Friday, July 25, 2014

The Soldiers Are Really Doing Stuff

There's a disturbing anti-rationalist approach that is spreading in the current war. It is taking hold even amongst people of a more rationalist persuasion, apparently due to their not realizing that it is not necessarily the Torah approach.

I am referring to the question of whether the soldiers and weapons of the IDF are actually doing anything. There is an extreme but pervasive anti-rationalist approach, which I was taught in yeshivah, that physical endeavor is of no real significance. Instead, it is simply a charade that we must go through in order for God to operate. (And to the extent that we recognize God as being the One actually doing things, we can minimize this charade). According to this approach, hishtadlus doesn't actually have anything to do with parnassah (and the fact that people who go to college and to work tend to earn more money than people in kollel is some sort of unexplained quirk of providence.) Following this approach, Iron Dome and the IDF soldiers are not really doing anything; it is just a charade that we have to go through - and which some people lose their lives for.

The late Rabbi Dr. Menachem-Martin Gordon, whose excellent studies of mezuzah and netilas yadayim can be found linked on the side of this website, criticizes this approach in Modern Orthodox Judaism (p. 31). He blames the spread of this approach on Rav Dessler:
Rav Dessler’s book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, whose impact on the yeshiva world in recent years has been enormous, represents a radical departure from the Talmudic position (Hullin 105a, Niddah 70b), as well as the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause-and-effect nexus of human initiative (Mikhtav, I, pp. 177-206). For Rav Dessler, the study of the sciences - even medicine, for that matter - is pointless, since the exclusive determinate of human welfare is the providential hand of God responding to religious virtue. Similarly, serious ļ¬nancial initiative is unnecessary. The diagnostic skill of the physician (Mikhtav, III, p. 172), the financier’s business acumen (Mikhtav, I, p. 188), ostensibly critical factors in the effectiveness of their efforts, are only illusory causes, argues Rav Dessler. Admittedly, he concedes, one must “go through the motions” of practical activity (the notion of hishtadlut, Mikhtav, I, pp. 187-88) - visiting a physician, making a phone call for financial support - but such is necessary only as a “cover” for the direct Divine conduct of human affairs, which men of faith are challenged to discern. Recognizing the immediacy of the Divine hand behind the facade of human initiative is the ultimate test of faith. One should be engaged in practical effort only for the purpose, paradoxically, of discovering its pointlessness! Therefore, asserts Rav Dessler, to the degree that a man has already proved his spiritual mettle, his acknowledgment of Divine control, could the extensiveness of his “cover” be reduced. Or, alternatively, to the degree that a man is not yet sufficiently spiritually perceptive - wherefore pragmatic initiative might “blind” him to Divine control - should he limit such recourse. Accordingly, b'nei yeshiva are implicitly discouraged from any serious financial initiative - or involvement across the board in any area of resourceful effort, be it technological, political, etc. - since the circumstances of life are, in reality, a spontaneous Divine miracle. (Note Rav Dessler’s necessarily strained interpretation of Hullin, ad loc. and Niddah, ad loc., where one is advised by Harzal to survey one’s property with regularity, and to “abound in business.” in the pursuit of wealth! — Mikhtav, I, pp. 200-01).
Rav Dessler’s position cannot draw support from the doctrine of Ramban, although he
assumes such an identification (ibid., III, pp. 170-73). While Ramban defines the ultimate providential relationship of God to Israel as one of ongoing miracle, he essentially never denies the reality of natural law. Israel, Ramban argues, through its fulfillment of mitzvot, is ideally able to transcend nature and engage God in the special faith—miracle association. In actuality, Ramban in fact concedes, such a relationship with the Divine does not generally prevail today, so that one must live, as a rule, in response to natural law. Thus he legitimates medical practice - he himself, after all, was a physician - not as a “cover” for some outright miracle deceptively operative behind the scenes, as Rav Dessler would have it, but as a genuine recourse to an efficacious discipline. (See Ramban, Commentary, Lev. 26:11; Torat ha-Adam, in Kitvei Ramban, II, pp. 42-43.) For Rav Dessler, the “natural agency” of medical treatment (III, p. 172), which, admittedly, those of low—faith level must necessarily pursue, is not an effect of natural law as Ramban recognizes it, but, once again, a deceptive expression at every moment of the spontaneous Divine will (see his own reference [ad loc., p. 173] to his basic definition of “nature” in I, pp. 177-206).
The anti-rationalist position is often thought of as being unequivocally fundamental to Judaism. It seems that it is believed to be the straightforward meaning of Devarim 8:17, which condemns those who say "kochi v'otzem yadi, my strength and the power of my hand made for me these spoils." People presume that this teaches us that human endeavor is not actually of any innate value at all. However, the rationalist approach understands this passuk as criticizing those who attribute their successes solely to their own efforts. The rationalist approach maintains that physical endeavor is of genuine value and significance.

