Friday, December 31, 2021

The Darkness and the Light

What a tragic week. Fortunately there is a glimmer of light that I am happy to share. One should not paint the entire charedi community with one brush. Of course it's not much of a surprise that several of the more liberal American yeshivish rabbis have condemned Walder, but even many people in the Israeli charedi community are having a "Meron Moment." 

The horrific tragedy of Meron, for the which the cause was so clear (i.e. the charedi community not considering it necessary to abide by standard national protocols for regulations and safety), had many people in the charedi community questioning the value of its isolationist philosophy, and challenging the rabbonim who blamed it on anything and everything else. Likewise here; the fact that Walder, clearly emerging as a horrific predator, was glorified after his death by important charedi rabbis and politicians and newspapers, while those who attempted to scream about the dangers are being branded as evil gossipers who drove him to his death, is just too much for many people in the charedi community. 

Both Mishpacha newspaper (the Hebrew version) and leading charedi website Kikar Shabbos (which formerly effectively defended Walder) ran editorials condemning Walder and bemoaning the criticism against those who try to report abuse. While far from perfect, they overall conveyed the correct message. Dovi Weinroth, Walder's former friend and lawyer who eulogized him at the funeral, subsequently wrote a powerful mea culpa in which he expressed utter regret. 

Unfortunately, there are still those who do not see the light. Rav Edelstein did not apologize for his condemnation of those who sounded the alarm; instead Yated ran a statement approved by Rav Edelstein which says that victims of abuse should go to rabbinically-approved organizations to deal with it (note that there was one such an organization in Bnei Brak, and it was headed by Chaim Walder), and that these things must be dealt with quietly, and the press must not report them. A letter from Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein has been publicized, in which he describes Walder as someone who everyone knows is a man who performed great acts of kindness. And not a single prominent rabbinic figure in the Israeli charedi community has openly declared Walder to be a rasha, and those defending him and attacking the press and social media to be badly wrong.

Still, the structure of power in charedi society is evolving. And while there is still much to be done, the signs of change are emerging. Here's hoping that it will be significant enough to effect a genuine transformation.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Hashem Yikom Dama

A young woman in Israel, Shifra Horowitz, committed suicide last night. She was a victim of Chaim Walder. According to her friends, she could not take seeing all the adulation of him surrounding his death.

If "the masses speaking lashon hara" are responsible for Walder's death, then who is responsible for her death?

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Issues Surrounding Predators: It's All About Context

As a follow-up to the previous post about Chaim Walder, there are three issues that I would like to address.

First was the criticism of Chief Rabbi Lau for visiting Walder's family. I neglected to properly explain the criticism and many people did not understand it. Surely the family are not guilty? Surely they are also victims, in their own way, and are suffering greatly? Surely it's a good thing to comfort those who are suffering?

Indeed, this is true. They are not guilty. They have suffered and will continue to do so. It's a good thing to comfort those who are suffering.

But what all this misses is context.

There are lots and lots and lots of people suffering in Israel every day. People mourning for the loss of loved ones. People suffering abuse. And obviously the Chief Rabbi cannot and does not show support for anything more than the most miniscule fraction of them. What makes this family so special as to be honored with a visit from the Chief Rabbi - if not for the fact that the deceased is an important person?

Furthermore, Walder happens to be the subject of a huge scandal as to whether he is a tzaddik who was persecuted to death or an evil monster. By honoring the family with a visit while not making any statement about Walder, this lends support to the "persecuted tzaddik" narrative.

In addition, by not making any statement of support for the victims, it is a further slap in the face to them.

(Rav Lau did end up making a vague call for all victims of abuse to go to the police and support for victims of abuse - without mentioning Walder - but only after there was a national uproar about his visiting the mourners.)

So, while it is true that the family are innocent people who are suffering, nevertheless given the context, it was absolutely wrong for Rav Lau to visit them.

Another issue, a bizarre one, relating to context is Walder's suicide itself. Traditionally, suicide was always regarded as a terrible sin - a murder. Rambam writes that there are no eulogies or mourning for such a person. In recent years, when there is greater awareness of how many suicides are due to extreme mental torment and illness, such an approach is not taken. But in Walder's case, there are no such justifications. It was a premeditated strategy which he is on tape as explaining to his victims, done to avoid paying the price for his sins. And yet the rabbinic and political leaders of the charedi world are quite happy to overlook all this! This is due to the context of his being a charedi hero who was vilified by the secular press for behavior which the charedi community does not acknowledge the existence of.

