Wednesday, March 20, 2019

I Messed Up

I really messed up in my last post. The question of whether people in kollel who are in dire straits are helped by giving them a bigger kollel check is one to be discussed in the abstract - not in reference to a particular good-hearted neighbor who is working this week to help people. Sometimes I get so caught up in making a point that I forget the basics. I'm sorry.

Monday, March 18, 2019

What Is Purim Charity?

"And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews... that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."
"One is obligated to give to poor people on the day of Purim... And one should not be particular about Purim money, rather give to every person who puts out his hand..." (Rambam, Mishneh Torah)

Purim is a season for Tzedakah. In the past few days I have given to a certain charity (more about that one soon), but I have also turned down some requests.

The first category of requests that I turned down was for institutions. Now it happens to be that all the institutions that approached me were institutions with which I have a deep ideological disagreement (i.e. chareidi yeshivos and kollels). Still, even if it would have been institutions that I admire, I would not have given. Goodness knows I have my own institution which I believe to be an extremely worthy cause, with enormous costs to cover, and yet we do not take advantage of the "giving spirit" at this time to do so. Because Purim is a time to give to the poor, not to institutions.

Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, in his Kovetz Halachos, states this explicitly. He says that although on Purim there is a law that one should give to whoever stretches out their hand, this does not apply to those collecting on behalf of institutions, because that is not Matanot L'Evyonim.

In the past I've pointed out how there are some amazing dati-leumi yeshivot that take advantage of the Purim giving spirit in order to teach their students a lesson about helping the poor. Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh both send their students collecting, not for themselves, but for others - for charities that help truly poor people. Fabulous!

This year I was also approached by a very, very good-hearted and utterly selfless person, who wants to help kollel families in dire straits. And he wants to do so in a way that is dignified - not as a shameful handout, but rather offering them the opportunity to learn for a few hours on Purim and receive a generous stipend.

I couldn't agree that this was a good cause. It's clear from Chazal and the Rishonim that the notion of choosing to live off charity rather than working is wrong (not to mention raising one's children without the education and values to work). It's also catastrophic for Israel.

The person agreed with me that they should be working (although we disagreed strongly about whether they are benefiting society at all by learning Torah). But, he argued, given that their poverty is a reality, are we supposed to just abandon these people to suffer?

I wasn't sure how to answer that, and I had to consult with a friend who works in the field. He pointed out that if it's a matter of actually having food to eat, there are organizations which provide that. Anything beyond that should only be given in a framework that addresses the underlying problem, not perpetuates it.

To this I would add that the notion of giving money in the form of a stipend for learning so as to help them in a dignified way makes it all even worse. Financial assistance to those who choose not to work should be given in a framework that makes it clear that this is a bad choice - not dressed up as a stipend for doing something good.

My preference is to support the poor via a wonderful local organization called Lemaan Achai. They help families in a way that gets them to financial independence. Furthermore, for Purim, they practice Smart Chesed - giving them what they actually need in terms of long-term assistance, rather than just money for a Purim Seudah. It's a fabulous tzedakah organization that should serve as a model for others.

(One final note. Whenever you're approached by a "tzedakah" collector that doesn't seem to be a legitimate cause, you can always question yourself as to whether the reason that you are refusing to give is out of stinginess rather than a legitimate disagreement. Perhaps the solution is that after declining such requests, one should immediately set aside money for a legitimate cause.)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pi and Rambam

Today, March 14th, is Pi Day (3.14). And pi has been yet another of the battlefronts in the Rationalism/Mysticism Wars.

Rambam (in his commentary to Eruvin 1:5) explicitly describes pi as being an irrational number (i.e. a number that cannot be accurately expressed by a fraction). Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science p. 155, claims that Rambam "was not merely repeating an accepted piece of information, since this fact was as of yet unknown to the rest of the world." Rabbi Meiselman further claims that Rambam deduced this from the Talmud (positing a very strange inference that Rambam derived this from Chazal approximating Pi as three rather than using a fraction, which he claims means that they knew that Pi could not be accurately expressed as a fraction). As such, Rabbi Meiselman presents this as evidence that Rambam, and in turn Chazal, possessed wisdom that was ahead of their time, and was somehow derived from the Torah or some other such supernatural source.

Rabbi Meiselman's claim that has been echoed by others, such as Jonathan Rosenblum and Rabbi Yaakov Menken. They all use it to delegitimize the rationalist approach, claiming that if Rambam had supernatural knowledge of science, then it's foolish to believe that Chazal (who were even greater) made scientific errors.

However, this claim about Rambam and pi is completely false. Rambam's statement about pi is by no means extraordinary.

Boaz Tsaban and David Garber note that "Various ancient Greek writers, including Hero, Eutocius, and Simplicius, understand the difficulty of finding an exact value for the ratio, and seem to realize the possibility of its being irrational," although they did not say so definitively. It is thus certainly no surprise that after centuries of failed efforts to calculate the value precisely, people would conclude that it is indeed irrational.

The fifth-century Indian mathematician Aryabhata wrote that “Add four to 100, multiply by eight and then add 62,000. By this rule the circumference of a circle of diameter 20,000 can be approached.” The 15th century commentator Nilakantha Somayaji interprets the original words as saying that not that is this an approximation, but that the value is irrational.

Then, at the turn of the ninth century, the Persian mathematician Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi notes that there are several different methods for calculating Pi. A marginal note (I am not sure when it was written) observes that "It is an approximation not a proof, and no one stands on the truth of this, and no one but Allah knows the true circumference of the circle, as the line is not straight and has no beginning and no end, we merely attempt to approximate and discover the root, but even the root has no definition as no one may know its exact value but Allah, and the best of these approximations that is to multiply the diameter by three and seventh as it is faster and simpler and only Allah might know it true."

The Muslim scholar Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, who lived from 973-1048, was familiar with Aryabhata's works. In The Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, [Roshdi Rashed ed.], vol. 2, London/New York, 1996, p. 454), Boris Rosenfeld and Youschkevitch note that al-Biruni described Pi as irrational. In their discussion of medieval Arabic science, they further note that "...Arabic mathematicians repeatedly expressed their belief that the ratio of the length of a circumference to its diameter was irrational... Subsequent European mathematicians were also sure that pi is irrational but only J. H. Lambert, a native of Alsace, in 1766 succeeded in proving this."

Thus, the irrationality of pi was certainly not "as of yet unknown to the rest of the world." Just as the early Greeks seem to have suspected and just as the early Indian and Muslim scholars were certain, Rambam was likewise certain that pi is irrational. (As for Chazal, there is absolutely no reason to believe that they knew pi to be irrational, but even if they would have known it, this would be consistent with others in antiquity.)

Rambam was an utter genius. But he wasn't ahead of his time scientifically, and he did not have any supernatural sources of knowledge about science. If someone wants to delude themselves into thinking otherwise, it doesn't really bother me; the only problem is when they use this mistaken view to try to delegitimize those who take an honest, factually-based, rationalist approach. And such delegitimization is also, ironically, the ultimate perversion of Rambam's legacy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Evolution of Camelus ArtScrollus BlackHoofus

Did you know that there's a special edition of the ArtScroll Stone Chumash which features color illustrations at the back? I recently came across it and I was surprised to discover that it depicted a species of camel hitherto unknown to science. I think it should be named Camelus ArtScrollus BlackHoofus, the ArtScroll black-hoofed camel. It wasn't too hard to figure out how it evolved.

