Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Which Threat Is Scarier?

My two youngest children, ages 10 and 6, had a scary day at school in which everyone was talking about the missiles falling in various parts of Israel. After school, as they were walking home from the bus-stop, a car alarm went off. Unfortunately, they thought it was a missile alert siren. Terrified, they ran to a nearby shul, but it was locked. They stood next to the shul, shaking in fear, until they finally saw people in the streets and decided that it was safe to come home. My wife and I spent the last few hours trying to calm them down and put them to sleep; they are deeply traumatized.

I am crying inside for my children's pain. But personally, I don't feel so scared about missiles, because Beit Shemesh is in a relatively safe region, and in the unlikely event that there is a siren, we will go to our protected room. Furthermore, Israel's massive military advantage means that not only do we have early-warning systems, but we also have ways to shoot missiles down.

I'm personally much more scared about the headline on the front page of The Jerusalem Post today: "Israel Under Threat." Published before the missiles started falling, it's speaking about a different and broader threat: the fact that a rapidly expanding portion of the population does not receive any kind of meaningful secular education. This does not only affect the economy; it will also result in Israel no longer possessing a military advantage. Here's the money quote:
“Being situated in one of the planet’s most dangerous regions, Israel requires a first-world army to simply continue to exist. Maintaining a first-world army requires a first-world economy. But roughly half of Israel’s children (not just the ultra-Orthodox) are receiving a third-world education, and they belong to the fastest growing population streams. As adults, they will only be able to maintain a third-world economy, with all that this entails regarding Israel’s future physical existence."

This is a grave long-term threat to Israel. And it's very difficult to address, because the charedi community is so resistant to providing an education to their children, and because as the charedi community grows, so does their government power.

There is no single or simple solution to this very serious problem. I do have a strategy to partially address some aspects of it, and if there are serious people out there with the resources and desire to do something about it, I would like to meet with them. If you fall into that category, please be in touch; I am flying to the US tomorrow.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Be Our Friend!

Great news for people in the NY/NJ area! We have decided to do a special event in Teaneck, a week from Sunday:

This is an event for those who join the Biblical Museum of Natural History as Friends or Patrons, and I will be presenting various fascinating topics relating to Biblical Natural History, as well as revealing some behind-the-scenes secrets of the museum! (And, yes, there will be some small but very special exotic edibles, though this is not a "food" event.) Please RSVP to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org. I look forward to seeing you!

(If there's interest, we might also repeat the event the next night, in the Five Towns.)

And even if you can't make it, perhaps you'd like to become a Friend or Patron of the Museum? It's a way to really make a difference. Sign up, and I'll give you a call!

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Is Rationalist Judaism Going Extinct?

A few readers asked if Rationalist Judaism is going the way of the woolly mammoth and the dinosaur. They weren't referring to the rationalist school of thought, but rather to this website. As you may have noticed, there has been a virtual absence of posts over the last few weeks.

It's not that I don't have anything to write about. On the contrary; there are a very large number of topics that I would like to write about, including recent claims of heresy-hunting regarding certain educators, new sources regarding science and Torah that have come to light, and much more. In fact, I have an entire folder of ideas and raw material for posts.

The reason for the sharp decline in output is simply this: my responsibilities as director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, in particular with regard to our impending move to our magnificent new home, are overwhelming! It's an incredibly momentous project, which takes up a lot of time, and even more so, my mental and emotional energy.

We are trying to figure out how to expand the team so as to be able to transfer some of what I do, especially the fundraising work (which I find especially taxing), to others. If and when that happens, hopefully I will be able to return to writing more in this forum. Alternately, perhaps there is a way to make my writing this blog more directly beneficial to the museum - I would welcome ideas regarding that.

Meanwhile, if you've appreciated the 1500 posts that I've written over the last ten years, and/or you would like to participate in the amazing work that we are doing at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, please make a contribution at this link: https://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/donate/ We are especially keen to expand our society of Friends and Patrons - the people whose annual donations help with our ongoing subsidized educational programs for many thousands of schoolchildren from across the spectrum of society. Please see https://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/support/ for details!

If you're interested in making a more significant impact and dedicating an exhibit at the museum, please write to me at director@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org - we have some amazing and unique opportunities available!

Note that I will be coming to New Jersey/ New York and then Los Angeles at the end of next week, and I am available for meetings with donors - if you are interested in such a meeting, please be in touch. There will also be an event in Teaneck (and possibly also the Five Towns) for Friends and Patrons of the Museum.

We are also looking to expand our Board of Directors (both for our US and Israel foundations) with serious individuals who would like to contribute resources, guidance and passion to this groundbreaking project. And I would also like to ask all of you for any helpful ideas and suggestions that might have for the development of the museum.

Thank you for your support!

(And if you'd like to be updated as to when the posts here pick up again, you can register by email on the side of this page to receive all posts to your inbox, or write to me and I will register you.)

Friday, November 1, 2019

Riddle Me This

Question: What's fifty cubits wide, thirty cubits high, a hundred cubits long, and is a Biblical home for all kinds of animals?

Answer: The new building of the Biblical Museum of Natural History! (Noah's Ark was three hundred cubits long, not one hundred. But the width and height are identical!)

This is the most amazing thing that I have ever realized!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Behold the Flying Behemoth!

Have you ever seen a hippopotamus soar through the air? The Biblical Behemoth returns to its historic homeland of the Land of Israel, as our new exhibit was loaded yesterdaby crane into the new Biblical Museum of Natural History building. (If you would like to dedicate the Behemoth exhibit, please be in touch!)

(Note that if you receive these blog posts via email, you will not be able to watch the video - you will have to watch on YouTube.)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Are Mammoths Kosher?

There were some fascinating comments that came in, both online and by email, to my previous two posts on mammoths: Woolly Mammoths And The Jews, and The Rabbi And The Mammoth. One particularly intriguing email suggested that, according to some rabbinic opinions, you could actually eat mammoth!

Unlike dinosaurs, which only ever exist today in fossilized form, mammoths are sometimes found preserved whole and frozen in permafrost - including flesh and fur. While the famous story of 250,000 year old mammoth being served at the Explorer's Club in 1951 was a hoax - it was actually turtle meat - it certainly is possible to find such meat, and it seems that people have sometimes eaten it. While it's probably not too healthy, it would certainly be a unique gastronomic experience, like the legendary exotic dinners that we prepare at the Biblical Museum of Natural History (and we are doing one in New York next month!) Might there be a case to be made that it is actually kosher?

The logic goes as follows. Mammoths do not, of course, have split hooves or bring up the cud. But according to some Rabbinic opinions, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the explanation as to why the world appears to contain the remains of prehistoric creatures from before 5780 years ago is that when Hashem created the world, 5780 years ago, He created it complete with these remains. Thus, dinosaurs skeletons are not actually the remnants of dead dinosaurs; instead, they were created by Hashem as skeletons. This view was endorsed by Rabbi Reuven Schmelzer - one of the engineers of the ban on my books - as a "gantz gut pshat," along with others such as Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach.

Accordingly, while the remains of mammoths from 4000 years ago are actually from real mammoths that once walked the earth (and are certainly not kosher), the apparent remains of mammoths from 250,000 years ago are not actually the remnants of creatures that once lived, but were instead created as we see them. In which case, they are not dead animals, they are just like rocks, and they are kosher!

