Friday, April 18, 2014
I'm not talking about accepting their positions as binding on me; after all, there is no reason, halachic or otherwise, for me to do so. Rather, I am talking about accepting that gedolim have certain positions, even if it's uncomfortable to acknowledge it.
When the first ban against my books came out, many people, including myself, were flabbergasted to see the letter by Rav Yitzchok Sheiner. He cursed me for my belief that the world is millions (actually, billions) of years old. What?! We all thought that this was something that had been settled years ago. As one extremely chareidi Rav said to me that day in astonishment, "Aren't there about twenty different terutzim for that?" Rav Aharon Feldman, who called me from Baltimore to offer chizzuk, was likewise astonished. "Rav Sheiner said that?" he asked me, after I read it out to him. "But he's a very wise man!" he said in surprise. He found it hard to believe that Rav Sheiner had written that. But indeed he had.
For many people, it was simply too hard to accept that the charedi gedolim deemed such a basic fact to be heresy. It meant that either gedolei Torah were not what they believed them to be, or that they themselves had heretical views - both of which were too disturbing. Much easier was to convince oneself that their objection were specifically to my books - the nebulous problem with the "tone."
Yet the charedi gedolim, most of whom did not read any of my books and were not in a position to evaluate the "tone," were very clear about their objections. As noted above, Rav Sheiner considered it absolutely unacceptable to believe that the world is billions of years old. At an EJF conference, Rav Nochum Eisenstein reported that Rav Elyashiv holds that any person who believes the world to be older than 5768 years is kofer b’ikur. Even if Eisenstein is not the most reliable person, I don't think that there can be any question that Rav Elyashiv strongly opposed such a view. The same goes for Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who is reported as saying that someone who believes the world to be millions of years old may not be accepted as a convert. And even Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz"l writes about how modern science textbooks have heretical statements about the development of the universe. There's no doubt that the vast majority of Charedi gedolim are of the view that belief in an ancient universe is, at best, deeply wrong both factually and theologically, and at worst, heretical. But for many people, it was extremely difficult to accept that they actually hold this view.
I wrote the above words in a post several years ago, but I was reminded of all this in the response to yesterday's post. Yesterday, I quoted a story that I heard from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin about his meeting with Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, in which Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel explained why the Mir Yeshivah refuses to say any form of prayer for the IDF. The response to my post was fascinating - many people flat-out denied that the story could be true. But why? Their reason was that Rav Finkel's given reason for not saying the prayer seemed very offensive, and inconsistent with the wonderful reputation that he had. Hence, the story could not be true.
Now, it is certainly possible that the story is not true - after all, it happened quite a few years ago, and human memory is a fragile thing. However, there is no reason to presume that it is false.
It is an undeniable fact that the vast majority of charedi shuls and yeshivos do not pray for the IDF. Not only will they not recite the Zionist prayer, but they will not say any form of prayer or even recite Tehillim for them, as they do for helping sick gedolim, getting yeshivah students out of Japanese prisons, winning the Beit Shemesh elections, or annulling the decree of the draft. This is true not only during "normal" times, when soldiers are nevertheless putting their lives on the line for us every day, but even in times of particular danger for soldiers, such as during the Jenin campaign.
This fact is very discomforting for a lot of people, but it is nonetheless true. Even people who are not charedi often have a favorite fuzzy charedi rav, maybe their son's Rosh Yeshivah or something like that. Deep down, these people presume that deep down, that charedi Rav has the same outlook as them. But whether it's with regard to the age of the universe or praying for the IDF, they don't.
There are a few explanations given as to why charedi yeshivos and shuls will not pray or say Tehillim for the IDF. Some are silly, some are offensive, and some are both. But there is no reason that will sound remotely acceptable to non-charedim. If there was, you can be sure that rabbis Shafran, Hoffman, Rosenblum and Menken would have articulated them long ago.
