Sunday, November 18, 2018

Vaccines and Big Pharma: An Insider's Perspective

A neighbor of mine, lovely guy and terrific musician, is a staunch anti-vaxxer. He is very vocal about his view that vaccines are highly dangerous and exist only to make money for Big Pharma. (He also believes that the world is run by a small cabal called the Build-a-Bear Bilderberg Group, and that diet soda is an experiment to test poisons, which is why Obama never drank it. And that Michelle Obama is a man. Seriously.)

Anyway, I asked him as follows: If it's a conspiracy, who is in on it? If you have an opinion from immunologist who works for Big Pharma, can you trust it? My neighbor replied as follows:
Workers for Big Pharma, who makes billions of dollars of vaccines and drugs, represent the interests of the companies they work for and are biased. They can NOT be sued for their vaccine harming or killing hundreds of thousands of people, which they in fact do. Putting your soul trust in big pharma workers would be like trusting a fox to watch a hen house, or Hamas to run security at Ben Gurion airport!
So I reached out to an immunologist who works for Big Pharma and asked him to write a guest post. Here it is, followed by my comments:

Big Pharma: An Insider's View

by Dr. Joel Kaye

For many years I have been advocating for vaccination, based on an insider’s perspective. I have a PhD in Immunology from the Weizmann Institute of Science, and a Fellowship (PostDoc) in Immunology from Harvard Medical School. I have spent 14 years in Teva Pharmaceuticals trying to develop new medicines for Multiple Sclerosis patients. I understand how the immune system works, how vaccines work and how they have eradicated fatal diseases across the world. To me, immunology is fascinating and exciting, and I cannot begin to fathom how anyone could not accept the basic facts.

And then I discovered that a relative posted a question on Facebook asking about attending a Shabbat meal in which her prematurely-born baby would be exposed to someone who has not been vaccinated. I called her and advised her not to go, and to my horror discovered that the unvaccinated person was the child of another family member, who has chosen not to vaccinate their second child.

How could there be an anti-vaxxer in the family? I spoke to this other family member and offered to help with any questions they had, to provide relevant information and stressed the importance of vaccination. One of the most surprising things they said to me was, "Why should we listen to what the Ministry of Health tells us to do?"

Wait, what? Where did this come from?

So, I did a little reading on the psychology behind anti-vaxxers, and found this very recent paper that breaks it down:



In order of magnitude, anti-vax attitudes were highest amongst those who were high in conspiratorial thinking. Of the five characteristics of Science Denialism, the top is Conspiracy: arguing that scientific consensus is a result of a complex and secretive conspiracy between Big Pharma and the Government. Pop culture tells us that the big pharmaceutical companies know all about the simple, natural cures for everything — cancer included — but are covering them up in order to continue milking sick people for profit. (See too http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/315761/Best-practice-guidance-respond-vocal-vaccine-deniers-public.pdf)

What people don’t realize is how regulated, stringent and difficult the Pharma Industry is. Developing vaccines is not that different from drug development. It is an expensive, long and structured process that sees many drugs fail before reaching the market. I personally worked on a drug for multiple sclerosis for twelve years, and it failed. It just didn’t work, despite all the effort we had put into it. And nobody at Teva thought for a second that we should cover it up and get it to market. Even if someone had tried, the FDA would never have bought into an argument of benefit to a patient—because there wasn’t any. For those that don't know, the vaccine testing and approval as well as drug development cycle takes years. There are many stages including:

• Exploratory/Discovery/Research stage

• Pre-clinical stage

• Clinical development

• Regulatory review and approval

• Manufacturing

• Quality control

Clinical development is a three-phase process. During Phase I, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine. In Phase II, the clinical study is expanded and vaccine is given to people who have characteristics (such as age and physical health) similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended. In Phase III, the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety. Many vaccines undergo Phase IV formal, ongoing studies after the vaccine is approved and licensed.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of employees in a company working on a single product at any given time. There are countless interactions with the Health Authorities all over the world. Stringent practices for reporting adverse events (side effects) and following the safety of patients. Therefore, there are thousands more hospital employees, contract researchers, government officials and so on who are also involved in a clinical study for a single product at any given time. It is ludicrous to think that all of these hard-working, honest people are part of a conspiracy.

