Thursday, November 26, 2020

Why I Can Never Be A True Rationalist

At the start of the millennium, I was in a pretty low place, in a variety of ways. I had recently been tasked by a certain outreach organization with the mission to research the topic of proving the Divinity of the Torah from the camel, the hare and the hyrax. This was in order to refute various objections that were being thrown at them from people who claimed that the topic actually disproved rather than proved the Torah's divinity. Much to my surprise and great dismay, I discovered that the objections were partially correct, and that while the topic could not be used to disprove the Divinity of Torah, it also couldn't be used to prove it. I was devastated.

Then, I was further shaken when certain (but not all) outreach organizations reacted with great hostility to my presenting them with my final report. Feeling the heat, I tried to ensure that my report would not reach anyone beyond those organizations. And then I was further distressed to find that one of my confidential correspondents had sent it to several further people. All this put me in a state of abject funk.

Meanwhile, in my personal life, things were also going badly. Nearly all my friends had long gotten married, but despite having gone out with many dozens of girls, I was still single. I was a rather out-of-the-box type of yeshivah student, and I had been scarred by certain dating experiences, and frankly, I was at a point when I thought that I would never get married.

Then, one day, I was contacted by one of the people to whom my "Camel, Hare & Hyrax" report had been leaked, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. He said that he liked it very much, and he was coming to Israel, and would like to meet me. After we met, he told me that I should go out with a former student of his from Los Angeles. 

There's not many connections between Mancunians and Los Angelinos, but I discovered that my neighbor, a very insightful psychologist who knew me extremely well, also knew this girl. I asked her if she thought it would be a good match, and she said that she didn't "see it" at all. Manchester and Los Angeles are not just geographically very far apart; they are also culturally very far apart. But I decided to go out with her anyway.

Twenty years ago today, Tali Samson and I got married.

Anyone who knows me from both before and after I got married knows that getting married is the best thing that ever happened to me, in all kinds of ways. My wife, a psychotherapist, is a truly wonderful person who exists to make the world a better place. Virtually every good thing that I have received or achieved is directly or indirectly as a result of getting married to her. My wife and I have been blessed with five wonderful children. We've faced challenges together and gotten through them.

The hyrax, which caused me so much grief, turned out to be the conduit via which I received so much blessing. It's probably not very rationalist of me to believe that I merited exceptional personal divine providence (Rambam and others did not generally believe in such personalized providence, and contemporary rationalists would dismiss it as perceiving significance where none exists), but I just can't help how I feel. I thank Hashem every day for what I consider to be one of the Great Miracles of the 21st century. May He continue to bestow blessings upon us.

 

(If you'd like to take this opportunity to make a donation to the Biblical Museum of Natural History, you can do so at this link!)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Too Outrageous To Be True?

Here are advertisements for two events. One is outrageous and is merely a satire of the other, which is outrageous and is actually taking place. Can you guess which is which? Of course you can, because there's only one type of gaslighting which is socially acceptable.


Please share the latter with whoever might be seeing the former.



Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Extremists At Both Ends

I just made a largely futile attempt to make peace between two people. They have a lot in common, and deep down they love each other, but they fell out about something. Each was convinced that the other person was acting absolutely terribly. It was deeply frustrating to me that neither was trying to see the situation from other person's perspective. But I shouldn't have been surprised; it was just a microcosm of what is happening to society in general, at least in the US.

As a Brit living in Israel, I had the luxury of not having to decide who to vote for in the US elections. Nor do I take much interest in the domestic affairs of the US. I was able to somewhat detachedly observe the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Which, of course, instantly put me at odds with the vast majority of Americans, who only see strengths in their own side and only weaknesses in the other, due to the enormous psychological power of confirmation bias.

I didn't think that the divisions in the US could get any more extreme. But I was wrong.

On the one hand, you have a CNN anchor comparing the actions of Trump to the start of the Nazi Holocaust (fortunately, she has since apologized). And I got into an argument with someone who insisted that everyone is obligated to hate every single one of the 69 million people who voted for Trump, with no forgiveness ever (if they don't repent). There was absolutely no willingness to be open to the possibility that there could be good people who sincerely believe that Trump and the associated Republican party is overall beneficial for the US (or less bad than the alternative).

At the other end of the spectrum is Trump himself, destroying the 240-year-old legacy of both Democrats and Republicans in trying to tear apart the country rather than concede defeat. And some of his supporters have very strange beliefs. I got into an argument with someone who shared a photo of Trump with the description, "Loving Dad, Husband, Greatest President Donald Trump." I'm not going to get into an argument with someone about whether Trump is a good president (I'm too distant to make such evaluations), but what on earth would lead someone to say that he is a "loving husband"?! Are they unaware that he divorced his first two wives, and has actually bragged about multiple extra-marital affairs? The eventual response was that he is an amazing president and Biden is awful. Which only strengthened my objection: Why would his actions as a president mean that he is necessarily a loving husband?!

It seems that the ultimate manifestation of tribalism is that not only is "your guy" the best person to serve as president; he is the best person, period. He is a perfect person in every respect. I saw someone else write that he is "a truly selfless great man, who hides it so well." (Indeed, he hides it amazingly well!) He is someone to be lionized and idolized. (And there are others who idolize him in most bizarre ways.)

It is crucial for everyone to learn about how Confirmation Bias shapes both your thoughts and those of other people (so that you don't condemn them as evil or insane). It is crucial to learn about the power of tribalism over both your psyche and that of others. The alternative is for society to tear itself apart.

(Cue: comments from people saying that as a non-American I just don't get it, because it's obvious that the other side is just totally evil.)

 

See too this post: The Black And White Problem

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

How To Be A Frum Criminal

In March 2001, FBI agents raided Kiryas Joel, rounding up 14 suspects on suspicion of a string of financial crimes. Members of the group had falsified social security numbers and used the details to fraudulently obtain tax refunds, life insurance payments, and bank loans. Chief among them was Mordechai Samet, who was convicted on 33 counts of racketeering, money laundering, and fraud that netted about $5.5 million dollars. He was finally released a few weeks ago, after spending twenty years in prison.

Mishpacha magazine just published a feature story on "Reb" Mordechai Samet. When I started reading it, I was initially sickened. The article portrays him as an inspirational man on a mission to teach powerful messages about emunah and bitachon. I began to feel a strong sense of deja vu. It was reminiscent of how the yeshivish community, with few protests, lauded Shalom Rubashkin, the "Baal HaNes," as a heroic martyr, and a baal bitachon par excellence. Yet, to quote Rav Hershel Shechter's comments on Rubashkin, "It's scandalous - the man is a criminal... [but] they're turning him into the next Lubavitcher rebbe!" Rubashkin never speaks about having done anything wrong or about the need to be law-abiding - and in fact, claims to have been the victim of libel. His message is only about his heroic ability to trust in Hashem to help him with his plight - never about his mistakes and wrongdoings that got him there in the first place.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the article about Samet reflects a very different approach, in two highly significant ways. 