It's uncomfortable for people to accept that a beloved Rav such as Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel had an offensive approach. But it is an undeniable fact that his yeshivah does not pray for the IDF. The particular explanation given by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel in the story is no more silly or offensive than any other - in fact, it is slightly less so. If people do not accept it, this says more about their discomfort in accepting the realities of the charedi world then about the veracity of the story.
(See too this post: And Man Made Godolim In His Image)
Thursday, April 17, 2014
And so the Rav went to the leading Rosh Yeshivah in the charedi world that he had a personal connection with, the late and great Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel of the Mir yeshivah, a very fine and wise person. He asked Rav Nosson Tzvi if it could be arranged for some sort of tefillah to be said. And the answer was a firm no.
Rav Nosson Tzvi explained his reasoning. If the students of the Mir yeshivah davvened for the soldiers, they may come to respect and appreciate what the soldiers are doing. This in turn could lead them to join the army. And this could lead some of them to go off the derech. If that happened to even one student, said Rav Nosson Tzvi, he could never forgive himself. Therefore, he said, they should not davven for the soldiers.
The Dati-Leumi rav's response was that this does not reflect well on the charedi education system if its products are so fragile. But I don't think that that is such a strong or relevant criticism. Instead, I think that there are two other responses to be made.
First is that if one truly believes that those thousands of yeshivah students are doing something very valuable, then presumably one would also believe that the prayers of those thousands of Torah scholars are of great value. If so, then it would seem very selfish to deny those benefits for the welfare of soldiers merely because of the potential risks to the yeshivah students. (Indeed, it is for a similar reason that one cannot accept the argument that charedim don't go to the army because of the spiritual risks involved - it is selfish to insist that only others take risks because you don't want to.)
The second rejoinder to be made is as follows. Yes, by not praying for the welfare of those putting their lives on the line to protect us, you may have saved some of them from joining the army and dropping out of Judaism. But this has come at the cost of severely compromising the Judaism of all the yeshivah students, by educating them to lack basic hakaras hatov and Klal Yisrael consciousness. By trying to save Judaism, you have ended up tragically corrupting it.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
The usual answer is the one given in the Haggadah. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach in commemoration of the Bnei Yisrael being rushed out of Egypt so quickly that their dough did not have time to rise. It's commonly assumed that this is nothing more than a paraphrase of what the Torah itself says. But why would this make matzah so very important? And is it indeed necessarily what the Torah says?
Fascinatingly, Ramban has a very different approach. According to Ramban (Shemos 12:39), it's not the case that they were too rushed for the dough to rise. Ramban is of the view that even if they would have had time, they would not have waited for the dough to rise and make bread. Instead, Ramban understands the Torah as stating that they had no time to bake the dough into matzos, and instead they had to take the unbaked dough and bake it into matzos along the way. Ramban notes that the Bnei Yisrael had already been commanded to get rid of all chametz as mentioned a few pesukkim earlier (12:19-20), and thus the passuk 12:39 is to be read in light of that, as follows:
And they baked matzah-cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened (due to God's earlier command); (and they could only bake them now) because they were driven out of Egypt, and could not tarry (and bake them earlier)...Ramban is thereby arguing with the Haggadah! One book that I saw claimed that Ramban would never have done such a thing, and must have had a different text of the Haggadah. I don't know that that is necessarily the case; Ramban was not entirely averse to arguing even with Chazal, in certain cases. But, at any rate, we are left with the following question on Ramban's approach - if eating matzah has nothing to do with how the Bnei Yisrael left Egypt but was instead a pre-existing command, what was the reason for it?
