Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Black and White Problem

The charedi community has a tendency to extreme black-and-white thinking. Biblical figures are either holy righteous people whose spiritual level we cannot even begin to grasp, or utterly evil. Great Talmudic scholars are ipso facto also great theologians, great leaders, and possess moral perfection, while nothing of spiritual value can ever be learned from people outside of the Torah community. There is virtually no nuance.

Now, a lot of non-charedim look down on this way of thinking. But it is also prevalent among other Jews and non-Jews, especially in the USA as of the last few years.

People see everything in black-and-white, in extremes. The guy I like is a good guy, the guy I don't like is a bad guy. Bad people can't do anything good, good people can't do anything bad. People who do good things can't be bad people, and people who do bad things can't be good people.  

The Israel-UAE-Bahrain peace accords this week are a great example. While we were never seriously at war with these countries, and it's not great for them to get F-22s, the peace accords are certainly an enormously significant accomplishment - not least of which because, once again, entrenched beliefs of the global community about the Middle East have been shattered. And yet many people cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this tremendous success, because it was brought about by Trump. Conversely, because Trump brought about this success and has expressed great love for Israel, other people refuse to acknowledge any serious faults with him.

The same goes for pretty much every political topic. Many Republicans and Democrats heap scorn and disdain on absolutely everything done by the other side, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the problems on their own side. And this black-and-white extremist thinking is coupled with people exhibiting glee and triumphalism in pointing out every problem on the other side, even when it's something entirely insignificant, irrelevant, or a tragedy to be sad about rather than happy.

In a number of posts this year, whether regarding erasing women or mysticism or coronavirus, I've stressed the importance of understanding how other people view things. Aside from the tremendous value and benefit of maintaining some degree of societal unity, you can't effectively argue against a position if you don't understand why people take that position. And, by and large, people do have understandable reasons for the positions that they take, even if they are ultimately incorrect.

There are so many people who "just can't understand" how others could vote Republican/ Democrat. But is it really so hard to understand? With the differences covering so many areas, it's largely simply due to which things people choose to focus on, along with the fact that most people get their information on every topic from those who project a certain outlook upon it.

Unfortunately, as science has shown, people are biologically wired this way. Tribalism is genetic, part of how we evolved. We have an innate tendency to want to group everyone into those who are with us and those who are against us. And this is accompanied with a natural bias to see all the actions of those on our team as being good, and the actions of those on the other team as being bad.

But, as Judaism teaches us, our task is to rise above our natural, evolutionary instincts. And there are ways to do this. When you're confronted with a news story that confirms your personal good guy/ bad guy narrative, you need to be extra suspicious! Before sharing it with others, ask yourself if it's really true, and how you would feel about it if it was reversed. And if you can't understand how otherwise intelligent and good people feel about a topic, then try to understand it! And if you think that your team has everything correct and the other team has everything wrong, then it's time to re-assess. No single political/ religious worldview is perfect. Yes, some might be better than others, even extremely significantly so. But nobody is perfect.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy, successful, and intellectually nuanced new year! 

 

(The Biblical Museum of Natural History is closed for the lockdown, but we look forward to re-opening, and we will be returning with live online tours for people around the world after the chagim - perhaps also during Chol HaMoed, if there is sufficient interest. Please support our mission of inspiring and educating hundreds of thousands of people about Judaism and the natural world!)

Monday, September 14, 2020

Ghosts and Golems

There's a new book, A Jewish Guide to the Mysterious by Rabbi Pinchas Taylor, which promotes the most extreme examples of non-rationalist Judaism. Astrology, demons, evil spirits, ghosts, golems, magic, auras, extrasensory perception, reincarnation, mystical teleportation, astral projections, vampires, shape-shifting witches, and more. It's packaged along with criticism of mainstream science, ridiculous claims of science supporting magic, and promotion of pseudo-science such as extreme Creationist catastrophism. And it also includes revisionism of Rambam to be a closet or latent mystic.

Yet after reading it, I was pleasantly surprised!

To be sure, I didn't actually agree with pretty much anything in it. But the contrast to other books reflecting such an outlook was striking, in three ways. 

First was that Rabbi Taylor had no problem quoting respectfully from the full gamut of literature - not only rabbinic writings of all stripes, but also scientific literature and even academic Jewish scholarship.

Second was that he fully acknowledged the existence of alternate, rationalist approaches. 

Third was that he made virtually no attempt to delegitimize them! 

For example, while Rabbi Taylor presents all kinds of revisionist approaches with Rambam's approach to magic and demons, he acknowledges that there are those who maintain that Rambam did indeed reject these things. About the harshest statement he makes is that after acknowledging all the questions regarding the antiquity of the Zohar and bringing various apologetic responses, he concludes that to think that one can question its authority after it was validated by so many great Torah scholars "seems misguided." Which is hardly the standard non-rationalist approach - that there is absolutely no reason or right to deny the authenticity of the Zohar, and if you do then you're a heretic!

No, I wouldn't actually recommend the book to anyone (though I wonder if some of its readers will be more intrigued by the questions that he raises about the authenticity of the Zohar than they will be convinced by his responses). But it's a great lesson for other non-rationalists in how to do non-rationalism correctly. Just as rationalists can acknowledge the existence and heritage of a mystical approach, mystics can acknowledge the existence and heritage of a rationalist approach. It's so rare to see such a thing that Rabbi Taylor's work is a breath of fresh air!

 

Meanwhile, tours of the new Biblical Museum of Natural History are available until the lockdown starts. During the lockdown, we will be offering live online tours, including a full-day Yom Iyun. For more details, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org

Friday, September 11, 2020

Out Of Their Minds

The tensions between the charedi and non-charedi sectors of the population in Israel are very high at the moment. Charedim feel that the government is unfairly discriminating against them with coronavirus restrictions. Non-charedim feel that since the infection rate is much higher in charedi communities, they therefore need more restrictions. Add this to the simmering resentment over coronavirus in the entire country, and it's a powder-keg.

Yesterday, that powder keg exploded. Someone took a video of an utterly shocking incident at a train station, where some chareidi families were about to board a train. An Israel Railways inspector told them that they weren't allowed to board. "Charedim are not allowed on the train," he told them.

Naturally, this outrageous incident caused a national uproar. Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush (UTJ) fumed that "It is shocking to see how far the policy of incitement against the ultra-Orthodox permeates... I demand that the Minister of Transportation sort out the CEO of Israel Railways regarding the behavior of his employees. Shame!" Transportation Minister Miri Regev - someone with strong sympathies to the charedi community - was shocked and ordered an immediate investigation of Israel Railways.

The first twist then occurred. Israel Railways said that they had absolutely no idea who the person was. He wasn't an employee of theirs.

So who was it? The speculation was that it was some random person with a grudge against charedim. Not an Israel Railways problem, but still reflective of a general problem with anti-charedi hatred.

The next twist came when the real identity of the "Railway Inspector" was discovered.

You're not going to believe this.

He was an actor.

Hired by...

...the municipality of Bnei Brak.

Yes, that's correct. The city council of Bnei Brak were upset that a light rail line planned for the Gush Dan area is not slated to pass through Bnei Brak. So they decided to hire an actor to stop charedim boarding trains and create an outrage about discrimination against charedim.

This might be the most mindbogglingly stupid decision ever made by a city council. Israel Railways is furious over the defamation and has filed a police complaint. Journalists - including several charedi journalists - are fuming and have called for the officials of Bnei Brak to resign.

Strangely, the fuss seems to have died down quite quickly (possibly eclipsed by the news of a lockdown). But can you imagine if it were the other way around?! If the city of Tel Aviv hired a charedi actor to stop secular Jews from boarding a train?! The charedi MKs would call it a blood libel. There would be protests until the city officials resigned.

