Sunday, October 24, 2021

What Is A Cult?

There's a lot of misunderstandings about what a "cult" really is, which are not helped by the fact that the term is often used inaccurately. Some use the term too broadly, to apply to any intense religious group whose ideology they disagree with. Others use it too narrowly, to refer only to extreme cases like Heaven's Gate or Lev Tahor.

In fact, there is a very specific set of criteria by which to define cults. But unfortunately, cults are sometimes extremely good at concealing their true nature. Here, then, is a list of twenty characteristics by which to identify cults, which I compiled from a wide range of online resources. Not every cult will check off every criterion in this list, but they will check off most of them.

1. The Charismatic Leader

The key ingredient in the creation of a cult is a highly charismatic leader. Such a person is usually brilliant, charming, and has a commanding presence. He may possess all kinds of genuine talents and accomplishments, and is certainly talented at motivating people. He might even start out with noble goals. But if he possesses delusional, egomaniacal, narcissistic and/or sociopathic tendencies, then he can end up creating a cult.

2. Adulation of Leader

With a cult, the leader of the group is not merely respected. He is revered, adulated, and near-idolized.

3. Infallibility of Leader

The leader creates a group which will regard his ideology and practices as the absolute Truth. He is never considered to be seriously wrong. He might have made mistakes in the past, but he is never considered to be making them now.

4. Exclusivity of Truth/Salvation

The leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation. Nobody else and no other process of discovery and no other group, not even a similar one, is acceptable. This also means that the group is elitist, believing that its leader and itself possess an exalted status.

5. Absolute Commitment

The group is zealous in requiring absolute and unquestioning commitment.

6. Polarized Mentality

The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality. There is constant negation and/or condemnation of outsiders.

7. Suppression of Criticism

Dissent and doubt or even questions about the leader and the correctness of the mission are discouraged or even punished.

8. Psychological/ Emotional Manipulation

The leadership teaches varies ideas and induces feelings of extreme shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Sometimes this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. In other cases, mind-altering practices (such as chanting, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader.

9. Negation of Members

The educational (if it can be called that) technique is to break the students down so that they can be recreated as mindless followers. Sometimes this is explicitly taught as the ideal - for a student to be "mevatel" themself to the leader.

10. Dangling Validation Out Of Reach

Privileges are accorded to a Chosen Few who are part of an elite Inner Circle. Followers are often made to feel that they are not yet (or ever) "good enough."

11. Control of Members

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should act, think and feel. This includes major life decisions, such as what to do with one's life, who to marry, and where to live.

12. Replacing Members' Interests with Cult Interests

The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interests, but which are in the best interests of the group and its leader. This is where much of the long-term damage is done. 

13. Exploitation of Members

The group exploits its members to further the cult's interests. This can take different forms. Sometimes it can be financial. In other cases, members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

14. Ends Justifying Means

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered inappropriate or unethical before joining the group.

15. Isolation from Others 

The cult programming requires the removal of other sources of influence. Anyone apart from the leader who teaches in the cult are themselves graduates of the cult. Members are encouraged to live and/or socialize only with other group members. Efforts are made to isolate members from any external relationships which are influencing them against the cults' interests - including their families, previous schools, other rabbis.

16. Concealment of Nature, Mission and Practices

The true nature of the group, its mission and its techniques and practices are carefully concealed from outsiders and new recruits.

17. Preoccupation with Recruitment

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. (Doing so necessarily involves a level of concealment of the mission and its practices, as above.)

18. Pressure against Leaving 

The group rarely, if ever, lets its members believe that there is a legitimate reason to leave, and immense pressure and psychological/ emotional brutality is inflicted upon those who consider doing so. Former members who left are condemned. Remaining members are conditioned to believe there is no other way to be, and subconsciously fear severe consequences to themselves or others if they leave, or  if they even consider leaving.

19. Commonality of Accounts of Former Members

Former members often relate similar stories of abuse and grievances. They are psychologically and emotionally scarred. (These are a separate class of victims from those who are still stuck in the cult, compromising their own interests in favor of the cult's interests.)

