Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Unpacking an Ark

The first of the Noah's Arks for the new exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History just arrived in Israel, and it's a beauty! It's also very, very unusual. Many model Arks tell an interesting story, if you only know how to unpack it. This one is no exception, and a careful study of its details reveals where it was made and why it is different from other model Arks.

The first thing to take note of with any model Ark is the material that it is made from. Arks are made from all kinds of materials, including different types of wood, ceramic, porcelain, resin, and metal. But this one is hand-made of red clay. This indicates that it was made in a country where traditional art is produced in such a way.

Then there's the architecture of the Ark to consider. It's perhaps difficult to tell from the picture, but it's much more rounded than models usually are. And the roof is designed to look like curved terracotta tiles, rather than a flat material. These aspects are indicative of Spanish architecture.

Then there's an extremely curious detail. Perched on the middle of the roof, between the two birds, are two gourds, with lines on them. What are they doing there?

But the real giveaway, and the most fascinating aspect of this Ark, are the animals that appear on it - and the ones that don't appear on it.

In general, there are certain animals that always appear on Arks. Giraffes are far and away the most prominent, iconic and common. There's usually also elephants, lions, and often zebras. Yet none of those animals appear on this Ark! 

Instead, we have some very unusual species here. Flanking Noah on both sides are llamas! And the bird perched on the roof, accompanying the dove, is a toucan!

All this is a clear giveaway as to this Noah's Ark's origins. It must have been made in South America, specifically Peru. There are no giraffes or lions in South America or its culture, but there are plenty of llamas and toucans. The architecture is Spanish. Peru in particular is rich in clay, which is long-favored for use in traditional art. And another traditional art form in Peru, practiced for thousands of years, is the intricate carving of large gourds.

Flood stories have long been widespread around the world. But this is the Biblical story transplanted to a South American setting! It's a really special piece of art with which to begin the museum's collection.

Meanwhile, we have several other very special Noah's Arks sitting in various peoples' homes around the world, and due to the new Covid restrictions, all of the people who were supposed to bring them to Israel are now unable to do so! So if you happen to know of anyone traveling in from New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Toronto, or Melbourne who is able to bring an Ark, please let me know!


Monday, November 29, 2021

The Overlooked Chanukah Miracle

I just read a footnote in a book that left me gasping with awe.

We know what Chanukah is about, right? There's the incredible, extraordinary victory of a small group of Jews over the powerful Greek-Syrian army. There's the recovery and rededication of the Beis HaMikdash over eight days, as described in the Book of Maccabees (and quoted by ArtScroll!). There's the recovery of political independence. There's the Bavli's account of the miracle of the oil.

But all this, amazing as it is, perhaps misses the greatest miracle of all. Because all of the above, while it has inspired us for two thousand years, was only really directly relevant to certain Jews back then. But there's something else which is directly relevant to all of us today.

Over forty years ago, there was a series of books on the Festivals published by the Jewish Publication Society of America, called the Anthology series. These were a fascinating, high eclectic mix of history, laws, insights, poetry, and even recipes and children's stories. (The entire set has been recently republished). In The Hanukkah Anthology, the opening chapter about the history of Chanukah is written by historian Solomon Grayzel, and that's where I found something fascinating.

In all the discussion about Chanukah, we normally only think about the Jews who were living in the Land of Israel. After all, that's where the action was! Yet there were, of course, also Jews living in other places. Still, these were truly not part of the Chanukah story. Grayzel points out that Antiochus's original decrees against Judaism were only ever directed at the province of Judea. They did not apply to Jews living in nearby Egypt, or even to Jews in the Syrian Diaspora.

So far, this makes Chanukah sound less significant. But then comes the footnote which changes everything:

"It is easy to see, however, that had Judea been hellenized, the Diaspora Jews would not have long survived as Jews."

If you didn't catch the monumental significance of that line, let me explain it. While there were Jewish communities outside of the Land of Israel, they drew much of their identity from their brethren in the Holy Land. Had Mattisyahu of Modi'in acceded to orders to bring a pagan sacrifice, rather than fleeing with his family to the hills and launching a rebellion, the non-Hellenist Jews would all have eventually either given in or been killed. With the loss of morale that would have caused, and without the Jews of the Holy Land to lead by example, there would have been little drive for the already partially-Hellenized Jews elsewhere to hang on to their Judaism. They would have lost their identity, like so many ancient peoples of that time. Judaism and the Jewish nation would have ceased to exist.

