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)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Denying Extremism, Dismissing Hooliganism

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs at Agudath Israel of America, just published an article, in response to an earlier column by Shoshana Keats Jaskoll, with the title: "Why Do Some Fellow Jews Scorn The Ultra-Orthodox?" Now, that is a question with several reasonable answers, none of which are adequate on their own, but all of which undoubtedly play a role. Some of them are the fault of charedim, such as the ever-painful IDF issue, and the under-contribution to the professional workforce. Others are no fault of the charedim and are due to innate bias against people who present themselves as being more religious.

But Rabbi Shafran does not acknowledge that there might be any good reasons to disapprove of the charedi community. Instead, he addresses just two potential reasons, which he denies.

The first is Ms. Jaskoll's report that "Increasingly, images of women are disappearing from publications, billboards, bank and health clinic brochures in Israel." Rabbi Shafran claimed that this is false: "Many haredi publications, in the interest of the Jewish idea of modesty, have always refrained from including photos of women; that’s no new or ominous development." Rabbi Shafran is perverting the truth here, and he surely knows it. To be sure, there are certain hassidic groups which have always refrained from including photos of women. However, the Litvishe world - that to which Rabbi Shafran belongs - used to have no problem including photos of women, and it is only recently that they have stopped doing so. So there is indeed a major new development, and Rabbi Shafran is being dishonest to claim otherwise.

Rabbi Shafran then argues that it is intolerant to object to this practice: "Ms. Jaskoll is welcome to find the position extreme, and I would tend to agree. But we differ in that I don’t disparage people for making choices I wouldn’t make. The word for that is 'intolerance.' ” Another lot of nonsense. Rabbi Shafran certainly disparages people for making choices that he believes to be wrong - he does so in this very article! And this is all the more true when these choices harm others. Removing women from publications is deeply upsetting and harmful to many women in those very communities (as well as often being imposed on media outside of those communities). Calling it "intolerant" to try to stand up for them is as absurd. It's like praising Madoff and disparaging Sully. It's like claiming that charedim believe in female empowerment. It's like claiming that a lack of critical thinking is a greater problem outside of the charedi world than inside it. (Okay, I had better stop giving examples of absurd things, since Rabbi Shafran has argued for each of these.)

Rabbi Shafran then moves on the second criticism that Ms. Jaskoll leveled against the charedi community: the fact that hooligans are not merely a group of outliers, distant from the rest of charedi society, but rather they are part of a larger phenomenon of increasing extremism. Rabbi Shafran expresses extreme skepticism at Ms. Jaskoll's reports about ongoing hooliganism in Beit Shemesh. Well, as a resident of Beit Shemesh, I can also attest that these reports are entirely true. My relatives and friends have often been cursed at or had things thrown at them by extremist charedim of all ages. These incidents mostly take place in and around an area called RBS-B, where hundreds of charedi adults will be standing around watching and not doing anything as teenage girls are harassed. During the municipal elections, such behavior extended to the more mainstream charedi area of RBS-A, where activists for the non-Charedi candidate were called Nazis, by both street youth and certain charedi public officials.

Rabbi Shafran claims that the blame for such behavior should not be extended to anyone outside of group of hooligans themselves. But this is patently false. Communal responsibility is a theme that runs throughout the Torah. And as I pointed out in a post two years ago, there is no sharp disconnect between the hooligans and other charedim with regard to religious zealotry.

There is a continuous spectrum ranging from physical violence to verbal abuse towards outsiders which exists throughout the charedi world. Furthermore, while the people at each level do not agree with the level of hostility coming from people to their right, there is near-constant refusal to condemn it. And even people who are horrified by the violence nonetheless produce inflamed rhetoric which creates an atmosphere that allows it and contributes to it.

At the extreme right you have a group of Meah Shearim and RBS-Bet hooligans who will commit physical violence against people. Less to the right are others from those communities who will not commit physical violence, but they publish the chardak campaign which portrays soldiers as pigs and evil beasts out to seize innocent charedim. Then less to the right are the Rav Shmuel Auerbach faction and suchlike, who describe Israel as a terrorist state and hold riots against conscription. Then moving left into the right wing of the mainstream Litvishe world, there is regular talk of people who are pro-equal army service being "Amalek" and suchlike. Then people across the board in the charedi world attended the notorious selfishness and ingratitude rally in which Shefoch chamascha was recited against the Israeli government. Then even supposedly "moderate" charedi rabbonim in RBS-A tacitly endorse newspapers which paint non-charedi politicians as Nazis.

Each of these groups does not approve of the actions of those on their right. But, with rare exceptions, they will never condemn them. During the peak of violence against the children and parents of a religious Zionist school in Beit Shemesh, there was a rally to show empathy and support for that community. It was attended by a broad cross-section of religious Zionists from across Beit Shemesh - and by virtually no charedim.

Why are they so reluctant to acknowledge and condemn violence? Sometimes this is because they are afraid of not appearing frum/ right wing enough, and sometimes it is because they see it as more important not to break ranks with other charedim than to condemn violence. Whatever the reason, as long as matters are this way, non-charedim are correct to consider verbal/physical violence as a charedi problem. The problem is not the attackers, per se; it is that the attackers are part of a larger community which exudes hostility and ingratitude to Zionist Israel at every level and which almost never condemns verbal and physical violence from the right.

Who should condemn charedi extremist violence? Everyone. And the further you are to the religious right, the louder you should be condemning it. The fact that the charedi community is so reluctant to do so is part of the problem.

Rabbi Shafran concludes his article by claiming that criticism of charedi society is like antisemitism - logically and morally wrong. I think it's time for him to check his logical and moral compass.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Evils of Civic Responsibility and National Pride?

A rabbinic colleague of mine recently purchased a Hebrew illustrated children's haggadah, Me-Avdut LeCherut, published by Yefeh Nof, to study with his youngest child. The copyright page includes a "hechsher" - an emblem announcing that it is a "kosher sefer," under the "Committee for the Kashrus of Books" established by a Machon Eshnav in Bnei Brak. The copyright page further includes not only the name of the "Torah editor," but also the person involved in the "Spiritual Oversight" (pikuach ruchani). Each of the cartoon illustrations, we are told in the introduction, brings to life various lessons that are taught in Torah sources.

With all this stress on the theological kashrus of the material, you'd expect it to be a very "safe" book. But my friend got to the first page, illustrating the cruelty of the slavery in Egypt, and was horrified. As am I.

