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 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?

Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both ...