Friday, December 29, 2017

How To Save Orthodox Judaism

How do you stop Orthodox Judaism from descending into madness?

There are several manifestations of this to be found in popular Jewish weekly magazines. This week presents an extreme example. On the cover of Mishpacha, Ami, and all the rest is a smiling Sholom Rubashkin, who is being glorified as some sort of frum Sharansky. There are photos of his being paraded in front of adoring crowds like a Rebbe, and he is presented (at least in the Mishpacha article that I read) as innocent of any moral wrongdoing.

Now, many people agree that Rubashkin's sentence was excessive, and it is therefore wonderful that it was commuted. But he is nevertheless a convicted felon who hurt many people and committed some serious crimes for which he expressed no regret and does not seem at all concerned about the appalling chillul Hashem that he caused and continues to cause. What kind of message do we send, both outside and inside the Orthodox community, when we glorify such a person as a hero?

Yet this is just one of many examples of the shortcomings of the frum media. Another is how, contrary to recent Orthodox practice, they now refuse to print any pictures of women or girls, even if the woman is wearing a burqa! What kind of message does that send, when even covering yourself up with a burqa is still not enough to let your picture be seen?

Then there are all the other things that I and others have written about over the years. The notorious Ami puff-piece about Skver after the Rebbe's assistant set fire to a dissident (and continued to enjoy good standing in the community). The ridiculous Mishpacha editorials about why charedim should not go to the army and about how critics of charedi society are only motivated by hate. The enormous concern over the fate of frum people imprisoned for crimes, and the relatively little concern for captured Israeli soldiers. Ami magazine's interview with the pedophile Nechemia Weberman's defense attorney - but not with the attorney for the prosecution! The glorification of criminals and protectors of abusers and enemies of the State of Israel. The flood of advertisements from tzedaka and snake-oil organizations manipulating people with mysticism for money. And the general non-Torah u'mada, non-Torah im derech eretz, non-rationalist charedi outlook, which reflects the values of many Orthodox Jews, but by no means all.

(Mishpacha magazine, after the notorious YTT coverup of a pedophile, deserves praise for asking Rav Shlomo Miller "Why don't rabbanim take a firm stand on developments in frum life, such as denouncing perversions and corruptions, wrong agendas, wrongdoers?" But they did not protest when he replied that the Gedolim did indeed do so when they objected to the writings of Nosson Slifkin!") 

Especially frustrating is that these magazines are not only read in the chareidi community. On several occasions I have praised Mishpacha for pushing the envelope of charedi norms and publishing some excellent critiques of charedi society, but there's no reason why other communities should be restricted to such publications. Recently I was in a frum supermarket in the Five Towns and it was distressing to see that the only magazines available for purchase were Mishpacha and Ami. I'm sure that there are many, many families in the Five Towns who do not adhere to such a hashkafah. But there is no other comparable magazine to read over Shabbos.

The solution is very simple. We need a weekly magazine to rival Mishpacha and Ami. It should contain articles of interest to people across the Orthodox spectrum, but it should primarily reflect classical/Centrist Orthodox values, both in terms of its editorial policy and its writers. It should have pictures of women (except perhaps where the picture is not of the subject of the article/advertisement and would only be to allure people to buying a product). It should quote from, and profile, religious Zionist, centrist and modern Orthodox rabbis, as well as charedi rabbis. It should not have puff-pieces for quacks, criminals or protectors of abusers, and it should not run predatory advertisements from tzedokos.

The simplest way would be for the OU to make its superb Jewish Action magazine into a weekly instead of a quarterly. But if that's not going to happen (and perhaps it would be best to have an independent magazine), someone else should step up to the plate. There could be a lot of money to be made from it, but even if not, it's a way to exert tremendous positive influence on the Orthodox community.

