Friday, April 30, 2021

Mourn. Don't Blame The Victims.

The tragedy of the Meron disaster is horrific. 44 dead. The pictures of the body-bags are chilling. The pain is unimaginable.

To be sure, we are no strangers to tragedy and death. But in general such things are due to an outside cause - terrorism, persecution, famine, and so on. These deaths occurred simply in the context of a religious celebration. It's just heart-wrenching.

Originally I wasn't going to write anything other than expressing grief, and wishes for the recovery of the injured. But then I saw some people on Twitter criticizing those who went, on purportedly rationalist grounds. They argued that mass gatherings of this sort are darkei Emori, and they pointed out how Rambam was opposed to visiting the graves of the righteous, and proclaimed that the righteous are memorialized through their teachings, not through pilgrimages to their graves.

Aside from being deeply insensitive, such critiques are wrong for other reasons. I personally am not interested in attending the Lag B'Omer celebrations at Meron. But the Meron celebrations are certainly a tremendous source of religious inspiration for many people. And one should not attempt to delegitimize those who follow the mystical approach. If people are inspired by the Meron celebrations, that is a wonderful, positive thing.

It's also important not apportion any blame to the people who went, even unintentionally. Even describing it as a "stampede" is wrong. Consider this frightening but important discussion from Wikipedia:

Academic experts who study crowd movements and crushing disasters oppose the use of the term "stampede".[9] "The rhetoric of 'stampede' is often used to imply that the crowd is animalistic or mindless". Most reported "stampedes" are better understood as "progressive crowd collapses":[9][10] beginning at densities of about six[9] or seven[8] people per square meter, individuals are pressed so closely against each other they are unable to move as individuals, and shockwaves can travel through a crowd which, at such densities, behaves somewhat like a fluid.[8] If a single person falls, or other people reach down to help, waves of bodies can be involuntarily precipitated forward into the open space.[9] One such shockwave can create other openings in the crowd nearby, precipitating further crushing.[9] Unable to draw breath, individuals in a crowd can also be crushed while standing.[8] Journalistic misuse of the term "stampede", says Edwin Galea of the University of Greenwich, is the result of "pure ignorance and laziness ... it gives the impression that it was a mindless crowd only caring about themselves, and they were prepared to crush people."[9] In reality, individuals are directly crushed by others nearby who have no choice, and those who can choose are too distant from the epicenter to be aware of what is happening.[9] Among causes of fatal crushes, sometimes described as "crazes", is when a large crowd is trying to get toward something; typically occurring when members at the back of a large crowd continue pushing forward not knowing that those at the front are being crushed, or because of something that forces them to move.[11]

There are crucial lessons to be taken from this terrible tragedy. But not a critique of the people who went. And the lessons should wait for another day.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Dirt vs. Rocks

Sometimes, sociological insights come when you're not expecting them.

With the vastly larger new premises of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, it's become necessary to find a serious solution to cleaning the floors. Obviously it's a very low paid and not especially prestigious job, but it has to be done. The administration team brought in various companies and people to try out the role. One day I walked through the exhibit halls to notice a pair of charedi men cleaning the floors. When they realized that I am the museum director, one of them eagerly stopped me to engage in intricate discussion on the identities of the Shemonah Sheratzim!

It was a great and stimulating discussion, but I left it saddened. This guy presumably had a wife and children to support. And he was brilliant. He had an amazingly sharp mind and a thirst for knowledge. Yet all he could do to make a parnasah was to clean floors!

We then had another applicant submit his resume for the same position. He'd attended a proper high school in chutz l'aretz. But then he'd spent fourteen years in yeshivah and kollel, and now could seek no more advanced career than cleaning floors. I am pretty sure that when he was first brainwashed into not attending college and devoting himself to learning, he did not see his life ending up that way.

I was commenting on these cases to a rabbinic mentor of mine and he told me to look on the bright side. It could be worse! At least these men were finally looking for an honest job, even if a lowly and very poorly-paid one. Better that, than just staying in the kollel framework and going knocking on doors to collect charity.

