Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dang, He Busted My Mabul Crapometer!

Every year at this time, I peruse the web to try and find some intelligent commentary on the Mabul. Although the Deluge as described in the Torah clearly cannot be taken literally, I am still curious at seeing how people attempt to reconcile the story with modern science. My personal approach is similar to that found in Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization. This book, which backs up many of its claims with hard science, states that the ubiquitous flood myths around the world mostly represent wide-scale flooding caused by end of Ice Age glacier melting, especially following the Younger Dryas period at the end of the Pleistocene about 12,000 years ago.

The Mabul in particular may have been the result of a massive flood through the Bosporus about 5600 BCE, according to geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman who in 1998 published evidence for such an event. Glacial retreat caused the Mediterranean to rise until it finally spilled over a sill at the Bosporus into Black Sea. To get an idea as to the magnitude of this event, Ryan and Pitman state that ten cubic miles of water poured through the straits each day - two hundred times the volume of water that flows over Niagara Falls - for at least three hundred days!

I recently came across the article "Noach and the Tayva, Some Torah, Some Biology" which appeared in Derech HaTeva, a publication for undergraduate students at the Stern College for Women. It was written by Harvey Babich, a Biology Professor that teaches at Stern. Although Dr Babich has an impressive curricula vitae, his speculations - which frequently rely on rabbinic commentary - are jampacked with the most appalling pseudoscience. I read the article slack-jawed. Here are some of his speculations and you can see why my BS meter is now completely busted.

1) Noach was the first person to be born circumcised (besides Adam HaRishon) and with distinct fingers, while antediluvian man webbed hands. Babich explains that every fetus has webbing at an early stage but this eventually disintegrates due to apotosis. Because Noach had distinct fingers, he was able to invent the plow, scythe, and axe (Torah Shelaimah). This was around 2705 BCE.

2) Animals imitated man and cohabitation between different species was common, resulting in hybrid species (Netziv). The dinosaurs came from such forbidden sexual relationships which is why they were destroyed in the Mabul (about 2100 BCE). That Netziv and Malbim state that dinosaurs and man were contemporaneous is not a problem because C14 dating is inaccurate due to changes in cosmic radiation striking the earth.

3) Either all animals - including 800,000 species of insects, 35,000 species of spiders, 8,600 species of birds, etc etc - fit into the ark because of a miracle (Ramban), or only basic "minim" entered to preserve the necessary genetic information. "Postdiluvian diversification" (i.e., a super speeded up evolution, a word that Babich avoids, but see the last point) yielded the different genera and species of today.

4) The ark had three floors. The upper was for people and kosher animals, the middle for all of the other animals, and the bottom for the foul-smelling excreta that was deposited there via a trapdoor on the second level (Babich doesn't say how the refuse from the top floor made it to the bottom; presumably there were also trap doors and they just dumped it on top of the animals.) The refuse was not dumped overboard because it contained the plant seeds and spores needed to repopulate the world, as fertilizer to replenish the washed away top soil, to preserve the microbiota, and/or to provide the proper habitat for some creatures such as earthworms.

5) Noach took along food for all of the animals. Carnivores survived on a vegetarian diet (Ibn Ezra) similar to dogs who require a special vegetarian formula due to allergies (note to Babich: dogs are not carnivores.) Wild animals - who didn't have meat - were quieted down by some sort of radiation that God produced (Meam Loez). Such tranquility may have been a form of tonic immobility from the adverse environment.

6) Noach cared for all of the wild animals, Shem for domesticated, Cham for birds, Yefes for reptiles. All animals retained their natural inclinations, food preferences, and behavioral patterns. (Did they plant trees for monkeys? Mini-ice floats for polar bears and penguins?) Avraham's servant, Eliezer, was told by Shem that the inhabitants never got any sleep because they had to feed the diurnal species by day, the nocturnal by night.

7) Babich quotes the renowned scientist, Avigdor Miller, to describe how volcanoes superheated the water. Fish had to escape to the deepest parts of the sea where the water remains cool (presumably also fish who are not able to descend or survive at such depths. Hmmm, what about fresh water creatures and those in shallow ponds?) We are then given a science lesson about why heat will increase the volume of "aqueous water" until it becomes a gas at 100 degrees C; for some reason this had something to do with the turbulence and volume of the floodwaters but the ark floated "like any buoyant object".

8) Short-lived creatures like the fruit-fly either stayed alive (via a miracle, of course) or did die but reproduced so that their offspring left the tayva (Sanhedrin 108b).

9) When the flood waters began to recede, Noah knew that it was too soon for vegetation to grow, so he sent out a raven first because it is omnivorous and would eat the dead carcasses that washed atop mountains. (Interlude for a discussion of the raven diet.) And it did find and eat a dead human carcass (Meam Loez). He then sent out a dove because it would return to bond because it mates for life, but we are unsure of the exact species of dove that was sent! (Note: 90% of bird species are monogamous, including ravens, Dr. B.)

