Friday, December 29, 2017

How To Save Orthodox Judaism

How do you stop Orthodox Judaism from descending into madness?

There are several manifestations of this to be found in popular Jewish weekly magazines. This week presents an extreme example. On the cover of Mishpacha, Ami, and all the rest is a smiling Sholom Rubashkin, who is being glorified as some sort of frum Sharansky. There are photos of his being paraded in front of adoring crowds like a Rebbe, and he is presented (at least in the Mishpacha article that I read) as innocent of any moral wrongdoing.

Now, many people agree that Rubashkin's sentence was excessive, and it is therefore wonderful that it was commuted. But he is nevertheless a convicted felon who hurt many people and committed some serious crimes for which he expressed no regret and does not seem at all concerned about the appalling chillul Hashem that he caused and continues to cause. What kind of message do we send, both outside and inside the Orthodox community, when we glorify such a person as a hero?

Yet this is just one of many examples of the shortcomings of the frum media. Another is how, contrary to recent Orthodox practice, they now refuse to print any pictures of women or girls, even if the woman is wearing a burqa! What kind of message does that send, when even covering yourself up with a burqa is still not enough to let your picture be seen?

Then there are all the other things that I and others have written about over the years. The notorious Ami puff-piece about Skver after the Rebbe's assistant set fire to a dissident (and continued to enjoy good standing in the community). The ridiculous Mishpacha editorials about why charedim should not go to the army and about how critics of charedi society are only motivated by hate. The enormous concern over the fate of frum people imprisoned for crimes, and the relatively little concern for captured Israeli soldiers. Ami magazine's interview with the pedophile Nechemia Weberman's defense attorney - but not with the attorney for the prosecution! The glorification of criminals and protectors of abusers and enemies of the State of Israel. The flood of advertisements from tzedaka and snake-oil organizations manipulating people with mysticism for money. And the general non-Torah u'mada, non-Torah im derech eretz, non-rationalist charedi outlook, which reflects the values of many Orthodox Jews, but by no means all.

(Mishpacha magazine, after the notorious YTT coverup of a pedophile, deserves praise for asking Rav Shlomo Miller "Why don't rabbanim take a firm stand on developments in frum life, such as denouncing perversions and corruptions, wrong agendas, wrongdoers?" But they did not protest when he replied that the Gedolim did indeed do so when they objected to the writings of Nosson Slifkin!") 

Especially frustrating is that these magazines are not only read in the chareidi community. On several occasions I have praised Mishpacha for pushing the envelope of charedi norms and publishing some excellent critiques of charedi society, but there's no reason why other communities should be restricted to such publications. Recently I was in a frum supermarket in the Five Towns and it was distressing to see that the only magazines available for purchase were Mishpacha and Ami. I'm sure that there are many, many families in the Five Towns who do not adhere to such a hashkafah. But there is no other comparable magazine to read over Shabbos.

The solution is very simple. We need a weekly magazine to rival Mishpacha and Ami. It should contain articles of interest to people across the Orthodox spectrum, but it should primarily reflect classical/Centrist Orthodox values, both in terms of its editorial policy and its writers. It should have pictures of women (except perhaps where the picture is not of the subject of the article/advertisement and would only be to allure people to buying a product). It should quote from, and profile, religious Zionist, centrist and modern Orthodox rabbis, as well as charedi rabbis. It should not have puff-pieces for quacks, criminals or protectors of abusers, and it should not run predatory advertisements from tzedokos.

The simplest way would be for the OU to make its superb Jewish Action magazine into a weekly instead of a quarterly. But if that's not going to happen (and perhaps it would be best to have an independent magazine), someone else should step up to the plate. There could be a lot of money to be made from it, but even if not, it's a way to exert tremendous positive influence on the Orthodox community.

(If you missed my previous post about Ayin Hara, check it out!)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Surprising History of Ayin Hara

What is the “Evil Eye,” known in Hebrew as ayin hara? Does it affect the person giving it (the person looking) or the person receiving it (the person being scrutinized)? Can it be given to inanimate objects, or only to people? Can you bring an ayin hara upon yourself? Does it require seeing something? Does the damage result from the eye, or from the mind? How exactly does it work? And is there a way to protect against it?

Over the past few years I have been engaging in extensive study of this topic, and I discovered several things that were surprising, even astonishing. One of the most important rabbinic figures in history stated that you can block an ayin hara with a window, and based on that, a certain Chief Rabbi suggested that you can avoid giving an ayin hara by wearing glasses! The medieval rationalist and non-rationalist views turned out to be completely the opposite of what one would expect. Rambam's denial of ayin hara turned out to be very difficult to explain. And I found that the key to this topic lies in the ostrich eggs that are found hanging in several ancient synagogues!

I have finally written up my research in a 7000-word monograph. This will eventually be published in my planned book, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. But it will also be e-mailed to contributors to my most important project, The Biblical Museum Of Natural History. We are inspiring and educating tens of thousands of people, from across the full spectrum of society, about the relationship between Torah and the natural world. And we are working on taking the museum to the next level, such that we can reach hundreds of thousands of people. We are planning to move to a much larger facility, and become a premiere national attraction! You can make a tax-deductible donation at this link (please add a note stating that it is for the Ayin Hara monograph). While the monograph will be sent for contributions of any amount, we are really hoping for substantial donations with this end-of-year giving campaign. Thank you for your support of our mission, and we look forward to the museum rising to even greater levels of success - bli ayin hara!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Who Stole My Religion?"

Several weeks ago, in a post entitled "How Frum Is Your Food?", I lamented how the Orthodox Jewish community (and particularly the ultra-Orthodox community) pays very little attention to animal welfare, especially in comparison to the enormous emphasis on stringency with kashrut. Part of the reason for this unfortunate phenomenon can be found in a book that was sent to me, provocatively titled Who Stole My Religion? (an earlier edition of which is freely available online in its entirety here). The book was written by Dr. Richard H. Schwartz, and is subtitled "Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet." It is published by Urim and it is specifically targeted towards Orthodox Jews.

The book has a foreword by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz who is also listed as a co-author. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a person who has performed acts of kindness to which most of us cannot begin to aspire, such as donating a kidney to a stranger and taking in foster children. However, he has also authored numerous articles which utterly invert traditional Jewish teachings in order to make them harmonious with his contemporary liberal values. For example, he claims that the Torah itself shows a full acceptance of all sexual orientations, because since Adam and Eve were the progenitors of all mankind, they therefore contain all their descendants(?), and thus all genetic sexual proclivities reflect the Divine purpose of humanity(??). Dealing with homosexuality is indeed a problem with which Orthodox Judaism does not seem to have yet succeeded, but claiming that homosexuality is consistent with traditional Judaism hardly makes for credible theology. Yanklowitz has also claimed that it is "spiritually violent" to refer to God in the masculine, and that the Jews' slaughter of their mortal enemies in the story of Esther is morally wrong (apparently they should have let them live, to have another opportunity to plot the murder of the Jews).

Then, back in April 2015 when Obama was president, Yanklowitz very sensibly wrote: "Israeli friends, I love you, but I fear you may be hurting yourselves (and all Jews) by constantly shaming the US President. Let there be no mistake: Israel is dependent upon US support. If there was G-d forbid a major crisis in Israel, the very first call would be to the US President! Responsible Zionism requires humility in imperfect partnerships." Yet, when Trump was elected, Yanklowitz made headlines by rewriting the prayer for the government so as to condemn Trump instead of blessing him, and called for a public fast on the day of his inauguration!

As a result of all this (and more), Yanklowitz might be a very fine teacher of contemporary liberalism, but he cannot be taken seriously as teaching any kind of Orthodox Judaism. Furthermore, this complete loss of credibility, and siding with groups and outlooks that oppose traditional Judaism and/or large sectors of the Orthodox community, means that any truly valuable struggles that he engages in with the Orthodox community are instantly undermined. I mention these problems with Rabbi Dr. Yanklowitz because they mirror the problems with Dr. Schwartz's book.