(If you missed my previous post about Ayin Hara, check it out!)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Surprising History of Ayin Hara

What is the “Evil Eye,” known in Hebrew as ayin hara? Does it affect the person giving it (the person looking) or the person receiving it (the person being scrutinized)? Can it be given to inanimate objects, or only to people? Can you bring an ayin hara upon yourself? Does it require seeing something? Does the damage result from the eye, or from the mind? How exactly does it work? And is there a way to protect against it?

Over the past few years I have been engaging in extensive study of this topic, and I discovered several things that were surprising, even astonishing. One of the most important rabbinic figures in history stated that you can block an ayin hara with a window, and based on that, a certain Chief Rabbi suggested that you can avoid giving an ayin hara by wearing glasses! The medieval rationalist and non-rationalist views turned out to be completely the opposite of what one would expect. Rambam's denial of ayin hara turned out to be very difficult to explain. And I found that the key to this topic lies in the ostrich eggs that are found hanging in several ancient synagogues!

I have finally written up my research in a 7000-word monograph. This will eventually be published in my planned book, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. But it will also be e-mailed to contributors to my most important project, The Biblical Museum Of Natural History. We are inspiring and educating tens of thousands of people, from across the full spectrum of society, about the relationship between Torah and the natural world. And we are working on taking the museum to the next level, such that we can reach hundreds of thousands of people. We are planning to move to a much larger facility, and become a premiere national attraction! You can make a tax-deductible donation at this link (please add a note stating that it is for the Ayin Hara monograph). While the monograph will be sent for contributions of any amount, we are really hoping for substantial donations with this end-of-year giving campaign. Thank you for your support of our mission, and we look forward to the museum rising to even greater levels of success - bli ayin hara!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Who Stole My Religion?"


Several weeks ago, in a post entitled "How Frum Is Your Food?", I lamented how the Orthodox Jewish community (and particularly the ultra-Orthodox community) pays very little attention to animal welfare, especially in comparison to the enormous emphasis on stringency with kashrut. Part of the reason for this unfortunate phenomenon can be found in a book that was sent to me, provocatively titled Who Stole My Religion? (an earlier edition of which is freely available online in its entirety here). The book was written by Dr. Richard H. Schwartz, and is subtitled "Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet." It is published by Urim and it is specifically targeted towards Orthodox Jews.

The book has a foreword by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz who is also listed as a co-author. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a person who has performed acts of kindness to which most of us cannot begin to aspire, such as donating a kidney to a stranger and taking in foster children. However, he has also authored numerous articles which utterly invert traditional Jewish teachings in order to make them harmonious with his contemporary liberal values. For example, he claims that the Torah itself shows a full acceptance of all sexual orientations, because since Adam and Eve were the progenitors of all mankind, they therefore contain all their descendants(?), and thus all genetic sexual proclivities reflect the Divine purpose of humanity(??). Dealing with homosexuality is indeed a problem with which Orthodox Judaism does not seem to have yet succeeded, but claiming that homosexuality is consistent with traditional Judaism hardly makes for credible theology. Yanklowitz has also claimed that it is "spiritually violent" to refer to God in the masculine, and that the Jews' slaughter of their mortal enemies in the story of Esther is morally wrong (apparently they should have let them live, to have another opportunity to plot the murder of the Jews).

Then, back in April 2015 when Obama was president, Yanklowitz very sensibly wrote: "Israeli friends, I love you, but I fear you may be hurting yourselves (and all Jews) by constantly shaming the US President. Let there be no mistake: Israel is dependent upon US support. If there was G-d forbid a major crisis in Israel, the very first call would be to the US President! Responsible Zionism requires humility in imperfect partnerships." Yet, when Trump was elected, Yanklowitz made headlines by rewriting the prayer for the government so as to condemn Trump instead of blessing him, and called for a public fast on the day of his inauguration!

As a result of all this (and more), Yanklowitz might be a very fine teacher of contemporary liberalism, but he cannot be taken seriously as teaching any kind of Orthodox Judaism. Furthermore, this complete loss of credibility, and siding with groups and outlooks that oppose traditional Judaism and/or large sectors of the Orthodox community, means that any truly valuable struggles that he engages in with the Orthodox community are instantly undermined. I mention these problems with Rabbi Dr. Yanklowitz because they mirror the problems with Dr. Schwartz's book.

