Thursday, September 19, 2019

Denying Reality

A very strange thing happened in the Israel elections. Eighty thousand people voted for Itamar Ben Gvir's Otzma party, which failed to pass the threshold.

It's not strange that Otzma failed to pass the threshold. That was completely obvious and predictable. What's very strange is that all these people voted for Otzma, even though it was completely obvious and predictable that they wouldn't pass the threshold.

Getting into the Knesset requires about 140,000 votes. In 2013 Otzma ran independently and received just 66,775 votes. In the previous elections, just a few months ago, Ben Gvir was running along with Smotrich (Ichud HaYemin) and Peretz (Bayit Yehudi) and received 160,000 votes. In this election, Otzma was running without Ichud HaYemin and Bayit Yehudi. How on earth did they think that they were going to more than double their numbers and get another eighty thousand missing votes?!

Yes, there were some polls that showed them clearing the thresholds. But polls are based on a very small sample size and are notoriously inaccurate, with a margin of error that makes all the difference. The numbers just weren't sufficient. Zehut and Noam, showing a rare streak of realism, pulled out, and Otzma had hopes of getting some of their votes; but there was no way that Otzma was going to get all or even most of those voters, and Noam probably had very few to begin with.)

In the run-up to the elections, I saw a lot of Otzma voters say the most absurd things. In response to people pointing out that they just didn't have the numbers, they replied "You think you're a prophet?! God decides!" No, I don't need to be a prophet; I am reading the past and present, not the future. And no, God doesn't decide which party people vote for. They made entirely irrelevant claims like, "If everyone who is sympathetic to our cause votes for us, then we will get in!" They seemed to be unaware that the point is that there aren't that many people who are sympathetic to their cause, and even with those who are, the fact is that many of them are not actually going to vote for Otzma. It was a complete detachment from reality. Today, many of them are saying that they would have gotten in, were it not for the fact that so many people didn't vote for them. Well, yes. That's how it works.

Some Otzma voters claimed that they didn't care about whether their party would get in or not. Some said that it was just about showing the public how many people are passionate about this cause. Well, they showed the public that there aren't very many!

Several others, some of whom I know to be very fine people, said that they regardless of Otzma's low (I would say zero) chances of getting in, they wanted to "vote their conscience." Very noble. Very admirable. Except that it's completely ridiculous.

Throwing away your vote in order to "vote your conscience" is just silly. The only reasonable excuse for ever encouraging people to throw away their vote is if the election results are truly insignificant either way, which is rarely anyone's perspective. The value of democracies is that you can influence the direction of the country. You can bring about good and prevent evil. You can encourage wise decisions and discourage bad ones. Yes, you have to compromise some of your values and work with people that you disagree with. But by doing so, you are able to exert influence on the bigger issues. You can prevent people from making well-meaning but foolish mistakes that can have absolutely catastrophic consequences. This is real life. Catastrophic consequences can mean thousands of people get killed. 

Now, in the previous elections, I also voted for a party that did not pass the threshold (Yamin HaChadash). But Yamin HaChadash learned the lesson that they just didn't have enough numbers (even though they had far more than Otzma) and so they pulled out. Even Zehut and Noam pulled out. So why didn't Otzma pull out? And why are they still not giving up? What pushed me to write this post was a comment that I saw this morning. Incredibly, an Otzma voter said that next time, they will have even more people and they will get in! Why are their voters so blind to the electoral reality?

The answer appears to be that these are people who are accustomed to ignoring reality. Otzma voters are ideologues whose entire political worldview is one that is based on ignoring reality. The Israeli Left ignored reality during the Rabin/Peres years; most of these people have since learned from their mistakes and left the Left. The extreme right is still ignoring reality.

You can talk all you want about how this land is rightfully ours and about how the Palestinians are our enemy and about how nations have historically always conquered and expelled their enemies and about how God helped the Maccabees. But the reality of today just doesn't work that way. (And it's also the case that not every Palestinian is evil!) No, Israel can't just carpet-bomb Gaza. Israel can't fight wars "without negotiations, without concessions and without compromises” (to quote the Otzma platform). Israel cannot do whatever it wants. There are other countries in the world, there are political realities, and Israel has to live with them. (For those who need convincing of this point, I strongly recommend reading Yehuda Avner's book The Prime Ministers.)

It's not nice to gloat over people whose party didn't do well and rub salt into the wound. But in this case there is an important lesson that they should learn. The only people willing to ignore reality and throw their votes away are people who vote for a platform that ignores reality. It's foolish, it's irresponsible, and it's morally wrong.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Beast Masters and Snake Charmers

I've been accused of various sins, but recently I was accused of something that was not only a novelty for me - it's a sin that I've never heard anyone being accused of!

The charge from a museum visitor was that I am guilty of "chover chaver." That's a curious prohibition, mentioned in Devarim 18:11. Rashi defines it as "someone who gathers snakes or scorpions or other wild animals into one place." I do all three - QED!

Of course, creating a zoo or a Biblical Museum of Natural History is not what the Torah is talking about. As the context of the verse makes abundantly clear, it's talking about gathering these animals via incantations. It's not referring to purchasing them from breeders!

Now, as with all prohibitions relating to the apparently supernatural, the meaning of this is subject to the famous medieval dispute between rationalists and mystics. Rambam, representing the rationalist approach, stated emphatically that there is no such thing as magic, and that the Torah prohibits these things because they are folly. The mystical approach, on the other hand, maintains that these practices work, but they are forbidden.

With either approach, it is a little difficult to understand exactly why this is prohibited. What's so terrible about someone controlling animal behavior, or even mistakenly believing/ fooling people into thinking that he can? It is said that King Shlomo "knew the language of the animals" - didn't he ever tell them to do anything? It seems that a precise understanding of the nature of this practice has been lost in the mists of history.

While researching this topic, I came across something intriguing. Rambam, in his commentary to Avos 2:10, discusses how wise men reject the efforts of those who try to falsely ingratiate themselves with them. He says, "They will not listen to the voice of a charmer, like the seraf (a type of snake) does not listen to it, as it stated (Psalms 58:6), "Which does not hear the voice of charmers."

But is the verse saying that this snake cannot be charmed? If we look at the full context of the verse, it states as follows:

"The wicked have been corrupt since birth; liars from the womb, they have gone astray. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a serpent stopping its ears, so as not to hear the voice of the charmer, or the enchanter with cunning spells."

The verses are not saying that snakes in general cannot be charmed; they are speaking about how the wicked are like a figurative snake which has its ears stopped up, and therefore cannot be charmed. But Rambam seems to be quoting the verse as saying that a snake cannot be charmed. Did he somehow read these verses that way? Or was he simply short-handedly referring to a snake which has its ears stopped up?

I'm wondering if Rambam was of the view that snake-charming is like chover chever - a deceptive practice that does not actually work. In fact, contemporary science says that it is only partially deceptive. The snake does not actually hear the sound of the instrument, since it lacks an outer ear, though it does perhaps sense the vibrations of the sound. Still, the key to what is happening is the movement of the charmer. He is not hypnotizing the snake, per se; rather, he encouraging it to follow certain patterns of natural behavior when faced with a threat - in this case, the instrument.

(As to how to explain the verses, which imply that snakes are charmed by the sounds that they hear, that would simply be another case of "the Torah speaking in the language of man.")

