Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Forcing the Opposition

In the comments on the previous post, someone raised a concern that I've been pondering for quite a few months - that the more successfully I defend the rationalist approach, the more harm this will do.

Dr. Menachem Kellner raises this topic at the beginning of Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism. If I recall correctly, he argues that the cause of the demise of the rationalist school of thought in Judaism was... Rambam! Before Rambam's time, the anti-rationalists never really got their act together. But because Rambam's formulation of the rationalist worldview was so powerful, this forced his opponents to flesh out their approach and push it much harder, and it eventually overwhelmed the rationalist approach.

Sometimes I fear that a similar phenomenon may have happened with STARC. Before it started, everyone knew that the Rishonim were of tremendous stature and always to be respected. When STARC began, many people (including the Gedolim who banned my books) assumed that the problem with my books was that I was misrepresenting the Rishonim or something like that. At that stage, the idea that the Rishonim were to be respected still held true.

But as it continued to unfold, people showed that many, many Rishonim also held that Chazal were sometimes mistaken in their statements about the natural world. Now, by this stage, the stakes were very high. It was absolutely inconceivable to my opponents that young Natan Slifkin could ultimately be right and the Gedolim wrong. So a new concept had to be invented: that the ideological views of the Rishonim could simply be arbitrarily paskened into kefirah, without any justification required. It was calmly stated that it was fine for the Rishonim to have a certain view of Chazal, but that for us to adopt that view is a perversion of the truth that is actual heresy.

The traditional way of arguing one's case - citing Rishonim and Acharonim - ceased to be relevant. All that was important was what the Gedolim say. This was a revolution which cannot be underestimated.

If this is a correct description of events, then the message is quite alarming. It means that we should be careful about arguing the rationalist cause, since (with some people) it will never be acceptable, and the only result will be that the parameters of Torah discourse will be altered - and not for the better.

38 comments:

  1. Narrower for whom? I think you're underestimating the positive effect your arguments can have as well - discomfort with the apotheosis of the gedolim is stimulating a structural shift in the Haredi community, whether they like it or not.

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  2. We also know the classic statement "The seal of Hashem is emet." I think you should keep trying to get the truth out there for G-d's sake, and let Him sort out the mess. Keep up the great work!

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  3. > "In the comments on the previous post, someone raised a concern ... that the more successfully I defend the rationalist approach, the more harm this will do."

    I couldn't figure out which comment this refers to. Regardless, perhaps it's not just "the more successfully you defend the rationalist approach" but simply "the more doggedly you defend the rationalist approach."

    That said, I still like Ryan S's statement.

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  4. It is changing the Torah discourse but only for that segment which will go along with these radical changes. We are the holdouts and we have rabbis who represent us. We will not let them hijack the discussion and hijack Judaism and distort it. Not without a fight.

    It is always a very few who have the courage to actually engage in such a fight and insist on adherence to principle. I think we just have to give it time, perhaps.

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  5. Stop worrying and keep on teaching!

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  6. I have a serious gripe with this premise:

    "In the comments on the previous post, someone raised a concern that I've been pondering for quite a few months - that the more successfully I defend the rationalist approach, the more harm this will do."

    If we assume the Rambam example as a correct assessment, we are already in a sort of "throw-back" camp, given the historical "victory" of the anti-rationalist approach as alluded to in your citation. By hearkening back to Rambam and other Rishonim or individual statements among them in formulating a rationalist approach in our day, we are undoing this historic mistake and bringing back what we see as authentic mesorah and authentic Jewish hashkafa, or at least elevating it to a more prominent place in the Jewish mindset befitting its lofty stature. If the masses do not agree with us, that is a shame but not something which should cause us to retreat into hiding and surrender, thereby perpetuating the historical injustice of the minimizing of the rationalist approach and giving the current superficial "party line" the dominance over key and very difficult questions.

    Our job is before us - to grapple with the truth and try to understand Hashem, whether or not some others find our questions risky or our struggle inappropriate to them. Let them be as they must, but for our own sake we cannot refrain from our duties - just as they will not refrain from seeking out their local kabalist for a segula or placing beads on their carriages, etc. in fulfillment of their own convictions.

    If this process causes the "opposition" to more firmly root themselves in mysticism, denial, delusion, sacrifice of intellect, backlash against the rationalists or the rationalist approach, (or even on the positive side the development of more sophistication in their own approach) - in the end that is no harm to us. (And no, saying the rishonim can be paskened into kefira is not sophistication - on the contrary). I'm sure you agree that the harm of staying silent and giving up is a harm far worse for the soul of the Jewish people, especially to those for whom this approach is relevant. Even if this is relevant to a minority and the masses under the sway of the opposition will be negatively effected by that opposition, it is still worth preserving the minority approach as a remnant.