I know of myself and my colleagues that there is one thing that drives us, gets us up in the mornings and makes us stay in this tough industry: Maybe, and it's only a maybe, we will bring a new medicine to benefit the health of a patient somewhere in the world. May I be rewarded with that accomplishment, many times over, and not have to hear about children falling sick and dying because people think that I am part of an evil conspiracy.

*    *    *    End of guest post   *    *    *

Now, I suppose it's possible that this Big Pharma immunologist is himself lying and part of the conspiracy - after all, he is on their payroll. But I don't think that he is. I trust Dr. Joel Kaye, and I know him well.

He's been married to my sister for twenty-one years.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Baby Steps with Burqa Babes

This week's Mishpacha magazine has a photo of burqa babes for its article about the dangerous Lev Tahor cult. Abe Paneth pithily points out the following:
The irony. Mishpacha magazine is using this image to illustrate how extreme Lev Tahor is. This is how a woman has to look like to be allowed in Lev Tahor's village. But this is also how a woman has to look like to be allowed onto Mishpacha's cover! 
Indeed!

However, let's be grateful for baby steps. In a 2015 Mishpacha article about burqas, they did not show any pictures of these women, instead showing numerous pictures of a doll draped in a burqa!

At the time, somebody sent me a letter that they wrote to Mishpacha regarding this:
Dear Editor, Thank you for reporting about women who misguidedly wear burka-type garments to cover over their form. They mistakenly believe that they can only be seen by others if they are totally covered. However it is interesting that Mishpocha Magazine goes further and feels that even fully covered they cannot be seen and hence no pictures of them in the article about them. Sincerely, Noson Yanofsky

As I wrote in my original blog post, in a society in which it is forbidden to show pictures of women, it is hardly surprising that women start to wear burqas. And if it's forbidden to show pictures of women even if they wear burquas, then the natural end result is that women will eventually see it as an ideal (and then an imposed standard) not to leave the house at all.

So, let's be grateful for baby steps. Yeshivish society has progressed from giving the impression that women cannot be seen under any circumstances, to giving the impression that they can only be seen if they are wearing burqas. Progress you can't deny!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Origin of Aggados

Following is a fabulous extract from a letter by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to Rav Hile Wechsler. He addresses the claim that Aggados do not originate from the Sages, but rather from Sinai:
"When you say that there are many statements made about which one cannot possibly say that they originated only with the Sages... I must say that I agree with you that there are indeed many statements made by our Sages which did not originate from them but which were handed down to them, especially the stories of events of far-off days in the past, e.g., the stories of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans, the stories of Moses before he was elected by God, and so on. A proof for this lies in the fact that many stories told by late Amora'im can be found, almost word for word, in the writings of Philo, who lived centuries earlier in Alexandria during Temple times.

"But even here there is no need to assume that these tales originated from Sinai, but, rather, that they were part of an ancient folk tradition. It seems to me reasonable to say that even from earliest times, from the days of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Shem and Ever, such stories were transmitted and eventually were related to Abraham, and he passed them on to his descendants.

"Yet I would not swear to the accuracy of these tales or to equate them with the stories of Moses and the prophets. Possibly, some of them were merely told for moralistic and instructive ends. Even the stories of Abraham, Terach and Nimrod in Ur of the Chaldeans may have been told for homiletical purposes. They may have been constructed on the basis of the view that Abraham recognized his Creator when only three years of age, as derived from the numerical value of the word ekev, and on the basis of the phrase, "I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans." One should not reject someone who adopts this standpoint, for indeed, there are views that hold that Abraham did not recognize God until the age of fifty-two or more. Had those tales been held to be incontrovertible truths, one could not have set his conversion during his later age.

