Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Seder Historical Realities vs. Seder "Traditions"

(A re-post from a few years ago. Timely and important!)

The clash between historical reality and recent tradition is especially prominent in the Pesach seder. Should we measure a kezayis as being the size of an olive (the historical reality), or the size of six olives (recent tradition)? Should we use soft matzah that is relatively thick and spongy (the historical reality), or matzah that is thin and hard? Should we use bitter lettuce for maror (the historical reality), or sharp horseradish? Then there is the issue of many seder customs that are rooted in the historical reality, but for which the historical reality was simply ancient convention for meals, and which were subsequently implanted with religious significance; I once took a revelatory course on this topic with Rabbi Dr. Yosef Tabory. The current explanation of the Afikoman is so treasured that I wouldn't dare say what the historical setting was!

Determining the historical reality is one thing; deciding what to do today is a different matter. While tradition is important, it's very difficult to define its parameters. I will therefore simply share some insights and guidelines that I see as relevant.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote a letter (which I have, but have unfortunately misplaced) in which he strongly rejects Prof. Yehudah Feliks' contention that lettuce rather than horseradish should be used for maror. I don't believe that this was because he disputed Feliks' evidence that lettuce was the historical reality; Rav Aharon Lichtenstein reports that Rav Shlomo Zalman told him that when Mashiach comes, many halachos will have to be changed. Rather, his point was that Judaism is as Judaism does. The living tradition is far more important than the ancient historical reality.

Contrary to what some might expect, I strongly endorse the idea behind this view. Orthodox Judaism is a traditionalist way of life, and traditionalist religions are inherently and necessarily conservative. Radical change, even if done with the best intentions and good reasons, is often destabilizing and harmful. Even if a halachah has not been unequivocally canonized, it can still be sufficiently entrenched that it becomes problematic to change. This is similar to my explanation in Sacred Monsters about why Chazal's ruling that it is permitted to kill lice on Shabbos should remain in effect despite it being based on scientific error. As to how to apply this to maror, that is more complex. I can certainly see that it is perfectly legitimate to continue using horseradish, but I don't see it as being wrong for someone to choose bitter lettuce instead.

With kezayis, however, there is no unequivocal living tradition to use an egg-sized olive. As I noted in my monograph, there have always been those, such as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the Avnei Nezer and others who maintained that the kezayis is the size of an ordinary olive. Even the Chazon Ish acknowledged that this is the fundamentally correct position. It is thus an established halachic view which is merely being given greater weight in light of new discoveries of manuscripts and new data concerning olives and eggs.

What about soft versus hard matzah? I really haven't studied that case in detail, yet it seems to me that the Ashkenazi practice of using hard matzah is not based on any halachic arguments (as with the giant kezayis), but rather due to historical changes in how matzos were produced in different countries. As such, Rav Hershel Shechter's letter ruling that Ashkenazim may use soft matzah does not conflict with the aforementioned values.

There is one final important point that I want to stress. Someone told me that they were at a seder in which there were Modern Orthodox parents with their son who had gone to yeshivah in Israel and become charedi. The topic of kezayis came up, and the rest of the seder was ruined by a furious argument between parents and son about these issues. So it is apparently not "needless to say" that these issues should not cause one to lose sight of values such as shalom bayis and family unity - which is a truly important theme of seder night!


P.S.- If you haven't yet booked your chol hamoed tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, do it now!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Why do we eat Matzah on Pesach?


Why do we eat matzah on Pesach? It's a very basic, simple and obvious question, so it should have a very basic, simple and obvious answer, right?

The usual answer is the one given in the Haggadah. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach in commemoration of the Bnei Yisrael being rushed out of Egypt so quickly that their dough did not have time to rise. It's commonly assumed that this is nothing more than a paraphrase of what the Torah itself says. But why would this make matzah so very important? And is it indeed necessarily what the Torah says?

Fascinatingly, Ramban has a very different approach. According to Ramban (Shemos 12:39), it's not the case that they were too rushed for the dough to rise. Ramban is of the view that even if they would have had time, they would not have waited for the dough to rise and make bread. Instead, Ramban understands the Torah as stating that they had no time to bake the dough into matzos, and instead they had to take the unbaked dough and bake it into matzos along the way. Ramban notes that the Bnei Yisrael had already been commanded to get rid of all chametz as mentioned a few pesukim earlier (12:19-20), and thus the passuk 12:39 is to be read in light of that, as follows:
And they baked matzah-cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened (due to God's earlier command); (and they could only bake them now) because they were driven out of Egypt, and could not tarry (and bake them earlier)...
Ramban is thereby arguing with the Haggadah! One book that I saw claimed that Ramban would never have done such a thing, and must have had a different text of the Haggadah. I don't know that that is necessarily the case; Ramban was not entirely averse to arguing even with Chazal, in certain cases. But, at any rate, we are left with the following question on Ramban's approach - if eating matzah has nothing to do with how the Bnei Yisrael left Egypt but was instead a pre-existing command, what was the reason for it?

