Monday, September 17, 2018

A Role Model for Charities

The other day, I was caught in an ethical dilemma. Someone was asking online if anyone knew of an English translation of Perek Shirah, because they need the famous segulah of reciting it for forty days. Aaargh!

After some agonizing, I replied that I do know of one, Nature's Song, which can be purchased at - but I added that there's no traditional basis for the notion that it's a segulah to say it for forty days, and that classical Judaism says that repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil decree, not saying Perek Shirah.

The person challenged me, asking on what basis I can declare this? I replied that, speaking as someone who literally wrote the book on it, I know of that which I speak. And that before I wrote the book on it, pretty much nobody had ever even heard of Perek Shirah - which shows that it can't be such an important part of Judaism anyway.

Despite my best efforts to sabotage my own book sale, the person bought it anyway. But for those of us who want to engage in traditional, classical Judaism, this is the time of year to be giving charity, not reciting Perek Shirah or swinging chickens. And as far as I've seen, there's no better charity than the Ramat Bet Shemesh-based charity Lemaan Achai.

The greatest form of charity is to make somebody no longer need charity. And that's also the smartest form of charity. Lemaan Achai makes this its mantra - "smart chesed." They have case workers and social workers (my wife used to be one of them) and financial experts figuring out exactly what problems the families are having, and how to get them out of these difficulties. Most charity organizations boast about how many families they help - Lemaan Achai boasts about how many families they no longer help.

So, if you're looking for a good charity, I strongly recommend donating to Lemaan Achai at this link. And I hope that it serves as a role model for how all communal charity organizations should operate.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Feed a Lone Soldier - Like He's Never Been Fed Before

Would you like to do something special for two lone soldiers and a lone bat sherut? Here are two letters that we received from some special young people who would love to attend our forthcoming Feast of Legends from the Sea
"My name is Zach and I am currently a lone soldier serving in a unit called Maglan (a special forces commando unit in the IDF). I first came to the Biblical Museum of Natural History on a trip to Israel and fell in love with the fact of seeing animals that are spoken about in the Torah. Really seeing Torah and nature hand in hand. And it had enough of an impact on me to come make Aliyah and join the army. I was looking at your website and found that you were having an event right after Sukkot and it looks amazing. I was wondering if my friend (another lone soldier) and I can come to your event. We would love to join."
"My name is Tali and I am in my second year as a volunteer in National Service/Sherut Leumi. In addition to being taught to be a proud Zionist, chessed is top priority for me. So I volunteered for Sherut Leumi to serve Israel and the Jewish people in the best way I can. One of the things that inspired me to come here was the Biblical Museum of Natural History founded by Rabbi Slifkin. I have been a big fan of his since I was a little girl. His sefer, Nature’s Song, was what I studied for my Bat Mitzvah and I used many of my Judaic shop gift cards to buy all his books and continue to study them. I love animals and Torah and the way Rabbi Slifkin makes them coexist so perfectly is really a gift for all of us. I just would love to be a part of the museum dinner but unfortunately cant afford the price. As a Bat Sherut Bodedah, I get no financial assistance, and my parents have been more than generous, so I cannot ask them for more help. If there is any way that I could attend, that would be amazing."

Unfortunately, due to the highly specialized nature of the event, it is tremendously expensive to put on - the $360 price for the non-patron ticket is cost price! If you would like to sponsor seats for these young people, please write to Thank you!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Are Your Hands Big Enough?

(Or: How To Make The Gemara Reasonable)

Daf Yomi this week was learning Menachos 26b, which discusses the laws of kometz (the slightly-less-than-a-fistful of flour that the kohen takes). The halacha is that a kometz must contain the volume of two kezaysim, and a kohen whose hand is not big enough to encompass two kezaysim cannot perform kemitzah (and according to some views is disqualified from all Temple service).

ArtScroll notes that this raises a problem: How is it possible to grasp two kezaysim of flour in one's hand, if a kezayis is two-thirds the size of an egg?

In response, ArtScroll quotes the Steipler Gaon, who says that Kohanim used to be much bigger, and thus had much bigger hands. And that perhaps there are indeed some people today with really enormous hands, and hopefully when the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt, there will be more such giants.

Of course, there is a much simpler answer which avoids the whole problem in the first place.

A kezayis is not the two-thirds the size of an egg. It is ten times smaller. It is the size of... an olive!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Beasts of the Sea

Don't miss the important announcement at the end of the post!

While reading Moby Dick this summer, I was surprised to come across a reference to a concept found in the Gemara:
On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen... Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else... And even when recognised at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, in all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.
Indeed, in other respects, you can hardly regard any creatures of the deep with the same feelings that you do those of the shore. For though some old naturalists have maintained that all creatures of the land are of their kind in the sea; and though taking a broad general view of the thing, this may very well be; yet coming to specialties, where, for example, does the ocean furnish any fish that in disposition answers to the sagacious kindness of the dog? 
The sea-horse steed of Aquaman
The highlighted text is found in Maseches Chullin:
Everything that exists in the land, exists in the sea, with the exception of the chuldah (weasel or marten). (Talmud, Chullin 127)
It turns out that this was a widely-held belief in antiquity, referenced by Pliny the Elder and by later writers in Christianity and Islam. It held theological significance, being seen as expressing the symmetry of Creation. In the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne argued that it was a "vulgar error," and we see that Melville rated it as only potentially true in the broadest of senses.

There is also another Talmudic reference to this concept:
Abayey said: "The donkey of the sea is permissible [as food]; the ox of the sea is prohibited. And the way to remember it is: The impure is pure, the pure is impure." (Avodah Zarah 39a)  

But what does the notion of a "marine counterpart" actually mean? R. Chezkiah da Silva (1659-1698), author of the Pri Chadash commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, argues that the "donkey of the sea" and the "ox of the sea" refer to actual aquatic versions of oxen and donkeys—i.e. creatures which were essentially oxlike and donkeylike in form, complete with four legs, but which happened to be aquatic. (He discusses this in the context of arguing that an aquatic creature does not need to be a fish in order to be rendered kosher by the presence of fins and scales--which has ramifications for a certain species of squid.)

Meeting a sealion twenty years ago, back when I had hair.
The notion of an aquatic donkey and ox is by no means as unreasonable as it may first appear. After all, the Mishnah mentions a “sea-dog,” which refers either to a seal or an otter—and both these creatures are indeed essentially extremely dog-like. Others, however, interpret the "sea donkey" and "sea ox" much more loosely, to refer to certain fishes that have certain points of resemblance to donkeys and oxen.