הפגנת חרדים על אכיפת תקנות הקורונה בבתי ספר ובתלמודי תורהA disturbing article that I just saw in the news demonstrated that there are other, even worse alternatives. Among those engaged in violent, racist anti-Arab protests last week were numerous young charedi men who have dropped out of the regular yeshiva framework. While I was not surprised at the phenomenon, I was very surprised by the numbers. The article stated that according to a study conducted by the Knesset Research and Information Center, there are more dropouts from ultra-Orthodox educational institutions than other schools; in 2018, the drop out rate among Haredi students was 4.6%, compared to 1.4% among the general public. But it noted that "experts say the real numbers are much higher and estimate that at least 20% of Haredi students do not complete their religious education." The article continued:

The coronavirus pandemic has also played a role in the increased disenfranchisement of Haredi youth.
Lockdowns and health mitigation directives forced the closure of yeshivas, sending students onto the streets - where drugs, alcohol and other deviant anti-social behavior were prevalent.
The youths, who found themselves cast adrift from the strict environment to which they are accustomed, often suffered from depression. Many of them came from poverty-stricken homes, often from families who transitioned to ultra-Orthodox lives but remained on the sidelines of Haredi society.
Having left their education, they struggled to be productive members of society and instead became an added burden for their parents. The Haredi educational institutions could not (and perhaps would not) provide a solution to this phenomenon, and without an alternative, the young dropouts found solace in far-right organizations and joined in their violent activities.

All this should remind us that the stereotypical images of charedim, those who remain in learning forever, are not the only types of charedim who exist. And nor do all those who leave that path end up in high-tech. Some of them can do nothing other than clean floors. And others don't even make it that far.

If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Book Launch This Sunday!

This Thursday evening, hundreds of thousands of people will be celebrating the date on which the person who didn’t write the Zohar didn’t die.

This Sunday evening, considerably fewer people will be celebrating something else:

Looking forward to seeing you there!

(Everyone who ordered the book from the museum website should have received it by now, and will be emailed the link for the launch. If you didn't receive your copy, please write to For those who did not yet order the book, you can do so at, and you will receive a Zoom link for the Sunday event.)

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Is it Permissible to Punch a Rabbi in the Face?

Is it permissible to punch a rabbi - a senior rabbi in a prestigious yeshivah - in the face?

That's the kind of thing that is going on in the Holy War at Ponevezh Yeshivah these days, between followers of Rav Kahaneman's son and followers of his son-in-law. It's actually just the latest chapter in a long-running physical battle between different factions in the Litvishe charedi world. No doubt the rabbis and yeshivah students involved in such violence have all kinds of technical pilpulim as to why their actions are not only permissible but even a mitzvah. 

Still, for the rest of us, including the vast majority of charedi society, such actions are far beyond the pale. Even to ask the question "Is it permissible to punch a Rabbi in the face?" is horrendously offensive.

And yet I just came across a question that is no less problematic. It was the title of an article in a mainstream Torah journal put out by Machon Aliya, a prominent charedi organization for training people to work in various careers involving practical halacha - an organization with several branches and thousands of graduates.

"Is It Permissible To Steal From The State?" That is the title of one of the articles in this journal. And the article spends three pages engaging in pilpulei halacha regarding this question and its various applications. The good news is that the article concludes that due to the preponderance of opinions against it, it's best not to. The bad news is that the article not only raises it as a serious question, but presents numerous arguments to legitimize it, and at no point whatsoever does it stress the fundamental issue of v'asisa hayashar v'hatov, of ehrlechkeit, of the basic moral norm of being a law-abiding citizen. And this in a journal of organization dedicated to practical halacha!

The article begins by noting that according to most (charedi) halachic authorities, the principle of dina d'malchusa dina does not apply in Israel, since it is an anti-Torah government. Still, it notes that since there are those who say otherwise, there are grounds to be stringent. The next paragraph adds a story about how hishtadlus does not obligate one to engage in dishonesty. A nice point, but still missing the wood for the trees.

