Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Legacy of Rav Elyashiv

It's hard to imagine a greater chilul Hashem than this. A former Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel is going to prison. For massive bribery and corruption. The classic antisemitic trope of the cheating, money-grabbing Jew is being displayed to the world in the person who holds the office that represents Judaism.

In case you haven't seen the news yet, Rabbi Yona Metzger, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 2003 to 2013, is accepting a prison term rather than going to trial. This is for pocketing about two million dollars in bribes and from funds that he was supposed to transfer to charity.
breach of trust, money laundering and tax evasion
breach of trust, money laundering and tax evasion
breach of trust, money laundering and tax evasion

While the responsibility for the crimes is Rabbi Metzger's alone, the responsibility for the chilul Hashem lies with others. Because long before the revelations of these particular crimes came to light - indeed, before Rabbi Metzger was appointed to the position of Chief Rabbi - there were numerous allegations of severe improprieties. In 1998, when Rabbi Metzger was about to be nominated as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, a number of allegations surfaced against him, including fraud, sexual harassment, forged signatures on wedding contracts, and threatening other rabbis. Rabbi Metzger's certification to serve as chief rabbi of a large city was suspended, and a disciplinary hearing was established, presided over by Rav Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Rav She'ar Yashuv Cohen and Rav Simcha Kook. In the end, an agreement was reached whereby the inquiry would not be completed if Metzger would agree not to accept the role of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.

And so when Rabbi Metzger later accepted the appointment as Chief Rabbi of the entire country, Rav Bakshi-Doron was furious. As he wrote to the Chief Rabbinic Council, "It never occurred to me this rabbi [Metzger] would have the chutzpah to stand for chief rabbi of Israel after promising not to contest Tel Aviv's rabbinate."

How did it happen that a rabbi under such a cloud was able to secure such a position? After all, it's not as though there were no alternatives. Thank God, there is no shortage of wonderful rabbis in Israel. In particular, there was an outstanding candidate for the role, Rav Yaakov Ariel. So how on earth did the position get awarded to Rabbi Metzger?

The answer is Rav Elyashiv. Rav Elyashiv and his court (which included Rabbi Yosef Efrati and Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein) pushed for the appointment, and they were powerful enough to get it. They wanted it because despite Rabbi Metzger's national-religious background, he had become more charedi and promised allegiance to Rav Elyashiv's rulings, such as with regard to invalidating the heter mechira. (See the excellent article by Rabbi Shaya Karlinksy, The Price of Halachic Power.) And they knew full well about the allegations, as the Jerusalem Post reported:
"Asked Saturday night if he had made known his suspicions against Metzger to Rabbi Shalom Eliashiv, the head of the non-Hassidic Ashkenazi haredi world, whose directives to support Metzger gained him his upset victory, Bakshi-Doron replied that he had sent important rabbinical messengers, including the son of the late sage Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, to tell Eliashiv "who was Metzger." Eliashiv is said to have replied to one of the messengers, Rehovot Chief Rabbi Simcha Kook, "Af al pi chen [nevertheless, Metzger should be supported]." ...Ma'alot Dafna Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, a close aid of Eliashiv, noted that "nothing has been substantiated, nothing proven. Halacha [Jewish law] holds by the concept of innocent until proven guilty. Things have to be proven in a proper way, otherwise we don't believe anything."
Rav Elyashiv and Rabbi Tropper

Alas, this was not the only time that Rav Elyashiv's court empowered a person known to be corrupt who ended up causing a massive chillul Hashem. There was also Rabbi Leib Tropper, who was empowered by Rav Elyashiv's court and many other charedi Gedolim as the most important person in the field of conversion, despite decades of allegations of improprieties. My own very limited knowledge of Tropper made me immediately realize that he was a deeply problematic person, and I publicly asked why he was being given such power. A few weeks later, video and audio recordings eventually surfaced that displayed Tropper committing unspeakable acts, which finally caused him to lose his position - though Rav Elyashiv's grandson still honored him by speaking at an event of his several months later. (And then there was the time that several of the Gedolim signed a letter attesting to the righteousness of the monster Elior Chen, which Rav Chaim Kanievsky justified to my neighbor by saying that he signed because his rabbis signed.)

I think that most people would agree that when a rabbi with an extremely shady reputation is put into a position of great power, at least some of the responsibility for any resultant chilul Hashem lies with those who put them into the position of power - in this case, the chareidi Gedolim system. The question is, how many times does this have to happen before responsibility should also be placed with those who profess allegiance to the chareidi Gedolim system and thereby empower it?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Spread of the Spectacular Sufganiya Segulah

A few days ago, I published a post, The Spectacular Sufganiya Segulah, which discussed a segulah for parnasa, publicized by Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi and allegedly from Rambam's father, about cooking sufganiyot in oil. As I showed, even if the source text (found in Serid U'Palit) really was from Rambam's father, it says no such thing. All it says is that there is a custom of frying foods in oil as a remembrance of the Chanuka miracle.

It turns out that it is not only Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi spreading this message. Google turned up lots of people saying the same thing. Someone sent me a sheet that was sent home from a rebbe in a Talmud Torah (at right). It includes the same fabricated segula that it claims to be from Rambam's father. But this time it's even more disturbing. There are quotation marks placed around this completely fabricated text, as though it is actually Rambam's father's words. Even more bizarrely, it is followed by a claim that the same is to be found in Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's work Halichos Shlomo. Yet as you can see in the relevant page of Halichos Shlomo (displayed below), no such statement is to be found. There is absolutely no mention of segulah, parnasah, or anything like that.

What is going on here? Someone sent me a link to another sefer claiming that this segulah is to be found in Halichos Shlomo and in the writing of Rambam's father, but this one gave a source for the latter: Responsa Yaavetz 1:2. I then found Rabbanit Mizrachi's formal discussion of this segulah, which gave the same source. The problem is that there is no such discussion in Responsa Yaavetz 1:2!

So what is going on? The reference to Yaavetz 1:2 is presumably a mistake, and the intention is to refer to Tashbetz 1:2, which is referenced in Serid HaPalit as making mention of Rambam's father's writings. However, Tashbetz makes no mention at all of sufganiyot or segulos.

And what about the claims that Rambam's father and Rav Shlomo Zalman describe frying sufganiyot as being a segulah? These appear to be fabricated out of thin air. But where and how did they start? If anyone has any insights on this, please share!

I don't know which is more disturbing - the sheer irrationality of believing that you should fry sufganiyot as a segulah for parnasah, or the widespread relaying of an alleged source that appears to be entirely fabricated!

(Thanks to Rabbi Scott Kahn for his contributions to this post. Check out his fabulous new website,!)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The War on Charedi High Schools

Last week, in Pigs In Shtreimels, I reported on the war by the charedi gedolim against the new charedi college programs for girls. But there is another war that in some ways is even more disturbing - that against charedi high schools for boys. The latest front of this battle is in my home town of Ramat Beit Shemesh (as recently reported in Kikar Shabbos and Life In Israel).

A few years ago, the charedi gedolim - Rav Elyashiv, Rav Steinman - came out against a charedi high school that opened in Ramat Beit Shemesh (see pashkevil at right). The school was eventually forced to move out of the city. It was around this time that Rav Steinman visited Ramat Beit Shemesh and said that there is no correlation between secular education and parnasah.