The Egyptians are depicted as evil taskmasters with whips, maliciously lashing their Jewish slaves. But the statements they are uttering are not about how the Jews must suffer undue hardships and suffering. Rather, they are about basic civil responsibility - in particular, the statements commonly uttered in contemporary Israeli discourse. "You need to contribute to the state," says one taskmaster, "not just study Torah all day." And another Egyptian, with a snarl on his face as he raises his whip, says, "There needs to be an equal sharing of the burden!" The Hebrew phrase used, shivayon be'netel, is the phrase instantly recognizable to all Israelis as referring to the need for all Israeli communities, including charedi communities, to share the burden of supporting the economy and serving in the IDF.

I'm not sure which is worse - that an ostensibly super-kosher haggadah for children is pushing a hardline political worldview, or that the editors think that civic responsibility represents the evil of Ancient Egypt. I'll bet that children educated with such messages would guess that phrases such as "Shall your brethren go to battle, while you remain here?" were coined by evil Amalekites like Yair Lapid, rather than by Moshe Rabbeinu. Even the charedi Mishpacha magazine published an article by Jonathan Rosenblum stating that we all need charedim to get academic education and professional employment, for the sake of funding the IDF as well as supporting the economy. Rosenblum is clearly fighting an uphill battle, when children are being taught that civic responsibility is an evil Egyptian concept.

But even Mishpacha is hardly teaching good lessons about being part of a nation. In a recent column, Eytan Kobre condemns people feeling national pride in Israel's accomplishments in entrepreneurship, scientific discovery and innovation, economic strength, and sports. He bases this off a wild expansion of a statement by Rav Saadia Gaon that “Ein umaseinu umah ela b’Toroseha — Our nation is not a nation other than by virtue of its Written and Oral Torahs.” In fact, the original Arabic refers to the commandments rather than the Torah, and Rav Saadiah is merely establishing why the commandments are always binding. But Kobre takes it much further:
"Nothing other than our possession of the Torah plays any role in our national character, nothing whatsoever. Not a common land, language, and culture."
Apparently Kobre has forgotten about much of Sefer Bereishis and the first part of Shemos, in which we are established as a nation, descended from the forefathers, with a unique culture (and perhaps even a unique language), and in which we receive a promise of inheriting the Land of Israel. All of these are certainly a role in our national character, and they were all before we received the Torah.

Kobre continues:
"Not winning four games, or 15, in a baseball competition. Not ranking on some non-Jew’s list as the world’s eighth-strongest power. Not being a world leader in hi-tech R&D or entrepreneurship or 21st century Nobel Laureates. Not even boasting one of the world’s best-trained and equipped fighting forces. Of course, we should hope and pray that Israel’s economy thrives, and feel great when it does — and thank the Reason for it, too. That means Jews will have parnassah. Of course we need to be able to defend ourselves against the wolves that encircle us. But there’s a world of difference between feeling good that Jews are secure and have parnassah, and one’s heart swelling with national pride and feelings of 'we’ll show them…' "
Rabbi Sholom Gold has already penned an open letter with a harsh and devastating critique of Kobre. There are an abundance of explicit pesukim in Tanach which state precisely the opposite of Kobre's claim - verses which clearly demonstrate national pride in military and economic achievements. Which makes it particularly amusing/tragic that Kobre claims to be explicating "the most important truth in all of human history, one that echoes off the pages of every book in Tanach." Has he ever even read Tanach?!

But you don't need to go back to the Bible to see how Kobre is perverting Judaism. We have a much more recent and "charedi" source: none other than Chasam Sofer, the founding father of ultra-Orthodoxy. He declares that in the Land of Israel, one does not only work the fields in order to make a living. There is also the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz, settling the land. In the same way as one stops learning Torah to put on tefillin, says Chasam Sofer, one stops learning Torah to farm the land, which is the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. Chasam Sofer explains that yishuv ha'aretz does not just mean living in the Land of Israel; it means developing the country. He further says that not just farming, but all industries and professions, are part of settling the land and giving it honor - which includes concern about how it is perceived by the rest of the world.

Whether it's with children's' comics or supposedly sophisticated adult op-eds, the charedi community clearly has a long way to go in understanding the traditional Torah importance of civic responsibility and national pride.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

My Big Fat Greek Pesach II

Six years ago, I spent Pesach on the Greek island of Crete, and I wrote a post about the fights over second day Yom Tov - see My Big Fat Greek Pesach. This year, I was once again in Crete for part of Pesach. But this time, I had a different sort of excitement. As a child, I devoured all the books of Gerald Durrell, who grew up in Corfu and wrote about the small but fascinating Greek wildlife and the charming but incompetent Greek humans. This Pesach, I didn't see much of the former, but I saw plenty of the latter!

The first warning that this was going to be a "special" experience was with Aegean Air at Ben-Gurion, where the check-in line took over two-and-a-half hours. The flight itself was uneventful, the stewardesses were pleasant. But when we arrived, our luggage didn't!

Pictured: Socrates, annoyed that his clothing is
in his lost luggage, wearing a sheet instead.
After filing a report for the lost luggage, we checked into the hotel, where we had booked three rooms side-by-side for my wife and I and our children (some of whom are small and needy). But our room turned out to be a long and cold outside walk from our kids' rooms, past lots of other rooms in between! It transpired that in Greece, they see no reason for rooms that are sequentially numbered 331, 332, and 333 to be anywhere near each other!

To cut a long story short, our clothing arrived after only five days, and we were eventually able to switch rooms, so the end of chag was lovely. And when we traveled to the airport this morning to fly home, our flight was only delayed two hours. But Aegean Air had one final surprise in store!

Upon boarding the plane, my wife was surprised to discover that her sister's family had been given the exact same seats as us! One would think that it's rather simple for airline computers to make sure that people are not given the same seats, but apparently that's not the case with Aegean Air. Fortunately they found other seats for my sister-in-law's family, and we were finally able to take our seats. Whereupon another family boarded the plane, and it turned out that they, too, had been given the exact same seats as us...

Anyway, we finally made it home, thank God. THANK YOU GOD. I think I saw a news story about viral video footage of a man being dragged, screaming, onto an Aegean Air flight that was underbooked.

Sometime this week, I hope to be returning to my semi-regular writing schedule. There is a particularly fascinating topic that I plan to discuss, combining both rationalist Judaism and natural history, based on something that I saw in Crete. Here's a photo of it; see if you can guess what it is, where it is, and why it's there.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Can You Do Mitzvos To Benefit Others?

Can you do mitzvos in such a way that the merit for them will benefit other people? Can you designate them to receive the reward for your mitzvah in their mitzvah bank account, such that they receive more Divine favor?

A friend of mine recently forwarded to me a request on behalf of someone who is tragically unwell. The community was requested to pray for his recovery, which is certainly a time-honored Jewish response. But there was also a request to do mitzvos on his behalf, as a merit for God to heal him. My friend wanted to know if there was any classical Jewish basis for this.

