Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The "Da'as" in Da'as Torah

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein delivered an important address recently on the topic of Daas Torah. I didn't have time to translate it into English myself, so I asked my friend Joseph Faith to translate it for the readers of this website, which he kindly agreed to do. You can download it at this link. I strongly recommend it!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Gedolims' Edicts and Mishpachah

A while back, in a post entitled The Gedolim's Authority is Tested, I wrote about the ban on Mishpacha magazine by various Gedolim. Things have gotten more heated lately, with the Israeli Yated publishing a very sharp letter, signed by Rav Elyashiv, against Mishpacha.

Mishpacha's response included the following gem:

"While we are not privy to all that's going on behind the scenes, we highly doubt the authenticity of this letter. Anyone who has ever attended a Yeshiva knows that a posek cannot and does not issue a ruling, much less a ban, unless he is presented with both sides of the story and carefully weighs the evidence before he issues a ruling. We know for a fact that this procedure was not followed in this case, since not one person from Mishpacha's Hebrew staff was summoned to Maran Rav Elyashiv's home to explain their side of the story."

It's extremely similar to my own response, drafted with the help of an experienced posek, which I sent to the zealots who were threatening to publicize a ban on my books:
"...it is inconceivable that anyone, especially Gedolim, would condemn someone without meeting and talking with them. I am ready to meet with these Gedolim at their convenience and to hear what their objections are, and to discuss the matter fully. I am certainly willing to retract from anything in which I am proven wrong or mistaken, and kal v'chomer if I am proven to have written something that goes against the fundamentals of emunah, chas v'shalom. Surely to condemn someone without meeting them goes against both the spirit and the letter of Torah and Shulchan Aruch, and would be an unbelievable chilul Hashem befarhesya, and will be widely recognized as such..."

Mishpacha goes one step further and says that because it's so inconceivable that Rav Elyashiv would sign without hearing their side, his signature is suspect.

I have no idea whether the signature is genuine or not. But I assume that Mishpacha is well aware that Rav Elyashiv does indeed frequently sign off on such things without listening to the other side. Yet it is nevertheless true that a posek should never do such a thing. I have heard people claim, in the case of my own books, that there is no reason for a posek/ Gadol to meet with the author, since he can just read the book. But that could only be even suggested if the posek were to entirely initiate proceedings himself after reading the book/ magazine of his own accord. In these cases, he is presented with select parts of the publications, along with the all-important arguments of the zealots as to why the publication is so terrible. Since he is hearing arguments from one side, in person, he must also hear arguments from the person whose publication is being judged, in person.

Unfortunately I have heard an abundance of stories of Rav Elyashiv issuing "Daas Torah" after only hearing one side. Rav Nosson Kamenetzky's experiences are well-known. And a neighbor of mine told me about how his child was kicked out of school after the menahel consulted Rav Elyashiv. My neighbor went to Rav Elyashiv's gatekeeper, who did not want to let him in. My neighbor said, "Dinei nefashos b'tzad echad?" The gatekeeper paled and let him in. The child was reinstated to the school.

Mishpacha, I'm sure, knows such stories only too well. When they say that a posek not only cannot issue a ruling without hearing both sides, but does not, this is not the case and they know it. I don't expect Mishpacha to do an expose on the abuse of rabbinic authority with the Daas Torah system; in fact I am admiring their strategy. They are pointing out that to exercise rabbinic authority in such a way is absolutely wrong, without explicitly castigating those who do so.

It's amazing that there are still so many people who believe in the Charedi system of rabbinic authority and Daas Torah. But my impression is that the number of such people is steadily shrinking.

(My schedule for my forthcoming lecture tour in the US has been updated - you can see it here)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Making of Haredim

A book published in the Haredi community claimed that Orthodox Judaism — and specifically, Haredi Judaism — is the traditional approach to Judaism, which started with Moses. In my monograph “The Novelty of Orthodoxy” I explained how Orthodoxy was, in many ways, a new approach to Judaism, which began with Chasam Sofer as a reaction to Reform and the Enlightenment. But Haredi Judaism is itself a novelty vis-à-vis the Orthodox Judaism which preceded it.

I am pleased to announce the e-publication of a new monograph, "The Making of Haredim," which explores the nature of Haredi ideology and demonstrates how it can be rated as distinct from its predecessors. The monograph can be downloaded after making a donation via PayPal; the recommended donation for readers of this website is $5. Please bear in mind that this is not a payment for the monograph itself, which is shorter than the others in this series; rather, it is a donation in exchange for all my writings on this website (including the Jerusalem Post articles - the Jerusalem Post does not pay me for them!), which takes up quite a bit of my time. 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. If you have any difficulties with the download, please e-mail me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When Saying Sorry Is Not Enough

Everybody makes mistakes. Goodness knows I've made plenty myself. People who write or speak in public extensively are especially likely to write or say something, at some point, that they should not. In such cases, a retraction and apology is called for. When it is given, people should forgive and forget.

Still, there are mistakes and there are Mistakes. Sometimes people makes mistakes that reveal such appalling judgement, and/or have such potentially devastating consequences, that a simply apology, even a heartfelt one, is not enough. The person to make the error has to take a leave of absence from his or her public role. This does not necessarily entirely erase the damage, but it does show that the person is taking responsibility for it.

The latest such incident, which prompted me to write this post, is Andrew Adler's mindbogglingly stupid editorial in the Atlanta Jewish Times suggesting that the Mossad take out President Obama, and claiming that Israel is already weighing this option.

