Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOOYAH!!!

Booyah!!! Or, to use the more traditional terminology, Baruch shekivanti.

I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, due to two things that happened.

First was regarding the article that I published in England's Jewish Chronicle, in which I criticized those who were condemning Israel's action on the Gaza border. My particular target was an article by Daniel Sugarman which had appeared in that newspaper the previous day. Several people had said that I was wasting my time writing such things, since Israel-haters are not going to be swayed by any arguments. But I felt that some people criticizing Israel were not haters, but simply misinformed and ignorant of the situation. Well, today, Daniel Sugarman retracted and apologized, citing the arguments that I had made as one of his reasons! This shows that it is indeed worthwhile putting in effort to publicly defend Israel.

The second thing that happened relates to a topic that I have been busy with for some time. A few years ago, I grew suspicious of the popular notion that you can learn Torah l'iluy nishmas whoever you name, and transfer spiritual benefit to them. It seemed to me that there was no framework for such a notion in classical Judaism, which only allowed for this to work for one's ancestors and teachers. In an article that I published on this topic, What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?, I posited that organizations such as Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, and books such as The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah, were distorting the true picture, notwithstanding their marketing themselves as Torah scholars.

Of course, there were people who dismissed this as typical Slifkin apikorsus. And even I myself was wondering why nobody else was pointing this out. (Although I did suspect that this was because this fabricated concept is an excellent source of income for yeshivas and kollels.)

Then a friend told me that when he was studying in the yeshivah of the famous Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky in Jerusalem, a student once asked if Rav Kushlevsky could dedicate that day’s lecture to elevate the soul of his grandmother. Rav Kushlevsky replied that this was impossible; while his delivering the lecture would be a credit to his own grandmother, there was simply no way by which to transfer that credit to someone else’s grandmother, who had no role in enabling the lecture to take place.

Yesterday, something else came to light. Reader Yonason Rosman showed me that yet another distinguished rabbinic authority stated this - none other than Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz"l! Here is the quote, from Mesoras Moshe, a work compiled by his grandson and reviewed by R. Shmuel Fuerst:
Rabbi Rivlin requested that I ask our Rabbi if there is an advantage to declare, when fulfilling a mitzvah, that the mitzvah is in memory of the soul of one's parents, or if there is indeed any such notion of expanding upon the principle that "a son provides merit for his father."
And our Rabbi responded that this is a very difficult thing to know. For how is it relevant to sell, to transfer the merit for a mitzvah that one does, to someone else? And simply speaking, that which we say, when learning Mishnayos in memory of someone, that it is for their merit, does not refer to the actual [reward for the] mitzvah, for the actual reward is received by the one doing the studying. Rather, it is that since this [deceased] person is the cause that this person is studying, then he receives credit for it. And this is the standard concept which exists with a child, that all his deeds are the consequence of his parents - and thus it does not appear possible to add to this reality. But this is not a clear matter - perhaps there is a concept within Kabbalah regarding this, and it requires further investigation.

In other words, there is no such thing as doing a mitzvah on behalf of someone else. The most that you can say is that if the person is the cause of your doing a mitzvah - such as with a parent, who is the cause of your existence and education - then they receive credit for being the cause. Beyond that, there is no way to transfer the reward or credit for a mitzvah to somebody else. Unless there is some sort of unknown kabbalistic concept - which would go against normative rabbinic and logical thought.

It's nice to see that other people have reached the same conclusion as me. But don't expect to see this quote from Rav Moshe Feinstein appear on the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, or in the next edition of The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah. It's not good for business.

Meanwhile, the lesson is, strive for truth, and when you have sufficient reason to think you've found it, don't be afraid to say so - and if you have indeed discovered the truth, then you're probably not the first to do so!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Armchair Soldiers

Here is an article that I just had published in England's Jewish Chronicle. Which is pretty remarkable, considering that the target of my criticism was their very own editor and writers.


Last summer, my sister was sitting with her family at Shabbat dinner, when suddenly they heard screaming from their next-door neighbor's house. My brother-in-law ran next door to find a nineteen-year-old Palestinian stabbing the neighbors to death. My nephew, an off-duty soldier, shot the terrorist, which incapacitated him (but did not kill him). Then he checked that the house was safe, and attempted to help the wounded, until the security forces arrived.