First is that, unlike with Rubashkin, Samet is not only out to teach people about bitachon, but also to urge them to stay away from white-collar crime. Although not adequately stressing the immorality and dishonesty of it, he does stress the foolishness of attempting it, and the chillul Hashem that it causes.

Second is that, at the very end of the article, it becomes clear that Samet is not giving the distorted bitachon message of Rubashkin. As I wrote last year, emunah and bitachon means that Hashem is in charge of our livelihoods; and the practical ramification of such a belief is that there is nothing to be gained by engaging in dishonest activity. The only speech about emunah and bitachon that Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin should be giving is about how he didn't have it, and suffered as a result. Fortunately, Samet makes precisely this point:

In retrospect, Samet admits that if he’d had the wellsprings of bitachon and emunah that he developed and built up during his long years in prison, he would never have gotten into the whole dangerous and dubious enterprise that entangled him so badly.

“Anyone who has strong emunah knows that HaKadosh Baruch Hu provides parnassah to all — from the tiniest creations to the largest ones — without a person needing to employ questionable methods, and especially when those actions are against the law,” Samet says today. “No tricks. And it’s not only because I sat in prison for nearly two decades, but because HaKadosh Baruch Hu says not to do these things. And our job is to make a kiddush Hashem in This World and not, chalilah, the opposite.

“Ultimately, we don’t gain anything and we pay a heavy price. I suffered so much, I caused so much heartache and pain to myself and others. I ask my children forgiveness because they had to suffer so much because of my lack of caution. I ask mechilah from my wife, a tzadeikes, who waited for me all these years. Today, I hope and pray that my sins have been atoned for, and that, as Hashem promises, my transgressions have turned to merits. But please, no one should take the path I did to get there.”

What a refreshing different message to hear!

There's one more very significant point in the Mishpacha article, though I fear not enough people will notice the significance of it. It explains that Samet was not a shrewd con-man out to make a killing, but rather someone simply trying to make ends meet: 

“I never aspired to be rich,” he said in his prison interview. “All I wanted to do was scrape by, pay tuition, mortgage, kehillah dues, and make bar mitzvahs and weddings without needing to accept charity. 

And there we have a perfect illustration of the truth of Chazal's words, and the terrible failure of the charedi community for determinedly ignoring them:

"Whoever does not teach his son a trade... it is as though he has taught him to steal." (Kiddushin 29a)

 

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Saturday, November 7, 2020

A Giant Among Rabbis

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has passed away.

The loss is absolutely incalculable. Rabbi Sacks was only 72, and still had so much to give. I do not believe that it is an exaggeration to say that he was one of the most important rabbis of our generation. I don't mean that he was the greatest Talmudist or the greatest halachic authority or had the most disciples. I mean that in terms of teaching Judaism, and furthering the national interests of the Jewish People, his accomplishments, qualities and influence were unmatched. He was a leader and teacher and ambassador for the Jewish People in the path of great figures in our history such as Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, Rambam, and Ramban.

It was nearly thirty years ago in 1991, when he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, that I (and many others) first heard of him. Back then, I was living in Manchester, and he came to speak on several occasions. He was a masterful orator, and it was clear that his appointment to this prestigious position was superbly appropriate.

Being Chief Rabbi of the UK is not an easy position. It requires delicate maneuvering between diverse communities, including charedim, traditional Orthodox, and non-Orthodox sectors, as well as representing the Jewish community to the outside world. It's impossible to do so without ruffling any feathers, but Rabbi Sacks managed to ruffle very, very few. He spoke at my ultra-charedi former yeshivah, Shaarei Torah, and to non-Jewish audiences with more than a few people who harbored antisemitic attitudes. How many rabbis would be able to speak to both audiences?!

Rabbi Sacks promoted and defended Orthodox Judaism with dignity. He was knighted and appointed to the House of Lords. He was the ambassador of the Jewish people to governments and leaders worldwide - and was amazingly good at it. England is rife with distaste for Jews, but Rabbi Sacks earned enormous great respect. He had great dislike for getting involved with politics, and so when he made a rare exception to criticize Jeremy Corbyn, it had important impact.

Rabbi Sacks authored twenty-five bestselling works on Judaism, as well as translations of the siddur and machzorim. His books are not mere vortlach - they are profound insights, reflective of deep thought. This past Sukkot, I read his essay on Kohelet in Ceremony and Celebration, and it blew me away in how it tied together all the themes of Sukkot with incredible perspectives on human nature. It boggles the mind that he was able to produce so much material of such high quality. 

One of Rabbi Sacks' lesser-known but highly important works is his brilliant essay, "Creativity and Innovation in Halakhah," published in the critically important Orthodox Forum publication Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy (Aaronson 1992). The essay attests to his profound understanding of the halachic process and its application to modern society. I very much hope that it will be made available online, but meanwhile, here is the penultimate paragraph: 

"To my mind the most serious issues confronting contemporary halakhah is not lack of creativity, but the sociological divorce between the centers of pesak - nowadays, largely the yeshivot - and the centers of congregational life. Pesak involves applying Torah in its unchanging totality to Jewish life in its present specificity. A law-interpreter, no less than a law-maker, must have a clear objective understanding of the lives he is called on to instruct. R. Joshua once suggested that Rabban Gamliel's capacity to lead the Jewish community was compromised by his ignorance of the economic conditions in which they lived (Berakhot 28a). The same surely would be true of a posek who was ignorant of their intellectual and cultural circumstances."

On a personal note, I was privileged to spend Pesach together with Rabbi Sacks a few years ago. (Note that his rabbinic beach-wear was much more respectable than mine!). He was incredibly gracious; he was telling my wife about how bad he feels for wives who have to suffer their husband's books being banned, and he added that if we are ever feeling down, we should just write to him and he will call and offer whatever chizzuk he can! He also graciously recorded a blessing for the Biblical Museum of Natural History

Rabbi Sacks' sudden passing from cancer came as a great shock, but it was actually not the first time that he battled this illness. Here is an extract from an article about Rabbi Sacks by Yair Rosenberg that was published in Tablet magazine, several years ago:

"Though he seldom mentions it, Sacks battled cancer twice, once in his 30s, and later in his 50s. Yet unlike many other rabbis and scholars of religion, from Rabbi David Wolpe to James Kugel, who incorporated their bouts with cancer into their theological reflections, Sacks makes no reference to it in his voluminous output. I asked why.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “I saw my late father in his 80s go through four, five major operations. This was not cancer, it was hip replacements and those things. And when you have operations in your 80s, they sap your strength. He got weaker and weaker as the decade passed. He was walking on crutches at my induction—he was alive for my induction, and that was very important to me.”