The picture is to illustrate the Torah's description of animals that meet the criterion of possessing split hooves, and those that don't. Instead of photos, ArtScroll uses high-quality artwork. And the illustration of the camel's foot is this:

But what on earth is that? The picture shows a big black hoof with two gray nails on the tip. But that's not what a camel has. Here are photos of a camel's foot:

As you can see, the camel doesn't actually have a hoof at all. Instead, there is a just a big furry foot, with two nails at the end.

So how did ArtScroll come up with the idea that the camel has a big black hoof, split at the tip? The answer is that it comes from a common mistranslation of the Torah.

The Torah’s first requirement for an animal to be kosher is that it is mafris parsah, which is often understood to mean that the animal must possess a split hoof. However, as I explained in great detail in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, there are actually two different classical explanations of this phrase, and neither of them translates it this way.

According to Rashbam, the word "mafris" is based on the same root as "parsah," which refers to a nail-like covering. Accordingly, the phrase mafris parsah means that the animal "hooves a hoof," or to put it in better English, "forms a hoof." The requirement of it being split is expressed in another phrase, shosa'as shesa.

According to Rashi, on the other hand, the word mafris is not based on the same root as parsah. Instead, mafris means "split" (and shosa'as shesa means fully split). Parsah is defined by Rashi (to Vayikra 11:3) as having the meaning of the Old French word plante. This refers to the sole of a foot - not necessarily to a foot that is hooved (i.e. encased by a hard covering). Accordingly, the phrase mafris parsah means that the animal "has a split foot."

Thus, according to neither view does mafris parsah mean "split hoof". It either means "has a hoof" or "has a split foot."

Now let us turn to the Torah's account of the camel:
אַךְ אֶת זֶה לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָה אֶת הַגָּמָל כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם
This verse is often translated as meaning that the camel's "hoof is not split" - i.e. that it has a hoof, but the hoof is not adequately split. But that's not what it means at all, according to any view. According to Rashbam, it means that the camel does not have a hoof - instead, it has a big furry foot with nails. (To put it another way: according to Rashbam, the camel is disqualified because it does not have a proper hoof at all, let alone one that is split.) According to Rashi, on the other hand, it means that the camel's foot (not hoof) is not adequately split, as Rashi explains there:
 מפרסת פרסה ושסע איננה שוסעת - כגון גמל שפרסתו סדוקה למעלה אבל למטה היא מחוברת:
“Which divides the foot but is not split” —such as the camel, whose foot is split at the tip but is joined at the back. (Rashi to Leviticus 11:26)
According to Rashi, the camel is disqualified is because its foot is not adequately split. There is no reference to the camel either having or lacking a hoof. (Rashi's explanation of the camel having a foot which is only partially split is consistent with camel anatomy, but one does wonder whether Rashi, living in France, ever actually saw a camel in the flesh.)

Thus, ArtScroll's reference to a camel having "a hoof that is split at the tip" is not based on any Rishon - and thus its corresponding illustration is not rooted in any zoological reality.

The problem is that most people are not aware that there are two different explanations of the Torah here, and they blur both explanations together in their minds. So most people read the requirement of mafris parsah as meaning that the animal must have a split hoof. And then when the camel is described as "ufarsah einenu mafris," they understand this to mean that it has a hoof that is not split. Thus emerges the creation of the camel illustrated in ArtScroll, which has a big black hoof. But there ain't no such thing!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Return of the Mexican Rabbit Zealot

Here is a letter that I sent to ArtScroll last week:


Sometimes, there are additions to a work which detract from it. It is disappointing to see that a certain note was added to the latest edition of the ArtScroll Talmud. (As you may recall, 16 years ago you hired me as zoological consultant for Chullin.) The problematic addition in the latest edition is a note to Chullin 59a, regarding the identity of the shafan, which reads as follows:
"[For a wide-ranging discussion of this topic, and a strong defense of the traditional view that the shafan is the rabbit and not the hyrax, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech.]"

I have long been familiar with Dr. Isaac Betech of Mexico, who was one of the zealots involved in engineering the notorious controversy over my works. Dr. Betech is single-minded in his religious obsession that the shafan must not be the hyrax (because in order to contrive his own particular forced explanation of how the Torah's four animals with one kosher sign are the only such animals on the planet, he wants the shafan to be the rabbit). In order to attain this objective, he engages in the most ludicrous pretzel-twists of intellectual dishonesty, which I and others have documented at length (and links are provided below).

To call his discussion of the topic "far-ranging," therefore, is a little misleading. He tries to overwhelm the reader by writing about a wide range of animals and sources, but what he describes as "Torah and scientific research" is entirely directed towards a predetermined goal. And amazingly, in a book that professes to be the definitive and comprehensive study of this topic with "more than 1000 bibliographical Torah and scientific sources," he fails to cite the only dedicated work on this topic that had ever been published - because it was written by me!

But far more problematic is the description of Betech as attempting to defend the "traditional" view. The view that the shafan is the rabbit is not the "traditional" view; it's the medieval European view, because they didn't have hyraxes in Europe. They broke from the original tradition of people from the Geonic era, who lived in the region of Israel, and were familiar with the hyrax. To describe the identification of the shafan with the rabbit as being the "traditional" view is akin to speaking of the "traditional" view that the tzvi is the deer (which Rashi points out to be a mistaken European innovation), that the nesher is the eagle, or that the olive is the size of seven olives. These are medieval European Ashkenazi views that were innovations, not traditions from Jewish communities in other parts of the world or from antiquity.

(Amusingly, Betech tries to make the reverse argument. In his summary at, he writes that since the Spanish Rishonim identified the shafan as a local animal, and there are no hyraxes in Europe, therefore the shafan cannot be the hyrax! He can't countenance the fact that it was precisely because the hyrax was not a local animal that Europeans transposed its identification to the local rabbits!)

You can ask anyone in the field of Biblical natural history (such as Dr. Zohar Amar and Dr. Moshe Raanan), and they will all tell you that it's clear beyond any doubt that the shafan is the hyrax, and cannot possibly be the rabbit. The reason is the very clear passuk in Barchi Nafshi:

הָרִים הַגְּבֹהִים לַיְּעֵלִים סְלָעִים מַחְסֶה לַשְׁפַנִּים: תהילים קד:יח 
"The high hills are for the ya'elim, the rocks are a refuge for the shefanim."

The pasuk tells us two things about shefanim: that they hide in rocks, and that they are associated with ya'elim. Ya'elim are ibex, the mountain goats of the Judean hills that are especially prominent in Ein Gedi, which is named after them (and in Shmuel I 24, it states that David was hiding among the ya'elim in Ein Gedi). If you go to Ein Gedi, you see ibex climbing the hills, and you can also see small furry animals hiding among the rocks, exactly as the pasuk describes - hyraxes.

Isaac Betech would have you believe that the author of this passuk, who groups his reference to the ibex with a description of animals that hide in the rocks, was not speaking about the animal that hides in the rocks right next to the ibex! Instead, he claims, David HaMelech was speaking about the rabbit of Spain - an animal that never lived anywhere near the Land of Israel and was thus completely unfamiliar to David HaMelech and to his audience, and which moreover does not hide under rocks but rather in burrows! It's simply ludicrous.

