Monday, January 30, 2017

Making Magic With Maimonides

Here's something interesting. Lest you thought that Rabbi J. David Bleich's anti-rationalist stance was limited to claiming that spontaneous generation is scientifically viable and denying that the Sages ever based a halachic decision on a mistaken understanding of the natural world (and attempting to ignore or minimize those who say otherwise), as discussed in the previous post, I found another example, in a completely different field.

In a chapter entitled "Liability for Harm caused by Metaphysical Forces," Rabbi Bleich discusses the  Kabbalistic view that the letters of the Divine Names contain cosmic forces, and thus certain people are able to use these Names to effect change in the physical world (i.e. to perform miracles/magic). He correctly records Rambam's denial of this possibility (although there is a typo in the reference; it is actually Guide 1:62, not 1:42). As Rabbi Bleich notes, "Rambam describes belief in the power of Divine Names as unfitting for rational persons." According to Rambam, the Names instead convey philosophical insights into metaphysical concepts, and contemplating the Names enables one to enhance one's intellectual grasp of these concepts.

So far, so good. But then Rabbi Bleich makes the most astonishing claim:
The gulf between Rambam and the Kabbalists is not as great as might appear. The Kabbalists, no less so than Rambam, stressed that Names, when pronounced mechanically, are not at all efficacious. They, too, stress the need for virtue and preparation, although, for the Kabbalists, the preparation is not identical to the intellectual preparation posited by Rambam. For Rambam, an amulet worn as a talisman could not possibly have any effect because the Names contained in an amulet are not endowed with any supernatural power. Nevertheless, Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility that persons who have achieved the requisite degree of knowledge and understanding can, with adequate preparation, employ metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends. 
I asked Professor Menachem Kellner, Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa and a particular specialist on Rambam, what he thought of Rabbi Bleich's claim. Here is his response:
In the context of an attempt to show that Rambam is not as far from Kabbalah as many think (see: Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, Littman Library, 2006), Rabbi Dr J David Bleich writes: "Nevertheless, Rambam does not explicitly deny the possibility that persons who have achieved the requisite degree of knowledge and understanding can, with adequate preparation, employ metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends." Rabbi Bleich is well-known and widely respected for his formidable learning and deep understanding of Jewish texts and teachings. I find it hard to believe that he was wide awake when he wrote this sentence. Given:
  • Rambam's approbation of Aristotelian science in Guide of the Perplexed II.22
  • his rejection of all forms of magic (H. Avodah Zarah XI)
  • his comment in his Treatise on Resurrection that "it is already well-known that we utterly flee from changing the order of Creation" (Treatise on Resurrection, Lerner trans., p. 169; see also the previous page – perhaps a veiled reference to people like Rabbi Bleich)
(and many other sources,) it is hard to take Rabbi Bleich seriously here. Ascribing a view to Rambam because he does not explicitly deny it is hardly a responsible way to read Rambam.
Indeed! After all, it's also the case that Rabbi Bleich does not explicitly deny the possibility that he considers me to be the Gadol HaDor, but I wouldn't ascribe that belief to him! Is Rabbi Bleich unaware of Rambam's deep philosophical opposition to the notion of changing the natural order through supernatural means, or is he in denial of it? And which is worse?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Twisting Oneself Into A Pretzel

A few years ago, many people were shocked to see the respected journal Tradition publish an article by YU Professor and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi J. David Bleich in which he claimed that there is no reason not to accept that some insects come into existence via spontaneous generation. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he proceeded to claim that although spontaneous generation is scientifically viable, the Sages did not believe in it - despite numerous clear statements in the Gemara and the universal view of the Rishonim and Acharonim throughout the ages. All this was in a determined effort to avoid saying that Chazal based laws upon incorrect beliefs about the natural world, which Rabbi Bleich dogmatically insists to be utterly unacceptable. As Professor Lawrence Kaplan commented at the time:
I trust Rabbi Bleich has the services of a good chiropractor, since he is bending himself like a pretzel using all his considerable knowledge and ingenuity to make an exceptionally intellectually perverse and twisted argument. But aren't at least some of the editors of Tradition concerned that their distinguished publication will become a laughing stock?

Rabbi Bleich has now published that article in his latest book Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. VII. While there are some modifications from his original article, he does not back down from his major claims. In fact, he goes even further, dismissing the Gemara's account of mice generating from dirt as being "aggada" that is "allegorical" and "intentionally inaccurate," ignoring the fact that is discussed in halachic contexts where it is clearly not allegorical and most certainly intended to be accurate!

Rabbi Bleich's original 20-page article was written as a (seemingly angry) response to a letter of mine where I pointed out that, in a previous article surveying approaches to conflicts between Chazal and science, he had neglected to mention the views of those who maintain that Chazal were simply mistaken. I wrote a lengthy response to the article, which I have now updated substantially in accordance with the new version that appears in his book. (Rabbi Bleich's article was written in a rather nasty manner towards me, which is the cause of my adopting a no-holds-barred style in my response.) You can download my response as a PDF file at this link.

(Disturbingly, when my original rejoinder was released, many people simply said that there is no comparison between Rabbi Bleich and Slifkin, and therefore refused to even read what I wrote. I hope that people will conduct themselves in the path of Rambam and other wise men, who evaluated material based on its inherent merits, not based on who wrote it.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

In Celebration of Rav Moshe Shamah

On numerous occasions, I have discussed the unfortunate moral and intellectual shortcomings of various rabbis. Today, I would like to praise a very special rabbi, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday: the outstanding Rav Moshe Shamah of Brooklyn.