The book roughly divides into three parts. The first part is an all-out attack on American Jews who are politically right wing. Schwartz, while admitting that the Democratic party is not perfect, makes the bold claim that Republican philosophy cannot be reconciled with Jewish values. Now, I am not American, and I don't know that much about Republicans and Democrats. Still, it seems to me that to correlate the immensely complex array of Jewish values with a particular contemporary political party is naive. It is rather presumptuous to claim that Jews of a different political persuasion have "stolen my religion." It does not seem to have occurred to the author that perhaps these Jews prioritize different aspects of Judaism than he does, or have a different understanding of political and social realities.

The second part of the book is a discussion of various aspects of the Israel/Arab conflict, where the the author laments the lack of peace, and lectures at great length about how valuable it would be to have peace with the Palestinians. You don't say! I would venture to suggest that people who actually live in Israel, and suffer from the effects of Palestinian terrorism, feel this even more strongly than people in the US.

The author feels that the lack of peace is partially or even primarily the fault of the right-wing Israel government and is, once again, the result of his religion having been stolen. On p. 104 he insists that Israel is responsible for coming up with a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. On p. 81, in discussing how to make peace with the Palestinians, he makes the following breathtaking statement:
"Judaism has traditionally been based on reconciling opposites. There is a basic principle of Torah interpretation that says when two verses seem to contradict each other, a third verse will come to reconcile them. Judaism teaches us to listen to all sides of an argument and then try to find a way to reconcile them."
As with the writings of R. Dr. Yanklowitz, this makes a mockery of traditional Judaism and intellectual integrity. The principle of reconciling contradictions, mentioned here, is that of reconciling seeming contradictions between two statements of the same Divine author. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with conflicts with other nations. Yes, there is such a thing as creative drush, but this one is just silly. Did traditional Judaism mandate that the conflict with Amalek or the Nazis should be resolved by listening to their side and reconciling with them?!

On p. 85 the author notes that the responsibility for the lack of peace and blame does not only lie with Israel, but he issues a statement of blind faith in the resolution of these problems: "There are many obstacles to a just peace, including Arab intransigence and promotion of hatred toward Jews and Israel, but I believe these problems can be solved." How exactly can these problems be solved? He doesn't say. What is the basis for his faith that this is possible, after so many attempts have failed? He doesn't say.

A common problem with the left is that they often fail to acknowledge the logical possibility that the maximum that Israel can safely cede is much less than the minimum that the Palestinians are willing to settle for (a possibility which, indeed, is supported by all available evidence). The reason why most of Israel is no longer talking about how Israel must seek peace with the Palestinians is not because they are opposed to peace. It's due to most of Israel having woken up to the cold, harsh reality that the dominant forces among the Palestinians are not interested in peace, and the word "peace" for them is simply a politically correct euphemism for conquest. The author writes that "Instead of living in adversarial mode, we need to somehow find a way to move into a mode of conciliation and cooperation, seeking common ground and solution." But maybe there is no common ground with them, and maybe conciliation and cooperation are less important values in their culture than conquest and victory? Furthermore, the Palestinians believe that the Jewish People have no history in the Land of Israel - why would they accept us controlling any of it today?

In any case, even if someone disagrees with the right-wing approach, it's certainly a reasonable and understandable approach to take, in light of repeated Palestinian rejections of the Jewish People having any historical presence or right to any of Israel. The notion that being right-wing is an example of having "stolen Judaism" from traditional, authentic religious values is absurd and offensive.

In the third part of the book, the author moves to environmentalism and animal welfare, in which he raises some very important issues that are, tragically, not take seriously in the Orthodox community. But of course, by now he has already lost all but the most left-wing of readers, so he is preaching to the choir. If there are any Jews in the mainstream Orthodox community that he hasn't yet alienated, he does so on page 206, in which, after discussing the very real problems of factory farming, he writes "I believe that Jews should seriously consider becoming vegetarians, and preferably vegans, to be most consistent with basic Jewish teachings." This statement is utterly wrong, not to mention completely counterproductive. Basic Jewish teachings, over the last few thousand years, have made it clear that it is perfectly legitimate to eat meat. All the problems that he names with factory farming can be solved by eating animals that are not developed and farmed in such a way; it does not require a person to become vegetarian. (See, for example, the excellent animal welfare work of the Jewish Initiative For Animals - which is run by a shochet!) Claiming that good Jews have to be vegetarians simply turns off most Jews to anything that you have to say about animal welfare.

The author discusses turning Rosh Chodesh Elul, the Rosh HaShanah for behemot (domestic animals), into a festival that celebrates respect for the animal kingdom. The problem is that this festival, mentioned in the Mishnah, was traditionally no such thing; instead, it was simply a date for counting newborn animals for tithing purposes. The author, to his credit, acknowledges that this is a conscious effort to transform the original date into something else entirely (just as happened with Tu B'Shvat). The same cannot be said for R. Dr. Yanklowitz, who, in his article about this celebration, claims that celebrating it in this way was God's Intent, and that "the holiday was a means to celebrate the special bond between humanity and the other creations of the Earth." No, it wasn't! Not that such would not be a nice thing to celebrate; it certainly is (and both Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh include aspects of celebrating the natural world). But this is simply not what Rosh HaShanah LeBehemah was about, and to claim otherwise looks intellectually dishonest and silly.

In this forum I have often criticized revisionism of traditional Judaism by the religious right, but the far left is equally guilty of this. Of course, Judaism does evolve. The contemporary celebrations of the chagim bear little similarity to their ancient agricultural forms. In Israel, the traditional festival of Shemini Atzeret has completely disappeared and been replaced by the much more recent festival of Simchat Torah (if you don't believe me, ask Israeli kids what the name of that day is). And we have seen the creation of new festivals, such as the one celebrating pyromania and the reformation of classical Judaism by a pseudepigraphic mystical work. However, there is a difference between the natural, organic evolution of Judaism, and the cavalier dismissal of millennia of tradition and blatant rewriting of Judaism to make it conform with the contemporary liberal left-wing zeitgeist.

The author expresses wonder and dismay at how the Orthodox Jewish community denies climate change and displays little regard for the welfare of animals and the environment. He doesn't seem to realize that he himself, and the people and organizations that he endorses in his book, are partially the cause of this. Issuing blatantly spurious revisionism of Torah and siding with those hostile to Orthodox values are not only going to decrease the effectiveness of your important messages; they will actually cause people to reject those messages, due to presumptions of guilt by association. If there's one thing that I've learned with the banning of my books on Torah and science, and the success of The Biblical Museum of Natural History at reaching the full spectrum of the population (except those that I alienated with my books), it's that you have to respect people's communal values and beliefs, and educate within that framework.

Judaism is a complex system that has been developing over many thousands of years. Yes, there are many problems in contemporary Orthodox society that need to be fixed, and which demonstrate it falling out of step with certain traditional Torah values, as I have written about on many, many occasions. But to reduce Judaism to certain left-wing liberal views of the first decades of the 21st century is no less dishonest (and perhaps quite a bit more so) than defining Judaism as charedism or as rationalism.

The book's title asks, "Who Stole My Religion?" Well, the obvious response from most of the author's desired target audience will be, "You did!"

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jedi Masters vs. Gedolei Torah vs. Rishonim

Which is easier, to become a Jedi Master, to become a Gadol B'Torah, or to become a Rishon?

I'm not referring here to the acquisition of metaphysical abilities via the Force or kabbalah, or to the acquisition of wisdom and character traits which are presumed (though certainly not guaranteed) to accompany being Gadol b'Torah. I'm referring to the actual knowledge that needs to be acquired.

And let me specify that I am not discussing the Reform Jediism presented in the new Star Wars movies, in which you don't need any of the extensive study and training undertaken by Luke Skywalker. Rather, I am referring to traditional Jediism. In the latest movie, The Last Jedi, we visit the Ancient Jedi Temple and get a look at the library of classical Jedi sefarim, containing the ancient Jedi wisdom. And it contains...