Watching an interview with Adler in tears, there can be no doubt that he genuinely regrets his mistake. But with a mistake of these dimensions, even a tearful apology is not enough. He had to resign - and he did.

Frankly, I think that there are others who should likewise take a leave of absence from airing their views in public, as a consequence of errors that involve particularly colossal bad judgment and/or have potentially devastating consequences:

  • Rabbi Dovid Kornreich for publicly suggesting that homosexuals investigate the option of suicide. His subsequent watering down of the suggestion, and his eventual claim that he never really meant it in the first place, are inadequate in light of what he actually wrote.
  • Rabbi Avi Shafran for his article claiming that Bernie Madoff is more worthy of admiration than Captain Sully, who safely landed his plane in the Hudson, on the grounds that Madoff went beyond what was expected in apologizing, whereas Sully was just doing his job. Rabbi Shafran did apologize, but his apology was somewhat lacking; and even a true apology should not suffice in such a case. Aside from the insanity of even just thinking that it is true, there is also the unbelievable foolishness of putting such a thing in print. Can you imagine if Gawker would have gotten hold of the article? "Prominent Orthodox Spokesman Praises Jewish Swindler, Disses Gentile Hero"?

  • And most of all: whoever at Ami magazine made the decision to run a cover photoshopped picture of of Nazis marching in front of the White House with swastika-flags hanging from it. What on earth were they thinking?! Even Rabbi Shafran was horrified at that one! Why are they so hesitant about properly apologizing?

Repentance doesn't just mean saying that you're sorry. It means taking responsibility for your mistakes.

(On a related note - I have been very uneasy with some comments that have been submitted lately by radical political right-wingers. I'm still weighing up a formal policy, but if you don't see your comments appear, you now know why.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Physical Dangers of Anti-Rationalism

A number of people sent me details of a tefillah request that has been circulating. A kollel man from Kiryat Sefer wanted to perform the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sending away the mother bird. As his wife and small children watched, he climbed over the edge of the balcony in order to perform the mitzvah. To their horror, he fell off the balcony, and was rushed to hospital in critical condition. (He is since doing much better, but still has a long way to go before full recovery.)

This case is particularly tragic because, as I explained in my monograph on shiluach hakein, this anti-rationalist view of the mitzvah, in which one should send away the mother bird even if one does not want the eggs, is not the approach of most (if not all) Rishonim, and probably not of Chazal, either. For them, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is one of compassion, to be performed only if one actually wants to take the eggs (which would generally have been the case in antiquity, when such food was not as easily available as it is today). But if one does not want the eggs - as would always be the case today - there is no reason to send away the mother bird (and it is needlessly cruel to do so).

In the view of Rambam, all mitzvos serve either to teach ideological lessons, to improve our characters, or to improve society. Torah should be teaching us to lead our lives wisely and sensibly. The mitzvos do that - if we would only interpret them correctly. One person who wrote to me pointed out that this tragic case lends new significance in the juxtaposition of the mitzvah of shiluach hakein with the mitzvah of ma'akeh, building a protective fence around one's balcony. I am reminded of the tragedy of the Versailles wedding hall, which collapsed during a wedding. Some people were wondering what area of avodas Hashem was deficient. Tzniyus? Kashrus? Talking during davenning? The obvious contender - ma'akeh, and the idea behind it - was not even considered!

We should pray for the full recovery of Naftali ben Minka Mindel. And we should pray that people let the Torah be a tree of life and a source of wisdom.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Parenting Dilemmas of a Rationalist ZooRabbi

On Friday night, my six-year-old was excited to tell me what he had learned in his (charda"l) school. Last year, he had told me about how one frog miraculously became many, which prompted me to write a post bemoaning how drash becomes peshat (and see too this post). This year, things were even worse. His teacher had told him that the plague of arov did not only include lions and tigers and bears. It also included dangerous humanoids that are attached to the ground, like a vegetable, by a cord emerging from their navel (and which were able to come because God brought the entire patch of ground that they were on), as well as giant octopuses which broke through the roofs of the Egyptians' houses and unlocked their doors from the inside. My son, who knows much more than most six-year-olds about animals, expressed particular surprise at the vegetable-man - he had never heard of such a thing.

My dinner guests, who read my material, saw me wincing. Of course, I was familiar with both these views, which I discuss at length in Sacred Monsters. The first was presented by the Vilna Gaon, the second by the Midrash Sefer HaYashar. Needless to say, with all due respect to these authors, I see these explanations as ahistorical. There is no vegetable-man (and in my book, I explain how such a belief developed). And giant octopuses are probably not capable of such things, although they do come close. So we have recent anti-rationalist drash being taught as historical peshat. (This is not a problem unique to charedi or charda"l schools; modern Orthodox schools teach the same things.) Moreover, there is no particular value to being taught such things; it merely encourages children to seek wonder only in the supernatural and not in the natural.

But on the other hand, as my wife points out, undermining your child's teacher is deeply problematic. It's also not great for your child's self-confidence to dismiss an explanation that he is excited to share.

The next day, however, something happened that changed my mind. My eight-year-old showed me a book that she had gotten from school and enjoyed. It was a wonderful Hebrew children's illustrated storybook about the life and times of Galileo. The book explained how Galileo did not accept by rote all that his teachers taught him, deciding instead to evaluate matters for himself - and he was vindicated.

