Monday, March 31, 2014


In light of the budget cuts to the charedi community in Israel, a new initiative has been launched: Adopt-a-Kollel! This enterprise seeks to raise funds for kollels in Israel; specifically, to pair every kollel in Israel with a shul in the Diaspora that will fund it. To many, it sounds like a wonderful idea. In fact, it is a disastrous proposal, as well as being extraordinarily offensive in its execution.

First, some background. Facing government expenditure that was much greater than government income, the Bank of Israel, in its Monetary Policy Report for January-June 2012, insisted that a massive cut was necessary for the 2013-2014 state budget. Accordingly, a whopping three billion shekels was cut from the defense budget, alongside various cuts to other ministries, and VAT and corporate taxes were increased. Alongside all these cuts, 350 million shekels was cut from yeshivos and kollels. For families in kollel, receiving 279 shekels per month instead of 856 shekels per month is very difficult. Accordingly, many people in kollel are in dire straits. Hence, the Adopt-a-Kollel initiative.

The first advertisement that came to my attention was printed in the US edition of Yated and HaModia (and I think also in Mishpacha). It prominently quoted (part of) the famous and much-abused Rambam in Hilchos Shmittah about honorary members of the Tribe of Levi:
Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do, and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish considerations which trouble people - such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies -
 - and here the quote ended. It failed to quote the last part, in which Rambam states that:
and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this world, just as He granted to the priests and to the Levites. Thus did David, peace upon him, say, "O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot."
Radvaz explains this to mean that the person manages to get by with his own efforts and reliance on God; he notes that it does not mean that he casts himself upon the community for support.

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

Rambam clearly would not have been in favor, to put it mildly, of the modern phenomenon of mass kollel. He makes this clear elsewhere:
One who makes up his mind to involve himself with Torah and not to work, and to support himself from charity, has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt, extinguished the light of religion, brought evil upon himself, and has taken away his life from the World-to-Come... (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10)
This quote from Rambam did not appear in the Adopt-a-Kollel advertisement. I guess that "Adopt-a-Profanation-of-God's-Name-and-Bringing-of-Torah-into-Contempt-and-Extinguishing-the-Light-of-Religion-and-Bringing-Evil" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

The second advertisement for "Adopt-a-Kollel" is downright offensive. It includes the following line from the Haggadah:

"In every generation, they stand against us to exterminate us..."
They are comparing the Government of Israel, making vital budget cutbacks, to the enemies of the Jewish People who tried to annihilate us?!

It's not as though the cuts are not a singular measure directed at the charedi world by evil Torah-haters. They are part of a general cutback in the national budget. The defense budget, which is understandably of much greater concern to the State, was cut by ten times as much. How dare Adopt-a-Kollel speak of this as an attempt at extermination?!

But let's leave aside the perversion of Rambam and the offensiveness of the advertising. Let's not even dwell upon the fact that mass kollel is a modern innovation that goes entirely against the position of Chazal and the Rishonim with regard to taking money for Torah study.

Let's simply instead point out the following: The modern kollel system is a disaster. It is a disaster for the State of Israel, with only 40% of charedi men being employed. This is part of the very cause of the Government budget crisis in the first place!

And the modern kollel system is a disaster for the charedi community. Institutionalized poverty causes myriads of problems, from health to shalom bayis. And it's a problem that constantly gets worse; people in kollel don't just make a personal choice for their own lifestyle, they raise their children with no secular education and no desire to work.

Unfortunately, the charedi world has shown little interest in breaking out of this disastrous system. They have fought secular education tooth and nail. A new charedi school that offered full matriculation exams was unable to locate itself in Ramat Beit Shemesh (thank God, my children attend one of the many non-charedi schools). And Rav Steinman visited and gave a speech in which he condemned secular studies in schools.

Tragically, the only thing that really seems to work is hitting rock-bottom. According to a report in The Times of Israel, as a result of the budget cuts, "for the first time in years, the number of Haredi students enrolling full-time in yeshiva study dropped by a whopping 4,400." Far from trying to "exterminate" charedim, the goal of the government is to encourage charedim to work for a living and to follow Chazal's eminently sensible directive that a person should teach his child a profession.

Asking shuls in the US to help perpetuate the cycle of enforced poverty is not a solution. Instead, we need to help people help themselves, as per Rambam's highest level of charity - perhaps by supporting Kemach, a foundation that helps train charedim to enter the professional workforce. Adopt-a-Kollel is simply Adopt-a-Disaster.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Torah for the Nation

Recently there was an appalling report about the principal of Lustig girl's school in Ramat Gan, who told his students that Religious Zionism is nationalism and is therefore idolatry. Twenty years ago, when I was a loyal charedi yeshiva bochur on track to become Jonathan Rosenblum's successor, my Rosh Yeshivah succinctly explained why religious Zionism was wrong: "The Zionists want to create a new type of Jew, but we believe that the old type of Jew was good enough." In my monographs on The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making of Haredim, I discussed several ways in which charedi Judaism is actually very, very different from traditional Judaism. In this post, I would like to explain why Religious Zionism is a crucial application of traditional Judaism to modern realities and reflects the original purpose of the Torah.

For various reasons, largely relating to the history of Jews in Europe (where the State was the enemy) and the reaction to modernity and secular Zionism, charedi Judaism has evolved into a way of life where the focus is very much on the individual. This has disconcerting results, aside from the major concerns relating to the economy and the military. I remember being in a car with a charedi yeshivah rebbe when we passed by a new recycling bin, and he dismissed it as "Zionist nonsense"; and I once raised a concern about pollution with another charedi yeshivah rebbe, who was mystified at my concern, and said "What do I care?"

During the many years that I spent in charedi yeshivos, I was given a very strong message that the very best thing to do in life is to be isolated and insulated in yeshivah, learning Torah, as an end unto itself. If someone is called away from yeshivah on a mission of communal importance, he has tragically "lost his license to learn." Someone once claimed to me that "a charedi avreich sitting in kollel is obviously acting much more closely in accordance with Hashem's will than a typical religious Zionist who is not as meticulous in his observation of halachah." I disagreed, and I felt that he was missing the wood for the trees.

Many people feel that being a good Jew is about ticking off a checklist of mitzvos (with Torah having the biggest checkbox). But they are mistaken. It's possible to be a naval b'rshus haTorah - somebody who is technically fulfilling all the requirements, but utterly going against the spirit of the law. There are certain values and actions that are fundamental to Judaism. Some of them are encoded in halachah. Others are the values that underpin many mitzvos, such as being a person who is a "giver" rather than a "taker." Still others were historically such a basic part of being part of society that there was no need to codify them - but modern society has enabled people to avoid them and eventually not even realize their fundamental importance. Historically, in order to survive, you had to work, which meant that you were contributing to the economy. Today, thanks to affluent benefactors and the welfare state, an entire culture has sprouted that encourages kollel, which drains from the economy rather than contributing to it, as being the preferred choice for most of its rapidly growing population.

Let's go back to the Chasam Sofer, who says that the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel includes developing its economy in all kinds of ways, and that one must even stop learning Torah in order to do this. What were his grounds for saying this? He points to v'asefta es deganecha, but it's hard to see that as being a clear directive for Israel to have all kinds of industry. Instead, it would appear that he is simply presenting a basic understanding of what nationhood is about. The Torah - you know, that thing we read every week and that charedim talk about all the time - is all about creating a nation in the Land of Israel, with agriculture/industry and a justice system and an army and all the other ingredients that make up nationhood, all run in the most ethical way.

If you live on a desert island, you only need to think about yourself. If you are part of a community, you need to think about the community. If you are part of a nation, you need to think about the nation. A nation needs an economy, with people in all kinds of different professions, as well as an army and other such institutions. On an individual level, people need to balance their own needs, desires and personal growth, with the needs of the nation. On a communal level, leaders need to think about how their communities are contributing to the needs of the nation. 

Charedim have developed a mystical approach to Judaism whereby learning Gemara is the greatest thing that a person can do. They feel that secular education and the army is a serious threat to their way of life. And indeed it is. But there are bigger issues to consider, like the fundamental values of Judaism, the collapse of a exponentially growing community that is underemployed, and the needs of the entire country. 32% of first-graders in Israel are on an educational track that disdains secular education, professional employment, and military service, and the proportion is set to increase! How on earth do they think that the country can survive?

