Thursday, May 30, 2019

Which is Greater, Learning Torah or Keeping Torah?

What is the goal and function of studying Torah? There are numerous sources in Chazal which imply that the (primary) function of studying Torah is in order to know how to observe it:
It is not the exposition that is the main point, but rather the actions. (Mishnah, Avot 1:17; similarly in Sifra, Acharei Mot 9)
Rabbi Eleazar said: What was the blessing that Moses first blessed upon the Torah? Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the Universe, Who chose this Torah, and sanctified it, and desired those who fulfill it. He did not say “those who toil in it,” and he did not say “those who contemplate it,” bur rather “those who fulfill it”—those who fulfill the words of the Torah. (Midrash Rabba, Devarim 11:6)
Rava would often comment: The purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds—that a person should not read and study and then defy his father, his mother, his rabbi, and those greater than him in wisdom and numbers, as it says, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; all who practice it gain good understanding” (Tehillim 111:10). It does not say, “those who study it,” but rather “those who practice it”—i.e., those who practice for its sake, and not those who practice not for its sake. (Berakhot 17a )
One of the most significant discussions relating to this point is in the Talmud’s account of how a group of Sages debated whether studying Torah is greater than fulfilling it:
Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were already gathered in the upper chamber of Nitza’s house in Lod, when the following question was raised before them: What is greater, study or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All of them answered, saying: Study is greater, because study leads to practice. (Kiddushin 40b )
This dispute was resolved with the conclusion that study is greater. That would seem to indeed demonstrate that the study of Torah is an end unto itself, and is the highest form of human endeavor.

And yet matters become more complicated when this is considered carefully. The Talmud’s conclusion is not merely that study is greater. It is that study is greater because it leads to practice. But if study is greater because it leads to practice, then this effectively means that practice is more important! Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his comprehensive and excellent study of this topic, notes that many authorities interpret the Talmud to mean that study is “greater” only in the sense that it takes precedence; you have to study the Torah in order to know how to practice it:
One could thus suggest, as indeed many have, that the assembly’s preference for study is meant only in a chronological sense; it is to be propaedeutic to practice. To be sure, it is indispensable to practice and therefore has to come first, but it serves only as a means to achieve another end, namely, practice, which remains axiologically superior. (Torah Lishmah—Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and his Contemporaries, p. 141)
We see that the greatness of studying Torah is insofar as it teaches us how to fulfill the Torah, which is the ultimate goal. This is also seen in a passage discussing the form of praise that was set aside for King Chizkiyah:
“They honored (Chizkiyah) in his death” …- they put a Torah scroll on his bed, and they said, “This one fulfilled all that is written in this.” But surely we do the same today (and thus it is no particular honor)? …We say that the person fulfilled the Torah, but we do not say that he expounded Torah (whereas with Chizkiyah, it was said that he expounded Torah). But did the master not say that learning Torah is great, because it leads to practice (and thus the praise given today of Torah scholars, that they fulfill the Torah, is even greater than that given to Chizkiyah)? This [that the greatness of study is insofar as it leads to practice] refers to one’s own learning, and this [that Chizkiyah was honored with] refers to teaching others. (Bava Kama 17a)
Here we see a clear hierarchy. Fulfilling the Torah is greater than studying it; teaching others is even greater, because it leads many people to fulfill it. Again, we see that the greatness of studying Torah is because of how it leads to the fulfillment of the Torah, which is the ultimate goal.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Torah Lishma, Aveira Lishma

In yesterday's post, I discussed how while there was always Torah study that was not oriented towards any practical knowledge of halachah, it is nevertheless the case that classically, the primary function of Torah study was always expressed in terms of practical knowledge of halachah.

This was challenged by a number of people. Several of them thought that I was saying that there was never any non-halachic Torah study, or that there was no value to such study. I didn't make either of those claims.

Others claimed that the notion of Torah lishmah proves that the primary goal of studying Torah is for the sake of knowing Torah. As someone called "Lazar" quoted:
Pirkey Avot 6: Rabbi Meir said: Whoever occupies himself with the Torah for its own sake, merits many things; not only that but he is worth the whole world.
But that's not the correct translation!

