Monday, October 31, 2022

Anti-Rationalism and the Charedi Vote

In the charedi community, there is a carefully-crafted non-rationalist worldview about bitachon and hishtadlus. It was relentlessly drilled into me during my years in charedi yeshivos that all hishtadlus is meaningless. God directly controls everything, and the laws of nature have no power. The only reason why the world seems to run according to various laws is that otherwise there would be no free will. Hishtadlus is just a price that we pay to keep that illusion going, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything. And to the extent that we recognize that, it's possible to cut down on the hishtadlus.

Supposedly, this is a major reason why many charedim don't serve in the army or gain a secular education and work for a living. To the extent that you realize that Hashem directly runs everything, you don't need to engage in the sham of hishtadlus. On the contrary - it is learning Torah which provides divine protection from our enemies, which protects us from illness, which merits our parnasa.

The divide between the rationalist and anti-rationalist approaches to theology has fascinating ramifications with regard to the electoral system.

Rav Kornfeld is a local charedi rabbinic leader in Ramat Beit Shemesh who is not afraid to openly state the Israeli charedi perspective on such matters. For example, a few elections ago, he went on record in HaModia as stating that American olim are mistaken in believing that they have the right to choose who to vote for; instead, they are obligated to vote for whoever the Charedi-Litvishe-Non-RavShmuelAuerbach camp tell them to vote for. I am very grateful to Rav Elimelech Kornfeld for spelling out the ramifications of the charedi approach with regard to the electoral process. (I say that without any sarcasm; while I disagree with the anti-rationalist approach, I think that it's important for it to be articulated and I greatly appreciate his doing so.)

For this election, Rav Kornfeld gave a speech in his shul, reiterating the contents of a letter that he once printed on the front page of a local newspaper in a previous election, in which he spelled out the charedi anti-rationalist approach with regard to the very nature of the electoral system. In that letter, he explains that it is not in the hands of any politician or party to actually do anything for us, and continues as follows:

"Our national security, our physical and surely spiritual needs are not in the hands of any government... Our present decision in these elections is to show Hashem that we feel that the things that are important to him are important to us, and this will being us continued Siyata Dishmaya. To this end our leaders, Rav Shteinman Shlita and Rav Kanyevsky Shlita have spoken clearly and strongly that we should vote for Gimmel - UTJ..."

In other words, the entire system of voting in politicians who make policies that are implemented is, like all other forms of hishtadlus, is a sham; it's merely a cover, a mask for the workings of Hashem. However, it is very important to show support for the party that espouses Torah values (which he believes to be UTJ, notwithstanding how its MK was forced to resign for corruptly manipulating his power to protect a pedophile), because that will earn us the Divine favor which actually accomplishes everything that happens. 

This appears to be an ingenious way of arriving at the same end result - vote for party x - while basing it on a fundamentally different idea about what voting actually accomplishes. However, the more one thinks through its ramifications, the more complications and problems arise.

First of all, it means that rallying votes is only important insofar as it shows Hashem that (charedi) Torah is important to us. But surely one can show Hashem that Torah is important even more powerfully by actually learning Torah! Are the two yeshivah boys who stayed in the Chevron Beis HaMidrash to learn while all their peers spent several hours traveling to and from Bnei Brak not showing Hashem that learning Torah is of supreme value to them?!

Second, it means that if people cheat (from either side), that will have absolutely no effect on the fate of the Jewish People. But why, then, is UTJ searching for people to monitor the voting booths?

Note the slogan on the right - you have to do
even more than you could normally do
Third, it means that it is of absolutely no significance as to whether UTJ actually gets in the government (other than perhaps as indication of whether Hashem is happy with chareidi voting choices.) The only thing that matters is how many people show Hashem their support for UTJ, not whether UTJ actually gets in.

Fourth, it means that if charedim are unsuccessful, then that is also from Hashem (and presumably as a result of their not sufficiently demonstrating their dedication to Him). So why, after Lapid's success in the last election and his resultant policies, was their so much anger towards him? Lapid didn't actually do anything, it was all from Hashem!

Fifth, it means that the followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach and others, who are of the view that one should not participate in elections at all, are not doing any harm. After all, they are certainly acting out of dedication to Torah and Gedolim. So why is UTJ so upset about them?

Of course, nobody in the charedi world actually acts as though they think this way. When you look at all the vast effort expended to get charedim to vote, and the tremendous passion about who actually gets in the government, obviously charedim feel that the votes and politicians inherently make a difference. It's similar to the anti-rationalist notion that yeshivah students provide protection from rockets, and that parnassah is all in the hands of Hashem and has nothing to do with hishtadlus; people might profess to believe it, but when push comes to shove, nobody really believes it. After all, there is the awkward fact that on Rosh HaShanah, Hashem apparently decrees much more parnassah overall for people who engage in hishtadlus!

I wish people would just make up their minds and be consistent. Either you accept that hishtadlus has genuine significance - in which case, give your kids the education that they need to earn a living and maintain the economy, and stop ruling out army service for your community. Or, decide that hishtadlus has no real significance - in which case, stop with all the political stuff, and don't bother voting, just learn Torah!

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Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Bizarre Nature of Voting in Israel

Americans (and Brits, like me) often have a hard time grasping the bizarre nature of voting in Israel. In other countries, you vote for the party that represents your ideology and which you therefore support. In Israel, even if such a party exists, you might well vote for a different one instead. There is ideological voting, semi-ideological voting, and strategic voting.

There are two reasons why this might happen. One has to do with the fact that every government is made up of a coalition of a variety of parties. So, for example, I personally identify most closely with Ayelet Shaked's Bayit Yehudi. However, since in this election she would support a coalition with Bibi's Likud, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir's Religious Zionism, Shas and UTJ, which in my view are a terrible combination for the country (just look at how this past year they openly voted against Israel's best interests), I would not vote for her. Instead, I would choose a party that is less aligned with my ideology, but which creates a coalition that is less problematic and is overall closer to my ideology.