(Skip the following small text if you want: One might wish to posit on Ramban's behalf that matzah commemorates the Bnei Yisrael not having time to bake their dough, and that Hashem commanded the consumption of matzah with the foreknowledge of this. After all, it seems unambiguous that the mitzvah of eating matzah has something to do with the haste in which it was baked. This would initially seem to be the meaning of Devarim 16:3:
You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat matzos, the bread of affliction; for in haste (chipazon) did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
The usual assumption is that the mention of "haste" is a reference to the pessukim in Shemos 12:33-34 talking about how the Bnei Yisrael rushed out of Egypt without time to see to their dough. But the word chipazon does not appear in these pessukim. Instead, it appears earlier, in Shemos 12:11, before the end of the plagues, with regard to the korban Pesach:
"And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste--it is a Passover to God."
And so the notion of eating in haste is not specifically related to matzah. Indeed, Devarim 16:3 is preceded by a passuk commanding about the korban pesach, and it is with regard to this that the Torah continues, "Do not eat ON IT chametz, for seven days eat ON IT matzos, for in haste you left..." - thus, there too the notion of haste is relating to the korban Pesach rather than to matzos. It thus seems that the theme of haste may relate to the general notion of our leaving Egypt in haste, and not to the way in which the matzos were baked.

So, again, we are faced with a question according to Ramban's view: What is the reason for eating matzah on Pesach? Why did Hashem command the Bnei Yisrael not to have chametz?)

Let us first note that this is not the first time we see matzah preceding Pesach. Way back in Bereishis 19:3, Lot serves matzos to the angels. Rashi says it was Pesach, and a very non-rationalist person in a book entitled Seasons of Life claims that "the observance of Pesach is based on the spiritual powers in force at that time of year," and "matzah is representative of certain metaphysical forces in effect at that time." But the idea of Lot observing Pesach and serving matzah to his guests is reminiscent of a certain video about Eisav making a berachah of hamotzi. Is there a more rationalist explanation?

One possible answer is this: Bread, of the chametz variety, is an Egyptian invention.


Bedouin woman in Israel making unleavened bread, 1895
In Canaan, the lifestyle was a nomadic society of shepherds. The bread that they ate was matzah - not the hard Ashkenazi crackers, but the original, somewhat softer, pita-like matzah. (Which is why Lot served it to his guests.)

Egypt, on the other hand, was a land of farming, which despised the nomadic lifestyle. As Yosef advises his brothers to tell Pharaoh: "You should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." The Egyptians had mastered the art of leavening bread, which was unknown to those from Canaan (which may be why Potiphar entrusted everything to Yosef except baking bread - see Bereishis 43:32). Baking leavened bread was of tremendous importance in Egypt - that is why there was a sar ha-ofim, a royal baker. Rameses III has a list containing an amazing variety of breads. But shepherds didn't and don't eat such things - they roam around free, without the burden of heavy ovens and without waiting around for bread to rise.

This would explain why there is an important prohibition against eating leavened bread on Pesach. It is a way of demonstrating that we left Egypt, the land known for its leavened bread, and we became free, like nomads, to travel to the Promised Land.

(This is an adaptation of a post that appeared a few years ago. Thanks to David Ohsie for his input. For more on all this, see this article from Neot Kedumim, and also this article and this one. )

Thursday, March 22, 2018

My Brilliant, Principled and Sensible Dad

A treasured memory from twenty years ago -
on a canoe with my dad, sipping from coconuts,
during a father-son trip to Mombasa, Kenya.
In yesterday's post, I discussed the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews regarding davenning for someone. In today's post, I would like to review a similar topic.

Today is the eleventh yahrzeit of my father, Professor Michael Slifkin, of blessed memory. He was a wonderfully patient and good-natured father, a brilliant scientist, and a man of outstanding integrity. In a career spanning biochemistry, physics, electronics, membrane biology, and nanoparticles (among other things), he published 197 papers, including 11 in the prestigious journal Nature. He never missed a minyan and walked to Daf Yomi every day. He strongly believed in doing the right thing even if it made him unpopular, such as when he voted according to his conscience and not according to what was "the done thing" in England, or when he took on the position of safety officer for university labs and actually enforced safety regulations, much to the horror of his colleagues. He also had a terrific sense of humor!

Just like last year, due to a scheduling conflict with one of my siblings who is out of the country, a shiur that I am giving in his honor for family is not being delivered on the actual date of his yahrzeit. In case you didn't read last year's post, I mentioned then how someone near and dear to me objected that since it's not being done on the actual date of the yahrzeit, "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah!"

This is, I believe, a terrific example of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews. According to the mystical worldview, our actions serve to manipulate various metaphysical energies. If they are not done in exactly the "right" way, then they don't have any effect. According to the rationalist worldview, on the other hand, our actions are not manipulating any metaphysical energies. The date of a person's passing is a meaningful and appropriate time to honor their memory. If it's done a few days late, in order to better accommodate the family, that honors their memory more, not less.

This also relates to the fundamental nature of what one does for the deceased, a topic that I examined in detail upon the passing of my dear mother-in-law, Anne Samson, of blessed memory - see my essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In brief, the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin, is that one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos whose reward is transferred to their mitzvah-account. The classical and rationalist view, on the other hand, is that by doing memorial events we honor their memory, and by performing good deeds we become a credit to their influence.