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Rabbi Phillips Responds

It's not the norm to give a guest post to someone responding to a review, but I've decided to do so, since notwithstanding my criticisms of Rabbi Phillips' book, I think that his heart is in the right place. I'm not going to write a response to his response; I stand by what I wrote, which I think that his response somewhat mischaracterizes. I invited people to read both his book and my review and to draw their own conclusions. (I do agree that my review focused on only a small part of his book.)


Firstly, I would like to thank Rabbi Slifkin for taking the time to read and review my book, Judaism Reclaimed, which he received only a few days ago. I am also very grateful for the opportunity that he has given me to write a response to this review on his entertaining and valuable blog.

From the outset, R’ Slifkin seeks to pigeonhole the book as “charedi” or “non-charedi”. Anyone familiar with me would know that this is likely to be an extremely challenging task; while I draw inspiration from both Haredi and Modern-Orthodox thought, I do not subscribe exclusively to either and I think my book reflects that by attempting to rise above the well-trodden, often petty, disputes between these two worlds when analysing fundamental questions of Jewish philosophy and theology. To this end I specifically sought approbations from Rabbinic figures in both worlds with one of them, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, also meeting with me to provide very helpful guidance and advice.

Unfortunately, R’ Slifkin’s preference to see everything in black and white, colours the rest of his review of my book which he seeks to depict (and presumably discredit) as “charedi apologetics”. This leads to some surprising results. A few selected points:

R’ Slifkin categorises my responses as “weak apologetics... comforting for Yeshiva students who have little capacity for critical thought or exposure to contemporary works”.
However, even a cursory glance at the modern sources I draw upon in these chapters will reveal that they are entirely non-Charedi. I suspect that Professor Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University – whose work was strongly recommended to me by Rabbi Sacks – as well as R’ Mordechai Breuer and R’ Amnon Bazak would be most surprised to read R’ Slifkin’s critique and categorisation of their views.

R’ Slifkin appears to have mistaken my analysis of Rambam’s linguistic theory for an endorsement of Rambam’s position against that of his disputants – a matter on which I do not take a stand. I was simply seeking to explain a much-derided and, I think, little understood statement of Rambam and in the process to propose some fascinating parallels (and distinctions) between Rambam’s theory of linguistics and that of George Orwell in 1984. I was very much helped in this chapter by the late Professor Susan Rothstein – a world expert in comparative linguistics and a disciple of Noam Chomsky.

On this subject, which is clearly close to R’ Slifkin’s heart, he appears to have been strongly influenced by my “copious citations” of his old nemesis, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, with whom he attempts to taint me by association. In fact, of the five (exclusively brief footnote) mentions of R’ Meiselman in my chapter on Torah and Science one is to dispute him, three are merely brief citations together with a citation of R’ Slifkin’s counter-argument – and only one is supportive.
More seriously however, R’ Slifkin has fundamentally misrepresented the greater purpose of this chapter: it deliberately seeks to avoid the much-debated specifics over Torah and science (specifics which are typically relegated to footnote references) and instead analyses the philosophy of science. Specifically, it examines the cautious and nuanced approaches taken by Rambam to the apparent clash between Torah and (now defunct) science of his day, and then asks how Rambam would approach such an apparent clash in today’s circumstances. No conclusion is offered because the chapter focuses on theological methodology rather than specific questions. In fact, the chapter concludes with the thoughts of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who read and enjoyed the essay. Curiously, in his review, R’ Slifkin emphasised how the opinions of him and R’ Sacks on Torah and Science were “essentially…the same”. 

While I expected R’ Slifkin to leap to the defence of his friend Professor Marc Shapiro, his enthusiastic branding of my analysis “conventionally naive/charedi” misses some important points:
1) My primary argument is based on the work a leading scholar in the field of Jewish thought, Professor Joseph Dan who is not religiously observant, let alone Haredi. Dan writes (among other things) that even medieval Rabbinic statements which appear powerfully to endorse belief in a corporeal deity should not be understood to represent “belief in the literal veracity of these descriptions…they represent the maximum that can be conveyed concerning God’s essence and appearance, and that any further inquiry cannot lead to valid conclusions. God chose to reveal to us in the scriptures whatever is found in them: man should be satisfied with that, and ask no more questions. It is not that Rabbi Moshe Taku believed in an anthropomorphic God; most probably he did not”.
While some may dispute Professor Dan’s conclusions, classifying my development of his hypothesis as naive and charedi is disingenuous, offensive and may reflect an agenda. (I similarly question Shapiro’s omission of Professor Dan’s conclusions – especially as he cites Dan approvingly elsewhere in his book).
2) My critique of Shapiro’s presentation of sources is limited to the first two chapters of his book. I believe that I have shown that the sources in these chapters have systematically been misrepresented and taken out of context and therefore do great damage to his argument there. This response is obviously not the place to regurgitate them; rather, it is for readers to make up their own minds (anyone who is interested but does not want to buy the whole book can contact me privately for a copy of this important chapter).
3) Regarding widespread Rabbinic acceptance of the entirety of Rambam’s 13 principles, I don’t think it’s controversial to maintain that the Rabbinic consensus today allows e.g. prayer to angels (many will be reciting the machnisei rachamim supplication in selichot starting motzei Shabbat – a prayer that, personally, I omit).
4) “Phillips makes the not-uncommon mistake of misinterpreting the book to be saying that anyone is entitled to believe anything.” Does it not? See p117 of Marc Shapiro’s book.

My discussion in this essay is built upon the writings on R’ Jonathan Sacks and Professor Joshua Berman, once again mischaracterised as “charedi/naive apologetics”. The review of my discussion of whether the Torah’s accounts should be rendered literally appears only to have seen half the essay and therefore completely misrepresents my argument (the reviewer appears to have been distracted once again by the menacing presence of R’ Meiselman’s name in a footnote – cited very much as a sidepoint).

In short, Judaism Reclaimed has nothing to do with R’ Slifkin’s depiction of it as an exercise in “Charedi apologetics”. Furthermore, while R’ Slifkin has understandably focused on the particular chapters which coincide with his areas of interest and expertise, these represent only a small proportion of the overall book – perhaps 10 out of 70 essays. Readers of the review should be aware that the book discusses many profound and delicately formulated ideas in Jewish philosophy which were the subject of glowing endorsements from R’ Jonathan Sacks (see and R’ Gil Student (on his Facebook page last week).
R’ Slifkin has written extensively over the years, providing us with many treasured insights and valuable reviews. I therefore look forward to reading his further considered comments, once he has had time to read and reflect upon the book as a whole, and to digest the full flavour of this unique and curious cholent.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Voting Realistically

In my post of last week, I argued for voting strategically instead of ideologically. Ideologically, I identify with the normative dati camp. But there is an enormous problem with the charedi world growing exponentially and yet detracting from the economy. And from a security perspective, there didn't seem to be any significant difference between the main parties. So I thought that it would be strategically wise to vote for a party that would exclude UTJ and Shas from the coalition, and force a change in the charedi education system.

I have since come to a different realization. First, it is also plausible that either Ganz or Lieberman would be willing to sit with UTJ and Shas in the coalition, notwithstanding some of their past statements. Second, there is just as plausible a case to be made that an approach such as that of Yemin HaChadash would do more to ensure education for charedim and integrate them into the workforce than the hostile or even disinterested approach of others. In addition, I decided that a Ganz-led government seems to be a bit more of a security risk than I had previously considered.