The concept of context is also relevant to the question of what do with Walder's books. I haven't read them, but I'm told that there is nothing wrong with their content. And until yesterday, I wasn't sure what should be done with them. But after seeing how so many prominent people and publications are glorifying Walder, it's clear that they should be destroyed - and preferably in a very public way. Doing so sends out a crucial message - to his victims, and to society as a whole - that Walder is not a person to be glorified.

A neighbor of mine told me that he is arranging a public book-burning. I can see the merits of that idea. Again, not because of the content, but because of the context. Subsequently I realized that actually burning them in a fire is not a good idea, for several reasons, but destroying them, as publicly as possible, certainly is. If the rabbinic and political leaders and newspapers of charedi society can't call out evil, then it's up to us to do so.

(And, yes, of course I'm aware of the irony in that I wasn't happy when people declared that my own books should be burned. But even at the time, I always said that it is perfectly appropriate to ban books that are genuinely evil - I just didn't agree that my books fell into that category.)

UPDATE - I just found out that the books do indeed contain deeply insidious content. One story is about a girl who was relentlessly bullied at school, and the book praises her for never telling her parents, so as not to cause them distress. One shudders to think about why Walder wrote that and what effects it may have had.

(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.) 

Charedi Leadership Declares Moral Bankruptcy

It's almost impossible to do justice to describing the magnitude of the situation. 

As is well known, recently the immensely popular Israeli charedi author, Chaim Walder, was exposed by two extremely responsible journalists as having taken advantage of at least two women. Subsequently, it emerged that Walder - head of the Center for Child and Family in Bnei Brak - had taken advantage of his status to assault many women, girls and boys. A Beit Din in Safed led by Rav Shmuel Eliyahu heard testimony from twenty-two people - victims, rabbis and therapists - about a pattern of assault which had been going on for twenty-five years. And, if you know anything about such things, it's obvious that for every victim who testifies, there are countless more who prefer to remain silent. Walder himself heatedly denied all the allegations, but the overwhelming weight of testimony from such a wide range of people (along with recordings of Walder himself admitting to adultery) made it perfectly clear that he was guilty. He emerged as a horrific serial predator, ruining countless lives.

Now, every community has its monsters. Religious Zionism had its Motti Elon, Centrist/ Modern Orthodoxy had its Baruch Lanner, the US had its Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, the UK had its Jimmy Saville. There's nothing indicting of the charedi community for it, too, to have its share of such predators. And initially, the response was encouraging. Eichlers announced that they would no longer be selling his books. Yated Neeman, for which Walder had written a column for many years, immediately dropped him. Radio Kol Chai, on which Walder had a regular show, also dropped him.

And then Walder shot himself. And suddenly, everything changed. 

The charedi websites Kikar Shabbos and Bechadrei Charedim posted obituaries for Walder which praised him glowingly. Yated Ne'eman ran a prominent obituary which instead of stating Shem Resha'im Yirkav, stated Zecher Tzaddik Livracha!

But it gets even worse.

At Walder's funeral, a hesped was delivered by the head of the immensely respected organization Ezer MiTziyon.

Another hesped was delivered by no less a person than the mayor of Bnei Brak.

At the shiva house, the mourners were honored with a visit by none other than the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav David Lau. (Yes, the family are also victims - but he didn't honor the other victims with a visit!)

But it gets even worse.

Rav Gershon Edelstein - one of the most respected rabbinic leaders in the Litvishe charedi world - issued a statement that all the people involved in making statements and issuing condemnations of Walder are guilty of publicly shaming him, and said that this is a worse crime than forbidden relations.

But it gets even worse.  

Rav Edelstein further declared that all these people forced him to commit suicide, and are therefore also guilty of murder.

The message to all victims of sexual abuse in the charedi community, and to all those trying to help them, is clear. Shut Up. The predator may be hurting people, but it's much worse to shame him, and you could even end up being guilty of murdering an important, respected member of the community.

The message to predators is also clear. We've Got Your Back. It's already very difficult for any victim of abuse to speak up, and we will try to make it as difficult as possible.

The charedi leadership has declared itself to be utterly, terribly, morally bankrupt. If you are in any way associated with that community, then you either publicly protest it, or you are effectively complicit.