In my essay "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" I noted that classically, one's mitzvos are only a credit to those people who had a formative influence on you. One's mitzvos cannot help the souls of other people. Rashba cites a responsum from Rav Sherira Gaon on this:
"A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds." (Rashba, Responsa, Vol. 7 #539)
Maharam Alashkar cites Rav Hai Gaon who firmly rejects the notion that one can transfer the reward of a mitzvah to another person and explains why this is impossible:
"These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, 'The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,' (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, 'And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.' Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvos is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person?" (Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101) 
The same view is found explicitly and implicitly in other sources, as I noted in my essay. There is simply no mechanism to transfer the reward for one's own mitzvos to other people. It seems that only very recent mystical-based sources claim otherwise.

Now, I don't see any reason why there should be any difference if the person that one is trying to help is deceased or alive. Nor do I know of any source in classical rabbinic literature that one can do a mitzvah as a merit to help someone that is sick. Prayer, yes. And Tehillim are also a form of prayer (though it may depend upon which Tehillim are being recited). But I know of no classical source that one can honor one's parents or learn Torah or send away a mother bird as a merit for somebody else.

(The most common example of people attempting to do this may be the custom of women to separate challah on behalf of a sick person. Here too, though, it appears that the classical basis of this is not that the mitzvah of separating challah is crediting the sick person, but rather that the person separating the challah thereby has a special time of power/inspiration, which makes their prayer more powerful.)

If I'm wrong in any of the above, I'll be glad to see sources showing otherwise. But so far, I have found that while people are shocked when one challenges the notion that you can learn Torah on behalf of someone who is sick, nobody has yet actually come up with any classical sources demonstrating otherwise. Furthermore, if this indeed was a part of classical Judaism, we would certainly expect it to have prominent mention in the writings of Chazal and the Rishonim. We appear to have another situation of something widespread that is believed to be an integral and classical part of Judaism, and yet is actually a modern innovation that has no basis in classical Judaism whatsoever.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Missing You, Dad

A treasured memory from nineteen years ago -
on a canoe with my dad, sipping from coconuts,
during a father-son trip to Mombasa, Kenya.
Yesterday, I was having a discussion with a friend about revisionism in Rambam. We were wondering what Rambam would have to say about it were he alive today. My friend asked me: "If you could choose any figure in Jewish history to come back to life, who would you choose?" Without even consciously formulating a response, I blurted out, "My Dad."

I had my father on my mind because today is his tenth yahrzeit. Professor Michael Slifkin, of blessed memory, was a wonderfully patient and good-natured father, a brilliant scientist, and a man of outstanding integrity. In a career spanning biochemistry, physics, electronics, membrane biology, and nanoparticles (amongst other things), he published 197 papers, including 11 in the prestigious journal Nature. He strongly believed in doing the right thing even if it made him unpopular, such as when he voted according to his conscience and not according to what was "the done thing" in England, or when he took on the position of safety officer for university labs and actually enforced safety regulations, much to the horror of his colleagues. He also had a terrific sense of humor!

Just like last year, due to a scheduling conflict with one of my sisters who is out of the country, a shiur that I am giving in his honor for family and friends is not being delivered on the actual date of his yahrzeit. In case you didn't read last year's post, I mentioned then how someone near and dear to me objected that since it's not being done on the actual date of the yahrzeit, "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah!"

This is, I believe, a terrific example of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews. According to the mystical worldview, our actions serve to manipulate various metaphysical energies. If they are not done in exactly the "right" way, then they don't have any effect. According to the rationalist worldview, on the other hand, our actions are not manipulating any metaphysical energies. The date of a person's passing is a meaningful and appropriate time to honor their memory. If it's done a day late, in order to better accommodate the family, that honors their memory more, not less.

This also relates to the fundamental nature of what one does for the deceased, a topic that I examined in detail upon the passing of my dear mother-in-law, Anne Samson, of blessed memory - see my essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In brief, the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin, is that one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos whose reward is transferred to their mitzvah-account. The classical and rationalist view, on the other hand, is that by doing memorial events we honor their memory, and by performing good deeds we become a credit to their influence.

(As an update to that essay: I just came across something that seemed to raise a challenge to my thesis that there is no classical or medieval source for the notion that you can do a mitzvah to benefit someone who has passed away, unless you are their descendant or were otherwise influenced by them. Today I was looking at a contemporary sefer called Pnei Baruch which said that "Chazal say that Yaakov's son Asher sits at the entrance to Gehinnom and saves all those who learn Mishnayos, and even a stranger who learns Mishnayos on behalf of somebody saves him from Gehinnom." As I looked into it further, though, it became clear that the source in Chazal was only for the first part. The earliest source I could find for the second part was a sefer called Yalkut Das V'Din which was only published in 1945.)

Dad, I love you dearly, and I miss you more than ever. I'm sure you would understand why we are doing the shiur a day late. Because among the many good qualities that you taught me, one of them was common sense!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Kezayis Post

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link. This year, I was sent a fascinating new piece of evidence that Chazal's kezayis was much smaller than the sizes popularly stated today. It's from the following Mishnah:
 טלית טהורה שהכניס ממנה שלש על שלש לבית טמא נטמאה. וטמאה שהכניס ממנה אפילו כזית לבית טהור טמאתו: 
A pure cloak of which a three-by-three [finger-length] piece entered an impure house becomes impure. [If it was] an impure [cloak], if he extended even the volume of an olive [of it] into a pure house, it makes [the house] impure. (Mishnah, Nega'im 13:8)
This Mishnah states that a piece of a cloak (which is a material approximately the thickness of matzah, or less), which is the volume of an olive, is less than three-by-three finger lengths. Unless you're going to say that people back then were much bigger (which indeed, some people do say), then we see that a kezayis of matzah is significantly smaller than about a quarter of a letter/A4-size piece of paper.

Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - exploring why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should aim to eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night.

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in the charedi polemical journal Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

The Kezayis Revolution - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Finally, two notes regarding The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

First, there are lots of tours over the next few weeks, including before Pesach as well as Chol HaMoed. But they are rapidly filling up, so if you'd like to come, book your tour as early as you can!

Second, we are really looking for people who support our goals of educating the entire spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world, and who want to be part of our mission. To join the museum as a patron, please see for details. We can now arrange tax-deductible donations in Israel, the UK and Canada, as well as the US. For easy online donations, please click this link. Thank you for supporting our mission!

Monday, March 27, 2017

You Can't Go Home Again

They say that you can never go home again. Memories are never as we left them. You can never go back to your childhood and find it exactly as you left it. Well, yesterday I gave it a darn good try.