10) Predator/prey relationships resumed about a year after leaving the ark. The world had changed dramatically; lower air quality, poor soil productivity, four seasons instead of one (Sforno, Malbim).

11) All races of man trace their ancestry from the humans on the ark. Dark-skinned races came from Cham (Bereshis Rabbah.) (Interlude to discuss the genetics of skin color.) Whew, at least he avoided the racist nonsense of Tanchuma, as popularized by Meam Loez.

12) Biodiversification (see #4) occurred via natural selection. This was speeded up during the separation of the continents, due to plate tectonics, at the time of the Towel of Babel.

No, the above is not a spoof! Dr. Babich, Ph.D, is being perfectly serious, and isn't at all embarrassed at passing off this crap as science (or presumably teaching similar crap to students.) Nor is Yeshiva University embarrassed at making this crap available on yutorah.org. One could literally spend hours demolishing the pseudoscientific claptrap in the article and still not reach the top of the pile of steaming crap. Sorry for the loss of eloquence, folks, as my crapometer is way off the scale.


Monday, October 27, 2008

An Army Antisemitic Coverup?

For some reason, I didn't see mention of the story of Michael Handman on any of the popular Jewish blogs, including the very politically-aware DovBear. In case you haven't heard about it, in September Army trainee Handman was severely beaten by one or more soldiers and subsequently hospitalized. Handman - who wears a yarmulke with his uniform - claims that the attack was anti-Semitic in nature. He says that his drill sergeants referred to him as a "fucking Jew" and a "kike" and demanded that he remove the yarmulke during dinner.

"I have just never been so discriminated against/humiliated about my religion," Michael Handman wrote his mother. "I just feel like I'm always looking over my shoulder. Like my battle buddy heard some of the guys in my platoon talking about how they wanted to beat the shit out of me tonight when I'm sleeping. It just sucks. And the only justification they have is [because] I'm Jewish. Maybe your dad was right...The Army is not the place for a Jew."

Has justice finally been served or is there a coverup to hide anti-Semitism at Fort Benning? Earlier this month, punishment was meted out to an Army trainee who attacked Handman. But the punishment in nonjudicial punishment rather than criminal and has the result of keeping many details of the attack secret. This article continues:

"Four days before the attack, Handman was interviewed by commanders of his basic training unit about complaints he'd made in letters to his parents that he had been harassed by two drill sergeants because he's Jewish.

The Army later acknowledged one drill sergeant had ordered Handman to remove his yarmulke, which he wore with his uniform, as he ate in a dining hall. Another drill sergeant had called him "Juden" — the German word for Jews.

[Fort Benning spokeswoman Monica] Manganaro said military police concluded the attack on Handman wasn't motivated by religious bigotry, but she would give no other details."

Note that the maximum allowable punishment is a 45 day restriction where the offender is unable to leave his unit buildings, plus 45 days of extra duty, plus a reduction in grade and forfeiture of pay. Lest people think that this is a mere slap on the wrist, it should be noted in fairness that a first time battery conviction in Georgia is only a misdemeanor which carries a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and a fine up to $1000. However, Fort Benning officials would not say what punishment Handman's attacker received.

So is there a coverup of endemic Antisemitism at Fort Benning, or is this just an example of a few lowlifes? Military.com mentioned the original story in brief (although I haven't found a followup article there) and it elicited numerous reader comments, left almost exclusively by military personnel. There was zero evidence of Antisemitism in the posts with a large number of people objecting to such sentiments and quoting regulations that allow one to wear a head-covering in the military, however many people did feel it best to keep one's religion to oneself. I found it appalling that some people actually made an excuse for the beating, claiming that Handman must have been a "F.U." or just missed "mommy and daddy". Are these assholes really suggesting that a severe beating is deserved in some cases?? Do they really believe that such sentiments reflect well on the military?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Jewish Nation Myth

No one is more surprised than Shlomo Sand that his latest academic work has spent 19 weeks on Israel's bestseller list – and that success has come to the history professor despite his book challenging Israel's biggest taboo. Dr Sand argues that the idea of a Jewish nation – whose need for a safe haven was originally used to justify the founding of the state of Israel – is a myth invented little more than a century ago.

...he argues that the Jews were never exiled from the Holy Land, that most of today's Jews have no historical connection to the land called Israel and that the only political solution to the country's conflict with the Palestinians is to abolish the Jewish state.

... Surprisingly, Dr Sand said, most of his academic colleagues in Israel have shied away from tackling his arguments. One exception is Israel Bartal, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily newspaper, Dr Bartal made little effort to rebut Dr Sand's claims. He dedicated much of his article instead to defending his profession, suggesting that Israeli historians were not as ignorant about the invented nature of Jewish history as Dr Sand contends.

