Monday, September 15, 2014

Guest Post: What are the Challenges of a Kosher Parnassa?

A guest post by Marty Bluke of The Jewish Worker

The English edition of Mishpacha Magazine this past week had an article saying that people who earn a living need to make sure that they put fear of heaven before parnassa. While the overall message is a good one, I believe that the examples used were very poor and showed a complete lack of understanding of the real challenges a frum person has when working.

The two examples given of challenges were davening mincha with a minyan and not shaking women's hands. IMHO the author completely missed the point with these examples.

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest challenge when working is the issue of stealing. I don't necessarily mean directly stealing money (although unfortunately that happens a lot as well, see for example Ocean County attorney admits role in Facebook scheme), what I do mean is stealing indirectly. For example, not working the amount of hours that you are being paid for, taking long lunch or Mincha breaks, wasting time at work, misusing company resources, etc. Chazal were very concerned abut this issue, so much so that they said (Berachos 14a, Shulchan Aruch Siman 90) that workers who worked high up in trees should daven mincha up in the tree so as not to waste their employers time by climbing down and then climbing back up.

If I had to suggest something related to arayos, it would not be shaking women's hands. I follow the psak of my Rabbeim that if a woman extends her hand you shake it as quickly as possible. I have found that in these situations, I am so nervous about this (thinking whether she will extend her hand or not) that this totally occupies my mind and I have no pleasure at all from the handshake, in fact it is almost painful. If there was an issur related to arayos that I would bring up it would be the issur of yichud. So many of the sexual abuse scandals that have come up in recent years would have been prevented if people simply kept hilchos yichud.

As with many things, it seems that the Charedi mindset is that a chumra is always better especially if it is Bein Adam LaMakom. However, the fact is that many chumras are kulas in a different area. The 2 mentioned in the article are good examples.

While davening mincha with a minyan is an important thing, it is at best a chiyuv midrabbanan while stealing from your employer however, is an issur d'oraysa. If it takes you 10 minutes to walk to Mincha 25 minutes to daven (because after all you need to daven slowly with kavana etc.) and 10 minutes to walk back (45 minutes) you are probably stealing from your employer, as he may be willing to give you 10-15 minutes for mincha but not 45. We see this message clearly from Chazal as they permitted workers to daven mincha up in the tree so as not to cheat the employer and allowed workers to skip parts of bentching for the same reason. You see clearly from the Gemara in Berachos (14a) that Chazal were much more concerned about not cheating your employer which is a sin of bein adam lchaveiro and therefore has no kapara until you pay the person back then mitzvos bein adam lamakom like davening and bentching where they instituted leniencies for workers.

Regarding not shaking hands with a women, again the issue is not as clear cut as the author makes it out to be. While the Chazon Ish is machmir other poskim are lenient and they are lenient in part because of the concern for embarrassing the woman. If a woman sticks out her hand and you refuse to shake it, it can be very embarrassing especially in a public setting. Embarrassing someone is a very serious aveira, Chazal equate it to killing someone. In Parshas Vayeishev, Tamar is willing to be killed in order not to embarrass Yehuda and Rashi quotes Chazal who praise her for this. So in fact, you can say that someone who shakes a woman's hand is machmir in bein adam l'chaveiro.

Finally, I would like to take issue with the first story that the author wrote. He wrote that he was in a shul in Yersushalayim for Rosh Chodesh bentching, davening next to a kollel avreich, and while the avreich had kavana when he said חיים של פרנסה he had much more kavana when he said חיים שיש בהם יראת שמים. The point being that יראת שמים is much more important then פרנסה.

IMHO, you see from Chazal that they thought פרנסה was very important and in fact a prerequisite for יראת שמים.  The Gemara in Kiddushin (29b) states explicitly that a father who does not teach a son a trade is teaching him to become a thief. Unfortunately, today we see this too often where people have no way of making a living end up resorting to less then honest means to make money.

There is an obvious question that we can ask about davening for חיים שיש בהם יראת שמים. The Gemara states that הכל ביד שמים חוץ מיראת שמים, that יראת שמים is the one thing that is for sure in our hands and not in Hashem's hands. If so, how can we daven for יראת שמים?