Charedi Judaism in Israel is simply utterly failing to address its responsibilities to itself and to the nation. Rabbi Wein said it well in a recent column:
Dealing with the State of Israel is an even more vexing issue for much of Orthodoxy. The creation of the Jewish state, mainly by secular and nonobservant Jews, and by political and military means was not part of the traditional Jewish view of how the Land of Israel would again fall under Jewish rule.
Since it occurred in the “wrong” way and was being led by the “wrong” people it again shook the mindset of much of Orthodoxy...  the whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world is one of denial of the present fact that the state exists, prospers and is the largest supporter of Torah and Jewish traditional religious lifestyle in the world.
It is again too painful to admit that our past mindset regarding the State of Israel is no longer relevant. As long as large sections of Orthodoxy continue to live in an imaginary past and deny the realities of the present, such issues as army or national service, core curriculums of essential general knowledge for all religious schools, entering the workforce and decreasing the debilitating poverty and dysfunction of so many families, will never be able to be addressed properly.
And with regard to leaders of Torah Judaism needing to focus not on the Gemara-growth of people in their narrow communities, but on issues of importance to the entire nation, Rav Eliezer Melamed explains why the so-called Gedolim of the charedi world are not true leaders:
Gadlut 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.
The term "Torah Jew" is often bandied around, but with a tragically mistaken definition. It is used to mean "someone who places learning Torah as the ultimate goal." But it ought to be used for those who live Torah - those who are creating the nation as described in the Torah. Far from being "idolatry," it's the very essence of what Torah is about.

See too this post: Rosenblum Nails The Problem With Charedi Society

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Bats, The Platypus, And The Echidna

In my post of last week, "That's Bats!", I discussed the Gemara's claim that "Everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the atalef, which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young." I observed that this reflects a widespread but erroneous belief that bats lay eggs. I also critiqued the view of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, that the atalef of the Gemara refers to the platypus (which has the same name as the atalef of the Torah, which is the bat), on the grounds that (a) they would not have referred to the platypus with the entirely misleading name of a different creature that is popularly thought to lay eggs, and (b) they would not have known about the platypus, which lives in Australia.

Pursuant to publishing the post, I received a complaint that I did not properly explain Rabbi Meiselman's view. In this post, I will endeavor to do so more fully. But, as you will see, it merely makes his approach all the more problematic and downright bizarre.

Rabbi Meiselman does not claim that Chazal knew about the platypus per se. They had never been to Australia, nor had they received a vision of a platypus. Rather, he claims that they knew, "from their study of the blueprint of Creation," that there must be an animal, somewhere in the world, which lays eggs and nurses its young. He further seeks to explain why they would call the platypus atalef, which is the name of the bat in the Torah. Rabbi Meiselman explains that just as there is a bird called tinshemes and a sheretz called tinshemes, due to their sharing various characteristics, there is also a "bird" called atalef (the bat) and a quadruped called "atalef" (the platypus), which share significant characteristics. But what are these characteristics by which the platypus earns the same name that the bat earned as an ohf? Rabbi Meiselman first suggests that the platypus, like the bat, has characteristics of both mammals and birds - it is furry, yet possesses a bill and duck-like webbed feet. Alternately, he suggests, the platypus is like the bat in possessing special adaptations for maneuvering in the dark - the bat uses echolocation, and the platypus uses electroreception and mechanoreception (it has tens of thousands of tiny receptive organs on its bill).

That is Rabbi Meiselman's view. I will now present three reasons as to why it is unreasonable in the extreme and does not even assist in removing scientific error from this Gemara. Frankly, I don't really care if he, or anyone else, wants to believe that the atalef of the Gemara is the platypus. The problem is that he is using this in service of his claim that anyone who believes that the Gemara is making an erroneous statement about bats is an unsophisticated heretic.

I. Why Describe the Platypus as an Atalef?

First of all, as discussed at length in the previous post on this topic, if Chazal wanted to tell us about a creature that nobody (including themselves) had seen, the very last thing that they would have done is called it simply by the name of a known animal, the atalef. This is especially true in light of the fact that the term atalef already referred to the bat, which many people mistakenly believe to lay eggs, and would thus assume to be the animal that Chazal were describing.

Rabbi Meiselman seeks to explain why the platypus has significant similarities to the bat that earn it the name atalef. His first way of explaining this is that the platypus is intermediate between mammals and birds in not just one way, but a number of ways. The platypus is furry and nurses its young like other mammals, yet it possesses a bill and duck-like webbed feet as well as laying eggs like birds. Accordingly, the term atalef deservedly refers to the platypus. (In a footnote, Rabbi Meiselman adds that it is "interesting to note" that certain platypus genes resemble those of birds, though he admits that this is not of significance here, since halachah deals only with what can be perceived by the ordinary observer without special equipment.)

But it is very far-fetched to posit that the bat and platypus share the same name due to their both having characteristics of both mammals and birds, when the characteristics of birds that they have are fundamentally different! The platypus cannot fly; instead, it has completely different similarities to birds. Furthermore, webbed feet are not even particularly relevant to birds - some birds possess webbed feet and most do not, just as some mammals (beavers, otters, seals) possess webbed feet and most do not.

Furthermore, the bat's ability to fly is what classifies it in the Torah as a bird. It is what earns its position, not its name (just as the names of the other birds in the list do not reflect their ability to fly). Anything about the name and significance of the atalef would only reflect the ways in which it is different from other birds. 

Now let's turn to Rabbi Meiselman's second proposal, that the platypus shares the same name as the bat because atalef is defined as a creature that has (either instead of, or in addition to, intermediate status between mammals and birds) a special adaptation to the dark. In the case of the bat, this is echolocation, and in the case of the platypus, he explains, this is electroreception. But this does not work and is silly for several reasons:

1) The echidna also has electroreceptors (albeit fewer than the platypus), which it uses for locating food in the undergrowth at night. (To this I presume Rabbi Meiselman would respond that it doesn't use them for maneuvering, only for locating food. This would appear to be just another contrivance.)

2) Why on earth would this random feature be a defining characteristic of the atalef? Rabbi Meiselman seeks to make a pattern by noting that the mole, which according to Rashi is also called the atalef, also has adaptations to maneuver in the dark. But aside from this being a view unique to Rashi, Rabbi Meiselman repeatedly states that the Rishonim did not have a clear mesorah regarding zoology and often misinterpreted Chazal's statements because of this. Suddenly Rashi is grounds to create a new definition of the atalef? Rabbi Meiselman himself freely rejected the mole as an atalef in his previous explanation, when he said that the atalef has to have birdlike characteristics!

3) And finally, the clincher. Echolocation and electroreceptors?! Echolocation in bats was only discovered in 1940, using modern scientific technology. Electroreceptors were only detected in the platypus in 1984 by special investigative techniques, 180 years after the platypus was discovered. Rabbi Meiselman himself admits that halachah deals only with what can be perceived by the ordinary observer without special equipment. Indeed, he uses this to claim that Chazal described lice as spontaneously generating for this reason. But he wants to argue that the term atalef is based on echolocation and electroreceptors?! And if we're just talking about an ability to maneuver in the dark - well, there's nothing novel in that, all kinds of nocturnal animals and birds can do that.

In summary, there is no reasonable basis for saying that the platypus should earn the name atalef. And even if there were, Chazal could and should still have referred to it as "another type" of atalef.

II. How Would Chazal Have Known About Such A Creature?

The assumptions being made by Rabbi Meiselman are astounding. Let's make a list of all the things that Rabbi Meiselman claims that Chazal knew "from their study of the blueprint of Creation":

1. The bat is not the only creature which shares characteristics of mammalian and non-mammalian species.
2. Other creatures that share characteristics of both groups, which are thus also called atalef, do so in ways that differ from the bat.
3. In the entire world, there is exactly one creature in this class that has the mammalian/non-mammalian features of milk-secreting and egg-laying.

Note that Rabbi Meiselman gives no explanation whatsoever as to how their study of Torah led to this presumed knowledge. And it's not as though there is a lot of material in the Torah about the atalef to work with. On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of material in the Torah about cosmology, and yet Chazal were not able to figure out that the sun goes on the other side of the world at night rather than behind the sky!

Let us also recall that no Torah scholar before Rabbi Meiselman ever thought that Chazal were talking about anything other than the atalef of the Torah.

III. The Problem with the Echidna

Meanwhile, Rabbi Meiselman is so focused on explaining why the word atalef can refer to both the bat and the platypus that he has apparently overlooked another very basic problem with his entire approach. Even supposing he is able to explain why the term atalef refers to the platypus, and to thereby claim that the Gemara is not making a mistaken statement about bats, the Gemara's rule would still be wrong! This is because the Gemara mentions the atalef as the sole exception to the principle that "every egg-laying animal does not nurse its young." But the echidna (of which there are two species) is another egg-laying animal that nurses its young!

One might think that a person who believes the atalef to refer to the platypus can say that it also refers to both the echidna. But Rabbi Meiselman cannot do this. He does not explicitly say why, but there are several good reasons.