Basically, there are all kinds of speculative arguments that can be made, and no absolutely clear way to see how the problem will be solved, nor who is best equipped or most motivated to solve it. So instead of speculative strategic voting, I might as well just vote for the party whose values I most strongly identify with. Which is the one that I perceive as having a reality-based approach to security, strong Jewish values, a desire to improve the lives of as many people as possible, and a strategy to do that. To my mind, this is best accomplished by Yamina. (It has some people in it that I am really not enthusiastic about, but every party is like that.)

For those who are still undecided - as long as you're voting for a Zionist party, then no matter which one it is, I urge you to go and vote! And don't forget to also take advantage of the day to visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History; we have an English tour at 10am and a Hebrew tour at 11:30. Write to to book!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Curious Cholent

Books about Judaism typically fall into two categories. Charedi books feature rabbinic approbations, generally quote only from sources that are charedi-approved, stay far away from academic scholarship (especially in Jewish studies), and anachronistically read contemporary approaches into ancient writings. Non-charedi books do not feature rabbinic approbations, freely quote from any source, respect academic scholarship, and feel no need to make ancient writings conform with contemporary values.

A new book by Rabbi Shmuel Phillips, Judaism Reclaimed (Mosaica Press 2019) left me confused. It is a curious mixture of a charedi and a non-charedi work. The book presents itself as a work of theology and philosophy, primarily based on Rambam and Rav Hirsch, and loosely tied in to the weekly parashah. It features rabbinic approbations, though they are a little diverse - one is from Rav Leff, who has bona fide charedi credentials, and another is from Lord Rabbi Sacks, who despite being probably the most important rabbi living today, most certainly does not have charedi credentials. The book quotes from a wide range of sources, including plenty of academic Jewish works (sometimes positively, sometimes to criticize). It anachronistically reads contemporary approaches into ancient writings, but it also presents an openness to ideas that is not found in charedi works. It observes that the rationalist and mystical approaches are two long-standing streams of thought, both legitimate - which, while obviously true, is not something that the charedi world generally acknowledges - and yet its stated presentation of the rationalist approach is sometimes accurate and sometimes falls well short.

Let me give some examples. A sub-text of the book is challenging the works of various contemporary Jewish academics, in particular Prof. Marc Shapiro and Prof. Menachem Kellner. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 seek to critique Shapiro's The Limits Of Orthodox Theology, which famously shows how many of Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith were disputed by prestigious rabbinic authorities. Phillips makes the not-uncommon mistake of misinterpreting the book to be saying that anyone is entitled to believe anything. He also challenges some of Shapiro's readings of his sources, but in a book that presents as many sources as Shapiro's does, that hardly suffices to negate the broader point. Anyway, Phillips concludes that there is widespread acceptance of at least eleven of Rambam's Thirteen Principles, and these are therefore halachically binding. "At least eleven"?! Surely there is no charedi rabbinic authority who would say that you can settle for eleven!

Chapter 22 (and 25) presents Rambam's approach to Lashon HaKodesh. Phillips accurately presents Rambam's view that Hebrew is described as "the Holy Tongue" not because its letters have mystical powers that were used to create the universe, but rather simply because it contains no obscene words. Phillips further expounds on this approach in order to make it more palatable. Still, as he records in a footnote, even some of Rambam's defenders were fiercely critical of this. And I'm not sure if everyone realizes this, but it's an approach which pretty much negates the entirety of kabbalah, and dismisses all the great rabbinic authorities who produced extensive works based on mysticism. In a work that claims that various medieval beliefs have been "paskened away," it's astonishing to see one of Rambam's most radical views being presented as a legitimate approach.

Yet in other areas, the book is more conventionally charedi/ naive. In addressing the issue of classical and medieval authorities holding views that are anathema by contemporary standards, in particular regarding the corporeality of God, Phillips clearly regards this as an religiously unacceptable historic possibility, and marshals various arguments to that effect. But he neglects to address, or unconvincingly downplays, certain important evidence to the contrary. For example, there is the testimony of R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles, who wrote that “the majority of the scholars in France were magshimim”; there is the letter of Ramban, who expresses dismay at reports that various French Torah scholars opposed Rambam for his belief that God is incorporeal; and there is the testimony of Riaz that there were various scholars who believed that God is made of an ethereal substance in gigantic human form and that they should not be condemned for it since, he says, some of Chazal were of the same view!

Phillip's defense of the Kuzari Argument, and rebuttals of contemporary academic Bible scholarship, are likewise weak apologetics. They will no doubt sound very comforting for yeshivah graduates who have little capacity for critical thought or exposure to contemporary works, but for those who are better read and more intellectually honest, his arguments will come across as naive. It should be noted that in the first chapter, Phillips says that "it would be arrogant to imagine that I have fully resolved any of the profound and complex questions which will be discussed in the upcoming pages, many of which are deserving of a whole book in their own right." Indeed.

When it comes to Torah/science topics, Phillips again presents a curious blend of theological openness with traditionalist irrationality. He gives full voice to the idea that "the Torah's accounts of early history use prevalent ancient myths as a medium through which to impart Divine truths and values" (p. 256), which in a footnote he observes would apply "in particular" to "the first eleven chapters of the Torah." He references Umberto Cassuto, R. Chaim Navon, my own book, and especially Rabbi Sacks' The Great Partnership (which essentially presents the same approach as my own book, albeit with less resultant charedi fanfare). Amazing!

Yet Phillips proceeds to state that "even if one were to accept the theological legitimacy of such a detached, non-literal approach to the Torah's early narrative" (which he surely does, based on his presentation of it), it is "nevertheless unnecessary." And why is that? Because, as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman says, modern science is completely unreliable about such things! Phillips refers us to chapter 66, where he approvingly cites Meiselman's claim that historical science projects untestable hypotheses to the distant past, when the constants of nature may have been different. Alas, he seems completely unaware that this utterly ridiculous idea does not disprove the existence of an age of dinosaurs, and nor does it challenge the evidence against a global flood. And in general, his copious references to Meiselman's Torah, Chazal and Science - surely one of the most intellectually dishonest, anti-scientific works ever published - does not reflect well on him.

In conclusion, it's difficult to pass an absolute verdict on Judaism Reclaimed, because it depends on who's reading it. People who are already well-read and intellectually open will be turned off by many aspects of it, and it contains a lot of specious arguments. On the other hand, for yeshivish people who are not used to reading books without haskamos, this book will open their minds in valuable ways.

Friday, September 13, 2019

...And Now I'm Still Confused

The last post, "Voting Strategically," garnered a lot of feedback. Some people rejected the premise of the post, and insisted that there is no serious threat to the country from charedim not receiving an education. But the numbers and facts show otherwise. The organic changes that are happening in charedi society are way too slow and too small to make enough of a difference.

Others agreed with the problem. However, they argued, reasonably convincingly, that voting Blue-And-White, or Yisrael Beytenu, won't help. Both of those parties will be equally happy to change what they've previously said and bring UTJ into the coalition. And even if they don't, they are unlikely to be able to change anything in charedi society,

Still others pointed out that although BW certainly aren't leftists on security, there is still quite a bit of difference between Likud and BW. Ganz still believes that the Gaza disengagement was a good move. And with absolutely zero experience in public office, he is not qualified to take on the extraordinarily challenging job of prime minister.

