Tuesday, March 13, 2018

These Rabbis Are Not Murderers

The previous post, The Lakewood Suicide Squad, is already the most-read post in all eight years of this blog, with over 24,000 hits. A number of comments described the rabbis opposing vaccinations as being murderers. That is a very strong term, and I believe it to be severely inappropriate.

Murder connotes an intentional act of taking people's lives. These rabbis most certainly do not want to kill anyone! They care about life just as much as anyone else. From their perspective, they simply do not see what they are doing as in any way leading to the loss of life. In fact, from their perspective, it is the pro-vaccine people who are causing children to suffer, and yet we wouldn't like them to call us child abusers! It would be more appropriate to use the term "murderer" for people who text while driving, because at least they are aware that they are doing something very dangerous. The anti-vaccine people have no idea that they are doing something dangerous.

The correct description for what these people are causing is involuntary manslaughter. This, indeed, was the court verdict for David and Ginger Twitchell, devout members of a Christian Science church who sincerely believed that the best thing to do for their sick children was to pray for them (which regrettably did not save their children from dying).

If someone opposes vaccination because they sincerely mistakenly believe vaccination to be harmful, does that make them a bad person? Well, if there is an abdication of their responsibility to analyze such topics carefully and properly, then this is a moral failing. You could argue that it's irresponsible for people to believe that they know better than not only virtually the entire medical establishment, but even the professionals in their very own communities that they generally respect (see the letter on the right, signed by the frum physicians of Lakewood; click to enlarge it). But I'm not entirely sure that the situation can be described this way. I think that many such people genuinely lack the ability/worldview which enables them to analyze this topic correctly. And as I explained in the previous post, it's a natural result of their non-rationalist approach in general.

(The people who are more morally accountable are those who accept that the anti-vaccination approach is dangerous, and yet still promote these rabbis as being Gedolim. Some such people also commented on the last post, and they were more concerned with me giving these Gedolim a bad name than with the fact of their promoting Gedolim who could be causing the deaths of children.)

People can do terrible things with the best of intentions. This also relates to a topic that came up recently with the passing of Rav Shmuel Auerbach. In my post The Elephant in the Room, I quoted some people who declared that Rav Shmuel was totally leshem Shamayim in everything that he did. That is absolutely true, but it doesn't count for as much as people seem to think. A person can have entirely pure motivations and yet still do terrible things. But on the other hand, it's easy to categorize riots and shutting down cities as being terrible deeds. A particular course of medical action/inaction, on the other hand, can only described as good/bad in terms of its effects.

So, in conclusion, I don't think that the anti-vaccination crowd can be described as evil people. They are well-meaning people who are just badly misguided. Unfortunately, in this case, innocent mistakes can have fatal consequences.

In future posts, I plan to discuss the question of on what grounds someone such as myself (and most readers), who have not engaged in extensive studies of medicine or the medical literature, can confidently conclude that vaccinations are necessary.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Lakewood Suicide Squad

Who would engage in actions that could lead to the deaths of their own children, and the deaths of many other people in their very own community? The following astonishing email arrived in my inbox a few days ago:
Dear Friends,
B’siyata D’shmaya we have formed The Vaccine Coalition, a Coalition of Non-Vaccinating Parents in Lakewood, New Jersey.
This coalition was founded by R’ Malkiel Kotler shlit”a, R’ Shmuel Meir Katz shlit”a and R’ Refael Szmerla shlit”a, and it aims to address the current pressing issue of schools rejecting or dismissing non-vaccinated children. It will also be available to help non-vaccinating parents in Lakewood in any area we feel we can, as well as to provide support of ‘strength in numbers’ to pro-vaccine choice Lakewood families.
This coalition depends on a collective voice and will not be launched until we reach a minimum of 250 families. If you live in Lakewood and have made a decision not to vaccinate your children, we encourage you to please take a few moments to sign up to join the coalition, for your benefit, and for the benefit of all other Lakewood families like yourselves.
By joining the coalition you agree to have your name and personal information added to our private database. Your information will never be released to a third party without your permission. If the coalition should find it absolutely necessary to release your name in the course of assisting it's members you may receive an email requesting your permission.  Any such instance will be authorized by the Rosh Hayeshiva R’ Malkiel Kotler shlit”a beforehand. 
The success of this endeavor is contingent on enlisting as many non-vaccinating families as possible. Please take the time to reach out to your friends and family who don’t vaccinate and encourage them to join.
To join, please visit www.vaccinecoalition.org. Alternatively you can join by emailing vaccinecoalition@gmail.com or call/ text 732-806-7739
At the website, we find a familiar name added to the list of rabbinic endorsements:
The Vaccine Choice Coalition is endorsed and backed by HaRav Malkiel Kotler shlit"a, HaRav Elya Ber Wachtfogel shlit"a and HaRav Shmuel Meir Katz shlit"a. If you have any questions or concerns please don't hesitate to contact us at 732-806-7739 or vaccinecoalition@gmail.com
Pictured: Rav Malkiel Kotler and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel.
Not pictured: The corpses of children who died from measles.

Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsberg was, of course, one of the driving forces behind the ban on my books (along with a number of criminals), and Rav Malkiel Kotler was one of the signatories. Curiously absent from this list, although also known to be a strong opponent of vaccination, is Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky (see my post Frum Ways to Die; ironically, he originally endorsed my books and stood by his endorsement against tremendous pressure).

Now, it's important to understand that the Vaccine Coalition certainly do not (yet) represent the normative charedi approach to vaccination. The vast majority of people in the charedi community vaccinate their children. The vast majority of charedi rabbanim believe that it is important to vaccinate. The charedi world in general usually has enormous respect for physicians. And charedi websites such as Matzav.com and YeshivaWorld.com have issued blistering condemnations of the [Anti-] Vaccine Coaltion.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably the case that this is a charedi phenomenon. Lower incidences of vaccinations have been reported in British charedi communities as well as in the US. You'd never find such a thing happening in Dati-Leumi or Modern Orthodox communities. It is occurring because of particular aspects of charedi society. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the comments section of the aforementioned articles at Matzav and YeshivaWorld. And although most charedi leaders would be against the Anti-Vaccine Coalition, they all share a certain degree of responsibility for it.

One of the leaders of the Anti-Vaccine Coalition is Rabbi Refael Szmerla. You might recognize that name - he is the author of Alternative Medicine in Halacha, a book that I critiqued in my post When Rabbis Quack. That book is an all-out endorsement of all kinds of quackery and an attempt to discredit Western medicine as being theologically problematic. In my critique, I argued that taking such an approach is likely to lead to opposing vaccinating children, and lo and behold, I was correct. So all the rabbanim who endorsed that book likewise share the responsibility of people not vaccinating their children.

