Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not Every Mitzvah Deserves A Song

This is a uniquely difficult time for our nation. Usually, it is the non-Jews that are our enemies. But right now, it is a team of Jews who are exhibiting appalling and brutal behavior. Even more confusingly, while everyone agrees with the previous sentence, there is a distinct split regarding who it refers to. Some would take it as referring to the Shabak, while others would take it as referring to the people dancing with guns and worse in the notorious wedding video. There may even be some people who take it as referring to both, but not many.


Before I address one of the theological aspects of this topic, I should clarify my position regarding the politics/ conspiracy theories. First: I am very right-wing, politically. Second: I am well aware of the notorious history of the Shabak, especially with provocateur Avishai Raviv. Third: Much of my immediate family are right-wing settlers in the West Bank. Fourth: Before writing any of this, I consulted with a reliable source who is connected with the leaders of the Yesha communities. I was told as follows: The vast majority of Yesha residents were as shocked and horrified by the video as everyone else. My Yesha relatives have never, ever seen people dance with guns, let alone the worse things shown in the video. (Regarding the impropriety of dancing with guns, see my post Swords, Guns and Judaism.) However, the Yesha leadership, who have been engaging in extensive discussions with the security services, did accept that there does indeed exist a small fanatic group. To claim, as some do, that the notorious video is only showing Shabak agents dressed up, is a silly conspiracy theory, tragically advanced by those who cannot bring themselves to accept that "their side" might have any serious problems.

But I want to deal with the theological aspects of something incontrovertible and much more widespread: the song about Shimshon's declaration of revenge against the Philistines. This song has been quite popular in some right-wing circles for at least fifteen years. Some are astonished that any religious person could challenge its legitimacy - after all, it is a verse from Tanach! And Shimshon was surely carrying out the will of God!

Yet carrying out the will of God is not always something to sing about. As I wrote in the post Killing In The Name Of God, a mitzvah involves two components; obeying God’s words, and committing an act. One can feel satisfaction at fulfilling God’s command at the same time as feeling revulsion at committing an act.

Before giving examples, let us look at a parallel concept in the world at large. We certainly find that one can commit an act which one feels to be ultimately good, and to take pleasure in that knowledge, even while the performance of the act is itself brutal and repulsive. The simple example is a surgeon or a dentist. The dentist is happy to be healing someone, even though drilling out his tooth is a brutal, painful act. You wouldn't want to go to a dentist who sings about how much he enjoys drilling teeth! Judaism likewise acknowledges that certain acts are themselves brutal and unpleasant, even though they are performed for ultimately noble purposes. There is no celebration of bloodshed.

For example, King David was not allowed to build the Temple because of the blood on his hands—notwithstanding the fact that he was absolutely justified and even praised for all the blood that he spilled. And, in a very different sphere, according to many halachic authorities, one does not recite the blessing of Shehechiyanu at the circumcision of one’s son, for the reason is that one cannot pronounce such a declaration of joy at an act that is a source of pain to one’s child.

One case that would appear to contradict our thesis is that of Abraham’s planned slaughter of Isaac. The Midrash tells us how Abraham complied with this command with alacrity, joyous at the opportunity to fulfill the will of his Creator. Yet further analysis and contemplation proves otherwise. The Midrash also tells us that Isaac was blinded by the tears that Abraham spilled. Abraham had mixed emotions; joy at fulfilling the Will of his Creator, grief at spilling the blood of his son. He certainly wouldn't have been singing a song as he did it - "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-A! I'm gonna slaughter my son today!"

Not every mitzvah and not every verse is to be sung about. With all due respect to a certain chassidic singer who is a wonderful person, I don't think that Timcheh Es Zecher Amalek should be made into a upbeat song. (And at a time when people are all too casual about calling other Jews Amalek, one should be especially vigilant about this.)

And neither should Shimshon's declaration of vengeance against the Philistines be something to sing joyously. Opposing that song would be a good first step to impressing upon others - and ourselves - that we will not tolerate any inclination towards celebrating combat. Let's leave such celebrations of violence to the Palestinians, who excel at it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Life-Changing Lizards

Baruch Hashem, this blog has several thousand regular readers. In the previous post, I published the first annual report of The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and made a rare appeal for support for the museum. But, rather disappointingly, it received only one donation in response!