(The hyrax also matches the description in Shemini of an animal that brings up food via its throat, which it does in small quantities, as I have observed and filmed on several occasions. And contrary to Betech's claim, the shafan is no more of a sheretz than is a rabbit - in fact, it is much larger, and more of a leaper.)

I understand that you were probably placed under a lot of pressure - Isaac Betech is experienced at manipulating Gedolei Torah to write letters in support of his agenda, which he uses to bully people into kowtowing to his demands. Indeed, a few years ago he launched a massive campaign to prevent Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from coming to Mexico. However, he was ultimately unsuccessful, which shows that it is possible to stand up to that kind of pressure.

For the sake of intellectual integrity, as well as retaining a good name with intelligent people, you might wish to consider removing the new note. Or perhaps you could re-write it to be more accurate:
"For a passionate defense of the medieval European view that the shafan is the European rabbit and not the hyrax of the Land of Israel, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech. For a discussion of the classical definitions and the historical processes which led to many of the Torah's animals having their names later transposed to other animals, see Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin's work The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom."
Meanwhile, I am attaching the chapter on hyraxes from my encyclopedia, for your interest. The more involved discussion is in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax (second edition), and I am available for any questions that you may have. You might also like to visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, where the passuk from Barchi Nafshi is illustrated in an exhibit that combines both ibex and a live colony of hyraxes. (In fact, there are numerous zoos that exhibit both species together, because of their close geographical and environmental association).

Finally, here is a list of some of my articles pointing out the absurdities in Dr. Betech's presentation, and explaining further evidence why the shafan has to be the hyrax and cannot be the rabbit:

Where are the Pandas, Penguins and Polar Bears of Psalms?
Ruach HaKodesh and Reason
The Quest for Truth: A Fascinating Case Study
From Non-Disprovable to Possible to Probable to True
The Primary Reason - Clarified
Circular Reasoning at its Best

And here are two articles by Rabbi Dr. Josh Waxman that further illustrate Betech's intellectual dishonesty:

The Problem with Dr. Betech's Book
A Review of The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan

Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin
Director, The Biblical Museum of Natural History

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Kollels and Spaceships

Is the State of Israel a vile, anti-Torah entity? Apparently there was a letter in Mishpacha magazine, two weeks ago, to that effect. I didn't see it myself, but there was a letter responding to it in this week's magazine. The author of the rebuttal wrote at great length about how the State of Israel, regardless of the theology of Zionism and its flaws, has been an enormously positive force for Torah Judaism. I don't have it with me, but as I recall, he wrote about how there are mezuzos on all public buildings, and kosher food at various public institutions. He also wrote at great length about how the State of Israel makes an enormous financial contribution to Torah study, and how as a result, there are more people learning Torah today than at any time in history.

Now all of this is true, and so from a charedi perspective, it is important to have tremendous gratitude to the State of Israel. However, since there are many non-charedim who read Mishpacha (due to the tragic lack of alternatives), I think it's important to clarify two points.

First is that the massive financial support by the state for yeshivos and kollels is not necessarily a good thing. It exists due to the oversized political clout of the charedi political parties, who are happy to sign off on governmental policies regarding the country as long as they receive money for yeshivos. And it fosters a society of dependents who have renounced Chazal's values of independency and raising one's children to be independent. Which will have catastrophic results further down the line.

But I've written about that elsewhere, and it's not the main point that I want to make here. The important point that I'd like to stress is that from a religious perspective, it is a mistake to think that the State of Israel can only be justified from a religious perspective in terms of its support for overtly religious matters.

Chasam Sofer writes about how the economic development of the Land of Israel is part of the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. But there's more than just that. Bein adam lechavero is no less important from a religious perspective than Bein adam leMakom. The fact that the State of Israel provides a home for any Jew around the world is also valuable from a religious perspective. The fact that it provides and maintains an economy in which millions of Jews live their lives is also valuable from a religious perspective. The fact that the State of Israel engages in efforts to help Jews all around the world is also valuable from a religious perspective.

It's generally only the Dati-Leumi community which seems to realize this, but it should be a universal religious perspective. The national material well-being of the Jewish People is also something of religious importance. 

And there's more than that. Even something as seemingly theologically irrelevant as the launch of the Beresheet Moon Lander is significant from a religious perspective. I can't put it any better than Justin Amler did in a spectacular Facebook post, which was then published at the Times of Israel. Here it is, in its entirety:
To Soar Among the Heavens 

I just watched something that is out of the world — something that has left me with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. Something that has stirred my soul and filled my heart with wonder and love and joy and pride.

I’ve just watched a rocket launch into space from Cape Canaveral. But this was no ordinary rocket. Aboard this rocket is the first privately built lunar spacecraft that will head to the moon. But not only is this the first privately built lunar spacecraft. It is also the first Israeli spacecraft.

It is called “Beresheet,” which is Hebrew and means “in the beginning.” It is also the first word in the Torah — the Jewish people’s oldest and most precious possession. And aboard this ship of dreams will be our Torah, Israeli songs, drawings by Israeli children, the Israeli national anthem, and our prayers.

I look at this magnificent feat of engineering and I cannot help but gaze upon it with the eyes of a small child, filled with wonder.

Sometimes people say the era of miracles has ended, but then I look at this little country and I look at my people and I look at what they have achieved and still do and I know and am convinced more than ever that the era of miracles has not ended — but indeed continues unabated.

There are so many countries that are against Israel and every day brings more resolutions passed against it, passed by corrupt organizations and even more corrupt people. All around the world, anti-Semitism has been normalized leaving Jews in many parts of the world in actual physical danger. And what many Jews face today is not dissimilar to the darkest days of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

It leaves many of us feeling emotionally vulnerable, for a little over 70 years ago, we were a broken people whose ashes were spread in unidentified piles of soot, consumed by the hatred of those around us. We were a people who had no place to call home. We had no one to defend us. We stood alone in the world, shattered and shocked, hurt and bruised, broken and traumatized. Empty.

But not defeated, for we were still alive. Maybe barely. Maybe weakly. But alive. For air still filled our lungs and our flame had not yet been extinguished. And from those ashes of despair, we rose again, as we always have and as we always must.

So slowly, we reclaimed our ancient homeland. And slowly, we began to return. And slowly, our battered bodies began to repair themselves. And slowly, we reclaimed our dignity. And slowly, we reclaimed our honor.

Our enemies still came at us. Still threatened to wipe us out. But we grew stronger and we continued to survive. And not just survive — thrive!

And from this poor destitute people, the heart of Israel beat again. And the nation of Israel rose once more. A poor country struggling on life support fought on — against overwhelming odds, defying the laws of history itself.

For defeat is not part of our story. And those words, words from thousands of years ago, were still ringing in our ears. The words of God that said to a shepherd who stood alone in the world, I will make of you a great nation.

So today, while our enemies launch rockets to kill, we launch rockets to explore. While they look for ways to destroy the world, we look for ways to visit new worlds. While they look for ways to make life miserable for all, we look for ways to make life better for everyone.

