Tuesday, June 26, 2018

No, Charedim Aren't The "Original" Jews

A recent column in Tablet magazine asks the following question: What does one call "really religious Jews"? "Ultra-orthodox," or something else?

Tablet decides to Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public relations for Agudath Israel of America, for his answer. He begins by saying that "ultra-" is an offensive prefix, because of its implications of being something far beyond the norm, whereas the lifestyle of his community, he claims, is the traditional norm. We shall return to this claim soon.

Shafran then complains that only so-called "ultra-Orthodox" Jews are denied the right to choose their own name for their group, unlike Native Americans and Blacks. He has something of a point here, which is why it would be appropriate to let "ultra-Orthodox" Jews choose their own name. However, they should choose one which will not be protested by others as inaccurate; Rabbi Shafran himself has protested that Open Orthodoxy should not define itself as a form of Orthodoxy.

Furthermore, ultra-Orthodox Jews already have chosen a name for themselves: charedim. The charedi community itself adopted that term in the early twentieth century and still proudly uses it today, and so Rabbi Shafran is not being a very good spokesman for his community when he says that he doesn't like it. And his alleged reasons for disliking it are rather odd. "Firstly," he says, "it implies that non-haredim are less observant, which isn’t necessarily true." Yet this is precisely why charedim chose it and like it as a definition - because they believe themselves to be more "trembling at the word of God" than others. Others, of course, would disagree, and would claim that while charedim excel at certain aspects of Judaism, they are no better than other groups in various other aspects, and they are decidedly inferior in yet others.

Which brings us to Rabbi Shafran's second reason for disliking the term: "And secondly, while we may shuckle when we daven, we don’t generally tremble (unless the IRS is auditing us)." Precisely. Charedim live in a "fear society," and they do indeed tremble more than others - but it's not always at the word of God, as often the fear of man is more potent. And it's not only in fear of the IRS and other consequences of being incapable of earning an honest living. Charedim greatly tremble in fear of what others in their community might say, which leads to transgressions in all kinds of areas.

In any case, the term "charedi" is liked by charedim for what they believe it to mean, and by others for what they see it to mean. Still, if Rabbi Shafran doesn't approve of "ultra-Orthodox" or "charedi," what does he say that his community should be called?
“Personally,” said Shafran, “I prefer ‘Orthodox.’ Let prefixes be used by others: centrist, modern, ultra-modern. We’re the original, in no need of a prefix.”
Now, Rabbi Shafran has written some things in the past that have caused a lot of head-scratching. There was his claim that Bernie Madoff is more worthy of admiration than Captain Sully. He believes that unyielding reverence for currently regnant dogmas is more of a problem in the scientific community than in the charedi community. He even claimed that charedi society is big on women's liberation and female empowerment! And so while his claim that ultra-Orthodoxy is the Original McCoy might not be the most outlandish thing that he's ever said, it's certainly equally incorrect.

Charedi Jews are not "the original" form of Judaism or rabbinic Judaism or even of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is itself a unique product of the mid-nineteenth century, developing as a response to the threats of modernity and emancipation. It differed from the Judaism that preceded it in several ways. One was its traditionalism - the opposition to anything which appeared to be a change, despite the fact that historically, many great rabbis had emended Talmudic texts, changed the siddur, changed communal practice, and so on. Another was its segregation - creating halachic rulings based on the needs of the immediate community, not the larger Jewish community. A third was its conscious tendency towards halachic stringency, as a principled reaction to the general spiritual laxity that had developed, along with the elevation of customs to law, and Rabbinic laws to Biblical laws.

Thus, Orthodoxy was itself a novel approach to Judaism. And Orthodoxy in turn branched into several forms, of which ultra-Orthodoxy is certainly very far from the original, in a variety of ways.

One of these is with regard to communal authority. Traditionally, leading Torah scholars were consulted on numerous issues. But, for most of history, political and communal leadership was in the hands of positions such as kings, exilarchs, and parnassim, rather than the leading rabbinic authorities. Furthermore, it was generally the case that, even for rabbis, wisdom in non-Torah-specific areas was understood to be commensurate with knowledge and experience in those areas. Daas Torah, however, presented the opposite notion: that the ultimate guidance on all areas of life—even social and political decisions with no obvious connection to Torah—is provided precisely by those who are the most cloistered from the world and who have only been immersed in Torah. (A further significant characteristic is that in contrast to the time-honored approach of rabbinic responsa, Daas Torah presents its conclusions without any explanations, halachic or otherwise.)

Another way in which ultra-Orthodoxy differs dramatically from traditional Judaism is in the role of the yeshivah vis-a-vis the community. In earlier generations, the yeshivah was merely another component of the community, servicing its spiritual needs and preparing its students for their role in the community as rabbinic leaders. But the new yeshivah was a distinct framework in which students were not preparing for their role in the community, but rather were deliberately isolating themselves from the community for the pursuit of studying Torah as its own ideal. Concurrent with this came the rise in authority of Roshei Yeshivah, with no experience in communal leadership or practical halacha, over community rabbis.

One of the charedi reformations with the most far-reaching ramifications is long-term kollel for the masses. Historically, while there is some precedent for supporting Torah scholars or those preparing for such a role, both the norm and the societal ideal was for most men to work and support their families. The charedi system, in which it is the women who train and work to support the family, has overturned the traditional roles of husbands and wives, enshrined in the kesubah and in millennia of halachah and Jewish history.

Another novel aspect of charedi society is in its opposition to secular studies. It is not only among the Rishonim that we find great engagement with secular studies and culture; none other than Chasam Sofer, while making some statements of general opposition to secular studies, nevertheless himself extensively studied many of the sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, and geography, as well as history and philosophy. And he even utilized the tools of academic, scientific study in order to evaluate halachic practice; at the Pesach seder, he used celery for karpas, based on looking at cognate Semitic tongues. Such a thing would be regarded as bizarre and inappropriate in charedi society today.

