Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Chassidishe/ Christian Ark Encounter

In response to the previous post about the Chinese Noah's Ark, someone asked an interesting question:

"A friendly comment: Are you prepared if anyone visiting the museum asks you the following possibly innocent or possibly unfriendly question? The museum is all about gaining greater appreciation for Tanach and the Creator's wondrous creation. Why do you also have interpretations from Goyim about the Teiva? Who's interested in their interpretations? And who's interested that the Biblical story captured Goyim's imagination alongside with their Da Vincis and Rembrandts?"

We are indeed prepared with an answer to this question. But in my opinion, nobody is going to ask it. 

I came across a fascinating report from ten years ago on a heimishe news site, about a traveling Noah's Ark exhibition which visited Talmud Torah Tiferes Bunim Munkach in Boro Park. The photos (some of which are displayed here) show a trailer that has been converted to look like Noah's Ark. Inside was a charmingly diverse and random collection of live animals (alpacas, goats and rabbits), arcade games (?!), taxidermy (specifically, a dove, a raven, and a moose's head)... and artistic models of Noah's Ark by Christian artists.

Alas, I was unable to find out anything more about this mysterious exhibit. I don't know who made it or where else it visited. But it doesn't surprise me in the least that it was very enthusiastically received.

Pictures and models of Noah's Ark are so innately charming that you can't help but love them. I think that this appeal itself is partly about the concentration of diverse animals helping us appreciate the wonders of God's creation. And these models are not theological interpretations (which might be threatening) - they are artistic interpretations. Almost nobody even attempts to make Biblically-accurate models, because the shape just wouldn't look as appealing, and the seven pairs of each of the kosher animals would be too repetitive. Furthermore, it's the sheer diversity of different styles of ark which adds to the appeal.

It's true that art is not prominent in charedi culture. However, it is not entirely as foreign as some might suppose. There is one charedi art gallery in the Jerusalem charedi neighborhood of Makor Baruch. And that's "highbrow" art - the art of the ark is something with much broader appeal. In fact, artistic representations of Noah's Ark have long been part of Jewish tradition, appearing in shuls as well as sefarim, from medieval manuscripts to more recent works such as Tze'ena u'Re'ena.

As for the actual answer to the hypothetical question: Yes, I think charedim will find it interesting (and validating) to see how this story from Tanach is so powerful that it has captured the imagination of people all over the world. And the fact that each nation put their own animals on the ark is certainly helpful in understanding why it is a particular group of animals that is so significant in the Torah. 

I'll go even further. My initial concern about creating such an exhibit was the questions that might come up about the scientific aspects of the ark and the flood story. But I don't think that these questions will come up either - and if they do, they can be easily deflected by saying that it's an artistic exhibit rather than a theological exhibit, and that the museum does not get into such questions. 

I don't think that the charedi community should be underestimated. Everyone can grasp the concept of art. And I think that they will especially appreciate the three arks that we have by an Israeli artist, which are very similar, but with one crucial difference: one depicts Noah as a typical bareheaded man, one depicts him with a Conservative-style tallis, and one depicts him as a Chassid! It's the spiritual evolution of Noach!

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Monday, July 25, 2022

Noah and the Dragon

Over the better part of the past year we have been working on an incredible Noah's Ark exhibit for the Biblical Museum of Natural History, which includes several components. One is a scale model of the Biblical ark. Another is an extraordinary range of artistic models of Noah's Ark, showcasing not only artistic beauty, but also the immense power of the Biblical story to capture people's imagination. The third component is a collection of model Noah's Arks from around the world which reflect the zoogeography of each region. 

The latter ties in very closely to one of the museum's fundamental messages. Different parts of the world have different wildlife which become part of cultural heritage of the people in those regions. And the wildlife of the Bible and of the Jewish People is the wildlife of Biblical Israel, not that of Europe of North America.