This is quite a strong introduction into the millennia-old clash between tradition and reason. But my eight-year-old and six-year-old had nevertheless read the story, and were both able to understand it. I reasoned that if they can read and understand such a book, it should be possible to carefully explain why I don't believe in vegetable-men, and to explain how other people disagree, but why one should still respect them. I attempted to do just that; and I also took the opportunity to explain to my eight-year-old, for the first time, and very sparsely and carefully, the controversy over my books.

I hope and pray that I was correct and successful.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

February Lecture Schedule

Here is a list of my forthcoming lectures that are open to the public:


Shabbos February 4th:
Beth Sholom, Cedarhurst
Friday-8PM: “One People, Two Worlds: Rationalists & Mystics”
Shabbos morning-11AM: “Battle for Beit Shemesh: The Evolution of Chareidim”
5PM: “The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought

Sunday February 5th:
12pm - "The Challenge of Dinosaurs" - at the YU Sefarim Sale.

2:30 pm - "The Evolution of Orthodoxy: From Chasam Sofer to the Battles of Bet Shemesh"
3:45 pm - "Beasts of Prey: Bears, Hawks and Other Predators in Jewish Thought"
Washington Heights Congregation, 815 West 179th Street
Entrance Donation: $10 for one lecture, $15 for both
Download flyer with details here 

Monday February 6th:

7pm - "How (not) to Become a Heretic: What Must a Jew Believe?"
Drisha Institute of Jewish Education
37 West 65th Street, 5th Floor, New York
Tuition: $18; June and July Immersion Program alumni no charge; $10 suggested donation for college students.


Wednesday February 8th:

7pm at Beth Tfiloh’s Epstein Chapel: “Were the Rabbis always Right.” Free admission.

Thursday February 9th:

8pm - "Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions" at Shomrei Emunah. Entrance donation $10. Download flyer here.

Shabbos February 11th: Suburban Orthodox


Sunday February 12th:
9am - The Challenge of Creation - at Beth Sholom
10.30am - Sacred Monsters - at Beth Sholom
2-5pm - The Torah Tour of the National Zoo. Download flyer with details here.
7:30pm - "The Evolution of Orthodoxy and the Making of Charedim" - Kesher Israel. No admission fee, but RSVP required - see www.tinyurl.com/KIZooRabbi.


If anyone can give me a ride from Philadelphia to NY (preferably the 5 Towns) on the afternoon or evening of Monday Feb. 13th, please be in touch!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Is Talmudic Science Rated As Torah?

When Chazal discuss their views on matters relating to the physical world, which have now been rendered obsolete, is this still considered to be Torah? May one study it in the bathroom? Must one say birchas haTorah before studying it? Or is it bittul Torah to spend time on it?

There are different categories to discuss here. One is scientific information that does not relate to Scripture, halachah or theology in any way; for example, the medical remedies in the Gemara. If the medical texts of Rambam are not considered Torah, why would the medical texts of Chazal be considered Torah?

Another category would be scientific information that Chazal attempt to derive from Scripture - for example, the exegeses from Scripture via which Chazal deduce that the sun travels behind the sky or along the horizon at night, and the exegeses via which they deduce the nature of the "firmament."

Of course, the answer to this question depends on how you define "Torah." Is Torah that which was given at Sinai? Or is "Torah" man's attempt to understand and develop that which was given at Sinai? The first definition seems a little narrow; but the second definition is somewhat ambiguous.

Rav Moshe Shapiro commented to a number of people that if anything in the Gemara was nothing more than obsolete scientific beliefs, it would be bittul Torah to learn it. Since we know that people such as the Vilna Gaon were virtually never mevattel Torah, it must be that Chazal were never merely discussing science. Accordingly, everything in the Gemara is discussing metaphysical matters, and is Torah.

But this, of course, stands in contrast to the opinion of most (and perhaps all) Geonim and Rishonim. 

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman claims that when Chazal related mistaken beliefs about cosmology or spontaneous generation, they were merely offering their own opinion on scientific matters, which were therefore fallible, rather than expounding the Torah. I'm not sure if he therefore considers that these things are not Torah. But in any case, his position is inherently flawed, because Chazal did indeed invoke derashos for their views on cosmology and spontaneous generation.

So what's the bottom line? Personally, I have no idea.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Building Tolerance – Even For Haredim

(This article appears in today's edition of The Jerusalem Post)

America! In Israel, that’s often more than just the name of a place. I once saw a commercial which featured it as an adjective, describing a product that was of superior quality. “What can I tell you?” asked the person in the ad, “It’s America!” And it’s getting to be difficult to find a store with a real Hebrew name; they all have English names now, either written in English or in Hebrew transliteration.

This is somewhat of a tragedy. Israel has so much to be proud of. We didn’t make it back to our ancestral homeland and revive an ancient culture just to toss it out in favor of a different and much younger one!

But there are some aspects of America that Israel would do well to emulate. And I’m not talking about the usual new immigrant gripes about poor customer service. Instead, I’m referring to how the ultra-secular in Israel sometimes act in ways that would be considered entirely out-of-bounds in America.

A relative of mine, not especially religious, moved from Israel to the US for a while. On her first day, she was very surprised to see so many religious Jewish women on the bus – and she wasn’t even in New York. She was even more surprised when she discovered that these women were not, in fact, religious, or even Jewish. Rather, it is customary in America for women to dress in a respectable manner for work. When my relative moved back to Israel, she found it jarring to see women turning up for work wearing attire that would be more appropriate for the beach, and men wearing T-shirts with obscene messages.