So I look at this rocket hurtling into space, aboard it a ship of dreams. A ship built not of steel, but of hope. A ship built not of aluminium, but of aspirations. A living ship whose heart beats strongly, echoing around the world. A ship with a soul — a soul thousands of years old.

And with a pride that cannot be measured, I look to the sky above, to the stars, to the worlds beyond ours. I look at where we have been, how far we have come, and how far we will go. I look at how our people once grounded into dust have risen to soar among the heavens themselves.

In the beginning of time, there was darkness and then there was light. Tonight, there will be one more light above us, one more star adorned with the flag of Israel, shining and glistening in the beautiful heavens, the same heavens which Abraham once looked upon with hope and wonder. And the same heavens, we will be looking upon tonight.
A fabulous piece of writing! But at the same time, we should remember that it's not only in terms of extraordinary achievements that Israel is to be celebrated. The very fact of it existing and functioning as a country is of tremendous religious value.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Once Upon An NCSY

Here's a treasure: Someone in Los Angeles was going through old stuff and discovered a vinyl record from 1973. It's a young Rabbi Maurice Lamm z"l, then Rabbi of Beth Jacob, introducing people to NCSY. The description of NCSY's activities is followed by a beautiful song, recorded by my father-in-law Lee Samson, who had just founded the West Coast Region of NCSY, and my uncle Dr. Ernie Katz, who was the youth director at Beth Jacob. You can listen to it here:

It's a real trip back in time!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

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 special museum events taking place - a parlor meeting next Sunday in the Five Towns, and the Feast of Exotic Curiosities the following Sunday in Beverly Hills. In advance of these events, I want to clarify something about the kashrut of locusts.

In any disagreement, it's not adequate to know that your disputants are wrong. You have to know exactly where they are going wrong, and why they are making this mistake. I've finally managed to do this with the topic of eating locusts.

I came across an old article on the OU website explaining the policy with regard to accepting a mesorah for a new species. Bear in mind that the OU is not a halachic decisor for individuals of a particular community - rather, they are a kashrus organization servicing many different communities. Accordingly, any policies that they adopt have to be compatible with a broad variety of different communities.

Now, what do you do if one community has a mesorah for a particular species, but other communities do not have such a mesorah? On the OU website, at, it says as follows:
"Regarding cases where some communities have a clear mesorah permitting other animals, and other communities avoided it, the OU will not give certification... This is not because the OU relies only on an Ashkenazic mesorah, but because OU certification means that the item may be eaten by everyone according to halacha. If the animal was avoided in certain communities, that may indicate that those communities had a mesorah that it was not kosher... However, if a particular animal did not exist in a particular community, the fact that the community has no mesorah to eat it is not considered evidence that it has a mesorah not to eat it.... if certain species of bird did not exist at all in Germany, for example, and existed only in Iraq, testimony from an authoritative source from Iraq that that specific bird was shechted and eaten in Iraq would suffice to permit the bird." 

This is all perfectly logical and reasonable. In fact, it reflects an awareness of biogeography that was entirely lacking for most of history until about two centuries ago, and is still lacking by many people today. Until the thorough studies of the Americas and especially Australia, people just didn't realize that different parts of the world have very different animals. This is the foundational principle of biblical natural history, and the explanation as to why Rashi identified the animals of the Torah very differently from Rav Saadiah Gaon. As the OU points out, if a particular community had no mesorah to eat a certain creature, it doesn't mean that they had anything against it - they may have simply never encountered it! Guineafowl, for example, are African birds. It is of no significance to find that many communities in Europe had no mesorah that guineafowl are kosher - they had never encountered them.

But then take a look at how the OU applies this policy to locusts: 
"In the case of grasshoppers, it is clear from Rashi that many species of grasshoppers existed in Europe in his time and were known by the Jews, but the Ashkenaz communities did not eat any of them. This is considered a mesorah that they are not eaten, and so the OU would not certify them, even though Teimanim have a mesorah and can rely on their mesorah."
This is incorrect. Yes, Rashi was familiar with many species of grasshoppers, but not with locusts. Certain types of grasshoppers form destructive swarms, under specific conditions - these are the ones known as locusts. In the order Orthoptera, which contains grasshoppers (including locusts) and crickets, there are over twenty thousand species. But less than twenty of these are locusts. And all of the locust species are only found in tropical or desert climates. Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust, for which there is a mesorah among many Jewish communities from Yemen and North Africa, never appears in France or central Europe. (Locusta migratoria, the migratory locust, for which there is a more limited mesorah, rarely appears in the south of France and never in the north.)

So there is no Ashkenaz mesorah not to eat kosher locusts. They just didn't have them, the same as in the OU's example of the bird that only lives in Iraq and not Germany.

(I've been in touch with the OU to follow up on this, but as I pointed out to them, I am not claiming that there are no other reasons for the OU not to certify locusts. There are very good reasons for them not to certify locusts. It would be a disastrous decision that would ruin their business and all the good work that they do.)

The interesting point that differentiates locusts from, say, guineafowl, is that while nobody ever had a reason to believe that European communities were necessarily familiar with guineafowl, people did have a reason to believe that they were familiar with locusts. After all, Rashi and other European authorities seemed to discuss them. Thus, the position of these authorities that locusts were not eaten was therefore significant. What people didn't (and don't) realize is that while every locust is a grasshopper, not every grasshopper is a locust. Rashi and other European authorities may have thought that the kosher species were living around them, mixed in with the non-kosher types, but they weren't.

In Ashkenaz, there was never a tradition to eat locusts. They just didn't have any. Accepting the tradition from those who did have them is no different to accepting a tradition for guineafowl, quail, sparrow, pheasant, or anything else. Bon appetit!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Natan the Great, and the Implications for Charedim and Palestinians

Today is the thirty-third anniversary of the release of Natan Sharansky from the Soviet Gulag. While he doesn't usually wear a kippah, Sharansky is surely one of the greatest people of our time, a true hero of our generation. His book Fear No Evil is an astonishing testimony to how one man, by virtue of bravery, shrewdness and massive willpower, was able to triumph against a superpower.

Perhaps less well known, but of even greater importance, is Sharansky's book The Case For Democracy. If there's one book that should be required reading for everyone with any say on foreign policy, it's this one.

In The Case For Democracy, Sharansky explains that all societies fall into two basic categories: Free societies, and fear societies. In free societies, people have the right to express dissenting views without concern for repercussions such as imprisonment. A society which does not protect dissent will inevitably be founded upon fear.

(When I first read this, several years ago, I was instantly struck by the parallels with charedi society, which brooks no dissent. Sharansky writes that crucial to the power of a fear society is "a regime's ability to control what is read, said, heard, and above all, thought. This is how a regime based on fear attempts to maintain a constant pool of true believers.... All fear societies are based on a certain degree of brainwashing." The parallels are obvious.)

Sharansky further explains that true democracies can only emerge in free societies. And it requires those freedoms to be well established, in terms of a free press and independent courts. In contrast, tyrannical regimes stay in power by repressing their populations, using a combination of force, threats and information control. It also requires the manufacture of external enemies, to maintain internal stability and justify repression. The important consequence of this is that non-democratic regimes must maintain a constant state of conflict and are inherently belligerent.

(Again, there are clear parallels to charedi society. Every so often, they need to create an external enemy - Steinsaltz, Modern Orthodoxy, Slifkin, Open Orthodoxy. That helps them rally the troops and maintain control.)

