Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Keep Science Away From Torah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See this post for my forthcoming US lecture schedule. 
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Monday, January 29, 2018

Who is Making a Mockery of Halacha?

A number of people took grave offense at the previous post, about checking fruit for bugs. There were two general types of criticism. One was that the position that I was espousing was completely against halachah. The other was that I was engaging in inappropriate mockery of the standard practice.

With regard to the first criticism, let me first reiterate what I explicitly stated in the previous post: That I was oversimplifying, for dramatic effect. And yet not by much. There is a vast gulf between that which Rav Vaye presents as normative halachah, and what was historically normative halachic practice. Consider the following from Rav Eliezer Melamed:
Some poskim are of the opinion that since under certain conditions, experts can see these insects – every vegetable or fruit that most likely has tiny insects, is forbidden to be eaten without removing all the bugs. And when in a minority of cases, tiny insects can be found in them, one must make an effort to remove them, and bediavad, if one mistakenly did not check, the food is kosher.
On the other hand, some poskim hold that although if one sees a tiny insect like this, it is forbidden to be eaten, nevertheless, when it is on a food that an ordinary person cannot see without making a great effort, or without auxiliary means – it is considered tafel and batel to the food, and there is no prohibition of eating the vegetable or fruit, which chances are, contains an insect.
...According to accepted rules of halakha, the law goes according to the lenient opinion since it is a safek d’Rabbanan, for a person is not interested in eating the insect, but is compelled to eat it along with the food, against his will. Moreover, according to the majority of poskim, a tiny insect is batel b’shishim from the Torah, and it was only the Chachamim (Sages) who were stringent in declaring that a ‘briyah’ (a whole insect) is not batel even in a thousand. Some poskim say that the Chachamim were stringent only in regards to an insect that has some importance, but if it is tiny and disgusting, even from rabbinical status, it is batel b’shishim. In addition, it’s also doubtful whether in actuality a tiny insect exists.
On the other hand the strict approach also has a strong argument for under certain conditions anyone can see the tiny bugs, and with great effort, even if it takes a few hours, since one can find the bug and remove it, it is not considered to be mixed-in, and is not batel even in a thousand.
Therefore, the halakha follows the lenient approach, and the mehedrin minhag is to be machmir. The mehedrin minhag is clarified in detail in the books of Rabbi Moshe Vaya and Rabbi Schneur Zalman Revach, however, the claim that this is the binding halakha for all Jews, is not correct
Thus, there is ample basis for strongly disputing that Rav Vaye is presenting normative halachah.

Now, with regard to the accusation that my post was engaging in inappropriate mockery of Rav Vaye's approach, I saw as follows: There was indeed some humor intended in the way that I contrasted his approach with the traditional and normative approach. However, I consider this humor to be totally appropriate.

There is ample precedent in rabbinic discussion for sharpness and humor in disputing views that one believes to be incorrect. And when I engage in it, it's usually not actually using mocking words, but rather bringing to light how the exponents of the view are actually themselves making a mockery of halacha.

Consider, for example, Rabbi Yair Hoffman's view that on seder night, one should eat one-and-one-third of a matzah, within the span of two minutes, using the following method:
Place both kezeisim in the mouth together. Both kezeisim are then chewed well and split, within the mouth, in half—one kezayis on each side. Then one is swallowed, followed by the other.

Notwithstanding the fact that he can build a halachic case for this, I think it's perfectly legitimate for someone to call it ridiculous and to accuse Rabbi Hoffman of making a mockery of halachah.

By the same token, consider figs. When Rav Vaye, in his one-page handout, states that for strawberries, one must do as follows:
With a knife, cut off the leaf at the top together with a few millimeters of the fruit. Remove any cracks, deep clefts, or damaged areas. Soak in water mixed with a little dishwashing liquid for 3 minutes, rub in the water, and rinse well under running water in such a way that the water reaches every part of the berry. This process should be done three times, after which the berries may be cooked or blended.
Some of the materials required for eating fruit.
...and for figs, says that the process is so complex that he cannot even give such a paragraph of instructions and one must instead to refer to his book, this, to my mind, makes a mockery of halachah. For no reasonable person can possibly think that eating figs historically involved anything so complex (and the Gemara in Shabbos 90a clearly indicates that no such checking was being done). Rav Vaye no doubt builds a halachic case for his requirements, and may consider Rav Melamed's approach to be totally unacceptable. But by the same token, others are entitled to sharply dispute his approach.

Many are concerned about widespread laxity and even complete disregard for halachic observance. That is not caused by people advocating a reasonable approach to halachah. It is often caused by just the opposite - by people insisting on an approach to halachah that is too far-reaching and which is reasonably perceived as ridiculous.

UPDATE: I have published a follow-up post at

See this post for my forthcoming US lecture schedule. 
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Sunday, January 28, 2018

How to Check for Bugs

With Tu B'Shvat approaching, the question is, how does one check fruit for bugs? After all, it is a very serious Torah prohibition to eat forbidden insects.

But another question arises: Are there any differences between popular halachic approaches today, and the approach found in Chazal and the Rishonim? After all, seeing how halachah has changed with regard to the kezayis, one wonders if has changed in other areas too.

After receiving a PDF in my email with detailed instructions from Rav Moshe Vaye's work Bedikat HaMazon, I thought it would be appropriate to compare two different approaches to checking fruit for bugs; that of Rav Vaye, and that of Chazal and traditional Judaism.

