Monday, October 3, 2022

Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously degenerated from the mailing list. In addition, the Blogger platform that I've used for the past ten years is seriously outdated. Rationalist Judaism needs a new platform, with all the old posts imported (and preferably the comments too), and a better email delivery system. But I don't have the expertise, time or money for this - it's all I can do to eke out time from my other work to write the posts. To that end, I am looking for the following two things:

1) Someone with the technological knowledge to arrange a new platform and port the existing blog to it;

2) Someone to fund the above!

If you're able to help with either of these, please write to me at

Wishing you a Gmar Chatima Tova!

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Unhealthy Obsession or Valuable Critique?

The comments section on the previous post turned in an unexpected direction, with several people arguing that I have a mental health problem! Specifically, they claimed that I am obsessed with criticizing charedi society to a degree which shows that I need psychological help. They said that my "intense emotional damage" means that I am disqualified from being able to discuss charedi society honestly and that such discussion is pointless. They speculated that the cause is the trauma of the ban on my books, or even a practical joke that was played on me in yeshiva. 

All these people also just so happen to be charedim who disagree with my critiques of charedi society, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Anyway, in response, I decided to share something written by someone writing under the moniker of "Troy."

Unhealthy Obsession or Valuable Critique?

by Troy

They say that Natan S. is obsessed with criticizing the problems of a society for which he harbors a pathological hatred. They say that he is so scarred by the trauma that he suffered in that society that his views are not to be taken seriously. They say that he should be getting therapy rather than platforming his critiques.

It's undeniable that Natan is very preoccupied with this topic (but note that it is not his day job!). And it's entirely reasonable to presume that this has a lot to do with the trauma that he suffered. After all, his troubles occurred during his formative years. It was almost immediately after his marriage to Avital that he was literally removed from society for expressing his views. He was denounced and condemned for saying things which, as far as he was concerned, were simply a normative part of being a Jew. Enormous pressure was placed upon him to renounce his position, which would enable him to return to society, and he stubbornly refused to do so - for which he paid a high price.

Still, it's not as though his views can be attributed solely to his personal experiences. After all, he's hardly the only one with criticisms of that society. It's all very well for Americans to turn a blind eye, but anyone who lives in such a society is going to see its problems, and the effect on their own lives and the country as a whole, very, very clearly.

Furthermore, to the extent that Natan's personal trauma created a motivation, that's a good thing. It's always much easier for people to keep their head down and not say anything. If trauma results in someone finding the motivation to speak up, then it has served a valuable purpose. In addition, he suffered as he did precisely because he was part of that society - and it's his insider perspective which makes his critiques so powerful. 

It's important for people to know about how a society which is based on fear suppresses the truth. It's important for people to learn about how slavish devotion to revered leaders can have catastrophic consequences. It's important for people to understand how you get to a situation whereby tens of thousands of able-bodied young men are avoiding the army draft. It's important for people to understand how that society results in a few individuals getting rich while the society as a whole causes great poverty and even national economic catastrophe.

Natan's writings are an important service to society, for which we should be grateful. We should be wishing him and Avital many years of happiness together in their Jerusalem home, with much nachas from their daughters and grandchildren. Russia's loss is Israel's gain, and Natan's insights, evaluations and critiques of the Soviet regime are invaluable.

(What, you thought he was writing about me?! Lehavdil!)

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Thursday, September 29, 2022

More Tzedaka Shenanigans

Kupat Ha'ir, the charity with the unfortunate tagline of "100% Pure Tzedaka," sent out an interesting campaign before Rosh HaShanah:


In previous years, year after year, Maran Sar HaTorah HGR' Chaim Kanievsky zt"l, took the responsibility upon himself to say that whoever would give $355, the gematria of "shanah
," or "year," - "Certainly they will remove from him any unfavorable decrees and he will come out meritorious in judgment."

Of course, Rav Chaim is no longer alive, but we are told that Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Rav Shimon Gala'i, and Rav Shraga Steineman sat as a Beis Din and decided that it's still true: 

"Tzaddikim are greater after their deaths than they were during their lifetimes, and the merit of Maran ztvk"l from Above will certainly influence that … his decree to be found innocent in judgment will be fulfilled in Kupat Ha'ir donors, also in the year 5783."

