Friday, May 30, 2014

Spinoza, America, Africa

A few tidbits/ announcements:

- There's an interesting article in the New York Times called Judging Spinoza, in which arguments are offered as to why the cherem on him should not be lifted. Although the article engages in some strange backtracking at the end, it makes some very valid points.

- I am available for a scholar-in-residence weekend in the US for Shabbos of August 2nd. Please write to me if you want to arrange it.

- There are still four spots left on the Africa expedition at the end of June! Everyone who goes says that it's the best trip that they've ever done. See the Torah in Motion website for details and signup.

- Finally, here's a great video of "God Bless America" being sung by people that you wouldn't expect to see singing it:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Complete Guide To New York Chassidim

The world of New York chassidim, with all different factions and personalities, is very difficult to comprehend. Many sociologists have attempted to untangle it, but it's hard for anyone to grasp all the facts, relationships, names and nuances. Here is an extraordinary authoritative presentation by a leading expert in the field. (Note - if you are reading this via email subscription, you will have to go to in order to watch the video.)


Clearly, even while being aware of the problems in chassidic society, he still has a very positive view of them, which is nice.

(Hat-tip: Reuven Brauner)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ben Bag Bag

It never ceases to amaze me how certain concepts are taught as being fundamental, traditional and unequivocal in Judaism, and yet careful study reveals them to be very recent and/or based on a single perspective that is opposed by others. Examples discussed here previously include the notion that one can learn Torah to elevate the soul of the departed. Today, I'd like to discuss another example.

There is a well-known and much-cited statement in Pirkei Avos as follows: "Ben Bag Bag says, Delve into it [Torah] repeatedly, for everything is in it." Hafoch ba v'hafoch ba, dekula ba. This statement from Pirkei Avos is widely cited in popular Orthodox literature in order to show that Chazal themselves were of the view that all knowledge is in the Torah. Everything is in it - including all scientific knowledge. Thus, those who are expert in Torah can derive this knowledge and tap into Divinely sourced information about the natural world.

But is this necessarily what the Mishnah in Avos is saying?

If you look at Seforno's commentary on Avos, and particularly the ArtScroll edition, you'll see something very interesting. Seforno explains the "everything" of the Mishnah as referring to "intellectual arguments regarding true and authentic opinions of Godly matters and the immortality of the soul, and similar things, which represent the essential subjects of theological research." In other words, it refers to matters of theology and religious truth - not science. The ArtScroll edition points out that "Considering that the Sforno himself was extremely well versed in science and medicine, we must understand his interpretation as referring only to philosophical and theological works."

How many people would consider this the explanation of the Mishnah, and how many would be very surprised to learn of it

(Note: I have a big backlog of emails, so please forgive me if you have written to me and not received a response. I am currently on the road, in Los Angeles, which makes it even harder for me to keep up.) 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It's Time To Erase Amalek - From Daily Discourse

After I removed the two posts about the Kaplan Affair, I was inundated by emails asking/demanding clarification. Here is the explanation.

First of all, I want to give some background to how this story developed. Last Wednesday, I was sent the audio file by a friend who learned in top charedi yeshivos for many years. He described it as “absolutely terrifying” and said that “The only way to stop these sort of things is if the Mir get enough bad publicity that it’s not worth their while to allow them to continue.” I discussed it with a Rav who is in the charedi world, very politically savvy and sensitive, and he said that it has to get out.

Before going any further, I discussed it with two other friends who learned in the Mir for many years and who know R. Kaplan well (and they like him). They were also horrified by it and felt it was very important for it to be publicized. They were, however, concerned that I would be (non-physically) attacked for doing so, and warned that I should not be the one who blows the whistle, so I decided to hold off.

However, then I discovered that the story had already gotten out, in a review of shiurim by Joel Rich on, and in turn in a Facebook post by Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf. Both of them strongly condemned it. Since the story had already been broken by others, I posted about it. In my post I said very little, other than to transcribe the relevant parts of the audio, to briefly and accurately summarize it, and to express horror.