The book roughly divides into three parts. The first part is an all-out attack on American Jews who are politically right wing. Schwartz, while admitting that the Democratic party is not perfect, makes the bold claim that Republican philosophy cannot be reconciled with Jewish values. Now, I am not American, and I don't know that much about Republicans and Democrats. Still, it seems to me that to correlate the immensely complex array of Jewish values with a particular contemporary political party is naive. It is rather presumptuous to claim that Jews of a different political persuasion have "stolen my religion." It does not seem to have occurred to the author that perhaps these Jews prioritize different aspects of Judaism than he does, or have a different understanding of political and social realities.

The second part of the book is a discussion of various aspects of the Israel/Arab conflict, where the the author laments the lack of peace, and lectures at great length about how valuable it would be to have peace with the Palestinians. You don't say! I would venture to suggest that people who actually live in Israel, and suffer from the effects of Palestinian terrorism, feel this even more strongly than people in the US.

The author feels that the lack of peace is partially or even primarily the fault of the right-wing Israel government and is, once again, the result of his religion having been stolen. On p. 104 he insists that Israel is responsible for coming up with a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. On p. 81, in discussing how to make peace with the Palestinians, he makes the following breathtaking statement:
"Judaism has traditionally been based on reconciling opposites. There is a basic principle of Torah interpretation that says when two verses seem to contradict each other, a third verse will come to reconcile them. Judaism teaches us to listen to all sides of an argument and then try to find a way to reconcile them."
As with the writings of R. Dr. Yanklowitz, this makes a mockery of traditional Judaism and intellectual integrity. The principle of reconciling contradictions, mentioned here, is that of reconciling seeming contradictions between two statements of the same Divine author. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with conflicts with other nations. Yes, there is such a thing as creative drush, but this one is just silly. Did traditional Judaism mandate that the conflict with Amalek or the Nazis should be resolved by listening to their side and reconciling with them?!

On p. 85 the author notes that the responsibility for the lack of peace and blame does not only lie with Israel, but he issues a statement of blind faith in the resolution of these problems: "There are many obstacles to a just peace, including Arab intransigence and promotion of hatred toward Jews and Israel, but I believe these problems can be solved." How exactly can these problems be solved? He doesn't say. What is the basis for his faith that this is possible, after so many attempts have failed? He doesn't say.

A common problem with the left is that they often fail to acknowledge the logical possibility that the maximum that Israel can safely cede is much less than the minimum that the Palestinians are willing to settle for (a possibility which, indeed, is supported by all available evidence). The reason why most of Israel is no longer talking about how Israel must seek peace with the Palestinians is not because they are opposed to peace. It's due to most of Israel having woken up to the cold, harsh reality that the dominant forces among the Palestinians are not interested in peace, and the word "peace" for them is simply a politically correct euphemism for conquest. The author writes that "Instead of living in adversarial mode, we need to somehow find a way to move into a mode of conciliation and cooperation, seeking common ground and solution." But maybe there is no common ground with them, and maybe conciliation and cooperation are less important values in their culture than conquest and victory? Furthermore, the Palestinians believe that the Jewish People have no history in the Land of Israel - why would they accept us controlling any of it today?

In any case, even if someone disagrees with the right-wing approach, it's certainly a reasonable and understandable approach to take, in light of repeated Palestinian rejections of the Jewish People having any historical presence or right to any of Israel. The notion that being right-wing is an example of having "stolen Judaism" from traditional, authentic religious values is absurd and offensive.