Eight volumes.

Just eight! And Luke Skywalker confesses that he hasn't even read them! And, demonstrating an astonishing lack of respect, a certain ancient Jedi Master who turns out to be a Reformer agrees with Luke, noting that they aren't "page-turners"! What a pitiful reflection on contemporary culture, in which people assume that knowledge is to be acquired by flicking through bites of information online rather than by actually studying books cover-to-cover, even if they aren't page-turners.

So, with just eight books for a Jedi to study, it's much easier to become a Jedi Master than to become a Gadol B'Torah, in which there are hundreds and thousands of works to be mastered. And if it's harder to become a Gadol B'Torah than to become a Jedi Master, then kal v'chomer it is even more difficult to become a Rishon, those towering masters of Torah, right?


I'm going to say something which raised a lot of hackles when I first said it several years ago. But I'm going to say it again, because in the comments to the previous post, someone wrote that the reason why people have to learn in kollel for many years is that you can't learn Kol HaTorah Kula in just a few hours a day.

Nowadays, to become revered as a Gadol B'Torah, you'd have to learn an awful lot. You'd have spent time learning Tanach with some commentaries. You'd need to know Shas Bavli with every Rashi and Tosafos, which multiplies the study a hundredfold, along with major portions of Rishonim and Acharonim, the latter of which can be very intricate and require many hours of study. You'd also be expected to know Shas Yerushalmi, Shulchan Aruch, and to have studied lots of halachic literature. Plus, you would also have spent time on the way learning mussar sefarim and a host of other material. It's a lot to master; for several years, I lived next door to Rav Shmuel Auerbach's beis hamidrash, and I recall seeing him engrossed in study when I returned to my apartment at 11pm, and seeing him in the same position at 7am the next morning.

But the library of the Rishonim was much, much smaller. They hardly had any of this. They had Tanach, and manuscripts of the Gemara, and a few writings of the Geonim and some Rishonim. That was it! (And, of course, Chazal themselves had even less.) This isn't to say that the Rishonim were not geniuses and great scholars - of course they were. But it was much easier to master the material when there was much less to master.

Learning Kol HaTorah Kula only requires many years in kollel if you are defining Torah to include all the material that has accumulated over the centuries. But the complete Torah used to be much smaller. And let us not forget that Rambam wrote his Mishneh Torah with the intent that it completely replaces learning Gemara!

To be sure, given how Torah has developed, you're not going to be a towering scholar or teacher of Torah today unless you've learned a good portion of the material that has accumulated over the centuries. But to be an ordinary good learned Jew, there is much less that needs to be learned. Thus, Rav Eliezer Melamed writes that while it is important for everyone to gain a basic knowledge of Torah, which the community should fund, this should and need go no further than a few years in yeshivah. Once they have acquired an adequate basic general knowledge, they should study towards a career, so that they can be self-supportive. Only those who are directly studying to become rabbis or educators may continue their studies and be supported by the community, since they are dedicating themselves to a path of serving the community. For others, it is forbidden to continue their Torah study and receive communal support.

There's no obligation to become a contemporary Gadol B'Torah, which requires learning the accumulation of many centuries of development. The obligation is to have a thorough working knowledge of Torah, which requires much less effort. Though still more than Luke Skywalker was willing to exert!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Did They Teach You This In Yeshivah?

What did they teach you in yeshivah about kollel vs. working? I was taught that kollel is the only legitimate option, and the normative route for a Torah Jew. My roommate in yeshivah, upon telling the Rosh Yeshivah that he was leaving to university, was told "I'm sorry that you're being lost to the world of Torah." But here's a fascinating letter from Rav Shlomo Wolbe:
"I was delving into the topic of Torah Im Derech Eretz which is, ultimately, the foundation upon which live most Shomer Mitzvos in the world. We do not sufficiently relate to this approach, and the result of this is that many Bnei Yeshivah who eventually leave to engage in business and suchlike see this as a contradiction to the life of Torah, which is a great mistake. I head in the name of the Steipler that today's effort to make people stay permanently in kollel is a horaas shaah (temporary decree), and Rav Chaim Kanievsky said that it is reasonable that his father said this. The basic path of the Torah is that a person works for a living and also establishes regular times for Torah study..." (from אגרות וכתבים)

It is deeply ironic that many people in the charedi world claim that the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach of Rav Hirsch was a hora'as shaah, and do not acknowledge that the fundamental societal approach of the charedi world is a hora'as shaah!

It goes without saying that the hora'as shaah of mass kollel, intended to compensate for the losses of the Holocaust, has resulted in there now being far more people in full-time Torah study than ever before in history, with a host of resultant problems. I once heard from Prof. Leo Levi that he asked one of the charedi Gedolim (I forget which one) that surely it is time to officially cancel this temporary decree, and the Gadol replied that he lacks the koach to do so. Alas, this is one of the problems of the weakness of charedi leadership - and the problems of a society which elects nonagenarians as its leaders.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

When Rabbis Don't Quack

In the all-time most-read post on this blog, When Rabbis Quack, I criticized an as-yet unpublished work on alternative medicine which featured an array of rabbinic endorsements. Then, after the book was published, I critiqued a too-positive (albeit still critical) feature article about the book which appeared in Mishpacha magazine. I was pleased to see that Mishpacha issued an apology and retraction of this article: 
CLARIFICATION: Several weeks ago, we addressed in these pages the complicated and high-stakes issue of alternative medicine and associated nontraditional practices. In retrospect, we have come to realize that such a sensitive and controversial topic should not have appeared in these pages.
Alternative medicine is an extremely complex and delicate topic, from both a halachic standpoint as well as a scientific point of view. Any attempt to address the topic demands a fair and balanced presentation that is far beyond the form of a feature article in a weekly magazine.
Many of these methods may also involve serious issurei d'Oraisa. Rav Yisroel Belsky ztz"l was known to have been vehemently opposed to such practices on these grounds. Although these potential issurim were noted in the article, unfortunately, they were not sufficiently highlighted, and some critical sources of information were overlooked, especially Rav Belsky's new sefer on the topic. Additionally, gedolei harabbanim have pointed to many unfortunate instances in which people placed themselves in grave danger by eschewing traditional medicine and opting for speculative methods.
The article also alluded to the possibility of an individual having gained mystical healing powers via various encounters. Considering this method as an avenue of medical healing is misguided. While the merits of alternative medicine can be debated, and the discipline has some precedent, this form of curing has no precedent, and can be a dangerous road to travel. Investing hope in people who claim to have special mystical powers is a foolish waste of time, energy, and money, and possibly dangerous as well.
Mishpacha feels an achrayus to the tzibbur and has long prided itself on seeking guidance from gedolei harabbanim. We thank the rabbanim who have contacted us in response to the article and with pride are modeh al he'emes. We regret publishing a piece that may have conveyed approval of these problematic practices, and strongly recommend that everyone proceed with great caution in this area and consult their rav and doctor when considering pursuing alternative medicine. (18 Kislev 5778 / 1 December 6, 2017)

It's good to know that many Rabbanim protested any praise for this book. And it's nice to see this retraction, although I would not agree that "such a sensitive and controversial topic should not have appeared in these pages... Any attempt to address the topic demands a fair and balanced presentation that is far beyond the form of a feature article in a weekly magazine." I think that a weekly popular magazine such as Mishpacha is an important forum in which to discuss such a topic; it's just that I don't think that the topic needs an Israel/Palestinian style "fair and balanced presentation." It needs an honest critique.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Can Bad People Do Good Things?

