Friday, August 11, 2017

Chicken Shtick

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Answer: To ask the posek if he needs a mesorah.

Many news outlets this week were reporting on the story of the Braekel chicken, an old breed from Belgium which has not historically been used for food. Some of the greatest charedi rabbinic authorities met this week and spent four hours discussing whether it is kosher. Rav Moshe Sternbuch said no, while Rav Nissim Karelitz said yes.

There are many people with great expertise in kashrus. And my friends Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Rabbi Chaim Loike and Moshe Rosenbaum are tremendous experts in the halachic history of unusual species of birds. However, it seems to me that nobody has yet studied the overall picture of Torah taxonomy, and how that impacts the evaluation of the kashrus status of different creatures.

I can't get into a full discussion here, but here are some brief points (and you can find extensive discussion in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom). The Torah lists two dozen birds that are not kosher. Since we can't identify them with certainty, we only eat a bird if there is a mesorah that it is kosher. But how do you decide if a seemingly new bird is actually a new type, that is not covered within the existing mesorah?

There is no formal definition of min, the Torah term for "type." However, if we survey Torah classification in general, two things become clear. One is that min is generally a much broader classification than species. Another is that the more charedi you are, the broader the definition of min ought to be.

Allow me to explain. The Torah lists ten types of kosher land animals. There is a dispute in the Gemara as to whether this represents the sum total of kosher land animals. The generally accepted conclusion is that it does indeed represent the sum total. However, the modern science of zoology counts 172 species that are definitely kosher: thirty-eight species of deer, four species of musk deer, the giraffe and okapi, the pronghorn, twenty-four species of wild cattle, seventeen species of duiker, twenty-three species of grazing antelope, thirty-two species of gazelle and dwarf antelope, four species of chevrotain, and twenty-seven species of goat antelope. Can these all be included in the ten types mentioned in the Torah?

Most of these species, such as the deer, gazelles, antelope and cattle, can certainly be included in the Torah’s list without difficulty, simply by saying that min includes different species in the same genus. But some are very different and are thus more difficult to include in these categories. Some identify the giraffe as one of the ten animals in the Torah’s list, but then what about the okapi? Furthermore, it would seem difficult to classify the enormous, strange-looking moose, the tiny, tusked musk deer, and the even smaller chevrotain, as varieties of the types in the Torah’s list.

Now, I personally am comfortable with saying that the Torah's list is either not exhaustive, or that the "world" of the Torah is limited to a very small region. However, it can be safely assumed that most charedim would reject those approaches (and indeed, some of the opposition to my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax was due to my advancing such views). Thus, in order to encompass all 172 species within the Torah's ten types, they must be taking a very broad definition of min indeed. Similar arguments can be advanced for how they would include all camelids and lamoids, and all species of pig, amongst the four animals listed in the Torah as possessing one kosher sign. With birds, there is further evidence that the Torah in general, and the charedi approach in particular, would have a very broad definition of min; I plan to discuss this in a future post about the kashrus of kiwis.

Thus, when it comes to rating the kashrus of a variety of chicken, with which even according to zoology's narrow definition, they are all the same species, and they can all interbreed, and they are all descended from Indian jungle fowl - kal v'chomer ben beno shel kal v'chomer that they are all the same min!

So why do some people say otherwise? Partly because they have not undertaken a broader analysis of the topic, as discussed above. But there are also other reasons why people make a fuss about these things. It will distract the discussion if I mention them now, so I will leave them for a future post. Meanwhile, if you will be in Israel in October, and you are interested in kashrus, come join our Feast Of Exotic Curiosities!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rambam, Aristotle, and Creation

Rabbi Chaim (Howard) Jachter recently published a book called Reason to Believe. I haven't seen it, but someone sent me a few pages of it in which he discusses various approaches to Torah and science, including my own. While I greatly value Rabbi Jachter's writings in general, and I am honored that he engages in a serious presentation of my views, there is an unfortunate serious distortion of my position, which I would like to correct.

Rabbi Jachter writes that "a primary source" for my approach is Rambam saying that he would have accommodated Aristotle's eternity of the universe, had it been proven. In fact, I did not refer to any such statement by Rambam. And with good reason - he says no such thing!

According to the Rambam (Guide 2:25) only Plato's view (that the universe was created from timeless matter) could theoretically be brought in line with Torah. Rambam admits that the verses of the Torah could also be theoretically reinterpreted according to Aristotle (who maintains that the universe always existed in its present form), but he says that such an accommodation would be impossible, due to the fundamental theological incompatibility of Judaism with the Aristotelian worldview.

Incidentally, R. Jachter is not the only person to misunderstand Rambam's position here; I have seen Prof. Nathan Aviezer make the same error. And there are, of course, those who claim that Rambam secretly really did accept Aristotle's approach, despite his vehement stated opposition to it, but personally I have no patience for such Straussian quasi-conspiracy theories (notwithstanding the claims by certain maniacal zealots that I subscribe to such things).

So, that was not the source in Rambam that I based myself on, because it does not exist. Instead, the source in Rambam that I used was Rambam explicitly saying that the account of creation is not all to be interpreted literally, and his cryptic statements which his interpreters revealed to mean that he held that the Six Days were not actually periods of time.

