Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Sandwich in LaGuardia

Sitting in LaGuardia airport, on my way to Memphis for a scholar-in-residence engagement, I finished my tuna sandwich and began birkat ha-mazon. Now, my bensching is certainly on the faster side; when I used to start bensching in yeshivah, a certain friend would always start making motorcycle noises. Still, I do always try to think about what I’m saying. And, looking around the teeming masses of people from all walks of life in the Delta terminal, I gained a particularly powerful appreciation for being an Orthodox Jew.

For virtually everyone else there, I would wager, eating a tuna sandwich would not be a particularly significant experience. You buy it, you eat it, and that’s it. But, as an Orthodox Jew, there’s so much more to it. And I’m not even going to start with the kashrut laws that are implemented in obtaining and making the food, I will just describe the thoughts that birkat ha-mazon generates.

First of all, there is the expression of appreciation for the food. How many people actually stop to think about being grateful for the food that they eat? Sure, it was just a tuna sandwich, it wasn’t pheasant pastilla or roasted shoulder of Asian water buffalo (ah, fond memories). But it was delicious and nutritious and it kept my body going. Baruch atah Hashem, ha-zan et hakol.

Then, benching takes us on tour of the history of our nation. There were so many people of so many backgrounds around me; I don’t know how many of them had much of a national history, or ever thought about it. Ours is certainly worth contemplating at every opportunity, even while sitting at an airport gate. We trace our history back for thousands of years! And our homeland, too! Nodah lecha… ah shehinchalta l’avoteinu eretz chemda… v’al shehotzetanu… mibeit avadim…. Baruch ata Hashem, al ha-aretz v’al ha-mazon.

But there have been dark times in our history, too, and we must never forget them. The original Jewish sovereign state in the Land of Israel was destroyed. Yet it is our very mourning of that, for thousands of years, which gave us the commitment to return. And through the grace of God, we have been able to do so, and to start rebuilding the Land. Baruch atah Hashem, boneh b’rachamav Yerushalayim. 

There were many more thoughts that bensching made me think about, but I’ll leave it here for now. I will just conclude by saying that if I were to add a brachah to benching, it would be: Thank you, Hashem, for commanding us to bensch.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Who Flocks to Yosef Mizrachi?

The Gemara says, Lo lechinam holech ha-zarzir etzel ha-orev, elah mipnei shehu mino. The starling does not flock with the crow for nothing; it does because it is of the same general kind. (Starlings often roost amongst jackdaws, which, along with ravens, rooks, and similar birds, are members of the crow family, and starlings are themselves indeed closely related to the crow family.)

In a recent class, “Rabbi” Yosef Mizrachi illustrates the Gemara’s principle with an example that brings him great joy. He describes how Slifkin was the first to defend (Rabbi Joseph) Dweck (the London scholar who was embroiled in a controversy over some of his teachings). That’s because, gloats Mizrachi, following the Gemara’s principle, Slifkin and Dweck are both resha’im! He happily adds that anyone who enjoys my material on the internet is going to go down to Hell with me. (You can watch the two-minute video at this link, if you are feeling masochistic.)

Yet his delirious joy is based on something that never happened! I did not write any post at all in defense of Rabbi Dweck during the controversy over his teachings. That was for the simple reason that, as I stated explicitly, I had not heard any of Rabbi Dweck’s lectures and could not comment on them. So Mizrachi’s argument is a complete fabrication!

What I think he has in mind is that several months before the Rabbi Dweck controversy, I wrote two posts to defend the honor of the sixteen rabbis that Mizrachi trashed (with ridiculous lies and insults) after they criticized his crass and perverse teachings. I knew many of them, and I condemned Mizrachi’s slander of them, and explained why their critique of his teachings was entirely justified. I added that I didn’t know Rabbi Dweck (one of the sixteen that Mizrachi slandered with particular venom), but that in light of his outstanding biographical information, it seemed unlikely that Mizrachi was correct in describing him as a “wicked monster” who is “the biggest enemy of the Jewish nation.” But the post was as a defense of the letter of the 16 rabbanim, several of whom are my personal friends. It was they to whom I flocked. So Mizrachi’s entire point is a non-starter, unless he wants to claim that I am of the same kind as the 16 rabbis!

(Incidentally, while Mizrachi describes me as “making fun of the Gemara,” my crime was actually quoting the view of Rambam and others that not everything in the Gemara is scientifically correct. Perhaps Mizrachi should clarify whether he considers Rambam to be “making fun of the Gemara.”)

But it turns out that Mizrachi has an excuse for not reading what I actually wrote, either in my books or on my blog. He says that since I am a rasha, it is forbidden to look at me, to listen to my voice, or to read my words, in case one absorbs my evil! (Someone should attend his class with a picture of me on a T-shirt.)

