Friday, April 26, 2013

The Purpose of Criticizing Charedi Society

Recently, I received two letters of criticism. Both were written by very fine people, who are somewhat in the charedi world, but not at all typical of mainstream charedim. The first wrote as follows:
What is the value of arousing animosity against chareidim? This is a serious, not a rhetorical question. Your emails are obviously not going to be read by Israeli chareidim, so influencing them for the better is obviously not the goal. What is your goal? ...Your books were written with a goal of bringing yidden close to Torah. If you now feel somewhat bitter towards your former community, I would not blame you. But ask yourself, for what purpose are you in the world? Why did Hashem give you the tremendous abilities that He gave you? ...Your column about the lion hunter who helped the Jews of Palestine -- one of the true tzaddikei umos ha'olam -- was fascinating and inspiring. I am asking you, please write more of those articles, and please don't write articles that will only arouse animosity against bnai Torah. You have enormous influence, maybe more than you know, and if you really want to bring all Jews together, you have the ability to influence secular and modern Orthodox people in that direction.
And the second person wrote:
I have been an avid reader of your blogs and articles and many of them are most enlightening... But I must say I have found your caustic tone towards Charedim in recent weeks most unsettling and uncomfortable. You seem to paint all charedim in the same light, or at least all leaders... However despite even some of the theological flaws and sometimes the bully tactics that go on in the upper echelons of the charedi establishments, I cannot help but admire the vitality they have for their Judaism. I am wondering what is the goal of all these anti-charedi articles or exposes?
Where to begin? I have so much to say, but I'll limit it to a few points.

First of all, it is probably significant that these two people live in out-of-town communities in the Diaspora. I, on the other hand, live in Israel, and moreover in a city that is at the forefront of tensions between charedim and non-charedim. This inevitably gives us a different perspective.

Second, I fully agree that it's not healthy for me (or anyone) to obsess over the shortcomings of others, and I need to work harder to make this blog more positive. On a personal level, as is well known, I have been through some hardship as a result of charedi society's flaws. This has inevitably created some bitterness in me, that I strive to overcome.

But that's as far as my own personal character growth is concerned. In terms of what other people need - I think that it is very important to point out the serious flaws in chareidi society, from a Torah/ scholarly perspective. This is especially since chareidi society is almost never open to addressing or even admitting its own problems.

I used to think, as my two correspondents still apparently do, that charedi society is basically correct, albeit possessing certain problems that need fixing. But over the last decade, I have changed my perspective. I now think that charedi society is deeply flawed at a fundamental level (for some reasons that I explained in my post "Not For The Reason You Might Suspect", as well as other reasons.) This is not to say that it has no praiseworthy aspects - of course it does. Chareidi society has a degree of passion and sacrifice for Judaism that is not found as much elsewhere. But fundamentally, it is the wrong path in Judaism - and it is especially at odds with the approach of the rationalist Rishonim.

Why do people such as Jonathan Rosenblum and Avi Shafran write critiques of groups such as Women Of The Wall? Because they believe that these groups are perverting authentic Judaism. I don't quite understand why they publish these articles in forums such as Mishpachah, which has no readers that might be tempted to join these groups. But, supposing they were to be addressing a forum in which they could have an impact, it would certainly be understandable that they would try to do so!

Well, I have such a forum. These postings are read by several thousand people. Some of these people are deeply embedded in the charedi world - and benefit from learning about what needs changing, and from understanding why non-charedim might not be sympathetic to the charedi lifestyle. Others are at a life juncture where they are making choices, to a lesser or greater degree, regarding which community to affiliate with, or which schools to send their kids to, and they benefit from being better informed regarding their decisions.

It's not enough just to praise the positive in non-charedi approaches to Judaism. The charedi approach is dominant and infiltrates non-charedi communities, through print and people. And it's often difficult for people to understand, or to explain, why and how the charedi approach is incorrect and inconsistent with classical Judaism. That takes detailed knowledge of the charedi world as well as an understanding of intellectual Jewish history.

I am not a great person or a leader. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, studies and experiences that I have acquired over the years. These enable me to make some penetrating analyses that result in this website being a nightmare for promoters and enforcers of the charedi approach - which is why my writings were singled out for condemnation at the Agudah convention. The criticisms show that Charedim are not the sole bearers of Torah-True Tradition TM and embodiments of Torah-True Values TM that they claim to be.

The greatest irony here is that I am a former charedi apologist myself. Many years ago I wrote an essay, "The Nine Questions People Ask About Charedim," which aimed to justify and promote the charedi lifestyle. I also published a book in which I (attempted to) justify "Daas Torah" and avoiding army service, amongst other charedi values. Jonathan Rosenblum once said that I would someday be his successor. I used to loathe certain people for criticizing charedim. But it gradually dawned on me that the criticisms were correct. I also realized that these criticisms are especially painful for sincere people that, for idealistic reasons, want to identify with the charedi world (which has a well-earned image of passion and a less well-earned image of authenticity), but who, deep down, are troubled by many aspects of it.

