Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Invisible Women

The phenomenon of Charedi and Yeshivish magazines refusing to print pictures of women is well known. Still, perhaps people do not realize the extent of this absurdity. I've been collecting examples of this over the years, which I am sharing in this post. Before doing so, I would like to point out two things.

First of all, while for men this may be amusing or frustrating, for women it can be a source of immense pain, as well as other harmful effects. Do not make the mistake of underestimating how much harm this phenomenon causes. Devaluing a person's existence is one of the most painful things to do to a person. I've had a taste of what it feels like to be erased, and it's something that I wouldn't wish on anyone (well, maybe on some people).

Second, for a number of reasons, it's important to understand both why this phenomenon exists, and what precisely is wrong with it. I will be addressing this in a future post.

And now, for the photos:

1. At Least You Can See Her Chair?


2. These Women All Look Strangely Similar


3. Even Playmobil Females Must Disappear!


4. Someone Missed Their Own Wedding 
5. The Horror Movie


6. Who Can Find A Valorous Woman? Nobody, Apparently.


7. My Two Dads



8. The Midwives' Accessories



9. Happy Homosexual Family


10. Goodbye Shoes


11. Where's Hillary?


12. Those Sure Are Strange-Looking Women


13. Don't Mothers Give Advice To Their Daughters?


14. It's All A Blur



As I mentioned, I will soon be publishing posts on both what exactly is wrong with this phenomenon, and also why this phenomenon exists. You can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.

(Meanwhile, there are plenty of resources on this topic available at https://www.frumwomenhavefaces.com.)

Friday, July 3, 2020

This Time It's Not The Charedim

During the initial rise of coronavirus in Israel, I wrote a number of posts critical of the charedi leadership for opposing health precautions, and their problematic theological claim that mass learning in yeshivos protects from contagion. While the charedi leadership was late to catch up to the reality of the situation, with tragic consequences in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, they did eventually catch up. Now, the problem is everyone else.

Recently my wife and I were looking at Tel Aviv's magnificent Great Synagogue. Across the street was a cafe, which was so unbelievably crowded that we would have stopped to look in astonishment even if there wasn't a pandemic. Dozens upon dozens of people crowded around all the outside tables, and of course nobody was wearing a mask. It seemed to us that in the streets of Tel Aviv, there were far less people wearing masks than in the streets of Ramat Beit Shemesh.

My sister had an even more disturbing experience. She had to go a hospital for a medical appointment, and some of the hospital staff weren't wearing masks!

With the shockingly sharp rise of new cases in Israel - from less than ten new cases daily a few weeks ago, to over a thousand today - Bibi is starting to roll out new restrictions, and is talking about more to come. These will have harsh consequences of the livelihoods of many people. And it's because the existing restrictions are not being adhered to - or enforced. Yes, the police have started to give 500 NIS fines to people not wearing masks, but the enforcement of this is absurdly uneven - they fined a rebbe with a group of kids in a park in Ramat Beit Shemesh, while masses throng in Tel Aviv without any fear of fines.

Not that the blame lies solely with secular residents of Tel Aviv. I was horrified to read an article from a Rabbi Michoel Green of Chabad Jewish Center of Westborough condemning rabbis who rebuke people for not wearing masks. He declared that the Torah doesn't say that you have to wear a mask, but it does say that you mustn't shame people. How can anyone utter such nonsense? The Torah also doesn't say that you shouldn't drive under the influence of alchohol, but does that mean that one should berate those who rebuke drunk-drivers rather than berating those who drink and drive?! This rabbi has his Torah exactly backwards; the Torah is all about social responsibility, and wearing masks (and correcting those who don't) is very much part of that.

It's incumbent on all of us to behave responsibly. If you're not worried about your personal health, or even about the health of others who are more vulnerable, then think about the economic consequences of further lockdown - nearly a quarter of the population is unemployed!

And we wear masks not just for our personal safety, or even for the safety of others, but also to demonstrate publicly that we believe in being careful. It's simply madness that people are failing to do such an easy thing, regardless of the terrible consequences that they are causing.

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

When Classical Judaism Bothers Rabbis

You can't do mitzvos and transfer their credit to other people, whether they are alive or dead. I've written about this before, both in blog posts and in my detailed monograph "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" You can't pay someone to honor their parents and transfer the reward to you. You can't separate challah and transfer the reward to someone who is sick (though it may help you be especially inspired in your prayers for them). And you can't learn Torah and transfer the reward to someone who has passed away (except when it's your parents and perhaps other people of significant influence upon you, where everything that you do is automatically a credit to them.)

