Monday, December 30, 2019

The Gorilla Mitzvah

The modern world presents opportunities that have never before existed in history. You have all the world's knowledge at your fingertips. You can easily transport yourself to anywhere in the world. And you can also destroy your own life, and/or that of others, in just seconds, without even having any intent whatsoever to do so.

It's very simple. All you have to do is drive a car, and be distracted momentarily. And it's incredibly easy to be distracted. Right now, the most likely candidate for distraction is the cellphone - whether texting or talking on it.

There are other ways in which a car can be lethal. You could forget your precious child in it. And it would be extremely unscientific to say "That wouldn't happen to me!" It just takes the right kind of distraction to occur at the moment you step out of the car.

Modern science has conclusively demonstrated that lethal distraction can happen to anyone, extremely easily. The Invisible Gorilla, an important work by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, shows that our brains just don't work the way that we think they do. In a famous experiment, a person dressed as a gorilla could walk right through your field of vision, beat his chest at you, and you won't even see him. It just takes the right kind of distraction.

All this doesn't mean that we need to be extra-vigilant. Vigilance doesn't help, because of the inherent limitations of the human brain. The only responsible way to be sure that one does not inadvertently kill someone is to have a system in place to prevent it from happening.

There are numerous teshuvot about the severe, lifelong penance that is required even for cases of entirely accidental murder - but distracted driving is something that is proactively preventable. This is the Torah way. Halacha says, do not rely on yourself to avoid being in an inappropriate situation with a member of the opposite sex; rather, implement hilchot yichud, to safeguard against such a situation arising. Halacha says, don't eat chicken and milk, as a safeguard against eating meat and milk. Judaism requires that we proactively create safeguards to better ensure that we don't make terrible mistakes.

In the case of leaving an infant in the car, there are a number of practical and technological tools that can be implemented. In the case of regular driving, there are apps which disable your phone from being used while you are driving. (I'm currently trying one called Lifesaver.) And if you are still unconvinced, watch this video.

These are not only moral obligations. They are also religious obligations.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Missing Chanukah

Some people miss Chanukah when it's over.

Some people miss Chanukah when it's happening.

(A repost from a few years ago)
Story number one: I was once at a printing house, arranging to print 2000 copies of a sample chapter about leopards from the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (which you can download for free on this page). I told the (secular Israeli) woman in charge of the printing schedule that I wanted it out in time for Chanukah, because the subject matter is related to Chanukah.

"What do leopards have to do with Chanukah?" she asked.

It was a very reasonable question. I explained that in Scripture, Daniel has a prophetic vision in which he sees various animals which represent different kingdoms. He sees a leopard (with four heads and four wings!), which represents Greece.

"But what does Greece have to do with Chanukah? she asked.

Story number two: I heard a dvar Torah which, as a launch point, discussed the halachah that if the candles on the menorah blow out, you need not rekindle them. The speaker went on to describe how the message of Chanukah is that everything is in Hashem's hands, about how the Greek army was defeated entirely by way of supernatural miracles, and about how the ultimate message of Chanukah is that Torah and mitzvos is all that counts, and hishtadlus is entirely irrelevant, and basically pointless and unnecessary.

(Meanwhile, if you're in Israel for Chanukah, come visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History and learn more about the connection between leopards and Chanukah!)

Friday, December 20, 2019

Picturing Rationalism vs. Mysticism

With my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought nearing publication, it was time to start thinking about the cover design. What type of illustration would be relevant to this topic? The only thing that came to mind - and I think that it really cuts to the core of the schism - is a picture of an atom and the sefirot.

Allow me to elaborate. For many years I have been defining the schism between rationalism and mysticism as falling into the following three topics:

Mystics see reliable knowledge about the world as being obtained from ongoing instances of supernatural revelation; rationalists see it as coming from human investigation.

Rationalists prefer to perceive God as working through nature; mystics prefer to see Him as working through supernatural miracles.

Rationalists understand the commandments as functioning solely to change our thoughts and behavior; mystics see their primary function as manipulating mystical forces.

In my book, for expository reasons, I have expanded this list to include two extra topics:

Rationalists minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces, mystics maximize them.

Rationalists see Torah as being toras chaim, a religious guide to life; mystics, on the other hand, believe the Torah to be the genetic blueprint of creation, possessing all kinds of metaphysical qualities, which only on its most superficial level is an instructional text. (This is really just an expansion of the differing views of mitzvot.)

