Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Why Did God Send The Coronavirus?

Why did God send the Coronavirus? Several people have been confidently sharing their knowledge about this.

Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, for example, insists that it's clearly a punishment for the evils of the Internet. (Incidentally, he's not even referring to pornography - he says that he's talking about how if something "not nice" is occurring in one place, it is reported all over the world. One rather suspects that he is referring to blogs that blow the whistle on rabbinic abuse.) His "proof" is that the evils of the internet are something that the older generation should have been more vigilant about - and so it is middah keneged middah that the older generation are more susceptible to coronavirus.

Yet if there's anything that's obvious from the current situation, it's that the Internet has been helpful in combating the pandemic and its effects. It's via the Internet that people were alerted to the dangers of coronavirus, and it's via the Internet that people have been able to continue their jobs and their Torah study at home. In fact, it was precisely those communities which didn't have internet that were most badly affected. So, aside from Rav Wachtfogel's explanation being distasteful, I think that in contrast to him claiming that it's obviously true, it's plainly wrong.

Many other rabbis, including some with much broader followings than Rav Wachtfogel, have claimed in more general terms that coronavirus serves to humble man. They say it should remind us of the limitations of science and technology.

Personally, I think that this also gets things backwards.

Let's consider the Destruction of the Temple. There are all kinds of sins that are described as being the cause of the Destruction. But Rambam, in his letter to the Jews of Marseilles, says something seemingly very different:
This is why our kingdom was lost and our Temple was destroyed and why we were brought to this; for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry, as we have made clear in Laws Concerning Idolatry. They erred and were drawn after them, imagining them to be glorious science and to be of great utility. They did not busy themselves with the art of war or with the conquest of lands, but imagined that those studies would help them. Therefore the prophets called them “fools and dolts.”

Rambam, following the rationalist approach, held that there is no such thing as spontaneous reward and punishment, which God each time chooses to insert into the world. Rather, the mitzvot are the path to intellectual, moral and societal perfection, while aveirot detract from that. To the extent that there is reward and punishment, it is the natural consequence of one's actions. Thus, Rambam's view is that the people were pursuing astrology - which he explains to be the root of idolatry - and as a natural consequence, did not engage in the material, worldly efforts that would have helped them have a defensible kingdom. Rambam is not arguing with the idea that the Destruction was a punishment for idolatry; rather, he is explaining what, in his view, this actually means. They lost because they were militarily weak; and they were militarily weak because they focused on bad theology rather than on genuine wisdom.

I think that Rambam's view fits perfectly with what we are seeing today. It does not require any special insight to see what the entire world is relying on, what is helping, and what will finally end this mess.

It's medical science.

In contrast to the rabbis claiming that this pandemic teaches us to lower our respect for science, I think it clearly teaches us to raise our respect for it. We are relying on medical science to help us know which dangerous behaviors to avoid. People who contract coronavirus are being helped by ventilators, medications, and other results of medical science. And we are all awaiting medical science to develop better cures and a vaccine. Nobody is expecting this to be like the Black Death, or the various plagues of cholera or smallpox, precisely because of modern science.

To this, one could add that the entire problem has been exacerbated by a lack of taking medical science into account. As the Sages say, "Who is wise? He that foresees that which will happen." There have been various experts warning about the risks of a global pandemic, or even about the basic shortage of medical equipment and hospital beds in various countries, and the people in charge didn't listen to them (which in turn is partly the fault of the general public for not caring enough).

So, following Rambam's approach to the Destruction, here we would say similarly. There's no need to view it as a punishment, in the popular understanding of the concept, but rather to see the consequences of ignoring God's laws of the universe. We've learned, the hard way, that we need to be better planned for the future. And we've learned, the hard way, that we need to care much more about advances in medical science.

May all the sick recover; may all those who have suffered losses find solace. And may all of us who survive, care enough to live more wisely in the future.

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A reminder: Coronavirus has not stopped the Biblical Museum of Natural History from inspiring and educating people! We've been running live online tours for the last week, and they've been fantastic! As well as a brief "Highlights" tour, we also have six in-depth tours of different halls. You can sign up for our Pesach tours at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live. Please share the word!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Kezayis Post

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link.


Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - exploring why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should aim to eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night.

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.


Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in the charedi polemical journal Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

The Kezayis Revolution - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Finally, two notes regarding The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

First, coronavirus has not stopped us from inspiring and educating people! We've been running live online tours for the last week, and they've been fantastic! You can sign up for our Pesach tours at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live. As well as a brief "Highlights" tour, we also have six in-depth tours of different halls.

Second, we are really looking for people who support our goals of educating the entire spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world, and who want to be part of our mission. To join the museum as a patron, please see http://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/support/ for details. We can now arrange tax-deductible donations in Israel, the UK and Canada, as well as the US. For easy online donations, please click this link. Thank you for supporting our mission!

Friday, April 3, 2020

Who Caused the Death by Daas Torah?

It's horrific. A top health official estimated that nearly 40 percent of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak - around seventy-five thousand people - have contracted coronavirus. Per capita, its infection numbers are four times higher than the next most infected city, Jerusalem. The government met last night to approve a full, military-enforced closure on Bnei Brak.

As I wrote in my post Understanding the Charedi Response to Coronavirus, there are several factors responsible for this, to which one can add the overcrowding of the city. But one significant factor is that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Rav Gershon Edelstein and other sources of "Daas Torah" told the yeshivos to stay open until just a few days ago, when they did an abrupt about-turn. Rav Chaim Kanievsky had infamously stated on March 12th that closing the yeshivos is more dangerous than coronavirus, since yeshivos actually protect against it.

It's a shocking thing for believers in Daas Torah to accept. It's not just that Torah turns out not to protect against coronavirus. It's that the mouthpieces of Torah, the living embodiments of Torah, the guiding lights of the community, gave utterly disastrous guidance, with fatal consequences. As I pointed out in my post "The Death Of Daas Torah," what is "Daas Torah" worth, when the average non-charedi, non ben-Torah, was correct, and Daas Torah was wrong, in a life-and-death matter?!

Unsurprisingly, my post made a number of people deeply uncomfortable. After all, it undermined their entire worldview. They attempted various counterarguments, which I would like to address here.

The first counterargument given is that it wasn't known to anyone at that stage that coronavirus was so dangerous. Yet this is simply false. True, it wasn't as scary as it later became, but at that point there were already countless cancelled events and municipalities petitioning for a national unity government in the face of a national emergency. And it's not as though he retracted it a few days later - when the entire national school system shut down, he still did not retract.

