Sunday, September 1, 2013

Rav Elya Ber Dismisses Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim, Gedolim

It's almost exactly nine years since a group of zealots, now out of commission, arranged for the charedi Gedolim to issue a controversial ban on three of my books and on the rationalist approach in general. Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, rosh yeshivah of South Fallsburg, leading figure in the American charedi world, and one of the prime forces behind the ban, is now once again on a tirade against rationalist Judaism.

His platform this time is an approbation to a small book published by a disciple of his entitled Sod Liyreyav, which deals with the subject of spontaneous generation and related topics regarding Chazal's statements about the natural world. Rav Elya Ber's approbation, which you can download at this link, is unusually long, stretching nearly three pages. He emphatically states that everything in the Gemara, as well as in the writings of the Rishonim, is factually true in its plain meaning. Rav Elya Ber claims that every single utterance of Chazal was stated by Sinaitic transmission and/or by way of sod Hashem liyreyav (even though if one actually researches the usages of that phrase, one sees very clearly that Chazal believed it to have extremely limited application). Astonishingly, in making this fantastic claim, he refers to Rambam's introduction to the Mishnah; he does not give a specific reference, presumably because Rambam said no such thing and in fact clearly held strongly otherwise. And Rav Elya Ber further claims that science has never attained the slightest insight into the universe compared to the insights that have been obtained from the Torah (alas giving no examples to support this extraordinary claim).

As far as I am concerned, if Rav Elya Ber wants to believe in the existence of mice that grow from dirt and salamanders that grow from fire, along with humanoids that grow from the ground and werewolves, that is his prerogative, and it doesn't bother me. Likewise, if he wants to take a different position than the view of countless Rishonim, Acharonim, and Gedolim (not to mention Chazal themselves), that is fine.

But this is not merely a matter of his personal view. Rav Elya Ber emphatically insists that any other approach is false, evil, and is kefirah, heresy. He further states that his approach is the explicit, well-known and obvious approach throughout the generations. And he adds that alternate views are only presented from sources of dubious authenticity, personal communications to people questioning inappropriately, or long-rejected aberrant views.

When my books were banned, I was under the mistaken impression that to say that Chazal were sometimes mistaken in their statements about the natural world was the legitimate minority view of Rambam, his son Rabbeinu Avraham, and Rav Hirsch. I was wrong on two counts. One is that it is clearly not legitimate in certain sectors, notwithstanding its pedigree. My other mistake was to think that it was a rare minority view. In the nine years that have elapsed since the ban, with many people researching the topic, I have discovered that this view was absolutely mainstream amongst the Rishonim and also had considerable support amongst the Acharonim. I further discovered that every single Gaon and Rishon, bar none, learned Pesachim 94b in accordance with its straightforward meaning, as saying that Chazal believed that the sun doubles back and passes behind the sky at night. Most also held that Chazal were mistaken in this belief.

Rav Elya Ber is entitled to dispute the position of R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon, Rambam, R. Eliezer of Metz, Tosafos Rid, R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Semag, Rosh, Ritva, R. Bachya b. Asher, R. Yerucham ben Meshullam, Rabbeinu Manoach, R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, R. Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, Radbaz, R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo, R. Moshe Cordovero, Lechem Mishneh, Maharsha, Minchas Kohen, Chavos Ya’ir, Pri Chadash, Maharif, R. Yitzchak Lampronti, Maharam Schick, R. Binyamin Musafia, R. Eliezer Lipman Neusatz, R. Dovid Friedman (Karliner), R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, Ben Ish Chai, R. Herzog, R. Dessler, R. Carmell, and, yibadlu lechaim, R. Shlomo Fisher and R. Ephraim Greenblatt, amongst many others. But to condemn their view as false, evil, and heresy, however, seems out of place - to put it mildly. And to dismiss this approach as never having had a legitimate place in Judaism is an outright perversion of the history of Torah scholarship.

Unfortunately, while many people agree with me - even in the charedi world - nobody has the courage to actually call out Rav Elya Ber on this offensive approach to Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim and Gedolim. Perhaps someone can ask him to methodically address, for example, all the sources regarding the sun's path at night. In the meanwhile, one cannot help but conclude that Rav Elya Ber has transmitted a clear message about charedi Gedolim and Torah scholarship.