As the story started getting picked up by others, however, three things bothered me intensely. First was that while I felt very strongly that Rav Kaplan should be condemned for what he said, I also felt that he should not be condemned for what he didn’t say. There's plenty to condemn. There's the basic disgusting anti-Torah attitude, common to almost the entire charedi community in Israel and many in the US, that charedim have a right to be supported by the rest of Israel and not share in the burden of military service, and that anyone who feels otherwise can only be motivated by hatred of Torah. There's the shocking claim that Rav Steinman said that government ministers are classified as Amalek and deserve to be killed. There's Rav Kaplan's frightening and clear message that it is absolutely forbidden to doubt this. There's the appalling pride that he displays with his five-year-old, who is creatively looking for ways in which government ministers can be killed.

But Rav Kaplan did NOT say that, practically speaking, people should actually go ahead and kill them. On the contrary; from the outset, he said that people should not actually go ahead and do it. (According to his words, this is due to his simultaneously subscribing to the charedi approach of leadership paralysis.) Yes, what he said could lead to that, and the lesson that Rav Kaplan is imparting to his students and children is loathsome and dangerous. But that is not the same as telling people to actually go ahead and kill them, and nobody should claim that he said that.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what some people claimed. One blog commentator described him as a "murderer." No, he's not! His words might - unintentionally - lead someone to murder, which is (one of the many reasons) why they must be condemned; but he is not a murderer. Another blogger described him as “a rodef al pi Halacha.” No, he’s not!

As it reached the media, such distortions continued. The Israeli newspapers and the Jerusalem Post reported the story correctly, but the London Jewish Chronicle did not. Their article reported, without qualification, that Rabbi Kaplan “advocates killing ministers.” No, he didn’t!

Let Rav Kaplan face the music for things that he did say, not for things that he didn’t say. And a further problem with distorting what he said is that it allowed him and his defenders to respond that he never advocated actually killing ministers and that people are distorting his words. Which is true (contrary to some people's claim that he was lying) – but it enabled him to avoid taking responsibility for what he actually said. He did not say that people should actually kill them – he was clear from the outset that they shouldn’t. But he DID say that they are Haman and Amalek, and that they are therefore in principle worthy of being killed.

The second thing that bothered me was that this was being made into a story about Rav Nissan Kaplan. This is not to minimize what he did, but he is hardly the biggest problem in this area (especially as he since retracted and is grovelling with apologies). There is rhetoric about Amalek and suchlike coming from much bigger players than someone regarded as a young entertainer of harmless Americans. While Rav Steinman's spokesman denied that he said what Rav Kaplan attributed to him, there are other reports of Rav Steinman describing Lapid as Amalek and saying that the government should suffer in hell and have their names erased. It is true that Rav Steinman has explicitly qualified such statements by noting that the way to battle Amalek is by learning more Torah, but it is still a wrong and dangerous way to talk. And remember that Rav Steinman is a moderate compared to the likes of the Eidah Charedis, Satmar and Rav Shmuel Auerbach! (They have described Rav Steinman himself as Amalek due to his being too moderate, and one deranged follower attacked and nearly killed Rav Steinman)! Then there's Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the new rabbinic leader of Shas, saying that Jews who wear knitted kipot are Amalek - which he later clarified as "only" referring to the leaders of Bayit Yehudi and their supporters. Unlike with Rav Kaplan, these statements have not been retracted.

The third thing that bothered me, and the final straw, was how some people were presenting the way that the story played out. Although I did not post Rav Kaplan’s lecture on the internet (it was posted on his own website!), and although I was not the first or even the second to report what he had said, I was being portrayed as the person who was responsible for it getting out. Along with all this came accusations that I was causing irrevocable harm to Rav Kaplan, to the Mir, fanning the flames of hatred and causing discord in Israeli society with vast repercussions, etc. Put together with the first distortion, this meant that I was being accused of spreading a story that Rav Kaplan was telling people to actively go out and kill government ministers. Frankly, I didn’t have the stomach to deal with this. Since this is not my personal fight (except insofar as I detest the way that it has become acceptable to call one’s ideological opponents “Amalek,” as people have referred to me many times), I decided that I did not want to be personally involved any more. Besides, there were already enough people who had picked up on the story that it wasn’t necessary for me to be involved. So I took down my posts. IMPORTANT UPDATE: I just discovered that the story had in any case been sent to the press even before I wrote about it, so it was getting out regardless of anything I wrote.