"One need not be surprised at this, for even the Job stories have been described by some of our Sages as not factual but allegorical, personifications of wisdom, virtue and the fear of God."
(Printed in Volume IX of Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pp. 214-215)

Rav Hirsch's words might sound shocking to some, but they are actually completely consistent with the writings of classic Rabbinic scholars. See Rabbi Chaim Eisen's article in Hakira, "Maharal's Be'er ha-Golah and His Revolution in Aggadic Scholarship."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Missiles, Measles, and Missives

At this time, the Jewish People are being bombarded with three very different, yet perhaps related, things. Hundreds of missiles have been fired from Gaza on towns throughout the southern region of Israel. An outbreak of measles in Israel and New York has already claimed the life of a baby and threatens many more. And there are missives throughout Jerusalem relating to the municipal elections today, with Daas Torah telling everyone who to vote for.

The common factor with all these three phenomena is that they relate to, and give rise to questions about, the role of experts and authority.

Let's begin with measles. The overwhelming consensus of expert medical opinion is that vaccination should be done and would have prevented the current tragic situation. Unfortunately, there is a significant body of people who are skeptical of "expert consensuses" (for reasons discussed in my post on the Lakewood Suicide Squad). They aren't evil, even though their actions have terrible consequences. They sincerely believe that the so-called experts cannot be trusted and are wrong, and they will give you all kinds of reasons for this.

Now let's turn to the missile barrage from Gaza. According to a large body of military experts who spoke up in favor of the Disengagement in 2004 (see the list of experts in the advertisement pictured here, as well as the citations at this link), this wasn't going to happen. The Disengagement was going to enhance the security situation. General and Prime Minister Sharon claimed that disengaging would give the IDF a free hand to respond with full military force if Gaza attacked us. Ha! (It reminded me of the Oslo days, when Peres insisted that giving guns to the PA was safe, because the first time that one of those guns would be used against an Israeli, Israel would swoop down in force and end everything.) To many of us ordinary folks, on the other hand, it was obvious that the Gazans would attack Israel, and Israel would not have a free hand to respond, because of international condemnation. Clearly, these experts were all wrong.

Then you have today's municipal elections in Jerusalem, where the alleged experts are completely divided, yet utterly sure of themselves. The Lithuanian and Sefardic Gedolim insist that Daas Torah mandates that one must vote for Moshe Leon. The Chassidic Gedolim and the Peleg faction, on the other hand, state that Daas Torah requires one not to vote for him. (I'm not sure if the Religious Zionist community has voiced Daas Torah on this topic.) So what actually is Daas Torah on this topic? And if there isn't any, why are these Gedolim all so sure that there is?

These three situations present us with the following question: When do you trust the experts, and when do you not trust the experts?

The answer is that things are complex, and it depends on the situation.

In matters relating to hard science, expertise is of great significance. Yes, it's always possible that there is some kind of fundamental epistemological error, or some kind of bias. However, given the huge amount of hard data available with regard to vaccinations, and the broad spectrum of people who possess expertise in this topic and all share the same conclusion, it is reasonable to be sure that the experts know what they are talking about.

Matters relating to war, peace and politics are more complicated. Yes, military expertise certainly helps. And it's frustrating to see the well-meaning but not well-thought-out armchair generals on Facebook talking about how the IDF should carpet-bomb Gaza, without thinking through the moral, tactical or political implications of such an act. Still, the fact is that projections as to what will bring security are heavily shaded by one's political outlook, as well as a host of psychological and sociological factors. For example, secular Israelis tend to be more desperate for acceptance by other countries and thus inclined to believe that this can be achieved, whereas religious Israelis tend to be more resigned to being globally despised.

As for the expertise of Daas Torah regarding who to vote for, it's simply a myth. Torah does not give any special insight into which mayor to vote for. Torah is an immensely rich body of wisdom accumulated over a long period in many places by many people, and it certainly does not have a single viewpoint that can be mapped on to the simultaneously immensely complicated question of how to govern a city. Furthermore, there's no reason to think that great Talmudists, or descendants of Chassidic Rebbes, possess any particular wisdom - in fact, Chazal state explicitly that there is the possibility of a Talmid Chacham completely lacking wisdom. Thus, there is no reason to think that the Lithuanian, Sefardic, Peleg or Chassidic voices of Daas Torah have any particular insight as to which mayoral candidate to vote for.