Rav Shamah learned in Ner Israel and Lakewood, and was also a close disciple of the legendary Rav Solomon Sasson. He also has a Master's degree in education from Loyola, and for many years served as principal of Sephardic High School. He is the rabbi of Sephardic Institute in Brooklyn, which he founded in 1968.

Many decades ago, long before the internet, Rav Shamah had an experience which will strike a note of familiarity. Some zealots started complaining about his teaching that not everything in the Gemara is scientifically correct. It went all the way to Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Yaakov Yitshak Ruderman, Rav Elya Svei and others. However, the campaign was deflated when Rav Sassoon managed to procure a letter in Rav Shamah's support from Rav Ovadia Yosef which, while suffering from some errors and exhibiting a clear anti-rationalist stance, stated that the rationalist approach does have traditional basis and is not heretical.

A few years ago, Rav Shamah published a commentary on the Torah entitled Recalling The Covenant. In a market that is saturated with books on the parashah, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. It's one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated books in this genre, and the orientation is very much rationalist. Here's a very brief extract from his commentary on this week's parashah, in which he demonstrates that a careful, level-headed analysis results in one of the plagues being something different than what is commonly taught:
The word 'arob, which means mixture but a mixture of what is unspecified, in all probability refers to swarms of assorted insects (following Rabbi Nehemiah in Exod. Rab. 11:3). The interpretation that the mixture refers to assorted "beasts of prey" (Rabbi Judah in Exod. Rab. 11:3) does not suit the context. The Exodus account states, "I will send against you, your servants, your people and your homes the mixture, and the homes of Egypt shall be full of the mixture" (Exod. 8:17). Had lions and tigers and so forth that were acting in accordance with their nature been sent against Pharaoh, the Egyptians and their homes, the fear that the beasts would have evoked and the death and devastation wrought would necessarily have been described differently than the text depicts.
He brings further evidence and explanation as to how the plague arov was insects rather than wild animals. This view is certainly less exciting than the conventional view, but it is far more reasonable, from both textual and conceptual perspectives.

I have met Rav Shamah on several occasions over the years and I have always been inspired by his wisdom, broad knowledge, modesty, and graciousness. In particular, his speech at an event launching The Torah and Nature Foundation has been a source of much inspiration and strength for me. May Hashem bless him with many more years of health and success!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Charedi Community Interests Trump - Everything

As you might be aware, there is an enormously significant piece of legislation being considered for being considered in Israel: the Maale Adumim Annexation Law. It is a law with enormous national consequences. It would be the first step in annexing portions of Judea and Samaria. It would be a unilateral move with tremendous political ramifications. And, due to the new US administration, there may be a unique window of opportunity within which to do it. Some people believe that the national consequences of the Annexation Law would, overall, be very, very good; others believe that the national consequences would, overall, be very, very bad.

Then you get Moshe Gafni, the charedi MK of United Torah Judaism. For Gafni, the national consequences are not particularly important. The overriding issue for him is an exceedingly parochial one: a charedi school in Maale Adumim which the Mayor of Maale Adumim, Benny Kashriel, is (allegedly) trying to make move to Jerusalem. In Gafni's words:
Benny Kashriel is trying to limit Ma'ale Adumim's haredi community. I told the Prime Minister that if they don't want haredim in Ma'ale Adumim, we won't vote to annex Ma'ale Adumim. I will convince the other members of UTJ to also vote against the annexation."
Can you believe it? For UTJ, whether they support or oppose the hugely significant question of whether to begin annexing portions of Judea and Samaria is only dependent on an issue of minuscule importance relating only to a tiny part of their community!

Actually, I can believe it. Because we've seen this before, albeit on a smaller scale.

One example was when Lag B'Omer fell out on motzai Shabbos. Having bonfires on motzai Shabbos would mean that there is a risk of people who are lax in their Shabbos observance making various preparations on Shabbos, as well as the emergency services having to get in place on Shabbos. As a result, it was proposed by various dati-leumi rabbanim that the bonfires should be delayed until Sunday night. As they pointed out, Chazal made a much more drastic move to safeguard Shabbos when they suspended the Torah commandment of blowing the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah due to the mere risk that someone would carry a shofar to an expert who will teach him how to blow it! Certainly a bonfire, which is not a mitzvah at all, should be delayed when it certainly causes chillul Shabbos. But this move was entirely ignored by the charedi community. Their primary reason appears to be that nobody in their community would be mechalel Shabbos, so why should they change their plans just because of people in the emergency services who aren't charedi?

Another example was in the contrast in Beit Shemesh between the voting recommendations suggested by the dati-leumi rabbanim and the voting instructions ordered by the charedi rabbonim. In a post analyzing a number of differences between the two, I observed that the charedi rabbonim stress how Abutbol, and the charedi party, are the best for furthering charedi concerns and the interests of the charedi community, whereas the dati-leumi rabbanim write about how Cohen is the best for all the residents of the city, from charedi through non-religious.

And then there's the disengagement from Gaza. Some people thought that it was a fabulous idea and supported it, others thought it was a terrible idea and opposed it. The charedi political parties, however, supported it simply in exchange for getting money for their yeshivos.

A few years ago, in a post entitled Rosenblum Nails The Problem With Charedi Society, I noted that one of the most striking and significant differences between the charedi and dati-leumi communities is with regard to their "Klal Yisrael consciousness." Jonathan Rosenblum, post-charedi apologist, had made the same observation:
In the more than two centuries since the ghetto walls began to fall, Torah communities have often had to fight to preserve themselves. Those that followed the principle of separation from larger communal frameworks were usually the most successful in preserving their Torah identity. But that victory too came with a cost in terms of a diminished Klal Yisrael consciousness.
The dati-leumi world perceives itself as part of the entire nation of Israel and weighs its approach to Torah in that light. The charedi world, on the other hand, sees itself as a separate entity, and therefore doesn't care as much about the welfare of non-charedim, whether spiritual or physical. (For a discussion about the historical factors involved in this, see my monograph on The Making Of Haredim.)

