Saturday, May 18, 2019

It's Time For A New Word: Israelopathy

(This article of mine was published in The Jerusalem Post this weekend.)

It's Time For A New Word: Israelopathy


If you are highly critical of Israel, does that make you antisemitic? Debates rage in the US and UK as to whether various approaches to Israel can be described as antisemitic. The allegations of antisemitism have notably been raised against Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar and British Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn.

Sometimes, the criticism of antisemitism is turned on its head and used the other way around, as follows: Surely no country is above criticism, and thus it can't automatically be antisemitic to criticize Israel. The inference is implicitly made that therefore no critic of Israel can be labelled an antisemite. This further implies that those who do issue charges of antisemitism are trying to cover up Israel's crimes.

A further challenge with describing hostility to Israel as antisemitic is that many people accused of this have a strong antipathy to such clearly antisemitic events as the San Diego synagogue shooting. The argument goes that if they are strongly opposed to antisemitism in America, surely it doesn't make sense to say that they are antisemitic about Israel. And some of their best friends are Jewish! Heck, some people who are highly negative about Israel are even Jewish themselves - does it make sense, they say, to describe them as antisemitic?!

Because of the confusion and distraction raised by the question of antisemitism, I firmly believe that it is time to coin a new term to describe certain attitudes to Israel. A perfect word would be "Israelopathy."

Israelopathy refers to a pathological disorder. It is a pathological and irrational obsession with, and hatred of, Israel. Israelopathy is characterized in several ways.

One is its irrationality and obsessiveness. There are 195 countries in the world, the majority of which are not even free societies, and many of which are guilty of truly appalling human rights violations by any measure and without any security justification. And yet some people, and some institutions (such as the UN and many media outlets) are obsessed with the alleged crimes of Israel, facing existential threats, far more than with any other country - even more than with every other country put together. Such obsession calls the credibility of their criticisms into question.

An example of this can be seen in Ilhan Omar's March 17th Washington Post op-ed, "We must apply our universal values to all nations." She speaks nobly about the importance of applying universal values regarding human rights to *all* nations - but her primary focus is solely on Israel. And she speaks about "holding everyone involved accountable for actions that undermine the path to peace," but proceeds in her article to only hold Israel accountable!

The second trademark of Israelopathy, reflecting its fundamental immorality, is its discriminatory nature. That is to say, Israel is held to a certain standard that is never expected of any other country. Every other country, when faced with threats to its civilian population, is allowed to engage in military action. And every significant military action necessarily involves unwanted casualties. This is accepted as the price of engagement by armed forces from every country, including the campaigns of the US and UK in Afghanistan. Only Israel is slammed for causing any civilian casualties - even though Israel takes greater pains to avoid them (such as giving warnings to evacuate military targets) than any other country has ever done.

The corollary of this discrimination is that Israel's attackers are given a pass for their actions that is not given to anyone else. Launching rockets that are targeted against civilians is a war crime. Using religious institutions, schools and hospitals as cover for military action is a war crime. Yet Hamas commits both these crimes and is rarely condemned for it in the media. Nikki Haley couldn't get the United Nations to condemn such blatant war crimes. The NY Times Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger recently downplayed Hamas for the occasional "stray rocket that kills too many innocents." Yet such rockets are not "stray" - they are all specifically and explicitly fired for this purpose! And an editorial in Britain's Guardian newspaper once described these rockets - which have killed dozens, injured thousands, and would have killed countless more were it not for bomb shelters - as “useless fireworks” which “have killed hardly anybody” and do not justify a military response. There is a tremendous eagerness to play down the crimes of Palestinians.

The third characteristic of Israelopathy is its demonization, in which Israel is described with the most extreme terminology, and rated as a malevolent entity of almost supernatural power. For example, whatever one thinks about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, the fact remains that both their population and average lifespan have dramatically increased under Israeli rule - and yet Israel is routinely described as committing genocide. IDF soldiers, who - whatever their crimes - are acting due to a genuine security need, and who follow professional rules of engagement that are enforced by an independent (and left-leaning) Supreme Court to minimize unnecessary casualties, are routinely compared to Nazis. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has spoken about "the hand of Israel" being behind Jihadist attacks on Egyptian forces, and the “unbelievably high levels of influence” that Israel has over the BBC. The rhetoric employed by Ilhan Omar, who described Israel as "hypnotizing the world" to ignore its "evil," also betrays this demonic view of Israel, notwithstanding her subsequent apology.

Is Israelopathy related to antisemitism? Maybe yes, maybe no. The very question is irrelevant and distracting. The key is to focus upon and criticize Israelopathy for what it is, not for what it might be related to.

It's much more difficult for an accused Israelopath to deny being Israelopathic than it is for them to deny being antisemitic. It doesn't help for them to point to their opposition to synagogue shootings. It doesn't help for them to claim that they are Semites (or even Jewish) themselves. Nor can they respond that it's surely not Israelopathic to criticize Israel. Because Israelopathy does not refer to criticism of Israel - it refers to a pathological obsession with Israel, a discriminatory attitude to the conflict, and a demonization of Israel. All of which are, sadly, all too easy to demonstrate.

Monday, May 13, 2019

A Looming Catastrophe

There were two items in the news recently, which separately were upsetting, but which together are downright terrifying.

One was a report about the dramatically increasing number of students in charedi schools who are not receiving any significant secular education (see the original Hebrew article in The Marker, and the English report in Haaretz). There are two types of such institutions. One is the mosdot petur - the charedi elementary schools which receive barely any secular education. The number of children in these institutions has now risen to 90,000. The other are the yeshivot ketanot - the yeshivot for boys in grades 9 to 12 who received a basic secular education in elementary school, but who receive no further high school secular education whatsoever. The number of boys in these institutions has nearly doubled over the last decade, to 37,000.

Many community leaders in the charedi world say that this doesn't matter. After all, they say, there are so many new programs for adults that provide professional training and enable them to "catch up" for all the secular studies that they missed. You don't need a secular education in elementary school or high school.

Which brings us to the second news item.

According to the Times of Israel, the state comptroller's office released a truly alarming report. Despite over half a billion shekels being invested in last eight years in special academic programs for charedim, these programs have been a disaster. Only 22% of charedim in these courses are men - and an astonishing 76% of men drop out!

The reasons for the extremely low enrollment and high failure rate are obvious. It's not easy to take time out to study when you already have a wife and children to support. And it's especially difficult to bridge the gap to a proper education, when you have virtually zero secular education and no experience with academic demands such as writing essays and doing tests.

If a charedi young man is very brilliant, and very motivated, he may be able to catch up. But the vast majority of young men educated in the charedi system will lack either the time (because they start too late), the motivation (because they have been taught that it's the wrong derech), or the academic ability to gain a professional education.

It should be noted that the huge increase in the number of students in such institutions is not only due to the high birthrate in the charedi community. It's also due to the influx of Anglo olim, many of whom - despite having received a secular education themselves - decide that their children will not receive such a benefit.

As the Israel Mishpacha magazine reported a few years back, charedi society is in a state of financial collapse. It's only getting worse. And as the charedi population grows - a third of first-graders are charedim - they could take the whole country down with them. As Jonathan Rosenblum memorably once wrote, we all need charedim to get academic education and professional employment. The alternative is the economic ruin not only of charedi society, but of all Israel.

Unfortunately, the current government is going to be making this situation far worse, in order to reap political support. It's going to take the general public to somehow try to salvage this situation, and to try to motivate charedim to give their children a full secular education.