First, in order not to have it look completely lame that Chazal would use the term atalef for the platypus, Rabbi Meiselman has already argued that there are several reasons for using this term. The reasons that he gives (a beak, webbed feet) do not apply to the echidna.

Second, the platypus and the echidna are very different animals. The platypus is a mostly aquatic animal that resembles a beaver. The echidna is terrestrial and looks like a porcupine. One cannot claim that two such different animals are the same min.

There is a third reason why it is problematic to say that the term atalef includes both the platypus and the echidna. If any creature can be called an atalef merely because it lays eggs and nurses its young, then the Gemara's entire rule becomes meaningless. Remember, too, that according to Rabbi Meiselman, Chazal did not know specifically about the platypus and echidna; thus there could be any number and variety of egg-laying lactating animals in the world. The Gemara said that there is a lone exception to the principle that "every egg-laying animal does not nurse its young" - but if atalef can include any number and variety of animals that are an exception to this rule, then the Gemara is merely saying that "every egg-laying animal does not nurse its young, except for all those that do," which would make no sense.

Thus, Rabbi Meiselman, by arguing that the atalef is a term that is well suited to the platypus, and thereby made the description of the atalef correct, has simply forced a different error into the Gemara's rule.

Again, I must stress that I don't really care less if Rabbi Meiselman, or anyone else, wants to believe that the atalef of the Gemara is the platypus. The problem is that he is using this in service of his claim that anyone who believes that the Gemara is making an erroneous statement about bats is an unsophisticated heretic.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Guest Post: The Virtues of Confronting Contrary Opinions

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie.  All rights reserved

In an otherwise reasonable post on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum makes the following astonishing statement:
In every chareidi history of American Jewry’s responses to the Holocaust, one event always merits special mention l’gnai (for criticism) – a mass protest called by secular Jewish organizations in the mid-1930s calling for a boycott of German products. Those histories cite credible reports that Hitler, ym”sh, was enraged by the protests and thereby strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. [Emphasis mine]
Rabbi Yaakov Menken writes similarly, in justifying rejection of comments protesting Rabbi Rosenblum's statement:
Is Rabbi Rosenblum really to be tasked with explaining, at a third-grade level, the difference between rallies and mock trials of Hitler in the early 1930s (which caused reprisals against Jews and Jewish businesses across Germany) and a march on Washington when the death camps were operating at their most brutal level? [Emphasis Mine]
The Reichstag Fire
It doesn't take a degree in history to understand that Nazis used a series of pretexts to justify their actions and defuse opposition to their monstrous policies. For example, on February 27th, 1933, the German Parliament building (the Reichstag) was burned in an act of arson. The Nazis falsely claimed that this was part of a Communist plot to overthrow the government and used this as a justification for the permanent suspension of civil liberties, giving themselves free reign to arrest their political opponents and take on absolute power.

Another infamous example was the German annexation of the so-called "Sudetenland" from Czechoslovakia, with the support of the other European powers in the Munich Agreement. Hitler justified this annexation as an expression of self-determination of the Sudeten ethnic German citizens of Czechoslovakia. However, it became clear from Hitler's subsequent march into Bohemia and Moravia that the the entire exercise was but a pretext for Germany's eastward expansion. In fact, Hitler had described his Lebensraum (living space) policy of eastern expansion and ethnic cleansing back in 1925 in Mein Kampf.  As a result, the notion that protesting Jews caused Hitler to be "strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people" is repeating the same fallacy that the European powers made in Munich.

Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano
pictured before signing the Munich Agreement
Courtesy of: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA
But it is more than that. Those who recognized the true nature and threat of Hitler and the Nazis tried hard to get the rest of the world to pay attention, while the Nazis used their best efforts to suppress these efforts, sometimes succeeding even in America. For example, the film "Hitler’s Reign of Terror," characterized as "The First American Anti-Nazi Film" was actually successfully suppressed:
George Canty, the Berlin-based trade commissioner for the U.S. Department of Commerce, got wind of protests against the film by the German Ambassador in Washington, and concluded that "the film serves no good purpose." Across the country, censors took Canty’s view, and the film was denied a license, banned, and cut by New York City and State censor boards. In Chicago, the film passed the censors but was stopped when the city’s Nazi consul insisted that the footage was fake.
Hitler in "Homes and Gardens"
The Nazis were so successful that as late as November 1938, the British Magazine "Homes and Gardens" published an article entitled "Hitler's Mountain Home" with such gems as the following:
[A]s his famous book Mein Kampf ("My struggle") became a best-seller of astonishing power (4,500,000 millions copies of it have been sold), Hitler began to think of replacing that humble shack by a house and garden of suitable scope. In this matter he has throughout been his own architect. 
To summarize: The Nazis had a deliberate strategy of defusing and suppressing anti-Nazi sentiment around the world. They successfully used this strategy to lead the Western powers on until 1938 when the invasion of Czechoslovakia brought the other European powers to their senses. As a result, those who tried to wake up the world were people with foresight who the Nazis themselves recognized as capable of obstructing their plans. Those, Jews and non-Jews alike, who had the clarity of mind and the opportunity to prod the powers that be into action deserve great credit for their actions. Had they been successful, France and England might have stopped Germany's remilitarization of the Rhineland, as Hitler himself admitted:
The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance. 
To blame those same people for causing Hitler to be "strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people" is to unwittingly reprise an anti-Semitic trope which blames the Jews for their own misfortune throughout the ages.

I want to emphasize that all of the above is not any kind of creative thesis on my part. I believe this to be a quite conventional view of history which you'll find repeated many times over (see, for example, William Shirer's "Berlin Diary"). I don't know whether or not Rabbi Rosenblum is correct in the contention that his view is conventional in Chareidi historical narratives, but it is certainly unconventional in the wider world and, unwittingly, uncomfortably close to anti-Semitic apologetics. 

I sat down to write this piece for two purposes:
  1. To clarify what I believe is the well-established and standard interpretation of history, in opposition to the claims of Rabbi Rosenblum and Rabbi Menken, and to praise those whom they condemn.
  2. To serve as an example and a warning as to what happens when we shut ourselves off from debate. 
We are all susceptible to biases.  Rabbis Rosenblum and Menken (and Chareidi historical narrative, if Rabbi Rosenblum is correct) appear to me to have accepted an unconventional view of history due to a confirmation bias: what is done by Orthodox Jews must be superior to what is done by other Jews. Furthermore, this bias is reinforced by an unwillingness to even entertain an alternative interpretation, as evidenced by the fact that no critical comments have been allowed on this topic in their blog. [UPDATE: After this post was written, a comment by "Y. Ben-David of Rehovot" was admitted to this post that included a strong objection to Rabbi Rosenblum's original post.  I think that this was a wise editorial decision.]  I will admit here that perhaps it is me that is biased and that their view is really easily supportable; after all, my comments on their posts were rejected and I may be biased by that experience.  What we can learn is not that "they" are wrong and "we" are right; that always appears to "us" to be the case, whoever "us" is. Rather, we have to learn to keep our minds appropriately open if we want to avoid being bound to our own preconceptions. This is the virtue of confronting contrary opinions.

My point here is not to demand that Cross-Currents ought to change their commenting policy, or even to criticize their commenting policy. I'm very happy that I've not had to try to make the editorial decisions needed to keep a blog comment section both open and appropriate. And I'm free to take my business elsewhere, as I've done here. However, I do believe that in this particular instance, editorial discretion reduced what could have been reasonable debate to an echo chamber, with less than desirable and, frankly, somewhat offensive results. And that everyday, we exercise a similar editorial policy for ourselves in what we read and discuss, and we can all profitably reconsider whether we are casting a wide enough net.

I'll conclude with an interesting quotation from a Haskama on L'shon Chaim, which is a commentary on the Gra's book on Hebrew grammar work Dikduk Eliyahu.  L'shon Chaim was apparently self published by R. Chaim Hilel Krzepicki of Lodz in 1939! The Haskama was written by Rav Yehudah Leib Eisenberg of Lask who is reported to have been one of the many Rabbis who refused offers of freedom in order to stay with their communities (see "To Flee Or To Stay?"). He writes that while "many great Rabbis distanced themselves from the study of Hebrew grammar for the 'known reason'" [presumably its association with Zionism], since in his time the language was being revived as a spoken language, that it was important to study the language using a work written by a religious man (Ish Charud B'Yiras Hashem). Perhaps, this is my own bias, but I'd like to think that Rav Eisenberg was here disregarding "conventional wisdom" and considering new perspectives when he wrote the Haskama. Having gained from the commentary, I can hope that I can be considered a Talmid of R. Krzepicki and that my learning is a Z'chus for him.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and may not represent those of the blog owner. Comments are welcomed and encouraged.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Belz Forgets Budapest

This week saw an extraordinary and tragic confluence of events relating to Belz, who recently threatened to leave Israel over the new draft law.

