Monday, October 15, 2012

What Rav Elyashiv Really Meant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


29 comments:

  1. On one hand, I understand that technically, such an approach may not fit the Haredi community as is.

    On the other hand, I must strongly object to the current state of Haredi society that has created such a situation that the Rishonim (and Achronim) are a source of minus and treifus and cannot be discussed or admitted publicly.

    That they have ventured so far from the roots of Judaism should speak volumes on how wrong this whole ideology is, no?

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  2. When did all these subsequent meetings take place? It sounds to me like your version of events - specifically, your version of how R. Feldman operated - has changed pretty significantly.

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  3. The springboard for Dr Shapiro's essay is in the intro to his books on the 13 ikkarim. He published part of it when he saw R Yehuda Paarnes formally a RY in YU, now in Landers) write in Torah Umadda Journal that the 13 ikkarim are binding, nothing to dispute. R J David Bleich is cited as well, stating that even if some Rishonim disagreed on parts of them, it has been decided not like those Rishonim.

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  4. R. Elyashiv was worried about the books potentially undermining people's "emuna tehora".

    But I think you've made a good case for a "diyuk" here. For those who do NOT have "emuna tehora" (i.e. who've had exposure to science, history and other branches of knowledge), who think about/wrestle with their beliefs, these books may be entirely appropriate - even essential! Why? Because now that the cat is out of the bag, you need some hadracha about what to do with it. How do you hold knowledge and Torah at the same time?

    So while on the one hand the deliberate dumbing down of the population reflects a dismal state of affairs for Torah, there is no stopping the spread of knowledge. And as more and more people leave the "emuna tehora" category, the concern will shift from trying to enforce a "sanitized" version of Torah, to helping people make sense of Torah in the light of knowledge.

    In other words, keep it coming! It may be banned now, but it will be required reading later.

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  5. Interesting post. As several of the comments point out, if your view is correct (and personally, I believe that it probably is), there is certainly a lot to discuss about a society that needs to suppress both legitimate hashkafic viewpoints and legitimate science in order to preserve its collective emunah.

    Another question, though, is why can't rabbaim simply say what they mean and/or take some sort of responsibility for their "brand," that is, how their opinions are quoted and understood? Is it too much to ask that rabbaim state their true beliefs publicly and clearly? If it is too much to ask, then why should any of what they say be believed? And if they truly believe that God runs the world and that truth is important, why should right wing or any other kind of pressure influence what they say or do not say?

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  6. avram says
    You put too much into what he said and meant.
    It was something very very simple. If we start using rishonim for 'machshava' it will lead to using them for halacha. This is all he was intending to avoid.

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  7. Using Rishonim for halakha was done by HaRav Moshe Feinstein ztz"l. Machon Shilo's HaRav David Bar-Hayim is willing to go in accordance with Rishonim's views when they are clearly correct.

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  8. There is no news in this post.

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  9. " the 13 ikkarim are binding, nothing to dispute."

    WADR, he may be a posek who can express this as his opinion, but it can be hard to find a selichot service that skips "machnisei rachmim". The Orthodox world simply has not accepted this opinion.

    Ditto all the "controversial" things in Rabbi Slifkin's writings. R'Elyashiv can pasken for his community (if what he wrote was actually a psak), but the rabbis in my community simply don't hold that way (whether psak or public policy).

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  10. R. Ya'akov Ariel, in the first essay in his 2011 book Halakhah Be-Yameinu, argues that the Rationalist Rishonim did believe in pesak on Jewish thought. He points to the many responsa on such issues and the Rambam's occasional statement that the reader can choose whichever belief he wants, which implies that in other cases the reader may not. He shows how even on matters of thought Rishonim built on Talmudic texts, resolved contradictions and selected opinions.

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  11. "R. Ya'akov Ariel, in the first essay in his 2011 book Halakhah Be-Yameinu, argues that the Rationalist Rishonim did believe in pesak on Jewish thought."

    The Chasam Sofer also believed in psak on Jewish thought.

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  12. The best response to Marc Shapiro is Yitzchak Blau's review of Shapiro's book http://www.yutorah.org/_shiurim/TUJ%2012%20Blau%20Yitzchak%20179-191%20QX.pdf
    in which he (politely) points out that Shapiro does not understand what he is talking about:
    "Shapiro cites two authors who reject the idea of pesak by consensus in the world of theology. Chaim Rapoport asks: “Could it be that whether or not souls are reincarnated depends upon the majority opinion” (p. 145)? One can hardly disagree with Rapoport’s statement that metaphysical truths do not depend upon majority vote. However, his point is too strong for his own good. Metaphysical truths do not depend upon the unanimous agreement of Jewish sages through time either. If we divorce the truth question from what authorities have historically taught, why relate to the history of rabbinic thought at all? Instead, we should just bring philosophic arguments for various positions with an indifference to what anyone else ever said.

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  13. I am pleasantly surprised that the unpublished Moetzes letter gave you the honorific "R'".