How does such an insane act get authorized? Only when people are so caught up in their own victimhood and their own tiny worldview that they don't think about the consequences of their actions.

I can't even imagine what proper teshuvah for such a thing would entail (and how do you ensure that everyone who heard about the incident discovers the truth?). But I hope it happens.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Unmitigated Chutzpah of the Daas Torah Defenders

It caused a public uproar and a political storm. It made all the newspapers in Israel, religious and secular. It even made it to the New York Times. 

I'm referring to the backlash to coronavirus czar Roni Gamzu, who had publicly criticized Rav Chaim Kanievsky after the latter was reported as giving a blanket statement that yeshiva students should not be tested for coronavirus. The charedi MKs and press were outraged - how dare Gamzu criticize Rav Chaim's leadership?! A planned visit by Gamzu to Bnei Brak was cancelled by the Bnei Brak municipality.

In a previous post, I discussed the nonsense of claiming that Gamzu is under any obligation to respect such decisions by Rav Chaim. But meanwhile, Mishpachah magazine claimed to have done an investigation and discovered that Rav Chaim had actually said no such thing. Instead, he had given a much more limited statement, that yeshivah students who had already been in isolation for two weeks need not be tested again. Accordingly, Gamzu apologized.

Aha! Charedim and Charedi-admiring non-charedim alike were jubilant, and expressed their great disdain for Gamzu and the non-charedi press for having believed the false report. "How dared they be so negligent in not checking their facts? How could they criticize such an important religious leader based on false reports?"

You must be joking.

Let's get a few things straight. It was the CHAREDI PRESS who first reported that Rav Chaim had issued the blanket instruction and who continued to report it. The report originated with Kikar Shabbos, and was happily picked up by other charedi news outlets. See the front page of Rav Aharon Shechter's newspaper Lehovin shown here, which reports that Rav Chaim said that yeshivos should not have their students be tested for coronavirus and should not rush to quarantine them, and ON THE VERY SAME PAGE slams the "intolerable chutzpah" of Gamzu for criticizing this absolutely authoritative guidance! (On the next page, Lehovin insists that "Listening to the Sar HaTorah, or other authentic da’as Torah, will never bring negative ramifications to its adherents." Yeah, tell that to the people in Bnei Brak who died of coronavirus - or to the Jews who died in the Holocaust because their Gedolim told them to stay in Europe.)

Why on earth should Gamzu be expected to disbelieve a report about Rav Chaim that is being spread by Rav Chaim's very own dedicated followers, who insist that everyone must accept it?! 

Furthermore, it's not as though there was any reason to doubt that it was true. After all, this is the same Rav Chaim who, at the beginning of the pandemic, urged that the Health Ministry be disregarded and the yeshivos not be closed, because "yeshivos protect from coronavirus"! In fact, compared to that terrible guidance (which is on video), his latest alleged guidance was much less serious!

In addition, it's not as though there's any practical way to find out what Rav Chaim really thinks about anything, short of meeting with him (which busy people should not have to do). With the utterly unprofessional and entirely broken system of leadership in the Charedi world, crucial decisions are made on the basis of "he said that he heard that Rav Chaim said a two-word response to a question about which the circumstances are not clear." There's no publicly available minutes of the meeting, no detailed written shailah and teshuvah. And they dare to criticize someone for getting it wrong?

For that matter, how is anyone so sure that the original report was indeed wrong? Maybe the Mishpacha magazine "revelation" was a cover-up? 

Such a thing has happened before. When Elior Chen, the worst abuser in the history of Israel, was arrested, a letter was publicized from the Gedolim (including Rav Chaim Kanievsky) attesting to his innocence. Naturally, this resulted in a public uproar, especially from the families of the victims. Kikar Shabbos reached out to the families and associates of the Gedolim who had signed, and these people expressed surprise and denied that such a letter existed; when they were shown it, they said that it must be fraudulent. Aha, the Gedolim had been framed! Alas, no. A neighbor of mine who had seen the letter and was horrified, wrote to Rav Chaim and asked why he attested to the innocence of such a terrible person, who was subsequently sentenced to 24 years in prison. Rav Chaim did not deny having signed the letter; he responded to my friend that he signed it because "his rabbis" signed it.

So if people can mistakenly/ falsely deny that Rav Chaim had defended Elior Chen, they can equally be mistaken or misrepresenting things when they deny that Rav Chaim had told yeshivos not to have their students tested. Not to mention that the fact of Rav Chaim having defended Elior Chen, and having defended his defense on the grounds that he was just following others, demonstrates all too tragically clearly how worthless his guidance is. 

The strange thing is, it's not as though I'm saying something that only a charedi-hating person would say. There's many, many people at all strata of charedi society who know all this perfectly well. They are entirely familiar with the fact that Rav Chaim is very sheltered, very old, very out of things, and completely manipulated by his horrible grandson Yanky and others who control him like a puppet. In fact, I would venture to guess that most of the movers-and-shakers in charedi society know this. 

So why do many of them express outrage when people criticize rulings uttered in the name of Rav Chaim, when they themselves know that "the emperor has no clothes"? I'm not sure. Perhaps they are embarrassed when others call attention to it. Or perhaps they want to maintain the illusion of the wisdom and authority of Daas Torah for situations when they want to take advantage of it.

Whatever the explanation, the facts are clear. Rav Chaim Kanievsky is an incredible masmid - extraordinarily, single-mindedly dedicated to Torah. At the same time, his directives regarding people, events and public policy are worthless. They sometimes go against all reason or are entirely corrupted (as with Elior Chen). Don't be surprised, and certainly don't be outraged, when his directives are criticized - especially when it's by someone like Gamzu, whose job entails caring about the wellbeing of others, and who, unlike Rav Chaim, is actually held accountable for getting things wrong.

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Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Dangerous Inciters

The video below exposes the danger of Rabbi Yaron Reuven and Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi by compiling some of their most inflammatory and dangerous statements. Please share the link with those who need to see it, such as kosher stores which distribute the CDs of Reuven and Mizrachi, rabbis affiliated with Agudas HaRabonim, Torah Anytime (which hosts Mizrachi's videos), and so on. (If you are reading this via email subscription, it could be that you will not be able to watch the video; you will have to visit the website to see it.) 

 

You can also share this YouTube link: https://youtu.be/1qK_-hv5LcA 

(When the video was originally posted, Yaron Reuven complained to YouTube that it was a copyright infringement and had it removed. However, someone pointed out to YouTube that it is completely permitted under the Fair Use clause, which allows for sharing brief clips from peoples' videos with the goal of exposing their danger. YouTube then reinstated it.)

Thursday, September 3, 2020

"How Dare He?!" How Dare You!

A number of people asked me to comment on the recent headline about Rav Chaim Kanievsky instructing yeshivah students not to be tested for Covid-19, so as to avoid having to go into isolation if they test positive. I wasn't interested in writing about this; I've already written several posts about how his claim that yeshivah study protects against coronavirus was wrong, dangerous, and led to sickness and death. And I also wrote about how the whole thing is a farce anyway, since Rav Chaim, notwithstanding his unmatched dedication to Torah, is old, cloistered, cognitively impaired, and completely manipulated by his devious family.

But the latest developments contain something new - not about Rav Chaim, but about prominent people in the charedi community. Professor Roni Gamzu, Israel's "coronavirus czar," naturally and correctly criticized Rav Chaim's directive as endangering the public. In response, the chareidi politicians and press were in uproar. How dare he criticize Rav Chaim?!

MK Meir Porush condemned Gamzu for his audacity in speaking out against the leadership of the chareidi community. The Israel edition of Yated Neeman had its headline story about rabbis protesting Gamzu's disgraceful criticism of the Sar HaTorah. "Dust in his mouth!" declared the HaMevaser newspaper.