In the aftermath, many people were criticizing my nephew for not killing the terrorist. It's painful to see pictures of the terrorist smiling proudly in court, secure in the knowledge that his family will receive more than a million dollars as a reward from the Palestinian authority, knowing that he will one day walk free, while three members of the Salomon family lie underground and the surviving family members had their lives shattered. Why didn't my nephew shoot to kill?

Such criticisms came from armchair soldiers - people with little knowledge of combat scenarios beyond what they've seen in James Bond. People with actual knowledge of such things are aware that such situations are chaotic, and that there's rarely such a thing as "shoot to kill." You shoot to stop what's happening as quickly as possible, and the largest target is the torso. Once the attacker is neutralized, it's up to the courts to decide what to do with him. The IDF was extremely proud of my nephew's professional conduct and awarded him a medal. The goal of soldiers is not to kill terrorists; it's to follow the rules of engagement under very difficult conditions.

A different group of people are acting as armchair soldiers with regard to the situation on the border with Gaza. "Why did the IDF have to kill anyone? Why didn't they stop them some other way?" Such criticism invariably comes from people with no experience or knowledge of such situations. If they would bother doing proper research before publicly condemning Israel, they would discover the facts of the situation.

The IDF does not want to kill anyone - if you speak to people in the IDF, you would know that. And it's absolutely not in Israel's interests to do so. But sometimes, situations arise in which there is simply no choice, if you want to prevent much worse bloodshed from happening.

There were not only protestors present - there were also numerous Hamas terrorists armed with butcher knives, guns and firebombs, whose explicitly declared goal (as can be seen in video footage) was to break into Israel and kill people. The terrorists were mixed together with the protestors in several huge mobs. And there is simply no way to stop them at a distance without using guns. The IDF used tear gas, but its effectiveness is dependent on wind conditions, and the canisters can be quickly buried or thrown away. Rubber bullets only work at short range. And you can't wait for it to be a short-range confrontation - with a mob of thousands, many of whom are armed, it would turn into a sheer bloodbath, on both sides.

"But Israel is so technologically advanced, there must be non-lethal ways of stopping them!" No, there aren't. No army in the world has yet discovered a way of stopping enemy combatants without using bullets. Maybe one day there will be such technology, but it does not yet exist. It's the height of irresponsibility to condemn Israel's actions based on a completely fictitious, baseless claim of the existence of "alternative technologies."

"But it ends up being so disproportionate - sixty Gazans dead, and no Israelis dead!" This is perhaps the most bizarre criticism of all. Should Israel wait until the Gazans had broken through the fence and killed some Jews before stopping them from killing any more? You don't measure the morality of a confrontation with terrorists or of a war by comparing the number of dead on each side.

Unless you're one of the many outright antisemites who believe that Israel has no right to prevent its civilians from being butchered by terrorists, then please, show some responsibility. Don't criticize the IDF's method of preventing a larger bloodbath if you don't have any expertise in this area. Learn what the IDF says about these situations. Contact soldiers (as I did) and listen to what they have to say. If you don't trust the IDF, then listen to what Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, has to say about the absolutely necessity and propriety of what the IDF did.

Don't be an armchair soldier. It's morally irresponsible. And it's plain stupid.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Top Ten Stupidest Criticisms of Israel's Actions on the Gaza Border



1) People have a right to peacefully protest! (Indeed they do. But there are plenty of people here who are taking butcher knives and firebombs and guns to storm the border and kill and kidnap Israeli civilians.)

2) There is no evidence of that! (Yes there is. There are Arabic Facebook pages and interviews and photos.)

3) But it's not all the Gazans who are doing that! (Right. And it's not all the Gazans who are being shot!)

4) Israel is just trying to kill as many Gazans as possible! (If it was, there would be carnage like in Syria. Israel is trying to avoid killing Gazans - aside from anything else, it is politically very damaging.)


5) Israel should just use tear gas! (They have, but it often doesn't work, such as when it's windy, or when the Gazans have gas masks and bury the canisters.)


6) Israel should only use rubber bullets! (They often can't, because these only work at short range.)


7) Israel should just arrest them! (If soldiers went up to the crowds to do that, there would be a bloodbath.)


