Thursday, November 15, 2018

Baby Steps with Burqa Babes

This week's Mishpacha magazine has a photo of burqa babes for its article about the dangerous Lev Tahor cult. Abe Paneth pithily points out the following:
The irony. Mishpacha magazine is using this image to illustrate how extreme Lev Tahor is. This is how a woman has to look like to be allowed in Lev Tahor's village. But this is also how a woman has to look like to be allowed onto Mishpacha's cover! 
Indeed!

However, let's be grateful for baby steps. In a 2015 Mishpacha article about burqas, they did not show any pictures of these women, instead showing numerous pictures of a doll draped in a burqa!

At the time, somebody sent me a letter that they wrote to Mishpacha regarding this:
Dear Editor, Thank you for reporting about women who misguidedly wear burka-type garments to cover over their form. They mistakenly believe that they can only be seen by others if they are totally covered. However it is interesting that Mishpocha Magazine goes further and feels that even fully covered they cannot be seen and hence no pictures of them in the article about them. Sincerely, Noson Yanofsky

As I wrote in my original blog post, in a society in which it is forbidden to show pictures of women, it is hardly surprising that women start to wear burqas. And if it's forbidden to show pictures of women even if they wear burquas, then the natural end result is that women will eventually see it as an ideal (and then an imposed standard) not to leave the house at all.

So, let's be grateful for baby steps. Yeshivish society has progressed from giving the impression that women cannot be seen under any circumstances, to giving the impression that they can only be seen if they are wearing burqas. Progress you can't deny!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Origin of Aggados

Following is a fabulous extract from a letter by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to Rav Hile Wechsler. He addresses the claim that Aggados do not originate from the Sages, but rather from Sinai:
"When you say that there are many statements made about which one cannot possibly say that they originated only with the Sages... I must say that I agree with you that there are indeed many statements made by our Sages which did not originate from them but which were handed down to them, especially the stories of events of far-off days in the past, e.g., the stories of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans, the stories of Moses before he was elected by God, and so on. A proof for this lies in the fact that many stories told by late Amora'im can be found, almost word for word, in the writings of Philo, who lived centuries earlier in Alexandria during Temple times.

"But even here there is no need to assume that these tales originated from Sinai, but, rather, that they were part of an ancient folk tradition. It seems to me reasonable to say that even from earliest times, from the days of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Shem and Ever, such stories were transmitted and eventually were related to Abraham, and he passed them on to his descendants.

"Yet I would not swear to the accuracy of these tales or to equate them with the stories of Moses and the prophets. Possibly, some of them were merely told for moralistic and instructive ends. Even the stories of Abraham, Terach and Nimrod in Ur of the Chaldeans may have been told for homiletical purposes. They may have been constructed on the basis of the view that Abraham recognized his Creator when only three years of age, as derived from the numerical value of the word ekev, and on the basis of the phrase, "I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans." One should not reject someone who adopts this standpoint, for indeed, there are views that hold that Abraham did not recognize God until the age of fifty-two or more. Had those tales been held to be incontrovertible truths, one could not have set his conversion during his later age.

"One need not be surprised at this, for even the Job stories have been described by some of our Sages as not factual but allegorical, personifications of wisdom, virtue and the fear of God."
(Printed in Volume IX of Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pp. 214-215)

Rav Hirsch's words might sound shocking to some, but they are actually completely consistent with the writings of classic Rabbinic scholars. See Rabbi Chaim Eisen's article in Hakira, "Maharal's Be'er ha-Golah and His Revolution in Aggadic Scholarship."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Missiles, Measles, and Missives

At this time, the Jewish People are being bombarded with three very different, yet perhaps related, things. Hundreds of missiles have been fired from Gaza on towns throughout the southern region of Israel. An outbreak of measles in Israel and New York has already claimed the life of a baby and threatens many more. And there are missives throughout Jerusalem relating to the municipal elections today, with Daas Torah telling everyone who to vote for.

The common factor with all these three phenomena is that they relate to, and give rise to questions about, the role of experts and authority.

Let's begin with measles. The overwhelming consensus of expert medical opinion is that vaccination should be done and would have prevented the current tragic situation. Unfortunately, there is a significant body of people who are skeptical of "expert consensuses" (for reasons discussed in my post on the Lakewood Suicide Squad). They aren't evil, even though their actions have terrible consequences. They sincerely believe that the so-called experts cannot be trusted and are wrong, and they will give you all kinds of reasons for this.

Now let's turn to the missile barrage from Gaza. According to a large body of military experts who spoke up in favor of the Disengagement in 2004 (see the list of experts in the advertisement pictured here, as well as the citations at this link), this wasn't going to happen. The Disengagement was going to enhance the security situation. General and Prime Minister Sharon claimed that disengaging would give the IDF a free hand to respond with full military force if Gaza attacked us. Ha! (It reminded me of the Oslo days, when Peres insisted that giving guns to the PA was safe, because the first time that one of those guns would be used against an Israeli, Israel would swoop down in force and end everything.) To many of us ordinary folks, on the other hand, it was obvious that the Gazans would attack Israel, and Israel would not have a free hand to respond, because of international condemnation. Clearly, these experts were all wrong.