And so I still don't know who to vote for. But everyone should keep in mind this paragraph from Ben-David's article about the charedi community:
"If a population group this large continues to exercise considerable influence on the direction and amplitude of flows from the government faucet in a manner that only further enhances their exponential growth, while concurrently depriving their children of the vital tools necessary for integration into a competitive global economy and a modern society, Israel will cease to exist."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Voting Strategically

For the last few weeks I haven't been able to decide who to vote for. Finally, I figured it out. There's a party whose ideals I agree with, and whose leadership I respect.

But I'm not going to vote for them. Instead, I'm going to vote for a party whose ideals I don't agree with, led by people who I don't respect.

Because of the strange way that Israel's electoral system works, I think that this is strategically the correct move. Allow me to explain.

The party whose ideals I do agree with, with the leaders that I do respect, is Bayit Yehudi (now part of Yamina). But the problem with the religious right wing receiving a lot of votes is that the coalition that Bibi would build with them includes Shas and UTJ. And this means nothing less than the gradual destruction of the State of Israel.

Those sound like crazy, extreme words. But it's all based on simple math and measurable facts. I cannot strongly enough urge everyone to read a terrifying article, titled Demography, Democracy and Delusions, just published by Prof. Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy who heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. It's important to read the article in its entirety, but here are some highlights. First, spelling out the basics:
"...The next few years will not only determine Israel’s future character but also whether or not the country will even exist for our grandchildren. Life is not a computer game. It’s not possible to click “undo” or “reset” in the future if it turns out that we messed up today. When those who threaten our very existence are plowing ahead in their efforts to obtain game-changing weapons, our national security will continue to require that Israel have a first world army, and that’s contingent on having a first world economy. "
That's an indisputable, basic fact. Unfortunately, many people do not recognize that having a first world economy is not about living a materially comfortable lifestyle - it's required in order for this tiny country to survive. (In the article, he explains at greater length why this is the case.)
"Israel’s future ability to maintain a first world economy is being determined in the country’s schools today. Only a very small portion of Israeli society belongs to the hi-tech, the universities, and the other parts of the Start-Up Nation. Most of the country’s population is not receiving either the tools or the conditions to work in a modern society – and it has been dragging down the entire country since the 1970s."
Also an indisputable fact. The notion that charedim can today nevertheless adapt later in life, via various "catch-up" programs, is a myth. It's too little, too late. And those programs have an astonishing 75% drop-out rate.
Next comes a point that many people don't even realize at all:
"The implication of Israel’s multi-decade retreat from the leading countries is reflected in large and increasing gaps between what Israel’s most educated are able to earn abroad versus their earning possibilities in Israel. Just a very small portion of society has been responsible for keeping Israel in the first world. If a critical mass from this group decides to emigrate, the gap between the leading countries and Israel that has been steadily growing over the past forty years will be blasted to the heavens with the force of a booster rocket."
Modern Israelis - the ones who ensure that Israel's economy and army keep it alive - are not going to hang around while the country turns into Bnei Brak or even Beit Shemesh. They'll leave, and the country will not survive.

The goal of chareidi politicians is short-term voter appeasement via giving them cash handouts and preventing any societal change, in particular in the field of education. Consequently, they are dragging down charedi society. But even worse, they will take down the rest of the country with them:
"If a population group this large continues to exercise considerable influence on the direction and amplitude of flows from the government faucet in a manner that only further enhances their exponential growth, while concurrently depriving their children of the vital tools necessary for integration into a competitive global economy and a modern society, Israel will cease to exist."
Lest you think that only a secular hater of charedim could talk this way, I would like to stress that I personally know people in charedi society who think exactly the same way. And no less a person than Yonasan Rosenblum, one of the premiere spokesmen in the charedi world for decades, also stated it explicitly. Noting that "20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks," he asked “who will fund the maintenance of this army if Israeli society is poor?” He also notes that “the modern economy puts a high premium on education, and ever more jobs require academic or vocational training of some kind.” Of course he couldn't spell out the consequences of nothing significantly changing, but they are exactly as Ben-David said: Israel will cease to exist.

That is the single most relevant issue in these elections. On security matters, there is no significant difference between any of the large parties, because there is no left wing to speak of any more (due to the Second Intifada and the disaster of the Gaza disengagement). The only significant issue is whether there will be a religious right-wing government with Shas and UTJ, or a national unity government with Likud and Blue-And-White. The latter will also include some smaller parties - perhaps Yisrael Beiteinu (Avigdor Lieberman), perhaps Bayit Yehudi.

It's the latter option that is crucial to implement now, in order that the country will still exist twenty years from now. The way to help it happen is to vote either Blue-And-White or Yisrael Beiteinu (which strongly advocates for a national unity government and will not join a coalition with UTJ). And so, much as I dislike both of these parties, I will be voting for one of them. I urge everyone to put aside their emotions and to think about what the facts state about the long-term survival of our precious country.

For further reading:
Demography, Democracy, and Delusions
Rosenblum: We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Leadership Disconnect

Which rabbinic leadership do you follow?

A while ago I was surprised to see two major Jewish organizations feting R. Chaim Kanievsky as being "the Gadol HaDor." Now, of course there are countless people who would disagree with this assessment, such as various chassidim and sefardim and dati'im and followers of R. Shmuel Auerbach and so on. But there was a different reason for my surprise.

The reason for my surprise was that both of these organizations engage in activities of which R. Chaim would undoubtedly disapprove. R. Chaim, having lived his life in the Beis HaMidrash of Bnei Brak, has a very conservative Israeli charedi worldview.

I reached out to a director of one of these organizations, and he admitted this to me. He said that they are well aware that he would disapprove of various of their practices. But, he continued, they would not able to function if they adhered to his worldview, and so they do not seek his guidance.

To my mind, this was rather odd. You are claiming that he is the greatest Torah authority in the world, the wisest of men, and yet you do not think that he has the wisdom to be able to give you remotely suitable guidance?

It's a real tragedy. There are rabbinic leaders who are of a different worldview, and who would understand the situations faced by these organizations, and who would be able to address them. But they do not have long white beards, or they wear kippot serugot, and so these organizations will not fete them as rabbinic celebrities.

One of the benefits of the controversial ban on my books was that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people realized that those to whom they had looked up to as their rabbinic leaders were operating with an entirely different worldview from their own. Some of these people had the strength and opportunity to seek different rabbinic leadership. They were much better off as a result.

It's a good idea for everyone to figure out and to be honest with themselves about what kind of rabbinic leadership they need, and not to be embarrassed to seek it out.

(See too this post: Who Is A Gadol?)

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Dances with Facts

My recent trip to the beautiful scenery of Wyoming made me remember the award-winning 1990 film Dances With Wolves, which was partially filmed there. At the time, it was one of my favorite movies. It had gorgeous cinematography and a hauntingly beautiful orchestral soundtrack. But what particularly moved me at the time, along with audiences worldwide, was the powerful story about how a Union Army soldier, played by Kevin Costner, joins a tribe of Sioux Indians. The rest of the Union Army are shown to be crazed, coarse and greedy, while the Sioux are a peaceful, dignified, nature-loving tribe. The goal of the film is to make one ashamed to be a White American.

Yet the real facts of history are nothing like the scenario portrayed in Dances With Wolves.

The Sioux Indians, along with the Comanche and many other Native American tribes, were just as rapacious as imperialistic white governments. They just lacked the power to do anything much more than stealing horses from other tribes whenever they could. And the Sioux in particular were appallingly brutal. The torture that they would inflict on captives that they took - men, women, and children - were horrifically brutal. (The details are too disturbing for me to relate, but you can read about them on Wikipedia.) Needless to say, there is no record of any Union soldier ever becoming a Sioux - why on earth would anyone do something like that?!