(Skip the following small text if you want: One might wish to posit on Ramban's behalf that matzah commemorates the Bnei Yisrael not having time to bake their dough, and that Hashem commanded the consumption of matzah with the foreknowledge of this. After all, it seems unambiguous that the mitzvah of eating matzah has something to do with the haste in which it was baked. This would initially seem to be the meaning of Devarim 16:3:
You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat matzos, the bread of affliction; for in haste (chipazon) did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.The usual assumption is that the mention of "haste" is a reference to the pessukim in Shemos 12:33-34 talking about how the Bnei Yisrael rushed out of Egypt without time to see to their dough. But the word chipazon does not appear in these pessukim. Instead, it appears earlier, in Shemos 12:11, before the end of the plagues, with regard to the korban Pesach:
"And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste--it is a Passover to God."And so the notion of eating in haste is not specifically related to matzah. Indeed, Devarim 16:3 is preceded by a passuk commanding about the korban pesach, and it is with regard to this that the Torah continues, "Do not eat ON IT chametz, for seven days eat ON IT matzos, for in haste you left..." - thus, there too the notion of haste is relating to the korban Pesach rather than to matzos. It thus seems that the theme of haste may relate to the general notion of our leaving Egypt in haste, and not to the way in which the matzos were baked.
So, again, we are faced with a question according to Ramban's view: What is the reason for eating matzah on Pesach? Why did Hashem command the Bnei Yisrael not to have chametz?)
Let us first note that this is not the first time we see matzah preceding Pesach. Way back in Bereishis 19:3, Lot serves matzos to the angels. Rashi says it was Pesach, and a very non-rationalist person in a book entitled Seasons of Life claims that "the observance of Pesach is based on the spiritual powers in force at that time of year," and "matzah is representative of certain metaphysical forces in effect at that time." But the idea of Lot observing Pesach and serving matzah to his guests is reminiscent of a certain video about Eisav making a berachah of hamotzi. Is there a more rationalist explanation?
One possible answer is this: Bread, of the chametz variety, is an Egyptian invention.
In Canaan, the lifestyle was a nomadic society of shepherds. The bread that they ate was matzah - not the hard Ashkenazi crackers, but the original, somewhat softer, pita-like matzah. (Which is why Lot served it to his guests.)
Egypt, on the other hand, was a land of farming, which despised the nomadic lifestyle. As Yosef advises his brothers to tell Pharaoh: "You should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." The Egyptians had mastered the art of leavening bread, which was unknown to those from Canaan (which may be why Potiphar entrusted everything to Yosef except baking bread - see Bereishis 43:32). Baking leavened bread was of tremendous importance in Egypt - that is why there was a sar ha-ofim, a royal baker. Rameses III has a list containing an amazing variety of breads. But shepherds didn't and don't eat such things - they roam around free, without the burden of heavy ovens and without waiting around for bread to rise.
This would explain why there is an important prohibition against eating leavened bread on Pesach. It is a way of demonstrating that we left Egypt, the land known for its leavened bread, and we became free, like nomads, to travel to the Promised Land.
(This is an adaptation of a post that appeared two years ago. Thanks to David Ohsie for his input. For more on all this, see this article from Neot Kedumim, and also this article and this one. )
Friday, April 11, 2014
There's a new article in Tablet Magazine about the Jewish blogosphere, focusing on its relationship to rabbis and scholars, which includes quite extensive discussion of this blog. I'm pleased with its coverage, with one exception: the article describes this blog as having "brought an entire new worldview to the fore," whereas I would have preferred it to describe this blog as having brought new life to a dying traditional worldview. There's also a point that needs clarification: when Rabbi Eliyahu Fink says that "Slifkin revolutionized modern Orthodox Judaism," he means contemporary yeshivish Judaism, and is not referring to Modern Orthodoxy. You can read the article at this link: Online and Unabashed: Orthodox Rabbis and Scholars Take to the Internet.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
On the one hand, one person wrote as follows...