Last Shabbos, the fifth Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissocher Dov Rokeach, spoke to thousands of his followers during the tisch. He said, “We don’t need the state or the government. We need batei medrashim and yeshivos to continue avodas Hashem and to educate the children in the derech of avodas Hashem and the responsibility of a life of Torah and kiyum mitzvos and anxiously awaiting the redemption by Moshiach.”

Yesterday, hundreds of rabbis gathered in Budapest for a memorial ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. They stood at the Danube River, where a memorial displays sixty pairs of iron shoes, in commemoration of victims who were forced by Arrow Cross militiamen to stand by the river's edge and take their shoes off before being shot into the river.

Seventy years ago, the fourth Belzer Rebbe, R. Aharon Rokeach, left Budapest, where he had been living after fleeing the Gestapo in Poland. His half-brother Mordechai read out his farewell speech to thousands of Jews. In this speech, he told the gathered crowds that the Rebbe assured them that they will enjoy good and tranquility in Hungary. The Rebbe was able to leave to Palestine, fulfilling a lifelong dream, due to the help of the Zionists, who obtained special travel certificates for him. Two months later, the Nazis arrived in Budapest, and deported all the Jews to Auschwitz.

Monday, March 24, 2014

This Chasam Sofer is Astounding!

(Thanks to all those who expressed their support for my work via the Paypal link on the previous post. Note that you can now also follow Rationalist Judaism via Twitter and Facebook - see the links on the right of the page. Please note that I plan to only use Facebook for an automatic feed from this blog, so don't expect to interact with me via Facebook!)

Rabbi Tzvi Liker sent me one of the most extraordinary Torah perspectives I have seen in a long time. It's all the more amazing because of who it comes from. Rav Moshe Sofer, a.k.a. Chasam Sofer (1762–1839), is widely considered to be the "father of Orthodoxy." He was the Rosh Yeshiva of Pressburg and a staunch opponent of any reformations of Judaism, leading to his famous saying, "That which is new, is forbidden by the Torah."

The discussion relates to the well-known dispute in the Gemara between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai about learning Torah versus working. Rabbi Yishmael teaches that the study of Torah is to be accompanied by earning a livelihood, as per the verse that we recite in Shema, "Ve'asafta deganecha - And you shall gather your grain." Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the other hand, says that one should devote oneself to Torah, and God will ensure that one's needs are provided for. Abaye observes that many followed the lead of Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded in both working and learning, while most of those who followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai did not succeed in either.

Enter Chasam Sofer. He cites a view that one should ideally follow Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and dedicate oneself solely to Torah, arguing that when Abaye observes that many people didn't do well in that path, this is because they didn't really devote themselves to it properly, but a special person who is truly dedicated to Torah will manage to succeed. Chasam Sofer himself says that "we" (it's not clear who he's referring to) follow Rabbi Nehorai, who argues with Rabbi Meir's instruction that one should teach his child a trade, and says that he will only teach his son Torah.

So far, this sounds very much in accord with someone representing the right wing of Orthodox Judaism. But now comes the "but." And it's the "but" to end all "buts"!

But, says Chasam Sofer, but, this is only true in the Diaspora. In the Diaspora, there is no reason to work at a trade except to earn a living; furthermore, enhancing the economy of one's host country accentuates the fact that the Jews are in exile. Accordingly, if one can truly dedicate oneself to Torah and succeed that way, there is no reason to work, and this is what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was referring to (and Chasam Sofer argues that even Rabbi Yishmael would agree).

In Israel, on the other hand, it's entirely different. Here, Chasam Sofer says, one does not only work the fields in order to make a living. There is also the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz, settling the land. In the same way as one stops learning Torah to put on tefillin, says Chasam Sofer, one stops learning Torah to farm the land, which is the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. Chasam Sofer explains that yishuv ha'aretz does not just mean living in Israel; it means developing the country. He further says that not just farming, but all industries and professions, are part of settling the land and giving it honor. Chasam Sofer adds that it would be a deficiency in the honor of Israel if a certain profession does not exist there, requiring products to be imported from abroad.

This is staggering! According to Chasam Sofer, there is a mitzvah for people in Israel to leave yeshivah and learn a profession quite separate from the requirement to provide for one's family. It's important for Israel to have doctors and engineers and all the professionals that a country requires in order to have honor (and to counter the brain-drain that currently exists). Likewise, people who make aliyah to Israel and bring their professional skills are fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz in a much more significant way than merely by living here. (Update - Someone at Machon Lev sent me a photo, at right, of a poster displaying Chasam Sofer's words, which is displayed outside the office of the president of Machon Lev!)

Chasam Sofer states this idea in two places. Don't take my word for it - below is a scan of both passages. Read and be amazed! And share it with those who believe that anyone encouraging people in Israel to leave yeshivah and enhance the workforce can only be a Torah-hating Amalekite!

Friday, March 21, 2014

That's Bats!

And now for something much lighter and completely different. If it isn't to your tastes, please skip to the note at the end of the post.

There are all kinds of intriguing zoological references in this week's parashah. One is our old friend the hyrax (and there is a free chapter on the hyrax from my forthcoming encyclopedia available at this link). Another is the atalef, listed at the very end of the list of non-kosher birds. The general consensus of both Jewish tradition and modern academic scholarship is that the atalef is the bat.

Some people get very worked up about the fact that the bat is a mammal rather than a bird, which they perceive as a conflict with the Torah's divine authority. Now, while various rabbinic authorities have pointed out that the Torah is not always scientifically accurate, this case does not fall into that category. There is no “right” or “wrong” method of classification. A system of classification has no independent reality. It is simply a means by which we measure and describes the animal kingdom, depending upon our purpose. For the purposes of science, the animal kingdom is evaluated on its own terms, based on anatomy. For the Torah’s system of classification, the animal kingdom is presented in terms the relationship between animals and human beings, and their perception by the common person. Neither system is more correct than the other; they are just serving different purposes. In the Torah, anything birdlike is classified as ohf - including bats. This is not a scientific error, just a different system of language.

The Gemara, on the other hand, is another matter. In a curious passage, with no apparent halachic or hashkafic significance, it states as follows:
Everything that bears live young, nurses them, and everything that lays eggs, gathers food for its young, except for the atalef, which, even though it lays eggs, nurses its young. (Bechoros 7b)
In contrast to the Talmud’s statement, modern zoology asserts that none of the 950 species of bats lay eggs, and further asserts that there was never an egg-laying bat. An egg-laying bat would be completely contradictory to the neat nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom - and amongst all the millions of known species, no such exceptions have ever been found.

Could the Gemara be referring to something other than a bat? Rabbi Joshua Waxman has presented a fascinating argument that the Gemara is referring instead to a species of owl known as the stryx, which does lay eggs, and was believed to nurse its young on milk. But, as Rabbi Waxman notes, this would still not make the Gemara scientifically accurate, since owls do not nurse their young.

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who insists in his book Torah, Chazal and Science that every definitive statement in the Talmud must be correct, and further insists that to say otherwise is heresy, takes a different approach regarding this statement about the atalef. Before the book was published, I predicted that Rabbi Meiselman would fail to address this Gemara. I was wrong - he addresses it at length (chapter 24). The reason why I did not think that he would discuss it is that I couldn't conceive of any way in which he could reasonably claim that the Gemara is scientifically correct. (See if you can spot the false assumption that I made.)

Rabbi Meiselman discusses this Gemara. And he argues that it does not present any scientific problem at all. He claims that the atalef is... the platypus.

No, I am not joking. Rabbi Meiselman claims that the atalef is the furry, mammalian, four-legged, web-footed, egg-laying, duck-billed platypus of Australia. He comments (p. 337) on the wonder of Chazal knowing about the duck-billed platypus: "In their day no one had ever seen one, nor could the Rishonim have imagined them; but Chazal knew that somewhere in the world they must exist."

Rabbi Meiselman acknowledges that this goes against the identification of the atalef given by the Rishonim. But he dismisses the Rishonim as having an inadequate mesorah and mistakenly understanding matters in light of the flawed science of their era. It is not clear to me why he considers this perfectly acceptable to state with regard to the Rishonim, but heretical to state with regard to Chazal. 

To support his claim that the atalef is the platypus, Rabbi Meiselman argues that it doesn’t make sense to claim that the Gemara is repeating an erroneous belief that bats lay eggs, since this Aristotle and Pliny recognized that bats do not lay eggs. Yet this is hardly sufficient reason to prefer the platypus. Chazal were not always in sync with Greco-Roman views - unlike the Greeks, they did not know that the sun passes on the far side of the earth at night. A Google search for "do bats lay eggs" brings many thousands of results, revealing that even in the scientifically-literate 21st century, there is much popular confusion about this matter - certainly such a belief would have been vastly more widespread in antiquity. (Also, as noted above, the Gemara may have been referring to a bird that was believed by the Greeks to lactate, rather than to an egg-laying bat.)

