Friday, June 29, 2012

Great Rabbinic Wisdom

I don't know anything about Rabbi Shmuel Shapira of Kochav Ya'ir, but I like his response to a question in YNet's "Ask-the-Rabbi" column:

Q. What is the significance of a Shabbat candle that went out three times? - Revital, Petach-Tikva

A. Shalom Revital. Generally, the explanation is that the candle is deficient, or that there is a wind in the place where you light. Therefore, you should change either the candle or the place where you light.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Professor Jeffrey Woolf has a terrific post with a story about the Kovner Rav and a story about Rav Gedalyah Felder. Read them at this link.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Other Siyum HaShas

In an earlier post entitled "Unsung Heroes of Daf Yomi," I lamented the fact that the enormous Siyum HaShas organized by Agudas Yisroel is always a promo for Daas Torah instead of giving proper honor to the true heroes of Daf Yomi. I am glad to see that this time, there is an alternative. The New York Modern Orthodox community is organizing a two-part celebration. The first part is two sessions of parallel classes on various aspects of Talmud study taught by a variety of people (including, I was intrigued to see, Rabbi Nosson Scherman of ArtScroll). Then comes the siyum, which is described in the press release as follows:
Participants will then gather for the siyum ceremony. Various rabbinic luminaries will speak at the ceremony, but the focus will be on the magidei shiurim (those who teach the daf on a daily basis), the daily attendees of these classes, and those who are actually making the siyum. These people, men and women, young and old, will perform the siyum, read the Kaddish, and share words with the community.
It's good to see that there are people who know how to give honor where honor is due.

In other news, I am pleased to announce that The Challenge Of Creation has just been republished (with very minor changes from the previous edition). Unfortunately it was necessary to raise the retail price to $34.95, but you can still buy it directly from my website for the old price of $29.95 plus $10 international shipping. To order with PayPal or credit card, click the button below. It should reach the bookstores in North America by the end of August.

Turning to some tragic news, I am deeply saddened to report the untimely passing of Rabbi Josh Cohen of Elizabeth, NJ. May Hashem comfort his wife and children.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Economics of Torah Scholarship in Medieval Jewish Thought and Practice

There is a tension between, on the one hand, the importance of Torah study and education, and on the other hand, the problem of financially supporting this endeavor. The study and teaching of Torah is rated as one of the highest goals in Judaism, but taking money for this task was greatly frowned upon by the Sages. Alongside with this, the Sages taught that Torah study should be accompanied by an occupation and in numerous places stressed the importance of being self-sufficient. But does this mean that there is no role for financially supporting Torah study and Torah teachers?

I am pleased to present a monograph entitled "The Economics of Torah Scholarship in Medieval Jewish Thought and Practice." In this paper, I explore how Jews of the medieval period addressed this issue, both in theory (i.e. in their teachings about what should be done) and in practice (i.e. surveying what actually happened). You can download the monograph at this link. If you gain from the monograph and from this website in general, please show hakaras hatov by making a donation using the button below.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Will The Real Stan Please Stand Up

Here are two letters that were sent to Ami magazine, the first by a neighbor of mine and the second by me. Since there is not the slightest chance that Ami will print either of them, I am posting them here.

The letters relate to this week's column by Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Some people 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.

Dear Editor,

Ami Magazine has once again demonstrated its knack for reveling in self-righteous arrogance that benefits no one. Two articles in your 30 Sivan issue demonstrate this tendency in particular.

The first is Rabbi Avi Shafran's comparison of Orthodox bloggers with Korach. While he accepts that there are some responsible bloggers, the examples he enumerates (those "who seek to share community news or ideas... [or] explore concepts in Jewish thought and law... [or] focus on Jewish history and society") demonstrate by omission that those who attempt to expose anything negative in Chareidi society are comparable to the villains in Parashat Korach. If a blogger discusses the shameful lack of accountability in cases of abuse and neglect, he apparently violates the negative commandment, "Do not be like Korach and his congregation." Thus, someone who attempts to improve Chareidi society by protecting its most vulnerable members is, in fact, comparable to one of Judaism's greatest internal enemies. This statement is so offensive that I might have assumed that I misunderstood the article, except that it typifies the self-righteousness inherent in your magazine's journalistic ethos.

Less egregious but equally tone-deaf is the examination of the recent New York Federation population study, which found that the Orthodox community in Greater New York is growing. Your analysis is nothing more than meaningless triumphalism, which preaches to a select choir that Orthodoxy is the only future for Klal Yisrael. Is that really what our community needs to hear? Were we in danger of doubting such a view? By citing such studies coupled with self-serving analysis, we blind ourselves to the genuine issues that face religious Jews. Did the nevi'im spend their time telling the People of Israel how great they were, or did they enable them to look for their flaws in order to correct them?

Only by avoiding self-righteousness and engaging in authentic cheshbon hanefesh can Orthodox Judaism achieve its genuine aims: that is, to create a society which is based on the precepts of Torah in fact, not merely in theory. Once again, Ami Magazine has chosen the easy and religiously irresponsible way out.

Rabbi S. Kahn
Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah
Beit Shemesh, Israel

To the Editor:

R. Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, was recently interviewed in Mishpachah magazine. He explicitly acknowledged two obvious truths: (1) that abuse and molestation issues have not been taken seriously in the charedi community, and (2) that this has begun to change as a result of pressure created by blogs. In light of that, how could Rabbi Avi Shafran, in his latest column, deny any positive value to blogs that contain criticism of the charedi community, and equate them all with Korach?

I was further taken aback to see Rabbi Shafran derisively describe the world of blogs as "blogistan." The suffix "-stan" is usually used to describe an entity that has taken on attributes of restrictive, dictatorial theocracies that are common in the Moslem world. Is it not ironic that Rabbi Shafran, who insists on the unqualified, unimpeachable authority of Daas Torah and the suppression of any public criticism, uses the term "-stan" to describe those who seek precisely the opposite?