The Maharsha asks this question on the Gemara in Berachos (10a). The Gemara tells a story about a group of thugs who were bothering R' Meir. R' Meir was going to daven that they should die, however his wife, Beruria, told him that instead he should daven that they do teshuva which he did, and they did teshuva. The Maharsha asks our question from above, how could R' Meir daven that the thugs should do teshuva, isn't that under the rubric of יראת שמים?

The Maharsha asks this question on a Gemara at the end of Moed Katan(28a) (that was just learned in Daf Yomi) as well. The Gemara states that Rava davened that he should become an ענו like Rabba Bar Rav Huna (his prayer was not answered). The Maharsha points out that ענוה should fall under the rubric of יראת שמים and therefore how could Rava daven for it?

R' Moshe Feinstein in Iggros Moshe (as well as others) answers that you cannot daven directly for יראת שמים, that is only in your hands. However, you can daven that Hashem should remove any obstacles that you have that may prevent you from achieving יראת שמים. Interestingly enough the example R' Moshe gives is parnassa, he says that the thugs were thugs because they had no parnassa, once R' Meir davened for them and they received parnassa they did teshuva. We see that parnassa is a key blocker in achieving יראת שמים.

In fact, based on the above, it makes more sense to daven for parnassa than יראת שמים because יראת שמים can only come from you, while parnassa comes from Hashem and is a prerequisite to יראת שמים and therefore it makes sense to daven for it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Frum Ways To Die

Following the previous discussion of how some people deny the potentially fatal risks involved in metzizah b'peh, I was sad to see a new report about another way in which certain frum people endanger the wellbeing and lives of their (and our) children. The Baltimore Jewish Times reports (p. 1, 2) on the phenomenon of people who refuse to vaccinate their children. It was depressing to see that no less a figure than Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, the most moderate and least anti-rationalist Gadol B'Torah in the charedi world, is supporting these people:
According to Dr. Linda Grossman, bureau director for clinical services at the Baltimore County Department of Health, independent schools that operate under Maryland laws have the same policy. She says that some Jewish day school parents claim religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.
“I’m not aware though of any religious reasons not to vaccinate in Judaism,” she said. Beginning this fall, two additional vaccines are being phased in statewide. Kindergarteners will now be required to receive an additional dose of the chicken pox vaccine, and seventh-grade students must receive the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis as well as one dose of a vaccine against meningitis.
“There are far worse consequences to not vaccinating as compared with vaccinating,” said Grossman, reiterating her hope that parents do not claim religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.
R.B. encountered significant difficulties when she claimed a religious exemption at a local boys’ day school. Before her son began school, she contacted someone at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as the state attorney general’s office, to inquire about Maryland’s laws regarding religious exemptions.
“They said that the school could not refuse to accept a religious exemption,” she related. “But then school started and the nurse called. She said the school didn’t accept religious exemptions. I told her they had to accept them so she said I would have to speak with the principal.”
R.B. reached out to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, founder and dean of the Talmudical Academy of Philadelphia, whose wife, Temi, speaks out against vaccinating children. The rabbi wrote a letter on R.B.’s behalf, leading to her son’s principal relenting and apologizing.
When reached by phone, both Kamenetzkys confirmed their belief that vaccinations, not the diseases they prevent, are harmful.
“There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all,” said the rabbi. “I see vaccinations as the problem. It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine [against polio] is a hoax. It is just big business.”
Kamenetzky says he follows the lead of Israeli Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky, who rules that schools “have no right to prevent unvaccinated kids from coming to school.”
Normally, I don't mind if people have views that run counter to modern science. It doesn't really affect or bother me that Rav Chaim Kanievsky says that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth. But in this case, it's everyone else's children who are put at risk.

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On a more upbeat note, here is a video of a bizarre hovercraft-type vehicle smoothing the concrete floor of the building that is being constructed to (temporarily) house the Biblical Natural History Experience:

I'll be posting updates about the Biblical Natural History Experience on my other blog,

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What Does That Penn Study Actually Conclude?