    I do not buy the thesis that without the Rambam, mysticism would have remained undefined and amorphous and would not have stretched its tentacles around the Jewish world to the extent it has, if not for reaction to Rambam. The influence of the kabalists would have developed over time and the zohar still would have been written by moshe de leon, and where would we be today in the face of that and all the rest if there was no Rambam for us to lean upon!?

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  7. Rabbi Slifkin – Does this mean you are closing shop? Will you not reprint your books the next time they are sold out? Will you be shutting down this blog, or only have it open to paying subscribers? What about your articles? Will you cease to write or publish them?

    Please note - I don’t want you to do any of the above. But I’m just wondering how what you are saying applies in a practical way. Are you suggesting that we never discuss these things from a rationalist perspective unless we know for certain that the person/people we are speaking with also have a rationalist approach?

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  8. Continue to take the Rishonim and Chazal as your model. Would they compromise? I think not.

    I am pained to hear that the vikuach has reached your children. Chazak v'amatz!

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  9. We do not need the Rishonim to prove that Chazal were not always right. Everybody with common sense and a straight heart, who has studied a few pages of Talmud and read a book or two of the Rishonim knows that there is a substantial amount of nonsense in both the Talmud and the writings of the Rishonim.

    Do not be surprised when the deniers of obvious truth prove to be stupid, or ignorant, or act disingenuously, or use tactics of deceit. They show who they are.

    The true Jew is upright, a man of Truth, a seeker of Truth. If Chazal were not always right, that does not mean that they were always wrong. It means that we cannot learn the truth straight from books. It means we have to filter what we read and what we are told. It means that the responsibility to establish the truth lies with us.

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  10. imho you are a symptom, not a cause and I wouldn't limit your "All that was important was what the Gedolim say." to the rationalist issue.

    I'd guess that "the gedolim" themselves (or some subset) do not intellectually believe that All that was important was what the Gedolim say but rather feel this is the best way to achieve their highest order goals
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  11. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)October 27, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    לא תגורו מפני איש

    חזק ואמץ

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  12. I am pained to hear that the vikuach has reached your children.

    What are you talking about?

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  13. Perhaps some of this is based on a comment I made in the previous post so let me clarify:
    Ever since L'Affaire Sliffkin began, you have be reacting. You reacted to the ban, to various attacks on your beliefs and religious character, to false accusations and all the motzi shem ra. Even now, you're reacting. In this case it's to the Chaim B'Emunasam booklet.
    Now, if this booklet is as faulty as you claim then you are justified in reacting by publishing a rebuttal but, and here's my point, reacting is the majority of what you seem to be doing.
    "They" say something outrageous, you react by pointing out they're wrong. "They say something else, you react again, and so it goes.
    I've mentioned this before and elsewhere but the successful way to handle opposition is to ignore it. Look at Chabad - if they spent their time reacting to everyone that attacks them they wouldn't have any left over to train new shluchim and open Chabad houses. They dismiss their opposition with great brevity and then continue promoting their agenda.
    Perhaps it's time for you to consider doing the same. You know what you should do? Publish a book about your view. Explain how the real halachic process works, how to really understand the words of Chazal and Rishonim, how to accept that their knowledge of science as limited to what was generally known in their day and how this in no way diminish's one's respect of their Torah.
    Oh hang on, isn't that how all this started?

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  14. Rabbi Slifking, you are approaching a level of self-promotion and self-absortion that will soon challenge the heights achieved by Shmuley Boteach. And that's quite a level to reach.

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  15. Actually I heard during a lecture by R' Herschel Schachter that the downfall of the Rambam's philosophy (and by extent, his rationalism) was due to it's over dependence on Aristotelian philosophic "science". When his science fell out of favor, so did many of his other ideas, even if they were not entirely based in Aristotelianism but simply using the logical process.

    I do not know what the future holds for your own rationalism, but I don't believe it to be based on the same limitations, and therefore not as easy to discard across the entire Frum population (the haredi sector discarded any logical, historical or scientific understandings a while ago). What was mentioned to you, about gedolim effectively writing off the opinions of the Rishonism and achronim, isn't purely based on your ideas, but was an inevitable result of the new wave of belief to reject all science where it is at odds with a predetermined belief. This was already at odds with the attempts of Achronim and Rishonim to reconcile science and torah, and the only options were to either rewrite chazal (as has been done many times) or just separate Chazal's understanding from ours, where their opinion is inconvenient.

