Monday, October 31, 2011

Rambam: The greatest doctor and architect of them all?

In its erev Rosh HaShanah edition, HaModia printed the following remarkable story:

The following story was told to me by the son of one of the prominent Roshei Yeshivah of the last generation.

One morning, shortly after Pesach, the Gadol called his son to say that he had noticed some blood and needed a ride to the doctor’s office. The doctor was, in fact, worried enough about the possibility of intestinal cancer to immediately schedule an appointment for his patient with a well-known gastroenterologist.

Walking back to the car with his father, the son expressed concern over the possibility of receiving a frightening diagnosis from the specialist. The Rosh Yeshivah responded with the following story: An architect once told the Netziv that there was a flaw in the Volozhin yeshivah building; if the defect was not corrected, the expert said, the building would surely collapse.

But the Netziv was not at all alarmed; since the building had been constructed in accordance with structural principles laid out by the Rambam, he told the expert, there was simply no possibility that it would fall in. (Not long ago, I spoke to someone who recently visited Volozhin, and he reports that the building is still standing.)

“It is not possible that I have intestinal cancer,” the Gadol told his son. “The Rambam gave his havtachah that anyone who follows his directives for healthful eating, as I have, will not get sick.”

The Bosh Yeshivah’s trust in the Rambam’s guarantee was well-warranted, as it turned out. When the examination revealed no evidence of bleeding, the specialist questioned the patient about any recent dietary changes. He soon determined that the temporary bleeding had likely been caused by intestinal irritation brought on by the maror the Rosh Yeshivah had eaten at the Sedarim.

I have no idea if either the story about the unnamed Rosh Yeshivah or the story about the Netziv are true. But there are many problems with both of them.

First of all, where does the Rambam write about structural requirements in building a house? I'm not saying that he doesn't - but I consulted a few people and nobody could think of where he writes about such a thing. This leads me to doubt the veracity of the story (but it is true that Volozhin is still standing).

Second, and most importantly, Rambam did not even believe that Chazal any supernatural insights into science. He even believed that prophets were fallible in such things. All the more so would he not have believed himself to possess any supernatural, infallible insights into either architecture or physiology. (See too Menachem Kellner, "Maimonides on the Science of the Mishneh Torah: Provisional or Permanent?")

It is true that Rambam in Hilchos Deyos 4:30 gives an assurance that anyone who follows his dietary and medical advice will never fall sick. But this was no kabbalist's promise (however much they are worth). It was simply a reflection of his belief that he was an excellent physician who had selected the best of Galenic medicine.

Rambam had some excellent advice about healthy eating, exercise, and clean air. But I would not recommend anyone to fully follow his advice; after all, he disapproved of eating fruits. And his medical advice in general was based upon obsolete ideas of "the four humors" and certainly exhibited the standard flaws of medieval medicine, such as recommending a small amount of bloodletting in the spring and fall.

A recent Jewish book about eating a healthy diet purports to be based upon Rambam's principles and claims that "the foundation of this system is perfectly up to date and reliable." I have not read the book, but the evidence given for this claim is rather shaky. The author writes that "Rabbis, doctors and nutritionists have read through this book and verified its principles" - but to what extent does his book accurately reflect Rambam's system? And the fact that "the commentaries on Rambam's works maintain that his advice about health and the prevention of disease remains relevant today" is hardly evidence that it actually is accurate.

I am also wondering to what extent the unnamed Rosh Yeshivah was really following Rambam's advice in such things. Was he engaging in bloodletting? And it is especially interesting that his intestinal bleeding resulted from eating maror. That sounds like he was eating a sizable quantity of horseradish. But according to Rambam, suitable foods for maror are wild lettuce and endives, not horseradish, and a kezayis is the size of an olive. He should have followed Rambam in that area!

Yet I have no doubt that a person who believes himself to be following Rambam's dietary and medical advice, and who believes that Rambam has some kind of divine authority in his assurance, will be extra healthy. My reason for this is not that I believe that Rambam's medical advice competes with that of modern medicine. Rather, it is that the placebo effect is extremely powerful. (Incidentally, Rambam himself was quite ahead of his time in his realization of the power of the placebo effect!)

I'll sign off with the old story about the man who attended a shiur from his Rav about how the Gemara instructs a house to be built. He decided to build his house exactly according to the Gemara's standards, and spent many months constructing it. But as he finished hammering in the final nail, the entire house suddenly collapsed. Furious, the man came to his Rav to complain. The Rav says: "You know, Tosafos asks that question!"