The myth of indigenous non-white natives being gentle pacifist environmentalists is one that is eagerly adopted today by many Israelopathic enemies of the Jewish State. What's staggering is the blatant falsification of facts in which they engage. And we're not talking about dancing with history of 150 years ago - this is falsifying the reality of today, in a way that is so obviously utterly false, it's amazing that they can get away with it.

Recently, CNN's Jake Tapper pointed out that if Trump is to be blamed for incendiary rhetoric that incites white supremacists, then Arab and Palestinian leadership are at least as much to be blamed for their rhetoric which incites Hamas or other Palestinians to murder Israeli teenagers at a pizzeria. Tlaib responded as follows:
"Comparing Palestinian human rights advocates to terrorist white nationalists is fundamentally a lie. Palestinians want equality, human dignity & to stop the imprisonment of children. White supremacy is calling for the *domination* of one race w/ the use of violence."
A Palestinian "human rights advocate."
Incredible! She is describing terrorists who stab civilians to death as being "human rights advocates who want equality, human dignity & to stop the imprisonment of children." I am astounded that this appalling perversion did not receive more press coverage.

Meanwhile, in Ha'Aretz, Gideon Levy responds to a variety of negative comments about Arabs and Palestinian culture, some of which were racist and also false, but others of which were largely or entirely true. Levy, in an article titled "If There's Such A Thing As A Murderous Culture, Then It Exists In Israel," makes claims and arguments that are simply ludicrous:
"We examined the past decade; those murderous, bloodletting Palestinians, have since January 2009 killed 190 Israelis. How many Palestinians were killed by Israel, the seeker of peace and goodness, which will never have anything culturally in common with the Arabs? Some 3,500. Israel was 18 times more murderous. Was it for sport? Erotic pleasure? Of course not, but the blood speaks: Israel draws far more of it.... If there’s a culture of killing, it actually exists in Israel."
This is absurd. The number of people killed on each side has absolutely no relevance to the morality of each side. The only relevant statistic is how many people were killed in defense, and how many in offense. Tellingly, if you compare the percentage of Palestinians killed who were men between 18 and 40, compared to the percentage of Israelis killed who were in that category, the results are very revealing. The Palestinian fatalities are mostly combatants; the Israeli fatalities are mostly not. And Israel most certainly does not have a "culture of killing" - from personal experience, I can point to my nephew, who was decorated by the IDF for neutralizing a terrorist and did not kill him. Israel kills where necessary, and most certainly does not celebrate it.

Levy then doubles down on his absurdity with an opposite claim about the Palestinians:
"The Palestinian people, on the other hand, are one of the most restrained people in history in its violent resistance to occupation and injustice."
"One of the most restrained people in history"?! Stabbing women and children to death, and celebrating those who do such things, is "restrained"?!

Such slanderous nonsense is eagerly lapped up by many Westerners who grew up with Dances With Wolves, Avatar, Spooks and other such fiction. All of these don't merely dance around with historical facts - they completely invert them. They have helped brainwash people into falsifying both the past and the present.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

This Actually WAS My First Rodeo

It would have been a perfect opportunity to use the aphorism "this ain't my first rodeo," but that would not have been accurate, because it was actually was my first rodeo.

Last week, while enjoying the wonder and beauty of Wyoming with my wife's family, one of the items on the agenda was a rodeo. I didn't have a very clear idea of what a rodeo is; they weren't so common in Manchester, where I grew up. But I knew that it was vaguely something to do with cowboys and horses and cattle, and it didn't sound very appealing. So instead, I begged off joining and instead drove out with a friend to Moose Wyoming, to look for a moose in Wyoming.

We found a moose, a big bull with enormous antlers, and it was magical. There were about twenty of us watching this magnificent animal grazing the vegetation by the river. As the sun set, I got a text that the rodeo was already well under way and my family really wanted me to join them. So I reluctantly paid farewell to the marvelous moose and set out for the rodeo.

Now, there are some people who say that rodeos are appalling places of cruelty, in which animals are tortured in order to make them act abnormally, and where they suffer terrible stress and injury. There are other people who say that rodeos do not involve any animal cruelty at all, and are simply demonstrations of great skills. After seeing this rodeo, my impression is that both these extremes are incorrect, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle - but I'm not sure exactly where.

Because I arrived very late, I missed many of the competitions, such as the calf-lassoing. As I arrived, there was an extraordinarily skilled horse-riding competition taking place, in which young girls (some looked no older than 12) would ride their horses in a complex route which involved tight turns around a barrel, in the fastest time possible. It was breathtaking so see this maneuvers, and I quickly got caught up in the cheering and excitement of the event.

Then came the bull riding.

I hadn't been following the announcements and I wasn't prepared for what was coming. Several cowboys were waiting by a gate in the arena. Suddenly one of them yanked open the gate with a rope. About a ton of snorting, rampaging fury came hurtling out, bucking up and down furiously. The cowboy on his back was clutching on valiantly, but was being tossed around like a puppet. After a few seconds, the inevitable happened, and the cowboy was hurled off, sailing gracefully through the air before crashing into the ground. I caught it all on video, and you can watch it here: (those reading this blog via email subscription will have to open it in their web browser)

This happened again and again, sometimes with young teenagers riding smaller bulls. I was a little confused as to what was actually exactly going on, in terms of animal behavior. So afterwards, I re-watched my videos carefully, and did a little research.

The first thing that struck me as odd was that the bulls appeared to be in a frenzy of rage, the kind of thing that is normally provoked by extreme pain. Highly stressed animals like that take a while to calm down. But as soon as the bulls threw off the rider, they were almost instantly calm. They posed no threat to other cowboys in the ring, and they were easily led back to their stalls, sometime calmly walking back by themselves.

Online, there were lots of claims that the bulls are incited by electric shocks, and placed in a state of maddening pain by a rope tied tightly around their testicles. The former is illegal and I really don't think that it happened. I did see a rope tied around their nether quarters - but it wasn't around their testicles. Furthermore, if that rope was causing them pain, then why were they so relaxed once the rider was off? There was no change with the rope.

It seems that the basic dynamics of what happens is as follows. Large animals such as cattle were historically preyed upon by animals such as lions. The lion's mode of attack is to leap onto the animal's back, grasping with its claws, while biting its neck. So a bull's instinctive response to feeling something on its back is to buck wildly and attempt to throw it off.

Rodeo riders are causing the bulls to express this deeply-embedded instinct. But is it a case of the bull truly feeling terrified that there is a predator on its back, or is it merely drawing out a behavioral pattern without the associated trauma? And is all stress the same? (I once took a training course in a zoo in which we learned about deliberately giving some animals a degree of occasional stress in order to give them a more naturalistic and ultimately healthier environment.) I don't know the answer. I did find the following fascinating discussion in a book called Veterinary Ethics, edited by Giles Legood, a member of the University of London Ethics and Law Subject Panel and chaplain of the Royal Veterinary College:
"Bucking horses and bulls used for riding and spurring events are used again and again. A systematic study of their behavior would reveal just how aversive this activity was (or was not) for different individuals. My own limited experience would suggest that most broncs stand quietly in the shute before release and leave the arena quietly with other horses after parting company with their rider. Bulls frequently attack their dismounted rider and have to be distracted by the rodeo clowns. What one does not see are signs of reluctance to enter the arena, or learned helplessness. I am satisfied that these animals are stressed during the events but do not suffer. Moreover, they are maintained in a state of high fitness. The rodeo bull, in my opinion, receives a fairer deal from humans than the dairy bull which spends its entire life withing the confines of a bullpen."
My friend Yadidya Greenberg also pointed me to this fascinating interview with renowned animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, in which she demonstrates that the bulls do not feel fear and are simply demonstrating a trained response.

