Monday, December 31, 2012

Not For The Reason You Might Suspect

A lot of people assume that I am critical of the charedi world due to bitterness about the ban on my books. I suppose it's a reasonable hypothesis, and I can't be objective about myself. However, to the best of my self-awareness, it's not the case. I have different reasons.

As I have written on many occasions, most notably in my essay "In Defense Of My Opponents," I am extremely sympathetic to the ban on my books. Of course, I don't think that my books are actually heretical, and the ban was handled extraordinarily badly, causing me a great deal of pain. But I certainly agree that the rationalist approach is harmful for many people, and that the charedi leadership has the right, and perhaps even the duty, to attempt to keep it out of their community.

To my mind, the problems with the charedi community are not its opposition to science and rationalism. Vastly more problematic are, for example, its approach to abuse, with Ami magazine's recent interview with Weberman's defense attorney (but not the attorney for the prosecution!) being the latest example. Another serious problem with the charedi world is its utter mishandling and abuse of the concept of rabbinic authority, with major decisions being made in a non-transparent way, by people who lack the proper knowledge, wisdom and input to make such decisions, and being manipulated all the way through by askanim.

Still, to my mind, these problems, as grave as they are, do not fundamentally invalidate charedi society in its entirety. Every community has its problems. Chabad has its crazy messianism. Modern Orthodoxy fails to produce adequate teachers to perpetuate itself. Religious Zionism struggles with political extremism.

The biggest problem with charedi society (certainly here in Israel; I'm not sure about the US), the one that makes it a failure, is something else: the charedi approach of mass, open-ended kollel, with the notion of work being, at best, a choice for second-class citizens, and at worst, something less preferable to collecting at people's doors. This goes hand-in-hand with educating one's children to follow the same path, and denying them the education and (more importantly) the inclination to do anything else.

As I've written previously, this is completely untraditional, or, if you want to sound more frum, against the mesorah (see my post The Invention of Kollel, and my paper on The Economics of Torah Study.) It also goes against numerous statements in Chazal about the value of work, the problem of casting oneself upon the community for support, and the obligation to train one's children to be able to provide for themselves. It goes against the kesubah, in which a man accepts to “work for, esteem, feed and support” his wife. It goes against the very fundamental nature of human society, across all times and cultures.

The problems that it causes are catastrophic, and extend far beyond the financial poverty of the people in kollel. Parents drive themselves into deep debt in order to marry off their children, which requires buying them apartments and supporting them for many years, even forever. Shidduchim are made and broken on the basis of money. An often unbearable strain is put on the wife, who is expect to not only give birth to, and raise, many children, but shoulder the burden of earning money (in contrast to the kesubah). The men themselves often feel unfulfilled and inadequate (which they are). And poverty itself is the cause of many problems with shalom bayis. And it's a problem that just gets worse and worse with each generation; for each child that goes a little "off" and attends one of the new charedi vocational training schools, there are five that don't.

In Israel, the problem is compounded. Not only is there an entire community that simply shirks its responsibility in sharing the national burden of serving in the army, pretending (to itself as well as others) that learning in kollel is an adequate substitute. It also drains from the national economy instead of contributing to it (and I'm not just speaking about money - I am talking about not putting skilled people into the workforce). The result is a community that is fundamentally selfish - taking and not giving.

(It could be that living in Ramat Bet Shemesh makes me especially sensitive to this problem. I am surrounded by hundreds of lovely Anglo charedi-wannabe families, in which the husband has a good job thanks to his college education, and/or there is a lot of parental support. But they send their kids to charedi schools in which there is little or no secular education, and even more significantly, the kids are educated with the Charedi ideal that work is for people who fail. The children will never be able to support themselves to the level of security and comfort that they have grown up with and become accustomed to; instead, they are on the path to all the problems mentioned above, which will be even worse when they themselves have children.)

I was gradually working along this line of thinking even before my books were banned. The ban just helped remove the emotional ties that hindered me from seeing the conclusion.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Musings on Metzitzah

In the previous post, I mentioned that I adopted a seemingly anti-rationalist approach regarding metzitzah at my son's bris on Sunday. No, the mohel did not do metzitzah b'peh. But he did perform metzitzah via a tube. And as someone asked me, Why do metzitzah at all?

As explained at length in the seminal article by my friend Shlomo Sprecher, "Mezizah be-Peh: Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?", Chazal clearly instituted the oral suction of blood from the circumcision wound due to their belief that it was medically beneficial - as Chazal themselves stated. Much later, it was realized that it is in fact potentially dangerous rather than beneficial. Halachic authorities such as Chasam Sofer, who analyzed the issue based on solely halachic aspects, thus ruled that oral suction need not be performed. (Those who took a meta-halachic approach, due to perceived threats to traditional Judaism, inflated the role of metzitzah b'peh; see my paper on "The Novelty of Orthodoxy".)

However, the halachic authorities who discounted the need for metzitzah b'peh still ruled that blood must be extracted from the wound via other means, such as with a sponge or via sucking it through a tube. An article in the latest volume of Hakirah by Rav Moshe Tzuriel of Bnei Brak, which stridently argues against performing metzitzah b'peh, still insists that it is unthinkable to do without metzitzah altogether.

But why? If metzitzah b'peh was only instituted in the first place due to a particular medical concern, and we now see that in fact it is of no medical benefit, then why do any form of suction?

The answer is very straightforward. To quote Tevye, "Because it's a tradition!"

Sure, sucking blood from the wound via a sponge or tube is of no apparent medical benefit. But on the other hand, it doesn't do any harm either. And since Jews have been doing this for thousands of years, why tamper with the practice? Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism, is inherently conservative in nature. It is also in a fragile state due to its confrontation with modernity. Therefore, it should be tampered with as little as possible. (This really needs expanding upon at greater length, but it's difficult to do so with a baby on my lap.)

Before concluding this post, I would like to raise another point on this topic. There is currently a furious reaction by the Charedi community in the US to the proposal that parents must be informed of the medical risks involved with metzitzah b'peh. (I saw a letter from the "International Bris Association" which, demonstrating an astonishing lack of self-awareness, accused the Health Authority of being biased!) I wonder: suppose the requirement was that Mohelim, instead of having to tell the parents that there are medical risks, had to inform parents that Chassam Sofer and many others said that if doctors claim that metzitzah b'peh is potentially dangerous, it need not be done. Would people still object, and if so, on what basis?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Speech at my Son's Bris

(Here is part of my speech at my newborn son's bris this past Sunday, and an extract from the Powerpoint presentation. In the next post, I will discuss and explain the seemingly anti-rationalist approach that we took regarding metzitzah, and explain why it is not anti-rationalist after all.)

Our newborn son, Menachem Asher, has gotten off to an auspicious start in life. He seems determined to make life easy for his parents. He popped out into the world earlier than expected, on the first night of Chanukah, thereby making things much easier in terms of making arrangements for the kids while we went to hospital. And having a bris on the eighth day of Chanukah takes all the effort out of coming up with a dvar Torah.

Of course, one can speak about the significance of the number eight for both Chanukah and Bris Milah. Seven symbolizes creation and the natural world. Eight represents rising above the natural order. Greek culture idolized the natural world, the human form and the natural order. Antiochus prohibited circumcision under penalty of death. Bris milah represents the idea of Jews rising above the natural order. But I would like to speak about a different aspect of Chanukah which ties in to the name and namesake of our son.

As I explain at length in my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, there is a certain animal that is integral to Chanukah. It’s not the elephant; it’s the leopard, which symbolized Greece in Daniel’s prophetic vision of the Four Kingdoms. The leopard’s trait is azzus, brazenness, which represents Alexander of Macedonia’s brazen expansion of his empire. However, there is no such thing as a negative trait. Brazenness can also be used for the good; as it says in Avos, “Be as brazen as a leopard to do the will of your Father in Heaven.” The positive manifestation of brazenness is to stand up for what’s right and not to be intimidated by those who mock or persecute you. The Maccabees used brazenness for the good in fighting for the Jewish people without being intimidated by the Greeks.

