Friday, February 28, 2014

Guest Post: Irena Sendler - From the Righteous Among the Nations

Guest post by Laurie Rappeport

Explaining the Holocaust defies reason, but countless books, films, memorials, educational programs and research projects attempt to make some kind of sense of the inexplicable.

One of the largest projects, Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations, tries to identify some kind of good that existed in those unimaginable times. The honor recognizes righteous gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Even though most of the righteous gentiles themselves have died, Yad Vashem continues to identify and honor their names.

In 1965 the Righteous Among the Nations honor was presented to Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who is credited with having saved almost 3000 Jewish lives during the German occupation of Poland. Following the Jerusalem ceremony Sendler returned to Warsaw where her deeds were all but forgotten. Almost 35 years later a group of Kansas schoolgirls from the Lowell Milken Center stumbled on mention of her wartime activities and began to investigate. Their research expanded greatly on the Yad Vashem information and shined new light on the way that unsung heroes can change a world.

Sendler was working as a social worker in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She joined Zagota, a resistance organization that specialized in helping Jews escape the Nazis. During the first year of the war she assisted over 500 Jews -- helping them to locate hiding places, secure false papers find strategies to evade the Nazis.

In 1940 the Nazis built a ghetto for the Jews in Warsaw. The ghetto encompassed a radius of three miles. Nearly half a million Jews were pushed into the ghetto walls where they were kept on starvation rations. Sendler obtained papers which identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases and these papers allowed her to cross the gate and enter and exit the ghetto freely.

Sendler first attempted to help the Jews by smuggling food into the ghetto. She quickly realized that these small amounts of food would only allow her to prolong a few lives for a short amount of time. She then searched for other ways in which she could help the Jews and finally decided that she could help the largest number of people by smuggling people out of the ghetto. Zagota encouraged her to concentrate on smuggling children since it was easier to bring children out of the ghetto was and easier to hide them once they were on the Aryan side.

Sendler began bringing out street children -- these were children whose parents had been deported or killed.  She sedated the children and arranged for them to be brought out by hiding them under tram seats, beneath garbage on garbage carts or inside toolboxes or other bags. At some point Sendler began to focus on smuggling out children whose parents were still alive. She walked from door to door inside the ghetto, speaking to the parents to try to convince them to let her take their children out of the ghetto.

In an interview held more than 50 years after the event Sendler described how traumatic these encounters were for her. The parents were at their wits end but couldn't decide whether their children would have a better chance of survival inside the ghetto or out on their own.  Sendler said "I talked the parents out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”

Once on the free side of Warsaw the children were still in great danger.  Sendler procured false papers that identified some of the children as Christians. Others were sent into hiding in orphanages, convents and with sympathetic Polish families. She recorded the names of the children, along with their hiding places, on pieces of tissue paper which she placed in glass jars which were then buried in the garden. Sendler hoped that, after the war, the children could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their community.

Sendler's story is widely known today because a group of schoolgirls spent the time and effort to research Sendler's life. Today that research is recorded in a book a website and a performance  -- all named "Life in a Jar."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ghostbusters Analogy

Harold Ramis, a.k.a. Egon Spengler from the 1984 hit movie Ghostbusters, just passed away. That reminded me that I had drafted a post about Ghostbusters and mystical Judaism, which I never got around to posting. So here it is, l'iluy nishmas Harold Ramis.

Do you remember Ghostbusters? Most people loved it for its hilarity; some for its fantastical elements. I was intrigued by a different aspect of it, and it's something which will provide a useful analogy for understanding the difference between rationalist and mystical approaches to various Jewish concepts.

For those who didn't see it, Ghostbusters was about a group of eccentric geniuses/ dropouts who launched a career catching ghosts. The shtick of the Ghostbusters was that they discovered that it was possible to design technology that could detect ghosts, and ultimately to subdue and contain them. PKE meters, proton packs, muon traps - these were gadgets that used physics but could detect and interact with spiritual phenomena.