Dad, I love you dearly, and I miss you more than ever. I'm sure you would understand why we are doing the shiur a few days late. Because among the many good qualities that you taught me, one of them was common sense!



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Name For A Prayer

What's his name?
When you pray for someone, does it matter if you get their Hebrew name right? I think that this is another ramification of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews.

According the mystical approach, your prayers (or, as is more common with people who subscribe to this approach, your Tehillim or Torah), function to mechanically manipulate various metaphysical forces. If you get the name wrong, then it presumably simply won't work. Now, of course you can claim that Hashem will make the necessary adjustment to the process. Still, the mystical mindset, with its focus on mechanistic manipulations of metaphysical forces via the power of combinations of letters, certainly points in the direction of mistakes being critical. (It reminds me of the joke about the 80-year-old sick woman who called Kupat Ha-Ir to donate to get a refuah shelemah. When given a list of options, she accidentally pressed the wrong number, and ended up pregnant!)

According the rationalist approach, the concept of petitionary prayer is itself complex (for a fascinating discussion of Rambam's view, see Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides); but basically it is about developing one's own relationship both with God and with the person for whom you are praying. Accordingly, it doesn't matter if you don't get the Hebrew name correct. What's more important is for you to know who you are praying for.

In fact, I would also point out that historically, when people did not have family names, and when you only knew a few hundred people at most, the way to identify someone was by saying "So-and-so the son of so-and-so." But nowadays, we have family names, and we know many thousands of people. So, from a rationalist perspective, when you ask people to pray for someone, it is more important that they should know the family name - i.e., to know exactly who they are - than for them to be given a name that may well be meaningless to them. You might know many Shmuel ben Leahs, or the name might not mean anything at all to you, but you do know one, and probably only one, Steven Spielberg.

*  *  *

A note of relevance: Many articles by Prof. Menachem Kellner, many of which relate to Rambam and rationalist Judaism, have been uploaded and can be found at https://shalemcollege.academia.edu/MenachemKellner. A terrific resource!

Remember that you can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Blessing of Simcha and Shalom

This past weekend, my wife and I had the pleasure of making our first bar mitzvah, for our eldest son, Simcha Shalom. His name has a very interesting reason, of particular relevance to readers of this website.

Thirteen years ago, as many of you may recall, was an extremely difficult, turbulent and painful time for my wife and I. The controversial banning of three of my books took over our lives. People who have not lived through such a thing cannot imagine how painful it was - in particular, with former friends/ colleagues who turned on me, and with slander that was spread about me.

After several months of this, I decided to drive on Shabbos. Because I had to take my wife to the hospital. Hashem blessed us with something very special: A new child! We decided to name him Simcha Shalom. "Simcha," because he was a source of tremendous joy at a difficult time. And "Shalom," in the hopes that he would be a harbinger of peace.

Well, the latter part did not come true, at least not immediately. The controversy still raged for a year after he was born (and the ripples continue even through today). But he is certainly a peaceful child by nature. And he lives up to his first name, Simcha, in ways far exceeding our expectations. He is full of joy and exudes happiness and appreciation for everything in life.

Just to share one story about our wonderful son: Seven years ago, I bought a bookcase from Ikea, and one component turned out to be damaged. Frustrated, I had to drive all the way back, and I decided to take little Simcha with me. It was a long drive, and I got lost on the way. Finally we arrived, and then we had to wait in line for a long time; I got Simcha a drink while we waited. Then it was my turn, and they told me that they didn’t have that part in stock. I was fuming at the wasted afternoon. Then suddenly Simcha turned to me and beamed, “Aba, we’re having a special day together, right?”

Thank you, Hashem, for this wonderful blessing, along with all the blessings that You have bestowed upon me.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The British Mitzvah

Now here's something interesting. There's a mitzvah which according to some sampling that I did, is fulfilled by people who, like me, are British, but not by Israelis.

I discovered this one Friday evening when I asked my kids (who grew up in Israel) to name the months of the year. They replied: "Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tamuz, Av, Elul." I was shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

You see, growing up in England, I was always taught that the months are to be named in this order: Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tamuz, Av, Elul, Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar. And this is actually the mitzvah that we just had a special Shabbat about, parashat haChodesh. Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim, rishon hu lachem lechodshei hashanah! Nissan is the first month, not Tishrei!

(Yes, I realize that it's not a technical aveirah to recite the months in a different order. Still, it certainly goes against the idea being presented in the Torah.)

I've been asking a few people, and it's always the same. Brits, whether from London or Manchester, start their recital with Nissan, and they are often surprised to hear others saying it differently. Israelis all seem to start with Tishrei, and they are often surprised to hear Brits saying it differently. (If you're an exception to this pattern, please let me know!) I haven't asked many Americans yet, so please tell me how you learned it in the US.

Now, it's not hard to figure out the cause of people getting it wrong. After all, the Jewish year does start in Tishrei. And it's certainly intuitive that the count of months would start at the beginning of the year. It's a remarkable peculiarity of the Jewish calendar that the year begins in the seventh month. (For a discussion of this based on the insights of Rav Hirsch, see the long out-of-print book Seasons of Life by my cousin's cousin, the late Nosson Slifkin.)