    In short, I simply think your works are helpful for those of us who prefer to take Madda into account, and that the haredi sector is driving itself, with or without your prodding, to it's own conclusions.

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  16. By what mechanism do you see silence on this topic promoting the rise of a rational approach to Judaism? Were things so good when you started writing that leaving the status quo was acceptable?

    For those of us who believe Hashem watches and records our deeds, surely standing up for what we believe in has intrinsic value. Whether we succeed or fail is in the hands of heaven, whether or not we try is in our own hands.

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  17. "But as it continued to unfold, people showed that many, many Rishonim also held that Chazal were sometimes mistaken in their statements about the natural world. Now, by this stage, the stakes were very high. It was absolutely inconceivable to my opponents that young Natan Slifkin could ultimately be right and the Gedolim wrong. So a new concept had to be invented: that the ideological views of the Rishonim could simply be arbitrarily paskened into kefirah, without any justification required."

    This is in fact, not a new phenomenon. In the realm of hlacha l'maaseh, the Conservative movement has been doing precisely that with the Rishonim and even Chazal for quite some time. They too lay claim to being a "Torah based" denomination.

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  18. You are missing the point here. For the most part this is about hareidi power structures and only tangentially about rationalism. It's even doubtful that the entire ban would have happened or played out the same way if you lived in Flatbush, Monsey, Passaic or Ramat Gan.

    So yes, if you keep on trying, in their minds, to undermine gadol infallibility by engaging with their self-appointed proxies, then you will drive them into making their increasingly absurd positions explicit.

    But it's not about the legitimacy of rationalism, it's about the legitimacy of das torah and hareidi gadol mythology.

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  19. I think the revolution is the little people bandying about and playing with the views of the Rishonim.

    Yes, you could find such things discussed in non-Orthodox books, but everyone knew to stay away from them anyway. 20 years ago, did the hamon know what Avraham Maimonides said, let alone quote him?

    Ultimately much of this comes from the popularization of Torah, which was enabled by translations like Artscroll, Feldheim, etc. as well as blogs and email lists on the internet. A new type of Orthodox am haaretz with a little knowledge was created, and this is probably greatly frustrating to the gatekeepers of knowledge who, at least in their view, have a comprehensive and clear picture of what the theology of the religion is all about. You know, traditionally the "seforim" love the Chovos Halevavos but say to skip the Shaar Hayichud. But the Orthodox am haaretz with a little knowledge sees no possible reason why the later authorities get to bury this chapter; the Chovos Halevavos is also a bar plugta. And so forth.

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  20. The issue is how far you go in being afraid and concerned about "forcing the opposition".

    In retrospect and hindsight, printing your books with haskamos, could have arguably been an example of forcing the opposition. However, responding respectfully and rationally to arguments after the ban already happened is necessary.

    Confidence in the truth, and being willing to be "modeh al ha'emes", to concede points to one's intellectual opponents, is the reason not to be overly afraid of forcing the opposition. In J’accuse, Emily Zola wrote about how truth ultimately prevails; I see this as "bitachon", or faith in the power of truth:

    "When truth is buried in the earth, it accumulates there, and assumes so mighty an explosive power that, on the day it bursts forth, it hurls everything into the air. We shall see if they [the suppressers of truth] have not just made preparations for the most resounding of disasters yet to come."

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  21. Regarding 'closing shop', I think we can learn from the Religious Zionist movement in Israel. Imagine what would have happened had Rav Kook and the like decided not publically advanced their possition because of the Chareidi opposition! You would be left with hundreds of thousands of frum Jews who would not be able to justify ignoring Hashems hand in history (or ascribing historical events to the satan). This would have caused thousands of people to turn away from traditional Yahudut or even towards a secular Zionistic outlook. Instead, Rav Kook stood his ground, voicing a perfectly legitimate authentic Hashkafa despite the opposition from the Chareidi world and in so doing, saving potentially thousands of Jews from secularisation.

    Especially for frum Jews living in western societies, it is crucial to voice the rationalist approach, preventing potentially thousands of frum Jews who are exposed to science from rejecting Torah due to the overwhelming scientific evidence.

    Im certain that had Rav Hirsch appeared before Mendelson, there would not have been such a mass assimilation! Let us learn from our mistakes. Had the rationalist movement transplanted itself in Germany prior to the enlightenment things would have been very different.