Judaism constantly evolves, sometimes for internal reasons and sometimes as a reaction to external situations. The massive challenges of modernity, the upheaval of the Holocaust and the test of Zionism has resulted in the development of a number of forms of Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, Religious Zionism, Centrist Orthodoxy, and others. Ultra-Orthodoxy, otherwise known as Charedi Judaism, is one of the most radical and innovative evolutionary developments. The reason why many charedim believe otherwise is due to the lack of study of history, the carefully selected curriculum, and the rampant historical revisionism in their community.

It is disappointing that Tablet did not ask any historians, or non-charedi scholars, for their view. Because they would have dismissed Rabbi Shafran's claim to be the "Original Orthodoxy" as being ahistorical nonsense.

For more extensive discussion, see my monographs on The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making of Haredim.

Reminder: I am available for scholar-in-residence engagements on the West Coast in August, and in NY/NJ during October. Please email me at director@biblicalnaturalhistory.org for details.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who is Playing with Leviathan?

The other day I came across a fascinating example of how historical context can shed light on rabbinic scholarship. And I'm pretty sure that nobody has ever noticed it before.

Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim, is a paean to the great wonder of the natural world, from the smallest creature to the largest. It includes the following account of the ocean:
 מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְדֹוָד כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם גְּדֹלוֹת: שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ: (תהילים קד:כד-כו) 
“How manifold are Your works, O God! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations. Here is this great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great. There go the ships; and Leviathan which You have made to play in it.” (Psalms 104:24-26) 
I photographed this humpback whale in Alaska
Now, there is actually some ambiguity regarding the meaning of this verse. The Hebrew phrase לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ “to play in it,” can be translated in different ways. Who exactly is doing the playing? And what is Leviathan, anyway?

Simply speaking, the verse is referring refers to God having Leviathan to play in the sea. This is indeed how most of the commentaries explain it. And while Midrashic accounts of a titanic leviathan have been interpreted by some as referring to an actual creature of stupendous proportions, and by others as an allegorical concept (and this is one of the topics of the Maimonidean controversies), the leviathan of Psalms can straightforwardly be explained as the whale. Sperm whales, fin whales, and other species are found in the Mediterranean, while a blue whale was recently seen in Eilat, for the first time in recorded history!

Rashi, however, following an Aggadic portion of the Talmud, gives a different explanation. He explains it to mean that God created the Leviathan for Him to play with. Accordingly, it would mean that even the mighty Leviathan is nothing more than God’s plaything. (Furthermore, according to Rashi, the verse does not refer to whales, but rather to the singular titanic Leviathan, of which there is only one in the world.)

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879), on the other hand, gives a third explanation. He states that it means that the aforementioned ships are playing with leviathan. Accordingly, it refers to whaling ships engaged in the "sport" of hunting whales.

It is fascinating that Malbim seeks to provide an entirely new explanation of this verse. But is it a plausible explanation of what the Psalmist could have been referring to, or is it anachronistic? Although tribal peoples, with no easy sources of food, have hunted whales for millennia, it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. There is no archeological or archeozoological evidence for ancient whaling in the Mediterranean, although this is a case where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. A recent paper that performs an initial exploration of this topic, "Ancient Whale Exploitation in the Mediterranean," further suggests that if the Mediterranean whale community in antiquity was similar to that of today - i.e., species that only live in deep water - "it is unlikely that organized forms of whaling would have developed, as the presence of whales close to the coastline would have been rare and unpredictable."

ZooRabbi Junior, a.k.a. Batman, with a
small piece of baleen, currently on display at
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
Given the unlikelihood that the verse is speaking about whaling, why would Malbim explain it that way? The answer is that Malbim lived in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, ships and whaling techniques had developed to the stage where it was viable to hunt whales on the high seas of the Atlantic. And there was enormous demand for whale oil, which was used for lamps, along with baleen (whalebone) which was used for everything from buggy whips to corsets. In Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a very big business. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Malbim would explain the verse in this way.

I am available in NY/NJ as scholar-in-residence for Shabbos of October 13th (parashas Noach!) and October 20, as well as for weekday presentations between the two. If you're interested, please contact me via email, director@biblicalnaturalhistory.org. (I am also available on the West Coast for Shabbos of August 11th.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Without Taking A Position on US Politics

I would like to write about something that is related to US politics. Now, it's very dangerous for me to do this. As someone pointed out, for me to take a position on US politics, whatever it is, would instantly alienate half my readership (which seems remarkably evenly divided between pro- and anti-Trump). And I've already alienated enough people, so it doesn't make sense to alienate any more. It also seems to just trigger the most acrimonious arguments among commentators, inevitably ending up in some anti-Trumpists referring to Trumpists as Nazi-enablers, and some Trumpists referring to anti-Trumpists as antisemites. Who knew that the frum Jews comprising my readership include both antisemites and Nazi-enablers?

So that's one of the reasons why I'm not taking any position on US politics. But what if I am writing about something which does not involve my taking a position? No doubt some people will still get mad at me, for not taking a position! "How can you not take a position?! Don't you see that it's your responsibility to say that XYZ?!" Well, to that, I will point out that I am not American, and I don't live in America, and I don't understand what's going on there, and nor am I particularly interested to find out. I just want to comment on one very small aspect of all the political arguments that have been raging for years, during Obama and now Trump, and how it relations to rationalism.

One of the basic principles of Rationalist Judaism is Rambam's maxim that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes. More broadly, that means that one should evaluate statements and positions on their own merits, and not judge them based on who issued them. As Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l told me, wise men can say foolish things - and foolish men can say wise things. Great men can do terrible deeds, and terrible men can do great deeds.

Yet, for many years now, the appreciation of this seems to be lacking with certain people on both sides of American politics. For many Jews, whatever Obama did had to be terrible and evil. And for many other Jews, whatever Trump does has to be terrible and evil.