I am sure that there are many reasons for this. But in case it was that the PDF was too much bother to download and open (it was a very large file, and not easy to read on a computer screen), I'm going to try something else: publishing an extract from the report here on the blog. Here is the section on our volunteer program:

The Biblical Museum of Natural History runs an extensive volunteer programs. This is not only to save costs – it is also a way to benefit the community. Many young people, especially in Beit Shemesh, find it hard to “fit into the system.” The museum provides a constructive, positive and safe environment in which they can find fulfillment. Over twenty teens and young adults have volunteered at the museum during its first year. Here is a letter that we received from one of our most dedicated volunteers:
“I was very fortunate to be able to become involved with The Biblical Museum of Natural History. I had been sick for a few years. It was bad enough that I was not able to function very well properly in society - I had lost motivation and faith in myself.

“As a child I was so fascinated by animals. I had met Rabbi Natan Slifkin at the age of ten shortly after I had moved to Israel. He gave classes about animals in the Torah, and I made sure to always be there. It was my dream as a child to be a zoologist. And though that dream had faded, my passion for animal life was still there.

“Ten years later, Rabbi Slifkin got in touch with me and told me about his idea for the museum. And that day I worked up a real sweat. Scraping away old layers of paint and stucco. Putting in new layers of stucco, sanding them down and painting over. It was hard work, but I felt like I had accomplished something. I did this for a few days. And then I was done. It was nice to work hard, but I felt it was time to go back to my old life of directionlessness.

“A few days later though Rabbi Slifkin asked me if I wanted to help out with caring for the animals. And that’s what I did. Eventually I was the one caring for all the animals there, and I spent eight months at the museum. I felt like I had a purpose there, that people (and animals of course) depended on me. When people feel they are appreciated, they will work harder. And I sure felt that peopled cared for what I did.

“When people feel strongly about things in a positive way, they want others to experience that same pleasure. And I really saw it during my time at the museum. It was wonderful to see people’s faces light up when they interacted with the animals and learned about them. And it felt great knowing that I was helping to introduce people to something I thought was amazing.

“I became more responsible and less detached. And once I started taking steps towards progression, I did the same in other facets of my life. I came out a totally different person after those eight months, and kept on growing. The museum is an amazing place run by some great people. I have Rabbi Slifkin and the rest of the staff to thank for nudging me in the right direction. I now have a steady job, and I’m starting my psychometric study course in December. I plan to go to university as soon as I finish. And in the meantime I am looking into jobs for the future.

“I will always be grateful for the opportunity I was given. It was an experience I won’t soon forget. I am very thankful to Rabbi Natan Slifkin for letting me be a part of this miraculous place.”

The full annual report for The Biblical Museum of Natural History reviews the various goals, activities and accomplishments of the museum in our pilot year, the feedback that we've received, and it also includes some really great photos. You can download it at this link (it's a 6mb PDF). Enjoy!

As mentioned in an earlier post, setting up, developing and operating this museum is enormously expensive. On behalf of all our visitors, I would like to ask for people who value our goals to support our cause and participate in our mission. In the report, you can find details about making donations, or you can use your credit card or Paypal account at this link. We also have patron and naming opportunities. Thank you very much for your support!

I will also be visiting New York in January, and there were be parlor meetings for the museum taking place in Bergenfield, Woodmere, and Flatbush. At the parlor meetings, I will be explaining more about the programs and goals of the museum. Please be in touch if you would like to attend.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Our First Annual Report!

I'm thrilled to release the very first annual report for The Biblical Museum of Natural History! It reviews the various goals, activities and accomplishments of the museum in our pilot year, the feedback that we've received, and it also includes some really great photos. You can download it at this link (it's a 6mb PDF). Enjoy!

As mentioned in the previous post, setting up, developing and operating this museum is enormously expensive. On behalf of all our visitors, I would like to ask for people who value our goals to support our cause and participate in our mission. In the report, you can find details about making donations, or you can use your credit card or Paypal account at this link. We also have patron and naming opportunities. Thank you very much for your support!

