Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rabbi Meiselman Tries To Hide From The Sun

Part III of a review of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science (continued from part II)
(This post is a long one, but it's important, since it addresses the first and only attempt to refute the most powerful demonstration of the legitimacy of the rationalist approach to Chazal and science. You might want to print it out and read it on Shabbos. And, of course, you might want to share it with any readers of Rabbi Meiselman's book.)

I. The Most Crucial Topic

As I have noted on many occasions, in any discussion about Chazal (the Sages) and science, the single most crucial section of the Talmud is that regarding the sun’s path at night, which I discussed at length in a monograph. The Talmud records a dispute between the Sages of Israel and the gentile scholars regarding where the sun goes when it sets in the evening. (This follows an earlier and more complex argument about the relative motions of the celestial sphere and the constellations, which is not relevant to our discussion.) The Sages of Israel believed that the sun changes direction at night to go back behind the sky (which was believed to be an opaque “firmament”), whereas the gentile scholars believed that the sun continues its path to pass on the far side of the world (which we now know to be correct). The Talmud continues to record that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi observed that the gentile scholars appear to be correct. All the Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Gemara is recording a dispute about the sun’s path at night. The majority of Rishonim, as well as many Acharonim, accept that the Sages of Israel were incorrect.

Here, then, is the definitive demonstration that there is a mainstream approach of saying that Chazal’s knowledge about the natural world was not divine in origin, and is potentially errant. But Rabbi Meiselman, on the other hand, says that whenever Chazal make a definite statement about the natural world, or one that is based upon Scriptural exegesis, they are correct. He insists that it is forbidden to say otherwise, and his book is dedicated to rebutting, insulting, disparaging and condemning those who take a different view. How, then, does Rabbi Meiselman deal with this topic?

II. What Did Chazal Say, And What Did They Mean? Rabbi Meiselman Won’t Tell You

Rabbi Meiselman discusses this topic over six pages in the second part of chapter ten. He quotes the Gemara, but does not translate the word “rakia.” In a footnote, he accounts for this by saying that although the standard translation is “firmament,” the precise meaning is a subject of debate among the commentators. In fact, 95% of the commentators, and 100% of the Rishonim, agree that it means “firmament.” One can almost always find someone who disagrees with a conventional translation, but that’s not a reason not to use it, unless one is deliberately trying to either distort the picture regarding the situation with the commentaries, or obfuscate the entire discussion by not explaining what the Gemara is about.

Rabbi Meiselman appears to be trying to do both. He begins his explanation of the Gemara, in a section entitled “What Did Chazal Mean?” by stating that “The cryptic nature of these discussions has caused them to be given a variety of explanations.” In fact, the discussion regarding the sun's path at night is not cryptic in the least; the Talmud’s words are clear and straightforward. It only has a variety of explanations post-15th century, and the only reason for this is that many people were uncomfortable with Chazal having been mistaken on something that appears so basic to modern audiences. Rabbi Meiselman writes that “According to many commentaries they are not to be taken at face value at all.” Yes, but not according to any of the Rishonim.

Almost incredibly, Rabbi Meiselman does not make any mention of the straightforward meaning of this Gemara, adopted by all the Rishonim: that the sun changes direction to travel behind an opaque solid firmament at night. Nowhere does he present a simple, straightforward explanation of what the Gemara is talking about (or even any explanation). In a book spanning eight hundred pages, he couldn’t even spend a single paragraph explaining the meaning of the most crucial passage in the entire Torah-science discussion?! Nor does he quote any of the Rishonim and Acharonim who explain the Gemara according to its straightforward meaning. Such a long book, so many hundreds and hundreds of sources quoted, including many that are barely relevant, but he does not quote any of the Rishonim on the most fundamental topic in the entire discussion!

After making the misleading claim that according to many commentaries the Talmud is not intended to be literal, Rabbi Meiselman states that “But even among those who take them literally, explanations vary.” He proceeds to cite “The Rama, for instance,” who has a highly creative reinterpretation of the Gemara. This reinforces the impression that there is only a small minority view that explains the Gemara according to its plain meaning – whereas the fact is that all the Rishonim, without exception, as well as many Acharonim, explain it in this way.

Rabbi Meiselman then spends a paragraph discussing geocentrism and heliocentrism. But this only relates to the earlier, more complex and irrelevant discussion in the Gemara about the celestial sphere and the constellations. Rabbi Meiselman avoids any further discussion of the passage in the Gemara regarding the sun’s path at night, never having once explained either its straightforward meaning or indeed any meaning. And thus he concludes the section entitled “What Did Chazal Mean?” - without having even attempted to answer that question.

III. Rabbi Meiselman Mistakenly Attributes Mistaken Beliefs To The Rishonim

The next section is entitled “When The Commentaries Are Mistaken.” Here is where things get very strange. Throughout the rest of the book, while there is ample basis for questioning Rabbi Meiselman’s intellectual honesty and epistemology, there is no doubt that he is a highly intelligent Torah scholar. But in this section, Rabbi Meiselman appears to simply not understand what is going on in the commentaries.

Rabbi Meiselman states that the Rama and his colleagues (who attempted to explain that Chazal were not mistaken) were explaining the Gemara to the best of their abilities, but they never intended to chain Chazal’s words to their own understanding. If their grasp of science was wrong, they would prefer Chazal to be explained differently. He proceeds to state:
“What is true of the Rama is true of the many Rishonim and Acharonim who interpret this passage in terms of astronomical theories that were accepted in their day, but were subsequently rejected by science. It was never their intention that their explanations were definitely what Chazal meant. They were merely doing their best to understand an obscure piece of Gemara, using the most reliable scientific information available to them. When contemporary writers invoke these commentaries to show that Chazal’s knowledge was faulty they are making a simple error in logic. If the interpreters of Chazal held erroneous beliefs, it does not at all follow that Chazal did as well.”

It should be noted that Rabbi Meiselman provides no support whatsoever for his emphatic assertion that the Rishonim, when commented upon such sugyos, only intended their explanations to be tentative, in contrast to their explanations of other sugyos. (Nor does he explain why this would only apply to the Rishonim’s explanation of Chazal’s statements about the natural world, and not to Chazal’s explanations of the Torah’s statements about the natural world.) And since he provides no support for it, and there is no indication for it in the words of the Rishonim themselves, there is no reason to accept it as being true.

But there is a more basic problem with Rabbi Meiselman’s approach here. Put quite simply, he doesn’t understand what the whole discussion is about with regard to this passage in the Talmud. True, if you’re talking about the topic of spontaneous generation, you can say that the Rishonim explained Chazal in terms of their own erroneous beliefs. And if you’re talking about the Rama’s defense of Chazal’s statements about cosmology, you can say that he explained them in terms of his own erroneous beliefs. But you can’t say this if you’re talking about the Rishonim’s discussion of Chazal’s statements about the sun’s path at night. Here, the Rishonim do not “interpret this passage in terms of astronomical theories that were accepted in their day.” They explain it as referring to a mistaken and obsolete view!

In other words, whereas Rabbi Meiselman says that “if the interpreters of Chazal held erroneous beliefs, it does not at all follow that Chazal did as well,” he is fundamentally misunderstanding what is going on. This is not like the discussions of spontaneous generation. In this case, the interpreters of Chazal did not hold erroneous beliefs – they correctly believed that the sun goes on the other side of the world at night, not behind the firmament. They were stating that Chazal held erroneous beliefs.

IV. A Failed Attempt To Render This Topic Irrelevant

In the next section, entitled “Acknowledging the Truth,” Rabbi Meiselman backpedals from his earlier misrepresentation. He starts off by admitting that “some” commentaries take the Gemara at face value, according to which Chazal acknowledged that they had erred and the truth lay with the gentiles; at the end of the section, he finally himself acknowledges the truth, that this position is held by “most Rishonim other than Rabbeinu Tam.”

However, acknowledging that most Rishonim held Chazal to have been mistaken puts Rabbi Meiselman in a very awkward position, since it would refute his entire approach. And so he attempts to render this case irrelevant. He stresses – and this is the goal of this section - that “assuming that the Jewish sages actually retracted,” they did so despite their utter certitude that in general, their wisdom was vastly superior to that of the Gentiles, due to their having derived it from the Torah. He proceeds to claim that the fact that Chazal discussed cosmology with the Gentile scholars “means that they had no precise mesorah on this particular topic,” and that “nor were they able to extract the desired information from the Torah.” But, he adamantly insists, in every other case, where Chazal do not inform us that they are uncertain, or when they derive their knowledge from the Torah, we can rest assured that they are correct, and “they carry the full authority of Torah shebaal Peh.”

However, there are three problems with all this. First is that the fact that the Gemara records a discussion with the gentile scholars does not mean that Chazal are informing us that they are uncertain. It just means that this was an important topic in which the gentile scholars had a very different opinion and turned out to be correct. The Gemara does not record discussions with the gentile scholars about spontaneous generation, because the gentile scholars had the same view as Chazal regarding spontaneous generation.