Now, there is a new pashkevil circulating. It is not signed by top-tier gedolim, only by local Beit Shemesh Israeli charedi rabbonim who are very much on the extreme right end of the spectrum. This one targets Mesivta Beit Shemesh and Meorot, which are charedi high schools offering full secular education and bagruyot. But it also mentions Arzei Levanon, which is a yeshiva ketana rather than a high school, and which follows the directives of the gedolim in not offering bagruyot in the framework of the yeshiva, but which offers electives in carpentry, math, karate, music, English, and so on. It should be noted that Arzei Levanon is specifically backed by charedi rabbonim who oppose high schools, but this does not suffice for the chareidi rabbonim at the even more extreme end of the spectrum.

Most disturbing of all, however, (and for a variety of reasons,) is a letter from Rav Chaim Malinowitz that appeared in last week's Mishpachah magazine, in response to an article in the previous week's edition that praised Mesivta Beit Shemesh. It stated as follows:
Yes, it is an unavoidable reality in chinuch that boys who have particular, specialized needs must have those needs addressed. And these may in fact include a secular studies program in a boys' high school. Yet most of the mainstream chareidi Anglo rabbanim in RBS, of which I am one, remain opposed to creating such schools for the general public as a typical, standard option. It is against the wishes and guidance of our gedolim in Eretz Yisrael, and we are their faithful representatives. And indeed, the majority follow that guidance.
Sure, many parents making aliyah find it hard to wrap their heads around their son not even getting a high school diploma during his teenage years (gasp!). But having personally researched the matter extensively, I assure them that opportunities abound for eventual "catch-up" and beyond. One who decides at some later point to enter the workforce can find numerous and varied programs geared to their specific desires and aptitudes. I am willing to share this research with anyone desiring information.
With regard to the claim made in the second paragraph, that everyone is able to "catch-up" later, the following comment posted at Life In Israel points out that this is not at all the case:
Rav Malinowitz wrote that he did a lot of research into options for boys who decide to study something later on. He claimed that it's no big deal to "catch up" without doing Bagruyot in high school. Here are links to some of my (contradictory) research:
There is loads more (see - N.S.). For those who don't want to slog through it all, the main point is that while there are many programs out there, the number of men who start and don't make it through the mechina programs, plus those who don't make it through the course programs comes to around a 70% failure rate- as documented by the programs themselves. On top of that, there are thousands of others who don't even try to start a program because they know that they won't succeed due to various life circumstances. To try to convince people to send to yeshiva ketana by telling them it's not a problem AT ALL to "just do it later on" is more than just misleading- especially since all the above evidence to the contrary is very well known to anyone who cares to look.
Twelve years ago, many people in the Anglo charedi community in the US suddenly realized that due to the charedi rabbinic approach to science and rationalism, the charedi world was really not the place for them. Now, many people in the Anglo charedi community in Ramat Beit Shemesh are waking up to the same thing, due to the attitude of the local Anglo charedi rabbonim to secular education. For most of these people, however, it is too late, since they are already embedded in the system.

I am eternally grateful to the charedi gedolim for waking me up to this twelve years ago, which led to my wife and I putting our children in the non-charedi educational system, of which there are an abundance of wonderful schools in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Although our youngest, who just turned four, is still struggling with being in a Hebrew-speaking gan. The other day, he said to me, "Who is Auntie Ochus? Who is she?"

(Sign up for your Chanuka tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History at this link.)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Spectacular Sufganiya Segula

Today I received an email of segulos for Chanukah, in the name of the very popular Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi (no connection to Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi), from an extremely nice person who unfortunately does not realize that many people are genuinely religiously offended by this sort of thing.

In the long list of segulos were some things that are very valuable. For example:
Mothers should not say to their kids, during Chanukah or at all, "I am tired" or anything in correlation to 'I am tired... not now'. This makes a child feel like they are not important and a burden to their parents and is very hurtful to them and so even if you are tired, and who is not... don't tell them this.
That is very nice advice. Of course, it's not a segulah.

There were other things in the list that are segulos and which, from the perspective of a Maimonidean rationalist, certainly lack any validity:
For all of those who are single or know of someone who wishes to marry, here is one for you: on the Shabbos of Chanukah, you must first light the Chanukah candles and then the Shabbos candles. After both are lit, glance at them both and ask for a zivug, your marriage partner. 
Use olive oil, but not just the regular kind, the best one: the one you would use to dress your salad and cook with. And the reasons are that you'll merit:
• Children that have a great memory, consuming olive oil helps you retain your memory
• Children who are wise/smart, as oil rises above water
• Children who have great eyesight, they will be able to see things with a clearer perception.
And then there was this one, which really made my hair stand on end: 
The Father of the holy RamBam, zt"l, had said that one should not belittle the power of frying soufganiot in oil. Use plenty of oil, don't be skimpy, it is a segula for parnassa. But unless you want to make the local baker wealthy, you must fry them yourself and eat them as well. Better to be rich and fat, I guess, than skinny and poor.... you choose... Anyway, it's the utmost importance that you make them, you fry them and then you say the bracha of "על המחיה" at the end, which mentions the מזבח which is of course of most relevance during Chanukah. 
Why did this bother me so much? Firstly, fried food is positively unhealthy. (In fact, UTJ health minister Yaakov Litzman recently called for people to decrease their consumption of donuts.) Second, it seemed highly unlikely that Rambam's father could have said such a thing, since it goes completely against Rambam's worldview. Third, it was incredibly silly, and yet it was described as being "of the utmost importance"!

So I looked into it, and, much to my complete lack of surprise, it turns out that Rambam's father said no such thing.

Here is the source, first found in a Moroccan manuscript written in 1780:

אין להקל בשום מנהג ואפילו מנהג קל. ויתחייב כל נכון לו עשות משתה ושמחה ומעשים לפרסם הנס שעשה השם יתברך עמנו באותם הימים. ופשט המנהג לעשות סופגנין הנקראים בערבי אלספינ"ג והם הצפיחית בדבש ובתרגום האיסקריטין. והוא מנהג הקדמונים משום שהם קלוים בשמן זכר לברכתו. 

Let us assume that the attribution is correct (though it is difficult to rely on a claim in 1780 regarding something allegedly written 700 years earlier). Rambam's father is indeed saying that it is important to have fried foods. However, he is not remotely saying that it has any "power," and certainly not that it is a segulah for parnasah. Instead, he says that it is important because it serves as a remembrance to the miracle. It's as simple as that.

In the past, I have written about how I am fairly tolerant of superstitions - one person's segulah is another person's fundamental religious belief. How much more inherently irrational are segulos than, say, tefillas haderech (which I am extremely makpid about)? Furthermore, they can be psychologically helpful.

However, I am gradually becoming less and less sympathetic to them. First of all, I have seen how major organizations capitalize on segulos in order to take advantage of people. Second, the entire anti-scientific mindset is clearly very harmful - just look at the measles outbreak, which seems to be caused by the anti-scientific anti-vaccination movement.