I have to say that I found this rather striking. It was always my understanding that traditional Judaism relates a person's fate to their merits and sins. Certainly, this fate can be changed, but that requires an actual change in the person - i.e. teshuva. Now, apparently, no teshuva is required - it just takes $355 to be assured of a meritorious judgment. I know many people who would pay $355 to avoid having to go to shul and davven with sincere kavanah!

Rav Chaim's promise seems to be written in his actual handwriting. Still, I think that there is room to judge him favorably and presume that such a rash promise reflects the fact that, as his sons noted, for the last ten years of his life he was not at the height of his mental acumen. 

But, looking at his handwritten letter, there's something else odd going on. Rav Chaim wrote about giving 355 shekels, not 355 dollars! 

Kuppat Ha'Ir adds a parenthetical explanation that the segulah only works with 355 of the currency of the country that you're living in. But what on earth is the justification for that? And they should still mention that one can give either 355 dollars or 355 shekels, depending on where you live - after all, the website is read by many people in Israel. And does this mean that if you're in Mexico, you can give 355 pesos - about 17 dollars - and get salvation? And if you give an extra 355 of your currency, can you get salvation for someone else? I have a fifty billion Zimbabwe dollar note - what kind of salvation can I get for Klal Yisrael with that?!

Not to be outdone with the magic Rav Chaim segulos, the outreach organization Hidabroot offers some very special for their elite $1800 donors. It's not just a silver segulah knife - it's a silver segulah knife that has been blessed by Rav Chaim. A rabbinic colleague asked me about this. Blessing objects is a prevalent phenomenon in Christianity, but is there any source in Judaism for such a thing?  

I discovered that this question has already been asked. In Birkat HaMazon, we ask that Hashem blesses the table from which we ate. Someone accordingly asked Rav Benzion Mutzafi how one can bless an object. Rav Mutzafi responded that indeed one cannot bless an object. (If your table breaks and you get a new one, you haven't lost the blessing!) It's not the actual table that is being blessed; the prayer uses the word "table" to represent a person's conduit of sustenance from God. 

But this explanation means that the blessing is not connected to an object. And so surely blessing a knife has no basis in Jewish tradition and is a Christian custom? I suggested to my colleague that he poses this question on Hidabroot's "Ask the Rabbi" page.

Meanwhile, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we don't offer our $1800 donors something that has been blessed by others; instead, we give them something that they can make a beracha on. It's been very well received - although there was one person who asked how much money he has to give us in order for us not to send him a jar of locusts....

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Relevance of an Assassination

The assassination of Gedalyah is difficult for many people to relate to as a historic tragedy. As the old joke goes, he would have been dead by now anyway - and if I died, would he fast? And can you take seriously someone whose grandfather was called Hyrax?

Of course, the fact is that it was a tragedy of historic dimensions. It marked the final nail in the coffin of the original Jewish state. But it's not just a historic tragedy in terms of what resulted - it's also extremely relevant in terms of why it happened.

Gedalyah was installed by the Babylonians as governor of the remaining Jews. His assassins apparently saw him as a traitor who was cooperating with the enemy instead of rebelling and ensuring victory. Of course, they were badly mistaken. There was no chance of getting rid of the Babylonians. It was better to cooperate and at least preserve some degree of Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel. Instead, as a result of the assassination, the Babylonians took the remaining Jews captive back to Babylon.

It's all too easy to understand the mindset of his assassins. It's a combination of factors. First, there is the naive, fundamentalist worldview, in which everything is black and white. The Babylonians are Bad! We have a Right to the land! Never mind the actual political reality in which having full control of all the land is just not feasible. 

Then there is the demonization and delegitimization of other Jews. Gedalyah is a Leftist! A traitor! We have to do whatever we can to get him out of power! The ends justifies the means! Once you start talking like that, it's only a matter of time before someone takes the next step.

Speaking of which...

At the UN last week, two speeches of relevance were delivered. But only one was significant, and it's not what people think.