Then there are several paragraphs of intricate discussion about getting on the bus without paying, and about there are additional grounds to permit an adult to pay with a children's pass, and about how stealing bags from a supermarket might be permissible because (in Israel) the money for bags goes to the Environmental Protection Ministry, etc., etc.

The article then gives a different reason why stealing from the state might be problematic. No, again, it's not because it's fundamentally immoral. This one - from the famous Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein - is that if the state has less money, they are going to raise taxes, which itself is theft, and one is thereby causing the state to engage in theft! If you didn't grasp how shocking that is, read it again.

The author proceeds to note that it's not clear that such an argument would apply on an individual level, since the state will not raise taxes due to an individual taking money from it. Ah, so it won't cause the state to engage in theft, so you can engage in theft!

The article notes that based on this line of thought regarding what the state does with people's money, others argue that it is actually a mitzvah to steal from the state, since one is preventing them from using the money for anti-halachic purposes! But, the author responds, this is a poor argument - because the state might well recover its losses by cutting budgets to religious institutions rather than stopping anti-halachic programs.

Then comes perhaps the most remarkably revealing section. The article notes that according to several views, the state is not entitled al pi halacha to claim taxes, and one is therefore entitled to steal from the government to recover the taxes that were illegitimately taken. However, one is not entitled to steal back more than was originally stolen. And since, states the author, charedim receive far more in government benefits than they pay in taxes, they therefore cannot steal anything additional!

The author notes parenthetically that there are those who argue that charedim are not living off the state, but observes (correctly) that such arguments do not withstand scrutiny!

Following this extraordinary reason as to why charedim should not steal tax money back from the government (which apparently would not apply to others!), the article notes that this argument wouldn't apply to dodging paying taxes in the first place.

And so on, and so on. The article continues to discuss various other points, such as the problem with charedi MKs voting in favor of any taxes, since all taxes levied by the State of Israel are illegitimate. Until finally the article wraps up, noting briefly that since many Poskim adamantly prohibit stealing from the state, one should not rely on the minority opinions who permit it.

It's horrifying that such an article could appear anywhere. And it's appalling beyond belief that it appears in a journal put out by a prominent organization training thousands of people for positions in practical halachah. And it's simply mind-boggling that such disparagement for the state is written by someone who acknowledges that the charedi community lives off the state!

More than anything else I've seen, this perfectly encapsulates the fundamental problem with the charedi world. It's an utterly myopic approach to Torah, failing to internalize it as Toras Chaim, not even imagining how to apply it to a Jewish state with a growing religious minority. No wonder some of its members in its most prestigious yeshivah end up punching rabbis in the face.

If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Swimming With The Sharks

Travelling around the world over the years, producing videos for the Biblical Museum of Natural History, I've been blessed to experience a wide range of extraordinary encounters with exotic creatures. I've cuddled basilisks and beluga whales, koalas and kangaroos, walruses and wombats. I've been bitten by lions and pounced upon by leopards. I've flown hawks, eagles and vultures to my hand. I've petted penguins and platypuses. I've wrestled alligators and giant pythons. I've taken a floatplane to watch bears in Alaska, driven among huge herds of bison in Wyoming, ridden elephants in Zambia, and sailed down crocodile- and hippo-infested rivers in Botswana. But I've never had such an extraordinary, entirely uncontrolled wild encounter as I had this week, just an hour and a half's drive from my home.

It's all due to a decidedly environmentally unfriendly facility, Israel's largest power station, situated in the coastal town of Hadera. A byproduct of the facility is that very hot water gushes into the ocean. And for reasons not entirely clear to scientists, this is a magnet for sharks. (In case you're wondering, there's no radiation-mutated sharks; it's a coal-powered station, not a nuclear power station.)

Around forty to eighty sharks gather around the power station between the months of November and May. There are two species: sandbar sharks and dusky sharks. Sandbar sharks reach around eight feet in length and are not known to attack humans. Dusky sharks, on the other hand, reach fourteen feet in length and weigh up to 750 pounds. They are listed by the International Shark Attack file as being responsible for six attacks on people and boats, three of them unprovoked and one fatal.