Children in cages. Does the date of this picture
determine how you feel about it?
This was brought to light very sharply in the last few weeks, on both sides. Some of those gushing with praise over Trump engaging with Kim Jong were revealed to have condemned Obama for doing the same. And some of those enraged at pictures of children having been put in cages by Trump suddenly changed their line of criticism when the pictures were revealed to have been taken when Obama was president.

Yes, I am well aware that one can draw distinctions between the two cases, and I'm sure that people will happily do so at great length in the comments section. And it could well be that overall, Trump is a great president, or a terrible president. Again - I'm not American and I don't know, I'm too busy researching other things.

Nevertheless, I think that it's still true that many people are evaluating things not based on their own merits, but based solely on where they are perceived as coming from. Which is a pity, and calls for some self-reflection, as to how much one has been caught up in partisanship. From where this foreigner is sitting, it seems that the great United States of America would be a lot better off if people would dial the tribalism back a notch.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Predators and Zealots

I have personally known two rabbis that were later exposed as sexual predators. In one case, I was flabbergasted. I just couldn't believe it (and I still have a hard time believing it). His personality was exactly the opposite of what you would expect such a person to be. He was quiet, pleasant, modest, a mensch.

In the second case, on the other hand, while I was naturally surprised, I could totally grasp it. He himself had proudly told me that he was a mechutzaf, and it fit with his domineering personality. Like the rabbi in the first case, he also worked with seminary girls.

When the accounts about Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro being a serial predator came to light (and there are constantly more people coming forward, hopefully some of whom will go public), I was completely unsurprised. It made perfect sense, for two reasons.

One reason was the nature of the work that Rabbi Shapiro had done over the years. He ran a website called Frumteens for teenagers struggling with difficulties, including those regarding religious identity and sexuality, and he had personal counseling sessions with them. Now, there are certainly many very fine, idealistic people in such lines of work. However, there are also, I believe, a disproportionately high number of predators in roles that put them in contact with vulnerable females - counselors, to'anim, etc. - because they recognize that these lines of work are likely to provide many opportunities. And so you have to be particularly suspicious of any signs of inappropriate behavior. The fact that Shapiro would drive around in a red Camaro, picking up teenage girls for counseling sessions, might not have set alarm bells ringing when he was doing it 20 years ago, but with our heightened awareness today, it is certainly a red flag. And in an excellent article about abuse by Shayna Goldberg, she warns about "Teachers who deliberately try to alienate their students from everything they come from — their parents, families, homes, previous schools, communities, shuls, and even shul rabbis." This is exactly what Shapiro did with FrumTeens, trying to convince teenagers to turn against their families and schools and shuls and to place their trust solely in him.

The second reason why it made sense that Yaakov Shapiro was a predator was his obsession with delegitimizing everyone who didn't fit his very narrow view of Judaism. He would constantly condemn Religious Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy, and rationalist approaches to Torah/science as heresy. He even said that they are worse than child molestation! So he was an obsessive zealot, and that was very significant. When my books were banned, I learned about a number of zealots who were involved. In every case, there was some kind of major personal shortcoming in their lives:
  • The rabbi who initiated the campaign, Leib Pinter, spent time in prison decades ago for fraud, and went back to prison for another offense shortly after launching the campaign against my books. 
  • Rabbi Leib Tropper, who was involved in rallying support for the ban and who emailed me at the time to tell me that everyone is appalled at my "nefarious" behavior, turned out to be involved in the most disgusting abuses of power involving women, going back for years. At the same time, he had authored a book on Hilchos Yichud, and set himself up as a crusader for the purity of religious conversion, delegitimizing all kinds of other people.
  • The rabbi who called me from Bnei Brak to deliver the ultimatum that I must retract my books or "face scandal and humiliation," had to flee Bnei Brak and go into hiding as a result of his involvement with a financial scandal. A Rosh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak, Naftali Elzas, who was also involved in engineering the campaign, had some of his talmidim renounce him in disgust as a result of his involvement with the same financial scandal. 
And so on, and so forth. The psychoanalysis seems obvious. Nobody likes to feel that they are a terrible person. People who know that they are committing major wrongs have to feel good about themselves. So they become crusaders for a cause, usually one that attempts to show that it is actually others who are bad people.

The combination of the two - working with vulnerable females, and being a zealot - is kal v'chomer a warning of danger, as per Leib Tropper. A rabbinic hero of mine, who took a strong stand against Nechemya Weberman, told me that people had challenged him, saying that Weberman surely couldn't be guilty of such things, because he was the head of the Vaad HaTzniyus! My friend replied that he considered this to be further evidence that he was an abuser.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

National Menace

Last week, I wrote about how Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro of Bayswater, Queens, is a menace to the nation in his role of producing eloquent, sophisticated videos and writings against the State of Israel. These influence thousands of people in the non-Satmar yeshivah community and are lapped up by countless non-Jews and antisemites worldwide. But it turns out that Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro is also a menace to the nation for another reason entirely: there are numerous reports of his being a serial predator.