It took quite a bit of research for me to nail down what the "sea donkey" and "sea ox" actually are. And then it took some further effort to actually acquire them! Both of them will be making an appearance at the "Feast of Legends from the Sea," at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. We've change the date of the event yet again, to accommodate people visiting Israel for Sukkos - it turns out that hardly anyone keeps two days anymore, and many people are leaving Israel on the night after Sukkos, so we are having the dinner that evening! More details are at this link.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Anti-Corbyn Enigma

An article today in Politico points out a bizarre aspect of many people's rejection of Corbyn:
“For me, Corbyn’s patronizing, racialized put-down of British ‘Zionists’ and our sense of history and English irony was no surprise,” said David Krikler, a Jewish communications consultant in London. “His political career has been spent in the company of Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and terrorist groups, so I don’t need to hear him sounding like an old-fashioned anti-Semite to know exactly what he stands for.”
“It’s been interesting to see some commentators say they can no longer defend him after seeing that,” he added. “I think it’s telling that they were prepared to defend his support for organizations that literally murder Jews, whether on Israeli buses, in Olympic villages or in Argentinian community centers, but they’re more concerned by a linguistic micro-aggression. Support for anti-Semitic terror groups is fine, as long as you don’t sound like an elderly racist who’s had one drink too many in the process.”

But what I've been saying for a while is that this it not only true for those who defended Corbyn's support for terrorist organizations; it's even true for the mainstream Jewish and non-Jewish community, who are against it. Because while they are against it, and even mention it, they don't discuss it with anywhere near the intensity that they discuss his antisemitic expressions of speech. There's been more focus on condemning his linguistic micro-aggression than on his actual support for terrorist organizations and brutal regimes! What is the explanation for that? I'm mystified by it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Inverting Genocide

The latest uproar about Jeremy Corbyn surrounds his description of "Zionists" as being not properly British. While the antisemitism is obvious, I still don't get why all the fuss is being made about such statements and not about the vastly worse things about Corbyn.

A few days ago, footage emerged of Corbyn speaking at a 2014 protest outside the Israel embassy in London. There's fuss being made about a Hamas flag being waved behind him. But what about his actual words?! He said that "This is an occupation, this is a genocidal attack on Palestinian people."

Corbyn accused Israel of committing genocide! This is an extremely grave accusation. It is also utterly false, if words are to have any real meanings. Genocide has a meaning; it refers to the destruction of a race or nation. The killing of hundreds, even thousands of people as part of a war (and especially a defensive war, aimed at stopping the firing of rockets into towns) is not genocide. Britain killed thousands of Germans in World War II; that was not genocide. The same is true for all the people that Britain killed in Afghanistan.

Israel has a very powerful army; the Palestinians do not. Yet since the creation of the State of Israel, and since 1967, the number of Palestinians living in areas under Israeli control has increased enormously. The average lifespan has also increased tremendously, as has the level of literacy. For Corbyn to accuse Israel of "genocide" is the most absurd slander.

But do you know who does desire to commit genocide? Well, first of all, there's Hamas, whose charter calls for the genocide of all the Jews in Israel. And if they had Israel's weaponry, you can be damn sure that they would try to achieve it. Then there's Iran, which has been working at the genocide of Sunni Arabs, and has openly declared its desire to wipe out Israel. Yet Corbyn never speaks out against Hamas or Iran; instead, while claiming to be "pursuing peace," he participates in their activities and lends support to them.

Forget about Corbyn being an antisemite, it's much less significant than the fact that he slanders Israel as a genocidal regime, while he supports those brutal regimes that are truly genocidal!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Corbyn is no Peace Broker

Once again, people are missing the main problem with Jeremy Corbyn.

This past week saw a furor erupt over the photo of Corbyn apparently laying a wreath near the graves of the Munich terrorists in Tunis. It played out as an argument regarding whether or not he was aware that those were in fact the graves of the Munich terrorists. There's been lots of arguing about where exactly he was standing, and what he was told about those he was honoring.

But all this should not distract us from the bigger and much more black-and-white problem with his Tunis visit and how he portrays it. Corbyn, a winner of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize, claims to be all about bringing peace to the world. With regard to the Tunis event, he says that he was there in order to "search for peace in the Middle East." He stated “I was there because I wanted to see a fitting memorial to everyone who has died in every terrorist incident everywhere because we have to end it. You cannot pursue peace by a cycle of violence; the only way you can pursue peace [is] by a cycle of dialogue.”

But this is a blatant falsehood. A lie. Jeremy Corbyn is a liar.

Jeremy Corbyn does not "want to see a fitting memorial to everyone who has died in every terrorist incident everywhere." He has no interest in seeing memorials to Jews who die in terrorist incidents; heck, he won't even visit Yad Vashem. He has never laid wreaths at the graves of Israelis killed in stabbings or bombings. He has never spoken out in sympathy for Israelis living under the terror of rocket attacks.

More fundamentally, Corbyn is not some kind of international peace broker, a British version of John Kerry, trying to get all sides to engage in dialogue rather than warfare. Rather, he straight-out supports one side: the Palestinian side, including its most militant components. He hates Israel even more than he hates America; he never has anything good to say about Israel and only mentions it to condemn it. He doesn't make any attempt to speak with Israelis and understand their perspective. And when he speaks with Palestinians, it is to offer support rather than to encourage them to forgo violence. He doesn't speak out against Hamas' tactics of targeting civilians while hiding their own combatants behind civilians. Instead, he actually encourages them to continue this practice, by condemning Israel rather than Hamas when the inevitable civilian casualties occur.

It's bad enough that Corbyn prefers regimes built upon fear and terror to free countries. But at the very least, he should not get away with pretending otherwise, and portraying himself as a man seeking to bring peace to the world.

Friday, August 10, 2018

I Can't Believe It's Not Treife!

Here is an article that I published this week in the Jewish Link of New Jersey

Notwithstanding the vast range of kosher foods available today, keeping kosher sometimes seems limiting in terms of the actual species that we can eat. I remember staying at a lodge in Zimbabwe, where the other guests were eating ostrich burgers, crocodile steaks and grilled warthog, whereas the participants in my group had to settle for chicken and beef. And while the species that are available to the kosher consumer are strictly of the mammalian, avian or piscine variety, if you go to the market in Bangkok, you’ll see people munching on all kinds of grub—literally.

Still, the truth is that there are many more kosher species than is commonly assumed. A few years ago, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we decided to prepare banquets that were not only delicious, but also educational, and very special from a kashrut standpoint. Inspired by the trailblazing work of our colleague Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan, we decided to see how far we could take this idea. These events are enormously complicated, stressful and expensive to produce, but they are unique educational and cultural experiences!

Our first banquet at the museum, two years ago, was a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna. This featured species that we see in the Torah were consumed, but that are not normally eaten nowadays. Thus, there was no chicken—chickens are not mentioned anywhere in Tanach, since they were domesticated from Indian jungle fowl, which had not yet reached the land of Israel in the Biblical period. Instead, we served species such as doves, quails, geese, goa and deer—which was served daily at King Solomon’s table, but which is almost impossible to obtain (under kosher certification) today.