(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, December 28, 2021

"Ani Maamin" - Intriguing Insights

Readers of this forum will all be interested in a book that came out last year, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman. It is groundbreaking in being the first English Orthodox Jewish book to deal with such issues. And while it falls short in some areas, it contains many tremendously important insights, in both academic scholarship and theology.

Originally I had planned to write a comprehensive review of the book, but I can't seem the find the time and focus. Instead, I will be referencing sections of the book in several posts. And as a preview to my conclusions, I will say this: Many people will feel that the book's rejoinders to various challenges from academic Bible scholarship are not sufficiently convincing. However, the book simultaneously provides various theological insights which, when considered carefully, often render the academic challenges rather moot. I will elaborate further in the relevant posts.

For now, here is a fascinating observation from the introduction of the book:

...Over years of discussing these issues I have discovered that looking at the same sources and the same evidence, Orthodox Jews in America speaking English and Israeli Orthodox Jews speaking Hebrew carry on different sorts of conversations about these issues...  there is much in common between the attitudes and theological proclivities of Centrist Orthodox authorities in the United States and Religious Zionist thinkers and leaders in Israel. Religious Zionism, however, never termed itself "Centrist" Orthodoxy. Indeed, within Israeli socio-religious landscape it occupies no "center" in the way Centrist Orthodoxy does in North America. Religious Zionist thinkers and leaders have no need to consider ideological threats from movements just to the right or just to the left. In Israel, there is practically no competition for adherents that equals the challenges facing Centrist Orthodoxy in North America. The result is that on a range of hot-button issues, Religious Zionist leaders and thinkers often entertain ideas and positions that would be non-starters in the English-speaking world.

There are many other insights in this book which are not only as fascinating as this, but are great importance. I urge everyone to get a copy!

(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.) 

Friday, December 24, 2021

UnOrthodox Jews and Flying Kangaroos

As 2021 draws to a close, I hope that you appreciated the hundred or so diverse posts this year, usefully indexed below. If you did, then presumably you value helping society move to a greater understanding of the world around us,  showing that Judaism can be a sensible source of wisdom, and advocating for our connection with our homeland. And if you value these things, it would be a great idea to support the Biblical Museum of Natural History! This year, despite the restrictions of Covid, we inspired and educated over twenty thousand people from all sectors of society, from secular to chassidic. You can donate online at this link. Thank you for your involvement with our mission!

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Our Children's Lives

A friend of mine mentioned something to me which I found it so thought-provoking that I would like to share it with you, with some literary embellishment. I'm not certain if it is 100% gold, or if it is too defeatist. He said as follows:

"I used to hope, pray and expect that my children would all grow to be religious, get married and raise a family. That's what my parents got, and that's what I expected, too.

"As time went on and I realized that the world had changed since my parents' generation, it occurred to me that perhaps I was being presumptuous. It's too much to expect that all my children would stay religious; all I can pray and expect is that they get married and raise a family.

"Then as time went on further, I realized that even this was presumptuous. Halevay (it would suffice that) they should at least end up in healthy meaningful long-term relationships with the opposite gender that bring them happiness, even if they don't get married.

"Then, as I further realized that the world is not as I thought when I grew up, I realized that I was still being presumptuous. Even if my children end up in same-gender relationships, I'd be relieved if they are in relationships that bring them happiness, rather than being tortured in their identity or suffering in solitude.

"Then, as the years went on, I realized that there was something still more basic that I couldn't take for granted. Halevay that my boys should grow up happy being boys, and my girls should grow up happy being girls.

"Then, after a spate of young adult suicides in my city, I realized that as long as my children grow up, with sufficient mental and physical health, then no matter who they are, I will treasure them and thank God for my good fortune."

What do you think? An essential perspective, or should we not lose focus on trying to instill our values in our children?

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. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Myth of Shmitta LeChumra

It's widely known that stringencies in one area of Jewish law can involve leniencies in other areas of Jewish law. For example, being stringent about the sin of lashon hara can often involve being lenient about the sin of Lo sa'amod al dam reyecha.

Shmittah is no exception. Four shmittah cycles ago, I asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach about eating at the home of a relative who relied on leniencies regarding the laws of Shmittah. His response was that if I refrained from eating at their home, I would be committing the much bigger problem of being lenient about the laws of interpersonal relationships.

But actually, shmittah provides an even more striking situation. Because, notwithstanding how various organizations and institutions and individuals proudly proclaim that they are observing "shemittah lechumra," there is no agreement about what that actually means.

