Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My Miracle Story

There was the time that I was reading this book about leopards
in the Torah, and a leopard suddenly appeared!
In the last post, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the Grasshopper, I discussed the "miracle story" of a grasshopper appearing in front of Rav Chaim right when he was learning the Gemara about grasshoppers. Well, this week, I had my very own similar miracle!

For many weeks, I have been heavily involved in the topic of the kashrus of different breeds of chickens. In part, this was because of the Feast of Exotic Curiosities that we ran at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and in part, this was due to the controversy over the Braekel, on the topic of which I will soon be e-publishing an extensive monograph.

But actually getting hold of a Braekel, dead or alive, proved to be extremely difficult. All 7000 birds that had been raised near Beit Shemesh were slaughtered. We were desperate to get even a slaughtered Braekel to serve at the Feast of Exotic Curiosities, and we were finally only successful when we sent a staff member to Bnei Brak.

But, of course, the real goal was to get a live Braekel, to display at the museum as part of our developing "Kosher Birds" exhibit. And I hadn't been able to find one anywhere, and nor had my colleagues in the field, Prof. Zohar Amar and Moshe Rosenbaum, who had likewise been searching for one. Between us we have an extensive network of connections with various people raising exotic fowl, and nobody has a Braekel. I even started looking in the US to get fertilized eggs that I can bring back to incubate here, but while you can get hundreds of different kinds of chickens in the US, you can't get a Braekel!

I had finally entirely given up. And then...

My wife happened to go shopping, to a supermarket in Beit Shemesh that she doesn't often go to. And she just happened to bump into someone she knew from the US that she hadn't seen in many years. And she just happened to be leaving the store at the same time as this woman, so she gave her a ride home, to the ultra-charedi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. And she just happened to continue talking with her for a few minutes, after she arrived at her house. And somehow, the topic of conversation just happened to turn to food, and then to chicken...

...and the woman mentioned that they are raising Braekels at home!

The Braekels of Beit Shemesh
This family hasn't eaten chicken or eggs for ten years, ever since her husband decided that regular chickens are not a kosher type. But they managed to obtain some Braekels, which satisfied their kashrus requirements. Today, I got to meet a real live Braekel! And it also looks like I will be able to obtain one or two for the museum!

Now here's the kicker. I am absolutely convinced that this string of coincidences is Divine Providence. Yes, I know that the Rishonim didn't believe that Divine Providence is so prevalent. Yes, I know all the reasons to be skeptical of seeing this as Divinely ordained. Call me anti-rationalist if you like. But I can't help how I feel!

Stay tuned for my monograph on the Chicken Wars!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the Grasshopper

There's a famous "miracle story" about Rav Chaim Kanievsky and a grasshopper. (It's relevant in light of the continuing comments, to the post "Daas Torah is in the Eye of the Beholder," about miracle stories and Gedolim.) The story goes that Rav Chaim was learning the Gemara in Chullin about identifying kosher grasshoppers (more properly called locusts, but we'll go with grasshopper here). He was struggling to understand certain aspects of the Gemara's discussion. Just then, a grasshopper miraculously jumped through the window (or, according to other versions, jumped off the wall) and landed on the Gemara! By looking at it, he was able to resolve the difficulties in understanding the Gemara's discussion.

I'm not going to go into extensive discussion of this - you can see Rabbi Josh Waxman's excellent discussion here. I just want to share two photos which I came across, as part of a series of photos on the theme of amazing coincidences:

In other locust-related news, I'm happy to report that although we killed all the kosher locusts at The Biblical Museum of Natural History for the Feast of Exotic Curiosities, they did lay eggs before they died, many of which have now hatched. Mazel tov!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Coming to America!

(The Feast of Exotic Curiosities was amazing! A full write-up will be forthcoming, but meanwhile you can see a gallery of photos from the event at this link.)

Next week, I am coming to America. For Shabbat parashat Noach, October 20-21, I will be speaking at Great Neck Synagogue. The following Shabbat, October 27-28, I will be speaking at Baron Hirsch Synagogue in Memphis. In between those engagements, I will be in New York, available for lectures and fundraising meetings. If you'd like to host an event for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! (I might also need a place to stay that week, preferably in the 5 Towns area - if you can help out with that, please let me know.)