This is not the only manifestation of ultra-secularism. The New York Times recently ran an article, titled “Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women,” about the disturbing attitudes to women of many in the haredi world. But there was no mention of an opposing phenomenon: the protest against the Technion offering separate use of a gym, for men alone, after normal hours. The ferocious protest against this “unacceptable segregation” resulted in the gym ceasing to provide this option.

This would be incomprehensible to Americans. After all, every country in the world, including America, has gyms that offer hours for one gender only. It’s not as though the gym at the Technion was imposing on women, or excluding them in any way; it was a matter of giving an after-hours option which was equally offered to women.

Yet while the opposition to the separate hours at the gym was absurd, when one looks at the arguments of the protesters, a distinct theme emerges. It wasn’t the separate hours at the gym per se that offended them. Rather, it was the fear that this was simply one step towards the more extreme exclusion of women that has recently been spreading from the haredi community.

Such fears are perhaps understandable, given the Health Ministry’s haredi-based refusal to allow Dr. Channa Maayan to appear on stage to accept a prize at an awards ceremony. But allowing such fears to prevent a perfectly reasonable request, such as men-only gym sessions after hours, is not only wrong but counter-productive. It simply reinforces the haredi belief – which is not without basis – that there is a rabid, nation-wide anti-religious campaign against them, and that they thus need to circle the wagons and resist any accommodation to the rest of Israeli society.

Haredi society has achieved astounding accomplishments in building up a society of commitment to Torah study and religious observance. But it is now undergoing a period of unprecedented internal and external turmoil. Internally, economic hardship is leading many to reject the kollel-only approach, and the Internet is opening forms of expression that were previously unknown to that world. Externally, there are new stresses with the rest of Israeli society as haredi society grows ever larger; military exemptions become a more serious national matter and growth into new cities (such as Beit Shemesh) causes friction.

More than ever, there is an opportunity, and a need, to integrate haredi society into Israel. But there are forces in haredi society that are strongly opposed to such integration, and many haredim maintain a healthy dose of suspicion vis-a-vis the non-haredi world. Thus, such integration can only work if it is done with tact, sensitivity, and foresight.

This requires that a certain degree of concessions be made to haredi values, however much one might disagree with them. After all, the much-vaunted value of tolerance also requires tolerance of intolerant people, at least insofar as it does not damage the rest of society.

Consider the issue of getting haredim to join the IDF. Deep down, many haredim probably don’t really believe that the country’s security requires having as many people as possible join the tens of thousands already in yeshivot and kollels. After all, this can only be theologically justified with the most tenuous of rabbinic arguments. Furthermore, if haredim really did believe this, then they wouldn’t have taken their 2006 summer break while the country was fighting the Second Lebanon War.

Instead, the haredi refusal to serve in the army is primarily due to their trying to protect a certain religious lifestyle, which is very difficult to do in the army. So at a time when steps are being taken to bring haredim into the IDF, it is essential to help them with this enormous adjustment and show sensitivity to their concerns.

Is it really so very important that religious soldiers attend ceremonies with women singing? To be sure, from a non-haredi point of view, it’s ridiculous for the soldiers to object to it. But it is an issue of great importance to them, and it wouldn’t terribly hurt the army to accommodate it. In the long run, the army would be better off by showing a willingness to be tolerant of haredim, rather than alienating them.

Or consider the Tal Law, which was just renewed. True, it has not been as successful as was hoped, and it probably needs adjustment. But those demanding nothing less than forced full conscription for all haredim lack good judgment, even from the perspective of their own values. Yes, ideally speaking, all sectors would serve the country equally. But it’s just not going to happen, at least in the short term, without civil war. Meanwhile, the idea behind the Tal law is to give haredim more options than simply kollel or full military duty, which inevitably results in them all choosing the former.

At this stage, the challenge for Israel is to begin to enable haredim to willingly enter the army and professional workforce. People should be trying to make this happen more easily and smoothly, rather than making it difficult. We need to show more tolerance of religious minorities – just like in America.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lunch with the Piecemaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Strength in Leadership

The Gemara (Nedarim 38a) states that the Divine Spirit only rests on a person who is powerful, wealthy, wise, and humble. Now, we can appreciate the importance of wisdom and humility in a prophet, but why does he have to be powerful and wealthy?

Rambam explains this with a principle discussed in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, which states, “Who is mighty? He that subdues his evil inclination. Who is wealthy? He that is satisfied with his lot.” The power and wealth spoken of are internal, spiritual attributes, rather than brute strength and heaps of money. However, this explanation does not appear to be the straightforward meaning of the Talmud’s list of requirements, since the Gemara proves these requirements from cases of prophets who were actually rich and strong. (I am aware of alternate explanations of these proofs, which I discuss in the chapter on giants in Sacred Monsters, but they are not straightforward.)

There is another answer. One of my favorite childhood books was Richard Adam’s best-selling story about life in a rabbit warren, entitled Watership Down. The rabbit Fiver, a small, weak and pathetic bunny, also happens to possess the power of prophecy (admittedly unusual in a rabbit). Fiver experiences a vision that the warren is about to be destroyed by developers, and desperately tries to persuade the other rabbits in the warren to leave. But the other rabbits simple don’t believe him, and who can blame them? This pathetic and sickly little rabbit is obviously delirious, deranged, deeply disturbed, and desperate for attention.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that anyone who is sick, or poor, or generally pathetic would lack credibility as a prophet. Perhaps he’s pretending to do it out of insanity or to gain attention – after all, he’s got nothing to lose. The requirement for a prophet to be healthy and wealthy is simply to ensure that people take him seriously as a man of stature.