It's a pity that people can't make use of more traditional segulos. I would like to once again share the following list of segulos, sourced in Chazal and the Rishonim, and compiled by my late neighbor Rabbi Dovid Landesman ztz"l:

1. Segulah for recovery from illness – go to a doctor [Berachot 60a, Bava Kamma 46b)
2. Segulah for longevity – lead a healthy lifestyle (Rambam, De’ot 4:20)
3. Segulah for marriage – look for a suitable wife (Kiddushin 2b)
4. Segulah for shalom bayit – love and forbearance (Sanhedrin 7a, Bava Metzia 59a)
5. Segulah for children – prayer to Hashem (Shmuel I 1)
6. Segulah for yir’at Shamayim – learning (Avot 2:5)
7. Segulah for spirituality – learning and mitzvah observance (Megillah 6b)
8. Segulah for kavanna in prayer – take it seriously (Berachot 5:1)
9. Segulah for parnasa – learn a profession (Kiddushin 30a)
10. Segulah for pure faith – don’t believe in segulot (Devarim 18:13)

(On another note - tours on Chanukah of The Biblical Museum of Natural History are filling up, so if you'd like to come, book now!)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Holy Men with Magic Chickens

In the previous post, Pigs In Shtreimels, I reported about the Gedolim's rally for Beis Yaakov girls to dissuade them from attending charedi colleges. Several of the speakers assured the girls that by not going to college, they would be blessed with parnasah, whereas by going to college, they would not receive blessing. Rav Steinman described charedi colleges as being comparable to pigs in shtreimels; I wonder what the appropriate metaphor is for a rabbinic leader who makes false promises about parnasah? My good friend Rabbi David Bar-Cohn posted the following at Truth And Peace:
A person comes to seek the counsel of an esteemed rabbinic leader:
"Rabbi, a holy man in our community has been selling chickens. They seem to be much scrawnier than regular chickens, but the holy man says that they are special. He guarantees that if you buy one of his chickens, it will lay enough eggs to feed your entire household. He also says that it will only work if you do not purchase any other food, because that shows a lack of faith. In fact, he warns that if you do purchase other food, or worse, if you don't buy one of his chickens, your family will be be condemned to poverty.
"People are buying these scrawny chickens in droves. Some because they believe the holy man's promise. Others out of fear, because they don't want to be ostracized by their friends, neighbors, and community if they are seen bringing additional food into their homes. This man also targets children, indoctrinating them to believe that they must buy these chickens or face ruin in their future lives.
"And the chickens? It appears that they're just scrawny chickens. The people who bought them found that they lay no more than 1 to 2 eggs a day, not nearly enough to feed a household. Children regularly go to bed hungry. Many are thin and malnourished. Families are suffering. Rabbi, what are we to do?"

Shocked and incensed, the Rabbi answers:
"This is insanity, a travesty! When a person is brought to heavenly judgment, the first question they ask him is: Did you deal faithfully and honestly with people? Were you trustworthy in your business dealings? By making such empty guarantees, and convincing a whole community to buy into it, indeed scaring them to buy into it, this man is guilty of grave transgressions! He owes every one of these families every cent of what he guaranteed and failed to deliver, five times over. Of course he can't possibly pay them all back. Nor can he compensate them for their great suffering. Who is this 'holy man'?"

"Rabbi," says the visitor, "that man is you! The single chicken per household is your promise of adequate parnasah from a single earner, a woman and mother with nothing more than a Beis Yaakov education, which you've warned us not to supplement. You've told the men not to depart from their learning, and even the women you've forbidden from obtaining an education that would enable them to bring in enough money to support the family. You guaranteed us great abundance, and yet many of us can scarcely put food on the table, must rely on tzedakah to live. Some accept their poverty as a badge of faith. But many are scared to do anything different, not wanting to be seen as lesser in the eyes of their neighbors, or their own children, who they're also worried about marrying off. Others have lived this way their whole lives and simply lack the skills and wherewithal to do anything different. Rabbi, you made this guarantee to us, and now I come to you on behalf of the community to ask you to cover that guarantee. Please, pay us the money you've promised we would have. And one more thing. I beg you, please stop selling us these chickens."
Holy men with magic chickens? I'd rather have pigs in shtreimels.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Pigs In Shtreimels

Earlier today there was a gigantic rally at the Jerusalem Arena against "pigs in shtreimels."

The event, under the auspices of the charedi Gedolei Torah, was for Beis Yaakov girls. The purpose was to dissuade them from attending any of the numerous academic higher education programs for charedim that have sprung up in recent years, such as Machon Tal, Adina Bar-Shalom's Charedi College of Jerusalem (soon closing due to lack of enrollment), Strauss Campus Afikei Lomda, Mivchar, and so on. (There is currently a furor raging over funding of 200,000 shekels for this event that was promised from the Jerusalem Municipality.)

Adina Bar Shalom (a pig in a shtreimel?) with her father
Rav Baruch Shapira introduced the program by relating a conversation that he had with Rav Steinman about the event. Rav Steinman said, "Charedi academic programs?! It's like a pig in a shtreimel!"

(Note that Rav Steinman spoke down the road from my home a few years ago, and stated that there is no relationship between secular education and income.)

Rav Chaim Kanievsky sent a message: that he blesses anyone who studies only in Beis Yaakov and not in an academic program, that they will have easy and abundant parnasah.

Rav Gershon Edelstein stressed that parnasah is entirely in the hands of Heaven and is determined on Rosh HaShanah by one's spiritual merits. Accordingly, he said, those girls who go to Beis Yaakov will receive parnasah, good shidduchim, and everything else that they need, whereas girls who leave that framework will not be successful at this. (One cannot help but wonder how he could say something that is so clearly factually incorrect; indeed, if it was true that Beis Yaakov graduates make a parnasah and those who go to college do not, then there would be no need for such a rally in the first place!)

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (author of the popular Veha'arev Na/ What If series) gave a Torah insight: Why did Rachel Imeinu sit on Lavan's idols rather than burn them? He explained that the point was to disparage them, to show that the "wisdom of other nations" has nothing to offer us. (See this post from Rabbi Josh Waxman about Rav Zilberstein's position that Jews and non-Jews have different numbers of teeth.) We must teach our daughters, he said, that a Jewish home that is clean of any hint of foreign wisdom, and teaches only Torah, will never be harmed.

Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch of Slabodka Yeshivah delivered a much more honest presentation. He stated frankly that modern charedi society puts people in a difficult position - the women do not earn enough of a salary to support the family and the husband is in kollel. He noted that there is talk of funding coming from wealthy donors in America, but admitted that there is no good solution. However, he said, the reason why it is nevertheless forbidden to attend academic program is because of the deleterious effect that this has on one's spiritual life.

There is no question that Rabbi Hirsch is correct. Once a person steps out of the daled amos of the yeshivah or Beis Yaakov, they are exposed to all kinds of influences and ideas that run contrary to charedi and Torah values. I don't understand how there are people that deny this.

On the other hand, im ein kemach, ein Torah. We have to earn money, work, and build up society. If charedim are going to radically diverge from tradition by sending everyone to kollel, then the women have to shoulder the workload of both partners (while also giving birth and raising children). And it's just not possible for charedi society to accomplish that if everyone only attends Beis Yaakov. As Rabbi Hirsch acknowledged, what Rav Edelstein said is just not true.

Rabbi Hirsch said that the spiritual price is too great to pay, and charedim must consign themselves to ever-worsening economic ruin. Others will disagree with that judgment. There's always risks and dangers in life. It's dangerous to fight in a war, but we still need soldiers. And it's dangerous to go to college, but we still need to provide for our families and build up society.