Now, of course, one can come up with a number of rejoinders to this. But I think that the most fundamental reason as to why no anti-science rabbi would take this position regarding mammoths is as follows.

There is a basic difference between Orthodox Jewish young-earthers and Christian young-earthers. Christian young-earthers have a developed doctrine. As mistaken as they may be, they believe that they have a proper scientific case regarding the world being just a few thousand years old. And they develope it and teach it. They go digging for dinosaurs. They even have "creation museums" in which they have models of people and dinosaurs coexisting. This is their position and they are not afraid or ashamed of it; they want to study it and teach it.

The Orthodox Jewish young-earthers are entirely different. They don't want to confront the issue at all. They'll toss out a vague rejoinder to science, such as that the world was created to look old, or that the laws of science were different back then, but they don't really want to delve into any of these positions and have to develop them, and they are not particularly committed to them. That's why in Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's 800 page book about Torah and science, he doesn't even present any suggestion as to when the dinosaurs lived.

And so regarding mammoths, although a rabbi might say that the world was created to look old, complete with fossils, he's not so committed to that view, he's just saying that to have some kind of rejoinder. He's just as ready to say that scientists don't know what they're talking about, or that the laws of science have somehow changed in such a way as to make things look older than they are, or whatever - he's not interested in actually developing a full-blown approach and certainly not in dealing with the actual available evidence.

So you can forget about getting any hechsher on frozen mammoth!

See too this post: Confronting Dinosaurs

Don't forget to visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History this Sukkot, where you can check out our mammoth tooth and tusk! (And there's also a tour tomorrow morning at 11am). Book at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Rabbi and the Mammoth

I can't believe it. In my last post, "Woolly Mammoths and the Jews," I forgot to mention the best bit!

As I wrote, the mammoth tusk that was donated to The Biblical Museum of Natural History came from a woman who found it while going through the belongings of her late father, who was a US Air Force chaplain in Alaska and acquired it there. He was a fan of my work, and therefore she thought it appropriate that it be given to my museum.

But I forgot to mention the best bit!

The other reason why she thought it would be very poetic to give it to the museum is that her father was Rabbi Joshua Wachtfogel. That last name will ring a bell for long-time followers of my work. Rabbi Joshua Wachtfogel was the cousin of none other than Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, one of the primary forces behind the ban on my books, and someone who insists that the universe is 5780 years old!

Luckily, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel can visit the museum and see his cousin's gift without objection, since mammoths lived only 4000 years ago! (We won't tell him that this particular tusk is from Alaska, where mammoths lived much, much longer ago.)

(By the way, I don't believe that it is appropriate to feel smug or make fun of those who prefer to ignore or deny the existence of prehistoric eras. Many, many people choose to ignore facts or scholarly consensuses when these are disturbing to them and go against their worldview.)

Monday, October 7, 2019

Woolly Mammoths and the Jews

In the news today is a story about new research regarding the very last population of woolly mammoths, on a remote Arctic island. Incredibly, these survived until just 4000 years ago - as the story says, "a few hundred years after the Ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid at Giza." And this is good news for the Jews! Or at least, for this Jew.

As I've explained in the past, I have a skeleton in my closet - specifically, various parts of dinosaur skeletons. They stay in my closet at home, rather than going on display at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, because many of our visitors are from the charedi community and many of them would object to displays of creatures that lived longer than 5780 years ago.

But recently we received two separate gifts of two very special specimens. One is the molar tooth of a woolly mammoth, and the other is a section of mammoth tusk. (Interestingly, while it is completely illegal to trade in elephant tusks, there are no such restrictions for mammoth tusks, because mammoths are not endangered.) The tusk has a particularly fascinating story - it was given to us by a woman who found it while going through the belongings of her late father, who was a US army chaplain in Alaska and acquired it there.

Now, since mammoths existed well into the Biblical period, we can display these amazing artifacts in the museum without any problems! We set up them up as part of a new exhibit titled "Wonders From The Earth." I'm currently working on the signage, and I came up with a great tagline: "When The Israelites Went Down To Egypt... Mammoths Roamed The Earth!" If you're coming to visit the museum, look out for it!

Wishing you all a Gmar Chatima Tova!

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Rationalist Tzedakah

You'd think that a mitzvah as basic as tzedakah, charity, would not have anything to do with the primary topics of this forum - rationalism vs. mysticism. But it certainly can!

There are a number of different communal charity organizations in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Some organizations give hand-outs to the many local desperate kollel families which, while alleviating their current hardship, does nothing to change their long-term situation. This is presumably based on the mystical idea that such kollel study is valuable; perhaps even more so than financial self-sufficiency.

But one of them, Lemaan Achai, is the most extraordinary charity organization that I've seen, and has a different approach. Their motto is "smart chessed." When taking on a family, they first have a case worker assess every aspect of the family's situation. Then their goal is to practice charity according to Rambam's principles, whereby the highest level of charity is to rehabilitate the family such that they are independent.

If you're looking for a good, smart cause for your charity shekels/dollars, please consider Lemaan Achai. You can find out more, and donate, via their website at www.lemaanachai.org.

Attention New York - Biblical Feast!

The Biblical Museum of Natural History is thrilled to invite its patrons to an extraordinary educational and gourmet event:

A Biblical Feast of Birds and Beasts

in Lawrence, New York
Featuring an amazing menu of unusual species and foods eaten in the Bible
Accompanied by presentations by museum director Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

Sunday, 17th November 2019

Kashrut supervision: Kaf-K

Price: $500 per couple for Museum Patrons and for Exhibit Donors. Click here for details about becoming a museum patron.
Non-patron seats: $500 per person.
Table of ten: $5000 (includes patronage)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Shana Tova!!

Chag sameach and happy new year! May Hashem answer all our (worthy) prayers!

Thursday, September 26, 2019

"NOW You Tell Me?!"

Rafi Goldmeier, of Life in Israel, translated the following Facebook status that was posted by an Israeli charedi man undergoing a divorce:
This is what I said this morning to the Dayanim in Beis Din at the end of the proceedings regarding how much child support I need to pay:
"You explained very well how much I need to pay as a father responsible for his daughters, and that as of now I do not have a profession but I need to take care to get myself one. You are 100% right. It is my responsibility and I will do everything to fulfill it.
"I only have one question.
"Now you come and tell me this???
"Our entire lives you have educated us that we do not need professions, that we can sit and learn in kollel, we can bring home 1500 NIS per month with ten children and it will be enough and all will be fine. And now suddenly you remember to tell me that a father needs to bring home 1400 NIS per child??
"You, as dayanim who deal with this issue regularly and understand and recognize the problem, have a responsibility to take care that this should change, that children and bochurim should be prepared in advance for the situation in which they will need to support their future children, and not just to wait until the last moment in a crisis to remember suddenly to tell them!"
And they had no answer.
(One of the dayanim joked that the education we give is only valid as long as nobody gets divorced, but he too realized it is not a joke.)
Of course, even without getting divorced, there are many charedim men who get harshly woken up to being woefully unprepared to support their families. And Chazal, forseeing this obvious problem, required parents to ensure that their children can earn a living. Alas, the Gedolim and the MKs don't seem to care.

On another note: I'm going to be packing my trunk and heading to the US in November. I am available for a scholar-in-residence engagement in the tri-State area for the Shabbos of November 16. Preference for Teaneck or the Five Towns! If you are interested, please email me at director@biblicalnaturalhistory.org.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019


This is why I love the National-Religious community in Israel.