The utter perversion of Torah here, on so many levels, is truly shocking. Beyond the problem with trying to avoid isolating contagious people, and the resultant sickness and death and economic hardship, and beyond the fact that the charedi community has a disproportionately high rate of infection, the idea that nobody is allowed to disagree with Rav Chaim's decision is completely absurd and has absolutely no basis in traditional Judaism. Since when is everyone obligated to defer to one particular rabbi, who was not appointed by any formal process?! 

And, of course, even more outrageous is that it's not even as though this is a proper decision by Rav Chaim. He is completely out of touch with reality and it's his disgusting grandson Yanky, the most powerful man in the charedi Litvishe world, who is pulling the strings. This is a system of leadership that charedi MKs and newspapers demand that everyone respects?!

I'm particularly angry about this because my own city of Beit Shemesh is facing imminent lockdown due to the high rate of Covid-19 cases - primarily due to yeshivos. And so aside from the sickness and death, there is also the economic harm. And then, of course, the charedi community will be even more desperate in begging the non-charedi community to support it financially - despite the fact that it is the charedi community which is a primary cause not only of its own poverty, but also of the economic harm to everyone else, as a result of the system of "Torah leadership" which they support. 

How dare they!

UPDATE: 

A Mishpacha article claims that Rav Chaim's position was taken out of context, and that he was only referring to students who had already finished a quarantine period. Whether or not this is actually true is impossible to know; the system of rabbinic authority in the charedi world is so unprofessional and broken that it's impossible to ever be sure what Daas Torah actually says. It is also not particularly relevant to the question of Rav Chaim's general approach to coronavirus (since he is already on video as saying that one should ignore Health Ministry recommendations and not interrupt yeshiva studies). And it is certainly not relevant to the point of this post, which is not about Rav Chaim, but rather about how the charedi community reacts to criticism of Rav Chaim. In fact, the Mishpacha article supports my point, as I shall now explain. 

Mishpacha condemns the non-charedi media for their disrespect in how they reported the story. Yet Mishpacha acknowledges that the charedi press reported Rav Chaim's position as stated - and it was the charedi press which was the original source of the story! Why on earth should non-charedim not disrespect a ruling which was being championed by the charedi press, which they had every reason to believe was true (and was consistent with earlier rulings that disregarded health risks), and which Mishpacha agrees would indeed be a terrible ruling if it was true?! In fact, it's only because of the scorn being poured by non-charedim that Mishpacha went to the bother of "clarifying" the ruling! So the non-charedi criticism of a "ruling" by Rav Chaim should be applauded, not condemned!

See too:

Daas Torah on How to Avoid Getting Coronavirus

"If They Only Knew How Much Torah Protects From Coronavirus..."

Who Caused the Death by Daas Torah?

The Corona-Kollel Connection

Yated Doubles Down

A week ago, I wrote a post about a letter signed by Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin which appeared in Halacha Q&A section of the US edition of Yated Ne'eman - a letter which the halacha editor had fabricated, based on a conversation that I had with him. I immediately wrote to the Yated, demanding a retraction; my letter appears below. They did not print my letter, nor did they print a retraction. Shame on them for doubling down on their falsehood!

To The Editor:

As someone who has written several letters to the Yated Ne'eman over the years which were not printed, I was very surprised to see that this week's edition featured a letter from me. It was particularly shocking, because I never wrote the letter!

Over the last few weeks I have been engaging in correspondence with my old friend Rabbi Daniel Travis about the theological question of whether one can donate money to yeshivos and have the reward for the Torah study transferred to a third party of one's choice. He told me that he would be responding in his Yated column. Little did I imagine that this meant that he would fabricate a letter from scratch and sign my name to it! No doubt he had the best of intentions, and I know that he is committed to integrity (and even thanked me in a book that he authored on the topic). But the fact is that this is a dishonest and unethical practice.

Furthermore, instead of accurately presenting my position, he misrepresented it in several ways. Most distressingly, he presented me as accusing charity organizations of acting with a lack of integrity, which I never did. Thus, he ended up committing a particularly unpleasant form of motzi shem ra; making a false claim about my character and pretending that I myself presented it!

Newspapers often edit letters to the editor for clarity and length, with an explicit advance notification to readers and letter-writers that they are doing so (which, incidentally, I did not see in your paper). But I have never heard of them creating a letter to the newspaper where none exists, paraphrasing and distorting someone's position, and signing their name to it!

It is deeply disturbing that such a departure from emes happened. I must demand that you print a retraction and apology, stating clearly that I did not author a single word in the letter that you attributed to me. Given the misrepresentation, it would be appropriate for you to allow me to write an unedited letter with my full views on this topic. And you should also clarify whether you believe that in general, it is acceptable to fabricate statements and pretend that they were written by someone, when they are actually only the Yated staffer's own (and potentially flawed) understanding of what the person said.

Sincerely,
Natan Slifkin

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

You'll Never Believe Who And Where

You will never, ever guess who wrote the following paragraph, and in which magazine it appeared:

A large and diverse community can only join together for common purposes on the basis of some shared values — first and foremost, that of respect for the right of others to think differently from oneself and tolerance for divergent views. Such tolerance starts with a recognition of one's own limitations and the unlikelihood that truth rests exclusively with one person or group.

So who wrote this, and where?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in a controversial sequel to The Dignity of Difference?

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times?

Ellen DeGeneres in Vanity Fair?

Nope!

The answer is...

Jonathan Rosenblum, in Mishpachah magazine this week! 

Incredible!

Now, it's true that Rosenblum is referring to the community of the entire United State of America. But obviously his words are also extremely applicable to the particular sector of Orthodox Judaism that Mishpacha represents, which most certainly lays claim to exclusive truth and has very little tolerance for divergent views. 

It particularly brought to mind the responsum from Rabbi Daniel Travis/ Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg (alas, it is impossible to know the true author) in which a person was told to disregard his father's dying wish to leave a donation to conservation and not to a kollel, and was told to give it instead to a kollel. This is based on the presumption that "we know better than him what he would really want to do with his money." Such an approach is the exact opposite of "respect for the right of others to think differently from oneself" and "recognition of one's own limitations and the unlikelihood that truth rests exclusively with one person or group." 

So, does Rosenblum secretly wish that the Mishpachah readership would also subscribe to the approach that he suggests for America as a whole? Or would he claim that only others should recognize their own limitations and the unlikelihood that truth rests exclusively with them, but charedi Jews do indeed have the exclusive truth?

Alas, there is no way to know. But either way, it's interesting to see such an approach promoted in Mishpacha as being desirable!

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Sunday, August 30, 2020

"Wasting Seed" - Differing Rabbinic Perspectives

What do rabbis have to say about the sin of wasting seed? Well, if you're searching the internet to find the answer, you're likely to come across the self-proclaimed leading expert on this topic, Rabbi Yaron Reuven. (As you may recall, we last saw him insisting that Hitler was justified in blaming the Jews for ruining Germany, and declaring that numerous widely-respected rabbis are heretics who deserve to be executed.) He is certainly obsessed with the topic of wasting seed, and has over thirty hours of lectures about it!

In a lecture that you can watch on YouTube, Reuven notes that the Talmud compares wasting seed to murder, and he takes this very literally. Incorporating the modern scientific revelation that ejaculate contains around 300 million spermatozoa, he rails against teenagers who masturbate, claiming that they are mass-murderers who are killing as many people as the entire population of the United States! He also stresses the Zohar's claim that wasting seed is worse than any other sin.

Reuven's mentor/colleague Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi also has a lecture about this topic on YouTube. He presents the "kabbalistic secret" that all the souls in the spermatazoa were supposed to enter this world, but instead are doomed to remain in the netherworld, waiting to confront the teenager after his death and seek revenge. "You have millions of sons now," he says, "and they all hate you!"