Everyone perceives the animal kingdom in terms of the animals with which they are most familiar, which is generally the animals from their part of the world. The cultural heritage of Jews in Europe included the aryeh and tzvi and nesher from the Bible and Pirkei Avot, significantly reflecting their connection to their ancestral homeland. But they weren't familiar with these animals in Europe, and that's how the tzvi became a deer instead of a gazelle and the nesher became an eagle instead of a griffon vulture.

This concept is expressed beautifully in our collection of arks from around the world. We have arks with llamas and toucans and Spanish architecture and Latino Noah - from Peru. We have arks with bears and raccoons and porcupines and skunks and Noah in a Davy Crockett hat - from North America. We have a European ark with golden eagles and alpine ibex and badgers and marmots. We have African arks with wildebeest and warthogs and humped Zebu cattle and African Noah and wife. We have an Australian ark with kangaroos and koalas and emus and platypuses. We even have an Arctic ark, featuring polar bears, snowy owls, caribou and musk ox.

But Asia was a challenge.

There aren't a lot of Biblical peoples in Asia. We did manage to obtain some very primitive Noah's Arks from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, but while Noah and his wife were of a matching ethnicity, the animals on the arks were not specific to the region. 

Then I found something extraordinary on Ebay: a Chinese ark! The architecture was in the style of a pagoda, and Noah and his wife were Chinese! And the animals that accompanied it, while including some species from various places around the world, had a particular Asian focus, including pandas, tigers, Asian water buffalo, and Asian elephants, all carved in a very distinctive Oriental style.

I purchased the ark, but I was not able to find out anything about who made it or where it was made. Which was a pity; museum exhibits are much more professional and engaging if they have a proper history and story to go with them. And this ark surely had a story - why would someone make a Chinese ark?

Meanwhile, in my extensive research of archives of auction sites, I came across a picture of an even more extraordinary Chinese version of Noah's Ark: a dragon boat! Meticulously carved from Chinese camphor wood, this incredibly ornate ark was created the style of the famous traditional Chinese dragon boat, which has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. It had an oriental dragon's head emerging from the bow and its tasseled tail from the stern. Along with Chinese Noah and his wife, it featured twelve pairs of animals, some carved into the boat and some as separate figures, corresponding to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.

It was the most extraordinary ark that I had ever seen - and I have seen many thousands of models of Noah's Ark! It looked like it was designed by the same person that had produced the pagoda ark that I had purchased, but I did not know who that was. And the only information that I had about this dragon ark was a website address that appeared on the picture - but the website no longer existed.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had a brainwave. There's a website which archives extinct websites. I used it to find an archived version of the defunct website that appeared on the dragon ark photo. It was a commercial site selling special carved wooden souvenirs from China, including both the dragon ark and the pagoda ark, and there was an email address on it. I wrote to that address, and it was still active! The person responded that the business had long since closed, but she had an email address for the person who had supplied them with the arks, a woman by the name of Stella Zang from Bejing.

And so I wrote to Stella in Bejing. And she responded that the arks were designed by her father-in-law, Wanlong Zang, a master woodcarver from the Zhejiang province near Shanghai. His father had converted to Christianity, and Wanlong had decided to use the family's ancient Chinese woodcarving techniques to create Biblical scenes, including Noah's Ark. He had created a workshop which operated for a while, but it became very difficult to find workers, since most people preferred to work in offices rather than spend years learning ancient Chinese woodcarving techniques. And so the business had closed down, and they didn't have any arks left, and no more would ever be made.

That's such a pity, I replied. I explained about the museum exhibit that I am working on, and how special it would have been to exhibit a Chinese dragon ark. 

Well, she replied, in that case...

She explained that that there was actually one dragon ark remaining. It was their family's own model. And for the sake of such a museum exhibit in the Holy Land, they would sell it to me!

I could not believe the museum's good fortune. It arrived today, in the most ornate gold-filigreed chest that I have ever seen. The very last Chinese dragon-boat Noah's Ark, which will never be made again. It's absolutely incredible and such a unique piece of Biblical art!