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  14. Is the article by Baruch Schwartz in English or Hebrew?

    Would you consider a post summarizing and evaluating it? I believe many of your readers would appreciate it.

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  15. "WADR, he may be a posek who can express this as his opinion, but it can be hard to find a selichot service that skips "machnisei rachmim". The Orthodox world simply has not accepted this opinion. "

    Every siddur that I have includes the text as well as a note stating that these words are problematic and should be skipped.

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  16. I just went through the article by Baruch Yaakov Schwartz about Matan Torah mentioned above. It is another example an approach that combines orthopraxy with acceptance of Biblical criticism, perhaps similar to the writings of James Kugel. In the last chapter of “How to read the Bible “ , Kugel gives an explanation for his acceptance of this combination through the analogy of the prohibition of going up onto Temple Mount because a part of it is holy- he knows that by using archaeology he could calculate where the holy site is and where the non-holy parts are, but he is prepared to accept it all as a holy area. Similarly he could suggest which parts of the text are the original divinely inspired verses and which are written by man, but instead he regards it all as a sacred text because the key message is to do God's will. Schwartz also stresses this message. As I understand him, Judaism already existed prior to the Bible being written, an event that occurred about 2,700 years ago, when a group of Jerusalem scholars chose to create a text that described the religion of the Children of Israel. To this they added a narrative that explained how the people came into being and how they encountered God. The writers believed their account was true or at least an honest attempt to explain their religious practices. The bible is a foundation myth that is an expression of the will of God, and not a historic/scientific text. It is therefore possible to regard all its historic accounts as not literal. However believing Jews have made the mistake of pinning their desire to do the will of God on a belief in its historical truth, crucially the event of Matan Torah. This mistake can be rectified by understanding that faith precedes the text, necessary in an age where modern research has demonstrated the non-historical nature of the text. For both Kugel and Schwartz, the writing of the Bible was a sincere attempt to fulfill the commitment to do the will of God. They both accept that the development of the religion after the text was compiled, which culminated in Rabbinic Judaism, continues that commitment to God's will and that they are bound by it.
    I dont know if Kugel and Schwartz come up with a satisfactory answer for the Orthodox Jew who is troubled by the clash between Rabbinic Judaism and modernity, or do they simply raise other unsolvable problems? For one thing, their approach certainly contradicts the long-held teaching of the Rabbinic world that they fervently adhere to. Can they get the Rabbis to “reinterpret” the origins of Jewish law? And is their approach the sort of belief that could be transmitted to others? Would their own children and students follow their approach, or would they find it an irrational compromise that they would abandon for a path either closer or further away from Rabbinic Judaism? Schwartz in particular argues that many orthodox Jews today could accept the main findings of Biblical criticism without their faith being undermined. I find this claim surprising and would certainly welcome further comment on the degree of acceptance of biblical criticism amongst practicing Jews

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  17. @ robins
    First, try to break up our paragraphs-one huge chunk of writing is tough to read .

    Yes, reading biblical criticism does ,slowly but surely undermine your faith. But so does growing up and leaving the yeshiva world. So does reading just about anything about history , science or any topic you care to name. You can find ways of explaining life in general that are contrary to the frum viewpoint-whatever that exactly is.

    Some views make sense, such as suggesting that the akeidah was Hashem`s repudiation of human sacrifice, a view which, because it has no grounding in the mesorah, is considered not relevant. Even if it has a ring of truth to it.

    Looked at this way, the traditional view is that we developed in a vacuum, with all our beliefs from Hashem only, and the surrounding cultures and histories being totally irrelevant . It`s this view that can be very de-stabilising , I find.

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  18. what is the time line for R Feldman's letter that you posted, his "slifkin affair..." article, his reprinting it in his book, and his telling that baal teshuvah that he could read your books? you write that the email was sent in 2009, does that mean that R Feldman spoke with the baal teshuvah in 2009? And what are his minor roles in the affair i.e., conversations that he had with you?

    Also, can we prod you to tell how you came to the unpublished Moetzes letter?

    kt

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  19. I am reminded of a quip of R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, when he saw a chassid glancing at Moreh Nevuchim: "For someone who's filled himself with Shas and poskim, it's a Moreh; if not, it's Nevuchim." (I believe Rabbi Slifkin paraphrased it by saying that there will never be an Artscroll edition of the Moreh Nevuchim--it's not meant to be popularized.)

    Perhaps that can be generalized to include the rationalist approach in general: maybe it's not appropriate for a בן חמש למקרא, or even for a בן חמש עשרה לגמרא, but rather for those who have amassed a good deal of traditional learning first, and are ready to ask more trenchant, biting questions, and seeking satisfactory answers.

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  20. To whom it may concern.

    "The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Alvin Toffler
    o

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  21. @ yehudah p

    you are too vague. are you talking about bible criticism, torah vs. science, or something else, or some or all of the above?

    around when i was בן טו לגמרא i read age-appropriate sections of 'challenge' with no ill effect.

