Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mazeltov! It's a Tumtum!

With praise and gratitude to the Creator, I am delighted to announce the birth of a tumtum to my hyraxes! Baby hyraxes are absolutely adorable - check out the picture below. And what perfect timing - on the very day that we mention hyraxes in davenning!

"Tumtum" is a term from the Gemara, which refers to someone with no external genitalia, and thus with whom the gender is indeterminate. In humans, this is a genetic defect. In hyraxes, on the other hand, it's perfectly normal. The testicles of males are hidden inside the abdominal cavity, next to the kidneys. The penis is also hidden inside the body except during mating. In fact, for this reason, it took a long time before I could ensure that I had a true pair, and I had to do some trading with a local zoo; it was only this morning that I could finally be certain that I have a male and female.

Now, why would a hyrax have such an odd characteristic? Every other furry animal that I have owned, from dormice to fruit bats, has been easy to sex. Why would God create hyraxes to be so different?

Nor is this the only peculiarity of hyraxes. Although they are superficially very similar to large rodents such as woodchucks, there are all kinds of subtle yet significant differences. Hyraxes have stubby toes without claws. They have two very sharp (as I can painfully attest) pointed teeth sticking out of their mouths. Their fecal pellets resemble those of animals many times their size. They have an astonishingly long gestation period - eight months. But why would they be so different from every other small furry animal?

The answer is very simple. Hyraxes are on a different branch of the evolutionary tree from other small furry animals. The ancestors of the hyrax, such as the hyracoid pictures on the right, were cow-sized herbivores that were closely related to elephants. Hyraxes are therefore more closely related to elephants (and sirenians) than they are to any other living animal. That's why, like elephants, they have a retracting penis, tusks, a long gestation, and other characteristics that make them more similar to large herbivores than to rodents.

So, there's no need to contrive a variety of separate explanations for all the different peculiarities of my furry little tumtum. One simple explanation accounts for all of them. All we have to do is accept that God employed "creative wisdom," to use the phrase coined by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in His development of the world.

On Rosh Chodesh, we recite Barchi Nafshi, the special chapter of Tehillim that describes the wonders of the universe as God's creation. Amongst other phenomena, it mentions the hyraxes living alongside the ibexes in Ein Gedi. Thinking about how hyraxes came to be hyraxes gives us further insight and appreciation of the wonder of God's creation.

UPDATE: Here's a picture that I took of Mom and baby:

NEWSFLASH - I am visiting the US on a lecture tour this summer and I am available as scholar-in-residence for the last Shabbos in July and the first Shabbos in August. Please write to me if you are interested. Also, there are still some spots available on my kosher luxury African Adventure this July; check out this link for more details.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Neanderthals in Ramat Beit Shemesh

No, this post is not what you think it's about. I'm using the word "Neanderthals" literally. (And I'm using the word "literally" literally.)

Overall, I am happy with my children's charedi-leumi school here in Ramat Beit Shemesh. There is great education in both Jewish and secular studies, and the kids also learn a lot about what it means to be part of Am Yisrael. (It's a little strange that they come home with so many homework assignments for me to do, though.)

But charedi-leumi can often veer strongly towards charedi, especially with regard to the faculty. And there are times when the kids learn stuff that is so anti-rationalist that it makes me want to tear my hair out. Taking extreme Midrashim literally, learning stories with the most fanciful interpretations, explaining them in an entirely ahistorical way, and so on. I once posted a memorable picture that one of my kids brought home from gan, of Rabbi Adam in the Garden of Eden. Then there was the striking zoological error in a picture of a ram that another of my kids brought home.

And so I was thrilled to bits when my third child, in first grade, brought home the following collage that she had made in class:

A primitive bovine of some sort! A woolly mammoth! A spear-bearing and club-wielding caveman!

My daughter told me that these people "lived a very long time ago," and that she had seen an accompanying video which explained how they lived. I was doubly flabbergasted when she told me that this was a project that she had done in "archeology class." In England, archeology classes are something that you take in university, not in first grade!

This is terrific. I have found that the way that most people react to conflicts between Torah and science has very little to do with the actual content of the topic, and much more to do with their emotional comfort. Hopefully my daughter's project means that if she ever encounters the topic of human prehistory later in life, instead of feeling threatened and insecure, it will bring back happy memories of elementary school. Yabadabadoo!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Challah With Keys? Give Me Bagels With Locks.

On the Shabbos following Pesach, there is a custom of some to bake "Shlissel Challah" - challah with the design of a key, or challah with a real key actually baked into it. It is alleged to be a segulah for parnassah (sustenance).

There's a debate about the origins of this custom, with some claiming that it is rooted in Christian and/or pagan practices, while others defend it as having Jewish origins. Yet, unlike certain hyper-rationalists, I'm usually not so fervently opposed to such things even if their origins are questionable. There's lots of things in Judaism that originated in foreign cultures; but where something originated is less important than what we've made of it.

But what about the very idea of such a segulah? While the rationalist Rishonim were obviously not into segulos, I'm not militantly against them. Segulos are often harmless placebos, and may also be time-honored tradition.

Yet in this case, however, I am a little more concerned, given the wider context. In the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a prevalent message that it is wrong and futile to engage in regular efforts to obtain parnassah (i.e. education, training and work). Chazal's directive that a person must teach his child a trade, i.e. to be financially self-sufficient, is widely ignored in charedi society. There is a real problem of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus. And the segulah industry is rife with problems.

Instead of trying to get parnassah via an unproven and unlikely custom of unclear origins, why don't people try get it via a proven method ordered by Chazal themselves? The answer, of course, is that Chazal's way is much more difficult. But such is the way of the world. "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread" - not by the key in the challah.

(Regarding segulos in general, see my posts on The Ring Of Power and Manipulating with Mysticism for Money.) 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Vilna Mussar about Educating Children towards Employment

(This is a re-post from a few years ago. It's about a sefer from 200 years ago which has some sharp mussar that is incredibly relevant today, for people educating their children in the charedi system.)

Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna (1765-1821) was a kabbalist who is best known for his Torah-based encyclopedia of different fields of knowledge, entitled Sefer HaBris. This was a popular work which received approbations from numerous important rabbonim. In this work, R. Hurwitz has a very long chapter about the importance of training for a profession, including some extremely sharp mussar addressed at people who only teach Torah to their children. Note that the people whom he is rebuking are only against professional training for children; they are not against their children going into business, or being storekeepers. Thus, they are already in a better place than many Charedim today; yet he still condemns them for going against Chazal. I didn't have time to translate this piece myself, but a kind anonymous person volunteered to do the first part, and if someone would like to translate the rest, please be in touch. Here is the first part:

And behold, what I have determined to be correct: For any person who desires to be scrupulous in establishing as a cornerstone and basis for all G-d’s commandments that he wishes to fulfill, that they be fulfilled purely for the sake of His great Name, it would be advisable that such a person have a trade with which he can support himself through his own efforts, and thus he will not need to rely on others, nor sustain himself from sustenance received from others. The result would then be that all that he does in terms of the commandments of G-d, he will do solely for the sake of His Name, and his performance of the commandments will not be adulterated with the hope of gaining from others – he will not attempt to appeal to others, neither will he flatter them, nor will he fear them.

Also, such a person can be confident that he will not miss even a single day of his service of G-d, since his means of support is always at hand, and his sustenance is available in his dwelling and his own city. He will not lie down at night without having eaten, because a tradesman is never without sustenance, nor will he need to travel to faraway places in other lands to seek his sustenance. For when travelling, by necessity a person must be neglectful of the service of G-d, as is well known; there is no way to turn aside and focus on Torah and prayer with concentration when one is away from his place and has set out on the road.

Thus for this reason, a person is obligated to teach his child a trade, to do some type of work with which he can support himself, as our holy sages of blessed memory and the wise men have said “Just as one is obligated to teach his son Torah, so too is he obligated to teach him a craft.”

And as far as I am concerned, the current generation’s practice and custom, which is grounded in haughtiness, is evil; which is that most of the members of our nation do not want to teach a craft to their children, saying – with haughtiness and pride – “A trade is a great embarrassment to us.” Only involvement with business and sales, like shopkeepers, is honorable and becoming in their hearts. But ultimately, when they are unsuccessful in business due to bad luck – because there is a concept of luck among the Jewish people as I mentioned above — at that point they have no food, and transgress many sins, as the sages said “R’ Yehuda says: He who does not teach his son a trade, it is as though he has taught him the ways of robbery.” In other words, according to R’ Yehuda, even if he teaches him business – that is buying and selling goods - it is also as though he has taught him the ways of robbery. This is because sometimes he will not have any business to engage in, and he will then set himself up and engage in thievery – real work, making use of clever hands. Some of them engage in flattery of others and prostrate themselves for a cheap coin or loaf of bread; some openly steal and become thieves in the literal sense; some steal on the sly from Jews and non-Jews; some desecrate the Name of G-d amongst the gentiles due to the greatly disgusting acts in which they engage which damage the nations. This results in the gentiles saying “These are G-d’s people who have come out from his land; there is no disgusting behavior in which they are not well schooled, neither is there any trickery in which they are not expert, nor any forgery of which they lack knowledge”. This reaches the point that the gentiles say that the Talmud that the Jews teach their children is nothing but cleverness and slick ways to trick people.