Torah lishmah does not mean "Torah for its own sake." In fact, yesterday someone presented a fabulous proof for that. The concept of עבירה לשמה does not refer to a transgression committed "for its own sake." Rather, it refers to a transgression committed leshem Shamayim. By the same token, learning Torah lishmah means learning Torah leshem Shamayim.

The definitive work on this topic is Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's comprehensive Torah Lishmah - Torah for Torah's Sake: In the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries. There one sees that the classical definition of Torah Lishmah, amongst Chazal and the Rishonim, was functional: that it referred to learning Torah in order to understand and perform the mitzvos correctly. To quote from the Gemara:
"The goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds, so that a man should not study Torah and Mishnah and then rebel against his father and mother and teacher and his superior in wisdom and rank, as it says, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a good understanding is gained by all those that do them.' It does not say, 'for all who study,' but 'for all who do,' which implies, those that do them lishmah and not shelo lishmah." (Berachos 17a, Munich MS)
And from a later source:
If a man wishes to study lishmah, what shall he intend when he studies? "Whatever I study I will practice." (Sefer Chassidim 944)
The notion that Torah Lishmah refers to "study purely for the mitzvah of Talmud Torah and nothing else" was the innovation of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, which itself was a reaction to the chassidic transfer of the focus of religious life towards spirituality. Rav Chaim's proposed source for his novel definition of Torah lishmah was a rather questionable inference from a certain statement of the Rosh, in turn based on a Talmudic passage which R. Lamm demonstrates to be an errant textual version (see note 20 on pp. 247-8, pictured at right).

To quote R. Lamm: "In conclusion, then, R. Hayyim's reaction to the disturbance in the study-practice (and study-prayer) equilibrium by the hasidic initiative was to endow study with a value much greater than was attributed to it before." A fundamental component of this was to give a new definition of Torah lishmah. But that is not what the phrase traditionally meant.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Toiling in Torah

Back in my charedi yeshivah days, the Rosh Yeshivah loved reciting the first Rashi of last week's parasha. Im Bechukosai telechu... says Rashi, surely the rest of the passuk talks about keeping mitzvos, so what does this phrase refer to? It means shetihiyu ameilim b'Torah - that you should be toiling in Torah! This fit perfectly with the hashkafah of the yeshivah, that the primary idea of doing Hashem's will is not to be doing all the mitzvos - it's to be shteiging in Gemara, learning Torah for its own sake.

Rashi's point, which is based on Midrash Sifra, is elaborated upon by R. Eliyahu Mizrachi. The verse mentions three concepts: Im Bechukosai telechu, then there is v'es mitzvosai tishmeru, and then v'asisem osam. All these three seem to be speaking about doing mitzvos, which from Chazal's perspective is superfluous. Thus, only the third part, v'asisem osam, is actually referring to doing the mitzvos. The second part is referring to learning Torah in order to know how to do the mitzvos, and the first part is referring to learning Torah for no other purpose.

But when you take a closer look, it's not at all clear that R. Eliyahu Mizrachi is giving the correct explanation of either Rashi or the Sifra.

While there may be other versions of Rashi, the version that we have reads as follows:

רש"י על ויקרא פרק כו פסוק ג
אם בחקתי תלכו - יכול זה קיום המצות כשהוא אומר ואת מצותי תשמרו הרי קיום המצות אמור הא מה אני מקיים אם בחקתי תלכו שתהיו עמלים בתורה:

Here Rashi says that it's v'es mitzvosai tishmeru which refers to keeping mitzvos. He doesn't say that it's v'asisem osam which refers to keeping the mitzvos. And the Sifra says the same:

ספרא פרשת בחוקותי פרשתא א
 אם בחקותי תלכו. יכול אילו המצות. כשהוא אומר ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אותם הרי מצות אמורות. הא מה אני מקיים אם בחוקתי תלכו להיות עמילים בתורה

Accordingly, the Sifra and Rashi are understanding that there are only two parts to the passuk, not three. The second part, v'es mitzvosai tishmeru v'asisem osam, collectively refers to doing the mitzvos. Which means that the first part, Im Bechukosai telechu, refers to toiling in Torah - but what kind of toil? Rashi explains:

 רש"י על ויקרא פרק כו פסוק ג
 ואת מצותי תשמרו - הוו עמלים בתורה על מנת לשמור ולקיים כמו שנאמר (דברים ה) ולמדתם אותם ושמרתם לעשותם:

It's talking about toiling in Torah in order to be able to know how to do the mitzvos.