Yesterday I traveled back to my hometown of Manchester, England for the first time since leaving there twenty-four years ago. It was emotionally overwhelming. I'd forgotten just how beautifully green it was. Though on the other hand, I certainly didn't remember it being so black. Neighborhoods that were barely Jewish when I left are now full of kollel avreichim.

I went to visit an old neighbor of mine, Rabbi Hillel Gittelson, who had recently miraculously recovered from a life-threatening illness about which the doctors had declared that recovery was impossible. He was my barmitzvah teacher, and an outstandingly wonderful person. About thirty years ago, he told me that when I grow up, I should write a book about animals in the Torah. At the time, that seemed like the most ridiculous idea. Me, write a book? About Torah? Besides, Yehuda Feliks had already published that slim volume about the animal world of the Bible, and what else was there to say?

Lo and behold, thirty years later, I have indeed published a book about the animals of the Torah, so I decided to present him with a copy (which mentions him in the acknowledgements.) I knocked at his door, and when he opened it, he didn't recognize me at first. When the penny dropped, he hugged me and kissed me and we were both overwhelmed with emotion. He had changed a lot in his appearance, but his personality was exactly as I remember it; bursting with warmth and Torah and good humor.

With childhood memories flooding back, I decided to go and visit the house where I grew up. When I approached it, I first stood outside, taking the sight in. I remembered everything, even the individual bushes in the garden. I knocked at the door, and introduced myself as the previous resident. The owners, a lovely frum family, welcomed me in. By a coincidence that is so strange as to almost make me renounce rationalism, they also had a son called Natan, and they also kept reptiles and locusts and other exotic creatures!

I looked around the house, and while it was much, much smaller than I remembered it, I recognized almost all the elements in a dizzying rush of memories and emotions. Finally I went to the living room, where they still had the very same bookcases that we had installed. I was mamash back home! And lo and behold, there, in the very middle of the bookshelves, there was a book that I certainly recognized...

....Torah, Chazal and Science, by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman.

No, you can never go home again!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Miraculous Transformation

Several weeks ago, The Biblical Museum of Natural History received a gift from an entomologist friend of ours: a cluster of eggs. They were absolutely tiny, each one smaller than a sesame seed. After a few days, the eggs hatched into spiky green caterpillars. These ate and ate and ate and grew and grew and grew until they were the size of my pinky finger. Then they spun silk cocoons around themselves. Today, the very first moth emerged from its cocoon:

 Spectacular, isn't it? Here are the photos of the earlier stages. Note how tiny the eggs are!

This beautiful moth is an eri silkmoth, and it couldn't be more different from the caterpillar that it came from. And I'm not just talking about its wings and its completely different appearance and form. While the caterpillar was an eating machine, the silkmoth has no mouthparts and cannot eat or drink; it now lives only to mate and lay eggs. 

Eri silkmoths have two indirect connections to the Torah. One is that silk is a material mentioned in Tanach, and the other is that this particular species feeds on the deathly poisonous castor bean plant, which many identify as the kikayon - the tree that shaded Jonah. 

But perhaps the most powerful religious aspect of this creature is the sheer inspirational wonder of it! It's just amazing to see how a tiny speck turned into one amazing creature and then into an entirely different amazing creature!

There are two interrelated theological points that I would like to make here. One is that, while I do not believe (and I don't think anyone else does either) that there was any divine supernatural intervention involved in these transformations, I still think that it is reasonable to describe them as miraculous and as demonstrations (not proofs!) of the Creator's greatness. A universe in which such things take place is a very special universe!

The second point is as follows. Even the most religious and non-rationalist of people will agree that God did not use miracles to turn the egg into a caterpillar and to turn the caterpillar into a radically different creature. So why are they so insistent that there is no possible scientific explanation for the much less complicated transformation of one species into a slightly different species? Why are they so resistant to the notion that God, just as He used natural means to turn a caterpillar into a silkmoth, could have used natural means to evolve one species into another?

Meanwhile, the rest of our cocoons should be hatching over the next few days, but the moths don't have a long lifespan. So now is a good time to book a tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sexual Intimacy, Spilling Seed, and the Rationalist-Mystical Divide

When I first began exploring the differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, my impression was that it related primarily to topics such as interpreting Bereishis and science in the Gemara. I then discovered that it also relates to topics as diverse as shiluach ha-kein, what one can do for someone who has passed away, and the function of Torah study. Slightly to my surprise, I recently discovered that it also relates to the laws of marital intimacy. Topics like this are not easy to discuss in public, but it is important to correct some misconceptions in this area.

Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion In The Marital Bed is a new book by Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, the first in a proposed series entitled Sexuality and Jewish Law: In Search of a Balanced Approach in Torah. (This is not the Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro of Satmar/ Frumteens notoriety, but a different person.) It is a fascinating, though very intricate, discussion of the development of halachah in this area.

The author earned his rabbinic ordination in a Chabad yeshivah, but clearly no longer regards himself as bound to Chabad ideology. This is expressed in his lengthy discussion and rejection of the ancient belief, strongly expressed in chassidic communities in general and Chabad in particular, that a baby's looks and personality are significantly determined by what the parents think about during coitus, by the nature of the coitus, and by what the mother sees during pregnancy. Thus, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we have received a call from a pregnant woman who wanted to ensure that she could visit without seeing non-kosher animals (alas, this was not possible, and she did not want to risk giving birth to hyena-boy or gator-girl). And in some Chabad chosson/kallah classes, they are taught that during climax, they should visualize the Rebbe. Rabbi Shapiro explains at length why there is no reason for people to fear that their children will be born with congenital defects if they do not follow these notions.

However, the primary focus of the book is to address the history of the halachos of which sexual positions and techniques are permissible within marriage. Rabbi Shapiro demonstrates that the earlier sources, i.e. Chazal and the Rishonim, are far more lenient in this regard than are many later halachists, permitting forms of intercourse which do not lead to pregnancy. He traces the later stringent approach to several factors. One is what appears to be a copyist's interpolation into a manuscript of Rambam's Mishneh Torah, that alternate sexual positions are only permitted if one does not waste seed, which was later incorporated into halachic discussion as being Rambam's own opinion. (Rabbi Shapiro points readers to a 2001 responsum by Rav Yehudah Henkin, Bnei Banim 4:18, which discusses this textual discrepancy at length).

But the primary factor responsible for the change in halachic trends appears to be the Zohar, which strongly condemned the wasting of seed, and the influence of subsequent mystics. This is not to say that all contemporary rabbis of a mystical persuasion follow the Zohar in this area, nor that all those who take a stringent approach are relying on the Zohar. However, it is certainly a significant factor.