Second is that the error made in Pesachim is with regard to something extremely basic. Whether the sun doubles back at night to go behind a solid firmament, or continues to pass around the far side of the earth, is a very fundamental part of cosmology. (It is also taken to have substantial halachic ramifications.) If Chazal did not even know something so fundamental, and could not figure it out from the Torah even though the Torah has a lot to say about cosmology, and even though the non-Jews were able to figure it out (as Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi acknowledges), then why on earth would Chazal be authoritative in much more arcane areas of knowledge (such as zoology), in which the Torah has nothing to say and in which the gentiles were likewise unaware of the reality?

But much more problematic than both of these is that Rabbi Meiselman’s premise is fundamentally flawed. Chazal did relate their views on cosmology to the Torah! This is not mentioned on this page in Pesachim, but it is mentioned on an earlier page in Pesachim, as well as in Bava Basra and in the Midrash. In Bava Basra, one of the Sages posits that the sun makes a 180 degree reversal in the evening, and another of the Sages states that it turns 90 degrees to the side, basing this on a passuk. In the earlier page in Pesachim and in the Midrash, Chazal talk about the thickness and substance of the firmament, basing their discussion on pesukim. (This also renders futile an earlier attempt by Rabbi Meiselman to get out of this whole problem, by suggesting that the "scholars of Israel" in Pesachim might not have been Sages.)

How did Rabbi Meiselman not know any of this? Did he fail to do basic research on this topic? Did he not read my monograph that he is attempting to rebut? In any case, it neatly destroys his excuse as to why this would be the only case in which Chazal were mistaken. Consequently, the case of the sun’s path at night remains as a fundamental disproof of Rabbi Meiselman’s approach regarding Chazal and science.

V. Conclusion

The bottom line is that Rabbi Meiselman’s discussion of this topic – the most basic topic in any Torah-science discussion – is deliberately vague, extremely confused, poorly researched, and self-contradictory. Although at the end he concedes that most Rishonim held Chazal to have erred in this matter (albeit with a flawed explanation as to why this case is unique), earlier he claims with regard to this topic that “The possibility that Chazal were in error was never an option for the Baalei HaMesorah” (p. 145). In fact, the vast majority of Rishonim, as well as countless Acharonim, held that Chazal were indeed in error – even though they based their view on the Torah. The inescapable conclusion is that Rabbi Meiselman is misrepresenting the nature of the Baalei HaMesorah.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

R. Meiselman: All The Rishonim Were Wrong, Again And Again And Again

Part II of a review of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science (continued from part I)

In the prologue to his book, Rabbi Meiselman sets out the fundamentals of his approach. He takes a very firm and devout theological position:
“We do not impose our ideas upon the Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim or major Acharonim, nor do we attempt to understand the Gemara without their assistance. Our goal is to try to comprehend how those previous generations understood it; to view it through the prism of their writings. We submit to the authority of our great predecessors.” (p. XXX)

Rabbi Meiselman stresses this point again and again. He cites a story about how Rav Soloveitchik said that we cannot say that Ramban was wrong about something, and he gives the principles of how we must relate to the Rishonim:
“Among those whom the Mesorah has labeled Rishonim we never pick and choose… Certainly we do not invoke criteria external to the Torah in evaluating the correctness of their views…” (p. XXXI)

And he succinctly explains why only a person who has this proper approach (i.e. himself) is able to arrive at correct conclusions in these matters:
“Only one who approaches his studies with the recognition that scholars of previous generations were incalculably wiser and more attuned to the sources than we are, can ever really understand the Torah.” (p. xxxi)

This all sounds very traditionalist, expressing the most conservative and Charedi approach. It’s presented as key characteristic of the book, even mentioned on the back cover: “Remaining true to the classic sources is the best way to let the Torah’s light shine forth.” Rabbi Meiselman engages in constant, constant, lengthy condemnations of those who do not have the right approach in such matters – as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve never seen a work spend so much time issuing condemnations of everyone who has the “wrong” approach. He stresses that :
“Whoever wishes to be considered within the bounds of the Mesorah must take it as his point of departure.” (p. xxxvi)

The problem is that when we get to the main body of the book, and actually deal with Chazal’s statements about the natural world, Rabbi Meiselman tosses this approach out of the window!

I will be dealing with each of these topics in more detail in separate posts, but for now let us briefly note Rabbi Meiselman’s approach in several cases (with some direct quotations in parentheses at the end of each paragraph):
  • Chapter 10 deals with Chazal’s statements about the sun’s path at night, which all the Rishonim understand as saying that the sun goes behind the sky at night. Rabbi Meiselman says that all the Rishonim were wrong. (“…their interpretations are evidently incorrect,” in the section boldly titled “When the Commentaries are Mistaken.”)
  • Chapter 22 deals with Chazal’s statements about the development of insects, which all the Rishonim and Acharonim explain as referring to spontaneous generation. Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal were not talking about any such thing, and all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong. (“The Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted the Gemara in terms familiar to them… This does not mean that that is what Chazal had in mind, nor does it compel us to interpret the Gemara in the same way.”) 
  •  Chapter 23 deals with the mud mouse, which all the Rishonim and Acharonim understand to mean that Chazal believed in the existence of a mouse that spontaneously generates from mud. Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal did not mean any such thing, and all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong. (“The Rishonim make no claim, however, that their understanding of Chazal is complete and perfect.”)
  • Chapter 24 deals with Chazal’s description of a creature that nurses its young and yet lays eggs and is called atalef, which all the Rishonim and Acharonim understand to refer to the atalef of the Torah, i.e. a bat. Rabbi Meiselman says that Chazal did not mean any such thing, and all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong. (“Because our mesorah passes through them, and because we are aware of their intellectual greatness, we never take what the Rishonim say lightly. But when observable facts contradict their understanding…”)

So, again and again and again and again, Rabbi Meiselman declares that the Rishonim were all wrong in the way that they explained the Gemara. He has violated the very approach that he has insisted upon at the beginning of his book!

The reason why he ends up doing this is that he has put himself in an impossible position. On the one hand, he insists that any definitive statement about the natural world made by Chazal must be true. In addition, he insists that the Mesorah, and the explanations of the Rishonim, are unimpeachable. But on the other hand, he can’t avoid the fact that the sun does not go behind the sky at night, spontaneous generation is false, mice do not develop from mud, and bats do not lay eggs. Something has to give, and rather than say that Chazal were not aware of contemporary knowledge about the natural world, Rabbi Meiselman chooses to say that the Rishonim did not know how to learn the Gemara (as well as their being unaware of contemporary knowledge about the natural world).

The result is that we have the extraordinary hypocrisy of Rabbi Meiselman repeatedly violating the very approach that he insisted upon as being required of Torah-true Jews. For all his pontificating about how we do not impose our ideas upon the Tannaim, about how we do not attempt to understand the Gemara without the Rishonim, about how they were incalculably wiser and more attuned to the sources than we are, about how we may never say that the Rishonim were wrong, he goes ahead and violates every one of those principles, time and time again!

But aside from the hypocrisy, where is the humility and respect for the Rishonim? Rabbi Meiselman has repeatedly condemned the “arrogance” of those who say that Chazal were mistaken about a scientific fact. Now, I don’t see how there is any arrogance involved; we are not positing that we are more intelligent than Chazal, just that we have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge. But I don’t see any basis for claiming in these cases that the Rishonim misunderstood what Chazal were saying. On the contrary; since the Rishonim were much closer to Chazal, I think that there is every reason to believe that they understood the meaning of their discussions. It seems astonishing that Rabbi Meiselman, under the banner of humility, posits that all the Rishonim misunderstood Chazal, and only he has discovered Chazal’s true meaning!

The question is, what about Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, who insists that one must accept the way that the Rishonim explain Chazal, and that any other approach is heresy? Will he put Rabbi Meiselman’s book in cherem? Perhaps someone could show Rabbi Meiselman’s book to him and ask him for his response.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Torah, Chazal and Science (Updated)

I was unsure whether to begin this post with a description of my personal history with Rabbi Meiselman. Some would doubtless use it to brand me as petty or vengeful. But if I left it out, others (or perhaps even the same people) would say that I am trying to conceal a personal agenda. And so I have decided to present it.

During the Great Torah-Science Controversy of 2004-5, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Jerusalem attained notoriety for being by far the most vicious of my rabbinic opponents. The series of lectures that he delivered at Toras Moshe about my books was noteworthy for three reasons. One was that he repeatedly engaged in ad hominem insults. Two was that he engaged in the most bizarre and nasty slander, claiming that I had been thrown out of yeshivah in England for bad behavior (!). Three was that while he doubtless has many points of genuine disagreement with me, almost every single one of his references to my works, that he mentioned in order to refute, was something that is not in my works and which I never actually said.

I wrote a polite but forceful letter to Rabbi Meiselman in which I pointed all this out, but he neither retracted his slander nor responded to me. Since it was difficult for some people to believe that the reports that he was spreading about me and my work stemmed from nastiness rather than being an honest portrayal, and my account of his behavior was rather surprising and likewise hard for people to believe, I uploaded his three lectures to my website so that people could judge for themselves. Many people, including some supporters of Toras Moshe, were shocked at Rabbi Meiselman’s behavior, and protested to him.