Still, on the scale of things, that isn't very much. There's more to fear from people who text while driving. I have friends, including a shark scientist on the advisory board of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, who swim with sharks. And so how could I miss such an opportunity?

I parked by the power station, where there was easy access to the beach. There were already a number of shark enthusiasts in the water. As I waded into the sea, up to my chest, I couldn't help but hear the "dum-dum-DUM-dum" Jaws music in my head. I was nervously looking around, searching for the tell-tale dorsal fin slicing through the water. 

Suddenly I heard a shriek, and someone called "Get your camera!" I turned to see the woman who had shrieked rapidly making her way towards me in the water. My heart raced.

The woman screamed out, "Oh my God! It's Rabbi Slifkin! The Zoo Rabbi! Can I take a photo of you with my father? He's such a fan!"

Well, that wasn't what I was expecting.

After dutifully posing with her father for a photo, I turned my attention back to searching for sharks. It didn't take long. There were several large sharks, around eight to twelve feet long, swimming around. Every so often, they would swim right around me, close enough to touch. Sometimes their tails would be partially out of the water, slapping at me as they made their way around my body. And sometimes they would raise their entire head out of the water, in a classic Jaws pose.

I must admit that I wasn't scared in the slightest. This is not because I'm not a fearful person - I very much am, and I'm also a terrible swimmer. However, I seem to have a blind spot when it comes to wild animals. I even forgot to take the basic safety precaution of keeping my fists clenched to conceal my fingernails (which reflect light and look like fish scales, thus tempting fate). The experience was so incredible, so magical, that it just didn't occur to me to be afraid.

Drone photo of me by Brian Spector
But as I took in the remarkable situation around me, with around twenty of us swimming among all these sharks, it became clear that it cannot continue. There is simply too much risk of harm befalling either people or sharks (which are endangered). Indeed, there was one woman on a paddleboard who got knocked off by a shark, and she fell right on top of the shark, which thrashed furiously. And there were other people who seemed to be trying to hand-feed the sharks, which is certainly a recipe for disaster. There was an officer from the Nature & Parks Authority trying to prevent people from acting rashly, but this can be a difficult task with Israelis!

And so it came as no surprise when, the next day, the authorities announced that there will be no more swimming with sharks. The Hadera municipality is closing that area to swimmers. It's probably for the best, though it is indeed a pity that this magical experience will no longer be available. After all, where else in the world can you go swimming with both sharks and zoorabbis?

GoPro photo of me by Brian Spector

Meanwhile, you can touch real (albeit not live) sharks at the Biblical Museum of Natural History! We have stuffed baby sharks (Doo-Doo-Be-Doo) of different species, as well as the teeth-studded jaws of several large sharks, including a whale shark, that you can touch. You can place your head inside those rows of teeth for an awesome photo - and you might even get to see a real live zoorabbi - but I'd prefer not to be touched.

(Thanks to those who joined our expedition and contributed their photos and video - Eli Berkovits, Ari Ellen, Brian Spector, Chaim Rutenberg, and Bengineer. Video coming soon!)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

When Chassidim Fly

Mishpacha magazine is normally reasonably good about honestly admitting problems in the frum community. They even acknowledge the overwhelming and fundamental problem of the insufficient number of people getting professional careers. And so I was both disturbed and surprised to read the feature article in this week's edition, Airlines Unmasked, about discrimination against Orthodox Jews on flights for not wearing masks.

I have no doubt that there are instances where flight crews are unprofessional, unfair, and even antisemitic. But the article places all blame on the flight crews. It never once acknowledges that maybe there is a problem with how Orthodox Jews behave on planes!

I mean, are you kidding me?! Anyone who has flown extensively with chassidic Jews in particular knows exactly what the problem is. They don't sit down when the plane is waiting to take off. They stand up before the plane has arrived at the gate. They ignore requests from the flight crew. And so on, and so on. This isn't some trumped-up antisemitic conspiracy - it's the plain and obvious truth. (Edit - obviously I'm not talking about all chassidim, and I don't have specific numbers, but it's certainly enough to describe it as a general trend.)

