Monday, December 31, 2018

A Stain on Religious Zionism

In the past I have frequently criticized the appalling misuse of rabbinic authority in the chareidi world. In fact, this was one of the reasons for my leaving it. Over a decade ago, I joined the dati-leumi (religious Zionist) community, in which I have been very happy.

It is therefore with great distress that I am writing about a deeply upsetting misuse of rabbinic authority in the dati-leumi world. There is still an enormous difference between the two worlds - this particular wrongdoing is being loudly and publicly discussed by many people in the dati-leumi world, including in the dati-leumi media, which would never happen in the charedi world. But it is nevertheless a stain.

Several years ago, the charismatic and brilliant teacher Rabbi Motti Elon was accused of inappropriate behavior with students. Takana - a religious organization that deals with abuse in the dati-leumi community, under the guidance of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l - investigated and decided that he was guilty. The police also launched an investigation and Elon was convicted of two counts of sexual molestation.

At the time, Rav Chaim Drukman - one of the most prestigious rabbinic figures in the dati-leumi world, and a recipient of the Israel Prize for his contributions to society and education - believed that Alon had been wrongly accused. He stated so publicly and challenged the legitimacy of Takana, which became (along with Rav Lichtenstein) the subject of slurs and threats. Significantly, Rav Drukman also supported Elon to continue teaching. There was a lot of anger against Rav Drukman, especially in light of the fact that in handling the case of another abuser, many years earlier, he had likewise acted incorrectly. But Rav Drukman clearly sincerely believed that Elon was innocent, and it was hard to absolutely conclusively prove otherwise.

A few weeks ago, yet another person came forward with an account about Elon. This time, he had recordings of Elon's behavior. He went to Rav Drukman, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu and Rav Yaakov Ariel, and they summoned Elon. Faced with the recordings, Elon had to confess.

Now, at this point, it was obviously clear that all the accusations against Elon had been true all along. Rav Drukman had made a terrible, terrible mistake. And as a result, there had been further victims. And good people had been baselessly slandered.

What would be the appropriate course of action for Rav Drukman? At the very least, a public and profound apology for all the harm that had been caused as a result of his mistake. And yet he has made no public statement at all!

This has caused immense distress for countless people in the dati-leumi world, aside from being an enormous chillul Hashem. And with Bayit Yehudi shamelessly promoting Rav Drukman as the rabbinic head of the party, it's no wonder that many dati-leumi voters are jumping ship along with Bennet and Shaked.

By now, it's already probably too late to apologize. Yes, Rav Drukman is an amazing person, with incredible accomplishments - but that just makes it all the more painful that he caused so much harm and has not reacted appropriately. The only way to repair at least some of the harm would be for Rav Drukman to take personal responsibility, and step down from public leadership.

As a wise uncle once said, with great power comes great responsibility. And with great responsibility comes great accountability.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Holy Land, the Holy City and the Holy Temple



The Land of Israel is known as the Holy Land, Jerusalem is the Holy City, and the Temple Mount is the holiest place of all. But what does that actually mean?

Do these places possess an intrinsic, metaphysical sanctity, embedded in them since Creation? That is the mystical view presented by R. Yehudah HaLevi in the Kuzari (V:23). It is the view taken as a given by countless rabbinic authorities over the ages, and popularly assumed today to be the only conceivable approach.

Rambam, on the other hand, was of the view that the sanctity of these places is not a metaphysical quality. Rather, it is a status that stems from their historical role. When Rambam stresses that the site of the altar must never be moved, the reason that he gives is not that it possesses inherent metaphysical significance. Rather, it is because of the history of the site, in terms of the events that took place there—the placement of the altar there by David and Solomon, the usage of that site by Avraham, and so on (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 2:1-2).

And the original selection of these sites could have been for relatively mundane reasons. Rambam's explanation for the selection of the Temple Mount will no doubt come as a shock to many:
"It is known that idolaters sought to build their temples and to set up their idols in the highest places they could find there, on the highest mountains. Therefore Avraham Avinu selected Mount Moriah, because of its being the highest mountain there, and proclaimed on it the unity of God." (Guide for the Perplexed 3:45)

Within Mount Moriah, Avraham decided that any divine worship would take place facing the west, and the the Temple itself was eventually situated there. The reason for this was again not connected to any special metaphysical properties of the westernmost part, but for a different reason entirely:
"Avraham designated the western part of it, that the Holy of Holies would be in the west… And it appears to me that the reason for this was that the popular view in the world at that time was to worship the sun as a god, and so people undoubtedly turned in prayer to the east. Therefore, Avraham Avinu turned to the west on Har HaMoriah—that is to say, in the Sanctuary—in order to have his back to the sun." (ibid.)

The consequence of Rambam's view, that the sanctity of the Land is a function of its usage rather than due to any intrinsic metaphysical qualities, is that this sanctity can disappear:
"All territories held by those who came up from Egypt, and consecrated with the first consecration, subsequently lost their sanctity when the people were exiled from there, since it was consecrated at the time due to the conquest alone and was not consecrated for all time. When the exiles returned and seized part of the land, they consecrated it a second time with a permanent consecration, both for that time and the future. " (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Terumot 1:5)

This view on the nature of the sanctity of the Land of Israel is not unique to Rambam, nor to the medieval philosophers. The same view is to be found in the writings of Rav Soloveitchik:
"With all my respect to the [views of certain] Rishonim, I must disagree that kedusha is an objective metaphysical quality inherent in the land. Kedusha… is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. Soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by a primordial superiority. Kedushat Ha’aretz denotes the consequence of a human act." (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 150)

It is crucial to stress that this does not mean that according to the rationalist approach, the Land of Israel or Jerusalem or the Temple Mount are any less holy than according to the mystical approach. Rather, it is simply a different perspective on what the nature of holiness is all about.

(Adapted from my forthcoming book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Rabbinic Thought. For extensive discussion, see Menachem Kellner's important work, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, pp. 107-115. He also references numerous other studies on this topic.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Three Magic Artifacts

We live in magical times.


First, there was the One Ring of Power. It was the Silver Segular Ring, crafted by the Dark Lord, Sauron God-fearing Yidden in purity, and immersed in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom a mikvah. It was engraved with Sauron's incantations special Sheimos HaKedoshim. It had to be tied to a chain so as not to escape its bearer double-wrapped at all times. It could only be obtained via a treacherous quest in the Misty Mountains by purchasing it from Mr. Avraham Leib Schwartz for several hundred dollars, via an advertisement in Mishpacha magazine.


Then, there was the Secret Silver Blade of Fortune. "Immersed in purity with the seal of Kabbalah," this wondrous blade, when used at the proper time with the correct incantations, had the ability to "open one's mazal." It had allegedly been proven to bring "success and prosperity" to "thousands of people." While historically the silver blade was been "secretly passed among mekubalim," it was now available to the general public, in exchange for a generous donation to a certain charity.

Now, there is the Coin of Protection!