Our son is named after his grandfather, my father, whose Hebrew name was Menachem Asher. He was a ba'al teshuvah, a brilliant scientist and a pillar of the community, but what I would like to speak about is the trait that he shared with the Maccabees.

My father was not the kind of person that you would think of as being brazen. He was very quiet, shy, good-natured and mild-mannered. But he exemplified the positive aspect of azzus. He possessed incredible integrity, and he would do what his conscience told him to be the right thing regardless of whether it was popular. In Manchester he voted Labor, which he did because he felt it was kinder to the poor. To give some indication of how much this was going against the popular trend in the Jewish community, consider that many years later in Israel when he met a Mancunian and they were trying to figure out if they knew each other, the person finally said, “Oh, I know who you are – you’re that person who voted Labor!”

When my father started working at Machon Lev he realized that it was missing something that universities in England had - a safety officer who would be responsible for enforcing safety protocols. Needless to say, this did not make him the most popular person in the college. But he did it because he knew it was important.

I hope that my father’s legacy will live on through my newborn son. I hope that he will be good-natured and mild-mannered – but that he will stand firm to always do the right thing.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Real Rationalist Chanukah Miracle

Baruch Hashem, mother and baby are well. Shalom zachar this Friday night!
(Please excuse me for not replying to emails.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Strange Obituaries

When someone revered as great talmid chacham passes away, a plethora of praise is naturally forthcoming. Given the tragic nature of the event, it is regarded as being in very poor taste for anyone to dispute the accolades heaped upon the person who has passed away. Unfortunately, this means that all kinds of fabrications are able to be passed along unchallenged.

Well, as a person directly involved, I think that I have a license to issue such corrections.

Here is a letter that I sent to Rabbi Yair Hoffman eighteen months ago, in response to his hesped for Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz:
Dear Rabbi Hoffman,

I just read your hesped for Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz at Vos Iz Neias. While I am sure that Rav Lefkowitz had many praiseworthy traits, I do not think that it is appropriate to praise someone in ways that are false - especially when their actions in these areas were the cause of harm to others.

You wrote about his "ehrlichkeit" and "unimpeccable (sic) honesty" and added that "he signed upon a number of Kol Korehs and always gave each of them the most profound reflection and thought." Well, I can attest that this is false. Rav Lefkowitz wrote a letter against my books (or signed a letter that someone had ghost-written) in which not only did he falsely claim that they contained kefirah, but he also claimed that those who wrote haskamos for the books had retracted them. Not only was this false, it was very easily proven false - all that he had to do was actually speak to the maskimim! I even sent a message to him before the letter was publicized notifying him of this falsehood, and his assistant told me that Rav Lefkovitz would investigate this and would remove this sentence if I was correct - but in fact he never spoke to any of them and the sentence stayed in even though it was not true.

Furthermore, when I spoke to his assistant in order to attempt to meet with Rav Lefkowitz to discuss his letter, his assistant reported back to me that he refused to meet with me. The assistant said that the reason for this, and I quote, was that Rav Lefkowitz did not actually read the books and did not really know what they were about. Instead, he was just relying on someone else, and so he did not want to meet with me, which would give the impression that he actually knew what it was all about.

Are these the actions of someone with ehrlichkeit? Are these the actions of someone who only signs Kol Korehs after giving them "the most profound reflection and thought"?

Incidentally, if you read Rav Nosson Kamenetzky's "Anatomy of a Ban," you will see that he reports similar shortcomings in Rav Lefkowitz's involvement with the ban on his books.

It would be better to restrict praise of the niftar to that which is true - surely there must be enough of it? - rather than to indulge in false praise that will force others to object.

Natan Slifkin

This came to mind after this post at Garnel Ironheart's blog referred me to Jonathan Rosenblum's obituary for Rav Elyashiv. I'm sure that there is plenty of incontrovertible praise that could be given about Rav Elyashiv. Unfortunately, Rosenblum gives some praise that is very far from accurate:
Even after resigning, he remained ever a dayan in his conduct, refusing, for instance, to hear one party in a dispute unless the other party was also present. 
This is painful to read. I can attest that Rav Elyashiv signed a ban on my books, and against my being permitted to teach, based on second- or third-hand testimony as to the books' contents, in a campaign issued by crooks and frauds such as Rabbi Leib Pinter and Rabbi Leib Tropper. Furthermore, as Rav Nosson Kamenetzky attests in Anatomy of a Ban, Rav Elyashiv took actions against his books based on the false testimony of askanim, without asking Rav Kamenetzky for clarification. In fact, having been told numerous stories from people who were affected by rulings issues by Rav Elyashiv, the most common complaint that I heard was that he issued rulings on personal matters without hearing both sides, and that his handlers made it very difficult for people to get in and have their side of the story heard. (See especially this post, about how Mishpachah claimed that Rav Elyashiv's ban against it couldn't possibly be authentic because he never heard their side! Needless to say, it was authentic.)

Are there not enough good things to say about these rabbanim, that people have to praise them with statements that are utterly false?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Leopards, Africa, and other stuff

1. Chanukah is approaching... and that means leopard season! The sample chapter from my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, about leopards and Chanukah, can be downloaded at

Note that I have made some changes based on feedback from last year. Each section now has a subheading, describing whether that section relates to natural history, identification, symbolism, etc. What do you think? Also, if you are a professional user of Adobe InDesign, I would like to hire you for a consult!
2. This July, you can participate in the ultimate Zoo Torah experience - a safari in Africa! It will include private game reserves, a riverboat safari in Chobe, Victoria Falls, Cape Town, and much more, all accompanied by fascinating lectures on the animal kingdom in Jewish thought. For details, see, or write to with the subject "Rabbi Slifkin African Safari."

3. I am currently planning my lecture tour in the NY region for early February. Both of my Shabbatot are booked (West Orange and Plainview), but if you are interesting in having me speak at your shul/ college/ school during the week, please write to me at

4. If you're visiting Israel (or fortunate enough to live here), don't forget that you can enjoy the Zoo Torah Experience at my private mini-museum in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Details at

5. Don't forget that each Sunday, I am delivering a series of live internet video classes on Judaism, science and rationalism. Learn more and sign up at

6. My website is currently being redesigned. It's going well, but we are having a hard time coming up with a good design for the header logo. Here's what I came up with, but it needs improving, including making it transparent so as to show up well on a dark background. If you're a Photoshop pro, and you can improve it or come up with something better, that would be great!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Soldiers, Draft-Dodgers, and Deserters

As a citizen of Israel, I will be sending my son(s) to the army. Frankly, it terrifies me, and my children. In fact, for this very reason, I renounced my son's Israeli citizenship at birth (at the time, I was not Israeli, and so I could do that.) But I've come to recognize that it's not a matter of whether it fits in with our plans; it's a matter of having an obligation to our country.

Most charedim do not serve in the army. Their alleged reason for this is that they allegedly believe that their Torah studies perform a vital service for the country. True, it involves much less mesiras nefesh, but it provides metaphysical protection that would supposedly be fatally compromised if they were to take off several months to train and serve in a military capacity.

Let's take them at their word, for now. And let us ask a question: Is this metaphysical protection that their Torah provides, something that is spread equally for Jews throughout the world? Or is it most concentrated in the places where they are?

It seems that the latter is the case. The Yerushalmi, Chagigah 1:7, speaks about teachers of Torah being the protectors of the city - i.e., their city. In general, reason indicates that if one accepts the concept of zechus - merits created by good deeds - that they spread outwards, decreasing in intensity with distance. A person's merits are strongest for his immediate family, and for those in his town. For righteous people to have saved Sodom, they would have had to have been living in Sodom.

The charedi world agrees. The Chazon Ish, and, yibedal lechaim, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, said that Bnei Brak is safe from missiles. The Torah study of that town apparently protects it, and it alone. Likewise, when the 300-strong Grodno yeshivah relocated from Ashdod to Bet Shemesh last week due to the war in the South, a prominent Torah scholar in Bet Shemesh was quoted in the Chadash weekly as stating that "We have no doubt that the efforts of the residents of Bet Shemesh, such that the sound of Torah should not cease from one yeshivah, is the 'iron dome' of the city; it is the true protection, and the cause that our residents have not been part of the bloodshed." The merits of those facilitating Torah study provide protection that is greatest in its immediate locale.