My next schedule trip abroad is in December, to the BAYT in Toronto, and possibly also to London.

Meanwhile, the museum is very busy this week, but there are still some open slots, so if you're in Israel, book your tour! We also have a Sukkah available - two, actually, to meet everyone's needs:

Chag sameach!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

To Kill A Muppet-Bird

Here are some of the newest creatures at The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

But what are they? Are they chickens? Are they rabbits? Or are they nisht a hen, nisht a hare? And are they kosher, and will they be served at next week's Feast Of Exotic Curiosities? Is it a sin to kill a Muppet-bird? Stay tuned to find out!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Daas Torah and End-of-Year Notes

The previous post, renamed to "Daas Torah is in the Eye of the Beholder," received over 10,000 views. While the response was mostly positive, many people did not like it, including some near and dear to me. I would like to clarify some aspects of it, and discuss some other things.

1) The target of the post was not Rav Chaim Kanievsky. It was the cultural phenomenon surrounding Rav Chaim Kanievsky, whereby people taking two words of blessing, or a signature, to mean much, much more than Rav Chaim ever intended them to mean. The guilty parties are the media, the tzedakah campaigns, and many of the general public.

2) There was one criticism of Rav Chaim Kanievsky - that he admits to signing letters (in particular, one attesting to the righteousness of the monster Elior Chen) "because his rabbis signed it." I criticized that as a shirking of responsibility and an abuse of authority, and I stand by that criticism. And I will point out that the people who slammed the post (or me) did not respond to that. (Again, however, that was not the main point of the post.)

3) "B-b-b-but Daas Torah!" See Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's superb presentation on this topic, translated into English and downloadable at this link.

4) "B-b-b-but erev Rosh Hashanah!" Things are either right to say or wrong. If wrong, they should never be said. If right, they can be said at any time. The reason was I was particularly motivated to write that post at that time was as stated - that I was terribly upset to hear about someone who, according to what I was told, is going to Rav Chaim for a major medical decision.

*   *   *
Now, on to something else. At this time of year, there are many appeals for donations to various causes. I was thinking of using this forum to raise funds for my own cause - The Biblical Museum of Natural History - but on reflection, I'm not certain how appropriate it is. When we say that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka remove the evil decree, I kindof have the feeling that it is talking about tzedaka for the poor, not for institutions. (I can't explain why I have this feeling, and I would appreciate if others can explain why, or why I am wrong.)

When it comes to giving tzedakah to the poor, one is likewise confronted with an array of causes. Some of them fundraise by offering incentives - that various "Holy Men" will pray for you (or at least will have your name in a book on their table), that you will merit miracles, etc. I have seen advertisements where the entirety of the advertisement is about what you will get, not what you are giving to!

As previously, I would like to recommend Lemaan Achai as a wonderful charity for helping the poor. Their focus is on using an array of professional services and aid to help people attain financial independence. Just take a look at the incredible success stories on their webpage! To quote Rambam: "The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support the poor person by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others." There is no smarter way to give tzedakah!

*   *   *

As we end the year 5777, my brother-in-law and nephew were honored today in a special ceremony for their incredibly brave and smart actions in Neve Tzuf. But they are not rejoicing in this honor, for although they saved many lives, there were those that they were too late to save. May the coming year be one of health and peace for all.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Daas Torah is in the Eye of the Beholder

I was deeply distressed to discover recently that someone that I used to know is suffering from a very serious illness. It was further told to me that the person has to make a choice between two radically different courses of action to deal with this illness. It's a very difficult decision to make, with significant pros and cons on each side. So the person has decided to ask Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky is 89 years old. He has spent virtually his whole life insulated from the outside world. He is a selfless person who has dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah (apart from a very brief period during the War of Independence when he served on guard duty). Many people, following the contemporary charedi notion of Daas Torah (in which the less a person knows about the world, the purer is his wisdom), believe that this makes him uniquely suited to give guidance.

