Monday, September 29, 2014

Providence - Again!

Is everything that happens in our life providential? Is it all bashert? Is it all part of God's plan for us?

According to the great rationalist medieval scholars, generally not. (I discuss their views in The Challenge of Creation.)

But it's very hard for me to accept that perspective, because I see so much providence in my own life. I once wrote a post, "Providence In My Life," about how the various nefarious zealots who campaigned ten years ago to destroy Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky and myself all met their downfall in ways that delegitimized their "holy" mission. In this post, I'd like to discuss a different example.

Many years ago, when I was in the shidduch parashah, I started out with a very clear picture of what I was looking for. After many, many encounters which I really hoped and thought would work out, but didn't, I was beginning to despair of ever getting married. Then Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein suggested that I meet someone, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. My wife is not someone who conforms to my original (silly) criteria, and she doesn't even particularly like animals, but she is an amazing person who is good for me in ways that I never originally realized were so important.

When we were house-hunting, I very much wanted to find something with sufficient garden space to house my ever-increasing collection of unusual animals. That is not easy to find in Ramat Beit Shemesh, but I had an idea which, while not ideal, seemed to be the only possible option. I worked on it for months, trying to persuade the owner to sell, and it was going through, but then it fell through at the very last moment. I was extremely disappointed, and despaired of ever being able to find the type of place that I was looking for. Then someone showed me a home only a hundred yards from my apartment, which I had never realized was suitable. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

A few years ago, I began developing plans for a Biblical Museum of Natural History. For a year I was actively looking for a suitable temporary site, which was not easy to find. Six months ago I was recommended a building under construction in the nearby moshav of Zanoach. This seemed to be a good, and indeed the only, option, and my partner and I spent a long time working towards it. I even rented two rooms next to the building site and moved my entire collection of animals and artifacts over, in preparation to move into the building. Then, at the last minute, the whole thing fell through, due to technical obstacles. We were pretty devastated. We looked at several alternatives, and nothing was even close to fitting our requirements. I despaired of ever finding a suitable location. My wife pointed out to me that I had also despaired of finding a wife and a home, and that had worked out well, but with ruthless rationalist logic, I responded that this did not necessarily mean that this would happen every time.

Then, at the end of a whole day of scouring completely inappropriate locations, my partner noticed a "for rent" sign. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a building that was vastly more suitable than the one in Zanoach. And the rest, as they say, is history - The Biblical Museum of Natural History.

According to the strictly rationalist Rishonim, it would be wrong to view any of this as providential. But I can't help viewing it all that way!

More details about the museum to come!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Shofar Mistake

No time to write a post today, so I decided to re-post this hilarious post from two years ago. Wishing you all a year of health, happiness, and success!

My youngest child came home from gan with the following picture:

My eldest child, aged nine, pointed out a glaring mistake (I am so proud of her!) Can you spot it? I'm amazed at how many people I meet who have this misconception! (UPDATE: I am not referring to the fact that the head looks like that of a deer rather than a ram!)

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Avodah

We all have areas in which we need to improve and work on ourselves. Often, these are very private matters that we don't talk about to others. However, I am going to share with you something that is one of my areas of personal struggle. The reason why I am publicizing it is that it is something that is quite clearly important for everyone, from a Jewish and every other perspective. Rambam, in particular, stresses its importance as a path to God. If one doesn't do it, one is likely directly and indirectly falling foul of numerous Torah and rabbinic directives. And yet many people in the Orthodox community do not show any concern whatsoever about it. I'm not being "holier than thou"; I freely acknowledge that I myself am very, very bad at this, even though I have been told (and I intellectually recognize) that it is extremely important for me. I can make all kinds of excuses, but they are inadequate. Bli neder, I am going to try to work on this area, and b'ezras Hashem, which will only be helpful if I make the effort, I shall improve at it.

Can you guess what I'm talking about?

Scroll down for the answer...


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Who Doesn't Adopt "Modern" Values?

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, whom I greatly respect for many reasons quite aside from his being my shadchan, posted an article on Cross-Currents entitled Modern Orthodoxy Can Do Better. Amongst the points that he raised in the article was that if values are taken from contemporary non-Jewish society, then how are they timeless, Jewish values? "Why these values? How many other values in human civilization have come and gone?"