In the third part of the book, the author moves to environmentalism and animal welfare, in which he raises some very important issues that are, tragically, not take seriously in the Orthodox community. But of course, by now he has already lost all but the most left-wing of readers, so he is preaching to the choir. If there are any Jews in the mainstream Orthodox community that he hasn't yet alienated, he does so on page 206, in which, after discussing the very real problems of factory farming, he writes "I believe that Jews should seriously consider becoming vegetarians, and preferably vegans, to be most consistent with basic Jewish teachings." This statement is utterly wrong, not to mention completely counterproductive. Basic Jewish teachings, over the last few thousand years, have made it clear that it is perfectly legitimate to eat meat. All the problems that he names with factory farming can be solved by eating animals that are not developed and farmed in such a way; it does not require a person to become vegetarian. (See, for example, the excellent animal welfare work of the Jewish Initiative For Animals - which is run by a shochet!) Claiming that good Jews have to be vegetarians simply turns off most Jews to anything that you have to say about animal welfare.

The author discusses turning Rosh Chodesh Elul, the Rosh HaShanah for behemot (domestic animals), into a festival that celebrates respect for the animal kingdom. The problem is that this festival, mentioned in the Mishnah, was traditionally no such thing; instead, it was simply a date for counting newborn animals for tithing purposes. The author, to his credit, acknowledges that this is a conscious effort to transform the original date into something else entirely (just as happened with Tu B'Shvat). The same cannot be said for R. Dr. Yanklowitz, who, in his article about this celebration, claims that celebrating it in this way was God's Intent, and that "the holiday was a means to celebrate the special bond between humanity and the other creations of the Earth." No, it wasn't! Not that such would not be a nice thing to celebrate; it certainly is (and both Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh include aspects of celebrating the natural world). But this is simply not what Rosh HaShanah LeBehemah was about, and to claim otherwise looks intellectually dishonest and silly.

In this forum I have often criticized revisionism of traditional Judaism by the religious right, but the far left is equally guilty of this. Of course, Judaism does evolve. The contemporary celebrations of the chagim bear little similarity to their ancient agricultural forms. In Israel, the traditional festival of Shemini Atzeret has completely disappeared and been replaced by the much more recent festival of Simchat Torah (if you don't believe me, ask Israeli kids what the name of that day is). And we have seen the creation of new festivals, such as the one celebrating pyromania and the reformation of classical Judaism by a pseudepigraphic mystical work. However, there is a difference between the natural, organic evolution of Judaism, and the cavalier dismissal of millennia of tradition and blatant rewriting of Judaism to make it conform with the contemporary liberal left-wing zeitgeist.

The author expresses wonder and dismay at how the Orthodox Jewish community denies climate change and displays little regard for the welfare of animals and the environment. He doesn't seem to realize that he himself, and the people and organizations that he endorses in his book, are partially the cause of this. Issuing blatantly spurious revisionism of Torah and siding with those hostile to Orthodox values are not only going to decrease the effectiveness of your important messages; they will actually cause people to reject those messages, due to presumptions of guilt by association. If there's one thing that I've learned with the banning of my books on Torah and science, and the success of The Biblical Museum of Natural History at reaching the full spectrum of the population (except those that I alienated with my books), it's that you have to respect people's communal values and beliefs, and educate within that framework.

Judaism is a complex system that has been developing over many thousands of years. Yes, there are many problems in contemporary Orthodox society that need to be fixed, and which demonstrate it falling out of step with certain traditional Torah values, as I have written about on many, many occasions. But to reduce Judaism to certain left-wing liberal views of the first decades of the 21st century is no less dishonest (and perhaps quite a bit more so) than defining Judaism as charedism or as rationalism.

The book's title asks, "Who Stole My Religion?" Well, the obvious response from most of the author's desired target audience will be, "You did!"

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jedi Masters vs. Gedolei Torah vs. Rishonim

Which is easier, to become a Jedi Master, to become a Gadol B'Torah, or to become a Rishon?

I'm not referring here to the acquisition of metaphysical abilities via the Force or kabbalah, or to the acquisition of wisdom and character traits which are presumed (though certainly not guaranteed) to accompany being Gadol b'Torah. I'm referring to the actual knowledge that needs to be acquired.

