Monday, March 8, 2021

Unorthodox Unorthodox: The Sequel

The response to my previous post, Unorthodox Unorthodox, about the extraordinary former Satmar girl who overcame the odds to become a social worker and now a medical student, was overwhelmingly positive. And I don't just mean in terms of people liking what I wrote and sharing it on Facebook. Many dozens of people contributed to Nisi Goldstein's fundraising campaign to help her through medical school. I received the following message from Nisi:

Just an update: I feel so honored and humbled. Your article is leading to many positive and welcoming responses from people. It's opening my eyes to see how big and diverse and loving our Jewish family really is. I have you to thank for launching this snowball effect. Also, a good friend of mine is a staunch follower of yours and he has advised me not to read any of the comments because you have a couple of haters too. On that note I just want to commend you for speaking truths in the face of the hate. It can be brutal. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you, but please keep doing that. It is so important. I'm also planning to speak with Efrat - there's a 1.5 year old organization for Jewish orthodox people in medicine (don't necessarily have to be orthodox to join). They offer seminars for premed orthodox students and health education in the charedi community. I want to get on board with them and do good things.

Kudos to all those people who donated, or who reached out with offers of hospitality or other assistance!

Some people, unfortunately, were positively hostile to my post. There were some extremely derogatory comments that I did not allow to be posted - I'm fine with people insulting me, but not with them insulting others. One person raged against Nisi's non-tzniyus attire and loose hair(!). Another cited a verse from Malachi: "We account the arrogant happy: they have indeed done evil and endured; they have indeed dared God and escaped.” I'm pretty sure that none of these people experienced growing up in Satmar.

Several others objected that since she is not currently observant, observant Jews should not be supporting her medical studies; they should only support her if she was still Satmar or at least observant. Apparently they are under the misconception that the only reason to support someone is if they carry your values. I wonder if they would equally say that non-observant Jews should never donate money to Orthodox Jews? Furthermore, it's precisely because of the problems of certain Orthodox communities that people like Nisi need extra support. If you consider Satmar to be broadly in the same tent as yourself, then you also have a responsibility to help those that have been harmed by Satmar.

But there's a much more direct reason to help Nisi and people like her, and it relates to another objection that some people raised. They asked how I can be supportive of helping a non-observant medical student and simultaneously opposed to supporting kollel students. The answer is very simple.

Supporting a medical student is helping someone who will be majorly contributing to the society. This is all the more true for someone like Nisi Goldstein, who does not plan to be a private physician for the rich and becoming rich, but rather took an oath to be a compassionate healthcare provider specifically for people from under-served communities. And the fact that doing this required overcoming huge obstacles that were created for her by her Orthodox Jewish community makes her case even more compelling. 

In contrast, the average kollel student (not someone training to become an educator) is not going to be contributing to society. On the contrary; they will be draining resources from it. And they plan to raise children who will likewise not contribute to society, and who will drain further resources from it. There's no comparison.

I would like to stress again that the people with the negative comments were in the minority. They were vastly outnumbered by those who responded positively. As Nisi wrote, this shows "how big and diverse and loving our Jewish family really is."

You can read more about Nisi and support her at this link. To quote Nisi's mantra from when she was in premed and was wondering if she could ever catch up with others: אויב יענער קען קענסטו אויך. Which means, If someone else can do it, so can you!

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, March 6, 2021

Unorthodox Unorthodox

Over the years I've met some unusual and impressive people, but our guest this past Shabbos really took the cake. She's a medical student who, in scrubs and jeans, looks no different than any other medical student. But Nisi Goldstein is the only female medical student in the history of the world to have grown up in Satmar.

Most people's image of girls who break away from Satmar comes from the immensely popular Netflix series Unorthodox. And yet Nisi's story could not be more different. There's a very orthodox view of what unorthodox means, and it's not Nisi.

The seventh child of thirteen (now that's what I call a "middle child"), Nisi grew up in Williamsburg, which was a different world. She didn't speak English until she was taught it in school. The biggest cultural transition in her life was from Satmar to Beis Yaakov in Israel - bigger than her subsequent transition from Beis Yaakov student to medical student! When she tells people in Satmar that she is studying to become a doctor, they assume that she is misspeaking and means nurse; they are not accustomed to the idea that women can become doctors.