“Now, my late father, alav ha-shalom, didn’t have much Jewish education, but he had enormous emunah [faith],” Sacks continued. “I used to watch him saying Tehillim in the hospital, and I could see him getting stronger. It seemed to me that his mental attitude was ‘I’m leaving this to Hashem. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’”

“And I adopted exactly that attitude. So on both occasions I felt, if this is the time Hashem needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the refu’ah [healing] and I put my trust in him. So there was no test of faith at any point—just these simple moments at which to say, ‘b’yado afkid ruchi’ [‘In his hand, I place my soul’]. That was my thought. And since we say that every day in Adon Olam, I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”

“I had faith,” said Sacks, “full stop.”

Our nation was blessed to have had such a rare gem. Rabbi Sacks' many works will be inspiring and educating both Jews and non-Jews for centuries to come. He will be sorely missed. 


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Monday, November 2, 2020

Know Your Brain

Modern science has revealed some extremely valuable, albeit somewhat upsetting, truths about the human brain. Many, many experiments have conclusively proved that our brains work far less rationally than we think they do.

For example, a famous experiment showed that, under the right circumstances, someone can dress up in a gorilla costume, walk right into your field of vision, jump up and down and beat their chest, and you won't even see them. All it takes is the right kind of mental distraction. (This has important ramifications; it means that nobody can ever be certain that they wouldn't forget their baby in the car, and it is incumbent on all young parents to implement some sort of automated checking system.)

It's also been repeatedly proven that you can be 100% certain that you saw something which you couldn't possibly have seen. Millions of people are certain that they saw Tom Cruise jump up and down on Oprah's couch, declaring his love for Katie Holmes. But it never happened. Similarly, in a survey of people's responses as to where they were when they heard about 9/11, it turned out that many people completely (but with certainty) misremembered.

There are many other ways in which our minds do not work as well as we believe them to. Several have been discussed in two fascinating books, The Invisible Gorilla and Predictably Irrational. One of the most pernicious of these inbuilt human mental flaws is Confirmation Bias. This refers to how we search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our preexisting bias. 

In one experiment at Stanford, students were divided into two groups according to whether they believed that capital punishment does or does not discourage crime. Each group was given two sets of scientific papers, one set of which brought evidence that capital punishment does discourage crime, and one set of which brought evidence that it doesn't have such an effect. (Unbeknownst to the students, both sets of papers were fabricated for the purpose of the experiment, and were equal in the strength of the "evidence" that they offered.) When questioned, the students who were originally in favor of capital punishment being effective found the papers to that effect to be much more convincing, and were even strengthened in their belief. Whereas the students who were originally of the view that capital punishment does not help, found the papers to that effect much more convincing, and were strengthened in their belief.

In the modern era of mass media and social media, we are bombarded with thousands of reports and articles and perspectives, and we choose which ones we rate as convincing. We might think that we are being objective, but it is very likely that we are simply succumbing to Confirmation Bias. We search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our preexisting bias.

Of course, not everyone is equally subject to Confirmation Bias. While we are all vulnerable to a certain degree, there are those who are less affected, and those who are more affected. How can you tell if you are particularly affected? I think that there is pretty straightforward way to know, at least with regard to elections.

Elections are (frequently) binary choices between two people. However, these binary choices are between two people with a large number of associated people, who differ in a thousand ways, with a million different ramifications. And many of these ramifications can have long-term effects which cannot be predicted with any certainty, and may even have conflicting effects. To be sure, it is possible that one of these choices is overall vastly superior to the other. But with such a staggering array of factors, what are the odds that every single one of them fits neatly into the same binary column of what is good and bad?

So if you believe that every single article, every report, every argument, in favor of your preferred candidate is convincing, and every single article, report and argument in favor of the other guy is not at all convincing; if you believe that there is every reason to vote for your guy and not a single reason to vote for the other guy; if you believe that anyone who votes for the other guy is absolutely, irredeemably stupid or evil - then it is overwhelmingly likely that you suffer from severe Confirmation Bias.

(And there may turn out to be some further evidence to convince you. If you suffer from severe Confirmation Bias, you probably also believe that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of your candidate winning by a substantial majority. In the eventuality that your candidate fails to do so, you will have clear evidence that you indeed suffer from Confirmation Bias. And you can extrapolate from that that all your deep certainty that the Other Guy is absolutely utterly terrible, is probably likewise not so well-founded.)

It's also helpful to realize that other people suffer from confirmation bias, too; and therefore the reason why they are voting in a way that seems entirely incomprehensible to you is not because they are absolutely evil or utterly stupid, but rather because they had a certain inclination in a certain direction regarding certain aspects of person or policy difference, and interpreted everything else in light of that.

We are all human, and we are thus all flawed. But at least we have the capacity to learn about our flaws, and to be aware of them. That is the first step to compensating for them.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

How Aesthetic was the Ark?

I would like to thank everyone who commented on the previous post, Building Noah's Ark, with ideas about how best to create a scale model of Noah's Ark for the Biblical Museum of Natural History. In the previous post, I discussed the factors of proportion, scale, form, superstructure, and animals. Since then, I realized that there are further factors to consider.

One is carpentry. Now, it seems that nails were invented about 5500 years ago, in Ancient Egypt. The ancients also knew how to use mortise joints to fasten beams together. But another, perhaps more common construction technique in ancient Mesopotamia involved lashing beams together with rope (see this paper on Ships and Shipbuilding in Mesopotamia). This in turn required lots of pitch for waterproofing - which is why God told Noah to apply pitch both on the inside and outside.

The other aspect to consider is aesthetics. Most contemporary models of Noah's Ark involve beautiful carpentry. But there's a fascinating video about the making of Noah's Ark for the 2014 film Noah with Russell Crowe. As I noted in the previous post, that version was accurate in terms of presenting the Ark as a box rather than as a boat. But the production designer also explains that they decided to show it as being constructed in a roughshod manner. This is not a sleek, beautifully designed luxury vessel. It's a purely functional emergency refuge constructed by a single family. 

(While this and other aspects of the 2014 film are impressive, overall I absolutely hated the film for its utterly miserable tone and its depiction of Noah as a homicidal maniac. And they hardly showed any animals!)

Putting these two factors together, the result is that rather than the Ark being a beautiful work of carpentry, the Bible is describing a giant crate made of logs roughly lashed together, coated in black pitch. Not a very attractive model to build! It might be educational, but it won't be very inspirational.

Perhaps we should exhibit multiple models and artwork? I'm also leaning towards making it resemble the ark-like architecture of the museum building itself, with curved corners and vertical strengthening pillars/beams. Since our model Ark will be situated near the donors' plaques, it might be fitting symbolism for those people helping us build a modern Ark!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Building Noah's Ark

The Biblical Museum of Natural History
focuses on the identities and symbolism of the animals of the Bible. As such, the story of Noah's Ark is less relevant to the museum than one might suppose. So far, we have had no exhibit relating to Noah's Ark. But since the words "animals" and "Bible" obviously conjure up Noah's Ark, and it does carry the powerful symbolism of conservation, I would very much like to create a Noah's Ark exhibit, to be displayed in our entrance hall. 