In yesterday's post, Suckers for Strawmen, I responded to an article entitled "A scientific perspective on ‘A New York circumcision controversy,’ by Dr. Daniel Berman, Professor Brenda Breuer, and Professor Awi Federgruen. In support of their claim that there is no reason to believe that metzizah b'peh is dangerous, they wrote as follows:
A 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, moreover, analyzed the relevant evidence and all the prevailing literature and concluded [emphasis added - N.S.] that: “This evidence base is significantly limited by a very small number of reported infections, most of which were not identified or documented systematically. Other important limitations include incomplete data about relevant elements of the cases, the presence of confounding factors, and indirect data sources.”
I took a look at the University of Pennsylvania study, which most readers won't do. Here is the concluding paragraph:
Neonatal HSV infection can cause severe morbidity and death, so mitigating potential risks for infection is critical. Current evidence suggests that direct orogenital suction during ritual circumcision was the likely source of infection in recent cases that resulted in significant illness and death. Future research using cohort or case-control designs that fully capture all of the relevant data are needed to more rigorously examine this association.
In light of a misrepresentation such as this, it's all the more remarkable that the authors describe themselves as "disinterested medical and statistical expert witnesses."

For a thorough dissection of all the errors and flaws in the article, see the Rationalist Medical Halachist's extensive new post, "MBP Again! A Scientific Perspective?"

UPDATE: It turns out the University of Penn has already publicly criticized these people for distorting this study. Joel Betesh, project director of the study, stated, “I do not agree with the way they are portraying our report.” See this article in the Forward, "Penn Researchers Charge Orthodox Misused Report on Circumcision Rite."

UPDATE II: It was pointed out that the writers were actually referring to an earlier unpublished version of the Penn paper rather than the published version. First of all, this itself is dishonest. Second, even the earlier version is not in line with these writers' claims. Here is the final paragraph from the earlier version (from here):
Neonatal infection with HSV-1 carries a risk for potentially severe morbidity, including the possibility of death, so exposure to infection should be carefully considered. The available evidence indicates that circumcision with direct orogenital suction may be a risk factor for infection, but this evidence base is small and significantly limited. Hopefully, future studies will provide additional evidence on this and other risk factors for neonatal HSV-1 infection.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Suckers for Strawmen?

There was a very strange op-ed in the Jerusalem Post yesterday.

It follows an analytical article last week, by Sam Sokol, entitled "New York circumcision controversy emblematic of longtime Orthodox ideological split." This article described the controversy surrounding metzitzah b'peh, the oral sucking of the circumcision wound. It also quoted my own blog post on the topic, in which I argued that the strenuous opposition to any form of regulation of the practice is rooted in a policy established by Chasam Sofer, that whenever there is a perceived threat to Judaism, even a minor custom is elevated to an inviolable principle.

Yesterday's op-ed in response, "A scientific perspective on ‘A New York circumcision controversy,’ was written by Dr. Daniel Berman, Professor Brenda Breuer, and Professor Awi Federgruen, the same trio that have been arguing in defense of metzitzah b'peh in several other forums. In their response, they write as follows:
...Sam Sokol wrote, on these pages, an article entitled: “Analysis: New York circumcision controversy emblematic of longtime Orthodox ideological split,” advancing two positions: (a) “Contemporary medical knowledge” supports the assertion of a causal link between MBP and HSV infections, as stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “several prominent contemporary decisors of Jewish law (poskim)” – specifically Rabbi Tendler, described as a son-in-law of Rabbi Feinstein, and Rabbi Slifkin, otherwise known as the Zoo Rabbi; (b) MBP is practiced by a fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox.
The authors proceed to argue that there is no causal link between MBP and HSV infections, and that MBP is not practiced by a "fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox" but rather on 80% of Orthodox circumcisions in NYC.

Now, I am not qualified to take a position on whether MPB is significantly dangerous - I leave that to the experts. And indeed, I have never advanced a position on this. (Nor have I ever taken a public position on whether if there is a slight danger, this should be reason to abolish the practice.) So why do the authors claim that I did? It's very strange. Perhaps the reason for there doing so can be seen in their deciding to add that I am "otherwise known as the Zoo Rabbi" - maybe this is a cheap attempt to try to trivialize me?

Another misrepresentation is that the authors claim that Sokol's article advanced the position that MBP is practiced by a "fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox," which they proceed to neatly refute. But Sokol said no such thing. In fact, he wrote that "more modern elements reject the ancient practice which in turn is embraced by the more conservative ultra-orthodox factions."

The authors further claim that it is "factually incorrect" to claim that MBP "opposes a rational (I think that they meant "rationalist" - NS) approach to Judaism." But they don't even get into any discussion regarding the fundamental reason for the practice given in the Gemara - that it is for health benefits - and whether the given reason has any basis in contemporary medicine. Is it because they don't have anything to say about this that they set up strawmen instead?