Note that there is a world of difference between this and the Straussian approach of claiming that Rambam was a secret Aristotelian. With regard to the nature of the account of the six days, Rambam openly states that he is presenting his view in a cryptic manner:
"The following point now claims our attention. The account of the six days of creation contains, in reference to the creation of man, the statement: "Male and female created he them" (i. 27), and concludes with the words: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them" (ii. 1), and yet the portion which follows describes the creation of Eve from Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, the history of the serpent and the events connected therewith, and all this as having taken place after Adam had been placed in the Garden of Eden. All our Sages agree that this took place on the sixth day, and that nothing new was created after the close of the six days. None of the things mentioned above is therefore impossible, because the laws of Nature were then not yet permanently fixed. There are, however, some utterances of our Sages on this subject [which apparently imply a different view]. I will gather them from their different sources and place them before you, and I will refer also to certain things by mere hints, just as has been done by the Sages. You must know that their words, which I am about to quote, are most perfect, most accurate, and clear to those for whom they were said. I will therefore not add long explanations, lest I make their statements plain, and I might thus become "a revealer of secrets," but I will give them in a certain order, accompanied with a few remarks, which will suffice for readers like you." (Friedlander translation, from
This, and the interpretation of this passage by the primary commentators on the Guide, is the passage of Rambam that I was quoting in my book. I already wrote to Rabbi Jachter about it, and he promised to amend his for the next printing. But since there will be many people who form their opinion of both Rambam's view and my own work, I wanted to set matters straight here.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Time Travel

This Sunday morning, I am flying from Melbourne to Los Angeles. My flight leaves Melbourne at 9:15am Sunday. The flight is long - over fourteen hours. And it arrives in Los Angeles at 6:30 am - on the same day.

I am traveling back in time! It's going to be the longest day of my life (unless we are speaking metaphorically, in which case we have to give precedence to days in which I was at Misrad HaPenim).

Halachically, it raises all kinds of interesting questions. Which tefillos do I davven? When do I davven them? Does Shabbos come back again briefly for me, and if so, do I make kiddush/havdalah? (See extensive halachic discussion on these issues at this link.)

Such questions, and the very concept of the International Date Line - and the question of where, halachically, to set it - potentially relate to the rationalist/mystic divide. According the mystical approach, halachic reality is a metaphysical reality which is "out there" and we have to discover it. There is a metaphysical dateline, and we have to try to figure out where it is. According to the rationalist approach, on the other hand, halachic reality is institutional. We create halachah, by the application of halachic principles to the best of our ability. Once created, it is what we created.

For further discussion on this point, as well as on the related topic of what Chazal and the Rishonim believed to be the shape of the world, see my post Rationalism and the International Dateline.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Aussie Stuff

For readers NOT in Australia: Can you guess what this animal is? It's not a hedgehog or a porcupine. (By the way, the animal pictured in the previous post was a Southern hairy-nosed wombat.) For extra points, what is the tube thing in the middle, and what is very special about this creature?

For readers in Melbourne, here is my speaking schedule for the next few days:

Friday, July 28, 2017

Counter-Terrorism for Dummies (TM)

This will, I very much hope, be the last of my posts relating to my nephew's shooting of the terrorist in Neve Tzuf. If you don't want to read any more about this topic, feel free to skip to the end of the post to see a photo of an amazing animal that I met this week.

On Facebook, I posted a link to my previous post, Armchair Commandos, with the request that people should "please read this post to see why people who are criticizing my nephew for not killing the terrorist have no idea what they are talking about and are causing unwarranted distress." Incredibly, some people responded by criticizing my nephew without reading the post!

In that post, I deliberately did not explain the reasons why my nephew did not kill the terrorist. For I wanted to stress that the more fundamental point is that if you haven't trained as a soldier, don't know the Rules of Engagement or the reasons for them, AND haven't been in such a situation, then you are simply not in a position to judge what he did.

Some people said that it was wrong for me to try to shut down discussion and "argue from authority." After all, they said, everyone's entitled to their opinion. And wasn't I being a hypocrite - after all, when the Gedolim banned my books, I didn't accept the argument from authority!

The answer to that is that there's actually no problem of logic or reason with arguing from authority. The only question is, who is considered an authority! I would argue that the charedi Gedolim are not authorities in resolving conflicts between Torah and science. (Obviously, others disagree, but I have presented ample arguments as to why they are mistaken.)

When it comes to counter-terrorism, however, the IDF and my nephew are clearly greater authorities than some random Joe Shmo with a computer. This was made very clear by the silly comments made by people with absolutely no knowledge of these things. In order to explain why they are wrong, I will have to explain some of the reasons for the IDF's rules of engagement and my nephew's actions. But I am sick of arguing this with people, and it is extremely hurtful to my family (who read my posts and the comments). Aside from dealing with the trauma of the attack itself and the loss of their neighbors, my sister and her family have had to deal with the press hounding them and the most horrific comments made about my nephew being a coward(!!!) and suchlike. So if people want to post critical comments on the arguments that I will now present, do it on your own blog or Facebook page, not here!

So here are some sample criticisms and my response (I am not a soldier either, but at least I have read about the rules of engagement and spoken to my family):

"He should have shot to kill!"
Response: That is only in the movies, not in real life. In real life, except for certain very specific types of situations (e.g. with a sniper), there is shoot to hit or shoot to miss. The human head is a relatively small target compared to the body. To maximize their chances of hitting the terrorist, soldiers are trained to shoot for the largest target, which is their torso. (It's pretty amazing that my nephew managed to hit him - after suddenly running out of his house, scaling a wall and firing through the very small kitchen window!) Shooting them in the torso may or may not result in their death. So this is the perfectly logical reason why he did not "shoot to kill." Now, someone without military training would not necessarily know this. But what they should know is that they don't have military training and therefore should not criticize!
Even if it was possible to "shoot to kill," there are very good reasons why the IDF would not train its soldiers to do that. One reason is that there have been cases of mistaken identity - of terrorist attacks in which well-meaning defenders accidentally killed the wrong person. It's much better to have a practice of simply stopping the terror attack, and then evaluating what should be done. (There are also other reasons why "shoot to kill," even if possible, would not be a wise policy.)