However, if these individuals would have a trade with which to support themselves, they would not do all of the aforementioned, as our sages of blessed memory have said “Poverty leads a man to transgress the will of his Creator.” And the fault lies with the parents of these individuals in that they did not teach them a skill when they were yet young. Why should the gentiles say that Jews are swindlers who behave disgustingly? And why do they curse G-d’s Torah? All because you have looked upon the work of your hands as contemptible and disparaged those who engage in a craft.

And even more so do I feel anger towards those Torah scholars who do not want to teach their children a trade, and instead only Torah. They rely on the presumption that their children will be Rabbis or Judges, but ultimately many do not become learned enough in Torah to the point of becoming Halachic decisors among the Jews, and they end up “neither here nor there,” becoming schoolteachers. And as the number of those who hold of this approach increases, there end up being more schoolteachers than students, and as a result, these “schoolteachers” cannot even bring in enough for half of their household expenses, their households lack basic food and clothing, and consequently they cannot even engage in their holy work faithfully.

Some of these individuals engage with one another in some sort of side business, some serve as tutors giving lessons in private homes, and some venture off to study with students in far off lands, away from their wives, in order to earn their sustenance. As a result, their own children end up being boors, because they grow up without a father, and their wives must live with worry. Some of them, upon arriving at these far off lands, do not find any students, and their wives and children die of hunger. Some wander far and wide in distant lands, some become preachers focusing on speeches chastising their audiences, others prepare themselves to engage in homiletics, and they travel on long journeys giving lectures to the Jewish people, yet others travel to distant lands to collect handouts and they collect from the Jewish people. Others commit their words to writing and they publish these books and seek to sell them. Yet others wander off to all the far cities in search of sustenance – not chastising, not lecturing, not doing anything other than begging for sustenance for their household – that is, the individual’s own wife and children and their need for money. And all of these individuals are dependant on others, and are seeking sustenance. And this calamity is all the fault of the fathers who refused to teach them a trade when they were yet young.

Now indeed the fathers felt that they acted thusly for the sake of Heaven, relying on the opinion of R’ Naharai who stated “I set aside all trades in the world and I teach my son only Torah”. They do not understand that this is the method of the Evil Inclination, as is his typical way, to dress up and conceal things which are not good in the garb of piety, covering up all sins with love of G-d and fear of G-d and giving them an appearance of something that is for the sake of Heaven. And they do not know that this is not at all the true opinion of R’ Naharai, as the MaHarSha of blessed memory writes:
“R’ Naharai’s opinion is not that one should set aside teaching his son any craft other than Torah, for it has been stated in the first Chapter that every father is obligated to teach his son a trade, and there is no dissenting opinion. Furthermore, we have learned “Any Torah learning that is not accompanied by labor will not last and leads to sin.”

Rather, this is what R’ Naharai meant: ‘I set aside the study of all trades on a steady basis, and I teach him Torah on a steady basis and a trade on a sporadic basis.’ And that is what is meant that a trade only stands by a person when he is young, for then he has it in his power to perform a difficult job on a consistent basis. But when he reaches old age or gets sick he can no longer work enough to support himself. The Torah on the other hand, is not like that, for through the merit of his Torah learning he will be blessed with pleasant easy work which he can perform even in old age and he will attain achievements in both [work and Torah learning] areas, like the “early pious ones mentioned in Tractate Berachos.”

Furthermore, one who makes use of his Torah knowledge in connection with earning his livelihood, will never become rich through it; rather it will cause him to be taken from this world as the Sages of blessed memory have said “He who makes use of the crown [of Torah] shall perish”; thus you see that he who profits from Torah learning removes himself from existence in this world.

My brother, be shaken at this very great evil. For how long we will not direct our hearts to our hands, to encourage them to work? There is no doubt that anyone who transgresses the words of our Sages in this matter, and does not teach his child a profession, is destined to be held accountable for this before the Heavenly court, and will surely be punished. There will also be a punishment for the righteous person, who did this to his children out of noble intentions…

- Sefer HaBris 2:12:10 (2:13:2 in the DBS version). Download full Hebrew text here

(See too this post about Rav Zev Leff and Maarava high school)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Taking Judaism Seriously

Over Pesach, my view of a certain Modern Orthodox rabbi was radically transformed. This was a person that I never really knew much about, except that twenty years ago, when I was a diehard charedi yeshivah student, I came across an essay of his about akeidas Yitzchak. The rabbi posited that Avraham Avinu had actually failed the akeidah; he was supposed to have challenged God as to the injustice of the command. At the time, I ridiculed this as making no sense as an explanation of the chumash, as well as being entirely inconsistent with Jewish tradition. This gave me the perfect excuse to utterly disqualify the author as a serious rabbi.

Twenty years later, I still feel that his suggestion regarding akeidas Yitzchak does not work on a textual level in the chumash, and I still feel that it is entirely inconsistent with Jewish tradition. However, I now feel that the traditional understanding of the akeidah is indeed problematic (see this post that I wrote on it). In addition, I no longer feel that one mistaken essay is reason to disqualify someone. Finally, this Pesach, I learned that this rabbi is indeed a serious person, with regard to a particular Pesach matter that had long bothered me.

Selling chametz always seems like a bit of a sham (see this discussion at Hirhurim). It's a way to observe the letter of law without the spirit of the law, like glatt kosher factory farmed meat, or glamorous sheitels. And even with regard to the letter of the law, is it really a valid sale? Do people really think that the gentile is taking ownership of it?

Well, this rabbi is in charge of selling chametz for his large community, and he takes it very seriously indeed. First of all, he strongly encourages everyone to dispose of any genuine chametz. This is not because he feels that the sale is not genuine; as we shall see, he certainly does make a genuine sale. But it's because the idea of Pesach is to destroy your chametz.

With regard to the actual sale, this rabbi does something extraordinary. During the chag, he goes with the gentile purchaser to some randomly selected homes of those who have sold the chametz, and the gentile actually takes it! I heard of a similar situation in another community, where in one case the homeowner, who was losing a very expensive collection of drinks, vociferously protested, but the rabbi was firm. A sale is a sale. Everyone who sells the chametz with this rabbi has come to understand that they are really selling it.

I heard several fascinating and inspiring stories from this rabbi, which I might relate on another occasion. I don't want to name him, because it might distract people from the point of the post. The message to take home is that there are many ways to take Judaism seriously.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Accepting Charedi Gedolim As They Are

I am a big believer in accepting charedi gedolim's positions. In fact, I am a much bigger believer in this than many people in the charedi community.

I'm not talking about accepting their positions as binding on me; after all, there is no reason, halachic or otherwise, for me to do so. Rather, I am talking about accepting that gedolim have certain positions, even if it's uncomfortable to acknowledge it.

When the first ban against my books came out, many people, including myself, were flabbergasted to see the letter by Rav Yitzchok Sheiner. He cursed me for my belief that the world is millions (actually, billions) of years old. What?! We all thought that this was something that had been settled years ago. As one extremely chareidi Rav said to me that day in astonishment, "Aren't there about twenty different terutzim for that?" Rav Aharon Feldman, who called me from Baltimore to offer chizzuk, was likewise astonished. "Rav Sheiner said that?" he asked me, after I read it out to him. "But he's a very wise man!" he said in surprise. He found it hard to believe that Rav Sheiner had written that. But indeed he had.

For many people, it was simply too hard to accept that the charedi gedolim deemed such a basic fact to be heresy. It meant that either gedolei Torah were not what they believed them to be, or that they themselves had heretical views - both of which were too disturbing. Much easier was to convince oneself that their objection were specifically to my books - the nebulous problem with the "tone."

Yet the charedi gedolim, most of whom did not read any of my books and were not in a position to evaluate the "tone," were very clear about their objections. As noted above, Rav Sheiner considered it absolutely unacceptable to believe that the world is billions of years old. At an EJF conference, Rav Nochum Eisenstein reported that Rav Elyashiv holds that any person who believes the world to be older than 5768 years is kofer b’ikur. Even if Eisenstein is not the most reliable person, I don't think that there can be any question that Rav Elyashiv strongly opposed such a view. The same goes for Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who is reported as saying that someone who believes the world to be millions of years old may not be accepted as a convert. And even Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz"l writes about how modern science textbooks have heretical statements about the development of the universe. There's no doubt that the vast majority of Charedi gedolim are of the view that belief in an ancient universe is, at best, deeply wrong both factually and theologically, and at worst, heretical. But for many people, it was extremely difficult to accept that they actually hold this view.