These are difficult decisions for young women to make. They are certainly unlikely to choose academic programs when the people that they are told to revere as Gedolei Yisroel tell them that if they do so, they will not attain parnasah or good shidduchim. I am always amazed at how people who would very much want their children to obtain academic qualifications nevertheless send their children to institutions which teach them to revere the Charedi leadership as their Gedolim. And then they are surprised and dismayed when their children and grandchildren don't get an academic education and can't support themselves!

(See too this post: "Gedolei Yisroel Insist On Economic Ruin For Charedim, All Israel")

Monday, December 19, 2016

Leopard Season

Chanukah is fast approaching - leopard season! Here's a taster for our new movie about the leopard in the Torah and its connection to Chanukah, now playing at The Biblical Museum of Natural History! You can sign up for your tour at Chanukah tours fill up fast, so book soon! You can also order The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom on our website, which features a fascinating in-depth discussion of the leopard and Chanukah - and get free delivery in the US and Israel!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Testing Poe's Law

The story so far: Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, who brags about being called "the Moshe Rabeinu of this generation," has for many years given lectures with hateful teachings. Sixteen rabbis, representing a fairly broad spectrum, who have reputations for being outstanding people and responsible leaders, condemned his approach as simplistic, misleading, arrogant, creating chillul Hashem, and being objectionable and dangerous. Rabbi Mizrachi responded with a video, posted on his Facebook page, in which he did not attempt to defend himself against a single one of those charges. Instead, he described his critics as "very evil" "ignorant" rabbis who are "resha'im" and who have never been mekarev anyone (!) and who are "jealous" of his kiruv system which is "the most successful kiruv system in the world, perhaps in history"(!!). He adds that "We did research on each one of them, unfortunately they have a lot of problems, each one of them." 

A friend of mine, Rabbi Scott Kahn, posted the following comments on Rabbi Mizrachi's response, but they were soon deleted:
How DARE you speak motzi shem ra against these rabbis, saying things like, "We did research on each one of them, unfortunately they have a lot of problems, each one of them." I know some of them, and can testify about those whom I know that they are wonderful people who are moser nefesh for Klal Yisrael. Even if you are right - and you decidedly are not - how can you say such things even if you disagree? How can you speak so negatively about people who disagree with you? How dare you do such a terrible thing? Have you ever thought about the possibility that perhaps some of their criticisms are not ignorant? And that even if you disagree with those criticisms, these rabbis are trying to do the right thing? And unless you are 100% sure that they are evil people, how can you call them reshaim? I know some of them; they are not reshaim, to say the least. Not everyone who disagrees with your approach, and who thinks that your approach is dangerous, is a wicked person. Motzi shem ra is one of the most serious prohibitions in the Torah; I suggest that your choir of supporters think about this before running to your defense.

Yesterday I took on an immense challenge. I attempted to persuade a follower of Rabbi Mizrachi that it was severely inappropriate to endorse and spread his response, which does not defend his approach and instead slanders these sixteen rabbis in the most appalling way. (The only reason I even tried to do this is that I slightly know this follower, and my impression is that he is an intelligent, sensitive person. Furthermore, I was fairly sure that this person knows, or knows of, some of the 16, and would surely realize that they are not very evil resha'im who have never been mekarev anyone!)

Unfortunately, I got absolutely nowhere. The person insisted that it's basic Torah hashkafah to say that sins get punished (which in this person's mind seemed to translate to saying that secular Jewish women acted without concern for their modesty at the gas chambers during the Holocaust, that IDF soldiers who are mechallel Shabbat have no share in the world to come, that children who are born with blindness are being punished for watching pornography in previous lives, and that people contract cancer as a result of sexual licentiousness and dirty thoughts). The person believed that there is no basis for saying otherwise, and thus, the rabbis who criticized Rabbi Mizrachi are indeed very evil resha'im. The most that I could get this person to concede was that Rabbi Mizrachi's claim that these 16 rabbis have never done any kiruv "might be an exaggeration."

Afterwards, a thought struck me. If it's impossible to get them to listen to reason, is there any other way to get them to see the absurdity of their position? Is there any hope of demonstrating to them that Rabbi Mizrachi is supremely arrogant? Is there any way for them to see the hypocrisy of criticizing these rabbis for the terrible sin of criticizing a rabbi who criticizes rabbis?

Perhaps it is possible to go in the other direction - to express support for Rabbi Mizrachi so strongly, that they see its absurdity? I posted the following comment on the Facebook page of another of his supporters who had shared Rabbi Mizrachi's response:
It's terrible, Rabbi Mizrachi has made more baalei teshuva than anyone else in history, he is greater than Moshe Rabeinu. Then all these evil reshaim rabbis are trying to murder him! Why is he suffering so much? It must be a Tikun for all his averot in his previous gilgul.
That succeeded in getting a "Like" from the person who had posted it!

I've been banned from posting on Rabbi Mizrachi's own page, along with others who have written critical comment. But someone submitted the following:
Rabbi Mizrachi is an amazing Holy Rabbi! He has made over 500,000 baalei seshuva. He is like Moshe Rabbeinu! It is the BIGGEST SIN to speak out against a Rabbi. The 16 "rabbis" who criticized him are going to burn in fiery depths of the worst Gehinnim forever and ever. They will suffer excruciating agonies of the body and soul, burning endlessly in the Fires of Hell. These rabbis are the most evil reshaim. How dare anyone criticize a rabbi!
This comment, which was submitted sarcastically, is still standing!

There is an Internet adage called "Poe's law." It states that, without a clear indicator of the author's intent, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalist views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers or viewers as a sincere expression of the parodied views. I think that it would be an interesting experiment to see how far this can be pushed. Are Rabbi Mizrachi's followers so blindly besotted with him that they will tolerate and believe any lie, heresy or slander in his support? Try it yourself at this link!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Theodicy and Idiocy

In the previous post, I discussed the hexadecarabbinical condemnation of Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi (who is responding by portraying himself as a martyr being "murdered" by "very evil" "ignorant" "jealous" rabbis who are "resha'im" and the "tools of Satan"). In this post, I would like to discuss one particular interesting question that has been raised. This is with regard to Rabbi Mizrachi's statements about theodicy: that people get cancer due to mixed dancing, that the tragedies of the Sassoon children and  children being born blind or with Downs syndrome are punishment for their having watched pornography or other sins in their previous lives, or due to women wearing sheitels of the wrong length, and other such claims. (Let us ignore for now the fact that the notion of transmigration of souls is not a feature of classical Judaism and was opposed by several Geonim and Rishonim when it was first imported from other religions; for the purposes of this discussion, let us work within the framework of those who accept it as part of Jewish belief.)