Abbas' speech was predictable. He continued to gripe against Israel's crimes (some of which may have a partially factual basis, but most of which are simply Israel trying to maintain security for its people). Of course, never once did Abbas acknowledge the Palestinian terror which requires Israel to take countermeasures. But more significantly, he never even acknowledged the Jewish People's historic claim to the land. He described the occupation as one that began in 1948, he described Jerusalem as holy to Muslims and Christians, but never once did he, or has he, acknowledged our historic connection to the land. That is just one of the reasons why peace is impossible. As long as the Palestinians deny the factual reality of our historic connection to the land, they will never accept us living in any part of it.

Lapid's speech, on the other hand, was not significant at all. He did what he had to do. Including saying that “an agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children.” 

There are people who are condemning him as a dangerous traitor for saying this. They seem to forget that just a few years ago, Bibi Netanyahu said the same thing. He stated that "if we get a guarantee of demilitarization, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state.” In a speech to Congress, he added that "I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historical peace. I recognize that in a genuine peace we will be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland.” Are these people also branding Bibi a "traitor"? Bibi said what he had to say, and Lapid said what he had to say.

Lapid's critics also forget that he made it clear that enabling a Palestinian state would be conditional on it not posing any threat to Israel's security - and thus it remains a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. This isn't 1995. There's no real Israel Left left. After Gaza, everyone knows what Palestinian independence in Judea and Samaria would mean. There's no significant difference whatsoever between Bibi and Lapid on this.

Yet at the same time, talk about transferring all the Palestinians somewhere else, or annexing everything and depriving Palestinians of voting rights, is likewise a pipe dream. Those who claim otherwise are as unrealistic (and potentially as dangerous) as Gedalyah's assassins. 

And so, we are stuck in this mess for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, it doesn't affect our quality of life too much. It affects many Palestinians very badly (and there are certainly ways in which Israel should be minimizing this). But at the end of the day, I'd rather that we have a good life and they suffer, rather than us both suffering (which would be the inevitable consequence of a Palestinian state). History has its winners and losers, and those whose ancestors make bad choices suffer for them. Just as we suffered for two thousand years. 

Meanwhile, we have to be realistic. Realistic about what the Palestinians will and will not do. Realistic about what Israel can and cannot do. Realistic about what prime ministers have to say and about what they actually mean to do. And not fall into the trap of delegitimizing our opponents as "traitors."

Tzom Gedalyah teaches us the consequences of acting in such a way.

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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aware of what actually differentiates a good charity from a bad one.

Last year, an explosive piece of investigative journalism in The Marker revealed that in the high-profile campaigns about how so-and-so has kidney disease and suchlike, only about 10% of the donations actually go to the recipient - in one case, only 2%! The overwhelming bulk of it is divided between the activists behind the campaign, including journalists, broadcasters and procurers of rabbinic support. (Thank goodness there are newspapers and magazines that do proper investigative journalism - something that does not exist in the frum world.)

Of course, everyone would agree that this is scandalous. This is why organizations such as the Vaad HaRabbonim promote their charity by claiming that 100% of the proceeds go to the poor, with gifts such as magic challah knives having been separately donated. (Of course this is somewhat disingenuous, since doubtless the person who spent a fortune on magic challah knives would have given this money to the charity's general funds had there been no need for magic challah knives.) 

But the problem here is that giving all the money to the poor is also very far from the ideal, and this is a harmful message to send. In part, this is because every successful charity needs funds for professional administration and fundraising. But it also relates to how modern society is different from traditional Jewish society.

For thousands of years, Jews followed the values expressed by the Torah and Chazal. Doing one's part for the nation was critical, and there was no way to get an exemption. Being self-supportive, and raising one's children to be self-supportive, was generally seen as the ideal. Living simply was praiseworthy, but living off charity was shameful. The concept of the food that a poor person receives being called nehama d'kisufa, "bread of shame," was so obvious that it became a metaphor for other things. And learning Torah was not seen as a valid reason to idealize or even justify such a way of life (though teaching Torah was, by most authorities, considered acceptable).