(UPDATE - you can now download the approbation at this link.)

45 comments:

  1. Charedi Gadol ignorant of reality. And in other news, water is wet...

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    Replies
    1. Everyone who would talk bad on a gadol hador is probably going to hell you idiots think that bc you have learned a couple cute midrashim you can talk against ppl with shas poskim on there fingertips if you understood an iota of how wrong what ur all doing is you would be on ur knees begging rev elya ber forf mechilla

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  2. Hey, I love werewolves. I'm looking forward to Parshas Vayechi!
    Seriously, the Sinas Chinam from the Chareidi world as in " if your not with us you're against us" has passed the point of nauseating. Keep up the great posts, and remember, most of the Normal Orthodox Jews in the world are behind you. Unfortunately, they seem to hide when you look in your rear view mirror.
    -LFD

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  3. I don't see how the Gemara in Pesachim is so relevant, since the Gemara itself conceded that the Chhachomim were wrong. One can argue that only they can say that not us.

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  4. 1. That is not what R. Elya Ber is claiming. He is claiming that the Chachomim always spoke from ruach hakodesh and were never wrong.

    2. To say that only they can acknowledge that they were mistaken in scientific matters, but not us, is a position that makes no sense.

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  5. And how much science has he learned that he can make such a claim?

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  6. Can you provide a bit more info regarding the book and its author, and/or a copy of at least some snippets of R' E.B.'s approbation?

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  7. Is there a link to his approbation?

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  8. He is claiming that the Chachomim always spoke from ruach hakodesh and were never wrong.

    ...
    how would you challenge the following statement

    'The consensus of the rishonim is chasimas hagemarah was done with ruach hakodesh, and nothing can be challenged'

    true the rambam may not agree but that is a minority opinion.

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  9. 'The consensus of the rishonim is chasimas hagemarah was done with ruach hakodesh, and nothing can be challenged'

    If you're talking about challenging halachic rulings, that's a different matter. If you're talking about scientific statements, then your claim is simply wrong.

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  10. He can argue that the chasimas hashas was with Ruach Hakodesh,
    so all conclusions of the Gemara are true, but not necessarily all earlier opinions that were rejected by the Chasimas Hashas. Therefore,if the final conclusuion of the Gemara is that the Jewish sages were wrong about the path of the sun,it would not be relevant to our discussion.

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  11. But that's not what he's claiming. He's not claiming that only Ravina/ Rav Ashi had ruach hakodesh. He's specifically claiming that absolutely every sentence was uttered with ruach hakodesh.

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  12. Avi

    The first part of your comment at 5.23 pm misses the point. It should, perhaps, read: "Charedi Gadol ignorant of Judaism."

    The second part of your comment would then be accurate.

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  13. R' Slifkin, maybe next time you should say in your post: "In this post, I'm criticizing one man. Please, commenters, do not generalize to the entire chareidi world."

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  14. He's specifically claiming that absolutely every sentence was uttered with ruach hakodesh.

    ...

    (1)Rabbi ela ber would also say every hava mina was written with ruach hakodesh. does not mean it cannot be challenged.

    (2)I thought besides rambam, his son and some geonim nearly all the rishonim say chasimas hagemarah was done with ruach hakodesh, and no statements scientific or otherwise can be challenged'

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  15. from the link the rishonim who say scientific statements can be falsified after chasimas hagemarah

    seem to be
    R. Sherira Gaon ,Rambam,R. Avraham ben Harambam ,Ralbag ,R. Shem Tov ben Yosef ben Shem Tov ,Ramban,Meiri
    Rabbeinu Bachya,R. Shmuel Hanagid,Rashbash

    not a majority although maybe not what r. elaya was talking about

    do you have any others ?

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  16. The Rambam in Pirush HaMishna certainly refers to his discussion of the various groups attitude to Aggada. And that the wise understand that it is not nonsense, not literal,rather that the words contain hidden wisdom.

    I think the difference of before and after the sealing if the Talmud makes perfect sense. Aggada and science aren't BETTER than Halacha. Just like a Talmudic opinion can be rejected in Halacha inside the Talmud, so to in Aggada. That doesn't give us that right.