Nevertheless, it is definitely wrong. And it's weird that while Israelis get it wrong, Brits get it right. Does anyone have any insight into why this is so?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

These Rabbis Are Not Murderers

The previous post, The Lakewood Suicide Squad, is already the most-read post in all eight years of this blog, with over 24,000 hits. A number of comments described the rabbis opposing vaccinations as being murderers. That is a very strong term, and I believe it to be severely inappropriate.

Murder connotes an intentional act of taking people's lives. These rabbis most certainly do not want to kill anyone! They care about life just as much as anyone else. From their perspective, they simply do not see what they are doing as in any way leading to the loss of life. In fact, from their perspective, it is the pro-vaccine people who are causing children to suffer, and yet we wouldn't like them to call us child abusers! It would be more appropriate to use the term "murderer" for people who text while driving, because at least they are aware that they are doing something very dangerous. The anti-vaccine people have no idea that they are doing something dangerous.

The correct description for what these people are causing is involuntary manslaughter. This, indeed, was the court verdict for David and Ginger Twitchell, devout members of a Christian Science church who sincerely believed that the best thing to do for their sick children was to pray for them (which regrettably did not save their children from dying).

If someone opposes vaccination because they sincerely mistakenly believe vaccination to be harmful, does that make them a bad person? Well, if there is an abdication of their responsibility to analyze such topics carefully and properly, then this is a moral failing. You could argue that it's irresponsible for people to believe that they know better than not only virtually the entire medical establishment, but even the professionals in their very own communities that they generally respect (see the letter on the right, signed by the frum physicians of Lakewood; click to enlarge it). But I'm not entirely sure that the situation can be described this way. I think that many such people genuinely lack the ability/worldview which enables them to analyze this topic correctly. And as I explained in the previous post, it's a natural result of their non-rationalist approach in general.

(The people who are more morally accountable are those who accept that the anti-vaccination approach is dangerous, and yet still promote these rabbis as being Gedolim. Some such people also commented on the last post, and they were more concerned with me giving these Gedolim a bad name than with the fact of their promoting Gedolim who could be causing the deaths of children.)

People can do terrible things with the best of intentions. This also relates to a topic that came up recently with the passing of Rav Shmuel Auerbach. In my post The Elephant in the Room, I quoted some people who declared that Rav Shmuel was totally leshem Shamayim in everything that he did. That is absolutely true, but it doesn't count for as much as people seem to think. A person can have entirely pure motivations and yet still do terrible things. But on the other hand, it's easy to categorize riots and shutting down cities as being terrible deeds. A particular course of medical action/inaction, on the other hand, can only described as good/bad in terms of its effects.

So, in conclusion, I don't think that the anti-vaccination crowd can be described as evil people. They are well-meaning people who are just badly misguided. Unfortunately, in this case, innocent mistakes can have fatal consequences.

In future posts, I plan to discuss the question of on what grounds someone such as myself (and most readers), who have not engaged in extensive studies of medicine or the medical literature, can confidently conclude that vaccinations are necessary.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Lakewood Suicide Squad

Who would engage in actions that could lead to the deaths of their own children, and the deaths of many other people in their very own community? The following astonishing email arrived in my inbox a few days ago:
Dear Friends,
B’siyata D’shmaya we have formed The Vaccine Coalition, a Coalition of Non-Vaccinating Parents in Lakewood, New Jersey.
This coalition was founded by R’ Malkiel Kotler shlit”a, R’ Shmuel Meir Katz shlit”a and R’ Refael Szmerla shlit”a, and it aims to address the current pressing issue of schools rejecting or dismissing non-vaccinated children. It will also be available to help non-vaccinating parents in Lakewood in any area we feel we can, as well as to provide support of ‘strength in numbers’ to pro-vaccine choice Lakewood families.
This coalition depends on a collective voice and will not be launched until we reach a minimum of 250 families. If you live in Lakewood and have made a decision not to vaccinate your children, we encourage you to please take a few moments to sign up to join the coalition, for your benefit, and for the benefit of all other Lakewood families like yourselves.
By joining the coalition you agree to have your name and personal information added to our private database. Your information will never be released to a third party without your permission. If the coalition should find it absolutely necessary to release your name in the course of assisting it's members you may receive an email requesting your permission.  Any such instance will be authorized by the Rosh Hayeshiva R’ Malkiel Kotler shlit”a beforehand. 
The success of this endeavor is contingent on enlisting as many non-vaccinating families as possible. Please take the time to reach out to your friends and family who don’t vaccinate and encourage them to join.
To join, please visit www.vaccinecoalition.org. Alternatively you can join by emailing vaccinecoalition@gmail.com or call/ text 732-806-7739
At the website, we find a familiar name added to the list of rabbinic endorsements:
The Vaccine Choice Coalition is endorsed and backed by HaRav Malkiel Kotler shlit"a, HaRav Elya Ber Wachtfogel shlit"a and HaRav Shmuel Meir Katz shlit"a. If you have any questions or concerns please don't hesitate to contact us at 732-806-7739 or vaccinecoalition@gmail.com
Pictured: Rav Malkiel Kotler and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel.
Not pictured: The corpses of children who died from measles.

Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsberg was, of course, one of the driving forces behind the ban on my books (along with a number of criminals), and Rav Malkiel Kotler was one of the signatories. Curiously absent from this list, although also known to be a strong opponent of vaccination, is Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky (see my post Frum Ways to Die; ironically, he originally endorsed my books and stood by his endorsement against tremendous pressure).

Now, it's important to understand that the Vaccine Coalition certainly do not (yet) represent the normative charedi approach to vaccination. The vast majority of people in the charedi community vaccinate their children. The vast majority of charedi rabbanim believe that it is important to vaccinate. The charedi world in general usually has enormous respect for physicians. And charedi websites such as Matzav.com and YeshivaWorld.com have issued blistering condemnations of the [Anti-] Vaccine Coaltion.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably the case that this is a charedi phenomenon. Lower incidences of vaccinations have been reported in British charedi communities as well as in the US. You'd never find such a thing happening in Dati-Leumi or Modern Orthodox communities. It is occurring because of particular aspects of charedi society. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the comments section of the aforementioned articles at Matzav and YeshivaWorld. And although most charedi leaders would be against the Anti-Vaccine Coalition, they all share a certain degree of responsibility for it.

One of the leaders of the Anti-Vaccine Coalition is Rabbi Refael Szmerla. You might recognize that name - he is the author of Alternative Medicine in Halacha, a book that I critiqued in my post When Rabbis Quack. That book is an all-out endorsement of all kinds of quackery and an attempt to discredit Western medicine as being theologically problematic. In my critique, I argued that taking such an approach is likely to lead to opposing vaccinating children, and lo and behold, I was correct. So all the rabbanim who endorsed that book likewise share the responsibility of people not vaccinating their children.

But that book itself did not emerge in a vacuum. It was a predictable consequence of how charedi society broadly adopts an anti-rationalist, anti-scientific approach to the world. There's the near-universal position among charedi Gedolim that it is heretical to talk about the world being billions of years old. There's the anti-scientific emunah books endorsed by Rav Aharon Feldman and Rav Shlomo Miller which present pseudoscientific rebuttals of mainstream science. There's scientific ignoramuses such as Jonathan Rosenblum and Avi Shafran writing allegedly sophisticated critiques of evolution and global warming. All this feeds the idea that any non-expert can shlug up things that have overwhelming support and consensus in the scientific community. No doubt many of these charedi rabbanim and writers are horrified at the anti-vaccination group, but they contributed to its development. You reap what you sow.

The anti-vaccination movement is also the result of the charedi anti-establishment position in general. The goyim are out to hurt us with their lies! They claim that metziza b'peh is dangerous, but we know that it's not! They claim that Shalom Rubashkin committed crimes, but we know that he is a tzaddik gamur and a public hero! Etc., etc. Vaccination becomes just one more example of the government anti-Jewish conspiracy.

Another factor that might contribute is the charedi downplaying of hishtadlus. This is reflected in people claiming the vaccinations, which are not what Jews traditionally did, compromise emunah and bitachon.

Then there's the additional problem that once some charedi Gedolim put their names to something, others are terrified to criticize them for it. So whoever gets in first is able to exert disproportionate influence. Szmerla published his book with prestigious endorsements, and Mishpacha magazine wrote a largely enthusiastic feature article on it. True, they later printed a "Clarification" which was largely a retraction, but the clarification was much less explicit and prominent than the original article, and the damage was done. And once Rav Elya Ber Watchfogel declares that people have good reason not to vaccinate their children, who is going to openly declare him to be badly wrong? Even the critiques at YeshivaWorld and Matzav dare not mention his name. Because, as we saw with Rav Shmuel Auerbach, almost nobody ever dares publicly say that a Charedi Gadol is wrong. That would undermine charedi hashkafah, and it's also socially unthinkable in a society where everybody is always looking nervously over their right shoulder.

On many occasions, I have written that I don't think that it really matters if charedim are anti-evolution or if they believe that Chazal were scientifically infallible. I am actually very sympathetic to their wanting to adopt the anti-rationalist approach. But this is one potentially lethal effect of that worldview.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Is There An Overlooked Jewish Farrakhan/Mallory Scandal?

A number of media outlets have given voice to outrage at Women's March leader Tamika Mallory's complicity with Louis Farrakhan's antisemitism. Yesterday I added a criticism of Rabbi Sharon Brous both for her statement defending Mallory and for her saying that while Farrakhan is repugnant, similarly flawed leaders exist in the Jewish community.


Several people responded to the latter point by arguing that Brous is correct and that there are indeed such leaders in the Jewish community. Some of the names put forward were Rabbi Meir Kahane, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Rabbi Dov Lior, and Ayelet Shaked. Others compared Mallory's complicity to how various people in the Jewish community associate with, praise, and do not criticize such leaders, and argued that there is a double standard going on here.

To a certain extent this rejoinder is justified, but only in a relatively minor way. There are certain points of similarity that I will address, but there are fundamental differences. While the various Jewish leaders mentioned have expressed some deeply despicable statements and positions, they are still worlds apart from Farrakhan.