8) Israel is so technologically advanced, there must be a way to stop them without shooting them! (No army in the world has yet found a way to repel armed attackers without ever using bullets)


9) It's so disproportionate - so many Gazans wounded or killed, and no Israelis! (So what?! When you are repelling an armed invasion, there is no reason to let them kill more of you before continuing to stop them!)


And the Top Stupidest Argument is...:

10) The Palestinians have legitimate grievances! (Even if this were true, are you claiming that Israel should therefore just let them storm the border and butcher its civilians?!)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Fake Chazals

Here is a fascinating and disturbing exposé of a Fake Chazal, and an explanation of how it comes into being.

As you may recall, a few years ago I e-published a study entitled "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In that study, I discussed the popular notion that a person can learn Torah and designate the spiritual rewards for any deceased person, by declaring that they are learning l'iluy nishmasam. I argued that this notion is of extremely recent origin - no more than 150 years old. Traditionally, there was only a concept that your Torah and mitzvos can benefit your ancestors (and teachers), because your good deeds only exist as a result of them. There's just no mechanism for your Torah study to benefit a person who had no formative influence on you.

Recently I was looking at the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishna, the institution which takes your funds in order to support kollel students studying l'iluy nishmas your loved one. (This is the institution which published the popular book The Neshama Should Have An Aliyah.) On their website, accompanying some bold claims - "Imagine the merits that can be amassed for your dearly departed loved ones, as well as for yourself and your family, by tapping into the merit of Torah learning by dedicated, serious Torah scholars!" - there is a page of sources to back up their claims. It's a pretty slim list; just four sources are cited, of which three are contemporary works! The only pre-modern source that they provide is a second-hand citation from a contemporary work called P’nei Boruch, which they report as saying the following:
“Our Sages have said that Asher, son of the Patriarch Jacob, sits at the entrance to Gehinnom (Purgatory), and saves [from entering therein] anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied."
That indeed seems very explicit. Chazal themselves said that anyone who is having Mishnah studied on their behalf, will be saved from Gehinnom. Better get out your checkbook!

When I came across this, I was very taken aback. If true, it would completely disprove my thesis.

However, over the years, I have learned not to trust citations of sources. (Remember when Dialogue journal published a critique of my kezayis article by Dovid Kornreich, which quoted websites as stating that the Romans cultivated and exported olives in northern Europe, and these quotes turned out to be completely fabricated?)

So I decided to look into this citation from Chazal. And, lo and behold, I discovered that no such source exists.

First of all, you have to wonder: If Chazal did indeed say such a thing, why didn't Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cites the source from Chazal directly, instead of citing a second-hand attribution from the contemporary work P’nei Boruch? The reason is that no such source in Chazal can be found. Not in Bavli, not in Yerushalmi, not in Midrash. The earliest reference I was able to find is the Chida, attributing it to earlier authorities (Chazal?), yet he too does not provide any source.

But here's the kicker. Even if one were to find it in some long-lost Midrash, this alleged statement from Chazal does not at all say what Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cite it as saying! What it actually says, as quoted both by Chida and in Pnei Baruch, is that Asher son of Yaakov saves anyone who studies Mishnah - not anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied!

Now, Pnei Baruch does follow this quote with a claim that this would also apply to anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied. However, he provides absolutely no support for this claim - and it's certainly not part of the alleged citation from Chazal!

On the website of Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, it states that "we strive to address any and all questions, concerns and issues that you may have. If at any time you need to reach us, please do not hesitate to contact us via phone or email, any time!" Well, I wrote to them twice, pointing out this distortion of the alleged source from Chazal, but they did not respond. Feel free to check out the sources yourself, by following the links above. Then you can write to info@chevrahlomdeimishnah.org, and ask them why did they change the source, and why they are presenting all this as normative, traditional Judaism when there is in fact no source in Chazal or the Rishonim for this concept.

Perhaps you're wondering why I am making such a fuss about this. Well, it's because if there's one thing that bothers me more than people manipulating sources (and you'd hope for better from people who market their services as "serious Torah scholars"), it's people manipulating sources so that they can manipulate people for money.


Coming up soon: an inspirational post about a very different new initiative for commemorating the deceased. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog, using the form on the right of the page.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Anonymous Enemies and Friends

Within the last day, I received two anonymous communications.