At this point Rabbi Meiselman initiated his only communication to me, requesting me to remove the recordings from my website. I saw no reason to do so. In a subsequent interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times, Rabbi Meiselman claimed that “I never gave shiurim on this in my beis midrash. Someone taped a conversation that I had with some talmidim.” This was, however, contradicted by the very first words of Rabbi Meiselman’s first lecture, in which he stated that “he decided to discuss this with the entire student body.”

Possibly in an attempt to draw attention away from his lectures and regain credibility, Rabbi Meiselman decided to publish a lengthy book on the topic of Torah, Chazal and science, which was released this week and is descriptively titled Torah, Chazal and Science. In this book, Rabbi Meiselman does not issue any explicit ad hominem attacks on me at all; in fact, although he references countless sources, from both believers and atheists, he does not reference my books at all. However, although he claims that his book “is not directed against any single author,” there is no great mystery as to who he has in mind when he constantly refers dismissively to books on Torah and science written by “amateurs” (as though if I were a professional scientist, I would not believe that the world is billions of years old!) In addition, on several occasions Rabbi Meiselman issues rebuttals to the claims of “some writers,” where he is invariably referring to me; but on each occasion he is misrepresenting what I wrote. For example, on p. 262 he argues against the claim of “some modern authors,” who mistakenly believe that Chazal’s rule about animals lacking upper teeth being kosher is meant to be absolute, and who point out counterexamples. But in fact the conclusion and purpose of my discussion in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax is that Chazal’s rule about upper teeth is not meant to be absolute. Just as he did in his lectures, Rabbi Meiselman is still misrepresenting my views.

I will be reviewing Rabbi Meiselman's book in a series of posts, but let’s start with something basic. One of the first aspects of the book that stands out is the conspicuous absence of comments from other people. Books in this genre usually include approbations or praise from various authorities and experts. But in Rabbi Meiselman’s book, there are no approbations, nor sentences of praise of any sort. There is nothing from Gedolei Torah, nothing from academic scholars of Jewish studies, nothing from scientists.

This may seem surprising, until one reads the book and realizes why nobody will put their name on it. Presumably, no Gadol will endorse a book that repeatedly asserts that all the Rishonim and Acharonim were wrong (as I will detail in a forthcoming post). Presumably, no charedi Gadol will endorse a book that repeatedly and reverentially refers to Rav Soloveitchik (even though R. Meiselman portrays Rav Soloveitchik in a charedi revisionist way that is not shared by any other family member or disciple of the Rav), while no non-charedi Gadol will endorse a book that engages in charedi revisionism of Rav Soloveitchik. No academic scholar of Jewish studies will endorse a book that is so ahistorical in its approach to Chazal and that is so intellectually dishonest in its discussion of sources. No scientist (outside of Christian fundamentalists) will endorse a book that insists that all science dealing with periods longer than 5773 years ago – astronomy, geology, paleontology, biology, archeology – is nonsense.

With no endorsement from authorities in Torah or science, Rabbi Meiselman resorts to presenting himself as an authority. Time and again, he speaks dismissively of “amateurs” who address these topics (in fact, I’ve almost never seen a book that spends so much time denigrating others). In the first pages of the preface, and again on pp. 673-4, he stresses that this topic can only be addressed by people with "training in the sciences." He repeatedly condemns literature on Torah and science that “has not been written by people trained simultaneously in Torah and science.” The back flap states that Rabbi Meiselman was “trained by some of the greatest names in mathematics, philosophy and the sciences at two of America’s premier universities.”

Yet Rabbi Meiselman himself is not extensively trained in the natural sciences! What the back flap does not reveal is that his degree is in mathematics. As we will see in reviewing the book, Rabbi Meiselman has no knowledge of even the basics of astronomy, geology, paleontology, archeology, and biology - all fields in which he claims to have fundamentally refuted the most basic facts. Even more to the point, the “greatest names in mathematics, philosophy and the sciences” that taught Rabbi Meiselman "at two of America’s premier universities" would consider his theories in these areas to be amateur nonsense. Claiming that his work has scientific authority on the grounds that he was trained by the greatest names in science is like claiming that Louis Jacobs had Orthodox rabbinic authority because he was taught by Rav Dessler.

To be continued...

UPDATE: I will be updating this post with links to the various posts critiquing this book, as I publish them:
R. Meiselman: All The Rishonim Were Wrong, Again And Again And Again
Rabbi Meiselman Tries To Hide From The Sun
Anti-Rationalist Mania
A Mistake In Science, Or A Mistake In Torah?
Omitting Inconvenient Sources
When Is A Mesorah Not A Mesorah?
The Limits of Science
Metzitzah and the Rav
Metzizah and the Rav Part II
Mouse Torture
A Recipe for Intellectual Dishonesty
Rambam on Demons and Segulos
Chinese Dinosaurs and Challenging Camels 
That's Bats!
The Bat, The Platypus, And The Echidna 
Rav Soloveitchik's Spectacular Failure
Confronting Dinosaurs
Egg-Laying Elephants and Overly-Pregnant Wolves
The Rav, Cosmology, and Evolution

And here are David Ohsie's posts regarding R. Meiselman's claim that, based on Rambam, one can pasken the age of the universe:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Seeking Peace, Or Immunity?

(I really hope that this will be the last post relating to Orthodox societal problems - at least for a while! I have a post about Ghostbusters and rationalism/ mysticism that I hope to present very soon.)

In the aftermath of the elections, tensions between charedim and non-charedim here in Bet Shemesh are at an all-time high. People have left their shuls, people have been kicked out of their shuls, people have asked their rabbis to leave their shuls. There has been a huge protest against the improprieties involved in the election. Mr. Y. posted the following message to a local email list:
I do request from those that are protesting and from the general public to stay focused on the issue being protested and not to allow the process to degenerate into an insult slinging contest.

Some of the language that was being used by protesters on Thursday night was really inappropriate and contained delegitimization and dehumanization of certain residents of Rama Aleph and Bet. Terms that reflect a very frightening perspective on the polarization of our community.

I am concerned that if the community allows the situation to deteriorate we may face a disaster... let's keep in mind that at the end of the day we are one nation.
Doesn't that sound great? He's campaigning against delegitimization and dehumanization and slinging insults. Boruch Hashem!

The problem is, this same Mr. Y. is rather notorious for making a public statement that there are two categories of people: those who want to increase Torah learning and Jewish families, such as Moshe Rabbeinu and Rambam, and those who want to do the opposite, such as Nebuchadnezzar, Hitler, and Dov Lipman. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I wrote to him to ask how his description of Rabbi Lipman is to be reconciled with his campaigning against delegitimization and dehumanization and slinging insults. He answered that he believes that Rabbi Lipman is a rasha, and so it doesn't apply to him; it's a mitzvah to denounce a rasha.

Now, ordinarily I wouldn't bother commenting on the actions of one person, but this is part of a larger phenomenon. Consider this: a charedi resident of my neighborhood sent out a public letter calling on people to practice ahavat chinam (baseless love) rather than sinat chinam (baseless hate). Sounds wonderful, right?

The problem is the examples that he gave of people failing at ahavat chinam and succeeding at sinat chinam. His example of the former was the dati-leumi community failing to simply give their school, Orot, to the extremists who violently protested their using it. He wrote about how they should have understood the sensitivity of those who can't abide to see women dressed immodestly by their standards, and even though it was their school, they should have been mevater and given it to that community. Hashem is prolonging the exile because they did not do this.

But as a friend of mine pointed out, surely it's presumptuous to demand ahavat chinam on someone else's behalf. Why would he expect the dati-leumi community to shoulder all the burden of sensitivity, before asking their attackers to be minimally civil?

The second example that this person gave was of people talking about the eight charedim arrested for having 200 identity cards that were to be used for electoral fraud. He said that it's sinat chinam to make this charge; one should assume that they were collecting the identity cards so that people in their community would not vote in the Zionist elections.

Of course, it's not sinat chinam to believe that it was electoral fraud; the facts clearly point to it. All of the identity cards belonged to people who are living abroad and who are barred from voting in the municipal elections. (Not to mention that they were found together with a large number of head coverings, indicating that there were plans for disguises.) But the broader point to notice here is that both examples given by this person were of alleged shortcomings in the non-charedi community, and included an attempt to stifle criticism of charedim.

One final example. As posted here, one local doctor issued some criticisms of the charedi "Four Doctors" electoral campaign. One of the four doctors responded, criticizing him for fomenting divisiveness, and asked, Why can't you be tolerant of different people? He quoted Moshe Gafni, speaking at the Rav Steinman rally in Bet Shemesh, about how machlokes is bad. Doesn't that sound like the words of a peacemaker, who is interested in coexistence with all types of people?

But in fact it was nothing of the sort! I read a transcript of Gafni's speech, and he was NOT saying that machlokes is bad and that therefore we have to love each other despite our differences. He was saying that machlokes is bad and that therefore everyone has to vote for the same charedi party!

