Monday, July 29, 2019

Rambam or Maimonides?

Good news: I have finished the first draft of my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. Due to its length and nature, it looks like it will have to be published in two volumes. Part One is a general review of the entire topic. Part Two is a collection of my monographs which take some of the individual sub-topics and analyze them in great detail. Here's the outline contents:

Volume One—An Overview of Rationalism vs. Mysticism
Part One: Knowledge
Part Two: The Order of Nature
Part Three: Supernatural Entities
Part Four: The Function of Mitzvot
Part Five: The Nature of Torah
Appendix I—The Role of Belief in Judaism
Appendix II—The Authenticity and Authority of the Zohar

Volume Two—Studies in Rationalism vs. Mysticism
1. Sod Hashem Liyreyav —When God Reveals His Scientific Secrets
2. Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists
3. Maimonides' Naturalization of Miracles
4. Students Disputing Teachers
5. The Evolution of the Olive
6. The Sages vs. Science: The Sun's Path at Night
7. Maharal's Multiple Revolutions in Aggadic Scholarship
8. The Question of the Kidneys’ Counsel
9. Brain Death and Organ Donation
10. The Sages' Powers of Life and Death
11. Wrestling with Demons
12. The Evil Eye
13. Shiluach haKein: The Transformation of a Mitzvah
14. What Can One Do for the Deceased?

But before the book goes further in the editing process, there's a problem with which I am grappling. Some of this material is from papers that I wrote as part of my master's degree or doctorate, and is written according to academic convention. Other parts are taken from material that I wrote on this website or specifically for the book, and with which I wrote according to how I am comfortable writing. Now, the book should presumably have a unified style, even between the volumes. So which material should I bring in line with which?

Rambam or Maimonides? Ramban or Nachmanides? Chazal or the Sages? Abraham or Avraham? Shabbos or Shabbat? Chullin or Hullin? Hirsch or R. Hirsch? R. Moshe Sofer or R. Moses Sofer or Moses Sofer or Hatam Sofer or Chasam Sofer?

On the one hand, this book more-or-less fits in to the style of academic books. Yet on the other hand, the primary people who will be interested in reading this book are the people who speak about Rambam rather than Maimonides.

I would welcome reader feedback on this question!

Sunday, July 28, 2019


Late last night I came in to the museum to check on things. I went to look over the exhibit of the Shemonah Sheratzim - the small creatures listed in the Bible as transmitting ritual impurity when dead, with which there are various views as to their identities, and we maintain live exhibits of each of the possibilities. Much to my dismay, I saw that one of the enclosures was open and its occupant had escaped! 

The absentee exhibit was a blind mole-rat, a truly extraordinary creature lacking eyes, which we had named Daredevil. I started looking around the museum, using the technique of thinking like the escaped animal, and of where it would want to go. As Isaiah 2:19-21 makes clear, mole-rats like to hide in confined places. So I started pulling things away from the wall, to see if Daredevil would be hiding behind them. And it wasn't that long until I found him! 

Foolishly being unprepared, I didn't have anything to grab him with. It would not be a good idea to pick him up, seeing as he possesses immensely powerful teeth designed for chiselling through hard earth. There was a large plastic food-scooper next to me, so I quickly placed it on top of him. Unsurprisingly, he simply pushed it up and started to emerge from under it. I pushed the scooper back down, grabbed a nearby container of food, and put it on top of the scooper, to weigh it down while I went to find some way of getting him back to his enclosure. Hearing a noise behind me, I turned to see that Daredevil, possessing a strength that I did not him to possess, had arched his back and knocked off the food container. 
Again I put the scoop over him, and held it down while I looked around frantically for something within arm's reach. I need something flat to slide under the scoop, so that I could pick it up and securely transport him. The only thing nearby was a slim sefer, a book of Torah scholarship, that I had left lying around. It was the perfect size, shape and firmness to slide under the scoop. But it would be sacrilegious to use a sefer to capture a sheretz! How could I use a holy book to catch the epitome of ritual impurity?!
Then I realized what the sefer was.
"Shemonah Sheratzim - A Study of the Identities of the Eight Creeping Creatures," by Zohar Amar!

It would be an honor for that work, for it to be used not only for the research and development of the contents of the exhibit, but even for the physical re-acquisition of one of the creatures themselves!

Daredevil is now securely back in his enclosure.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

MLM Schemes and the Mishnah

Over a quarter of a century ago, I nearly got involved in a Multi-Level Marketing scheme. At the last moment, my father, z"l, heard about it and warned me off. I then consulted my posek, who said these immortal words to me: "It's assur. And even if it's muttar, it's still assur."

