Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Have you not been receiving my latest posts?

This is for those who receive my posts via email and have not seen posts in the last few days. The reason is because I moved over to a new system, Substack, which is much better in many ways, BUT comes with a drawback - if you are using Gmail, then the posts might be automatically moved to the "promotional emails" tab or even to Spam. Look for them there if you haven't seen them. Moving them to your inbox may stop that from happening again; if that doesn't work, then try hitting reply and writing something to me - once Gmail recognizes that we correspond, it may learn to place them in your inbox.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Blog Migration!

Birds migrate, butterflies migrate, whales migrate, and this blog is migrating! It's being moved over from Blogger to Substack. The URL is currently https://rationalistjudaism.substack.com but will hopefully soon also be accessible at www.RationalistJudaism.com. Hopefully the email subscriptions should still work - if you usually get this by email and suddenly stop hearing from me, please let me know!

Crazy Coincidence

This is wild!

In our exhibit of artistic model Noah's Arks, we have a section with arks by an artist who re-imagines the ark as different types of modern vehicles - an ocean liner, an airplane, a hot-air balloon, and so on. Two days ago I wrote to the artist with a suggestion of another vehicle that he should create:

Then, yesterday, none other than Elon Musk posted the following:

What a crazy coincidence!

Meanwhile, can anyone help with the following:

- Bringing a suitcase of model Noah's Arks from TEANECK
- Putting a nine-foot hammerhead shark in a lift from TEANECK
- Putting some seven-foot metal bars on a lift from anywhere in the US
- Bringing a suitcase of aquatic equipment from LONDON
If so, please email me. Will pay any fees involved!

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both West and Trump will lead to a massive upsurge in antisemitism. Their many fans - many of whom have probably never even heard of Hitler - will start looking into who Hitler was and decide that their loyalty to their heroes means supporting their positions. 

But do you know what's even more painful and damaging? That when their fans start to look into whether Hitler was really the bad guy that the mainstream media insist he was, they'll be shown a video saying that Hitler was right about the Jews. And it's a video produced by an Orthodox Rabbi.

Yes, it's Rabbi Yaron Reuven's notorious Hitler video, in which he claims that the Jews in Germany really were destroying society and thus Hitler was justified in hating them. Reuven falsely insists that the morally degenerate clubs of Berlin "were all run by Jewish people" and that it's "absolutely true history" that the Jews destroyed the German economy with their financial greed. Of course this is utterly false, but when a bearded Orthodox rabbi insists that it's true, it's the ultimate vindication for antisemites.

When I originally drew attention to this, Reuven responded with glee. He claimed that it was a good thing that antisemites see that Jews are willing to call out problems in their own society. But while it is definitely true that we should be calling out problems ourselves rather than leaving it others to do so, that is not what Reuven did! He fabricated Jewish crimes. Rather than exposing the hatred and lies of antisemitism, he actively gave it false legitimacy.

In the past I've pointed out how various antisemites have used Reuven's video to justify their claims about the Jews. And now the latest Ye/ Trump fiasco has breathed new life into it. I received a new video in which someone points to Reuven's speech and, not unreasonably, asks why he isn't allowed to say that which rabbis themselves say. 

As I've said before, there's nothing that can be done to repair the incalculable terrible damage to our nation that Yaron Reuven has wrought. It's too late.

But we have to stop him from causing any more.

Yaron Reuven's YouTube and Facebook videos and accounts must be removed for spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories and inciting hatred and violence. He needs to be ousted from the Rabbinical Alliance of America (of which he proudly declares membership and legitimacy). He needs to be denounced, defrocked and condemned. We need to send a strong message to future would-be Reuvens that this behavior will have consequences.

You can reach the Rabbinical Alliance of America at Rabbi@Igud.US, 1-833-RAA-IGUD or by completing the form at this page. And if anyone has any influence with the Sefardic rabbis from whom Reuven received endorsements or other Sefardic rabbis of prestige, please speak to them. 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to the new hottest destination for Israelis, Dubai. It was exceedingly interesting, but in this post I'll just discuss one thing: chocolate.