Rabbi Meiselman further argues that Chazal not have mistakenly believed that bats lay eggs, if they observed them closely enough to know that they nurse their young. But even close observation of bats nursing would not lead to the conclusion that there are no eggs, just that one had not discovered them yet. Furthermore, in any case there is no need for close observation to conclude that bats nurse their young - one can just draw this conclusion from its generally mammalian physiology.

Positing that Chazal believed in egg-laying bats (as many people still do) or lactating owls (as was common in antiquity) is infinitely more reasonable than proposing that they knew of the duck-billed platypus! How could they have known of the existence of the platypus? Rabbi Meiselman vaguely asserts that they knew it from "their understanding of the spiritual underpinnings of the world." He does not explain how understanding the spiritual underpinnings of the world leads one to conclude that there is a duck-billed platypus. Additionally, as discussed at length in my monograph on Sod Hashem Liyreyav, there is scant traditional support for such a notion. Furthermore, if their understanding of the "spiritual underpinnings of the world" was not sufficient to enable them to realize that the sun passes on the other side of the world at night rather than doubling back behind the sky, it is rather unreasonable to propose that it was sufficient to enable them to decipher the existence of the duck-billed platypus.

(UPDATE: Note that Rabbi Meiselman does not claim that they knew specifically of the platypus. Rather, he claims that they knew that there must be another creature which, like the bat, has characteristics of both birds and non-birds. He also claims that they knew that this creature must have a different combination of those characteristics than bats do. Rabbi Meiselman provides no support for either of these two extraordinary assertions. Furthermore, if they knew that there must be other animals with other combinations of bird/non-bird characteristics, why limit it to a mammal that lays eggs? By this logic, there must also be a fish with feathers and an amphibian with a beak!)

But there is another powerful reason why Rabbi Meiselman's case is absurd. He is not arguing that the atalef of Scripture is a platypus, because that is listed amongst the category of ohf. So he argues that Chazal used the same name as the atalef of Scripture, which he agrees is probably a bat, yet here referred to a different animal. But consider how astonishingly misleading this is making Chazal out to be. Instead of giving the platypus any kind of unique name or description and informing us that it lives in Australia, they chose instead to use a name that the Torah uses to refer to a creature that also has mixed characteristics of mammals and birds, the bat, thereby misleading every student of the Gemara for the last 1500 years to mistakenly believe that they were talking about the same creature!

(Furthermore, if Chazal knew of the exceptions to the rule that egg-laying animals don't lactate, why didn't they mention the echidna, pictured at right?)

So, Rabbi Meiselman prefers to posit that Chazal were able to figure out the existence of the duck-billed platypus, which they misleadingly referred to with the same name as the bat, rather than positing that just as Chazal subscribed to the ancient belief that the sun travels behind the sky at night, they likewise subscribed to the widespread belief that bats lay eggs.

In perhaps the most remarkable twist of logic, Rabbi Meiselman concludes that “the very case that people cite as a challenge to Chazal is actually another demonstration that their knowledge was derived not from contemporary wisdom but from Torah itself.” But Rabbi Meiselman has not in any way proved that they actually derived this view from Torah. Furthermore, the issue is whether their knowledge is divinely correct, not where they derived it from. Chazal derived aspects of their understanding of the heavens being solid from Scripture, but this does not mean that it was correct!

Personally, I think that Rav Hirsch's approach, which is very well-founded in Chazal, the Geonim, the Rishonim, and the Acharonim, is the only reasonable explanation. According to this approach, there is no "problem" here, per se. "Chazal were the sages of God's law - the receivers, transmitters and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine... we do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai." Thus, Chazal were simply relating an ancient and erroneous belief that bats lay eggs (or that owls nurse their young). Presenting this approach to the Gemara does not diminish the honor of Chazal. And nor, unlike the platypus claim, does it diminish the honor of the one presenting it.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects?

There is undeniably a traditional concept in Judaism that Torah provides protection from harm. Previously, I have noted that the extent and parameters of this protection are classically (and logically and practically) understood very differently from how contemporary charedi apologists explain it. However, in this post, I would like to discuss a different angle: the very mechanism understood to lie behind this protection. It turns out that this is yet another powerful example of the difference between rationalist and mystical schools of thought.

As we have discussed before, the mystical and rationalist schools of thought have very different ideas regarding what mitzvos actually do. According the rationalist approach, mitzvos improve our characters, our intellect, and society - and do nothing else. According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, mitzvos primarily serve to create and manipulate various metaphysical energies. To pick one example, according to the rationalist approach, mezuzah serves to remind us of our duties, whereas according to the mystical approach, mezuzos create a metaphysical force-field that protects our homes.

The same is true for Torah. According the rationalist approach, learning Torah imparts valuable knowledge, improves our character, and teaches us how to improve society (see my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) That is it, and that is all. Which is not, of course, to trivialize these functions - from a rationalist perspective, these are of immense importance! With the rise of mysticism, on the other hand, came a new and primary function of Torah study. As  expressed by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, the primary function of Torah study was now seen as being to create spiritual energies and thereby metaphysically influence the universe. (See my post on The Goal of Torah Study.)

The notion of Torah providing protection is interpreted by mystically-inclined people in line with this. Learning Torah creates a metaphysical force-field around one's city, similar to that created by mezuzah around one's home. The more Torah that is learned, the more powerful the force-field. As one Beit Shemesh rabbi said when the Grodno yeshivah relocated to Beit Shemesh during Cast Lead, "the yeshivah is providing an 'Iron Dome' for Beit Shemesh."

The rationalist approach to the notion of Torah providing protection would be very different. (Note that I am not talking here about extreme rationalist interpretations of Maimonides, but rather about mainstream rationalist approaches that reflect Chazal's understanding in this area.) It would relate to the idea of the personal merit of the Torah scholar, rather than a metaphysical protection provided by the Torah study itself. Note that the Gemara's presentation of this concept is not phrased as "Torah study protects" but rather "Torah scholars are protected." It refers to the person who has performed the act rather than the act itself. Just as Sodom could have been saved in the merit of righteous people, so too righteous people can create a merit which leads to the machinations of enemy forces being divinely repressed.

(This is similar to the topic of benefiting someone who has passed away, discussed a few weeks ago. According to the mystical/ charedi approach, you can benefit anyone who has passed away, via learning Torah and transferring "spiritual currency." According to the classical/ rationalist approach, on the other hand, there is simply no mechanism for such a thing. Instead, only the descendants and disciples of the dead can benefit them, via creating a merit for them.)

One may wonder if there are any ramifications to this difference. In fact, the ramifications are very significant. Consider the following statement by Jonathan Rosenblum, in a criticism of Yesh Atid's plan to limit the number of yeshivah students receiving a full exemption from the draft: "I cannot understand how any believing Jew could ever think that we have enough Torah learning, and all the more so in the present security situation in which six million Jews in Eretz Yisrael find themselves." This reflects the mystical approach in which Torah study provides metaphysical protective energy, and thus the more Torah that is studied, the more protection is provided. With this perspective, it makes little difference as to whether the person should ideally be learning Torah or doing something else - the starting point is that Torah provides metaphysical protective energy.

According to the classical/ rationalist approach, on the other hand, protection is earned not by Torah study itself, but rather as a consequence of the merit of the person learning it. Accordingly, the first question to consider is whether it is indeed meritorious, i.e. whether it is indeed appropriate for the person to be learning Torah. If a community is inappropriately avoiding their share of the national burden, or displays no concern for the rest of the nation, then their Torah students will not necessarily be a source of merit. If so, they do not provide any protective benefits.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Aren't You Scared?

In an article by Eytan Kobre in last week's Mishpacha magazine entitled "Aren't You Scared?" there were some basic errors of logic, as others have already pointed out. I'd like to take issue with the title and final part of his article, which argued that in light of the nuclear threat from Iran, people should be scared to draft yeshivah students into the IDF. To quote Mr. Kobre:
Aren’t you scared to support tinkering with the single greatest protection there can possibly be against that threat?
Um, no. Charedim themselves, including Gedolim, didn't consider the Torah study of charedi yeshivos sufficient to provide protection against missiles from Gaza on par with Iron Dome. Whereas the residents of the South mostly stayed during Cast Lead (as did the hesder yeshivos), the charedi yeshivos - including Grodna, Petersburg, Belz and Ger - fled from the South. Aren't you scared to be trusting the Torah study of charedi yeshivos to provide meaningful protection from Iran, when the Gedolim don't even believe that it provides meaningful protection from Gaza?

