Thursday, October 8, 2015

On being Mevazeh the Gedolim

A serious charge that is sometimes leveled in contemporary Orthodox society is "You are being mevazeh the Gedolim!" (The word mevazeh does not have a perfect English translation; the closest terms are "disparage" and "denigrate.") But what actually counts as being mevazeh the Gedolim? (Note that I am using the term Gedolim in its popular but inaccurate definition.) That is a fascinating question with some very disturbing answers. Respect for rabbinic authority is an important part of Jewish tradition. However, there is also a strong tradition of standing up for truth.

There are different scenarios to be discussed. Obviously I am not talking about name-calling or anything like that, which is surely never justifiable. (Strangely, however, there is a popular speaker who once referred to an important rabbinic leader as a "moron" and managed to get away with a very unconvincing apology - I think that this was because the rabbinic leader was not in the charedi camp.) Rather, I am talking about scenarios which don't involve obvious disrespect.

One is relating stories about the actions of the Gedolim which can be perceived as less than stellar. This, of course, is what happened with the famous case of Rav Nosson Kamenetzky's banned book Making of a Godol. That work presented biographical accounts of many Gedolim which were actually true, and thus very different from popular hagiographies. It included certain anecdotes which revealed these Gedolim to be human rather than superhuman. Controversy raged about whether or not this was disrespectful.

Another situation is disputing the positions taken by Gedolim. Many people are unfortunately of the opinion that this is automatically a sin of being mevazeh the Gedolim. Incredibly, Rav Chaim Kanievsky even stated that someone who supports one of the rival charedi political parties is guilty of being mevazeh the Gedolim! This, however, has no basis in Jewish tradition or Torah law. (An exception would be undermining the practical authority of rabbinic leaders of one's own community, which is certainly against Torah principles.) Of course, disputing people's positions should be done with due respect, but the nature of that respect is necessarily going to vary tremendously in different circumstances. For example, in some cases, there may genuinely be very little respect that is due. Another factor is that the nature of discourse varies between different cultures and societies - that which is considered par for the course in some places is viewed as unacceptably rude in other cultures.

The third situation is the most bizarre: quoting the positions taken by Gedolim. Now, you would think that there could be nothing objectionable about that. Yet this, too, is a case where many people consider it offensive. Marc Shapiro's important new book Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History provides countless examples of cases where positions of great Torah scholars were censored out of their works, because they were considered to be inappropriate.  This is very strange - after all, if you are publicizing the teachings of someone that you consider to be a great person, then surely you should respect their right to see things differently from you.

What happens when one actually goes ahead and quotes the strongly-held position of a Gadol in a case where his view is embarrassing to some people? I have done that on several occasions and have been accused of being mevazeh the Gedolim! My response is that if people have publicly voiced positions with significant ramifications, then these positions should be widely known, not suppressed. If there is any loss to their honor as a result, that is their own responsibility.

Unfortunately, for people who would like to put these figures on a pedestal and blind themselves to problematic positions they have taken, it's much easier to shoot the messenger than to honestly face up to reality.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Museum is Rocking!

The Biblical Museum of Natural History is rocking this Sukkos! We have tours running continuously from 9am through until 7:30pm, and most of them are sold out! Below are some amazing photos from the last few days. There are still some spots available tomorrow, Sunday and after chag - if you would like to come, please use the online reservation system at

One of the guides, Tuvia, with a prickly friend

Say "Ahhh!"

Now those are big eggs!

Here's looking at you, chameleon-eyes

Goodbye quail

Alas, poor Yorick!

Now that's a Kodak moment

I thought that I was seeing double

Thanks so much to our incredible staff, including administrative director Maayan Steele who set up all the Sukkos arrangements, expert associate guide Tuvia Frankel, office manager Tehila Cohen, and all the wonderful volunteers. And thanks to all our sponsors, especially our major benefactors Shlomo and Tamar Rechnitz, Stephen Schloss, and Lee Samson.
Hope to see you all at the museum soon!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Biblical Museum of Natural History

Check out this new promotional video for The Biblical Museum of Natural History - best played full-screen with the volume cranked up! Please help us out by sharing it with all your friends! (Note that if you are reading this post via email subscription, you will not be able to see the video - go to this link instead:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Rationalist Exodus

Yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of the Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy. Many people ask me how it affected me (to which the brief answer is that it was extremely painful for my wife and I, and had mixed results for my career), but a much more important question is how it affected society at large. Was it Good For The Jews or Bad For The Jews?