And when it comes to Covid regulations, there is even less compliance. A neighbor of mine was one of the "rescue flights" from New York a few months ago. She told me that it was a horrific experience. Several of the chassidim on the flight boasted about forging fake Covid tests. And they refused to wear masks even when people were begging them to do so!

The article quotes Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal as saying that "he partially blames media caricatures of the Orthodox community throughout COVID as uncaring for human life and heedless of regulations." Media caricatures?! It was the plain and blatant truth that there was a disproportionately large and officially-endorsed shirking of Covid regulations by the chassidic communities. It's not a media caricature!!!

I don't hate chassidim. I love having chassidim visit my museum. And there are sociological reasons why chassidim generally have a particular tendency to ignore airline regulations (separate from the reasons why Israelis also have a tendency to non-compliance). But these aren't relevant here. The point is that they undeniably do have a tendency to ignore regulations, in particular with regard to Covid.

Shame on Mishpacha for distorting the facts and refusing to call out the frum community for its shortcomings in this area. It does us no good to issues charges of antisemitism while failing to criticize and correct the behavior that can incite it.

Zionism Looked Like A Unicorn

"If you will it, it is no dream." Such is the phrase attributed to Theodore Herzl. In fact, the original German phrase was "Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen" (Altneuland 1902). The word Märchen refers to a fairy-tale or legend, and this is reflected in the Hebrew version of this phrase, אם תרצו אין זו אגדה. When Herzl conceived of a Jewish country, it doubtless appeared to everyone as a complete fantasy.

The problem with fantasy becoming reality is that once the reality becomes established, it becomes difficult to remember how fantastical it initially appeared. If you were to go back in time a little over a year and tell your old self that the summer of 2020 would have more El-Al flights to Dubai than to the United States and that there would be a man wearing a horned helmet and fur skins standing at the podium of the US Capitol, your old self simply wouldn't believe it.

But even those bizarre events would have been more believable than the Jewish People creating a new country in their ancient homeland! It's only because Israel has been around for 73 years that we take it for granted. From perspective of Jews living in 19th century Europe, it must have seemed as fantastical as a unicorn. 

And from the perspective of Jews who lived through the Holocaust, when they would have believed that it was the end of the Jewish People, it was unimaginable. It is said that when Rabbi Kahneman overheard one of the rabbonim in the Ponevezh yeshiva make a nasty comment about the State of Israel, he called him in to his office and told him that only a person who hasn't smelled the air over Auschwitz could be disparaging of the State of Israel. And despite his chareidi opposition to Zionism, he insisted that Ponovezh fly the flag on Independence Day.

The return of the Jewish People to their ancient homeland, creating a sovereign nation, is one of the greatest miracles of history. To quote a certain US president:

“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.”

Happy Yom Ha-Atzmaut - and may everyone merit to appreciate the miracle that is the State of Israel! 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Shemini LIVE!

I am pleased to announce that this Thursday, in honor of parashat Shemini, we will be running a special live online presentation from the Hall of Kashrut and the Hall of Small Animals at the NEW Biblical Museum of Natural History! You can sign up at   Please spread the word!


(By the way - the previous post, about the brachiosaurus on top of the museum, was an April Fool's Day joke. And the behemoth of the Bible is not a brachiosaurus; it's a hippopotamus, as discussed in my books Sacred Monsters and in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom!)

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Our Most Incredible Exhibit Yet!

We are thrilled to announce our spectacular new "behemoth" exhibit! This follows the view that the Biblical behemoth of the Book of Job, described as a gigantic swamp-dwelling creature with a tail like a cedar-tree, is the brachiosaurus. Obviously there are no stuffed brachiosauruses available, but we were able to mount this incredibly lifelike model on the roof of our building! Take a look at it as you drive past the museum, and for more about the Biblical behemoth, read our book Sacred Monsters, available at

Moadim le-simcha!

A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to...