I think that he raises an excellent point - just look at the advertisement pictured here, which reflects the values of fifty years ago. On the other hand, a good friend of mine called Joseph submitted a lengthy and very interesting comment. Unfortunately it got lost in cyberspace, and nobody is looking at that post anymore, so I decided to present it as a guest post:
...As to the key point Rabbi Adlerstein raises, perhaps a little more self-awareness is in order. Were both he and Dr Brody planted in fifth century Mehoza, I'm not convinced he would find the adjustment to the then-prevalent value system much easier than his modern orthodox companion.

More to the point, it is important to note that many of the areas in which modern orthodoxy differs from charedism are in the realm of implementation rather than values. I remember a talmid of Rav Ruderman telling me that one of the reasons his rebbe sanctioned college study was his conviction that the professions were more likely to guarantee an "umanus kala unekiya" than the world of business. While this per se is obviously not a sign of modern orthodoxy, the idea that current circumstances warrant a change in traditional curricula (and not due to a commitment to modern values) is rejected by much of the charedi world.

And even in many of those areas where modern orthodoxy does differ ideologically from its charedi counterpart, that is often because the former emphasizes values that, while not in vogue in recent centuries in eastern Europe, have a strong precedent in the rishonim (e.g. contributing to yishuv ha'olam as an ideal, "rationalism" broadly defined at the expense of mysticism etc.).

Moving on to areas in which the values embraced by modern orthodoxy really are "modern" in terms of pedigree, it is worth reiterating that the difference is usually one of degree rather than kind. As much as they may protest otherwise, I would submit that few contemporary charedim would be able to stomach the punishments that the gedolei harishonim imposed on sinners of various sorts in medieval Spain or even slavery, which few great authorities disapproved of a mere two centuries ago. Even Rav Kook sought to forbid female suffrage, yet I imagine that many charedi women would be most aggrieved at anyone attempting to deny them that right nowadays. And when a charedi is embarrassed by the primitivism displayed by a contemporary gadol who believes that jews and non-jews have a different number of teeth, he's being distinctly "modern" too.

Thus the question is not whether we adopt "modern" values, but how. And it is here that the best of modern orthodox thought (and I include Rav Kook in that category) can help us. Firstly, the insight that the moral development of society is one that is at least inflected with sparks of the divine provides the basis of the claim that, in certain circumstances, we should be positively oriented towards such progress. The Charedi author Devorah Heshelis' book "The moon's lost light" (which bears haskamos from rabbis far to the right of Rabbi Adlerstein) provides one possible hashkafic model along these lines.

One only has to read Steven Pinker's "The better angels of our nature" to realize that many of the moral horrors that enlightenment values have stamped out are equally horrible by R. Adlerstein's lights as they are by Dr. Brody's.

To take an example with particular contemporary salience, I can’t imagine even the staunchest apologists defending the following teshuva (108), on what we would regard from the Chavos Yair, in which he permits a pauper to send his daughter to be molested by an “arel” for financial gain: Do we have a greater appreciation of Torah values than one of the greatest poskim of three centuries ago? Of course not; we have simply (for want of a better word) become “modernised”, and Baruch Hashem for that.

And let it not be thought that integrating values garnered from the outside world is a modern orthodox invention. The dedication to philosophical endeavor displayed by so many medieval authorities was entirely absent from Chazal's milieu. The proto-democratic political philosophy espoused by the Abarbanel owes more to his contemporaries than it does to the medrashim. And, less salubriously, the Ralbag's disdain for women is entirely in consonance with the views of the society he operated in.

So how should we decide when society's "values" should be ours? I see no easy answer to this question but it is certainly true that we should seek to ensure that the moral impulses underpinning our worldview have the sanction of Torah authorities. That does not mean that in retrospect every value subscribed to by those authorities will be upheld by those inspired by them: there should be no shame in admitting that Rav Kook's attitudes on women's suffrage have been surpassed. And neither does it mean that we simply adhere to (or even revere) the moral outlook of the "greatest" talmidei chachamim of our day. I will never be the equal of R. Aharon Teitelbaum in learning, but I will not hesitate to utterly condemn his views on sexual abuse, and my attitude would be no different were he the only gadol batorah alive, no matter how much more semblance his approach bears to many early responsa on the issue than mine does. I have equally little truck with a socioeconomic model that forces thousands of families into poverty, and my critique was no less strident before I learned that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shares my view.