Another problem with Gafni's stance here is, as Rafi Goldmeier points out at Life In Israel, the hypocrisy:
I also have a problem with Gafni. Not with his protest for this school - that is legitimate. My problem is the hypocrisy. When a Haredi yeshiva high school (Chochmei Lev) was offered plots/buildings in different mixed neighborhoods of Jerusalem, but were pushed out by askanim and residents, Gafni did not go out and defend their rights to be present in those areas, because he opposed the institution. What is good for Gafni's goose was not good for his gander when it came to school she did not like in the same situation. Further, show me a Haredi town that is tolerant of other communities entering and joining and using resources? Do Beitar or Kiryat Sefer or Modiin Ilit allow dati leumi or secular communities to join and then fund their schools? I agree with Gafni that the haredim in Maale Adumim should be funded like anybody else, but I'd like to see Gafni support opening up Haredi areas to others the same way he expects others to open up to Haredim.
Still, I think that the most significant aspect of this is how Gafni openly and explicitly states that the enormous national consequences of the Annexation Law are, for UTJ, entirely irrelevant. All they care about it is their school. That is the consequence of a movement which is based on the philosophy of cutting themselves off from the rest of the nation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

When Rabbis Quack

There is a forthcoming highly significant and very tragic publishing event which relates to the rationalist/ anti-rationalist divide in the Jewish community.

A few days ago I was sent a top-secret draft of a book that is going to be published shortly. I have no idea how the person who sent it to me obtained it; it certainly did not reach me with the permission of the author. It's so top-secret that every Rav to whom it was sent for a haskama had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and the manuscript was returned to the author afterwards.

The book is in Hebrew, written by a Rabbi Rafael Szmerla (or Schmerla), who is a Dayan in a Lakewood institution under the auspices of Rav Shlomo Miller of Toronto. The book is titled Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa, and it is dedicated to advocating for alternative medicine. The chapters discuss auras, chi, reiki, energy healing, distance healing, meridians, acupuncture, applied kinesiology, emotional freedom techniques, dowsing, homeopathy, radionics, crystal healing, geopathic stress, feng shui (the mystical practice of it, not the furniture arrangements), iridology, reflexology, and other forms of quackery.

For almost all these things, the author manages to find sources in the Gemara or Rishonim which discuss them. He thereby simultaneously refutes the possibility of their being idolatrous and demonstrates them to be effective, which he further supports with quotations from quacks. (The only one that he rules unacceptable is feng shui.)

The author claims that those who argue against such alternative medicines due to their being "scientifically undetectable" have been influenced by "Greek philosophy" and will end up as heretics. He stresses that accepting the truth of these treatments even without a scientific justification is an essential part of Jewish identity, as per the declaration at Sinai of naaseh v'nishma, we will do even if we do not understand. And at the end of the chapter on radionics, he adds that relying on such treatments helps our faith in the Sages, who were scientifically far ahead of us.

The book concludes with an explanation of why it is called Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa and an outright attack on modern Western medicine. Sicknesses are supposed to turn man toward God in prayer and bitachon, but modern medicine and the "arrogant doctors" instead turn people away from God. How many people, he bemoans, trust doctors more than Chazal?! The philosophy of modern medicine, he declares, "stands in complete contradiction to Torah values." The solution is to turn to alternative medicines, which are based on the idea of energies, which in turn are mystical/ metaphysical forces related to spirituality, which flow from God, and thus the practice of alternative medicine leads people to God.

The essential point that the author gets wrong is that the reason why the medical establishment is against all this quackery is not merely that there is no satisfactory explanation for how it could work. Rather, it is because there is no evidence that it works. Anecdotal evidence does not count for much, especially when you take into account the placebo effect. The only meaningful test of whether a treatment works is double-blind testing, something that all these alternative remedies invariably fail.

Unfortunately, this is something that the author explicitly rejects in a footnote in the concluding chapter. He states that requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence due to the placebo effect stands in direct contradiction to Chazal, who only required that a treatment appear to work on three occasions to declare it effective. Which is indeed true, but it is also the reason why, in Chazal's time, life expectancy was very low and mortality rates were horrifically high.

Now, there are all kinds of silly superstitious sefarim that are published all the time. In the past, I have written about To Fill The Earth: 277 Segulos and Advice on Fertility Issues, In Personal Consultation with Maran HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlitah, which includes such gems as "A dried pig's testicle, pulverized and ground up, will help a woman conceive; if the right testicle is used, a male child will be born; if the left testicle is used, a female child will be born." Such books are not necessarily worth getting worked up about. But this one is different, and much more problematic, for three reasons.

First, telling people to use ineffectual alternative medicine is not harmless, especially when it is accompanied with an overt rejection of conventional medicine. There is a real risk of people neglecting to treat themselves in a way that is actually helpful.

Second, there is likely to be a strong connection between rejecting conventional medicine and not vaccinating children. [UPDATE: I was just sent a lengthy responsum by Rabbi Szmerla in which he strongly opposes vaccinating children.] England's Jewish Chronicle recently published a fascinating and disturbing article about the very low rates of vaccination in the charedi Jewish community. This has catastrophic results; one charedi girl developed meningitis and required a triple limb amputation, r"l. The question discussed in the article is that it is not clear why vaccination rates are so low. One of the frum doctors interviewed says that his patients tell him that their rebbe told them not to vaccinate, but when he speaks to the rebbes they vehemently deny it. Others suggest that the charedi women are so overwhelmed with their children and with working to support their husband's bitachon that they simply don't have time to take their kids to the doctor. But it seems to me that there is another factor involved. This is a community that is taught to believe that the scientific establishment is the enemy. If the scientists are wrong about dinosaurs and about global warming and about spontaneous generation, they are probably wrong about vaccinations too.