Now, all these five differences ultimately relate to understanding Judaism within the framework of the laws of nature vs. within the framework of supernatural forces. (Why people choose one rather than the other itself presumably boils down to some fundamental aspect of human psychology, which is certainly worthy of investigation, and which I have some initial thoughts about; perhaps there are some psychologists here who can give an insight?) Ultimately, then, the visual depiction of rationalism should relate to physics (which is the "rawest" form of science), hence the illustration of the popular conception of an atom (even though that's not what atoms really look like). The illustration for mysticism should be a visual depiction of mystical forces, hence the illustration of the sefirot.

(Meanwhile, if there are any Photoshop wizards out there who would like to assist with a certain modification that I would like to make to this illustration, please write to me at And if you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you. And if you're in Israel for Chanukah, come visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History!)

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Must Yeshiva Students Enlist?

Following is a recent essay by Rav Eliezer Melamed, translated in English and published on the Revivim website. Rav Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series, is one of the most prominent and important rabbinic voices in the Dati-Leumi community. There are some sentences and phrases that are particularly significant, and I put those in bold.

Must Yeshiva Students Enlist?

Recently, the issue of recruitment of yeshiva students into the army has come up once again. It was disclosed that, in general, the Haredi public avoids enlisting in the army. Almost all recruits counted as being Haredi are either young men who left Haredi society, and usually religion as well, or older men who find their livelihoods in the army; men who grew up in marginal communities of Haredi society, such as baalei teshuva and olim chadashim (new immigrants) who have not adopted the full views of Haredi society, or young men from the Torani-Leumi public (Chardal).
At the same time, it was revealed that army authorities, maliciously or inadvertently, distorted the recruiting data, creating a misrepresentation as if the Haredi public was in the process of joining the army.

The Mitzvah to Serve in the Army

A question repeatedly asked: Are yeshiva students studying Torah exempt from enlistment in the army? Before addressing the very question, first, it must be clarified that it is a great mitzvah to serve in the IDF, and this mitzvah is one of the greatest and most sacred mitzvot of our generation, and is based on two mitzvot: saving Israel from the hand of her enemies, and settlement of the Land.

Saving Israel from the Hand of Her Enemies

Concerning saving the life of a single Jew, we are commanded: “Do not stand aside when trouble befalls your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). To rescue someone, Shabbat is desecrated, as our Sages said in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4: 5): “Anyone who saves the life of a Jew, it is as if he saved an entire world.” How much more so is the great obligation to save an entire Jewish community, and in order to do so not only is it a mitzvah to desecrate Shabbat, but it is even a mitzvah to endanger lives, as we have learned that in order to save even the property of a community on the border – Shabbat is desecrated, and lives are endangered (S.A., O.C. 329:6). All the more so that this must be done to save Clal Yisrael. And this is a clear milchemet mitzvah (a war commanded by the Torah), as Rambam wrote (Laws of Kings 5: 1): “Which is a milchemet mitzvah? … and saving of Israel from those who rise up against her.” This mitzvah obligates mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), and overrides the individual’s obligation to guard his life (Maran Rabbi Kook, Mishpat Kohen 143; Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 13: 100).

The Mitzvah to Settle the Land of Israel

The second mitzvah is the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the commandment to settle the Land of Israel), as written (Numbers 33: 53-54): “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. You shall inherit the land…” Our Sages said this mitzvah is equal in weight to all the mitzvot (Sifri, Re’ah 53). This mitzvah overrides pikuach nefesh (saving life) of individuals since we were commanded to conquer the Land, and the Torah did not expect us to rely on a miracle; since in every war there are fatalities, it is clear the mitzvah of conquering the Land requires us to risk lives (Minchat Chinuch 425 and 604; Mishpat Kohen pg. 327). All the more so must we fight to protect parts of the Land we already possess, and every soldier serving in the IDF takes part in this great mitzvah.
The mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is incumbent upon the Jewish people in every generation, as Ramban and many other poskim have written. Only due to oh’nes (forces beyond our control), seeing as we lacked the military and political capability to settle the Land, were we unable to fulfill this mitzvah throughout our long exile. Indeed, some poskim believe that in the opinion of Rambam, following the destruction of the Holy Temple, there is no mitzvah to conquer the Land, nevertheless, all agree that in Rambam’s opinion, there is a mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, and thus, if after Jews are already living in Eretz Yisrael enemies come to conquer parts of the Land in our possession – the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz obligates us to fight in order to protect them, since it is forbidden to relinquish parts of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews (D’var Yehoshua 2, O.C. 48; Milamdei Milchama 1; Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve Ha’Aretz 4:2).