Well, if that's the case, why didn't they stay in Ashdod?

If their whole excuse for not serving the military is that they provide metaphysical protection, then why can't they provide it where it's needed? Bet Shemesh was never at serious risk (and nor was Bnei Brak). It's Ashdod, where the Grodno yeshivah was housed, that needs protection! If charedim believe that they are protecting the country with their Torah, then let them do it! The yeshivos should be relocating from Bnei Brak and Jerusalem to the South, not the other way around!

In the previous Gulf War, Rav Elyashiv reportedly said that Tifrach yeshivah should stay put and rely on the protection that its Torah provides, but Grodno, which is in the much more dangerous town of Ashdod, should relocate, since one cannot pray for a miracle. Okay, so it's more dangerous; but isn't that even more reason for them to stay, and help protect the residents? Soldiers don't go where it's safest; they go where they are needed to protect the population!

Adding insult to injury is that not only do charedim avoid bearing their share of the security burden; they demand that others take even greater risks. The cover of Mishpachah magazine this week asked "Will Israel stop short again?" which, as a friend pointed out, translates to their demand for the IDF to keep fighting. The newspaper Mekor Rishon conducted a survey of different sectors of the population asking if the IDF should have taken the dangerous step of sending ground troops into Gaza; the sector of the population in which the most said yes was the charedi sector (at 58%). They don't want to risk the lives of their own children; only the lives of other peoples' children!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I don't think that even charedim really believe that their Torah provides protection; they avoid army because it threatens their lifestyle, and they don't see themselves as having much of a responsibility to the country. They are just draft-dodgers. But if one does believe that their Torah provides protection - that they are not avoiding the draft, but are instead serving in the army of Hashem - then their actions during war reveal that they are deserters.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Drawing Strength from Blood Libels

Over the last few years of this blog, I have made repeated reference to the rationality of following the overwhelming majority, or global consensus, of the scientific community. This is no different from how we act in halachic matters. Everyone is always entitled to their own opinions. However, when a person lacks sufficient knowledge to form their own opinion, it makes sense to follow the majority. And even if one has formed one's own opinion, if the overwhelming majority of others disagree, it makes sense to double-check one's own thinking.

Unfortunately, such an approach leads to depressing results when evaluating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The vast majority of the world believes that Israel is, to a greater or lesser degree, the bad guy. Could they all be wrong?

The famous writer Achad Ha-Am wrote about how, when evaluating the general global disapproval of Jews, some consolation can be drawn from one of the most appalling of all indictments: the blood libel. The fact that this is so obviously false, and yet so widely believed, demonstrates that the global disapproval of Jews is based upon irrational antisemitism rather than genuine flaws:
"This accusation is the solitary case in which the general acceptance of an idea about ourselves does not make us doubt whether all the world can be wrong, and we right, because it is based on an absolute lie, and is not even supported by any false inference from particular to universal. Every Jew who has been brought up among Jews knows as an indisputable fact that throughout the length and breadth of Jewry there is not a single individual who drinks human blood for religious purposes. ... Let the world say what it will about our moral inferiority: we know that its ideas rest on popular logic, and have no real scientific basis. ... 'But' - you ask - 'is it possible that everybody can be wrong, and the Jews right?' Yes, it is possible: the blood accusation proves it possible. Here, you see, the Jews are right and perfectly innocent."
In this dark hour, when much of the world unites in condemning Israel for its defensive campaign against Hamas, and many Jews feel uncomfortable with maintaining an opposing view, it is worthwhile to remember this. For much of history, much of the world was certain that Jews bake matzas with the blood of Christian children. That tells you everything about global opinion regarding Jews that you need to know.

The current campaign in Gaza presents a new example of this phenomenon. Much of the world is talking about Israel's "indiscriminate" attacks on Gaza or even deliberate attacks on innocents. Yet every Jew with even a basic knowledge of the campaign knows that this is not the case; that in fact, the very opposite is true. This should help people realize that world opinion of Israel is based on nothing more than simple antisemitism (or media reports resulting from it).

I'm sure that most of my readers already know this. We are aware that most of the world irrationally hates us; it's just depressing. But to my mind, there is something here than can be of help to readers of this website.

Many readers are struggling with the fundamentals of faith. Is it rational to believe that there is something special about the Jews? That we are the chosen people? Aren't we just yet another nation with delusions of grandeur?

I think that one can also draw faith, albeit in an odd way, from the blood libel, especially in its contemporary incarnation. In the entire global history of armed conflict, no nation has done remotely as much as Israel to minimize civilian (and even military) casualties amongst its enemies. Yet simultaneously, no nation receives remotely as much condemnation for killing civilians!

Is this normal?! Does this reflect a world in which there is nothing other than the order of nature?

Like I said, it's somewhat odd to draw faith from something negative. But I find it to be an enormously powerful example of how there is something unique about the Jewish People. Overwhelming, bizarrely irrational global hatred; and yet we have survived, and returned to our homeland. Am Yisrael Chai!

(See too this post: Does Rationalism Mandate seeing Judeopathy as Naturalistic?)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Letter to Britain's "The Independent"

To the Editor:

Mr. Robert Fisk, in his article of Sunday, November 18, correctly observes that the rockets sent by Hamas into civilian towns are intended to kill as many men, women and children as possible. He then claims that the same is true of the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

As of the time of writing, the IDF has carried out over 1300 attacks on the densely-populated Gaza, with fighter planes, heavy artillery boats, and the world's most sophisticated weaponry. Yet only 81 Palestinians, and only half of them civilians, have been killed. Assuming that the world's most advanced and powerful weaponry is not completely useless, the conclusion is obvious. Not only is Israel not trying to kill as many men, women and children as possible; it is exerting extraordinary effort to minimize the loss of civilians. And not only is this true; it is very obviously true, by looking at the power of the IDF and the results of its efforts.

Mr. Fisk laments that there are those who would call him an antisemite for his charge. What, then, is the correct term for someone who issues an obviously false and extraordinarily defamatory libel against the Jewish State?

Natan Slifkin
Bet Shemesh, Israel

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Misrepresentation and Ignoring Chazal

As I noted in a previous critique of an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran, there are people who reasonably claim that it is pointless and undignified to pay any attention to him; after all, this is a person who believes that Bernie Madoff is more worthy of admiration than Captain Sully, and who believes that "unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas" is more of a problem in the scientific community than in the charedi community. However, since Rabbi Shafran has an important position and his voice is heard by many people, I believe that he cannot be ignored.

Rabbi Avi Shafran's latest missive boggles the mind. Not only does he utterly misrepresent the people that he criticizes; he quotes a Gemara that proves precisely the opposite of the point that he is trying to make.

The object of Rabbi Shafran's ire is the speculation of an article in New York magazine that child abuse is more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than in other communities. According to Rabbi Shafran, this speculation was based on the theory that repression fosters abuse. Rabbi Shafran responds that, on the contrary, it is the lack of fearing God that enables immoral behavior.

However, checking the original article (via Google; Rabbi Shafran did not provide a link or reference) reveals that "repression fosters abuse" was only one theory offered regarding the claim that abuse is more common in the Orthodox community. There were several other theories that were also offered: that there is a higher degree of shame in the Orthodox community over such things; that there is fear of badmouthing rabbis; and that there is a perceived prohibition of mesirah. Does Rabbi Shafran deny the existence of these? Why did he not mention them?

(Of course, we can also add the fact, admitted by Agudas Yisroel's own executive director, that the charedi leadership did not take abuse and molestation issues seriously enough. And Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, who works for a taskforce approved by Agudah, writes that the rate of abuse is higher in charedi communities, for the reasons given above!)

Bizarrely, Rabbi Shafran concludes by noting that even religious people sometimes forget to fear God; he cites the Gemara's account of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's wish for his students that their fear of God should equal their fear of man.

Well, that's the whole point!

