Wednesday, July 29, 2015

When Leaders Err

What is the nature of Jewish leadership? Can our leaders make mistakes, and if so, are we entitled to point out when this has happened?

Over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Yaakov Menken sets out some comments about this. Twenty years ago, I would have agreed with his words whole-heartedly, and in fact I published similar ideas to his. However, since then, my understanding of this topic has evolved. I attempted to respond to his claims in the comments section to his post, but he did not post my comments, for reasons that are unclear to me. Fortunately, I have my own forum for responding, and so I am posting my response here instead.

Rabbi Menken begins with the following claim:
"A big part of Judaism is learning to nullify our will to Hashem’s will. The leaders of our nation have always been the people who did this best — who learned Torah and let it guide them, rather than trying to superimpose their own values on the Torah." 
This claim is very prevalent in charedi circles. The simplest and most powerful way to rebut it is that none other than the Vilna Gaon clearly disagreed. After all, he said that Rambam - certainly a leader of the nation - was negatively influenced by Greco-Muslim values.

Ardent follower of Rambam as I am, I would nonetheless agree with the Vilna Gaon that Rambam was influenced by Greco-Muslim values. However, I would say that this was largely (though not entirely) positive. And the Vilna Gaon himself was also influenced by non-Divine sources. No man is an island.

Rabbi Menken then argues that while all humans, including Rabbonim, can err, we have to follow Rabbonim because "(a) the Torah tells us to and (b) They still know better than we do." This oversimplifies a very complex topic. Yes, there is certainly an important idea in Judaism of following rabbinic leadership, but not every great rabbi has the stature of the Sanhedrin. Furthermore, which Rabbonim is one obligated to follows? The Chassidim or the Litvaks? The Charedim or the Religious Zionists?

Finally, we come to a very significant and problematic claim:
"One thing that certainly cannot be done is to try to second-guess them based upon an alternate reality that never happened — e.g. saying that “the Holocaust” somehow proves Rabbonim were wrong telling people not to leave Europe. If we look at Jewish history, it happens repeatedly: appearances are deceiving. What appears to be is not the reality — which is really about where we stand with HaShem... It is well-known that people who left Europe before the war had tremendous difficulty keeping their level of observance."
Now it is indeed true that we cannot claim that we would have made any better decisions in those circumstances. It's all very well to have hindsight about what happened in the Holocaust, but who is to say that had we been there, we would have known what to expect and what to do? That is why we cannot look down on the decisions of anyone in that period.

However, we can certainly observe that those Gedolim who urged their followers to stay in Europe made a tragic mistake. The Belzer Rebbe, for example, told his followers in Budapest that they will enjoy good and tranquility in Hungary. They were all sent to Auschwitz. Yes, maybe up in Shamayim that is somehow all for the best, but down here that is what we call a tragic mistake. It is certainly not for us to say that leaving Jewish observance is worse than being massacred by the Nazis, and therefore those rabbonim who led their followers to the latter did the right thing. In fact such a sentiment is deeply repugnant, like someone making the berachah of hatov ve-ha-meitiv on the passing of a loved one.

There are clearly many Rabbonim who disagree with the notion that, since we do not know the ways of Heaven, we cannot criticize the actions of Gedolim. See, for example, R. Teichtal's Em Habanim Semecha. See too Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's famous address where, quoting Rav Hutner, he points out that Chazal clearly held that one can be a great talmid chacham and yet lack da'as. All the more so one can be a great talmid chacham and make mistakes, and there is no reason to think that other people are incapable of observing this. The Holocaust is a powerful and tragic example where, without judging the culpability of the Gedolim who advised their followers to stay in Europe, we can clearly observe that they were tragically mistaken.

57 comments:

  1. I wrote a little bit about this topic/article the other day here: http://dafaleph.com/2015/7/27/daas-torah-and-the-holocaust

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  2. My comment at CC which ,of course, never got published:
    1) Those rabbnonim who thought it couldn't happen before it did cannot be blamed for lack of foresight.
    2) Those who denied it was happening as it did were foolish.
    3) Those who ran away while telling their followers to sit put were terrible.
    4) And those who now claim to know why it happened or which group of Jews was responsible for it deserve to be... well you get the picture.