But it goes even further. People consider even a word of blessing from him to be guidance. Consider the following story from Mishpacha magazine, about one of the many people who go to Rav Chaim for his guidance (note for those thinking of doing this: his trusted aides are people who will give you preferential treatment if you give them money):
Guessing by the radiant smile on the man who emerged from behind the white wooden door, one might think that he had just won the lottery in the tiny apartment. Moments before (emphasis added - N.S.), he stood at the head of the line, conversing on the cell phone — probably with a worried wife — about every minute and a half. Posture bent, overwhelmed by the pressing concerns he did not share with fellow visitors, he conducted simulations, finalizing a presentation of the question, and promised his family — bli neder, of course — that he would present all of the arguments, both for and against, and that he would remember to mention Shoshke bas Mindel, desperately in need of a shidduch.
Upon emerging from the inner sanctum, he wears the look of a man relieved of a heavy load. “We have a yeshivah!” he hisses into the phone. The crowded conditions in the corridor, and the brotherly atmosphere that characterizes the local citizenry, turn his whispered words into public fodder.
“What did Rav Chaim say?” someone asks.
The man reveals the question that brought him there: They weren’t sure which yeshivah their Yossi should attend the following year. “Nu, and what did Rav Chaim say?”
“He said, ‘Brachah v’hatzlachah.’ Now we’re sure: Yossi will attend the yeshivah where he already took a bechinah (exam).”
In this story, Rav Chaim did nothing at all other than offer two words of blessing. Yet the questioner read into that as being a weighed-up decision as to which yeshivah his son should attend! And the magazine printed this story as an example of Rav Chaim's wisdom!

Last week there was another example of this, and it's on video for everyone to see. Someone went to Rav Chaim and told him that there is a deadly storm headed for Miami, of a kind that has killed many people. They asked: Should people flee? And he replied: Sakanah! ("There's a danger!"). And that was the end of the conversation.

This brief interaction is viewed very differently by different people. Some people genuinely see it as a demonstration of Divine Daas Torah. "Rav Chaim Kanievsky has ordered people to evacuate Miami!" Others see it as a tragic example of nothingness. He was told that there is a life-threatening danger, so he said that it's dangerous. You can get the same answer from a five-year-old.

Is there any way to prove to people that Rav Chaim's answers are not worth what these people think they are worth? Actually, there is. Or at least, there ought to be; the following two instances should prove it to anyone with a modicum of intellectual honesty.

One was the well-publicized case of Rav Chaim pronouncing a berachah, with Shem u'Malchus, on a king. Except that the person was not a king at all, and was simply a fraudster. Anyone with critical thinking skills (or access to Google) could have figured that out in less than a minute.

The second, and much more serious, instance was when Rav Chaim signed a letter attesting to the righteousness of Elior Chen - the worst child abuser in the history of Israel. Perhaps even more disturbingly, when a neighbor of mine asked him why he signed such a letter, Rav Chaim absolved himself of all responsibility and authority, saying that he signed because his rabbonim signed.

I am sure that Rav Chaim's blessings can be a wonderful placebo for many people and are psychologically reassuring for them. But it's a tragedy that people see him as providing meaningful guidance on important life decisions.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Chicken Wars IV: Attack of the Clones

The Story Continues....

In Chicken Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back, I argued that a significant amount of the allegedly halachic opposition to the Braekel is because the Braekel Alliance is trying to bring down the entire poultry empire by claiming that the Braekel clones are the only kosher chickens and that everyone else's chickens are as treife as rats. And the empire is responding in kind, striking back with the claim that not only is the Braekel not the only kosher chicken - it isn't a kosher chicken at all.

In case anyone thinks that this is an overly cynical reading of the situation, take a look at this extract from an article in HaModia:
Informed sources told Hamodia that some supporters of the project were still hoping that a way could be found to accomplish the original goal of providing Klal Yisrael with a purer chicken. Though they declined to go into details, they said it was possible that by making some changes to their plans, they could gain the approval of those currently prohibiting the Braekel. Whether this proves to be feasible remains to be seen.