(Thanks to S. for some links)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Novelty of Orthodoxy

Is Orthodox Judaism a new phenomenon? Many Jews believe that Judaism has always been Orthodox. In the academic study of Jewish history, on the other hand, Orthodox Judaism is widely considered to be a modern phenomenon, beginning with figures such as Chatam Sofer - but some have recently challenged this view.

I am pleased to announce the e-publication of a new monograph, "The Novelty of Orthodoxy," which explores this topic. The monograph can be downloaded after making a donation via PayPal. The recommended donation for readers of this website is $5. There are some people who, incredibly, always pay only one cent, but others, who feel that they have gained much from the Rationalist Judaism enterprise, express their appreciation with a larger donation, which is gratefully appreciated.

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.

In other news, this week I am beginning a mini-series of live internet shiurim at WebYeshivah, on various topics relating to Judaism and zoology. Click here for more details and registration.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Is It Acceptable To Believe That...

Many of the questions that I receive begin with "Is it acceptable to believe that..." For example:

Is it acceptable to believe that evolution happened?
Is it acceptable to believe that there was no global flood?
Is it acceptable to believe that the Sages were mistaken on various matters?
Is it acceptable to believe that parts of the Chumash are non-Mosaic in origin?
Is it acceptable to believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe/ Rabbi Elazar Abuchatzera/ Nir Ben Artzi was/is the Messiah/ a miracle worker/ a charlatan?

My answer to all these questions is identical.

Acceptable according to whom?

According to some people it is acceptable, according to others it is not!

If they are asking whether it is acceptable to God - well, I don't have a direct line. Presumably, if the belief is true, then it is acceptable to Him (but still not to all sectors of Orthodox Jewish society). If it is not true, then it may or may not be acceptable to Him, but people asking me these questions are usually those who already believe these things to be true.

All I can do is to give my own knowledge as to the extent to which these opinions are supported by earlier authorities or conflict with them. But that will not determine whether they are acceptable in any given Jewish community today.

I once published an article in Hakirah which addresses this point, entitled "They Could Say It, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy." It can be freely downloaded at this link:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Changing the Siddur

There is a raging controversy regarding "Open Orthodoxy" and especially its changes to the role of women in Judaism. I must confess that I am really, really not "up" on it. It hasn't reached Israel, and it doesn't actually interest me that much.

Personally, I am fairly conservative, with a small "c," from a halachic standpoint. I believe that in order for Orthodoxy to survive, it must follow the approach of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog, whereby we accept the authority of Chazal regardless of whether we agree with their reasoning. I believe that, in the face of contemporary challenges to the halachic lifestyle and ideology, a certain amount of stubborn rigidity is required (which is one reason why I don't wear techeles, despite being convinced that it is the Murex trunculus). I see God as undeniably and necessarily unequal in His distribution of opportunities. I see it as being perfectly reasonable, as well as strongly supported by modern science, to state that the differences between men and women extend beyond their physical differences. And I am way too suspicious of the transient nature of contemporary morality to demand that Judaism conform to it.

With that introduction, let me draw your attention to a source that recently crossed my path, and to an observation.

First, the source. Embarrassed apologies if I am late to the party with this one, but the idea that only a modern feminist Reformer would be dissatisfied with the berachah of shelo asani ishah appears to be neatly refuted by this Italian woman's siddur from 1471, which changes the berachah of she-asani kirtzono to she-asisani ishah ve-lo ish:

Though I must frankly admit to being personally very glad that Hashem did not make me a woman!

Second, an observation: It is ironic that, of those who protest the loudest about how any change to the siddur is unthinkable, they are often from communities in which a certain tefillah that was recited by many of their ancestors for generations has been utterly exorcised: Hanosein teshuah le-melachim. Apparently it's okay to change the siddur if you believe that you are doing so for a really, really good reason (which, in the particular case of Hanosein teshuah le-melachim, entirely escapes me).

(On another note, I will be visiting London of a lecture tour for the last weekend of November, speaking at Golders Green synagogue and other places to be announced.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It's Sukkos: Trick or Treat!

On the first day of Sukkos, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a group of children thrusting a bag in front of me. "We're Sukkah-hopping!" they announced.

I was rather taken aback. It occurred to me that my shock might be because I am English; I am likewise a little disturbed at the custom of Christmas Chanukah presents, which would have been way too Christian to do when I grew up in England. But my American wife was likewise surprised at the kids who showed up begging for candy. "Is it Halloween?" she asked me.