Rabbi Natan Slifkin
Ramat Bet Shemesh

Friday, June 22, 2012

Choosing for Oneself, Choosing for One's Children

In discussions about the merits and demerits of kollel, and in decisions about supporting people in kollel, there is a crucial factor that is often overlooked.

When someone is in kollel, in 99% of cases, this is not merely a personal direction for their own life. It also means that they are raising their children with kollel as the expected norm, with no secular education, and with no expectation that they will be self-supporting.

In other words, with the exception of kollels such as Torah MiTziyon, or the RIETS semicha kollel, kollel is usually part and parcel of a larger lifestyle choice. Here are some examples of scenarios in which this makes a big difference.

"I want to learn in kollel, and I'm willing to endure the hardships and take the risks."

It's all very well for you to make that choice, but what about your children? What options will be available to them, when they are raised without any general education and taught they are second-class citizens if they work?

"Are Torah scholars less worthy of Jewish communal support than scholars of romance languages and literature, jazz music, or modern dance?"
Amongst many other differences, the university academic is not raising all his children with the expectation that they will also be university academics, and the lack of training or desire to do anything else.

"Chazal said that there is room for individuals to follow in the path of R. Shimon bar Yochai etc."
But Chazal also ruled that a person must teach his children a trade - no exceptions are made!

(Parent of kollel students:) "I'm doing a chessed for my kids. I can afford to support them in kollel. That's why I'm not pushing them to learn a career."
But can you afford to support all their children in kollel? Your kindness to your children is cruelty to your grandchildren!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Lecture Schedule

Here is my lecture schedule, so far, for the summer. If you are interested in arranging a lecture in your community, please write to me at

Shabbos July 21: Cherry Hill, NJ - Congregation Sons of Israel
Sunday July 22: Morning: Two multimedia presentations in Cherry Hill, NJ. Download the flyer here.

Shabbos July 28: Beverly Hills, CA - YINBH

Shabbos August 4: Skokie, IL - Ohr Torah
Sunday August 5th: Morning and afternoon - Torah Tour of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Download the flyer here.
Evening: "Rationalism vs. Mysticism" at the Wi-Fi Building Synagogue - Beis Midrash Binyan Olam, 8170 McCormick Blvd., Skokie. Entrance donation $10. Download the flyer here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Future of the New Charedim

In an earlier post, I referred to a lecture at the Orthodox Forum on the topic of the "new charedim." The speaker, Chaim Zickerman, noted that the new charedim have an uncertain future. They are sorely lacking in self-confidence; they do not have leaders who exemplify their values and to whom they can look up to for direction. This is difficult for them, in light of how they are scorned by other charedim.

In terms of the general reaction to the new charedim by the rest of the charedim, Mr. Zickerman noted that there are three possible scenarios: conflict, silence, and harmony. His favored scenario was harmony. But he described that as being a situation in which there is a Yissacher-Zevulun relationship between the two groups.

To my mind, that is not a good scenario at all.

First of all, the historic/ halachic/ hashkafic basis for such a relationship is weak, to say the least. As I wrote in my post "Is Kollel rooted in Yissacher/Zevulun?," the Yissacher-Zevulun model is mentioned in the Midrash - not the Chumash or Gemara. And in the Midrash it says that Zevulun was helping to market Yissacher's merchandise, not fully fund them. According to Rabbi Prof. Yehudah Levy's analysis of this topic in Torah Study pp. 46-50, the early halachic authorities did not discuss a Yissacher-Zevulun arrangement and it seems that they did not legitimize it.

Second of all, there is a fundamentally conflicting system of values between the "new" and "old" chareidim (yes, I know that the "old" chareidim are also new, but everything's relative). The old chareidim believe that the ideal lifestyle, for which everyone should strive, is to be in kollel; the minority who go out to work have essentially failed. The new chareidim believe (as did Chazal) that the ideal, or at least perfectly acceptable, lifestyle is to be self-supportive. This is a significant difference, and I think that it precludes true harmony.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Yated Wars: Reactions to the New Charedim

There is a ferocious battle going on regarding the takeover of the Israeli newspaper Yated (which is entirely unrelated to the American Yated). In part, it relates to the general power struggle taking place with the decline of Rav Elyashiv's court. It also relates to attitudes to the new chareidim.

The old Yated was vitriolically zealous. It represented the most extreme group of charedim, whose figurehead was Rav Elyashiv and whose natural successor is Rav Shmuel Auerbach (more about him, with whom I am personally familiar, in another post). Here is a link to an editorial from the pre-takeover Yated, regarding the "new charedim" that I discussed in the previous post. It's a strong condemnation of the "new charedim," concluding with a declaration that the Yated is proud to be  extremist. The editorial insists that it is not categorically opposed to the idea of a person working for a living, as long as the person recognizes that it is not the ideal. The ideal is for a person to be supported by others! And to raise one's children with that goal! (It amazes me that they can propose this so brazenly, apparently without an inkling that is entirely contrary to Chazal.)

According to my sources, this editorial was the last straw. The newspaper has now been taken over by the other Charedi camp, whose figurehead is Rav Steinman and who is funded by an American called Shimon Glick. They are not moderate in any objective sense of the term; see this interview with someone from that camp, who cites Rav Shteinman as saying that one should not support any hospital or other institution, only limud Torah! Still, they are certainly more moderate than the previous group. Although not exactly supportive of the new charedim, they aren't in an all-out war with them.