Sometimes right is just right and wrong is just wrong, and as Rav Kook taught us, it's not always the elite talmidei chachamim who are best at figuring this out. Yet none of this negates the need to ascertain that the foundations of our worldview are in concert with Hashem's will. When it comes to condemning the aforementioned socioeconomic model (and its inevitable consequence - massive welfare dependency), we need not go further than Chazal. But when it comes to "new" issues, such as women's suffrage, we are guided by the fact that gedolim from Rav Uziel onwards confirm our moral and spiritual intuitions. We are no better served by denying the complex interplay of factors that go into our moral decisions, regardless of the community we choose to associate with.
Food for thought. See too my post Ever Changing Morality.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tooting My Own Horn

It's shofar season, so if you haven't read my illustrated essay on exotic shofars and how they shed light on hilchos shofar, you might want to download it (free) at It has lots of unusual insights on everything from oliphaunts to jackalopes! If you are interested in purchasing any exotic shofars, I will have some for sale at the Biblical Natural History Experience next to Beit Shemesh; you will also be able to see my entire (and ever-growing) collection, which I'm pretty sure is the largest in the world, on display. During my recent globe-trotting, I acquired another artifact from the animal kingdom that makes the same sound as a shofar, but is not kosher to use as a shofar - can you guess what it is? Hint: There is a second-degree connection to the Mishkan.

On a different note: If anyone would like to volunteer to quickly put together an extremely basic website for the Biblical Natural History Experience, that would be greatly appreciated. And if anyone is making a shipment to Israel from the US and can put a flat-pack heavy animal cage in it, that would also be great! You can reach me at

Monday, September 15, 2014

Guest Post: What are the Challenges of a Kosher Parnassa?

A guest post by Marty Bluke of The Jewish Worker

The English edition of Mishpacha Magazine this past week had an article saying that people who earn a living need to make sure that they put fear of heaven before parnassa. While the overall message is a good one, I believe that the examples used were very poor and showed a complete lack of understanding of the real challenges a frum person has when working.

The two examples given of challenges were davening mincha with a minyan and not shaking women's hands. IMHO the author completely missed the point with these examples.

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest challenge when working is the issue of stealing. I don't necessarily mean directly stealing money (although unfortunately that happens a lot as well, see for example Ocean County attorney admits role in Facebook scheme), what I do mean is stealing indirectly. For example, not working the amount of hours that you are being paid for, taking long lunch or Mincha breaks, wasting time at work, misusing company resources, etc. Chazal were very concerned abut this issue, so much so that they said (Berachos 14a, Shulchan Aruch Siman 90) that workers who worked high up in trees should daven mincha up in the tree so as not to waste their employers time by climbing down and then climbing back up.

If I had to suggest something related to arayos, it would not be shaking women's hands. I follow the psak of my Rabbeim that if a woman extends her hand you shake it as quickly as possible. I have found that in these situations, I am so nervous about this (thinking whether she will extend her hand or not) that this totally occupies my mind and I have no pleasure at all from the handshake, in fact it is almost painful. If there was an issur related to arayos that I would bring up it would be the issur of yichud. So many of the sexual abuse scandals that have come up in recent years would have been prevented if people simply kept hilchos yichud.

As with many things, it seems that the Charedi mindset is that a chumra is always better especially if it is Bein Adam LaMakom. However, the fact is that many chumras are kulas in a different area. The 2 mentioned in the article are good examples.

While davening mincha with a minyan is an important thing, it is at best a chiyuv midrabbanan while stealing from your employer however, is an issur d'oraysa. If it takes you 10 minutes to walk to Mincha 25 minutes to daven (because after all you need to daven slowly with kavana etc.) and 10 minutes to walk back (45 minutes) you are probably stealing from your employer, as he may be willing to give you 10-15 minutes for mincha but not 45. We see this message clearly from Chazal as they permitted workers to daven mincha up in the tree so as not to cheat the employer and allowed workers to skip parts of bentching for the same reason. You see clearly from the Gemara in Berachos (14a) that Chazal were much more concerned about not cheating your employer which is a sin of bein adam lchaveiro and therefore has no kapara until you pay the person back then mitzvos bein adam lamakom like davening and bentching where they instituted leniencies for workers.