The Coin of Protection was "personally imbued" by Rav Chaim Kanievsky, "a living Urim VeTumim," "with his special blessings of good health, good tidings, and success in all endeavors." Such an amulet coin "is considered to be a protection." It can be "placed under the pillow of someone undergoing surgery," and "worn around the neck in challenging times."

According to the advertisement, there is only one Coin of Protection, specially minted, that will be raffled off to donors to Ner Echad. But, fear not! Kupat Ha-Ir also has a special Coin of Protection, blessed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky. This one has been mass-produced (and mass-blessed?), and it can be yours for a donation of just $648. "Whether you keep it in your home, carry it with you for protection while traveling, or give it as a gift to a loved one, this shmira coin is a worth far more than its weight in gold!"

Making false promises of protection or salvation in order to manipulate people into giving money, even if it's for a worthy cause, is not a nice thing to do. There are people who end up impoverishing themselves due to desperate "investment" in such things. I think that the magazines which allow such advertisements and do not print critiques of them are likewise acting irresponsibly. (Not to mention the problem with all those who contribute to the myth of Rav Chaim being a living Urim VeTumim and other such Gadolatry.)


While the Gemara has several references to amulets, the usage of amulets has been on the decline for centuries, especially in Litvishe circles, along with the actual belief in demons (as opposed to the professed belief in demons). It's sad to see it making a comeback.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The End of the Year is Nigh

Wouldn't it be great if chassidishe kids, totally isolated from society, would learn about the wider world? Wouldn't it be great if they would learn to be able to learn from people outside of their community?

Wouldn't it be great if secular Jews could appreciate that Judaism is about much more than just synagogue and holidays?

Wouldn't it be great to have a way to bring the most arcane parts of Torah to life?

There's a place that does all of this, and more. It's the Biblical Museum of Natural History. We've hosted nearly 50,000 visitors from across the spectrum of society, and we are poised to move into a much larger facility and scale up our operations dramatically!

As 2018 draws to a close, if you still have some charity donations to disperse, please consider the Torah and Nature Foundation! That's our 501(c)(3) which operates the Biblical Museum of Natural History. Details of how to donate via credit card, check or Paypal can be found at this link. For larger gifts, exhibit dedications in our new building are available. Thank you, and well done, for participating in our mission!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Impurity, Treife, and the Monsey Butcher Scandal

One of the differences between rationalists and mystics is their different views regarding metaphysical entities. Rationalists minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces; mystics, on the other hand, tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces.

In the mystical worldview, metaphysical entities are not restricted to the world of angels and demons. Rather, there are metaphysical forces which lie at the core of basic principles of Judaism. Rationalists, on the other hand, understand these principles to be independent of a metaphysical framework, the existence of which they do not accept.

The concept of tumah, usually translated as "impurity," lies at the heart of many commandments. Corpses and dead vermin transmit impurity. The emission of certain bodily fluids renders one in a state of impurity, as does childbirth. Animals that are forbidden from consumption are also described as "impure" (the colloquial term "treife" is inaccurate).

But what is this "impurity"? According the mystical approach, this impurity is a metaphysical state—a sort of invisible, spiritual "dirt." It has objective existence, regardless of how people relate to it. According to the rationalist approach, on the other hand, impurity is not a metaphysical state. Rather, it is a designation, a state which we (following God's instructions) ascribe to certain people, creatures and objects.[1] And we are forbidden to eat certain foods, in order to accomplish various functions relating to perfecting our characters and our society; there is nothing inherently metaphysically impure about these foods.

The differing views on the nature of impurity are also seen in the laws of accidental and forced transgression.[2] The Torah is explicit that if someone sins by accident, they must nevertheless bring an offering. But why? Ramban, following the mystical approach, explains that even though it was an accident, the impurity has nevertheless tainted one's soul.[3] Rambam, on the other hand, explains that he has to atone for being somewhat negligent, as had he been more careful, the accident would not have happened.[4]

What if someone ate impure food through absolutely no negligence on their behalf, or in a case where it was halachically required (such as for survival)? According to Rambam, there are no negative consequences whatsoever.[5] Indeed, in a situation where kosher food items are mixed up with a non-kosher food item, according to many views one is entitled to rely on the majority of items and eat all the food, because with any given item, the odds are that it is kosher. This is despite the fact that if one eats all the items, one has certainly consumed the non-kosher item! Evidently, there is no concern for metaphysical harm; the only problem of eating non-kosher food is transgressing institutional prohibition.

According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, even if one eats non-kosher food in a situation where it is halachically permissible, or where there was no negligence at all, it has nevertheless still harmed one's soul. This was seen in the discussion following the notorious scandal in Monsey, where a respected butcher was discovered to have been selling non-kosher meat for years. Responsa published after the event made no reference to Rambam's view (they were probably unaware of it) and quoted numerous opinions from the mystically-inclined Rishonim to demonstrate that even though it was a case of onnes (no negligence at all), there would still be metaphysical harm caused to peoples' souls.[6] (The few opinions quoted in opposition stated that the metaphysical harmful characteristics of non-kosher food only come into existence where eating them is a sin, not in a case of onnes, but this is far from straightforward. The Rishonim who advocate for non-kosher food possessing metaphysically harmful qualities certainly appear to see this as a property of the food itself, which is the very cause of it being halachically forbidden, rather than being generated as a consequence of the prohibition.)

The differing views of the nature of non-kosher food may also explain the differing approaches with regard to checking vegetables for insects. Those who advocate for a far more intensive search than was traditionally done are usually of the mystical mindset, and are concerned for actual metaphysical harm that will be sustained by eating insects. Those following a rationalist approach, on the other hand, are of the view that following the classical halachic requirements is all that is required, and there is no metaphysical harm about which to be concerned.

________________________________
[1] See Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mikvaos 11:12. For extensive discussion, see Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, chapter 4.
[2] See Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, chapter 2.
[3] Ramban, Commentary to Leviticus 4:2.
[4] Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed 3:41.
[5] Guide 3:41; Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Maachalos Issuros 14:10-13. In fact it would seem that Rambam would define the category of onnes as a case where there was no negligence, whereas others would have a more limited definition.
[6] See Rabbi Gedaliah Oberlander, "Timtum Halev MeiAchilas Ma'achalos Issuros B'Onnes," Ohr Yisrael 45 pp. 103-109, and the rejoinder by Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Luban, Ohr Yisrael 46, pp. 49-52, available online here.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Defining Rationalism Vs. Mysticism

After considerable thought, I've decided to update my description of the differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of rabbinic thought. This is because I think it's important to add another category, that of supernatural entities. So, I would like to present the differences between rationalists and non-rationalists as falling into four related areas:

I. KNOWLEDGE

Rationalists believe that knowledge is legitimately obtained by man via his reasoning and senses, and should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims.

Mystics are skeptical of the ability of the human mind to arrive at truths, and prefer to base knowledge on revelation, or – for those who are not worthy of revelation – on faith in those who do experience revelation.

(This relates to how, as we shall now discuss, rationalists see the universe as essentially following a natural order, and hence we can understand it via our senses and reasoning. According to mystics, the supernatural order is dominant, and thus truths about existence require revelation.)