As to why they seem to think otherwise - well, that's because they have a different, non-rationalist view of the nature of Torah, according to which it grants supernatural forms of insight. But this has no basis in classical Judaism.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Next Frontier

I am pleased to announce the publication of the first Hebrew translation of one of my books! The book is Sacred Monsters (the revised and expanded edition of Mysterious Creatures), which has just been published in Hebrew under the title Yitzurei Ha-Pele BeMidrash U-veMada. The translation was done by Dr. Yehoshua Stokar, and the book was published by Koren Publishers under the Maggid imprint.

There will be a book launch taking place at the Biblical Museum of Natural History this Wednesday night. In a future post, I shall be addressing the question of whether this book should also be considered to be in cherem, like the original English book.

If you're not able to make it to the book launch (where the book will be sold at a discount), you can also buy it online at this link. It makes a great gift for Hebrew-speaking teenagers, for people struggling with conflicts between Chazal and science, or for your favorite member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Charedi Housing Crisis: You Can't Have It Both Ways

There's a fascinating letter that outgoing Beit Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul sent to someone who begged forgiveness for not voting for him. Abutbul notes that he opened the city up to enormous expansion of the charedi population, and laments how in every other city in Israel, they throw charedim out and do not want charedi communities to be established. He thereby echoes a common refrain in the charedi media, bemoaning the intolerant, hateful anti-charedi sentiments of society at large.

And yet, in the very same letter, Abutbul also boasts of how he catered to the charedi community by giving 90% reductions in municipal taxes to kollel families. This is consistent with several public addresses that he gave to non-charedi communities in Beit Shemesh, in which he proudly told the stunned audiences that it is their privilege to be the Zevuluns for the Yissachars of the charedi world. He also ridicules (both in this letter and in interviews that he gave) those who attempted to prevent the settlement of new neighborhoods until adequate infrastructure was in place. It should also be noted that in the various clashes between dati-leumi and extremist charedi communities that took place, such as with the Orot Banot school and with the tzniyus signs, Abutbul expressed his belief that the dati-leumi community should be tolerant of the strictures demanded by the extremists, even though the dati-leumi community was there first.

You can't have it both ways. If you believe that the priority is to rush the settlement of charedi families even if the city infrastructure can't cope, and you believe that the city budget should be disproportionately paid for by non-charedim (who are effectively subsidizing people in kollel), and that as the charedi population increases the non-charedim should accept extremist charedi societal demands, then how can you simultaneously express horror and disapproval that other cities in Israel do not want to become charedi?!



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Letter to my Charedi Co-Residents

Dear Charedi Co-Resident of Beit Shemesh,

No doubt you are deeply upset about the victory of Dr. Aliza Bloch over Moshe Abutbul in the elections. I remember what it's like to suffer the disappointment of one's candidate losing, in two elections. It's painful, and you have my sympathies. Fortunately, I have some good news to share with you, which should improve your mood.

You were told by the rabbonim to vote for Abutbul, because he would work for the benefit of the charedi community. The implication - often explicitly stated - was that Aliza Bloch would be working for the benefit of the non-charedi community, and against the interests of the charedi community. But that's not what she plans to do. Contrary to what you've been told, her desire is to work for the benefit of everyone.

Now, you're probably thinking, Why should I believe that? Well, first of all, you can listen to what she's actually been saying all along - and not in order to get charedi votes. You can learn about how in general, the approach of the dati-leumi community is to focus on the larger Jewish community, not just their own community.

Furthermore, you'll see how much paranoia and baseless fearmongering has been spread in order to avoid losing political power. They said that Aliza Bloch will have buses running on Shabbos and treif food being sold - you'll see that that won't happen. They said that Aliza Bloch will "destroy Torah" - I don't even know what that was supposed to mean, but I can assure you that she won't be destroying anything. I've seen people claim that when Aliza spoke about tearing down the mechitzot, this shows that she means to remove the mechitzos between men and women in shul! Actually, she was (very obviously) speaking about removing the walls of division between different sectors of society, and the fact that some people think otherwise speaks volumes about the ridiculous paranoia that the charedi political and rabbinic leadership created around her.