Now, if the opposition to Braekel is that the Braekel is a treife-as-rats bird, then how on earth could "making some changes to their plans" result in it being acceptable?! It's clear that the "changes to the plans" refers to walking back their claims that everyone else's chickens are treife-as-rats. What goes around, comes around.

The situation will be balanced, but in which way? Will calmer minds prevail? Or will there be an irreversible rift, with each group refusing to eat chickens (and perhaps any food) from the other side? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, all this has inspired me to add a new course to The Feast Of Exotic Curiosities - "Treife as Rats" chicken soup, made with all different kinds of allegedly "treife" chickens!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Chicken Wars III: The Bantam Menace

The Braekel
Episode III of Chicken Wars: Over Shabbos, I had the dubious pleasure of reading through the kuntrus/manifesto put out by Mesoras Taharas Ohfos (a.k.a. the Braekel Alliance, formed of representatives from the Wosner and Karelitz families, along with others) - the group claiming that all the chickens being sold over the last few decades, from bantam to Brahma, are not kosher, and that everyone has to buy the newly-rediscovered Braekel variety (at a premium price).

It's clear that the Braekel Alliance have invested enormous resources into all this. They've been working on this for years - sending people all over the world for research and specimen acquisition, raising vast flocks of Braekels, recruiting support. (The rabbinic letters included in the manifesto calls on everybody to respect the Braekel Alliance's monopoly on the only kosher chicken for at least fifteen years!) Still, it's also clear that their logic is deeply, deeply flawed.

The arguments put forth by the Braekel Alliance are as follows:
1) There are many thousands of minim of birds, including hundreds of minim of chickens.
2) Most types of birds are not kosher (for which they name "the Rishonim on Chullin" as a source).
3) The chickens that have been commercially sold for the last few decades were developed with unknown types of unknown lineages.
- Hence, it is overwhelmingly likely that commercial chickens are not kosher.

Point 1 is false. Point 2 is likely not to be true. Point 3 is technically true but highly misleading.

1) There are many thousands of species of birds. But there are very few minim. (See my post Chicken Shtick.) And with chickens, there are only four species (in the Gallus genus) and almost certainly only one min.

2) The Gemara (Chullin 63b) says that there are more kosher birds than non-kosher. The Rishonim raise the question that if so, why can't one rely on that for eating eggs of unknown origin? Various answers are given. Some Rishonim say that actually there are more sub-types, or more individuals, of non-kosher birds. But Ramban and Ran stay with the straightforward meaning of the Gemara and give other reasons as to why one can't eat unfamiliar eggs. And Darchei Teshuvah discusses at length how there are indeed more kosher types (and gives reasons as to why one cannot simply rely on that to eat any unfamiliar bird). Also, it's pretty clear that the non-kosher birds are birds of prey, and fishing birds, and other aberrant types (like ostriches and bats). They are not game birds, like pheasants and quail and partridges and chickens.

3) It is true that the chickens that have been commercially sold for the last few decades were developed with unknown types of unknown lineages. But these unknown types were all chickens! They were simply different varieties of chickens, all being the same min.

The red junglefowl, ancestor of all domestic chickens
Later in the manifesto, there is a section dedicated to refuting objections. One of the objections is presented perfectly (and is entirely correct) - namely, that all chickens are descendants of wild junglefowl (genus Gallus), and are merely different mutations. The Braekel Alliance attempt to refute this in two ways.

First, they claim that it is impossible for all chickens to be descended from wild junglefowl, because the Gemara in Niddah 50b (actually, they cite 2b, but it's a typo and they mean 50b) says that "wild chickens" are not kosher. But this is completely mistaken. When the Gemara says that the "tarnegol d'bra" is not kosher, this does not refer to a wild Gallus species, none of which lived anywhere close to Chazal's region. Rather, it refers to some other species of bird which shares some rough similarities to chickens.