We only exist today as a nation, with an extraordinary history to look back upon, because a man from Modi'in decided not to compromise and take the easy way out, and some others decided to follow him. It was that decision which meant everything - not just for the Beis HaMikdash, not just for Jews in the Holy Land, but for Jews everywhere and for all time. (UPDATE: It was further pointed out to me that this preserved monotheism, and thus Christianity and Islam would never have come into being without the events of Chanukah!)

Is that not awe-inspiring?

Happy Chanukah!


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Turkey, the Traditionless Kosher Bird

The turkey’s status as a kosher bird is one of the most fascinating enigmas in the history of kashrut. It has long and widely been ruled that birds can only be eaten if they possess a mesorah. Turkeys, as birds native only to America, did not and could not have a mesorah. Yet it immediately gained near-universal acceptance as being kosher, and the discussion about its kosher status only began around three centuries later! Even then, the discussion revolved around a post-facto explanation of why it is kosher, rather than an evaluation of whether it is kosher. In order to understand all this, let us begin by reviewing the laws regarding kosher birds.

The Laws of Kosher Birds

Unlike the case with mammals and fish, where the Torah gives identifying characteristics by which kosher and non-kosher types can be discerned, the Torah gives no such signs for birds. Instead, the Torah lists various types of non-kosher birds. Since these are the ones specified as being non-kosher, all the ones not listed are ipso facto kosher. That sounds straightforward enough, but there are two complications.

First is that these listed types are not species in the scientific zoological sense of the term, but rather general types that include many species—yet the precise definition of “type,” and the number of species that it can include, is unclear.

The second complication is that we cannot "be certain as to the identities of the birds in this list. With some of them, we can be 99% certain—there is overwhelming evidence and/or powerful traditions that the nesher is the griffin vulture, the orev is the crow, the chasidah is the stork and the atalef is the bat. With some of them, we can offer a likely candidate—such as that the bat ha-yaanah is the ostrich, and the duchifat is the hoopoe. But many others are nothing more than an educated guess, based on factors such as the etymology of the word or cognate languages.

The difficulty of identifying the non-kosher birds in the Torah’s list (and the resultant difficulty of knowing which birds may be eaten) led the Sages of the Mishnah to give signs by which kosher and non-kosher birds can be distinguished:

"The signs of domestic and wild animals were stated in the Torah, and the signs for birds were not stated. However, the Sages stated: Every clawing bird is non-kosher, every bird that has an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard is kosher. Rabbi Eleazar b. Rabbi Tzadok says: Every bird that splits its feet is non-kosher." (Mishnah, Chullin 59a)

According to Rashi, in order for a bird to be kosher, it must possess all three positive signs (an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard), and it must also be known to be non-predatory. That is because, in Rashi's understanding of the Talmud, most of the non-kosher birds in the Torah's list possess the three positive signs; the reason why they are not kosher is that they are predatory. Since it is difficult to ever be certain that a bird is non-predatory, Rashi says, there must be a tradition that the bird is kosher. Rashi's view is adopted by Rosh.

But according to Rav Moshe bar Yosef, on the other hand, none of the non-kosher birds in the Torah's list possess all three signs. If a bird possesses all three positive signs, then this ipso facto means that the bird is non-predatory.

Rav Moshe bar Yosef's view, that the presence of the three signs alone suffices, finds most support amongst the Rishonim, including Rambam, Ramban, Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Rif. However, the stringent view of Rashi, that the presence of the three signs does not prove anything and a tradition is always required that the bird is non-predatory and kosher, is cited by Shulchan Aruch and Rema and was widely accepted. Yet, since this was not the majority view among the Rishonim, and was only accepted as a stringency, this has significant ramifications.

The Discovery of the Turkey

The very name of the turkey, called tarnegol hodu (“Indian chicken”) in Hebrew, attests to the fact that there was initially much confusion about the origins of this bird.

In the early 16th century, a mysterious new bird reached England. it had been brought by “Turkey merchants” trading in the eastern Mediterranean, which was part of the Turkish Empire, and thus received the name “Turkey bird.” Meanwhile, many people thought that the bird came from India, due to the default assumption that new and strange things came from the East. In fact; there was even a common misconception that India and the New World were one and the same. Thus, in many languages the bird received the name “India bird.”

But this bird may not have been that which we today know as a turkey! In the 16th century, there were two new birds introduced to consumers in Europe: the American wild turkey and the African guineafowl. Both were variously called “Indian hen,” “Turkish hen” and also meleagris, Greek for guineafowl. Today, the name meleagris is also shared in the scientific names of the two species – the guineafowl is Numida meleagris, while the turkey is Meleagris gallopavo.