We had Sukkah-hopping in England, but it was something else entirely. It meant visiting friends' sukkahs, and enjoying a snack in their company. But the numerous groups of kids who kept showing up over the course of Yom Tov to the home of complete strangers were not doing that. Kitted out with bulging collection bags, they were on a mission to obtain free sugary loot (especially the kind for which one is not even obligated to make a "lesheiv"). 

It became such an issue this year in Bet Shemesh/ Ramat Bet Shemesh that people were arguing about it on the local e-mail discussion group. There were those who said that it's a harmless way of helping kids enjoy Chag. Others said that they are glad to host children in their sukkah for singing, divrei Torah and friendly discussion, while enjoying snacks, but they will not give to kids who come with a collection bag to take treats away.

Personally, I agree with the latter. The sort of "Sukkah hopping" that we saw this year was no different from the Halloween custom of trick-or-treating (to which, incidentally, many in England objected when it was imported from the US). Usually, "trick or treat" does not involve a genuine threat of a trick; it's just a vague mention of one - just like "We're sukkah hopping!" has a vague guilt trip that for the sake of Sukkos, you should give candy!

But even if it's a bit of a stretch to view trick-or-treating, and sukkah-hopping, as mild extortion, it's certainly begging. There was a time when even some children once objected to this: for Halloween 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City carried a parade banner that read "American Boys Don't Beg." Today, with the decline of the work ethic, and the rise of the "I deserve everything" generation, this is particularly problematic.

The harm of teaching kids to beg is even more problematic in Orthodox Jewish society. In the last few decades, we have witnessed the rise of the charedi belief that it is normal, legitimate and even preferable to not work for a living, and to instead depend upon the community to support private study which is not directed towards serving any communal purpose. This is notwithstanding the fact that it goes against explicit directives of Chazal (e.g. that "it is better to flay carcasses in the market than to rely upon the community for support") as well as going against the much-vaunted "mesorah" (in which the mass kollel phenomenon was entirely unknown until a few years ago). A recent article in Ami magazine interviewed a "radical" member of the Israeli charedi world who said that the way of "true Judaism" is to combine work and study - for those who lack the aptitude or the motivation to study and cannot make it as full-time learners!

The way of "true Judaism," as described by Chazal, is that it is shameful to beg for our needs and desires, and to expect people to give you something when you are giving them nothing in return. So if your kid comes to my door and wants to share the joy of Sukkos, I'd be glad for him/her to come in to our Sukkah, have a snack, make a berachah and talk. But no collecting bag!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gilad is Not a Number

The impending trade for Gilad Schalit is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. I must confess that my initial euphoria was tempered when I read details of exactly who is being released. Having said that, in this post I would like to rebut two arguments against the trade that I believe to be mistaken from a Torah perspective.

One argument against the trade is that it simply does not make mathematical sense. Without downplaying the importance of saving Gilad, at the end of the day he is just one person, whereas many more are likely to lose their lives as a result of the trade. Just do the math!

This argument, however, is incorrect. Consider the halachah regarding a town of Jews that is besieged by gentiles who order that one Jew must be handed over, or everybody will be killed. Mathematically, it would make sense to hand over one person. But the halachah is that nobody is to be handed over and all are to be killed. I do not mean to draw an exact parallel between that case and this case (there is a dispute regarding the halachah in that case if an individual is actually specified by the gentiles). Rather, the point is that sometimes it's not a matter of weighing up the number of lives involved. In that case, it is better to lose the lives of everyone rather to actively judge one person's life as being worth less than the others. In our case, it can be argued that the ordeal of Gilad's imprisonment is so great for him, his family and for the Jewish People (or at least, for those who aren't only concerned with Rubashkin) that he must be released even at great cost. That may or may not be a valid argument, but it should not be rejected for simply mathematical reasons.

Others who argue against the trade point to the case of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293) who was kidnapped and refused to allow the Jewish community to pay the ransom. They argue that this shows that such trades should not be done.

But in my view, one cannot draw such an inference. Rabbi Meir was making a decision about sacrificing himself. As Rabbi Dr. David Shatz has shown in his excellent Jewish Thought In Dialogue, the halachah permits a much greater degree of autonomy over one's own life than it does for others. If we consider the previous example of the Jewish town besieged by gentiles, we see this very clearly: while the halachah absolutely prohibits selecting someone to be handed over, a person is permitted (and even praised) if he volunteers himself to be sacrificed. Gilad Schalit has made no such choice, and nor should he be expected to do so - in fact, I would suggest that most of the nation would not even want him to do so. Indeed, one could argue that the situation is reversed: the majority of Israel's population, who apparently support the trade, have collectively volunteered to shoulder the security risk incurred by releasing the terrorists.