Sharansky translates this to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He demonstrates that as long as the Palestinians run a fear society, it will be impossible to ever reach peace with them. The leaders of the Palestinians need to keep Israel as an enemy, in order to maintain power. Any "peace plan" which does not include freedom for Palestinians from Palestinian repression is doomed to fail.

But there is one aspect of Sharansky's argument with which I am not at all sure that I agree. He argues that while it is impossible to make peace with Palestinians with the current structure of their society, most people, including most Palestinians, would prefer to live in a free society. The exhilaration of freedom is vastly preferable to living in fear.

It is not at all clear to me that this true. While people enjoy freedom, they also enjoy emotional security, tribal identity, and purpose. Again, think of the analogy to charedi society. True, there are many secret dissidents. But there are also countless others who prefer to be in a situation where other people do the thinking for them, and in which they are part of a close-knit homogeneous group which valiantly struggles against the rest of the world.

And so, I am not convinced that most Palestinians would prefer to live in a free society. Maybe yes, maybe not. But the crucial point is that as long as such a society does not exist, any so-called "peace plan" is a recipe for disaster. And meanwhile, our task is to explain that to the rest of the world, and to urge them to fight for Palestinian rights - to live in a free Palestinian society.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Endorsing Shysters

Agudas Yisrael held a "historic" national convention last week in Netanya, as reported by HaModia. It was attended by "hundreds of Agudas Yisrael members from all over Eretz Yisrael, representatives in the Knesset and the local city councils, public figures and askanim, activists of the movement and representatives of the many communities identified with Agudas Yisrael." Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman said, “This is the time to unite and to proudly elevate the good name of this holy movement.” Leaders stated that the goal was to unite everyone in a mission "to increase kvod Shamayim."

And, in this mission of elevating their good name and increasing kvod Shamayim, they flew in a special guest speaker: Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin.

It amaze me that apparently there are people who see no connection between honoring a convicted felon and the recent news that the Jerusalem District convicted five senior charedi figures for hundreds of counts of fraud. This included swindling 24 million shekels from the Education Ministry by inflating the number of students learning at yeshivos, using forged identity papers, and busing in masses of impostors to fool inspectors.

When you honor someone who was convicted of 86 counts of fraud, along with numerous other charges against him, what does that say about societal values with regard to such crimes?

(It should also be noted that Litzman, along with Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism, also honored the truly evil Rabbi Eliezer Berland with a hospital visit.)

In sharp contrast, consider the following account, from Rav Shlomo Goren's autobiography, about how Rav Kook went to great efforts to save an accused Jew from an undeserved sentence - and yet would not honor him:
"...On his final appeal, Abraham Stavsky was acquitted of the murder of Dr. Haim Arlosoroff. I was sitting beside Rabbi Kook when he received a phone call from Stavsky after his release from prison. Stavsky said that he wanted to come and visit Rabbi Kook, to thank him for his tremendous efforts on Stavsky's behalf. Rabbi Kook asked Stavsky not to come to the Haifa hotel where Rabbi Kook was vacationing, but rather to wait until after he returned to Jerusalem.
"I asked Rabbi Kook about this. After all, he had made a tremendous effort and risked his position in order to save Stavsky from the gallows. Rabbi Kook had become embroiled with the British and with the high commissioner because Rabbi Kook was certain that Stavsky was innocent. Why then, when he wanted to come and thank Rabbi Kook, did the latter not want to receive him?
"Rabbi Kook replied that according to the testimonies in court, Stavsky was not of impeccable character, and his personal behavior and ethics were blemished. However, as long as Stavsky was in danger, and as long as Rabbi Kook believed that Stavsky had had no part in Haim Arlosoroff's murder, Rabbi Kook felt obligated to do everything in his power to save Stavsky. Under such circumstances, Rabbi Kook held that there is no difference in whether a Jew is an observant, God-fearing Hasid. Every person, as a human being - if he is innocent and in danger - deserves to be helped. As Hazal taught, "He who saves a single life, it is as if he saves the entire world," but now, when thank God Stavsky was out of prison and no longer in danger, Rabbi Kook had no interest in making a fuss out of the issue and in glorifying Stavsky's name. Thus, Rabbi Kook told Stavsky to wait. Now that he had been acquitted, there was no rush."
The sooner that charedi society adopts such values, the less shocking headlines we will see.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Daf Yomi LIVE from the Museum!

This Sunday, Daf Yomi comes to life!

Chullin – LIVE

at the Biblical Museum of Natural History

A special orientation session for Daf Yomi learners, featuring a presentation and discussion of the unusual mammals, birds, reptiles and insects in this week’s daf.
Join us at the museum, or participate live online!

Sunday, 27th January 2019, 8pm-10pm Israel Time

Sunday, January 20, 2019

You Don't Mess With The Zohar... Or Do You?

Who wrote the Zohar? Was it the tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, as the work claims, or was it a collection of texts from Amora'aim and/or later figures that was compiled, liberally edited, and generously added to, by the fourteenth-century forger Moses de Leon?

Nearly a decade ago I wrote a post titled "You Don't Mess With The Zohar," in which I agreed with someone's claim that questioning the Zohar's authenticity or authority is unwise. The Zohar has become canonized as one of the pillars of Judaism. The fact that Rav Yaakov Emden wrote a book with over three hundred arguments for the Zohar being largely of later authorship is not widely known, and pointing it out is unlikely to make a difference. The reaction would be too visceral.

Today, however, I'm not so sure if this is still true. Over the last decade, some changes have taken place. First is that due to the spread of the internet into Orthodox homes, more and more people are aware of things that were previously only known in scholarly circles. Second is that more facts have come to light regarding rabbinic authorities of impeccable credentials who disputed the Zohar's authenticity to a lesser or greater degree. Aside from Rav Yaakov Emden, there was also Chasam Sofer and the Noda B'Yehuda. Even Rav Ovadiah Yosef acknowledged that it cannot be considered heretical to deny the Zohar's authenticity, due to the many questions on it. Marc Shapiro's Hebrew article on this topic, "Is There An Obligation To Believe that the Zohar Was Written By Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai?" and blog posts have doubtless also been of great impact.

In my original post, I shared a critique of the Zohar, in English, by an anonymous charedi author. Recently I discovered a much more extensive document, this time in Hebrew. It's Rav Yaakov Emden's Mitpachas Sefarim, but with a lengthy introduction and elaborations of various parts. You can download it at this link. Meanwhile, for the English/ academic reader, there is an excellent treatment in Tishby, The Wisdom Of The Zohar, vol.1, pp. 55-87. I plan on including a brief summary as an appendix to my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought.

(For anyone interested in the definition of heresy, I would strongly advise reading my article, “They Could Say It, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy," in Hakirah, available for download here.)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

I Was Wrong, And I'm Sorry

Like many people, I hate having to admit that I was wrong. It's particularly unpleasant for me because there is a whole crowd of people who hate me and who leap on such a thing gleefully. And these are probably people who have never, ever honestly examined issues which conflict with their worldview and concluded that they are wrong. Still, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't publicly admit to mistakes that I made. So, in this post, I want to admit to being wrong in not just one, but two of my posts from last week.