But that book itself did not emerge in a vacuum. It was a predictable consequence of how charedi society broadly adopts an anti-rationalist, anti-scientific approach to the world. There's the near-universal position among charedi Gedolim that it is heretical to talk about the world being billions of years old. There's the anti-scientific emunah books endorsed by Rav Aharon Feldman and Rav Shlomo Miller which present pseudoscientific rebuttals of mainstream science. There's scientific ignoramuses such as Jonathan Rosenblum and Avi Shafran writing allegedly sophisticated critiques of evolution and global warming. All this feeds the idea that any non-expert can shlug up things that have overwhelming support and consensus in the scientific community. No doubt many of these charedi rabbanim and writers are horrified at the anti-vaccination group, but they contributed to its development. You reap what you sow.

The anti-vaccination movement is also the result of the charedi anti-establishment position in general. The goyim are out to hurt us with their lies! They claim that metziza b'peh is dangerous, but we know that it's not! They claim that Shalom Rubashkin committed crimes, but we know that he is a tzaddik gamur and a public hero! Etc., etc. Vaccination becomes just one more example of the government anti-Jewish conspiracy.

Another factor that might contribute is the charedi downplaying of hishtadlus. This is reflected in people claiming the vaccinations, which are not what Jews traditionally did, compromise emunah and bitachon.

Then there's the additional problem that once some charedi Gedolim put their names to something, others are terrified to criticize them for it. So whoever gets in first is able to exert disproportionate influence. Szmerla published his book with prestigious endorsements, and Mishpacha magazine wrote a largely enthusiastic feature article on it. True, they later printed a "Clarification" which was largely a retraction, but the clarification was much less explicit and prominent than the original article, and the damage was done. And once Rav Elya Ber Watchfogel declares that people have good reason not to vaccinate their children, who is going to openly declare him to be badly wrong? Even the critiques at YeshivaWorld and Matzav dare not mention his name. Because, as we saw with Rav Shmuel Auerbach, almost nobody ever dares publicly say that a Charedi Gadol is wrong. That would undermine charedi hashkafah, and it's also socially unthinkable in a society where everybody is always looking nervously over their right shoulder.

On many occasions, I have written that I don't think that it really matters if charedim are anti-evolution or if they believe that Chazal were scientifically infallible. I am actually very sympathetic to their wanting to adopt the anti-rationalist approach. But this is one potentially lethal effect of that worldview.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Is There An Overlooked Jewish Farrakhan/Mallory Scandal?

A number of media outlets have given voice to outrage at Women's March leader Tamika Mallory's complicity with Louis Farrakhan's antisemitism. Yesterday I added a criticism of Rabbi Sharon Brous both for her statement defending Mallory and for her saying that while Farrakhan is repugnant, similarly flawed leaders exist in the Jewish community.

Several people responded to the latter point by arguing that Brous is correct and that there are indeed such leaders in the Jewish community. Some of the names put forward were Rabbi Meir Kahane, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Rabbi Dov Lior, and Ayelet Shaked. Others compared Mallory's complicity to how various people in the Jewish community associate with, praise, and do not criticize such leaders, and argued that there is a double standard going on here.

To a certain extent this rejoinder is justified, but only in a relatively minor way. There are certain points of similarity that I will address, but there are fundamental differences. While the various Jewish leaders mentioned have expressed some deeply despicable statements and positions, they are still worlds apart from Farrakhan.

Allow me to explain. The anti-Palestinian statements expressed by these people have to be understood as reflecting two ways in which these people differ in their worldview from others. The first is that they see the Israel-Palestinian conflict as being one of all-out war, like Britain vs. Germany and America vs. Japan in World War II. Now, this is wrong; notwithstanding Abbas' incitement and the various acts of terror, it is absolutely not all-out war. The PA prevents and foils numerous acts of terrorism, and there are many Palestinians who work with and for Israelis and who have no hostile intentions. Still, it is mistaken to see it as all-out war, it's understandable that some people nevertheless view it that way.

But when there is an all-out war for survival, what is the appropriate strategy? To what extent does one aim for clear victory, even when it results in massive losses for the other side, not all of whom may be complicit? Again, this is something in which people will reasonably differ. Some people believe that Hiroshima and Dresden were justified, otherwise believe that they were morally abhorrent. You might think that someone has the wrong perspective, but you can't totally invalidate their opinion.

This is why it is wrong to claim that the Jewish community has its own Farrakhans. There is simply no comparison between someone who (wrongly but understandably) believes that we are in an all-out war for survival against the Arabs, demanding harsh tactics, and Farrakhan's lifelong obsession with demonizing Jews, claiming them to be the source of much of the world's ills, and spreading slander such that the Jews are responsible for 9/11.

Now, having said all that, there remains a valid point that when Jewish religious leaders do say things that are unacceptable by any measure - such as Rav Ovadia Yosef's comments about the victims of Hurricane Katrina and others - they should be called out on it. Some argue that Rav Ovadia had a style of speaking in wild hyperbolic drama, and nobody was expected to take it too seriously. Perhaps, but this is not clear; furthermore, as I have written in the past, I still think that people did and do have a responsibility to condemn such statements. The Sages state that "In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man," and "In a situation of desecration of God's Name, one does not apportion respect to a rabbi," but the general Orthodox community seems paralyzed with cowardice when it comes to criticizing the sins of those revered as Gedolim. This is a problem. Nevertheless, as discussed, there is still a world of difference between such people and Farrakhan.

But, for argument's sake, let us say that there is no significant difference between these people and Farrakhan. Would that mean that there is a double standard in our criticism of Mallory (and, by extension, Brous)? Not at all.

The crucial difference is with regard to the nature of the circumstances and of the complicitee (that's a word that I just made up to describe the person accused of being complicit). No rabbi promoting a platform of love and tolerance would have happily and unapologetically attended and praised an anti-Arab speech by Rav Ovadiah. And if a different type of public figure such as an actress or newscaster had attended Farrakhan's rally, there would not have been the same degree of protest. The outrage here was because Mallory (and Brous) have specifically set themselves up as prominent leaders of intersectional movements that protest various forms of hatred and intolerance. It's not just a matter of the glaring hypocrisy, but also the fundamental betrayal of the very values that they are professing to lead.

And it still might have died down quickly, were it not for the fact that Mallory and her partners and supporters just keep digging themselves deeper and deeper in the hole. Sarsour failed to criticize Farrakhan and instead supported a minister who tried to deflect the criticism by talking about Netanyahu. The Women's March released a statement in which they failed to present any strong condemnation of Farrakhan, saying instead that his statements are "not aligned with the Women's March Unity Principles," and did not criticize Mallory's complicity, saying instead that they are presenting "external silence" while working this out privately. Mallory herself just released a long, meandering public statement in which, incredibly, she continued to refuse to apologize or condemn Farrakhan's statements. Brous's statement defended rather than criticized Mallory.