II. NATURAL LAW

Rationalists value a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceive a consistent natural order over history, past present and future.

Mystics prefer miracles, and believe them to be especially dominant in ancient history and the future messianic era. They tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces.

III. SUPERNATURAL ENTITIES

Rationalists minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces, seeing them as threatening monotheism. They believe in God, and depending on where on the rationalist spectrum they fall, they may believe in a small number of other supernatural entities or none at all. Discussions of apparent supernatural entities in classical literature are reinterpreted or rejected.

Mystics tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces. They can be either forces of holiness, or forces of evil. These include all kinds of angels and demons, astrological forces, sefirot (emanations), olamot (spiritual worlds), and an infinite number of other metaphysical entities.

IV. THE SERVICE OF GOD

Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos and one’s religious life in general as furthering intellectual and/or moral goals for the individual and society. Even chukkim serve to accomplish these functions, albeit in a way that is not immediately obvious.

Mystics accept that mitzvos serve intellectual and moral goals, but see the primary function of mitzvos as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual metaphysical forces. The reasons for mitzvos are either to accomplish these manipulations, or are ultimately incomprehensible.

(In related news, my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought is nearly finished!)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Making of Twins

A constant claim issued by non-rationalists, such as Rav Aharon Feldman and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, is that it's absurd to state that Chazal or the Rishonim could have been mistaken about scientific facts, because their knowledge was far ahead of their era; Chazal knew things that have only recently been discovered by modern science. Over the last twenty years I've examined many such claims, and in every single case, I discovered that the alleged modern scientific facts stated by Chazal are either

1) things that do not mean what they are claimed to mean, or are so ambiguous that they can be interpreted in all kinds of ways;

2) things that non-Jews knew also; or

3) things that are not actually true.

I recently came across a new such claim, proposed by our old friend "Rabbi" Yosef Mizrachi. He argues that until twenty years ago, nobody knew how identical twins are formed. They knew that non-identical twins are formed by two sperm combining with two eggs, but they did not know how identical twins are formed. Chazal, on other hand, did know: "The Gemara said, one seed went into one egg and split into two!" Mizrachi goes on to stress how eggs cannot be seen without a microscope, implying that Chazal could only have known this due to supernatural knowledge. (He then segues into mocking evolution, and asks why anyone would go to college and pay to be taught nonsense; he finishes by telling his audience that they don't know how lucky they are to be able to be listening to him.)

Is his claim true? Of course not. Let's leave aside the minor inaccuracy regarding when medical science discovered how identical twins are formed (it was not twenty years ago - it was already known in the nineteenth century). And let's leave aside the inaccurate claim that a human egg is too small to be seen without a microscope - it isn't. Let's just address his claim that the Gemara said that "one seed went into one egg and split into two."

There ain't no such Gemara.

What the Gemara (in Yevamos 98b and Niddah 27a) actually says is that twins are formed "when one drop (tipah) divides into two." The word "drop" refers to the male sperm, not to the female ovum. Similarly, Aristotle believed that twins result from an abundance of sperm; it is the intuitive, albeit incorrect, conclusion. Chazal did not know that females produce ova. Rather, they had a different idea as to the role that a woman plays in the formation of a fetus:
"Our Rabbis taught: There are three partners in the creation of man - God, the father and the mother. The father seminates (mazria) the white substance, from which are derived the bones, vessels, fingernails, brain and the white of the eye. The mother seminates (mezara'at) the red substance, from which are derived the skin, flesh, hair and the black of the eye. God provides the spirit, the soul, the beauty of the features, vision for the eyes, hearing for the ears, speech for the mouth... and intelligence." (Niddah 31a)
Ramban elaborates that the fetus is not formed from any female "seed," as there is no such thing; rather, the "red substance" to which the Sages are referring is uterine blood. Tashbetz writes similarly.

So, rather than Chazal knowing how twins are formed long before modern science discovered it, Chazal actually had a mistaken view of fetal development (as did everyone in antiquity). It is, of course, very psychologically reassuring to believe that Chazal knew modern science through supernatural means. Alas, there is no evidence for it, and overwhelming evidence against it.


For further discussion, see:
Jeremy Brown, On Twins, and the Sperm that Splits in Two
Edward Reichman, The Rabbinic Conception of Conception: An Exercise in Fertility

Monday, December 10, 2018

Is This Book In Cherem?

Is my new Hebrew book, Yitzurei HaPele B'Midrash UveMada, in cherem?

It might seem clear that it is. After all, it's a direct Hebrew translation of Sacred Monsters. And that book was an expanded edition of Mysterious Creatures. And Mysterious Creatures was most definitely put in cherem, declared to be utter heresy by around three dozen leading charedi Gedolim.

But in fact, matters are not so straightforward.

The original "problem" with Mysterious Creatures was that it took a rationalist approach, which allowed for science proving certain things, and for the Sages having held beliefs about the natural world that were based upon the standard and sometimes errant beliefs of their era, rather than divine sources of knowledge. This was, of course, also the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch, and many dozens of other prominent Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim, right up to our generation.

Of the charedi rabbinic authorities who declared the book to be heretical, some of them (such as the late Rav Moshe Shapiro and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel) genuinely believe this approach to be absolutely heretical. As for the dozens of great rabbinic authorities who held this view - they are unaware of many of these sources and in denial of the others, claiming them to be forgeries and so on. According to these rabbis, my new Hebrew book is likewise absolutely heretical and must be burned.

On the other hand, some of the others who signed on the ban against my book, such as Rav Elyashiv, were aware that there were great Torah authorities of the past who took this approach. And when they signed that my book was heretical, they didn't actually mean that it was heretical. As Rav Elyashiv stated, "כוונתי כשהצטרפתי לקול קורא היתה רק בנוגע שהספרים אסורים לבא בקהל""  ("My intention when I added my name to the public announcement [regarding the issur] was only regarding that the books should not enter the community.") He was against this approach being taught in the charedi community, partly because charedim innately do not agree with that approach (which they are entitled to do, notwithstanding its illustrious heritage), and partly because they believe it to be educationally dangerous (which may well be true for many people in that community). Indeed, that book was written by a charedi author and published by a charedi publisher with charedi haskamos in a way that would target it to a charedi audience.

Yitzurei HaPele, on the other hand, is packaged very differently. It's softcover (which is almost never the case with "real" sifrei kodesh). It has no rabbinic endorsements printed in it. It's published by Maggid/Koren. It's written by someone with a doctorate from Bar-Ilan. It's clearly not a charedi book, and no threat to the charedi community.

So is it a heretical book in cherem? I think it's a machlokes charedi Gedolim.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Rubashkin Contradiction

One year ago, Sholom Rubashkin was released from prison. (For an excellent discussion of the entire tragic story, along with many other fascinating topics in kashrut, I recommend the book Kosher USA.) Rubashkin's sentence was absurdly excessive and it was wonderful that it was commuted. Yet I bemoaned how the yeshivishe press was portraying him. Although Rubashkin didn't deserve the punishment that he received, he had nevertheless committed serious crimes that caused great harm. Yet the press were portraying him as a hero, the Sharansky of our era.