The second reason has to do with the electoral threshold. The votes are divided among the 120 seats of the Knesset - but if a party does not receive at least 3.25% of the electoral threshold, then all their votes are discounted. Some people don't grasp the mathematical significance of this, so let me spell it out with an extreme example. If there was one right wing party that was 40% of the country, and twenty left wing parties that equally represented 60% of the country, the right-wing party would get every single seat in the Knesset, even though they are a minority. It would be a minority having absolute power in a democracy!

That's an extreme example, but there is a very realistic scenario that might play out this week. Bibi's bloc contains four parties which will all definitely cross the threshold. However, if all the other parties also cross the threshold, he lacks a majority and cannot form a coalition. But the non-Bibi parties include several very small parties (who foolishly did not unite). If even one or two of these parties fail to cross the threshold, then all those votes are discounted and Bibi receives a disproportionately larger share of the vote (though doubtless you won't hear any of his supporters say that such an electoral win would be "undemocratic"). Accordingly, I know a number of people (and I am inclined to join their ranks) who are voting for one of these small parties even though they disagree with their values, just to make sure that every vote in the country counts in the correct proportion. 

Thus, you get a crazy situation where right-wing religious Zionists, in order to accomplish their ideological goals, are making a rational decision to vote for parties that are completely unaligned with their ideology, such as Labor, Meretz, or even Arab parties! Only in Israel.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Israel is Doing Well!

I've heard people this week bemoan about the terrible state that Israel is currently in - whether with regard to the security situation or the deep divisions in society.

Honestly, I think they are mistaken. I think Israel is doing great.

With regard to the security situation, aside from the Iranian threat, things are pretty good. Of course, it's unrealistic to expect that there won't be any security problems, since there is a Hamas-run state next door and millions of Palestinians living in our borders who reject our history, lack full rights and resent us to a greater or lesser degree. But taking that into account, we have been doing remarkably well. The last Gaza operation was successfully completed almost as soon as it started. There has been no Third Intifada. The IDF has successfully neutralized many terrorist cells. There is no major international pressure to imminently create a Palestinian State, since the US and EU understand that it is unrealistic at this time.

With regard to Israeli Jewish society, we are also doing well. The notion that there is a huge national divide is an artificial artifact created by certain politicians for their own purposes. 80% of the population agrees on 80% of the issues, whether relating to security or society. In fact, were it not for a certain politician who is incredibly successful at alienating people, there would be a very broad and stable government coalition. 

So don't believe those who talk about the terrible situation. All things considered, the Jewish People in Israel is doing pretty well. 

What about with regard to the future? The far Left never had a realistic short-term plan for the Palestinians which didn't result in disaster (which is why they virtually disappeared). But the far right has no realistic long-term plan. Meanwhile, the charedim will destroy the economy and hence the country long before the Palestinians anyway. That's why this country needs a center - which does not make dangerous short-term concessions, nor rules out long-term solutions, and works to get charedim educated and into the workforce. In fact, pretty much what the current government has been doing this past year!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, October 27, 2022

How Many Giraffes were on the Ark?

A quarter of a century ago, I heard the director of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo speak about how every depiction of Noah's Ark has a pair of giraffes on the deck. Actually, in many of the Noah's Arks from around the world that we have collected for our forthcoming "Art of the Ark" exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, there aren't any giraffes at all. For example, South American arks tend to have llamas instead. The largest animals on our Chinese dragon ark are Asian water buffalo, and on our North American arks are bison and moose. For our European ark it's red deer, and for our Arctic ark it's reindeer. And if you wanted to adopt the view of Rav Azriel Aryeh Leib of Lomza and Rav Gedalya Nadel, according to which the flood was only a local phenomenon, then there likewise wouldn't be any giraffes.

Still, if you did want to depict giraffes on the ark, how many would there be? Two, right? Actually, it's not so clear. Here is Genesis 7:1-3:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה לְנֹחַ בֹּא־אַתָּה וְכׇל־בֵּיתְךָ אֶל־הַתֵּבָה כִּי־אֹתְךָ רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק לְפָנַי בַּדּוֹר הַזֶּה׃ מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה תִּקַּח־לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּמִן־הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא שְׁנַיִם אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ׃ גַּם מֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה לְחַיּוֹת זֶרַע עַל־פְּנֵי כׇל־הָאָרֶץ׃

Then God said to Noah, “Go into the ark, with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation. Of every pure animal you shall take seven by seven, males and their mates, and of every animal that is not pure, two, a male and its mate; of the birds of the sky also, seven by seven, male and female, to keep seed alive upon all the earth."

In contrast to the earlier instruction for Noah to take pairs of each animal, here he is told to take seven of every kosher animal (and every kosher bird). According to some this means seven pairs, and according to Sifsei Chachamim and Birchas Asher it means seven individuals. Now, giraffes are certainly kosher animals, along with deer and gazelles and ibex and many others. So this would indicate that were seven or fourteen of all of these animals!

On the other hand, if we look at the reason why there were sevens of kosher animals, we have a difficulty. Rashi, Ramban and others (who note that Noah kept Torah law) explain that the extra animals were for the purposes of offerings. But offerings are only brought from domestic animals, not from wild animals like deer and giraffes. So why would there be sevens of the wild kosher animals?

One might be tempted to explain that the Torah is only saying that there were sevens of domestic animals, not wild animals, taking the word behemah in its oft-used narrow sense. But the problem is that this verse, along with the others in this story, also uses the word behemah for all the non-kosher animals, both domestic and wild. Still, Malbim explains that this verse is only referring to Noah's personal domestic animals, not to the pairs of wild animals. Accordingly, there would indeed be two giraffes.