Behind the concept of Ghostbusters, then, lies four ideas:

1. Spiritual phenomena exist as entities;
2. They follow precise laws;
3. These laws are connected to the laws of the physical universe;
4. Physical objects can manipulate spiritual phenomena by way of these laws.

The rationalist stream of Jewish thought denied pretty much all of these four ideas. Menachem Kellner, in Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism, explains how according to Rambam, concepts such as kedushah and tum'ah are states of mind rather than metaphysical phenomena. The reward for mitzvos is the effect on one's mind rather than in some sort of spiritual world. There are many examples of this. Mezuzah creates a reminder rather than a force-field. Shiluach ha-kein teaches us compassion rather than engineering a celestial process. And so on, and so forth. Without the first idea in the list above, the latter three don't even begin.

The mystical stream of thought, on the other hand, posits the existence of all kinds of spiritual entities. These relate to, and can thus be influenced by, the physical universe, though not in exactly the same way as with Ghostbusters. The Ghostbusters used technology to create physical forces that directly interact with the spirit world. The mystical stream in Judaism, on the other hand, proposes that physical items create spiritual forces which in turn affect the spiritual and material world. However, there are still valuable points of analogy. Just like an improperly calibrated proton pack will not subdue Gozer the Gozerian, so too a mezuzah missing a letter will not create a protective force-field - even if the missing letter is a result of, say, termites attacking the parchment.

My point in this is not to mock the mystical stream of thought - just to note how very far apart it is from the rationalist stream of thought. I believe that appreciating that these are simply two very different worldviews, each the result of a rich heritage, helps avoid friction between people who adhere to different streams. Good fences make good neighbors, and all that. Don't cross the streams!

Monday, February 24, 2014

He will KILL US ALL!!!

In the last Bet Shemesh elections, Mayor Moshe Abutbul ran an ad projecting a message that challenger Eli Cohen, a traditional Jew, wants to send charedi children to concentration camps.

Now that there are elections again (due to the previous one being disqualified because of widespread systematic fraud), Mayor Abutbul's campaign is warning the charedi community that Eli Cohen has even more nefarious plans:

Like the Jews in Shushan, we must struggle for our very lives!

Unfortunately, this strategy is commonplace. Every action by non-charedim, whether it's rallying in support of a school being bullied by extremists, or attempting to bring people into the workforce, or simply trying to make a city professionally run and equally catering to people of all stripes, is portrayed as part of some dastardly anti-charedi scheme stemming from hatred of Torah. This "siege mentality," which results in vicious slander, is deeply tragic.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Going To Prison For Doing A Mitzvah?

Have you heard the news? The United States Government has sentenced a number of Jews to prison for the crime of giving charity. Yup, that's right. These people gave money to charity, and because of this, they were sentenced to prison. This has happened to lots and lots of Jews. You might even have heard of some of them - Bernie Madoff, associates of the Spinka Rebbe, etc.

Of course, this is a nonsensical way of describing the situation. Bernie Madoff was not sentenced to prison because of what he did with his money. He was imprisoned because of what he didn't do with his money, i.e. to give it to the investors who it belonged to. People who are punished for tax evasion are not being punished for spending their money on houses and cars - they are being punished for not giving their money to the government.

This is all obvious, right? Yet for some inexplicable reason, the same mistake in describing the current situation in Israel vis-a-vis charedim and army is being committed by a wide range of people.

I'm not talking about whether it is innately right or wrong, fair or unfair to other Israelis, or strategically wise or unwise to punish charedi draft-dodgers with prison. But in order to have any meaningful discussion about it, we have to describe the situation accurately.

Nobody is being "sent to prison for learning Torah." They are being sent to prison for avoiding army service. They are not going to prison because of what they are doing with their time; they are going to prison because of what they aren't doing with their time. It's true that they are learning Torah while not being in the army, but it is inaccurate and inappropriately inflammatory to describe this as the reason for their going to prison.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Israeli-Arab Politics and Rationalist Judaism

The previous post, Clueless in LA, upset many people. One person asked why a website titled "Rationalist Judaism" was dealing with politics. I agree that it's usually a good idea to keep religion and politics separate; during the last Bet Shemesh elections, I was very upset with a local Anglo rabbi who replaced his parashah column in the weekly newspaper with a politic diatribe. However, this website has somewhat of a broader purview. In addition, while "rationalist" is not identical to "rational," there is an overlap between the two, and that's what I'd like to focus upon in this post.

