The Apostasy of the Monsey Fish

Remember the fabulous finned phenomenon of a few years past? A fish which began conversing with a worker in a store in a Jewish enclave near Monsey, and which, upon further interrogation, was found to be exhorting the rest of us – in Yiddish – to repent? Said fish wound up in a prominent place in the New York Times, where it either impressed countless people with the holiness of the frum community for having merited such prophets, or impressed them in a very different manner. It all depends who you ask.

While the proprietor of the fish store claims that the fish, to spare it any further indignity, was ground up and turned into something suitable for a Shabbos table, recent evidence has surfaced (grin) that the fish survived, and came to a rather ignominious end. It appears that the fish, rather than become gefilte, became geshmad. Apparently, it converted to Islam.

A tuna fish caught in the Indian Ocean this week has excited Kenyan Muslims who are flocking here by the hundreds to see a Koranic verse apparently embedded in its scales.

Arabic scholars examined the fish and determined the writing was a Koranic verse meaning “God is the greatest of all providers,” said Hassan Mohamed Hassan, an education officer with the National Museums of Kenya in Mombasa.

“This has been confirmed as a verse from the Holy Koran,” said Sheikh Mombasa Dor, the secretary-general of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya.

“We believe that God brings these kinds of messages in many forms from time to time and that we should not only read the Holy Book, but practice what it says,” he said.

This is one of those times I am proud to be a skeptic. I didn’t buy the talking fish story at the time. I took heat from colleagues in town for being dismissive about the famous dybbuk, whose story (and taped exorcism) was touted in certain circles as “proof” of the Torah, and a sure beacon towards teshuva for the not yet repentant. (The woman in whom the dybbuk took up residence fessed up a year later to the fraud.) I scoffed at facilitated communication, the process whereby autistic children sent us messages to repent in Brooklyn Yinglish. I kvelled when Dr Hershel Fried wrote an expose so powerful that it was published by a haredi outlet in Israel. And of course, I have been an implacable opponent of seeing anything “scientific” in the Bible Codes.

The very best Jewish skeptic story I heard is about the Brisker Rov. He shocked his sons one day by asking them what their reaction would be if he told them about some phenomenal miracle performed by R Simcha Bunim of Pesische. Hyper-Litvaks, they were not used to hearing their father relate rebbishe maasehs. Before the stunned sons could respond, the Brisker Rov declaimed, “This is how you should handle such a report. First, you would ascertain whether there was such a place as Pesische. Then you would inquire as to whether a Simcha Bunim ever resided there. From there, you could follow the trail and find out whether there was any truth to the story.” This vignette comes close to being the Skeptic’s Credo.

I will not gloat, however. Skepticism has its disadvantages.

It is easy for skepticism to descend into cynicism, which is a common by-product of yeshiva life, but destructive to the cynic and those close to him.

The skeptic becomes so hung up on rationalizing everything, that it is easy to become deaf to the Divine music when others hear it loud and clear. There is much truth to the old saw that a person who believes all the stories about the Baal Shem Tov is a fool, but one who believes none of them is likely a heretic.

The skeptic must struggle between holding on to the G-d given gift of rationality on the one hand, and responding with wonder and gratitude when Providence is displayed on the other.

When the skeptic does resolve the tension between these poles, the result can be impressive. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elevated kvetching to a lofty plane, when he explains why the Jews were so skeptical of whatever Moses accomplished for them. If they had reacted immediately with oohs and ahhs, later generations would have suspected that they were intellectual pushovers, who had been impressed by some charismatic leader. Precisely because they were so impossibly rejectionist, their enthusiastic embrace of Torah could only have come from overwhelming and conclusive evidence.

Many years ago, I was personally impressed by the uncanny prognostications of the Ribnitzer Rebbe, zt”l. I spoke with one of my mentors, who is in a class by himself in regard to skepticism. He surprised me with his response. “What can I say? There are just too many incidents confirmed by too many rational witnesses to dismiss.”

The skeptic sets his acceptance-bar high. When G-d sends one flying over the pole, the impact is all the greater for the skeptic.

I don’t, however, expect anyone to believe me.

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26 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Something about fish stories is fishy.

  2. Mo says:

    I suggest you ask the Hassidic leader of New Square, whose visit to LA you recently were so effusive about here, about the fish story, which allegedly occured in his enclave. I doubt if it was a coincidence that such a thing allegedly happened there, as opposed to somewhere else, like Teaneck, the upper west side, or even Los Angeles.

  3. Yaakov Rosenblatt, Dallas says:

    Man forever seeks the infinite, if not through bringing the miraculous into his gefilta fish, than by trashing those stories as lacking Truth. The cycnic, however, just wants to prove the masses wrong to show his intellectual supremecy.

  4. S. says:

    >I took heat from colleagues in town for being dismissive about the famous dybbuk

    With respect, isn’t there a problem in the house, so to speak, if one takes heat for not believing supernatural claims, without any regard to normal rules of evidence, that are currently making rounds?