I wrote the above words in a post several years ago, but I was reminded of all this in the response to yesterday's post. Yesterday, I quoted a story that I heard from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin about his meeting with Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, in which Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel explained why the Mir Yeshivah refuses to say any form of prayer for the IDF. The response to my post was fascinating - many people flat-out denied that the story could be true. But why? Their reason was that Rav Finkel's given reason for not saying the prayer seemed very offensive, and inconsistent with the wonderful reputation that he had. Hence, the story could not be true.

Now, it is certainly possible that the story is not true - after all, it happened quite a few years ago, and human memory is a fragile thing. However, there is no reason to presume that it is false.

It is an undeniable fact that the vast majority of charedi shuls and yeshivos do not pray for the IDF. Not only will they not recite the Zionist prayer, but they will not say any form of prayer or even recite Tehillim for them, as they do for helping sick gedolim, getting yeshivah students out of Japanese prisons, winning the Beit Shemesh elections, or annulling the decree of the draft. This is true not only during "normal" times, when soldiers are nevertheless putting their lives on the line for us every day, but even in times of particular danger for soldiers, such as during the Jenin campaign.

This fact is very discomforting for a lot of people, but it is nonetheless true. Even people who are not charedi often have a favorite fuzzy charedi rav, maybe their son's Rosh Yeshivah or something like that. Deep down, these people presume that deep down, that charedi Rav has the same outlook as them. But whether it's with regard to the age of the universe or praying for the IDF, they don't.

There are a few explanations given as to why charedi yeshivos and shuls will not pray or say Tehillim for the IDF. Some are silly, some are offensive, and some are both. But there is no reason that will sound remotely acceptable to non-charedim. If there was, you can be sure that rabbis Shafran, Hoffman, Rosenblum and Menken would have articulated them long ago.

It's uncomfortable for people to accept that a beloved Rav such as Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel had an offensive approach. But it is an undeniable fact that his yeshivah does not pray for the IDF. The particular explanation given by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel in the story is no more silly or offensive than any other - in fact, it is slightly less so. If people do not accept it, this says more about their discomfort in accepting the realities of the charedi world then about the veracity of the story.

(See too this post: And Man Made Godolim In His Image)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

But At What Cost?

Today I attended a shiur by a Dati-Leumi Rav on the topic of yeshivah students and army service. At one point he told a story about a friend who had lost a son in battle. This friend was particularly bothered by charedim who did not send their sons to serve, to the extent that at the shivah for his son, he didn't want any of them to come. Anyway, after the shivah, the Rav's friend asked him if anything could be done to encourage charedi yeshivah students to at least davven for the welfare of soldiers. "Perhaps if they were all to do so, boys like my son would not be killed!" he said.

And so the Rav went to the leading Rosh Yeshivah in the charedi world that he had a personal connection with, the late and great Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel of the Mir yeshivah, a very fine and wise person. He asked Rav Nosson Tzvi if it could be arranged for some sort of tefillah to be said. And the answer was a firm no.

Rav Nosson Tzvi explained his reasoning. If the students of the Mir yeshivah davvened for the soldiers, they may come to respect and appreciate what the soldiers are doing. This in turn could lead them to join the army. And this could lead some of them to go off the derech. If that happened to even one student, said Rav Nosson Tzvi, he could never forgive himself. Therefore, he said, they should not davven for the soldiers.

The Dati-Leumi rav's response was that this does not reflect well on the charedi education system if its products are so fragile. But I don't think that that is such a strong or relevant criticism. Instead, I think that there are two other responses to be made.

First is that if one truly believes that those thousands of yeshivah students are doing something very valuable, then presumably one would also believe that the prayers of those thousands of Torah scholars are of great value. If so, then it would seem very selfish to deny those benefits for the welfare of soldiers merely because of the potential risks to the yeshivah students. (Indeed, it is for a similar reason that one cannot accept the argument that charedim don't go to the army because of the spiritual risks involved - it is selfish to insist that only others take risks because you don't want to.)

The second rejoinder to be made is as follows. Yes, by not praying for the welfare of those putting their lives on the line to protect us, you may have saved some of them from joining the army and dropping out of Judaism. But this has come at the cost of severely compromising the Judaism of all the yeshivah students, by educating them to lack basic hakaras hatov and Klal Yisrael consciousness. By trying to save Judaism, you have ended up tragically corrupting it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The State of the Jewish Blogosphere

There's a new article in Tablet Magazine about the Jewish blogosphere, focusing on its relationship to rabbis and scholars, which includes quite extensive discussion of this blog. I'm pleased with its coverage, with one exception: the article describes this blog as having "brought an entire new worldview to the fore," whereas I would have preferred it to describe this blog as having brought new life to a dying traditional worldview. There's also a point that needs clarification: when Rabbi Eliyahu Fink says that "Slifkin revolutionized modern Orthodox Judaism," he means contemporary yeshivish Judaism, and is not referring to Modern Orthodoxy. You can read the article at this link: Online and Unabashed: Orthodox Rabbis and Scholars Take to the Internet.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Loving It, Hating It

While some of the posts here deal with the philosophy of rationalist Judaism, others deal with contemporary Orthodox society, from the perspective of rationalist Judaism as I understand it. The disparity in the reactions to these posts is quite extraordinary. It's even more amazing in that radically different reactions come from people who are in all other respects extremely similar, and even davven in the same shuls!

On the one hand, one person wrote as follows...
Rav Slifkin - Thank you so much for your bold and comprehensive contributions to this very unfortunate conflict that has broken out amongst Torah-observant Jews. As someone who became religious in University in Southern California in the 1970's, I thought Torah was beautiful and meaningful and the Jewish revival in Eretz Israel coming as a result of the Zionism movement was an inspiring fulfillment of the visions of the prophets. As the years passed it was unpleasant to see how things that seemed so obvious to me were not to large parts of the religious communities and how this lead to tragic discord.  I really appreciate your invaluable contributions which allow us to get to a full understanding of the issues involved and I hope you will continue in this vein.
But someone else wrote to me:
You’ve established yourself as a fanatic. You’ve moved yourself out of the fold. You are not a mentsch. You are spreading hate and darkness.
Meanwhile, another person says:
Thank you Rabbi Slifkin for restoring honesty, real fear of G-d, compassion for our fellow man and sanity to the dialogue Klal Yisroel is having about what it means to be a Torah Jew. Without people like you, I would find it very challenging to maintain my faith in the Yeshiva-educated Orthodox community as being able to support an intelligent and moral way of life. You are mekadesh Shem Shamayim by restoring my faith and the faith of so many others in the great moral clarity and decency of rabbinical teachers such as yourself.
But someone else says:
I understand you may have your differences with the chareidi community but the ongoing attempt to smear this community is sort of hurtful to many and probably falls under the Issur of talking lashon harah about an entire community. Now you probably will not listen to me but I truly think you should stick to this subtitle and stop consistently bashing a very large segment of the Jewish population. 
Yet another person feels differently:
I know some people comment that you should stick to the main subject of this blog (rationalist judaism), but I think you perform a valuable service with posts like this. If nothing else, you show that a person can study for years in yeshiva and still have enough common sense, decency, and empathy to see this army issue for what it is. This gives chizuk to those, such as myself, who hear the constant whining and arrogance that comes from the so-called "Torah world", and wonder if there is something about all of this Torah study that turns these people deaf to the basic unfairness of the blanket deferment they are so desperate to maintain.
Such different reactions! The post earlier this week, The Angst of Anglo Charedi Converts, is a potent example of this. One person commented that they particularly appreciated it:
Rav Natan, I really enjoyed this post. I found it to be qualitatively different from your other posts which are usually more centered around a Torah point. This was sociologically astute and full of very precise and sharp observations. I flirted in the past with many of the emotions and processes described here. Thanks!  
But someone very near and dear to me did not like it at all:
What was the point of that post? I hated it.
Yet a rabbi heading a very important organization took a different view:
The Anglo Charedi post is perhaps one of the most important ever. Perhaps we should print it and distribute.
Thus, very similar people - all of them good people - can have radically different views as to what kind of material they like to read. So if you don't like what I write here, you don't need to read it, but please realize that other people may find it very helpful!