But both camps are in a war with each other. Check out the following links:

Rav Chaim Kanievsky: Rav Shteiman Is The Manhig HaDor

The Shameful Truth Surrounding Yated is Revealed
בשירות המדינה - יתד נאמן (PDF)
 הסכסוך ביתד נאמן: זעקה בבית הרב אוירבעך

Coming up next: The Future of the New Charedim

Friday, June 15, 2012

The New Charedim

This week, I attended part of the Orthodox Forum symposium. There was a very interesting presentation on recent developments in Israeli charedi society and the nature of "the new charedim," ha-charedim ha-chadashim, sometimes known by the acronym charda"shim, and sometimes by the name "blue shirts." The presenter, Chaim Zickerman, was an outstanding example from this group: a graduate of Chevron yeshivah, who then attended law school, and now teaches law at Bar-Ilan university.

Zickerman spoke about several general changes that have occurred in charedi society:
  • Leadership changes - There has been no real leadership since Rav Schach. Rav Elyashiv is a posek, not a leader; he does not give public speeches and does not enjoy the widespread support that Rav Schach had. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in charedi political leadership, e.g. charedi mayors. Such people realize that it is important to have residents who pay taxes!
  • Cultural changes - Internet, even "kosher internet," is the Etz HaDaas of the charedi world. It shows charedim the existence of alternate views on all issues.
  • Economical changes - The 2003 cuts in child benefits, and the recent recession, has taken a heavy toll on charedi society.
One of the biggest changes, which has occurred partly as a result of the previously mentioned changes, is that a group called "the new charedim" has emerged. They work for a living, and are proud of it. They are less isolated from the wider world. They are skeptical of the contemporary incarnation of "Daas Torah." They vote for a political party such as TOV instead of UTJ. (And, of course, they wear blue shirts.)

Zickerman described several ways in which the new charedim can be grouped together with conventional charedim:
  • How they dress - They wear hats (at least, on Shabbos), and dress in a way that is distinctly charedi, albeit with a "modern" flair.
  • Social identification - They do not form part of non-charedi shuls or communities. They don't recite the prayer for the IDF (even though many of them may have served in the IDF!). The sandak at the bris they make is Rav Chaim Kanievsky.  
  • Self-identification - They self-identify as charedi, perhaps largely because they don't know how else to classify themselves. 
Retaining an identity is very important (which is why, for example, they don't recite the prayer for the IDF). If there is a showdown between charedim and non-charedim, e.g. with regard to the draft, the new charedim will side with the conventional charedim. They are afraid of losing their identity.

Zuckerman concluded by discussing the future of the new charedim, which I will write about in a different post. And that was the end of the presentation. As you may notice, there is some overlap between the new charedim and the post-charedim that I described in a Jerusalem Post article.

Coming up in the next post: The reaction of the conventional charedim to the new charedim.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

To The Batcage!

I love getting the free weekly Yated Ne'eman and the other Israeli Charedi weeklies. They are so valuable! They are the absolute perfect size for lining the cage of my fruit bats. Bats are extremely messy animals, so I need a lot of these newspapers. Fortunately, I have a large supply available to me; the Israeli Yated recently publicized a psak of Daas Torah that it is permitted to take newspapers of a theologically dangerous nature and destroy them, even if they are in other peoples' mailboxes. (True, they were referring to Mishpachah, but what's good for the goose is good for the gander.)

(UPDATE: In the comments, some people objected to my using newspapers for such purposes, since they can contain divrei Torah. I'm sure that there are differing views on this matter, but Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled that such newspapers, which are printed by machine rather than written by hand, do not attain the status of sanctity as long as they are not read by people.)

Anyway, as I was lining my bats' cage the other day, I opened up the newspaper and saw the following full-spread advertisement (pictured here at the bottom of my batcage):

Combined in this advertisement are two abuses - that of rabbinic authority, and that of fundraising for charity.

One of the verses in the Torah most abused in the charedi world is "V'asisa k'chal asher yorucha." The general view amongst the Rishonim is that this is a directive to follow the Beis Din HaGadol, when it issues its rulings according to protocol. A minority view, presented by the Sefer HaChinnuch (very much not a major halachic authority), extends this to the Torah leaders of every generation - though the Minchas Chinnuch notes that this is only when they, too, are following the protocols of the Beis Din HaGadol. The Charedi world, however, presents this passuk as unequivocally demanding that everyone follows "Daas Torah" i.e. the pronouncements, issued without any protocol, of a few rabbonim named as Gedolei HaDor.

Fundraising for (alleged) charitable causes is also abused in the charedi world. The charedi world does excel at giving charity - I remember a study many years ago in the Jerusalem Post showing that National-Religious Jews give four times more charity than secular Jews, and Charedim give seven times more. (Of course, there is an issue of whether it really is charity to support people who have no intent to support themselves or to raise their children to do so; assisting them on the path to enforced poverty for their descendants may be cruelty rather than kindness.) However, the techniques used for fundraising are sensationalistic, superstitious and manipulative to the extreme, and sometimes offensive in other ways, too. A entire study could, and should, be written on the various advertisements of the various Israeli charity organizations such as Kupat Ha'Ir. "Ploni drove in an illegal manner, but escaped being punished by the authorities after donating money to Kupat Ha'Ir!" (That was an actual ad that I saw.)

In this ad we see how the charity manipulates potential donors using the popular charedi abuse of  "V'asisa k'chal asher yorucha." Rav Ovadiah Yosef is pictured here writing a check to the charity. Fine. He writes about the importance of charity. Fine. But by headlining this with  "v'asisa k'chal asher yorucha," the charity transforms this into a specific mitzvah for people to give to this particular charity! And it states that only by giving to this charity, does one receive the reward that he promises!

(A similar ad appeared a while back, claiming that one must follow Gadol X who insisted on giving to the kupa tzedakah of Bnei Brak - but of course he did this because it was his local charity - which does not apply to people outside of Bnei Brak!)

In case people accuse me of reading too much into it, and claim that the ad is simply asking people to give charity, I say as follows: If that is all the ad is doing, let them just talk about the value of charity, without having to invoke the Gedolim. Apparently, the mitzvah of tzedakah alone is not sufficient basis to ask for charity. After all, people might give to the wrong charity! But under the allegedly Biblical mandate to follow what the Gedolim say and/or do, one is now obligated to give to this particular charity! And if one gives to a different charity, such as the phenomenal Lemaan Achai, one does not merit the promised blessings!