Mr. Kobre concludes by arguing that we should also be scared to ignore the guidance of the "leaders of our generation" - by which he means the charedi Gedolim - in this area:
When all the smoke clears from the battlefield of rhetorical jousting and endless punditry, this really isn’t about the views of Yonoson Rosenblum or Eytan Kobre versus those of any other Jew of whatever stripe. It is about what maranan v’rabbanan, the leaders of our generation — those about whom we beseech Hashem with the words v’ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu, please don’t remove ruach hakodesh from our midst — have said and done, versus what Lapid and Bennett and Netanyahu have said and done. And so, aren’t you scared, or at the least, a bit humbled? —
Mr. Kobre, I have a similar question for you. Aren't you scared to be putting national security decisions in the hands of the types of people that told their followers to ignore Jabotinsky and to stay in Europe in the 1930s, leading them be massacred by the Nazis? Aren't you scared to be taking direction from people whose interpretation of Torah leads them to deny factual reality, such as insisting that there was no age of the dinosaurs but there is such a thing as spontaneous generation? Aren't you scared to place your connection to God and Sinai with people who are so out of sync with the philosophy of the Rishonim that they take positions that are diametrically opposed to them, again and again and again and again? Aren't you scared to be putting your trust in a system of rabbinic authority which caused Gaza to be sold out for 290 million shekels, Leib Tropper to be given immense power, and the monster Elior Chen to be declared a righteous person?

I'd be scared. That's why I'd rather take guidance from the Torah, Chazal, the Rishonim, and Rabbanim with a rationalist outlook, and whose worldview has Klal Yisrael consciousness, relating to the concerns of the entire nation rather than to the narrow interests of a seceded sector of society.

UPDATE: See too this article by Rabbi Berel Wein

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Rabbis Do Not Need Protection"

The latest round in the debate about charedim and army has taken a fascinating twist.

In Rabbi Hoffman's original article arguing that yeshivah students should not serve in the army, he only referenced Gemaras that condemned the drafting of Torah scholars. Note that these Gemaras did not specify the reason why it is wrong to draft Torah scholars. Indeed, there are a number of possibilities.

When, however, it was pointed out that these Gemaras speak of talmidei chachamim, and thus presumably refer to talmidei chachamim, Rabbi Hoffman switched to a different Gemara, which was eagerly taken up by Rabbi Menken. The Gemara that they switched to was one stating that "The rabbis do not need protection" (and they argue that Rav Moshe Feinstein used this to demonstrate that yeshivah students should categorically not go to the army - later we shall see that this is far from clear).

At first, I didn't realize that there had been a switch. But as soon as I realized, I submitted the following comment to Cross-Currents: 
It is surely obvious that the Gemara does not mean that yeshivah students or even rabbis are immune from harm against the Arab threat. (I hope that pointing out this obvious fact will not mean that you will accuse me of saying that Torah=chess.) Do I need to remind you of the massacres at Chevron and at Mercaz HaRav? How about the fact that Beitar and Kiryat Sefer, towns that are full of Bnei Torah, need and request army protection? Obviously, then, in the face of the Arab threat, the yeshivah students and rabbis DO need protection. In which case, we are back to the issue of why it is fair for them to demand that only other people provide it.
Rabbi Menken, however, refused to post the comment, as he told me in an e-mail. His reason was extraordinary - he claimed that it was "not sufficiently germane" to the discussion!

I wrote back to him expressing my astonishment that he described this comment as "not germane." Rabbi Hoffman and Rabbi Menken cited this Gemara in support of the claim that yeshivah students should not be enlisted, because they "don't need protection." Yet the obvious reality, accepted by Charedim, is that yeshivah students and rabbis do need protection. There could hardly be a more germane comment than this!

Rabbi Menken responded that I "do not understand the Gemara." To this I responded:
Oh, for Heaven's sake. You yourself obviously do not believe that rabbis do not need protection from Arabs. So you have no idea why this Gemara would prove that yeshivah students should not serve in the army. You're just trying to hide behind Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Rabbi Menken responded by explaining the Gemara's statement that "the rabbis do not need protection" to mean that "that the rabbis offer protection from Arabs, they don't merely need it" (emphasis his). I fail to understand how inserting the word "merely" in the Gemara, and thereby totally inverting its meaning, is a valid approach to learning Gemara. I also fail to understand how explaining the Gemara to mean that "rabbis don't merely need protection" satisfactorily explains why they should not be drafted.

Still, Rabbi Menken steadfastly refused to print my comment. This makes a mockery of the claim that Cross-Currents makes about its comments policy:
The moderation of comments is not intended to stifle debate, but to keep it constructive. Comments entirely critical of positions taken by our contributors and of the Orthodox center to right-of-center ideologies we represent will be published. We believe in a way of life that can survive scrutiny and critique. It will be our job to respond.
It's a pity that, unlike other writers at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Menken does not live up to its stated approach. But meanwhile, what of the Gemara's claim that "Rabbis do not need protection," and what of Rav Moshe Feinstein? Even if Rabbi Menken is not going to reconcile this with reality, the rest of us would like to!

Regarding the Gemara, as I have noted in the past, Radvaz 2:752 greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling. This includes stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection. Chasam Sofer says that it only refers to exemptions from city taxes that are placed upon Jews in exile, not for defense against genuine military threats. Radvaz and Chasam Sofer thus accept the obvious truth that in the threat posed to Israel by its Arab neighbors, rabbis do very much need protection.

What, then, are we to make of the ruling of Rav Moshe Feinstein? First of all, it should be noted that Rav Moshe is arguing with the Rama (YD 243:2). Rav Moshe expands the Gemara to refer to yeshivah students. Rama says that it refers only to those who are fluent in most of the Talmud, commentaries and rulings of the Geonim.

Furthermore, David Ohsie pointed out that the responsum does not at all seem to mean what Rabbis Hoffman and Menken are taking it to mean:
The Teshuvah seems to be addressed to someone who was questioning the propriety of taking advantage of the draft exemption for those that learn in a Yeshiva instead of serving in the IDF. Rav Moshe appears to allow this exemption for two reasons:

A) We see from the Gemara in בבא בתרא that learning can take precedence over protecting the city.

B) Israel has recognized the importance of learning Torah, and thus exempted those that learn in a Yeshiva.

The Teshuvah does not address the following issues:

1) The Teshuvah does not imply that the learning provides protection for others. Nor does it claim that learning in a Yeshiva is enough to protect oneself from the threats facing Israel at any given time. It merely asserts that while protecting the country is a very important matter, learning Torah is even more important, so that taking advantage of a draft exemption is a moral choice. The evidence is that one may exempt oneself from sharing in payment for the protection of the city. Presumably, this would not be a valid choice for someone who merely had enough money to pay for private protection. He mentions at the end of the Teshuvah his desire that the action should be a Berachah and Haganah for Israel, but this is not the basis for the p'sak.

The Teshuvah doesn't even imply that those learning in a Yeshiva are providing protection for themselves; it is hard to imagine the country being threatened militarily or with terrorism and those who learn being automatically protected, as could be the case with burglars in a city. As has been pointed out by others, even those who learn, rationally vacate vulnerable areas when they are under active attack, and so admit that this protection does not apply even to themselves in this instance.

2) The Teshuvah does not address itself to the question of what level of exemption should be provided by the country. It is addressed to the morality of even accepting an exemption given that the country permits it. It makes no claim that the existing level of exemption must remain static forever. It also does not address evasion of the draft in opposition to the laws of the country.

3) The Teshuvah is not completely silent on the level of dedication or achievement needed to justify an exemption. It actually mentions that one can accept an exemption to become גדול בתורה ובהוראה וביראת שמים. Note the reference to becoming a Posek, not merely someone that learns. Presumably, not everyone who learns in a Yeshiva is material for becoming a Posek.
Thus, not only is the Gemara not saying that yeshivah students should automatically be exempt from the draft, and not only does Rama make it clear that there is no reference here to yeshivah students - even Rav Moshe Feinstein is not necessarily saying that yeshivah students should automatically be exempt from the draft.

Rabbis do need protection from the Arab threat. (Similar to how Rabbi Menken needs protection from comments that undermine his argument.) It is unfair (as well as lacking any clear source in Chazal or the Rishonim) to demand that this protection be provided solely from people outside the charedi community. Indeed, this point is made explicitly in an early responsum from an early Rav Moshe: "Shall your brothers go to war, while you remain here?"

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Ultimate Irony

At the end of the charedi anti-draft rally in New York, the organizers offered effusive thanks and praise to the New York City Police Department for ensuring the safety and security of everyone present.

