Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Elephant Idol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Serial Killers Among Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Ruach HaKodesh, Kangaroos, SUVs and Cloning

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

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

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

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

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

But I don't think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Elephant Idol

Ever have one of those days? I just had two of them. I'm not going to go into the various reasons why they were so lousy - suffice it to...