A similar reason applies to the laws of appointing a king. Rambam rules that one may not appoint a butcher, hairdresser, bathhouse attendant or suchlike as a king. This is not because such people are innately unsuitable for the task; Judaism cares more for internal qualities than superficial prestige. However, since the work of such people is not prestigious, the public will not take them seriously and their authority will be compromised. The requirement is based on a pragmatic outlook, rather than being an attestation to the importance of a high-powered career.

Leadership must be strong and vigorous, and must also be perceived that way. When leadership is weak, or even merely perceived that way, there is a problem.

There is a common perception, with much evidence to support it, that the rabbinic leadership in the charedi world suffers from such weakness. I have long wondered whether this problem might stem from the medical innovations of the modern era. For most of history, the only people to survive to adulthood were those of a strong constitution. Very few people reached old age; those who did were people of immense strength. And the authoritative rabbinic figures of fame were often younger than we assume. When Ramban stepped in to the Maimonidean controversy, he was only in his thirties! Today, on the other hand, many people survive to their eighties and beyond, and (perhaps as a result) "Gedolim" usually do not receive this title much before that. On many occasions, this means a decline in mental aptitude. But even if they are mentally acute (as Rav Elyashiv seems to be, at least until very recently), they are often weaker and more subject to manipulation by askanim.

It turns out that I was not the only person to reach this conclusion. There is a fascinating new article, "The leadership vacuum facing ultra-Orthodox Jewry," which makes this point and several important other points. It's an absolute must-read. You can read it at Ha'aretz, or you can read it at Vos Iz Neias and see the mixed reactions of charedi readers.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

An Example of a True Gadol

Fifteen years ago, when I was SuperCharediMan, I viewed Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion with deep suspicion. How can someone have a doctorate in English literature if they are serious about Torah? And why doesn't he have a beard?

Fifteen years on, I have learned to judge people by their deeds. I look at how the Gedolim of the charedi world react to the massive chilul Hashem perpetrated by thugs in their community. I see either explicit support, condemnation of those condemning what happened, silence, or watered-down condemnations. Only one voice calls for repentance, but without making any attempt at serious introspection regarding the cause of the problems, nor to even consider the possibility that at least some of the criticisms of the charedi community might be innately understandable.

In sharp contrast, a reader sent me this transcript of a speech that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein gave after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. I urge everyone to read it, in order to see an example of what genuine Torah leadership should be.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rav Shlomo Fisher and the Scientific Accuracy of Scripture

Rav Shlomo Fisher, Rosh Yeshivah of Itri, is a very interesting person. Unlike most Roshei Yeshivah, he has extensive knowledge of theology. But his views can be surprising. A friend of mine, who has had many conversations with him, described him as being great in that he is "totally unpredictable and inconsistent"!

I recently came across two fascinating short pieces by Rav Fisher. One was an extremely harsh condemnation of the rishon R. Yosef Ibn Kaspi. (Follow the link to see a response by Rav Shmuel Ashkenazi).

But while Rav Fisher doesn't specify the full range of his objections, it would not appear that he objects to Ibn Kaspi's use of the principle Dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam, "The Torah speaks in the language of men," which I have cited on numerous occasions in articles and discussed in a blog post. For I just looked at a paragraph by Rav Fisher which I cited in Sacred Monsters, and noticed that the preceding paragraphs address precisely this point. In Drashos Beis Yishai, ma'amar hamo'ach vehalev, footnote 4, he raises the question that Scripture as well as Chazal clearly describe the soul as residing in the heart rather than the brain, whereas we know that the heart merely serves to pump blood. Rav Fisher answers that dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam. He notes that Rambam explained that Yechezkel's vision of the Chariot includes the incorrect belief that the celestial spheres make noise, because prophecy appears according to the worldview of the recipient, even if that worldview is inaccurate.

(On this point, see Guide for the Perplexed II:8, with the commentaries of Efodi, Shem Tov, Narvoni, and Abarbanel in Ta’anos, 4. For further discussion, see Warren Zev Harvey, “How to Begin to Study Moreh Nevuchim,” Da’at 21 (1988) 5-23 pp. 21-23 (in Hebrew). Ralbag was also of this view; see his commentary to Gen. 15:4 and to Job, end of ch. 39. My thanks to Dr. Marc Shapiro for these references.)

Accordingly, Rav Fisher is of the same view as Ibn Kaspi, as well as Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook, that Scripture itself need not be scientifically accurate; it packages its messages in the worldview of the people that received it.

(See too my monograph The Question of the Kidney's Counsel.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

"We Love You! And Pity You!" Plus, the Inaccuracies in Ami and elsewhere

Reader Dov Kaiser sent in this photo of a poster displayed in a Charedi street in Rechovot. He wonders whether it is really addressed to Chilonim, as it purports, or if it is to make Charedim feel better about themselves:

It's amazing how some parts of it are so helpful, and other parts so deeply offensive.

In other news, the Mayor of Bet Shemesh, Moshe Abutbol, stated in Ami magazine that the Orot school is "in the middle" of a charedi neighborhood. The same was stated by Yisrael Eichler in HaModia. This is a blatant lie. In fact, the school has a valley behind it, a new charedi neighborhood on one side, and a dati-leumi neighborhood on the other side as well as facing it.

This isn't the only inaccurate information that you'll find in Ami. See this very important post at Life In Israel, which shows that, contrary to the story that Ami magazine ran, significant elements of the Eidah HaCharedis did support the notorious rally in Mea She'arim.