The Gemara's point is that people's fear of God is less than their fear of man. In other words, contrary to Rabbi Shafran's claim, what stops people committing crimes is not fear of God so much as it is fear of man. Which is exactly why there is reason to believe that abuse is higher in the Orthodox Jewish community. In the charedi community, perpetrators have less to fear, since they know that due to widespread concerns of shonda and mesirah, they will not be reported!

I don't know why, with so much happening right now, Rabbi Shafran is writing an article in response to something written in 2006. But if he's going to do so, he should at least accurately represent those that he is disputing, and listen to what Chazal are actually saying! Especially since the latest Orthodox scandal, currently unfolding in the UK, simply further proves that Chazal were right and Rabbi Shafran is wrong.

UPDATE: See too this post by R. Daniel Eidensohn
more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere?

Read more:
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution
more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere?

Read more:
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Strange Reactions

There's a certain dietary supplement that my doctor advised me to take, to correct a certain medical issue. I know very little about this area, but some quick Googling revealed that there are some medical experts who believe this supplement to be entirely unhelpful, and possibly even harmful. I've even heard that some medical scientists, who stressed the importance of this supplement, had been bought off by a drug company.

Still, the overwhelming majority of medical experts - the people to whom I entrust my life - clearly believe it to be helpful. Now, it's certainly possible that they are all mistaken - working under a mistaken paradigm, or something like that. But it seems to me that most sensible thing to do would still be to follow the overwhelming majority of opinions in medical science, which rate this supplement as beneficial and important. Sure, there may be some advocates who were bought off or committed scientific fraud or whatever, but it seems highly unlikely that all the advocates were. And yes, those advocating for it may all be operating under a mistaken paradigm, but then so too could be the case with its opponents. With me knowing next to nothing about this field, but having to make a decision, the most sensible approach is to go with the general consensus of medical experts. Since the scientific method, while imperfect and sometimes leading to mistaken conclusions, has demonstrated its validity on many occasions - putting man on the moon, curing many conditions, making countless predictions that prove correct - it makes sense to go with the consensus on this issue, too.

So far in this post, I would think that most people either agree with my reasoning, or are sympathetic to it. Sure, I know people who don't give their kids vaccinations, due to the one or two voices claiming that they are harmful. I know someone who believes that diet soda is part of a global conspiracy to test poisons, and claims that to be the reason why Obama doesn't drink it. But, in general, I think that most people operate in the same way. If you have to make a decision regarding a field that you know very little about, you follow the majority of experts in that field, barring some very special reason not to do so.

In light of this, the reaction to my post of Sunday is extraordinary. I mentioned that I don't think that there is any basis for attributing Hurricane Sandy entirely to climate change caused by man. I mentioned that I don't think that there is any basis for attributing Hurricane Sandy entirely to climate change caused by man. (Yes, I just wrote that sentence twice, because many people apparently didn't read it the first time.) I further wrote that it seems plausible - not certain, but plausible - that Sandy was exacerbated by changes to the environment caused by man. And that's when people went berserk.

I didn't allow all the comments to be posted, because several were written by people who were apparently so consumed with rage that they didn't notice the sentence on the comment form, written in bold capital letters, that ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED. But the comments were astonishing. First is that many people assumed that I was saying that the hurricane was caused by climate change, when in fact I specifically said that I didn't think it was caused by it; merely that it's plausible that it was exacerbated by it. Then is that many people insisted that I was not only incorrect for believing that man-made climate change is plausible; I was entirely unreasonable, even foolish, and demonstrating low IQ! One person accused me of "worshipping" scientists, and of demonstrating "sheer arrogance."

It's incredible. The exact same approach that I would use for assessing the medical benefits of a dietary supplement - that almost everyone would use - is considered here to be absolutely wrong, utterly foolish, and demonstrating theological and moral deficiencies!

It reminded me of certain aspects of the Great Torah-Science Controversy of 2004-5. Many people were up in arms over my acceptance of evolution. I was accused of "worshiping the gods of science." I was frequently accused of being ignorant of real science (!). I was accused of blinding myself to the atheist bias of scientists (apparently even the religious ones), and to the hoaxes and frauds that have been perpetrated by evolutionists.

One aspect of this that always puzzled me was, why did people care so much? Many of these people had no real interest in this topic, let alone expertise. It's not as though evolution poses any serious theological problems; certainly much less than are posed by kabbalah. True, evolution is untraditional, but then so too is much of charedi Judaism. And there are many more serious intellectual challenges to Judaism, which few people seem to care much about. Why do people care about evolution so much?

Eventually I realized that it has very little to do with either science or theology. Rather, it was about the social aspects. For various historical (but not theological) reasons, evolution has become the signature area of battle between religion and atheism. It's "us" versus "them." My own involvement led to even more emotional social struggle: Loyal Followers of The Gedolim, versus Jews who are Against The Gedolim. This battle wasn't about science or theology; it was about personal identity. No wonder emotions ran high.

I think that the same is true here. For many people, climate change is not simply another scientific issue, with advocates and detractors. Rather, it epitomizes the fundamental divide in society: religion vs. atheism, conservative vs. liberal, Republican versus Democrat. Why are many Americans with no interest in or knowledge of biology, such as Ann Coulter and Jonathan Rosenblum, so caught up in fighting evolution? Because it's identified with liberalism and Democrats. Likewise with climate change; anyone even hinting that they find it remotely plausible is supporting Them.

Perhaps I should have prefaced my post with the following fact: I am deeply upset that Obama was re-elected, for lots of reasons. Primarily is that to my mind, Iran is the single most important issue in the world. Obama is severely ineffectual on that front, which could lead to the greatest threat Israel has ever faced. See? I'm a Republican!

Of course, I don't expect that admission to really change anything. Nobody consciously admits that their thinking on this issue is centered around social identification. Human beings excel at believing that they have arrived at conclusions for rational reasons even if such is not the case.

At least, that's what modern science says. (Rav Elchonon Wasserman, too.)

(UPDATE: If you're looking to find some scientific arguments against climate change and evolution, reader Raffi Bilek wryly pointed me to a new book: "The Truth About Nonsense!" by Chawnaw Hershel Kahn. It promises to show "how pathetically easy it is to refute evolution, the Big Bang, an old planet, mutations, global warming and ozone depletion!" Plus, it "features new scientific theories; why do we get old, how crystals grow and the real speed of light! Don't miss the frauds! It's all such nonsense!" You can read a preview at this link and purchase the book here.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Few Announcements

1) In two weeks, I am starting a mini-series of online video classes with Torah In Motion. You can see details and register at this link:

2) In February, I will be visiting the NY region for a lecture tour. If you are interested in having me speak at your shul or school, please write to me.

3) If you happen to possess great expertise in German, and are willing to help me with some translations of 19th century texts on Biblical and Talmudic zoology, please write to me.

4) Related to the above, I am in the process of studying Rabbi Dr. Ludwig Lewysohn's Die Zoologie des Talmuds, “The Zoology of the Talmud,” published in 1858 (it is one of the subjects of my doctoral dissertation). It's available online in PDF and I am running it through an OCR program. I thought that it might be a good idea to upload the OCR text to a website such as Wikibooks so that people can collaborate on translating it. If anyone has the technical expertise to set this up (for a text with facing translation), or to advise on it, please be in touch.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Theology of Sandy

Recently a very fine rabbi, of chassidishe inclination, disappointed me by ridiculing the idea that last week's weather disaster in the US was due to the human-caused environmental problem of climate change. He further insisted that one cannot attribute it to teva, the natural order. He argued that it is an act of God, not an act of man, and we have to look for the divine cause. He suggested, tentatively, that it was because of Atlantic City, the target of the storm, being a den of gambling. He added that just as the mabul happened because of interbreeding, so too similar natural events happen due to breaches in arayos, such legislating same-sex marriages.