According to Rav Moshe Vaye’s sefer Bedikas HaMazon According to Chazal and Rishonim:
Apricots dried whole: Open and check each half with through-lighting on both sides.
Apricots fruit sold halved: Soak in warm water, open the folds, unroll the edges, and check with through-lighting.
Blueberry Frozen: Preferable to grind it in blender. Fresh: Soak the blueberries in soapy water. Place in a large-holed strainer, and rinse well. Repeat soaking and rinsing 3 times. Preferably grind in blender. Dried: Difficult to check. Use only with Mehadrin Kashrus.
Cashew nuts Look over each one from the outside for nibbling or holes. If a nut seems to be infested, halve it and check inside. (A few thin brown crumbs inside the cashew are pieces of shell, not caused by bugs). If signs of infestation are found, halve and check each nut. [Even if no infestation is found, it is advisable to halve about 10% as a sample and check internally.]
Cherries maraschino: Open several (about 10%) as a sample. Check for a worm. If any infestation is found in the sample, open and check all of the batch. dried: Best to avoid using due to difficulty of checking.
Chestnuts Halve and check inside for a worm or dark crumbs (may be checked after cooking or roasting).
Dates Slit open with a knife, remove pit, check from both sides with through-lighting (looking for a dark bug about 2-3 mm. long or a worm, usually dead and dried up).
Fruit leather sold open Check against the light, looking for an ant or fly stuck on. grapes 1. Seperate tight clusters into small ones. Soak in soapy water and rinse well. Repeat soaking and rinsing 3 times. 2. Look at each grape. If you see a dark spot penetrating inside the grape, cut there and check inside for a worm.
Guava Cut the fruit into slices across and examine each slice on both sides. The worms are the same color as the fruit (with a black dot at the head) and are hard to identify.
alternate method: Peel the fruit and check for a small hole or a dark mushy area.
Cut out this area and examine it for worms in the flesh of the fruit.
Kiwi The fruit itself is clean. On rare occasions there may be white or brown scale insects on the peel. Take care that they do not get transferred onto the fruit during peeling; Alternately, rinse off the fruit after peeling.
Loquat Open the crown at the bottom of the fruit and check it for small insects.
nuts chopped Shake the nuts in a wire mesh strainer over a white surface and check the surface for small bugs. Then pour the nuts themselves, which remained in the strainer, onto a white surface and check between the pieces.
Nuts in shell As you shell each nut, check the inside of the shell and the nut for sticky webbing dangling, round dark crumbs, or worms. Check the nut for holes or nibbling.
nuts shelled Check each nut on both sides for webbing, holes, or nibbling. If a nut seems to be infested, halve it and check inside. If signs of infestation are found, halve and check each nut. [Even if no infestation is found, it is advisable to halve about 10% as a sample and check internally.]
Olives green olives: If there’s a brown stain, open the olive and check inside for a tunnel.
black olives: Open and check inside for a tunnel or a worm.
olive rings: Spread out and check for a tunnel or worm.
peaches canned Check for maggots in fruits and juice.
pecans shelled Check the nuts on both sides for webbing, worms, or round crumbs.
persimmon Remove the leaf at the top and wash well. If the fruit is unusually soft, check it inside. If there is a black stain on the peel, remove the peel at that spot and check to see if there are white maggots inside the fruit. (Small black dots in the flesh are not a problem).
carob Wash well, break into small pieces (2 cm.=1 inch) and check for crumbs, webbing, worms, or insects.
figs fresh and dried Highly infested. The procedure for checking is complicated and difficult. For instructions, see sefer “Bedikas HaMazon” in English.
goji berries Highly infested and very difficult to check. Avoid eating them.
mulberries Very infested and difficult to check. Avoid eating them.
quince (grown in Israel) Halve the fruit and check for a worm or tunnel with dark crumbs. Remove the affected area. Quince in the U.S. is clean.
raisins Raisins, including California raisins, should preferably not be used, due to their high incidence of infestation.
Craisins can be used as a substitute.
If one wants to use regular raisins, it is preferable to use raisins that have already undergone a preliminary screening, such as raisins with Badatz Eida Chareidis supervision. These should be checked thoroughly as follows: 1. Soak in hot water for 15 minutes. 2. Pour the top layer of water onto a white plate and check the water for worms or brown insects. If any are found, don’t use batch, because the worms can also be inside. 3. If no bugs are found, rinse the raisins well under running water.
raspberries Very infested and difficult to check. Avoid eating them.
strawberries There is a world-wide problem of thrips, (small thin insects) which hide in the little depressions on the strawberries and do not come off with the usual cleaning methods. Therefore strawberries should only be eaten in one of the following 2 ways:
Method A: With a knife, cut off the leaf at the top together with a few millimeters of the fruit. Remove any cracks, deep clefts,or damaged areas. Soak in water mixed with a little dishwashing liquid for 3 minutes, rub in the water, and rinse well under running water in such a way that the water reaches every part of the berry.
This process should be done three times, after which the berries may be cooked or blended.
Method B: Peel off the entire outer layer of the berry (including deep cracks and the place where the leaf is attached). Rinse after peeling.
oranges, tangerines, There are often brown or dark gray scale insects on the peel. During peeling and cutting, take care that they do not get
mandarines, grapefruit, transferred onto the fruit or onto your hands. Or rinse off the fruit after peeling. If you want to use the peel, scrub it with a hard brush or metal scrubbie and dishwashing liquid, rinse, and check to make sure no scales remain.
internal infestation: There are sometimes fruit-fly maggots inside the flesh of oranges, grapefruit, mandarines, and tangerines. This is rare when the fruit comes from orchards that were tended, especially in the winter. Citrus from trees that weren’t sprayed, such as from private gardens or from Arabs during Shmitta, as well as citrus in the summertime, is more likely to harbor fruit-fly maggots.
A. As you peel the fruit, look at the white side of the peel, checking for a brown stain or a mushy area that continues into the fruit. If this is found, check to see whether maggots penetrated at that point.
B. If the fruit is soft and mushy or has an unusual odor, the inside of the segments should be checked. If one fruit is found to have maggots, all the fruits of that batch should be checked carefully.
orange juice — fresh squeezed (at home or at a stand): Advisable to strain juice through a strainer. Alternately, the orange peel can be cleaned with a metal scrubbie and dishwashing liquid before the fruit is juiced to prevent scales from entering the juice.
peanuts Look over each one from the outside for nibbling or holes. If a peanut seems to be infested, halve it and check inside. If signs of infestation are found, halve and check each peanut. At the end of the summer and in the fall extra care is required. [Even if no infestation is found, it is advisable to halve about 10% as a sample and check internally.]
coated peanuts (chocolate-coated, candy-coated, etc.): Open about 10%. If infestation is found, open them all.
pistachios Remove the shell and check for worms or webbing. If a nut seems to be infested, halve it and check inside. If infestation is found, each nut should be halved and checked internally. [Even if no infestation is found, it is advisable to halve about 10% as a sample and check internally.]
pumpkin seeds: in the shell: Usually clean. If the shell is damaged, open and check for worms.
shelled: Shake in a plastic noodle strainer over a white surface and check the surface for worms. If worms are found, do not use.
sunflower seeds: in the shell: Shell and check each one.
shelled: Shake the seeds in a wire mesh strainer over a white surface and check the surface for small bugs. Then pour the seeds onto a white surface and check between them. If worms are found, do not use.
watermelon seeds: Shell and check a sample (about 10%). If infestation is found, the entire batch should be shelled and checked.
pineapple fresh: Peel and remove all hard brown hollow areas.
dried with sugar: Look at it on both sides for a fly or bug that got stuck to it.
natural dried: Break into a few pieces and check in the small spaces in the flesh of the fruit for worms or dark round crumbs.
in natural pineapple juice: Sometimes infested. Pineapple in syrup is preferable.
pomegranate Check for a hole in the peel. When taking out the seeds, check for small white maggots or a brown worm.
sugar-apple Peel and rinse. Cut into segments and check for white worms.
walnuts shelled Place the nuts in a large-holed strainer and shake over a white surface. Check the surface for small bugs or worms. Check each nut on both sides, especially inside the folds, for webbing, worms, or nibbling.
  • Look at the fruit. If you don't see a bug, eat it.