The second counterargument is that although others knew at that stage, Rav Chaim didn't, since he leads such a sheltered life, and so his response was understandable and legitimate. There are a number of responses to be made to this.

First is that he certainly knew it wasn't something utterly insignificant. He was being besieged by questions from important figures in the charedi world. And he didn't rescind it until long after the American Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah had already said that yeshivos should close.

Second is that not only did he know that it was a serious issue, he also knew (or certainly should have known) that it could potentially become even more serious. It is therefore grossly irresponsible to release a blanket statement, that it would be more dangerous to close the yeshivos, with no conditions in the statement, and no monitoring of the situation.

Third is that even if the extent of the danger of coronavirus was thought to be much less, his response was still wrong. No, yeshivah studies do not protect from any level of contagion. The nature of contagious diseases is that they are spread by crowded situations. Yeshivah studies do not - and did not - prevent the initial coronavirus scenario from developing into the much more serious situation that we have today; instead, they helped that to happen.

Finally, there are those people who, instead of commenting on whether this is true or not, say that it is Lashon Hara, that it is Wrong to talk about such things right now. To which I say, it is exactly at this time that there is an opportunity to get people to realize that they should be making sensible decisions with their lives in all areas and not abdicating responsibility to an utterly broken and lethal system of leadership.

It's important to keep in mind that all this is not necessarily Rav Chaim's personal responsibility. After all, he is very isolated, very old, and probably no longer entirely sound of mind. And he is certainly manipulated by his handlers, including his notorious grandson. But it's even more damning that the words of such an isolated and elderly figure, who is obviously constantly manipulated, could be taken so seriously! The fact is that his words had tremendous and terrible influence. It's an appalling demonstration of the utterly broken notion of authority that exists in the charedi world.

Who is responsible for the fact that the guidance of someone who was not fit to give guidance was taken so seriously? That's not Rav Chaim's fault. That's the fault of everyone who has promoted the status of Rav Chaim Kanievsky as being the "Sar HaTorah" and the "Gadol HaDor" whose guidance must be treated with great reverence.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post entitled "Mishpachah, Gedolim and Decisions." It's shocking to see how prescient were my concluding words: "There are countless people who make decisions that are, at best, ill-informed, and at worst, life-threatening, because they have been led to believe that Rav Chaim Kanievsky and others like him should be making the decisions for them. Anyone who contributes to the myth of his Daas Torah shares responsibility for that."

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On a more positive note, this Chol HaMoed you can safely still have the traditional Chol HaMoed zoo experience - with Torah insights! Join the live online tours of the Biblical Museum of Natural History - see details at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live

 

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Check the Date...

I have to clarify that the previous post was an April Fool's joke. Apologies to those who didn't realize!

The Most Unthinkable Neighbors

I don't know whether to be dismayed at this or thrilled.

As you know, the Biblical Museum of Natural History recently moved into its new home. We have about fifteen thousand square feet of space which, as enormous as it is, is not the entire building; we are currently occupying the upper floor (hopefully one day we will acquire the whole building). The lower floor was leased out for a commercial showroom. However, I just discovered that due to coronavirus, the showroom owner (a fervent charedi) has given up on opening his showroom there. Instead, he is sub-leasing the space to a yeshivah - and not just any yeshivah, but Toras Moshe!

That's right, Toras Moshe, the anti-Zionist, anti-science yeshivah of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. That's the Rabbi Meiselman who was my most fervent opponent during the controversy over my books, and who wrote an 800 page book in an attempt to discredit my work. And now he's going to be my downstairs neighbor!

Did he not know that I am the director of the museum upstairs? Or does he know, and he doesn't care? Perhaps he even plans to somehow disrupt the museum? I mean, we don't exhibit any of the prehistoric dinosaurs that he firmly evades confronting, but we do have other exhibits that may bother him. For example, in our Hall Of Wonders, we exhibit some animals that are not in the Torah but are an example of the most extraordinary of God's creations, such as the duck-billed platypus. But according to Rabbi Meiselman, the platypus is in the Torah!

Someone suggested that maybe he has changed his mind and is now accepting of modern science and rationalism. But there are some things that are just impossible to believe.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Some Reassuring News About Coronavirus

There are a number of reassuring items in the news that I would like to share. But first, some sad news; I was extremely upset to learn that my friend R. Tzvika Ryzman of Los Angeles has been hospitalized with severe coronavirus. Probably some of you have seen his fascinating emails/sefer "Ratz KaTzvi," and he also (naturally) dedicated the tzvi exhibit at the new Biblical Museum of Natural History. Wishing him, and all the other sick, a refuah shelemah.

I should also mention that sharing any good news about coronavirus does not mean that one should relax the restrictions. On the contrary; it's largely thanks to the restrictions that there is any good news to report. (And I wish to again clarify; in my first, very naive post on this topic, I predicted that the restrictions wouldn't last long. But I never said or meant that one should not observe them!)

So onto the reassuring news. First of all, all of us were horrified to learn that over ten thousand people have died from coronavirus in Italy. Well, it turns out that this is not true. Yes, over ten thousand people have died in Italy over the last few months, and they had coronavirus. But Italy has a population of over 60 million people, some of whom naturally suffer from various medical conditions, and many of whom are elderly. Due to the peculiarities of how Italy reports things, it was reported that they died of coronavirus even if there was a combination of factors involved, and even if just happens to be that they had coronavirus when they died of other causes.

Second: Israel is doing really, really well, from a health perspective. The mortality rate has been extremely low. The rate of new cases, rather than rising exponentially, is not rising at all! In fact, if you deduct the charedi population from the test results, the rate of new cases has actually been steadily dropping (I am mystified as to why this fact has not received more publicity). While the government is ramping up the restrictions on a regular basis, many of us are hoping that Bibi will recognize that it is time to differentiate between different sectors of the population. The government will hopefully place more effort in enforcing the restrictions on those sectors which disregard them (Litzman himself suggested quarantining the entire city of Bnei Brak), and it can soon start to relax them on other sectors of the population.

Third: There's lots of reassuring news about amazing technological innovations and logistical developments for fighting coronavirus. For those of you on Facebook, I have created a group called "Comforting News About Coronavirus." Join it at this link.