I look forward to seeing you all at the museum someday. Shabbat shalom!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Some Of My Best Visitors Are Chassidim

As is well known, Beit Shemesh is home to a large number of charedim, including the most extreme branches of chassidim. These are people whose worldview and values are very, very far removed from my own. They are anti-Zionist, anti-science, anti-rationalist, etc., etc.

But they are some of my favorite visitors to The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

It's true that the chassidic visitors present a challenge. We can't show them our short movie about the lion in the Torah, since movies of any kind are unacceptable for them. And the chassidic kids are often very, um, leibedig. I was once watching one of our guides give a tour to some chassidic families; as he put an animal back in its cage and then turned back to the group, one of the kids ran behind him, opened the cage, and took the animal out again!

But on the other hand, it is such a pleasure to watch their reactions to the exhibits. All the guides agree that, as much as everyone loves the museum, there is no other group which appreciates everything as much as the chassidim.

Chassidim are so utterly fascinated by absolutely everything in the museum! Even something as simply as a baby tortoise is a source of endless delight. They want to blow every single shofar in our vast collection. They stare mesmerized into the faces of the taxidermied animals. They want to touch and hold every single egg and skull and hoof. They are thrilled to touch all of our live animals - not only the super-exotic ones, but even common species. And as for the snakes, symbol of evil in the Torah - they can't get enough of them!

The reason for this is very simple - Israeli chassidim have never seen anything like this before. Of course nobody has ever seen anything quite like our museum, but at least other visitors have seen animals before (albeit not as close-up as at the museum), on television or at the zoo. But chassidim haven't. They've never seen National Geographic (unlike the litvishe charedim, who have seen mehadrin versions of National Geographic documentaries on DVDs). And many of them don't go to the zoo in Jerusalem, because it is open on Shabbos. Our museum therefore presents the only opportunity for them to see the amazing world of animals - and the Torah significance of each and every exhibit is an added bonus.

Unfortunately, we really don't get many chassidic visitors. In general, very, very few of our visitors are charedi, and even less are chassidic. With Anglos, this is to some extent the result of the name Natan Slifkin, even though there is absolutely nothing controversial about the museum and I don't even give most of the tours to these groups. But Israelis have never heard of me, so why do hardly any Israeli charedim and chassidim visit?

The sad answer is that they simply can't afford it. While the enormous costs of developing and running the museum are heavily subsidized by private donors, we still have to charge admission. It's not very much - the guided tour costs 40 NIS for adults, 30 NIS for children aged 4-17, and there are discounts for groups. But this is simply beyond the reach of most Israeli charedi and chassidic families. Many of the schools, talmudei Torah and chadarim likewise cannot afford to visit, even though we offer them major discounts. Especially after adding the cost of transportation, if they ever do trips, it is only to places that are free.

Oh well. Those that are able to visit have a wonderful experience, and it's also a wonderful experience for us. While I don't lead the tours for Israeli groups, I usually try to be around - I love watching their faces, and I also enjoy shmoozing with them after the tour. These are people with whom I have so little in common, and with whom I differ very strongly on issues that are extremely important to me, and who wouldn't even look at me if they knew who I am, and yet we can have a really enjoyable conversation about animals and Torah.

During one tour for a local cheder, the rebbe noticed me standing at the back. He figured out that I'm the person who created the museum, and he came over to talk to me. He said, "If you made this place, you must have a really interesting life-story! Perhaps you'd like to share it with our talmidim?" I smiled and politely declined, as I murmured to myself, "Let's not go there!"

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Merits, Not Masechtos

“Should the chareidim serve in [Israel’s] military, or at least serve in some other capacity such as recognized public service commensurate with military service?”

This was the question posed by a journalist to Rabbi Avi Shafran, media liaison for Agudath Israel of America. His reply was that "in the view of chareidim, they are already doing so." As he explains, "a religious Jew sincerely believes that his or her life, based as it is on religious observance, charity and Torah-study, helps ensure the security of Jews."