Rav Slifkin - Thank you so much for your bold and comprehensive contributions to this very unfortunate conflict that has broken out amongst Torah-observant Jews. As someone who became religious in University in Southern California in the 1970's, I thought Torah was beautiful and meaningful and the Jewish revival in Eretz Israel coming as a result of the Zionism movement was an inspiring fulfillment of the visions of the prophets. As the years passed it was unpleasant to see how things that seemed so obvious to me were not to large parts of the religious communities and how this lead to tragic discord. I really appreciate your invaluable contributions which allow us to get to a full understanding of the issues involved and I hope you will continue in this vein.But someone else wrote to me:
You’ve established yourself as a fanatic. You’ve moved yourself out of the fold. You are not a mentsch. You are spreading hate and darkness.Meanwhile, another person says:
But someone else says:Thank you Rabbi Slifkin for restoring honesty, real fear of G-d, compassion for our fellow man and sanity to the dialogue Klal Yisroel is having about what it means to be a Torah Jew. Without people like you, I would find it very challenging to maintain my faith in the Yeshiva-educated Orthodox community as being able to support an intelligent and moral way of life. You are mekadesh Shem Shamayim by restoring my faith and the faith of so many others in the great moral clarity and decency of rabbinical teachers such as yourself.
I understand you may have your differences with the chareidi community but the ongoing attempt to smear this community is sort of hurtful to many and probably falls under the Issur of talking lashon harah about an entire community. Now you probably will not listen to me but I truly think you should stick to this subtitle and stop consistently bashing a very large segment of the Jewish population.
Yet another person feels differently:
Such different reactions! The post earlier this week, The Angst of Anglo Charedi Converts, is a potent example of this. One person commented that they particularly appreciated it:I know some people comment that you should stick to the main subject of this blog (rationalist judaism), but I think you perform a valuable service with posts like this. If nothing else, you show that a person can study for years in yeshiva and still have enough common sense, decency, and empathy to see this army issue for what it is. This gives chizuk to those, such as myself, who hear the constant whining and arrogance that comes from the so-called "Torah world", and wonder if there is something about all of this Torah study that turns these people deaf to the basic unfairness of the blanket deferment they are so desperate to maintain.
Rav Natan, I really enjoyed this post. I found it to be qualitatively different from your other posts which are usually more centered around a Torah point. This was sociologically astute and full of very precise and sharp observations. I flirted in the past with many of the emotions and processes described here. Thanks!But someone very near and dear to me did not like it at all:
What was the point of that post? I hated it.Yet a rabbi heading a very important organization took a different view:
The Anglo Charedi post is perhaps one of the most important ever. Perhaps we should print it and distribute.Thus, very similar people - all of them good people - can have radically different views as to what kind of material they like to read. So if you don't like what I write here, you don't need to read it, but please realize that other people may find it very helpful!
On a different note - time is running out for the opportunity to sign up for the vacation of a lifetime! This summer, I will be guiding an adventure in Africa, visiting South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The luxurious and fully kosher trip includes not only game drives in a private reserve, but also a visit to Victoria Falls, a riverboat safari, a visit to a penguin colony, and much more! Plus, you'll learn about fascinating Torah perspectives on the animal kingdom. Please see the Torah in Motion website for an itinerary and sign-up details. Signup will be closing soon, so book now!
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
There's a funny video making the rounds lately. It starts as an advertisement for Bentley automobiles, and ends up being an advertisement for handmade matzos! The voice-over informs us that "Hand-made is always better" - and it tells us that this principle which is true for cars, is also true for matzos. "You can't ever compare the quality of hand made to mass machine made matzah," it says. "If you're going to do it, do it right."
The video is put out by Chabad, and reflects the Rebbe's insistence that his followers use Shmura handmade Matzah, at least for their sedarim. We are used to Chabad trying to spread Chabad ideology beyond its adherents. But there are others who are trying to spread its message.
We recently discussed the attempt of Rabbi Yair Hoffman to encourage everyone to eat one and a third matzos in two swallows in less than two minutes. In his latest column in the Five Towns Jewish Times and Yeshivah World News, he refers to the Bentley ad, and presents various arguments for and against the legitimacy of machine-made matzos. He concludes that "it would be proper, if possible to fulfill this Mitzvah in the manner that our forefathers have done and in a manner acceptable to most authorities," and thus to eat hand-made matzos. Is this true?