Other false claims that I have seen lately include:

1) HaModia reported a claim that nobody has ever been forced to sit at the back of a Mehadrin bus. But I've seen it with my own eyes! I usually drive, but on one occasion where I had to use the bus, I witnessed a man in charedi attire barricade the front of the bus to prevent religious girls boarding (they could not board at the back, because it was too crowded). Countless people have witnessed such things. How can they report such a blatantly false claim?

2) Someone else claimed that "there hasn’t been any violence" in Bet Shemesh/ Ramat Bet Shemesh "except for by a few thugs a few months ago." I wish that were true, but it's not. There have been many, many incidents of violence against non-charedim over the last few years.

3) Another claim was that "There is absolutely no imposition of Mehadrin standards onto the general public." This is certainly incorrect with regard to Ramat Bet Shemesh. For example, the stores in the main shopping area have been intimidated into putting up signs demanding adherence to certain tzniyus standards, and into allowing mashgichim to deface the packaging of cosmetics that have pictures of women on them. And even a mainstream Anglo-charedi figure, Rav Elimelech Kornfeld (not to be confused with his brother in Har Nof; as we see throughout Tenach and history, people are not to be judged by the actions of their brother!), sought to prevent the opening of eating establishments with seating at the small shopping area near where I live. (In the end, the lawyers were brought in, and this particular effort failed.)

Friday, January 6, 2012

It's Not An Aberration

I would love to get back to topics relating to Rationalist Judaism - I have a number of posts planned. But when I see certain claims being made about the situation in Bet Shemesh, I feel compelled to respond.

A commonly-heard refrain from Charedi apologists is that the appalling events surrounding the Orot school in Bet Shemesh are merely the aberrant actions of a tiny number of crazy people, termed Sikrikim, who are not remotely representative of the wider Charedi community. As such, it's as ridiculous and offensive to expect Charedim to condemn them, or to perform a cheshbon hanefesh, as it would be to expect Jews to have a particular obligation to condemn Madoff or to perform a cheshbon hanefesh as a result of his crimes.

This apologetic was made a little more difficult after hundreds of people in Ramat Bet Shemesh-Bet rallied around in support of these thugs, including rabbonim in that neighborhood. So the apologetic was adjusted to it being just an aberration of that particular neighborhood, who are not remotely representative of the wider Charedi community.

This apologetic in turn was made a little more difficult after the rally in Mea Shearim in defense of the Jerusalem thug who was jailed, where people desecrated the memory of the Holocaust martyrs. So the apologetic was adjusted to it being just an aberration of radically anti-modern Mea Shearim types, who are not remotely representative of the wider Charedi community.

But what about the events in Ponovezh yeshivah a few years back? According to news reports, "the yeshiva’s administrative director, Aharon Gertner, was arrested after police claimed he attempted to assault members of Rabbi Markovich’s faction with an ax." And "Rabbi Haim Peretz Berman, the new yeshiva head... was assaulted with sticks and hospitalized. Berman was replaced by Rabbi Haim Shlomo Lebovic, whose first lecture was held under heavy security of dozens of policemen. Upon returning home that day, he found an explosive device waiting for him at his doorstep." As a result, "the district police chief summons the yeshiva’s leaders to his office once every few weeks for a talk, which is usually followed by a short-lived truce that ends whenever a new conflict – over the distribution of food or rooms in the yeshiva for instance – emerges." Can anyone imagine this happening in a Modern Orthodox or secular institution of higher learning?

Fine, the apologist says, so maybe it's just an aberration of Israeli charedim - after all, they live in a rough country, and it presumably rubs off on them. But it's not remotely representative of the wider Charedi community!

But what about the events in New Square, where the Rebbe's assistant tried to set fire to the home of a person who did not abide by the community's policies? According to residents of New Square, he was "part of a network of up to 40 men and boys who defend the Skverer Rebbe with intimidation and violence."

Fine, the apologist says, but that's just an aberration of a Chassidic American community. But it's not remotely representative of the Litvish American charedi community!

Well, it's true that I don't have any stories of violence in the Litvish American charedi community. But are they really such a distinct and different entity from the American Chassidic and Israeli Charedi community that they have no need to condemn them, and no need to do a cheshbon hanefesh regarding charedi isolationism, disregard for civil law and civility, and devaluation of outsiders?

And violence is itself just one part of a spectrum of problematic behavior. Other forms of problematic zealotry and intolerance are vastly more widespread. There are simply countless examples of harassment of people who don't toe the Charedi line, in cities from Kiryat Sefer to Bayit Vegan to Beitar to Bet Shemesh - and I presume that there is also no shortage of such stories in the US.

If people are going to seriously deny this, then I will have to collect and publish a long list of examples. For now, I will just cite one particularly striking example of how this problematic attitude becomes endorsed at the highest levels. A recent work, Vayishma Moshe, reports that an avreich consulted Rav Elyashiv after "a spirit of zealotry" entered him and he "embarrassed" a couple on a bus (not even a mehadrin bus) who ignored his request to move to the back. According to the avreich, Rav Elyashiv told him that he acted perfectly appropriately! Of course we have no way of knowing if Rav Elyashiv did indeed say this. But the fact that such a sefer exists, and that it bears the haskamah of Rav Elyashiv and his son, shows that such behavior is considered by many to be acceptable.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I certainly do not believe that all or even most charedim support spitting at people or cursing them. Rather, my point is that such behavior is an extreme but predictable manifestation of an attitude that is, unfortunately, pervasive.