20. Lack of Accountability

There are no checks or balances upon the leader's actions. He is not accountable to any authorities. Nor would he listen to anyone criticizing him.

As you can see, while religious groups may match some of these criteria, they certainly don't match most of them. On the other hand, an institution can match this definition without any overtly bizarre behavior that would identify it as a cult. It can be a group or institution or yeshiva which conceals the true nature of its operation. Following what I wrote about in previous posts, I will be giving examples.

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Saturday, October 23, 2021

What I'm Going To Do

In the previous post, I asked for advice on what to do regarding a certain Terrible Situation; not sexual abuse, but a different situation that results in many damaged victims. I would like to thank everyone for their suggestions, and I am contact with several people as a result.

A number of people asked if I, or someone else, could speak to the perpetrator, and convince him to stop what he is doing. Alas, this is completely impossible. It would be like suggesting that someone should convince Donald Trump that he's a narcissist, or that he lost the election. His personality makes this utterly impossible.

Others asked if there was some person or some sort of body that could stop him. Alas, there isn't (and that's part of the problem). His enablers answer to him, and he answers to nobody.

Accordingly, others pointed out that unfortunately the only thing to do is to help the victims, and to try to prevent there being even more victims.

It was also stated to me that the fact that the perpetrator didn't harm me personally, and even helped me in some ways, is no reason for me not to prevent other people being harmed. For the record, I have always intellectually acknowledged that; all I meant is that it is emotionally difficult for me to do so.

How does one prevent other people from being harmed? The only way of doing this is to create awareness of the danger. And it seems that the only way of doing that is to publicize the danger online. Ideally, this would be done by the victims, but since none of them are currently interested in doing so, it falls upon me. And so that's what I'm leaning towards doing (though I'm still open to being convinced otherwise!). Perhaps if I get the ball rolling, others will be stimulated to speak up and take action.

What about danger of the perpetrator and his enablers trying to get back at me? I've been giving it thought and I don't think that there's anything that they can actually do. They're not the type to try to physically harm me or my family. Intimidation and harassment? Been there, done that; it's so 2005. I've had plenty of harassment, some of which necessitated having to go the police, and while it's upsetting, I'm ready to have to go through it again. Besides, if there's one thing that these people are not, it's stupid. They know how to strategically further their cause, and how to avoid harming it, and the last thing that they want to do is anything that will inflame public interest. They are going to want to keep as low profile as possible and wait for me to move on to the next topic.

However, I will not be naming any people or institutions (and I will delete any comments that do so). This is for several reasons. One of them is that this leaves me with some cards up my sleeve. Since I'm not naming anyone, if the guilty party does do anything, it will immediately identify them as being the party that I am referring to. And keeping this in reserve provides an additional incentive for the perpetrator and his enablers to avoid doing anything that will provoke me against them. 

But there's also another reason. At first glance, it would seem that failing to name and shame the perpetrator misses the whole point. How are people supposed to avoid being harmed if they don't even know who to avoid? Yet in fact, it turns out that just the opposite is the case. After my post on Friday, a number of people contacted me privately to say that they guessed who I was referring to. While some of them were correct, others were not. From those who guessed incorrectly, I learned that the Terrible Situation which I described is not unique. There are other similar Terrible Situations, albeit perhaps less intense. 

And so, if warning of the problem without giving identifying details causes people to be more concerned and suspicious in general, that's a good thing. Halevay that it should stimulate the creation of an organization to be on the lookout and create a warning mechanism for such dangerous situations.

Meanwhile, it would be a good idea if someone with technological know-how would volunteer their services to create a website in which victims of this and other problems could anonymously report their situations. True, it creates the risk of false allegations. However, it seems to me that the number of real crimes that go unreported vastly exceeds the number of people who are likely to be falsely accused. And if the website is run and monitored by a responsible person, it should be fairly easy to only promote stories in which the complaints are credible, such as if they are numerous. As Rabbi Alfred Cohen writes, in “Judging Transgression in the Absence of Witnesses" (Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society LX): "When the community is in danger, the rights of the individual to be considered innocent until proven guilty have to defer to the overarching necessity of safeguarding the community.”

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Friday, October 22, 2021

What Can Be Done?