President Trump's declaration about Jerusalem, delivered as part of an excellent and uncharacteristically presidential speech (and following on the heels of Mike Pence's incredible speech at Israel's UN celebration last week), is a fascinating phenomenon. It's really brought some antisemites out of the woodwork, from the appalling London Times cartoon depicting a kippa-wearing Trump smashing a dove to death against the Western Wall, to Linda Sarsour's declaration that Jerusalem is definitively not the capital of Israel and that Trump does not speak for her (to which someone wittily responded, "No, Hamas does!")

Was it a good thing for Israel? Virtually everyone I know agrees that the answer is clearly yes. While it isn't as concrete as we would hope - it is far from certain that the embassy will ever actually move, and the next President could easily walk this all back, without having to formally revoke it - it is a tremendous political boost. Furthermore, the fact that everyone and their mother warned that this would result in hell being unleashed, and yet nothing particularly significant happened as a result, clearly demonstrated that histrionics can often safely be ignored. And the claims that this destroys or even harms the chances of peace are nonsense. In the extremely unlikely event that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is ever attained, it will not be due to Israel have demonstrated a willingness to concede things, but rather due to it having been proved that Israel is here to stay, and the Palestinians accepting that the Western Wall is the Western Wall.

Still, some very fine people that I know were not in a celebratory mood. The reason for this was that Trump is not a particularly savory individual, to put it mildly. Aside from being petulant and childish and vain and having no regard for truth, he is a rather nasty person who has taken joy in being extremely offensive to many people, especially women. So how can one celebrate his acts - and indeed, how can it even be possible for such a person to do something worth celebrating?

While I understand how these people feel - imagine if it was Yosef Mizrachi, a person of similar character traits - I believe this attitude to be mistaken. One person protested, "This is not what the good Lord meant when he promised this land to Avraham and his descendants. Not like this." To which I responded, "That's what Satmar said."

It would be nice if the world was black-and-white, divided into good people and bad people, with good people always doing good and bad people only doing bad. But the reality is not that way. The world is complex and people are complex. Rarely is someone thoroughly good or bad, and even if they are that way, they can sometimes do things that are at odds with this. 

Our history is replete with celebrations of good things that were accomplished by not very good people. To give some extreme examples, as has been pointed out, King Ahab, who married a non-Jew, encouraged idol worship and stood silent while his wife killed a prophet, was told by a prophet that he would lead troops to miraculous victory. Omri, identified as a greater sinner than all the wicked Jewish kings before him, merited a long-lasting dynasty because he added a city to the Land of Israel despite the fact that his intention in adding that city was to eliminate Jerusalem as the focus of the Jews! Herod rebuilt the Beis HaMikdash. There are many Jewish boys named after Alexander, in gratitude for all that he did for the Jewish People, notwithstanding the fact that he was something of a despot. We appreciate the good, even when it is accomplished by different people than we would have hoped for.

Furthermore, the inverse is certainly true; good people can do bad things. Most people would agree that Rav Steinman is a selfless, caring person (there is an amazing account of his refusing to accept back-pay because he had already been mochel it), and yet his repeated opposition to charedim receiving the education necessary to earn a living is to be lamented. Rav Chaim Kanievsky is revered as a righteous scholar, and yet he defended the monster Elior Chen. So if good people can do bad things, why can't bad people do good things?

There is an odd mix of people denouncing Trump's speech - the Palestinians (though the response from the rest of the Arab world is muted), the Europeans, the UN, Democrats, and both Satmar Rebbes (at last, something that they can finally agree upon!). But we don't need to agree with them. Regardless of what kind of person Trump is, his speech was Good For The Jews.

Don't forget to book your Chanukah tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and see our new exhibits! Book online at!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

O Canada!

Extra points if you can guess where on the Canadian border
I am at in this picture. Clue: An animal named Buck
Tonight I head out to Canada for a week; more specifically to Toronto, a very different part of Canada to that which I briefly visited in the photo on the right. My schedule is as follows:

On Shabbat, I will speaking at BAYT, with a Motzai Shabbat multimedia presentation on "The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought."

Sunday evening is a special private event for the museum, at which I will be speaking on the topic of "Rationalist Judaism vs. Biblical Natural History," with an introduction by Rav Shlomo Miller. If you'd like to attend, please email (Please be aware that this is a fundraising event!)

On Tuesday evening at 8pm, I am speaking on the Chicken Wars at Shaarei Shomayim.

If you'd like to contact me about a private meeting, please email me at

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Badatz Boycott

For many years, the gold standard in kashrus has been the Badatz Eidah Charedis. If you wanted food of the highest halachic standard, if you wanted food that you can be sure that all your guests will eat, that's the hechsher you would get.

But that is changing.

It's gradually been dawning on people that the appalling anti-IDF and anti-Israel incitement, which has grown especially widespread recently, and which is produced by Peleg in conjunction with the Eidah Charedis, is being effectively funded by the Badatz hechsher (which is how the Edah Charedis receives its funding). So when you buy food with a Badatz Edah Charedis hechsher, you are funding incitement such as this:

Not an appealing thought. And one must wonder whether this outweighs any potential kashrus advantage in the food. In any case, as a result, there is now a concerted effort to boycott the Badatz Edah Charedis hechsher (not to be confused with other Badatzes). This includes rallies outside of food corporations such as Osem, and the distribution of the video below (people reading this via email subscription will need to visit to see the video):

I don't know how effective this will be, since it's difficult to get people to change their shopping habits and the hechsher is so widespread. Perhaps it would be helpful to compile a list of foods with which there is a non-Edah Charedis alternative to Badatz. Then you could say, "Instead of buying Bamba, buy ___".

Whatever one thinks of this, the fact is that for anyone selling food products or producing an event, you can no longer assume that your consumers or guests will be happy if you get an Edah Charedis hechsher. They may refuse to eat the food.

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Today is Giving Tuesday! You can contribute to your favorite Biblical Museum of Natural History at this link.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

How Frum Is Your Food?

How frum is your food? Does it have a good hechsher? Does it have the best hechsher? What exactly are the kashrus organizations certifying?

While researching the Chicken Wars and other topics for the Feast of Exotic Curiosities, I discovered some pretty disturbing things about the poultry industry. For example, contemporary broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow as fat and as fast as possible on as little food as possible, so that they can be slaughtered at around seven weeks of age. But this is not how God/nature designed chickens to develop; it does not allow their bodies to develop properly. If humans grew as fat as fast as a modern chicken, a 6.6 pound human baby would, in two months, reach a weight of 660 pounds! With chickens, the problems of such extreme growth include skeletal malformation and dysfunction, skin and eye lesions, and congestive heart conditions. It's not a matter of giving them more space to roam; in any case, it is too painful for them to walk. It's the very type of artificial chicken that's the problem.

Chickens that are raised as egg-layers suffer a different set of problems. Male chicks, which are useless, are culled; while some practices decried as ghastly are actually painless (such as putting them in a specialized high-speed grinding machine), others, such as suffocation, are certainly problematic. The females have their beaks cut off so that they do not attack each other in the crowded conditions under which they are raised, a surgery which is likely to cause acute and chronic pain.

Now, some of the problems with factory farming may indeed cause actual halachic problems with the kashrus of the creature, such as rendering it a treifah (mortally unwell). But, for the purposes of this post, let us assume that there are no actual technical kashrus problems. But what about the halachos of tzaar baalei chaim?

There are countless laws in the Torah which teach us sensitivity to animals, including in the laws of kashrut. On the other hand, there is a principle that tzaar baalei chaim is permitted in the case of benefit to man. But does the economic benefit of cheaper chickens count as sufficient reason to cause them great pain? While some halachic authorities are of the view that economic benefit does indeed justify causing pain to animals, others are of the opinion that minor benefits and financial benefits do not warrant causing severe pain to animals.

So, what do you do with a situation which according to some halachic authorities is permissible albeit unfortunate, while according to some halachic authorities it is problematic? Well, what usually happens is that the consumer is presented with a choice. For example, when it comes to arba minim, there are a range of different options available. Some are only kosher according to some opinions, and are cheaper. Others are more mehudar and more expensive. In contemporary Orthodox and especially charedi society, there is an emphasis on fulfilling halachah according to all opinions, and doing so in the most mehudar way, even if it costs more money.