Nowadays, it's entirely different. The rise of the welfare state has made it possible for many people to live in a state whereby they are poor by modern standards but do not starve to death. The opposition in some circles to Zionism has created an isolationist mindset which causes some people to not care at all about the impact of growing poverty on the national economy. And the innovations of mystical-charedi theology have entirely negated Chazal's value system, leading hundreds of thousands to believe that if you are in kollel then living off charity is not only not something shameful, but actually a privilege to which they are entitled, and to which they should raise their children.

With such a situation, when you have funds to distribute to the poor, and you just hand out all the money to the sort of people described above, this only alleviates the problem of their poverty in the very short-term. In the long run, it does not help at all, and may even make things worse. When these people are encouraged to believe that their lifestyle is both noble and manageable, they have little incentive to change anything for the next generation. And so in the next generation, the problem is many times bigger. If you're wealthy person supporting ten families in kollel, each of whom has four boys that they are raising towards a kollel lifestyle, are you so sure that your own children will have the desire and ability to support forty such families?

The Jerusalem Post, in a recent article relating to this topic, quoted Prof. Yuval Elbashan, who founded and directed the legal department of YEDID – The Association for Community Empowerment. In reference to charities that give hand-outs, he stated that “The aid of the charities is problematic because it is actually about giving paracetamol, something that reduces the distress a little but really does not treat the root of the problem."

As Rambam writes, the highest level of charity is to ensure that the person does not need to live off charity in the future. In previous times, that could generally be accomplished with monetary gifts or loans, since the recipient was motivated to try to get himself out of poverty. But today, when there is an entire society which presents the lack of self-sufficiency as an ideal, and most jobs require some sort of education or training, charity needs to be done smarter. Instead of just giving all the money to the poor, it is important to invest in professional assessments and training programs to enable the poor to become self-sufficient - and to spread a message that this is what poor people should themselves be aiming for. Supporting poor families to preserve their kollel lifestyle, or helping a young couple get married when the husband has no intention of working to support his wife, is not acceptable. Charity dollars need to be prioritized for helping either those who are unable to help their own situation or those who are trying to do so.

Many community charities promote themselves by talking about how many families they help - because this is what is effective in fundraising. But we should all be making it clear that this is not the sole or ideal metric by which a charity's value should be measured. What counts even more than how many families they help is what proportion of the families that they have helped in the past no longer need to be helped, because of the work that the charity has done.

That is the standard set by the community charity in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Lemaan Achai, whose motto is "Smart Chessed." It should serve a model for community charities everywhere.


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Monday, September 19, 2022

You Won't Believe what The Gedolim said about Tzedakah Organizations

Approaching Rosh HaShanah, we are all solicited by many organizations. Some are extremely worthy, others are less worthy. Some support those who are poor through no fault of their own, others support those who are poor because they are ideologically opposed to work. Some offer a feeling of satisfaction for having done a good deed, others manipulate people into giving with (false) promises of good things that will happen to those who donate.

But what about the actual finances of an organization? How is one to know which organizations are using their monies ethically?

I was dumbfounded to read an email solicitation from the Vaad HaRabbanim of Lakewood/ Bnei Brak, with endorsements from Rav Gershon Edelstein and numerous other top names in the charedi Litvish and Chassidishe world, which bore the following title:

"Gedolim Say This Is One Of The Only Tzedaka Organizations You Can Trust"

Now, I have no idea if the rabbanim who lent their signatures really said that which is attributed to them. But the mere fact that a major organization would make a declaration in the name of the Gedolim that most tzedakah organizations cannot be trusted is shocking. Are they just out to trash other organizations? Or is this really how things are in the world of charitable organizations with which they are familiar? 

Perhaps it is indeed how things are in their circles. As you may recall, I discovered last year that some money which was removed from my bank account by a charity without my consent apparently went towards helping Yanky Kanievsky buy his luxury home. Ironically, this sort of thing happens precisely because these charities use the names of Gedolim to solicit funds.