My favorite story regarding this is one that I heard from a friend who was in a shiur with Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky shlita. One student asked if the shiur could be given l'iluy nishmas his grandmother. Rav Tzvi was apologetic, but explained that this was impossible: "How does my giving a shiur create a credit for your grandmother? It might be a credit for my grandmother, but how can it be a credit for yours?"

There are several grounds on which it can be stated that you can't transfer the credit for mitzvos to other people:

1) Reason. The reward for mitzvos - at least, according to the dominant classical tradition - is the relationship that is created with the Divine. It's not some spiritual gold that can be transferred to a different bank account.

2) Explicit Sources. The sources in the Geonim, Rishonim and early Acharonim to discuss this - and there are several - all state that such a thing is impossible, precisely for the reason given above. To give but one example, Maharam Alashkar cites Rav Hai Gaon who firmly rejects the notion that one can transfer the reward of a mitzvah to another person and explains why this is impossible: "These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, 'The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,' (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, 'And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.' Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvot is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person? (Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101). The only sources that allow for such a thing - such as those cited in an unfortunately uncritical article on OU Torah - are within the last 150 years, and they are baseless innovations.

3) Implicit Tradition. If transferring the reward for mitzvos were to be possible, there are many stories and directives in the Torah and Gemara which would read very differently. When people needed a certain thing from God - either for themselves, or for others - they prayed for it. They didn't do mitzvos or learn Torah and have the reward credited to someone else. Likewise, Chazal taught us how to try to get what we want from God, and even how to help the souls of the dead, and nowhere do they mention the notion of outsourcing mitzvos to others; in fact, in one case of someone trying to help the deceased, they explicitly state that it can't be done.

(And to preempt the inevitable question - no, Yissacher and Zevulun do not demonstrate otherwise. Aside from the fact that the tribe of Yissacher were also working - Zevulun were merely marketing their produce - the idea is that Zevulun received the reward for helping people learn, not for actually learning.) 

Recently I came across some discussion of this topic from Rav Asher Weiss, shlita. Rav Weiss is a wonderful person, a leader with integrity, and an important talmid chacham. But in the past I have pointed out that, for all his breadth, he is nevertheless a product of the charedi/ non-rationalist worldview. In the previous instance, it was when he declared that Torah protects from missiles (though only after he ascertained that he was in a fortified room). The topic of transferring mitzvah rewards to other people is another example.

In his discussion of this topic, both in a shiur transcribed online and in Responsa Minchas Asher II:58, he acknowledges the problem with the notion that you can do mitzvos and credit the reward to other people. Rav Weiss notes that Maharam Alashkar and others state clearly that the reward for mitzvos cannot be transferred to other people, and that they give powerful reasons why. However, he takes the approach that it simply cannot be so. Why? Because everyone does it!

That is actually his position, and he says it explicitly in his responsum. If everyone does it, it can't be that it doesn't make sense! He tries to come up with a way of making it work even according to Maharam Alashkar et al., but is forced to admit that there is no convincing way to do so. And he tries to find earlier sources who defend it, but they are extremely limited (as they are referring specifically to charity) and tentative. Accordingly, Rav Weiss concludes that it simply does work, albeit inexplicably, and that it is one of the secrets of Divine providence.

It's simply astonishing. It means that Rav Weiss is saying that all the Geonim and Rishonim and Acharonim who said that it doesn't work, are wrong. But he would rather do this than say that the conventional practice today is baseless. There are many cases where we defend historical tradition, even on weak grounds, shelo lehotzi la'az al ha-rishonim (so as not to cast aspersions on the earlier generations), but this is the opposite; discarding the historical tradition, shelo lehotzi la'az on what people do today.

This is how classical Judaism gets reformed. And it's not a good reform. Because when you allow for mitzvos to be outsourced, you teach people that they can buy Heaven instead of earning it, and you commercialize the mitzvos instead of having them as means for personal growth. The classical view, still maintained by people such as Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky, needs to be taught and strengthened, not discarded.

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.)

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Evolution and Black Lives Matter

I hate evolution.

I don't mean the concept; I mean the word. The problem is that it's so ambiguous. Specifically, it has two entirely distinct meanings. One refers to the historical claim that all animal life descended from a common ancestor. This is something either true or false; and it is regarded by the entire scientific community (absent certain religious fundamentalists) as true, supported by a broad convergence of evidence.