The Zohar was not the first source to condemn wasting seed. The Gemara speaks harshly against spilling seed in vain, comparing it to bloodshed. However, the Gemara does not clarify exactly what "in vain" means. Is it "in vain" when it gives pleasure to the wife, or the husband, even if it cannot lead to pregnancy? There are a range of views in the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding this question. For example, Tosafos (Yevamos 34b) quotes Rabbeinu Yitzchak of Dampierre (Ri) who permits occasional intercourse for the sake of sexual fulfillment performed in a way that does not lead to pregnancy. As Shapiro demonstrates, the majority of extant medieval writings that weigh in on the question endorse this approach of Rabbeinu Yitzchak.

But the Zohar goes vastly further than the Gemara in condemning wasting seed, saying that it is worse than any other sin! And it is the view of the Zohar, rather than the Gemara and other Rishonim, which is endorsed by R. Yosef Caro (in Bedek HaBayis, Even HaEzer 25), where he writes that "had Rabbeinu Yitzchak seen the punishment that the Zohar forewarns for the wasting of seed in vain, that it is greater than that of any other sin in the Torah, he would not have written what he did."

However, the status attributed to the Zohar by R. Yosef Caro and other adherents of mysticism was disputed by others. As noted here, for example, Chasam Sofer held that very little of the Zohar was actually written by R. Shimon bar Yochai. Furthermore, as Rabbi Shapiro documents, other halachic authorities were more lenient than R. Caro. And one acharon, R. Shlomo Yehuda Tabak, disputes R. Caro's claim that Rabbeinu Yitzchak would have retracted his view had he seen the Zohar; he argues that the Zohar's severe words about wasting seed apply only to a person whose intent is to avoid having children or who does so constantly. Rabbi Shapiro also suggests that even with R. Caro, his baseline legal opinion may be more lenient. Thus, Rabbi Shapiro concludes, there is far more room to be lenient with regarding to the laws of sexual intimacy than is commonly assumed.

This is, of course, a much-simplified version of Rabbi Shapiro's book, which is a very in-depth work that requires lengthy study. You can purchase it on Amazon at this link, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in these halachos. Rabbi Shapiro also has a website, Sexuality and Jewish Law, with more information and resources on this topic.

Also relating to the topic of wasting seed and the influence of the Zohar, the erudite but anonymous Rationalist Medical Halachist is back in action and has begun a series of posts which you can read at his blog, He discusses how the Torah's story of the sin of Er and Onan is explained very differently by the Zohar than how it was understood by other Rishonim.

One should not think that Rabbi Shapiro is the only person to advocate for a lenient approach in this area. Rav Eliezer Melamed, whose praises I have sung in a recent post, also takes a relatively lenient approach to the laws of marital relations in his Simchat Habayit U-birchato (see too the companion Harchavot volume). Whereas Rabbi Shapiro's book is an in-depth study of one very particular area of these halachos, Rav Melamed's books are more of a general guide to the halachos of this topic. They are an invaluable resource and would make a good gift for newlyweds who have perhaps not received the best education in chosson/kallah class. (They are also a good gift for people who are not newlyweds, but it's often a little more socially awkward to give such books to people who have been married for a while.)

Interestingly, Rav Melamed downplays this part of the Zohar in a different way than Rabbi Shapiro. Instead of pointing out that there are other halachic authorities who dispute the Zohar's approach in this area, or R. Caro's interpretation of it, he downplays the Zohar itself; not the authenticity of it, but the meaning of it. Rav Melamed says that the fire-and-brimstone expressed by the Zohar against spilling seed in vain is simply an exaggeration. He further points out that the Talmud's severe-sounding comparison of spilling seed to bloodshed is a rhetorical flourish, noting that the Talmud says the same about someone who embarrasses others in public or who does not escort his guests out. As Rabbi Shapiro notes, the same interpretation of such condemnations in the Talmud is given by Rivash, as well as by an early Acharon, Rav Yehoshua Heschel of Krakow, specifically in this context.

The approach of Rivash, Rav Yehoshua Heschel and Rav Melamed stands in sharp contrast to people such as (Rabbi?) Yaron Reuven, a protege of (Rabbi?) Yosef Mizrachi. In a lecture that you can watch on YouTube, Reuven takes the Talmud's comparison of wasting seed to murder very literally. Incorporating the modern scientific revelation that ejaculate contains around 300 million spermatozoa, he rails against teenagers who masturbate, claiming that they are mass-murderers who are killing as many people as the entire population of the United States! Yosef Mizrachi also has a lecture on YouTube in which he presents the "kabbalistic secret" that all the souls in the spermatazoa were supposed to enter this world, but instead are doomed to remain in the netherworld, waiting to confront the teenager after his death and seek revenge. "You have millions of sons now," he says, "and they all hate you!"

Yaron Reuven also boasts that he, Yosef Mizrachi, and another one of their chevra are the only rabbis on the internet who are brave enough to discuss this topic. For the sake of hashkafic and halachic truth, as well as the psychological well-being of countless teenagers whom Reuven condemns to Gehinnom, it's important to counter such extremist presentations of the Zohar. Baruch Hashem for the works of Rav Eliezer Melamed and Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro; let's hope that they receive much publicity.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Happy Pi Day!

Today, 3.14, is Pi Day. In the past, I have discussed the significance of Pi in Tanach and in the writings of Rambam. Today, I would like to present a picture of Cuddles, our largest snake at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, who is now almost exactly 3.14 meters long. He is a pi-thon!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

I've Renounced Rationalism!

That's it! I've become convinced that I was wrong all along. Especially on that Western medicine thing. Time for a career change! I've decided to become a witch doctor.

In line with my new career, my family all became African, one way or another:

Happy Purim!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Who Should We Be Helping On Purim?

As Purim approaches, there are many requests for tzedakah. Some of these are requests for helping the poor. Others are requests for helping sustain yeshivos/kollels. I myself, in my youth, spent many Purims collecting for various yeshivos. Eventually, I realized that this is just not the mitzvah of the day; the mitzvah is matanot l'evyonim, helping the poor. (Last year I wrote about the amazing local yeshiva Lev HaTorah, which sends its students collecting - for the poor of the community!)

But supporting the yeshiva/kollel system is not only problematic in being a distortion of the mitzvah of the day, and in diverting charitable funds away from the poor. It can also be the very cause of poverty. Here is a mailing that I received from a local outstanding charity, Lemaan Achai, which has two parts. The first describes a general problem in the community (which isn't spelled out explicitly, but you can read between the lines), and the second part discusses how Lemaan Achai's philosophy of smart chesed is implemented for Purim:
Let's End the Madness

It began as a normal evening. After eating dinner and spending a few minutes with my family I prepared to leave for Maariv, the evening service. Then the phone rang.