What is the Torah perspective on this? The Gemara condemns attending a circus, stating as follows:
"Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai expounded: “Happy is the man who does not go in the counsel of the wicked... (Ps. 1:1)” – this refers to one who does not go to the theaters and circuses of heathens. “And in the path of sinners does not stand” – this refers to the one who does not participate in their hunts. (Avodah Zarah 18b)
Etz Yosef elaborates as follows:
"It is customary among the nations to pit animals in fighting against each other by way of fun and entertainment. And it is forbidden for a Jew to witness such things, as it is written, “Do not rejoice O Israel as the other nations rejoice” (Hoshea 9:1). It also involves [the sin of participating in] a gathering of scoffers, wasting time of Torah study, and cruelty to animals."
If the Talmud is condemning circuses, then surely that would equally apply to rodeos. But matters are actually not so simple. The "circus" mentioned in the Gemara is not a modern Barnum & Bailey. It's the Roman circus. These were appalling events in which spectators would cheer as animals were torn to pieces in front of them. Different types of animals were starved and pitted against each other. Emperor Commodus would travel around the arena, killing literally hundreds of animals.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Yabiya Omer 4 Orach Chaim 2) notes that the Gemara's condemnation of circuses does not apply to modern zoos. The Roman circus served to stimulate bloodlust; the modern zoo serves to inspire people with an appreciation of nature.

Into which category does a rodeo fall? The animals do not seem to be tortured or physically harmed. On the other hand, I do think that there may be some stress involved. Now there is a principle of צער בעלי חיים הותר לצורך, that pain to animals can be justified by human need. However, the "need" must be something with genuine positive value. Is a rodeo about seeing a demonstration of great human skill, and an appreciation of the power of animals? Or is it a crass form of entertainment which stresses out animals for no real benefit? And if that's true of bull-riding, is it ultimately also true for horse-racing?

I think that answering these questions will turn out to be an academic exercise. Rodeos are not going to be around for long. Circuses with animals, even relatively good ones, are already a thing of the past. The same will happen with rodeos. If I ever go to a rodeo again, I'll be able to say that "this ain't my first rodeo" - but it will almost certainly be my last.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Wonder of Wyoming

Last week I was with my wife's family on an absolutely spectacular vacation in Wyoming, with the Rustic Elegance kosher program. Here are some photo highlights:

The town square in Jackson. That's a lot of antlers! Some people react by saying how terrible it is that so many elk were hunted. But in fact not a single elk died for this - they shed their antlers annually.

Schwabacher's Landing in the Grant Teton National Park was perhaps the single most beautiful natural scene that I have ever seen. What made it even more incredible is that this lake was created by beavers, whose lodge can be seen slight to the left of center.

Hiking in Yellowstone, with bear spray.

This marmot was completely unafraid and I was able to stand within three feet of it!


Teepee at the Spring Valley Ranch

Old Faithful prepares to erupt. Note the vast crowd watching!

One of the scaldingly hot thermal springs in Yellowstone. Beautiful, but deadly. Many people have died by jumping or falling into these.

My youngest looking out at the vast beauty of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon.

Another part of the Grand Canyon. This picture does absolutely zero justice to the incredible scale of this scene. If you click on the picture and enlarge it, you can make out the tiny trees in the far bottom of the valley.

Bison blocking traffic in Yellowstone


 Bison in the foreground, Teton mountains in the background


Finding a huge herd of bison, surrounding my car, was incredible!


A herd of elk (females and juveniles, hence no antlers)


 Wyoming stop sign.

A pronghorn antelope in the appropriately named Antelope Flats

A closer view of the pronghorn, second-fastest land animal in the world, and very beautiful.

A bull moose! Not an easily animal to find. Thanks to R. Yitzi Kessock of Rustic Elegance for showing me exactly when and where to find it.

A female bison and her suckling calf.

A bison's head is truly extraordinary.

Large male bison with a mouthful of grass.

I also attended part of a rodeo. This was an experience which raised several questions, which I plan to discuss in a future post. Meanwhile, if you're able to visit Wyoming, I strongly recommend it!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Damage You Didn't See

Like many of my friends, when I heard that Israel had banned Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country, I saw this as a colossal mistake. What an utter PR disaster! True, Bibi might not have had much of a choice, given the pressure that Trump was placing. But, whether there was a choice or not, it was certainly a terrible course of action.

Then I started thinking about WWII fighter planes.

During WWII, the Allied forces had to figure out which parts of the plane most needed armor protection. So researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses studied the bullet holes which appeared on returning planes, and found that the bullet holes occurred in the following places:

Accordingly, the researchers recommended that the areas with the red dots should receive the armor plating. It's obvious!

But Abraham Wald, a religious Jewish statistician who had escaped Austria, pointed out that exactly the opposite was true. The planes with the bullet holes in these areas were the ones that had survived the missions and returned. It was the planes which had been hit in the other areas which had not survived the mission.

This is known as survivorship bias, and it is a form of selection bias. It's concentrating on that which is visible, without realizing that the thing which is not visible might be more significant.

I think that this is exactly the case with the Tlaib/Omar debacle. Yes, it was a disaster. But we're not seeing what the alternative would have looked like. Had they come, they would doubtless have used every opportunity to make some kind of PR scene that would demonize Israel. Starting confrontations with soldiers, making scenes at Temple Mount, inciting riots, etc., etc. And it would have been scenes with gripping photos and video, unlike the story of their not coming, which had no accompanying visuals. Stories with no visuals grab much less attention than stories with visuals.

It was a no-win situation for Israel. We can't assume that just because the situation is terrible, that the alternative would have been better.

It's kind of like Israel retaining control over Judea and Samaria.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Gates Vaccination Expose

The vaccination arguments can sometimes appear confusing for some people. How can a non-specialist know who's correct? True, virtually the entire medical community is in favor of vaccinations. But on the other hand, you have Marcia Angell writing that “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.” After reading that, even I was starting to wonder.

Fortunately, you don't need any medical knowledge whatsoever to decide if the anti-vaxxers are really onto something, or if they are tragically deranged. All you have to do is ask them about Bill Gates, who has invested great effort into having millions of children in poor countries vaccinated.

An anti-vaxxer who posted many comments on the previous post mentioned that Bill Gates's own family pediatrician said that Gates did not have his own children immunized - clear proof that he himself knows them to be dangerous!

The only problem? It's completely fabricated. There is no record of this unnamed pediatrician saying any such thing. It seems to have first appeared on some conspiracy website, then spread like wildlife among those who are happy to believe stories which fit their beliefs, even if there isn't any evidence for them.

This does not speak well for the ability of anti-vaxxers to evaluate factual truth.

But it gets much crazier than that!

It's easy to accept that lots of people believe that vaccines are harmful. But Bill Gates?! He gave a hundred million dollars to get millions of children vaccinated!