On another note - Here is my availability for scholar-in-residence in different parts of the world this year:

England: Shabbat of June 15 or 22
NY/NJ: Shabbat of November 9
Florida: Shabbat of November 2nd (parashat Noach) or November 16

If you are interested in arranging a program, please email me at director@biblicalnaturalhistory.org.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Did NOTHING happen?!

Yom Ha-Atzmaut is a national holiday in Israel. Schools are off, businesses are closed. For those who celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut, this means (if you are religious) davenning a special festive prayer of thankfulness in shul. This is followed by celebrating the land by going out into it (i.e. into the countryside) for a festive meal. (If you want to read a bizarre interview with a left-wing Israeli academic about the "symbolism" of the barbeque, check out this article at the Times of Israel.)

But what about for charedim who don't celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma'ut? Those in the working world, which means especially Anglos, nevertheless have a day off work. What will they do with this day?

One local shul in Ramat Beit Shemesh sought to take advantage of this for a Yom Iyun. "Transform your Yom HaAtzmaut Day Off into a Day of Torah Learning!" It featured four speakers - not only the rabbi of the shul and other locals, but also the popular Rabbi Dovid Kaplan from Ohr Somayach.
In theory, that's a very fine thing to do; it's something that other non-Zionist shuls in the neighborhood have done in the past. You can have all kinds of shiurim about the sanctity and special nature of Eretz Yisrael and its role in our history and even about how fortunate we are to be back in it, which don't get into the "problematic" topic of Zionism.

Except that's not what the shiurim were about.

One was about Genevas Daas; one was about Sefiras Ha-Omer; one was about the "Seventh Heaven"' and one was about "How to Love Your Friend."

What?!

The single greatest miracle since Biblical times, the return of the Jewish People from exile to sovereignty in our ancient homeland, and you have nothing to say about it?!

You're already organizing a Yom Iyun on the day. Talk about the miracle. Talk about how the prophecies in the Torah were at least partially fulfilled. Talk about how the UN, that great enemy of the Jews, and even Russia, supported it. Even talk about whether or not it can be declared religious significant, giving both sides of the argument. But talk about something!

Heck, I think I might even understand the Satmar approach, of mourning the establishment of Israel as the Work of Satan, better than this. At least they recognize that something happened!

And if you think that only a Zionist would protest the lack of acknowledgement of the significance of the day, think again. Read the following extract from a letter from none other than Rav Dessler:
Regarding that which we are now in the Holy Land - it is difficult to describe it at present as the beginning of the Redemption. But in any case it is certainly a great kindness from one extreme to another - from the extreme of the suffering of the destruction of six million of our brethren (may God repair the breach) to the other extreme - the settlement of our nation in the Holy Land. From this, we need to learn and establish emunah in our hearts; woe to the one who comes tot he Day of Judgement and is still blind from perceiving this tangible reality. (Michtav Me-Eliyahu vol. III, p. 352)
Even the Edah Charedis was once open to acknowledging the obvious. In 1918, to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from the Turks by the British, they issued the proclamation that you can see in this picture. They called on all the shuls and yeshivos "to thank Hashem for the redemption, and the salvation," and to say the prayer of Hanosen teshuah on behalf of "George the Fifth, yarum hodo (may his glory be increased)" and a misheberach for General Allenby.

Even if you think that the anti-religious nature of many Zionists, and the lack of perfection of the State of Israel, means that its founding cannot be celebrated as a religious event, how can anyone simply ignore the historical significance of it?!

For a fuller discussion of the theological significance of the establishment of the State of Israel, which do not require one to be a "Zionist," see the various essays in the excellent Koren Yom Ha-Atzmaut Machzor - in particular, Rav Soloveitchik's "Six Knocks."

The Weasel, The Snail, And The Bird

(The following essay was published yesterday on the mailing list and website of The Biblical Museum of Natural History)

The return of the Jewish People to their historic homeland to establish a sovereign state, after millennia of persecution, is the greatest miracle since Biblical times. Still, some people are understandably hesitant to ascribe religious significance to it, much less to see it as the first flowering of the final redemption. The State of Israel, for all its achievements, is not a paragon of perfection. And many of the people involved in creating it were hostile to traditional Judaism. How could such people be part of a redemption of religious significance?

Biblical natural history has the answer! It’s all about a weasel, a snail, and a bird.

The Bible states that the Tabernacle, first dwelling place of the Divine Presence, was covered with “the hides of techashim.” What are techashim? The definitive answer is lost in the mists of history, but a number of suggestions were proposed by the Sages (see our book Sacred Monsters for extensive discussion). The Jerusalem Talmud cites a view that it is the galaktinon, which is identified as a type of weasel with beautiful fur. Yet a weasel is a non-kosher animal (and a sheretz, a creeping creature that transmits ritual impurity when dead). How could such a creature have been used in the construction of the holy Tabernacle? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, gives a rationale: 
“How could the holy Tabernacle be constructed from an impure animal? What purpose would this serve? …The Tabernacle in particular contained the beauty of the entire universal order, and the Divine purpose of elevating all of creation. The Tabernacle of the desert was not a matter of individual morality for a certain time, but encompassed the expanse of all times and all things. It was therefore possible that its outermost covering was made from an impure animal. The tachash, with its many hues and colors, represented the ultimate value of the many forces in the world, in all their variations. Its inclusion in the Tabernacle, albeit in its outermost layer, enabled the expression of the intellectual recognition of God’s essential unity, that nothing exists outside of Him, and that all was created in His Glory.” (Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 105-7) 

Another example is the tekhelet, the sky-blue dye that was used in the Tabernacle and the garments of the priest. This dye is extracted from the Murex trunculus, a type of snail that you can see at the museum. Yet a snail is also a non-kosher creature. Here, too, we see the idea of the Tabernacle showing how all of creation, even non-kosher gastropods, can be united in expressing the glory of God.

In a similar vein, let us now turn to birds. One of the non-kosher birds listed in the Bible, and on display at the museum, is called the racham. The Talmud identifies this bird as the sherakrak, which is the roller (onomatopoeically named sherakrak in various languages after the calls that it makes). The roller is a passage migrant that arrives in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the fall. This bird is beautiful, a striking sky-blue in color (in fact it is the color of tekhelet!). And yet its hooked bill betrays its predatory nature, which may be why it is rated as a non-kosher bird.

Still, notwithstanding its non-kosher nature, the Talmud ascribes immense positive symbolism to this bird. It states that the Biblical name of racham, “mercy,” is given to this bird because its arrival in the Land of Israel is a sign of the impending mercy of the rains. And the Talmud further records a tradition that if the roller sits on the ground and emits the sherakrak sound, it is a sign of the impending final redemption.

Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal (1885-1945) observed the relevance of this to the Zionist movement. The roller is not a kosher bird, and yet it can be the herald of the final redemption! Likewise, people who are disconnected or even hostile to religion can be part of the redemptive process. This is in line with Rav Kook’s observation about the tachash.

“How manifold are Your works, O God!” (Psalms 104:24). The natural world contains an astonishing variety of creatures. Some are of consistently positive religious symbolism, such as the dove. Others, such as the lion, are of a more complex symbolic significance. And even the creatures that epitomize impurity – the non-kosher weasels and predatory birds and slimy snails – are part of the Tabernacle, the Temple and the Divine plan of history and redemption. Every creature and every person can play a role in this process.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

How Can My Family Be Protected From Rockets?