Dessert was, of course, chocolate-covered locusts. The Torah states that certain locusts are kosher, and various North African and Yemenite Jewish communities retained the tradition as to which species is kosher—namely, the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. Eating locusts is not a relic of a primitive era; locusts are considered by food nutritionists to be the super-food of the future. They are high in protein and very nutritious, although that benefit is lost somewhat when they are coated in chocolate. The Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna will be repeated in Teaneck in October, though there is not yet any guarantee as to exactly which species will be served, since the shechitah of unusual species can be even more complicated in the US than in Israel.

The next year, we wanted to do something different at the museum, and so we held a Feast of Exotic Curiosities (which we plan to run again in Los Angeles next February). That menu featured non-Biblical foods of halachic intrigue, including kingklip, sparrow, pheasant, guinea-fowl, udders, turkey animelles, Asian water buffalo and more. Yet perhaps most controversial were the breeds of chicken; after all, last year was the summer in which controversies raged in Israel as to whether conventional supermarket Cornish Cross chickens are a treife breed and only a rare breed called the Braekel is kosher, or whether Braekel is treife and only Cornish Cross are kosher. We made a soup out of both of them together! (Contrary to widespread misconception, all these breeds are simply varieties of chickens—they are not new halachic categories that require a separate mesorah.)

This year at the museum, we have decided to do something different yet again: A Feast of Legends From the Sea. This includes several different types of dishes. First of all, despite the name and theme of the event, the feast is not pareve—there are two unusual fleishig items on the menu. But everything served is on the theme of “Legends From the Sea.” And all fishes are pareve. So how can we be serving two “Legends From the Sea” that are fleishig? That’s a riddle that can be answered with knowledge of some commentaries on a certain verse in the Torah. It would be a pity to spoil the riddle, so we will publicly reveal the answer after the event.

A second type of dish relates to species that are popularly believed to be unequivocally non-kosher, but that are actually kosher—at least according to certain significant halachic opinions. There are a number of species that fall into this category, some (but not all) of which we shall be serving, including sturgeon, swordfish and piranha!

Then are the dishes that are based on the Gemara’s fascinating statements that there is nothing inherently unappetizing about non-kosher food, and that for every non-kosher food, there is a kosher equivalent. Kosher “crab” has been available in supermarkets for a while already. But we are taking things to the next level, with foods that not only visually look like the more exotic seafoods—complete with shells and tentacles—but that are even made with them!

Now, how is that possible? Well, let us first consider our planned dish of Cephalopod Salad. Cephalopods are the class of molluscs that includes octopus and squid. They are surely all non-kosher, as treife as treife can be. And yet, there are actually theoretically not one but two ways of serving a kosher tentacled dish that is actually made with real cephalopod!

One involves a unique species of cephalopod called the Grimaldi squid. Contrary to popular belief, the Torah does not say that a sea creature has to be a fish in order to be kosher. It only speaks of “anything that has fins and scales.” And, uniquely among cephalopods, the Grimaldi squid actually has fins and scales.

However, this is not the way that we are serving cephalopod. First of all, while some authorities are of the view that any scaled and finned aquatic creature is kosher, Rambam and others maintain that it must be a fish. Second, in any case, Grimaldi squid are impossible to obtain—only a few individuals have ever been discovered.

And so we have devised a different way of serving cephalopod. Without giving away too much in advance, the halachos of kashrut include some fascinating concepts, including that not every part of every non-kosher creature is itself non-kosher. Certain parts of some unusual non-kosher creatures are simply not considered to be the “meat” of the creature, and thus may be eaten. And so, with the aid of an obscure halachic ruling in this vein, the knowledge of a particular unusual species, together with a specialized item from Japan, we plan to serve something that not only looks like cephalopod—tentacles and all—but is even made with cephalopod!

The world houses an astonishingly diverse range of marvelous creatures, and halacha encompasses a remarkably wide variety of kashrut scenarios. The combination of the two is enlightening—and delicious.

By Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the founder and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh. For extensive discussion about kosher locusts, see For more details about the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck, and the Feast of Legends From the Sea in Israel, see

Monday, August 6, 2018

Missing The Point About Corbyn

There have been some excellent critiques of Jeremy Corbyn's latest essay about how he is opposed to antisemitism. People have pointed out how the antisemitic acts for which he accepts and criticizes others of being guilty are actually things of which he himself is guilty. But there's one very important point that seems to be missed, which to my mind is the most egregious problem with his position, and the one that bodes greatest danger, in the unthinkable possibility that he would become leader of Great Britain.

Corbyn's article includes a single statement about Israel, which says, in its entirety, as follows:
This has been a difficult year in the Middle East, with the killing of many unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, and Israel’s new nation-state law relegating Palestinian citizens of Israel to second-class status.

Those are the only two reasons why it has been a difficult year in the Middle East?!

How about the intentional stabbings of various civilians in Israel?

How about the oppressive nature of the Hamas regime in Gaza, in which people who dare to criticize the leadership run the risk of being hauled out to the town square and having their knees shot off?

How about the hundreds of rockets launched into Israel, aimed at civilian populations?!

How about the attempt to storm the border with mobs of people armed with butcher knives and firebombs, explicitly stating that their goal is to massacre as many civilians as possible?

And if we're talking about the Middle East, how about the hundreds of thousands of people massacred in Syria?

Even in an article specifically aimed at reassuring people about him not being antisemitic, Jeremy Corbyn cannot find anything to criticize about the Arab terrorist dictatorships, and cannot show any support or sympathy for Israel, the only free country in the Middle East, constantly facing terrible threats. Whether or not you label this antisemitism, it is this attitude which makes him so loathsome and so dangerous to the free world.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Wonders of the California Coastline

"Here is the great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great" (Tehillim 104). I was fortunate to take some incredible walks along the California coastline this week. Check out these pictures of a heron fishing amidst a spectacular sunrise, mating crabs, the carapace of a king spider crab that I found, and a goose-neck barnacle, which was once thought to actually be a baby goose, growing on the shoreline! (It's worth enlarging the pictures of the crabs, to make out the fabulous detail of their coloration and design.)

I was with a large family group, and many of them said to me, "How on earth does it happen that you always find these amazing things?" The answer is that I keep my eyes open!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Mishpacha's Godless Universe

In this week's Mishpacha magazine, Jonathan Rosenblum bemoans how Ofsted - the British governmental Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills - is attempting to teach atheism to all schoolchildren:
We live in a world in which Hashem’s sovereignty is denied. The British government today insists that every child, even those in Torah schools, be taught that naturalistic — i.e., godless, explanations for the Creation of the universe and the inception of life are perfectly adequate (which is, inter alia, scientific nonsense).
This sentence is very badly wrong, from both a scientific and theological perspective.