Fourth: Many people are wondering what they will do on Chol HaMoed Pesach if they are stuck at home. Don't worry, the Biblical Museum of Natural History has you covered! We are offering a number of live online tours over Chol HaMoed, including a six-part series that covers almost the entire museum in detail! You can learn more at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live. Please, please, spread the word, by sending this link to your community and friends!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Death of Daas Torah

"If one merits it, the Torah is an elixir of life; if one does not merit it, the Torah becomes a potion of death" - Talmud, Yoma 72b

It was only 24 hours ago that I wrote about the problem of street minyanim. And now, in a stunning turn of events, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein ruled that it is forbidden to davven in a street minyan or to hold yeshivah studies), and moreover that anyone who states that they have bitachon and makes light of medical directives is a rodef and one must report them to the authorities.

The reversal was inevitable. Coronavirus is sweeping through charedi communities like - well, like the plague. Although charedim form only 10% of the population in Israel, they are fully 50% of coronavirus cases. Bnei Brak has the highest per capita rate of infection in all Israel.

In part, this is not their fault - it's a result of their living in more crowded communities. But it's also because of the so-called rabbinic leadership in the chareidi world by Rav Chaim Kanievksy, Rav Gershon Edelstein and others. When everyone was shouting at charedim to close the shuls and yeshivos, Rav Chaim Kanievsky was enthusiastically quoted by Roshei Yeshivah as saying that closing the yeshivos is more dangerous than coronavirus, since yeshivos actually protect against it.

This may be the first time in history that someone widely seen as a Gadol B'Torah has effectively described himself as a rodef.

Now there will immediately be people protesting that one cannot blame Rav Chaim - he simply wasn't aware of the recent gravity of the situation. But everyone else was! Frankly, I couldn't care less whether Rav Chaim is personally responsible or not. The problem is not Rav Chaim, per se; it's with an entire society that considers him to be a "leader," and promotes him as such.

We all know about how, prior to the Holocaust, various rabbinic leaders urged their followers to stay in Europe. But this is something happening right now, for all to see. Everyone else was warning that the charedi approach would lead to death, but they didn't have "Daas Torah," so their opinion didn't count. Until Daas Torah suddenly came to the shocking realization that they were actually correct.

As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l said - if there is no Daas, then there is no Daas Torah. And as Rav Eliezer Melamed, shlita, said - "I don't consider (charedi Gedolim) to be Gedolei Torah... Gadlut beTorah necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions."

What is "Daas Torah" worth, when the average non-charedi, non ben-Torah, was correct, and Daas Torah was wrong, in a life-and-death matter?!

(Take a live online tour of the Biblical Museum of Natural History this Pesach! See www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live for details.)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The CoronaMinyan Problem.

This is not a post about why it is wrong to have illegal minyanim in basements.

Other people have already written about that with great vehemence. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz has minced no words, and has quoted Hatzola medics referring to people in such minyanim as murderers. I am pretty sure that nobody reading this blog participates in such illegal minyanim.

This is instead a post about why it wrong to have perfectly legal minyanim (in Israel), outdoors, with a two-meter separation between each person. Several of which I could see today from my home.

My esteemed friends Rabbi Scott Kahn and Rabbi Pesach Wolicki put it best, and I will paraphrase their explanation. When Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbos, Chazal prohibited blowing the shofar. When Sukkos falls on Shabbos, Chazal prohibited taking Arba Minim. The reason is that someone may come to carry these in an area without an eruv. But what about someone who won't do that? In fact, the vast majority of people won't do that!

The answer is that it doesn't make a difference. Chazal weren't worried that YOU will carry a shofar on Shabbos. They were worried that SOMEONE ELSE will.

Yes, you might be attending a minyan in which people are told to keep a two-meter separation. But you see how these things go. Inevitably, several people get closer, especially during kriyas haTorah (as I personally witnessed from my window). And it also gives endorsement to other street minyanim, which are even less careful. My mother was watching a street minyan from her window when rain suddenly started to fall, and they all ran inside the shul together!

Street minyanim, even safe ones, encourage unsafe ones. And for a community which is particularly suffering from a general lack of seriousness in social distancing - including various rabbis who have openly flouted the notion as being "foreign decrees" - it is particularly important to attest to the importance of public health. (Jerusalem and Bnei Brak have the highest infection rates in Israel.)

Not to mention that it also causes Chillul Shabbos. I was looking out from my balcony today and saw a police car drive to a street minyan. The officer was making his rounds of the minyanim, urging everyone to keep their distance (he could not legally instruct them to disband). This is what the street minyanim are forcing the police to do on Shabbos.

I would like to quote the Rav of my shul, Rav Menachem Copperman, from an email that he sent out twelve days ago (which seems like a year in CoronaTime), before the more recent restrictions:
With a broken heart and tears in my eyes, I would like to share with you one of the most difficult decisions, if not the most difficult, I have had to make in my time as Rav of the community, namely temporarily suspending all the regular minyanim in shul until Hashem has mercy on us and removes all sickness and evil decrees.

Over the last 24 hours, our rational and emotional thoughts have been in conflict with each other.

On the one hand, more and more people are contracting the Coronavirus and the dangers are growing; on the other hand, the Health Ministry has permitted gatherings of 10 people (even 20 in large rooms with enough space). Furthermore, as we know, tefilla betzibur never goes unanswered: 
"ומי כה' אלוקינו בכל קראנו אליו" (Devarim 4,7)
"אין הקב"ה מואס בתפילתם של רבים" (Berachot 8.)

And yet, I ask myself: how is it - especially in a time when we our tefillot are so vital and we need the gates of Heaven to be opened - that right now we could break our direct connection with Hashem, disperse the community and suspend the minyanim? How is that possible?

And then I was reminded of my uncle, a senior doctor and mohel, who was always very careful to wait a full week after the baby had recovered from sickness before performing the brit mila (following the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch), even in cases when the doctors said that there was no medical reason to delay the brit so long.

When people said to him that he was delaying and giving up too easily on the requirement to have a brit on the eighth day, and thus missing out on the mitzvah of “on the eighth day”, he would reply to them by quoting  what Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner (author of the Shevet Halevi) had said to him: “I am not being lenient in the mitzva of brit mila, I am being stringent in pikuach nefesh.”

In my humble opinion, this is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves today: anyone who reads between the lines of the directives from the Ministry of Health and understands a bit about the situation can understand that from a health standpoint there is a danger even in gatherings of less than 10 people and the correct way to halt the spread of the virus is to prevent gatherings of any size. The reason why the government is not doing this is probably out of wider considerations connected to concerns about causing panic among the general population and the serious damage to the economy that would result from a complete shutdown.

