Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lunch with the Piecemaker

Shimon Peres has passed away at 93. I thought that it would be appropriate to re-post the following post, which I originally posted in January 2012:

A while ago, I wrote a post about age and leadership in the Orthodox world. Later that day, I gained further perspective on this topic when I was privileged to have lunch with Shimon Peres, the octogenarian President of Israel. (No, I can't reveal the how's and why's of the experience, sorry!)

Shimon Peres is 88 years of age and is the oldest head of state in the world. I asked him if he still remembered meeting the Chafetz Chaim for a berachah when he was a child; he joked that he hasn't been allowed to forget it!

We spoke about legendary figures from history such as Ben-Gurion. Peres told me the story of how in 1945, when he was still called Shimon Perski, Ben-Gurion went with him on a surveying trip in the Negev. Perski discovered the nest of the rare and spectacular bearded vulture, which is called peres in the Torah, and he promptly decided to change his European name to the Hebrew Peres.

I asked the President if he knew why the bearded vulture is called peres. He suggested that it is from the phrase lifros kenafayim, to spread the wings, referring to its huge wingspan. However, that is spelled with a sin rather than a samech. I informed him of another suggestion that has been put forward by Biblical commentators: that it is from the root meaning "piece." The bearded vulture is famed for making pieces. It eats bones, which it does via picking them up, flying high over rocks, and then dropping them and smashing them to pieces, as you can see in this video:



I told him that the name Peres therefore means "piecemaker," which, if spelled differently, is a name that I am sure he appreciates!

Anyway, getting back to the subject of age and leadership: While the role of president in Israel is obviously nothing like the role of president in the United States, the President of Israel is much more connected to national politics than, say, Queen Elizabeth, and has frequent, lengthy meetings with the prime minister. Despite his advanced age, Shimon Peres still demonstrates keen intelligence, a good memory, and a great sense of humor. He works harder than most people half his age. He gets up at around 5:30 in the morning, and aside from a rest in the middle of the day, he works until very late at night. He reads voraciously (I just hope that he has time to read the new books that were added to his library yesterday). Without going into detail, I can attest that he has made tremendous personal sacrifice for his job. His staff, who made quite an impression on me, love and revere him and the office of the presidency, and they are in awe of how much he is able to do at such an age.

While I certainly don't agree with Peres' political views, and I was never happy with him as a politician, I think that he is excellent and invaluable to Israel as a president. But even those who do agree with his politics would probably not want him to serve as prime minister at the age of 88. There have been democratically-elected world leaders in their seventies, but eighty-eight is a different league entirely. Yes, Shimon Peres is in incredible shape, both physically and mentally, for his age. There is no question that he is of sound mind. But during the hour and a half that I spent with him, I was very conscious at all times that I was with a very elderly person. This does no harm - it may even help - with the role of president, but it would surely be a hindrance to being prime minister.

The word zaken is homiletically explained to be an acronym of zeh kanah chachmah. With age comes wisdom, and there are great Torah scholars of very advanced age who are likewise of sound mind and are an invaluable source of wisdom. My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, was well into his eighties and still teaching me wisdom. But political leadership requires a degree of strength and vigor that is rarely found with the very old. Is it possible? I suppose so; but certainly in most cases, people should eventually be allowed to retire from such roles.

Charedi society has reformed many aspects of rabbinic leadership, such as transferring it from community rabbis to roshei yeshivah, investing it with broad political leadership, and innovating many aspects of Daas Torah. But, as discussed previously, it is the ostensible investment of this leadership in people over a hundred years old (let alone 88), never allowing them to retire from this role, which is perhaps the most tragic. Respect and appreciate them for what they are; don't force them into keeping a role for which they are not suited.