On a different note - time is running out for the opportunity to sign up for the vacation of a lifetime! This summer, I will be guiding an adventure in Africa, visiting South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The luxurious and fully kosher trip includes not only game drives in a private reserve, but also a visit to Victoria Falls, a riverboat safari, a visit to a penguin colony, and much more! Plus, you'll learn about fascinating Torah perspectives on the animal kingdom. Please see the Torah in Motion website for an itinerary and sign-up details. Signup will be closing soon, so book now!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bentleys, Matzos, and the Chumra Machine

(Note: If you are reading this via email subscription, you will not be able to see the videos - please visit in order to see them.)

There's a funny video making the rounds lately. It starts as an advertisement for Bentley automobiles, and ends up being an advertisement for handmade matzos! The voice-over informs us that "Hand-made is always better" - and it tells us that this principle which is true for cars, is also true for matzos. "You can't ever compare the quality of hand made to mass machine made matzah," it says. "If you're going to do it, do it right."

The video is put out by Chabad, and reflects the Rebbe's insistence that his followers use Shmura handmade Matzah, at least for their sedarim. We are used to Chabad trying to spread Chabad ideology beyond its adherents. But there are others who are trying to spread its message.

We recently discussed the attempt of Rabbi Yair Hoffman to encourage everyone to eat one and a third matzos in two swallows in less than two minutes. In his latest column in the Five Towns Jewish Times and Yeshivah World News, he refers to the Bentley ad, and presents various arguments for and against the legitimacy of machine-made matzos. He concludes that "it would be proper, if possible to fulfill this Mitzvah in the manner that our forefathers have done and in a manner acceptable to most authorities," and thus to eat hand-made matzos. Is this true?

First, let's discuss the Bentley comparison. I've been in a Bentley, and I can agree that it is an extraordinary car. But does this mean that hand-made is always better? And is the superiority of a Bentley relevant to matzah? Let's take a look at another video about the manufacture of Bentley automobiles (actually, feel free to skip it - it's not that important):


Note that we are talking about a very small number of products, which are manufactured very slowly and carefully, by dedicated craftsmen who are presumably being paid very well. The possibility of human error is therefore very small. Second, and more significantly, it's not as though machine-made cars are likely to involve errors in their manufacture - they are less likely to do so. It's simply a matter of certain touches requiring fine motor skills that are better performed by hand. And note that certain parts of the Bentley manufacturing process, which require uniform processes done with great precision in rapid time, are done via machine!

With matzah, the Bentley advantage is simply irrelevant. There is no important aesthetic enhancement of matzah being produced by hand with fine motor skills. If we are talking about a concern to avoid the possibility of chametz, then machine-made matzah, which avoids human error and is more uniform across large scale processes, is superior.

In fact, this brings us to the fascinating case of the Liska Rebbe, described in Ami magazine. Due to "the fear that a small part of the Matzah that wasn’t baked properly can come in contact with liquid, thus rendering it chometz," the Liska Rebbe and his followers do not eat any matzah on Pesach except for the minimum quantity required at the seder. (The article notes that the Divrei Chaim was strongly opposed to this practice, yet the article states that this is a sacred custom.) Now, this is of course an extreme and arguably bizarre chumra. But it should be noted that it is based on actual incidents, and that this concern does not arise with machine matzos, only with handmade matzos. Thus, handmade is not always better.

There are, however, other concerns with machine made matzos. In particular, there is a question about whether machine matzos satisfy the requirement of being made with intent. There is no need to get into all the intricacies of that here; suffice it to note that there have been great rabbinic authorities on both sides of this dispute. Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher, for example, head of the Badatz Eidah Charedis, wrote that people should be scrupulous and only eat machine matzos, due to the absence of risk of human error. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ate machine matzos his entire life.

Now let us turn to Rabbi Hoffman's claim that "it would be proper, if possible to fulfill this Mitzvah in the manner that our forefathers have done and in a manner acceptable to most authorities." Let us first deal with the first part of his claim. Rabbi Hoffman's recommendation that a person should do what his forefathers have done appears to be recommending that people ignore family custom in favor of earlier historical practice. But is it not very problematic to tell people to ignore family minhag? And if he is recommending that people should do what our forefathers did in antiquity, does this mean that everyone should also eat soft matzah, and lettuce rather than horseradish for maror? (And that's just the tip of the iceberg!)

As for the notion of fulfilling a mitzvah "in a manner acceptable to most authorities" - this is really something that needs to be dealt with in a post on its own, analyzing whether halachah is about dealing with a metaphysical reality or following a correct decision-making process. For now, I will just note the following. If one does not have a particular family custom, or a rav to follow, then following the majority is one option - but another is to research the issue and form one's own conclusion. It's not as though hand made matzah is necessarily advantageous - as discussed above, some authorities feel that machine matzah is superior, while others feels that it is, at the very least, perfectly acceptable. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was considered one of the most significant halachic authorities of the generation, used machine matzos! And if one has a particular family minhag in this area, one should surely not abandon this merely in order to follow a majority of authorities (if it even is a majority of authorities), nor should one abandon it in order to adopt the historical practice of those who lived before machines had been invented. As I noted in my post Seder Historical Realities vs. Seder "Traditions," the living tradition is very significant, especially on Pesach. Dissuading people from following their traditions is not something to be done lightly.

(And while we're on the topic of doing mitzvos in the best possible way... the best way of giving tzedakah is to help people towards not needing tzedakah any more. Lemaan Achai is a local charity that excels at this. You can also fulfill the mitzvah of kimche d'Pischa with Lemaan Achai, via scrolling down at this link.)

Sources: Meir Hildesheimer and Yehoshua Liebermann, "The Controversy Surrounding Machine-made Matzot: Halakhic, Social, and Economic Repercussions," HUCA Vol. 75 (2004), pp. 193-262

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Angst of Anglo Charedi Converts

You've got to feel sorry for the pain of Anglo charedi converts. (Maybe I'm especially empathetic because I used to be one.) They are having a really hard time lately.

With the term "Anglo charedi converts," also known as "Anglo charedi wannabees," I am not talking about people who converted to Judaism. Instead, I am referring to people who grew up Orthodox but not charedi. These people tend to be idealistic, sincere, and passionate. They want to be moser nefesh for higher goals. At some point, they wanted to become more serious about Judaism, and they received the impression that this meant becoming charedi. This often happens during the post-high-school year in Israel, especially if they attended one of those yeshivos that is supposedly for centrist/ modern Orthodox students but which has charedi rebbeim (such as Ohr Yerushalayim, Toras Shraga, etc.).

The Anglo charedi convert has changed his course in life as a result. He has eschewed the high-powered careers chosen by his classmates (unless he became charedi at a later stage in life). The Anglo charedi convert typically attended kollel, being reluctantly supported by his non-charedi father or father-in-law. He has lots of pictures of (charedi) Gedolim on his wall. His children are in charedi schools. He is very happy with his new social affiliation.

At least, until recently.

You see, most Anglo charedi converts can never truly become full-blooded charedim. They have been brought up with solid values about how to be a good citizen. They have an innate respect for government, and a special place in their hearts for the State of Israel. They read the non-Jewish press more than the charedi press, and thus identify with Israel against the rest of the world. They feel a swell of pride whenever they see an Israeli soldier. They think that some secular studies are beneficial. They are acutely conscious of how non-charedim view charedim.

How do Anglo charedi converts feel when they see everything that Israeli charedim do? It's very uncomfortable for them to see the utter contempt of Israeli charedim for the State of Israel, their lack of appreciation for the IDF, and their refusal to acknowledge the value of work. They are dumbfounded by the fighting between different Gedolim. The Anglo charedi convert may even feel, deep down, that there is something to this "share the burden" concept.

There are some Anglo charedi converts who realize that the charedi world is not the One True Way that it claims to be. These people disassociate from the charedi world, to a lesser or greater degree (see my article The Making Of Post-Haredim). But for most people that is too difficult a step. They have embedded themselves in charedi society, and it's too difficult socially, emotionally and psychologically to change path in life.

Some frankly admit to their discomfort with charedi society, especially with regard to recent events. (Several such people are readers of this blog.) But many do not want to admit to such problems with their chosen path. As a result, many Anglo charedi converts engage in denial.

These people refuse to discuss the statements made by Gedolim and rabbonim of the Rav Steinman/ Rav Auerbach camps about each other. They'll claim that the rallies in Jerusalem and Manhattan, staged as protest against the government, and designed with political goals (as evidenced by the location), were simply innocent prayer gatherings. They'll claim that Tehillim 69, calling for God to pour His wrath upon the evil heathens, was not recited at the rally as a reference to the Israeli government, even though this was quite obviously why it was being recited, and it was consistent with statements uttered by Rav Ovadiah Yosef and, yibadel lechaim, Rav Steinman. They'll claim that the Nachal Charedi unit in the IDF is a good thing and is evidence of charedi participation in the IDF, even though there are barely any charedim in it and the Gedolim at the rally forbade further participation in it. They'll claim that the Gedolim really support career-training programs for charedim, even though all evidence is against this. As a defense against criticisms of charedi society, they'll point to Anglo-charedim who have professional careers and who davven for the IDF, even though these are precisely the Anglo exceptions that prove the rule.