The third reason why this book is particularly dangerous is has the most extraordinary range of haskamos. These include from Rav Moshe Shternbuch and Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss of the Eida Charedis, Sefardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsburg, Rav Mendel Shafran, Dayan Gavriel Krausz from Manchester, and more. Now, these people are from the very right wing of charedi Orthodoxy, or other extreme anti-rationalist communities. However, there is also a glowing haskamah from Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, who is generally regarded as the most moderate (and most important) of all the American charedi Gedolei Torah. Unfortunately, while he has in the past demonstrated some rationalist sympathies (and it was his haskama to one of my books which was the reason why they were banned, due to his zealous opponents), he is already known to be strongly opposed to vaccines (see my post Frum Ways To Die).

In his haskamah to Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa, Rav Kamenetzky begins by noting Chazal's statement that "the best doctors go to Hell" and explains that it is their arrogance which takes them there. He writes that we have to silence those who insist upon empirical evidence. While, he notes, there are charlatans/ idolaters in alternative medicine, nevertheless there are also divinely-placed forces that we should make use of to heal people.

My question is as follows. If and when there is, G-d forbid, an outbreak of measles or mumps in the frum community, or people who neglect conventional medicine in place of alternative therapies, and as a result children suffer amputations or deaths, who is responsible? Is it the Gedolim who advocate against conventional medicine in favor of alternative medicine, but who genuinely believe that these things work because they are too uneducated to know otherwise? Or does the responsibility lie with the other rabbonim and people in the charedi world, many (perhaps even most) of whom do not believe in alternative medicine, but who have given the Gedolim the elevated status to have a large following, and who will be too afraid to speak out against this sefer due its prestigious haskamos from Gedolim? There is a cheshbon hanefesh that needs to be done, and better sooner than later.

(If you'd like to support teaching about Torah and the natural world, please donate to The Torah and Nature Foundation - see http://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/donate/)

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Judaism To Be Proud Of

Today, somebody came to meet with me to discuss everything wrong in Orthodox Jewish society (or rather, a particular sector of it). Of course, everything that he said was true, which was rather dispiriting. Tonight, however, my spirits were lifted.

Many people associate Beit Shemesh and especially the neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh with extremist zealots, and with broader charedi efforts to disenfranchise non-charedim and to make the Anglo-charedi community more Israeli. While all of that is unfortunately true, it is also true that before the charedi political takeover of Beit Shemesh, the dati-leumi population was the majority, and they managed to establish many communities, shuls, youth movements and schools before they lost political power. Thus, Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh have several large school campuses of dati-leumi schools (as well as the outstanding Yeshivat Lev HaTorah campus/neighborhood).

Since one of my sons is going to high school next year, we have to choose a school for him. And we are spoiled for choice. There are several dati-leumi yeshivah high schools here, all with a very high standard of both limmudei kodesh and secular studies, and with teachers who actually reflect the hashkafah of the schools (unlike much of what one sees abroad). I checked out the first of these this evening, in an open house that they held.

It was beautiful. On the cover of the flyer that was handed out, it printed a quote from Rav Kook, here in my rather poor translation: "The purpose of education is to prepare a person for his perfect form, to do good and justice, and thus to grow up... and to be of greatest satisfaction to himself and to society." The rebbeim of the school demonstrated clear passion both for Torah and for inspiring the students. There are Tanach-themed excursions. The secular studies include physics, computers, engineering, theater arts, geography, biotechnology, and Arabic, and students can even begin courses for their bachelor's degree. A staggering 80% of the students proceed to hesder yeshivot, where they will learn Torah to an even more advanced level and serve their nation in the IDF.

"This is amazing!" I commented to one of the parents there.

"Oh," she said, "All the schools are like this. They're all fantastic."

I've already been amazed by the elementary schools that my children attend, including such highlights as the extremely moving Yom HaZikaron/ Yom Ha-Atzmaut ceremonies, and my first-grader learning about prehistoric man in archeology class. For all my frustrations with the direction that the city has taken - and since opening the museum, these have only increased - the communities that were built up beforehand are strong and highly impressive. Ashrecha Yisrael!



Saturday, January 14, 2017

What They Didn't Teach You In Yeshiva About Yissacher

(This post has been edited from its original version)

In the charedi yeshivos I attended, I was taught that the tribe of Yissacher were sitting and learning in kollel, being supported by the tribe of Zevulun. Like much of what I was taught in these yeshivos, however, it turns out that this is not found in Tanach, and has far less support in Chazal or even the Rishonim than one is normally led to believe.

The Torah says the following about Yissacher and Zevulun:
Zevulun shall dwell by the seashore, he shall be a haven for ships, and his flank shall rest on Sidon. Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey, crouching among the sheepfolds; when he saw how good was the resting place, and how pleasant was the country, he bent his shoulder to the burden, and became an indentured laborer. (Gen. 49:14-15) 
Certainly, at a level of pshat, this means that Yissacher was working his land (and, as many people vociferously insist when one talks about the Six Days of Creation not necessarily referring to 144 hours, Ain mikra yotse midei peshuto). Thus, Rashbam explains "crouched among the sheepfolds" to refer to their being in "the borders of the city - plowing and working the land," as opposed to Zevulun, who were traveling overseas to engage in commerce.