A thought that struck me was, hey, if you're making wild guesses as to the metaphysical cause, why not pin the blame closer to home, as per a real cheshbon hanefesh? You could observe that the original mabul happened because of chamas, violence, and note that water puts out fires. Then you can observe that the hardest-hit Jewish community last week was the Five Towns, and you can note that people there fawn over chassidishe rebbes, including paying one million dollars for the honor of hosting the Skvere Rebbe. Now, Skvere achieved notoriety for the case of the dissident who was set on fire by the Rebbe's assistant, for which no responsibility or appropriate action was taken by Skver. So the hurricane was to punish the violence and symbolically "put out the fire"! Bingo!

Of course, that's ludicrous and offensive; I have good friends in the Five Towns who suffered terrible damage to their homes, and who don't support Skvere. But nor do they gamble in Atlantic City.

So now for the serious discussion. I don't think (as far as I can gather) that there is any basis for attributing Sandy entirely to climate change caused by man. However, the idea that it was exacerbated by changes to the environment caused by man seems entirely plausible. Furthermore, from a religious Jewish perspective, it seems perfectly reasonable and appropriate to draw such a conclusion (if there is adequate scientific basis).

This is clearly the case from the rationalist Jewish perspective. Terrible events can occur as a result of teva, and as a result of people not making the correct hishtadlus. After all, Rambam, in his Letter to Marseilles, says that the Destruction of Jerusalem happened as a result of people involving themselves in silly superstitions instead of working at proper military planning and defense of the land:
This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry. They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them. Therefore the prophets called them “fools and dolts” (Jer. 4:22).
But even without adopting the rationalist approach, normative Jewish thought clearly sees it as entirely plausible that disasters can occur due to environmental harm caused by man, and no other metaphysical cause need be sought.

Let's start with a simple mitzvah of the Torah (that I will be fortunate enough to perform, with a berachah, in the next few weeks): That of making a fence around a roof that people walk upon. Even mystics, who claim that the reasons for mitzvos are metaphysical and unknowable, would have to concede that there is a clear and obvious reason for this mitzvah. And if someone were to fail to fulfill it, and were to fall from their roof and come to harm, one would obviously not need to look for the metaphysical reason as to why it happened ("ah, it's because he spoke during davenning!").

As I noted in a post of a few years ago, "Safety is Also a Mitzvah," the tragic collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem, built using the notorious "pal-kal" construction method, need not be attributed to mixed dancing or anything like that. There was no need to divine any cause other than the obvious: It is dangerously irresponsible to look for quick-and-easy shortcuts in something as serious as constructing tall buildings. And responsibility in such matters as construction is also a Torah obligation, be it the mitzvah of maakeh or that of venishmartem es nafshosechem.

The Midrash notes that man's power and resultant responsibilities extend beyond his direct construction, to the environment around him:
“Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) – At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!” (Midrash Koheles Rabbah 7:1) 

Here we see that, from Chazal's perspective, it is certainly possible that man can cause great harm to the world.  Furthermore, man is enjoined not to do so, and warned that if he does not listen, he will suffer the consequences.

It is thus perfectly appropriate, from a Torah perspective, to say that man failed in his obligations to the environment, and suffered great harm as a result. Is that actually what happened with Sandy? I have no idea. But it's at least as reasonable as attributing it to gambling in Atlantic City.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Bird in the Hand

Continued apologies for the slow rate of posting - I've been very busy with my encyclopedia. Here's something that I just posted to my Zoo Torah blog:

A resident of Ramat Bet Shemesh called me to say that a strange bird had entered their apartment and was unable to fly. They had been informed that I was the go-to person about such an event. When they told me that it had a curved beak, I promised to come right away.

It's a female kestrel, the most common type of falcon in Israel. It seems to have a broken wing, so I'm going to take her to the veterinary clinic at the Jerusalem Zoo. The Head of Animal Management at the Nature Authority told me that if it makes a full recovery, it will be released, but otherwise, I will be able to keep it. Today, it happily ate a hamster.

Soon, I will be publishing an article about medieval Jewish falconry.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Rules With Exceptions

I'm not just controversial for arguing that Chazal's statements about the natural world were sometimes incorrect. Occasionally, I've also engendered controversy when explaining how Chazal were correct.

In several instances, Chazal pronounce rules about the animal kingdom, which seem to be contradicted by certain species. For example:
  • The statement that every animal lacking upper teeth is kosher - contradicted by anteaters, armadillos, and white rhinos.
  • The statement that every animal possessing upper teeth is non-kosher - contradicted by several types of deer.
  • The statement that every animal that "brings up the cud" is kosher, aside from camels, hares and hyraxes - contradicted by capybaras, koalas, proboscis monkeys and others.
  • The statement that every fish with scales has fins - possibly contradicted by sea-snakes and swamp-eels.
  • The statement that a headless chicken will die - possibly contradicted by "Mike the Headless Chicken."
  • The statement that every animal which lays eggs does not nurse its young - contradicted by platypus and echidnas.
  • The statement that the only living things that copulate face-to-face are people, snakes and fish - contradicted by the bonobo and stitchbird.

In all these cases, I argued that the rules are not incorrect. It's true that Chazal didn't know about these animals, but even if they would have known about them, they would not have been bothered. The reason is that they were not concerned about animals that live in remote places, and they were not concerned about rare exceptions. Ein lemedin min haklalos - one does not take general principles as absolute rules.

Despite the fact that I brought numerous sources to bolster this approach (see The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax), it ruffled a lot of feathers. True, I said that Chazal were not mistaken - but claiming that their rules were not absolute was seen as undermining their authority.

Not that this bothers me anymore. With R. Yonasan Eybeschutz and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg and Chassam Sofer and numerous others presenting such an approach, I'm happy to be in their company. Still, I appreciated a fascinating source that my friend R. Eliezer Zobin sent to me recently.

Koheles 7:20 states that "There is no righteous man in the world who does good and does not sin." Tosafos, to Shabbos 55b, challenges this, based on a Gemara which lists four people who died without sin. He answers - talking about a passuk in Tenach! - that it is not an absolute statement, just a generality, which can have exceptions. The Pnei Yehoshua doesn't like this approach, but that's what Tosafos says.

The Tosafist wasn't a rationalist. But he was level-headed, and didn't see a need to interpret a statement as being some kind of Discovery-style scientific claim.

(If you're looking for a post about Noah's Ark and the Flood, check out last year's post.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Rav Elyashiv Really Meant

On Friday I bought a new and fascinating book, Machshevet Yisrael V'Emunat Yisrael (unfortunately I bought it just before I received an email from the editor, offering me a complimentary copy for review!) It is a collection of articles by Orthodox Jewish academics (mostly in Hebrew) on various themes in Jewish thought, based on a conference that took place at Ben Gurion University. One article by Dr. Baruch Schwartz, which I haven't yet read properly, appears particularly provocative, attempting to present a theologically and logically justifiable basis for Orthopraxy. There's also a fascinating article by Rabbi Dr. David Shatz on Modern Orthodox vs. Charedi approaches to history. But the article that I want to talk about is Dr. Marc Shapiro's article, "Is There A Pesak for Jewish Thought?"

Dr. Shapiro presents a sound discussion of the problems with the notion that matters of belief are subject to the halachic process. He further observes that the rationalist Rishonim definitely did not believe that one can pasken on belief. But he notes that the picture is not so straightforward; there are a few cases where Chazal do appear to pasken on matters of belief, and some Acharonim appear to take this stance. He concludes without a conclusion, noting that the matter is complicated and requires further analysis.

The springboard for Dr. Shapiro's discussion is, of course, a discussion of the so-called "Slifkin Affair" (which I much prefer to call "The Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy"). He summarizes it over the course of two pages, and describes what happened with Rav Elyashiv as follows:
Elyashiv informed him (R. Aharon Feldman) that while it was acceptable for earlier authorities to state that the Sages' scientific knowledge was defective, it was not permitted for Slifkin to do the same. With these few words a viewpoint advocated by earlier authorities... was now being ruled off-limits for contemporaries, in a completely halakhic fashion. (emphasis added)
But are these last few words an accurate description of what happened? I don't think so.

In an article in Hakirah entitled "They Could Say it, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy," (which you can download for free) I explained that Rav Elyashiv was not issuing a conventional halakhic ruling. Instead, he was issuing a societal policy - that rationalist approaches should not be taught in the haredi community.