For some people, shmittah lechumra means altogether avoiding concerns about produce grown in the Land of Israel, and instead only buying from abroad, which usually means from Arabs. But for others, this is a serious Torah sin of failing to support one's fellow Jews and instead supporting our enemies.

For others, shmittah lechumrah means avoiding heter mechirah and using Otzar Beis Din. But Rav Eliezer Melamed persuasively argues that Otzar Beis Din is not just a legal fiction but a legal fantasy.

For yet others, shmittah lechumrah means avoiding Otzar Beis Din and using heter mechirah. But others claim that selling the land undermines the idea of shmittah and is of questionable validity.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein lamented many years ago that in the modern era, there is simply no ideal way to observe Shmittah. It would be beneficial if people would bear that in mind, and it would help us be more respectful of the ways that other people decide to observe it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Was Rachel Imeinu Killed By A Werewolf?

(A update of this post from a few years ago, in light of my discovering that Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein has an online shiur on this topic.)

In Sacred Monsters, I noted that Rabbeinu Ephraim ben Shimshon, one of the Tosafists, wrote about werewolves. But I only recently came across the full text, and I found some additional fascinating material. (I uploaded the original text of Rabbeinu Ephraim on werewolves as a PDF- you can download it here.)

Rabbeinu Ephraim refers to werewolves in a curious discussion about Yaakov’s son Benjamin. In this week's parashah, the Torah relates how Yaakov repeatedly expressed concern about Benjamin’s brothers taking him down to Egypt, “lest an accident befall him.” Rabbeinu Ephraim explains this concern to relate to the description of Benjamin as “a predatory wolf” (Genesis 49:27), understanding it very literally:
Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him. (Rabbeinu Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29)
Elsewhere in the manuscript of Rabbeinu Ephraim’s commentary, there is further discussion about werewolves attributed to “a writer from Ashkenaz” (apparently disciples of Rabbeinu Ephraim, or other scholars from the region):
There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf. When it changes into a wolf, his feet emerge from between his shoulders. So too with Benjamin—“he dwells between the shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). The solution for [dealing with] this wolf is that when it enters a house, and a person is frightened by it, he should take a firebrand and thrust it around, and he will not be harmed. So they would do in the Temple; each day, they would throw the ashes by the altar, as it is written, “and you shall place it by the altar” (Leviticus 6:3); and so is the norm with this person whose offspring turn into wolves, for a werewolf is born with teeth, which indicates that it is out to consume the world. Another explanation: a werewolf is born with teeth, to show that just as this is unusual, so too he will be different from other people. And likewise, Benjamin ate his mother, who died on his accord, as it is written, “And it was as her soul left her, for she was dying, and she called his name ‘the son of my affliction’ ” (Genesis 35:18). (Commentary to Genesis 35:27)
In Sacred Monsters, I thought that the description of Benjamin eating his mother was a figure of speech, and metaphorically referred to his causing her death via childbirth. But now I think it might mean that he literally ate her! An earlier comment makes use of the albam system of letter substitution, whereby the Hebrew alphabet is split into two parts, and each letter is replaced by the corresponding letter in the other part. Based on this system, the word tzelem, “image,” as in “man was created in the image of God,” converts to ze’ev, “wolf,” which is explained to have great significance:
Tzelem is ze’ev in the albam system; therefore, those people who change into wolves were created as such from the Six Days of Creation, and do not return to their earlier state until they have eaten the blood of a man or woman. (Commentary to Genesis 2:28)

As I explained in Sacred Monsters, it would be a mistake to look upon those who believed in such things as being "naive" or "foolish." While such a belief would be outlandish today, in the medieval period it was perfectly ordinary. After all, Scripture itself attested to King Nebuchadnezzar turning into an animal. While some would interpret this as mental illness, others interpreted this as meaning that he physically transformed into an animal. Why, then, should a person not be able to turn into a wolf?

On the other hand, it's a little less understandable when more recent figures believe in such things. Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein cites Chida as stating that this account is literally true (I'm on the road and I am unable to verify this). He also elaborates and says that the werewolf can only turn back into human form if he kills someone. For Chida to believe it is still understandable, albeit somewhat less so than with Rabbeinu Ephraim. For Rabbi Wallerstein, on the other hand, to insist that "this is Torah" and that "it must be taken very seriously," strongly implying that one is obligated to believe that it is true, is a little less acceptable. I recently met some baalei teshuvah who listened to his shiur and took it to mean that they are obligated to believe in werewolves. I don't think that this is a true or responsible message for an educator to impart. (I thus also cannot agree with what Rabbi Wallerstein says later in his shiur, that whatever comes out of his mouth in a shiur is what Hashem wants the world to hear.) There are all kinds of weird beliefs that crept into Jewish works over the centuries (see especially the Seder HaDoros that quote in Sacred Monsters), and there is absolutely no obligation to believe them.