Yes, this is somewhat over-simplified. But not much. Chazal and Jews throughout the generations were clearly not doing the kind of checking demanded by Rav Vye. Not only is there no mention of such procedures; they didn't even having clean water on tap, nor did they have good lighting after dark. And it's hard to argue that the situation with bugs has significantly changed. For more details, see the article "The Scientific Revolution and Modern Bedikat Tola’im Trends" from Hakirah, available online at See too the work Lachem Yihiye Le'Achlah by Rabbi Eitam Henkin hy"d and the follow-up article at this link.

UPDATE: See the follow-up post at this link.

See the previous post for my forthcoming US lecture schedule. 
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Friday, January 26, 2018

NY, NJ, LA - U2?

Here are details on events taking place during my forthcoming US trip:
  • Next Shabbos I am speaking at Ahavat Torah in Englewood NJ
  • Sunday morning Feb. 4th, at 9:15am, I am giving a presentation on "Encounters with Animals" at East Hill Synagogue, 255 Walnut St., Englewood NJ
  • I am also speaking on the topic of "Rationalist Judaism vs. Biblical Natural History" (a VERY "juicy" topic, about the points of difference and the points of intersection between the topics of this blog and the museum) at two parlor meetings, one in Teaneck on Motzai Shabbos (Feb. 3rd) and one in Flatbush on Tuesday Feb. 6th. These are fundraising events for The Biblical Museum of Natural History at private homes - if you would like to attend, please email for an invitation.
  • We need two boxes of museum items transported from Lawrence to Englewood or Teaneck - if you are able to help out with that, please write to me.
  • In Los Angeles, on Sunday Feb. 11th, there will be a "Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna" for those becoming patrons of the museum. For more details, write to

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Amazing Manna Segulah

"Manna manna."
Were you inundated today with emails about the amazing segulah of saying parashas ha-man, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, because it is Tuesday of the week of parashas Beshalach? I was.

It's quite bizarre. Here is something that was allegedly proposed by a single chassidishe rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, two hundred years ago (though he never even put it in writing; it is only an oral tradition). All of a sudden, it is considered to be something that all Jews should do! (Though you don't even need to say it yourself - the Gedolim say that you can pay others to do it for you, for even better results!) This is especially odd in light of the fact that this is entirely inconsistent with the approach of the Mishnah Berurah, surely a much more mainstream work, as we shall see. (I am indebted to Rabbi Josh Waxman of the excellent Parshablog, from whose post on this topic much of the following was taken, with his permission.)

Some claim that the source for this is the Yerushalmi, but that's not quite accurate. The given source says כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו, "Whoever recites parashas ha-man, is assured that his sustenance will not decrease." Early sources, such as Seder Rav Amram Gaon, explained that it was recited every day, along with korbanos and a host of other things. However, he says, only select people do so; most do not, because they are too busy working! To quote:
זה המנהג הנכון לנהג היחידים אנשי מעשה. והצבור אין נוהגין כן, שלא יתבטל איש איש ממלאכתו אשר המה עושים, ומקצרין ואומר אחר סיום, קדיש. חזק.