I try hard to avoid mudslinging, or obsessively reporting wrongdoings. And I know that it would be better for me personally to adopt a more positive approach, and it would perhaps even make my writings more effective. But the basic purpose is to show that many aspects of charedi ideology and communal policies do not represent traditional and correct Torah values, and to thereby enable people, and society, to improve.

It's a form of kiruv.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bet Shemesh: Pride and Promise

Last year, Bet Shemesh received a lot of negative publicity worldwide. So I'd like to notify my readers of two positive items regarding Bet Shemesh.

First is that local teenager Elior Babian was joint winner of the International Bible Quiz. You can watch the video of the final at this link (the questions start about 3 minutes in). I was interested to note that two out of the final questions were about Biblical zoology!

The victory for Elior Babian was especially moving for many of us Bet Shemesh residents who are aware of the extraordinarily difficult challenges that he and his family face. Please read this article at the Times of Israel to learn more, and follow the link to help.

On another note, while many outsiders view Bet Shemesh as some kind of war zone, the reality is that there are several incredible, idyllic neighborhoods. One of the most sought-after such areas is Ramat Shilo, based around Yeshivat Lev HaTorah where I teach. I'm pleased to announce that two new communities are being planned on the same model - one of them is just a few dozen yards from my house. Here's the formal announcement that was sent out from Yeshivat Lev HaTorah:

Introducing Lev HaRama: Two new Torani neighborhoods in the ruach of Ramat Shilo
Attractive for young families, retirees and everyone in between

Shalom Uvracha!

The Month of Iyar is a spiritually charged time period of building and preparation. While counting Sefirat HaOmer each day, step by step toward Matan Torah, we are strengthening our love and connection to Am Yisrael to remember and mourn the Talmidim of Rebbi Akiva. We are in a month of Binyan Eretz Yisrael, during which when Shlomo HaMelech laid the foundations for the Beit HaMikdash. It is a time that we thank Hashem for Kibbutz Galuyot – as we celebrate the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in our Homeland on Yom Haatzmaut, as well as the reunification of the Holy City on Yom Yerushalayim.

In the spirit of Binyan Eretz Yisrael and Ahavat HaTorah we have embarked on another new, exciting community building project in Ramat Beit Shemesh!

The initiative, called “Lev HaRama” aims to replicate the successful concept of Ramat Shilo – of creating a neighborhood model based around a Torah institution and community. In “Ramat HaRo'eh” (named in honor of The Roe’h, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt’l) and “Givat Shilo” we aim to create a vibrant, growth oriented and Torani community in a beautiful new area of Ramat Beit Shemesh.

We are working with experienced realtors and contractors, and have obtained exclusive rights to build and market an array of attractive, high quality and competitively priced homes, apartments, duplexes, and cottages.

Dozens of families have already committed to joining us in developing our vision for creating a comfortable, warm Religious Zionist Torani community, and will enjoy all the advantages of living in an established city – schools, stores and the convenience of the location between Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv, with the unique opportunity to help build and shape a Kehillah from the ground up.

Please check out our video below and updated information on Facebook/LevHaRama & Twitter: @LevHaRama

There is no better time than now to take the next step in your Aliyah!

Rav Boaz Mori
Rosh Yeshivat Lev HaTorah

Rav Judah Mischel
Director, Lev HaRama

(If you're reading this by email, then as usual, you'll have to head over to in order to see the video below)

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Solution to Wolf Attacks?

Last week, I posed a question: The Gemara in Chullin says that maulings (derusah) which are rated as causing fatal defects are only maulings inflicted with the claws, not with the teeth. This conflicts with contemporary observations of wolves, which reveal that wolves attack prey with their teeth rather than with their claws. It also seems to contradict the Gemara itself in Bava Metzia, which indicates that wolves kill with their teeth rather than with their claws.

I think that, with the aid of some comments that were submitted, I now have the solution. But first, another question: Why does the Gemara say that maulings inflicted with the teeth do not render the animal as a terefah? Surely Chazal were aware of the terrible damage that a lion can inflict with its terrible teeth and jaws!

The answer to all these questions is perhaps as follows. If an animal has been seriously mauled by a predator's teeth, it will very likely anyway suffer one of the wounds that are separately classified in the Mishnah as rendering it a terefah. If it doesn't suffer one of those injuries, then it is not classified as a terefah, because it stands a good chance of survival.

Clawing, on the other hand, renders the animal a terefah even if it does not cause any serious injury. The reason is that "venom has been injected" (a belief that developed based on bacterial infection, which can indeed be fatal). Such clawing can occasionally happen with wolves, especially since their first digit is not a blunt running claw, but a sharp claw that can be rotated and is occasionally used for gripping or ripping its prey.

So the Gemara in Chullin was aware that predators can inflict great damage with their teeth. And, as we see in Bava Metzia, Chazal knew that wolves inflict primary damage in that way. But such damage is not relevant to the category of derusah.

How does that sound? Of course, it doesn't solve all the problems with the Gemara's criteria for derusah. But it would seem to solve the basic problem regarding teeth and the mode of attack.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

All Those Gedolei Torah, And You're Still Scared?

