiful color photographs!

I hope that my dissertation contributes to the study of intellectual Jewish history. It certainly helped me learn much about the topic that is so central to my life, and I think it makes me better qualified, in all kinds of ways, for my work with The Biblical Museum of Natural History. Thanks again to everyone who helped me!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Zoo Rabbi Doctor


I am pleased to announce that after five years at Bar-Ilan University, I finally received my doctorate!

This represents the culmination of a change in my life's direction that I not only did not foresee, but would have positively feared and hated. Twenty years ago, when I was twenty years old, I successfully fought against my parents, who were urging me to leave yeshivah and attend university. At the time, even if I would have attended university, it would certainly would not have been to study Jewish subjects. I looked at academics in the field of Jewish studies with deep suspicion, especially if they were also rabbis. Rabbis should be rabbis, and doctors should be doctors!

A number of factors combined for me to finally enter Machon Lander, at the age of 33, as described in my post From Yeshivah to Academia. After obtaining my Master's degree, it seemed natural to progress to a doctorate at Bar Ilan. But which department should I choose?

Since the Great Torah Science Controversy of 2004-2005, I had been fascinated by the following question: How can something seem so obviously true and traditional to some rabbis, and so obviously false and heretical to others? At Machon Lander, I had extensively studied the difference between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, which contained the answer to my question. But the underlying point, indeed the key to academic Jewish studies, was context. I thus realized that Jewish intellectual history was where I wanted to focus, and so I enrolled in the Department of Jewish History.

Since my MA had been in a course-based program, I had to prepare a thesis in order to be accepted to Bar Ilan's doctoral program. I decided to write it on the topic of different rabbinic interpretations to the Gemara about the sun's path at night. This is the key topic for all Torah-science discussion, and one that I had made a huge mistake in not bringing to the fore during the Great Torah Science Controversy. In my post The Sun's Path At Night Redux I described how I reworked this material to reflect an academic approach. With my previous "yeshivish" training, I had simply listed all the different interpretations of the Gemara, categorizing them as rationalist, mystical, etc. Under the guidance of Prof. David Malkiel, I realized that the key is that all the non-rationalist approaches began in the 16th century. This in turn enabled me to explore the context and reasons for this transition.

After being accepted to the doctoral program, I had to attend a number of different courses. In Prof. Gershon Bacon's courses, I studied the development of Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy. These resulted in my papers The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making of Haredim. I was also fortunate to be able to attend courses by colleagues of mine in the field of Biblical and Rabbinic zoology, Prof. Zohar Amar and Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky.

The main work in a doctorate program is the dissertation. It was difficult to choose a topic - there were several aspects of Torah vs. science that were tempting. Ultimately, however, I decided that it made the most sense to devote myself to a topic which would relate to my lifelong fascination with the animal kingdom. I wrote my dissertation on rabbinic encounters with zoology (which also included several conflicts between Torah and science, and which also related strongly to the issue of historical context). My dissertation focused on the nineteenth century, which was when the field of rabbinic zoology took off, with five books being written on this topic. In a future post, I plan to describe my dissertation in more detail.

A number of thanks are in order. I would particularly like to express my gratitude to my dissertation adviser, Prof. David Malkiel, for his guidance and encouragement. I am also indebted to Prof. Gershon Bacon and Prof. Shaul Stampfer, and to my German tutor, Naftali Guttman. I am also deeply grateful to Rabbi Eliezer Langer and to my father-in-law, Mr. Lee Samson, who encouraged me to pursue academic qualifications. Prof. Menachem Kellner pointed me in the direction of Machon Lander, where I was blessed with the guidance of Rabbi Prof. Carmi Horowitz and Rabbi Prof. Yosef Tabory. It is deeply upsetting that my father, Prof. Michael Slifkin z"l, did not live to see my academic career, but my mother's nachas is enough for two people. I would also like to express my appreciation to the staff at the Biblical Museum of Natural History who enabled me to take some time off to finish my dissertation. Most of all, I am grateful to my wife Tali, for her unwavering encouragement and support, while putting up with my constant griping and groaning about how difficult the entire process was!

Finally, I would like to thank my third child, Michaella. When my dissertation was finally printed, sitting on my desk and ready to be taken in to Bar-Ilan, she was looking at it. She said, "Aba, there is a mistake in your avodah."