Recently, the 21-year-old son of a neighbor of mine called together some of the teenagers from the neighborhood. Most of them are/were madrichim in local youth movements such as Ariel, which teaches them to lead people in various projects. He said to them, "OK: you're going to do something that has major impact. Figure out what." So these teenagers put their heads together to think what they could do. And they came up with: Sabavta!

"Sabavta" is a contraction of Saba and Savta. The tagline is mechubarim ledorot, "connected for generations." It's a project that brings together teenagers and the elderly. The teenagers bring tables, chairs, food (including a stove to make hot drinks), and board games to the park. There, they meet with elderly residents of the neighborhood to play, eat, chat and have fun together!

As my 16-year-old daughter, who is an Ariel madricha, explained to me: "There used to be a stigma about special-needs children; everyone's gotten over that. But there's still something of a stigma about the elderly. So we are working to overcome that and encourage teens to spend time with the elderly."

My dear mother, who is 82 years old, had absolutely zero interest in going. But my daughter dragged her there, and she had the most amazing time. She was so impressed at how the teenagers were so friendly and attentive; one of them even went home to get milk so that she could have a British cup of tea!

Sabavta (see their FaceBook page here) started last week in Ramat Beit Shemesh and is already spreading to other cities in Israel. And Ariel is just one of the many National Religious institutions here in Israel that focus on character development, on Am Yisrael, and on making the world a better place for everyone. Ashrecha Yisrael!

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Spooks, Corbyn, and the Facts of Life

The BBC series Spooks, released in the US under the title MI-5, fictionalized the work of MI-5, the UK's domestic intelligence agency. Spooks ran for ten seasons and received numerous prestigious awards. In contrast to American-style TV shows, Spooks was intended to be less fantasy and more gritty, with a lead character being brutally killed in the second episode.

But there was something very odd about the storylines in this immensely popular show. Who were the villains in Spooks? Who was plotting evil acts of murder and terror?

The rogue's gallery in Spooks included anti-abortion radicals, white supremacist groups, rival British intelligence agents, the CIA, and the Mossad, along with a pro-Israel terror group called "The November Committee." There were virtually never any Islamist terrorist groups - although there were a number of episodes in which such groups were falsely suspected and proved to be innocent.

Yet the real facts are the exact opposite. MI5 monitors some three thousand Islamist extremists living in the UK. Meanwhile, there are only 100 suspected dangerous neo-Nazis and far-right extremists. And the threat from rogue British intelligence groups, the CIA and Mossad is mere fantasy, while "The November Committee" is a fictitious invention. Why invent pro-Israel terror groups for a storyline, when there are pro-Palestinian terror groups that actually do exist?

It's more than a little disturbing that an entire generation of BBC viewers were brainwashed into falsely believing that the threat to Great Britain is from British nationalists, Americans and Jews, rather than from Islamists. But the distortions performed by the BBC were simply reflecting an already existent problem. The United Kingdom suffers from pathological anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment. Immediately after 9/11, there was a grotesque outpouring of anti-American hatred. And Israel is widely perceived as an oppressive colonial regime, rather than as the historic homeland of the Jewish People trying to defend itself against those who wish to wipe it out.

The most prominent example of British pathological anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism is, of course, Jeremy Corbyn, potentially the next prime minister of the UK. He is openly more hostile to the US and to Israel than to actual Islamist terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whom he has described as his "friends" and "brothers." Even worse, he claimed that Hamas "is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region," whereas the reality is that Hamas runs a brutal regime which diverts aid funds into creating rockets to fire at civilians, and shoots the kneecaps of Palestinian dissidents or throws them off rooftops.

Even when condemning the most extreme Islamist atrocities, such as 9/11 and Islamic State, Corbyn always seeks to "balance" it with condemnation of the US or UK. Whether or not Corbyn is antisemitic and makes British Jews feel unsafe pales into insignificance compared to his support for brutal authoritarian regimes and hatred of democratic free societies like the US and Israel. He has even praised Iran, appeared on Iranian state television and called for improving relations with Iran—despite Iran being the number one country seeking to destabilize the world and finance terror.

Fascinatingly, last year the head of MI5 summoned Corbyn to a meeting. Senior officials described the goal of the meeting as trying to explain to Corbyn "the facts of life." They had been "troubled" by his various statements which downplayed Islamist and Russian killings in the UK. Unfortunately the meeting was postponed, due to Corbyn being busy with denying having an antisemitism problem, and it seems that the meeting never took place. Meanwhile, the official historian of MI5 noted that should Corbyn rise to power, it would be a problem for the whole of Western defense.

Even if Corbyn himself loses the election and fades into obscurity, he is only the most extreme example. There is a clear and rampant problem in British society of an inability to recognize the difference between free societies and fear societies, between democracies and tyrannies, between acts of defense and acts of aggression. It's time for everyone to learn about the facts of life.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Denying Reality

A very strange thing happened in the Israel elections. Eighty thousand people voted for Itamar Ben Gvir's Otzma party, which failed to pass the threshold.

It's not strange that Otzma failed to pass the threshold. That was completely obvious and predictable. What's very strange is that all these people voted for Otzma, even though it was completely obvious and predictable that they wouldn't pass the threshold.

Getting into the Knesset requires about 140,000 votes. In 2013 Otzma ran independently and received just 66,775 votes. In the previous elections, just a few months ago, Ben Gvir was running along with Smotrich (Ichud HaYemin) and Peretz (Bayit Yehudi) and received 160,000 votes. In this election, Otzma was running without Ichud HaYemin and Bayit Yehudi. How on earth did they think that they were going to more than double their numbers and get another eighty thousand missing votes?!

Yes, there were some polls that showed them clearing the thresholds. But polls are based on a very small sample size and are notoriously inaccurate, with a margin of error that makes all the difference. The numbers just weren't sufficient. Zehut and Noam, showing a rare streak of realism, pulled out, and Otzma had hopes of getting some of their votes; but there was no way that Otzma was going to get all or even most of those voters, and Noam probably had very few to begin with.)

In the run-up to the elections, I saw a lot of Otzma voters say the most absurd things. In response to people pointing out that they just didn't have the numbers, they replied "You think you're a prophet?! God decides!" No, I don't need to be a prophet; I am reading the past and present, not the future. And no, God doesn't decide which party people vote for. They made entirely irrelevant claims like, "If everyone who is sympathetic to our cause votes for us, then we will get in!" They seemed to be unaware that the point is that there aren't that many people who are sympathetic to their cause, and even with those who are, the fact is that many of them are not actually going to vote for Otzma. It was a complete detachment from reality. Today, many of them are saying that they would have gotten in, were it not for the fact that so many people didn't vote for them. Well, yes. That's how it works.

Some Otzma voters claimed that they didn't care about whether their party would get in or not. Some said that it was just about showing the public how many people are passionate about this cause. Well, they showed the public that there aren't very many!

Several others, some of whom I know to be very fine people, said that they regardless of Otzma's low (I would say zero) chances of getting in, they wanted to "vote their conscience." Very noble. Very admirable. Except that it's completely ridiculous.