We hope to open our Noah's Ark exhibit to the public sometime in the fall. Until then, it is only available for viewing by museum patrons. If you'd like to keep posted about news of the exhibit and previews, subscribe to the museum newsletter on this page.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Techelet: The Strongest Proof

What is the identity of the chilazon, the creature from which techelet is produced? It's widely acknowledged that it is a snail by the name of Hexaplex trunculus (formerly known as Murex trunculus), pictured here at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. Only a small number of people dispute this - usually due to religio-sociological considerations. Still, it recently occurred to me that the very strongest argument for the trunculus is actually often overlooked.

In Tanach and the Gemara, we find various clues about the identity of the chilazon. First, we learn that it was famously produced outside of the Land of Israel, in the "Islands of Elisha" (Yechezekel 27:7), which are identified as Italy or Cyprus.

Then, we have a list in the Gemara (Menachot 44a) of several aspects of the chilazon. There is debate about how well these clues match the trunculus - arguments can be made in both directions. The Gemara presents the following descriptions:

  • Its body "resembles" the sea. This can be easily argued to match the trunculus, which grows algae over its shell and is virtually indistinguishable from the ocean bed where it resides.
  • Its "formation" (briyato) is "similar" to that of a fish. This can be easily argued to match the trunculus, whose development is only similar to a fish, in that it is an aquatic living creature that reproduces via laying eggs, but is not actually a fish.
  • The techelet dye is obtained from its "blood." This can be easily argued to match the trunculus, since the Hebrew word dam can easily refer to the fluid contained in the gland of the trunculus.
  • It emerges from the sea only once every seventy years. This can easily be understood to be a figure of speech, meaning that it rarely emerges. Additionally, it may mean that it only comes close to shore rarely, and is usually in deeper waters. All this matches the trunculus perfectly.
  • Due to the previous factors, it is very expensive. Trunculus dye was indeed extremely expensive, due to the tiny amount of dye produced by each snail and the difficulty of obtaining them.

Then, elsewhere in the Talmud, we find further clues about the meaning of the word chilazon. It turns out that there are other types of chilazon which do not live in the sea (and are not a source of techelet) - the Talmud says that another type of chilazon is found in the hills, and emerges in great quantities after rainfall (Sanhedrin 91a). Of course, this matches snails perfectly. 

Particularly interestingly, we are told that a regular chilazon is not subject to the laws of trapping creatures on Shabbat (Talmud Yerushalmi cited by Tosafot to Shabbat 75a). Why would it have such an exception? The answer is that there is no prohibition of trapping a creature when it does not require any effort or skill. Such is the case with snails. 

At the same time, although a terrestrial snail requires no effort or skill to catch, the Talmud says that the techelet-producing chilazon was caught with a net (Shabbat 74b). This is perfectly consistent with the trunculus - due to it generally inhabiting deeper waters, and its camouflage, the way they were caught was by baiting nets.

Finally, we are told that techelet made from the plant-based indigo is indistinguishable from that made from the chilazon (Bava Metzia 61b). Indeed, the dye produced from the trunculus is chemically identical to indigo and thus impossible to tell apart.

Now, as discussed, all these clues match the Hexaplex trunculus. Some match it very obviously so, whereas with others, it involves arguments that to my mind are straightforward but which some others dispute. But could it be claimed that perhaps there is some other, unknown creature which matches the clues even better and is the real chilazon

Of course, such arguments strain credulity. Similar to the arguments against those who claim that the arnevet and shafan are unknown species of animal, it's just not reasonable to reject known creatures that match the clues pretty well in favor of unknown and zoologically unlikely creatures for which, if they did exist, there would surely be some kind of evidence.

But there's an even stronger argument.

The most important, basic halacha of techelet is that it is only kosher if it is made from the chilazon; if it is made from something else, it is invalid (Tosefta, Menachot 9:6). Although - and precisely because - indigo is identical to techelet, Chazal stressed that one does not fulfill the mitzvah by wearing indigo (Bava Metzia 61b).  