  5. HILLEL says:

    I don’t like apostatasy–even of the fishy variety. In this age of cynical atheism, the need of the hour is to stress simple belief and recognition of G-D’s governance in our lives.

  6. joel rich says:

    Welcome to the middle ground where you can take shots from all sides. Perhaps it’s the result of being modern (sorry to say even the charedi community has moderns in it – once you study statistics it becomes much harder to confuse anecdotal stories with proof and causation for correlation and vica versa) but if you reject all wonder stories you’re krum and if you believe all your a fool (I stole this from the Rambam). The big question is which story falls where?

  7. Ken Applebaum says:

    In relation to Rabbi Adlerstein’s post and on the occasion of Lag Ba’omer that will commence tonight, I am more than a bit skeptical about the authenticity of the Zohar. Most academic scholars are of the view (based on anachronisms in the text, style of Aramaic used, etc.) that the Zohar was written by a Spanish rishon named Reb Moshe De Leon, who, with all due respect, passed it off as the work of Reb Shimon bar Yochai. It’s hard for me to understand how almost all the Gedolim (the Vilna Gaon, Reb Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ohr HaChaim, etc.) accepted it as being the work of the school of Reb Shimon without noticing the linguistic problems pointed out by the academics. Can anyone recommend a scholarly book dealing with this issue or any other reference? Many thanks.

  8. YM says:

    The reason why the talking fish happened in New Square is simple. Hashem doesn’t make supernatural miracles anymore; everything has to occur through natural means. In New Square, natural means include talking fish; in Teaneck and the Upper West Side, fish don’t talk.

  9. Observer says:

    See Kadmut Sefer Hazohar

  10. EV says:

    Hey, Mo, up in #2–said Hasidic leader was asked about said fish . . . in my presence . . . and he denied even knowing what we were talking about!

  11. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The “Islamic fish” story neither confirms nor denies the “Jewish fish” story. Similarly there are miracle stories of healings by wonder rebbes and also, l’havdil, by charismatic evangelical preachers in the name of JC and witch doctors in the name of whatever voodoo idol. The logical possibilities abound. Maybe, as R. Yitzchok claims, none are true. Maybe some are true and not others. Or, maybe they are all or mostly to some extent true. The possible rationales for the last possibility include: that the degree of faith of people overcomes their bad theology and makes something really happen; the koach ha-tumah (power of impurity) gives people the possibility to stumble as they are inclined; or that Hashem wants people to return to Him through whatever imperfect vessels they have on hand. It is clear that all the belief systems in the world are looking for redemption now. It will happen. It is just a matter of time. It is a good question when people will stop killing each other over it.

  12. Toby Katz says:

    The reason I never believed the Monsey talking fish story — and don’t believe the Koran fish story either — is that such a thing must be piscine to be believed.

  13. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    Re Ken’s comment regarding the Zohar: it is reasonable to assume that R’ Shimon ben Gamliel’s teachings had been transmitted orally until the time of de Leon, which resulted in linguistic errors and anachronisms.

    Examples of this problem are the Tosefta and the Masechtos Ketanos, which are just minefields of problems. Even Gemara’s like Arachin and Krisus are full of problems, because before Guttengerg and before the Daf Yomi, it was just not worth it to write them for the very few that studied them, and so errors multiplied.

    Even more than the Oral Law, Kabballah has always eschewed written transmission, and for good reason. Look what happened when the booboisie got their hands on it.

  14. Nachum says:

    You forgot to mention the rooster in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, I think) who was about to have his head chopped off when he started screaming “Mohammed!” The BBC had an audio clip (one of the farmers had a cellphone with a sound camera, welcome to 2006), and I wasn’t convinced, but some Islamic authorities are. The rooster is safe, and mishegas isn’t limited to Jews. Or Muslims.

  15. Gershon says:

    The Brisker Rov may have been a skeptic, but only regarding incidents that didn’t involve his family members. R’ Chaim Brisker once told over a list of 50 so called “chassidshe Ma’asim” that happened to the Beis Halevi and the only reason we know about any of them is that the Brisker Rov took notes on two of them.

  16. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    Oy, I wrote “Reb Shimon ben Gamliel,” when I meant Rav Shimon bar Yochai.” And on Lag Bo’omer, no less. We have seen the Booboisie, and they is us.

  17. Erin says:


    I checked the story and the rooster said “allah” not “Mohammed!”

    My rooster also can speak with 2 syllables but to speak with four syllables is completely different thing

  18. Nachum says:

    Right. Well, I’m not too convinced it’s saying “Allah” either.

  19. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Mo wrote –
    “I suggest you ask the Hassidic leader of New Square, whose visit to LA you recently were so effusive about here, about the fish story, which allegedly occured in his enclave. I doubt if it was a coincidence that such a thing allegedly happened there, as opposed to somewhere else, like Teaneck, the upper west side, or even Los Angeles.”