Meanwhile, as reported in various media outlets, Rav Kaplan is frantically trying to save himself (or Rav Steinman?), expressing total remorse and claiming that he never heard anything from Rav Steinman about this, that he never had any conversation with his son about killing ministers with a hammer, and that he freely makes up false stories and incorrect views about very serious matters. Hopefully he has learned his lesson, but what about everyone else? What is really needed is a clear statement by the Mir, and even more so by the Israeli Charedi establishment, about whether they consider it acceptable to describe their opponents as “Amalek.” In my view, this is a word that should be erased from daily discourse. In light of the obligation to kill Amalek, it is simply far too offensive, loaded and dangerous a term to be used about anyone today.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Five Things You Should Know About Lag B'Omer

1. It is popularly believed that Lag ba-Omer is the day on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died. This is based on a printing mistake found in one version of a story regarding the Arizal, while all other versions of the story do not say anything about it being his yahrzeit. This error is acknowledged by mainstream charedi kabbalists such as Rav Yaakov Hillel. (For more details, see the excellent discussion by Rabbi Eliezer Brodt at the Seforim Blog.)

2. There is no evidence that anyone at all celebrated Lag B'Omer before the 17th century. (Please correct me if you have evidence otherwise.) No less an authority than Chasam Sofer was strongly opposed to Lag B'Omer celebrations. He argued that one should not make a new Yom Tov that is not based on a miraculous event, that has no basis in Shas and Poskim, and that is based on the death of someone. (See here for links.)

3. When Lag B'Omer falls on motzai Shabbos, this causes an immense amount of chillul Shabbos, that would not otherwise have occurred. See this account by one charedi firefighter who was forced to leave his family on Shabbos in order to go to work. As discussed last week, due to this problem, the dati-leumi rabbonim ruled that one should not make a bonfire on motzai Shabbos. This ruling is not supported by charedi rabbonim.

4. It is widely accepted in the Orthodox world that the Zohar, which Moses de Leon published in the 13th century, was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It is further widely held that to question the authenticity of the Zohar is heresy. You Don't Mess With The Zohar.

5. Nevertheless, Chasam Sofer was of the view that the vast majority of the Zohar was not written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, but was instead written much later. The standard view amongst frum people with academic training and/or non-dogmatic attitudes who are knowledgeable about this topic is that the Zohar was largely written by Moses de Leon, albeit incorporating older traditions to a lesser or greater extent. See this lengthy article by an anonymous charedi rabbi discussing many problems with the Zohar. Rav Ovadiah Yosef said that because of the serious questions that arise with attributing the Zohar to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one cannot call someone a heretic for rejecting his authorship of it. See too this article by Dr. Marc Shapiro mentioning other authorities that rejected the antiquity of the Zohar.

(My explanation about the deletion of the posts about the Kaplan Affair will be posted at a later stage. There's nothing nefarious about it.)

Friday, May 16, 2014


I deleted the last two posts. An explanation will probably be forthcoming.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Encyclopedia Advances!

My biggest literary project ever, The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, is advancing! Last year, I finished the first volume, on wild animals, and now it's been edited, proofread, and is currently at the layout stage. The size and complexity of this project is staggering - I probably would never have had the guts to start it, thirteen years ago, if I would have foreseen how much work it would entail! This volume is over 150,000 words long (and may end up being printed in two physical volumes), with many hundreds of citations from Scripture, Talmud and Midrash, well over a thousand endnotes, and hundreds of carefully selected pictures.

Previously, I released an early version of two sample chapters. Today, I'm pleased to release a near-final version of those chapters, after layout and including stunning pictures. You can freely download these chapters on the leopard and hyrax. Note that each file is a 10 megabyte PDF download. Please also note that the layout on these chapters is not 100% finished yet! The Table of Contents can be downloaded here.

One of the many difficult editorial decisions was with regard to the question of whether to include the Hebrew text for the verses that are cited. When I raised this question on this blog a year ago, many of you requested that the Hebrew text be incorporated. However, the editor-in-chief was strongly opposed, saying that many readers would be turned off by the English text being broken up in this way. The book designer, Raphael Freeman, came up with an ingenious and beautiful solution, which you can see in the sample chapters.

(We are still figuring out how best to index this book. If you happen to know of a professional indexer who works with InDesign and has basic Jewish knowledge, please write to me.)