"He should have shot him dead afterwards!"
Response: Really? At what point exactly should he have done this? My nephew shot the terrorist, the terrorist dropped, and then my nephew ran into the house. At that point, when every second counts, he did exactly the right thing - he checked to see if there were other terrorists (for which he would need every bullet!), and he tried to stop his neighbors from bleeding to death. When exactly should he have killed him?

When help came for the victims, should he have gone to the side and quietly put a bullet in his head? Aside from the fact that the consequences for my nephew would have been disastrous, why don't you demand that of everyone else who showed up? There is a government and there are courts and terrorists get put on trial. If you want the courts to apply the death penalty, then petition the government. Don't demand whoever happens to be around the terrorist - be it the soldier, the medic, or the prison warden - to act outside of the legal system.

Again, I understand that people are frustrated that this murderer is alive and might walk free one day. Believe me, my family is every bit as upset about that as you are - and probably a lot more so. But don't vent your frustration in misplaced criticism. And if you haven't been trained and experienced in combat situations, then you are not in a position to judge those who are.

Shabbat Shalom from Australia. Here is a photo of an amazing animal that I met this week:

And here is a reminder about the Exotic Halachic Feast at The Biblical Museum of Natural History - which has a very limited number of seats available!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Armchair Commandos

(Apologies in advance if this post is too angry. I just arrived in Australia and I haven't slept much in the last two days.)

My nephew. A very sweet and sensitive young man.
In the aftermath of the terrible slaughter of the Salomon family in Neve Tsuf, there have been all the expected reactions. But one reaction, from a surprisingly large number of people, is catching my family by surprise, and is extremely upsetting.

There are a lot of people criticizing my nephew for only stopping the terrorist and not killing him. I'm not talking about people innocently seeking to understand what happened; I am talking about people passing judgment on my nephew, and saying what he should have done instead.

It's hard to find the words to explain how foolish this is. In order to voice any such opinion, you'd have to (A) know what it means to be a soldier, (B) know the IDF rules of engagement, (C) understand the reasons for the rules of engagement (there are at least three good reasons not to kill wounded terrorists, and even more in this case), (D) know what it's like to suddenly run from your Shabbos table to find your neighbors being killed, and (E) know the precise details of what happened in Neve Tsuf, including the layout of the house and how the shot was taken. I'm pretty sure that all these people criticizing my nephew fail on most if not all of these.

People voicing these criticisms are not only being foolish; they are also causing a lot of distress to my family. Now, when I first spoke to my sister, right after Shabbos went out, and I told her how sorry I was for her, she replied, "It's not about me, it's about them." Of course, she was being her typically selfless self; the truth is that while nobody's suffering can compare to that of the Salomon family, my sister and her family are also suffering immensely. How people can add to that by criticizing the heroic actions of my nephew is beyond me.

The problem is that people do not realize that they do not understand that which they think they understand. And it's so easy to lecture other people as to what they should have done, when you're merely sitting at your computer, with no real knowledge of such situations. It's the same with people criticizing the government for not enacting wide-scale actions against the Palestinians as retribution. It's easy to say such things when you don't actually have to consider the potential consequences of such actions.

I understand that people feel tremendous grief and rage. But if you're giving voice to that, please try to express it appropriately. And if you don't understand why someone acted as they did - whether a soldier, a prime minister, or anyone - then try to find out and understand why they did what they did, before passing judgement. (This is an important lesson for lessening disputes in general. People are not usually "crazy." If someone does something that you see as deeply wrong or absurd, try to understand why they did it. There's usually a reason.)

And if you really want to help Neve Tsuf, please donate to help them install a more advanced security system, at this link.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The news of the murders in Neve Tzuf is devastating. I knew the father, Yossi Salomon; he was my sister's next-door neighbor. I don't want to say too much about what happened before I can find out what exactly is permissible for public release; I will say that I am very proud of my nephew, who shot the terrorist, the second time that he has stopped a terror attack. But it's awful that he had to do it; in real life, such heroics are not fun at all. 

Upon reading the terrorist's claim that he was doing it to protect Al-Aksa mosque after what the Zionists are doing (i.e. installing metal detectors), my first reaction was to think, If only they had not put up the metal detectors, then these people would still be alive! But, of course, it's not so simple. In the long run, capitulating to such things does not necessarily serve to protect more lives. Israel is not the West, where compromise leads to peace; instead, compromise is often seen as weakness, spurring on further hostilities. On the other hand, it was certainly a lesson to me in that it's so easy to call for Bibi to take a harder line when you don't actually have to face the potential consequences.

I don't have anything more to add right now. May Hashem heal the wounded survivors of the attack, may He comfort the family, and may He avenge the dead. And may we never hear of such things again.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hail To The Chief!

The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rav Ephraim Mirvis, has accomplished something extraordinary. He took an impossible situation, and through his strength, wisdom and political acumen, solved it.