On a broader level, this ad highlights a general problem: that Torah and Judaism is being transformed such that everything is about the Gedolim. But let's discuss that further on another occasion.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rav Hirsch Lives!

One of the most significant sources in Torah-Science issues - specifically with regard to Chazal's knowledge of the natural world - is Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's letters on the topic. He considers it as basic and normative that Chazal's knowledge of the natural world was merely based upon common beliefs of their era. (He further writes that there is no basis to condemn someone who does not adopt a literal interpretation of supernatural accounts regarding Chazal.) Here is an extract:
In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His Toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own. (Download more at this link)
Of course, this is nothing that was not already stated and considered normative by the rationalist Rishonim of Sefarad. Still, Rav Hirsch's letters are important, for two reasons. First is that he expounds upon it at much greater length, giving concrete examples such as Chazal's mistaken belief in spontaneous generation. Second is that he is much more recent than the Rishonim, thereby giving this approach continuation, and countering those such as Rav Aharon Feldman who claim that the revelations of the Zohar render the approach of the rationalist Rishonim incorrect and no longer legitimate.

For this reason, Rav Hirsch's letters were a powerful weapon in the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-5. And the counter-claim by Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Moshe Shapiro was that the letters must be forgeries(!). This claim was based on the fact that the letters from Rav Hirsch were unsigned and were not written in his handwriting. However, Professor Mordechai Breuer, the greatest expert on Rav Hirsch in our generation, noted to me that it was the custom for family members to make copies of correspondence. When I told him that there were people claiming the letters to be forgeries, he laughed.

Proving the letters authentic is not difficult. They were part of an extended correspondence with R. Hile Wechsler, and R. Wechsler’s original handwritten letters are extant. To maintain a belief that the Hirsch letters were forged, one would have to claim that somebody was consistently intercepting the letters that R. Wechsler was sending, and was writing responses in a style and handwriting that fooled R. Wechsler into thinking that he was corresponding with Rav Hirsch and continuing the correspondence! Clearly, this scenario is absurd; the Wechsler letters prove beyond doubt that the Hirsch letters are genuine.

(A friend of mine in Bayit Vegan brought the Wechsler letters to Rav Moshe Shapiro’s attention. Much later I heard that when someone else asked Rav Moshe about Rav Hirsch’s letters, Rav Moshe no longer claimed that the letters were forgeries and replied instead that “Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash." However, he later warmly endorsed Reuven Schmeltzer's notorious buch Chaim B'emunasam which maintains that the letters are forgeries.)

The Hirsch letters were originally published in the journal HaMa'ayan. When Artscroll published a Hebrew volume of Rav Hirsch's letters and responsa, Shemesh Marpeh, it would have been natural to include these letters in that volume. But Rav Shimon Schwab advised the editor, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman, not to include them. Prof. Lawrence Kaplan, in “Torah U-Madda in the Thought of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,” BDD vol. 5 (Summer 1997) p. 28, reports a conversation that he had with R. Schwab and says that he is citing him practically verbatim as follows: “The editor consulted with me, and I advised him not to publish them. I told him that the letters are controversial and likely to be misunderstood, and that his publishing them would just bring him unnecessary tzorres.”

With all due respect, I have to disagree. How are they "likely to be misunderstood"? They are written extremely clearly. They will clear up existing misunderstandings of this topic rather than create new ones! As such, while they are (today) controversial, I don't see that publishing them brings unnecessary tzorres, but rather the necessary tzorres that comes with publishing the works of a great figure whose views are not accepted by everyone.

It was truly disappointing that the letters were omitted from Shemesh Marpeh. I was therefore pleased to discover that Feldheim has just published volume nine of "Collected Writings of Rav Hirsch," in which they included these letters!

Inevitably, there will still be those who insist that Rav Hirsch only said it for outreach purposes (despite that his words clearly show that he meant it as a lechatchilah), along with the claim that Torah Im Derech Eretz was only an emergency patch for his generation. Feldheim, however, seems intent on pointing out otherwise. The volume, which is also described as including "an affirmation of Torah im Derech Eretz," is titled "Timeless Hashkafah." And on the website, the book is described as "reflecting the ever-valid Hirschian ideology."

Will it cause a storm? I don't think so. Been there, done that. A few people might make a fuss, but the book will not be withdrawn from publication, and nobody will lose their job or shidduchim for their kids. The ridiculous claim that the letters are forgeries will fade. Rav Moshe Shapiro may continue to claim that "Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash," but many people will fail to understand how that renders his views unacceptable, or why they should not be a part of Rav Hirsch's Beis HaMidrash.

Kol hakavod to Feldheim for keeping Rav Hirsch's legacy alive!

Friday, June 8, 2012

When is a Hyrax Not a Hyrax?

Reader Jonathan directed me to what he described as a story with a "curious hyrax-haredi connection." The story, hereby cut-and-pasted from the English "Times of Israel" website, reads as follows:
Police on Wednesday arrested a couple, residents of the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad in central Israel, after a search of their house revealed 210 marijuana plants and 400 grams of packaged weed. Some of the plants were found in the rooms of the couple’s children, the Hebrew website Ynet reported. The man, 37, claimed to be a Torah luminary and explained that he smoked the marijuana for pain relief. The wife told police that she was opposed to her husband’s drug habit and had brought home a hyrax to eat the plants.
I read this story and instantly realized that it just couldn't be. Nobody in the world has a hyrax (except me). You can't buy one in a store, and although there are plenty in the wild here, you certainly can't just go and pick one up. Not even if you offer it some marijuana. What was going on? Even before I read the original Hebrew story, it was obvious what had happened.