For many years, I had heard rumors of this, but nothing concrete. Then, after my post about him, more detailed information came to light. Malky Wigder posted the following:
"In the last few days, I’ve been contacted by numerous people regarding a comment I had made on Facebook about a sexual predator rabbi. I’ve been asked for details, corroboration, why I don’t complain to law enforcement, why I don’t speak to politicians, why I don’t make this a stand-alone post.
To be honest, I’m tired. I’ve always been vocal and far from shy about publicizing my encounters with rabbis, askonim, educators, therapists, and other influential figures with access to vulnerable populations. I’ve talked about the corruption, the exploitation, the degradation, the impropriety, the creepiness, the betrayal, the trampling of ethics and boundaries both legal and moral. I’ve complained loudly about the sexual assaults, the date rape, the unqualified “help” that only hurts and traumatizes those who need protection and support.
I’ve named them. I’ve named the so-called victims’ advocates who refused to hear me and act. I’ve named the rabbis who ignored my complaints about their colleagues and buddies. I’ve even tagged some of them on Facebook.
It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. It’s depressing and infuriating.
But if it helps - and people I respect do believe it could help, here goes. I hereby give you my new series, posted publicly and with no apologies. Feel free to share. Feel free to pass along. Feel free to confront these individuals. And please, if you or anyone you know has been hurt or mistreated by these individuals, please add your voice, in public if you can, or privately and I will respect your privacy.
This is not about revenge, or personal animus, or payback for other harm these people may have done. Personally I’m so over all of this, it’s ancient history. I’ve moved on. I’ve adjusted my expectations of people like them. This is because these people are still out there, possibly hurting others, and I’ve been asked to speak up publicly in order to mitigate any further abuse.
Yaakov Shapiro is a rav in Bayswater, NY. I was an innocent and naive kollel wife in Lakewood when my then-husband heard him speak about chinuch and youth at risk, and decided to involve him in our marital issues. I was forced against my will to meet with him and speak to him. What followed was a series of very strange phone conversations, that got way too personal and improper, and culminated in him trying to engage me in phone sex. This happened several times. There was also an incident where I told him I was spending the night at a motel because I was desperate to get away from my husband for a bit. He showed up at the motel, saying he needed to talk to me, and proceeded to make very explicit sexual advances. I was too meek at the time to do more than push him aside and go to sleep. We did not have sex, and yet I believed the fact I let him in the room made me responsible. I remember the shame and guilt I felt the following day, as if I was the one who did something wrong.
There were several other instances where he contrived to be alone with me in his car, going as far as sending away my ride so I was stranded in Far Rockaway and had to let him drive me back. During those encounters he would drive to some secluded area and again try to kiss me, recline my seat, etc. He would also tell me about the young girls he hung out with, whom he was supposedly doing kiruv on, but what was going on was pretty nefarious and disgusting. I had the sense his wife was aware of all of this. If I remember correctly, he may have even said as much, but I can’t swear to it.
All of this, aside from being disgusting and traumatic to me, was also used against me by my ex and his family, as if I was somehow seeking this out and enjoying it. Never mind I begged not to have to speak to him. When I complained about him in order to be allowed to stop seeing him, he called me and cried about how they’re giving “him” a hard time, as if that was my fault too."

This report is credible. It is a detailed, sober account, not written with any view of personal gain. Furthermore, it is entirely consistent with reports by others. Following is a public statement from Rav Yosef Blau: 
"I have known about Yaakov Shapiro for more than twenty years. He taught in a Yeshiva High School for girls and was let go for inappropriate behavior with students, though wasn’t enough specific information to pursue it further. Shapiro played the anti-Zionist card claiming that he was attacked because of his ideology. Years later when he was “helping” at-risk teenagers through Frumteens on the internet and he was written up in Jewish Action I complained to the OU and again the answer was that he was been criticized because of his extreme ideology. He had been the rabbi of an Aguda shul and was fired there as well."

In the last week, several other women have come forward with accounts of Shapiro's predatory behavior. However, for understandable reasons, they are so far reluctant to go on public record. 
Unfortunately, New York has very deficient laws regarding legal recourse - child victims in New York have only until the age of 23 to bring civil or criminal claims. But publicizing and demonstrating Shapiro's crimes is immeasurably valuable in terms of raising other people's awareness of the danger that he poses, as well as giving solace to other victims.

If you are a victim of Yaakov Shapiro, please consider reaching out to Jewish Community Watch.  Failing that, please post your account as a comment to this post, using a pseudonym. If you would like to contact me via e-mail, I promise to respect your privacy.

And there's now a second reason for the rest of us to ask bookstores not to carry Shapiro's book.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Significance of Sources

People often ask if there is a source in Judaism for a given idea, and whether it's in Chazal, a Rishon, or an Acharon. But they frequently don't seem to have given much thought to the nature of the significance of finding sources.

Allow me to explain. There are some legitimate reasons for wanting to know if there is a source for something, and what the antiquity of that source is. As a traditional, religious system, the antiquity of a source is of great significance for its legal authority. The opinion of a Tanna carries greater weight than that of an Amora; the view of an Amora carries greater weight than that of a Rishon; that of a Rishon is of greater weight than the view of an Acharon.

On the other hand, finding an ancient source for something does not necessarily mean that it is of practical halachic significance today. One must also take into account how Judaism develops over time. For example, there is a solitary opinion in the Mishnah that one may make a shofar from a cow's horn. However, since this has been summarily rejected by every authority since then, it is no longer of halachic significance. And elsewhere we have discussed how Talmudic warnings about eating peeled onions were not incorporated into halachah and should not be revived.

Finding a source for a view is also significant for non-halachic matters, insofar as evaluating the extent to which it represents classical, traditional Judaism. For example, while it's hard to conclusively point to any reference to the afterlife in Tanach, there are certainly abundant mentions of it in the Talmud. On the other hand, reincarnation has no mention in either Tanach or Talmud, and some of the earliest sources in the Geonim and Rishonim to discuss it actually reject it.

But the mistake that many people seem to make is to believe that finding a source for something gives it factual physical or metaphysical reality. It doesn't. You can find sources, even ancient sources, for all kinds of weird and wonderful things - from geese growing on trees to Binyamin being a werewolf. Chazal themselves believed in demons, and this did not prevent Rambam and others from rejecting their existence. Sources might define Judaism, but they don't define reality.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

One Family, and Trump Derangement Syndrome

My wife and I enjoyed an amazing event last week on behalf of OneFamily, the organization set up by our friends Marc and Chantal Belzberg to help victims of terror. If you're not familiar with their work, I recommend watching the incredibly moving video at this link. I had the opportunity to meet the inspirational Rachelle Fraenkel, with whom I had a long talk about rationalism vs. mysticism, as well as true versus fake achdut.