So we have the (alleged?) real reason why today's anti-sharing-military/economic-burden-with-charedim rally was cancelled. And it isn't any of the sensible reasons that I proposed the other day. According to a statement by Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran to The Jerusalem Post, the cancellation is due to “security concerns in the wake of the terrible terror attack earlier this week in Boston.” The senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Shafran told the Post on Friday, “felt that now would not be an appropriate time to gather masses of visibly Jewish Jews into one area for such an [event].”

Surely, Agudath Israel, you can't be serious!

Why can't their Torah protect them?

Yes, I know, the protection of Torah is not automatic. And you have to do hishtadlus, yada yada.

But let's make a comparison.

The Boston attack, as terrible as it was, was the first such attack in over ten years. The odds of another terror attack taking place, for an event organized at very short notice, are absolutely minimal.  And yet a concentrated gathering of the top Gedolim in America, accompanied by the avreichim and bochrim of the kollelim and yeshivos, devoutly immersed in tefillah, nevertheless still isn't good enough to merit Divine protection.

But they are insisting that their Torah is good enough to merit protection against the ongoing, very real, vastly more serious threat of not just one or two terrorists, but many thousands of terrorists inside Israel and entire armies outside of Israel?! And that's (allegedly) why they are protesting against those who would have them take some time off their learning and share the burden of military service?

As I've said before, on more than one occasion: when it really counts, charedim don't really believe that their Torah provides protection. They only believe it insofar as exempting themselves from obligations towards the state - not insofar as actually staking their own safety on it providing the slightest protective effect.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Insanity Averted - For Now

Here is an email that was sent out a few days ago by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudah: 
To Distinguished Rabbonim and Leaders of Agudath Israel of America:

I write to give you a "heads-up" on an important upcoming public gathering, which is not an Agudath Israel function but nonetheless enjoys the strong backing of Agudath Israel's rabbinic leadership.

As we are all aware, the newly formed coalition government in Israel, which totally excludes the charedi parties, has made clear that it intends to institute major changes that will have significant impacts on the charedi population. Among other things, the new government is poised to enact legislation that will impose a quota on the number of full-time yeshiva students who are exempt from the military draft. Stated simply, the proposed new law would tear away thousands of serious yeshiva-leit from their shtenders, and dramatically reduce the population of full-time lomdei Torah in Eretz Yisroel. Gedolei Yisroel, both here and in Eretz Yisroel, see this change in the longstanding exemption policy as a devastating body blow against Klal Yisroel's lofty status as the Am HaTorah.

In a series of discussions and meetings among a broad array of Gedolei Yisroel in America, including the Chavrei Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and in consultation with leading Roshei Yeshiva and Admorim in Eretz Yisroel, the decision was made by these Gedolei Yisroel to call an Atzeres Tefila and Kinus Hisorirus here in America. The main purposes of the Atzeres will be to help our own community better understand the nature of the tzara facing our brethren in Eretz Yisroel if the proposed new policy is implemented, to express our deep concern about this development, and to daven for rachmei Shamayim in the face of this impending gezeira. What the Atzeres most emphatically will not be is a demonstration or protest against the State of Israel, or an effort to enlist the American public or the American government in a campaign to fight the proposed new law.

The Atzeres is scheduled to take place early Sunday afternoon, 11 Iyar / April 21, in downtown Manhattan, and is expected to attract a broad cross-section of the American charedi community. Additional details will be made public within the next few days, along with a "Kol Korei" signed by a distinguished array of Gedolei Yisroel, but in the meantime I felt that our leadership should be alerted to this upcoming event, and be given a clear understanding of its purpose and goals.

A guten Shabbos to one and all.
Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

Baruch Hashem, this insane rally, planned for Lower Manhattan (?!?!?!) has been cancelled. But why?

Was it because someone with sanity and influence realized that notwithstanding Rabbi Zwiebel's nervous and emphatic declaration that the rally would not be "a demonstration or protest against the State of Israel, or an effort to enlist the American public or the American government in a campaign to fight the proposed new law," it would undoubtedly be perceived that way by many people?

Was it because Americans - Jew and non-Jew alike - would not be sympathetic to those who evade sharing the burden of security, especially in light of the Boston attack? (And to those who mention the Vietnam exemption for divinity students - no American government would tolerate such exemptions for upwards of ten per cent of the population, in such a serious situation as constantly faces Israel!)

Was it because it would also draw attention to how these yeshivah students also refuse to participate in the workforce, and end up as a drain on economic resources, which might draw unwanted attention to certain people in America who excel at milking a welfare system that was not intended to provide for people who have no intention of supporting their large families?

Was it because in light of the ultra-Orthodox looking like barbarians with their protest against parents giving informed consent for metzitzah b'peh, they didn't want to make things look even worse?

Baruch Hashem someone with influence apparently realized that this rally would make Orthodox Jews look even worse in the eyes of the general public than they already do.

In any case, just in case the idea of such a protest is resurrected in this form or another, it's important to set matters straight.