The vast size and complexity of this project, and especially the full-color photos, means that it is extraordinarily expensive to produce. So far, about a third of the costs have been raised in sponsorships. If you would like to make a dedication in the book, please be in touch. This is a unique opportunity to support a truly groundbreaking project of great and lasting significance!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Lag B'Omer and Klal Yisrael Consciousness

There's an episode of House M.D. in which the brilliant but cynical doctor is asked by his boss if he knows what a simchat bat ceremony is. He replies that he does; "It's an ancient Jewish tradition dating all the way back to the 1960s,” he explains.

I feel much the same about Lag B'Omer. Growing up in England, Lag B'Omer was barely noticed; it was merely a day in which the frum schools went for a hike in the cold and wet British countryside. Today, in Israel, the Lag B'Omer bonfire seems to be more important than the avodas Yom Kippur of the Kohen Gadol in the Beis HaMikdash. Shopping carts are stolen by kids who cart away any piece of wood that they can find. The second little piggy would lose his house even before the Big Bad Wolf showed up.

But perhaps the most interesting and disturbing aspect of the Lag B'Omer bonfire phenomenon is how it sharply demonstrates the difference between the national-religious (dati-leumi) and charedi approach to Judaism. 

A few months ago, in a post entitled Rosenblum Nails The Problem With Charedi Society, I noted that one of the most striking and significant differences between the charedi and dati-leumi communities is with regard to their "Klal Yisrael consciousness." The dati-leumi world perceives itself as part of the entire nation of Israel and weighs its approach to Torah in that light. The charedi world, on the other hand, sees itself as a separate entity, and therefore doesn't care as much about the welfare of non-charedim, whether spiritual or physical.

When Lag B'Omer falls on motzai Shabbos, as it did last year and as it does again this year, it provides a powerful demonstration of this. Having bonfires on motzai Shabbos would mean that there is a risk of people who are lax in their Shabbos observance making various preparations on Shabbos, as well as the emergency services having to get in place on Shabbos. As a result, it was proposed by various dati-leumi rabbanim that the bonfires should be delayed until Sunday night. As they pointed out, Chazal made a much more drastic move to safeguard Shabbos when they suspended the Torah commandment of blowing the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah due to the mere risk that someone would carry a shofar to an expert who will teach him how to blow it! Certainly a bonfire, which is not a mitzvah at all, should be delayed when it certainly causes chillul Shabbos.

This logical proposal was accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. But this move is entirely ignored by the charedi community. Their primary reason appears to be that nobody in their community would be mechalel Shabbos, so why should they change their plans just because of people in the emergency services who aren't charedi?

Perhaps an additional reason for chareidi rejection of the move is that they are not going to make a change based on a directive that comes from such a source. The move was first proposed by Rav David Stav, head of Tzohar and a candidate for Chief Rabbi in the last elections, who was sharply condemned by charedim for being "too lax" in his approach to Judaism. Likewise, the move is being strongly pushed by Rav Yaakov Ariel, who was defeated in a previous election for Chief Rabbi because Rav Elyashiv's camp felt he was too moderate; they wanted Rabbi Metzger, whom they said would "restore the glory to the chief rabbinate" by following Rav Elyashiv's dictates. Another rav pushing for the bonfire move was Rav Druckman, who was attacked by Rav Elyashiv's court, allegedly for allegedly being too lax regarding conversion.

At any rate, there is an extraordinary irony here. It is precisely the rabbanim who are condemned by the extreme right as being "too lax" who are the ones actually trying to prevent widespread chillul Shabbos that is caused by those on the right. These dati-leumi rabbanim turn out to be the ones who care the most about shemiras Shabbos for all the Jewish People.

The modern incarnation of Lag B'Omer turns out to have a surprising benefit, after all. It's an opportunity to learn about the nature of different communities and different types of rabbinic leadership.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

He Who Must Not Be Named

Let's get back to Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's book Torah, Chazal and Science (you can find a list of all the previous parts of the critique at the first post). As you may recall, Rabbi Meiselman's first foray into Torah and science was in a series of lectures that he delivered at Toras Moshe in response to my books. Those lectures were noteworthy not only for the repeated misrepresentations of what my books actually say, but also for the extraordinary extent and viciousness of personal insults and slander that Rabbi Meiselman issued. A number of people complained to Rabbi Meiselman about this, and although he never issued any kind of apology or retraction, I was interested to see whether he would continue this approach in his book.