Conflict between Talmud Torah and Enlistment in the Army

With all the immense importance of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (Torah study), it does not override the mitzvah of enlisting in the army. This is not only because of the well-known halakhic rule that any mitzvah that cannot be carried out by others overrides Talmud Torah (Moed Katan, 1), as this rule also applies to individual mitzvot, such as the mitzvah to pray, to build a sukkah, to give a loan, and providing hospitality to guests. However, the mitzvah of enlisting in the army is far more important because all of Israel’s existence depends on it.
We have also found that the students of Yehoshua ben Nun and King David went out to war and were not concerned about bittul Torah (the neglect of Torah study). Moreover, Chumash BaMidbar (Book of Numbers) is called Chumash HaPikudim (The Book of the Two Censuses), because in it, all the soldiers who were about to conquer the Land were counted.
And regarding what our Sages said (Baba Batra 8a) that Torah scholars do not need guarding, the meaning is that they are exempt from the type of guarding primarily intended for prevention of theft. But when Jews needs to be protected, then there is a mitzvah to save them, as the Torah says (Leviticus 19:16): “Do not stand aside when trouble befalls your neighbor”, and in a situation of pikuach nefesh, the mitzvah is first incumbent on Talmedei Chachamim (M.B. 328:34).

The Importance of Torah Study of Yeshiva Students

With that being said, it is essential to know that the most important mitzvah is Talmud Torah, and there is no mitzvah that guards and sustains the People of Israel in the long run more than Talmud Torah. Therefore, together with the mitzvah to serve in the army, it is imperative to incorporate in the order of life of every Jew a number of years in which he devotes himself, to the best of his ability, to Torah study. And this is what our Sages said (Megillah 16b): “Talmud Torah is greater than saving lives,” because saving lives involves the momentary rescue of a physical body, while Talmud Torah revives the Israeli nation’s soul and body for the long term.

The Mitzvah to Enlist and the Mitzvah to Develop Torah Scholars

In practice, the mitzvah to enlist in the army applies to all Jewish men, including those who wish to study Torah in yeshiva. However, when it is not a security necessity to recruit all young men without exception, as was the case in the War of Independence, it is a mitzvah to postpone the enlistment of those interested and suitable for rabbinical and educational positions, so they will be able to study diligently and excel in Torah – and when they are rabbis and educators, contribute from their education and Torah knowledge to strengthen Jewish awareness of Israel’s security, and yishuv ha’aretz. And although there are genuine Torah scholars who combined enlistment into the army during their first years in yeshiva, nevertheless, many of those who are worthy of being rabbis can contribute more from their Torah knowledge to Am Yisrael if they postpone their enlistment, as long as they continue developing in their yeshiva studies. This was the role of the Tribe of Levi, who learned in order to teach, and were exempt from enlistment in the army. They did not receive a portion in the inheritance of the Land, so they would be unhampered and readily available for service in the Temple, and to educate and instruct. Only in a case of national pikuach nefesh did the Levites and Kohanim (priests) enlist in the army and, when necessary, even led the army as in the days of the Hasmonean priests.
It is important to point out: this contribution of Torah students can ensue provided the students treat the mitzvah of soldiers guarding our nation and land with great respect. Only Torah study stemming from this viewpoint can contribute to elevating the spirit and heroism of Clal Yisrael. On the other hand, Torah study that denies the sanctity of a soldier’s mitzvah is inherently absurd, similar to the study of someone who denies the mitzvah of Shabbat.

Consent and Criticism of the Haredi Position

In light of this, we do not have a fundamental disagreement with the Haredi public about the need to postpone enlistment of diligent yeshiva students who will become rabbis and educators – with teachers postponing enlistment for a few years, whereas rabbis should be able to postpone for several years, without restriction.
The criticism is in two areas: one – that those studying in yeshivas must learn Torah properly, and thus, respect the mitzvah of enlistment to the army. Second – the majority of yeshiva students who are not going to be rabbis, even if they are studying well and diligently, must fulfill the mitzvah of enlistment.