And let me specify that I am not discussing the Reform Jediism presented in the new Star Wars movies, in which you don't need any of the extensive study and training undertaken by Luke Skywalker. Rather, I am referring to traditional Jediism. In the latest movie, The Last Jedi, we visit the Ancient Jedi Temple and get a look at the library of classical Jedi sefarim, containing the ancient Jedi wisdom. And it contains...

Eight volumes.

Just eight! And Luke Skywalker confesses that he hasn't even read them! And, demonstrating an astonishing lack of respect, a certain ancient Jedi Master who turns out to be a Reformer agrees with Luke, noting that they aren't "page-turners"! What a pitiful reflection on contemporary culture, in which people assume that knowledge is to be acquired by flicking through bites of information online rather than by actually studying books cover-to-cover, even if they aren't page-turners.

So, with just eight books for a Jedi to study, it's much easier to become a Jedi Master than to become a Gadol B'Torah, in which there are hundreds and thousands of works to be mastered. And if it's harder to become a Gadol B'Torah than to become a Jedi Master, then kal v'chomer it is even more difficult to become a Rishon, those towering masters of Torah, right?

Wrong.

I'm going to say something which raised a lot of hackles when I first said it several years ago. But I'm going to say it again, because in the comments to the previous post, someone wrote that the reason why people have to learn in kollel for many years is that you can't learn Kol HaTorah Kula in just a few hours a day.

Nowadays, to become revered as a Gadol B'Torah, you'd have to learn an awful lot. You'd have spent time learning Tanach with some commentaries. You'd need to know Shas Bavli with every Rashi and Tosafos, which multiplies the study a hundredfold, along with major portions of Rishonim and Acharonim, the latter of which can be very intricate and require many hours of study. You'd also be expected to know Shas Yerushalmi, Shulchan Aruch, and to have studied lots of halachic literature. Plus, you would also have spent time on the way learning mussar sefarim and a host of other material. It's a lot to master; for several years, I lived next door to Rav Shmuel Auerbach's beis hamidrash, and I recall seeing him engrossed in study when I returned to my apartment at 11pm, and seeing him in the same position at 7am the next morning.

But the library of the Rishonim was much, much smaller. They hardly had any of this. They had Tanach, and manuscripts of the Gemara, and a few writings of the Geonim and some Rishonim. That was it! (And, of course, Chazal themselves had even less.) This isn't to say that the Rishonim were not geniuses and great scholars - of course they were. But it was much easier to master the material when there was much less to master.

Learning Kol HaTorah Kula only requires many years in kollel if you are defining Torah to include all the material that has accumulated over the centuries. But the complete Torah used to be much smaller. And let us not forget that Rambam wrote his Mishneh Torah with the intent that it completely replaces learning Gemara!

To be sure, given how Torah has developed, you're not going to be a towering scholar or teacher of Torah today unless you've learned a good portion of the material that has accumulated over the centuries. But to be an ordinary good learned Jew, there is much less that needs to be learned. Thus, Rav Eliezer Melamed writes that while it is important for everyone to gain a basic knowledge of Torah, which the community should fund, this should and need go no further than a few years in yeshivah. Once they have acquired an adequate basic general knowledge, they should study towards a career, so that they can be self-supportive. Only those who are directly studying to become rabbis or educators may continue their studies and be supported by the community, since they are dedicating themselves to a path of serving the community. For others, it is forbidden to continue their Torah study and receive communal support.

There's no obligation to become a contemporary Gadol B'Torah, which requires learning the accumulation of many centuries of development. The obligation is to have a thorough working knowledge of Torah, which requires much less effort. Though still more than Luke Skywalker was willing to exert!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Did They Teach You This In Yeshivah?

