Friday, August 12, 2022

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 visitor since its inception! (And this doesn't include all the thousands who toured via Zoom.) Thanks to everyone on my team and to all of our supporters for making this incredible accomplishment possible!

Monday, August 8, 2022

Fluffy Spirituality vs. Real Issues

There is disturbing news today from the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. It's a perfect example of the crucial practical difference between (re)interpreting Tisha B'Av to be about fluffy inspiration regarding vague "connection with Hashem," versus actually listening to what the Nevi'im actually said about the Fall of Jerusalem.

As pointed out, when Yirmiyah and Yeshayah (and the authors of the Kinnos) bemoaned the Fall of Jerusalem, they spoke about the disgrace and death and persecution and exile. It wasn't the loss of a proper connection with Hashem - the prophets explicitly stated that that was already lost a long time ago. And when they spoke about the sins that brought this on, the major themes that constantly recur are corruption and not helping those who need help, even (and especially) among those that are revered as important and spiritual people:

"Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice,
Where righteousness dwelt—but now murderers...

"Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves,
Every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
And the widow’s cause never reaches them." (Isaiah 1:21,23)

"They are all greedy for gain; priest and prophet alike, they all act falsely." (Jer. 8:10)

Well, public exhibit number one of these sins is MK Yaakov Litzman. When Malka Leifer was due to be extradited to Australia, to stand trial for seventy-four counts of sexual abuse of her students, Litzman took advantage of his power to pressure people in the Health Ministry to falsely declare Leifer unfit for extradition. Until he was eventually caught out, he was successful for years in committing this miscarriage of justice and causing tremendous pain to the victims. Inexplicably, instead of being punished for this terrible corruption, Litzman was given a plea deal by which he admitted guilt, paid a symbolic fine, resigned from the Knesset, and only received a suspended jail sentence. Naturally, he remains a respected figure in the charedi community and there is no condemnation or even acknowledgement of his actions.

If people want to really absorb the lessons of Tisha B'Av, then instead of running fluffy inspirational presentations, they should be rallying to protest actual travesties of justice such as this one. And what kind of lesson does it send about corruption, if all that actually happens as a result is that you have to resign from the Knesset?

Of course, people will just condemn me again as a "hater of God" for saying terrible things about the Torah world. Which is a pity, because as we just heard in the haftorah before Tisha B'Av, God Himself makes it clear that uprooting such evil is much more important to Him than knowledge of Torah:

"Thus said the LORD:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;
Let not the strong man glory in his strength;
Let not the rich man glory in his riches. 

"But only in this should one glory:
In his earnest devotion to Me.
For I the LORD act with kindness,
Justice, and equity in the world;
For in these I delight
—declares the LORD."

Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Reformation of Tisha B'Av

I'm gasping at the realization that Tisha B'Av, like so many other things in Torah-True Judaism, is being completely perverted from its traditional significance.

In the previous post, I criticized a commentator who announced that "Yiddishkeit" declares that Tisha B'Av is all about the loss of our connection with the Creator. But it's not just some random commentator on this blog. The title of a Tisha B'Av video by a very popular Torah lecturer is "A Day Of Yearning, Not Sadness," with the subtitle explaining that "the point of Tisha B'Av is to focus on what life would be like with the presence of God in it."

No, no, no! 

The point of Tisha B'Av is to be sad. Sad for the destruction of Jerusalem - the city (of which the Beis Hamikdash was the most significant part) and the people. Sad for the loss of sovereignty, the loss of national pride, the persecution and suffering and exile and death. That's what Eicha speaks about. And likewise to be sad about the suffering, exile and death of countless Jews over history.

Simultaneously (as sharply expressed at the end of Kinnah 17, Im tochalna). we are supposed to contemplate the cause of all this suffering. Which, according to the prophets regarding the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash, included such sins as idolatry, oppression of the unfortunate, and resenting rebuke. And in the case of the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash and the fall of Jerusalem, it was sinat chinam - not some vague mussar idea, but sectarianism, the sort of tribalism that was actually promoted as official policy by many people in Israel over the past year.