What caused her to break away? Nisi told us that the very first thing which shook her, as a young girl, was when Satmar had its Great War between the Rebbe's sons, Aharon and Zalman, over who should succeed the Rebbe. All of a sudden, everything broke in two - her community and even her school. All of a sudden she wasn't allowed to socialize with half of her friends. This made her realize that something wasn't right.

As she grew up, she was curious about the world beyond the extremely narrow confines of Satmar. Watching any videos in Satmar was, for the most part, banned while she was growing up. For special school events, there were slideshows of photos accompanied by narration. She loved these (and says that they displayed great artistic creativity), but she wanted more. Surreptitiously, she was able to watch DVDs of musical performances by frum (but non-Satmar) women. Nisi was thrilled when, over Shabbos, we were visited by our friend and neighbor Dr. Kerry Bar-Cohn, who, under the stage name "Rebbetzin Tap," has produced amazing musical videos. We were laughing about how notwithstanding how far Nisi has come since then, she was star-struck to see her childhood superstar! Kerry herself served as a role-model for Nisi in showing that "you can be anything."

As she progressed through high school, Nisi was clearly not fitting in to the Satmar mold. Here's the point at which you'd expect to hear that everyone was attempting to force her to accept that she has to toe the line and live her life in full obedience to the Satmar way. But that is not what happened. To be sure, she had her stresses and difficulties with people in that community. But they encouraged her to try a new path and go to Beis Yaakov in Israel. I know that Beis Yaakov sounds extremely frum to many of us, but coming from Satmar, as I mentioned earlier, it was an absolutely radical move. Satmar views Beis Yaakov as being a severely inferior form of Judaism, so it was incredible that they supported her transition.

Here's something else intriguing. While Satmar looks down on all other branches of Orthodoxy, Satmar itself is very different from Litvishe Orthodoxy in that the men do not go to kollel. They all work, while their wives raise the children, in a much more traditional lifestyle. At one point, when Nisi was in a rebellious stage in Beis Yaakov, she threatened her parents that she wanted to marry a guy in kollel!

Eventually Nisi ended up training as a social worker at Wurzweiler in New York. But as she was completing her studies, her interest was suddenly triggered in the biological sciences - which she had never learned about in Satmar. (Ironic aside - although I'm the director of a natural history museum and I have a PhD, I too have never in my life taken a formal class in biology, since the grammar school that I attended in Manchester was too frum to teach it.) And so she enrolled in medical school, taking classes in Israel, but she will be returning to the US for residency. She would like to serve in the chassidic community in New York and implement positive change in this way. At the moment, aside from her medical studies, she is a madricha at a home for girls at risk.

Unlike what you might expect, Nisi does not hate Satmar. She is very critical of the leadership and many aspects of the lifestyle, but she maintains that the people there in general are just as nice as everyone else, and the community engages in tremendous chesed. She has a positive relationship with her family - her mother is immensely proud of her becoming a doctor - and she goes back regularly to visit.

Over the years, Nisi drifted a long way from her roots, and she traveled extensively around the world. But she says that in the various exotic locations that she visited, Chabad houses were incredible. They made her realize that she does want to be Jewishly connected. She is not yet sure what form she wants that to take, but she is young and still figuring things out. Meanwhile, she sent me the following lovely text after Shabbos:

Thank you so much for having me. It truly was a wonderful Shabbat. It inspired me to see if I can go to more Jewish families in the future to experience healthy Judaism. 

When I sent her this post for her approval, she also asked me to tone down parts that were too critical of Satmar!

Meanwhile, Nisi has a GoFundMe page to help support her through medical school. Helping create a doctor - and not just any doctor, but the world's first Satmar-raised female doctor - is an excellent way to invest in making a difference to the world. You can support Nisi's education at this link.

(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.) 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Lovely People Who Contribute To Deaths

Many of us are familiar with staunch antivaxxers - those who believe that Covid was created by Bill Gates and others to reduce and control the world's population, and that the vaccine serves to implant microchips in our bodies for some nefarious purposes. It's pointless to try to to engage with such conspiracy theorists.