For those who don't know, I am talking about his resolution of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in London. Over the last few months, there has been a storm raging in British Jewry about (depending on which side you are on) various controversial teachings of his, and the response to this by various rabbis and other people. When Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef declared that Rabbi Dweck should not be allowed to serve as Rabbi, this seemed to have forced the conclusion. Yet, through some supernatural miracle that I cannot explain, Rabbi Yosef then put out a letter admitting that as a non-Brit he was not really qualified to evaluate the situation, and that it should be resolved by Rabbi Mirvis, whose judgment he would accept. Rabbi Mirvis put together a review committee, consisting of various senior Dayanim and - very significantly - a QC. They decided that Rabbi Dweck should remain in his position as senior rabbi, after he issued an apology for some of his teachings, stepped down from his position on the Beit Din, and an agreement to be more cautious in future. (I am simplifying matters - see the full report elsewhere.)

Several people had written to me over the last few months, asking me to write in defense of Rabbi Dweck. I did not do so (although I did defend him against the disgusting attacks of Yosef Mizrachi), for several reasons. One is that I felt that, being who I am, stepping in would inflame matters rather than help them. But another reason is that I felt that I simply did not know enough about the situation. 

I find it amazing, and disturbing, how many people are ready to form strong opinions on controversial matters about which they know very little. For example, a few years ago, someone asked (and expected) me to voice my support for a woman stuck in a certain messy divorce case. But I refused to do so, for the simple reason that I did not feel that I knew enough about the situation. While her story seemed compelling, there are very often (if not always) two sides to a story.

The initial storm surrounding Rabbi Dweck was based on a shiur that he gave about homosexuality - a shiur that I did not listen to, on a topic that I know very little about. The subsequent controversy surrounded various statements that he made over the years - and once again, I have no idea what these were. So how on earth was I supposed to give an opinion?

What I find particularly distressing is how many people are criticizing the Chief Rabbi even though they, too, lack knowledge of the situation. There are numerous ordinarily intelligent people condemning Rabbi Mirvis for even the very limited way in which Rabbi Dweck was not fully vindicated. They have accused Rabbi Mirvis of giving in to charedi bullies. But how on earth do they know this to be the case? Maybe Rabbi Mirvis (or the Dayanim that he appointed - at least of whom is definitely not one to fall in line with charedi "Daas Torah") - actually did believe that some of Rabbi Dweck's teachings were problematic? After all, there certainly are at least *some* non-charedi rabbinic figures who feel that way. And, as I discussed in the previous post, you can't claim that *every* statement should be automatically acceptable within Orthodoxy.

So, while it's *possible* that Rabbi Mirvis kowtowed to charedi pressure, it's also perfectly possible that he reached an honest judgement based on his personal appraisal of the situation. And I see no reason why one should not assume this to be case. Furthermore, it seems that people who are so sure of themselves in criticizing Rabbi Mirvis don't actually know any more than I do about the details of the questionable teachings. So it would be appropriate for them to simply keep silent.

There's another reason why they should keep silent. You can be sure that the zealots who tried to destroy Rabbi Dweck will be up in arms about Rabbi Mirvis' verdict to permit him to stay in his post. They will point to Rav Yitzchak Yosef's condemnation of him. And yet, Rav Yosef subsequently wrote that people should go by whatever Rabbi Mirvis decides. If you want Rabbi Dweck's opponents to follow Rabbi Mirvis's decision, then you should likewise follow it and not protest it.

I am far from the only one to be in awe of how magnificently the Chief Rabbi handled this very difficult situation. One well-known commentator on the Orthodox community wrote to me "I was overwhelmed by the difference between the way they handled you - and a dozen other issues in Bnei Brak and NY - and the way they satisfactorily dealt with the Rabbi Dweck in London.  Maybe you Brits are on to something!" Chief Rabbi Mirvis took a near-unsolvable situation and resolved it. To adapt an American expression to this British situation, Hail to the Chief!

(I wrote this post in the airport in a hurry, and now I am boarding a plane to Bangkok. So I hope that there are no errors, and I apologize if there are.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Orthodoxy and Heresy

Over the last few weeks, there have been a variety of different controversies regarding who is In and Out of Orthodoxy. I don't want to get into specific discussions regarding any of these cases. Instead, I would just like to share some general thoughts, extrapolated from my own experiences, about Judaism, Orthodoxy, heresy, and how it relates to cricket.

When several of my books were notoriously banned for being heretical, this was obviously extremely upsetting, to put it mildly. Many people, with the best of intentions, attempted to console me by saying things like, "Well, I haven't read your books, but if they were banned, then they must be good! After all, Rambam's books were banned also!" Well, yes, they banned Rambam. But they also banned Spinoza! To quote Carl Sagan: "The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” 

A similarly mistaken argument put forth in my defense was that banning books is by definition wrong. But I couldn't agree with that either. Yes, banning books may be strategically unwise. However, you can't claim that Judaism is against banning ideas that are deemed harmful. The Torah is full of messages about how paganism must be eradicated and idols destroyed. Classical Judaism has always maintained that if ideologies are genuinely wrong and dangerous, then they should indeed be fought (in a strategically wise way). Like it or not, Judaism is not a pluralistic religion. 

My defense against the ban was not that it is wrong to ban books. Rather, it was that there was nothing in my books that was heretical. The central points that were deemed problematic - my saying that the account of Creation need not be interpreted literally, and that the Sages of the Talmud were not correct in all their statements about the natural world - had all been said by great Rishonim and Acharonim that were universally accepted, even in charedi circles. And I had been taught in yeshivah that Rishonim K'Malachim - the early Torah scholars are like angels, and it is unthinkable to declare their views of Torah to be treife.