The animal that the woman had brought home to eat the marijuana was not a hyrax but rather a rabbit, which she described as a shafan. The reason why she called it a shafan is that, in medieval Europe, hyraxes were unknown, so the name shafan in the Torah was transposed to the closest equivalent: the rabbit. Even the maskilic writers in the nineteenth century who wrote about animals in the Torah, such as Mendele Mokher Sefarim and Ludwig Lewysohn, were oblivious to the existence of the hyrax. They maintained that the shafan was a rabbit, despite the fact that rabbits do not hide under rocks (as the shafan is described in Scripture) and have never lived in the region of Israel.

These writers influenced the development of Ivrit, such that shafan became a popular name for rabbits. By the time that people who actually lived in Israel corrected matters, and created the new name arnavon for the rabbit (with the arneves referring to the hare), it was too late. Rabbits are popularly called arnavon, arneves, and still shafan. And so the Israeli in this story used the word shafan, but whoever translated the story into English thought that the person was referring to a hyrax.

With this news story, we see an interesting reversal of events. In centuries past, the hyrax was replaced by the rabbit. Now, we have the rabbit being replaced by the hyrax!

(Incidentally, the animal pictured in the "Times of Israel" article is not a hyrax, contrary to the caption. It's a coypu.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is There Wisdom In Bans?

At a meeting of rabbis in Kovno in 1885, the suggestion was raised that the community ostracize anyone who studied Darwinian evolution. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spector and Rabbi Alexander Moshe Lapidus opposed the measure, but only due to the foresight that it would inevitably result in people being more attracted to it and rebelling against rabbinic authority.

I was reminded of this after reading about the Vatican condemning a book by an American nun about sexuality. The day before the Vatican's statement, the book ranked 142,982 on Amazon. The next day, it was number 16.

Of course, the same thing happened with the ban on my own books. While it was an absolutely awful experience that I would not wish on anyone (well, with a few exceptions), it was certainly good for sales and a tremendous boost to my career. Ever since the ban, I have had a long list of speaking invitations.

This doesn't mean that, from the perspective of those banning the books, it is necessarily the wrong decision. It all depends on what their priorities are. It could be that they see it as more important to draw the lines of permissible beliefs, or to prevent certain obedient types of people from reading the books, or to assert authority, regardless of the fact that they will actually cause more people to read the banned books.

But I would imagine that their professed primary goal is to stop the book from being read and thereby harming people. In which case, 21st century rabbis that ban books are out of touch with the results of their actions.

(Inspired by this article. Hat-tip to DES.)

On another note - to the Israeli readers - if anyone can volunteer to translate my museum prospectus into Ivrit (not rabbinic Hebrew!), please be in touch!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Agudah Acknowledges Dropping The Ball On Abuse, Claims Near-Perfection

Mishpachah magazine just featured an interview with Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America. I've met him, and he's a very nice, very intelligent person. But his comments are astonishing.
"Look, I don’t write off the bloggers as leitzanim and reshaim, because they will be judged, as we all will, after 120 years for their motivations and techniques. I'm not a condemner, by nature."

"I do believe that among them there are people who are deeply pained about certain issues and feel that this is the way they can express their pain. I will even go a step further and say that through the pressure they’ve created, communal issues that needed to be confronted were moved to the front burner and taken seriously. A case in point is abuse and molestation issues. The question is, if the fact that they've created some degree of change is worth the cost. At the very least, it’s rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman. That’s a high price to pay."

"Then there is the damage wrought to the hierarchy of Klal Yisrael. We've always been a talmid chacham-centered nation, and it’s dangerous to ruin the fabric of Klal Yisrael by denigrating the ideal of daas Torah and by allowing personal attacks on gedolei Torah.”

Reb Chaim Dovid believes that the process of decision-making through the Moetzes is as close to perfect as can be. “It’s a homogeneous group of the most intelligent, empathetic individuals — all great talmidei chachamim — and they grasp all aspects of an issue right away.” 

Where do I begin?

Let's start with the positive. R. Zwiebel acknowledges that the charedi world was not taking the issue of abuse and molestation seriously. That's worthy of credit, even though it's blindingly obvious. Given that there are other Agudah spokesmen who only weigh in on this topic to claim that there is a baseless witch-hunt in this area, it's refreshing to see R. Zwiebel admit that the charedi leadership dropped the ball on this issue.

It's also good to see R. Zwiebel acknowledge that a large part of the credit for the charedi world beginning to take these issues seriously is due to bloggers. That can't be an easy admission to make; Failed Messiah and UOJ write many things that are distasteful, to say the least. But it is clearly due to them that the charedi world started to address abuse, and so it is good that R. Zwiebel gives credit where credit is due.

On the other hand, given these admissions, R. Zwiebel's other comments are all the more incomprehensible.

R. Zwiebel admits that the Charedi world did not take these issues seriously - that the abuse of hundreds, probably thousands, of children continued, while molesters were protected and parents were told to shut up. But he wonders if stopping that evil is worth rechilus, lashon hara, and - I'm almost gagging at typing this - bittul zman! By what possible measure might it not be worth it?!

Then we have to think about whether there really are crimes of rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman. Sure, there may be some accusations that are false. But, as Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz notes, the majority of discussions about abuse are about cases which are true, and talking about them on the Internet was leto'eles, since it has gotten them dealt with - nothing else worked! So where is the excess of rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman?

Then we come to R. Zwiebel's protest that the blogosphere has denigrated Daas Torah and the honor of the Gedolim. Well, yes, it has. But considering that Agudas Yisrael's version of Daas Torah is a recent invention, I can't see that the exposure of its failings is such a terrible thing. And considering that the Gedolim are the leaders, and are thus responsible for dropping the ball on the issue of abuse, surely any loss of respect is their own responsibility. I haven't seen anyone denigrating and losing respect for rabbis such as Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, Rabbi Yosef Blau, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. Respect is given when it is justly earned.