There is a question - actually, two related questions: Should Israel give the Palestinians a state? And if so, under what circumstances? The answer to these questions should involve a rational analysis of the pros and cons of all options. Some of the many factors to consider are: Is it moral to keep land captured in a defensive war? Is it dangerously compromising Israel's security to give it away? Is it moral to rule over people without giving them full political rights? Can Israel withstand international condemnation if it does not give the Palestinians a state? Will there be significantly less international condemnation if Israel does give the Palestinians a state, but is then forced to defend itself against missiles in the same way as happened with Gaza and Lebanon? How much land can Israel withdraw from, without making the security risk too high? Is it fair to agree to "Two States" in which one state comprises Jews and Arabs, and the other is Judenrein? How will any agreement be enforced? There are many, many such questions, and working out the answer is not at all easy.

Now, there are some people for whom the question of whether to give land to the Palestinians is solely a religious question, for which the answer is an automatic "no," because it is forbidden to give away the Holy Land under any circumstances. I'm not going to explain why I believe this position to be wrong; suffice it to say that in such cases, the question has a predetermined answer, and does not involve rational analysis of the pros and cons.

But there are also people at the other end of the religious-political spectrum, for whom the question likewise does not involve a rational analysis of the pros and cons. For them, the answer is an automatic "yes." Not just "yes, the Palestinians ideally should have a state," but "yes, Israel must come to an agreement with them, and is accountable if no agreement is reached." Once you insist that Israel must come to an agreement and is accountable for not doing so, then this means that if an agreement has not yet been reached, Israel must ipso facto concede even more. And if the other side still does not agree, Israel must concede yet more. And so on, and so on. At this point, there is no longer a rational analysis of the pros and cons of the agreement under discussion. If ending the occupation is worth doing even at the cost of grossly undermining national security, then this is a fundamentalist doctrine, not a rational evaluation. Conversely, if one is interested in rationally evaluating the pros and cons of an agreement, then one must be open to the possibility that an agreement is not possible at this time, depending on the other side.

This is one of the points that I was getting at in the previous post, and frankly, I don't see how it can be argued. A rational approach to Israel-Palestinian question recognizes that it is a serious matter that must be weighed carefully, and any potential solutions must be evaluated for their pros and cons, vis-a-vis the current situation. Those who refuse to accept this are either religious fundamentalists or liberal fundamentalists - either way, they are not making a rational evaluation of the issue.

(If you wish to post a comment, please ensure that it makes a point, that it is on the point, that it is not too long, and that you use either your real name or a pseudonym. Otherwise, it will not be allowed through. I also ban comments that are full of raging, violent rhetoric. Please read the comments policy for more details.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Clueless in LA

Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles is widely hailed in the US for being a brilliant and creative personality who has inspired countless people to increase their engagement with Judaism. Growing up with no Jewish education herself, she decided to devote herself to Judaism and become a rabbi. She has led her community to grow by hundreds of families. From an Orthodox perspective, it's hard to value a radical reformation of bein adam l'Makom. But at least we can value someone's efforts at teaching people bein adam l'chavero, right?

Well, I'm not so sure.

Rabbi Brous first rubbed people the wrong way in a letter to her community during the Gaza war of 2013. She made sure to "balance" any expression of support for Israel with an equivalent message of sympathy for the Palestinians, and included such choice expressions as "We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator." As a result, Daniel Gordis - a former teacher of Brous - issued a scathing rebuke, in an article entitled "When Balance Becomes Betrayal." Brous responded by misrepresenting the rebuke as a criticism of her for showing any sympathy at all for the Palestinians. Of course, the rebuke was nothing of the sort. Rather, Gordis was criticizing her for failing to clearly articulate that Gaza was at fault, and for failing to demonstrate more empathy for the innocent lives lost amongst her own people than for the lives of the enemy. Did Brous truly not understanding the criticism, or was she reluctant to make her position clear? I don't know.