But recently I've become aware of a different strain of antivaxxer - which we can perhaps term a "soft" antivaxxer. These are not crazy conspiracy theorists - they are lovely normal rational people. Such people do not consider themselves to be antivaxxers at all, and are not against all vaccines. They may even be in favor of the covid vaccine, for certain people who are at high risk of dying from covid. But they are against the covid vaccine being recommended for the general population. They provide all kinds of arguments that it has not been sufficiently tested and that it could cause harm that far outweighs the benefits.

The problem is that the arguments that they provide against the vaccine are invariably deeply flawed - and yet they presented in a seemingly convincing way. And so I would like to alert people to some of the misunderstandings and even deceptions which are used. (See too this article for an expose of an antivaxxer presenting misinformation and masquerading as a non-antivaxxer.)

1. "There is no scientific data about the long-term effects of the vaccine."

This is an example of a statement which is technically true but completely misleading. It's equally true to say that there is no scientific data about the long-term effects of the new flavor of Pringles. But the relevant point is whether there is reason to be concerned about the long-term picture. In this case, since mRNA molecules do not change DNA and break down quickly, and vaccine side-effects are seen within several weeks, medical experts (as opposed to Facebook experts) have concluded that there are no specific grounds for either short- or long-term concern. On the other hand, there are most certainly very strong grounds for concern about both the short-term and long-term effects of Covid, which in its newer strain is much more contagious and harmful.

2. "People just want to ask questions! Why are you trying to silence them? What are you trying to hide?"

The word "question" has two very different meanings. One meaning is to seek information in order to fill a gap in one's knowledge. Nobody is trying to silence these kind of questions about the vaccine. But the other meaning of "question" is to challenge. And that involves insisting on various claims. Since these claims are usually false and even dangerous and sometimes lethal, then yes, it is perfectly legitimate and appropriate for these to be forcefully rebuffed, just like any false and dangerous claim.

3. "Israel's population is being used as a lab experiment for clinical trials! The CEO of Pfizer himself even said so!"

This is an utter distortion of reality. The clinical trials for the safety of the vaccine have already taken place and are finished, with perfectly satisfactory results. What the Pfizer CEO spoke about was how Israel is a lab for seeing the results on the economy and health indices of an entire country once most of the country has received its vaccine.

4. "The FDA itself have not approved it! They only gave it emergency authorization! This shows that they themselves have concerns!"

This is an incorrect inference. There is a formal protocol, established many years ago, for vaccines to obtain formal approval. This includes the vaccine having been used for a certain amount of time and clinical studies on its effects on children and pregnant women. When the FDA was asked to approve the vaccine, these protocol requirements were not yet satisfied. But meanwhile the FDA was able to authorize it based on the fact that it went through all three phases of clinical trials and passed with flying colors. The benefits are overwhelming, it had been tested on tens of thousands of people without any serious ill effects, and no particular concerns are even theoretically suspected to actually exist. Since then, it has been successfully used for hundreds of millions of people, with an excellent success rate, and there are still no particular concerns.

5. "I just want to play it safe and not take it. That's my right!"

If you're literally going to lock yourself indoors and never have contact with anyone, then that's fine. But the reality is that everybody has some sort of contact with others in which Covid can be spread. If you're not vaccinated, then you are likely to contribute to this spread. Everyone else, entirely reasonably, wants the pandemic to be over so that people can stop overloading the hospitals and dying, and everyone can get back to work.

6. "People are entitled to make their own decisions, even wrong ones. We have to respect differences of opinion and respect everyone."

A lot of people say this, but nobody actually believes it. After all, we don't respect the opinions of  flat-earthers or antisemites. And while the former are relatively harmless, the latter are a danger to society, and we forcefully rebuff them and sometimes even try to silence them. Those who justify not taking the vaccine, making false arguments about the dangers of the vaccine, are a contributing cause to people who do not take the vaccine and die from Covid.

And this is not some theoretical faraway concern. Every single day in Israel, thousands of people are contracting coronavirus. Some of these people will get very sick, with long-term effects. Some of them will die. And yet every single one of these people had the option of taking the vaccine but did not do so. Why? Generally, it is because they were influenced by those who spread fears about it. 