I'm coming across endless examples of people getting Tisha B'Av wrong. The Stone Chumash, in its commentary to the Haftora that we read before Tisha B'Av, describes it as teaching about how we must lament the underlying causes of the destruction. Okay, fine. But it proceeds to speak about how we must enhance our Divine Service and knowledge of Torah. Yet if you look at what Yeshayah actually says, he talks about Hashem hating the divine service because the people were thinking that it was sufficient to be doing that, while they were simultaneously corrupted by bribery and not fighting on behalf of the oppressed. (Which is all too relevant today - but where are the mass video screenings on that topic?!)

There's a much larger theme to discuss here, about the reformation from a religion centered on important national and societal issues to one centered on personal spiritual growth, but we'll leave that for another time.

The Ignoring and Ignorance of Tisha B'Av

It's surprising to see how Tisha B'Av is ignored by secular Jews, and the ignorance of it among certain fervently religious Jews.

Secular Jews have no interest in Tisha B'Av, which they see as a part of religious Judaism. But they are very passionate about remembering the Nazi Holocaust, and there is a motto of "Never Forget." Surely, by the same token, they should care about preserving the memory of the original Holocaust, the loss of the original State of Am Yisrael.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there are some religious Jews who are convinced that they know all about what Tisha B'Av is all about. In the comments to last week's guest post about finding meaning on Tisha B'Av, someone called Dovid posted the following comment:

So sad. Some people are just missing what life is all about. And in this case, what tisha b'av is all about. What does this author think this day is in fact about? It's supposed to be about feeling like we're missing our basic personal connection with the בורא עולם. The fact that missing this connection doesn't make us sad is even more sad. This article is the writing of a person who has no connection to what Yiddishkeit is supposed to be about... Before the בית המקדש was destroyed there was נבואה. We were so close to הקב"ה that there were those that could talk to Him. Davening, which is supposed to be a conversation with השם, was done properly before the destruction, but with the destruction we have a טענת שיכור. We are missing in our connection, and very much yes, that is why we are sad.

This is a very nice frum sentiment, but it's not actually what Tisha B'Av is all about or even mostly about or even significantly about. The writer speaks about the loss of nevuah, but Yirmiyah was a navi, and he made it very clear in Megillas Eicha what Tisha B'Av is about. Eicha does not talk about the loss of nevuah. It's about the destruction of Jerusalem - including the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the loss of Jewish sovereignty, the consequent loss of national pride (which is mentioned several times), the starvation and exile, the rape and persecution, and the terrible loss of life. Likewise, Tisha B'Av commemorates similar national tragedies over the course of our history.

Now, there is also the cause of all this destruction, attributed to various sins, and there is the hope that nashuva. But even that is not about mourning the loss of spiritual connection - it's regretting sins that were committed, which is something very different. And you can also mourn the resultant loss of spiritual connection as a result of the events of Tisha B'Av. But Tisha B'Av itself is not primarily about that.

Does it matter? Yes, I think it does. Spirituality is very important, but we live in a time when many religious Jews rate personal spiritual growth too highly, at the expense of basic national priorities. And there is a sentiment that concern about national issues is somehow not very frum. It's important for people to read Eicha and think about about what it's actually saying.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Facts or Faces?

When there's a war, how do people decide whether to support one side or the other (or neither)? They can use their intellect or their emotions. Many media outlets try to appeal to people's emotions. This is very much taken advantage of by those in Gaza sworn to Israel's destruction. They know that nothing wins condemnations of Israel like pictures of dead children. It's their most powerful weapon. When people in the West see pictures of dead children, they automatically assume that the side with the dead children are the Good Guys. This is the case even if that side has launched rockets indiscriminately at civilians and is all too happy for their own children to die and earn them political points.

Accordingly, it's essential for Palestinians to get such a picture out, whether it's real or not. And since Palestinian society is not free, it's very easy for them to concoct a story. It takes a while for the truth to come out, and the political war is won before that happens.