Kli Yakar, however, raises this question and provides a different answer. He explains that the extra animals were not to provide a supply for offerings - they were to provide a supply for eating. Perhaps we can expand on this and explain that kosher animals, which are prey animals rather than predators, also need to exist in larger numbers to maintain the predator population.

Accordingly, if there were giraffes on the ark, then there were seven or fourteen of them. But it's going to be pretty hard for me to find such a model for our exhibit!

(Meanwhile, if you're interested in the scientific challenges posed by the account of Noah's Ark, see the list of resources in this post. And in a few months, we will be opening an incredible exhibit on "The Art of the Ark" at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, featuring over sixty extraordinary artistic models of Noah's Ark from all over the world! Sign up for the museum newsletter to be notified when the exhibit is launched.)

(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, October 25, 2022

Guest Post: "I'm Charedi and I'm voting Yesh Atid"

It's a week until the election and personally I still have no idea who I am voting for. I only know which three parties I am NOT voting for - the party whose sole goal is to gain power in order to keep its leader out of prison and is happy to harm the country to that end, the party whose overriding goal is to extract money to support a rapidly increasing community that drains the economy, and the party featuring a firebrand whose primary goal is to stir up trouble without considering the national and international consequences. 

That still leaves me with several choices, such as Hamachaneh Hamamlachti, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beitenu, and the Pirates. Meanwhile, an outstanding talmid chacham that I know in the charedi community sent me the following. Because of the stereotype-breaking nature of his position, I thought that it would be useful to share it here. For obvious reasons, he prefers to stay anonymous:


I am a member of the Charedi sector of society of Israel. I grew up in Chutz La’aretz and came to Israel to learn in Charedi Yeshivos where I have been living ever since. My children also all went through the Charedi education system and I would like to share with you why, for the upcoming elections, I plan to vote for Yesh Atid. 

First of all I need to explain why I, as a Charedi Ashkenazi, will not vote Gimmel. After all there is only one essential reason that Ashkenazi Charedim vote Gimmel - the Charedi gedolim have said that all people must. 

I will not vote for Gimmel because firstly, I do not trust their judgement, and secondly, because I have different political objectives for my vote than they do. 

I do not trust their judgement because I see that their judgement has led to shielding criminals. I see their moral judgement towards women, towards the collective non-religious public, towards non-Jews and I am appalled. Their medical advice to the public and to individuals has at times been really wrong and drawn from unscientific and irresponsible sources. They base much of their judgement on what their Askanim tell them, much on past stories of Rabbinic leaders and also on precedents in the Gemara which were played out in completely different contexts. 

I also have different political objectives to them. With my vote I am looking to bring into power political players that will do more to combat polarization in society not accentuate it; to do more for the working middle class, not engage in competition of who gives out the most government money for free. 

I am looking to vote for people who act in dignity in the public sphere and not embarrass their constituents. I am looking for representatives who will preserve the institutions upholding civil rights - such the Israeli Supreme Cours - and not seek to bulldoze them down (of course that particular stance didn’t stop the Charedi Organization “Emet LeYaakov” from themselves turning to the Israeli Supreme Court to try and overturn Yoaz Handel’s communication reform law). I pay full property tax and also full tuition for my son’s Yeshiva and know that if Charedi men worked they could too and not have to rely on the good will of government actors and the lobbying of the Charedi lawmakers to pay for their son’s Yeshiva tuition. They wouldn’t have to stand in line waiting for a Charedi town hall representative to sign their papers to make them eligible for a discount of a couple of hundred shekels a month. 

I will not vote for a party that perpetuates the evils of the exclusion of Ethiopians from Charedi Ashkenazi Yeshivot, of keeping Kindergarten teachers at starvation salaries and the continued abuse by school prinicipals. I will not vote for a political party that actively participates or represents those who actively participate in doing everything they can to stop Mamlachti Charedi schools or even just vocational schools from opening, running, getting buildings and funding and harassing any who run or support them. I will not vote for Gimmel because I believe the the Core Curriculum (known in Hebrew as the “Libba”) is a positive and necessary thing and certainly institutions who adopt it should not be attacked - but it’s enough that I actually support the idea for me to be already considered beyond the pale (and hence not an eligible constituent of Charedi society - so why vote Gimmel?). I certainly would hate to vote for a party that nonchalantly dismisses signed agreements. In my eyes, the Charedi parties stand for a political movement that strives to keep its constituents, poor, ignorant and dependent. 

I also would not vote for a party who has consistently acted against national interests in the Knesset just for the sake of impeding the work of the ruling government. And I will also not vote for a party of zealots who, aside from acting against national interests in order to harm the government, believe they can hasten the coming of Mashiach by annexing as much of the Biblically delineated land of Israel as possible while publicizing few other agendas. 

Who will I vote for? I will vote for a party that pushes for unilateral improvement of society by directly addressing the actual issues that plague it instead of invoking mystical solutions. That will support Charedi secular education and help Charedim enter the workforce. I am looking for a party with an impressive record of public action and a team of people looking to do the right thing and not just the most popular thing. I am looking for a leader who has the courage to condemn unprovoked wars and land-grabs - who will be remembered for being on the right side of history. One that is able to represent Israel to the world in the context of a more democratic international climate and not just cuddle up to nationalists and dictators. A leader who is able to engage in sincere dialog even with Israel’s enemies and his own. A leader who is able to take a responsible decision which is best for the country even as it decreases his popularity among the more general public.

I am looking for a leader I can proud of, not one who will denigrate large swathes of the country’s good citizens, or put down the legal system and certainly not one that will give more power to the people over power to the courts of justice. A leader who despite all the flak he gets just keeps moving forwards with what needs to be done and doesn’t descend to petty mudslinging. A leader whom even those who oppose have called him (as Avi Bloom called Yair Lapid in the news supplement of Mishpacha of 11th of August following the “Rise of Dawn” operation in Gaza) “a competent army officer and a gentleman”.