The keynote speaker was former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, who spoke with great moral clarity about the need to correctly identify terror, and the importance of dealing with terror attacks not only in terms of preventing and responding, but also in terms of long-term support for victims. He described how his own visit to Israel in the aftermath of the 1996 bus bombings inspired his reaction to 9/11, and that Israel taught him the importance of resilience and courage. He also spoke about how he worked to have Arafat kicked out of the New York Opera, much to then-President Clinton's displeasure. He lamented how the media does not portray the justness of Israel's cause, and that it is crucial to recognize that Israel is fully entitled, and required, to defend itself, with necessary means, from the murderers who seek to attack it.

The next day, I posted all the above on Facebook. And that's when people went nuts.

It turns out that for many of my friends, it is disgraceful and even inconceivable to honor Giuliani. That is because notwithstanding his accomplishments as mayor of New York, and his outspoken, unflinching support for Israel, he is now working on behalf of Donald Trump. And so he is to be despised and ostracized, not honored at events.

This was a little surprising to me. I mentioned to them that it looks like an illustration of Trump Derangement Syndrome - that no matter what good a person has done or is doing, it is all worthless if they are connected to Trump. Several of my friends unabashedly stated that this is exactly the case!

Now, let me say that I am of the view that Trump is a loathsome maniac. However, claims of his being an antisemitic racist Nazi seem somewhat hysterical and exaggerated. And it seems that he is accomplishing some great things; indeed, it may be that a crazy bully is exactly the sort of person needed to get Iran and North Korea to step into line. Furthermore, his support for Israel is outstanding. And in addition, we are talking about someone working for Trump, not Trump himself; should Nikki Haley likewise be shunned?!

People who go ballistic at any praise of anything connected to Trump remind me of many people in the frum world during the Obama years. I am no fan of Obama - he threw Israel under the bus, and caused catastrophic damage in the Middle East by empowering Iran. But to claim that he was a thoroughly evil terrorist-supporting Muslim, as many people seemed to think, and that no Jew in their right mind could have supported him, was simply ridiculous. You have to be able to understand that in the real world, where there are many complex factors in every issue, reasonable people can have different opinions about things.

There are those who argue that Trump is in fact not good for Israel, and that whatever moves that he makes for our benefit will automatically backfire with the next Democratic administration, and that Israel should not align itself too closely with a particular controversial administration. Maybe (though this is denied in an interesting article in this week's Jerusalem Post). Still, I think that reasonable people can decide that the benefits outweigh the risks. And what about the risks of not honoring the current administration?!

Others conceded that Trump is good vis-a-vis Israel, but said that he (and Giuliani) should be shunned because he's terrible for America. But I'm not American; I'm an ex-Brit living in Israel. Are my priorities not allowed to be different than those of people living in America? I thought that these people are against America First!

Others said that I should pay attention to the view of American Jews, who are against him, with the exception of those attempting to get various government benefits and various charedim. Well, there are also plenty of American Jews here in Israel who are not charedi and who are not going to get any benefits and who still support him, because their number one priority is Israel.

But what about Trump (and some say Giuliani) being an immoral person? There are two responses to be made to that. First is that I suspect that these people would not raise the same objection if Bill Clinton was being honored, despite his proven cases of immorality and credible allegations of much worse. Second is that there are different facets of morality. Trump fails in many respects. But others, such as Sanders, Trudeau and May fail in being able to distinguish between terrorists and victims of terror - sometimes they get it exactly backwards. Those are also aspects of morality, and they are of much more pressing relevance, at least from where I am standing.

I cannot stress enough that I am not saying that it is wrong for people to oppose Trump. I completely understand why people would oppose him. But at the same time, it should be perfectly understandable to them why other reasonable people, and especially those for whom Israel is the number one priority, might support him (while not blinding themselves to his flaws). And when we're talking about Giuliani, who is not actually Trump, but who merely works for him, and who is a person with great accomplishments and who is a staunch supporter of Israel, it is certainly appropriate to celebrate such a person!

We don't have many strong supporters in the world. Let's celebrate those that we do have, not disavow them because of their shortcomings. That's the mistake that Satmar makes.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Beware of God-Believing Heresy

Here is an essay from my friend Rabbi Pini Dunner of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills:

Beware of God-Believing Heresy

Earlier this week thousands of Satmar Hasidim gathered at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, for an event led by the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum. The purpose of the rally was to reassert Satmar’s rejection of Zionism, along with their continued non-recognition of the State of Israel.

The climax was an address by Rabbi Teitelbaum, who spoke for just under one hour and twenty minutes. During his impassioned if somewhat rambling speech – subsequently made available online, despite platitudinous declarations against online technology made by speakers at the event – Rabbi Teitelbaum reviewed Satmar’s jaundiced version of Zionist history over the past century, and contended that the concept of a Jewish state is antithetical to Judaism.

Ironically, he lamented the fact that in recent years Satmar devotees were openly happy when Israel succeeded on the international stage and in military campaigns. How is it possible, he asked, that the spiritual heirs of the ideology espoused by the Satmar sect’s founder, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), could find anything positive to say about the State of Israel and its Prime Minister? Especially, he added, when the late rebbe had predicted that anyone who celebrated Zionist triumphs would not merit to rejoice in the coming of the Messiah.

Truthfully, as a religious and deeply committed Jew, it is hard to know how to respond to this kind of hostility towards Israel by such a large and important group of orthodox Jews, many of them deeply sincere, when it is so clear that Israel represents the most important theological development for Judaism in thousands of years.

While one can understand how rabbis during the early years of Zionism, and even after 1948, might have been concerned by the very secular nature of the Zionist leadership, and their callous rejection of any Jewish traditions or beliefs that did not dovetail with Zionism, it is clear that the situation has moved on in every sense. Searching our heritage for obscure references to prove that Jewish self-determination is forbidden before the Messiah’s arrival is the worst kind of self-defeating futility. Can’t they see the truth? God has provided us with our very own sovereign country, in the very land that was promised to our forefathers, and in exactly the way that was predicted by our earliest prophets.