It's not clear to me how Reuven and Mizrachi reconcile all this with the fact that even with intercourse resulting in pregnancy, 299,999,999 spermatozoa do not result in life (not to mention that intercourse with one's already-pregnant wife is permitted). But what is clear is that such presentations cause immense psychological harm to countless teenagers. In fact, in a FaceBook group of people giving their stories about why they left Orthodoxy, more than one mentioned the severe psychological harm caused by the belief that masturbating meant that they were irredeemably damned; there is also a powerful personal story at this link

As discussed in an earlier post, "Sexual Intimacy, Spilling Seed, and the Rationalist-Mystical Divide," there are much more prestigious rabbinic authorities who take a very different approach. Rav Eliezer Melamed says that the fire-and-brimstone expressed by the Zohar against spilling seed in vain is simply an exaggeration (and of course there are others who simply dispute the authority of the Zohar altogether). Rav Melamed further points out that the Talmud's severe-sounding comparison of spilling seed to bloodshed is a rhetorical flourish, noting that the Talmud says the same about someone who embarrasses others in public or who does not escort his guests out. As Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro notes in his excellent book Halachic Positions, the same interpretation of such condemnations in the Talmud is given by Rivash, as well as by an early Acharon, Rav Yehoshua Heschel of Krakow, specifically in this context. There is also much fascinating discussion of this topic at http://rationalistmedicalhalacha.blogspot.com, and there's a podcast by Rabbi Scott Kahn and Talli Rosenbaum at https://www.intimatejudaism.com/masturbation-sexual-health-halacha-is-there-a-conflict-episode-1/.

I would like to also counter the Reuven/ Mizrachi approach with two other presentations. One is an article in Hebrew by Rabbi Yitzchak Rones, available online at this link. The other is a controversial article by Rabbi Avraham Stav which appeared online in Hebrew. A friend of mine translated it, and I present it here:

What I would like to say to a maturing young man:

1. The human body produces sperm cells at a fixed rate of around 1500 new cells per second, and it tends to dispose of the old cells in various ways, during sleep (nocturnal emissions) or ejaculation (masturbation), generally (though not solely) in response to sexual stimulus.

2. According to what we know today, masturbation is an activity that is not harmful to one’s health; from a psychological perspective too it is considered (within reason) to be a natural and normal part of sexual development. This should remove the fears and unwarranted concerns regarding the issue that have been refuted over hundreds of years.

3. The Torah and Prophets do not discuss masturbation explicitly, and the first time it appears as a sin is in the words of Chazal. There is a substantial dispute as to whether the Sages believed that it is biblically forbidden or whether they only forbade it rabbinically.

4. The verses to which Chazal attached the prohibition (such as the actions of Onen who “destroyed on the ground” his seed) hint to this relating, at root, to masturbation by a married man (mainly at times when fruitful marital relations are possible), which substitutes for relations between the couple and directs his sex drive away from the couple relationship and from the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply” towards self-gratification.

5. In many sources, wasting seed is treated extremely seriously, and we do not know why. It is possible that this stems from a restrictive approach to the entire realm of sexuality, which exists in some of the sources. Alternatively, it may relate to the deep trend of egoism and “waste” that is expressed in masturbation when it becomes an integral and central part of life and comes at the expense of constructive activity. Nevertheless, there are sources indicating that a specific act of masturbation is a relatively light sin.

6. In practice, the vast majority of males, at one stage or other of their lives (mainly, but certainly not exclusively, during the youthful period), masturbate. Included in this are Jews who observe mitzvot and fear heaven. This increases when there is a large gap between the stage of reaching sexual maturity and marriage.

7. In front of every person, and in front of every young man, stand many spiritual challenges, and reducing masturbation is one of the less important ones.

8. The constant struggle against masturbation only strengthens, incorrectly, its place in life. One should be concerned that it not turn into an obsessive addiction, but should also not relate to each instance as a “fall”, and not dedicate one’s religious and spiritual energies to hopeless battles. On this point, there are likely to be differences between different people, who are found in variant places spiritually, and personal guidance on this matter is beneficial.

9. Masturbation in most cases accompanies sexual stimulus, and specifically visual stimulus or fantasies. Enjoyment from the sight of the naked body (real, virtual or imagined), is a natural and healthy inclination, which exists among most humans, and there is no reason to be ashamed of it. At the same time, this is a superficial stimulus which is supposed to serve the more elevated and meaningful goals of connection between a couple and having children.

10. Due to the power of superficial, external, sexuality, and because of its ability to occupy a large proportion of one’s life and to lead to a variety of negative phenomena, one should desist, as much as possible, from gazing at sights which bring about sexual arousal. It is important to distinguish between masturbation in itself, which is a natural inclination which comes from the body and its desires, to external sights which frequently represent other worlds of culture and values.

11. There are also various levels within the realm of the forbidden. Masturbation without forbidden gazing is far preferable to masturbation that is accompanied by such gazing, and there is a meaningful distinction between gazing at a generic immodest picture to surfing the world of pornographic content, which brings with it a long list of severe consequences in terms of the conception of the body and of sexuality and is also bound up with many moral problems. Within the realm of fantasizing too, there are thoughts of sin that are more severe than others, whether from a halachic or a moral perspective.

12. Judaism seeks to sanctify the sex drive, to refine it, to lead it to constructive and positive places. Not to fight it. Spiritual work in the sexual realm is positive and beneficial as long as it makes a person more exacting and elevates him; and it misses its goal when it causes him to be more imprisoned within himself.

This was written following extensive discussions with senior rabbis and professionals.

Whether or not one agrees with Rabbi Stav's approach, it is certainly important for there to be countering perspectives to the dangerous extremism broadcast by Reuven and Mizrachi.

(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.) 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Yated's New Low

Over the years, I've seen some pretty bad behavior in the name of frumkeit. But this one hit me so hard that my hands are literally shaking as I write this.

There's a letter in this week's US edition of the Yated Ne'eman, in the "Questions and Answers" column.

It's signed by Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin.

But I never wrote it! 

A person at Yated fabricated a letter and put my name on it.

The guilty party at Yated is a (former) old friend of mine, who writes the "Questions and Answers" section, with the assistance of other rabbis. I've been discussing/ arguing with him over the last few weeks about the topic of paying someone to learn Torah and transferring the reward to the nominee of one's choice. So he decided to compose a letter to the Yated, purporting to present my position in a way that he deemed fit, and to sign my name to it!

Although he no doubt sincerely intended to present my position accurately, he did not actually do so. Most egregiously, he fabricated a statement from me accusing organizations that fundraise in this way of having a "lack of integrity" in going against the Rishonim. But I never said that going against the Rishonim displays a lack of integrity. My argument was that according to traditional Judaism, such a merit-transfer mechanism just doesn't work.

I was stunned that this person thought that it was ethically acceptable to fabricate a letter in my name, assuming that I would want to have a letter printed and creating the content for it. I wrote a furious email to him, and he replied that he does it all the time and doesn't see anything halachically wrong with it!

What makes it especially ironic is that several months ago, when this rabbi reported a position of Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg ztz"l that seemed rather unethical, with regard to a son being told to disregard his father's dying wish, I wrote a post in which I suggested that perhaps this rabbi had "processed" Rav Zalman Nechemiah's words (or the question that was posed to him) in a way that did not accurately reflect the truth. The rabbi was very upset by this accusation, and insisted that he reported Rav Zalman Nechemiah's position accurately. Well, now that I have first-hand experience with this rabbi misrepresenting my own position and fabricating words in my name, I see that there is no reason to consider him at all reliable, both in how he reports the questions that he receives to the Rabbonim, and in how he presents their responses.