Throwing away your vote in order to "vote your conscience" is just silly. The only reasonable excuse for ever encouraging people to throw away their vote is if the election results are truly insignificant either way, which is rarely anyone's perspective. The value of democracies is that you can influence the direction of the country. You can bring about good and prevent evil. You can encourage wise decisions and discourage bad ones. Yes, you have to compromise some of your values and work with people that you disagree with. But by doing so, you are able to exert influence on the bigger issues. You can prevent people from making well-meaning but foolish mistakes that can have absolutely catastrophic consequences. This is real life. Catastrophic consequences can mean thousands of people get killed. 

Now, in the previous elections, I also voted for a party that did not pass the threshold (Yamin HaChadash). But Yamin HaChadash learned the lesson that they just didn't have enough numbers (even though they had far more than Otzma) and so they pulled out. Even Zehut and Noam pulled out. So why didn't Otzma pull out? And why are they still not giving up? What pushed me to write this post was a comment that I saw this morning. Incredibly, an Otzma voter said that next time, they will have even more people and they will get in! Why are their voters so blind to the electoral reality?

The answer appears to be that these are people who are accustomed to ignoring reality. Otzma voters are ideologues whose entire political worldview is one that is based on ignoring reality. The Israeli Left ignored reality during the Rabin/Peres years; most of these people have since learned from their mistakes and left the Left. The extreme right is still ignoring reality.

You can talk all you want about how this land is rightfully ours and about how the Palestinians are our enemy and about how nations have historically always conquered and expelled their enemies and about how God helped the Maccabees. But the reality of today just doesn't work that way. (And it's also the case that not every Palestinian is evil!) No, Israel can't just carpet-bomb Gaza. Israel can't fight wars "without negotiations, without concessions and without compromises” (to quote the Otzma platform). Israel cannot do whatever it wants. There are other countries in the world, there are political realities, and Israel has to live with them. (For those who need convincing of this point, I strongly recommend reading Yehuda Avner's book The Prime Ministers.)

It's not nice to gloat over people whose party didn't do well and rub salt into the wound. But in this case there is an important lesson that they should learn. The only people willing to ignore reality and throw their votes away are people who vote for a platform that ignores reality. It's foolish, it's irresponsible, and it's morally wrong.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Beast Masters and Snake Charmers

I've been accused of various sins, but recently I was accused of something that was not only a novelty for me - it's a sin that I've never heard anyone being accused of!

The charge from a museum visitor was that I am guilty of "chover chaver." That's a curious prohibition, mentioned in Devarim 18:11. Rashi defines it as "someone who gathers snakes or scorpions or other wild animals into one place." I do all three - QED!

Of course, creating a zoo or a Biblical Museum of Natural History is not what the Torah is talking about. As the context of the verse makes abundantly clear, it's talking about gathering these animals via incantations. It's not referring to purchasing them from breeders!

Now, as with all prohibitions relating to the apparently supernatural, the meaning of this is subject to the famous medieval dispute between rationalists and mystics. Rambam, representing the rationalist approach, stated emphatically that there is no such thing as magic, and that the Torah prohibits these things because they are folly. The mystical approach, on the other hand, maintains that these practices work, but they are forbidden.

With either approach, it is a little difficult to understand exactly why this is prohibited. What's so terrible about someone controlling animal behavior, or even mistakenly believing/ fooling people into thinking that he can? It is said that King Shlomo "knew the language of the animals" - didn't he ever tell them to do anything? It seems that a precise understanding of the nature of this practice has been lost in the mists of history.

While researching this topic, I came across something intriguing. Rambam, in his commentary to Avos 2:10, discusses how wise men reject the efforts of those who try to falsely ingratiate themselves with them. He says, "They will not listen to the voice of a charmer, like the seraf (a type of snake) does not listen to it, as it stated (Psalms 58:6), "Which does not hear the voice of charmers."

But is the verse saying that this snake cannot be charmed? If we look at the full context of the verse, it states as follows:

"The wicked have been corrupt since birth; liars from the womb, they have gone astray. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a serpent stopping its ears, so as not to hear the voice of the charmer, or the enchanter with cunning spells."

The verses are not saying that snakes in general cannot be charmed; they are speaking about how the wicked are like a figurative snake which has its ears stopped up, and therefore cannot be charmed. But Rambam seems to be quoting the verse as saying that a snake cannot be charmed. Did he somehow read these verses that way? Or was he simply short-handedly referring to a snake which has its ears stopped up?

I'm wondering if Rambam was of the view that snake-charming is like chover chever - a deceptive practice that does not actually work. In fact, contemporary science says that it is only partially deceptive. The snake does not actually hear the sound of the instrument, since it lacks an outer ear, though it does perhaps sense the vibrations of the sound. Still, the key to what is happening is the movement of the charmer. He is not hypnotizing the snake, per se; rather, he encouraging it to follow certain patterns of natural behavior when faced with a threat - in this case, the instrument.

(As to how to explain the verses, which imply that snakes are charmed by the sounds that they hear, that would simply be another case of "the Torah speaking in the language of man.")

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Rabbi Phillips Responds

It's not the norm to give a guest post to someone responding to a review, but I've decided to do so, since notwithstanding my criticisms of Rabbi Phillips' book, I think that his heart is in the right place. I'm not going to write a response to his response; I stand by what I wrote, which I think that his response somewhat mischaracterizes. I invited people to read both his book and my review and to draw their own conclusions. (I do agree that my review focused on only a small part of his book.)


Firstly, I would like to thank Rabbi Slifkin for taking the time to read and review my book, Judaism Reclaimed, which he received only a few days ago. I am also very grateful for the opportunity that he has given me to write a response to this review on his entertaining and valuable blog.

From the outset, R’ Slifkin seeks to pigeonhole the book as “charedi” or “non-charedi”. Anyone familiar with me would know that this is likely to be an extremely challenging task; while I draw inspiration from both Haredi and Modern-Orthodox thought, I do not subscribe exclusively to either and I think my book reflects that by attempting to rise above the well-trodden, often petty, disputes between these two worlds when analysing fundamental questions of Jewish philosophy and theology. To this end I specifically sought approbations from Rabbinic figures in both worlds with one of them, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, also meeting with me to provide very helpful guidance and advice.

Unfortunately, R’ Slifkin’s preference to see everything in black and white, colours the rest of his review of my book which he seeks to depict (and presumably discredit) as “charedi apologetics”. This leads to some surprising results. A few selected points:

R’ Slifkin categorises my responses as “weak apologetics... comforting for Yeshiva students who have little capacity for critical thought or exposure to contemporary works”.
However, even a cursory glance at the modern sources I draw upon in these chapters will reveal that they are entirely non-Charedi. I suspect that Professor Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University – whose work was strongly recommended to me by Rabbi Sacks – as well as R’ Mordechai Breuer and R’ Amnon Bazak would be most surprised to read R’ Slifkin’s critique and categorisation of their views.

R’ Slifkin appears to have mistaken my analysis of Rambam’s linguistic theory for an endorsement of Rambam’s position against that of his disputants – a matter on which I do not take a stand. I was simply seeking to explain a much-derided and, I think, little understood statement of Rambam and in the process to propose some fascinating parallels (and distinctions) between Rambam’s theory of linguistics and that of George Orwell in 1984. I was very much helped in this chapter by the late Professor Susan Rothstein – a world expert in comparative linguistics and a disciple of Noam Chomsky.

