Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Another View On How Torah Protects

A few years ago, in a post entitled What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects?, I discussed the concept that Torah protects from harm. This is found in several passages in the Talmud, such as with statements about how Torah scholars protect the army, or in the account of how the sotah can be at least temporarily protected from her punishment by virtue of the Torah that she enables her husband and sons to study. According to the mystical view, Torah study creates spiritual energies and thereby metaphysically influences the universe. The notion of Torah providing protection is interpreted by mystically-inclined people in line with this; learning Torah creates a sort of metaphysical protective force-field, similar to that created by mezuzah around one’s home. As one Beit Shemesh rabbi said when the Grodno yeshivah relocated from Ashdod to Beit Shemesh during Operation Cast Lead, “the yeshivah is providing an ‘Iron Dome’ for Beit Shemesh.”

On the other hand, the pre-mystical classical understanding of this concept was that it related to the personal merit of the person studying (or enabling the study of) the Torah, rather than a metaphysical protection provided by the act of Torah study itself. (See that post for a discussion of the practical ramifications of this with regard to whether yeshivah students today can be said to be providing protection for the State of Israel.) The Talmud’s presentation of this concept is usually not phrased as “Torah study protects” but rather as “Torah scholars are protected.” It refers to the person who has performed the act rather than the act itself. Just as Sodom could have been saved in the merit of righteous people, so too righteous people can create a merit which leads to the machinations of enemy forces being divinely repressed. Likewise, in the discussion of the sotah, it speaks about the zechus, the merit, of Torah and of the sotah enabling her family’s Torah study. Torah study provides protection due to its creating a merit on behalf of the person studying it (assuming that the person is indeed supposed to be studying Torah), which changes the divine plans for that person.

But I recently found another rationalist explanation of the concept of the Torah's protection in the commentary of Meiri (to Sotah 21a). He explains: “Torah protects the world – i.e., that the Torah scholar influences others, and his wisdom enables society to endure.” Meiri is removing all supernatural components from this concept. In his view, the meaning of the statement that Torah protects the world is simply that Torah scholars, with their wisdom, influence society for the better, thereby enabling it to thrive. For many, this will be seen as distasteful and even heretical. Still, this is what Meiri says, and there can be little doubt that Rambam would have explained it the same way. Fascinating!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

When Snails Attack Gedoylei Toyrah

Two weeks ago, we heard R. Dovid Lichtenstein's fascinating interview with Rav Nochum Eisenstein, in which the latter said that there is no particular problem of charedi poverty, and to the extent that there is a problem, the best way to solve it is not to talk about it, lest one prevent miracles from helping people. This week, R. Lichtenstein interviews Rav Eisenstein again, this time about techeles, and the response is no less fascinating.

R. Dovid points out that there are innumerable lines of evidence all converging to the conclusion that the Murex trunculus snail is the source of techeles. Why, then, is the general charedi practice not to wear it?

Rav Eisenstein explodes. He screams about how anyone wearing techeles is attacking the Gedoylei Toyrah, who said not to wear it. He yells that they are exhibiting chutzpah, claiming that they are smarter than the Gedolim, and they are contravening the mitzvah to listen to the chachomim.

But what is the actual reason why the Gedoylei Toyrah are against it? Rav Eisenstein vacillates on this. At times, he says that the proofs for the Murex are not absolute and could easily be overturned tomorrow and the Gedolim certainly heard all the proofs and found them lacking. But at other times, he shouts that it doesn't matter what the proofs are, the mesorah is not to wear techeles, and we don't change the mesorah for anything.

R. Lichtenstein pushes hard. He raises several examples from history where great Rishonim and Acharonim did indeed evaluate scientific and other lines of evidence to adjust halachic practice. Rav Eisenstein avoids answering these questions and keeps yelling about Gedoylim and Mesoyrah.

Now, contrary to what you might expect, I actually agree with Rav Eisenstein to a large extent (as I discussed a few years ago). I do not wear techeles (though I certainly don't object to others wearing it). This is not because I have any doubts that the Murex trunculus is the correct source of techeles; I am certain that it is (for reasons that I discussed in my post about my murex-hunting expedition). Rather, it is because I am strong believer in being conservative with regard to halachic practice. Especially since my field of study - the intersection between Torah and the natural sciences - so often leads to the conclusion that earlier generations were mistaken in their beliefs, I think that it's particularly important for me to be conservative about halachah.

Rav Herzog and others stated that Chazal's ruling about killing lice on Shabbos remains in force even though it was based upon the mistaken belief in spontaneous generation, due to the canonization of halachah - a topic that I explained at length in the final chapter of Sacred Monsters. The canonization of practice is especially important in the modern era, when traditional Judaism is under such threat from both academic investigation and social forces. Critical investigation into traditional sources is a Pandora's Box. When restricted to the realm of theory and belief, it is harmful, but unavoidable. Letting it affect halachic practice, on the other hand, is something that can and should be avoided wherever possible. Those who say otherwise often don't realize how far down the rabbit hole this path leads.

(Having an olive-sized kezayis and eating locusts are not a violation of that approach. In both those cases, there were still those who always had a tradition of acting that way.)

But I part company from Rav Eisenstein on two issues. First, Rav Eisenstein attempts to claim that this is always how things were. It's not. As R. Lichtenstein ably demonstrates, the Rishonim and early Acharonim did not act this way; they were ready to re-evaluate practice in light of new evidence. This approach is a new one, and it is a response to the threat of modernity. Rav Eisenstein keeps yelling that "Chadash assur min haTorah", but apparently is not aware that this approach is itself new. Again, it's an approach that's understandable and necessary - see my monograph on the development of Orthodoxy for a longer discussion - but it's new.

The second is that, notwithstanding the arguments that I presented above, one could still certainly cogently argue that techeles is a mitzvah and one should wear it. And it's perfectly legitimate for someone to decide that way. This is not an "attack on the Gedoylim" or a "contravention of the mitzvah to listen to the chachomim." The latter is applicable to the Beis Din HaGadol, not to the contemporary chareidi pantheon. A person is perfectly entitled to have a different rabbinic authority, or even to decide matters himself if he is competent. See my post from six years ago, Disputes vs. Deference, where I explain at length why it is perfectly legitimate for a person to dispute "The Gedolim." In that post I discuss a particularly important responsum from Rav Moshe Feinstein, where he permits (and even encourages) a young rabbi to follow his own views against the Chazon Ish. The notion that it is forbidden for, say, Rav Hershel Schechter to decide to wear techeles, is absurd and has no basis in halachah.