The other meaning of "evolution" is the mechanism of evolution, the causes and process via which one species changes into another. This is not a true/false proposition; rather, there are primary candidates proposed for the mechanism (such as random mutations coupled with natural selection), along with other secondary mechanisms. Nobody believes that we understand the mechanisms entirely (that's why people still study them). The vast majority of scientists believe that there is enough evidence to be confident that we have the basics correct, while a minority disagree.

One result of there being two totally different meanings of the term "evolution" is that there are a lot of pointless arguments, resulting from people talking at cross-purposes. One group screams that it's just a theory, which even scientists dispute, while others insist that it's a scientific fact, which no scientist disputes. But they are talking about entirely different things.

In fact, the entire, huge, religion-science argument about evolution would never have developed to the scale that it did, had Darwin not come up with both aspects of evolution and presented them under a single banner. If Darwin had just proposed common ancestry, and a generation later someone else would have proposed a mechanism, things would have played out very differently (and much better).

There's a similar problem with the phrase Black Lives Matter. What does it actually, specifically, mean? I'm not talking about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter - of course the point of BLM is that black lives are more threatened/ disregarded than white lives. I'm talking about what exactly Black Lives Matter, as a capitalized phrase, refers to.

An article in the LA Times, back in 2015, titled "Why the term 'Black Lives Matter' can be so confusing," spelled out the problem: "the words could be serving as a political rallying cry or referring to the activist organization. Or it could be the fuzzily applied label used to describe a wide range of protests and conversations focused on racial inequality." According to Wikipedia, the phrase "Black Lives Matter" can refer to "a Twitter hashtag, a slogan, a social movement, or a loose confederation of groups advocating for racial justice."

But it's even more complicated than that. For example, if you want to give money to support Black Lives Matter, who do you give it to? There's a "Black Lives Matter Foundation" in California which received millions in donations from people who were fired up by recent events, but then discovered that this particular foundation seeks to promote closer relationships between the black community and the police - which is not what they were expecting! So by supporting Black Lives Matter, are you supporting creating closer bonds with the police, or dissolving the police?

Then there's an organization called "Black Lives Matter" with thirty chapters across the US, but which is decentralized. Then there's a larger Black Lives Matter movement which includes various related organizations. And then there's the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. And then, of course, the world is much bigger than just the US, with various BLM groups around the world.

All this, aside from creating confusion and misplaced donations, can also create a real ethical dilemma. Certain BLM groups are neo-Marxists, and some of them are actively antisemitic. For many people, BLM is linked with opposition to Israel. Consider this tweet that was just sent out by the UK Black Lives Matter organization:



So what is one to do if one wants to fight racism, but the phrase/ organization that is associated with this fight, is also associated with people who are engaging in antisemitism?

I'm on a mailing list for a chain of pet stores (of course), and I received an email from the CEO saying that "now is the time to state plainly and unequivocally that Black Lives Matter and to do our part to ensure that this is our truth." The rest of the email expressed some important truths about human and civil rights, valuing diversity and helping people in underrepresented communities. I'm all for that - but are they speaking in suitably broad terms, are they supporting a particular organization, or are they supporting all organizations under this name?

It's all very confusing - and it's difficult to know what to do. Like evolution, it would be better if the terminology was more specific.


(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Exciting News!


The incredible new home of the Biblical Museum of Natural History is not yet open to the general public. BUT we are able to offer exclusive private preview tours to Friends & Patrons of the Museum (see www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/support for details of how to join), as well as for certain special private programs, such as this family barmitzvah! Write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org for details. And if you're not in Israel, we can arrange a private live online tour!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Uncomfortable Questions and People Who Think Differently

A friend of mine in the US was required by his employer to attend a session about racism. He was given the graphic shown here:



It's a very well-crafted piece, especially for the many of us who are in denial that we are in any way racist and/or don't appreciate the struggles that black people face (which is most of us in the frum community). And it's an excellent model for any area in which one needs to undergo personal growth. You start by identifying the problem - and acknowledge that there could be problems of which you are unaware and uncomfortable acknowledging. Then you engage in a process of learning, in which you still acknowledge that you have much to learn, and listen to people who look and think very differently from you (note to frum right-wing readers: Candace Owens does not count). Finally, you reach a position where you in a place to actually make a difference - while still acknowledging that there is still room for growth.

But I wonder: To what extent do people who favor such training, actually implement this?

Consider some of the lines here: "I seek out questions that make me uncomfortable..." And I was particularly struck by the line at the bottom of the circle: "I surround myself with others who think & look differently from me." Is this really something that the general society of people campaigning for racial equality are doing?

There's a great website called Medium.com, which is a platform for fascinating articles on a wide range of topics. Two recent articles came to my attention, both of which were shocking - albeit in very different ways.