What did they teach you in yeshivah about kollel vs. working? I was taught that kollel is the only legitimate option, and the normative route for a Torah Jew. My roommate in yeshivah, upon telling the Rosh Yeshivah that he was leaving to university, was told "I'm sorry that you're being lost to the world of Torah." But here's a fascinating letter from Rav Shlomo Wolbe:
"I was delving into the topic of Torah Im Derech Eretz which is, ultimately, the foundation upon which live most Shomer Mitzvos in the world. We do not sufficiently relate to this approach, and the result of this is that many Bnei Yeshivah who eventually leave to engage in business and suchlike see this as a contradiction to the life of Torah, which is a great mistake. I head in the name of the Steipler that today's effort to make people stay permanently in kollel is a horaas shaah (temporary decree), and Rav Chaim Kanievsky said that it is reasonable that his father said this. The basic path of the Torah is that a person works for a living and also establishes regular times for Torah study..." (from אגרות וכתבים)

It is deeply ironic that many people in the charedi world claim that the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach of Rav Hirsch was a hora'as shaah, and do not acknowledge that the fundamental societal approach of the charedi world is a hora'as shaah!

It goes without saying that the hora'as shaah of mass kollel, intended to compensate for the losses of the Holocaust, has resulted in there now being far more people in full-time Torah study than ever before in history, with a host of resultant problems. I once heard from Prof. Leo Levi that he asked one of the charedi Gedolim (I forget which one) that surely it is time to officially cancel this temporary decree, and the Gadol replied that he lacks the koach to do so. Alas, this is one of the problems of the weakness of charedi leadership - and the problems of a society which elects nonagenarians as its leaders.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

When Rabbis Don't Quack

In the all-time most-read post on this blog, When Rabbis Quack, I criticized an as-yet unpublished work on alternative medicine which featured an array of rabbinic endorsements. Then, after the book was published, I critiqued a too-positive (albeit still critical) feature article about the book which appeared in Mishpacha magazine. I was pleased to see that Mishpacha issued an apology and retraction of this article: 
CLARIFICATION: Several weeks ago, we addressed in these pages the complicated and high-stakes issue of alternative medicine and associated nontraditional practices. In retrospect, we have come to realize that such a sensitive and controversial topic should not have appeared in these pages.
Alternative medicine is an extremely complex and delicate topic, from both a halachic standpoint as well as a scientific point of view. Any attempt to address the topic demands a fair and balanced presentation that is far beyond the form of a feature article in a weekly magazine.
Many of these methods may also involve serious issurei d'Oraisa. Rav Yisroel Belsky ztz"l was known to have been vehemently opposed to such practices on these grounds. Although these potential issurim were noted in the article, unfortunately, they were not sufficiently highlighted, and some critical sources of information were overlooked, especially Rav Belsky's new sefer on the topic. Additionally, gedolei harabbanim have pointed to many unfortunate instances in which people placed themselves in grave danger by eschewing traditional medicine and opting for speculative methods.
The article also alluded to the possibility of an individual having gained mystical healing powers via various encounters. Considering this method as an avenue of medical healing is misguided. While the merits of alternative medicine can be debated, and the discipline has some precedent, this form of curing has no precedent, and can be a dangerous road to travel. Investing hope in people who claim to have special mystical powers is a foolish waste of time, energy, and money, and possibly dangerous as well.
Mishpacha feels an achrayus to the tzibbur and has long prided itself on seeking guidance from gedolei harabbanim. We thank the rabbanim who have contacted us in response to the article and with pride are modeh al he'emes. We regret publishing a piece that may have conveyed approval of these problematic practices, and strongly recommend that everyone proceed with great caution in this area and consult their rav and doctor when considering pursuing alternative medicine. (18 Kislev 5778 / 1 December 6, 2017)

It's good to know that many Rabbanim protested any praise for this book. And it's nice to see this retraction, although I would not agree that "such a sensitive and controversial topic should not have appeared in these pages... Any attempt to address the topic demands a fair and balanced presentation that is far beyond the form of a feature article in a weekly magazine." I think that a weekly popular magazine such as Mishpacha is an important forum in which to discuss such a topic; it's just that I don't think that the topic needs an Israel/Palestinian style "fair and balanced presentation." It needs an honest critique.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Can Bad People Do Good Things?