A "devastating body blow against Klal Yisroel's lofty status as the Am HaTorah"? But what about the Religious Zionist community? They seem to manage being a Torah community (unless you contrive some peculiarly chareidi definition of "Torah" that has no basis in tradition). And why can't charedim go back to yeshivah after army? How on earth is our status as the Am HaTorah devastated when some people take time off their studies to serve in the army?

In any case, what is the nature of the threat being protested? Rabbi Zwiebel warns of the "decree" that will "tear away thousands of serious yeshiva-leit from their shtenders" - as though the military police will be forcibly dragging people out of the Beis HaMedrash and into the army, or throwing them in prison. In fact, all that is being proposed to take place in four years' time is that those who do not share the burden of military service, and do not participate in the workforce, will not receive government funding for their lifestyle.

The government is not denying the chareidi community its right to choose to devote itself to full-time, permanent Torah study, and not contribute to the IDF or the workforce. It's just saying that the State of Israel will no longer finance such a lifestyle. Is that really so shocking? (Or are American charedim afraid that they will be asked to finance their brethren instead?)

The Agudah wanted to daven for rachamei Shamayim that the government's plans will be cancelled. I'd say that rachamei Shamayim was issued, and the Agudah's plans were cancelled.

UPDATE: In contrast to the Agudah, who are afraid of the impending gezerah, the editorial in this week's Yated says that there is nothing to worry about: "We are the ones of yesh atid. Ours is the party of the past, present and future... as they stumble about in darkness, without the light of truth, we will be basking in the glow of Abaye and Rava, Rashi and Tosafos, the Rambam, the Ramban and the Rashba..." Right, it is the charedim who are following in the tradition of Rashi the wine merchant, Rabbeinu Tam the wealthy wine merchant and financier, Rambam the physician (who forbade being funded for Torah study), Ramban the physician, Rashba the financier...

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Tragedy of Segregation

As I noted in my monograph The Novelty of Orthodoxy, prior to the eighteenth century, a Jew was simply a Jew, with no qualifying description (except for those that adhered to alternate traditions). To be sure, there were Jews that were more committed to Judaism and Jews that were less committed, but all were on a spectrum that was included in the general Jewish community.

Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, identify themselves, and organize themselves, as a community distinct from the general Jewish population which includes non-religious Jews. This was the inevitable result of the transition to a world in which religious commitment was no longer taken for granted and walls had to be built against assimilation. 

(A striking example of this change emerges from considering a responsum of a leading pre-Orthodox halachic authority, R. Yaakov Reischer (1661-1733). He was asked about a move to reject the kosher status of meat that was slaughtered in outlying villages by Jews that were insufficiently learned or pious. R. Reischer strongly condemned this approach. Drawing upon the Talmud, he argued that one must not cause resentment, that one must also be considerate of the needs of travelers, and most of all that the Jewish community must be united and not splinter into groups with different halachic standards. Needless to say, such splintering became not only acceptable to Orthodoxy, but even a hallmark of it, exercised to a great degree. For the Orthodox, halachic rulings are based on the needs of the immediate community, not the larger Jewish community. It would be inconceivable to many Orthodox Jews that compromising on kashrus standards is viewed by some as a lechatchilah, while insisting on better hechsherim can be viewed as the wrong choice!)

Yet this approach can have tragic consequences, especially when taken too far. For similar reasons to why Orthodoxy became a distinct sub-community, ultra-Orthodoxy became an even more distinct sub-sub-community, especially in Israel. Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are prime examples of this.

I completely understand the charedi opposition to observing Yom HaShoah on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. They see it as implicitly making a statement that those who did not fight back were less worthy or somehow failed - which is indeed how many Jews mistakenly perceive the Holocaust.

But what about the prohibition of Lo Sisgodedu, which Chazal defined as referring to making splinter groups? What about the dictum of "Al tifrosh min hatzibbur - Do not separate from the community"? Let me stress that I am not saying that these should be determinative in this case - but how is it that they are not even considered as a factor at all?

With Yom HaZikaron, it's even more stark. At least with Yom HaShoah, perhaps charedim can say that it's during Nissan, or that they have their own way of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, etc. But Yom HaZikaron is not during Nissan. And, having learned in charedi yeshivos and lived in charedi communities for many years, I can attest that charedim do not "have their own way" of commemorating the soldiers. Nothing, nada - there is never any mention of the IDF. Furthermore, unlike the Holocaust, where it is only a matter of commemoration, with Yom HaZikaron there is also a very strong aspect of hakaras hatov - expressing gratitude to those who sacrificed themselves, and continue to sacrifice themselves, so that we can have Eretz Yisrael. Moshe Rabbeinu even had hakaras hatov to sand and water! Where is the hakaras hatov for the sacrifices of soldiers? Where are the prayers for the wellbeing of those currently serving? (And yet they wonder why there is ill-will towards them, and ascribe it to evil anti-Torah motives!)

