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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A Different Kind of Chocolate

With Covid having prevented my wife and I from celebrating a significant anniversary milestone, we finally took a long-overdue vacation - to...