Several people (including a close friend) criticized me sharply. But their criticism was not all the same. Some of them criticized me for attributing any wrongdoing to Rubashkin. They insisted that he was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. Others agreed that he had committed some wrongdoings, but insisted that he wasn't being celebrated as any kind of hero; people were just rejoicing that his unjust sentence was being commuted.

It is now one year since Rubashkin's release from prison. Tonight, there is an enormous party and concert, celebrating the "Baal Haness," pictured triumphantly clapping over the cheering crowds. During the last year, Rubashkin has been paraded as a celebrity, invited to speak at numerous venues. He also published a book of "inspirational messages and divrei Torah." As far as I am aware (and I would welcome being proved wrong), in his speeches and writings he does not bemoan making terrible mistakes that harmed many people. Nor does he use this opportunity to beg people not to break the law. Instead, he speaks about his great emunah and bitachon.

On the other hand, if you read the account of his sentencing, a very different picture emerges. Rubashkin was described as giving a "tearful apology." He told the court "I guess this is the time to apologize to my community, and especially to my dear wife and children, for the harm I have caused them. There are no words to express the grief that I feel and have caused them.” A psychiatrist spoke on his behalf, and attested that "Rubashkin expressed regret for the harm he had caused himself and others."

So was Rubashkin lying? Was all that merely in order to fool the judge? Or was he sincere - in which case, why does that sentiment appear to have gone out of the window?

Which is the real Sholom Rubashkin?

A Celestial Menorah

On the eve of Chanukah, Mr. Lee Samson, chairman of the museum foundation (and also my father-in-law), took this extraordinary photograph of a natural menorah formed in the Jerusalem sky by the clouds refracting the sunlight. If I didn't personally know the person who took the photo, I would be certain that it was photoshopped! And the timing makes it doubly amazing!

(Cue discussion about whether this is an example of a supernatural intervention, or merely a wonderful natural phenomenon with coincidental timing!)

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Most Powerful Man in the Charedi Litvishe World

Warning: This is an extremely disturbing post.

Who is the most powerful man in the charedi litvishe world?

Most people would say that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, the "Sar HaTorah" ("Prince of Torah") is the leader, or at least the most prominent figure.

Of course, like all charedi Gedolim, access to him is controlled by his gabbaim (handlers/ gatekeepers). The gabbaim decide which people get to meet with him and which information he finds out about. The gabbaim often presenting other peoples' cases to him, and draft letters for him to sign. If you're cynical, you believe that these gabbaim essentially control everything that Rav Chaim believes and says. If you're idealistic, you believe that he has selected good people, men of integrity, to suitably filter the information and causes that reach him. Either way, the gabbaim are the power behind the throne.

One of the most important of Rav Chaim Kanievesky's gabbaim is his grandson, Yanky Kanievsky. Just recently he decided to block the rabbis of a certain town from meeting with Rav Chaim regarding a political matter. You'll see Yanky Kanievsky in many photos of Rav Chaim in the charedi press, standing by his side or in the background:


Here's another photo of Yanky Kanievsky, that you won't be seeing in the charedi press:



This is Yanky Kanievsky at a party in Bnei Brak, on Tuesday of this week. But who is the person that he is sitting next to, and happily talking with?

His name is Yisrael Draiman. According to some reports, he was "merely" an honored guest, who gets to shmooze with one of the most powerful men in the charedi litvishe world; according to other reports (which seem to be more reliable, since they came before the backlash), the party was actually a farewell party in his honor. Because he is about to go to prison. Yisrael Draiman was charged with tens of counts of molestation, indecent sexual acts, and sodomy of four little girls, each around twelve years old.

(This was reported on the website Rotter.net, along with the photos, but the article has now disappeared. Jewish Community Watch spoke to one of the people present at the party, who clearly stated that it was an event in his honor.)

Now you can understand how it came to be that Rav Chaim Kanievsky signed a letter attesting to the righteousness of Elior Chen, the worst child molester in the history of the state. (The fact that Rav Chaim, after subsequently being told of Chen's crimes, defended signing on the grounds that he signs whatever other rabbis sign, is an even worse indictment.)

Similarly, Rav Yitzchak Silberstein wrote a letter attesting to the innocence of Malka Leifer, on the grounds that "trustworthy rabbis" told him that the 74 charges of child molestation are false. (The letter was also signed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky.)

Similarly, Leib Tropper had the support of dozens of Gedolim despite long-standing rumors of his being a predator, and even after video evidence emerged, Rav Elyashiv's grandson attended an event in his honor.

Don't expect to see any of this discussed in Yated, HaModia, Ami, Mishpacha, or even Cross-Currents. They do not exist to provide news that people actually need to know. They cover such things up and indoctrinate their readers with a false version of reality.

The chareidi structure of leadership and power - the elderly, sheltered Gedolim with their gabbaim and their Daas Torah pronouncements and their fawning press and their society of fear and the zero transparency or accountability - is fundamentally rotten. It causes untold harm to countless innocent people. If you defend or uphold the charedi structure of leadership, then you are complicit in this harm.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Chanukah Measles Song

(I have no idea who wrote this. To be sung to the tune of Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel)


I have a little Yingel
With rash and eye discharge
I thought that it was nothing
But my doctor made it large

He said your kid has measles
Why didn't you give shots?
I told him it's baloney
An evil doctors' plot

Measles, measles, measles
I will not immunize
So what if my neighbors' kids
All have pus in their eyes

My son was exposed to measles
They said don't send to school
I just put him on the bus
Do they think I'm a fool?

Board of Health says no school
Not one of them is Frum
I just sent him anyway
How dare you say it's Krum!

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

They said immunize your kids
I answer with contempt
Don't bother me with that Shtus
I'm religiously exempt

I sent the school a health form
I said he's immunized
When they have an outbreak
They sure will be surprised

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

I just don't get some people
Who are religious weasels
Who use their "quote" Frumkeit
To immunize for measles

I want to visit Bubby
Why should I go alone?
I'll take my little tzadik 
And expose the nursing home

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

Sit down at the table
The family will eat hearty
As you spread your measles
At the family Chanukah party

Be a real good person
Do not be a miser
Give your friends and family
Rashes and coryza

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Daas Torah of AntiVaxxers

Somebody emailed me two publications from the Jewish anti-vaccination group called PEACH (Parents Educating and Advocating for Children's Health), one called The Vaccine Safety Handbook and the other called All Your Vaccine Questions Answered. They are beautifully produced, with highly visually appealing layout, and an abundance of information. I fear that they will make a large impact.

Now, I didn't read through them carefully. And I will make an honest admission: I really don't know much about vaccinations. I certainly don't have rejoinders for every point made in these booklets.

Nevertheless, I am confident that the global medical and pharmaceutical community is correct about the importance of vaccines. And, flicking through the anti-vaccination publications, some things jumped out at me as examples of their deeply flawed epistemology.

One was a quote from Bill Gates at a 20190 TED Talk, printed under the heading "Vaccination for... Depopulation?" The quote read, "The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's heading up to about nine billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care and reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent."