There is a general attitude in the Charedi world of thoroughly delegitimizing all those who do not follow the One True Charedi Way, and having no respect for such people. It is found in the leadership, in the charedi media, and in the street. If people challenge this statement, or claim that it is no more true of Charedi society than of Modern Orthodox society, then I am ready to back it up with countless examples. (It is especially ironic that a recent apologist on Cross-Currents, who claimed that the extreme zealotry is an aberration, is himself a person who has called for homosexuals to look into the option of suicide, and who has zealously maintained a blog entirely dedicated to delegitimizing me!)

Now, some might claim that this problem is inherent to religion itself. I don't have arguments on hand with which to counter that, but I would instead say that if that is indeed the case, then the further to the right one is, the more one has to be careful about this problem!

There are several aspects to charedi society which exacerbate the problem of delegitimizing others. If a person is of rabbinical stature, then people will not protest his expressing intolerance. There is a social structure in which the most zealous, intolerant people wield the most power. In the charedi educational system in Israel, sports and physical activity are frowned upon, leaving no kosher outlet for males to let out their pent-up energy. And there is violent language used and endorsed in Charedi society at the highest levels. The book Chaim B'Emunasam, written as a response to my books, and bearing especially glowing haskamos from various Gedolim, called for the execution, "by any means," of people who believe the Gemara to contain scientifically-inaccurate statements - i.e. me! Do those Gedolim really bear no responsibility for the terrifying and menacing phone calls that I have received?

It is obvious to many people, some of whom are even in the Charedi world, that recent events are but an extreme reminder of a widespread problem. It is tragic that some refuse to acknowledge it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Everyone is Fighting a Different Battle in Beit Shemesh

(This article appears in Wednesday's edition of The Jerusalem Post.)

Everyone agrees that the Battle of Beit Shemesh – my hometown for over a decade – is about a group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on a group of nice, normal Jews. But whereas the secular, national-religious and moderate haredim (ultra-Orthodox) think that the group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on others are the haredi extremists, mainstream haredim think that the group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on others are the secular.

Hadash, the weekly haredi newspaper in Beit Shemesh, was formerly owned by Mayor Moshe Abutbol’s official spokesman. It was sold to new ownership which maintains devout loyalty to the mayor and the haredi community. A giant front-page headline last week screamed “THE BLITZ!” Under that, the article said haredi residents of Beit Shemesh have become “a target of persecution, the likes of which have never been seen.”

The entire issue contained article after article about the terrible, evil secular campaign against the haredim, with each article including a graphic captioned “The city under attack!”

The lead editorial ranted on and on about the terrible, baseless persecution of the haredi population and denounced the kippa-wearing people who brought the Banat Orot school situation to the attention of the wider public. There was not a single word condemning the haredi thugs.

Especially ironic was a half-page article about a Haaretz journalist who allegedly spat on a little girl. This was in a newspaper which never prints articles about the countless acts of harassment against the national-religious that have taken place for years in Beit Shemesh – stealing flags, throwing stones, spitting, threatening businesses, attacking children and much more. Even when there was a mob beating of national-religious kids which resulted in my neighbor’s child requiring stitches in his head, the newspaper claimed that it was all the kids’ fault!

JUST AS important, however, the secular interpretation of events is sometimes no more accurate. Many secular Jews possess the absurd belief that all haredim, or even all religious Jews, are of the same mindset as the extremists. Former Meretz Party chairman Yossi Sarid declared that Judaism itself halachically mandates such behavior (!), and that all religious parties should be disqualified from the Knesset.

The widespread talk against religious Jews is no less offensive than the curses heaped by haredi extremists upon others. This also has the effect of encouraging the wider haredi world to adopt a siege mentality and prevents them from acknowledging any wrongdoing in their own camp – which in turn lends credence to the secular charge that haredim are indeed all of the same mindset. Thus, the ultra-secular and the ultra-Orthodox are locked into a vicious cycle which brings out the worst in each.

Yet another interpretation of events was apparently held by the groups that joined the rally in Beit Shemesh, who portrayed the issue as one relating to women. But aside from the question of whether some of them were seeking to force a rift between Netanyahu and his coalition, even those genuinely motivated by a desire to improve the status of women were missing the point.

The events in Beit Shemesh had little, if anything, to do with the oppression of women. The haredi extremists did not object to Banot Orot because it was a girl’s school; they objected to it because it was national-religious. And those who linked the Beit Shemesh extremists to the soldiers who walked out of a ceremony in which women sang got it entirely wrong. Walking out may well have been unwise and even unnecessary, but in that case, the soldiers did not impose their mores upon others; if anything, secular mores were being insensitively and unwisely imposed upon them.

THE INTERPRETATION and reaction among religious Jews outside of Israel is diverse. Modern Orthodox groups such as the OU and RCA issued harsh, unequivocal and unqualified condemnations of the haredi extremists. So did important moderate haredi figures such as Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz. The mainstream haredi world, however, watered down their condemnations of the extremists by stressing that the (alleged) ultimate goal, of increased modesty, is holy. As in Israel, more extreme elements of the haredi world in America adopted the siege mentality of presenting the entire situation as a secular campaign against Judaism.

But virtually the entire religious community commits the error of attributing all the problems to a miniscule group of extremists. (For foreign-born religious Jews, this often stems from sheer horror at the thought that it could be any more than that.) Yet this is no more accurate than the belief of the secularists that every haredi Jew is a rock-throwing, cursing spitter. The problems in Beit Shemesh are more complex and widespread than that.