Now, it is an indisputable fact that in the Biblical and Talmudic periods, there was a famous trade of producing an expensive dye, chemically identical to indigo, and with colors ranging from purple to blue, from the Hexaplex trunculus. There is endless evidence for this, and nobody at all disputes it. 

And so the ultimate argument for techelet being the trunculus is as follows: Chazal clearly wanted to make sure that people were using real techelet and not indistinguishable indigo. Given that, and given that every culture was using dye from the trunculus which looked the same as indigo, how on earth would Chazal have spoken about it being a marine creature and not warned against using the trunculus?!

This is why there is not the slightest doubt that the Hexaplex trunculus is the correct source of tekhelet. (As to whether one should wear it today, that's a different matter.) If you'd like to see a live Hexaplex trunculus in the flesh (and in the shell), we have just opened a new tekhelet exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, featuring an aquarium with several live Hexaplex trunculus! Book your tour online at our website. We are also running a special workshop for producing tekhelet on Thursday August 4. You can sign up at 

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Monday, July 18, 2022

The Meal of a Lifetime

As anyone who has attended one of the Biblical Museum of Natural History's special dinners will tell you, they are the meal of a lifetime. It's a unique experience that combines halacha, Jewish history and culture, and extraordinary food. Our three different menus - a Biblical Feast of Birds & Beasts, a Feast of Exotic Curiosities, and a Feast of Legends from the Sea - are out of this world! 

They are also an adventure to arrange. Past experiences include a secret meeting with a guy on a dark street corner in Tel Aviv late at night for a deal involving piranhas, a lengthy and ultimately failed attempt to recapture escaped geese, experiments with a Locust-o-matic machine, emergency rehousing of a Very Large Creature from one yeshivah after their walk-in freezer suddenly broke and rehousing in a different yeshiva, struggling to restrain a deer, trying to convince a group of swordfish hunters that I wasn't a spy from the Department of Fish & Wildlife, having expensive pheasants beheaded by one of the museum's more wild animals, extensive apologies to my wife for a persistent smell in the car, and asking Poskim some of the strangest questions that they have ever been asked.

The benefits of these meals go beyond the people who attend. Aside from raising the profile of the museum, the publicity and photos surrounding them spread educational messages. Locusts are kosher! Halacha is fascinating! Kashrut is cool!

These events were initiated many years ago by my friends Rabbis Dr. Ari Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan, who subsequently discontinued them, for a very simple reason - such events are incredibly complicated and expensive to produce. We took up the challenge, and have produced seven such events - three in Israel, three in Los Angeles, and one in Teaneck. But we are also finding that the complications and cost of arranging them are staggering.

At the moment, we are considering producing an event in Israel just after Yom Kippur, and/or in Florida sometime in the fall. In order to proceed, we need to secure event sponsors. If you're interested in making such an event happen, and in having a behind-the-scenes look at the adventures involved in these things, please write to

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Sunday, July 17, 2022

What is the Forest and what are the Trees?

I think that we're not only getting to the crux of the difference between the charedi and religious-Zionist worldview, but also to an understanding as to why the two approaches are so worlds apart. Two comments on the previous post, Who Is Going Against The Mesorah?, from two different people championing the charedi worldview, are as follows:

"Those that continue with this lifestyle today are the Charedim. Yes, not going to work is an innovation, but not a substantive one. The basic idea behind Charedim's lives is that we judge ourselves only by the Torah and its ideals and morals."

"It doesn't matter what criticisms or complaints you lodge or observations you note... They may even be technically accurate in some manner. But they still miss the forest for the trees."

It occurred to me that herein lies the difference - the diametrically opposed views regarding what is the forest and what are the trees.

From the charedi perspective, the forest is passion for learning Torah and zeal regarding the details of halacha. Problems such as people not working are small and not substantive.

From the religious Zionist perspective, on the other hand, the forest is the overall spiritual and material wellbeing of the entire nation, for which certain religious obligations, even if not formally rated as mitzvos, are of crucial importance. In comparison to this, zeal regarding details of halachos bein adam l'Makom is of much lesser significance, and the charedi approach of Torah study replacing work is a serious problem.