The Gemara’s point about starlings going to ravens isn’t illustrated by the fabrication that Mizrachi creates. But if you want an illustration of the Gemara’s principle, there would seem to be a great example: that of Yosef Mizrachi.

Who flocks to Mizrachi’s classes? I know one very fine person who is, inexplicably, besotted with him. But many of his most devoted followers, those who flock to defend him, seem to be of poor character – hateful people, willfully ignorant people, crass people, violent people, people who gloat at the suffering of others.

And here’s the ultimate kicker: Mizrachi himself has boasted of criminals and murderers who are followers of his! He once proudly described how he has a devoted follower who wanted to actually murder one of his critics! 

Lo lechinam holech ha-zarzir etzel ha-orev, elah mipnei shehu mino. 

(On a more serious and important note, if you missed the post with Chicken Wars monograph, check it out at this link.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Chicken Wars: The Monograph

I am pleased to release my latest monograph, Chicken Wars: The Raging Controversies Over Kosher Chickens. It is a discussion of the great chicken controversies of both the 19th and 21st centuries, along with discussion of bird kashrut in general and turkeys.

Much research went into this publication. If you feel that your or others benefit from it, please make a donation to The Biblical Museum of Natural History, at this link. We need your support in order to continue in our work of teaching adults and children across the spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world. Thank you!

You can download the monograph at this link (5mb PDF). Share and enjoy!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Was the "Charedi Day Of Rage" Charedi?

NOTE: My lecture this Tuesday in Teaneck on "Chicken Wars" is cancelled. But the lecture is taking place in Woodmere tomorrow (Monday), at Beis Tefilah at 8pm.

Last Thursday saw the "Charedi Day Of Rage," in which thousands of charedi demonstrators blocked roads across Israel and engaged in mass protests, some of which turned violent. This was in response to the arrest of two yeshivah students who had not registered for an army exemption, and were caught after being pulled over for dangerous driving on their way back from the Dead Sea (no doubt visiting one of the many yeshivos there). It was organized by Rav Shmuel Auerbach's "Peleg Yerushalmi" faction.

This was a very serious event. In the words of one participant, "We’ll fight with every fiber of our being; we’d accept death before transgression on this. We’ll fight to our last drop of blood. We will not give up. We’ll die before joining the army.” They will leave yeshiva and engage in violent warfare rather than leave yeshivah and serve in the Israel Defense Forces! (I saw it reported in the name of one cynical Rosh Yeshivah that halachically, they should not choose to die; instead, they should simply amputate their hands and be exempt from army duty.) On a serious note, though, this was a terrible enterprise, causing problems for countless thousands of people, as was the intention - the official summons to protest announced that וכל הגולה כולה תבער כמדורת אש. 

To what extent can this horrible event be called a "charedi" phenomenon? Rabbi Avraham Edelstein argues that it was not a charedi event at all. He states that the Peleg faction is only 5% of the charedi community, and does not represent the values of mainstream charedim. He concludes, "Don't call these people charedim. Don't even call them Orthodox."

It is certainly true that there is a deep division in Israeli charedi society between the mainstream Rav Steinman camp and the Rav Shmuel Auerbach camp. I am also fairly certain that many, perhaps even most, Israeli charedim were disgusted by last Thursday's event. It is therefore misleading and even defamatory to consider it as representing mainstream charedi society.

Still, to completely disavow any charedi aspect of the Day Of Rage is incorrect, for two reasons.

First is that the Peleg group does not exist in a vacuum. As discussed previously in a post on Charedi Extremist Violence, there is a continuous spectrum in the charedi world of opposition to the State and the IDF. There was Rav Steinman and others referring to the government as Amalek. There was the entirety of charedi society turning out for a rally in which they recited Shefoch Chamascha - referring to the government. Yes, the Peleg faction is more extreme than the rest of charedi society, but they are clearly on the same spectrum.

The second reason why it is incorrect to deny any charedi aspect to the Day Of Rage is that the rest of Charedi society is not condemning it (or even mentioning it). There is a report going around that Rav Chaim Kanievsky condemned it, but it's just not true; what he condemned was a protest against his emissary Rav Rosen at a yeshivah in Kiryat Sefer.

Rabbi Edelstein is writing a kiruv piece for non-charedim. Have Yated or HaModia or Ami or Mishpacha condemned Rav Shmuel Auerbach (and have they even reported on the Day of Rage)? The mainstream charedi press has no qualms in calling out the excesses of Open Orthodoxy as demonstrating that they are not Orthodox. But they are not going to do the same here. Because, ultimately, they see Open Orthodoxy (and Modern Orthodoxy, and Religious Zionists) as "other," whereas they see Rav Shmuel Auerbach and the Peleg faction as "us."

Let's be honest about what the societal problem is. That's the first step in trying to solve a conflict that's getting to be almost as severe as the Chicken Wars.

Friday, October 20, 2017

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!

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