The Haredi Explanation for Not Enlisting

Nonetheless, the position of the Haredim is understandable, for they fear that army service will a cause spiritual decline, to the point of abandoning Torah and mitzvot. If this is the case, then this is an existential problem that cannot be compromised. Spiritual pikuach nefesh.
In practice, there are two parallel processes occurring in the army. On the one hand, over the last few decades the ability of an observant soldier to keep mitzvot, such as kashrut, prayers, Shabbat and holidays has improved. On the other hand, as the result of the mixing of male and female soldiers in the various units, the general atmosphere has become extremely immodest, such that a young man who grew up in religious circles, and all the more so Haredi, is faced with difficult challenges. In such a situation, the position of Haredi rabbis is that the promise of the young men’s spiritual future is preferable to the mitzvah of military service. Although the army is ready to create for Haredi recruits a framework suitable to their lifestyle, they are still concerned that over time, military service will cause them to become less religious.

Instead of Avoiding – Strengthen the Army

However, halachicly and in practice, their position is wrong. Instead of avoiding enlistment, they should be vigilant, and make certain the atmosphere in the army is as it should be for a machaneh kadosh (holy military camp). Already today, Hesder yeshiva students have reasonable conditions, adapted to the lifestyle of the national-religious public.
Incidentally, in recent years, I have consistently asked the young men returning to yeshiva after their military service in the Hesder framework, whether, as a result of army service, they have become religiously weakened, or strengthened. Almost all of them responded that they got stronger. It is important to note that in contrast, of those who went into regular army service, at least half responded they had weakened, and needed strengthening.

Effort must be made to Fulfill Mitzvot

The general rule is that one must make an effort in order to fulfill mitzvot, and not give up in advance for various reasons.
Suppose, for example, it turned out that Shabbat observers, seeing as on Shabbat they don’t have to work,  are lured to indulge in drunkenness, drugs, and other abominations. Would we stop observing Shabbat? God forbid! We would struggle to find ways to prevent them from such activity (incidentally, this is one of the explanations for the takanah (ordinance) of reading the Torah at Mincha on Shabbat; see, “Peninei Halakha: Shabbat” 5:8).
Similarly, an effort must be made to regulate the fulfillment of this great and holy mitzvah. With half the effort Haredi public representatives invest in exemption from enlisting, they could successfully regulate the terms of religious observance of army service for the members of the Haredi public, and Clal Yisrael.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Arriving In England On A Fateful Day (updated)

I arrived in England late last night, on the day of the most fateful elections for Britain in goodness knows how long. I saw a perfect five word summary of the core, undeniable, lethal problem with Corbyn: His friends are genocidal terrorists. Fortunately he lost by a landslide, but he unleashed a new wave of antisemitism and Israelopathy in the UK that will be difficult to uproot.

The mood in shul in Hampstead Garden Suburbs this morning was euphoric. After chazaras haShatz, someone called out that we should say Hallel rather than Tachanun! The rabbi recited Shehechiyanu after davenning (albeit without Shem u'Malchus).

Let's hope that the right people in the US take note. Corbyn campaigned that he was "For the many, not the few," but the many evidently thought otherwise. Taking the Democratic party to the radical left is not going to help them win.

Meanwhile, I'll be giving several presentations in Hampstead Garden Suburbs this Shabbos, and we have a special event planned for Sunday evening in Hendon!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam!

The phrase Talmud Torah k’neged kulam, "the study of Torah is equal to everything," is well known from its daily recital in the morning prayers:
These are the things which man performs and enjoys their fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World to Come: honoring one’s parents, bestowing kindness, arriving at the study hall early in the morning and evening, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, assisting a bride, escorting the dead, contemplation of prayer, and making peace between man and his fellow. And the study of the Torah is equal to them all.
This phrase is commonly cited as a trump card for shutting down any discussion relating to people's obligations:
"Shouldn't men work to support their families, rather than staying in Kollel?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
"Should people give their children an education that enables them to earn a living, as Chazal instruct?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
"Shouldn't the burden of military service and supporting the economy be shared across society in Israel?"
   "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam!"
While the idea that Torah is equal in value to all other mitzvot put together is not necessarily related to the mystical outlook, it does dovetail with it. After all, from a rationalist perspective, while Torah is extremely important in terms of its instructional and educational value, it is difficult to see why it would be equal in value to all other mitzvot put together. Whereas if learning Torah is of mystical significance, then this can easily be proposed to be equal to all other mitzvot combined.

Yet in practice, nobody, and certainly not Chazal, ever took Talmud Torah k'neged kulam to mean that any given moment of Torah study is equal in value to all other mitzvot combined. If they did, then there would never be grounds to do an optional mitzvah, much less to institute any kind of non-critical act, religious or otherwise, that could take people away from a moment of Torah study.