Would I as a Charedi vote for a party that will promote gay rights and Chilul Shabbos? I know I am not going to change people and it’s not a law this way or that which will make any more people keep Shabbos or stick to the religious definition of morals. All restrictions of what secular people see as their basic civil rights only promotes antagonism, not religious observance. We read in the Gemara that Hashem lets His name be erased for the sake of peace, implying that not everything whose acceptance may at first glance be seen as a Chilul Hashem is of such. If we want to live in peace among ourselves we must respect the agendas that promote the perceived personal rights of all individuals. So the answer to the above question is - yes I would. 

Furthermore I am not the only one. Over the years several know figures in Charedi society have also attempted to build some kind of coordination platform with Yesh Atid, although the enormous social pressure and stigma involved have invariably prevented these plans from surfacing to the public sphere. So the best we can do is support them from the ballot box. If we can bring to power a party that will promote national, intersocial peace that should be considered a golden objective. 

That’s why I, in the upcoming elections, plan to vote Yesh Atid.

Monday, October 24, 2022

What was Noah's Ark made of?

Sometimes, everyone assumes that a passuk in the Torah has a certain meaning, and it's not necessarily the case at all. For example, many people assume that the plague of frogs is written in the singular because it began with a single frog, but that's actually a Midrash; according to pshat, it's just a collective noun. Likewise, it seems that everyone believes that the Torah explicitly describes the plague of hail as consisting of fire inside the hail stones, whereas it actually speaks about fire flashing inside the hail storm

Recently, I discovered what might be another example. Here are the three verses about the construction of Noah's Ark, with a translation from Sefaria:

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי־גֹפֶר קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת־הַתֵּבָה וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר׃  
וְזֶה אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָהּ שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת אַמָּה אֹרֶךְ הַתֵּבָה חֲמִשִּׁים אַמָּה רׇחְבָּהּ וּשְׁלֹשִׁים אַמָּה קוֹמָתָהּ׃
צֹהַר תַּעֲשֶׂה לַתֵּבָה וְאֶל־אַמָּה תְּכַלֶּנָּה מִלְמַעְלָה וּפֶתַח הַתֵּבָה בְּצִדָּהּ תָּשִׂים תַּחְתִּיִּם שְׁנִיִּם וּשְׁלִשִׁים תַּעֲשֶׂהָ׃  

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 

This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 

Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks. 

These verses follow a logical sequence. The first verse discusses the materials of which the ark should be made. The second verse describes the dimensions of the ark. And the third verse discusses the structure and internal design of the ark.

That's a very logical sequence, except that it's not actually an accurate description of the verses' contents. The first verse, in between saying that the ark is made of gopher wood and that it is coated with pitch, says that it is to be divided into compartments. But that is the part of the internal structural design, which surely belongs in the third verse!

There's another strange thing going on here. Hebrew has a perfectly good word for rooms or compartments: chadarim (cf. Prov. 20:27). Why would the word kinnim, which literally means "birds' nests" and is not used for any other animal, be used here? The earliest discussion that I found of this is in the Midrash:

קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת הַתֵּבָה (בראשית ו, יד), קִילִין וּמְדוֹרִין, אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מַה הַקֵּן הַזֶּה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַמְצוֹרָע, אַף תֵּבָתְךָ מְטַהֲרָתְךָ. (בראשית רבה לא)

The Midrash here says that just as a nest of birds purifies the metzora, so too the Ark purified its inhabitants. But while this is a beautiful homiletic exegesis, it doesn't help with the pshat problem.

While I was pondering this problem, I was simultaneously reading about ancient Babylonian versions of the flood story. Of course, there are different approaches regarding how to reconcile these with the Torah's account, which are not our concern here. But I suddenly realized that they describe the ark as being made of reeds - which, in Hebrew, is kannim, the very word that our verse uses, albeit vocalized differently. And this was apparently the standard technique used for creating boats in ancient Mesopotamia - they were made of reeds, sometimes hybridized with a wooden frame for greater strength. (Note that this technique would have been unknown to later generations in other parts of the world, where boats were made exclusively from wood.)

Accordingly, by emending the vocalization of the word, the verses make perfect sense. The first verse is indeed describing the materials of which the ark was made - wood, reeds, and pitch. That is exactly how watercraft were made. (Interestingly, the only other tevah mentioned in Scripture, Moses' basket, was also made of reeds, albeit with the name gomeh.)

After discussing this with a number of academic scholars, I discovered that I wasn't the first person to think of this. It had already been proposed seventy years ago, by a scholar in Semitic languages called Edward Ullendorff. Others quibbled with this emendation, but it seems that they were unaware that reeds were the standard material used for building boats in that part of the world in antiquity.

Now, positing that the traditional vocalization of the word became corrupted is not without its difficulties. But on the other hand, it has the advantage of making the verses about the ark flow perfectly, rather than to say that there is a jarring incongruity and that it used an odd word for rooms which just so happens to be the exact same word which is used to refer to the materials that boats were usually made of and which would much more properly belong in this verse!

Meanwhile, if you're interested in the scientific challenges posed by the account of Noah's Ark, see the list of resources in this post. And in a few months, we will be opening an incredible exhibit on "The Art of the Ark" at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, featuring over sixty extraordinary artistic models of Noah's Ark from all over the world! Sign up for the museum newsletter to be notified when the exhibit is launched.

(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.)

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Am I In League With Pure Evil?

Over the years I've been cursed and insulted in all kinds of ways. Someone once declared that I am an "evil ugly heretic," much to my dismay. ("Ugly"???) But last week I received an insult that caught me completely by surprise. I was denounced with the very worst insult that exists in major parts of society in Israel. I was slammed as being a "Leftist."