    Given the overwhelming drive towards athiesm in secular society, we have an obligation present the next generation with an authentically rational Torah approach. Chazak Veematz!

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  22. "Rabbi Slifking, you are approaching a level of self-promotion and self-absortion that will soon challenge the heights achieved by Shmuley Boteach. And that's quite a level to reach."

    My five-second analysis: Rabbi Slifkin is shouting from the rooftops, and to me his message is valid, timely, and most important. If it happens that ego mixes into rooftop shouting, so be it! Are you shouting from the rooftops?

    That being said, I do not mean to suggest anything about RNS personally, just that it's part of the human condition that ego contributes to creative activity. So we work on ourselves!

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  23. >Had the rationalist movement transplanted itself in Germany prior to the enlightenment things would have been very different.

    Or, there would have been an enlightenment prior to the enlightenment.

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  24. Really it just means that there is a schism that is going to happen. The people who follow mesorah (following rishonim, achronim and the like) and people who make up new rules for Judaism (people who take the gedolim to be pope like figures).

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  25. the cause of the demise of the rationalist school of thought in Judaism was... Rambam! Before Rambam's time, the anti-rationalists never really got their act together. But because Rambam's formulation of the rationalist worldview was so powerful, this forced his opponents to flesh out their approach and push it much harder, and it eventually overwhelmed the rationalist approach.

    The flaw in this logic is that without RAMBAM (or some other strong formulation) there would be no-rationalist approach at all. Yes the irrationalist now had a target to aim at, but without the target, we would have nothing to defend.

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  26. " Continue to take the Rishonim and Chazal as your model. Would they compromise? I think not. "

    I believe the rambam makes this point explicitly in his introduction to the moreh, something about letting a thousand fools be misguided for one to wise one to find the true path.

    Personally, I find RMS to be the most interesting figure here. Everyone know that many of "the gedolim" are limited in their exposure to ideas, even within the jewish corpus. RMS, OTOH, is well read in jewish literature and couldn't possibley be foolish enough to actually believe what he writes. Interesting and somewhat disconcerting at the same time, I guess.

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  27. 1) The reactions go both ways. Traditional Judaism has long had a problem with science. For decades, apoloogists have put forth specious explanations such as, "7 days doesn't really mean seven days," "6,000 years is from the beginning of real civilization," and, "The flood wasn't a global event." Ironically, the gedolim have only strengthened people's belief that such rationalizations are forced.

    2) Haredi Judaism is going off the deep end. Don't worry too much about forcing the issue. Perhaps your campaign will make the crisis more acute; perhaps it will hasten the crisis. Either way, there's no way to predict what haredi Judaism willl look like in 30 years and whether it will better or worse with your arguments.

    3) Meanwhile, MO is divided between people who think the questions are better than the answers on one side and charedim-want-to-be's on the other. I'm not sure whether a viable middle ground is possible in our society but if even there was a need for "Rationalist Judaism" it is now.

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  28. It seems to me that this is the sort of post one might write in order to galvanize one's allies, using the very mechanism described therein.

    Brilliant!

    Also, let me jump on the galvonic bandwagon: Chazak Ve-ematz, Tamim Tihyeh, etc.

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  29. http://theorthodoxjew.blogspot.com/2010/10/torah-umadah-and-slifkin-affair-and.html

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  30. I started writing a comment, but it turned into a 3-page essay. So, I’ll try to sum it up.

    I think we need MORE Rationalist Judaism and more leadership taking the lead towards establishing it as a valid derech. It cannot only fall onto one man's shoulders.

    And I agree with all Meir's statements (Oct 27, 8:06pm).

    I also think that there is a need for brick & mortar shuls, schools, and kehilos of Rationalist Judaism so that it becomes a derech with greater community support, and does not remain as only an intellectual discussion in the theoretical realm, stuck in books or on the world wide web, while “real” people are afraid to bring up these discussions with their family, friends and neighbors, lest they be labeled an apikores. There needs to be “real life community” which support this.

    I don't know where Chareidi Judaism will go, but it will not go away anytime soon if things continue as they are. Even though there are defectors, there are 6-12 children per family, so that each family can even have 10-20% of kids going off the derech and still way outnumber the rest. Just the sheer numbers and how they multiply and Chareidi Judaism’s insular, sheltered and socially dependant nature will keep it going strong. It’s not going away, and if anything, it will grow.

