Monday, February 20, 2017

The Most Important Rabbi That Americans Have Never Heard Of

Many people make the mistake of confusing American Centrist or Modern Orthodoxy with Israeli Religious Zionism. While there are major areas of overlap, and certainly an average right-wing YU graduate with a black hat is much closer to Israeli religious Zionist than to Israeli charedi (contrary to what such a person often believes), there are also significant points of difference (which is a topic for another time). It is also the case that the rabbinic leaders of the Israeli religious Zionist community are often virtually unknown outside of Israel.

Rav Eliezer Melamed is one such person. He is the Rosh Yeshivah of Har Beracha and the author of the Peninei Halacha series. In Israel, he is incredibly influential, with over half a million of his halachic works in print (and, unlike many other works, actually read). Yet in the US, he is virtually unheard of, and his sefarim are generally unavailable (though fortunately, Koren Publishers have begun marketing English editions of his works, translated by Rabbi Elli Fischer).

But Rav Melamed is not only important and influential. He is also a Rav whose approach to both halacha and hashkafa is outstanding and will resonate strongly with many US/Anglo Orthodox Jews. It will also come as a welcome surprise to them, especially if they have only previously been exposed to charedi rabbinic authorities. Rav Melamed is also not afraid to speak his mind.

In the past, I have referenced Rav Melamed's extraordinary essay on "Who Are The Gedolei HaTorah?" in which he wrote: "Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvot of yishuv haaretz and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions." In forthcoming posts, I plan to discuss several aspects of his writings, in particular those on Torah study (from the volume Likkutim I) and on the laws of marital intimacy (from the volume Simchat Habayit V'birchato and the companion Harchavot volume). Meanwhile, if you have a way to get these sefarim from Israel, I highly recommend them!

When Economists Get It Wrong

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was a Jewish Austrian-American economist. In his 1949 book Human Action, he wrote as follows:
"Yet as soon as a religious community enters the field of political action and tries to deal with problems of social organization, it is bound to take into account earthly concerns, however this may conflict with its dogmas and articles of faith. No religion in its exoteric activities ever ventured to tell people frankly: The realization of our plans for social organization will make you poor and impair your earthly well-being. Those consistently committed to a life of poverty withdrew from the political scene and fled into anchoritic seclusion. But churches and religious communities which have aimed at making converts and at influencing political and social activities of their followers have espoused the principles of secular conduct. In dealing with questions of man's earthly pilgrimage they hardly differ from any other political party. In canvassing, they emphasize, more than bliss in the beyond, the material advantages which they have in store for their brothers in faith."
There is at least one clear counterexample to Von Mises' claim. In the infamous Pigs In Streimels rally, various charedi gedolei Torah sought to dissuade the audience of Beis Yaakov girls from attending charedi college programs. Most of the speakers promised the girls that by obeying their directive, they would be blessed with adequate parnasah. However, Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch of Slabodka Yeshivah stated frankly that modern charedi society puts people in a very difficult financial position - the women do not earn enough of a salary to support the family and the husband is in kollel - but, he stated, the spiritual price of the wife attending a chareidi college is too great to pay, and charedim must consign themselves to ever-worsening economic ruin.

While Rav Moshe Hirsch's scale of values is hard for the rest of us to accept, his honesty - directly refuting Von Mises' observations about how religious communities usually function - is very refreshing!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Human Approach to Halakha