Therefore, taking into consideration the fact that there are likely to be many carriers of the virus who are asymptomatic and that tefilla betzibur is not an outright obligation from a halachic point of view, I have decided to suspend all minyanim in the shul and I ask every one of you not to endanger yourselves by attending minyanim which could chas veshalom put you in danger. This is not in any way about belittling the importance of tefilla betzibur, rather it is about being stringent about pikuach nefesh.

If in regard to desecrating Shabbat for a sick person Chazal said “Desecrate for him one Shabbat in order that he may keep many Shabbatot”, how much more so that we should suspend some minyanim so that we will be able to “daven in many minyanim” in the future.
It doesn't make a difference if you are personally practicing social distancing in the minyan. There should not be street minyanim during this period. Period.

(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.) 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Come Tour The New Museum - Online!

Our first live online tour for schools starts today! And if you'd like to join our first online tour for the general public, it is taking place on Thursday. Sign up now - write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org! And even if you're not joining, please help spread the word - share this announcement with family, friends and community!


Thursday, March 19, 2020

Understanding the Charedi Response to Coronavirus

It's extraordinary. It was just a few weeks ago that Rav Aharon Feldman was being "mevatel his daas" to Rav Chaim Kanievsky regarding voting in the WZO elections. Now, we have the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of Agudas Yisrael of America saying that Rav Chaim Kanievsky makes serious mistakes in his communal guidance.

Of course, they don't say that explicitly. What they explicitly say is that everyone must listen to medical advice and close all the shuls and yeshivos. But Rav Chaim Kanievsky famously stated a few days ago that closing the yeshivos is more dangerous than coronavirus, since yeshivos actually protect against it. The Moetzes Gedolei Torah of America are now effectively saying that Rav Chaim Kanievsky was completely, dangerously wrong.

There's been a lot of talk in the last few days about the charedi response (or lack of response) to coronavirus. I saw plenty of crowds while driving through charedi neighborhoods in Ramat Beit Shemesh. There were large chassidishe weddings here in Beit Shemesh, in which the invitations urged people not to take photos which could lead to prosecution. The Litvishe Yeshivos in Israel carried on as normal (which is only just now beginning to change). Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin, rosh yeshivah of the massive Ateres Shlomo network of yeshivos, is on video leading his students to sing "We will not listen to their (the health department) regulations." And even the statement of the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of America, as welcome as it is, is coming several days late.

Many people have responded by referring to the Gedolim or the charedi community as "stupid," "evil" or even "murderous." This is a mistake. As I always make clear in my talks and writings about the notorious ban on my books, people are generally not either stupid or evil. You have to understand their worldview and how it causes them to develop their approach. The opposition to my books was completely understandable, even if its expression in terms of a ban on the books as being heretical was incorrect and mistaken. Likewise, the severely deficient charedi response to coronavirus is completely understandable, when you understand the charedi world.

As I wrote in my monographs on the Novelty of Orthodoxy and the Making of Haredim, the chareidi community developed in the twentieth century based on taking to an extreme the Orthodox concept of communal segregation. They developed a siege mentality; in fact, the first time I saw the phrase "siege mentality" used in reference to charedim was in an article by none other than Rav Aharon Feldman about the Israeli Yated Neeman. Wider society, and especially the government, is the "other." Charedim separate themselves from the "other," and are suspicious of it. Likewise, they are hostile to secular knowledge, science and rationalism.

Coronavirus has challenged us with changes to our lifestyle that are unprecedented and which initially seem crazy and unthinkable. Most of us have made this rapid change because we have been strongly motivated to do so, by a combination of three things. First is the terrifying reports that we read online from Italy and elsewhere. Second is our trust in government authorities with regard to their guidance and regulations. Third is our acceptance of the basic underlying worldview of the scientific community.

Chareidi communities are lacking in all three of those. 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 (and in Corona Time, a lag of even a few days is a lifetime). As a community based around a siege mentality, they are unreceptive and suspicious of guidance and regulations coming from the government. And as an anti-rationalist community, they are suspicious of scientific authority. It's only to be expected that the response to coronavirus would be deficient - and that the American Gedolim, less insular than the Israeli Gedolim, would lag less far behind.

Meanwhile, the charedi community is facing complete and utter collapse. The global economic costs of coronavirus are going to be serious; for the charedi community, they will be catastrophic. Already, there is a video of someone asking Rav Chaim Kanievsky what to tell donors to kollelim who are nervous about parting with funds during these uncertain times. Rav Chaim responds with the assurance that the donors will make double of the amount that they donate, but this is unlikely to resonate with people who are also aware of Rav Chaim's previous assurance that yeshivos should stay open to protect from coronavirus.

Many charedim do not have meaningful employment, nor job skills, nor even see work as desirable. They live off government support and private donations, and these are going to be rapidly drying up. They need to make an immediate and drastic transformation to their lifestyle, and start training themselves and their children with the skills and desire for meaningful employment. This in turn will require their rejection of the insistence of the Gedolim that there is no correlation between secular education and parnasah.

The charedi community is going to need bailing out, big time. But right now, before the situation becomes any more dire, donations to charedi institutions should be made with a message to the recipient that just as hishtadlus (closing yeshivos, social distancing, etc.) has been necessary to protect from the virus, so too will hishtadlus be necessary going forward in terms of preparing our children and communities to survive in a world which now lacks the financial resources to support a kollel lifestyle. Which means difficult changes. It means teaching all our children the desire to work and the skills and education to get a job. It means the recipients acknowledging that the Gedolim were wrong about coronavirus, about Rav Chaim's leadership and about other things.

It will be very hard for many donors to insist on this, and even harder for many charedim to acknowledge it. But it's a matter of life and death - from coronavirus, and from poverty.

(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.)

Monday, March 16, 2020

Who Really Believes That "Torah Protects"?

Does learning Torah protect against coronavirus?

According to the Gedolim last week, absolutely! Rav Sholom Ber Sorotzkin, rosh yeshivah of Ateres Shlomo, went to discuss the coronavirus situation with Rav Chaim Kanievksy and Rav Gershon Edelstein. He was told that although coronavirus is dangerous, cancelling yeshivah studies is much more dangerous, since Torah study, as done in the yeshivah framework, is the greatest protection against sickness.

Since then, things have changed a bit. True, charedim are still congregating in larger numbers than anyone else, but they don't have Facebook or the internet, so it's understandable that they are less panicked. Meanwhile, Rav Chaim kept on being besieged by concerned rabbanim, politicians, and community leaders. And now, charedi yeshivos are dramatically changing their policies, changing from having hundreds of yeshivah students in a Beis Medrash to groups of no more than ten. And meanwhile, in the US, Agudas Yisrael (after some initial equivocating) is very open to canceling yeshivah studies. So much for "cancelling yeshivah studies being more dangerous than being exposed to coronavirus."