Furthermore, it is important to note that there are several mitzvot about which Chazal say that they are equal to all other mitzvot together:
Shabbos is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah. (Yerushalmi, Berachot 9a)
Great is circumcision, for it is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah. (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 12b)
The mitzvah of tzitzit is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah (Nedarim 25a, Menachot 43b)
Charity and bestowing kindness are equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah (Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 3a)
Settling the land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah. (Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 5)
Now, it is logically impossible for all these things to be equal to all other mitzvot! Thus, the phrase k’neged kulam cannot be interpreted literally to mean that they are equal to all other mitzvot.

Most significantly, the version that we say in Shacharit, which has a long list of mitzvot regarding which it is said that Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam, is not the original text. Rather, it is an expansion of the original text, which is a Mishnah in Pe’ah. That Mishnah lists three mitzvot, and then says Talmud Torah k'neged kulam:
These are the things which man performs and enjoys their fruits in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World to Come: honoring one’s parents, bestowing kindness, and making peace between man and his fellow. And the study of the Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah, Pe’ah 1:1)
Now, the significance of realizing that this is the underlying source for Talmud Torah k'neged kulam is that this text also has a corresponding text regarding sins, which states as follows:
And correspondingly, these are the things for which a person is punished in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World to Come: Idolatry, forbidden relationships and murder. And lashon hara (evil speech) is equal to them all. (Yerushalmi, Peah 4a; Tosefta, Pe’ah 1:2) 
What are we to make of this? Lashon hara is very bad, but it is certainly not worse than idolatry, adultery and murder! Clearly, the point is to emphasize the severity of lashon hara, which can be far-reaching in its effects.

Thus, when Chazal say that lashon hara is equal to idolatry, adultery and murder, this is not meant to be understood literally. Likewise, when Chazal say in the corresponding text that Talmud Torah is equal to all other mitzvot, it is likewise not meant to be understood literally.

Having said all that, what does Talmud Torah k'neged kulam actually mean? It means that it is of foundational significance vis-a-vis mitzvot, just as lashon hara is of foundational significance vis-a-vis sin. It is the same as the discussion in Kiddushin 40b, where the consensus is that study is greater than action—and the reason given is that study leads to action. Rambam explicitly explains Talmud Torah k'neged kulam this way:
And when you investigate this matter, you will find that Talmud Torah is weighed as equivalent to everything, because through Talmud Torah a person merits all these [mitzvot in the list], just as we explained at the beginning—that study leads to action. (Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah, Pe’ah 1:1)
There are “regular” mitzvot, like blowing shofar, shiluach hakein, building a sukkah, etc. And there are especially significant mitzvot, described by Chazal as being “equal to all others,” such as circumcision, Shabbos, charity, and settling the land of Israel. Of the especially significant mitzvot, learning Torah is unique. But this is (primarily) because, as Chazal say, "study leads to action."

(Extracted from my forthcoming book, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought)

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Sunday, December 8, 2019

A Historic Danger for Britain

We have reached a truly astonishing junction in history. In a few days, millions of British citizens are going to vote for a man who hates the West and who befriends those that wish to destroy it. It beggars belief.

All this is quite aside from the fact of Corbyn having enabled, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the greatest rise in legitimization of antisemitism worldwide. This has been documented in a mass of cases, especially in the recently leaked dossier by the Jewish Labor Movement. Perhaps the most damning indictment of Corbyn personally was after Islamic jihadists killed Egyptian forces, when Corbyn suggested that the "hand of Israel" was behind it in a secret Zionist conspiracy.

Incredibly, there are still many people denying that Corbyn has fomented antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews/ Zionists being an evil group secretly plotting to harm society. They further claim that nobody could possibly reasonably believe such a thing, and that it's a defamatory campaign funded by an evil Zionist conspiracy! I'm serious; there are countless people making this claim, and they don't even see the irony in it. There is an article about Labor Blaming Accusations of Anti-Semitism on Global Jewish Conspiracy which was intended to be a satirical article, but Corbyn supporters actually really do that!

Perhaps even more remarkably, there are many Jews who are voting for Corbyn. And there are other Jews who, while acknowledging the problems with him and not voting for him, cannot bring themselves to vote for Boris Johnson. They say that Johnson is Islamophobic as well as a liar and buffoon, and that Brexit and the Tory party is greatly harmful for the UK.

But let's say that this is true. There is still not the slightest comparison between Johnson and Corbyn, and no moral grounds for avoiding doing everything to keep Corbyn out of power - even if that means voting for Johnson.