Regarding not shaking hands with a women, again the issue is not as clear cut as the author makes it out to be. While the Chazon Ish is machmir other poskim are lenient and they are lenient in part because of the concern for embarrassing the woman. If a woman sticks out her hand and you refuse to shake it, it can be very embarrassing especially in a public setting. Embarrassing someone is a very serious aveira, Chazal equate it to killing someone. In Parshas Vayeishev, Tamar is willing to be killed in order not to embarrass Yehuda and Rashi quotes Chazal who praise her for this. So in fact, you can say that someone who shakes a woman's hand is machmir in bein adam l'chaveiro.

Finally, I would like to take issue with the first story that the author wrote. He wrote that he was in a shul in Yersushalayim for Rosh Chodesh bentching, davening next to a kollel avreich, and while the avreich had kavana when he said חיים של פרנסה he had much more kavana when he said חיים שיש בהם יראת שמים. The point being that יראת שמים is much more important then פרנסה.

IMHO, you see from Chazal that they thought פרנסה was very important and in fact a prerequisite for יראת שמים.  The Gemara in Kiddushin (29b) states explicitly that a father who does not teach a son a trade is teaching him to become a thief. Unfortunately, today we see this too often where people have no way of making a living end up resorting to less then honest means to make money.

There is an obvious question that we can ask about davening for חיים שיש בהם יראת שמים. The Gemara states that הכל ביד שמים חוץ מיראת שמים, that יראת שמים is the one thing that is for sure in our hands and not in Hashem's hands. If so, how can we daven for יראת שמים?

The Maharsha asks this question on the Gemara in Berachos (10a). The Gemara tells a story about a group of thugs who were bothering R' Meir. R' Meir was going to daven that they should die, however his wife, Beruria, told him that instead he should daven that they do teshuva which he did, and they did teshuva. The Maharsha asks our question from above, how could R' Meir daven that the thugs should do teshuva, isn't that under the rubric of יראת שמים?

The Maharsha asks this question on a Gemara at the end of Moed Katan(28a) (that was just learned in Daf Yomi) as well. The Gemara states that Rava davened that he should become an ענו like Rabba Bar Rav Huna (his prayer was not answered). The Maharsha points out that ענוה should fall under the rubric of יראת שמים and therefore how could Rava daven for it?

R' Moshe Feinstein in Iggros Moshe (as well as others) answers that you cannot daven directly for יראת שמים, that is only in your hands. However, you can daven that Hashem should remove any obstacles that you have that may prevent you from achieving יראת שמים. Interestingly enough the example R' Moshe gives is parnassa, he says that the thugs were thugs because they had no parnassa, once R' Meir davened for them and they received parnassa they did teshuva. We see that parnassa is a key blocker in achieving יראת שמים.

In fact, based on the above, it makes more sense to daven for parnassa than יראת שמים because יראת שמים can only come from you, while parnassa comes from Hashem and is a prerequisite to יראת שמים and therefore it makes sense to daven for it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Frum Ways To Die