Again, all this is not to say that the trade should be done. Although my gut feeling is that it must be done, the bottom line is that I simply don't know. In my humble opinion, there is simply no clear answer as to whether it is right or wrong, and I'm glad that it's not me who has to make such a tough decision. But the decision has in any case already been made. Our task is to pray, as we did today in the misheberach for captured soldiers, that Gilad should return safely, with both a refuas haguf and a refuas hanefesh.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Miscellanous Notes

I. Here's an interesting perspective: Former Sudanese Slave: “Calling Israel a racist state is absolutely absurd and immoral.”

II. And here's an interesting question that someone forwarded to me: Should a rationalist knock on his head when saying על חטא? After all, the reason we knock on the heart is to say that the heart caused us to sin!... (Answer: No.)

III. I have no idea what's going on in Lakewood, but take a look at the following two letters:

Some observations:
1. Finally, some "Gedolim" admit that they were fed false information regarding a letter that they had signed. They also claim that other signatures turned out to be fake - is the implication that they had signed based on believing them to be genuine and relying on them?
2. Note that they give two reasons for retracting their signatures - first, that the true facts have come to light, and second, that Rav Elyashiv pressed them to do so. Remember the post about the two reasons principle? Whenever someone gives two reasons for something, the second reason is always the real one!
3. I bet that the victims of the first letter flexed some serious muscle.
3. What about the others - why didn't they retract their signatures?
4. Does anyone still take any of these letters seriously?

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Zoo Torah Experience

Are you going to be in Israel this Sukkot (or any other time)? Are you looking for something to do with your family? Why schlep to a public attraction where you'll be hot and squashed? Experience the wonders of the animal kingdom, with a Torah perspective, in Ramat Bet Shemesh, with the Zoo Torah Experience!

. Encounter some extraordinary exotic animals - hands-on!

. Try out the world's most unusual shofars!

. Discover a variety of prehistoric fossils!

. Put your head in the jaws of a shark! (Body of shark not attached)

. And much, much more!

The Zoo Torah Experience is an educational and entertaining hands-on presentation, under the guidance of the Zoo Rabbi, Natan Slifkin, in his private collection at his home. You and your family will learn so much about Torah and wildlife, and you'll have a terrific time too! The price per group (up to twelve people, for a one-hour session) is $100; the deluxe two-hour experience is $180. For reservations, write to or call 077-332-0678.

"I would like to personally recommend Rav Slifkin's Zoo Torah Family Experience. Rav Slifkin leads your family or group on an outdoor and indoor tour of his amazing collection of animals. All my children, ranging in age from toddler to 16 were captivated by Rav Slifkin's explanations and were thrilled to be able to handle some of the critters. Normally, on such a tour, my kids would huddle somewhere on the side, unwilling to push forward for a closer look, but the tours are private, so my kids were front and center the entire time. Rav Slifkin's collection of shofarot is stunning; you are unlikely to encounter such a collection anywhere else. There is plenty of time for questions, the tour is right here in RBS, and, quite frankly, we loved it!" - Gina Fishman, RBS resident

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Fracturing of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur has always seemed to be a day that unifies the Jewish People. Not only religious Jews, but even many secular Jews fast and attend shul. It is most impressive.

But it isn't always a unifying experience. Seven years ago on erev Yom Kippur, the first posters went up against my books, causing the worst Yom Kippur of my life. Some people were especially horrified that this was done on erev Yom Kippur. Personally, I didn't have such a problem with that. After all, from their perspective, they were saving the Jewish People - why not do that on erev Yom Kippur? True, when one is aware that there are differing views within the Orthodox community, perhaps a little restraint is called for, before taking advantage of Yom Kippur to pursue one's cause. But what can one expect? It is inevitable that people view Judaism, including Yom Kippur, through their own perspective.

A not entirely unrelated event occurred this year on erev Yom Kippur. I received an email, regarding viduy, on the Jem-Sem mailing list, which is sent to alumni (such as my wife) of various girls' charedi seminaries. It was from Rabbi Menachem Nissel - a super-nice person who unfortunately decided to be "mevatel daas" to Rav Moshe Shapiro in the controversy over my work and to condemn the approach of numerous Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah. The email was about the Chidah, who composed a long lists of sins for which one should confess. In the words of Rabbi Nissel, "Rav Moshe Shternbuch rewrote them in a simplified 'immediately accessible' form. However it is very male-centric (transgressions with women, wasting time when studying Torah etc.) I rewrote it for women with Rav Shternbuchs consent and guidance." He also sent another version by a Rabbi Feigenbaum that was further abridged "for high school girls." Sounds great, I thought. But then I started to read it, and some things caught my attention.