My basis for saying this is not that I am afraid to confront the notion that a Gadol HaDor rated my books as kefirah. At this stage, I really couldn't care less; I know that they are not kefirah, and that's all that matters to me. Instead, I have two sets of reasons for explaining Rav Elyashiv's position in this way.

One is that it is vastly more reasonable. As Dr. Shapiro explains in his article, and as I explained in my Hakirah article, it is very problematic to claim that Rishonim's grasp of Torah theology is now prohibited and rated as fundamentally perverse. Given a choice between explaining Rav Elyashiv's stance in a way that is basically reasonable, or in a way that is bizarre and problematic, why not opt for the former?

My second set of reasons for explaining Rav Elyashiv's position in this way is that I have quite a bit of evidence for it - some of which I have not released before this post. It's true that Rav Feldman wrote an essay in which he explained Rav Elyashiv's position as a halakhic rejection of earlier views, but one must differentiate between what Rav Elyashiv said and how Rav Feldman presented it. Furthermore, there is a certain timeline of events that must be taken into account.

Here is the email that Rav Feldman sent in February 2005:
My short visit to Israel last week was, among other reasons, to ascertain Rav Elyashiv’s reason for the issur on Nosson Slifskin’s books. Contrary to rumors, I did not travel on anyone’s behalf.

Rav Eliashiv felt that the hashkofos of the books regarding Chazal and the age of the universe are forbidden to be taught, and this despite The fact that others, even great people (such as R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Pachad Yitzchok and, in our times, Rav Dessler and R. Shimon Schwab) may have said similar things. "They were permitted to say these things, but we may not," he said. In other words, the halacha is not like them.

Most important, Rav Eliashiv said that by his signature on the public announcement regarding the books he did not mean to rule that the author is a min or kofer. As far as he is concerned, Rav Eliashiv said, “the author could be one of the lamed vov tzadikim”; the books nevertheless are forbidden to read. He was surprised when he was shown that the announcement described the books as kefira and minus.

He then dictated a statement to me, in the presence of his secretary, Rav Yosef Efrati, and one of his grandsons, which read as follows: כוונתי כשהצטרפתי לקול קורא היתה רק בנוגע שהספרים אסורים לבא בקהל or, "My intention when I added my name to the public announcement [regarding the issur] was only regarding that the books should not enter the Jewish community." The word "only" was meant to specifically Exclude the implication that the author is a heretic.

With best wishes,
Aharon Feldman
In this letter, we learn that Rav Elyashiv "was surprised (emphasis added) when he was shown that the announcement described the books as kefira and minus." And we have his statement that "My intention when I added my name to the public announcement [regarding the issur] was only (emphasis added) regarding that the books should not enter the Jewish community." Although R. Feldman states that the word "only" was intended to exclude the implication that I am a heretic, it's clearly more than that, based on the earlier observation of his surprise; it's also to exclude the idea that the books are actually heretical. In fact, Rav Feldman told me personally that Rav Elyashiv felt that the books can be called "heretical" only in the colloquial sense (of books that are Very Bad).

Furthermore, note that Rav Elyashiv only said "They were permitted to say these things, but we may not." It was Rav Feldman who presented this as a halachic statement: "In other words, the halacha is not like them."

Not a lot of people know this, and I haven't mentioned it previously, but Rav Elyashiv's written statement was actually intended to be a postscript to a statement by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael of America, that was never released. Here is the full statement:
בזמן האחרון הופיעו ספרים שנכתבו ע"י ר' נתן סליפקין נ"י ובהם דברים המערערים את האמונה הטהורה במעשה בראשית בבריאת האדם ובקדושת דברי חז"ל, לזאת דעתנו שכל החרד לדבר ה' ירחק מהם ולא יכניס אותם לביתו.
וע"ז באנו עה"ח
מועצת גדולי התורה של אגודת ישראל
נ. ב. גם אני מצטרף להנ"ל וכוונתי כשהצטרפתי לקול קורא בענין הספרים הנ"ל היתה רק בנוגע שהספרים אסורים לבא בקהל
יוסף שלו' אלישיב
Rav Feldman had wanted this statement to be released, but Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky opposed it; he felt that it was too uncomplimentary to me. In any case, one clearly sees that the books were considered to be problematic and harmful to the community - no more.

What happened next was that over Pesach, Rav Feldman returned to Israel. As he told me explicitly in a subsequent meeting, he was placed under a lot of pressure by Forces On The Right who felt that he was "siding too much" with me. Furthermore, he was distressed at the negative public image of Rav Elyashiv. As a result, he penned his notorious essay "The Slifkin Affair: Issues and Perspectives." Instead of admitting that the ban was a social policy which got carried away with the language, he decided to attempt to justify the language of the ban to the full, and explain the ban as a halachic pesak on matters of belief. This necessitated his writing the following statement, which Dr. Shapiro quoted in his article:
Beliefs, besides falling under certain commandments, affect a Jew’s status with respect to various laws and are therefore also part of practical halacha.
However, Rav Elyashiv himself clearly did not feel that my beliefs affect my status with respect to any laws whatsoever! Furthermore, Rav Feldman himself did not believe that these beliefs have any effect on someone's status with respect to laws. Here is an email that I received from someone in 2009:
Rav Feldman explicitly told me, a baal teshuva, that I could read the books. I don't know the reason. He thought about it for a moment, and replied it's fine.  

 So I think that it's clear. As I wrote in my Hakirah article, Rav Elyashiv’s position is that this approach is forbidden for the community—theologically opposed (but not unequivocally beyond
the pale) and socially unacceptable. It will be tolerated in a footnote in the Schottenstein Talmud, it can be mentioned discreetly as a bedi’eved, but it cannot be presented up-front as a legitimate approach. It's a societal policy, not a halachic disqualification.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Monsters Vs. Israelis

In the comments to yesterday's post, many people observed that even non-charedim in Israel are often entirely unaware of rationalist approaches to Torah-science issues. I was aware of this with regard to evolution, but I hadn't realized the extent of the problem with regard to Chazal's statements about science. Although, considering the abundance of glossy anti-rationalist books on this topic by Rabbi Zamir Cohen, it shouldn't surprise me.

My book on this topic is Sacred Monsters (the expanded edition of Mysterious Creatures). The book sheds light on many different creatures that are mentioned in Tanach, Midrash and Gemara. But its greater value lies in the approaches that it presents to conflicts between Chazal and science.

There is a Hebrew translation of Sacred Monsters that has been sitting on my computer for several months. It would undoubtedly be of great value to people in Israel. However, I have been far too busy with my forthcoming encyclopedia and museum to be able to deal with getting it published. There are two ways in which people could help get this published:

1) If you live in Israel, are familiar with the Hebrew publishing industry, and can take on the task of arranging a publisher/ distributor.

2) If you can sponsor the publication of the book.

If anyone would like to be a part of this project, please write to me!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do I Need Supporters?

Rabbi Gil Student recently published a post entitled "Two New Slifkin Supporters." He noted that Chief Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks published a new book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, in which he supports the compatibility of evolution with Judaism. In addition, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel of Ramat Gan, a prominent authority in the national-religious community, published a work in which he adopts the position that the Sages of the Talmud relied on the scientific knowledge of their era, which was sometimes mistaken. In the words of R. Student, "Years after R. Slifkin was condemned, prominent rabbis continue to publicly adopt his positions, justifying both his and my stand against the unfair and counterproductive ban."

I certainly appreciate R. Student's publicizing such sources. However, I would like to add a slightly different nuance to their significance.

Although Rabbi Sack's writing style is not exactly my cup of tea (milk and two sugars, thanks), it's certainly a wonderful book that R. Student did well to recommend. But in the social battle over the theological legitimacy of evolution, I can't see how it makes a difference. Rambam and Ralbag already legitimized non-literal approaches to Genesis; Rav Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik already observed that evolution poses no theological problems. It seems to me that the people who do not respect the approach of such authorities are not the kind of people who will care that Rabbi Sacks follows suit. Conversely, I would presume that the people who respect Rabbi Sacks are not the kind of people who have a problem with evolution in the first place.

