Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Other Civil Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Feast of Exotic Curiosities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Another View On How Torah Protects

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

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

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

When Snails Attack Gedoylei Toyrah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it's also against the Mesoyrah.

Friday, June 16, 2017

An Unexpected Turn Of Events

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

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

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

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

My jaw dropped.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Beit Shemesh Complaining and Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Kollels and Crocodiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Solution to the Problem of Chareidi Poverty!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Next Stage!

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

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

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

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

Blog Migration!

Birds migrate, butterflies migrate, whales migrate, and this blog is migrating! It's being moved over from Blogger to Substack. The URL ...