Then you have today's municipal elections in Jerusalem, where the alleged experts are completely divided, yet utterly sure of themselves. The Lithuanian and Sefardic Gedolim insist that Daas Torah mandates that one must vote for Moshe Leon. The Chassidic Gedolim and the Peleg faction, on the other hand, state that Daas Torah requires one not to vote for him. (I'm not sure if the Religious Zionist community has voiced Daas Torah on this topic.) So what actually is Daas Torah on this topic? And if there isn't any, why are these Gedolim all so sure that there is?

These three situations present us with the following question: When do you trust the experts, and when do you not trust the experts?

The answer is that things are complex, and it depends on the situation.

In matters relating to hard science, expertise is of great significance. Yes, it's always possible that there is some kind of fundamental epistemological error, or some kind of bias. However, given the huge amount of hard data available with regard to vaccinations, and the broad spectrum of people who possess expertise in this topic and all share the same conclusion, it is reasonable to be sure that the experts know what they are talking about.

Matters relating to war, peace and politics are more complicated. Yes, military expertise certainly helps. And it's frustrating to see the well-meaning but not well-thought-out armchair generals on Facebook talking about how the IDF should carpet-bomb Gaza, without thinking through the moral, tactical or political implications of such an act. Still, the fact is that projections as to what will bring security are heavily shaded by one's political outlook, as well as a host of psychological and sociological factors. For example, secular Israelis tend to be more desperate for acceptance by other countries and thus inclined to believe that this can be achieved, whereas religious Israelis tend to be more resigned to being globally despised.

As for the expertise of Daas Torah regarding who to vote for, it's simply a myth. Torah does not give any special insight into which mayor to vote for. Torah is an immensely rich body of wisdom accumulated over a long period in many places by many people, and it certainly does not have a single viewpoint that can be mapped on to the simultaneously immensely complicated question of how to govern a city. Furthermore, there's no reason to think that great Talmudists, or descendants of Chassidic Rebbes, possess any particular wisdom - in fact, Chazal state explicitly that there is the possibility of a Talmid Chacham completely lacking wisdom. Thus, there is no reason to think that the Lithuanian, Sefardic, Peleg or Chassidic voices of Daas Torah have any particular insight as to which mayoral candidate to vote for.

As to why they seem to think otherwise - well, that's because they have a different, non-rationalist view of the nature of Torah, according to which it grants supernatural forms of insight. But this has no basis in classical Judaism.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Next Frontier

I am pleased to announce the publication of the first Hebrew translation of one of my books! The book is Sacred Monsters (the revised and expanded edition of Mysterious Creatures), which has just been published in Hebrew under the title Yitzurei Ha-Pele BeMidrash U-veMada. The translation was done by Dr. Yehoshua Stokar, and the book was published by Koren Publishers under the Maggid imprint.

There will be a book launch taking place at the Biblical Museum of Natural History this Wednesday night. In a future post, I shall be addressing the question of whether this book should also be considered to be in cherem, like the original English book.

If you're not able to make it to the book launch (where the book will be sold at a discount), you can also buy it online at this link. It makes a great gift for Hebrew-speaking teenagers, for people struggling with conflicts between Chazal and science, or for your favorite member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Charedi Housing Crisis: You Can't Have It Both Ways

There's a fascinating letter that outgoing Beit Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul sent to someone who begged forgiveness for not voting for him. Abutbul notes that he opened the city up to enormous expansion of the charedi population, and laments how in every other city in Israel, they throw charedim out and do not want charedi communities to be established. He thereby echoes a common refrain in the charedi media, bemoaning the intolerant, hateful anti-charedi sentiments of society at large.

And yet, in the very same letter, Abutbul also boasts of how he catered to the charedi community by giving 90% reductions in municipal taxes to kollel families. This is consistent with several public addresses that he gave to non-charedi communities in Beit Shemesh, in which he proudly told the stunned audiences that it is their privilege to be the Zevuluns for the Yissachars of the charedi world. He also ridicules (both in this letter and in interviews that he gave) those who attempted to prevent the settlement of new neighborhoods until adequate infrastructure was in place. It should also be noted that in the various clashes between dati-leumi and extremist charedi communities that took place, such as with the Orot Banot school and with the tzniyus signs, Abutbul expressed his belief that the dati-leumi community should be tolerant of the strictures demanded by the extremists, even though the dati-leumi community was there first.