Let's get the science part out of the way first. Ofsted is not trying to teach about the actual point of creation of the universe - i.e. the cause of the Big Bang - which is beyond the scope of modern science. Nor does modern science present any kind of definitive explanation for the moment of inception of life, though there are various speculations about it. Rather, what Ofsted is trying to teach is the development of the universe over billions of years, and the evolution of life from simple life-forms into more complex ones. Neither of these are "scientific nonsense," and it's rather amusing that Jonathan Rosenblum - a lawyer turned journalist - thinks he can dismiss them that way.

More bizarre and disturbing, however, is Rosenblum's describing such naturalistic explanations as "godless." This is very strange indeed. After all, we have naturalistic explanations for lots and lots of things. We have naturalistic explanations for how medicine works, and for how Israel won the Six-Day War, and for how the planets and stars move, and for how we have children, and for lots and lots of phenomena. I am pretty sure that Rosenblum does not deny the truth of any of these explanations. So does this mean that he is living in a godless universe?

As explained at great length in my book The Challenge Of Creation, scientific explanations for phenomena are not seen as ruling out a role for God in any other branch of science. So why should they be seen as doing so with regard to the development of the universe and the evolution of life? To quote Ramchal:
"It is undoubtedly true that The Holy One could have created His universe in an all-powerful way, in such a way that we could not have understood cause or effect in His deeds... But because the Higher Will desired that people should be able to understand some of His ways and actions—and indeed He wanted that people should engage in this and pursue it—therefore He chose the contrary, to act in the way of man; that is to say, in an intelligible and comprehensible fashion." (Da’as Tevunos 40) 
And, directly with regard to evolution, to quote Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch:
"Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (probably a reference to Thomas Huxley, who advocated Darwinism with missionary fervor—N.S.), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape—N.S.) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures." (“The Educational Value of Judaism,” Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)
Naturalistic explanations for the evolution of life are no more "godless" than naturalistic explanations for anything else. There's no reason for the British Jewish community to challenge Ofsted's requirement to teach modern science. There are enough very real threats that Jews in England have to deal with. It's a pity to fabricate one which doesn't actually exist.

On another note - for details about the Biblical Museum of Natural History's forthcoming feasts in Israel and Teaneck, see

Sunday, July 22, 2018

There They Blow!

Iyov is my favorite book of Tanach (and I am grateful that it may be studied in Tisha B'Av). It is fascinating, disturbing, challenging, subversive, profound, and it includes the most extensive discussion of wild animals of any book in Tanach!

This past Shabbos, in Netanya, I gave a shiur on Iyov vs. Moby Dick, which I will also be speaking about this coming Shabbos at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. Now, you might be thinking, what does Iyov have to with Moby Dick? In fact, God's speech to Iyov from the whirlwind culminates in an extensive discussion about whales, and Melville actually wrote Moby Dick as a modern repackaging of the Book of Job.

Curiously, this morning I received an email which directly related to one of the themes of my shiur. A reader wrote to tell me about an unfortunate illness from which they are suffering, which has seriously harmed one of their senses. Even more upsettingly, friends are telling him that it must surely be a Divine sign for his having sinned with that sense. The person wanted my help in knowing what to respond.

The answer is that this persons "friends" are doing exactly what Iyov's friends did - and it is something for which God castigates them.

When Iyov's friends first heard of his terrible suffering and went to visit him, they first sat in silence with him for a week. That was the right thing to do, the correct way to show empathy, and they are praised for it.

After that, they went horribly wrong.

When Iyov starts wailing that he is a good person, and he didn't do anything to deserve such suffering, his friends switch from empathizing to making firm theological declarations. They say that he must have sinned, and that's why these things happened to him. God is Just; hence, Iyov must have deserved this suffering.

Sounds like a very pious speech. And yet when God finally speaks from out of the whirlwind, he declares that Iyov's friends were spouting a lot of hot air, and He is furious with them. It's not just that it's utterly insensitive. It's that it's actually theologically incorrect. Iyov had not sinned. Bad things really do happen to good people. It's not that they have secretly sinned, or (as Yosef Mizrachi would say) because they sinned in a previous incarnation. When God appears to Iyov, he does not present any such justifications.

It is true in Jewish theology that suffering might be inflicted as a result of sin. And there might be people - prophets - who can pinpoint which sins caused it. But there is also suffering that takes place without the person having done anything to deserve it. Since that is the case, then to suggest to a suffering person that his sins brought it on is wrong and a sin of ona'as devarim. The Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b explicitly makes that point, stating that when dealing with a suffering person, it is wrong to adopt the approach that Iyov's friends took.

But if suffering does not necessarily happen as a result of sin, then what is the reason for it? The unfortunate answer is that we don't know. Even Moshe Rabbeinu didn't find out the answer. God's speech to Iyov does not give the answer - instead, it is about how to relate to a universe in which the answer is unknowable. But better no answer than the wrong answer, even (and perhaps especially) if it is one inspired by religious zeal.

Captain Ahab was also a man who was obsessed with his spiritual certainties and his holy crusade. He did not care about the price that it would exact on his crew. Ultimately, in his sacred zeal, he ended destroying everyone around him - including himself.

It is not our place to understand the great mysteries of the universe. And when dealing with those who suffer from the turbulent storms that the universe - and God - sometimes throw at us, it is wrong, sinful, and heretical to claim to know God's reasons. Our job is to simply reflect upon how the universe is too vast and grand an existence for us to ever fathom, and to show friendship and support to those sailing through life with us.

See too this post: Theodicy and Idiocy

On another note - for details about the Biblical Museum of Natural History's forthcoming feasts in Israel and Teaneck, see

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Edible Legends from the Sea

Among the long list of things at which I am superbly incompetent is the preparation of any kind of food. If you're looking for someone with the ability to make anything more complicated than a tuna melt, you won't find it with me. But what I do have are a particular set of skills, acquired over many years of researching arcane rabbinic sources about animals along with the more unusual aspects of zoology. And so, notwithstanding my utter uselessness in the kitchen, it turns out that these skills make me uniquely suited to devising novel dishes for the exotic halachic feasts at the Biblical Museum of Natural History.

These events are enormously complicated, stressful and expensive to produce, but they are spectacular. Our first feast at the museum, two years ago, was a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna (which we are also running in Teaneck this October). The next year, we wanted to do something different, so we had a Feast of Exotic Curiosities (which we plan to run again in Los Angeles next February). That menu featured non-Biblical foods of halachic intrigue, including kingklip, sparrow, Braekel, pheasant, guinea-fowl, udders, turkey testicles, Asian water buffalo, and more!

This year, we wanted to do something different yet again. But what? I came up with the idea of "Legends from the Sea." Now, I'm not going to tell you everything on the menu, because it's a surprise. But I will tell give you some broad hints about some of the planned dishes of which I am particularly proud.

First of all, despite the name and theme of the event, the feast is not pareve - there are two fleishig items on the menu. But everything served is on the theme of "Legends from the Sea." And all fishes are pareve. So how can we be serving two "Legends From the Sea" that are fleishig? There's one riddle for you!