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  17. "He emphatically states that everything in the Gemara, as well as in the writings of the Rishonim, is factually true in its plain meaning."

    Regarding Rishonim, there are Roshei Yeshiva who disagree.

    See Josh Waxman's post regarding R Yaakov Kamentesky, the Rambam in Yesodei HaTorah and Neil Armstrong("Important Correction regarding Rav Kaminetzky on the moon, and whether Chazal could be wrong", 6/26/12).

    R. Aron Feldman wrote in Note 31 of his letter:

    "None of these opinions apply this approach to the words of the Rishonim or Acharonim; only to the Sages. They would not apply as well to passages in the Sages which are allegorical."

    "And he adds that alternate views are only presented from sources of dubious authenticity, personal communications to people questioning inappropriately, or long-rejected aberrant views."

    R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach(quoted in Shemiras HaGuf VeHaNefesh) :

    "At the moment I do not remember if there is someone who actually argues, or even if there is anyone who is able to argue with them. But it could be that my intent was that since many have given the reason of nature having changed, and did not mention at all the aspect of improvements and increased knowledge in medical methods in our time, therefore I raised the point that it should be written as 'some say'..."

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  18. @fozziebear

    I chose "reality" deliberately. Even had no Gaon or Rishon made statements to the effect that CHaZaL's science was not (always) accurate, anyone with a modicum of understanding of reality would know this anyway.

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  19. I believe he has a very good reason to claim why he claims. One of his talmidim once told me that R' Elya Ber told him that he met the famous 5 year old boy who knew kol hatorah and was ten given the potch from the Belzer rebbe above his mouth, and the boy promptly forgot everything he knew. R' Elya Ber said that the five year old boy was able to say over every gemara, rishon, verbatim up to the maharsha which leads R' Elya Ber to believe that it was all al pi ruach hakodesh, as the boy obviously learned it all before he was born.

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  20. "I thought besides rambam, his son and some geonim, nearly all the rishonim say chasimas hagemarah was done with ruach hakodesh, and no statements scientific or otherwise can be challenged."

    Sorry, you thought wrong!

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  21. Anonymous Pliny said...

    R' Slifkin, maybe next time you should say in your post: "In this post, I'm criticizing one man. Please, commenters, do not generalize to the entire chareidi world."


    I specifically wrote in the final paragraph that many people in the charedi world agree with me.

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  22. In response to: "Unfortunately, while many people agree with me - even in the charedi world - nobody has the courage to actually call out Rav Elya Ber on this offensive approach" ... it may be that most of those who agree with you have absolutely no desire to engage with Rabbis like this, and really no longer care what they say.

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  23. [Many religious people today]"...act like children and experience religion like children. This is why they accept all types of fanaticism and superstition. Sometimes they are even ready to do things that border on the immoral. They lack the experiential component of religion, and simply substitute obscurantism for it....After all, I come from the ghetto. Yet I have never seen so much naïve and uncritical commitment to people and to ideas as I see in America....All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist." R' Joseph Soloveitchik

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  24. I agree with Mark. We are better off ignoring statements like these. I don't think Rav Elya Ber has any impact on the lives of the readers of this blog.

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  25. If the boy learned it al pi ruach hakodesh, how does it follow that it was the maharsha was given it through ruach hakodesh?

    This attitude verges on the heresy that there can be Matan Torah after Moshe Rabbeinu ...

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  26. The title reminded me of a tangentially related point that occurred to me recently: The very limited set of material learned by charedi students. Sure, we see PR materials about the huge number of subjects they study- often worded to make it sound like they're getting a university-equivalent education- but facts are facts:

    Tanach: A little chumash in elementary school. Maybe shnayim mikra if it's not considered "bittul Torah" (rachmana litzlan). Otherwise, Tanach, and certainly Nach, is krum, the province of Zionists and maskilim.

    Mishna: Again, a little in elementary school, and after that only together with Gemara. Anything less if for less intelligent people. Ditto Midrash Aggadah, or any aggadah.

    Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Minor Tractates, Midreshei Halakha- really, any Talmudic era work apart from Bavli- and anything from Geonim: really, really krum. For maskilim (and maybe some yechidei segula) only.