Rabbi Brous has now stepped into Israeli-Arab politics again, with an article entitled "Let's Bet On Peace." In this article, she urges people to pressure Israel (and the Palestinians too, I guess, though one senses that this is not her focus) to show "courage, compassion and faith" and heed John Kerry's call to "bet on peace."

Brous rejects out of hand those who would say that she is "driven by a reckless combination of naivete and arrogance." (Hey, she described me perfectly!) Her reason for rejecting this accusation is that she "believes that peace is possible."

Yet how on earth is she so sure that peace is possible? Surely from an objective standpoint, one has to be at least open to the possibility that peace is impossible! After all, perhaps the maximum that Israel can safely concede from a security standpoint is less than what the Palestinian people are willing to settle for. That is something that all the political pressure in the world cannot change. How can Brous be so sure that this is not a possible scenario? In fact, all the evidence points to it being a very likely scenario!

Brous certainly has no grounds to know that peace is possible. What she offers instead is her "belief" that it is possible. Faith like this means refusing to ever accept the fact of impossibility. In practical terms, this means putting no limits on the pressure that must be exerted upon Israel.

Brous writes that "If Kerry fails, it will be because the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships could not summon the courage to take the painful steps required for peace, security and dignity." Note that the blame for failure is placed on both sides. What is the basis for such a judgment? Maybe one side is willing to take the most painful steps that it can safely take, and the other side is not willing to do likewise? Isn't that a possibility?

(Nor does it help matters for Brous to approve Kerry "honoring the narratives" of "both Israelis and Palestinians." After all, the Palestinian narrative is that there was never any Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. If that narrative is honored, then the Jews are nothing more than European colonists who have no right to live in any part of it.)

Astonishingly, then, Brous's rejection of the charge of naivete demonstrates the very naivete that she is attempting to deny. But she also demonstrates a remarkable lack of self-awareness. Predictably, in the comments to her article, residents of Israel were infuriated by her blithe talk about "betting" on peace. After all, in a bet, there is the possibility of losing. And the losers here would not be Brous, sitting in sunny LaLa-Land, but rather the residents of Israel. I am not saying that living in LA means that she is not entitled to an opinion. But where is her sensitivity to the fact that she is demanding that other people gamble their lives?! Couldn't she at least have said, "I know that this is all too easy for me to say, but still..."?

I'm sure that Rabbi Brous is a much nicer person than me. I'm sure that she does a lot of very valuable work. I'm sure that she is a deeply compassionate Jew with the best of intentions. But there comes a point where someone is so disconnected from reality, so lacking in self-awareness of how their words are offensive to others, so presumptuous in their declarations, and so refusing to face up to harmful consequences of their positions, that their good heart leads to very bad consequences.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Torah-Hating" Secular Jew Fights For Torah Study

Ayelet Shaked is a secular Israeli. She is a partner with Naftali Bennet in Bayit Yehudi. She heads a committee to equalize the burden of military service in Israel, i.e. to bring charedi yeshivah students into the IDF. As far as spokesmen and leaders in the charedi world are concerned, such as the editor of Mishpachah magazine and various charedi Rabbanim (including some purportedly moderate charedi rabbanim in my own neighborhood), all this must mean that she is a Hater of Torah.