There's one fear that you might have which I can't help you with. If you fear that under Bloch's leadership, Beit Shemesh will slow down or cease its transformation into a primarily or solely charedi city, then your fears are probably correct. Still, you might find that it's not so terrible to share your city with Jews of other religious ideologies. You may find that it enables the city to prosper and improve in all kinds of ways.

So, relax. Think about all the thousands of charedim who voted for Aliza Bloch - they are intelligent people who did so for good reasons. Have some bitachon, and look with an open mind at how the city develops. Who knows, maybe in just under five years' time, when the askonim start with the next political campaign for mayor, you'll recall how off-base they were with their claims about this one.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

It's a Miracle!

In all my life, I don't remember ever being so giddy with joyous disbelief. Dr. Aliza Bloch, a dati-leumi woman, won the Beit Shemesh elections!


The significance of this is enormous, and we are still processing it. But here are three immediate takeaways:

1. Never Give Up Hope
For five years, everyone in Beit Shemesh, both charedi and non-charedi, thought that there wasn't the slightest chance of ever having a non-charedi mayor. The charedi community outnumbered the non-charedi community, and they also benefit from a much higher rate of voter turnout. When Dr. Aliza Bloch launched her campaign, many of us dismissed it as a vain and futile hope, a complete waste of time and effort. And yet she won! By over 500 votes! The message to cynics and realists

Dr. Aliza Bloch, with some of her many charedi supporters
2. It's the Beginning of the End of "Daas Torah" and a Return to Classic Torah
Aliza Bloch won with the support of thousands of charedi voters. This includes not only post-charedim and people on the fringes of charedi society, but even many charedim who voted United Torah Judaism for the political party (in Israel you have separate votes for mayor and for political party). That is to say, thousands of people who strongly identify as part of the charedi community nevertheless went directly against the "Daas Torah" of all the Gedolim. This is staggering. (I urge people to read the comments written by charedi residents of Beit Shemesh against the hateful letter published in Cross-Currents.) This marks a return to traditional Jewish concepts of Torah and rabbinic authority, and away from the recent hijacking of it by political interests.

3. There's a Tremendous Opportunity Here
The charedim who voted for Moshe Abutbul were convinced by "Daas Torah" that Aliza Bloch wants to harm the charedi community, destroy the Torah way of life and secularize the city. Right now, they are probably filled with despair. But in the coming years, they will see that they were utterly misled. Aliza Bloch has zero ill-will towards the charedi community, and certainly does not want to destroy their lives and secularize the city. On the contrary, she will improve the city of Beit Shemesh for everyone, including charedim. So when the next elections come around, in five years, the re-election message will be obvious: "Daas Torah" deceived you last time, and there's no reason to trust it. And people will see that there are genuine Torah values to be found in other communities, too, and that charedim and non-charedim can work together for the good of everyone.

We live in historic times! Baruch Ha-Tov VeHaMeitiv!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

An Extraordinary Election

Yesterday were the municipal elections for Beit Shemesh. Incumbent Moshe Abubul, who has already served two terms, faced off against challenger Dr. Aliza Bloch. And the winner is... unknown!

That's right. With over 40,000 votes counted, it is so close that the winner will be unknown until tomorrow, when the remaining few hundred votes from soldiers, disabled people and prisoners are counted.

Regardless of who actually wins, it is clear that Aliza Bloch was amazingly successful. When her candidacy was first floated several months ago, many people, including myself, were deeply skeptical. We viewed it as naive waste of time and energy. After all, in the previous elections, the non-charedi candidate lost. And since then, the mayor has been stuffing as many charedi voters into the city as possible. So what chance could she possible have? Not to mention the fact that she is a woman! (No sexism on my part, just a recognition of how many people unfortunately feel.) A seasoned politician told me that he was worried that Aliza would not only lose, but lose with an embarrassingly low number of votes.

Boy, were we wrong. Aliza Bloch ran the most extraordinary campaign. She had boundless energy and presented an amazing vision. She was relentlessly positive and always took the high road.