Several people have argued that Rabbi Mizrachi is surely no innovator in this regard (and he himself claims that what he said is "in every Gemara"). Consider the words of Prof. Haym Soloveitchik in his seminal essay Rupture and Reconstruction:
Rabbi Isaac Peretz, a Sefaredi haredi and Israeli minister of interior, stated that the seventeen children and five adults killed when a train ran over their school bus died because of the recent public desecration of Sabbath in Petah Tikvah. These remarks caused a furor in the general community... Rabbi Peretz's remarks simply expressed the classic religious explanation of linking misfortune with guilt (pishpush be ma'asim), which would have been uttered by any preacher of the past millennium. Indeed, R. Nissim Yagen, the Sefaredi preacher, brought further proof of the causal link, as would have preachers of the past by pointing out a number of correlations: first, that the number of the dead totaled twenty two, which was also the date of the public opening of the movie theaters in Petah Tikvah (22 Sivan); second, the sum total of the dead and wounded amounted to thirty nine, which corresponds to the number of types of work forbidden on the Sabbath (lamed-tet avot melakhot). As noted above, the Sefaredic world has encountered modernity only recently, and in many ways, as in the palpable sense of the rewards and terrors of the afterlife and of God's immediate involvement in human affairs, remains far closer to the religious sensibilities of their fathers than does the more unconsciously acculturated members of the Ashkenazic community.
Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef made similarly shocking statements about the victims of the Holocaust, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and so on, and you don't see a hexadecarabbinical (HDR) condemnation of him. Going a little further back, there is no shortage of prestigious rabbis blaming the Holocaust on various sins, be it Zionism or assimilation. Even further back, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (the Tosafos Yom Tov) attributed the horrific Chmielnicki massacres to people talking in shul. And in the Gemara itself we find the Churban blamed on various sins. Surely, then, Rabbi Mizrachi is following in Torah tradition?

There is a lot to be said in response to this, and not all of it is pretty. Nor is this quite the right forum to do justice to such a complicated topic. However, let me at least sketch some basic points.

First of all, it is clear that nobody knows why things happen. Unless you receive a Divine prophecy from God Himself, there is simply no way to ever ultimately know why things happen. And rabbinic sages are not prophets. Note that even Chazal do not give a single definitive statement as to why the Churban happened; several different views are stated. Whatever insight Chazal had, it was not prophetic, and thus there could be no definitive, unequivocal explanation. In fact, the most traditional response to suffering is to simply confess ignorance. We have an entire book of Tanach on this topic: the Book of Iyov. And God's response to Iyov's suffering, to his having lost his children, is not to explain that his children watched pornography in a previous life. Rather, it is that Iyov, as a mortal, cannot expect to understand God's ways. Likewise, Chazal tell us how Moshe Rabbeinu posed the ultimate question of why bad things happen to good people, and he wasn't told that it was because there were women wearing long sheitels. Yet here comes Rabbi Mizrachi and claims that it's all so simple! That is not the traditional Torah approach.

Second, and this is the most crucial point, even if one's views regarding theodicy are correct, it can still be a sin to state them. There is a prohibition in the Torah of Lo sonu ish es amiso, "Do not oppress one another" (Vayikra 25:17). The Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b elaborates upon the sin of ona'as devarim, oppressing someone with words. One of the examples given is that if someone is suffering, it is forbidden to tell them that this is because they have sinned. Now, it is clear that Chazal held that this may indeed be the reason why the person is suffering; yet it is a sin to tell that to the person! Speculating as to the sins that led to tragedy must be done with great care. It can be a powerful tool to spur people to improve their ways. However, it can also involve a terrible transgression of ona'as devarim. It takes great wisdom and sensitivity to know when it is appropriate to issue such speculations, and how to issue them. To post a video on YouTube, and to glibly, smilingly talk about how child suffering is the result of their sins such as watching porn in a previous life, and how one shouldn't say "poor child!", is not traditional talk about theodicy; it is supremely sinful idiocy.

But don't some of Rav Ovadyah Yosef's statements fall into the same category? Yes, they do. And it should not have been left to Meretz MKs to call him out on such things. Still, there is enough other substance in Rav Ovadyah Yosef's career to understand how he managed to escape an HDR condemnation. With Rabbi Mizrachi, on the other hand, after you dismiss his arrogant and ridiculous claims of having made 150,00 people religious and having created "the most successful kiruv system in the world and perhaps in history," you get a charismatic but boorish entertainer with little scholarship or substance, possessing poor character traits of arrogance and dishonesty, who excels in attracting unsavory types, who responds with appalling viciousness to those that are understandably offended by his talks, who inspires people to make a religion out of offensive attitudes, and who manages to aggregate the most irrational and offensive claims in the history of rabbinic literature and apply them in such a way as to make them even more irrational and offensive. There's just not enough of value to get him off the hook.

(It was also pointed out to me that with the exception of Rav Ovadya, the others flew below the radar of the general community. They did not create massive chilul Hashem, or cause people to walk out of Yiddishkeit, as Rabbi Mizrachi has done. Furthermore, Rav Ovadya could count on the majority of those in the room with him to take his remarks as hyperbolic drama, rather than literally, even if that could not be said about everyone who would later hear the recordings. Rabbi Mizrachi, on the other hand, appears to specifically aim to be taken literally.)

Yasher koach to the signatories of the HDR, and let us wish them strength in the face of the nasty attacks of Rabbi Mizrachi and his devotees. And may we all try to increase our wisdom and sensitivity.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

In Defense of a Condemnation

A group of distinguished Rabbonim write a letter of condemnation against the teachings of a maverick rabbi who claims to be doing outreach. Sounds like a summary of the great Torah/Science controversy of 2004/5. But it happened again today, when 16 rabbonim signed a letter of condemnation against Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi. Due to certain superficial similarities with my case, I have decided to discuss the differences. (Full disclosure: several of the signatories are beloved colleagues/ friends/ mentors, and one of them was my shadchan!)

Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi attained notoriety a while back for his claim that only one million of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were actually halachically Jewish. Aside from being nonsense, this claim was also extraordinarily hurtful and even dangerous. After a flood of condemnation, Rabbi Mizrachi apologized (though his apology contained several inaccuracies). However, he has presented a number of other deeply flawed and/or severely offensive statements and attitudes, in particular about Holocaust victims and people suffering from cancer or other misfortunes. Furthermore, when people have criticized these statements, he has responded with appalling viciousness, comparing his critics to Hitler and hinting that his followers might physically attack them. He's also very uneducated; he believes that stage magicians are actually performing real magic! As longtime readers of my website know, I am not in the habit of criticizing problematic Torah education approaches (there would be too much to do!) unless they are directly harmful to people, but that is unfortunately certainly the case here.