To elaborate: There are certain things which are fundamental and basic. For example, the concept of a man having a job which simultaneously supports his family and contributes to the economy. This is basic to the role of a man being a man, a husband, a father, and a contributing member of society. And it is all the more important as a religious obligation when religious Jews are not some tiny minority in a large non-Jewish welfare state, but a rapidly growing large group in a state where there is Jewish sovereignty. (Cf. Chasam Sofer's powerful words about how Jews living in Israel have a responsibility to ensure that all trades and industries are well-developed.)

Charedi yeshivah students will spend endless hours learning all about the intricacies of the laws of the kesubah, much more so than non-charedim. But the very basic concept of the kesubah is completely meaningless to them and is not fulfilled by them. (I know this because I used to be part of that world.) Charedim see the forest as learning about the intricacies of the laws of the kesubah - non-charedim see the forest as the fulfillment of the actual kesubah itself.

Chazal made numerous statements about the tremendous importance of work and self-sufficiency. Even so, Chazal were generally only speaking from the perspective of its importance in terms of the personal effects on someone's character, along with his obligations to his family. Nowadays, when Jews actually have their own country and well over a third of the next generation are religious, it becomes of immeasurably greater importance that it will be a society of people who contribute to the economy rather than drain it.

A similar point applies to the army. For two thousand years it just hasn't been relevant, which is why you won't find much discussion about it in the Gemara. But nowadays it is most certainly of tremendous relevance. And so we are in a situation more like that of Biblical times - when you can see very clearly how important it was. When Moshe Rabbeinu firmly told the tribes of Reuven and Gad that it would be unacceptable for them not to share the national burden of military action, this was a fundamental and religious obligation. (And it wasn't one that they could avoid with some fanciful drush about learning Torah being an equally helpful alternative.)

Likewise, from the charedi perspective, the leaders of the nation are those who exemplify its passion for learning Torah and zeal regarding the details of halacha. But from a religious-Zionist perspective, most of these people aren't even on the playing field. To quote Rav Melamed

"Gadlut beTorah (Torah greatness, eminence) necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."

Charedi "gedolim" don't even think in such terms. At best, they think in terms of the religious and material needs of individuals in charedi society (and how to obtain those resources at the cost of others), not in terms of issues facing the nation as a whole. (And in fact, they often don't even think in terms of the larger long-term situation facing charedi society itself.)

These two perspectives are worlds apart. They reflect fundamentally different conceptions of the purpose of Judaism and Torah. And there is no bridging the gap. The only thing that will make charedi society reassess its worldview is when the price of their narrow perspective has its inevitable catastrophic results. As Jonathan Rosenblum (who has woken up to this) pointed out, this could fatally impact the entire country. Unfortunately, as Ernest Hemingway famously wrote regarding bankruptcy, such disasters happen in two ways - gradually and then suddenly. That is why we can't afford to wait for that point.


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Thursday, July 14, 2022

Who is Going Against the Mesorah?

Earlier this week, we heard Rav Gershon Ribner of Lakewood declaring that his hero Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel hates any rabbi that has a touch of modernity or is involved with Zionist organizations, and will not work with them. And his explanation of that was that Rav Elya Ber is kol kulo mesorah.

A friend of mine made an excellent observation. Having such an attitude and approach is actually not a reflection of fidelity to the Lakewood mesorah. Rather, it's a total corruption of it. Rav Aharon Kotler may well have been an extremist in various ways and an anti-Zionist, but he didn't hate rabbis who took a different approach, and he certainly didn't refuse to work with them. 

There are two striking examples of this. One is Rav Kotler's reverence for Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of Israel. To quote Marvin Schick's first-hand account of a Shabbos that he spent with Rav Aharon in Israel during which they learned that Rav Herzog had passed away:

"Rav Aharon spoke highly of Rav Herzog, adding that he hoped to be one of the maspidim. Rav Yaakov Schiff’s protest that Rav Herzog was a Mizrachist who had not opposed the draft of girls into military service was brushed off by Rav Aharon who noted that Rav Isser Zalman (his father-in-law - NS) had eulogized Rav Kook.... Rav Aharon also noted that Rav Herzog was a Talmid Chachom who had done much to assist Jews during the European Churban... Rav Aharon spoke at the cemetery in Sanhedria where Rav Herzog is buried. His eulogy was warm and contained much praise of Rav Herzog.”  