Yet this week, Ayelet Shaked fought for certain yeshivah students to be able to continue their studies for an additional two years. According to an article in Arutz Sheva:
After two days of voting and debate in the Shaked Committee, chairwoman MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) has successfully passed a law that will allow students in Zionist yeshivas to continue their studies until age 23.
The committee, which is tasked with creating a law on army service for hareidi men, had decided that hareidi men should be allowed to study in yeshiva prior to enlisting in the military, but should be required to enlist by age 21.
Many committee members initially said the age-21 cut-off should apply universally, meaning that long-term students in Zionist yeshivas would be required to enlist at the same age. Shaked and others fought that approach....
The committee ultimately voted to accept an alternate proposal according to which students at Zionist yeshivas will be allowed to delay enlistment until age 23. A select group of 300 students will be allowed to postpone enlistment until age 26.
The vote indicated a significant change in the committee’s position, and marks the first time that authorities have officially recognized the importance of Torah study.
Why would a secular, allegedly Torah-hating Jew fight for yeshivah students to defer their enlistment for even longer? The article explains the position of Shaked and her supporters:
Nearly all students in Zionist yeshivas do eventually enlist, they said, and students at pro-enlistment schools should not be punished for low enlistment rates at other yeshivas.
The students in question are learning about the importance of enlistment in yeshiva, and therefore do not need the threat of sanctions to motivate them, they argued...
Shaked expressed satisfaction following the vote to accept her proposal. “Religious Zionists contribute more to the country than any other sector of society,” declared Shaked, who is secular. “It is good that Members of Knesset realized that, and allowed students to continue their important Torah study – knowing that the study leads them to contribute to society, both through their learning itself, and through their army service and many years of reserves service.”

So there you have it. Ayelet Shaked is most certainly not a "hater of Torah." She values Torah immensely - when it is a Torah that is connected to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Even in the Yesh Atid party, MK Ofer Shelah said that he has great respect for Zionist yeshiva students because 80 to 85 percent of them serve in combat units.

Bayit Yehudi and even Yesh Atid are not "haters of Torah." Almost nobody in Israel is a hater of Torah. People are haters of selfishness, of ingratitude, of a system in which one sector is financially subsidized by the rest of the country while refusing to share the difficult burden of army service and simultaneously being ungrateful to the extreme. Yet such a system is in any case the antithesis of traditional Torah values and directives. A Torah of love, of being a part of Am Yisrael, of making sacrifices for other people, of valuing the contributions made by others - the way Torah is supposed to be - that's a Torah that everyone loves and respects.

(Thanks to reader Yonah Saunders for forwarding this news to me.) 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Another Revolution in Judaism

One way or another, many people today are worked up about revolutions and reformations in Judaism. In light of that, I was very surprised at the results of my investigation into the topic of what a person can do for someone who has passed away. It revealed that there has been a complete reformation in this area, yet it is one that has slid by without people noticing or objecting.

For those who didn't read my monograph on this topic that I posted, here is the brief summary: Today, it is almost universally believed that anyone can learn Torah and do mitzvos to give an aliyah to the neshamah of someone who has passed away. It is further almost universally believed that this has always been the normative position in Judaism, with no dissenting views. But prior to the late 19th century, every authority to weigh in on this topic stated that one cannot learn Torah (or do other mitzvos, with the possible exception of charity) to benefit the soul of someone who has passed away, unless that person was your ancestor (or otherwise had an influence on your life).

It's not quite a complete revolution, because there are still Torah scholars who maintain the traditional position; in a footnote in my monograph, there is a great story about Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky. But I think that this is the exception rather than the rule (I would welcome being corrected on this if I am mistaken).

How did such a revolution take place? How did a concept go from novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim, to normative viewpoint with no mention of dissenting views, in just 150 years?

Could it be that people are simply unaware that this is a novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim? In many cases, this is undoubtedly so. But amongst Torah scholars who generally research traditional views on matters, and who write about this very topic, it's difficult to imagine that they are entirely unaware of this.

In some cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to encourage Torah study. To quote a certain prominent Rosh Yeshivah (this is a second-hand quote, so I don't know if the quote is exact): "Although there is no classical source for the concept that one can transfer the reward of mitzvos to other people, we want to do things for people who have passed away, and we want people to learn Torah, so we encourage this concept and hope that Hashem has a way of connecting the dots."