Following the previous discussion of how some people deny the potentially fatal risks involved in metzizah b'peh, I was sad to see a new report about another way in which certain frum people endanger the wellbeing and lives of their (and our) children. The Baltimore Jewish Times reports (p. 1, 2) on the phenomenon of people who refuse to vaccinate their children. It was depressing to see that no less a figure than Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, the most moderate and least anti-rationalist Gadol B'Torah in the charedi world, is supporting these people:
According to Dr. Linda Grossman, bureau director for clinical services at the Baltimore County Department of Health, independent schools that operate under Maryland laws have the same policy. She says that some Jewish day school parents claim religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.
“I’m not aware though of any religious reasons not to vaccinate in Judaism,” she said. Beginning this fall, two additional vaccines are being phased in statewide. Kindergarteners will now be required to receive an additional dose of the chicken pox vaccine, and seventh-grade students must receive the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis as well as one dose of a vaccine against meningitis.
“There are far worse consequences to not vaccinating as compared with vaccinating,” said Grossman, reiterating her hope that parents do not claim religious exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children.
R.B. encountered significant difficulties when she claimed a religious exemption at a local boys’ day school. Before her son began school, she contacted someone at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as the state attorney general’s office, to inquire about Maryland’s laws regarding religious exemptions.
“They said that the school could not refuse to accept a religious exemption,” she related. “But then school started and the nurse called. She said the school didn’t accept religious exemptions. I told her they had to accept them so she said I would have to speak with the principal.”
R.B. reached out to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, founder and dean of the Talmudical Academy of Philadelphia, whose wife, Temi, speaks out against vaccinating children. The rabbi wrote a letter on R.B.’s behalf, leading to her son’s principal relenting and apologizing.
When reached by phone, both Kamenetzkys confirmed their belief that vaccinations, not the diseases they prevent, are harmful.
“There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all,” said the rabbi. “I see vaccinations as the problem. It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine [against polio] is a hoax. It is just big business.”
Kamenetzky says he follows the lead of Israeli Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky, who rules that schools “have no right to prevent unvaccinated kids from coming to school.”
Normally, I don't mind if people have views that run counter to modern science. It doesn't really affect or bother me that Rav Chaim Kanievsky says that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth. But in this case, it's everyone else's children who are put at risk.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What Does That Penn Study Actually Conclude?

In yesterday's post, Suckers for Strawmen, I responded to an article entitled "A scientific perspective on ‘A New York circumcision controversy,’ by Dr. Daniel Berman, Professor Brenda Breuer, and Professor Awi Federgruen. In support of their claim that there is no reason to believe that metzizah b'peh is dangerous, they wrote as follows:
A 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, moreover, analyzed the relevant evidence and all the prevailing literature and concluded [emphasis added - N.S.] that: “This evidence base is significantly limited by a very small number of reported infections, most of which were not identified or documented systematically. Other important limitations include incomplete data about relevant elements of the cases, the presence of confounding factors, and indirect data sources.”
I took a look at the University of Pennsylvania study, which most readers won't do. Here is the concluding paragraph:
Neonatal HSV infection can cause severe morbidity and death, so mitigating potential risks for infection is critical. Current evidence suggests that direct orogenital suction during ritual circumcision was the likely source of infection in recent cases that resulted in significant illness and death. Future research using cohort or case-control designs that fully capture all of the relevant data are needed to more rigorously examine this association.
In light of a misrepresentation such as this, it's all the more remarkable that the authors describe themselves as "disinterested medical and statistical expert witnesses."

For a thorough dissection of all the errors and flaws in the article, see the Rationalist Medical Halachist's extensive new post, "MBP Again! A Scientific Perspective?"

UPDATE: It turns out the University of Penn has already publicly criticized these people for distorting this study. Joel Betesh, project director of the study, stated, “I do not agree with the way they are portraying our report.” See this article in the Forward, "Penn Researchers Charge Orthodox Misused Report on Circumcision Rite."

UPDATE II: It was pointed out that the writers were actually referring to an earlier unpublished version of the Penn paper rather than the published version. First of all, this itself is dishonest. Second, even the earlier version is not in line with these writers' claims. Here is the final paragraph from the earlier version (from here):
Neonatal infection with HSV-1 carries a risk for potentially severe morbidity, including the possibility of death, so exposure to infection should be carefully considered. The available evidence indicates that circumcision with direct orogenital suction may be a risk factor for infection, but this evidence base is small and significantly limited. Hopefully, future studies will provide additional evidence on this and other risk factors for neonatal HSV-1 infection.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Suckers for Strawmen?

There was a very strange op-ed in the Jerusalem Post yesterday.

It follows an analytical article last week, by Sam Sokol, entitled "New York circumcision controversy emblematic of longtime Orthodox ideological split." This article described the controversy surrounding metzitzah b'peh, the oral sucking of the circumcision wound. It also quoted my own blog post on the topic, in which I argued that the strenuous opposition to any form of regulation of the practice is rooted in a policy established by Chasam Sofer, that whenever there is a perceived threat to Judaism, even a minor custom is elevated to an inviolable principle.