Make no mistake, this was intended as a very serious charge. After all, the Likud and co. explicitly declared that supporting the "Left" in any way is worse than protecting rapists from prosecution, worse than harming the career prospects of IDF soldiers, even worse than harming national security.

But aside from the gravity of the accusation, it was the absurdity of it that horrified and intrigued me. After all, I have only ever supported right-wing parties. I have always been firmly against territorial concessions - which puts me way to the right of Bibi! So how on earth am I a "Leftist"?!

What was the alleged basis for this accusation? That I criticized Ben Gvir. Never mind that most of the right-wing in Israel for the last seventy-four years would have had nothing to do with the likes of Ben Gvir, the political heir of Meir Kahane. Never mind that none other than Menachem Begin denounced Kahane as a "crazy man" and Yitzchak Shamir would walk out when he spoke. Today, if you criticize Ben Gvir, you're a "Leftist"!

Another similar incident happened last week. A prominent and distinguished right-wing activist posted a video clip which showed the aftermath of an Arab woman in the Old City hurling a glass bottle at a religious Jew from Hebron. He declared that this was an unprovoked attack on a Jew who was doing nothing other than picking up garbage.

Now, of course unprovoked attacks by Arabs on Jews happen all the time. But this particular video seemed a little suspicious. There was clearly a lot that had happened before the clip started. And the Jewish guy was arrested by the police! To be sure, there are wrongful arrests. But I'd certainly like to give the official, professional security forces of the State of Israel the benefit of the doubt (and I don't agree with the right-wing group quoted in Arutz Sheva who described the police as "antisemitic"). It's not as though right-wing Jews never engage in unprovoked attacks on Arabs - perhaps that was why he was arrested.

Well, you'd think that I had denied the Holocaust. I wasn't just mistaken - I was a traitor. This distinguished person was so enraged at what I wrote that he declared that he will never visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History! My comments were so evil that everything associated with me becomes treif!

(Meanwhile, for those who do maintain that there is never unjustified violence by right-wing Jews, I'd like to see how they justify right-wing Jewish young men attacking a 70-year-old Israeli left-wing female activist with a stick.)

Then just now I saw a friend - a smart, normal guy - declare that the Jerusalem Post has "shifted to the far Left." His reason? That they harshly criticize Ben Gvir!

I was struggling to make sense of all this, but then providentially happened to be re-reading a book today which provided the explanation. 

The book is called "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom." It's one of the most valuable books I have ever read, and it's by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who also authored one of the most important books I have ever read, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion." On p. 74 he discusses the work of another social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, whose studies revealed that people have a deep psychological need to understand violence through what he calls "the myth of pure evil":

"Of this myth's many parts, the most important are that evildoers are pure in their evil motives (they have no motives for their actions beyond sadism and greed); victims are pure in their victimhood (they did nothing to bring about their victimization); and evil comes from outside and is associated with a group or force that attacks our group. Furthermore, anyone who questions the application of the myth, who dares muddy the waters of moral certainty, is in league with evil." (emphasis added)

There you have it! Anyone who dares point out that there are serious problems with Ben Gvir, or that right-wing Jews sometimes engage in unjustified violence, is challenging the myth of pure evil - and thus must be in cahoots with it.

Later in the book, on p. 152, Haidt returns to this topic, in discussing the research on wisdom by Robert Sternberg:

"Wisdom, says Sternberg, is the tacit knowledge that lets a person balance two sets of things. First, wise people are able to balance their own needs, the needs of others, and the needs of people or things beyond the immediate interaction (e.g. institutions, the environment, or people who may be adversely affected later on). Ignorant people see everything in black and white - they rely heavily on the myth of pure evil - and they are strongly influenced by their own self-interest. The wise are able to see things from others' point of view, appreciate shades of gray, and then choose or advise a course of action that works out best for everyone in the long run. Second, wise people are able to balance three responses to situations - adaptation (changing the self to fit the environment), shaping (changing the environment) and selection (choosing to move to a new environment)."

Ignorant people see everything in black and white, in the short term rather than the long term, and do not think about other factors and aspects of a situation. The actual Left (now mostly extinct) used to make the mistake of believing that if the situation of holding on to the West Bank was bad, then the alternative would be better. The far Right makes the mistake of thinking that if there is terrorism, then electing a firebrand will make things better. Maybe they don't care that not only is he a hothead who could set the country on fire but also that he never served in the IDF, has a criminal record, and will ruin crucial international support for Israel. But those who do care about those things are certainly not Leftists! 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

When Bravado is Folly

Last week, while Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah were throwing stones at security forces, Itamar Ben Gvir went to visit the scene. He pulled out his gun, yelled at his supporters to shoot the Arabs, and yelled at the Arabs that he will "mow them down."

Regarding this incident, here is what a former Shin Bet officer called Gonen Ben-Yitzchak wrote (and which I double-checked with a nephew of mine from the Shomron who was in Special Forces) 

"I see the picture of Itamar Ben Gvir with the gun in Sheikh Jarrah and I have to share something with you:

"I was in the Shin Bet for a total of ten years. During the difficult days of the Second Intifada. I was inside the firestorm. I was shot. I arrested dozens and hundreds of terrorists. Some of them are the most murderous terrorists we have known. I stopped some of them with my own hands when it was just me and the terrorist in the room for all kinds of reasons. Falah Nada, the Hamas man who religiously prepared the suicide bomber at Cafe Moment for example, and others as well. I was with Duvdevan in Surda, a week or two before the disaster when people opened fire on us from the roof during an arrest attempt.

"The number of times I found myself with a gun drawn in my hand is zero.