Rabbi Shafran continues to elaborate how many major world events are shaped not by raw military power, but rather by unexpected events and freak occurrences which mask Divine providence. He concludes: "Divine providence is at work in the world; and spiritual merits, not superior munitions, are what matter in the end."

Superficially, this seems like a solid religious argument. However, on closer inspection, it falls apart.

From a traditional Jewish perspective, it is indeed divine providence that determines the security of the Jewish People. And from a traditional Jewish perspective, such providence is indeed contingent upon spiritual merits. However, Rabbi Shafran's error is to assume that masechtos (Talmudic tractates) equal merits. This is strongly rooted in a non-rationalist worldview, in which Torah study and mitzvos have a mechanistic function of manipulating spiritual energies. Both the rationalist and the classical Jewish perspective, on the other hand, is that merits are solely a result of following God's will as determined by the Torah.

On Tisha B'Av, for example, the proper activity is to mourn for the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, and that is how one accrues merits. It does no good to learn Bava Metzia on Tishah B'Av - that is not what God wants on that day. Likewise, Rav Steinman noted that it is wrong to learn Torah if one's wife needs help. Learning Torah does not automatically accrue merits. It only accrues merits if it is the right thing to do.

The question, then, is not "are the charedim learning Torah, giving charity, and being otherwise religiously observant" - it is "are the charedim doing Hashem's will, as determined by the Torah, in avoiding army service?" And the answer to that is clearly a resounding no.

From a halachic standpoint, as we have explained on many occasions, there is simply no exemption in a milchemes mitzvah for Torah students. There are clear exemptions for a newlywed, or someone with a new house or new vineyard, in the case of a milchemes reshus (but not a milchemes mitzvah), yet no exemption is presented for Torah students.

From a historical standpoint, Torah study was never presented as an optional alternative to military service. When the tribes of Gad and Reuven wanted to stay on the other side of the Jordan, Moses did not tell them that that would be satisfactory if they learn Torah. Not even the tribe of Levi was exempt from army service. There is a Midrash which says that a thousand people from each tribe had the job of praying, but this was praying, not learning, and it was done on the front lines. Likewise, the Netziv says that some Torah scholars were exempt from military service, but he notes that to make up for this, they had to pay higher taxes, perform national service, and pray on the front lines.

From a hashkafic standpoint, the idea that Torah scholars provide some degree of protection has some support, but the idea that the Torah study of a yeshivah student provides equivalent protective service to that of a soldier has no basis. Furthermore, charedim are never interested in discussing the hashkafos of the nature and parameters of the protection that they claim their Torah provides.

Finally, from a realistic standpoint, we have noted that there is no empirical reason to believe that charedi yeshivah students actually have any protective benefits. Furthermore, when push comes to shove, charedim themselves certainly don't act as though they believe that their Torah study is producing tangible protective benefits. When danger threatens, charedi yeshivah students flee, demand IDF protection, or learn to use guns. They never believe that their Torah study provides any practical benefits, either in the realm of security or in the realm of removing the yoke of worldly affairs, other than enabling them to avoid army service.

So please, Rabbi Shafran, save us your spin. As all perceptive observers know, the reason why charedim do not serve in the IDF has nothing to do with an alleged belief that their Torah allegedly provides significant protection. Rather, the reason is that they fear the threat that army service would pose to their way of life. Rabbi Shafran is supposed to be representing the views of the Agudah Moetzes, but the only Moetzes member to discuss this topic, Rav Aharon Feldman, explicitly wrote that the reason charedim avoid army service is because they are afraid of the effect that it would have on their youth. Even Mishpachah magazine recently quoted Rabbi Betzalel Cohen as saying “For years the chareidi establishment stated the reason for not going to the army is because of limud Torah. But the real reason is that they want the boys to remain frum.” This is understandable, but there are also the factors of the halachos of milchemes mitzvah and sharing the burden of national responsibilities. Given their disinterest in those, I doubt that their masechtos earn many merits.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Kosher Certification for Maccabees


Over Shabbos I dusted off my ancient copy of ArtScroll's Chanukah: Its History, Observance and Significance - A Presentation based upon Talmudic and Traditional Sources, written by Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm and published way back in 1981. The subtitle is interesting, because some of the primary sources used are only traditional in the loosest sense of the term. Presumably sensitive to this concern, the preface to the History section includes the following explanation:
...Through an understanding of the history of the period, we can gain a deeper insight into the significance of Chanukah itself. With this goal, we shall approach our historical inquiry into the events of the period.