Yesterday's op-ed in response, "A scientific perspective on ‘A New York circumcision controversy,’ was written by Dr. Daniel Berman, Professor Brenda Breuer, and Professor Awi Federgruen, the same trio that have been arguing in defense of metzitzah b'peh in several other forums. In their response, they write as follows:
...Sam Sokol wrote, on these pages, an article entitled: “Analysis: New York circumcision controversy emblematic of longtime Orthodox ideological split,” advancing two positions: (a) “Contemporary medical knowledge” supports the assertion of a causal link between MBP and HSV infections, as stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “several prominent contemporary decisors of Jewish law (poskim)” – specifically Rabbi Tendler, described as a son-in-law of Rabbi Feinstein, and Rabbi Slifkin, otherwise known as the Zoo Rabbi; (b) MBP is practiced by a fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox.
The authors proceed to argue that there is no causal link between MBP and HSV infections, and that MBP is not practiced by a "fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox" but rather on 80% of Orthodox circumcisions in NYC.

Now, I am not qualified to take a position on whether MPB is significantly dangerous - I leave that to the experts. And indeed, I have never advanced a position on this. (Nor have I ever taken a public position on whether if there is a slight danger, this should be reason to abolish the practice.) So why do the authors claim that I did? It's very strange. Perhaps the reason for there doing so can be seen in their deciding to add that I am "otherwise known as the Zoo Rabbi" - maybe this is a cheap attempt to try to trivialize me?

Another misrepresentation is that the authors claim that Sokol's article advanced the position that MBP is practiced by a "fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox," which they proceed to neatly refute. But Sokol said no such thing. In fact, he wrote that "more modern elements reject the ancient practice which in turn is embraced by the more conservative ultra-orthodox factions."

The authors further claim that it is "factually incorrect" to claim that MBP "opposes a rational (I think that they meant "rationalist" - NS) approach to Judaism." But they don't even get into any discussion regarding the fundamental reason for the practice given in the Gemara - that it is for health benefits - and whether the given reason has any basis in contemporary medicine. Is it because they don't have anything to say about this that they set up strawmen instead?

For the seminal study on this topic, see Shlomo Sprecher, "Mezizah be-PehTherapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?" See too the recent blogpost by the Rationalist Medical Halachist, "MBP - Dispelling Some Common Misconceptions." (If any qualified person wants to write a response to the scientific claims in the op-ed, I would be glad to post it.)

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Biblical Natural History Experience

After years of development, it's finally coming together! "The Biblical Natural History Experience," a combination of extraordinary live and inanimate exhibits relating to Biblical and Talmudic zoology, will be opening in its short-term location this year, b'ezrat Hashem. It has been renamed from "The Biblical Museum of Natural History" to reflect the fact that it also has many live exhibits, and also to project the message that it is much more hands-on and interactive than the classic model of a museum where everything is behind glass. (Though the new name is somewhat cumbersome, and does not have an easy shorthand reference, so we are open to other ideas!) You can download a prospectus at this page.

Until we build our own facility, The Biblical Natural History Experience will be housed in a rented building being constructed at the entrance to Moshav Zanoach, which is on the outskirts of Beit Shemesh. Part of the collection is currently being housed next door to where the building is being constructed, and a private preview presentation can be arranged; the price is $180 for a one-hour presentation for a group of up to twelve people. Please write to me if you would like to make a reservation.

Getting this project off the ground is immensely complicated. If you'd like to help in any way, that would be gratefully appreciated! Donation information is at this page. There are other ways in which people can help, too - donating items (flatscreen tvs, furniture, taxidermied animals, small furry edible rodents, etc.), website design, shipping items from the US, publicity, etc. - let me know your ideas!

Looking forward to seeing you at The Biblical Natural History Experience!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On Criticism of Criticism: A Critique

This blog contains many posts that are critical of various aspects of charedi society. In part, this relates to the subject matter of the blog, rationalist Judaism, since many of the flaws in charedi society are directly related to its non-rationalist approach. In part, it also reflects my own personal frustrations, not so much as a result of the ban on my books (which I even partially justify), but more as a result of living in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

A number of people have criticized these criticisms. They have said that it is lashon hara, divisive, anti-achdus, etc. To quote one commentator on the previous post: "How is it 'Rationalist Judaism' to try and cause more sinat chinam, more strife, more distrust, more hatred, spread lashon hara, or motzi sheim ra, what possible good can come from this inciteful, hateful blog - wouldn't it be better to keep your thoughts to yourself, think about ways to make things better..."?