Of course, this is all too reminiscent of the fraudulent claim, frequently made, that Torah protects from terrorism and military threats. It's fraudulent not just because it doesn't protect, but because the people making this claim don't even really believe it anyway.

This was particularly well illustrated recently in a video of Rav Asher Weiss. As a rare person who is widely respected in both charedi and dati-leumi circles, he recently went to speak at the Hesder yeshivah in Sderot. During his talk, a siren suddenly went off, warning of an incoming rocket. Rav Weiss stopped and asked if the room was protected. After apparently being reassured that it was, he said, "We are studying Torah, and this is the best protection possible." It might have been convincing had that been the first thing that he said, but, tellingly, it wasn't.

When it gets real, most people, even charedim, even Gedolim, do not believe that Torah protects against military threats; that's why during the Gaza wars, the charedi yeshivos in the South fled. The same goes for coronavirus; as long as it's just a mild concern, they say that Torah protects, but as things get more serious, the yeshivos will empty. Nobody really thinks that Torah protects against sickness; that's why charedim make just as much hishtadlus as anyone else (if not more so) to get the best doctors when they are sick.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky might actually be different. He might be one of the few people who really does believe that Torah protects against both military threats and coronavirus. But then, he also believes that a dried pig's testicle, pulverized and ground up, will help a woman conceive (and you can eat the right testicle to get a son, and the left testicle to get a daughter). I record this not to denigrate him (and in any case, repeating someone's beliefs is not a denigration). Rather, it is to point out that he has a completely different worldview than most people.

Torah preserves us as the Jewish nation. But it doesn't protect against terrorists or disease. For corona, you need things like prevention, vaccines and doctors. For military threats, you need an army. Pretty much everyone thinks that way, even if they profess to believe otherwise.

See too this post: Practically Speaking, Torah Does NOT Protect.   

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Friday, March 13, 2020

Good News

Can't visit Israel? School cancelled? We've got you covered! 
 
At the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we will be starting tours in the NEW museum building next week exclusively for a very special type of person - those who can't come! We will be offering live online tours for schools and other groups who are unable to physically visit. More details will be posted soon; meanwhile, for details, write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org

Shabbat shalom!



Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Armageddon That Wasn't

If you're living in Israel, it certainly feels like the End of Days, especially this afternoon. First, there's the whole Coronavirus thing. Aside from the threat to life, this has basically shut down the airport and hotel industries, and an announcement this afternoon that all schools might close.

Then, this afternoon, there's weather which I haven't seen the likes of in the quarter-century that I've lived here. The unbelievable winds shook my car as I drove home; I stopped off a store and someone asked how my End Of The World is going. Right after I parked at home, the howling gale toppled a tree outside my house, entirely blocking the road. Then the power went out in the entire city.

There was also a power outage earlier today in the museum, and together with the unusually over cast skies, it felt like the Plague of Darkness. And I saw locusts, frogs, and wild animals. Though, come to think of it, I see those every day, so perhaps that wasn't significant.

But enough about the End of Days, let's talk about Armageddon.

I have to preface what I'm about to say by stressing that I utterly despise Donald Trump. He's like Yosef Mizrachi, but even worse. A while ago I was offered a chance to meet with him at an exclusive event, and I turned it down. Trump is a repulsive person (and I don't think that he's done much good for Israel either, practically speaking).

Yet I firmly believe (and it should be obviously true) that just as very great people can do terrible things, so too very terrible people can do great things. Recently I saw an ordinarily level-headed person write that in the next US election, he will vote for absolutely anyone who isn't Trump. This is irrational. However bad Trump is, it's certainly conceivable that there is someone who is a worse president. Just as, several years ago, a certain crowd was irrational in automatically hating absolutely everything that Obama did, so too other people are irrational in automatically hating absolutely everything that Trump does.

A case in point is the Armageddon that wasn't.

It's always easier to notice things that do happen rather than things that don't. So let's refresh our memories. A little over two months ago, the United States took out Iran's major general Qasem Soleimani.

Do you remember what many people were saying? They were convinced that World War Three was going to immediately break out. It was going to be Armageddon.

Now, I'm not saying that it was necessarily strategically wise to take him out. And it's certainly possible that there could still be negative repercussions. But it's not exactly looking like the Armageddon that people predicted is going to happen. Furthermore, it's not even as though they said that it might lead to Armageddon; they were absolutely convinced that it would. (Along with moving the embassy to Jerusalem, which they were also certain would set the Middle East on fire.)

There are three lessons to take from this. One is that End Of The World predictions often don't come true (in fact so far, there is a 100% failure rate). Another is to remember to notice the things that don't happen. And a third is to bear in mind that knee-jerk responses to the actions of people that you love or hate are not necessarily correct.


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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Israel is Doing the Right Thing

My previous post about Coronavirus was unfortunately misunderstood by many people, and the fault was entirely mine for not writing it clearly enough.

When I described Israel's requirement of quarantine for everyone entering the country as being "shocking," I just meant in terms of its significance and ramifications - I didn't mean that the government is making a bad decision. They are making this unpopular decision for very good reasons. The goal is to avoid a disastrous situation like that in northern Italy, where the hospitals simply cannot cope with the number of patients. (Read this shocking article to understand the ramifications of the mistake that was made there.)

The following diagram shows the scenario that Israel is trying to avoid, and what it is trying to replace it with:

Image 

Israel is under no illusions that it can prevent the virus from spreading. The goal of quarantine is to slow it down, so that it can be better managed.

As I wrote, I think that the mandatory quarantine will not last very long, for the reasons discussed in the previous post. Soon, the benefits that it gives will decline, while the costs will rise. The government itself said that it will be re-evaluated in two weeks. Of course, it could be re-evaluated any and every day. But I think it is likely that Israel will not require people arriving for Pesach, right before Pesach, to be quarantined. Meanwhile, the government is making a difficult but necessary decision, and it should be respected.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Happy Purim!

Two posts today - this is the light-hearted one.

Purim is a strange chag. Triangular ears (hamantaschen), and green people (Esther, according to the Midrash). It brings to mind... Elves!




Happy Elvish Purim!

It Won't Last. It Can't.


Image

Two posts today - this is the serious one.