So according to the anti-vaxxers, this is entirely the point. Bill Gates deliberately worked at getting millions of children injected with harmful vaccines, in order to make them autistic and hopefully kill as many of them as possible.

It's hard to find words for how insane this is. You just have to read a little bit about the tremendous effort and care that Bill and Melinda Gates have put into helping children, to realize how preposterous it is to propose that they actually secretly want to harm and kill as many as possible.

But it gets much crazier than that!

According to the anti-vaxxers, it's not even a secret at all. Bill Gates has been completely explicit about his desire to kill as many children as possible with vaccines. He has publicly stated that it's necessary to do so in order to reduce the world population. The anti-vaxxers cite a quote from Bill Gates at a 2019 TED Talk, in which he said that, "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."

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. He wasn't saying that "if we do a really great job on killing children and health care (what a crazy juxtaposition!), we can lower the population." His point was that if parents in third-world countries can be more confident that their children will survive childhood (thanks to vaccines), then they won't have so many. As Melinda Gates said: “If a mother and father know their child is going to live to adulthood, they start to naturally reduce their population size."

But it's not just that the antivaxxers distort what Gates said. The point is that anyone who thinks for a moment that Bill Gates wants millions of children to suffer and die, and moreover, that he would openly state this in a public speech (despite at all other times arguing that vaccines are healthy), is clearly utterly out of their mind.

And you don't listen to medical advice from people who are out of their mind.

Further Reading: How Bill and Melinda Gates Are Transforming Life for Billions in the 21st Century

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

An Avoidable Tragedy

This is Rotem Amitai.

She was a 43-year old mother of three children who worked as a flight attendant with El Al.

Four months ago, after working on an El Al flight from JFK to Tel-Aviv, she contracted measles from someone on the flight.

Although Rotem had been inoculated as a child, she had only received one dose (which in those days was thought sufficient), which does not give the highest degree of immunity. As a result, she contracted measles from someone on the flight who had measles as a result of not being vaccinated. This led to her developing meningoencephalitis and she slipped into a coma.

This morning, she passed away.

What a senseless, utterly preventable tragedy.

The anti-vaxxers have a lot to answer for.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Fox News

"Foxes at Temple Mount: Prophetic Proof Jerusalem Returning to Glory"
"Dozens Of Foxes Seen Early Morning Near Kosel – Prophecy of Zechariah Alive and Well!"
"Sighting of Foxes on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Triggers Prophecy Theories about Third Jewish Temple"
"Foxes Seen Walking near the Western Wall, Fulfilling Biblical Promise"
A video emerged this week of several foxes cavorting around the Old City of Jerusalem, and caused sensational headlines in the world press. Is the presence of foxes on the Temple Mount really a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah? Is that really the message? And if not, what does the fox say?

First of all, a technical correction. There were not "dozens of foxes." The video shows four, and they must have been cubs of a single family. The reason why I know that there could not have been dozens, and that the four foxes were a family, is that foxes are solitary creatures. In fact this is one of the ways in which we know that the Biblical term shu'al does not necessarily refer to a fox, but rather often refers to a jackal; for more details, see my Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. Still, for now, let us assume that the shu'al is a fox.

Now, let us look carefully at the famous story regarding Rabbi Akiva and the fox on the Temple Mount:
Once, Rabban Gamliel, R. Elazar b. Azaryha, R. Yehoshua and R. Akiva were ascending to Jerusalem. When they arrived at Mount Scopus, they rent their garments. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the site of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: Why are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva said to them: Why are you weeping? They said to him: This is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die” (Numbers 1:51), and now "foxes walk in it" (Eicha 5:18) - shall we not weep?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing, as it is written: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah” (Isaiah 8:2). Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah prophesied during the First Temple period, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple period! Rather, the verse established that fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah. In the prophecy of Uriah it is written: “Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field...” (Micah 3:12). (There is a rabbinic tradition that this was also prophesied by Uriah.) In the prophecy of Zechariah it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah (with regard to the destruction) was fulfilled I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah will be fulfilled.
The Sages said to him, employing this formulation: Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.
Note that foxes are not part of either Zechariah's or Uriah's prophecy. Rather, there is a reference in Eicha to the desolation of Jerusalem, which mentions foxes walking through it. The Sages cite this when they too see a fox walking through the ruins of Jerusalem, since it is an example, an illustration, of the destruction. R Akiva says just as the destruction was prophesied by Uriah and came to be, so too Zechariah's prophecy, of the redemption, will come to be.

Seeing foxes today in Jerusalem is therefore just a case of observing the destruction, just as Rabbi Akiva did. The only prophecy that it demonstrates is that of the destruction, with which we do not have any doubts, because it already happened.

But here we get to the crucial point. Let's go back in time and think about how Rabbi Akiva's confident rejoicing would have appeared over most of history. What naive foolishness! The Jewish People have been decimated and spread over the four corners of the earth. They are an utterly downtrodden people. Jerusalem is desolate.

And yet look at the situation now! There is Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel! Millions of Jews have returned to the Land, from all over the world. Jerusalem is a city of beauty, and the country is thriving and prosperous. We take all this for granted, but for the last two thousand years, this was a virtually unimaginable fantasy.

Earlier this year I found myself sitting on a plane next to a British messianic Christian. Unlike American Christians, who are extremely friendly and positive to Jews, this person was as unpleasant as the youths who used to harass me on the streets of Manchester. He said to me, "How can you possibly not accept Jesus? How can you see the Jews as being loved by God? You've got no Temple, there's hardly any of you left - you've got nothing!" It was ironic that he was telling me this while sitting on an El-Al Dreamliner heading for the State of Israel. 

To be sure, things are far from perfect. There are great dangers from the neighboring countries. There is great hostility from the world. And the spiritual state of the country is sadly lacking. But what we do have is so incredibly, marvelously better than what was!
The truth is that foxes are not actually necessarily a sign of desolation (which is another reason why I'm inclined to think that the shu'alim of Eicha are jackals). London, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, is full of foxes. I regularly see foxes in my densely-populated suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh.

When we see foxes running around the Temple Mount, this deservedly does bring to mind the famous story with Rabbi Akiva. But instead of responding with theologically groundless proclamations of imminent miracles, the sentiment that we should feel is wondrous gratitude at how different things are now from Rabbi Akiva's time. Yes, we hope and pray that they will improve even more. But, like Rabbi Akiva, let us focus on the good!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Distorting Statistics about Charedim

As Mark Twain noted, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. You can quote a factually true statistic and use it to completely pervert the truth.

Some tragic examples of this can be seen in the article at by JoeSettler, defending the Israeli charedi community. The falsehoods are so tightly interwoven into the article that I'm going to have to fisk it.
We’ve all heard claims how Chareidim don’t work, that Chareidim don’t go to the army, that Chareidim don’t carry their share of the national burden. Liberman’s supporters are saying Liberman is raising this anti-Chareidi / anti-religious flag for their own good and ours. The tone, the rhetoric, the Sinat Chinam is horrifying – and far too many people accept these statements/assumptions as fact. Here at the Muqata, we had a theory we wanted to test. What if these assumptions are not really true or not completely true, how would we prove it? And if these claims don’t reflect reality what do we need to look at instead? We decided to examine the data for ourselves, and discovered that everyone is comparing apples to oranges.
Actually, as we shall see, it is JoeSettler who compares apples to oranges. 