To complicate matters even further, turkeys were often simply referred to as large chickens. And in the 19th century, there were many new large breeds of chicken being imported from Asia, such as Cochins and Brahmas. Thus, in halachic responsa literature from that period, it is often impossible to determine whether they are discussing turkeys, guineafowl, or chickens.

The Halachic Discussion of Turkey

Concerns about the kosher status of the turkey were first raised in the 19th century, long after the turkey had already gained universal acceptance as a kosher bird. There were those halachic authorities, such as R. Yitzchak Isaac Schorr (Responsa Mei Be’er 19) and Kaf HaChaim (Yoreh De’ah 82:21), who justified eating turkey on the grounds that there must be an ancient tradition from India. However, for those who realized that the turkey was an American bird and could not possibly have a tradition, matters were more complicated.

It must be appreciated that at this point, declaring the turkey to be non-kosher would have denigrated pious Jews around the world who had eaten it for generations as being sinners. There is very strong rabbinic opposition to such a thing; first, due to the Talmud’s statement that God does not allow the righteous to unwittingly sin, and second, due to the principled position of not casting aspersions on earlier generations. Thus, there was strong motivation to find a justification for the common practice.

R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explicitly uses such a meta-halachic justification (Meshiv Davar, Yoreh De’ah 22). He states that since turkey has gained widespread acceptance, no objections should be raised to its consumption, in the absence of overwhelming evidence that it is actually a non-kosher bird. Otherwise, one would be incriminating earlier generations who have eaten turkey.

Others presented internal halachic arguments as to why eating turkey could be justified. R. Aryeh Lebush Bolchiver, in Arugot HaBosem, argues that the Ramo’s requirement of a tradition is only for birds about which there is doubt if they are predatory. But if a bird has been observed over a long period of time and has never shown signs of being predatory, then as long as it also possesses the three characteristics of kosher bids (i.e. an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard) then it may be eaten even without a mesorah.

R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1810-1875) argued that the acceptance of turkey itself proves that the Ramo’s requirement of a mesorah is not to be followed. As long as a bird possesses the signs of a kosher bird it may be eaten (Responsa Sho’el u’Meshiv 5:1:69).

Another possibility is that the initial acceptance of the turkey occurred before the Ramo’s view was promulgated and accepted. The scenario could well have unfolded as follows: First, turkey was eaten by Jews in eastern lands, who were the first to receive it from the Turkish merchants. They may have eaten it because they followed the majority view of the Rishonim that as long as it displays the kosher signs and is not predatory, it may be eaten. Subsequently, Jews in Europe became aware that eastern Jews were eating it. They may have assumed that this meant that there was an ancient tradition of eating it. This mistaken belief would have been enhanced by the fact that the turkey was not known to be an American bird, and further that it was confused with the guineafowl.

Whatever the explanation, one thing is clear: If turkey was discovered today, there is not a kashrut organization in the world that would permit it. Turkey became accepted because there was a window of opportunity in which new species were discovered at a time when there was much less clarity about their origins and much less stringency in halachic practice. 


Meanwhile, on another note:

We are building up a collection of model Noah's Arks for a new exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. There are rare models that we need to obtain from far-flung locations in the US. If anyone is able to pick one up from Sycamore (just west of Chicago), or South Milwaukee, please be in touch! Also, if you are traveling to Israel and are able to bring some of the models that we have already obtained and are sitting in NY and NJ, that would be very helpful!

Friday, November 19, 2021

Coming to America

B'ezrat Hashem, I will be coming to New York (for the first time in several years) this January, just for a week. This means that I am available as scholar-in-residence for Shabbos parashas Beshalach, January 15th. There's a catch - my entire family is with me! We therefore need accommodations for seven people. Preference is for Teaneck or the Five Towns. If you are interested in arranging for me to come, please write to advancement@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org.

We are also thinking of arranging one of our legendary Biblical Feasts of Birds and & Beasts, this time in the Five Towns. If you know of a home that could host 70 or so people for a sit-down dinner, please be in touch!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Does Shechitah Prove Torah MiSinai?

There have been many attempts to prove the Divine Origins of Torah using "scientific" arguments. As a young yeshiva student I automatically believed them, until an outreach organization asked me to research and defend the validity of one of them (the "Four Animals Proof.") Much to my horror, I discovered that it wasn't actually valid. The turmoil that this put me through convinced me that is is very foolish and dangerous to try to prove the truth of Torah with arguments that do not withstand scrutiny.

