Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Rubashkin Contradiction

One year ago, Sholom Rubashkin was released from prison. (For an excellent discussion of the entire tragic story, along with many other fascinating topics in kashrut, I recommend the book Kosher USA.) Rubashkin's sentence was absurdly excessive and it was wonderful that it was commuted. Yet I bemoaned how the yeshivishe press was portraying him. Although Rubashkin didn't deserve the punishment that he received, he had nevertheless committed serious crimes that caused great harm. Yet the press were portraying him as a hero, the Sharansky of our era.

Several people (including a close friend) criticized me sharply. But their criticism was not all the same. Some of them criticized me for attributing any wrongdoing to Rubashkin. They insisted that he was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. Others agreed that he had committed some wrongdoings, but insisted that he wasn't being celebrated as any kind of hero; people were just rejoicing that his unjust sentence was being commuted.

It is now one year since Rubashkin's release from prison. Tonight, there is an enormous party and concert, celebrating the "Baal Haness," pictured triumphantly clapping over the cheering crowds. During the last year, Rubashkin has been paraded as a celebrity, invited to speak at numerous venues. He also published a book of "inspirational messages and divrei Torah." As far as I am aware (and I would welcome being proved wrong), in his speeches and writings he does not bemoan making terrible mistakes that harmed many people. Nor does he use this opportunity to beg people not to break the law. Instead, he speaks about his great emunah and bitachon.

On the other hand, if you read the account of his sentencing, a very different picture emerges. Rubashkin was described as giving a "tearful apology." He told the court "I guess this is the time to apologize to my community, and especially to my dear wife and children, for the harm I have caused them. There are no words to express the grief that I feel and have caused them.” A psychiatrist spoke on his behalf, and attested that "Rubashkin expressed regret for the harm he had caused himself and others."

So was Rubashkin lying? Was all that merely in order to fool the judge? Or was he sincere - in which case, why does that sentiment appear to have gone out of the window?

Which is the real Sholom Rubashkin?

A Celestial Menorah

On the eve of Chanukah, Mr. Lee Samson, chairman of the museum foundation (and also my father-in-law), took this extraordinary photograph of a natural menorah formed in the Jerusalem sky by the clouds refracting the sunlight. If I didn't personally know the person who took the photo, I would be certain that it was photoshopped! And the timing makes it doubly amazing!

(Cue discussion about whether this is an example of a supernatural intervention, or merely a wonderful natural phenomenon with coincidental timing!)

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Most Powerful Man in the Charedi Litvishe World

Warning: This is an extremely disturbing post.

Who is the most powerful man in the charedi litvishe world?

Most people would say that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, the "Sar HaTorah" ("Prince of Torah") is the leader, or at least the most prominent figure.

Of course, like all charedi Gedolim, access to him is controlled by his gabbaim (handlers/ gatekeepers). The gabbaim decide which people get to meet with him and which information he finds out about. The gabbaim often presenting other peoples' cases to him, and draft letters for him to sign. If you're cynical, you believe that these gabbaim essentially control everything that Rav Chaim believes and says. If you're idealistic, you believe that he has selected good people, men of integrity, to suitably filter the information and causes that reach him. Either way, the gabbaim are the power behind the throne.

One of the most important of Rav Chaim Kanievesky's gabbaim is his grandson, Yanky Kanievsky. Just recently he decided to block the rabbis of a certain town from meeting with Rav Chaim regarding a political matter. You'll see Yanky Kanievsky in many photos of Rav Chaim in the charedi press, standing by his side or in the background:

Here's another photo of Yanky Kanievsky, that you won't be seeing in the charedi press:

This is Yanky Kanievsky at a party in Bnei Brak, on Tuesday of this week. But who is the person that he is sitting next to, and happily talking with?

His name is Yisrael Draiman. According to some reports, he was "merely" an honored guest, who gets to shmooze with one of the most powerful men in the charedi litvishe world; according to other reports (which seem to be more reliable, since they came before the backlash), the party was actually a farewell party in his honor. Because he is about to go to prison. Yisrael Draiman was charged with tens of counts of molestation, indecent sexual acts, and sodomy of four little girls, each around twelve years old.

(This was reported on the website, along with the photos, but the article has now disappeared. Jewish Community Watch spoke to one of the people present at the party, who clearly stated that it was an event in his honor.)