Following is the text of the letter that was released:
As rabbonim and mechanchim, we are greatly concerned about the popularity in some circles of a “kiruv” approach that does not bring honor to the Torah ha-Kedoshah but, on the contrary, creates considerable chilul Hashem.
Earlier this year, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi apologized for one particularly offensive statement he made on several occasions. But he has voiced, both before and since that apology, many things that reduce complex issues to simplistic and misleading sound bites. He has also repeatedly arrogated to “know” why unfortunate things happen to various people and has presented subtle statements of Chazal in superficial and deceptive ways.
That method may entertain and even stimulate some audiences, but it does no justice to the Jewish mesorah. And, especially with the worldwide audience enjoyed by any public speech these days, misleading assertions even when offered with the best of intentions, are particularly objectionable, and even dangerous.
Jewish institutions must be discerning about the credentials and the histories of those to whom they offer the honor of acting as teachers of Torah. We urge all shuls and organizations to act responsibly and take seriously decisions about whom they invite to address their gatherings.
HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz – Rosh Beit Din, Beis Din of America and Chicago Rabbinical Council
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein – Editor, Cross-Currents
Rabbi Shalom Baum – President, Rabbinical Council of America
Rabbi Yosef Benarroch – Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Eshel Mara D’atra, Adas Yeshurun Herzliya Synagogue, Winnipeg, Canada
Rabbi Moises Benzaquen – Mara D’atra, West Coast Torah Center, Rosh Hayeshiva, Harkham Gaon Academy Los Angeles, CA
HaRav Mayer Alter Horowitz – Bostoner Rebbe of Yerushalayim
Rabbi Joseph Dweck – Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom
Rabbi Daniel Feldman – Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman – Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jacob Atlanta, GA
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg – Mara D’asra, Boca Raton Synagogue Boca Raton, FL
Rabbi Micah Greenland – International Director, NCSY
HaRav Michel Twerski -Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jehudah, Milwaukee, WI
Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky – Rosh Yeshiva, Darche Noam Jerusalem, Israel
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin – Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Avraham Joseph (BAYT) Toronto, Canada
Rabbi Avi Shafran – Media Liaison, Agudath Israel of America
Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin – Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya
At first glance, this seems very similar to the ban against my own books, so how can I defend the above letter? The truth is that I actually don't have a problem with the Gedolim condemning genuinely heretical works as heretical, or in their issuing a social policy against works that go against the educational approach that they desire for their communities. My problem is with their confusing the two!

There are several important differences between this letter and the letter of condemnation that was issued against my own teaching. First is that the signatories of this letter are actually familiar with Rabbi Mizrachi's teachings, unlike the signatories of the ban on my books, many of whom didn't even read English and who were relying on unreliable zealots. Second is that the signatories of this letter are actually genuinely knowledgeable about different approaches to these topics, unlike the signatories of the ban on my books, who didn't know science and (more importantly) weren't aware of the history of the rationalist approach. Third, the letter against my books was an attempt to impose authority (it was a ban), whereas this letter is a voice of critique, not an attempt to impose authority.

Now, I would like to address some of the counter-claims that have been made in Rabbi Mizrachi's defense. One person argued that "The great rabbis of Rambam's generation burned his books, too! So you see that he's right." Many people voiced a similar defense of my own works, and I never liked it. To quote Carl Sagan: "The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Yes, they burned Rambam's books. But they also burned Spinoza's books. Having your books burned is no guarantee that they are legitimate!

Another argument being voiced is "How can you condemn Rabbi Mizrachi for saying that the Sassoon children died for their sins in a previous incarnation? That is a traditional Jewish approach!" There are two responses to be made to this. First is that gilgul neshamos is certainly not universally accepted. But second, and more importantly, it is irrelevant that rabbinic authorities have spoken in the abstract about such things; to state this about the Sassoon children and other tragedies is appallingly insensitive and hurtful.

The most common defense of Rabbi Mizrachi being claimed is that "Rabbi Mizrachi is successfully mekarev many people!" Many people likewise voiced this defense for my own works, and I didn't like that much, either. It was somewhat valid, in light of the fact that a significant aspect of the ban on my own books was not that they were heretical per se, but rather that they were dangerous and were leading people away from Judaism. With regard to this aspect, it was relevant to point out that my books were more helpful than damaging, and that the reports of my books being harmful were coming from frauds like Rabbi Leib Tropper. However, if an approach is genuinely wrong, then it doesn't matter how many people it is mekarev. And the signatories against Rabbi Mizrachi do not deny that his approach "may stimulate some audiences." They are saying that it is nevertheless wrong - either innately false, deeply offensive, dangerous, or all of the above. 

It is wrong to say that Downs Syndrome children and those with autism are being punished for their sins in a previous life. It is wrong to say that due to not being correctly religious, secular Jewish women acted without concern for their modesty at the gas chambers during the Holocaust. It is wrong to say that IDF soldiers who are mechallel Shabbat have no share in the world to come. It is wrong to say that children who are born with blindness are being punished for watching pornography in previous lives. It is wrong to say that people contract cancer as a result of sexual licentiousness and "dirty thoughts." Etcetera, etcetera; see this link for a long list.

In any case, the claims about Rabbi Mizrachi being mekerav many people are wildly over-inflated. Furthermore, one would have to consider how many people he has distanced from Judaism with his foolish and hurtful teachings. But the main point is that it's not a matter of numbers. Being mekarev people is not license to distort Judaism and to be offensive.

If there were any doubts about Rabbi Mizrachi's poor character, these were removed by his response to the letter. In an interview with Vos Iz Neias, he says as follows:
“I don’t know who these rabbis are,” said Rabbi Mizrachi. “It’s very interesting. It is like someone who makes $10 an hour giving advice to Bill Gates on how make money. I make more than 10,000 baalei teshuva a year. These rabbis never make one baal teshuva and they want to teach me how to make baalei teshuva? It is absurd.”
First of all, his claim that he makes ten thousand baalei teshuva a year (!), aside from being appallingly arrogant (and who ever claims to "make" people frum?!) is patent nonsense. It's so absurd that it reveals that it's not just that he doesn't care about truth; he doesn't even care that he doesn't care about truth! 

Second, he has completely failed to understand the letter. As noted earlier, it's not about how many people you are being mekarev. It's about whether what you are teaching is appropriate.

But what really takes the cake is his claim that the 16 signatories have never "made" any baalei teshuvah?! Hello??!! Does he have the slightest idea who he is talking about?! The list is like a Who's Who of success stories in the kiruv world!

Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi demonstrates foolishness, dishonesty, arrogance, and nastiness. Unfortunately, he seems to inculcate these traits in some of his followers, who respond with extreme aggression to any criticisms of him. There's nothing that can be done about them. But perhaps he can be prevented from recruiting more people to his brand of Judaism.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Balfour, Rothschild, and the Ostrich

The following essay was published yesterday in The Jerusalem Post
and cross-posted at The Biblical Museum of Natural History website.

This July, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki spoke at an Arab League summit in Mauritania, and called to sue the British government for issuing the Balfour Declaration. On October 25, the Palestinian Return Center held a symposium in the House of Lords to launch the “Balfour Apology Campaign.” This seeks an apology from the British government for the Balfour Declaration, which is claimed to reflect Britain’s “brutal colonial practices” in Palestine that went against “the rights and needs of the indigenous people.”

The Balfour Declaration was a letter issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in November 1917 in support of the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people. The letter itself was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community at the time. Although he was a scion of the legendary Rothschild family, which led to his important societal position, Walter did not share his family’s interests and aptitudes. He despised banking, had little interest in politics, was unaffiliated to Judaism, and until 1916 evinced no enthusiasm for Zionism. Walter was passionate about one thing only: animals.

Lord Walter Rothschild riding a giant tortoise
It is hard to overstate the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild’s obsessive fervor for zoology. At his estate in Tring, he collected more specimens than anyone else in recorded history. Rothschild discovered and catalogued countless new species, over two hundred of which are named in his honor. Amongst his collection of live animals was a tame wolf, 144 giant tortoises, and flocks of cassowaries and kiwis, and he trained zebras to pull his carriage to Buckingham Palace.