If you're thinking, "Well, he's clearly a bad person," then you're mistaken. He is a really, really nice, sweet, sincere, temimusdikke person, who has the best of intentions, and who even wants to get the charedi world to respect me (he may have wanted to show that I am "kosher" by having my name printed in the Yated, complete with honorific). But he's a product of a sector of Orthodox society in which there is a severe lack of professionalism. This is coupled with a serious deficiency in intellectual honesty (defined as "honesty in the acquisition, analysis, and transmission of ideas"), along with a problem of arrogance regarding the Truth and value of one's own interpretation of one's cause. That's why Dr. Marc Shapiro was able to compile an entire book full of examples of rabbis censoring and misrepresenting the positions of rabbis from earlier generations that they claim to respect. And that's how they see no problem in telling a person, whose dying father had asked him to donate from his estate to conservation and not to a kollel, to instead give it to a kollel.

With regard to the response that the rabbi gives to "my question," in the names of Rav Azriel Auerbach and Rav Goldberg, it is deeply problematic. The response notes that the Rokeach says that such a merit-transfer works, on the (very difficult) grounds that Hashem knows that if the deceased were still alive, he would have given the charity. And they proceed to say that this "is the accepted halacha... Once the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama, the two amudei hora'ah, have ruled, then you can pile up Rishonim from here to the moon and it is of absolutely no consequence. The accepted halacha determines the belief and practice of Klal Yisroel, and therefore the deceased most definitely receive reward for tzedakah given in their name."

It's rather bizarre that the notion of Judaism being based on broad ancient traditions is so casually thrown out of the window. But there's another fundamental problem here. What on earth does "halacha" have to do with this? This isn't a halachic matter! The question of whether one can transfer the reward for a mitzvah to somebody else is one of metaphysical reality, not legal practice! You can't pasken whether the world is flat or spherical, you can't pasken where the sun goes at night, you can't pasken whether or not demons exist, you can't pasken how Hashem decides to run His relationships, and you can't pasken whether or not reward for mitzvos is something that is potentially transferable! 

Furthermore, the Rokeach, difficult as his position is, does not even go remotely as far as they are taking him. He is justifying the ancient custom to give charity on behalf of the dead for Yom Kippur, which he relates to the concept of atonement. But, as several authorities point out, charity is only being mentioned here as being pledged on Yom Kippur (Rokeach explicitly says that it is not done on Chag, and Rama states that it relates to the particular status of Yom Kippur), as a way to save a person from punishment, not as a way to actively provide reward to someone in the next world. Furthermore, it is specifically charity that is mentioned, not any other mitzvah such as learning Torah; it's the exception that proves the rule. (And note that the Rokeach says that it helps "ketzas", which the translation given in the Yated somewhat inaccurately renders as it "does provide some benefit.")

The Rokeach/ Shulchan Aruch/ Rama do not say that you give charity at any time and transfer the reward to anyone you choose. And they do not say that you can give money to a yeshivah and transfer the merit for that Torah study to the person of your choice. And in any case, the actual truth of what happens is an independent metaphysical reality, not something that can be "paskened"!

I'd love to write to Yated to point this out. But I won't. Because I'm not interested in writing any letter to a publication that sees nothing wrong in fabricating letters that they attribute to people. (And the irony is that the actual letters that I really did write to the Yated over the years were not printed!)


(My study of this topic can be downloaded at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/02/what-can-one-do-for-someone-who-has.html, and is being printed in an expanded version in my forthcoming book Rationalism vs. Mysticism. 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.  )

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Pigs In Shtreimels II

Four years ago, there was the notorious rally in the Jerusalem Arena for Beis Yaakov girls. The purpose of the rally was to dissuade them from attending any of the numerous academic higher education programs for charedim that have sprung up in recent years. Rav Baruch Shapira introduced the program by relating a conversation that he had with Rav Steinman about the event. Rav Steinman said, "Charedi academic programs?! It's like a pig in a shtreimel!" (See my post about the event, which summarizes the messages from the speakers.)

Well, now there is a new campaign against the pigs in shtreimels. A prominent Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yigal Rosen, declared that he has launched an initiative in his yeshivah, which he hopes will be emulated by others. If a student marries a girl who is enrolled in a charedi academic program, then neither the rabbis nor the students are allowed to attend the wedding.

As I wrote in my previous post on this topic, it is indeed true that once a person steps out of the daled amos of the yeshivah or Beis Yaakov, they are exposed to all kinds of influences and ideas that run contrary to charedi and Torah values. But on the other hand, im ein kemach, ein Torah. We have to earn money, work, and build up society. If charedim are going to radically diverge from tradition by sending everyone to kollel, then the women have to shoulder the workload of both partners (while also giving birth and raising children). And it's just not possible for charedi society to accomplish that if the women only attend Beis Yaakov. It will just accelerate how charedi society is trying to lead itself, and ultimately all Israel, to economic ruin

Thursday, August 20, 2020

He Says I Was Wrong

In my article on what one can do for someone who has passed away, I told the following story:

"A friend of mine told me that when he was studying in the yeshivah of Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky in Jerusalem, a student once asked if Rav Kushlevsky could dedicate that day’s lecture to elevate the soul of his grandmother. Rav Kushlevsky replied that this was impossible; while his delivering the lecture would be a credit to his own grandmother, there was simply no way by which to transfer that credit to someone else’s grandmother, who had no role in enabling the lecture to take place!"

A few weeks ago, Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky's yeshivah, Heichal HaTorah, ran a 1.2 million dollar fundraising campaign. It promised that if you donate $500 or more, they will "arrange for a masechta to be learned as a zechus/l'iluy nishmas the person of your choice."

Now, obviously nobody wants their $1.2 million campaign to lose its appeal. But surely this a direct contradiction to the clear position of the Rishonim that there is simply no way of transferring reward to a random person who did not earn it. And the Rosh Yeshivah himself acknowledged that it doesn't work! So I was convinced that whoever created this fundraising campaign had not discussed it with Rav Tzvi.

I don't know Rav Tzvi personally, but his late brother was one of my late father's oldest friends, and his late sister was Rebbetzen of my childhood shul. And I do know one of the rabbis in his yeshivah. So I reached out to this person for clarification. Eventually I received the following response:

"I spoke to Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky this Shabbos. Just to make sure that there was no misunderstanding I asked 3 times using different wordings. He said that if someone gives tzedaka or learns in someone else's memory it definitely helps the neshamah of the deceased. Since this would not have came about without the impetus from that person – it is considered a zechus for them. The confusion probably comes from the case where you quote - where someone was already giving a shiur. In such a case it does not help to do it in their memory since they were not the cause."

So, I can no longer claim that Rav Tzvi Kushlevsky supports the traditional position of the Rishonim (which is also seen in Chazal). I must also explain why, in my view, the Rishonim did not allow for such a possibility. If you are paying for Torah study (assuming that this is considered charity), then it is *you* that is the cause of the good deed, not the random person that you nominate to receive the reward! It might be that your grandmother inspired you to be charitable, and it could be that she gets credited for that - but she didn't inspire a complete stranger to learn Torah! (And if you're going to claim that a person gets the credit for anything that results from them, even if they didn't inspire it, it would mean that Haman gets credit for all the mitzvos of Purim!)

I will conclude by again quoting the Rishonim, whose words are unambiguous, and who rejected any possibility of arranging to transfer reward to someone else. Since the statements of the Rishonim are omitted from all contemporary yeshivish discussion of this topic, and are ignored by everyone, they can't be quoted often enough.