This article of mine was published in Britain's Jewish Chronicle

As I was putting my youngest child, age six, to bed last Saturday night, he said to me, “Daddy, what if there is an explosion in the night?”

It broke my heart. That afternoon, we had to rush our children to our bomb shelter. An air-raid siren wailed across the skies of our peaceful home town of Beit Shemesh, in between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.

We were fortunate: no rocket landed in our town. An eighty-year-old woman in the nearby town of Kiryat Gat, and a man in Ashkelon, were less fortunate. They did not make it to shelters and were severely injured.

An editorial in The Guardian once described rockets like these as “useless fireworks” which “have killed hardly anybody” and do not justify a military response.

This is, of course, absurd. Over 30 people have been killed in the barrage of thousands of rockets and mortars that have been launched from Gaza since Israel withdrew. The mortality rate would be vastly higher had people not routinely rushed to bomb shelters.
Nearly two thousand have been injured, and countless others severely traumatized. In Sderot, the town that has born the biggest brunt of the attacks, the rate of PTSD among children is nearly 50 per cent, and there are high rates of depression and miscarriages.

“But why is Israel’s military response always so disproportionate?” many people complain. This is a very strange criticism. When the civilian population of a country is attacked, the proportionate response is one that neutralizes the threat.

After the 2,753 fatalities of 9/11, it wasn’t the responsibility of the US to kill 2,753 Taliban fighters, but rather to engage in as much military action as necessary to stop any such further attacks. Israel has a duty to protect its population from attacks, and to take whatever military action will achieve this goal. The fact that Israel is vastly more powerful than Hamas is completely and utterly irrelevant. Evidently, Israel’s military actions so far have been insufficient.

“But if Israel would just make peace with the Palestinians, none of this would be happening!” say some. Yet this is a claim without any factual or reasonable basis. There were several occasions when Israel offered the Palestinians a state, and the offer was rejected, without any counter-offer. When even the so-called “moderate” Palestinian Authority leadership refuses to acknowledge the Jewish people’s historic connection to the Land of Israel, and pays stipends to the families of terrorists, how on earth can anyone believe that it’s Israel at fault for the lack of peace? Furthermore, there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are very explicit about not only wanting a state, but also wanting to exterminate the Jewish population of Israel.

“But Israel should just withdraw from the West Bank anyway!” And then what? Risk facing even more rockets, just as happened when Israel withdrew from Gaza?

In fact, the lesson learned from Gaza, and one reason why much of Israel moved to the right, is this: there is never any circumstance in which Israel can defend its population from attacks without incurring international condemnation. That's because it is impossible to engage in any meaningful military action without causing casualties, often unintended, on the enemy side. And although this is deemed acceptable for US and UK forces and every other country in the world, Israel is unfailingly condemned for it. Sky News, for example, headlined the weekend’s events as “Six dead in Gaza amid failed Israel ceasefire talks” without mentioning the 220 rockets fired on Saturday which caused Israel’s response.
Accordingly, at the present moment, Israel cannot afford to make any security concessions.

“But what about the innocent people in Gaza who are suffering as a result?” Well, if they support the rule of Hamas, they are not so innocent. As for the many Gazans who despise Hamas and suffer as a result of everything Hamas has brought about, this is indeed a tragedy. But who is responsible? First, there is Hamas, which instead of using international aid to help the people of Gaza, spends it on terrorist attacks in order to provoke an Israeli response. Then there is the international media and global community, which plays into Hamas’s strategy of starting wars that will cause civilian casualties on their own side in order to obtain condemnations of Israel. Anyone who condemns Israel for its response is only encouraging Hamas to fire more rockets.

Meanwhile, I don’t want my children to live in fear of rockets, just because people living comfortable lives in the West are incapable of recognizing the responsibility that Israel has, and the steps that are required, in order to stop these attacks.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Preventing The Next Holocaust

Holocaust Remembrance Day is about remembering and honoring the victims of the Holocaust. It's also about reminding us to make every effort to prevent such a thing from happening again.

But herein lies a potential danger. Everyone is so used to the notion of "Never Again" that they are hyper-vigilant to prevent another Nazi Holocaust. Not only Jews, but even non-Jews and even many enemies of Israel are care against things that were precursors to the Nazi Holocaust - racial profiling, antisemitic cartoons, and so on.

But who says that a Nazi-type Holocaust is the only type of Holocaust to worry about?

There are all kinds of existential threats to the Jewish People. We can be pretty confident that there won't be another Nazi-type Holocaust, with racial profiling and ghettos and concentration camps. But there's other ways in which major tragedies can occur.

In a seminal essay published in the Jerusalem Post several years ago, "This Holocaust Will Be Different," historian Benny Morris lays out a terrifyingly plausible scenario in which Iran destroys Israel with a nuclear weapon. He also explains why even if they don't use such a weapon, merely possessing one would be enough to cause Israel to crumble away.

But it's not only Iran that threatens Israel. Egypt and Jordan are not exactly good friends. Hezbollah poses a serious threat. If the Palestinians ever get a state, that could inflict much more damage on Israel than Gaza.

Now Israel has a very powerful army. But, contrary to what many armchair generals on social media seem to think, Israel really does have to take into account, to a certain degree, what its Western allies are saying. It relies on these allies for all kinds of vital political, economic and military cooperation. And such alliances are looking extremely precarious.

Consider this. Israel buys hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of arms from the UK. If Corbyn becomes prime minister - a once unthinkable scenario which is now looking extremely likely - those contracts will probably end, as will all political and security cooperation.

I find it sadly laughable that many Jews think that the threat posed by Corbyn is that they will be subject to antisemitic harassment. Growing up in Manchester, I suffered from that all the time! I would constantly have random people in the street spitting on me, hitting me, cursing me, yelling "Hitler should have gassed you all." It was awful, but it wasn't an existential threat. The real danger of Corbyn is not that he empowers antisemitism towards Jews in England, it's that he is utterly hostile to the State of Israel. And England as a whole has a serious problem here - it is absolutely normative belief in England that Israel is a brutal regime which commits atrocities upon the innocent Palestinians. It's not England's antisemitism to British Jews that we need to worry about, it's their hostility to Israel.

Nor can the United States be completely relied upon. Many Jews are drunk on Trump's warmth to Israel, apparently unaware that he's not going to be President forever, that (possibly due to Trump and/or various Jews) the Democrats have a level of hostility towards Israel never seen before, and that in general the next generation of people in the US is far less sympathetic to Israel's security situation. AIPAC always hosted all the Democratic candidates - this year, not a single one came.

Every one of us has to work hard at building up support for Israel. We need to explain to people why there is a blockade on Gaza, and why Israel had to resort to live fire at the so-called border "protests." We need to explain how most of the Palestinian's problems are of their own making, and why there are no easy solutions that maintain safety for Israel's citizens. We need people to understand (as Corbyn fails to do) why Western countries are generally the good guys and Russian, Iran and North Korea are the bad guys. We need people to understand why democracies are superior to dictatorships, why free societies are infinitely better than fear societies. We do need to tackle antisemitism also, but it's more important to show people how their attitude to Israel - whether or not it is related to antisemitism - is morally wrong.