I laughed. "Michaella," I said gently. "You're eight years old. You didn't find a mistake in my doctoral dissertation."

She pointed at the cover, where I had written the date. "You wrote תשע"ה. It's תשע"ו."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Guest Post: Mi Yodeya?


These questions and their answers (follow the links above) all come from Mi Yodeya, the online Jewish Q&A community on the Stack Exchange network. This community of hundreds of active participants (and hundreds more of occasional ones) has asked and answered close to 18,000 Jewish questions over the last years. One person thinks of an interesting question and puts it out there. A couple of others think of sources that help address that question and share those. Still others vote the best stuff up and the worst down. The result is a highly intriguing mix with something for everyone.
See other examples of cool questions:



Monday, February 8, 2016

An Alternative to ArtScroll Halachah

A while ago, in a post entitled The Publishing Renaissance, I wrote about how when Religious Zionist/ Centrist/ Modern Orthodox Jews in North America and the UK complain about the "slide to the right" in Orthodoxy, or about how their children have become charedi and expect to be financially supported for the rest of their lives, it irks me. After all, it's their own fault! They have failed to make a basic effort to perpetuate themselves, whether with regard to producing educators, or with regard to literature.

We are the People of the Book, and books form a major part of our lives. They influence us in all kinds of ways, from the role models that they choose to present, to the sources that they choose to quote, to the hashkafic outlook that they reflect - often very subtly. And yet, for many years, Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy ceded this important field almost entirely to the Charedi community.

Sure, there were always non-Charedi publishers. But they were small operations that did not present a comprehensive range of publications, and just published whatever came their way. It's ArtScroll that has been overwhelmingly dominant. Every shul in North America has ArtScroll Siddurim, Chumashim, and Gemaras. Many people like to mock or protest ArtScroll for their approach, which includes such things as censoring the non-charedi opinions of Torah scholars and altering texts. But I don't think that such criticism is entirely fair. ArtScroll had a comprehensive vision. They went ahead and exerted enormous effort to fill a huge gap, for which they deserve much credit; of course they are going to reflect the approach of their own community. Where on earth was everyone else?

The donor pages of ArtScroll publications are astonishing. Few donors are charedi - they are mostly modern Orthodox (or even non-Orthodox) Jews. Why are these people sponsoring publications which are from a different community and do not reflect their worldview? The answer is that there was no alternative. There was no YU Talmud or OU chumash to compete. Only ArtScroll was serious about publishing a full range of Jewish literature.

Well, finally, things have been starting to change. There is the OU Press, which recently published the Mesoras HaRav Chumash. And there is a huge development, which finally marks a publishing renaissance for Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy: Koren. Koren is the only Jewish publisher aside from ArtScroll to have a comprehensive publishing vision. They are putting out siddurim, machzorim, and a Shas. They are working on several Chumashim and a series of works on Tenach. In this post, I would like to briefly review some aspects of a halachic work published by Koren: Rabbi David Brofsky's Hilkhot Mo'adim: Understanding the Laws of Festivals.

As its subtitle indicates, this book is very different from those in the ArtScroll/ Feldheim/ Targum genre. Most such books in that genre usually just give the bottom-line halachah, so that one can follow it correctly. Rabbi Brofsky's book, on the other hand, is about understanding the halachah. It takes the reader through the development of the halachah from the primary sources in the Chumash, Mishnah and Gemara, through the Rishonim and Acharonim, down to contemporary practice. It also includes a discussion of the reasons, symbolism and significance behind the halachah. Furthermore, Rabbi Brofsky applies a scholarly analysis to the discussion. For example, on p. 595, he writes that "Rashbetz insists that this Rambam must be based upon a scribal error, but reliable manuscripts indicate otherwise."

As a book reflecting the Religious Zionist approach, this book also includes sections pertaining to Yom Ha-Atzma'ut and Yom Yerushalayim. It also quotes non-charedi rabbinic authorities. See, for example, the reference on p. 484 to Rav Hershel Schachter permitting regular toothpaste on Pesach, and the reference on p. 419 to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's sanctioning of women's megillah reading.