Many years ago I became aware of a certain Terrible Situation being perpetrated by someone. I don't want to go into specifics at this point, but it was a form of severe emotional abuse and long-term life harm. The victims of this person, some of whom I knew personally, were badly hurt. Those who had managed to extract themselves from the situation just wanted to put it behind them and try to move on with their lives. I, on the other hand, was raised with a very strong message that you don't just stand by and allow terrible things to happen. But what could I do?

There was nothing actually illegal taking place, so there was no option of going to the police. At the time, I was in the charedi community, and I went to consult a prominent rabbinic authority and told him about the situation. Despairingly, he said that he doesn't think that anything can be done. He pointed out that even with sexual abuse, it took years for the rabbinic establishment to understand that it needed to be taken seriously; they just wouldn't understand the gravity of the situation that I was describing.

As the years went on, the situation kept getting worse. Every so often I would hear new and even more shocking stories. The perpetrator was now being further enabled by others (who ironically themselves were, in a way, victims).

I tried contacting journalists, to see if they were interested in writing an expose. One of them was interested, but nothing ever came of it. And the type of Anglo-Jewish journalists who do this kind of investigative work are generally in the US, whereas this situation is in Israel.

The only other route was to write an expose myself. But I was wary of doing so, for numerous reasons. One was that I was already fighting plenty of other battles, which were quite draining. Another was that the perpetrator himself was a victim of a different but even more terrible type of harm, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. Yet another was that the perpetrator had never harmed me personally; in fact, he had helped me in several ways, and so I felt guilty about blowing the whistle on him. Some people who were familiar with the situation told me that it was pointless; they said that those who need to know won't care what I have to say. In addition, I was simply afraid. When you start up with crazy people, you never know how they will respond. And I'm not even sure of the legality of publicly stating some very serious charges about people. Someone who cares about me keeps telling me that I'm not Batman and I should not engage in such crusades.

But I've been wrestling with this for about twenty years now. I keep thinking of Chazal's statement that במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש. And I just heard yet another story about this situation, this time involving financial exploitation.

What should I do? I'd appreciate advice (but not from people who are just gung-ho about my doing something and don't care about risks and concerns).

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

What are they REALLY saying?

What do those Jewish academics who condemned Israel for its military action in Gaza really object to?

There are two possibilities.

(A) They might have the position that Israel is fully entitled, even responsible, to try to stop rockets being fired at its civilian towns. This will obviously entail a certain amount of civilian casualties on the other side, but they are of the view that Israel killed far more civilians than it should have done for its strategic needs. This would be the definition of "disproportionate" according to international law (though, as I pointed out, it can be refuted by looking at the actual numbers of combatants and civilians killed).

(B) Alternately, they might be of the view that Israel is not entitled to take any military action at all, even thought there were thousands of rockets being fired at its towns. There are two possible reasons for taking this position. (B1) One is that the very existence of Israel is an ongoing crime, committed by all its citizens. As such, Hamas is perfectly entitled to fire rockets at them without response. (B2) A second reason would be based on the (ridiculous) Western/Woke idea that the weaker party is always correct. As such, since Israel is far more powerful than Gaza, it has no right to try to stop the attacks on its citizens.

Now, which of these positions are taken by the Jewish academics who signed the condemnation of Israel's "state violence" in Gaza? 

Of course, if they had any sense of professionalism and responsibility, the letter would have spelled out exactly what they mean (and it would have been backed up with arguments and evidence). But, as already demonstrated, the signatories don't have any sense of professionalism and responsibility - they are like charedi rabbis who sign bans ex cathedra. But perhaps there is actually a reason for the lack of detail.

In my extensive back-and-forth with one of the signatories, Shaul Magid, he kept insisting that the letter was about proportionality. Ye he had no explanation as to why the letter didn't actually specify that. He also had no substantive response to my pointing out that the letter very much indicated otherwise, since it just condemned Israel for its "state violence in Gaza" and said nothing whatsoever about Israel being entitled to neutralize rocket fire (as Western politicians were all careful to point out). Furthermore, he made comments about how Israel has by far the more powerful fighting force - a key indicator of B2 above. I kept asking him how that is remotely relevant to responding to rockets, but he never responded. 