They can thank the NYPD, but not the IDF?!

And why did all these Torah scholars need protection anyway?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Torah, Army, and the Bizarre Chess Analogy

Rabbi Yair Hoffman has written a response to my critique of his article regarding Torah Study and the IDF, and posted it at Cross-Currents. Unfortunately, it seems that Cross-Currents does not permit me to post a response, and not even to post a comment linking to a response, so I can only hope that readers of Rabbi Hoffman's piece will somehow find their way here.

I. Torah = Chess?!

Rabbi Hoffman's primary counter-argument is simply... strange. In Rabbi Hoffman's original article, he referred to a number of statements in the Gemara that condemn the drafting of talmidei chachamim into the army. In my critique, amongst other objections, I pointed out that these statements specifically mention talmidei chachamim, and are not applicable to yeshivah students. I also pointed out that based on the actions of charedim themselves, it is apparent that they do not actually believe that yeshivah students provide protection. Here is Rabbi Hoffman's response:
Torah sources from the TaNach, through the Gemorah, the Rishonim, Acharonim, to the Gedolei Torah of the past generation all speak of the protective power of Torah.  There are essentially two types of people.  There are those who disagree with these sources (or try to minimize them by claiming that it is all Agaddatah, or only applies to great Torah scholars, or who try to point out that we don’t see it practically) – we will call these people “Torah = Chess” believers.  In other words they think that studying chess and studying Torah are equal in terms of their protective powers.
According to Rabbi Hoffman, if you do not say that the Gemara's references to talmidei chachamim also apply to people who are not talmidei chachamim, then you are saying that Torah=chess. How on earth does that make any sense? If you learn Chazal's words carefully, then you are saying that Torah=chess?! There are many halachos in the Gemara about talmidei chachamim. Nobody claims that they are all equally applicable to yeshivah students. There are even sources which state that nobody today rates as a talmid chacham by the Gemara's definition!

Rav Hershel Schechter addressed these sources in the context of addressing a question about charedim not going to the army, which he describes as "scandalous." Rav Schachter says as follows: "The Gemara says you don't draft talmidei chachamim. Every bochur in yeshiva is a talmid chacham?! It's not so." (You can listen to Rav Schachter at this link, starting at about 40:00 in the streaming version and 51:20 in the download.)

It is clearly absurd for Rabbi Hoffman to claim that Rav Schachter believes that "Torah=chess." I don't know whether Rav Schachter believes that the Torah study of a yeshivah student has protective powers or not, but it's irrelevant. Even if one believes that Torah study has some sort of protective power, this by no means necessarily translates into an exemption from army service!

Rav Schachter also quotes Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky as telling his grandson that if he lives in Israel, he has to go to the army. So Rabbi Hoffman is positing that according to Rav Yaakov, "Torah=chess"?

Or how about Rav Elyashiv, who also minimized a source in Chazal about the protective merits of Torah scholars? This was with regard to a wave of burglaries in a particular Charedi neighborhood. Rav Elyashiv stated that "The principle of תלמידי חכמים אינם צריכים שמירה only applies in a normal situation, before there is a rash of burglaries. However, now that there already was a rash of burglaries it would be considered a miracle for the talmid chacham not to be harmed. Therefore the principle of תלמידי חכמים אינם צריכים שמירה does not apply and everyone has to pay equally for the security company." So Rabbi Hoffman is positing that according to Rav Elyashiv, "Torah=chess"?

Or how about Radvaz? Responsa Radvaz 2:752 greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling about Torah scholars being exempt from contributing towards security, including stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection.  So Rabbi Hoffman is positing that according to Radvaz, "Torah=chess"?

It should further be noted that Rabbi Hoffman's blanket statement that "Gedolei HaPoskim" believe that these sources exempt yeshivah students from IDF service is simply not true. Aside from all the Israeli Religious Zionist Gedolei HaPoskim who clearly hold that at least most yeshivah students should serve in the army, here we have Rav Yaakov ztz"l and Rav Schachter shlita who clearly disagree with Rabbi Hoffman.

When Rabbi Hoffman states that "The Gemorah, the Midrashim, and contemporary Gedolei Torah both from the Zionist world and the Chareidi world all say that Torah protects," this is deeply misleading. Saying "Torah scholars protect" or even "Torah protects" does not equal "all yeshivah students should be exempt from the army."

II. Geographic Concentration

In my critique, I noted that the concept of Torah providing protection is that it is concentrated in the area where the Torah scholar actually is. Rabbi Hoffman claims that I "made this up." Really? Let's see. The Yerushalmi, Chagigah 1:7, speaks about teachers of Torah being the protectors of the city. In general, reason indicates that if one accepts the concept of zechus - merits created by good deeds - that they spread outwards, decreasing in intensity with distance. A person's merits are strongest for his immediate family, and for those in his town. For righteous people to have saved Sodom, they would have had to have been living in Sodom.

And the charedi world agrees. The Chazon Ish, and, yibedal lechaim, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, said that Bnei Brak is safe from missiles. The Torah study of that town apparently protects it, and it alone. Likewise, when the 300-strong Grodno yeshivah relocated from Ashdod to Bet Shemesh due to the war in the South, a prominent Torah scholar in Bet Shemesh was quoted in the Chadash weekly as stating that "We have no doubt that the efforts of the residents of Bet Shemesh, such that the sound of Torah should not cease from one yeshivah, is the 'iron dome' of the city; it is the true protection, and the cause that our residents have not been part of the bloodshed." The merits of those facilitating Torah study provide protection that is greatest in its immediate locale.

Yet the charedi Gedolim ordered the charedi yeshivos to flee from Ashdod. Why? There are two possibilities, and neither look good. One possibility is that they don't really believe that the Torah study of yeshivah students protects to the degree that soldiers are able to provide protection (which, according to Rabbi Hoffman, means that the Gedolim believe that Torah=chess). The other possibility is that they do believe that the Torah study of yeshivah students protects to the degree that soldiers are able to provide protection, but they also feel that the remaining risk is still one that yeshivah students should not take. But if soldiers are risking their lives to provide protection for others, why shouldn't yeshivah students do the same, if they are claiming an exemption from the army due to providing equivalent protection?

III. Protection from Economic and Health Problems

In my critique, I noted that the statements in the Gemara about the protective value of Torah scholars refer to protection from all kinds of harm – economic harm and disease as well as military threats. Yet one never sees that the charedi world considers themselves less requiring of help in these areas; if anything, the opposite is true! Rabbi Hoffman responds as follows:
Not sure what the point here is exactly.  Is Rabbi Slifkin attempting to disprove the statements in Chazal that Torah affords protection?  And aside from pandering to some stereotyped notions, how is he proving this exactly?  Because Chareidim recognize the need to go to top doctors?  Actually, Rabbi Slifkin is no longer minimizing “Torah > Chess.”  Here his point here is to show that “Torah = Chess.”  There is no other way of reading his challenge.
It is curious that Rabbi Hoffman claims that there is "no other way" of reading my challenge, because he has apparently failed to understand the plain meaning of my words. I was not attempting to disprove the statements in Chazal that Torah affords protection. Rather, I was demonstrating that Charedim themselves do not believe that their Torah study protects from economic and health problems such that they do not need to do their practical hishtadlus. In Rabbi Hoffman's world, this means that charedim believe that Torah=chess. For the rest of us, this means that charedim do not believe that aggadic statements about the protective benefits of a Torah scholar can be applied in a practical way today to the Torah study of the masses.

IV. Is There Really A Danger?

In my critique, I observed that it's just plain silly to claim that we would lose "crucial protection" if some (and not all) yeshivah students spend some time in the army. Yeshivos give their students a month off in Nissan, three weeks off in Tishrei, and three weeks off in the summer – and did so even during the war in the North. If that’s good enough for a fifth of the year, it’s hard to believe that a couple of thousand young men in the army at any given time, while there are tens of thousands still in yeshivah, can cause a crucial security problem. To this, Rabbi Hoffman responded that "Yeshiva students still study during Bein HaZmanim." Indeed, some study to a large degree. But most are learning only a small amount, which apparently is not a grave threat to national security. Indeed, as pointed out, they even did this during the war in the North. If it's safe to have such a decline in Torah study for a fifth of the year, why can't they spend some time in the army?

V. Gedolei Torah from the Zionist World
In Rabbi Hoffman's original article, he attempted to argue that Religious Zionist Gedolei Torah believed that yeshivah students should be exempt from army service. Rabbi Hoffman quoted a story about Rav Kook, and I pointed out that he neglected to mention that the incident concerned the British army in WWI, not the Israeli army defending Israel! Rabbi Hoffman claims that this omission is irrelevant, since "Rav Kook was arguing for a release based upon studying Torah." But it makes all the difference in the world when this is being weighed up against the small importance of helping England, versus the tremendous importance of defending the Jewish People and Israel (not to mention the fact that it was virtually impossible to eat kosher food and keep Shabbos in the British army).