As the years progressed I've looked into it more, and I see the wisdom of these words. Unfortunately, and astonishingly, there is precious little in writing about this from rabbinic authorities. The one person who really campaigned against such things was the late and great Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum z"l. Perhaps the dearth of literature on this topic is because the question is rarely posed, with people preferring not to see it as a halachic question. And in one case where I convinced someone to ask a shaylah about it, both poskim that he consulted were not equipped to answer the question.

The problem is that people don't understand the insidiousness of these schemes. Rabbi Teitelbaum did a good job of explaining it in this article, but it's not quite enough, for reasons that I shall explain.

MLM schemes are just pyramid schemes in disguise (despite what people will try to tell you otherwise). With these schemes, the physical product being sold is never actually worth the amount for which it is being sold - if it was, then they would just use conventional marketing. Rather, what is being sold is a combination of the product, plus the opportunity to make money. And, for mathematical reasons, all these schemes end up being pyramids whereby the people at the top make money, and the people at the bottom naively lose money (and often relationships too). There's not a single MLM scheme you can show me which doesn't have a lot of unhappy and disappointed people at the bottom.

Now, there seems to be a way to make this halachically permissible, as did the poskim that I mentioned earlier. They said that as long as you describe the situation clearly and honestly to the person that you recruit, then it's fine. You have to spell out that you are selling a marketing opportunity which might not be profitable for them.

But there's a problem with this, which I was happy to discover is made clear by a Mishnah:
מִי שֶׁנִּתְעָרֵב מַיִם בְּיֵינוֹ, לֹא יִמְכְּרֶנּוּ בַחֲנוּת אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן הוֹדִיעוֹ, וְלֹא לְתַגָּר אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהוֹדִיעוֹ, שֶׁאֵינוֹ אֶלָּא לְרַמּוֹת בּוֹ. 
 "If someone's wine became mixed with water, he cannot sell it in a store unless he informs the customers. And he may not sell it to a merchant even if he informs him, as it will only serve for him to deceive with it. (Mishnah, Bava Metzia 4:11)
This Mishnah is amazing! It tells us that halachah requires us to take a different set of factors into account when we sell to a consumer versus when we sell to a distributor. You can sell a defective item to a consumer, as long as you notify them of its defects. But you can't sell it to someone who will be selling it to others, as there is no way that you can be sure that they will do the same, and there is every incentive for them not to do so.

This would perfectly apply to MLM schemes. With MLM, you are trying to turn purchasers into distributors. And so telling them about the risks doesn't help and is irrelevant. Ultimately, these schemes make money for people at the top via selling to naive people at the bottom, who pay money in the naive belief that they are going to make money. Even if you personally make the situation clear to the person that you are selling to, this is not how it will continue. The system requires people at the bottom making a foolish, misinformed decision. The person that you sell to is virtually guaranteed to overstate the wealth-making opportunities.

As my own posek so wisely told me over 25 years ago: It's assur. And even if it's muttar, it's still assur.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Labor, Antisemitism, and Israelopathy

In an effort to stave off the constant criticism of antisemitism, the British Labor Party has produced a a new page about antisemitism. On first glance, it appears to be very good.

But you have to think about what is not being said.

There is no reference to the fact of Israel being the historic homeland of the Jewish People. Thus, it still feeds the Israelopathic libel of Israel being a colonial project.

Furthermore, the only thing that is off-limits is comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. But having double-standards for Israel compared to other countries is apparently not a problem.

Finally, note that while it says that Labor supports a two-state solution, it doesn't say what those two states are; this is like when the Palestinians talk about a two-state solution, but what they mean is one Palestinian state and one mixed but not Jewish state.

All in all, this page is reflective of an attempt to try to divorce hatred of Jews from hatred of Israel. That's why is so important to focus on the evils of Israelopathy rather than the evils of antisemitism.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Disproof of Rationalism?

Several weeks ago, I came across a website for someone diagnosing and curing "ayin hara" via lead-pouring (Bleigießen). Now, as regular readers know, I don't believe that these things have any validity. I carefully researched the topic of ayin hara, and wrote a study of the topic, and I think that ayin hara is nothing more than an outdated belief (and it should be noted that Rambam did not accept its existence, at least not according to its classical definition).

Furthermore, the idea that pouring lead could cure or even diagnose an "ayin hara" was preposterous. Bleigießen, otherwise known as molybdomancy, is a medieval superstition with no value (and in fact the potential for considerable harm, via lead poisoning). It is clear that such soothsayers, with Rebbetzin Aidel Miller being the most famous, are not "reading" people's problem at all; instead, it is a combination of subconscious cold-reading by the practitioner (whereby they give vague guesses and are able to hone in according to the answers received) along with the Barnum effect working its magic upon the patient (whereby people are inclined to give a favorable interpretation to such diagnoses).