I could give other examples, but I think that the point is clear. There are some people who talk about ahavat chinam and tolerance and the importance of speaking positively and the evils of lashon hara, and who are clearly bothered by such things across the board, and that's great. But there are others who talk about these things, and one is forced to ask, is this really what bothers them? After all, they don't seem to be bothered about applying this to how people in their own community treat people outside of their community. It seems that what actually bothers them are criticisms of the charedi world. All the speeches about ahavat chinam and tolerance and the importance of speaking positively and the evils of lashon hara are merely an attempt to gain immunity from such criticism. (There are doubtless also examples of this occurring the other way around, with people from the non-charedi community. But I don't think that there is the same degree of inconsistency.)

Still, one could ask as follows: Whatever their motivations, isn't it good that they are asking for these things? But the answer is no. Since they obviously do not issue such protests about charedi behavior, the only effect of these protests is to make everyone else resent them all the more. You don't attain peace by attempting to whitewash or stifle criticisms of the wrongdoing in your own camp.

I want to finish on a positive note, so here's a link to a story about a wonderful initiative to bridge the gap between religious and secular Jews by having joint Shabbat meals. An amazing six thousand families took part! There's hope for us yet!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Haters of Torah, Lovers of Torah

Over the last few months, many people have used the phrase "haters of Torah" to describe those opposed to the Israeli charedi lifestyle (or even just to describe those who vote for mayors that they believe will manage cities more professionally).

I'm amazed at the gall of people who use such a phrase. Rambam was strongly opposed to people who study Torah and expect to be supported, describing such a person as having "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." Was Rambam also a "hater of Torah"?

Of course, it's not just the mass-kollel system to which people object. It's also attempts to force one's lifestyle upon others, slander, offensive and violent behavior, abusing the power of rabbinic authority, and so on. None of these are "Torah"; rather, people hate them because they are the opposite of Torah. In a particularly ironic twist, many of the people who use the term "Haters of Torah" are precisely the people who engage in this behavior - or who effectively enable it by refusing to protest it.

Anyway, here's an item that came my way which illustrates exactly which kind of Torah people hate and which kind of Torah people love:
Alon Davidi, former director of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva was elected the new mayor of Sderot.

Why did a town with only 25% religious people vote this way, while in Jerusalem you can't get a religious candidate to win?

The answer is simple - what kind of Torah example are we living?

Is it a Torah of Kiddush Hashem or Chilul Hashem? Is it a Torah of Messirut Nefesh or self-interest? Is it a Torah that connects with the community or a Torah that seeks to cut itself off from the community? Is a Torah that gives or takes?
Sderot Hesder Yeshivah has Torah of kiddush Hashem, mesirut nefesh for people in need (giving support for people living under rocket fire in Sderot, and ultimately serving in the army themselves), seeking to connect with the community and to give. That's the kind of Torah that everyone loves.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Stay In Bet Shemesh?

Well, the results of the election are in. And unfortunately, they are not good. Charedi incumbent Moshe Abutbol won the election by 1800 votes, which is at least 9 people (ba-da-bum!).

A local dati-leumi rabbi just shared a thought: Perhaps we, the supporters of Eli Cohen, could have been victorious had we employed the tactics of Moshe Abutbol and his supporters:
  • Illegally recruiting schools and children into the campaign;
  • Using Holocaust imagery to portray the other side;
  • Having a team of people working on collecting identity cards to vote multiple times;
  • Using municipal resources to further our own campaign and harm that of others;
  • Lying to Gedolei HaDor in order to recruit their support;
  • Capitalizing on rabbinic authority to intimidate people into accepting our voting directive;
  • Driving around the neighborhood, blasting out prayers over loudspeakers describing the opposing campaign as the enemy of the Jewish People;
  • Creating pseudo-religious methods of manipulating votes;
  • Having community rabbis use their public forum for sharing divrei Torah to instead engage in political campaigning;
  • Convincing local physicians to compromise their professionalism and capitalize upon it in a misleading way;
  • Making posters depicting Abutbol side-by-side with the violent extremists who support him, just as Abutbol made posters depicting Eli Cohen side-by-side with Lapid;
  • Claiming the support of rabbis on the other "team," even when this is entirely false.
But, continued the rabbi, we have our Jewish ethical values, which we stuck to, and can be proud of. Better to lose the election and maintain one's integrity and values, than to win the elections by compromising them.

Those were his thoughts. But, I was thinking, where does that leave me? How can I live in a city which is on a track of accelerating charedization, where the Israeli flag is routinely ripped off my car, where charedim try to forcibly prevent everything from restaurants with outside seating to public exercise equipment, where the mayor and mainstream Anglo-charedi rabbonim refuse to take a stand against violent extremists and treat the dati-leumi population with a complete lack of respect, and where in the future, the position of mayor will simply be determined by the askanim? Why stay in Bet Shemesh?

Pondering my options, I thought about friends of mine who have gone into kiruv, outreach. True, it's a difficult lifestyle. You are living in an environment that does not reflect Torah values. You and your children are in contact with Jews who have no idea what Judaism is about. But, as everyone appreciates, it's valuable to make such a sacrifice in order to be able to inspire and educate others towards a true Torah lifestyle.

I've decided that I want to do that.

And so I'm staying in Ramat Bet Shemesh.

Ramat Bet Shemesh is a wonderful opportunity for kiruv! Here, one is surrounded by people who are unfortunately unaware of correct Torah values. They go against Chazal's directives about how one should work rather than live off charity, and about how one must educate one's children to be able to support themselves. They don't know how to act with derech eretz towards people from different communities. They don't understand the responsibilities of being part of Am Yisrael.

It's a great opportunity to inspire and educate them! We can show them that there are good Jews and Torah scholars who wear colored shirts and even kipot srugot. We can show them how to lead life as a Jew with Torah values - working for a living, contributing towards the nation. We can show them wonderful shuls. We can show them the benefits of charity organizations that lead people towards independence, with the help of social workers and other professionals, rather than fostering dependence. We can show them the benefits of child-protection services that report to the authorities rather than to rabbis. We can show them wonderful yeshivot that combine Torah with chessed and Zionism. We can show them how dedication to one's community and even having political goals does not need to mean compromising integrity, ahavat Yisrael or derech eretz.

Plus, it's not as though I'm all alone here. About 47% of the city shares this outlook. I live in a wonderful neighborhood with terrific like-minded people who proudly fly the Israeli flag. I teach in a fantastic dati-leumi American yeshivah. There are at least a dozen wonderful dati-leumi and charedi-lite shuls. There are excellent dati-leumi schools for my kids. Each year, there are people in the charedi community here (often Anglo immigrants) who, like I did a few years ago, suddenly realize, What on earth have I gotten myself into?, and want to jump ship to join the dati-leumi community. We need to maintain our framework for absorbing them.

Here is a quote from one of the comments to this post, written by a neighbor of mine who inspired me towards this line of thought:
My close friend and I have been saying that for all these years. While some friends sought out "emotional comfort" in all dati-leumi communities, we chose to stay here and to be involved. (She started the local mo'etzet nashim which unites women from literally ALL communities.)
We are here because we don't live in Israel in order to hide among people who are "like us." We are here to interact with people who think differently, who make us have to check and recheck our values regularly, and people whom we can, b'ezrat Hashem, teach by example what Torah and Yir'at Shamayim is all about.
I am proud of my children for taking up the challenge, for being active and involved, for getting others involved, for recognizing that elections are not just about RBS , to which perhaps Abutbul will tend as he has so many supporters here, but rather that elections are about the Vatikim, the Olim from Russia and Ethiopia, the elderly, the children with Special Needs, the handicapped, and so many more.
I sincerely believe that we are capable of continuing to work together, as Eli truly got us to do, with Jews of all stripes, to find the common ground...

Yes, I'm happy to live in Ramat Bet Shemesh. It's a wonderful environment and opportunity to bring people closer to Judaism.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Daas Torah Voting Tefillah

Just when you had thought that you've seen everything... here is a flyer that was delivered to my house today, along with a credit-card sized version that fits into one's Identity Card wallet:

You could base an entire course about Ultra-Orthodox Judaism around this flyer. Look at how many elements of charedi society it reflects:

1) The bizarre notion that Rav Chaim Kanievsky is correctly informed about the different candidates and parties running for election - despite only having met one of them.

2) The notion that people are obligated to follow the dictates of the Charedi Gedolim.

3) The claim that by doing so, one fulfills the mitzvah of V'asisa k'chol asher yorucha - despite the fact that according to the dominant view in the Rishonim, this only applies to the Sanhedrin.

4) The prayer being for children who are talmidei chachamim (i.e. learning in kollel), and who enjoy plentiful, easy parnasah - i.e. being supported by the rest of Israeli society.

5) The transformation of following Daas Torah from a directive to a religious ritual, complete with a prayer.