In the previous post, "Robot Rabbis," I cited Rabbi J. David Bleich's strange claims that it is impossible for a posek to change his approach over the years, or to be a machmir or a meikil. In response to my post, a leading scholar of rabbinic intellectual history referred me to a fascinating article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz"l, entitled "The Human and Social Factor in Halakha." This scholar informed me that he was told that Rav Aharon specifically wrote this article as a critique of Rabbi Bleich's approach. While this must refer to earlier examples of Rabbi Bleich's approach rather than the statements that he made in the interview, here is an extract from the article that precisely refutes his comments in the interview:
...the cogency and legitimacy of a “human” approach to pesak, appears, to many, problematic. They would have us believe that the ideal posek is a faceless and heartless supercomputer into whom all of the relevant data is fed and who then produces the right answer. Should this standard not be met, the shortfall is to be regarded as a failing, the lamentable result of human frailty—in Bacon’s terms, a manifestation of the besetting “idols” which hamper and hinder the capacity for reasoned judgment. On this reading, the process of pesika, properly conceived and executed, bears no semblance to an existential encounter between seeker and respondent. It entails, rather, the application of text to problem, the coupling of code and situation. This conception does not necessarily preclude reckoning with the specific circumstances of the question and questioner, as these may very well be part of the relevant objective data. The prevailing tendency, however, would be to dwarf this factor; and as to the human aspect of the meshiv, that would be obviated entirely. He, for his part, is to be animated by the precept that “we do not have mercy in judgment,” and hence, to pass on the merits of the issue with imperviously stony objectivity.
Purist proponents of this approach often cry it up as the “frum” view of pesika. In reality, however, this portrait of a posek is mere caricature, limned by those who, at most, kar’u ve-shanu, but certainly lo shimshu. As anyone who has been privileged to observe gedolim at close hand can readily attest, they approach pesak doubly animated by responsibility to halakha and sensitivity to human concerns. The balance between norm and need may be variously struck. There certainly are ideological differences among posekim over how much weight to assign the human factor—although, as Rav Avraham Schapira once noted, the classical meshivim are likely to be among the more lenient, inasmuch as inquirers are disinclined to turn to mahmirim. In principle, however, recognition of this factor is the rule rather than the exception; and responsa include frank acknowledgments of this theme. Writing to a colleague who had dissented from a lenient pesak he had rendered with regard to an aguna, Rav Hayyim Volozhiner asserts:
"And I saw that in most matters, we were of like mind, except for [the fact that] his honor leans towards stringency, since the matter does not depend upon him. Likewise, before the yoke of practical decision was thrust upon me, I too did not incline toward the leniencies arising from [legal] analysis. In our great sins, however, the generation has been orphaned of sages, and now the yoke of practical halakhic decision-making has been thrust upon me, for in our entire region they do not free [agunot] in any manner without the concurrence of my meager opinion. Therefore I have taken counsel with my Maker, and feel obliged to gird all my strength and devote myself to remedying [the situation of] agunot. And may the blessed Lord save me from error."
Note that in contrast to Rabbi Bleich's assertion that "there is no such thing as a machmir and a meikil" and "anyone who talks in that language is not a posek," Rav Aharon both uses that language and quotes others who do likewise. Likewise, note that in contrast to Rabbi Bleich's claim that it is impossible (and even sacrilegious) for a true posek to change his approach over the years, Rav Chaim Volozhiner states explicitly that he changed his own approach.

(The article is online in PDF format at this link, and there is also a text version at this link, but that version lacks formatting to distinguish Rav Lichtenstein's own words from the sources that he cites.)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Robot Rabbis?

Several years ago, I was engaged in a debate with someone about the philosophical beliefs of a certain great historical rabbinic figure. As the debate progressed, I realized that it was futile, because I discovered that my disputant firmly believed that if this great figure had the beliefs that I ascribed to him, then he would be outside the pale of Jewish thought and could not even merit the World-to-Come - which was clearly inconceivable. I pointed out to my disputant that this premise meant that he was fundamentally biased and incapable of accepting or objectively evaluating my arguments. To my amazement, he responded that he could "categorically state" that he has "no tendency that prevents an unprejudiced consideration of this question"! Even more fantastically, he further insisted that he did not even have a bias towards his own previously stated position! So, not only was my opponent fatally biased, but he could not even accept that he had any bias at all, even those that all human beings have!

I was reminded of this upon reading a recent Jewish Press interview with Rabbi J. David Bleich upon the release of the seventh volume of his Contemporary Halachic Problems (which I previously critiqued with regard to his denial of scientific errors in the Talmud and his view on Rambam's attitude to magic). Part of the interview goes as follows:
This is your seventh volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems. Has there been any change over the years in how you approach halachic questions? 
How could there be? The halacha is the same and the methods of dealing with it are the same.
Have you perhaps become more machmir or more meikil over time? 
Heaven forfend. I don’t know what those words mean. There is no such thing as a machmir and a meikil. Anyone who talks in that language is not a posek. There is a halacha and there is an assessment of pros and cons and different positions and then you apply it in a concrete situation. Sometimes the ruling is more stringent, sometimes it’s less stringent. But the categories of machmir and meikil are extra-halachic. These words shouldn’t even be bandied about.
Rabbi Bleich apparently views ideal poskim in general, and himself in particular, as being nothing other than machines, coldly evaluating the sources and issuing a pesak, with no human component. Hence, it is not possible to ever develop new perspectives that change one's approach, or to have tendencies towards stringency or leniency. Furthermore, he considers it utterly unthinkable to propose otherwise.