Then there is Rav Kotler's respect for Rav Soloveitchik. Rav Aharon obviously strongly disagreed with Rav Soloveitchik's approach, which included a lot more than a "touch" of modernity. Nevertheless, not only did not hate him or refuse to work with him, he actively reached out to him to work together on behalf of Chinuch Atzmai, and there was clearly immense mutual respect. Alas, this is not well known to those believing themselves to be continuing in Rav Kotler's path - in the book The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler, a photograph of Rav Kotler sitting next to Rav Soloveitchik at a Chinuch Atzmai dinner has been carefully cropped to remove Rav Soloveitchik, even though Rav Soloveitchik was the guest of honor at the behest of Rav Aharon, who asked him to give the keynote address!

This sort of censorship is one of the ways in which the charedi community fools itself into thinking that it is kol kulo mesorah even as it goes against it. A few years ago I wrote a critique of Rabbi Avi Shafran's claim that charedim, unlike Centrist or Modern Orthodox, are practicing the "original" form of Judaism. In my response, I pointed out some of the significant ways in which charedi Judaism has deviated from traditional Judaism. This week, someone posted the following objection to my post:

"This is my first time seeing Slifkin's blog, and realize that I am 4 years late to the party for this post, but I feel I must respond to the absurdity of it. Slifkin, as well as many of the commentors here, seem to imply that Hareidism is a recent invention. While I don't think that anyone will dispute that certain cultural nuances have evolved over the years, as they are wont to do, anyone claiming that Haredi practice of Judaism in novel vis a vis the Modern Orthodox approach, is either plain ignorant or gaslighting. There exist many thousand of seforim that were published over the centuries, down from the rishonim, achronim including codifiers of halacha and responsa. The only segment of Jewry which aspires to follow these codifiers to their truest form are the Chareidim. That's what the many thousand of talimdei chachomim around the world do every day. I myself spend hours everyday on Otzar Hachochma, learning from these seforim directly. No one is "brainwashing" me or "rewriting" history..."

The tremendous irony here is that Otzar Hachochma has a special "Bnei Yeshivos" edition of their database which censors out all the many traditional sefarim which contradict the charedi worldview! And, of course, while the charedi community is punctilious in its observance of many halachos - generally those bein adam l'Makom - there are other very basic aspects and directives of the Torah and Chazal that they simply ignore or revise, whether it's Moshe Rabbeinu on the basic idea of sharing national responsibility, or Chazal's various statements about a man's obligations to his family, his children, and society. Meanwhile, this person continues:

"...Whether or not secular studies should be studied, there have definitely been those that have learned them and those opposed over the centuries, but other than R' Hirsh who by his own admission was an innovator, has there ever been an entire "shita" been made out of it to teach it to the masses as a means unto itself. So I see no reason why Haredim are radically changing tradition by eschewing secular studies in the Yeshivos."

Of course, Chazal had an entire "shita" that everyone should work for a living and raise their children to be economically self-sufficient, which charedim ignore, and many Sefardic rishonim had an entire "shita" that everyone should ideally know various "secular" fields of knowledge, which charedim just don't learn about.

It is extraordinary that so many people who fervently believe themselves and their leaders to be "kol kulo mesorah" have no idea of the extent to which they are corrupting and reforming it. 

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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

A Fabulous Endorsement

Someone sent me a great video of Rav Hershel Schachter shlita eating a locust from the Biblical Museum of Natural History!