In addition, these Anglo charedi converts will try to shut down any critique of charedi society. (This is in contrast to Israeli charedim, who relish the argument.) They'll describe it as "bashing" or "hate-mongering" and they'll call for achdus, as we have seen on Cross-Currents. But really, they want to silence the criticism because it makes them uncomfortable and insecure about their path in life.

If the Anglo charedi converts are not able to change direction in life, one can only hope that they will positively influence the full-blooded charedim around them. Unfortunately, this is unlikely, since true charedim don't really respect Anglo charedim as charedim, just as sources of money. Still, one can hope!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Seder Historical Realities vs. Seder "Traditions"

(A re-post from last year. Timely and important!)

The clash between historical reality and recent tradition is especially prominent in the Pesach seder. Should we measure a kezayis as being the size of an olive (the historical reality), or the size of six olives (recent tradition)? Should we use soft matzah that is relatively thick and spongy (the historical reality), or matzah that is thin and hard? Should we use bitter lettuce for maror (the historical reality), or sharp horseradish? Then there is the issue of many seder customs that are rooted in the historical reality, but for which the historical reality was simply ancient convention for meals, and which were subsequently implanted with religious significance; I once took a revelatory course on this topic with Rabbi Dr. Yosef Tabory. The current explanation of the Afikoman is so treasured that I wouldn't dare say what the historical setting was!

Determining the historical reality is one thing; deciding what to do today is a different matter. As I have been arguing with R. Gil Student lately, while tradition is important, it's very difficult to define its parameters. I will therefore simply share some insights and guidelines that I see as relevant.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote a letter (which I have, but have unfortunately misplaced) in which he strongly rejects Prof. Yehudah Feliks' contention that lettuce rather than horseradish should be used for maror. I don't believe that this was because he disputed Feliks' evidence that lettuce was the historical reality; Rav Aharon Lichtenstein reports that Rav Shlomo Zalman told him that when Mashiach comes, many halachos will have to be changed. Rather, his point was that Judaism is as Judaism does. The living tradition is far more important than the ancient historical reality.

Contrary to what some might expect, I strongly endorse the idea behind this view. Orthodox Judaism is a traditionalist way of life, and traditionalist religions are inherently and necessarily conservative. Radical change, even if done with the best intentions and good reasons, is often destabilizing and harmful. Even if a halachah has not been unequivocally canonized, it can still be sufficiently entrenched that it becomes problematic to change. This is similar to my explanation in Sacred Monsters about why Chazal's ruling that it is permitted to kill lice on Shabbos should remain in effect despite it being based on scientific error. As to how to apply this to maror, that is more complex. I can certainly see that it is perfectly legitimate to continue using horseradish, but I don't see it as being wrong for someone to choose bitter lettuce instead.

With kezayis, however, there is no unequivocal living tradition to use an egg-sized olive. As I noted in my monograph, there have always been those, such as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the Avnei Nezer and others who maintained that the kezayis is the size of an ordinary olive. Even the Chazon Ish acknowledged that this is the fundamentally correct position. It is thus an established halachic view which is merely being given greater weight in light of new discoveries of manuscripts and new data concerning olives and eggs.

What about soft versus hard matzah? I really haven't studied that case in detail, yet it seems to me that the Ashkenazi practice of using hard matzah is not based on any halachic arguments (as with the giant kezayis), but rather due to historical changes in how matzos were produced in different countries. As such, Rav Hershel Shechter's letter ruling that Ashkenazim may use soft matzah does not conflict with the aforementioned values.

There is one final important point that I want to stress. Someone told me that they were at a seder in which there were Modern Orthodox parents with their son who had gone to yeshivah in Israel and become charedi. The topic of kezayis came up, and the rest of the seder was ruined by a furious argument between parents and son about these issues. So it is apparently not "needless to say" that these issues should not cause one to lose sight of values such as shalom bayis and family unity - which is a truly important theme of seder night!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

It's Krazy Kezayis Time!

(Technical note: A lot of people signed up to receive this blog via email, using the form on the right of the website. But it doesn't work unless you confirm your subscription request. If you don't see the confirmation request in your email inbox, check your spam folder.)

With just over a week to go until Pesach, the kezayis stringency season has started! This year, we have something new to add to the increasingly huge size of a kezayis. Rabbi Yair Hoffman argues that ideally, one should adopt Rav Dovid Feinstein's view that a kezayis is two-thirds of a machine matzah (itself based on the non-reality-based strictest view in the Rishonim that a kezayis is half an egg, coupled with the non-reality-based stringency of the Noda B'Yehudah that an egg today is only half the size of the eggs of antiquity). To this, Rabbi Hoffman adds the Shulchan Aruch's view that, to accommodate the views of different Rishonim regarding which of the matzot to eat from, one should ideally eat a kezayis of matzah from each of the top two matzot (which results in a total of one and one-third of a matzah, by adding this to the previous stringencies), at the same time. This is in turn interpreted by Rabbi Hoffman to mean as follows:
Place both kezeisim in the mouth together. Both kezeisim are then chewed well and split, within the mouth, in half—one kezayis on each side. Then one is swallowed, followed by the other.
Oh, and he adds that ideally, this should all be done within two minutes. And to add insult to injury (possibly quite literally), he refers to this as "The Forgotten Method of Eating Matzah." (At least to his credit, Rabbi Hoffman also notes Rav Chaim Volozhin's view that a kezayis is the size of an ordinary olive.)

Rabbi Hoffman is aware that to most people, this appears, to be frank, utterly ridiculous. He attempts to preempt this criticism as follows:
Let us remember that for centuries, Jews have tried to fulfill mitzvos in the most ideal manner possible. Often what this means is to fulfill the mitzvah in a manner that is consistent with the views of as many of the Rishonim as possible. Some people who are not accustomed to this notion will find such dedication extreme. Others, however, will realize that dedication to mitzvos and Torah observance is a manifestation of ahavas Hashem, the love we have toward G-d.
I have lots to say about the questionable notion of "following the views of as many Rishonim as possible," and how this relates to the difference between rationalist and mystical approaches to Judaism, but I'll leave that for another time. For now, let it suffice to quote Rabbi Aryeh Klapper:
Let us concede that sometimes “the most ideal manner possible” to fulfill a mitzvah is to engage in rishon-position-maximization...  Surely there are other values as well, though, both general and matzah-specific, and relating to both the letter and spirit of the law, such as hiddur mitzvah (making commandments aesthetically pleasing), simchat mitzvah (joy in fulfilling commandments), oneg yom tov (making the holiday pleasurable), akhilah b’teiavon (eating matzah with appetite), avoiding akhilah gasah (gross consumption), and last but not least, avoiding potentially fatal behaviors.
The all-time most popular monograph of mine is on the subject of the evolution of the kezayis. It demonstrates that the kezayis was originally - wait for the shocker - the size of an olive. It then explains how this quantity continually rose over the centuries. This year, I updated the monograph with some minor corrections and the following new postscript:
The reaction of many people to my conclusions about the kezayis is one of shock, followed by the question: “So do you yourself really eat such a small portion of matzah and maror?” Yet this is a very strange question. It sheds light on the problems caused by the evolution of the large kezayis measurement.

Why on earth would anyone only eat an olive-sized portion of matzah? The mitzvah comes late at night, after a really long day, when people haven’t eaten for hours. Any normal person will eat much more than an olive-sized portion! The kezayis is a minimum. The halachah says that eating anything less than a kezayis is simply not called an act of eating. But any ordinary act of eating is obviously more than the bare minimum! Does anyone build a sukkah ten tefachim high?!

So why do so many wonder if people like me will be eating an olive-sized portion? This is probably because the evolution of the large kezayis, along with the change from traditional maror (wild lettuce, sowthistle, etc.) to horseradish, has made eating a kezayis such a tricky and stomach-challenging ordeal that this is all that people aim for. The Mishnah Berurah states that ideally, one should swallow the kezayis in a single gulp (after chewing it), which is extraordinarily difficult with enlarged sizes. Many are lenient to chew and swallow it toch k’dei achilas pras, “within the amount of time required to eat half a loaf of bread,” which is the maximum time permitted for it to still be defined as a proper act of eating; yet even this presents a challenge with a jumbo-sized kezayis. Thus, people struggle to eat the minimum amount of food within the maximum time allowance!