Monday, September 26, 2016

On The Popularity of Criticizing Chareidi Causes

There was an astonishing level of response to last week's post, Modern Orthodoxy Fails Again, criticizing the Teaneck campaign to support Israeli charedi schools. Whereas most posts on this website receive a few thousand readers, that one shot up within 48 hours to become the second most-read post in all six years of this website - over twelve thousand people read it! It received dozens of "shares" and hundreds of "likes" on Facebook. Furthermore, in contrast to many other posts on this blog, the response was overwhelmingly in agreement. Clearly, there are many thousands of my readers who strongly agree that their charitable donations should not go to institutions whose values and goals are not in agreement with their own.

I didn't think that it was appropriate to merely criticize one charedi cause and not recommend another. So, at the end of the post, I recommended supporting a superb institution for charedim, which does comport with the values and goals of my readership - Derech Chaim, which combines yeshivah studies with army service and an academic degree in computer science. They are a small but highly significant new institution, facing tremendous challenges, and they need all the help they can get.

Then, in a follow-up post entitled Be A Part Of It!, I mentioned a cause very close to my own heart, The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We inspire secular kids with a newfound appreciation for their Jewish identity; we educate North Americans and others about the connection between the animals of our heritage and the Land of Israel; we educate ultra-Orthodox chassidim (who won't go to the zoo, because it's open on Shabbos) about the natural world. Our mission is very much in line with the values and goals of this blog's readership. And, while our long-time financial position is relatively secure, in the short term we do have a budget shortfall and are in urgent need of support.

So, of the over twelve thousand people who agreed that they didn't want to support a cause that they didn't agree with, how many supported causes that they did agree with?

Well, I checked with Derech Chaim, and the number of donations that they received as a result of my blog post was... one.

And I checked the Paypal account for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and the number of donations that we received as a result of the post was... one.

Now, it could be that with regard to the museum, I didn't present the appeal correctly - the blog post only mentioned putting dedications in our forthcoming book, A Feast Of Biblical Flora And Fauna, for which the minimum dedication is $250. So here is a link that you can click on for making Paypal donations (using either a Paypal account or a credit card) for any amount at all:

And click on this link to visit the Derech Chaim website, where you can also donate online.

So come on, people! Please support one (or both) of these causes. Put your money where your mouse is! And if you liked or shared the Teaneck post on Facebook, please like and share this one too!

Thank you very much, and yasher koach for participating in these important missions! Together, we can make the world a better place - me-chaya le-chayal!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Be A Part Of It!

Most of the readers of this website share an interest in promoting certain values. We believe that the natural sciences have much to offer us as Jews. We believe that exploring the connection between Torah and the natural world will enrich peoples' lives. We want to strengthen peoples' connection to Eretz Yisrael. We want to see the charedi community being able to connect to the natural world.


The Biblical Museum of Natural History is an institution that really does make all that happen. To date we have hosted nearly twenty thousand visitors from all walks of life, from Amish to Chassidish! Every person who comes has a wonderful experience. We've inspired secular kids with a newfound appreciation for their Jewish identity; we've educated North Americans and others about the connection between the animals of our heritage and the Land of Israel; we've educated ultra-Orthodox chassidim (who won't go to the zoo, because it's open on Shabbos) about the natural world. We have the broadest reach of any educational institution in Israel. Nowhere else will you find Modern Orthodox Jews, ultra-chassidish Jews, secular Jews, and non-Jews all receiving the same presentation - and all enjoying themselves immensely!

We are still a very young institution, with many start-up costs, and we have not yet attained the economies of scale that we will one day achieve. We are therefore still very much in need of support from people who understand the value of our work and who wish to be a part of it.

To that end, we launched our Friends, Partners and Patrons program, which you can learn more about at this link. For our patrons, we are putting on the amazing Exotic Biblical Dinner, the day after Yom Kippur.