For information, we are indebted primarily to the books of Maccabees I and II the authors of which lived relatively close to the time of the miracle (in the case of I Maccabees), or drew upon contemporary sources. The authorship of these books is unknown, but they were undoubtedly written by staunchly loyal Jews. Although there is evidence that I Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, both books were available only in Greek and Latin for over 1500 years and came down to us through gentile hands. For this reason, the two books were largely unknown to Jewish chroniclers and commentators until recent times... Despite the fact that the books of Maccabees are not mentioned in virtually any early classic Rabbinic work, we may assume that Jewish scholars would have accepted them, because they are cited by the great commentator to the Mishnah, R' Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosefos Yom Tov, Megillah 3:6), and by the great halachist R' Eliyah Shapiro of Prague in his magnum opus Eliyah Rabbah to Orach Chaim 671:1. I know of only three other relatively early Jewish scholars who had access to Maccabees: R' Azariah min HaAdomim (De Rossi) in his Me'or Einayim (Imrei Binah ch. 16, 25, 25, 51, 55); and the disciple of R' Moshe Isserles, R' David Ganz (in Tzemach David, part I, year 3590). Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that such scholars would not have cited the books of Maccabees unless they were convinced of its reliability.

The reader should bear in mind that the period of Scripture was sealed prior to the events of Chanukah. No later book, even if it were historically accurate and true to the underlying spiritual theme of events it chronicled, could have been canonized. Consequently, the status of Maccabees as an apocryphal work does not, in and of itself, prove that it is not reliable.

In general, I'm not into the genre of "ArtScroll-bashing" - for the most part, ArtScroll is simply catering to the needs, desires and sensitivities of their readership, as well as understandably desiring to avoid trouble. But analyzing ArtScroll does afford an opportunity to understand the dynamics of the Orthodox community (as Dr. Yoel Finkelman has shown), and there are a number of observations to be made with regard to these paragraphs.

First, it's fascinating to see how sources are conferred with the status of "traditional," or its equivalent level of kashrus - something that I also have to do quite often. We are first assured that the authors of Maccabees were "staunchly loyal Jews." Then a justification is given for these works not being cited in classic Rabbinic literature. We are then told that prestigious later rabbinic authorities did make use of these works, and thus must have been convinced of their reliability. This also provides the importance assurance that had Chazal and the Rishonim had access to these works, "we may assume... that they would have accepted them." Finally, we are told that the stigma of being "apocryphal works" does not disqualify them "in and of itself," since they were written too late to be canonized. It's quite an elaborate set of justifications.

Also of interest is the statement that the citation of Maccabees by various Acharonim shows that they were convinced of its reliability (and hence we can also be convinced). What exactly does "reliability" mean in this context? Historical accuracy, or kosherness in Orthodox circles? It's hard to see how the citations by various Acharonim confer the former, so I assume that it means the latter, but I'm not certain.

Then, as I started to read the list of Torah scholars cited as endorsing Maccabees, I was intrigued to see R' Yom Tov Lipmann Heller as the first such authority cited. After all, he also quotes from R' Azariah De Rossi, a scholar whose name is anathema in many Orthodox circles, following the vehement condemnation of De Rossi by Maharal and (reportedly) by R. Yosef Caro. Reading on, I was flabbergasted to see that De Rossi himself is one of these authorities cited to show that Maccabees must be reliable! While it is encouraging to see that he is presented as someone who can be relied upon to show that something is reliable, it does raise some interesting questions. For if a source is "reliable" because it was quoted by R' Azariah, then we can also add a number of others to the list of works that Torah Jews can consider "reliable," including the works of Augustine, the works of Sebastian Munster, and the works of Annius of Viterbo (which are, ironically, completely unreliable).