"It's all just for PR. Really, he wants to KILL CHILDREN"
Oh my God! Vaccinations are part of an effort by the most powerful billionaires to kill people and reduce the world population!!!

Of course, this isn't what Gates actually said at all. I knew that even before checking the Snopes article to see exactly how it was distorted. But it's not just that it's a distortion of what he said. The point is that if you think for a moment that Bill Gates, a man who works full-time to give away most of his billions to charity, wants to commit mass murder, and moreover, that he would state this in a public lecture, then your critical thinking skills clearly need an upgrade.

The other thing that jumped out at me was a letter from one of the main rabbinic forces behind the antivax crowd, Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla from Lakewood. I've discussed his views in my post When Rabbis Quack, in the context of his book Alternative Medicine in Halacha. That book, aside from promoting quasi-idolatrous "energy healing" nonsense, makes the dangerous and utterly false claim that "Contemporary medicine is the product of modern science, which denies the existence of Hashem and His Omnipresence." Szmerla also rejects the modern scientific techniques of requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence. His reason is that these stand 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. And if you're going to go with anecdotal claims which are not supported by double-blind testing, then you're open to every single quack remedy ever.

Anyway, in this antivax publication, the letter from Rabbi Szmerla states in part as follows:
...Although the medical establishment claims that only a few adverse effects have been proven to be related to vaccines, Hashem who knows the reality will hold the responsible parties accountable even for what is yet unrecognized by science (here he sources the Gra - N.S.). Although many people do not view the moral responsibilities of a school this way, we know that Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah. Vaccines are not 100% effective, which is why vaccinated children sometimes contract those diseases and can carry their germs. In other words, vaccines are only a form of hishtadlus. Ultimately, it is only Hashem's protection that guarantees the safety and health of our children. It is only by acting according to His will - not the medical doctors - that a school and its students can be worthy of his protection.

This paragraph contains so much dangerous nonsense. Let's start with his trying to scare people that Hashem will punish them for adverse effects from vaccines even if science does not yet recognize them. His source for that is the Vilna Gaon's statement that one is punished for sinning even if the sin is accidental or one is forced to do it, since aveira gorreres aveira and one would not have been put in that situation if not for an earlier sin. Now, first of all, the Gra's view is not conventional, to put it mildly. Second, for a school to do the best it can for the health and safety of its students is not an aveira, it is a mitzva!

Then he invokes the notion that "Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah" - that Daas Torah is the opposite of popular belief. He seems to utilize this to mean that there is no reason to reject something, even if it goes against all conventional wisdom. In other words, "let's be completely irrational, it's a mitzvah!"

Finally, Szmerla argues that being protected from illness only comes as result of following Hashem's will, not that of doctors. He thereby insinuates that the two are mutually exclusive. But the halachah is very clear, that Hashem's will is that we are supposed to follow the opinion of doctors! We even transgress Shabbos and Yom Kippur if doctors say so!


I don't think that my blog post is going to sway the antivaxxers, for him this is a deeply-held identity. Still, I do think that it would be valuable for someone to produce an equally detailed and professionally-produce rebuttal to the antivax publications.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

For Whom Money Grows On Trees

In shul today I came across a parasha sheet which displayed this astonishing cartoon:


On the left is a hard-working farmer, whose tree is not producing fruit, despite him adding fertilizer to it. On the right is a kollel man, who doesn't need to put in any effort for parnasah - instead, money is just dropping off his tree!

But it gets even more outrageous.

The picture accompanies a dvar Torah about parashas Vayishlach. The dvar Torah is based off the account of how Yaakov went to the trouble of going back to get some small utensils. Chazal explain that for the righteous, who don't take shortcuts such as theft, their possessions are of great value to them, and they go to great efforts to look after them. The parasha sheet quotes this, and then explains that a few small utensils that have Hashem's blessing can therefore be worth more than millions of gold coins, and then segues into relating how for the righteous, their money miraculously pays for all their needs and they have plenty left over at the end of the month, whereas people with big paychecks lose all their money to "doctors and lawyers"! It continues to explain how the righteous don't need to put in regular efforts for parnasa, because they are aware that Hashem has in any case already decided on Rosh Hashana how much they will receive! It ignores the fact that Yaakov worked for many, many years to attain his prosperity.


Incredibly, then, the parasha sheet has managed to twist the Torah's lesson about effort and responsibility for parnasah, into a lesson about how one doesn't need to put in effort!

In the yeshivah world, they often say that Daas Baalei Batim is the opposite of Daas Torah. Well, here's a case where "Daas Torah" is not only the opposite of Daas, but it's even the opposite of Torah!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Precious Torah Moments

There's a fabulous story about the football (soccer בלע"ז) match this week between Israel and Scotland in Glasgow. As the television cameras panned around the crowd at the stadium, viewers caught sight of an elderly rabbi, wrapped up against the cold in a thick coat and scarf, learning from a sefer! The camera paused on this extraordinary sight, as one of the commentators laments that he missed the goal, and adds that the book must be a good read!

The rabbi was none other than Rav Zev Leff of Moshav Mattityahu. He was in Scotland visiting his children, and he took his grandchildren to the football game. It's an extraordinary kiddush Hashem, and a lesson for us, in two ways. But before getting to that, since this forum is about explaining the Rationalist Judaism perspective of Rambam, there is a comment that must be made.

In the Forward's charming article on this story, it quotes Rav Leff as saying that "If for one second there would be no one learning Torah anywhere in the world, the world would cease to exist.” This is, of course, common doctrine in the yeshivah world today, and was strongly articulated by R. Chaim of Volozhin. Indeed, for this reason, study shifts in the Volozhin yeshivah were arranged so that there was at least one student learning Torah at every moment of every day and night. The doctrine is presumed to lend credence to the mystical view of Torah study; that it creates the spiritual energy necessary for the world to function.

However, although R. Chaim attempts to show that this doctrine is based on classical texts from Chazal, this does not appear to be the case. Careful study reveals that, yet again, we have a situation where a relatively mild view was strengthened over time, infused with mystical meaning, and then read back into earlier sources.

I will be discussing this topic in great detail in my forthcoming book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Rabbinic Thought. For now, I will just give one example.
One source, cited by R. Haim of Volozhin, is the tenth-century Midrash of Tanna Devei Eliyahu: "The sages said: Whenever people neglect the Torah, the Holy One seeks to destroy the world" (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba 2). Does this prove R. Chaim's doctrine?

First, let us note that it does not say that if people cease studying Torah then the world will be destroyed. Rather, it is a somewhat milder statement that when people neglect Torah (implying something that actually happens from time to time), God seeks to destroy the world (but does not actually do so).