Yet despite his lack of interest in his Jewish heritage, Rothschild knew something of it. For example, he once addressed a meeting of the British Ornithologist’s Club about the ostrich of the Bible. The background to this was that when Weizmann led the Zionist Commission to Palestine to implement the Balfour Declaration, Rothschild also charged him with another commission: “to find out what has become of two ostriches.” Israel Aharoni, the zoologist who pioneered the scientific study of the wildlife of the Holy Land and restored their Biblical Hebrew names, had sent Rothschild several eggs from ostriches found in the Middle East, and also told Rothschild that he was raising two chicks. Since the eggs looked somewhat different from the eggs of the ostriches known from Africa, Rothschild was eager to see the birds. Weizmann located Aharoni and managed to send the young ostriches to Rothschild, who observed several subtle ways in which they differed from African ostriches. Subsequently, Rothschild informed the British Ornithologist’s Club that this was a different subspecies, and designated it as Struthio camelus syriacus, the Syrian ostrich. In Rothschild’s address, he noted that there are several passages in the Bible relating to the ostrich.

Rothschild’s statement about biblical ornithology was correct. The Book of Lamentations refers to the ostriches (ye’enim) of the wilderness, and there are a variety of other verses in the Bible which have been understood as referring to ostriches (albeit that some argue them to refer to different species). The ostrich was also part of the culture of the Jews living in the Land of Israel in post-Biblical times. The Mishnah refers to vessels made from ostrich eggs. A later compilation from the Land of Israel, the Tosefta, notes that ostriches are classified as birds (presumably this was necessary to point out due to their inability to fly). The Jerusalem Talmud makes reference to ostriches eating gold, and the Midrash states that Noah brought shards of broken glass onto the Ark for the ostriches to eat; these seemingly strange statements are explicable in light of the fact that ostriches are required to eat rocks and other sharp items in order to break down the food that they consume, and will happily (and essentially) eat pieces of metal and glass to this end.

An ostrich at the Hai-Bar
nature reserve in Israel
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Syrian ostrich lived in the Negev and Sinai deserts; in 1929, an ostrich was caught near Be’er Sheva. Earlier in history there were also ostriches in the coastal regions of Israel, and ostrich eggs are still discovered there today. But the ostrich was having a hard time coexisting with the human inhabitants of the region. The soldier and ornithologist Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen recorded that Arabs prized ostrich eggs for food and hunted the adults for sport; the advent of guns, and cars from which to fire them, quickly caused the demise of the Syrian ostrich. The last known Syrian ostrich was washed up in a flood in the Arava in 1966.

Many species that were formerly indigenous to the region were hunted to extinction by the German Templers and Arabs in the early twentieth century. Some of them have since been reintroduced to the wild by Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority. Mesopotamian fallow deer (the ayal of the Bible), bred from two pairs that were evacuated during the Iranian revolution from the animals being massacred at the Shah’s menagerie, have been reintroduced to the Judean hills and the Carmel. Onagers (the “wild asses” of the Bible) have also been successfully bred at the Hai-Bar nature reserve and reintroduced to the Negev. The beautiful white oryx (the Biblical dishon) became entirely extinct in the wild in the twentieth century, with just a few individuals remaining in private collections of Arab royalty, and political factors preventing efforts by British conservation groups to bring them to Israeli wildlife reserves; eventually, they were sent to American zoos, and their descendants have now been returned to their Biblical homeland. Attempts have also been made to release ostriches to the Negev, but these efforts have so far failed; it appears that the captive-born ostriches lacked the necessary survival skills. But Israel is not giving up. Ostriches are part of our natural and national history.

Every nation has its national animals—the animals that are part of its history, heritage and culture. For the Aboriginal tribespeople of Australia, their national animals are kangaroos and koalas. For the Eskimos of Alaska, it’s seals and whales. But what about the Jewish people? What are the animals of our history, heritage and culture? It’s not the gefilte fish and the chicken – Scripture makes no references at all to chickens, which had not yet been domesticated from their wild ancestors in India. The animals of our sacred writings are the lion and the leopard, the ibex and the hyrax, the hippopotamus and the hyena, the griffin vulture and the ostrich. These are not animals from New York or London or even the European shtetl. They are the animals that lived in the Land of Israel in the Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic period.

The Palestinians dispute the very raison d’être of the Jewish State. In the Balfour Apology Campaign and elsewhere, they portray the Jewish People as European colonialists. They reject the historical facts of the ancient Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. They deny the existence of the Temple and work at destroying archeological remains.

All of this is a denial of basic truths. Balfour rejected the Uganda Plan after Weitzman pointed out to him that the Jewish People have a connection to the Land of Israel spanning millennia – from long before Islam, and certainly long before the Palestinian national identity emerged in the twentieth century. We only left it when we were exiled, and we always dreamed of returning. The animals of our culture were not the eagles and rabbits of Europe; they were the griffin vultures, hyraxes and ostriches of the Land of Israel.

There can be no hope of a peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while the Palestinians are denying the fundamental historical truths that lie at the core of the dispute. Anyone pretending otherwise is sticking their head in the sand—just like ostriches don’t.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Manipulative Lies of Kupat HaIr

Today I was stunned to see the full-page advertisement from Kupat HaIr, "the Tzedakah of the Gedolei HaDor," in Mishpachah magazine, which can also be found on their website. It says that this coming Friday is a once-in-28 years opportunity to take advantage of the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninth year in the Birkas HaChamah-cycle. This full house of nines, according to "ancient sources," is an auspicious hour for prayer. But why pray yourself, when other people can pray on your behalf? No less than thirty Gedolei HaDor will pray for you - provided that you give money to Kupat Ha-Ir! As it states on their website, "you can win the jackpot: Parnassah, children, nachas, Torah, wealth, shidduchim, good health and happiness! Don't wait another 28 years for a yeshuah!"

This is utterly astonishing for a number of reasons. Most striking is that they ran the same campaign not 28 years ago, but three years ago! And at that time, they declared it to be a once-in-fifty years opportunity, basing it on Yovel! Here's the ad from 2013:

"Don't wait another 50 years for a yeshuah!" they said at the time. But just three years later, we are told that we have the same rare opportunity!

Now, don't think that this is just due to sloppy research, or poor communication between campaigners. After all, on their website, Kupat HaIr says that they addressed this "sceptically" (sic). And back in 2013, Kupat HaIr told us about all the effort that went into these calculations:
"...Before Kupat Ha’ir set out to mass publicize this, we investigated and verified every detail related to this segulah from a halachic standpoint... You know the type of person who just never gives up? There are those who try to find the tcheiles of the chilazon, the shamir worm, the lost Shevatim on the other side of the Sambatyon. At Kupat Ha’ir, someone set out on a feverish search for that fateful yovel year. Finally, the stunning truth came to light. This year, 5774, is the first time since the “Ninth of the Ninth” segulah became known to the public, that all the factors are coming true! This is the first time, and also the last in the next fifty years. Because this year, according to many Rishonim, is the ninth year of the yovel! ...Maran Hagaon Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, writes in his peirush, Derech Emunah (siman katan 137) that the year 5756 is the 40th year of the yovel, and 5765 is yovel. If so, we have an astounding revelation here! If we know when yovel is, we can count nine years and know precisely which year is the ninth year of the yovel, the most unique and auspicious year of all! And when you count nine years from 5765, you see that we are truly fortunate! The ninth year of the yovel, so auspicious to receive G-dly shefa, is this year, 5774! This year, for the first time, everything is valid. All details have been verified; everything is in place. The last time this special eis ratzon occurred, your grandparents were parents and you – maybe you hadn’t even been born yet. The next time will be fifty years from now."
And yet the next time was not fifty years later. It was just three years later!