It is none other than Rav Kook's son, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who described such misappropriations of Rav Kook's position as “a distortion and utter falsehood.” He explained that "whereas in England, the demand was that the yeshiva students fight for a foreign army, here we are fighting for our hold on the land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. This is undoubtedly a milchemet mitzvah." Would Rabbi Hoffman have us believe that he understands Rav Kook's position better than Rav Kook's own son?!

I further pointed out that Rabbi Hoffman's attempts to recruit Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Shaul Yisraeli in support of his thesis were a distortion of their views. Rabbi Hoffman does not argue with my correction - he simply says that others disagree. Indeed they do. But this does not mean that it was legitimate to misrepresent their view. Furthermore, here again we have Rabbi Hoffman effectively saying that according to Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Torah=chess!

VI. No Halachic Exemption for Torah Students

A crucial point that I stressed is that there is simply no traditional halachic exemption for yeshivah students. There are exemptions - in the case of milchemes reshus, but not for milchemes mitzvah - for people who are newly married, who have built houses, and who have planted vineyards. The precise details of these categories are discussed in halachic literature - does it apply to someone who has re-married? How many trees is considered a vineyard? There is no discussion in halachic literature of the details of the exemption for a yeshivah student, however. The reason is that there is no such exemption.

Rabbi Hoffman, however, claims that there is such an exemption in traditional halachic literature:
In Hilchos Shmitah v’Yovel 13:10 we learn of Shaivet Levi’s special status and treatment.  Three Halachos later (13:13) the Rambam says that anyone who wishes to devote himself to full time Torah study can share the status of Shaivet Levi.
I've addressed this much-abused Rambam in a dedicated post, but here is a brief summary. First of all, Rambam is not making a halachic statement here at all. As is common with the closing paragraphs of the different sections of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam here is presenting mussar rather than halachah.

Second, it stretches credulity to posit that Rambam, in discussing the halachos regarding going to the army in Hilchos Melachim u'Milchamos chapter 7, entirely omitted an extremely significant category of exemption, and simply obliquely hints at it elsewhere.

Third, Rambam is clearly not making a full comparison of Torah students to the tribe of Levi. The special status and treatment of Levi mentioned by Rambam includes that Levi does not gain a inheritance in the land of Israel. This did not and does not apply to Torah students!

Fourth, even if one wishes to claim that Rambam neglected to mention an exemption in Hilchos Melachim, and implies it here, what kind of person is Rambam talking about? Here is a quote from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:
...Even if we grant that the Rambam's statement does imply a categorical dispensation in purely halachic terms, it remains of little practical significance. We have yet to examine just to whom it applies. A levi [sic] is defined genealogically. Those who are equated with him, however, literally or symbolically, are defined by spiritual qualities; and for these the Rambam sets a very high standard indeed. He present an idealized portrait of a selfless, atemporal, almost ethereal person - one whose spirit and intelligence have led him to divest himself of all worldly concerns and who has devoted himself "to stand before God, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know God; and he walks aright as the Lord has made him and he has cast off from his neck the yoke of the many considerations which men have sought." To how large a segment of the Torah community - or, a fortiori, of any community - does this lofty typology apply? To two percent? Five Percent? Can anyone... confront a mirror and tell himself that he ought not to go to the army because he is kodesh kodashim, sanctum sanctorum, in the Rambam's terms?
Again, however, the most straightforward understanding of Rambam is that there is no comparison of spiritual elites to the tribe of Levi vis-a-vis a halachic exemption from army service. Rav Asher Tanenbaum, who was the secretary of the Va'ad Ha-Yeshivot in Israel, heard from Ha-Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer that it is a falsification to claim based on this Rambam that yeshiva students are exempt from military service.

VII. The Issue of Fairness

In my critique, I noted that even if the current security situation does not require everyone to be drafted, it certainly requires a lot of people to be drafted. It is unacceptable for the charedi community to declare that this manpower should only be drawn from other communities and not from its own.  Rabbi Hoffman quotes an assessment from the top IDF experts that there is no manpower shortage. Well, there is also no shortage of dollars in the Jewish people, but that doesn’t mean that when someone comes collecting, you can simply avoid doing your part and rely on the dollars coming from others. The IDF has to recruit a certain number of people every year. Why should only non-charedim make up this manpower? Let us return to Moshe Rabbeinu’s words, “Shall your brothers go out to war, while you remain here?” He does not allow for these tribes to stay beyond the Jordan and learn Torah. And nor does he say that the extra manpower is needed. Rather, Moshe Rabbeinu makes a simple argument from fairness.

In response, Rabbi Hoffman states that the request is only to exempt those studying Torah, not the entire charedi community. He agrees that that the chareidi community should also participate if they are not learning Torah: "Rav Shteinman agreed as well, and was the driving force behind Nachal Chareidi. Unfortunately, the Yesh Atid initiative destroyed the growth opportunity for the recruitment of Nachal Chareidi."

Unfortunately, Rabbi Hoffman has matters exactly backwards. Had the charedi community been serious about sending non-Torah learners to the army, then the Yesh Atid initiative would never have gotten off the ground. Nachal Charedi only has around 1000 soldiers, which are actually mostly from the Zionist community. The Charedi community was never remotely interested in identifying which boys are not seriously learning in yeshivah and sending them to the army. The idea that a few hundred charedim in the army represents a fair sharing of the burden by the charedi community - a community that claims 66,000 draft exemptions - is absurd and offensive.

VIII. The Issue of Concern and Gratitude

The problem of charedim not serving in the army is compounded by their lack of concern and gratitude for those who do serve. Rabbi Hoffman agreed that it is important to express our sincere hakaras haTov and pray for the welfare and well-being of the IDF, and lamented that it is "unfortunate that some do not." To this, I objected that he is vastly downplaying the extent of the problem. It’s not “some” who do not. It’s the entire charedi world.

Rabbi Hoffman responded that "it is a significant amount, but it is not the entire Chareidi world.... There are many, many Chareidim who dedicate their learning and Tefilos to ensure the safety of soldiers and the populace. It is dishonest, and wrong to spew such hate speech."
Obviously I did not mean that there is not a single charedi person who davvens for the welfare of the IDF. But, as a general pattern, it is absolutely true to say that the charedim do not express hakaras hatov or pray for the safety of the soldiers, and absolutely false to say that only "some" do not.  Of the hundreds of thousands of charedim in the rallies last week, how many express hakaras hatov or pray for the safety of the soldiers? How many charedi shuls and yeshivos say the Misheberach for the IDF, or recite Tehillim for their welfare? How many charedi yeshivos dedicate their study sessions to the IDF? Does Mir? Ponovezh? Lakewood? Chevron? Kol Torah? Ateres Yisrael?

IX. The Issue of Unity

In the concluding part of my critique, I objected to Rabbi Hoffman's calls for unity. Rabbi Hoffman expresses surprise at this. But the reason for my objection is not that I am against unity. Rather, I strongly feel that unity does not mean refraining from criticizing the wrongdoing of others, and nor does it mean talking about love and peace. Unity is when everyone shares the responsibilities and concerns of the entire nation.

Virtually no charedim serve in the army. The entire charedi community just demonstrated against efforts to enforce army service for a relatively small number of charedim. Rabbi Hoffman wrote a very lengthy article which attempted to justify the charedi stance. It included just two sentences about how everyone should show concern and appreciation for those who serve, and it severely minimized the extent of the problem with those who do not. It also severely minimized the problem with charedim who, according to Rabbi Hoffman's own thesis, should serve in the army but do not. Rabbi Hoffman has not written an article for the charedi press about how they should show concern and appreciation for those who serve. Nor has he written an article for the charedi press about how they should identify who is not really learning in yeshivah and send them to the army. Yes, he wrote an article criticizing Ami magazine for stripping Rabbi Dov Lipman of his semicha and comparing him to a Nazi, and I commend him for this. But this is hardly sufficient.

So, yes, I repeat: Rabbi Hoffman, please spare us your calls for unity on this issue. If you are concerned about real unity, then please work to address the problem that charedim do not share the burden of army service. And if you are concerned about expressions of unity, then please work to address the problem that charedim do not express concern or gratitude for people in the army. In the meanwhile, please understand that many people, following the views of Gedolei Torah, differ with your understanding of the issue, and are severely disappointed and hurt by the charedi world. Like Rav Schachter, we consider it scandalous. This does not mean that we are "spewing hatred" or out to "bash charedim." Such condemnation of our perspective is not conducive to love, peace or unity.