The Nazi Holocaust will not happen again. But we still need to fight to make sure that no other type of Holocaust happens, either.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Of Dogs And Apes

You've all surely seen the shocking cartoon in the New York Times International Edition depicting Bibi as a guide dog (yet depicting him as a German dachsund rather than as a labrador), leading a blinded, Judaized Trump, by an artist who had previously compared Israel to Nazi Germany. You might even have seen Bret Stephen's op-ed in which he slams the NYT for it. But you might not have seen the comments to Stephens' article, in which many people - including Jews - claim that there is nothing wrong with the cartoon.

Their claim, at first blush, might seem reasonable. The argument goes as follows: Surely there's nothing wrong in pointing out that Trump is easily manipulated, nor that Bibi is a savvy operator. The "guide dog" metaphor is simply a way of illustrating that. Nothing antisemitic about it.

The simple response to that is as follows. Imagine if Obama had been accused of not coming up with any original policies, and simply mimicking the policies of others. And since another word for mimicking is "aping," a cartoon would have been drawn of Obama as an ape. It is absolutely inconceivable for the NYT to have published such a cartoon, and the people defending the dog cartoon would never defend that one.

And the reason would be legitimate. You can draw other people as an ape, but not Obama. Because Obama is black, and there is a long and sordid history of black people being depicted as apes and subhuman. By the same token, there is a long and sordid history of Jews being described as dogs and manipulators.

The very defense of the cartoon by many people gives rise to an important question: How is it that people can be exquisitely sensitive to racism, and yet be oblivious to similar themes in antisemitism? (The same question applies to Corbyn and his followers in the UK, but I suspect that the answer may different there.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A New Martyr

First, there was Sharansky. A true hero and martyr, the problem was that he was old news. And he wasn't especially frum. So then, the yeshivish community came up with a new martyr and hero: Shalom Rubashkin. And now, there's another one.

The Pesach edition of Hamodia has a feature story for the festival of freedom, "Bowed But Not Broken: Mr. William Rapfogel Shares His Journey Of Endurance And Growth Through The Prism Of Prison." For those who are unaware (such as readers of Hamodia, which never reported this story), Rapfogel was the CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. In 2014 he was convicted for a grand larceny scheme over many years involving millions of dollars. Rapfogel conspired with an insurance company to have his organization pay inflated insurance premiums, for which he received cash kickbacks.

Now, first I must say that there is a world of difference between Rapfogel and Rubashkin. Rubashkin, in everything that he has ever written and said (except to the judge), never expressed any contrition. In contrast, Rapfogel says that he made mistakes, that he let people down, that he hurt people. Halevay that we should ever hear such words from Rubashkin.

On the other hand, Rapfogel claims that the only thing he did wrong was tax evasion and that he had nothing to do with the grand larceny scheme for which he pleaded guilty and was convicted. Now, personally, I don't understand why Hamodia expects us to believe this. According to the press reports, quoting the attorney general, Rapfogel was receiving cash kickbacks to the tune of approximately $30,000 a month, and they found $400,000 in cash in his various homes. In court, Rapfogel said “I knowingly stole more than $1M from the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty as part of a scheme in which insurance premiums were inflated.” I'm not sure why Hamodia sees fit to completely believe Rapfogel's current denial and not mention the crimes for which the courts convicted him. Furthermore, assuming that the court verdict was based on truth, he wasn't just doing tax evasion (which itself is a much more serious sin than the yeshivish community generally considers), but he was actually stealing millions of dollars from charity funds intended for the poor.

The general problem here is that yet again we have the charedi community making a martyr and hero out of a criminal. The narrative is all about how the Big Bad Goyim are out to get the Jews, and how this ties in to Zman Cheruseinu. It reinforces the message of the Rubashkin debacle, in which the responsibility for tzorres lies with the goyim, not with the brave, faithful Jews. The thing that needs to be done, says Rapfogel, is that the Jewish community needs to fight to change the law, such that people who are not actual murderers do not go to prison and should instead do community service. There is no mention of educating people to, y'know, not cheat and steal.

In the interview, Rapfogel complains about "the feeling of repugnance on the part of the community towards people who go to jail.... There's a real stigma when people come back; we need to fight that." Actually, I think it's fantastic that the Modern Orthodox community, of which Rapfogel is a member, generally has a social stigma against convicted criminals. If only such a stigma would exist among the Hamodia readership, then perhaps we would see less frum people in prison.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Just the Vax, Ma'am

A legendary anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist neighbor of mine gave my cellphone number to a Mrs. Etie Teigman. She is the founder of the anti-vaccination group PEACH (Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health), which was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times for sending out a glossy booklet to dissuade people from vaccinating their children. Mrs. Teigman has been sending me a number of text messages. Here is the latest, in response to a post of mine where I ridiculed the notion that Bill Gates revealed his plans to kill millions of people via vaccines:
Someone just sent me your upshot of the vaccine hoax:
"Nevertheless, I am confident that the global medical and pharmaceutical community is correct about the importance of vaccines. And, flicking through the anti-vaccination publications, some things jumped out at me as examples of their deeply flawed epistemology. One was a quote from Bill Gates at a 2010 TED Talk, printed under the heading "Vaccination for... Depopulation?" The quote read, "The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's heading up to about nine billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care and reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent."
If RABBI, DR. Slifkin you were doing the proper "bridge building" (head-heart) to grow in character as every human, & certainly, every Jew should be doing - you would understand that you could actually learn something from even the "PEACH" people (I actually founded PEACH).  The valuable trait to which I refer is called "humility". One of the major perks of humility, because I value others' knowledge, is ALWAYS learning something new from people vs arrogance in which your knowledge capacity is already overflowing & you have nothing new to learn since you're now the Uber-chacham.
Not only are you doing yourself & your family a colossal disservice by your unfounded confidence in a well established criminal entity & industry run by convicted felons many times over - BUT you have the harm caused to every one of your fawning readers on your already overburdened shoulders.  Do you really want to have to "pay" for all that harm?  There's a Judge, you know, & no human  gets away with ANYTHING, whether you "believe" or not (even self-proclaimed vaccinologist atheists like Drs. Stanley Plotkin & Paul Offit have plenty to fear).
Be a real chacham & take a long range view at what's happening...vaccine corruption has been completely revealed for those who care to see...Del Bigtree has BH over 40 MILLION fans...the damage from vaccine is beyond devastating- in YOUR own community & world wide  - so what are you going to say on your blog when The criminal arrests begin..."I told you so"?  You might try that pitiFOOL approach - but deep down you'll keep experiencing gut wrenching shame because you were afraid to hear & share the truth...the window to do teshuva is NOT forever remember...
You, and many, many guilt ridden doctors, rabbis, & pitiFOOLy irresponsible parents have their heads & hearts deep under the ground in denial on the open & shut case of vaccine criminal genocide.
Though the truth always rises to the top - and you, as well as all the other G-d deniers, will personally suffer unimaginably painful & humiliating shame... I still care for my fellow Jew enough to try once more - you would have immensely greater success & heroic fame by honoring our genuine gedolei haDor on the vaccine issue.  
You probably can't even wrap your mind around the degree of severity of the violations of shmiras halashon, onaas d'varim, & many aveiros you are committing by being mezalzel gedolei haDor with your blog.
We have THOUSANDS of mothers in our networks who are laser-focused in their powerful t'FEEL'ot to have you & your ilk considered as "malshinim, minim, & zaidim" & that the world should see middah k'negged middah. We also have nonJews in mind for the Bracha al ha'tzaddikim who are genuine world class heros who manifest G-dly middos.  
Why should you leave yourself out of the loop of real success?  Has your heart been so hardened & "vaccinated" with cruelty?  Give yourself a way out of the vax-schmutz by listening to Del Bigtree.  There are many others fighting the pHARMa-satan, but he's phenomenal, may H' continue to protect him!
Well, there you go! I think this shows that anti-vaxxers really truly believe that they are the ones saving lives and that it's everyone else who is harming and killing people. It also shows that at least some of them seem somewhat unbalanced.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

When Gedolim Err

Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein has just published a fascinating essay, "Who Deserves to be Our Hero?" in which he argues that if we seize upon every error in order to disqualify a rabbinic leader, there will be no more Torah heroes left:
"Heroes need not be perfect. Gedolim need not be perfect. They never were, and they never will be. A person who demands never to find fault in his or her mentor will never have a meaningful mentor."