President Trump's declaration about Jerusalem, delivered as part of an excellent and uncharacteristically presidential speech (and following on the heels of Mike Pence's incredible speech at Israel's UN celebration last week), is a fascinating phenomenon. It's really brought some antisemites out of the woodwork, from the appalling London Times cartoon depicting a kippa-wearing Trump smashing a dove to death against the Western Wall, to Linda Sarsour's declaration that Jerusalem is definitively not the capital of Israel and that Trump does not speak for her (to which someone wittily responded, "No, Hamas does!")

Was it a good thing for Israel? Virtually everyone I know agrees that the answer is clearly yes. While it isn't as concrete as we would hope - it is far from certain that the embassy will ever actually move, and the next President could easily walk this all back, without having to formally revoke it - it is a tremendous political boost. Furthermore, the fact that everyone and their mother warned that this would result in hell being unleashed, and yet nothing particularly significant happened as a result, clearly demonstrated that histrionics can often safely be ignored. And the claims that this destroys or even harms the chances of peace are nonsense. In the extremely unlikely event that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is ever attained, it will not be due to Israel have demonstrated a willingness to concede things, but rather due to it having been proved that Israel is here to stay, and the Palestinians accepting that the Western Wall is the Western Wall.

Still, some very fine people that I know were not in a celebratory mood. The reason for this was that Trump is not a particularly savory individual, to put it mildly. Aside from being petulant and childish and vain and having no regard for truth, he is a rather nasty person who has taken joy in being extremely offensive to many people, especially women. So how can one celebrate his acts - and indeed, how can it even be possible for such a person to do something worth celebrating?

While I understand how these people feel - imagine if it was Yosef Mizrachi, a person of similar character traits - I believe this attitude to be mistaken. One person protested, "This is not what the good Lord meant when he promised this land to Avraham and his descendants. Not like this." To which I responded, "That's what Satmar said."

It would be nice if the world was black-and-white, divided into good people and bad people, with good people always doing good and bad people only doing bad. But the reality is not that way. The world is complex and people are complex. Rarely is someone thoroughly good or bad, and even if they are that way, they can sometimes do things that are at odds with this. 

Our history is replete with celebrations of good things that were accomplished by not very good people. To give some extreme examples, as has been pointed out, King Ahab, who married a non-Jew, encouraged idol worship and stood silent while his wife killed a prophet, was told by a prophet that he would lead troops to miraculous victory. Omri, identified as a greater sinner than all the wicked Jewish kings before him, merited a long-lasting dynasty because he added a city to the Land of Israel despite the fact that his intention in adding that city was to eliminate Jerusalem as the focus of the Jews! Herod rebuilt the Beis HaMikdash. There are many Jewish boys named after Alexander, in gratitude for all that he did for the Jewish People, notwithstanding the fact that he was something of a despot. We appreciate the good, even when it is accomplished by different people than we would have hoped for.

Furthermore, the inverse is certainly true; good people can do bad things. Most people would agree that Rav Steinman is a selfless, caring person (there is an amazing account of his refusing to accept back-pay because he had already been mochel it), and yet his repeated opposition to charedim receiving the education necessary to earn a living is to be lamented. Rav Chaim Kanievsky is revered as a righteous scholar, and yet he defended the monster Elior Chen. So if good people can do bad things, why can't bad people do good things?

There is an odd mix of people denouncing Trump's speech - the Palestinians (though the response from the rest of the Arab world is muted), the Europeans, the UN, Democrats, and both Satmar Rebbes (at last, something that they can finally agree upon!). But we don't need to agree with them. Regardless of what kind of person Trump is, his speech was Good For The Jews.


Don't forget to book your Chanukah tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and see our new exhibits! Book online at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Was Rachel Imeinu Killed By A Werewolf?

(A update of this post from a few years ago, in light of my discovering that Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein has an online shiur on this topic.)