First was in my post about whether people in kollel can be considered as quasi-Levites. I wrote that according to Rambam, somebody in kollel is in no way an honorary Levite, for two reasons. One is that according to Rambam, it is forbidden take money for learning Torah. Second is that according to Rambam, the Levites were not learning Torah, they were teaching Torah.

Now, these last two sentences are indeed true. However, I went too far in claiming that this means that according to Rambam, somebody in kollel is "in no way" an honorary Levite. According to Rambam, such a person is indeed somewhat of an honorary Levite.

There are two pieces of evidence for this. One is that at the end of Hilchos Shemittah, where Rambam waxes lyrical about how anyone can be like a Levite in devoting themselves to God, he does not mention teaching, and he is including even non-Jews. Second is that Rambam elsewhere speaks about how Torah scholars (and there is no indication that he means specifically teachers) are allowed to receive certain financial benefits "just like Levites." (It should be noted, though, that he is specifically referring to the investment of funds, and assistance in business, rather than financial grants, which he expressly prohibits.)

And so, although according to Rambam somebody in kollel is not truly like a Levite - because he is not teaching - he is still somewhat like one, and is thus entitled to certain types of business assistance.

My second mistake was in my post critiquing telling the heir to give his father's charity funds to a yeshivah, instead of to conservation, as the father had requested. I wrote that it was extremely upsetting and unethical. After reading and digesting the comments, I still think that it was probably wrong, but I don't think that it reflect a lack of ethics, and it was wrong of me to condemn it so harshly.

The reason is that the answer was given from within the worldview that the father's soul in Heaven will receive no benefit at all from having left money for conservation, but will receive enormous benefit for the money being directed to yeshivos, and thus the soul is surely hoping that the money will be redirected. Now, one may disagree with that premise, but from the perspective of one who has that premise, it's not unethical.

But the reason why I still think it's wrong, even if not unethical, is twofold. First is that even from within a chareidi/mystical worldview, conservation is a cause with merit. There are numerous sources in my book Man & Beast from classical rabbinic works speaking about the importance of respecting and looking after the natural world. True, you won't find any explicit sources speaking about saving animals from extinction, but that's because, as discussed at length in The Challenge Of Creation, nobody believed that it was possible for species to become extinct! But you do find Rishonim speaking about how the prohibition of taking mother bird and young is because it is conceptually like not caring about the perpetuation of the species. Kal v'chomer one should care about the actual perpetuation of species!

Second is that the whole idea of changing from one's agreement with a person in order to do what the person "would surely want if he really understood things" is fraught with problems. It lends itself to abuse in all kinds of ways. And would we ever want people to do that with us? Imagine the following scenario: You gave money to a non-Jew (or a secular Jew) for kosher food, and they deceive you and give you cheaper but non-kosher food, and use the difference for a good cause, based on their sincere belief that if you really knew that kashrus didn't matter, you would want the money to be used more productively. Would you think that they acted ethically?

True, there are times when we are in a bind, because we have a halachic mandate - for example, if a relative asks to be cremated. But when there is no such mandate, and the person has not asked for the money to go to an evil or pointless cause, I think it would be very appropriate to honor their request, even if you consider that there is a better cause. But it is a difficult question.

So, apologies for my mistakes. And I hope that this post serves as further proof that I am open to changing my mind and admitting errors.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Mavericks, Mystics, False Messiahs, and Mishpacha

My friend Rabbi Pini Dunner recently published a fascinating book, Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs. This slim and mesmerizing volume discusses a variety of colorful episodes from Jewish history. Some of them are well-known stories of considerable significance, such as Shabbtai Zvi, and the fight between Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz. Others are lesser-known stories of mavericks, such as Samuel Falk and Lord George Gordon. The book is not intended as an academic work, but rather as a popularization of accounts that are usually only known by history buffs.

The Shabbtai Tzvi story is astounding. Among his bizarre escapades was dressing up a fish as a baby, celebrating all the chagim in a single week, innovating a blessing to be pronounced upon committing a sin (Baruch matir assurim), and eating pork in public, after reciting that blessing! How on earth did he bring so many people under his spell? Particular astonishing is the account of how Rabbi Chaim Beneviste, one of the outstanding halachists of his era, was initially skeptical of Shabbtai Tzvi, had a fierce confrontation with him, and then was converted to being a staunch believer!

The topic of Shabbtai Tzvi, and even more so the Emden-Eybeshutz controversy, are generally not considered suitable topics for discussion in the charedi world. They are embarrassing and contradict the notion of the great rabbis of the past being near-infallible Gedolim. (Perhaps this is why the book is selling very well in Boro Park and Lakewood!)

I recall about twenty years ago asking my Rosh Yeshivah how to understand the Emden-Eybeshutz controversy. He was clearly uncomfortable with the question. After all, either Rav Yaakov Emden was badly wrong, or Rav Yonasan Eybeshutz was an apikores! The latter was the more unpalatable option, and so it had to be Rav Emden who was wrong. But, my Rosh Yeshivah claimed in his defense, this happened because when a very important power of holiness arises, such as Rav Eybeschutz, then the Satan is given extra-strong powers to counter it, which is how the Satan managed to lead Rav Yaakov Emden astray in his campaign.

Rabbi Dunner's conclusion in the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy is that Rav Eybeschutz might indeed have been a Sabbatean, but it cannot be conclusively determined either way. (But see Prof. Shnayer Leiman's article here.) Yet, as Rabbi Dunner points out, it is no longer relevant today, since both of them are now renowned for their contributions to Torah literature. This is very similar to the verdict reached at the time by Rav Yechezkel Landau, who was largely convinced that Rav Eybeschutz was indeed a secret Sabbatean, but basically said that it didn't matter, because it was secret!

As Rabbi Dunner describes Rav Landau's position: "As long as the amulets were destroyed, and Rabbi Yonatan visibly behaved in accordance with Jewish law and conducted himself according to the standards expected of a great rabbi, what difference did it make if he had surreptitiously inserted incomprehensible Sabbatian word puzzles into amulets that influenced nobody to believe in the messianic vision of the long-dead Shabbetai Tzvi?" (I think that there is support here for Prof. Menachem Kellner's claim that being a Jew in good standing does not require adherence to a certain code of dogma, and his observations about Chabad being accepted despite Rabbi Dr. David Berger's pointing out their problematic beliefs - but note my disagreement with him at this link.)

Given the discomfort with these topics in the yeshiva world, I was intrigued to see that Rabbi Dunner and his book were the feature story in a recent issue of Mishpacha magazine. How would Mishpachah cover these disturbing controversies? Perhaps wisely, they didn't; there was just a passing reference to their existence. But Mishpacha doubtless gave a tremendous boost to Rabbi Dunner and his book. Hopefully there will be no negative consequences to giving him a high profile in the charedi world, and it won't lead to any unwanted attention from zealots. As the late Rabbi Nissan Wolpin said to me thirteen years ago, "As soon as I saw you on the cover of Mishpacha magazine, I knew they'd come after you!"

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Disobeying Dad's Dying Wish

There was an extremely upsetting halachic responsum which appeared in last week's Yated Ne'eman. It was all the more distressing because it was quoted in the name of Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, who is generally respected as a very wise and sensible person. In his defense, I will point out that we have no idea as to the framework within which the question was presented and answered - whether the questioner sat with him to discuss it properly, and Rav Goldberg wrote the answer, or whether the questioner grabbed him after mincha for a few seconds, gave him the bare outline of the question, and "processed" the answer.