Still, Chazal add an additional layer of interpretation. Here is what Chazal say about these verses:
Zevulun was busy with his merchandise trading (pragmatya - a Greek word that is the root of the English word "pragmatic") and would provide food for Yissacher, who was a Ben Torah… and when Moses came to bless the tribes, he preceded the blessing of Zevulun to that of Yissacher: “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissacher in your tents” – Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, due to that which Yissacher is doing in the tents. (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 72:5)
But when it says that Zevulun was busy with trading "his" merchandise, whose merchandise is it referring to? The Midrash later explains that it is referring to Yissacher's merchandise:
Zevulun preceded Yissacher, because Zevulun was busy with merchandise trading and Yissacher was busy with Torah, and Zevulun came and provided him with food, therefore he preceded him. With regard to him, Scripture states, "It is a tree of life to those who support it." Yissacher would gather in (his produce) and Zevulun would bring it on ships and sells it, and bring Yissacher all his needs. (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 99:9)
"Rejoice, Zevulun in your going out" - This teaches us that Zevulun was a merchant for his brother, and he would take [produce] from his brother and sell it to the gentiles, and take from the gentiles and sell to his brother." (Sifre, Vezos Habracha 13; similarly in Midrash HaGadol)
It should first be stressed that this is the drash of the passuk, not the pshat. Incidentally, I recall once being in a shul where the depiction of the tribes on the Aron or windows showed a Torah for Yisschar, instead of a donkey. This stood in contrast to the depictions for the other tribes, which showed the pshat of the verses rather than the drush. I can't for the life of me remember which shul it was, but when searching on Google for pictures, I came across the one included in this post, which likewise shows a lion for Yehudah but a Torah for Yissacher!

But, in any case, the key point to note is as follows: These Midrashim do not say that the tribe of Yissacher were simply sitting in the beis hamidrash while Zevulun brought food for them. Instead, they say that Zevulun were assisting Yissacher by marketing their produce.

Now, there are other sources which just talk about Yissacher being busy with Torah and Zevulun providing them with sustenance. However, these may not conflict with the Midrashim cited above; it may be that they are simply less specific about how it took place. Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16 does imply that Zevulun was simply giving hand-outs, but it should be born in mind that Bamidbar Rabbah is of far later authorship (and thus less authority) than Sifre and Bereishis Rabba.

In any case, the position of Midrash Bereishis Rabba and Sifre, that Yissacher were farming their land, is also self-evident from the Torah itself. After all, Yissacher had land! They weren't just letting it lie fallow. They worked it and farmed it, and Zevulun marketed it for them, which freed up some of their time for Torah study.

Furthermore, consider this: Why was it only Zevulun that was helping Yissacher? Why didn't any of the other tribes want in on it? The logical answer is that Zevulun was uniquely suited to help them, because they had ships, which meant that they could market their produce for them.

The notion that the tribe of Yissacher did not work at all, aside from going against the plain meaning of the Torah, would go against the general philosophy that we find in the writings of Chazal and the Rishonim. Their view was that the ideal is for a Torah scholar to be self-supportive, but license was given for supporting those serving the community; see my monograph on "The Economics of Torah Scholarship in Medieval Jewish Thought and Practice." This is somewhat similar to the view of Rambam with regard to the nature of the financial aid that may be given to Torah scholars: the investment of funds, and assistance in business (see my post "The Truth About A Much-Abused Rambam").

Finally, what about the description of Yissacher bending his shoulder to the burden and being "an indentured laborer"? Rashi, following the Midrashic non-literal interpretation, explains it to refer to the tribe of Yissacher toiling in Torah and serving the people with Torah teachings. It should be noted that, in line with the standard outlook of the Rishonim and before the mystical innovations of R. Chaim of Volozhin, we see that serving the nation with Torah is interpreted as meaning teaching Torah, not learning Torah.

But Ibn Ezra gives a more pshat-oriented explanation of the verse. He explains that the tribe of Yissacher were not powerful men and didn't want to go out to war. They preferred to stay farming the land - and in place of serving in the army, they paid a special tax! Bet you weren't taught that in yeshivah!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"You Must Love People! Except Rabbis who are Fools and Losers and Reshaim!"

I've got some posts of major significance coming up, but before that, here's some light entertainment. Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi spoke in Ramat Beit Shemesh earlier this week, in a lengthy lecture which covered two topics at great length, albeit with a dearth of actual substance. His second longest discussion was about the consequences and precise nature of immodest clothing that some women wear (he seems a little obsessed with that), and he made numerous jokes about such women, to the appreciative guffaws of the audience. But he also spoke about how important it is to love people, and not to hate Jews who are different, or "miserable chilonim," and not to "murder people online." A large portion of that discussion, however, revolved around a lengthy important qualification (see at 29:55), that with some people, it's a mitzva to hate them!

Specifically, he explains, it's a mitzva to hate the sixteen rabbis (or "fools" and "losers," as he refers to them) that wrote a letter against him. Then he honors me, albeit devoting a mere twenty seconds to trashing me. Yet in that span of just twenty seconds, he managed to pack in two insults and five lies! Here we go:
"One rasha that lives here in town had something to say."
Being called a rasha by Mizrachi puts me in very fine company - he readily uses that title for all the respected rabbanim that criticize his approach. What an honor!
"He wrote against me: How did they let me come and speak here?!" 
Actually, I never wrote that, and in a private discussion group, I recommended against protesting his lecture. What I actually wrote was a precise critique of his statements, which, unsurprisingly, he did not address.
"He forgot to say that all the rabbis in the world put him in cherem!" 
Actually, it wasn't all the rabbis in the world, just the charedi ones. And they didn't put me in cherem, just some of my books. And I didn't forget to mention it at all; in my first post about Rabbi Mizrachi I explicitly discussed that and contrasted it with the letter against him.
"He forgot to say that he's an apikores who makes fun of Chazal!" 
Actually, I've always been very open about my views on Chazal, which do not involve making fun of them and are not apikorses, unless you classify saying that Chazal lacked certain knowledge about the natural world is making fun of them and is apikorsus. In which case Rabbi Mizrachi is accusing Rambam and many others of apikorsus.