Meanwhile, the Mishnah Berurah gives an interesting explanation of the daily recital of parashas ha-man:
פרשת העקידה - קודם פרשת הקרבנות. ויכול לומר פרשת העקידה ופרשת המן אפילו בשבת. ואין די באמירה אלא שיתבונן מה שהוא אומר ויכיר נפלאות ד' וכן מה שאמרו בגמרא כל האומר תהלה לדוד ג' פעמים בכל יום מובטח לו שהוא בן עוה"ב ג"כ באופן זה. וטעם לאמירת כ"ז כי פרשת עקידה כדי לזכור זכות אבות בכל יום וגם כדי להכניע יצרו כמו שמסר יצחק נפשו ופרשת המן כדי שיאמין שכל מזונותיו באין בהשגחה פרטית וכדכתיב המרבה לא העדיף והממעיט לא החסיר להורות שאין ריבוי ההשתדלות מועיל מאומה ואיתא בירושלמי ברכות כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו ועשרת הדברות כדי שיזכור בכל יום מעמד הר סיני ויתחזק אמונתו בה' ופרשת הקרבנות דאמרינן במנחות זאת תורת החטאת כל העוסק בתורת חטאת כאלו הקריב חטאת וכו':
משנה ברורה סימן א ס"ק יג
 "The parsha of the Binding {of Yitzchak} -- before the parsha of the sacrifices. And one is able to say the parsha of the Binding and the parsha of the Manna even on Shabbat. And it is not sufficient with mere saying, but rather he must understand what he is saying and and recognize the wonders of Hashem. And so too that which they say in the Gemara that anyone who says Ashrei three times every day is guaranteed that he will be a resident of the world to come, in this manner {that is, not an incantation, but understanding and appreciating this}. And the reason for the saying of all this is as follows: the parsha of the Binding is in order to recall the merit of the forefathers every day, and also to humble his yetzer, just as Yitzchak was moser nefesh. And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his food {/livelihood} comes through special Divine direction {hashgacha pratis}, as it is written {and understood midrashically} "and the one who took more did not end up with more and the one who took less did not end up with less," to teach that increasing effort does not help at all. And it is found in Yerushalmi Berachot that anyone who says the parsha of the Manna {others have here: every day} he is guaranteed that his livelihood will not decrease. And the {saying of the} Ten Commandments is in order to recall every day the standing by Mt. Sinai, and his faith in Hashem will be strengthened. And {the reason for reciting} the parsha of the sacrifices is because of what we say in Menachot: "Zot Torat HaChatat -- Anyone who engages in the {learning of} Torah of the Chatat is as if he sacrificed a Chatat {sin offering}, etc."
Thus, this is not a magic incantation, but rather a mechanism by which one realizes certain facts about the world and reinforces his emuna. The repercussions of such an internalization of these ideas will be all these great things. Note too that none of these sources speak about reciting it shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum. The recital of parshat HaMan once a year, on a specific day, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, is a mystical innovation that is completely at odds with the Mishna Berura's explanation. Furthermore, according to the Mishnah Berurah's explanation, it is pointless to pay other people to say it for you.

But can any of this reconcile with Rambam's rationalist approach? That will have to be the topic of another post. Meanwhile, with regard to the nature of the manna itself, see the post Manna and Maimonides.

Stay tuned for a very important post coming up soon! You can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)

Monday, January 22, 2018

An Aura of Respectability?

We've discussed lots of pseudoscientific claims in this forum, but there never seems to be a shortage of new ones to explore. The latest was mentioned in a recent article in Hamodia magazine.

Significantly, it was presented by Rabbi Pinchos Jung from the Ani Maamin Foundation, which has the backing of Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Avraham Levine, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and Rav Aharon Feldman. This is an organization which disdains primitive approaches to faith such as that expressed in Reuven Schmelczer's book The Heart of Emunah and which presents miraculous stories of sentient pigs, mermaids and sorcery.  They set out to reinforce emunah in a "mature fashion," with an aura of respectability. And in the summer 2017 issue of Dialogue (the journal under the aegis of Rav Miller and Rav Feldman), there was a harsh critique by Dr. Jonathan Ostroff of The Heart of Emunah.

Now, in the past, I have pointed out that the criticism of Schmelczer's approach by these people is somewhat ironic, in that the Ani Maamin Foundation, relying on Ostroff himself, spreads nonsense such as that the universe is only 5778 years old, and dinosaurs lived just a few thousand years ago, concurrently with contemporary species. And the arguments for emunah given in the Ani Maamin Foundation's book, Emunah: A Refresher Course, contain the usual specious claims about the Torah's claims regarding animals with one kosher sign, the fins and scales of fish, and so on. But in the new Hamodia article, a new type of pseudoscience is presented: Auras.

According to Rabbi Jung, the aura, "a possible manifestation of some aspect of the neshamah," can be captured by a special type of photography which shows ultraviolet. "This has advanced to the degree that we have photos depicting the difference in the glow around a person before and after laying tefillin! The same has been shown of a married woman before and after covering her hair." As a source for this astonishing claim, Rabbi Jung cites Rabbi Zamir Cohen's book The Coming Revolution. (You can also see Rabbi Cohen's material online at this website and also at a website called "Absolute Truth".)

Aura photography began back in 1939 with Russian scientist Semyon Kirlian. He discovered that a hand placed on a photographic plate connected to a source of voltage produced an image of the hand surrounded by an "aura." Kirlian photography, as it is known, became very popular among paranormalists and new-age spiritualists. Its most recent incarnations include special Aura Cameras that you can buy for just a few thousand dollars.

However, as with countless other such paranormal claims, aura photography is a simple fraud. Needless to say, there are no rigorous double-blind tests to prove its efficacy. The photographic effects are produced not by a spiritual aura, but rather as a result of moisture in the air surrounding the object being photographed. There are various factors which determine the color of the aura in the photos, and there is no consistency. Yes, the photos of people before and after laying tefillin show differently colored auras, but so would photos of anyone taken in slightly different circumstances - especially if you wrap an item of clothing such as a tallit around the head!

I have great sympathy with those who are trying to reinforce emunah, and especially with those who are attempting to do it in a scientifically respectable way. But they bear a tremendous responsibility. Professing to have an aura of respectability, and yet presenting pseudoscientific nonsense which can be exposed by a simple Wikipedia or Google search, is a shirking of that responsibility. It is going to result in the brightest Jewish minds being utterly turned off to Judaism.

So how should one teach emunah? Well, you can teach about the single greatest miracle in our history, which nobody denies the factuality of, although some would downplay how extraordinary and special it is. Or, you can opt to teach emunah as it really should be - not Discovery-style "proofs," but rather loyalty (which is the true etymological meaning of emunah) to our sacred and wonderful mesorah.

My second child, my oldest son, just put on tefillin for the first time. There was nothing that could be captured by Kirlian photography. But I saw an incredible aura radiating from him.