First, let's discuss the Bentley comparison. I've been in a Bentley, and I can agree that it is an extraordinary car. But does this mean that hand-made is always better? And is the superiority of a Bentley relevant to matzah? Let's take a look at another video about the manufacture of Bentley automobiles (actually, feel free to skip it - it's not that important):
Note that we are talking about a very small number of products, which are manufactured very slowly and carefully, by dedicated craftsmen who are presumably being paid very well. The possibility of human error is therefore very small. Second, and more significantly, it's not as though machine-made cars are likely to involve errors in their manufacture - they are less likely to do so. It's simply a matter of certain touches requiring fine motor skills that are better performed by hand. And note that certain parts of the Bentley manufacturing process, which require uniform processes done with great precision in rapid time, are done via machine!
With matzah, the Bentley advantage is simply irrelevant. There is no important aesthetic enhancement of matzah being produced by hand with fine motor skills. If we are talking about a concern to avoid the possibility of chametz, then machine-made matzah, which avoids human error and is more uniform across large scale processes, is superior.
In fact, this brings us to the fascinating case of the Liska Rebbe, described in Ami magazine. Due to "the fear that a small part of the Matzah that wasn’t baked properly can come in contact with liquid, thus rendering it chometz," the Liska Rebbe and his followers do not eat any matzah on Pesach except for the minimum quantity required at the seder. (The article notes that the Divrei Chaim was strongly opposed to this practice, yet the article states that this is a sacred custom.) Now, this is of course an extreme and arguably bizarre chumra. But it should be noted that it is based on actual incidents, and that this concern does not arise with machine matzos, only with handmade matzos. Thus, handmade is not always better.
There are, however, other concerns with machine made matzos. In particular, there is a question about whether machine matzos satisfy the requirement of being made with intent. There is no need to get into all the intricacies of that here; suffice it to note that there have been great rabbinic authorities on both sides of this dispute. Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher, for example, head of the Badatz Eidah Charedis, wrote that people should be scrupulous and only eat machine matzos, due to the absence of risk of human error. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ate machine matzos his entire life.
Now let us turn to Rabbi Hoffman's claim that "it would be proper, if possible to fulfill this Mitzvah in the manner that our forefathers have done and in a manner acceptable to most authorities." Let us first deal with the first part of his claim. Rabbi Hoffman's recommendation that a person should do what his forefathers have done appears to be recommending that people ignore family custom in favor of earlier historical practice. But is it not very problematic to tell people to ignore family minhag? And if he is recommending that people should do what our forefathers did in antiquity, does this mean that everyone should also eat soft matzah, and lettuce rather than horseradish for maror? (And that's just the tip of the iceberg!)
As for the notion of fulfilling a mitzvah "in a manner acceptable to most authorities" - this is really something that needs to be dealt with in a post on its own, analyzing whether halachah is about dealing with a metaphysical reality or following a correct decision-making process. For now, I will just note the following. If one does not have a particular family custom, or a rav to follow, then following the majority is one option - but another is to research the issue and form one's own conclusion. It's not as though hand made matzah is necessarily advantageous - as discussed above, some authorities feel that machine matzah is superior, while others feels that it is, at the very least, perfectly acceptable. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was considered one of the most significant halachic authorities of the generation, used machine matzos! And if one has a particular family minhag in this area, one should surely not abandon this merely in order to follow a majority of authorities (if it even is a majority of authorities), nor should one abandon it in order to adopt the historical practice of those who lived before machines had been invented. As I noted in my post Seder Historical Realities vs. Seder "Traditions," the living tradition is very significant, especially on Pesach. Dissuading people from following their traditions is not something to be done lightly.
(And while we're on the topic of doing mitzvos in the best possible way... the best way of giving tzedakah is to help people towards not needing tzedakah any more. Lemaan Achai is a local charity that excels at this. You can also fulfill the mitzvah of kimche d'Pischa with Lemaan Achai, via scrolling down at this link.)