Seeing that many people are fastidious to meticulously fulfill halachah according to all opinions, such punctiliousness should surely also apply to the laws of tzaar baalei chayim. That is to say, since there are opinions which state that the financial benefits such as those enabled through factory farming do not justify the suffering thereby caused to animals, those who are meticulous to follow all opinions should refrain from consuming animals farmed in such a manner.

Furthermore, even if there is no technical infringement of the laws of tzaar baalei chaim, can anyone really argue that it is perfectly fine? Rav Melamed discusses the topic of hens that are starved in order to then make them enter a new cycle of laying eggs. He quotes none other than Rav Yitzchak Weiss - of Manchester and then of the Edah Charedis - who says that even though there is no technical problem of tzaar baalei chaim here, someone who wants to conduct himself via middas chassidus will refrain from this. Do people who are careful to eat Badatz Eidah Charedis today ever demonstrate care about such things?

So, you have authorities ruling that there is an actual problem of tzaar baalei chaim and you have authorities saying that middas chassidus would be to refrain from such a thing. And it's fairly clear that even if there is no contravention of the letter of the law of kashrus, there is certainly contravention of the spirit of the law. My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, had the following to say:
"It seems doubtful… whether the Torah would sanction “factory farming,” which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts." Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, Masterplan (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers/ Jerusalem Academy Publications 1991) p. 69
At this stage, I don't think that it's viable to say that it is forbidden to eat factory farmed chickens. I ate one today myself. But how is that virtually nobody cares about having a different option available? How is it that while you can find frum communities being careful to observe all kinds of stringencies, even those with a very shaky basis, and even those which are expensive, and yet there is no mehadrin option for chicken in terms of tzaar baalei chaim? In future posts, I plan to discuss some efforts that have been made in this direction - some of which are commendable, and others of which are problematic. But certainly, any God-fearing Jew who prides him/herself on trembling before the word of God, should ask him/herself whether it wouldn't be worth spending a little more on eating food that hasn't involved great suffering to God's creations.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Mezuzah Miracle?

Here's a really freaky story.

Four girls in my niece's class broke their hands or arms in the last ten days. The teacher decided to have a sofer check the mezuzah of the classroom. He checked it, and saw that the letter yud in ידך was missing!

They announced this in a WhatsApp group to the parents... and then, later that day, before the mezuzah had yet been replaced, my niece broke her hand!

Now, I'm not as much of a rationalist as many people think, and I certainly don't claim to be anywhere near as much of a rationalist as some people believe me to. When I first heard this story, I was really freaked out. It's very difficult to dismiss all that as coincidence. It would pretty much demolish the entire rationalist enterprise, like how finding the fossil of a rabbit in the Precambrian would demolish evolution. The rationalist Rishonim were absolutely opposed to the idea that mezuzah provides direct metaphysical protection in such a way; it goes against their entire worldview. (See the comprehensive, and only slightly overreaching, article by Martin Gordon, "Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol?")

But then I gave it some more thought. If this is indeed a case of the consequences of a flaw in the mezuza's protection, then what exactly does it mean? If the letter yud was never written in the first place, then why would it suddenly much later cause an effect? So did it suddenly degrade from the parchment? And if such a flaw in the mezuzah did exist, who is halachically responsible - and who deserves Divine recompense? Surely not the little girls?

Then we need to think about how this might have gone down. I've heard first-hand stories of collectors taking advantage of people by examining their mezuzos and revealing information about them that "they couldn't have possibly known about in any other way." Of course, they could have known this information in the same way that any mentalist does so - via a psychological trick known as cold reading, possibly in combination with actual background research. Then it can be linked to the mezuzah by knowing all kinds of different permutations and halachic subtleties regarding the precise form of the letters.

When my niece's teacher took the mezuzah to be checked, she probably told the sofer that she was bringing it because several girls injured their hands. It would have been easy for the person to find a way of demonstrating a flaw with the word yadecha - perhaps even to scratch it out. (And consider that if this teacher went to have the mezuzah checked, then she is clearly of a particular worldview. Such people are often attracted to self-styled "miracle workers" and "holy men" who are less than scrupulously honest.) Or maybe the sofer, or the teacher, saw this as an opportunity to teach a lesson in emunah by fabricating the flaw. Is this a likely scenario? It's impossible to quantify the likelihood of it. But the question is, how likely is it vis-a-vis the alternative?

It would still leave the coincidence that my niece broke her hand after this took place. But that's not a quantitatively greater coincidence than several girls in the class injuring themselves in the same week, which is not itself so unlikely. Maybe there's some sort of class activity that makes it likely for them to injure their hands. Maybe the teacher is hitting them with a mezuzah.

Is positing the combination of an unscrupulous sofer and some coincidental injuries more or less likely than positing that a flaw in the mezuzah led to a metaphysical lack of protection and a resultant injury to some of the childrens' hands? Well, the answer to that depends very much on a person's general worldview. It reminds me somewhat of a book by arch-atheist Richard Dawkins that I read recently, called The Magic of Reality, where he insists that it's ridiculous to posit supernatural explanations for phenomena--because miracles are impossible. People have their starting assumptions, and they evaluate everything else in light of that.

The bottom line is that for someone more rationalistically inclined, there is no reason for this story to sway their worldview. But for someone more mystically inclined, the story really does support their worldview. Everyone can feel vindicated!

(If you missed my previous post, "Disposing of Nosson," I recommend that you check it out!)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Disposing of Nosson

On my desk is a very disturbing book. It attempts to justify the charedi refusal to serve in the IDF. It presents the arguments of the Edah Charedis for religious zealotry. It advocates for the nation being directed by the Gedolim and Daas Torah. It argues that sources from the Rishonim presenting rationalist approaches to Torah and science should be buried. It presents a mystical view of reality. It denies the historicity of evolution.

And it was written by Nosson Slifkin.

Twenty years ago, I was a very different person. One of the books that I published back then was called Second Focus, and it used the weekly parashah as a springboard to discuss various topics. Today, I look back at these essays and cringe. True, some remain valuable, and they are written in a very engaging manner, and I don’t for one moment regret writing the book, which was an important part of my growth as a writer. But some of the views and attitudes that I absorbed in the yeshivos I attended and which I presented in the book were appalling.

Now, here's the problem. I came across a number of boxes of these books which for some reason had been misplaced back when this book was being sold. So what should I do with them? I can't just distribute them to anyone, since many of the essays in the book present views that I now consider to be fundamentally flawed. But on the other hand, there is some good material in it, and it's certainly of great interest, since it shows how a post-charedi ideologue condemned as a heretic can have started off as a Kool-Aid drinking anti-rationalist charedi apologist.

So here's my idea. I have written a critique of this book, which rebuts one of the essays in great detail, and briefly notes the problems with other parts of it. And I only want it to go to people who are serious about the Rationalist Judaism cause. So I will send a copy of the book and the critique to anyone who donates at least $180 to the Torah and Nature Foundation, which is my 501(c)(3) that funds The Biblical Museum of Natural History. By so doing, you will not only be receiving a book of historical significance, you will also be supporting our important work of teaching the full spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world. Take advantage of this opportunity while there is still some stock left - this book will never be reprinted! Click below to donate via PayPal or credit card, and the book & critique will be mailed to you. On a personal note, I would like to say that I would be very appreciative of those who support this cause.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Now I'm A Believer!

A few days after writing my post "When Rabbis Quack - In Print," in which I disparaged a variety of forms of alternative medicine, I suddenly had an ocular migraine. These are not pleasant - my peripheral vision disappeared, followed by great dizziness and a piercing headache. On the same day, I started to feel pain on the right side of my jaw. Over the next few days, this got progressively worse. I couldn't chew food without experiencing great pain, and I couldn't even close my jaws all the way.