In Sacred Monsters, I noted that Rabbeinu Ephraim ben Shimshon, one of the Tosafists, wrote about werewolves. But I only recently came across the full text, and I found some additional fascinating material. (I uploaded the original text of Rabbeinu Ephraim on werewolves as a PDF- you can download it here.)

Rabbeinu Ephraim refers to werewolves in a curious discussion about Yaakov’s son Benjamin. In this week's parashah, the Torah relates how Yaakov repeatedly expressed concern about Benjamin’s brothers taking him down to Egypt, “lest an accident befall him.” Rabbeinu Ephraim explains this concern to relate to the description of Benjamin as “a predatory wolf” (Genesis 49:27), understanding it very literally:
Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him. (Rabbeinu Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29)
Elsewhere in the manuscript of Rabbeinu Ephraim’s commentary, there is further discussion about werewolves attributed to “a writer from Ashkenaz” (apparently disciples of Rabbeinu Ephraim, or other scholars from the region):
There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf. When it changes into a wolf, his feet emerge from between his shoulders. So too with Benjamin—“he dwells between the shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). The solution for [dealing with] this wolf is that when it enters a house, and a person is frightened by it, he should take a firebrand and thrust it around, and he will not be harmed. So they would do in the Temple; each day, they would throw the ashes by the altar, as it is written, “and you shall place it by the altar” (Leviticus 6:3); and so is the norm with this person whose offspring turn into wolves, for a werewolf is born with teeth, which indicates that it is out to consume the world. Another explanation: a werewolf is born with teeth, to show that just as this is unusual, so too he will be different from other people. And likewise, Benjamin ate his mother, who died on his accord, as it is written, “And it was as her soul left her, for she was dying, and she called his name ‘the son of my affliction’ ” (Genesis 35:18). (Commentary to Genesis 35:27)
In Sacred Monsters, I thought that the description of Benjamin eating his mother was a figure of speech, and metaphorically referred to his causing her death via childbirth. But now I think it might mean that he literally ate her! An earlier comment makes use of the albam system of letter substitution, whereby the Hebrew alphabet is split into two parts, and each letter is replaced by the corresponding letter in the other part. Based on this system, the word tzelem, “image,” as in “man was created in the image of God,” converts to ze’ev, “wolf,” which is explained to have great significance:
Tzelem is ze’ev in the albam system; therefore, those people who change into wolves were created as such from the Six Days of Creation, and do not return to their earlier state until they have eaten the blood of a man or woman. (Commentary to Genesis 2:28)

As I explained in Sacred Monsters, it would be a mistake to look upon those who believed in such things as being "naive" or "foolish." While such a belief would be outlandish today, in the medieval period it was perfectly ordinary. After all, Scripture itself attested to King Nebuchadnezzar turning into an animal. While some would interpret this as mental illness, others interpreted this as meaning that he physically transformed into an animal. Why, then, should a person not be able to turn into a wolf?

On the other hand, it's a little less understandable when more recent figures believe in such things. Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein cites Chida as stating that this account is literally true (I'm on the road and I am unable to verify this). He also elaborates and says that the werewolf can only turn back into human form if he kills someone. For Chida to believe it is still understandable, albeit somewhat less so than with Rabbeinu Ephraim. For Rabbi Wallerstein, on the other hand, to insist that "this is Torah" and that "it must be taken very seriously," strongly implying that one is obligated to believe that it is true, is a little less acceptable. I recently met some baalei teshuvah who listened to his shiur and took it to mean that they are obligated to believe in werewolves. I don't think that this is a true or responsible message for an educator to impart. (I thus also cannot agree with what Rabbi Wallerstein says later in his shiur, that whatever comes out of his mouth in a shiur is what Hashem wants the world to hear.) There are all kinds of weird beliefs that crept into Jewish works over the centuries (see especially the Seder HaDoros that quote in Sacred Monsters), and there is absolutely no obligation to believe them.

(For further discussion of the belief in werewolves, see Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories, pp. 96-105)

See too this post: Was Eisav a Vampire?

The Making of Twins

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