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  22. I think that R. Kamenetsky made a mistake. While uncomplimentary to R. Slifkin, the Kol Koreh of the Moetzet was MUCH more moderate than the bans (it referred respectfully to "R. Noson Slifin, Nero Yair") and would have tacitly indicated that the Moetzet disagreed with the virulence and extremism of the original banners.

    R. Slifkin: What do you think?

    Lawrence Kaplan

    LawrneceKaplan

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  23. Perhaps that can be generalized to include the rationalist approach in general: maybe it's not appropriate for a בן חמש למקרא, or even for a בן חמש עשרה לגמרא,...

    Indeed, without meaning to baulderize Menachem Keller, I suspect that is what might be meant by the distinction between necessary. belief and true or required belief.

    My problem with the remainder of what you write is that I have no faith that the orthodox educational establishment ultimately intends, or has the capacity, to change the ontology of belief from its mystical to rationalist approach when the students are ready. Largely because it seems that few Rosh Yeshivot have made that ontological shift themselves.

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  24. In response to Reject's question:
    My comment was sort of directed at Rav Eliyashiv's statement, "the books should not enter the Jewish community"--community I understood to mean, the general public. I think it's one thing if a person has, say, seven years of yeshiva learning, in which he has garnered respect for the words of Chazal, or the Rishonim, and then gets exposure to instances where scattered statements of theirs are shown to be inaccurate scientifically. It would be very different if he is shown these inaccuracies at the very outset of his yeshiva education.

    Rabbi Aryeh Carmell's Challenge is a staple in probably every ba'al teshuva yeshiva. Where did Rabbi Slifkin's "Challenge of Creation" exactly cross the red line to deserve a ban, where Rabbi Carmell's "Challenge" didn't? They both anthologize a lot of opinions, and present what they believe is most plausible.

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  25. "Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky opposed it; he felt that it was too uncomplimentary to me."

    i would think this is an understatement or an untruth. RSK opposed it because it is false. even if the books hurt the pure emunah *of *some *people you can't make a black and white unquantified statement that the books *harm *pure *emunah.

    which might explain why he did not do as pr. kaplan suggested. if you can't do it right sometimes it's better to do nothing.

    as to why they couldn't tweak the text to accomodate RSK's view, perhaps other moetzes members did not agree to do so, or r elyashev was asked and he refused to have his addition appended to the modified version, or something similar.

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  26. Reject's point is well taken. As he notes, if R. Kamenetsky felt the statement of the moetzet was unfair or incorrect, then he was right in opposing it. The point I wanted to make is that paradoxically had the Moetzet overridden R. Kamenetzky's objections and issued the statement as is anyway, the outcome might have been better for R. Slifkin.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  27. Yehudah P. said... "I am reminded of a quip of R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk... ... Perhaps that can be generalized to include the rationalist approach in general...."

    in the view of thousands who were stunned and hurt by the cherem, the Kotzker quip *cannot* be generalized to include the material of r slifkins books.

    "My comment was sort of directed at Rav Eliyashiv's statement, "the books should not enter the Jewish community"--community I understood to mean, the general public."

    who in the world is your "general public"? is it the thousands stunned and hurt by the cherem, who combine utmost respect for chazal with the view that chazal weren't scientifically infallible, and an intense belief in creation with allegorical understanding of בראשית ?

    "I think it's one thing if a person has, say, seven years of yeshiva learning, in which he has garnered respect for the words of Chazal, or the Rishonim, and then gets exposure to instances where scattered statements of theirs are shown to be inaccurate scientifically. It would be very different if he is SHOWN [emphasis added] these inaccuracies at the very outset of his yeshiva education."

    let it be clear that books SUCH AS r slifkin's were not intended to be part of school curriculums. they were available to the interested, to people with an affinity for the subject. a knowledgeable adult could choose to tell a young reader that the approach used in the book is disputed by maharal et al without making such a fuss and/or international scene.

    or the knowledgeable adult could guide a youngster to respect chazal despite their unawareness of current science. for example, he could give him a copy of r hirsch'es letter to read.

    also, granted that an older person has a more mature appreciation for chazal than a youngster does, the youngster's capacity for appreciating chazal's greatness is just as strong as the adult's, and maybe purer. he doesn't need years of learning to get there.

    "Rabbi Aryeh Carmell's Challenge is a staple in probably every ba'al teshuva yeshiva"

    i think you are understating the popularity that "challenge" enjoyed. i think it was very very influential in plenty FFB, not BT, homes, not yeshivahs. in general, you seem to write politely, with mild words such as "sort of" "perhaps" and "probably". i commend you for that. but the subject here is one which many people have strong and decisive convictions based on plenty of thought and even debate. How would you join the conversation with a bunch of conjectural “maybe”s that have already been considered and rejected?

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  28. @yehudah p, i have a separate point within this subject that i would like to share with you "off line". if you are interested, please send a comment [which won't be published] to anywhere on my blog. i will write you back. thank you. [and thank you, baal hablog.]

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