No, Satmar Rebbe, it’s not those Satmar Hasidim who celebrate Israel’s successes who have got it wrong – it’s you and whoever wasted the money to pay for the Nassau Coliseum to stage this retrograde rally who have got it wrong. You and your fellow-travelers are living in a time warp, unable to climb down from your rotting anti-Zionist tree to join the vast majority of Torah-true Jews who have no difficulty recognizing Israel and its existence for the prophecy-realizing miracle that it so clearly is.

The issue I really grapple with is whether or not religiously observant Jews who reject the State of Israel and decry its existence actually believe in God. After all, how can one reject the realization of prophecy, and the miraculous nature of Israel’s sustained survival, and still believe in the God who gave us the very Hebrew Scriptures which contain the blueprint for everything that has unfolded and continues to unfold before our eyes?

Intriguingly, I came across a commentary by Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg (1762-1839) on the portion of Shlach that seems to address this exact point. The reason I find it so intriguing is because the intransigent zealotry of orthodox anti-Zionism has its roots in an absolutist interpretation and adoption of the “legacy” of Rabbi Sofer by a faction of his followers during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The reaction of the Israelites to the negative report delivered by the spies upon their return from Canaan, and their insistent demand that the nation return to Egypt (Num. 14:3-4), prompts Rabbi Sofer to question their true commitment to God. Having received the Torah at Sinai in the knowledge that their next destination was the Promised Land, their desire to abandon this mission on the basis of some worrying information, and to return to the land where they had suffered slavery and persecution, can surely only be interpreted as an explicit rejection of God.

But Rabbi Sofer dismisses this analysis as a profound misunderstanding. On the contrary, this entire episode is a primary example of misusing God and religion in the pursuit of deviant goals. The spies came up with countless reasons why going back to Egypt was exactly what God really wanted – the exile had not yet expired; the Israelites had only come into the wilderness to receive the Torah, and now it was time to return to Egypt; God would miraculously empty the Promised Land of its inhabitants, and then they would take it over, but meanwhile they should wait in Egypt.

The Israelites who listened to this group of distinguished holy men addressing them that day at the Sinai Desert’s version of the Nassau Coliseum lapped it all up, and became utterly convinced that God wanted them to return to Egypt, believing that it was Moses who had got it wrong, not them, and certainly not the ten esteemed princes of Israel.

As it turned out, what the spies perpetrated was a gross misuse of religious influence. Almost as soon as they had fallen for the lies of the spies, the nation realized their mistake and attempted to launch their own invasion of Canaan. But it was too late. The military campaign was a disaster, and it would be forty years before they were able to enter the land.

When religious leaders misuse religion and our devotion to God to promote ideologies that are offensive to God, we must immediately call them out and redouble our efforts to stay in lockstep with God’s mission, as expressed to us by our most revered prophets and texts.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Satanic Obsession: Religious Israel-Haters

If you thought that radical religious anti-Zionism is solely the purview of a few crazed chassidim in Neturei Karta, you are tragically mistaken.

A glossy new book has recently been published: "The Empty Wagon: Zionism's Journey from Identity Crisis to Identity Theft." It seeks to persuade religious Jews - especially charedim - into an extreme anti-Zionist approach. The author is Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, who is not to be confused with the Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro who authored the fabulous book Halachic Positions. This Rabbi Yaakov Shapir, breaking the popular image of Israel-haters, is highly intelligent and well-read, the rabbi of a shul in Bayswater, Long Island, and a Litvak, though he is also a grand-nephew of the Satmar Rebbe. He used to anonymously operate the creepy website FrumTeens, in which he infamously quoted (or probably misquoted) the Chafetz Chaim as saying about Rav Kook, "Kook, Shmook."

Today, Rabbi Shapiro is involved with the anti-Israel website modestly called True Torah Jews, which advocates for the State of Israel to be dissolved. This group is not affiliated with Neturei Karta, but when you reach this level of hatred for Israel, the differences between the two become rather minimal, as the site itself points out. Rabbi Shapiro has also joined up with notorious Jewish antisemite Gilad Atzmon. Aside from his growing following among Jews, his website and videos are, of course, welcomed by a broad spectrum of Israel-hating non-Jews, who are eager to hear that "real" rabbis also hate Israel. A video of his about how Jerusalem should not be recognized as the capital of Israel received over 1.7 million views.

If you want a taste of Rabbi Shapiro's perspective, take a look at this revealing post from his blog, in which he explains, based on the writings of Rav Elchanan Wasserman, how Zionist Jewish leaders actually have the souls of Amalek, and how they are empowered by Satan. In contrast with mainstream Judaism for at least the last millennium, which downplays Satan as an independent entity, Rabbi Shapiro follows the lead of the Satmar Rav and Rav Elchanan in being rather obsessed with Satan, and attributing great power and effective independence to him.

The following paragraph, in which Rabbi Shapiro explains why one should (theoretically?) engage in physical confrontation with the Zionist leadership, is extremely surprising in its theological perspective:
Rav Elchonon explains... that there are two types of threats against the Jews – one is where we are put in physical danger, where our enemies want to kill us, like the Persians did on Purim. The other is where we are not in danger, but the Torah is. Where they want not to harm us physically but to harm the Torah, i.e. our observance thereof. Like with the Greeks did on Chanukah. The difference between the two types of danger is that physical danger comes from Hashem with the goal to make us do Teshuva. Therefore, when we are in physical danger the proper reaction is to do Teshuva, so that the objective of the danger will be been met, and the danger will go away. But Hashem does not threaten the Torah – when the Torah is threatened, that is the Satan doing it (of course, Hashem controls the Satan as well, but He sometimes gives the Satan permission to wreak havoc in his Satanic way). In such a case, doing Teshuva alone will not help, since obviously the Satan’s goal is not for us to do Teshuva. On the contrary – he wants us to violate the Torah. In such  a case, the only solution is to go to physical war against our enemies with Mesiras Nefesh to the death. And this nullifies the Satan’s power.
I find this astonishing from any monotheistic standpoint. First of all, who cares that Satan's goal is not for us to do teshuvah? Why do his goals matter - isn't it only Hashem's goals that are relevant? Secondly, surely any power that Satan has is only because God has given him power. And God has presumably only done so because the Jewish People have not been acting properly. So surely if the Jews do act properly, then God will no longer allow Satan to act against us! How on earth, from within their own theological worldview, can they claim that Hashem would rather that we engage in physical warfare than davven and learn Torah and do mitzvos?!