We are also publishing a book to accompany the dinner, entitled "A Feast of Biblical Flora and Fauna." This will include fascinating articles about the Biblical flora and fauna that is being served, and will serve not only as a souvenir of this special event, but also a stand-alone book in itself. All patrons will be acknowledged in the book, and the book will be distributed to all patrons (including those who are not able to attend the event), and will also be available in the museum gift store. We are printing dedications/ advertisements in the book, which can be sponsored for the following donations:

Diamond: $18,000
Platinum: $10,000
Gold: $3,600
Silver: $1,800
Full page: $1,000
Half Page: $500
Quarter Page: $250


If you would like to sponsor a dedication or advertisement, please write to Maayan@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org with the text that you would like to include. Or, you can reserve your sponsorship or advertisement online with this online form. The donation is tax-deductible in the US and helps us continue our mission.

If you believe in the educational goals of the museum, please show your support and help make it all happen! On behalf of all our visitors, thank you.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Modern Orthodoxy Fails Again

Have people gone crazy, or is it me?

I just came across a report that this week, there is a major fundraising drive for Chinuch Atzmai - the network of charedi Talmud Torahs, Beis Yaakovs and yeshiva ketanas in Israel. And this drive is taking place in... Teaneck.

Teaneck?!

Why on earth would Modern/Centrist Orthodox, Zionist Jews, fund a charedi, non-Zionist system of yeshivos, which is opposed to educating children towards professional careers?!

Apparently Rabbi Yosef Pollak, Campaign Director of Chinuch Atzmai, cited passages from the Talmud showing that "in times when the Torah is in danger of being forgotten, our sages have always placed the Torah education of children as their highest priority."

But how on earth is Torah in danger of being forgotten in Israel?! Never in history has there been as much Torah studied as there is today!

On the other hand, Torah is indeed very much in danger of being forgotten in America, where there is an enormous tuition crisis, and many kids go to public school instead of receiving a Torah education because they can't afford the Jewish schools! Which is more of a spiritual tragedy - that a charedi kid would go to a Torani (state religious) school, or that a Modern Orthodox kid would go to a public school?!

Apparently, this fundraising drive is making a big fuss of the fact that Rav Soloveitchik was a strong supporter of Chinuch Atzmai, and was even invited by Rav Aharon Kotler to serve as the first guest of honor at a Chinuch Atzmai dinner. Rav Soloveitchik stated that “a school system of the type of Chinuch Atzmai is of the greatest importance for the survival of Torah Judaism in the Holy Land.”

The relevance of this escapes me.

Top: Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kotler.
Bottom: The picture as it appears in
The Legacy of Rav Aharon Kotler

First of all, if you're going to argue that the dinner honor demonstrates that Rav Soloveitchik greatly respected the chareidi world, it should be pointed out that it also demonstrates that the charedi world of the time greatly respected Rav Soloveitchik. Such is not the case today. In fact, the legacy of Rav Aharon Kotler is that The Legacy Of Rav Aharon Kotler (Feldheim Publishers) crops Rav Soloveitchik out of the picture of the Chinnuch Atzmai dinner.

Second, and more fundamentally, Rav Soloveitchik did this in 1956. How many charedi students were there back then? Less than twenty thousand. They were a miniscule fraction of the population, living a strongly anti-religious country. Contrast that with today, when hundreds of thousands of students, including over thirty percent of first-graders in Israel, are in charedi frameworks!

Unlike in 1956, the problem today is not "Torah is in danger of being forgotten" or "the survival of Torah Judaism in the Holy Land." The problem today is precisely the opposite: that there is too much Torah study, taking place at the expense of other obligations mandated by the Torah and Chazal: working to support one's family, serving the nation, and teaching one's children to be able to support themselves. The majority of Chinuch Atzmai schools have substandard secular education, encourage the children to go to yeshivah ketanah instead of high school, and teach the strong message that students should not serve in the army or do Sherut Leumi, that they should all learn in kollel, and that they should not train for professional careers. And this, as Chazal predicted, has catastrophic consequences, which threaten to get much, much worse.