Why is there no hakaras hatov? The reason is that charedim simply do not see the soldiers and themselves as being part of the same community. That's why they not only do not observe Yom HaZikaron along with the rest of Israel, but do not acknowledge the sacrifices of the IDF at all. The IDF is part of a different community. That's why whereas endless attention and prayer was given to charedi yeshivah bochrim in prison in Japan, and to Shalom Rubashkin, virtually no attention and prayer was given to Gilad Shalit. The bochrim are "us," Rubashkin is "us." Shalit is not.

Again, I want to stress that the factors that led to this situation are understandable. Segregation was the inevitable result of the transition to a world in which religious commitment was no longer taken for granted and walls had to be built against assimilation. But when this leads to a situation whereby Torah-observant Jews don't show any hakaras hatov to people who gave their lives for them, it's a tragedy.

I want to end on a positive note, so here is a video showing how certain charedim took it upon themselves to show hakaras hatov to the IDF in a creative and much-appreciated way. It's no surprise that they are mostly Anglos - Jews from the diaspora are inevitably more conscious that what unites us as Jews is more important than what divides us. May they be an inspiration for others.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

When Wolves Attack

Readers of this website include kollel avreichim from Chaim Berlin and Mir, professors of Talmud, outstanding Torah scholars, and many intelligent people. I would like to ask this talented group to lend of their expertise to assist with a Chazal-science problem for The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. (This is not intended to be a book about Torah-science conflicts, like Sacred Monsters, intended for a narrow audience; rather, it is intended to be for a broad audience, including charedim who lack the tools and the desire to grapple with Torah-science conflicts.)

An animal is only kosher for consumption if it is in good physical health at the time of slaughter. The Mishnah lists various terefos, fatal defects, which render an animal prohibited for use as food. One of these fatal defects is a mauling by a wolf:
These are the terefos in domesticated animals… if it fell from a roof, if most of its ribs were broken, a mauling by a wolf; Rabbi Yehudah says, a mauling (derusah) by a wolf [is considered a fatal defect] with a small domestic animal, and a mauling by a lion [is considered a fatal defect] with a large animal. (Mishnah, Chullin 3:1)
If a wolf mounts an unsuccessful attack against a large animal such as a cow, the animal is not considered to be mortally wounded and it may still be slaughtered for human consumption. Only with small livestock, such as sheep and goats, is a mauling by a wolf considered a fatal defect.

A difficulty with this topic is that the Talmud states that the result of such derusah is that venom is injected into the prey animal (Chullin 53a). Needless to say, this is not consistent with modern zoological knowledge of wolves.

One solution presented for such difficulties (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. IV, p. 355, footnote 4) is that the Talmud is not referring to a chemical venom generated by the animal, but rather to infections caused by bacteria accumulating in the animal. A variation on this would be to say that bacterial infections led to the belief that venom is injected.

At the moment, I am more concerned with a second difficulty. The Talmud (Chullin 53a) rules that these maulings which are rated as causing fatal defects are referring to maulings inflicted with the claws, not with the teeth (which is implicit in the term derusah, which usually means "trample"). But this conflicts with contemporary observations of wolves, which reveal that wolves never attack prey with their claws, only with their teeth.

The reason why wolves never attack with their claws reflects the very different hunting strategy of wolves compared to members of the cat family such as lions and leopards. A big cat is an ambush predator. It is not built for running at speed, but rather for firmly seizing its prey. It uses its strong arms and claws to grasp its prey, enabling it to make a killing bite in a precise spot. Wolves, on the other hand, are pursuit predators. The legs of a wolf are slender, and the paws are not jointed for grasping; its body is built for long-distance pursuit, not for bringing down prey. The wolf’s claws are strong, but very blunt, because the tips are worn off by constant contact with the ground. These are used for digging and gripping the earth while running, not for seizing or killing prey. Wolves kill with a large number of minor slashing bites.

What, then, are we to make of the Talmud's statement that derusah is only with the claws? Must it be considered an error?

I would like to suggest a way to slightly lessen this problem, if not to solve it entirely. In an entirely unrelated Gemara, we have the following case:
A shepherd was tending a flock, but left them and went to the town, and a wolf came and was taraf, and a lion came and was dores… (Talmud, Bava Metzia 93b) 
Here we seem to have a contrast presented between the typical modes of attack of a wolf and a lion. A lion is dores. A wolf, on the other hand, is toref. But what is the difference between these two modes of attack? Rashi explains that dores refers to instantaneous slaughter, whereas toref refers to wounding the sheep and then dragging it back to a lair for later consumption. But Rabbeinu Chananel to Bava Kama 16b refers to this Gemara and seems to explain it differently: that dores refers to killing with claws, whereas toref refers to killing with its teeth. He further states that this Gemara expresses the typical difference between attacks by lions and attacks by wolves. This is consistent with our knowledge of how wolves kill.

But then, what of the Gemara in Chullin which only lists derusah as causing predator-inflicted terefos, including by wolves, and later says that derusah is only with claws? Is it simply disputing the Gemara in Bava Metzia? Or is there some way to explain the latter statement of the Gemara as only referring to the derusah of certain predators? Or is the Gemara in Chullin not disputing the fact that wolves usually attack with their teeth, and is simply saying that only in the rare case of an attack with their claws would it be considered a terefah? What would Rabbeinu Chananel have said about it?