Rabbi Adlerstein mentions this in the context of discussing reactions to an earlier essay of his which denounced the opposition to vaccinations. The elephant in the room is a leading charedi Gadol B'Torah who stands at the helm of the anti-vaxxers. Rabbi Adlerstein bemoans how the just and necessary opposition to his support of the anti-vaxxers leads people to disregard his honor and credibility entirely.

There's an additional point that should be made here. Many people feel that anti-vaxxers should be called out as evil murderers. Now, I believe in the importance of vaccinations as much as anyone. My post on "The Lakewood Suicide Squad," the all-time most read post on this website (30,000 views), I called out (by name) the small group of rabbis who support the anti-vaxxers. Nevertheless, as I stressed in a follow-up post, "These Rabbis Are Not Murderers," I believe that it is wrong to call these people "murderers" or "evil." They are merely sincerely, tragically mistaken. They are appalled by sickness and death as much as anyone - they simply believe that vaccines contribute to these rather than solving them.

Having said that, there is something in Rabbi Adlerstein's essay which I think should be qualified. He writes that "There are fatal flaws, but not every flaw is fatal. A talmid chacham who shows shallow thinking in one area should not be consulted in that area. It does not follow – and experience shows otherwise – that great people can be insightful and incisive in some areas, and not in others." Now, it is certainly true that a mistake in one topic does not necessarily disqualify someone's opinion in every topic. However, certain types of mistake reveal certain types of character flaw or worldview, which are likely to have ramifications in other areas. 

The case of vaccinations is a perfect example. Someone who distrusts the entire modern medical enterprise either suffers from a conspiratorial worldview, or an anti-scientific mindset. This is very likely to affect their views in certain other areas, and vice-versa. That's why it's no surprise when advocates of alternative medicine turn out to be anti-vaxxers.

This is in fact one of the most important lessons which emerged from the notorious controversy over my books. The fact that three dozen leading charedi rabbonim considered it false and heretical to believe that there was an age of dinosaurs, or that there's no such thing as salamanders that grow from fire, was not just a narrow dispute regarding peshat in a few pesukim and a few lines of Gemara. Rather, it reflected a completely different worldview - the non-rationalist worldview - with ramifications for everything from brain-death to shiluach ha-kein to IDF service to marital intimacy to kollel vs. working. It led hundreds and possibly thousands of people to recognize that they needed to be in a different kind of community with a different kind of rabbinic leadership.

There are mistakes which are just mistakes. There are mistakes that are indicative of serious personal flaws. And there are mistakes which are neither of the above, but which reveal a different worldview. It's important to recognize these as such.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Kezayis Post

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link.


Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - exploring why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should aim to eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night.

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in the charedi polemical journal Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

The Kezayis Revolution - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Finally, two notes regarding The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

First, there are lots of tours over the next few weeks, including before Pesach as well as Chol HaMoed. But they are rapidly filling up, so if you'd like to come, book your tour as early as you can!

Second, we are really looking for people who support our goals of educating the entire spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world, and who want to be part of our mission. To join the museum as a patron, please see http://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/support/ for details. We can now arrange tax-deductible donations in Israel, the UK and Canada, as well as the US. For easy online donations, please click this link. Thank you for supporting our mission!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Fatal Defect?

Last time we looked at a newsletter from Yeshivas Torah Moshe, featuring a Q&A with Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, he was talking about how Zionist shuls just talk non-stop during davenning and about how there is no reason to say a misheberach for the IDF. In the latest newsletter, Rabbi Meiselman makes an interesting theological claim about the human body. But first, a story.

I have an interesting scar on my abdomen. Many years ago, it was arranged that I would give a lecture at a certain shul in Los Angeles. A Syrian Jew who had signed up for the shiur pulled out a blade and knifed me in the stomach.

It was a good thing that he did so, because I was lying on his operating table at the time and he was saving my life. The previous day, I had been suffering from terrible pain. I was forced to cancel my lecture at the shul, and the Syrian, who had planned on hearing me speak, instead performed an emergency appendectomy on me.

Now let's get back to Rabbi Meiselman. After claiming that there is no legitimate scientific evidence for the universe being billions of years old, the next question posed to him was "According to the Torah, what is the point of the appendix and is it necessary?" Rabbi Meiselman replies as follows:
ANSWER: The biological world is vastly more complex than anyone realizes. Current scientific theory asserts that because humans evolved from other organisms, we have accumulated vestigial organs left over from non-human ancestors. Fifty years ago, it was thought that the spleen was such an organism. Splenectomies were done with casual ease. Now, we know that it has many important functions and is a major part of the immune system.

Hashem told Iyov, you can't even fathom the vast wisdom imbedded (sic) in the smallest creature. The Sifri in Haazinu says Hashem designed every aspect of the human body to function and achieve its purpose. There are no vestigial organs that evolved and got left inside us by accident. Everything is part of a total design.

Dovid Hamelech asked Hashem why he created spiders. Hashem gave him a simple example of how useful spiders are for Dovid Hamelech personally by having them weave a web in front the cave that Dovid was hiding in. When Shaul Hamelech’s men went searching for him, they saw the web woven around Dovid’s cave and figured it is useless searching it since the web made it obvious that no-one had been inside for a very long time.

The appendix performs a function in the body that we do not know. But we do know that Hashem made it part of the human body for a purpose.
An orangutan receiving an appendectomy
Rabbi Meiselman's response is deeply problematic. First is the misrepresentation of science. While decades ago there were scientists who considered various organs to be merely vestigial and therefore useless, few take that position today. The general view today is to be wary of pronouncing something to be vestigial. Furthermore, even if something is vestigial, this does not mean that it no longer has any use at all. It may still retain some of its original function or even have a new function. In the case of the appendix, it is thought to house beneficial bacteria and enhance immune functions.

But here's the thing. Yes, the appendix seems to have some minor benefits. On the other hand, it can also rupture and KILL you. After my own brush with death, I looked into it, and discovered to my shock that even nowadays, there are thousands of deaths annually from appendicitis that is not treated in time! And historically, the death rate must have been enormous.

The only reasons why doctors do not routinely remove everyone's appendix today are that (A) the surgery itself carries a certain degree of risk, and since appendectomies can be quickly done in the rare cases where they are needed, it is better not to do it unless there is call for it, and (B) the appendix may be useful for reconstructive surgery if other parts of the body fail. But if you lived in a time before modern surgery, and you had to choose between living your life with an appendix (and no possibility of it being removed) or living without one, it would be vastly better to choose living without one.