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  3. Oy Vey iz mir. Yaakov Menken shouldn't be writing about halacha or hashkafa or even Jewish history. He's completely out of his element, and betrays a simplistic, superficial knowledge all too common among ballei teshuvh eager to hit the streets and start spreading the gospel. (If he wants to spread his wings, he should stick to politics.) In addition to being well-trodden ground that we've all been over a thousand times already, there's not a single platitude he says that isn't either outright false, or subject to so many qualifiers so as to render them useless.

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  4. It's even worse. What if the Rav you follow is actually a psychopath who is very good at pretending to be frum? There have been several of those in the news recently. IMHO the safest thing is to treat Rabbanim the same as we treat medical doctors. They are the experts. Seek their advice but be aware that they can make mistakes and a small fraction of them are evil. If you don't like the first opinion, get a second opinion and/or do your own research. The Internet makes it easier to second-guess doctors. The same applies to Rabbanim.

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    1. Spot on! I would add one two more ways in which Rabbis and Doctors ought to be treated the same = they're knowledge and bedside manner should be evaluated frequently and they should only be trusted in fields where they are experts.

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    2. The difference between a big-time doctor and a "Gadol" is that the big-time doctor is an expert willing to give you a very educated opinion. The Gadol is supposed to be more than that. He is educated, expected to give you an answer to your question but also has to keep the spiritual welfare of our nation in mind while doing so. It's a far higher standard but the expectation is that since he's working beyond just "you" its important to heed his opinion for the sake of the nation.

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  5. That Rambam was influenced by Aristotle is a common accusation, and an accurate one, as anyone who has read the Guide can attest. But so what? The alternative that the anti-Rationalists prefer, Kabbalah, is also based on non-Jewish philosophy, in this case the Neoplatonism of classical paganism.
    Much better to admit the influence and discuss its pros and cons, as Rambam does, than to invent an ancient Jewish pedigree. But good luck telling that to the Haredim.

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  6. Why can’t we just admit that most of us have a narrative about daat torah which has theoretical historical support and will interpret historical events in a manner consistent with our narrative?
    kt
    joel rich

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    1. Two reasons, IMO:

      1) Because this is not a purely theoretical issue. Even those who write for cross-currents admit that the Charedi orthodoxy against work is harming people in a serious way.

      2) This is used as a stick to beat others who don't agree, not only with the Daas Torah concept, but with who they choose as their Rabbi.

      As opposed to, say Hasidim, which at least in America, is a divide where each goes his own way.

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    2. Joel - i don't think it's accurate to attribute theoretical historical support for the version of daat Torah that guaranteed that no harm would come to the Jews of Hungary. The Modzitzer may have meant well, but that's not the point.

      More fundamentally, Rav Yochanan himself uncertainty about his decision-making, and I am comfortable assuming that his Torah knowledge outpaced all of the various Yiphtachim b'Doroteihem.

      - Moishe Potemkin

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  7. Is there any relatively dispassionate account of European Jewry in the years leading up to the Holocaust? In particular, I have heard complaints against the Lubavitcher and Satmar Rebbes of that generation (Belz was new to me), that they warned their followers not to escape to the "Treife Medine". Is that so?

    Sorry about the anonymous post - I don't have an account with any of the options you offer.

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  8. You'd think the Shoah would have nipped Daas Torah in the bud. Unfortunately, as in your Belzer Rebbe example, the victims of Daas Torah were murdered by the Nazis and cannot complain. Some of the proponents, though, ignored their own advice, fled, and continued preaching Daas Torah. Joke's on us.

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    1. Daas Torah didn't really take off until after WWII. For starry-eyed American youths meeting other-worldly (literally) rosh yeshivahs, with a strange culture and strange language, it was an easy sell. Its different today, when we've all grown up pretty much the same, and we've all been to the same yeshivas.