In a subsequent interview with the JTA, Brous did criticize Mallory, and acknowledged that the Left has a problem with antisemitism. Yet she insisted (against the available evidence) that the Women's March leadership is trying to improve and that she will not step away from her relationship with Linda Sarsour and the other Women's March leaders. Good grief, Rabbi Brous, what will it take for you to acknowledge that it's ridiculous to purport to be fighting moral injustice when you are aligning yourself with antisemites?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Scourges of Silence and "Similarly"

Silence is complicity. That was one of the messages of the Women's March. As Linda Sarsour wrote, "This movement isn't about making you comfortable. Your silence makes you complicit. Yes, YOU are part of the problem." 

This message was, however, betrayed by Sarsour and the other leaders of the Women's March. The notorious antisemite Louis Farakkhan, who has claimed that "the Jews were behind 9/11" and has called Hitler a “very great man,” spoke at a rally last week in which he declared that “the powerful Jews are my enemy” and that he had “pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew and I'm here to say your time is up, your world is through.” Present at the rally was Women's March organizer Tamika Mallory, who got a shout-out from Farakkhan during his speech, and who happily reported the rally on social media.

Not surprisingly, Mallory was called out on her complicity in evil antisemitism. Instead of profusely apologizing and acknowledging that she had betrayed her platform, she complained that her critics are bullies, and stated that true leaders have the same enemies as Jesus - i.e. the Jews. Her partners in leading the Women's March, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez, likewise failed to criticize either Farrakhan's speech or Mallory's complicity. Which is hardly surprising, in light of the fact that Sarsour and Perez themselves have a history of supporting Nation of Islam and Farakkhan. The Women's March leaders are perfectly happy to be silent, and thusby their own barometercomplicit, in vicious antisemitism.

Still, you'd hope that at least all Jewish leaders would condemn the Women's March leaders for this. So let's see what leading rabbi Sharon Brous, who herself took the stage at the Women's March in Washington DC, had to say about it. Here is the complete statement from her:
A few things we can learn from the explosive conversation erupting over Tamika D Mallory, the Women's March leadership, and Louis Farrakhan.
1. There is no room in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic coalitional movement for antisemitism, homophobia or transphobia. Full stop. You can’t fight racism but excuse antisemitism, just as you cannot fight antisemitism while excusing and justifying racism or Islamophobia. All racialized hatred grows from the same cancer: an unforgiving demonization of the “other” based on immutable characteristics or lineage. In a big tent movement there has to be room for disagreement, but certain core values must stand at the forefront: the inherent dignity of every person, and an unequivocal opposition to racism or bigotry of any form.
2. Our communities clearly continue to suffer from a profound lack of understanding of one another’s histories, pain, traumas. The reflex to publicly eviscerate, threaten or delegitimize someone who doesn’t say what we want to hear when we want to hear it only exacerbates the rift between us. Instead, we must commit to entering real relationship with one another. Over the last three days, Tamika D Mallory has been bombarded with vicious racist and misogynistic threats; her intelligence, her credibility, her very humanity have been assailed. None of this will make her, or anyone, more sympathetic to your perspective or your pain. It only reinforces that you don’t understand hers.
3. It’s important for us to understand that many racial justice activists feel an abiding allegiance to Louis Farrakhan who, for many years, has worked to build a sense of dignity and empowerment for black communities suffering from systemic racism. At the same time, he more than tarnished his righteous activism with egregious moral failings—including base hatred—toward other minority groups. For decades, he has spewed virulent antisemitic and homophobic vitriol at any audience that would listen. (My first encounter with his ideology was first year in college, when his spokesperson, Khalid Muhammad, lectured a packed auditorium that the Holocaust was an invention of Jewish Hollywood.)
The beauty of the Women's March has been the promise of a new generation taking the mantle of leadership, affirming that the greatest way to fight for our own safety and dignity is in partnership and sisterhood with others also concerned for their rights and freedoms. We all have elder statesmen who—while they have dedicated their lives to their own communities—are weighed down by hatred and bigotry toward others. I am well aware of the leaders in my own Jewish community who would today receive ovations for their advocacy on behalf of our people, but who are similarly fatally flawed by their own prejudices. We simply must reject that now. It’s time we lay to rest the toxic scripts of even those who mentored and inspired us, and model a new kind of leadership. This intersectional moment demands nothing less of us—in fact, that’s what’s feminist about this moment and this movement. We need to do better, and we can.
Incredible. Instead of condemning Mallory for her complicity in Farakkhan's hate, she condemns only those who have attacked Mallory for it. What happened to silence being complicity?

And when it comes to Farakkhan himself, while Brous condemns his egregious moral failings, she adds that there are leaders in the Jewish community who are "similarly fatally flawed by their own prejudices." Really??? Who on earth are they?! I cannot think of any Jewish leaders who are remotely on a par with Farrakhan's influence, hate and lies.

This is not the first time that Rabbi Brous has drawn moral parity where it is unjustified. During the Gaza War of 2013, in a letter to her community, she made sure to "balance" any expression of support for the Israeli civilians being targeted by missiles with an equivalent message of sympathy for the Palestinians of Gaza who had voted in Hamas, and included such choice expressions as "We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator." As a result, Daniel Gordis - a former teacher of Brous - issued a scathing rebuke of her, in an article entitled "When Balance Becomes Betrayal," in which he called her out for failing to take sides on exactly who is good and evil in the battle between Hamas and Israel.

Then, a year later, Rabbi Brous wrote an article about the so-called peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time as exhibiting a stunningly callous disregard for the safety of her coreligionists, she said that if peace does not happen, then Israel and the Palestinians are equally responsible. I wrote a post in which I pointed out the sheer illogicality of insisting that both sides must share moral responsibility. Why must it be that Israel is also at fault? Is it not even theoretically possible that Israel is willing to offer all that it can safely offer, and yet the Palestinians are not satisfied with anything less than that which will enable them to destroy Israel- which indeed is supported by the evidence? Nor was it morally appropriate for her to approve of honoring the narratives" of "both Israelis and Palestinians." After all, the Palestinian narrative is that there was never any Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Is this not false and dangerous? Why should it be honored?

Rabbi Brous, at the Women's March, you gave an impassioned speech about the importance of holy outrage and the need to protest against evil and hate. Why can't you protest the evils of Hamas, Fatah and antisemitism, without having to draw false moral equivalence with the actions of Israel or of Jewish leaders? Why can't you protest against those leaders of the Women's March who are silent and complicit in vicious antisemitism? Where is your holy outrage?