Whatever minor benefits the appendix has, these are certainly outweighed by the fact that it can kill you. Even today, people who go to live in the small research/military town of Villas Las Estrellas in Antarctica, where there is no easy way of reaching a hospital, have to get their appendix removed before they go.

The human body is an amazing thing. But it does not demonstrate that it was designed from scratch, with optimal design. Rather, it demonstrates that it developed from animals. That's why so many of us get lower back pain - because the spine was originally in a horizontal position. That's why we get goose bumps when we are cold or scared - because our animal ancestors had fur which would stand on end and keep them warm or make them look bigger to scare away predators. And that's why we have organs which have some benefits, but which can also go badly wrong and kill us.

There's no theological problem with any of that. As I discussed in The Challenge Of Creation, several 19th century theologians welcomed the theory of evolution, because it finally solved the problem of sub-optimal design. If God designed man from scratch, then these quirks are theologically problematic. But if God chose to develop man via a process of "creative wisdom" (to use Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch's description of evolution), via which He used laws of science to develop man from earlier forms, then these quirks are inevitable side-effects of the amazing creative process that was used.

The charedi community often professes great disdain for the fundamentals of modern science concerning the antiquity of the universe and biological evolution. On the other hand, with the exception of the anti-vaxxers, the charedi community usually professes great respect for modern medicine. The appendix - and in particular, the practical situation of going to Antarctica - is an interesting case where the two are inextricably linked. Would Rabbi Meiselman advise people in such a situation against having an appendectomy? If not, then it exposes the flaw in his worldview. Because if man was designed from scratch by the ultimate engineer, the advantages of an organ should outweigh its disadvantages.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Giant Mouse Problems

Mice may be small, but they can cause huge problems. Today, Daf Yomi reaches the topic of the mud-mouse - the mouse that is (allegedly) generated from dirt. It also discusses the salamander that is legendarily generated from fire. I have chapters dedicated to these mythical creatures in my book Sacred Monsters (and my views on them are the primary reason why my books were put in cherem). The people that encounter this topic fall into several categories.

One group is aware that there ain't no such critters, and acknowledges that Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) shared the mistaken beliefs of everyone else in these things. They follow the approach of the many Rishonim and Acharonim who state that Chazal's statements about the natural world were not infallible. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch addresses the topic of the mud-mouse in particular, and writes as follows:
"Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he had found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half-earth and half-flesh and his report was accepted by the world as true, would we not expect Chazal to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of Tum'ah and Taharah apply to these creatures? Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can Chazal be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the second Beis ha'Mikdash was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well-known and accepted in his day."
There's another group of people who are entirely unaware that no such creatures exist, and are completely confident in the absolute factual truth of everything in the Gemara. The weekly booklet Me'oros HaDaf Yomi took it for granted that the mud-mouse exists, and happily cited R. Yom Tov Lippman Heller's view that it presents evidence for creation ex nihilo. This group of people has an incorrect approach, but it doesn't bother me or interest me that much. In some ways, I am jealous of their simple faith; I have little desire to change their minds.

A different approach, however, is found with charedi anti-rationalist rabbonim who seek to present themselves as sophisticated thinkers that are well-versed in science, such as Rabbi J. David Bleich and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. They are dogmatically opposed to saying that Chazal predicated halachos on a misunderstanding of the natural world, so no matter how much evidence there is for that, and no matter how many Rishonim and Acharonim say it, they have to find a way around it. However, they can't bring themselves to insist that spontaneous generation really does take place (though R. Bleich does insist that it can't be disproved!) So they claim instead that Chazal never actually believed in spontaneous generation.

Now, one obvious problem with this approach is that the entirety of traditional rabbinic thought - every single Rishon and Acharon - interpreted Chazal as believing in spontaneous generation. Is it not preposterous, even arrogant, to claim that you understand Chazal's words better than every single Rishon and Acharon who ever lived? And it also goes strongly against the charedi ethos of claiming great respect for the mesorah and for traditional rabbinic authorities. 

But there is also a different problem with this approach: the way in which its advocates conveniently ignore sources in Chazal which expose the impossibility of their interpretations. In another post, I detailed several sources from Chazal, conveniently ignored by R. Bleich and R. Meiselman, which show that Chazal most certainly believed that these creatures spontaneously generate.

Then there is a fourth group of people. These are the people who are pretty sure that no such creature exists, but cannot bring themselves to say so - either because they are uncomfortable with the notion that Chazal could be mistaken, or because they are afraid to publicly say so. And so they have a mighty struggle with this mouse.

When Rav Aharon Feldman from Baltimore switched sides regarding the controversial ban on my books, and decided to insist that Chazal were infallible in science, I asked him if he really believes that there is a mouse that is generated from dirt. I knew that he is a worldly person, and so I wanted to see his response. Rav Feldman replied that scientists are constantly discovering new and amazing phenomena - why shouldn't it be true? I received the impression, though, that he was trying to convince himself rather than me.

I posed the same question to one of the rabbis that had endorsed one of my books but was retracting his haskamah out of deference to Rav Moshe Shapiro, who insisted that Chazal were infallible. "Do you really believe that there is a mud-mouse?" I asked him. He paused for a while, and then said, "I don't know." I argued that he wasn't being honest with himself, but what I should have pointed out was that Rav Moshe Shapiro demanded that people believe that there definitely was such a thing, not that they do not absolutely deny it!

If anyone here attends a Daf Yomi class, can you post a comment informing us what the maggid shiur said about this topic?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

My Two Cents on the Israeli Elections

The other day someone actually asked me to give them a brief guide to the coming Israel elections. So here it is, from my perspective - which is no more authoritative than anyone else's:

I'm assuming that people here are interested about the wellbeing and security of the State of Israel. If you don't care about that, then you're either voting Zehut (if you care about drugs, and are willing to join any coalition to get them) or UTJ (if you only care about getting money for yeshivos, and are willing to sell Israel's security for it).

I'm also assuming that most people here realize, as most Israelis have come to realize, that the left-wing parties have shown themselves to have a woefully mistaken approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. There is no such thing as real peace with the Palestinians in any foreseeable future. And one can only look back and laugh bitterly at the numerous politicians and army officers who claimed that the Gaza disengagement would bring security, and that if any missiles would be launched, the IDF would flatten Gaza with full international support. The fact is that as terrible as the current situation with Judea and Samaria is, there are no significant alternatives at the moment that are any better.

Now, some people think that Blue-and-White, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, are the New Messiahs, insofar as they are Not Bibi. Personally, I think that it's absurd to think that Gantz, a person with absolutely zero experience in politics, is remotely suitable for a job that requires great political acumen and experience. And while Lapid originally seemed promising, more recently he seems to be a shallow hack just seeking popularity.

Bayit Yehudi - a party that I supported in the previous election, and which I support in municipal politics - lost my support when they continued to rally around Rav Druckman as their spiritual leader, despite his support of serial abuser Motti Elon and refusal to apologize for such support. Ironically, they tried to crush the criticism of Rav Druckman by telling people that it would harm Bayit Yehudi; they didn't realize that in this day and age, it's precisely that sort of cover-up which loses support.

Zehut seems to be very popular with several people in my neighborhood. Actually, it's the very popularity of it with certain notorious anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists that rang alarm bells for me. Looking into it more, I think that most Zehut supporters have not given serious thought to the ramifications of Zehut's platform, which, practically speaking, calls for all-out war against the Palestinians, the entire Arab world, and making even many staunch defenders of Israel (including religious Jews) renounce their support. Not to mention the fact that Zehut refuses to commit to supporting Bibi for prime minister, and is open to endorsing Gantz/Lapid.