In the second day of the Second Intafada, the killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah brought enormous political support for the Palestinians, and Israel made the mistake of initially taking responsibility, even though subsequently it turned out that Israel probably was not responsible. And then there was the "massacre" of hundreds or even thousands of Palestinians at Jenin that never actually happened. It was simply a fabrication - but by the time the truth came out, the damage had already been done. There's a long history of blood libels against the Jewish People, and these are just the latest incarnation.

Therefore, when just a few hours ago pictures were released of the "first casualty" of the latest conflict, a five-year-old girl in Gaza called Alaa Qaddum, I think that the first response should be to point out that such claims have no credibility, in light of the fact that previous such reports were simply fabricated.

At the same time, I think that there's another response that can be made. A left-leaning friend of mine posted a picture of the alleged five-year-old victim, to stir the heart-strings about the terrible effects of military action. I responded by posting this picture:


I added that this is a picture of the first Israeli child whose life was saved via this military action. The rocket that would have killed him, and the terrorist that would have fired it, were destroyed by Israel.

You can argue with facts and logic or by tugging at emotions. If people want to argue by tugging at emotions, then two can play at that game.

Friday, August 5, 2022

A Different Meaning of Meaning

A Facebook friend of mine, Seth Chalmer, wrote a post a few years ago about Tisha B'Av which I found very insightful, and helpful for people who have a hard time with finding meaning in Tisha B'Av or other aspects of Judaism. With his permission, I'm sharing it here:

Tomorrow lots of observant Jews will ask one another, "Did you have a meaningful fast?" Or (if they laudably don't assume everyone fasts, since you never know who has a medical issue or just struggles with that observance) they may ask, "Did you have a meaningful Tisha B'Av?"
Asking any individual Jew this question, in either formulation, is based on an interesting assumption. The assumption: that having a meaningful personal experience is highly relevant to Tisha B'Av.
Now, on a surface level, the assumption is obviously true. Rabbinic sources extensively discuss how the day's restrictions and observances are intended to give us the experience of mourning. (Don't study Torah, it will make you happy, etc.) But look past that for a moment to reflect: if the personal experience were really the point, shouldn't the halakhic details be subverted to the individual's personality and the things that would prompt mourning in her?
I am one of countless Jews for whom the restrictions of Tisha B'Av are very poorly designed, if the point is to prompt mourning. Fasting doesn't make me feel sad at all; it makes me feel thirsty, headachy, very fatigued, and too distracted to think or feel much of anything. Certainly it doesn't increase my sensitivity about hunger, or make me feel empathetic. I feel *least* empathetic when hangry. And not wearing leather shoes has, I promise you, no effect on my mood.
Now, can I work myself up into sadness on Tisha B'Av? Sure. I can think hard about sad things. But the point is, my ability to do so is not enhanced or empowered, and probably actually lessened, by the observances of the day.
So am I against these observances? Do I chafe at them? Do I reinterpret them or customize them to maximize my own personal experience?
God forbid. 
Because that's not the main point. It's an auxiliary point, it has value, but it's not the true point. We may connect Tisha B'Av to our personal tragedies, but the essence of the day is in relation to *national* Jewish tragedies. That's why we all do this on the same day together; that's why we keep on obeying rules about leather shoes that don't make any sense to our generation given advances in modern footwear; that's why I fast even though I'm not one of the Jews for whom that feels sad or empathy-enhancing. That's why I take the rabbinic literature (and my rabbis at shul) with a hefty dash of salt when they talk about how the laws of Tisha B'Av are supposed to make us feel. They're talking, I think, about our feelings collectively, corporately, not about the individual in himself. And if you want proof, just ask your rabbi if you can observe Tisha B'Av on a different day, or with a different set of restrictions, to meet your individual needs.
And that's also why it feels so odd to me when people ask whether I had a meaningful Tisha B'Av. The answer is: *in the experiencing of it*, not at all! I had a really unpleasant day and not even in any form that was sad, reflective, emotionally intense, or particularly mindful in any way. But if I just say that, it sounds like I don't value the day, and I truly do. I value it before I do it; I value it after I have done it; I value it while I muddle through it; I value it not for its immediate experiential value but the same way I value the existence of Pesach even in November. I value Tisha B'Av being observed by Jews worldwide and I value being a part of that. Because I value the vast, beautiful, complex, intergenerational, national / tribal / extended family art project that is Judaism, altogether.
I have been completely in love with that art project for a dozen years now and my passion has not abated. And I hear this question about having a personal experience on any given holiday and I think: what, isn't just being part of this incredible production meaning enough? I should expect myself to personally "have a meaningful day" as if the existence of the meaning depended on my experiencing it? As if it were possible to do it without it being meaningful? The day was already phenomenally meaningful whether I paid any attention to that meaning or not. It would be fragile meaning indeed if it depended on my mental state. Its meaning transcends me and my experience. I am a cell in the body of the people Israel; observing Tisha B'Av I put national mourning into my body, I make it physically real. That's more impressive to me than making it emotionally real. Combined with other Jews everywhere we make the day remarkably physically different. That's a massively powerful project no matter what any one of us experiences inwardly. 
Personal emotional meaning I actually know how to do for myself, thank you very much. And if that's my goal, then frankly I can do it a lot better than any Jewish holiday can provide. I can listen to the right song, at the right time, walk in the right kind of place, whatever. All customized for me. If Judaism presents itself as a source of *personal, individual* meaning, then it will always lose. Every time. It loses for me, and I'm a self-selected observant Jew. (How much more so will it lose for secular people.) If personal experience were the heart of the offer, I for one would turn Tisha B'Av down. And most of the rest of the Jewish year too. (Okay, Shabbos and Sukkos I'd keep.)
But as part of the whole sweep of observant Jewish life, a theatrical production on a global set and a runtime of millennia, with all my ancestors, contemporary fellow Jews, and descendants all in the ensemble, and with the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe as an audience/director/designer/co-star/protagonist/antagonist/lover? That I can't find anywhere else. That, and only that, keeps me coming back, and gladly. That's enough, much more than enough, to keep me fasting every Tisha B'Av.
So, to answer your question: yes, of course I "had" an inherently meaningful Tisha B'Av. 
And so did everyone else, whether they knew it or not.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Logical Fallacies about Logical Fallacies