On this subject, which is clearly close to R’ Slifkin’s heart, he appears to have been strongly influenced by my “copious citations” of his old nemesis, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, with whom he attempts to taint me by association. In fact, of the five (exclusively brief footnote) mentions of R’ Meiselman in my chapter on Torah and Science one is to dispute him, three are merely brief citations together with a citation of R’ Slifkin’s counter-argument – and only one is supportive.
More seriously however, R’ Slifkin has fundamentally misrepresented the greater purpose of this chapter: it deliberately seeks to avoid the much-debated specifics over Torah and science (specifics which are typically relegated to footnote references) and instead analyses the philosophy of science. Specifically, it examines the cautious and nuanced approaches taken by Rambam to the apparent clash between Torah and (now defunct) science of his day, and then asks how Rambam would approach such an apparent clash in today’s circumstances. No conclusion is offered because the chapter focuses on theological methodology rather than specific questions. In fact, the chapter concludes with the thoughts of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who read and enjoyed the essay. Curiously, in his review, R’ Slifkin emphasised how the opinions of him and R’ Sacks on Torah and Science were “essentially…the same”. 

While I expected R’ Slifkin to leap to the defence of his friend Professor Marc Shapiro, his enthusiastic branding of my analysis “conventionally naive/charedi” misses some important points:
1) My primary argument is based on the work a leading scholar in the field of Jewish thought, Professor Joseph Dan who is not religiously observant, let alone Haredi. Dan writes (among other things) that even medieval Rabbinic statements which appear powerfully to endorse belief in a corporeal deity should not be understood to represent “belief in the literal veracity of these descriptions…they represent the maximum that can be conveyed concerning God’s essence and appearance, and that any further inquiry cannot lead to valid conclusions. God chose to reveal to us in the scriptures whatever is found in them: man should be satisfied with that, and ask no more questions. It is not that Rabbi Moshe Taku believed in an anthropomorphic God; most probably he did not”.
While some may dispute Professor Dan’s conclusions, classifying my development of his hypothesis as naive and charedi is disingenuous, offensive and may reflect an agenda. (I similarly question Shapiro’s omission of Professor Dan’s conclusions – especially as he cites Dan approvingly elsewhere in his book).
2) My critique of Shapiro’s presentation of sources is limited to the first two chapters of his book. I believe that I have shown that the sources in these chapters have systematically been misrepresented and taken out of context and therefore do great damage to his argument there. This response is obviously not the place to regurgitate them; rather, it is for readers to make up their own minds (anyone who is interested but does not want to buy the whole book can contact me privately for a copy of this important chapter).
3) Regarding widespread Rabbinic acceptance of the entirety of Rambam’s 13 principles, I don’t think it’s controversial to maintain that the Rabbinic consensus today allows e.g. prayer to angels (many will be reciting the machnisei rachamim supplication in selichot starting motzei Shabbat – a prayer that, personally, I omit).
4) “Phillips makes the not-uncommon mistake of misinterpreting the book to be saying that anyone is entitled to believe anything.” Does it not? See p117 of Marc Shapiro’s book.

My discussion in this essay is built upon the writings on R’ Jonathan Sacks and Professor Joshua Berman, once again mischaracterised as “charedi/naive apologetics”. The review of my discussion of whether the Torah’s accounts should be rendered literally appears only to have seen half the essay and therefore completely misrepresents my argument (the reviewer appears to have been distracted once again by the menacing presence of R’ Meiselman’s name in a footnote – cited very much as a sidepoint).

In short, Judaism Reclaimed has nothing to do with R’ Slifkin’s depiction of it as an exercise in “Charedi apologetics”. Furthermore, while R’ Slifkin has understandably focused on the particular chapters which coincide with his areas of interest and expertise, these represent only a small proportion of the overall book – perhaps 10 out of 70 essays. Readers of the review should be aware that the book discusses many profound and delicately formulated ideas in Jewish philosophy which were the subject of glowing endorsements from R’ Jonathan Sacks (see www.judaismreclaimed.com) and R’ Gil Student (on his Facebook page last week).
R’ Slifkin has written extensively over the years, providing us with many treasured insights and valuable reviews. I therefore look forward to reading his further considered comments, once he has had time to read and reflect upon the book as a whole, and to digest the full flavour of this unique and curious cholent.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Voting Realistically

In my post of last week, I argued for voting strategically instead of ideologically. Ideologically, I identify with the normative dati camp. But there is an enormous problem with the charedi world growing exponentially and yet detracting from the economy. And from a security perspective, there didn't seem to be any significant difference between the main parties. So I thought that it would be strategically wise to vote for a party that would exclude UTJ and Shas from the coalition, and force a change in the charedi education system.

I have since come to a different realization. First, it is also plausible that either Ganz or Lieberman would be willing to sit with UTJ and Shas in the coalition, notwithstanding some of their past statements. Second, there is just as plausible a case to be made that an approach such as that of Yemin HaChadash would do more to ensure education for charedim and integrate them into the workforce than the hostile or even disinterested approach of others. In addition, I decided that a Ganz-led government seems to be a bit more of a security risk than I had previously considered.

Basically, there are all kinds of speculative arguments that can be made, and no absolutely clear way to see how the problem will be solved, nor who is best equipped or most motivated to solve it. So instead of speculative strategic voting, I might as well just vote for the party whose values I most strongly identify with. Which is the one that I perceive as having a reality-based approach to security, strong Jewish values, a desire to improve the lives of as many people as possible, and a strategy to do that. To my mind, this is best accomplished by Yamina. (It has some people in it that I am really not enthusiastic about, but every party is like that.)

For those who are still undecided - as long as you're voting for a Zionist party, then no matter which one it is, I urge you to go and vote! And don't forget to also take advantage of the day to visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History; we have an English tour at 10am and a Hebrew tour at 11:30. Write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org to book!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Curious Cholent

Books about Judaism typically fall into two categories. Charedi books feature rabbinic approbations, generally quote only from sources that are charedi-approved, stay far away from academic scholarship (especially in Jewish studies), and anachronistically read contemporary approaches into ancient writings. Non-charedi books do not feature rabbinic approbations, freely quote from any source, respect academic scholarship, and feel no need to make ancient writings conform with contemporary values.

A new book by Rabbi Shmuel Phillips, Judaism Reclaimed (Mosaica Press 2019) left me confused. It is a curious mixture of a charedi and a non-charedi work. The book presents itself as a work of theology and philosophy, primarily based on Rambam and Rav Hirsch, and loosely tied in to the weekly parashah. It features rabbinic approbations, though they are a little diverse - one is from Rav Leff, who has bona fide charedi credentials, and another is from Lord Rabbi Sacks, who despite being probably the most important rabbi living today, most certainly does not have charedi credentials. The book quotes from a wide range of sources, including plenty of academic Jewish works (sometimes positively, sometimes to criticize). It anachronistically reads contemporary approaches into ancient writings, but it also presents an openness to ideas that is not found in charedi works. It observes that the rationalist and mystical approaches are two long-standing streams of thought, both legitimate - which, while obviously true, is not something that the charedi world generally acknowledges - and yet its stated presentation of the rationalist approach is sometimes accurate and sometimes falls well short.

Let me give some examples. A sub-text of the book is challenging the works of various contemporary Jewish academics, in particular Prof. Marc Shapiro and Prof. Menachem Kellner. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 seek to critique Shapiro's The Limits Of Orthodox Theology, which famously shows how many of Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith were disputed by prestigious rabbinic authorities. Phillips makes the not-uncommon mistake of misinterpreting the book to be saying that anyone is entitled to believe anything. He also challenges some of Shapiro's readings of his sources, but in a book that presents as many sources as Shapiro's does, that hardly suffices to negate the broader point. Anyway, Phillips concludes that there is widespread acceptance of at least eleven of Rambam's Thirteen Principles, and these are therefore halachically binding. "At least eleven"?! Surely there is no charedi rabbinic authority who would say that you can settle for eleven!