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Kezayis Post

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link. This is the latest version, updated with the evidence from the Mishnah that Chazal's kezayis was much smaller than the sizes popularly stated today (namely, the Mishnah showing that a kezayis is less than three by three finger-breadths of fabric). There is no charge for the monograph, but if you feel that you (or others) have benefited from it, please make a donation to the Biblical Museum of Natural History.

Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - exploring why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should aim to eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night. (Added as a postscript to the monograph)

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in the charedi polemical journal Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

The Kezayis Revolution - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Finally, two notes regarding The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

First, there are lots of tours over the next few weeks, including before Pesach as well as Chol HaMoed. But they are rapidly filling up, so if you'd like to come, book your tour as early as you can!

Second, we are really looking for people who support our goals of educating the entire spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world, and who want to be part of our mission. To join the museum as a patron, please see http://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/support/ for details. We can now arrange tax-deductible donations in Israel, the UK and Canada, as well as the US. For easy online donations, please click this link. Thank you for supporting our mission!

Remember that you can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Elephant in the Room

To what extent are violent extremists to be considered a particularly charedi problem? This has become an increasingly important question over the last few years. A few years ago, a certain Rav, with whom I used to be close until he went from being moderate-charedi to hardline right, argued that charedim have no responsibility to take a stand against violent extremists because such people have nothing to do with the rest of charedi society. I wrote a post in which I argued that there is a continuous spectrum ranging from physical violence to verbal abuse towards the IDF which exists throughout the charedi world. Furthermore, while the people at each level do not agree with the level of hostility coming from people to their right, there is near-constant refusal to condemn it. And even people who are horrified by the violence nonetheless produce inflamed rhetoric which creates an atmosphere that allows it and contributes to it.

Most recently, this question, regarding to what extent are violent extremists to be considered a particularly charedi problem, came to the forefront of discussion with the Peleg faction, headed by Rav Shmuel Auerbach, who passed away last Shabbos. A few months ago, they held a "Day of Rage," shutting down parts of Israel with demonstrations in response to some yeshiva dropouts being arrested for evading army service. And there have been many riots and acts of violence by Peleg people. (There are some people who claim that Rav Shmuel had absolutely no knowledge of such things and would certainly not have approved of them, but this seems rather naive.)

At the time, there was a dispute about to the extent to which Rav Auerbach and Peleg can be considered part of charedi society. On the one hand, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, director of Ner LeElef, claimed that Peleg should not even be called Orthodox, let alone charedi. But on the other hand, as I pointed out in a post on the topic, the mainstream chareidi media, which is ready to call out Open Orthodoxy on their extremism, was not willing to criticize Pele for theirs. And Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz, of the extremely moderate Jerusalem kollel, gave a talk in which he justified Peleg's approach as based on a legitimate dispute as to whether the government of Israel can be perceived as waging a War on Torah.

The Rosh Yeshivah of a certain Jerusalem middle-of-the-road yeshivah told me that he felt that Rav Berkovitz was out of touch with mainstream charedi society, which, he said, considers Rav Shmuel to be completely beyond the pale. But, in light of how Rav Shmuel's passing has been received in the charedi world, I am not so sure. 

A nice person that I know wrote that Rav Shmuel was a great Torah scholar, who was entirely leshem Shamayim in his actions, and thus we should mourn the passing of a great man. I find this to be lacking (and reflective of the naive common fallacy that someone who is a great Talmudist is necessarily also a great tzaddik and a great leader).

Having known Rav Shmuel as my neighbor over many years (he even wrote a michtav bracha for my first book!), I agree that he was a great Talmudist and 100% leshem Shamayim in his actions. He was not remotely interested in wealth or power or any kind of personal benefit. But so what? Rabbi Moshe Hirsch (pictured here) was also a great Torah scholar who was 100% leshem Shamayim. Being a great Talmudist or a great Torah scholar does not mean that one does not do terrible things. And there are many people in the world who do very terrible things entirely leshem Shamayim. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A person is judged by his actions, not by his intentions.

So how did charedi society judge his actions? On the one hand, it was reported that Rav Chaim Kanievsky--who reportedly once referred to Rav Shmuel as a zaken mamre - received the news of his passing with silence, rather than with an expression of sorrow.

But on the other hand, this week's Mishpacha magazine has Rav Shmuel on the cover as its feature story! (And so does Ami magazine, but all reasonable people have long given up on a magazine that once photoshopped swastikas onto the White House for its cover story about Obama, and defends pedophiles, amidst other lunacy.)

The article is full of praise for Rav Shmuel, and mentions nothing at all about the extremely significant actions of the last decade of his life. It seems absurd for Mishpacha to ignore the elephant in the room. How can they not make any sort of statement, either for or against? Can't they even have a single sentence saying that Rav Shmuel started a new political movement which took a hardline, activist approach and which was strongly opposed by the other charedi Litvishe gedolim?

But I realized that by not making any statement, they are in fact making a statement: That while they do not approve of his holy war against the State, they do not consider that this puts him beyond the pale, or that it even demotes him from the pantheon of Great Torah Leaders. Unlike, say, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l, who was not featured on the cover of Mishpacha after his passing.

The boundaries and values of mainstream chareidi society, as reflected by Mishpacha magazine (which is actually somewhat left of mainstream in the charedi world), seem fairly clear. You can be a convicted felon and be featured on the cover as a hero. You can launch a civil war in Israel and be praised as a fiery Torah leader. Just don't be a Zionist, and don't express your belief in an age of dinosaurs!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Purim Piracy?

Purim, and the days preceding it, is a time when many institutions launch special fundraising efforts. I don't know that this is necessarily a bad thing, but in recent years I have had the uncomfortable feeling that this is a form of piracy. After all, it is not what the essential mitzva of Matanot L'Evyonim is all about. The mitzva is about helping the poor! Giving, and campaigning, for other causes, is taking money away from those who are supposed to be receiving it at this time.

I was pleased to discover that I am not the only person who thinks that way. Rabbi Gil Student pointed out that Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, in his Kovetz Halachos, states this explicitly (see picture). He says that although on Purim there is a law that one should give to whoever stretches out their hand, this does not apply to those collecting on behalf of institutions, because that is not Matanot L'Evyonim.

In previous years I have posted about our amazing local yeshivah, Lev HaTorah. Instead of sending out its students to collect for the yeshivah, as most yeshivos do, it sends its students out collecting for a local charity organization, Lemaan Achai. (And that charity organization is itself a special one; its focus is on taking people out of poverty by providing all the resources and assistance necessarily for them to become financially independent.) One hopes that others will follow the example set by Lev HaTorah.

Giving to yeshivos is not the mitzvah of Matanot L'Evyonim. It distracts funds from it. But is there anything innately wrong with it? Yaffed, an advocacy organization seeking to improve secular education in the ultra-Orthodox community in the US, is launching a campaign arguing that there might be, for certain yeshivos that do not provide secular education. The angle in their graphic (pictured here) is that providing a secular education is the law of the land, and Dina d'malchusa dina.