Allow me to explain. The anti-Palestinian statements expressed by these people have to be understood as reflecting two ways in which these people differ in their worldview from others. The first is that they see the Israel-Palestinian conflict as being one of all-out war, like Britain vs. Germany and America vs. Japan in World War II. Now, this is wrong; notwithstanding Abbas' incitement and the various acts of terror, it is absolutely not all-out war. The PA prevents and foils numerous acts of terrorism, and there are many Palestinians who work with and for Israelis and who have no hostile intentions. Still, it is mistaken to see it as all-out war, it's understandable that some people nevertheless view it that way.

But when there is an all-out war for survival, what is the appropriate strategy? To what extent does one aim for clear victory, even when it results in massive losses for the other side, not all of whom may be complicit? Again, this is something in which people will reasonably differ. Some people believe that Hiroshima and Dresden were justified, otherwise believe that they were morally abhorrent. You might think that someone has the wrong perspective, but you can't totally invalidate their opinion.

This is why it is wrong to claim that the Jewish community has its own Farrakhans. There is simply no comparison between someone who (wrongly but understandably) believes that we are in an all-out war for survival against the Arabs, demanding harsh tactics, and Farrakhan's lifelong obsession with demonizing Jews, claiming them to be the source of much of the world's ills, and spreading slander such that the Jews are responsible for 9/11.

Now, having said all that, there remains a valid point that when Jewish religious leaders do say things that are unacceptable by any measure - such as Rav Ovadia Yosef's comments about the victims of Hurricane Katrina and others - they should be called out on it. Some argue that Rav Ovadia had a style of speaking in wild hyperbolic drama, and nobody was expected to take it too seriously. Perhaps, but this is not clear; furthermore, as I have written in the past, I still think that people did and do have a responsibility to condemn such statements. The Sages state that "In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man," and "In a situation of desecration of God's Name, one does not apportion respect to a rabbi," but the general Orthodox community seems paralyzed with cowardice when it comes to criticizing the sins of those revered as Gedolim. This is a problem. Nevertheless, as discussed, there is still a world of difference between such people and Farrakhan.

But, for argument's sake, let us say that there is no significant difference between these people and Farrakhan. Would that mean that there is a double standard in our criticism of Mallory (and, by extension, Brous)? Not at all.

The crucial difference is with regard to the nature of the circumstances and of the complicitee (that's a word that I just made up to describe the person accused of being complicit). No rabbi promoting a platform of love and tolerance would have happily and unapologetically attended and praised an anti-Arab speech by Rav Ovadiah. And if a different type of public figure such as an actress or newscaster had attended Farrakhan's rally, there would not have been the same degree of protest. The outrage here was because Mallory (and Brous) have specifically set themselves up as prominent leaders of intersectional movements that protest various forms of hatred and intolerance. It's not just a matter of the glaring hypocrisy, but also the fundamental betrayal of the very values that they are professing to lead.

And it still might have died down quickly, were it not for the fact that Mallory and her partners and supporters just keep digging themselves deeper and deeper in the hole. Sarsour failed to criticize Farrakhan and instead supported a minister who tried to deflect the criticism by talking about Netanyahu. The Women's March released a statement in which they failed to present any strong condemnation of Farrakhan, saying instead that his statements are "not aligned with the Women's March Unity Principles," and did not criticize Mallory's complicity, saying instead that they are presenting "external silence" while working this out privately. Mallory herself just released a long, meandering public statement in which, incredibly, she continued to refuse to apologize or condemn Farrakhan's statements. Brous's statement defended rather than criticized Mallory.

In a subsequent interview with the JTA, Brous did criticize Mallory, and acknowledged that the Left has a problem with antisemitism. Yet she insisted (against the available evidence) that the Women's March leadership is trying to improve and that she will not step away from her relationship with Linda Sarsour and the other Women's March leaders. Good grief, Rabbi Brous, what will it take for you to acknowledge that it's ridiculous to purport to be fighting moral injustice when you are aligning yourself with antisemites?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Scourges of Silence and "Similarly"

Silence is complicity. That was one of the messages of the Women's March. As Linda Sarsour wrote, "This movement isn't about making you comfortable. Your silence makes you complicit. Yes, YOU are part of the problem." 

This message was, however, betrayed by Sarsour and the other leaders of the Women's March. The notorious antisemite Louis Farakkhan, who has claimed that "the Jews were behind 9/11" and has called Hitler a “very great man,” spoke at a rally last week in which he declared that “the powerful Jews are my enemy” and that he had “pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew and I'm here to say your time is up, your world is through.” Present at the rally was Women's March organizer Tamika Mallory, who got a shout-out from Farakkhan during his speech, and who happily reported the rally on social media.

Not surprisingly, Mallory was called out on her complicity in evil antisemitism. Instead of profusely apologizing and acknowledging that she had betrayed her platform, she complained that her critics are bullies, and stated that true leaders have the same enemies as Jesus - i.e. the Jews. Her partners in leading the Women's March, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez, likewise failed to criticize either Farrakhan's speech or Mallory's complicity. Which is hardly surprising, in light of the fact that Sarsour and Perez themselves have a history of supporting Nation of Islam and Farakkhan. The Women's March leaders are perfectly happy to be silent, and thusby their own barometercomplicit, in vicious antisemitism.