Rabbi Mizrachi followed this by by adding me to the other rabbis as being among "the greatest enemies of the Jewish nation" and as someone that it is a "very big mitzvah to hate." Not just any old mitzvah - it's a Very Big Mitzvah!

It's almost as though Rabbi Mizrachi himself has the exact same flaw that he accuses his numerous rabbinic opponents of possessing - a fragile ego. Incidentally, I just noticed that my third post about Rabbi Mizrachi, "The Biggest Enemy of the Jewish Nation," is now my sixth most-read blog post of all time, with over ten thousand hits! I wonder how many of those were from Rabbi Mizrachi?

Anyway, someone wrote to me to suggest that the best way to deal with Rabbi Mizrachi and his devotees is to play his own game. Rabbi Mizrachi rails on against people who go against the Torah and who change the mesorah. Well, that's rather ironic, coming from someone who (unlike me) is clean shaven! Here is what the Arizal, as quoted by R. Chaim Vital, had to say about people who shave their beards, and it ain't pretty:

Oy, the Arizal said that Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi is doing a Very Big Sin! Maybe Hashem is punishing him by having him criticized by rabbis with beards?

Monday, January 9, 2017

An Uneven Playing Field

Back in 2004/5, many people marveled at how, at the tender age of 29, I was standing against three dozen Gedolei Torah aged 70-100. Some saw it as demonstrating amazing self-confidence; others, understandably, saw it as appalling arrogance. "It's like a first-year medical student disputing all the world's top doctors!" said many. It appeared to be a ridiculously uneven playing field. How could I possibly dare to presume that I was right?

In truth, those who know me personally are well aware that I am greatly lacking in self-confidence. During the year and a half over which the controversy over my books unfolded, I was in a state of extreme anxiety. Every day I would ask myself: perhaps the Gedolim are right and I am wrong? And I would have to work through the entire topic in my head, and speak to others, before I was reassured. When I heard over the grapevine about various books that were going to be written against me, I was terrified. What would they say? What if they showed me to have indeed written lies and heresy?

So how did I dare to hold my ground? One of the reasons was that it gradually dawned on me that it was indeed a highly uneven playing field, but it was one which sloped sharply down away from me. The analogy to the first-year medical student and the world's top doctors was deeply flawed in several ways, and I had an immensely powerful advantage.

It became clear that the fact of my distinguished opponents being thoroughly dedicated Torah scholars with many decades of learning was not at all something that counted against me. For they were not dispassionate academic scholars of intellectual Jewish history, who were objectively evaluating whether my books were grounded in traditional rabbinic writings. Rather, they were people who had been exclusively educated in, and become passionate lifelong devotees of, a particular approach to Torah - specifically, the anti-rationalist approach. They had received virtually no exposure to the writings of those who espoused the rationalist approach, and what little exposure they had was through a strictly anti-rationalist lens. Furthermore, they had virtually no experience in dealing with conflicts between Torah and science.

Thus, my opponents' greater religiosity and added decades of study did not at all give them an advantage from a scholarly perspective. Rather, it simply explained why they were so utterly closed to, and even unaware of, the rationalist approach. It's an approach that went deeply against their education and their treasured religious beliefs, and so it wasn't at all surprising that they claimed that it never existed. It's not comparable to a first-year medical student disputing all the world's top doctors. Rather, it was like a first-year medical student from a university of Western medicine insisting to a group of Chinese practitioners of Eastern medicine that Western medicine is indeed legitimate.

But not only did my opponents not have an advantage over me; they were actually handicapped by a severe disadvantage.

Rationalists (with certain exceptions) have always been perfectly willing to accept that there were those who insisted on learning Genesis literally and who insisted that the Sages were infallible in scientific matters. We merely insist that there were also those who allowed for non-literal interpretations of Genesis and who stated that the Sages were indeed fallible in their statements about the natural world. My opponents, on the other hand, were not just claiming that their own approach to these topics had a traditional basis; they were claiming that my approach had no basis.

It's always much harder to prove a negative than to prove a positive. And given that Jewish history is rife with disputes and differences in Torah thought, in particular with regard to the rationalist versus mystical approaches, it's extremely difficult to claim that a rationalist approach does not have a traditional basis. My opponents not only had to argue that Chazal's statements about the natural world were correct (itself very difficult to argue for, because it's so obviously not true), but also that nobody had ever claimed differently! You'd have to claim that my sources did not actually exist or were for some reason irrelevant. Certain people indeed tried such claims - accusing my sources of being forgeries, or "paskened" false - but clearly such claims were exceedingly weak. The ultimate litmus test became the topic of the sun's path at night, where my opponents had to insist that the Maharal's approach (or a variant thereof) was the only authentic approach, whereas it was clear that Maharal himself was a radical revolutionary, and that there was a long list of prominent Rishonim and Acharonim who took the rationalist approach.

This is also why I wasn't afraid when I wrote a letter to Tradition to challenge Rabbi J. David Bleich, an exceedingly brilliant but decidedly non-rationalist Torah scholar. This was after he published a supposedly comprehensive discussion of halachic literature relating to spontaneous generation, yet neglected to mention the [eminently reasonable] view of the rabbinic authorities who stated that Chazal believed in spontaneous generation and were mistaken. A colleague of mine warned me that Rabbi Bleich would react very strongly, and indeed he did; he wrote a fifteen-page response which was laced with nasty put-downs. But I knew that there was no way that he was going to be able to wish the rationalist sources out of existence, and indeed he couldn't. Instead, he made himself look rather foolish, insisting that spontaneous generation has not been discredited (!), and/or that Chazal never believed in it anyway and all the rishonim and acharonim who explained Chazal that way were mistaken (!!). Even all this did not explain why he neglected to mention the view of those who take the rationalist approach, and eventually he was forced to concede that such a view does indeed exist. (See the extensive discussion in this PDF).