Second, they argue that the claim that all chickens are descendants of junglefowl is "nonsense" which stems from "the heresy of gentiles" - "that man was created from monkeys, and other such things - dust in their mouths!" I am not going to get into details of rebutting this. But suffice it to say that the fact of chickens being domesticated from junglefowl (in particular, the red junglefowl, Gallus gallus, with some grey junglefowl mixed in) is very well established indeed, and it only took place a few thousand years ago, not millions of years ago.

Chickens are chickens are chickens. They are all descended from junglefowl. They can all interbreed. And they are all kosher.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Chicken Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back

The ongoing chicken wars are astonishing in their intensity. The pashkevillim are plastered everywhere. This morning I saw one screaming that Jews everywhere are eating [the equivalent of] rats!

To briefly sum up the situation: Twenty years ago, Rav Shmuel Wosner expressed concern that the chickens being eaten by Jews everywhere were not the same as the traditionally eaten variety, but rather had been hybridized with birds of unknown heritage and thus potentially non-kosher. Following this, a certain group of people secretly raised huge numbers of a chicken called a Braekel, which they recently announced as being The One True Pure Chicken with no skeletons in the closet. It has received the endorsement of Rav Nissim Karelitz's Beis Din. This was accompanied with the claim that all the other chickens in the market are not properly kosher should no longer be eaten.

The anti-Braekel team, on the other hand, which includes Rav Landa of Bnei Brak, claims just the opposite. They say that the existing chickens on the market are perfectly fine, whereas the Braekel has come out of nowhere, with no clear mesorah, and certain problematic aspects, and it may not be eaten. Thus, each group is claiming that their chickens are the only kosher chickens.

But what is the underlying source of this dispute? If you're skeptically inclined, it's hard to ignore the massive amounts of money at stake here. The Braekel Alliance is trying to bring down the entire poultry empire, including Empire. And the poultry empire is responding in kind, striking back with the claim that not only is the Braekel not the only kosher chicken - it isn't a kosher chicken at all. With so much money involved, it's hard not to have a bad feeling about this.

Still, there are definitely some halachic arguments being voiced. But they do not reflect a proper understanding of this topic. I was speaking this week with some major experts in kashrus who had some very harsh words to say about both sides, and their lack of understanding of chickens. I would like to explain why there are some fundamental mistakes being made.

Before doing so, a preface: I do acknowledge that halachic reality does not always concord with scientific reality. Rav Herzog and others were of the view that one may kill lice on Shabbos even though Chazal permitted this based upon the mistaken belief that they spontaneously generate. We define hilchos bishul in scientifically inaccurate terms of kli rishon and kli sheni rather than in terms of temperature and specific heat capacity. The halachos of mar’os for a niddah are determined by poskim and mesorah rather than chemical testing.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that none of that is relevant here. The prevalence of poskim prohibiting different breeds of chickens is due to a combination of a non-rationalist outlook with a lack of knowledge of ornithology in general and Biblical ornithology in particular. I find their arguments to be vague and unconvincing. There are two particular types of mistakes being made.

1. Chazal's Zoological Rules

(A) Chazal were familiar with the creatures in their part of the world, but not with species from other locales or from later times in history. Hence, rules such as “any animal without upper teeth is kosher, any animal with upper teeth is not kosher,” and “any fish with scales has fins,” and “any bird which spreads its toes in a two-two formation is not kosher,” and "kosher eggs are pointed at one end and rounded at the other, non-kosher eggs are symmetrical," were merely based on examining the species in their time and place. (See Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah, Niddah 6:9, Kapach translation)

(B) Many poskim do not appear to have realized/appreciated/agreed with this point. They believed that Chazal’s statements were based upon Divine inspiration, or a tradition from Noach, and that they hold absolutely true for every species in the world.

(C) Thus, while many poskim say that a chicken that spreads its toes in a two-two formation is not kosher, because the Gemara says that “any bird which spreads its toes in a two-two formation is not kosher,” this is based on a non-rationalist perspective. The Gemara never meant to disqualify a breed of chicken. It was talking about owls, which spread their toes in such a manner.