On the other end of the line was a member of our community for whom I have great respect. He is a terrific educator and wonderful father. He was not calling with a personal issue nor anything pertaining to his students. He reached out to me because of the two children standing at his front door.

On this cold, rainy winter night, he had answered the doorbell and discovered a 12 year old girl and her 5 year old brother. They were shivering and the 5 year old was on the verge of crying.

Were they lost? Had something happened to cause them to knock on a random door?

They were standing with their hands out, asking for money.

What could propel a parent to send their children out into the night, on a bus, alone, to collect from strangers? Was there illness in the house? Did some tragedy, G-d forbid, create a financial crisis?

As the incredulous homeowner discovered, there was no issue for this family other than poverty by choice. They had taken a path in life that limited their ability to make a living. Their children, they decided, could better arouse the mercy of kind-hearted Jews, and by going door to door could provide the income their parents didn't.

Prior to calling me my friend phoned both the police and social services. He and a neighbor waited with the children until the authorities would arrive. He then reached out to me knowing that at Lema'an Achai we offer the hand up as opposed to the hand out.

Thank G-d, the children were brought safely home. A social worker met with the parents to explain that such behavior is endangerment and must end.

For me this story reinforces the mission of Lema'an Achai and Smart Chesed. Contributing to this lifestyle when there is no illness or extenuating circumstance, only perpetuates the cycle of poverty. The next generation learns firsthand that it pays to put a hand out rather than help themselves through a hand up.

Help us strengthen the message of Smart Chesed. The time has come to end the madness.

What is SMART Matanot L'evyonim?

Purim is the most joyous day in the Jewish calendar. At Lema'an Achai it is especially important as we endeavor to ensure that everyone, regardless of their station in life, can also celebrate.

The mitzvah to give Matanot L'evyonim (gifts to the poor) is a central mitzva of Purim day. Matanot L'evyonim allows the less fortunate the opportunity to enjoy like everyone else around them.

The families of Lema'an Achai work hard year round in their goal to attain self sufficiency. Lema'an Achai's Matanot L'evyonim distribution, discreetly gives to hundreds of needy families on Purim day, thus ensuring that they too, can celebrate with honor and dignity.

You can enhance that joy of receiving on Purim by allocating half to be given "Bo Bayom" (on Purim day) and half after Purim. We call that Smart Matanot L'evyonim. It is Halachically approved and spreads the happiness on Purim and beyond.

Give today knowing that your generosity helps for a joyous today and a brighter tomorrow!
I know the Rabbanim who oversee Lemaan Achai, the people who work there (my wife used to be one of their social workers), and the members of the board, and I can personally attest to their amazing professionalism, wisdom and dedication!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Honest Human Halakhists

(UK readers - see the announcement at the end of this post!)

Pursuant to my post of a few weeks ago, "The Human Approach to Halakha," Rabbi Daniel Korobkin sent me the following extract from a letter written by Rav Soloveitchik in 1951, printed in Community, Covenant and Commitment. It is from a responsum sent to Dr. Samuel Belkin with regard to the question of volunteering as a chaplain in the armed forces. Before getting into the substance of the topic, Rav Soloveitchik writes the following very significant introduction:
...I have undertaken the research into the halakhic phase of this problem, which is fraught with grave political and social implications on the highest level of public relations, with utmost care and seriousness. Yet, I cannot lay claim to objectivity if the latter should signify the absence of axiological premises and a completely emotionally detached attitude. The halakhic inquiry, like any other cognitive theoretical performance, does not start out from the point of absolutely zero as to sentimental attitudes and value judgments. There always exists in the mind of the researcher an ethico-axiological background against which the contours of the subject matter in question stand out more clearly. In all fields of human intellectual endeavor there is always an intuitive approach which determines the course and method of the analysis. Not even in exact sciences (particularly in their interpretative phase) is it possible to divorce the human element from the formal aspect. Hence this investigation was also undertaken in a similar subjective mood. From the very outset I was prejudiced in favor of the project of the Rabbinical Council of America and I could not imagine any halakhic authority rendering a decision against it. My inquiry consisted only translating a vague intuitive feeling into fixed terms of halakhic discursive thinking."
The truth is that, as Dr. Marc Shapiro has pointed out, all halachic authorities operate this way, because they are human beings. (On a related note, see the recent fascinating article "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds" in the New Yorker, about how humans are unfortunately fundamentally wired against being truly objective.) The chiddush in this quote from Rav Soloveitchik is that he was sufficiently self-aware and intellectually honest to openly admit to it.

*   *   *

Note to UK readers - In a few weeks I will be visiting London and Manchester (for the first time since leaving 24 years ago!). On Shabbos March 24/25, I am speaking at Kehillat Ohev Shalom in Edgware; on Sunday March 26 I am speaking about Rationalism vs. Mysticism on behalf of Shema in Manchester, at Maccabi; and on Tuesday March 28 I will be back in London, discussing Rationalism vs. Mysticism with Rabbi Joseph Dweck at the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in Lauderdale Road, an event which I'm sure Yosef Mizrachi will be happy to publicize! I might still have availability for an engagement on Wednesday March 29; if you want to arrange something, please be in touch. Also, if you happen to be driving from London to Manchester on Motzai Shabbos March 25, or from Manchester to London on March 28, please let me know!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Rav Melamed on Torah/Mada/Kollel/Working

Previously, I have sung the praises of Rav Eliezer Melamed and his book series Peninei Halacha. In this post, I would like to discuss his statements regarding Torah study. These are in the volume Likkutim I. (Incidentally, as others brought to my attention, almost all of Rav Melamed's writings are freely available online, as well as in free apps for Android and iPhone.)

Rav Melamed begins his discussion on the mitzvah of learning Torah with some mystical statements about its importance and function which are certainly at odds with the rationalist perspective. However, as one continues, one sees that in practice, his approach plays out in a very rationalist way.

Rav Melamed discusses the value of secular fields of knowledge. He notes that they are not only important in a practical sense, but that they also possess innate value, which is why one pronounces a beracha upon seeing a non-Jewish great scientist. Rav Melamed further argues that there is no sin of bittul Torah involved in studying such science, because it is also part of Divine wisdom and thus also a form of Torah, albeit of a lesser level.

Next, Rav Melamed discusses the crisis that modernity brought to the Jewish People, and the different approaches towards secular knowledge - the Torah im derech eretz approach of Rav Hirsch, and the Torah-only approach of others. While, he says, it is hard to say which was more successful, he personally advocates for an approach that includes secular knowledge. He views this as part of appreciating God's greatness, being a kiddush Hashem to the rest of the world, and enabling people to obtain professional careers which are honorable and which enable one to provide for one's family.