And it's also against the Mesoyrah.

Friday, June 16, 2017

An Unexpected Turn Of Events

Twelve years ago, the notorious controversy over my books was responsible for immense turmoil and stress in my life. One of the most hurtful episodes occurred one day after mincha at a local Israeli charedi shul where I davenned during the week. As I left the shul, the owner of the shul approached me and told me that I was not allowed to davven there any more. I had never been thrown out of anything in my life (contrary to the slander spread by some unsavory individuals), and the feelings of frustration, anger and rejection were overwhelming. It was the closest I had ever gotten in my life to hitting someone out of anger.

Over the ensuing years, I sometimes saw this person in the neighborhood, and it always aroused feelings of intense resentment. He was also involved in other activities of religious zealotry, including disrupting a concert in the local park because it caused charedi kids to mingle with dati-leumi kids. He started giving shiurim after davenning in another charedi shul that I sometimes davven at, and I would walk out when he entered to speak.

Earlier this week, I was at a wedding, and this person was there. He saw me and approached me to talk to me. As soon as I saw him, I felt the familiar feeling of loathing. I tensed up, getting ready for another confrontation.

He came up to me, and told me that he wanted to ask my forgiveness.

My jaw dropped.

He told me that he was very sorry. He said that at the time, a certain rabbi had called him and put a lot of pressure on him to throw me out of the shul, and he had caved to it, but he'd been feeling terrible about it ever since. There had been several times over the years when he had intended to approach me to ask forgiveness, but he hadn't followed through.

My emotions were swirling. I now knew how Harry Potter felt when he found out that Snape was secretly working to protect him. All those feelings of resentment dissipated, and I wholeheartedly forgave him.

There are a number of potential lessons to take from this. One is that someone who has wronged you might actually be feeling bad about it. Another is that if you do feel bad for having wronged someone, it's a good idea to make amends sooner rather than later.

But it also reminded me of how, at the time, there was a kind of mass hysteria going on. The essay Slifkin, Salem and the Senator compares elements of that period to other notorious witch-hunts, but it does not highlight the mass hysteria aspect. I've discussed mass hysteria in other contexts - the KosherSwitch controversy and the alleged Sanhedria ritual abuse cult. People get swept up in events, and they say or do things that they later regret. When such episodes are taking place, it's often a good idea to keep quiet, step back, and wait for things to calm down before analyzing the situation.

https://my.fundme.org.il/en/campaign/NewMuseumHome

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Beit Shemesh Complaining and Building

As has been globally reported, Beit Shemesh is a city which, despite its significant assets and advantages, suffers from some serious problems. There is the verbal and physical violence by extremist charedim against non-charedim, and the lack of interest in combating this among mainstream charedim. There is the disenfranchisement of the non-charedi population, such as with the various public statements made by mainstream (and even Anglo) charedi rabbonim in RBS, as well as various statements and policies issued by city council. There are frustrations about the way that the city is developing, with the new areas of land going primarily to charedi communities and public sectors of land being given only to charedi yeshivos, even from outside Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh is probably the world's worst situation of friction between different streams of Jews.

There's a lot to complain about, and a lot of people complaining, myself included. However, complaining alone is not enough. People have to be proactive in engaging in constructive ways to improve things. You can't solve the problems overnight, but there are all kinds of ways of improving the city.

One of our guides teaching the laws of kashrus to a chassidic group,
straight from the horse's mouth - literally!
The Biblical Museum of Natural History is the only place in Beit Shemesh (and indeed all Israel, and even the entire world) where all streams of Jews come to learn Torah in a positive environment. We have secular visitors, we have chareidi visitors, we have national-religious visitors. We are visited by school groups from the most extreme sectors of the charedi population - schools where the children only understand Yiddish, schools which never visit the Jerusalem zoo because it is open on Shabbos, schools from communities which house the thugs that make the headlines. They come to us and they learn Torah from our guides, which is probably the first time in their lives that they are ever learning Torah (or indeed anything) from people outside of their communities. And they love it, and they also learn to love and respect the world around them.

A happy encounter - and note the background observer,
a chassidic guide-in-training
Beyond the tours, the museum also offers other benefits to the city. We have a Sherut Leumi program. We are now joining the Sherut Ezrachi program, which is a program for charedim who will not go to the army, which enables them to work for society in non-profit institutions and then integrate into the workforce. We have many volunteers, including teenagers who have not found their place in their school/social environment but who thrive in the museum. We house leadership workshops, smachot/events, and weekly chugim (children's workshops).

A memorable hug!
The museum is also a leading tourist attraction in the Beit Shemesh region. It's pretty much the only thing that brings people from outside Beit Shemesh into the city. In Israel, that includes groups from Ashdod, Petach Tikvah, Modiin, Bnei Brak, Herzliyya, Raanana, and Jerusalem. We also receive many international visitors and groups from around the world. For many people outside our city, Beit Shemesh is known only as the city of Jewish religious violence and tensions; but for the many thousands of people who have visited us, it is known as the city with the terrific museum about animals in the Torah.

So, to my fellow residents, and to all those who criticize Beit Shemesh, I say as follows. You can complain and complain. But, if you really care to make a difference, you have to do something. And one of the things that you can do is support The Biblical Museum of Natural History. Help us take the museum to the next level, such that we can accommodate more exhibits and more visitors and implement our programming vision. Help us advance towards being a national treasure, by moving out of the cramped premises and crummy street that we are on, into a larger and much more beautiful building, in a much better (but still local!) location. You can be part of transforming Beit Shemesh! Please donate to our campaign for a new home, and share it with others. Thank you!


https://my.fundme.org.il/en/campaign/NewMuseumHome




Sunday, June 11, 2017

Kollels and Crocodiles

In the previous post - which received an astonishing twelve thousand hits! - I criticized Rav Nachum Eisenstein's stress on the responsibility of the government to support people in kollel. I pointed out that he does not address the question of whether people have a responsibility to other citizens of their country to try to contribute to the economy rather than to try to drain it.

A person going by the moniker of "Pardon My Skepticism," who, for the sake of convenience, we shall call Dovid, claimed that I was being hypocritical. The basis for his accusation was that at the end of my post, I solicited donations for a new home for The Biblical Museum of Natural History. As Dovid put it: "Why doesn't Rabbi Dr. Slifkin address the question of whether he has a responsibility to other citizens of their country to try to contribute to the economy rather than to try to drain it? Isn't a museum a drain on the economy as well? It certainly doesn't contribute to it."