Nor was 2013 the first time that they ran this campaign. They also ran it in 2011 and 2009 (when it was declared to be a once-in-seven years opportunity)! Here are the ads:

How can they so brazenly contradict themselves so often?! Don't the editors of Mishpachah notice, and haven't they got anything to say about it? Why isn't anyone calling them out on this?

And this is far from the only falsehood in the Nines campaign. The alleged "ancient sources" for all this are in fact a single work, Brit Menucha, that isn't all that ancient - it was written in the 14th century by R. Avraham of Grenada. And it doesn't even say what they claim it says! It does not say that the compound of the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninth year in the Yovel-cycle is particularly auspicious. What it says (see it online here) is that in every Yovel cycle, the ninth year is auspicious, and in every year, the ninth month is auspicious, and in every month, the ninth day is auspicious, and in every day, the ninth hour is auspicious. One might infer that the compound is even more auspicious, but R. Avraham does not say that. According to R. Avraham, there are auspicious times all the time!

But the most bothersome aspect is the manipulation involved. "Don't wait another 50 years for a yeshuah!" The subtext is clear: You are desperate for salvation from your problems, and you need to give us money in order to attain it, or you'll be stuck for fifty years! Forget about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur - it's this once-in-fifty-years opportunity that counts. As the Kupat HaIr website states: "Doesn’t it make sense to overextend yourself for nine minutes for the sake of your entire life? ... Your life depends on these 9 minutes. Will you be happy? Will you have money? What will your health be like? How will you be spared unfavorable decrees?"

From a Torah perspective, this is simply false. No, your entire life does not depend on these nine minutes! But aside from the falsehood, it is sick, manipulative, and predatory. There are many people who truly can't afford to give, but who do so out of sheer terror that Kupat HaIr might be right, and that they might be losing their one chance to get married, to have children, to be healthy. I personally know of someone who themselves fell into dire straits because of this. And Rav Mattisyahu Solomon of Lakewood has decried the fact that single women desperate for a yeshua had contributed all their savings to Kupat HaIr, and turned to him when they didn't get married. He described Kupat HaIr's modus operandi as "absolute theft."

This sick, manipulative behavior all occurs, according to Kupat HaIr, with the backing of the (charedi) Gedolei HaDor. One wonders if this is actually true; there are quotes from various charedi Gedolim which indicate otherwise. If it is not true, then one wonders how the Gedolim can be so unconcerned and ineffectual about major campaigns that are run in their names. You don't see this happening with non-charedi leaders.

(Fortunately, however, there are other rabbinic voices. Rav Shlomo Aviner delivered a lecture in his yeshivah in which he condemns the Four Nines as an attempt to use magic and shortcuts in place of genuine spiritual growth. As he points out, if it is so important, why is it not in the Torah? In the Gemara? In any of the major works of Judaism? Why didn't any of the famous rabbis of history mention it? And what's so special about the number nine, anyway? We need, says Rav Aviner, to focus on the truly important things, such as improving our characters. We should not be attempting to invent new magical shortcuts to salvation.)

At the end of the day, are all these lies at least in the service of a good cause? Many people I know (including rabbonim and charity professionals) would say if they are perpetuating the charity trap and national catastrophe of the mass kollel system, then it isn't even a good cause to begin with. But let's not take that view, or let's assume that some of the money is for the involuntarily poor rather than for people in kollel. Can we somewhat justify Kupat HaIr's actions in that light? Should we give them money anyway?

That is a difficult question to answer, for three reasons. First of all, in light of all the falsehoods that they spread, how on earth can anyone be sure that the money is even going to the poor? These campaigns don't exactly inspire confidence in the organization's claim of "absolute integrity" and responsible rabbinic oversight. Indeed, a similar huge Gedolim-endorsed chareidi charity, Vaad HaRabbonim, recently got into major trouble over serious financial irregularities and millions of shekels that were unaccounted for.

Second, regardless of where the money goes, surely it's wrong to support an organization that is harming people. And tricking people out of large sums of money by preying on their fears with lies is harming people!

Third, there is no shortage of charitable organizations that work in the right way, without trying to take advantage of people's fears. My personal favorite charity is Lemaan Achai, whose "gimmick" is not some mystical mumbo-jumbo, nor false promises of salvation, but rather that they practice charity in accordance with the highest ideals: working to wean people off charity. Lemaan Achai doesn't raise anywhere near as much money as Kupat Ha-Ir - but what they do raise, is raised honorably.

(Hat-tip to those who sent in the links. See too my post on The Ring Of Power)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

When Bears Clash

You might remember the following hilarious video from way back in 2010 (if you're reading this blog via email subscription, you'll have to go to in order to see it):

The bears (or are they dogs?) are arguing about whether Biblical characters who lived before the giving of the Torah at Sinai should be conforming to Torah law. There are indeed statements in the Talmud about the Avos having "kept the Torah," though these are subject to different interpretations. The video was criticized by Rabbi Yair Hoffman, and I published a response on this site; see too the response by the video's creator.

Over the years, I have accumulated an enormous amount of material on this topic, though I don't know if and when I will ever have the time to put it together; see too Isaiah Gafni, "Rabbinic Historiography and Representations of the Past," in The Cambridge Companion to The Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, and Akiva Weisinger's paper "Pre-Sinaitic Halakhic Observance As Interpreted By Medieval Authorities." Suffice it to say that both the maximalist view (that the Avos and their relatives were aware of the entire Torah, down to the details of disputes between the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama) and the minimalist view (that the Avos followed the will of God as it applied to them, but were not aware of commandments that had yet to be revealed at Sinai) have a long history of support among classical rabbinic authorities.

Should the minimalists mock the maximalists? I don't think that this is a good idea, for a variety of reasons. But I understand why it happens. It often stems from frustration that the maximalists are expecting everyone to accept their approach as the only legitimate approach, despite its inherent implausibility.

There are people who enjoy the intellectual gymnastics required to make pre-Sinai behavior conform with the Torah. There are people who actually seem to want Torah beliefs to be as fabulous, incomprehensible and counter-intuitive as possible. I once heard a wonderful person repeat a claim "from the seforim" that if one were to truly understand the spiritual depths of the trop (cantillation notes) of the Torah, it would be possible to figure out the words from the trop alone. Now, this notion is unreasonable to the extreme. But I received the impression that this person loved the idea precisely because it ran against all logic. The same goes for extreme Midrashim.

The maximalist/minimalist debate regarding the Avos keeping the mitzvos is somewhat related to the rationalist/mystical divide in two ways. One is that the notion of pre-Sinai people having knowledge of the Torah suggests the sort of supernaturally-sourced knowledge that is associated with the mystical school of thought. Another is that the rationalist approach prefers to minimize the extent to which beliefs run counter to reason; it seeks, to use Rambam's words, to harmonize Torah and rational thought as much as possible.

If someone wants to believe that Eisav and Yaakov were dealing with a shaylah in hilchos b'rachos, fine. They should be respectfully allowed to maintain such a belief. But they, in turn, should be sympathetic to those who do not wish to believe such things.