I. Army Service

True, if you compare the overall percentages of Chareidim that haven’t done the army to non-Chareidim, the difference is huge, and will remain huge.
But we asked ourselves, is that really the right way to look at the numbers and the situation?
Yes. That is exactly the right way to look at the numbers and the situation. 
A 30-something Chareidi man with six children will never be going into the army, so those statistics don’t actually tell you anything useful, other than he is never going to go into the army.
No, it tells you that this Chareidi man has made a lifestyle choice that prevented him from going to the army. That is relevant.
34% of Chareidi males obligated to enlist in the IDF or Sheirut Leumi in 2017 were enlisted, according to a 2018 IDI study... That percent that enlisted is up 5% from 2016, and that percent has been going up every year... Among the non-Chareidi (male) population, it appears that IDF enlistment is estimated at 85%.
First of all, writing as someone who lives in a largely charedi city, this figure of 34% of those obligated to enlist - around 4000 young men - is highly suspect. Where are all these charedim in the IDF? The so-called Nachal Charedi is mostly comprised of Dati-Leumi who want a higher standard of kashrut/tzniyut, along with some charedi dropouts. Who has seen 4000 new charedi soldiers?!

But even taking the 34% number, that is still only a third of chareidi young men who are supposed to be enlisted for the first time. And this in turn is an even tinier fraction of charedi men of army age - of which there are over 30,000 exemptions given annually.
When you look at the relevant statistics, you see a completely different picture than what is portrayed by Liberman and the media.
You see a society that is integrating. You see a society that is catching up to their non-Chareidi counterparts in terms of service. You see a society that is undergoing both evolutionary and revolutionary changes at a healthy pace that is non-destructive to their society.
You then realize that the argument that Charedim don’t go to the army is not only blown out of proportion, but is false and must be rejected.
No, the argument that Charedim, for the most part, do not go to the army, is still absolutely true, not withstanding the very small recent rise in charedi recruits. There are 30,000 exemptions and only a few thousand serving. You can argue about the best way to change that. You can argue that it's best to let the number gradually rise, rather than to force conscription. But it is false to make a general statement that Charedim go to the army.

II. Working

All the statistics we’ve seen until now separately compared the number of Chareidi men working, the number of Chareidi women working, and then compared that to their non-Chareidi male and female counterparts. It’s very Tzanuah (modest) of them to present it that way, but it doesn’t represent certain social and fiscal realities in Israel. Is that really a fair comparison? Is it even a relevant comparison? Why are we comparing individuals when we should be comparing households? In a household it doesn’t matter if the husband or wife is working (certainly not in a progressive household), only if they are making enough money to support their household unit and chosen lifestyle.
Actually, I think that it's definitely relevant to compare individuals rather than households, but let's accept his point for now. And let's see where this leads.
...The answer (based on raw 2017 survey data we received from Kohelet) to the question of how many households have at least one breadwinner is as follows :
Non-Chareidim: 80.1% | Chareidim: 84.6% | Arabs: 79.5%.
...In simple English what do these statistics mean?
It means that most Israelis households have at least one breadwinner who is working and supporting the family.
...What does this mean for the question as to whether or not Chareidim are participating in the workforce?
The answer is that when comparing household to household, there is no effective difference between Chareidi and non-Chareidi Jews. Both family household units work and support themselves.
The sleight-of-hand performed here is so subtle that I'm not sure if the writer even realized it himself. JoeSettler has gone from citing a statistic that most chareidi homes have at least one breadwinner, to arguing that this proves that there is no difference between charedim and non-charedim, and that charedim equally support themselves.

How on earth does this follow?!

The fact that someone is working does not mean that they are managing to support their family. And it most certainly does not mean that they are equally contributing to the economy!

A household in which there are one or two people working in high-income jobs, paying full taxes, contributes to the economy. A household in which the husband is in kollel, and in which there are one or two low wages, often in non-professional careers, and in which there is a resultant tax exemption, does not contribute to the economy (or contributes far less).
What becomes clear is that Chareidi households are not a drag on Israeli society and tax payers as Liberman and friends may claim. Israeli households and society are holding their own and doing their part.
Chareidim make less money and spend less money. Their purchasing patterns are also very different. And those are all valid lifestyle choices.
What becomes clear is that Chareidim are not economic burdens on society.
When comparing household to household – which is the only comparison that matters – Chareidim households are on par with the rest of Israeli society.
This is so obviously false that it boggles the mind to see anyone make such a claim. Even charedi apologist Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in Mishpacha that "We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment." Endorsing a speech by President Rivlin, Rosenblum noted that "20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks" (if you just consider first grade, it's over 30%). Leaving aside the question of who will serve in the IDF, the pressing question that he asks is: “who will fund the maintenance of this army if Israeli society is poor?” He also notes that “the modern economy puts a high premium on education, and ever more jobs require academic or vocational training of some kind.” How will the national economy survive, with such a huge proportion of society being uneducated and unemployed?

And then you have the staggering study that came out from the Finance Ministry a few weeks ago, saying that if the employment rate of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish men remains stagnant, it will cost the Israeli economy more than $100 billion a year over the next several decades.

Anyone who denies the reality of this problem is supporting its continuation. 

III. Sharing the Burden

The same unfair question can of course be turned around. Are secular Jews doing their share for Israeli society?
The data shows that when it comes volunteering and charity, Hilonim are not giving close to what their Chareidi counterparts are giving back to their fellow Israelis.

First of all, I don't know why he's comparing Charedim to Hilonim. Is that the standard that Charedim should set for themselves? Why not compare Charedim to non-Charedi religious Jews?

Second, the immense amount of volunteering and charity that occurs in charedi society is mostly to help other charedim - who are in dire economic straits!

Third, volunteer work done by charedim does not remotely compare to years of IDF service and milu'im and Sherut Leumi.

Fourth, charity to poor charedim does not remotely come close to outweighing the tremendous economic burden on the country by a rapidly growing population in which half the men don't work, those who do work are generally in non-professional careers, and there is virtually no secular education.
Hiloni households are also not doing their share in the demographics battle with the Arabs. It’s the Chareidim that are out-birthing the Arabs and maintaining Israel’s demographic balance, and it is the Chareidim that are bearing the financial burden of the demographics battle.

Increasing the number of Jews does not help the country if those increased numbers are dragging down the economy (which in turn encourages others to leave). And even if charedi families have two kids which become more "modern" and take a real job, that still leaves four more who don't.


JoeSettler concludes as follows:
The next time you hear Avigdor Liberman complain about Chareidim not carrying their share of the national burden and that drastic action is needed to fix the situation, you’ll now know that not only is Liberman completely wrong, you can ask him, why aren’t his Hiloni voters doing their share for their fellow Israelis?
In reality, neither question is fair to ask. Israel is a mosaic and every community is contributing in their own way to make Israel a dynamic, vibrant society. Everyone is shouldering the burden in their own way, but there are far too many false claims made against Chareidi society that simply aren’t backed up by the data – especially when you start to compare data points that more accurately represent real life in Israel.
In reality, while Avigdor Liberman may well distort some things, the fact is that charedi society does not remotely share the burden of military service, and is a dangerous ever-increasing drain on the economy. There can be reasonable disagreement about how to solve this problem, such as regarding whether it can be changed by imposing financial pressure. But denying that the problem exists is wrong and dangerous. It harms the nation of Israel, and it doesn't even help charedim.

For further reading: Rosenblum: We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment

(I'm off to the airport now, so there will be a delay in moderating and replying to comments.)

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