The shocking news that EVERYONE entering Israel has to be quarantined for two weeks is leaving many people wondering what will be with Pesach. My guess: This requirement will not last long.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, it's too catastrophic for the economy to sustain for long. Second: Once corona starts popping up more widely among people in Israel - as will inevitably happen - there will no longer be a point to quarantine.

At some stage, corona will just be something that society accepts, because it's too costly to try to halt it - like cars. Cars cause a tremendous number of fatalities and accidents, but society is unwilling to live without them. Corona will just be accepted as a slightly more severe version of the flu - which kills hundreds of thousands of people annually - and life will go back to normal. Hopefully this will be before there is too much damage to the economy.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Writing's On The Wall

It was very exciting to have the museum name installed on the building this week!




We are working very, very hard, which is why I haven't had much time for writing this blog lately, and I am very behind with my emails. We very much hope that the Biblical Museum of Natural History will re-open in time for Pesach!  
 


Monday, March 2, 2020

Denying Reality - Again

In the previous elections, I wrote about the thousands of people who voted for Itamar Ben Gvir's Otzma party, even though there was absolutely no chance of it passing the electoral threshold (as it indeed did not). Many thousands of Otzma supporters are going to do the same again today. Some of them are simply in denial that they are throwing their vote away, succumbing to completely unrealistic fantasies that they will get enough votes to get in. Others claim that it's more important to "vote their conscience."

As I wrote last time, throwing away your vote in order to "vote your conscience" is just silly. The only reasonable excuse for ever encouraging people to throw away their vote is if the election results are truly insignificant either way, which is rarely anyone's perspective. The value of democracies is that you can influence the direction of the country. You can bring about good and prevent evil. You can encourage wise decisions and discourage bad ones. Yes, you have to compromise some of your values and work with people that you disagree with. But by doing so, you are able to exert influence on the bigger issues. You can prevent people from making well-meaning but foolish mistakes that can have absolutely catastrophic consequences. This is real life.

What's interesting about today's election is that many, many more than just Otzma voters are succumbing to completely unrealistic fantasies, and/or harming national interests for the sake of voting their conscience.

This is the third election in a year. At this point we can be very, very confident of how many votes each party will get, and what their leaders will and will not do.

And if there's one thing that's certain, it's that Benny Gantz does not have enough seats to form a coalition.

And if there's another thing that's certain, it's that Gantz and Netanyahu will not sit together in a national unity government.

You can despise Bibi all you like - and there are plenty of good reasons for doing so. But Bibi's unworthiness to be Prime Minister again does not make Gantz a plausible reality.

So, if we are to face uncomfortable truths, they are as follows: This is not an election in which you can choose between Bibi leading the government and Gantz leading the government. This is an election in which you are choosing between Bibi leading the government, and there not being any government.

Some very sensible people that I know have realized this. They utterly despise Bibi. They voted for Gantz the first two times. But at this point, they have come to terms with reality. And they see that it's better to have a functioning government than no government at all.

Another friend of mine sees things differently. He despises Bibi so much that he said he would rather have endless elections than another Bibi-led government. Well, that's his preference. But others, who don't want to continue with a paralyzed country, might see things differently.

Ideally, in a crazy election like this, there would be a party that has no values at all other than seeing a stable government, and would be willing to support whoever has the best chance. But there is no such party. So, in order to have *a* government, it's best to support a right-wing party, no matter what your politics.

That is the uncomfortable but undeniable reality.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Slander of "Mockery"

Rabbi Herschel Grossman first came to my attention during the Great Torah/Science Controversy. It created a crisis for charedi rabbinic authority, since, as Rav Aharon Feldman told me, "You've successfully made the Gedolim look like fools." (I sharply protested this, and replied that any degradation to their honor was entirely self-inflicted.) Rav Feldman's nephew, Rabbi Grossman, sought to restore the honor of the Gedolim by arranging for his uncle and other Gedolim to come and speak in Teaneck. (You can watch the result, in which Rav Aharon Shechter disparages myself and anyone who seeks to reconcile Torah and science, in a video that I uploaded at this link.)

Anyway, Rabbi Grossman is now in the public eye for writing a hatchet-job (it can't really be called a critique) on Dr. Marc Shapiro's famous book The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised. This was published in the charedi polemical journal ironically called Dialogue, founded by Rav Feldman and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. Dr. Shapiro has responded with an excellent take-down of Rabbi Grossman's article, in which he demonstrates how Rabbi Grossman displayed some disturbing shortcomings in ethical behavior (he corresponded with Dr. Shapiro under the pretext of asking him questions about an article that he was writing on the Ikkarim!), as well as completely distorting the purpose and content of Dr. Shapiro's book.

Of particular interest is how Rabbi Grossman accuses Dr. Shapiro of "mocking" several Rishonim and Acharonim. Dr. Shapiro, who was shocked at this accusation, goes through every example cited by Rabbi Grossman, and shows how in each case he was simply stating that which is obviously and clearly true.

For example, R. Grossman points to Dr. Shapiro writing that that Rabbeinu Nissim “puts forth the strange and original position that there is one particular angel before whom prostration is permitted.” Well, yes, that is indeed a strange and original position. And calling something "strange and original" (and worse!) has been done by many widely renowned Torah scholars about the writings of other, even more renowned Torah scholars. Likewise, in each of the cases that R. Grossman cites, there is no "mockery" at all.

So what is going on here? The answer is that when R. Grossman claims that something is "mockery," what he really means is "saying anything at all that lowers the prestige of the authority in question." Even when it is merely drawing attention to the obvious.

I've seen this phenomenon on countless occasions. I have been frequently told that my books "mocked" Chazal, by my pointing out that on three occasions Chazal repeated errant beliefs regarding zoology that were held by the greatest scientists of their era.

Why do these people describe such perfectly reasonable statements as "mockery"? One could suggest that it is because, in their eyes, great Torah scholars are, practically speaking, infallible and all-authoritative. Thus, anything which demonstrates otherwise is a blow to their honor; it is a short distance from that to describing it as "mockery."

But this answer is insufficient. Because the charge of "mockery" is often leveled even with regard to quoting Torah giants' own teachings, in cases where these are uncomfortable teachings that their sycophants would rather be excised from public memory. How on earth is that mockery?!

I think that the real answer as to why these people claim "mockery" is that they don't want to admit, even to themselves, that they are too weak to accept anything that even legitimately reduces the godlike status of their heroes - from which they drawn their own self-esteem. So they describe it as "mockery," in order for their accusation to appear to have merit, and for the other person to appear as the bad guy.