So, there's Likud. It's a mainstream party with some excellent people that stands for Israel's security. And however much one is repulsed by Bibi (and I must say that as a former fan, I have been very disappointed by his egotism over the last few years), the fact is that he is incredibly savvy and has successfully led Israel to economic prosperity and relative security in a very, very difficult climate.

I was therefore considering voting Likud. Still, Likud sometimes gets weak at the knees, and occasionally leans a lot more left than one would expect from its ideology. It needs propping up from the right. Yemin HaChadash - the breakaway from Bayit Yehudi, led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked - seems to fill that role best. As one person said, Yemin HaChadash is Likud's ideology actually put into practice.

Now, some people are claiming that it's dangerous not to vote for Likud, because if Blue-and-White ends up being the largest party, then President Rivlin might ask Ganz to form a coalition. That seems to be unrealistic fearmongering, for two reasons. First, it doesn't look like they will be the largest party. Second, even if they are, there are not enough other parties that will endorse Ganz/Lapid as prime minister - Bibi is ahead by around ten to fifteen seats. It seems much better to vote for Yemin HaChadash, and make it more likely that Bibi will form a coalition with right-wing parties than with Blue-and-White.

There, that's my take on things. Unlike with hyraxes and rationalism and firmaments, I speak with no particular expertise. Feel free to disagree! Meanwhile, here's a link to a very useful unofficial FAQ that someone prepared about Yemin HaChadash. 


Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax

The pesukim about the camel, the hare and the hyrax, which appear in this week's parashah, have been used by many to argue for the Divine authorship of the Torah, based on the claim that these are the only animals with one kosher sign; while others use it to argue against the Divine authorship of the Torah, claiming that these verses contain biological errors. My book on this topic, The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, is available at the museum, at select bookstores, and online at this link. There's also a lot of information in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, which you can buy at this link, and also download the chapter on the hyrax FREE! But meanwhile, here is a summary of the topic, based on the final chapter of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax.

Summary

1. The Torah lists four animals that possess only one kosher sign.

2. The Talmud, following its own principles of drawing additional meaning from words in the Torah, infers that the Torah’s list is exhaustive.

3. Elsewhere, the Talmud states that this topic argues for the Divine origins of the Torah, but the meaning of this is disputed:

Approach A: The simple reading of Rashi is that the argument refers to Moshe being familiar with the physiology of the four animals in the list.

Approach B: Alternately, one can argue that it refers to Moshe knowing all the local animals that possess one kosher sign.

Approach C: Tosafos explains that it refers to Moshe knowing about an animal called the shesuah, but this is a difficult explanation, as the simple reading of the verse does not indicate that the shesuah is a type of animal.

Approach D: Beginning in the eighteenth century, it was claimed that the Talmud’s argument refers to the Torah saying that there are no other such animals in the entire world. This argument rests upon (a) the boldness of the claim and (b) the veracity of it (as per point 2 above).

4. Making an argument from the boldness of the claim is fundamentally flawed, as there is no claim in the Torah that there are only four animals in the world possessing one kosher sign. Simply speaking, they are presented merely as examples from the region of the Land of Israel that were a particular dietary risk for the Jewish People. The idea that the list is specified as being exhaustive would only be accepted by someone with an a priori belief in the divine origins of the Talmud.

5. The lamoids and peccaries from South America also possess only one kosher sign. To posit that they are of the same min as camels and pigs (respectively) can only be done with a novel definition of min that grants a high degree of unspecified flexibility in categorizing new species under the Torah’s preexisting range of types. Accordingly, making an argument out of the exclusivity of the list is greatly weakened.

6. There is overwhelming evidence (discussed in chapters six and seven) that the shafan and arneves are the hyrax and the hare, and there are no alternative viable candidates. Positing the existence of extinct and unknown species is not viable in this case, for reasons explained at length in chapter four.

7. According to all evidence, the hare does not bring up the cud. To resolve this problem, we must say that the term ma’aleh gerah is an idiom that refers to such phenomena as ruminant-style chewing or cecotrophy, and/or to invoke the concept that "the Torah speaks as in the language of men." These approaches are viable, albeit somewhat difficult.

8. There are conflicting reports as to whether the hyrax regurgitates its food. Based on my own extensive observations of hyraxes, it appears that they do sometimes regurgitate small amounts. It is likely that the hyrax practices merycism, which can be defined as ma’aleh gerah without difficulty. If it does not practice merycism, then it can only be defined as ma’aleh gerah on the basis of its manner of chewing, probably requiring us to invoke the concept that “the Torah speaks as in the language of men.” As with the hare, these approaches are viable, albeit somewhat difficult.

9. Since we are forced to define characteristics such as merycism, ruminant-style chewing or cecotrophy as ma’aleh gerah, then there are still further types of animals that possess only one kosher sign, even with our novel flexible definition of min.

10. These further examples of animals with one kosher sign raise a problem with the Talmud, which apparently claims that the Torah’s list is exhaustive. However, there are two approaches which explain the Talmud in a way that avoids this problem:

• The Talmud is only making a statement about the exclusivity of the camel (due to it being the only ma’aleh gerah animal that is domesticated, or that lacks upper teeth, or that is a true ruminant); but the hare and hyrax may indeed share their characteristics with other animals. This only leaves the problem of the lamoids, which can perhaps be rated as a type of camel, albeit with some difficulty.

• The Talmud is only giving a rule for the general region surrounding the Land of Israel, but there may indeed be other such animals in remote regions of the world. This fits well with how various other seemingly universal rules in the Talmud are explained by other authorities - including Chazal themselves! - as only referring to local animals.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Who Else Should Help Desperate Kollel Families?

There are all kinds of charity campaigns for kollel families in desperate financial distress. Letters and appeals are sent out to Jews across the spectrum. But there's one group of Jews that doesn't seem to be asked to help these families.

Here's a letter that ought to be sent to all kollel families that receive help for being in severe financial difficulties:
"Rabbosay, there's a very serious poverty problem with countless kollel families. In response, there are many families around the world that contribute funds. This mitzvah, of helping people in need, is not one that only takes place when they give their credit card number. Rather, it's a mitzvah that they prepare for all the time, when they are working to earn the money that enables them to help those that need it.

"Rabbosay, we need more people to participate in this mitzvah. Specifically, we need YOU. For the existing donors, while they have a mitzvah to give tzedakah, they can choose to help your families, or they can choose to give to other causes. But for you, it's a mitzvah to help your families specifically. Each of you has a responsibility to help your own families with their basic needs. That responsibility, as delineated in the kesubah, is fulfilled by working. As Chazal say, it is better for a person to engage in even a lowly trade rather than casting themselves on others for support.

"Now, it's not easy to find work, especially for people who lack training and experience. But there are organizations which will help you do so, or which will provide you with the opportunity and means to pursue a job training program. There is Keren Kemach, there is Mafteach, there is Lemaan Achai, there are more.

"Leaving kollel is a very hard decision to make. But if one's family is not getting their needs met, then it's a straightforward requirement. And it's also crucial to think about your childrens' futures. If each of the families that we help has an average of eight children, who are being raised to follow the same path, and an average of at least six out of eight of these children will actually do so, then the problem will be at least six times worse in the next generation. What are we going to do about that?"
I showed this letter to some charitable friends who give money to help desperate people in kollel, and asked them what they thought about it. One said that it's not his place to tell people what to do with their lives, it's only his role to help them in difficult times. Another said that it's just futile.