Dovid is correct in that the museum does not contribute to the economy (except insofar as boosting the economy of Beit Shemesh by bringing people to it; a point that unfortunately seems lost on certain members of city council). But there is more to a country than the economy. There is knowledge, there is culture, there are sports, and, for the Jewish Nation, there is Torah. It is true that not everyone need contribute to the economy; there are other ways to contribute towards society.

Now, I think that everyone, across the spectrum, would agree that The Biblical Museum of Natural History contributes towards society. To date we have hosted over twenty-five thousand visitors from all walks of life, from Amish to Chassidish, to whom we have presented the wonders of God's creation and the meaning of many parts of Torah. We've inspired secular college students with a newfound appreciation for their Jewish identity; we've educated Americans and others about the connection between the animals of our heritage and the Land of Israel; we've fascinated ultra-Orthodox chassidim with a world of nature that they have never seen.

But what about kollels - do they contribute to society? According the mystical perspective presented by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, absolutely. But it's hard to ground that in clear sources from Torah, Chazal or the Rishonim. While teaching Torah obviously benefits society, learning Torah benefits oneself, not others. Perhaps even more to the point, even if one does point to some statements about learning Torah helping the world, before the rise of mysticism such benefits were seen as a function of merit rather than metaphysical effect. And it's only a merit if it's the right the thing to do. And Chazal and the Rishonim most definitely did not see learning Torah as something that relieves a person of his obligation to support his family. (See too my post What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects.)

There is another important difference between Rav Eisenstein's perspective and my appeal. There is absolutely no forcing of anyone to donate to the museum. If, God forbid, we were to get no donations and the museum were to close down, it would be personally devastating and the loss of a fantastic resource for the nation, but my staff and I would find other employment. With charedi kollel society, on the other hand, there is no fallback! The people just don't have the education, skills or mindset to earn a living. Even worse, they are bringing up their children with a similar complete lack of ability to make a living.

As I mentioned, the previous post was read by many thousands of people. I'd wager that the vast majority of them agreed with the viewpoint presented here. Unfortunately, only a miniscule fraction of them donated towards the museum campaign. So I'd like to take this opportunity to once again ask that people support this cause - we simply cannot move to a new building without it! As an added incentive, we will soon be announcing special gifts for people who donate over a certain sum - and these will be given to everyone who has donated these sums since the campaign began. So please, for the benefit of everyone, help support this unique institution! Click this link to go to our campaign page. And if you Liked/Shared the previous post on Facebook, please share this one too! Thank you!


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Solution to the Problem of Chareidi Poverty!

What do charedi rabbinic leaders have to say about the problem of poverty in the charedi community? David Lichtenstein has a radio show in which he interviews prestigious figures in the charedi world. In the latest show, he interviews Rav Nochum Eisenstein, Rav of Maalot Dafna, who was part of Rav Elyashiv's inner circle, about the problem of charedi poverty.

Lichtenstein begins by asking Rav Eisenstein if there is a chillul Hashem in the number of charedim who live off government welfare. Rav Eisenstein emphatically denies that there is any chillul Hashem. He explains that the government has a responsibility to its citizens to enable them to live at a certain standard. Rav Eisenstein says that "the Israeli government, as bad as it is, and the American government, as good as it is," recognize that students deserve support. There is no problem to choose not to work and to live off benefits.

(Rav Eisenstein stresses the responsibility of the government to support people in kollel. He does not address the question of whether people have a responsibility to other citizens of their country to try to contribute to the economy rather than to try to drain it.)

The interviewer asks in surprise, "Is the Gemara's statement that a father has an obligation to teach his son a trade not relevant?" Definitely not, replies Rav Eisenstein, the Gemara is talking about a minor... if a father sends his kid to a school where he can learn the basics, to read and write, that's a trade... all those things you get from grade school. Many people got a higher education and still can't feed their large families of ten children. So getting an education is not the solution.

(While of course it is true that there are people with higher education who cannot make a living - especially if they have ten children - it is nevertheless also true that, generally speaking, there is a correlation between having a high school education and one's level of income. Rav Eisenstein's denial of this correlation is similar to that espoused by Rav Steinman in an address that he delivered down the road from me.)

Well then, asks the interviewer, what is the solution?

The solution, replies Rav Eisenstein, is the one given by Rav Chaim Kanievsky. The solution is not to talk about it. Countless families in Israel marry off their children and provide homes for them. It's a miracle, and once you start dissecting it, it won't happen anymore. (Yes, this is really what he says. Click on the link to hear the interview if you don't believe me.)

Rav Eisenstein further explains that the problem isn't even that big to begin with. Hardly anyone in the charedi community needs to collect charity door-to-door, he claims. Most people get by, thanks to the miracle.

So, there you have it. Charedi poverty is not a problem, and it should not be talked about, lest it become a problem!



If you'd like to donate funds to perpetuate the charedi kollel system, click here.

If you'd like to donate funds to support the new building campaign for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, which educates the entire spectrum of society from secular to ultra-charedi about the relationship between Judaism and the natural world, click here.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Next Stage!



Since opening just over two years ago, The Biblical Museum of Natural History has inspired and educated over 25,000 visitors about the relationship between the Bible, Judaism and the natural world. We inspire adults and children alike with the wonders of God's creation; we teach them about the significance of the animal world of the Bible; we excite them with an exotic aspect of Jewish identity; and we connect them with the natural history of the Land of Israel. We have the potential for the widest reach of any educational institution in Israel – our visitors range from Amish to Chassidish!

Our potential is limited only by our space. The current building that we are using is far too small for our needs, and forces us to turn away visitors during peak season. It’s essential for us to move to a far larger facility!

After an extensive search, the perfect opportunity has come our way to take the museum to the next level. We have located a fantastic building, currently under construction, which is much larger, more beautiful, and in a terrific location. This new building will enable us to run new programs, to fully realize our vision, and to inspire and educate many more people. But we need YOUR help to make it happen!

Please join us in turning this vision into reality! Click on this link to go to our donation page. Thank you!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Patterns in the Torah

About twenty years ago, I was extremely mystically rather than rationalistically inclined. Related to this was my desire to see patterns in everything - especially fractal patterns. These are patterns that repeat at different scales, which appear in various forms in nature (such as fern leaves), and in a mathematical construct known as the Mandelbrot Set, pictured on the right - which I eventually used for the cover of my book The Science of Torah (subsequently banned and then rendered obsolete by The Challenge Of Creation).