One was from a person who named himself as "The Torah Coach from Volozhin." His email, sent to me and to several other people I know, included the following:
One of the most cloudy areas in today’s world is regarding the correct ideology about the Authority and Kedushah of Chazal and our other great Sages throughout the generations. We are surrounded and sometimes infiltrated by “scholars” who would like to lower the correct level of Chazal in our eyes. And yes you can be assured that they have a wicked agenda in their attempt to do so.
The Torah Coach from Volozhin has a solution to this problem:
A few years ago an amazing anthology on this subject was printed under the name “Haim BeEmunatham”. This anthology is collected from 100’s of seforim over the ages which discuss these issues. It is absolutely a must-read for every authentic Jew as especially those that are in any Chinuch position.
Since this very important work is almost impossible to find at your local Seforim store, we are including it here. Please take the time to read it, digest and incorporate it into your life. Get it here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1_ZDQZczx7cpXK6H1LhRDxl7CGbLAl3OF/view?usp=sharing
Have a great day in Torah and Yiras Shamayim
The Torah Coach from Volozhin 
Now, long-time readers of this website may recall that the notorious Chaim B'Emunatam is one of the most dishonest works ever written. Written by Reuven Schmeltzer, one of the engineers of the ban on my books, it distorts and even edits the Rishonim so as to claim that nobody ever said that Chazal made scientific errors, and that it is heretical to do so. So I replied to him as follows:
Dear Anonymous "Torah Coach from Volozhin,"
If, as you claim, you are concerned about the honor of great Torah scholars, how can you recommend this sefer? Perhaps you have not read it carefully, but I have never seen a book which shows more DISrespect to  great Torah scholars. The author of this book actually re-arranges the words of Rambam in order to distort their meaning! And he slanders the writings of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch! And he disregards countless Rishonim whom he doesn't like!
Attached is a critique of the book, in both English and Hebrew, which details many of the problems with it. I trust that you write to all the people that you recommended this book too, and tell them that you were unaware that the book actually demonstrates tremendous disrespect to our greatest Torah scholars among the Rishonim and Acharonim.
Best,
Natan Slifkin
The reply was swift in coming:
I know you Slifkin.  I read chaim bshakrusom.  You are not an authentic jew.  You are an authentic elephant rider.  You are also a certified supreme idiot and ignormous. A bum and a scum. Go to Africa  leave judaism to authentic jews. It is forbiiden to debate anything with  with you. Dpaker Tfei  Maybe Sid Leiman will talk with you i will not. 
How charming!

It was slightly unpleasant to receive this correspondence. Subsequently, I was informed of another anonymous communication, received by the museum foundation office. Sent by way of a charitable foundation that disguises the source of the donors when they so request, it was a five-figure contribution to The Biblical Museum of Natural History!
I think that the latter anonymous communication more than made up for the former! Thank you, whoever you are!


UPDATE: It wasn't too difficult to discover the identity of the Torah Coach from Volozhin, because his email address, therabbicoach@volozhinyeshiva.com, revealed his website, where he is announced as Rabbi Yehoshua Skolt, leading disciple of Rav Avigdor Miller and chavrusa of Rav Chaim Kanievsky. I have no idea if they would describe him in the same way.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Magnetism and Miracles

Following is a brief address that I delivered today at the dedication of the Lee and Anne Samson Interventional Neuro-Radiology Unit at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital.
 

Mayor Barkat, Professor HaLevy, my dear father-in-law, HaRav Drori, HaRav Stav, Rav Karlinsky, Former Minister Livnat, distinguished guests - and my kids,

It's very special to be at this event, the dedication of the Lee and Anne Samson Interventional Neuro-Radiology Unit, for four reasons.

First, because it is dedicated by, and in honor of, my wonderful father-in-law and my beloved late mother-in-law.

Second, because this is a unit that will be improving and saving lives, and you don't get much more important causes than that.

Third, because this is a tremendous achievement for Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world.

But it's the fourth reason that I would like to focus upon, because it occurred to me that it might be overlooked. And that is the religious significance of Interventional Neuro-Radiology.