Chapter 22 (and 25) presents Rambam's approach to Lashon HaKodesh. Phillips accurately presents Rambam's view that Hebrew is described as "the Holy Tongue" not because its letters have mystical powers that were used to create the universe, but rather simply because it contains no obscene words. Phillips further expounds on this approach in order to make it more palatable. Still, as he records in a footnote, even some of Rambam's defenders were fiercely critical of this. And I'm not sure if everyone realizes this, but it's an approach which pretty much negates the entirety of kabbalah, and dismisses all the great rabbinic authorities who produced extensive works based on mysticism. In a work that claims that various medieval beliefs have been "paskened away," it's astonishing to see one of Rambam's most radical views being presented as a legitimate approach.

Yet in other areas, the book is more conventionally charedi/ naive. In addressing the issue of classical and medieval authorities holding views that are anathema by contemporary standards, in particular regarding the corporeality of God, Phillips clearly regards this as an religiously unacceptable historic possibility, and marshals various arguments to that effect. But he neglects to address, or unconvincingly downplays, certain important evidence to the contrary. For example, there is the testimony of R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles, who wrote that “the majority of the scholars in France were magshimim”; there is the letter of Ramban, who expresses dismay at reports that various French Torah scholars opposed Rambam for his belief that God is incorporeal; and there is the testimony of Riaz that there were various scholars who believed that God is made of an ethereal substance in gigantic human form and that they should not be condemned for it since, he says, some of Chazal were of the same view!

Phillip's defense of the Kuzari Argument, and rebuttals of contemporary academic Bible scholarship, are likewise weak apologetics. They will no doubt sound very comforting for yeshivah graduates who have little capacity for critical thought or exposure to contemporary works, but for those who are better read and more intellectually honest, his arguments will come across as naive. It should be noted that in the first chapter, Phillips says that "it would be arrogant to imagine that I have fully resolved any of the profound and complex questions which will be discussed in the upcoming pages, many of which are deserving of a whole book in their own right." Indeed.

When it comes to Torah/science topics, Phillips again presents a curious blend of theological openness with traditionalist irrationality. He gives full voice to the idea that "the Torah's accounts of early history use prevalent ancient myths as a medium through which to impart Divine truths and values" (p. 256), which in a footnote he observes would apply "in particular" to "the first eleven chapters of the Torah." He references Umberto Cassuto, R. Chaim Navon, my own book, and especially Rabbi Sacks' The Great Partnership (which essentially presents the same approach as my own book, albeit with less resultant charedi fanfare). Amazing!

Yet Phillips proceeds to state that "even if one were to accept the theological legitimacy of such a detached, non-literal approach to the Torah's early narrative" (which he surely does, based on his presentation of it), it is "nevertheless unnecessary." And why is that? Because, as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman says, modern science is completely unreliable about such things! Phillips refers us to chapter 66, where he approvingly cites Meiselman's claim that historical science projects untestable hypotheses to the distant past, when the constants of nature may have been different. Alas, he seems completely unaware that this utterly ridiculous idea does not disprove the existence of an age of dinosaurs, and nor does it challenge the evidence against a global flood. And in general, his copious references to Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science - surely one of the most intellectually dishonest, anti-scientific works ever published - does not reflect well on him.

In conclusion, it's difficult to pass an absolute verdict on Judaism Reclaimed, because it depends on who's reading it. People who are already well-read and intellectually open will be turned off by many aspects of it, and it contains a lot of specious arguments. On the other hand, for yeshivish people who are not used to reading books without haskamos, this book will open their minds in valuable ways.

Friday, September 13, 2019

...And Now I'm Still Confused

The last post, "Voting Strategically," garnered a lot of feedback. Some people rejected the premise of the post, and insisted that there is no serious threat to the country from charedim not receiving an education. But the numbers and facts show otherwise. The organic changes that are happening in charedi society are way too slow and too small to make enough of a difference.

Others agreed with the problem. However, they argued, reasonably convincingly, that voting Blue-And-White, or Yisrael Beytenu, won't help. Both of those parties will be equally happy to change what they've previously said and bring UTJ into the coalition. And even if they don't, they are unlikely to be able to change anything in charedi society,

Still others pointed out that although BW certainly aren't leftists on security, there is still quite a bit of difference between Likud and BW. Ganz still believes that the Gaza disengagement was a good move. And with absolutely zero experience in public office, he is not qualified to take on the extraordinarily challenging job of prime minister.

And so I still don't know who to vote for. But everyone should keep in mind this paragraph from Ben-David's article about the charedi community:
"If a population group this large continues to exercise considerable influence on the direction and amplitude of flows from the government faucet in a manner that only further enhances their exponential growth, while concurrently depriving their children of the vital tools necessary for integration into a competitive global economy and a modern society, Israel will cease to exist."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Voting Strategically

For the last few weeks I haven't been able to decide who to vote for. Finally, I figured it out. There's a party whose ideals I agree with, and whose leadership I respect.

But I'm not going to vote for them. Instead, I'm going to vote for a party whose ideals I don't agree with, led by people who I don't respect.

Because of the strange way that Israel's electoral system works, I think that this is strategically the correct move. Allow me to explain.

The party whose ideals I do agree with, with the leaders that I do respect, is Bayit Yehudi (now part of Yamina). But the problem with the religious right wing receiving a lot of votes is that the coalition that Bibi would build with them includes Shas and UTJ. And this means nothing less than the gradual destruction of the State of Israel.

Those sound like crazy, extreme words. But it's all based on simple math and measurable facts. I cannot strongly enough urge everyone to read a terrifying article, titled Demography, Democracy and Delusions, just published by Prof. Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy who heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. It's important to read the article in its entirety, but here are some highlights. First, spelling out the basics:
"...The next few years will not only determine Israel’s future character but also whether or not the country will even exist for our grandchildren. Life is not a computer game. It’s not possible to click “undo” or “reset” in the future if it turns out that we messed up today. When those who threaten our very existence are plowing ahead in their efforts to obtain game-changing weapons, our national security will continue to require that Israel have a first world army, and that’s contingent on having a first world economy. "
That's an indisputable, basic fact. Unfortunately, many people do not recognize that having a first world economy is not about living a materially comfortable lifestyle - it's required in order for this tiny country to survive. (In the article, he explains at greater length why this is the case.)
"Israel’s future ability to maintain a first world economy is being determined in the country’s schools today. Only a very small portion of Israeli society belongs to the hi-tech, the universities, and the other parts of the Start-Up Nation. Most of the country’s population is not receiving either the tools or the conditions to work in a modern society – and it has been dragging down the entire country since the 1970s."
Also an indisputable fact. The notion that charedim can today nevertheless adapt later in life, via various "catch-up" programs, is a myth. It's too little, too late. And those programs have an astonishing 75% drop-out rate.
Next comes a point that many people don't even realize at all:
"The implication of Israel’s multi-decade retreat from the leading countries is reflected in large and increasing gaps between what Israel’s most educated are able to earn abroad versus their earning possibilities in Israel. Just a very small portion of society has been responsible for keeping Israel in the first world. If a critical mass from this group decides to emigrate, the gap between the leading countries and Israel that has been steadily growing over the past forty years will be blasted to the heavens with the force of a booster rocket."
Modern Israelis - the ones who ensure that Israel's economy and army keep it alive - are not going to hang around while the country turns into Bnei Brak or even Beit Shemesh. They'll leave, and the country will not survive.