"There is no doubt that what one person does for another after their passing is of no benefit or aid, for each person is judged according to what they are at the time of their death. In accordance with the person’s level and attainments at the time that his soul departs from his body, so will he attain elevations and merit light with the Light of Life, and there is no additional elevation or benefit in that which others do afterwards to benefit him…" (Maharam Chalavah, Responsa, #17)

"A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds. Even if all the righteous people in the world were to seek mercy for him, and all the righteous acts were to be done in his merit, it would be of no help to him…" (Rashba, Responsa, Vol. 7 #539)

"These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, “The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,” (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, “And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.” Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvot is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person?" (Rav Hai Gaon cited by Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101)

"How can the merits of Reuven be of benefit to his brothers Shimon and Levi? What could his mitzvot do for them?!" (Responsa Binyamin Ze'ev 202)

I think that the truth of what the Rishonim write is obvious. But, as I wrote in yesterday's post, there are both noble and less-noble reasons for people to convince themselves otherwise. And unfortunately, while it can lead to benefits in terms of fundraising for important projects, it can also lead to negative consequences.

 

(Again: My study of this topic can be downloaded at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/02/what-can-one-do-for-someone-who-has.html)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Buying Salvation

The history of Christianity has profound lessons for Jews.

If you were a Christian in the medieval period, and you had sinned (as we all do), what was there to be done about avoiding punishment in the afterlife? A priest was empowered to grant God's forgiveness and thereby prevent eternal damnation, but that wouldn't remove the need to "do time" in purgatory. 

The Church therefore also provided the opportunity for "indulgences." The debt still owed for forgiven sins could be removed by contrition, confession and good deeds. Suitably qualified priests would decide exactly how much of these were necessary to cancel the debt for each sin.

Now, the good deeds that were required were sometimes too challenging for people to fulfill. For example, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was very difficult before air travel. But that was easy to solve - the popes offered the alternative solution of enabling other people's good deeds instead. You could give money towards building a church, and attain redemption from punishment that way.

But what if you wanted to obtain redemption on behalf of someone else, who had already passed away and was suffering in purgatory? In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV provided a solution for that too: you could gain an indulgence for them by giving money on their behalf. The German friar Johann Tetzel put this into highly successful practice. He made potential buyers "feel guilty if they did not seize the opportunity," reminding audiences of their parents and ancestors "clamoring for help" in purgatory and needing just one donation to send them into paradise.

It's not difficult to see where the theology of indulgences led. Instead of people having to actually improve their ways, they could just buy their way out of purgatory. And they felt that they could help their loved ones by buying redemption for them. And various theologians actively encouraged this, because they were financially benefiting from it. All this inevitably snowballed into a mountain of greed and corruption. 

Finally, Martin Luther reacted by launching the Protestant reformation. Forced to respond, the Catholic church ruled that it was forbidden to provide absolution via taking money for good causes.

It's not that there is anything wrong with people giving to charitable causes - far from it! But once you provide for repentance to be outsourced, and you monetize it, this inevitably results in three problems. 

One is that people stop feeling the need to actually become better people. Why go through the great difficulty of changing your ways, if you can just write a check to get the same results? And consequently, rich people achieve greater spiritual benefits than the poor!

The second problem is that ecclesiastical authorities who need funds are motivated to devise theologies and campaigns to encourage people to obtain redemption via giving money to them. They are not necessarily bad people. But "bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and corrupts the words of the righteous" (Devarim 16:19). Note that the Torah doesn't say that it corrupts regular people - it says that it corrupts the wise and righteous. It's noble to want to help people who have passed away, and it's natural (and sometimes noble) to want to build up institutions. The combination of the two is a powerful incentive to devise a supporting theology. Thus, theology becomes motivated by factors other than determining truth.

The third problem is that once this theological mechanism has been created and embellished, it's all too easy for charlatans to take advantage of it. And there can be many different levels of charlatans, not all of whom are outright frauds. It's not just about hassidic rabbis and kabbalists becoming millionaires. It's also about manipulative behavior with fundraising, born of the desperation to support families of unemployable kollel students.

Outsourcing and monetizing salvation is bad theology, and a recipe for corruption. But the motivations behind it are a potent mix of both noble and less noble desires. This is what enables people to dispute or consciously ignore the clear statements of the Rishonim:

"There is no doubt that what one person does for another after their passing is of no benefit or aid, for each person is judged according to what they are at the time of their death. In accordance with the person’s level and attainments at the time that his soul departs from his body, so will he attain elevations and merit light with the Light of Life, and there is no additional elevation or benefit in that which others do afterwards to benefit him…" (Maharam Chalavah, Responsa, #17)

"A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds. Even if all the righteous people in the world were to seek mercy for him, and all the righteous acts were to be done in his merit, it would be of no help to him…" (Rashba, Responsa, Vol. 7 #539)

"These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, “The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,” (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, “And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.” Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvot is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person?" (Rav Hai Gaon cited by Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101)

"How can the merits of Reuven be of benefit to his brothers Shimon and Levi? What could his mitzvot do for them?!" (Responsa Binyamin Ze'ev 202)
For detailed discussion, see my essay, What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?
 
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Friday, August 14, 2020

The Challenge of Eagles and Hoopoes

There's a Torah-science challenge that you've never heard of. In fact, I think that nobody has ever thought of it before. But it's been bothering me for years. In this post, I will discuss it, and suggest a path towards reconciling with it. 

The laws of kashrut that were introduced in Parashat Shemini are repeated in this week's parasha, Re'ay. With land animals, we are given signs for identifying kosher animals - a system that we can use thousands of years later to identify newly discovered species such as okapis as being kosher. With fish, we are likewise given signs, which we can easily utilize to identify kosher fish at markets anywhere in the world. Even with insects, while it is a a little more complicated, there can be absolutely no doubt that the desert locust (which happens to be 99.99% of all locusts you'll ever see swarming in the region of Israel) is one of the kosher species mentioned in the Torah. 

But with birds... it's a whole different matter.

The Torah does not give signs via which to distinguish kosher from non-kosher birds. It just lists the names of the birds that are non-kosher. And this is a problem.

I've spent a quarter of a century working at identifying the creatures of the Torah. In some cases, one can reach 100% certainty, such as with the shafan being the hyrax. This is based on a convergence of evidence from many different areas - primarily identifying clues given in other locations in Tanach, but also comparative linguistics, evidence from other ancient sources, the ability to rule out alternate possibilities, and so on. But in other cases, one cannot be so sure. The yachmor is either the fallow deer or the hartebeest, but it's difficult to be certain which it is. Still, it makes no halachic difference, since with mammals we can rely on kosher signs.

But it's a problem with birds, since the Torah doesn't give any signs. It only gives names, and it's very difficult to know which birds are being referred to. I've served as consultant on this matter for ArtScroll and Koren and Chabad and Steinsaltz (the new Steinsaltz Chumash contains probably the best discussion of the matter), but while it's possible to achieve certainty or near-certainty for some of the birds, with others one cannot be anywhere near certain. We set up an exhibit of all the non-kosher birds in the Hall of Kosher Classification at the new Biblical Museum of Natural History, but as we explain to our visitors, we are far from certain as to the true identities of all the birds. The hoopoe is the popular and strongest candidate for the duchifat, but there is very little to go on. And as for birds such as the tachmos, there are many different suggestions, none of which are anything more than guesses.  

And there are all kinds of related difficulties. Since the nesher is undoubtedly the griffin vulture, where does the eagle appear on the list of non-kosher birds - is it the ayah, or is nesher a generic term that also includes eagles? Why is the ayit that descended on the carcasses of the Brit Bein HaBetarim not in the list of non-kosher birds - is it a synonym for another type, is it a generic name for scavenging birds, or is there some other explanation?