Still, you'd hope that at least all Jewish leaders would condemn the Women's March leaders for this. So let's see what leading rabbi Sharon Brous, who herself took the stage at the Women's March in Washington DC, had to say about it. Here is the complete statement from her:
A few things we can learn from the explosive conversation erupting over Tamika D Mallory, the Women's March leadership, and Louis Farrakhan.
1. There is no room in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic coalitional movement for antisemitism, homophobia or transphobia. Full stop. You can’t fight racism but excuse antisemitism, just as you cannot fight antisemitism while excusing and justifying racism or Islamophobia. All racialized hatred grows from the same cancer: an unforgiving demonization of the “other” based on immutable characteristics or lineage. In a big tent movement there has to be room for disagreement, but certain core values must stand at the forefront: the inherent dignity of every person, and an unequivocal opposition to racism or bigotry of any form.
2. Our communities clearly continue to suffer from a profound lack of understanding of one another’s histories, pain, traumas. The reflex to publicly eviscerate, threaten or delegitimize someone who doesn’t say what we want to hear when we want to hear it only exacerbates the rift between us. Instead, we must commit to entering real relationship with one another. Over the last three days, Tamika D Mallory has been bombarded with vicious racist and misogynistic threats; her intelligence, her credibility, her very humanity have been assailed. None of this will make her, or anyone, more sympathetic to your perspective or your pain. It only reinforces that you don’t understand hers.
3. It’s important for us to understand that many racial justice activists feel an abiding allegiance to Louis Farrakhan who, for many years, has worked to build a sense of dignity and empowerment for black communities suffering from systemic racism. At the same time, he more than tarnished his righteous activism with egregious moral failings—including base hatred—toward other minority groups. For decades, he has spewed virulent antisemitic and homophobic vitriol at any audience that would listen. (My first encounter with his ideology was first year in college, when his spokesperson, Khalid Muhammad, lectured a packed auditorium that the Holocaust was an invention of Jewish Hollywood.)
The beauty of the Women's March has been the promise of a new generation taking the mantle of leadership, affirming that the greatest way to fight for our own safety and dignity is in partnership and sisterhood with others also concerned for their rights and freedoms. We all have elder statesmen who—while they have dedicated their lives to their own communities—are weighed down by hatred and bigotry toward others. I am well aware of the leaders in my own Jewish community who would today receive ovations for their advocacy on behalf of our people, but who are similarly fatally flawed by their own prejudices. We simply must reject that now. It’s time we lay to rest the toxic scripts of even those who mentored and inspired us, and model a new kind of leadership. This intersectional moment demands nothing less of us—in fact, that’s what’s feminist about this moment and this movement. We need to do better, and we can.
Incredible. Instead of condemning Mallory for her complicity in Farakkhan's hate, she condemns only those who have attacked Mallory for it. What happened to silence being complicity?

And when it comes to Farakkhan himself, while Brous condemns his egregious moral failings, she adds that there are leaders in the Jewish community who are "similarly fatally flawed by their own prejudices." Really??? Who on earth are they?! I cannot think of any Jewish leaders who are remotely on a par with Farrakhan's influence, hate and lies.

This is not the first time that Rabbi Brous has drawn moral parity where it is unjustified. During the Gaza War of 2013, in a letter to her community, she made sure to "balance" any expression of support for the Israeli civilians being targeted by missiles with an equivalent message of sympathy for the Palestinians of Gaza who had voted in Hamas, and included such choice expressions as "We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator." As a result, Daniel Gordis - a former teacher of Brous - issued a scathing rebuke of her, in an article entitled "When Balance Becomes Betrayal," in which he called her out for failing to take sides on exactly who is good and evil in the battle between Hamas and Israel.

Then, a year later, Rabbi Brous wrote an article about the so-called peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time as exhibiting a stunningly callous disregard for the safety of her coreligionists, she said that if peace does not happen, then Israel and the Palestinians are equally responsible. I wrote a post in which I pointed out the sheer illogicality of insisting that both sides must share moral responsibility. Why must it be that Israel is also at fault? Is it not even theoretically possible that Israel is willing to offer all that it can safely offer, and yet the Palestinians are not satisfied with anything less than that which will enable them to destroy Israel- which indeed is supported by the evidence? Nor was it morally appropriate for her to approve of honoring the narratives" of "both Israelis and Palestinians." After all, the Palestinian narrative is that there was never any Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Is this not false and dangerous? Why should it be honored?

Rabbi Brous, at the Women's March, you gave an impassioned speech about the importance of holy outrage and the need to protest against evil and hate. Why can't you protest the evils of Hamas, Fatah and antisemitism, without having to draw false moral equivalence with the actions of Israel or of Jewish leaders? Why can't you protest against those leaders of the Women's March who are silent and complicit in vicious antisemitism? Where is your holy outrage?

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Kezayis Post

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link. This is the latest version, updated with the evidence from the Mishnah that Chazal's kezayis was much smaller than the sizes popularly stated today (namely, the Mishnah showing that a kezayis is less than three by three finger-breadths of fabric). There is no charge for the monograph, but if you feel that you (or others) have benefited from it, please make a donation to the Biblical Museum of Natural History.

Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - exploring why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should aim to eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night. (Added as a postscript to the monograph)

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in the charedi polemical journal Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

The Kezayis Revolution - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Finally, two notes regarding The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

First, there are lots of tours over the next few weeks, including before Pesach as well as Chol HaMoed. But they are rapidly filling up, so if you'd like to come, book your tour as early as you can!

Second, we are really looking for people who support our goals of educating the entire spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world, and who want to be part of our mission. To join the museum as a patron, please see http://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/support/ for details. We can now arrange tax-deductible donations in Israel, the UK and Canada, as well as the US. For easy online donations, please click this link. Thank you for supporting our mission!

Remember that you can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of this page. (Don't forget to look for the confirmation email in your inbox - it might go to the spam folder.)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Elephant in the Room

To what extent are violent extremists to be considered a particularly charedi problem? This has become an increasingly important question over the last few years. A few years ago, a certain Rav, with whom I used to be close until he went from being moderate-charedi to hardline right, argued that charedim have no responsibility to take a stand against violent extremists because such people have nothing to do with the rest of charedi society. I wrote a post in which I argued that there is a continuous spectrum ranging from physical violence to verbal abuse towards the IDF which exists throughout the charedi world. Furthermore, while the people at each level do not agree with the level of hostility coming from people to their right, there is near-constant refusal to condemn it. And even people who are horrified by the violence nonetheless produce inflamed rhetoric which creates an atmosphere that allows it and contributes to it.


Most recently, this question, regarding to what extent are violent extremists to be considered a particularly charedi problem, came to the forefront of discussion with the Peleg faction, headed by Rav Shmuel Auerbach, who passed away last Shabbos. A few months ago, they held a "Day of Rage," shutting down parts of Israel with demonstrations in response to some yeshiva dropouts being arrested for evading army service. And there have been many riots and acts of violence by Peleg people. (There are some people who claim that Rav Shmuel had absolutely no knowledge of such things and would certainly not have approved of them, but this seems rather naive.)

At the time, there was a dispute about to the extent to which Rav Auerbach and Peleg can be considered part of charedi society. On the one hand, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, director of Ner LeElef, claimed that Peleg should not even be called Orthodox, let alone charedi. But on the other hand, as I pointed out in a post on the topic, the mainstream chareidi media, which is ready to call out Open Orthodoxy on their extremism, was not willing to criticize Pele for theirs. And Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz, of the extremely moderate Jerusalem kollel, gave a talk in which he justified Peleg's approach as based on a legitimate dispute as to whether the government of Israel can be perceived as waging a War on Torah.

The Rosh Yeshivah of a certain Jerusalem middle-of-the-road yeshivah told me that he felt that Rav Berkovitz was out of touch with mainstream charedi society, which, he said, considers Rav Shmuel to be completely beyond the pale. But, in light of how Rav Shmuel's passing has been received in the charedi world, I am not so sure. 

A nice person that I know wrote that Rav Shmuel was a great Torah scholar, who was entirely leshem Shamayim in his actions, and thus we should mourn the passing of a great man. I find this to be lacking (and reflective of the naive common fallacy that someone who is a great Talmudist is necessarily also a great tzaddik and a great leader).

Having known Rav Shmuel as my neighbor over many years (he even wrote a michtav bracha for my first book!), I agree that he was a great Talmudist and 100% leshem Shamayim in his actions. He was not remotely interested in wealth or power or any kind of personal benefit. But so what? Rabbi Moshe Hirsch (pictured here) was also a great Torah scholar who was 100% leshem Shamayim. Being a great Talmudist or a great Torah scholar does not mean that one does not do terrible things. And there are many people in the world who do very terrible things entirely leshem Shamayim. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A person is judged by his actions, not by his intentions.

So how did charedi society judge his actions? On the one hand, it was reported that Rav Chaim Kanievsky--who reportedly once referred to Rav Shmuel as a zaken mamre - received the news of his passing with silence, rather than with an expression of sorrow.

But on the other hand, this week's Mishpacha magazine has Rav Shmuel on the cover as its feature story! (And so does Ami magazine, but all reasonable people have long given up on a magazine that once photoshopped swastikas onto the White House for its cover story about Obama, and defends pedophiles, amidst other lunacy.)

The article is full of praise for Rav Shmuel, and mentions nothing at all about the extremely significant actions of the last decade of his life. It seems absurd for Mishpacha to ignore the elephant in the room. How can they not make any sort of statement, either for or against? Can't they even have a single sentence saying that Rav Shmuel started a new political movement which took a hardline, activist approach and which was strongly opposed by the other charedi Litvishe gedolim?

But I realized that by not making any statement, they are in fact making a statement: That while they do not approve of his holy war against the State, they do not consider that this puts him beyond the pale, or that it even demotes him from the pantheon of Great Torah Leaders. Unlike, say, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l, who was not featured on the cover of Mishpacha after his passing.

The boundaries and values of mainstream chareidi society, as reflected by Mishpacha magazine (which is actually somewhat left of mainstream in the charedi world), seem fairly clear. You can be a convicted felon and be featured on the cover as a hero. You can launch a civil war in Israel and be praised as a fiery Torah leader. Just don't be a Zionist, and don't express your belief in an age of dinosaurs!

My Elephant Idol

Ever have one of those days? I just had two of them. I'm not going to go into the various reasons why they were so lousy - suffice it to...