I'm not a genius, I'm not a brilliant Torah scholar, and I'm not self-confident (or at least, I wasn't back then; going through that crucible worked wonders for me). It's just that I had every advantage.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

"The Biggest Enemy of the Jewish Nation"

A few weeks ago, sixteen rabbis with a reputation for scholarship and sensibility issued a rare letter of criticism against Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, due to his publicly issuing a variety of disgusting statements against handicapped children, secular IDF soldiers, Holocaust victims, and so on. Since he's giving a lecture in my neighborhood tomorrow night, I decided to follow up on something.

In a lecture that Rabbi Mizrachi posted on YouTube, entitled "The Biggest Enemy of the Jewish Nation," Rabbi Mizrachi begins by responding to the letter that was written against him. He first says that "we shouldn't care about this," but then spends the next half an hour trashing the sixteen rabbis. This includes some truly astonishing insults:
"The Satan is going crazy and sends all the liberals and all the fakers to make a lot of noise in the last few weeks... he finds these wicked people to make noise... These people call themselves rabbis... they went to the university, the university messed up their minds... Whatever is in the mind of these people... that they somehow want to ignore an ocean of knowledge that came from our holy rabbis... they want to re-invent Judaism to be a modern, rotten religion... [Referring to the letter written against him:] Only an evil, wicked person, a hater of Hashem is able to do such a thing. There's no other explanation for such people. They are mamash the erev rav that the Zohar speaks about... The Zohar says that before Mashiach come, all these erev rav wicked people, the first thing Hashem will do is clean them from the earth. That's what will be their end.... Mashiach will be a real chareidi guy. He won't be a rotten person from university. He won't be a liberal... Mashiach won't have sympathy for people that break Shabbat..."
But he saves his nastiest insults for Rabbi Joseph Dweck, whom he (mistakenly) believes to be the mastermind of the letter:
"...This Dweck that started all of this - שם רשעים ירקב... Reform is more righteous than him. I don't understand how in London they accept such a monster to be in their community... According to the halacha, a person like this, you are not allowed to stand within four amot of him... Someone like this, cannot be part of a minyan... Somebody like this should be in a ban for eternity... This is the biggest enemy of the Jewish nation... Someone like this must be stopped... This person is mamash the biggest enemy of the Jewish nation. I didn't find a wicked person like him in 23 years... What's the connection between him and Judaism? Can you find one positive thing that this person did for the Jewish nation, besides spreading lashon hara on the internet non stop? What did he do? ...How can he make a Jew Shomer Shabbat when he himself is not Shomer Shabbat? ...If this person has supporters among our nation, that means they are just as bad as him..."
I do not know Rabbi Dweck. I do know that people whom I respect, respect him greatly. I also know that he studied with, and received semicha from, Rav Ovadia Yosef, and also married his granddaughter, which is presumably not a shidduch that is offered to just anyone. Rabbi Dweck also led a community in New York which he expanded from 50 families to 350 families, headed a school, and is now senior rabbi of the prestigious Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in London. In light of all that, I find Rabbi Mizrachi's description of him as a "wicked monster with no connection to Judaism who has done nothing positive for the Jewish nation and is the biggest enemy of the Jewish nation" to say a lot more about Rabbi Mizrachi than it does about Rabbi Dweck.

When I mentioned this to an acquaintance of mine, a sensible person who is inexplicably a fan of Rabbi Mizrachi, he said to me, "Look, Rabbi Mizrachi was attacked, so he lashed out." It's true that Chazal say that you should never judge a person until you are in their place. However, I was in his place, so I can judge. I know what it's like to be publicly condemned, in far worse (and less justifiable) circumstances than with Rabbi Mizrachi. But I certain did not slander my opponents in the way that Rabbi Mizrachi did!

Anyway, I want to get to the main point here. Rabbi Mizrachi claims that the criticisms of his statements have no basis, because he wasn't saying anything new:
"I tell you the truth, twenty-three years I speak, I don't remember even one time that I said something that it doesn't have a source!"
Now, that is quite a staggering claim, in light of Rabbi Mizrachi having stated the following:
  • Down's syndrome and autism are punishment for the sins of a previous life
  • Mixed dancing and immodest women's clothes cause cancer
  • The Sassoon children died because of sins such as women wearing immodest sheitels
  • When children are born blind, it's because they watched pornography in their previous lives 
  • Going to college will turn you into a non-Jew and this is why the Holocaust happened to the Ashkenazim, not to the Sephardim
  • Children born to parents who were not observant of taharat ha-mishpachah have an uncontrollable desire for fornication
  • If an IDF soldier is mechalel Shabbat, he has no share in the World-to-Come
How can he claim that he is simply repeating earlier sources? In the video, Rabbi Mizrachi explains why he is simply a "vessel" for the Gemara. This is because the Gemara says that there is no suffering without sin. And we frequently find the concept that God works measure-for-measure. Hence, if, for example, children are born blind, it must be as punishment for sin in their previous lives. And since punishment is measure-for-measure, it must be that in their previous lives, they watched pornography.

In a previous post, Theodicy and Idiocy, I noted how making such statements, even if true, would be a transgression of ona'as devarim. In this post, I would like to explain why it is false for Rabbi Mizrachi to claim that he is simply repeating earlier sources.