Kezayis becomes not the minimum, less than which is simply not an act of eating, but rather the challenge, the goal. And people become so focused on eating the right quantity that this becomes the main thing that they think about – the quantity, rather than the mitzvah itself. But when you eat traditional matzah, and traditional maror (which was the normal hors d’oeuvre in antiquity), and a kezayis is a kezayis, nobody would only eat a kezayis. And instead of focusing on the quantity of what they are eating, they focus on its significance
You can download my monograph "The Evolution of the Olive" at this link. And you can download the popular rationalist matzah/maror sizing chart at this link. Share and enjoy!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Letter from Rabbi Gold

Two posts today! Before this one, there is an earlier one, "A Surprising Reward for Abstaining from Lashon Hara."

Rabbi Sholom Gold of Har Nof is a fascinating person. I'll never forget the time he shared with me his memories of receiving semichah from Rav Herzog, with Rav Elyashiv conducting the exam. Here is a letter that he sent to HaModia, which they did not publish and which is printed here with his permission.

To the Editor, Hamodia
       There is what seems to be "a statement of authentic Torah-true hashkafah" that appears occasionally in Hamodia (the most recent on the 4th of Adar II) and in other publications, that I believe must be examined very closely and dispassionately. The pronouncement raises extremely serious problems of a religious nature.
       The Hamodia article quoted a rav who said, "The most difficult golus to endure is a golus suffered from other Jews and therefore we plead for a final redemption from this terrible golus." I experienced a great deal of personal anguish just writing that sentence. First of all, it's absolutely false. We are not in Czarist Russia, Inquisitionist Spain, Crusader-ravished Rhineland, Cossack-scorched Poland, nor fascist Nazi Germany, nor assimilation-ridden America. Klal Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael is experiencing the most magnificent era in 2,000 years.
       Rav Avraham Pam movingly put the present period in time in its proper Jewish-Torah perspective. He said that a rule in Jewish history is that following every period of suffering comes an era of Hashem embracing His people, comforting them, and pouring out His goodness, just as a father whose son has suffered will embrace him and console him. Rav Pam highlights four such historic episodes. The fourth one, Rav Pam said, was, that following the worst horror of all, the Shoah, Hashem embraced us with "hakomas Medinas Yisroel" (precisely his words).
       Hashem does not embrace His people by casting them into the worst golus of all. To say that, is a denial of Hashem's goodness, an ugly rejection of His benevolence, and shameful ingratitude.
       Three months after the establishment of Medinat Yisrael, Rav Dessler wrote that he who does not see the dramatic change and the complete reversal of the fate of the Jewish people, "min hakatzeh al Hakatzeh, "from one extreme of six million slaughtered to the other extreme of the settling of our people in their own medina in our Holy Land" is blind. "Woe to one who will come to the Day of Judgment still blind and not having been able to see something so real." (Michtav M'Eliyahu, Volume 3, page 352)
       Rav Dessler wrote this at a time that the infant state was locked in a struggle for its very existence. No one then could predict the outcome, yet he rejoiced. He did not predict that the State wouldn't last for ten years.
       The plain facts are that the greatest growth of Klal Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel in just about every conceivable area has been mind-boggling. Little Israel whose air force ranks after the United States, Russia and China. Way up there with the biggest. An army whose might is so clearly the result of the efforts of "He who gives you the strength to be mighty." Agricultural accomplishments of global proportions. Israel is a world agricultural power. It staggers the imagination. (Google Israel – Agriculture and read Wikipedia.) It would help if you have a TaNach handy to see the prophecies fulfilled before your very eyes. Focus on Yechezkel chapters 36, 37 and 38.
       For me, every visit to my local fruit and vegetable store is a powerful religions experience. In the middle 50s I learned in Ponovitz and subsisted on tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon. Today, in my local store I am overwhelmed by the dazzling amounts of produce. If this is golus then I can't begin to imagine what geulah is. I once said that every rabbi is zocheh to one good line in his career. Min is, "If you want to speak to G-d go to the Kotel, but if you want to see Him, go to Shuk Machaneh Yehudah."
       Little Israel is a world leader in medicine, science, technology, and so much more.
       And – the greatest explosion of Torah learning in Jewish history has taken place here with the generous help of the secular Zionists, and the religious Zionists (the Mizroochnikim).
       And this you call "golus by Jews." We have never had it better.
       Now take a closer look at that "great article of faith" and you should be struck by the realization that for that statement alone the charedi community should be held in absolute contempt. The ugly assertion that we, your fellow Jews, impose upon you an exile worse than any you have ever experienced, is more than enough reason for us to reject you and all you supposedly stand for. That despicable hashkafah is not Torah.
       Furthermore, if the golus you suffer by the hands of fellow Jews is so bad, in fact the "worst golus," why don't you leave, run away, save yourselves from "this terrible exile." Breath the fresh air of France, the tranquility of the Ukraine, join the Moslems of England. Save your souls from enslavement to us. The "goldeneh medina" beckons. Be free of the yoke of tziyonim and mizroochniks, get a green card. Boro Park here we come. Why stay here and suffer. Go be rid of us.
       Come to think of it – since the Eritreans and Sudanese like it here so much, so maybe an exchange of populations can be arranged.
       I am very surprised that the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation did not soundly condemn this "hashkafah" which can only be described as mega-loshon hora against Klal Yisrael for subjecting their brothers and sisters to such awful golus.
       There is, of course, a secondary gain from this statement that is warmly welcomed. The people of Chutz L'Aretz don't even have to consider aliyah at all. Who would willingly subject his family to the "worst golus of all."
       Take note: the ugly "golus by Jews" hashkafah places you right down there with the world's anti-Semites, who accuse Israel of apartheid.
       I suspect that the purveyors of that lie have been entrapped in the web of their own extreme rhetoric, "gezeras hashmad," "destroyers of Torah," "chareidi haters." You have begun to believe that it is really so. What a pity.
       I suggest that Hamodia publicly disassociates itself from that abhorrent, poisonous hashkafah, asks for forgiveness from all of us, and expresses thanks and gratitude to Hashem for all His kindness. If you may be in a truly penitent mood, ask yourselves whether you are really the victims of unbridled, undeserved hatred, or have you contributed in great measure to what may be a reaction to your own contempt for everything that is sacred and holy to the "people who reside in Zion." Think about it. Think about it honestly and seriously.
       The nation's flag is "a shmatteh on a shteken" ("a rag on a stick"), the national anthem was written by a drunk. As a matter of fact, the flag is beautiful, and a study of Hatikvah will reveal its power to move a nation.
       Yom Haatzmaut is nothing, Yom Hazikaron raises the serious issue of, chas v'shalom, standing for two minutes silence of which you have made into some bogus nonsensical crime (you really made many friends with that). Yom Hashoah is all wrong. Even Yom Yerushalayim is unknown in your community. You don't say the Prayer for the Welfare of the State, nor do you pray for the safety of the soldiers who protect you so that you can learn Torah (that one really made you very popular). In fact, I can't think of a single area in which you participate with the rest of Klal Yisrael. In one of my more aggressive moments I asserted that since the State and the IDF have been doing so well for 66 years without your prayers, let's better leave it that way. We don't want to rock the boat, you know.
       An absolute rejection of the ugly hashkafah will hopefully signal the beginning of a new era of love and friendship between Jew and fellow Jew. When you truly see the hand of Hashem in action for the past sixty-six years, you will want to say with great kavanah the prayer for the State and for the soldiers who risk their lives day and night so that we can all live safely in G-d's land.
Sholom Gold
16/9 Agassi St.
Jerusalem 98377

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Terror Of Freedom Of Speech

(Skip ahead six paragraphs to get to a response to Rabbi Beckerman about yeshivah students and army.)

It's almost impossible to overstate the effect that the Internet has had on the parameters of discourse in the frum community. This first became apparent to many people during the controversy over my books, when myself, Rabbi Gil Student and several others were able to publicly present a defense of the rationalist approach to Torah and science, and many people were able to voice their distress and fury with the ban. This put the other side in a panic. They were used to controlling the public discourse, via the Yated, the Jewish Observer, and so on, which never allowed criticism to appear. They were not used to people being able to talk back and get their side of things across to the public. They can't figure out how to operate in a world where everyone can make their views available to a public, which enables people to (hopefully) make intelligent choices as to which side is presenting correct conclusions.