However, on their Facebook page, they present what I think is a much more powerful argument. They write that "Philanthropists have a moral responsibility to ensure their money doesn't enable depriving kids of an education and raising a generation of people who will not have the skills to earn a living and provide for their families." To put it another way: Matanot L'Evyonim is about alleviating poverty, not enabling it.

At a broader level, this raises what I find to be a troubling aspect about applying the maxim of Kol haposhet yad, notnim lo in today's world. For most of our history, being a "charity case" was regarded as a shameful thing, and a failure to succeed in applying Chazal's values. Nowadays, however, nishtaneh hateva. There has been a reversal of values, and many people see it as admirable rather than shameful to avoid working and getting an education that enables one to earn a living. Would Chazal have been encouraging of people giving out money blindly in such a milieu? One can only wonder.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Art By God

There's a terrific store in Miami which sells all kinds of beautiful artifacts from the natural world - minerals, weird bugs, taxidermy mounts, and so on. The store has a fabulous name: Art By God. What a great name! There's art that is created by human beings, but the natural world can be seen as art created by the Creator.

I was thinking of this name when contemplating a unique tie that my wife bought me, pictured here. Can you figure out what it's a collage of? (You might have to click on the picture to enlarge it.) I was very proud of my oldest children, who guessed it; fortunately, they attend a school that is not shy to teach such things.

My youngest, age five, was sitting on my lap this past Shabbos as we were singing Menucha v'simcha, and he pointed at one of the animals on my tie and asked me what it was. Incredibly (and this is enough to give a rationalist the shivers), at that precise second, we were singing the words v'chayas re'emim, which is exactly what the animal was. For the re'em, as readers of The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom will know, is the aurochs.

Skeleton of an aurochs
Aurochsen are the only animals in Tanach which are now extinct. They only became extinct about four hundred years ago, but the ones drawn in this picture on my tie are from long before that. Because this tie is a collage of pictures from the Lascaux Cave paintings in France, which are estimated to have been drawn around twenty thousand years ago.

A tie of paleolithic cave art! Now here's where it gets really interesting. According to some religious believers, the explanation for the world appearing to be millions of years old is that when God created it 5778 years ago, He created it fully formed, with the appearance of looking old. This approach, known as prochronic theory, has been advanced by people such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, one of the commentators to the previous post, and in most detail by the the Christian preacher Phillip Henry Gosse in the 19th century. Thus, dinosaur fossils, for example, are not the remnants of creatures that once ruled the earth, but rather were created as fossils by God, for reasons unknown.

In my book The Challenge of Creation, I present a range of objections to this view. For example, was Adam created with memories of his non-existent childhood? Surely not. So would he have had scars from childhood injuries that never happened? Likewise, surely not. So then surely he would not have had a navel, from an umbilical cord that was never removed. And surely trees would not have had rings, from cycles of seasons that never happened. And surely the land would not have layers of sediment, accumulated from processes that never took place.

Thinking further about this approach reveals even more ramifications that are stretch credulity. If all the evidence of the world being more than 5778 years old is just how God made the world look, then it includes not only dinosaur fossils, but also artifacts of civilization from that period. Which means that the paintings of aurochsen and other animals in the Lascaux Caves were not painted by paleolithic cavemen, but were intead painted by God. Art by God!

So what do advocates of the prochronic approach think about such problems? I'll tell you the truth: they've never thought about them. One thing I will say in favor of Christian Young Earth Creationists is this: they have thought out their approach in detail. They might have crazy unscientific notions, but they've taken the time to think about exactly what they are proposing and to flesh it out. Contemporary Jewish advocates of non-scientific approaches have done no such thing. That's how Rabbi Moshe Meiselman can write an 800-page book on Torah and science which purports to be the definitive work on the topic, and yet he does not address the most basic of questions about when the dinosaurs lived.

As I've said before on several occasions, if people want to have such silly ideas or lack of ideas, it really doesn't bother me. And I don't think that it's going to greatly harm their lives. The only problem is when they attempt to delegitimize other people who do accept the scientific enterprise. And who are reasonable enough not to posit that the paintings on my tie, or the fossils on my bookshelf at home (not in the museum, Heaven forbid!), were created by God.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Futile Torah-Science "Discussions"

(This is a sequel to yesterday's post, The Great Dinosaur Mistake)

I recently joined, and then left, an online discussion group about Torah-science issues. I had hoped that it would provide interesting and thought-provoking discussion, and indeed there were some participants who initiated such discussions. But there were two dominant voices in the group that caused me to leave.

One was a person who had The Ultimate Solution to the age of the universe. It was an endless sequence of comments about Deep Time, and SPIRAL, and other acronyms and jargon, and I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. I began to suspect that he didn't know what he was talking about, either. So I posted a comment to his discussion with my own jargon - a hodge-podge of meaningless but sophisticated-sounding terms. Lo and behold, he fell for it entirely, and excitedly responded with a flood of further discussion. There's no point engaging with such people, and it's rather frustrating when they attempt to take over every discussion.

The second was a person who presented himself as an authoritative voice on Torah-science issues. However, his approach was entirely non-rationalist. With regard to science, he did not respect the modern scientific enterprise; he casually dismissed facts that are universally accepted among biologists, geologists, paleontologists, and so on, if they raised problems with what he considered to be the unequivocal meaning of various parts of the Torah. With regard to Chazal, he wrote that "their thought processes are those of human beings far greater than ourselves – of rishonim k'malachim – and we are therefore very reticent to second-guess them" (which effectively meant that we can never say that they erred). He did not accept the legitimacy of Rishonim and Acharonim who said otherwise, and once approvingly cited a view that such authorities should be put in cherem. He would not accept that Chazal could be wrong about fundamental scientific facts, and he was willing to contrive any kind of interpretation, no matter how far-fetched, in order that Chazal should be correct. And if someone expressed a view that offended his religious sensibilities, he was eager to condemn their views as being beyond the pale.

Now, there is certainly ample basis in tradition for such views. However, they are not the Maimonidean or rationalist approach, and it renders any discussion of conflicts between Torah and science rather pointless. If you don't believe that modern science has raised any new challenges for Torah, and you're not willing to re-evaluate any traditional beliefs, and you're not willing to implement intellectual honesty in trying to understand what Chazal were actually saying, then there is simply no point in having any discussion.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Great Dinosaur Mistake

There's a common mistake that religious Jews make about dinosaurs. I'm not talking about whether they did or did not live millions of years ago. I'm talking about a mistake made regarding people who do accept that fact.

When considering the rationalist/non-rationalist divide, there are two types of people. (It's actually a spectrum, but we can broadly talk about the two poles.)

