Sunday, September 29, 2019

Shana Tova!!

Chag sameach and happy new year! May Hashem answer all our (worthy) prayers!

Thursday, September 26, 2019

"NOW You Tell Me?!"

Rafi Goldmeier, of Life in Israel, translated the following Facebook status that was posted by an Israeli charedi man undergoing a divorce:
This is what I said this morning to the Dayanim in Beis Din at the end of the proceedings regarding how much child support I need to pay:
"You explained very well how much I need to pay as a father responsible for his daughters, and that as of now I do not have a profession but I need to take care to get myself one. You are 100% right. It is my responsibility and I will do everything to fulfill it.
"I only have one question.
"Now you come and tell me this???
"Our entire lives you have educated us that we do not need professions, that we can sit and learn in kollel, we can bring home 1500 NIS per month with ten children and it will be enough and all will be fine. And now suddenly you remember to tell me that a father needs to bring home 1400 NIS per child??
"You, as dayanim who deal with this issue regularly and understand and recognize the problem, have a responsibility to take care that this should change, that children and bochurim should be prepared in advance for the situation in which they will need to support their future children, and not just to wait until the last moment in a crisis to remember suddenly to tell them!"
And they had no answer.
(One of the dayanim joked that the education we give is only valid as long as nobody gets divorced, but he too realized it is not a joke.)
Of course, even without getting divorced, there are many charedim men who get harshly woken up to being woefully unprepared to support their families. And Chazal, forseeing this obvious problem, required parents to ensure that their children can earn a living. Alas, the Gedolim and the MKs don't seem to care.

On another note: I'm going to be packing my trunk and heading to the US in November. I am available for a scholar-in-residence engagement in the tri-State area for the Shabbos of November 16. Preference for Teaneck or the Five Towns! If you are interested, please email me at

Tuesday, September 24, 2019


This is why I love the National-Religious community in Israel.

Recently, the 21-year-old son of a neighbor of mine called together some of the teenagers from the neighborhood. Most of them are/were madrichim in local youth movements such as Ariel, which teaches them to lead people in various projects. He said to them, "OK: you're going to do something that has major impact. Figure out what." So these teenagers put their heads together to think what they could do. And they came up with: Sabavta!

"Sabavta" is a contraction of Saba and Savta. The tagline is mechubarim ledorot, "connected for generations." It's a project that brings together teenagers and the elderly. The teenagers bring tables, chairs, food (including a stove to make hot drinks), and board games to the park. There, they meet with elderly residents of the neighborhood to play, eat, chat and have fun together!

As my 16-year-old daughter, who is an Ariel madricha, explained to me: "There used to be a stigma about special-needs children; everyone's gotten over that. But there's still something of a stigma about the elderly. So we are working to overcome that and encourage teens to spend time with the elderly."

My dear mother, who is 82 years old, had absolutely zero interest in going. But my daughter dragged her there, and she had the most amazing time. She was so impressed at how the teenagers were so friendly and attentive; one of them even went home to get milk so that she could have a British cup of tea!

Sabavta (see their FaceBook page here) started last week in Ramat Beit Shemesh and is already spreading to other cities in Israel. And Ariel is just one of the many National Religious institutions here in Israel that focus on character development, on Am Yisrael, and on making the world a better place for everyone. Ashrecha Yisrael!

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Spooks, Corbyn, and the Facts of Life

The BBC series Spooks, released in the US under the title MI-5, fictionalized the work of MI-5, the UK's domestic intelligence agency. Spooks ran for ten seasons and received numerous prestigious awards. In contrast to American-style TV shows, Spooks was intended to be less fantasy and more gritty, with a lead character being brutally killed in the second episode.

But there was something very odd about the storylines in this immensely popular show. Who were the villains in Spooks? Who was plotting evil acts of murder and terror?

The rogue's gallery in Spooks included anti-abortion radicals, white supremacist groups, rival British intelligence agents, the CIA, and the Mossad, along with a pro-Israel terror group called "The November Committee." There were virtually never any Islamist terrorist groups - although there were a number of episodes in which such groups were falsely suspected and proved to be innocent.

Yet the real facts are the exact opposite. MI5 monitors some three thousand Islamist extremists living in the UK. Meanwhile, there are only 100 suspected dangerous neo-Nazis and far-right extremists. And the threat from rogue British intelligence groups, the CIA and Mossad is mere fantasy, while "The November Committee" is a fictitious invention. Why invent pro-Israel terror groups for a storyline, when there are pro-Palestinian terror groups that actually do exist?

It's more than a little disturbing that an entire generation of BBC viewers were brainwashed into falsely believing that the threat to Great Britain is from British nationalists, Americans and Jews, rather than from Islamists. But the distortions performed by the BBC were simply reflecting an already existent problem. The United Kingdom suffers from pathological anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment. Immediately after 9/11, there was a grotesque outpouring of anti-American hatred. And Israel is widely perceived as an oppressive colonial regime, rather than as the historic homeland of the Jewish People trying to defend itself against those who wish to wipe it out.

The most prominent example of British pathological anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism is, of course, Jeremy Corbyn, potentially the next prime minister of the UK. He is openly more hostile to the US and to Israel than to actual Islamist terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whom he has described as his "friends" and "brothers." Even worse, he claimed that Hamas "is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region," whereas the reality is that Hamas runs a brutal regime which diverts aid funds into creating rockets to fire at civilians, and shoots the kneecaps of Palestinian dissidents or throws them off rooftops.

Even when condemning the most extreme Islamist atrocities, such as 9/11 and Islamic State, Corbyn always seeks to "balance" it with condemnation of the US or UK. The danger of Corbyn goes beyond his enabling of antisemitism; he supports brutal authoritarian regimes and strengthens hatred of democratic free societies like the US and Israel. He has even praised Iran, appeared on Iranian state television and called for improving relations with Iran—despite Iran being the number one country seeking to destabilize the world and finance terror.

Fascinatingly, last year the head of MI5 summoned Corbyn to a meeting. Senior officials described the goal of the meeting as trying to explain to Corbyn "the facts of life." They had been "troubled" by his various statements which downplayed Islamist and Russian killings in the UK. Unfortunately the meeting was postponed, due to Corbyn being busy with denying having an antisemitism problem, and it seems that the meeting never took place. Meanwhile, the official historian of MI5 noted that should Corbyn rise to power, it would be a problem for the whole of Western defense.

Even if Corbyn himself loses the election and fades into obscurity, he is only the most extreme example. There is a clear and rampant problem in British society of an inability to recognize the difference between free societies and fear societies, between democracies and tyrannies, between acts of defense and acts of aggression. It's time for everyone to learn about the facts of life.

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?)

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