For the seminal study on this topic, see Shlomo Sprecher, "Mezizah be-PehTherapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?" See too the recent blogpost by the Rationalist Medical Halachist, "MBP - Dispelling Some Common Misconceptions." (If any qualified person wants to write a response to the scientific claims in the op-ed, I would be glad to post it.)

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Biblical Natural History Experience

After years of development, it's finally coming together! "The Biblical Natural History Experience," a combination of extraordinary live and inanimate exhibits relating to Biblical and Talmudic zoology, will be opening in its short-term location this year, b'ezrat Hashem. It has been renamed from "The Biblical Museum of Natural History" to reflect the fact that it also has many live exhibits, and also to project the message that it is much more hands-on and interactive than the classic model of a museum where everything is behind glass. (Though the new name is somewhat cumbersome, and does not have an easy shorthand reference, so we are open to other ideas!) You can download a prospectus at this page.

Until we build our own facility, The Biblical Natural History Experience will be housed in a rented building being constructed at the entrance to Moshav Zanoach, which is on the outskirts of Beit Shemesh. Part of the collection is currently being housed next door to where the building is being constructed, and a private preview presentation can be arranged; the price is $180 for a one-hour presentation for a group of up to twelve people. Please write to me if you would like to make a reservation.

Getting this project off the ground is immensely complicated. If you'd like to help in any way, that would be gratefully appreciated! Donation information is at this page. There are other ways in which people can help, too - donating items (flatscreen tvs, furniture, taxidermied animals, small furry edible rodents, etc.), website design, shipping items from the US, publicity, etc. - let me know your ideas!

Looking forward to seeing you at The Biblical Natural History Experience!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Angry Birds: Rationalist vs. Mystical Views of Shiluach HaKein

I just discovered a website: (whose name follows the popular mis-vocalization of shiluach hakein; while it's KAN tzippur, it's shiluach haKEIN). It offers that "For a nominal fee one can achieve the blessing of the Torah (Devarim 22:7) and receive PROSPEROUS DAYS AND LONGEVITY." The website continues to note that if take advantage of this opportunity, you are "guaranteed" by the Midrash to find a spouse, conceive children, buy a new house, merit livelihood, avoid harm while traveling, and bring mashiach. I have also heard of institutions that actually transport groups of people on buses to the forests to chase birds, in return for substantial contributions to their causes; one such institution has been renamed Yeshivat Tzaar Baalei Chaim by its various detractors.

While the mitzvah of shiluach hakein presents itself as a simple, innocent and charming mitzvah, it is not at all straightforward. Tracing the exposition of this mitzvah through Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Rishonim, and Acharonim, we encounter extraordinary perspectives that turn the simple understanding upside-down. These relate to the understanding of the purpose of the mitzvah - some seeing the goal as minimizing a bird's distress, others as creating such distress - as well as the logic behind its rewards. It also has halachic ramifications regarding whether it is an optional mitzvah which applies only in a case where one wants the eggs, or if one is obligated (or at least recommended) to do it even if one does not want the eggs, and even praised for actively seeking out opportunities to do so. Shiluach hakein highlights the profound, irreconcilable differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, and shows how they result in radically different notions of what doing mitzvos is all about.

Shiluach HaKein: The Transformation of the Mitzvah
is a comprehensive study of this important topic. You can download the document after making a donation; the recommended amount is $5. But if you want to take this opportunity to express your support of the RationalistJudaism website, and you have appreciated learning about kezayis, shofars, kidneys, the goal of Torah study, anisakis worms, the philosophy of Rambam, Orthodox sociology, issues relating to the IDF, and so on, it would certainly be appropriate and appreciated to give a larger donation!

You can make a donation via PayPal or credit card by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document.