So what's actually going on? I'm no psychologist. But I think that the comments about Israel having a superior force are a Freudian slip - as is the wording of the letter itself. The signatories to this condemnation are uncomfortable with Israel taking ANY action against Hamas firing rockets, even that which fully conforms with official "Laws of War" code regarding minimizing civilian casualties. But they can't possibly explicitly admit this - perhaps not even to themselves. On the other hand, while they may think that they are only opposing an (allegedly) disproportionate response, they can't bring themselves to promote a declaration which includes saying that Israel is justified in taking proportionate action against Hamas. To do so would be too uncomfortably pro-Israel, and would also risk alienation among their peers. As such, they prefer to condemn Israel without getting into any uncomfortable specifics.

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Monday, October 18, 2021

Chickens and International Warfare

For most of us, it's pretty obvious that wars, of the kind that took place over most of history, are a Very Bad Thing. Killing people, enslaving them, stealing their resources, are all terrible crimes. Right?

But what about chickens?

Most people in the world eat chicken and eggs. And yet chickens are genetically developed and raised in such a way that they live the most appalling lives of suffering.

This is not a blog post about encouraging people to be vegetarian. (And I am not vegetarian.) It's about facing up to what our moral code actually is. We are perfectly ready to inflict harm upon certain types of "others" when it's for our own basic well-being. And I'm not saying that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, neither from a Torah nor a secular moral perspective. From a Torah perspective, there are definitely hierarchies which allow one group to take advantage of others - such as people taking advantage of animals. And from a secular perspective, the entire biological drive is based on trying to improve the lot of your own group, regardless of others.

A similar argument is developed in detail by the late distinguished political scientist Felix E. Oppenheim, in an article titled "National Interest, Rationality, and Morality." He points out that it only makes sense to talk about moral choices when there are different options realistically available. When there are no options available - such as when there is only one course of action that can ensure survival - morality is simply irrelevant. The international relations scholar Arnold Wolfson stated that "Moral advice not to submit to the necessities of survival... would be advice to commit national suicide" - but Oppenheim adds that it would suffer the more basic problem of not being rational. "Given that the national interest is the only valuational standard practically available to statesmen, acting accordingly is to be characterized as rational, but not as ethically right or wrong."
Of course, history is rife with examples of this being abused. False claims of "national security" have been used to justify all kinds of unjustifiable atrocities. But this doesn't mean that it is never correct to use this approach. The fact that people sometimes are lying when they claim "I killed him in self-defense" does not mean that it is not legitimate to kill in self-defense!

Rav Yaakov Ariel points out that the Gemara (Berachot 3b) rates engaging in military action to ensure national survival - even in terms of economic survival - as perfectly normative. This only sounds shocking to some of us today is because we don't understand what economic survival really means. It doesn't mean avoiding a market crash. It means avoiding starving to death.

The only reason why we condemn warfare is that we have the luxury to do so. And we have the luxury to do so because we live in an era where our basic needs for survival can be easily met, and never require us to fight others in order to attain them. As Yuval Harari brilliantly explains in Sapiens, one of the results of science and technology on society and the economy is that warfare dramatically declined. Most nations can easily provide for their own needs, and whatever problems they have wouldn't be solved by waging wars on others. In today's world, you're much more likely to improve your nation's economy by forging trade partnerships with your neighbors rather than by invading them. 

If we were in a situation where we and our countrymen were starving to death, and the only way to save us all would be to raid another country, you can bet your bottom dollar that we would all be in favor of that. There would be no objective standard by which to judge it as "right" or "wrong" - it would simply be the only rational course of action (just as the only rational course of action by the neighboring country would be to defend itself).

If you disagree, then I expect you to say that you don't eat chicken or eggs.

(UPDATE: From the initial reactions to this post, I see that a lot of people are making unwarranted assumptions. I urge everyone who thinks that they find something here disagreeable to read Oppenheim's article, published in Political Theory, at this link.)