It is true that the vast majority of haredim would never dream of spitting on people and cursing them. These are the actions of a fringe element that are feared and detested by the rest of the haredi world. But the mainstream haredi community is supportive of the ultimate goals, and does not see such actions as being terrible enough to justify joining with “outsiders” in order to condemn it. A letter expressing support for Banot Orot and condemnation of the extremists was signed by over a dozen national-religious and moderate haredi community rabbis in Beit Shemesh, but not one mainstream haredi rabbi signed on to it or made any similar such public declaration.

In addition, haredi society is pervaded by a fear of not appearing adequately “frum”; people in haredi communities are always looking over their right shoulders. And it is often the zealous elements that manipulate the “Gedolim,” the elderly Torah scholars that are ostensibly the leaders of the haredi world. As a result of all this, those practicing intolerance and extremism always exert a disproportionately large degree of influence in haredi society as a whole.

THE MORE general problem is that at many levels in haredi society, there is inappropriate behavior towards nonharedim, which is felt particularly strongly in the mixed city of Beit Shemesh. For example, as noted, the Hadash newspaper never reports on attacks against non-haredim; haredim are always innocent and non-haredim are always the enemy. And many haredi rabbis in Beit Shemesh have either overtly or tacitly supported mild harassment of non-haredim and attempts to impose haredi mores on the rest of the city.

The Ramat Beit Shemesh district was originally designated as a mixed area for haredi, national-religious and secular Jews. But the latter group fled after harassment, and Ramat Beit Shemesh is on its way to emulating Beitar, where the national-religious were effectively forced out of the city and extreme haredi elements took control. Under the current mayor, this is an accelerating process, as he gears the expansion of the Ramat Beit Shemesh district primarily towards haredi purchasers.

I don’t know what should or even can be done about the larger social problems of haredim vis-à-vis the rest of Israeli society. But I do know that the first step to solving a problem is facing up to its existence and understanding its nature.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Letter of the Community Rabbis

Here is a letter, prepared by local rabbis in Bet Shemesh way back in Elul, which expresses support for Orot, notes that the girls are both religious and dress modestly according to halacha, and denounces the actions of the extremists:

(You can also download it as a PDF here)

The letter is signed by the following community rabbis: Rav David Spector, Rav Avishai David, Rav Sheinkolovski, Rav Kurtz, Rav Rosenzweig, Rav Shalom Rosner, Rav Yitzchak Rones, Rav Vargon, Rav Menachem Cooperman, Rav Naftoli Rones, Rav Boaz Mori, Rav Bagno, Rav Chaim Soloveichik, and Rav Danny Myers. I think that all of them also attended the rallies in support of Orot.

Most of these rabbanim are Dati-leumi (national religious). Some are borderline/ moderate charedi. None of the numerous more charedi rabbanim in the city are signed on it; I don't know how many were approached, but I know that at least some were approached and refused to sign.

(Note: I don't know why the wonderful Piazeczna Rebbe of Aish Kodesh, Rav Shapira, didn't sign this letter, or if he was even asked to sign, but he did attend one of the rallies supporting Orot and opposing the extremists. This is significant, and is also the exception that proves the rule; I did not see more than two or three borderline charedi men or women at any of the rallies. Rav Malinowitz did not sign this letter, but will be writing a letter explaining his stance in a few days; his shul did arrange for a number of people to go to Orot in order to protect the girls on their way home from school.)

Finally, I recommend that everyone read this fantastic statement by Rabbi Shaul Robinson. And there's a fascinating article in the often abominable secular-left Ha'aretz which is thoughtful and balanced.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Essential Reads on the Charedi Controversy

Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman of Passaic has issued a moving statement on the events in Bet Shemesh, including a wonderful, monumental story about Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld having nothing but blessings when facing a mixed group of secular Israeli youth. Especially notable in Rabbi Eisenman's statement is his saying that the possible unfair extrapolation and haredi-bashing is "not his issue." Exactly; the more that the charedi community ignores its own problems and just whines about being persecuted, the more they justify the generalized criticism towards them!

Meanwhile, VosIzNeias is showing photos of the charedi demonstration in Mea She'arim where they dressed as Holocaust victims. Check out the comments section, which shows how many frum and charedi Jews are utterly nauseated by it. Some of them are also wondering why the Gedolim, who are vocal on so many issues, are not saying anything about it. And check out Rabbi Adlerstein's brief but sharp headline and critique.

I was also sent the following comment which was submitted in response to Rabbi Menken's post on Cross-Currents but which, inexplicably, was not approved:
Nobody, including Tzipi Hotovely, is protesting the “voluntary separation of genders in public spaces.” What they are protesting is the INvoluntary coercion of others to abide by it. If Chassidim don’t want to sit behind women, this still does not give them the right to force unwilling women to sit at the back. I can’t understand how you can possibly argue otherwise.
It is likewise incorrect to state that “the only Charedi leader who legitimately should have done more was Mayor Abutbol.” How about the entire body of Chareidi rabbonim in Bet Shemesh and Ramat Bet Shemesh, not one of whom was willing to publicly condemn the extremists or express sympathy for the Orot school?
If you ever submit a comment to Cross-Currents and it is not approved, feel free to send it to me, and I may include it in a post.

And if you didn't read my post on Friday about the charedi reaction in Bet Shemesh, or Tuesday's post about how spitting on girls is not the main problem, allow me to recommend that you do so!

Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously de...