Besides from the questionable breaches of monotheism in their Satanic theology, there is immense irony here. Creating innovative frameworks for the laws of war based on Biblical parallels is exactly the crime of which Satmar accuses Religious Zionists! 

Even more ironic is Rabbi Shapiro's list of the Four Signs of Amalek:
a) We know that Amalek is different than other enemies of the Jewish people in that they actually claim to be the real Jews, the way Esav held he was more of a real Jew than Yaakov
b) The fundamental characteristic of Amalek is that they glorify war and warriors.
c) Amalek tries to “improve” Yaakov to become more like Esav, and by doing so, claims that Yaakov will be a better Jew
d) Amalek tries to take the Jews out of the Bais Medrash and make them into warriors

Talk about Kol haposel bemumo posel... this is a perfect description of Rabbi Shapiro! To wit:
a) He and his associates proclaim themselves to be the only True Torah Jews;
b) They are constructing a theology to justify and glorify physical warfare (against other Jews!);
c) They trying to "improve" the rest of the Jews to become True Torah Jews like him;
d) They are trying to take the Jews out of the Bais Medrash and make them into warriors!

The tragedy is that there are intelligent, modern Jews who go for this. Satmar's hatred of Israel is alive and well, and is endorsed by not a few figures outside of Satmar. At the notorious Israel Hatefest organized by Satmar in Manhattan a few years ago, at which speakers described Israel as an "evil regime" and spoke about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling,” sitting on the dais were Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsberg, Rav Aharon Schechter of Chaim Berlin, and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman of Toras Moshe.

Rabbi Shapiro's hateful book sold out its entire first printing in just two weeks, and is already on its second printing. The obligation for the rest of us is to urge bookstores not to carry it. And to protest the spread of Satmar views into the rest of the charedi community.

(Hat-tip to my friend JF. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog via e-mail using the form on the right of the page.)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Denying Chazal's Belief in Spontaneous Generation

There are many statements in Chazal referring to the spontaneous generation of various creatures. While this belief might sound absurd to people today, it was in fact entirely reasonable and normative in the ancient world - none other than Rambam ridicules those who do not believe it.

In the charedi world, the standard approach is to claim that this phenomenon indeed used to exist, but "nature has changed" and it is no longer found. (This runs into various difficulties, discussed in my book Sacred Monsters, which I shall not go into here.) A different approach, however, is found with charedi anti-rationalist rabbonim who seek to present themselves as sophisticated thinkers that are well-versed in science, such as Rabbi J. David Bleich and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. They are dogmatically opposed to saying that Chazal predicated halachos on a misunderstanding of the natural world, so no matter how much evidence there is for that, they have to find a way around it. However, they can't bring themselves to insist that spontaneous generation really does take place (though R. Bleich does insist that it can't be disproved!) So they claim instead that Chazal never actually believed in spontaneous generation.

Now, one obvious problem with this approach is that the entirety of traditional rabbinic thought - every single Rishon and Acharon - interpreted Chazal as believing in spontaneous generation. Is it not preposterous, even arrogant, to claim that you understand Chazal's words better than every single Rishon and Acharon who ever lived? And it also goes strongly against the charedi ethos of claiming great respect for the mesorah and for traditional rabbinic authorities. 

But in this post I would like to concentrate on a different problem with this approach: the way in which its advocates conveniently ignore sources in Chazal which expose the impossibility of their interpretations.

I. Lice

Let's begin with the most famous case of spontaneous generation, that of lice. The Gemara says as follows:
Rabbi Eliezer said: One who kills a louse on Shabbos is like one who kills a camel on Shabbos (and has violated Shabbos)… Rav Yosef said: The Rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer in the case of lice, which do not reproduce (and are thus not considered to be proper life-forms)… (Talmud, Shabbos 107)
This seems like a straightforward statement that lice spontaneously generate, which is indeed how all the Rishonim and Acharonim understood it. But R. Bleich and R. Meiselman both insist that when Chazal said that lice do not reproduce, what they meant was that lice do not reproduce in a way that is visually detectable. Halachah does not take into account microscopic phenomena, and that's what Chazal meant. (They do not attempt to explain why Chazal presented this in such a misleading way as to lead all the Rishonim and Acharonim astray.)

Now, the immediate problem is that lice actually do reproduce in a way that is visually detectable. Lice eggs are not too small to be seen by the naked eye. R. Bleich therefore claims that the Gemara is actually talking about a different, unknown species of louse. He does not acknowledge the difficulty of positing that lice infestations back then were a different species, nor of claiming that the halachic mesorah at one point changed to be referring to a completely different species!

R. Meiselman, on the other hand, claims that "what is sub-visual is not the egg itself... but the relationship between egg and parent", which he explains to refer to the cycle of lice laying eggs which then hatch into other lice. But that is not sub-visual either! So R. Meiselman argues that "since this relationship was not historically perceived (the ancients did not realize that lice hatch from nits - N.S.), the halachah treats it as non-existent." Whoah! So if ancient people didn't notice/realize something that is perfectly visible, then halachically it doesn't exist?! That is a staggering claim, with extraordinary ramifications! (So the sun doesn't halachically go on the other side of the world at night? And a baby born after an 8-month gestation is not halachically alive?)