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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Exceptional Charedim

The other night I went to the Kotel, to take my daughter on the occasion of her birthday. What we didn't know was that it happened to be the night of a hashba'ah, a swearing-in ceremony for IDF soldiers. I passed a wonderful charedi couple who were posing for photos with their son, and I couldn't resist taking a photo also.

It's a great picture, and it shows that there are charedim who have their sons enlist in the IDF and are proud of it. But at the same time, these are the exception that proves the rule. Nobody would be taking pictures of dati-leumi parents posing with their soldier son, because such a thing is perfectly ordinary. With charedim, on the other hand, there are only a tiny minority who send their sons to the army, and an even smaller number who actually proud of their sons for it (there is a category of Lone Soldiers who are charedi soldiers whose families have disowned them). 

Here's another example of an exceptional person. The BBC has an incredible story about a Chassidic rabbi from Brooklyn who has managed to rescue many dozens of people from Afghanistan. It shows that there are chassidim whose concern for others extends far beyond their community, to non-Jews in a different part of the world. At the same time, it is also true that such behavior is unusual.

In last week's post about Chassidim on a Plane, some people criticized it as being generic, prejudicial, unfounded, and even antisemitic. They are wrong.

I never claimed that all chassidim act this way on airplanes. Obviously, there are many who do not. At the same time, it also true that chassidim engage in such behavior to a much, much higher degree than do other Jews (for sociological reasons that are readily apparent). 

Making a generalization from a small number of cases to an entire group would be wrong. However, there's nothing wrong with making a general statement about a group which is true. Generally speaking, Americans are more overtly friendly than are Brits. There's a greater problem with the behavior of Israelis at hotels than with other nationalities. And there's a widespread problem with chassidic behavior on airplanes. That's just the plain truth.

Finally, to those who claim that I hate chassidim or charedim, I would like to point out the following. Due to my job at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, I interact with a broader range of chassidim and charedim than probably anyone else here. And the interactions are, without exception, entirely positive, and I love all of them.

I don't hate chassidim or charedim. I just recognize that there are very serious societal problems that need to be fixed.


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Friday, October 15, 2021

Who Disagrees?

I'm going to say something which I used to think was completely obvious. But I've recently realized that it's not obvious to everyone. And I've heard some people explicitly dispute it.

I'm going to say it about myself, but I think that it's true of pretty much everyone, even those who purport to disagree.

Here goes:

I care about my own children more than I care about my neighbor's children.

I care about my neighbor's children more than I care about the children of a stranger in a different city.

I care about the children of a stranger in a different city more than I care about the children of a stranger in a different country.

Obviously there are complexities to this, and different types of relationships and hierarchies, but my point is that there is a hierarchy. To this I will add that I personally am not ashamed of any of this in the slightest. It's biologically natural and it's legitimate. Though it turns out that some people would be very ashamed to admit to such a thing, and therefore say that they believe otherwise.


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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Chassidim on a Plane

A neighbor of mine posted the following account of what transpired during a plane flight:

I just flew to and from Israel... and I have never been more mortified to be Orthodox. The plane was trashed. The bathrooms wrecked. A flight attendant remarked that this route is always left this way, while after 15 hours to Japan, the plane is left spotless. Men crowded the aisles and blocked the passageways, forming a minyan even while being explicitly told that they could not do so A- because the seat belt sign was on and B- because of the pandemic. While attendants were buckled in because of turbulence, stopped food service because of turbulence, men were up and putting on tefillin even while flight attendants and the captain himself begged them to sit down and buckle up. They could not have cared less. It was as if they were deaf or above the rules or both. 

To describe myself as shocked is an understatement. It got to the point that I asked them who they were even praying to, who would possibly listen to their tefilot when they were causing us such humiliation and chillul Hashem. I don't know who to turn to to speak about this and I do not want to trash an entire community. But this was so so bad that if I myself was feeling such anger and animosity and close to posting videos I can't think that someone actually doing this who is not Orthodox is far off. In all seriousness, rabbis and Leadership needs to address this. If anyone has ideas as to who to turn to, please let me know.

Someone else I know who was on the flight also told me about it and sent me videos. She commented that it was crazy and doesn't make any sense at all. 

But in fact, it most certainly makes sense. 