Rabbi Brofksy is also not afraid to quote extreme charedi views (which would normally be censored by English charedi publishers), and express his opinion of them. In discussing the beating of the aravot, Rabbi Brofsky quotes the view of Rav Moshe Sternbuch that the arava, which has no taste or smell, is comparable to the sinners of Israel; "When the arava is taken alone, we are obligated to beat it on the ground, to hint to us that those sinners who separated into their own groups, such as the Reform, Conservative, Nationalists (leumi'im) and the like, since they come by themselves, we are obligated to "beat them" until they surrender and are lowered, and not to bring them closer at all, and certainly not to bind ourselves to them." Rabbi Brofsky notes that this view is "somewhat shocking" and contrasts it to the view of Rav Kook, who explains that we do not beat the aravot, but rather beat with the aravot, invoking the fervor of the simple Jew.

At 750 pages in length, this is a very comprehensive work. It is truly a book that everyone should read, to deepen their understanding of the halachos of the Jewish year. Hilkhot Mo'adim is a very worthy part of the Koren comprehensive publishing vision for the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Wonder of Horrible Creepy Things

It's been a fascinating few weeks at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We've had such a diverse range of visitors. Multiple bar/bat-mitzvah groups from the Flatbush Syrian community, mesorati school groups from local moshavim, a French girl's seminary, a group of secular Israeli teachers, a bunch of American gap-year yeshivos and seminaries, and the usual assortment of local families, visiting relatives, and Anglo tourists. We also hosted a birthday party, and we started a new children's chug, attended by mesorati and dati children aged 5-9. Today's tour was joined by a family who live in Bnei Brak but who are in Beit Shemesh for Shabbos and so came early so that they could visit the museum:


Meanwhile, our collection is continuing to grow, on both a collective and individual level. Here is a picture of our monitor lizard, Bubale, taken last February, alongside a picture taken in November:


And, speaking of comparison photos, here is a fascinating letter that we received from a visitor: "Our visit to the museum was a smashing hit with the kids who loved and regularly speak of it. We are not big animal lovers (my wife is actually afraid of most animals) but this is mostly out of lack of knowledge. One thing I found interesting is in the two pictures attached. This is our little 4-year-old not knowing what a turtle is. The first picture is when her mom told her this was disgusting, the second when I told her it was great. In other words, children are totally shaped by us, and we should be opening their horizons and influencing them positively!"


I'm going to sign off with a photo which I think is amazing, but which will repulse some people. So you have to scroll down to see it. You have been warned!























Click to make the picture much bigger and give yourself nightmares!


To make up for that, here is a picture of one of our hedgehogs, just chillin'


Good Shabbos!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

On Eagles' Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The nesher, king of birds, is the most prominent bird in the Torah. Although many assume that the nesher is the eagle, and some of the commentaries have identified it as such, the evidence shows that it is more likely a vulture - specifically, the griffon vulture (see full essay here).

The best-known Scriptural description of the nesher is also the most problematic to understand. It occurs in reference to God bringing the Jewish People out of Egypt:
"You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you (va'esa eschem) on the wings of nesharim, and brought you to Myself." (Exodus 19:4)
The conventional translation of va'esa eschem is "I carried you." However, some translate it as "I elevated you." The explanation is that the nesher is the highest-flying bird, and God raised the Jewish People to spiritual heights above anything in the natural world with His miraculous redemption.[1] The highest flying birds are griffon vultures.

But many explain this verse instead to refer to God poetically carrying the Jewish People like a nesher carrying its young on its back (see Rashi ad loc.). This relates to a description of the vulture later in the Torah:
"As a nesher stirs up its nest, flutters over its young, spreads out its wings, takes them, bears them on its pinions; So did God guide them, and there was no strange god with them." (Deuteronomy 32:11-12)
The description here is of the nesher carrying its young upon its wings while flying. Many have considered this verse to present us with a great difficulty and to require some kind of allegorical or poetic interpretation, since neither vultures or eagles are generally known to carry their young on their wings. Swans and other waterfowl sometimes carry their young on their backs while swimming, and jacanas and bustards may sometimes carry their young between wing and body while walking.[2] There are reports of some ducks taking flight while their young are on their backs.[3] A further report concerns an obscure water bird from Central and Southern America called the sungrebe, which carries its twin young in pouches under both wings.[4]