6) Finally, the most absurd aspect of all: The manipulation of the ritual into something that must follow a specific routine - the prayer must be said after placing the voting slip into the envelope (within a halachically defined minimum time?) in order to be effective! The Hebrew writing at the bottom stresses that this is "Very Important!" By describing how to manipulate the metaphysical forces correctly, it emphasizes the nature of voting for the charedi party as being a mitzvah.

This flyer is perhaps the ultimate example of manipulating Judaism for political ends.

Are You Allowed To Make Up Your Own Mind?

"Judaism is all about asking questions!" Whenever somebody says that - and when the context indicates that they are not talking about questions such as "What happens if the fleishig spoon falls into the milchig sink?", but rather theological questions of a more fundamental nature - it's a fair guess that they are returnees to Judaism who came to observance via a particular outreach organization. This organization knows that critical thinking and independent decision-making are greatly valued in modern society, and so it tells people that Judaism is all about that.

But is that really true? In the yeshivah that I went to Manchester, when one student praised another for asking a lot of theological questions, the rebbe got up and thundered, "A Yiddishe bochur doesn't ask why!"

Of course, it's difficult to say anything about what "Judaism is," since there are so many different forms of Judaism - rationalist, mystic, charedi, Zionist, chassidic, chabad, modern Orthodox, etc. Still, the main problem with the claim commonly issued by this outreach organization is that the particular form of Judaism to which they are trying to attract people - i.e., charedi Judaism - is most certainly not into asking theological questions.

I was reminded of this in the current Bet Shemesh elections - which, thankfully, are over today. This week's edition of weekly newspaper that was started by the mayor's spokesman, Chadash - yes, the one of Holocaust-imagery infamy - contained over one hundred pages of Abutbul propaganda. The English section was introduced with the following announcement:
WARNING: This pamphlet is intended for people who are capable of thinking on their own. If you believe that you are not that kind of person, please pass it to a friend who is. He may thank you profusely one day.
So, we are told, the Abutbol campaign wants people to think on their own! It wants people who will make up their own minds, not people who blindly follow others like sheep.

The problem is, much of the rest of the 100 pages of the propaganda is about how you absolutely must not make your own decision. There is pronouncement after pronouncement about how everyone is obligated to follow the voting directives of the Charedi Gedolim and how it is forbidden to separate oneself from the (charedi) community. And Rav Kornfeld even gave an interview to HaModia about how Anglos need to be educated to know that they do not have the right to make their own decision on whom to vote for.

I'm not so bothered by a society that believes that people are not allowed to make their own decisions. I'm much more bothered by a society which has that belief, and yet attempts to deceive people and pretend otherwise.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Who Is Responsible For Extremism?

I know that many people are sick of my posting about the Bet Shemesh elections. But it will be over on Tuesday. Meanwhile, there is a tragedy of historic significance occurring. The infamous extremism of Bet Shemesh - the usage of hateful language and violent actions - used to be found only in the Sikrikim of Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet. As of this election, it is found amongst many of the regular charedim of Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph. Consider the following email that was sent to local mailing list:
At 13:50 on Friday, my wife was passing the RBS Alef shopping center, where she saw scores of religious boys (she estimates over a hundred) pelting Mr. Eli Cohen with papers and hounding him into a hasty retreat into a nearby car. There were numerous adults watching this incident, and apparently none of them saw it as their business to

This spontaneous outpouring of sina’ah has deeply shocked me. It wasn’t that these lovable 10 year olds are disillusioned with Mr. Cohen’s plans for urban development, or even have any idea who this person is. It was just a pure, spontaneous outpouring of hatred. It seems to balance quite well as the flip-side of the barbed-wire imagery from last week’s Chadash.

PLEASE, for the sake of our city, let’s ask our politicians where they think this hatred comes from, and what they are going to do to see to it that it is wiped off the face of our city BEFORE these overenthusiastic 10 year olds turn into a next generation of 20 year
old thugs.

Daniel Michaels
Here is a letter written by a friend of mine, Rabbi David Bar-Cohn - a very upbeat, positive person - about the situation:


Last week, Mayor Moshe Abutbul put out a Q&A pamphlet in English addressing questions about his leadership over the past five years. Emblazoned on the first page is the phrase "No Holds Barred," referring presumably to the tough questions he was prepared to field. But to me the phrase evokes something else – namely, the way his own campaign was conducted, where at notable times indeed zero holds were barred – where the rules of common decency were flouted, where the Torah he set himself up as representing was degraded beyond measure.

I want to cite just one section of this pamphlet to make a larger point. In the section called "Promoting Peace and Tolerance," addressing the Orot Banot debacle/tragedy, Moshe Abutbul states that he couldn't stop the violence because he has no sway over the police, because his "message of sensibility and peace was drowned out by the media circus", and that really it wasn't his problem – it is former mayor Vaknin who's to blame for placing the school where it is. I could go on, but his main point is that he claims to have handled the situation to the best of his ability. The problem however, is that even if that were the case, it's abundantly clear that the best of his ability wasn't nearly good enough. It was a situation that should have been stopped immediately, and it was allowed to go on – day after horrendous day. And in my opinion "dayeinu" – that resounding failure alone is reason enough to bring someone else in to take over the job.

Just to briefly address one point about the media... While the media may be partly to blame for fueling anti-charedi sentiment, it's not to blame for the daily intimidation and heckling of little girls on their way to school, nor does it absolve leaders (civic or rabbinic) of their responsibility to stop such public abuse of children in its tracks. Extremist behavior and the media's reaction to it are two separate issues – and if any charedi leader had the discernment to differentiate between these two things, and the courage to leave the safety of his beis midrash and put his own body between the thugs and the girls, not only would this have helped to stop a terrible wrong, but I believe it would have also gone a long way toward dispelling negative generalizations against "all charedim", which was the biggest concern of mainstream charedi leaders at the time – or at least the concern they were far and away the most vocal about.

To spend one's energies chastising the whistle-blowers rather than the "whistle-blown" – which Abutbul essentially does in this interview, and which his weekly newspaper "Chadash" did ad nauseum at the time, is a classic victim-blaming tactic – the mark of institutionalized corruption. It's a desire to defend "one's own" rather than defend "what's right", something which should be unthinkable for any Torah Jew.

I understand that there's a lot which is not under Moshe Abutbul's control. Neither he nor the vast majority of decent, law-abiding charedi citizens are directly to blame for the actions of "Sikrikim" – any more than normal, decent Yehuda-Shomron residents are directly to blame for "Price Tag" extremism. However, what I saw in this election campaign, and which is under Moshe Abutbul's control, and which he cannot (at least in any kind of good conscience) make similar excuses about, is the appallingly hateful rhetoric that was used on his behalf. This is rhetoric which was only a half-step up from the language of the Sikrikim themselves.

To be sure, I've also heard all too many hateful statements in recent weeks and months made by individuals against Abutbul and against charedim in general. It's loathsome and inexcusable, and it shows that no one – not even a person committed to "fighting the good fight" – is immune to becoming extreme. But there's extreme and then there's extremist. There's an individual online being a hothead, and then there's an organized campaign putting out the actual offending propaganda. There's hate being fomented in the name of politics, and then there's hate being shamelessly peddled to the religious masses in the name of Torah.

To the Abutbul campaign and supporters:
You want to consider yourselves separate from thugs who yell out "Nazi" at non-charedim (like the thugs who showed up at the Abutbul campaign event a few nights ago)? Then why do you use images clearly evocative of the Holocaust in ads against your opponent?

You're up in arms at the media for unfairly demonizing charedim? Then why do you have cars going around town blurting out "Avinu malkeinu, hafer atzas oyveinu!" You refer to Eli Cohen with a phrase typically reserved for the likes of Ahmadinejad, and you think this is fair, acceptable? Did you think no one would notice?
You speak in such "sensible" language in your Q&A directed to English-speakers, using terms like "congeniality" and "diverse populations," while the rabbinic pronouncement says "chas v'shalom" that anyone should vote for a "non-charedi" and that anyone who does so is a poresh min hatzibbur?

I can forgive the Abutbul campaign for negative campaigning and ripping down signs, just like I forgive the Eli Cohen campaign for doing the same. I can even forgive Abutbul for some of the terrible mistakes he made over the past five years (if he'd only own up to those mistakes and ask for forgiveness). But what I have a harder time forgiving is the shameless peddling of hate and paranoia on the part of his campaign and supporters.

Abutbul campaign – I hold you responsible for nurturing the extremism of the Sikrikim by echoing their very rhetoric. I hold you responsible for the fact that kids at your recent rally were stomping on an Eli Cohen poster gleefully yelling "shegetz". (Israeli and English-speaking kids alike, by the way.) I hold you responsible should any extremist unrest take place in the wake of an Eli Cohen victory. I hold you responsible for helping to make extremism mainstream.

And this is where I have to turn to my decent, moderate charedi friends of U.S./Anglo origin and say: "We're not in Kansas anymore". This isn't charedi America where everyone's concern is "middos" and "menschlichkeit" and "ehrlichkeit". Don't let the soft, reasonable words and happy songs coming out of the English/sanitized side of the Abutbul mouthpiece make you blind to – or brush off – the hateful, over-the-top extremist rhetoric coming out from the other side.