In the preface to the book, Rabbi Meiselman writes as follows:
I have almost always avoided quoting directly from any specific work in the genre to which I am responding in order that my comments will not be taken to be, in any way, ad hominem. My response is not ad hominem.
After reading this, and the rest of the book, I had to double-check the meaning of ad hominem, because I thought that perhaps I was making a mistake as to the meaning of the term. But no, I wasn't.  

Ad hominem is an argument based on the perceived failings and shortcomings of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case itself. There is absolutely nothing ad hominem in quoting from a specific work and attempting to rebut it - indeed, if one is addressing a specific work, then it is appropriate to quote it by name. However, throwing out charges regarding the personal shortcomings of people, as Rabbi Meiselman does throughout the book, is very much ad hominem, even if you don't name the person (and even if the person cannot be identified).

Perhaps one could claim that Rabbi Meiselman means that he doesn't want the book to be taken as a personal response/ vendetta against me. But that doesn't help his claim make sense; aside from Rabbi Meiselman's history of attacking me, the vast majority of his book is quite obviously targeted primarily or exclusively at my work. Simply not naming me does not change this!

I wasn't sure whether to write a post about this, but I just received the following letter, which I am presenting (with permission of the writer):

Thanks for all your blog posts. I'm an anglo chareidi who after nearly a decade in kollel, has come round to your way of thinking regarding the legitimacy of the rationalist approach to reconciling Chazal with modern science. I just finished reading Rabbi Meiselman's book. I admit that I started out prejudiced against it, but nonetheless, having read it I was surprised by how annoyed it made me!
I literally laughed out loud when 600 pages in - after calling you an amateur, a dilettante, sophomoric, unsophisticated, unqualified, and a purveyor of ersatz Torah, again and again and again - he repeats the claim that your name is avoided in case people misconstrue this as an ad hominem attack!

I know you probably don't want to make this controversy more personal than it already is, but I think this point deserves a blog post of its own.

1. In a book which grapples with the definition of heresy, calling someone a Kofer is not an ad hominem attack. In this case, the issue itself is whether your approach is legitimate. If his argument is that your approach is illegitimate, and furthermore that it is so illegitimate that it makes you a Kofer, then spelling that out is not an ad hominem attack - it's an attack on your view.

2. Hypocrisy - he claims to play fair and avoid ad hominem attacks, yet he repeatedly and gratuitously insults you. 

3. Intellectual Honesty - If you are writing a book against an approach to torah-science, why not quote repeatedly from your chief opponents, to show where you think they are wrong, and help people make up their minds. 

4. Menschlichkeit/ Mean-spiritedness - OK, so he falsely claims in front of his whole yeshiva that Slifkin was thrown out of Shaarei Torah, and won't retract or apologize. Fine. But would it really kill him to include one sentence in the book naming you as his chief opponent, to say he believes you to be a well-meaning guy but nonetheless gravely mistaken. How hard is that? And even if he doesn't fully believe it, at least pretend to be a mentsch!

5. Ignoring your chief opponent is itself an ad hominem attack - This move implicitly states that R. Slifkin is less important than the hundreds of useless and irrelevant footnotes that made it into the book (Note from N.S. - This reminds me of Isaac Betech's book about the shafan, which boasts of having one thousand bibliographic references, but does not mention the only book that was written on this specific topic, and in response to which his book was written!) It also sends the message that the only worthy opponents are people who either can't defend themselves (R. Aryeh Carmell, R. Aryeh Kaplan), or won't defend themselves (R. Jonathan Sacks).

6. Abuse of high minded principles - It is quite obvious that the real reasons that he won't mention your name is because: 

a) Unlike R. Jonathan Sacks who won't fight back and cause a stink - you will.
b) He believes in demonization of opponents, so therefore he won't break the taboo of mentioning your name.
c) He is worried that quoting your work will give it legitimacy, and may cause his readers to look up your writings.