Finally, if the Books of Maccabees are being quasi-canonized as reliable, traditional works, then what does this mean with regard to the reason for Chanukah lasting eight days? For II Maccabees explains the eight days of Chanukah not in terms of the miracle of the oil, but rather as due to the first Chanukah making up for the eight-day festival of Sukkos not having been celebrated in the Beis HaMikdash that year. And Josephus, who is also mentioned in the ArtScroll Chanukah, had a very surprising explanation as to why Chanukah is called "the festival of lights". This is a problem that has been hotly debated in recent years. For a variety of perspectives, see Rabbi Dr. David Berger's article, the comment thread on this post, R. Josh Waxman's discussion - and if anyone has any other useful links, please submit them.

Now, of course it is to be expected that an ArtScroll work is only going to present the view of the Bavli, that the reason for eight days of Chanukah is due to the miracle of the oil (which is also presented in Megillas Antiochus, of uncertain antiquity). But it is interesting that when presenting that account (on p. 55), it adds that when this happened, "they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days and offered up peace and thanksgiving offerings." Where did this come from?

It seems to me that this is incorporating the view of II Maccabees, that there was a reason for celebrating the initial eight days that had nothing to do with the oil, but rather was due to there having been an initial eight-day festival which Chanukah commemorates. ArtScroll doesn't give Maccabees' reason as to why they celebrated for eight days, but the fact of describing an eight-day celebration in that first year itself implies that there was a reason that was independent of any miracle involving the oil. (I don't think that quoting this reason is necessarily undermining the reason given by the Gemara; after all, Megillas Taanis also gives two reasons for the eight days.)

Note that much later in the work on p. 95, when discussing the famous question of the Beis Yosef regarding why we have eight days of Chanukah rather than seven, it quotes Megillas Taanis (in the scholia - later additions) that there was an eight-day rededication celebration, and then cites Birkei Yosef as saying that the extra day that we celebrate commemorates this rededication. But Birkei Yosef did not quote Megillas Taanis as saying that there was an eight-day rededication celebration, and with good reason: because it does not say any such thing! As well as describing the miracle of the oil, Megillas Taanis says that it took eight days to repair the vessels of the Beis HaMikdash - not that there were eight days of celebrating its rededication. (Furthermore, Birkei Yosef does not give this as a reason for an eighth day, supplemental to celebrating seven over the miracle of the oil, but rather he says that the eight days of repair are the reason for all eight days of the current festival, and that the question of the Beis Yosef is therefore redundant!) It therefore seems to me that on p. 95, ArtScroll has subconsciously replaced the view of Megillas Taanis with the view of II Maccabees.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Missing Chanukah

(A repost from a few years ago)

Some people miss Chanukah when it's over.

Some people miss Chanukah when it's happening.

Story number one: I was at the printing house last week, arranging to print 2000 copies of my sample chapter about leopards from the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. I told the (secular Israeli) woman in charge of the printing schedule that I wanted it out in time for Chanukah, because the subject matter is related to Chanukah.

"What do leopards have to do with Chanukah?" she asked.

It was a very reasonable question. I explained that in Scripture, Daniel has a prophetic vision in which he sees various animals which represent different kingdoms, and the leopard represents Greece.

"But what does Greece have to do with Chanukah? she asked.

Story number two: I heard a dvar Torah which, as a launch point, discussed the halachah that if the candles on the menorah blow out, you need not rekindle them. The speaker went on to describe how the message of Chanukah is that everything is in Hashem's hands, about how the Greek army was defeated entirely by way of supernatural miracles, and about how the ultimate message of Chanukah is that Torah and mitzvos is all that counts, and hishtadlus is entirely irrelevant, and basically pointless and unnecessary.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gedolei Yisroel Insist On Economic Ruin For Charedim, All Israel

A conference was held yesterday in Bnei Brak for the principals of charedi girls' schools, in the presence of Gedolei Yisroel from both Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah. The conference was dedicated to "The Dangers of Academic Institutions for Women." It was emphasized that "Bnos Yisrael should not get a matriculation diploma (bagrut) or engage in studies preparing them for higher learning without exception and one must not take the tests independently. All studies and continuing education seminars attended by the girls and teachers in Beis Yaakov must be exclusively in the framework of Beis Yaakov and no other institution and it goes without saying a woman should not seek an academic diploma."

