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
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:

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