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!

Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both ...