But this website particularly took my interest. The person advertising this service, Rabbi Daniel Hool of London, was someone who I vaguely knew from yeshivah a quarter-century ago. I remembered him as an extremely intelligent and straight person, and I was (and still am) certain that he is not deliberately deceiving anyone. So I reached out to him, sent him my study of the topic, and recommended that he switch to using tin, so as to avoid lead poisoning.

We got into a discussion. Rabbi Hool said that he can't use tin, because it doesn't have the correct metaphysical properties. He then made a staggering claim of an efficiency rate of around 80% in diagnosing problems using lead-pouring.

So I decided to conduct a little experiment, to prove to him that he had no such power. I would have him work his magic for someone that I name. I would only give him the person's Hebrew name, and there would thus be no possibility of his engaging in cold-reading. And it would be someone with a very specific problem, so that there is no way to succumb to the Barnum effect.

Rabbi Hool agreed, and furthermore said that I only need to pay if he is correct. The only condition that he made, which is one for every case he takes on, is that I had to take upon myself a small and realistic acceptance to do some kind of improvement in my Avodas Hashem. Fine!

So I gave him the Hebrew name of someone that I know well. There was absolutely no way for him to know the person's real identity. And I didn't tell him anything at all about her. She was suffering from a problem with her right shoulder and arm, with the cause not yet diagnosed, as well as an extremely sore throat and an anxiety issue. I looked forward to showing Rabbi Hool that his imagined powers were not real.

Within a few hours, I received a response from him. Here it is, exactly as I received it from him:
Ok, so she had plenty of ayin horah and I dealt with it the best of my ability.... The lead tells me she has an issue with her head around about nose height.- that could be internal or external. She also seems to be suffering from headaches maybe towards the back of her head on the right.... There was also signs of either problem with right shoulder area or she is having stress from a close family member at the moment....
That was NOT the result that I expected!

How did he get the right shoulder correct?! (And anxiety could be described as in issue in her head.) Was that just an extremely lucky guess? (I told him that he wrong about the headaches, so he went to check the lead again, and said that he thinks it's actually a sore throat!)

I was extremely unnerved by this, so I ran the test with him a second time. This time, his hits were significantly less accurate than with the first patient. But he still correctly named one of the issues.

Since then, I've been engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with him. When I pointed out how he missed several things, he countered that not every problem with a person is necessarily caused by ayin horah, and that if the ayin horah shows on a body part and there is no physical issue with that body part, then the ayin horah is still there but it is affecting another non-physical area of their life.
My counter-claim is that he is thereby setting it up such that he can never be disproved. And it's so easy for the Barnum effect to work here - most adults, especially the kind that feel they have an ayin hara, are suffering from lower back pain and various other ailments. Furthermore, seeing as he predicts five or six things with every patient, out of a potential list of around twenty body parts at the most, he is statistically going to hit the mark enough times for the Barnum effect to work its magic.

To this, Rabbi Hool responds that his hits are frequent and specific enough to discount the Barnum effect. He has been sending me accounts of many of the procedures that he does. Here is one recent example:
So this lady comes to me a few minutes ago and tells me she has terrible problems with her sinuses before the procedure. I do her procedure and tell her:  ''It's much worse on your right side than the left- correct?'' She says "absolutely!'' I then tell her she has a "problem with her left arm"- She says ''absolutely!'' I then tell her she has internal problem/indigestion chest left side -she says ''Absolutely!'' I then tell her she has lower back pain right side she says ''Absolutely!''. This- after telling me nothing other than she has a 'problem with her sinuses.' So you still think "statistically" anyone can do this???
Well, I'm still skeptical. And I think that there's a lot of flexibility being employed in confirming successes here, along with patients who are very eager to validate the procedure. But on the other hand, I'm also still a little unnerved by the shoulder thing!

On the whole, I'm inclined to implement the two-headed rhino principle. Which is more likely - that he has the ability to diagnose and heal physical ailments via the pattern of cooling lead (with all the ramifications that this has for our entire understanding of existence), or that I am somehow not grasping the cold-reading/Barnum effect in action? I think it's the latter.

Rabbi Hool has documented many of the cases that he does, on his website. I invite people to read the list (bearing in mind that he is an honest person, although still obviously biased to interpret situations favorably, as are his patients). You can also try his services, via email (he accepts payment via Paypal). If you do so, please first make a list of exactly what you suffer from, leaving nothing out!

(To obtain my monograph on the topic, see the post "The Surprising History of Ayin Hara")

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Legislating the Neighborhood

There was an article in the news today about various concessions to which Netanyahu had agreed in order to have the charedi parties support his coalition. It's the issues of unlimited military deferrals and no Shabbos construction which get most of the public attention, but buried in this article was something remarkable:
"Another clause stated that anything that might “injure” a religious or haredi way of life should be prevented in neighborhoods where these sectors constitute a majority."
This was particularly interesting in light of an article on Yeshiva World News yesterday titled "Secular Residents Protest The Coming Of The Chareidim To Charish." There have often been secular complaints and protests when charedim move into a city or neighborhood, with Kiryat HaYovel as another example. Charedim respond that this is discriminatory and hateful. But if the charedim are trying to legislate that as soon as they become the majority of a neighborhood, other residents cannot do anything that might "injure" a charedi way of life, then how can they possibly complain when other people do not want charedim to live in their neighborhood?