The ban certainly had a great impact on many people. I have a folder full of hundreds of letters that I received about it. While a few are from people hurling abuse at me, the vast majority are from people who were greatly distressed and shocked. Just a few weeks ago, I was speaking with someone that I hadn't seen in many years. This person, many years my senior, is a talmid chacham of note, "old school charedi," who is a product of mainstream charedi yeshivos. He told me that the ban on my books was a watershed in his life, causing him to fundamentally re-assess his view of the charedi world.

Not everyone is so honest with themselves. Someone else that I know recently sent me a letter that he received from "an extremely prominent and widely respected Rav" who described me as having become an apikores, but expressed sympathy for me. This Rav described me as having been "lynched and butchered by the kanaim and no one was willing to stick his neck out for him. I am not justifying his having become a mevazeh talmidei chachamim at all, but it’s difficult to not feel for him. He is a victim of some of the most embarrassing aspects of our society and we should not take pleasure in knocking him. The entire parsha is very painful and we should avoid discussing him altogether.”

This Rav would like to pin the entire episode on the kanaim, avoid discussing me, and not think about this painful episode. In reality, of course, you cannot pin all the blame on the low-level kanaim who are now in prison or otherwise disgraced. First of all, the charedi Gedolim were all willing to put their trust in these people, which speaks volumes about them. Second, several of the Gedolim, such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Moshe Shapiro, were at the forefront of the campaign. Third, the fact is that virtually all of the Gedolim were describing the positions of dozens of prominent Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah. But it's too uncomfortable for this prominent Rav to think about all that, so he would prefer to pin it all on the kanaim, dismiss me as a mevazeh talmidei chachamim, and and not think about the episode any further.

My impression is that as a result of the Gedolim's ban, many hundreds, even thousands, of people moved away from the charedi world to a greater or lesser degree. (I doubt that there were many people who moved in the opposite direction!) For some, it was just an internal feeling of disconnect. Others re-assessed the direction of their charity dollars - I know of one philanthropist in New York who kept a list on his desk of all the rabbonim who banned my works, so that if collectors would come, he would know who to turn away. For still others, there were actual lifestyle changes - taking off the black hat, choosing different schools and yeshivos for their children, and so on.

Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the controversy over my books was "the public issue most damaging to the Torah's honor and to its leaders in recent memory." (Incredibly, he pinned the blame for this on me!) It was certainly a chillul Hashem of historic proportions, but did it really harm rabbinic authority? I would argue that it only harmed it in a beneficial way - it decreased the rabbinic authority of some rabbis, but boosted that of others. In other words, it caused thousands of people to realize that that rabbis whom they had thought were their leaders were not actually suited to being their leaders. Most of these people then moved towards, or solidified their connection with, other rabbinic leaders, generally from the non-charedi world, who were on their hashkafic wavelength and whom they perceived as exercising rabbinic authority appropriately.

This, in turn, is something that would appear to be a very good thing. Not only are all these people now connected to rabbinic leaders who are much more suited to them, but they are also making better lifestyle choices. For example, they are more likely to support serving in the IDF rather than attend chilul Hashem rallies against it, and more likely to follow Chazal's directives about raising their children to be economically independent.

Overall, then, as painful as the ban was for me and for countless other people, I would say that it was Good For The Jews.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Okay, Okay, I Won't Call It That!

Well, I was inundated with comments and emails after yesterday's post about the book I am currently working on. Everyone agreed that the title I was toying with, One Judaism, Two Religions: Rationalism versus Mysticism, was an appalling idea. Thank you for your input, and I will abandon that title!

I liked two of David Bar-Cohn's suggestions the best. One was Rationalism Restored: Defending Jewish Intellectual History from Religious Revisionism. The other, which I prefer, was Rationalism vs Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. I like the way it presents the fact that there are very deep differences between the two worldviews, yet does not try to delegitimize either of them. That's an important component of my presentation, in which I always stress that while I personally identify with the rationalist worldview, I do not believe in trying to exterminate the other perspective.