My idea is not to get at all into the scientific issues discussed in the previous post - the museum stays far away from such controversial topics. Instead, the signage would talk about the Ark as a symbol of conservation. (Note that rather than destroying all the animals and creating new ones, God wanted Noah to look after some animals and preserve them - perhaps teaching that civilization must be built upon kindness.) The exhibit would be based around a large model of the Ark, along with the animals entering it. Deciding upon the nature of such a model involves numerous factors, which are not at all straightforward. There's a Noah's Ark Model Store, but all of the models sold there run into problems. Here are the aspects that I am considering:

1. Proportions

I certainly want the model to reflect the Biblical dimensions of the Ark. These are not at all the dimensions of the popular drawings and models. In popular depictions, the Ark is about two or three times as long as it is wide and tall. But the Biblical Ark was ten times as long as it was tall! It's quite jarring when one looks at a scale image or model, because it's so different than what we're used to.

2. Scale

Given the extreme length of the Ark, it's quite difficult to scale it down and have animals that are not microscopic. The small but highly detailed model animals that one sees in museum and quality toy stores, and which we have in our Hall of Shofars alongside each shofar, are at a scale of 1:24. But at this scale, the Ark would be nearly twenty feet long! Our Entrance Hall is very large, but still, I'm not sure that we want to take up that much space with this exhibit.

A more reasonably sized model Ark would be around five feet long. That is the 1:87 scale of certain tiny model railways, the manufacturers of which also make model animals to match this scale. But then it's only about six inches tall, and the animals are absolutely tiny - less than half an inch high, and thus less detailed. 

Perhaps we should do an intermediate scale of around 1:45 (the "O" scale of model railways), resulting in an Ark that measures ten feet long? I'm not all sure which scale to go for.

3. Form

Popular depictions of Noah's Ark present it as being a large boat. Boats have rounded hulls, to reduce drag as they move through the water. But the whole significance of Noah's Ark (in contrast to Gilgamesh and other such stories) is that Noah was not a sailor and the Ark was not a boat. It was not designed to move through the water, merely to float in it. It was an ark, a box, not a ship. In that respect, the horrible 2014 film Noah with Russell Crowe was more accurate, depicting the Ark as a crate-like structure. Still, the Torah does not say that the Ark didn't have a rounded hull, so perhaps we should make the model look a little more aesthetic and in line with people's expectations.

4. Superstructure

The popular depiction of a house-like superstructure above a deck is not in the Biblical description. The Torah speaks about the Ark being "finished to a cubit above," the meaning of which is highly unclear. So do we hazard a guess as to what is being meant (which is perhaps some kind of sloping roof), or do we cater to the popular image?

5. The Animals

Which animals do we show going into the Ark - lions and hippos and other animals from Biblical lands, or animals from the entire planet, such as elephants and giraffes? This is a very stark difference, and requires taking a position on the potentially controversial issue of whether the account of the Ark is intended to describe a flood covering the "world of the Bible" or the entire planet. (We will certainly not be including the dinosaurs that many Christians place on the Ark!)

So, how should we do it? I would welcome people's feedback and suggestions - and please try to consider it from the perspective of what is best for the museum, not what you would personally like to see! Meanwhile, I hope you will all be able to visit the museum - either physically, or in one of our live online tours!

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Noah's Ark Challenge

Question: Which home of Biblical creatures measures 100 cubits in length, 50 cubits in width and 30 cubits in height?

The most common wrong answer to this question is Noah's Ark. It's wrong because Noah's Ark was 300 cubits long, not 100 cubits.

The correct answer is: The new home of the Biblical Museum of Natural History!

Amazingly (and completely unplanned), the new museum is the exact width and height of Noah's Ark! The museum is currently closed due to coronavirus, but it is open for live online tours for groups and institutions - see details at this link. These are amazing interactive programs which have been rated as the very best online experiences!

Meanwhile, since it's that time of year again, here is the slightly expanded version of my original post regarding scientific challenges to the Noah's Ark account (which is, ironically, a topic that we do not touch upon in the museum).

Over the years I've received numerous questions about reconciling the traditional view of Noah's Flood with modern science. There are two sets of problems. First are those concerning the scientific impossibility of such an event - how the animals survived without their normal environments, how they traveled from and back to their various locations, where the water for the Deluge came from, etc. These can all be answered by simply positing numerous miracles - the animals flew or teleported to and from the Ark, etc., - but this is not satisfactory for those who follow the approach of Rambam and others which seek to minimize supernatural miracles. 

The second set of problems is based not on the scientific impossibility of such an event, but instead upon the evidence that even a supernatural event of this nature did not happen - i.e. the evidence of uniform geology (the result of which enables geologists to make a living) and records of continuous human civilizations throughout the entire period. Of course, there are anti-scientific polemicists, such as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who dismiss all the problems by claiming that supernatural processes took place in such a way as to conceal their occurrence (which includes undoing many of its devastating effects and sorting all the different kinds of fossils into neatly differentiated strata) - and Rabbi Meiselman condemns everyone who considers the Deluge to be a challenge as having "a mindset tainted by kefirah and skepticism." But those who understand the historical evidence realize that even this ridiculously far-fetched answer does not remotely deal with the evidence regarding human civilization.

There are a variety of different ways of approaching this topic. I tried discussing some of them online back in the summer of 2004, which may well have been one of the factors leading to the infamous ban on my books, and my comments were subsequently widely and wildly (and sometimes deliberately) misquoted. So instead of discussing it, I will just provide references to further reading material which shed light on various different approaches. Many people will condemn these approaches as unacceptable, but until they have a credible response to the scientific difficulties with the simple understanding, they would be wiser to remain silent.

First and foremost, I strongly recommend that people struggling with this difficulty read The Challenge Of Creation, preferably the third edition and onwards. I only explicitly deal with the flood in footnote 2 on page 302 (third edition), but there are many other parts of the book which are actually more relevant in terms of determining which options are available and acceptable - in particular, chapters 6-8, and 14-15.

Other relevant sources (remember, not all of these present the same approach), listed in no particular order, are:

Joel B. Wolowelsky, "Divine Literature and Human Language: Reading the Flood Story," in Bentsi Cohen, ed. As a Perennial Spring: A Festschrift Honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (NY: Downhill Publishing, 2013), pp. 521-534. (This is a revised version of his earlier article “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” Tradition 42:3 (Fall 2009) pp. 41-48.)

Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel, BeToraso Shel Rabbi Gedalyah, pp. 116-119.

Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1961).