Wandering around the fascinating spice and gold souks, I came across an upscale store selling chocolate. But this was like no other chocolate store I had ever seen. Most of the gold-covered chocolates were shaped in form of a camel, and the reason for this was that they were made of camel milk!

The Al-Nassma chocolate company uses milk from 3,000 camels at the Camelicious Farm in Umm Nahad, Dubai, which also produces bottles of camel milk and camel ice cream. The camels are milked twice daily, producing 5000 liters of milk. Camel milk is long favored by the Bedouin, and is richer in vitamin C than cow milk, while being lower in fat and lactose.

Camel milk is, of course, as treif as treif can be. But I decided to buy some of the unusual looking chocolate to exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in our Hall of Kosher Classification, alongside some other highly unusual camel-related items that I purchased on this trip. As I lined up at the counter, the man in front of me said, "Watch out, it's so delicious, you'll get addicted to it!"

Although he spoke to me in English, his heavy accent sounded all too familiar.

"Me'efa atah?" I asked in Ivrit. "Haifa," he replied.

I felt obligated to point out that the chocolate really is made from camel milk and is non-kosher. He responded indignantly that we don't even know what's in the water that we drink, so we might as well eat camel chocolate too. I must confess that I failed to follow this argument.

Interestingly, the Bedouin predilection for camel milk explains something in the Torah that I discussed in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. Since the Torah specifies that animals must both bring up the cud and possess split hooves, the camel - which lacks hooves entirely - is obviously not kosher. Why, then, does the Torah need to warn us against eating it, along with the hare, hyrax and pig? The Sifra states that the presence of one kosher sign might lead a person to think that it's acceptable to eat them. But Chizkuni explains further that since the local nations eat such things, there is extra reason to spell out that they may not be eaten.

But what about those Jews visiting Dubai who, unlike the man from Haifa, keep kosher? Can they have regular milk in their coffee? Or does the local predilection for camel milk mean that there is a risk of camel milk being mixed in to regular milk? Instead of chalav Yisrael, could they be drinking chalav Yishmael?

It seems to me that there is no such risk. Although in some ways the UAE is far from a First World country - it's an authoritarian regime with no free press - in other ways it is highly advanced, including having very strict laws on quality control in food and correct labeling. 

But there's also another reason. Camels produce much less milk every day than modern dairy cow breeds. In addition, whereas male cattle calves are often killed, every camel must be kept near its young in order to continue producing milk, which means that two animals need to be kept fed. As a result of all this, camel milk is around thirty times more expensive than cow milk. The Gemara (Avoda Zara 34b) explains that there is no concern of non-kosher wine being secretly added to unsupervised imported fish stew in places where wine is more expensive, since there is no financial incentive to do so. The same logic would apply in Dubai - there is simply no incentive for dairy farms to use camel milk instead of cow milk.

However, with the enormous number of Israelis visiting Dubai, it's important for people to be aware that some of the chocolate there is very, very treife!

(Meanwhile, I am kicking myself for not buying a bottle of camel milk, emptying it, and bringing it back for a museum exhibit. So if you happen to be in Dubai, please get one for us!)

Monday, November 28, 2022

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 heresies in that work. Ironically, it's a topic that I discussed here two weeks ago - the illumination of Noah's Ark.

Veyavinu BeMikra is a booklet written to explain why Peshuto Shel Mikra had to be banned. The very first example that it brings is the explanation of the illumination of the Ark. As you will recall, Chazal gave two explanations - one was that it was a window, and the second was that it was a gemstone or crystal that radiated light. In discussing the second view, Peshuto Shel Mikra says as follows:

"והדעת נוטה, שהאבנים הטובות המאירות אין להן אור מעצמן, כי בכוחן רק להגביר את האור מחמת המאור הנמצא בקרבתן ולהפיצו ביותר, כדוגמאות המראות המבריקים מאוד. וא"כ, גם לדעה זו הֻצרך נח לנרות דולקים, שעל ידם יפיצו המרגליות את אורן בתבה".

"Reason indicates that because precious stones do not emit their own light, but rather refract the light emitted from other sources, like very shiny mirrors, then Noah must have also been burning candles, the light of which would be reflected around the Ark by these precious stones."