One article is bluntly titled, "Yes My Dear, All White People Are Racist." The (black) author was emphatic that she was being 100% literal. Every single white person is racist. And she added that white people who claim not to be racist are the most dangerous of all, because they are in denial of their inherent racism.

(A hyperlink in her first use of the term shows that she is using a very specific and unconventional definition of racism, in which it refers to "the systemic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites)." But this is hardly the definition that is used in everyday conversation - and even with this definition, it's a far cry to claim that every single white person is part of this systemic subordination.)

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme article. But Medium seeks to "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints." And I am happy to read things from people who think very differently from me.

So then we get to the second article at Medium, which is also from a person of color - a professor at Berkeley, writing an open letter to his colleagues. He writes in alarm about the lack of diversity of opinion when it comes to analyzing racial problems. Here's an extract: 
"I could not find a single instance of substantial counter-argument or alternative narrative to explain the under-representation of black individuals in academia or their over-representation in the criminal justice system. The explanation provided in your documentation, to the near exclusion of all others, is univariate: the problems of the black community are caused by whites, or, when whites are not physically present, by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions.
Many cogent objections to this thesis have been raised by sober voices, including from within the black community itself, such as Thomas Sowell and Wilfred Reilly. These people are not racists or ‘Uncle Toms’. They are intelligent scholars who reject a narrative that strips black people of agency and systematically externalizes the problems of the black community onto outsiders. Their view is entirely absent from the departmental and UCB-wide communiques."
Now, it may indeed be the case that the problems of the black community actually are solely caused by whites and by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions. Other explanations may indeed be incorrect. However, surely that is something that should be discussed and argued about, not taken as an unquestionable fact with which one must not even acknowledge the existence of other views.

Meanwhile, Berkeley confirmed the basic point of the letter by condemning it: "it goes against our values as a department and our commitment to equity and inclusion." Apparently, "inclusion," even for an academic institution, does not mean including questions that challenge a particular narrative, even to refute them. Whatever happened to the value of "seeking out questions that make one feel uncomfortable" and "surrounding oneself with others who think differently"?

Well, at least this letter was published on Medium, who "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints," right? Not so fast. Medium has flagged the article for being in potential violation of its rules and has blocked all comments on it. An article declaring that every single white person is racist is within the spectrum; an article complaining about the narrowness of discourse is not.

Of course, it's not just Medium that is guilty of such things. There's an excellent article by Matt Taibi - an award-winning journalist who wrote a book called "I Can't Breathe" about systemic racism in America and police brutality towards blacks, back in 2014. Taibi writes about how the news media is destroying itself by "replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation."

One striking example of this is with the New York Times, which ran an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton advocating for a military show of force to dissuade riots. The NYT did not only apologize for running the op-ed; the editor had to resign. As my friend Rabbi Scott Kahn commented, "The problem lies in the increasingly narrow range of what is considered acceptable. When printing a United States Senator’s words, ill-advised and offensive as they may be, is cause for losing your job and massive institutional self-flagellation, we can be sure that we’ve taken a wrong turn." And remember, this is a newspaper which had no problem printing an op-ed by Mahmoud Abbas, which entirely distorted the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!

And it's not just with regard to racial issues that this problem appears. J.K. Rowling is currently in a firestorm about comments that she made which were seen as anti-trans. It involves issues such as whether women have the right to want bathrooms which exclude trans, which in turn relates to the question of what it takes for a person to legally identify as trans; is it enough for them to merely "self-identify" as a female, or is more required? Now, in order to address such issues, obviously it's very important to study the extent to which people who profess to be trans are really serious about it, the extent of rates of de-transition, and so on. But it seems that there is a serious dearth of such studies, because such studies simply won't be done. And the reason is that nobody dares fund or carry out a study which runs the risk of falling afoul of the socially acceptable narrative.

The willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, and to listen to people who think differently, is not just important for people with suspected racist beliefs. It's important for everyone.


(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.) 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Return of the Re'em

The Biblical re'em is described as a huge cattle-like creature with magnificent, upwards-pointing horns. This is the aurochs - the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. It's challenging to display one in a museum, because they have been extinct for four hundred years! But thanks to artist Tom Hammond we are able to display this amazing life-size reproduction of a re'em.

Meanwhile, here's a riddle: During the course of Shabbat, how many times do we mention the re'em?

(And watch out next week, when there will be a very special announcement!)

The Invisible Women

The phenomenon of Charedi and Yeshivish magazines refusing to print pictures of women is well known. Still, perhaps people do not realize th...