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    2. Perhaps. But it was born with the Polish Agudah, as explained by our host: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/06/happy-100th-birthday-daas-torah.html

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    3. Moshe Dick comments:Yet, the haredi world insist that their interpretation of Daas Torah is from time immemorial and is supported by all sections of the Jewish world-see Menken's column in Cross-currents and my discussion with him-. It is impossible to conduct an argument with someone who insists that you must shut down all debate on anything a "Godol" -chosen by the haredim,of course- says. And then maintains it is "halocho lemoshe misinai".

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    4. R' Dessler tried to preempt the accusation that the gedolim's bad advice disproves daas Torah in an article he wrote in the middle of the war.

      It didn't help- in all sorts of memoirs, one sees the accusation that the gedolim messed up from both American and Israeli secular survivors.

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  9. "And the Vilna Gaon himself was also influenced by non-Divine sources." Such as?

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  10. I would think at this time of year, people discussing this would recognize the possibility of משיב חכמים אחור ודעתם יסכל

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    1. the 9 days. tisha b'av ime. when the knowledge of the sages was turned upside down, rendered useless.

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  11. Why not also mention the Torah itself, namely, Parashat Va-Yikra's clear notion that the "entire edah" (Sanhedrin/bet din ha-gadol that represents the community) can make a mistake - and that the Mishnah devotes an entire masechta - Horayot - to the notion of what to do when rabbis make mistakes. If they can make mistakes on halakhic issues, certainly they can on historical issues, a notion ascribed to by Maharsha, who states explicitly that Rabbi Akiva erred in his assessment of Bar Kokhba as Mashiah.

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  12. Yonah ben ShlomoJuly 30, 2015 at 3:32 AM

    Menken's article only scratches the surface of this tangled knot, and Rabbi Slifkin's, for once, only goes a bit more deeply in. The extent to which framing of the holocaust has entered into the foundation and basis of hareidi hashkafa is extremely understated. "Modernity" can only go so far as an explanatory metric. What we have in the kiruv movement for instance despite all its positive aspects and results (at least for now) is unfortunately an attempt to throw the weight and magnitude of that tragedy and that crime into a repudiation of pluralism in all its stripes, along with an entrenchment of a historical frame that rejects and mocks any other value model and which when confronted by evidence to the contrary plows and buries its own followers into a "pious" totalitarian ground hell-bent on removing the trace of any rationalist or progressive Jewish inner voice. No bitterness, just trying to see clearly. An analogous critique can be made of the role of the holocaust in framing dati leumi hashkafa, of course. But it's more above the table over there.

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  13. John PseudonymousJuly 30, 2015 at 9:07 AM

    One of the most astonishing Haskafic positions I've ever seen appears in a comment to that post (which R. Menken explicitly agrees with):

    One important theory/Hashkafic point that you are missing …. If the RBSO wanted Klal Yisroel to have a Churban Europe (which is a given), then the signs would have pointed Da’as Torah to tell people to stay.

    So if I understand this Hashkafa correctly, not only was the Holocaust the Ratzon Hashem, but Hashem decided to use Daas Torah to trick people into sticking around for the slaughter. Wow! I suppose such a view is internally consistent, but it boggles the mind that any religious thinker can really believe things like this.

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    1. John P,
      I tried to post a question on CC regarding the poster and R.Menken's assent.
      Naturally it was ignored.
      According to this view, as revolting as it sounds, paraphrasing Daniel Goldhagen,the Gedolim were God's willing executioners

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    2. No different than the spirit of Naboth being sent by God to trick Ahab into going to war, as per Melachim 22 and the Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin page 89.

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  14. You are usually very clear, but this time I dont get your argument.

    Define mistake.

    The Gedolim (overall) didn't say that Europe was safer physically than USA and Israel, they just said that it is better not to leave Europe because of the spiritual danger of other places. If we accept that 'in shomayim it is worth it', which is probably what they believed, then repugnant or not, that is their unfalsifiable view, which can not be proven as a mistake.