Finally, with regard to yeshivah/kollel/work, Rav Melamed's statements are most refreshing. When I was doing my own research into the history of rabbinic views on this topic, I discovered that classically, there was almost always a distinction drawn between learning Torah and teaching Torah - a differentiation that often seems to have been lost in contemporary discussions of this topic. But Rav Melamed, I was happy to see, stresses this difference. He notes that while it is important for everyone to gain a basic knowledge of Torah, which the community should fund, this should go no further than a few years in yeshivah. Once they have acquired an adequate basic general knowledge, they should study towards a career, so that they can be self-supportive. Only those who are directly studying to become rabbis or educators may continue their studies and be supported by the community, since they are dedicating themselves to a path of serving the community. For others, it is forbidden to continue their Torah study and receive communal support. (In a footnote, Rav Melamed adds that if there are those volunteering to support them, they may accept it, but he adds that following Rambam, it is not middat chassidut to do so.)

Thus, for all Rav Melamed's opening statements about the mystical significance of Torah study, the bottom line is that, unlike Rav Chaim of Volozhin, and in line with the classical authorities, Rav Melamed does not rate Torah study as contributing to the community such that it deserves communal support. Only teaching Torah, and training towards that, is a service to the community.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Museum News

Here are some exciting news items from The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

I. Baby Boom

There's been an incredible baby boom at the museum over the last few weeks. We've got fluffy yellow ducklings, teeming locusts, cute guinea pigs, tiny bumblebee-like quail chicks, and boisterous black-and-white rats. Best of all, one of our hyraxes gave birth to four adorable pups! Their agility is extraordinary. A few hours after being born, they could already leap several times their own height; one can well understand why Onkelos gives them the Aramaic name of tafza, "leaper." (Regular readers of this blog will know where they mentioned hyraxes in Shacharis today.)

II. Live from The Biblical Museum of Natural History

We are pleased to announce the availability of live online tours and classes at the museum! Our new high-speed network connection enables groups that are not able to visit Israel to nevertheless enjoy a personal tour of the museum. Through the generosity of Ben and Michelle Mandelbaum, we will also be offering the opportunity for online participation in our forthcoming in-depth "Night At The Museum" lecture series. To learn more about either of these options, please write to

III. Africa 2017

There are just six spots remaining for this year's Torah Tour of Africa! Join safari drives watching the Big Five in private game reserves! Take a riverboat safari down the Chobe river in Botswana, amidst hippos, crocodiles and elephants! See Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, one of the seven wonders of the natural world! Visit the Cape of Good Hope and see Africa's penguins! For more details and registration, see

IV. Please Evaluate Our Work!

If you've been to the museum, please take a few minutes to complete our visitor evaluation form at this link. This is enormously important for us to evaluate our work both for ourselves and for others. Thank you for your assistance!

V. Pesach Tours

Spring is in the air, and Pesach is fast approaching! We will be running tours throughout chol hamoed, as well as in the days preceding Pesach (a great opportunity to get your kids out of the house!). Tours fill up rapidly in this season, so be sure to book ahead of time!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

More Quackery From Rabbis And Doctors

A few weeks ago, in a post entitled When Rabbis Quack, I wrote about a forthcoming sefer, bearing glowing approbations from many rabbonim, which advocates for various forms of energy healing and other such forms of quackery. Over the last few days, I was alarmed to come across further examples of people endorsing such things - both rabbis and physicians! If you'd prefer not to be depressed, don't read this post and just skip to the end to look at an endearing picture of a different type of quackery.

First was Rav Meir Mazuz, one of the leading rabbinic figures in the Sephardic community in Israel. In his weekly shiur, he said that the cure for cancer is eating and drinking dates, water, carrots and pomegranates, and not chemotherapy, as is usually thought. Rav Mazuz further stated that doctors are hiding this from the community so that additional patients come to them for chemotherapy.

What Rav Mazuz described is just one of a long list of diverse bizarre ways in which various people propose to cure cancer, including applying corrosive pastes, coffee enemas, shark cartilage, and all sorts of different remedies. In proper studies, none of these have been found to be effective. Advocates therefore resort to claiming, as Rav Mazuz did, that doctors secretly know that these treatments work yet conspire to hide this information, in order to financially gain from their own useless forms of treatment. Having dealt with oncologists when my father died from cancer, I find this suggestion reprehensible. It's also ridiculous; when doctors themselves contract cancer, they still go with mainstream medicine!

On the plus side, at least Rav Mazuz stated in the lecture that he is pro-vaccines. So at least his followers are only at risk of dying from untreated cancer, not of infecting people with measles.

The next example of quackery that I came across was a link that someone sent me, which, they said, showed that there is scientific evidence for some forms of energy healing. The link was to an article with the bold title that "Science Confirms That People Absorb Energy From Others." The article quoted a Dr. Olivia Bader-Lee, described as a physician and therapist, who "followed the results of an investigation" and concluded that it provides evidence that people can absorb positive or negative energy from others. The problem is that the investigation that Dr. Bader-Lee followed showed no such thing. Rather, it was a study on algae which showed that they can secrete enzymes which enable them to digest neighboring plant matter. That does not have the slightest relevance to people absorbing energy from others, unless we are talking about physical energy and they were eating them. (Also, Dr. Bader-Lee does not seem to actually exist - she appears in no Google search other than with regard to the subject matter of this article.)

Finally, while I was reading about the previous two cases, a physician that I know started promoting homeopathy. Homeopathy has long dismissed by scientists as utter bunk, because (a) most controlled studies show that it has no effect beyond placebo and (b) homeopathic remedies don't actually have anything in them. But homeopathy is making something of a resurgence with new claims of "scientific evidence" that homeopathic substances contain "nanoparticles" which have an unexplained medical effect. Now, I am somewhat out of my depth here, but it seems to me that this is no different from bizarre cancer remedies or energy healing, with which there are a few eccentric scientists/ doctors who initially propose it, but the overwhelming majority point to serious flaws in their claims. Regarding nanoparticles, see this article, this one and this one.

As promised, I am finishing on a happy note, with an endearing picture of a different type of quackery: one of several ducklings which hatched last week at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. It is just one of several species that have been born at the museum lately, but definitely one of the cutest!

"I'm too cute to be fed to a snake!"