There are three reasons why one would comply with safety regulations on planes. One is because those are the rules and rules should be followed. The second is to conform with social norms. And the third is because it's, y'know, important to actually be safe

None of these are particularly relevant to chassidim. (And even before seeing the photos and videos, it was obvious that chassidim were being described, although Lithuanian charedim are also to an extent guilty of this).

Rules are only followed when one sees oneself as being part of the system which institutes the rules. Charedim in general, and chasidim in particular, do not see themselves as being part of that system. To some extent, it's a cultural hangover from Europe when the government was the enemy. They don't see secular rules as having any authority. Rules are for goyim (or for the Modern Orthodox, which is practically the same thing).

Likewise, they see no need for conforming with social norms. You only conform with social norms if you are part of that society. Charedim, on the other hand, and especially chassidim, follow a general societal model of isolationism. They couldn't care less about what others say, because they consider themselves to be separate from, and above, everyone. Humans feel no need to conform to the social norms of dogs and cats, and chassidim feel no need to conform to the social norms of non-chassidim.

Finally, with regard to safety, the rules are likewise only for goyim. Safety rules are to do with physics and science and experts and professionalism, all of which are very far removed from the chassidish worldview. 

So, what can be done?

My immediate reaction was to say that the only thing that could work is a public expose. It's unpleasant, but that's the only thing that got the charedi world to start taking child abuse somewhat seriously, as Agudas Yisrael's Rabbi Chaim Zwiebel acknowledged

But on further reflection, I think that even that just wouldn't work here. I just don't think that the movers and shakers in the chassidic community care enough about what the secular press says, such as to start teaching an entirely different message to their communities about how to behave. Possibly pointing out that YAFFED gains support from public negative perceptions of chassidim might have some impact, but it's a long shot.

Unfortunately, I can't think of anything that would work (though I do think that all of us have a responsibility to publicly rebuke such behavior when we see it). What would conceivably give rise to a cheshbon hanefesh about taking rules and safety and being part of society seriously? Even 45 people being killed on Meron didn't do it!

But at the very least, perhaps publications such as Mishpacha can stop writing articles about how flare-ups with charedim on planes are entirely due to hostile flight crews. And Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal can stop talking about "media caricatures" of the Orthodox community as uncaring for human life and heedless of regulations. 


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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

When Asked to Justify a Condemnation

A few months ago, Hamas was firing thousands of rockets, yet Israel was under international condemnation from much of the world. A group of mostly Jewish academics of Jewish and Israel studies decided to effectively support Hamas by issuing a public condemnation of "the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza" (with a later tepid acknowledgement that the rockets from Hamas were unjustifiable and indiscriminate). 

This week, I noticed one of the signatories - Professor Shaul Magid, a former Orthodox rabbi with a long white beard - appearing on Facebook. (It was regarding a post about settler violence by Robby Berman, a person with the unusually nuanced view that Israel commits terrible injustices to Palestinians on a regular basis, but withdrawing from the West Bank right now would be a mistake, just like withdrawing from Gaza was a mistake.) I decided to take the opportunity to engage Professor Magid regarding Gaza. An extraordinary exchange ensued, which you can read at this link. The parallels to the 2004 Daas Torah condemnation of my books are striking!

Not What You Think

Can you guess what real-life scenario is being described here? The conversation is only very slightly paraphrased.

Background: A group of authorities signs a letter of condemnation regarding a certain approach. The accused, from their own community, has the backing of numerous diverse people on this particular approach (even from those who disagree with the accused on other matters), and who are stunned by this condemnation. One of them approaches one of the signatories, a rabbi with a long white beard, to explain his position:

Questioner: How could you sign such a letter?

Rabbi: Because the accused did a terrible, terrible thing!

Questioner: How do you know? Are you familiar with the facts of the case?

Rabbi: No, I don't quite know, I'm not an expert in these things. But I know people who are! And they also condemn it.

Questioner: Are you aware that there are plenty of experts who do not condemn it?

Rabbi: Well, I suppose there are, but I personally agree with those who did condemn it.

Questioner: But if you admit that you don't actually know what happened here, what right do you have to decide to agree with the condemnation? Here is the actual data and arguments, which show that the accused didn't do anything terrible at all. What he did was perfectly normative, even heroic.