2. The Variability of Species and Minim

(A) Animals and birds of the same species can look very, very different. A chihuahua and a great Dane are both the same species. Often, tremendous variety can be produced in a few generations of selective breeding. Genetic mutations can easily trigger even features such as extra digits.

(B) The zoological definition of “species” is much, much narrower than the Torah definition of “min.” There are only 24 minim of treif birds, but many, many more species of treif birds—over 400 species of raptors and owls alone! 

(C) It is possible to prove that birds are of the same or very similar species (which would be the same min – as above), even if they look very different, via hybridization, genetic studies, and other such techniques.

(D) In general, it seems that halachic authorities did and do not appreciate the aforementioned three points.

Putting all the above together, and reading the various responsa literature in light of it, it seems that many halachic authorities prohibited certain breeds of chicken because that they attributed too much significance to superficial differences, and not enough to more fundamental matters such as hybridization, genetic similarity, the history of the variety, and so on. Many people agree with me on this analysis. Unfortunately, they will not publicly say so; they are reticent to argue with famous rabbis, in case others find their lack of faith disturbing. I guess they are too... chicken.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Chicken Wars

I'm currently intensively absorbed with the halachos of bird kashrus, in part due to the forthcoming Feast of Exotic Curiosities, and in part due to the current furor over the kashrus of different chickens that is raging across Israel. Soon, I hope to be posting some preliminary observations. For now, I would like to share a fabulous story that appears in Rabbi Chaim Loike's work Sasson HaTzippor. I don't know if the story is true, but it's certainly representative of the sort of mindset that one sees in this topic:
In the early days of the Lakewood Kollel, local chickens were procured for kaparos. At the conclusion of the ceremony, as the shochet came to perform the shechitah, Rav Aharon Kotler asked that the shochet stop. Baffled, the shochet inquired as to the problem.
"What is that?" asked Rav Kotler, pointing to the chicken.
"That's a chicken," explained the shochet.
Rav Kotler replied, "In Europe, that is not how the chickens looked."
The shochet pointed to one of the members of the Kollel, who, like many members of the Kollel at that time, was clean-shaven. "What's that?" asked the shochet.
Surprised, Rav Kotler responded that it was a yungeleit.
The shochet blurted out, "That's a yungeleit?! In Europe, that is not how the yungeleit looked."
In the end, the chicken was slaughtered.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Aboriginal Abraham

In my previous post, Torah and Alaska, I explained how according to Rambam, the special status of the Jewish People is only due to the fact that their ancestor Avraham discovered and revealed ethical monotheism, which merited them being rewarded with the Torah. Had it instead been, say, an Alaskan Inuk called Akkituyuk who discovered and revealed ethical monotheism, then God would have chosen Akkituyuk's descendants to be His nation.

It's interesting to think about the different ways that Judaism could have turned out. Had it been an Australian Aboriginal called Alambee who had discovered and revealed ethical monotheism, then Judaism would have turned out very different indeed, due to the enormous differences between Australia and the rest of the world. In the previous post, I noted that the laws of kashrus would likely have been very different, since there are no indigenous cloven-hoofed ruminants in Australia.

But what about shofar? There are likewise no indigenous Australian animals with horns. So if Judaism would have originated in Australia, then the shofar would presumable have been one of these:

This is a didgeridoo, which I just acquired in Australia. They don't normally look this shofar-like - they are usually straighter, of uniform thickness throughout their length, and often much longer. I bought this one for the shofar exhibit at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, as a example of a non-kosher shofar! It isn't an animal horn - it's made from the branches of certain trees that have been hollowed out by termites. So it's not kosher for a shofar, because ethical monotheism was initiated by Abraham. But, in an alternate universe, it might have been a kosher shofar!

(Of course, we don't say this at the museum. The museum tour is designed to be suitable for people of all communities, including those for whom such Maimonidean notions would be unpalatable.)