Stay tuned for a very important blog post coming up soon. You can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Are You Going To Murder Someone?

Are you ever going to murder someone? Are you ever going to end up in prison for taking a life?

I'll bet that you are confident that the answer is no. But how can you be so sure?

This morning, near my home, a six-year-old boy lost his life when he was hit by a vehicle.

It's too early to say who was at fault. And it's irrelevant to the rest of us. The fact is that many of us act in such a way that we cannot honestly say that we will never bear the guilt of taking a life.

If you ever look at your phone while you're driving, even just for a moment, to check a text or Waze, then you are losing concentration. Even talking on a phone without holding it is a distraction and significantly decreases your reaction time. And you are driving nothing less than a killing machine.

What can you do? There is a Lo ta'aseh and an Asei.

The Lo ta'aseh: Never, ever interact with your phone while driving. Just resist the temptation. You may think that the risk of an accident is small, but the potential cost is prohibitively high.

The Asei: Install MobilEye in your car. MobilEye alerts you with crucial additional seconds of warning before you are about to go out of lane or hit somebody. I'm not sure how it works in the US, but in Israel you can call them (as I just did) and they will come to your home and install it. Yes, it costs a few thousand shekels. But it is unquestionably worth it (and it is compulsory in all new cars).

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Gods, Frogs, and Drash

Why were the Egyptians punished with a plague of frogs? Someone sent me an insight that they heard from a contemporary rabbi: "Because Pharaoh portrayed himself like a god by not relieving himself, G-d specifically brought frogs as the second plague, since frogs are creatures that eat and do not void their waste." Pharaoh falsely claimed to be a God who does not excrete, so he was punished with lowly creatures that really do posses this ability.

There's pshat, and there's drash. Within the category of drash, you have different levels. There's drash that can reasonably be posited to be the true deeper meaning. And then there's drash that is clearly being invented rather than discovered. This does not mean that it is illegitimate; it's a nice way to create meaning and to ground lessons in older sources. (Still, one would prefer there to be clarity as to such drash being an invention rather than it being claimed (or implied) to be a discovery of actual hidden intended meaning.)

When it comes to divrei Torah involving animals, the drash often relates to an (alleged) fact about the animal. For example, I like to give a drash about the gevurah of the lion being its ability to overcome its aggressive nature and to live in groups with other lions, as per the Mishnah's statement that "Who is mighty? The one that overcomes his inclination." Now, lions actually aren't always the nicest of creatures to their kin; sometimes, males will kill and eat cubs, when trying to take over a pride. Still, it is a fact that lions are able to control their intra-species aggression much more than other big cats, and they are the only ones to live in social groups. So, this is a drash that is grounded in fact.

Then there's drash that is not grounded in fact. Sometimes, this is understandable, such as when there is popular or long-standing myth, or when the person is repeating something that he heard from others. Still, if it's something that sounds unlikely, then educators have a responsibility to verify its factuality. On occasion, one wonders if the person giving the drash has just invented something out of thin air in order to justify the drash.

I don't know how this frog drash came about. I've never heard of an ancient belief that frogs do not excrete. (Though I do often hear people asking me if snakes excrete; for some reason, people seem to think that without legs, there's no tushie.) But the fact is that frogs, like every other creature in the world, excrete their waste. How could it be otherwise? What else would they do with the parts of their food that they haven't digested?

There is something extraordinary, however, about the excretory abilities of certain species of frog. It has been discovered that some Australian tree-frogs, when they have a foreign object impaled or implanted into their body cavities, are able to transfer the foreign object into their bladder and excrete it. Feel free to incorporate this fact into a creative drash about the plague of frogs!

(See too this post: Frogs Challenge Rationalism. And don't forget that you can also read this blog via email subscription, using the form on the right.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

An Event In Poor Taste

Earlier this week, in San Francisco, a number of rabbis and Jewish scholars attended a special banquet with a unique menu.

Everything was treife.

(picture is for illustrative purposes and is not from this event)
I don't mean treife as in not having a Badatz hechsher. I don't mean treife like Braekel chicken or Cornish Rock. I don't mean treife like desert locusts, which no kashrus agency approves but which are certainly kosher. And I don't mean treife like peacocks, which virtually no Orthodox rabbi eats but which is undoubtedly a kosher bird. I mean straight-out treife - rabbit, bacon, lobsters, meat-and-milk, and so on.

The "Trefa Banquet 2.0" memorialized the infamous 1883 "Trefa Banquet," held in honor of the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College. At that meal, pork was not served (unlike in this week's event), but there was crab, shrimp, and frogs' legs. Along with the 1885 declaration of the Reform movement that kashrut is an "archaic practice," this led to a number of people leaving the Reform movement in disgust and creating the Conservative movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

An article about this week's event interviews Rabbi Camille Angel, whose father was ordained at Hebrew Union College, and who proudly identifies as a “second-generation lobster-eating rabbi.” She reports that “My mother loved sending me to school during Passover with a lunch of matzah with ham and cheese.” According to the interviewer, "this led to teasing from another Jewish classmate, who felt that this somehow diminished Angel’s Jewish cred." You don't say! At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I would like to note that while you might have two generations of lobster-eating rabbis, it is highly unlikely that further generations of proudly discarding Jewish law and tradition will produce any rabbis or even any Jews.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco enjoyed eating the bacon, and declared, "I would rather eat food that’s humanely and ethically raised than kosher.” Now, it is indeed true that most kosher meat and chicken is not humanely or ethically raised (like all factory-farmed animals). And Rabbi Avi Shafran's recent disavowal of Kashrut agencies having any responsibility for this beyond government legislation is incorrect from a Torah perspective (not to mention that kashrus agencies are often particular about issues entirely unrelated to the actual kashrus of the food). And let's assume that Mintz's bacon was indeed ethically raised (although I do wonder if that was the case). But why on earth does she present it as a choice between the two? There are plenty of options available for eating food that is both humanely raised and kosher. Or, you can go vegetarian. What ethical principle is there that requires one to eat non-kosher food?