Maybe they are right. But personally I think that it's everyone's responsibility to do what they can to motivate people to make the right decisions in life, especially when their bad choices are harming other people. And when you're giving people money, you have the chance to get their attention.

Furthermore, I think that there's even a strong case for saying that those who decide to make the right choice and take on their responsibilities will receive more financial aid. Perhaps even for saying that those who point-blank refuse to do anything themselves will not receive any aid beyond food coupons. Certainly Chazal and the Rishonim had a very dim view of people who see no reason to support themselves and not to live off charity.

See too: 
Did They Teach You This In Yeshivah?
Is It Better To Be Supported In Kollel Or To Work?
What's Wrong If Someone Wants To Support People In Kollel?
Vilna Mussar about Educating Children towards Employment 
The Economics of Torah Scholarship in Medieval Jewish Thought and Practice
The Little Red Hen 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Another New Camel Species!

Recently, I discussed the evolution of a new species of camel, Camelus ArtScrollus Blackhoofus, which appears in the Stone Chumash and the Schottenstein Talmud. Someone directed me towards the extremely useful Stone Tanach, in which yet another novel species of camel appears. I'd like to name this one Camelus ArtScrollus Cartoonus. Just take a look at this:


The donkey hoof is great, and so is the sheep hoof. But what on earth is that cartoonish camel foot on the right? (Actually, if you google "cartoon camel," the illustrations are a lot more accurate!)

Aside from the cartoonish nature of it, it's not even remotely zoologically accurate. The illustration depicts a hoof that is partially split, but that's not what a camel has. Camels do not have any kind of hoof - instead, a camel has a foot, partially divided into two toes at the front, each bearing a nail:



So here again we have a mistaken conception of what a camel's foot looks like. And it's for the same reasons as the other fabrication. First, there is a mistaken translation of the passuk (due to the lack of realization that there are two different approaches to translating mafris parsah, and according to neither does it mean "split hoof"). Second, there is a lack of effort to actually look at the physical reality and see if the illustration makes any sense.

Interestingly, if you look at Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Living Torah, the translation and commentary is vastly superior:
Among mammals, you may eat [any one] that has true hooves that are cloven and that brings up its cud. However, among the cud-chewing, hoofed animals, these are the ones that you may not eat: The camel shall be unclean to you although it brings up its cud, since it does not have a true hoof.
true hooves (Saadia; Rashbam; Ibn Ezra; Ibn Janach; Ralbag). Maphreseth parsah in Hebrew. Or, 'that has cloven hooves' (Targum; Rashi; Radak, Sherashim). 
does not have a true hoof The hooves of the camel are so reduced that they are like claws, and the padded soles support most of the weight. Some, however, understand the padded sole to be the 'hoof' here, and translate it, 'does not have a cloven hoof' (Rashi).
Rabbi Kaplan notes that the camel does not have a true hoof at all. I'd argue that correspondingly, it's more correct, according to Rashi's approach, to translate parsah as "foot" or "sole" rather than "hoof."

The truth is, it doesn't actually matter terribly much if someone has the wrong idea as to why a camel is not kosher. But if you're going to the effort of producing illustrations to explicate the passuk, what's the point of giving illustrations that are hopelessly mistaken?

Meanwhile, if you'd like to get a real-life understanding of the topics of kashrut and the shemonah sheratzim that appear in this week's parashah, sign up for Shemini - Live From The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Belated Purim Pix

Hope you all had a great Purim! We dressed up as "The Greatest Showman" - I was P.T. Barnum, my wife was Lettie the Bearded Lady, and my children as Anne Wheeler, Phillip Carlyle, Caroline Barnum, Jenny Lind, and General Tom Thumb!





Wednesday, March 20, 2019

I Messed Up

I really messed up in my last post. The question of whether people in kollel who are in dire straits are helped by giving them a bigger kollel check is one to be discussed in the abstract - not in reference to a particular good-hearted neighbor who is working this week to help people. Sometimes I get so caught up in making a point that I forget the basics. I'm sorry.

Monday, March 18, 2019

What Is Purim Charity?

"And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews... that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."
"One is obligated to give to poor people on the day of Purim... And one should not be particular about Purim money, rather give to every person who puts out his hand..." (Rambam, Mishneh Torah)

Purim is a season for Tzedakah. In the past few days I have given to a certain charity (more about that one soon), but I have also turned down some requests.

The first category of requests that I turned down was for institutions. Now it happens to be that all the institutions that approached me were institutions with which I have a deep ideological disagreement (i.e. chareidi yeshivos and kollels). Still, even if it would have been institutions that I admire, I would not have given. Goodness knows I have my own institution which I believe to be an extremely worthy cause, with enormous costs to cover, and yet we do not take advantage of the "giving spirit" at this time to do so. Because Purim is a time to give to the poor, not to institutions.

Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, in his Kovetz Halachos, states this explicitly. He says that although on Purim there is a law that one should give to whoever stretches out their hand, this does not apply to those collecting on behalf of institutions, because that is not Matanot L'Evyonim.

In the past I've pointed out how there are some amazing dati-leumi yeshivot that take advantage of the Purim giving spirit in order to teach their students a lesson about helping the poor. Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh both send their students collecting, not for themselves, but for others - for charities that help truly poor people. Fabulous!

This year I was also approached by a very, very good-hearted and utterly selfless person, who wants to help kollel families in dire straits. And he wants to do so in a way that is dignified - not as a shameful handout, but rather offering them the opportunity to learn for a few hours on Purim and receive a generous stipend.

I couldn't agree that this was a good cause. It's clear from Chazal and the Rishonim that the notion of choosing to live off charity rather than working is wrong (not to mention raising one's children without the education and values to work). It's also catastrophic for Israel.

The person agreed with me that they should be working (although we disagreed strongly about whether they are benefiting society at all by learning Torah). But, he argued, given that their poverty is a reality, are we supposed to just abandon these people to suffer?

I wasn't sure how to answer that, and I had to consult with a friend who works in the field. He pointed out that if it's a matter of actually having food to eat, there are organizations which provide that. Anything beyond that should only be given in a framework that addresses the underlying problem, not perpetuates it.

To this I would add that the notion of giving money in the form of a stipend for learning so as to help them in a dignified way makes it all even worse. Financial assistance to those who choose not to work should be given in a framework that makes it clear that this is a bad choice - not dressed up as a stipend for doing something good.

My preference is to support the poor via a wonderful local organization called Lemaan Achai. They help families in a way that gets them to financial independence. Furthermore, for Purim, they practice Smart Chesed - giving them what they actually need in terms of long-term assistance, rather than just money for a Purim Seudah. It's a fabulous tzedakah organization that should serve as a model for others.

(One final note. Whenever you're approached by a "tzedakah" collector that doesn't seem to be a legitimate cause, you can always question yourself as to whether the reason that you are refusing to give is out of stinginess rather than a legitimate disagreement. Perhaps the solution is that after declining such requests, one should immediately set aside money for a legitimate cause.)

It's Time For A New Word: Israelopathy

(This article of mine was published in The Jerusalem Post this weekend.) It's Time For A New Word: Israelopathy If you are hi...