Several people sent me a beautifully-produced video which presents a new such argument. It goes like this: The physiology of all kosher animals is uniquely different from that of non-kosher animals. In kosher animals, both the carotid and vertebral arteries run at the front of the neck, and are thus slit along with the trachea and esophagus during shechitah. This ensures that the animals immediately lose blood flow to the brain and die a swift and painless death. What human could have known about this, thousands of years ago? It's proof of the Divine Origins of Torah.

Unfortunately, this argument is seriously flawed, on at least three counts.

First is that the argument doesn't even make any sense. Kosher animals are all, by definition, split-hooved ruminants. These common characteristics reflect the fact that they are all on the same branch of the mammalian family tree. Accordingly, they also happen to share other characteristics. For instance, while there is a halachic debate about whether shofars can be made from non-kosher animals, in practice you don't need to be worried about your shofar coming from a non-kosher animal. The reason for this is that kosher animals are the only ones that have hollow horns! This is not something amazing - it just reflects the fact that animals on the same branch of the (evolutionary) tree share the same characteristics. The Gemara points out other characteristics that these animals all happen to share, regarding their dental and muscular structure. And so if these animals all have the carotid and vertebral arteries in the same position, this would likewise simply be another consequence of their being in the same family, which happens to have a fortuitous benefit.

The second problem with this argument is that the laws of shechitah are not about cutting the carotid and vertebral arteries; they are about cutting the trachea and esophagus. If you can cut the latter without the former, the shechitah is perfectly valid. In fact, this argument sets up a dangerous false premise, that shechitah is painless. At a time when shechitah is under threat in many countries, we must not defend it with false claims. Shechitah is not utterly painless. However, it is minimally painful (when done properly), which is justifiable to maintain an important Jewish law.

The third problem with this argument is that it's not actually true! Kosher animals do not all have their carotid and vertebral arteries running through the front of their neck. The video shows a diagram of how this looks with sheep and goats, and contrasts them with pigs. But sheep and goats are not the only kosher animals! With cattle, this is not the case. To quote from a veterinary handbook dealing with methods of euthanasia:

In sheep and goats, the throat cut may be used as the primary method of euthanasia if a captive bolt or firearm is unavailable. This is severing the carotid arteries with a throat cut completely interrupting the supply of arterial blood to the brain. Pre-injection with xylazine is recommended if available. The throat cut should not be used as a primary method of killing cattle. In cattle, bleeding is a follow-up procedure, only to be used on unconscious animals after a firearm, captive bolt or blunt trauma have been used. This is because cattle have two different sources of arterial blood supply to the brain: the carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries. The vertebral arteries are enclosed in the spinal canal at the anterior neck and are not severed when the throat is cut. 

You can also read a more technical description at this link. And as Temple Grandin points out, this difference between cattle and sheep unfortunately means that cattle, especially calves, can remain conscious for several minutes after shechitah. (I wish to stress again that this is not a reason to oppose shechitah. Such suffering in death is negligibly minimal compared to the suffering in life that modern farmed animals undergo.) According to the video's explicitly stated premise, that it would be forbidden to do shechita if there is still blood flow to the brain, this would mean that it is forbidden to shecht cattle!

Now, it's not particularly difficult to find out that cattle and sheep are different in this regard. It's all available via a Google search. It's very frustrating when people make claims that they haven't even bothered to research. It's negligent and irresponsible.

Whoever made the video probably believes that they are performing a great service for Jewish faith. Alas, they are not. As Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:16) says: "when the fallacy of proofs is demonstrated, faith in the proposition itself is weakened." Be careful what you claim!

(On a completely different note: If you are traveling from NY or NJ to Israel, or even better, if you are making a lift, and can bring some amazing model Noah's Arks for a new exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch!)

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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Flying Kangaroos or Damnation

What do you have to believe in, so as to be a good Jew? According to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, flying kangaroos. Otherwise, you're a kofer.

In the past, I have detailed all kinds of problems with Rabbi Meiselman's abominable Torah, Chazal and Science. There is the omission of sources that inconveniently refute his approach, the obfuscation of clear topics, the wholesale dismissal of traditional and reasonable interpretations of the Sages' words, the intellectual contortions, and so on. In this post, I will be dealing with an aspect of his book that is a combination of bizarre and dangerous - his approach to the topic of the Deluge.

There are all kinds of challenges with a literal interpretation of the Flood story. Yet, amazingly, Rabbi Meiselman presents many challenges that the average person might not even think of! He points out that keeping many of these animals in an ark for a year is an impossible task. It would strain the resources of a zoo with a large staff and modern technology - it would simply be impossible for a single family, with limited resources, to provide the animals with all the care and food and sensitive environmental conditions that they require. 