Over at The Jewish Worker, there is a discussion of the possible reasons as to why people adopt the anti-rationalist approach. On another occasion, I will suggest an additional reason as to why people want to minimize the significance of what the IDF is doing; for now, I would merely like to assert very strongly that according to the rationalist tradition in Judaism (and, I would argue, according to Chazal), the young men of the IDF really are fighting the war - and deserve to be credited as such.

May Hashem help them succeed.

(Note to readers in Seattle - This Shabbos, I am speaking at BCMH, and on Sunday morning, I am speaking at SBH.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gaza in Ten Points

Here is a compact list of ten points that tells you everything you need to know about the current conflict. Please share it with those who would benefit from it.

1. Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip in 2005, forcibly removing its citizens, and leaving a multimillion dollar greenhouse agriculture industry for Palestinian economic development. The Gazans destroyed the greenhouses and voted Hamas into power, which promptly murdered its political rivals.

2. Hamas, sworn to the annihilation of Israel, has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, which are aimed at causing the maximum number of civilian deaths.

3. Hundreds of thousands of tons of cement and concrete were sent into Gaza as foreign aid for humanitarian purposes, such as for building homes and bomb shelters. Hamas used this to build terror tunnels for infiltrating into Israel and launching terrorist attacks.

4. Hamas' rockets aimed and fired at Israel's civilian airport have now caused all airlines (except El Al) to cease flying to Israel.

5. What does the world expect Israel to do? Sit back while rockets paralyze the country and shut down the airport, and wait for terrorists to enter through tunnels in order to target and massacre civilians?

6. As any country would do, Israel has attempted to destroy the rocket launchers and terrorists and terror tunnels.

7. In every war, there are civilian casualties. The US, Britain, and other NATO forces have caused tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

8. Israel has gone far beyond the US and UK in its attempts to minimize the number of collateral civilian deaths in this conflict, even to the extent of telling people in advance to evacuate areas that include military targets.

9. It is extremely difficult, however, to minimize civilian deaths, since Hamas deliberately fires rockets from civilian areas, including alongside schools and hospitals, and forces civilians to remain in these areas rather than to listen to Israel's warnings. Hamas is clearly and undeniably trying to maximize the number of civilian casualties amongst Palestinians, while Israel is trying to minimize them.

10. Thousands of Palestinians are dying under appalling cruelty inflicted upon them - in SyriaYet nobody seems to care. This shows that what fuels the global support for Palestinians is not sympathy for Palestinians, but hatred of Jews.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Small But Significant Change In The Charedi World

Amidst all the horrible, horrible news coming from Israel, there is something of particular relevance to this website's discussions that is small, but positive and of potentially great significance. I am referring to the charedi world's reaction to the current crisis.

The first significant phenomenon was when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali hy"d went missing. The charedi world was praying and reciting Tehillim for them, similar to their concern for the three yeshivah students that were imprisoned in Japan, but in marked contrast to their relative indifference to Gilad Shalit. (Some criticized the charedi community for not making prayer rallies and so on for the three teens, but I think it's understandable that they would show slightly less concern for those who are not part of their community, just as the dati-leumi community would have shown less concern had the boys been charedi.)

In the past, I had reasoned that the lack of concern in the charedi community for Gilad Shalit was due to their not feeling him to be part of the community. But the three teenagers were likewise not part of the charedi community. Perhaps the extraordinary horror of children being snatched enabled this to transcend divisions. Another possibility is that the charedi world would have expressed more concern for Shalit, except that his status as an IDF soldier made it harm for them to do so. One is reminded of an earlier war, in which the late Rav Elya Weintraub fiercely opposed a campaign for people to pray for specific soldiers, due to concern that people will ideologically identify with the IDF.

Yet as war broke out with Gaza, the charedi community seems to be displaying a great deal of concern for the IDF. I write "seems" as the precise focus of their concern is not absolutely clear. In previous conflicts, the charedi community has only prayed for the general situation, which threatened everyone, and not specifically for soldiers. (When there was a situation which only posed a risk for soldiers, such as the Battle of Jenin, the charedi community did not express any particular concern.) But in this conflict, the charedi media is reporting the Gedolim as calling on people to pray for the soldiers. It's not clear if this is charedi media spin; I have not seen any statement from charedi Gedolim which actually specifies soldiers, as opposed to the general population at risk. Still, even if it is just the spin of the charedi media, it is significant that the chareidi media wants to present it that way.

How are we to account for this development? I can think of a few possibilities. Perhaps the fact that the Gaza rockets can reach Jerusalem and Bnei Brak helps the charedi community realize how much it owes the soldiers. Perhaps the fact that many charedim are connected to the media via the internet helps them be more connected to the soldiers. Whatever the reason, it is a positive development.