However, as events progressed, I saw that my defense was problematic. It became clear that for charedi society (at least, the vocal parts), the overriding value was that one does not evaluate Torah "in light of" modern science, and certainly not to say that Chazal were incorrect in any of their statements. And so even though charedi society claimed that Rishonim k'Malachim, this was evidently mere lip-service; in practice, if any Rishonim said that Chazal were incorrect, it meant that the Rishonim were espousing a warped view of Chazal a.k.a. heresy.

And so while it was understandable that I had thought that my books would be acceptable in charedi circles, due to Rishonim k'Malachim, I was mistaken. The infallibility of Chazal, the unthinkability of the rationalist approach, was much more important in charedi circles than Rishonim k'Malachim.

Once I reached that realization, it was clear that I could no longer attempt to claim that my books should be acceptable in charedi circles. I could (and still do) argue that they were being inconsistent about the reverence that they claimed to have for Rishonim. And I could argue that the way that they treated me was disgraceful. But I could not argue that the rationalist approach should be permissible in charedi society. Every society has the right to define for itself which values and beliefs they treasure, and charedi society had made it clear that the rationalist approach to Torah/science issues was unacceptable to them.

Every group has the right to define its own boundaries. You can't go to England, insist that cricket should be played according to the rules that make sense to you, and expect to be accepted into the game. Of course, there will always be tension between those who seek to define the boundaries narrowly, and those who seek to define them broadly. And there will always be people who are just motivated by tribalism, lusts for power, and evil intentions (and these people should be denounced just as strongly as alleged "heretics"). But just as there are mistakes on the right, by people who attempt to define Judaism or Orthodoxy in such a way as to exclude its greatest figures, likewise there are mistakes on the left, by people who, to all intents and purposes, seem to believe that Judaism or Orthodoxy should have no boundaries.

There can be debate about what exactly the boundaries of Orthodoxy and Judaism are. But if you're going to claim that everything is acceptable, then you don't understand what Judaism and Orthodoxy is.

(Reminder: All the materials relating to the ban on my books can be found at

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Were Chazal Able To Extract Science From Torah?

Let's get back to my multi-part critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science. On p. 4, after quoting various Midrashim about Torah being the blueprint of the world, which Rabbi Meiselman (like many others) understands to mean that it encodes all scientific knowledge, he claims as follows:
...It should come as no surprise, then, that we find so many incidents recorded in the Gemara and midrashim in which our Chachamim were able to derive facts about the physical world directly from the Torah.
Unfortunately, this claim is entirely false. Not only do we not find "so many" such incidents; we do not find a single one. That is, we know of no case where Chazal extracted information about the natural world from the Torah and it turned out to be correct. On the other hand, we know of several cases where Chazal extracted information about the natural world from the Torah and it does not appear to be correct (and can only be made irrelevant via strained apologetics which require claiming that the Rishonim did not explain the Gemara correctly).

In this post, we shall discuss the first example brought by Rabbi Meiselman, concerning the gestation of the snake. Here is the passage brought in the Gemara (R. Meiselman brings a lengthier version from the Midrash):
(The gestation period for) a snake is seven years… How do we know this? Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav…: As it says, “You are cursed from all the domestic animals and from all the beasts of the field” (Bereishis 3:14). If the snake is cursed more than all the domestic animals (which have a gestation period of at least five months), then surely all the more so it is cursed more than the wild animals (whose minimum gestation period is only 50 days)! Rather, it tells you that just as a domestic animal is cursed seven times more than a wild animal – namely, the donkey (which has a gestation period of one year) and the cat (whose gestation period, according the Gemara earlier, is 52 days) – so too is the snake cursed seven times more than the domesticated animal, which results in seven years. (Talmud, Bechoros 8a) 
The problem, as acknowledged by Rabbi Meiselman in a footnote, is that the gestation period of snakes is not seven years. (Sometimes, snakes can store their sperm for several years, but this does not help us; firstly, the majority of snakes do not store the sperm at all, and when it does happen, it can be for less and more than seven years.) Rabbi Meiselman addresses this problem as follows: "But again it must be recalled that Chazal were speaking of a specific species, the identity of which is unknown to us and under conditions unknown to us." Yet this is just as unreasonable as positing that the atalef of the Gemara is a platypus. If the Gemara had meant to refer to a particular and very unusual type of snake, it would have said so. Instead, it used the generic term nachash.

Furthermore, as a reader here once pointed out, there are other inaccurate statements in the Gemara about snakes. Chazal warn against drinking from an unattended wine glass unattended, in case a snake dripped venom into it, and they likewise warn against eating fruit with punctures in it, lest snakes injected venom there. But snakes do not drink with their mouths open, do not bite fruit, and their venom is perfectly safe to ingest; it is only dangerous if it enters the bloodstream. So Rabbi Meiselman's hypothetical unknown particular species of snake that is strangely unspecified and which gives birth after exactly seven years now also has a number of other characteristics that are completely at odds with all the thousands of species of snakes known to science. There is probably no point at which Rabbi Meiselman feels he is straining credulity; but for the rest of us, he passed that point long ago.

Rabbi Meiselman says that his point is not to prove Chazal's knowledge of nature from this Midrash, but only to show that they claimed their knowledge to be derived from Torah. But that doesn't help very much, when every indication is that they were not able to derive this knowledge correctly! (With regard to what is going on in the Gemara, and especially the longer version in the Midrash brought by Rabbi Meiselman, see Rabbi Josh Waxman's analysis.)