Second, it says that they neglect the Torah, not that they neglect the study of Torah, and so it might refer to neglecting the observance of Torah. If we look at the full text of the Midrash, we see that this does indeed seem to be the reference. The context is a discussion of the severity of the punishment for the trivial sins of the righteous, naming Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu (which were not sins of neglecting Torah study), which segues into a discussion of the Deluge (which was likewise not a punishment for the sin of neglecting Torah study). It says: 
"And why is there all this (punishment)? Because of [their transgression against] 'The Torah of God which is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of God which is sure, making the simple wise; the precepts of God which are right, making the heart rejoice; the instruction of God is lucid, making the eyes light up; the fear of God is pure, abiding forever; the judgments of God are true, altogether righteous; more desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb' (Ps. 19:8-11). From here we see, the sages said, that whenever people neglect the Torah, the Holy One seeks to destroy the world, as it says, 'Give praise to God, you divine beings,' (Ps. 29:1, which concludes with a reference to the Deluge), and the divine beings are the ministering angels. The Holy One said: I multiplied men (at the time of the Deluge) like the birds of the heaven and the fish of the sea, and they did not fulfill My will, therefore I hid My face from them." (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba 2) 

The entire discussion here is about people neglecting the observance of Torah, not the study of Torah.

Thus, Torah study does not mystically support the existence of the world at every moment. Rather, Torah study is incredibly important for the reasons given by the Rishonim - that it teaches us important concepts, and teaches us how to improve our characters and how to improve society.

Now, back the football match. Rav Leff's viral fame is an instructional Kiddush Hashem for two reasons. The obvious one is that it shows how great men use their time for applying their brains for self-improvement, rather than mindlessly watching grown men kick a ball around. Halevay we should all make use of our time so meticulously.

But there's also a second lesson here, which Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz pointed out. Clearly, Rav Leff does not have any interest in attending football games, especially not in a cold Scottish winter. And yet he did! He went because, as his daughter explained in an interview, he wanted to spend time with his grandchildren, participating in something that is important to them. As Rabbi Horowitz writes: "If all parents and grandparents had the attitude that spending time with their kids/grandkids is something well worth going outside their own comfort zone, those of us who deal with teens-at-risk would get far less “business” down the road." Indeed!


On another note - if on Thanksgiving you're wondering how we can eat turkey, seeing as there is no mesorah for it being a kosher bird, read my article at this link.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Vaccines and Big Pharma: An Insider's Perspective

A neighbor of mine, lovely guy and terrific musician, is a staunch anti-vaxxer. He is very vocal about his view that vaccines are highly dangerous and exist only to make money for Big Pharma. (He also believes that the world is run by a small cabal called the Build-a-Bear Bilderberg Group, and that diet soda is an experiment to test poisons, which is why Obama never drank it. And that Michelle Obama is a man. Seriously.)

Anyway, I asked him as follows: If it's a conspiracy, who is in on it? If you have an opinion from immunologist who works for Big Pharma, can you trust it? My neighbor replied as follows:
Workers for Big Pharma, who makes billions of dollars of vaccines and drugs, represent the interests of the companies they work for and are biased. They can NOT be sued for their vaccine harming or killing hundreds of thousands of people, which they in fact do. Putting your soul trust in big pharma workers would be like trusting a fox to watch a hen house, or Hamas to run security at Ben Gurion airport!
So I reached out to an immunologist who works for Big Pharma and asked him to write a guest post. Here it is, followed by my comments:

Big Pharma: An Insider's View

by Dr. Joel Kaye

For many years I have been advocating for vaccination, based on an insider’s perspective. I have a PhD in Immunology from the Weizmann Institute of Science, and a Fellowship (PostDoc) in Immunology from Harvard Medical School. I have spent 14 years in Teva Pharmaceuticals trying to develop new medicines for Multiple Sclerosis patients. I understand how the immune system works, how vaccines work and how they have eradicated fatal diseases across the world. To me, immunology is fascinating and exciting, and I cannot begin to fathom how anyone could not accept the basic facts.

And then I discovered that a relative posted a question on Facebook asking about attending a Shabbat meal in which her prematurely-born baby would be exposed to someone who has not been vaccinated. I called her and advised her not to go, and to my horror discovered that the unvaccinated person was the child of another family member, who has chosen not to vaccinate their second child.

How could there be an anti-vaxxer in the family? I spoke to this other family member and offered to help with any questions they had, to provide relevant information and stressed the importance of vaccination. One of the most surprising things they said to me was, "Why should we listen to what the Ministry of Health tells us to do?"

Wait, what? Where did this come from?

So, I did a little reading on the psychology behind anti-vaxxers, and found this very recent paper that breaks it down:



In order of magnitude, anti-vax attitudes were highest amongst those who were high in conspiratorial thinking. Of the five characteristics of Science Denialism, the top is Conspiracy: arguing that scientific consensus is a result of a complex and secretive conspiracy between Big Pharma and the Government. Pop culture tells us that the big pharmaceutical companies know all about the simple, natural cures for everything — cancer included — but are covering them up in order to continue milking sick people for profit. (See too http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/315761/Best-practice-guidance-respond-vocal-vaccine-deniers-public.pdf)

What people don’t realize is how regulated, stringent and difficult the Pharma Industry is. Developing vaccines is not that different from drug development. It is an expensive, long and structured process that sees many drugs fail before reaching the market. I personally worked on a drug for multiple sclerosis for twelve years, and it failed. It just didn’t work, despite all the effort we had put into it. And nobody at Teva thought for a second that we should cover it up and get it to market. Even if someone had tried, the FDA would never have bought into an argument of benefit to a patient—because there wasn’t any. For those that don't know, the vaccine testing and approval as well as drug development cycle takes years. There are many stages including:

• Exploratory/Discovery/Research stage

• Pre-clinical stage

• Clinical development

• Regulatory review and approval

• Manufacturing

• Quality control

Clinical development is a three-phase process. During Phase I, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine. In Phase II, the clinical study is expanded and vaccine is given to people who have characteristics (such as age and physical health) similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended. In Phase III, the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety. Many vaccines undergo Phase IV formal, ongoing studies after the vaccine is approved and licensed.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of employees in a company working on a single product at any given time. There are countless interactions with the Health Authorities all over the world. Stringent practices for reporting adverse events (side effects) and following the safety of patients. Therefore, there are thousands more hospital employees, contract researchers, government officials and so on who are also involved in a clinical study for a single product at any given time. It is ludicrous to think that all of these hard-working, honest people are part of a conspiracy.

I know of myself and my colleagues that there is one thing that drives us, gets us up in the mornings and makes us stay in this tough industry: Maybe, and it's only a maybe, we will bring a new medicine to benefit the health of a patient somewhere in the world. May I be rewarded with that accomplishment, many times over, and not have to hear about children falling sick and dying because people think that I am part of an evil conspiracy.

*    *    *    End of guest post   *    *    *

Now, I suppose it's possible that this Big Pharma immunologist is himself lying and part of the conspiracy - after all, he is on their payroll. But I don't think that he is. I trust Dr. Joel Kaye, and I know him well.

He's been married to my sister for twenty-one years.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Baby Steps with Burqa Babes

This week's Mishpacha magazine has a photo of burqa babes for its article about the dangerous Lev Tahor cult. Abe Paneth pithily points out the following:
The irony. Mishpacha magazine is using this image to illustrate how extreme Lev Tahor is. This is how a woman has to look like to be allowed in Lev Tahor's village. But this is also how a woman has to look like to be allowed onto Mishpacha's cover! 
Indeed!

