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 https://oukosher.org/blog/consumer-kosher/ou-position-on-certifying-specific-animals-and-birds/, 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.

The Passing of a Gadol

Earlier this week came the tragic news of the passing of Rav Nosson Kamintesky, ztz"l. I thought it would be appropriate to re-post t...