In the video, he notes that it "tastes like nothing," unlike when he was at Rav Machpud's house and they were fried in oil. I'd like to mention that for reasons of kashrus and legal issues in producing food we decided that it's best for us to sell the locusts as 100% locusts without any additions. But you can certainly "flavor them up"! We'd love to hear various ideas regarding that. (But in any case, perhaps it's better for people to say that the locusts taste like nothing rather than that they taste like something!)

Anyway, we are thrilled with this video. As someone pointed out, it's like getting an OU hechsher without having to pay for it!

If you'd like to buy some kosher locusts, you can do so on our website at this link. We are amazed at how popular they are, though I am guessing that some people buy them as a curio or talking point rather than to actually eat them. You can read an extensive discussion regarding their kashrut in our Knowledge Base at this link. Bon appetit!

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Hooray, a Hateful Leader is Rising!

There's a change in leadership coming for the American yeshivah world.

Rabbi Yair Hoffman writes for the Five Towns Jewish Times and The Yeshivah World. He has said some very strange things (such as that on seder night, one should place one and a third matzos in one's mouth, chew without swallowing, separate them into two equal-sized balls in each cheek, and swallow first one and then the other, all within two minutes). Still, he's a popular writer. And this week, he wrote an article titled "Shiurim Attract Eclectic Communities From Lakewood To Teaneck." Whose shiurim are these? They are from a Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva, a son-in-law of Rav Schnuer Kotler zt”l - Reb Gershon Ribner.

Rabbi Hoffman proceeds to describe how Rav Ribner is "one of the leading Gedolei Torah," who has authored numerous seforim with profound shiurim and chiddushim. But because he sees the dire need for "true Torah hashkafa," he releases a wide number of brief shiurim on all kinds of topics, at the website Apparently there are over 2000 downloads daily!

Impressive. So, what sort of things does this Gadol baTorah say? 

Well, I was sent a few links. There's one titled "Do yeshivaleit join rallies to protest Get Refusers?" in which he explains that one of the main reasons why they don't is that, very often, it's a situation where the wife is a feminist who wants to be able to go out and do things on her own or with her friends, whereas the rabbonim understand that the husband is being loyal to halachah, which says that a woman is obligated to be in the home. Then there's the support he gives to men who are falsely or accurately accused of sexual abuse, where he advises the latter to move to a new town where nobody knows about their history, though he adds that if they want to sincerely apologize, their victims are obligated to accept their apology.

In a recent shiur, however, this leading Gadol B'Torah sings the praises of the person that he in turn considers to be the leading Gadol B'Torah: Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsburg.

If you're part of the American yeshivah world, you've certainly heard of Rav Elya Ber. He is known not only as a brilliant lamdan, but also for his zealous approach to community issues, such as insisting that the charedi community should not join the World Zionist Organization even just to gain funding. And if you're a reader of this website, you'll also recognize his name. Rav Elya Ber was the primary driving force behind the infamous ban on my books, but he's also been of interest for several other things - backing those opposed to the MMR vaccine, and declaring that Covid was a punishment for those who use the internet to learn about the misdeeds of others.

So, Rav Gershon Ribner is thrilled to describe the greatness of the Fallsburg Rosh Yeshivah. And he is very excited to talk about what to expect as Rav Elya Ber's authority spreads. In this shiur, titled "Changes to be anticipated under HaGaon R' Elya Dov's leadership," he enthusiastically declares as follows:

"The Fallsburg Rosh Yeshivah hates any Rav or any Torah figure that has a touch of modernity to him. He hates that. He is kol kulo mesorah and doesn't have any touch of modernity. I'm not talking about if you trim your beard. But if you are pro-WZO (World Zionist Organization), he is finished with you. Or if you are pro-Slifkin, or you're not hot and angry against Slifkin, he is finished with you, he is not going to be working with you."

I was flattered and amused that nearly eighteen years after my books were banned, I'm still a litmus test for Torah True Jews. But I was a little disturbed at how someone proclaimed to be one of the "leading Gedolei Torah" with popularity from Lakewood to Teaneck is praising his revered Gadol Be'Torah as someone who "hates" any Rav that has a "touch of modernity." Celebrating someone for hating other rabbis?