Let's begin with this: Did you know that Rambam does not have a place in the World-to-Come? Also Yitzchak Meir Helfgot! And lots of other people you know! It's true, I have a source for it!
"Seven do not have a place in theWorld-to-Come: a clerk, a scribe, the best of physicians, a judge in his city, a magician, a chazzan, and a butcher" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 36)
Was not Rambam the best of physicians? And is Helfgot not a chazzan? So you see that they have no place in the World-to-Come!

Of course, it would be absurd to state such a thing, and nobody does. Every serious student of the Talmud understands that the Sages made many terse statements which are often contradicted by statements elsewhere and which cannot simplistically be translated into the real world. If you do, then the responsibility lies with you, not with the Sages.

Let's take the concept that "there is no suffering without sin." As Rav Yitzchak Blau points out, the Gemara in Shabbat 55a-b clearly implies that some suffering bears no causal relationship with sin, and the Gemara in Berachot 5a and other Talmudic sources support this idea. In fact, it's an enormously complicated topic, debated by many Rishonim and Acharonim, and certainly not something that can be repeated as a simple truism.

The idea of God working "measure for measure" is even more fraught with complexity. Was Yitzchak blind because he looked at improper sights? Did Moshe Rabbeinu have a speech impediment because he spoke lashon hara? Was Rabbi Akiva tortured by the Romans because he tortured other people? Is Yosef Mizrachi being trashed because he trashes others? (Well, yes.) It's impossible to translate the concept of "middah keneged middah" into real-life events, unless you're a prophet.

Rabbi Mizrachi is certainly not simply a "vessel" for the Gemara. He is making his own claims of how to explain why bad things happen to good people - something that even Moshe Rabbeinu didn't understand. But Rabbi Mizrachi's arrogance knows no boundaries. In the past, he has boasted about being compared to Moshe Rabbeinu, but now he is even smarter than Moshe Rabbeinu! In this video, he also boasts of having allegedly made nearly 150,000 people religious! And he claims that those who oppose him are not just the enemies of Yosef Mizrachi - they are the biggest enemies of the entire Jewish nation!

As for Rabbi Mizrachi's explanations of why various bad things happen, they are extremely silly (mentioning sheitels in a lecture about the Sassoon tragedy?!) and highly offensive. He deserves every bit of criticism that he received. And his disgusting trashing of the rabbis that criticized him speaks volumes about his character. If you're an intelligent, decent person, you should be finding other rabbis from whom to draw inspiration.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Impact of Rationalist Judaism

This blog began on the 8th of March 2009 and has thus been running for nearly eight years. I created it because I wanted a forum for exploring a school of thought in Judaism which, while dominant in the times of the Rishonim, has declined so dramatically that many supposedly great Torah scholars today don't even accept that it ever existed. It also became a forum for commentary on contemporary Orthodox Jewish society which, while not directly about rationalism, is certainly related to it. It also occasionally veers into topics of personal interest to me, such as politics and wild animals.

In an article about blogs in Tablet Magazine, it was stated that "Slifkin’s new blog would soon become enormously popular within the rabbinic blogosphere... By many accounts, he has almost single-handedly brought an entire new worldview to the fore." While I appreciate the praise, I do not agree that I have brought an "entire new worldview to the fore." What I have been working on is keeping alive a dying worldview. I like trying to save endangered species, whether blue whales or rationalist Judaism!

The reason why I am thinking about the impact of this blog is that today I took a look at the statistics of how many people actually read the most popular posts of the past eight years, and the results are astonishing:


Bear in mind that these figures do not include those who read this website via email subscription, which means that you have to add about another two thousand people. Four of the top ten posts are from December, and the number one, about Rav Elyashiv and Rabbi Metzger, has been read by over eighteen thousand people! I've sold about that number of some of my books, but only over a period of many years. This was just in a few days!

It is interesting to note that of the top ten posts, only two or three are directly about rationalist Judaism. Most are critiques of aspects of charedi society. These are the posts that bring the most virulent condemnation from some quarters, with people in the charedi world accusing me of everything from apikorsus to lashon hara to "spreading darkness." (It would doubtless come as a shock to them to learn how many rabbis there are who read and appreciate this blog!)

While my charedi critics claim that these posts turn people off Judaism, it seems to me what my opponents are really objecting to is that my posts turn people off charedi Judaism; indeed, some of them do not even seem to realize that there are other communities within Orthodox Judaism. However, while I acknowledge that it is unfortunate to have to criticize others, I consider it very important for me to write these posts because (a) there are serious flaws in charedi society with severe consequences, (b) virtually nobody in the charedi world dares talk about them, and (c) most critiques that can be found are not written from a religious perspective or from people who truly understand the charedi world.

And these posts certainly do have positive effects. For many people, it helps them find a more acceptable and traditional path in Orthodox Jewish society. For others, it is simply very reassuring to see that there are religious Jews who are not crazy. And with readers in the chareidi world - of whom there are many - it plants seeds of change.

My writing schedule has declined due to my increased responsibilities running The Biblical Museum of Natural History, but I hope to continue posting at least once or twice a week. I am also in the process of compiling many of my monographs and related material into a book, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. Another idea that I am toying with is collecting the best posts from this blog into a book (if anyone would like to volunteer to collate them all into a Word document, please let me know!).

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers for following this forum and especially to those who contribute useful insights (in particular David Ohsie!). If you would like to show your appreciation for the Rationalist Judaism website, it would be great to make a contribution to The Torah and Nature Foundation, the non-profit that supports The Biblical Museum of Natural History and some of my publications. You can donate online and find details about other donation opportunities at this link. I would also be interested to hear feedback about this blog in general, whether positive or negative. Thank you!

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