    So what do you mean when you say 'It is certainly not for us to say that leaving Jewish observance is worse than being massacred by the Nazis, and therefore those rabbonim who led their followers to the latter did the right thing'.

    It may not be for us to ASSERT this, but by what criteria is this view judged as a mistake?

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    1. ?because they themselves left?

      Also, once individual 'gedolim' admitted (at least to themselves) that there was a grave danger, they did allow their followers to leave.

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    2. Because they never said that. They either did not admit to physical danger or denied it altogether.

      MMY: You mean did not, right?

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  15. The fact that this is even a matter of debate is indicative of how little da'as this generation has. Shomer psaim hashem should not be a lechatchila.

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  16. On the other hand, Tora is not hefker as in Reform. For example, if all of the poskim say that a certain activity is prohibited on Shabbat it is ipso facto prohibited. Someone who is not a posek might think differently but he must have the humility to understand that someone who has devoted his life to Halacha knows much more than him and most likely he is wrong. Non-halachic issue are another matter. Obviously, if a rav and an automotive engineer disagree about a certain car model the latter wins. However, this is simply a question of which is whose field of expertise.

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  17. While i agree with what you wrote, and we must listen to our rabonim as they know more then we do. i do feel that that does not apply to every situation, as you yourself demonstrate, the daat torah in israel and the chasidush admorim in the us banned the use of internet completely, and even if you find that some of the more liberal rabonim who allow it's use with a filter, they are not what we would call daat torah compared to Rav Chaim K. and Rav Eliashiv z"l. Yet here we are. We allow our understanding to help us chose what we call daat torah, if hashkofacly we feel that the use of filtered internet is ok we call the rabonim who propose that as daat torah and that those who disagree with these rabonim are out of touch or of a differing opinion of daat torah.

    this is a slippery slope, if we can pick and choose daat torah as not all rabonim agree especially on hashkofik issues, why is it blasphemous to say that the stamur rebbe and others actions durring WW II led to the unnecessary death on millions.

    But i do agree if i ask my rov a question that is halachik in nature (not the most hashkofic issues have a halachik component ie is the state of israel not sanctioned by the torah {satmur} or a mitzvah {rav Kook}.) But if i feel even after looking into a subject that a pot is kosher and my rov says it is not, i definitely will differ to him, but on things that torah knowledge does not give any advantage in understanding such as politics, i will not blindly follow daat torah because as seen from the holocaust the level of todays rabonim do not allow them to understand everything in the world from there knowledge of torah. Maybe 200 years ago we had rabonim who could tell doctors where to do surgeries, but they are long gone.

    I will folow my rov on halachik maters and my Dr on medical ones.

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  18. This idea that Gedolim cannot make a mistake is nonsense. Did the Sanhedrin not have a special sacrifice for when they erred??? The Nodeh B'Yehuda said that cigarette smoking is "Ochel Nefesh" and therefore permitted on yom tov. Does anyone believe that to be true???

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    1. Actually, many people believe it to be true. Don't try to sneak in political viewpoints under the guise of a comment.

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    2. Please see the title of this blog. Besides, it was a rhetorical question. Finally, what in my statement is remotely political?

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  19. Nobody is claiming that the Gedolim cannot make mistakes. That is not what we were arguing about. Please read the post carefully.

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    1. After your prompting I read the source article in CC and basically arrived at the same conclusion, that Gedolim are people not unlike anyone else who may offer sound advise or complete nonsense. The CC author argues that while Gedolim can err their advice should be followed for 2 reasons:
      1. based on the dictates of Torah/Chazal; paraphrasing "...Klal Israel without Gedolim is like a dove without wings...and one must subjugate oneself to their authority..."
      2. one can never know what the future holds and therefore what may appear to be bad advice may in fact turn out to be excellent advice.
      The first point we can dismiss out of hand - an argument from authority is a weak argument.
      Point 2. is equally weak, while i will grant you that one can never know the impact of a decision as all decisions are bound to have some positive outcome, the Holocaust as the author argues is perhaps the only example that this rule of thumb does not apply!