One of the other planned dishes is something of which I am particularly proud (and praying that we can actually pull off!) It's going to be called Salade Céphalopode, which is the fancy French way of saying "Cephalopod Salad."

Cephalopods, in case you don't know, are the class of molluscs that includes octopus and squid. Needless to say, they are all entirely non-kosher, as treife as treife can be. And yet, God willing, we will be serving something that looks like a cephalopod (complete with tentacles), that will have the texture of cephalopod, that will (hopefully) taste like a cephalopod, and - here's the clincher - that is actually made with real cephalopod!

How on earth is this possible? Well, it certainly isn't easy! Devising it involved three things - tracking down a specialized item in Japan (which I'm praying will arrive in time), discovering an obscure halachic ruling (which, while not accepted by everyone, is accepted by a major kashrus organization), and the knowledge of a certain very obscure piece of zoological information. And the result is something which will not only be kosher according to the letter of the law, but even according to the spirit of law (although I will acknowledge that not everybody will necessarily agree with that).

Both the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck and the Feast of Legends from the Sea in Israel are primarily aimed at those who are (or who become) patrons of the museum, supporting our mission of inspiring and educating people about the relationship between Torah and the natural world. Once the patron seats are filled, we will sell tickets to non-patrons. To find out more details, see

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Elephant Idol

Ever have one of those days? I just had two of them. I'm not going to go into the various reasons why they were so lousy - suffice it to say that (a) it is very upsetting how many people in the Beit Shemesh city administration seem to have no desire to improve the city, and (b) my family are refusing to go into my car because something that I transported made it smell so bad.

Anyway, this afternoon, even though I was totally not in the mood for it, I decided to switch with the guide at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and take over leading the tour. It was a large and diverse mixture of religious Jewish tourists from the US and Australia, secular Jewish students from South Africa, and a Hindu family from India. Leading the tour lifted me right out of my bleak mood; it's always immensely rewarding to see people so excited and happy as they learn so much about Torah and nature.

Pictured: Not my elephant idol
As they left, one of the men from the Hindu family approached me to thank me. He said that they had heard a lot about the museum (in India?!) and they were so happy that they were able to come. As a token of their gratitude, he pushed a gift into my hand: a keychain with a gold-painted replica of an elephant's head. He told me that it was a Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, and that it would protect the museum.

I was very touched, and thanked him as he left. But I was left in a quandary. It was a bona fide idol! I asked my Rav and he said that while he's not a specialist in the halachos of idolatry - it doesn't tend to come up on a regular basis - it would appear to be problematic to keep it.

This was disappointing. After all, it's not as though I am ever going to be worshiping an elephant-headed deity. Idolatry is so not a concern in our society. And it had really symbolic value to me, as representing the happy conclusion to a day that had started so badly. Still, halacha is halacha.

Yet it occurred to me that actually, I can understand the halachic problem. I was on the verge of considering this idol to be a good-luck charm. And the idea that a physical object would have the metaphysical ability to help me goes against the very essence of monotheistic Judaism.

My only remaining question is, how is a hamsa, or a silver segulah ring, any different?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Serial Killers Among Us?

An idealistic tour guide recently posted a diatribe to an e-mail discussion group for tour guides, in which she basically accused me of being a serial killer of wild animals. Her outrage was based on the taxidermy specimens of wild animals that are displayed at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and especially due to what she referred to as the "meat feasts of exotic African antelopes" that we do (i.e. our educational fundraising banquets in which we serve various exotic species, albeit not exotic African antelopes). She also raged against the museum videos of "captive wild animals", in which I teach about Biblical zoology while interacting with lions, leopards, and so on.

This reminded me of a story that you may have read about last week. A woman from Kentucky went to Africa on a big-game hunting trip, and killed a large black giraffe. When she posted pictures of herself posing with the trophy, there was outrage. One celebrity called her a “disgusting, vile, amoral, heartless, selfish murderer.”

What would be the Rabbinic perspective on this? And what would be the perspective of wildlife conservationists?

Let's begin with the latter. Obviously, the idea of taking joy in killing animals is repulsive to anyone who cares about animal life. And poaching is a tremendous threat to wild animals. It's right up there with another huge threat - habitat loss. Appallingly, my children may never see a wild rhinoceros, because in a few years there probably won't be any left!

Both of those problems - poaching and habitat loss - require tremendous resources to solve. Yet one of the most effective ways to do that is via carefully managed big-game hunting. Wealthy Americans pay vast sums to be able to legally hunt big game. This money funds the acquisition, and protection, of areas of land that are set aside for wildlife, in which only certain non-endangered animals are allowed to be hunted. As contradictory as it may sound, big-game hunting can, under certain circumstances, actually be good for wild animals. And while certain species of giraffes are endangered, the black giraffe was from a non-endangered species. So while I am personally nauseated by the picture above, I recognize that, in the interests of wildlife conservation, such things should ironically not be opposed.

The Rabbinic perspective on this would be slightly different. The various rabbinic authorities who addressed sport hunting did not do so from a broader perspective of wildlife management - indeed, they probably believed (as was normative until recently) that it was impossible for any species to become extinct. Instead, they addressed this question from the perspective of the moral propriety of the person doing the hunting, and they universally condemned it. In the Gemara, for example, we find the following:
Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai expounded: “Happy is the man who does not go…” – this refers to one who does not go to the theaters and circuses of heathens. “And in the path of sinners does not stand” – this refers to the one who does not participate in their hunts. (Avodah Zarah 18b)
On the other hand, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 95a does refer to King David going hunting, and there is no criticism of him. Still, normative rabbinic opinion over the centuries was definitely to condemn sport hunting. Here are but two examples; others are discussed in my book Man & Beast:
"How can a man from Israel actively kill an animal for no need other than to fulfill his desire to spend his time hunting? We do not find that people [in the Torah] are hunters except with Nimrod and Esau. This is not the way of descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…" (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, Shailos U’Teshuvos Noda B’Yehudah, Mehadurah Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 10)
"…It is certain that those who shoot arrows after birds and beasts for no purpose at all other than to learn archery, and kill animals for no reason, are destined to stand in judgment for it; for it is not the way of Israel, the holy congregation, to commit evil to any creature for no reason." (Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover, Kav HaYashar 83)

Thus, with regard to modern, licensed big-game hunting today, we have something of a quandary. On the one hand, it is strongly frowned upon as an act of cruelty. On the other hand, due to the peculiarities of the modern world, it can actually be beneficial to wildlife. And the curious fact is that many modern hunters are people who are much more in touch with wildlife and caring of it than many armchair animal-lovers who rage against these hunters.

The rational approach would therefore seem to be something like the following: On a personal level, it is inappropriate for a person to enjoy hunting. But on a societal level, it should not be opposed.