In the Chidah's viduy, one of the confessions is for הִרְהַרְנוּ אַחֲרֵי רַבּוֹתֵינוּ. It's not an easy phrase to translate, but in my view, it has the connotation of thinking negative thoughts about one's rabbis, such as assigning nefarious motivations to them. In Rav Sternbuch's simplified version, this is translated as "We doubted our Rebbeim."

What?! Is is really a sin to doubt one's rebbeim? In some streams of Judaism, such as Hassidic streams, absolutely. But in other streams, there is absolutely nothing wrong in doubting one's rebbe. Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes:
"It is forbidden for a student to accept the words of his teacher when he has difficulties with them. And sometimes, the truth will lie with the student. This is just as a small branch can ignite a larger one." (Ruach Chaim to Avos 1:4)
So here is an example of how the universal viduy of Yom Kippur becomes interpreted in a way as to reflect the attitude of some, but not all, schools of thought. And one can imagine how the sin of "doubting one's rebbeim" is interpreted by a girl who just spent a year in seminary. It's a sin to doubt that you should marry a kollel guy!

With that in mind, let us turn to another one. In the Chidah's viduy, another of the confessions is for דִּבַּרְנוּ זִלְזוּל עַל הָרַבָּנִים רִאשׁוֹנִים וְאַחֲרוֹנִים אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים הֵמָּה וַאֲשֶׁר עוֹדָם בַּחַיִּים, וְדָחִינוּ דִּבְרֵיהֶם מִבְּלִי שׂכֶל וּבְלִי מוּסָר וְיִרְאַת ה'. "We spoke disparagingly about the rabbis, Rishonim and Acharonim..." In Rav Sternbuch's brief paraphrase, this is condensed to "We disgraced Rabbis," which is fine. But in Rabbi Nissel's women-friendly version, it has become דִּבַּרְנוּ שֶׁלֹּא בַּכָּבוֹד הָרָאוּי עַל גְּדוֹלֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל "We have spoken about Gedolei Yisrael without proper respect"! And in Rabbi Feigenbaum's version, it has become "I spoke inappropriately about Chazal and Gedolei Yisroel" - omitting all the stages in between!

It is certainly a sin to speak about Gedolei Yisrael without proper respect. But what about respectful disagreement? Is it inappropriate to say that they were wrong about something? I could be reading too much into this, and I apologize if that is the case, but in light of previous incidents, I get the impression that this is likewise something for which people are being asked to atone. And wasn't the Chida's viduy about all Torah scholars over the generations, not "The Gedolim"? Isn't it also a sin to speak disrespectfully about Rishonim and Acharonim (such as by disparaging their views as kefirah or suchlike)?

Finally, there is something new that crops up in Rabbi Nissel's version which I find extremely puzzling: תָּרַמְנוּ מִכַּסְפֵּנוּ לִמְקוֹמוֹת שֶׁאָסוּר לָתֵת "We have donated money to places that it is forbidden to give to." Such as what?

I don't think that Rabbi Nissel or Rabbi Feigenbaum were consciously trying to transform the Chida's viduy into a charedi indoctrination strategy. But this is near-inevitably what happens when people interpret Yom Kippur through their own lens (although I wonder if a Centrist Orthodox rabbi would compose a viduy list with "We avoided denouncing chilul Hashem out of wanting to honor rabbis"). Any non-charedi person who is surprised that their daughter returns from seminary having been "brainwashed" has only themselves to blame. And it isn't enough to complain about it. If centrist Orthodoxy wants to perpetuate itself, it has to more actively work towards producing and supporting its own educators and educational materials.

* * *

I wrote the above on erev Yom Kippur, but I didn't get around to posting anything. So, a little belatedly, I would like to take this opportunity to ask forgiveness for anyone that I have written or spoken about inappropriately. If you a specific grievance, please feel free to write to me at Shanah tovah!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Charedi Judaism at a Crossroads

(Part Two of my review of Professor Kellner's book will be posted at a later date. Meanwhile, here is an essay inspired by this article by my beloved mentor, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. It is NOT meant to mock or dispute what he wrote; rather, it is intended to show that it should be applied in other areas, too. And on the other hand, it is also intended to challenge those who considered his article to be too intolerant to consider whether they feel the same way about this article.)