Of course, the innate hypocrisy in all this is that R. Grossman, and the Gedolei Torah that he reveres, end up degrading prestigious Rishonim and Acharonim in vastly worse ways than anything that Dr. Shapiro or myself have ever written. They effectively say that numerous Rishonim and Acharonim taught a view of Chazal that is so fundamentally perverted that it can be described as heretical and should be deleted from their history. Can there be any worse degradation of Torah scholars?!


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Saturday, February 8, 2020

Yoatzot vs. Lamdanim

Rav Aharon Feldman declared recently that "Yoatzot halacha are not good for the Jews." He gave two reasons for this. First is that (wittingly or unwittingly) they strengthen the cause of feminism, which often includes anti-Torah elements. Second is that since they are not lamdanim, they are not equipped to deal with serious halachic questions.

Do yoatzot strengthen the cause of feminists? Probably. But lots of things have side effects. Classical male rabbinic authority, for example, strengthens people who abuse such authority. The concept of religious leaders strengthened Eliezer Berland. The Gedolim strengthened Leib Tropper. Many good causes have unfortunate side effects - such side-effects do not necessarily prohibit the cause itself.

In his second objection, Rav Feldman claims that only someone with many years experience in both broad Torah knowledge and in the art of being a lamdan can responsibly deal with questions. He further claims that even though the yoatzot defer complicated questions to senior rabbinic authorities, they lack the skills and knowledge to know which cases require such deferral.

It is surely indeed true that broad knowledge and analytical skills are a great asset. Having said that, specialized knowledge of the subject matter is also a great asset - and probably even more significant. There can be no doubt that there are countless instances in which yoatzot halachah are more likely to get things right than the average rabbi (who would be consulted if no yoatzot were available), simply because they are more knowledgeable and experienced with this particular topic. Likewise, a yoetzet halacha is just as likely as the average rabbi to know when a question needs to be referred to someone higher up - and perhaps even more likely, since men tend to resist admitting ignorance. There is no shortage of examples of lamdonim weighing in on issues which are beyond their realm of expertise.

Besides, the value of being a lamdan - or perhaps, the definition of who is a lamdan - is overstated. Consider Rav Feldman himself, who is on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and surely is considered a lamdan. His infamous essay endorsing the ban on my books included arguments so weak and strained that many people were astonished that a Gadol B'Torah could write such things. This included his claim that a hashkafic viewpoint legitimately espoused by Rishonim and Acharonim, through to Rav Hirsch and Rav Dessler, subsequently became prohibited in 2004 to be held by anyone at all!

It gets even better/worse. Rav Feldman had claimed that the notion of Chazal being fallible in science was an aberrant minority view. Subsequently, I sent him a list of over forty sources espousing this view - most significantly, pointing out that it was the majority view among the Rishonim with regard to Chazal mistakenly believing that the sun goes behind the sky at night. Rav Feldman responded that since they were all saying the same thing, they count as one view, not as a larger number!

Perhaps one could argue that lomdus is indeed valuable and normally Rav Feldman is indeed a great lamdan, but he had his judgment clouded in that case by his desire to support charedi rabbinic authority in the face of it being undermined. Perhaps. But that would also cloud his judgment in evaluating the benefit of yoatzot halachah...


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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Does Our Existence Depend on the IDF or on Torah?

A few months ago, I posted an essay from Rav Eliezer Melamed about the importance of serving in the IDF. An anonymous commentator just submitted the following comment on an old post:
It amazes me once again that the author continues to hold by the common misconception in the Modern Orthodox community that while Torah learning is a mitzvah, serving in the IDF is a much greater one because Israel's existence depends on it. Does Am Yisroel's existence not depend on Torah learning as well? Is Torah learning not the basis of the existence of the Jewish people?

How many people can see the enormous fatal flaw in his argument? If you don't see it, take a moment to think before reading further.

Here goes!

Mr. Anonymous is committing the common fallacy of using the term "Torah" in an ambiguous way. Yes, Am Yisroel's existence depends on Torah learning as well - in fact, more so than it depends on the IDF (since the IDF only ensures the survival of Jews in Israel, whereas Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish People everywhere). However, Am Yisroel's existence does not depend on the particular Torah learning of charedi men who are currently receiving a draft deferral. There are plenty of other people learning Torah - including people who are in the IDF!!!

Now, of course you could also make the same argument about Israel depending on the IDF - that it doesn't depend on particular service of 40,000 charedim. Indeed it doesn't. But that's not the point. The point is that since in general Israel requires an army, and in general it is a mitzvah to participate and share this responsibility, there is no reason for charedi yeshiva students to get a deferral.


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Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Amazing Manna Segulah!

"Manna manna."
Were you inundated today with emails about the amazing segulah of saying parashas ha-man, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, because it is Tuesday of the week of parashas Beshalach? I was.

It's quite bizarre. Here is something that was allegedly proposed by a single chassidishe rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, two hundred years ago (though he never even put it in writing; it is only an oral tradition). All of a sudden, it is considered to be something that all Jews should do! (Though you don't even need to say it yourself - the Gedolim say that you can pay others to do it for you, for even better results!) This is especially odd in light of the fact that this is entirely inconsistent with the approach of the Mishnah Berurah, surely a much more mainstream work, as we shall see. (I am indebted to Rabbi Josh Waxman of the excellent Parshablog, from whose post on this topic much of the following was taken, with his permission.)

Some claim that the source for this is the Yerushalmi, but that's not quite accurate. The given source says כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו, "Whoever recites parashas ha-man, is assured that his sustenance will not decrease." Early sources, such as Seder Rav Amram Gaon, explained that it was recited every day, along with korbanos and a host of other things. However, he says, only select people do so; most do not, because they are too busy working! To quote:
זה המנהג הנכון לנהג היחידים אנשי מעשה. והצבור אין נוהגין כן, שלא יתבטל איש איש ממלאכתו אשר המה עושים, ומקצרין ואומר אחר סיום, קדיש. חזק.