Over the last year or so, I've been involved in a ridiculous discussion with a former museum supporter, whom I shall call Tuck. I'm sharing it here partly out of pent-up frustration, but also because of its educational value - Tuck repeatedly claimed that I am engaging in logical fallacies, but in fact he was consistently engaged in logical fallacies about logical fallacies.

It's about Covid. Tuck took the vaccine, but hated laws about masks and vaccines (he is a very, very passionate libertarian). Gradually he decided that the vaccine was dangerous, with a risk/benefit reward that was only justifiable for certain adults, and regretted giving it to his children.

Now, there are two ways that one could decide that the vaccine is not suitable for children. One could be a medical professional who genuinely understands all the issues and reaches that conclusion. Or, one could be a layman relying on the opinion of others.

I am personally not a medical professional. So I rely on the global consensus of medical professionals that the vaccine is safe. It's theoretically possible that they are wrong, but that is unlikely. And there is no reason to suspect a global conspiracy, especially since I know some medical professionals personally (one of my brothers-in-law is a PhD immunologist and he isn't being paid off by anyone, or at least that's what he tells me). 

Tuck repeatedly argued that I was committing a logical fallacy of appealing to authority. I pointed out that appeals to authority are not a fallacy, provided the authority is actually an authority; furthermore, following authority is by far the most reasonable course of action for people who are not authorities. 

Tuck then challenged me as being a hypocrite, since with the ban, I went against the consensus of authorities (the Gedolim), whereas here I was arguing in favor of following the authorities. I had to repeatedly point out that there is no comparison, since my claim with the ban was that the charedi Gedolim were not authorities in such matters.

Tuck himself is not a medical professional. He has expertise with numbers, which he believes renders himself qualified to judge the medical statistics. But with something as complicated as a global pandemic and a vaccine, knowing numbers doesn't help - you have to know which facts are actually correct and which statistics are actually meaningful. Tuck would constantly send me articles and interviews with people challenging the efficacy or safety of the vaccine. But, without exception, these people were either non-professionals, or nutcases, or both! And the articles were full of nonsense - confusions of correlation with causation and so on.