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, commentary to Genesis, pp. 140-141.

Rabbi J. Hertz’s “Additional Notes to Genesis” at the back of The Pentateuch.

Nahum Sarna, "Understanding Genesis" (New York: Schocken Books 1966). (Note that this is not an Orthodox book, but it contains valuable insights.)

Rav Kook's letter on literalism, translated here.

Marc Shapiro's postings on this topic (I, II, and commentary by Rav Moshe Shamah here).

Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks' essay on the Deluge and the Tower of Babel (here)

Natan Slifkin, "Historical Records Vs. Dramatic Accounts"

Lorence Collins, "Yes, Noah's Flood May Have Happened, But Not Over the Whole Earth."

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ten Questions On Evolution And Judaism

(It's that time of year, so here's a re-post of an article that I originally published in The Jewish Press)

Evolution is feared by many as being heretical. But is this really the case? Here are ten questions about evolution and Judaism, along with brief answers. This does not substitute for the detailed discussion that this topic requires; it is merely intended as an introduction.

1) Evolution is alleged to have taken place over millions of years. But doesn't the Torah teach that the universe was created just a few thousand years ago?

There is a strong (albeit not universal) tradition in Judaism that "the account of creation is not all to be taken literally," to quote Maimonides. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, suggested that the Six Days of Creation were lengthy eras rather than 24-hour periods. Maimonides himself, as the commentaries on the Guide to the Perplexed reveal, was of the view that the Six Days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation.

2) Why should anyone accommodate evolution? Isn't evolution just a theory, not a fact?

"Evolution" is a confusing term, because it covers two very different concepts. One is common ancestry, the concept that all animal life arose from a common ancestor - simple organisms gave rise to fish, fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds and mammals (without getting into how that could have happened). This is supported by a wealth of converging evidence along with testable predictions. Common ancestry is considered by all scientists (except certain deeply religious ones) to be as well-established as many other historical facts, and is thus often referred to as "the fact of evolution." It is of immense benefit in understanding the natural world - for example, it tells us why whales and bats share anatomical similarities with mammals, despite their superficial resemblance to fish and birds.

The second and very different aspect of evolution is the mechanism via which one species changes into another. This is called the "theory" of evolution. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the word "theory" has a very different meaning in science than in everyday conversational English. It does not refer to wild speculation, but rather to an explanatory mechanism. Most, though not all, biologists believe that random mutations, coupled with natural selection, broadly suffice to explain this mechanism. The issue is, however, of zero religious significance, as we shall explain in the answer to the next question.

3) How can we accept scientific explanations for how animal life came about? It was God who made everything!

We have a science of meteorology, but that does not stop us from saying that God "makes the wind blow and the rain fall." We have a science of medicine, but this does not stop us from saying that God "heals the sick." We have documented history of the process involved in winning the '67 war, but this does not stop us from talking about God's miraculous hand. God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not.

4) Doesn't the Torah say that animals and man were created from the ground, not from earlier creatures?

Indeed it does. But what does that mean? The blessing recited over bread is “Blessed are You... Who brings bread out of the ground.” But what actually happens is that God created wheat, which man sows, nature grows, and man transforms into bread. Yet the blessing simplifies this in describing God as bringing bread out of the ground. By the same token, the description of God bringing animal life out of the ground can refer to His creating the raw material of nature and the natural processes that lead to the formation of animal life.

In any case, it is widely accepted today that we do not learn science from the literal meaning of Scripture - after all, Scripture describes the sky as a dome, the hare as bringing up its cud, and the kidneys and heart as housing one's mind. All these descriptions were interpreted literally by the Sages of old, and yet almost all recent Torah scholars interpret them non-literally.

5) Doesn't the notion of randomness in evolution contradict with the idea of a purposeful creation directed by God?

Judaism has always acknowledged that there are events which, in the physical world, appear to be random and happenstance. But it maintains that this does not rule out God's role behind the scenes. Indeed, this is the entire message of the Purim story! As it states in Scripture, "When the lot is cast in the lap, its entire verdict has been decided by God" (Proverbs 16:33).

6) Doesn't the Biblical concept of man being created in the image of God contradict the notion that man comes from animals?

Absolutely not! Classical Judaism has long maintained that man is not qualitatively different from animals in his physical aspects. Man's unique identity is in his spiritual soul, not in his physical body and most certainly not in his physical origins. The great medieval Torah scholars stated that man was created physically as an animal, but was given the spiritual potential to rise beyond that level. The Mishnah notes that on an individual level, we all come from a "putrid drop (of semen)," which is even less than an animal; yet we are defined not by what we come from, but rather by what we become.

7) Don't most rabbis state that evolution is heresy?

Very few leading rabbis have studied the science and have ever given the matter serious thought (and rabbis in the charedi world are not operating from the rationalist perspective that is the legacy of Maimonides and the great Torah scholars of Spain). The few rationalist-oriented rabbis who did study the topic, such as Rav Kook, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Rav Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of Chazon Ish) and Rav Aryeh Carmell, concluded that evolution is compatible with Judaism. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was personally skeptical of evolution but saw no theological problem with it: "...If this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world... Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures." ("The Educational Value of Judaism," in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)

8) Doesn't evolution go against tradition?

No more so than the notion of the earth orbiting the sun. That was also rejected by many leading rabbis from the era of Copernicus through today. Yet most religious Jews have managed to come to terms with it. The same is true of evolution, which has become widely accepted by religious Jews with a strong background in science and/or rationalist Jewish theology.

9) But aren't there many secular evolutionists who use evolution to try to attack religious principles?

Yes, unfortunately there are. But this is an abuse of science; it doesn't reflect on the science of evolution itself. This, however, is why it is important for anyone teaching evolution to understand it properly.

10) You didn't answer all my questions and objections!

Of course not! Evolution is an immensely complicated topic, to which it is impossible to do justice in a brief article. Please see my book The Challenge Of Creation (available in Jewish bookstores and at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org) for a very detailed discussion

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Monday, October 12, 2020

The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs

"One day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. He found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it. But inside, he found nothing; and no longer did he have a goose to lay golden eggs."

When Aesop composed this fable, he must surely have had the Kanievsky family in mind. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, renowned for his extraordinary dedication to Torah study, is promoted as a miracle worker. People are desperate to receive his magical blessing of "Booah!" (short for Bracha V'Hatzlacha), which they interpret as prophetic guidance and divine blessing. His family, especially his dishonorable grandson Yanky, milk him for all he's worth. After all, manipulating him is extremely easy (due to his advanced years), and it's lucrative. Controlling Rav Chaim brings the golden eggs of both power and money.

Kupat HaIr, a charitable organization famous for its manipulation of people, recently hit upon a new scheme involving Rav Chaim. As they write on their website, the pandemic has made everyone very fearful for their health. "Many of us would pay any sum of money for a tested, confirmed protection from this terrible situation." Well, they are offering such protection for just 277 shekels! It's a leaf from the aravot that Rav Chaim beats with on Hoshana Rabbah!