Meanwhile, the Mishnah Berurah gives an interesting explanation of the daily recital of parashas ha-man:
פרשת העקידה - קודם פרשת הקרבנות. ויכול לומר פרשת העקידה ופרשת המן אפילו בשבת. ואין די באמירה אלא שיתבונן מה שהוא אומר ויכיר נפלאות ד' וכן מה שאמרו בגמרא כל האומר תהלה לדוד ג' פעמים בכל יום מובטח לו שהוא בן עוה"ב ג"כ באופן זה. וטעם לאמירת כ"ז כי פרשת עקידה כדי לזכור זכות אבות בכל יום וגם כדי להכניע יצרו כמו שמסר יצחק נפשו ופרשת המן כדי שיאמין שכל מזונותיו באין בהשגחה פרטית וכדכתיב המרבה לא העדיף והממעיט לא החסיר להורות שאין ריבוי ההשתדלות מועיל מאומה ואיתא בירושלמי ברכות כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו ועשרת הדברות כדי שיזכור בכל יום מעמד הר סיני ויתחזק אמונתו בה' ופרשת הקרבנות דאמרינן במנחות זאת תורת החטאת כל העוסק בתורת חטאת כאלו הקריב חטאת וכו':
משנה ברורה סימן א ס"ק יג
 "The parsha of the Binding {of Yitzchak} -- before the parsha of the sacrifices. And one is able to say the parsha of the Binding and the parsha of the Manna even on Shabbat. And it is not sufficient with mere saying, but rather he must understand what he is saying and and recognize the wonders of Hashem. And so too that which they say in the Gemara that anyone who says Ashrei three times every day is guaranteed that he will be a resident of the world to come, in this manner {that is, not an incantation, but understanding and appreciating this}. And the reason for the saying of all this is as follows: the parsha of the Binding is in order to recall the merit of the forefathers every day, and also to humble his yetzer, just as Yitzchak was moser nefesh. And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his food {/livelihood} comes through special Divine direction {hashgacha pratis}, as it is written {and understood midrashically} "and the one who took more did not end up with more and the one who took less did not end up with less," to teach that increasing effort does not help at all. And it is found in Yerushalmi Berachot that anyone who says the parsha of the Manna {others have here: every day} he is guaranteed that his livelihood will not decrease. And the {saying of the} Ten Commandments is in order to recall every day the standing by Mt. Sinai, and his faith in Hashem will be strengthened. And {the reason for reciting} the parsha of the sacrifices is because of what we say in Menachot: "Zot Torat HaChatat -- Anyone who engages in the {learning of} Torah of the Chatat is as if he sacrificed a Chatat {sin offering}, etc."
Thus, this is not a magic incantation, but rather a mechanism by which one realizes certain facts about the world and reinforces his emuna. The repercussions of such an internalization of these ideas will be all these great things. Note too that none of these sources speak about reciting it shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum. The recital of parshat HaMan once a year, on a specific day, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, is a mystical innovation that is completely at odds with the Mishna Berura's explanation. Furthermore, according to the Mishnah Berurah's explanation, it is pointless to pay other people to say it for you.

But can any of this reconcile with Rambam's rationalist approach? That will have to be the topic of another post. Meanwhile, with regard to the nature of the manna itself, see the post Manna and Maimonides.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Know-It-Alls About Israel

Among people I know (at least insofar as being Facebook friends), I've broadly seen two types of responses to Trump's "Deal of the Century" Peace Plan.

One group of people summarily rejects the idea of giving the Palestinians anything at all. Since they are "the enemy" and this is our land, we should not give them anything.

But none of these people propose what we should do instead. What's the long-term plan? Continue to rule over the Palestinians forever, without giving them the vote?

Another group of people summarily rejects the plan due to it not giving the Palestinians a fully independent state.

But none of these people propose what should and could realistically be done instead. How on earth can the Palestinians be given a fully independent state which will, in all likelihood, be used as a base for rocket attacks (and more) on Israel - with Israel politically restricted from responding due to the rockets being fired from civilian areas?

I'm not saying that I'm a fan of the Trump plan. My point is to demonstrate the weaknesses in the position of those who are so certain that it is utterly wrong, without acknowledging that their own position also has serious drawbacks. It's an essentially intractable problem with no good solution.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Correcting My Own Vaccine Error

In the previous post, I wrote about the importance of vaccinating against the flu, in light of the fact that it just killed my perfectly healthy 40-year-old cousin. I wrote as follows:
There's a common misconception that the flu just knocks you out for a week or two and that's all. It's important for such misconceptions to be cleared up. And especially in light of the new coronavirus from China, it's a good idea to always observe basic hygiene precautions (and even if you get vaccinated against the flu, the vaccine itself can weaken your immune system for a few weeks). Venishmartem me'od lenafshotechem.
I had added the sentence in parentheses (which I since removed) after someone had reached out to me to warn me that the flu vaccine is itself dangerous. This person is a Medical Case Manager (i.e. someone hired by patients to advocate for them in hospitals). She told me that "every serious case of flu" that she saw in hospital patients were of people that did receive the flu shot, and that the vaccine had weakened their immune system and caused them to be susceptible to contracting other strains of flu. I was concerned by her claim (though I did not go as far as to listen to her recommendation not to get the flu vaccine), and therefore I added the sentence in parenthesis. I intended that it would encourage people who have vaccinated to still take health precautions, but I realized that it might also dissuade people from getting the vaccine. So I decided to look into it further.

Well, I'm no expert, but it seems clear to me that the experts could not disagree more strongly! I asked an immunologist, a physician, and a biostatistician who does epidemiologic research. They were all emphatic that while the flu shot is no guarantee that one will not contract the flu, the vaccine does not weaken the immune system in any way. On the contrary; it stimulates the body's immune system to produce antibodies. I also looked online, and found the following at WebMD:
Getting a flu shot does not weaken your immune system and make you more likely to get the flu.
Getting a flu vaccine prepares your immune system for the flu.
A flu vaccine teaches your immune system to recognize that virus as a threat. While some people may still get the flu after having a flu shot, they'll probably have a milder form of the illness. That's because antibodies made in response to the vaccine can still provide some protection.
Some people may mistake the occasional, short-lived side effects of the vaccine (slight fever, aches) for flu symptoms. And the time of year people are most likely to get the vaccine is when colds and other respiratory illnesses are common. If you get the vaccine and then get sick with an unrelated bug, you may assume, incorrectly, that the vaccine caused the illness.
(See too this page at Harvard Medical School.)

So, I apologize for disseminating an error. There is no good reason not to get the flu shot, every year (unless, of course, the Kupot Cholim don't have it, which is unfortunately still the case with some Kupot in Israel). And hopefully we can prevent further tragedies. I have never heard a more tragic eulogy than the one I heard on Sunday, delivered by the eleven-year-old eldest son of my cousin. (I took a photo of his speech; click the picture to enlarge it.)

Meanwhile, if you'd like to donate to support my cousin's family, you can do so at this link. Thank you!


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