I was therefore thrilled when, at that time, I came across an obscure and difficult book by Rabbi Yehoshua Honigwachs called The Unity of Torah. This work set out to answer a question that, to my astonishment, nobody had ever asked before: What is the overall structure of the Torah? Rabbi Honigwach's answer was that the structure of Torah reflects a five-stage approach to its central goal: Taking man from the extremes of egotism, in which society is an anarchy of selfish elements, towards a state of unity between all men and God. This pattern, argued Rabbi Honigwachs, is found in each of the five commandments on the Tablets of Law; it is also found amongst the five books of the Torah; within these books; within each fifth of these books; and so on - although, he noted, there are some places where a different version of this pattern is found, and there are others where it is not found at all. (There is a new book, Patterns on Parchment - The Structural Unity of The Five Books of Moses by Dr. Robert Appleson, which is an expansion of Rabbi Honigwachs' book, but I haven't read it.)

Needless to say, I was very much taken with this fractal pattern. I figured out a way to diagrammatically illustrate it in ways that made it easier to comprehend; I sent my illustrations to Rabbi Honigwachs, who was pleased at the result. In my book The Science of Torah, I made much use of fractal patterns, and I decided to include an overview of Rabbi Honigwach's approach in an appendix. You can freely download the appendix at this link, and it is also aided with the following schematic:

But my mentor Rabbi Aryeh Carmell was very unhappy with my interest in such patterns, being skeptical of this sort of pattern-seeking in general. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with it! We worked out a compromise, whereby I clearly restricted such discussions to distinct parts of the book, and he made it clear in his approbation that he was not supportive of those parts.

Today, I realize that pattern-seeking is both one of man's greatest strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses. In evolutionary terms, it was a helpful skill to learn; it enabled man to spot a camouflaged predator, and to discover causal relationships in the natural world. But, as a result, people also have a powerful propensity to see patterns even when none exist, and to ascribe causality even where there is none (as in much religion, and alternative medicine). And the thrill of discovering patterns can easily hamper one's objectivity. Of course, there are also those who deny patterns and causality even where they really exist (such as liberals with regard to Islamism, and smokers with regard to the dangers of smoking); but the former problem seems more innate and pervasive.

So what about this fractal pattern in the Torah? I don't have the time, or the objectivity, to study it all again and re-evaluate it. For a variety of reasons, I am certainly inclined to be skeptical. Nevertheless, I remain impressed at how Rabbi Honigwachs freely admitted that his pattern does not work in all places, which indicates a high degree of objectivity, and presented it as a model to be further refined. I was also interested to discover an article in Jewish Bible Quarterly that also discusses it.

Furthermore, with regard to the more limited suggestion of the pattern appearing in the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, it appears much more straightforward. As I noted in The Challenge Of Creation, a similar structure has been observed in the Six Days of Creation by scholars from across the theological spectrum. There is even more reason to expect it in the Ten Commandments, which from the outset are presented in two parts. I present an illustration of this pattern here (I hope it displays properly in different web browsers). Chag sameach!


Beginning with: Selfishness; Isolation; Focus on the Individual
                           
TABLET #1
Manifestation between Man and God
DEVELOPMENT
TABLET #2
Manifestation between Man and Man
Accepting God
Acceptance of God’s existence
STAGE ONE
Acceptance of others’ existence
Do Not Murder
Other people’s right to exist; Value of life
Do Not Worship Idols
Accepting God’s ownership of the entire universe
STAGE TWO
Acceptance of their domain
Do Not Commit Adultery
Accepting the other person’s domain
Do Not Take God’s Name in Vain
No unlawful use of God’s Name
STAGE THREE
No unlawful use of property
(lawful coexistence)
Do Not Steal (Kidnap)
No unlawful use of another’s being, person or property
Observing Shabbos
Testifying to God’s authority
STAGE FOUR
Readiness to cooperate
(particularly through speech)
Do Not Testify Falsely
No destructive talk; hence, cooperate
Honoring Parents
Unity with one’s source
STAGE FIVE
Total unity
Do Not Covet
No resentment of others

Climaxing with: Selflessness; Unity with God and man; Integration into the Community

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What Is The Evil Eye?

What is Ayin Hara - the “Evil Eye”?

Can it be given to inanimate objects, to animals, or only to people?

Can you give an ayin hara to yourself?

Does it require physically seeing something?

How exactly does it work?

Is there a way to protect against it?

What is the rationalist view on this, and what is the mystical view?

And what does all this have to do with ostriches?

I will be discussing the extremely surprising answers to these questions in a presentation entitled "Ostriches and the Evil Eye" this Sunday night, which you can either attend in person or via live online streaming. This is part of the "Night At The Museum" lecture series, which you can sign up for at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/night. Meanwhile, I would be very interested to hear people's thoughts on the questions above - please write your answers in the comments!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Snake Skins and Oil

All snakes regularly slither right out of their skins, and so the snake collection at the Biblical Museum of Natural History regularly provides us with sloughed-off skins. (One of our larger snakes once shed an immaculate nine-foot skin in the evening. I spread it out on the floor to dry overnight. When the secretary came in the next morning and saw it, she coincidentally jumped out of her skin!)

A woman who works in a store that I frequent has been asking me for a while for the shed skin of a snake. I assumed that she wanted it as some sort of novel household decoration, but yesterday she told me the reason, and it was quite different. She has unfortunately been unable to conceive for several years, and she was referred to a Holy Rabbi who told her to hang the shed skin of a snake in her home.

I literally (literally) slapped my palm over my face.

"What?" she asked.

"That's complete nonsense!" I said.

She attempted to reassure me by explaining that this Holy Rabbi certainly possessed special powers. After all, he knew all kinds of things about her, such as the name of her husband, which there was no earthly way of his knowing!

I facepalmed again. "How did you get to him?" I asked.

She explained that an associate of his heard about her and referred her.

"Is it not possible," I gently suggested, "that this associate used Google, or some other means, to find out this information?!"

Her face fell for a moment, but she recovered herself and said that she didn't think that this was likely. It was more likely that the Rabbi had special powers. Besides, she said, even if it's not true, what harm does it do to hang up the snakeskin?

"True," I admitted. "It doesn't do any harm. As long as you didn't give him any money."