Moshe Abutbul himself is a decent guy. No, he won't be getting my vote, but I recognize that being a public servant is a very tough job that involves tremendous personal sacrifice, and I thank him for it. You want to vote for him? Fine – I have no problem with that. But my friends, if this campaign didn't wake you up to the fact that the Israeli charedi world does not represent the same values you prized in chutz la'aretz – that it plays by a very different set of rules, wherein ahavat Yisrael and menschlichkeit are casually thrown under the "Mehadrin bus" for a few votes... If you're willing to just shrug off the inexcusable anti-Torah, anti-Jewish, anti-everything-you-believe-in rhetoric used in – and by – the Abutbul campaign... If you don't speak up to your Rav, to your kids' schools, to your local charedi media, to Abutbul himself, that you identify as charedi but cannot and will not accept this kind of garbage, then you might want to ask yourself the questions: "What am I actually participating in, identifying with? What am I inducting my children into? If silence is consent, am I – in my own small way – being an accessory to extremism?"

Because come Wednesday morning, no matter who wins, we all have to live with each other. And I worry that because of the hysteria-laced, seemingly "Torah-endorsed" vitriolic propaganda used in this campaign, it's going to be that much harder to do. So I beg everyone: Stand up to extremist rhetoric wherever you see it – call it what it is, expose it, and demand that it stop. Don't look at it as "just a few kooks" or "someone else's problem". No, the "kooks" are now mainstream. The extremism appears in the same publication as your Rav's d'var Torah. It's aided and abetted by people who make excuses for such language, who instead of looking inward and doing cheshbon hanefesh, point their finger at others who are "just as guilty", who say it's "none of my business", who justify the rhetoric as an "eis la'asos", who refuse to speak out on the grounds that it will "play into the hands of the anti-charedi media" – or other such rationalization. Is this really the Torah you know and love?

Then there's the jaded approach: "Eh, it's Israel – you have to play dirty." I don't know about you, but the only reason I'm here in Israel and living a committed life of Torah is out of idealism at what Torah and Am Yisrael stand for. And if I can't stand up and demand the bare minimum of what I came here to do... If it's OK when basic decency and "v'ahavta l'rei'echa kamocha" simply go out the window as soon as it becomes politically expedient, in order to win a local election... If we're willing to sit there while rhetoric which degrades the Torah is dressed up with Torah language no less, with the rubber stamp of Torah sages (and if that's not a page out of Orwell I'm not sure what is!) – and then all we can say is, "Yeah it's bad, but that's the way the game is played here," then I'm afraid it doesn't particularly bode well for the whole project – for us and our supposed "idealism."

If we don't demand more of our leadership, our rebbeim, our local media, the society we affiliate with – more of ourselves, then everyone will have lost this election. On the other hand, if we take this moment as an opportunity for clarity, to wake up to what's going on around us, and to muster the courage to call out extremist rhetoric even when it comes from "our side" – if we can work together to protect the ideals we know to be the very foundation of our lives and of Torah, and demand no less, then no matter what happens on Tuesday – we all win.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Who Is A Gadol?

Yesterday, Rav Steinman came to speak in Ramat Bet Shemesh. On his previous visit, he spoke about how goyim are murderers and thieves and fools, and about how one should not educate one's children towards earning a living. On this visit, he spoke about how one must vote for the charedi political party and mayor.

Some people in the community announced this event as being an opportunity to hear from "The" (sic) Gadol HaDor. So I thought that it would be valuable to share other people's perspective on who is The, or even A, Gadol HaDor.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is a prominent leader in the Religious Zionist community. Here is a fascinating extract from an article that he wrote, entitled "Who are the Torah Giants (Gedolei haTorah)?"
"Occasionally, people from the hareidi community question or attack my articles. Even though they are well aware that I strive to follow in the path of Maran Harav Kook zt”l, nevertheless they argue: “Why don’t you accept the authority of the Gedolei haTorah (eminent Torah scholars)?” The simple answer is: I don’t consider them Gedolei haTorah.

"They definitely are important talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) whose fear of sin precedes their wisdom, educate many disciples, and it is a mitzvah to respect them. But they are not Gedolei haTorah.

"Gadlute beTorah (Torah greatness, eminence) necessitates an
all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the
generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its
diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the
attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and
the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the
attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and
economic questions."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Doctor's Response

(I am posting this open letter from a neighbor of mine. I think that it's excellent, though I do quibble with his praise of certain Anglo-charedi schools that are different - I don't know of any local Anglo-charedi schools that encourage kids to take a path that leads to college.)

Thoughts on the "four doctors" campaign from a Ramat Bet Shemesh doctor who is not on a sign 

Ever since the appearance of the "four doctors" campaign last month, hundreds of people - both Eli and Abutbol supporters alike - have questioned the exploitation of the medical profession toward a political goal, and the individual doctors and their kupot have received dozens of complaints. As an urgent care pediatrician who has treated thousands of children from all kupot and walks of life in Bet Shemesh, and as a friend and colleague of the three pediatricians on the banner, I have been inundated over the past month regarding my opinion and stance on this issue. Still others, knowing that I strongly support Eli Cohen, have questioned why I have limited my public support to a two-inch photo which was part of a montage of young and old supporters from all professions, hashkafot and backgrounds. So I am writing to discuss these and other issues related to the four doctor campaign, including an aspect that may be of unexpected benefit to the community.

So, why didn't I want to be on a poster? Besides the fact that blowing me up to the size of a four-story building accentuates my wrinkles and new grey hair, I worry that such a big-brother approach might alienate my patients and their parents. I can imagine some Haredi family, indoctrinated that Eli supporters are sinful to the point of being חייב סקילה might see my three-meter face smiling from some crane on the way to Terem for stitches or on the way to my house on Shabbat for an allergic reaction. Then - lo and behold - the man behind the stethoscope is none other than ד'ר אפיקורס himself.

But all kidding aside, while I understand that my colleagues felt obligated by Rabbinical mandate to support the Abutbol campaign, I do not believe something as sensitive, personal, and precious as the trust endowed in the medical care of one's child should be used to support or influence one's political outlook. If you were disturbed, I urge you to speak with them personally; they are all very approachable.

In fact, I believe there has been some good that has come from the "four doctors" campaign, in that it has re-ignited the debate and controversy regarding the deprivation of secular knowledge that many Anglos impose upon their children. This deprivation is contrary to the extensive secular education enjoyed by the parents they love and emulate, and therefore it is viewed as hypocritical by their children. The line on the initial poster read: "What do these four doctors have in common?" The joke around the city - repeated to me innumerable times - is that an appropriate answer would be "Well, none of their children will be doctors." This response, even when made in jest, is unfair - we really don't know what will become of our youth.

But the question remains: If the Anglo-Charedi community holds the value of advanced secular education in disdain, then why, when choosing its spokesmen for the mayoral campaign, did the campaign chose four doctors at all? If the campaign was looking for symbols of authority and respect, then instead of four doctors "uniting forces" from different kupot, why not four Rabbis, or four Avrechim, "uniting forces" from different kehillot? Obviously, the respect accredited these men derives from the fact that they are physicians. And ironically, each of them got that way by immersing for over 25 years in intense secular education. This is not sinful; on the contrary, these four Anglo-Haredi men are models of success. They have proven that someone can be both a Torah Jew and a physician, that the world of secular studies, gainful employment, and professional contribution to society need not contradict, but rather can and should complement the world of Torah.

So the question being asked (albeit quietly) among many of my Anglo-Charedi friends is very simple: If the four doctors can do it, then why can't my child too? And why should I be the one to tell him he can't? Similarly, we can only guess how many children look up at those towering four men in their black kippot and stethoscopes and say - "Wow - to be a talmid chacham and a doctor - just like the Rambam and Ramban! Now why can't I do that? Why won't my parents let me try?"

Some Anglo-Charedi schools in our area, to their credit, have attempted to address this issue with expanded curriculum and counseling. Sadly, other institutions have taken a more insular and reactionary approach, setting more restrictive guidelines of admission and enforcement, even to the point of refusing admission solely on the basis of some questionable, petty aspect of dress, technology or other vestige of "modernity" rumored to be in the home.

I am aware that many would prefer to ignore these issues. For daring to bring them up, I will indeed be branded by some as ד'ר אפיקורס. But these issues are real, and ignoring them won't solve the problem. Next week the election will be over, and we will go on with our lives. But the four doctors campaign has fortunately given the Anglo-Charedi community something to think about, the opportunity to discuss important issues, and if something can be done, then that would truly be "progress you can't deny."

Wishing everyone a year of good health,

Moshe Halberstadt

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Else Do These Doctors Have In Common?

Several years ago, someone penned an article to rebut the claim that charedi society in Israel is opposed to higher education and professional careers. The article presented a fascinating case in point: one of the veterinarians at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is charedi! And a woman, no less!