With that prelude, let us get to the responsum. It is to a person whose non-religious father, before passing away, asked his son to donate his funds towards wildlife conservation, and not to a yeshivah, as his son had requested. Here is the question and answer (click to enlarge):

The son is told that he can disobey the wishes of his dying father and give the funds instead to a cause that his father did not want to give to!

Here's the crux of the problem (and I confirmed this with a Posek who specializes in wills, Rav Menachem Copperman): The answer does not deal with the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Or, as the Posek that I consulted presented it: The answer deals only with what one is absolutely legally obligated to do, not with what is the right thing to do.

According to the letter of the law, it is indeed true that such a dying wish is not legally binding, since it does not fulfill the various technical requirements. However, there is still a principle that it is a mitzvah to fulfill the wishes of a dying person, especially in a case where it is grounded in the fundamental principle of kibud av, honoring one's father. As Ramban notes, the Torah says V'asisa hayashar vehatov, one should extrapolate from the Torah's general principles to do the right thing in a case which is not technically covered by the law.

Surely the right thing is for this person to honor his father's dying wish. It's not as though the father wanted the money to go to a bad cause, or even to a cause with no value. I don't personally give my charity dollars to conservation organizations, but respecting and preserving God's creations should certainly be considered a legitimate cause, even by charedi standards. It's even mentioned in the Midrash that God charged Adam with the task of looking after the world and not damaging it. There are numerous further sources as to the importance of respecting the natural world, as discussed in my unfortunately out-of-print book Man & Beast, such this from Tomer Devorah:
"A person should accustom himself… to respect all creatures, since the perfection of the Creator, Who formed man with wisdom, is recognizable among them – likewise the wisdom of the Creator is in all creatures. He should demonstrate for himself that they are very, very precious, for the Creator of everything, the Elevated Wisdom, takes care of all creatures. If he were to disdain them, Heaven forbid, he is encroaching on the honor of their Creator. It is similar to a master craftsman, who made something with great skill and showed his work to people, and one person begins disparaging it and treating it disrespectfully – the craftsman will grow very angry, for by disparaging his handiwork, they are disparaging him. So, too, the Holy One; it is evil in His eyes if any of His creatures are treated disrespectfully. This is what is written, “How great are Your works, O God… You made them all with Your wisdom” – since You used Your wisdom, Your works are important and great, and a person should contemplate the wisdom in them and not disdain them."

I can certainly understand the frustration of not identifying with the charitable cause that one's parent has chosen, but that is the essence of honoring one's parents - fulfilling their wishes even when it's hard for you to do so.

What's doubly upsetting is that not only is the son told that he doesn't need to give the money to the cause that his father wanted, but that he's even told that he can give the money to a cause that the father specifically said that he didn't want it to go towards. At least give it to a cause that he'd support, such as a hospital or feeding the unwillingly poor - not something that you know he objects to! (And even if you disagree with his objection to supporting a yeshivah, surely it should be acknowledged that it is at least understandable, and that, depending on whether it is an institution for children or adults, Rambam would have had exactly the same objection!)

Imagine if a secular newspaper printed an advice column in which the dying father is an Orthodox Jew with a son who has become Reform, and he asks for his charity to go to an Orthodox Jewish day school rather than a Reform school, but the son is advised that he knows better and he should give the money to a Reform school instead. Can you imagine the reaction in yeshivah circles?!

UPDATE: A number of people suggested that this has to be evaluated from the perspective of both the questioner and the rabbi that the deceased would greatly benefit from the redirection of the funds, and that surely his neshamah now wants such a thing; and thus from this perspective, it is ethically appropriate. I think that there is some merit to that argument, and I would like to hear what others have to say about it. To my mind it still demonstrates a certain lack of humility, the same sentiment that leads people to censor the works of deceased Torah scholars on the grounds that "now that he is in the Olam Ha-Emes, he surely regrets writing that."

Monday, January 14, 2019

Is Kollel a Levite Lifestyle?

It's hard for someone in kollel to make the transition to working to support his family. Especially if it's been drilled in to him for many years that he's failing his purpose in life by doing so. And thus Jonathan Rosenblum's article in last week's Mishpacha magazine, "Life After Kollel," was a very important piece. While lamentably (but understandably) quoting R. Chaim Volozhiner's novel mystical views about the impact of Torah learning on the cosmos, Rosenblum also stresses how the workplace, no less than the yeshivah, is a place where one grows in Avodas Hashem. He even writes that "sustaining and advancing the physical world, yishuvo shel olam, is itself a mitzvah."

It's fabulous that such an article is published in a charedi magazine. But I do have to nitpick on one small but significant matter.

Rosenblum refers to the time in kollel as "the years spent as a member of Shevet Levi." This is following Rambam's famous declaration, at the end of Hilchos Shemittah Ve'Yovel, about how anyone who chooses to devote himself to the service of God becomes like a Levite.

But this is intellectually dishonest in the extreme. Because if you're following Rambam, then you have to acknowledge that Rambam was of the view that somebody in kollel is in no way an honorary Levite.

I'm not even talking about the fact that, as is well known, Rambam was of the view that it is absolutely forbidden for someone to take money for learning Torah (and he held that the financial support of honorary Levites was not financial grants, but rather involved the investment of funds, and assistance in business). Nor am I talking about how, according to Rambam, such a person is not exempt from military service.

Rather, I'm talking about the fact that according to Rambam, someone learning in kollel is simply in no way doing what Levites did. Because according to Rambam, the Levites' special mission was not learning Torah. It was teaching Torah:
Why did the tribe of Levi not acquire a share in the Land of Israel and in its spoils together with their brothers? Because this tribe was set apart to serve God and to minister to Him, to teach His straight ways and righteous ordinances to the multitudes, as it is written: “They shall teach Jacob Your ordinances and Israel Your Law” (Deut. 33,10).(Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Shemittah VeYovel 13:12)
I've lost count of the number of times that I have seen charedi policymakers and ambassadors blur the difference between learning Torah and teaching Torah. It's a very serious distortion, one which makes all the difference in the world. Levites serve God by serving the Jewish people. People in kollel do not.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Question For American Charedi Olim

Here's a question for all the American charedim, or charedi wannabees, who have made aliyah: Name five recent or current American charedi great Torah scholars. They can be charedi gedolim, but they don't have to be.

There's plenty to choose from. Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rav Leff, the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Sheiner, Rav Aharon Feldman. Or, you can go for the local younger generation in Beit Shemesh: Rav Chaim Malinowitz, Rav Elimelech Kornfeld. And in terms of recently deceased, there's also plenty of examples; Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, etc. Think of anyone that you want.

Now, I have another question for you: What do all these five Torah scholars have in common?

The answer is: They all went to high school.

(And, depending on whom you thought of, they might well have all gone to college, too.)

I mention this because there are numerous American charedi families in Israel who want to educate their children within a charedi framework, but instead of choosing one of the many options of charedi high schools which offer secular education and matriculation (bagruyot), they choose to send their boys to yeshivah ketana, which offers zero secular education. In some cases, the reason for this is that they want their children to become Great Torah Scholars. But, as the list of established Great Torah Scholars shows, it's perfectly possible to become a great Torah scholar even with a high school education!