Of course, it is still only a very small step. It is rather pathetic to have to praise a group of religious Jews for showing concern for people that are putting their lives on the line for them, when they refuse to share this burden and denounce those who try to enforce it as being evil. But even here, there is hope for change. If the charedi community is coming to realize the tremendous benefit and sacrifice that the IDF is making for them, they will hopefully also ask themselves why they should be exempt from making this sacrifice. A few months ago, we were hearing ridiculous claims that yeshivah students make a comparable sacrifice; after the events of the last few days, nobody is going to spout such nonsense.

Related to this, there is one small news item that is of exceedingly great significance. Rav Steinman was asked if yeshivah students need to flee from the danger - does not Torah protect? Rav Steinman's answer was that they do indeed need to flee, because perhaps Torah only protects when it is learned with a degree of lishmah (dedication) that we cannot presume to have attained. This, of course, leads to the obvious conclusion that since yeshivah students cannot assume that their Torah protects, there is no justification for their avoiding army service on these grounds. Hopefully, at least some people in the charedi world will realize this.

If you'd like to help the soldiers and people of Israel in the current crisis, then I strongly recommend my amazing local charity, Lemaan Achai. They are providing food, clothing and kids' activities for families from the south. They are also helping soldiers stationed in Bet Shemesh with Shabbat meals and such. Lemaan Achai has also set up an English language hotline, nationwide, in cooperation with Magen and Merkaz Rakefet, for people dealing with all forms of trauma due to the war. You can donate via Paypal at this link or via credit card at this link; just select "Emergency Response Campaign" in the drop-down menu.

May Hashem keep all our soldiers safe and help them be victorious, such that no family should ever have to mourn a loved one being lost in battle.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Evil, Or Just Insane?

A few weeks ago, I made what might have been one of the greatest mistakes of my life; I joined FaceBook. Still, I promised myself that I would just use it for spreading my blog posts, and would not get into FaceBook arguments. I broke that promise yesterday, when I spent many hours in an argument about the morality of Israel's actions in Gaza. What I found especially galling was that the person publicly criticizing Israel's recent operations as being "disproportionate," "immoral," "brutal" and "bullying" was not a Palestinian or a standard British judeopath, but a popular blogger who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, and who often writes excellent material.

Over the last few weeks, I have been mystified at the those criticizing Israel for responding to Hamas. What do they propose that Israel should do instead?

Some actually propose that Israel do nothing. They claim that Israel should simply suffer having rockets fired at it, rather than engage in military action that will likely result in civilian deaths. They are proposing that large portions of Israel should live their lives spending much of their time in bomb shelters, suffer the trauma of constant attack, and risk being killed by rockets that Iron Dome doesn't catch.

Coming from certain non-Jews, such a proposal is little more than a thinly-veiled hope that Israelis will die. But what about when it comes from affiliated Jews who clearly don't want that? It appears to be simply sheer lunacy. Rockets are lethal weapons. As Obama observed, "there is no country on Earth that can be expected to live under a daily barrage of rockets." Religious Jews claiming otherwise are simply lunatics, like flat-earthers.

Faced with that charge, some claim that a military response is appropriate, but not one that results in the loss of civilian life. But there is no such thing as a military response to rockets being launched from civilian areas that does not result in the loss of civilian life. How do you actually destroy the rocket launchers? How do you stop the people who make the rockets and fire them? Go into Gaza and say, "Sir, you are under arrest?!" (Incredibly, one person that I was arguing with proposed exactly that!)

Furthermore, if there was a way to stop the rockets without the loss of civilian life, you can be sure that Israel would do it. Aside from the tragedy of the loss of civilian life, there is nothing more damaging to Israel's interests than the international outcry resulting from the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

Thus, claiming that a military response is appropriate, but not one that results in the loss of civilian life, is effectively saying that no military response is legitimate and that Israel should endure something that no other country on Earth would be expected to endure.

Not only Judaism, but internationally agreed-upon moral norms, state that there is nothing unethical in causing the inevitable death of civilians of an enemy state as part of necessary military action. None other than the BBC has an excellent webpage on the ethics of war, specifically discussing the question of civilian deaths. Aside from mentioning the possibility that even civilians may be considered as combatants, the BBC notes that even definite non-combatants can legitimately be killed when they are not the target of the military operation. Unfortunately, the BBC fails to apply these ethical guidelines to its coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

So, what do we make of it when people adopt a policy to Israel that is completely at odds with normal global norms of morality? When it comes from some people, we can dismiss it as antisemitism, but what about when it comes from people who are not antisemitic, such as comedian Jon Stewart, or religious Jews? I think that it is not evil, just sheer stupidity stemming from misguided morality. But even though it does not come from an evil root, its effects and results - demanding that Israel suffer rockets - are evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Other Side Of The Coin

Today I was corresponding with several people at one of the places that I am lecturing at next month, discussing which topic to speak about. Amongst the titles that I proposed was "Shall Your Brothers Go Out To War, While You Remain Here?" One person responded that it would be redundant for me to speak on that topic, since I would be preaching to the choir; the members of that shul would unanimously agree that the charedim should share the burden of military service.