Event organizer Alix Wall "told the crowd that her mother was a child during the Holocaust, hidden with a family of Poles; she grew up eating what they ate, including plenty of pork. In this family, an essential 20th-century Jewish story of Holocaust survival is tied to pork. So for Wall, “keeping treyf” (if I may coin a phrase) connected her to her Jewish history, just as keeping kosher does for others." How bizarre. Following this logic, perhaps just as her mother was given away, she should give away her daughter to a non-Jewish family, to let her connect to Jewish history? Yes, there are people who were forced to survive the Holocaust by living as non-Jews, but living as a non-Jew is hardly a way to connect to Jewish history.

The journalist concludes his article by claiming that "Judaism — and history of the Reform movement in particular — is full of this: not a transgression of religion, but transgression as religion." Well, Reform Judaism may well be full of transgression as religion (and one wonders how, if that is the case, they expect full recognition in Israel), but it's hardly accurate to describe classical Judaism in that way.

Moshe Basson, Chef for the Biblical Museum of
Natural History's special events, with a plate of locusts
It should be noted that for people who are desperate to taste non-kosher food, the Talmud states that for every non-kosher food there are kosher equivalents. These featured as part of the Feast of Exotic Curiosities held last year at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We served kosher bacon (made from a certain type of seaweed), kosher oysters (made from certain mushrooms along with real oystershell, which is kosher), food that replicates the taste of meat with milk (udders), and non-shrimpian invertebrates (locusts).

There is no nutritional or ethical need to eat non-kosher food. And there are very good reasons to be loyal to Jewish law and tradition, even for Jews who do not believe that the laws of kashrut are divinely mandated. If people wish to ignore those reasons, well, it's a free society. But to promote it as something that is actually in the spirit of Jewish tradition is incorrect, and in very poor taste indeed. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

How Do You Stop Jews Stoning Jews?

Down the hill from the lovely neighborhood where I live is the world's number one hotbed of religious Jewish fanaticism: Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, known as RBS-B. Earlier today, a religious IDF soldier was driving his car through that neighborhood when he was assailed by stones. He lost control of his car, crashed into a post, and had to be hospitalized.

It could have been worse. He could have been killed. He could have run over a child. God forbid, such a thing could happen next time. As I once wrote in a post, it may be only a matter of time before someone is killed.

What does one do about this? I've been writing about it for years, but I don't know if that's achieved anything. A number of local activists organized a rally. Maybe that will make things better, by motivating locals and authorities to take action. Maybe it will make things worse, by inciting the zealots further. I honestly don't know, and I'm not sure if anyone else knows, either.

Meanwhile, while all this was going down, I was dealing with other stone-throwing religious hooligans in Beit Shemesh. I was in my office at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and I happened to glance at the feed from the security cameras. To my dismay, I saw three little children with long peyos, who looked no more than seven years old, throwing stones at our outdoors petting zoo. I raced outside and confronted them.

"Yeladim, would you like it if I threw stones at your house?" I asked them.

"What, is this your house?" one of them asked me in puzzlement.

They didn't appear to grasp the message, but they stopped throwing stones.

A half-hour later, we had a scheduled visit of fifty children from a local Talmud Torah from a certain sect in RBS-B. Some of these communities refuse to visit zoos, since they are open on Shabbos. We not only present a rich Torah experience, but we also provide a Shomer Shabbos, "safe" environment for them - there are no dinosaurs or other hashkafically-challenging material, we switch off all the video screens, we hide any promotional literature with pictures of women, and the female members of staff stay out of sight. Today's group even asked our guide to conceal his smartphone.

We run many such tours and it's never clear to me who finds the experience more fascinating, them or us. These are children from communities that don't visit zoos, that don't have pets, and that don't watch wildlife documentaries. They have never have had any significant exposure to the natural world, and it shows in the most unexpected ways. For example, in our record-breaking exhibit of shofars from different species, we have little plastic figurines of the animals that each shofar is from. Frequently, the children ask if the figurines are real animals!

I don't guide these groups myself; we have an American-Israeli charedi-lite guide for these groups (and a chassidic guide from the Kirya Charedit for the Yiddish-speaking groups). But I often step into the main hall to watch, and to assist with the handling of exotic animals that takes place at the end of each tour. Like all Israelis, these kids are often quite unruly compared with Anglos. And within each group, as with any group, there is a spectrum of personalities - there are the adorable, sweet, polite kids, and there are the ruffians.

Sometimes I wonder if I am dealing with a kid who, ten years down the line, will be throwing rocks at soldiers and religious Zionists. But these children inevitably have a certain measure of respect for the staff of the museum, even though we are not from their communities. And we have impressed (and perhaps surprised) them with our knowledge of animals and Torah. I'm not sure if anyone outside of their communities has ever made such an impression on them before.

And when we show them how to handle the animals, which is a completely new experience for them, we teach them how to interact respectfully with others. These children, with no previous exposure to animals, often don't realize that animals are living creatures with feelings. When they bang on the cage to make the animal move, I ask them if they would like it someone banged on their house, and you can see how they are grasping the concept. When they ask if the turtle or lizard or snake will bite them, I tell them that if they treat the animal gently and with respect, it will reciprocate. And they understand, and they handle the animal more gently.

I don't know how much this blog impacts charedi society. I don't know how much counter-violence rallies impact charedi society. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps the Biblical Museum of Natural History, in the long run, has the gentlest but greatest impact.

We are currently working on taking the museum to the next level, by moving to a much larger building. If you'd like to support our efforts, you can do so at this link. Thank you and yasher koach!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Compliments and Insults

And now for something lighter.