However, let's be grateful for baby steps. In a 2015 Mishpacha article about burqas, they did not show any pictures of these women, instead showing numerous pictures of a doll draped in a burqa!

At the time, somebody sent me a letter that they wrote to Mishpacha regarding this:
Dear Editor, Thank you for reporting about women who misguidedly wear burka-type garments to cover over their form. They mistakenly believe that they can only be seen by others if they are totally covered. However it is interesting that Mishpocha Magazine goes further and feels that even fully covered they cannot be seen and hence no pictures of them in the article about them. Sincerely, Noson Yanofsky

As I wrote in my original blog post, in a society in which it is forbidden to show pictures of women, it is hardly surprising that women start to wear burqas. And if it's forbidden to show pictures of women even if they wear burquas, then the natural end result is that women will eventually see it as an ideal (and then an imposed standard) not to leave the house at all.

So, let's be grateful for baby steps. Yeshivish society has progressed from giving the impression that women cannot be seen under any circumstances, to giving the impression that they can only be seen if they are wearing burqas. Progress you can't deny!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Origin of Aggados

Following is a fabulous extract from a letter by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to Rav Hile Wechsler. He addresses the claim that Aggados do not originate from the Sages, but rather from Sinai:
"When you say that there are many statements made about which one cannot possibly say that they originated only with the Sages... I must say that I agree with you that there are indeed many statements made by our Sages which did not originate from them but which were handed down to them, especially the stories of events of far-off days in the past, e.g., the stories of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans, the stories of Moses before he was elected by God, and so on. A proof for this lies in the fact that many stories told by late Amora'im can be found, almost word for word, in the writings of Philo, who lived centuries earlier in Alexandria during Temple times.

"But even here there is no need to assume that these tales originated from Sinai, but, rather, that they were part of an ancient folk tradition. It seems to me reasonable to say that even from earliest times, from the days of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Shem and Ever, such stories were transmitted and eventually were related to Abraham, and he passed them on to his descendants.

"Yet I would not swear to the accuracy of these tales or to equate them with the stories of Moses and the prophets. Possibly, some of them were merely told for moralistic and instructive ends. Even the stories of Abraham, Terach and Nimrod in Ur of the Chaldeans may have been told for homiletical purposes. They may have been constructed on the basis of the view that Abraham recognized his Creator when only three years of age, as derived from the numerical value of the word ekev, and on the basis of the phrase, "I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans." One should not reject someone who adopts this standpoint, for indeed, there are views that hold that Abraham did not recognize God until the age of fifty-two or more. Had those tales been held to be incontrovertible truths, one could not have set his conversion during his later age.

"One need not be surprised at this, for even the Job stories have been described by some of our Sages as not factual but allegorical, personifications of wisdom, virtue and the fear of God."
(Printed in Volume IX of Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pp. 214-215)

Rav Hirsch's words might sound shocking to some, but they are actually completely consistent with the writings of classic Rabbinic scholars. See Rabbi Chaim Eisen's article in Hakira, "Maharal's Be'er ha-Golah and His Revolution in Aggadic Scholarship."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Missiles, Measles, and Missives

At this time, the Jewish People are being bombarded with three very different, yet perhaps related, things. Hundreds of missiles have been fired from Gaza on towns throughout the southern region of Israel. An outbreak of measles in Israel and New York has already claimed the life of a baby and threatens many more. And there are missives throughout Jerusalem relating to the municipal elections today, with Daas Torah telling everyone who to vote for.

The common factor with all these three phenomena is that they relate to, and give rise to questions about, the role of experts and authority.

Let's begin with measles. The overwhelming consensus of expert medical opinion is that vaccination should be done and would have prevented the current tragic situation. Unfortunately, there is a significant body of people who are skeptical of "expert consensuses" (for reasons discussed in my post on the Lakewood Suicide Squad). They aren't evil, even though their actions have terrible consequences. They sincerely believe that the so-called experts cannot be trusted and are wrong, and they will give you all kinds of reasons for this.

Now let's turn to the missile barrage from Gaza. According to a large body of military experts who spoke up in favor of the Disengagement in 2004 (see the list of experts in the advertisement pictured here, as well as the citations at this link), this wasn't going to happen. The Disengagement was going to enhance the security situation. General and Prime Minister Sharon claimed that disengaging would give the IDF a free hand to respond with full military force if Gaza attacked us. Ha! (It reminded me of the Oslo days, when Peres insisted that giving guns to the PA was safe, because the first time that one of those guns would be used against an Israeli, Israel would swoop down in force and end everything.) To many of us ordinary folks, on the other hand, it was obvious that the Gazans would attack Israel, and Israel would not have a free hand to respond, because of international condemnation. Clearly, these experts were all wrong.

Then you have today's municipal elections in Jerusalem, where the alleged experts are completely divided, yet utterly sure of themselves. The Lithuanian and Sefardic Gedolim insist that Daas Torah mandates that one must vote for Moshe Leon. The Chassidic Gedolim and the Peleg faction, on the other hand, state that Daas Torah requires one not to vote for him. (I'm not sure if the Religious Zionist community has voiced Daas Torah on this topic.) So what actually is Daas Torah on this topic? And if there isn't any, why are these Gedolim all so sure that there is?

These three situations present us with the following question: When do you trust the experts, and when do you not trust the experts?

The answer is that things are complex, and it depends on the situation.

In matters relating to hard science, expertise is of great significance. Yes, it's always possible that there is some kind of fundamental epistemological error, or some kind of bias. However, given the huge amount of hard data available with regard to vaccinations, and the broad spectrum of people who possess expertise in this topic and all share the same conclusion, it is reasonable to be sure that the experts know what they are talking about.

Matters relating to war, peace and politics are more complicated. Yes, military expertise certainly helps. And it's frustrating to see the well-meaning but not well-thought-out armchair generals on Facebook talking about how the IDF should carpet-bomb Gaza, without thinking through the moral, tactical or political implications of such an act. Still, the fact is that projections as to what will bring security are heavily shaded by one's political outlook, as well as a host of psychological and sociological factors. For example, secular Israelis tend to be more desperate for acceptance by other countries and thus inclined to believe that this can be achieved, whereas religious Israelis tend to be more resigned to being globally despised.

As for the expertise of Daas Torah regarding who to vote for, it's simply a myth. Torah does not give any special insight into which mayor to vote for. Torah is an immensely rich body of wisdom accumulated over a long period in many places by many people, and it certainly does not have a single viewpoint that can be mapped on to the simultaneously immensely complicated question of how to govern a city. Furthermore, there's no reason to think that great Talmudists, or descendants of Chassidic Rebbes, possess any particular wisdom - in fact, Chazal state explicitly that there is the possibility of a Talmid Chacham completely lacking wisdom. Thus, there is no reason to think that the Lithuanian, Sefardic, Peleg or Chassidic voices of Daas Torah have any particular insight as to which mayoral candidate to vote for.