I'm going to quote some paragraphs that I saw written by Pete Newbon, a former Labor voter who put it in crystal clear terms. Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite who has spent the entirety of his inglorious - and hitherto insignificant - career cosying up to people who kill Jews, or try to kill Jews, or say Jews eat children, or that Jews did 9/11, or that Jews invented the Holocaust, or that Hitler didn't go far enough - and we need a bigger Holocaust.

Jeremy Corbyn invited into parliament a man who said Jews eat babies. He spent a decade hanging out with a man who literally describes himself as a proud Holocaust denier. He laid a wreath for men who kidnapped, castrated and murdered unarmed Jewish athletes. He campaigned to have released two terrorists who tried to blow up the embassy of the world's only Jewish state. He called a terrorist who planted a bomb in a cafe, killing twelve innocent people, his "brother."

And that antisemite, if he rises to power, will continue to place in positions of power other antisemites. They will welcome into the party a hoard of antisemites. And these antisemites will abuse Jews. They will share antisemitic conspiracies, cartoons, memes, video clips. They will call Jews 'baby killers'. They will accuse them of dual loyalties, and of treachery, and of lying and scheming against socialism and against The People. And every time some fresh squalor is exposed, people - people who may once have been good people - will twist themselves into unseemly contortions to prove that nothing untoward has happened, and that to even think there is something amiss only reveals the extent of the treachery. You want to know how evil gets power? This is how.

Yes, the Conservative Party has problems. Serious problems. But the Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn is the only party in British history to be undergoing a full investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Doesn't that tell you something?

Every British citizen, even someone who doesn't know or care about Jews, has a moral obligation to do everything possible to avoid the election of a man who adores oppressive regimes and who hates free democracies. But for Jews, there's a special obligation.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Your Inner Animal

It's strange. There are all kinds of different challenges that modern science raises for traditional religion in general and Judaism in particular. Some of them are very serious. But if you were do to a survey and ask people what first comes to mind as the primary challenge, I bet most would say evolution. And yet, of all the challenges that science poses to Judaism, not only is evolution the easiest to resolve - it's perfectly consistent with traditional Jewish ideas about the nature of man.

I explain this at length in my controversially controversial book The Challenge Of Creation (best purchased from the Biblical Museum of Natural History website rather than from Amazon). While classical Judaism never came up with the idea that man directly evolved from animals, it always maintained that man has a fundamentally animalistic nature, with his spiritual identity being something that exists in addition to that. The Midrash states that the account of God's creation of animal life includes the creation of man, who originally had a tail. Ramban says that man was first created without any spiritual component, at which stage he was qualitatively no different from an animal, and only later did he receive a soul which enabled him to become a different type of being. Abarbanel points out that there was no special day designated for the creation of man; instead, he was created on the same day as animals, because man fundamentally is an animal, with merely the potential to become something different by overcoming his animalistic nature. (See too Rav Soloveitchik's The Emergence of Ethical Man, which is about how man emerged/evolved from a fundamentally animal nature.)

It's a pity that so many people are hostile to acknowledging this. Among other benefits, recognizing our animal side can be greatly beneficial in psychology. Recently I have been reading books by Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of the "Inner Mammal Institute." She demonstrates how many psychological processes in people are functions of chemical processes in the brain that are manifest in basic animal behaviors. Here's one example:
Happy chemicals did not evolve to surge all the time. Their job is to get your attention when something promotes your survival. They turn off soon after they turn on so they’re ready to get your attention to the next good thing.

A recent monkey study makes the ups and downs of dopamine amazingly clear.  Researchers trained a group of monkeys to do a small task in exchange for a spinach leaf. Then the experimenters rewarded the monkeys with squirts of juice instead of spinach. Juice is a lot more rewarding than spinach because it has much higher energy value. The animals’ dopamine soared. Dopamine is the brain’s way of saying, “this reeeeally meets your survival needs.”

Then something curious happened. The monkeys’ dopamine fell over time. They continued getting the juice reward for the task each day, but their brains stop reacting to it. This shows that dopamine is the brain’s reaction to new information about new rewards. Once the juice was part of the routine, no effort was needed to get it and no dopamine was needed to record the survival lesson.

...This is the survival mechanism we’ve inherited. Old rewards don’t make us happy because the brain soon habituates to them. It takes what you have for granted and focuses its attention on new rewards. If you could get bigger and better rewards in every moment, you would never have to experience the core unhappiness of being a mortal human being. But that desperate seeking causes unhappiness of its own.