(Of course, this does raise some questions, such as how can the Kupa can be aiming for 1000 such donations when there are surely not that many leaves on his aravot bundle. Not to mention that the fact that there is absolutely no reason to believe that an aravah leaf confers any benefits at all, let alone being a "tested, confirmed protection." And it's a bit rich to make such a claim when Rav Chaim's special qualities weren't even adequate to save he himself from corona! Not to mention that it's a very bad idea to get a leaf that was held by someone confirmed to be carrying the virus!)

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the desperation and fear that it created made Rav Chaim's magic guidance and blessings all the more valuable. Rav Chaim's family wanted to get as much gold as possible. While most people sought to protect their elderly, at-risk relatives from coming into contact with potential virus carriers, Rav Chaim's family kept on exposing him to potential carriers, all the while spreading promises of protection.

Inevitably, Rav Chaim eventually contracted Covid-19. You'd think that at this point, his family would finally treat him appropriately. But no! They trotted out this 92-year-old Covid-19 patient to sit at a two-and-a-half hour Simchat Beit HaSho'eiva, with a live broadcast. Rather unsurprisingly, he collapsed in the middle. We can only hope that he will survive his family's attempts to extract as much gold as possible.

As I've said before, you can't only blame Yanky Kanievsky for this terrible exploitation of an elderly man in order to wreak damage upon the Jewish People. He's only able to do it because there's a willing audience for it. The responsibility lies with everyone who places Rav Chaim's "guidance" and blessings upon a pedestal on which they do not belong.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Chassidic Coronavirus Policy

As the pandemic proceeds, a clear pattern of behavior can be seen among many (though not all) chassidic groups, which also extends to certain parts of the Lithuanian charedi community, of ignoring all coronavirus restrictions and guidelines. It's gotten to the point that it's actually been explicitly described by chassidic spokesmen as a deliberate, planned strategy, incorporating assessing all the data and statistics. (Though personally I think it's far more likely to be an ad hoc justification, not a planned strategy; careful strategic planning, with input from experts, just doesn't happen in those circles.) 

Charedim are already more vulnerable to coronavirus, due to their living in high-density communities. With the addition of a policy to ignore precautions, the infection rates have soared. Per capita, they have five times more cases than the general population, and despite being only 12% of the population, they currently account for 45% of all cases. 

So, what is the basis for their policy? We've already seen a "psak halachah" from Rav Moshe Shaul Klein of Bnei Brak. Now there is also a very revealing interview with Rav Pinchas Friedman, head of the Belz Kollel network, who is much more explicit. And his position is not entirely unreasonable.

Rav Friedman begins by saying that he is not giving his opinion on what other communities should do. He is only presenting the position of Belz. Which is that the chassidic way of life is of paramount importance. Their entire lifestyle is based on people crowding together, especially around the Rebbe, in the Shul and Beis HaMidrash. If they have to sacrifice a very small number of people to maintain their culture, so be it.

He makes the valid point that Judaism does maintain that there are things more important than human life. One is required to sacrifice one's life rather than transgress the three cardinal sins. At a time of religious persecution, one is required to sacrifice one's life rather than wear non-Jewish clothing! So at a time of great threat to their way of life, with a risk of youth dropping out of their system entirely, they can risk a very, very small number of victims.

I don't personally agree with how they perform this cost/benefit analysis. But I don't think that it's inherently problematic. More to the point, it's something that every community and society does. We don't always minimize risk to human life as much as possible. We all rate some things as being more valuable, even at small risk to human life. We have speed limits that could be substantially lowered but aren't. We legalize alcohol. Even bris milah is not entirely without risk. So I think that chassidim are entitled to choose to take a small degree of risk, in order to maintain their way of life.

Except.

Except that there are two problems.

First is that both Rav Klein and Rav Friedman claim to find it important to stress that the disregard for precautions is only insofar as the precautions interfere with Torah and prayer. Otherwise, they insist, it is important to observe the precautions. But we just don't see their communities actually stressing that. They don't instruct their followers to put on masks and try to socially distance when they leave shul or when they are shopping. (And it's hard to see how they can justify a maskless, crowded wedding as being an essential part of maintaining their spiritual lifestyle.) They don't show any concern at all for any precautions, ever. Why not?

I'm not sure of the answer, though I can think of several possible contributing factors. It might be that it's difficult to simultaneously fight against observing precautions in some contexts, and in favor of precautions in other contexts. It might be that they are only professing to care when it's in print, for PR purposes, but that they actually don't care at all, because of genuine or wilful ignorance. Or perhaps there is some other reason.

The second problem is that no community is hermetically sealed from the rest of the country. When charedi groups say that they are willing to pay the price for avoiding restrictions, they are also making other people pay the price. Disregarding the rules means more rapid exposure of more people, some of whom will get sick enough to require hospitalization. They have already begun to overwhelm the medical system. Which means that people beginning chemotherapy aren't getting it. And others who would ordinarily be admitted to hospital have no place to be admitted to, and there are insufficient doctors and nurses to deal with everyone. That means people dying. With certainty. 

There is blatant disregard for the rest of the population of the country. Of course, this is nothing new - this lack of "Klal Yisrael consciousness," as Yonasan Rosenblum calls it, is a defining feature of charedi society. It exists with the charedi avoidance of the military draft, the disregard for their effects on the economy, and even their lack of concern to move Lag B'Omer from motzai Shabbos to Sunday night in order to avoid chillul Shabbos for the emergency services. But with coronavirus, this disregard comes into sharp focus, causing illness and death, and national lockdowns which hurt everyone.

Unfortunately, there is no clear way to deal with this. You can't force hundreds of thousands of people to observe precautions. The only silver lining I can think of is that perhaps the harm caused by the charedi disregard for the rest of the country with coronavirus will incentivize people to deal with the long-term harm that the charedi community is causing to the national economy and the ultimate survival of Israel.

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Monday, October 5, 2020

A Serious Charedi Halachic Responsum on Covid and Torah?

Over the last six months, there has been enormous criticism over the claims from Rav Chaim Kanievsky (may he have a refuah shelemah) that Torah protects from coronavirus, which was employed as justification for keeping yeshivos open against government recommendations. Still, as I wrote, while the criticism is justified, it must be remembered that Rav Chaim himself is very old and very out of things. His five-word answers, drawn out of him by his manipulative family members, are not a serious halachic responsum, and even plenty of people in the charedi world acknowledge that.