What will the rabbinic leadership of the Charedi world do? A wave of provocations from the Far Right challenges the very definition of Judaism. Should Yidden in other parts of the community who are far from the battle lines care? It would take a navi to answer the first question. Responsibility for Klal Yisrael and caring for other Jews demands a resounding “yes” to the second.

Lots of things are happening in the Charedi world – some good, some not so good, and some astonishingly terrible. The far right of Charedi Orthodoxy seems to be intent on continuing an unrelenting drive to push the envelope and change the way people lead an Orthodox life. The Charedi Gedolim, who in many other ways are models of selfless commitment to ahavas Yisrael, have unfortunately become the charismatic leaders of what is now a movement. They led the campaign to brand a mainstream view amongst Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah. They have also renounced the Gemara's obligation on a man to teach his son a trade, and on a person to take a lowly occupation rather than to insist that the community supports him, claiming that there is no halachic objection, since Eis La'Asos l'Hashem Heferu Torasecha. They have founded a new system of kollel for the masses without a time limit, which has been perpetuating this derech for a number of years. Charedi graduates have quietly slipped into pulpits around the country. It also sports a sister program for teaching girls that they need to support their husbands - in contrast to the traditional model described in the kesuvah.

The Charedim are not the only group flexing Far Right power. When the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the rabbinic umbrella group of Modern Orthodoxy worked to standardize giyur procedures for the benefit of future converts, some rabbis on the right were upset by what they saw as a “modernization” of the process, denying them the right to insist upon whatever stringencies they see as appropriate. They founded their own conversion organization, Eternal Jewish Family, which will promote its own competing batei din for giyur, relying on more “authentic” and strict standards they believe are found in certain teshuvos (such as that women must dress according to charedi standards, that one is required to believe that there was no age of dinosaurs, and that Dayanim may not wear colored shirts), ignoring the vast majority of poskim who disagree, and who have disagreed for a century. The children of many geirim are now being sentenced to lives of uncertainty, since the conversions of their parents – whether valid or not – could be questioned years from now, when all that is remembered is that the dayanim who presided over them rejected the standards of the Gedolim.

The Far Right does not rely on notoriety alone to capture attention. It makes steady and good use of the pashkevil, as well as the mainstream Jewish press, all aimed at the rest of the Orthodox community, and well beyond. One of its more effective tools is a newspaper called Yated Ne'eman, written by those who insist that nobody may argue with "the Gedolim," while another, The Jewish Observer, has been resurrected under the ironic name of "Dialogue."

Maintaining public visibility as denouncing many traditional Jewish attitudes produces much thunder and attracts significant media attention outside the Orthodox world. This is designed to increase pressure on mainstream rabbis, and move the majority of the community to view its changes as acceptable. People who lack the background in learning to analyze the arguments on both sides see a group of “authentic” rabbis making a strong stand, which seems like a good thing to them. Then they note a different group of “reactionary” rabbis who insist on scholarship and reasoned arguments. This generates enormous pressure on the center Orthodox to make concessions so as not to alienate growing numbers of their congregants. Years ago, the Far Right sought innovations like making chumras into the norm, and making it a bedieved to work for a living. Those changes are so commonplace that they have lost their cachet. Today the push is for even acknowledged non-halachic views of Rishonim and Acharonim to be "paskened" no longer permissible to be taught, and for traditional family models, whereby the husband works and supports his family, to be looked upon as bedi'eved.

To many, the Charedi axis looks at halacha in so many of its published psakim and communally dictated standards in a manner fundamentally different than the rest of us. It senses where it wants to go, and then looks for any vague aggadic statement within rabbinic tradition to justify it – but without having to offer any arguments for why their shitah is preferable or even defensible. Any shitos can be rejected on an as-needed basis. Absent is the sense of looking for an objective truth. That quest permeates hundreds of years of halachic literature: weighing all the views available, and only relying on those best supported by the evidence of the words of the gemara and rishonim.

Critics of Far Right halacha point to three other elements that differentiate it from traditional halacha:

• Very few on the far right can show any competence with theology, with the broad range of views in the Rishonim and Acharonim, or familiarity with wider society beyond the beis hamidrash.