One of the most famously tragic victims was Osnat Ben-Shitrit, a young woman who died of Covid last week, along with her 30-week old fetus that was also infected with coronavirus. It was reported that her brother-in-law was "the leader of a social-media group consisting of thousands of fellow anti-coronavirus-vaxxers. Nor was he the only spreader of fake news who caused her to reject the vaccine. According to her uncle, Uri Sa’adon, she was 'brainwashed' by 'all kinds of clowns playing doctor with people’s lives.' Had she not listened to them, he said, his niece would still be here with her husband, caring together for what were supposed to have been the couple’s five kids." While she was in hospital, she begged her friends to get vaccinated, and since her death, her family are now likewise begging people to be vaccinated.

It's fine and understandable to have questions or concerns or anxieties about the vaccine. But what you need to do is consult someone who knows what he/she is talking about. Such a person is not the anti-vaxx doctor that you found on the internet, who represents a fringe crank element. Rather, it's the mainstream medical establishment, or your personal physician. And then accept what they say - or if not, then keep quiet. If you raise concerns with others about the safety of the vaccine, based on your non-expert opinion and misunderstandings of the topic and anxieties, then you share responsibility for the deaths that are taking place every day. You might be a lovely person with many wonderful accomplishments, but this will not be one of them.


If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Are These Purim Costumes Offensive?

Me and my creations, about thirty years ago
Like many people, I love seeing everyone dressed up for Purim. I've also always been passionate about dressing up myself. Little-known fact about me: As a child, after being convinced by others to give up on being a zoo director because it isn't a realistic job for a nice Jewish boy, I spent several years wanting to work in Jim Henson's Creature Shop, since I was obsessed with the Muppets and made lots of Muppet costumes. For several years, I would do a muppet-themed show for Purim.

Recently, though, it has turned out that some costumes which other people wear, I find very offensive, and some costumes that I think are perfectly fine, others find highly offensive!

One of my kids wanted to dress up this year as the coronavirus. I thought that this was in extraordinarily bad taste, and I nixed it. But apparently my view is not universally shared, because I saw lots of pictures of children dressed up as a coronavirus. Still, I'm pretty sure that this did not happen in any families where people died of coronavirus. And I think that it's an illustration of how people don't necessarily take it so seriously if it hasn't affected them personally - similar to how a certain vocal anti-vaxxer whose sister-in-law just died of covid said that it took her death for him to take covid seriously.

On the other hand, there were plenty of children in Israel happily dressed up in costumes that are apparently completely unacceptable in the United States. I saw numerous Native Americans, Chinese characters, Mexicans, Bedouin shepherds, and a few years back I myself dressed up as an African witch doctor, inspired by a genuine African witch doctor that I once met on a small island off the coast of Kenya. Most people here don't consider these costumes to be offensive cultural appropriation - and likewise, most people here would not object to non-Jews dressing up as rabbis.

But there was one dress-up I saw a video of which was extremely upsetting. It was a Yerushalmi cheder in which all the children were dressed up for a demonstration, complete with placards and blowing horns. Just like grown-ups! It was a tragic reflection of a society in which the only real activity that its members ever do is demonstrating.

Anyway, speaking of colorful ethnic characters, here's an interesting advertisement for a new documentary about how different religions view the animal kingdom:

Friday, February 26, 2021

Happy Purim!


(Just in case anyone needs the explanation: Tiger King, Chess Queen, Queen Maleficent, Beauty Pageant Queen (Miss RBS), Dairy Queen, King of Egypt, & the King of Cards!)

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Posturers vs. Rebbi

this link

It's D-Day! Today is the day when Daf Yomi reaches the single most fundamental topic in any discussion about Torah and science - or indeed, about rationalism vs. mysticism in general. It's Pesachim 94 - the sun's path at night.

To briefly summarize: the Chachmei Yisrael state that in the evening, the sun doubles back and travels behind the opaque dome ("firmament") of the sky. No less than Rebbi himself, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, observes that this is not correct. And all the Geonim and Rishonim, without any exception whatsoever, interpreted this passage according to its straightforward meaning, as a discussion about where the sun goes at night (though Rabbeinu Tam maintains that Chazal were correct because the sun does indeed go behind the sky at night). It was only beginning in the 16th century that various authorities reinterpreted the Gemara such that it is not at all talking about the sun going behind the sky at night. And even after that period, there were still plenty of authorities who maintained the classical, traditional understanding of the Gemara (which is also, of course, the one which is by far the most reasonable).