"Because the truth is, when there are security forces around you who are watching over you like in the case of Ben Gvir, unless you mess your pants out of fear, you don't have to walk around with a gun drawn. It's either a pose or cowardice or a combination of the two.

"Of course, this is not to mention the fact that Ben Gvir did not serve in the IDF, and did not receive a license for weapons except by virtue of being a Member of Knesset (criminals do not usually receive weapons). I don't suppose he has any shooting experience.

"A citizen who pulls out a weapon in a place full of security forces (and violence) first and foremost puts both the security forces and himself at risk."

This is a microcosm of (one of) the problems with Ben Gvir, and Smotrich, in general. It's all very well to talk about taking a tough approach with terrorists. It wins lots of popular appeal. But in the real world, there are real-life considerations. Every action has consequences - including political consequences, which are also of great importance.

It reminds of the time that another nephew of mine shot a terrorist, stopping him in his tracks but not killing him. I was deluged by people asking me why my nephew didn't "finish the job." These naive trigger-happy armchair soldiers only thought about one aspect of the situation. It didn't occur to them to think about the numerous harmful consequences of soldiers taking it upon themselves to freely shoot captured Palestinians in the head. 

An important editorial in The Jerusalem Post stresses the unprecedented dangers of Ben Gvir:

"....The upcoming election on November 1 is one of the most important in Israel’s 75 years and, more specifically, potentially the most dangerous. 

"The reason is due to the rise in power of Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is a danger to the State of Israel. He is the modern Israeli version of an American white supremacist and a European fascist. He is a threat to the future of Israel’s fragile democratic character, and if he gets his way – and Netanyahu gets his 61 seats – these two men will have the ability to demolish the country as we know it.

"All you have to do is listen to what Ben-Gvir says. In an interview with Channel 13 last week, he stood in the city of Hebron and spoke about the need to establish a “Ministry to Encourage Migration” that will help convince Palestinian Arabs to leave this land. Europe, he explained when asked, needs “working hands.”

"Imagine for a moment a European politician standing in a city in Europe with a Jewish majority and declaring the need to set up a government office that will encourage those Jews to migrate so they can work. Ring a bell? Would you not be outraged?

"...Israel’s former prime minister has legitimized Ben-Gvir in a way no one else in the mainstream political system ever would have imagined. Back when Yitzhak Shamir led Likud, he and the rest of the party would walk out of the Knesset when Meir Kahane went up to the podium to speak. Then, Kach was seen as illegitimate. Today, its de facto leader is on his way to becoming the most important politician in a future Netanyahu government. A government with Ben-Gvir in it will undermine Israel’s standing in the world, and the country will take on the contours of a fascist state.

"...While Netanyahu might try to avoid having his photo taken together with Ben-Gvir, as seen on Monday night in Kfar Chabad, everyone knows that the two are closely working together toward the same goal of destroying Israeli democracy.

"Both want to do so for different reasons. Netanyahu cares about nothing but his trial. He wants to find a way to avoid a conviction and jail time. Ben-Gvir is a convenient partner. He will help Netanyahu pass the legislation needed so that, in return, he can have the power to pass the legislation that will change Israel.

"A ministry to encourage migration is just the beginning of what he wants, and with a Netanyahu government completely dependent on Ben-Gvir, the Likud leader will have no choice but to capitulate to the extremist’s every demand."

There are a lot of good people planning to vote for the Smotrich/Ben Gvir alliance. They believe that they are voting for them for the sake of Israel's security. But they have no idea what they will be unleashing. It will be catastrophic for the State of Israel.

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Saturday, October 15, 2022

Happy to Hate and Kill

Last week, various media around the world reported about a Palestinian doctor, Abdullah Abu Tin, who was killed by an IDF sniper. What they did not report is that while his profession may have been healing people, his hobby - in which he was engaged at the time he was killed - was shooting at Israelis. And one can tell what kind of person he was by looking at the pictures that he posted on his social media account. One in particular show him smiling as his children pose with guns. This is someone who raises his children to be happy to kill innocent people.

Many of us take such things as further examples of how we are morally superior to the Palestinians. Personally, I would like to believe that we are indeed morally superior as a society overall. However, I'm worried that we are losing ground. Because a very similar picture was just posted by the rising political star Itamar Ben-Gvir:

Now, some people will immediately point out that there is a significant difference. Abu Tin's kids are presumably being taught to be excited at the prospect of killing innocent civilians, whereas Ben-Gvir's kids are being taught to be excited at the prospect of killing terrorists. 

But is this difference all that significant - and is it even true? Killing terrorists is something that we need to do and should be proud to do, but it should not be presented to children as a fun activity to be excited and happy about. And frankly, it seems very likely that Ben Gvir and his ilk teach kids to be happy about killing all Arabs, not just terrorists. Remember, this is someone who had a picture of Baruch Goldstein displayed in his home. It would be naive to believe his claims that he has reformed from his even more extremist past.

And then there is Ben-Gvir's political partner Betzalel Smotrich. I was horrified the other day to see a prestigious rabbi in the Anglo religious-Zionist world, associated with Mizrachi and HaKotel and other such institutions, declare his support for Smotrich, and proclaim him to be an example of a "true Ben Torah." I don't suppose that fans of Smotrich will be persuaded that he is problematic due to his extreme racism and likelihood for rashly leading Israel into political and security disaster. But how can they think that he is a "true Ben Torah"? This is someone who condemns religious Jewish politicians with whom he has political disputes with the most disgraceful language, and declares that they should be banned from davvening in shul!

The aforementioned rabbi claimed that there are many example of great figures in our history who talked in such ways about their opponents. That is undeniably true, but to the small extent that they talked in such a way, it detracted from their overall greatness. Smotrich doesn't have any greatness, and such hateful rhetoric defines him - hating Arabs, hating gays, hating religious Jews with different political views.