You can download my monograph about the kashrus of exotic shofars at this link. (It has not been updated to discuss didgeridoos!)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Torah and Alaska

One of my sons with me, heading out
on a tiny floatplane to film bears
Last week I had the good fortune to be in Alaska, on a trip that combined multiple functions - filming for a museum documentary, acquiring new museum exhibits, and spending time with family on a vacation. On the kosher cruise program of which we were a part, I was due to give some lectures. Now, on a regular Shabbos I see no need to always tie in divrei Torah to the weekly parashah. However, when the context is an unusual one, I like to give shiurim that do tie in to the context. But how do you connect Torah to Alaska?

I photographed this humpback whale diving deep
One of my lecture topics was an easy choice - speaking about the wildlife of the Torah that is found in Alaska. Whales and bears in particular are significant animals in the Torah that are no longer seen in the Land of Israel (the last wild bear was killed exactly a hundred years ago, and whales are now very rare in the Mediterranean) but are plentiful in Alaska. And so I spoke about whales and the significance of Leviathan, and bears in the Talmud and Midrash as an analogy for both the Persian Empire and the wife of Potiphar, the significance of which is illuminated with a proper understanding of why bear attacks are different from lion and leopard attacks (for more discussion, see The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom).

But what other connection can be made between Alaska and Torah? In retrospect I could have spoken about the Klondike Gold Rush and how the desire for wealth leads people to madness. Or perhaps about whether one should make a berachah on the awesome spectacle of a glacier. But instead I gave a lecture with the following title: "Could Avraham Avinu have been an Inuit?"

Now, this was a title that led to much confusion. A lot of people thought that the question was absurd. The Inuit are the native tribes of Alaska. Of course Avraham Avinu wasn't one of them!

But my question was not "Was Avraham Avinu an Inuit." Instead, my question was "Could Avraham Avinu have theoretically been an Inuit?" In other words, was it predestined that the Founding Father of the Chosen People would be a Hebrew from Ur Kasdim? Or could the Founding Father have been an Alaskan Inuit, or an Australian Aboriginal, or a Kenyan Masai?

Menachem Kellner discusses this very question in his superb work Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism. Basically, the answer (as with the answer to so many questions) is that it's a dispute. According to the Kuzari and subsequent adherents of the mystical school of thought, the answer is no, Avraham Avinu could not have been an Inuit. From before Creation, it was written in the Torah that the Chosen People would be the Hebrews and the promised Land would be Israel. Things could not have worked out any other way.

According to Rambam, however, the answer is yes, Avraham Avinu could have been an Inuit! It has been said, "How odd of God/ to choose the Jews," (to which some reply "it's not so odd/ the goyim annoy 'im"), but Rambam's reply would be "it's not so odd/ the Jews chose God." According to Rambam, the special place of the Jewish People is only due to the fact that their ancestor Avraham discovered and revealed monotheism, which merited them being rewarded with the Torah. Had it instead been an Alaskan Inuit called Akkituyuk who discovered and revealed monotheism, then God would have chosen Akkituyuk's descendants to be His nation.

Furthermore, Rambam has a radically different view of the nature and significance of things such as the Promised Land, the content of the Torah, and Lashon HaKodesh. According to Rambam, these concepts do not relate to metaphysical essences, but rather to circumstantial and institutional significance, which could in theory have been different. Thus, if Akkituyuk had discovered and revealed monotheism, it wouldn't have been practical to reward him with the Land of Israel, but instead a different and more reachable place that is much more amenable than Alaska (perhaps Seattle? I like Seattle). And if an Australian Aboriginal called Alambee had discovered and revealed monotheism, then Hashem might not have instructed his descendants to only eat animals which have split hooves and chew the cud (of which there are none in Australia), but instead to eat kangaroos and not koalas.
"No, sweetie, you're not kosher. But you might have been!"

All this no doubt sounds shocking and inconceivable to many. I urge people to read Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism carefully, as it provides an abundance of sources and discussion to prove and explain it. It shows how radically different are various authorities' conception of Judaism. One of the amazing aspects of Judaism is how such radically different views of it are able to co-exist. The reason for this has to do with the fact that ultimately, being part of the halachic community is much more significant than abstract theological discussions. But that's a topic for another post.

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 Sefaria.org)
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 http://www.zootorah.com/controversy)

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.

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