Of course, my own home town of Ramat Beit Shemesh is a case in point. When I moved here, eighteen years ago, it was around a third charedi, a third dati-leumi, and a third secular. Within a few years the secular all moved out, as life here had become quite uncomfortable for them. Then the charedi community tried to impose its standards on the rest of Ramat Beit Shemesh, with signs and letters in the commercial center demanding charedi standards of modesty, and local rabbis (including Anglo-charedi rabbis) trying to prevent restaurants from having outside seating areas. Imagine if they had the legal power to do this!

If you're going to demand that other people conform to your restrictive social mores, don't be surprised when those people don't want you to move into the neighborhood!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Cuddly Hyrax and the Two-Headed Rhino

Following taking Torah-in-Motion's 2019 African Adventure group to Zimbabwe and Botswana, where we saw astonishing elephants, hippos and monster crocodiles, we went down to Capetown in South Africa. There, we took the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain. This is one of my favorite places, because it is pretty much the only place outside of Israel where you will see an important Biblical creature: the hyrax. I posted the following photo to Facebook:

Now to my mind this looks like I bought a cuddly toy hyrax and put it on the mountain for a photo. Which is indeed exactly what I did; the real hyraxes were (unlike in other years) too far away to get a good picture of them. But, much to my surprise, a number of people on Facebook thought that it was a photo of a real hyrax!

Okay, I guess most people are not as intimately familiar with hyraxes as I am. But then yesterday, I was able to post a truly extraordinary photo:

As I wrote on Facebook, this is "Possibly the most extraordinary wildlife photo that I have ever taken. A two-headed rhino!"

This photo got an enormous amount of attention! Many people were marveling at the incredible phenomenon of a two-headed rhinoceros. But others were wondering: could such a thing really exist?

The answer is that it's certainly possible for such a creature to exist. The phenomenon of a creature possessing two heads (or perhaps it should be phrased as twins possessing a single body) has been documented with numerous species. Two-headed snakes appear to be particularly common; there was one exhibited for many years at a reptile zoo near Eilat. I've also seen two-headed turtles. And at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we have the skull of a two-faced cow.

Most remarkable of all are Abigail and Brittany Hensel. They are adult twins who possess a single body, with Abigail controlling the arm and leg on one side, and Brittany controlling the arm and leg on the other side. The Hensel twins are fully functional, and can even drive!

What about a two-headed rhinoceros? In fact, there is a webpage, titled "Five Bizarre (Yet Real) Two-Headed Animals," which features photos not only of a two-headed snake, turtle, kitten and piglet, but also of a two-headed rhino!

Yet at the same time, one should ask oneself: What is more likely? Is it more likely that I saw a two-headed rhino, or is it more likely that there is some other trickery involved? For example, it's possible that the photo was digitally manipulated on Photoshop. Or that there were two rhinos which were standing with their legs perfectly lined up, giving the impression that there was a single four-legged body - which would still make for a fabulous photo, albeit not quite as fabulous as a two-headed rhino!

(For the record, I hereby attest that I did not alter my photo in any way! But as for the photo of the two-headed rhino on the aforementioned webpage of "Five Bizarre (Yet Real) Two-Headed Animals," shown here, I am convinced that it is digitally manipulated.)

Many people focus on what is theoretically possible, rather than on what is likely. This is something that I encounter quite often in arguing various topics surrounding Rationalist Judaism. To give but one example: Is it theoretically possible that when the Gemara said that the atalef lays eggs, that it was not referring to a bat, but rather to a duck-billed platypus from Australia, and just happened to describe it with the exact name that everyone has always understood to refer to the bat, which is a creature that is birdlike and often mistakenly thought to lay eggs? Yes, it's theoretically possible. But is it likely? Not in the slightest!

When evaluating claims, it's always important to think about what is most likely and reasonable, not what is theoretically possible. And to be aware of all the different possibilities to exist - and their probabilities. Of course, different people will have different ways of weighing up various probabilities. But the first step is to at least be aware that that is what should be done.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Zimbabwe and Botswana

I'm currently leading the Torah-in-Motion 2019 African adventure, so I thought I'd share some photos. These are from the Zimbabwe and Botswana segment:

The Great Baobab Tree in Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls 

This is how I know that crocodiles are big enough to eat buffalo

If the food was a little higher, would he jump to get at it?


Denying Reality

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