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!

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?

Happy Chanukah!