No, she insisted, he's not that kind of person. He didn't ask for any money -

"Oh, good," I interjected -

- he just has a tzedakah box on his desk, she continued, in which she placed 500 shekels.






















(See too my post Karma and Chameleons)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Who is Engaged in Politics, and Who in Prayer?

Recently I was forwarded a disturbing newsletter from Yeshivas Toras Moshe. It presented a Q&A which was held with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman (author of the notorious Torah, Chazal and Science), at the yearly Shabbaton. I present it here in full:
Question: Why is it that there seems to be a lack of hakoras hatov to the State of Israel and the Armed Forces when they have provided a safe environment for Yiddishkeit without any fear of persecution?

Answer: If this question is about why we don't say a “mi sheberach" for Medinas Yisroel or the IDF on Shabbos morning out of hakoras hatov, I have one question.

I have davened in many shuls in the United States throughout my life. But in no shul have l heard a “mishebeirach” said for the local police department or local fire department. Don’t we have tremendous hakoras hatov for these people? Don’t police officers and firefighters put their life on the line every day so that we can be safe and secure? Just imagine New York City without the New York City Police Department. New York would become an absolute jungle.

When the Allied forces were battling Hitler in Europe, no one suggested that we make a “mi shebeirach” for the Allied forces even though our hakoras hatov for them was overwhelming. Of course we have tremendous hakoras hatov for the various people who provide services that keep us safe. But that doesn’t mean that they all deserve a “mi shebeirach” in shul.

The fact of the matter is that saying the “mi shebeirach” for Medinas Yisroel and the lDF is a purely political gesture. It is a form of a pledge of allegiance where everyone must stand up at attentions and be absolutely silent. It is not a tefilloh.

Contrast this with how these shuls recite the Av Harachamaim for the kedoshim who died al Kiddush Hashem immediately before—it’s non-stop talking and schmoozing until the gabbai asks for silence before the “mishebeirach” for the Medina.
In light of the fact that Rabbi Meiselman's teachings reach many hundreds, even thousands, of students and readers, I think that this requires a response.

Let’s begin with the last paragraph. It’s rather disturbing that Rabbi Meiselman makes such a crass generalization. It is simply not true to generalize that the shuls that pray for Israel and the IDF engage in “non-stop talking” during Av harachamim. (UPDATE: One wonders how many Zionist shuls Rabbi Meiselman is even familiar with, since he mistakenly claims that the prayer for the state is recited after Av harachamim.) And even if there are those who do so, is this due to a formal policy of not expressing care about the martyrs of Jewish history?! Of course not; it’s because these are shuls in which talking during davening is, unfortunately, simply the norm. Those people probably don’t even know what Av harachamim is about. The prayer for Israel and IDF is one whose nature they understand, and furthermore, which deals with matters of current relevance, so naturally it is given greater respect. Rabbi Meiselman’s gratuitous and nasty swipe, and attempt to equate such people with those who have a deliberate policy of formally acknowledging the sacrifices of the IDF, is entirely out of place and out of line.

Rabbi Meiselman claims that while he doesn’t believe in reciting a prayer for the state or the IDF, he certainly has hakaras hatov for “the various people who provide services that keep us safe.” One wonders if this is really the case, or if he is simple paying lip-service to it for his audience. Has he ever spoken in his yeshivah about the gratitude that they must have for the IDF, other than in the context of explaining why they shouldn't pray for their welfare? I doubt it.

Rabbi Meiselman (front left) at the Satmar rally
Recall that Rabbi Meiselman sat on the dais at the notorious Satmar-led protest in Manhattan, where the speakers described Israel as an "evil regime" and spoke about how “the very existence of the state is a rebellion against God” and about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling.” And in his own yeshivah, students have been taught that one should not have any hakaras hatov to the State of Israel, because whatever good it does for Torah Jews is no more significant than a terrorist throwing candy to the last surviving child of a family that he has murdered.

Let us address the main argument presented by Rabbi Meiselman, which is that praying for the welfare of the state and for the armed forces is a “purely political gesture” and "is not a tefilloh." This is simply false. There is a long Jewish tradition of reciting Hanosen teshuah lemelachim, which prays for the welfare of the government. The prayer for the State simply reflects the unique Jewish nature of the State of Israel; furthermore, it's not as though Rabbi Meiselman is advocating saying Hanosen teshuah instead!

Now, it’s true that Hanosen teshuah was not recited in every community. Still, it was recited in many communities (including, undoubtedly, communities from which many talmidim in Toras Moshe came). In some cases, the reasons for its recital may indeed have been political in motivation, but there are also certainly traditional Torah values behind it. Yirmiyah says, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to Hashem on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Chazal say "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for its fear, people would swallow each other alive" (Avos 3:4). Jews, like everyone else, require a government, and they should express their need and gratitude for this.

Praying for the welfare of the state is certainly a traditional Jewish concept. This would be at least as true, and surely even more the case, if the country is the Land of Israel, its inhabitants are mostly Jewish, and the government is that of a Jewish state!

Now let’s turn to the prayer for the armed forces. R. Meiselman claims that just as we have gratitude for the New York City police and fire brigade, yet we do not recite prayers for them, the same should be true for the IDF. Yet is this comparison not shallow? The IDF’s entire purpose is to protect Jewish lives from their enemies who seek to annihilate them, and they risk capture, torture and death, r"l, to do so. When someone’s child joins the police force or fire brigade, their parents don’t stop sleeping at night.

Rabbi Meiselman further claims that nobody ever suggested that we should make a misheberach for the Allied Forces in World War II. Can he really not see a difference between other nations fighting primarily for their own reasons, and our own brethren fighting to protect us?!

Furthermore, in any case, Rabbi Meiselman’s claim is simply not true. In 1942, none other than Rav Yosef Zvi Dushinsky, successor to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld as Chief Rabbi of the Eidah Charedis, discussed this very question (Shailos U’Teshuvos Maharitz 47). He was opposed to creating any new form of prayer, but stated that Hanosen teshua should suffice, which, he says, “is the minhag of all the Jewish people.”(See Rabbi Dr. Joseph Tabory, The Conflict of Halacha and Prayer.")

In the past, leading figures in the charedi community have indeed ruled that one should pray for non-Jewish armed forces. In 1918, to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from the Turks by the British, the Vaad Ha-Ir Ha-Ashkenazi (precursor to the Eidah Chareidis) called on all the shuls and yeshivos “to thank Hashem for the redemption, and the salvation,” and to say the prayer of Hanosen teshuah on behalf of “George the Fifth, yarum hodo (may his glory be increased)” and a misheberach for General Allenby.