One type of person, the rationalist, follows Rambam's principles that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes, and that we should never cast aside reason and follow views simply because they are traditional, because "our eyes are set in front, never in back." (Note: this is referring to beliefs, not halachic practice, which have independent reasons for allegiance.) Accordingly, such a person accepts that science has satisfactorily proved various things, and is ready to adopt a non-traditional interpretation of Torah in order to reconcile it. If such a person is confronted with something that appears scientifically proven but does not appear possible to reconcile with Torah, then he will honestly admit that he does not have a solution that is compatible with the two.

The second type of person, the non-Maimonidean rationalist, attributes veracity to claims largely based on the religious authority of the one who utters them. They have little regard for the scientific enterprise, if it presents something uncomfortable. And if confronted with something that is claimed to be scientifically proven but does not appear reconcilable with their understanding of Torah, they will insist that the scientific claim is wrong (and they will sometimes turn aggressive against the person issuing that claim, decrying them as a heretic, non-Orthodox, etc.)

Now, it is popularly believed that people who accept that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago fall into the first category.

This is a mistake.

They might fall into the first category. And it is true that everyone in the first category does accept that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. But it is not true that everyone who accepts that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago falls into the first category.

For example, it is popularly assumed that because the general public of Modern Orthodox Jews accepts that there was an age of dinosaurs, this means that they are ipso facto more rationalist than charedim. But this is not necessarily the case at all. It's just that in that world, the existence of an age of dinosaurs is a given, both scientifically and religiously. It's not considered to be significantly controversial from either a scientific or religious standpoint. It is true that the rationalist viewpoint is vastly more acceptable in Centrist/Modern Orthodoxy than in Charedi Orthodoxy, but any given Centrist/Modern Orthodox person's belief in an age of dinosaurs does not tell you much about whether he is a rationalist.

Likewise, it is often assumed that if a rabbi accepts that the universe is millions of years old, then he is a rationalist, following in the footsteps of Rambam. Not at all! It could well be that he was simply educated in an environment in which the antiquity of the universe was acknowledged to have been endorsed by figures such as Rav Yisrael Lipshitz, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and Rav Aryeh Kaplan (admittedly based on a misunderstanding of R. Yitzchak of Acco). But when confronted with a different or new challenge, such as evolution, or evidence that Chazal's understanding of zoology or physiology was deficient, this person might be entirely non-rationalist - rejecting that which is scientifically well established, creating unreasonable readings of Chazal, and even aggressively delegitimizing those who adopt a rationalist approach.

One of the most valuable effects of the controversial controversy over my books was that many people suddenly became aware that those people that they had thought were their religious leaders were not actually operating with the same epistemology, and they looked for more suitable religious leaders instead. But when looking for religious guidance, one must be careful; belief that dinosaurs once roamed the earth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

An Official Denial

Hassan Firouzabadi, the former chief-of-staff of Iran’s armed forces and senior military advisor to the Supreme Leader, said yesterday that Western spies had used lizards such as chameleons to spy on his country’s nuclear program, because their skin “attracts atomic waves”. Actually, the skin of lizards does not attract atomic waves. Perhaps General Firousabadi was getting mixed up with the recent fascinating revelation that the skin of chameleons glows under ultraviolet light. The Biblical Museum of Natural History officially denies that any of our chameleons or other lizards have been involved in spying on Iran.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Wild Goose Chase

On Sunday, the Biblical Museum of Natural History held a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Beverly Hills, California. Here is my speech from one of the courses:

The most complicated item on the menu for the Beverly Hills Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna was the goose. The fact that we are serving geese tonight is nothing less than a miracle. It nearly brought the chef and myself to tears. Here is the incredible but true story.

Geese are unusual creatures - when they grow up, they grow down. We wanted to have them on the menu because they are significant in a Biblical context. A description of the lavish banquet served at King Solomon’s table every day includes several types of mammals. But there is only one type of bird that is a sufficiently special food item to be included on this list, and that is "fattened barburim."

What are these barburim? In Modern Hebrew, barbur refers to the swan. But this does not seem to be the barbur of Scripture, since swans do not appear to have been fattened for the table in Biblical times. The same is true for ducks, which were fattened in the medieval period, but not in antiquity. Thus, the verse presumably refers to geese.

The wild graylag goose has been domesticated since ancient times. In the ancient city of Megiddo in Israel, carvings have been found of domesticated geese. These date from the ninth century BCE, which is during the reign of King Solomon, and thereby show that geese were eaten in that period. Indeed, ever since then, the goose has been prized as a delicacy. A famous Shabbat song lists the goose in this context: "Lehitaneg b’ta-anugim, barburim u’slav v’dagim - To delight in delicacies, in geese, quails and fish…"

So, we had to have goose on the menu. But it is extremely difficult to acquire kosher-certified goose. There is no commercial production of them. So, this would have to be specially arranged. And that proved to be more difficult than we could possibly have imagined.

First, we had to locate some geese. That is not easy. Geese are not raised in vast numbers like chickens or ducks. And this is the wrong time of year. Geese do not hatch year-round like chickens – they hatch in March and are slaughtered in the fall. Finally, we located a seller who said he had some geese of the American Buff breed. We were all set to go and collect them for shechitah.

Not American Buff
But then we received a somewhat blurry photo of the geese, and the geese in the picture were not American Buff. The OU promptly said that they could not certify them as kosher without knowing exactly what kind of geese they were and ensuring that they were a kosher type. Because the OU has very high halachic standards, and they don't want anyone to accuse them of being loose as a goose. And perhaps these geese were hybridized with Chinese geese. And there are some shochtim who have a custom not to shecht Chinese geese.

I have to say that I did not agree with this at all. Because while the geese in the picture were not American Buff, so what? First of all, they were clearly basically greylag geese of one breed or another. There was no particular reason to think that they were hybridized with Chinese geese. Second of all, even on the off-chance that they were hybridized with Chinese geese, so what? There is no real reason not to eat Chinese geese; nobody has ever proposed that there is anything at all wrong with them. What presumably happened is that some people simply lacked a tradition for them, and this evolved into a tradition not to eat them. Third of all, Chinese geese are fully interfertile with domestic geese, producing fertile hybrids, and there is ample halachic basis for stating that is if a bird is fully interfertile with a known kosher type then their offspring are kosher (as discussed at more length in my essay Chicken Wars).

Notwithstanding my arguments, the OU would not certify these geese without close-up detailed photos and an accurate breed description, which would rule out their being hybridized with Chinese geese. So I told the shochet to get on down to the farm as quickly as possible, and take good photos. I was frustrated at how the shochet seemed to lack a sense of urgency. Goose the gas, I said! But by this time, the seller had given up on us and had sold the geese in question to somebody else!