(For further discussion of the belief in werewolves, see Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories, pp. 96-105)

See too this post: Was Eisav a Vampire?

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Most Powerful Biblical Motif

What is the most powerful Biblical motif of all? 

It's not Abraham at the Akeidah. It's not Moses atop Mount Sinai. It's not the splitting of the Red Sea or the Tabernacle.

It's Noah's Ark. 

While there were many ancient flood stories, there's only one that captivated billions of people around the world. The story of Noah's Ark spread through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which taught about it, and presented it in various art forms. It has spread beyond religion, to become the symbol of the urgency of saving life from destruction. The ark is in the title of numerous works about conservation, and conservation organizations worldwide have the ark as their symbol. Amazon has over twenty thousand books with "Ark" in the title, and at any given time, EBay has around thirty thousand items related to Noah's Ark. It's incredible!

We're developing a Noah's Ark exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. We already have reproductions of mosaics depicting Noah's Ark from ancient synagogues on display, soon to be accompanied by reproductions of various historic illustrations and paintings, and a scale model of the Biblical ark. And we've been collecting amazing models of Noah's Ark from different cultures around the world, each of which reveals fascinating insights about those cultures and how they grasp the story. I already wrote about one of our Peruvian arks, but we also have arks from the Cameroons, Kenya, the Philippines, Mexico, Colombia, England, various fascinating Americana models, and facsimiles of 19th century German arks. 

If you have any interesting models to donate to our exhibit, or if you're interested in dedication opportunities, please be in touch!

(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, December 8, 2021

The Museum Inauguration, and Other Exciting News!

After endless delays caused by Covid, we finally were able to host our official inauguration ceremony for the new Biblical Museum of Natural History! Joining us were 100 guests, including dignitaries, rabbanim, friends, partners, and supporters, and we were honored with a video of blessings from the President of Israel. The event honored my father-in-law, Mr. Lee Samson, who is chairman of the board of the Museum Foundation. Since many invitees from the US were ultimately unable to attend, a live online event will take place in a few weeks, with a parallel gathering in Los Angeles. 

In other news, my scheduled scholar-in-residence engagement in New York in January had to be cancelled, so I am currently still available for Shabbos of January 15th. In addition, we plan to run parlor meetings for the museum in Teaneck and Woodmere that weekend, in which I will be delivering a presentation about our new Noah's Ark exhibit. If you're interested in arranging for me to visit as scholar-in-residence, or in attending the parlor meetings, please write to Tobey Finkelstein at

Monday, December 6, 2021

Battle Elephants by Beit Shemesh

When you've been blessed with a religious upbringing, it can be difficult to get excited about things that you've known all your life. But sometimes all it takes is a small new insight to make you realize the profundity or power of something.

Two thousand years ago, Judah Maccabee crushed the numerically superior Greeks and restored the Temple in Jerusalem. The Seleucid Greeks decided to counter with an army that included thirty war elephants. The war elephants were terrifying, bearing towers filled with archers and lance-throwers. But Judah’s younger brother Eleazar decided to show his fellow men that the elephants were vulnerable. He charged towards a large elephant wearing the royal seal, cast himself under it and thrust his sword into its soft belly. The elephant died — but in collapsing, it crushed Eleazar, killing him.

That's the story I knew since childhood. But the new aspect that I learned this year was where exactly this happened.

The Maccabees went out to battle the Greeks at Beth-Zechariah. That's in the Elah Valley, right next to Beit Shemesh, where I am currently typing these words. In fact, from my office window, I can see the Elah valley. If I had the technology to be able to see the view from my window two thousand years ago, I'd see war elephants charging past, and a brave Jew running out to spear one of them.

How many people in the world can look out of their window and see a place where their ancestors, two thousand years ago, were involved in extraordinary events, making history and changing the world?

I find this an overwhelmingly powerful thought. 

Happy Chanukah!

(Next year, I'd like to dress up our elephant at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in battle armor!) 

(P.S. If you're flying from NY/NJ to Israel and can bring something for the museum, please contact me. We are happy to pay for an extra bag.)

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...