A similar phenomenon, albeit on a smaller scale, is playing out with Cross-Currents, the website that presents charedi apologetics. A few weeks ago, they published an article by Rabbi Yair Hoffman that sought to justify why charedim don't serve in the army. They would not permit me to respond properly in the comments, so I simply posted my response on this blog, which was read by over four thousand people. As a result, Rabbi Hoffman dedicated an entire article on Cross-Currents to responding to me. Again, I responded on my blog, and this time Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who runs Cross-Currents, wrote an article in response. He refused to post crucial comments of mine, and so I simply wrote another response here, in which I also pointed out the bizarreness of Rabbi Menken refusing some very direct critiques with the claim that they were "not germane."

At this point, it was beginning to look ridiculous that Cross-Currents was refusing to post so many critical comments. Jonathan Rosenblum published an article which blamed secular Zionists for Hitler's final solution, and comments pointing out the fallacy of this accusation were summarily rejected. As one person remarked to me, comments with no content other than a high-five to the Cross-Currents authors seemed to get through very nicely, but those of high-content, but critical of the column authors, are rejected. So Rabbi Menken wrote an entire post about "The Benefits of Ham-Handed Moderation," which basically said that people should trust them that they are letting through suitable critical comments. Of course, many people perceived this as trusting the foxes to guard the hen-house. David Ohsie promptly published a post here demonstrating the fallacy of Rosenblum's claim about Hitler, and it was widely applauded.

Meanwhile, I was still posting material explaining why charedim should share the burden of military service, and my readership had more than doubled. So Cross-Currents gave it another go, with an apologetic by Rabbi Doron Beckerman. Again, it was flooded with critical comments, virtually none of which were let through for several days, until I posted them all on my blog, and pointed out how Cross-Currents was once again refusing to allow cross-currents (ba-da-dum!). Soon after that, the critical comments all suddenly appeared on Rabbi Beckerman's post - with the exception of mine!

And now, Cross-Currents has published a rejoinder by Rabbi Beckerman to my comments that were never able to appear on Cross-Currents in the first place! This is the third Cross-Currents article in the last few weeks specifically aimed at rebutting me, by the third such person to do so! I'm not even bothering to submit comments there any more - I suspect that my blog has many more readers than Cross-Currents anyway. The discussion is better off taking place here, where the forum is more open.

Still, all these polemics are a considerable drain on my time and energy. I'm grateful to David Ohsie for his assistance, and I would certainly appreciate it if other people could step up to the plate and write full-length responses. It seems strange that the public polemicist for Religious Zionist ideology should be me, seeing as I've been a Religious Zionist for less than ten years. Meanwhile, here goes with a response to Rabbi Beckerman.

Response to Rabbi Beckerman regarding Yeshivah Students and the IDF

Rabbi Beckerman claimed in his original article that "there was always a portion of Klal Yisrael that was dedicated to full-time Torah study and that did not serve in the army." Naturally, I assumed that he was making the common mistake about the Tribe of Levi, but he says that he was instead referring to the talmidei chachamim that the Gemara says should not be drafted. However, I have already quoted Rav Hershel Schachter, who points out that these Gemaras specifically mention talmidei chachamim, and does not refer to stam yeshivah students. Furthermore, while it is indeed true that Torah scholars have always existed in Klal Yisrael, never was there a clerical class with the belief that the overwhelming majority of their children, simply by virtue of having not explicitly renounced membership of that class, were exempt from all other obligations.

Rabbi Beckerman then engages in an astonishing piece of circular reasoning:
It is clear that the essential basis of the exemption granted to the Levites was not that they taught Torah, for if this were the case, the very next halachah in Rambam would have stated “Not only the Tribe of Levi, but any Torah teacher…” It does not. The common denominator between Levi and the personage in the following halachah is their spiritual idealism, casting off worldly pursuits and engaging in service of Hashem. This is the hallmark of the Toraso Umnuso members of the nation...

Yet this only makes sense if one is assuming that Rambam is comparing those dedicated to spiritual pursuits with Levites vis-a-vis a military exemption. But, as Radvaz has already pointed out, Rambam is not making a full comparison of such people with the Levites - Radvaz notes that while the Levites were supported by the rest of Klal Yisrael, Rambam held that Torah scholars should not be supported by the rest of Klal Yisrael. Likewise, there is no exemption for Torah scholars from the army, and the Tribe of Levi themselves are exempt for the reason that Rambam makes clear - because they are involved in teaching the rest of the nation.

We then switch to a different Gemara, which states that "Rabbis do not need protection." I pointed out that the Ramoh restricts this to Rabbis of certain caliber. Rabbi Beckerman, who pointed to Rav Moshe Feinstein's application of this to yeshivah students, claims that it is "out of bounds" to reject Rav Moshe's reading of the sources in favor of the simple reading of the Ramoh. Yet there is a wonderful sefer in which the little-known author argues that Rav Moshe's interpretation of the Shulchan Aruch and classic poskim in many areas of hilchos eruvin is utterly untenable - and it is adorned with the haskamos of leading poskim. Furthermore, I'm not even claiming that Rav Moshe is arguing with the Ramoh - David Ohsie has convincingly argued that Rav Moshe is not presenting a blanket license for avoiding the army.

Rabbi Beckerman claims that my straightforward reading of Ramoh - that the Gemara's exemption applies only to a scholar of caliber - is a misreading, based on the Ramoh's source in the Terumos HaDeshen. But the Terumas HaDeshen is describing self-selecting elite students who trudge from city to city (and are apparently thereby exempt from taxes) while simultaneously being fluent in most of the Talmud and Geonim. It is astonishing that Rabbi Beckerman confuses this with the entire community of charedi 18-year-olds in yeshivah. The Terumas HaDeshen is much closer to Yesh Atid's model of 1800 select students that would receive an exemption. Likewise, R. Palaggi's essay is irrelevant; the whole point is that he is discussing someone who is displaying a unique commitment to learning, not simply someone who does what everyone else does. If that was the case, who should pay the taxes?

Furthermore, all this discussion regarding the Gemara's statement that "Rabbis do not need protection" and who it applies to is irrelevant. This Gemara, and the sources cited by R. Palaggi, are referring specifically to exemptions from certain taxes, not to fighting in a milchemes mitzvah.

Next comes a primary objection to the charedi claim that yeshivah students are doing their defense via Torah study - the fact that charedi yeshivos fled the South during Cast Lead. Yet it's not as though the entire population of the South fled; most people stayed and continued to lead their lives. The hesder yeshivot stayed, and were able to learn, as well as being mechazek the communities. Rabbi Beckerman claims that even when they fled, their Torah would protect the place from which they fled. I don't know why he is so sure of this; most of the traditional sources about Torah scholars providing a protective merit limit it specifically to the place where the Torah scholar actually is. Indeed, when one of the yeshivos temporarily relocated to Bet Shemesh, they were welcomed by a Rav who thanked them for bringing an "Iron Dome" to Bet Shemesh. Rabbi Beckerman claims that "Hashem surely knows that their intent is pure." Actually, I think Hashem knows that their intent was rather selfish. Fleeing the South is a blow to the morale of people who did not have the ability to leave. Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 7:15) harshly condemns soldiers that demonstrate anxiety and weaken the morale of others. Again, contrast the actions of the Hesder students, who stayed to learn and to provide moral support for the residents, even at personal risk. Now there's a sign of pure intent.

Rabbi Beckerman then defends his claim that "Charedi learning centers say Tehillim and daven in times of crisis specifically for IDF soldiers" by pointing to a kollel that said Tehillim for Gilad Shalit. First of all, there were far less charedim saying Tehillim for Gilad Schalit than there were who said Tehillim for the yeshivah students imprisoned in Japan. Second, Gilad Schalit was an extreme case. What about when the IDF launched its operation in Jenin? What about the countless acts of mesirus nefesh that soldiers do all the time?

I would like to conclude with three general observations on this topic.

First: All this talk about "Torah protecting" is a smokescreen and has nothing to do with why Charedim don't serve in the army. The reason is that they want to live their life in a certain way, the IDF would interfere with that, and they feel no obligation to share in the burden of the rest of the nation, because they don't feel themselves to be part of the rest of the nation.

Second: Even if you could come up with a halachic justification for charedim being allowed to not serve, this would not change the fact that it is immensely unfair to expect only non-charedim to bear the difficult burden of military service along with its risks. As Moshe Rabbeinu said, "Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?" It doesn't appear that he would have been satisfied with a reply that they would sit and learn.