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Most Important Rabbi That Americans Have Never Heard Of

Many people make the mistake of confusing American Centrist or Modern Orthodoxy with Israeli Religious Zionism. While there are major areas of overlap, and certainly an average right-wing YU graduate with a black hat is much closer to Israeli religious Zionist than to Israeli charedi (contrary to what such a person often believes), there are also significant points of difference (which is a topic for another time). It is also the case that the rabbinic leaders of the Israeli religious Zionist community are often virtually unknown outside of Israel.

Rav Eliezer Melamed is one such person. He is the Rosh Yeshivah of Har Beracha and the author of the Peninei Halacha series. In Israel, he is incredibly influential, with over half a million of his halachic works in print (and, unlike many other works, actually read). Yet in the US, he is virtually unheard of, and his sefarim are generally unavailable (though fortunately, Koren Publishers have begun marketing English editions of his works, translated by Rabbi Elli Fischer).

But Rav Melamed is not only important and influential. He is also a Rav whose approach to both halacha and hashkafa is outstanding and will resonate strongly with many US/Anglo Orthodox Jews. It will also come as a welcome surprise to them, especially if they have only previously been exposed to charedi rabbinic authorities. Rav Melamed is also not afraid to speak his mind.

In the past, I have referenced Rav Melamed's extraordinary essay on "Who Are The Gedolei HaTorah?" in which he wrote: "Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvot of yishuv haaretz and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions." In forthcoming posts, I plan to discuss several aspects of his writings, in particular those on Torah study (from the volume Likkutim I) and on the laws of marital intimacy (from the volume Simchat Habayit V'birchato and the companion Harchavot volume). Meanwhile, if you have a way to get these sefarim from Israel, I highly recommend them!

When Economists Get It Wrong

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was a Jewish Austrian-American economist. In his 1949 book Human Action, he wrote as follows:
"Yet as soon as a religious community enters the field of political action and tries to deal with problems of social organization, it is bound to take into account earthly concerns, however this may conflict with its dogmas and articles of faith. No religion in its exoteric activities ever ventured to tell people frankly: The realization of our plans for social organization will make you poor and impair your earthly well-being. Those consistently committed to a life of poverty withdrew from the political scene and fled into anchoritic seclusion. But churches and religious communities which have aimed at making converts and at influencing political and social activities of their followers have espoused the principles of secular conduct. In dealing with questions of man's earthly pilgrimage they hardly differ from any other political party. In canvassing, they emphasize, more than bliss in the beyond, the material advantages which they have in store for their brothers in faith."
There is at least one clear counterexample to Von Mises' claim. In the infamous Pigs In Streimels rally, various charedi gedolei Torah sought to dissuade the audience of Beis Yaakov girls from attending charedi college programs. Most of the speakers promised the girls that by obeying their directive, they would be blessed with adequate parnasah. However, Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch of Slabodka Yeshivah stated frankly that modern charedi society puts people in a very difficult financial position - the women do not earn enough of a salary to support the family and the husband is in kollel - but, he stated, the spiritual price of the wife attending a chareidi college is too great to pay, and charedim must consign themselves to ever-worsening economic ruin.

While Rav Moshe Hirsch's scale of values is hard for the rest of us to accept, his honesty - directly refuting Von Mises' observations about how religious communities usually function - is very refreshing!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Human Approach to Halakha

In the previous post, "Robot Rabbis," I cited Rabbi J. David Bleich's strange claims that it is impossible for a posek to change his approach over the years, or to be a machmir or a meikil. In response to my post, a leading scholar of rabbinic intellectual history referred me to a fascinating article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz"l, entitled "The Human and Social Factor in Halakha." This scholar informed me that he was told that Rav Aharon specifically wrote this article as a critique of Rabbi Bleich's approach. While this must refer to earlier examples of Rabbi Bleich's approach rather than the statements that he made in the interview, here is an extract from the article that precisely refutes his comments in the interview:
...the cogency and legitimacy of a “human” approach to pesak, appears, to many, problematic. They would have us believe that the ideal posek is a faceless and heartless supercomputer into whom all of the relevant data is fed and who then produces the right answer. Should this standard not be met, the shortfall is to be regarded as a failing, the lamentable result of human frailty—in Bacon’s terms, a manifestation of the besetting “idols” which hamper and hinder the capacity for reasoned judgment. On this reading, the process of pesika, properly conceived and executed, bears no semblance to an existential encounter between seeker and respondent. It entails, rather, the application of text to problem, the coupling of code and situation. This conception does not necessarily preclude reckoning with the specific circumstances of the question and questioner, as these may very well be part of the relevant objective data. The prevailing tendency, however, would be to dwarf this factor; and as to the human aspect of the meshiv, that would be obviated entirely. He, for his part, is to be animated by the precept that “we do not have mercy in judgment,” and hence, to pass on the merits of the issue with imperviously stony objectivity.
Purist proponents of this approach often cry it up as the “frum” view of pesika. In reality, however, this portrait of a posek is mere caricature, limned by those who, at most, kar’u ve-shanu, but certainly lo shimshu. As anyone who has been privileged to observe gedolim at close hand can readily attest, they approach pesak doubly animated by responsibility to halakha and sensitivity to human concerns. The balance between norm and need may be variously struck. There certainly are ideological differences among posekim over how much weight to assign the human factor—although, as Rav Avraham Schapira once noted, the classical meshivim are likely to be among the more lenient, inasmuch as inquirers are disinclined to turn to mahmirim. In principle, however, recognition of this factor is the rule rather than the exception; and responsa include frank acknowledgments of this theme. Writing to a colleague who had dissented from a lenient pesak he had rendered with regard to an aguna, Rav Hayyim Volozhiner asserts:
"And I saw that in most matters, we were of like mind, except for [the fact that] his honor leans towards stringency, since the matter does not depend upon him. Likewise, before the yoke of practical decision was thrust upon me, I too did not incline toward the leniencies arising from [legal] analysis. In our great sins, however, the generation has been orphaned of sages, and now the yoke of practical halakhic decision-making has been thrust upon me, for in our entire region they do not free [agunot] in any manner without the concurrence of my meager opinion. Therefore I have taken counsel with my Maker, and feel obliged to gird all my strength and devote myself to remedying [the situation of] agunot. And may the blessed Lord save me from error."
Note that in contrast to Rabbi Bleich's assertion that "there is no such thing as a machmir and a meikil" and "anyone who talks in that language is not a posek," Rav Aharon both uses that language and quotes others who do likewise. Likewise, note that in contrast to Rabbi Bleich's claim that it is impossible (and even sacrilegious) for a true posek to change his approach over the years, Rav Chaim Volozhiner states explicitly that he changed his own approach.

(The article is online in PDF format at this link, and there is also a text version at this link, but that version lacks formatting to distinguish Rav Lichtenstein's own words from the sources that he cites.)

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 the...