The rabbi also claimed that "most of the [Zionist] Gedolim support Smotrich." Now, I think that many of them support him reluctantly rather than whole-heartedly - they certainly don't behave in the way that he does. And even if they do support him, so what? There is simply no way to parade Smotrich as a "true Ben Torah." Saying "but the Gedolim!" is something for charedim who take the (non-traditional) approach of negating one's own brain, not for Religious Zionists.

The strangest thing about all this new religious Zionist support for far-right politicians is that it's all so unnecessary. This isn't the 1990s. There is no major political party or politician - certainly not Ganz or Lapid - who is either likely to, or even remotely interested in, ceding territory to the Palestinians. After the Second Intifada and the consequences of the Gaza withdrawal, the Left wing in Israel is finished. There are no significant differences whatsoever between any of the main political parties with regard to national security. For a change, we have the luxury of voting based on other considerations - voting for those who care for the country rather than power, economic improvement, preventing future national disaster by encouraging charedim to give their children a basic education. Why give up that opportunity to make important improvements to the country, just to promote people who thrive on hatred and don't think or care about the consequences?


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Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Maggid Speaks... To The Zoo Rabbi

I heard that Rabbi Paysach Krohn, of the famous "Maggid Speaks" series, was on a tour at the museum. So I decided to leave my office (where I usually take refuge, especially during Chol HaMoed!) and I went over to say hello. He said that he has long wanted to meet me, ever since the ban - he had some choice words to describe those who banned my books, which I will not repeat here. Then he said how fortunate it was that I happened to be visiting the museum on the same day as him. He had no idea that I had any connection to the place! It's interesting that there are still people who only know of me in one context.


On a very different note: Ordinarily, I would say that something like the Lebanon Maritime Agreement should be brought by the government to the Knesset for a vote. However, ordinarily, the members of Knesset would be voting according to what they believe to be in the country's best interests. In this case, however, the opposition already explicitly declared last year that they will automatically vote against anything and everything that the government wants to do, even if by doing so they are harming the country. And they've actually done this, several times. Accordingly, there is no purpose in enabling them to vote on it.

Friday, October 7, 2022

On Eagle's Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The nesher, king of birds, is the most prominent bird in the Torah. Although many assume that the nesher is the eagle, and some of the commentaries have identified it as such, the evidence shows that it is more likely a vulture - specifically, the griffon vulture (see full essay here).

The best-known Scriptural description of the nesher is also the most problematic to understand. It occurs in reference to God bringing the Jewish People out of Egypt:
"You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you (va'esa eschem) on the wings of nesharim, and brought you to Myself." (Exodus 19:4)
The conventional translation of va'esa eschem is "I carried you." However, some translate it as "I elevated you." The explanation is that the nesher is the highest-flying bird, and God raised the Jewish People to spiritual heights above anything in the natural world with His miraculous redemption.[1] The highest flying birds are griffon vultures.

But many explain this verse instead to refer to God poetically carrying the Jewish People like a nesher carrying its young on its back (see Rashi ad loc.). This relates to a description of the vulture later in the Torah:
"As a nesher stirs up its nest, flutters over its young, spreads out its wings, takes them, bears them on its pinions; So did God guide them, and there was no strange god with them." (Deuteronomy 32:11-12)
The description here is of the nesher carrying its young upon its wings while flying. Many have considered this verse to present us with a great difficulty and to require some kind of allegorical or poetic interpretation, since neither vultures or eagles are generally known to carry their young on their wings. Swans and other waterfowl sometimes carry their young on their backs while swimming, and jacanas and bustards may sometimes carry their young between wing and body while walking.[2] There are reports of some ducks taking flight while their young are on their backs.[3] A further report concerns an obscure water bird from Central and Southern America called the sungrebe, which carries its twin young in pouches under both wings.[4]

But eagles and vultures, despite being widely studied, are not generally described as displaying such behavior. However, unbeknownst to many, reports do indeed exist of eagles carrying their young on their backs. One ornithologist writes:
"Many ornithologists have thought that the Bible picture of an eagle carrying her young was merely figurative, but in recent years certain reliable observers have actually seen a parent bird let its young rest for a moment on the feathered back - especially when there was no other roosting place in sight. When an eagle nests on the ledge of a sheer-walled canyon, many feet above the earth, with no jutting tree or protruding rock to break the fall, the quick movement of a mother bird to offer her own back to a frightened fledgling may be the only way to let it live to try its wings again." (V.C. Holmgren, Bird Walk Through The Bible [New York: Dover Publications 1988] p. 98)
One report of this behavior is as follows:
"Our guide was one of the small company who have seen the golden eagle teaching the young to fly. He could support the belief that the parent birds, after urging and sometimes shoving the youngster into the air, will swoop underneath and rest the struggler for a moment on their wings and back. ... Our guide, when questioned, said that every phrase of the verse [Deut. xxxii, I I] (which was new to him) was accurate, save the first; he had seen it all except the stirring up of the nest." (W.B. Thomas, Yeoman's England [1934], pp. 135-6)
Another report concerning the golden eagle comes from Arthur Cleveland Bent, one of America's greatest ornithologists, on the authority of Dr. L. Miller:
"The mother started from the nest in the crags and, roughly hand-ling the youngster, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet; then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. Once perhaps she waited fifteen minutes between flights. I should say the farthest she let him fall was a hundred and fifty feet. My father and I watched him, spellbound, for over an hour." (A. C. Bent, Bulletin of the Smithsonian Institution CLXVII [1937], 302) 

True, these reports concern eagles, whereas evidence shows the nesher to be the griffon vulture rather than the eagle. However, it is possible that such rare behavior likewise occurs with griffon vultures, or that nesher is a generic term encompassing both eagles and griffon vultures.

Yet these reports have not been further confirmed, despite extensive studies of these species. It is thus difficult to accept them. 