Even more problematically, the list of non-kosher birds in Re'ay is not the same as the list in Shemini! Now, the Gemara in Chullin addresses this, and argues that Moshe gave different names to some of the birds due to differences in what some people called them. But this just begs the question - if the Torah accommodated past name changes, what about future name changes?

The fact is that if you want to refer to an animal for an audience spanning different times and places, the absolute worst way to identify it is by its name. Because different places and different times have different animals. And consequently, names get transposed. 

The animal known today as a red deer in England is called an elk in America. But the word elk in England refers to the animal that Americans call a moose. 

Americans buy pet turtles. In England, a turtle is a sea-dwelling creature that reaches a yard in length; the reptiles that Americans buy are called tortoises (if they are terrestrial) or terrapins (if they live in lakes and rivers).

The American turkey vulture is also often called a buzzard. But in every other part of the world, "buzzard" refers to a very different bird of prey, of the Buteo family. Yet these birds are called hawks in America. Whereas "hawk" elsewhere refers strictly to birds in the Accipitridae family.

Now, the problem of identifying the birds of the Torah's list is not a new one. Consequently, the Tanna'im studied the kosher and non-kosher birds and identified a combination of characteristics which can be used to identify which birds can be eaten. (Unfortunately, it is very difficult to correlate this system with our knowledge of birds Still, most Rishonim are of the view that it can be implemented, though the stringent view that a tradition is required has recently become widely accepted.) But while previous generations grappled with the difficulty of identifying birds, they didn't discuss the inherent problem with the concept of the dietary laws being based on rules that would be destined to become incomprehensible.

Someone from the mystical school of thought might claim that the problem is just due to our limitations. The very first thing that man did in the world was to name the animals, and from the mystical perspective, this means that Adam was able to divine the fundamental nature of each animal and give it a perfectly appropriate name in the Holy Language which exactly expresses its essence. Accordingly, the Torah's listing of non-kosher birds is in fact a perfect way of describing them. But in fact, this is not much of a solution. None other than ArtScroll says that none other than some of Chazal themselves had difficulties identifying the birds. If identifying birds by means of kabbalistic powers is too much even for Chazal, then what chance does everyone else have?

All of this forces one to the conclusion that the Torah's way of identifying kosher from non-kosher birds is very limited in application. It cannot and could not possibly stand the movements of the Jewish People over the world and over history. And, if one believes that God authored the Torah, one must therefore also believe that God knew this. Yet He nevertheless gave a system that would prove impossible to implement after a few centuries.

So what is a believer supposed to do with that? Actually, it's not necessarily as a big a problem as it might first appear. But it might require some adjustment in one's conception of Torah.

Being an Orthodox Jew means accepting that the Torah is binding in all times and in all places. And yet, it has long been acknowledged (at least by the more rationalistically-inclined rabbinic authorities) that the presentation of Torah was oriented towards the generation that received it. (This is a topic that I discussed in detail in my book The Challenge Of Creation.) As Rambam puts it, "the Torah spoke in the language of man" - i.e. the people that first received the Torah. Rav Hirsch notes that the Torah's description of the "firmament" as a solid dome was in accordance with the conception of the universe held by people at that time. The same approach is necessary with numerous other scientifically-inaccurate statements in the Torah.

Rambam and others go even further than just saying that the Torah packaged its description of the universe in terms familiar to the generation that received it. They say that even certain commandments were primarily oriented to that generation. Naturally, this leads to a concern that later generations will abandon their observance, which is one reason why Rambam's advancement of this argument regarding offerings aroused much controversy. Still, he advanced it nonetheless, and there can be many other arguments for adhering to observing a commandment even if the primary original reason no longer applies.

And so the Torah's presentation of the laws of kosher birds is no different. For the generation that received the Torah, that was the most effective way of teaching them which birds may and may not be eaten. Yes, it's not a system that would withstand the later movements of the Jewish People through space and time. But then again, nor would all the laws which are dependent on living in the Promised Land!

It's also important to note that, in practice, the Torah's system for identifying kosher birds has not been problematic. Birds that were commonly available and farmed - chickens, ducks, and geese - were accepted without a problem. So were other commonly eaten birds, such as quail, guinea fowl, pheasants, and sparrows. Even turkey managed to get accepted before the Jewish community took on a more stringent approach to the dietary laws. For a variety of reasons too complicated to discuss here, it's safe to predict that there will never be any new species of bird to be commercially farmed.

It's true that recently things have taken a turn for the worse. Misunderstandings of both zoology and Talmudic natural history have lead many to believe that even some breeds of chicken may not be eaten. During the infamous Chicken Wars of 2017, it was claimed that all commercially available chickens are not kosher. Still, hopefully it will be possible to correct this error (my monograph on this topic is available in both English and Hebrew). I'm very much hoping that the Biblical Museum of Natural History, through its exhibits and publications, will successfully teach people that the laws of kashrus are both sensible and practical. The questions and difficulties are in the realm of fascinating theoretical and academic discussions - in practice, there is no shortage of birds to eat.

Nevertheless, as the global population increases, it will make more economic sense to obtain protein from insects. Food scientists have recognized this for years and are working to bring insects into the food market. Thank God, the Torah is future-proofed, and locusts are kosher!

The Biblical Museum of Natural History teaches tens (and soon hundreds) of thousands of people about the relationship between Judaism and the natural world. Please join our mission by becoming a Friend or Patron of the museum, and enjoy a personal tour of the museum, either in-person or via Zoom. See details at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/support. Thank you!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Guest Post: How People Get Sucked In

Dear Rabbi Slifkin, 

I wanted to reach out to you about your stance on Yaron Reuven. I wanted to share my experience with you with regard to Yaron Reuven, maybe it can add some insight into what you have been saying for some time. 

I picked up one of his CDs from a pizza shop about a year ago. I wasn’t looking for Kiruv or anything, I was born and raised a religious Jew and have learned for many years. I was just looking for something to listen to in the car on the way to shul and back that wasn’t music. I figured Torah was Torah and why not?

At first I didn’t see much wrong with what he was saying. His delivery was a bit different than what I am used to (many of my Rebbeim got Smicha from YU, so they are pretty different from someone like Yaron Reuven), which I didn’t think was a bad thing. He was a bit more Charif than most, but nothing too crazy (so I thought).

As I continued listening, I realized a trend in his “shuirim”. Most would start off mentioning a Mishnah in Perki Avos, then he would go on a tangent about some Rabbis or people (he wasn't specific about which Rabbi he was talking about) he thought were awful and were leading people astray. I didn’t think much of it, maybe he was right, how would I know, he wasn’t being specific. Over time I realized he went on these tangents a lot, like, a lot alot. Basically every “shuir” was bashing specific groups (like Chabad or Satmar) and saying how awful they are. For a shiur that is meant to be about bettering myself, I felt more like “well, at least I’m not as bad as these people.”

I then started realizing he was quoting Gemaras completely out of context and making conclusions based on his own assumptions, all the while calling it “the Torah” and saying stuff like “none of what I say is my own opinion, it’s all the Torah!” The irony of that statement is he is the most opinionated person I have ever listened to.

A specific example of misquoting a Gemera (which he did on multiple occasions) was the story of how Yashu went off the derech. Now, I am no fan of Yashu, I’m an orthodox Jew who davens with a minyan and learns daily, I am in no mean a Yashu fan, but the Gemara he quotes is entirely out of context. He uses the story in Sotah 47a to trash on Yashu. The problem with his explanation is that he completely ignores the context of the Gemara, which was discussing what Yashu’s Rabbi did wrong (the Gemara immediately before it discusses what Elisha did wrong and how he was pushed for it). Instead of teaching the lesson of “don't push away a student with both hands” he uses the story to trash Yashu. 