The contrast with Abutbul's campaign was striking. While the Bloch campaign spoke about how we need to have a united city, and had people from across the spectrum on its list, the Abutbul campaign spoke about how Bloch (a frum woman who gives a weekly shiur) is anti-charedi and anti-Torah. While the Bloch campaign spoke about how we need to improve the infrastructure and services of Beit Shemesh for the good of everyone, the Abutbul campaign spoke about how it is essential to vote for a council that will provide Charedi needs. While Bloch said that no matter who you vote for, she will be there to serve you, Abutbul said that if you don't vote for him, don't come knocking at his door. While the Bloch campaign appealed to voters to make their decision according to what's best for the city, the Abutbul campaign told voters that regardless of what they personally think, they must do what the Gedolim say.

The fact that the race is still too close to call is highly significant. It means that a very, very lot of charedim voted for Aliza Bloch. This is despite the enormous social pressure against doing so - all the signs and announcements that the Gedolim and the local rabbonim say that you have to vote for Abutbul, in order to promote unspecified "Torah values," and all the threats against people who vote for Aliza. It looks like we are seeing a new movement in the charedi world, where people see through the sham of "Daas Toyrah," and return to a more traditional community model in which the rabbis do not direct politics. I suspect that this trend will increase, although in general I try not to predict the future, except in hindsight. It will be strengthened if Aliza does end up winning, and people will see how she is not out to destroy Torah and religious life, as various charedi rabbis and campaigners claimed.

So, big congratulations to Aliza Bloch, and apologies for ever doubting her!

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Goodbye God, It's Elections

The 2015 Degel HaTorah rally in Bnei Brak. More amazing photos here
In the charedi community, there is a carefully-crafted non-rationalist worldview about bitachon and hishtadlus. It was relentlessly drilled into me during my years in charedi yeshivos that all hishtadlus is meaningless. God directly controls everything, and the laws of nature have no power. The only reason why the world seems to run according to various laws is that otherwise there would be no free will. Hishtadlus is just a price that we pay to keep that illusion going, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything. And to the extent that we recognize that, it's possible to cut down on the hishtadlus.

Supposedly, this is a major reason why many charedim don't serve in the army or gain a secular education and work for a living. To the extent that you realize that Hashem directly runs everything, you don't need to engage in the sham of hishtadlus.

This, however, is nonsense.

I'm not talking about the worldview itself, per se. Of course, the rationalist worldview, based on Rambam and many others, firmly disagrees with that approach. According to the rationalist Rishonim, the laws of nature are one of God's greatest creations. It's crucially important to respect them and work within them - and it leads one to respect laws in the religious domain, too.

What I am describing as nonsense is the notion that all these charedim actually believe what they think they believe. Because when it comes to elections, bitachon goes out of the window.

According to charedi hashkafa, it shouldn't make the slightest difference whether you put a slip into the box or not. Hashem decides (in fact, has already decided) everything. It doesn't make a difference who wins the election. And yet, the charedi community puts as much energy into campaigning as everyone else - in fact, more so. Their efforts result in a higher turnout than any other community!

Note the slogan on the right - you have to do
even more than you could normally do
Sometimes, aware of this discrepancy, people will try to explain it away. They claim that it's not about getting people to vote, per se; rather, it's about getting people to make a statement about the importance of "Torah" (i.e. charedi political power). But who are they trying to kid? If that was really all they are trying to do, they wouldn't ever either cheat or be worried about others cheating. And if it's all about making a statement about the importance of Torah, surely the best way to do that is to, y'know, actually learn Torah, not run around doing political campaigns!

I wish people would just make up their minds and be consistent. Either you believe that hishtadlus is real - in which case, give your kids the education that they need to earn a living. Or, or decide that it's not - in which case, don't bother voting, just learn Torah!

UPDATE: I should make it clear that this applies to mainstream, but not all, charedim. At both ends of the charedi spectrum, there are those who act otherwise. On the left are charedim who do believe in normal hishtadlus for everything. And on the right are charedim who are against doing hishtadlus for elections and even against voting. They, too, call out the mainstream charedi world for hypocrisy.