Rabbi: Listen, I might not be able to actually explain why it was a terrible crime, but it's one of those situations in which I can say that I know it when I see it! 

Questioner: But I've provided actual arguments and evidence which show that there was no crime at all. And you haven't been able to come up with anything in response!

Rabbi: Goodbye. Have a nice day.

The questioner then approaches another bearded signatory, a purported expert in Judaism:

Questioner: Can you explain your basis for signing the condemnation? The accused did exactly what was appropriate!

Bearded signatory #2: You're ignoring the main issue, which is the fact that the accused started this whole situation in the first place.

Questioner: I don't agree at all - I think it was an existing situation which the accused was simply trying provide a solution for. But even if your claim is true, how would that justify condemning him for doing exactly what was appropriate at this point?

Bearded signatory #2: I never said that! You're mischaracterizing my argument!

Questioner: Okay, so can you tell me what your argument actually is?

Bearded signatory #2: No. It's not worth discussing it with you. Your views in other areas are so misguided that it's a waste of time. Stop harassing me.

Questioner: But you signed a very public letter of condemnation. You don't have to engage with everyone who argues with you about it, but surely you need to somewhere publicly justify why you signed.

Bearded signatory #2: I'll explain it privately to my disciples. I'm not interested in engaging with you or providing any public justification. Goodbye.

*   *   *

The above is a great description of what happened with the ban on my books, 16 years ago. But it's actually not what I'm describing at all. Instead, it's something very, very different and much more recent. The astonishing details - which make the analogies to the ban on my books all the more amazing - will be revealed in the next post.

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Sunday, October 3, 2021

Revisers of the Lost Ark

What is an ark? There's the Ark of the Covenant that Indiana Jones tried to raid, the Ark of the Law that is situated in every synagogue - and, of course, Noah's Ark. But what exactly is an ark?

Last year, I wrote a post about the challenge of building a scale model of Noah's Ark for the Biblical Museum of Natural History. (We haven't done it yet, though we did build a magnificent stylized Noah's Ark as a donor board in the entrance hall of the museum). But I think that, along with Hollywood director Darren Aronofsky, I may have made a mistake.

What shape was the Ark? Last year I wrote as follows: "Popular depictions of Noah's Ark present it as being a large boat. Boats have rounded hulls, to reduce drag as they move through the water. But the whole significance of Noah's Ark (in contrast to Gilgamesh and other such stories) is that Noah was not a sailor and the Ark was not a boat. It was not designed to move through the water, merely to float in it. It was an ark, a box, not a ship. In that respect, Darren Aronofsky's horrible 2014 film Noah with Russell Crowe was more accurate, depicting the Ark as a crate-like structure." 

I wrote this because the word teivah, which also appears in the Talmud in reference to the Ark of the Law (aron hakodesh), refers to a sort of cabinet/ chest/ box, not to any kind of waterborne form of transport. But do you see the mistake that I made?

The mistake was to equate the Talmudic usage of the word with the Biblical meaning. Words change their meaning over time. For example, the word olam in Tanach means "forever," and only later was it used to mean "world" or "universe."

In Tanach, the word teivah is not used in reference to the Ark of the Covenant - that is an aron. The word appears in precisely two contexts. One is Noah's Ark, and the other is the basket that Moshe was placed in, to be floated upon the Nile. Both of them are containers that were created to float in water, and were waterproofed with pitch. As such, it seems more than likely that the word teivah refers to a vessel designed to float in the water. This would mean that even if this particular Ark was not designed to travel anywhere, it was still constructed in the same way as every waterborne vessel. (In addition, the fact that the teivah was constructed as a long, narrow structure also implies that it was modeled after a waterborne transport.) Dr. Irving Finkel, an expert in ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures at the British Museum, has written that the word tubbu appears in a 2500 year old cuneiform tablet in reference to some sort of boat - and possibly linked to the English word "tub," which also refers either to a boat, or to a container!