As a neighbor, friend, and colleague of the veterinarian mentioned, I felt that the article was highly misleading. She is a ba'alas teshuvah who received the bulk of her education (and started vet school) before she was charedi. Israeli charedi society certainly doesn't encourage or enable its people to become veterinarians!

I was reminded of this during the current election campaign in Bet Shemesh. Four very fine people, whom I know personally, have been selected by the charedi mayor to be the Anglo face of his campaign. He has offered them various incentives in exchange for their support, and their faces are plastered on posters throughout Bet Shemesh. Now, why is Mayor Abutbol and his supporters so enthusiastic to have these people on his team? The answer is that they are doctors.

Everyone respects doctors. You have to study really, really hard, for many, many years, in order to become a doctor. They are intelligent, men of science, who value knowledge. They are sworn by the Hippocratic Oath to help people - and they do.

And so when the posters declare, "What Do These Doctors Have In Common?" the point is not merely that these four men all support Abutbol - it's that these four men are all doctors, and they all support Abutbol. Nobody would put up a poster saying, "What Do These Four Supermarket Shelf-Stackers Have In Common?" But by presenting doctors, you are capitalizing on all the positive qualities that being a doctor represents.

And here's where the posters are very misleading. Because there's something else that these particular four doctors all have in common: Not one of them placed his children on a path where they could also become doctors.

All these doctors have moved to a very different direction in life from when they became doctors. They all send their kids to charedi schools in which there is minimal secular education. Such schools do not direct their students towards college; in fact, they prevent them from such a path.

And so I don't think that it's particularly significant that these four Abutbol-supporters are all doctors. It is much more significant that all the local doctors who still properly value being doctors, in that they send their children to schools that provide a full secular education and encourage their students towards professional careers such as medicine - are (and I'm guessing here, but I think it's a safe guess) voting for Eli Cohen rather than Moshe Abutbol.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Differences Between Charedi and Dati-Leumi Rabbanim

Even if you don't live in Bet Shemesh, the municipal elections are extremely instructive. For example, they bring out the differences between charedi and dati-leumi (national-religious) rabbis.

Here is a letter by local Charedi rabbonim in support of incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbol (click to enlarge):

And here is a letter by local Dati-Leumi rabbanim in support of challenger Eli Cohen (click to enlarge):

Note the striking differences:

1) Authority.

The dati-leumi rabbanim "call upon" people to "work for" the election of Eli Cohen.

The chareidi rabbonim, on the other hand, say that it is an "obligation" to vote for Abutbol, and that it is "forbidden to separate from the community." They add that those who do so are in the category of "blessed is the one who fulfills this Torah" - with the unspoken but obvious inference that those who do not, are in the category of "cursed is the one who does not fulfill this Torah."

This is consistent with how one of the signatories, Rabbi Elimelech Kornfeld, said in an interview with HaModia that people have no right to choose who to vote for - they must follow (charedi) rabbinic opinion. Abutbol himself, at a recent community meeting, told the audience that his answers to their questions don't matter - they should vote for him because the Gedolim said so.

(I must add that one of the signatories to this letter later clarified that he doesn't think that people are actually obligated to vote for Abutbol, if they strongly feel otherwise. Personally, I think that this makes thing worse - why did he sign something that he doesn't agree with?)

In the ultimate example of this, Rav Chaim Kanievsky stated that anyone who does not vote for the charedi party is chayyav sekilah - liable for being stoned to death!

We see that charedi rabbonim use their position to exert maximal power and control over their followers. Dati-leumi rabbanim have more respect for their followers.

2) Positive vs. Negative.

The dati-leumi rabbanim speak only about the positive importance of voting for Eli Cohen.

The charedi-rabbanim speak about the negatives of voting for anyone opposing Abutbol - "chas v'shalom to vote for someone who is not Charedi or for a party that the Rabbonim do not approve of."

3) The Nature of Torah Values.

I don't think that it's reading too much into things to say that the Jewish values that are stressed by the charedi rabbonim in this letter are exclusively bein adam l'Makom - religious matters between man and God.

The dati-leumi rabbanim, on the other hand, not only speak about the importance of Shabbat and religious life, but also stress how Eli Cohen will be fulfilling the mitzvah of Ve'ahavta lereyacha kamocha.

This difference in values is consistent with the candidates' respective campaigns. Eli Cohen's campaign has been clean. Abutbol's campaign has centered upon character assassination, hate-mongering, and even physical violence. The Chadash newspaper, which is the mayor's mouthpiece, charged Eli Cohen five times the normal price for printing an ad - but then did not print the ad! (A criminal complaint is pending.) And see this post at "Life In Israel:" How Can They Support This?

For the charedi rabbonim, "Torah values" only refers to bein adam l'Makom; bein adam l'chavero can be sacrificed in support of that. For the dati-leumi rabbanim, bein adam l'chavero is of at least equal importance.

4) Sectorial vs. Community-Wide Concerns

The charedi rabbonim stress how Abutbol, and the charedi party, are the best for furthering charedi concerns and the interests of the charedi community.

In contrast, the dati-leumi rabbanim write about how Cohen is the best for all the residents of the city, from charedi through non-religious.

In fact, tonight I attended a rally of dati-leumi rabbanim in support of Eli Cohen (see picture at right). The constant theme was about how it is not a matter of Eli Cohen being the best person for the dati-leumi community, but about him being the best mayor for everyone. Eli himself spoke mostly about how he wants to make the city better for charedim. While Moshe Montag of the Charedi "Chen" party reportedly stated that he wants to take away the plot of land for Lemaan Achai, the non-charedi charity organization, the dati-leumi rabbanim stressed that they have no interest in advancing their own community concerns over those of charedim or chilonim. One rav spoke in dismay about how a charedi friend of his assumes that if Eli Cohen wins, there will be "payback" and subsequent favoring of the dati-leumi sector. The dati-leumi rabbanim just don't think in those terms! Unlike the charedi rabbanim, they are interested in the welfare of all Jews in the city, not just those of their own constituencies. (I plan to write a post with further discussion of this point.)

As I said, the Bet Shemesh elections are instructive for Jewish society in general.

Friday, October 11, 2013

He Will Send Your Children To CONCENTRATION CAMPS!

I didn't want to post any more about the Bet Shemesh elections, but then I saw this week's Chadash newspaper. Chadash was started by Mayor Abutbol's spokesman, and solidly (and exclusively) supports him. This week, amongst the many pro-Abutbol and anti-Cohen ads was this monstrosity:

Yes, it's a picture of charedi children behind barbed wire, i.e. using imagery of a concentration camp. That's what charedim are presenting as depicting Eli Cohen's aim!

Sure, a lot of charedi supporters of Abutbol would roll their eyes at this ad. But it's strange that they don't mind being part of a campaign that is so hateful. Apparently it's only sins bein adam l'Makom that disqualify someone, not sins bein adam l'chavero. Besides, the same tribalism and siege mentality that results in an ad like this, is also found in most Abutbol supporters, albeit not to the same degree.

Eli Cohen isn't remotely anti-charedi. The Abutbol campaign is desperate to paint him that way, in order to rally people behind them. They keep insisting that he is a person that is inciting hatred against them and wants to destroy them, despite the fact that he clearly is nothing of the sort. The hate and incitement is coming from the Abutbol campaign.

In an ironic twist, one of the themes of Abutbol's campaign is that he is all about "love, not hate." I'm not sure how the above advertisement is supposed to square with that.

Coming up in next week's Chadash: How Eli Cohen wants to drink the blood of charedi children!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tribalism, Plus A Siege Mentality

In a post entitled Will Charedim Vote In Their Own Best Interests? I noted that in the forthcoming Bet Shemesh elections, it's clearly in the best interests of charedim to vote for the non-charedi candidate, Eli Cohen. Yesterday, I posted a letter from a charedi avreich who recognizes that. Why, then, will many charedim vote to maintain the incumbent charedi mayor, Moshe Abutbol? The answer, I posited, is tribalism.

After having had extensive discussions/ arguments with a friend who is campaigning for Abutbol, and a local rav who is a strong supporter of Abutbol, and reading the Abutbol campaign literature, I think that it's a combination of tribalism with a siege mentality.

The Abutbol campaign speaks about various things that he has achieved. This in itself doesn't mean much; anyone acting as mayor for five years, in a city growing enormously, is going to have some new things to show off. But I haven't heard anyone - not even my friend officially involved in the Abutbol campaign - even attempt to offer any arguments that Abutbol is actually a better mayor than Cohen would be, in terms of knowing how to run a city professionally and enhancing its economy. Perhaps they realize that such a claim would be a non-starter, in light of the relative training and achievements of Abutbol versus Cohen. Instead, the Abutbol campaign boils down to one single message: "Eli Cohen is the secular enemy of the charedim!"

This message appears in several manifestations. One is the charge that "Eli Cohen is not religious!" Of course, that's not necessarily a strike against him; after all, Nir Barkat is even less religious, and yet various Chassidic rebbes supported him. Nor is it clear how it is especially relevant for a mayor to be religious. Unless the idea is that you have to vote for someone who is "one of us" - in which case, are they saying that anyone who is not charedi should not vote for Abutbul, since he's not one of them?