In other cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to obtain financial support for Torah study. For example, there is a popular book about how to give an aliyah to the neshamah, which makes no mention of the Geonim and Rishonim, and which speaks about how the best aliyah is given by funding Torah study in a kollel; it further states that the second-best aliyah is given by tzedakah and that the best kind of tzedakah is funding Torah study in a kollel. Not surprisingly, this book is co-published by a kollel, which is dedicated to, and funded by, this concept.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, if you follow the view of Rambam and others regarding being supported vs. working, and you believe that the contemporary mass kollel system is not a good thing and should not be propped up, then there is no reason for distorting classical Torah views on how to help someone who has passed away. If you believe that the contemporary mass kollel system is a good thing, then you will generally be in favor of attempts to support it, but you still might be leery of distorting the history of rabbinic positions on this matter in order to take financial advantage of people (especially people who are mourning the loss of someone). On the other hand, a person might be so desperate for financial support that this does not stop him. Chazal say that "if a person does not teach his son a trade, then he has taught him to steal" - and distorting the history of rabbinic positions on this matter is much easier than stealing! (Note that unless a person has been in dire financial straits oneself, one should not judge the actions of others in such circumstances. It is the fault of the system that brought them to this point.)

Whatever the reason, we see here yet another example of how the normative and traditional positions of Torah Judaism are sometimes not only modified, but completely overturned.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?

When someone passes away, there are often calls to learn Torah or do mitzvos on their behalf. But can anyone do this on their behalf, or only certain people? And does this actually benefit them - and if so, in what way?

In a memorial lecture that I delivered in New York two weeks ago for my mother-in-law, Anne Samson ע"ה, I dealt with this topic. It is a topic which strongly relates to the differences between rationalism and mysticism, and has other serious ramifications, which I shall discuss in future posts. You can download a write-up of the lecture in PDF format at this link. Comments are welcome.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Going To Fight Rather Than Going To Fight

The charedi community proclaims that rather than to leave the Beis HaMidrash and fight with their bodies, the best protection against our enemies is sitting and learning Torah.

The Israeli government, which sees things otherwise, is taking various punitive financial measures against those who do not serve in the IDF.

In response, the charedi community today left the Beis HaMidrash to fight this with their bodies, rather than protecting themselves against their enemies (in this case, the government) by sitting and learning Torah.

This may appear extremely inconsistent. But I think that charedi avoidance of the IDF does not really have anything to do with believing that sitting and learning Torah is the best protection against enemies. It's because joining the IDF would exact a great price on the charedi community, and they do not see any reason to pay that price, when others can pay instead.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Chinese Dinosaurs and Challenging Camels

There was an era when life was chaos. When monsters ruled the land. When primitive creatures fought tooth and nail.

But enough about the elections in Bet Shemesh already. (Ba-da-dum!) I'm not discussing it in this post, even though there is a breaking news item that the Israel Supreme Court just rejected the appeal by the charedi parties against the disqualification of the previous elections, and ruled that there will indeed be new elections. There are two breaking stories in the news that are of relevance to anyone interested in the field of Torah and science.

First is the discovery that Pompeii-like volcanic ash was responsible for the instant death of thousands of species found as fossils in the Jehol beds in China. Actually, the relevance here is not so much the cause of death, but rather the fossil beds themselves. Thousands and thousands of fossils have been found in this location, including nearly 1000 species of invertebrates and 140 species of vertebrates. The latter category includes fossils of amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, birds and mammals (you can see the full list at this link). These are all from species that no longer exist. The mammals, for example, are primitive species with splayed legs like those of reptiles.

For people who insist that the creation account in Genesis is to be taken literally as factual history, there is a big problem here. Are these fossils from Day Five or Day Six of creation? If they are from Day Five, then there should not be any fossils from terrestrial creatures, which were not created yet. But if they are from Day Six, then why are there only fossils of primitive species and none of contemporary species?

If somebody wants to simply admit that they have no answer for the scientific challenges, I'm fine with that. Because the other breaking story of relevance is "Camel Archeology Contradicts Bible" - that carbon-dating of the earliest known domestic camel bones shows that they were introduced to Israel hundreds of years later than the patriarchs. A journalist contacted me for my comment, but I had nothing to say. I'm not a zooarcheologist and I have no means of refuting this claim. Nor do I know how to reconcile such a thing with the Torah. Rav Kook writes that "we should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it," but I don't know how to apply that in this case. (Fortunately, I am long past the stage of my life where such questions keep me awake at night. Now I stay awake at night agonizing over more pressing problems, such as how to best educate my kids, how to raise funds for my museum, and how to get my python to start eating again.)