The Canada geese that were offered to us
It looked like our goose was cooked. But the shochet then asked me if Canada geese would be acceptable to the OU. Now, Canada geese are a species of wild North American geese, and there is obviously no tradition on them. So I told him that they wouldn't be good. But then I thought, Well, it doesn't hurt to ask. And lo and behold, the OU said that although nobody has ever shechted a Canada goose, they would approve it—because they are roughly similar to domestic geese and can hybridize with them.

(If you've been following, you'll notice that this appears to contradict the OU’s refusal to permit domestic geese which might be hybridized with Chinese geese. The OU’s response was that there was a positive custom against Chinese geese which doesn’t exist with Canada Geese.)

At this point, it was already Thursday morning, and the chef was getting frantic, since it takes a while to marinade and prepare geese for consumption. And it was dawning on us that there was a real problem with this shochet. He was of a certain chassidic group who just don't feel a sense of urgency about anything. It was 11am and he hadn't even left his home yet! So we told him to stop being loosey-goosey and to get on after these geese.

Several hours later, the shochet texted me that they were having great difficulty catching these wild Canadian geese. But I told him to stick at it, and that it would hopefully only be a wild goose chase literally, not figuratively. Finally, they captured six geese!

But now there was a new problem. Midday Thursday, we discovered that the OU mashgiach, to supervise the shechitah, was unavailable. He sent a message that he was otherwise engaged and we couldn't even reach him by phone! Thereby followed hours of frantic phone calls to friends in the OU. I was advised to drop some names to the highest levels of the OU. But who? A Hollywood star? Ryan Gosling?

The answer was our donors, the Geese that lay the golden eggs. Now, I am normally a somewhat shy person - I wouldn't say boo to a goose. But I spoke to the OU leadership, and I stressed the urgency of the matter, and I dropped the names of our donors. But I was told that there was nothing that could be done. Still, shortly afterwards I got a message that the mashgiach was suddenly available. Thank God!

And then I found out that the geese had escaped.

The pilgrim greese that were offered to us
This was beginning to look more and more like God was playing some kind of trick on us. But not to worry, said the shochet, he had a lead on eight domestic geese, of the pilgrim and Toulouse varieties, that were available, and he was on the way to pick them up.

And then the OU told us that our shochet was unacceptable.

Quite why this hadn't come to light in the weeks of preceding discussion is a question that I still don't have an answer to. Somehow both the shochet and the OU had neglected to inform us that the shochet was not on the OU’s approved list of shochtim. And finding a shochet in Los Angeles is no easy matter. The OU flies in its own shochtim from the East Coast weekly, and they had just flown back. There was one local shochet that they named who might be acceptable, but he was out of town.

By this point, the chef and I had totally given up on getting geese. It was a tremendous disappointment, and we were trying to figure out what to serve instead.

The geese: end result
But then I got a text from the original shochet saying not to worry, he had it all sorted, they had tracked down the shochet who was out of town, he was on his way back, and they were on the way to shecht the geese, with the OU mashgiach, in someone's backyard.

At one-thirty a.m., on Friday morning, the chef received eight shechted geese. When I got the news, I broke out in goose bumps.

So, that's the extraordinary story behind the geese that we are serving tonight. The chef and I are not exactly sure who is to blame for the fiasco. No doubt, when we finally get the bill from the guy who was assigned to handle this, it will be through the roof. So we're going to tell him to do something that a duck can't do but what a goose can do: to stick his bill up his tuchus.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Actions and Consequences

A friend of mine once defined the problem of fundamentalism as being when a person lets one factor dictate everything, without recognizing that there are often a multitude of factors to consider. Life is rarely simple and even if there are strong grounds for pursuing a particular course of action, there are usually other factors that must be considered.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz"l did not seem to make that mistake, at least in the area of kashrus. Based on questions that I asked him, and discussions that I had with others who had more extensive contact with him, my impression is that he weighed up the consequences. While he no doubt took kashrus very seriously, he also weighed up meticulousness in kashrus against other mitzvos and values. Thus, in certain circumstances, he recommended not being particular about certain kashrut stringencies where it would risk compromising shalom bayis.

One example of people doing the opposite is with the practice in some Orthodox circles to never allow a woman's face to appear in print. Now, I can understand and sympathize with the motivation behind this, even if I don't feel that way myself. But the people engaging in this practice only think about the reasons for doing it. They never seem to take into account the possibility that, regardless of whatever good reasons they might have, there can be negative consequences which might outweigh it.

At a broader level, this seems to have happened with halacha in general. Over the last few decades, there was been a tremendous increase in stringency. This was often done in order to strengthen halachic observance. However, people don't seem to have considered how it can actually have the opposite result. In an age when people are more knowledgeable and independent-minded, they can recognize when halachah has been chumrafied for unsound reasons. This undermines their confidence in the halachic system as a whole.

Tafasta meruba, lo tafasta.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Differences between Shuls in Israel and America

The riddles that I posted in the last post generated some interesting answers that hadn't occurred to me!

1) Which of the Sages is quoted by name very frequently in the US - hundreds if not thousands of times daily - but never in Israel?

Many people said Rabbi Yishmael, from the end of korbanos. But that's not really accurate, you can hear that said aloud in Israel too. The answer is R. Chanania ben Akashya, quoted in countless shuls in the US in order to justify saying kaddish:
רַבִּי חֲנַנְיָה בֶּן עֲקַשְׁיָא אוֹמֵר, רָצָה הַקָּדוֹש בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְזַכּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ הִרְבָּה לָהֶם תּוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: י-י חָפֵץ לְמַעַן צִדְקוֹ יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה וְיַאְדִּיר
But I've never heard this done in Israel. It seems that in America, people are more keen to have opportunities to say kaddish. I'm not sure why that is.

2) What is the significant design difference between shuls (synagogues) in Israel and shuls in the US - that is to say, there is a very prominent feature that is found in every shul in Israel that I have seen, but which is missing from many and perhaps most shuls in the US?

Many people suggested dedicated washing basins for kohanim. I guess that's a fair answer, but it's not what I was thinking of. I was thinking of something to hold your siddur. Every shul in Israel has either tables or shtenders or "lips" on the benches to hold them. But plenty of shuls in America have nothing at all - even shuls which certainly have the budget for such furniture. Why is that? It's very strange, as well as encouraging poor posture while davenning. Does anyone have an explanation for this?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Riddles of Israel vs. America

Riddle time! Here are two perplexing riddles about the difference between Israel and the US:

1) Which of the Sages is quoted by name very frequently in the US - hundreds if not thousands of times daily - but never in Israel?

2) What is the significant design difference between shuls (synagogues) in Israel and shuls in the US - that is to say, there is a very prominent feature that is found in every shul in Israel that I have seen, but which is missing from many and perhaps most shuls in the US?

Answers in the next post!