Another manifestation of this message is the charge that "Eli Cohen is supported by Bennett and Lapid, who want to wipe out Torah!" This claim is also a little odd. First of all, Bennett and Lapid do not want to "wipe out Torah." They have nothing against the Torah of the dati-leumi community! They merely want to end the terrible system whereby tens of thousands of men do not share the burden of military defense nor contribute towards the economy nor fulfill their (Torah-mandated) obligation to support their families. Second, what does Eli Cohen have to do with Bennett and Lapid? Sure, they support him, but he wasn't their candidate; he started as an independent, and they only joined on later. Anyone who meets Eli Cohen will realize that he has no animosity whatsoever towards the charedi public, and wants to be a truly fair mayor. What exactly do people think that Cohen is going to do against charedim? The Abutbol supporters are broadcasting the absurd charge that he will run buses in charedi areas of Bet Shemesh on Shabbos. It's too nonsensical for words; there's simply no way that he would want to do it, or that it could ever happen (besides, who would even ride on such buses?). Finally, the clincher is that none other than Agudas Yisrael is running on a joint ticket with Bayit Yehudi in several cities in Israel - Rehovot, Bat Yam and Tel Aviv. If Agudas Yisrael can do it, why can't Eli Cohen?

Another manifestation of this message is that "The Gedolim are against him!" Well, yes, they are. Of course, if you are naive enough to think that the charedi Gedolim are good judges of what is beneficial for the charedi community - including enforced poverty and endless bans - and that they are fully aware of the relative merits of Moshe Abutbol versus Eli Cohen, then there's nothing to discuss.

I was gladdened to receive a letter, signed by about a dozen rabbanim/ roshei kollel of dati-leumi communities in Bet Shemesh, announcing their support for Eli Cohen. They declared that after investigating matters, they concluded that he is a good person who will work fairly for the best of all communities. Clearly these rabbanim don't see him as anti-Torah in any way, nor are they concerned about his running buses on Shabbos.

It's true that Eli Cohen will probably slow down the accelerating charedization of Bet Shemesh - but he will make a better city for the charedim that are already here, due to more professional administration of the city, attracting more business and thereby having an increased budget, and so on. Many charedim realize that. It's unfortunately that others are endlessly stuck in the "siege mentality" whereby anyone running against a charedi candidate is necessarily "the secular enemy." Maybe when they see how the city improves under Mayor Cohen, with no buses on Shabbos, they'll realize that this charedi siege mentality is an unwise and unhealthy attitude.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting flyer that I received today, from "Charedi Bnei Torah Disappointed With Abutbol."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Letter From A Charedi Jew Regarding The Bet Shemesh Elections

The following anonymous letter was delivered to my house on Friday. I decided to scan it and OCR it (you can download it as a PDF here). In the next post, I'll discuss the very revealing anonymous response that was delivered to my house today. For background on the Bet Shemesh elections, especially vis-a-vis the charedi community, see this post from a few weeks ago.

Don't Tell Anyone...

I wish I could tell you who I was. We likely have mutual friends, or may even know each other. But I can't reveal my identity. Why not? Because I am Charedi (wear a black hat, boys in cheder and girls in Bais Yaakov), live in RBS "A" and I'm voting for Eli Cohen.

The truth is that I've been able to 'read between the lines' that more than a few of my chaverim (including but not only those in kollel and chinuch) are thinking similarly — once you hear the facts, the case for Eli and against Abutbol is really, really strong. Still, to 'come out' publicly would cause too many problems for me and my family, so this letter is anonymous. I feel that I have an achryus to the tzibbur and so, in my small way, I am writing this letter in order to perhaps help others make a more informed decision. Whatever you decide is up to you, of course, but each of us should know the facts and not simply repeat what the mayor's people are saying.

Our family has been in RBS for many years. We spent a few years in Kollel in Yerushalayim and, when it was time to buy a dira, came to RBS. Prices were still relatively low and it was a young community of like-minded young frum families. In many respects, this was and is a great place to live. But in other ways, there are real problems here — and things are heading in a poor direction.
Let's start with basics: this town is disgusting. I know they've been cleaning it up over the last month... surprise, surprise — it is election time. But, over the last years, I feel like I'm living in an expensive slum. Seriously — my dira is worth close to 1. million shekels — as are many of yours — and yet there is garbage in the streets, garbage in the Mercaz, graffiti all over the place, etc. The municipality — if it was competent —CAN fix this. Beitar is not like this (and they have big families as well!). Har Nof is not like this. Even Geulah is not like this! Why are there only a few small trash receptacles in the entire Mercaz? Why only two on my street? Why is clean-up so random and ineffective? The previous mayor wasn't great — I voted against him, actually — but things have gotten much, much worse. My parents came to visit over bain hazmanim and couldn't stop talking about the (negative) change. Don't tell me there isn't money to clean up: (a) Abutbul has spent money on plenty of his pet projects; (b) he has put the city of Beit Shemesh into serious debt; (c) he just promised to build a 500,000 baseball field — yes, you heard right (He is a politician trying to buy votes, I suppose. Good luck.) My point is that there is money for things he cares about.
So I'm supposed to vote for Abutbol in order to protect Torah and Chinuch? I did that last time. Interesting that my daughter's Bais Yaakov is still in a caravan. Abutbol specifically promised to solve the problem. He has had FIVE YEARS and done NOTHING. In this and countless other areas, the incompetence of Abutbol is simply astounding. Call me a naïve chutznik, but I expect a mayor to actually improve the city. To do something. To help. He has made it worse and worse. Eli Cohen has been openly talking for years about the legitimate needs of Charedi kids to have proper schools and that all groups in the city will get along if their legitimate needs are met. I've done some serious checking: Eli is a straight, honest arrow. Above all, he is an able administrator. He is a veteran Likudnik. He openly quotes Torah and is a proud, traditional Jew. He is not anti-Charedi at all — quite the opposite.

Of course, I can't write this letter without mentioning the kanaim (the extremists). A small group of crazies —that is what they are — spit on a dati girl — and then spent months yelling "shiksa" at her and her friends as they walked to school every day. Terrible, to say the least. The Mayor had an opportunity — and I know for a fact it was suggested to him many, many times — to make a great Kiddush Hashem. He could have escorted her to school or asked for a group of volunteers to help. Instead, he rationalized, explained.., and did nothing. He didn't even condem it until forced to, way after the fact! His reaction — or lack thereof— was universally panned and make a chillul Hashem into a massive Chillul Hashem. Do you know that our city is now the 3'd most known city in Israel? People around the world have heard of Yerushalayim, Tel Aviv... and Beit Shemesh. It is not famous— it is infamous. What an embarrassment. Combined with his colossal incompetence, his international reputation for weakness against the extremists is causing serious problems for the city: No wonder businesses are staying away. Connected to this is the whole attitude of too many members of his 'inner clique.' They have turned this city into an 'us-vs.-them' battleground. Non-Charedim feel under attack. We all know the city is going more and more charedi. But it can happen with ahava and achva or it can happen with machlokes, lashon hara, motzee shem ra, and worse. Doesn't all this sinas chinam remind you a little too much of Beis Sheni?

"But the Gedolim say to vote for Charedim".... I know. That is what I've been struggling with. I'm a yeshiva man. Pictures of Gedolim take up much of my wall-space. I am fully aware of how important Daas Torah is. But it isn't so simple. In the last national elections, one of the main local RBS charedi rabbanim openly pointed out that a Ben Torah does not need to vote for the charedi parties. I couldn't bring myself to do it - I've always voted Gimmel — and will continue to do so in national elections. (How else can we stop the terrible gezeiros against the Torah world?) But this is a municipal election! This is about cleaning the streets, balancing the budget, and other such topics. Besides, the Gerrer Rebbe said to vote against the Charedi candidate in the last election for mayor of Yerushalyaim — he supported the (very) secular Nir Barkat! And, in our case, Eli Cohen is a very traditional, masorti Jew. This election has nothing to do with Yiddishkeit. In fact, Eli will be much better for our community.

Abutbol has proven himself completely incompetent at just about everything his job requires. He promises everything to everybody.., and accomplishes ZERO. Five more years of epic incompetence, machlokes, in-fighting, hatred and lack of planning? No thanks. Eli Cohen will clean the city. Eli Cohen will get the city's finances in order. In the long run, his victory will even help Shas and Gimmel by teaching them that they need to be competent, not just charedi! Eli's election will bring back business and investment to the city, leading to jobs, a broader tax base and better city services. His election will send a message of inclusiveness—that this city is not a model of hatred, but rather a model of achdus.

This city could have been — and can be —great. It can be a Torah city. It can be a clean city. It can be a city where the charedi community gets all the services it deserves — more than we get now! It can be a city where charedim, datiim, masortim, and even chilonim, get along and work things out. All this can and IY'H will happen — if we do the right thing and put Eli Cohen into office.

With warm regards

An anglo-Charedi resident of RBS "A"