Two of my sisters are in the medical profession. My sister the dentist told me to see a dentist. My sister the eye doctor told me to see a doctor. I couldn't bear to wait any longer, so instead of either of those, I went to a neighbor who is a chiropractor.

According to Wikipedia, "Chiropractic is a form of alternative medicine mostly concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system... Its foundation is at odds with mainstream medicine, and chiropractic is sustained by pseudoscientific ideas such as subluxation and "innate intelligence" that are not based on sound science." Even more alarmingly, "It is frequently associated with mild to moderate adverse effects, with serious or fatal complications in rare cases. There is controversy regarding the degree of risk of vertebral artery dissection, which can lead to stroke and death, from cervical manipulation. Several deaths have been associated with this technique."

I only read that after I came back from the chiropractor. Had I read it beforehand, I probably wouldn't have gone. Which would have been a shame. Because although the appointment itself was excruciatingly painful, it completely solved the problem.

The chiropractor pushed her fingers into my jaw; it felt like a pickaxe penetrating my skull. It was almost as bad as kidney stones. I was seeing stars and almost weeping from pain. Then she yanked my head sideways, and the bones of my neck made a great crunching sound, like in those Arnold Schwarzenegger movies when he snaps someone's neck.

I had TMJ - Temporomandibular joint dysfunction, caused by a longstanding unfortunate habit of clenching my jaws. This also caused the ocular migraine. The chiropractic technique cured it. The next day, I was able to close my jaws, and chew without any pain.

So does this mean that I renounce my skepticism of alternative medicine? No, it doesn't. I am still every bit as dismissive of the forms of alternative medicine that I mentioned in that post - auras, chi, reiki, energy healing, distance healing, meridians, acupuncture, applied kinesiology, emotional freedom techniques, dowsing, homeopathy, radionics, crystal healing, geopathic stress, feng shui, iridology, and reflexology. But I didn't mention chiropractic in that post. While this was primarily because it wasn't discussed in the book that I was critiquing, it's also because chiropractic procedures cannot all be summarily dismissed.

Based on my very limited research, it seems that chiropractic is a somewhat vague term that actually covers a broad range of beliefs and procedures. Some of these, like the idea that spinal manipulation can cure all kinds of health problems, is quackery, but other parts are much more mainstream and are supported by many conventional doctors. There's nothing anti-scientific about the notion that massaging (or torturing) the muscles in the jaw will loosen them. And there is no question that it helped me!

So, yes, I still believe that one should be skeptical of alternative medicine. On the other hand, one should be careful about drawing far-reaching conclusions from a Wikipedia article.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The War Against Children

Yesterday's post, "The Charedi Master Plan," drew a lot of response, some appropriate and some less so. I regret if my post gave the impression that Rav Berkovitz is some kind of extremist. As I mentioned at the outset, he is most decidedly not so. He is a true ohev Yisrael, a stellar educator who teaches refined behavior and love for all, and generally a voice for moderation in the charedi world. Neither he nor any of his students would ever engage in any kind of extremist behavior. His shiur about Peleg was an aberration which took many people by surprise, and it would be tragically wrong to form an opinion of him based on that shiur alone. If you're going to be learning in a charedi kollel, there is probably no better place to be than the Jerusalem Kollel. (It goes without saying that I personally believe people to be better off in a non-charedi kollel, and that non-charedi synagogues should hire rabbis who are trained in non-charedi institutions - just as charedi shuls would only hire rabbis who are trained in charedi institutions.)

The premise of his talk, that there is a widespread desire in Israel to destroy the charedi way of life, is by no means unique to Rav Berkovitz; it is pretty standard in the charedi world. Others have taken a much more strident tone in this regard. A local shul rabbi told me that prior to the last elections in Beit Shemesh, he was invited to a meeting of community charedi rabbis in which the opening statement was a declaration that "there is a War on Torah" which they must fight. This was a constant theme heard not only in Beit Shemesh, but throughout Israel over the last few years. One of the commentators to the previous post raised an interesting question regarding this:
I think that it might be helpful if you explained whether you disagree with R' Berkowitz about his point that there is a "plan" to change Chareidi society, or if you instead think that there is some effort to integrate Chareidim but that such effort is necessary... Unless you are of the opinion that Chareidim leaving kollelim en masse to pursue a higher education and meaningfully join the workforce is not an existential threat to Chareidi society as it looks today, I'm not sure what your issue with R' Berkowitz's stance is. 
To respond to this, let's discuss another scenario: the War Against Children. This is the ongoing campaign by adults to destroy childrens' desire for freedom to play all day, by forcing them to attend school. Against their will, there is a "social engineering" project which is an existential threat to their desired way of life. They aren't going to be able to be children!

Of course, that's absurd. The existential threat would not be less playing; it would be a world in which children do not receive an education. There's a certain degree of social engineering, but this is wholly appropriate, since the children have no plan as to how to run society without an education. And there's no malicious intent involved; nobody has anything against play, it just has to be balanced with responsibilities. They can still be children with playtime. It would be ridiculous to describe it as a War Against Children; it would be a Desire For Everyone's Survival.

The same is true here. The existential threat to charedi society is not less people in full-time learning (which was the historic norm in Judaism); it's a society facing economic collapse, which will in turn lead the entire country towards economic collapse. There's a desire and effort to influence and change charedi society, which some might call "social engineering," but this is wholly appropriate, since charedi society has not itself formulated any plan as to how societies with large families will survive without people getting professional careers, nor as to how the country will survive with an ever-increasing proportion of charedim. And there's no malicious intent involved; nobody has anything against learning Torah, it just has to be balanced with responsibilities, for the sake of the entire country. Charedim will still be able to learn Torah, they will just have to also get an education and a job, just as many American charedim do and just as pretty much everyone did before the recent Mass Kollel Reformation. It's ridiculous to describe it as a War Against Torah; it's simply a Desire For Everyone's Survival.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Charedi Master Plan

A few weeks ago, the "Days of Rage" swept across Israel, with thousands of charedi demonstrators shutting down highways in protest of the arrest of those who hadn't reported for draft deferments. In the aftermath, popular belief was the demonstrators represented a narrow faction called Peleg, led by Rav Shmuel Auerbach. In a post entitled "Was the Charedi Day of Rage Charedi?" I explored whether it could nevertheless be described as a charedi phenomenon, and I argued that it could. Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, on the other hand, claimed that these people cannot even be described as Orthodox, let alone charedim.

Well, here is some more information that has come in.

First of all, there is a dovetailing of efforts with the Badatz Eidah Charedis. When the young men were released from prison, they received an official welcoming reception at the homes of two people: Rav Shmuel Auerbach, and also Rav Yitzchak Weiss, Gaavad of the Badatz.

Second, there is an astonishing audio recording of a talk on the topic given by Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, head of the Jerusalem Kollel. Rav Berkovits, formerly of Aish HaTorah, is a very fine Torah scholar who is known for his great love of Am Yisrael and who is generally considered to be one of the more moderate figures in the charedi world. (I am reasonably sure, for example, that he has no problem with prehistoric dinosaurs or with Chazal having relied on the science of their era.) His kollel is an important mainstream Anglo-charedi institution which trains and places many rabbis in positions of leadership around the world.

In his talk, Rav Berkovits describes the entire situation as a legitimate dispute between Gedolei Torah. Chas v'shalom, he stresses, to disparage either Rav Shmuel Auerbach or the demonstrators! (Although, he later adds, it might be necessary to lie and pretend that one is opposed to their actions, for kiruv purposes.) The question is, as he describes it, are there merely haphazard and uncoordinated anti-Torah efforts, in which case rioting is unwarranted? Or is there a Master Plan (sic) by the Zionists to take over and destroy charedi society? If the latter, he says, then it is necessary to avoid even reporting for an army exemption, and one must take to the streets in violent protest. Because "nothing crucial has ever been accomplished by peaceful means and negotiation; it's either violence or political manipulation." He dismisses the problems caused to the general public as an insignificant inconvenience which is more than justified by the goal.