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Why Mystics Incorporate Technology Into Halacha

Over the last few posts, we have been discussing the difference between those who check fruit and vegetables for bugs in a simple way, and those who engage in extensive checking and cleaning procedures. This correlates with the rationalist/mystic divide in two ways.

First is that rationalists tend to be more historically aware, and further are aware that our ancestors were greatly limited in their ability to check and clean fruit and vegetables, and are further aware that there is evidence against their having done so. Non-rationalists usually view halacha in a vacuum, evaluating a halacha on its own merits without thinking too much about the history of that halacha. If they do think about history, they take the non-rationalist stance that our ancestors were superhuman, and they presume that they therefore were observing halacha at least as well as we do.

But there is another, perhaps more significant reason, as to why mystics are much more concerned about checking and cleaning food for bugs. It is due to the basic difference between how rationalists and mystics view the prohibition against eating bugs.

As explained at great length in Menachem Kellner's fabulous Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, there is a fundamental difference between how a rationalist like Rambam and a mystic like Ramban viewed the prohibitions against eating non-kosher foods.

According to the rationalist view, there is nothing inherently metaphysically harmful about foods. Rather, for various reasons relating to how God wants us to improve our minds, our character and society, He prohibits their consumption. We are given various commandments that we have to observe in order to effect the change in our mind, character and society that God intends.

According to mystical view, on the other hand, there are antecedent metaphysical harmful elements present in non-kosher foods. If you had the right kind of spiritually-sensitive technology, you could actually detect it. God therefore prohibits these foods to us, because of the danger that they pose to our spirituality.  

The difference between these views can lead to significant ramifications with regard to the halachic implementation. According to the rationalist view, there is a certain degree of diligence which is halachically required in order to fulfill God's intent. If one has performed one's due diligence, but then somehow ingests non-kosher food through absolutely no fault or negligence of one's own, then little harm has been done.

According to the mystical view, on the other hand, there is objective metaphysical danger present in non-kosher food. Even if one has exercised all due diligence in avoiding it, and one ingests some through absolutely no fault or negligence, it will cause the same spiritual damage.

Thus, the mystical view naturally leads to an obsession with avoiding eating insects even beyond that which is halachically required. And as technology increases, and we become more aware of smaller insects and we develop ways to avoid eating them, the mystics rush to act accordingly.

What we have here, then, is an interesting inversion. Whereas normally, it is the rationalists that are more connected with science, here it is the mystics!

See too these posts:
The Ghostbusters Analogy
Tylenol and Timtum

See this post for my forthcoming US lecture schedule. 
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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Keep Science Away From Torah!

The previous posts, about checking fruit for bugs, garnered a lot of attention (12,000 views!). They raised the topic of whether we should take advantage of advances in science and technology for implementing halacha.

For science, this would include awareness of the impossibility of spontaneous generation - earlier halachic sources permitted the consumption of certain insects based on the belief that they spontaneously generate. In my book Sacred Monsters, I explained why according to some opinions, even though based on the academic/ rationalist approach we see that Chazal were mistaken in believing that lice spontaneously generate, this should not affect the halachah that it is permissible to kill them on Shabbos. I discussed the case of Tanur Shel Achnai and showed that the Torah has its own protocols which can sometimes diverge from objective reality. No doubt some readers will be shocked by this; I recommend that you read (or re-read) the final chapter in Sacred Monsters to appreciate this point of view.

Technology might be seen as a different matter. After all, this is not saying that earlier generations had mistaken conceptions; it's just a matter of using the tools at our disposal to resolved questions and problems with more efficiency. This means everything from clean running water to modern chemicals to artificial lighting to glasses, which enable us to inspect fruits and vegetables for insects and clean them more effectively than in previous generations. So shouldn't we make use of it?

Many people assumed that the rationalist answer to this would be yes. After all, if it's a sin to eat bugs, and we have better ways to avoid that problem than did earlier generations, why should we not take advantage of that?

But in fact, the answer is no. And the explanation is implied by the maxim, Lo nitna Torah lemalachai hasharet, "the Torah was not given to angels," in combination with another maxim, shelo lehotzi laaz al dorot harishonim, "do not cast aspersions on earlier generations." The Torah was given to an ancient nation in a desert, not to divine beings. And it wasn't applied to modern man either, with his technological innovations, which is why there is no prohibition against eating microscopic insects. Furthermore, if you're going to argue that modern man is the same as ancient man, just with more applied wisdom, and that we should use this to observe halachah better, then this casts earlier generations in a negative light. We do not wish to portray ourselves as keeping halacha better than Moshe Rabbeinu and Rabbi Akiva and Rambam.

And if those principles aren't enough, there's another. Do you want the halachic way of life to be utterly overturned? Because that's what you're facing if you apply science and technology and take it to its logical conclusion.

Somebody once asked the great and underappreciated Rav Nachum Rabinovich, shlita, about whether one can use ultrasound to resolve a niddah question. He said that the answer is yes, but chas v'shalom to say that people should do such a thing, because it would end up being considered essential. After all, how can you rely on the visual appearance of a stain - which can be affected by many things - if there is a much more precise scientific method of resolving the question? The halachos of niddah would be completely overturned and transformed into something unrecognizable if we decide to incorporate science and technology to resolve it.

Another example would be the prohibition of bishul, cooking, on Shabbos. It is very clear from a scientific perspective that whether or not a food becomes cooked depends on factors such as the temperature, the duration for which that temperature is maintained, the specific heat capacity of the food, and so on. Yet the halachos of bishul are based on concepts such as kli rishon, kli sheni etc. To my mind it is obvious that there is no need to change the halachic parameters of bishul, and I don't believe that anyone would ever suggest otherwise. Aside from the fact that the parameters of kli rishon/ sheni have been canonized, they make for a much more useful application of the melachah than temperature and specific heat capacity. The physical reality is used as a rough basis for the halachic concept, but the halachic concept then takes on its own reality which does not change by virtue of it not being precisely matched by the physical reality. Lo nitna Torah lemalachai hasharet. And likewise, Lo nitna Torah to a generation with thermometers and a scientific understanding of cooking.

The same applies to checking and cleaning fruit and vegetables for bugs. Traditionally, people did not have clean running water, pesticides, artificial lighting, glasses, or awareness of microscopic insects. Traditionally, there were no halachic manuals like that of Rav Vaye. And therefore it should not become normative halacha today, either.

Now I know that this matter is not entirely cut-and-dried. And Rav Herzog did criticize rabbis who do not take into account advances in science and technology, comparing them to the (myth of the) ostrich that sticks its head in the sand. Still, I think that as a basic approach, it is not only correct and appropriate, but also vital, unless one wants to enable a wholesale reformation of halachah. Which I don't think is a very good idea.

See this post for my forthcoming US lecture schedule. 
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Happy Pi Day!