It is certainly unhealthy to be obsessively focused on criticism. However, these critics of the criticism are not always on the right track. Often, they are charedi loyalists who are deeply uncomfortable with people exposing problems in charedi society. It's not criticisms of others per se that make them speak up - they would never dream of speaking out against charedim who criticize non-charedim. They only object to criticisms of charedim.

Alternately, or in addition to the above, some people simply do not appreciate that many non-charedim are genuinely being harmed by various aspects of charedi society, and want to see change. The purpose of these posts is to try to bring that change about. Yesterday's post about the Beit Shemesh school controversy is a case in point. Non-charedim in Beit Shemesh are very much affected by the charedi mayor and municipality. We wish to draw attention to the problems in order that they should be fixed, and also so that people should be better educated about which sector of society to support politically and align themselves with.

(Some people wondered why it's such a big deal for charedim to take over half of a secular school if there is adequate space for them. But this has to be seen within the context of the situation, which is a charedi takeover of Beit Shemesh. I had a secular colleague who lived in Ramat Beit Shemesh from its inception as a mixed neighborhood, and then charedim moved in and started harassing him for driving on Shabbos, to the point where he eventually had to move. Then there are the attempts to enforce tzniyus, often to an extreme standard, and all the hatred against non-charedim in certain local papers. And there is the vandalism against Israeli flags, which is never condemned by charedi rabbonim. And so on, and so forth. In the run-up to the last elections, Rav Aharon Feldman of Ner Israel campaigned for Abutbul in a local shul, that had originally been founded as a moderate Anglo shul, and said that there is an opportunity to turn Beit Shemesh into Bnei Brak. Is it any wonder that the non-charedi population feels that they are being run out of town and don't want their school to suddenly be forcibly seized and partially taken over?)

Some people think that criticism of charedim is contrary to achdus. But as I stressed in an earlier post entitled "What Is Real Achdus?", true achdus does not mean simply speaking nicely about everyone and avoiding criticizing anyone or drawing attention to anyone's flaws. Rather, it means genuinely sharing responsibilities and concerns. If one sector of society is acting in a selfish or harmful manner, it is not a lack of achdus to criticize this behavior. Those who attempt to suppress such criticism are enabling this behavior to continue.

Perhaps the most extreme and absurd example of someone who professes to care about achdus but who is actually simply trying to suppress criticism of charedim is the mayor of Beit Shemesh, Moshe Abutbul. Take a look at the following astonishing video about the takeover of the secular school yesterday. As a reminder, this was about how the day before the school year started, and without any prior discussion with the school, and against a background of years of highly inflamed tensions due to hostile acts against non-charedim, Abutbul had half the school forcibly taken over by a charedi school and erected an eight-foot wall in the playground such that the children should not see each other. The very end of the video features an interview with mayor Abutbul, in which he claims that this is "an act of integration that will enhance love and brotherhood in the city of Beit Shemesh"!!! Words fail me.


Related to all this, see the new very important guest post at Cross-Currents, "A Plaintive Cry (Or Two) For Understanding."

Monday, September 1, 2014

Yet Another Beit Shemesh Blowup

Once again, Beit Shemesh is the world's leading staging ground for conflict between charedim and non-charedim, thanks to Mayor Moshe Abutbul and his charedi municipal coalition.

This time, it's about a school in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Safot V'Tarbiyot. The school is designed to be a prestigious institution serving the secular population of the entire Greater Beit Shemesh area. As such, it is large and well-equipped, and can service a large number of students. But there is low enrollment, due to the fact that many secular Israelis have fled Beit Shemesh as a result of the charedi takeover.

The school is located in an area that has recently become mostly (though not entirely) charedi. The many charedi schools in the area do not have buildings and are located in caravans; somehow, the charedi mayor and coalition were not able to build any schools for them in their previous term. Thus, the charedi population has long wanted to use (part of) the building of Safot V'Tarbiyot.

If you believe the charedi account of events, they have been trying to work this out for years. If you believe the non-charedi account of events, there was never any attempt to work this out, bar a single meeting that was supposed to be held with mayor Abutbul which he did not show up at.