There are further reasons to send your kids to a high school. You have the advantage that if the great Torah scholar career doesn't work out (as many people in such an intense system suffer burnout), or if it doesn't put bread on the table (as it often doesn't), then there are fallback options. And it's in line with Chazal's requirement that the duty of parents is to ensure that their children are capable of earning a living.

Plus, if you send him to a regular charedi high school and he decides to become a great Torah scholar, he'll do so with ease. Having grown up here, he'll already have a head start over the Torah scholars listed above. He won't resent your not having sent him to yeshiva ketanah. But if you send him to yeshivah ketanah, and he doesn't end up as a great Torah scholar who can make a living, he may well end up resenting you for not giving him the educational tools necessary to get a proper job.

Giving your child a few extra hours of Torah study each day, on top of the numerous hours that all yeshivah high schools do, is not going to be the determining factor in making him a great Torah scholar. It might even reduce his chances. But it will certainly reduce his chances of being able to support his family. It goes against Chazal's requirements, and it just doesn't make sense.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Police Officers and other Tidbits

Some miscellaneous items:

- One morning this week I was looking for a parking spot in the industrial zone, and I finally parked my car in a place of questionable legality. I wasn't sure if it was okay, but then I noticed a police officer in his car. So I walked over to his car, knocked on the window and asked if it was okay to park there. He rolled down his window and apologetically gestured that he didn't know and couldn't talk - because he had his Tefillin on and he was in the middle of davenning!

- Kudos to Daniel Goldman for taking a public stand about Rav Druckman. See the article here. There will be significant further developments within a week, thanks to the efforts of a number of prominent US rabbis.

- Change in my travel plans: I am available in the NJ/NY area as scholar-in-residence for Shabbos February 23. If you're interested, please email me at

- The Feast of Exotic Curiosities is coming to LA! Send an email to for details.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Rubashkin: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Before getting to the main point of this post, I want to make something clear. I'm not personally condemning Rubashkin for his financial shenanigans. After reading the account of the story in the fascinating book Kosher USA, it's hard not to be sympathetic. "Do not judge a man until you are in his place." It's very, very difficult to run a profitable kosher slaughter business, since the costs are so much higher and a large proportion of the meat cannot even be sold to the kosher market. Imagine inheriting a huge but failing family business, with cattle prices continuing to rise. There was undoubtedly enormous temptation to go to any lengths to stop the business from falling apart. And thus he engaged in unethical practices against other Jewish meat suppliers; he reversed the more compassionate (but less efficient) methods of animal processing that had been agreed upon; he hired illegal labor with inadequate conditions (resulting in five amputations along with dozens of other serious injuries); and he falsified documents in order to keep things afloat.

In addition, it's not hard to understand why Rubashkin wouldn't have seen all this as a big deal. The fact is that, as Rabbi Nisson Wolpin z"l told me over twenty years ago, the charedi community has long had relatively little regard for civil law. The reason is partly due to its isolationism (not identifying with the laws of the country as being "their" laws), and partly due to a cultural hangover from eras where the government really was the enemy. This unfortunate phenomenon is especially pronounced in chassidic communities, and even more so in the Rubashkin family, which has a history of breaking laws.

So, Rubashkin's upbringing and situation set the stage for his crimes. And he suffered plenty for them. The protests being uttered by myself and countless other people are not about targeting him for further recrimination. Rather, what we are protesting is the elevation of Rubashkin to hero status. He's done his time; let him now fade into anonymity, not be paraded as a celebrity. To quote Rav Hershel Schachter:
"It's scandalous - the man is a criminal. The OU warned him for years to straighten up his act and he didn't listen. He came out of prison and he was drunk on the videos. They're turning him into the next Lubavitcher rebbe! The trial was unfair and he didn't need to be in prison for so long, but he should have been quiet about it." 

Rubashkin is a person who did not care about the law. He, and his employees, said this to people explicitly. He did not care if other people suffered due to his business practices. And he did not place his bitachon in Hashem to assist with his business problems - instead, he signed false documents and broke the law. He should not be paraded as a source of inspiration.

According to Levi Shapiro, director of the Jewish Community Council in Stamford Hill, the message of Shalom Rubashkin in his forthcoming visit to London "is to be law-abiding business people, to learn from your mistakes, to be true contributors to society, and to make the most of second chances." Ha! If only! He's never, ever given over this message. Rubashkin never speaks about having done anything wrong or about the need to be law-abiding. His message is only about his heroic ability to trust in Hashem to help him with his plight - never about his mistakes and wrongdoings that got him there in the first place.

The good news is that many people recognize this. There is also an online petition to oppose his forthcoming celebrity tour of London. And the school in London which had been rented as a venue for one of his speeches has cancelled the booking.

Alas, however, there are many other people who do not recognize this. I'm not just talking about people who don't grasp the impropriety of having an unrepentant criminal give inspirational talks about bitachon and the miracles that he experienced as a result. I'm talking about people who genuinely do not seem to recognize that what he did was wrong.

Some of the comments to my previous posts and Facebook discussions were disturbing, even frightening. One anonymous commentator on my blog wrote as follows:
it's not dishonest if the customer is aware that the weights are off. in this case the bank was aware of the inflated receivables, and was happy to lend the money. this is actually a common practice, a lender wants to lend money when it is profitable to do so, and it seems secure, they don't care about the collateral. but they can't have the loans on their books without the collateral, so they cooperate with the client to inflate the value of the collateral for the sake of the "books". there are hundreds of banks that were doing this with home mortgages, which was a contributing factor to the recent mortgage crisis (circa 2008). prosecutions for this type of activity are not unheard of, but they are rare.
This person doesn't appreciate that lying is wrong, period, even if the bank would agree to it. Furthermore, the laws of providing collateral do not only exist for the benefit of the decision-makers in the banks - they exist to protect the shareholders and everyone associated with the bank, and the general public. Yes, it works fine as long as the money is coming in, but you can never be sure that it always will come in. Obeying the laws and being honest is important precisely to prevent the sort of financial crisis that occurred in 2008.

One Chabad rabbi, David Sterne, challenged me to demonstrate a single Torah wrongdoing that Rubashkin did. I didn't want to start getting into all the nitty-gritty of the offenses, so I decided to present something very simple and undeniable: the fact that he made false financial statements, and thereby contravened Midvar sheker tirchak. To my surprise, Rabbi Sterne replied that if it's not codified as law in the Shulchan Aruch, then contravening midvar sheker tirchak is not a problem! This sounds too shocking to believe, and he might deny it, so I took screenshots of the argument (click to enlarge):

How can a rabbi, involved in Jewish education, insist that lying (on a financial matter!) is not necessarily wrong?! (Yes, I am aware that on occasions one must resort to lying in order to achieve more important goals; Nosson Slifkin once wrote a book about it. This is not one of those cases.)

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has a problem in its disregard for civil law. The Rubashkin circus is both a manifestation of this and an encouragement of it. Everyone who cares about genuine Torah values, as well as the long-term situation of Jews living among non-Jews, should be protesting.

I Messed Up

I really messed up in my last post. The question of whether people in kollel who are in dire straits are helped by giving them a bigger koll...