• In traditional halacha, very serious questions are ruled upon in teshuvos, which provide the rationale for the answer. The right balks at this, seeing this as an affront to the untouchable status of the Gedolim, and prefers to issue decisions without justifications. It also believes that no views of anyone who is not part of the "Charedi Gedolim club," should have any status.

• In traditional halacha, the views of Rishonim are accorded great respect. In Far Right halachah, these are freely dismissed and condemned on the bizarre grounds that "they can say it, we cannot."

What should the Orthodox rabbinate do about the Charedi far-right? The question threatened to split the Orthodox world after the bans on Kamenetzky, Slifkin and Lipa, the silence on Tropper, the neglect of the abuse issue, and the economic collapse of the Charedi world. If even the gemara can be rejected in the name of a claim of it being "emergency times," where will this all lead? Given enough time (and enough headlines), can any shittah be paskened away? Even if no further changes are contemplated, doesn’t the approach suggest an understanding of mesorah fundamentally at odds with the rest of the Orthodox world, whereby mesorah means "what we do" as opposed to "what was traditionally done"?

It is difficult not to think of the dispute between the Wurzburger Rav and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. When Orthodox Jews were given the right by law in 1876 to withdraw from the community structure dominated by Reform, Rav Seligman Ber Bamberger strongly that they should not. Jewish unity should be maintained, so long as the observant did not have to compromise with their observance of halacha. Rav Hirsch, however, felt that it was imperative to do so. No one can say who was objectively “correct” in that dispute, although the last generations have looked favorably upon Rav Hirsch’s bold decision. Some argue that today’s agonizing choice is different. In Germany, the lines of demarcation between Reform and Torah Judaism were clear. Today, many fear, those lines have to be drawn. To avoid erosion of Torah values and practice, the rest of the community must define the approach of the Far Right as so different, that it can no longer be called traditional Judaism as the rest of us know it.

Why should the more traditional part of the community care about issues completely off its radar? The problems with which the Charedi world is grappling are just not relevant to communities much further to the left. In fact, we should be able to identify several reasons.

Firstly, the impact upon areas of Orthodox cooperation will be enormous. If the Far Right grows stronger in untethering itself from both traditional hashkafos and accepted protocols of determining halacha, there will almost certainly be a reaction in the rest of the Orthodox world. Lemegdar milsa, to draw clear lines of differentiation, the traditional community will move in the opposite direction to oppose changes it sees as dangerous and illegitimate. We will drift even further apart. Cooperation in many areas – education, kashrus, kiruv, gerus, political advocacy – will be jeopardized or eliminated. Much of the left will argue that if Charedi Judaism can tolerate such aberrations in its midst rather than expelling it, than they cannot trust or continue to deal with the Charedim – especially if a Charedi presence becomes mingled with the Modern Orthodox representation in common enterprises. Cooperation that took decades to accomplish may quickly unravel.

The best reason to care is that the Torah demands it of us. Other frum Jews simply cannot be unconcerned about the future of hundreds of thousands of charedi brethren, many of whom are in danger of embracing a treif ideology. We must be concerned for their well being; all members of our spiritual family deserve our love. (Those on the Far Right also deserve our love, but at the moment it may have to be tough love! Sometimes, as a last resort, an errant child needs to be rebuffed before he or she can fully participate with the rest of the family. The gemara speaks of rebuking by distancing with the left hand, while drawing closer with the (stronger) right hand – and allows for reversing the hands at times!)

Minimally, HaKadosh Baruch Hu expects our deep concern about wide-scale counterfeiting of Torah, even if it does not impact upon us directly. We should be prepared to show it. Many charedi rabbis are showing extraordinary mesiras nefesh in refusing to compromise on what they received from their rabbeim. If you learn of a charedi mara de-asra in your community who is valiantly holding a line against incursions from the Far Right, consider offering some chizuk. Let the rov know that you generally daven elsewhere, but admire his tenacity in standing by the Torah while it is under assault. Let him know that while some people think that people’s Yiddishkeit is defined by what they wear on their heads, you believe that what they carry in their heads is far more important. And in that regard, we are much closer to each other than they can ever be to the Far Right.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Must a Jew Believe Anything?

A review of Menachem Kellner's Must A Jew Believe Anything? Second edition, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization 2006

Over the last few years, an increasing number of people have been approaching me with crises of faith. One of the resources to which I direct them is Menachem Kellner's book Must a Jew Believe Anything?. It is, I believe, an outstanding work, and an absolutely essential read for anyone who is interested in the topics discussed in this blog, but I do have certain reservations about it.