Reading through the names of the Gedolim who allegedly made this claim and endorse this appeal, I was surprised to see the name of Rav Chaim Kanievsky's son, Rav Yitzchak Shaul Kanievsky. This is the same person who was taken to Beis Din by his own brothers for manipulating their father into secretly signing over his entire estate, worth many millions of dollars, to him alone. This is a person who is called upon to attest to the integrity of the Vaad HaRabbanim? And let's not forget that his brothers confirmed (as is obvious) that Gedolim's endorsements don't actually count for anything!

The endorsement also claims that because all donations go fully and directly to the needy, this is the best form of tzedakah. But the experts in charity that I know strongly dispute that assertion. Overhead is not wasted money - not only do you need good (i.e. paid) people to raise money effectively, but you also need to use donations effectively. You don't help people leave poverty by just giving them money. You need to assess their situation (my wife used to work as a social worker in that capacity), figure out why they are poor, and give them the tools to be able to get themselves out of that situation. Assuming, that is, that you believe that poverty is not a preferred way of life.

Meanwhile, the Vaad HaRabbanim also declares that "all those who generously donate $520 towards this campaign will receive a pure silver Challah knife just in time for Rosh Hashona, a well-known segulah for parnossah for the upcoming year, with the Bracha of Maran Harav Chaim Kanievsky ztz”l engraved upon it– A physical symbol of the timeless agreement between you and the late Gadol Hador z’’l." Now, without getting into the argument of whether a silver segulah knife really does have an effect on parnasah, I would like to point out that I don't believe that the people working at Vaad HaRabbanim themselves really think that it does - because you can bet your bottom dollar that they are giving poor people food and/or money, not silver segulah knives! So since they themselves don't believe that silver segulah knives have any meaningful effect, why are they using them to manipulate people into giving them money? Of course, I have no doubt that it's a highly effective fundraising tool, but I personally dislike supporting fundraising that reinforces superstition.

I prefer to donate to my local charity of Lemaan Achai. Primarily, this is because it is a charity that actually works to get people out of poverty, rather than perpetuating the exponentially-growing problem of charedi poverty by giving handouts. But in addition, I trust it, because it doesn't manipulate people with false or superstitious shtick, and it's professionally operated and overseen by people that I know personally. You can donate online at

(Alternately/ in addition, if you'd like to support the Biblical Museum of Natural History, which inspires and educates tens of thousands of people annually about Torah and nature, you can do so at

Tizku lemitzvot!


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Friday, September 16, 2022

Can You Remain Silent About Spiritual Cancer?

Beit Shemesh was on fire yesterdary. In all meanings of the term.

There's a lot of people in this wonderful city who love running - men, women, secular, charedi, dati-leumi. The city organizes an annual race/ marathon which many people join. But some charedi women felt uncomfortable running in such a mixed event, and so, after consulting their rabbonim, they asked the city to make a separate, women-only event. Mayor Aliza Bloch and Deputy Mayor Rena Hollander (pictured here) were glad to comply, and so a religious women-only race was arranged to take place today, on a remote road with no adjoining houses that would be closed to traffic.

Although this was an event requested by charedi women to accommodate their sensitivities, the zealots of the city responded angrily. A pashkevil (flyer) was circulated, condemning the event as pritzus and offensive to charedim. And Rav Elimelech Kornfeld, rabbi of a large Anglo-charedi community (the Gra shul) here in Ramat Beit Shemesh, sent out the following email to the Ramat Beit Shemesh email list:

"Dear friends,

"We have made Israel our home, because we are proud of our Jewish values. Many of us have given up a lot of what we had in Chutz Laaretz so that we can live in an environment that is conducive to these values.

"While the above is vivid and true, we are still faced with numerous spiritual "made in Israel" challenges. Some of them are more blatant, others are subtle. Subtle issues are actually the ones we need to be more aware of their danger. They have a tendency to sneak without notice, plant their hidden roots and then develop from a small malignant cell, into a significant, life-threatening growth.

"Sometimes, allowing a "small" decline in the level of the majestic and refined manner of conduct in terms of the values of modesty and privacy of our women may seem to be minor, but this is truly comparable to the "subtle" changes of the founders of the Reform movement 200 years ago. If it wouldn't be for great people like the Vilna Gaon and the Noda B'yehuda, who recognized the dangerous nature of these changes there would be little left of our glorified Yiddishkeit.