Now you can understand how it came to be that Rav Chaim Kanievsky signed a letter attesting to the righteousness of Elior Chen, the worst child molester in the history of the state. (The fact that Rav Chaim, after subsequently being told of Chen's crimes, defended signing on the grounds that he signs whatever other rabbis sign, is an even worse indictment.)

Similarly, Rav Yitzchak Silberstein wrote a letter attesting to the innocence of Malka Leifer, on the grounds that "trustworthy rabbis" told him that the 74 charges of child molestation are false. (The letter was also signed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky.)

Similarly, Leib Tropper had the support of dozens of Gedolim despite long-standing rumors of his being a predator, and even after video evidence emerged, Rav Elyashiv's grandson attended an event in his honor.

Don't expect to see any of this discussed in Yated, HaModia, Ami, Mishpacha, or even Cross-Currents. They do not exist to provide news that people actually need to know. They cover such things up and indoctrinate their readers with a false version of reality.

The chareidi structure of leadership and power - the elderly, sheltered Gedolim with their gabbaim and their Daas Torah pronouncements and their fawning press and their society of fear and the zero transparency or accountability - is fundamentally rotten. It causes untold harm to countless innocent people. If you defend or uphold the charedi structure of leadership, then you are complicit in this harm.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Chanukah Measles Song

(I have no idea who wrote this. To be sung to the tune of Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel)

I have a little Yingel
With rash and eye discharge
I thought that it was nothing
But my doctor made it large

He said your kid has measles
Why didn't you give shots?
I told him it's baloney
An evil doctors' plot

Measles, measles, measles
I will not immunize
So what if my neighbors' kids
All have pus in their eyes

My son was exposed to measles
They said don't send to school
I just put him on the bus
Do they think I'm a fool?

Board of Health says no school
Not one of them is Frum
I just sent him anyway
How dare you say it's Krum!

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

They said immunize your kids
I answer with contempt
Don't bother me with that Shtus
I'm religiously exempt

I sent the school a health form
I said he's immunized
When they have an outbreak
They sure will be surprised

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

I just don't get some people
Who are religious weasels
Who use their "quote" Frumkeit
To immunize for measles

I want to visit Bubby
Why should I go alone?
I'll take my little tzadik 
And expose the nursing home

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

Sit down at the table
The family will eat hearty
As you spread your measles
At the family Chanukah party

Be a real good person
Do not be a miser
Give your friends and family
Rashes and coryza

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Daas Torah of AntiVaxxers

Somebody emailed me two publications from the Jewish anti-vaccination group called PEACH (Parents Educating and Advocating for Children's Health), one called The Vaccine Safety Handbook and the other called All Your Vaccine Questions Answered. They are beautifully produced, with highly visually appealing layout, and an abundance of information. I fear that they will make a large impact.

Now, I didn't read through them carefully. And I will make an honest admission: I really don't know much about vaccinations. I certainly don't have rejoinders for every point made in these booklets.

Nevertheless, I am confident that the global medical and pharmaceutical community is correct about the importance of vaccines. And, flicking through the anti-vaccination publications, some things jumped out at me as examples of their deeply flawed epistemology.

One was a quote from Bill Gates at a 20190 TED Talk, printed under the heading "Vaccination for... Depopulation?" The quote read, "The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's heading up to about nine billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care and reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent."

"It's all just for PR. Really, he wants to KILL CHILDREN"
Oh my God! Vaccinations are part of an effort by the most powerful billionaires to kill people and reduce the world population!!!

Of course, this isn't what Gates actually said at all. I knew that even before checking the Snopes article to see exactly how it was distorted. But it's not just that it's a distortion of what he said. The point is that if you think for a moment that Bill Gates, a man who works full-time to give away most of his billions to charity, wants to commit mass murder, and moreover, that he would state this in a public lecture, then your critical thinking skills clearly need an upgrade.