In light of the fact that I have nothing to say with regard to the Camel Challenge, I can't complain if others want to have a similar lack of response to the Chinese Dinosaurs (although I think that it is wrong to insist to non-charedi audiences that they should not even attempt to deal with such questions). But what I do protest is if people claim that there is no challenge from the Chinese Dinosaurs. Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, for example, in Torah, Chazal and Science (p. 493) claims that it is forbidden to believe that the world is more than 5774 years old, and further insists that there is no legitimate scientific evidence challenging the Biblical account of creation. His purported rationale for this is that "the laws of nature were different back then." Rabbi Meiselman claims that scientists have no way of knowing otherwise, and that all their conclusions are based on an unproven premise that the laws of nature were always constant.

In fact, the consistency of historical processes is not a presumption of modern science - it is a conclusion, drawn from observations of the uniformity present in geology and other phenomena. This was the subject of the very first post that ever appeared on this blog, William Smith and the Principal of Faunal Succession.

(In a possible attempt to counter this argument, Rabbi Meiselman claims on p. 504 that the results of a universe that developed under completely different laws of nature over six days perfectly mimic that of a universe that developed under a single set of laws over billions of years! I'm simply lost for words that such a proposal could be put in print, and that a book espousing such a thing can be taken seriously by anyone.)

The Chinese dinosaurs present another refutation of the notion that there is no scientific challenge to the literalist approach. Here we have amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, birds and mammals, all of which happily (or unhappily) lived their lives and died, all before contemporary species appeared in the world. And yet Rabbi Meiselman and others would insist that all this presents no reason to believe that the world is any more than 5774 years old - and they insist that it is forbidden to believe otherwise. This is despite the statements of numerous widely-respected Torah authorities who say that it is perfectly acceptable to believe otherwise.

If people want to confess that they have no answer to challenges from science, that's fine. But don't take real challenges and claim that they have no basis. Especially if you're going on a crusade to claim that anyone saying otherwise is beyond the pale of Judaism.

UPDATE: The best (and indeed only) response that I have seen regarding the Camel Challenge is by Prof. Aaron Koller at The Times Of Israel.

Guest Post: P'sak in a Doc, Geocentrism, and Relativity

Posted by David Ohsie

Sorry, I have no "P'sak" for the Geocentrism-Relativity discussion thread, but I have the next best thing:

1. I compiled the series of posts on P'sak and Rabbi Meiselman's thesis into a single document that can be accessed here:  Update: Here is a version with margins that is nicer to look at and can be printed and converted to other formats:

2. For those interested in continuing the debate on relativity and geocentrism, here are two links that you should read. I don't know to how reconcile them, who is right, or if they even truly contradict, but they look like they are both written by real physicists and seem to come down on different sides of the issue. Although both refute a fundamentalist "Galieo was wrong" position, they do so on differing grounds:
Hence, my waffling on the issue. In the comments, you can argue with them instead of me :).

P.S. I'm not endorsing Chabad's position here, nor do I agree with it at all, regardless of which of the two articles is "correct" (if not both).

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Group That Threatens Traditional Judaism

Spending the last two weeks on a lecture/ fundraising tour across the United States, I met a lot of different people with a lot of different views about a lot of different things.

There was one thing, however, about which everyone was in agreement.

Everyone said that traditional, Orthodox Judaism is facing a threat from a group that is departing from tradition.

They all agreed that this group publicly goes against the views of Chazal, the Rishonim and the Acharonim. They all agreed that this group cherry-picks isolated views in order to attempt to kasher that which it wants to do, rather than looking at what Hashem and Torah actually wants it to do. They all agreed that this group is wrong in claiming that the circumstances of today legitimizes going against the traditions of thousands of years. They all agreed that this group is attempting to fundamentally re-write the nature of Judaism.

They all agreed that this group poses a great danger to traditional Judaism.

But they weren't all talking about the same group!