Saturday, November 24, 2012

Soldiers, Draft-Dodgers, and Deserters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Drawing Strength from Blood Libels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2012

Letter to Britain's "The Independent"

To the Editor:

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

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

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

Natan Slifkin
Bet Shemesh, Israel

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Misrepresentation and Ignoring Chazal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that's the whole point!

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

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

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

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

Read more:
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Strange Reactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Few Announcements

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Theology of Sandy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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