Next we have Mishpachah describing R. Zwiebel as believing that "the process of decision-making through the Moetzes is as close to perfect as can be." Given that he's just admitted that, unlike the majority of society, the Gedolim did not know how to deal with the issue of child abuse (i.e. they did not know that YES IT REALLY HAPPENS, YES IT'S REALLY TERRIBLE, NO YOU CAN'T DEAL WITH IT ON YOUR OWN, GO TO THE AUTHORITIES), how on earth does he believe that their decisions are "as close to perfect as can be"?

Look back at the fiasco of Daas Torah over the last decade. Banning Lipa's Big Event at Madison Square Garden, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, due to it being irredeemably wrong, then permitting it a year later (where Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky publicly admitted that the Gedolim erred). Issuing various bans based on information from askanim with a deserved reputation for incitement and devious behavior, in some cases an actual criminal record for fraud! Giving great honor and power in geirus to a known manipulator and scumbag, and failing to condemn him when his even worse crimes are exposed on the Internet. Protesting the innocence of the monster Elior Chen, and defending this on the grounds that other rabbis say he's innocent. Announcing to a crowd of 40,000 people at CitiField, who have been informed that Daas Torah in such a context is binding on all Klal Yisrael, that kids from homes with Internet must be expelled from yeshivos - then promptly retracting it the next week. Heck, there are still rabbis who covered up for molestors being honored as Gedolim! Even charedi apologist Jonathan Rosenblum writes subversive columns about the problems in the Daas Torah process, though he attributes all the blame to askanim. This is a decision-making process that every normal person can see is deeply flawed - and R. Zwiebel claims that it's "as close to perfect as can be"?

And what reason does R. Zwiebel give for believing this? That the Gedolim are talmidei chachamim, intelligent and empathetic. I am sure that they are; but these are not sufficient requirements for good leadership. It's troubling that R. Zwiebel sees a positive aspect in their being homogenous; that is, of course, a negative. Note that Chazal say that if a Sanhedrin reach a verdict unanimously, it is rejected! (There are a number of other halachos in the Gemara regarding the process of rabbinic judgment that are negated in the contemporary Daas Torah process. With all the talk about the greatness of Chazal, why are they not followed in this area?)

Good leadership requires people who are relatively young and independent, not elderly and relying on handlers. It requires people who are in touch with the community, not living in the ivory towers of the yeshivah world. Leadership in the area of abuse requires people who understand the problems, respect the expertise of people in the mental health profession, and respect civil law; not people who are too naive to believe the "tawdry tales," do not respect the expertise of people in the mental health profession, and think that the authorities are the goyishe enemy. Good leadership requires a system of checks and balances, not cronyism and the suppression of criticism and a constant fear of not appearing frum enough. And most of all, as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains so well, good leadership requires wisdom.

R. Zwiebel, representing Agudath Israel, has always insisted that someone with suspicions of child abuse may not go directly to the authorities without consulting a suitably-qualified rabbi first. Recently, he admitted that Agudath Israel will not be providing a list of such allegedly suitably-qualified rabbis (for the simple reason that any rabbi that Agudah names will face prison if he does not report the cases that come to his attention). And R. Zwiebel agrees here that many rabbis have not dealt with such cases properly. So he knows that the system is badly broken, but insists that it must continue!

Sometimes, observing the system of rabbinic authority in the contemporary Charedi world is like watching a comedy. Except that it isn't funny, because the consequences are so tragic.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Rabbinic Responses to the Transit of Venus

Rabbinic Responses to The Transit of Venus

Jeremy Brown

Jeremy Brown lives outside of Washington DC. He is the author of New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, to be published later this year by Oxford University Press.

It’s hard not to have noticed that a remarkable celestial event will occur this Tuesday.  The blogs have been discussing it, and new books have been published to commemorate the event. The event if the transit of Venus, and if the weather cooperates and the clouds stay away, you will be able to witness an event that will not occur again for another one hundred and five years. You’ll need the right equipment too, but that need not cost more than a few dollars.[1] With it, you will be able to see the planet Venus pass in front of the sun. Seen as a small black dot, it will make its way across the face of the sun over a period of several hours. The exact length of time depends on where you are located; in New York City the transit of Venus will be visible at 6.04pm, while in Jerusalem it can be seen at 7.37am.[2]

The transit of Venus was of huge scientific importance in the nineteenth century, because by observing it from various locations and using some clever trigonometry, it allowed astronomers estimate the distance from the Earth to the sun more accurately than had ever been done before.[3]  Knowing this distance would allow the distance of other planets from the Earth to be calculated, which would then give the answer to one of the most important unanswered astronomical questions of the time: Just how big is the solar system?

The transit of Venus occurs twice in eight years, followed by a gap of 105.5 or 121.5 years[4].  The first time it could be viewed was in 1639, but that transit was witnessed by only two observers. By the time of the paired transits of 1761 and 1769, scientific instruments were accurate enough to provide the data needed for the all-important calculations. So in 1760 and again in 1768 the major European nations including Britain, France, Spain and Russia, sent teams across the globe to measure the transit times of Venus.  Perhaps the most famous expedition was that led by Captain James Cook, who sailed from London to Tahiti and made a series of accurate measurements that allowed the all-important calculations to be made.

Much less well known are the Jewish responses to all this. Although Jews had been taking a keen interest in astronomy since Talmudic times, the Copernican revolution had challenged the notions of the centrality and immobility of the Earth.   However the arguments for the truth of heliocentric system of Copernicus were still largely theoretical (and would remain so until the discovery of stellar parallax in 1836 and the demonstration of Foucault’s pendulum in 1853).  The transit of Venus offered some indirect support for the Copernican model, in that it would allow an accurate measurement of the size of the solar system.