Note too that this very same page of Gemara discusses the gestation period of other animals (as discussed in an earlier post):
The [gestation period of a] fox and all kinds of creeping creatures is six months... The [gestation period of] small clean animals is five months... The [gestation period of] large unclean domestic animals is twelve months... The [gestation period of] clean large cattle is nine months... The [gestation period of the] wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, elephant, and monkey is three years...
Rabbi Meiselman only references this Gemara in a footnote, on p. 6, where he presents two possibilities. One is that the Gemara is not talking about the length of gestation, but rather "some other aspect of the reproductive process." This vague speculation does not seriously address the issues. What other aspect could be reconciled with these statements? What aspect of the reproductive process can be said to be fifty days with a dog, six months with a fox, and three years with a wolf? Furthermore, this does not address the other problematic statements on this page of Gemara, such as that any species in which the male has internal genitalia lays eggs, or that camels mate backwards, or that any two types of animal that mate in the same position and have the same gestation period can interbreed.

Rabbi Meiselman's other suggestion is that "the facts of nature have simply changed over the years." This claim (which is ironically often advanced by those who simultaneously argue that evolution is scientifically impossible) cannot be taken at all seriously by anyone even remotely familiar with zoology. Elephants used to lay eggs, but no longer do so? Countless species used to be interfertile, but are no longer interfertile? Camels used to mate back-to-back, but now awkwardly twist themselves around to mate front-to-back? Wolves, which are genetically virtually identical to dogs, used to have a gestation period of three years?!

Were Chazal able to extract scientific knowledge from Torah? The only honest answer to that appears to be no. But let us phrase the question a little differently. Did Chazal consider themselves able to extract science from Torah, and if so, to what extent and to what degree of reliability? And to what extent was their self-assessment accepted or disputed by later authorities? There are indeed certain indications that Chazal did consider themselves able to reliably extract science from Torah:
The Emperor once asked R. Joshua b. Hanania: ‘How long is the period of gestation and birth of a serpent’? — He replied to him: ‘Seven years’. ‘But did not the Sages of the Athenian school couple’ [a male serpent with a female] and they gave birth in three years’? — ‘Those had already been pregnant for four years’. ‘But did they not have sexual contact’? — ‘Serpents have sexual intercourse in the same manner as human beings’.‘But are not [the sages of Athens] wise men [and surely they must have ascertained the true facts about the serpent]’? ‘We are wiser than they.' (Bechoros 8b)

On the other hand, the fact that they argued with each other about facts such as the path of the sun and the source of rain means that they acknowledged that they weren't necessarily correct in their exegeses. And indeed, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi conceded that the non-Jewish astronomers were correct about where the sun goes at night, even though the Jewish sages had connected their view to a Scriptural exegesis. It would seem that although where Jewish pride was at stake, Chazal insisted on their superiority, otherwise they acknowledged that their methodology would not necessarily yield correct results. As indeed it didn't.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

When Jews Betray Israel

A Public Letter To the Editor of Mishpachah Magazine:

In his most recent column, Eytan Kobre criticizes non-Orthodox Jews who, in their anger at the actions of the Government of Israel with regard to religion, attempt to harm Israel and stir up opposition from non-Jews. It is good to see Mr. Kobre standing up for Israel, in light of an earlier column of his in which he dismissed the significance of Israel. However, the way in which he criticizes those seeking to harm Israel is rather dishonest. He writes: 
"...Have Orthodox Jews ever made the kinds of threats against this country and its people that we’re now hearing, things like withholding donations and terminating business dealings that will impair the Israeli economy? Have Orthodox Jews ever suggested, as Conservative clergyman Daniel Gordis has, that “Israeli hospitals survive in part thanks to American Jewish philanthropy. The flow of money should stop. Meetings with hospitals’ fundraisers should be canceled”? Have Orthodox Jews put constituent pressure on members of Congress to involve themselves in an internal matter of Israeli politics and religion and decry Israel’s lack of religious freedom for all America to hear, as heterodox Jewish leaders have now done?" 

Well, the unfortunate answer is yes, Orthodox Jews have indeed engaged in such actions. In 2013 there was a rally against the policies of the Israeli Government with regard to drafting yeshivah students, which was held in Manhattan, for all America to see. The rally had tens of thousands of people and numerous rabbinic dignitaries, including not only Satmar rabbanim but also Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Aaron Schechter, Rav Osher Kalmanovitz, Rav Shlomo Feivel Shustal, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman (who was once praised to the heavens by Eytan Kobre in a fawning profile in Mishpachah magazine) and others. The speakers described Israel as an "evil regime" and talked about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling.” The event was reported by the New York Daily News, along with various pro-Palestinian outlets who presented it as evidence that authentic Jews are opposed to the brutal Zionist regime.

Then just a few weeks ago, there was a rally at the Barclays Center, primarily with Satmar chassidim but again also supported by Litvishe rabbonim such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Aaron Schechter and others. This event was likewise intended to send a message to people outside the Jewish community, as reported in a press release by The Central Rabbinical Congress of the USA and Canada (CRC): "We want the world to know about their (Haredi Jews) plight, that their religious rights are being systematically abused. The Israeli government isn't allowing for freedom of assembly or freedom of speech on this issue," said CRC spokesman Rabbi Isaac Green. Rabbi David Niederman, Intergovernmental Liaison for the CRC, stated: "International law under Section 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights demands for exemption of military service based on ones' sincerely held conscience. Unfortunately, it is a right that the Israeli government has withheld from our community."