The goal of chareidi politicians is short-term voter appeasement via giving them cash handouts and preventing any societal change, in particular in the field of education. Consequently, they are dragging down charedi society. But even worse, they will take down the rest of the country with them:
"If a population group this large continues to exercise considerable influence on the direction and amplitude of flows from the government faucet in a manner that only further enhances their exponential growth, while concurrently depriving their children of the vital tools necessary for integration into a competitive global economy and a modern society, Israel will cease to exist."
Lest you think that only a secular hater of charedim could talk this way, I would like to stress that I personally know people in charedi society who think exactly the same way. And no less a person than Yonasan Rosenblum, one of the premiere spokesmen in the charedi world for decades, also stated it explicitly. Noting that "20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks," he asked “who will fund the maintenance of this army if Israeli society is poor?” He also notes that “the modern economy puts a high premium on education, and ever more jobs require academic or vocational training of some kind.” Of course he couldn't spell out the consequences of nothing significantly changing, but they are exactly as Ben-David said: Israel will cease to exist.

That is the single most relevant issue in these elections. On security matters, there is no significant difference between any of the large parties, because there is no left wing to speak of any more (due to the Second Intifada and the disaster of the Gaza disengagement). The only significant issue is whether there will be a religious right-wing government with Shas and UTJ, or a national unity government with Likud and Blue-And-White. The latter will also include some smaller parties - perhaps Yisrael Beiteinu (Avigdor Lieberman), perhaps Bayit Yehudi.

It's the latter option that is crucial to implement now, in order that the country will still exist twenty years from now. The way to help it happen is to vote either Blue-And-White or Yisrael Beiteinu (which strongly advocates for a national unity government and will not join a coalition with UTJ). And so, much as I dislike both of these parties, I will be voting for one of them. I urge everyone to put aside their emotions and to think about what the facts state about the long-term survival of our precious country.

For further reading:
Demography, Democracy, and Delusions
Rosenblum: We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Leadership Disconnect

Which rabbinic leadership do you follow?

A while ago I was surprised to see two major Jewish organizations feting R. Chaim Kanievsky as being "the Gadol HaDor." Now, of course there are countless people who would disagree with this assessment, such as various chassidim and sefardim and dati'im and followers of R. Shmuel Auerbach and so on. But there was a different reason for my surprise.

The reason for my surprise was that both of these organizations engage in activities of which R. Chaim would undoubtedly disapprove. R. Chaim, having lived his life in the Beis HaMidrash of Bnei Brak, has a very conservative Israeli charedi worldview.

I reached out to a director of one of these organizations, and he admitted this to me. He said that they are well aware that he would disapprove of various of their practices. But, he continued, they would not able to function if they adhered to his worldview, and so they do not seek his guidance.

To my mind, this was rather odd. You are claiming that he is the greatest Torah authority in the world, the wisest of men, and yet you do not think that he has the wisdom to be able to give you remotely suitable guidance?

It's a real tragedy. There are rabbinic leaders who are of a different worldview, and who would understand the situations faced by these organizations, and who would be able to address them. But they do not have long white beards, or they wear kippot serugot, and so these organizations will not fete them as rabbinic celebrities.

One of the benefits of the controversial ban on my books was that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people realized that those to whom they had looked up to as their rabbinic leaders were operating with an entirely different worldview from their own. Some of these people had the strength and opportunity to seek different rabbinic leadership. They were much better off as a result.

It's a good idea for everyone to figure out and to be honest with themselves about what kind of rabbinic leadership they need, and not to be embarrassed to seek it out.

(See too this post: Who Is A Gadol?)

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Dances with Facts

My recent trip to the beautiful scenery of Wyoming made me remember the award-winning 1990 film Dances With Wolves, which was partially filmed there. At the time, it was one of my favorite movies. It had gorgeous cinematography and a hauntingly beautiful orchestral soundtrack. But what particularly moved me at the time, along with audiences worldwide, was the powerful story about how a Union Army soldier, played by Kevin Costner, joins a tribe of Sioux Indians. The rest of the Union Army are shown to be crazed, coarse and greedy, while the Sioux are a peaceful, dignified, nature-loving tribe. The goal of the film is to make one ashamed to be a White American.

Yet the real facts of history are nothing like the scenario portrayed in Dances With Wolves.

The Sioux Indians, along with the Comanche and many other Native American tribes, were just as rapacious as imperialistic white governments. They just lacked the power to do anything much more than stealing horses from other tribes whenever they could. And the Sioux in particular were appallingly brutal. The torture that they would inflict on captives that they took - men, women, and children - were horrifically brutal. (The details are too disturbing for me to relate, but you can read about them on Wikipedia.) Needless to say, there is no record of any Union soldier ever becoming a Sioux - why on earth would anyone do something like that?!

The myth of indigenous non-white natives being gentle pacifist environmentalists is one that is eagerly adopted today by many Israelopathic enemies of the Jewish State. What's staggering is the blatant falsification of facts in which they engage. And we're not talking about dancing with history of 150 years ago - this is falsifying the reality of today, in a way that is so obviously utterly false, it's amazing that they can get away with it.

Recently, CNN's Jake Tapper pointed out that if Trump is to be blamed for incendiary rhetoric that incites white supremacists, then Arab and Palestinian leadership are at least as much to be blamed for their rhetoric which incites Hamas or other Palestinians to murder Israeli teenagers at a pizzeria. Tlaib responded as follows:
"Comparing Palestinian human rights advocates to terrorist white nationalists is fundamentally a lie. Palestinians want equality, human dignity & to stop the imprisonment of children. White supremacy is calling for the *domination* of one race w/ the use of violence."
A Palestinian "human rights advocate."
Incredible! She is describing terrorists who stab civilians to death as being "human rights advocates who want equality, human dignity & to stop the imprisonment of children." I am astounded that this appalling perversion did not receive more press coverage.

Meanwhile, in Ha'Aretz, Gideon Levy responds to a variety of negative comments about Arabs and Palestinian culture, some of which were racist and also false, but others of which were largely or entirely true. Levy, in an article titled "If There's Such A Thing As A Murderous Culture, Then It Exists In Israel," makes claims and arguments that are simply ludicrous:
"We examined the past decade; those murderous, bloodletting Palestinians, have since January 2009 killed 190 Israelis. How many Palestinians were killed by Israel, the seeker of peace and goodness, which will never have anything culturally in common with the Arabs? Some 3,500. Israel was 18 times more murderous. Was it for sport? Erotic pleasure? Of course not, but the blood speaks: Israel draws far more of it.... If there’s a culture of killing, it actually exists in Israel."
This is absurd. The number of people killed on each side has absolutely no relevance to the morality of each side. The only relevant statistic is how many people were killed in defense, and how many in offense. Tellingly, if you compare the percentage of Palestinians killed who were men between 18 and 40, compared to the percentage of Israelis killed who were in that category, the results are very revealing. The Palestinian fatalities are mostly combatants; the Israeli fatalities are mostly not. And Israel most certainly does not have a "culture of killing" - from personal experience, I can point to my nephew, who was decorated by the IDF for neutralizing a terrorist and did not kill him. Israel kills where necessary, and most certainly does not celebrate it.