So, what happens when you present this Gemara, along with the Rishonim and Acharonim, to those who insist that it is heretical to state that Chazal could be mistaken in their claims about the natural world? Some, such as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, respond with an enormous amount of obfuscation, in an apparent attempt to confuse the issue and overwhelm people while avoiding the clear meaning of this topic. In other cases, as you can see from the comments to my post on this topic a few days ago, people respond with a lot of posturing.

The word "posturing" refers to behavior that is intended to impress or mislead. In this case, it's both. They make a lot of claims about how only True Torah Scholars like they and their rabbis understand this Gemara properly. They issue a lot - a lot - of insults about how I don't know what I'm talking about. But when it comes to actually explaining what they believe the Gemara to be talking about, and how this can possibly be reconciled with the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim that I present - they are silent.

Of course, the reason for this is that they have nothing of substance to say. Trying to claim that all the Rishonim and Acharonim actually agreed with Maharal is like trying to square a circle. It just can't be done. 

But they can't admit that the classical approach to this Gemara is correct. Because this would mean that Chazal were mistaken about a fact of the natural world which nowadays seems very basic. Indeed, we find that no less than Rema himself explicitly admits that the embarrassment of such a possibility forced him to reinterpret this Gemara, against the explanation of Rambam and others: 

"And behold, I say that the words of our Sages, may their memories be for a blessing, are all built upon the true wisdom, and their words contain nothing perverse or crooked—even though sometimes, at first thought, it seems that they do not accord with the words of the scholars which are developed via proofs, especially in the field of astronomy. And some scholars (in saying that the Sages can be mistaken in matters of science) support themselves with that which they said that 'the gentile scholars triumphed over the Sages of Israel'; this is also with the words of the Master, the Guide, who wrote that 'the science of astronomy was not fully developed in the days of the prophets and the early sages.' But one who investigates this will be shocked to say that the Sages, may their memories be for a blessing, did not know these matters! A person who is concerned for the honor of his Creator and the honor of the Sages of the Torah will not think thus, but rather will be meticulous with their words."

And yet, as Rema himself is honest enough to acknowledge - in contrast to some people - Rambam and others did accept this Gemara according to its straightforward meaning. (By the way, it should also be noted that Rema's reinterpretation of this Gemara is completely at odds with Maharal's reinterpretation of this Gemara.) 

The greatest irony is that those who can't bring themselves to accept that Chazal were mistaken are going against the very lesson taught in this Gemara by Rebbi himself. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi  acknowledges that the Chachmei Yisrael were mistaken. Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam presents this as the crucial lesson to take from this Gemara:

"And now, consider the guidance provided to us in this passage, and how precious is the principle that they taught: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi evaluated these opinions based on the evidence alone, taking into account neither the identities of the Jewish sages nor those of the gentile sages; and he favored the gentile sages' view on the basis of this proof, which he thought would be accepted – that the wells are cool by day and hot by night. Truly is this master referred to as "our holy rabbi," for when a man throws off falsehood, retains truth, decides in its favor and retracts from his initial opinion when its opposite is proven to him, there can be no doubt that he is holy. Thus it is clarified to us that our Sages considered different views by examining their correctness and the proofs in their favor, not based on their exponents, whoever they might be.”

I can't think of a more relevant lesson for us today. So many people decide whether they staunchly support something or fiercely oppose it solely depending on whether it is advocated by representatives of their preferred political group. They should learn from Rebbi to overcome confirmation bias and accept the possibility that one's chosen representatives can be wrong. Indeed, this greatness can be seen in the Torah itself, which is not hesitant to ascribe error and sin to its heroes!

Anyway, in honor of the day, I'm making my extensive monograph on this topic - which is also a chapter in my new book Rationalism vs. Mysticism - free for download at this link. The one-page summary can be downloaded at this link. If you're in Daf Yomi, please let me know how the discussion of this topic went!

Meanwhile, there is good news for anyone who purchases Rationalism vs. Mysticism from the museum website - you will receive via email a free audio version of the introduction! You can purchase the book at this link.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Encountering Leviathan

This morning, I had a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was reported that a young whale had washed up dead on a beach - an extremely rare event in Israel. I couldn't possibly miss the opportunity to see it, so off I went!