Rav Berkovitz does express a sort of sympathetic excuse for the anti-Torah Zionists. From their perspective, he says, they believe that there is a charedi Master Plan to take over their world, and they are afraid. It's a pity, he says, that there is no such charedi Master Plan! We should make a plan to take over the country! (UPDATE: One of his talmidim clarified to me that he certainly did not mean that everyone should be made charedi; rather, he simply meant that everyone should become shomer Torah u'mitzvot.)

Let's not discuss the fact that Rav Berkovits takes it as a given that yeshivah students should not serve in the army (which is normative belief in the charedi world) and that there is no legitimate reason for others to be opposed to that. Let's also not discuss his claim that violence or political manipulation is the only way to achieve anything. Instead, I would like to address his basic premise, which he states emphatically, that there is an underlying inexcusable desire to destroy charedi society, with which the only question is as to whether it actually takes the form of a Master Plan. This is the same siege mentality that was expressed in the last elections in Beit Shemesh, where local Anglo-charedi rabbanim spoke about the need to be vigilant against the "war on Torah."

The reason why this is so preposterous, is that as Jonathan Rosenblum has written on numerous occasions in Mishpacha magazine, there is a very real problem with charedi society. And the problem is that there is no Charedi Master Plan!

Rosenblum was not bemoaning, as Rav Berkovits does, the lack of a Master Plan to take over secular society. Instead, he was bemoaning, as do all sensible people, the lack of a Master Plan regarding how charedi society and the State of Israel as a whole is going to survive when a third of the population does not and cannot work in a professional career. (See my post "Rosenblum: We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment".) As he pithily asks, who will fund the IDF? Who will fund charedi society? How will the economy of the State of Israel survive?

Rav Berkovits seems to be saying that if you are deeply concerned about such things, and you want the situation to change, then you are part of the terrible War on Charedim. And if you actually try to strategize and implement change, then this should be countered with violent protest. This is what he teaches to his audience of trainee rabbis, getting ready to lead pulpits around the world. It's very distressing.

UPDATE: A certain Rosh Yeshivah just called me, up in arms over this post. He insisted that Rav Berkovitz is completely out of touch with the mainstream charedi world on these matters, which views the entire Peleg faction as being utterly illegitimate in their views and methods.

UPDATE #2: A number of talmidim of Rav Berkovitz have contacted me, greatly upset about this post. They did not respond to the substance of the post, but they said that it gives a misleading impression about who Rav Berkovitz is. I invite the readers to hear his other shiurim at (Regarding the propriety of publicizing shiurim that rabbonim give to private audiences, see this post: Reporting Rabbis Badly.)

See also these posts:
On Being Mevazeh the Gedolim
The Angst of Anglo-Charedi Converts

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Chicken Conspiracy Theory

Good news - the Chicken Wars monograph is now available in Hebrew! Click here to download it. The English edition is still available here.

While I was researching the Chicken Wars, there were some mysteries which came up with the Braekel enterprise. If the Braekel people truly believed that all regular chickens were not kosher, then why did they keep their efforts pretty much secret until this past summer? Why weren't they publicizing all along that there is a problem with regular chickens, and that people should try to obtain Braekels?

Another question is this: There are countless old breeds of chicken. Why did they pick the Braekel? In fact, of all the old breeds of chicken, the Braekel is somewhat problematic - in the 1970s, there were so few Braekels left in the world that other lines were bred into it. So it's not even a purebred line! Why was it picked to be the kosher chicken?

Here's an explanation that I was given. I can't reveal my sources, but they are very, very good.

It was Rav Shmuel Wosner who originally raised a concern with modern chickens, twenty years ago. He was the person responsible for the hunt to find a pure, traditional chicken. But, according to what I was told, he was always emphatic that if such a chicken were to be found, it should not be presented as the *only* kosher chicken; rather, it should be presented as a preferable alternative.

Now, there's a problem with engaging in such an enterprise, from a business perspective. Any heritage breed of chicken is much less economically viable than modern chickens, which were specifically developed to grow much fatter on much less food and in much less time than traditional chickens. So the only way to make any money off it is to charge a very high price for it, and to make sure that plenty of people are going to buy it. How do you do that? Well, you're going to have to control the only supply of such chickens, so that you can charge whatever you want.

But how do you control the only supply of kosher chickens? Well, you're going to have to make sure that the breed which you sell is the only one that you have proclaimed to be kosher, and it's going to have to be a very rare breed that nobody else can get their hands on.

Thus, in order to make money here, they had to wait until Rav Wosner passed away, then pick a very rare heritage breed - the Braekel - that nobody else would be able to obtain, and then wait further until they had raised enough to start marketing them with the sole monopoly, and then declare the Braekel to be the only kosher chicken.

If all this is true, then although the Braekel is indeed a kosher breed (albeit not superior to any other), it is supreme poetic justice that the majority of the charedi rabbinic establishment declared it not to be kosher at all. Unfortunately, many people suffered as a result, since the Braekel enterprise stirred up enough controversy that there are now many hundreds of families in Israel and New York who are not eating chicken at all. I am very much hoping that my monograph will encourage people to start thinking differently about all this.

If you appreciate my writings, please support the most important project with which I am involved - the new building for The Biblical Museum of Natural History! Click here to donate.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

When Rabbis Quack - In Print

Several months ago I critiqued an as-yet unpublished Hebrew manuscript on alternative medicine by a vaccine-opposing rabbi called Rephoel Szmerla. The book has since been published in English, under the title Alternative Medicine in Halachah, and was the subject of this week's cover story in Mishpacha magazine (which was somewhat of a puff-piece for the author, but also interviewed physicians who firmly disputed the validity of alternative medicines).

The book's chapters discuss auras, chi, reiki, energy healing, distance healing, meridians, acupuncture, applied kinesiology, emotional freedom techniques, dowsing, homeopathy, radionics, crystal healing, geopathic stress, feng shui (the mystical practice of it, not the furniture arrangements), iridology, reflexology, and other forms of quackery. For almost all these things, the author manages to find sources in the Gemara or Rishonim which discuss them. He thereby simultaneously claims to refute the possibility of their being idolatrous and demonstrates them to be authoritative and also effective, which he further supports with quotations from quacks. (The only one that he rules unacceptable is feng shui.)

The author claims that those who argue against such alternative medicines due to their being "scientifically undetectable" have been influenced by "Greek philosophy" and will end up as heretics. He stresses that accepting the truth of such treatments even without a scientific explanation or even a double-blind test of their efficacy is an essential part of Jewish identity, as per the declaration at Sinai of naaseh v'nishma, we will do even if we do not understand.

My critique of the book, When Rabbis Quack, warned of the danger in encouraging people to use alternative medicine and discouraging conventional medicine. It became the most-read post of all time on this blog, with nearly 20,000 hits, and it also reached some important people in the charedi community. I would like to think that I can take some of the credit for the published version of the book having the following first paragraph:
The purpose of this sefer is to clarify the halachic status of various alternative therapies. It is not my goal to encourage people to discount conventional medicine. Indeed, rejecting standard medical treatment will sometimes constitute a transgression of the commandment, You shall take great care of your lives (Devarim 4:15). In the case of a serious condition, one should seek rabbinic guidance before pursuing alternative therapies in lieu of conventional care.

This is a welcome statement, albeit that I do not think that people with serious conditions should ever refrain from conventional care, and I dread to think what kind of "rabbinic guidance" readers of this book might seek; it could well be Rav Chaim Kanievsky rather than Rav Firer.

Still, the thrust of the book unfortunately stands in stark contradiction to this disclaimer. It is not just about "clarifying the halachic status of various alternative therapies" - it argues for their efficacy (using such absurd "evidence" as contagious yawning being a demonstration of the influence of energy from "auras"). And it is not only all about not only encouraging people to believe in all kinds of quackery, but it also encourages them to see conventional medicine as problematic in that it leads people away from belief in Hashem. The penultimate paragraph of the books declares that "Contemporary medicine is the product of modern science, which denies the existence of Hashem and His Omnipresence." That statement is not only utterly false, it is also dangerous.