One of the speakers quoted Rav Steinman as saying that "it is better to steal money than for a women to attend college." In light of this Daas Torah, perhaps the twenty charedi school principals and businessmen who were recently arrested for being part of a fraud ring can be viewed more positively - at least they weren't getting their money as a result of a college education. (And, of course, they were demonstrating the truth of Chazal's statement that one who does not teach his child a career has taught his child to steal.)

Also at the conference, the Gedolim warned of the dangers of the relatively high salaries that academic qualifications can bring. A member of the Council of Torah Sages, Rav Dovid Cohen, observed that it can cause problems in a marriage if the husband is just a kollel student, bringing home virtually no money, whereas the wife has a professional career and brings home a good salary. His solution is for her to also lack a professional career and to bring home virtually no money.

In related news, the charedi political parties recently managed to overturn all the changes introduced by the previous government. And in other related news, Bank of Israel governor Dr. Karnit Flug warned of economic disaster for Israel if charedim, who number a third of all first-grade students, do not enter the professional workforce.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Innovations in Orthodoxy

The controversy over Open Orthodoxy is something that I have been studiously avoiding discussing, for three reasons. First of all, there already seem to be enough people making all the points that need to made. Second, the limited amount of things that I have to say on the topic would anger people on both sides. Third, the truth is that it does not particularly interest me.

However, I came across something today which made realize that there really is a serious and dangerous innovation here, which some are trying to pass off as "traditional," and which needs to be refuted. I am referring to the innovation of Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, one of the leading activists against Open Orthodoxy. He penned the following lines in an op-ed in The Times of Israel:
...Cutting to the core of the issue, the defining feature of Orthodoxy is submission to Chachmei Ha-Mesorah and Gedolei Ha-Dor — the generation’s top-tier, preeminent rabbinic authorities — and perpetuating their approach to Torah (emphasis his), be they names such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Aharon Kotler or Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik.
This is not the defining feature of Orthodoxy. In fact, it's not a feature of Orthodoxy at all.

Whether you want to use the term Orthodoxy in its popular sense of "traditional rabbinic Judaism," or in its academic sense of "the approach to traditional rabbinic Judaism that was innovated in the nineteenth century as a response to emancipation and Reform," there has never been a requirement of "submission to Chachmei Ha-Mesorah and Gedolei Ha-Dor."

Who even decides who makes the cut for such a list, anyway? The original Misnagdim didn't recognize the original Chassidim as being on that list. The charedi Gedolei Ha-Dor don't include Religious Zionist and Torah u-Madda Gedolim on that list.

There are innumerable streams of religious Judaism who have no concern with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik, or anyone else who would appear on Rabbi Gordimer's list. There are countless streams of Chassidim who couldn't care less about submission to such people. Some of them have their own leaders who could be described as Gedolei HaDor, but others do not. There is Chabad, including its large messianic branch. There is Breslav, including the unusual Na-nach branch. There are the followers of Rav David Bar-Chayim. None of these people care about submission to some Rabbi-Gordimer approved list of Gedolim. Is Rabbi Gordimer therefore going to start writing all of these people out of Orthodoxy? If so, then there are bigger things to worry about than a handful of Open Orthodox Jews.

To be sure, every group has its own treasured beliefs and norms, and those who undermine those treasured beliefs and norms will justifiably not be welcomed in that group. For example, Rabbi Gordimer, who probably espouses some form of Zionism, would not be welcomed in the charedi community (except insofar as he bashes the Open Orthodox). On a broader scale, characteristics of the Orthodox community in general include the acceptance of the divinity of the Torah, allegiance to the halachic community, and so on. But "submission to Chachmei Ha-Mesorah and Gedolei Ha-Dor" is simply not a feature of any form of Orthodoxy outside of charedi Judaism, itself an innovation.

It is quite ironic that in his efforts to preserve traditional Judaism against innovation, Rabbi Gordimer has innovated an entirely new feature of Judaism!

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A rabbinic colleague of mine recently purchased a Hebrew illustrated children's haggadah, Me-Avdut LeCherut , published by Yefeh Nof, ...