...Dr Sand's main argument is that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews only because they shared a common religion. At the turn of the 20th century, he said, Zionist Jews challenged this idea and started creating a national history by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion.

Equally, the modern Zionist idea of Jews being obligated to return from exile to the Promised Land was entirely alien to Judaism, he added.

"Zionism changed the idea of Jerusalem. Before, the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. For 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem not because they could not return but because their religion forbade them from returning until the messiah came."

The biggest surprise during his research came when he started looking at the archaeological evidence from the biblical era.

"I was not raised as a Zionist, but like all other Israelis I took it for granted that the Jews were a people living in Judea and that they were exiled by the Romans in 70AD.

"But once I started looking at the evidence, I discovered that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were legends.

"Similarly with the exile. In fact, you can't explain Jewishness without exile. But when I started to look for history books describing the events of this exile, I couldn't find any. Not one.

"That was because the Romans did not exile people. In fact, Jews in Palestine were overwhelming peasants and all the evidence suggests they stayed on their lands."

Instead, he believes an alternative theory is more plausible: the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. "Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God."

So if there was no exile, how is it that so many Jews ended up scattered around the globe before the modern state of Israel began encouraging them to "return"?

Dr Sand said that, in the centuries immediately preceding and following the Christian era, Judaism was a proselytising religion, desperate for converts. "This is mentioned in the Roman literature of the time."

Jews travelled to other regions seeking converts, particularly in Yemen and among the Berber tribes of North Africa. Centuries later, the people of the Khazar kingdom in what is today south Russia, would convert en masse to Judaism, becoming the genesis of the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe.

Dr Sand pointed to the strange state of denial in which most Israelis live, noting that papers offered extensive coverage recently to the discovery of the capital of the Khazar kingdom next to the Caspian Sea.

Ynet, the website of Israel's most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined the story: "Russian archaeologists find long-lost Jewish capital." And yet none of the papers, he added, had considered the significance of this find to standard accounts of Jewish history.

One further question is prompted by Dr Sand's account, as he himself notes: if most Jews never left the Holy Land, what became of them?

"It is not taught in Israeli schools but most of the early Zionist leaders, including David Ben Gurion [Israel's first prime minister], believed that the Palestinians were the descendants of the area's original Jews. They believed the Jews had later converted to Islam."

This fascinating article can be found in full here. It was written by Jonathan Cook, a journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. A quick perusal of his website at www.jkcook.net is all that is needed to demonstrate Cook's rabid anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian bias. A footnote at the bottom states that "A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi." Abu Dhabi, in case you didn't know, is a country with very strong anti-Judaic policies. They also flog unmarried girls as young as 14 for having sex.

Neither the author of this article nor the Abu Dhabi connection has any bearing on whether Sand's assertions are factual or not, but it does clearly show one how Sand's work is perfect fodder for both anti-Zionists and anti-Semites.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

God - Address Unknown

A US judge has thrown out a case against God, ruling that because the defendant has no address, legal papers cannot be served.

Full story here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Scent of Heresy?

The following story, A Problematic Purchase, was taken from Along the Maggid's Journey by R. Paysach Krohn.

The laws regarding the kashrus (ritual validity) of an esrog for use on Succos are detailed and complicated. Sometimes a barely noticeable blemish is serious enough to invalidate an esrog, which is why many people will not purchase an esrog unless they show it to a recognized expert in these laws. One of ]erusalem's most respected experts in this field was the renowned R' Sholom Eisen (1917-1988). Young and old would come by the hundreds to have him examine their esrogim and lulavim. Rabbi Eisen was known not only for his halachic expertise but also for his remarkable insights. The following story involves two of the laws of Succos. The first law is that only in the Beis Halviikdash was it Biblically ordained to take the Four Species every day of Succos. Nowadays, the Biblical requirement to take the Four Species applies only on the first day; on other days, their use is a Rabbinic law.

The second law is that the Rabbis ordained that the Four Species may not be used on the Sabbath, lest one inadvertently carry them [to a teacher to learn how to use them] in a public domain, which would be a desecration of the Sabbath. ln our times, therefore, if Succos begins on the Sabbath, the Four Species would not be taken until Sunday, and their use that year would be required only by Rabbinic law.

The following story was witnessed by R' Menachem Glick of Jerusalem.

A few weeks before Succos in 1982, when the first day of Succos was on the Sabbath, a young man was showing Rabbi Eisen an esrog he was considering. R' Eisen turned the esrog slowly and carefully. "It is not spotted or blistered in any way," said R' Eisen, “and the pitom (top bulblike growth) and ukatz (bottom stem) are beautiful. However," he continued as he looked at the esrog through a magnifying glass, "it seems that at this particular place on the esrog, it is chaseir (a part is missing)."