As to why they seem to think otherwise - well, that's because they have a different, non-rationalist view of the nature of Torah, according to which it grants supernatural forms of insight. But this has no basis in classical Judaism.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Next Frontier

I am pleased to announce the publication of the first Hebrew translation of one of my books! The book is Sacred Monsters (the revised and expanded edition of Mysterious Creatures), which has just been published in Hebrew under the title Yitzurei Ha-Pele BeMidrash U-veMada. The translation was done by Dr. Yehoshua Stokar, and the book was published by Koren Publishers under the Maggid imprint.

There will be a book launch taking place at the Biblical Museum of Natural History this Wednesday night. In a future post, I shall be addressing the question of whether this book should also be considered to be in cherem, like the original English book.

If you're not able to make it to the book launch (where the book will be sold at a discount), you can also buy it online at this link. It makes a great gift for Hebrew-speaking teenagers, for people struggling with conflicts between Chazal and science, or for your favorite member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Charedi Housing Crisis: You Can't Have It Both Ways

There's a fascinating letter that outgoing Beit Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul sent to someone who begged forgiveness for not voting for him. Abutbul notes that he opened the city up to enormous expansion of the charedi population, and laments how in every other city in Israel, they throw charedim out and do not want charedi communities to be established. He thereby echoes a common refrain in the charedi media, bemoaning the intolerant, hateful anti-charedi sentiments of society at large.

And yet, in the very same letter, Abutbul also boasts of how he catered to the charedi community by giving 90% reductions in municipal taxes to kollel families. This is consistent with several public addresses that he gave to non-charedi communities in Beit Shemesh, in which he proudly told the stunned audiences that it is their privilege to be the Zevuluns for the Yissachars of the charedi world. He also ridicules (both in this letter and in interviews that he gave) those who attempted to prevent the settlement of new neighborhoods until adequate infrastructure was in place. It should also be noted that in the various clashes between dati-leumi and extremist charedi communities that took place, such as with the Orot Banot school and with the tzniyus signs, Abutbul expressed his belief that the dati-leumi community should be tolerant of the strictures demanded by the extremists, even though the dati-leumi community was there first.

You can't have it both ways. If you believe that the priority is to rush the settlement of charedi families even if the city infrastructure can't cope, and you believe that the city budget should be disproportionately paid for by non-charedim (who are effectively subsidizing people in kollel), and that as the charedi population increases the non-charedim should accept extremist charedi societal demands, then how can you simultaneously express horror and disapproval that other cities in Israel do not want to become charedi?!



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Letter to my Charedi Co-Residents

Dear Charedi Co-Resident of Beit Shemesh,

No doubt you are deeply upset about the victory of Dr. Aliza Bloch over Moshe Abutbul in the elections. I remember what it's like to suffer the disappointment of one's candidate losing, in two elections. It's painful, and you have my sympathies. Fortunately, I have some good news to share with you, which should improve your mood.

You were told by the rabbonim to vote for Abutbul, because he would work for the benefit of the charedi community. The implication - often explicitly stated - was that Aliza Bloch would be working for the benefit of the non-charedi community, and against the interests of the charedi community. But that's not what she plans to do. Contrary to what you've been told, her desire is to work for the benefit of everyone.

Now, you're probably thinking, Why should I believe that? Well, first of all, you can listen to what she's actually been saying all along - and not in order to get charedi votes. You can learn about how in general, the approach of the dati-leumi community is to focus on the larger Jewish community, not just their own community.

Furthermore, you'll see how much paranoia and baseless fearmongering has been spread in order to avoid losing political power. They said that Aliza Bloch will have buses running on Shabbos and treif food being sold - you'll see that that won't happen. They said that Aliza Bloch will "destroy Torah" - I don't even know what that was supposed to mean, but I can assure you that she won't be destroying anything. I've seen people claim that when Aliza spoke about tearing down the mechitzot, this shows that she means to remove the mechitzos between men and women in shul! Actually, she was (very obviously) speaking about removing the walls of division between different sectors of society, and the fact that some people think otherwise speaks volumes about the ridiculous paranoia that the charedi political and rabbinic leadership created around her.

There's one fear that you might have which I can't help you with. If you fear that under Bloch's leadership, Beit Shemesh will slow down or cease its transformation into a primarily or solely charedi city, then your fears are probably correct. Still, you might find that it's not so terrible to share your city with Jews of other religious ideologies. You may find that it enables the city to prosper and improve in all kinds of ways.

So, relax. Think about all the thousands of charedim who voted for Aliza Bloch - they are intelligent people who did so for good reasons. Have some bitachon, and look with an open mind at how the city develops. Who knows, maybe in just under five years' time, when the askonim start with the next political campaign for mayor, you'll recall how off-base they were with their claims about this one.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

It's a Miracle!

In all my life, I don't remember ever being so giddy with joyous disbelief. Dr. Aliza Bloch, a dati-leumi woman, won the Beit Shemesh elections!


The significance of this is enormous, and we are still processing it. But here are three immediate takeaways:

1. Never Give Up Hope
For five years, everyone in Beit Shemesh, both charedi and non-charedi, thought that there wasn't the slightest chance of ever having a non-charedi mayor. The charedi community outnumbered the non-charedi community, and they also benefit from a much higher rate of voter turnout. When Dr. Aliza Bloch launched her campaign, many of us dismissed it as a vain and futile hope, a complete waste of time and effort. And yet she won! By over 500 votes! The message to cynics and realists

Dr. Aliza Bloch, with some of her many charedi supporters
2. It's the Beginning of the End of "Daas Torah" and a Return to Classic Torah
Aliza Bloch won with the support of thousands of charedi voters. This includes not only post-charedim and people on the fringes of charedi society, but even many charedim who voted United Torah Judaism for the political party (in Israel you have separate votes for mayor and for political party). That is to say, thousands of people who strongly identify as part of the charedi community nevertheless went directly against the "Daas Torah" of all the Gedolim. This is staggering. (I urge people to read the comments written by charedi residents of Beit Shemesh against the hateful letter published in Cross-Currents.) This marks a return to traditional Jewish concepts of Torah and rabbinic authority, and away from the recent hijacking of it by political interests.

3. There's a Tremendous Opportunity Here
The charedim who voted for Moshe Abutbul were convinced by "Daas Torah" that Aliza Bloch wants to harm the charedi community, destroy the Torah way of life and secularize the city. Right now, they are probably filled with despair. But in the coming years, they will see that they were utterly misled. Aliza Bloch has zero ill-will towards the charedi community, and certainly does not want to destroy their lives and secularize the city. On the contrary, she will improve the city of Beit Shemesh for everyone, including charedim. So when the next elections come around, in five years, the re-election message will be obvious: "Daas Torah" deceived you last time, and there's no reason to trust it. And people will see that there are genuine Torah values to be found in other communities, too, and that charedim and non-charedim can work together for the good of everyone.

We live in historic times! Baruch Ha-Tov VeHaMeitiv!

Legislating the Neighborhood

There was an article in the news today about various concessions to which Netanyahu had agreed in order to have the charedi parties suppo...