So why not come out and say what you think, instead of hiding behind the principle of avoiding ad hominem attacks?!
7. Name calling without naming names - making personal attacks against unnamed dilettantes and sophomores is no less ad hominem just because you didn't name them. It is merely ad hominem by stealth.
I thought you should know that this all really bothered me. Keep up the good work!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

When the Eidah Charedis Praised God for the Liberation of Israel

A rather disturbing incident occurred yesterday. One of my sons, who was wearing a white shirt in honor of the day, was playing soccer next to our flag-adorned car, while my youngest daughter was waving a flag from the window. My son was accosted by some older charedi boys who demanded to know what there was to celebrate. My son, who is only nine, came into the house to ask his mother for help, and the boys followed him to the door to belligerently ask the same question of my wife! My wife attempted to explain to them that Yom HaZikaron expresses our gratitude to the soldiers who gave their lives to defend us, and Yom Ha-Atzmaut expresses our gratitude to Hashem for giving us our country, for enabling us to build the very streets that they are walking on. It's a matter of basic hakaras hatov, she explained.

The boys were unfazed.

We wouldn't need soldiers, they explained to her, if everyone was learning Torah. We shouldn't be expressing any gratitude for a country run by secularists. And the streets that we are walking on were built by Moshe Abutbul.

There was a time when I used to feel pretty much the same way myself. On the other hand, there was an earlier time when even the Eidah Charedis felt pretty much as I do today.

The Eidah Charedis of Yerushalayim used to be known as Vaad Ha-Ir Ha-Ashkenazi. In 1918, to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from the Turks by the British, they issued the proclamation that you can see in this picture. They called on all the shuls and yeshivos "to thank Hashem for the redemption, and the salvation," and to say the prayer of Hanosen teshuah on behalf of "George the Fifth, yarum hodo (may his glory be increased)" and a misheberach for General Allenby.

It's a matter of basic hakaras hatov.

(See too the excellent discussion of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut by Rav Eliezer Melamed at Torah Musings.)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

When Charedim Followed Tradition And Prayed For The State

The charedi community proclaims itself to be the champions of tradition. They follow the path of Chazal, of the Rishonim, of the Acharonim. As Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, wrote in Ha'aretz this week, charedim just want to live their lives as their ancestors did.

So let's look at Jewish tradition with regard to the concept of praying for the welfare of the state in which one lives. Yirmiyah says, "Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to Hashem on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper" (Jer. 29:7). Chazal say "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for its fear, people would swallow each other alive" (Avos 3:4). Jews, like everyone else, require a government, and they should express their need and gratitude for this. In line with this, there is a long Jewish tradition of reciting Hanosen teshuah lemelachim, which prays for the welfare of the government.

Now, it's true that Hanosen teshuah was not recited in every community. Still, it was recited in many communities. Yet there are countless people today who grew up in such communities, and who proclaim the importance of mesorah, but who do not recite that prayer, whether they are in the US, UK, or Israel.

Why are they breaking from tradition? It seems likely to relate, at least to some degree, to charedi hostility to Zionism. With many Jews in Israel becoming increasingly nationalistic and civic-minded, charedim - even those in the diaspora - reacted by becoming less nationalistic and civic-minded, even with regard to the US government. 

In "The Piety of Politics: Jewish Prayers for the State of Israel," my former teacher Rabbi Professor Joseph Tabory reports some fascinating history to this topic. When it came to creating a prayer for the State of Israel, there were two schools of thought. One was that a Jewish State of Israel should not have the same Hanosen teshuah format that was used for gentile states in the Diaspora. But another view was that Hanosen teshuah should indeed be used, to make it difficult for the ultra-Orthodox to refrain from participating in it. From a contemporary standpoint, the latter view now seems very naive. Charedim don't even say hanosen teshuah for Diaspora countries anymore! In any case, it was the former view that triumphed. Sure, you might quibble over the phrase reshit tzmichat ge'ulateinu, but the miracle of the Jews returning to Israel, and having political control of the Promised Land, deserves a special prayer.

At any rate, there was one occasion when the charedi community reverted to the traditional practice of praying for the state. In fact, the prayer was specifically focused on praying for the welfare of the armed forces. Amazingly, this occurred in Israel. Even more amazingly, it occurred under the direction of none other than Rav Elazar Menachem Schach, the fiery leader of the Litvishe charedi world!

Unfortunately, the State that they prayed for was not the State of Israel.