Interventional Neuro-Radiology uses highly sophisticated imaging techniques - a combination of magnetic fields, electric field gradients, and radio waves - to enable surgical procedures to be performed through small incisions in the skin, directly inside the affected blood vessels.

Eight hundred years ago, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, perhaps better known by the acronym Rashba, wrote a heated critique of Rambam. One of his critiques was related to Rambam's dismissal of all magic as being superstitious nonsense. Rashba argues that there is clear evidence against Rambam's position. He says that there are phenomena that undeniably exist, and yet for which there can be no scientific explanation. The example that he brings is the magnet, and its use in a compass. These things operate neither in the realm of the miraculous, nor in the realm of the natural; instead, they operate in the realm of segulah, which is probably best translated as "occult properties." Rashba notes that "the wisest of scholars in the sciences can never grasp the nature" of such things.

Eight hundred years later, nobody would argue that magnets, and other forces of a non-tangible nature, are not in the realm of the natural. We understand a tremendous amount about magnetism and radiation and all kinds of energy fields, and we realize that even though you can't see magnetism or radiation, they are nevertheless natural properties of the physical universe. The people who design and use the equipment in the Interventional Neuro-Radiology unit are scientists and technicians, not wizards.

But this does not mean that these machines are not miraculous! The fact that the universe exists with invisible and yet real and regular forces, which man has been able to use his mind to discover, and which he has even learned how to generate and to manipulate, to see inside his very own body - is this not a miracle? It surely is. It's a tremendous expression of the wonder of the universe that God has created. So, as we stand here today, grateful for this medical marvel, we should also marvel at the wonder of God's universe, that made it possible. Thank you.

When Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

It is popularly believed that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence - or, to present what appears to be the Talmudic equivalent, לא ראינו אינו ראיה. Often, however, this is not true, and absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.

Let's take Bigfoot - the large, hairy, ape-like creature that is said to stalk the forests of north-western America. There is no actual evidence for its existence. Now, you might think that this does not mean that there is any evidence that Bigfoot does not exist. But it does indeed mean that.

The reason is that if Bigfoot existed, there couldn't just be one or even a few of them. No species exists as just a few individuals. There would have to been, over history, hundreds of thousands of them. And while it is certainly possible that a handful of individuals could exist without leaving any evidence for others to find, it is inconceivable that hundreds of thousands could exist without leaving any evidence behind. The absence of any evidence for Bigfoot is indeed evidence that Bigfoot has never existed.

So absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence if the phenomenon would be expected to produce evidence. It is important to grasp this point, because it has significant ramifications for discussions about Torah - in particular, the history of rabbinic scholarship.

Recently I have been involved in various online Torah discussions in which people asked for rabbinic sources to back up a certain idea. The presumption appeared to be that if you can find some source - any source - then it shows that the idea is a legitimate, normative idea in Judaism. And if you can't - well, it still could well be that the idea is normative, and we just haven't found the source yet.

But you have to consider the situation. If the idea is indeed normative, then surely you would expect it to be widely discussed by Chazal and certainly the Rishonim. If there is no discussion of it, then this is evidence that they did not believe the idea to exist. If there are only one or two sources discussing it, then this is evidence that it is not normative.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony that during the Great Science-Torah Controversy, this is exactly what the Gedolim accused me of doing, with regard to sources claiming that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters. But the point is that they got it exactly backwards. The notion that Chazal were fallible in science is not an aberrant view, but is in fact that of a major school of thought in rabbinic history. Whereas the idea that Chazal knew everything about the world from ruach hakodesh is not found in any early sources, and is countered by countless Gemaras and other sources.)

This is a point of general importance, but it is also of particular importance with regard to the topic that I saw being discussed. This was the notion that you can learn Torah and designate the reward/benefits to the spiritual bank account of anyone that you like, as long as you mention their name. As I discussed in my monograph "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" there is no early source for such a concept; in fact, the earliest authorities to discuss such things explicitly state that there is no such concept. You can't do mitzvos and designate the reward to be sent to whomever you want. So, when people are failing to find sources for such a notion, they should not conclude that the sources are out there and they just haven't found them yet. Rather, the correct conclusion is that this is not a normative, classical idea in Judaism.

BOOYAH!!!

Booyah!!! Or, to use the more traditional terminology, Baruch shekivanti . I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, due to two things tha...