Another solution to the entire question is to posit that "the Torah speaks in the language of men," which, according to one school of thought, means that it packages its messages within the scientific worldview of the generation that received the Torah. For more on this approach, which has been used by several recent and modern authorities to explain other phrases in the Torah that are scientifically inaccurate (such as references to the "firmament," the hare bringing up its cud, the dew falling, and so on), see my essay "The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel" in my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism.

In any case, these verses show that the vulture is regarded by the Torah very differently from the way that it is perceived in contemporary culture. While people today view the vulture in a negative light, the Torah presents it as an example of a loving and caring parent. This also relates to the vulture's entire parenting process. Female griffon vultures usually lay one egg, which both parents incubate for an unusually long period of around seven weeks until it hatches. The young are slow to develop and do not leave the nest until three or four months of age. The long devotion of the vulture to its young symbolizes God's deep dedication to the Jewish People.

[1] See HaKesav VeHaKabbalah ad loc.
[2] See Johnsgard, Paul A. and Kear, Janet, "A Review of Parental Carrying of Young by Waterfowl" (1968). Papers in Ornithology. Paper 32. Also Celia K. Falzone. 1992. “First Observations of Chick Carrying Behavior by the Buff-crested Bustard”. The Wilson Bulletin 104 (1). Wilson Ornithological Society: 190–92.
[3] See Johnsgard and Kear, ibid.
[4] This remarkable phenomenon was first reported in 1833 by the German ornithologist M.A. Wied. Subsequent generations of ornithologists viewed this report with skepticism or ridicule. However in 1969 Mexican ornithologist Miguel Alvarez del Toro confirmed that soon after hatching, the male sungrebe places each of the two chicks in pouches under his wings and departs. An article by B. Bertrand explains: "M. Alvarez del Toro, who observed a nesting pair in Mexico, discovered that the male has a shallow pocket under each wing into which the two young can fit. The pocket is formed by a pleat of skin, and made more secure by the feathers on the side of the body just below. The heads of the chicks could be seen from below as the bird flew. Alvarez del Toro collected the bird in order to examine it and confirm the unlikely discovery. Subsequently, he found it confirmed also by a report published by Prince Maximilian of Wied 138 years earlier but apparently ignored, forgotten or not believed. This adaptation is unique among birds: in no other species is there any mechanism whereby altricial young can be transported...." Bertrand, B. C. R. (1996) Family Heliornithidae (Finfoots) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously degenerated from the mailing list. In addition, the Blogger platform that I've used for the past ten years is seriously outdated. Rationalist Judaism needs a new platform, with all the old posts imported (and preferably the comments too), and a better email delivery system. But I don't have the expertise, time or money for this - it's all I can do to eke out time from my other work to write the posts. To that end, I am looking for the following two things:

1) Someone with the technological knowledge to arrange a new platform and port the existing blog to it;

2) Someone to fund the above!

If you're able to help with either of these, please write to me at

Wishing you a Gmar Chatima Tova!

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Unhealthy Obsession or Valuable Critique?

The comments section on the previous post turned in an unexpected direction, with several people arguing that I have a mental health problem! Specifically, they claimed that I am obsessed with criticizing charedi society to a degree which shows that I need psychological help. They said that my "intense emotional damage" means that I am disqualified from being able to discuss charedi society honestly and that such discussion is pointless. They speculated that the cause is the trauma of the ban on my books, or even a practical joke that was played on me in yeshiva. 

All these people also just so happen to be charedim who disagree with my critiques of charedi society, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Anyway, in response, I decided to share something written by someone writing under the moniker of "Troy."

Unhealthy Obsession or Valuable Critique?

by Troy

They say that Natan S. is obsessed with criticizing the problems of a society for which he harbors a pathological hatred. They say that he is so scarred by the trauma that he suffered in that society that his views are not to be taken seriously. They say that he should be getting therapy rather than platforming his critiques.

It's undeniable that Natan is very preoccupied with this topic (but note that it is not his day job!). And it's entirely reasonable to presume that this has a lot to do with the trauma that he suffered. After all, his troubles occurred during his formative years. It was almost immediately after his marriage to Avital that he was literally removed from society for expressing his views. He was denounced and condemned for saying things which, as far as he was concerned, were simply a normative part of being a Jew. Enormous pressure was placed upon him to renounce his position, which would enable him to return to society, and he stubbornly refused to do so - for which he paid a high price.

Still, it's not as though his views can be attributed solely to his personal experiences. After all, he's hardly the only one with criticisms of that society. It's all very well for Americans to turn a blind eye, but anyone who lives in such a society is going to see its problems, and the effect on their own lives and the country as a whole, very, very clearly.

Furthermore, to the extent that Natan's personal trauma created a motivation, that's a good thing. It's always much easier for people to keep their head down and not say anything. If trauma results in someone finding the motivation to speak up, then it has served a valuable purpose. In addition, he suffered as he did precisely because he was part of that society - and it's his insider perspective which makes his critiques so powerful. 

It's important for people to know about how a society which is based on fear suppresses the truth. It's important for people to learn about how slavish devotion to revered leaders can have catastrophic consequences. It's important for people to understand how you get to a situation whereby tens of thousands of able-bodied young men are avoiding the army draft. It's important for people to understand how that society results in a few individuals getting rich while the society as a whole causes great poverty and even national economic catastrophe.

Natan's writings are an important service to society, for which we should be grateful. We should be wishing him and Avital many years of happiness together in their Jerusalem home, with much nachas from their daughters and grandchildren. Russia's loss is Israel's gain, and Natan's insights, evaluations and critiques of the Soviet regime are invaluable.

(What, you thought he was writing about me?! Lehavdil!)

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The Heresy of Noah's Crystal

Following on from last week's post about the ban on "Peshuto Shel Mikra," let's discuss an example of the purported heres...