Your input is appreciated!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Are You Allowed To Choose Who To Vote For?

Does a religious Jew have the right to make a personal choice regarding who to vote for?

The March 21 issue of HaModia featured interviews with a number of Anglo Charedi rabbis in Israel, entitled "Rabbanim Discuss the Rift in Israeli Society." Previously, I wrote about the comments of Rabbi Bloom regarding the alleged greater sacrifice made by people learning in kollel than by soldiers killed in the line of duty. The article is an eye-opener for people who look at figures such as Rav Zev Leff and Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz as being "moderates" rather than full-blooded charedim.

One of the rabbis interviewed is Rav Elimelech Kornfeld, a brilliant Torah scholar whom HaModia mistakenly describes as Rosh Kollel of Kollel Iyun HaDaf (it's actually his brother), but correctly describes as Rav of the Gra shul in Ramat Bet Shemesh. He says the following:
"Olim coming from the United State often have a preconceived notion that one's personal decision of who to vote for is his basic democratic right and that nobody has the right to dictate his vote. They are not always aware that here in Eretz Yisrael serious religious issues are on the line and the decision of who we vote for is made by the Rabbanim and Gedolim, who are most aware of the pressing religious needs."
Contrary to what you might expect, I'm not going to say that he is wrong. He is right - sort of.

In the absence of a formal system of rabbinic authority such as the Sanhedrin, rabbinic authority is what a person makes of it. If you are part of a community such as that of Rav Kornfeld, this means that you have selected him as your rabbinic authority. You might not agree with his attempts to remove Mishpachah magazine from the city, or his attempts to prevent the establishment of restaurants which have seating, or his opposition to Lemaan Achai, or his opposition to the TOV political party; but if you are part of his community, you must respect his authority. This includes accepting his decision regarding the parameters of that authority. And if he believes that this means that you must accept his decision regarding whom to vote for - i.e. UTJ - then that is what you must do - or you are defying the very authority that you have accepted upon yourself.

On the other hand, every person makes a decision (or chooses to accept a decision made for him) regarding who he defines as being his Rabbanim and Gedolim in the first place. And some Rabbanim and Gedolim believe that people should not vote for UTJ. Some Rabbanim and Gedolim - even in Ramat Bet Shemesh - believe that even their own flock are entitled to make their own decisions regarding who to vote for, let alone people outside of their community. (Cue shock and horror!)

The problem comes when people believe that every religious Jew is obligated to accept a certain fictitious objective definition of who "the Rabbanim and Gedolim" actually are. (And when rabbis, for various reasons, tell people to vote for a party that they don't really think the people should vote for.)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Truth About A Much-Abused Rambam

Amidst the current furious controversy in Israel regarding the role and responsibilities of charedim vis-a-vis larger society, there is one statement from Rambam that is sometimes invoked by rabbinic figures and spokesmen in support of the charedi approach. Unfortunately, it is entirely distorted. (Note that I am not claiming that Rambam's true view is to be adopted in practice - as shall be explained, his was an extreme view. The point is that Rambam certainly does not provide justification for the charedi approach on either exemptions from military service or receiving money for studying Torah, which is utterly at odds with his position.)

The statement is from the very end of Hilchos Shemittah Ve'Yovel. It follows a halachah where Rambam notes that the tribe of Levi did not receive a share of the Land of Israel to develop, nor serve in the army, but instead their role was to serve God and teach Torah to Israel. Rambam follows this by stating as follows:
Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do, and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish considerations which trouble people - such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this world, just as He granted to the priests and to the Levites. Thus did David, peace upon him, say, "O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot."
This is cited by many people to prove that, according to Rambam, anyone who wants to devote themselves to studying Torah, and reach the pinnacle of Jewish existence, does not need to serve in the army, and should be financially supported by the rest of the Jewish People, just as the tribe of Levi was supported by the rest of Israel.

However, Rambam does not, and could not, mean anything of the sort.

First of all, Rambam is very clear about his views on taking money for engaging in Torah:
One who makes up his mind to involve himself with Torah and not to work, and to support himself from charity, has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt, extinguished the light of religion, brought evil upon himself, and has taken away his life from the World-to-Come... (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10)
Rambam was somewhat of an aberration from normative tradition in his views on these matters, but not as much as one might think. He does, reluctantly, permit teaching the Written Torah for money, where such is the norm, and although he opposes receiving money for teaching Oral Torah, he does not do so with the same vehemence that he opposes taking money for studying Torah (Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:8-10). Other Rishonim and Acharonim often permitted taking money for teaching Torah, though almost never for studying Torah. In any case, it is clear that Rambam viewed a lifestyle of being supported in studying Torah via charitable donations - the modern kollel system - as being utterly, utterly wrong. (This is even though the state of Torah study in his part of the world was generally rather poor, especially compared to today.)

What, then, is Rambam talking about at the end of Hilchos Shemittah Ve'Yovel?