Him ignoring the message of the Gemara has practical ramification. Yaron himself pushes away people with both hands. Calls them Kofrim, Minim, etc, and way worse if they disagree with him. The exact Gemara he taught incorrectly is the Gemara he himself should be learning! No wonder he didn’t mention that part!  

He also has a very narrow understanding of the concept of “Tinok Shenishbah” which is a well debated concept and who falls into that category. He says it only applies to people who have never heard of Judaism before. I am not an expert in the area, but I have learned before that the definition is much broader than that. By narrowing it so much he causes people to view any non-religious Jew, who was born and raised non-religious as “someone who hates G-d” or vice versa. 

He also mentioned multiple times that someone who sleeps with a Nidah is doing something worse than sleeping with their own mother. Now, I have been through all of Shas and nowhere does it say that….. Sooooo, I don’t know where he gets that from, he doesn’t quote any source for it. I reached out on Facebook for clarification, but I haven’t heard back from him….. Doubt I ever will.

What really got my attention was a shiur (from a couple of years ago) where he started by mentioning that “the leadership of BRS (Boca Raton Synagogue) was making a horrible mistake by bringing a Christian missionary to speak there.” As someone who has been listening to Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for years, and who I have met personally, I was very confused about what he was talking about. I immediately googled it and found what had happened. Yaron was lying about what had happened and slandering the entire BRS community in the process. I may have known to look up what the truth was, but many aren’t going to do that. Especially after listening to one of Yaron's 4-hour “shiurim”. It was then I found your articles and realized how much worse the problem actually was and that I wasn’t the only one thinking “what wrong with this guy?”

His video about Rabbi Dweck (posted last week) where he bashes him for saying Dovid and Yehonatan were gay lovers (which I heard the audio of what Rabbi Dweck says, and its not true at all). I compared the audio Yaron played in his video to Rabbi Dweck's actual words and Yaron skips the part that Rabbi Dweck explicitly states Dovid and Yehonatan were NOT gay and that was the entire point of his shuir! I know Yaron did something similar with Rabbi Sacks shiur about the exodus. (I got into a debate with some of his followers on that video, they didn’t seem like they were going to listen to reason).

The point of my message is to explain my experience with listening to Yaron. It started with a refreshing new way of discussing Torah, which quickly became about people bashing and hatred. I can understand why people listen to him and believe everything he says. He’s very charismatic and entertaining, but, as you know all too well, also very dangerous. 

I hope you find my experiences and examples worth reading. I hope you can use them to help prevent further damage. 

Note from NS: Someone produced a powerful video which compiled some of the most damning of Yaron Reuven's statements. However, Reuven has managed to get it taken down from YouTube whenever it is posted. If someone knows how to host it online, or is willing to fight YouTube regarding it being fair use, please be in touch; I can send you the video. It can also be shared on WhatsApp.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Torah & Dogmatism

"Torah & Rationalism" (Feldheim 2020) is the title of a new book consisting of collected writings of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Chaim Zimmerman z"l, compiled by his student Michael Landy. Given its title, it naturally would seem to be of interested to readers of this forum, and several people have asked for my opinion of it. According to the book's blurb, "for the Torah Jew, this book will intellectually secure his mind by demonstrating the structure of Torah and Halachah in a rational way." I was given a copy to review and I was intrigued to read it.

Rav Zimmerman was renowned as an extraordinary prodigy, fluent in the entire Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim and Acharonim, in the Brisker tradition. He served as Rosh Yeshivah at HTC in Chicago, as well as at other yeshivos in New York and Jerusalem. At the same time, he was a highly unusual rosh yeshiva. At one point during his illustrious career, he was clean-shaven, wore plaid shirts and drove a convertible! Great geniuses are often eccentric. Alas, in this case, the eccentricities carry forward into a deeply flawed work.

The book's various chapters discuss topics such as the nature of Torah She-ba'al Peh, Kabbalah, Rambam and Moreh Nevuchim, and "the falsity of academic Jewish scholarship." The fundamental problems in this book are ones that I have seen with certain other great geniuses and their devotees, notably Rav Moshe Shapira. Many people naively believe that if a great genius, and especially a great Talmudist, says something, then it must be true. But this is not the case. Genius has nothing to do with being correct; it just means that one is better able to devise arguments in support of rationalizing one's approach.

The first problem is the author's belief in an extreme (and very non-rationalist) interpretation of yeridat hadorot. He insists that as one goes back in the generations, people were actually more intelligent, and that as the generations continue to advance, people are intellectually regressing - not only with Jews, but also with non-Jews (pp. 27-28). One can only wonder what the world will look like in a few centuries - will our descendants be cavemen? But his claim that the genius of Aristotle's was never matched in a later generation, and nor that of Newton or Einstein, is simply wrong. After all, Einstein was as great a genius as Aristotle!

Following from this errant belief is the conviction that expounding extraordinary expositions on a text means that the text's author put those meanings into it, as opposed to the meaning being created by the reader. People such as R. Moshe Shapira and R. Zimmerman believe that the depth is being discovered, whereas in fact it is being created. Thus, R. Zimmerman claims that R. Chaim Brisker's intricate resolutions of contradictions in the Mishneh Torah bring to light Rambam's incredible genius. Whereas the fact is that there is nothing remotely resembling Reb Chaim's types of arguments in any of Rambam's writings (or, for that matter, in the writings of pretty much anyone preceding Reb Chaim.) Furthermore, when Rambam himself was asked about such contradictions, he didn't employ Brisker-style distinctions; instead he simply said that he erred, or changed his mind, etc. Finally, no less than the Chazon Ish states regarding some of R. Chaim Brisker's ingenious expositions that they are simply entirely baseless.

Another flaw which runs throughout R. Zimmerman's work is the religious conviction that no great Torah scholar was ever subject to any influence other than pure Torah. "It is impossible for them to define any aspect of Halachah according to public opinion, political outlook, social environment, or any other influence." Astonishingly, he even makes this claim about Rambam. R. Zimmerman states (pp. 98, 103. 110) that Rambam was not in the slightest way influenced by Greco-Islamic philosophy and that he gave it no significance whatsoever; instead, he merely incorporated such ideas in his work as parables to convey classical ideas from Sinai and the Sages in a form that would appeal to his readership. I could argue at length why this is utterly mistaken, but instead I will just point out that none other than the Vilna Gaon explicitly acknowledged that Rambam was influenced by Greco-Islamic philosophy in developing some of his views that were contrary to Chazal.

Yet another problem with R. Zimmerman's book, repeatedly illustrated, is the attitude that if a great Talmudist (such as himself) makes a very forceful claim, simultaneously disparaging those who disagree as being ignorant fools, then it carries great weight. This is something that crops up in the book again and again, to an almost unbelievable degree. On p. 25 he describes academic Judaic scholars as "lazy," "narrow-minded," with an "intent to disparage," and who only impress the "ignorant." Such statements carry on throughout the work, and vastly exceed any substantive arguments to back up these claims.

In general, the book is rife with extreme claims, forcefully stated, that are not only not backed up, but are actually contradicted by factual evidence. For example, on p. 94, as part of his efforts to dismiss Gershom Scholem as "a man absolutely ignorant in Torah, Halachah, Jewish thought, and philosophical understanding," he claims that kabbalists are wholly different from non-Jewish mystics, which is why "the whole genuine Torah world asserted immediately that Shabtai Tzvi was a charlatan." Alas, this is absolutely not the case - there were several renowned Torah scholars who were taken in by Shabtai Tzvi.

Its title notwithstanding, "Torah & Rationalism" is in fact a forceful polemic for the non-rationalist approach. Alas, I cannot recommend it.

The Black and White Problem

The charedi community has a tendency to extreme black-and-white thinking. Biblical figures are either holy righteous people whose spiritual ...