This unhappiness is usually blamed on “our society” because people don’t understand how they are creating it in their own brain. You are free to step off the “hedonic treadmill” whenever you choose. You can do it in one instant, just by accepting your unhappy chemicals instead of rushing to mask them with happy chemicals. You will find that your unhappy chemicals are not nearly as terrible as the habit of running from them.

When I read this, it reminded me of something written by Nosson Slifkin in an old (and sometimes odd) book called Second Focus. When Yaakov meets Eisav and offers him gifts, Eisav at first politely refuses and says “I have lots.” Yaakov presses him, responding that “I have everything” — whereupon Eisav accepts the presents, after all. Eisav, a wealthy man, considers himself to have lots and lots — but not everything. Yaakov, on the other hand, considers himself to lack nothing. This isn’t because he presently happened to possess a considerable degree of wealth. It reflected his outlook on life which was consistent regardless of his personal situation.

Eisav is demonstrating the natural, animalistic behavior of human beings. Physical pleasures and material wealth do not provide permanent happiness - instead, one always needs more of them, to provide more dopamine. But Yaakov has been able to rise above his animal nature.

We can make a conscious effort to modify our animalistic thought-patterns, in this case meaning to intellectually realize the good in our situation and learn to be satisfied with it. As Chazal say, "Who is wealthy? He that is satisfied with his lot." If this came naturally, it wouldn't be something to strive towards. The natural behavior is our inner animal; our spiritual task is to overcome that. But it's the awareness of our inner animal which enables us to become something more than just an animal.

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Thursday, December 5, 2019

Charedim in the IDF? An Insider's Perspective

As a sequel to yesterday's post about the IDF massively overstating the numbers of charedim in the IDF, here is an eye-opening account from a friend of mine who served in Nachal Charedi. Please note that the point of this is not that Nachal Charedi is not valuable; it is tremendously valuable. The point is that Nachal Charedi does not indicate that charedi society is more accepting of army service.

Don't let the IDF's spin fool you. The talk of "mistakes", of "an unfortunate mishap", it's all false.

I know. I served for three years in Netzach Yehuda/ Nahal Haredi and can testify that what we have here is nothing less than a systematic campaign by the military to fool the government and the public.

In August 2013, I transferred from the Border Police to Netzach Yehuda. The August draft cycle was the first since then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid passed the Draft Law, and everyone involved had an interest in showing that haredi enlistment was on the rise.

As part of this propaganda effort, Netzach drafted two companies. As IDF veterans know, every combat battalion only drafts one company per tri-yearly draft cycle. But officially, so many haredim were begging to wear army green that they had to establish a second company, probably the first time this happened in the military's history.

The reality, of course, was considerably different. In fact, there were barely enough haredim for one company. So what did they do to maintain the fiction?

They simply went to the IDF's recruitment center in Tel Hashomer, found everyone who refused to serve in non-glamorous units such as tanks and artillery, conscripted them into Netzach, and sold them to the public as 'haredim'.

This brings me to the ultimate policy of dishonesty that was only exposed this morning. The IDF officially counts anyone serving in its ultra-Orthodox units as haredi.

This includes foreign soldiers trying to evade a mandatory three month Hebrew course ("I'm haredi and can't have female teachers"), married Religious Zionist troops who wanted more time at home with their wives, Chabadnikim, and Religious Zionists who didn't want to serve with women.

All of these people were counted in the official statistics. And when we were told that haredi enlistment is on the rise, it didn't mean that more haredim chose to fight for God and country, but that these units simply accepted more people.

Yet even the haredim themselves were not actually haredi. During my service, I saw people in my unit visiting brothels and eating bread on Passover. Shabbat desecration was rampant, daily minyanim were not a thing, and even officers were completely secular. When serving as a commander in the training base, I would often be forced to visit other companies to find a minyan for Mincha because I knew there was no chance I would find it with Netzach guys.

This wasn't a secret. Everyone knew, both in the IDF and out. Yet the official story went on. Journalists would arrive on base, speak to the three actual haredim, and then file a story about "the Ultra Orthodox combat battalions". I even remember how the soldiers selected to visit Defense Minister Bogie Ya'alon in his Sukkah were ordered to replace their knitted kipa with a black velvet one. As the old Canon ad went, "Image is Everything".

You can't fool all of the people all of the time, and the fact that the IDF was exposed cooking the books means we need to do some real thinking. The myth that haredim are running to the military is now demonstrably false, and the stats about their integration in the workforce are also problematic.