One person was proclaimed as being a "very well respected scientist" but was actually a computer scientist that was not at all respected. Another "medical expert", about whom Tuck sarcastically commented that I would reject on the grounds that anyone who doesn’t worship the conventional thinking is by definition a conspiracy theorist, really is a conspiracy theorist who has claimed that drugs and AIDS in the US were planted by the Russians to weaken resistance to a Soviet invasion and Obama healthcare reforms were a conspiracy to euthanize the disabled and elderly. 

The final straw for me was when he sent me an article by a Dr. Naomi Wolf about how the vaccine will cause a genocide. He sarcastically asked if I would just write it off as further nonsense. Within two seconds of scanning the article it was obvious that Dr. Naomi Wolf - whose doctorate was in English Literature, not medicine! - was unhinged. And a simple Google search showed that the author was way crazier than I even expected. She claimed to have overheard a conversation from an Apple employee about secret tech to implant nanoparticles via vaccines that will enable people to travel through time

I pointed this out to Tuck. And he replied that, following Rambam, he evaluates ideas on their own merits, not based on the reputation of those who state them.

Of course, this is a completely invalid application of Rambam's principle. Rambam's principle is about actually evaluating an idea - weighing up whether it is true and logical and supported by evidence or false and opposed by evidence. But Tuck had not actually evaluated whether Wolf's article, or any of the others, were true. He had not researched whether the claims about medical science were accurate and nor was he even qualified to do so. He simply liked such articles because they supported his position.

Why would a person choose to respect the opinions of a few nutcases over that of the global consensus of actual experts? Well, in this case, the reason was perfectly obvious. As a staunch libertarian, Tuck was passionately opposed to the enforcement of Covid regulations. The government were the Bad Guys. And so he both put himself in circles with conspiracy theorists who deluged him with anti-vax propaganda, and was all too willing to accept claims which made the government look even more evil.

Tuck kept sending me quotes from crazies, which I kept dismissing. He insisted that I was being closed-minded. Having lost all patience, I responded that the fact that I considered him to be spouting endless nonsense does not necessarily mean that I am closed-minded - it could just be that he really was spouting endless nonsense.

But while Tuck committed a number of logical fallacies, I myself was clearly committing an enormous fallacy, too. It's well expressed in the following story:

I am totally that guy!

(Note: I will not let the comments section be taken over by anti-vaxxers. I believe in free speech, and they are free to open up their own blog and rant against vaccines to their heart's content.)

Monday, August 1, 2022

Rationalism Reviewed

The latest issue of Tradition has a review of my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought, by Rabbi Alex Ozar. Interestingly, he present a sustained critique that my approach is not rationalist enough! He also argues that my justifications of the charedi community banning the rationalit approach are inadequate. This reminds me of the time that I got into a heated argument with the prominent rabbi of a Young Israel where I was giving a lecture, in which he was yelling that the Gedolim had no right to ban my books and I was countering that they absolutely did!

While I will leave it to you to decide whether his critiques of my position are correct, there is one part of the review which I must comment upon:

"As written, Slifkin’s book admirably serves its purpose in securing a space for traditionalist Jews inclined toward rationalism—they, at least, will know that they stand on firm (and holy) ground. For most readers of Tradition, I would expect, this is unnecessary..."

I would agree that for most readers of Tradition this is unnecessary. However, I would like to point out that none other than one of the permanent writers in Tradition itself is a staunch anti-rationalist who has insisted, in the pages of Tradition, that it is forbidden to believe that Chazal based laws on scientific errors (and that spontaneous generation has not been disproved!) and who also argues that Rambam "does not explicitly deny the possibility" that some people can perform magic. 

In addition, I would like to say that even for those who already know that the rationalist approach stands on firm theological grounds, I believe that it is still important and enlightening for them to see the extent to which the rationalist and mystical approaches diverge - which is far, far greater than people believe.

The review is freely available online at this link, and you can buy Rationalism vs. Mysticism directly from the museum website at this link (please do NOT buy it on Amazon!), with free shipping in the US. 

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...