The book can be divided into two parts. The first six chapters, along with the appendix (freely available at this link), explore the role of faith in classical Judaism and compare it to the role of faith in Maimonidean thought, and is the part which I cannot recommend highly enough. The final chapter contains Professor Kellner's own view of how the previous discussion can be used to change the way that Orthodox Jews relate to non-Orthodox Jews, and is the part about which I have severe reservations.

In the first chapters, Kellner begins by discussing the role of faith in the Torah and Talmud. He demonstrates that the Torah is more concerned with faith in God rather than in faith that particular propositions are true. With regard to the Talmud, Kellner makes several fascinating arguments to demonstrate that the Sages of the Talmud were far more concerned with people's actions than with their beliefs (which does not mean that they did not care at all about what people believed). There are tractates on every topic from berachos to uktzin (the impurity of vegetable stems), and yet, amazingly, there is no tractate dedicated to the topic of required beliefs. The only Mishnah which deals at all with beliefs is in the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, and yet it is clearly not presenting a systematic theology - it makes no mention of beliefs regarding God, mentions only beliefs that are not acceptable (and only two of those), and is very unclear with regard to the halachic consequences of incorrect beliefs. Kellner argues that this Mishnah is best understood as aiming to prevent people aligning themselves with the Sadducees.

Kellner then proceeds to discuss Rambam's view of the role of belief in Judaism and how it differs from the normative view. For Rambam, influenced as he was by Greco-Muslim philosophy, perfecting the intellect (which requires correct beliefs) is the goal of Judaism. Thus, those who believe in a corporeal God have utterly failed as Jews, no matter how many mitzvos they perform; whereas Ra'avad, reflecting the normative position, considered such people to be fine Jews, some of them even greater than Rambam (albeit mistaken).

The most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism emerges from comparing the Talmud's discussion of conversion to Judaism with that of Rambam. Here is what the Gemara has to say about conversion:
The Rabbis taught: If someone comes to convert, we say to him: “Why do you see fit to convert? Do you not know that today, the Jewish People are afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, harassed, and frequently subject to hardship?” If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. We inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot… we do not overwhelm him, and we are not exacting with him… (Yevamos 47a)
And here is how Rambam paraphrases it:
How do we accept righteous converts? When a gentile comes to convert, and investigation shows no ulterior motive, we say to him, “Why do you see fit to convert? Do you not know that today, the Jewish People are afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, harassed, and frequently subject to hardship?” If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. And we inform him of the fundamentals of religion, which are the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and we dwell upon this at length. And we inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot, but we do not dwell upon this at length… (Hilchos Issurei Biyah 14:1-2)
Look at the sentence that Rambam inserted! One might quibble with the degree to which Kellner sets Chazal and Rambam at odds with each other, but there can be no denying that there was a tremendous gulf between them (although, of course, there are nevertheless some people who do deny it).

Kellner explains why Rambam's list of dogmas, despite being a foreign aberration that initially made little impact, eventually won widespread support centuries later. It was not the conceptual foundation for these required beliefs that won support; rather, it was the fact that this list of dogmas became a useful tool to distinguish between loyal Jews and those who were breaking away from tradition, and to fight against the watering-down of Judaism.

This is just a taste of the first six chapters of Must a Jew Believe Anything? In the next post, I will continue my review with a critique of the second and very different part of the book - the seventh chapter.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Post-Rosh HaShanah Miscellany

1. I used the new Koren-Sacks machzor this Rosh HaShanah. It was fantastic! Aside from the unique layout of the Hebrew, which gives new feeling to the tefillos, Rabbi Sacks' commentary is outstanding. Even those who are cynical in their outlook ought to find it inspirational. And for an especially interesting contrast with the ArtScroll machzor (which, in its own way, is also an excellent work, and served me well for many years), compare the respective commentaries to u'nesaneh tokef. He doesn't need me to say it, but Rabbi Sacks is one of the most important, valuable, influential and successful rabbinic figures of our time.

2. Here are two extraordinary photos that came my way, the first from here and the second from here. Make of them what you will. I am a little confused by the reference to life on other planets in the first picture. In the second picture, aside from the absurdity of the product, the price seems rather high!

3. Apologies for the delay in posting this last week. I wish all my readers a belated shanah tovah and a gemar chasimah tovah. I have a lot of interesting material that I plan to post about this year, so keep checking this website, or subscribe via email or RSS feed!

4. I was fiddling around with the template for this blog. I don't like what I ended up with, but I can't figure out how to get it back to what it was before. If anyone can help, please do!