Now, this could be challenged with many historical counter-examples. But aside from that, consider the innate problems with it.  Poskim undeniably have different views on things, reflecting differences in their nature and/or nurture. Why would it be impossible for one type of person to change into a different type of person?

Rabbi Bleich's view of himself, as some sort of super-human whose approach could never change, seems very strange. But it is entirely consistent with his reputation for reacting very strongly whenever someone corrects him on an error. It is also consistent with his position that Chazal were immune from issuing rulings based upon scientific error; after all, if he is superhuman, then kal v'chomer Chazal were!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Lord of the Flies

There's a video making the rounds, titled "Bringing a Fly Back to Life - Via Kabbalah!" It beings by showing a drowned fly floating in a cup of water. The person producing the video cites Rav Benayahu Shmueli (a disciple of Rak Kaduri and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hamekubalim Nahar Shalom), who says that if one takes such a dead fly, and places ashes on it, it will come back to life. The person then carefully takes out the fly, puts it on the table, and scatters some cigarette ash on it. To the shocked gasps and exclamations of the onlookers, the fly returns to life! As the speaker explains, this is a kiddush Shem Shamayim, showing that the words of the Sages are true.

You can really see this on the video! Here it is (if you are reading this via email subscription, you will have to visit to see the video):

Okay, so what's going on here? First of all, the original source (or rather, the earliest rabbinic source that I know of) is in Shevet HaMussar from Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen Itamari (1659-1729), also known for his work Midrash Talpiyot. However, he does not present it as some kind of kabbalistic insight. Instead, he just presents it as a fact of the world.

The fact that drowned flies sometimes come back to life was noticed by others, too. Benjamin Franklin wrote about it, as did others. A simple Google search shows that this phenomenon is widely known, with the slight variation of using salt rather than ashes to bring the fly back to life. The explanation of this amazing phenomenon is entirely straightforward.

Insects do not breathe through their mouths. Instead, they have tubes all over their bodies, called spiracles, via which they obtain oxygen. If the insect is submerged in water, the spiracles are blocked and the insect falls unconscious. But if you sprinkle salt (or ashes) upon it, this draws the water out of the spiracles, and the insect returns to consciousness. Of course, this is not actual techiyat hameitim; it does not work if the fly is actually dead.

Fascinatingly, this was guessed at by the one of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. Rabbi Dovid Sperber (1875-1962) was a leading rabbinic authority in Romania who was appointed to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael. In his She’eilos U’teshuvos Afarkasta De’anya, vol. II, Orach Chaim 52, he discusses Rabbi Itamari's statement about the fly in light of the prohibition against killing insects on Shabbos. Rabbi Sperber asks whether it would be permissible to dispose of a fly on Shabbos by throwing it in a cup of water. He first reasons that although the fly can come back to life, this does not mean that one is allowed to kill it, just as it is forbidden to kill a person even if the murder victim is subsequently miraculously brought back to life. However, he concludes that although Rav Itamari speaks about the fly actually dying, this is not the case; rather, when the fly is in the water, it merely becomes inactive.

So, while there is something fascinating here, it's not at all miraculous, and it's not a demonstration of kabbalah, and nor was it even originally suggested to be anything of the sort. It's a simple observation of a known phenomenon with a perfectly reasonable explanation. The same, however, cannot be said for the second part of Rav Itamari's statement - where he says that if the flies are sealed in a jar of water for forty days, they turn into frogs!

שבט מוסר פי"א: זבובים שנפלו למים ומתו, אם תשימם בשמש ותשליך אפר מקלה עליהן חוזרין לחיותן, ואם תמלא צלוחית מים עד חצי' ותשליך בתוכה זבובים ותסתום פי הצלוחית עד ארבעים יום, מתהפכים הזבובים לצפרדעים.

Now, although Rabbi J. David Bleich claims that such things are not at all contradicted by reason, I beg to differ. Show me flies in a sealed jar turning into frogs, and I will give up on rationalism!

(Thanks to Rabbi Chaim Rapoport for sending me the sources)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

King David's Groundhog Day

According to American folklore, a groundhog first emerges from hibernation on February 2nd. If it is cloudy, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.