If the teivah was a form of waterborne vessel, this also further implies that it was not shaped like a box - all right angles - but rather like a boat, which has a rounded hull. However, this cannot be stated with certainty, since some boats still have right angles. Of especial significance is a rare photograph from 1888, of a boatyard in Iraq in which traditional boats are being constructed:

The similarity of the proportions of these boats to Noah's Ark is striking! The photographer, archeologist John Punnett Peters, described it as "A Noachian Boatyard at Hit on the Euphrates." But even though these boats are constructed with squared rather than rounded corners, they are still clearly perceived as boats rather than chests.

It therefore appears that the Biblical Ark, of both Noah and Moses, and in contrast to the Ark of the Covenant, was indeed a sort of boat. Since the function of this Ark was to house something precious rather than as a form of transport, the term later came to be used for any tub/ chest that houses something precious, like an Ark of the Law.

The good news in all this is that when we eventually do get around to building a scale model of Noah's Ark, it will look much more appealing!


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Friday, October 1, 2021

Walking, Talking Snakes?

This week, the Biblical Museum of Natural History posted a video on FaceBook which created something of a stir. Probably the most extraordinary footage we have ever filmed, it showed our giant 15-foot Burmese python, Cuddles, moving two tiny "legs" back and forth as he moved around his enclosure! You can watch the amazing clip on YouTube at this link. While these legs are used today in the mating process, scientific investigation indicates that they are either remnants of the legs that snakes used to possess, or that they are formed by the reactivation of genes from such ancestral legged reptiles.

Of course, this immediately brings to mind the verse from parashat Bereishit this week:

"וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הַנָּחָשׁ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ."

"So the Lord God said to the serpent: Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life." (Genesis 3:14).

Because of this verse, we have found that showing Cuddles' legs to our visitors stirs great excitement and interest. But is there really a connection to this verse, and if so, what exactly is it?

Biblical literalists insist that the Serpent of Eden was an actual reptile, the ancestor of snakes today (although Rabbi Moshe Meiselman ties himself up in knots when he tries to justify the Talmud's exegesis from this verse regarding snakes having a seven-year gestation period). From this perspective, discovering that snakes have tiny remnants of legs seems to be an amazing vindication of traditional belief.

On the other hand, the idea that modern zoology vindicates a belief that snakes today are all descended from a walking ancestor 5782 years ago is rather naive. We have plenty of fossil snakes, going back many orders of magnitude more than a few thousand years. The fossil record shows that snakes did indeed formerly possess legs, but that was millions of years ago, not a few thousand years ago!

But it's not only modern scientific studies which challenge the simple reading. Already many centuries ago, there were rabbinic thinkers who pointed out that there are basic problems with a simple reading of the text. Ramban points out that the greatest difference between the primeval character of Eden and snakes today is not legs; it's the ability to communicate intelligently! If the snake of Eden was the actual ancestor of snakes today, surely it's the removal of its intellectual and communicative facilities which are a much greater curse than the loss of legs!

For this reason and others, rationalists such as Rambam, Ralbag, Seforno and others interpreted the story of the serpent in Eden allegorically. I have discussed the general topic of non-literal interpretations of Creation extensively in my book The Challenge Of Creation, which is best purchased at this link. You can also read an explanation of Rambam's non-literal understanding of the events in Gan Eden in an essay that I posted here.

There are other approaches, too. Contemporary theologians of a more liberal persuasion would argue that the account of the snake in Eden is indeed related to the snakes that we all know today. But rather than being a historical account, it is sacred myth - not "myth" in the sense that the term is used today with regard to Bigfoot (which is why I personally think that the term should not be used), but rather in the sense of adapting ancient stories about the world to communicate religious meaning. This approach might sound radical or heretical from a religious perspective, but it also has its legitimacy, as discussed by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman in Ani Maamin, and also by myself in The Challenge Of Creation.

Personally, I believe that the story of the Garden Of Eden was written so long ago, and for a readership so far removed from us today, that it's impossible to know what was really intended and understood. And I'm very tolerant of however people wish to understand it. For this reason, I'm happy to show people Cuddles' amazing legs, and point out the parallel with the popular understanding of the Biblical account. My only problem is with people who insist that their explanation is the only valid one, and who try to delegitimize those who approach this enigma differently. 


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