    I also doubt if it is coincidental. There is probably more gullibility in New Square than in more “enlightened” redoubts like Teaneck and the West Side. That could account for the talking fish. (It might be objected that gullibility strikes both kinds of locales equally, with New Square more likely to believe in the paranormal, and the other places more likely to fall for the wiles of certain yitzrei hora usually absent in New Square.)

    But it might also be argued that there is more emunah peshutah – simple faith in G-d – in New Square, which might tend to make the miraculous a more common phenomenon there.

    More importantly, I fail to see what effusive praise for a beautiful tisch on Shabbos has to do with skepticism about a talking fish. Shouldn’t we be able to embrace parts of a community, ideology, etc, without accepting all of it? Conversely, must be reject everything about a group with which we have some differences? The comment strikes me as much more cynical than skeptical.

    Ken Applebaum wrote:
    “Most academic scholars are of the view (based on anachronisms in the text, style of Aramaic used, etc.) that the Zohar was written by a Spanish rishon named Reb Moshe De Leon, who, with all due respect, passed it off as the work of Reb Shimon bar Yochai. ”

    Much ink has been spilled on the matter. I’m sure you can find some good material somewhere. I will only relate my personal conversations on the matter with R Aryeh Kaplan z”l. He told me several times that 1) there is no question that the intellectual content of the Zohar is extremely old, leaving aside for a moment the issue of whether R Shimon bar Yochai actually penned a work that was lost and rediscovered, or is credited for formalizing a discipline whose output was then transmitted orally till medieval times 2) documents he had seen in a university collection (which he believes Gershom Scholem had not seen) provided evidence that the greatest critic of R Moshe de Leon subsequently changed his mind, and accepted the authenticity of the Zohar.

    Yehoshua Friedman wrote:
    “Similarly there are miracle stories of healings by wonder rebbes… Maybe, as R. Yitzchok claims, none are true.”

    G-d forbid that I would claim this! I certainly believe that many are true. There is a tradition, I believe from R Sadyah Gaon, that Hashem works miracles for tzadikim in every generation. I just take a harder look at the claim before I will consider its truth.
    Skepticism is a continuum. Everyone has to set up criteria for “truth” that are somewhat arbitrary, because there is no absolute way of determining truth. The agnostic who claims that he accepts only what is empirically proven shouldn’t delude himself into thinking that he has succeeded in entertaining only absolute truth.

    Don’t get me wrong. Discounting faith, I believe that the scientific method comes closest to eliminating the most variable that could offer alternative understandings of observation. But it doesn’t eliminate them entirely. So much science deals with literally “connecting dots” of observed findings, and trying to find a formula that describes the curve that is generated. We can’t discount the possibility that between the dots, or in the extension of the curve beyond the experimental area, there are bizarre discontinuities. We know that for some physical phenomena there are discontinuities of the curve. We plot the curve and formulate the law based on a confidence that it is far more likely that the function is smooth, rather than discontinuous. That is an act of faith. The religious personality has faith in other realities, like the word of Hashem, or confidence in Chazal, or in the Rishonim. Different people will place their own bar of evidence in different places. The skeptic I am talking about understands that he is being “unscientific,” but is not about to reject his religious faith. He can have that faith, and still set his bar higher than other people within his faith community.

  20. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Providing a large forum for Rabbi Adlerstein’s profound, and elegant, thoughts would alone have justified the creation of Cross-Currents.

  21. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Fortunately, readers of Hamodia, Hamishpacha, the Jerusalem Post and others did not have to wait for the creation of Cross-Currents to read the genuinely sage and articulate output of Jonathan Rosenblum, whom all the rest of us are poorly trying to imitate.

  22. Shlomo Zalman Jessel says:

    I wouldn’t be so quick to label Torah codes unscientific, or too quick to scoff at facilitated communcation. When I was employed as a professional researcher, including at reputable universities and medical schools both in Israel and abroad, I worked on legitimate projects in each of these areas, and it’s not so clear-cut as you would think.

    The problem is that, when claims are by nature sensational, and where there are many people who have a strong hope and bias they will be true, then it is difficult to sort out what’s really going on. A multitude of skeptics also rise up and immediately dismiss the claims, but they too have a bias, because there is a certain sense of smugness (and arrogance) in not being “taken in”. It is rare to find people who have the combination of curiosity, humility and skill to be able to really try to understand what’s going on.

    I will add that Torah-related matters as well, since so often I don’t have the knowledge or expertise to decide between various opinions on a given issue, the mida of humility is the one that I look for the most. I regard it as possibly the most outstanding quality of gedolei Yisrael.

  23. gabby hays says:

    in regard to comment 19 paragraph 6…
    which documents at which library?

  24. Shlomo (New York) says:

    A fishy tale if ever I heard one!

  25. aweinstein says:

    Thank you R’ Adlerstein for a very well put clarification of the place of healthy skepticism in a thinking religious Jew’s life, and of its possible pitfalls. This was a much appreciated post.

  26. Aaron says:

    How about the Ramat Gan parrot? The sentence begs ridicule of the rabbanut, as it already has if one Googles “parrot tongue”

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