Co-existence between the two groups is difficult. There is an unfortunate tendency among some mystics to brand rationalists as heretics, and there is an unfortunate tendency among some rationalists to brand mystics as idiots. But perhaps each can at least see that the other side has a long legacy, and that there are people for whom it is uniquely suited. It’s a case of different strokes for different folks.

Furthermore, fortunately Judaism is largely a religion of deed rather than creed. There are relatively few practical ramifications, on a daily basis, between rationalists and mystics. I myself daven at a wonderful tiny shteeble that contains both die-hard rationalists and staunch mystics, and we all get along just fine. It’s only when people give divrei Torah that the sparks fly.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Book Project

While the primary focus of my work is with The Biblical Museum of Natural History (don't forget to book a tour if you are coming to Israel!), my next publishing project is a book about rationalist Judaism. Originally, the planned title was going to be Rationalist Judaism: Its Nature, Decline and Rebirth. However, it has come to my attention that some people unfamiliar with this project think that it is about a different form of Judaism than Orthodox Judaism. Therefore, I think it's important for the title to clarify that it is about distinguishing between two approaches within Orthodox Judaism. Accordingly, I am toying with titles such as One Judaism, Two Religions: Rationalism versus Mysticism. But I am open to suggestions!

The plan is to divide the book into two parts. Part One will be a lengthy overview of the entire topic, similar to the lecture on this topic that I have delivered at many synagogues. It will include a brief synopsis of the topics in part two, as well as a brief review of the of issues discussed in Menachem Kellner’s important work Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism.

Part Two, Studies in Rationalist Judaism, will contain in-depth treatments of various subtopics. Some of these I have already e-published as monographs, while some are yet to be written. I plan to introduce each of them with an explanation of its relationship to the overall topic. Here is the list of chapters planned for this section:
  1. The Revolution in Approaching the Sages and Science: The Sun's Path at Night
  2. Maharal's Multiple Revolutions in Aggadic Scholarship
  3. Sod Hashem Liyreyav  - When God Reveals His Scientific Secrets
  4. Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists
  5. The Sages' Powers of Life and Death (written but not published)
  6. Wrestling with Demons 
  7. The Evolution of the Olive - perhaps including some supplementary material
  8. Angry Birds: The Nature of Shiluach haKein
  9. What Can One Do for Someone who has Passed Away?
  10. How did the Avos keep the Torah? (An expansion of this post, not yet written)
  11. Brain Death and Organ Donation (written but not published)
  12. The Transformation of Torah (Probably the most important and provocative chapter, documenting how the mitzvah of learning Torah has changed over the centuries, with all kinds of ramifications. It will be an expansion of several blog posts on this topic.)
  13. The Nature of Nature and Providence (Similar to my discussion of this topic in The Challenge Of Creation)
It will also include an appendix on the topic of the role of belief in Judaism, which I have already mostly written.

(This book will not include my monographs about the development of orthodoxy and the evolution of charedism. Those will hopefully appear in a future volume about Orthodoxy, as yet untitled. That volume will also include detailed studies of the topics of rabbinic authority, yeshivah study versus IDF service, and studying Torah versus working for a living. It probably won't be on sale at the Agudah convention.)

I would welcome suggestions regarding what material to include (and not to include!) in the book.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

But What Kind Of Ram?

We know that the best way to fulfill the mitzvah of shofar is with the horn of a ram. This is because one of the reasons for the shofar is to remind us of Avraham's binding of Yitzchak, and the ram that he offered in its place. But has anyone ever stopped to think about what kind of ram it was?

It occurred to me that it wouldn't have been an ordinary domestic sheep, since Avraham was out in the wilderness. Furthermore, as my friend Rabbi David Bar-Cohn pointed out, Avraham would presumably not have stolen someone's sheep! Thus, it would have been a wild variety of sheep - possibly the aoudad, but more likely the mouflon.

Mouflon shofars are not normally available; the one that is on display at The Biblical Museum of Natural History may be the only one in the world. It is spectacularly beautiful! There are no longer any wild mouflon in the Middle East;  contemplating Avraham's ram reminds us that many wild animals which used to live in the Land of Israel no longer do so.

A mouflon caught by its horns in a thicket. See this link.
I've added this tidbit to my monograph Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations, which has also been updated with new photos, and is freely available for download at this link.