See too these posts:
The Hypocrisy of Selective Bitachon
Empty the Yeshivos!
More Emptying of the Yeshivos

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Mishpacha, Gedolim, and Decisions

One of these things is not like the other
In many ways, Mishpacha magazine is a remarkable development and a positive influence in the charedi world. For example, it features positive profiles of non-charedi people, which is quite the accomplishment for a society that usually tries to avoid endorsing anyone who does not share its values. And it even features columns openly admitting to, and criticizing, problems in charedi society, such as with Jonathan Rosenblum's legendary "Kollel is Poison" article, and his even more extraordinary article about how "We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment."

Still, there are some ways in which Mishpacha perpetuates and strengthens problems. One of these is that it constantly, and without exception or qualification, gushes over "Gedolim." They are presented as superhuman repositories of wisdom, righteous without flaw, whose guidance everyone is expected to follow.

This is a distortion of reality. "Gedolim" are often (though not always) great Talmudists (in the Lithuanian tradition) and/or great halachists. But, as Chazal state explicitly, this does not at all mean that they are necessarily wise, and certainly not that they are righteous without flaw. (Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l once delivered a famous and crucially important address on this point, which was translated under the title "The Daas in Daas Torah," and if you haven't read it yet, download it here.)

One of the more notorious instances of Mishpacha unwittingly misleading people is with its feature story on the holy kabbalist Rav Eliezer Berland. Since then, Berland has been exposed as one of the most evil people of the generation - a master manipulator who sets himself up as an idol, financially exploits his disciples, attempts to destroy his opponents, and takes advantage of women. Still, he has numerous devoted followers, and you don't see Mishpacha retracting their praise of him or warning people about him - indeed, their puff-piece about him is still on their website.

This is an extreme example. The more common problem is the general impression given by Mishpacha about what Gedolim are, and the consequences of this for the general public. And the most prominent example of that is with Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky is an utterly selfless person who has dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah. But Mishpacha endorses and strengthens the popular myth that he is much more than that. He is presented as a leader with unique insight into every situation. In one particularly ludicrous case, Mishpacha presented Rav Chaim's two-word wish of blessing and success to somebody as an example of his giving guidance as to which yeshivah the person's son should attend!

Aside from there being no good reason to believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky benefits from any supernatural source of insight, or even reliable wisdom, there is very clear evidence that he does not benefit from it. In a well-publicized case, Rav Chaim made the beracha for seeing a king, with Shem U'Malchus, upon meeting a man who presented himself as an African King - whereas anyone with basic critical skills would have realized immediately that he was a fraudster. And in a much more serious case, Rav Chaim wrote a letter attesting to the righteousness of Elior Chen, the worst child abuser in the history of Israel. When my neighbor wrote to ask him how he could attest to the righteousness of such a man, Rav Chaim responded that he did so because other rabbis did so! You won't find that letter reported in Mishpacha, and many people will simply avoid thinking about it and its staggering ramifications.

Notwithstanding Rav Chaim's tremendous hasmadah, there is no reason to believe that he is wise, well-informed, or responsible in his proclamations; on the contrary, there is clear evidence against it. And yet I have met people who go to him with life-and-death questions regarding medical treatment! And there are people who are not vaccinating their children, drawing support from his ruling that schools may not refuse admission to such students. And as I write these words, he has been schlepped to a hall down the road from me, in order to tell the assembled crowds who they must vote for in the municipal elections next week. There are thousands of people who apparently believe that Rav Chaim is aware of the needs of a city that he knows nothing about, and that he can evaluate the relative merits of different political candidates when he been told nothing other than what his party handlers have told him. For Heaven's sake, my fifteen-year-old daughter has a better understanding of the city and the politics than he does!

Nor does it end with Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Rav Moshe Shapiro once told someone to beat an old woman to death because he mistakenly believed her to be masterminding an abuse ring in a secret dungeon. Rav Aaron Leib Steinman once gave a talk down the road from me in which he claimed that there is zero correlation between secular education and parnasa. Rav Edelstein, yibadel lechaim, told a stadium of Beis Yaakov girls that if they leave the Beis Yaakov system, they won't succeed with parnasa or shiduchim. These are the people that should be making decisions for everyone?!