First of all, he is not making a halachic statement here at all. As is common with the closing paragraphs of the different sections of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam here is presenting mussar rather than halachah. He is not contradicting, or even qualifying, the halachos regarding taking money for Torah that he discussed in Hilchos Talmud Torah chapter 1, nor the halachos regarding going to the army that he discusses in Hilchos Melachim u'Milchamos chapter 7. Instead, he is praising an ideal - which certainly does not include taking money for Torah, as he has already made clear.

But what is the comparison with the tribe of Levi? First of all, it is not a complete comparison. It does not, for example, include an exemption from military duty in either milchemes reshus or milchemes mitzvah (since it is not mentioned in Hilchos Melachim u'Milchamos). Rather, it is a comparison vis-a-vis devoting one's life to God. It is a comparison vis-a-vis mussar goals and ideals, not halachic exemptions.

Second, insofar as Rambam does equate Torah scholars with the tribe of Levi with regard to material sustenance, he makes the meaning of this clear elsewhere:
Anyone who makes economic use of the honor of the Torah takes his life from this world... However, the Torah permits scholars to give their money to others to invest in profitable businesses (on their behalf)... and to receive priority in buying and selling merchandise in the marketplace. These are benefits that God granted them, just as He granted the offering to the Kohanim and the tithes to the Levite... for merchants occasionally do such things for each other as a courtesy, even if there is no Torah scholarship to warrant it. A Torah scholar should certainly be treated at least as well as a respectable ignoramus. (Commentary to the Mishnah, Avos 4:7)
In Rambam's view, Torah scholars, like Kohanim and Leviim, receive benefits, but the benefits are of a different nature. They involve the investment of funds, and assistance in business, rather than financial grants. (This is similar to the Yissacher-Zevulun relationship, which, according to Chazal, was nothing at all like it is popularized today; rather, it involved Zevulun marketing the produce that Yissacher farmed.)

What about Rambam himself? There is a widespread belief that he was entirely dedicated to his studies, supported by his brother, until his brother died at sea and Rambam was forced to provide for both his own and his brothers’ families, whereupon he began to work as a doctor. But this is not the case. Rambam learned medicine while his family was still living in Morocco. Upon moving to Egypt, Rambam soon rose to prominence as a physician. He also traded in gemstones, and his brother assisted with his investments, enabling him to devote much time to his studies. At no point was he simply receiving money from his brother. His brother was simply investing Rambam's own merchandise and earnings, just as Rambam permits Torah scholars to have done on their behalf.

(Incidentally, Rambam in Hilchos Shemittah Ve'Yovel is not even only talking about Jews; he speaks about "anyone in the world." He is actually referring to anyone, Jew or non-Jew, seeking an ascetic lifestyle of the pursuit of knowledge. See further discussion here.)

In conclusion: In Hilchos Shemittah VeYovel, Rambam is not remotely describing someone studying in kollel, being exempt from military duty and supported by charitable contributions. His view on this remains as he expresses it elsewhere: that such a person "has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt."

UPDATE: See too this post: What Does The Torah Tribe Do?

Further sources/ resources:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fictitious History, Shlissel Challah, and the King of Birds

Three entirely unconnected items for today:

1) I briefly peeked at today's HaModia, which featured an interview with some charedi banker about the cuts in financial aid to charedim. He stated that while some people who were anyway planning to eventually work might start a little earlier, the strong community of Torah learners won't be affected, because it has always been the way of Torah to live in poverty, and economic factors have never affected this.

It simply boggles the mind how they can say such things. If we're talking about what has "always been the way," it's been that people work for a living rather then have a system of mass long-term kollel. This was because Chazal mandated working for a living and teaching one's child a profession. The modern reformation was only able to arise precisely because of the change in economic factors that enabled government aid.

2) This week, some people are baking challahs with keys. Personally, I prefer bagels with locks. You can read last year's post on shlissel challah at

3) Here's a video about the king of birds, the nesher, first in the list of non-kosher birds in this week's parashah. I put it together from a segment that I did for Animal Planet's Beasts of the Bible, along with some other footage that I shot in England and some amazing documentary footage. Enjoy! If you want to read a more technical discussion about the identity of the nesher, see my essay at

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Selflessness and Sacrifice?

With the electoral victories of Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennet (Bayit Yehudi), and the resultant plans to reduce financial aid to people in kollel, draft most charedim into the army, and withhold various financial benefits from those who refuse to serve, the charedi world is in turmoil. Representatives of the charedi world have made statements that are astonishing.

When I was in yeshivah, I was always taught that parnassah is strictly in the hands of the Ribbono shel olam. Only Hashem decides how much money you get. If you get less money than expected, it's not because of someone else's choice; it's because Hashem decreed such for you, based on your spiritual merits and so on. It has nothing to do with worldly endeavor, and certainly nothing to do with other people. (Of course, since then, I've adopted a perspective more in line with the Rishonim.)