The whale was a fin whale, also known as a finback whale. This is the second-largest species of whale in the world, after the blue whale. Fin whales can reach ninety feet (27 meters) in length, and weigh up to around 110 tons. This one was a juvenile, at around fifty feet (17 meters) long and an estimated weight of only 25 tons. The cause of its death was unclear, but there has recently been terrible pollution off the coast of Israel, with a tar spill that has killed turtles and countless other wildlife. It was very sad that such a magnificent creature should have died at a young age.

I had hoped to be able to cut out one of its baleen plates, to complement the various whale parts that are on exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. Alas, the saw that I brought for the task just wasn't up to the job. The scientists there were also struggling with their tools as they tried to cut open the enormous carcass. Eventually they brought a generator and power tools, with which they were able to make progress, but by that point the stench was so overwhelming that I just couldn't bear to stay any longer. But I did manage to film some videos, which we will be editing and posting. (In the interim, we have a brief video clip on the museum's Facebook page.)

Whales are, of course, mentioned in Tanach. Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim, is a paean to the great wonder of the natural world, including animals such as hyraxes, ibex and storks. It includes the following account of the ocean:

 מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם גְּדֹלוֹת: שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ: (תהילים קד:כד-כו) 
“How manifold are Your works, O God! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations. Here is this great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great. There go the ships; and Leviathan which You have made to play in it.” (Psalms 104:24-26) 
I photographed this humpback whale in Alaska

As I explained in a post a few years ago, there is actually some ambiguity regarding the meaning of this verse. The Hebrew phrase לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ “to play in it,” can be translated in different ways. Who exactly is doing the playing? And what is Leviathan, anyway?

Simply speaking, the verse is referring refers to God having Leviathan to play in the sea. This is indeed how most of the commentaries explain it. And while Midrashic accounts of a titanic leviathan have been interpreted by some as referring to an actual creature of stupendous proportions, and by others as an allegorical concept (and this is one of the topics of the Maimonidean controversies, discussed in my book Sacred Monsters), the leviathan of Psalms can straightforwardly be explained as the whale. 

Rashi, however, following an Aggadic portion of the Talmud, gives a different explanation. He explains it to mean not that Leviathan is playing in the sea, but rather that God created the Leviathan for Him to play with. Accordingly, it would mean that even the mighty Leviathan is nothing more than God’s plaything. (Furthermore, according to Rashi, the verse does not refer to whales, but rather to the singular titanic Leviathan, of which there is only one in the world.)

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879), on the other hand, gives a third explanation. He states that it means that the aforementioned ships are playing with leviathan. Accordingly, it refers to whaling ships engaged in the "sport" of hunting whales.

It is fascinating that Malbim seeks to provide an entirely new explanation of this verse. But is it a plausible explanation of what the Psalmist could have been referring to, or is it anachronistic? Although tribal peoples, with no easy sources of food, have hunted whales for millennia, it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. There is no archeological or archaeozoological evidence for ancient whaling in the Mediterranean, although this is a case where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. A recent paper that performs an initial exploration of this topic, "Ancient Whale Exploitation in the Mediterranean," further suggests that if the Mediterranean whale community in antiquity was similar to that of today - i.e., species that only live in deep water - "it is unlikely that organized forms of whaling would have developed, as the presence of whales close to the coastline would have been rare and unpredictable."

ZooRabbi Junior, with a small piece
of baleen, currently on display at
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
Although it is unlikely that the verse is speaking about whaling, we can certainly understand why Malbim would explain it that way. Malbim lived in the nineteenth century, when ships and whaling techniques had developed to the stage where it was viable to hunt whales on the high seas of the Atlantic. And there was enormous demand for whale oil, which was used for lamps, along with baleen (whalebone) which was used for everything from buggy whips to corsets. In Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a very big business. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Malbim would explain the verse in this way.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see various parts of whales, along with a live colony of hyraxes and mounted specimens of the other animals in Barchi Nafshi, then come visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History - which just re-opened today! Due to Covid, tours must be booked in advance; write to to book your tour. Live online tours are still available for groups unable to physically visit; see for details.


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. 


Unorthodox Unorthodox: The Sequel

The response to my previous post, Unorthodox Unorthodox , about the extraordinary former Satmar girl who overcame the odds to become a socia...