The Mishpacha article concludes with a quote from Rabbi Szmerla about the unreliability of science, arguing that just as scientific theories from 100 years ago have been disproven by modern science, "What will happen in the next 100 years? Anyone who believes modern science has all the answers is naive." Now, I don't think that anyone believe that modern science has *all* the answers, but that doesn't mean that there is any reason to take quackery seriously.

We've heard such dismissals of modern science before, and as before, it demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the history of science. Science does not "keep changing"; rather, it keeps being refined. First it was discovered that the earth is spherical; then it was discovered that it is a slightly flattened sphere; then it was discovered that it's slightly more flattened at one side then at the other. At no point will science change its mind and decide the earth to be flat. Likewise, at no point are the fundamentals of physics and physiology going to be utterly overturned.

Telling people that scientists don't know what they're talking about is plain silly. Telling people that with regard to medical science is actually dangerous.

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The original critique of Rabbi Szmerla's book can be read at the following link: When Rabbis Quack. On a different note, you can read my article about the Balfour centennial at this link, and you can download my monograph on the Chicken Wars at this link.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Balfour, Rothschild, and the Ostrich

A re-post, to mark the Centennial of the Balfour Declaration, exactly one hundred years ago.
The following essay was published in The Jerusalem Post and cross-posted at The Biblical Museum of Natural History website.

In July 2016, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki spoke at an Arab League summit in Mauritania, and called to sue the British government for issuing the Balfour Declaration. On October 25 of 2016, the Palestinian Return Center held a symposium in the House of Lords to launch the “Balfour Apology Campaign.” This seeks an apology from the British government for the Balfour Declaration, which is claimed to reflect Britain’s “brutal colonial practices” in Palestine that went against “the rights and needs of the indigenous people.”

The Balfour Declaration was a letter issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in November 1917 in support of the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people. The letter itself was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community at the time. Although he was a scion of the legendary Rothschild family, which led to his important societal position, Walter did not share his family’s interests and aptitudes. He despised banking, had little interest in politics, was unaffiliated to Judaism, and until 1916 evinced no enthusiasm for Zionism. Walter was passionate about one thing only: animals.

Lord Walter Rothschild riding a giant tortoise
It is hard to overstate the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild’s obsessive fervor for zoology. At his estate in Tring, he collected more specimens than anyone else in recorded history. Rothschild discovered and catalogued countless new species, over two hundred of which are named in his honor. Amongst his collection of live animals was a tame wolf, 144 giant tortoises, and flocks of cassowaries and kiwis, and he trained zebras to pull his carriage to Buckingham Palace.

Yet despite his lack of interest in his Jewish heritage, Rothschild knew something of it. For example, he once addressed a meeting of the British Ornithologist’s Club about the ostrich of the Bible. The background to this was that when Weizmann led the Zionist Commission to Palestine to implement the Balfour Declaration, Rothschild also charged him with another commission: “to find out what has become of two ostriches.” Israel Aharoni, the zoologist who pioneered the scientific study of the wildlife of the Holy Land and restored their Biblical Hebrew names, had sent Rothschild several eggs from ostriches found in the Middle East, and also told Rothschild that he was raising two chicks. Since the eggs looked somewhat different from the eggs of the ostriches known from Africa, Rothschild was eager to see the birds. Weizmann located Aharoni and managed to send the young ostriches to Rothschild, who observed several subtle ways in which they differed from African ostriches. Subsequently, Rothschild informed the British Ornithologist’s Club that this was a different subspecies, and designated it as Struthio camelus syriacus, the Syrian ostrich. In Rothschild’s address, he noted that there are several passages in the Bible relating to the ostrich.

Rothschild’s statement about biblical ornithology was correct. The Book of Lamentations refers to the ostriches (ye’enim) of the wilderness, and there are a variety of other verses in the Bible which have been understood as referring to ostriches (albeit that some argue them to refer to different species). The ostrich was also part of the culture of the Jews living in the Land of Israel in post-Biblical times. The Mishnah refers to vessels made from ostrich eggs. A later compilation from the Land of Israel, the Tosefta, notes that ostriches are classified as birds (presumably this was necessary to point out due to their inability to fly). The Jerusalem Talmud makes reference to ostriches eating gold, and the Midrash states that Noah brought shards of broken glass onto the Ark for the ostriches to eat; these seemingly strange statements are explicable in light of the fact that ostriches are required to eat rocks and other sharp items in order to break down the food that they consume, and will happily (and essentially) eat pieces of metal and glass to this end.

An ostrich at the Hai-Bar
nature reserve in Israel
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Syrian ostrich lived in the Negev and Sinai deserts; in 1929, an ostrich was caught near Be’er Sheva. Earlier in history there were also ostriches in the coastal regions of Israel, and ostrich eggs are still discovered there today. But the ostrich was having a hard time coexisting with the human inhabitants of the region. The soldier and ornithologist Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen recorded that Arabs prized ostrich eggs for food and hunted the adults for sport; the advent of guns, and cars from which to fire them, quickly caused the demise of the Syrian ostrich. The last known Syrian ostrich was washed up in a flood in the Arava in 1966.

Many species that were formerly indigenous to the region were hunted to extinction by the German Templers and Arabs in the early twentieth century. Some of them have since been reintroduced to the wild by Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority. Mesopotamian fallow deer (the ayal of the Bible), bred from two pairs that were evacuated during the Iranian revolution from the animals being massacred at the Shah’s menagerie, have been reintroduced to the Judean hills and the Carmel. Onagers (the “wild asses” of the Bible) have also been successfully bred at the Hai-Bar nature reserve and reintroduced to the Negev. The beautiful white oryx (the Biblical dishon) became entirely extinct in the wild in the twentieth century, with just a few individuals remaining in private collections of Arab royalty, and political factors preventing efforts by British conservation groups to bring them to Israeli wildlife reserves; eventually, they were sent to American zoos, and their descendants have now been returned to their Biblical homeland. Attempts have also been made to release ostriches to the Negev, but these efforts have so far failed; it appears that the captive-born ostriches lacked the necessary survival skills. But Israel is not giving up. Ostriches are part of our natural and national history.

Every nation has its national animals—the animals that are part of its history, heritage and culture. For the Aboriginal tribespeople of Australia, their national animals are kangaroos and koalas. For the Eskimos of Alaska, it’s seals and whales. But what about the Jewish people? What are the animals of our history, heritage and culture? It’s not the gefilte fish and the chicken – Scripture makes no references at all to chickens, which had not yet been domesticated from their wild ancestors in India. The animals of our sacred writings are the lion and the leopard, the ibex and the hyrax, the hippopotamus and the hyena, the griffin vulture and the ostrich. These are not animals from New York or London or even the European shtetl. They are the animals that lived in the Land of Israel in the Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic period.

The Palestinians dispute the very raison d’être of the Jewish State. In the Balfour Apology Campaign and elsewhere, they portray the Jewish People as European colonialists. They reject the historical facts of the ancient Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. They deny the existence of the Temple and work at destroying archeological remains.

All of this is a denial of basic truths. Balfour rejected the Uganda Plan after Weitzman pointed out to him that the Jewish People have a connection to the Land of Israel spanning millennia – from long before Islam, and certainly long before the Palestinian national identity emerged in the twentieth century. We only left it when we were exiled, and we always dreamed of returning. The animals of our culture were not the eagles and rabbits of Europe; they were the griffin vultures, hyraxes and ostriches of the Land of Israel.

There can be no hope of a peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while the Palestinians are denying the fundamental historical truths that lie at the core of the dispute. Anyone pretending otherwise is sticking their head in the sand—just like ostriches don’t.

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