But the charedi world doesn't seem to really believe that, considering all the screaming about the evils of Lapid and Bennet. For the most part, instead of wondering how their new fate results from their own actions - whether spiritual or worldly - they are focusing on how it is the result of the elections. Apparently, parnassah is not in the hands of Ribbono shel olam, but rather in the hands of Lapid and Bennet.

The editorial in the UK edition of HaModia, sent to me by a reader, makes this point, noting that the charedi community should be focused upon its own obligations rather than upon others. Unfortunately, these obligations apparently do not include the obligations dictated by Chazal and the kesubah, for a husband to work for a living and support his family. Still, at least they are talking about their own obligations. The editorial states that:
"The question now is what should our role as chareidi Jews be at this junction? ...It is clear that the order of the day for Am Yisrael is to increase our chessed in all areas:"
Great! Does this mean contributing towards the country, with military duty or national service, as non-charedim do? Unfortunately, apparently not:
"To judge one another favorably, to daven that sins - not sinners - be eliminated, to spread Torah and Judaism and, above all, to use use our resources to make our institutions of Torah and chessed independent or those who would seek to uproot Torah from Yisrael."
Okay, apparently increasing chessed doesn't mean actually doing anything tangible for the rest of the country, or starting to express hakaras hatov for what the country does for them. And they wonder why there is ill-will towards them!

But perhaps the last part of that quote is referring to becoming a financially self-sustaining community, and not requiring government assistance? Apparently not. The editorial continues to note that charedim are actually obligated, from a spiritual perspective, to demand funding from the rest of the country:
"Our Hashkofoh obligates us to demand state support for Torah and chessed mosdos, not out of concern that they won't be able to continue to provide vital services to the weaker sectors, but to provide a merit for the government, which is so in need of Heavenly mercy. Even if the government doesn't appreciate and understand the workings of midoh keneged midoh, its support for such institutions will serve its interests."
Ah, so all the talk about money is not motivated by an actual desperate desire for money and/or a belief that it is in the hands of others, but rather in order to help the non-charedim! It's all about a selfless concern for the spiritual and material wellbeing of others! How did I miss that?

Aside from money, the other big issue is military service, and the concept of sharing the burden. Another reader sent me a paragraph from HaModia written in response to these accusations, by Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, former Executive Vice-President of Agudath Yisrael in the U.S. and now at Ohr Somayach. (I have only seen this paragraph - if there is other relevant material in the article, please let me know.) He makes the following remarkable comments:
"Living as a Jew is much harder than dying as a Jew. Mesirus nefesh is a one-time giving up of one's life, and even people who weren't so great in their lifetime were willing to be burned at the stake for Hakadosh Baruch Hu, but to live one's whole life as a Jew is very, very difficult. The bnei Torah who are sitting in kollel and learning Torah are living their whole lives for the Ribbono shel Olam, and that's a much greater sacrifice than dying al kiddush Hashem."
I don't know whether this paragraph is just too mind-numbingly foolish to be classified as offensive.

Yes, it can take more effort to live as a Jew than to be killed as a Jew. But that has nothing to do with which is the greater sacrifice! It also takes more effort to drive a car than to be hit by a car, but that doesn't make it a greater sacrifice!

(Furthermore, it's not as though the only sacrifice made by soldiers is that made by those who are killed. There is also the fear of being captured or killed, the immense physical and psychological hardships often endured by soldiers during their service, and the annual reserve duty that takes them away from their families. I have seen too many charedi spokesmen and apologists who are apparently utterly unaware of the mesiras nefesh that the IDF soldiers and their families engage in on their behalf.)

Finally, there is the issue of who you actually sacrificing for - who you are actually helping with the way that you live or die. It's all very well to do something for your own spiritual growth, but what are you doing for the rest of Klal Yisrael? Not everyone is expected to place their life on the line, but everyone is expected to contribute towards the rest of Israel. However, I will leave that discussion for another post (and please withhold your comments on that topic until I write that post).

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Free Hyrax!

Since this week's parashah mentions the hyrax, I've decided to make the chapter on hyraxes from my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom available as a free download. Click on this link to download it (7.5 megabyte PDF).

Much of the information in this chapter is the same as in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax (with the addition of some small sections, and some amazing pictures that I found). However, it is organized very differently. When I wrote The Camel..., I presented the information yeshivah-style: A list of all the opinions that identified it as the hyrax, a list of the opinions that identified it as a llama, a rabbit, etc. But now that I have undergone academic training, the information is presented in a more meaningful way. The chapter explains how the various opinions arose, based on the context of the scholars.

I'm still tinkering with the page layout of the encyclopedia, so if you have any comments, please let me know; I think that the title bar for each chapter (where it mentions the animal's name in English and Hebrew) needs improving, but I'm not sure how.

On another note, I will be visiting Canada (Toronto and Montreal) for 10 days over Shavuos; I will post my speaking schedule once it is finalized. I also have a free Shabbos in New York on August 2-3, if anyone wants to arrange a scholar-in-residence program; please write to me if you are interested.

The Heresy of Noah's Crystal

Following on from last week's post about the ban on "Peshuto Shel Mikra," let's discuss an example of the purported heres...