Sources: Meir Hildesheimer and Yehoshua Liebermann, "The Controversy Surrounding Machine-made Matzot: Halakhic, Social, and Economic Repercussions," HUCA Vol. 75 (2004), pp. 193-262
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
With the term "Anglo charedi converts," also known as "Anglo charedi wannabees," I am not talking about people who converted to Judaism. Instead, I am referring to people who grew up Orthodox but not charedi. These people tend to be idealistic, sincere, and passionate. They want to be moser nefesh for higher goals. At some point, they wanted to become more serious about Judaism, and they received the impression that this meant becoming charedi. This often happens during the post-high-school year in Israel, especially if they attended one of those yeshivos that is supposedly for centrist/ modern Orthodox students but which has charedi rebbeim (such as Ohr Yerushalayim, Toras Shraga, etc.).
The Anglo charedi convert has changed his course in life as a result. He has eschewed the high-powered careers chosen by his classmates (unless he became charedi at a later stage in life). The Anglo charedi convert typically attended kollel, being reluctantly supported by his non-charedi father or father-in-law. He has lots of pictures of (charedi) Gedolim on his wall. His children are in charedi schools. He is very happy with his new social affiliation.
At least, until recently.
You see, most Anglo charedi converts can never truly become full-blooded charedim. They have been brought up with solid values about how to be a good citizen. They have an innate respect for government, and a special place in their hearts for the State of Israel. They read the non-Jewish press more than the charedi press, and thus identify with Israel against the rest of the world. They feel a swell of pride whenever they see an Israeli soldier. They think that some secular studies are beneficial. They are acutely conscious of how non-charedim view charedim.
How do Anglo charedi converts feel when they see everything that Israeli charedim do? It's very uncomfortable for them to see the utter contempt of Israeli charedim for the State of Israel, their lack of appreciation for the IDF, and their refusal to acknowledge the value of work. They are dumbfounded by the fighting between different Gedolim. The Anglo charedi convert may even feel, deep down, that there is something to this "share the burden" concept.
There are some Anglo charedi converts who realize that the charedi world is not the One True Way that it claims to be. These people disassociate from the charedi world, to a lesser or greater degree (see my article The Making Of Post-Haredim). But for most people that is too difficult a step. They have embedded themselves in charedi society, and it's too difficult socially, emotionally and psychologically to change path in life.
Some frankly admit to their discomfort with charedi society, especially with regard to recent events. (Several such people are readers of this blog.) But many do not want to admit to such problems with their chosen path. As a result, many Anglo charedi converts engage in denial.
These people refuse to discuss the statements made by Gedolim and rabbonim of the Rav Steinman/ Rav Auerbach camps about each other. They'll claim that the rallies in Jerusalem and Manhattan, staged as protest against the government, and designed with political goals (as evidenced by the location), were simply innocent prayer gatherings. They'll claim that Tehillim 69, calling for God to pour His wrath upon the evil heathens, was not recited at the rally as a reference to the Israeli government, even though this was quite obviously why it was being recited, and it was consistent with statements uttered by Rav Ovadiah Yosef and, yibadel lechaim, Rav Steinman. They'll claim that the Nachal Charedi unit in the IDF is a good thing and is evidence of charedi participation in the IDF, even though there are barely any charedim in it and the Gedolim at the rally forbade further participation in it. They'll claim that the Gedolim really support career-training programs for charedim, even though all evidence is against this. As a defense against criticisms of charedi society, they'll point to Anglo-charedim who have professional careers and who davven for the IDF, even though these are precisely the Anglo exceptions that prove the rule.
In addition, these Anglo charedi converts will try to shut down any critique of charedi society. (This is in contrast to Israeli charedim, who relish the argument.) They'll describe it as "bashing" or "hate-mongering" and they'll call for achdus, as we have seen on Cross-Currents. But really, they want to silence the criticism because it makes them uncomfortable and insecure about their path in life.
If the Anglo charedi converts are not able to change direction in life, one can only hope that they will positively influence the full-blooded charedim around them. Unfortunately, this is unlikely, since true charedim don't really respect Anglo charedim as charedim, just as sources of money. Still, one can hope!