Veyavinu BeMikra explains that this heretical for two reasons. First is that the Rishonim who discuss this approach are clearly of the view that the stone emitted its own light. Second is that the authors preference for that which makes sense according to "reason" means that he only accepts that which the human mind can rationally grasp and rejects the supernatural.

I think that it's easy to understand the concern. One minute you're rejecting the traditional view about how Noah's crystal worked, and before you know it, you're asking how kangaroos got to the Ark. And trying to make the story of Noah's Ark fit with science is indeed a recipe for leading someone away from conventional Torah thought and risks opening a Pandora's Box. Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman goes to great lengths to explain why the account of Noah's Ark cannot be reconciled with science in any way, as a sort of bizarre purging effort to make people reject rationalism.

And yet, the desire to make Torah conform with reason and science has long been a mainstream approach in rabbinic thought. Rambam wrote this explicitly:

"…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle." (Rambam, Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead)

The Rishonim who spoke about Noah's crystal emitting light were not trying to describe a miracle - they explained it in this way because until recently it was standard belief that certain precious stones do indeed emit light (which actually isn't so far from the truth). And if you're going to start heresy-hunting over this, then you're also going have to burn goodness knows how many Stone Chumashim, which describes the crystal view as meaning that Noah placed a prism in the wall of the Ark that refracted the outside light around the Ark. ArtScroll is clearly taking this approach in order to make it conform to the scientifically possible, even though it is not the traditional explanation of the crystal view.

Yes, reason and rationalism have their risks. But they are nevertheless a traditional part of Judaism, and it is both wrong and dangerous to ban them as being outside the scope of Jewish thought. Over 25 years ago I was tortured by the question of how the kangaroos got to the Ark, and so I went to ask Rav Aharon Feldman, with whom I was quite close at the time. He kindly but sternly suggested that I shouldn't be interested in such questions. Well, naturally, that didn't do anything to satisfy my distress, but fortunatel I was able to go down the block and discuss it with Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l instead. He gave me an answer that Rav Feldman would consider heresy, but which is consistent with the approach of Rambam and many other greats throughout history.

Personally, notwithstanding the dangers of trying to make Torah fit with reason wherever possible, I think it's an approach whose legitimacy is worth defending.


(On a related note, if you can bring a suitcase from Teaneck containing a deck prism and other Ark-related materials for our exhibit, please be in touch!)

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Taking Dangers Appropriately Seriously

We are all reeling in shock after yesterday's bombing in Jerusalem. The grief at the passing of an innocent teenager is heart-rending (as is the appalling kidnap and murder of a Druze boy). And it brings back memories of those terrible years of the Second Intifada. 

But I was bothered by a comment that someone made, that now they have to be afraid again to take a bus in Jerusalem. Such an attitude helps the terrorists in their mission to spread terror. But it's also just not rational.

Statistically speaking, the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are absolutely minimal. Even during the worst years of the Intifada, there were less Israelis killed in terrorist attacks than in traffic accidents. Several dozen people are murdered in terrorist attacks every year - several hundred are killed in traffic accidents. Put bluntly, you're more likely to be hit by a bus than to be blown up in one.

Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this, having lost a family member in a traffic accident. But the facts and the numbers are undeniable. If we felt as much communal grief and rage over traffic accidents as we do over terrorist attacks, then there would be less of them. Speeding, using phones while driving, and reckless driving are all things that are within our power to reduce.

And then there's less headline-capturing forms of death such as heart disease and diabetes, which are among the leading killers. We could reduce those with less sugary and unhealthy foods (full confession - I am very far from being a healthy eater), but how much pressure is created around that? The government's tax on sugary drinks reduced their consumption by 31% and is probably instrumental in saving thousands of lives - but now, against the protests of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, Bibi plans to cancel it due to demands by charedi parties who saw it as an anti-charedi measure! 

We should indeed be grief-stricken at yesterday's tragedy, and the government should take the necessary measures to prevent future such things. But we should respond correctly, to this and to other tragedies, in terms of how we lead our lives.

Have you not been receiving my latest posts?

This is for those who receive my posts via email and have not seen posts in the last few days. The reason is because I moved over to a new s...