At the Biblical Museum of Natural History, as part of the "Wonders of Creation" exhibit, we have a stunningly beautiful eclectus parrot called Hertzl. His role is to present an opportunity for visitors to pronounce the bracha that the Talmud prescribes on beautiful creatures, Baruch shekacha lo b'olamo, "Blessed is the One Who has such things in His world." This is a berachah that can be pronounced on either beautiful people or beautiful creatures, and the Poskim suggest that a parrot qualifies. Hertzl also talks very well, in both English and Hebrew.

The other weekend, I brought Hertzl home for Shabbos. On Sunday morning, I came downstairs to the kitchen, where Hertzl was in his mobile cage. He looked at me intently, and said, with great deliberation, "Baruch shekacha lo b'olamo."

*  *  *

I was duly elated by Hertzl's compliment, but my ego was suitably deflated later in the day. Someone posted an insult about me online: "Slifkin is an ugly retarded apikores."

And my immediate thought was, "Ugly???"

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Strengthening Emunah: Via Denying Dinosaur Eras, or Sentient Pigs?

This week's Mishpacha magazine has a feature story about the late Rav Moshe Shapiro, through the lens of his leading disciple, Rabbi Reuven Shmelczer. Here is a post from two years ago about Rabbi Shmelczer's book (which is also mentioned in the Mishpacha article, though the article does not mention the story about the sentient pig).

There's a fascinating and disturbing battle taking place about how to strengthen emunah with students. It pits one group of charedi Gedolim against another, and both of them against modern educated people with the capacity for critical thought.

Today I was in a Jewish bookstore in New York, and prominently displayed were two new books on emunah. One was by Rabbi Dovid Saperman of the Ani Maamin Foundation and was entitled Emunah: A Refresher Course. The approbations are from Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and Rav Aharon Feldman. It contained the usual specious "logical" and "scientific" arguments of the sort popularized by the Discovery seminar - the Kuzari argument, the claim that the Torah claims there to be only four animals with one kosher sign and no others have ever been discovered, the claim that Chazal made a supernatural prediction that there are no fish with scales and without fins, etc.

Unlike the Discovery seminar, however, Emunah: A Refresher Course also included extensive pseudo-scientific material attempting to prove that there was no era of dinosaurs; the universe is only 5776 years old, and dinosaurs lived just a few thousand years ago, concurrently with contemporary species. Likewise, there was extensive presentation of kashyas on evolution, arguing that it is false and nonsense. This material all appeared to be from computer scientist Jonathan Ostroff, well known to long-time readers of this blog as a Young Earth Creationist with bizarre debating tactics and even more bizarre beliefs. Rabbi Saperman apparently rates Ostroff as some kind of scientific expert and unhesitatingly accepts all his material. He appears to believe that convincing people that modern science is all wrong will strengthen people's emunah.

The other book that I saw takes a very different approach and indeed was apparently written as a direct response to Rabbi Saperman. It is entitled The Heart of Emunah: The Torah Approach for Conveying Yiddishkeit to our Children, and it is written by none other than Rabbi Ruven Schmelczer. For those who don't recognize that infamous name, Ruven Schmelczer is the person who, along with Leib Pinter and Leib Tropper, engineered the ban on my books. He subsequently wrote a book in opposition to my own, entitled Chaim B'Emunasam, with glowing endorsements from his rebbe Rav Moshe Shapiro, Rav Elya Ber Watchfogel, and numerous other charedi Gedolim who had signed the ban on my books. Chaim B'Emunasam was a masterpiece of intellectual dishonesty (full critique at this link), rivaling Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science as the most dishonest Torah work ever written. Rabbi Schmelczer not only ignored the views of Rishonim and Acharonim which contradicted his claims; he actually re-arranged the words of Rambam in order to entirely change their meaning!

After I printed and distributed a booklet exposing the dishonesty of Rabbi Schmelczer's work, I received reports that Rav Moshe Shapiro's circle was very embarrassed by the whole matter, and claimed that Rabbi Schmelczer was not, in fact, representing Rav Shapiro's positions. (Subsequently Rav Moshe Shapiro himself severely harmed his own reputation, with the police indicting him for instructing one of his followers to beat an old woman half to death, Rav Moshe's denial of any guilt in the crime, but a video then emerging of his giving these exact instructions.) So I was quite intrigued to see Rav Moshe Shapiro again writing a glowing approbation for Rabbi Schmelczer's book, alongside Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Yaakov Hillel and Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler.

As the approbations and introduction to The Heart of Emunah make clear, this book is written specifically to counter works and programs such as those of Rabbi Saperman. Emunah, it says, should not be taught via any kinds of "proofs" or "arguments" based on history, science or philosophy, which can lead to dangerous confusion. Rather, it should be based on emunah peshutah, straightforward simple faith.

That actually sounds quite reasonable, in and of itself, but when Rabbi Schmelczer fleshes out what he means, it becomes very problematic. On p. 33 we are told that "the foundation of emunah is surrendering one's own sechel to those who have acquired sechel haTorah." On p. 71, Rabbi Schmelczer guarantees that one can cure a bone stuck in the throat by placing another bone from the same dish upon the forehead and saying certain Kabbalistic words. He then proceeds to insist that a person is obligated to believe in the existence of salamanders that are formed from fire, mice that are formed from dirt, mermaids and phoenixes. The main thrust of the book is that children must be be brainwashed with emunah peshutah, by having it repeatedly drilled into them, and removing any influence that might cause them to have any questions. Any questions or discussion should be strongly discouraged; the ideal is to accept everything without questioning anything.

The book mixes this message with all sorts of questionable hashkafic dictates, such as that one's non-Jewish "cordial neighbor" lives a life of "transient self-indulgence," and can turn against you "with utmost cruelty," because it is a halachah that Eisav hates Yaakov (p. 219). Chapter 24, "Combatting Disenchantment," addresses those who "claim" to feel disenfranchised from Klal Yisrael, and who have unanswered questions; Rabbi Schmelczer assures his readership that such heretics are simply seeking license to pursue their lusts for corrupt behavior. The possibility that there are other approaches to these issues amongst the Rishonim and Acharonim is entirely negated; when Rabbi Schmelczer discusses the topic of the sun's path at night (p. 368), his extensive Hebrew footnotes entirely ignore all the dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim who saw this topic as demonstrating that the Sages' beliefs about the natural world were not always correct.