Introduction 5

I. Rationalist Approaches 7

In the Midrash 7

In the Rishonim 8

II. The Mishnah: No Speaking Of Mercy 10

Explanation #1: Anti-Christian Measures 10

Explanation #2: Highlighting Inequalities 12

Explanation #3: A Decree, Not God’s Mercy 12

3a. An Incomprehensible Statute 12

3b. Medieval Rationalist Interpretations 14

Explanation #4: Cruelty, Not Mercy 15

III. Mystical Approaches 17

Esoteric Reasons 17

Benefits of Cruelty 17

The Cruel Engineering of Compassion 18

IV. Optional, Recommended or Obligatory? 21

Relating the Halachah and the Rationale 21

Determining the Halachah 22

1. Optional - Only if one wants the young 23

2. Obligatory, Recommended, or Praiseworthy 26

A Mitzvah to Seek Out? 28

V. Rewards and their Logic 31

Good Days and a Long Life 31

Midrashic Rewards 32

Highlighting Anti-Rationalism 34

Modern Anti-Rationalists 35

Conclusion 36

Bibliography 39

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On Criticism of Criticism: A Critique

This blog contains many posts that are critical of various aspects of charedi society. In part, this relates to the subject matter of the blog, rationalist Judaism, since many of the flaws in charedi society are directly related to its non-rationalist approach. In part, it also reflects my own personal frustrations, not so much as a result of the ban on my books (which I even partially justify), but more as a result of living in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

A number of people have criticized these criticisms. They have said that it is lashon hara, divisive, anti-achdus, etc. To quote one commentator on the previous post: "How is it 'Rationalist Judaism' to try and cause more sinat chinam, more strife, more distrust, more hatred, spread lashon hara, or motzi sheim ra, what possible good can come from this inciteful, hateful blog - wouldn't it be better to keep your thoughts to yourself, think about ways to make things better..."?

It is certainly unhealthy to be obsessively focused on criticism. However, these critics of the criticism are not always on the right track. Often, they are charedi loyalists who are deeply uncomfortable with people exposing problems in charedi society. It's not criticisms of others per se that make them speak up - they would never dream of speaking out against charedim who criticize non-charedim. They only object to criticisms of charedim.

Alternately, or in addition to the above, some people simply do not appreciate that many non-charedim are genuinely being harmed by various aspects of charedi society, and want to see change. The purpose of these posts is to try to bring that change about. Yesterday's post about the Beit Shemesh school controversy is a case in point. Non-charedim in Beit Shemesh are very much affected by the charedi mayor and municipality. We wish to draw attention to the problems in order that they should be fixed, and also so that people should be better educated about which sector of society to support politically and align themselves with.

(Some people wondered why it's such a big deal for charedim to take over half of a secular school if there is adequate space for them. But this has to be seen within the context of the situation, which is a charedi takeover of Beit Shemesh. I had a secular colleague who lived in Ramat Beit Shemesh from its inception as a mixed neighborhood, and then charedim moved in and started harassing him for driving on Shabbos, to the point where he eventually had to move. Then there are the attempts to enforce tzniyus, often to an extreme standard, and all the hatred against non-charedim in certain local papers. And there is the vandalism against Israeli flags, which is never condemned by charedi rabbonim. And so on, and so forth. In the run-up to the last elections, Rav Aharon Feldman of Ner Israel campaigned for Abutbul in a local shul, that had originally been founded as a moderate Anglo shul, and said that there is an opportunity to turn Beit Shemesh into Bnei Brak. Is it any wonder that the non-charedi population feels that they are being run out of town and don't want their school to suddenly be forcibly seized and partially taken over?)

Some people think that criticism of charedim is contrary to achdus. But as I stressed in an earlier post entitled "What Is Real Achdus?", true achdus does not mean simply speaking nicely about everyone and avoiding criticizing anyone or drawing attention to anyone's flaws. Rather, it means genuinely sharing responsibilities and concerns. If one sector of society is acting in a selfish or harmful manner, it is not a lack of achdus to criticize this behavior. Those who attempt to suppress such criticism are enabling this behavior to continue.

Perhaps the most extreme and absurd example of someone who professes to care about achdus but who is actually simply trying to suppress criticism of charedim is the mayor of Beit Shemesh, Moshe Abutbul. Take a look at the following astonishing video about the takeover of the secular school yesterday. As a reminder, this was about how the day before the school year started, and without any prior discussion with the school, and against a background of years of highly inflamed tensions due to hostile acts against non-charedim, Abutbul had half the school forcibly taken over by a charedi school and erected an eight-foot wall in the playground such that the children should not see each other. The very end of the video features an interview with mayor Abutbul, in which he claims that this is "an act of integration that will enhance love and brotherhood in the city of Beit Shemesh"!!! Words fail me.


Related to all this, see the new very important guest post at Cross-Currents, "A Plaintive Cry (Or Two) For Understanding."