All this fits with something that I noticed a few years ago. The notion that the mitzvah of learning Torah is primarily about learning Torah for the sake of learning Torah is of relatively recent origin. To be sure, there was always a concept that there is some Torah study that has no practical application, and is valuable for its own sake, such as Chazal's statements about ben sorer u'moreh. But the primary function of the mitzvah of learning Torah was seen as being in order to know how to do the mitzvos. See this post for a list of Rishonim saying this very clearly. And it seems that Rashi should be added to this list, rather than having a different view.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A Wild Tale

We've gotten some pretty unusual donations to the Biblical Museum of Natural History. There was a guy in Netanya who told us that he has a dead bear for us, if we come and collect it. It sounded unlikely, but he really did have a skeleton of a cave bear, a hundred thousand years old, which is now on display at the museum. There was an elderly lady who came to visit and told her that we should come to her home and she will give us a special donation. I schlepped two hours to her home, which was a tiny decrepit apartment, and she proudly gave me a box of seashells, worth a few dollars each. I thanked her politely, feeling extremely disappointed, and as I left her apartment, she casually added that she would like to sponsor a seashell exhibit - for which she later sent a five-figure donation.

Today began as one of those days. First we had a visit from some chassidim, from Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. They were from the so-called "zebra" sect, wearing black-and-white striped tunics. And they had a falcon! They said that they had found it in the street. We took it from them, and contacted the Nature Reserves Authority about releasing it back into the wild.

I had just finished dealing with the falcon when I got a text from my nephew. He told me that he saw someone on Facebook looking for a home for two blue-and-gold macaws. Macaws are amazing but very demanding birds, and this person was willing to give them away for free to someone who could provide a suitable home. I told my nephew to tell the guy to contact me. To be honest, I was a bit suspicious. But as long as there was no cost to us, I was willing to proceed.

The macaw owner, Hassane Issa, contacted me via WhatsApp. First he wanted to check that we were suitably equipped to accommodate such birds, which I was easily able to demonstrate. He explained that his daughter had taken ill, and he did not have time to give them the attention that they require. He said that he'd be happy to deliver them to me at no charge.

Great, I said, and gave Hassane our address. But I was still very curious, and asked him where he was located.

"Lebanon," he replied.

You must be joking, I thought. I pointed out to him that you can't just send macaws from Lebanon to Israel. No problem, he said. There is a special animal shipping service that does it. He sent me the URL of their website, and promised to send me the tracking number shortly. He did so, I entered the tracking number, and lo and behold saw that two macaws had been dropped off for shipment to me!

It was at this point that I had the good sense to look into things a little more carefully. I googled the name of the shipping company, and got no hits. I googled the URL of the shipping company,,
and got no hits beyond the website itself. I looked at the website a little more carefully, and realized that it was a complete fake. The "Meet Our Team" section in particular was a dead giveaway, featuring stock photos of men, with women's names!

At this point it was entirely obvious that this was a scam. Any moment now I would be asked for money. And lo and behold, a few minutes later, I got an email from the shipping company, asking for 1200 shekels to complete the shipment process - to be sent to Unowa Bruno Mbakwa in Cameroun!

I asked Hassane if he really wanted to live his life as a thief, and if this is how his parents raised him. He kept insisting that he was serious. So I told him to make a donation to the museum online, and then we will pay all the shipping costs and send him some money as a token of appreciation. (Sometimes you can scam the scammers.) But it didn't work, he kept insisting that we have to first send money. I gave up and discontinued the communication.

Some further googling revealed that macaw scams are a big thing. They happen all the time, and gullible people get suckered in to paying shipment costs for birds that don't exist. I don't know why it's macaws in particular that are used for this scam, but it's always macaws.

The moral of the story is - be careful out there! And if anyone wants to have some fun with Hassane, or has a way to shut down the fraudulent website, his number is +1-781-312-9814.

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

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."


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.

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 ...