Nor did Rabbi Niederman describe the function of the effort as being limited to words - he said that he hoped to exert pressure in terms of financial aid to Israel. "Niederman said rally organizers hoped to influence American lawmakers who give Israel billions of dollars in defense aid. If the U.S. and Israeli governments don’t pay heed, the Satmar community will take additional steps, he said, though he declined to give specifics."

Rabbi Niederman should be familiar to readers of Mishpachah magazine, as he was once featured on the cover of the magazine, and he was praised as an outstanding example of an Orthodox Jewish diplomat. If Mr. Kobre is going to criticize non-Orthodox Jews for their betrayal of Israel, then he should not deny that the same sin is sometimes committed by Orthodox Jews, including those who are praised in this very magazine.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Around the World in Thirty-Two Days

I'm a terrible traveler. Until I discovered a travel medication that worked for me, I would regularly pass out on airplanes and throw up on boats. El-Al had me sign waivers of liability so many times, I feared they would put me on a no-fly list. It also takes me anywhere up to a month to recover from jet-lag, especially traveling east. With that in mind, you'll understand that I have somewhat mixed feelings about a spectacular itinerary that I have for this summer.

My route map according to Google. Though I doubt
that El-Al flies over Iran.
In two weeks, I am going around the world! Not only that, but I'm going further south than I've ever been and further north than I've ever been. This journey includes travel by airplane, ship, boat, and three other exciting forms of transport that I will reveal in due course (and it's not elephant or camel or giant tortoise, which I have done previously but will not be doing on this trip). I'll be setting out east to Bangkok, then south to Perth, then east to Melbourne, then north-east to Los Angeles, then north to Seattle, then north-west to Alaska and Victoria (British Columbia), and then back to Seattle, LA and home to Israel. The total distance is nearly forty thousand miles!

It must be said that modern transport is truly astonishing. For most of human history, making such a journey required an exceedingly dangerous ocean voyage. In 1870, when the technological breakthroughs of steamships, railroads and the Suez Canal enabled relatively easy circumnavigation of the globe, it was still an exciting challenge to think of doing it in as little as eighty days, as immortalized in Jules Verne's acclaimed novel. Even when airplanes were invented, the first commercial flights to Australia took up to twelve days, and required several changes of aircraft and up to forty-two refueling stops. Today, I can travel to Australia in just two Dramamines!

A behind-the-scenes kangaroo encounter
at Jungle Island in Florida
There are multiple purposes for this trip. It's a combination of lectures, shooting video for museum exhibits and a documentary, acquiring museum exhibits, fundraising, and part of it is a family vacation. Since one of the purposes is filming about Biblical zoology, and Biblical zoology is the animals that live in precisely the place where I'm not going to be, one might wonder how exactly the scenes are going to be relevant. Don't worry, that question will be answered, and I hope to be posting clips and photos from some truly extraordinary animal encounters. (Not kangaroos - you can see those at any good zoo!)

The shiurim that I am giving in Alaska are not only about wildlife, but also about other Jewish concepts relating to Alaska (for which I will be admittedly have to resort to being a little creative). But in addition, the entire concept of a country down under the world, and flying around the world, raises some interesting questions about Jewish intellectual history, which I plan exploring in some blog-posts over the next few weeks. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog via e-mail, using the form on the right of the web page. (Remember that you have to confirm the subscription; if you don't get an email requesting confirmation, check your spam folder.)

If you live in Perth, Melbourne or LA and you'd like to host a fundraising event for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! (The same invitation is open to readers in Bangkok and Alaska, but I suspect that I don't have much of an audience there.) I will also be returning to the US - to New York - in October, and to Toronto in December, so please be in touch if you would like to arrange a speaking or fundraising engagement then. Meanwhile, we have truly excellent guides at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, so if you're in Israel, come visit!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Is There a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living?

In light of everything going on, I would like to strongly recommend a wonderful and very important article by Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried, "Is There a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living? And If So, How Can We Connect Them? A Focus on Middos,” from Hakirah: The Flatbush Journal of Law and Thought, Volume 6 (Summer 2008) pp. 11–56, freely downloadable at this link. It certainly does not account for all or even most of the Lakewood situation, but it assists with a certain aspect of it. Definitely worth reading, and if you've read it before, it's worth reading again!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Behold the Cave Bear!

Last week, the Biblical Museum of Natural History received an astounding donation from Avraham and Rebecca Silverstein of Netanya - an extraordinary collection of taxidermy and other zoological artifacts. It filled some holes in our collection of Biblical animals - we finally have a leopard! And there are also some animals which, while not Biblical, help illustrate other Torah concepts, such as shofars and kashrus.

Aside from the leopard, another important Biblical animal that was missing from our collection was a bear. Bears are mentioned on several occasions in Scripture, and lived wild in Israel until exactly one hundred years ago. But it's proven difficult to acquire a taxidermied bear for the museum. Last year we were offered a bear by one of our taxidermy suppliers, but he wanted 40,000 NIS for a specimen that was only four feet tall. I wasn't going to spend forty thousand shekels on Paddington Bear! But the Silverstein collection included a bear - sort of.