Alas, many people are not rational. Regardless of how many conservationists will say that licensed big-game hunting should not be stopped, many people will insist that it's unthinkable under any circumstances to kill wild animals. This is just one of several cases I have observed in which people purportedly acting out of love for animals act in a way that is not actually in the best interests of animals, and actually go against the views of professional wildlife conservationists. (The situation with feral dogs in Israel is another such example; the conservation authorities want to kill them, due to the catastrophic destruction that they wreak, but they are unable to do so due to so-called animal lovers.)

Yet aside from being irrational, and not acting in the best interests of animals, what is taking place is often a form of speciesism - discrimination against certain species in favor of others. A few years ago, when there was enormous outrage over the hunting of Cecil the lion, I pointed out how a video on YouTube of Palestinians stoning a truly endangered striped hyena to death provoked no outrage at all. Majestic lions and graceful giraffes have supporters - mangy hyenas do not. (And, of course, rich white hunters make good villains, whereas poor Palestinians do not - which also explains a lot of the  recent selective rage over the treatment of immigrants.)

The tour-guide accusing me of being "no friend of animals" exhibited a similar lack of knowledge/rational evaluation about the taxidermied animals on display at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. No animals were killed for the museum - they are all animals which lived long and happy lives in zoos, and which we acquired upon their expiry of illness or old age. Her objection to the videos of me with "captive wild animals" was likewise misplaced. These are not animals that were plundered from the wild. They were all filmed in private licensed facilities in Africa which hand-raise orphaned animals, and in which the animals are extremely well cared for, and even lead better lives than those in the wild.

Yet what was most striking was the specieism that this tour guide displayed. I happen to know that she is not a vegetarian. So she is perfectly fine with killing and eating cows and chickens, but not with killing and eating deer and buffalo. Why the difference? The deer and buffalo were not poached from the wild - they were captive-farmed for meat production. Why would it be wrong to kill deer and buffalo, but not cows and chickens? It's just specieism.

But it's even more hypocritical than that. The deer and buffalo and exotic birds that we serve at our banquets lived, and died, in far more comfortable circumstances than the factory-farmed cows and chickens that this tour-guide consumes! As discussed in an earlier post, commercially farmed chickens lead absolutely terrible lives. That's something that we really need to address, not the occasional, licensed killing of non-endangered wild animals which are raised under comfortable conditions.

Before signing off, this seems like a good opportunity to announce this year's special educational banquet - which will take place, for the first time, in New Jersey, as well as in Israel! To be notified of more details, write to

Prediction: Many comments on this post will be from people who did not read it carefully.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Ruach HaKodesh, Kangaroos, SUVs and Cloning

Now here's something interesting. It relates to an earlier post, in which I pointed out that Malbim's explanation of a verse in Barchi Nafshi as referring to whaling is anachronistic. While there was ancient whaling in certain remote regions, there was no whaling in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. A fascinating complaint was lodged in the comments, by a reader going by the nom de plume of JoMorris: 
Rabbi Slifkin, I fear this post is an example of something that happens all too often on this blog, namely taking valid points of Rationalism a stage or two too far.

It is one thing to say of the Rishonim that they lacked a chareidi-ideology-inspired kind of divine inspiration that would allow them to know things about the natural world that they had never seen (such as the size of an olive), and perhaps one could even say such things about the sages of the Talmud (eg. regarding the sun's path at night), although this is more debatable. But it is another kettle of fish entirely to say the same of Dovid Hamelech!

Surely you agree that the books of the Bible are divinely inspired prophecy, and as such your constant mention of the Mediterranean is beside the point. Barchi Nafshi is not necessarily confined to the Middle East, but is a divinely inspired poem praising Hashem for the various creations and their purposes that He created throughout the entire world. You yourself wrote that people have been hunting whales for millennia (see also the Wikipedia article on the history of whaling), and as such the Malbim is perfectly entitled to explain the verse as pertaining to the sport of whaling even though Dovid Hamelech's knowledge of it could not have been naturally acquired.

Now, of course I could argue that my position is defensible from a rationalist standpoint. After all, Rambam says that even the prophet Yechezkel, in his vision of the Divine Chariot, had errors, because he perceived it within the framework of his own flawed knowledge of the natural world. But instead, I would like to discuss whether JoMorris is even expressing a position consistent with the typical non-rationalist worldview.

Initially, it would seem that he is. After all, the standard non-rationalist view is that Chazal had supernatural insight into the world, and knew things that modern science would only discover much later, such as the existence of platypuses. Kal v'chomer, then, that David HaMelech would have ruach hakodesh and would know of things taking place in remote parts of the world. Accordingly, then, there is no reason to object to explaining him as referring to whaling, even though it did not occur in the Mediterranean.

But I don't think so.

Let's start from the other direction. Modern technology raises all kinds of halachic questions. Cloning, brain death, surrogate pregnancy, even electricity on Shabbos. Why doesn't the Torah tell us how to approach them? (And don't say, "But it does! With implicit clues!" Because the greatest poskim of the era are in great debate and uncertainty regarding how to resolve these questions, then clearly the Torah is not giving guidance on them. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach has made some explicit statements to this effect.)

Even more basically, why does the Torah discuss the laws of damages in terms of goring oxen and the like? Why not in terms of SUVs?

There is only one possible answer to this: the Torah speaks in the framework of the generation that received it. True, this statement is understood in different ways. True, the principle of dibra Torah b'lashon b'nei Adam did not originally refer to this notion. But that notion is nevertheless unavoidable. Yes, God knows everything, but there is no purpose in discussing things with which the audience has absolutely no idea as to what is being discussed.

So the Torah (and kal v'chomer for Nevi'im and Kesuvim) does not discuss things that exist in a different time period, outside of the knowledge of the Bnei Yisrael. (Which, of course, is also the reason why it doesn't discuss dinosaurs.) But by exactly the same token, it also does not discuss things that exist in a different geographical region.

Not at the Biblical Museum of Natural History
Tanach abounds with metaphors from the natural world. There are 150 references to lions. There are references to bears and leopards and gazelles and deer and crocodiles - all of which were found in Biblical Israel. But where are the references to Australian kangaroos, Indian tigers, and polar bears?! Why speak of the great cedars of Lebanon, and not of the much more impressive redwoods and sequoias of California?!

Now I suppose a dedicated anti-rationalist would counter, "There are some animal names in Tanach that we don't know the meaning of - perhaps they are indeed referring to such animals!" But I think that most people, even in the anti-rationalist camp, wouldn't go for that. After all, clearly the overwhelming majority of references to animals in Tanach are to animals that lived in Biblical Israel, so would it really make any sense to posit that there is an occasional reference to a kangaroo?! That's as absurd as claiming that there is an occasional reference to helicopters. And once you're going with that approach, how can we know what anything in the Torah refers to?! Maybe there are words which refer to things that we haven't discovered yet?!