Amazingly, the groundhog's hibernation is actually mentioned in the Midrash - at least, in the view of some.
"And the Lord God cast a slumber (tardemah) upon him" (Gen. 2:21)... Rav said: There are three types of slumber: that of sleep (shenah), that of prophecy, and that of marmita... (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 17:5)
The Midrash explains that the last type of slumber occurred with the camp of King Saul, when David sneaked in and removed Saul's spear and water-jug:
That of marmita: "Nobody saw or knew or woke up, for they were all sleeping; for a slumber of God had descended upon them" (I Samuel 26:12) (Midrash ibid.)
The slumber of the mysterious marmita is the deepest type of sleep - but what is a marmita?

Opinions vary. But several opinions (including Anaf Yosef, Rashash, and R. Yosef Schonhak) argue that it is the animal known in Europe as the marmot, which is known to North Americans as the groundhog. Marmots enter a deep hibernation during the cold winter; their heartbeat slows to around five beats a minute, while they only take one to three breaths a minute. The Midrash says that such a deep sleep was placed upon Shaul's camp by Hashem, so that David was able to steal in and out undetected. Nobody in Shaul's camp woke up; it was as though time itself was frozen.

Although the phenomenon of hibernation was known to ancient writers such as Aristotle and Pliny, I haven't been able to discover if there is indeed basis for interpreting the Midrash in this way. If anyone has further light to shed on this, please do so!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Making Magic With Maimonides

Here's something interesting. Lest you thought that Rabbi J. David Bleich's anti-rationalist stance was limited to claiming that spontaneous generation is scientifically viable and denying that the Sages ever based a halachic decision on a mistaken understanding of the natural world (and attempting to ignore or minimize those who say otherwise), as discussed in the previous post, I found another example, in a completely different field.

In a chapter entitled "Liability for Harm caused by Metaphysical Forces," Rabbi Bleich discusses the  Kabbalistic view that the letters of the Divine Names contain cosmic forces, and thus certain people are able to use these Names to effect change in the physical world (i.e. to perform miracles/magic). He correctly records Rambam's denial of this possibility (although there is a typo in the reference; it is actually Guide 1:62, not 1:42). As Rabbi Bleich notes, "Rambam describes belief in the power of Divine Names as unfitting for rational persons." According to Rambam, the Names instead convey philosophical insights into metaphysical concepts, and contemplating the Names enables one to enhance one's intellectual grasp of these concepts.

So far, so good. But then Rabbi Bleich makes the most astonishing claim:
The gulf between Rambam and the Kabbalists is not as great as might appear. The Kabbalists, no less so than Rambam, stressed that Names, when pronounced mechanically, are not at all efficacious. They, too, stress the need for virtue and preparation, although, for the Kabbalists, the preparation is not identical to the intellectual preparation posited by Rambam. For Rambam, an amulet worn as a talisman could not possibly have any effect because the Names contained in an amulet are not endowed with any supernatural power. Nevertheless, Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility that persons who have achieved the requisite degree of knowledge and understanding can, with adequate preparation, employ metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends. 
I asked Professor Menachem Kellner, Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa and a particular specialist on Rambam, what he thought of Rabbi Bleich's claim. Here is his response:
In the context of an attempt to show that Rambam is not as far from Kabbalah as many think (see: Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, Littman Library, 2006), Rabbi Dr J David Bleich writes: "Nevertheless, Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility that persons who have achieved the requisite degree of knowledge and understanding can, with adequate preparation, employ metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends." Rabbi Bleich is well-known and widely respected for his formidable learning and deep understanding of Jewish texts and teachings. I find it hard to believe that he was wide awake when he wrote this sentence. Given:
  • Rambam's approbation of Aristotelian science in Guide of the Perplexed II.22
  • his rejection of all forms of magic (H. Avodah Zarah XI)
  • his comment in his Treatise on Resurrection that "it is already well-known that we utterly flee from changing the order of Creation" (Treatise on Resurrection, Lerner trans., p. 169; see also the previous page – perhaps a veiled reference to people like Rabbi Bleich)
(and many other sources,) it is hard to take Rabbi Bleich seriously here. Ascribing a view to Rambam because he does not explicitly deny it is hardly a responsible way to read Rambam.
Indeed! After all, it's also the case that Rabbi Bleich does not explicitly deny the possibility that he considers me to be the Gadol HaDor, but I wouldn't ascribe that belief to him! Is Rabbi Bleich unaware of Rambam's deep philosophical opposition to the notion of changing the natural order through supernatural means, or is he in denial of it? And which is worse?