But eagles and vultures, despite being widely studied, are not generally described as displaying such behavior. However, unbeknownst to many, reports do indeed exist of eagles carrying their young on their backs. One ornithologist writes:
"Many ornithologists have thought that the Bible picture of an eagle carrying her young was merely figurative, but in recent years certain reliable observers have actually seen a parent bird let its young rest for a moment on the feathered back - especially when there was no other roosting place in sight. When an eagle nests on the ledge of a sheer-walled canyon, many feet above the earth, with no jutting tree or protruding rock to break the fall, the quick movement of a mother bird to offer her own back to a frightened fledgling may be the only way to let it live to try its wings again." (V.C. Holmgren, Bird Walk Through The Bible [New York: Dover Publications 1988] p. 98)
One report of this behavior is as follows:
"Our guide was one of the small company who have seen the golden eagle teaching the young to fly. He could support the belief that the parent birds, after urging and sometimes shoving the youngster into the air, will swoop underneath and rest the struggler for a moment on their wings and back. ... Our guide, when questioned, said that every phrase of the verse [Deut. xxxii, I I] (which was new to him) was accurate, save the first; he had seen it all except the stirring up of the nest." (W.B. Thomas, Yeoman's England [1934], pp. 135-6)
Another report concerning the golden eagle comes from Arthur Cleveland Bent, one of America's greatest ornithologists, on the authority of Dr. L. Miller:
"The mother started from the nest in the crags and, roughly hand-ling the youngster, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet; then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. Once perhaps she waited fifteen minutes between flights. I should say the farthest she let him fall was a hundred and fifty feet. My father and I watched him, spellbound, for over an hour." (A. C. Bent, Bulletin of the Smithsonian Institution CLXVII [1937], 302) 
True, these reports have not been widely confirmed, despite extensive studies of these species. Furthermore, these reports concern eagles, whereas evidence shows the nesher to be the griffon vulture rather than the eagle. However, it is possible that such rare behavior likewise occurs with griffon vultures, or that nesher is a generic term encompassing both eagles and griffon vultures.

Another solution to the entire question is to posit that "the Torah speaks in the language of men," which, according to one school of thought, means that it packages its messages within the scientific worldview of the generation that received the Torah. For more on this approach, which has been used by several recent and modern authorities to explain other phrases in the Torah that are scientifically inaccurate (such as references to the "firmament," the hare bringing up its cud, the dew falling, and so on), see my essay "The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel."

If referring to a griffon vulture, these verses show that the vulture is regarded by the Torah very differently from the way that it is perceived in contemporary culture. While people today view the vulture in a negative light, the Torah presents it as an example of a loving and caring parent. This also relates to the vulture's entire parenting process. Female griffon vultures usually lay one egg, which both parents incubate for an unusually long period of around seven weeks until it hatches. The young are slow to develop and do not leave the nest until three or four months of age. The long devotion of the vulture to its young symbolizes God's deep dedication to the Jewish People.

Sources:
[1] See HaKesav VeHaKabbalah ad loc.
[2] See Johnsgard, Paul A. and Kear, Janet, "A Review of Parental Carrying of Young by Waterfowl" (1968). Papers in Ornithology. Paper 32. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/biosciornithology/32. Also Celia K. Falzone. 1992. “First Observations of Chick Carrying Behavior by the Buff-crested Bustard”. The Wilson Bulletin 104 (1). Wilson Ornithological Society: 190–92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4163135.
[3] See Johnsgard and Kear, ibid.
[4] This remarkable phenomenon was first reported in 1833 by the German ornithologist M.A. Wied. Subsequent generations of ornithologists viewed this report with skepticism or ridicule. However in 1969 Mexican ornithologist Miguel Alvarez del Toro confirmed that soon after hatching, the male sungrebe places each of the two chicks in pouches under his wings and departs. An article by B. Bertrand explains: "M. Alvarez del Toro, who observed a nesting pair in Mexico, discovered that the male has a shallow pocket under each wing into which the two young can fit. The pocket is formed by a pleat of skin, and made more secure by the feathers on the side of the body just below. The heads of the chicks could be seen from below as the bird flew. Alvarez del Toro collected the bird in order to examine it and confirm the unlikely discovery. Subsequently, he found it confirmed also by a report published by Prince Maximilian of Wied 138 years earlier but apparently ignored, forgotten or not believed. This adaptation is unique among birds: in no other species is there any mechanism whereby altricial young can be transported...." Bertrand, B. C. R. (1996) Family Heliornithidae (Finfoots) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.