In light of that, it is especially significant that a serious halachic responsum, on the topic of how much Torah protects against coronavirus, has indeed been published (you can download it here). It was authored by Rav Moshe Shaul Klein, widely considered one of the leading (charedi) poskim in Israel today, and is a leading member of Rav Wosner's Beis Din. Particularly significantly, he is the nasi of the Moked Harav International Halachah-Medical Hotline. An article in HaModia about the Halachah-Medical Hotline states that "Rav Klein is one of the foremost poskim today, and his knowledge in the medical field is amazing. He was a very close talmid of Harav Wosner, zt”l, and is known for his achrayus in psak." And so, while the charedi world is certainly not monolithic with regard to its approach to coronavirus, Rav Klein's responsum is extremely significant.

Rav Klein's lengthy responsum was published a few weeks ago, and begins by acknowledging the many, many people who have died of Covid. He notes that in general one must be very careful to engage in all precautions, and not to belittle them. But for praying in shuls and learning in yeshivos, things are very different.

Rav Klein's responsum primarily focuses on the application of the principle that shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim, "emissaries for a mitzvah are not harmed," and the related principle of shomer patayim Hashem, "God protects the naive." In traditional Talmudic style, these principles have questions raised against them from various scenarios, and distinctions are then drawn, such as that they don't apply when shechiyach hezekah, the source of harm is readily found.  After Rav Klein weaves his way through various Talmudic discussions which involve these principles, he concludes the first part of responsum by stating as follows:

"It appears that according to the situation that we see with the coronavirus, that at least 120,000 people in Israel were infected by it, and around 800 people died from it, and most of those who died were already sick (with other conditions) to the extent that any harm would disturb their health, and of the others who recovered, the the majority recovered completely, and only a small minority remained weak - this is certainly called lo shechiyach hezeka (no readily found harm). And there is therefore an obligation to open the synagogues and study halls and the yeshivos and kollels, for with such things it is said that shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim."

It is important to note that while arguments can be made about whether the costs of restrictions and closures (which are especially high to the charedi lifestyle) are justified by the low fatality rate of coronavirus, this is not the point being discussed in this responsum (at least, not overtly). Rav Klein is not arguing that the low danger of Covid is outweighed by the great importance of maintaining the shuls and yeshivos. Rather, he is saying that the danger of Covid, for people in shuls and yeshivos, is non-existent, because of shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim and other principles that we will later discuss.

Now, Rav Klein's claim that the situation is to be classified as lo shechiyach hezeka can be strongly disputed. His dismissal of the deaths of people with pre-existing conditions is deeply problematic, as is his dismissal of those who are sick but do not die. The Gemara (Yoma 11a) considers even mere financial cost to be hezeka. Certainly grave illness, let alone death, would be rated as hezeka.

But there's another point upon which I would like to focus, which involves three related questions:

1) What does shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim actually mean? 

2) What does Rav Klein think that it means? 

3) Has Rav Klein, who is using this concept to resolve a matter of life and death, ever thought about what it actually means?

Let's begin with the first question. What does shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim actually mean? Does it mean that someone involved in a mitzvah is never harmed? Does it mean that they are less likely to be harmed (and if so, how much less likely - 10%, 50%, or 90%)? Does it mean that they will be unharmed, unless they contravene conditions X, Y and Z - and if so what are X, Y and Z? Does it have any clear meaning at all?

As noted, the Gemara itself qualifies the concept, by stating that shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim does not apply in circumstances of clear and present danger. Rav Klein thereby concludes that where there is no significant present danger (which he considers to be the situation with Covid), then it does apply.

But what on earth does that mean?  Does Rav Klein believe that people learning in yeshivah or davening in shul are not harmed by coronavirus? Clearly, the evidence is otherwise! (And let's not forget about other lethal harm which befell people in the middle of Torah or prayer, in the Merkaz HaRav yeshivah and in the Har Nof shul massacre.) How on earth does he completely fail to at least address this question?!

In the same way as the Gemara comes up with the qualification that it doesn't apply when there is a clear and present danger, other people have come with all kinds of other ways to get around it. None other than Rav Chaim Kanievsky writes that if it's the person's time to die anyway, then he will die! He explains shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim to mean that the mitzvah itself won't be the cause of the person's death - it will only be the apparent proximate cause, not the ultimate actual cause.

In other words, if a person is learning in yeshivah and contracts a fatal case of Covid, or if he is davening and is suddenly shot by a terrorist, then it was not these things that led to his death in any way; rather, God decided that his already-preordained time to die should occur in this way. In Derech Sicha (vol. 1 pp. 99-100), Rav Chaim goes even further and claims that God does it as a particular merit for a tzaddik that his death comes about via the seeming cause of his doing a mitzvah, so that he can be said to have died being moser nefesh for a mitzvah. (This is odd, because according to Rav Chaim he was not actually moser nefesh for the mitzvah.)

Yet this explanation is deeply problematic. If people who seemingly die of Covid contracted while learning or praying did not actually do so, but are rather dying at their preordained time, then what of the people who contracted Covid while doing other activities? Are they not dying at their preordained time? There's a level where we say that things happen for ultimate, divine reasons. At that level, it can be said that we don't know the true reason why anyone dies. But there's also the real-world scenario (in which halacha operates), where people die due to accidents, murder, disease, and so on etc. Trying to selectively mix the two just doesn't work. 

Whatever qualification or rationalization is employed to explain why shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim does not apply in various cases, the bottom line, the facts on the ground, are that people engaged in a mitzvah are not harmed, except when they are. Do people not realize that the principle of shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim is something with absolutely zero effective significance? It's a nice aggadic concept, and one can create interesting aggadic questions and reconciliations with it, but it's not something that has practical effect which can be used in a halachic calculation to guarantee that people will not suffer harm.

Now, you might say, "But the Gemara uses this principle!" And the perhaps-surprising answer to that is that no, it doesn't. The Gemara never uses the principle of shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim to argue that people should engage in potentially risky endeavors. Every instance of this principle in the Gemara is the same: The Gemara mentions how people should not engage in certain actions which are risky; the Gemara then asks "But isn't it said that shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim?" And the Gemara answers that it doesn't apply in those cases, because there is a realistic risk. We have no idea when or even if the Gemara would ever actually apply it.

(It is true that at the end of Iggeret Teiman, Rambam invokes shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim when he urges that his letter be sent around despite the risks. But it is important to bear in mind that Rambam believed that his letter itself was urgently necessary to protect the Jews from dangerous persecution, and his invocation of shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim should probably taken as serving to convince his audience to distribute his letter.)

Later in the responsum, Rav Klein justifies his approach by invoking other Talmudic principles, such as that maan de'lo kapid, lo kapdinan - "if one does not take note of it, it does not take note of him." He notes that there were many things which historically were considered dangerous, and with which today we do not exercise caution, and the reason is the Talmudic justification (Pesachim 110b) of "if one does not take note of them, they do not take note of him." But the Gemara is talking about how in the Land of Israel, they were not concerned about the superstitious fears prevalent in Bavel! It's used as an excuse to explain why we don't care about demons or any of the dangers spoken about in the Talmud, in the light of the observable fact that no such harm from these things actually exists. It doesn't mean that when observable facts of danger do exist, one can immunize oneself from it by not caring about it!