The other thing that jumped out at me was a letter from one of the main rabbinic forces behind the antivax crowd, Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla from Lakewood. I've discussed his views in my post When Rabbis Quack, in the context of his book Alternative Medicine in Halacha. That book, aside from promoting quasi-idolatrous "energy healing" nonsense, makes the dangerous and utterly false claim that "Contemporary medicine is the product of modern science, which denies the existence of Hashem and His Omnipresence." Szmerla also rejects the modern scientific techniques of requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence. His reason is that these stand in direct contradiction to Chazal, who only required that a treatment appear to work on three occasions to declare it effective. Which is indeed true, but it is also the reason why, in Chazal's time, life expectancy was very low and mortality rates were horrifically high. And if you're going to go with anecdotal claims which are not supported by double-blind testing, then you're open to every single quack remedy ever.

Anyway, in this antivax publication, the letter from Rabbi Szmerla states in part as follows:
...Although the medical establishment claims that only a few adverse effects have been proven to be related to vaccines, Hashem who knows the reality will hold the responsible parties accountable even for what is yet unrecognized by science (here he sources the Gra - N.S.). Although many people do not view the moral responsibilities of a school this way, we know that Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah. Vaccines are not 100% effective, which is why vaccinated children sometimes contract those diseases and can carry their germs. In other words, vaccines are only a form of hishtadlus. Ultimately, it is only Hashem's protection that guarantees the safety and health of our children. It is only by acting according to His will - not the medical doctors - that a school and its students can be worthy of his protection.

This paragraph contains so much dangerous nonsense. Let's start with his trying to scare people that Hashem will punish them for adverse effects from vaccines even if science does not yet recognize them. His source for that is the Vilna Gaon's statement that one is punished for sinning even if the sin is accidental or one is forced to do it, since aveira gorreres aveira and one would not have been put in that situation if not for an earlier sin. Now, first of all, the Gra's view is not conventional, to put it mildly. Second, for a school to do the best it can for the health and safety of its students is not an aveira, it is a mitzva!

Then he invokes the notion that "Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah" - that Daas Torah is the opposite of popular belief. He seems to utilize this to mean that there is no reason to reject something, even if it goes against all conventional wisdom. In other words, "let's be completely irrational, it's a mitzvah!"

Finally, Szmerla argues that being protected from illness only comes as result of following Hashem's will, not that of doctors. He thereby insinuates that the two are mutually exclusive. But the halachah is very clear, that Hashem's will is that we are supposed to follow the opinion of doctors! We even transgress Shabbos and Yom Kippur if doctors say so!

I don't think that my blog post is going to sway the antivaxxers, for him this is a deeply-held identity. Still, I do think that it would be valuable for someone to produce an equally detailed and professionally-produce rebuttal to the antivax publications.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

For Whom Money Grows On Trees

In shul today I came across a parasha sheet which displayed this astonishing cartoon:

On the left is a hard-working farmer, whose tree is not producing fruit, despite him adding fertilizer to it. On the right is a kollel man, who doesn't need to put in any effort for parnasah - instead, money is just dropping off his tree!

But it gets even more outrageous.

The picture accompanies a dvar Torah about parashas Vayishlach. The dvar Torah is based off the account of how Yaakov went to the trouble of going back to get some small utensils. Chazal explain that for the righteous, who don't take shortcuts such as theft, their possessions are of great value to them, and they go to great efforts to look after them. The parasha sheet quotes this, and then explains that a few small utensils that have Hashem's blessing can therefore be worth more than millions of gold coins, and then segues into relating how for the righteous, their money miraculously pays for all their needs and they have plenty left over at the end of the month, whereas people with big paychecks lose all their money to "doctors and lawyers"! It continues to explain how the righteous don't need to put in regular efforts for parnasa, because they are aware that Hashem has in any case already decided on Rosh Hashana how much they will receive! It ignores the fact that Yaakov worked for many, many years to attain his prosperity.

Incredibly, then, the parasha sheet has managed to twist the Torah's lesson about effort and responsibility for parnasah, into a lesson about how one doesn't need to put in effort!

In the yeshivah world, they often say that Daas Baalei Batim is the opposite of Daas Torah. Well, here's a case where "Daas Torah" is not only the opposite of Daas, but it's even the opposite of Torah!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Precious Torah Moments

There's a fabulous story about the football (soccer בלע"ז) match this week between Israel and Scotland in Glasgow. As the television cameras panned around the crowd at the stadium, viewers caught sight of an elderly rabbi, wrapped up against the cold in a thick coat and scarf, learning from a sefer! The camera paused on this extraordinary sight, as one of the commentators laments that he missed the goal, and adds that the book must be a good read!