    Bavli: Certain masechtot in Nashim and Nezikin only. Everything else is too practical and simple (Berachot, Moed, Niddah), for baalei batim only, or too messianic (Kodshim). (I remember R' Lamm telling us with pride how YU studies all masechtot.)

    Rishonim and Acharonim: Only commentaries on Bavli. Everything else is either krum (e.g., philosophy) or too practical oriented, which is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary (Shulchan Aruch, etc.). The Rambam is fine if learned with Bavli and not treated as a practical work.

    With all that, it's pretty able to dismiss all the sources you list.

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  27. Temujin greatly respects the aged among us and thus regrets the crass ageism he is committing in suggesting that perchance, a tradition on retirement at a reasonable age needs to develop among the scholars of Israel.

    It is a pity that so many great rabbis are, due to misguided interpretations of loyalty among their acolytes, allowed to make tcholent of their reputations because no one in their circle has the wherewithal to detect the subtle signs of the onset of dementia in many of their teachers, and the courage to address this unfortunate reality. One suspects that not only is every utterance of their masters treated as a difficult to understand but sublime and brilliant thought, but that many in that close circle manipulate and exploit cognitively afflicted elder rabbis for their own benefit.

    Those of us with ageing parents, in-laws and other family members know the signs; the sharpness of mind in some areas next to episodes of utter confusion, the attempts to mask dramatic lapses in comprehension and judgment, and the unpredictable eruptions of anger and spite over mundane misunderstandings and long-past events. They also know that it is a greater sign of respect to discourage, divert or prevent an old person from doing and saying things they would not have said or done when younger. Temujin hopes that when he reaches old age, may it please the Almighty that he do so, responsible clan members will be at hand to have his war ponies and saddles taken away, his bow unstrung and his quiver of arrows hidden... and to keep him off the blogs. How much more crucial is it for relatives and disciples of great rabbis to prevent their declining teachers from issuing judgments on halacha which affect hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Jews. At a time when world Jewry is facing so many dangers, so many centrifugal forces, compromised religious rulings can wreak unpredictable, indeed, unimaginable havoc. The time for solutions is now; the current demographic bulge of thousands of scholars entering their eighties and nineties portends serious risks.

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  28. Nachum -- you really gotta get out more. And it also might be a good idea not to slander an entire group of Jews right before RH.

    Walk into Lakewood Yeshiva and you will see high level Chaburas on every Misechta in Shas. Mikvaos. Yadayim. All of Zeraim. The BMG publishing arm -- M'Chon Mishnas R' Aaron -- put out new editions of Misechta's in Zeraim, based on the work & research of Chabura's in Lakewood, with comments on the Tosefta, the Rash, Yerushalmi, etc. There are high level Chabura's on Even ha-Ezer and Choshen Mishpat. And numerous ones on Yoreh De'ah and Hilchos Shabbos. Thousands of Talmidim studying these topics.

    The only topic on your list that you have a point with is Tanach.

    If you would like a tour of Lakewood Yeshiva I can arrange one for you (seriously). Or I can ship you the Chidushey Torah that they put out on all areas of Torah. If interested in either one let me know and we can arrange. You may even be surprised how friendly they are.

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  29. Glad to hear Lakewood is learning all that, Yitzi.

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  30. Dear Avi,

    my apologies. i was only joking and didn't think you would take me seriously.
    please forgive me (esp as I have a big day coming up and need all the help I can get.)

    Thanks

    Fozziebear

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  31. Yitzi7, the level of learning in places like Lakewood is actually very low, and merely presents a superficial veneer of lomdus. Since they don't study or know history, manuscripts, grammar and languages, etc., their interpretations of Jewish texts cannot be trusted. I remember when I studied Hebrew at YU, the professor actually used excerpts from Lakewood's publications to illustrate their ignorance of Hebrew grammar. It's quantity over quality with Haredim. They love to boast about how their 1st graders know half of Shas, while mocking modern-orthodox davening attendance; unfortunately for Haredim it's merely rote memorization of texts which lacks comprehension and depth. The average non-Jewish college student in a rabbinic literature class has a
    greater understanding of the Talmud than the average Haredi kollel man.