It certainly would not be true to say that no Gedolim are wise - many Gedolei Torah have been very wise indeed. However, being rated as a Gadol certainly does not necessarily mean that one is wise. There are countless people who make decisions that are, at best, ill-informed, and at worst, life-threatening, because they have been led to believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others like him should be making the decisions for them. Anyone who contributes to the myth of his Daas Torah shares responsibility for that.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Dealing with the Deluge

It's that time of year again... so here is the slightly expanded version of my original post regarding the Deluge.

Over the years I've received numerous questions about reconciling the traditional view of Noah's Flood with modern science. There are two sets of problems. First are those concerning the scientific impossibility of such an event - how the animals survived, how they traveled to their various locations, where the water came from, etc. These can all be answered by simply positing numerous miracles, but this is not satisfactory for those who follow the approach of Rambam and others which seeks to minimize supernatural miracles. The second set of problems is based not on the scientific impossibility of such an event, but instead upon the evidence that even a supernatural event of this nature did not happen - i.e. the evidence and records of continuous civilizations throughout the entire period.

There are a variety of different ways of approaching this topic. I tried discussing some of them online back in the summer of 2004, which may well have been one of the factors leading to the infamous ban on my books, and my comments were subsequently widely and wildly (and sometimes deliberately) misquoted. So instead of discussing it, I will just provide references to further reading material which shed light on various different approaches. Many people will condemn these approaches as unacceptable, but until they have a credible response to the scientific difficulties with the simple understanding, they would be wiser to remain silent.

First and foremost, I strongly recommend that people struggling with this difficulty read The Challenge Of Creation, preferably the third edition. I only explicitly deal with the flood in footnote 2 on page 302 (third edition), but there are many other parts of the book which are actually more relevant in terms of determining which options are available and acceptable - in particular, chapters 6-8, and 14-15.

Other relevant sources (remember, not all of these present the same approach) are:

Joel B. Wolowelsky, "Divine Literature and Human Language: Reading the Flood Story," in Bentsi Cohen, ed. As a Perennial Spring: A Festschrift Honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (NY: Downhill Publishing, 2013), pp. 521-534. (This is a revised version of his earlier article “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” Tradition 42:3 (Fall 2009) pp. 41-48.)

Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel, BeToraso Shel Rabbi Gedalyah, pp. 116-119.

Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1961).

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, commentary to Genesis, pp. 140-141.

Rabbi J. Hertz’s “Additional Notes to Genesis” at the back of The Pentateuch.

Nahum Sarna, "Understanding Genesis" (New York: Schocken Books 1966). (Note that this is not an Orthodox book, but it contains valuable insights.)

Rav Kook's letter on literalism, translated here.

Marc Shapiro's postings on this topic (I, II, and commentary by Rav Moshe Shamah here).

Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks' essay on the Deluge and the Tower of Babel (here)

Natan Slifkin, "Historical Records Vs. Dramatic Accounts"

Lorence Collins, "Yes, Noah's Flood May Have Happened, But Not Over the Whole Earth."

Thursday, October 4, 2018

News Roundup

1. The Feast of Legends from the Sea was amazing! A full write-up is forthcoming, but meanwhile you can look at a partial photo album at this link. Regarding the kashrut of the pièce de résistance - the swordfish - see my article at this link.

2. In this week's Jewish Press I have an article about creation and evolution, which you can read online at this link. Unfortunately in the print edition they edited what I wrote - in the version that I sent, I did not describe people as being "ignorant of modern science."

3. I am traveling to the US next week. For Shabbat parashat Noach, I am speaking at Young Israel of Brookline (Boston); for parashat Lech Lecha, I am speaking at Beth Aaron in Teaneck. On Tuesday October 16th, I am speaking at the Sixth Street Synagogue in Manhattan, on the topic of Rationalism vs. Mysticism. If you'd like to arrange a lecture, or a meeting about the development of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, please email me.

4. Our next spectacular museum event is in just over two weeks, in Teaneck - A Biblical Feast of Birds and Beasts! If you're interested in attending, write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org.


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 www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org - 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 office@biblicalnaturalhistory.org. 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 www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/locust. For more details about the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck, and the Feast of Legends From the Sea in Israel, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/feast.












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 www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/feast

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