The unquestionable highlight of the collection is the complete skeleton of an extinct cave bear! According to the information on this specimen, it was found over a hundred years ago in a limestone cave near Trieste, Italy. This skeleton, standing over seven feet tall, represents a unique specimen in that all of the bones belong to a single adult individual. Most fossil cave bear mounts on exhibit in European museums are composite skeletons from cave deposits which have preserved the remains of hundreds of bears over long periods of time; sorting for accurate anatomic assembly is virtually impossible. The cave where this specimen was found yielded only one specimen. Thus, the present specimen is a faithful anatomical example of this once great extinct species. Possessing the distinction as the first fossil cave bear skeleton to be mounted in an upright position, the specimen is virtually complete and very well preserved.

The paleontological record indicates that this species of cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) existed almost exclusively in Europe, from approximately 300,000 to 10,000 years ago. Depictions on cave walls by Ice Age humans, and examination of its skeletal structure, indicate that the species resembled a brown bear or grizzly bear at first glance. But Ursus spelaeus was much larger on average and displayed a more domed head and a higher forehead profile. The body had a relatively long neck on a barrel-shaped torso, with limbs rather short but very powerful as compared to those of the living brown bear.

So, it's a spectacular and historically important specimen. And it fills an important Biblical niche in the museum. But the problem is that, as I have taken pains to make clear, the Biblical Museum of Natural History is intended for audiences across the religious spectrum. We don't display anything that would offend the sensitivities of the charedi community. No dinosaurs, no talk about evolution, no talk about the world being millions of years old. So what do we do with a bear that is approximately a hundred thousand years old?

The answer is simple. As I instructed the guides, the only thing that they need to say about the cave bear is that it is extinct (like the re'em). If necessary, they can add that it died before the mabul. There's no need to say exactly how long ago it died!

Ironically, as much as I have tried to keep prehistoric dinosaurs out of the museum, it's some of our most charedi visitors who have brought them up. I recall one of our Israeli chassidic visitors asking me why we don't display dinosaur skeletons. And last week, in a tour group of 60 chassidic children, when I asked them to identify a certain skull, one of them excitedly shouted out, "a dinosaur!" (it was actually a lion.) "Ho ho ho," I chortled, "A dinosaur?! We don't have any dinosaurs here!"

So, this spectacular cave bear is just being presented as a Very Old Bear. As I tell our visitors who ask about dinosaurs, I try to stay away from controversial topics!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Other Civil Service

In the UK, US, and many other countries, the Civil Service is the sector of government staffed by career bureaucrats rather than political appointees. But in Israel, civil service is something else entirely.

You've heard of Sherut Leumi, National Service, the program by which young women (and sometimes men) who are not serving in the IDF instead serve the country in other ways, such as by working at hospitals or certain types of non-profit institutions. We have an outstanding young man doing his Sherut Leumi at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and we have a young woman signed up for next year. But we recently discovered an additional framework: Sherut Ezrachi, Civil (or perhaps better translated Civilian) Service.

These are the kinds of groups for which we need a Sherut Ezrachi person!
Sherut Ezrachi differs from Sherut Leumi in certain key ways. It's only for men. The minimum age is 21. It lasts for longer than Sherut Leumi. It's specifically designed for charedi men. When the official in charge of the program came to visit the museum, to see if we could be accepted into the framework, we were asked the usual questions about what we do, but there were also some novel additional questions on his checklist: Are there local minyanim? (Yes.) Would any yichud problems arise? (No.)

But what was particularly interesting was when we asked him if we could advertise in the local charedi media to find someone suitable. The answer was no. The person explained that Sherut Ezrachi is a very sensitive topic; if they try (or if it even looks like they are trying) to attract people who would otherwise remain in yeshivah, then the charedi leadership will come out against it.

There are some anti-Zionists who would denounce Sherut Ezrachi as being a nefarious scheme of the treife medinah. And there are doubtless some hyper-Zionists who would denounce Sherut Ezrachi as being wrong due to it being unfair that it is part of a system that enables Charedim to avoid army so easily. However, we do not live in a perfect world. Given the realities of society, Sherut Ezrachi appears to be an admirable way to help young charedi men serve the country and integrate into the workforce.

So if you know of any young charedi men who would like to do Sherut Ezrachi at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, teaching people about the amazing relationship between Torah and the animal kingdom, then please send them our way. But not if they would otherwise stay in yeshivah!

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Feast of Exotic Curiosities

The Biblical Museum of Natural History, on the occasion of its third anniversary, is delighted to invite its Patrons to a unique and exclusive Feast of Exotic Curiosities, featuring an amazing menu of gourmet dishes of halachic intrigue, prepared by internationally renowned Chef Moshe Basson, with presentations by distinguished Rabbis, Scholars and Dignitaries!

Date: Monday, 2nd October 2017 / 12th Tishrei, 5778, at 7pm
Place: The Biblical Museum of Natural History, Beit Shemesh

For details and updates, and a gallery of photos from last year's dinner, see

This event will be different from last year's, in terms of the menu. Last year's event was a Feast Of Biblical Flora & Fauna - it was specifically Biblical foods. This year's event is virtually all non-Biblical foods, of exotic culinary/halachic natures.

Tickets for non-patrons are $360 per person, and are subject to availability. For reservations, write to

This means as follows: The event is first and foremost for our patrons. However, we don't expect all of our patrons to be in Israel at the time, and thus there will also be seats available for purchase, for $360 per person (which may sound like a lot, but it barely covers the costs for this complicated event!) Since we won't know until closer to the time how many of our patrons will be able to attend, non-patrons who purchase seats will be on a waiting list. Of course, you can avoid having to be on a waiting list by becoming a patron ;-)

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.

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!

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!

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