"To this end, we cannot remain silent when our city "boasts" a public women's merutz (marathon) that is aimed also for religious women. Unfortunately, this kind of event is not fitting for our women of valor, running openly in public is in sharp contrast to standards of proper conduct of a royal Bas Yisroel.

"While it is certainly important to take care of one's physical needs, to make a public exposition of it is completely inappropriate. We are just a few days away from Rosh Hashana and are all looking forward to a new year that is full of Hashem's great Chesed Vrachamim. May our Chizzuk in our appreciation of our status as Hashem's beloved nation, bring us a year of good health, bracha and nachas from all our children.


"Elimelech Kornfeld and Rabbanai Hakehillos RBS"

Now, I'm also against running marathons, though only for myself. Are women's marathons immodest? Some furiously dismiss this view as being objectively ridiculous. But in my view, they are mistaken. There is no such thing as an objective definition of modesty. Everything is culturally conditioned. Just look at how standards of modesty in the non-Jewish world have changed over the last century! And in the Jewish world, it's no different. There are communities in which wearing a sheitel is considered modest, and there are communities where wearing a sheitel is considered immodest. We have no right to claim that our own standards of modesty are any more correct than anyone else's.

I would also say, contrary to the opinion expressed by many, that Rav Kornfeld is perfectly entitled - even obligated - to tell the women of his community what he expects them to do. They have accepted him as a particular type of rabbinic leader, and this is part of the package. This is no different from the opinion that he publicly expressed a few years ago, that people are not free to choose who to vote for, but must instead vote for whoever "Daas Torah" tells them to vote for. If you accept him as your authority, then this is what you have to do. (And if this sounds odd, wait until you hear his views about how voting must be done even though it doesn't inherently have any effect whatsoever).

But all this cuts both ways.

It's rather odd to make blanket statements about such things being immodest when there are plenty of religious and even charedi rabbonim who are perfectly fine with it. 

Furthermore, to describe the women's race with the metaphor of a "cancerous growth" goes beyond rhetorical flourish to being deeply offensive. 

And to say that it is "truly comparable" to the start of Reform is absurd.

In addition, while writing a letter to one's own community is one thing, the phraseology of this letter was making a statement both to and about the community at large - and the shul sent it to the general Ramat Beit Shemesh email list.

But perhaps the most bothersome part of Rav Kornfeld's letter is his statement about how he "cannot remain silent" in the face of such an event.

There are a number of things that Rav Kornfeld has been unable to be silent about, aside from women running. He signed a public letter against Mishpacha magazine being distributed. He opposed restaurants having seating areas. He fought against an attempt to have a charedi political party that would represent charedim who work.

But do you know what he has been able to be silent about? Religious extremism.

As is well known, Beit Shemesh has long been a focal points of religious extremism that has reached actual physical violence. Now, Rav Kornfeld himself is against such things (I have known him and his family for many years). and none of the Anglos in his community would ever be involved in it. However, he has never spoken out against it. Community activists who tried to get him to sign condemnations against religious violence have never been successful. Why is it that Rav Kornfeld is only unable to keep silent about the city not being as charedi as he would like, but he is able to keep silent about violence?

Meanwhile, religious zealots tried to sabotage the women's race. They scattered thousands of marbles on the road, to create a safety hazard. They shone laser pointers in the eyes of runners. They set fire to nearby fields.

Now, the zealots who did this are not followers of Rav Kornfeld, and nor would they care what he has to say. But, as I wrote in a post titled "Denying Extremism, Dismissing Hooliganism," there is a continuous spectrum ranging from rhetoric to verbal abuse to actual physical violence. Furthermore, while the people at each level do not agree with the level of hostility coming from people to their right, there is near-constant refusal to condemn it. And when people who are horrified by the violence nonetheless produce inflamed rhetoric about those who deviate from their religious ideals, this creates an atmosphere that allows the violence and contributes to it.

I wonder if Rav Kornfeld will be able to remain silent in the face of such zealous violence - a slippery slope which, unlike women running, actually historically led to the destruction of Jerusalem. Or is violence, unlike women running, not a cancerous growth?

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Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously de...