And that's why, although you'll get the occasional eccentric like Isaac Betech arguing that David HaMelech spoke about Spanish rabbits, most non-rationalists/charedim don't go for that sort of thing. In fact, we get plenty of the most ultra-charedi visitors at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, all of whom are perfectly fine with this point. Especially since many of them have been to Ein Gedi, they find it perfectly reasonable to say that David HaMelech follows his mention of ibex with a reference to the hyraxes that live near them.

I'll leave you with Rabbi David Sedley's illustration of Dr. Betech's position:
Little (future king) Solomon comes home from Shul on Rosh Chodesh, and says, "Daddy, that was a great song you sang today for Rosh Chodesh."

"Why thank you, Solomon" says King David. "Just one question, Dad. What does that word mean that you used - shafan? According to the KJV it says, 'The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for something', but I don't know what!"

"Ah, good question, my wise son. The shafan is an animal that neither you, nor anyone else in this generation has ever seen. In fact, no Jews will know anything about it for over 1000 years. But G-d told me about it. It will make a cute house-pet, Beatrix Potter will write stories about it, and Warner Brothers will make a cartoon shafan who will popularize the phrase 'What's up Doc?' But that is all in the future."

"Thanks Dad" says Solomon. "But just two more questions - what do we call those brown things that hide in the rocks next to the wild goats? And what's a cartoon?"

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

No, Charedim Aren't The "Original" Jews

A recent column in Tablet magazine asks the following question: What does one call "really religious Jews"? "Ultra-orthodox," or something else?

Tablet decides to Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public relations for Agudath Israel of America, for his answer. He begins by saying that "ultra-" is an offensive prefix, because of its implications of being something far beyond the norm, whereas the lifestyle of his community, he claims, is the traditional norm. We shall return to this claim soon.

Shafran then complains that only so-called "ultra-Orthodox" Jews are denied the right to choose their own name for their group, unlike Native Americans and Blacks. He has something of a point here, which is why it would be appropriate to let "ultra-Orthodox" Jews choose their own name. However, they should choose one which will not be protested by others as inaccurate; Rabbi Shafran himself has protested that Open Orthodoxy should not define itself as a form of Orthodoxy.

Furthermore, ultra-Orthodox Jews already have chosen a name for themselves: charedim. The charedi community itself adopted that term in the early twentieth century and still proudly uses it today, and so Rabbi Shafran is not being a very good spokesman for his community when he says that he doesn't like it. And his alleged reasons for disliking it are rather odd. "Firstly," he says, "it implies that non-haredim are less observant, which isn’t necessarily true." Yet this is precisely why charedim chose it and like it as a definition - because they believe themselves to be more "trembling at the word of God" than others. Others, of course, would disagree, and would claim that while charedim excel at certain aspects of Judaism, they are no better than other groups in various other aspects, and they are decidedly inferior in yet others.

Which brings us to Rabbi Shafran's second reason for disliking the term: "And secondly, while we may shuckle when we daven, we don’t generally tremble (unless the IRS is auditing us)." Precisely. Charedim live in a "fear society," and they do indeed tremble more than others - but it's not always at the word of God, as often the fear of man is more potent. And it's not only in fear of the IRS and other consequences of being incapable of earning an honest living. Charedim greatly tremble in fear of what others in their community might say, which leads to transgressions in all kinds of areas.

In any case, the term "charedi" is liked by charedim for what they believe it to mean, and by others for what they see it to mean. Still, if Rabbi Shafran doesn't approve of "ultra-Orthodox" or "charedi," what does he say that his community should be called?
“Personally,” said Shafran, “I prefer ‘Orthodox.’ Let prefixes be used by others: centrist, modern, ultra-modern. We’re the original, in no need of a prefix.”
Now, Rabbi Shafran has written some things in the past that have caused a lot of head-scratching. There was his claim that Bernie Madoff is more worthy of admiration than Captain Sully. He believes that unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas is more of a problem in the scientific community than in the charedi community. He even claimed that charedi society is big on women's liberation and female empowerment! And so while his claim that ultra-Orthodoxy is the Original McCoy might not be the most outlandish thing that he's ever said, it's certainly equally incorrect.

Charedi Jews are not "the original" form of Judaism or rabbinic Judaism or even of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is itself a unique product of the mid-nineteenth century, developing as a response to the threats of modernity and emancipation. It differed from the Judaism that preceded it in several ways. One was its traditionalism - the opposition to anything which appeared to be a change, despite the fact that historically, many great rabbis had emended Talmudic texts, changed the siddur, changed communal practice, and so on. Another was its segregation - creating halachic rulings based on the needs of the immediate community, not the larger Jewish community. A third was its conscious tendency towards halachic stringency, as a principled reaction to the general spiritual laxity that had developed, along with the elevation of customs to law, and Rabbinic laws to Biblical laws.

Thus, Orthodoxy was itself a novel approach to Judaism. And Orthodoxy in turn branched into several forms, of which ultra-Orthodoxy is certainly very far from the original, in a variety of ways.

One of these is with regard to communal authority. Traditionally, leading Torah scholars were consulted on numerous issues. But, for most of history, political and communal leadership was in the hands of positions such as kings, exilarchs, and parnassim, rather than the leading rabbinic authorities. Furthermore, it was generally the case that, even for rabbis, wisdom in non-Torah-specific areas was understood to be commensurate with knowledge and experience in those areas. Daas Torah, however, presented the opposite notion: that the ultimate guidance on all areas of life—even social and political decisions with no obvious connection to Torah—is provided precisely by those who are the most cloistered from the world and who have only been immersed in Torah. (A further significant characteristic is that in contrast to the time-honored approach of rabbinic responsa, Daas Torah presents its conclusions without any explanations, halachic or otherwise.)

Another way in which ultra-Orthodoxy differs dramatically from traditional Judaism is in the role of the yeshivah vis-a-vis the community. In earlier generations, the yeshivah was merely another component of the community, servicing its spiritual needs and preparing its students for their role in the community as rabbinic leaders. But the new yeshivah was a distinct framework in which students were not preparing for their role in the community, but rather were deliberately isolating themselves from the community for the pursuit of studying Torah as its own ideal. Concurrent with this came the rise in authority of Roshei Yeshivah, with no experience in communal leadership or practical halacha, over community rabbis.

One of the charedi reformations with the most far-reaching ramifications is long-term kollel for the masses. Historically, while there is some precedent for supporting Torah scholars or those preparing for such a role, both the norm and the societal ideal was for most men to work and support their families. The charedi system, in which it is the women who train and work to support the family, has overturned the traditional roles of husbands and wives, enshrined in the kesubah and in millennia of halachah and Jewish history.

Another novel aspect of charedi society is in its opposition to secular studies. It is not only among the Rishonim that we find great engagement with secular studies and culture; none other than Chasam Sofer, while making some statements of general opposition to secular studies, nevertheless himself extensively studied many of the sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, and geography, as well as history and philosophy. And he even utilized the tools of academic, scientific study in order to evaluate halachic practice; at the Pesach seder, he used celery for karpas, based on looking at cognate Semitic tongues. Such a thing would be regarded as bizarre and inappropriate in charedi society today.