This was during the first Gulf War. Yated Ne'eman reported that Rav Schach had ruled that the charedi community should pray for the welfare of the coalition forces. The Yated was careful to note that this was a matter of following the tradition of praying for the state. The ruling was to use the traditional text of Hanosen teshuah, mentioning "the government of the United States and its partners." As Dr. Marc Shapiro commented to me, this means that the charedim were willing to recite a special prayer for the success and welfare of Syria and Saudi Arabia - but not of Israel! (This brings to mind the charedi anti-draft rally in New York a few months ago, in which they wouldn't express their gratitude to the IDF, but they thanked the NYPD.)

For many years I did not - I would not - recite the prayer for the State of Israel. Eventually, I changed my practice, for several reasons. First of all, it dawned on me that I should follow my family tradition from my shul in England - a black-hat shul that nevertheless recited the prayer for Great Britain. Second, I realized that the practice of praying for the state was declared by Yirmiyah and Chazal to be important, and with good reason. Third, I looked at the text of the prayer for the State, Avinu shebashamayim, and I couldn't see anything in it that was disagreeable (except perhaps for the phrase reshit tzmichat ge'ulateinu, which I couldn't be sure was true; but it certainly would be great to express it as a wish, and in any case it wasn't reason to discard the entire prayer).

With all that is wrong with the State of Israel, are we not extremely grateful to have it? And do we not want it to be blessed? And doesn't expressing gratitude and the desire for blessing for the Jewish People reflect the traditional values of Torah? I'd like to be a traditional Torah Jew.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Stories of Interest

There are several news stories unfolding right now that are of interest.

The Jewish Worker reports on how the Israeli Mishpachah newspaper has a banner headline screaming about the financial collapse of charedi kollel society. The newspaper states that the cause is rich American charedi donors having been negatively influenced by the incitement against charedim in Israel. That's odd, I thought that the cause was that charedim in kollel are not working. And why is there any blame to be attached to Americans? Could it not be that the Americans just don't see why they should be bailing out a society that is obviously unsustainable? What is Mishpachah's plan for a society with a very high rate of unemployment that is constantly increasing in size?

Meanwhile, here in Beit Shemesh, re-elected mayor Abutbul continues to disappoint. The municipality did not give its customary financial aid to the communal Ethiopian seders. There are allegations that this is due to the Ethiopians having strongly supported Abutbul's nemesis Eli Cohen. Instead, the Anglo dati-leumi community contributed most of the funds, and Rabbi Dov Lipman asked Yair Lapid if the Finance Ministry could make up the remainder. Lapid gave the money from his personal account! To quote Michael Lipkin in The Times of Israel: "So, just to spell out it out, when our mayor, the vanguard of Torah in Beit Shemesh, has the first opportunity of his new term to do something truly religiously significant he strikes out and abdicates this, small but important, task to the “devil” himself, Yair Lapid. You can’t make this stuff up!"

There's another fiasco unfolding that involves our mayor. For the Yom Ha-Atzma'ut celebrations, the municipality invited (at a cost of 127,000 shekels) singer Eyal Golan. But Golan has been embroiled in a scandal involving charges of taking advantage of young girls. While the formal charges were dropped, there's enough residue, as well as acts to which he admitted, that make him a highly inappropriate choice. The dati-leumi rabbonim (but no charedi rabbonim) sent a joint letter of protest to the mayor, which he rejected, and none of the solidly charedi municipal coalition appears to oppose it. It's truly remarkable that the electoral campaigns of the mayor and these parties was based on the claim that only charedim would ensure the sanctity of the city.

On a more positive note, my neighbor Rabbi Karmi Gross has opened the first charedi hesder yeshivah, which combines yeshivah study with training in computers and serving in the IDF's Cyber Defense Unit. At the end of the four-year program, the graduates are not only accomplished yeshivah students; they have also served in the IDF for two years and have the training to get a good job. There's a Jerusalem Post article about it that is getting a lot of attention, but you can learn much more in an interview at WhereWhatWhen. A fascinating picture emerges from this interview: it's very hard for someone without secular education to be able to join this program, and so Rabbi Gross is recruiting mostly from one of the few charedi yeshivah high schools. Yet even though these schools are so beyond charedi norms that no charedi gadol will officially approve of them, Rabbi Gross himself is not allowed to enter the schools to recruit students, because they want their students to only take the yeshivah gedolah/ kollel path! I wish Rabbi Gross much success, but it looks like there's a long way to go...