I found this amusing. As I told him, "What makes you so sure that I am talking about charedim? Maybe I am talking about Jews in the Diaspora?" After all, that would be an even more accurate parallel to Moshe's statement to the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, who wanted the material benefits of the Diaspora!

In fact, while my posts on this topic have concentrated on the application of this principle to charedim, my talk on this topic this weekend in Beverly Hills will focus on the question of its application to Diaspora Jews, and indeed to all Jews: Do we all have an obligation to join the IDF in its milchemes mitzvah?

(Incidentally, due to a cancellation, I have an available Shabbos as scholar-in-residence for August 15th/16th in the US. Please write to me at if you are interested. Preference is for the western side of the US, since I will be in LA on the night of the 14th.)

Meanwhile, on the battle front, Charles Krauthammer has a great op-ed, called Moral Clarity in Gaza. Please spread it (and similar articles) and thereby help the war effort, which is to a large degree fought in the battle of public opinion. And here is a link to a PDF of the prayer for the IDF.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Shall Your Brothers Come Into War, While You Remain Here?"

Earlier this week I wrote a post that used satire to criticize the charedi approach of claiming that yeshivah students provide protection while simultaneously pulling them out of areas that require protection. A number of people criticized that post, arguing that now is a time for unity, not criticism, and certainly not satire.

Now, I do agree that in a time of national emergency, unity is required. Allow me, then, to explain why I consider my post to have been appropriate.

As we know, the Bnei Yisrael were terrified of waging war to take possession of the Land of Israel. In this week's parashah, we are told about how the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven asked that they be allowed to remain on the east of the Jordan, and not to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe Rabbeinu gives his famous reply (32:6): "Shall your brothers come into war, while you remain here?"

Would one ask why Moshe is sowing divisiveness at a time when unity is required? Of course not! First of all, his criticism was directly relevant to the matter at hand. Second, it was precisely the lack of unity that he was criticizing!

It was only a few months ago that hundreds of thousands of charedi (and a handful of misguided non-charedi) Jews rallied in Jerusalem and New York against the army draft being minimally applied to charedim with the same enforcement that is applied to non-charedim. They recited the prayer for Hashem to "pour out His wrath upon the nations" with regard to the Government of Israel. They expressed hakaras hatov to the NYPD but not to the IDF (a pattern that continues this week with the Agudah expressing its hakaras hatov to Obama for funding the military but not to the soldiers who are actually in the military).

Many of us still haven't gotten over that. And right now, it is the IDF that is protecting the citizens of Eretz Yisrael from the thousands of rockets that Hamas is launching. Right now, there are tens of thousands of reservists being drafted to join the regular IDF forces in a possible land invasion of Gaza. Why is the charedi community not part of this? Why is it the non-charedi community that has to put themselves out, potentially putting their lives on the line? "Shall your brothers come into war, and you remain here?"

Making things worse is that not only are they not serving in the army, not only do they not express hakaras hatov and concern for those who do serve in the army, not only do they curse those who try to make them join, but they are even weakening morale by evicting yeshivos from areas of the country that are in greater danger. And to add insult to injury, they claim that they are the ones providing the true protection!

So, yes, I think that at this time, criticism is extremely appropriate. And it is not "inappropriately harming national unity" to criticize those who are harming national unity. (As for the satirical tool of referring to the "black dome", the idea was to take them at their word that they believe themselves to be providing essential protection, which serves to highlight the problem in their approach.) Davka now, when everyone can see the importance of the IDF and the sacrifices that are made by its soldiers, and when everyone can see the folly and hypocrisy of the claim that yeshivah students are providing protection via Torah study, we have an opportunity to impress Moshe Rabbeinu's message upon the charedi community.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Letter to CNN


Your latest headline, "Cease-fire attempt ends as Israeli airstrikes resume", is gravely misleading at best and utterly false at worst. As your article admits, Hamas never accepted the ceasefire and continued to fire rockets at Israel. After enduring several hours of rocket fire, Israel returned to striking Hamas. The blame for the lack of an enduring ceasefire is thus certainly with Hamas. Why does your headline instead mention Israel?

Natan Slifkin

UPDATE: They now changed it to "Cease fire fails; Israel responds to attacks". Better, though not perfect.

UPDATE #2: They changed it again, this time to "Cease-fire effort collapses as rockets, airstrikes continue". This is a step backwards again, implying that the blame is to be equally shared.