Third: 32% of first graders in Israel are in charedi schools and are thus planning not to serve in the IDF. That would mean that in 12 years, a full third of the country would not be serving in the army (or participating in the professional workforce), and according to current rates of expansion, this proportion would increase. What on earth do charedi apologists propose? Should the army maintain a viable size by non-charedim increasing the number of years that they serve in the army? How many years extra do they have to serve in order to make up for all the charedim who don't serve? Five? Ten? Twenty? And what happens when even that is not sufficient? At what point do charedi apologists acknowledge that it is not only utterly unfair, but also utterly unsafe, to claim that yeshivah students should not serve in the army and that their "Torah protects"? And at this point, will they consider themselves apikorsim for going against the Gemaras that speak of the sin of drafting Torah scholars?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Introduction for a New Audience

My book Sacred Monsters is being published in Hebrew by Koren. This is the first of my books to appear in Hebrew, and Koren asked me to write a new preface. They said that this should be an introduction for Israelis to learn about me, the book, and the story surrounding the book and the controversy. I was hesitant to get into the whole story about the ban, but I guess it's better for people to get an accurate picture from me than a distorted version from elsewhere. Here is what I came up with; please let me know if you think I omitted anything important:

The original version of this book, written in English, resulted in a considerable storm amongst the Anglo Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora. It was published with the approbations of great Torah scholars, and was initially warmly received. However, a few years later, the book was the subject of a ban by a long list of prominent rabbanim in the chareidi world, headed by Rav Elyashiv ztz”l. The ensuing controversy raged for over a year, and exploded to such huge proportions that it was even reported in such prestigious non-Jewish newspapers as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. (A vast range of documentation relating to the controversy can be found at

In order to understand how this developed and why the controversy was so great, some background is in order. I grew up in Manchester, England, in an Orthodox Jewish home. The schools and yeshivot that I attended were charedi, and I was learning Gemara from the age of ten. Simultaneously, however, I received a strong secular education, which was the accepted norm in England even for many charedi schools. Furthermore, my father, ztz”l, was an outstanding scientist, specializing in physics but also dealing with chemistry and mathematics. From an early age, I developed a fascination with zoology, reading everything that I found on the topic and keeping a wide range of exotic creatures for study. When I moved to Israel after high school, studying in charedi yeshivos, I was both fascinated and disturbed when I came across references in the Gemara to bizarre creatures and strange zoological phenomena. The giant leviathan, the phoenix that lives forever, the salamander that is born from fire, mice that are generated from dirt, are just a few of the astonishing creatures that are encountered in the study of Gemara. Were the Sages describing actual creatures? Yet surely no such animals exist?

Like many people who are faced with these questions, I was not able to receive satisfactory answers from my teachers in yeshivah. They themselves had been taught as children that such creatures were all real, and assumed that there is an unequivocal Jewish tradition which likewise understood them all that way. They did not have a strong science education, and it was not difficult for them to believe that all such creatures actually existed. They were instantly uncomfortable with my questions and disparaged me for asking them.

However, I did not give up, and I kept trying to find answers. Fortunately, I came to know Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz”l, a disciple of the famous Rav Eliyahu Dessler and editor of Rav Dessler’s work Michtav Me-Eliyahu, who taught me a rational approach to these issues. In addition, I came across numerous little-known but very significant sources that dealt with these topics, such as the writings of Rambam and his son Rabbeinu Avraham regarding such problems, and some crucial letters from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Eventually, I came to realize that there was an entire school of thought, stretching back many centuries, which took a rationalist approach to Judaism, but which had become virtually unknown in charedi yeshivos. According to the distinguished Rabbinic authorities that espoused this approach, many of the Talmud’s accounts of such creatures were to be understood as metaphors rather than describing actual creatures. Others, they stated, were indeed describing actual creatures, but were relying on ancient beliefs about the natural world rather than presenting a tradition from Sinai.

Eventually, I published a book, called Mysterious Creatures, that dealt with these topics. It presented the full range of approaches, including those that insisted upon the factual accuracy of every statement in the Talmud even according to its literal meaning, but it also presented, and sided with, the rationalist approach. The book received rabbinic approbations from prestigious Torah scholars in the English-speaking Orthodox community, who noted in their approbations that the approach presented in the book was unconventional in the charedi yeshivah world, but pointed out that it was nevertheless firmly rooted in impeccable rabbinic sources. They further observed that this approach was of crucial importance to helping people who are confronted with these issues.

The book was extremely well received, and I was flooded with letters from people who had also been struggling with these issues and were thrilled to discover that there were great rabbinic figures in Jewish history who had legitimized a rationalist approach. It was also extremely popular with younger readers (and their parents), who had previously thought that Talmud study was rather dry in comparison to the magical world of Harry Potter, and for whom this novel topic ignited their interest in further study. I also published two other books which dealt with other topics relating to Torah and science; one discussing the age of the universe and the development of life, and another discussing the Torah’s list of non-kosher animals in light of modern zoology.

But a few years later, a storm erupted. A small team of zealots, with a past history of causing trouble, engineered a ban on these three books. They brought certain parts of the books to the attention of various leading authorities in the charedi world, and (falsely) claimed that some innocent yeshivah students had been led astray from Judaism as a result of the books. While the zealots themselves would later be discredited - one would go to prison for a $43 million fraud, while another would lose his position due to severely immoral behavior – they managed to manipulate the support of many figures.

The result of their efforts was that dozens of leading charedi rabbinic authorities signed a letter declaring the books to be heretical and pronouncing a ban upon them. Some of the signatories insisted that it was absolutely heretical to claim that any statement in the Talmud, even dealing with natural history, is not authoritative; they claimed that my alleged rabbinic sources legitimizing this approach must be forgeries. Other signatories to the ban, such as Rav Elyashiv, acknowledged that there had been great rabbinic scholars in the past who took such an approach (indeed, one of Rav Elyashiv’s own teachers, Rav Yitzchak Herzog, followed the rationalist approach), but ruled that it was a minority view that was forbidden to be taught in the charedi world today.

The ban itself, however, caused a storm. There were many thousands of people in the Orthodox Jewish community, including countless rabbis and educators, who subscribed to the approach presented in my books. For years, they had relied upon the sources that I presented (and many people knew of them even before I wrote about them), and they were greatly dismayed, and often furious, to see that these sources were being declared heretical. Furthermore, while some of the younger and less independent rabbis that had written approbations to my work decided to renounce their support, others stood by their approbations. In particular, Rav Aryeh Carmell wrote a letter reiterating his approval of my books, as well as a lengthy article stressing the legitimacy of the rationalist approach to these topics. A host of websites sprung up protesting the ban, with one website accumulating dozens and dozens of sources from Torah scholars over history stating that statements in the Talmud about the natural world are not necessarily authoritative.

In line with guidance from my own rabbinic mentors, I did not recant my views or withdraw my books. (However, I did withdraw from the charedi community and affiliate instead with the broader Orthodox population, as well as entering academia to study Jewish intellectual history.) Yet while I certainly had no reason to believe that my books were heretical, I did feel that the leaders of the charedi community had a right to determine the parameters of the educational approach that they wanted for their communities. In addition, the rationalist approach is certainly not without its risks. True, it can be immensely beneficial to people with a strong secular education who wrestle with conflicts between Torah and science. But it can be upsetting and destabilizing to those who have never been bothered by such problems. As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Whereas other books on these topics were “off the radar,” my books had been perceived as threatening yeshivah students in the charedi world, due to my own training in charedi yeshivos, and due to the prestigious rabbinic endorsements that the books included. And while many of the signatories to the ban declared the books to be “heresy,” what really concerned them was that the books were potentially dangerous.

Consequently, when the books sold out very quickly after the ban and I had to republish them, I did so with various changes. I did not retract any of the claims in the original books; in fact, I added many more sources and further discussion buttressing the rationalist approach. However, I did want to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of those who saw the books as trying to target and destabilize the charedi yeshivah world. Therefore, I did not include the rabbinic endorsements in the new editions of the books, and I made various changes in the style and presentation of the books to make it clear who they were aimed at: people with a strong secular education who struggled with conflicts between Torah and science, and who were willing to adopt the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and others to dealing with these issues.

While the original ban was never retracted, the revised new editions of the books were not met with condemnation. Of course, this may have been because it was felt that the original ban had already sufficiently discredited me, or alternately because the signatories to the ban were shaken by the backlash to their letter. But in many cases, it appears that there was simply no motivation to fight an approach that was grounded in great Torah scholars of the past and was not being presented in such a way as to threaten charedi yeshivah students of today.

For several years, I have received requests to make my books available in Hebrew. I decided to begin with this book, for three reasons. First, it deals with the topics of broadest appeal, whether for teenagers who are enamored with the popular genre of fantasy literature, or for students and scholars who are intrigued by discussions of these creatures in rabbinic literature. Second, my impression is that in Israel, there are many people struggling with conflicts between the Talmud and science, and the existing popular literature on this topic is extremely anti-rationalist in orientation. Third, with regard to dealing with a conflict between Torah and science, this topic clearly demonstrates a great divide between different schools of thought stretching back many centuries. As such, it will hopefully enable people to realize that there is a long history of different approaches to such topics.