Rabbi Schmelczer relates countless stories about the supernatural powers of Gedolim, the truth of miraculous phenomena, and suchlike. He saves the best one, a second-hand story allegedly told by the Chafetz Chaim, for the final chapter. In the city of Shavel (Šiauliai), a pig once forced its way into a shul, went to the ammud, and stood up on its hind legs. Demonstrating a level of intelligence, eyesight, and dexterity not normally seen in this species, it opened up the siddur, and began turning pages. It found its way to a piyut that mentioned pigs, tore that page out of the siddur, and ran out of shul. The rav explained that this pig was a gilgul of Eisav, and that this was a bad sign; a few days later, the entire city was destroyed in a fire. Rabbi Schmelczer concludes by noting that "stories such as these, told by tzaddikim and gedolim who personify trustworthiness.... are proof to our emunah that there is always a spiritual dimension above what we can see and understand."

So, this is the debate between the charedi gedolim. How do we strengthen emunah in our children? Do we give them pseudo-scientific proofs of the truth of Torah, and explain why all the world's scientists are wrong and there was never an age of dinosaurs? Or do we tell them that they have to unquestioningly accept everything, and demonstrate the truths of Torah with tales of sentient pigs?

I wonder how this battle of giants will play out. Personally, I think that for students who are connected to modern knowledge (which is virtually everyone), the healthiest approach is to avoid insisting that they must accept far-fetched claims, and to focus instead on the wonderful experience of Judaism, the significance of Jewish identity, and that which is unquestionably true (yet no less miraculous), such as the return of the Jewish People to the Promised Land.

And if I'm going to inspire people with amazing animals, I prefer elephants and chameleons to mermaids and sentient pigs.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Lion, the Jackals, and the United Nations

Here is an article that was published in yesterday's Jerusalem Post. But first, some great news! In the previous post, I wrote about the need for a new weekly centrist Orthodox magazine that would feature women rather than criminals. One person wrote to me and said that he has the know-how and experience to make it happen, but not the resources. Another person wrote to me and said that he has the resources to make it happen, but not the know-how or experience. Voilà! I made the shidduch, and let's see what happens!

The Lion, the Jackals, and the United Nations

The recent spectacular events at the United Nations with Nikki Haley and the State of Israel were not just a political drama. At another level, there has been a wildlife drama playing out.

In 1755, Voltaire attacked the authenticity of Scripture, referring to the account of Samson capturing three hundred foxes, tying them to fire-brands and setting them to the crops of the Philistines. Voltaire mocked the story, noting that it is impossible to find three hundred foxes at any one time. Foxes are solitary creatures; if one finds a fox, there will not be another anywhere nearby.

But Voltaire was making a fundamental mistake. The creatures that Samson captured were not foxes. The Hebrew word shu’al does not refer to the fox. Instead, it refers to an animal in the same family: the jackal. Whereas foxes are solitary animals, jackals band together in large groups. The reason for the mistranslation was that Biblical scholarship had moved away from the Land of Israel and into Europe, where there were no jackals and people were unfamiliar with them. The animals of the Bible are the animals of the Land of Israel. Translators and readers of the Bible always interpret its animal life in terms of the animals with which they are familiar; but if they are living in the United States or Europe, then the animals with which they are familiar are not necessarily going to be the right animals. It was not foxes that Samson captured, but rather a pack of jackals.

In 1981, the Democratic Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, a former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote an article entitled “Joining the Jackals,” in which he sharply criticized the Carter Administration for supporting an anti-Israel resolution in the UN. The title was borrowed from an earlier Washington Post editorial of the same title, which described the UN as a pack of jackals that shamelessly hounds Israel. Moynihan observed that the Carter Administration’s downfall was brought about by a failed approach to the UN, which was in denial of the innate hostility of the UN towards both the United States and Israel, and which failed to stand up for true moral standards.

Three thousand years ago, Jerusalem became the capital of the Jewish nation of Israel, where it housed the Temple (though the Palestinians and UNESCO continue to deny this simple historical fact). Throughout the exile and dispersion, the Jewish people prayed for the rebuilding of this city, which finally happened with the modern State of Israel. The emblem of the city of Jerusalem is the lion, which appears in last week’s Torah portion as the symbol of the tribe of Judah. Judah was the tribe from which the kings of Israel arose, and was therefore symbolized by the lion, king of beasts. The kings of Israel reigned from the capital city of Jerusalem, which the prophet Isaiah called Ariel, “lion of God.”

When the United States—first Congress in 1995, and then President Trump and Nikki Haley last week—acknowledged Jerusalem as being the capital of Israel, they took on the lion’s cause. And, when they stood against the condemnations of the world, they took on the lion’s courage. Proverbs 30:30 declares that “The lion is the mightiest of animals, and does not turn away before anyone.” The original Hebrew of this verse, velo yashuv mipnei kol, can perhaps more accurately be translated as saying that the lion does not turn away even before everyone. It is not just any individual animal of which the lion is unafraid; it is not even afraid of masses of animals together. Not even a huge pack of jackals. The United States has adopted the lion’s cause, and, like the lion, it has stood unafraid of the jackals.

The Mishnah (Avot 4:15) states, in its common translation, “Be a tail to lions and not a head to foxes.” Yet as with Samson, the animals being mentioned here are not foxes, but rather jackals. Be a tail to lions, and not a head to jackals—it is better to attach oneself to greater entities, even as an insignificant follower, then to be in a leadership position with lowly entities. Guatemala, in stating that it will follow America’s lead and move its embassy to Jerusalem, has recognized this, and several other countries are poised to follow suit. Let us hope that other nations will recognize the wisdom and morality in following the leadership of the lion rather than joining the jackals.

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the founder and director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh,

Happy Pi Day!