Another example is especially striking. During the first Gulf War, both Yated Ne'eman and Hamodia reported that Rav Schach and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah had ruled that the charedi community should pray for the welfare of the coalition forces. The Yated was careful to note that this was a matter of following the tradition of praying for the state. The ruling was to use the traditional text of Hanosen teshuah, mentioning “the government of the United States and its partners.”

Note that the charedim were willing to pray for the success and welfare of Syria and Saudi Arabia - but not of Israel! This clearly demonstrates that such wars do indeed qualify for formal religious expressions of concern, but anti-Zionist politics prevents such concern from being expressed for Israel. Another example of this is with the charedi anti-draft rally in New York, in which they didn’t express their gratitude to the IDF, but they thanked the NYPD!

Rabbi Meiselman's claim that praying for the welfare of the state and for the armed forces is a “purely political gesture” is entirely false. As we have seen, the reverse is actually the case. Such prayers are a traditional part of Judaism, being extremely suitable expressions of concern and hakarat hatov. It’s the opposition to these prayers that is purely political. 

It is a tragedy that so many boys from homes which reflect traditional Torah values end up in Toras Moshe and are indoctrinated against them.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Deadly Beauty

Over the last few years, I have been leading safaris for Torah In Motion. Each year brings something different, and the last two game drives were truly unique. Following are some photos, notes, and theological reflections from the last 24 hours. (If you are reading this in a browser, you can click on the pictures to enlarge them and see the detail.)

Before even getting into the Land Rover yesterday afternoon, we saw a boomslang snake in a tree next to the car. Boomslangs are one of the most venomous snakes in Africa. Their bite is more deadly than that of a cobra or black mamba. It causes massive internal hemorrhaging, leaving the victim bleeding from his/her orifices and turning blue from internal bleeding. However, boomslangs are extremely timid snakes and almost never bite people, which is why I was comfortable approaching it to take this picture. 

It must be said that the boomslang is astonishingly beautiful. With its very large eyes and bright green color, it is truly striking, one of the most beautiful snakes that I have ever seen. And its agility, as it flowed through the branches of the tree, was a sight to behold. I was reminded of the Midrash which states that even God's curse contains a blessing; the snake might have lost its legs, but it now has the advantage of remarkably agility.

We drove out into the African bush, and after a while, we stopped to admire one of the largest spider webs I have ever seen. It was nearly two meters (six feet) across! In the center was a spider the size of my palm. It was a spider that I had been searching for ever since I saw one many years ago in Kenya: a golden orb spider.

Golden orb spiders are venomous, but their venom is mild, probably no worse than a bee sting. Like boomslangs, they too are spectacularly beautiful. They have bright yellow bands on their legs and a domino-pattern on their abdomen. This one was a female; males are much smaller.

The Midrash describes how King David asked God about the necessity of such creatures as spiders; he was answered when a spider helped him escape from his pursuers, by spinning a web across the mouth of the cave in which he had just hidden, thereby convincing his pursuers that the cave must be empty. This is not necessarily to say that the entire species was created just for the acts of these individuals. Rather, these should be seen as examples of how even apparently useless and unpleasant things are beneficial. Spider silk is of great interest to scientists, due to its tremendous strength. The silk of golden orb spiders is the most astonishing substance; I was able to pluck the strands of the web, almost like a guitar. It is so strong that if it was twisted together to form a string the thickness of a pencil, it would be able to restrain a Boeing 747 at full throttle!

I carefully captured the spider in my bag for, er, further observation. Later, when I returned to my cabin, I transferred it to a plastic box where it seemed quite happy. Then I did something really foolish. Before heading out to dinner, I liberally sprayed myself with insect repellent. When I returned from dinner, I went to inspect the spider, and much to my horror, I found it on its back, with its legs drawn in, in the death pose! But one of its legs was twitching slightly, so I hoped that there was still a chance. I took it outside the cabin, removed the lid, and carefully blew fresh air over its body. Within an hour it was fully back to normal, thank God. I wonder if I am the first person to ever perform CPR on a spider!

This morning's game drive led us to some other, larger, predators. First was a hyena, standing guard at the entrance to its den. Then we came across a lion that we had seen on the previous day. This was a very old male, about twelve years old, and blind in one eye, as you can see in the picture (click on it for a closer look).

This old lion was not alone. With him was another male, some lionesses, and at least eight cubs. It was a fabulous display of the power of lion - as per the explanation given on the movie at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. The Mishnah says, "Who is powerful? One that controls his inclination." No other cat would be able to control its aggression and live together with so many of its own kind. Of all the big cats, only the lion is able to live in large family groups, in which they band together to hunt their prey; as the saying goes, the family that preys together, stays together.

This large pride of lions was not in this spot by chance. Driving a few meters further on, we saw a cub lying picturesquely on top of a large boulder. Except that, as we looked closer, we saw that it wasn't a boulder. It was a dead rhinoceros.

The park rangers had removed its horn, so that poachers would not get it, but they left the body there. A lioness had stuck her head into the rhino's head, and we heard slobbering noises as she pulled her blood-stained face out to look at us. Driving around the carcass, we came to the front of the rhino. It looked like a dinosaur, lying out there.

The circle of life and death in the animal kingdom poses certain theological questions. The question of why bad things happen to good people is, in certain ways, not as difficult to answer as the question of why bad things happen to good animals. In my book Man & Beast (sadly out of print for many years), I explored some approaches to this question. There is one striking quote from the Chazon Ish about predatory animals: "We feel that without them the world would be lacking, and the world is not beautiful and perfect except when there are predatory animals in it."

Whether it is spiders catching flies in their webs, or lions hunting rhinos, the world is is certainly beautiful, even if it is savage in its beauty!

I would like to conclude with some exciting news: Starting on the Sunday after next, there will be a series of weekly lectures at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, which will also be live-streamed for anyone in the world to join! For more details and registration, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/night. The series will contain in-depth discussions about Biblical zoology, with the assistance of museum exhibits. It's the next best thing to joining a Torah-In-Motion African Adventure!
 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zoroastrians and Zoorabbis in Zimbabwe

This morning, in Zimbabwe, I met an old friend called Jake, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while. Last time I saw him, I got his autograph, which I framed, and which some of you have seen on display. Jake had put on quite a bit of weight since then, it looked like about several hundred pounds! But that kind of weight-gain looks good on a bull elephant.