      In conclusion, my original point that Gedolim are wrong, is obvious, but I would qualify that statement with is, if one is honest and acknowledges the fallibility of the Gedolim they will not seek the advice of Gedolim and/or discount their advice based on said Gedolim's expertise in that area. That is the message the author should have conveyed.

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  20. The Nodeh B'Yehuda said that cigarette smoking is "Ochel Nefesh" and therefore permitted on yom tov. Does anyone believe that to be true???

    Yes, why not? The issue was that the need (in this case smoking) is appreciated by all, not that it has to be edible. Smoking is bad for health reasons, but many permit it on Yom Tov, at least when smoking itself was permitted. There is a shul nearby with some old signs on the wall saying "no smoking on the Sabbath or Holidays". I thought that this shul must be very observant since they are Choshesh for the Shitos that prohibit smoking on Yom Tov :).

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    1. I disagree, Ochel Nefesh has a narrow definition and appreciation is not one of them.
      I "appreciated" your anecdote, though, no problem reading it on Yom Tov.

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    2. I'm sureyou mean 'ochel nefesh' has a wide definition.

      Unless you refer to chumrah of the week.

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    3. The Chasam Sofer held that smoking was permitted on Yom Tov because it helped digestion.

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  21. I believe a Hakirah article pointed out a few years ago that one of the reasons some rabbaim advocated staying is because they felt guilty at having themselves fled their communities in WWI when, in retrospet, there was no need to do so. The whole saga is very tragic.

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    1. Do you remember when the article was published, or who wrote it?

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    2. It was written by Joe Bobker, if I remember right. Your wife probably knows his name well, Natan, he used to publish the LAJT before he followed his kids to NY.

      Regards,

      DF

      (Good post on the hyena thing.)

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  22. Basically what you are asking is, if we were living back then, would we recognize the mistakes made by the rabbis without the benefit of hindsight.
    To put it this way, when comparing our present day to those days and observing and recognizing the mistakes made by today's rabbis, I don't see why we would have not been able to recognize their errors as well, if we lived in those days. The same difference as far as I can see.
    As a matter of fact, there were many back then that had the 'better safe than sorry attitude' and left for safer places.
    But if you are asking what would the charedim think, for that you may have to post your question on another blog.
    o

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  23. Indeed, during the early days of the war, there was no way for anyone to predict the impending calamity, and the gedolim of that generation cannot be faulted for that. The real tragic mistake was to promise their followers that divine intervention would somehow carry them through. Clearly, that did not happen.

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  24. " The simplest and most powerful way to rebut it is that none other than the Vilna Gaon clearly disagreed."

    An even better way to rebut it is there is an entire tractate of Shas that addresses the Torah's mandate for specific offerings when leaders have caused Klal Yisrael to sin.

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    1. How does that show that rabbinic leaders are less influenced by foreign values?

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  25. "They still know better than we do."

    I have not met a rabbi who knows as much biostatistics as I do.

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    1. But many who claim they do know. (Or at least their followers or advocates.)

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  26. "It is well-known that people who left Europe before the war had tremendous difficulty keeping their level of observance."

    It is less well known that people who didn't leave Europe before the war had tremendous difficulty keeping their level of observance. Or, in many cases, had no interest in keeping their level of observance. But we don't hear from them because they were almost all gassed. :(

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  27. Regarding the claim that there were spiritual and physical dangers in leaving Europe for Eretz Israel, consider the following:

    (1) While it is true that people who left Europe had difficulty in maintaining their observance SO DID THOSE WHO REMAINED. The majority of religious youth in interwar Poland, the main center of Jewish life in Europe, abandoned religious observance. Millions of other Jews were trapped in Stalinist Russia. Kosher shechita was banned in Poland in the late 1930’s and even many religious Jews ended up eating non-kosher meat.
    (2) By the late 1930’s, it was obvious to a lot of people that the traditional Jewish centers of Poland, Romania, Hungary and Lithuania were doomed. The region was boxed in between two monstrous, aggressive antisemitic tyrannies….Nazi Germany and Communist USSR. Even if the Holocaust had not happened but World War II had played out in a similar way as it did, the Soviets would have gotten control of those old Jewish centers and liquidated religious life.
    (3) One of the big arguments used against aliyah to Eretz Israel in the late 1930’s was the violence of the Arab uprising and so people thought it was not “safe” to live in Eretz Israel. Howvever, by the late 1930’s the Arab uprising was suppressed by the British and the Jewish self-defense organizations, the Haganah and ETZEL were learning rapidly how to fight effectively. It must be remembered that prior to the unexpected collpase of France in June 1940, Eretz Israel was surrouned by “friendly” British and French-controlled territories. It was only upon the fall of France that the Germans were able to move large forces to North Africa, leading to Rommel’s threat to British Egypt and Eretz Israel.
    (4) Again, regarding Jews moving to other places and encountering spiritual challenges, it must be remembered this was not only because these new places had some sort of unclean atmosphere, but the whole Orthodox world was facing unprecedented challenges due to the economic distress many Jews faced, the rise of antisemitism in the old countries, despair among the Jewish youth who faced uncertain economic future and the danger of violent antisemitism and antisemitic discrimination, and confrontation with new ideas for social reform and scientific and technological advances that the traditional Rabbinic leadership had great difficulties in dealing with.

    Therefore it is not hard to understand why so many Jews felt that there was no future for them in the old Jewish centers, and that it was time to come home to Eretz Israel and to work hard to build a new religious future there.

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  28. Regarding the claim the the Holocaust was "unthinkable":

    It was unthinkable only to someone who was deaf and blind to what was going on around them. More than 100,000 Jews were slaughtered in the Russian Civil War in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Totally forgotten today. 300,000 Chinese were butchered in the Rape of Nanking in 1937, all the while the US was supplying the Japanese perpetrators with oil and other strategic products. Stalin, just 2 years before WW2 started slaughtered MILLIONS. Hitler himself butchered a whole group of FRIENDS of his, in addition to a former German Chancellor and various enemies in 1934 Then again there were the millions killed in the First World War just 2 decades earlier. Holocaust "unthinkable"? Really?

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  29. In R. Teichtal's Em Habanim Semecha, written in 1943 he predicts the birth of the State of Israel and the struggles it will endure. He paints those who seek money and honor (referring to the chasidic rabbis) as the erev rav and giving examples of how the masses can be fooled. He points out through Rabbinic sources how wrong these rabbis were for not having their followers emigrate to Israel. The satmar at one time tried to destroy the book by burning hundreds of copies.
    These rabbis were not the least bit interested in the spiritual well-being of their followers. For every Torah educated Jew knows that one must do everything they can to save their lives. After all, the Nazi atrocities against the Jews were well known all over Europe, it was not so much if, but when. Rather these rabbis selfishly only wished to preserve their authoritative status and feared that once everyone would leave it would mean the end to their dominance.
    o

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  30. Not interested in posting a full reply, but simply an editorial comment. This is an extremely superficial treatment of a very important subject, so superficial as to be trivial and irrelevant.

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    1. thanks for letting us know

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  31. Thanks For the Greatl Post, people can just read the Pasuk There is no one on Earth that doesn't sin. It is as simple as that.

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  32. I note that no one has commented on the graphic of this post. I gather that the 4 illustrious rabbinic figures were (left to right), the Rogatchover Gaon, R' Baruch Ber Leibowitz, the Chafetz Chaim, and R' Chaim Soloveitchik. The interesting depiction is that of the Chafetz Chaim which is more like the photograph of him at the early Agudah convention rather than the incorrect image usually used.

    Y. Aharon

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