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!