Why would he raise such issues? Because Rabbi Meiselman wants to make the point that there is simply no way to make the account of Noah's Ark make sense from a naturalistic perspective - and therefore one must accept that it was entirely miraculous. Accordingly, one should not seek at all to try to make it fit with what is possible. "Within such a context, one does not bother counting the miracles; it makes no difference whether there were ten or a hundred." 

And so everything was a miracle. The animals were supernaturally transported from all over the world to the Ark - the kangaroos flew in from Australia, the sloths from South America. Noah moved like the Flash to be able to look after them all. The waters of the Flood came from nowhere, they were boiling hot, and destroyed all life on Earth. And the entire world - all the civilizations and all animal life - were subsequently repopulated from the occupants of the Ark, again supernaturally transported back to their original homes.

Now, the truth is that even if one were to posit such extraordinary supernatural miracles, this does not at all solve the scientific difficulties with the simple interpretation of the Flood story. After all, the challenges from science are not just that it couldn't happen in such a way; they are that it didn't happen in such a way. 

There are two sets of such challenges. One is from the various natural sciences, which do not show any tremendous turmoil 4000 years ago - there are trees older than that! Rabbi Meiselman attempts, utterly unconvincingly, to dismiss the reliability of such branches of science. He also suggests that maybe God miraculously made the geology of the world look exactly like no Flood had occurred - not to fool us, he adds, but for an unknown purpose(!). 

Then there are the challenges from human archeology and anthropology, which Rabbi Meiselman simply dismisses out of hand as unreliable, "soft" sciences. Clearly he has never remotely studied the histories of numerous ancient civilizations - Andean civilizations, Chinese civilization, Mesopotamian civilization, Egyptian civilization and others - all of which continued uninterrupted during the entire period. There is clear evidence of cultural and even genetic continuity. (And Rabbi Meiselman doesn't even attempt to say whether they all originated from Noah's descendants, or whether they existed before the Flood and subsequently Noah's descendants moved to those regions and redeveloped those exact same civilizations and genes in the exact same places.) He is arguing from a standpoint of utter ignorance.

But let's leave all this aside for now.

It's also true that Rabbi Meiselman is going against the approach of many of Chazal and the Rishonim. They did not seek to make the Flood impossible to reconcile; they sought to explain how it was practically possible (within the constraints of what they knew about the world). The Gemara details how Noah brought the right kind of food for each animal. Ramban explains that the Ark was extremely large, rather than simply miraculously containing everything, because God tries to work within nature as much as possible. Rambam explicitly stresses that one should try to reconcile Torah with the naturally possible as much as one can (a source that Rabbi Meiselman utterly distorts in a footnote on p. 555). The issue for them was not whether Hashem can break the laws of nature; it was whether he does.

But let's leave that aside for now, too. Instead, I would like to focus on a different point.

Many years ago, when I was preparing my book The Challenge Of Creation, I had an entire chapter dedicated to showing in great detail why the approaches of people such as Gerald Schroeder and Nathan Aviezer simply don't work. I explained how they are thoroughly distorting the meaning of Hebrew words, ignoring crucial aspects, and not remotely solving the conflict between Genesis and modern science. I wanted to thoroughly demolish these approaches, such that people would then be forced to accept the approach that Genesis is a theological text that is not to be reconciled with science.

However, before publishing the book, I showed the manuscript to the late Rabbi Dr. Yehuda (Leo) Levi. And he convinced me to massively cut down this section of the book. His reasoning was as follows: No matter how authentic and valid I think that my approach to Genesis is, there are many people who simply won't be able to accept it. And if I've destroyed their ability to accept the approaches of Schroeder and Aviezer, then I've left them with nothing.

These were wise words. I also implemented that approach with regard to the topic of Noah's Ark. It's an extremely challenging topic for many people. And so instead of telling people which approaches don't work and which do work, I chose instead to make a post listing a wide range of different approaches. And I've seen people at both ends of the spectrum act in the same way. I know of charedi anti-rationalist rabbinic leaders who decided not to object to rationalist approaches, because they realized that there are people who simply won't accept their approach, and those people need to have a home within Judaism.