This means that the two fastest growing populations in Israel, the haredim and the Arabs, are not serving in the military, live in poverty, are not highly educated, and do not identify with the state.

These two populations already comprise 35% of Israel's total population. What will happen in 2040? Who will work, serve in the IDF, pay taxes, and be doctors?

As the saying goes, a third of the country pays taxes, a third works, and a third serves in the army. The problem is, is that it's always the same third.

If nothing changes, Israel could very well deteriorate into a failed state that cannot take care of its citizenry.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Big IDF Lie

There's a shocking headline in the news today. It turns out that for several years, the IDF has been deliberately falsifying the number of charedim that enlist, in order to give the appearance of meeting draft goals. To quote from The Jerusalem Post:
Although it was previously thought as much as 35% of haredi men of military age were serving in the IDF, in reality that less than 15% are serving in the military... The real figures mean that the targets for haredi enlistment over the last five years have been missed by huge margins and previous assumptions that steady albeit slow progress on the goal of increasing the number of haredi men in military service are totally wrong... The upshot of the revelations are that the state has almost totally failed in its goal to increase equality in the burden of military service...

To be honest, I personally was not surprised (and I think that even 15% sounds too high). Over the last few years, a number of people have argued that charedim are gradually joining the IDF, with many thousands of charedim signing up, but these claims never made sense to me. I live in a predominantly charedi town, and if there were so many charedim in the IDF, I would have been aware of it!

Furthermore, it's been clear to me for a while that many so-called charedim in the IDF are not charedi at all. Nachal Charedi (Netzach Yehudah), for example, is often touted as an example of charedim integrating into the IDF. Now, Nachal Charedi is certainly a wonderful institution, but it's not what people think. Many of its recruits are Dati-leumi boys who want a higher standard of kashrus and so on. Ironically, the Jerusalem Post article linked abovet has a photo of a "charedi soldier", provided by Nachal Charedi and shown here - but he's not wearing a black kippah! Many others in Nachal Charedi come from charedi homes, but are going against what their families wanted for them, and have dropped out of charedi society.

No doubt the revelation that the IDF has been lying about charedi recruitment will be met with demands of forced conscription. And it is clear that there is no adequate halachic basis for mass refusal to conscript, and certainly no ethical basis. Moshe Rabeinu's call rings as true today as ever: "Shall your brethren go to war, while you remain here?"

Nevertheless, I think that calls of forcing charedim to join the IDF are futile and counterproductive. It's just not going to happen. You can't force communities of hundreds of thousands of people to enlist if they are utterly opposed to it. They would rather go to prison, and there isn't enough prison space for all of them. It would just cause civil war.

So what can be done? Not a lot (although more could be done to strengthen institutions such as Rabbi Karmi Gross's Derech Chaim). But there's a much bigger problem than charedim not enlisting in the IDF: it's charedim creating a society which shuns secular education and sees living off charity as preferable to working. This is what could lead to the collapse of the country. And that's a problem that can be solved, albeit slowly and with difficulty. It requires a multi-pronged strategy, including financially incentivizing charedi schools to provide a rudimentary secular education (and penalizing those which don't) - and perhaps even relaxing the draft laws.

Yes, that's right. Much as it is wrong and unfair for an entire sector of Israel society not to serve in the IDF, we have to face reality. And the reality is that in the long run, Israel needs charedim to be a part of the economy. It's crucial to get them out into the legal workforce, rather than being in kollel out of a desire to avoid the draft. That's where the emphasis needs to be, as unfair as it is.

I'm not saying that Israel should simply automatically exempt charedim from enlisting - that would be too much of an unfair social burden on the rest of society. I'm saying that the focus needs to be strategic, on creative ways to integrate charedim into society, rather than insisting on the principle of equality vis-a-vis the draft.

And for those of us with any influence on charedi society - we have to be clear as to what the Torah requires. Both clear in our own minds, and able to clearly convey it to others. I received a call the other day from a rabbinic colleague in Har Nof, who told me that he's noticed certain trends in the pitches delivered by charedim collecting money in shul. One frequently recurring theme is a person with a dozen children collecting for medical expenses for his wife, who is suffering from mental health problems. No kidding! Another common type of appeal is from a young chosson, saying that his father is overburdened from marrying off all his older siblings, and so he is helping his father by collecting for himself!

We have to make it clear: Working to support one's family and to be a productive member of society is not a yetzer hara and is not a bedi'eved. It's an imperative. There's no hope of getting charedi society to share the burden of defending the country, but we have to try our best to influence them to support themselves and the economy.

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Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both ...