But there is a significant point to be made in publicizing the stance of Rabbi Sacks' book. Many people are of the impression, and not without reason, that the charedi Gedolim are effectively the leaders of all Klal Yisrael. Rabbi Sacks' book demonstrates that reconciling evolution with Judaism continues to be a normative approach in non-charedi circles, even after the ban on my books. The Gedolim dictated the acceptable norms for their own community, which is not the entire Orthodox community.

The matter of the fallibility of the Talmudic sages regarding the natural sciences is very different from evolution. It's not just the novel approach of a few recent respected figures. Rather, it is the normative position of numerous Geonim and Rishonim, based on many explicit statements in the Gemara itself, and further endorsed by dozens of Acharonim, right through to today (link, link). The position of certain charedi Gedolim, that there is no traditional basis for such a position, is simply absurd (albeit entirely defensible as a social policy). There are grounds for concern that to point to a contemporary rabbinic authority endorsing such a view implies that it needs support. I hope that this is not the case! Rather, it shows that charedi social-religious norms, at least in this area, are limited to charedi circles. They have not spread beyond that - not even to charedi-leumi circles.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Haredi Construction of Rabbinic Authority: A Case Study

When reader Baruch Pelta was at Touro College South, he wrote a paper that I think will be of interest to other participants in this forum. It concerns a chapter in American Jewish history which illustrates the development of Daas Torah and charedi revisionism.

Here is my own summary/ take: The RCA (an organization for Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbis) was part of the Synagogue Council of America (SCA), which was multi-denominational. This was a question that should presumably be answered by poskim who were (a) relevant to the question and (b) possessed experience in communal policy issues. A group of eleven roshei yeshiva, who for the most part did not fulfill either criteria, issued a ban on participation in the SCA. Rav Eliezer Silver and Rav Yosef Soloveitchik - the only members (or former members) of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah who were really qualified to weigh in on this - opposed the ban. But their opposition has been exorcised from the charedi version of events. Jonathan Rosenblum's recent hagiography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer quotes him as saying "Does anyone have the right to refuse to accept a psak din in which all the gedolei Torah in the world concurred?"

You can download the full paper at this link. Baruch Pelta is looking to do writing/ editing jobs; he can be contacted at

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Prime Ministers

One of the best books that I read this year was The Prime Ministers. It was written by Yehuda Avner, former Israeli ambassador to the UK and advisor/ speechwriter for four of Israel's prime ministers. (I grew up knowing Yehuda Avner as "Uncle Gubby Haffner" - he was from a family in my shul in Manchester, and frequently came to visit.) Laced with hilarious anecdotes, moving stories, and behind-the-scenes accounts of meetings with various international leaders, the book is an absolutely gripping inside view of the inside world of the premiership and the history of the State of Israel.

The introductory chapters, describing the author's experiences in the War of Independence, are moving and humbling. With regard to the main body of the work, one message that I took from the book is that the average person in the street understands little of the situation with a prime minister of Israel vis-a-vis the Presidency of the United States and other countries. It's all too easy to criticize a PM for kowtowing to others and not acting with a free hand. This book shows another side to things, that I for one had not previously appreciated. It was a lesson in Chazal's maxim, "Do not judge a person until you are in their place."

It's difficult to have the same respect for leaders of today as one can have for leaders of the past. I'm not saying this due to the shortcomings of any particular people - it's just that a living person, exposed on the media, can never be as mythic as someone from history. Still, I found Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's speech at the United Nations General Assembly to be powerful and even inspirational. Putting aside the distraction of the ridiculous cartoon image of a bomb that he showed, à la Wile E. Coyote (perhaps a calculated move to gain publicity for the cause?), the words of his speech were tremendous, and I reproduce them here:

Thank you very much Mr. President.

It's a pleasure to see the General Assembly presided by the Ambassador from Israel, and it's good to see all of you, distinguished delegates.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Three thousand years ago, King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem. I say that to all those who proclaim that the Jewish state has no roots in our region and that it will soon disappear.

Throughout our history, the Jewish people have overcome all the tyrants who have sought our destruction. It's their ideologies that have been discarded by history.

The people of Israel live on. We say in Hebrew Am Yisrael Chai, and the Jewish state will live forever.

The Jewish people have lived in the land of Israel for thousands of years. Even after most of our people were exiled from it, Jews continued to live in the land of Israel throughout the ages. The masses of our people never gave up the dreamed of returning to our ancient homeland.

Defying the laws of history, we did just that. We ingathered the exiles, restored our independence and rebuilt our national life. The Jewish people have come home. We will never be uprooted again. Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Every year, for over three millennia, we have come together on this day of reflection and atonement. We take stock of our past. We pray for our future. We remember the sorrows of our persecution; we remember the great travails of our dispersion; we mourn the extermination of a third of our people, six million, in the Holocaust.

But at the end of Yom Kippur, we celebrate.

We celebrate the rebirth of Israel. We celebrate the heroism of our young men and women who have defended our people with the indomitable courage of Joshua, David, and the Maccabees of old. We celebrate the marvel of the flourishing modern Jewish state. In Israel, we walk the same paths tread by our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But we blaze new trails in science, technology, medicine, agriculture.

In Israel, the past and the future find common ground. Unfortunately, that is not the case in many other countries. For today, a great battle is being waged between the modern and the medieval. The forces of modernity seek a bright future in which the rights of all are protected, in which an ever-expanding digital library is available in the palm of every child, in which every life is sacred. The forces of medievalism seek a world in which women and minorities are subjugated, in which knowledge is suppressed, in which not life but death is glorified. These forces clash around the globe, but nowhere more starkly than in the Middle East. Israel stands proudly with the forces of modernity. We protect the rights of all our citizens: men and women, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians – all are equal before the law.

Israel is also making the world a better place: our scientists win Nobel Prizes. Our know-how is in every cell-phone and computer that you're using. We prevent hunger by irrigating arid lands in Africa and Asia. Recently, I was deeply moved when I visited Technion, one of our technological institutes in Haifa, and I saw a man paralyzed from the waist down climb up a flight of stairs, quite easily, with the aid of an Israeli invention.

And Israel's exceptional creativity is matched by our people's remarkable compassion. When disaster strikes anywhere in the world – in Haiti, Japan, India, Turkey Indonesia and elsewhere – Israeli doctors are among the first on the scene, performing life-saving surgeries.

In the past year, I lost both my father and my father-in-law. In the same hospital wards where they were treated, Israeli doctors were treating Palestinian Arabs. In fact, every year, thousands of Arabs from the Palestinian territories and Arabs from throughout the Middle East come to Israel to be treated in Israeli hospitals by Israeli doctors.

I know you're not going to hear that from speakers around this podium, but that's the truth. It's important that you are aware of this truth.

It’s because Israel cherishes life, that Israel cherishes peace and seeks peace.

We seek to preserve our historic ties and our historic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. We seek to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians.

President Abbas just spoke here.

I say to him and I say to you: We won't solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the UN. That's not the way to solve it. We won't solve our conflict with unilateral declarations of statehood.

We have to sit together, negotiate together, and reach a mutual compromise, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the one and only Jewish State.

Israel wants to see a Middle East of progress and peace. We want to see the three great religions that sprang forth from our region – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – coexist in peace and in mutual respect.

Yet the medieval forces of radical Islam, whom you just saw storming the American embassies throughout the Middle East, they oppose this.

They seek supremacy over all Muslims. They are bent on world conquest. They want to destroy Israel, Europe, America. They want to extinguish freedom. They want to end the modern world.

Militant Islam has many branches – from the rulers of Iran with their Revolutionary Guards to Al Qaeda terrorists to the radical cells lurking in every part of the globe.

But despite their differences, they are all rooted in the same bitter soil of intolerance. That intolerance is directed first at their fellow Muslims, and then to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, secular people, anyone who doesn't submit to their unforgiving creed.

They want to drag humanity back to an age of unquestioning dogma and unrelenting conflict. I am sure of one thing. Ultimately they will fail. Ultimately, light will penetrate the darkness. We've seen that happen before.

