Monday, December 31, 2012

Not For The Reason You Might Suspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Musings on Metzitzah

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Speech at my Son's Bris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Real Rationalist Chanukah Miracle





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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Strange Obituaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Natan Slifkin

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

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


Monday, December 3, 2012

Leopards, Africa, and other stuff


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

Note that I have made some changes based on feedback from last year. Each section now has a subheading, describing whether that section relates to natural history, identification, symbolism, etc. What do you think? Also, if you are a professional user of Adobe InDesign, I would like to hire you for a consult!
2. This July, you can participate in the ultimate Zoo Torah experience - a safari in Africa! It will include private game reserves, a riverboat safari in Chobe, Victoria Falls, Cape Town, and much more, all accompanied by fascinating lectures on the animal kingdom in Jewish thought. For details, see http://www.torahinmotion.org/programs/live_program/5440, or write to info@torahinmotion.org with the subject "Rabbi Slifkin African Safari."

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

4. If you're visiting Israel (or fortunate enough to live here), don't forget that you can enjoy the Zoo Torah Experience at my private mini-museum in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Details at http://zootorah.blogspot.co.il/2011/10/zoo-torah-experience.html

5. Don't forget that each Sunday, I am delivering a series of live internet video classes on Judaism, science and rationalism. Learn more and sign up at http://www.torahinmotion.org/programs/online_program/5437


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

Ten Bites

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