In the penultimate paragraph of the responsum, Rav Klein addresses the issue of masks. He begins by stating that there is debate in the medical community as to their efficacy, and that in any case there is no empirical data showing that mask-wearing communities have lower rates of infection. He then adds that wearing masks has the downside of causing psychological harm from coronavirus anxiety, whereas those who don't wear masks merit divine protection (shomer patayim Hashem, ma'an delo kapid lo kapdinan), and if they are learning Torah, they are also protected via shluchei mitzvah einam nizokim. 

In his final paragraph, Rav Klein bemoans the spiritual harm caused by the shuls and yeshivos being closed. He urges everyone to strengthen themselves and return to mass-studying in the yeshivos, and to davven in shuls rather than outside. Astonishingly, he invokes the Talmudic principle of "Torah does not survive except in one who kills oneself for it." This traditionally meant that one should symbolically kill oneself, i.e. exert tremendous effort, to learn Torah. But he seems to be employing it non-traditionally and entirely literally! After all, he's not saying that one should exert tremendous effort to maintain Torah study while obeying restrictions - he is saying that one should go back the yeshivos, and literally take the chance of killing oneself! (And then, he proceeds to completely contradict this by saying that the Torah will protect people anyway.)

In any case, the final paragraph makes the real story clear. Rav Klein believes that the precautions for coronavirus - from closing yeshivos to even wearing masks - are so harmful to the charedi way of life that they should be disregarded. He doesn't believe that the dangers of coronavirus are serious enough to outweigh this, and so he devises a way to halachically back up that foregone conclusion. And his way of doing so requires him to make claims that he probably himself doesn't believe.

There are two points that I'd like to make about all of this (and probably many more that could be made). One is that this responsum, written by a senior posek occupying an important role with regard to Torah and medicine, shows that while there are respected rabbinic voices in the charedi world (such as Rav Asher Weiss and Rav Yitzchak Berkovits) who call for a cautious approach, and there are plenty of people in the charedi world who follow all precautions, there is certainly a significant problem of charedi rabbis justifying disregarding the risks and not taking precautions. The picture on the right shows meetings between Lakewood roshei yeshivah and Agudah officers, discussing how to fight the coronavirus restrictions - while meeting indoors, without distancing or masks.

The second point to be noted is that a lengthy and purportedly serious responsum, by someone considered one of the foremost poskim in the charedi world, and a particular expert in Torah-medical issues, is very, very problematic. It's one thing to be a non-rationalist with regard to issues of no practical significance, such as with regard to writing drush, or considering questions regarding the age of the universe. It's very different to be a non-rationalist when one is making actual practical decisions regarding life and death. To blithely employ principles about people engaged in mitzvot not being harmed, without dealing with the fact that this is observably not true, is appalling.  

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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Who By Suicide

"On Yom Kippur it is sealed... Who by water... who by fire... who by plague..."

Why doesn't this famous prayer mention "who by suicide"? Perhaps because, like murder, suicide is subsumed within the other categories. Perhaps because it is dependent on personal choice, rather than Divine decree. And perhaps because it is extremely rare.

Most of us don't want to suffer, and certainly not to die. When suicide does happen (and there have been several such terrible tragedies in my home city this year), it is something that is obviously related to serious psychological difficulties. The natural inclination of all living things is for self-preservation.

How, then, can we explain the attitude of many people to coronavirus?

I'm not necessarily talking about the issue of refraining from important economic or other activities. There are certainly good arguments to be made in both directions regarding the long-term effect of various restrictions on human welfare. (And human welfare is far more complex that just counting how many people could die from Covid-19.) I'm talking about even very simple things, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, which are likely to prevent the virus, and which come at virtually no cost. And yet, there are countless people who don't bother with it. 

At an individual level, it can perhaps be explained by laziness or foolishness. But how do we explain it at a communal level? There are entire communities, particularly in the chassidic and wider charedi sectors, in which there is little or no sense of any need to take preventative action. (The picture here is from the notorious Belz wedding.) Why is that the case?

As I've written on several previous occasions, when people act in a certain way, it's not enough to just dismiss it as "crazy" or "evil." There is a reason why people act that way, even if it's a bad reason, and it's important to understand what it is.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, I wrote a post titled "Understanding the Charedi Response to Coronavirus." I suggested three reasons as to the lack of concern in the charedi community. 

The first was that as a relatively isolated community, they are less in tune with the news and mood of the wider world, and their reactions to events lag behind the rest of us. Clearly, this is no longer applicable.

Another suggested reason was that as an anti-rationalist community, they are suspicious of scientific authority. In light of the countless deaths from coronavirus, this is certainly less applicable (though I have heard of Jews in the US, even people who have lost family members, who still believe that it is some sort of hoax).

The third reason that I gave was that as a community based around a siege mentality, charedim are unreceptive and suspicious of guidance and regulations coming from the government. I think that this is more true than ever before.

There's a lot of well-earned distrust of the government, in Israel as well as other countries. But for some people, it takes on an additional dimension. In the United States, where there a strong (and largely anti-Torah) emphasis on personal rights, this affects how some people react to mask-wearing and other such enactments. In the charedi community, it strengthens the siege mentality and tribalist tendencies.

An article in Ha-Aretz seeks to relate the charedi community's coronavirus response to its general approach. Somewhat misleadingly titled "Why Haredi Willingness to Contract COVID Could Bankrupt Israel," the subtitle more accurately states "The coronavirus is the latest example of a long-term act of self-destruction." The article details the depressing reports about how elements of the charedi community frequently try to reduce or ignore coronavirus restrictions, and the even more depressing reports about how the charedi community is causing economic ruin by their low participation in the professional workforce. The linkage that it draws between the two is that both reflect a willingness to engage in self-destruction.

No community wants to engage in self-harm. But the charedi community nevertheless engages on such a path, with both coronavirus and economic functioning. Unfortunately, the more that they are pressured to break out of such behavior, the more likely it is that they will see it as a challenge to their identity, triggering a siege mentality which causes them to actively find tribal meaning in it. Many people won't die for nothing, but they will die for a cause, even if that cause is only standing up for one's own identity in face of opposition. This makes efforts to solve the problem particularly difficult.


  • In addition, there has been an uptick in people sharing Dennis Rancourt's pseudoscientific paper titled "Masks Don't Work." Here is a detailed rebuttal that I found, which exposes Rancourt's distortions

Why I Can Never Be A True Rationalist

At the start of the millennium, I was in a pretty low place, in a variety of ways. I had recently been tasked by a certain outreach organiza...