Some five hundred years ago, the printing press helped pry a cloistered Europe out of a dark age. Eventually, ignorance gave way to enlightenment. So too, a cloistered Middle East will eventually yield to the irresistible power of freedom and technology. When this happens, our region will be guided not by fanaticism and conspiracy, but by reason and curiosity. I think the relevant question is this: it's not whether this fanaticism will be defeated. It's how many lives will be lost before it's defeated. We've seen that happen before too.

Some 70 years ago, the world saw another fanatic ideology bent on world conquest. It went down in flames. But not before it took millions of people with it. Those who opposed that fanaticism waited too long to act. In the end they triumphed, but at an horrific cost.

My friends, we cannot let that happen again.

At stake is not merely the future of my own country. At stake is the future of the world. Nothing could imperil our common future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons.

To understand what the world would be like with a nuclear-armed Iran, just imagine the world with a nuclear-armed al-Qaida.

It makes no difference whether these lethal weapons are in the hands of the world's most dangerous terrorist regime or the world's most dangerous terrorist organization. They're both fired by the same hatred; they're both driven by the same lust for violence.

Just look at what the Iranian regime has done up till now, without nuclear weapons.

In 2009, they brutally put down mass protests for democracy in their own country. Today, their henchmen are participating in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians, including thousands of children, directly participating in this murder.

They abetted the killing of American soldiers in Iraq and continue to do so in Afghanistan. Before that, Iranian proxies killed hundreds of American troops in Beirut and in Saudi Arabia. They've turned Lebanon and Gaza into terror strongholds, embedding nearly 100,000 missiles and rockets in civilian areas. Thousands of these rockets and missiles have already been fired at Israeli communities by their terrorist proxies.

In the last year, they've spread their international terror networks to two dozen countries across five continents – from India and Thailand to Kenya and Bulgaria. They've even plotted to blow up a restaurant a few blocks from the White House in order to kill a diplomat.

And of course, Iran's rulers repeatedly deny the Holocaust and call for Israel's destruction almost on a daily basis, as they did again this week from the United Nations.

So I ask you, given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons. Imagine their long range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, their terror networks armed with atomic bombs. Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America? Who would be safe anywhere?

There are those who believe that a nuclear-armed Iran can be deterred like the Soviet Union. That's a very dangerous assumption. Militant Jihadists behave very differently from secular Marxists. There were no Soviet suicide bombers. Yet Iran produces hordes of them.

Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival. But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons.

There's a great scholar of the Middle East, Prof. Bernard Lewis, who put it best. He said that for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it's an inducement. Iran's apocalyptic leaders believe that a medieval holy man will reappear in the wake of a devastating Holy War, thereby ensuring that their brand of radical Islam will rule the earth.

That's not just what they believe. That's what is actually guiding their policies and their actions.

Just listen to Ayatollah Rafsanjani who said, I quote: "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything, however it would only harm the Islamic world." Rafsanjani said: "It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality." Not irrational… And that's coming from one of the so-called moderates of Iran.

Shockingly, some people have begun to peddle the absurd notion that a nuclear-armed Iran would actually stabilize the Middle East.

Yeah, right… That's like saying a nuclear-armed al-Qaida would usher in an era of universal peace. Ladies and Gentlemen, I've been speaking about the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for over 15 years.

I spoke about it in my first term in office as Prime Minister, and then I spoke about it when I left office. I spoke about it when it was fashionable, and I spoke about it when it wasn't fashionable.

I speak about it now because the hour is getting late, very late. I speak about it now because the Iranian nuclear calendar doesn't take time out for anyone or for anything. I speak about it now because when it comes to the survival of my country, it's not only my right to speak; it's my duty to speak. And I believe that this is the duty of every responsible leader who wants to preserve world peace.

For nearly a decade, the international community has tried to stop the Iranian nuclear program with diplomacy. That hasn't worked.

Iran uses diplomatic negotiations as a means to buy time to advance its nuclear program.

For over seven years, the international community has tried sanctions with Iran. Under the leadership of President Obama, the international community has passed some of the strongest sanctions to date.

I want to thank the governments represented here that have joined in this effort. It's had an effect. Oil exports have been curbed and the Iranian economy has been hit hard. It's had an effect on the economy, but we must face the truth. Sanctions have not stopped Iran's nuclear program either.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, during the last year alone, Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges in its underground nuclear facility in Qom.

At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs. That's by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war.

Look at NATO's charter: it made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all. NATO's red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.

President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.

In fact, it's the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression. If the Western powers had drawn clear red lines during the 1930s, I believe they would have stopped Nazi aggression and World War II might have been avoided. In 1990, if Saddam Hussein had been clearly told that his conquest of Kuwait would cross a red line, the first Gulf War might have been avoided.

Clear red lines have also worked with Iran. Earlier this year, Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormouz. The United States drew a clear red line and Iran backed off. Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran's nuclear weapons program. But to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran's efforts to enrich uranium. Now let me explain why: Basically, any bomb consists of explosive material and a mechanism to ignite it. The simplest example is gunpowder and a fuse. That is, you light the fuse and set off the gunpowder.

In the case of Iran's plans to build a nuclear weapon, the gunpowder is enriched uranium. The fuse is a nuclear detonator. For Iran, amassing enough enriched uranium is far more difficult than producing the nuclear fuse.

For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they're still vulnerable. In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator – the fuse – in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months. The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That's a country that's bigger than France, Germany, Italy and Britain combined. The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won't find that facility either.

So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

So, how much enriched uranium do you need for a bomb? And how close is Iran to getting it? Let me show you. I brought a diagram for you. Here's the diagram.

************** This is a bomb; this is a fuse.

In the case of Iran's nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium. And Iran has to go through three stages.

The first stage: they have to enrich enough of low enriched uranium.

The second stage: they have to enrich enough medium enriched uranium.

And the third stage and final stage: they have to enrich enough high enriched uranium for the first bomb.

Where's Iran? Iran's completed the first stage. It took them many years, but they completed it and they're 70% of the way there.

Now they are well into the second stage. By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.

Ladies and Gentlemen, What I told you now is not based on secret information. It's not based on military intelligence. It's based on public reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Anybody can read them. They're online.

So if these are the facts, and they are, where should the red line be drawn? The red line should be drawn right here…………..

Before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it's a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. Each day, that point is getting closer. That's why I speak today with such a sense of urgency. And that's why everyone should have a sense of urgency.

Some who claim that even if Iran completes the enrichment process, even if it crosses that red line that I just drew, our intelligence agencies will know when and where Iran will make the fuse, assemble the bomb, and prepare the warhead. Look, no one appreciates our intelligence agencies more than the Prime Minister of Israel. All these leading intelligence agencies are superb, including ours. They've foiled many attacks. They've saved many lives.

But they are not foolproof.

For over two years, our intelligence agencies didn't know that Iran was building a huge nuclear enrichment plant under a mountain.

Do we want to risk the security of the world on the assumption that we would find in time a small workshop in a country half the size of Europe? Ladies and Gentlemen, The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb.

The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target.

I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.

This will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether.

Two days ago, from this podium, President Obama reiterated that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran cannot be contained. I very much appreciate the President's position as does everyone in my country. We share the goal of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program. This goal unites the people of Israel. It unites Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike and it is shared by important leaders throughout the world.

What I have said today will help ensure that this common goal is achieved. Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together. Ladies and Gentlemen, The clash between modernity and medievalism need not be a clash between progress and tradition.

The traditions of the Jewish people go back thousands of years. They are the source of our collective values and the foundation of our national strength.

At the same time, the Jewish people have always looked towards the future. Throughout history, we have been at the forefront of efforts to expand liberty, promote equality, and advance human rights.

We champion these principles not despite of our traditions but because of them.

We heed the words of the Jewish prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah to treat all with dignity and compassion, to pursue justice and cherish life and to pray and strive for peace.

These are the timeless values of my people and these are the Jewish people's greatest gift to mankind. Let us commit ourselves today to defend these values so that we can defend our freedom and protect our common civilization.

Thank you.

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