Now, I can understand someone feeling that certain approaches simply cannot be reconciled with Judaism. And that's okay; nobody is expected to go against their convictions and say that something is compatible with Judaism if they feel otherwise. But is it really worthwhile, and is it even at all justifiable, to actively campaign to alienate people from Judaism? To make it as difficult as possible for people to believe something, just so that you can insist that it they find it hard to do so, then you can trash them as having "a mindset tainted by kefirah"?! Are you really disqualified as a Jew if you're uncomfortable with the idea that God made kangaroos fly and carefully arranged an overwhelming amount of evidence from geology, archeology, genetics, and other branches of science in order to make it look exactly like there was no Deluge - "for unknown reasons"?

The worst type of ignorant people are those who do not even realize that they are ignorant. Rabbi Meiselman dismisses all the many diverse branches of science which demonstrate that there was no global destruction of the world as being unconvincing - but he's never even studied them! And he also demands those who have studied them must be equally dismissive!

I don't know which is worse - the ignorance, the arrogance, or the plain lack of concern for people.

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Saturday, November 13, 2021

The Niche Art of Noah's Ark

Twenty-five years ago, when I started my training course at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, the then-director spoke about how Jews have a unique connection to conservation, because Noah, the very first conservationist and the symbol of conservation ever since, was Jewish. I pointed out (to his dismay) that Noah wasn't actually Jewish! Still, the basic point remains the same - the Biblical image of Noah's Ark is indeed the ultimate symbol of conservation. God could have simply created all the animals all over again, but He wanted Noah to care for the animals, so that the new world would be built on a foundation of kindness.

As you might imagine, I have a bit of a passion for Noah's Ark. The Biblical Museum of Natural History is structurally reminiscent of the Ark, and at fifty cubits wide and thirty high, it is the exact same width and height. We just had a craftsman create a spectacular Noah's Ark as a donor board. And recently it occurred to me that it would be great to have an exhibit of Noah's Ark models.

There are some absolutely stunning models of Noah's Ark available (though it seems that virtually none are manufactured anymore). The level of detail is simply exquisite. Most are decorative ornaments, but there are also children's toys, music boxes, money banks, cookie jars, jewellery boxes, bookends, lamps, pendants, menorahs, and a spectacular limited edition cuckoo clock that is, alas, no longer available anywhere. They are variously made out of ceramic, resin, wood, pewter, bronze, and there's even a magnificent silver-and-gold sculpture by famed sculptor Frank Meisler.

But here's where it get really curious. I looked at eBay, CraigsList, and Facebook marketplace, all around the globe. And the difference between various parts of the world is striking.

In the UK and Europe, the only Noah's Arks available are a few simplistic plastic toys for very little children. Fisher-Price, Playmobil, that kind of thing. Lego doesn't even make one. This is despite the fact that in the 19th century, there were endless incredibly elaborate Noah's Arks made in Germany, then the toy capital of Europe. But no such thing is sold anywhere in Europe today. All the dozens of different kinds of detailed models are only sold in North America! (Even the 19th century German antiques can only be found in America.)

What is the explanation for this extraordinary discrepancy? Is it just that Europe has become so much more secular? If that was the explanation, then surely they wouldn't even have children's toys there. Does anyone have any insights?

Meanwhile, if you have a Noah's Ark that you'd like to donate for the museum exhibit, please send me an email!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

King Solomon's Unbuilt Spaceship

We're all familiar with the relatively recent view that the Sages could not have been mistaken in scientific matters. Minimally, this could justified by saying that they had Divine assistance to ensure that anything recorded in the Talmud would be correct. But many supporters of this view based it on a much more far-reaching approach. It's not that the Sages were correct on the particular statements recorded in the Talmud; it's that the Sages, with their Divinely-based insights into Creation, knew all of science.

A post on Hirhurim, Moshe and Modern Technology, discusses various views on this matter. The Taz proves that a printing press is not considered engraving from the fact that the Shamir was required to engrave the Ephod, rather than using a printing press. Rav Yair Chaim Bacharach (Chavos Yair) says that this is not a proof, since printing presses had not been invented yet. Rav Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, on the other hand, says that obviously Shlomo HaMelech, wisest of all men, could have made a printing press.

I've heard this expressed in many different ways. A friend of mine recently heard a shiur in which the rabbi said that Avraham Avinu could easily have made a car, but just wasn't focused on doing such things. Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, key mover-and-shaker in the ban on my books, argued that "the Vilna Gaon could have invented an atom bomb, do you really think that Chazal could have been mistaken about science?!" Years earlier, my own Rosh Yeshivah once pointed at some shtenders and said "the Vilna Gaon could have told you where this shtender, as opposed to that shtender, is referenced in the Torah."