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  32. I just want to say that those who hold R. Elya's views do not have a correspondence theory of truth such that 'fact', 'reality', 'being' is on one side and language on the other, and truth is satisfying some correspondence between sentences and the way the world really is. They are idealists, or accept some coherence theory of truth, or reject the entire idea of facticity as do many post modernists. In any event they are not playing by the same rules of evidence and the same ethics of belief as does a realist like R. Slifkin. A general idea of such a philosophical position can be head by reading the books of Richard Rorty. ej

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  33. Anonymous, Temujin is past the age where he can jauntily toy with modern phenomenological approaches, so he'll interpret things according to older parlance he is more familiar with. He think you're describing scholasticism and its more recent manifestations which have devolved into eclecticism and obscurantism. Both operate under rather arbitrary rules and depend on charismatic "greats" to define parameters of inquiry, discussion, truth and reality. Temujin notes a pattern in the nature of the opposition to Rabbi Slifkin's work; it is not so much the content and conclusions that irritate his opponents, but his rationalist, evidence-based methodology which is foreign to their way of thinking. His rules-based methodology and the systematic laying out of relevant facts and arguments cut through status or honours like a gleaming katana sword through a ripe melon. This is a great affront to many who only understand argument from authority and are aghast at this young upstart who doesn't seem to get the established pecking order.

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  34. >… reject the entire idea of facticity as do many post modernists.

    To paraphrase a very old line, those who deny empirical reality should be beaten until they admit that being beaten is empirically real.

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  35. Oh, so many comebacks!
    "They could say it, we can't" has morphed into "They never said it and even if they did they either didn't mean it or it's a forgery".
    I've heard one person describe an approach ascribed to the Maharal, that we are essentially in an artificial world like the movie "The Matrix". We think the Earth revolves around the Sun but if we could see how things really are then we would realize it doubles back behind a dome and under the ground at night.
    Take the blue pill and it'll all be better!

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  36. There are posts that I've read on Rabbi Slifkin's blog (regarding lice eggs, and Aristotle's theory of how lice can have eggs, yet spontaneously generate), and Rabbi Josh Waxman's blog (regarding the source for Chazal's statement that bats lay eggs--he finds a source for it in Pliny or the like) which reach the conclusion that in matters of science, Chazal relied on the science authorities of their time.

    Wouldn't that be the same approach of, say, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who would examine the nuts and bolts of an implement, or consult engineers, in order to determine whether it's permitted to use it on Shabbos?

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    Replies
    1. "Wouldn't that be the same approach of, say, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who would examine the nuts and bolts of an implement, or consult engineers, in order to determine whether it's permitted to use it on Shabbos?"

      Probably, but he backed away by saying minhag should keep the older practice as the norm.

      Delete
  37. G*3...If my memory is not playing tricks, and old post modernists are worried about these things, Reb Elya Ber hit me with a spitball when we were around five. At the time he wasn't Reb Elya Ber, had I known he would become a gadol I might not have been so upset. As for him he used the same defense, "It's bad to hurt someone, and I try to be good, so it must not have been me." Charedim are willing to deny reality to maintain first principles, as we all now realize.
    I don't want to get all Proustian farklempt, but t.a.t, he's a smart guy, he generally doesn't say stupid things, and it would not be a sin if you gave his discourse a generous reading. ej

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  38. >>> Wouldn't that be the same approach of, say, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who would examine the nuts etc....

    yes, and that's why he concluded that in reality many electrical appliances should be muttar on shabbat...but since it became normative to assur everything electrical, he didn't want to change "minhag yisroel"

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  39. joni

    Since they don't study or know history, manuscripts, grammar and languages, etc., their interpretations of Jewish texts cannot be trusted.

    ....

    do you have an example please, of a lakewood misunderstanding, due to their lack of knowledge in these areas

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  40. Do you happen to know if one can find a copy of the hashkamah you mentioned online? Or does anyone out there have the book to pull it from?

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  41. What exactly *is* Ruach Hakodesh, anyone know?

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  42. ej: It's nice of you to say that Rabbi Slifkin should read R. Elya Ber's discourse in accordance with a hermeneutics of charity. But Reb Elya did not accord that same courtesy to Rabbi Slifkin's writings. To the contrary...

    Lawrence Kaplan

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