Don't take my word for it. Read the Israeli Mishpachah magazine article about the economic collapse of chareidi society. Trust Jonathan Rosenblum, who actually lives in Israeli charedi society (rather than being an American with romanticized views of life in Israel), and who wrote about how it is essential for chareidim to engage in a wholesale reform of their educational system - not just to prevent the collapse of their own society, but to prevent serious harm to the entire country.

In the past, I have written about how for thirty years (until the rise of Koren), Modern Orthodoxy completely dropped the ball with regard to publishing Torah works. One could likewise talk about the long failure of Modern Orthodoxy to produce enough of its own Torah teachers, instead importing teachers with different worldviews. But this one really takes the cake. When there is a catastrophic shortage of funds for Torah education in the Modern Orthodox community, are they really going to give their donations to a community which disregards and disrespects that which they hold dear, which is threatening itself and the rest of the country with catastrophe, and which is learning too much Torah at the expense of other critical areas of education?!

Am I missing something, or have they gone crazy?!

UPDATE: Here's a comment that someone posted:
"Yosef Ehrman:
We have a chareidi school started not so long ago, with all secular studies to go with very strong torah studies, and its called תלמוד תורה ממלכתי חרדי
We give the kids the best education possible, both in torah mishna and navi and halacha. The Chinuch hAtzmai is one of our biggest opponents. They fear that they loose their hold of the tzibur. That they will be irrelevant. That they wont be able to hold such an event of fundraising, where the principals make 20-30-49 percent of the income to marry of their children, where the rest of the kids in the town wont have proper education, and will be forced to stay in kolel, or paint houses for a living.
Sorry for my english. Im an israely that had enough of the system.
Look up תלמוד תורה בית רבן."

There are charedi high schools, such as Rabbi Betzalel Cohen's Chachmei Lev, which innovated a full secular curriculum - and was promptly condemned by the chareidi establishment. There's a great new institution called Derech Chaim, which combines yeshivah studies with army service (you can donate at their website). If Americans want to support charedi education in Israel, they should be supporting institutions that address the problems, not those that perpetuate them.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Guest Post: Daas Torah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and the King of Togo

This week, there was a brouhaha over the news that Rav Chaim Kanievsky told a kallah to break her engagement upon discovering that the chosson owns a non-kosher smartphone. For the record, this is a ruling to which I am personally sympathetic, even though I am not entirely supportive of such a drastic step. Still, I thought it would be relevant to publish the following guest post on the topic of Daas Torah in general and Rav Chaim Kanievsky in particular. The author of this post does not want to reveal his name. He learned in charedi yeshivos and kollelim for fifteen years.

The academic study of the doctrine of Da'at Torah begun with an article published in the journal Tradition in 1980 by Lawrence Kaplan, and expanded twelve years later into an extensive study on the subject. Since then more works have been written, and an English bibliography can be found here. In 2005, Benjamin Brown wrote a long article in Hebrew where he traced three stages in the development of the doctrine:

1. The ability of Torah scholars to draw advice and guidance from the Torah which was perceived as worth heeding, but not necessarily authoritative or obligatory.

2. From the beginning of the twentieth century with the establishment of Agudat Yisrael until the end of the Holocaust Da'at Torah became institutionalized and only certain religious leaders who made up the Moetzet Gedolei ha-Torah of the political Agudat Yisrael party could issue obligatory non-halakhic rulings.

3. After the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel the obligation to obey Da'at Torah was considered not to be predicated on the assumption of a positive outcome, nor its soundness to be judged by its results. Second, the quasi-mystical element of the doctrine was bolstered by claims that the decisions of the sages are inspired by “the holy spirit,” or a “Divine inspiration.”

In a subsequent Hebrew booklet published in 2011, and summarized in an English article, two more stages were added: a fourth stage - the monopolization of Da'at Torah associated with the leadership of Rav Shach; and a fifth stage - the post-ideological or technocratic phase of Da'at Torah, in which its direction is not only determined by the gedolim, but is also influenced in significant part by a group of aides and gabbaim that surrounds them. (He also discusses a sixth phase which is beginning of a democratization of Da'at Torah, which is just beginning, where one's authority is chosen based on one's one views.)

