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The Kiwi, The Mosque, and the Shaliachat Tzibbur
Sometimes, there are lines of questioning and debate that turn out to be futile at resolving anything, and an entirely different type of question turns out to be more useful.
For example, the kiwi (the small flightless bird from New Zealand, not the fruit) lays by far the largest egg in proportion to its body size of any bird. The astonishing photo shown here is an x-ray of a kiwi 15 hours prior to laying its egg. For a few days prior to laying, the kiwi doesn't even have room in its body to be able to eat any food!
Why are kiwi eggs so big? The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his superb essay "Of Kiwi Eggs and the Liberty Bell," shows that this is really not a productive line of questioning. One can come up with all kinds of theories, but none are really satisfactory. It turns out that it's better not to ask "Why are kiwi eggs so big relative to the bird," in the first place, but rather to ask a completely different question: Why are kiwis so small relative to the size of their eggs? And that's a question that can be productively answered: Because kiwis evolved from much larger birds, and as the adults decreased in size, the eggs decreased at a smaller rate. (The full explanation is a quite complex, but that will do for now.)
That is what came to my mind as I contemplated two hot topics in recent weeks: The controversy over the mosque at Ground Zero in Manhattan, and the controversy over the woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat at HIR in Riverdale. Let me first admit from the outset that I know precious little about either topic, and I don't consider myself qualified to have a meaningful opinion. But it did occur to me that the endless debates, which don't appear to ever convince other people, might be avoided if an entirely different question is proposed.
Should the mosque be permitted in order to defend the tolerant values that make America so great? Or is it a disgrace in light of the events of 9/11? Debates rage endlessly, without anyone winning over their opponents to the merits of their position. But there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will it cause immense distress to the families and friends of the victims? Yes, of course it will. (As I understand it, it was this latter consideration that led the ADL to withdraw its support for the mosque.)
Is it permissible to have a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, since it's not a proper part of the davening? Or is it completely against Jewish tradition, halachah and values? Debates rage endlessly, without anyone winning over their opponents to the merits of their position. But there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will this lead to a greater role for women within Orthodoxy, or will it lead to HIR being ostracized from the rest of the community and undoing any headway that they have made in introducing innovations? It seems obvious that the latter is the case - in which case even those who supported it should ask themselves if they're really helping their cause.
(P.S. Apologies to all those who are still waiting for replies to their emails - I have been really busy.)