During the whole controversy about Chazal and science, Rav Chaim Malinowitz ztz"l pointed something out to me. He noted that for those who take the view that Chazal knew all of modern science, why would their knowledge be limited to the particular progress of science in the beginning of the 21st century? It would have to be that they knew all science that would ever be discovered! And one cannot even begin to imagine what that encompasses! Not just spaceships of the 21st century - spaceships of the 100th century. And spaceships are the least of it.

All this may sound absurd, but it's sort of the inevitable progression of the mystical approach. Of course, according to Chazal themselves, as well as the Rishonim, such a view is utterly incorrect; they did not at all consider themselves to have supernatural knowledge of everything. For further discussion, see my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism, in particular the chapter on Sod Hashem Liyreyav.


Wednesday, November 3, 2021

How I Helped Yanky Kanievsky Buy His Luxury Home

Yanky Kanievsky, grandson and manager of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, just bought a new home. It's a stunningly decorated, three-floor home, very different from the standard apartments in Bnei Brak. He paid the entire sum outright, without taking out any mortgage. He didn't even have to sell his previous home in order to buy it. After all, he didn't need his own money for it. 

He had mine.

I'm still not clear as to exactly how it happened. True, I don't check my credit card statements as carefully as I should. There are several standing monthly payments to various charities. Back in 2018, I received a receipt from one such charity, called Beit David, but I was suddenly suspicious, because I hadn't remembered ever donating to it. Looking into it further, I saw that it was based in the Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet - the extremists' neighborhood, which I couldn't imagine housing a charity that I would give to. The receipt was for a standing monthly payment that was taking place over two years! I immediately stopped the payments. 

I vaguely remember calling them and asking how they had started processing donations from me, and not receiving any satisfactory answer. Meanwhile, on the local Beit Shemesh email list, it turned out that there were others in the same position. Beit David had taken thousands of shekels from their bank account, over a prolonged period, without their knowledge or consent.

I had forgotten all about this until a few days ago, when I learned about Yanky Kanievsky's extraordinary new home. How did a thirty-year-old kollel student afford such a property?

One friend of mine told me that many people simply give him gifts. They are so enthralled to have someone as special as Rav Chaim in the world, that they gladly give money to him. Of course, the physical act of giving is done via his family manager. Who uses it to buy a luxury home.

That in itself is distasteful, but it seems that there are much, much worse things taking place.

A few weeks ago, an explosive piece of investigative journalism in The Marker (which you can also read here) revealed shocking facts about some high-profile charity campaigns. It was summarized in English on Twitter and commented upon by journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt as follows:

‘The industry behind “Yocheved has kidney disease” & “Yossi needs heart surgery” is a murky one, peopled with activists, journalists & broadcasters who milk charities & divide loot among themselves. At best, the remaining crumbs go to the needy.’ 

Orthodox community members are constantly bombarded with heartbreaking fundraising pleas — destitute brides, emergency transplants, children orphaned by Covid. Charity is sewn into our very ethic: Torah, repentance and charity save us from an evil decree, our sages teach. And donors, from big to small, open their hearts and wallets— and sometimes, are being swindled, according to this report. The report shows how a vast majority of fundraising proceeds from one charity org go to media channels & askanim

The numbers tell it all: an Israeli non-profit campaigned for medical expenses for 26 patients. Auditors requested support files of the 26; 18 of them were "lost." The 8 cases that were found revealed that of a total of NIS 8.8 million raised for 8 patients, only about NIS 950K was transferred to beneficiaries in total. That’s about 11%.

Another campaign, "Saving Yocheved,” sought to raise funds for a woman’s urgent surgery for a kidney transplant. The public opened their wallets, pouring in donations. NIS 5 million was raised. However, according to the report, only NIS 116K went to Yocheved. 98% of the money went to the mechanism around it, to well-known radio programs, media consultants and procurers of rabbinic support. 98%.

One donor named Avraham Schechter claimed in a lawsuit that he tried to find out if Tamar, the "sick orphan" whose story broke his heart & inspired him to give NIS 18K, did exist. He contacted the call center & radio station, asked to speak with Tamar, but was refused. (The CEO of Kol Barama insisted to TheMarker that it is not his job to find out if the people at the center of campaigns they broadcast do exist.)

Our communities have a serious problem on our hands — the lack of fiscal transparency in religious nonprofits, the ease with which corruption happens at the expense of innocent donors, and the systemic cover-up of this. Certainly, not all charities are the same but this case shows how sizable, easy and broad a charity fraud can be. What ensures us that this is not happening elsewhere? What mechanisms are we building to protect both baalei tzedakah & our most vulnerable? Community members ought to be demanding: Where are our tzedakah donations going? And how are our own media companies complicit in this — abdicating their responsibility to comfort the afflicted, and instead choosing to comfort the comfortable?

