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?)

Voting Realistically

In my post of last week , I argued for voting strategically instead of ideologically. Ideologically, I identify with the normative dati camp...