Judaism constantly evolves, sometimes for internal reasons and sometimes as a reaction to external situations. The massive challenges of modernity, the upheaval of the Holocaust and the test of Zionism has resulted in the development of a number of forms of Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, Religious Zionism, Centrist Orthodoxy, and others. Ultra-Orthodoxy, otherwise known as Charedi Judaism, is one of the most radical and innovative evolutionary developments. The reason why many charedim believe otherwise is due to the lack of study of history, the carefully selected curriculum, and the rampant historical revisionism in their community.

It is disappointing that Tablet did not ask any historians, or non-charedi scholars, for their view. Because they would have dismissed Rabbi Shafran's claim to be the "Original Orthodoxy" as being ahistorical nonsense.

For more extensive discussion, see my monographs on The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making of Haredim.

Reminder: I am available for scholar-in-residence engagements on the West Coast in August, and in NY/NJ during October. Please email me at for details.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who is Playing with Leviathan?

The other day I came across a fascinating example of how historical context can shed light on rabbinic scholarship. And I'm pretty sure that nobody has ever noticed it before.

Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim, is a paean to the great wonder of the natural world, from the smallest creature to the largest. It includes the following account of the ocean:
 מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְדֹוָד כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם גְּדֹלוֹת: שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ: (תהילים קד:כד-כו) 
“How manifold are Your works, O God! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations. Here is this great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great. There go the ships; and Leviathan which You have made to play in it.” (Psalms 104:24-26) 
I photographed this humpback whale in Alaska
Now, there is actually some ambiguity regarding the meaning of this verse. The Hebrew phrase לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ “to play in it,” can be translated in different ways. Who exactly is doing the playing? And what is Leviathan, anyway?

Simply speaking, the verse is referring refers to God having Leviathan to play in the sea. This is indeed how most of the commentaries explain it. And while Midrashic accounts of a titanic leviathan have been interpreted by some as referring to an actual creature of stupendous proportions, and by others as an allegorical concept (and this is one of the topics of the Maimonidean controversies), the leviathan of Psalms can straightforwardly be explained as the whale. Sperm whales, fin whales, and other species are found in the Mediterranean, while a blue whale was recently seen in Eilat, for the first time in recorded history!

Rashi, however, following an Aggadic portion of the Talmud, gives a different explanation. He explains it to mean that God created the Leviathan for Him to play with. Accordingly, it would mean that even the mighty Leviathan is nothing more than God’s plaything. (Furthermore, according to Rashi, the verse does not refer to whales, but rather to the singular titanic Leviathan, of which there is only one in the world.)

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879), on the other hand, gives a third explanation. He states that it means that the aforementioned ships are playing with leviathan. Accordingly, it refers to whaling ships engaged in the "sport" of hunting whales.

It is fascinating that Malbim seeks to provide an entirely new explanation of this verse. But is it a plausible explanation of what the Psalmist could have been referring to, or is it anachronistic? Although tribal peoples, with no easy sources of food, have hunted whales for millennia, it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. There is no archeological or archeozoological evidence for ancient whaling in the Mediterranean, although this is a case where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. A recent paper that performs an initial exploration of this topic, "Ancient Whale Exploitation in the Mediterranean," further suggests that if the Mediterranean whale community in antiquity was similar to that of today - i.e., species that only live in deep water - "it is unlikely that organized forms of whaling would have developed, as the presence of whales close to the coastline would have been rare and unpredictable."

ZooRabbi Junior, a.k.a. Batman, with a
small piece of baleen, currently on display at
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
Given the unlikelihood that the verse is speaking about whaling, why would Malbim explain it that way? The answer is that Malbim lived in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, ships and whaling techniques had developed to the stage where it was viable to hunt whales on the high seas of the Atlantic. And there was enormous demand for whale oil, which was used for lamps, along with baleen (whalebone) which was used for everything from buggy whips to corsets. In Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a very big business. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Malbim would explain the verse in this way.

I am available in NY/NJ as scholar-in-residence for Shabbos of October 13th (parashas Noach!) and October 20, as well as for weekday presentations between the two. If you're interested, please contact me via email, (I am also available on the West Coast for Shabbos of August 11th.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Without Taking A Position on US Politics

I would like to write about something that is related to US politics. Now, it's very dangerous for me to do this. As someone pointed out, for me to take a position on US politics, whatever it is, would instantly alienate half my readership (which seems remarkably evenly divided between pro- and anti-Trump). And I've already alienated enough people, so it doesn't make sense to alienate any more. It also seems to just trigger the most acrimonious arguments among commentators, inevitably ending up in some anti-Trumpists referring to Trumpists as Nazi-enablers, and some Trumpists referring to anti-Trumpists as antisemites. Who knew that the frum Jews comprising my readership include both antisemites and Nazi-enablers?

So that's one of the reasons why I'm not taking any position on US politics. But what if I am writing about something which does not involve my taking a position? No doubt some people will still get mad at me, for not taking a position! "How can you not take a position?! Don't you see that it's your responsibility to say that XYZ?!" Well, to that, I will point out that I am not American, and I don't live in America, and I don't understand what's going on there, and nor am I particularly interested to find out. I just want to comment on one very small aspect of all the political arguments that have been raging for years, during Obama and now Trump, and how it relations to rationalism.

One of the basic principles of Rationalist Judaism is Rambam's maxim that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes. More broadly, that means that one should evaluate statements and positions on their own merits, and not judge them based on who issued them. As Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l told me, wise men can say foolish things - and foolish men can say wise things. Great men can do terrible deeds, and terrible men can do great deeds.

Yet, for many years now, the appreciation of this seems to be lacking with certain people on both sides of American politics. For many Jews, whatever Obama did had to be terrible and evil. And for many other Jews, whatever Trump does has to be terrible and evil.

Children in cages. Does the date of this picture
determine how you feel about it?
This was brought to light very sharply in the last few weeks, on both sides. Some of those gushing with praise over Trump engaging with Kim Jong were revealed to have condemned Obama for doing the same. And some of those enraged at pictures of children having been put in cages by Trump suddenly changed their line of criticism when the pictures were revealed to have been taken when Obama was president.

Yes, I am well aware that one can draw distinctions between the two cases, and I'm sure that people will happily do so at great length in the comments section. And it could well be that overall, Trump is a great president, or a terrible president. Again - I'm not American and I don't know, I'm too busy researching other things.

Nevertheless, I think that it's still true that many people are evaluating things not based on their own merits, but based solely on where they are perceived as coming from. Which is a pity, and calls for some self-reflection, as to how much one has been caught up in partisanship. From where this foreigner is sitting, it seems that the great United States of America would be a lot better off if people would dial the tribalism back a notch.

A Role Model for Charities

The other day, I was caught in an ethical dilemma. Someone was asking online if anyone knew of an English translation of Perek Shirah, becau...