It is disturbing to witness such a cynical abuse of belief and kindness. Robbing widows, sick & orphans in the name of chesed, while promising blessings to the naive donors who do it as an act of pure tzedakah —This is literally choosing fatty meat and incense over the rights of the orphan & the cause of the widow.לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפּט!

Postscript: I hesitated to tweet this because I know some of the players here, & there will be implications for me merely for sharing this. But I realized the reasons for hesitation are the same reasons our community stays silent about too many festering issues.  (Source: https://threader.app/thread/1445037141961158665)

The article specifically mentioned that large funds are paid to those who obtain celebrity rabbinic endorsements, such as the House of Rav Kanievsky. And it names the charity at the center of this scandal: Beit David. As you can see on Beit David's website, they have a prominent endorsement from Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Meanwhile, a check on the Ministry of Justice website reveals that this charity is being shut down under court order.

Now, it would certainly be false to claim that all charedi charities are like Beit David. There are many charedi charities with which the funds donated do indeed reach the intended recipients.

At the same time, however, it's pretty clear how Yanky Kanievsky paid for his luxury home. It's not just Beit David that needed Rav Chaim's endorsement. It's whoever is seeking to obtain some of the power that Rav Chaim's persona wields. As another very important article in The Marker detailed:

Controlling which nonprofit will receive the rabbi's blessing and which radio station will advertise the House's activities and fundraising is worth a lot of power and money in Haredi society. In the sector, Yanki is described as the community kingmaker, the one who pulls the strings and whose authority is undisputed. He has the power to arrange who will be employed in the sector's various educational institutions, public events, political institutions, and also who will be fired and where will budgets be channeled. He recommends PRs, advertisers, producers, photographers, strategic advisors, journalists and lawyers, such that no one wants to quarrel with the House, because that could mean a loss of livelihood.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yanky Kanievsky is clearly an unsavory character, and that's even before you find out about his support of molesters. He is monetizing his grandfather's influence, with enormous sums coming from people who are under the impression that they are giving money to needy families. But that's not even the biggest problem. There is also a total lack of regard for how Rav Chaim's influence affects people. Previously, I've described how this leads to naive people having their lives destroyed - sometimes literally.

But, as I've said before, you can't only blame Yanky Kanievsky for this terrible exploitation of an elderly man. He's only able to do it because there's a willing audience for it. The responsibility lies with everyone who places Rav Chaim's "guidance" and blessings upon a pedestal on which they do not belong

In a post I wrote titled "Mishpachah, Gedolim and Decisions" I concluded that "There are countless people who make decisions that are, at best, ill-informed, and at worst, life-threatening, because they have been led to believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others like him should be making the decisions for them. Anyone who contributes to the myth of his Daas Torah shares responsibility for that."

When people call upon you for donations to a charity, and tell you that they have Rav Chaim's endorsement, this is actually a reason not to give them. Instead, give to one of the many charities that do not pay for meaningless celebrity endorsements. 

Unless, that is, you want to be paying for Yanky's next luxury home.

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Monday, November 1, 2021

The Inauguration - At Last!

After extensive Covid-related delays, I'm thrilled to announce that the official Inauguration Ceremony of the new Biblical Museum of Natural History is taking place later this month! This celebrates our move to our spectacular new home, the result of unimaginable hard work and overcoming challenges, and the efforts and support of many different people. And the results speak for themselves! The new facility is breathtaking, and the many thousands of visitors who have already experienced it give rave reviews. The growth this last year has been extraordinary - not just in terms of numbers of visitors, but also in terms of the many different programs and collaborative partnerships that we have launched.

The ceremony is honoring Mr. Lee Samson, the Chairman of the Board of the Torah and Nature Foundation, which oversees the museum's operation, on the occasion of his 75th birthday. A related event, livestreamed to people unable to physically attend the inauguration, will take place in December.

For obvious logistical reasons, invitations are necessarily limited. Aside from various guests from the fields of government, education, tourism, culture and wildlife conservation, we are honored to invite our museum patrons. Those of you who are already patrons should have received the invitation with the details of the event. Information about becoming a patron can be found at this link.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported us in various ways - and if you're able to make a donation to the museum in honor of this very special event, that would be greatly appreciated. We are, thank God, making tremendous accomplishments in inspiring and educating the full spectrum of society about Torah and nature - it's an amazing thing to be a part of! 

Support the Biblical Museum of Natural History

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...