You can't have it both ways. If you believe that the priority is to rush the settlement of charedi families even if the city infrastructure can't cope, and you believe that the city budget should be disproportionately paid for by non-charedim (who are effectively subsidizing people in kollel), and that as the charedi population increases the non-charedim should accept extremist charedi societal demands, then how can you simultaneously express horror and disapproval that other cities in Israel do not want to become charedi?!



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Letter to my Charedi Co-Residents

Dear Charedi Co-Resident of Beit Shemesh,

No doubt you are deeply upset about the victory of Dr. Aliza Bloch over Moshe Abutbul in the elections. I remember what it's like to suffer the disappointment of one's candidate losing, in two elections. It's painful, and you have my sympathies. Fortunately, I have some good news to share with you, which should improve your mood.

You were told by the rabbonim to vote for Abutbul, because he would work for the benefit of the charedi community. The implication - often explicitly stated - was that Aliza Bloch would be working for the benefit of the non-charedi community, and against the interests of the charedi community. But that's not what she plans to do. Contrary to what you've been told, her desire is to work for the benefit of everyone.

Now, you're probably thinking, Why should I believe that? Well, first of all, you can listen to what she's actually been saying all along - and not in order to get charedi votes. You can learn about how in general, the approach of the dati-leumi community is to focus on the larger Jewish community, not just their own community.

Furthermore, you'll see how much paranoia and baseless fearmongering has been spread in order to avoid losing political power. They said that Aliza Bloch will have buses running on Shabbos and treif food being sold - you'll see that that won't happen. They said that Aliza Bloch will "destroy Torah" - I don't even know what that was supposed to mean, but I can assure you that she won't be destroying anything. I've seen people claim that when Aliza spoke about tearing down the mechitzot, this shows that she means to remove the mechitzos between men and women in shul! Actually, she was (very obviously) speaking about removing the walls of division between different sectors of society, and the fact that some people think otherwise speaks volumes about the ridiculous paranoia that the charedi political and rabbinic leadership created around her.

There's one fear that you might have which I can't help you with. If you fear that under Bloch's leadership, Beit Shemesh will slow down or cease its transformation into a primarily or solely charedi city, then your fears are probably correct. Still, you might find that it's not so terrible to share your city with Jews of other religious ideologies. You may find that it enables the city to prosper and improve in all kinds of ways.

So, relax. Think about all the thousands of charedim who voted for Aliza Bloch - they are intelligent people who did so for good reasons. Have some bitachon, and look with an open mind at how the city develops. Who knows, maybe in just under five years' time, when the askonim start with the next political campaign for mayor, you'll recall how off-base they were with their claims about this one.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

It's a Miracle!

In all my life, I don't remember ever being so giddy with joyous disbelief. Dr. Aliza Bloch, a dati-leumi woman, won the Beit Shemesh elections!


The significance of this is enormous, and we are still processing it. But here are three immediate takeaways:

1. Never Give Up Hope
For five years, everyone in Beit Shemesh, both charedi and non-charedi, thought that there wasn't the slightest chance of ever having a non-charedi mayor. The charedi community outnumbered the non-charedi community, and they also benefit from a much higher rate of voter turnout. When Dr. Aliza Bloch launched her campaign, many of us dismissed it as a vain and futile hope, a complete waste of time and effort. And yet she won! By over 500 votes! The message to cynics and realists

Dr. Aliza Bloch, with some of her many charedi supporters
2. It's the Beginning of the End of "Daas Torah" and a Return to Classic Torah
Aliza Bloch won with the support of thousands of charedi voters. This includes not only post-charedim and people on the fringes of charedi society, but even many charedim who voted United Torah Judaism for the political party (in Israel you have separate votes for mayor and for political party). That is to say, thousands of people who strongly identify as part of the charedi community nevertheless went directly against the "Daas Torah" of all the Gedolim. This is staggering. (I urge people to read the comments written by charedi residents of Beit Shemesh against the hateful letter published in Cross-Currents.) This marks a return to traditional Jewish concepts of Torah and rabbinic authority, and away from the recent hijacking of it by political interests.

3. There's a Tremendous Opportunity Here
The charedim who voted for Moshe Abutbul were convinced by "Daas Torah" that Aliza Bloch wants to harm the charedi community, destroy the Torah way of life and secularize the city. Right now, they are probably filled with despair. But in the coming years, they will see that they were utterly misled. Aliza Bloch has zero ill-will towards the charedi community, and certainly does not want to destroy their lives and secularize the city. On the contrary, she will improve the city of Beit Shemesh for everyone, including charedim. So when the next elections come around, in five years, the re-election message will be obvious: "Daas Torah" deceived you last time, and there's no reason to trust it. And people will see that there are genuine Torah values to be found in other communities, too, and that charedim and non-charedim can work together for the good of everyone.

We live in historic times! Baruch Ha-Tov VeHaMeitiv!

Baby Steps with Burqa Babes

This week's Mishpacha magazine has a photo of burqa babes for its article about the dangerous Lev Tahor cult. Abe Paneth pithily point...