I guess it's something to get us in the mood for the approaching Three Weeks.

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Monday, July 4, 2022

The Myth of the "Mainstream" Position

Contrary to how it was misunderstood by some, the previous post, Rabbinic Mythbusting, was not about abortion per se; rather, it was about myths regarding halachah. In that post, I discussed the myth that the normative, mainstream position among halachic authorities is that abortion is unequivocally a form of murder. To this I responded by pointing out that many rabbinic authorities over the ages took the view that abortion, while generally prohibited, is not homicide in any shape or form.

Subsequently, I came across an article that is perhaps even more extraordinary than the popular myth of the unlearned. It's called "The Jewish Approach to Abortion" and it's from Morasha, which seems to be some sort of institution for providing learned Torah analyses of various topics for use in a study syllabus. 

Early on, the article notes that "The mainstream opinion in Jewish Law is that abortion is considered murder." However, a page later, it states that "While the mainstream traditional Jewish approach is that expressed by Rabbi Feinstein – that abortion is forbidden for a Jew because it is deemed a form of murder – nevertheless, other halachic authorities have expressed differing opinions on the matter." And it proceeds to cite some of the many Rishonim and Acharonim and contemporary Gedolei HaPoskim who state that abortion is not a form of murder, from Ramban to Maharit to the Chavot Ya'ir to Rav Benzion Uziel to Rav Waldenberg to Rav Wosner. (To this list, one could add Rashi, Rav Aharon Shmuel Kaidanover, Tosafos Yom Tov, Rav Chaim Pilaggi, Rav Chaim Ozer, and numerous others.) But then towards the end, the article insists that "The mainstream opinion, written by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, is that an unjustified abortion is considered an act of murder."

It's extraordinary. Since Morasha is putting out an article for use as a study syllabus, they have to provide a range of sources. And they are fully aware that many of these - in fact, probably the majority - state that abortion is not an act of murder. And yet they insist that the opinion of Rav Moshe Feinstein is "the mainstream traditional Jewish approach"!

How does a learned writer come to make such a statement that is contradicted by the rest of his own article? I would suggest that from his perspective, "mainstream traditional" simply means what is the norm in his particular segment of the Anglo-charedi litvishe world. And the word "traditional" is being used in its peculiar charedi sense where it does not mean how things were done, but rather how things are done.

(But it goes even further. It's not even the norm, it's just what is voiced as being the norm. It probably still doesn't even accurately reflect how actual instances of this situation were dealt with, since in practice poskim would not follow Rav Moshe's stringent approach. How many times have you heard of a single charedi girl giving birth?).

This is a very, very common mistake, which appears in all kinds of situations. People talk about "the Gedolim" when they mean the particular rabbanim of their own narrow community. People talk about "the Torah perspective" when they really mean one particular perspective out of several in traditional Judaism. They subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) studiously avoid the notion that there is diversity of thought in Judaism, even if their own perspective is the minority perspective.

I think that it's particularly ironic when this distortion occurs regarding the position of Rav Moshe Feinstein, because he himself was a believer in rabbinic independence rather than conformity. He was once sent a question by a rabbi in Bnei Brak who wanted to know if he was allowed to dispute the view of the Chazon Ish, another resident of Bnei Brak who was widely respected as the Gadol HaDor. R. Feinstein notes that it is permitted to disagree even with one’s teacher; all the more so with a rabbi who is not one’s teacher, and the difference in age or stature is irrelevant. (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah III:88; see also Iggrot Moshe vol. 2, Yoreh De’ah I:101, p. 186, where he even permits disputing Rishonim.) 

Soon, I will be posting about another halachic topic regarding which that which is assumed to be the normative, mainstream, traditional halacha actually has zero basis in classical sources and is directly contradicted by them. Meanwhile, if you can think of further examples, I'd love to hear them.

One Hundred Thousand!

I have to say, I'm pretty darn proud of this accomplishment. The Biblical Museum of Natural History recently hosted its 100,000th visi...