Yesterday, on the day before the new school year, Abutbul decided that the municipality would take matters into its own hands. He sent security guards and workers to break into the school and physically partition it into two schools, one to service the charedi population as a girls' school.

Needless to say, this did not go down very well with the non-charedi population. Physical fights erupted, and the police had to be called in. There is a furious letter from the Ministry of Education threatening Abutbul with serious consequences.

There are several issues to be considered here. One is whether the charedi population is entitled to take over part of the school. On the one hand, it has low enrollment; on the other hand, it is a high-quality school that is supposed to have a lot of rooms for enrichment activities. Apparently, as a result of the separation, the boys and girls in the secular school now have to share a single bathroom.

But the second issue is that even if one takes the position that the charedi population deserves part of the building, surely there is a way to go about doing this. Forcibly creating facts on the ground, on the night before school starts, is guaranteed to cause ill will.

A third issue is that Abutbul did not only divide the school interior into two areas. Outside the school, the playground has a natural division into two areas, due to its being on a terraced incline. The terrace is separated by a barred fence, which would also serve to separate the playground for the newly-divided school. But this barred fence was considered insufficient. Abutbul's workers erected an ugly eight-foot-tall wall along the bars, made out of metal panels. The purpose of this fence was apparently so that the charedi girls should not have to see the secular schoolchildren. The secular population is livid at this. They tried to destroy it this morning, and one person painted on it "Separation Wall - A Disgrace To Zionism!" The police were called in again.

Now, I certainly understand that charedim do not want to expose their children to foreign lifestyles. However, to suddenly take over half a school and build a huge ugly dividing wall in the middle is extremely insensitive. One would think that deracheha darchei noam should be an operating principle. This should be all the more true for a city that suffered terrible internal conflict in the last municipal elections, with Abutbul trying to win votes from moderates by claiming that he is all about love and unity.

But aside from the in-your-face disdain for good community relations, what amazes me is that Abutbul and his coalition do not seem to realize or care how they are harming the charedi community's own national interests. Provoking conflict like this, forcibly taking over a school, with appalling photos and videos playing out in the media, reinforces the view in the rest of Israel that charedim are taking over the country in unpleasant ways.

In the last election campaign, local Anglo-charedi rabbonim such as Rav Kornfeld and Rav Malinowitz fervently tried to berate people into voting for Abutbul. They argued that there is a "war on Torah" and that it is important to strengthen the charedi community. When Abutbul won, I argued that in fact this was going to weaken the charedi community in the national arena.

As I wrote at the time, the charedim are kicking and screaming about the new national government, which is trying to cause many people to leave kollel and change the way in which they educate their children. But the irony is that the particular person most hated for all this, the person who is behind the make-up of the government and its policies, is Yair Lapid. And the single person most responsible for Yair Lapid's extraordinary rise to power is Moshe Abutbul.

It was Mayor Moshe Abutbul's appalling mishandling of Beit Shemesh in general, and the Orot Banot girls' school situation in particular, that drew Beit Shemesh into the headlines, caused the rest of Israel to react with horror, and led to the 19 seats that Yair Lapid won in the Knesset. It was because Abutbul immediately caved in to the extremists, refused to condemn their terrorizing of children, refused to express any support or sympathy for the girls who were being traumatized, and sought to prevent the Orot Banot school from opening, that Bet Shemesh became the focal point from which Lapid drew support.

Exactly as I predicted after the last elections, with the re-election of Abutbul, there are further explosive events in Beit Shemesh. Abutbul continues to give the city a bad name. And the rest of Israel will respond by continuing to give political power to Lapid and Bennet. There are few things that the rest of Israel fear more than a hostile takeover by charedim. Seeing such a takeover happening in Beit Shemesh, as per Rav Aharon Feldman's publicly voiced hope that Beit Shemesh will turn into Bnei Brak, will galvanize the rest of Israel into uniting to prevent the charedi lifestyle from taking over Israel.

(There is already a serious move underway to divide greater Beit Shemesh into two cities and municipalities, one charedi and the other Zionist. This is being advanced by various religious and secular Zionists, and is fiercely opposed by charedim, who need the money and subsidization that the non-charedi population brings in. But what do they expect?)

It's bad news for Beit Shemesh that Abutbul was re-elected. Yet it may well be good news for the State of Israel and the Jewish People.

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