The first Hebrew book to discuss the transit of Venus was Sefer Haberit, The Book of the Covenant, first published in 1797 in Brno. The author was Pinhas Hurwitz, a self-educated Jew from Vilna.  Sefer Haberit was divided in two parts; the first, consisting of some two hundred and fifty pages is a scientific encyclopedia, addressing what Hurwitz called human wisdom (hokhmat adam) and focuses on the material world. The second part, shorter than the first at only one hundred and thirty pages, is an analysis of divine wisdom (hokhmat elohim), and focuses on spiritual matters.[5] Sefer Haberit was an encyclopedia, and contained information on astronomy, geography, physics, and embryology. It described all manner of scientific discoveries, from the barometer to the lightening rod, and gave its readers up to date information on the recent discovery of the planet Uranus, and the (not so recent) discovery of America. Sefer Haberit was also incredibly popular; it has been reprinted some thirty times, was translated into Yiddish and Ladino, and remains available today.

In a section on solar and lunar eclipses, Hurwitz recalled the transit of Venus in 1769. He described how Cook’s expedition had almost been in vain when some of their scientific instruments were stolen the night before the transit, and how, thanks to the team’s valiant efforts, the stolen instruments were returned.  Here is the original text:

This was a fairly accurate recounting of the facts, although in actuality the theft occurred a month before the transit.  (Despite guards that were placed to patrol the camp, a local had managed to slip in and steal a vital piece of equipment.) What is of interest here is that Hurwitz did not inform his readers of the real reason that the transit was to be observed.  There is no mention of the way in which the transit of Venus could be used to determine the size of the solar system or the distance from the sun to the Earth, which were of course the real reasons for all the time and effort being spent in observing it.  Why did Hurwitz leave all this out, and suggest instead that the reason for sending Captain Cook all the way from London to Tahiti was to see if the predictions for the time of the transit were accurate?

The answer lies in the fact that Hurwitz was somewhat conflicted about his belief in the model suggested by Copernicus in which the Earth and all the planets revolve around a stationary sun.  In some places in Sefer Haberit he was supportive of the Copernican model. For example, he noted that Copernicus provided
proofs and supports for his position [that] are clearly written in his book. He was remarkably successful in this matter, for today virtually all of the wise men of the world agree that this opinion is in fact correct. His model is used to understand all matters of astronomy, the phases of the moon and the movement of the stars. Any calculation involving their appearance can be understood far more clearly and simply than if we accept the earlier model…[6]
Despite this approval, Hurwitz ultimately sided with the Tychonic model in which all the planets except the Earth revolve around the sun, while the sun orbits a stationary Earth, dragging the planets along with it.  He did this for a number of scientific and theological reasons, including a belief that the Earth was the crowning glory of creation. “All of the planets were only created for the sake of this Earth, and everything was created for the sake of mankind on the Earth...even if the purpose of these other heavenly creations is not always clear to us.”[7] Since the Earth was the reason for creation, it was only fitting that it lay at the center of the universe.  Although he ultimately rejected the Copernican model, Hurwitz wrote that that a Jew may believe in it without fear of heresy:
any person of Jewish faith who strongly believes in this [heliocentric] theory should not be considered to be weak in his belief in the written Torah or the Oral Law, and certainly such a person should never be branded or suspected of  heresy.  Indeed he could be considered a zadik among Israel, so long as his other beliefs and practices follow both the written Torah and the Oral Law, and he fears God.[8]
However, Hurwitz felt that because there were a number of biblical verses that described the Earth as being stationary, that must in fact be the way it was in reality. One of the experimental supports that Hurwitz gave was the evidence from a stone dropped from the top of a tower. If the Earth was in motion the stone should, it was argued, fall some distance west of the tower, since during the time the stone was in free-fall, the Earth was moving from west to east. Hurwitz claimed that when a stone is dropped from a tall mast on a moving ship, it fell a small distance from the base of the mast. The fact that this did not occur on land was conclusive evidence that the Earth was in fact stationary.[9]

Hurwitz described the goal of Cook’s expedition to Tahiti as testing the predictions of the timing of the transit, when in fact its mission was far more important than that. But since Hurwitz ultimately rejected the Copernican model he likely chose not to discuss the real reason for Cook’s expedition, namely to provide data that would allow the size of the Copernican solar system to be calculated.  Instead, Hurwitz described the mission as one to verify the times of the predicted transit, as a sort of test of the ability of astronomers to predict these kinds of events.  Although he did not reveal the real goals of the expedition, he noted that is was a great success, and that transit of Venus occurred precisely the times predicted, or as he put it “כתבו אשר מכל דבר נפל לא.”


In 1835 a young Jew from eastern Poland called Hayyim Slonimski published a book called Kokhava Deshavit, (The Comet), to coincide with the return of Halley’s comet. Slonimski was a remarkable figure in the history of Jewish science. He was traditionally educated in yeshiva, yet earned recognition from the Russian government and a prize from the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg for his work developing a calculating machine. Slonimski founded the famous Hebrew language weekly Hazefirah (Dawn), which focused on scientific and political issues, and he wrote several books on astronomy and mathematics.  Unlike Hurwtiz, Slonimski fully embraced the Copernican model, and had no problem with the biblical verses that suggested the Earth did not move. They were not to be interpreted literally, and scientific facts could never be in conflict with the truths of the Torah, “for both are true and given by the true God.”
Specifically, if we believe that the Earth has a daily revolution around its axis, and a yearly revolution around the sun, this does not contradict our Torah or our faith, Heaven forbid. For in his Torah God only revealed that which ensures eternal spiritual perfection, things that are far from the normal understanding of a person. But God did not reveal the secret detailed workings of creation. Instead he left this goal for the mind.[10]

It is no wonder then that Slonimski described the real importance of the transit of Venus for his readers, for it was not a threat to his pro-scientific worldview. Here is the original text:

Notice here how Slonimski had no hesitation in telling his readers the reason why the transit was so important: “if [Venus] happens to pass in front of the sun and we can see it, that would be the time for astronomers to measure the angle it subtends in front of the sun (solar parallax),[11] which is a fundamental and valuable [measure] for astronomy, as those who know these things understand. This is the reason that astronomers went to such lengths at that time to measure the moment of its [Venus’]  conjunctions at various locations  across the Earth. In 1769, when astronomers calculated that the transit would occur, they all prepared for this time in order to provide the most precise measurements…”


The last rabbinic text we will review was called Nivreshet Lenez Hahamah (The Chandelier of the Sunrise), published in Jerusalem in 1898.  Its author was Hiyyah David Spitzer, and he rejected Copernicus and his model, believing instead that the entire universe revolved around the Earth, because “everything, including the Sun, was created for the Earth and for Israel who dwell on it and keep the Torah.” Spitzer’s main interest was in determining the precise times of sunrise and sunset in halakhah, and he spent hours carefully measuring these times in and around Jerusalem.   His book was a summary of his findings, but included a criticism of Joseph Ginzburg’s Ittim Lebinah (Times for Wisdom) that had been published in Warsaw in 1886. Ginsberg had defended the heliocentric model and had included a folded pull out chart of the solar system.  Spitzer was outraged at Ginsberg’s suggestion that the new astronomy was acceptable to Jews.  “I saw things written in [Ittim Lebinah] that bring a person to heresy,” he wrote, and he was particularly incensed to see the colored illustration at the end of the book. “Woe to those eyes that must witness a universe turned upside down.”[12]

Spitzer did not directly address the transit, but rather the rejected all the calculations about the size of the solar system and the distance to the nearest stars, that had been calculated using the observations of the transit of Venus, as well as estimates of the speed of light that had been made in the nineteenth century.  He did so on both scientific and religious grounds. For example, if as astronomers claimed, some stars were 24,000 light years away from Earth, their light could not have reached the Earth that had only exited for some 6,000 years.  In addition, what purpose would there have been in creating such remote stars, whose light served no purpose for those on Earth?[13] Finally, since the speed of light is not mentioned in the Talmud, the notion that light has a finite speed cannot be correct. Here is the original text.[14]

Even when judged by the scientific standards of his own time, Spitzer’s work was astonishingly naive.  Using a thought experiment he proved to his satisfaction that starlight actually needed only a second to reach the Earth.[15] Furthermore, Spitzer asked how astronomers could possibly have performed the work necessary to claim that some stars were 3,000 light years from Earth.  Here is his rather sarcastic objection, aimed at Copernicus himself.[16]

Spitzer claimed that anyone could perform a simple experiment that would refute the notion that light took a finite time to travel vast distances.   If, during the day, the door to a house was suddenly closed, it should still be possible to see an image of the sun for some time since the light would take time to travel from the site of the now closed door across the room and into the eye of the observer. Similarly,
if we open a closed door or window…we should not be able to see sunlight for some time, and we should be forced to sit in darkness as if the doors had not been opened. What can be said of this idiocy and stupidity, at which any person would laugh?  Rather, as soon as a person opens his eyes he stops seeing nothing and when he opens his eyes at night he immediately sees all the stars, both those nearby that need sixteen years for their light to travel, and those far away whose light takes one hundred and twenty years to reach us.[17]

The motivation for Spitzer’s attack on science was his belief that the scientists themselves had but one goal in mind - to destroy the fundamentals of Jewish belief: “Their entire aim is to deny God’s Torah, to destroy religion, to confuse those who would disagree with them and to embarrass and belittle the sages of Israel.”[18] Here is the original:

These three rabbinic authors had three quite different ways of approaching both the history of the transit of Venus and the science that was deduced from it.  Hurwitz was certainly inquisitive about all things scientific, but did not reveal the real goals of the expeditions to observe the transit, because they would raise further questions about the model of the solar system in which he believed-   a model in which the Earth was the unmoving center.  Slonimski informed his readers of the real goals of the observations and had no issues – religious or scientific - with accepting a universe in which the Earth was not the center.  But for Spitzer, the enterprise of astronomy was a vast conspiracy to undermine Torah values.  He therefore stretched to reject any science that the transit of Venus bequeathed to future generations.

We’ve come a long way as a people since the transits of 1765 and 1882.  The next time this celestial event occurs will be in December 2117.  What the Jewish people will look like then is hard to guess, it seems likely that we will continue to argue over the religious meaning of natural events for many generations to come. 


[1] For details see

[2] Precise times of the transit and its visibility can be found at and  See also

[3] For a good discussion which requires only a minimal understanding of the mathematics see Mark Anderson, The Day the World Discovered the Sun.  De Capo Press 2012; 231-240.

[4] Rarely, there is no second transit eight years after the first. The next this occurs will be in 3089.

[5] As somewhat of a disappointment for those for whom Hurwitz exemplified the rationalist movement, Hurwitz revealed that he had written his book to explain a sixteenth century kabbalistic work of Hayyim Vital entitled Sha’arei Kedushah  (The Gates of Holiness).

[6] Sefer Haberit Part one #9:8 (1990 ed. 149-150).

[7] Sefer Haberit Part one #3:3 (1990 ed. 50).

[8] Sefer Haberit Part one #9:8 (1990 ed. 52).

[9] There are other reasons that Hurwitz gave for rejecting the Copernican model. These are fully discussed in my forthcoming book. 

[10] Slonimski, Kokhava Deshavit , fourth un-numbered page of the author’s introduction.

[11] Slonimski here is absolutely correct. Solar parallax is an angular measurement that is one-half of the angular size of the Earth as seen from the sun. The reason the measurement is so important is that the distance to the sun is the radius of the Earth divided by the solar parallax.

[12] Hayah David Spitzer, Nivreshet Lenez Hahamah (Jerusalem: Blumenthal, 1898). 30b-31a.

[13] Spitzer, Nivreshet Lenez Hahamah 33b-34a.

[14] Ibid. 35a.

[15] Ibid. 34b.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

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