Anyway, another problem is that the immediately ensuing passage in the Gemara shows that Chazal were aware of the possibility that lice hatch from eggs, and negated it:
Abaye said: And do lice not reproduce? Surely it was said, “God sits and sustains from the horns of aurochsen to the eggs of lice” (which shows that lice come from eggs)?—That refers to a type [of organism] which is called "eggs of lice" (but not that lice actually hatch from these). (Talmud, Shabbos 107)
Surely if Chazal did not believe in spontaneous generation, and were merely intending to negate sub-visual phenomena, then they could have just said that, yes, God sustains the eggs of lice, but they are sub-visual! R. Bleich and R. Meiselman both attempt to answer this, but in brief words that seem designed more to obfuscate than elucidate - after trying for a while to wrap my head around the cryptic contrivances, I just gave up.

But, at a broader perspective, any attempt to explain what Chazal had in mind when they described lice as "not reproducing" must surely take into account their general view of how creatures come into existence. And that leads us to our next mysterious creature: the salamander.

II. The Salamander

Chazal say the following about the salamander:
The Rabbis taught: “The tzav, according to its kind” (Leviticus 11:29) — to include the arvad, and also the nefilim, and the salamandra. And when Rabbi Akiva would reach this verse, he would say, “ ‘How diverse are Your works, O God!’ (Psalms 104:24) ...You have creatures that grow in the fire, and You have creatures that grow in the air; those which grow in the fire would die instantly if exposed to air....” (Talmud, Chullin 127a)
It was universally believed in the ancient world that salamanders are generated in fire, grow in it, and cannot survive outside it. If Chazal believed in the spontaneous generation of even a larger creature such as the salamander, why would they not have believed in the spontaneous generation of much lesser creatures such as lice? Also, here we have another case of Chazal having an incorrect belief about the natural world!

R. Meiselman, despite publishing an 800-page allegedly authoritative book on Torah and science, designed to refute the heresies presented by yours truly, simply doesn't mention salamanders. It's a source in Chazal that refutes his forced explanations, so he simply ignores it!

R. Bleich has the following to say about the salamander: "Aggadic references to mice arising from dirt (Sanhedrin 91a) and salamanders from fire (Hagigah 27a) have no bearing on this discussion. Quite frequently, aggadic statements involving exaggeration and hyperbole are allegorical and intentionally inaccurate. Illustrations of edifying teachings are often presented in terms best understood by the intended audiences."

What on earth is this supposed to mean with regard to the Gemara's statement about salamanders? It's not an exaggeration or hyperbole - it is a calm description of how this salamander lives and dies. There's nothing which indicates it to be allegorical or intentionally inaccurate. And it was certainly understood as a factual, accurate account by all the Rishonim and Acharonim. Moreover, R. Bleich fails to cite the following source from the Midrash Tanchuma:
There are creatures that thrive in fire, and not in air, such as the salamander. How so? When glassmakers heat the furnace for seven consecutive days and nights, out of the thick of the flames emerges a creature that resembles a mouse, which people call a salamander. If a person smears his hand with its blood, or any other of his limbs, fire has no power over that part of him, because a salamander is generated from fire. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 3)
This is clearly a non-allegorical, non-hyperbolic description that is intended to be accurate. R. Bleich ignores this, presumably because it refutes his claims about Chazal's infallibility and about their not believing in spontaneous generation.

III. The Mud-Mouse

Finally, we come to the mouse that is generated from earth: 
A certain sectarian said to Rabbi Ami: You say that the dead will live again—but they become dust, and can dust come alive? He replied... Go out to the field and see the rodent that one day is half flesh and half earth, and on the next day it has transformed into a creeping creature and has become entirely flesh. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a)
Again, there is no reason whatsoever to accept R. Bleich's claim that this is hyperbole, allegorical, or intentionally inaccurate. Meanwhile, R. Meiselman claims that Rabbi Ami did not himself believe that such a creature exists, but was merely telling the sectarian that since he believes in it, he should not deny techiyas hameiseim. Of course, this is a remarkably strained interpretation.

Furthermore, refuting R. Bleich's description of the mouse as "aggadic," and challenging R. Meiselman's claim that Chazal didn't actually believe in its existence, is the fact that the Mishnah itself discusses the laws of such a creature:
A mouse which is half flesh and half earth; if someone touches the flesh part, he becomes impure; if he touches the earth part, he remains pure. (Mishnah, Chullin 9:6)
R. Bleich simply fails to mention the Mishnah. R. Meiselman claims that weren't definitively stating that they believe such a creature to exist, but they were "merely familiar with the persistent rumors of the creature's existence and wished to clarify its halachic status." But if they were open to the possibility that a mouse can be generated from earth, then isn't it overwhelmingly likely that they also believed that lice can be generated from sweat?

Furthermore, both R. Bleich and R. Meiselman fail to mention the following passage from Chazal about the mud-mouse, in which they actually expound a drasha from a passuk as specifically existing in order to address the mud-mouse!
I might think that a swarming creature causes impurity, but a mouse that is half flesh and half earth, which does not cause swarms, does not cause impurity. But it is logical: The rat causes impurity and the mouse causes impurity; just as “rat” is as its meaning, so too “mouse” is as its meaning (and thus a mouse that is half flesh and half earth would transmit impurity). Yet alternatively, one could say, just as the rat procreates, so too the mouse referred to is one that procreates, which excludes a mouse that is half flesh and half earth and does not procreate! Therefore it teaches us, “[And this is impure for you] among the swarming creatures [which swarms on the land]”—to include the mouse that is half flesh and half earth, that one who touches the flesh becomes impure and if he touches the earth he remains pure. (Midrash Sifra, parashas Shemini 5:6; Talmud, Chullin 127)
Are R. Bleich and R. Meiselman going to claim that Chazal had a drashah for a creature that they didn't believe existed?! Evidently it's much easier for them to simply ignore this Chazal.

The sad thing is that due to the impressive accomplishments of both R. Bleich and R. Meiselman in various fields, many people can't bring themselves to recognize their sophistry, irrationality and intellectual dishonesty in areas which challenge their anti-rationalist dogmas. That's the common mistake of those who do not follow Rambam's maxim to accept truth from wherever it comes - which has the corollary of rejecting falsehood from wherever it comes.

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