    But the defectors will abound. And many will go to the other extreme (off the derech), simply because they do not know that there is such a thing as Rationalist Judaism. I think it therefore behooves those of us who recognize Rationalist Judaism as a valid derech to do our part towards sustaining and promoting it. Even more, I think we need to build it, so that it can have a home and a community in the real world.

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  31. "I think the revolution is the little people bandying about and playing with the views of the Rishonim. Yes, you could find such things discussed in non-Orthodox books, but everyone knew to stay away from them anyway. 20 years ago, did the hamon know what Avraham Maimonides said, let alone quote him?"

    Must disagree with Reb S. 20 years ago was 1990, not so long ago. The type of views expressed by RNS were current in orthodox publications LONG before 1990. Why, Tradition magazine alone has been publishing for half a century, and they have never shied away from publishing or discussing the views of non-orthodox scholars.

    I dont think Rabbi Slifkin, much as I enjoy good portions of his writings, has changed anything, and it's hubris for him to think [and certainly say] otherwise. There were frum freethinkers 1000 years ago, and there are frum freethinkers today. If anything has changed - which again, I doubt - it is solely because of the internet. Not because of Rabbis Leo Levi, Marc Shapiro, Shnaer Leiman, Natan Slifkin, or whoever you want to name. Because of the internet.

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  32. I was going to make the same point that Daniel Schwartz made, but he beat me to it. Yasher koach!

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  33. Rabbi Slifkin, I have been following this whole debate for some time now without making interjections.

    As I understand it (correct me if I am wrong)you reject pretty much the whole mystical tradition that we have today as non authentic mesora. This would include the Zohar, ARI, Ramchal and of course chassidic teachings.

    My question is as follows; the baal tshuva movement as it exists today is largely indebted to mysticism in one form or another. Even more so among Israelis than let's say Anglos. Even yeshivot that try and keep away from kabbala are not using the rationalist approach. They will learn Daat Tvunot (without the Sefer Haklali), the Maharal and of course Michtav m'Eliyahu (which contains distilled kabbala). Even rabbi Noach Weinberger of blessed memory, who was very much against the mystical approach was actually teaching his brand of chassidism. His teachings of the five levels of pleasure is actually chassidism in garb.

    Keep in mind that in Israel there is almost no liberal arts here. Liberal arts is also quickly fading oversees. The truth is that the most that the average exposure most people will put up with to science, history and culture is what they see on Nova, National Geographic, the History Channel or Biographies on the E-channel. We are the dor of Joe six-pack.

    The question is how does one mekarve Joe six pack (especially Israelis) and keep them committed without nistar. Not just in kiruv but for many FFB's?

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  34. As I understand it (correct me if I am wrong)you reject pretty much the whole mystical tradition that we have today as non authentic mesora. This would include the Zohar, ARI, Ramchal and of course chassidic teachings.

    How on earth did you arrive at that conclusion? I have never written anything about any of this!

    The question is how does one mekarve Joe six pack (especially Israelis) and keep them committed without nistar. Not just in kiruv but for many FFB's?

    Good question.

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  35. Note: Please only submit each comment ONCE. The reason why it doesn't appear immediately is that comments are moderated.

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  36. Sorry, may be I was just mixing you up with other commentators on this blog. I also got the impression from your impression from your essay on nitylat yadyim. Perhaps I was reading into it more than I should have.

    What is your position on the mesorah of nistar. I also want to mention that there generally the Ashkenazi (even in much of the chassidic) leaders have rejected this business of dealing with ayn haras and amulet segulot. Even though you find Brezlovers today who use these things. It is because in Israel they have mixed with Sefardi traditions. I doubt that Rabbi Nachman would put up with it. He even said about such beliefs regarding occurences of ayn hara and such, that they exist in places
    where people believe in them and don't in places where there is no such belief. Admittedly there is a hidden message there but it is clear that he did not deal in demons or ayn hara. That is mainly today a sephardi obsession. Granted that Lubavitch breaks this rule where they consult the Igrot Kodesh for all dilemmas or as I would put it, ask the 8 ball. Generally though the more recent Ashkenazi mystical tradition is more rational than that.

    Sorry for being long winded. I am just responding to many issues at you have addressed in past posts regarding these things. Outside of that what is your position regarding the authenticity of the mystical mesora?

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  37. I didn't write the essay on netilat yadayim.

    I don't have a public opinion on the "authenticity of the mystical mesora", since I have not researched it adequately.

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  38. Bartley Kulp referred to "Rabbi Noach Weinberger"

    That should be "Weinberg".

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