I would like to discuss further the fifth stage. Over the past decades, as gedolim have been besieged by the public, a group of family members, gabboim and askanim have formed around them as gatekeepers to protect them. Thus their source of information is restricted and filtered, and not only have some people (including Rabbis) have been denied access to them and not allowed to properly present their case (phone calls with two Rabbis in regard to Rav Shach and Rav Eliyashiv has confirmed this), but it has become much easier to manipulate them.

In 2010 I wrote Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita a letter asking if he really signed on a letter supporting an indicted child abuser. He replied that he signs on whatever his own Rabbis sign on. His handwritten response can be seen on this blog here. I subsequently sent Rav Chaim a letter respectfully challenging his reliance on his Rav and his issuing decisions based on incomplete knowledge of the situation. I quoted Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky as saying: "דעת תורה אהין דעת תורה אהער דער פאקטס מוז מין העב'ן", and the following from Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the Seredei Aish, who wrote:

יודעים אנו על פי הניסיון כי מסביב לכיסאו של אדם גדול שורצים ורבים בריות שפלות, מין רמשים קטנים, אשר קטנותן תהיה להן למבטח כי לא תֵראנה ולא תִמצאנה, ועל כן יכולות הן, בהאפילן על עצמן בטליתו של ה"גדול", לעשות כמעשה הרמש, ולרדוף אחרי כל אדם ישר באין כל סכנה לנפשן. ויש לפעמים אשר אנשים ישרים נפגעים על ידי גאון מפורסם מבלי הבין את חטאתם ופשעם, כסבורים הם שזאת היא "עקיצת עקרב" ומתמרמרים על הגאון, בעוד שבעיקר הדבר אין זאת אלא "נשיכה של שועל" היוצא מבית קודשי הקודשים של גאון, או לחישת נחש המתחמם בחיקו..." (מתוך ספר לפרקים)

Rav Chaim did in fact read my letter and replied, inviting me to talk to him when I would be in Bnei Brak. Unlike the letter which was a private correspondence between us, I have learned from experience that a face to face meeting is nothing like that. Aside from a long wait, there are gabbaim urging you to hurry and a bunch of people surrounding Rav Chaim listening in, so I did not take him up on his offer.

Now, just how easy it is to fool Rav Chaim came to light last week. According to a news article (at this link) in January of this year Rabbi Daniel Asur brought King Francois Ayi, a king in Togo in Africa to Rav Chaim. Ayi claimed to rule over millions of people descended from the ten tribes whom he wants to bring closer to Judaism, and when Rav Chaim asked if he can impose capital punishment on them, he replied that he has that power and showed him a picture of himself with a crown on. Rav Chaim then stood up and made a brochah with shem u'malkhus. The scene can actually be viewed in its entirety here. Of course the idea of an African king sounded like a fairy tale to many of the public, and a quick Internet search brought many to doubt Ayi's claims. Last week Rabbi Asur publicly revealed he was duped and that Ayi is actually a Christian missionary.

Rav Chaim is well-known for generously spending hours each week writing thousands of laconic answers to halakhic questions in response to mailed questions, and which are printed at the beginning or end of many seforim. A quick perusal of some of them clearly shows that he never advocates making any brakhah unless he is absolutely convinced of its necessity, yet here he relied on a dubious claim to himself make what was clearly at best a brakhah le'vatalah.

The moral of the story is that even if one accepts the doctrine of Da'at Torah in any of its permutations, there should be great concern that the information on which it is based should be accurate and unbiased, and often that is unfortunately not the case.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Angry Birds: Rationalist vs. Mystical Views of Shiluach HaKein

I just discovered a website: www.shiluachhakan.com (whose name follows the popular mis-vocalization of shiluach hakein; while it's KAN tzippur, it's shiluach haKEIN). It offers that "For a nominal fee one can achieve the blessing of the Torah (Devarim 22:7) and receive PROSPEROUS DAYS AND LONGEVITY." The website continues to note that if take advantage of this opportunity, you are "guaranteed" by the Midrash to find a spouse, conceive children, buy a new house, merit livelihood, avoid harm while traveling, and bring mashiach. I have also heard of institutions that actually transport groups of people on buses to the forests to chase birds, in return for substantial contributions to their causes; one such institution has been renamed Yeshivat Tzaar Baalei Chaim by its various detractors.