The rabbi was none other than Rav Zev Leff of Moshav Mattityahu. He was in Scotland visiting his children, and he took his grandchildren to the football game. It's an extraordinary kiddush Hashem, and a lesson for us, in two ways. But before getting to that, since this forum is about explaining the Rationalist Judaism perspective of Rambam, there is a comment that must be made.

In the Forward's charming article on this story, it quotes Rav Leff as saying that "If for one second there would be no one learning Torah anywhere in the world, the world would cease to exist.” This is, of course, common doctrine in the yeshivah world today, and was strongly articulated by R. Chaim of Volozhin. Indeed, for this reason, study shifts in the Volozhin yeshivah were arranged so that there was at least one student learning Torah at every moment of every day and night. The doctrine is presumed to lend credence to the mystical view of Torah study; that it creates the spiritual energy necessary for the world to function.

However, although R. Chaim attempts to show that this doctrine is based on classical texts from Chazal, this does not appear to be the case. Careful study reveals that, yet again, we have a situation where a relatively mild view was strengthened over time, infused with mystical meaning, and then read back into earlier sources.

I will be discussing this topic in great detail in my forthcoming book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Rabbinic Thought. For now, I will just give one example.
One source, cited by R. Haim of Volozhin, is the tenth-century Midrash of Tanna Devei Eliyahu: "The sages said: Whenever people neglect the Torah, the Holy One seeks to destroy the world" (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba 2). Does this prove R. Chaim's doctrine?

First, let us note that it does not say that if people cease studying Torah then the world will be destroyed. Rather, it is a somewhat milder statement that when people neglect Torah (implying something that actually happens from time to time), God seeks to destroy the world (but does not actually do so).

Second, it says that they neglect the Torah, not that they neglect the study of Torah, and so it might refer to neglecting the observance of Torah. If we look at the full text of the Midrash, we see that this does indeed seem to be the reference. The context is a discussion of the severity of the punishment for the trivial sins of the righteous, naming Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu (which were not sins of neglecting Torah study), which segues into a discussion of the Deluge (which was likewise not a punishment for the sin of neglecting Torah study). It says: 
"And why is there all this (punishment)? Because of [their transgression against] 'The Torah of God which is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of God which is sure, making the simple wise; the precepts of God which are right, making the heart rejoice; the instruction of God is lucid, making the eyes light up; the fear of God is pure, abiding forever; the judgments of God are true, altogether righteous; more desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb' (Ps. 19:8-11). From here we see, the sages said, that whenever people neglect the Torah, the Holy One seeks to destroy the world, as it says, 'Give praise to God, you divine beings,' (Ps. 29:1, which concludes with a reference to the Deluge), and the divine beings are the ministering angels. The Holy One said: I multiplied men (at the time of the Deluge) like the birds of the heaven and the fish of the sea, and they did not fulfill My will, therefore I hid My face from them." (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba 2) 

The entire discussion here is about people neglecting the observance of Torah, not the study of Torah.

Thus, Torah study does not mystically support the existence of the world at every moment. Rather, Torah study is incredibly important for the reasons given by the Rishonim - that it teaches us important concepts, and teaches us how to improve our characters and how to improve society.

Now, back the football match. Rav Leff's viral fame is an instructional Kiddush Hashem for two reasons. The obvious one is that it shows how great men use their time for applying their brains for self-improvement, rather than mindlessly watching grown men kick a ball around. Halevay we should all make use of our time so meticulously.

But there's also a second lesson here, which Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz pointed out. Clearly, Rav Leff does not have any interest in attending football games, especially not in a cold Scottish winter. And yet he did! He went because, as his daughter explained in an interview, he wanted to spend time with his grandchildren, participating in something that is important to them. As Rabbi Horowitz writes: "If all parents and grandparents had the attitude that spending time with their kids/grandkids is something well worth going outside their own comfort zone, those of us who deal with teens-at-risk would get far less “business” down the road." Indeed!

On another note - if on Thanksgiving you're wondering how we can eat turkey, seeing as there is no mesorah for it being a kosher bird, read my article at this link.

The Rubashkin Contradiction

One year ago, Sholom Rubashkin was released from prison. (For an excellent discussion of the entire tragic story, along with many other fa...