I got into a conversation with a stranger from Florida who was sharing my ride (on Jake). Initially I was dismayed that the shortage of available elephants meant that I had to share my ride with someone. But my co-passenger was very pleasant, and turned out to be exceedingly interesting. Much to my surprise, he was a Zoroastrian!

As Jake lumbered across the savanna and forded streams, my co-passenger and I had the most fascinating discussion; Judaism and Zoroastrianism have quite a lot in common. Zoroastrianism is also a very ancient religion, and it can be roughly classified as monotheistic. Zoroastrians, too, have suffered intensely from persecution; my new friend spoke repeatedly about genocides that had been committed against his people, and there are only about 160,000 Zoroastrians left in the world (of which about 20,000 live in the US). There are also numerous components to Zoroastrianism that are similar to those in Judaism, including the belief that the universe was created by a benevolent Creator, that life is about choosing good over evil, and that there is divine reward and punishment for one’s conduct. (Of course, there are also differences; in Judaism, for example, there is no tradition of ritualistically leaving the dead outside to be eaten by vultures. However, I suspect that American Zoroastrians don’t do that either.)

Almost completely forgetting that we were riding on an enormous elephant, with some African buffalo and waterbuck watching us pass, my new friend and I became immersed in a discussion about how Judaism and Zoroastrianism are not only similar; they are actually connected. Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Persian Empire, which included Babylon during the Talmudic period. And as my friend Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman has written about at great length, there is an enormous amount of material in the Babylonian Talmud that is related to Zoroastrianism.

As someone who learned in charedi yeshivos for many years, it is a source of fascination to me that there are sections of the Gemara that can only be properly understood if you know about Zoroastrianism. When I was in the charedi yeshivah world, it was a given that the greatest experts on the Gemara were people such as Rav Elyashiv, or perhaps Rav Moshe Shapiro if you were part of his following. Yet there are topics in the Gemara that, while Rav Moshe Shapiro would undoubtedly have been able to devise an ingenious and creative explanation of them, can only be authentically understood with their original intent if you know about Zoroastrianism.

As an example, the Gemara in Megillah has some seemingly extremely strange comments about Persians and bears. However, as Rabbi Dr. Elman explained to me, and as I confirmed with my co-passenger on the pachyderm, once you realize that dov is Hebrew for “bear,” and dêv is the Zoroastrian name for a certain demon, then the passage makes sense. (For further discussion, see the section “Angels and Demons” in the chapter on the bear in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.)

My investigations into Zoroastrianism today perhaps also sheds light on a puzzle that I had been wondering about for several years. The Mishnah gives a list of people who have no share in the World to Come:
Every member of Israel has a share in the World-to-Come… But these have no share in the World-to-Come: One who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah; that there is no Torah from Heaven; and an apikores (which is defined in the Talmud as someone who shows disrespect to Torah scholars)… (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1)
The first of these categories – one who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah – seems a little strange. Why is it so important as to be mentioned in this very brief list of crucial expressions of belief – and it even comes before Torah from Heaven! And why does it speak about someone who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah, as opposed to speaking about someone who simply denies the Resurrection of the Dead altogether?

I think that perhaps the answer is similar to the explanation of why Rambam listed belief in the pre-eminence of Moshe Rabbeinu as a prophet as one of the 13 principles of faith. One might wonder if it really matters if a person believes that Yirmiyah was a greater prophet than Moshe. But it’s not Yirmiyah that Rambam was concerned about; it was Mohammed. As Prof. Chayyim Soloveichik writes, “That Moses’ prophecy was of a different order than that of other prophets is an explicit verse in the Torah (Numbers 12:7); [but] it was a specific historic context, its denial by Islam, that turned this verse from a religious dictum into an ikkar. A belief is an ikkar when its content is what differentiates Judaism from the surrounding credal system” (“Two Notes on the Commentary on the Torah of R. Yehudah he-Hasid,” p. 244).

The same may be the case here. Zoroastrians sometimes claim that they originated belief in the resurrection of the dead, which they call frashö-kereití. They argue that this belief is not in the Torah, and that the Jews took it from them. It would thus be understandable, then, that the Sages would strongly condemn someone who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah.

My discussions with my Zoroastrian friend were interrupted by the elephant mahout, who informed us that it was time to disembark. I told the mahout that this was probably the only time he would ever be transporting a Zoroastrian and a rabbi. He laughed politely, but I suspect that he had no idea what either of those words meant!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Heresy of Victoria Falls

Not my best picture of the Falls, but this one shows a rainbow!
Right now I am at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Botswana, leading the Torah-In-Motion 2017 African adventure. Yesterday, we visited the spectacular Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It's an extraordinary sight - twice as tall as Niagara Falls and much wider, with a thundering noise that can be heard many miles away. Victoria Falls takes your breath away, and it cries out for a berachah. But does it indeed deserve one?

The berachah recited on natural wonders is Baruch Oseh Maaseh Bereishis, "Blessed is the One Who makes the work of Creation." It is officially prescribed as being for natural wonders such as mountains, deserts, oceans, large rivers and suchlike, and while gigantic waterfalls are not mentioned, it is fairly clear that they would be included in the same category.

But there is a slight wrinkle. When was Victoria Falls created? I was once sent the following halachic discussion from a mailing list of Rabbi Eli Mansour:
"Hacham Bension Abba Shaul (Israel, 1923-1998), in his work Or Le’sion, writes that in Israel, one who sees Mount Hermon recites this Beracha. The Halachic authorities add that the Beracha is also recited upon seeing the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and the Swiss Alps. There is some discussion as to whether the Beracha should be recited upon seeing the large mountains in the area of Rome. The Gemara relates that Rome did not exist at the time of the world’s creation, and it was formed later. On the day King Shelomo married Pharaoh’s daughter, the Gemara tells, G-d was angry and sent the angel Gabriel to thrust a stick in the Mediterranean Sea. Ground eventually formed around this area, and this became Italy. Thus, as the region was not included in G-d’s original creation, one cannot recite the Beracha of “Oseh Ma’aseh Bereshit” in reference to its mountains.
Another interesting question discussed by the Poskim relates to the recitation of the Beracha upon seeing the Grand Canyon. Geologists claim that the canyon was formed over time by the Colorado River, and thus did not exist at the time of creation. However, they believe that this process occurred over the span of hundreds of thousands of years, while we believe that the world is not that old. Therefore, we may assume that the Canyon has existed since creation, and thus the Beracha is recited."
This discussion is based upon the premise that the blessing of "Who makes the work of Creation" can only be pronounced upon something that has existed since Creation. However, it appears to me that it makes little difference whether one believes that the world is a few thousand or several billion years old. The blessing is referring to the entirety of Creation, not the beginning of Creation, and it therefore includes the end of Creation. So whether one believes that mountains and the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls were created as they appear now, or one believes that they developed over long periods, it's still part of Creation.