The questionable area was very tiny. Knowing the basic laws of the Four Species, the young man protested, "But even so, an esrog that is chaseir would be kosher this year, because the whole mitzvah of taking the Four Species is only Rabbinic."

"If you were to purchase this esrog now," said R' Eisen firmly, "it would be a she'eilah of apikorses (a question of heresy)."

The young man was startled at R' Eisen's strong admonition. Heads turned throughout the room as everyone suddenly became quiet to hear the reason for the Rabbi's comment. "We have a few weeks until Yom Tov", R' Eisen exclaimed. "Within this time, it is certainly possible that Mashiach may come. If indeed he does and we have a Beis HaMikdash, you would surely want to use your esrog in the Beis HaMikdash, wouldn't you? But this deficient esrog would be invalid in the Beis HaMikdash. Yet you are still willing to purchase it — which displays your conviction that Mashiach will not come. Such an attitude has the scent of apikorses!"

We all claim to believe in Mashiach. But do we?
There is only one teeny problem with this "inspiring" story: Rabbi Eisen seems to have invented a completely new category of heresy! Rambam's 12th principle, the belief in the coming of the messiah, quite specifically states that "no time for his coming may be set, nor may the verses of Scripture be interpreted to reveal the time of his coming, as our Sages have said, 'May the wits of those who calculate the date of the end be addled'". That is, while there is an obligation to believe in the coming of moshiach according to Rambam, there is certainly no obligation to believe that he is coming tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or even within one's lifetime!

Now it wouldn't bother me that much if a well-known rav accused me of apikorsus (although I would implore him to read a little Marc Shapiro or Menachem Kellner), but can you image how this young man must have felt as "heads turned throughout the room" to hear R. Eisen claim that his attitude had the scent of heresy?

Lest I be accused of casting aspersions on Gedolei Hador (although some truly deserve it), I will conclude with a truly inspirational story by R. Eisen, plagiarized from the Cleveland Jewish Learning Connection website:
A young married student had searched for several hours to find a beautiful esrog to fulfill the mitzvah. He brought it to Rav Sholom Eisen, a renowned expert in Jerusalem, for his approval. After several minutes, Rav Eisen informed the young man it was not for him.

The young man was crestfallen, as it seemed to be a flawless esrog. He asked what the problem was.

Rav Eisen answered, "This esrog is so beautiful it must cost a fortune. I know you don’t earn much money. It is more important that you buy your wife something nice for Yom Tov, which is a Torah obligation, than it is to buy such a beautiful esrog, which is only to beautify the mitzvah."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Great Press for the Chareidi Modesty Patrols

The Huffington Post, regardless of its liberal bent, is one of the most widely viewed news websites. Now the entire world will be equating all Chareidim with the Taliban. Sad...

See here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Quick Quiz

Where in the Rosh Hashanah service is there a word containing five mems?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Assorted Rosh Hashanah Tidbits

  • Unetaneh Tokef did not originate with the horrible torture story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, that Artscroll retells in its mahzor. The historical brutality of Christian leaders and laypeople towards Jews is certainly a given and there is no reason to doubt that such mutilation could have been based on a real incident, but the "revealed in a dream to Rabbi Klonimos" story originates with the Or Zarua who lived 200 years after the supposed event. Most damaging to the legitimacy of this story has to be the simple fact that Unetaneh Tokef dates back to the pre-Gaonic era as revealed in Cairo Geniza fragments. More juicy details in this article.
  • The custom of reciting L'Dovid Ori during Elul through Shemini Atzeres is likely Sabbatean in origin, established by Nathan of Gaza, the "prophet" of false-Messiah Shabbetai Zevi. Check out this well-researched post.
  • The gematria of אגוז (egoz / nut) does not equal חטא (chet / sin), although people play fast and loose with the alef of the latter to make things work out. This post from a couple of years back goes into some detail. The more kabbalistically inclined can ignore these nitpickings and refer to "Ginat Egoz" by R. Yosef Gikatilla.
  • The first set of shofar blowings of Rosh Hashanah are referred to as "tekiot demeyushav" because they are supposed to be heard while sitting down (see the end of Rosh Hashanah 16a). However, it has become a universal custom to listen while standing (see Mishna Berurah on O.C. 585:1). Anyone know of a congregation that does otherwise?
  • I cannot find a source inside (please leave a comment if you know where), but a Rav in the know once told us that it is incorrect for the congregation to recite the first two Aseret Y'mei Teshuvah additions during the repetition of the Amidah (i.e., "Zochreinu" and "Mi Chamocha".) Certainly this is substantiated by the mahzorim that state only "Chazan" for these additions while "Congregation then Chazan" precedes the last two additions ("Uchesov chayim" and "B'sefer chayim").