Levy then doubles down on his absurdity with an opposite claim about the Palestinians:
"The Palestinian people, on the other hand, are one of the most restrained people in history in its violent resistance to occupation and injustice."
"One of the most restrained people in history"?! Stabbing women and children to death, and celebrating those who do such things, is "restrained"?!

Such slanderous nonsense is eagerly lapped up by many Westerners who grew up with Dances With Wolves, Avatar, Spooks and other such fiction. All of these don't merely dance around with historical facts - they completely invert them. They have helped brainwash people into falsifying both the past and the present.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

This Actually WAS My First Rodeo

It would have been a perfect opportunity to use the aphorism "this ain't my first rodeo," but that would not have been accurate, because it was actually was my first rodeo.

Last week, while enjoying the wonder and beauty of Wyoming with my wife's family, one of the items on the agenda was a rodeo. I didn't have a very clear idea of what a rodeo is; they weren't so common in Manchester, where I grew up. But I knew that it was vaguely something to do with cowboys and horses and cattle, and it didn't sound very appealing. So instead, I begged off joining and instead drove out with a friend to Moose Wyoming, to look for a moose in Wyoming.

We found a moose, a big bull with enormous antlers, and it was magical. There were about twenty of us watching this magnificent animal grazing the vegetation by the river. As the sun set, I got a text that the rodeo was already well under way and my family really wanted me to join them. So I reluctantly paid farewell to the marvelous moose and set out for the rodeo.

Now, there are some people who say that rodeos are appalling places of cruelty, in which animals are tortured in order to make them act abnormally, and where they suffer terrible stress and injury. There are other people who say that rodeos do not involve any animal cruelty at all, and are simply demonstrations of great skills. After seeing this rodeo, my impression is that both these extremes are incorrect, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle - but I'm not sure exactly where.

Because I arrived very late, I missed many of the competitions, such as the calf-lassoing. As I arrived, there was an extraordinarily skilled horse-riding competition taking place, in which young girls (some looked no older than 12) would ride their horses in a complex route which involved tight turns around a barrel, in the fastest time possible. It was breathtaking so see this maneuvers, and I quickly got caught up in the cheering and excitement of the event.

Then came the bull riding.

I hadn't been following the announcements and I wasn't prepared for what was coming. Several cowboys were waiting by a gate in the arena. Suddenly one of them yanked open the gate with a rope. About a ton of snorting, rampaging fury came hurtling out, bucking up and down furiously. The cowboy on his back was clutching on valiantly, but was being tossed around like a puppet. After a few seconds, the inevitable happened, and the cowboy was hurled off, sailing gracefully through the air before crashing into the ground. I caught it all on video, and you can watch it here: (those reading this blog via email subscription will have to open it in their web browser)

This happened again and again, sometimes with young teenagers riding smaller bulls. I was a little confused as to what was actually exactly going on, in terms of animal behavior. So afterwards, I re-watched my videos carefully, and did a little research.

The first thing that struck me as odd was that the bulls appeared to be in a frenzy of rage, the kind of thing that is normally provoked by extreme pain. Highly stressed animals like that take a while to calm down. But as soon as the bulls threw off the rider, they were almost instantly calm. They posed no threat to other cowboys in the ring, and they were easily led back to their stalls, sometime calmly walking back by themselves.

Online, there were lots of claims that the bulls are incited by electric shocks, and placed in a state of maddening pain by a rope tied tightly around their testicles. The former is illegal and I really don't think that it happened. I did see a rope tied around their nether quarters - but it wasn't around their testicles. Furthermore, if that rope was causing them pain, then why were they so relaxed once the rider was off? There was no change with the rope.

It seems that the basic dynamics of what happens is as follows. Large animals such as cattle were historically preyed upon by animals such as lions. The lion's mode of attack is to leap onto the animal's back, grasping with its claws, while biting its neck. So a bull's instinctive response to feeling something on its back is to buck wildly and attempt to throw it off.

Rodeo riders are causing the bulls to express this deeply-embedded instinct. But is it a case of the bull truly feeling terrified that there is a predator on its back, or is it merely drawing out a behavioral pattern without the associated trauma? And is all stress the same? (I once took a training course in a zoo in which we learned about deliberately giving some animals a degree of occasional stress in order to give them a more naturalistic and ultimately healthier environment.) I don't know the answer. I did find the following fascinating discussion in a book called Veterinary Ethics, edited by Giles Legood, a member of the University of London Ethics and Law Subject Panel and chaplain of the Royal Veterinary College:
"Bucking horses and bulls used for riding and spurring events are used again and again. A systematic study of their behavior would reveal just how aversive this activity was (or was not) for different individuals. My own limited experience would suggest that most broncs stand quietly in the shute before release and leave the arena quietly with other horses after parting company with their rider. Bulls frequently attack their dismounted rider and have to be distracted by the rodeo clowns. What one does not see are signs of reluctance to enter the arena, or learned helplessness. I am satisfied that these animals are stressed during the events but do not suffer. Moreover, they are maintained in a state of high fitness. The rodeo bull, in my opinion, receives a fairer deal from humans than the dairy bull which spends its entire life withing the confines of a bullpen."
My friend Yadidya Greenberg also pointed me to this fascinating interview with renowned animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, in which she demonstrates that the bulls do not feel fear and are simply demonstrating a trained response.

What is the Torah perspective on this? The Gemara condemns attending a circus, stating as follows:
"Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai expounded: “Happy is the man who does not go in the counsel of the wicked... (Ps. 1:1)” – 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)
Etz Yosef elaborates as follows:
"It is customary among the nations to pit animals in fighting against each other by way of fun and entertainment. And it is forbidden for a Jew to witness such things, as it is written, “Do not rejoice O Israel as the other nations rejoice” (Hoshea 9:1). It also involves [the sin of participating in] a gathering of scoffers, wasting time of Torah study, and cruelty to animals."
If the Talmud is condemning circuses, then surely that would equally apply to rodeos. But matters are actually not so simple. The "circus" mentioned in the Gemara is not a modern Barnum & Bailey. It's the Roman circus. These were appalling events in which spectators would cheer as animals were torn to pieces in front of them. Different types of animals were starved and pitted against each other. Emperor Commodus would travel around the arena, killing literally hundreds of animals.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Yabiya Omer 4 Orach Chaim 2) notes that the Gemara's condemnation of circuses does not apply to modern zoos. The Roman circus served to stimulate bloodlust; the modern zoo serves to inspire people with an appreciation of nature.

Into which category does a rodeo fall? The animals do not seem to be tortured or physically harmed. On the other hand, I do think that there may be some stress involved. Now there is a principle of צער בעלי חיים הותר לצורך, that pain to animals can be justified by human need. However, the "need" must be something with genuine positive value. Is a rodeo about seeing a demonstration of great human skill, and an appreciation of the power of animals? Or is it a crass form of entertainment which stresses out animals for no real benefit? And if that's true of bull-riding, is it ultimately also true for horse-racing?

I think that answering these questions will turn out to be an academic exercise. Rodeos are not going to be around for long. Circuses with animals, even relatively good ones, are already a thing of the past. The same will happen with rodeos. If I ever go to a rodeo again, I'll be able to say that "this ain't my first rodeo" - but it will almost certainly be my last.

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