Monday, December 31, 2018

A Stain on Religious Zionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Holy Land, the Holy City and the Holy Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Three Magic Artifacts

We live in magical times.

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

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

Now, there is the Coin of Protection!

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The End of the Year is Nigh

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2018

Impurity, Treife, and the Monsey Butcher Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Defining Rationalism Vs. Mysticism

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Making of Twins

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

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

2) things that non-Jews knew also; or

3) things that are not actually true.

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

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

There ain't no such Gemara.

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

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

Is This Book In Cherem?

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

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

But in fact, matters are not so straightforward.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Rubashkin Contradiction

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

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

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

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

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

Which is the real Sholom Rubashkin?

A Celestial Menorah

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

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Most Powerful Man in the Charedi Litvishe World

Warning: This is an extremely disturbing post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Chanukah Measles Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

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

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

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

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

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

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

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

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

Chorus: Measles, measles, measles...

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Daas Torah of AntiVaxxers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other thing that jumped out at me was a letter from one of the main rabbinic forces behind the antivax crowd, Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla from Lakewood. I've discussed his views in my post When Rabbis Quack, in the context of his book Alternative Medicine in Halacha. That book, aside from promoting quasi-idolatrous "energy healing" nonsense, makes the dangerous and utterly false claim that "Contemporary medicine is the product of modern science, which denies the existence of Hashem and His Omnipresence." Szmerla also rejects the modern scientific techniques of requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence. His reason is that these stand in direct contradiction to Chazal, who only required that a treatment appear to work on three occasions to declare it effective. Which is indeed true, but it is also the reason why, in Chazal's time, life expectancy was very low and mortality rates were horrifically high. And if you're going to go with anecdotal claims which are not supported by double-blind testing, then you're open to every single quack remedy ever.

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

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

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

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

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

The Locust Mistake, and the Locust-o-Matic

We have a new machine at the Biblical Museum of Natural History: a Locust-o-Matic ( TM ). We acquired it to prepare our locusts for some ...