The numbered red lines show the past locations of the falls.
However, once you look at a satellite map of the area, it's really hard to deny that Victoria Falls reveals the world to be much, much more than a few thousand years old. The satellite image shows that Victoria Falls has been in eight different locations over history. The explanation for this is that the plateau over which it flows has many large cracks filled with weaker sandstone, some of which run north-south and others which run east-west and are larger. The river runs north-south, so as it erodes the rock, it cuts back to the north, but when it reaches an east-west crack, it opens it across the entire width of the crack. This is something that continues to take place, extremely slowly and gradually, and the seven past locations of the falls clearly show that it has been doing so over a very long period indeed.

There's more to discuss on this, but it's been a very long day, with a riverboat safari and a game drive in neighboring Botswana in which we saw hippos and elephants and crocodiles and kudu and giraffes and impala and eagles and buffalo and baboons, so I'll leave it here, with just a few photos!

View from the riverboat safari
"Behold now, Behemoth!" (Iyov 40:15)

But can he jump?
This is exactly how I looked as a kid. Now I have less hair on my head.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Ten Bites

There was a game going around Facebook in the last few days, in which people would give lists of ten types of "something" that they've done, in which just one was false, and their friends have to guess which one is false. So I came up with a list of ten animals that I've been bitten by, but one is a lie!

1) Lion
2) Hyrax
3) Boa Constrictor
4) Leopard
5) Parrot
6) Dog
7) Monitor lizard
8) Turtle
9) Squirrel
10) Snookum Bear

And here is the detailed answer, which imparts some fascinating facts about animals, some funny stories, and a mussar lesson in "pride cometh before a fall":

1) Lion. Yep, I really was bitten by a lion. True, it was a very small lion, just a few weeks old. And he was only playing, I think. Still, even though this was a very small lion, just playing, and he bit my arm through a thick Timberland jacket, my arm was black for a week!

2) Hyrax. After years of raising hyraxes, I finally got my first bite two days ago. Luckily it was a baby hyrax; I would hate to get a bite from an adult male. Hyraxes are related to elephants, and even though they are only the size of groundhogs, the males have two sharp tusks.

3) Boa constrictor. Boas are not venomous - they kill their prey via constriction. However, they have very sharp teeth. This was probably the fastest bite I have ever received - it struck out in the blink of an eye and was all over before I even realized what was happening.

4) Leopard. Yes, I've been bitten by a leopard too, albeit a young one. The new video playing at The Biblical Museum of Natural History includes an entertaining scene in which I deliver a devar Torah about leopards in which my dialogue is punctuated by gasps and shrieks as a leopard (larger than the one pictured here jumping onto me) playfully mauls me.

5) Parrot. Ouch. Eclectus parrots have particularly sharp, pointed beaks. Still, I fared better than a friend of mine, who was bitten by his eclectus parrot and part of its beak actually broke off, embedded in his hand.

6) Dog. I have never owned a dog or been bitten by one.

7) Monitor lizard. This one was particularly memorable. Monitor lizards are very large lizards which have especially nasty bacteria in their mouths (some scientists even believe it to be a form of venom). I was giving a lesson to a volunteer at The Biblical Museum of Natural History as to how to safely handle our monitor lizard (which was, fortunately, much smaller than the one pictured on the right). The volunteer pointed to our elbow-length metal-studded heavy-duty reptile handling gauntlets hanging from the wall, and said, "Don't you want to put those on?" "Nah," I laughed, "We're real men here!" Two minutes later I was screaming like a little girl as the monitor sliced into my hand. The amount of blood was quite astonishing, and the doctor put me on heavy duty antibiotics.

8) Turtle. You never forget your first bite. I was about eight years old when my tiny red-eared slider turtle latched onto my finger with his sharp beak. This was the longest bite I have ever received. He didn't let go, even when I shook my hand in the air!

9) Squirrel. I was buying some Indian five-striped palm squirrels from my animal dealer. We stepped into their enclosure, and he started trying to catch them with a net. As one of them streaked past me, I shot out my hand and grabbed it. Whereupon it fastened its incredibly sharp teeth in my finger. "You tried to catch it with your hand??!!" gagged the dealer. "Are you crazy?!"

10) Snookum bear. Yes, this is a real thing. Also known as a coati, and falsely believed to be known as a Brazilian aardvark. It's a sort of large South American racoon. Our current coati at the museum is incredibly tame, a real sweetie, but she did not like it when I put a harness on her for the first time! But she felt terrible about it and it's all in the past now.

The list sounds pretty bad, but to put things in perspective, here's a list of animals that I have interacted with and not been bitten by: beluga whale, black bear, elephant, porcupine, hippopotamus, capuchin, kangaroo, ocelot, lemur, kinkajou, cheetah, okapi, giraffe, spider monkey, caracal, genet, sealion, hyena (both spotted and striped), wolf, walrus, eagle, vulture, skunk, alligator. So overall, my batting average is pretty good!

Now, for a variant on the above. Here's a list of ten charedi gedolim who signed letters of condemnation against my work. But one of them once wrote a haskamah for my work. Can you guess which?

1) Rav Ovadia Yosef
2) Rav Elyashiv
3) Rav Rav Elya Weintraub
4) Rav Shmuel Auerbach
5) Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel
6) Rav Moshe Shapiro
7) The Novominsker Rebbe
8) Rav Shlomo Miller
9) Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler
10) Rav Mattisyahu Solomon

The answer is the most extreme zealot of them all!

Meanwhile, I've been working on lots of material relating to a certain topic in rationalist Judaism, and I hope to start posting it soon. Returning to the first part of this post, I'll leave you with a Midrash:
“There are many things that increase futility” (Eccl. 6:11) – for example, those who raise monkeys, cats,  mongooses, apes, and otters. What is the benefit of them? Either a swipe, or a bite. (Kohelet Rabba 6:12)

Another View On How Torah Protects

A few years ago, in a post entitled What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects? , I discussed the concept that Torah protects from har...