While the mitzvah of shiluach hakein presents itself as a simple, innocent and charming mitzvah, it is not at all straightforward. Tracing the exposition of this mitzvah through Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Rishonim, and Acharonim, we encounter extraordinary perspectives that turn the simple understanding upside-down. These relate to the understanding of the purpose of the mitzvah - some seeing the goal as minimizing a bird's distress, others as creating such distress - as well as the logic behind its rewards. It also has halachic ramifications regarding whether it is an optional mitzvah which applies only in a case where one wants the eggs, or if one is obligated (or at least recommended) to do it even if one does not want the eggs, and even praised for actively seeking out opportunities to do so. Shiluach hakein highlights the profound, irreconcilable differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, and shows how they result in radically different notions of what doing mitzvos is all about.

Shiluach HaKein: The Transformation of the Mitzvah
is a comprehensive study of this important topic. You can download the document after making a donation to The Torah and Nature Foundation, the non-profit foundation that funds The Biblical Museum of Natural History. The recommended amount is $5. But if you want to take this opportunity to express your gratitude for the RationalistJudaism website, OR, if you want to support the museum's project of teaching about Torah and the natural world, it would certainly be appropriate and appreciated to give a larger donation!

You can make a donation via PayPal or credit card by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document.



Contents

Introduction 5

I. Rationalist Approaches 7

In the Midrash 7

In the Rishonim 8

II. The Mishnah: No Speaking Of Mercy 10


Explanation #1: Anti-Christian Measures 10

Explanation #2: Highlighting Inequalities 12

Explanation #3: A Decree, Not God’s Mercy 12

3a. An Incomprehensible Statute 12

3b. Medieval Rationalist Interpretations 14

Explanation #4: Cruelty, Not Mercy 15

III. Mystical Approaches 17


Esoteric Reasons 17

Benefits of Cruelty 17

The Cruel Engineering of Compassion 18

IV. Optional, Recommended or Obligatory? 21


Relating the Halachah and the Rationale 21

Determining the Halachah 22

1. Optional - Only if one wants the young 23

2. Obligatory, Recommended, or Praiseworthy 26

A Mitzvah to Seek Out? 28

V. Rewards and their Logic 31


Good Days and a Long Life 31

Midrashic Rewards 32

Highlighting Anti-Rationalism 34

Modern Anti-Rationalists 35

Conclusion 36


Bibliography 39

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Distressing Prevalence of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

Amidst the horror of seeing the videos and photos from the 9/11 attacks, I came across the following extremely depressing information: 
In August 2004, a poll by Zogby International showed that 49 percent of New York City residents, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, believed that officials of the U.S. government “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.” In a Scripps-Howard Poll in 2006, with an error margin of 4 percent, some 36 percent of respondents assented to the claim that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center or took no action to stop them.” Sixteen percent said that it was either very likely or somewhat likely that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.”
Conspiracy theories are by no means a strictly domestic phenomenon; they can easily be found all over the world. Among sober-minded Canadians, a September 2006 poll found that 22 percent believe that “the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden and were actually a plot by influential Americans.” In a poll conducted in seven Muslim countries, 78 percent of respondents said that they do not believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. The most popular account, in these countries, is that 9/11 was the work of the U.S. or Israeli governments.
(From Sunstein, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian, Conspiracy Theories (January 15, 2008). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-03; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 199; U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 387. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1084585 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1084585.)
The consequences of irrational thought are far worse than merely denying dinosaur eras.